Kosmo’s New Year’s Resolutions

December 31, 2009

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First, I’ll note that these goals are all professional, rather than personal.  As in the past, I will go forward somewhat anonymously.  I’m not completely anonymous, though – my picture is actually me, and if we interact offline, you’ll recognize me.

I resolve to put forth a serious effort into my novel, Casting Stones.  I got off to a roaring start in November, writing more than 7000 words.  December has been much different, with fewer than 500 words.  Furthermore, I have become dissatisfied with what I have so far, and will likely end up rewriting all of it.  This is not entirely a bad thing.  What I have written so far is light on descriptions and really just rushes to move the plot forward.  This has always been a problem with my longer writing.

I resolve to submit a series of short stories to the Iowa Short Fiction Award contest.  This requires a 150 page double spaced manuscript.  If I keep writing stories at my current rate, reaching this length should be no problem at all, and I should actually be able to do some editing and removed some of the inferior stories.

I resolve to someone finish the “long” story for the 4th quarter of 2009.  This has died on the vine a bit, and with a baby due in the coming weeks, it is unlikely that it will be finished soon.  Still, I’m hoping to having this finished by early February.  Alternately, I may choose to write several bonus short stories for volume 3 of The Fiction of Kosmo.

I resolve to have minimal turnover in staff in 2010.  2009 was a pretty crazy year.  I’m sure some of your heads were spinning at times, due to the rapid addition of writers.  I’m happy with the staff we have right now – in both the caliber of the writers and the breadth of the content.  I wouldn’t mind having a bit more content that appeals to women, so if anything is added in 2010, that would be the area I seek to address.  We also have a couple of writers currently on sabbatical, and I’m hoping they return in earlyb 2010.

I don’t thank my writers enough for the work they do.  Their only pay is future profit sharing – which either means they expect us to turn a profit at some point, or that they simply enjoy writing.  I suspect that they enjoy writing, and hope that maybe they earn a few dollars at some point.

I resolve to steer The Soap Boxers out of the red and into the black.  I really haven’t focused much on finances in 2009, instead choosing to focus on the content of the site.  I’ll still focus heavily on the content in 2010, but with the current staffing level, I should have more time to work on actively driving traffic to the site.

I resolve to get on Twitter more often.  Currently, most of my Tweets are just automatically generated announcements of new posts.  In 2010, I’ll try to be more active on Twitter, and allow follower to gain greater insights into my life.  This doesn’t mean I will be tweeing 24/7, because I have a pretty small tweeting windows (a couple of hours every night).

I resolve to publish at least 325 articles in 2010.  That’s 6.5 a week, allowing us to go without an article once per fortnight.  We published 370+ articles in 2009, so I think we can definitely achieve this.

thank you for reading and have a great 2010.

Retail Positives / Retail Negatives

December 30, 2009

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Wal-Mart Ship to Store

Wal-Mart gets a lot of negative publicity, but one thing that they get right is Ship to Store. You buy an item on WalMart.com, choose to have it shipped to a nearby store, and pick it up when it arrives at the store. The shipping is completely free.

I keep waiting for more stores to follow Wal-Mart’s lead, but there hasn’t been a big rush to offer this service. Sure, some stores will offer free shipping on purchases over a certain amount or with special coupons – but I’m unaware of other stores offering free shipping to a local store for absolutely anything purchase through the store’s web site. We recently purchased a forty pound item – I shudder at how much the shipping would have been on this item through another vendor.

I’m really confused about why more stores don’t offer this. This is a golden opportunity to have people walk into your store. When people walk into a store, they usually spend Monday. Wal-Mart also smartly locates the Ship to Store counter way in the back of the store – so that you have to walk though several aisles of merchandise in order to pick up your item.

How does is work? Wal-Mart is nice enough to explain the process on its web site. Your item is first sent from a warehouse to a distribution center. Then, it is loaded on a truck that goes to your local store. Thing about this for a minute. There’s already a truck going from the warehouse to the distribution center. There’s already a truck going from the distribution center to the local store. This means that the marginal shipping cost for Wal-Mart is very low.

