Snow and Wind

Just a short slice of winter on video...shot from the front porch. The outside temp was about 10 degrees F, wind about 10 mph, gusting to very darn windy indeed.

A "Fix" for Windows XP Movie Maker 2.1 Artifacts

A few posts ago I described a situation in which Windows Movie Maker running on Microsoft Windows XP Pro SP2 leaves persistent video 'artifacts' on the computer display after it has closed (or crashed). Today I found a way to fix this problem, for a certain definition of 'fix'. This trick probably applies to XP Home as well.

Cobb's First Law of Digital Comms

Cobb's first law of digital communications states:  You should never say anything in a digital communication that you wouldn't want your mother to read.

Why? Because there is a chance that at some point in the future your mother might read it. The probability varies, but it is there, whether your mother uses a computer or not; just ask the scores of embarrassed CEOs and public officials who have seen some of their nastiest emails reprinted in newspapers.

In the context of this law, "digital communications" means email, instant messaging, SMS, Twitter, web pages, blog posts, blog comments, social network content, and more. The term "say anything" means write or post and includes images as well as words. What constitutes digital communications will change but the law will remain the same.

I came up with the basic premise for this law before blogs were invented, before the web as invented, even before Internet email started to take off and millions of people began sending messages under the mistaken assumption that only the intended recipients could read them. However, it was email that really brought the 'message' home, so to speak.

Leaving aside the wrongly addressed and incorrectly cc'd emails, the fact is that email is like a postcard, not a letter, it can be read by any machine it passes through (with the possible exception of some specially encrypted email, although there are people who can read that too--and some of them can be hired by the lawyers that your ex-spouse or ex-employer hired).

I started using digital messaging in the early 1980s on services like The Source and CompuServe. Although these were 'closed' networks with paid admission, it was clear even then that the contents of digital communications could easily be exposed by human errors, technical errors, court orders, and business decisions, to name a few. It was also clear that digital messages could linger a long time after they were sent, read, and supposedly deleted.

Like many 'early adopters' I learned the hard way that it was better to moderate the wording of one's messages, or simply leave some things unsaid, than to face the embarrassment of rash words getting into the wrong hands. I don't think I ever went so far as to call a client a jerk in a message that ended up in the client's hands, but I did discover, to my chagrin, that there is no 'unsend' button in email applications and an email retraction never arrives before an emailed statement.

I happen to think there are some very positive ethical and philosophical implications to the reality I have tried to encapsulate in this first law of digital comms. I will try to lay out my thoughts on this in more depth in a future post. But here's the short version: the transparency and persistence of digital comms tend to reduce the fudge factor in human existence, forcing us to be true to ourselves in all aspects of our lives. For all the talk about the ways in which things digital can be faked, the underlying thrust of our world becoming more digital is that we are faced with a fuller, and truer, picture of ourselves, across multiple dimensions. We are more likely, over time, to engage in dialog than to stay silent, to be ourselves in all things, to both give and seek acceptance, to accept diversity of thought and lifestyle rather than to censure and straightjacket.

Of course, this will all take time, so in the meantime I humbly suggest that we all keep the first law of digital comms in mind. Big brother is one thing, mother is another.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays Video

I was going to post this on Christmas Eve but came down with a nasty head cold. Spent most of Christmas Day in bed, sniffing and sweating [and not in a good way]. Feeling slightly better this Boxing Day, so I posted this Christmas video I made on YouTube. For more about the video, scroll down the page.

What you are looking at in the video is a driver's eye view of the snow plow going down part of our notorious drive after about 18 inches of snow fall. The vehicle doing the snow plowing is a four wheel drive Arctic Cat ATV or "quad" (specifically a 2004 TBX 400). The plow itself is made by Warn, the company that makes winches. Using this setup and plowing ourselves, instead of paying someone with a bigger plow to do it for is, will probably pay for the ATV in two seasons.

Oh, and the driver, and camera-person, is yours truly. This video card's message is at the end of the drive. Enjoy!

Value of 2008 Bush Bailouts Exceeds Combined Costs of All Major U.S. Wars

"According to Bloomberg, the federal government has made commitments worth a total of $8.5 trillion in the bailouts of 2008. That includes actual expenditures as well as loan and asset guarantees." - Value of 2008 Bailouts Exceeds Combined Costs of All Major U.S. Wars

Go South Cobb! Marching band chosen for Obama parade

About ten days ago my wife pointed out this article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about a high school band selected to march in Mr. Obama's inauguration (technically he is Mr. Obama between being Senator Obama and President Obama). She had noticed the article simply because of my last name, Cobb.

Now I  was already aware that Cobb County was named after an indirect ancestor of mine (that branch of the tree split off many generations ago). But I was not familiar with South Cobb High School. Apparently the students and staff of the school have worked really hard to turn the band around in the last five years and make it something really special.

Getting to march down Pennsylvania Avenue for the inauguration of the first black president of the United States is a huge deal and the school's excitement was matched only by their concern that this honor is truly honorary, there are no funds attached. So I emailed the principal and asked where people should send donations. He sent me a very nice reply:
"Your email address [] made me smile...I've attached the donation letter and encourage you to contribute or share with other Cobbs as you feel appropriate :-)

Thanks for your interest in our students. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out and click on the video portion of your story. It will put a face with the other Cobb name...hope we do your family proud!"

I'm sure they will, and I have posted the donation instructions here, so anyone who feels so inclined can lend their support to this great accomplishment. You can also donate online here. A formal donation request letter from the school is here. We'll definitely be watching for these kids on inauguration day.

Go Blue Eagles!

10,000 Megabytes for a Buck!

I blogged about the declining price of storage when the first terabyte drives for consumers came on the market, and then again when the price dropped below $250 for a terabyte drive. I recently bought my first one terabyte drive when I saw this Microcenter ad. To put this in perspective, the ad is selling, for $99.99, about $8 million dollars worth of data storage (at 1985 prices).

Do I need a terabyte drive? Not really, not right away maybe; but you have to realize this is a significant moment for an old timer like me. My first hard disk computer was a Kaypro CP/M machine with a 10 megabyte drive. The price of that system was around $3,000 when it was introduced.

When I built my first PC from scratch in 1985--using a hand soldered motherboard I picked up at a Silicon Valley swap meet, with a BIOS chip flashed in an actual Silicon Valley garage--the 30 megabyte hard drive that I put in it cost me $250 cash, handed over at the back door of a Sunnyvale warehouse just off the 101.

To be clear, that was 30 mega-bytes. Of which there are 1000 or so in a gigabyte. So at that rate the cost of a terabyte of storage would have worked out to be somewhere North of $8 million! So when I saw a price tag of $99.99 on a 1TB Western Digital drive, I just had to buy it. After all, it represents over $80,000 of 1985 storage for a dollar of 2008 money.

What am I going to do with this drive? Probably put it in my trusty IBM Thinkcenter box in place of the current 200 gig drive. Then I can use the 200 gig drive as a laptop backup device and the 1TB drive will be a central repository for all the video files I have been accumulating from various projects. I had been shifting  them to data DVD at the end of each project to keep my laptop drives from maxxing out, but then I find I need the files again and I put the DVD down somewhere know how that goes.

Much easier to keep files online, luxuriating in the amazingly affordable vastness of a terabyte drive, for just pennies a megabyte.

Hemochromatosis: Support and Discussion

So, it has been about six weeks since my wife was diagnosed with hereditary hemochromatosis and I have lost track of the number people I have told about this truly insidious condition. I have told my family, my friends, and anyone who reads this blog. It really is a sick bastard of a condition and more people need to know about it.

One of the burdens of finding out you have hereditary hemochromatosis is the need to tell all your "blood" relatives. Chey did that and got some telling responses. She found out that her mother's brother, long out of touch, has been in really bad shape for some years now, with a. heart disease that has required extensive hospitalization and has doctors baffled, b. serious liver problems despite the fact that he is not a drinker.

Bingo! Both of those sound like the kind of organ damage that hemochromatosis does. And his sister, Chey's aunt, died of liver cancer at a very early age. Clearly, the need to run routine tests for hereditary hemochromatosis as a standard part of preventative health care is emerging as a theme in this new world of unwellness we are exploring.

