Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sundown

"Sometimes I think it's a sin when I feel like I'm winning when I'm losing again." -- Gordon Lightfoot

Every now and then we make decisions that we think are correct and then, for whatever reason, we need to change our minds.

I finally caved-into temptation and purchased the TV set I said I was going to wait to purchase (see "Stuff" entry). A certain popular electronics retailer had a sale price that was too good to pass-up, and I figured it was only a matter of time that it was going to happen anyway. If you're looking to purchase a large screen HDTV be prepared for some surprises. Standard TV from the satellite receiver, which looked pretty good on my old TV, looked like crap on the new HDTV. "What in hell is this? I buy this expensive TV and the picture is crappier than it was on my old TV!!" Welcome to the world of magnified-garbage-in-equals-bigger-garbage-out. The sad truth is that the highly compressed (ugly) video coming from the satellite just looks really bad when it is displayed on a television twice its size. There is a light at the end of the tunnel in that all television is moving toward higher definition and, at least, better compression algorithms. In the meantime, all the predictions I made earlier have come true.

The way to survive the HDTV upgrade is to look at the long term and not expect perfection in the short term. People who know me know I'm not really good at this (sounds like a learning opportunity).

I'm watching the sun go down on the relationship between two friends. In addition to the strain it has placed on just about every aspect of my already strained life, it is another example of romance gone bad. I'd like to say I learned something from this but things are so messed-up that the only thing I've learned is that I'm staying out of the way of future train-wrecks by remaining far removed from any moral support from now on. I would normally conclude from this situation that there's absolutely no hope for an old geeky computer guy. However, my friend "Speck" who got me started writing here in the first place seems to have the right formula for making things work. Thank goodness something is going right.

The sun is also setting on a tradition I looked forward to every year: My ex-boss' (Dan's) Christmas party. This is the last year he said he's going to do this, and I can't say I blame him. It's a lot of work to do to prepare, and we've all gotten separated since his retirement. I'm hoping for something new next year that I can embrace as much as I have this. What I enjoyed about this party was the fact that I could completely relax and be myself. It is a fairly simple and easy going get-together at Dan and his wife's home. Everyone brought something, and most of us would sit around, eat, and chat about old times and neat stuff we were doing. It was one of the few times I could honestly say that I came home more refreshed than when I arrived. The world needs more parties like this. The stuffy corporate dress-up-and-get-drunk party is the antithesis to this and what made me hate Christmas parties in the past. So my thanks to Dan for all the great times we had every year, and here's hoping we can establish a new tradition next year in the same spirit. They will be tough shoes to fill.

With that said, it's time to sit down and chat with a bunch of nice felines waiting for a good home. It has been said that, "Everything I needed to know about life I learned from my cat." I'm about to go gather some wisdom.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Stuff

It feels like a whole lot of nothing has been happening lately, but some stuff has been worthy of note.

I finally went to the retina specialist that my cute optometrist recommended (she actually contacted Dr. Chen, and his office finally contacted me to find out when I was going to make an appointment). To make a long story short, the final outcome was that I don't need surgery. It seems nearsighted eyes have an oblong shape rather than round. In some nearsighted people, this causes the retina to stretch which can result in thin spots that show-up on retina scans as spots. It is possible for these thin spots to develop a hole, so it's important to watch for any significant changes. So the only thing I need to do is to make sure I visit with Dr. Beck once a year, like I have been doing. Aside from the discomfort of having my eyes dilated (mucho discomforto for me) it was a good doctor visit. So the retina stuff is over for now.

