Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Let's Try This Again: Repair Parts

 I had an epiphany this morning, and it seems to bear up under further scrutiny.  I was talking to the light of my life, the wife with whom I have shared the last twenty-odd years (very odd!), and offered this little test.

"I think I know how to determine whether something is designed to be repaired versus just used up and thrown away."

"Oh, yes?"  She raised the quizzical brow in that just-so way.  She does that a lot with me.  She's right to do so, because sometimes I'm full of baloney.  "And what is that?"

"Look at where it was bought."

The quizzical brow stayed firmly arched.  "Say on."

"What do you do when something breaks, that you bought from Wal-Mart?"

"Throw it away.  Oh!"  She smiled.

"And from Target?"

"Still throw it away, probably..."

"And from Sears?"

"Well, Sears has their own parts depart...ment...Hey, you're onto something."

And there it is.  The big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target don't sell parts.  They sell merchandise at the lowest possible price.  The lowest possible price often precludes such things as design that permits things being opened up, fixed, and put back together again.

Now let's be real: the parts department at Sears doesn't carry parts for such things as the el cheapo alarm clock that was marked down at the end of the aisle.  Those are just throwaway items.  They're not like they used to be.  My mom and dad had an alarm clock that wasn't new when I first took note of it back in 1973, and I think they finally got rid of it sometime around 1998.  I'm pretty sure that at some point along the way, the silly thing got repaired once or twice.  It got repaired because it was designed to be opened up, repaired and put back together.

Another example.  My mom had a vacuum cleaner that I used to ride on, because I was small enough to to not overload its casters.  She had it through three houses and an apartment, and didn't get rid of it until MY kids were too big to ride on it.  She told me outright that the thing had been repaired a couple of times.  It was repaired because it was a Kenmore machine, and she could still get parts for it from Sears.

My wife just brought home a Filter Queen brand vacuum cleaner.  She brought it home because two things happened: first, she seems to prefer canister vacs for hard floors.  I don't fully understand the rationale there but there it is.  The other thing is that the Eureka brand vacuum cleaner we had bought a mere year and a half ago bit the dust.

This Eureka vac was pretty flashy.  It had the bright colors that were popularized by Dyson, and the swirly "bagless" design that circulates the grunge and dust where you can see it.  It's a show like no other, all that crud whipping around in there, proof positive that your flashy plastic vacuum is working hard and it's so convenient!  No bags to change, tools right there with, headlight for peering under stuff, all that jazz.  I'd like to point out that these so-called bagless vacs don't have much capacity.  They say they're so convenient because you don't have to change out that nasty ol' bag...but they don't talk about how often you're cleaning out that nasty ol' dust cup.

When did I ever want to peer under the furniture?  What good is that headlight?  I poked the nose of the vacuum under there.  If there was something to suck up, the vac got it.  If there wasn't, the vac got it anyway.  Didn't care to see it.

Well, so we had this Eureka vacuum.  Telescoping duster doohickey that sucks itself clean when you put it back in its caddy, pretty cool.  "Pet Paw" attachment for cleaning upholstery.  Except the duster does a great job of picking up the cobwebs here and redepositing them there, just like every other duster I've ever used.  And the Pet Paw, powered by an air motor, bogs down and stops under any kind of reasonable pressure.  It doesn't maintain its operating speed unless you just wave it around at the furniture.

The vacuum's beater bar tended to bind up a lot.  It only kept working as long as it did because Son #2, determined to get the family's money's worth out of the thing, kept taking it apart, clearing and cleaning the bearings, and putting it back together again.  It turns out he's actually pretty good at that, and good thing too - that vacuum needed a lot of help.  The vacuum had been his choice, and he was mightily annoyed with it when it started running hot and sounding bad after only six months.  He got it running right, as I expected he would, but he wasn't thrilled.

It did it again.  And again.  And finally last week it finally bound up a bearing and melted the bearing mount.  "That's it," he said.  "I can't fix that.  It's not fixable."  Enter the Filter Queen.

The Filter Queen is an old design.  You can tell just looking at it that it's old.  And it's okay that it's old, because if I wanted to, I could replace every single part on it.

I checked that.  It appears to me, checking on the websites that represent companies that sell parts for these things, that you could buy every part needed to build a Filter Queen up from scratch.  Motor, blower, hoses, bearings, all of it.  It's all there.  It's like owning a Kirby vacuum, but a little cheaper.

It doesn't matter that it looks old, either.  Vacuums that work can look like H.R. Pufnstuf for all I care, so long as the dirt comes off the floor.  When that Eureka stopped working, it wouldn't make any difference to me whether the damned thing was made of solid gold, because it still wouldn't be a working vacuum cleaner, which was what I wanted at the time.