Another theme is complexity. The treatment for hereditary hemochromatosis sounds simple: frequent phlebotomy. But the reality is a little different. First of all, a diagnosis of hereditary hemochromatosis is typically followed by a whole bunch of doctor visits and tests to determine what damage the condition has inflicted so far. As mentioned in my previous post on this, women naturally mitigate or the effects of the condition, to some degree at least, from puberty through menopause. This does not mean their organs are not being damaged.

When Chey had arthroscopic surgery on her shoulders years ago the surgeon mentioned seeing crystals. Dude, those were probably iron crystals, and if a patient has those then there is a good chance she has hemochromatosis; point that out to the patient and she can start dealing with it.

But no, this guy did shoulders--did them very well-but that was all he did (in fact, I went to see the same guy for soreness of the shoulder that turned out to be caused by a herniated disc, which he didn't diagnose because--you guessed it--he's a shoulder guy).

That was just one of the many times over the years that a greater physician awareness of hemochromatosis (and greater levels of patient awareness on the part of physicians) could have resulted in less damage to Chey's organs.

We are now awaiting the results of tests, pituitary, adrenal, thyroid, liver, etc. We think the heart is okay because she did well on a stress test earlier this year. Lungs seem good too, something we know from a very thorough testing at the quit smoking clinic last January.

In the meantime, Chey continues to experience extreme fatigue, bad headaches, and severe stomach pains; not all day, not every day, but most of the time on most days. With a lot of time to think while waiting out the pain, she is beginning to see the past in a new light, the last ten years of it anyway. She realizes that she was much sicker much sooner than she admitted to herself at the time. She was understandably loathe to accept that, somewhere around 2004, she had become technically disabled, i.e. she could not have held down a 9 to 5 job for 5 days a week.

There's still plenty of room to hope for a return to a more normal existence. We draw inspiration from "The Man Who Turned Orange" in Season 3 of Mystery Diagnosis on Discovery (Episode 2). Here was a marathon runner who described a rapid decline to the point of feeling, and walking, like he was 80. Depressed and suicidal, he was brought to his knees, literally, by what turned out to be hemochromatosis. With treatment he finally got back to the point where he could run a marathon again. Chey has never been the marathon type, but if she got to the point where she could walk the dog every day, that would be wonderful (and the dog would be really happy too).

Anyway, the whole point of this post was to help people with hemochromatosis get in touch with other sufferers. So, here are three resources we have found. There is an old fashioned mailing here and a somewhat more accessible forum here. It really does help to talk with others who have the condition. And we don't think you have to be Canadian to join this forum. If you know of others, please comment on this post and let folks know. Thanks.

Let's Hope Spammers and Criminals Don't Find This

I realize that yesterday's post about jpeggery only included one actual JPEG. So here's a couple more and they are quite disturbing.

You wouldn't think they were scary, looking at the first example, a pair of screenshots of the Eudora email program (yep, I'm really old school when it comes to email). The odd thing is that the upper shot, where the dark blue rectangle is just hovering on the page, is weird. It was just sitting there, even when I wasn't using the program. When you pull down the File menu in Eudora to select Check Mail it normally looks like the segment in the lower shot.  In other words, in the upper shot the screen seems to be retaining a piece of menu after the menu is closed. And Eudora is not the only place this happened, in fact the rectangle appeared over every application.

Consider the second pair of shots. This time the phantom rectangle has picked up the Save menu item from the Paint program, and below that a blog menu item called Details.

What appears to have happened is that after Windows Media Player crashed while playing a video, it left something in a graphics layer/frame/buffer which that program accesses. And that something persisted, across applications. It even stayed in place through a system stand-by and wake-up.

Do you begin to see what I see? There could be a way to inject persistent messaging that users can't remove without a reboot. Why would someone want to do that? Here's what Compter Security 101 teaches us. First there will be some people who do it "Because we can." Then some people will figure a way to exploit this to annoy/disrupt/market/infect/spam systems without system-owner consent. If doing this has perceived value, it will be done. And then the way to do this will have value and it will be sold. And so on.

Hopefully getting this phantom code entity into a system requires a hard-to-duplicate set of conditions (like you have to crash Windows Media just right).

Signature Edition Tesla Roadster EU

Signature Edition Tesla Roadster: "Be among the first in Europe to own the breakthrough Tesla Roadster. This special allocation of 250 uniquely equipped 2009 EU-specification Tesla Roadsters will be made available exclusively for European customers at a price of €99,000. Establish your place in automotive performance history by reserving a Signature Edition Tesla Roadster today."

A smart move by the market savvy geeks at Tesla Motors, and in time for the rumored debut of the Tesla on BBC's Top Gear this Sunday (December 14). That's Top Gear as aired in the UK. No word yet on when it will air on BBC America, but here's betting the Tesla segment will be on YouTube before Monday morning, New York time.

The Tesla fans/owners that I know are bracing themselves for Jeremy Clarkson's reaction to the Tesla, given a. Clarkson's attitude to all things green, b. Clarkson's preference for entertainment over facts, c. Clarkson's feelings towards America. The posse agree that Clarkson is a great entertainer and we're all fans of Top Gear. But...

For example, last season Clarkson trashed the Ford F150, a vehicle of which I am a past owner and long time fan. Jeremy accurately captured the main reason why pickups don't sell well in the UK (people steal whatever is in the pickup bed--something my brother pointed out years ago, and a leading reason why vans are the contractor's vehicle of choice in the UK). But Jeremy totally failed to understand why Americans buy F150s.

Having driven up and down America in an F150 numerous times, often towing a trailer, I can assure you there is not a more comfortable, reliable, and capable vehicle in which to do that. Just ask my Mum. She's been driving for 45 years and thoroughly enjoyed our two day trip from Florida to upstate New York in my 2003 F150. We got 15 mpg towing a hefty trailer. I got 20 mpg on the return trip, sans trailer but averaging over 70mph (*optional rigid truck bed tonneau needed for that kind of mileage).

The ride was smooth, the cabin spacious and comfortable. And this was a standard cab, long bed XL, with the 4.7 Triton V8, not some fancy edition (although I did add side rails for easier access). I had to sell that F150 because it was not four wheel drive and we have moved from Florida to a cottage on a hill at the end of a gravel road that rises 300 feet in less than a third of a mile (on which snow is gently falling even as I blog this).

So, to recap, IMHO: The F150s rock, Top Gear rocks, the Tesla rocks, and Clarkson rocks as an entertainer. Just keep that in mind Tesla fans, should Jeremy miss the point about the masterpiece of automotive engineering that is the Tesla Roadster.

An Odd Box of Images: Round up of jpeggery

As life goes by on the Internet highway I sometimes take a moment to snap pictures of odd things I see. Figured I would share some of them from time to time. Like this recent weather report from Google. The graphic for the current conditions in Cherry Valley is either missing or an attempt to depict a white out. I thought it was pretty funny. The actual conditions were very snowy but not a blizzard. Later in the day the white square was replaced by a the image you see on the left of the bottom row of icons.

And speaking of snow, I just uploaded a short video of the fun to be when you live in a cottage on a hill in upstate New York that relies on a wood stove for heat during the winter. This is a sneak preview. I may move the video to a different host but for now you can see it here.

Underrated Female Soul Singers by Vivrant Thang

Just found this great list: My Favorite Things: Underrated Female Soul Singers. Complete with links to check them out. Very handy. Much appreciated Vivrant.

Am now adding this to my "Things to do on the net when I have a few spare moments and some decent bandwidth."

Update: Already bought Pleasureville by Lizz Fields. Excellent listening. Good songs, creatively arranged, delivered with way more soul than most highly paid performers can seem to muster these days. Some of the arrangements are unexpected, but in good way. Now have "Daddy's Cadillace" and "The Road to Pleasureville" on my drive time CD.

Offshoring and the Auto Industry

Steve Clemons: Offshoring and the Auto Industry

He that Michael Moore has pointed out: "anyone could buy the entire American auto industry for less than $3 billion -- and U.S. taxpayers are about to pump 5 times that into the uncompetitive sector.

