Sunday, September 26, 2004


I spent my Saturday cleaning out my storage room, throwing out all the junk I had accumulated over the years, and bagging up any old clothes I found to donate to charity. This was the first time in over 10 years I've done this, and you can imagine how much junk had piled up. Four years ago when I moved to America from Canada, I hadn't had time to go through it and took a bunch of junk with me, and two years ago when I moved to New York I couldn't believe how many boxes of stuff they had loaded into the moving truck. I think I may be moving again next summer, and I don't want to be paying a moving company to move a bunch of junk I don't want. So, today was housecleaning day.

It's amazing the sorts of things you find when you clean out your storage room. I found a couple of pictures of the ex-girlfriend I had dated before I met my wife - it's the first time I've seen her face for about five years now. When you're in love, I think it's like you're seeing the person through rose-coloured glasses: I had always thought of my ex-girlfriend as very pretty when she and I were dating, but when I look at her pictures now, she doesn't look all that pretty anymore, especially when I compare what she looks like to my wife.

I threw out so much stuff today, I completely filled up one of the dumpsters outside my apartment complex (I'm sure the other tenants will be really happy with me tomorrow - at least they probably won't know who piled up all the junk in the dumpster).

Earlier today, I went out for a drive and saw a bunch of protesters. There is a busy street corner close to my house where every Saturday afternoon there is a war protest. On one side of the street, you have the pro-war protesters waving around signs like "Support our Troops", and on the other side of the street you have anti-war protesters waving signs like "Leaders Lie, Soldiers Die", "End Iraq Occupation", "Dump Bush", and "Honk for Peace". This protest and counter-protest has been going on every Saturday afternoon for almost two years, ever since the Iraq war started. When I drove past today, I had my windows down, and as I drove past the corner I heard someone yell, "hey ASSHOLE!" For a second, I thought he was calling to me, until I realized it was one of the anti-war protesters yelling an insult at one of the pro-war protesters across the street. For me, I remember these protests when they first started, and I find it amazing they're still going on two years later. I can understand someone protesting about an issue for a day or two if he/she felt strongly enough about it, but for someone to give up their Saturday afternoons every week for two years to hold a protest takes a lot.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Lawyers and Lawyer Jokes

One thing I could not get over when I first moved to this country was the number of personal-injury lawyers they have here. They have television ads, websites, toll-free 1-800 numbers, big billboards by the side of the highways, and posters on subways.

I can just hear them now: "Do you sometimes feel listless and unable to concentrate at work? If this sounds like you, you may be suffering from Repetitive Boredom Syndrome. RBS is a disease that affects thousands of American workers just like you! Call 1-800-SUE-THEIR-ASS and get justice today."

Of course, most of these lawyers work on a contingency basis, which means they don't make anything you lose, but if they settle or win, they take the lion's share of the proceeds and leave the plaintiff with whatever scraps are left-over.

About a year ago, I got a letter in the mail from Western Union informing me that I would be receiving a coupon for some free services as a result of their settling a class-action lawsuit in which I was a plaintiff. Imagine that, I didn't even know about this lawsuit, and yet I was somehow a plaintiff. So, I looked more into the lawsuit and found out that it was a class-action lawsuit over Western Union making a small percentage of each foreign-currency conversion they executed (something that every bank or currency dealer I've ever seen does), and as a result of the settlement each member of the "class" will get a coupon for about $3.25, while the lawyers who initiated this class-action lawsuit made millions. What I found shocking about this whole lawsuit was that I'd always found Western Union's currency conversion rates a bargain (better than I could get from a bank).

When a person like me can become a plaintiff in a lawsuit he's not even aware with, and which he doesn't even agree with, something is seriously wrong with the legal system in this country.


Which leads me to think of some lawyer jokes....

Did you hear about the lawyer who fell into a shark-tank at the acquarium? The sharks left him alone out of professional courtesy.


Q: Why do buzzards have wings?
A: To beat the personal-injury lawyers to the accident scene.


Q: What's the difference between a lawyer and a leech?
A: One is a slimy blood-sucking vermin, and the other is just a leech.


