Friday, April 27, 2007

Okay, some of you people out there are just nasty

While doing my semi-regular perusal of this site's visitor paths on StatCounter, I discovered that somebody came across this blog while doing a Google search for nude pictures of children's musician Laurie Berkner.

I don't know what disturbs me more: that somebody would be looking for naked pictures of her, or that this blog would be involved in such a search...

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Houston Rockets, one year later

Exactly one year ago, I was bemoaning the fact that the Houston Rockets had concluded their disappointing 2005-06 season with a loss to San Antonio. The Rockets ended that injury-plagued season with a rather poor 34-48 record and a distinct lack of local attraction. As I noted at the time, the Rockets were "something of an afterthought on the local sports scene;" a team that many local sports fans, myself included, just didn't care all that much about.

Exactly one year later, the Rockets, having just ended a reasonably successful 52-30 regular season campaign, are preparing to start the first round of the playoffs against the Utah Jazz tomorrow night. Improvement on the court has resulted in improvement in the stands as well; the 2006-07 Rockets averaged 16,542 fans per game during the regular season; an improvement of over one thousand fans/game from the previous season. Not a dramatic change, but enough to jump the Rockets from 28th to 21st in the 30-team league's attendance rankings. From a more subjective point of view, it seems clear that the Rockets have managed to create a bit of a buzz about themselves among the local populace as well, a buzz that simply did not exist one year ago.

Nevertheless, there's still a perception that the Rockets remain "something of an afterthought in the local pro sports scene;" the Astros still command the city's attention, the Texans - as woeful as they might be - still generate considerable attraction simply because they're a football team in a football-rabid locale, and even the Dynamo managed to upstage the Rockets when they won the MLS championship last fall. The Rockets, improved though they might be, still have a lot to prove to the jaded and fickle Houston sports fan who still remembers those halcyon years of the mid-90s, when Rudy Tomjonavich, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the rest won those two NBA championships. A win over the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs - something the team hasn't managed to do since they defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the 1997 playoffs, one decade ago - would be a big step forward for the Rockets.

I'm not going to pretend that I like the Rockets' owner, Leslie Alexander, or their insufferably whiny head coach, Jeff Van Gundy. But I'll be paying close attention to, and heartily rooting for, the Rockets as they begin the playoffs tomorrow night. I am undoubtedly not the only local sports fan who is paying more attention to the Rockets now than they have in many years, and that's a good thing for a franchise that is desperately trying to succeed, and recapture the city's imagination in the process.

UPDATE: The Rockets, once again, were unable to get past the first round of the playoffs, losing the series to Utah 3 games to 4. This only adds to the aura of disappointment that has hung over the Rockets for the last decade; it appears that the Rockets will just have to try to "recapture the city's imagination" once again next season.

The search for answers

I hadn't planned on writing anything about the Virginia Tech massacre. What kind of insight could I provide, after all? What could I say about the horrible event that hasn't already been said by somebody else?

But, in the wall-to-wall media frenzy that has followed this tragedy, one particular and oft-repeated phrase has caught my attention: "the search for answers." People, naturally, want an explanation for Monday's events. What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? How could it have been prevented?

The "what" part is really very simple: an angry, lonely sociopath purchased a couple of guns, went on a rampage, and murdered 32 people. It's the search for the deeper explanations - the "how" and the "why" - that has, over the course of the week, become the focus of national discussion. Why wasn't the killer, whose disturbing writings had caused at least one professor to remove him from her class and who was, at one point, detained for a psychiatric assessment, deemed a threat and removed from campus? Why was the killer allowed to purchase firearms even though he had been detained as a psychiatric risk? Was the police response to the shooting adequate? Everyone - experts, analysts, professors, pundits, pop psychologists, editorialists and next-door neighbors alike - is offering up their own take on "what really happened." Over the next several months and perhaps even years, a flurry of investigations will take place to determine the "why"" and "how" behind this horrific event: to get the answers everybody seeks, to assign blame, if any, and to make recommendations aimed at preventing a further tragedy of this type from occurring.

