Archive for June, 2007

Back to the Big House

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

I’m setting off to Houston next week for yet another Hospital Adventure; this time, my doctors are going to try and dig a little deeper — quite literally — in an attempt to determine exactly what’s going on inside my lungs. The continuing relatively stable state of my pulmonary fibrosis has the medical establishment a bit perturbed, so they have come up with this fresh plan to surgically extract more cash from my insurance company. Oh wait, and it might benefit me as well.

On Tuesday, I’ll get a CT scan so my doctor can pinpoint the specific area of interest, and the following day I’ll have a transbronchial procedure to remove some tissue for closer examination and biopsy. Fortunately, this minimally invasive technique involves no external incision, only snaking a slender tube through my windpipe and into my lung. Mounted on the end of this tube is a tiny video camera and a delicate surgical instrument (see magnified photo, right) which will be used for tissue removal.

Ha ha! Just kidding, although the analogy to this tool (except miniaturized and maybe a bit more sterile) is probably not that far off the mark. The good news is that my recovery time will be short, and I should be released from the hospital after only a few hours. I won’t be under total anesthesia, but will likely get a dose of Midazolam, which will leave me conscious enough during the procedure to respond to directions (i.e., “turn your head to the left”, “say ahhhh”, “open your wallet and give the doctor all of your money”, etc.), but also produces amnesia so that when I come out from under I will have no recollection of what happened. It’s a fairly common surgical drug which I had during my upper endoscopy last year. I’m told that patients often wake up asking “are we ready to start yet?”, after the operation has been completed.

I’ve also been told there is a small chance (about 5%) of complications during the procedure, specifically a collapsed lung. But I’ve also been reassured that they prepare for this unlikely possibility, and should it happen, they will be able to take care of me. I envision them calling “Hey Leroy, get in here!” as a gas station mechanic in coveralls races in to the O.R. with an air hose to re-inflate my lung. Leroy no doubt has a Swiss Army Knife in his pocket as well.

I will post afterwards and let y’all know how things turn out. Wish me luck!

Coming soon to your living room: Joost

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

I wrote here a while back about Joost; as a current beta-tester I can send invitations to anyone who’d like to try the service. If you’ve been curious to see what the noise is all about, just send me an email at mrtoast (AT) suddenlink (DOT) net, and I’ll be glad to wrangle an invite your way.

Since my previous Joost post, the latest news is that the developers are trying to get their content into more than just your PC; they would love to have it embedded into your home TV, as Tech Digest reports in this article:

New CEO, Michelangelo Volpi, said, “Joost is a piece of software and it can reside on a variety of platforms. It could be on a television set-top box. Or potentially it could be embedded in a TV set with an Ethernet connection, or on a mobile phone, or in some alternative device that might come out in the future.”

This word follows recent comments by David Clark, Joost’s Vice President of Global Advertising, who hinted that the company is talking to hardware manufacturers about embedding Joost software in various third-party devices. Details, including the names of other companies who might be involved, have not yet been revealed. But Joost’s founders are clearly on a fast track to work the same sort of magic with the upstart video-on-demand service that they did with Kazaa and Skype. Covering all the media bases, the company is also looking at creative ways for sponsors to advertise their products more effectively as well.

The company’s likely foray into big-screen TV is revealing. Following Microsoft’s failure with Windows Media Center to generate much interest among users for watching TV on their computers (something that apparently only hard-core geeks get enthusiastic about), Joost realizes that its content will be much more popular on that most familiar of living room media players, the TV set. The company is also ramping up its programming by making new deals with CNN, Sony TV, the NHL, Sports Illustrated and Cartoon Network, along with other recent offerings from CBS and Warner Music.

I think this is going to be huge. Again, email me if you’d like an invite to get in on the ground floor and check it out yourself.

Quote of the day

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

In his book “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq”,  author Thomas E. Ricks (a Pulitzer-prize winning staff writer for the Washington Post) recalls a quip heard from a U.S. official in Iraq. Asked about the progress of the American mission there, the official replied that it was “like pasting feathers together and hoping for a duck.”

Priceless.

Mr. Gadget Guy

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Yes, yes … I have been shirking my blogging duties of late, sorry folks. Sometimes RL (Real Life) does intrude on the cyber world; don’t you just hate it when that happens?

In fact, I’ve been so out of touch that apparently I’m the last person on Earth with Internet access to discover the very bizarre “Shoes” video, or even worse, Gary Brolsma the Numa Numa guy. I mean seriously, ten million freaking people have seen this video since he released it in 2004, and I’m just now hearing about it? Damn, my “hip quotient” has got to be in negative numbers here.