Repair parts are out there for the Eureka Pet Lover with the Power Paw or whatever it's called.  But when the bearing mount melts because the bearing got that hot, well, what do you do?  For the price of the new housing with its sound bearing mount which I cannot have because it's obsolete and no longer available, plus the price of the new bearing, I got a good used Filter Queen.

The Filter Queen is made of metal.  Before it gets hot enough for the bearing mount to melt, the motor will be shooting fire out through its exhaust ports.  I'll KNOW it's hot, by golly.  And I could build a brand new Filter Queen exactly like this one I have, because all its parts are still available.

It costs more because it's worth more.  It costs more because it's designed to be cheaper every day for the rest of its foreseeable life.  Like Mom's rugged old Kenmore, like a well-made car with all its bolts and screws and removable things that are designed to be replaced when they wear out, value is one of those things that you really can see.  If you can find fasteners that don't take fancy tools to open - plain ol' phillips screwdriver, for instance - you have a chance at keeping things going.

Wal-Mart doesn't have a parts department.  If you want repair parts for one of those cheap, flashy vacuums they sell, you have to go online and hunt them down.  Granted, I would have to do that with the Filter Queen. But I don't think Filter Queen has obsoleted a part in my lifetime.  I have some confidence of finding whatever I need for a good long time.

Like I was talking about with my Volvo.  If I need parts, Volvo made that car for a long time.  Parts are out there.  The Volvo "red block" engine is sturdy, tough, and got bolted into everything including boats and I think some forklifts.  I have a shot at finding parts virtually anywhere.  And the body was made with only minor changes throughout the 200-series production run, so parts are available there, too.

The old adage is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  But it should go on: "But make it so you can fix it when it does break."

That reminds me.  I have to get the icemaker working again.  I wonder what that's going to take.  I'll bet I can find the parts at Sears.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Repair Parts and Modifications

Stuff breaks.  That's a fact of life.  Everything ever made by the hand of Man is, on any kind of significant timescale, temporary.

There are ancient cars out there, still moving around under their own power.  There are ancient refrigerators, ancient houses, ancient books that are still legible.  But they must all inevitably cease to be eventually.

The good news is that we can shove that universal deadline back.  When things are made in such a way that they can be repaired, you can keep things moving.

This can go to extremes.  You've probably heard the joke/philosophical gambit that goes, "Yeah, grandpa had a great axe for decades.  Replaced the handle only three times, and the head only once.  That was a great axe."  You see the complication here: an axe only has two parts: handle and head.  To replace a handle is to repair the axe, but it's more than half of the entire tool.  To replace the head is to replace the entire tool's business end.  Without that the handle is only a stick.

So if you replace anything on a car, your car is no longer completely original.  It may still be factory, however: if the parts are still produced by the original manufacturer, then you can safely say the whole thing is still stock.

I found a new stereo for my Subaru at a junkyard.  The stereo was marked with the Subaru name and was original equipment included in a Legacy of about the same age as my car.  I took it out of the junked Legacy and installed it in my car, where it fit perfectly, even using the original wiring harness connections.  But that stereo was never offered in my car.  So it's factory, but not stock.

How many parts do you replace before the car doesn't fit the bill of being what it was?  You can literally buy all the parts to build an entire 1964.5 Ford Mustang from scratch.  If you're really into the whole build-it-yourself idea, you could build the engine a part at a time, starting from a bare engine block.  You can also buy an entire frame to build a classic appearing pickup truck, a 1950s Ford F1 or a comparable Chevy.  You can make it as vintage or as modern under the skin as you want.

It isn't a Ford or a Chevy, of course.  The frame built by niche manufacturers, the body panels built by hobby suppliers keeping the vintage truck market in new steel have nothing to do with the mighty corporations in Michigan.

So I need new tail lights for my Volvo.  Volvo built the 240 for about 20 years, and they pretty much nailed down the design early on.  The tail lights for my car are specified to fit a range of model years from about 1983 to 1993.  I think the company that made these tail lights is in fact the original manufacturer, a supplier that provided parts for Volvo when the car was still in production.  So strictly speaking, these may be original equipment, even though they aren't strictly factory as they were produced after the car's production run ended.

This is a thing for a lot of people.  When parts aren't original, there are purists who suck all the fun out of having vintage equipment.  I saw a beautiful Farmall Cub at an antique tractor show, one of the most nicely appointed examples I had ever seen.  The guy had replaced every exposed fastener with the same size, but in stainless steel.  Really dressed the machine up.  There wasn't any chrome in evidence, not even on the exhaust pipe.  But all that stainless really gleamed and of course there wasn't a hint of rust to be seen.

That didn't stop the occasional sour-faced grump from pooh-poohing the guy's effort.  "Too bad he couldn't be bothered to keep it original."

