Author: Len Pal

The MS-DOS User’s Guide, Version 5.0

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I was invited to speak at a local event called Fish Tales last night. Fish Tales is a recurring storytelling night put on by the Gloucester Writer’s Center in which each speaker presents a five to seven minute story, all sharing a unifying theme. I was invited to speak on the night on which the theme was “nerds”. What follows is the written form of the story I told. Caution: Contains nerdity.

Fish Tales: A Book Report by Len Pal

I’m sure at one point or another you’ve been asked to name a book that changed your life. For some folks it’s The Bible, for others it’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Or maybe it’s On The Road, or even The Chronicles of Narnia. For me that book is Microsoft’s MS-DOS User’s Guide Version 5.0.

In the early nineties, home computing was relatively young, but maturing into the PC and Mac camps we have today. They weren’t cheap though: back then about fifteen hundred dollars would get you a “top of the line” home computer. I was a health and human services worker at Hogan Regional Center in Danvers, Massachusetts back then, making about eight bucks an hour. I didn’t have fifteen hundred dollars.

But then a buddy of mine said “Hey, you should check out Rent-A-Center! You can rent a computer for twenty-five bucks a week, and after two years you own it!” I’m no math whiz now and I certainly wasn’t one then, but I knew that twenty-five dollars was a lot less than fifteen hundred dollars. I could do that!

Then again… twenty-five bucks a week was a big commitment. I bought junk cars because I didn’t want a monthly car payment. Would a computer really be worth a weekly payment? Ultimately, I decided it was. After all, my career goal at that time was to be a writer, and if I had a computer at home, I would write more! No more excuses! A few hours a night! It was a professional expense! An investment in my future!

So, I got the thing. And top-of-the-line it was: a 386-20MHz processor with a whole megabyte of RAM and a forty megabyte hard drive, running a graphical interface called GeoWorks over MS-DOS 5.0. Geoworks included a writing program, a drawing program, a calendar, and even a way to log onto America Online, whatever that was. It also had Tetris and Solitaire, if you like that sort of thing.

I was invited to tell this story at “Nerds Night”, not “Published Novelists Night”, so you’ve probably guessed I didn’t get a lot of writing done. But Tetris, though! And that was just the start! There were other games, too! My friends got computers, and they had games I could borrow. Adventure games! Puzzle games! Dad loaned me a game called Myst! Holy crap, these games were cool. One problem, though… this “top-of-the-line” computer only had one megabyte of RAM, remember? Adding more would void my contract, and some of these games wouldn’t run on my wimpy little system.

I vented about it to a co-worker during our overnight shift at Hogan. He was in the same boat; his computer was crappy too. But he heard that there were things you could do to make the games work. Something about “extended memory, or upper memory blocks, or something. You just need to free up more memory.” When I got home that morning, I dug through the bin into which I had tossed all the paperwork that came with the computer, and there it was glowing in the morning light coming through the window: the MS-DOS User’s Guide, Version 5.0.

I flipped through the table of contents. Chapter 13: Optimizing Your System. It was broken down into sections. The last section was Freeing Up Memory, with sub-sections entitled Freeing Up Conventional Memory, Freeing Up Extended Memory, and Freeing Up Expanded Memory. There was hope! I would learn what those words meant! (But first I would sleep, because I had been up all night.)

For the next few weeks, I brought that manual with me pretty much everywhere. I read Chapter Thirteen twice, and then started from the beginning and read the whole book like it was Huckleberry Finn. I learned how many bits were in a byte, and what a batch file was, and how to partition a disk. I learned how to browse and delete files, and found out that even though it seems like all COMMAND.COM does is tell you what version of MS-DOS you’re running, you shouldn’t delete that one. (And immediately after that, I learned all about troubleshooting techniques, because I had found out by actually deleting that file; not by reading the book.)

The important thing is, I squeezed every last drop of memory out of that computer, and my games worked. And that was why I had this computer, right? Wait…

Around that time, Hogan’s sister facility, JT Berry State Hospital, announced it was closing down. When you work in health and human services in state-run facilities, seniority means everything, and all those JT Berry folks were going to be merging into Hogan. People were going to lose jobs, and most of those people would be folks like me that had only been there a year or two.