Target Pricing

My wife really likes Target, so we end up there quite often. One thing that annoys that crap out of me is unit pricing of some items. The particular item that is the target of much of my ire is Charmin toilet paper. Regardless of which size is on sale in a given week, the 30 pack ALWAYS costs more per roll than at least one of the smaller sizes. I once asked a worker if they were aware of this. Yep, they were aware of it. Nothing they could do, since prices are set by corporate.

I’ve run into the same problem with bottles of ranitidine (generic version of Zantac). Some times the unit price of the larger bottles would be almost twice as much as the smaller bottles. With respect to ranitidine, the issue of “we can’t control what corporate does” reared its ugly head. Target was out of the store brand ranitidine for literally months on end. For those who aren’t aware, this is an extremely common medication. When I asked when they might be getting a shipment, the employee told me that they didn’t know – corporate just sends them a shipment, with no input from the store! So I went to Wal-Mart and grabbed some of their store brand product.

Last week, we had to pick up some Goldfish (the crackers, not the animals). On the end cap, they were prices at $3.49. Within he aisle, the exact same box was priced $3.29. Guess which price rang up on the register? Yep, you guess it, $2.59. With a cart full of items and a two year old that need to needed to get home before bed time, we didn’t point out the discrepancy. We’re not exactly sure if this was some sort of unadvertised sale … or if the correct price was $3.29, or perhaps $3.49.

The Case for Bert Blyleven

December 29, 2009

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In January, the Baseball Writers of America will announce the 2010 Hall of Fame class. For the thirteenth time, Bert Blyleven will be on the ballot. Twelve prior times, he has fallen short in his bid for enshrinement at Cooperstown. I truly hope that this is the year for Bert.

To make my case for Blyleven, I’ll compare him to another pitcher.

Pitcher A:

  • Over the course of 692 games, compiled a .534 winning percentage.
  • Compiled a career ERA of 3.31
  • Had an adjusted ERA+ of 118 (this is an advanced statistic that adjusts ERA for ballpark and the pitcher’s league. A higher number is better).
  • Had a career strikeout : walk ratio of 2.80
  • Compiled 15 or more wins in 10 different seasons
  • Compiled 15 or more losses in 7 seasons (5 of these seasons before he turned 26).
  • Never won a Cy Young award

Pitcher B:

  • Over the course of 807 games, compiled a .526 winning percentage.
  • Compiled a career ERA of 3.19.
  • Compiled a career ERA+ of 111 (remember, higher is better).
  • Had a career strikeout : walk ratio of 2.04
  • Compiled 15 or more wins in 8 different seasons
  • Compiled 15 or more losses in 6 seasons
  • Never won a Cy Young award

Based on those resumes, which pitcher would you give the nod to? I’d lean toward pitcher A. Although his actual ERA is higher, when adjusted to ERA+, it is better than pitcher B’s. His strikeout : walk ratio shows a better command of the strike zone.

It won’t surprise you that pitcher A is Bert Blyleven.

It may surprise you that pitcher B is first ballot Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.

Ryan is of course known for his strikeouts. He is the all-time leader with 5714 (Blyleven is 5th at 3701). Randy Johnson, at 4875 and counting, is in second place and will probably wind up slightly above 5000 (or roughly 87.5% of Ryan’s record). Are strikeouts really that important? (Hint: read this article for your answer.)

What’s not as well known is that Ryan is also the career leader for walks, with 2795. Steve Carlton is a very distant second at 1833 (65.6% of Ryan’s record).

While it is extremely unlikely that anyone will ever break Ryan’s strikeout record, it is a virtual certainty that nobody will break the walk record. A pitcher who walks batters at Ryan’s rate would quickly find himself on a bus back to AAA.

Ryan has 324 wins to Blyleven’s 287 (and also 292 losses to Bert’s 250). Wins are a problematic statistic because of the limited impact the pitcher has. Take a pitcher from the Nationals and put him on the staff of the Yankees, and his wins will skyrocket due to increased run support.

