Tags: venting/rants


My City Makes My Car Look Like An Impersonator

I drive a retired police cruiser, which looks like this. In Virginia, we have local tax decals, which are stuck to the windshield to indicate that the city or county taxes were paid on the vehicle, and they can look like anything since they're designed individually by each municipality. For the town I live in, the sticker takes the form of the city's seal, overlaid on a brightly-coloured shield, with strong borders and a white background.

The shield used in these stickers, combined with the city seal and little other information, looks almost identical to what most people picture in their minds when they envision a police badge. In fact, the insignia for the local police department and fire department are both perfectly indistinguishable from these stickers.

And since Virginia is bizarro-land when it comes to stuff like this, not only do we have these city tax decals that virtually no other place has, but they're required to be displayed right in the centre of the windshield, instead of off to the left like most states.

In short, I'm required to very prominently display a highly-visible sticker on my Police Interceptor's windshield that is indistinguishable from a police insignia sticker when viewed by people who don't live here. There isn't even anything to indicate what the thing is, just the city seal on a shield with a year (plus an expiration date and serial number in smaller print). This wouldn't be so bad, except that the colours change every year, and while the choices sometimes are innocuous (brown, yellow, green, purple, etc), there are years when the colour choice is truly unfortunate for someone who already gets a lot of scrutiny from cops who think someone who drives a Crown Vic is an impersonator waiting to happen, and needs to be taught a lesson.

For example, two years ago, the stickers were bright blue. Like, police blue. I'm not sure how often they cycle the colours, but I've lived here 25 years and I'm pretty sure I've never seen a bright blue shield used on the city stickers (they used navy once). It was certainly interesting, though, to follow the eyes of bystanders when they examined my car as I went by, and it got me out of at least one parking garage fee. It also led to some very uncomfortable scrutinizing looks from cops in Pittsburgh, among other cities/states.

This year, they're extra-bright fire engine red. They've been red before, but it's usually more of a brick tone. Not this year; apparently, the plan is to make all Crown Vic, Explorer, and Charger owners look like firefighter impersonators in 2011.

Admittedly, this is a pretty minor thing to post about in my journal, and there isn't a single thing I can do about it while living here, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I first got my car, I was harassed multiple times a day for several solid days by local police trying to claim I was a police impersonator based solely on the car I chose. I was stopped for as long as they could get away with (I was working as a delivery driver at the time, and this always happened during work, to the point that I was nearly fired for it), searched or threatened with searches (I let them do it the first time, in hopes that it'd be the end of this sillyness), threatened with everything from tickets to arrests, and followed through town on numerous occasions. And, while I never had any intentions of ever doing such a thing, I was really into flashy lights at the time, and planned to put a few toys in my car at some point; nothing illegal (except the headlight flasher I already owned), just some well-concealed amber lights for parking lot fun and the occasional practical use in my work as a delivery driver. Well, not only did the cops kill any such ambitions, but ever since, I feel like I haven't been able to even enjoy the reactions people have to my car. Everyone else sure gets a kick out of driving it, or even riding in it, but I've been trying for years to shake the paranoia that if I get any such amusement from it, some cop is going to pop out from the nearest blind corner and arrest me for it. Irrational, I know, but my car still gets a great deal of police scrutiny, to the point that a hot-headed lead foot driving a bright red Miata would probably get fewer speeding tickets than me.

...This turned into far more of a post than I intended to make, so I guess I'll wrap it up here. I guess the point was "my city's design choice for its local tax stickers is awkward and worrysome for who's desperately trying NOT to be seen as an impersonator when travelling to other states".

Found a New Band to Dislike

I listen to a lot of music. I like a lot of different genres, and within most genres, I'll listen to pretty much everything that comes up in a playlist, no matter what the song is or who performs it. However, there are a small number of exceptions, artists that will cause me to do whatever I can to avoid listening to their music. For example, while I like pretty much every rock/metal song to ever come out of the 80s, I loathe Motorhead. And while I've heard pretty much every song that's considered "classic rock", the only band that causes me to change the channel every single time is the Rolling Stones.