"Too bad you couldn't say anything nice about it.  He's put a lot of work in keeping an old piece of hardware in good running condition.  Where's your tractor?"  The guy looked at me like I was both insane and incredibly rude, and stomped away.  I don't often talk back at people like that, but it just seemed like it needed to be said.

I need to build a three-point hitch for my Farmall.  It doesn't have any hitch gear at all right now, and International's answer to the Ford-specific "Ferguson System" three-point was their own proprietary "Fast Hitch."  But the incredibly logical and effective three-point, coupled with Ford's gigantic market presence, forced the other manufacturers to adopt the three point as standard equipment.  I could find Fast Hitch implements, but it would be a long, hard slog and frankly I don't want to do that.  I want to build something.  I'll paint it red so at least it doesn't look too weird.

I had a point that I was working toward when I started, and I think I lost it.  I'll try to pick it back up in the not-too-distant future.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

For Every Silly Pun I Shed...

I like words and wordplay.  Words are the mechanism by which we humans communicate most.  Some experts have suggested that less than half of communication takes place with words; balderdash, says I.  Were that the case, the video telephone would have come into prominence much more quickly than it has.  The capacity to develop such video devices has been readily available for decades; the market for it wasn't strong enough to justify the added expense because there wasn't enough demand.  Talking works well enough in the complete absence of visual cues and referents.

There are other means via which we get our points across.  Sign language, both formal and informal, does a lot.  Body language is often culturally influenced; hand waves in North America don't mean what they do in, for instance, Japan.  But I'm not going to go into that right now.

My favorite form of wordplay is the pun.  Many words have more than one meaning, and other words sound exactly like other words: homophones.  So you can say one thing, mean another, and the juxtaposition of the two meanings creates a stress.  But the fact that the confusion is deliberate lets the stress off.  This is almost the clinical definition of  a joke.  Building the anticipation generates the stress, telling the punch line concludes the stress and it's over.

You can ask yourself, "what the hell is he talking about?  Stress isn't fun."  Not generally, no...but if that were completely true, nobody would ever get on a roller coaster, would they?  They're supposed to be perfectly safe, right?  So what's all that screaming about? You're getting jerked around and flung upside down and ohmygod ohmygod we'reallgonnadie and when you don't die, the stress comes off because you knew all along you were perfectly safe, and that endorphin release manifests as smiling and laughter.  It's not as vigorous an experience as all that when you tell a pun, but some of the physical reactions, strangely enough, are about the same.

Actually, when I tell puns it manifests as groans and thrown spoons, but that's me.  Sometimes I do tell some stinkers.

But sometimes I don't.  And though some decry puns as the "lowest form of humor," I think that's a denunciation held in reserve by people who either don't get puns, or are envious that I was able to formulate mine first.  Shakespeare included puns throughout his written works.  So did George Carlin.  Right there we've spanned the humor spectrum from what is generally considered cultured and highbrow, to what is generally considered rough and, at best, middlebrow.  The fact is that Shakespeare wrote an awful lot of very bawdy, ribald stuff that hides its nature in what is now obsolete prose, and George Carlin, his Seven Dirty Words (very very bad language warning!) notwithstanding, was wicked smart.  They both tossed words around like juggling balls in a Cirque du Soleil act.  Just when you think you know where this one is going, you don't...or do you?  And there's smiles and laughter.

Happy Christmas to all.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Thanksgiving

Hey, another cooking one?  And you do notice you kinda missed the boat, right?

Yes and no.  I'm not nearly good enough a cook to speak on how to do a nice spread for Thanksgiving.  For that, I'd refer you to Sweetie.  And it's about more than just Thanksgiving.

So what's up?

A little of everything, really.  Not so much Helpful Household Hints as Holiday Hints.

Oh, holiday advice.  Okay, lay it on me.

It's a little late to point this one out, so I may do it again after January 1 2012.  But here it is: start your holiday shopping early.

How early?

Start shopping for Christmas in January.  Not the day-after sales, I mean just in general.  See a book that your dad would like?  Grab it.  Perfect pair of mittens for your five-year-old niece?  Toss them in the shopping cart.

So much of Christmas shopping is done right around the Christmas season, but there's a couple of good reasons not to do that.  The first is that Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of Jesus, a gift from God that was never intended to have a particular "season" per se.  The other is, when it comes time to remember what that great book was or where those adorable mittens were, you've thought a thousand other things, noticed and forgotten a hundred other gift ideas.  So remember your family and friends at all times, and if you see a little something here or there that will help you remind them how much you love them, get it right then.  Don't wait.

That's a lot of stuff to have hanging around.

So what?  Take a serious assessment of your home.  How much stuff do you have hanging around right now? Probably more than you'll ever need.  I have more clothes than I can wear in one week, I have more comic books than I can read in a month, back issues of car and truck magazines, a tractor I only drive once a week when the weather's nice and it's starting reliably.  What kind of stuff can you do without?