Q: If you are stranded on a desert island with Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and a lawyer, and you have a gun with just two bullets, what do you do?
A: Shoot the lawyer twice.


Q: What's the difference between a dead lawyer in the middle of the road and a dead dog in the middle of the road?
A: There are skid-marks in front of the dog.


A man walks into a lawyer's office and asks to see the lawyer. Upon being brought into the lawyer's office, he asks, "how much do you charge for your services?"

"Five hundred dollars to answer three questions," answered the lawyer.

"Isn't that awfully expensive?" asks the man?

"Yes it is, it's very expensive," answers the lawyer. "Now, what's your third question?"


A man walks into a bar with an alligator and sits down. He calls over the bartender and asks, "Excuse me, sir, do you serve lawyers here?"

The bartender looks at the man and answers, "yes, sir, of course we serve lawyers."

"Great!" says the man, "I'll have a beer, and my alligator here will have a lawyer."


A man was shopping in an antique store and saw an interesting looking figurine made of brass in the shape of a rat. It was a bit tarnished and ugly, but was made in exquisite detail. So, he asked the shopkeeper how much it cost. "It's five dollars, but the sale is final," said the shopkeeper, "if you leave the store with it, we will not take it back under any circumstances."

The man thought this was a good deal, so he handed the shopkeeper a $5 bill, picked up the brass rat, and went on his way. No sooner had he left the doorway to the store did he see a live rat coming around the corner of the building following him. Then another, and another. He kept walking along the street and as he walked past each doorway, rats came out and followed after him. He broke into a run, and the rats ran with him. Before long, there were thousands upon thousands of rats running after the man, and he was getting very scared. He thought to himself, "I know what I have to do," and sprinted to the steep cliffs at the edge of town, pulled back his hand, and threw the brass rat as hard as he could over the edge of the cliff. Just as he expected, the rats ran right past him over the edge of the cliff where they all fell to their deaths.

The man returned to the antique store, and the shopkeeper looked warily at him and said, "Didn't I tell you, the sale was final and we won't take the brass rat back under any circumstances? We don't want any more trouble here."

"Don't worry," said the man, "I was just wondering if you might have a brass lawyer for sale also."

Monday, September 20, 2004

Voting Machines

Four years ago, just after I came to this country, I was treated to a real spectacle: the American presidential election. The election was almost dead-even, with just the state of Florida as the tie-breaker. Of all the places you could use for a tie-breaker, it had to be Florida, with their screwy butterfly-ballots, punch-voting machines, and half the population of the state being senior-citizens with very little patience for this junk technology. What was the result? About three weeks of unbearable news about "hanging chads", "dimpled chads", "pregnant chads", and pictures of an elections officer holding up a ballot and squinting at it so hard it looked like his eyeball was about to pop out of its socket. Even today, while Americans have accepted that George Bush is president, many still question whether he legitimately won the election four years ago. Unfortunately, the way things are going, it looks like we may be in for a repeat performance in November.

In Canada even today, elections are still done with paper ballots. The rules are simple: you get a ballot with an empty circle beside each candidate's name and a pencil. You go behind a little cardboard privacy shield, mark an X in the circle beside the candidate you want, and go back to deposit it in the ballot box. If you don't mark any circle, if you mark more than one circle, or even if the pencil line touches the outside of the circle, your ballot is "spoiled" and won't be counted. People know this, so if they accidentally spoil a ballot, they ask for another one. At the end of the election, the returning officers for each polling station sit down and hand-count all the ballots. All of this may sound like a lot of work, but it gets the job done: in a few hours you have your election results and you never hear about fiascos like what happened in Florida four years ago.

I am an IT director, and a principle I like to use is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." It is pointless to deploy technology for technology's sake - it is not sufficient for a technology to be "cool" or "slick": the technology you deploy must produce a return on investment. If the technology increases the complexity of a process and does not produce any appreciable gains, it is not worth deploying.

