Long passwords aren’t necessarily good passwords

Well, crud. Not all long passwords are good passwords.

I’ve suspected for a long time that street addresses aren’t good to use–the formula is too simple–but now it seems that even mashing together a sentence into a long password doesn’t work. (That isn’t something I do often, but I’ve done it at least once or twice.) Read more

Fixing correctly “misspelled” words in a Word 2010 document

While I’m on the subject of Word 2010 weirdness, this week I had to deal with a document that had a number of misspelled words–except they weren’t misspelled. Word was insisting that, for example, the word “Change” was actually “hange,” and flagging it as misspelled and miscapitalized.

The one thing all of these non-errors had in common was that they weren’t the original beginning of the sentence, but now they were.

Word seemed to take issue with the way a previous editor had capitalized the word. When I deleted the entire word and retyped it, correctly spelled and capitalized, Word’s spelling and grammar check accepted it. Accepting those specific changes also made the problem go away.

Why total freedom of expression is a reader’s worst nightmare

A longtime reader asked me about news writing, and writing in general, after complaining about the sorry state of writing these days. I think a lot of things are in a sorry state, and the writing is a reflection of that. But maybe if we can fix the writing a little, it’ll help everything else, right?

Kurt Vonnegut once said writers should pity the readers, who have to identify thousands of little marks on paper and make sense of them immediately, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after studying it for 12 long years.

He says to simplify and clarify.

As writers, we’d rather live by Zeuxis’ mantra that criticism is easier than craftsmanship. But one way to avoid criticism is to make sure the readers understand what we’re writing in the first place.
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The Megan Meier Myspace suicide, 10 days later

It’s been about 10 days since the story first broke about 13-year-old Megan Meier being harassed online by a 48-year-old neighbor posing online as a 16-year-old boy and eventually being driven to suicide. The blogosphere has gone nuts, the story has national and even international attention, and while none of this will bring Megan Meier back, at least there’s been some progress.On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named the 48-year-old impersonator. From what the story said, the family gets very little peace, and the neighbors don’t care much for them. Their life wasn’t good even before the story broke, and it hasn’t gotten any better in the past week.

Comments on various blogs indicate the impersonator’s phones have been disconnected. As widespread as that information had become, their phones probably never stopped ringing. This harassment is illegal, but I still have a hard time feeling sorry for them.

The original police report showed up on The Smoking Gun. Reading it made me even madder. The part that bothered me the most:

Despite the recency of the suicide and several neighbors recommending she not contact the Meier family (especially on Thanksgiving), Meier stated she and her husband attempted to contact the Meier family three times, “banging on the door” even though Mr. Meier had already told them to leave. [She] wished the current tension be documented in case any of her property is damaged. Further, [she] insisted on contacting the family to “inform them of what she knows.” [She] stated she “just needed” to tell them to relieve herself of the “responsibility” and apparent guilt.

Relieve herself of responsibility and apparent guilt? Document the tension in case of property damage?

How about a good old-fashioned apology?

At least one company that advertised with the impersonator’s coupon magazine, a carpet cleaning business, stated in public that they will be ending that relationship. They had already committed to being in the next issue, so they may appear in it, but that will be the last.

Two businesses expressed indifference, according to one commenter, but all it takes is a few businesses pulling their ads to make it difficult to pay the bills.

A blog surfaced on Sunday, titled Megan Had it Coming. It claims to be written by someone who knew Megan.

I read the single post there, and I have serious doubts that the author is 14 years old. The spelling and grammar are much better than the typical 14-year-old, and the paragraphs tend to be more complex than I would expect from a 14-year-old. The paragraphs for the most part follow the structure one is taught to use in college.

That said, some of the elements of the writing are too bad for a gifted 14-year-old. I could write that well (or better) at that age and I know several other people who could too. But the logic is extremely flawed. I believe any English teacher who saw a student capable of writing like that at age 14 would hammer on the child’s logic. English teachers aren’t satisfied with that quality of work from someone who exhibits this much ability at 14.