But hey, I had a computer. I could make resumes and cover letters and send them to all of the group homes and private agencies in the land, and find a new job like that. No worries! And while I’m waiting to hear from them, I could play Wing Commander!

Nobody was calling me in for interviews, though. Like, at all. After a while I started scanning the want-ads for just anything. I still had my job, but time was running out. I needed to find something FAST. And one day, there it was, in the Gloucester Times classifieds: Help Wanted. MS-DOS-proficiency required. Mac a plus. It was a company in Essex, MA called TIMESLIPS Corporation. I sent them a resume out of desperation, and with fingers crossed. I had no formal training, and no experience. They would see right through me, right?

They called back, though. And during my interview, I realized that I was actually pretty good at this stuff. And that’s how I started my IT career… thanks to reading the MS-DOS User’s Guide, Version 5.0. 

Always read the manual, folks. You never know where it might take you.

L.

2017’s Best Picture Nominees

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Anyone more familiar with me than as a passing acquaintance knows I love movies. I enjoy anything from classics like The Maltese Falcon to blockbusters like Iron Man to cult hits not enough people have heard about like Tapeheads to Kurosawa‘s samurai flicks like Yojimbo and Rashomon. But most of all, I like really good movies.

So the late fall and early winter is a special time for me. “Oscar Season”, they call it. It’s the time that Hollywood releases what it thinks are its best films, hoping that they’ll receive awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organization of about six thousand movie professionals, including everything from producers, directors, and editors to costume designers and sound engineers. Eventually the academy announces its nominations, and at that point, I’m off to the races, trying to squeeze in as many of them as I can before the awards.

I never see all of them before Oscar night. Some aren’t available in time to watch at home, and there just isn’t enough time to see all of them in theaters. I’m okay with that; eventually I catch up. And as far as 2017’s Best Picture nominations go, I caught up last night. Below, I’ll give you my opinions of the nine nominated films.

Best Picture Nominees

Here are my thoughts on the nominees, listed in order from the one I liked least to the one I liked most.

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Fences

Denzel Washington directed and starred in this period piece set in the fifties about a black man’s struggle to be a good husband, father, and brother, and to deal with his own shortcomings. I admire Denzel a great deal for his performance and his excellent directing, but I didn’t enjoy the film. I can certainly relate to the struggle to provide for one’s family, both in terms of material needs and guidance, and I empathized with his character’s struggle with his own flaws. But have you ever been a third party during a heated and prolonged argument, such as your parents fighting? That’s what this movie felt like.

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Hell or High Water

I feel like we’ve seen the “turn to crime in order to save the ranch” formula lots of times, and this may be the best iteration of that plot so far. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play two brothers that are robbing branches of the bank that wants to foreclose on their ranch after the death of their mom. There’s oil under that ranch, and Pine’s character has child support to worry about. Foster is the wild card ex-con brother. Jeff Bridges plays the totally not cliche Texas Ranger about to retire but working this one last case. The acting is what made this film worthy of the Best Picture nomination, and Bridges was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The movie was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but I imagine they were using the word “original” very loosely.

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Arrival

This was a really enjoyable movie, but it didn’t feel like an Oscar movie. The best way to describe it is “what if all those ships from Independence Day just wanted to talk?” Amy Adams does a terrific job playing the linguist trying to interpret the alien language before it’s “too late”. Without risking spoilers, I can’t say much more – there are some surprises, twists, and turns.

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Manchester By The Sea

Casey Affleck won Best Actor in his role as a broken man who becomes his nephew’s guardian after his brother dies. I knew going into it that this was going to be a depressing movie, but that’s like saying “I knew getting my wisdom teeth out was going to hurt.” This movie is super depressing. Think of the most depressing movie you’ve ever seen, and then imagine seeing it right after your significant other broke up with you to be with your best friend. And also your dog died. And you got fired. But if you’re feeling something, a movie was done right, and that’s why this film got the nominations it did. (It also won Best Original Screenplay.) I was disappointed that I didn’t see more familiar locations, since the movie was filmed in my town and the town next door.

