Archive for January, 2007

Windows Vista arrives with a “thud”

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

In case you missed it, yesterday was the much-hyped launch of Microsoft’s new operating system for personal computers, Windows Vista. But despite the hoopla, most of the world greeted the new arrival with a collective yawn. Major retailers across the country stayed open until the wee hours Tuesday morning, prepared for the sort of demand that accompanied the launch of previous Microsoft operating systems like Windows 95 and XP. However, crowds were small and only a few hard-core geeks stood in line to get the software as the clock ticked down to midnight.

Apple Computer, who have for years maintained only about a 5% share of the world computer market, used the occasion to launch a series of ads on its web site directly attacking the new O/S from Redmond. In one, a character personifying the PC is dressed as a hospital patient, saying he’s set to undergo major surgery to upgrade to Vista. He then walks off, telling the Mac character that if he doesn’t come back, Mac can have his peripherals. Apple asks visitors, “Why upgrade to Vista when you can upgrade past it?”

But make no mistake, if you’re one of the 95% of computer users running on the Windows platform, you will be using Vista eventually, most likely when you purchase your next PC. Manufacturers are rolling out new hardware with Vista pre-installed, and Microsoft estimates the software will be on millions of hard drives in the next two years. The company contends that because Vista is such a huge improvement, users will inevitably say “Wow” when they see the slick 3-D graphical user interface and document icons that give at-a-glance previews.

So far, though, most reviews have been much less enthusiastic, calling Vista “a triumph of hype over substance”. Underneath the glitzy “wow” graphics, there’s not much to get excited about. There are widespread reports of early adopters running into serious activation glitches, and those who wish to do a clean install, as opposed to upgrading their present system, are being forced to jump through frustrating and unnecessary licensing hoops by Microsoft.

Frankly, most users (myself included) are perfectly satisfied with the current version of our operating systems. XP was such a huge improvement in stability and function over its Windows 98 predecessor, that there seems to be no compelling reason to switch. However, a free upgrade to Vista came with my recent Toshiba laptop purchase, so I suppose I’ll have a look at it if for no other reason than out of curiosity, and post a review here.

Anyone reading this have any experience with Vista so far?

Mmmm … shiny

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

Guess what? My new laptop is here already!

Amazing … I placed the order with Circuit City late Monday afternoon, and it was delivered Wednesday morning. Now this is how to do business, Staples! You could use a few pointers from these guys.

This computer ramps up my previous Dell Inspiron laptop experience by a factor of four; 4x the memory, 4x as fast, 4x the hard drive space, and the built-in WiFi has 4x the bandwidth of my old 802.11b. I’ve spent most of the day today de-crapifying it, removing several gigabytes worth of adware, games, trial-and-demo programs, and other junk that you’ll find preinstalled on any new computer. As I install my own familiar applications and tools, it’s slowly starting to feel like “home” to me, although I plan to wait to really load it up until I get the Windows Vista upgrade. One of the reasons I was anxious to buy this machine before January 30th is that I did not want the new o/s preinstalled on it. With less than a week to go before Vista officially launches, there’s still considerable debate in the tech community about just how stable it is, although newer machines with plenty of muscle reportedly should work fine. It will be older computers that are underpowered by Vista’s hefty hardware requirements (especially for the new “Aero” graphical interface – screen shot, right) that may have problems. But by by buying this PC now I effectively get two systems for the price of one; it came with the trusty XP Media Center edition, and I’ll get Vista when the upgrade CD arrives in a few weeks. If for whatever reason I decide I really don’t care for Vista, or if it’s incompatible with any of my favorite apps, I can easily roll it back to XP; I wouldn’t have that option if I’d waited until next month.

More Vista reports to follow.

Letters, we get letters

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

From the Toasted Mail Bag: somewhere in the Northeast, a “Pete M.” writes:

“A thought came to my head that you may concur on. In 1976 the US launched Voyager, the first craft from earth that was to leave the solar system. On the outside of the craft they had a picture of a man and a woman sans clothes, a picture of DNA, and a gold phonograph record of the sounds of earth. As in 2007 here on earth there is a diminishing stockpile of equipment and phonograph records, it is likely that in a few years if Voyager appeared here anybody would know what a phonograph record was let alone figure out how to play it at 33 rpm. A minute is earth time no less. I wonder if the aliens will use the RIAA equalization to get the proper playback. They should have included a sound system and turntable for the aliens out there. Perhaps a universal power supply would have been in order. Perhaps they jumped to lasers from mechanical/electrical phono systems, and the phonograph record from earth would be the great alien mystery. Just a thought.”

Pete, you raise some interesting and thought-provoking questions, and the first thought that provoked me when I read your letter was, “is this guy on drugs? If not, then perhaps he should be.” You have clearly put a lot of time and effort into researching these issues, and in response I would have to say that I think you really need to get out more. Seriously, man.