Unfortuntately, the people running elections down here do not seem to have grasped this concept. Several years ago, some misguided public officials started introducing mechanical voting machines operated by levers as well as mechanical punch-card mechanisms like the ones that caused the problems in Florida. You would think after the fiasco four years ago that these people would have learned their lesson. No, instead they reasoned that since the technology they were using was imperfect, they should spend even more money to deploy technologies that are even less perfect and less proven than what they used four years ago.

Many states, including Florida, are deploying electronic voting machines that will allow voters to cast their ballots using touch-screens. While these may be "cool" and "slick", there are a number of fundamental flaws with this concept:

1. Paper backup: a well designed system would have a printer attached that would print a line for each vote cast, allowing for a manual recount in the event of a system malfunction, or where a recount is called due to a close race. Sadly, most voting machines do not have printers attached.

2. Communications security: a key weakness of any system like this is its ability to communicate its results in a secure fashion. Presumably, since many votes will be cast in temporary locations such as school gyms, most voting machine results will be transmitted back to their tabulating computers via dial-up modem lines or over the Internet. Unfortunately, both of these communication methods are susceptible to break-ins. The main concern would be a hacker's ability to engage in a little electronic "ballot box stuffing" by dialing into the same phone number used by the voting machines and uploading a few thousand bogus votes for his favorite candidate.

In short, the American public is spending a lot of money on technology that is not proven, and is deploying this technology for the extremely critical function of choosing the next government. Not a wise choice, in my opinion. In my role as an IT director, if I were to deploy such unproven technology for such a critical business process in my company, I would probably be fired. Unfortunately, the public officials and companies involved in this fiasco have not met this fate, and seem to have become even more egregious with their spending on this white elephant.

What is needed here in the United States is a return to the basics: ballot boxes, pencils, paper ballots, and a bunch of people to count the ballots when the voting's done. While this may not be "cool" or "slick", it does get the job done, and would produce a truly incontestable election result that the American public can feel confident in.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

New York Mets

On Tuesday night, I was at a New York Mets baseball game in a private skybox as a guest of one of my vendors. For those who have never been in a private skybox for a game, it is a very different experience: you enter the ballpark though a special door, and they take you to your floor in a special elevator. They serve food and have an open bar serving beer, wine, and cocktails. Vendors like to have customers in these skyboxes, because it gives them a good opportunity to schmooze with them for a few good hours, and unlike sitting in the regular seats, you can walk around and talk to people without disrupting anyone. It's fun, but you miss some of the game because you're too busy schmoozing (if you're the vendor) or being schmoozed (if you're the customer).

You can tell the New York Mets are in last place: the stadium had just a few people in it, and whole sections of the stadium were empty. One of the guys in our skybox obviously didn't like the Mets much - he changed the channel on one of the televisions to the World Cup Hockey finals, and spent the game sitting at the bar at the back of the skybox watching hockey instead of baseball!

It was a good game, though, and the Mets won 7 to 0. I had fun.

You compare this to the New York Yankees, where the stadium is always packed and you get stuck in traffic for over an hour trying to leave after the game is done.


Speaking of the New York Mets, here is a little joke:

A New Yorker dies and goes to hell. After a few days, the devil comes by asks the New Yorker how he likes it in hell. "Oh, it's great! I love the weather down here!"

"This guy is supposed to be in pain because of the heat here, " says the devil to himself, and cranks the heat in hell up higher.

The next day, the devil comes by the New Yorker to see how he is doing, and finds him in a good mood, "I love the weather down here," says the New Yorker, "after the last winter we had in New York, this is a big relief!"

The devil gets angry at this, cranks the heat WAAAAYYYY up, and says to himself, "let's see how he likes the temperature down here now!" But, when he comes back the third day, he finds the New Yorker relaxing in a beach chair reading a book, and oblivious to the heat.

"Maybe this guy would suffer more in the cold!" says the devil and cranks the temperature WAAAYYYY down. So, the temperature in Hell drops down and a huge blizzard starts blowing.

The next day, the devil comes by and sees the New Yorker jumping up and down in a snowbank, "The Mets won the World Series! The Mets won the World Series!"

Author's Note: There are a couple of sayings here: "Hell will freeze over before the Mets win the World Series." and "The Mets have a snowball's chance in Hell of winning the World Series."