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Moonlight

I think a better title for this movie would be “Oscar Bait”. A poor kid growing up around gangs and violence. Well, obviously a poor black kid. And his mom is a junkie. Wait, he’s gay, too? The film was broken into three segments, showing glimpses into the protagonist’s childhood, teen years, and adulthood. Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for his brief role as a drug dealer with a heart of gold in the childhood segment, and the film also won Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as Best Picture. Despite my teasing about how many boxes were checked off the Oscar Bait list, it really was a moving and original film. Why isn’t it my favorite? Well, because there were films I thought were better, or enjoyed more.

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La La Land

If you hate musicals, you probably won’t enjoy this movie. But there was a reason it got thirteen nominations overall, and won six: Best Directing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Original Song, and Best Actress for Emma Stone. The movie is a love story about a struggling actress and a struggling jazz pianist. All the “white privilege” comments have already been made in other folks’ reviews, so I’ll skip them here. I’d say all the awards it received were well-deserved (except maybe Best Original Song, which I think should have gone to Moana). The story wasn’t totally predictable, but there aren’t many shockers either.

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Hacksaw Ridge

This was the true story of the first man to win the Medal of Honor without firing a shot. Andrew Garfield plays army medic Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who saved seventy-five soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. It’s an amazing story, and Garfield was terrific in this role. It’s a very gorey movie, so if you don’t like seeing chunks of brain or intestines hanging out, you might want to skip this one.

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Hidden Figures

Another true story, this film shows how a group of African-American women were vital mathematicians in the space program, doing what the computers of that time couldn’t do, while facing the challenges related to the color of their skin and their gender. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe play the leads, and are supported by Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, leader of the Space Task Group (responsible for calculating the trajectories that will send astronauts into orbit and then back to Earth). A fantastic film overall.

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Lion

Yet another true story! Maybe true stories are my favorite; I didn’t think so until I made this list. In this case, it’s about a young boy in India named Saroo who falls asleep hiding out on a train, and wakes up on the other side of the country. He doesn’t know the name of his town (or at least, how to correctly pronounce it), nor any way to contact his family. He doesn’t even speak the language of the region he’s in. He lives on the streets for a while and eventually is adopted by family from Australia. He grows up there, but eventually starts using Google Earth to try to locate his home village so he can find his birth mother and brother. Dev Patel gives an excellent performance as grown-up Saroo, but Sunny Pawar, who played young Saroo deserves a whole van full of Oscars. This was my favorite movie of the year, and I was really hoping it would win Best Picture.

In Conclusion…

So there you have it. Please keep in mind that regardless of my critique, all of these movies are worth watching. You may not agree with my feelings on these flims, and that’s okay. Movies are as much about what you take away from them as what is on the screen. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts. Enjoy!

L.

Critical Thinking and Empathy

I set up this blog to review things I liked. Hell, I named it “Len likes…” with the idea that the title of each entry would be a thing I liked, and that I thought other people should be aware of, because hey, maybe you’ll like it too. But then that election happened. Did you hear about it? It’s crazy. There were two candidates, both flawed.

One had tons of experience in government and a long list of accomplishments in public service, but she had some things going against her. A lot of people thought she was shady, perhaps corrupt, maybe even criminal. (You know, like most politicians.) She deleted some e-mails, and then later there was an investigation that needed to see her e-mails, but some were gone. The e-mail account of a guy in her circle was hacked, and some of her e-mails showed up on WikiLeaks, and in them she had said some things that weren’t cool. Also, she was a woman, and maybe that matters to some voters too.

The other guy was an outsider with no experience in politics, but he was super famous because he was super rich. He had stuff going against him as well. Despite how much money he claimed to have, he never released his tax returns the way most candidates do, and it turned out he hadn’t paid federal income tax in years. Oh, and he’s filed for bankruptcy several times. He said a lot of really dumb things, and got caught in lies all the time. He was very negative about the state of things, but never really offered any solutions. He said things that were offensive to just about anyone that wasn’t a straight, white man. There was a video of him saying some pretty awful stuff about how he likes to treat women, and he has an upcoming court case for fraud. He was pretty easily baited into losing his cool in the debates, showing a lack of temperament. And he had a habit of flying off the handle, especially late at night on Twitter.

Maybe there are some mildly passive-aggressive undertones in the two paragraphs above, but overall I think they’re pretty objective. If you look at the two candidates side by side, based solely on the paragraphs above, neither of them looks particularly good. One seems like a typical shady career politician, and the other one seems like a loose cannon with no track record and no plan. (There had been a third, good option… but the party supporting one of these candidates kind of screwed him over and he didn’t make it past the primaries. Oh, and there was also a dummy and a nutjob.)

