Friday, June 30, 2006

From a gentle seed, we shall make a mighty tree

I have an orange tree. I planted the seed when I was about 7 years old. My family owns land in Florida and we used to drive up to the "estate" on weekends to enjoy two days of mowing grass, pulling weeds, potting plants, and generally relaxing with hard labor.

This is why I never went into the landscaping business.

My great-grandmother and grand-mother (don't ask why I hyphenate those words) were penultimate gardeners. They loved plants and trees and flowers and all sorts of living growing things. They might have been Elves or something in another life. There were always potted plants sitting around their homes, growing, thriving, waiting to be repotted and eventually planted permanently in the ground somewhere either in south Miami (where we lived) or up near Tampa (where great-great old Aunt Marie had bought part of a farm in the 1920s and sold off parcels to various relatives).

The drive up to the weekend retreat was a bit more stuffy than the drive down. It wasn't so much that we packed multitudes of people, dogs, cats, trees, plants, and bugs into one or two vehicles (I'm still amazed that my grandfather -- notice the lack of hyphen -- pulled off any 1-vehicle trips with the whole family aboard) as that there was a heavy atmosphere of expectation. My grand-mother always had an agenda.

The women would set about cleaning up the quarters and then fixing up the various plants and plantings.

The men (well, my grandfather, my brother, and me) would mow grass, shoot snakes, clear underbrush, and do enerally whatever my grandfather thought would please my grand-mother. I suppose he had a vision of sorts, but my mother actually said he hated the place and never wanted to live there. Of course, that was where my grand-parents retired eventually.

There was an old hammock strung between two trees that my brother and I used to fight over. We loved laying there in the cool shade, just watching the clouds pass by through the trees. And then one day I found a nest of spiders on the underside of the hammock. I wouldn't go near it again, even after my grandfather got rid of the spiders. Not that spiders in general ever really bugged me, but a whole nest of them? No thanks. So my brother got almost exclusive use of the hammock after that for a long time.

Years later when I went to visit my grand-parents, that hammock was still hanging between the trees. But no one had used it for the longest time. It was in horrific shape. How the beloved things of our childhood fall away.

My grand-mother not only loved potted plants and trees, she loved art. She and her mother and sisters all painted, mostly in oils, but they dabbled in watercolors and even did some pencil and charcoal sketches. The family art collection is packed up (hopefully well-preserved) and stored away, except for a few paintings that have found their ways into grand-children's homes.

Grandma went on a garden statue buying binge one year. She bought little white plaster statues of fauns and dryads and scattered them around the weekend property. I didn't realize it at the time, but she was creating an arboretum. We had trails walking through groves of trees with statues, flower beds, and curious bushes. My brother and I went chasing armadillos and gopher turtles (and the occasional box turtle) through the woods.

At night we hauled all the burnable trash out to a huge fire pit and started up a regular conflagration. As boxes, bushes, brambles, and weeds churned away in the flams, we roasted marshmellows and hotdogs and the adults would invite friends over to chat and reminisce about their days of yore and good times in lands I never knew and will never discover.

So what does all that have to do with an orange tree?

Well, how can you live around that kind of full Earth exposure and not want to plant something? Even little boys who fight with weapons and roam wild city streets in the dark of night eventually are overcome by the simple curiosity of "why do you plant all these trees?"

My great-grandmother explained to me that there was a certain joy in watching things grow. You start out with a seed today and soon you have a plant and soon after that you have a tree and it's something wonderful to behold. Her enthusiasm was infectious. Rick and I used to spend hours watching her paint her tigers and trees and rocks and flowers. So, I thought, "It can't take much effort to plant a seed." So I grabbed a seed from an apple or something we had at home.

"Oh, no, Michael, that won't do!" my grand-mother said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because it's been irradiated," she explained. "It won't germinate."

Right. These were the merest of horticultural concepts and yet there I stood, completely dumbfounded. After all, in school they told us that the seeds grew into new plants.

"Wait until our next trip," Grandma promised. "We'll stop and get you a seed that will grow."

And sure enough, the next time we hit the road, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand and bought some oranges. They were pretty darned good oranges, as I recall. I used to eat oranges and tangerines by the bunch when I was a kid. We'd cut them up and suck the juice out of the slices. My grand-parents had bannana trees and a lime tree growing in their back yard. And a trio of coconut trees, too. Every summer we feasted on baby bannanas, cocunut kernel, and limeade.

So I picked my orange, and I ate it, and we saved the seeds. I don't recall why, but I think we laid them out in the sun for a while. And then we planted them in a coffee can. I think it was a blue Maxwell House coffee can. Doesn't matter what the brand was. All that mattered was that in a few days my orange tree sprouted.

That tree graduated from the coffee can to a real pot, and then up to a larger pot, and then one day my grand-mother announced that it was ready to be planted in the ground. "In the backyard?" I asked.

"Oh no, dear. We'll take it up to the weekend place," she replied with a reassuring smile. She knew then what I only learned years later: that that wonderful house where I learned to swim in the biggest, deepest pool I'd ever seen; with its two huge flower beds in the backyard, in one of which my brother built the best treehouse in south Miami's history; that the lime tree, the bananna tree, and coconut trees -- all that would one day be sold off. My grand-parents had no intention of retiring there.

Well, I'm not sure what my grandfather wanted, but Grandma made the plans and the family followed them.

So she took my tree up north, away from where I could watch it grow, and she planted it close to a window where she could watch it.

Through the years when we talked she would say, "You should see your orange tree. How it has really grown."

And eventually I did get to see the tree. It grew and grew and grew. It's one of the tallest trees on the property, now. It's never been trimmed. Never been spliced the way trees in orchards are spliced. And everyone who samples the oranges from my tree says, "Man! Those are the sweetest oranges I've ever tasted!'

I wish I could take credit for all that, but truth be told, all I did was plant a seed in a coffee can. Grandma and God did all the rest.

The oranges are so sweet because they poured a lot of love into that tree.

Thank you both. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bogus file-sharing insurance coming from Sweden

Some people estimate that as many as 10-12 million people are still using peer-to-peer (P2P) networks to swap files across the Internet.

Spain has just outlawed all use of peer-to-peer networks within its sovereign region of the Internet.

But now some entity in Sweden (I cannot read Swedish) is offering file-sharing insurance to people for approximately $19 per year. Supposedly, they'll pay all costs if the RIAA sues you for copyright infringement. While this may sound like a real deal, American citizens need to understand that it is not valid insurance in this country.

You cannot insure anyone against unlawful acts, and copyright infringement is an unlawful act. Now, while these people might be willing to spread the risk of being sued among their participants, you would not be giving your money to a legitimate insurance carrier. Maybe it's all just a gag to sell t-shirts (you do get a t-shirt).

Sorry -- I'm not going to link to the site. They are asking for private information and I don't recommend that, either.

I'd rather pay a fine to the City of Houston. Better the criminals you know than the ones you don't know. (As a side note: I love living in Houston. I'll pick on the city government for their outrageous behavior, but the community is great.)

Houston defrauds motorists as nation's No. 5 speed-trap

Houston is one of the top speed-trap cities in America, according to the National Motorists Association.

I can personally attest to their bogus speeding tickets. I was stopped over the Christmas holiday as I proceeded down the road, fifth in a line of five vehicles all traveling at the same rate of speed. I was the only driver in the group who was stopped.

I had to take an online driving safety course to get out of the ticket, but the police officers don't care about enforcing the law when the bureaucracy is breathing down their necks, demanding they bring in more tickets.

On the one hand, you'd think that seeing someone get a ticket would slow down traffic. Sure. Right until the cars get to the nearest curve, go over the next bridge or hill, or whatever. Then, if traffic is moving faster than the speed limit, they speed up again.

If I should have gotten a ticket, then why shouldn't the other four drivers who were ahead of me?

I work with someone who had the guts to argue with the police officer who stopped him. "This is absolute B.S." he told the officer. "I'm not going to put up with this. I'm going to court and I'm going to tell the judge what a liar you are and I'm going to get off."

When he showed up in court, the officer was nowhere to be seen.

However, police officers have to put their lives on the line every day. They may be breaking the law when they give out these bogus tickets, but the last thing we want to do is tick them off while they have us stopped. You are technically in a state of arrest when a police officer stops you and if you seem like a threat in any way, he may move to neutralize you (have you get out of the car, lie down, etc.). They never know when some idiot will try to shoot them.

So, what can we do about these illegal tickets? Complain long and loudly. Technically, the city government should be responsible to its citizens. We should demand and insist that our police officers only give out legitimate tickets. Stop paying the bills with motorist fines.

The Houston Police Department has a very colorful history. In the five years since I first moved to Houston, their crime lab has been shut down for falsifying or tampering with or improperly handling evidence, they arrested a crowd of 300 people in a K-Mart or Wal-Mart parking lot (and had to apologize for doing that), one of their officers berated and verbally abused a man for stopping just over a white line (which was an infraction of the law, but the driver recorded the conversation with his cell phone and the cop acted like he was above the law), and they have given out at least two bogus tickets that I know of.

And in that time, several officers have been shot dead.

Why dishonor the memory of your fellow officers by breaking the law and giving out bogus tickets? It would be great if the police themselves stood up to the politicians and said, "Hey. Let's stop ripping off the citizens. No more bogus tickets."