In country music, the artist that makes me spine tingle, and the artist I despise more than any other artist in any other genre, is Dwight Yoakam. If you're not familiar with him, picture this: You have a dude friend who's completely plastered drunk, possibly doing karaoke, and he decides to make fun of country music by poorly singing about his wife leaving him in his pickup truck and running over the dog, using a heavily-exaggerated nasal twang. Now give that friend a multi-million dollar record contract, and you've got Dwight Yoakam. Don't believe me? Here's a link to his biggest hit. Yet, for some reason, he's a massive country star, and has been around forever. Having grown up with country music, I've become accustomed to blocking out his music, and I've never heard a country artist who grates on my nerves as badly as he does. Until today.

I was watching CMT videos, since they make nice background noise, and I occasionally discover new music I like. Tonight, however, they started playing a song from a band called "Trampled by Turtles", which made me wonder if that was the name of the band or the treatment they gave the video before playing it. Instrumentally, it was ok-ish, aside from making the thrash-metal fallacy of confusing playing speed with musical skill (which sounds downright bizarre with banjos and fiddles). However, the vocalist utterly destroyed any enjoyment or even tolerance I might've had for the song. To put it simply, it sounded like bad karaoke, the vocalist did pretty much everything wrong that could be done wrong. He was frequently off-key, couldn't keep up with the instruments, couldn't hold a steady rhythm, couldn't even hold steady notes (nor could he cover this up with vibrato), and on top of that, his voice sucked and the lyrics were awful. I mean, Dwight Yoakam's voice may be the most nerve-grinding sound ever created by humans, but he's at least capable of basic musicianship.

Naturally, I did a little searching afterwards, mostly to find a video to go along with this post, and I discovered that Trampled by Turtles is from Minnesota. No offense to anyone from Minnesota, but that could part of the problem, they're trying to be a bluegrass band from a state that's about as far north as you can get without getting into Canada (which, ironically, has produced some pretty good country singers in the past). Thankfully, they're not likely to be successful, at least not for long.

So, here's the video I saw that made me dislike them so much, which is supposed to be their "big hit". Even if you don't like country music, give it a listen, it might make you like other country or bluegrass songs by comparison :-P


Windows "Internet Games"

Yay frivolous post! I don't seem to get many comments when I make a serious LJ post, so let's see how many are generated by a pointless one :-P

In Windows XP, in addition to the standard Windows games (Solitare, Minesweeper, etc), there are several "Internet" games, like Checkers, Reversi, and so forth. I'm not sure how many of you actually play these, but I usually start my day with a few rounds of pretty much any of the Windows games, to wake up the logical side of my brain, and again in the evening when I'm winding down from coding all day. The novelty of "Yay, I'm playing against real people!" wore off after my very first Reversi game, and I'd be just as happy if they were games against computer players. In fact, I think I'd enjoy them more.

Reversi has always been my favourite, because I love it in board-game form (where it's called Othello), but it's in this game where the flaws in Microsoft's games are most obvious. The skill level indicator, rather than being based on one's actual performance, is a three-level manually-chosen option. And, it defaults to Beginner, without making it obvious how to change it. So, everyone just leaves it there whether they're awesome at it or crappy. This is especially problematic in Reversi, a game whose basic strategy is easy to master, but moving beyond that practically requires a master's degreee. Thus, Internet Reversi is populated by people who purely play defensively, or they're experts playing against beginners.

I've played Checkers only occasionally, and I'm actually pretty decent at that, although roughly 50% of my games end with a vanished opponent.

Backgammon, though, is what prompted this post. If you've never played, I'm not even going to try to explain it here, because it's rather complex, but it's a really neat game once you get used to it. Until this week, I'd only played it once before in my entire life, and I didn't understand it at the time, but I brushed up on it earlier this week. After a few initial rounds, I figured out what I was doing with it, and with about a half-hour of learning, I felt like I could actually present a challenge for an opponent. Three days later, with about a half-hour of play a day, I haven't won a single game.

