Tuesday, 30 May, 2006
Why doesn't Windows come with a date calculator? I always thought that'd be a nice thing to have.
If you need to add or subtract days, or figure the number of days between two dates, check out the Date calculator at timeanddate.com. The site also has other date and time calculators, a full world clock that shows the current time in just about any major city, time zone converter, calendar generator, Daylight Savings Time calculator, and just about any other conceivable date- or time-related thing. It's the first place I go for such information.
Add it to your online reference bookmarks. You can thank me later.
Monday, 29 May, 2006
I went running today. Understand, I haven't done any significant running since I finished the Pike's Peak Marathon in 1982. I think my total running since then amounts to one 18-mile training run and a half dozen 5K races. Today I discovered some muscles that I'd forgotten all about.
Thursday I bought new running shoes and was somewhat surprised at the cost. You apparently can't get a decent pair of running shoes for much under $100. I think the ones I bought were $85 before taxes. Still, shoes are the biggest expense. Running shorts go for about $30, and shirts for about the same. Unless you want to wear a cotton T-shirt--something I don't recommend. Cotton shirts retain water, making them very uncomfortable in the summer months. The CoolMax and similar synthetic fabrics help perspiration evaporate. They're lighter and more comfortable for running. I won't wear cotton when I'm on the bike, and after today's run I don't plan on wearing it for running, either.
Oh, why the running? I'm planning a birthday challenge for my 45th birthday, which occurs this year in October. One part of the challenge will be a run, so I figured I'd better start training. As you might expect on my 45th birthday, a lot of the challenges will involve the number 45. In some cases 4.5 or 450. I will reveal the full challenge on June 12--4.5 months before my birthday.
Thursday, 25 May, 2006
Contemplating the word zugzwang from yesterday's entry, I found a perfect use for the term: when you, through your own actions, put yourself in a position from which you have no good way to extricate yourself. You have placed yourself in zugzwang. How about an example.
I learned a very long time ago not to give an ultimatum unless I was prepared for either outcome. I'm amazed whenever I see an adult say, "Do what I want, or else." The expectation is that he'll get his way, and he's not prepared for "or else." I've seen this most often when an employee comes to the boss and says, "Give me some privilege or I quit," fully expecting to have his demands met. Imagine the surprise when the boss doesn't give in. All of a sudden the employee is faced with quitting or backing down--neither of which is what he wanted.
Interestingly enough, the above scenario also places the boss in zugzwang. By giving the boss an ultimatum, the employee has put him in a bad situation. If the boss caves he looks like a doormat. But if he refuses, he might lose a valuable employee. Most employers I know don't look too kindly on ultimatums and would rather lose the employee.
I'm surprised at how many people fail to learn this lesson. One of the easiest ways to foster good will and avoid confrontation is to always give yourself and the other guy a way out. If you don't give yourself a way out, you'll end up having to choose among bad options. If you don't give the other guy a way out (that is, you force him to select from a group of bad options), he's likely to select the option that affects you the worst just to get back at you for putting him in that position.
Thursday, 25 May, 2006
The German word zugzwang ("compulsion to move") is used in game theory to mean that a player is put at a disadvantage because he must make a move that will force him into a significantly weaker position. The player would like to pass, but cannot.
In other games, the term is used less precisely. In chess, for example, it can mean that the player who has the turn has no beneficial move, or that taking a turn will result in a significant loss of material or a negative change in the outcome of the game (i.e. going from a winning position to a drawn or lost position). In simple language, being in zugzwang means that you have to move and that whatever move you make will be disadvantageous.
I've seen the word used outside of game theory a few times, most recently here in Mike Shedlock's discussion of inflationary pressures. Here again, the word is used to mean that somebody has to choose from a bunch of bad options.
I suspect we'll be hearing this word more often in the near future. It's just too good a word for the media not to hijack, mispronounce, and squeeze until it's lost all meaning. They'll do to it what they did to the acronym SNAFU ten or fifteen years ago. Pretty soon you'll hear about people being zugzwanged, or that the situation in Iraq is a zugzwang. Invariably we'll be told that poor people exist in a state of permanent zugzwang. I can see the T-shirts now: "Go zugzwang yourself."
Remember, you heard it here first.
Wednesday, 24 May, 2006
Cleaning out the inbox as I straighten up the office a bit.
- One other thing I did while waiting for airplanes over the weekend was write another rant. I'd been stewing on this one for some years and a trip to the airport bathroom finally pushed me over the edge.
