Sunday, April 22, 2007

Technology Woes

Anyone who reads this column frequently knows that I’m in love with technology and gadgetry, at least when all’s working well. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes they make me want to pull my hair out.

Here is a case in point.

Last week, I received an e-mail from a lady who is one of the support staff for my school district where I teach. The letter, which was sent to all the teachers, advised us that if we wanted a free copy of Microsoft Office and a free copy of Windows XP Professional that we could have one, since the school system bought a special site license.

I thought it was great. I could install an updated version of Windows. So I used my GPS navigator to find the lady’s office building. It sent me to a dead-end street and left me there for the coyotes. I drove around awhile and didn’t even see the street name.

So I went to the administrative offices a few blocks away and they gave me verbal directions. When I arrived, it was five minutes until closing. The lady said everyone has trouble finding them.

Anyway, I didn’t have the proper form filled out and she wouldn’t let me get onto my e-mail account and print it out, saying it was policy. With only a few minutes left, I decided to try again the next day. This time, I made sure I brought everything.

So, after receiving the software, I headed home to install it. Windows takes about an hour to install. About 40 minutes into the installation, I get this error message saying it can’t find a file it needs. I tried several times, but to no avail.

So, I decided to skip the file. Then I got a second error message for another file; then a third. By about the fifth time, the installer told me if I skipped this file, Windows wouldn’t work properly, so I decided to cancel the entire installation. But when I did that, the installer told me that cancelling the installation would render my computer dead in the water.

I had no choice but to go buy a new operating system. When I got to the store, I decided I’d just go ahead and upgrade my whole computer. It was nearly two years old anyway. So I bought a nice new machine with Windows Vista already on it.

When I got home and started to configure it, I got the dreaded blue screen of death. You know, the one that says “fatal error” and then shuts down before you have a chance to read the whole thing. It happened not just once or twice, but five times in the first hour. I took it back and told them I wanted a refund. I would just settle for a copy of the operating system to install on my old machine.

So I shelled out $160 for the premium version. When I got it home and started the upgrade process, the installer gave me the message that this version of Windows Vista could not upgrade from my old version of XP Professional. It said I had to do a fresh installation, which would erase everything on my hard drive.

It’s a good thing I had everything already backed up. But doing a fresh installation meant that it would take at least a couple of days to put everything back on. And, as I would find out, it took much longer.

Vista is not compatible with almost anything. I had to download new drivers and software versions of all my programs, my printer, my scanner, my mouse – everything. I couldn’t even find new versions of some of my old favorites.

As I write this, I’ve put most of my important stuff back on my computer. And yet, I still see this annoying icon at the bottom of my screen telling me one of the programs is hemorrhaging and needs my attention.

I’m thinking, let it die.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

PETA is at it Again

PETA is at it again. That’s the organization called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Let me start off by saying that I don’t have anything against any individual who has decided, for whatever reason, to defend the rights of animals. Animals, by and large, have only the rights we humans decide to give them. But I understand that we need to treat most of them nicely when possible, vermin notwithstanding.

But, due to a traffic incident involving one of the carriage rides in Indianapolis, PETA now wants the city to ban the rides altogether. It’s annoying to get behind one of those slow-moving vehicles, but they are great for the city’s tourism. And, as usual, PETA has overreacted.

Most PETA members would have us all become vegetarians, too. People can be vegetarians if they want to, but I don’t understand why they would. Not that my lack of understanding would make a difference to those who have chosen not to consume meat products, but I would still like an explanation.

There doesn’t seem to be any religious reasons for being a vegetarian. I can’t find any prohibition against eating meat in the bible. Jews seem to be convinced that God doesn’t want them to eat pork or lobster, while Hindus are equally convinced that eating beef is a no-no. But on the whole, there doesn’t seem to be anything against eating meat in general.

There are those who claim to avoid meat for health reasons. I’m not sure exactly where these people got their nutrition facts, but the real fact is eating meat is a healthy and natural way for humans to get their daily protein requirements.

Our ancestors ate meat – a lot of meat. Anthropology studies indicate that we did eat seeds and, when available, some fruit. But the staple of our human diet has always been meat. And, contrary to what was once believed, most primates consume meat on a regular basis. Our nearest living relative, the chimpanzee, even forms hunting parties occasionally.

Now, there are those who claim that they do not like the taste and/or texture of meat. But there are as many varieties of meat as there are vegetables. It’s difficult to believe that they can find no variety or method of preparation that isn’t revolting to them.

And then there are the militant vegetarians. They are not only vegetarians themselves, they want everybody to be vegetarians or vegans. Vegans are those who not only refuse to eat meat, but refuse to use any kind of animal product at all, such as eggs, butter, leather, or feathered quill pens.

PETA is one such militant pro-animal organization. I have no qualms about treating animals ethically, but some people take it too far. After all, animals are under the domain of humans, both from an evolutionary standpoint and a biblical one.

And so if PETA gets its way and convinces the politicians to outlaw the horse-drawn carriages from the streets of Indianapolis, will they go after the Amish next? The Amish drive their buggies down the highways of Northern Indiana and several other states.

Perhaps if these PETA folks were getting all the right kinds of protein and B-complex vitamins, the kind gotten from eating animal flesh, they wouldn’t be so up in arms all the time. After all, if God had not meant for us to eat animals, he wouldn’t have made them out of meat.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Heading South for Spring Break

In the past, when my kids were younger, we would typically take our main vacation of the year during spring break. For the past couple of years, however, I decided to forego a trip during spring break in favor of traveling to a more northerly destination during the summer months.