But I also must admit that you’re right: the heck with aliens, already on our very own planet there is an entire generation of Young People who, if you were to tell them that their parents used to listen to music by rotating a slab of colored vinyl on a platter while simultaneously dragging a sharp needle across it, will look at you like you are crazy, mainly because they will be listening to their iPods and won’t have heard a word you said. If you’re lucky, however, you may be able to get their attention for roughly two seconds, after which time they will shake their heads sadly and return to playing their Nintendo or X-Box.

This is exactly why the current generation of Young People is going to hell in a handbasket. These young whippersnappers do not appreciate the sacrifices their elders had to make in the name of aural gratification! We couldn’t just “point and click” to hear our music, oh no, Young People. We had to work for it, dammit, and without phonograph records, there would never have been that wonderful 80′s phenomenon known as “disco”, and … hmmm, come to think of it, maybe these Young People have a good point after all.

But the Voyager space probe was a noble effort to help distant civilizations understand the human race, and it should not be overlooked that we are fortunate in one very important regard: if Voyager had been sent into space using today’s technology and music, it is hypothetically possible that NASA technicians might have included a Celine Dion CD on board the craft. Were aliens to discover and hear this, it would very likely guarantee the complete and total annihilation of our planet.

Keep those letters coming!

Tilting at windmills

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

curmudgeon (kər-mŭj’ən), noun. A crusty, difficult, irascible, cantankerous, ill-tempered old person full of resentment and stubborn ideas. (Origin unknown.) Synonyms: grouch, grump, crank, bear, bellyacher, sourpuss, crosspatch, malcontent, sorehead, complainer.
(From the Random House® Unabridged Dictionary)

One of the things I am most proud of from my restless youth is that during my college years, I had a girlfriend at another University in a nearby town who was active in the student protest movement of the day. One week I visited her at her school and while there, helped to organize busses to take people to a demonstration which was being held at the state capitol. The local newspaper got wind of this upcoming event and wrote a story about it in which I, personally, was referred to as an “outside agitator”. I was thrilled beyond words.

Fast-forward to the present, and you’ll find that over the years, this mindset hasn’t changed much. You could charitably say that I sometimes have a tendency to stand up and buck the prevailing winds, an attitude that occasionally gets me in trouble. No matter how noble your goals, being the gad-fly in the ointment will often win you more detractors than it will friends. Take Ralph Nader for example, a (arguably) well-meaning yet crusty old crank if ever there was one. Don’t get me wrong, I would hardly place myself anywhere near on a par with such a notable malcontent, however, one thing I do share with other such activists is that I particularly chafe when I perceive that “the little guy” is being screwed over by some soulless MegaMcCorporation. And these days, if I can’t actually do anything about it, I can at least complain about it, which, you may note if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I do. Often.

It seems that my curmudgeonly tendencies have been on particular display lately, and while I make a conscious effort not to “sweat the small stuff”, it still seems that sometimes I get my shorts in a wad over relatively trivial issues more often than should be necessary. For example, our cable TV and Internet service provider has recently changed, and the quality of service from the new company has plummeted. Attempts to resolve the problems have so far been fruitless…and that irritates me.

However, nobody likes a grumpy old coot, and I really do try to stay serene and keep things in perspective. I’ve already got enough legitimate stuff to worry about, and even though I may have some serious health concerns, at the same time I recognize that I’m very fortunate in so many other ways; all it takes is a scan of the headlines to make me count my blessings daily. So then, it’s with a sense of humor and good nature that today I’m going to rant about two giants of the corporate world who have recently been jerking my chain: Bank of America, and Staples. On the former I can claim victory after a six-month-long battle; with the latter, the skirmish has just begun and the outcome is by no means yet clear.

Last August during the final day of the Toasted Tour 2006 Road Trip, I spent the night in Jackson Mississippi at a little hole-in-the-wall motel. As the result of a snafu caused by an inexperienced desk clerk, I was charged twice for the room, which I did not realize until I received my credit card bill a month later. Calls to the motel went unanswered, so I disputed the amount with Bank of America. The resulting six-month foray into Customer Service Hell, including impenetrable circular voice-mail systems, rude and clueless agents (often located in offshore call centers), letters requesting documents that had been sent weeks earlier, charges, credits, faxes and re-presentments, is something that the U.S. military should seriously look into as a way of extracting confessions from Guantanamo Bay detainees. It can’t be any less torture than what they’re doing to them now.

I’ll admit that a couple of times I got so frustrated that I was tempted to just give up and write it off to experience, but finally this weekend, a credit of $66.24 appeared on my charge card account. Whoopee! I figure if I divide this figure by the amount of time I’ve wasted on the phone and writing letters trying to settle this matter, I’ve earned approximately 36 cents per hour on the deal. But I eventually got what was rightfully owed me, so I’m a happy camper. Justice has prevailed.