Hmm.  Well, when you put it like that...quite a lot.  Does this mean your tractor is for sale?

NO.  I'm just pointing out that if you're worried about how much stuff I'm going to suggest you store for Christmas, you could probably afford to reduce some of what you've got lying around to make room for it.

I built my bed.  It's a simple platform raised about 15" so the mattress is at a comfortable sitting height.  There is no box spring, not since I figured out the main purpose of the box spring is to provide an even support for the mattress.  The plywood top of my bed platform serves that purpose nicely.  And underneath my platform is a large amount of storage space.  Several plastic totes with lids, tied together so there's no difficult crawling under there to go fetch the last one, store Christmas gifts until the season comes.  One box for each member of the immediate family (not as useful as you might think when kids get bigger), and a few more boxes for outlying family.  Everything neatly stashed, out of the way.

This year we've decided not to give much in the way of gifts in the household this year.  We've all got everything we need.  So we'll stuff stockings and that will be most of our gift giving.

So far you're mostly talking about Christmas.
I know.  That's because it's the next holiday coming up.  And isn't that a shame?  If you're of a religious bent, the last thing you want to do is to compartmentalize the celebration of the gift to the world that Jesus is.  But here we are, doing it.  We do Christmas at Christmastime.  We do Valentine's Day in February.  We take the universal and make it an abbreviated event.

So my thing here is just an exhortation, urging you to wake up each morning thinking that it's Valentine's Day, and Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving Day and Independence Day and all the rest.  Each and every day is a holiday, a day to set at least a little time aside and remember all the people who have made this country great, all the sacrifices that have gone before to secure our freedoms and liberties, all the people in our lives who helped make us who and what we are.

That's all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Murder, Sex, TV and Contradictions in Pop Culture

I'm constantly amazed by what passes for entertainment.

I'm constantly amazed by what must be withheld by the censors, the people who ostensibly are there to protect our minds from images and ideas that are unacceptable.

Let's look at what's on tonight: CBS has NCIS, then NCIS Los Angeles.  That's the two roughest offerings tonight and frankly the rest of the week is going to be kind of toned down.  It is Thanksgiving week, after all.

But there's the various flavors of CSI, Law and Order, Castle...any number of offerings.  The common element in all of them: somebody's been murdered.

I don't mind a police drama.  I really enjoyed NYPD Blue, the way it picked out the complex interpersonal relationships between the detectives and their superiors, the grudging respect of the uniform cops for the detectives, just the whole tenor of the thing.  And somebody wasn't getting killed every five minutes, either.  I did think it was a little too formulaic that assorted members of Andy Sipowicz' family and friends had to get killed off to give the season a big juicy ratings bump at the end of each season.

What I mind is that these terrible images, the ghastly dessicated corpses that litter the examining tables in Bones, the assorted bits and pieces of person on Ducky's slab in NCIS make it past the censors, but God forbid if anybody's derriere shows.  Yes, those people are dead and their guts are splayed all over, but their groins are covered and the women don't have nipples.

Are we, as a nation, that scared of sex?  We can handle murder and grisly disemboweled corpses better than we can handle naked live people?

I can hear the censor now: "The death and disembowelment is an adult topic.  Those shows are geared for adults.  They can handle it."

But what would the censor say about full frontal nudity?  "There might be children watching."

What about the children watching the disemboweled corpse?  No response.

Here's my thing: it makes no sense to me for a very simple reason.  I want my kids to grow up appalled by murder, by violent death.  I don't want them used to it, to not flinch at it on the screen.  I expect them to live very long, very full lives that don't include them murdering anyone.

I do, however, expect them to have sex once in a while.  They'd better.  I want grandkids one of these days.

So.  To recap: we have endless opportunities for young people to become completely inured to the idea of killing, of murder, of assorted violence.  But we carefully police how familiar they become with how naked people look?  As if they couldn't simply turn around in front of the mirror after a shower and figure it out?

Humans are weird.

Monday, November 21, 2011


I love music.

Let's clarify the topic a bit.  Some people think "rap" is music; I'm not one of them.  At first rap had a kind of musicality, but a lot of that seems to have gone away and what's left is angry chanting.  If I want angry chanting, I'll watch video of an Occupy demonstration.

I don't go for hip-hop either.  It just doesn't sit well with me.

I enjoy some classical but mostly I'm a pop, rock and folk-rock kind of guy.  I like music that moves to a good beat, especially stuff that has a pace that's right for walking.  It just helps a guy move along, and next thing you know you're clear across town and how did you get there?  Ah, who cares - the tunes have been great.

I was wandering around YouTube just a few minutes ago, can't remember what I was chasing exactly, but there on the suggested viewing list was Judy Collins' song, "Both Sides Now."  I've always loved Collins' ethereal voice, and I clicked it.