This year, though, my daughter and I decided to head south again during spring break. Although once we went to Florida, a more typical vacation destination was usually somewhere in Tennessee. The Smokey Mountains were always a favorite, as was Nashville.

But my daughter likes the seashore more than she likes mountains, so we decided to put in twice the driving time and head for the coast of North Carolina. And I’m happy to say it was a beautiful destination.

Although it takes two day’s worth of highway driving to get there, it’s worth it. But just for old-time’s sake, we stopped off for one day and night at our old early-spring haunt, Gatlinburg. So we basically had a two-for-one vacation this year.

North Carolina is a study in contrasts. In the west, there are the mountains. I like mountains. But along with the hills come the hillbillies. Not too far south of the tourist destinations of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park lie mountain shacks and roads lined with run-down gift shops where you can purchase a nice hub cap.

But in the east, there is the sea coast. There are lighthouses, fishing villages, and upscale seafront homes. The area is home to world famous writers, such as Nicholas Sparks, and to historic inventors, such as the Wright brothers.

Between the two extremes, in the central part of North Carolina, is the Piedmont. It sort of resembles southern Indiana, with lots of hills and rolling landscapes. The word piedmont literally means foot hills. The Appalachian Mountains gradually sneak up on you from the east.

The South is different in other ways besides its landscape, too. People there are friendly and hospitable; it’s what they’re known for. But their conversations are not always what one might call intellectual.

On our way home, we stopped off at a restaurant in Virginia for lunch. The place was not very busy, but there were these two older gentlemen sitting at separate tables. Actually, there were about two other empty tables in between them.

Their conversation reminded me of a skit you might see on Saturday Night Live. It went something like this:

“Well, I should probably go home and rake my leaves.”

“You could do it later on,” said his friend after a rather long pause.

“I have something else to do later on,” the first man replied.

Then after another long pause, the first man said, “I’m just trying to think of where I parked my car.”

They both started looking around out the window and then the second man said, “Is that it?” as he pointed.

“Why yeah, that’s it way over there. I didn’t know I parked that far away.”

Another pause, then the first guy said, “I guess I should go home and sit in my easy chair.”

The second man replied, “I thought you were going to rake your leaves.”

After another slight pause, the first man answered, “Well, I’m gonna go home and sit in my easy chair and think about whether I should rake my leaves.” And he was being serious, not funny.

After exchanging stories about their respective surgeries, the first man finally said his good-byes again. "You gonna be here tomorrow?, he asked.

"Yeah, I'll be here," replied the second. Then the first man left, presumably to sit in his easy chair and think about whether or not to rake his leaves.

Maybe you had to have been there. It was an interesting vacation.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

No More Dollars and Cents?

Over the past quarter century, the U.S. Congress has authorized the minting of four different dollar coins. The Eisenhower dollar was minted for a few years in the mid-1970s. Then, the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony dollar was produced for only three years, in 1979, ’80, and 1998.

Then, in 2000, the government decided to make the dollar coin gold in color and inscribe on it a likeness of the Indian woman who helped Lewis and Clark on their expedition, Sacagawea. The color soon turned to a coppery tarnish, much like an old penny.

Finally, this year, the U.S. Mint started producing the Presidents’ dollar, starting with a likeness of George Washington. They plan to rotate through the presidents over the next several years.

Why does the Treasury keep trying to force dollar coins on us when the only people who use them regularly are big-city commuters? The answer is that coins, over the long run, cost far less to produce than paper dollars, because they last so much longer in circulation. So it’s an economic issue.

But the dollar bill is venerable and time-tested. It will not be given up by those who use it unless it is taken out of circulation. We are used to dollar bills. They are light-weight and can be accessed easily with other denominations when we open our wallets.

Coins are heavy and must be accessed separately from larger bills because most people keep coins in a different pocket or purse compartment from bills.

But the feds have a point. Dollar bills cost more to make than they used to, due to inflation. Coins would save taxpayer money. But as long as they keep making the dollar bill, the coin will never catch on. For that reason, Congress should consider retiring the dollar bill. Perhaps we should follow Canada’s lead and start minting a two-dollar coin so our pockets won’t be weighted down so much.

Another piece of currency that they should retire as soon as possible is the penny. Starting in 2006, the penny’s cost to produce became higher than its face value. Since the Mint sells coins to banks at face value, the Mint loses money every time it sells a penny. It costs about a penny and a quarter to make a penny these days.

It also costs more than a nickel to make a nickel, but I think nickels are still relatively useful for cash transactions. Pennies can easily be eliminated simply by rounding every transaction off to the nearest five cents.

Some people claim that would cause things to go up in price, because everything that now costs 99 cents (or $1.99, or $2.99, etc.) would be rounded up to the nearest dollar. But when you add sales tax and the fact that most people buy more than one item at a time, the randomization factor kicks in and tends to favor neither the customer nor the retailer.

As long as it was profitable for the government to make a penny, there was little chance that it would be retired. But now that it’s costing the Mint money, its demise may not be too many years away.

Pennies are heavy, ugly, and they take up far too much room in pockets. They slow down cash transactions as people fumble through their pockets looking for exact change. They are so useless, I don’t know of too many people who would even bother to bend down and pick one up anymore. I don’t.

And now that they are no longer cost-effective to produce, the government should stop minting them and let the ones still in circulation slowly disappear from existence.