True of false: You owe me money

This kind of thing just makes me shake my tiny fists in anger until I realize that the world is not yet sufficiently messed up for it to fly. Essentially, a company called Test Central Inc. has claimed that they own the patent to online testing (viewable online here), and that universities that decide to offer tests online (e.g., for classes or for online distance learning) have to pay them for the privilege.

Scribbled the quote monkey:

When Regis University put some of its courses online in the 1990s,
officials there figured that it was a no-brainer to administer tests
online as well. And so they did.

Last fall, however, they received a threatening letter from Test
Central Inc., which holds a patent on various types of online
testing. The company claims that Regis and other colleges may be
infringing on that patent and, if so, must pay thousands of dollars
to continue offering tests online.

…”There are many organizations out there who have made a ton of money
off of the technology that we’ve got a patent on,” says James J.
Posch, chief executive officer of Test Central and of its parent
company, “Our concern is that other people are profiting at
our expense.”

That last quote from the guy at Test Central really gets me. Profiting at their expense? What expense is that? Their not paying you to do the testing for them is not an expense. I’m not claiming to be an expert on patents or associated laws, but that doesn’t make any sense.

It gets worse. If you read the patent, it sounds like this could also apply to any online testing, including for employment testing, which is growing very quickly as well. Here’s the patent’s abstract:

A method of making a tests, assessments, surveys and lesson plans with images and sound files and posting them on-line for potential users. Questions are input by a test-maker and then the questions are compiled into a test by a host system and posted on-line for potential test-takers. The compiled test may be placed in a directory for access by the test-takers, the directory preferably having a plurality of categories corresponding to different types of tests and the compiled test is placed in the appropriate category. For ease in administration, a just-made test is placed into a temporary category so that it may be later reviewed (by the proprietor of the host system) and placed in the most appropriate category.

That’s so broad I don’t see how it could possibly hold up. In fact, it sounds a lot like the guy who tried to pull something similar by patenting the hyperlink, which also eventually flopped. But it costs next to nothing to send out threatening letters, and it sounds like the universities aren’t going to take this seriously. And how could they?

Is it too late for me to patent multiple choice tests? Or heck, testing in general? I could make millions off the work of others. Millions!

Three Stangs

I mentioned in Sam’s 3/28/04 update that Spencer and Nancy Stang, friends of ours from Graduate School, came to visit us last weekend and brought their 7 month old baby, Carson. We had a great time hanging out, grilling, and comparing babies, but to keep things from being too All American, we discussed the privatization of the health care industry and why people should be able to take experimental drugs until they die. From the drugs.

Anyhoo, here’s some pics:

It reminded me of the late nights in graduate school, except that we were holding babies instead of beers.

Avast, you grog-faced villain!

The other day I finished reading Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian. If the title sounds familiar, you may be thinking about last year’s movie staring Russle Crowe. I liked the movie quite a bit and had heard good things about the books upon which it was based. It was also a new genre for me, as I’d never really read anything about life and adventures on the seas as a member of the British Navy circa 1800.

I’m really only lukewarm on the book. Its strongest point was definitely the interactions between the characters, particularly Captain Jack Aubrey and the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin. This is also true of each man’s relationship with James Dillon, the ship’s second in command. The interactions between these men are fun to follow, and O’Brian uses them to reveal subtleties about each of the three characters. We get to see, for example, how Captain Aubrey steps into the role of leadership without really abandoning his own, sometimes wreckless disregard for authority and his essentially naked ambition.

But while the players are interesting, their actions are not. For a book ostensibly about adventure on the high seas, it failed to thrill or capture me. While reading, you may come to a ship-to-ship battle sequence that you feel is going to be a grand climax to the plot, only to have things cut short right before its peak, jump startlingly into the future, and have its conclusion dryly narrated as Captain Aubrey writes a letter to his superiors.

In fact, the entire book is essentially plotless and unstructured. Things just sort of flop from one situation to another, with only the cast of characters tying them together. To the extent that this is all that’s required of a historical novel, this is fine, I suppose, but it really detracted from my enjoyment of the book. It’s almost like O’Brian was trying to imitate the style of novels published during the setting of his own, but he falls short.

On balance I’m glad I read the book. Indeed, I’ve already started on the sequel, Post Captain. But I’m hoping that as things proceed O’Brian gets a better set of literary sea legs underneath him and manages to keep what’s good about this first one while achieving a bit more in terms of structure and pacing.

Firefox gave me my browser back

I mentioned a while back that I was giving the web browser Firefox a try as a replacement for Windows Internet Explorer. I’ve been using it ever since, but wasn’t really convinced it was better than IE until the other day when some of the guys at the Quarter to Three forums told me a few things that propelled Firefox to the top.

Two things were revealed about Firefox that instantly made my ‘net surfing much more enjoyable. First is the FlashClick plugin that doesn’t play flash ads unless you click on them. Second was instructions (in the thread) on how to have Firefox play an animated .gif file once and then stop. These two things, along with the built-in popup killer, make Foxfire far better than IE.

