Thursday, May 26, 2005

A Week of Nothing

Have you ever had a week that seems completely inconsequential? The kind that when you reflect on it, it just seems that there was nothing special about it? I've just had one of those weeks. I'm a little hesitant to even post anything to the blog because there was nothing particularly exciting, amusing, or annoying enough to report. (And you know how much I like getting on the soapbox.) So instead of writing a long post about any particular thing, I'm going to write a few short paragraphs about random things.

There are three types of people that I can't stand. The first is hypocrites. The second is people who keep secrets. And I'm not going to tell you what the third type is.

A buddy of mine that I work with turned in his notice on Friday. He got a better job and is moving to another state. Oh well, it was nice knowing him. He insists that we'll keep in touch, but I doubt we will. Not that I don't want to, but it probably just won't happen. Realistically, it's very odd when one keeps in touch with one's former co-workers. Everywhere I've worked, there have been people that I thought I would keep up with for life. Very rarely have I actually kept up with anyone for more than a few months afterwards. There are exceptions, but few and far between. That's why when people leave my company, I usually tell them something like, "Well, it's been nice working with you. I know you think we'll probably be buddies well after our respective retirements, but in the likely case that we'll never see each other again, good luck with that life thing you've got going."

I hate yardwork. I can't help but wonder: If they can genetically engineer corn that can feed the world, why can't they genetically engineer grass that I don't have to water or mow and that kills any weeds and ants that try to grow with it? Or shrubs that I don't have to trim? Or flowers that I don't have to, well, kill?

I hate housework, too. It's so unfair. No matter how clean you try to keep everything, it just constantly gets dirty again. Dusting is the most unfair of all housework, I think. No matter how little you do to mess up your house--even if you die in your garage and just lie there and rot for a few weeks--the dust still builds up. I've gotten to the point where I don't dust and just let a layer build up on everything. Why bother? It will just come back. I wish that some fashionable icon would make dust an "in" thing, so that everyone wants an inch covering everything. "Wow man, this dust is awesome!"

Well, that's all for now. Maybe I'll post a few more thoughts later this afternoon

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Stamped or Metered?

For those of you who don't know, I subscribe to Netflix, an Internet movie rental service where for one flat fee, you can rent as many movies a month as you want and keep them as long as you want with no late fees, and the only catch is that you can only have a certain number out at a time. (How many depends on how much you're willing to pay; in my case, it's five at a time.)

They send you the movies in a fold-over envelope that, when opened, becomes the postage-paid return envelope. It's one of those standard ones that, in the corner, says, "No postage necessary if mailed in the United States," like the ones you get in all that junk mail you receive every day.

Completely unrelated to that is the fact that my mom used to work in an office where they had a postage meter. You can actually buy one yourself if you run a small business, and not have to worry about getting stamps at the post office.

Completely unrelated to that is the fact that every once in a blue moon, I still mail a letter to someone using an old-fashioned envelope and a stamp. These are usually bills, invitations, and the like, but on special occasions may even be something like letters to my congressmen.

Where am I going with this? Well, at the post office, there are always two mailboxes for outgoing mail. One is labelled "STAMPED" and the other is labelled "METERED." It's pretty obvious that old-fashioned letters I mail with a stamp go into the STAMPED box. Letters that my mom's old office, using the postage meter, mail go into the METERED box. But what about my Netflix returns? It's not really stamped, because there's no stamp. It's not really metered, because there's no meter. It's just "No postage necessary." I always drop them off at the post office because if someone sees me putting red Netflix envelopes in my mailbox every few days and raising the flag, they might get the wise idea that it would be a nifty source of free DVDs.

So when I go to the post office to drop them off, I'm always confused. I usually just pick one at random to drop them in. They've always made it back with no problem, but I get the weird feeling that they hate me when I put them in the wrong box. "Well, crap, he has screwed us yet again. Do I look like his personal mail sorter? I guess he thinks he's more important than all those other people in his his ZIP code. Like I have nothing but time to put up with this *#@$!. That's it, I've had enough, I'm going home to get my gun. I know where you live, because I'm the postman!

Fortunately, I haven't had any repercussions that dramatic yet, but still, I'm just odd enough that it worries me that someone at the post office may think I'm being dense by not putting my mail in the right box, and I'm really zany in that if I can make someone else's life a tiny bit better with little or no effort, I will endeavor to do so.