In this particular case, the fact that Ryan hung around until age 46 (while Blyleven retired at 41) is largely responsible for the difference. Ryan compiled a 51-39 record those final five years, pushing his career record from 273 – 253 to the end result of 324 – 292. Longevity is nice, but is that 51-39 record over those five years really the difference between a slam-dunk Hall of Famer and a guy at risk of never making it?

This brings us, naturally, to the no hitters. Ryan had seven while Blyleven had just one. A no hitter is great, and seven of them are a wonderful achievement. But this simply shows that on a particular night, the pitcher was dominant and/or lucky. It’s a nice footnote for a career, but it shouldn’t be the main credential for a hall of famer.  Seven nights accounts for 1% of the career starts from these guys.  The other 99% should have a bit more weight.

I’m not suggesting that we remove Nolan Ryan from the Hall of Fame – but if his credentials warranted votes from 98.8% of voters, surely Blyleven’s credential should be judged worthy by at last 75% of the voters.

What Do You Want To Write?

December 28, 2009

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What do you really want to write? That is the first question that any author has to address. Are you into short stories, poems, novels, essays? All of the various forms of written expression have deferent demands. The poet seems to be the most unique of all authors. Poetry within itself can tell a story, paint a picture and fulfill a structure, but that is the same for all writing. The work you choose does not define you, you define the work. Anything you put to pen (or these days to keyboard) is your creation, your will causes it to exist.

I have always concentrated on novels. The longer story allows me the freedom to paint pictures of the world that my characters live in. For me, it is describing a dream, and in fact I have dreamt many of the images that I write. The topic you choose may drive the type of writing you attempt. Again for me, grand sweeping vistas drive me toward novels. I don’t have the concise and artistic imagery that is required for poetry. I do not have the energy to analyze like the essayist. Some would call these ramblings essays, but they are more opinion pieces that I spew forth in single sittings when the urge hits me. I have attempted short stories, but always return to add more detail, fill in holes, take the story to that next scene.

When someone claims that one form or topic is easier than others, this can only be true for them. Techniques can be shared and are almost always helpful, but seldom in the way intended or expected. For example, I like to write in a continuous narrative, going back over the ‘completed’ sections to verify continuity and right wrongs. I like to read in the same fashion, front to back referencing earlier parts to check up on the author. Others can skip about, writing sections that they later weave into the whole, or reading chapters as they see fit, to keep themselves entertained.

I have recently embarked on my second novel this year. My first was an entry into the National Novel Writing Month (ref NaNoWriMo.org). This new one is just to fulfill the joy that writing has given me. I have been traveling a lot recently, and writing on those lonely evenings in hotels has kept my spirits up and kept my home sickness at bay. My first effort was a romance. I don’t know why, but I got a story in my head about a young man who lost his memory and had to find out who he was. I guess I really wanted to explore how you could learn about someone who knew and loved you when you did not know what was going on. In addition to the romance part, I included a lot about simple farming, which I admit is a fantasy that I will never get to live out.

This second story is also something that has been haunting my dreams. It is a science fiction detective story with a lot of space exploration. Now I am a trained Aerospace Engineer and have worked directly for NASA and for private companies contracted to perform work for NASA. I have worked on both the Space Station and the Space Shuttle. I would even consider several current and former astronauts to be my friends. Every spring I perform a community service by talking to middle school students about the space race of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

I will admit that at least a kernel of this story was started back when I was in middle school. I found some of my old musings while cleaning out some storage containers. My writing (I believe) is much better now than back then, but the creative ideas are similar.

My suggestion to everyone is, if you get an idea, write it down. It may come to nothing, it may have to be modified so often it looks nothing like the original. But then again, it could be the start you are looking for. You can only write if you start. That first sentence will lead to another. That first paragraph will eventually make sense. That first page will get filled. Don’t throw anything away, in this computer age, just save it away for later. There will be days that you are on fire; 500, 1000, 5000 words. There will be days of nothing. Don’t just sit stewing over it if nothing seems to be brewing. Get up, do something. Clear you mind of writing by concentrating on something else. In this world there is always something to do.

In my latest effort, I have violated the method that I described just a couple of paragraphs ago. I have written two scenes that I will have to weave in. Why did I do this? Because the scenes played out in my mind, I had to write them down. Will they work? I don’t know. I may have to cut them into some special file for use in another effort.

