Budget Halloween House

How to make your house scary for Halloween without great expense:

Victory, with honor

“This strategy has succeeded. And we are winning in Iraq. And we will come home with victory and with honor.” Senator McCain in the first 2008 presidential debate.

Among many stories of the consequences of our invasion of Iraq is this one. I heard it last week on All Things Considered. If this is the outcome of “victory,” there is no honor in it, only shame.

A fishy story

Vicki’s tropical fish tank has been set up for years, and I hadn’t realized how run-down it was getting until we started working on it a few months back. Adding some new angel fish was a bad idea; we introduced a disease that killed off all but one of our clown loaches and all but one of the new angel fish. Either that or the water quality problems that we already had were borderline-dangerous, and adding the new fish pushed it beyond livable.

Whatever the reason, we’ve cleaned up the tank nicely, added a vastly better light with a clear glass top – that’s when I realized just how gloomy it had become – cleaned the sides, and started adding more fish.

We’ve always liked the clown loaches more than any of the other fish we’ve had, because they have such interesting behaviors. I would say that they have personalities, if ascribing a personality to a cold water creature with barely a brain wasn’t such a stretch. They school, they find the strangest places to hide, they can sleep – or at least, be inactive – in odd positions. So it was a big disappointment to lose two of the three after having them for so many years.

The final loach hid behind his rock, and we rarely saw him. After I added the light, he started following the angel fish around occasionally – not exactly schooling, but usually being in the same part of the tank.

Then, when we added plants and several other fish, he spent all of his time out in the open. He nibbled on the plants and swam around with the brightly colored neon tetras. Vicki was especially happy to see him out and about all the time, and we plan to add more clown loaches.

But… apparently our water quaility problems aren’t over, or at least we have some issue still that affects tetras. All of the red tetras we added died very quickly. The neons took a little longer, but they started to succumb. I know that tetras are sensitive to some kinds of water conditions; you can’t make the water slightly brackish, which helps keep most fish healthy, because salt is toxic to tetras. I don’t think we have any salt in the water, but Texas hard water may have other problems, and I need to look at what might be going on before I try adding more tetras.

Everything else is fine. The catfish, the gouramis, the one angel fish that we still had, and the loach, all seem healthy. The plants are doing fine. But for a couple of days I was flushing tetras when I found them (and there are several I haven’t accounted for).

Then, yesterday morning, I saw what must be the oddest thing I’ve ever encountered in years of keeping tropical fish. The clown loach was swimming around with a dead neon tetra in its mouth.

It wasn’t eating it. It was just carring it around the tank. It looked as if – and, of course, this is even more ridiculous than claiming that a fish has a personality – it looked as if the loach had found one of the fish it had been schooling with, and wasn’t willing to let it go.

Yeah, it’s ridiculous – but since yesterday morning, the loach has gone back to his old hiding place. He doesn’t come out from behind his rock.

I’m sure that there are good reasons for the events, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that I saw the end of a tiny tragedy.

Windows UI annoyance

Will Microsoft ever realize that popping up a dialog while I’m working is a bad idea? I’m tying away when a dialog popus up, and the next key stroke has a random effect on it. The number of installations I’ve screwed up by accidentally responding to dialogs may be part of the reason my Windows always becomes unstable.

The Apple user interface has an irritating bouncy icon that lets you know when another program requires your attention. Which is fine; it is as obvious as the Windows-style modal dialog, but it doesn’t start stealing your keystrokes and acting on them.

This morning I wiped out Firefox and Adobe Reader because some ugliness between them makes Firefox go into a loop of loading / attempting to render that it never gets out of. I had to cancel and restart re-installing Adobe because of a stupid popup dialog that I dismissed without seeing what it was while I was typing a message. Even afterwards, Firefox and Adobe have the same problem – but in a virtual machine Firefox and Adobe co-exist perfectly well. So something in another Windows component is breaking it.

Maybe it’s another application that’s only partly installed. Or maybe it’s Skype, which apparently has hooked into Firefox, redirecting it to the Skype website even after a full, clean install. Which is another one of the ridiculous program practises that we’ve come to accept – no way in hell would I have allowed Skype to do that, if I’d been prompted, but with no application security, the installer can do what it likes.