But what if, after all the investigations and analyses take place, "the search for answers" comes up empty? What if it is determined that the psychiatric evaluation that allowed the killer to remain on the Virginia Tech campus was handled correctly, that the system of background checks that allowed the killer to legally purchase his firearms worked exactly as it was designed and that no reasonable restrictions on handgun ownership would have prevented this tragedy (after all, the killer could conceivably have killed just as many people if he had gone on a stabbing spree instead of a shooting spree), or that the police response to the shootings was appropriate relative to what the authorities knew at the time? What if Monday's tragedy was, essentially, nothing more than "an angry, lonely sociopath purchased a couple of guns and went on a rampage" - a random, isolated act of violence that could not have reasonably been foreseen or prevented? What if there is nothing or nobody to blame, other than the killer himself?

Today I came across a story about the families of the Columbine victims who, eight years to the day after that massacre, are still "searching for answers." It's human nature to want to make sense out of the senseless, to understand the incomprehensible. This is especially true for the friends and families of the victims: "because a guy went crazy and decided to shoot people" probably isn't a satisfactory answer for people trying to understand why their child or their best friend - be they a student at Columbine or Virginia Tech - was gunned down while he or she innocently sat in a classroom. But, at the end of the day, it might be the only explanation: there are crazy people amongst us, and sometimes they do crazy, violent things, and sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Blog update and other thoughts

As is obvious, I haven’t been very active with this blog lately. I've been busy with other things, and there just hasn't been anything I've felt a pressing need to write about. After all, it's too early in the season for me to begin fretting about the Astros, even though they stumbled out of the opening gate (and yes, I know that they're now on a three-game winning streak), and I just haven't had much to say about anything else that passes for news these days, whether it be the real father of Anna Nicole's daughter or the furor over racist comments made by a has-been radio shock jock or the latest round of American Idol voting. I do have a few random thoughts I wanted to throw out, which I'll get to in a moment.

As is also obvious, I've finally decided to upgrade to the "new" version of Blogger. This allows me to assign topic tags to all of my blogs, and I've done so for the entire archive. It's interesting to see which topics I've written about the most: college football comes in at the top, which is no surprise (I hadn't realized that I'd written so many posts about Dubai, however). I've also taken the opportunity to update some old links and add a few new ones. I'll probably add a few more new links in the coming weeks.


• Lori used one of those ubiquitous online tax programs to figure our 2006 taxes. After entering all of the required information and letting the program do its thing, she discovered that we apparently owed money to Uncle Sam this year, to the tune of about $250. When she announced this to me I thought I was a bit odd; last year, after all, we received a tax refund well in excess of $1000, and no changes to our financial status had occurred between 2005 and 2006.

So I took a look at the online return myself. It appeared that Lori had entered all of the data correctly. Maybe we did owe money this time around. Nevertheless, I decided to work out a tax return by hand as a way of confirmation.

And I'm glad I did. The result I came up with was much different than the result the online program provided. I double-checked my math; I had calculated everything correctly. So we took a closer look at the online program and eventally found the problem: while the program had correctly figured in the personal exemptions for Lori and myself, it did not do so for Kirby. The reason it did not do so is because Lori overlooked a small and barely-noticable box on the program that dealt with Kirby's residency. Even though she had filled out all of Kirby's other information correctly, the fact that she didn't check the box asking if Kirby lived at home with us caused the program not to count him as an exemption. Lori checked the box, and voila! The program's outcome immediately matched mine; instead of owing $250, we were due a refund in excess of $1,600.

We filed the corrected return online, and should be getting our refund in a few weeks. It will go towards our home's biggest need at the moment, which is a new roof for the sunporch which we intend for Kirby to use as a playroom.

The moral of the story is this: if you're using an online program to figure your taxes, be sure to carefully check evrything you've entered and make certain that you haven't overlooked anything. These programs aren't always perfectly-designed; in this case, one small, poorly-placed check box was the difference between a $250 debt and a $1,600 refund. And although it's a pain in the ass, it's never a bad idea to calculate a return the old-fashioned way even if you're using one of these easy online programs to do your taxes. The program Lori was using, like many online tax return programs, simply collects your data and spits out a few resulting numbers: your adjusted gross income was x, the taxes you paid were y, your refund or amount you owe is z, etc. It doesn't really show you the process it used to arrive at the result, and therefore makes errors or omissions harder to spot.