But wait, there may be some hope for me yet. In the photo on the left, I hold in my hand the latest toy I acquired this week, an iPod clone made by Sansa and sporting the decidedly un-sexy name of the “e-250″. (Sansa also nicknames the device “The Li’l Monsta”, a tag I like even less; I think instead I will simply call it my “Faux-Pod.”) With two gigabytes of memory, it will hold oodles of choice tuneage and also plays FM Radio, photos, and videos … although I suspect I might go blind trying to watch them on its tiny screen. Despite a few very minor but occasionally frustrating quirks in the interface, I give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. Unlike some other lightweight plastic MP3 players I looked at, the Sansa has a rugged “liquid metal” back panel which gives it a nice, solid heft. Battery life is excellent: I’ve been using it all week for at least an hour or two a day and have yet to need a recharge. Best of all, I got it for a mere $89, which is a great deal compared to $149 for a 2-gig iPod Nano.

Techno-nerd that I am, I confess that I’ve always been a bit of a gadget freak. I do loves me my digital toys, so it’s a bit surprising that I have yet to decide on a new camera. In the last installment of this thrilling saga posted here more than two months ago, you may recall that I was torn between the Canon S3-IS long-zoom P&S and the well-respected Nikon D-40 Digital SLR. Since then I’ve been able to put my hands on both models at my local Big Discount Store, which unfortunately did little to help me decide between them. I liked the D-40 for its solid feel and excellent quality, and according to my nephew the professional photographer, Nikon is the only brand on the planet worthy of serious consideration. But given how few photos I take, I have a hard time getting past the $549 price tag, and also thought the 27-82 mm zoom range was a bit limiting. I also was hesitant about its proprietary battery pack, lack of image stabilization, and the fact that the 2.5″ LCD screen can’t be used as a viewfinder when composing shots (which, to be fair, is the case with any DSLR). The Canon, on the other hand, uses common AA batteries, has a more flexible 36-432 mm zoom range, and also shoots video — which the Nikon does not. But when I actually held the S3-IS, it didn’t have the same “pro” feel as the Nikon, in fact it seemed more fragile and almost toy-like. And to muddy the waters even further, Canon has just announced that this model is being discontinued, to be replaced with the S5-IS which ups the megapixel count from 6 to 8 and increases the size of the LCD screen from 2″ to 2.5″ along with a host of other upgrades. The downside is that the S5 will not be available until July, and for at least the first couple of months is likely to command a price close to its suggested retail of $499. However, the introduction of this new model could cause some dealers to discount the S3 even further in the next few weeks.

Now, to confuse me even more (if such a thing is possible at this stage), I’ve been reading glowing reviews of a new Fuji superzoom comparable to Canon’s, the Fuji Finepix S700 (right). With seven megapixels, a 10X optical zoom giving an effective range of 38-380 mm, picture stabilization, a big bright 2.5″ LCD screen, and full VGA movie mode, this camera seems to be one heck of a deal at only $215. At that price, I might go ahead and get this thing just for grins, and if for some reason I really don’t like it, at least I haven’t blown a big wad of cash. But to be honest, I can’t see what’s not to like. If anyone has any personal knowledge about this model, please drop me a line. At the moment it’s looking like this camera could very well be my next gadget.

The Broadband Boogie

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

One of the reasons I’ve been so vocal about internet radio on the blog here lately is that with my limited mobility, I find myself listening to it a lot during the daytime while Mrs. Toast is at work. I’ve become a big fan of Pandora, which is just one of the services likely to disappear from the ol’ Web Radio dial on July 15th if the RIAA is able to uphold the recent ruling that jacks up royalty fees to levels that are unsustainable by most webcasters.

If you haven’t visited Pandora before, it is awesome. Drawing on the practical application of the Music Genome Project, Pandora uses actual human beings who listen to and then classify songs by a number of musical attributes. Say, for example, you’re a fan of Bruce Hornsby as I am; according to Pandora, Bruce’s music features “vocal harmony, a vocal-centric aesthetic, major key tonality, and prominent use of rhythm.” By “seeding” my search list with this artist, Pandora creates a custom streaming radio station just for me that includes not only The Bruce, but other artists I’ve never heard of who make music containing these same musical elements. As the station plays, you can fine-tune it by giving each track a Tivo-style thumbs-up or thumbs down, which is taken into consideration as it makes future selections. After a little while, it gets positively uncanny in its ability to play little-known tracks that you really like, and it pisses me off to no end that this innovative site will likely have to shut down due to the short-sighted greed of the record industry.

Another artist I’ve recently (re)discovered through Pandora that has actually prompted me to buy their CD is the power-pop band Fountains of Wayne. Named after an outdoor furniture and landscaping store in Wayne, New Jersey, you probably remember them from their 2003 hit “Stacy’s Mom“, the video of which featured the lovely and talented Rachael Hunter appearing in the title role in a variety of provocative poses. A lot of people dismissed that song as a novelty and the band as a one-hit wonder, but these guys have a lot more going for them than just this ode to teenage lust. Frontmen Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood have perfected the ability to write short, catchy pop-rock songs with more hooks than your Dad’s tackle box; for example, Schlesinger penned the title track for the Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do!“, which landed him both a Golden Globe (1996) and Oscar nomination (1997) for Best Original Song in a soundtrack.