- I mentioned previously that I'm trying to make some space by selling some of my old books. One that I ran across is I Can See You Naked: A Fearless Guide to Making Great Presentations. I remember starting to read this book 10 or 15 years ago and then filing it away somewhere. It has some good tips about giving presentations. Worth the read after you get over the nervousness of speaking in front of a group. For that, I'd suggest that you join Toastmasters.
- Selling books is going well. I print the orders as they come in and place the book with the order on Debra's desk. She handles the important part of shipping, which involves boxing the book and stopping at the Post Office on her way to the gym. If you have books to sell, you might consider giving Amazon Marketplace a shot. It's very easy to set up.
- Not all books are worth listing on Amazon. It seems some sellers have figured out how to make money on the standard $3.49 per-item shipping, and will list a book for a quarter or less. I'm not going to put forth the effort to sell a book that I only end up clearing fifty cents on. I'll let Half Price Books deal with those.
- I've managed to lose about 10 pounds in the last 6 weeks with a combination of watching what I eat and exercising regularly. I still dislike lifting weights, but I can see results even with the small amount that I've been doing. Combined with my cycling, I feel like I'm getting a more complete workout. Next I'll be adding running and swimming. More on that over the summer.
- The illustrious Senator Clinton yesterday proposed cutting our dependence on foreign oil in half by 2025 through a combination of a $50 billion research fund to be funded by "increased oil company profits," and ethanol. We already know that ethanol is a boondoggle. It's interesting that Clinton voted against the ethanol interests when she opposed requiring nationwide use of ethanol in fuels. But Iowa is a big ethanol producer and also holds the first caucus of the presidential primary. Looks like pandering to me.
Wednesday, 24 May, 2006
When I was in the airport on Friday I picked up Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out The Shovel--Why Everything You Know Is Wrong, by John Stossel of ABC's 20/20. What a great book! In it, Stossel takes on many common myths to determine if they're at all true. Usually, we find that "conventional wisdom" is bunk.
Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity is a follow-up to Stossel's earlier Give Me a Break : How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media..., which I haven't yet read.
By now, just about everybody knows that the stories of people causing fires by using their cell phones at the gas pump are untrue. There's not one documented case of such a thing happening. How about the idea that we have less free time now than we used to? Or that people are less happy today than they were in the past? Does the lack of price limits on drugs help or hurt the poor? Does the threat of lawsuits really make the world a safer place? Is bottled water better than tap water? His conclusions, which usually contradict the conventional wisdom, are backed up by good research.
His section on "Stupid Schools" is especially interesting to me because I think my exorbitant property taxes are being wasted on a pathetic school system. If they're going to charge me that kind of money, they could at least give the kids a reasonable education. Primary education isn't rocket science.
Some people will be put off by Stossel's decidedly Libertarian bent. No, I'm not talking the modern anarchist Libertarians, but rather people who embrace the ideas of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith--people who believe that government has a small but legitimate role that does not include sticking its nose into my business or protecting me from myself, cradle to grave.
Regardless of his politics or yours, you have to admit that Stossel does a very good job of making his case. But don't take my word for it. Visit his Web site and see some of his articles and some of his news shows. It's good reporting and food for thought.
Tuesday, 23 May, 2006
It comes as no surprise to anybody familiar with our illustrious members of Congress to find out that yet another Congressman is under investigation for corruption. In this latest case it's Louisiana Representative William Jefferson. It seems that the not-so-Honorable Mr. Jefferson was taped collecting money that he was supposed to use as a bribe to Nigerian officials. An FBI raid on his house turned up $90,000 of the $100,000 bribe money stuffed in his freezer. Rep. Jefferson, of course, denies any wrongdoing, despite statements from former staffers and some constituents.
The FBI took the unprecedented step of searching Jefferson's office, which has members of Congress on both sides of the aisle up in arms. The House Majority Leader said, "I clearly have serious concerns about what happened and whether people at the Justice Department have looked at the Constitution lately."
The No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer from Maryland, apparently said that it was another example of the Bush administration's disregard for limits on its power: "No member is above the law, but the institution has a right to protect itself against the executive department going into our offices."
Senator Trent Lott said, "There's a right way and a wrong way to do everything. We don't want a situation where the FBI just shows up at will and starts rummaging around here."
Our elected "leaders" can't agree on much, but they all band together when they're in fear of getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Searching a Representative's home is one thing, but apparently their offices are sacrosanct. Considering their reactions, if I were a member of the Justice Department, I'd be pretty keen on searching offices in all further investigations.