So there we were, choosing between a potentially shady career politician and an obvious asshole with no real track record. Heading into the election, we were checking polling sites and trying to guess by just how much of a landslide she would win. We were making plans for the midterms, thinking if we could take back the house and senate in 2018, real good could finally be done. We were looking forward to posting smug status updates on Facebook in the morning, and we were worried about the other candidate’s supporters trying out that 2nd amendment solution he had suggested. But as election night wore on, it became clear that something really scary was going to happen. And then it did. The asshole won.

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Mistakes were made.

Wow, that sucked. “Len, I thought this blog was about stuff you like! This is depressing as shit.” Yup, it sure is. It has only been two days, and already we’re starting to see what kind of country we’ll be living in. Hate crimes are on the rise all over the country. There have been protests, resulting in outrage from our president-elect’s supporters, even though he was the one that suggested people protest. Women are scrambling to get reversible birth control while they still can. A business administration major in Wisconsin was beaten to death because he’s Saudi. This dude isn’t even sworn in yet, but because his campaign of demagoguery was successful, his people are emboldened and excited for the new world order. What am I supposed to write about liking, when all this is happening?

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. To “put yourself in their shoes”, as it were. Demagoguery only works if you don’t care about the “others” you’re told are a threat to you and your loved ones. Mexicans are stealing your jobs, and they’re going to rape your daughters. Refugees might be terrorists, rather than terrified children. Black people live in the inner cities where all sorts of scary crime happens. As long as these people are others, they’re scary. You’re not thinking about that little refugee kid, who had to leave his home because of the same terrorists that scare you.

As long as you don’t know these people, you don’t have to care about them. And as long as you don’t care about them, you’re fine with screwing up their lives. After all, your candidate said that the others were the reason you’ve had a rough go of it lately. You’re having trouble finding a job because of those others, not because his company does a great deal of its manufacturing overseas, and that his resort employs people here on work visas.

The thing is, if you care about other people, demagoguery doesn’t work. And I don’t mean just caring about the barista at the coffee shop that hands you your pumpkin spice latte in the morning. I mean, caring about people you don’t know. That’s what empathy is all about.

Remember the Golden Rule? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” — Matthew 7:12. That’s from the Bible, a book that evangelical Christians, which make up a great deal of our president-elect’s base, claim to read regularly. It’s one of the things we teach little kids, even if we’re not into religion at all. Unfortunately, I don’t think we really stress that it’s important to try to feel empathy for everyone; even people that don’t look like you. It’s kind of hard to be stirred up by demagoguery when you’re thinking about how those others are pretty afraid of terrorists too, and maybe are also just as worried about being able to pay the bills on time this month, and not get shot while waiting for the bus.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment. That sounds kind of pretentious, so how about saying it’s a mix of don’t be so gullible and google that shit. On Facebook, your friends post news articles with eye-catching headlines, and you can choose the believe the article, or not. I won’t call you out if you decide to quietly believe that maybe Janet Reno, who died the day before the election, did say that our president-elect would not be president in her lifetime. But if you share that story, someone in your group of friends may post a link to a site like Snopes that highlights your gullibility.

We don’t teach little kids critical thinking like we teach them the Golden Rule. Quite the opposite, really. We teach kids about Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. We teach them that good will always triumph over evil, that slow and steady wins the race, and that the kids who tease you are just jealous. We teach them that the pilgrims and the Indians were buddies, and that Christopher Columbus discovered America and was a pretty cool guy. We teach them that Barney eats one or two kids per season, but that’s okay because he’s a dinosaur, and that’s just what dinosaurs do. (Scratch that last one. Apparently I’m the only one that taught my kids that.)

Over the course of the campaign, and especially over the last few months, social media has been a shitstorm of political news stories. There’s the “mainstream media”, which sometimes adds spin to a story but still sticks to verifiable facts. Fox News, which some say leans Republican, might have a headline like Clinton has health ‘episode’ at 9/11 memorial, doctor says she has pneumonia, while CNN, which some say leans Democrat, might say Hillary Clinton has pneumonia, doctor says, after early 9/11 event exit. They both reported roughly the same story, with subtle variations on emphasis. I don’t have an issue with this type of reporting. They’re competing news agencies, and their tone is what sets them apart from each other.