My unbroken losing streak has nothing to do with my lack of skill, though. The problem comes from the fact that Windows Internet Backgammon is populated with sore losers and morons. So far, every game I've played has ended in one of four ways:
-During/after the initial roll to determine who goes first, my opponent vanishes. This happens well over 50% of the time.
-After my first move, my opponent vanishes. This is the next-most-common endgame.
-I lose the game. This is actually becoming less common.
-I come close to winning, sometimes within a couple moves, and my opponent vanishes. Occasionally, they even leave a snarky (or as close as you can get with indirect "pick from a list" chat) message on the way out. This has happened no less than a dozen times.

If I just plain sucked at the game, I'd be less bothered, but most of the time, I don't even get the chance to see if I'm losing or not. And having been on the losing side of several games (which can often be very cut-throat), I know how tempting it is to hit the "Find New Opponent" button when a win looks impossible, but that's a real dick move, even in a game that might as well be against a computer for all you know. I just don't get why Backgammon is the game to attract so many players who are full of fail.

What really rubbed me the wrong way was this evening, when it looked like I was about to actually make it far enough to win a game. I pwned my opponent hard at first, beating him by nearly triple, but he had a good sense of humour about it, and we kept going. The game went on for quite awhile, with him managing to pull out of a certain loss and nearly make a full comeback. In the end, he was only slightly behind me, and I was looking forward to playing him again just for the challenge. But then, when I was two easy dice-rolls away from winning, he sent the messages "No", "Goodbye", ":-)", then disappeared.

*sighs* I know it's just a game, and a rather pointless one at that (though it is a fun challenge), but is it really so much to ask to get opponents who will actually play the game and not be dicks about it?

Online Video Ads Need To Die

For quite awhile, I've been a fan of The Nostalgia Critic and his less-active counterpart Nostalgia Chick. I watch videos from them on a regular basis, and I enjoy nearly everything they put out. However, I have a major issue with the site: Ads embedded in the videos.

Now, I understand how the internet works, and I'm quite aware that any website has to generate income somewhere once it gets a certain level of activity. I don't particularly like it, but the reality is that the internet we know today is built to cater to commerce over creativity. And, for sites that don't inherently sell anything, selling advertising is a somewhat reliable, if dubious, way to generate the income necessary to continue to exist. I block ads as much as possible, of course, but website ads aren't usually very intrusive anyway. Video ads, on the other hand, are the absolute bane of my existance.

I'm not talking about ads that play before the video; as annoying as those are, they're easy enough to mentally tune out, and they only last for 30 seconds or so before a video of 5-30 minutes (depending on what you're watching). Kinda like TV commercials, which I tune out so easily that it's actually more annoying to pick up the remote and fast-forward through them on my DVR. I'm talking about banner ads embedded in the video itself.

The Nostalgia Critic's site uses Blip.tv to host their videos. Not many people use that video hosting service, but anyone who's used Youtube is familiar with their advertising technology, which can overlay pretty much anything over the videos (Youtube uses it for those comment boxes in videos). And when I first started watching their videos, their ads were actually tolerable. The video player overlaid a translucent black rectangle over the bottom chunk of the video containing a text ad. Not exactly ideal, but not overly distracting either.

However, a few months ago, they really ramped this up. The translucent black rectangle still appears, but instead of containing text, it now contains full-colour banner ads. Usually animated. And there are animated ad overlays without the box that open to a full-screen ad if your mouse so much as grazes the edge of the video window (not just mousing over the ad itself). Aside from full-screen interstitials, I don't think I can imagine more intrusive and distracting advertising for online video content.