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Stupid User Tricks

When I first got started in the computer industry, I worked on a helpdesk - the place people call when their computer is not working. When I was there, I saw and heard of some of the stupidest questions about computers I've ever seen. Some people, it seems are perfectly normal but as soon as they sit in front of a computer, their brains switch off and they turn into total morons.

Here are some of the funniest questions and situations I've seen....


User: My computer is not working. Can you please have a technician sent out here to fix it?

Helpdesk: What's wrong with it?

User: It's just totally dead. I move the mouse and hit keys on the keyboard and nothing happens. Oh, and the monitor light is orange.

Helpdesk: Is the CPU turned on?

User: The WHAT?

Helpdesk: The CPU?

User: What's a CPU?

Helpdesk: The big box under the monitor that you put the floppy disks into. Are there any lights on that box that are normally on that are not on now?

User: Well, there's a light that's normally green that's not on now.

Helpdesk: Are there any buttons on the front of this box?

User: Yes, there's one.

Helpdesk: Can you press it for me?

User: (after a 30 second pause)... YOU'RE A GENIUS!!!!!


User: I'm going to install Lotus 123 on my laptop computer. Can you please tell me how much more the laptop is going to weigh after Lotus 123 is installed?

Helpdesk (being sarcastic): Well, that really depends. Are you installing the full version of Lotus 123, or the "Lite Edition"?


I had one (serious) call from a user wanting to know how to connect his computer into a sewing machine. I was amazed after doing some research that there is a way to do this.


One of my old clients when I was doing consulting used to have a mixture of Windows and OS/2 servers in their data center. The client asked me, "do you know how you can tell the difference?" I told him no, so he showed me something on a couple of the OS/2 servers that made me crack up laughing: kick-marks.

Apparently, every so often the IT people would get pissed off when the OS/2 servers would crash, walk into the server room, and kick the server a few times.


I was at one of my old clients and just happened to be in the room for this exchange:

User: "My password isn't working."

Administrator: "Good observation. I disabled the account."

User: "Can you please re-enable it for me?"

Administrator: "No!"

User: "Why not?"

Administrator: "You shared your password with someone else in violation of our policy. So, I've disabled your account, I'm not re-enabling it. And if that means you can't do your job, well tough, it sucks to be you now doesn't it?"

Note: Many IT people wish they could have a conversation like this with someone, but this is the only time I've ever seen someone really do it.


One user called saying he was trying to setup his new home computer and the foot-pedal was not working. After some investigation, the helpdesk technician figured out he was referring to the mouse!


A user called in to say the cupholder on his computer was broken (he was referring to the CD-ROM).


Saturday, September 04, 2004

One-sided news coverage

One of the things I have found frustrating with living in the United States for the past few years has been the spotty coverage of international affairs you get in the mainstream American news media. When I was living in Canada, it was different: you'd pick up a typical newspaper and the cover-page is filled with major news happening around the world. In the US, it seems you usually have to dig way into the middle of the newspaper to find anything of note about world news.

The coverage of the Olympics was a good example of this. If you watched the coverage on NBC, you might easily be led to believe that the United States won ALL the gold medals in the whole Olympics. Why? It seems the only events they really focused on (gymnastics, etc.) were events the United States did well in, and with few exceptions the only medal ceremonies they showed were ones where the American team won the gold medal. So, you'd sit on your couch hearing the Star-Spangled Banner played over and over again ad nauseum, thinking the United States Olympic Team was winning every event. In actuality, while the United States did win 35 gold medals, the Chinese were right behind them with 32 - and yet the only time I actually heard the Chinese national anthem being played was in the closing ceremonies where they were handing the Olympic flag to Beijing (who will be hosting the 2008 games). When I was living in Canada, one thing I used to enjoy about the Olympics was hearing the national anthems of many countries for the first time. With the NBC coverage here in the United States, the only national anthem I heard for the first time was Israel's (they did show the medal ceremony for them here).