Heck, look at the screenshots below. On the left is as seen through Internet Explorer. On the right is the same site through Firefox with the settings described above. Click through each to have a good look. Now, to complete the experience, imagine that the one on the left has advertisements that move, make sounds, and generally get on your nerves, while the one on the right does nothing of the sort.

Quite a difference, eh? I can now surf in peace again. (I don’t, by the way, mean to pick on my friends at It’s just that they’ve gone and made themselves one of the most illustrative examples I could find.)

Of course, this raises an ethical conundrum as well. By blocking the popup, flash, and animated .gif ads on the sites I visit, am I “stealing” their content? For that matter, is it wrong to use TiVo to fast forward through television commercials? Having been on the other side of the fence for no short period of time, I appreciate the fact that advertising pays the bills and allows sites to put up content that doesn’t cost me anything except some of my patience. So, do I feel bad about cheating the system in this way?

Answer: No, not really. Advertisers are the ones who pushed things too far by putting up crap that got so annoying that it drove me to actively seek out ways to get around it. I still see unobtrusive ads (banners, skyscraper ads, rectangular ads) and I can still view the Flash ads by clicking on them. And besides, they’re still getting “credit” for serving the obnoxious stuff to me –Foxfire is a client-side program that doesn’t nuke anything until it’s rendered (or not) on my end. And since I never clicked on any of the ads in the first place, things are no different than before I started blocking the ads. Except, of course, that I can actually enjoy these sites enough to visit them regularly.

Want to see an example of web advertising done really well? Check out the “Uniform” short feature on the American Express website, which features Jerry Seinfeld and Superman. I just watched a four minute commercial for American Express and at the end I wanted more!

So, if you think online advertising has gotten unbearable, give Firefox a try with the FlashClick plugin installed. If you don’t like it better, I’ll eat a bug.

Sam’s Story: Week 9

We’re Baby People.

This isn’t the same as being parents, just like owning a dog isn’t the same as being “dog people.” Our friends Spencer and Nancy came to visit this weekend, and the presence of their 7-month old baby Carson proved to us that we had definitely crossed some kind of line into the land of Baby People. Membership in this tribe means incessantly talking about our baby when given the invitation and being hard pressed to find any other topic to talk about. Jesus could be fighting off an alien invasion on our front lawn and we’d still just want to talk about Samantha’s bowel movements.

It was nice to have another baby a few months older come to visit. Besides being cute and precocious, Carson and his fellow Baby People parents gave us a golden opportunity to talk about what to expect and how to prepare for it. Apparently the best thing we can do right now is just accept that everything within a baby’s reach will go into his mouth if it’s smaller than his head. And if it’s bigger, then some portion or corner of it will suffice. Within a few minutes of Carson’s arrival, various things in our house were covered in baby spit, including the coffee table. And we didn’t care, because we’re Baby People. Bring on the spit! Here, this is still dry. Give it to him!

Baby People also share things that you might not think of. Offering to let fellow tribal members use your diapers, changing table, or bouncy seat is about as casual and normal as offering them something to drink or inviting them to sit down on your couch. You barely even think about it.

Sam’s not spreading the spittle yet, but she’s coming along quite nicely. She’s really getting into smiling and making noises, which we encourage her to do to the point of obsessiveness. She’s still sleeping through the night –8 hours or more at a stretch!– so we’re feeling pretty good. Not pre-baby good, but better than the first month by far. Here’s this week’s pictures:

As you can see, Samantha has begun to master many more facial expressions. Ger and I have begun to pick up on the subtle differences in her cries and expressions to tell what’s wrong. Just looking at the subtly different looks on her faces below can tell us volumes:

“I’m hungry”

“I’m tired

“I’m dirty”

“I’m gassy”

“I’m bored”

“I’m cold”

p > .05″

“I’m hot”

“I miss the uterus”

“I’m scared”

“I’m hung over”

“I want attention”

Finally, the featured baby product of the week is the Baby Einstein DVD collection. Folks in the know like Todd and Frank raved about these, and we received two of them (Baby Bach and Baby Neptune) as baby shower gifts early on. I thought that Sam was still too young to watch them, but Frank insisted that she was old enough. I decided to take his advice yesterday and popped the Baby Bach one in. I sat Sam on her bouncer in front of the TV and she was instantly mezmerized.

The DVDs feature music (by Bach, in this case) and colorful, animated images –usually closeups of toys, puppets, other babies, and animals. The music plays and the puppets frolic and the toys spin and the Samantha stared. I mean stared at the video like it was the most important thing she had ever seen. I was amazed, but took the chance to do some work around the house. I had worried about using the television as a big cerebral pacifier, but these videos are all right. They’re not hawking cereal or erectile disfunction pills. In fact, they’re educational and give you the perfect excuse to sit and talk to your kid about what’s happening on screen. Though my conversations usually went like this:

Me: Look, it’s a duck! He’s walking on the beach. He looks happy.

Sam: [Stares at duck]

Me: Now here comes an octopus. He has eight legs!

Sam: [Stares at ocotopus]

Me: The octopus is wearing a little blue sailor suit. He’s trying to hug the duck. I think the octopus is gay and he’s coming on to the duck.

Sam: [Turns head to me and furrows brow]

Me: Yep, definitely a gay octopus. I guess this skit is about tolerance.

