Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ace in Space?

Some of you folks may know about this already, but I thought it was too dandy not to mention.

I was at Ace Frehley's official Web site last night as I want to know when his new album, Anomaly, will be released. I couldn't find out much about the new album other than what the cover art looks like, but I did find something incredible -- Ace Frehley wants to go to outer space.

Yes, according to the Ace to Space site, the legendary Frehley is making plans to go to space, write about the experience, and even record some stuff. Folks, I'm all for it.

I grew up listening to KISS and Ace was always my favorite. Frankly, the band just hasn't been the same without him as who the hell could every replace Ace's "meat and potatoes" guitar licks, laid-back cool and innate sense of what fans want to hear? Just listen to the band's 1980s output and it's pretty obvious that KISS just isn't as much fun without Ace and his magical Gibson Les Paul.

Besides, Ace's shtick was that he was a friendly, visiting alien sent to earth to extend greetings from his home planet and develop a rapport with earth by rocking out on songs like "Parasite," "Dr. Love," "Shock Me" and the unparalleled "Rocket Ride." It only makes sense to actually send the man to space and let his fans revel in his zero-gravity hijinks, doesn't it?

How cool was Rocket Ride? Here's a clip:

So, I'm officially on the "Ace to Space" bandwagon. Get on there yourself. Rarely do you see efforts that combine this much hilarity and awesomeness in equal measure.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Congratulations, Jeffrey!

Over the past year, my nephew has had a lot of decisions to make.

Jeffrey is a high school senior and was considering heading to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, after graduation, going to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or maybe just joining the Marines.

He's off to West Point and members of my wife's family -- the majority of whom are military veterans -- couldn't be prouder. Truth be told, I'm proud of young Jeffrey, too.

Of course, there's not much of a military history to speak of in my family. My dad was in the Navy in the 1960s while my uncle was a Marine in Vietnam. Prior to my dad's generation, members of my family didn't much care for joining the military.

An ancestor fought for the Confederacy during the War Between the States, see, so joining the military was viewed as essentially enlisting to fight for a foreign, occupying power. True story and not surprising considering all the hard feelings in these parts as a result of the Reconstruction.

At any rate. my nephew's decision to use his considerable talents to serve his country is nothing short of commendable. One thing that I thought was particularly dandy is that, last night, Jeffrey got a call from Congressman John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas' 3rd District.

Boozman called to congratulate Jeffrey on his acceptance to West Point. My nephew applied to West Point through Boozman's office and then go through a highly selective process before he was invited to attend the academy. The fact he made it through all of that says quite a bit about him, doesn't it?

So, congratulations to Jeffrey. I'm sure he'll do well.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What a bailout can't fix

It's time for my wife to get another car.

Yes, that faithful 2000 Saturn that has served us well since we drove it off the lot with 27 miles on it is looking a bit ragged these days. The old gal has 135,000 miles on her and she's starting to show her age.

We were out car shopping a couple of weeks ago when we saw one of those mom and pop lots on the side of the road. So we stopped, looked around a bit and saw a 2007 Chrysler Pacifica.

The mileage was low on the car and the asking price was so small that they might as well have been giving the car away. Furthermore, the vehicle has everything my wife wants -- three rows of seats (so we can separate our two kids on trips), plenty of leather, decent gas mileage and an interior that's so clean that the thing looks new. The previous owner obviously liked a little luxury and got a staggering array of options when the car was originally purchased.

We test drove the car and the thing felt solid as a rock, was comfortable and hugged the road impressively. I have a preference for foreign cars as I drive a Toyota and love the thing. Also, I've never had an American car that made it past around 140,000 miles, but that's not true of a couple of Japanese cars I've owned. Regardless, the Pacifica had everything my wife wanted so I thought we might have found the ideal car for her.

"What do you think," I asked.

"I like it."

"Want to get it?"

"I don't think so."

"Why not?"

"It's American."

My wife is probably going to wind up with a Toyota Highlander or some form of Honda, although we may pay more for the car we eventually decide to buy.

See a problem here? The Pacifica looks great, drives great and suits my wife's needs perfectly. The thing is priced to sell, too, but we're staying away from it due to our experience with American cars. We don't trust them to hold up to normal use and worry about whether Chrysler, GM and Ford will even be around in a few years to service their vehicles.

There's a general perception out there that American vehicles are garbage and that perception, sadly, has been well earned. Oh, the government can throw away billions of dollars on bailing out the American auto industry, but the feds can't do a thing about what consumers want to buy and drive without engaging in some form of severe protectionism (it wouldn't surprise me if the government did just that -- they killed the Volkswagen Beetle in the U.S. that way, after all).

The only group that can change the public's perception of American vehicles is the U.S. auto industry. Sadly, that bunch doesn't seem to be doing much at all to restore our faith in the vehicles they manufacture.