And on top of that -- there is NOTHING in the current outlines of the auto bailout package that requires the auto industry to keep jobs in the U.S. This money can go to help them manage their facilities abroad -- in lower wage countries -- while facilities continue to shut down in the U.S. with jobs shifted overseas."

Wish someone would bail me out of my upside down property and pay me to live well in a cheap place abroad. Maybe then I could afford to buy a new car.

Cost of XP "Down" Grade? $150 at Dell

"How much extra will people people pay to avoid Vista? Dell has pushed the price of avoiding Vista up to $150." Hardware 2.0 |

And worth it! A new machine with XP installed is hard to find and I am hearing horror-stories from folks trying DIY retro-fitting of XP on machines that come with Vista.

An alternative? You can pick up an off-lease IBM Thinkpad running XP for about $350. I just ordered one for a family member. Will report back on the results.

Coldplay Viva La Vida Satriana Ripoff? The Internet helps you decide!

There's an interesting Web 2.0 twist in the lawsuit brought by guitar legend Joe Satriani against Coldplay for alleged plagiarism in Viva La Vida (one of the tunes used to sell iPhones). Thanks to the magic of the Internet you can play both songs at the same time. I think this is quite telling.*

Here's one of the places that has both performances on the same page so you can decide what you think. If you time your "Play" clicks just right, and you have decent bandwidth, you can get them playing on top of each other.

Having admired Satriani's musicianship for many years, as well as his extensive knowledge of the history of guitar technique, I am inclined to take him seriously. This could well be a My Sweet Lord He's So Fine moment, although that case--in which George Harrison's 1970 hit "My Sweet Lord" was found to have plagiarised "He's So Fine" composed by Ronald Mack and recorded by the Chiffons in 1962 lasted for a lot longer than a moment--the moment the question was raised, the public could start deciding for itself, albeit without the benefit fo the Internet.

Regardless of the outcome of the Satriani Coldplay case, there's a fascinating historical twist: Apple Computer used this possibly plagiarized tune to promote its iPhone less than two years after the conclusion of decades of trademark litigation involving Apple Music, of which Harrison was a co-founder.

*Note: The author of this blog post was declared "tone deaf" by his third grade teacher, Mrs. Ashby, and makes no claim to having any special knowledge about music, except a. He knows what he likes when he hears it, and b. He claims he can recognize any Otis Redding recording within 3 seconds.

Geeks Who Give? What a great idea!

As if all the hope embodied in our president elect were not enough to put a smile on your face, along comes another very hopeful sign: Geeks Who Give. These particular geeks are in Philadelphia and they are using Twitter to give their food drive some momentum. You can follow them here: Or help spread the word by placing this badge on your web site:
Geeks Who Give

The Daily Apple: Apple #324: G Forces

The Daily Apple: Apple #324: G Forces

Another Great Hemochromatosis Resource

Thanks to a comment on my previous post about hemochromatosis I can pass along another web resource for anyone looking to learn more about this common, dangerous, yet treatable condition. The Canadian Hemochromatosis Society web site at has loads of information.

I'm very grateful to Bob Rogers, Executive Director of the Canadian Hemochromatosis Society, for pointing me to the site. I particularly like the way the "What is it?" page is written. It provides a very straightforward explanation of hereditatry hemochromatosis.

Beyond the Bailout: Executive pay and corporate welfar

"Are limits on executive compensation for banks that accept federal funds just the first wave in a future sea of pay measures?"

Beyond the Bailout - CFO Magazine - December 2008 Issue -

Great to see CFO Magazine address exec pay in post-bailout terms. My own "excessive executive pay" theory is that lack of social welfare is a major driver. That's right, corporate executives know just how much money it takes to protect oneself and one's family from all eventualities in the world today. CEOs feel that amassing huge amounts of money is the only way to make sure they and their loved ones don't end up in the gutter.

As our country proceeds to plow billions of corporate welfare dollars into companies whose demise was caused by CEOs and other executives pursuing paycheck maximization at all costs, it behooves us to ponder where all this comes from, what's the driver?

Ironically, the driver is, IMHO, the lack of social welfare in the U.S. For too many Americans their country's social safety net is a nightmare scenario. What awaits the average working American who loses job, house, health, savings? It's a jobless, homeless, life-threatening, shaming and demoralizingly hopeless mess.

How much money do you need to steer clear of this, to rule it out of future? A million dollars? Two million dollars? Noooo. You need way more than that. Tens of millions more. The reality is, and this reality has recently been underlined, you just "need" one real estate market reversal and/or stock market correction and you can kiss your millions goodbye.

And when your net worth drops below seven figures you are one diagnosis, one car crash, away from bankruptcy. With the "right" combination of circumstances your future can quickly shift to one of coupon-clipping, paycheck-to-paycheck, rent's due, viewless living, with zero vacations and a daily grind that extends all the way into old age.

What Am I Thankful For? A diagnosis of hemochromatosis

I have been trying to find the right way to write this post for about two weeks. Now we've arrived at the time of the year when it's traditional to speak of things for which we're thankful, I figured I would put it like this: I am thankful for a diagnosis, even though that diagnosis is hemochromatosis.

That might sound strange given what is written on the cover the "bible" of hemochromatosis, The Iron Disorders Institute Guide to Hemochromatosis:

It's Real • It's Common • It Can Kill You

And it's all true! If left untreated, hemochromatosis can kill you, often through some form of liver disease. And hemochromatosis is particularly prevalent among people of Celtic and Northern European origin. It is incurable. It is genetic. If you have it, you may pass it on to your kids. Here are the basics, as presented by the Iron Disorders Insitute:

What Am I Reading? Right now, Roger Ebert on Death to film critics!

Roger Ebert really nails the sad state of newspapers in a piece titled Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult! He concludes with a great line: "The news is still big. It's the newspapers that got small."

The article laments, among other things, the laying off of film critics by newspapers that has being going for over a year now. As a film producer I can attest to the fact that getting your film reviewed in any depth in 2008 was almost impossible, but until I read Ebert's piece I didn't realize just how lucky we were to get the reviews that we did get for Dare Not Walk Alone (you can find some of them summed up here and linked here).

Of course, I probably shouldn't say we were lucky. The film sure as heck deserved to be reviewed. Our distributor, Indican Pictures, did their part too. What we weren't lucky enough to get was an in-depth newspaper film critic review, the kind where the critic talks about the artistry of the film, the visual themes, things like the recurrent pool-beach-baptism-redemption imagery.

One other item in Mr. Ebert's article to which I can personally attest is the report by Variety's Anne Thompson, relayed by Mr. Ebert, that "earlier this year the Village Voice fired Dennis Lim and Nathan Lee, and recently fired all the local movie critics in its national chain, to be replaced, by syndicating their critics on the two coasts, the Voice's J. Hoberman and the L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas."

Turns out, because Dare Not Walk Alone opened in Los Angeles before it opened in New York, it was reviewed by the L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas. That same review was then republished in the Village Voice ahead of the New York opening. And that's how we credited it on DVD cover. I'm just sorry we couldn't get Mr. Ebert's opinion of the film before we went to print.

Turducken? Feeling chuffed with my Thanksgiving post

I just completed a blog post for Thanksgiving over on the Monetate Post-Click Blog and I'm quite pleased with it (back in the old country people would say they were "chuffed" when they were feeling pleased with something).

I've spent quite a bit of time the past two months studying various aspects of blogging, notably the role of the corporate blog. I've been getting a lot of good insights from reading Naked Conversations by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. I remember skimming through this book in my local Barnes & Noble not long after it came out (in 2006 I think) but at that time I did not have a "corporate" blogging role and some of the points didn't really sink in. Now I'm contributing to a company blog the advice from Scoble and Israel really clicks, things like: write in first person and be authentic, timely, and relevant. The turducken piece follows that advice. Here's hoping it generates some buzz. I mean, there can't be that many other bloggers talking about turducken in the context of search engine marketing, can there?