The organ starts, high and sweet.  A few taps of the high hats.  And Judy sings.  She's a couple of verses into it before I can completely pull myself together and hear what she's saying.

"Moons, and Junes, and Ferris wheels
The dizzy, dancing way you feel
When every fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way."

I wept.  She's singing about a heartbreaking naivete and a wrenching knowledge that the naivete must come to an end.  Innocence is gone, no matter how well you remember what it was like to be that carefree.  There have to be some clouds in that wondrous expanse of sky.

Do I necessarily share all these views, have I lived this life she's torn out of her heart to show to us?  No.  But it certainly sounds like she has; if she hasn't, Judy has pulled me into the most mesmerizing fantasy because it sounds like she lives each and every moment that she's singing.  I do enjoy it when the singers really throw themselves completely into the song.  If you're going to round up people to play behind you, if you're going to stand behind that microphone in front of that great big audience, how could you possibly give them anything less than everything you have?

I suspect I may be a depressive personality.  Some of my absolute most favorite songs ever were the saddest.  "Both Sides Now" is a good example.  Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans" is a despondent obituary of the poetic railway journey of an older time.

It's not all sad songs, though.  John Denver's "Country Roads" is one of the best songs of all time.  And "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" is a flat-out party.  Go listen to it! 

And it's not all old stuff, either.  I know I'm too old to be considered hip, but that never stopped me from taking a listen at what's out there.  Jason Mraz is great; Beyonce is a dance party looking for a place to happen.  Marc Brussard's deep bayou blues-rock sound is an absolute blast.  Al Green is old-school cool.

But there's so much more.  They've been around for a little while but I recently discovered this Croatian duo of cellists, 2Cellos doing a cover of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal."  It was, in my opinion, actually better than Michael's original version.  It was brilliant stuff.

There will always be trends in music.  Rap has been around for awhile, it may go on forever and it may fade away.  Crunk seems to have died, good thing too.  Grunge was always there - it just didn't go by that name.

There will always be ballads.  There will always be room for a little ensemble of guitar, drums and keyboard.  A vocalist steps up to the mic and shares a little of his soul.  Sometimes the group is bigger.  Sometimes it's just one lonely singer, humming the words he can't quite remember.  But he loves the music.

I finished writing this while listening to Queen's "You're My Best Friend."  I miss you, Freddie.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

GPS Tracking: Does It Need a Warrant?

Antoine Jones is a bad guy.  I don't think anyone will contest that fact.  He got nailed with over 200lbs of cocaine and over $800,000 a while back.  But the case got tossed out because the way the police observed him isn't entirely legal.

They put a tracking device on his car.

Full disclosure: I've done this.  At the request of a supervisor, I placed a tracking device inside a company vehicle, and retrieved the device at the end of each day to download where it had gone.  As it turned out, nothing untoward was going on and the suspicion was unwarranted.  As a representative of the agency to whom the vehicle belonged and at the behest of the supervisor to whom the driver reported, I placed a tracker and reported its findings to the supervisor.  I did not retain the findings and since they disclosed nothing of interest, I destroyed them.  The issue was one of workplace discipline, not discovering illegal activity.

But it appears that the US government is a little dodgy about whether it's legal for law enforcement officials, either local or federal, to place such a device on a car.  Especially whether it's legal to do so without a warrant.

Jones' car was monitored by such a device, one that transmitted his vehicle's location every second in real time.  Mine couldn't do that, but you can find them that do.  The thing is, Jones' car was equipped with a monitor but not with the authority of a warrant.  Cops just stuck it on his car and watched where he went.

That Jones was caught with the cocaine is beyond debate.  That he was caught with a suspiciously large amount of money isn't in question.  What's really beyond the pale is, the cops should not have been able to do that.

When investigating a crime, cops can either react to what they see with their own eyes, or they can explain what they suspect - and support that with evidence - to a judge, who will then either declare it worth further investigating and provide a warrant, or not.  There has to be this chain of authority, or else the police force will have to be considered a law unto themselves.  We all know just how bad "laws unto themselves" are.  That's how Libya wound up with Gaddhafi, look at how that turned out.

At the heart of this case in particular is the warrant.  According to law enforcement, GPS data is how they gather enough information to convince a judge that a warrant is, for lack of a better term, warranted.  But what about that initial GPS device?

It's nothing to say that anyone can watch you driving around.  Can't help it, you're out there in the open.  And if a policeman sees you, that's fine.  He sees everybody else around him too.  But suppose there's a GPS device affixed to your car that you didn't know about, constantly updating the policeman on exactly where you are, what direction you're headed at what speed, and where you stop?