After all, what have we seen that suggests the American auto manufacturers will engage in anything but their normal practices that pushed them close to bankruptcy? Nothing, except for some token things such as promises to get rid of some corporate jets and some noise about the Volt, an overpriced electric car that will hit the market in a couple of years.

It doesn't appear the industry is a bit serious about the radical changes that will have to be made if the public is to rally behind Chrysler, Ford and GM again.

By the way, that pristine Pacifica was still on that little used car lot -- apparently, other people are approaching American vehicles with caution these days, too. Who can blame us?

Stupid, stinking winter

I absolutely detest winter.

That's one of the reasons I love living in Arkansas. Winters are mild and I've seen one foot of snow on the ground maybe three times in my life.

Right now, however, we're dealing with threats of ice and snow across the Natural State and I hate it. An inch or more of ice has fallen in a lot of areas in the northern half of the state and it appears some of that junk may hit here in central Arkansas by morning.

That's a huge problem, of course, as a funny thing happens when you dump a lot of frozen participation on people who aren't used to it -- we Arkies can't drive on this garbage so car wrecks are common when there's any ice at all on the roads. Also, sleet and freezing rain tends to weigh down pine trees, thus causing branches to snap power lines. There's nothing worse than dealing with cold, miserable weather and sitting in a dark house for a few days.

Thank God we've got a fireplace here at Casa de Hawg in case we lose power. There's a funny thing about our fireplace logs, however -- they're magic. I need to find some more of this wood and build a house with it because this stuff doesn't burn worth a damn. If a fire ravages my home, we'd lose everything but those blasted, flame resistant logs.

So I've spent the evening watching the weather, hoping that steady rain outside doesn't turn into sleet at some point, cussing fireplace logs and generally being cold and miserable. Even the central heating in my house is against me -- it's running just fine, but I can't shake that miserable chill I always get when it's too cold and too wet outside.

Frankly, I never understood people who enjoy this slop. I was in Iowa one December for a week and the high temperature during that time was 8 degrees. I'd make some comment about how cold it was and I learned Iowa residents love to brag about how cold it gets.

"This isn't cold," they'd say. "I'll tell you all about cold. Why, there was one winter when it was so cold that the dog froze to death and bloppity, bloppity, blah, blah, blah."

Phooey on that. I did admire something about those winter-loving Iowa folks, though. If a blizzard hit, they'd simply wake up, plow the streets and go about their business like nothing happened. Here in Arkansas, we shut down entire towns for a couple of days if a snowflake hits the ground and sticks.

I do hear people gripe about our hot, humid summers in Arkansas. Again, phooey. If you're too hot, quit being a sissy, put on a pair of shorts and have a glass of iced tea. You can deal with summer, see, but this winter stuff is for the birds. I'd much rather put on a pair of shorts and sweat a little bit then slide across my driveway, attack my windshield with one of those ice scrapers that never seem to work right and dodge maniacs who haven't figured out that a four-wheel-drive vehicle will slide into a ditch the same as any other car when you slam on the brakes.

Fortunately, ice and snow are unusual here as 40 and 50-degree days are common in the winter. Still, we've got a couple of months left to worry about Mother Nature being an absolute bitch and dumping a bunch of ice on us.

I'm looking forward to April.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Yay! More taxes!

I absolutely cringe whenever the Arkansas Legislature goes in session because it generally means some laws are going to be passed that annoy me.

One of the most aggravating pieces of legislation to be discussed this time around is, yes, a new tax. It seems the state needs $88 million a year to improve health care in Arkansas ($27 million would fund a statewide trauma system, while the rest will be spent on God knows what). How does the state plan to raise that money? A bill has been introduced in the legislature that, if passed, will put a 56-cent tax on cigarettes.

Of course, it's popular to kick smokers around, but anyone who knows what's going on in this state ought to object to this thing for at least a couple of reasons.

For one thing, Arkansas is the home of the budget surplus. This session has about $250 million in surplus money to play with -- money that was collected but never allocated to anything. In the 2007 session, the legislature had close to $1 billion in surplus money to blow on various bits of nonsense.

I should point out that the legislature, historically, has met every two years. My fellow Arkansans, however, must be masochists as they voted in November to approve yearly legislative sessions. That's something we'll regret.

But, I digress. Here's my question -- if Arkansas is running budget surpluses that are in the 100s of millions of dollars, why on earth does the state need to collect a new tax? Why not use some of that surplus to cover a trauma center and pay for other programs that will keep us all healthy?

Yeah, I know -- smokers deserved to get taxed because of the health problems they inflict on themselves and blah, blah, blah. Here's the problem, however. If a government that's running sizable surpluses decides there's nothing wrong with raising taxes during a crippling recession for the sheer hell of it, the chances are good they'll crank up those taxes on something you do care about eventually.