Good thing Geralyn was at the store. She’s gonna kill me when she reads this, though.

Slappin’ to the oldies

If you get bitch slapped by Richard Simmons, can you really call yourself a man any more?

PHOENIX (Reuters) – Flamboyant fitness guru Richard Simmons was cited by authorities for allegedly slapping a man in an airport who was poking fun at his exercise videos, police said on Thursday.

…”He apparently said ‘Hey everybody, it’s Richard Simmons, let’s drop our bags and rock to the ’50s,”‘ said Sgt. Lauri Williams, a reference to a series of his well-known videos. “Mr. Simmons took offense and said he had to ‘bitch slap’ him.”

That guy is never going to live it down.

Another reason TiVo is better than anything

TiVo, I think, is the best product I’ve ever owned. I use it more than any luxury/entertainment product with the possible exception of my computer. This is true even though I really only use two of the little black box’s features regularly. I use it to record and pause shows so I can watch them at my leisure (stay up until 11:00 to watch the Daily Show? Nah. TiVo will get it.) and I use it to fast forward through commercials.

It’s this latter feature that has a lot of TV execs –and, honestly, the people at TiVo themselves– nervous. In a way, it’s like killing the obnoxious, tacky goose (Aflack!) that lay the golden TV-shaped egg. Despite that most people dislike it, advertising keeps television on the air. And if nobody is watching the ads thanks to TiVo or similar digital video recorders (DVRs), then something has to either adapt or die. Yay Darwinism.

Thankfully, there are people trying out new ideas. TiVo already has space in its system menus for advertisers to pitch products and sweepstakes, as well as slots in its “TiVo’s Showcase” recommendations areas that seem to be for sale. And according to this story they’re experimenting with something that lets viewers “click through” traditional ads to watch short (3 minutes or so) videos about a particular product that interests them. They then return to their show where they left off. Not interested in the product? Don’t click it and continue on with your life.

This is smart, I think, because it lets advertisers really get at people who identify themselves as interested in a particular kind of product. Neat as it is, though, I don’t think it alone will replace traditional TV ads. I could see clicking through to learn more about a new movie or what’s on sale this weekend at Sears, but I doubt anybody’s going to think “Wow, I’d really like to watch a 3-minute video about Hidden Valley Ranch Salad Dressing.” I also think it would drive TiVo users away to competing services if they started popping up little icons during the shows.

Still, it’s one step in the right direction –away from an advertising model that’s been out of date for a couple of decades now.

Wal-Mart’s music downloads

In response to my discussion of iTunes and my new iPod, Christine mentioned that sells downloadable music for 88 cents per song. That sounded about 11 cents better than iTune’s 99 cents per song, so I checked it out.

Unfortunately they’ve decided to cripple the service by only allowing you to download in WMA format and putting horrendous limits on how you can use the music you buy. To quote from their FAQ:

What file format do Music Downloads come in?

Music Downloads from are 128-bit WMA files. The WMA format allows record companies to protect their music by using Digital Rights Management (DRM) encryption. This means that music downloads are legal, safe, and easy to use. The 128-bit WMA files also offer superior sound quality.

Will media players other than the Windows Media Player 9 play, burn and transfer WMA files?

Please consult the documentation that accompanies your non-Microsoft Windows Media Player 9 player to see if it supports music files encrypted by DRM. Although other media players may be able to play music you download from, we only verify that the music you download from will play using Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 9 (or higher).

Can I transfer the music I download to a portable player?

Yes, you can as long as the player is able to play WMA files (note: iPods currently DO NOT play WMA files).

So, for your money you get a song that they will only promise you can play on your computer and only using one (dreadfully clunky) media player. Hmmm.. Pass.

Does anyone really expect this kind of thing to present a viable option to “free”? Are people really buying this stuff?

Sam’s Story: Week 8

Sleep! Glorious sleep! I’m dancing a jig in honor of sleep while I type this.

Allow me to explain. We took Sam to the doctor’s a few days ago for her 8 week checkup. The nurse practitioner was agast to learn that we were still waking Sam up every 4 hours during the night to feed her. “Never wake a sleeping baby!” she cried, and we were more than happy to take her advice. (With brand newborns, it turns out, you need to make sure feed every 2-3 hours, but by 8 weeks it’s not necessary unless she wakes up on her own.)

So we turned off the alarm clocks and let our baby go that night. And did she ever go …to sleep and stayed that way for six hours straight! In fact, for four of the last five nights she’s slept for 6 hours straight, took a light meal, slept for another 3 hours or so, then woke up grinning and happy as a pig in slop. That’s nine hours of sleep for all three of us, six of which are uninterrupted! It seems we’ve made it over the first sleep deprivation hump, though there’s probably another hump or two in the road coming up.

Sleep advice was not the only thing that came out of this week’s doctor’s visit. Sam got a clean bill of health and was pronounced to be lying right in the 50th percentile in terms of length, weight, and massive head size for her age, but she also got four innoculations. In fact, this is why I was there in the first place. Geralyn didn’t want to hold Sam’s arms while she got four needles jammed into her pudgy little legs, so I got to step into the role. It was pretty awful, and Sam gave me a look that suggested that there would be no elder care for me in 40 year’s time when the tables were turned.