But then there are the alternative media: websites on both sides of the right/left spectrum that are more concerned with a flashy headline than an honest story. For example, a site called HeatStreet reported the same story above as Hillary Clinton ‘Faints’ At 9/11 Memorial – Appears to Collapse Near Van as Security Panics. (The link to that headline from Google was captioned “Hillary ‘Faints’ At 9/11 Memorial – What’s She Hiding From America?”) For alt news sites, anything that gets you to click is fair game. Each time you open one of their articles, they get paid by their advertisers, so obviously the more clicks, the better.

Some alt sites are worse than others. I don’t really even want to link to this one because they don’t deserve your click: Julian Assange Reveals Hillary’s Criminals ! Hackers Aren’t Russian , They Are Democrat “Whistleblowers” ! Once you arrive at the article, you find that the headline doesn’t actually match the story. Yes, Julian Assange used the word “whistleblower”, but he didn’t say anything about them being Democrats, nor did he identify a link to Hillary. There’s just a lot of speculation, and this example is pretty typical of the articles from this site, and a number of  others like it. Their headlines are so outrageous that even if you can’t believe such shocking news happened, you just have to click in and see what they’re talking about. You take a quick glance, see some words, see some pictures or video links, think “hmm… sounds legit”, and maybe you click Share too. Why do you click Share? Because you lack critical thinking skills!

Look, if something seems so outrageous that it couldn’t possibly be true, it probably isn’t. I’ll concede that anything is possible, which is why we have Google. Do a quick search on the words in that crazy headline, and see whether ANY mainstream source also picked up the story. If none of them did, it’s because there is no story. The mainstream media, even including the ones spinning things the way I don’t like, still are bound by journalistic integrity. But more importantly, they’re bound by the risk of getting sued for libel if they print something that isn’t true. Alt sites seem willing to throw the dice that they’re small enough that they’re not worth suing, and cover their bases by careful wording that avoids outright lies in favor of misleading suggestions.

Wow, that was a lot of words about news. Let’s nutshell it: (social media * (sensational press stories + outrageous headlines) )- critical thinking skills = our current president-elect. P.T. Barnum said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” amirite? I truly feel that if more people took a moment and said “wait, that doesn’t sound right…” and took a moment to verify the story on other sources, the election might have turned out differently.

Learn From It

What’s done is done. Spilt milk. Bygones. It’s time to move on. Protest if you like, bitch about it on Facebook if you like. Unfriend folks that liked the other candidate if you like, although that seems a little extreme. But after you’re done with all that, let’s learn from this. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir here, but we have to do what we can to promote empathy, and to encourage critical thinking. Be kind, and be smart. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

L.

What is this?

Hi folks! I’ve been thinking for a while about having a place to write about things I like (and sometimes, things I don’t like). For a while, that place has been Facebook. And Facebook is fine for a lot of things, but it is also limited. For example, I can’t format my text. I can’t. That makes it really difficult to emphasize key points. And while I can add graphics to posts, I can’t use them inline. Sometimes you want a picture in the middle.

It’s also harder to refer back to something I wrote on Facebook later, because it’s mixed in with eight years of posts of news, random thoughts, which movie I was watching that weekend, what band event I wanted my friends to attend, and photos of tasty treats I either made or got in some restaurant. That’s what Facebook is for, right? Just a random stream of whatever interests us in the moment, as an ongoing conversation among friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even strangers.

That’s not really what this is about. Of course discussion is welcome, and of course I’m going to share this stuff out on Facebook. But it’s nice to keep my “real” writings separate from random photos of things I’ve made that I’m a little proud of.

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Maybe just this once…

So what is going to be here? I don’t want to limit it to just certain things, so I won’t. But for the moment I’m thinking it will mostly be my opinions of things: movies, games, books, music, places, and maybe the occasional public figure. I may even get a little crazy and tell you what I think about concepts, attitudes, and social issues.

If I like something, I like to tell people about it. Maybe they’ll like it too (or not), and then we can talk about it. I don’t mind when we disagree, because intelligent, civilized debate is fun, and helps us learn from each other. So what do you say?

Are you in?