There's a 46 inch Sony XBR4 HDTV that has been calling my name lately. I have come very close to purchasing this expensive television set at least three times in the past two weeks. I'm one of those people who tries to avoid filling voids in my life with stuff. While I know I will eventually get this, I have, for the third time, decided the timing is bad. I've been in an especially depressed mood lately and deep down I know that the TV is simply a gadget that I'm using to provide a diversion from the real problems that need to be addressed. It doesn't help that the usual hypocritical commercialistic holiday people call "Christmas" seems to be starting early this year, and the "buy stuff" message is coming from everywhere already. A HDTV would be nice, but getting this creates a snowball effect of stuff that will need to be bought...
  • The TV doesn't fit in my existing entertainment center, so at the very least the shelving unit I made into an entertainment center would need to be significantly reworked (and I'll likely need a new TV stand).
  • I'm still using the stereo system I bought when I was a student in college over 20 years ago. Getting the most out of the new TV really requires that my audio system be updated to a surround system.
  • I currently have no source of HDTV programming except for over-the-air without getting more expensive satellite service or cable TV (which is seriously lacking in HD content). DirecTV can be persuaded to give discounts on a HD DVR, but I'm not really excited about giving up my TiVo for an inferior product.
  • Getting over-the-air TV will require me to get an antenna, set it up in the attic, and do wiring to get it down to the TV. After that, I'll be able to view live TV but without a DVR that can record HD content over-the-air (my TiVo can't handle HD and only works with DirecTV) I'll have to watch any programs when they air with no commercial editing.
  • If I want to make a DVR that can record live TV, I will need to buy a new computer because none of the systems I have are up to the task.
If I just got the TV and didn't do something about getting HD content, then it would be pointless to have a TV that is designed to display HD content. So this purchase of an expensive TV creates the need for a lot of extra stuff I'm just not prepared to purchase (or work on) right now, even though it is cool.

I have some stuff to say about Christmas. I used to love Christmas. I saw it as a time of year where we played happy music, created cheerful light displays, and got together with friends and family and did fun things. What better way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ than to be thankful for our good fortune and be with people we care about. It just doesn't seem that way anymore. Many of my friends disappear for the holidays to visit their extended families. Everyone is running around trying to buy the perfect gift. The stores are mobbed and the roads are clogged with idiots who are only thinking of themselves. The stores are pushing the buy-buy-buy mentality earlier every year. So much to the disappointment of some of my extended family, I have decided to not buy gifts and have asked for them to not buy me gifts. I don't need more stuff. It is hard to buy something for people you see once every couple of years and who (by their own admission) don't really want stuff either. "But it's the thought that counts." Absolutely. I think about everyone all the time, but buying stuff doesn't bring me any closer to them. Say, "Bah humbug." Whatever. What's meaningful to me is getting together with friends, driving around looking at the neat light displays, meeting for dinner, and getting together to do fun things. I can't think of any better way of celebrating the holiday season.

Speaking of stuff ... it's almost Thanksgiving and time for my favorite food -- stuffing.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Hummmmmm

It's always nice to be able to help your parents solve a problem even though you live 2000 miles away from them. Today, I did just that and the problem and solution deserve an explanation to help benefit others.

So you have this neat new audio system or TV and everything works great except that you hear a slight humming in the background, or you see very faint wide horizontal bars that appear to go up your TV screen. This behavior isn't normal. The most common cause for this problem is called a "ground loop." A ground loop (in lay-person's terms) is what happens when the electrical shielding around cables within a system connect at different points that allows an electrical current to begin flowing in the shield (generating noise). The purpose of the shield around the cables for your TV and audio equipment is to prevent stray electrical signals that are in the air (like from your cell phone or the motor in a vacuum cleaner) from interfering with the signals you actually want passing through the cable (like sound or picture information). Ground loops are difficult to diagnose and solve because it requires identifying all the grounding sources for the different shields and isolating each one to see which makes the hum go away.

In my parents' case, we isolated the offending path to be through the cable TV wire. My father looked at the wire and, realizing that I mentioned a grounding problem, noticed that the cable TV ground outside was improperly connected to a pipe that went nowhere. Our house has a history of stray electrical signals coming into the house through the ground lines, and so we theorized that these stray electrons found a nice neat pathway through my parents new HDTV and out the cable TV line.

The way to stop ground loops from happening is to get all the involved ground connections going to the same place. In most cases, this is done for you automatically since everything goes to the same power strip, and thus, the same ground connection in your home's electrical system through the electrical outlet. However, since the cable TV line was improperly grounded at the house, it was taking a pathway to some other home down the street, which was either the source of the stray signal or where it was trying to go.