How we lose our history

My father is a great story-teller. He could entertain guests and family for hours on end with tales of trials and tribulations from his youth and glory days. I've heard more stories from him about his friends and family than I can ever possibly hope to remember. Some of the stories were quite long, and some were just brief anecdotes.

My mother often said she never knew whether to believe Dad's stories, but he has such a way of engrossing you in the accounts of his life that you don't really care -- at least while he is telling the stories -- what the truth was.

For instance, he told me he joined the U.S. Army in World War II after one of his friends was killed. That's the story, but like so many other stories, it's tied in to almost everything else he has done.

Dad came to Texas when he was a child. His father was a tailor living in a little village near Monterrey, but nearly all the kids in the family were actually born in Monterrey. I think my grandfather wanted his children to be able to say they were from Monterrey, so he took his wife to the city to have nearly all their children. Somewhere along the way, he moved the family to San Antonio and settled in a house in what is now called La Villita. I've been to the house. My father and I walked along San Antonio's famous RiverWalk and he told me about episodes from his life.

When he grew up, he retained his Mexican citizenship, but after his American friend was killed in the war Dad decided he wanted to finish what his friend had begun. So he volunteered to join the American army. He had to get permission from the Mexican government to join the U.S. Army. "Why do you want to join the American army?" they asked him at the consulate. "Mexico is at war with the Germans, too. You can join our army."

True, but Dad wanted to honor his friend's memory, so the Mexican government relented and gave him permission. Dad took his permission slip to the Principal's Office -- I mean, he went to the U.S. Army recruiting station and at some point was put on a bus. They took him and dozens of other men down the road to some nameless camp and had them all processed. Finally, when the men were about to put on their first army uniforms, a sergeant came into the dressing area to administer their oath. So there they stood, sixty men in their underwear, swearing to serve the United States with their blood, sweat, and -- if necessary -- lives.

"Men," the sergeant said proudly, "You're now in the U.S. Army. You're in for the duration and six months."

Someone in the back of the room yelled out, "How long is the duration?"

Up until that time Dad had done various things. I'm not sure of what all those things were, but one of the things he does talk about is how he used to sing with some big bands in night clubs. I don't mean the world famous big bands like Glenn Miller's Band. Back then, every city had big bands, and San Antonio was no different. My brother inherited some of that aspiration as he's been singing with little bands ever since he was a teenager. His bands had memorable names like Ten O'Clock Road, um, something else, something else, and most recently Karisma.

But I was talking about Dad, wasn't I?

So, Dad went to boot camp. They used live fire exercises to get the men used to working in dangerous environments. I don't know what they do today, but Dad said at one point in his training the platoons were taken to a firing range and ordered to crawl under barbed wire obstacles while real machine guns fired real ammunition over their heads. Some of the men panicked. One man stood up and tried to run away. Dad tried to grab him and pull him down, but by the time they hit the dirt the other man had been hit by one or more rounds and was dead.

They stopped the exercise at that point, and Dad said later one of the DIs (drill instructors) came up to him and said, "That was a very brave thing you did today, but it was stupid. You could have been killed yourself."

"I know," Dad replied. "But I just reacted."

"Just reacting can get you killed," the DI told him. "Remember that."

Dad went on to become a medic and he served in both the European theater and the Pacific theater. "How did you manage to do that?" I asked him one day after he explained the point system to me. You see, we were technically only involved in the conflict for about 3-1/2 years, from December 1941 until Summer 1945 in Europe, give or take, plus another few months in the Pacific. Soldiers and sailors were rotated in and out of action on a point system.

But you could lose points if you misbehaved. Dad said he went AWOL while he was in France.

"Why did you do that?" I asked. I've seen enough war movies to have a permanently etched vision of WW-II France looking like a bombed out devastation. I can't imagine why anyone would want to go AWOL in a land where people were scrambling for food and German soldiers might lie hiding behind every bush (sorry -- Hollywood just had that effect on me as a kid).

Turns out, there was a girl. Back in England. And she was expecting Dad's child. He had been stationed in England for something like two years. I don't recall exactly how long. But he was there long enough to be terrorized by a monster and to fall in love.

The monster story was kind of funny. Dad was assigned to a little hospital somewhere in England and he had to pull a rotation standing guard duty or something (he might have shifted classifications or something, or maybe he was just embellishing the facts). So, one night he was driving around the outer perimeter of the compound in a Jeep. Despite the occasional air raid, he had become pretty comfortable living in England. It wasn't like German soldiers were leaping out at you from behind every bush.

So it was late at night, the whole area was blacked out because of the threat of air raids, and Dad was driving along the fence when all of a sudden he heard this awful growling. "Rowrrr!" He stopped the Jeep and turned on the spotlight. He looked around and couldn't see anything, but the growling continued and rose in volume. It was unnerving, and since he couldn't identify the source, Dad went back to the duty shack to report the incident.

The sergeant on duty didn't believe Dad's story, so he insisted on driving back to the same location. The growling had become more like roaring, but they couldn't find the source. The fence was rattling and shaking and the sound was just plain unnerving. Eventually, Dad and the sergeant went back to the duty shack and shared a spot of whiskey to calm their nerves.

In the morning, a representative from the local mental hospital dropped by to inform the camp that one of their patients had gotten loose during the night, and would the soldiers please keep an eye out for him. He wasn't very coherent.

Air raids were more dangerous than escaped mental paitents. I remember reading a story in Reader's Digest when I was a teenager about someone who dialed a wrong number in England during the Blitz. The caller and callee struck up a friendship that lasted for several months. One night, making his regular phone call, the man got a busy signal. He knew his friend would be waiting on his call, but her line never went live again. For several days he tried to call her, but had no luck. Finally, he called the telephone company and explained his concern. The operators refused to help him. But he persisted and eventually one operator relented. "We're not supposed to divulge this type of information," she told him, "But the house you're trying to reach took a direct hit. I don't know if there were any survivors."

Dad's English girlfriend lived close to London, as I recall. He met her while he was stationed at that hospital. They spent a fair amount of time together and eventually became intimate. And then D-Day came and Dad went to Fance in the second or third wave (after the beaches had been taken). As the Allies advanced toward Germany, he exchanged letters with his girlfriend and occasionally got to make some phone calls. One day, he couldn't reach her, and his mail was returned unopened.

Dad naturally became very concerned, and he struggled to learn what had happened. Had she dumped him? He had friends who had struck up wartime romances where the girls met other men and moved on. But he wasn't ready to let go. So, when he failed to get permission to take some leave, Dad just up and left his post and made his way back to England. There he learned the worst: his girlfriend had been killed in an airstrike.

He turned himself in and was charged with desertion. I forget all the details, but he said that one of the men working on his case -- either the prosecutor or defender -- had a connection with the Eddie Slovak trial. Slovak was the only American soldier ever convicted and sentenced to death for desertion during World War II. His trial was controversial and is still regarded by some historians today as a show trial.

Dad's circumstances were not terribly extenuating, but the court showed him some compassion and mercy. They stripped him of his rank and points and sent him back to the front lines. I guess we just needed our medics more than we needed another Eddie Slovak. I don't know.

But Dad went through the rest of the European war and was promptly put on a ship bound for the pacific after the Germans surrendered. Most of his friends went back home to the United States. The closest Dad came to seeing home that year was sailing through the Gulf of Mexico to Panama.

He told me an interesting story about Panama, but I guess I'll just have to leave that for another time.

I've asked Dad to record his memories on tape many times. "I don't care how accurate your memories are," I've said a thousand times. "Let me write down your memoirs. You were a part of history. Don't you want your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know what you did for this country?"

Well, Dad just doesn't like tape recorders, I guess. So he, like millions of other Americans who contributed to our history in so many ways, will pass into the night, remembered by only the few of us who knew him. Each year he tells me about another old friend who has died, someone who was "a great boxer", "a singer", "an amazing soldier", "a song writer"...people whose names and faces won't be remembered after all those who loved and knew them have followed them into the next great adventure.

One wonders how many other stories have been lost through the ages because fathers and mothers didn't share with their children and grandchildren all the rich memories they accumulated. We are a literate society. We have the means now to preserve what we have done more easily than any generation in history.

And we are losing our history with each passing day. All that future generations will have to remember us by will be the testimonies of propagandists and journalists. I'm not really comfortable with that.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

From the email bag

I am probably one of the worst people when it comes to answering email. I just glanced at my IN box and it's currently got over 1100 messages, most of them NOT spam (I delete spam constantly). Every time I clean out the IN box, it just fills up again.

People write to me about many different topics. I get occasional inquiries about search engine optimization. I turn down most of them, or discourage most of them, because too many people just want link building. That's not only NOT search engine optimization, it's pretty inefficient. Of course, once in a while someone comes along with an interesting and challenging situation and I take the contract (or offer to -- I once had a guy decide it wasn't so important after I started talking money).

My specialty in search engine optimization is RESEARCH, folks. Link builders are a dime a dozen. Some of them are quite good. That's all they do. I don't know who the best link builders are, but there are plenty out there. Check out Rand Fishkin's recommended SEO firms at SEOMoz. He recently invited more people to apply for inclusion in the directory. I'm sure there are plenty of link builders in the group.