Since I work at night right now, I decided to go up to my local post office during the day to see if I could find out a little bit more information. I didn't want to tie up the lines for no reason at all (my local post office can be quite busy), so I tried to go when I thought that the lines may be real short (10:30am, in case anyone wants to know the "sweet spot") and wrote three letters to my two senators and my representative with my idea for Social Security that I wrote about a few weeks ago. I figured that maybe the prospect of earning $1.11 (37ยข x 3) would help make my stupid questions a little more palatable, and it makes me feel all warm and gooey that I'm making a half-hearted attempt to be a responsible citizen.

So off I went, letters in hand, to ask the pressing question, and maybe even learn something in the process. I timed the dead hours of the post office pretty well, there were only two people in front of me and no one came in behind me while I was there, so for those who might be concerned, I didn't waste any taxpayer money by tying up government workers who would have otherwise been occupied.

I talked to James, who was more than friendly and very helpful. I gave him my three letters to my congressmen, and started asking him questions. First up was the stamped vs. metered question. I asked away, and James told me--drumroll, please--that these envelopes belong in the metered mailbox. He said that these envelopes are still technically metered, even though the graphic isn't produced by a postage meter. I promptly apologized for all of the times I put the envelopes in the wrong box, and he said, "That's okay, sir, we sort them out." I assured him that I would put them in the correct box from now on, and he said, "Really, it's okay, we get paid to do this."

Paid to sort out mail? I wasn't shocked by this, but I thought they had machines to do this kind of thing. I asked about that, and he said no, at a branch office like this one, they sort all of the mail manually, no machines. Someone cracked a joke about if they got some of those machines, they wouldn't need James any longer. (I disagree; James was providing me a valuable service at the moment!) I mentioned that when I print out envelopes, I usually print them with barcodes on them from Microsoft Word, and asked if that really helps since they sort everything by hand. He said that if it's staying within my own ZIP code, it doesn't really, but that if it goes to another city, it spends considerably less time at the central post office in Atlanta, where they do have machines that automatically sort the mail. I also found out from the USPS Web site that businesses that bulk mail can get discounts for having these barcodes on their envelopes. I really was disappointed that they have no fancy cool machines to sort the mail at my local branch; I was seriously considering asking for a quick tour to see them working if they did.

While I was there, I asked one more question I sometimes wonder about. If I put a piece of mail in the post office mailbox instead of my street mailbox, does it get to its destination any faster? James said that no, all of the mail is sent out at the same time each day, whether it comes from someone's house or is dropped at the mailbox. Interesting.

So there you have it. Next time you send something back to a company in a postage-paid envelope by taking it to the post office, be sure to drop it in the METERED mailbox, not the STAMPED mailbox. They won't hate your guts if you put it in the wrong box, but it's just the right thing to do.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bless This Food

The other day, I was thinking about a curious habit that a lot of religious people have, asking the blessing at meals. When I was a kid, we did it before every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I still remember the words: "God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Bow our heads, we are fed, give us Lord our daily bread." I remember wondering why we were so thankful for bread when we were eating tacos, but I was just a kid. When I got a little older, I figured out that grown-ups usually ask the blessing a little differently. My mother used to use, "Our heavenly father, we ask you to bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies..." Except for really long-winded blessings like the preacher would say when we had fellowship at the church, it usually always boils down to the same idea, "Hey, thanks for the food, God, I really 'preciate it!" I never understood why my mom would use such fancy words when that short sentence pretty much covered it and would allow us to eat a lot sooner.

I'm reminded of something one of my sisters said when I was little. In her defense, she was little, too. I was about to eat something before the blessing was properly asked, and she quickly admonished me: "You can't eat before asking the blessing, you'll choke!" So for a few years after that, I always dutifully asked the blessing not out of any particular sense of gratitude, but for fear that God would smite me Darth Vader-style, unable to breathe for not doing so. I also remember a few pieces of food going down the wrong pipe now and then and thinking that I must have somehow screwed it up. Only after numerous repeated observations of people eating without audibly asking the blessing first did I figure out that failure to ask the blessing correctly and choking were probably unrelated events.

