Thursday, July 31, 2003

Meta-blogging

Blogging about blogging, so to speak. Following a link from Oblomovka I found this interesting post on how many weblogs (or at least blog-like objects) are abandoned, or updated infrequently at best. This graph Activity Graph is a little hard to read, but it seems to indicate that of the several hundred thousand blogs they have identified, only about half get updated at least every fortnight.

It gives me some cause for celebration since I mostly seem to be updating with a flurry of posts about twice a week, and that would seem to put me in the top 50th percentile (or even 20th percentile -- that's where the data is rather indistinct.) I had assumed based on the contents of my blogroll that 90% of everyone updated multiple times a day, and I was just being a total slacker. I guess it stands to reason that one tends to only bother to blogroll sites that are likely to have new stuff on them when you visit.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

As the Worm Turns

It seems like only a couple of years ago that Arianna Huffington was the trophy wife and mouthpiece of a far-right California congressman. Now they are divorced, he's out of the closet, and she is thinking about running against Gray Davis as a populist candidate, but not a spoiler [emphasis mine]. Acccording to Salon:


Salon.com News | Brentwood bombshell: "With her high media profile and access to money, Huffington's backers say she's the only progressive candidate who could mount a challenge to big-spending Republicans. If Arnold Schwarzenegger decides to take a starring role in the race -- and on Monday he denied reports that he was out, although his camp apparently told one national newspaper he was 'leaning against' running -- he would likely crush any lightweight rivals in his path."
While I don't normally blog national politics items (I think that many others -- see my blogroll -- do a better job than I ever could) I included this for two reasons. First, the whole California recall is going to be fascinating. While it isn't quite a step to instant-runoff balloting, the combination of the primary and the general election will be one of the more interesting political developments in quite a long time. Second, I just installed the BlogThis! extension in FireBird, and I wanted to see how the new toy works.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Web Design

Every so often events conspire to provide me with an almost direct comparison of web sites that basically provide very similar services. In this case, I went to browse the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website to find the link to a day-old story for my previous entry, and a week ago I went to the Salt Lake Tribune website to find a two-day old picture that had been on the front page.

Finding the link in the Post-Gazette required clicking the opinion tab and scrolling down until I found yesterday's stories (listed blog-like in reverse chronological order). Trying to find the picture in a recent past edition took some 25 minutes of trying to guess keywords that might be in the caption, before I got lucky. While the Salt Lake Tribune does supply links to the past week's editions, it is off in the left frame, and much less noticeable than the searchable archive link that is in big letters at the top of the page.

I suspect that the difference is that the Tribune is an organ of the Tribune company, a media conglomerate whose primary goal seems to be controlling information rather than freeing it. The Post-Gazette, on the other hand, appears to be a very small organization that has kept its roots local.

Incidentally, the picture was of a group of newly-naturalized citizens who had taken the oath at the Provo July 4th festivities, and were later invited to Hill Air Force Base to receive US Flags that had been flown over the stadium in F-16s during the show. My father was one of the honorees.

The Brain Drain

There was an interesting op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette yesterday (Sunday). It describes the incredible problems that foreign technical students are facing coming to the US to do graduate work:

[...]Consular officers, most of whom are liberal arts graduates who have little or no knowledge of science or technology, have been given a "technology alert list" of "sensitive" academic subjects. That might not be so bad if the items on this list were few and narrowly focused, and the people applying the list had reasonable technical credentials.

Unfortunately, neither is true. Many of the entries on this list are remarkably broad. Thus, if a student tells a consular officer that he or she will be studying chemical engineering, robotics or even urban planning, that often has been enough to get their file sent to Washington for a review that might take many months.

As someone who has faced the rigors of both the INSBCIS and technical graduate school (although not simultaneously), I'm not sure which I would describe as harder. Grad school was probably more rigorous, but the sheer fascination of seeing how often you can bounce your head off a brick wall and keep coming back for more.

Anyway, the writer makes some interesting points about the challenges of keeping a country in the forefront of technical advances while throttling back the supply of scientists and engineers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Silly Season

As the racing season enters the second half of the year, the rumors traditionally start flying about who's going where and when.