On to Staples. Three weeks ago, the office supply superstore (company slogan: “That was easy!”) ran a flyer in our Sunday newspaper which featured a Toshiba notebook computer on sale for $849. This machine was configured with Intel’s latest Core 2 Duo processor, a huge hard drive, and a 15″ widescreen. Best of all, the advertised sale price was a GREAT DEAL, beating any other price I’d seen on this same model by at least $200. (I’ve been in the market for a new laptop since before Christmas, and have had my eye on Toshiba in particular.) So I decided this must be fate: the time was right, the deal was right — let’s do it! Let’s buy that sucker!!

Not so fast, Geek Boy.

First I try my local Staples store, but they don’t have any available. I check the web site and find that the computer is in fact listed there, but when I try to place the order, it says “out of stock”. So I call Staples 800 number and the cheery sales representative tells me she’s sorry, they don’t have any in stock right now, but they should be getting more soon so would I like to put it on back order? I do, and she takes my credit card info (note: this time not my Bank of America card) and phone number.

Two days later I get a call and it’s Ms. Cheery Staples again to say the item is available now and would I like to go ahead and place that order? “Hell, yes,” says I, and even get a confirmation number and expected delivery date. I’m pleased as punch: oh boy, a shiny new computer is on its way!

In the meantime, Sunday rolls around again to bring another Staples newspaper flyer, and lo and behold, the exact same model Toshiba laptop is in there again, only now the price has been marked down to $799!! Although I’m just a little bit cheesed to think I could have saved another fifty bucks if I had waited a few days, I don’t get too concerned about it until my “scheduled delivery date” comes … and goes … and no package arrives at the door. So I call Ms. Cheery Staples back to see what happened, only by now she is not so cheery.

“That item has been out of stock for weeks,” she tells me, sounding tired and irritated, adding, “It’s not going to be restocked, either.” I get the distinct feeling she’s had this exact same conversation with other customers many times today. So why was I told it was available, and my order placed, I ask?

“It must have been a computer error,” she replies flatly, clearly ignoring the irony of that statement.

She then sends me an email cancelling the order which contains the classic “we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you” line that corporations spout when they can’t say what they really mean, which is “tough shit, pal”.

toshiba.jpgAlthough I was disappointed and a little pissed, I probably would have let it go there — until a new sales flyer came out in today’s paper, and guess what, folks? It’s freaking still there! They are continuing to advertise this product when, apparently, not a single one of these machines is available for purchase anywhere in the entire Staples system!

I realize that these flyers are printed well in advance, and that they must have grossly underestimated the demand the low sale price would generate for this item. The ad does say “while supplies last”, which gives them a back door to weasel out through. Still, while I wouldn’t exactly call this false advertising or “bait and switch”, the fact of the matter is that somebody screwed up here, and I think they should take responsibility for it.

So, Professional Curmudgeon that I am, I intend to write a letter to Staple’s president and CEO at their company headquarters in Framingham, MA, politely yet firmly expressing my frustration. I don’t think anything will come of it other than I’ll get it off my chest, and might get another “we apologize for the inconvenience” form letter in reply — but who knows? Maybe a nice shiny new laptop will show up on my doorstep after all. We’ll see; sometimes the squeaky wheel does get the grease.

Thank you for allowing me to rant; the cranky bear is now going back into hibernation.

Radio contests (good and bad)

Friday, January 19th, 2007

Today’s post continues the “radio” theme from earlier this week, and is a peculiar mix of humor and tragedy.

A first-year marketing student will tell you that contests and promotions are the life-blood of any radio station. The radio broadcasting business has a unique and intangible “product” in that it’s something that you can’t see, smell, taste or touch. It exists only as waves in the ether, something which can only be “consumed” by the end-user if they take the pro-active step of turning on their radio receiver and tuning it to your particular spot on the dial.

Therefore, radio is as much a state of mind or “image” as anything else, and throughout the history of radio, stations have relied on contests and promotions to make the potential listener aware of their existence and get them to tune in. Of course, once you get them to listen, you then must figure out the best way to keep them listening, but that’s another story.

Program directors and promotion managers are always under pressure to come up with innovative, wacky ideas to intrigue listeners. Many years ago, when I was the P.D. of a rock station in Sarasota, FL, I cooked up a partnership with a local drive-in movie theater (anyone remember those?) to do a weekly “Friday Night Fright” promotion, where the theater would show all-night horror films on Fridays. The station gave away free tickets during the week leading up to each show, and as a bonus, we also featured a live appearance by “Count Dracula” — me, in costume — who would go around to the cars on the lot during intermission, giving away free stuff and scaring the crap out of little children. Every Friday night that summer, I donned my full Drac regalia including cape, fangs, and gruesome makeup. I had a blast doing it, and the listeners loved it too.