It's a little offputting, isn't it?  What if he can ticket you for speeding because he has a GPS record of your exact speed?  It feels like he's cheating, doesn't it?  I've been pulled over for speeding once or twice (all verbal warnings so far!) and I didn't really mind being pulled over that much.  Yeah, I was going too fast.  Sure enough, and you caught me.  Busted, fair and square.

But what if the speeding ticket came in the mail?  "YOU WERE DETECTED IN A ______SPEED ZONE MOVING AT _____ MILES PER HOUR YOUR FINE IS $_____.  HAVE A NICE DAY."

With the cop, you can offer mitigating circumstances: "Either let me keep driving at the speed I was going or she's going to have the baby right here."  You can explain to the judge, "The throttle was stuck wide open.  Why else would I do 105mph in a 35 zone?  Yes sir, of course it's fixed.  Here's the receipt for the new parts."  With the GPS, there's just cold data.  Binary code, zeros and ones.  You're speeding or you're not.

In his Known Space-situated stories, Larry Niven describes a device for faster-than-light communication that makes it possible to detect when a traveler gets too close to a star, but because it requires a mind to work it, it cannot be left to an autopilot.  It has to be observed and interpreted.

GPS data is like that.  And of course the LEOs (that's Law Enforcement Officials) are indeed parsing out the meaningful data since we're nowhere near as advanced as Niven's Puppeteer-riddled future.  But what gets me is the fact of the infiltration on the LEO's part to get the data.

You can't control the light bouncing off you.  Going out, you know you can be observed.  But the GPS system requires a LEO place a device on your car and monitor that.

The monitoring isn't bad.  Going after bad guys is good and getting them fair and square is great.  If warranted GPS monitoring makes that happen, more the better.  But to place the device without a warrant, that's something else entirely.  That's an awful lot like an illegal search - your private property is altered without your knowledge.

Think of the "nanny cam."  It's totally okay in my mind, and in the mind of courts everywhere if I'm right, to place a monitoring device that watches how the nanny handles your child.  But put the nanny cam in the nanny's bedroom and you're in a completely different place: illegal search, wiretapping, etc.  Because what she does on her time with no kid around is completely up to her, unless she's lighting up a big doobie on your property.  You'd still have a tough time introducing evidence like that in court, if the room was designated the nanny's private residential space.

The question is one of privacy, and whether you have a right to an expectation of privacy.  That you are completely observable is beside the point, the point is that your private property has been illegally tampered with for the specific purpose of gathering evidence against you.  The same way LEOs cannot break into your home and install monitoring devices without a warrant, they shouldn't be able to do that kind of thing to your car.

If I ever find such a device attached to my car, I'm going to attach it to the next parked police cruiser I see.  Such unrestricted monitoring cannot be legal unless it is applied to all citizens equally.  Placing one presupposes a level of guilt and then dispassionately amasses a huge volume of data, whether that data is relevant to the case at hand or not.  How then if the data points up an illegal activity that was not part of the initial investigation?  If the placement of the GPS was under a warrant, but the warrant did not specify that crime, can that be considered a permissable search?

This is one of the many intersections where law and technology collide and grind.  As we generate more and more information about ourselves and continue to place more and more of ourselves into an open forum accessible by the world in general, what we retain for privacy must be protected even more carefully.

Catch me fair and square.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Backstage: Between Worlds

When the lights go down and the audience goes quiet, a new universe comes into being.

Mr. Rogers had it right, when he invited his young viewers to travel with him to the Land of Make-Believe.  But at the time, I had no idea that the Land of Make-Believe had so many different faces and places to visit.  Each time we put on a play, we find a new place to go to, a new vista to show to the audience.

On the stage as the production is going on, it's a land of light and color, of sounds and shapes that all correspond to things as we see them in the real world, but a little different.  Some things are just a bit bigger - so people whom we aren't supposed to believe in, the audience, can see them clearly and know that those things are there.  Some things are just pretend.

The entire upstairs of the house where our current production takes place doesn't actually exist.  But for two hours each evening, it's believed to be there and no one argues the point.  People leave the stage to go upstairs, and they're gone for a while.  They must be upstairs; where else would they go?

A wall of nothingness separates us in our world from the world with the audience in it.  We don't acknowledge that the wall is there and we don't test it, but we treat it as if it were both completely solid and impenetrable, while also being, somehow, a place upon which to focus our attention when thinking out loud, when declaring for emphasis to no one in general.

And backstage is an entirely different place.  Here is the strangest universe of all, where the things that are about to become real onstage wait for their entrance.  Backstage they are debris, tools.  Food and candles and carrots and walkie-talkies.  Onstage, though, they become underlines and bright illuminated arrows and emphasis of the characters that they exist around.  The firewood isn't just firewood, it's Betty's firewood.  If it weren't for Betty there wouldn't be any need for firewood.  The firewood is only there to make Betty more Betty.  Nothing else matters.