For these reasons, I believe the author is older, and probably had at least the introductory composition course in college. She (I believe the author is probably female) may not have done all that well in the class, or she may have been intentionally making mistakes in an attempt to appear to be a younger and less sophisticated author. When I was a journalism major at Mizzou, I was a go-to guy for people who were having trouble in their Introductory Composition class, so I read a lot of those papers. This piece really reminded me of those papers.

Let me also say that the most difficult thing for an author to do is to appear to be something that he or she is not. So if a piece of writing doesn’t look or sound like that of a 14-year-old girl, then it probably isn’t.

I agree with the author that Megan Meier wasn’t perfect. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume everything she said about Megan is true. The Megan she portrayed reminds me of pretty much every girl aged 12-14 I remember growing up with. Some girls stay that way a lot longer. I definitely remember elements of that kind of behavior in two ex-girlfriends, both of whom were in their early 20s when we dated. A few girls I knew got over it early, and I remember having trouble knowing how to react to them, because they were so different.

If Megan Meier deserved to die because she was self-conscious, oversensitive, shallow, fickle, difficult to be around, and prone to overreact, then that means virtually every teenager in the world deserves to die. Those flaws are the very essence of that phase of life. It’s all a phase, and most people grow out of it. It’s not a cause for deserving death. It also doesn’t mean that someone who exhibits those characteristics is automatically going to commit suicide.

It’s a terrible logical fallacy.

I also disagree with the assertion that Megan deserved this fate because a 48-year-old vs. a 14-year-old isn’t a fair fight, no matter how you cut it. I would have far more sympathy for the impersonator if the impersonator had been another teenager, acting alone.

The author tends to talk down, as if she’s already outgrown this phase, and even if a 14-year old was already through all this, I don’t think she would have enough perspective to comment about it this way. I can’t really put my finger on specific phrases, but the whole piece gives me a sense of looking back at 14, rather than being in the thick of 14.

I have no way of knowing who the author of this one-off blog is. Given writing samples, I can usually figure out if a piece in question was written by the same person, but I have no writing samples to compare. The author could be the original impersonator who is now vying for the title of most hated woman on the Internet. It fits her pattern of behavior. It could also be one of the many contrarian random trolls who are popping up on any blog that mentions Megan Meier and her impersonator by name.

My friend who lives in the area observed that the blogger referred to a local sports complex as “Tri Sports.” The proper name of that complex is the Renaud Spirit Center, and the address is 2650 Tri Sports Circle. Tri Sports Circle is one street over from the street where the Meiers and the impersonators live.

So the author of this piece is almost certainly local. Given that the impersonator has few or no friends left in the neighborhood, and given how the author of this piece went out of her way to defend the impersonator, I believe the author of this one-off blog probably is none other than the same mind that brought us Josh Evans, the fake-16-year-old boyfriend.

Why I like MS Office better than OpenOffice

I saw a story on Digg talking about why MS Office is so much better than OpenOffice. The argument was pretty shallow–pretty much everything it said was either untrue or could be simplified to "because it is" or "because it costs money."

I’ve used both. I have both installed on a couple of machines. I generally use MS Office. Here’s why.For virtually everything I do, OpenOffice is fine. There’s no feature in Office 2000 that I actually use that isn’t in recent builds of OpenOffice. None. I wrote a book in Office 97, and the only thing that would keep me from writing the same book again in OpenOffice might be the template I used. If OpenOffice could interpret my old publisher’s template and save it in a format my editor’s copy of Word could understand, I’d be OK.

And honestly, I think during the process of writing that book, I pushed my system a lot harder than most people do. Word 97 would crash hard on me once or twice a month, and I don’t think anyone else has ever done that.

I’ve never crashed Word 2000. I don’t know if it’s because Word 2000 is more stable or if it’s because Windows 2000 is a lot more stable than Windows 98 was. I never ran Office 97 on Windows 2000.