Conning Kids

I was paying last month’s cellphone bill this week and found a charge I didn’t recognize on Simon’s phone. He’s 11, and shouldn’t be incurring extra charges. He did have a couple of games that Vicki told him he could download, but this wasn’t one of them.

AT&T couldn’t tell me anything about the charge. That seems odd; they apparently have the right to put something on my bill without giving me any justification. The operator did tell me how to find out who’d originated it (“google SJA Mobile”). So I did, and found SJA Mobile’s website. Interestingly absent is any useful information, like what they do, or what I could be paying for. Though they do offer a “no questions asked” refund.

Googling further becomes more interesting. There are dozens of blogs that claim that SJA Mobile provides a useful service, but none of them say what it is. Paid advertising? Dunno, it seems to me that without identifying the service you’re not going to sell much. Yet, for the same reason, they’re unlikely to be unsolicited testimonials.

The only site I found that gave me anything of interest was Skydeck’s blog, here and here. The text and comments make it pretty clear that SJA Mobile is or is involved in scamming. SJA initiated billing the blog writer after sending him the text message ”… “, with no action on his part. It seems that SJA Mobile is perpetrating cramming.

In my case, though, there was a reason behind the cramming. I was reluctant to follow SJA Mobile’s procedure to get my “no questions asked” refund, because I felt it would be implicitly legitimizing their charge. On the other hand, I didn’t really want to ask AT&T to remove the charge as disputed, when there was any possibility that it might be legitimate. So I did follow the SJA procedure, requested a refund, and texted STOP to the SJA number.

In response to the STOP, I got a text message from “ultimate-game-cheats.net” saying I was unsubscribed. I asked Simon, and he said yes, he’d given them his cell number to get help with a computer game. (Aside: never use a paid service for a computer game when GameFaqs.org has everything you’d ever need.) He said he’d been unable to get off the list, and didn’t know that it was costing us money.

Ultimate-game-cheats is not obfuscating the fact that signing up is $10/month. Not much, anyway. Certainly the “enter your cell # for the site password” is in much bigger and brighter text than the fine print, but the fine print is quite readable, It even mentions the subscription fee in two places.

Does that make the site and the charges legitimate? Well, that’s the reason I’m posting this. I don’t think so, and I think there’s a nasty near-scam going on here, abetted by AT&T and the other carriers who allow SJA Mobile billing rights.

I readily acknowledge that the charge was initiated by Simon’s providing the cell #, even though the site says that there will be a recurring $9.99 charge, that you must be 14 years or older, and that you must have your parents’ permission.

However, the company (ultimate-game-cheats) takes no steps to verify age. Yeah, it’s not an easy thing to do, but here it’s non-existent. Some sites (“adult” sites) require credit cards partly as an age verification mechanism. A cell # doesn’t even begin to imply adulthood or financial responsibility. Plenty of kids have cellphones. I’m fairly sure that a Texas court wouldn’t hold that an 11-year-old kid clicking on a link (even one that says don’t click unless you’re 14) would satisfy the legal requirement for establishing a contract.

I see no indication on the page that this is a real service. I see nowhere to enter the password that the company claims it will send. Perhaps the text message includes other access instructions – or perhaps it is entirely a scam.

Even if not, the site targets kids, encourages them to sign up, committing their parents to paying. If this isn’t exactly a scam, it’s at least misleading.

SJA Mobile has a duty to ensure that the charges that they bill to AT&T on behalf of Ultimate-game-cheats is legitimate. Clearly they do not do that.

AT&T apparently is willing to charge a customer based on zero justification for the charge from SJA Mobile. I’m sure that their contact with SJA Mobile requires that SJA authenticates its charges, but I’m not a party to that agreement, SJA doesn’t authenticate, and AT&T doesn’t police. So I’m left financially responsible for a specious charge.

Two aspects of this system particularly disturb me. First, that I don’t have a way to opt out. AT&T has no provision for me to say “don’t add third-party charges to my bill.” They’re free to add whatever they want, and I have to either pay or challenge it. My cell # has been turned into a payment ID, like a credit card, but unlike a credit card, I can’t cut it up and throw it away. I’m part of a new monetary system that I didn’t sign up for, and don’t want.

