Monday, April 30, 2007

There Can Be Only One

I have this off-and-on relationship with Quicken. Back in the day, when I barely had two nickels to rub together, I kept my Quicken data ruthlessly up-to-date, because my checking account would routinely dip below ten dollars. That kind of living on the edge calls for good record keeping. Once I got on my feet, and my financial situation was more stable, I lapsed into taking less care with my Quicken records. Then, when I moved from Windows to Mac, things took a turn for the worse. Quicken for Mac is, in a word, terrible. It's annoying to use, so that just made me use it less.

This weekend, I declared an official end to the Quickening. I switched over to using GnuCash, which really says something about the quality of Quicken if I'm willing to use an X Windows application on my Mac. Now, when I say "this weekend" I moved to GnuCash, I mean all weekend, and I'm still not done. Instead of typing out all the minutiae of double-entry accounting that I learned through trial and error (and error, and error) this weekend, just close your eyes and pretend that you're ignoring crushingly boring words that are actually here, as opposed to the ones you'll need to imagine.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Where's the Fire?

My mom taught elementary school for 27 years, mostly second grade. She has a bunch of stories, of course, but this one is my all-time favorite.

Ernest was a good kid, but he got into mischief like boys do. He was also the messiest pack rat in the class, with his flip-top desk crammed full of papers all the time. One day, he decided to sneak out of the house with his granddad's lighter and play with it during class. Under cover of his desktop, the miracle of fire! Then, Ernest flicked his Bic one too many times.

At the time, my mom was leading guided reading groups in the back of the room. You did not interrupt guided reading groups. So, when a timid little girl showed up back there with an important message, it was something of a surprise.

"Mrs. Hicks, Ernest's desk is on fire," said a small voice.

Mom stood up and turned to survey the situation. "Ernest, is your desk on fire?"

Thick, black smoke was billowing out from under Ernest's desktop. Orange flames were licking up the sides.


Immediately, mom sprang into action, pulling Ernest out of the desk and sending her most trustworthy student to the office to get the principal. Pretty soon, the principal, a rotund man with a glass eye, came lumbering down the hallway at full speed, nearly sideswiping things on his blind side, fire extinguisher in hand. They dragged the desk outside, and put out the flames. Everyone was okay, but Ernest's extensive collection of old schoolwork was a total loss.

Strictly speaking, I guess Ernest wasn't fibbing when he answered whether his desk was on fire. The metal desk was fine. It was the papers that were burning. I'm sure he must have grown up to be a lawyer.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bad Guys, Good Intentions

When I was a kid, I was big into Star Wars action figures, the original ones by Kenner. There, now you have some idea of my age. My collection had a bit of a problem, though, as it leaned heavily toward the Rebel scum side. Any epic battles had to be waged against GI Joe, which was just kind of weird. The Joes suffered from a similar problem, though. The forces of good always outnumbered the forces of evil at my house, because evil tended to employ vast legions of identical soldiers, and while it seems perfectly reasonable to the eight-year-old brain that not just one, but many Stormtroopers and Cobra soldiers are needed for a proper epic battle, mom brains typically don't work that way. It's a good thing George Lucas had the forethought to invent a zillion slightly different flavors of Imperial Stormtrooper, or their cause would have been irrevocably lost.

Still, even with a Snowtrooper, Imperial TIE Fighter Pilot, Left Shoe Untied Stormtrooper, and their buddies, they were still outnumbered pretty badly. So, one year I said I wanted some bad guys for Christmas. My mom didn't understand the subtleties of action figures, but she tried. In the process, I learned a lesson about being specific.

Christmas came, and I stumbled into the living room in my pajamas like I always did, and started opening presents. Pretty soon, I came to a small, lightweight package. Removing the wrapping paper revealed a white, factory-sealed cardboard box with the words "BAD GUYS" inscribed in black block letters. I opened it up and found that it contained Ming the Merciless, Lizard Woman, and Beastman. Not in the nice card packs shown in the links, but just packed in the box, no weapons, no artwork. Needless to say, at the time, I was not terribly impressed. I didn't even know who Flash Gordon was. Looking back on it now, I know she did the level best she could, and executed my instructions to a T. In fact, that little white box containing "bad guys" was almost surely harder to find than actual Star Wars figures. Points for effort, Mom, and thanks.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

He Got Game

My tax accountant had good news for me this year, so I treated myself to a new gaming rig. Now, I do all my real work (and real goofing around) on my G5 PowerMac, but I still want a hoss machine to play games on. I call it my Wintendo, as a slightly petulant show of disdain, expressing my belief that Windows is pretty much only good for games. But this isn't about me slagging on Windows.

Having all this fantastic gaming power at my disposal sort of made me wax nostalgic for the games of yesteryear that were dear to me. One of my fondest gaming memories is from the Amiga game F/A-18 Interceptor by Electronic Arts. The game had a training mode where you flew an unarmed F/A-18, and had to duplicate the maneuvers of an F-16, sort of a follow-the-leader deal. Pressing the fire button would warp you into starting position: behind, to the left, and slightly below the F-16, both of you at 80% throttle.

Despite being unarmed, it was still possible to destroy the F-16, much to my delight. Here's how: Push your throttle up to 100%, then eject just as you pull up even with the F-16. Your pilot will slam into the F-16, causing it to start spiraling toward the ground, emitting black smoke all the way. The pilot, unscathed, then floats gently to Earth on his parachute (which takes a really long time). Congratulations, you have just taken on an F-16 with your bare hands and won. Try that, Jack Bauer.

Incidentally, if you're patient enough to watch the F-16 fall all the way to the ground, you'll be rewarded with a tiny little explosion and a poof of white smoke. Very Wile E. Coyote.

In Other News

I got an AppleTV recently, and it's pretty cool. I made it a whole 26 hours before voiding the warranty by upgrading the hard drive, but then fell to a nasty stomach flu and became the emir of Upchuckistan for a few days, too sick to even play with it. This isn't really a post about AppleTV, though.

Every morning, I use the AppleTV to watch the BBC Breakfast Takeaway video podcast while I'm eating my eggs and bacon. It appeals to me for a lot of reasons. No ads, unlike CNN's podcasts. The presenters have fantastic accents, which is probably far less of a novelty for their viewers back home. Even the name is cool for its British-ness. It's not "breakfast takeaway" in the USA corp-speak sense of "takeaway" as a noun for information gained from a meeting. It's the UK idiom for "to-go," as in it's the to-go version of the BBC's Breakfast program(me).

The best thing, though, is that watching the news from a British perspective gives me a useful filter than CNN lacks. I get local British-interest news, and world news, but I can be relatively sure that if there's American news on the show, it's probably important enough for me to pay attention to. CNN will run any old thing, whereas the BBC has a (necessarily) higher bar for US-centric items.

Not that the BBC doesn't indulge in American celebrity soft news, of course. This morning there was a clip of the press conference on the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith's daughter. It looked for all the world like a surreal scene from CSI: Miami, except that nobody got shot, or dramatically donned a pair of sunglasses. The story pointed out that little Dannielynn stands to inherit a significant fortune, and the presenter observed "Half a billion dollars? No wonder everybody's queueing up to be the dad."