Amusement in retail

Despite my best efforts, the Conficker.c worm is set to do something tomorrow. No one really knows what, for sure, but since such a large number of computers are rumored to be infected already (between five and ten million, if CNN is to be believed), the mass media such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have taken notice.

With such a large portion of the computing population threatened, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear my local radio station, WTAM, interviewing an expert on the subject on this morning’s Wills and Snyder show. I was surprised, however, to hear who the “expert” worked for:


I haven’t really mentioned Geek Squad in this blog yet, but those of you who talk to me in person probably know my feelings on this organization.

To put it bluntly, portraying Geek Squad as an expert on anything computer-related would be just about as believable as Michael Scott being called to CTU to replace Jack Bauer (since Jack is indisposed, currently).

The fact that Geek Squad exists isn’t really avoidable – it’s a market that really had no competition (at least on that level – you might have your neighborhood computer guy, or you might have your nationwide tech support company for hardware issues or Windows or other software, but nothing that’s all-encompassing) when Best Buy entered it, so it made a lot of business sense for Best Buy to do so. Why WTAM had them on the air, though, is beyond me. Surely they could have found someone from Microsoft’s local headquarters to talk about it for a few minutes. Surely they could have gotten a professor from CSU or a professor from Case to talk about it. Surely they could have gone down to their own IT department and brought that guy up to talk about it.

Instead, someone from Geek Squad showed up. Now to be fair, the guy wasn’t completely incompetent. He recommended patching your computer, using anti-virus software and using a firewall. Let me assure you: this is the best Geek Squad has to offer, and even if you see one person like this at your local Best Buy, the rest of the team is not like that.

I implore you: don’t go to Geek Squad for anything. They’ll cause more harm than good.

The sun will rise like yesterday

Greetings from Overlook Road, at the beginning of a very cold morning in Cleveland, OH. Nothing in particular to blog about this morning, so I’ll do tidbits.

  • From the “holy crap that’s scary” department, North Korea is ready for launch sometime later this week. From earlier information, we know that the rocket is destined to fly over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean, Japan has vowed to shoot it down should the missile take the predicted path, and North Korea would interpret such an action as an act of war.

    Because the warhead is expected to be non-nuclear, such a small country testing a ballistic missile at this point may seem insignificant. However, if Japan is worried enough (and they have good reason to be) to shoot down the missile as it heads over its territory, then North Korea may declare war on Japan and force the United States into the conflict (the US is already kind of in the conflict, with vessels in the Sea of Japan). This would draw China into the war, and would cause the relations between the US and China, which are already shaky, to deteriorate further. Since China is the country loaning us all this money for the bailouts, and many of our imported goods are made in China, a war with the country would have a horrific effect on our already troubled economy.

    If it were me (and it’s not, it’s this guy) I’d work on this situation from a “Fifth freedom” approach. It’s not done much anymore, but a human espionage operation might be the only thing that could diffuse this situation (or at least postpone it until the Six Party talks resume) without creating a war.

  • As I write this morning, we’re one week away from Opening Day, and I read in ESPN The Magazine (dated 6 April 2009) that Buster Olney has picked the Minnesota Twins to win the AL Central with the Tampa Bay Rays winning the East, and eventually World Series.

    It’s pretty tough for me to pick the Rays this year. While the team was great last year, and made a great story, I thought a lot of things went their way: no huge injuries, a lot of close games, and the Yankees sucked. This year, the Yankees (on paper) are far better, and the ball could certainly bounce the other way. I don’t see the Rays finishing dead last, but I don’t see them winning the East, either.

    As for the Twins prediction, I think it’s fair. After all, Buster Olney has picked the Indians to win the Series for three consecutive years with these finishes: sub-.500, lost ALCS, .500 exactly. While I think the Indians have problems, they’re more experienced and should be more consistent offensively this year, and have pitching depth to solve those problems. The Twins are a bit younger and face injury questions of their own with Mauer and Cuddyer (seriously, is that guy ever playing?), not to mention Liriano. In just a week, we’ll start to find out who’s right.

