Dec. 31, 2008

I’ve worked in IT for a dozen years (yikes!), but I’m not always at the forefront of the latest and greatest when it comes to technology.

OK, I’ll admit that I was an e-mail pioneer — I asked for a PSUVM mainframe account during my second semester at Penn State in early 1993, when you needed a faculty member’s written approval to gain access. I quickly grew addicted to using PDAs ever since purchasing a black-and-white, LCD display Palm IIIxe in 2001. (And, of course, I also launched this Web site in 2001, back when the word blog wasn’t even a household term.)

However, I’ve been a “late adopter” in other respects. Since my job has consistently required me to stare at a monitor for most of the day, I resisted buying a home PC until late 2001, over five years into my career. Until I started feeling left out of last-minute social gatherings on a regular basis, I finally purchased my first cell phone in early 2002, well after many of my friends had one. I’ve deliberately eschewed DVRs and TiVo, mostly because I watch too much TV to begin with. And for some strange reason, I’ve hardly used my iPod at all, but building my iTunes library is definitely on my short-term to-do list.

Looking back on 2008, though, I’ve finally done some catching up. In late September, shortly before a trip to the Penn State/Illinois game, I finally bought a GPS, ultimately selecting the same model that my friend Paul owns: a widescreen TomTom GO 720. Years ago, I thought printed point-to-point directions from Mapquest or Yahoo! were pretty amazing, but they can become useless if you miss one subtle turn, especially at night. Now, I actually look forward to driving to remote and unfamiliar destinations, and I might even start learning some new routes, too.

In addition, I bought a new HP laptop for my home office and set up a wireless network in my house, both of which have worked quite well. I also received an HP printer/scanner/fax machine for Christmas, which will certainly come in handy. However, I’ve already found that the printer and some of my previous software (such as Palm Desktop, which I use daily) are not compatible with the 64-bit version of Windows Vista that came with my laptop. I’m sure I’ll manage to sort out the problems soon, but it’s still extremely frustrating. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve muttered to myself, “Nothing is ever simple.”

So, heading into the new year, I’m feeling slightly more up-to-date in terms of technology. But I’m sure most of my new toys will be completely obsolete within a year or two, right?

[ No. 491 ]

Dec. 29, 2008

Here’s the latest in a long-running series of grievances (previous entries are available in the archives):

Stop it.

Stop parking in my assigned spot in front of my house — even for a minute, even if you’re just picking up the mail. It shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but to me, it seems disrespectful of your neighbor’s space, literally. Does the carefully stenciled word RESERVED mean anything to you? And seriously, you only live a few doors down from my place — how lazy can you be?

Stop manufacturing musical greeting cards. There are certain customers out there who can’t possibly resist opening every single card that comes with sound, often more than once. And I really shouldn’t have to deal with that sort of noise pollution each time I walk into a Hallmark store.

Stop paying Ashton Kutcher to appear in Nikon commercials. All the guy does is take pictures and congratulate himself on being so very awesome. Please send this smirking clown to the unemployment line.

Stop worrying that using a red pen to mark students’ homework is too “aggressive.” If you mark a kid’s paper with a green or purple X, will that really change anything? Keep the red ink flowing. Students need to clearly see their mistakes so they can learn from them — that’s part of growing up. (And when typically American political correctness is found in a story from Australia, you know the world is in serious trouble.)

You heard me. Just stop.

[ No. 490 ]

Dec. 21, 2008

Congratulations to the Penn State women’s volleyball team, which captured its second straight national championship last night!

The top-ranked Nittany Lions took the title with a sweep of No. 2 Stanford, winning in straight sets, 25–20, 26–24, 25–23. With the victory, PSU completed a perfect 38–0 season, having lost only two sets all year — and both of those took place during a close match against Nebraska in the semifinals. Even more impressively, the Lions’ winning streak of 111 sets this year, as well as a still-active mark of 64 matches in a row (dating back to September 2007), are both NCAA records.