But the real kicker in all this, and what prompted me to write this post, is that Blip.tv's video player and advertising are so resource-intensive that no browser can run or interact with the video plus ads smoothly. It was bad enough when the ads were just text-based, they lagged a little during fade-in and fade-out, but not enough to really affect anything. These new fully-animated ads, though, are unbearable. The video stream typically lags for almost a full second when an ad appears, and if I dare to try to close a particularly annoying one by clicking the little X in the corner of the ad, the video and audio come to a dead halt for upwards of five seconds, followed by several seconds of unwatchably choppy video as it tries to re-sync.

Of course, this is on my desktop computer, which is on hardware that was top-of-the-line seven years ago, runs constantly, and hasn't had Windows reinstalled in about four years (I think, I can't remember the last time I did it). So, despite being surprisingly powerful and usable for its age, it does tend to chug a bit with things like video anyway. So, I hooked my laptop up to my TV to watch some internet video on the big screen, starting with a new Nostalgia Critic review. My laptop, if you don't recall, is a hypothetical future-computer from space that cost more than the value of my car, and it absolutely pwns at video. Games that are unplayably laggy on my desktop (not necessarily new ones) run with perfect framerates on my laptop. So, theoretically, I would expect such a powerhouse of computing superiority to handle a Flash video player, even a notoriously laggy one, with the same ease that my desktop PC handles Notepad. While this normally would be the case, Blip.tv's ads are so intrusive to the video player that even my laptop lagged for a half-second before displaying each one.

Watching videos on my TV also illustrated a quirk that would be rather amusing if it weren't so irritating. Normally, webpage-embedded video plays at about 640x480px, regardless of the size of the browser window. But, Flash video players also have fullscreen mode, and can be embedded elsewhere at other sizes, so logically, something that overlays an image over the bottom of a video should expect this. Not Blip.tv. In fullscreen mode, their new ads display at the bottom of where the video would be if your monitor were the same size as the web player. Which was really hilarious to watch on my 42" TV at 1080i, but its charm wore off quickly when I realized it was now rendering banner ads in the prime section of the window, where all the action in a well-made video is supposed to be.

So, I'm not pleased with Nostalgia Critic or Blip.tv about this. Blip is of course responsible for the technical problems with their video player, but I also blame Nostalgia Critic for choosing these ads in the first place. Blip allows content posters to choose what type of advertising (if any) to display, and the content owner gets a cut from the proceeds. So, Nostalgia Critic had to have specifically chosen these types of ads. And, I mentioned Nostalgia Chick in the beginning of this post, but her videos don't have nearly as many of the troublesome animated banner ads. Instead, she has a full-screen commercial at the very beginning of the video, and just old-style plain-text banner ads in the rest.

And, if anyone reading this puts videos online: I understand the need for advertising to support your work, but do your audience a favour and check the impact of the ads on your videos when choosing what to display.

Writer's Block: My Biggest Environmental Pet Peeve

Littering, long showers, not recycling... What's your biggest pet peeve about the way some people (mis)treat our planet?

There are a lot of things that bother me, but the biggest has got to be littering in the forest. Littering is a bad thing in general, but cities at least have street sweepers and what-not to keep it from being too big of a problem. However, in wooded recreational areas, when someone tosses out trash, it's there until it degrades, or is picked up by someone like me.

Far too many people completely disregard the "pack it in, pack it out" rule, and it really gets to me sometimes. Unfortunately, the biggest offenders are drunk rednecks, and people (usually yuppie tourists) with babies who throw their kids' diapers into the woods while visiting a lake or whatever.

Trees, and How I Love Them

In my last post, I mentioned a giant log I've been holding for Fox, so he can use it for his woodworking projects. To an outside observer, it looks like something Fox is burdening me with, and I don't think anyone really understands why I'm doing it. Even Thrash, who graciously helped me move it to a better spot, didn't seem to understand why I cared. So, this is a Learn Something About Natasha post :-)

In case it's not painfully obvious, I love trees. I proudly call myself a tree-hugger, and it very aptly describes how I feel about these wonderful creatures. I don't think I need to tell anyone who's been to elementary school why trees are so wonderful, but not many people took that information to heart quite as strongly as I did; I spent a solid day crying after reading The Lorax.