Geralyn got her share of trouble, though, because the innoculations made Sam cranky and slightly feverish for the rest of the day. By the time I came home from work it was my turn again, but Sam was fairly inconsolable until she finally exhausted herself and went to sleep.

In general, we can definitely tell that Sam is making the transition from “newborn” to “baby”. She’s generally alert, she reacts to our voice, her eyes and head follow us when we move about, she smiles when she’s happy, and her newest hobby is making experimental sounds. Some of the latter are pretty funny and we always look forward to them. The thing we’re really anticipating is her being able to interact with toys and objects more so that we can actually play with her. As it stands now, our interactions are still pretty much limited to feeding, calming her down, changing her diaper, bathing her, holding her, and getting her to smile.

You may notice that singing to her is not on that list. There are two reasons. First, nether Ger nor myself are very good singers. When I sing, it sounds like I’m stomping on a cat, which seems to distress Sam even more. The second reason is that we can’t really find any songs we like. They all seem to be about disease, animal cruelty, child abuse, rampant consumerism, and promiscuous sex. And even the ones on more pleasant topics seem far too outdated. Who sings about churning buttermilk, sixpences, hot cross buns, or hanging laundry out to dry? I want songs about modern things for modern kids and their modern parents. Songs about cel phones, instant messaging, globalization of the world economy, celebrity worship, corrupt politicians, corporate malfeasance, and urban sprawl.

Where are these songs? Are you people going to make me write them like I did with the alphabet?

Bah. Well, in the meantime here’s some pictures of Samantha:

This week’s featured baby product is the velvety blue jumper that Sam is wearing in some of the pictures above. It’s a Ralph Lauren, don’t you know, probably the nicest single article of clothing that Sam currently owns. The only problem is it’s got roughly nineteen thousand tiny buttons –the kind that you have to turn sideways and thread through little slits– that are all on the back of the outfit. So I had to flip Sam over on her tummy, feed her legs into this thing, then spend half an hour working the itty bitty buttons. Still, it’s superlatively fashionable and she looks good in it, so I decided she had to get all dressed up at least once …for an outing at Lowes Home Improvement to shop for furnace filters. She was the best dressed baby in the joint until she yarked all over herself.

Picking an Apple: Part 2

I wrote yesterday about my experience buying an iPod from the Apple Store. If you haven’t already, go read it now, because it kind of sets the tone for this update. I’ll wait for you here.

Done? Good. As promised, I thought I’d write a bit about my foray into the Apple orchard now that I’ve had a few days to play with the iPod. Let me just say without further preamble that I friggin’ love this thing. LOVE IT. It’s now on my list of “Best Products Ever”, which goes like this:

  1. TiVo
  2. The George Foreman Grill
  3. Apple iPod

Samantha seems to love it, too:

I know that I paid a lot more than products that do the same things (or more), but there’s definitely something to be said about the iPod’s smooth design and user interface. I’d be a big fat liar if I didn’t admit that was part of the appeal. All the other high-capacity audio players look like ham-fisted neanderthals next to the iPod’s sleek, Miss Universe good looks. Nobody else has gotten it this right, and in the end it’s worth a few bucks1.

Heck, even the packaging is cool. Besides the swank shopping bag/backpack the Apple Store gave me, the iPod comes in an intricate cardboard cube that unfolds into smaller cubes like a new age matryoshka doll. Inside everything is wrapped in clean smelling plastic and snugly fit into styrofoam hollows. Apple definitely knows how to do presentation.

Once you get the thing out of its styrofoam and plastic womb, it’s really easy to use, too. Like anyone else with thumbs, I especially like the scroll wheel that lets you move the cursor through lists and menus just by running your finger over it in tiny circles. It’s the kind of thing that I just keep doing for the novelty of it. I don’t need to do this much scrolling, but it’s fun, damnit! Wheee! Clickity clickity click!

In fact, the only interface complaint I have is that if text is too long it gets truncated to the point of incomprehensibility while you’re browsing through menus. It should side-scroll when highlighted so that “The Best of Metallica” and “The Best of Miles Davis” don’t both show up as just “The Best of M…”.

And of course, it’s amazingly cool to be able to carry every CD I own with me and play them at any time. So far I’ve ripped about 400 songs from my collection, plus a 15-CD audiobook (I got this thing in no small part for its ability to hold entire audiobooks) and I’ve only used a fraction of its capacity. This level of “load and forget” convenience is probably the best reason to get this kind of product.

Now, iTunes I’m less happy with. This is the music management/shopping program that comes with the iPod, and is the program Apple practically forces you to use. For many things, it’s pretty powerful. It will organize your tunes by genre, album, artist, etc. It will rip CDs for you. It will let you buy digital music. It will transfer music from your computer to your iPod. It does all this moderately well, though I must point out that the user’s manual and online documentation are pathetic, requiring you to dig deep through the help files and resort to trial and error like a lab rat trying to get a treat in some incomprehensible experiment.

iTunes also has an online music store that would be awesome if it weren’t for the crippling fact that you can’t save your purchases ($.99 per song) to .mp3 format, so you can only play them in iTunes or on the iPod. I’ve ranted about this before, and my comments still stand despite the fact that I’ve bought maybe half a dozen songs. To Apple’s credit, their selection is fantastic and it’s perilously easy to shop for, buy, and download music from them.