The second is a corollary to the first. Since a cell # has become a source of credit funding, any kid with a cell phone now has access to their parents’ funds. Subject to reading the bill’s details (how many parents know to do that? Or are likely to wade through every line? My bill was twelve pages) parents could well be funding all kinds of illicit activities. Possibly canceling text messaging would solve the problem – if the end provider was responsible enough to require receipt of a text message. (The “…” text would argue against that always being the case.) But texting is a given for kids these days.

Until the phone companies install a rational opt-in system for third-party charges, I have no option but to scrutinize and challenge every bill, and to warn others to do the same. Maybe I’m becoming increasingly a Luddite, but this is a payment system that I don’t want to be a part of.

Update:

The link to ultimate-game-cheats.net has changed today. Instead of the signup page that was present two days ago, there’s a page that says “new registrations are temporarily unavailable due to routine maintenance.” There is a login page, with a password, which does imply that the game cheats service may be real.

TealScript

After abandoning Graffiti 1, I’ve been using TealScript exclusively, and I have to say that I’m very happy with it. I haven’t spent my $30 yet, I’m still using introductory trial, but I certainly will be. It recognizes my Graffiti 1 letter construction better than the Graffiti 1 libraries (and better than my earlier Palm devices ever did). I haven’t even attempted to tune the character recognition.

It seems not to introduce any extra instability. (Saying that any particular package is stable on a LifeDrive really isn’t possible, given the instability of the device itself, but TealScript appears to be stable.) It has excellent documentation, and it seems that it has good support.

So I can finally get back to doing something useful with my LifeDrive – beyond playing Sudoku and watching videos.

More Palm evilness

Though I now have Graffiti 1, I’ve now run into the problem mentioned in the thread I linked. When I exceed the size of a text box in the Blazer browser, the device resets.

Sigh.

I can’t go back to Graffiti 2. I’ve read several comments to the effect that “if you practice, you can make it work.” Well, I’ve practiced for a year, and it doesn’t work.

Next step: replace the buggy Palm browser with an alternative. The only one I’ve found so far is Opera Mini. Now, I like Opera, but Opera Mini requires Java, which is another layer of complexity and likely source of reliability problems.

We’ll see.

Update: BOOM. Device reset. As soon as I tried to browse to Google. So I went back to a page I’d encountered that mentioned JVM settings, tweaked them accordingly, and… guess what? BOOM.

I am hating this device more every moment.

Update again: Plan C is TealScript, from TealPoint Software. The demo version recognizes my Graffiti 1-style writing better than the old Palm. Plus it can learn my writing style (well, so they claim. Personally I don’t think anything could ever learn my writing style) and can use the entire screen for accurate character entry. It looks like it’s exactly what I need. Costs $30 for something that ought still to be part of the device, but I stopped expecting Palm software to be free or reliable a long time ago.

Why I hate my Palm (and what I’ve done about it)

I’ve owned various versions of the Palm Pilot for many years. I think my first was a Palm III, which I upgraded at least once before buying a Palm IIIc (the color version). I still have notes from Pooks‘s class that I took in 1999 or 2000 that has moved from one device to the next.

I don’t really know why I didn’t replace the IIIc when it finally fell apart, but last year I decided it was time to upgrade to a LifeDrive. It has 4 gigabytes internal storage, enough for several compressed video files, a large viewing area for watching those videos, WiFi, and all of the old Palm software. What could be wrong with that?

Reliability, for one thing. It crashes regularly, usually when using WiFi. The WiFi doesn’t recognize range extenders, so it’s unreliable around the house; either the signal is too weak (since its range is poor anyway) or it keeps switching between the router or the extender.

The 3.5mm audio jack seems very fragile. You can feel that a regular plug doesn’t fit well. Mine collapsed on me, and I called Palm to have it repaired. This was slightly under a year, and they agreed to repair it under warranty, which I was very pleased about; with mechanical damage I thought I’d have to pay for the repair.

Before I sent the LifeDrive to the repair office, I tried to do a full reset to wipe all of my personal data. Something happened, and it locked up completely. Black screen, wouldn’t power up. Reset button inoperative and hard reset failed. Still, I sent it back for the jack repair, and Palm sent me a replacement. They will repair or replace at their option, which is fine by me. All of my data is hotsynced.