What these and other Congressional scare-mongers are not telling you is that the FBI and the Justice Department in general normally treat them with kid gloves during investigations. They usually negotiate the surrender of evidence and keep it all out of the papers until there's something definite to report. The FBI does not want to embarrass Congress needlessly. It's only when a member of Congress refuses to cooperate that the FBI has to do things like get search warrants, which ends up becoming a matter of public record.
Those who think that the Bush Administration has overstepped its bounds here need to think again. Yes, there is a separation of powers. In general, each branch of the government is balanced by the other two. In this particular case, the Executive branch and the Judiciary investigates wrongdoing on a Congressional level. If Congress is unwilling to cooperate in these investigations, then the Executive branch, in the guise of the Justice Department, must obtain a search warrant from the Judiciary in order to fulfill its responsibilities. If anybody needs to re-read the Constitution, it's those members of Congress who think that their offices are somehow immune from the laws of this country.
Thursday, 18 May, 2006
It seems like we get new wildlife every spring. We haven't seen too many deer this year, as two of our three adjoining neighbors have put up new fences. It seems odd, too, that we haven't seen any fawns yet this year. My notes from previous years show that this is about the time of the year when we usually see new fawns. Neither Debra nor I have seen any in the yard or in the neighborhood during our walks with Charlie. I think the deer are thinning out--migrating further north. I can hope.
The rabbit at left is being a pest this year, apparently trying to build a nest in Debra's herb garden. Last weekend the thing tore up her tarragon while digging a nest in the pot. Why the rabbit thinks that a 10-gallon pot would make a good home is beyond me. Charlie saw the thing out the window and wanted to chase it. If the herb garden was in the back yard, I'd let Charlie have rabbit for dinner. If he could catch it.
We've resorted to putting Liquid Fence around the herb pots. It seems to be an effective deterrant, although we do have to re-apply the stinky stuff after a rain storm.
I think this a small bull snake. Sorry about the screen, but I saw it on the ledge outside the kitchen window and it's very difficult to get between the bush and the window . A few years ago we got rid of a bull snake that was three or four feet long--big enough to endanger our little poodle. I'll have to hunt this one down and keep an eye on it.
It's surprising what you find when you move furniture away from the wall. This desiccated corpse is the remains of a gecko that used to hang out in Debra's African Violets. We wondered what happened to him.
Tuesday, 16 May, 2006
A friend let me borrow the Tripping the Rift Season 1 DVD set. This TV show is an outgrowth of the Tripping the Rift animated short that made a big splash on the Internet back in 1998 or so. That animated short was well done. Not only was it a funny (albeit somewhat crude) story, but the animation was very good and the rendering was nothing short of fantastic. In 1998, Tripping the Rift was about as good as computer animation got using affordable PCs.
Debra and I have watched two episodes from the show's first season. I found them incredibly boring. The stories were somewhat amusing, but the humor was flat rather than over the top as in the original short. The animation attempts to be too realistic, which only shows its shortcomings. This is especially true of the human characters. And Gus the android moves too fluidly for the way he is constructed.
All in all, I find Tripping the Rift dull. It's not funny like The Simpsons, or even crude and offensive like South Park. It's just mildly funny, mildly crude, mildly offensive, and a huge waste of time. Another forgettable offering in the vast wasteland of mediocre TV shows. Yawn. I might watch a few more episodes to see if the series got any better with time, but I'm not holding out much hope.
Friday, 12 May, 2006
Little Red Riding Hood walks into Grandma's house and goes through the whole, "What big ears you have" bit with the Big Bad Wolf who's trying to impersonate Granny. The Wolf finally jumps out of the bed to attack Little Red. Granny hops out of the closet, all trussed up and a giant woodsman with an axe comes bursting through the window. Then things become much different from the fairy tale that we remember.
I rented the movie Hoodwinked today, based on a preview that I saw in the video store. I had encountered it on the shelf and even picked it up, but ultimately decided not to get it. Until I saw the trailer. It's a wonderfully clever bit of silliness that had me laughing throughout.
The police of the Woods show up at Granny's house (called, no doubt, because of all the screaming that was going on). Each of the four primary characters (Little Red, Granny, the Wolf, and the Woodsman) end up telling his own part of the story of how he managed to end up at Granny's house. The stories all intersect in many different ways, and all have to do with trying to find the Goodie Bandit who is robbing all of the goodie shops of their recipies.