My complaint with OpenOffice is speed. Word launches in five seconds or less, even if I don’t have its quick-launch application in memory. Usually less. OpenOffice components load slowly, sometimes taking 30 seconds to load. If I wanted to wait 30 seconds for my word processor to load, I’d use my Commodore 128.

And while I can’t quantify it, once Word is loaded, it’s faster and more responsive. OpenOffice Writer seems to hesitate just a fraction of a second longer when I pull down a menu or hit a hotkey. There’s not a lot of difference, but it drives me nuts.

I’m spoiled, I know. I used to use a word processor called TransWrite on my Amiga. There were a lot of things TransWrite wouldn’t do, but it was lightning fast. Even on a 7 MHz Amiga, it did everything instantly.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but what I want is something that gives me all the features of, say, Word 95, and runs as fast as TransWrite did. Given that 1 GHz is considered a slow computer nowadays, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Neither OpenOffice nor Microsoft totally deliver, but Microsoft’s product comes a lot closer.

I absolutely, positively do not buy the argument that MS Office is more capable. Microsoft’s eternal struggle has been figuring out how to get people to upgrade their old versions of Office, because frankly when I started working in desktop support in August 1995, the existing Windows 3.1 versions of Word and Excel did everything that the people I supported wanted, even then. When I became a full-time IT worker in March 1997, one of my first jobs was rolling out Office 97. Its draw was that it was 32-bit and crashed less. It had some new features but aside from the real-time spelling and grammar checking, nobody really talked about them. Some people loved the real-time checks, and other people fell all over themselves turning them off.

Two years later, Office 2000 came out. A hotshot in the accounting department told me how much better it was, but when we really talked about the new features, his opinion was mostly due to the excitement of being the first to have the new version. Outlook was considerably better in Office 2000 than it had been in previous versions, but outside of that the only new feature I ever heard anyone mention was that the font menu displayed font names in the actual font. Access was better, but not a lot of people used it.

I’ve used Office XP and 2003. Outlook was incrementally better in both versions. But aside from Word’s booklet printing capabilities, I’ve never found anything in the newer versions of Office that I miss when I come home and use Office 2000 on my now-ancient computers.

And whenever I shift gears from Office 2000 over into OpenOffice, a few obscure features might be in a different place in the menu structure but I’ve always found what I needed.

But if for some reason I had to ditch MS Office tomorrow, I wouldn’t switch to OpenOffice. I’d load the Windows versions of AbiWord and Gnumeric.

In some regards, AbiWord and Gnumeric are closer to the 1992 versions of Word and Excel when it comes to capabilities. But they’re fast. And I’ve always been willing to sacrifice a few capabilities for a program that can operate as quickly as I can think. My only complaint about those two programs is that I never figured out how to make .doc and .xls the default file format for them.

Is it OK to sell gifts on eBay?

This is a followup to Friday’s post. I really should let this go, but the journalist in me loves a great story, and this story has lots of twists and turns and weirdness.

I wrote on Friday about several people giving gifts to someone they thought was a disabled Gulf War II veteran who was getting into the hobby. As parts of his story began to fall apart, there was a falling out. For some people, the biggest slap in the face came when the gifts they had sent him showed up on eBay.I don’t want to delve into whether the recipient of the gifts was a war veteran, except to say there are enough inconsistencies in his story that some people began to question everything, even up to and including whether he even was a real person. He had either told me or posted in a message on the forum that he was disabled and walked with a cane, but in my digging I found a craigslist posting looking for odd manual-labor jobs, such as cutting down trees. It was in the right town, he was willing to accept Lionel trains as payment, and the writing had the same mistakes in capitalization, punctuation, apostrophe usage, and grammar that I was used to seeing in his messages on the forum. I’m pretty sure it was the same person.

War veteran or not, this illustrates a willingness to change his story if it might gain him an advantage in his situation.

After the trains showed up on eBay, one person contacted the owner of the account. She said she was letting him use her eBay account to sell them, and said she had some awareness of the situation but didn’t want to say anything else other than they were gifts, so wasn’t he free to do anything with them that he chose?

And that really got me thinking.

I guess selling gifts on eBay is becoming more common. I tried to see if Emily Post had written anything about reselling gifts but I couldn’t. I know my friends and I used to snicker at the Ben Folds lyric in "Brick" that went, "Then I walk down to buy her flowers / And sell some gifts that I got."

The way I was raised, for the most part you kept gifts out of respect for the gift-giver. Exceptions were clothes that didn’t fit, or duplicate gifts. And hopefully, as you enjoyed those gifts, it reminded you of the giver and your relationship with that person.

I’ll admit, a lot of the toys I received as gifts as a child ended up in a garage sale. I was 13, I had a room full of toys I’d outgrown, we were moving, and it was time to move on. They’d had a good, long run.

The other exception for me was post-breakup. After a relationship ended, generally I would get rid of the things the ex-girlfriend had given me as part of my moving on process. The stuff would end up at Goodwill, where hopefully someone would get some benefit from it.

One could make an argument that in the case of these trains, the conditions were similar to the post-breakup. But I don’t think so. The first item that showed up on eBay was a Lionel 1501 Lackawanna 4-8-4. That locomotive had a story. It started with him being invited into an elderly man’s basement, where he saw a giant O gauge layout, and this gentleman saw how much he appreciated the layout and the collection and gave him several gifts, including the Lackawanna 4-8-4 and a Lionel ZW transformer. "I will always cherish the Lackawanna 4-8-4 I received from my friend," he wrote on the forum.

"Always" ended sometime before 12 July 2007 at 05:18:30 PDT, when the cherished locomotive sold on eBay for $150 using buy-it-now. The eBay listing said there was nothing wrong with the locomotive, it was just too big for his layout so he decided to sell it.

The gentleman who gave him the locomotive had nothing to do with the falling out he had with his other train buddies. According to the story he posted on the forums, this gentleman died less than three weeks after he gave him the locomotive.

When he died, there was no fanfare, no tribute. Just a brief, matter-of-fact statement, something like, "With his passing, I’ve been wondering what will happen to the trains." Then someone asked if he had died. The response was simple. "I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. Yes, he died."

That’s pretty insensitive.

Of course, one possibility is that the gentleman who gave him this locomotive was a fabrication and he received the locomotive a different way. If that’s the case, then he isn’t insensitive. He’s just dishonest.

A lot of other people sent him trains because they wanted someone less fortunate than them to be able to enjoy their hobby. Spending time together in person wasn’t realistic, but maybe as he ran those trains in the basement, he’d remember the people who gave them to him, enjoy them, and the bond could grow that way.

When those trains ended up on eBay almost immediately after someone pointed out how he had told two people different stories about himself that contradicted each other, they came to a conclusion: This man had been telling stories to take advantage of them for financial gain.

Trains aren’t especially easy to pack and mail, and they aren’t cheap to send. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to send cash. Of course, giving him money wasn’t the idea. The idea was to introduce someone else to the hobby you love, in hopes he would enjoy it as much as you did. Send someone cash, and for all you know, the money is just buying beer.

Seeing a price on those trains was like seeing a price on your friendship. And in the case of the "treasured" Lackawanna 4-8-4, the price seemed arbitrary, and perhaps even insultingly low. I found one and only one locomotive like it in eBay’s recent sales. It sold for $281.

A journalist\’s take on how to eliminate snoring during sermons

First things first: I am not a pastor. While I have nine years of Lutheran primary and secondary education, my degree came from the University of Missouri and I have exactly zero days of formal, master’s-level theological training.

But I am a published author, I spent four years and thousands of dollars (and thousands more of scholarship money) studying journalism. So hopefully what I lack in Bible knowledge, I make up for in writing knowledge. And if denominations are to grow, especially the more conservative ones, I think more of the latter is going to be a necessity.I am writing this because I heard a sermon today that was relatively good. It disappointed me mostly because it could have been one of those sermons that people remembered for the rest of their lives. So let’s get down to business.

Write on a sixth-grade reading level. Your morning paper is written on that reading level. Newspapers are publications for the masses, so they are unwilling to assume that the majority of people can digest anything more complex than that level. Jesus made a point of demonstrating that Christianity is simple enough that a child can understand it. Therefore, a child ought to be able to understand the pastor.

And I’ve got something else shocking for you. What about the more intellectual publications? They’re written on a 10th-grade level.

So how do you write on that kind of a level? I’ll give you some tools. Eventually it becomes automatic.

Lose the big words. Most Lutheran pastors are academics. When it takes four years to get your master’s degree, you have to be. And if you want anyone outside of your own congregation to listen to you, you almost have to go back and get your doctorate.

But the problem is that while pastors and their colleagues are academics, the overwhelming majority of the congregation is not. The people who most desperately need to be reached certainly are not. And while I firmly believe that the pastor can stand in front of the congregation and read recipes for 20 minutes and God will make sure the person who needs to hear Him will hear exactly what He wants, I also believe it’s better for God to work through the guy standing up front more than in spite of him.

If your English Composition teachers were anything like mine, they required you to use five words you’ve never used before in every piece. But your English Comp teacher isn’t in the audience. Good writers know the rules of writing. Great writers know when to break them. William F. Buckley Jr. isn’t the rule. He’s the one guy who can get away with breaking so many.

Lose the long sentences and paragraphs. Your English Comp teacher probably told you a paragraph is a minimum of three sentences. That should be the first rule you learn to break. Short, punchy paragraphs are fine, and so are short, simple sentences. There’s nothing wrong with an eight-word sentence.

Practice writing on a sixth-grade level. If you use Microsoft Word, you can easily turn it into a tool for checking your writing. Go to the Tools menu, select Options, click Spelling & Grammar tab 4, and tick the box next to “Show readability statistics.” Now run a spelling/grammar check, click ignore on anything it flags, and it’ll give you your reading scores.

Try shortening up on some words and simplifying some sentences to see how the changes affect your work.

Relevance. A single mother of two who has never had a healthy relationship with a male doesn’t care about the original Greek or Hebrew in any given Bible passage. That’s an extreme example, but virtually everyone who walks through the doors of a church comes in carrying some baggage. It’s usually the only way God can get them there. It’s when life becomes its least bearable that people are most willing to find out what the Creator of life has to say about it. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems like the place you’re least likely to hear what God has to say about life is church.

That’s unfortunate. When you read the four Gospels, it’s clear that part of the reason thousands of people followed Jesus instead of the Pharisees was because Jesus talked about the things that mattered to them, while the Pharisees did not. If that contemporary church down the street is growing and your conservative church is not, the reason might not necessarily be the guitars and drums. The reason might very well be that the pastor gives good advice every week on how to get through this life.

I know plenty of people who attend my church for exactly that reason. They have no great love for the electric guitars and distortion–but they put up with it so they can hear how to have a better life every week.

While you don’t want to single out anyone and talk about his or her problems to the whole congregation, speaking about issues in general terms is good. Does the Bible have anything to say about credit card debt? Diet? Spoiled children?

I’m no fan at all of daytime talk shows–I think they’re God’s curse on the unemployed and unemployable–but I do believe that this world would be a better place if pastors would tune in to them once in a while. It gives you an idea of what kinds of problems people think about and face–and may not be willing to talk to you about–and it gives you some idea of what the world is saying about them. Your job is to tell the congregation what God says about those problems.

Get out more. I used to know someone who was required by his congregation to spend some time hanging out in bars. Ostensibly his job was to win converts. But I think it accomplishes some other things too.

First, it gives you a good feel for how people talk. Since these are the people who most need to be reached, you need to sound like them (minus the four-letter words).

Second, it gives you an idea what these people care about. You’ll probably overhear more about women and money than anything else. Significance and security are two very basic needs; if you can manage to illustrate every Sunday how God is the ultimate source of these two things, the size of your church will probably double every five years.

Granted, you don’t have to hang around in bars to hear people talk, but bars are where the broken people are most likely to go, and if your goal is to do what Jesus did and reach broken people, I think it helps to know what one looks for and what a broken person looks like.

The end. Like I said before, I’m not a pastor. I’m just a writer of above-average intelligence. It’s rare that a sermon sails over my head, and that was nearly as true when I was in the 4th grade as it is now.

But I’m not everyone, and the college-level dissertations that are all too common in many denominations every Sunday don’t do much, in my experience, to strengthen the church. Yes, to a degree I am advocating the dumbing down of the Sunday sermon. Hebrews 5 is relevant. You can’t assume anymore, in this day and age, that the majority of the people in the congregation can handle spiritual solid food. The Sunday sermon is the place for milk. The place for solid food is in Bible study, whether it occurs on Sunday morning before or after the service, or on some weeknight. And even then, I believe a lot of studies need to be serving milk.

But if every church serves milk long enough, the general public’s knowledge of the things of God will progress to the point where it can handle solid food on a much more regular basis.

Tiny assembly language Windows utilities

Tiny utilities. While I was debating whether to go buy a copy of Extreme Power Tools, I thought I remembered seeing a couple of programs similar to what they offer. So I went hunting and found other stuff, of course.

People tend to get annoyed if you just link to their files, so I linked to the pages that contain links to the files. Some of these pages get pretty heavy, so use your browser’s search function if you have trouble locating the file. Also, there are a few files on one of these pages that can be misused, such as buffer exploits and a program to reveal hidden passwords in dialog boxes. Whether they were intended to be misused, or to demonstrate insecurity, I’m not sure. That said, there are some other utilities on these pages that didn’t seem too useful to me, but they may be useful to you. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so here are a couple of dozen free utilities, linked using proper netiquette.

The listed file sizes are the size of the executable, not the download. The downloads are larger because they include additional files, usually source code.

Files from http://titiasm.cjb.net :

Memory Info. Want to know how much memory your system is using? Here ya go. This is faster than running Norton SysInfo or Microsoft System Monitor. 5.5K.

EdPad. Assembly language Notepad clone. Unfortunately it lacks search/replace. See TheGun for a closer NotePad replacement. 16K.

Resolver. A tiny utility to match Website URLs to IP addresses, and vice-versa. 4.5K.

Files from http://spiff.tripnet.se/~iczelion/source.html :

MP3play. A minimalist MP3 player. Also capable of playing WAV. MID, RMI, AIF, AU, and SND files. Supports playlists. Hint: Right-click in the program window to access its features. 10K.

Also includes miniMP3, a 3.5K player that just plays a single file you specify.

WordEdit. An RTF word processor/help file editor in assembler. Aside from being able to read Word 6 documents, it would make a fabulous WordPad replacement. Includes multiple-level undo and redo, font and color support. Major features missing from a full-blown word processor: spelling/grammar and print preview. Delete the included file splash.dll to eliminate the splash screen and long boot delay. 112K.

FileMan. A graphical two-pane file manager, like Norton Commander. 87K.

Clipboard. Intended mostly as a demo program, but it’s useful beyond its original design. Intended use: Put it in your Sendto folder and you can send file paths to the clipboard from a right-click on the file. Nice. But additionally, having a large object on the clipboard can slow down your system. Some programs ask when you exit if you want to clear it. Others don’t. This program pastes the command-line parameter you feed it to the clipboard, so a shortcut to this program that passes a single-character argument effectively clears your clipboard. Neat, huh? 2.5K.

EWCalc. A scientific calculator. Additionally, it’ll do decimal/hex/octal/binary conversion. 30.5K.

PlayCD. A simple CD player. 7.5K.

QuickBar. A lean replacement for the MS Office toolbar. 20K.

HTTP Downloader. Feed it an url, and it downloads a file through HTTP, like Unix wget. 20.5K.

TheGun. A slightly enhanced replacement for Notepad. Edits large files, includes Ctrl-A hotkey for select all, and includes search/replace. Source not included. 6K.

QuickEdit. A more full-featured editor, includes HTML-to-text conversion and strips carriage returns. Download includes TheGun and a quick-and-dirty textfile viewer. Source not included. 27K.

Files from http://www.rbthomas.freeserve.co.uk/:

Screen savers. I hate screen savers, as everyone knows. Normally I use blank screen. This package includes a 6.5K 32-bit assembly language replacement for blank screen. (Microsoft’s blanker is 16-bit!) The others in the package prove that even when written in assembly, graphics-heavy screen savers eat up far too much CPU time.

RWave. Records and plays back WAV files. A suitable replacement for Sound Recorder. 5.5K.

Timer. This program isn’t a substitute for a common utility, but it’s useful for me. I’ve never gotten around to getting a timer for my kitchen. Now I can let my computer do the job. If your apartment’s as small as mine, or if you have a computer in your kitchen (why? Never mind. I don’t want to know.) yours can too. 31.5K.

More for less, but who wants it? And David Huff reports the P4 prices will plummet today. I thought I mentioned that, but maybe not. The 1.7 GHz model will launch at the insane price of $350 (Intel had planned to launch it at $700 or so). Margins? We don’t need no stinkin’ margins! Intel’s definitely running scared.

Enough of that. Time to take a hint from Frank. What else is there in life? I realized one night last week that I hadn’t gone record shopping in a long time, so I hit the local used shop. The pickings were a bit more sparse than usual, but I’d written down a couple of longshots to look for and I found them, along with a couple of surprises. First I found Starfish, by The Church, which features the track “Under the Milky Way,” a mainstay of ’80s radio and compilations. That’s probably the standout track, but for a band usually considered a one-hit wonder, it’s a really good album.

The other big surprise was Look Sharp!, which was Joe Jackson’s 1979 debut. I was surprised to find it’s mostly a guitar-bass-drum album. Jackson’s a piano player–and a darn good one. Jackson’s piano appears, but he’s rarely playing the lead instrument. The tracks that everyone remembers (“Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and the title track) are definitely the best parts of this album, but it was a strong effort. I can see where his following came from. But it was weird hearing him do what amounts to punk rock with a dose of literacy.

The first longshot was an album I’ve been looking for used for years: Doolittle by The Pixies. The Pixies are very much an acquired taste, but I acquired it. How to describe them? Dark, usually. Weird, always. This was generally regarded as their best album.

And the last longshot was Oyster by Heather Nova. Who? Yeah, I know. I once saw her mentioned in the same context as Aimee Mann and Dot Allison, so I kept an eye out. I think the comparison to those two is a bit shallow. Yes, the three of them are all blonde, female, and write their own songs, and both Nova and Allison play guitar (so does Mann, but she’s mostly a bass player). I recognized “Walk This World” as a song that got a fair bit of airtime on alternative radio about five years ago. Like Allison, her lyrics can get a bit suggestive sometimes, though there are plenty of people who get more so. Compared to Madonna, they’re both tame. But comparing them to an MTV-manufactured pop star is heresy, so I’ll stop now. The variety of styles Nova dabbles in on the album surprised me. Some tracks are dreamy and atmospheric reminiscent of Allison’s band One Dove, but right in the middle of the album is some pure hard rock in the form of a song called “Maybe an Angel.” Somehow that song avoids being over the top like a lot of hard rock does, and it’s far and away the best song on the album. And I’ve thought about those Allison-Mann-Nova comparisons. She’s dreamy and atmospheric like Allison, and often introspective like Mann, so maybe that’s the basis. At any rate, I’ll be keeping an eye on her, and not just because she has a really cool name.

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