The iTunes program also suffers from being a round peg crammed into a square hole. Or in this case, a square Window. Not only is it as slow as spit (10-second pauses are common when I try to do certain things), it ignores many Windows navigation and user interface conventions, and it’s ugly. Todd and Joost have recommended Anapod Explorer as an alternative to iTunes, and it looks impressive. I’ll probably check it out.

So in summary, I love my iPod but I only like iTunes. The iPod isn’t perfect, but my only substantial complaints are having to use iTunes (which can actually be replaced), its lack of accessories (I already discussed the nickle-and-dime routine to sell me things that should have come with something at this price), and its relatively short battery life (8 hours is barely long enough for me to use it throughout the day at work). Still, I love it and it has definitely changed the way I listen to music and audiobooks. Thumbs up!

1Not that I’m now sold on buying an Apple computer, since they have such an anemic software library –particularly games. If the iPod only played 20% of the music I like, I wouldn’t have bought it, either.

Picking an Apple: Part 1

My current employer has an awesome annual bonus program, and I did well this year. To celebrate, I decided to spend part of it on an overpriced toy, preferably something with blinking lights and the ability to annihilate any money that comes close to it. The gadget I decided on was the Apple iPod, an impressively expensive, hard drive based, portable music player. Take that Samantha’s college fund! Here’s a picture (for reference, it’s about the same dimensions as a deck of cards):

I considered going with one of the many competing high capacity mp3 players, since they tend to be either cheaper or offer more capacity for the same price. But God help me, I wasn’t just shopping for just an mp3 player, I was shopping for a gadget. Something I could admire and subtly place in conspicuous places where other people could admire it and know how hip I had become. I wanted style in a little blinking box, and it didn’t hurt that the iPod is the most highly rated “big enough to carry your whole Library of Congress” player out there. Basically, I figured that if I’m going to blow a few hundred dollars I might as well boot rationality out of the driver’s seat and get the one I really want. So I last Sunday I headed for the Apple Store at the local mall.

In fact, shopping at the Apple Store was such an experience that I must comment on it first. Again, I could have bought the iPod online or slugged through a filthy place like Best Buy with the rest of humanity, but like millions of Japanese people, I secretly relished the chance to really shop at the Apple Store instead of look at things while feeling like I wasn’t cool enough to be there. Coincidentally, the guys at Penny Arcade posted a comic a few days before that turned out to be pretty representative of my experience.

When I got there I crept into the gleaming Apple Store, smudging the frosted glass doors as I pushed them open. Inside I found pure style, packaged and neatly arranged on shelves and little kiosks that looked like they belonged in a museum of modern art –not a beige box in sight. The floors were hardwood, the lighting was recessed, and in the back of the store a hip youngster on a a massive monitor glibly informed shoppers about the wonders of using Apple products. The subtext was that if you didn’t use Apple products, you had herpes. Everything in the store looked like it had been wiped down with those little wet napkins they give you when you order ribs at finer restaurants. I think it even smelled clean.

I spent a few minutes looking at iPods kiosk again, because going straight up to the counter and demanding one would look too needy. After a moment, I got the attention of a store employee. She was a young woman wearing kakhi pants and sporting a frisky haircut that leaned towards hipness, but didn’t blunder so far into it that you wouldn’t trust her with your hundreds of not-very-hard-earned dollars.

“Hi,” I said. “I’d like one of the iPods.”

Her mouth smiled. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed that her eyes didn’t join in. Maybe I looked like I had just come from Target. “Sure,” she said. “Which one?”

“The 15 gig one.”

“Oh.” Her eyes definitely weren’t smiling. Apparently I’d be much trendier if I spent $200 more dollars on the larger capacity versions, but rationality was still managing to yammer at me even in its temporary role as a back seat driver. I was reasonably sure I didn’t need to pay for enough hard drive space to store two copies of every song ever made.

She gestured towards a wall full of sanitary-looking products. “Let me show you the accessories.” I didn’t like where this was going, but I acquiessed. I didn’t want to look too stingy or –heaven forbid– unhip.

“The 15 gig model doesn’t come with a docking station, belt clip, or USB cable,” she said, pointing to each product as she said it. “But the 20 gig version does. So are you sure you don’t want that one?”

I tallied up the additional costs in my head. They came to about $75, but something occured to me. “Do I need all those things?”

She blinked, and now her smile was fading a bit. “Well, no…” She seemed to think of something and brightened. “Unless… Do you have USB or Firewire on your computer?”

“Ah, USB.”

“No Firewire connection?”

“Not a single one.”

“Then,” she said, beginning to scan the perfectly neat shelf space, “You’ll need to buy either the USB cable or a Firewire card for your computer.”

Actually, picking up a Firewire card was something I’d been wanting to do anyway. I needed it for transferring movies from my camcorder to my computer for editing. “Hmmm. How much do you sell the Firewire card for?”