Fast-forward to now, where I've had to become a bit de-sensitized to the slaughtering of forests to keep from getting wrapped up in unwinnable battles against development. It still brings a tear to my eye to see local wooded lots clear-cut to make way for generic townhouses (one area in particular really bothered me, they destroyed a forest I used to play in), but there isn't a whole lot I can do about it. Plus, I'm almost within walking distance of federally-protected wilderness that spans a dozen states, which softens the blow. Still, for me, cutting down trees is like euthanizing pets; I know it happens all the time with no real impact on the overall population, and there's nothing I can do about it on a large scale, but it's still really upsetting to think about. Especially when I see direct evidence of it; a dense development where I used to see a forest, the lumber section of a hardware store, and so forth.

Anyway, when Fox was still living here, he started a project to harvest trees cut down by developers, and use them for his woodworking projects (furniture, lathe-turned creations, etc). I was a little uncomfortable with the idea at first, but I came around eventually, since using the dead carcasses for something productive is less disturbing than what would actually happen to them; getting ground up into mulch, or chopped for firewood by the crews that slaughtered them. So, ok, this is a good thing, just as long as I don't have to spend too much time around development sites littered with stumps.

Unfortunately, Fox moved before he could mill most of what he collected. To make a long story short, he's only been able to retrieve a few pieces at a time, and most of what's left is too damaged to be usable. However, there's one piece in particular that is simultaneously the most useful and the most difficult to work with, the aforementioned log. It's over 8 feet long, 2 feet wide, and from a very heavy hardwood species (oak? walnut?), making it about as difficult to work with as a boulder of similar dimensions. I don't remember how exactly he acquired it, but I think it involved a tilt-bed trailer with a winch and/or a large team of fellow Domino's employees. So, it's not something that can just be put in a car and driven somewhere.

Originally, the plan was for him to bring his milling equipment (a specialized chainsaw with rails) down here and mill it in place, but he hasn't had the opportunity yet. Option 2 is to transport it to Pittsburgh, which is much easier said than done without a forklift. Our attempt to put it in Thrash's truck is well-documented in my last post, so I don't need to re-hash it here. Suffice to say, it's still here, and I'm under renewed pressure by my mom to "get rid of it".

Ahh, yes, mom. The inspiration for this post. From the start, she wasn't too keen on Fox's wood harvesting project, with no real explanation for why. Her excuses were pretty flimsy, and the only one that actually made sense, that it cluttered the lawn and made it hard to mow, was negated by the fact that she never actually mows her own lawn. After Fox moved, she was all too eager to tell all her redneck coworkers' husbands that they could get truckloads of free firewood in our yard, but I refused to let her. I tried a variety of tactics, including explaining my true feelings on the matter (she said I was weird and didn't take me seriously at all), but we've been unable to see eye-to-eye on it. So, since our failed efforts to move the log this weekend called attention to it, chopping it up has been all I've heard about this week, along with her twisting my words to find some excuse to write it off as worthless litter. I'm running out of ways to tell her that this is important to me.

And, that's about all I have to say in this post. I'm a little concerned about the fate of the log, because I wouldn't put it past mom to go behind my back to have an acquaintance destroy it while I'm not around, then feign ignorance about it. But mostly, I just wanted to articulate my feelings on the matter. Despite the amount of art I've gotten of my character in scenes that make Smokey the Bear look like a logging-industry lobbyist, I don't think anyone really knew just how strongly I felt about forest preservation. So, now you know; I'm a freak who'd tear down a building to plant trees sooner than even thinking about harming a single live tree. And the giant log that everyone seems to think is some inconsiderate burden on me is, in my mind, a puppy rescued from the euthenasia table, and I'll do whatever it takes to keep it from suffering the cruel, wasteful fate of its brethren.