  • So I flew to Columbia on Friday and back on Saturday. I’m guessing that most people who read this blog aren’t entirely concerned with the software and hardware that runs the airports’ computer systems, but I am (or at least it interests me) and I noticed a few things.
    1. Why is every airline using its own, proprietary software? The software was designed in the 80s (or earlier) and has a ridiculous interface. Most of the terminals at the airports were running Windows XP, so why hasn’t Microsoft (or any other Windows developer) designed a fresh product that could work with every airline that could manage flights? It’d be a tough sell initially, but once the airlines bought it, they’d be hooked. The database could use a SQL Server backend to enable the creation custom software (such as software to outsource ticket booking).
    2. The flight status screens (42-inch flatscreens) at Washington-Dulles were run using Wyse terminals, which is pretty awesome because I developed a report for a client that runs off of a Wyse terminal too.
    3. Why do we still use boarding passes? When you check in, you’re given a boarding pass for each flight that is made of flimsy paper that you’re expected to carry through the airport to show to the attendants. Not only that, sometimes you print your boarding pass out online or receive them in some other fashion, meaning the boarding passes that are collected aren’t uniform. Instead of printing boarding passes, why not use a plastic card (like a subway pass) with a magnetic stripe that has all of your data? You only have one card for your entire flight path (even with connections), and the card can be disposed and reused at some point. There’s no a paper pileup, and it’s secure because all that needs to be stored is an ID: the scanner can look up the flight information using that ID and track progress that way.
  • March Madness, after next weekend, will finally be over. I didn’t even fill out a bracket this year, because I didn’t watch a single game during the regular season, but I had expected North Carolina to win it all and they seem to be the favorites now.
  • In other basketball news, the Cavs have won their sixtieth game and are well on their way to clinching the top overall seed for the playoffs. Part of me will be a little upset if the Cavs win it all (honestly, the Indians and Browns deserve it more) but it’d still be nice to see the city get to celebrate something.
  • Was Saturday the official first day of the disc golf season? Taylor, Sam and I all went to Sims Park in Euclid and we played through a party of about 10 and saw at least four other parties on the course. (For the record, I played a little better this time, but I’m nowhere close to midseason form.)

That’s all from a wet, snowy Cleveland morning. I have four weeks left as an undergraduate so it’ll be nose to the grindstone until April 28th. Have a happy Monday!

When things are more important than football


A crumbling economy, two wars, rising civil unrest about the government stepping in in financial mess after financial mess, and North Korea putting a ballistic missile on a launchpad as if to say, “go ahead and make us.” What is President Obama concerned with?

If you guessed the continuing saga of the Octomom, you’re a more optimistic person than me, because even if President Obama was personally getting involved in the Octomom case, it’d be a better use of his time than weighing in on the BCS. Worse than that, just yesterday ESPN reported that Congress is going to take a whack at it, too.

Here’s my theory. Sports (professional and college sports, anyway) are tremendously important to Americans not only because they give us something to watch on TV besides old reruns of M*A*S*H, but they’re also vital to the growth of the economy. In terms of dollars, think about how much money is spent each year:

And that’s just directly. If you think about it a little more, how much money is spent on transit to the stadiums? How much money is spent on advertising that is seen in the stadiums, TVs, etc.?

The point is, professional and college sports is one of the last big businesses in this country, and college football is no exception. For the most part, the government has stayed out of it and treated it like a business.

But now, President Obama and Congress are getting involved in arguably the fastest-growing sport in the US for some reason. That reason, I believe, is to “spread the wealth around”.

Bear with me on this, for a second. I don’t mean he’s planning on restructuring contracts and making sure that most of Jim Tressel’s income (and one out of every five sweater-vests he owns) goes to the government. “Spreading the wealth around”, in college football, means bringing parity to college football, making it so the Boise State Broncos have as good a shot as the Florida Gators of winning the national title and thus a cash cow in ratings and dollars.