On another occasion, I devised a contest for a Pizza restaurant which we dubbed “The Big Quacker”. It starred a fictional giant waterfowl who was located “somewhere on the North American continent”, and the person who could call in and guess exactly where would win a respectable cash prize. The station gave out cryptic clues to his location over the air (increasing our ratings), and additional clues were available at the restaurant (an incentive to visit the sponsor). Much to my surprise, the prmotion was wildly successful and the whole town got caught up in “Quackermania”; after someone finally won the prize, I naturally had to get dressed up in a giant duck suit and make a highly-promoted appearance at the restaurant to award it. Not only was it a lot of fun, I got free pizza there anytime I wanted it from then on. (Ah, the perks of show biz.)

So, many of you have no doubt heard of or participated in similar radio station promotions: concert ticket or record album giveaways are common, and the bigger the market, the more money a station can afford to spend on prizes. Elaborate contests, sometimes offering glamorous trips and thousands of dollars in cash or prizes, can have a significant impact on listenership and make the critical difference in ratings that generate huge advertising revenue for a station.

Sometimes a station will pull out the stops, and the more wacky and crazy a contest is, the more “buzz” it tends to generate; listeners have shown time and time again that they’re willing to do almost anything to win a prize and get their name on the air. Last June, for example, Chicago’s WLUP-FM offered baseball fans a chance to win tickets for the sold-out “Crosstown Classic” game between the White Sox and the Cubs by participating in what was advertised as the “Crosstown Classic Ass Kissing Contest.” Listeners who had qualified earlier were summoned to plant a kiss on a live donkey outside of Wrigley Field. “The fan who keeps their lips on the donkey the longest wins tickets to the game,” according to the contest rules.

These contests are called “marathons”; they of course have their roots in the classic old-time radio dance marathons of the 30′s, and tend to generate a lot of publicity. Who hasn’t heard of the car dealership contest where a number of challengers try to keep their hands on a new car or truck longer than anyone else, with the winner getting to drive the vehicle home? In these events, the health and safety of the contestants due to such factors as sleep deprivation, dehydration, etc. can become an issue, and it’s understood that any responsible planner of such a contest will have medical personnel on hand to supervise potential problems.

Therefore, I was shocked to hear about a station in Sacramento, CA, who recently sponsored a contest that went horribly awry. Called “Hold your wee for a Wii”, the contest at Entercom’s KDND(FM) was to see who could drink the most water without going to the bathroom; the prize was a Nintendo Wii video game system. A few hours afterwards, Jennifer Strange, a 28-year old mother of three who had participated in the contest, died in her home of what the local coroner’s office called “water intoxication“. Reportedly, Strange drank nearly two gallons of water in the kitchen of the station’s Madison Avenue office.

To make matters worse, an audio recording of the show reveals the DJs joking about people dying from water intoxication. As contestants chugged bottle after bottle, a listener called in to warn the disc jockeys that the stunt was dangerous, and could be fatal. “Yeah, we’re aware of that,” one of them responded. Another DJ laughed: “Yeah, they signed releases, so we’re not responsible. We’re OK.” At one point, they even alluded to a Chico college student who died during a similar hazing stunt in 2005. “Hey Carter, is anybody dying in there?” a DJ asks during the show. “We got a guy who’s just about to die,” the other responds, and all the DJs laugh. “I like that we laugh about that,” another says. “Make sure he signs the release. … Get the insurance on that, please.”

Not surprisingly, the two DJs — and eight other people responsible for the contest — have been fired. Attorneys said they plan to file a wrongful death suit against the station, and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has launched a criminal investigation into the incident. Earlier in the week, Entercom Sacramento VP/GM John Geary (a respected broadcaster well-known to me and others in the industry for his visionary programming skills during the 80′s and 90′s) had posted an online statement that the “Morning Rave” show had been canceled. “All of you are probably aware of the tragic death of a contestant, Jennifer Strange, following her participation in a contest on the Morning Rave last Friday,” he wrote. “First and foremost, our thoughts and sympathies go out to Jennifer’s family and loved ones. I also want to assure you that the circumstances regarding this matter are being examined as thoroughly as possible. We are doing everything we can to deal with this difficult situation in a manner that is both respectful and responsible.” However, no doubt due to the pending legal action, any mention of the contest or the station’s reaction to it has recently been pulled from the station’s web site.

You can bet that this tragedy will be discussed in staff meetings at virtually every radio station in the country over the next few weeks as an example of how not to do a contest. Ironically, KDND’s on-air tagline is “107.9-The End”; unfortunately for Jennifer Strange, the “Hold your wee for a Wii” contest was exactly that.

