Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Oh Help! and Bother!

"Oh, help!" said Pooh. "I'd better go back."

"Oh, bother!" said Pooh. "I shall have to go on."

"I can't do either!" said Pooh. "Oh, help and bother!"

I spent most of the weekend installing Norton Systemworks Premier 2005 on one of my computers. The machine is an older Compaq desktop that I try to get my wife to use so we don’t fight over the keyboard on my Dell. It is, by todays standards, not a very fast machine but is sufficient for email, web browsing and editing Word documents, which is all she ever does. It was running Systemworks 2003 (for Norton Antivirus, mostly) and the subscription for updates had run out.

What I should have done is pay to renew the subscription for another year but Symantec has gotten rather greedy about renewals and I couldn’t help noticing that I could buy the latest, greatest, “Premier” version of Systemworks on eBay for only a few dollars more than Symantec wanted to continue providing updates for the 2003 version for another year. My Scotch heritage got me in trouble again and I bought the latest software.

Sunday morning my wife pointed to a stack of miscellaneous stuffola in my office and asked me to go through it. On the top of the stack was the Systemworks disk from eBay. I thought, Ok, I’ll install that, file the papers under it, straighten up my box of unnecessary and obsolete computer cables and still have time to take the recycling to the collection center before lunch. It was a plan – a good plan I thought, consisting mostly of items from my honey-do list with the recycling part thrown it to allow me to escape from the house for an hour or so.

Thirteen hours later (with two hours taken off for supper) I finally got a clean install of Systemworks.

I have several theories for what I should have done first. Uninstalling the old version first is a likely candidate. Alternatively, making sure I installed the new version in the same directory (or at least on the same disk) as the old one might also have helped. But we will never know because what I did was to put in the new disk and click “install”.

Things went pretty well for about 45 seconds. The installer warned me that it was going to install something, and then it told me it had found an old version of Norton Antivirus and was going to uninstall that. It clicked and whirred for a while, with various files appearing in the status line, and then it beeped and displayed a dialog telling me it couldn’t find a file. I hit the “retry” button a few times and then, since it was just uninstalling the old program at this point, hit “ignore.” It went on and at the end of the install it displayed a message that the installation had failed and a link to a page on the Symantec support site telling me what to do about my install having failed.

In the next couple of hours I ran not one but two online virus scans to make sure the install hadn’t failed because of a virus, downloaded three different programs from Symantec plus one from Microsoft, made repeated use of msconfig, regedit, various obscure control panels, restarted my (rather slow) machine at least thirty times (including a few in the oddly-named “safe mode” that allows you to do dangerous things) bookmarked dozens of obscure Symantec help pages so I could browse back to them to see what to do in step 7-b after I needed to reboot in step 7-a, and cursed Symantec for making a virus checker that is harder to uninstall than any virus.

The Winnie-the-Pooh quote I started with (where Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit’s front door) is a reasonably close transcription of the error messages I saw repeatedly for the middle five or six hours of the process. One of Symantec’s help screens would walk me through the process of downloading another tool to try again to uninstall the last fragment of Norton Antivirus 2003 then would instruct me to reboot and try again to install. The installer would get about two-thirds of the way through and issue an error that the install had failed and it was attempting to uninstall. It would grind for a few more minutes and tell me that the uninstall had failed, too, and would direct me to yet another Symantec help page that might as well have been entitled “Oh Help! and Bother!”

Remember that I got into this mess in the first place by being too cheap to renew my subscription. Symantec charges $30 for phone support so I wasn’t about to call them. I did consider (endlessly) the possibility of throwing away the Systemworks disk and installing something else. The thing was: what was keeping Systemworks from installing was the near-impossibility of uninstalling the old version. Until I got that uninstalled I couldn’t install anything, and once I did get it uninstalled, I might as well install Systemworks – after all, I paid for it.

If you go to the Symantec online help site for installation failures and follow all of the “If method 1, 2 and 3 fail to work go to this page” links on all the pages you will finally get to the page that worked for me. It tells you how to restart in “safe mode” to delete all of the old install directories, use regedit to manually delete all the old keys from the registry, and download and run the “Microsoft Installer Clean Up Utility” (msicuu.exe) from Microsoft. And Eureka! A clean install!! … except.

Now the program will launch and some parts will run but very, very s-l-o-w-l-y. Some parts either don’t run or run so slowly that I never waited for the screen to load. The whole machine is stuck in the mud. Press CTRL-ALT-DEL and wait three minutes for the task manager to pop up.

Back to the Symantec help site. (Four minutes to load the browser) Browse, browse, something about the firewall blocking a script that LiveUpdate needs. Try this: Start->Run Type “regsvr32 c:\winnt\system32\jscript.dll” Reboot for the millionth time. It seems to be running. Good enough, at least, for four in the morning. I declare victory and go to bed.

The annoying thing is that I didn’t have to go with Norton. My ISP will give me Computer Associates EZ-Armor for free. I actually spent money for Systemworks (admittedly a no-box, eBay cheapie) because it does a good job. They had earned a degree of goodwill by intercepting hundreds of viruses, many of them newly-written ones that were getting by other scanners. But now they have used that goodwill up.