“But wait,” you might say. “Why hasn’t Obama expressed interest in doing something like this for the MLB, NFL, or NBA?” It’s a fair question. There’s no question that two teams on the East coast should, on paper, compete for the American League pennant every year. The Cowboys have so much money and so many advertising deals, I heard they sold naming rights to T.O.’s celebrations last year (“This T.O. touchdown dance is brought to you by Gold Bond Medicated Powder!”). The Lakers and Celtics are really only challenged by the fact that LeBron James is not of this earth.

That’s a fairly easy question to answer though: there are only 30 MLB teams, 30 NBA teams and 32 NFL teams. Many major cities, like Cleveland, double or triple dip and have one of each. A few really major cities have five or six. So really, there are only about 35 cities with a professional sports team.

However, in division 1-A, 120 colleges, each (for the most part) in their own city. What President Obama is proposing (a playoff system, instead of the USC-rigged BCS system) would effectively give each of those 120 colleges a chance at a national title each year and therefore a chance at hosting a national title game, bringing in all kinds of money into the economy.

It’s a decent idea. I’ve always been okay with the BCS, for the most part. Having no tournament-style playoff sets college football apart from the NFL and college basketball. However, as my team is in the BCS-friendly Big Ten conference, it’s easy for me to say that (all OSU has to do is win the conference and they’re in the Rose Bowl, at least). Adding tournaments would create potential for dramatic upsets and would add more games to the season, bringing in money from everywhere.

But let the people who are paid to figure that stuff out figure it out. I understand if Obama made the point as part of a conversation with ESPN before the election, but he shouldn’t be focusing on that now. Congress shouldn’t be touching it either – fix the economy first, and then we’ll move on to fixing college football. (I think I mentioned once that when Congress is focusing on stuff like this, I kind of picture them saying “let’s put the economy on hold, it’s really really hard.”)

Back to normal in Arizona


Now that Japan has beat South Korea in the final game of the World Baseball Classic, the rest of Major League Baseball can go back to preparing for the upcoming season. It seems like we’ve been in Spring Training forever, and we still have almost two weeks left (well, thirteen days). Nonetheless, it’s been a while since talking about our favorite baseball team, so here we go.

  • The pitching rotation, while inconsistent, seems to be taking shape. Cliff Lee, after a couple rocky outings, pitched a solid five innings the other day, and he seems like he’s getting into form in time for his first Opening Day start ever (which, incidentally, will be the Indians’ first Opening Day since 2001 that C.C. Sabathia didn’t start). Fausto Carmona had an injury scare, but it seems like he’ll be alright and he has had a good spring so far. Anthony Reyes, who figures to be the #3 starter, pitched well on Saturday and has had a strong spring.

    The other two slots are less certain, but my guess is that you’ll see Carl Pavano and Aaron Laffey rounding out the Indians rotation at the outset of the season, with Scott Lewis as the Indians’ #6 starter at AAA Columbus. Jeremy Sowers hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been good enough to merit a try in the rotation yet either.

    The good news for the Indians is that really, only one of those two starters needs to be good for the whole year: the Indians will get some reinforcements hopefully by the All-Star Break when Jake Westbrook comes back from Tommy John surgery (he threw off of a mound the other day, which is major progress, although he’s still at least two months away from being ready).