In Formula1 Jaguar kicked off the game early by firing demoting Antonio Pizzonia and bringing Justin Wilson over from Minardi, presumably by paying a largish fee to the Minardi team owner Paul Stoddart. Minardi in turn have promoted Nic Kiesa from F3000 to F1. An odd choice, given that so far his season in F3000 hasn't been particularly distinguished. But he is probably fairly cheap since his team owner has just shut down half his operation. In the meantime it is looking more and more as if McLaren aren't going to introduce their 2003 car until 2004, leading the team principal, Ron Dennis, to comment that they should just have renamed the MP4-17/D (last year's car in its fourth significant step) the MP-4/18 and shut the press up that way.

In CART Player's has confirmed that they will be out of racing after this year, in accordance with Canada's new anti-Tobacco laws. They look as if there is a good chance they will be going out on top since Paul Tracy is mounting a strong campaign this year. But losing the tobacco companies (and NASCAR has just lost RJ Reynolds as well) is going to be a major financial blow to the sport. This is probably a good thing in the end, although there will be some turmoil in the immediate future. Pulling out a lucrative source of sponsorship will lower the financial barriers to entry to smaller teams and may succeed in promoting more diversity in drivers, teams, and sponsors at all levels of motorsports.

I don't follow NASCAR as closely as open-wheel formulae, but so far there doesn't seem to be too much activity there. I did see a silly story, however, which says that at the last race Morgan Shepherd, pretty much a moving chicane, was not racing to win but just to pick up his appearance money ($48,500 for placing last) and scuffing tires for another, unidentified, team. Now that is the spirit of entrepeneurialism at its best.

Ch-ch-changes

Well, little changes anyway. For years I have been using Netscape as my main browser (up to versoin 7.02 most recently). However the news that AOL has signed a deal with MicroSoft and largely abandoned any new developments on Netscape, combined with the continuing unwillingness of Netscape to work and play well with certain websites convinced me to go looking for a new window to the world.

I have been favorably impressed with Safari on the big mac downstairs, but my main machine these days is a Win2K laptop and Safari isn't an option there. I used Opera years ago, and still have a bad taste in my mouth about it, so I decided to try Mozilla -- in fact Firebird, which is sort of Mozilla distilled. It seems to have the small footprint and fast rendering speed of Safari, and the the few frills (like tabbed browsing) that I actually use.

It also works with Blogger, which Netscape did so poorly that I kept a handy link to Internet Explorer around just for blogging and looking stuff up on the Microsoft website.

So far I've only seen two annoyances -- I installed Flash and the initialization times have become awful, and the contextual menu for links has open in new tab below open in new window, which break my muscle memory for what I want to do. Overall I give it a reaonably enthusiastic thumbs up.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The Value of Time

Last Sunday we packed up the boys and drove up to Cleveland for Harborfest -- greasy food, local music, and bunch of really big sailing ships. It was a beautiful day for it -- mostly cloudless, light breeze off the lake, but certainly quite hot to be standing out in the sun for any length of time. In the middle of this was a Sharpie display with a spinning wheel, which people apparently used to win a pen -- the type of pen being determined by the wheel. People seemed to be waiting in line for 10-15 minutes in direct sunlight to get an ordinary pen. I don't get it, my time and comfort are worth more than a 20 cent pen, and I really can't imagine a situation in which they'd be worth less.

Another thing I noticed about HarborFest is that they haven't learned the lessons yet that southern festivals have. Despite the heat and the largely stark nature of the site, the only water that was available was $2.50/0.5 liters. Even at Texas football games they managed to figure out that when someone collapses from heat exhaustion it's bad for business, and if you want to keep people present and spending money, some form of free hydration is a really good idea. Perhaps that meme will eventually spread up here.

The Weather

This is my first summer in the North in a long time. I guess that the last full summer I spent in a northern city was 1994 in Chicago, then I moved to Florida and Texas until last Fall. Consequently I am finding myself amazed by a few things that I had forgotten.