• Believe it or not, the only Kurt Vonnegut book I've ever read is Galapagos. People have recommended Slaughterhouse-Five or Breakfast of Champions to me, but I've never bothered to read them and that's pretty sad. I guess I need to start reading more.

In spite of the fact that I've only read one of his books, I was saddened to learn of his death earlier this week. Although Vonnegut himself always dismissed such flattering evaluations, the comparisons being made between him and another acerbic and darkly witty American author - Mark Twain - are probably apt.

• You know you're getting old when you discover that the younger generation has begun to develop its own sense of nostalgia. Such was the case when I ran across this "Tribute to Old School Nickelodeon" on YouTube. I was expecting to find clips or scenes from programs I consider to be the "old school" Nickelodeon of the 1980s: Mr. Wizard's World, Belle and Sebastian, Pinwheel, Out of Control, Danger Mouse, Turkey Television, and, of course, You Can't Do That on Television. Instead, the clip turned out to be a montage of shows Nickelodeon aired during the '90s that, aside from a few like Ren and Stimpy, I didn't even recognize. One of the YouTube commenters pointed this out on the clip's page, and the creator of the clip responded that all those "old old school" Nickelodeon shows were before his time. What a youngster!

If you're my age, however, you'll probably appreciate this classic bit of childhood television nostalgia, from Sesame Street:

I've always liked that funky 70's synthesized music.

Hopefully I'll be able resume regular (or at least semi-regular) blog postings in the near future. In the meantime, be sure to check out my brother's account of his recent trip to San Francisco, which included a long train ride from Denver.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

My new toy

Although I use Windows for much of my computing activities, I'm still a Mac person at heart, and my primary personal computer will always be an Apple. Such is the case with my newest machine:

This iMac replaces the venerable G4, which has served me well over the past seven-and-a-half years (I was still living in Lewisville when I purchased it in the fall of 1999; it really seems like eons ago). I made upgrades to it from time to time to keep it from becoming totally obsolete: adding more memory, upgrading the system to OS X, even replacing the processor. Over the past few months, however, the G4 had become increasingly unstable. Screen freezes and kernel panics began to occur with increasing frequency, and none of the fixes I tried - running the disk repair utility, making more space on the hard drive, booting the computer in safe mode, testing the memory - seemed to make any difference. It got to the point were the computer crashed so frequently that it was all but unusable; my only remaining option was to erase the hard drive and re-install the system software.

But why even bother? I could erase and re-install (and then spend the next several hours re-configuring the machine, re-installing application software, downloading all the necessary patches and upgrades, etc.), and maybe that would fix the problem and maybe I could squeeze another year or two out of the venerable yet increasingly obsolete G4 before I finally had to break down and get a new machine. Why not just go ahead and get a new computer now? The time had simply come.

I was originally thinking about an iBook, but eventually I decided that I wanted something with a bigger display. So I settled on the 20" iMac and made the purchase.

And I'm glad I did. The 2.16 Ghz Core Duo processor is speedy and smooth. The fact that the entire computer is built into the display means less clutter underneath my desk. The faster processor as well as the larger hard drive will make it possible for me to do video and music editing on this machine that I couldn't do on the G4. Programs that used to overwhelm the G4, such as SimCity 4 or Google Earth, run just fine on this iMac. Apple's switch to Intel processors means that I'll be able to run Windows software on this machine, should I ever need to do so (and right now, I really don't; between my Dell work laptop, Lori's HP laptop, and even the old Compaq that Danny left here when he moved to DC, I already have plenty of opportunities to use Windows applications). And I really like the 20" display. All in all, this new iMac perfectly fits my computing needs, and should continue to do so for the next several years.

I don't know if this machine will last me as long as the venerable G4 did; one of the drawbacks to the iMac is that the only user-upgradable component is the memory (the only other thing I don't like about the iMac is the tiny, difficult-to-control four-way trackball on the mouse; I guess I'll get used to it sooner or later). However, it's nice to finally feel that my personal computer is "up to date" with the rest of the world.