I synced the new unit and it worked fine – for a few hours. Then black screen, no possibility of reset. I called the repair center, and they gave me a new return number.

The repair center is excellent. They’ve been very fast, very helpful, they’ve given me useful advice and have never tried to lay blame on me. The call center is in India, of course…

So the second replacement device arrived, and it ran overnight and then died in exactly the same way. Clearly there’s something wrong in software. Something I’ve done has caused the device to lock up. But a hard reset should never be dependent on current data. Obviously it isn’t really a hard reset.

This time when I called the service center I explained the issue before sending it back. The helpful operator showed me how to move all of my program data out so it wouldn’t be hotsynced. Then I’d be able to reinstall all of my programs and hope that I don’t get back into the same situation. Of course, if I do, I’m screwed… The operator also gave me an account number so that this time the repair cost me nothing at all, not even shipping.

So I have unit #4. It’s been working for a couple of weeks now. I’m adding all of my third-party programs; the only one I haven’t installed yet that I need is Sudoku, and I had that for a long time on #1, so it won’t cause me any problems. I think it’s most likely Filez and some changes I’d used it for. I won’t touch that this time around.

Reliability is why I will never buy another Palm. That isn’t the reason I hate it, though.

That reason is this: Graffiti II sucks.

Graffiti, the writing system for the original Palm, was quirky, but effective. To create some letters you had to use a highly stylized representation. To make a K, you draw an alpha. A T is a square 7. But once you’d gotten into the habit, it was very easy to create accurate text.

Graffiti was dropped because of a patent suit brought by Xerox. At this point, it seems that Palm is ahead in the appeals process, but in the meantime, they’ve dropped Graffiti and replaced it with Graffiti II, based on Jot.

Graffiti II is close to worthless. The two-stroke method is horribly unreliable. T especially is impossible to render accurately. T consists of a vertical stroke, top to bottom, followed by a horizontal stroke, left to right. I have tried and failed to create a T more than 10 times in a row on more than one occasion. I can see the lines on the screen, crossing correctly, but the T won’t appear. It will either be a space or an L followed by a space.

Even when it works, the method of constructing a T causes problems. You can’t end a word with L followed by space. You have to wait for the L to appear so that the two strokes don’t combine to form a T. Or you can ensure that the two strokes are in two separate parts of the tiny writing window, which is hard to do (except when you’re trying to create a T, it seems).

I is a line and a dot, so it usually appears as L. @ is an @, and it usually takes me 4-5 times to get it not to be an o.

With Graffiti I I would occasionally make errors, but I could tell what I was writing and fix the notes later. Graffiti II was so bad that it was worthless for taking notes in real-time.

So a few days ago, after some Googling, I found this link which told me how to “downgrade” to Graffiti I. I’ve done it, and – wheee! I can’t say I love the device, because it’s still unreliable, but after owning it for a year I can finally use it. And for now, that’s good enough.

ConDFW

The con was worthwhile. I brought home a couple of useful pieces of knowledge.

  • Always read a story aloud; to someone else if possible, but to yourself if not. You can hear clunky phrases more clearly. If you stumble over a sentence it might be awkwardly written, and if you run out of breath, it’s too long.

I discovered when I did this that it’s also good for focusing on details like inconsistent spacing and word / sound repetition, so it helped me make a few last-minute tweaks to the story.

  • To succeed as a Speculative Fiction writer (according to Selina Rosen, and backed up by the rest of the panel) you need to be an extroverted self-promoter, visiting all the cons and selling yourself.

That’s a Bad Thing for me. I’ll never be able to speak in front of others, and I’ll never be an extrovert.

That isn’t going to stop me submitting the story, though. It should start on its rounds tomorrow. (Update: nope, it’s in the mail today.)

One question that came up several times was “How do I find a beta reader?” A beta reader being someone who’ll read and critique a piece before you send it out. I get great feedback from the critique group, but it strikes me it might be interesting to create a session on how to be a beta reader, and introduce con-goers to each other so that they can trade readings. I wouldn’t mind additional independent help on a story, and would like the chance to offer feedback. I’ll have to suggest that to the con folks for next year.

Pooks: no filk.

Next Weekend

Con DFW