Weird Shit

This evening, I laid down for a nap, and had a dream that I can only describe as an anime episode. It was like being in a bizarre combination of Digimon, Voltron, and Captain Planet. I don't know what the hell was going on, but it was weird, moreso than any other dream I can recall having. Not like "there's giraffes in my living room" weird, more like "I didn't know I could breathe ice cream" weird.

I woke up to my cellphone ringing. Local number, not someone I recognize. I answer. "Hello?"


The woman on the other line kept repeating this name. I said "No, this is {Natasha}".


Can she not hear me? I don't get very good signal in my house, so I told her again, very slowly, "This is not James, I think you have a wrong number".


Does she not speak English? Didn't sound like a hispanic accent. I said "No James, wrong number!"


Ok, this is getting on my nerves, and is quite possibly a prank call. So, I ended with "Look, this isn't James, it's {Natasha}, you must have a wrong number", and was about to hang up, when she said "Oh, ok, sorry", in very clear English.

So, not only did she speak English, but obviously she could hear me the whole time. In what sort of weird la-la-land is incessantly asking for the same name a proper response to being told that you dialed a wrong number?

Why Must PHP Be So Difficult?

Despite my best efforts, PHP seems to have issues on Lupinia's server, and I don't know what to do about it anymore.

When we first moved Lupinia to its new server last January, everything seemed to be working fine with PHP in an IIS environment. However, as time went on, we discovered a problem: After about 100,000 requests to a particular application pool (in IIS, a group of virtual hosts), PHP would suddenly stop responding, and start giving internal server errors, until the application pool was recycled (about a 15-minute process if left to do it by itself). And, every once in awhile, apparently at random, it would take a full restart of IIS to get it working again.

I was able to keep things under control for awhile, but as load increased, so did the frequency of these errors, to the point where it was happening every couple of days. I finally took the time to search for it, hoping that I was doing something wrong, only to find that it was a known bug in PHP's ISAPI module, and they haven't done anything about it since 2004. Lovely. The only other built-in option is to run PHP as a CGI application, where it launches an EXE every time a request is sent to it. Unfortunately, in a Windows environment, that equates to obscene loads on the system resources, and it's not a viable option on a server that hosts the traffic we do.

After some searching, I found the answer in the Zend Core, a corporate-grade PHP installation for IIS. It has an interface called FastCGI, which is the best of both worlds in this case; it has the stability of a CGI application, but it only launches one EXE per virtual host (which is still a large number, but manageable). Everything has been working quite peachy in the few months since we upgraded, except for one problem; instead of PHP errors giving error messages in the page generating them, they result in a generic Internal Server Error.

Until recently, I didn't really have the time to look into fixing it. But, this weekend, I've been working on a project that's really pushing the limits of my abilities (in a good way, this is how I learn new things), which means little errors here and there. And, I'm getting really tired of blind debugging.

And, unlike the previous problem, Google has been no help whatsoever. I've spent the last two hours searching for possible causes, and tweaking config variables. All of the search results I've found have been irrelevant in some way.

I really don't want to spend $500 for a support package from Zend (the software is free, but they charge out the nose for support).

(no subject)

Tonight, I found out that the only McDonald's in town that's open past 2am has switched to the f***ing late-night menu. Which may be fine for some people, but there's nothing at McDonald's I actually like except for the Big Mac. And, that's not on the late-night menu (no one's been able to give me a plausible explanation as to why, either).

Thus, it's no longer possible to get anything other than pizza after midnight in this town (not counting the abysmally shitty food at IHOP, or the Waffle House I can't go to because I can't eat around smokers). F***ing bullshit for an alleged "college town", especially one with a reputation for being a "party school".

On the plus side, I got carded to buy a rated-R movie at Wal-Mart [giggles].

Scion = Lame

I keep seeing this commercial, and it really bugs me. Scion's main selling point seems to be "if you get a Scion, you can put blingy shit on it!".

How lame does a car have to be for aftermarket customization to be its biggest marketable selling point?