The Cokes are for me.  If I didn't need Cokes there would be no Cokes in this little world.  And for that matter, there wouldn't be a bottle opener.  As worlds go it's not very impressive, but as worlds go discovering the purpose and interrelations of things is simple and clear.

But what happens to the people of that onstage world when they step offstage?  They completely change.  In one moment they are loud and active and alive; backstage they are dark and quiet, shifting from place to place in silence as they shift about the building blocks of that bright world, peering dimly through the curtains and cracks at the world as it spins just beyond the veil.

In spite of all the stress and difficulty associated with rehearsing and playing, I love it.  Acting is a completely foreign slice of life, frantic energy for a few moments before hundreds of hungry eyes, followed by stealth and sneaking in darkness in preparation for the next burst of light and sound.

It makes me feel like I'm filling up with an electrical charge.  The potential builds and strains until the air fairly crackles with it, then...

The last show of this production is Sunday November 6 at 2:00p, at the Norris Community Center in Norris Tennessee.  If you're in the area, stop by.  Be there when the lightning strikes.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Norris Little Theater's The Foreigner: Opening Night

Here we are, opening night.  All the late nights rehearsing, all the weekends spent building, building, building sets, all the stress and angst of wearing the face of a person I really can't stand.  It all comes to this.

It's not really opening night per se.  We've already had a paying audience in the form of kids from Norris Middle School across the street.  And unlike the middle school audience we played to for And Then There Were None, these laughed in the right places, were tense in most of the right places, and generally gave a lot back.  It was a pretty gratifying show.

But let me make a recommendation, kids: SHUT UP.  No one is paying to hear you talk.  Don't repeat the dialogue back at the players, don't shout "He's got a knife!" during the pivotal scene.  SHUT UP, and stay shut.  What you're doing, if it isn't that, is rude. Whether it's an issue of self-respect, respect for your fellow theatergoers, or whatever, shut up.  Whatever it takes.

Hang up the cell phone.  Don't text on it, either.  If you're not watching the play, then what are you even doing in the seat?  Get out. I busted my butt to learn these lines and build this set and get home in time for rehearsal for over a month.  And I'm not the only one - there's a few dozen people involved with making this show happen.  So if that's not worth your attention, get out of the seat so someone who will appreciate it can watch.

So there's my little rant.  That's over with.  And now that I've had a performance where I confess I flubbed a whole block of lines (and thank you Drew for saving the scene!) some of the big stress of the whole experience is just gone.  Can't do it worse, right?

Well, let's not test that.  I've got butterflies again.

Call is in thirty minutes.  Curtain goes up again in ninety.  Break a leg!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Loving a Character, Hating a Character

I may have stated before that I have become a fan of Glee.  That doesn't mean I'm going to go "like" it on facebook or get a t-shirt or anything like that.  I may buy a CD at some point.  Certainly I have the DVDs but that's how I get my TV viewing done.

Glee's resident airhead Brittany Pierce is as innocent as they come.  Naive and gullible, she is a feather in the wind, blown from one thing to another.  She is manipulated by bad guy Coach Sue, devastated by a stray offense from boyfriend Artie, and frankly suspicious her cat Mr. Tubbykins has started smoking again.  And she is an inherently good person.  If someone wants something, it's probably for a good reason.  So Brittany tries to make that happen - whether it's a good thing or not.  Introduced in the series as a mindless minion for the bad guys, Brittany has become a good guy as the character of the people around her improves.

Watching her on the screen, it's easy to love Brittany.  She's like the endearingly charming moppet that sits in front of you in church.  That this endearingly charming moppet is a tall, attractive blonde is beside the point.  Like your favorite niece, you don't want to see her hurt for anything.

In contrast, the character I'm portraying for the play The Foreigner is the polar opposite of Brittany.  Owen Musser is mean and completely comfortable with being mean.  He hates and revels in hate.  He's selfish and demeaning, mocking and rude.  And he's dumb as a post.

You might think you know who the idiot is in The Foreigner.  But if you don't think it's Owen, you're wrong.

So I recall every hateful sneer in the hallways, every flipped bird in traffic, pull all those to the forefront and wear them on my face for a couple of hours.  I've almost got all my lines nailed down and once we've finished building the set (we've raised the stage three feet for the sake of the production, I hope everyone can see okay) I'll be able to hammer down my blocking as well.

Becoming Tom Rogers for And Then There Were None was tough enough, bringing to life the worst moments of that poor guy.  That left me emotionally drained, just wrung out.  But pulling Owen out of the recesses leaves me wearing thoughts and attitudes that I'd rather never have.

I'm putting myself through all this stress for the sake of entertaining people, and I'm doing it for free.  I think I might be crazy.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Becoming Another

It's been about six months since I stepped on stage for the first time, which means it's about time for Norris Little Theatre to put on another production.