Shawn Edwards of Fox-TV is quoted as saying that Hoodwinked is, "the funniest animated movie since Shrek." That's not saying much, considering that Shrek was dreck. Hoodwinked ranks up there with Monsters, Inc. as a great film that's fun for all ages.
Hoodwinked works because it's a fun story well told. The film makers concentrated on the story rather than on the medium. The animation is good, but it's not cutting edge. The sets (backgrounds) are simple--just complex enough to be useful, but not gratuitous. The focus is on the characters and the story--especially the story. And very little in the film fails to move the story along.
I'm quite impressed with the way that Hoodwinked was done, and I'll almost certainly add it to my movie collection. If nothing else than to replay the singing goat part from time to time. That was an absolute scream. I give the movie my highest recommendation. Grab a bowl of popcorn and sit back to enjoy a laugh.
Wednesday, 10 May, 2006
Since I upgraded my laptop's memory, periodically I'll come back after stepping away for a while and see a message box on the screen, reading: "Insufficient system resources exist to complete the API." The first couple of times I saw that I figured it was just some program I had running popping up a goofy error message when the computer went to hibernate. But when it happened with very few applications running, I began to get suspicious.
Google is your friend.
A quick search revealed this blog post from October 2004. After more than a year of beating on Microsoft about the issue, Microsoft released a hotfix for in November 2005. There are some who say that applying the fix doesn't solve the problem, but I'm betting that for one reason or another it didn't get installed right on those systems. Most of what I've read on the issue indicates that the hotfix works.
I fail to understand, though, why Microsoft insists on making me beg for the hotfix. I'll have to contact Microsoft Support and deal with some flunky to prove that, yes, I really am having a problem with hibernation and that it's okay to send me the patch. I guess it's okay to ship a broken operating system that people pay for, but company policy prevents them from distributing fixes for free. Just put the damned file on the Web site and let me download it already. Idiots.
More info once I actually get the fix and run it for a few days.
Saturday, 06 May, 2006
As I predicted last Sunday, I got the truck running today. I had to call my friend Mike for a little help with one thing, but other than that I managed to do all of the re-assembly work myself and I don't have any parts left over. The new engine runs very nicely, and the transmission appears to work well, too. I've only driven it around the block, so I can't say for certain, but it looks like I successfully performed an engine transplant. Not too bad for a computer geek, huh?
People had strange reactions when I would tell them that I was replacing the engine in my truck. Most looked at me as though I'd lost my mind; some because they can't understand why I'd go to all that effort for an old "basic transportation" truck, and some (I think) because they don't see me as the mechanic type. Some people seem impressed and say, "That's so complicated. I could never do anything like that." I had a physican--an emergency room trauma surgeon--tell me that. He can fix broken people, but he doesn't think he could replace an engine.
Replacing the engine was a little bit involved, but it's not terribly complicated. I took a lot of pictures during the disassembly, and I labeled each wire and hose as I disconnected it. Every part got a label, and each part's nuts and bolts got a separate little plastic tub with a lid and a label. All the parts (alternator, starter, air conditioning compressor, radiator, exhaust pipe, etc.) went in the back of the truck and all the plastic tubs got stacked neatly on the work bench. There was never any doubt where things were or what was what.
As I said last week, I didn't take enough pictures. I should have taken hundreds of pictures--at least one every time I removed a part, and periodic pictures from different angles. Pictures that focus how hoses and wires are routed would have been useful. Close-ups of how brackets and braces are attached would have saved me a lot of time.
That many pictures also would have served as a chronology, although it would have been better to write down each step as I removed things. I ended up having to take a few things apart multiple times because I put them together in the wrong order. If I had kept track of the order in which I removed things, I could have re-assembled in reverse order. It would have saved me time, frustration, and a few skinned knuckles.
Time is a factor. It took me almost 7 months from the time the truck died until I finished replacing the engine. However, it really only took me about four weekends. And not whole weekends, either. It took about three days to take everything apart and pull the engine and transmission. It took almost a whole day to get the new engine and transmission back in and bolted down. It took three or four full days of work for me to put everything back together. I probably could have finished the project in a month had I worked on it for four weekends straight. Having done it once, I could probably cut that time in half if I had to do it again.
The hardest thing about replacing the engine myself was getting over the fear of doing it wrong. Once I got started, and especially after we got everything out of the truck without causing any damage, I realized that this stuff isn't all that tough. It's just different. I write computer programs for a living. They're way more complicated than the drive train of a little pickup truck. If you take your time, keep good records, and above all pay attention, replacing an engine isn't terribly difficult. Anybody with average intelligence can do it.