White cheese dip remains my most popular email topic. I get so much white cheese dip email I despair of ever fully updating the site with listings for restaurants and stores that carry the cheese dip or the ingredients. I could automate the process easily, but I'm afraid that someone would figure out how to abuse it for Web site promotion. We get quite a few abusers at the Internet Authors Network, where I've had to shut down all but one of the free services, and that one requires close monitoring.

Why do people abuse free services? They just ruin things for everyone. Search optimizers can be really bad about abuse. Many of them seem to think the World Wide Web was created to put money in their pockets, which is just plain stupid and selfish. And it seems like everyone and their brother wants to become the next big Net Entrepreneur by setting up an ecommerce site that resells merchandise you can get on a thousand other ecommerce sites. And then they hit all the SEO forums asking why they don't get good rankings at Google....

But I was talking about email. I received an interesting inquiry tonight about where a couple of people could go for Salsa dancing in Houston this weekend. It turns out there is a Salsa competition at the Melody Club this Friday and Saturday night. Some great Salsa dancers will be there, and I noticed there was a floor show scheduled for 11:00 PM Saturday. There is a security guard in the parking lot so it's generally a pretty safe place go despite being on a side street.

Paypal spoofers have my email address. Hardly a day goes by where I don't get 1-2 notices from these criminals about how my account has been compromised, etc. I immediately forward the messages (with full headers intact) to I've reported dozens of these spoof sites over the past year. I hope many other people do, too.

Dixie has actually been sending me email lately. Always good to hear from the partner, who Alas! is not feeling well right now. Best wishes, Dixie. do have the server backed up, right?

We get a lot of email about SF-FANDOM, mostly from people who have trouble registering. Sometimes the system gets a little goofed up and one of the admins has to nudge the confirmation process along. But some of the funniest emails come from trolls and abusers who sign up for free accounts, start spamming the forums, get banned, and then write us indignant messages demanding to know why they cannot log in. Um, we have MODERATED forums and that means someone is always looking at the new messages and user accounts.

People write to me about Salsa dancing, SEO, Tolkien, the Inklings Roundtable of Houston, and occasionally about my books, essays, and blog.

They also write to me asking me to hawk their merchandise on Xenite.Org. I guess I've created too many affiliate pages through the years. I've almost stopped updating them, as doing so is a time-consuming pain. The merchants make it more and more difficult to incorporate their listings into content each year, and I can see why more and more people turn to Yahoo! and Google ads. It's just not worth the time and effort to set up a custom affiliate merchandise store.

Family and friends write to say "Hi". I rarely reply to them. I know I should, but it's like, "Okay, they know me. They know I'm busy." I'm lucky to have family and friends, so I should pay more attention to them. I've started using my cell phone to text more people. Hate to say it, but I think the day of the 10-word Michael message has arrived. I spell out every word, too.

No one ever writes to me about my reviews at Epinions. I just posted a review about 'The Incredibles'. These are essay-length reviews, but no one trusts me over there (sniff). I guess I should write more reviews. I used to write a lot of revies at Amazon, but I got mad at them because they wouldn't enforce their abuse policies and stopped writing reviews and carrying their merchandise. We finally started carrying Amazon ads again last year and have earned maybe $20. Not like the old days when Amazon almost paid the hosting fees.

All they had to do was enforce their abuse policies.

Well, anyway, I may or may not contribute more reviews to epinions. Never made any money off them, but it's an interesting site that seems to have survived the dot-com meltdown. They offer comparative price shopping along with tons of (seemingly honest) consumer reviews. There is a community-based editorial structure, I think, that hasn't acquired a reputation for abuse and stupidity like those at DMOZ and Wikipedia.

People do post comments on the reviews at epinions, and I usually get some (generally positive) feedback there. But it would be nice to hear something in email about those reviews, too.

And, yes, I do make it difficult for people to email me. You have to find the form on Xenite.Org's Contact us page and fill it out because my email addresses get swamped with spam. So, maybe some people feel like that's just too much effort for a casual question that may or may not be answered, or a happy comment.

Sorry, but I've got 1100+ messages to sift through right now. I need a break....

Monday, June 26, 2006

J.K. Rowling says two major characters to die in last Harry Potter book

But she doesn't name names.

Newspapers around the world have blared out that Harry Potter may die in the last book.


This ain't news. We've heard this all before.


Okay, if you want to speculate wildly and madly, we do have a Harry Potter Forum at SF-FANDOM.

New York Times joins Al-Qaeda terror network

It seems like every major journalism scandal concerned with President Bush's War on Terror and the conflict in Iraq swirls around the name of The New York Times. In their latest round of irresponsible journalism, the Times apparently feel they know more about how to conduct international financial surveilance than do the government agencies and offices charged with the task; but that's not all, the Times also knows better than everyone else that publishing proposed troop drawdown timelines won't in any way help or encourage the militant groups inciting the instability in Iraq.

What good is it going to do if we leave Iraq according to a predictable time table, allowing militant groups to stand down and regroup, biding their time for another opportunity to launch a rebellion against the new Iraqi government?

While I have said in the past that the United States might have accomplished more by openly proclaiming to the insurgents, "Hey, dudes, as soon as you lay down your weapons, we're outta here!" -- the truth is that the ship has sailed. They would see such a concession as nothing more than admitting defeat, and they won't do that no matter how many innocent Iraqi women and children they have to murder to avoid doing so.

But we've managed to redirect Al Qaeda's fire away from the United States. While the moral and ethical issues of this strategy have been largely overlooked by the anti-war movement, the fact is that Al Qaeda's war kittens have literally thrown themselves into Iraq for the past four years years, where many of them have been killed, wasting their lives and energies in a useless, pointless dispute that has made them contemptible to both the Iraqi people and many Arab and Muslim communities around the world.

The Iraqi conflict will one day be recognized as a slaughter-house for Al Qaeda supporters, sympthazirs, and believers who are obviously too stupid to realize they aren't doing a thing to harm America when they attack Muslim Arabs in the streets, schools, and mosques of the Middle East.

However, as regrettable and unfortunate as the isolate-and-destroy strategy truly is (it will, in the long-run, only serve to make America look more cold-blooded and heartless than we already do), the strategy has been working. And here you have the obviously anti-war New York Times dredging up every piece of intelligence it can uncover on how the Bush Administration is managing the War on Terror. They might as well be slipping confidential briefings to the terrorists. The American public's interests are not being served by this kind of sloppy, irresponsible pap that is really only feeding the fires of political activism.

Here in America we like to pick on Al-Jazeera for being openly sympathetic to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist causes. Even when Al Qaeda's leaders have nothing newsworthy to say, Al-Jazeera makes sure their voices are heard and does its best to represent them as a credible, sustainable Jihadist force capable of conquering and ruling the world.

That is the ultimate goal of Jihadism, at its crudest. Everyone who doesn't convert to Islam has to die. It's a despicable, inhumane point of view renounced by many Muslim scholars, but it is the whole point behind Al Qaeda.

And yet The New York Times knows better. Clearly, this is just a personal conflict between Bush and Osama Bin Laden, and the Times wants the American people to understand that we have no vested interest in maintaining some sort of secrecy around our government's strategies. After all, the terrorists are too stupid to pick up a copy of the newspaper and find out what the government is doing.

Ultimately, the irresponsibility lies with the American people. We won't lose our constitutional rights by working together to win a war. We proved that much was so during the 1940s. Many Americans put up with greater hardship and deprivation than we have today, and they didn't have to weave their ways through the maze of political correctness that has grown up since the 1960s.

Maybe not every war is just, but we didn't invite this war. Osama Bin Laden took it upon himself to initiate the war when we sent troops to Saudi Arabia to fulfill our treaty agreement to defend and protect them against a threat of invasion from Iraq. That treaty, negotiated many decades ago, remains in force today. Our best chance of removing our forces from the Persian Gulf region permanently is to help nurture a stable, capable Iraqi government.

The task is made much more difficult by brainless twits sitting behind desks in New York who think it's just another reasonable excuse to promote personal politics and sell newspapers. There is nothing reasonable about unnecessarily and irresponsibly giving the enemy the means to prolong and possibly even render meaningless the entire conflict.

The Times is in more desperate need of new leadership than any cheap ragsheet in history.

Things not to do on weekends...

Slam your hand into a wall. Not only does it hurt, but when you hear several things go crack!, it probably means it's going to hurt two days later.

Eat half a pie, even if it is filled with five different kinds of fruit (hmmm). You'll gain two pounds come Monday, something that isn't supposed to happen while you cannot eat a full meal.

Buy a television set from an unmarked clearance stack. The sign may not have said Clearance but the prices did. Now I have a green spot on the left side of the screen and I'm probably too lazy to pack the dumb thing up and take it back to the store. Besides which, my hand hurts and I doubt I could put the TV back in the box anyway.

Leave your neighbor enough room to park an SUV with an attached boat right in your path.

Take a beautiful woman to see Mary Frometa because all you'll hear (when you're not screaming in agony because your hand is throbbing) is "She is so beautiful. I wish I could look like that." Or whatever she says when the music is loud and you can't hear your hand throb....