I wrote in an earlier column that the one of the most important things and author needs is a good editor. I stand by that claim. We, each of us, can be the most flattering supporter and cruelest critic of our own work. Most of us underestimate our own worth and the worth of our work. A good editor will polish our writing without claiming it as their own. If you are ever graced with the opportunity to edit for someone else, remember that it is their work, not yours.

This has turned into quite a pep talk. In the end there is only one really good piece of advice for perspective authors. –KEEP WRITING–

The Dumbest Rule In Sports

December 27, 2009

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I’m asking for your opinion today.  What do you think is the absolute worst rule in all of sports?  (Please avoid submitting anything related to Calvinball).

My vote goes to the NCAA rule that I dub “down without contact”.  A player can slip and fall when he is twenty yards from the nearest opposing player, and by rule he is down at that spot.  The the Texas-Nebraska Big XII championship game, this happened to a Texas kick returner at a very late stage in the game, and pinned Texas deep in their own territory.

Seriously.  These guys are elite athletes.  Let them jump back to their feet and continue to run until someone actually tackles them.

OK, your turn – what’s your least favorite rule?

What’s Next for The Casual Observer?

December 26, 2009

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We’re winding down 2009. When the year began, The Soap Boxers was in its infancy. I was the sole writer, and the schedule that I set for 2009 was 5-6 articles per month. Obviously, we’ve gone far beyond those expectations. We’ve also gone far outside the original topics of customer experiences, news, sports, and book reviews.

How did this happen?

Largely by chance, actually. The expansion of the staff occurred after I asked Johnny Goodman to write about his experience at The Masters. While I am not a golf fan, I understood how cool this experience would be to a golf fan. I liked what Johnny wrote, and offered him a weekly column to write about sports. If you stop to think about it, it’s a bit odd that a sports nut such as me would bring a dedicated sports writer on board. However, I realized that there is value in having different opinions on issues, as well as the fact that Johnny would be able to cover topics (such as golf) that were of minimal interest to me.

During the course of the year, we expanded the staff incrementally. This was done mostly to expand the breadth of subject matter that we cover, while also taking some work off my shoulders. Early in the year, I decided that I wanted The Soap Boxers to deliver fresh content almost every day – something that would have been impossible if not for my wonderful staff. We have had between 33 and 38 articles in each month between March and November (and are well on the way to 30+ again this month).

Early on, I also made the conscious decision to avoid becoming a niche blog, in spite of the fact that this best way to draw a large audience. I have always tried to run the site more like a magazine or newspaper, including content from a wide variety of topics. If it works for USA Today and The New Yorker, why can’t it work for us?

The Soap Boxers has also given me the opportunity to kick start my fiction writing, after enduring a decade where I wrote very little fiction. It felt a bit rusty at first, as if the fiction neurons had experience some atrophy. Soon, however, it was full speed ahead.

In a largely positive year, there have really only been a handful of negatives. The first was a situation involving plagiarism that I felt the need to deal with quickly and decisively. The second was the loss of a loyal reader who was offended by one of my short stories. Neither of these were things that I had a great deal of control over. The plagiarism was dealt with as soon as I figured out what was going on (hint: don’t copy from a national media outlet), and the story that was deemed offensive garnered positive reviews from many others.

The third negative is that fact that growth of readership seems to have stalled a bit. We seem to have reached a long term plateau. If we’re destined to move forward with this group, that’s OK with me. You’re a great group of readers. It would also be great to have a few more folks as readers, though, so if you’d mention The Soap Boxers to a friend or two this holiday season (or share through Stumble or other social networking), we would be grateful.

Beyond the actual writing, I’ve had the experience of interacting with some cool people – other bloggers as well as readers – during the course of the year. I’ve also had the experience of learning a lot about WordPress, as I took a free template and customized the hell out of it, so that the template designer himself probably wouldn’t recognize it.

So, what will 2010 hold for us?

The schedule may fall into a slight bit of disarray early in the year. My wife and I are expecting our second child in January, and this will of course take time away from my writing and coordination of articles. I’m trying to get a bunch of articles written in advance, so that the schedule doesn’t skip a beat. Logic would dictate that there will be some sort of impact, though. We’ll try to keep it minimal.