“Those are sixty-five dollars,” she said, reaching for one, presumably in preparation to thrust it into my face.

At this point, rationality leaned over the back of the driver’s seat and grabbed the wheel. “What?” I snorted without thinking about it. “I can get one for cheaper than that at Best Buy.”

By her reaction you’d think I had just said I liked to eat babies. With ketchup and a fork. At any rate, smile time was over. Apparently the folks at the Apple Store aren’t used to customers putting limits on Apple’s uncanny ability to get you to overpay for sexy products that do the same damn thing as cheaper ones you can get elsewhere. Overpaying for the iPod was one thing, but I wasn’t going to overpay for a Firewire card or USB cable no matter what fruitylicious color it came in. That and the whole nickle-and-dime routine had really begun to annoy me. I’m paying $300 for a mp3 player and they have the apples to try and charge me $20 for a cable that the vast majority of PC owners are going to need? Forget that and your trendy haircut, lady.

The saleswoman may have sensed that rationality was fighting its way back to the forefront, because she stopped trying to foist overpriced accessories off on me and just rang me up (though I did indulge myself with a nice leather belt clip/holster). Despite my unwillingness to choke on the typical Apple force feeding, my sense of coolness finally snapped into place when she handed me the bag.

It was, without a doubt, the sexiest shopping bag I had ever held. It had the stylish Apple logo on it, plus clever drawstring ropes that turned it into kind of a disposable backpack. And it smelled like rubbing alcohol for some reason. Heck, that bag was almost worth $300 by itself. Drunk on the coolness of the bag and my new purchase, I strode out of the Apple Store and spent the next hour in Nordstrom’s pretending to look at $45 tee-shirts, then sullied myself at Best Buy to pick up a $39 Firewire card.

Next time: My impressions of the iPod and iTunes once I got the damn thing out of the box used it.

Sam’s Story: Week 7

I’ve noticed something: Every conversation with a new parent that starts with by asking “How are you doing?” will, within 5-10 words, begin orbiting around the topic of how much sleep you’re getting, and by extension how well the baby is sleeping through the night. So since you asked, I’ll tell you that things are very uneven here. Some nights Samantha sleeps like a rock and we’re able to catch some rest ourselves. Other nights, she’s a wailing, sleepless bundle of energy that refuses to let you put her down, much less leave the room. If you try, she’ll scream so loud that you think –WITH ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY– that her head is going to explode if you don’t pick her up. And if that happens, June Cleaver or Betty Crocker or some other perfect mother will walk in, take one look at your headless baby, and declare you to be a bad parent. That’s the kind of thing that shows up during pre-employment background checks.

So yeah, I’m tired. How are things with you?

Of course, the flipside to all this is that Sam is adorable. This last week she’s made great progress in mastering smiling. If I tap her on the nose and say “Beep!”, half the time she’ll respond with a big, full-face grin that spreads ear to ear, brow to chin. The other half she’ll still give me a “what the hell are you doing?” look, but it’s progress. She’s also been experimenting with making sounds other than crying. She’ll sit there and grunt, coo, and moan, pause to consider what she’s done, then start over. In fact, she’s started talking. I’ve very clearly heard her say the words “glue,” “burlap,” and “hummus.” I’m sure she would have used them in a complete sentence by now if the had a good reason.

So besides the smiling and the fascination with glue and hummus, there’s not much else to report this week, except that Sam had another visitor this week as Geralyn’s friend Margaret from CalOptima came to visit and present her with a beautiful, handmade quilt. Also, I’m really getting the hang of using hands-free technology to multitask and get on with my life.

So that’s pretty much it as far as news goes. Sam is 15% cuter than last week, though, as evidenced by these pictures:

The Baby Product That We Couldn’t Live Without this week is none other than the common household FM radio –any FM radio. Newborns love white noise. It has an almost magical calming effect on them, and for Sam it works better to calm her down than almost anything else. I removed the antena from the small sound system in the office, and whenever Sam gets really fired up I can bring her in there, set the tuner to a nonexistent station, and crank the static up to 11. It sounds awful to me, but not to her; she’ll often calm down like someone flipped a switch from “fussy” to “tranquil”. That switch may flip back if I leave the room with her of if she’s really hungry or uncomfortable, but otherwise it works like black magic.

It’s like an itch that keeps coming back

For a while there, I thought I may not be a gamer any more. Not only does baby Samantha demand a lot more of the time that used to be used for gaming, I just didn’t feel the urge to play like I used to. It did use to feel urgent –something I needed like sleep or nicotine. But for the last few weeks I had been more interested in other things during my down time. Mostly reading and tinkering with this website.

I kept going through the motions and keeping up pretenses, popping my head into Electronics Boutique whenever I was at the mall and reading up on all the latest gaming news. But it felt like I was just stringing gaming along like a old girlfriend that had grown apart from me, both of us unable to find a good enough excuse to admit it was over.

This is a pikmin

Earlier this week, though, I was home sick for the day and found a bit of spare time on my hands. I had slept for over 10 hours, Samantha was napping, and Geralyn was busy elsewhere. I started shuffling through my backlog of games and came across Pikmin for the Nintendo GameCube. This was a launch title for Nintendo’s little purple purse and I had heard good things about it, but for some reason I had never popped it in to give it a try.