Eat 8 large cookies from a mall coffee shop. Technically, I only wanted 1 cookie, but the guy said if you buy 5 more, you get 1 free, or something like that.

No throbbing hands were used in the making of this blog. But a few sore fingers complained loudly anyway....

Friday, June 23, 2006

Apollocon III

Apollocon will be held this weekend near the Bush Intercontinental Airport. I had an opportunity to get on the guest list but wasn't sure when my surgery would be scheduled and so let it pass.

I may drop by but haven't figured out if I'll have time to. Peter S. Beagle is the guest of honor and tonight he'll be participating in an ad hoc blues band concert or something like that. It sounds interesting, but I don't think I can go.

Tomorrow evening, during the Masquerade, there will be a radio theater performance, a murder mystery. That sounds interesting, too, but I'm supposed to meet people at Tropicana (I forgot about the convention when I made tentative plans).

Well, anyway, it looks interesting and I may or may not drop by.

They have a nice lineup of movies, too.

Briefly speaking...

I am not uptight and I have no desire or intention to see "Along Came Polly".

I saw "The Breakup" because I wanted to.

I won't see "Along Came Polly" because I don't want to.

I will see "The Lake House" because I want to.

And, frankly, if no one has ever figured out how to make a fruit pie casserole with apples, blueberries, cherries, peaches, and ice cream, they should. There are hungry people in the world who would kill for a dessert like that. Even if they knew they would only eat a very small slice.

And my shoulder is sore, so typing is uncomfortable right now.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Weapons of Mass Destruction found in Iraq after all

Let me say quickly that I have long believed that the intelligence passed up to the President was faulty. I accepted it at the time, as did everyone else. Unlike many hardcore Bush-haters and Democrats, I don't feel President Bush orchestrated any intelligence tampering. Frankly, I don't think the man is smart enough to conceive of something so despicable. But opinions I've heard from more knowledgeable people about Dick Cheney leave me wondering....

Anyway, it appears that about 500 poison gas warheads were recently found in Iraq. Odd how all those weapons inspectors (both from the U.N. and the U.S. Army) missed such a large stockpile. Fortunately, a confidential military source has been semi-quoted as saying the weapons are so old they are probably not useful.

But the point is that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq all along, and for all we know there may be more. This news will (if the truth is lucky) go down as a footnote in the history books. The propagandists will no doubt dismiss it.

After all, we went into Iraq with the reasonable expectation that we would find an active production system, and none was found. All we learned was that Saddam Hussein was a boastful liar and brutal tyrant. We also learned the depths that some Americans will sink to in their pursuit of hate campaigns. But anyone who has spent much time on the Internet knows how Americans can be anyway.

So, yes, Virginia, weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. We now return you to your regularly scheduled exchange of lies and propaganda by the Democrats, Republicans, and their various partisan supporters.

I can't wait to see what Lou Dobbs has to say about this...well, maybe I can.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

And I thought my life had drama

I have lived out some hostile storms in front of thousands of (generally clueless) people, but never have I seen anything like this.

It appears a New York woman found or bought a lost cell phone (T-Mobile Sidekick) and gave it to her 16-year-old daughter, who is an unwed mother.

When the cell phone's owner paid for a new unit and downloaded her data from the T-Mobile network, she found out who had the phone. Evan Guttman, her friend, went on a 3-week crusade to get the phone back.

His amazing page tells the whole fascinating story in frequent updates. You cannot write fiction this riveting, folks.

I can feel for the server operators who lost their equipment. When New Zealand actor Kevin Smith died a few years ago, CNN featured our Kevin Smith Forum on their news broadcast. 15,000 people left messages of condolences and well wishes for his family and friends. Within a month, however, I crashed the server and lost everything.

I still feel sick about that.

Returning to the Sidekick story, the 16-year-old girl -- obviously not raised to respect the property of other people -- stupidly and foolishly defied thousands of angry sympathizers who demanded she return the stolen property.

Clearly, her mother failed to nail even a shred of common sense to the girl's hide, because the New York City Police finally took action (after being considerably humiliated in the news media) and arrested the girl, charging her with a 5th degree misdemeanor and recovering the stolen cell phone.

Ivanna, the phone's proper owner, got married last weekend and she was frantic to recover it because she had been trying to recover emails from the Russian government concerning the status of her sister's journey to the U.S. for the wedding (I'm really summarizing badly, here).

Stupidity is its own reward. That girl has to live with the shame of her selfishness for the rest of her life -- or at least until she grows up and learns to be a decent, civil human being. Shame her brother dishonored the Army. This is no time for soldiers to flaunt the law, but that's another rant....

Going to Washington

The state of Washington, that is. Spokane, on the northeast corner, more-or-less. I'll be the guest speaker at MERPCon, a small gathering of Tolkien afficionados and gamers.

You can read all about the convention at but it will be held the weekend of July 27 - 29, 2006. There is no registration fee but you have to send an RSVP to let them know you'll be attending.

What will I be doing at MERP Con II? Speaking.

Where will I be staying? That's a secret.

With whom will I be staying (assuming I'm staying with anyone)? That's a secret.

Will I be gaming? Don't know.

Will I be selling any books there? Nope. I don't lug books around to conferences and conventions. But if you buy a copy and bring it in, I'll be glad to autograph it for you. I may give away some autographed copies of Parma Endorion. Have to give that some thought.

Who should attend? Anyone with a love for Tolkien, gaming, or whatever who can get to Spokane the weekend of July 27-30.

Why MERP Con II if I'm not going to The Gathering of the Fellowship? Costs and timing, basically. I had to take so much time off work for my surgery, and my out-of-pocket medical expenses are high enough, that there was just no way I could go to Toronto. I really wish I could have made the trip.

I probably won't make it to Dragon*Con again this year. I would love to go but I have to get the medical bills taken care of. A generous sponsor is taking care of my expenses at MERP Con II (thank you).

In other Tolkien-related Michael Martinez news, there is still no blog on I may have to call Dixie to see what's up with that. On a weekend....

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Michael on the blogging circuit...

Can't really think of much to say right now that wouldn't be a repeat of things said before. I'm still waiting on Dixie to finish my Tolkien blog, though. I might have grandkids by the time we get together on that project. She sent me an email Saturday afternoon saying something like, "You going to be home this evening?" A couple hours later I saw it and said, "I'll be going out later but I'm here right now." No reply. I guess the motorcycle was calling....

So, because Rand Fishkin says that when I'm having a bad day, links and readership for SEOMoz go up, I have been curiously using Google's blogsearch to look for my name and SEOMoz. There are only 26 hits on that search, but sometimes people mention my blog posts without using my name. Also, Google somestimes reports blog posts with my name in searches for other content.

Something ain't quite right with Google these days.

I love the post that reads "Michael Martinez at SEOmoz has found the lost tablet that we had all thought Mozes had dropped on Mt. Sinai (thinking Mel Brooks)". When I first wrote Four Fundamental Principles of SEO back in January, I was still trying to find an SEOMoz voice. I thought, "Maybe I should just explain where I'm coming from in general".

I believe the "lost tablet" comment came from Loren Baker at Search Engine Journal, but when I first noticed the comment it was reposted on hundreds of spam blogs in the primary search index of Google (presently I only see 2 listings for that expression). At first I hoped I had made an impression on the SEO blogging community, but knowing how the spammers like my content, I decided I'd better click on a few links. Yup. I was splattered across hundreds of spamblogs. Only the spammers' little robots liked me.

I did actually touch some sweet spots with What's in your link quality? (a title modeled on Capital One's "What's in your Wallet?" slogan). Many blogs in languages I rarely see mentioned it: Spanish, Italian, Russian or Greek (not really sure). Cool.

Another article that generated some buzz was Web Semantics: What do we mean by 'Semantic Web'?. Disappointingly, the only person who caught me using a palindrome was a bi-lingual Italian blogger using the curious title of I don't read Italian, and Yahoo!'s Babelfish apparently doesn't, either. But I got the gist of the article and found it to be not only complimentary but also thoughtful and thought-provoking.

In fact, the Italian Web community is very interesting to me, not only for the fact that I've had several requests from Italians for permission to translate various works through the years, but because there are some smart people working over there. We Americans tend to think we're the only technologically dominant crew outside of Japan on the Internet, but that really isn't so. Europe has long been deeply immersed in the cybertech revolution and I find some really nifty sites in languages I have to translate and fumble through. The bi-lingual Web community today is probably only a foreshadow of what it will become in a few more years.

I am what Rand Fishkin (the owner of SEOMoz) calls a linkbaiter. People like what I write so they link to it. If only they saw how much stuff I start to write and never finish. They'd gag, I'm sure. I have written entire articles only to hit DELETE as soon as I was finished. I probably did that for about half my articles at Suite101. I've done it many times at SEOMoz. I've even done it here, where you would think I could say just about anything I want.

Being a link baiter means you have to maintain some standards of quality. Of course, I tend to ramble and that isn't much of a standard for quality, but my rambling is sort of like schmoozing a motorcycle along a winding country road at 80 miles per hour.

Jill Whelan says I bring links in to her forums at High Rankings. I guess I do. The little spambots scrape my comments out of threads and produce some darned interesting articles. For example, last year I wrote something about how many directory links a good SEO should be able to get. Someone reposted my comments (without asking, so far as I can recall) on MSN. Search Engine Marketing Optimization: Michael Martinez: Directories (Submitting to Directories) caught my eye in more than one search result.