Please Adjust Your Set: New template is almost there

Okay, so I've got things pretty much the way I want them with this fairly heavily customized version of the Thesis template for WordPress. I had a lot of trouble reducing the page width from the default of 1024 pixels (expressed in ems in the template). The answer in the end (emd?) was to adjust the base font size down a notch or two. This worked great in all browsers except IE (so far I have checked Safari, Firefox, and Opera).

The issue in IE is that the page looks way large with IE's Medium font size setting. If you use the View/Text Size setting in IE and choose Smaller, things look good. Given that some IE users have the default IE size set to Smaller I am going to leave things as they are at the moment. If I find an easy auto-size fix for IE then I will implement it.

Doctor Wooreddy Still One of the Best Novels Ever?

Just a quick reminder for anyone who has not read "Doctor Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World" by Mudrooroo. It is still one of the ten best English language novels of the last one hundred years, IMHO.

You can still order it from Amazon and no, I'm not making any money off that link. I just think it's a pity more people don't know of this book. As one reviewer said: "I can think of no other [twentieth century novel] that tells a tale of such utter tragedy and suffering with such a coherent equanimity of feeling and purity of wit."

Okay, so that reviewer was me. But again, it's not like I have shares in this book.

So Looking Forward to 1/20/09!

You don't have to know me well to know that I am very happy with the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Heck, I've been wearing my support on my head and my Jeep for all to see. Even on my tractor.

So here's how I see things: We have an energetic president elect who is unlikely to match George Bush's record for vacation days, we have a president elect who will inherit America's worst economy in a lifetime, the worst international reputation ever, and will likely face outright rejection by the unrepentant heart of the Republican party, the folks who drove us headlong into this mess. It's going to be an interesting ride.

Do Not Adjust Your Set -- Makeover in progress

Yes, the site looks different today, and it may look different tomorrow. I'm experimenting with some different styles and templates. But the content will still be here. This new template features a random selection of photographs on the right (all taken by yours truly--right click on an image to get more info). Below is a shot of what the site used to look like. The end result of this experiment should be a more aesthetically appealing blog.

[caption id="attachment_199" align="alignnone" width="470" caption="Previous Cobb Blog Look"]Previous Cobb Blog Look[/caption]

Now on DVD: Dare Not Walk Alone

Yesterday was the "official" release date for the retail DVD of Dare Not Walk Alone. This DVD is something of a milestone for those of us who worked on this project. It comes a staggering 5 years after Jeremy decided to make the film and about 4 years and 3 months after Chey and I got involved. Jeremy is now married and no longer in his twenties. Chey and I are still married (and still in our fifties).

We are all extremely grateful to everyone who pitched in at various stages of this long and winding road. If this film beats the odds (again) and suddenly becomes "an overnight sensation," we will be able to say, in all honesty: "That was a very long night, but totally worth it." What follows is the press release that went out through erelease and PRNewsire.

BROOKLYN, N.Y., Nov. 11 /PRNewswire/ -- Dare Not Walk Alone, a feature-length documentary about little-known events in America's civil rights struggle, is now available on DVD at Wal-Mart and other stores. The film clearly illustrates what President-elect Obama has called "the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time." While documenting Dr. King's heroic campaign to end segregation, the film also paints a disturbing portrait of lingering inequality, some 40 years later, in one community where that campaign was waged.

The Dare Not Walk Alone trailer can be seen at the film's web site:

Created by Brooklyn-based artist and director Jeremy Dean, Dare Not Walk Alone has been hailed by critics as "a powerhouse of a picture" and "important filmmaking." However, making the film was an uphill battle, according to executive producer Stephen Cobb. "The director insisted the film go beyond documenting the bravery and brilliance of Dr. King's victorious strategy of non-violence to explore the aftermath of that victory," said Cobb. "But a lot of people thought this approach was too radical for a mainstream audience."

Yet this is one small-budget independent documentary that beat the odds and achieved DVD distribution through major stores like Wal-Mart, Target, FYE, Movies Unlimited, and The film's distributor is Indican Pictures.

"When Indican told us Wal-Mart ordered DVDs," says Dean, "we were thrilled, but also stunned. That's almost impossible when you're an indie project with no star backing."

Although the DVD is not on the shelves in every Wal-Mart yet, the retail giant is shipping from, according to Cobb.

"Our hats are off to both Wal-Mart and Indican," said Cobb. "We're delighted with Indican because they have moved us closer to our goal of giving everyone in America a chance to see this film."

The DVD features interviews with Ambassador Andrew Young and the late James Brock, owner of the motel in St. Augustine, Florida, where Dr. King was arrested. There is also an interview with Dean who is currently on a campus tour, most recently appearing at Notre Dame University's WorldView Film Series.

About Dare Not Walk Alone

Featuring rare archival footage, the film also contains recent interviews with participants in the campaign to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The project began in 2003 when director Dean was still in his twenties. After post-production work at Atlanta-based Crawford Communications, the final cut debuted in 2007 and was quickly signed for distribution by Indican Pictures. Theatrical screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and Portland garnered praise from critics:

"Powerful slice of roiling American history."
-- Los Angeles Times

"Has great potential to do real good in the world."

"Minutely attuned to disparities of class and race ... a triumph of outrage and empathy."
--Willamette Week

"Deserves to be seen."
--New York Times

"Packs a punch."
-- Village Voice

Jeremy Dean, writer and director
Web Site:

Warming up to Walmart

Recently, two things happened that changed my opinion of Walmart. If you plug "walmart" into Google you will probably find that the top 10 search results includes at lleast 3 sites that are critical of the retail giant. As the company has continued to grow over the last two decades many Americans, myself included, have had mixed feelings: Convenience versus impact on local stores. Low prices versus a shopping experience that is sometimes less than stellar.

I actually know some people who say they don't shop there. I know others who shop there but don't talk about it. I also know some people who will be critical of me for saying this, but here goes: "I shop at Walmart." Not all the time (the nearest one is 30 minutes from where I live). I like to do a fair amount of my shopping more locally. I stop in at Bob's Corner Store most days for milk and bread, cereal and maple syrup and such (Bob's is also where I get my mail--it's a post office and gas station as well as a store).

But from time to time I do make a trip to Walmart and recently two things have caused me to upgrade my opinion of the company. They might sound selfish, but here they are:

1. Walmart decided to carry a DVD that I played a part in creating, a feature-length documentary called Dare Not Walk Alone. Obviously Walmart carries hundreds of DVDs so what makes this decision exceptional? Well, for a start, Walmart is very selective about which documentaries it carries, so getting selected is a big vote in favor of the film (and a major accomplishment for our distributor, Indican Pictures).

Consumer Confidence Index At All-time Low

Just in case you thought you were alone in feeling totally bummed about the economy, consider this:
NEW YORK ( -- A key measure of consumer confidence fell to an all-time low in October as the financial crisis weighed on American household budgets.
Consumer confidence index at all-time low - Oct. 28, 2008.

The index fell to 38 in October from a revised reading of 61.4 in September, slamming the index to its lowest level since its inception in 1967. In other words, Americans are more depressed about their finances than at any time in the last 40 years.

And of course, there was an analyst on hand to state the obvious: "Consumers certainly appear to think the sky is falling," said Adam York, economic analyst at Wachovia Economics Group.You don't have to be Chicken Little to see that.

Other economists, who were not named in the report, possibly for their own protection, had expected the index to have declined to only 52. (Apparently economists are still making good money in secure jobs.)

Reason #17 To Vote Early If You Can

Many states now allow early voting and I just woke up to one more reason why early voting is a good idea.

I'm not saying that I wouldn't vote just because there was ten inches of snow on my car and the driveway needed to be plowed before I could get out. But on the other hand, I'm sure glad that I've already voted!

Daylight Saving Time Offset Again

Just a reminder that next week America will be less behind Europe than usual. This has some implications for transatlantic businesses and families. This weekend the clocks will Fall back in the EU and UK. So Paris will be 5 hours ahead instead of 6 and London will be 4 instead of 5. Things go back to normal (5/6) early on November 3. There are several some ways of looking at this. First a table from the very helpful WebExhibits site:

Go to the site and they have a handy feature to input any future year and get the dates of DST changes. This little table covers the next year or so:

Happy 35th Birthday Oil Crisis

That's right, 35 years ago today the first "oil crisis" officially began. That's when OAPEC (the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) placed an embargo on oil as punishment for U.S. support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. However, while the war was the proximate cause of the oil crisis, the underlying cause was of course that Republican rascal Nixon.