  • The Indians are convinced that Travis Hafner is on his way back, but it’s hard not to be worried as he posts a .143 average with no home runs. The Indians say he is driving the ball well in batting practice, and hope that will translate to the field soon. Realistically, I don’t know how much we can expect from Hafner this season, but I’d be happy thrilled with about 80-90 RBIs, 20 HR and a reasonable on-base percentage (think Kelly Shoppach numbers).
  • Mark DeRosa and Shin Soo Choo made it back from the World Baseball Classic without any injuries. This is the best news the Indians could hope for, as both of them were in it for a very long time. Rafael Perez was in the WBC as well, but he was part of the Dominican Republic team that was eliminated very early on.
  • The Indians’ bullpen hasn’t been all great. Kerry Wood has been excellent when he’s pitched (3 IP, 2 SO, 0.00 ERA), as has Rafael Perez (5 IP, 4 SO, 1.80 ERA) and Jensen Lewis (6 IP, 6 SO, 0.00 ERA). Beyond that, the numbers don’t look as good for Rafael Betancourt (5 IP, 7.20 ERA) and Masahide Kobayashi (5 IP, 14.4 ERA). I think Betancourt will be okay: he’s a pitcher that relies on spotting his fastball incredibly well, and he’s still tuning that. Kobayashi I’m a little bit more worried about, as he’s had a miserable spring the year after pitching a career high in innings. I think it’ll be up to guys like Tony Sipp, Greg Aquino, and Joe Smith to shoulder more of the load.
  • Josh Barfield’s not having the best spring at the plate, but he’s proven that he can be a good replacement to Sizemore in the outfield and can play other positions around the infield as well. If he can ever figure out how to hit consistently, Barfield will be an excellent and valuable player.
  • Indians’ outfielders Grady Sizemore, Matt LaPorta, Ben Francisco and Michael Brantley are having excellent springs at the plate. I’d be very surprised if we don’t see LaPorta sometime in July, with Dellucci being designated for assignment at some point.
  • Jhonny Peralta is killing it at the plate, with Asdrubal Cabrera having a solid spring as well. It’ll be interesting to see what happens should Josh Barfield earn more playing time.
  • Victor Martinez looks fully healthy and is swinging the bat well, with a couple of homers already this spring.

All I can say is, I’m ready for Opening Day. Hopefully opening the season in Texas this year will let the Indians get off to a hotter start offensively without any injuries (take it slow, Victor, take it slow) and the bullpen and rotation will come around. As far as the inaugural Goodyear Spring Training is going, you can’t hope for much more (except for maybe Travis Hafner starting to hit. Please).

Lighten up while you still can

A few days ago Facebook rolled out their new home page, as well as some complimentary features to the Friends page and some unpublished bug fixes. I do use this blog to complain about Facebook occasionally, mostly because I’m jealous of Mark Zuckerberg, but today I’ll be defending it.

Let’s get one thing straight, first: the new homepage is a vast improvement over the old one. The old one was more cluttered and let’s be honest: who used anything other than the “Top Stories” and “Live Feed” tab anyway? The new homepage incorporates both of those features (with some improvements) and adds filters that are customizable, meaning people will actually use them.

You can imagine my shock (read: actually, I completely expected this) when the home page changes began to roll out and like a viral outbreak people started complaining as the changes hit them. “John Smith hates the new Facebook.” “Jane Sanders is back from vacation, but found a bad new Facebook. Sad face.” “Bobby Jones is not really sure what the heck Facebook thinks they’re doing, messing with my homepage.” As expected, these people all congregate into a group creatively titled “100,000 against the new Facebook homepage” (notice that capping your group name at 100,000 doesn’t leave you much room to expand. Facebook has you covered here, too: you can now rename your groups so you can scale to 1,000,000, 1e7, 1e8, etc.), and for a few days haughtily expect Facebook to do something, because they can’t figure out how to use this service which they love so much.

Here’s the thing: Facebook is the property of one company: Facebook. The only reason you should get to complain AT ALL is if you were a shareholder. Microsoft is the only company that’s thrown any money into Facebook so far, according to Bill Gates’ Facebook page, he’s “vacationing in Hawaii,” and not at all displeased with Facebook. (Actually I’m kidding: Bill Gates might have a Facebook page, but I don’t think I friended him yet.) Since you’re not (presumably) Bill Gates (and if you are, hi Bill!), the only way of protesting change to Facebook is to not use it. I know that’s a shocking concept for you, but no one is stopping you from firing up your favorite text editor and creating your own scalable, secure social networking platform.