The first time I came across it, I thought, "I never wrote an article like that...." So I clicked on the link and started to read it. I thought, "Hm. That does sound like something I wrote." Then I hit the bottom of the article and saw the link to High Rankings. Doh! Been sucked in by -- I'm not sure by what. This is a fairly lengthy snippet of text which, in my opinion, violates the standards of "fair use" doctrine. But it attributes the source and links back without carrying any ads. Nearest thing I can figure is that this particular blog is being used to increase link popularity for another Web site.

So far, the scheme is not working with respect to Google's search results. That is because (in my opinion) Google doesn't put much value into links coming from the MSN domain. Why do I say that? Because I've tested some MSN linkage on small sites chasing relatively non-competitive expressions. I cannot see any evidence of Google giving credit to MSN-based links. Why is that? It's one of those things that make you go, "Hm...."

I have been posting quite a bit at HighRankings for the past year or so. It's one of the few forums where moderators have not gone wacko and started moderating my posts in order to win arguments. Why do SEO forum moderators do that? Because they don't like being made to look stupid by someone who posts links to authoritative articles, or because they think they look smarter by making other people look stupid? I don't know, but I refuse to hang around SEO forums where the moderators and admins are unethical. Why give them free link bait?

And I've given Jill plenty of linkbait, according to Google. A search for "michael martinez" highrankings indicates about 1800 hits. Some of those hits are references to me and Jill's forum on other forums or in SEO articles. But a lot of them are also scraped content sites.

I think it's a compliment to Jill's forum that some people have set up frequent scrapes of the individual posts by me and others for their SpamAd sites. This sort of scrape targeting implies that quality of content has become a greater concern for some of the spammers who expect you to click on their advertising links.

What's really odd is that I post most of my theoretical stuff at J.K. Bowman's Spider-Food Forums and they don't get scraped as much. So maybe the 'bots aren't quite so good at figuring out where the real meaty articles are. Or maybe they are semantically scanning for argumentative posts (since controversy and argument seem to be the most link-drawing elements in forum posts).

And now that I have rambled on about that, I do recall something I wanted to post over at Spider-food, so I'm off....

Monday, June 19, 2006

Microsoft researchers propose a not-so-new way to measure Web page importance

Three Microsoft researchers published an interesting paper last month titled Beyond PageRank: Machine Learning for Static Ranking. Sounds a bit scary and logical, but it revisits an SEO myth that has long held back the search engine optimization community.

Google's big claim to fame is that they supposedly incorporate PageRank into their search results. PageRank is a measurement of the probability that you will land on any given page simply by clicking on links you find as you surf. That probability is determined by how many links point to a page, but since pages with more links intuitively have a higher probability of being found, any links from those pages will help other pages more. It's very circular and very confusing.

But Google doesn't actually show you search results in PageRank order, except in their directory. When you go to Google and type in a query, say for tolkien forum, Google looks at a lot of other data first. It computes what is called a relevance score and then adds the page's PageRank score to the Relevance score. The combined Relevance + PageRank values are used to determine which pages are listed first.

That's a pretty simple concept, actually laid out in very simple language in Larry Page and Sergey Brin's original Google paper. Compute PageRank, compute Relevance, add the scores, and that is how you arrange search results.

You'd think a lot of people could grasp that simple concept, but Nooooooo! The vast majority of references to PageRank among people interested in or involved in search engine optimization are so far out in left field you have to wonder what they were drinking the day they started reading about PageRank. They come up with some of the stupidest explanations for how Google works, and now the mainstream news and business news media have picked up on their silly explanations.


PageRank is what the Microsoft researchers call a static measurement of quality. It's static because it's computed once per document (within an undisclosed cycle). That static value is then added to a dynamic measurement of relevance. It's dynamic because it's computed each time the document is considered as a possible result for a query. So, if you run a query for "michael martinez blog pagerank" you'll get the static PageRank and a dynamic Relevance score A for this page. But if you run a query for "michael martinez blog google" you'll get the same PageRank with a different dynamic Relevance score B.

Got all that? Don't worry. You've got plenty of company.

Still, Microsoft's researchers have proposed looking at some different measurements of importance. One such measurement is traffic to a Web page. They discuss several possible ways of collecting such data but they have settled on what I call the Alexa Solution., now owned by Amazon, tracks surfing data from about 11 million people who have downloaded their toolbar. Every time you open a new Web page, if you have the Alexa toolbar installed in your browser, it sends a little message back to Alexa that says, "Just opened page X".

Microsoft (MSN) has its own toolbar, and the researchers proposed that tracking their toolbar users' data will give them an idea of which pages are important to surfers. PageRank tells you which pages are important to Webmasters, but Webmasters and surfers are not exactly the same group of people. There are more surfers than Webmasters, and Webmasters tend to be more sneaky and manipulative.

Anyone who has questioned the value of Alexa's rankings, which have been manipulated in various ways, can immediately spot the flaw in Microsoft's proposed data source. What can be done to Alexa can be done to MSN.

In fact, no system is perfect. PageRank can be faked, inflated, borrowed, and misused. The abuse of PageRank has become so bad that Google has been depriving major sites of their ability to pass PageRank to other pages they link to. That's a shame, but PageRank has become a sham and Google has invested a lot of its prestige and corporate ego in the concept. They are losing the battle for preserving the value of PageRank (as they see it -- in my opinion, it's always been a stupid idea anyway because most Webmasters don't link on the basis of quality, but rather on the basis of whom they know and like).

So what's the SEO myth I referred to above? Well, as many search engine optimizers have fumbled around the basic concepts and use of PageRank, so they have fumbled around Google's toolbar. A lot of silly ideas have been proposed for what Google does with toolbar data, if anything. People believe that Google is tracking where you surf and ranking sites on the basis of where you go. Some companies actually require their employees to surf to the corporate Web site every day (not realizing that if Google is tracking this data, it's also tracking IP addresses and most corporate networks use the same IP address to access the Internet).

Google has never indicated in any patent application, technical paper, Webmaster guideline, or public presentation or communication that it uses toolbar data to determine search results rankings. Matt Cutts, a Google engineer who frequently speaks about Google's technology, has said on his own blog (expressing his personal opinion independent of Google's undisclosed corporate view) that he would consider use of the toolbar data to be kind of spooky.

So, maybe this later paper from Microsoft indicates they are using the toolbar data they collect to influence their search results. Maybe not. Toolbar data can be spoofed by software, and there are people who have claimed to do it through the years for Alexa and Google. If they can do it for Alexa and Google, then they should be able to do it for Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Ask (all of whom offer toolbars for your browser).

Friday, June 16, 2006

Where in the world is Le Quynh Vo?

That's doctor Le Quynh Vo to the rest of us. I met her here in Houston last year when she took Salsa dance classes with a friend of hers from Gloria Jones. We went dancing at Elvia's and Tropicana as I recall. But Le had other plans in store. She told me she was going off to Africa and traveling the world for about a year. She was going to work with the poor, see things, and do things.

It's funny how you run into references to people on the Internet. I came across an article about Le in a Worldwide Orphans Foundation newsletter from November 2005 which featured a brief article by Le. This is a .PDF file, so it may take you some time to load it. Le's picture is on page 2. She is holding a little boy in her arms. She served the WOF as an Orphan Ranger and she writes:

"On my first day as an Orphan Ranger, Dr. Nguyen Trong Hau, WWO’s Project Director in Viet Nam, was giving me a tour of the orphanage, when I first laid eyes on Vo. He was a small, pale child sitting on the ground by himself. His head looked too large for his small frail body, and his lips were dry and blistered. I suspected that he was about three years old, but Dr. Hau told me that he was actually six. He had come to the orphanage about a month previously, after being abandoned by his mother."

The little boy is an HIV-positive orphan. His life lies in the hands of strangers who have wandered across the world to care for him, if only for a few months at a time.

It gives you a new sense of perspective to learn about the good things people do, but when you've met one of those angels of mercy, if even for only a very brief time, you appreciate having met them even more. I'd rather know a kind and thoughtful stranger for five minutes than spend an hour with someone who was just passing through life, aimless and without conviction.

There are many petty, mean-spirited people crawling on this Earth. There are two few Le Quynh Vos.

Here's to you, Le, wherever you are. I hope the dancing is good wherever you wander.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Chasing Dixie on the synaptic highway

Dixie loves to be chased. She won't admit to it (or she may, just because I said she won't) but she has always wanted to be the vicious prey that turns upon the hunter. Have you ever seen a science fiction movie where the hunter becomes the hunted? Those are biographies of Dixie. You don't mess with Dixie. Ever. Period.

Rolling Stone magazine figured that out. Through the years, I've given plenty of media interviews. Radio. Television. Newspapers. Magazines. I enjoy talking to the media, waiting to see how they condense an hour's worth of discussion down to a soundbite or a sentence. But Rolling Stone magazine contacted me one day and I got all excited and said, "What can I do for you?" I imagined myself sitting on the cover of Rolling Stone, surrounded by beautiful women, wearing the Fonz's cool leather jacket, looking like Mister Michael. "We'd like to interview Dixie. How do we get hold of her?"