Passport to exotic lands

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Those who travel often are no doubt aware of this, but for poor stay-at-home schlubs like myself it came as somewhat of a surprise to learn that the government is about to require a valid U.S. passport to travel anywhere outside the country, including Canada and Mexico. Previously only a valid driver’s license or other picture ID was required, but beginning next week (January 23rd), all persons, including U.S. citizens, traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, or any other country will be required to present a valid passport. Note that only airline passengers are affected initially, however beginning January 1, 2008 ANYONE who wishes to cross the U.S. border, whether by air, land, or sea, will be required to present passports or other accepted documentation. According to the State Department’s website:

As early as January 1, 2008, ALL persons, including U.S. citizens, traveling between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda by land or sea (including ferries), may be required to present a valid passport or other documents as determined by the Department of Homeland Security. While recent legislative changes permit a later deadline, the Departments of State and Homeland Security are working to meet all requirements as soon as possible. Ample advance notice will be provided to enable the public to obtain passports or passport cards for land/sea entries. The passport requirement does NOT apply to U.S. citizens traveling to or returning directly from a U.S. territory. U.S. citizens returning directly from a U.S. territory are not considered to have left the United States and do not need to present a passport. U.S. territories include the following: Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Swains Island, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The new policy will affect millions of Americans, and has been planned by the Department of Homeland Security as a way to tighten U.S. borders by not allowing potential terrorists to exploit the relative ease of travel within North America. There have been previous occasions where terrorists were narrowly thwarted attempting to bring in material and operatives from Canada and Mexico. “We’re asking people to think of travel in and out of the U.S. [in this hemisphere] in the same way they would travel to and from Europe,” said Elaine Dezenski, a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. However, the new rules will also require significant additional trip-planning time, and drastically affect last-minute travelers as well as students who travel on school trips, or spontaneously, to Canada or Mexico. Tourism officials say that those under age 21 are much less likely to have passports than older travelers.

As far as I can tell, there is no exception planned for those who want to drive to our northermost state from the “lower 48″. Alaska may become unique: the only one of the United States that requires a passport to visit by car, as U.S. motorists have to pass through Canada to get to it. Tourism officials there can’t be too happy about the new rules.

These developments have been in the planning phase for months but somehow I managed to miss hearing about them before now. However, I am fortunate in two regards: (1) I obtained my passport in preparation for a visit to Europe a few years ago, so I’m all set, and; (2) the chances that I will be traveling to an exotic foreign destination like Moose Jaw (home of “Mac the Moose”, right) in the foreseeable future are best described as “slim to none”.

ABC “hate radio” blog war

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

As someone very interested in both blogging and broadcasting, a developing story out of San Francisco has caught my attention today. ABC’s KSFO-AM 560 is one of those “conservative” talk-radio stations that have taken over the AM dial in recent years. The station features the typical right-wing rubbish of syndicated blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Dr. Laura, but the station’s own local morning team of Lee Rodgers and Melanie Morgan is especially offensive; in recent days they’ve made headlines not only by insulting Muslims, but have also hinted at the assassination of new liberal Democratic house speaker Nancy Pelosi by saying “we’ve got a bulls-eye painted on her big wide laughing eyes”. This is just the latest in a long spew of venom from Morgan and Rodger’s “Morning Show” which has earned the station the nickname of “Hate Radio”; among other things, the pair have advocated stomping war protesters to death, the public execution of liberals, clamping the electrodes of a Sears Diehard battery onto the testicles of a black man, and burning down the New York Times for revealing the government’s illegal domestic wiretap program. Last week, one local blogger known as “Spocko” decided he had finally heard enough of this garbage: he posted audio clips from the station on his site, and asked his readers to write the station’s advertisers to make them aware of exactly what was being said under their sponsorship. As a result, some high-profile sponsors such as Netflix and Bank of America pulled their ads from the station.

Before long the Mouse roared back: Disney Co. (parent company of ABC and the station) brought out their big legal guns, first issuing cease-and-desist orders to pull the clips from the blog, then persuading Spocko’s Internet Service Provider to kill his web site altogether. Morgan and Rodgers also attacked Spocko on their program almost daily after the incident, calling him a “coward” and claiming the station was a “victim” of an “anonymous internet smear campaign”.

The next salvo in this skirmish has been fired by bloggers, demonstrating the truth of a new adage: “Don’t Fuck With The Blogosphere”. Spocko’s Brain is back with a vengeance at a new site, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “little blogs” like mine are spreading the word far and wide that we’re fed up with this crap polluting our airwaves. The story was also picked up by the mainstream media, including the Bay Area’s CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV channel 5, as well as this article in the S.F. Chronicle.