Most likely they will be able to earn some of it back over time. Like I said, Norton Antivirus does a good job of intercepting virii.

… but I would like my weekend back, please.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Glimpse of Another Dimension

Sitting in a Mexican restaurant today I overheard a conversation between two young ladies, or perhaps it was not so much a conversation as a soliloquy since one of them did all the talking. This is all the more remarkable because, as far as I could tell, she is from an alternate dimension where they don't talk at all.

I was trying not to listen, of course, but I couldn't help but notice that in her universe nobody seems to talk. They communicate entirely by similes -- a sort of serial resemblance where they take turns being somehow like a statement or a concept. She related several interactions between a number of different individuals and nobody every said anything.

As I said, I was trying not to listen, but I found myself waiting in considerable suspense to see if she would ever use the words "he said" or "she said" and, in the whole 15 minutes, it never happened. I learned that her father, at some time, was like "Your mother wouldn't like that" and that subsequently she was like "I don't care."

Now you may think that I might be unfamiliar with the use of the word "like" in slang to signify a statement, gesture or expression that conveys an edgy attitude along with (or instead of) a statement of fact, as in "He was, like, 'Whoa, those are some smelly feet!!' " I am, actually, quite familiar with it but that sense of "like" is only used occasionally, not in every sentence.

She left before I did and as she passed by, I was like, get a thesaurus! But maybe she wasn't listening... more maybe I didn't do it right.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Update on Flash and the Bees

I got a comment from my reader (yes, there is only the one as far as I know) suggesting that the Flash Gordon post was a bit hard to follow. Reading back over it I must admit that it is a bit too dense with links and oblique asides to make for easy reading. What I was trying to suggest is that we live in a world of wonders that our great-grandparents could scarcely imagine. The old Flash Gordon serial is a good example of what they could, and did, imagine. My suggestion was that, if you compare a modern jet taking off to Flash Gordon's spaceship you can get something of the sense of the future (as imagined in the 1930) having arrived.

I had an opportunity to do that yesterday. I had lunch at a restaurant near the airport and, as I was leaving a large jet flew overhead, low, noisy and magnificent, climbing after takeoff and somewhat out of the usual flightpath. Large aircraft always appear to be moving too slowly to fly -- one judges speed by comparing the aircraft's motion to its length -- and this one was a monster. It looked to be approximately 231 feet, 10 inches long. I judged its wingspan to be approximately 195 feet, 8 inches and, squinting against the sun and figuring, I estimated its weight at a bit over half a million pounds -- say, about 640,000, including fuel for a trip to Pennsylvania. Across the parking lot a woman with a baby carriage and a young girl was watching the plane take off. The young girl (six, maybe, or seven) was pointing and jumping up and down. It was the excitement of the young girl that made me recognize the aircraft. From any other angle it's pretty distinctive but from underneath it looks like any other really big jet.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Exit Strategy

John Derbyshire, writing for National Review, says that we have reached the point of dimishing returns in Iraq and should get out ASAP. I tend to agree dimishing returns issue a although I am rather more hopeful about the outcome. That said, I think our best shot at getting out is to be effusive about our willingness to stay. There is nothing so enabling in life as having one's mother-in-law tell you she will stay "as long as she is needed."

I think our current strategy in Iraq will get us out sooner rather than later. Assure them we will stay as long as they want us and then set about an aggressive program of rearranging their furniture and replacing all the soap in their showers with something floral and intolerable. We should, by all means lecture them -- endlessly -- on the virtues of democracy and (little-R) republicanism. The Iraqis will quickly band together and form a government, knowing that only that new government can say to the Americans "Thanks for getting rid of Saddam, now will you please go away?" We would then reply "Why yes, we're already packed." and leave.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Flash Gordon vs The Crainal Bees

I don't know if you've noticed but they have started selling DVDs for a buck. Our local Walmart has a big cardboard display near the checkout offering $1 DVDs with episodes of old but good TV shows (Danny Thomas, Bob Cummings, Groucho, to name a few) and forgetable films ( ? ... ? ... something with Steve Reeves in a toga? ... ?) and the Everything's a Dollar store next door has them too. [Come to think of it, they are a dollar at the dollar store but Wallmart has them for 89 cents.]

I mention this since one of the DVDs is (a few) episodes from Flash Gordon -- the 1936 movie serial from Universal -- which you will need to perform the thought experiment I am about to propose: What you must do is watch the Flash Gordon DVD, fixing the image of his spaceship in your head -- cigar-shaped, silver with tail-fins, leaving behind a trail of smoke and sparks and emitting an odd, backfiring buzzing sound -- and hold the image while you drive to the airport. You can hum the music if it helps, it's the march that Franz Waxman wrote for Bride of Frankenstein which Universal recycled for Flash Gordon. When you arrive at the airport, park where you can see the runway and watch a few big jets take off. If you do it just right you may get a brief glimpse of an illusive fact: the future has arrived, we are living in it and we hardly ever notice.