The Winter Olympics arrive in Vancouver in February. We will attempt to bring some unique insight and quirky biases (such as my fascination with luge) through a series of articles. Baseball will follow on the heels of the Olympics. I promise to overwhelm you with baseball coverage and make an effort to affect your All Star voting.

I’ll continue to chase down interesting stories and angles. I’ll definitely try to dispatch my alter ego, Scoop Chevelle, for a half dozen interviews during the year. January will bring us an interview with a famous blogger.

I’ll also be reviving the “Fake News Network” segment the debuted on Thanksgiving Day. FNN will bring you fictionalized news events. Some will be (very loosely based on real events; others will be made from scratch. You will probably note similarities between FNN and sites like The Onion. Am I ripping off The Onion? No – I’ve been writing these sorts of articles prior to the existence of that wonderful site.

Back to the Old Grind

December 25, 2009

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The sleigh glided down to the snow, touched down for an instant, and hopped back into the air before landing for the final time. The reindeer taxied quickly to their stable, in spite of their exhaustion from the long journey. Their food was close enough to smell. Santa unhooked them from the sleigh and the deer near trampled each other in an effort to get to the food that Mrs. Claus had left out for them.

Santa smiled as he watched the deer hungrily devour the first meal they had eaten in a day. He knew that they would be sound asleep shortly after they finished eating. It had been a grueling day.

The man in the red suit trudged up to the big house. The first order of business was a long hot shower. As usual, his red suit was beyond saving, and would be thrown in the trash again this year. The hot water felt good on his cold skin, and the powerful bursts from the showerhead removed the soot from his skin. Eventually, Claus emerged from the shower, slipped into his pajamas, and searched for food.

He immediately hit pay dirt. There was a pizza box on the top shelf of the fridge. It contained a nearly whole Canadian bacon pizza from the best pizza joint north of the Arctic Circle. There was not time to waste with frivolities such as reheating, so Santa inhaled the pizza cold. He chased it down with a liter bottle of Pepsi. When he was finished, he let out an enormous burp that could probably be heard as far away as the workshop.

Saturday was a completely lost day. Santa slept until 8 PM, woke up long enough to eat and share a few words with Mrs. Claus, and then slipped back into slumber once again. Sunday was a day of leisure that Santa spent watching football with a few of the elves.

Monday marked the return to the normal grind, and it came far too soon. Most of the elves were on a long vacation, so there was a skeleton crew at the workshop, mostly handling the handful of request for returns.

The Claus mailbag was already busting at the seams. Not with gifts from good little boys and girls – those were still many months away. Instead, they were filled with bills from suppliers and solicitations from every whack job that thought they had the next brilliant idea for a toy design and wanted a hefty licensing fee.

Santa tossed the mail from wannabe toymakers into the recycling bin.  He had more than enough designers on staff, and couldn’t afford to license designs from independent contractors.  He tossed the bills to the side, where the accounting team would have to deal with them later. Costs had been steadily rising for the last few years, and funding had really dried up in the wake in the international economic crisis. The non-profit North Pole Toy Company had enough funds in reserve for one more year like this. Beyond that, Santa feared that he would have to start asking children to send a check with their letters.

Santa looked down at his calendar and realized, with great dismay, that he had a noon meeting with Malcom Snogsworth, the head of the Elfen Toy Makers International union. ETMI had been aggressively negotiating in recent years. Snogsworth had been using the threat of an OSHA investigation as a means to blackmail Santa into paying higher wages. OSHA was not aware of the 23 hour work days in December, and he preferred that it stay that way. The OSHA officials typically made their visit in the middle of the summer, when the elves rarely worked more than twelve hour days.

Even worse, Snogsworth always insisted on meeting at Red Lobster, and never picked up the tab.

Santa hated Mondays.

Bah, Humbug to the Healthcare Bill

December 24, 2009

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Today, we welcome The Angry Squirrel to the staff of The Soap Boxers.  He will take a liberal stance as a writer for the Political Observers segment.