That's right, Nixon's decoupling of the US dollar from gold two years earlier had done a number on the finances of the oil producing countries. They were used to being paid in gold-backed dollars that ensured a direct correlation between the price they got per barrel of exported oil and the prices they paid for the western goods they imported (like cement, steel, medicine, and fine automobiles). The price they had to pay for imports started to go up, but without--what had previously been--an automatic increase in the value of their oil exports.

And so, once again, the West blamed the Arabs for getting angry at being screwed by the West, the Arabs muddied the waters by bringing Israel into the argument, and a crooked Republican president was right in the thick of it, and there you have the last 35 years.

Bamford Breaks Out: Shadow Factory exposes NSA, CIA, Hayden, Bush, 9/11

When it comes to books about the US intelligence agencies there's a lot of mumbo-jumbo and plain old BS out there. The shining exception has been the work that James Bamford has published about the National Security Agency [NSA]. And Bamford's latest book, the just released Shadow Factory, is really going to shake things up in the IC (spook-speak for Intelligence Community).

I ordered my copy from Amazon today and I urge you to do the same. But before your copy arrives you can get an idea of some of the shocking information it contains by checking out this explosive interview available in mp3 and Real Video. If the world was not in the middle of an economic meltdown right now, revelations like this would be headline news. Spoiler Alert: This interview includes explanations of how:

  • the NSA pays foreign companies and private contractors to create copies of all your Internet traffic;

  • the CIA prevented the FBI from tracking the 9/11 terrorists in America;

  • contractors in America swap tapes of our soldiers in Iraq calling home to their wives and girlfriends;

  • the head of the NSA, now the head of the CIA, General Hayden, agreed to Cheney's demands for an illegal domestic surveillance program to avoid personal embarrassment.

Bamford first brought the National Security Agency to the world's attention in 1982 with The Puzzle Palace. Back then the very existence of the NSA was classified, the book was essentially banned in the US, and Bamford was...

Love Forever Changes: The concert DVD you really need to hear

I rarely recommend products sight unseen. And I know that when times are tough, folks cut back on their impulse buys. But you won't regret buying this DVD.
My copy turned up earlier this week and although I was too busy working to watch it, I had a chance to download the soundtrack to my in-car audio system before I embarked on a 5 hour drive from Philly to upstate New York. Wow! What a blast.

Note: this is not a product referral post, this link to the DVD at Amazon does not earn me a penny. I just to share the love.

If you already own Forever Changes, the 1967 album by Love, then you will love this DVD. If Forever Changes has not yet entered your life, this DVD is great way to open those doors of perception. It features the entire album, played live, in original sequence, by the creative genius behind the album: Arthur Lee (a musician whose role in the history of rock remains widely under-appreciated).

The concert was recorded in 2003 in England, where Forever Changes was a fixture on record changers throughout 1968. Speaking for myself and a lot of my friends, we listened to Forever Changes way more than Sergeant Pepper.

That Arthur Lee's life took so many tragic turns made it seem unlikely that this concert would be anything more than a dim echo of faded glory days.

Microsoft extends XP downgrade rights date by six months

Good news for those of us who intend to keep using Windows XP until a viable alternative emerges: Microsoft extends XP downgrade rights date by six months.

But a warning to fellow XPers: Beware XP Service Pack 3. I am now pretty much much convinced that the purpose of SP3 was not to extend the life of XP (why would Redmond want to do that?). The effect, if not the goal, was to mess up a perfectly fine XP install and thereby nudge the user towards Vista.

That conclusion is based on my own experience doing an SP3 install on my test machine, and the oodles of posts I found from people who, like me, ran into problems, and evenetually uninstalled SP3 (after which my machine worked fine). I will not be putting SP3 on my 'main' machines.

An Interesting Lesson in Economics and De-regulation

As a big believer in trying to learn the lessons of the past, I found this short film (less than 15 minutes) to be very instructive, particularly if you are interested in the effects of banking deregulation (about which you will find some straight talk here). You can also watch a trailer for the video right here:

Obama and Terrorists? Try Palin and Witchdoctors

So, once upon a time Obama knew this guy who had been part of the American counter-culture in the sixties (a time when there were violent excesses on both the left AND the right of American politics). Obama emphatically rejected the political philosophy of this guy (who is currently a professor at an accredited American university).

And Palin has a problem with this? Palin, who has been hanging out, quite recently, with this guy Mutthee who boasts of his success in persecuting people in Kenya. This is a man who accuses women of witchcraft, women not convicted of any crime, but personally singled out by him. This friend of Palin then organizes campaigns of ostracism to drive these women from their homes and worse (the burning of women as witches is still practiced in Kenya today, something that doesn't seen to bother this friend of Sarah Palin).

So the question becomes why, after every American media outlet made a big deal about video of Obama's pastor, do so many now ignore video of Palin accepting the blessing of a witch-persecuting preacher? The video is right here.

And why has nobody called on Palin to renounce Mutthee's philosophy, as expressed in his sermon just before Palin accepted his blessing? He wants to take over our public schools and cast out the teaching of witchcraft. And this guy would like to see a lot more tongue-speaking, devil-casting kids in our schools. So a vote for Palin would seem to be a vote for the good old days of witch-hunting in America. But hey, it's [still] a free country.

We're Ba-a-a-ack: And we're looking for our bailout

After spending more than a year on hiatus (which is an entirely legal thing to do despite the slightly pharmaceutical sound of it) this blog may be coming back. Times are tough and we need as many Google Adword click-thrus from blog pages as we can get. Otherwise the bank is gonna own our ass-ets.

But blogging politics is problematic these days. There are so many blogs out there that a lot of them have a readership of 2 or less. So am I willing to wager my time on the possibility that nobody will read what I write? Unlike maverick candidate McCain, I'm not a betting man. 

So I will follow the statistics and see if anyone stops by to read this page. If people read, I will write. In the meantime, here are some posts I have placed eslewhere on the Internet.
And finally, here's a link to some light reading (as in "when I read it I feel light-headed") namely the final version of the $700 billion bankers' bail out bill. I was disappointed to find that no funds had been earmarked to pay off my mortgage, but hey, what was I thinking? I don't work for Goldman, Sachs, Pillages, and Burns.

Broadband Lines That Reach Into Rural Communities, Yes!

If you want to get all selfish and "single issue" about political candidates, then there was one line from the first 2008 Presidential Debate that got my vote: "broadband lines that reach into rural communities."

Of all the energy-saving, eco-friendly, game-changing moves that America could make, which would pay for itself within a few years but also reap dividends for decades, it is "broadband lines that reach into rural communities." The benefits to rural communities would be enormous, more companies could locate there and more people could telecommute from there. America as a whole would benefit because more telecommuting means less traffic, less pollution, less demand for oil.

So I'm voting for the candidate who talks about this topic like he means it, the candidate who is smart enough to make it a priority and put it out there on the national stage. Yep, that's my candidate. Can you guess who it is?

Yes! It was Senator Obama who said "I also think that we're going to have to rebuild our infrastructure, which is falling behind, our roads, our bridges, but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities." (Check the debate transcript at CNN if you think I'm making this up.) It looks like we actually might have a presidential candidate smart enough to understand the difference between broadband lines and inferior alternatives like dialup and satellite. If my brother can get a 6Mbps line in a small fishing village in Spain, surely every village in upstate New York should be able to get the same.

CDS: My question for the presidential candidates tonight

Senator Obama, Senator McCain,

As you know, under the Bush administration unregulated credit default swaps--which billionaire Warren Buffet describes as "financial weapons of mass destruction"--now exceed $40 trillion. Can you explain to the American taxpayer

a. What a credit default swap is;

b. Why credit default swaps are currently unregulated;

c. How a company with $1 billion of outstanding debt can have $10 billion of outstanding CDS contracts and;

d. How a default on $1 billion in corporate debt, assuming debt recovery at 40 cents on the dollar, becomes a $6 billion loss to credit default swap sellers.