Today's Bleat [yes, I know, always with Lileks] suggests that you have to be middle aged to percieve this phenomena.

Sometimes I think you have to be middle aged to realize how cool things are. You grow up with MP3s and iPods, as my daughter will, and it’s the way things are. If you remember the KUNK-KUNK of an 8-track tape, having a featherweight gumpack that holds a billion bits of music is really quite remarkable. ... And then there's the cellphones and the tiny cameras and the widescreen TVs and home computers that sing to each other silently across the world; wonders, all. This really is the future I wanted. Although I expected longer battery life.
On the other hand, as the Firesign Theater observed in I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus,
Understanding today's complex world of the future is somewhat like having bees live in your head. But, there they are!
I think the buzzing is getting loud enough that even the younger generation may hear it soon.

Note: I threw in a lot of links above, mostly to IMDB and to Amazon.com. The link to Flash Gordon's Spaceship is more interesting and possibly worth a click.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Well, Denham..

The talented and mind-bendingly prolific columnist/blogger, James Lileks, writing in his every-weekday personal weblog, The Bleat, was talking today about the psycho-patholgy of the 1970s as demonstrated by the ending of Irwin Allen's film, The Towering Inferno.
It was a pleasure to watch it wide-screen in HD – made it more enjoyable than a crimped & cut-up pan-and-scan that shows up on late-night TV. But it still ends with two segments of typical stupidity. Newman, the architect, is sitting at the foot of the ruined structure with Faye Dunaway. “Maybe they should just leave it as it, as a monument to all the bullshit in the world.” That, friends, was the 70s. One bad guy cuts corners on construction and orders substandard electrical work, a building catches on fire, and somehow this is not only an apt symbol of “all the bullshit” that stalks the globe, but the building should be left as a 137-story indictment whose empty, charred hulk dominates the San Francisco skyline. Have a nice day!

The second moment comes immediately afterwards, when Steve McQueen upbraids Newman for building something too tall. “And until you ask us how to build ‘em, we’ll keep eatin’ smoke and pulling the bodies out”, or words to that effect. Whereupon Newman promises to consult with the firemen on his next project. Which presumably will be three stories tall with a hook-and-ladder crew in the basement. And a catapult on the roof to throw people off should the need arise. I think the main problem with the buiding in the Towering Inferno was not the towering part but the inferno segment, which was assisted by a malfunctioning sprinkler system. Just a guess. But it was typical of the era: You and your hoobris, man! You’re bringin’ us all down! If this attitude had been common in 1929, the headlines would have read “Empire State Building announced; 128 expected to die in construction.”
His mention of the building of the Empire State Building while discussing The Towering Inferno reminded me that I have compared the ending of Inferno with that of the 1933 King Kong. Ignoring the final scene with Fay Wray and her beau sailing off into the sunset, Kong ends with the giant ape laying dead and bleeding at the base of the (newly built) Empire State Building. In the foreground a policeman approaches Carl Denham, who brought Kong to New York. "Well, Denham," says the cop "the airplanes got him." Denham pauses for a second and replies "Oh no, not the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast.

I love that part: "Well Denham, the airplanes got him" and not "You Madman! Your beast has destroyed half the city and killed hundreds of people!" or "Look at that mess, would you now? And who'se going to be cleaning that up?" or even "There he is; get him!" Just "the airplanes got him" in the same tone of voice as he might say "The Yankee's pitcher was hot today. He struck out the last eight batters." Interesting, but all in a days work.

It's insane of course; Denham is clearly responsible for a great deal of death and destruction and it would be only sensible to be rather cross with him. But it is an insanity that is refreshingly out of phase with our current atmosphere of chilly litegiousness which grew out the the mindset that Lileks was talking about. In the audience of Towering Inferno there were lawyers taking notes. Building should have additional inspections. Architect must check with local emergency services to verify sufficiency of infrastructure. The list of things a "reasonable person" must think of to avoid liability gets longer every day. Sometimes it is lawyers whose clients want to make their misfortunes be someone else's fault. Caution: when solidly frozen squid tentacles can be sharp and cause eye damage. Other times it is lawyers whose clients are obstructionists. Trucks carrying nuclear waste will release hydrocarbon particulate pollution that might impact the habitat of the endangered, Night-digging Desert Hertztooter. In either event it makes the "reasonable person" test harder to study for. Todays "reasonable person" is not just reasonable, (s)he is, apparently, also a compulsive-excessive precognitive details freak. If Denham were to return from Kong Island today he couldn't bring back a dead beetle pinned to a board without being prosecuted for irregularities in his environmental impact statement.

But there are reasons for hope. The tide seems to be turning. Tort reform seems to be a winning issue, politically, despite the best efforts of the trial lawyers. People seem to be realizing that it is often better to do anything than to do nothing, and that insisting that no action have a down side is a recipe for inaction.

I look forward to a day when a reporter at a press conference says "Well, general, the JDAMs got them." And the general replies "Oh no, not the JDAMs, it was democracy killed the beast."