I find it curious that people express such divine gratitude for food. I mean sure, we all need it to survive, but it's not like God gives us the stuff for free. Since I'm not a hunter and my greenest thumb is pasty white, I have to go to work to earn money for the food I buy and eat, and since I usually have to just grab something very quickly on the run, most of what I eat isn't exactly manna from heaven. People don't ask the blessing for other stuff they have to work for and buy, do they? "God is great, God is good, thank you for this chair of wood..."

They don't ask the blessing for other life essentials, either. I mean, think about it, water is even more essential to life, but I've never seen someone bow their head over a water fountain thanking God for it, and most of the time, it IS free or at least trivially cheap. No one asks the blessing for walking into their comfortable shelter, or when they put on their nice warm winter coat. "God is great, God is good, thank you for this coat with hood..."

Is it too much of a shortcut to express gratitude for what you've eaten during the day during your nightly prayers? "Lord now lay me down to sleep, I pray my Lord my soul to keep. Thanks a lot, the food was great, my hunger it did satiate..." Sure would save everyone a lot of time, and would probably avoid a few awkward situations when people are eating in public and such.

When I started school, we all had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. You couldn't just stand up and say, "Sure, I'll be loyal to the U.S.A.," it was a specific set of words. For those like most Americans who have forgotten it, the complete verse is: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Even though I recited this from my first day of school, I had no idea what the word "allegiance" meant, what a republic was, or even the concept of indivisibility (I actually remember calling our country "invisible" for several years). I was simply reciting something from rote that I really didn't understand at all.

I suspect that for most people, the same is true of asking the blessing. It's just a habit, something you picked up from your parents as a kid. That's why "the blessing" is a noun, like "the pledge." It seems to me that if people were genuine, they wouldn't say they were asking "the blessing," they would say that they were asking for God to bless--a verb--the food they were about to eat. By trivializing it to a mere recitation, in my mind, they are completely missing the point of the process. I would think that God would rather have one be inconsistently but genuinely grateful than consistently trite.

I don't ask the blessing myself, and I honestly can't remember the last time I did. But if I did, I would try to do it in such a way to express how much I appreciate this meal at this particular point in time. It wouldn't be a cute little poem, it would be in language I would use to thank a good friend for a gift. Let's see, something like, "Thanks, God, you know how much I like lasagne, and this lasagne really smells great. I'm guessing the cheese is really gooey, and man, am I looking forward to that! The salad dressing was a little runny. I still liked it, but if you've got some pull with the manager, you might want to give him a sign or something so that the next set of folks that come through will be even more grateful. But hey, I'm going to go ahead and dig in now before it gets cold, so thanks again!"

I suppose you'll have to decide for yourself what a proper blessing is, but hopefully I've gotten you to think about it a little. And if I ever die from choking on a really good lasagne, you'll know I screwed it up.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Scary Quote

I ran across this one today, and thought it was very scary, considering a lot of stuff I see, hear, and read today:

Of course the people don't want war...But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship...Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger.
--Hermann Goering

I'm not an anti-war activist or anything, because sometimes I feel that it is justified. But I do feel extremely manipulated. And that's not past tense, either, it is still going on today. I guess that collectively, we've learned very little over the years.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Application Blocking

I really do try to keep this blog from being a gripe fest, but sometimes I just can't help it.

My company--I won't name names (yet)--never ceases to amaze me in the number of ways it finds to be stupid. Today's little surprise was that when I tried to pull up a Web site, I got a nice little dialog box explaining that my workstation policy doesn't allow the application to run. Not the Web site, the application itself. The application, of course, is Mozilla Firefox, the Web browser alternative to Internet Explorer.

For those who don't know, Firefox is an open source software application that has recently garnered much publicity for being much safer and more secure than Internet Explorer. I happen to like it because it has better features, such as ad and popup blocking. But at my company, it is specifically listed as an unauthorized application that must be blocked from running.

Why? I'm sure that the powers-that-be would come up with some nonsense about standardizing all of the workstations, but I know it boils down to one thing: control. A lot of people in IT have a nasty habit of thinking that because they are provided the means of doing something, they must do that thing. In this case, it's restricting applications that can be run.

How do I know? Because I've reluctantly been on the other side of this fence several times. My background is as a systems administrator, and I've had several heated exchanges with managers who wanted to do everything they could to snuff out any individuality in machine configurations. One particular incident that comes to mind was an IT manager who wanted to lock down what wallpaper was used as the background for every machine in the company. Why the hell would we want to dictate the wallpaper on a user's desktop? "Standardization," he said, but I knew that the real reason was a lot simpler: Because we can.

