Conceived above a saloon, delivered into this world by a masked man identified by his heavily sedated mother as Captain Video, raised by a kindly West Virginian woman, a mild-mannered former reporter with modest delusions of grandeur and no tolerance of idiots and the intellectually dishonest.

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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Things to keep you occupied while I'm in transit

Delightful time wasters from the Support Alert Newsletter:

And my personal favorite,

These take a little bit of time to load, so be patient. It's worth the wait.

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Sturm und Drang

A thunderstorm of biblical proportions passed through Munich Friday night, dropping the temperature nearly 25° in less than an hour and pelting the city with sheets of rain, continuous thunder and lighting, and winds in excess of 50 miles per hour.

The adjective "biblical" is oddly appropriate. There are a half dozen or so old churches in close proximity to my hotel, churches that use real bells instead of electronic simulacra. At the peak of the storm's fury, they were all ringing- not in the steady cadence one associates with church bells, but wild, chaotic tolling, like a recording of several old-fashioned alarm clocks played at slow speed. The riotous pealing went on for almost five minutes, until the strongest winds subsided. It was, frankly, unsettling. The superimposition of the insane, incessant ringing over the storm's fury stirred a vague sense of dread and memories of horror movies, ghost stories, and that "end of days" sermon feverishly delivered by a deranged evangelist.

When my kids were small, we'd open the garage door, set up some lawn chairs, and watch passing thunderstorms as if they were natural fireworks displays. Good thing we never experienced anything like last night's monster; they'd never get me out from under the bed.


An e-mail that's making the rounds is not the typical urban legend garbage, but actually good advice. To help emergency personnel locate next of kin or significant others in the event you're injured or unconscious, add an ICE (In Case of Emergency) entry in your cell phone's number list. For multiple numbers, just use the names ICE1, ICE2, etc. If your cell phone permits entering an email address, put the name of the person in that field (or in the comment field). IMPORTANT: For God's sake, Mom, don't try to do this yourself. I'll program your phone the next time I'm in Pittsburgh.


KGB's contact in the CIA, the Covert Comic, has been busy this week. He resolved an ongoing problem with a nutcase overseas who kept sending me annoying e-mails, and he supplies our Quote of the Day: "Would I want to be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state? Hey, I work for the Government don't I?" By the way, CC's real name is John Alejandro King. Robert Novak told me.


Add echinacea to the list of highly-touted alternative medical treatments that don't work. The Wall Street Journal says a Fed study reports the herb not only failed to prevent participants from catching a cold, it also had no effect on the length and severity of the symptoms. The reaction from supporters of the remedy? The doses were too small, and they used the wrong variety of echinacea. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine previously reported that St. John's Wort does not cure depression and provided the FDA with data that eventually led to the ban on ephedra. Neither echinacea nor St. John's Wort will be ordered from the market, though, since the 1994 law deregulating dietary supplements only allows products to be banned if the FDA can "prove significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury."

The Center's next report is due this fall; a review of glucosamine, which supposedly reduces the effects of arthritis. Over $700 million of the stuff was sold last year.

The Center says the only form of alternative medicine appears to be effective is acupuncture.


My favorite agency, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, is in danger. A secret U.S. proposal to the United Nations calls for the elimination of "leap seconds", the extra second added to a day every five years or so to compensate for the slowing of the earth's rotation, which makes the astronomical day longer. The reason the U.S. wants to do away with leap seconds? Because some software crashes or behaves irregularly when the leap second is added. It's a typical business response: if reality is inconvenient, ignore it, especially if the damage won't be noticed until well into the future. Still, I have to admire the chutzpah it takes to claim the solution to dealing with one's flawed software is to deny the laws of celestial mechanics.


This bird is smarter than some of the "professional consultants" with whom I'm forced to deal.


I've developed a real taste for apfelschorle here in Munich. Not as sweet as a real soft drink, and the carbonation of a cola. It's one of the few things I'm going to miss.