Christmas Eve is here and “Hooray!” the Republicans decided that they needed to beat the weather to get home to their families instead of continuing to stall the vote on a healthcare bill. Granted, the Senate version is now a whittled down piece of crap with other sweeteners added in to get the last few conserveadems on board for the “needed” 60 votes. The current bill passed by the Senate will now go into conference with the House when Congress resumes after the holiday break and will more than likely look similar to what the Senate is passing or look even worse than it does now.

I mean do we really need to cover costs in Nebraska, Louisiana, and so on just to get this piece of crap through? I think not, but that’s not what they decided to have done.

The only real piece of reform in the entire bill is not allowing insurance companies to deny or drop coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Granted they will be allowed to charge you a nice chunk of change more to be ale to have the privilege to be covered by them now, and guess what you’ll have to suck it up and pay whatever they want to charge you because you are required to.

That leads me to why this is really no reform at all, or more aptly put reform in name only. Mandating coverage without having a competitive mechanism in the system to keep costs down or in check is just asking for the situation to get worse, and it will. More people will go bankrupt because the costs of healthcare will go unchecked still under this bill. If you can’t afford to pay the premium which is required of you will be forced to pay a penalty right now of 2% of your income. Granted like everything else in the bill it won’t even go into effect until a year or two after the next presidential election, but still, just like everything else in the bill the only real benefactor of this is the health insurance industry. Because it is not the government that will pocket these fines it will be the health insurers that will get the penalty.

What really is needed is some sort of non-profit entity, privately owned but government regulated that provides coverage at cost to people. This would be an affordable option for those who would want it and would also keep the costs of premiums across the board in check if they wanted to keep people buying their own product as well. If such an entity would exist it would also be cheaper because it keeps things like profit, executive salaries, a large amount of overhead, advertising and lobbying costs out of your health insurance premium. Granted Washington is tied and likely will always will be to the almighty lobbying dollar of the insurance industry so this would never happen, heck they can;t even get a remotely salvageable “public option” together that passes by the in the insurance industry pocket congressman’s approval.

The health insurance industry makes out like a bandit in this bill, I really don’t see why they are so up in arms about it. Probably faux-outrage on “principle”, but still. They’ll be getting money from every single person in this country, whether you have the coverage you purchase on your own, the subsidy given to them by the government to help lower income families purchase coverage, or the fines you’ll have to pay if you still can’t afford to live and carry their product because the price is still too much and still rising with each passing breath. They also get to keep their antitrust exemptions, and also be allowed to sell policies wherever they want to from wherever they want to. So they could go to a state with extremely loose insurance regulations and sell that policy to a place that has more strict regulations. It’s no wonder why as soon as passage of the current leg of the reform bill in the Senate that health insurance stocks rose.

Then you have the side of the debate that goes into stuff not even in the health care reform bill in the first place. Abortion funding for one, was not a real issue in the bill in the first place, Republicans and Democrats from Republican leaning districts create a false outrage that abortion would be provided on demand on every street corner and the government would have to pay for it if we passed this healthcare bill. This is utterly false and had no place in this discussion.

Federal law already bars the federal funding for abortion, so the need to put wording in the bill for it was entirely unnecessary. However they didn’t feel this was so and went above and beyond their initial call to make wording was in there to not allow for federal dollars to go for abortion. This one of the places where the House and Senate have a difference and the conservatives actually like the House plan more. Under the House bill’s wording no insurer could provided coverage for abortion as part of any policy they offer to the public if they were to receive federal funds, and well since they will be getting a 2% penalty if you don’t purchase their product or receive the subsidy to provide insurance to lower incomes, then they are all going to be receiving federal funding. In the Senate however they have wording to allow for people to purchase entirely separate coverage for abortion, but on the other hand it also will allow states to block insurance companies from offering such plans.

Wholesalely denying something that is still a legal practice is just wrong. If people want to have that as a part of their coverage and insurers are offering it, then so be it. How are you going to say that such and such dollar of such and such premium went to pay for abortion coverage anyway. Hey I might be against people getting coverage for plastic surgery, maybe we should deny people from having that in the bill as well.