  • Up here poeple don't care about hurricanes. Much. Along the Gulf Coast, I found it hard not to be aware of every tropical low pressure. Here, a storm pretty much has to make landfall before the newspaper mentions it. Recently with Claudette I found out more from Texas Bloggers (e.g. here) than from the local news media. And I haven't heard anything about storms A or B.
  • It's a lot cooler here. Our house has central A/C, but even in mid-July I don't use it more than a few hours a week -- and I work from home so I am in the house more than 20 hours a day. I have really only needed the A/C in the face of high humidity caused by impending thunderstorms -- the temperature is still only a balmy 78 F right now.
  • It rains a lot here. Although this year is apparently wetter than usual. The city has been doing a lot of storm drain work, and after they finish ripping up people's yards, they plant new turf from seed. And it grows in only a few weeks. That never happened in Austin. On the other hand, my herb garden is staggering due to the lack of sunlight.
A very snowy winter, a cool wet summer, and no violent storms to speak of. I could get used to this!

Mid-Season Report

It seems we haven't gone trackside in a while. So let's remember where we were.

Frustrated by the fact that Michael Schumacher dominated the World Drivers' Championship (WDC) while Ferrari simultaneously dominated the World Constructors' Championship (WCC) the boss of the FIA -- Max Mosley -- changed the qualifying rules and weekend schedule suddenly at the beginning of the year. This annoyed the powerful teams a lot (a good thing) and didn't seem to have much effect at all on the backmarkers (an indifferent thing).

Fast forward to now, just past the halfway point of the season and we find that Michael Schumacher is leading the WDC and Ferrari is leading the WCC. But not dominating. Looking back over the races, however, it seems that it is more a combination of race-day weather and improvements by the rival teams, and especially Michelin, that have kept Ferrari's lead in check this year.

This was demonstrated in fine form at the French GP, when bad but improving weather in pre-qualifying allowed a number of back-markers to get prime qualifying spots, near the end of the session on Saturday. Despite running on a hotter, more rubberized track the back-markers qualified at the end of the grid and were serving as moving chicanes only a few laps into the race. This was probably the best demonstration that many of Max's improvements are largely inconsequential.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Speaking of the Lottery

The lottery here is different from those in other states that I live in. Here the money is earmarked for programs for the elderly -- transit assistance, drug programs, etc. Everywhere else I have been the money has been aimed at education and youth programs. The difference in attitude runs deep here, where the whole attitude of the state seems "older" compared to the Southwest, or even the Florida Panhandle. (In Chicago I had other things on my mind and paid little attention to local politics.) A day rarely goes by when I don't get the impression that the AARP is a very powerful lobby, and that their issues get a lot of play at all levels of government, from lobbying and bils to my US Representative, Melissa Hart (R-Pa), having special office hours for seniors.

This probably reflects the national trend that people are moving south and west, and that younger people are more willing to pull up stakes than their parents and head out as the industries that traditionally drove the rust belt are contracting. It raises some serious budgetary challenges, however, since jobs are migrating with the people leaving a large base of voters who (understandably) want to make sure that their entitlements aren't cut, but who are not paying a lot of money into the system any more.

Unless the city and state can find addtional sources of revenue (and they are trying a lot, from urging businesses to buy lottery tickets to approving mini-casinos all over the place) or get the courage to raise taxes then something ugly seems likely to happen within the next 5 years or so.

How to Raise Revenues

Our Democratic Governor Ed Rendell has come up with a novel alternative to raising taxes in these difficult budgetary times. He is begging businesses to buy lottery tickets to hand out as bonuses to their employees. Apparently the thought of a tax increase is such anathema to the folks in Harrisburg that they would rather use a significantly less efficient (50% return) method of extracting money from businesses than make them pay a bit more in direct taxation

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Democrats Live?

The Senate Democrats apparently managed to kill the Malpractice reform bill in front of them yesterday, thus preserving some measure of sanity in the national judiciary for at least a few more months. As has been pointed out by Calpundit among others, the entire crisis seems manufactured. In fact the most likely reason for it is that the GOP has noticed that of the three groups that have a stake in the cost of malpractice insurance (doctors, the insurance companies, and the trial lawyers) only the trial lawyers regularly support the Democrats.