Time to get packing. Literally. As I predicted, I'm now perfectly adjusted to Central European Summer Time and, of course, it's back to U.S. Central Daylight Saving Time tomorrow.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Thought of the Day

Some people are like slinkies. They really aren't much good for anything, but they still bring a smile to your face when you push them down a flight of stairs.
(Thanks to Joe Bundick)

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

No iPods in Munich?

There don't appear to be any iPods in Munich.

Unlike the U.S., where it's strange not to find a pedestrian or train passenger without white buds sticking out of his or her ears, so far I haven't seen a single person walking around with a radio or mpeg player.

The entire pedestrian/passenger experience here is totally different, though. There are no panhandlers, no self-important yahoos carrying on cell phone conversations at the top of their lungs on a jammed subway train or other anti-social behaviors that would force folks to seek the loud solitude provided by an iPod.

This could be a huge market for Apple. But I hope not.


The German fella who sat next to me on the plane ride over urged me to try the weißbier, or wheat beer, during my stay in Bavaria. It's... interesting. Definitely beer, but with a sweet, almost fruity-like taste. The Wikipedia describes it as a "hint of cloves, bubblegum and banana," but I wouldn't go that far. I bought a bottle at the pizza shop down the street from the hotel, though, so it may not be what you'd call a best of breed example of the beverage.


I was confused by all the "Schmuck" stores in Germany. Schmucks are available for free in the US, I thought, until someone explained to me that it's pronounced "shmook" and has quite a different meaning.


The hotel has some odd neighbors. There's an Australian goods shop a few steps away, next door to the SpyShop that sells surveillance equipment. That explains the kangaroo with the periscope extending from its pouch.


I had Jäegerschnitzel for lunch. Just so I could say I had Jäegerschnitzel for lunch. I love saying words that end in "-schnitzel." But that's just me.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Yinzbonics in Deutschland

Talk about a small world... One of the people with whom I'm meeting here in Munich spent several weeks in Pittsburgh as an exchange student back in 2001, and we swapped blowing up Three Rivers Stadium and Original Hot Dog stories. And on the subway back from Neuperlach Zentrum to the Hauptbahnhof, I ran into a Pittsburgher from the South Side. Hilarity ensued. Many Germans speak English, but few have been exposed to Yinzbonics. The expressions were priceless. "Yinz goan dahntahn anat?" Come to think of it, it probably sounds like really, really bad German to them.


You have to love a city where leashed dogs can accompany their owners into stores, and ride with them on public transportation. The German dogs I've encountered are just like German people: polite, well-mannered and friendly. A young beagle named "Pooky" flirted with me all the way up the DachauerStraße. "Pooky liebt amerikanische Männer mit dem Gesichtshaar," her owner told me. Yeah, right. Pooky may love American men with facial hair, but she loves soft pretzels even more.


While it hasn't been particularly warm here, it's supposed to hit the 90s by the end of the week, and I've been spoiled by good ol' American air conditioning and constant air flow. So I stopped at the shopping center near the client site and picked up a small fan for €20, which will be charged to the company expense account. If it does reach 90°F, I don't think the fan in the laptop is going to be up to the challenge of keeping the Pentium processor cool.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.


If I have five questions to ask certain people by e-mail, I now send five separate messages. It appears people only read the first line of e-mails anymore. Or they've run out of ritalin.


Never, ever, eat at any restaurant in Europe with the word "American" in its name.


In Chicago and Pittsburgh, it sometimes takes 15 to 30 seconds for calls between the two cities to connect on my Cingular cell phone. Three seconds after I push the "send" button here in Munich, I hear the ring on the other side of the call. While talking with Cingular back in the States on another matter, I asked them why this is the case. The nice CSR said, "they have a better system in Europe." Well, duh.


I was up at six am local time yesterday, fell into bed, exhausted, at 10 pm; it's now 3:50 am Central Europe Summer Time, and I'm wide awake. I'll probably get my circadian clock reset just in time to return to the States this Sunday. It's going to be a long week.

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Unstuck in time, in a small Munich hotel room...