Frankly, I get irritated when the state decides to raise taxes on just about anything. They're already taking too much of my money and ought to be talking about tax cuts rather than new taxes. I know a tax cut is out of the question because the government's not exactly known for giving something back after they take it, so I'll settle for the next best thing -- no new taxes on anything.

Then, there's that lottery to consider. Last year, my fellow Arkansans threw logic to the wind and voted for a statewide lottery to fund scholarships. Unless Arkansas is somehow vastly different from the rest of the nation, then the money that is being used for scholarships now will allocated to the general budget and replaced with lottery revenue (in some parts of the world, that's known as a shell game).

Last year, the state set aside $43.7 million for scholarships, so it's safe to assume that $43.7 million will be pulled out of education and shoved in the general budget after the lottery gets rolling in 2010. In other words, a state which routinely runs large budget surpluses has found a way to get its hands on another $43.7 million. Again, we've got plenty of money pouring into the state treasury and simply ought not allow those rascals to pass yet another "just for the hell of it" tax.

Want to build a trauma system? Looks like you've got $43.7 million dollars that will soon be freed up to spend on such things. Need to maintain that trauma system? Again, let's take a look at that $43.7 million. No one seems to give much thought about reallocating money that will certainly be free in a couple of years. The folks in Little Rock seem content to find some way to spend that for various things while hitting the public up for tax revenue. Who gives a damn about fairness, efficiency, responsibility or any of that other junk?

Perhaps the thing that irritates me the most about this new tax is that the bill in support of it was filed just a couple of days after a 3.85 percent pay raise the legislature voted for itself, constitutional officers and judges was passed and signed into law. We've heard a lot of talk about "tough times" and "recessions" coming out of Little Rock since the legislature went into session last week.

Apparently, sacrifices are necessary during these tough times unless you happen to be an elected official. Our politically savvy governor, Mike Beebe, wisely declined his raise. I doubt if anyone else who benefits from that law will exercise such restraint.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Emulation just isn't the same, is it?

Way on back when I was a mere 13-years-old in 1982, I received a TRS-80 Color Computer (the famed CoCo) for Christmas.

That remains my favorite computer. Of course, it wasn't advanced by today's standards in that it came with a mere 16 kilobytes of RAM and hooked up to a television set (monitors were available, but most people just used their TVs). The Motorola 6809 CPU hummed along at a mere .89 megahertz, but a command could be typed in that would double that clock speed -- a trick that was used by a lot of game programmers. You got a 32-column screen, no lower case letters, primitive sound and a mere eight colors that could be displayed on the screen at any one time (some programmers got around that restriction, as I recall).

Programs were loaded from a cassette deck, but people wanting to get really advanced could shell out quite a bit for a disk drive. A lot of us relied on the cassette deck and fell back on "ROM packs" that plugged into the computer's cartridge slot for more advanced games.

I, like everyone else, subscribed to a couple of Color Computer magazines (Rainbow and The Color Computer Magazine were my favorites) and spent a lot of time typing in BASIC programs copied from those magazines and various books. I wrote a lot of basic programs on my own, too. One bit of trivia about those old Color Computer days is that the BASIC was from Microsoft.

That's right. Before Bill Gates took over the world, his company had a lucrative contract with Radio Shack to provide BASIC to the company's line of computers. Microsoft provided BASIC to a lot of other manufacturers, too.

I always have, by the way, admired the discipline programmers had back in the 8-bit era. They didn't have just a lot of memory to work with, so they were efficient out of necessity. A lot of games were in machine code because that ran much faster than anything else. Contrast that era to today when bloated software is typical because memory is no longer an issue and CPUs are fast enough that efficiency is no longer that important.

At any rate, I experienced the fun of putting in a 64 kilobyte RAM upgrade and soldering the jumpers necessary to make my CoCo recognize the expanded memory. I enjoyed that computer and still have fond memories of it, even if it was replaced a year later by an IBM-PC.

The point of all this is that I get sentimental every few years and decide to go the emulator route. I downloaded a copy of M.E.S.S., got the appropriate BIOS sets for it, found a few games here and there and ran an emulated Color Computer 1. I even wrote a very simple BASIC program for the heck of it and you can see the code and the result below:

Unfortunately, using an emulator isn't the same as actually owning some TRS-80 hardware. I reach that conclusion every time I get an emulator so I can feel like I'm messing with a CoCo again, so I'm not sure why I even bother.

The problem, of course, is that the keyboard layout is different, the controllers are different and shuffling disc images around is often more trouble than it's worth. Perhaps I'll break down and buy some hardware again one day.

Some people love emulation, however, whereas some people swear by the original hardware. All fans interested in the old CoCo should visit the Tandy Color Computer Supersite, one of the finest resources on the Internet for that kind of thing.