Pennsylvania apparently has some of the biggest malpractice problems in the country, partly due to its tendency not to disciplinc doctors who repeatedly make errors. (I blogged this some time ago, but I can't find it now) As a consequence we have our own bill going through the statehouse right now, and according to a PA Dem newsleter I got a little while ago:

HARRISBURG: The House Republican Caucus has dropped plans to vote on a constitutional amendment limiting non-economic damage awards in medical malpractice cases, substituting a much broader cap on all civil cases. The vote is scheduled today and is seen as a giveaway to big tobacco, drug companies and corporate fat cats who drive companies like Enron into the ground. There has not been a public debate or even a single hearing on this much broader and far-reaching legislation.
So even if the national legislation fails, things don't look good here, although I never heard the results of that vote.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

The Horror

Our TiVo just went tits-up on us. The power has been marginal all day, and when I tried to turn it on the picture was all locked up. So I hard-booted it (about the only readily accessibly diagnostic tool) and it locked on its opening screen and went no further.

A quick call to Sony confirmed that the only thing they could tell us to do is to unplug it and plug it in again, or send it in for a $160 diagnostic service.

At $200 for a new machine (plus programming fees) the choice seemed easy, but a weekend full of commercials seems terrible!

Update: It turned out that all it needed was to be opened and given a good solid rap on the hard drive while powered up to make it spin again. I'm not betting it will survive another power outage, but a new drive is winging its way towards us as I write. Valerie was so inpsired by my success at this that she bumped her laptop hard on the table and made the wireless network card start working again!

I've always like technology that can be fixed with the right sized hammer.

State politics

Jim over at Rittenhouse Review notes that the PA Democrats have found an opponent for Arlen Specter in the 2004 Senate race. Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel has thrown his hat into the ring. According to this morning's Post-Gazette, he has had a somewhat checkered political career, but Specter appears to be facing a bruising primary battle from the far right, so could be quite vulnerable come next fall.

Did I mention...

Plus ca change, etc. Blogger/BlogSpot still seems to be goofy, despite the fancy new interface. Bits are still missing in Netscape and I had to quit IE and come back to persuade my last post to actually publish, instead of hanging in an enternal publishing loop. It's almost, but not quite, enough to make a fellow look for an alternative...

Blinks eyes, looks around...

Wow, you leave a place for a month and when you come back, it seems completely different. New face, new look, why it's like a whole new blogger! But I still don't seem to have any archives. Plus ca change, I guess.

I vanished for a while to contemplate what I am doing with a blog. I'm not sure I've figured that out yet, but I suspect that the answer doesn't lie in silence -- or if it does then I should just delete this space and be done with it. Instead it seems to me that I had three sort of intentions in blogging, to discuss politics, hobbies (particularly racing), and a broad sort of miscellaneous mishmash, into which category this post falls.

Looking at things, most of what I would rant at about politically (at least on a national level) is going to come down to "What He/She Said!" for various values of the pronoun (look at my blogroll to see those values). There are, however, a lot of blogs out there that do that already, with or without additional commentary, so I'm not sure that doing that is really worth the bandwidth. On a local and state level I probably would have more to say, if I could figure out my local and state politics. After about 9 months living in Pittsburgh, I still haven't managed to do so (What is a prothonotary, anyway, and why did I vote for one in the latest primary?) Still, as I learn more about what's making this state tick, I think I'll post more on that. It just won't ever be as much fun as Texas!

More on hobbies soon. I am (I think) going to restart zymurgy soon -- I need to get out of the house more, and there seems to be an active Brewers' club in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately they only seem to post their meeting dates and places after the fact, so I guess I need to use a telephone and call them some time.

And the other stuff. I do belong to a general discussion mailing list which normally gets the brunt of that sort of thing. I think that I am going to start re-evaluating what I put there, and start moving some of it here, and duplicating some of it here. I have the space, and I'm taking the time, so I might as well disseminate it where I want. I'd say more widely, but I suspect that the mailing list has far more subscribers than I have readers!

Well, enough of that. I'm back and I'm blogging.