So far, the lack of air conditioning hasn't been a problem; highs in the 70s, lows in the 60s. Wednesday's supposed to be the hot one- 90°F- but again, the forecast low is a comfortable 65°.

I had Chinese takeout from a little shop down the street Saturday evening. Ever hear German spoken with a Chinese accent? I was waiting for her throat to explode. Humans shouldn't be able to produce those noises. The waitress sounded like a dolphin with a sea bass caught in her throat.

And how is German Chinese food, you may ask? To steal from Dick Cavett, "The only problem is, an hour later you're hungry for power."


I purchased a bottle of MezzaMix, the German version of enhanced Coca Cola. It's a not-very-well-kept-secret that the mystery ingredient that gives Coke its distinctive "bite" is orange rind. The Teutonic variety appears to use orange juice instead, or orange rinds and added sugar. An interesting taste, but it's no Dr Pepper.


The pizza shop down the street has a variety of pies. Today's special was something called "Pizza Strandfieber", or Pizza Beach Fever. The ingredients?

"Mit lieblicher Honig-Senf-Sauce, Käse, saftiger Hähnchenbrust, süßen Mandarinen und saftigen Mozzarella", which Google translates to "with lovely honey mustard honig-Senf-Sauce, cheese, juicy cockerel chest, sweet Mandarinen and juicy Mozzarella". Hmm... from the picture, I can tell that Mandarinen means mandarin oranges, and I suspect cockerel chest is actually chicken breast. Honey mustard hong-Senf is redundant. Well, maybe. But you lost me at the "juicy" mozzarella.


There was a young guy hanging out a window in an adjacent apartment building, holding a bottle of wine and yelling "Adrian!" to an appreciative, laughing audience below. It's either a neighborhood thing, or the Germans are big Sylvester Stallone fans.


Frankly, I always thought the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) folk were kind of skewed but harmless. Take a look here. Promising people they'd give their puppies a good home, killing them in a van, and surreptitiously throwing their still-warm, fuzzy little bodies into supermarket dumpsters? The next time I run into a PETA activist, I will point and scream "Puppy killer!" and "PETA kills animals dot com!" at the top of my lungs.

Related quote: "People are more violently opposed to fur than leather because it's easier to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs." -Unattributed.


I forwarded to my son a Wall Street Journal article about the federal inquiry into the hidden, explicit sexual material in the "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" video game and was heartened by his response: "We're protecting our kids from sex, but drive-bys, drugs, and wholesale murder is tolerable!" That's my boy. Incidentally, the first headline he wrote as a professional journalist at a somewhat conservative small daily newspaper was the memorable "Clinton Denies Forcing Willey," underscoring the dangers of questionable parental influences.

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Requiem for a fictional Scotsman

Other kids worshipped baseball players. My hero was a fictional Scottish engineer from the 23rd century.

Before the terms geek and nerd entered the vernacular, we were called brains, or, more cruelly, weirdos. We built Heathkits, disassembled televisions and tape recorders, and bribed the librarian to give us first crack at the new issues of Popular Science and Popular Electronics, usually by changing the ribbon or switching the golf balls on her newfangled IBM Selectric.

The normal people left us alone until they needed their eight tracks fixed, or someone to set up the projector for health class, or install a new ink pad on the mimeograph machine. Task completed, we would be summarily dismissed with a curt thank you. We'd return to the backstage of the auditorium/gym, the traditional sanctuary of the oddballs on the audio/visual team.

Scotty was our hero because he was one of us. Instead of the backstage, he was buried in the bowels of the Enterprise's engineering section, which wasn't even in the main part of the ship. There he ruled, serenely, totally in control, obtaining supreme satisfaction in the knowledge that while the idiots on the bridge were supposedly in charge, he was the one who made possible their continued existence.