Right. Well, it was the Australian edition of the magazine anyway.

Getting hold of Dixie, though, is like grasping at water. She flows through your fingers. You can't touch her, but she can touch you. She is in complete control. She decides when you get an audience. I had to beg and plead to get her to do the RS interview. I may even have had to sacrifice virgin Girl Scouts to dark gods or something. It was a truly humbling experience.

So I know when to leap, where to jump, and how high. After all, Dixie keeps the server running and she sorts out all the complicated icky Linux stuff that I shy away from. When Dixie calls, Michael listens.

So just this morning, as I was stepping out of the shower, my phone rang. I picked it up and Dixie's warm, charming, southernly accented voice seeped into my ear. I nearly dropped the phone because she never calls me in the morning. I thought, This is it. The server has died again.

"Guess what I found?" she asked coyly.

The server has died again, my thoughts repeated. I quickly reviewed my schedule over the next few days, wondering how much new content I've created for Xenite.Org on the fly that I don't have actual backup copies for. It wasn't looking pretty.

"What did you find?" I asked.

"You know our little spammer, the one who has been creating accounts at SF-FANDOM?"

The server did NOT die, I sighed with relief. "I blocked his domain," I said quickly.

"No, you didn't," Dixie replied. "He was still creating spam accounts. But don't worry. I blocked it for you."

This is why I keep Dixie on the payroll. And I said as much. "This is why I keep you on the payroll, Dixie," I told her. "Because you save me every time you catch me with my pants down."

In fact, I was so happy, I decided to do something I haven't done in a long time. As I started to explain my great idea, Dixie joined in the familiar refrain with me, word-for-word, with "[you're] going to double [my] salary."

Okay, that little motivational trick doesn't work any longer. But we did chuckle heartily over the fact that I'm able to double her salary at least once a year (nothing times two is still nothing).

If I could pay Dixie a salary, I would. Maybe even a good one. Assuming we made that much money from Xenite.Org, which seems mostly to be a charitable organization handing out valuable link love to strangers' Web sites. I've seen various estimates of how much money I could allegedly/supposedly charge for those highly coveted links. I think I could buy a farm with that kind of money, but what do I need an ant farm for anyway?

Dixie, on the other hand, really does need the money. She is so poor she can only afford two of the requisite four wheels that every American housewife is required to have. Poor thing, she sits around and serves Kandi to curious passersby and no one really appreciates all the great things she does for Xenite's network.

For example, just a few weeks ago I called Dixie on a weekend. I don't recall why, but I know you don't call Dixie on weekends (EDITOR'S NOTE: If Michael had a story about what happened with the weekend call, he forgot to include it). She's never home, or if she is home she's only passing through long enough to get a cup of coffee or something. Dixie just doesn't live at home on the weekends.

Instead, she's out riding the Hog, cruising the countryside, being an easy rider. Leaving me to fend for myself on the server, the server where I don't even know how to block your domain if you use software to create spam accounts in my forums (spam accounts that won't work because you stupidly forged the domain name and all the confirmation emails bounce).

I love Dixie's Hog stories. Unlike any farm girl, who might talk about what the pigs do when you hollar "Souie!" she tells me how she and her husband will spend hours racing across the countryside at breakneck speed. They might drive down to south Texas just to see his mother, or up to Oklahoma just to have a picnic in a specific park. All in one weekend.

How do you stay on a motorcycle for so long? I've ridden tweelers a couple of times and my legs cramped up. Dixie and Hubbykins do it on a weekly basis (maybe more often, but since Dixie usually doesn't answer her cell phone, I can't honestly say I always know where she is -- I am NOT responsible).

One day they were cruisin' back toward home and Hubbykins decided he wanted to get there (or maybe he had another trip in mind). As it turns out, Dixie actually likes to stop once in a while and stretch her legs. But the Man had a Plan, and he managed to slow down just enough as they came to each little town so that they never hit a red light.

This can be a serious issue for someone who wants to stop and ... do whatever it is when you stop your motorcycle. If it were me, I'd probably fall off, so I try to stop as seldom as possible. That explains a few police chases in my past, but I digress.

So Dixie and Hubbykins went cruisin' south along some Texas highway and after an hour-and-a-half, maybe two hours, Dixie realized he had no intention of stopping. So the next time they came to a small town she zoomed past him and pulled up to the nearest red light, leaping up in the saddle so she could enjoy 30 seconds of leg-stretching bliss.

Hubbykins reportedly pulled up alongside her with the biggest SEG (that's something-eating-grin for those of you who have never had a puppy) this side of the Cheshire cat. "There's a Starbucks up the road," he said casually. "You want to stop--"

Dixie roared off and hit the parking lot faster than he could finish the sentence. Rumor has it he bought the coffee that day.

So you don't mess with Dixie. If the server crashes and she is having a moment, you bite your tongue and bide your time. Not because she'll bite your head off, but because she likes expensive coffee. And motorcycles. That's a dangerous combination for someone who has to stretch her legs every now and then.

So there I was, fresh out of the shower, and I waited patiently as Dixie gloated over how she has accumulated statistics on some spammer who thinks his software is registering accounts at SF-FANDOM. "We're getting great statistics," she said. I nodded my head sagely, muttering something like, "I see."

Now, I've been waiting six months for Dixie to load a blog on Tolkien Studies on the Web and I've occasionally needed to get other things done. So I know when I'm supposed to shuddup and jes' say, "Yessum. I'm amazed at the audacity of that varmint!"

Frankly, the SF-FANDOM spammer has been more fun than a barrel of possums rolling out in front of your headlights. We don't often see his kind in our parts. What on Earth do you need 100 SF-FANDOM accounts for? It's not like you can use them to send email (right, Dixie?). It's not like you can use them for anything if you're too stupid to use a domain where you'll get the confirmation emails.

But Dixie decided that we needed to take the server down this weekend in order to install some security updates. Now, technically, I've been whining about these updates for, oh, three months. "Dixie, did you see my email about the security update?"

"Yes, Michael. Do you want me to install it now?"

"Um. Whenever you get around to it. I just wanted to know if you saw it."

"And you called me because?..."

"Oh, you know. Just to make sure you made it home safe and sound from the last bike ride."

"Does that mean you did something to the server again?"

I look innocent as a baby bumble bee every time she asks me that. I've learned my lesson. I don't mess with the server when Dixie is not around to save my buck naked bottom.

"No, ma'am. I ain't touched no server. But feel free to ignore any administrative notices you see in the logs. The problem that wasn't there may have been fixed by the time you realize there may have been a problem that you needn't be concerned about."

This is why I pay Dixie the big bucks. Not because she is so good. Not because I am so bad. But because, gosh darn it, I've never had anyone consistently call me at the most inconvenient times to gloat over idiot spammers who are too stupid to look for holes in a system where they're most likely to be found.

I know it means she likes me. She really, really likes me!

And I may even get my Tolkien blog this weekend if I'm really good. Unless she remembers she has a motorcycle and some free time....

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Why killing coyotes doesn't work

Here in Texas there are a few wild animals roaming the countryside. I know that television shows claim there are about 2,000,000 feral pigs running around. A feral animal is a once-domesticated animal that has "gone wild". Feral dogs are also a problem, as are feral cats. But ranchers and farmers are more likely to complain about the pigs and the coyotes than anything else.

A guy I work with hunts quite a bit. He grew up hunting and just this morning regaled me and another co-worker with tales about how he and his friends used to hunt rabbits on stretches of land around west Houston which are now covered by office buildings, strip malls, and other construction. I've seen development encroach upon countryside in one or two places but I only came to Houston a few years ago, so my area is pretty built up and has been for years.

Nonetheless, one of Jimmy's friends sent him an email with a couple of attachments (I didn't think to ask if I could use them -- sorry). They show a coyote sniffing around a tree late at night. Jimmy's friend is missing some cats, as are the friend's neighbors. It's pretty clear that the cats have been feeding the coyotes, giving their all for the coyote team. The friend hired a trapper to lay a foot-trap for the coyote, or has at least been thinking about doing that. I didn't quite catch all the details.

But Jimmy called his friend and advised him not to do that. It turns out that Jimmy recently went on a hunting trip with a biologist who specializes in field research on carnivorous wildlife. The biologist knows quite a bit about coyotes. It seems they do run in packs like many dog- and wolf-like critters, and each pack is dominated by one breeding pair of coyotes: the Alpha Male and the Alpha Female.

Among coyotes, the females do most of the hunting. If you lay a trap and kill a coyote late at night, there is about a 75% chance you'll kill a female. The problem for people with coyote issues is that if you kill an Alpha Female, every other female in the pack immediately goes into heat when she fails to return home. That is, while there is an active Alpha Female, the other females don't breed. When you remove the Alpha Female, the other females breed until one becomes dominant.

If there are 4-5 remaining females, you just inspired them to multiply your coyote problem four-fold by killing their Alpha Female.

I can't offer a soluton to coyote problems, but obviously if you're having issues with one pack, you don't want them to experience a sudden population explosion or you'll end up having issues with several packs. So the indiscriminant killing of coyotes probably explains why they have survived mankind's encroachments better than other forms of wildlife. They fight back by making tons of little coyotes and those hungry little coyotes go out and eat whatever they can find.