Oh, and a follow-up if I may: What are your plans, if any, to regulate the CDS market in the future? Please be as specific as possible in your responses.

Thank you.
p.s. This is a closed book test, but candidates may refer to the Wikipedia article and this diagram.

Under Pressure? Wikipedia can help

A few posts ago I wrote about the need to have the right amount of air in our tires. I was going to make a witty reference to the song "Under Pressure," you know, the one with the wicked bassline that's been used in ad campaigns for everything from Propel Fitness Water to Zales Jewelry, and movies such as Grosse Pointe Blank, The Players Club, Stepmom, 40 Days and 40 Nights, The Girl Next Door, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and The Heartbreak Kid. It's the one that rapper Vanilla Ice sampled without permission for his big hit, "Ice Ice Baby."

My problem was not that I couldn't remember the name of the song but I wanted to say who wrote it and that's where things get tricky. Was it Queen or David Bowie? This was not immediately clear from my initial Googling. A few days after the post I realized that all I needed to do was to go to Wikipedia, where an entire page is devoted to the song at this URL:

It seems that rock music is one area where Wikipedia is growing at a phenomenal rate, adding details down to a level that some people might think obsessive, but others, like me, find fascinating, and actually rather helpful. Thanks Wikipedia!

Oil Prices Down as Supply Drops? There goes the froth

A Wall Street Journal headline today said "Crude Hits Seven-Month Low" which is good news, but infuriating. First of all, it strikes me as proof positive that most of the dollars per gallon in excess of $100 were pure speculative froth, that is, rich people gambling as they try to get richer by distorting the value of a vital ingredient of the world economy, one that is not far behind food and water in term of human survival (given the extent to which current economies are petroleum-based).

In the midst of hurricane season with oil rigs knocked off line and Nigerian rebels blowing up pipelines left and right, in other words, with supply in doubt, oil drops. Where are all those Wall Street talking heads who popped up to parrot the line that $140 a barrel oil "is simply a reflection of supply and demand"? My gut feeling is that they should be publicly stoned with Economics 101 textbooks (obviously it is not stoning when a wood-based material is used, and it probably wouldn't be deadly, just painful and humiliating).

Second reason this situation made me angry was that gas is still close to $4.00 a gallon in New York and it really should be a lot less. Let's say the price of a US gallon of gasoline topped out around here at $4.30 when crude was $142 a barrel (mid-July). That's a little more than 3 cents per dollar of crude. With oil at $100, gasoline should surely be about $3, not $3.85, which is what I paid yesterday. I realize that the finer points of this calculation vary by state, and some states have taxes that are per gallon and per dollar of retail value. But it seems to be that if oil is close to $100 a barrel then gas should be a lot close to $3.00 a gallon than it is. One thing's for sure, you can bet on another quarter of record profits for Exxon-Mobil-BP-Shell-Chevron-Etc.

Labor Day for Virtual Workers?

A few days ago I wrote a post over on the Monetate Blog to make the point that every worker should be proud on Labor Day, even those of us who work with bits and pixels and other nebulous, virtual things. Code slingers and geeks and digital tinkerers are responsible for a significant percentage of the GDP, not to mention the joys of MP3s and Hi-Def TVs and cell phones and IM and texting and such.

Happy Labor Day!

Desperately Seeking Sven?

I'm not going to say a word about this. I'm just going to give you the headline: Mad Cow Rules Hit Sperm Banks' Patrons. And no, that's not from The Inquirer. It's from the Washington Post.

Huffington Post Pick-Me-Up

I thought the Huffington Post was all about politics, but then I saw a post by Verena von Pfetten that said glasses are the new gorgeous.

While this may only be true for Verena and a handful of commenters on the piece, it perked me up quite a bit.

Could this mean that wearing glasses for over 40 years will finally start paying off?

The first glimmer of hope for me was John Lennon, who started wearing National Health Service glasses in the late sixties. That was more than a fashion statement, it was subversive politics of a kind you seldom see these days. NHS glasses were free from the British government's health service, of which Lennon, like me, was a big fan. But before he wore them, many people, myself included, considered them uncool. Suddenly they were cool because a Beatle was wearing them and a lot more people opted to wear them instead of a. designer frames they couldn't really afford, b. going without glasses. He helped make the NHS cool.

So maybe Verena von Pfetten is more politically savvy than she lets on.

When Blogs Work and Politics Don't: The Tire Pressure Debacle

The Tire QueenRight wing reaction to Barack Obama's comment about tire pressure is yet another example of how political discourse has devolved in this country. It says so much about the world today that a politician can be mocked for saying that properly inflating the tires on our cars could save more oil than would be produced by an oil drilling program proposed by his opponent. Even if you favor said drilling program, you have to be brain dead to downplay the value of proper tire pressure when gas is $4 a gallon (by defiintion the only people who aren't interested in reducing their gas consumption are those who are too rich to notice the price at the pump). Fortunately, this storm in a glove box has led to some good blog posts, like this from Dan Neil in the LA Times. Here are my own random thoughts:

1. My father taught me to check the pressure in the tyres of the family car on a regular basis, probably because I learned to drive in a country that typically pays 3 times as much as America for gasoline.

2. I have routinely fumed about under-inflation in America since I moved here in 1976. Few things irk me more than driving down the Interstate behind a car or minivan or SUV that has obviously not got enough air in its tires. Even when gas was cheap, wasting it was wrong. Not to mention the negative effects on tire wear, braking, safety, etc.

3. America badly needs educating about tires. A lot of people have no idea what the pressure should be or how to check it accurately. Factors like temperature and load are largely ignored. Read Dan's blog. Read the articles on this site. Have a family meeting to make sure all drivers are with the program.

4. Driving on properly inflated tires is something real you can do to reduce our reliance on foreign oil, so if you can't be bothered to do it, what standing do you have in the national debate?

So be a patriot and invest $10 in a decent tire gauge, then use it, regularly. Please.

Hackers Are People Too Debuts to Cheers Not Boos

We're delighted to report that Ashley Schwartau's debut production, Hackers Are People Too, debuted to applause and standing ovation at the DefCon premiere.

Read Ashley's account of the evening here. She really had the whole indie experience with audio issues and first-time nerves, but it all came good by the closing credits. Like Ashley says, DefCon is a tough crowd. But she wowed them. And sold 600 copies of the DVD!

You can buy your copy here.

Way to go Ash!

What's With The Rugelach-Bashing?

I recently had one of those Emily Litella moments (see entries for Emily Litella and Gilda Radner in Wikipedia if you've forgotten who Emily was). It got me thinking about the sad state of political discourse these days.

While driving from Outer Philadelphia to Upstate New York a few days ago, I took the back roads to avoid some badly-managed late summer road work on the Interstate (ah, the joys of GPS-based motoring--freelance detours without the fear factor). Fading in out out over the hills, the radio in my Jeep picked up something that sounded angry and white and pretty far to the right. I caught a phrase that sounded like "get rid of all these rugelach-eating liberal commie gun-banning elitist...something, something." And I'm thinking rugelach? Rugelach? Really?

Cell Ranger to the Rescue: A product that actually works

It is perhaps a measure of contemporary consumer cynicism that many of us regard strong product claims with suspicion. Consider the Cell Ranger that I recently purchased in hopes of regaining cell phone service up at the cottage (our provider is AT&T and my wife's Blackberry normally has 2 bars indoors--my Treo often has 2 bars as well, but lately has been failing to reconnect to the network after I return from trips down to the post office, which lies in a dead zone).

The Cell Ranger web page proclaims: "Boost your bars!" Then it asks: What Frustrates YOU About Your Cellular Service?
  • Dropped Calls?
  • Poor Call Clarity?
  • Late VoiceMail and Text Message Notifications?
  • Slow Data and Music Downloads?
Amazingly, Cell Ranger claims to "Solve ALL These Problems!" And the unbelievable part comes when you check the price: $149.99. Now that might sound like a lot of money for two bits of plastic and a wire to connect them, but there is more to the product than that. Consider the price of other products that claim to boost signal at your house and you will be hard pressed to find anything under $250, and those products tend to have a fairly industrial look to them, suggesting that implementation might require hand tools.