And then there was the Spock business. We Scotty aficionados resented the Vulcan science officer. In the first place, the whole "I'm totally in control and have no emotions" thing was patently dishonest. He was like the guy on the AV squad who discovered girls over the summer and was suddenly Mr. Cool. Yeah, right. When his girlfriend dumped him for the football team towel manager (quasi-athlete is still better than certified nerd), he nearly fried the pre-amp in the PA system by replacing the 1 megohm resistor in the main power supply with a 1K unit while in his emotionally distraught state.

Spock was our high school principal, a pointy eared deus ex machina who appeared and broke the rules of the game. I recall spending days overhauling the motor and drive assembly of an old Wollensak reel-to-reel mono tape recorder, finally getting its wow and flutter back within specs. Rather than praise my efforts, the principal said "Oh, we'll just buy a new one." Buy a new one? The possibility had never even been presented to me! This is the parsimonious wretch who only two weeks ago made me use rubber bands to replace the capstan drive belt to save 50 cents! No wonder Scotty drank himself into oblivion when he was off duty!

The Star Trek writers used Spock and abused Scotty in the same manner. They placed the Enterprise in some ludicrous situation which had no resolution, then sent Spock down into engineering to order Scotty to perform some action totally in violation of Trek's already delusional laws of physics.

Until the arrival of Bill Gates, Scotty was the first expression of the belief that the nerds could probably run things better, but were disinclined to deal with such mundane challenges. Notice that when he was forced to take the con of the Enterprise- usually because Kirk was being held captive by the father of the native princess he'd just boinked into delirium, and the hyper-intelligent Spock had been rendered unconscious by a judiciously applied blunt object wielded by an alien with the appearance and IQ of a turnip- Scotty was by far the best strategic commander of the lot.

When you saw him in the captain's chair, you knew Kirk and Spock had screwed up yet again- but you also knew things would turn out fine because the Scotsman would handily defeat the enemy du jour and would beam his sorry superiors' behinds back up to ship before the last commercial break. And then what would happen? The episode would end with Kirk and Spock congratulating themselves on their ingenuity while Scotty had already disappeared back into the depths of engineering to deal with the real responsibility of keeping the ship running.

Those of you who have saved customer presentations, demos and initial installations from ten-thumbed marketing types know what I'm talking about. The suits go out for a night on the town to celebrate their technical savvy and sales skills, while you're stuck in the cheap hotel room with a poorly stocked mini-bar that you're not permitted to access anyway because of the cost, on the phone resolving a customer crisis while simultaneously answering inane support questions via e-mail. And frankly, you're happy about it. Who wants to listen to salesmen talk about sports?

But I digress.

Finally, Scotty embodied the benefits of technology and the "can do" attitude that pervaded the 60s. Oh, he might complain mightily about some absurd demand being placed upon him: what geek isn't conservative when it comes to maintaining stable environments for critical systems? But he believed, as did his real-world counterpart Gene Krantz, that "Failure is not an option." It's the unspoken challenge that motivates those of us for whom Scotty is the ultimate role model.

Montgomery Scott, the fictional character, will continue to perform engineering miracles indefinitely on film, video, DVD, and media yet to be devised. For that, we are grateful. But I sincerely mourn the passing of James Montgomery Doohan- ironically, on the 36th anniversary of the first manned moon landing- who made Scotty the cultural icon he became.

The word is given, Mr. Scott. Warp speed.

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The e-mail address is now something other than saga. used to be until December, 2007 when the domain name broker Trout Zimmer made an offer I couldn't refuse. Giving up and adopting created a significant problem, however. I had acquired the domain name in 1993, and had since that time used as my sole e-mail address. How to let people know that was no longer but rather which is longer than and more letters to type than and somehow less aesthetically pleasing than but actually just as functional as I sent e-mails from the address to just about everybody I knew who had used in the past decade and a half but noticed that some people just didn't seem to get the word about the change. So it occurred to me that if I were generate some literate, valid text in which was repeated numerous times and posted it on a bunch of different pages- say, a blog indexed by Google- that someone looking for would notice this paragraph repeated in hundreds of locations, would read it, and figure out that no longer is the they thought it was. That's the theory, anyway. Ok, I'm done. Move along. Nothing to see here...


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I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

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