For further evidence of the band’s affable quirkiness, consider the first single from their new album “Traffic and Weather”, entitled “Someone to Love” (watch the video here). Like “Stacy’s Mom”, the song is populated by richly-drawn characters: protagonists Seth Shapiro and Beth McKenzie lead lonely single lives as they toil in their dull day jobs. Even though they live in the same building, they are unaware of each other even though it appears there’s a good chance they could be very happy together. That the narrative takes an unexpected twist at the end, and that this entire detailed mini-soap opera plays out in a mere three minutes and 54 seconds is a testament to Schlesinger and Collingwood’s formidable songwriting chops, and more than one person has declared the duo to be “The New Lennon-McCartney”. While that assessment may be a tad premature, it should be noted that a good while before they wrote the songs that would define an entire generation, John and Paul were penning lightweight pop ditties like “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do”, so the seemingly audacious comparison may have some merit after all; only time will tell.

My favorite track on FoW’s new album, however, is a paean to the automobile, in the great tradition of car songs such as “409″ by the Beach Boys, “Shut Down” by Jan and Dean, “GTO” by Ronnie and the Daytonas, “Little Cobra” by the Rip Chords, etc. — although the vehicle in question here is a somewhat unlikely ’92 Subaru. But FoW manage to combine an engaging story line with crunchy lead guitars, an immediately hum-able melody, snappy woo-hoos and handclaps, and an awesome break near the end of the song that recalls The Who at their windmilling, power-pop best. Check it out for yourself:


In fact, I liked it so much after hearing it that I ordered the CD, and who knows, maybe you will too. But it’s not likely that the RIAA will keep people like us in mind when services like Pandora (not to mention thousands of other internet radio streams) must shut down rather than pay outrageous new fees that in most cases exceed any income they make. Not only do the listeners lose, but the artists lose exposure and record companies will see CD sales decline even further. So, great; nobody wins, and everybody loses. Who the fuck came up with this brilliant idea?For the latest news in the ongoing battle to save net radio, click here.

You want a McSubpoena with that?

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

News item: McDonald’s Corp. is lobbying the publishers of several dictionaries in the UK, including the renowned Oxford English Dictionary, to remove the word “McJob” from their pages. As Time Magazine tells it:

First used some 20 years ago in the United States to describe low-paying, low-skill jobs that offered little prospect of advancement, the term “McJob” was popularized by the author Douglas Coupland in his 1991 slacker ode Generation X, which chronicled the efforts of a “lost” generation of twenty-somethings to escape their dead-end jobs in an attempt to find meaning in life.

Oxford defines the word as “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, especially one created by the expansion of the service sector.” The fast-food giant protests that the definition is “outdated and insulting”, and instead wants the word to “reflect a job that is stimulating, rewarding, and offers skills that last a lifetime,” according to a company representative.

Please. My very first job while still in high school was flipping burgers at my local Golden Arches (an “old school” McDonald’s like the one pictured on the right), and the only time the job was “stimulating” was when an especially good-looking girl would come up to the window to place an order. The window guys had a signal for this event, and would shout out “88 on the front window, please” to the rest of the crew. The customers had no clue what this meant, but to our fellow McEmployees this was code for “Hey guys, check out the gazongas on this babe.” I still occasionally use the phrase in jest to this day, so I guess you could indeed say that working at McDonald’s taught me “skills that last a lifetime.” However, I doubt this is exactly what the company had in mind.

It is well known within the industry that Mickey Dee’s has a trademark on any food item beginning with the prefix “Mc”, including their current menu fare as well as any other food item, irregardless of the likelihood of it being offered at the chain. Thus, not only could you not sell the public a generic “English McMuffin” or “McShake”, even a “McBanana”, “McTofu”, or a “McGrilled McPeanutbutter and McCheese Sandwich” would probably get you in hot water as well.

But does McDonald’s have the legal rights to any word beginning with the letters M-C, context notwithstanding? Probably not, but that’s not stopping the company from throwing its considerable weight behind an effort to pressure Oxford into changing the dictionary. They recently managed to convince a member of Parliament to introduce a motion condemning the pejorative use of the term, and have mounted a street campaign to gather thousands of signatures on a petition that will be formally presented to the publisher next month.

Current (and past) McDonald’s employees are less enthusiastic. One referred to the low pay; another complained of being on their feet for eight or more hours a day. Another employee, who preferred to remain anonymous, stated that serving customers beat his old position as a factory sweeper. But, he added, “it’s just a job.”

And for many people like me, it was the source of their first paycheck — and you can take that to the McBank.

Oops.

More Venice photos

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Much more scenery, way less pigeons:

Click above to begin