What fun! Anyone who complains about gaming being stuck in a rut dug by the same old genres and cliches should give Pikmin a try. It’s chock full of ineffable Japanese weirdness, the kind that makes it both fun and charming. You play a tiny spaceman who has crash-landed on a planet populated by pikin. These titular creatures are little plant-like drones that obey your commands and interact with the world around you. You grow and harvest pikmin to solve various environmental challenges, making it partly a puzzle game and partly a real-time strategy game. But it really transcends the trappings of those mortal genres. It’s unique and wonderfully presented.

I’m so hooked on the game that Ger found me last night standing in front of the television, wireless Nintendo controller in hand and a snoozing baby strapped to my chest via the Snugli. I plan on trying to finish it this weekend.

Welcome back, gaming. Things probably won’t stay as hot and heavy for as long as they used to, but we can still have the occasional fling.

My name in lights

The Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is the main professional organization for I/O psychologists. I’m a card-carrying member. Actually, I lost the card, but they’ve got my info in their computer thingie. Call and ask for Betty. She knows me. And it’s a good thing, because I’m going to SIOP’s annual conference this April. It’s a conference full of firsts for me.

The first first is that I’m not having to take my own vacation time and spend my own money to attend. GameSpy wasn’t too keen on my going, which is understandable given that it had nothing to do with my job and I was covertly job hunting for 2 of the 3 times I went while working there. And that’s another first: I love my current job and won’t be looking for another this year. I can go to the evening receptions to eat cheese cubes and drink $4 Diet Cokes without pondering the least awkward way to beg everyone I meet for an interview.

The third first is that I’m presenting research this year! Some of us from my group here at work are on a practitioner forum, presenting some findings related to survey research. Basically we’re asking if you get different results depending on if you survey people at one point in time (like at the end of the year) or several points in time (such as after each service call). Oh here, just read this from the program:

This practitioner forum will address important real-world issues relevant to survey practitioners and their clients. Through the use of actual survey studies, the papers will answer common survey questions and offer practical recommendations to assist the survey specialist in delivering higher quality results.

…Lastly, in the fourth paper, Morris, Madigan, and Ashworth answer a very important methodological question: Do results differ between a survey that is administered annually and one that is administered on a more frequent basis? The authors serve as internal consultants for an Energy Service Company and manage several internal customer satisfaction programs. They were advised that customer surveys should be administered on a more frequent basis (via a web-seminar by Better Management), the rationale being that more frequent feedback allows for quicker response time to address and fix what is not going well and to acknowledge and reward what is going well. However, from a psychometric perspective, the authors were interested in how the measurement frequency would impact results.

To investigate their question, they compared item results between an annual survey and a point-of-service survey. The point-of-service survey was much shorter, but contained identical items pulled from the larger annual survey. Differences in mean ratings and response patterns were found. After finding differences quantitatively, they also investigated qualitative differences on the open-ended responses.

If you know me and plan on going to SIOP this year, let’s meet up! At least come by and see us in the Mayfair Room at 3:30 on Friday April 2nd. If you see her, tell Betty I said “hi”.

Now this is a good idea!

You learned reading comprehension in school, right? If you went to college, you were most likely tested on it before they let you in. You have to be able to read a passage of text and tell what it means. Analyze it. And if you were taught well, you’ll understand why the author used one phrase instead of another, or chose to omit some pieces of information and include others.

Why don’t we do this with video, like television and movies? What about still images like advertisements or photographs? It’s 2004, for crying out loud, so why don’t we formally teach our kids how to be savvy and intelligent consumers of all kinds of media?

Some policy makers in Georgia have the right idea and want to add this kind of thing to the required curriculum. To make with the quoting:

Vanessa Melius of C-SPAN had just explained to Bridget and her peers at Crews Middle School in Lawrenceville how different shots of political candidates can manipulate viewers’ feelings.

Shooting a candidate from below can make him look tall, powerful, like a leader, Melius said. Shooting from above can make the politician look short, unimportant, inconsequential.

“I never thought about that before,” Bridget said… “They have a lot more power than I thought.”

As early as next year, sixth-graders throughout the state could be expected to identify propaganda in television commercials or explain the appeal of a popular television show like “American Idol.” Eighth-graders may be asked to interpret how news photographers influence people’s opinions, and high school sophomores might be expected to analyze NBC’s coverage of the Iraq war vs. that of Fox News.

Now that someone mentions it, I CAN’T BELIEVE WE’RE NOT DOING THIS. I’m not talking about teaching cynicism (though we could all do with some of that, in conjunction with a curious and open mind). And I’m not talking about an elective course in college. This should be done in grade school and high school. People –especially kids– should learn to recognize propaganda when they see it. They should understand the tricks advertisers use to influence them. They should learn to realize when they’re being misled and when they’re being given honest answers. And the fist book this class should assign is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

Forget being able to recite the names of all the past U.S. presidents. I want my kid to know when the current one is feeding her a line during the State of the Union address.