So I took a chance and ordered one, the USB-powered Port version. When it arrived I stuck the small magnetic antenna on the charcoal grill that sits on the porch and plugged the other end into the nearest wall socket (I happened to have a USB-to-mains connector handy). Then I conducted my first test. The Blackberry went from 2 bars to 5 when I held it near the plug. The Treo connected to the network, which it had refused to do for weeks, and then it hit 5 bars. It retained connection in all rooms of the house. In other words, Cell Ranger works!

In the next few days I will test it on a trip to the post office. If I get signal there, I will be very impressed. The setup works best if you can use your phone near the plug end while keeping the plug far away from the antenna, which ideally sits on a metal surface or object outside the house/vehicle.

The boost effect is clearly quite localized. It is stronger when you are 30 inches from the device than when you are 30 feet away. I expected this but I think the Cell Ranger web site could make it a little clearer that the device will not light up your entire house (that said, it's boosting signal nicely throughout the cottage's modestly-sized living area ).

Is it worth the price? For me the answer is yes, especially if it boosts signal in the car. I really don't want to go through the hassle of changing carriers and handsets (that is a whole other world of consumer dissatisfaction). And although I've heard that Verizon works on our hill, there is no way of telling unless they loan me a Treo for several days to test it. (Note: This thing does not currently support Sprint/Nextel networks.)

You Know You're a Geek When:

You use the words "really cute" to describe a black box containing chips. Like this eee from Asus. At only $300 and just 8.5x7x1 inches, this is thing is decidedly cool. Check it out on Wired.

Rail Fans Rejoice, Trainspotters Too: A "new" steam locomotive comes to life in UK

Those Brits are so nostalgic! Decades after the last steam locomotive was taken out of active main line service in the UK, a new locomotive has been built. Not a new design, but a faithful reproduction of a 1943 design like the one on the left, known as the A1 Peppercorn (after the design engineer Arthur Peppercorn). The new loco is called Tornado and moved "in steam" for the first time a few days ago. This picture, from the LNER archive site, shows one of the original Peppercorns, back in the day. This type of steam engine design is generally known as a "Pacific" and has much in common with some of the great American steam locomotives engines.

As you can see this is a beefy engine with a 4-6-2 configuration, capable of over speeds in excess of 100 mph. With all the talk of high speed rail today focused on sleek electric and diesel trains, and given all the woes of high speed rail in America today, it is easy to forget that steams trains were delivering passenger service at speeds up to 100 mph in Britain and America as early as the 1930s (the UK's LNER A3 Peppercorn 2750, named "Papyrus" is a contender for the title of first 100mph train, with a run it made in March, 1935).

The effort to build the Tornado, seen on the left, has cost about $6 million so far, and is part labor of love, part engineering challenge. The two hundred years of accumulated skills and knowledge that went into building the most advanced of the steam locomotives were about to be lost. Now they have been preserved, and updated. This process will extend to operations as the Tornado has been designed to run regular trips on British track, providing a rare treat for trainspotters.

Another motive was to ensure that one of each class of historic steam locomotive was preserved. Since all the examples of this type had been scrapped it was necessary, in some minds, to make a new one. That's how dedicated some rail enthusiasts are.
Just to put this into perspective, clock these rims. That's some serious metal work. And I don't know if anyone has put this loco through the "green" test to check it's carbon footprint versus a diesel, but it would be interesting. At least one person reckons that the Tornado should have been built to a newer design with an eye to it's eventual return. Finally, one has to applaud this level of enthusiasm for transportation technology. If only America had not caved in to the vested interests of car makers, tire makers, oil companies, and road builders, just think what we might have today in terms of trains. New York to Miami in 10 hours? Cross country in a day? With the comfort of rail and without the endless hassles of air travel. What a sweet green dream.

You Know You're (Still) a Trainspotter When...

You know you're still a trainspotter if you get very excited when your partner says "Did you know there's a new steam train in Britain?" Being an adult now, at least chronologically speaking, you resist the urge to point out that it is a new steam locomotive (a steam train is one or more pieces of rolling stock pulled, or possibly pushed, by a steam locomotive).

I've blogged about the new Tornado elsewhere, a brand new 4-6-2 Peppercorn A1 Pacific steam locomotive that will stir the soul of any true trainspotter. But what is a trainspotter? A trainspotter is someone seeks to see or 'spot' railway equipment, primarily locomotives (steam, diesel, electric, hybrids).
Sightings of equipment are typically catalogued, often with the goal of "classing", i.e. spotting all items within a particular category. For example, a trainspotter might say "I've classed the Duchies" meaning: I have seen all locomotives in the LMS Princess Coronation Class, known as Duchies because all of them were named after Duchesses (like the Duchess of Sutherland, seen on the left in Dave Hadley's fine 2001 photo of this beautifully preserved 4-6-2).

Although "trainspotter" eventually joined other terms of derision such as "anorak" in the wearisome and over-stuffed British lexicon of denigration, I am happy to embrace it today. As I suggested back in the nineties, in my lecture to computer hackers at DefCon IV in Las Vegas, trainspotters were steam age geeks, proto-hackers, hackers of the industrial age. We traveled the land in pursuit of the engines of progress, sightings of which we obsessively catalogued in our databases. We immersed ourselves in the minutiae of the rail networks. We hacked the system, we social engineered, we trespassed, all in the name of knowledge: our desire to know all there was to know about our chosen technology.

(Note: To any readers who have seen the film Trainspotting--a good-but-not-for-squeamish movie, featuring a career-making performance by young Ewan McGregor, himself a biker-geek--forget that movie when thinking about trainspotters, there is really no connection.)

I started trainspotting as a pre-teen in the final days of steam, but laid off for a while after a brush with the law. I got back into it at 13 and for several years traveled from one end of the country to the other, on trains of course, visiting trainspotting hot spots, like stations where several different "lines" or networks connected, or sheds, the places where locomotives were serviced and stored. ("Shedding" was a real kick because there were no firm rules governing visits to sheds; a shedmaster might chase you off or invite you in, give you a tour or have you arrested, it depended on his attitude at the time.)

We usually traveled in small groups of 3 or 4, carrying flasks of tea or coffee and sandwiches our mothers had made. I'm not sure what they thought we were doing all day, but they knew we were catching the train to somewhere (that's how things were back then, parents would say "Okay boys, be careful" then drop us off at the train station). Sometimes we would save up to buy rail passes that offered unlimited travel over a period of days. Then we would pore over timetables for the entire country and execute precision planned maneovers designed to whisk us to as many hot spots as possible in a single day then get us back home in time to keep our parents from asking too many questions.

Success required intimate knowledge of geography, timetables, and station configuration. It was also helpful to have the ability to act adult and talk you way into, or out of, situations. Strategic thinking was useful as we would have to modify our plans on the fly as and when new information became available through the trainspotting grapevine (e.g. "the Hunlset sheds are practically empty this week" or "There's a new shedmaster at Fincley and he set the police after us"). Of course, you had to watch out for disinformation--other trainspotters might be try to derail your plans to class a particularly prized group of locomotives.

Which brings me back to the Duchess of Sutherland. In general, named locomotives ranked above those which had only numbers. Older locos were prized, as were some of the rarer designs. Size was not that important. A named 0-3-0 saddleback shunter of which there were only three might rate higher than a numbered 2-8-0 work horse of which there were hundreds.

By the way, the n-n-n system is a universal means of describing steam locomotives, based on the number of wheels, with the driving wheels in the middle (see Whyte system of notation). So the locomotive pictured on the left, nicely photographed by Ronald Fisher in 1960, is a 2-6-4, meaning 2 leading, non-driving wheels ahead of 6 drive wheels, followed by 4 more trailing, non-driving wheels. The wheels at the back help support the integral water and coal storage. In fact, this engine is more fully designated 2-6-4T where the "T" indicates that the water tank is integral with the locomotive (in this case on either side of the boiler). Many larger locomotives, like the 4-6-2 Duchess, had a tender to carry the water and coal.