Including your house cats.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

More trivia concerning Pixar/Disney's 'Cars'

Route 66 News has a great feature article on the people and places that actually inspired places and characters in the Pixar/Disney film "Cars". I knew there were a lot of inside references, but I didn't know there were this many.

A Route 66 guide to the "Cars" movie is just a neat, fun read for those of you who have some time to spare from busy work schedules. It makes you want to see the movie more.

Of course, it's not quite as funny as a big wet kiss from your lovable puppy, but then, I'm not really into puppy love anyway. But I think "Cars" is a great movie. And did I mention it has the nicest butte on Route 66 (sorry -- couldn't resist)?

And I'm glad to notice I wasn't the only person to notice the "Doc Hollywood" homage. Real Disney offers a brief comparison of plot summaries from IMDB. Oh well, it's a resource.

Another inspiration for the movie was apparently CARToons magazine. Sorry. I don't know if I ever came across a magazine, but the concept sounds interesting.

Mark VandeWettering, Pixar's technical director, has a blog site called BrainWagon. In a brief post, he discusses one of the technical aspects of the movie's production history and debunks an entire thread at DIGG (not a reliable source of information, in my opinion).

For those of you who like apples (or at least apple-shaped things, if you don't find them disgusting), Apple got a product plug early on in the movie.

Of course, Steve Jobs of Apple Computers founded Pixar twenty years ago.

Well, it's hard to find more neat stuff about "Cars" out there right now. Everyone is starting to talk about "Ratatouille", which looks okay to me but I need to see more.

Personally, I think Pixar needs to do a story about dogs and call it "Puppy Love", maybe something where two pups fall in love, swear to be soulmates forever, and then are separated as they go to live with two different families. Can they ever be reunited and fulfill their sworn destiny?

I'm wating to find out....

Monday, June 12, 2006

"Cars" versus "The X-Men"

I did not realize Owen Wilson provided the voice of Lightning McQueen (the little race car that could) in "Cars" until about 1/3 of the way through the movie. I've watched the trailer a bajillion times and just never paid attention to his voice. What I think threw me off was that Wilson dropped his trademark twang accent. He sounded a bit more like his brother Luke, and for a few moments I wondered if Luke had done the voice rather than Owen.

The cast for "Cars" is surprisingly star-studded. Paul Newman did Doc Hudson (the "Hudson Hornet"). How many people caught the connection to his movie Winning, which I saw as a kid? Winning was everything to his character, Frank Capua, until he realized that winning races was causing him to lose his life.

Of course, Newmen went on to race cars off-screen. I wonder what he thought of the dialogue? Did he suggest changes?

The real Hudson Hornet actually did make a significant impact on racing in the early 1950s, but the brand was phased out in 1957. There were never that many Hornets manufactured. For good measure, here is a Popular Mechanics article about the Hudson Hornet.

Not that I'm a big race fan, mind you. I spent most of my days at auto racing extravaganzas in my care-free youth, back before there were monster trucks and well-publicized tractor pulls. We were thrilled just to see the demolition derbies and to not get hit in the face by dirt flying off the race track (it hurts when you're a small kid, but I digress).

My brother and I would press our Mom to take us to the Go-Cart track so we could practice taking the curves like good race car drivers. Of course, the track operators didn't want us to do that, so Rick would just come up behind me, catch his front wheel in my reel wheel, and force me to spin out. Older brothers can be such a pain.

I never pictured Bonnie Hunt as a Porsche, but I guess it works. Bonnie is a Pixar veteran who contributed her vocal talents to "A Bug's Life" and "Monster's Inc", both of which movies were lampooned in the final credits (most of the people in the theater walked out before seeing these great scenes). John Ratzenberger, another Pixar veteran (many people may recall him best as insufferable know-it-all Cliff the Mailman from Cheers), lent his voice to Mack (as in Mack Truck). His comments in the end credits were kind of cute. The joke definitely works as many people in the audience were following the same line of thought.

Michael Keaton as Chuck Hicks (the "bad" race car) puts some pizzazz into an otherwise cardboard role. The movie is not really about the rivalry between Lightning McQueen and Chick Hicks, but rather is a coming-of-age tale for Lightning.

There were quite a few walk-on roles from both the racing world and entertainment (I'll never see Jay Leno the same way again). But maybe the best out-of-person characterization was Tony Shalhoub's Luigi. This guy is so versatile. I've never seen him play the same role twice. John Wayne could get away with that because he was so big on screen he had to just be himself, almost. But Shalhoub immerses himself in the characters he plays and he makes them bigger than his own personality. It's a pity he didn't get a larger role in the film, but maybe next time.

The plot was rather predictable. It was sort of "Doc Hollywood" meets "Days of Thunder". Any standard western could have fulfilled the same function, really. What makes this movie stand out from other Pixar productions, in my opinion, is the incredible level of detail they put into every scene. The backgrounds are almost as much a character in the story as the cars. And, in fact, they even bring the details into the forefront in a couple of good scenes. I could almost like the desert after seeing this movie. Almost.

There's not yet a whole lot of trivia about the movie at IMDB (not always the greatest source of information, but I link to it more than I used to). I recognized a few of the lines and jokes. For example, there's an old George Carlin line (I forget the movie) where someone comes up to him and asks if he has seen something and he says, "The 60s were good to you, man". Well, they turned that around in this movie.

The town looks like the little town in "Big Fish" -- I forget the name of it, but I'm thinking of the town where everyone hung their shoes and walked barefoot. It was bypassed by highways. Still, there are several shots where you look down mainstreet and they almost exactly replicate similar shots in "Big Fish". The life cycle of the town (I don't want to give away too much) is very much like in "Big Fish", too.

The auto designs, according to the trivia page, are all inspired by Detroit's auto museum car models. But they remind me of those Techron Gas commercials that used to show up on American television several years ago. I kept expecting to see a product plug.

The relationship between Lightning and Doc reminded me of Marty McFly and Doc Brown in the "Back to the Future" movies, although there wasn't that much similarity. I guess the way Owen says "Doc" just sounds a lot like the way Michael J. Fox says it. It could be I'm making that connection because of the "Doc Hollywood" subtext (Michael J. Fox starred in "Doc Hollywood").

All in all it was a great movie, fun for a Sunday afternoon. Wish you could have been there. You'd have loved it. I may go see it again next weekend....

And on to "The X-Men".

I've read some unfavorable fan reactions to this movie on the Internet. I enjoyed it. I think it was the best of the three movies so far. And, no, they don't kill off everyone. Technically, only one major character actually dies. You need to wait around for the end credits. And keep in mind that in comic book universes, death is more like a phase in a recycling technology. Marvel is especially good at killing off heroes and bringing them back.

Stan Lee needs to stop doing 3-second walk-ons and spend a little more time wallowing in his comic book characters' universe. For example, if they ever film the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm, it just won't work without Stan trying to crash the wedding. So, more Stan in the Marvel movies. I don't care if he can act or if they have to box him up between takes and put him back on life support. Use CGI or something.

The one moment that disappointed me was Magneto's last line in the finale. Sorry. I just don't think he would say something like that.

I wasn't really familiar with the Phoenix character from the comics. She came along after I stopped reading comics, so I don't know how true-to-life she was supposed to be. One thing I didn't really appreciate about these movies is the way they've jumbled up the ages of the original X-Men. I kept wondering where the Beast was. I didn't realize he was doing a stint on television as a psychotherapist (Kelsey Grammer played Hank McCoy, the Beast).

The original X-Men were, if I recall correctly, the Cyclops (Scott), Marvel Girl (Jean), The Beast, The Angel, and Ice-Man. Bobby, the Ice-Man, was the youngest kid in the group. I think Scott was the first mutant Professor X recruited (and they usually called him Professor X). I was disappointed when Hank transformed himself (by accident) into the furball beast, but it is a much cooler depiction than the original human form he had.

As far as the technical details go, the bridge scene was amazing. They did a stupendous job of portraying Magneto's true power, in my opinion. He doesn't really come across as that powerful in the first two movies. Fortunately, Sir Ian McKellen's grasp of the character is superb. He has brought Magneto's passion through all the cheesy scenes with thorough expertise. He is the perfect Magneto (except when he says that one line).

The lesson of the movie seems to be that mutants are human, too. Well, the underlying racial/ethnic subtext is certainly relevant to today's world. Whole wars have been fought by people strictly because they don't like each other's groups. Wars are no longer fought for basic economic necessity (but I suppose they haven't been for a very long time).

The metaphor that Americans should bring away from the "X-Men" films, and which has been entirely lost on today's generation of Americans, is that we don't need to be rounding up 12 million illegal immigrants and putting them on cattle cars.

That's not democracy. That's a holocaust.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Hurricane Survival Kit: Portable Air Conditioning

Ever since I spent two days sweltering through Hurricane Ivan, I have been convinced that every home along the Gulf Coast should have a portable air conditioning kit.

I have seen them almost all my life. You have seen them, too. Astronauts use them to cool their suits while they are outside their spacecraft. Portable air conditioners were featured in the movie "Congo", when Laura Linney opened up a case of the little things. Were those units real? I have no idea. But I sure wanted one while we waited for power to be restored in Panama City.