I'm not saying that everybody should do their own auto repairs. But you shouldn't let fear get in the way of trying something new and different. If you want to play mechanic, work with wood, build electronic toys, write computer programs, remodel your house, or anything--just do it. Find the information you need, read, and start experimenting. You'll enjoy the sense of accomplishment.
Thursday, 04 May, 2006
When I got my new telephone, I noticed that it had a new text input mode called T9®. T9 is "predictive text input," which apparently uses a dictionary to attempt to match up your keystrokes on the numeric keypad with real words. So if you press "76863", it will find "sound". Obviously, it's not perfect. I way trying to enter "Round," not "Sound". But it got close. Oddly enough, "7625" gave me "rock" rather than the "sock" that I was expecting. I guess sound is a more common word than round, and rocks are more common than socks. And, yes, "3825" produces "duck."
I don't do enough text input in my phone to know if T9 works well. The few times I've used it, it's just annoyed me. I keep having to go back and correct its assumptions. I can enter little memos faster with the old alpha mode (that is, "round" becomes "777-666-88-66-3"). T9 supposedly learns, but I probably won't ever use it enough to teach it much.
Still, I thought T9 was cool. I've always wondered how people carry on IM conversations with those phones. Seems one would get a very sore thumb. But I guess having macros defined and something like T9 to predict what you're going to enter would go a long way to prevent texting thumb. If you're into the whole IM thing. Me, I get SMS messages for my ham radio emergency services group, but I don't even have the option to send or receive instant messages. There's only so much time in the day.
If anybody out there has some experience with T9, I'd like to hear about it.
Wednesday, 03 May, 2006
I just love to see something done right. I've been in the business of making graphics editors for 10 years. In 1996 I built what was and might still be the best golf course design tool available. It was for a game, Jack Nicklaus Golf, but you should have seen the courses that people created with it. I saw people build things that I didn't think were possible.
During its development I got to visit Jack Nicklaus's golf course design studio in Florida and take a look at what they used. Their software ran on very expensive Unix workstations and took hours to render a view. We rendered a very realistic frame in a second or two on a 90 MHz Pentium. Their design software had a lot of engineering features that we simply didn't care about, but you could create an "artist's rendering" of a hole or course with our little toy a whole lot faster than you could with their serious design package.
I worked briefly on a pinball construction set (the project was canceled) that would have allowed users to build their own pinball tables that had the quality of the Space Cadet Pinball game which shipped with Windows 95 Plus Pack, and every version of Windows since then up to Windows Server 2003.
I've also done two projects with 3D world editors: the original Genesis World Editor in 1998-1999, and more recently a much enhanced version for the current project. I won't say that I'm an expert when it comes to world editors, but I've seen a lot of them and understand most of the issues involved in balancing functionality with usability and convenience. But I also got caught in the "that's the way it's always been done" trap.
Ever since AutoCAD (probably before AutoCAD), "everybody knew" that a 3D design package had to display three orthographic wireframe views in which the user could edit, and then a 3D rendered view that show the finished product, but in which the user couldn't edit. I fell into that trap with the 3D world editors, and so did every significant 3D editing tool. Even 3D Studio Max, the premier artist's modeling tool, uses that editing model. The result is that you have to be an engineer or a somewhat technically-minded artist in order to make any of these tools work. 3D editing is inherently hard. That's just the way it is.
At least that's what I thought until I downloaded Google SketchUp the other day. SketchUp does everything wrong. There's no 3-panel 2D wireframe view. Users edit in the 3D rendered view by placing shapes and then "pushing" or "pulling" those shapes to make solids or make holes. You can combine shape primitives to make more complex shapes. Your average 8th grader could learn to use this tool in about 15 minutes. A few hours later, he'd probably have a reasonably good rendering of your house, provided he had plans to work from. These SketchUp people did everything wrong, and yet they created one of the best pieces of software I've seen. It's easy to create and edit a model. With SketchUp, anybody can do an "artist's rendering" of a new project. You wouldn't want to create blueprints with SketchUp, but initial concept creation is unbelievably fast and easy.
I've been using split-pane orthographic-based 3D editing tools for over 10 years. In just two days, I'm much more productive with SketchUp if I want to put something attractive together quickly. My high-end tools have their place--they give me flexibility and power without some of SketchUp's constraints--but in truth I don't need them very often. I usually don't care about getting the lighting just right or making photo-realistic renderings. I just want to sketch a house, a bookshelf, or an odd geegaw. I can spend an hour with my high end 3D tool, or a few minutes with SketchUp.
Google SketchUp is free for non-commercial use. SketchUp Pro 5 is the commercial version that has better printing (allows you to print more than one page), export to popular graphics formats, save animations and walkthroughs to movie files (.avi and .mov), some very cool terrain editing tools, and a few other features. SketchUp Pro might sound expensive at $495, but I guarantee you'd save that much in a month if you do a lot of 3D modeling work.
Highly recommended. It's kind of embarrassing to see this, after having spent 10 years trying to simplify "the other way." But I'm happy to see that somebody did it right. If you need to do some modeling, download SketchUp and give it a shot. You won't be disappointed.
Tuesday, 02 May, 2006
I think it's really cool that Windows XP natively supports reading and creating .zip files. It's just too bad that it doesn't always work real well. I've never had trouble with XP reading a .zip file, but I've had trouble extracting files and some real odd results creating compressed files.
First, on creation. I fail to understand why, when creating an archive, Windows will sometimes display a message, "Cannot create output file." That's it. Just that message and then the program stops trying to build the archive. I don't know why. This usually happens when there are many files and I try to add all of the files in one drag-and-drop operation. But if I drag just a few files (say, one folder) at a time, Windows creates the archive just fine. It doesn't seem like there should be a difference.
Extracting files from a zip file--especially a password-protected zip file--is painfully slow if you use the standard Windows XP compressed folder interface. I have absolutely no idea why it should be so slow. WinZip is faster. ZipGenius is faster. Info-ZIP's Wiz is faster. Only the built-in Windows XP compressed folder thing extracts files at the speed of my old '286 machine.
You'd be hard pressed, in my opinion, to find a better compressor/decompressor program than ZipGenius. I'll grant that my requirements for such a program aren't as serious as some others' might be. My biggest concern is that I have one program to read all these different compressed or catalog file types. ZipGenius reads .zip, .rar, .tar.gz, .cab, and a bunch of other types I'm not familiar with. It even reads .arc files, which haven't been created since ... well, since about 1990 when Phil Katz created zip and got sued for his trouble.
ZipGenius also reads .iso files and will let you extract files from them. That's a cool kind of thing to do, considering how often these days I'm fiddling with ISO images. A 700 MB CD image doesn't seem like much when compared to a 150 GB drive.
As far as I'm concerned, the free ZipGenius blows away the too-expensive WinZip. Give it a try. I think you'll like it.
Monday, 01 May, 2006
Google Earth is hard to characterize. It's a rich client interface to the satellite imagery and road maps of Google Maps, combined with Google search and a healthy dose of community involvement to put geographic data and locale information at your fingertips. It's quite surprising what all is included.
What I'm talking about here is the free version of Google Earth. There's also Google Earth Plus, which for $20 per year gives you better performance, ability to read information from GPS devices, better printing, and some other features. Google Earth Pro gives even better performance, spreadsheet import, overlays, layers, and other business-oriented features. It's priced at $400 per year. There also are several higher-level packages available for businesses that depend on mapping software.
The free version has all kinds of cool stuff. For example, I typed in my address and it zoomed right in on my house. Zooming out a bit, I asked it to show me restaurants and hotels in the area. They appeared almost instantly. The coordinates might be off just a bit (hotels, for example, were shown about a block north of their real locations), but the data was there. I could overlay the major roads and find my way with no trouble.
The cool part, though, was the annotations. I thought I'd try to find the hotel I stayed at in Tokyo. I managed to get close by locating the Imperial Palace, but then I got lost in the maze of streets. Until I turned on annotations. All of a sudden Jimbōchō Station and the Sakura Hotel showed up with annotations and I was able to find my hotel in just a few seconds based on those landmarks. Clicking on the Sakura Hotel annotation brought up some info about the hotel, written by somebody who'd stayed there and had annotated it and a few other points of interest.
Google Earth is kind of like a Wiki for geographic information. Provided it's moderated, it could prove invaluable for anybody who's traveling to an unfamiliar area. I've only just started playing with it, but I'm fascinated by the possibilities. More as I get an opportunity to fiddle with it, but you really should take a look for yourself. If nothing else, it's a much nicer way to explore maps and satellite images than the clunky Web browser interface.