Tuesday, October 14 2003
My old college friend Matt Rogers, whipping boy du jur of Vodkatea.com, turned me on to two things recently. This morning I found in my inbox an email in which he told me about an easily-alterable CSS file you can put in your Mozilla configuration folder to block all images and IFRAMES of a certain size - eliminating most advertising and (at least with the blocked IFRAMES) freeing up the precious bandwidth they use. You have to have Mozilla to use this technique, but that's no biggy; if you're still using Internet Explorer you're either stupid, ignorant, constrained by fascist rules, or you like advertising.
The second thing Matt Rogers turned me on to recently was a variety of music that came via snail mail as MP3s burned on CDs. (Snail mail is still the best way to transfer huge amounts of data between two people who only have dial-up connections to the internet.) A lot of it was of a type Matt described as "dark folk" - this included Cordelia's Dad and Fairport Convention. If the voices are a lot better than Bob Dylan's and the instrumentation is reasonably interesting, I can appreciate that stuff for its musical qualities as well as its value as story-telling. In such music, though, the lyrics are important, and unless the story is extremely tragic, it's doubtful I'll like the song.
Today I realized that so far my favorite music in Matt Roger's collection is Cat Power, a band I'd never heard of before. But once you hear of a band and it's in your mind, you start noticing it in other places; one of my newest Friendsters named Jessica claims Cat Power is one of her favorite bands. The sound of Cat Power is built around a female vocalist with a beautiful voice brimming over with emotional injury and hopeless dreaminess. It is sung over an insistent guitar playing chords in a low register in a minor key. The first impression from the songs is that they're fairly simple. But with a few listens, all sorts of interesting things can be discovered. Voices appear out of alternating speakers and strange sound effects are discovered buried in the bass. Is that a high hat or is it a cricket? Then there are the lyrics, always some sort of shamanistic chant with weird references to the modern world:
Jackson, Jesse, Išve got the son in me.
And he's related to you,
He's related to you,
He is waiting to meet you.
It might be reading too much into the music, but this song seemed to have an unusually complicated message, one about the inherently flawed nature of everyone. I say that because I assumed the band had the enlightened world view of the embattled American creative left. I was hearing this song and thinking, "What if nothing can be done, if the human race is too imperfect to be redeemed?" We know George W. Bush is a religious kook who wants to lead based on the instincts of his sweets-deprived gut, we know Bill Clinton has serious sexual problems. Ralf Nader fucks the left by giving us George W. Bush, Robert Novak fucks the right by giving up Valerie Plame, Rush Limbaugh is just another right wing hypocrite, and Jesse Jackson fathers illegitimate children.
Whatever it is, I know it's good, because PJ Harvey is a huge letdown when she follows Cat Power in the playlist.
I had two housecalls today that sort of kicked my ass, in as much as I wasn't completely successful at either place. The first housecall (in West Shokan) was in response to a guy whose computer wouldn't allow him to use any search engines. I sat down and began trying to figure out what was wrong. It's always hard to try to exact actual work out of some random consumer's computer. For starters, the screen always seems to display too little information. Does everyone have such bad eyesight that they need to view things at 800 by 600 pixels on a 17 inch monitor? When the screen is set at that resolution, half of what you need to see doesn't actually appear on screen, and there's no easy way to get to it. I desperately needed a command window, but the Start menu was spilling uselessly out of the screen. I had to drill down through the Windows folders to get to it. Then there's the gauntlet known as Windows XP Search. In its default setting, it's completely useless. Whenever I see that dog avatar I want to scream - did the experience with the paperclip teach these idiots nothing? I just want to search damnit, I don't want to check off boxes, I don't want to wait for the dog to walk away. Can you imagine how successful Google would be right now if its homepage featured an animated dog and no place to type anything? But the worst thing about the search is that it doesn't seem to be able to find anything that I would ever need to look for. What I needed was the hosts file, but Search insisted that there wasn't one.
It seemed that problem was a tendril of a program called ZoneAlarm, which includes a filter to prevent children from discovering that the universe contains complexities. I assumed that what I was seeing was a block on web searches (since that's the way for children to discover non-Disney complexities on the web), but this problem didn't go away even after I removed ZoneAlarm.
This particular client was an older gentleman who said he used to be a big Cobol programmer back in the day, but that the advances since the mainframe days had completely passed him by. I noticed he had a couple SQL books, including SQL for Dummies and I asked if he was learning about modern relational databases. He said he'd done some things in Access that had led to some SQL queries, but that was about it. He asked me a question he had about Microsoft Frontpage that was really a database question, because what he wanted to do was far beyond the limits of HTML. I told him that to do what he wanted to do, he'd have to design a relational database with three tables and then figure out how to interface it with his web pages. Since he didn't even appear to know HTML, it seemed doubtful he was up to the task.
After we were done with the computer work, the client showed me around his house, which is for sale. It's a large place built on an inverted plan so that the rising heat keeps the kitchen and living room warm on the topmost floor. It had a basement set ten feet in the ground, thick R-20 wall insulation, a massive and ornate thermal mass of brick in the center, and huge south-facing windows, making it a practically self-heating house. "It never freezes inside, even without any heat," he assured me. As beautiful and clever as the house was, in a remote place like West Shokan, it's doubtful anyone would be willing to pay the asking price of $475,000.
The other housecall today was down in Kerhonkson with a guy whose computer was infected by the MS Blaster Worm. It turned out he had other troubles as well, because I couldn't even apply the MS Blaster patch. The best I could do for his problem was to make it so the RPC Service didn't restart his computer when it experienced trouble (for some Bill-Gates-strangling reason, that's its normal behavior). I ran AdAware and eliminated over 200 bad things it had picked up, but still there were problems. I was pressed for time since I had dinner plans, so I had to leave after only an hour of work. Despite knowing I was in a hurry, the client decided to give me a last-minute lecture on the difference between jazz meter and classical meter once he heard I'd attended Oberlin College (he himself had been to the Berklee School of Music). This lecture included musical notations on five-lined paper. He didn't really have to say any more than that classical meter went bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump and jazz meter went ba-bump-ba-bump-ba-bump, but I humored him and endured the lecture for something like ten unscheduled minutes.
In the end it didn't matter; the dinner had been delayed a half hour.
Gretchen and I had decided to take our best mutual clients out for dinner at our favorite local restaurant, the Pupuseria on Broadway in Kingston. It was a good meal, though the conversation was a little stilted as a result of the presence of the mutual client's teenage daughter (who has learned her lesson about adware, but not before paying for several months of our DirectTV subscription). One of the things we discussed was our capacity to pay attention to unpleasant things in the media as a way of staying informed about them. These unpleasant things included such items as reality teevee and anything said by George W. Bush. That last one is particularly difficult for Gretchen and me - we find ourselves growing physically ill at the very sound of George W. Bush's voice.
The five of us managed to run up a 70 dollar tab, but it required ordering everything expensive on the menu, in addition to such cheap items as bean and cheese pupusas.
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