Another point: Facebook even warned you that these changes were coming, via the Facebook Blog (which, if you’re so concerned with what’s new at Facebook, maybe you should read occasionally) and even a little information box that directed you to said blog. You were invited to give your feedback before these changes were rolled out. Would I be wrong in saying that none of you that are complaining so much didn’t write feedback before the changes?

Ultimately, you’ll get used to the new Facebook. In fact, you’ll grow to love it, so much so that when Facebook changes the homepage again, you’ll hate the new page with every fiber of your being. Here’s my question: aren’t you guys dizzy yet, from going in so many circles?

The joy of exclusivity

Saturday afternoon, a friend and I sat down to play some video games, and once we realized we were bored of Halo, we decided to grab the demo of MLB 2K9:

First impressions were good. The graphics were excellent (which is a necessity these days), the sound appeared okay, and the gameplay was improved. I was less than impressed with MLB 2K7 and MLB 2K8 when I tried them the last two years, but I was hoping that MLB 2K9 had turned the corner.

Boy was I wrong. The controls, which rely heavily on the right analog stick to make the swings and pitches more fluid, are executed poorly to say the least. During the course of the three inning demo Sam and I probably threw 10 curveballs that were supposed to be sliders, and that’s to say nothing of how hard it is to control those pitches.

Hitting falls on the other side of the spectrum, where basically everything is too easy. After the quick learning curve, I had the timing down and was able to hit basically whatever I wanted. You can pull pitches that are outside over the wall for home runs, and take pitches on your hands the opposite way for solid doubles or home runs. Height of the pitch doesn’t seem to make a difference: if you’re “aiming” your swing up, your hit will go in the air regardless of whether its over your head or at your ankles.

The audio is decent, although as usual, the play-by-play department leaves much to be desired. At least the last two years it was Jon Miller and Joe Morgan – this year, it’s someone I’ve never heard of and…wait for it…Steve Phillips. Here’s a guy that knows what the obvious is, and says it. Every time. (This just in: apparently Ryan Howard is a pull hitter.) I’m taking AI, and I know how hard it is to design an accurate play-by-play system, but honestly, a foul ball straight back is not “a grounder towards the hole…that’ll drift foul”.

The shocking inadequacy of this game (a statement I think Gamespot agrees with me on) reminds me of a post I wrote years ago on McJournal, when I was talking about the exclusive rights that Take 2 just won to create MLB games. Well, it’s three years later, and I’m still playing EA Sports’ fantastic MVP Baseball 2005, because no other baseball game (available on an XBox or XBox 360) has come close. (I qualify here that I’m talking about XBox and 360 games only – apparently MLB 09: The Show is fantastic, but it’s only available on the PS3.)

In many ways I still can’t even fathom why Major League Baseball would do such a thing as sign a six-year exclusivity contract (that’s right, we’ve got three more years of this crap). Was it for the money? Major League Baseball had just seen the most-watched ALCS and most exciting ALCS in history, and along with the sweep in the World Series, had brought Red Sox Nation their first pennant in 86 years, bringing Sox fans out of the closet all across our fruited plain. Major League Baseball has only grown in attendance since the turn of the century – the sport is thriving.

So instead of encouraging competition so that gamers could buy the game they liked that featured the MLBPA license, Major League Baseball essentially ended the competition, saying that there was only one baseball game you can get each year, no matter how bad it is. So far, it’s been BAD.

Competition is healthy. It’s what keeps companies honest and forces them to make the best possible product. (Case in point: Microsoft started really caring about security, ease-of-use and intuition once OS X caught on; McDonalds started putting out a healthy menu once Subway started selling some subs. Contradiction: Apple’s iPod/iTunes basically lets them do whatever they want with the music industry, DRM and irresponsible software.) Whoever advised Major League Baseball that removing all competition is either a complete idiot or has socialist ties.