So in this case, I suggested that my parents remove the stupid ground the cable TV company connected and connect that to the common electrical ground outside that my father installed years ago (and did a great job with). That caused the cable line to ground at the same point as all the other electrical appliances in the house. It also solved the problem with the hum coming from the TV, and the hum-bars going up the screen. Mission accomplished.

As I seem to be doing more and more lately, more information can be obtained from Wikipedia at this link to electrical ground loops. It pretty much says what I just said, but has more tech info as well as other informational links.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Peace on Earth?

Those of you who have really perused my "blog" completely may have noticed I have described myself as a "freethinker." I carefully chose that term as opposed to atheist, agnostic, or godless because the latter carry myriad negative connotations with them that really don't describe me. When I was a kid I wasn't very popular because I did what made me happy (and what seemed like the right thing) and didn't follow the crowd or try to impress others. I feel that the term freethinker better describes my overall philosophy on life, not just religion.

I never was religious in the way most people are. The revealing of Santa Claus' true identity pretty much sealed religion's fate for me. I never saw any need for faith in a higher power, and the concept of prayer and the various customs seemed (and still seem) rather silly and, at best, antiquated. I fully support the right for anyone to believe as they wish, however. If these faith-based belief systems work for you, then go right ahead and believe them as long as you don't try to change my mind or interfere with my right to believe as I do.

It is important to understand, particularly if you are religious, that I do have a strong moral foundation. My belief system puts a very high value on life (of all living things, not just human), emphasizes trying to treat others as I would like to be treated, and that the only person responsible for what I do is me. That system of values (except for the last one) is the one that most of the religious groups claim that their value system is based upon. I'm not being nice or doing good things because I feel it will help my position in the afterlife -- I am doing it because it is the right thing to do.

So with all that being said - Religious evangelism and extremism in particular is dangerous. Once the exterior shell of "love thy neighbor" is stripped away, a core of hate and judgmental belief remains. History is littered with hideous acts performed in the name of religion -- from the burning of alleged "witches" to the bombing of abortion clinics -- from the Spanish Inquisition to certain jihads of Islamic fundamentalism to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. If there is a supreme being looking down on what we're doing, he or she is shaking their head in shame at this point. I don't think Jesus Christ would approve of the commercialism and greed that has become the day we celebrate his birth.

As many of you already know there is usually a reason for me to have an outburst such as this, and you would be correct in believing that this time is no different. Last night I watched another episode of ABC News' 20/20 and John Stossel's story about the funeral protests by the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas. The WBC asserts that all the bad things that have happened to the United States is God's retaliation for the support of homosexuality ("fags" as WBC would call them) within our country. They have brainwashed their children into believing their agenda and hate speech without even understanding what it truly means. Incidentally, their web site, www.godhatesfags.com, is no longer accessible, although I'm sure this is merely temporary.

I'm not homosexual (hopefully, this is obvious) - but I support homosexuals as people who haven't done anything to anyone. They're human beings just like you and I. They're not responsible for the collapse of the family - in actuality, lack of planning for a family and marrying for the sole reason of having children and fulfilling religious dogmas are responsible for that. They're not responsible for the spread of AIDS or other illnesses. My only gripe with the gay/lesbian community is with the fringe and extreme groups (acting weird doesn't help support your group). While I'm not comfortable with sexual preferences different from my own, it doesn't mean that these folks can't be my friends and that they do their thing and I do mine. There are a whole lot more important issues facing the world today than worrying about someone else's sexual preference. It seems to me that Fred Phelps and the WBC need to find something more productive to do with their time and energy.

People: You don't need religion to be a good person. I don't know whether or not there's a supreme being, and if there is I'm not going to pretend to know how that being manifests itself within our universe. I can only hope that any entity that is above us in knowledge and wisdom would rather that we spend our time making the world a better place (that means less fighting and finger-pointing) than to waste time worshiping and fighting in the name of him/her. Stargate SG1 fans will know that we've already dealt with the Goa'uld and the Ori (who not-so-coincidentally look a lot like TV evangelists) and the harm that they do.

If you're interested in further study on this topic, here are a few interesting links: