Category Archives: Rant

Card Sharks

As you prepare for the holidays, do yourself a favor and watch this cold-water-in-the-face video.

“Free checking, huh?”


If you built it I would come

I’ve already given this idea to the on-duty manager of the grocery store where I shop but she probably filed it under looney ideas gleaned from talkative old men in the checkout line and did little or nothing else with it, so I’m offering it to any of my programmer friends who might want to make a name for themselves and in the process create a useful tool for crazies like me who look for innovative ways to use our Internet connection.  I, like most everybody else and maybe even you, dutifully hand the cashier my “value card” as he or she is about to ring up my purchases so that I can get the discounts that accrue from having given them my name and address and having allowed them to tag me with a unique Customer ID.  They use it, among other things, to print out a listing of the items I have purchased that day, neatly categorized into sections like Produce, Package Meat, Grocery, Frozen Food, Dairy, Candy/Gum, etc., and at the conclusion of that listing they announce that Your Savings Today was $7.48 on my most recent (9/16/07) expenditure of $56.66.  I walk away, informed and satisfied that it could have been at least $7.48 worse.

Now I’m reasonably sure that’s not all they do with the information gathered from scanning the bar codes of my purchases and pairing them with my unique Customer ID.  Quite likely, they use the information to update their records that I made off with one bottle of Tide laundry detergent, thus depleting their supply, and conclude they should replenish that item at that particular store.  And throughout their supply chain they use my data to inform their business partners of my shopping behavior.  But as far as I am concerned, my data is lost forever in the supply chain.  It’s not available for me to use any more.

So here’s my idea.  Let me see the accumulated information the store collects on me.  Many of my purchases are cyclical.  For instance, I buy deodorant, shampoo, shaving cream, milk, and laundry detergent on some regular interval.  How often?  I don’t know, but I’ll bet the store knows, if they wanted to look.  They have a web site, and I’m pleased to report they do offer a way for me to look up weekly specials on that web site and create a shopping list from them.  But if I were able to log into their web site with my unique Customer ID (and a password I chose), I could discover it was about time for me to buy more shampoo or deodorant, and creating a shopping list on their web site would be enhanced by becoming a simple matter of checking off items and specific brands that I normally buy. 

To me, it seems there must be a database that contains all that information and it can’t be all that difficult to make access to the data available on the web to the customer who helped to create it.  Or said in another way in the hypothetical words of Moses Schwartz, my local mythical grocer, “Let my data go.”  Make it easier for me to spend my money with you! And if you build it on the web, I promise you I will come.

Speaking of Technology

I sometimes believe the wheels of technological progress would screech to a halt without the use of acronyms. And facility with acronyms seems to be the shibboleth that divides the technological cognoscenti from those who are lost in space when they walk into Best Buy or Circuit City. Seniors, in particular, find dealing with some pimply-faced geek wannabe who has scored a job selling the latest computers, digital cameras and MP3 players to an unsuspecting public to be an anathema. God forbid you should have a problem with your computer and have to try to determine whether that Geek Squad Savior who rode in on a white PT Cruiser is blowing smoke up your ass when he tells you you’ve got to buy a $300.00 component just to get your email to work again. They’ll sling acronyms at you so fast that it’ll make your head spin. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with bullshit.”

I began this post thinking I had conceived a useful neologism — acronymphobia, but once again I was wrong. There is, of course, nothing new under the sun. Larry Adams had already defined it here thusly …

The fear of not understanding all the different acronyms used in business, in the media, or on the streets. Some persons may not understand a speaker or a writer when too many unfamiliar acronyms or cryptic words are used in a conversation or a report. Some persons feel a sense of panic or inadequacy.

The first link in this post (to the Wikipedia explanation of an acronym) points out that …

In the English language, the widespread use of acronyms, initialisms, and contractions is a relatively new linguistic phenomenon, having become most popular in the 20th and 21st centuries. As literacy rates rose, and as sciences and technologies advanced, bringing with them more complicated terms and concepts, the practice of abbreviating terms became increasingly convenient.

So since the 1940s, most notably manifested in the so-called Alphabet Agencies of the New Deal, we’ve relied on acronyms to help us communicate and in some instances to obscure what we are communicating, particularly from the uninitiated. Governmental agencies, different disciplines, and in particular specialized fields of study all have their own set of acronyms that facilitate getting ideas across without having to spell out the referent. In fact, organizations used to publish books that could be used to decode the mysterious combinations of letters that were required to function within those organizations.

Fortunately, the Internet which must bear its share of responsibility for the proliferation of these acronyms also provides a solution. If you’ve ever found yourself at a loss to know what XML, RSS, CSS, PHP or any similar acronym means, you can turn to The Internet Acronym Server for a translation. You might then have to plug the decoded version of the acronym into Google or Wikipedia, but with a little patience and a few clicks you can find out what the acronym means. It’s just a pity that you can’t always find it while you are standing face to face and matching wits with someone who may be 40 or more years your junior at the computer store.

But here’s a shopping tip, play dumb. If you’d like to frustrate the little bugger, insist that he translate each acronym he tries to snow you with, and then if he’s successful in doing so, ask for an explanation of just what eXtensible Markup Language, for example, means and what it is used for. You may have some fun in the exchange, but be careful. If you play this game often enough, you just might learn something and then you may find the acronyms slipping into your own vocabulary and alienating you from your peers.

Seasons Greetings

Here’s the text of the first email I sent out today. (Names omitted for the usual reasons.)

Dear friend,

I’m addressing this message to you because I have, in the past, received a number of Word files from you as attachments to your messages. My purpose in sending it to you is not to single you out, accuse you or blame you but rather to alert you to this issue, and besides I had to have someone to address the message to, so that I could copy the others on my BCC.

This Microsoft Security Bulletin, dated December 5, 2006,, documents a so-called “zero day” vulnerability in Microsoft Word that could allow remote code execution. Feel free to visit the Microsoft site and read the full bulletin for yourself, but I provide “my” summary in this message for your convenience.

The vulnerability affects these Microsoft products: Microsoft Word 2000, Microsoft Word 2002, Microsoft Office Word 2003, Microsoft Word Viewer 2003, Microsoft Word 2004 for Mac, and Microsoft Word 2004 v. X for Mac, as well as Microsoft Works 2004, 2005, and 2006.

Here is the important part.

“In order for this attack to be carried out, a user must first open a malicious Word file attached to an e-mail or otherwise provided to them by an attacker.”

As with all such vulnerabilities, this one is a severe pain in the butt, since it is frequently useful to be able to share files with friends and associates in this format, but I suppose it is just one of the prices we must pay for the ease and convenience of being connected electronically.

Since the approaching Holiday Season presents an occasion to send “all your friends” a Word file containing pictures of your family and a narrative that explains all the wonderful things that have happened to you during the past year as well as your wishes for the season, you may be tempted to send such a document electronically. I urge you not to do it. Call me Scrooge if you wish, but I’m not opening any such documents I receive. A plain-text email with a wish for a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or Happy New Year will get read; an attached Word document won’t.

If you want me to look at your Word document that you so carefully composed, print it out and mail it in the U. S. Mail. At least that way, all I have to worry about is Anthrax or a letter bomb, both of which are at least modestly more difficult to create.

As they say, Happy Friggin’ Holidays!


On May 9, 1961, Newton Minnow, John F Kennedy’s appointee to the Chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission, delivered his now-famous “Vast Wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters and described the state of television at that time thusly …

When television is good, nothing–not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers–nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you–and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

Newton Minnow’s “Vast Wasteland” speech

I would encourage you to read the entire edited version of that speech at the link cited above. It isn’t long and it is, in my view, well worth the effort. Then ask yourself whether in the ensuing 45 years the Broadcasters have taken his advice to heart.

My answer is that the deplorable situation he described back then has deteriorated … considerably. As bad as he thought things were at the time, those days can only be seen as the Golden Age of television in light of what has happened since then. The landscape has become vaster, now sporting hundreds of channels where there were previously only a few, and the wasteland of that time now seems almost like the Garden of Eden.  Compare what existed then to today’s mix of so-called reality shows, inane family shouting matches, and what Fox news calls “fair and balanced” reporting but is nothing more than a one-sided propaganda machine that merely serves to exacerbate the division of these once-United States into red and blue camps that can no longer talk sanely to each other or focus on the common good.  We’re making great progress alright … along the road to Hell.

Yet, I think Minnow’s basic statement is still true.  When television is good, there is nothing better and when it’s bad, nothing is worse.  So to turn this rant in a somewhat more positive direction, I’ll report that I recently caught a one-hour presentation on PBS (what else?) about PopTech and was fascinated. They (PopTech) have a web site and a blog that I’ll be monitoring.  Though I’d love to attend one of their annual conferences, the price ($2,295.00) for a three-day conference is a bit steep for my budget.  In addition to the consistently worthwhile offerings of PBS, I find that the group of channels that Discovery offers are worth the time spent watching them.  So it is possible to find things on television that improve the mind rather than rotting it.

As with anything else in life, a great deal of how you see things depends on the choices you make.  What you attend to determines your outlook and consequently what you think about reality.  I just shudder at the choices some people make, particularly when they wish to vent their feelings about how the world is because I know their point of view is based on “data” from sources that I consider suspect.  Of course, I suppose they may feel the same way about me and my choices too.

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