If you’re interested in helping out, visit Spocko’s Brain and leave an encouraging comment. If you really want to get involved, support organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation, who are working to protect the digital rights of “little guys” such as Spocko (as well as you and I) from censorship and legal harassment by big media conglomerates like Disney. But the most important thing you can do is to simply remain vigilant: as Spocko says on his site, “Bloggers on the left want journalists to do their jobs because it is important, on the right they want them hanged. That is a fundamental difference and one you should all notice.”

Tasty News Bits

Friday, January 12th, 2007

Yes friends, once again it’s time for another rousing issue of…

Always on the cusp of current events, Wind In The Wire takes a look back at a few of the more bizarre news items from the first full week of the new year. Please note that while I did not plan it this way, it turns out that several of these stories are somewhat scatological in nature; so please, if you are a young, impressionable high school student whom your school board has deemed unfit to think about such things for yourself, click here and do not, repeat, do NOT read further. You’ve been warned.

All right, the rest of you may recall that earlier in this space, we reported on one Stephen Murmur, high school teacher and so-called “Butt Printing Artist”, who had been suspended by the Richmond VA school district where he was employed, for using his buttocks and genitals to create abstract artwork such as “Tulip”, shown above. These paintings sell for up to $900 on his web site. Word now comes that he has been fired, according to a spokesperson for the Chesterfield County School Board. Despite overwhelming support for Murmur from students, parents, and Wind In The Wire readers, the board stated that students have a right to receive their education in an environment free from distractions and disruptions”. (I guess this means that the gum-snapping, rubber-band shooting smart-ass who sits in the back of the room, constantly interrupting the class with wisecracks, will have to go too? After all, fair is fair.) Here is a comment from a parent of one of Murmur’s students:


“Stephen Murmur has been an inspiration to my daughter for the last 3 years. He has been her teacher and mentor and he is highly respected in the school where he was teaching. My daughter knew about his artwork years ago but it was no big deal to her – it was what he did. What message are we sending everyone when we say that you can’t have harmless creative outlets? We want to tell our children they can be anything they want when they become adults EXCEPT who they truly are? I don’t like that message. Are we saying that all people have to be “G” rated? How many people do you know that are like that? Uh oh, we better not talk about body parts, those very things we were born with. Stephen Murmur is a credit to the teaching profession and was wrongly fired. He inspires students to excel, they take him into their confidence and they trust him. We should all be so lucky as to have Stephen Murmur as a teacher in our schools.”

Frankly, I’m having a hard time determining exactly what the school board is worried about. Not only did Murmur practice his craft totally removed from his class and on his own time, but these are high school kids, for heaven’s sake. They are regularly exposed to a lot more material with the potential to warp their minds than this. The lesson, if any, that they will learn from this is that you must conform, you must submit to authority, and that art, individuality and creative expression is wrong. Shame on the School Board. Murmur’s attorney Jason Anthony summed it up perfectly when he referred to the Board’s decision as “a bad day for the first amendment.”

Speaking of art, let’s move on to our next story. It’s no secret that we are a nation of celebrity worshipers who delight in the exploits of Britney, Paris, Brangelina, and other high-profile star types. Now, as if Ms. Jolie isn’t famous enough, a painting of the actress as the Virgin Mary hovering over a Wal-Mart check-out line is on sale for $50,000. The artist, Kate Kretz of Burlington, NC, says that the work “addresses the celebrity worship cycle.” She said she chose Jolie for the subject “because of her unavoidable presence in the media, the worldwide anticipation of her child, her unattainable beauty and the good that she is doing in the world through her example, which adds another layer to the already complicated questions surrounding her status.” Even more exciting is the fact that Ms. Kretz has a Blogger Blog where she is relating the daily adventures of her sudden notoriety, and her blog has gone from near obscurity to thousands of hits a day since her Jolie painting. So now not only can you be pop icon by being a star, you can be one for painting a picture of a star, and blogging about it. Isn’t the Internet a wonderful thing?

In Columbia, South Carolina, the body of James Brown has yet to be buried, and remains in a sealed casket inside a funeral home while attorneys for various relatives fight over where he is to be laid to rest. Security guards are watching over the late singer, who died of heart failure on Christmas Day at the age of 73. His will has yet to be filed, and legal wrangling over his estate continues. Brown’s home has been locked since hours after his death to protect his memorabilia, furnishing, clothes and other personal items, according to his attorney. “Just imagine what would have happened,” said Buddy Dallas. “Items of James Brown would have left there like items off the shelves of Macy’s in an after-Christmas sale.” What a sad end for the Godfather of Soul.

Meanwhile, we can authoritatively report to you that executed former Iraqui dictator Saddam Hussein is, in fact, still dead. We’ve seen the video. (What, not what you were expecting?)