In the end tough the bill that looks to be passed in Congress whenever that may be will be a complete piece of crap that is a gift to the insurance companies and will actually lock out any chance of real reform for many years to come after that. I am all for healthcare but this bill is a piece of trash and should be scrapped until we have a group in Washington that actually will reform healthcare instead of making sure it continues to be a problem for generations to come.

On a lighter note, since this is Christmas Eve I would like to wish everyone celebrating it Merry Christmas and hope all is well with your family and friends. Safe travels and well wishes to everyone this holiday season.

Next month my column will be a little more structured than just a free-flowing rambling that it is here today, kind of ended up with less time to put things together than my “grand” plans I originally had thought. Well once again have a safe and happy holiday season.

Mac vs. Windows

December 23, 2009

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Right away, I’ll tell you which type of computer to buy. The one that you’re most comfortable with. There really isn’t a right or wrong answer. Now, we’ll move on to the rest of the article, which will focus on the Mac.

Personal Experience
The first computer I ever used was an Apple IIe. I was soon writing code in BASIC, and was allowed to essentially develop my own curriculum when I was eventually able to take a programming class (since I had already covered the course’s subject matter on my own). I was later introduced to Macs, and thought they were the greatest thing since sliced bread.

For the last twelve years, I have worked in the systems department of a very large company – supporting a user community that uses solely Windows PC ☺ I even fix broken PCs for co-workers when asked.

Nonetheless, I remain a Mac guy. My home contains two Macs that are plugged in – a two year old (soon to be three years old) Mini that we use for most things, and a seven year old eMac that I write these blog articles on. Peek around the house and you’ll see an old Powerbook 5300, a Mac SE, a Mac Plus, and even a Newton Messagepad. You’ll also see the carcasses of a couple of PCs. I do not have the Amiga any more, as I sold that back to Frank (who, in turn, conned someone else out of good money).

Oh, you’ll pay more money for a Mac. If purchase price is your sole determining factor, get a PC.

Lack of software
One argument that you’ll hear from the anti-Mac crowd is that there is a dearth of software for the Mac. While it’s true that there is less software, the available software does a pretty good job of covering the bases for most users. If you’re a hard core gamer, you’re probably better off staying with Windows. But if you’re going to mostly use a browser and email client, either platform would be a good choice.

If you’re looking for Office, Photoshop, Quicken – they are all available on the Mac platform. I’m a bit of a tinkerer, and over the years, have played with a lot of stuff on the Mac. I have edited video, run a web server using PHP/MySql, installed a J2EE environment, and even done a bit of coding with the developer tools that are included (at no additional cost) in the OS. Mac OS X is actually built upon BSD Unix – which means that a lot of unix application will run on the Mac. For example, the graphics program GIMP runs on OS X under the X11 environment. At the cost of FREE, GIMP is hundreds of dollars less that Photoshop and provides much of the functionality. (Yes, I hear you, power Photoshop users, it doesn’t provide 100% of the functionality). Many of the graphics on the site (such as the lion header) were created with GIMP (in spite of my lackluster graphic skills).

Single Source
If you buy a Mac, you’re getting hardware and software from the same company. (One quick caveat – in theory, you could hack together a setup that allows you to run OS X on a regular Intel-based machine, but if you have the skills to do this, you’re probably not reading this article.) This means that there are a relatively finite number of possible combinations, and that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing. If there is a problem, nobody can point fingers. Regardless of whether it’s a hardware problem or a software problem, it’s an APPLE problem. Contrast this to the PC world, where Microsoft and a PC vendor could each blame each other for a problem.

Speaking of the actual software, Macs come with a full copy of the operating system on DVD. As far as I know, Macs have always come with a full version of the OS. For reasons that I can’t fathom, some PC makers ship computers without as much as a restore disc. If your hard drive dies (and I actually mean WHEN your hard drive dies, because it is guaranteed to die at some point) you have to contact the computer maker to get a restore disc – and pay shipping for the privilege!