My family was lucky. We were without power for something less than 2 days. Other people in the area went without power much longer. And, of course, victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita went without power for even longer periods of time. No portable air conditioning unit could be expected to last forever, but it would help make a situation more comfortable for a while.

In fact, there are many elderly people who might benefit from some of the ideas that have inspired portable cooling systems through the years. Each year, many portions of the country experience a heat wave and elderly people, who live on fixed incomes, are often at risk from heat exposure. They tend to shut off their air conditioning if the local power companies don't do it for them.

There are some high-powered air conditioning units that run off of relatively inexpensive battery systems. One such unit was built for boats. In fact, the marine air conditioning industry is somewhat developed. In addition to the Avi-Air system featured in that review, I also found Flagship Marine site that offers boat conditioners.

In theory, you could take one of these boat systems and run it inside your house (you have to provide ventillation or you'll die of carbon monoxide poisoning). Unfortunately, they cost $1500 to several thousand dollars. That's a little too expensive for me, although if I were in charge of a hospital's emergency planning I'd consider getting some of those systems. Or mayybe they can spend a few extra dollars and get some military-quality air conditioning systems. These portable systems would have been idea for those hospitals in New Orleans.

If you don't have a budget to handle military-class cooling systems, you can try some other ideas. For example, KoolerAire has commercialized the old "blow a (battery-powered) fan across a block of ice) trick. However, they are not without their critical rivals. Swampy has some not-so-nice things to say about KoolerAire.

There are some valid points raised in the Swampy FAQ. A lot of low-cost battery-operated fans that moisten the air with trays of water are available for as little as $20. If you live in the desert (like New Mexico, Arizona, western Texas, southern California, etc.) they might be helpful on a cloudy day. These are mini-swamp coolers and people who live in arid regions are familiar with the wet, soaked feeling of living in a swamp-cooled house. Me, I prefer refrigerated air when I can get it.

Refrigerated air, unfortunately, requires condensers and poisonous freon or some other type of gas. You can buy a self-contained system but you may be better off with one of the ice-cooled portable systems. But where can you get the ice in a middle of a hurricane? Some people will buy ice in advance, but blocks of ice are best and getting them is not going to be easy in some areas. You can try freezing a few 2-litre bottles filled with water a few days in advance of the storm's approach and maybe you can use them to cool your family.

There is at least one company, Dometic, that offers cooling systems for campers. You know: refrigerators and freezers. So, theoretically, if the windstorm doesn't blow your RV away, you might be able to make some ice.

If you can get to an area that has power, one intrepid camper offers suggestions on how to stay cool. But if you cannot get to any power, or cannot afford all those gizmos, there is still hope. One man has actually published his detailed plans for an ice-cooled system that you can build yourself for, hopefully, relatively little money.

Generally speaking, if a hurricane comes your way, I think you should get out of its way. But assuming that is not an option, or if you have high power bills in the summer and want to experiment with some possible cost-saving measures that require a little effort and sacrifice, well, I hope I've given you some ideas.

Have a great weekend.

Beowulf versus Tom Bombadil

So, there I was, surrounded by Tolkien fans, and we were supposed to be discussing Tom Bombadil at last night's meeting of the Inklings Roundtable of Houston. Only I had "Beowulf" on the brain and I had forgotten that Bombadil was the topic on the table.

So I wasn't prepared to talk about Bombadil. I mean, sure, I can spit out a few Bombadilian arguments almost from rote. Been there, done that. I try not to set the pace at Inklings Roundtable meetings because I can be quite the insufferable know-it-all and I don't want to spoil the fun. Besides which, people often say the darnedest things that never occur to me.

And Jane Chance made a comment about Bombadil that I just had not heard before. It never occured to me. In fact, she startled everyone at the table. I'm sure her students would be familiar with the concept, though.

What did she say? She said the Bombadil episode is important (and I paraphrase here) because it shows how Frodo begins his journey from child-like, innocent, naive Hobbit who is afraid of "evil" Farmer Maggot (whom we know by this point in the story is not really mean or nasty at all) to heroic savior of Middle-earth who returns to the Shire so enhanced by his experience that 300 Half-orc Ruffians don't even phase him. He barely notices they are there, and he allows his proxies (Merry and Pippin) to deal with the nuissance.

Frodo begins to learn that he is made of sterner stuff than he appears when he travels through Bombadil's territory. The reader begins to learn this, too.

That's a very significant point. So why haven't I seen it before? I think it's because I've been so wrapped up in defending Bombadil that I haven't always stopped to appreciate what Tolkien was doing.

Not one to be easily daunted by world-famous academics, I lamented at some point that here I've been discussing "Beowulf" on the Endor discussion group since August and when I finally wrapped up the poem, there wasn't a peep out of more than 100 list members. What's up with that?

I think what's up with that is that possibly my reputation for being a thread-killer is well-earned. When we began that discussion, people joined in and shared their thoughts. That was what I intended. That was what I hoped for. After all, I'm not an expert on "Beowulf". I love the poem. Have read it more than once. Started loving it when I was a kid and all. But to me it's just another of many great stories I have read and enjoyed through the years.

It's not like I've written over 200 essays about "Beowulf", or published 3 books on the subject. Regardless of what you think about my expertise on Tolkien, I think I can justifiably say I've invested far more time and research into Tolkien than into "Beowulf".

But "Beowulf" touches on all sorts of interesting topics. I've studied ancient Celtic and Germanic history, culture, and archaeology for...oh...decades. Since I was a kid. How can you discuss "Beowulf" and not get into all that cool barbarian stuff? And if you're going to talk about "Beowulf", how can you not scour the Web for some of the neatest sites that show off archaeological digs, theories about "Beowulf", feature historical essays on Danes, Jutes, Germans, whomever? I mean, it's all tied into who the Anglo-Saxons were and where they came from.

So, maybe I got a little enthusiastic on the discussion group. I know I got a little enthusiastic at the meeting. I derailed the Bombadil discussion several times. I'm ready to see the "Beowulf and Grendel" movie that isn't scheduled to come to Houston.

What's up with that, anyway? We're the fourth largest city in the United States, and it's like every cool event has to go find smaller cities to visit first. Union Station Media, if you read this blog, get your lazy butts down to Houston and find a theater. I'll promote the thing for you. Trust me. I'm good at that.

I have connections with Rice University. I think they'd like to show the movie there. They have a medieval literature scholar or two. I can help you.

By the way -- did I mention that there is a cool movie called "Beowulf and Grendel"?

So, Bombadil sort of got the shaft. I mean, the other folks did their best to bring the discussion back to Bombadil several times. And I have to admit that at one point, as Jane looked at me with ever wider growing eyes as I expounded on my "Beowulf" thesis (I'll have to explain that in some other post), I realized that I might be a little out of my league.

Nonetheless, she listened politely as I tried to elaborate on why I didn't prep for the "Beowulf" discussion by rereading Tolkien's essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics". I felt that would be a dastardly mistake. In fact, I disapprove of any critic who reads Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories" just prior to sitting down to critiquing Tolkien. It's like adopting a foreign language just before you write a speech.

Only Tolkien can see himself through his own eyes. The rest of us just have to look at him with our eyes. Too many people try to put words into Tolkien's mouth, and in the end they mess up the whole shlameel.

And while I was trampling the forces of academia, someone brought up "Tolkien's mythology for England". Yes, I blurted out, "But The Lord of the Rings wasn't really Tolkien's mythology for England".

Now, as Jane and I threshed that one out (and by this time, I'm saddened to say, we had effectively killed the Bombadil discussion), I realized that there might be a way to describe what Tolkien was doing which would not offend all the people who have so affectionately (and incorrectly) labeled The Lord of the Rings as Tolkien's mythology for England (The Book of Lost Tales was his mythology for England).

A few years ago, I wrote in Tolkien' Time Machine: When Literary Worlds Collide: "The Lord of the Rings may be the culmination of a theory of literature which had been slowly brewing under his care and consideration for more than twenty years....The Lord of the Rings may be Tolkien's attempt define the modern English heroic romance as it might have evolved from an uninterrupted Anglo-Saxon literary tradition."

What I should have said then, perhaps what I should have said all along, is that with The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was attemptng to create a literature for England -- that is, an English literature as it might have arrived in the mid-20th century had Old English literature not been cut off by the invasion of 1066.

I may have been blabbering like an idiot, but by Jove I think I've got it. Tolkien had moved on from the mythology for England (perhaps because its pseudo-paganism didn't fit well with his Roman Catholic beliefs) to the modern English literature that might have evolved in a truly Anglo-Saxon England.

Or maybe that was just the potato soup having its way with me. Don't know, don't care. I think the idea is fascinating and I may get an essay out of it eventually. If Jane (or someone else) doesn't beat me to it. The idea of creating a literary tradition that never existed would have appealed to Tolkien's philological nature. He certainly added a philological subtext that celebrated many Englishisms which only other philologists such as Tom Shippey have been able to point out to the broader audience.

With The Lord of the Rings, Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wootton Major, and possibly one or two other works, Tolkien may very well have been writing -- consciously or otherwise -- in an affected style he came to believe might represent phases of Anglo-Saxon literature in a world without 1066.

And with that, dear friends, I bid you good night.