Living in the United States, which is so big and self-sufficient, it is very easy to forget that there are a lot of other countries in the world, and that most people in the world are not Americans and may think differently about some issues than Americans do. Schools in the United States tend to do a very poor job of teaching geography and international history (many students only learn about the United States and may even have trouble pointing out Canada and Mexico on a map). The news media here tend to give very scanty coverage of international news, and when they do cover it, it is often from a very US-centric perspective.

I've sometimes joked that if you had two news articles come in at the same time, one about OJ Simpson getting arrested for murder again, and one about a massive earthquake causing half the continent of Asia to slide underwater killing millions, the OJ article would be on the front page of the local newspaper and the Asia article would be relegated to page 23.

Just like their coverage of the Olympics over the last few weeks, news organizations here tend to slant their regular international news coverage strongly in favor of the United States and its allies (Israel, etc.). If the US or an ally of the US does something wrong (like mistakenly bombing a wedding party in Afghanistan), the US news media seems to brush it under the carpet or make excuses (the wedding party was really a bunch of terrorists with one really bad terrorist wearing a white wedding dress). If an American gets kidnapped or killed, it's huge news, but if someone from another country gets kidnapped or killed, it's minor news. In the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda were murdered by machete-wielding thugs, nobody here did anything about it, and news coverage of this atrocity was scant. Rwanda, in the eyes of most Americans, was this far-away foreign place that nobody new or cared much about, so the news media (wanting to sell more newspapers) didn't report much on it.

There are some good exceptions to this. The Washington Post was the newspaper that first broke the story of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse pictures (which took a lot of guts on their part). The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are also both very good with international news coverage, as are some of the television documentary shows ("60 Minutes", etc.). But, for the most part, American news media do not pay much attention to international news.

This lack of coverage can really have a negative effect here , because public opinion here is often shaped by what is reported in the news media, and since this is a democracy, public opinion shapes the government's foreign policy. When news coverage is nonexistent, public opinion around an issue is not strong, and the government may not feel any obligation to address it.

Americans are generally good-hearted people, and tend to mean well in their dealings with other countries. But, when the American public are not given the information necessary to develop an informed opinion about issues, they may not understand the point of view of other people and countries.

Personally, one thing I like about the Internet is the ability to get both sides of a story. For example, if something happens in Israel or the occupied territories, you can get two very different perspectives on the same story by reading the Israeli media (Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, etc.) and then the Arab media (Al-Jazeera, Arab News, etc.). The truth of the issue generally lies somewhere in the middle of the two perspectives, because in any war or dispute, both sides suffer, although they each tend to focus more on their own suffering.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The Running of the Jackasses

The northern Spanish city of Pamplona is famous for it's annual running of the bulls, where they allow crazed bulls to run up and down the street terrorizing the place. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Well, New York never likes to be outdone by anyone, so yesterday we had our own special event, the "Running of the Jackasses" (historical note: the Democratic Party's mascot is a donkey ever since former Democratic president Andrew Jackson was called a "jackass" by his opponent).

Today, the Republican convention was well underway in Madison Square Gardens with the Republicans giving speeches, patting themselves on the back, and other sorts of feel-good activities. And, since most of the jackass protesters couldn't figure out how to get past the cops and into Madison Square Gardens for themselves to join in the fun, they decided to create some "fun" out on the streets for the rest of us.

One band of jackasses decided to chain themselves together, while another band decided to try lying down in the middle of the road (bad idea in New York: good thing the cops were there to arrest that second bunch of idiots before some crazed taxi driver could run over them). More jackasses decided it would be fun to set garbage cans on fire. All in all, a good day to stay out of town.

I took a drive through part of Manhattan yesterday and the place looked like a war zone - cops on every street corner I passed with pylons and barricades up blocking lanes.

In the end, some of the cops got the hang of the "running of the jackasses", using plastic netting to herd the brain-dead beasts together so they can be loaded into paddy-wagons, and herding them down side streets where other cops were waiting.

In Pamplona, even though the bull may put up a fight, the matador always end up winning in the end. So, in keeping with good Pamplona fashion, the cops ended up winning the first New York "Running of the Jackasses", with almost a thousand jackasses arrested by the end of the day. The final score in yesterday's run: NYPD 1000 and jackasses 0.

More to come tonight? We'll see...