Viruses and Malware
For a variety of reasons, viruses and malware are less prevalent on Macs than on PCs. Mac fans say it is due to an inherent superiority while Windows fans will say that it’s because the Mac user base is smaller, and less not as big of a target for hackers. Quite honestly, I really don’t care what the exact reason is – I’m just happy with the result. Several of my co-workers have impressive horror stories about their virus/malware experiences. A couple of days ago, one of them said “Maybe I should have taken [Kosmo’s] advice and just bought a Mac.” I think it’s quite likely that he’ll do that when they buy their next computer.

I run my computers naked (er, I mean to say, without anti-virus software) and have never had a problem with a virus of malware. Is this the safest idea in the world? No – it would certainly be safer to spend the money on antivirus software. I’m willing to take the slight risk avoid the cost of antivirus software. If the worst were to happen, I’m confident in my ability to wipe my system clean and restore data from backups in roughly an hour.

Would I ever suggest that the owner of a Windows machine forgo anti-virus software? Hell no.

Best of Both Worlds?
With the newer (Intel-based) Macs, you can actually install Windows and have a dual boot system. You would have to purchase your own copy of Windows to do this. Alternately, you could use a product such as Darwine which allows you to run Windows application without having Windows installed. I actually tried out Darwine as a proof of concept, and it seemed to worked reasonably well. I just use it that once, though – Darwine sits on my hard drive gathering dust today. I simply don’t have the need to run Windows applications.

In closing – buy whatever computer best suits your needs. I do ask you to take a fresh look at the Mac if you haven’t worked with one in a few years.

Olympic Anticipation

December 22, 2009

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The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver are quickly approaching. I’m really starting to get geared up. Most people are familiar with the more traditional sports of skiing and skating, and today’s kids are familar with the X-games style sports. Today, I’ll introduce you to a few more sports.


My favorite winter Olympic sport, bar none, is luge. In fact, it’s my second favorite overall sport to watch – behind only baseball. So, then, what is luge, exactly? It’s a bit like the bobsled (bobsleigh) event, except that the repo man took 95% of your sled. You launch yourself from the top of the luge track, quickly get into positon (on your back, feet first) and use your feet to steer the sled as you fly doing the track at speeds that can exceed 90 mph! Sometimes you get to the finish line still atop the sled, sometimes you don’t. There is single luge (my favorite) and doubles luge. I haven’t had the chance to actually try luge personally, but I love watching it. I’ll definitely have my DVR set, so that I don’t miss a moment of action.

I am proposing that The Soap Boxers adopt the USA luge team as our official team to follow in the Olympics. 

Do I have a favorite luge athelete?  Of course.  It’s Erin Hamlin (@ErinHamlin on Twitter).  Hamlin made her Olympic debut as a 19 year old in the 2006 games in Torino.  Hamlin shocked the world by winning a gold medal at the 2009 FIL World Luge Championships.  It was the first time in 15 years that a German woman failed to win at an Olympic, World Championship, or European Championship event.  On December 13, Hamlin picked up her first ever World Cup medal, winning the bronze at an even in Lillehammer, Norway.  I’ll go out on a limb and predict an upset of the Germans and a triumphant Hamlin slide down the course at Whistler.


If you think flying down a hill on an ice track at 90 mph while steeting with your feet … imagine doing it headfirst, on your stomach.  That’s skeleton.  Skeleton, luge, and bobsledding (bobsleigh) all trace their origins to St. Moriz, Switzerland.  Skeleton was an Olympic sport when the games were held in St. Moritz when the games were held their in 1928 and 1942.  In 2002, they were permanently added to the Olympics.  I’m not as much of a fan of skeleton as I am of luge, but perhaps it’s because I’ve been watching Olympic luge since I was a kid.


The biathlon is a sport that involves skiing and shooting.  Seems like an odd combination, doesn’t it?  Who on earth would create such a sport?

The Norwegian military.  It was created as an exercise for soldiers.

Participants cross-country ski a course, stopping to shoot at targets along the way.  If they miss the targets, they face either a time penalty (the time is added to their skiing time) or are force to ski essentially “penalty laps”.

I’m not a big fan of skiing, and really don’t watching shooting events at all – but I’m fascinated by this event, which combines two completely different disciplines.

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