Across the pond in Lancashire, England, police are stumped following an incident where a man broke into a woman’s home, put on her clothing, and proceeded to, er, make himself happy on her bed. According to the BBC, the prosecutor in the case claimed that he “could not find an offense for the case to proceed”, in that burglary was out, since the man never tried to steal anything. The best they could come up with was that the defendant had “intruded appallingly on someone’s privacy”. Can we charge Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell with this, I wonder? Please, anything to make them both shut up.

If you’ve ever considered converting to Hinduism, this may change your mind: in the largest religious pilgrimage on the planet, over the next six weeks some 75 million Hindus will make their annual journey to bathe in the sacred waters of India’s Ganges River. Problem is, it’s more like holy sludge than holy water, due to the millions of gallons of raw sewage and thousands of sacrificial animal carcasses that are dumped in the river. Levels of fecal coliform bacteria are up to 3,000 times the accepted Indian standard and 1.5 million times the safe level in this country for drinking. Think aboout that the next time you slug down an AquaFina.

Finally, here’s a related story that hands-down earns the Wind in the Wire “What Were They Thinking?” award for this edition: in suburban Miami, a 20-year old man showed up at an emergency room complaining of rectal pain. Upon closer examination, doctors found “
a stony hard, vertically oriented, low-lying radiopaque object in the rectum.” After being questioned further, the man finally admitted that he and his boyfriend had been “fooling around”, and had stirred up a batch of concrete mix which had then been poured into his rectal cavity using a funnel. After surgically removing the hardened object, the physician’s report further stated “Examination of the specimen revealed a perfect concrete cast of the rectum, measuring 12 X 7 X 5 cm and weighing 275 grams. Grooves in the mass were consistent with rectal mucosal folds. A layer of concrete was chipped off the upper part of the specimen and revealed a white plastic ping-pong ball.” Click here, if you dare, for a photo of the object.

There’s really not much else that can be said after that, is there?

Creative Spam

Friday, January 12th, 2007

I get lots of junk mail, a common problem for anyone with an e-mail account these days. Because most service providers and email clients have filters that will intercept the more obvious crap (e.g., any message containing the word “Viagra”), bulk mailers have had to be craftier in coming up with messages that will appear to the filtering algorithms as “genuine” email from a real person. A common ploy is to include blocks of random text in the body of the email, generated by software developed especially for this purpose (what a waste of programming talent!). Most of this psuedo-text is complete gibberish, but every now and then it makes just enough sense to be entertaining. For example, along with a link to a paid web site where I could “get the most wanted chart tunes and albums”, this bit of spam I received today also included the following gem of wisdom:

“Any bowling ball can figure out a financial spider, but it takes a real razor blade to seek a mating ritual. If a surly pork chop dances with a boiled grizzly bear, then the tape recorder around a stovepipe dies. Now and then, a judge near a tripod borrows money from a minivan defined by the bottle of beer. Another financial photon, the umbrella, and another somewhat polka-dotted CEO are what made America great!”

What a hoot. This almost makes me want more spam. But not quite.

Not so good news

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

I’ve held off writing about this for the last couple of weeks, mainly because I wasn’t sure exactly what I felt or how to express it. It’s also some fairly serious stuff, and I didn’t feel like throwing a wet blanket on anyone’s holiday spirit. But now that we’re into the new year, it’s time for me to face the results of my doctor visit just before Christmas, and the first step in dealing with it is to get it out in the open.

In a nutshell, my lung functions have gotten worse since I was last tested in June, and my doctor is concerned that I could be on the verge of a decline that will necessitate my transplant surgery sooner rather than later. To understand this a little better, take a look at this chart which plots lung capacity (technically referred to as “FVC” or “forced vital capacity”, measured by a standard pulmonary function test) over time: First of all, note the dotted diagonal line. This is the “typical” rate at which a patient diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis might be expected to lose lung capacity. An often-quoted statistic is that someone with IPF will, on average, die within two to five years following diagnosis if they don’t receive a lung transplant. Of course, in reality no one tracks this line exactly. Some people may last for 8-10 years, others much less. Much depends on age and other contributing health factors. Actual results over time will bounce around and hardly ever be a nice, straight line as shown on the graph. Still, this can be considered an average for statistical purposes.

My actual, measured results are the solid line, beginning when I first started noticing shortness of breath in mid-2001 and had my first PFT. At that time they could find nothing wrong; my capacity of 78% was considered “within normal limits” and it was suggested that I lose weight and exercise to improve my physical condition. A year later, when I continued to be breathless despite doing this, I was tested again and found to have a 55% capacity. More testing and a lung biopsy followed, and I was diagnosed with IPF at the end of 2002.