The thing is, though, that users aren't robots. Big corporations try to imagine us all as interchangeable cogs, but the truth is that everybody works differently. Even though the corporate standard is Internet Explorer, maybe I'm more efficient and productive with Firefox (I am). Maybe I will use Firefox to try things work-related that I cannot try in Internet Explorer (I will). Maybe I just plain like Firefox better (I do).

What IT people often forget is that IT is supposed to help people get their work done, not keep them from doing their job. Being in IT myself, I understand all-too-well that sometimes you have to restrict something to protect the integrity of the systems and the data, such as keeping people from running viruses and such. I understand keeping people from doing something illegal, such as running unlicensed copies of software. But stopping users from customizing their machine to maximize their own productivity--or even to simply appeal to their aesthetic sense--is unprofessional and just plain stupid.

By the way, the Firefox-blocking thing is easy enough to work around. I simply renamed the firefox.exe executable file iexplore.exe, which of course, is not blocked. I am once again browsing in peace.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Cable vs. Satellite Update

Well, I got Comcast to come out and try to fix the problems discussed in an entry a couple of weeks ago. Here's what happened.

The first thing the technician does is whip out a device that measures signal strength and took a reading from the cable at the cable box. "Yep," he says, "Here's your problem. The signal is at minus nine." Oh my god, minus nine? Does that mean that it is actually sucking a signal out of my television? I guess not, and when I suggested it, he didn't look amused.

He asked to see where the splitter was upstairs, so I took him to it. I was dreading this, because I knew what was coming. I actually wired my house with cable myself. I used good quality RG-6 coax cable, but the splitter in my wiring box is a rather crappy six-way splitter. I haven't been using it because the satellite cables all go from the dish straight to the tuner via one splice, but like I said, I knew what was coming. "Um-hmm, this is the problem. This won't do at all." I explained that I tried disconnecting the input and plugging it straight into the cable going to the living room (bypassing the splitter) and still got the same result. He didn't look convinced, and whipped out a shiny new two-way splitter and plugged in the input and output cables to it. One thing I've gotta say, these cable technicians do have cool toys, and I really do want one of those thingeys that will tell me the signal strength. I'd love to go to my friends' houses and impress them by saying stuff like, "Your signal strength is at minus two" and then whipping out shiny new splitters. But I digress...

We went back to the living room, and he took another measurement. "Yep, that's a LOT better. We're at plus one now." I think I actually saw my poor television breathe a sigh of relief, as if a great burden were suddenly lifted from it. We plugged everything back up, turned it on, and the picture was exactly the same: grainy and snowy. "Yep," the technician told me, "That's better!"

"Better!? No it's not!" I flipped over to my satellite box (still connected) and said, "That is better! It doesn't have to be that good, but it has to be a lot better than (flip) this!"

"Ah, I see," he said thoughtfully. "Well you see, the satellite is digital, and the cable is analog. We're working on converting everything over to digital, but you've got a lot of people who still want to watch television without a cable box."

I then took to something I usually try to diligently avoid: giving people who have no say-so whatsoever advice on what a company ought to do. "I don't understand why until everyone is digital you don't just pipe both an analog version and a digital version of all of these stations over the cable. That would make everyone happy!"

He said something about them working on it, but it's at least a few months away. I don't think they're working on it, and even if they are, I'm not watching a crappy television signal for a few months if I don't have to. I thanked him for his time, gave him back his shiny new splitter, and sent him on his way. After he left, I called Comcast and told them sorry, I just don't like it, and on Monday, I returned all of the equipment they installed the first time out.

So that's the status of things. I'm still somehow managing to get by without HDTV. Maybe I'll put up an over-the-air antenna and hook it up to another input on my television. Maybe I'll wait until later and see what DirecTV does. Maybe in six months we'll all be watching television over the Internet. Whatever the future holds, that's my account of the past.

As a post-note, I just noticed that the Comcast links from my original post won't let you browse their site without you giving them your address, which frankly is none of their business, so I have removed the links. If you're interested in cable service, their Web site is Give them your neighbor's address instead, they watch too much television anyway.