For me, the allure of trainspotting began to fade when the powerful locomotives, steam, diesel, electric, began to give way to identical multiple units. But I retained my belief in rail as a mode of tranpsort, both high speed inter-city rail and utility lines; see my post on the Amsterdam airport train and note the image on the upper left of the blog, a TGV high speed train, photographed in the Gard du Nord, Paris, after I arrived there from Amsterdam on the Thalys, another high speed train. The lack of high speed trains in America is testament to the continuing power of oil companies and the trucking/road building lobby (favored by a certain governor turned president). Perhaps it's not surprising that I now live relatively close to decent rail service, as well as a restored train (that operates near Cooperstown). Once a trainspotter...

Best Diner in Conshohocken?

...or "What a Difference a Smile Makes"

I've just come back from a great week working in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, at the offices of my new gig, Monetate. As might be expected, given their past successes, Messrs Brussin and Bookspan are putting together an excellent team. And the location at100 Four Falls Corporate Center doesn't hurt.

In fact the location helps, a lot, because, as I quckly discovered, this is an office building with a hidden advantage: A great little diner/deli tucked away on the ground floor. Called the Green Tree, it made going to the office each day more of a treat than a chore. What better way to start the day than with an individually prepared egg and cheese muffin for breakfast, cooked to order and reasonably priced, served with a smile?

Then keep things going mod-morning with some Green Mountain coffee and a fresh banana. Power through lunch with some interesting dishes, including big salads, served with a smile. Then come back on day two and find they remember your name. Day three and the staff are still cheerful and the menu is still fresh? What's with this place?

I began to wonder if it was just me being homesick and getting infatuated. So I hung out there for a while to do some people watching (and job-related research reading). I soon realized that this was one of those rare places where a business and its customers are in love with each other. Like a bartender who remembers your 'usual' on your secondf visit, the staff seemed to be fully engaged in the job of serving up more than just a bite to eat. I saw guys in suits and Rolexes melting at the simple things like remembered preferences and personal details. High power attorneys, including at least one judge, would chat with the staff about stuff like grandkids and plans for the weekend, in what was clearly an ongoing conversation.

By the end of the week I knew I was going to miss the place. On Friday afternoon I dropped by to get a last cup of coffee. A very corporate-looking businessman in a very expensive suit was waiting for a sandwich. I said to him something casual like "Are these guys good or what?" And just like that we were pals, diner buddies. He couldn't say enough good things about the place. This was obviously a guy who could afford to eat anywhere but clearly he'd learned that money can't buy what the Green Tree dishes up.

Dare Not Walk Alone Opening in New York: 24 days from today

That's right, the award-winning documentary that the Los Angeles Times called a "powerful slice of roiling American history" continues to build momentum with its New York opening at the Pioneer Theatre on August 22 for 7 nights (scroll down page for listing). The Pioneer is located at East 3rd Street in New York, between Avenues A and B (closer to A). Phone number is (212) 591-0434.

The film's director, Jeremy Dean, will be attending the opening night screenings. Why not read what the critics say about Dare Not Walk Alone, take a look at the trailer, and start making plans to attend?

Here's what Variety said: “Dean's ability to explore history through such a local nexus creates a uniquely intimate document.” And Film Journal observed: “The racial politics of the current presidential election make this film all the more significant...[Dare Not Walk Alone] more than just another civil-rights history lesson.”

The film critic for the leading weekly in Portland, Oregon, described the film as “A powerhouse of a picture...minutely attuned to disparities of class and race...a triumph of outrage and empathy” (Willamette Weekly). And Boxoffice Magazine declared this film “has great potential to do real good in the world.”

Read more at the official website and the film's blog.

~~posted by Stephen Cobb, Producer, Dare Not Walk Alone.

Working in the Word Mine

Victor Kiam might be dead, but his slogan is still remembered: "I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company." That was his landmark ad for Remington. Well, I can now say "I liked the company so much, I went to work for it." That's right I am now working for Monetate.

What's Monetate? A startup started by two Davids, Mr. David Brussin and Mr. David Bookspan. It is also:

“A new way to create personalized site experiences for visitors to e-commerce web sites.”

And my job is to tweak that description, capture the essence of the product, and then make sure the world of online retailing knows all about it. Should be fun.

p.s. That's Victor Kiam in the photo, not me or one of the Davids.

Hackers Are People Too: Cool new doc sheds fresh light

Sometimes, just when your faith in "kids today" has been drained so bad your mind feels like a purple slurpee being rudely slurped by an obnoxious kid who is kicking the bottom of your airline seat as you ride the plane to nowhere in ever-widening circles, something comes along to renew your hopes for the future. A case in point? The debut documentary from a talented young director Ashley Schwartau: Hackers are People Too.

(A.k.a. H4CK3RS Are People Too for the folks who are 3Lit3 or HAPT for those who are into the whole brevity thing.)

The "hope renewed" impact of this documentary hit me on two levels. First and most importantly, HAPT delivers a fresh take on what it means to be a hacker. Schwartau eschews traditional media fear-mongering in favor of the classic definition of hacker: people who like to mess with technology, not to mess it up, but to tune it up, to deconstruct, understand, and re-animate everything from phones to computers to radios and doorlocks and robots. Sure, there are people who break computers and the law, but as one of the many articulate interviewees in HAPT asserts, it makes more sense to call those people computer criminals than to appropriate a word which champions of industry like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were once proud to own.

By taking a positive approach, Schwartau is able to give her audience a rare glimpse of the breadth and depth of talent that is part of the hacking community. We can plainly see that hackers come in all shapes and sizes although most seem to share two characteristics: above-average intelligence and above-average tolerance for people who are "different."

Sure, there are some snarky smart-ass remarks--the movie would have been unbelievable without a smattering of those--but on the whole we see hackers for what they are, relatively likable people. And if that observation sounds too simplistic to be a revelation I suggest you a. watch some traditional media portrayals of hackers and see just how distorted they are, b. hang out, as I have, at some hacker gatherings. As I argued many years ago in a debate at a major security conference, these kids are not amoral sociopaths, they have their own set of morals, some of which, such as tolerance, our society could use more of.

The style of Hackers Are People Too is direct and largely un-narrated, with Schwartau letting the subjects speak for themselves (which they sometimes do with considerable flair). She paired some interviewees in ways that prove effective and engaging, offering a break from solo talking heads. I also like that there are no fancy graphics grafted on to the interviews (after all, the world of hacking is historically one of monochrome command line text interfaces). There is a nice real world feel to the interviews and a refreshing lack of window dressing.

The occasional use of on-screen footnotes to explain some terminology was helpful without being condescending; if you're a geek you probably won't need them, but you shouldn't diss them--this is a film that could reach a lot of people who would ordinarily shun a subject as geeky as hackers. Who knows, some minds might even be changed, for the better.

The first public outing for Hackers Are People Too is a premiere event on August 8th at DefCon in Las Vegas. Look for it on DVD shortly thereafter. You can find the trailer on YouTube right here. You can also check the web site.

When Can We Get A B? Mercedes small car strategy still mystifies

Recently I enjoyed a great weekend in Toronto. What a super city! So many clean quiet neighborhoods close to downtown. And the Greek restaurant row on Danforth. What superb eating!

So what has this got to do with Mercedes Benz? Well, I spotted several Canadian registered Mercedes B Class beauties on the road. These are smaller and more economical than any Benz sold in the States, with a choice of two 4 cylinder engines. The cheaper, 134-hp option is mated to a 5-speed manual and apparently gets over 45 mpg (prices start at: $29,900 Canadian). The sportier turbo version sports a 6-speed tranny and a 193-hp 2.0-liter.

As far as I can tell, Canadians have been able to buy B class models for several years. However, for reasons that would seem to defy all market logic, Mercedes has no firm plans to sell the B in the U.S. of A. Plans to bring the B to the States in 2007 were apparently scrapped (smooth move MB, just ahead of $4 gas). Now there are rumors that Mercedes might in bring over the B in 2011. That's hardly the agility required of a world class competitor. Sigh!