Sam’s Story: Week 6

Not a whole lot to report on this week. Ger, Sam, and I just got back from having lunch with The Tabors up in Carlsbad, and Sam did so well that we even fit in a little shopping at the outlet mall. This was the biggest outing by far, and it only required Geralyn to nurse our baby in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant once.

Pictures of Sam this last week? Of course! Make with the clicking:

The Baby Product of the Week this time around is the Happiest Baby on the Block DVD. We had heard about this amazing super wonderful resource for parents of fussy babies, but at $35, the DVD hardly seemed worth it. So I found a copy at the San Diego Public Library and checked it out for free. In a nutshell, it teaches five methods for calming down a fussy baby:

  1. Swaddling
  2. Putting baby on her side or back
  3. Swinging baby in a swing or gently jiggling
  4. “Shushing” baby or playing white noise (static, a hairdryer, etc.)
  5. Giving baby a pacifier to suck on

We’ve been trying these on Sam, and they seem to work, especially when done in combination. I can’t recommend paying full price for the DVD, but if you can get it from the library, borrow it from a friend, or find it for cheaper on eBay new parents may be well served.

The keeping of the house

I got a few minutes to myself this morning and decided to spend it doing a little housekeeping. I updated the Links page to include PlanetTabor, the new personal website for Darren Tabor, my friend, former manager, and new member of the GameSpy Alumni Society. Go say “hi”.

I also added a blogroll section to the links page. For those of you not hip to the lingo, it’s basically a list of other blogs and websites that I read through the online service Bloglines. More on that in a second. I also added a link so that you can add to your own blogroll. The list looks like this:

I briefly considered adding this list somewhere like the front page where it would get more visibility, but quickly decided that would be annoying. I pride myself on keeping the front page of this site relatively clean, with the focus on two things: the blog entries and the media I’m currently consuming. Anything else is just clutter and probably not interesting to anyone else.

The Bloglines service is pretty neat, though. When I first started this blog, I wasn’t into blogging per se. I didn’t read any others and I was barely cognizant that there was a blogging scene, much less how big and sophisticated it was. That’s changed lately as I’ve become addicted to blog hopping and peeking into other people’s lives –some of them complete strangers– through their blogs. I’ve found about a dozen blogs that both look good and have interesting, regularly updated content. Normally that would be a lot of bookmarking, but Bloglines can tell me at a glance which sites have been updates since I last checked, and even give me a preview so I can decide if I want to bother reading the whole thing. It works well for what it does, plus the best thing is that the site is clean, simple, and free of any advertisements. Wonder how long that will last?

If you read a lot of blogs, give it a try. If you already use it, feel free to add this site to your own blogroll.

The Evans Family: now with 100% more baby!

The baby parade continues, with the Lorenzo Thomas Evans as the latest participant. Lorenzo was born on Sunday February 29th to Kevin “Earl” Evans and his wife Marina. Kevin and I are fraternity brothers who went to University of Tulsa together. He was also the best man in my wedding. Here’s a picture of Lorenzo for you “ooh’ing” and “aah’ing” needs:

It’s nice to have a picture of a different baby on this site every now and again. Congratulations to Kevin and Marina!

Holding the ultimate grudge

Nowadays I don’t visit GameSpy (or any other site like it) very often, but I do feel compelled to point you towards something very cool that they’re doing now: The Ultimate Gaming Grudge. Or maybe it’s called “Title Fight”. It’s so awesome it needs two names.

The concept is pretty straight-forward. First, take 64 popular video games and arrange them in tournament brackets not unlike what you see in college basketball or other sports. This gives you 32 pairings of “This Game” vs. “That Game”. Next, have readers vote on each of these pairs so that the game with the most votes proceeds to the next round and is paired up again with another game that also got more votes than its last opponent. Repeat until there’s only one pair left, then repeat again to decide the “Best. Game. EVAR.”

Here’s a picture to help you visualize. Click on it to see the brackets on if you still don’t get it:

It’s a very cool idea and the folks at have implemented it beautifully. For truly obsessive folks there’s running commentary on each day’s matchups as well as the aforementioned brackets page. From what I hear, they’re getting bookoos of traffic off of this idea and people are enjoying it.

Incidentally, this idea has been incubating for a while. We were talking about it for maybe a year before I quit GameSpy. Everybody knew it was a winner, but we just didn’t have the systems to do it until we built a new polling system (which was one of the last projects I managed). I’m glad they finally did it.

In fact, the idea goes even further back to a fantastic tournament called The Road to Springfield, which did the same thing but with supporting cast members from The Simpsons instead of games. I remember checking that tournament every day to see who was coming out on top. It all came down to an incredibly close, nail-biting showdown between C. Montgomery Burns and Ralph Wiggum. Burns won, 3,089 to 2,951.

Personally, I think GameSpy should have covered all the bases by pitting popular video games against characters from The Simpsons. THAT would be the ultimate poll.

Oh, and speaking of GameSpy Industries, as of yesterday they are technically no more. Gone. Kaput. Instead, the merger with the owners of IGN went through and we now have IGN GameSpy. Those are some impressive numbers in that press release, and I wish everyone who survived the merger the best of luck. I wish just as much luck (if not more) to those who didn’t.