Things get somewhat interesting after this. After being prescribed Prednisone (a corticosteroid), my rate of decline slowed but still continued a steady drop. Based on these tests, my remaining life expectancy was estimated at less than two years and I began the lengthy qualification process for a lung transplant at Houston’s Methodist Hospital. However, at around the same time I was also approved to participate in a clinical trial, and shortly afterwards began taking an experimental medication called Pirfenidone. Note how this is at the point where my numbers bottom out, and following this begin to show improvement. In the last year and a half since, this improvement has been nothing short of dramatic, and when I was tested last June just prior to leaving on the big 2006 Toasted Tour Road Trip, my PFT numbers were higher than they had been since 2002. This is virtually unheard of in IPF patients. Test results can fluctuate, bouncing up and down by small amounts depending on a host of variable factors, but a sustained upward trend like I had been showing since starting the new med has been cause for celebration and optimism in 2006. I began to believe that maybe, just maybe, the drug was working and that I might not need the lung transplant after all. Could I dare to hope that I would be the first patient in history to be “cured” of IPF?

However, my doctor is one of the best transplant pulmonologists in the nation; as a result of having seen hundreds of IPF patients over the years, he knows the clinical history of this disease all too well and is naturally skeptical of any miracles. While reasoned optimism is not a bad thing, he has wisely cautioned me not to set my hopes too high, lest I fall into depression from “burst bubble syndrome” if my rally doesn’t last. And sure enough, you will note that this last series of tests has put me on the other side of the bump. The dashed blue “trend” line is a mathematical weighted-average of my PFT scores which shows, overall, that I am still losing ground over time — although at not nearly as steep a rate as our hypothetical “typical” patient.

What mainly concerns my doctor right now is the possibility that I could be on the verge of dropping into a sudden decline. He has seen IPF patients go from relatively well-off to death in a matter of a few months. This is frequently the result of something like the flu, which can quickly turn into pneumonia in someone with a compromised respiratory system, but it can also happen without precipitation; that’s just the nature of this fucking disease. As I said at the outset, the numbers don’t necessarily follow that predictable linear dotted line — all that’s known for sure is that they’ll wind up at the bottom of the chart eventually.

The most important thing we need to ask now is where the next data point on this chart will be, so I’m supposed to go back in another six weeks to be tested again. This most recent decline could be an anomaly; I could remain stable, or even continue to improve, in which case we’ll continue our wait-and-see approach. However, if I appear to be continuing down the slope, I’ve been advised to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the transplant surgery to take place within a relatively short period of time, perhaps weeks. This has been a bit hard for me to grasp, as I’m still encouraged by my apparent favorable response to the pirfenidone, and not feeling all that bad physically as long as I don’t exert too much and get myself out of breath. However, I do understand that the goal of transplantation is to find the perfect window of opportunity where the person is, obviously, sick enough to need it to survive long-term, yet healthy enough to withstand the extreme stress of the surgery and recovery. They want me to have every possible advantage going in to this, and my chances for survival will be better if they err on the healthier side of that window as opposed to waiting until I’m in poor shape.

So that’s where we stand — waiting for the next dot on the chart. I’m trying to feel upbeat about this, and intend to work at getting as healthy as possible in the weeks ahead. I’m going to go on a diet and try to lose even more weight, and step up my pulmonary rehabilitation program to develop greater exercise tolerance. I won’t give up fighting!! Sorry for this depressing post, but I want to blog about everything that goes on in my world, and this is certainly a large part of it. Thanks for reading, and for your support, y’all. It means a lot to me.

Happy New Year

Monday, January 1st, 2007

Well, Mrs. Toast and I sure had one hell of a rip-roaring New Year’s Eve party last night, as you can see from the photo of us below:


I’m not quite sure if we stayed awake past midnight or not, all I can remember is at some point during the evening we started watching a DVD, which turned out to be quite possibly the dumbest movie I’ve ever seen in 2006, if not in my life. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either; check out a few random reviews from Rotten Tomatoes:

  • “Not everyone agrees on Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker, but few, up till now, have questioned his sanity.”
  • “A tedious, astonishingly irritating march through scene after scene of quasi-Jungian horse flop.”
  • “Ludicrous, drowning in its astonishing premise and irritating by its failure to connect on any level.”
  • “A gaping psychic wound, a blood-spattered, pulsating tumor ripped violently from both its creator’s head and, more fascinatingly, his heart, then planted onscreen, raw and unfettered, for all to come and see.”
  • “You won’t see anything else like it this year, and you’ll be really glad about that.”

Mind you, these were some of the kinder quotes.

Anyway, everything got kind of foggy after that, and the next thing I remember the Rose Bowl Parade was on. WTF? I hope your own celebration last night was way more exciting than ours (really, how could it not have been?), and here’s wishing everyone a great 2007!!