I only hope that this contract won’t be renewed in 2012, but since the NFL has licensed NFL exclusivity to Madden, Take 2 will probably feel the need to pay whatever it can to get MLB rights again. Until then, I’ll probably play MVP Baseball 2005 until they pry it from my cold lifeless XBox (oh by the way, that wonderful exclusivity act means EA Sports can’t patch MVP Baseball 2005 to work on the 360).

Weapons of mass distraction

So in the last week, the Dow has dropped 300 points to close the week at 6626. For those of you keeping track (and honestly, who would do that, the Dow is really like a tracking poll anyway and in no way represents our nation’s financial security), the Dow has now lost close to half its value in a year, with half of that loss coming in the four months since Obama was elected. With unemployment numbers at 8.1 percent and falling, there are clearly things that are wrong with the economy. So what does CNN report on?

I think you get the idea.

So instead of reporting the truth, which is that thus far, Obama’s economic policies are bringing the market down faster than a 747 shot down over Russia, CNN reports these fluff pieces. I know I’m pulling news from the ticker, which is pretty biased as it is, but even on CNN.com and the news network itself, these stories are repeated. These are like, as Robin Williams said in the 2006 movie Man of the Year, weapons of mass distraction, but here’s the difference: Williams’ character said they were used by politicians, not by the news media.

Most of the media, including CNN, MSNBC and CBS, are playing along with these distractions – giving us the breaking news updates of when that swingset was installed, or that Rush Limbaugh uttered another phrase which could be cut up into a soundbite and made him look completely evil. Why? Does the media not use money? Are they not worried that these policies are failing?

Instead of reporting problems with Obama’s administration, such as that he doesn’t watch the Dow (no link because I can’t find it on CNN.com) or that he can’t hold on to appointees to save his life, CNN is quick to report any note of positivity. Note that, if Bush had bought a swingset for his kids (maybe grandkids; the Bush kids are a little too old) in this economy, the media would rip him to shreds for spending taxpayer dollars on a swingset.

Now I know that the Dow Jones Industrial Average isn’t the only indicator of our economy. It’s really kind of a made-up number that’s supposed to quantify the wealth of the top companies in the nation (kind of like WHIP or OPS in baseball), but its performance is crucially important because it affects something else which affects the economy: consumer confidence. Let’s think about it: if you watch one piece of financial news during the day, it’s likely the report of how the Dow, Nasdaq and S&P did that day. Even during the trading day, the little ticker on the bottom of the three news networks are updated every few seconds. In general, if a consumer is educated at all, they’re likely to know what the Dow’s doing. The news networks even color-code it!

In essence, the secondary reason why the Dow is important is that it provides a barometer to the non-economic elite citizens of the country how healthy our economy is. If they’re going to buy a car, buy a home, invest in stock or even make a large purchase like a computer, they’re likely to hold back if they see the Dow has gone down. They’re even more likely to hold back if they can’t remember the last time the Dow went up.

So while Obama is correct in that minor fluctuations are nothing to really worry about, it’s important to see that trends such as what the Dow has done in the month and a half since Obama took office is important.

Commencement

I just had a very startling moment: I registered for commencement. I’ve known for a while now (or at least planning) that I’d be graduating this year, but the e-mail I just received that told me how to pick up my cap and gown made the idea seem very real. Today is March 4: I just finished my second-to-last midterm ever, less than three months from now I’ll be working full-time, and a little more than two months from now I’ll be finished with my undergraduate degree. Time flies, eh?

The two-hour 24 live blog special

I haven’t had much interesting to blog about lately, so tonight, for a change of pace, I plan to live-blog the 2-hour 24 event (and by live-blog, I mean take notes during 24 and post them to the blog shortly after). Stay tuned to this entry after the show for my stream of consciousness.

Display the blog (spoilers)