Way to go, State! We’re proud of you.

[ No. 489 ]

Dec. 17, 2008

Few Christmas songs sound more dated than Paul McCartney’s ubiquitous, keyboard-drenched 1979 release, “Wonderful Christmastime.” I’m reasonably convinced that Paul was inspired to write the song simply because he was excited to discover an echo effect on his then-new synthesizer.

By now, I’m starting to consider placing calls to local radio stations with a polite request to not play Sir Paul’s carol — along with any version of the cutesy, nauseating “Santa Baby” and, of course, “The Chipmunk Song.”

[ No. 488 ]

Dec. 14, 2008

While picking up a few things at a nearby Wawa last night, a middle-aged man in a tweed cap approached me, holding a small wad of cash. He asked if I had dropped some money inside the store. I had just taken out $100 from the in-store ATM, so I double-checked my wallet and confirmed that I hadn’t dropped any of the money that I’d withdrawn.

The man thanked me and slowly walked away, looking down at the folded dollar bills in his hand. As I waited in line at the check-out counter, I watched as he walked up to every other customer inside the store, asking them if they’d mistakenly dropped the cash. All of them shook their heads and said no, so the man and his wife got into line behind me to purchase their items.

I turned around and told him that I was impressed that he made the effort to find out who had lost the money, adding that a lot of people probably would have picked it up without saying a word. He said, “Well, I’ve lost money like that in the past, and it really stinks. I guess I’ll leave my name and phone number with the manager and see if anybody calls to claim it.”

Perhaps good deeds happen more often than I would assume. But it’s reassuring to know that there are some people who choose to do the right thing.

[ No. 487 ]

Dec. 11, 2008

I’ve never been a big fan of commercials on the Web, especially given how visually obtrusive some of them can be. One particularly egregious offender in recent months has been the Philadelphia Daily News, which has picked up a nasty habit of blocking my entire screen — a marketing approach that only serves to annoy the hell out of me.

However, I will reluctantly admit that Facebook ads are pretty effective in mining one’s profile settings for targeted messages. For example, since I’ve listed Back to the Future as one of my all-time favorite movies, I’m genuinely amused to see a sporadic ad for a flux capacitor T-shirt.

But at least one specific advertiser goes a bit too far. On more than one occasion, the right-hand column on my Facebook profile contained a small ad with a hyperlinked headline that read, “34 And Still Single?”

Wow. What an awful way to promote an online dating service. I’m sure most people love to be reminded me that they’re (a) getting older and (b) not married yet. Thanks for that!

[ No. 486 ]

Dec. 4, 2008

We received the news on Monday that, for the last year or so, the U.S. has officially been in a recession.

Really? Gee, without that piercing insight, I had no idea why the S&P has shed 42% of its value year-to-date, or why several of my friends have lost their jobs over the last few months. I’m just relieved that the visionaries at the National Bureau of Economic Research (whoever they are) cleared that up for me.

Aside from a few business leaders and government officials who should have known better, most of us never could have predicted the sheer size of our current economic problems. And because this downturn is both severe and unexpected, I find some solace in knowing that glossy three- and five-year business plans (especially those in PowerPoint format) are officially as absurd and fraudulent as I had always assumed them to be.

Business plans are a lot like weather forecasts; beyond a certain point in the near future, you shouldn’t rely on their accuracy. And yet, there are many people in corporate America who are asked to draft long-term business plans on a regular basis. (And by “draft,” I mean “totally make stuff up.”) I wish those poor souls would ditch the digital slideshow, take a deep breath, and say:

“Look, we can’t reasonably predict how our company will be doing a few years from now. Many things can and will change in the near future, and some of those changes will be completely out of our control. So, instead of presenting our typical three-year plan, here’s our vision for the next quarter. That’s all we’d like to focus on, at least for now.”

As vague as that statement is, wouldn’t that kind of honesty be refreshing?

[ No. 485 ]