This time it's The Foreigner by Larry Shue.  According to some, it's a little...controversial.  There's a couple of bad guys, a stack of good guys, a couple of deliberate misdirections that run smack headlong into each other.  And that's where the excitement begins.

I read somewhere - darned if I can find it now, dangitall there's no browsing history in my head - that Shue came up with the idea for The Foreigner either as a result of or during a visit to Japan, where the very polite people regarded Shue's own inept handling of the culture shock with amusement and patience.  From such humble beginnings spring creativity's children.

Shall I tell you my character?  I can't see why not.  The play is out there, of course.  Shue, poor fellow, didn't live long enough to see it become the success that it was.  The Foreigner played Broadway for over 600 performances, but Shue had died by the time that run was over.

My character's name is Owen Musser.  He's a bad guy.  He knows he's a bad guy and is totally okay with it, because he's certain the conviction of his beliefs is right and good.  In one spot, Owen tells another character, "I can't see how you're plannin' to take anything over 'thout raisin' a little hell."  Owen is willing, maybe even eager, to be that hellraiser.  He's a bully, he's cheerfully hateful, he's threatening and overbearing.  And he is totally okay with it.

And I reach into myself, find every awful person who sat behind me and kicked my chair in French class, threw the dodgeball at my head in gym, even cut me off in traffic, and I have another piece of Owen to put in front of an audience.

How well will that work out?  We'll see.

Curtain goes up November 4, 5 and 6.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Saving energy, expending energy

At work, we've been working hard to turn the wick down on our utility bills.  It appears to be working.

Part of what made such a big difference was receiving a large and welcome donation from a supporter.  Now usually a donation is in the form of a check, and that's great.  Sometimes however, the donation takes the form of goods.  Sometimes those donations fall a little flat - do we really need this many admittedly cute hand-knitted wool hats?

Not this time.  This guy's donation was off the charts.  Several boxes of Sylvania fluorescent tubes in the new and relatively unnoticed 25-watt size.  Occupancy sensors.  LED bulbs that, among other things, are rated for about double my very (very) best incandescent bulbs can do.  Am I installing those in the very peak of the chapel?  Oh yes.  I hate changing those bulbs, and if these LED floodlights last even half as long as their package copy says, I won't have to think about them again until 2015.

So what I have here is over $3000 worth of lighting products.  The fluorescent tubes are hard to come by, and not carried by the vendors that I have accounts with which makes them even tougher to acquire for work.  I always knew they'd make a tangible dent if I could just get hold of them.  And now here they are.

In their first month, our utility bill took a dip.  In spite of our electric rate going up 10% over the same period last year, our bill went down 10% due to decreased usage.  That's some serious progress.  And that was the first month, when I hadn't gotten everything installed.

The second month, more stuff is installed.  Not all of it, still - there's a lot of equipment and consumables here, it's a big job and some of it I've gotten done with volunteer crews - but we're getting closer.  In the first month our dollar savings was $1800.  In the second month, $2200.

Not bad by any stretch.  I've never seen our utility bill go down from one year to the next.  In two months, it's dropped like a stone.

It just takes an awful lot of work to make it happen.  Chapel lights, like I said, require a lift.  Thirty-five feet or more from floor to peak, those lights aren't something you just reach up and grab.  Fortunately this time another volunteer crew was installing some audio-visual gear and brought their own scissor lift.  Hey presto, job's done and I didn't die of vertigo.

In one room there's 192 fluorescent tubes to replace.  I counted.  In the dining room, another 158.  In another room, 96.  Each tube replaced represents a 7-watt savings over the old installation.  That represents over 3000 watts of electricity we're not using anymore and if you don't think that's much, well, maybe it isn't in the grand scheme of things.  But every hour we can avoid that 3000 watts is an hour we save about 45 cents.  There's over 600 hours in a month, and some of those lights are on all the time.  Getting the message across about turning lights off has made a big difference too, and setback thermostats.  It's finally all coming together.  It's take a huge effort on the parts of way more than just me, but it's finally coming together.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs and Why America Needs More Jobs

"This was the closest I've been to facing death, and hopefully it's the closest I get for a few more decades."  Steve Jobs on his original bout with pancreatic cancer, in the commencement speech to Stanford University's graduating class of 2005.

That's all I have at this moment, but there will be more presently.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Where the Heck Have You Been?

Vacation.  Felt great.  Too short, but they always are.

At this moment I really don't have much to say.  I don't ever have anything that's going to really light up anyone's world, but I've got even less right now.


Check back later.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Something to Be Proud About?

Vermont got slammed in the most recent bout of hurricanes.  Flooded in a big way, there are a great many roads in Vermont that aren't actually in Vermont anymore.  They're just gone.

That's a problem when you're trying to get to work or to school.  It turns out that one school in particular has a bunch of kids who are only connected by a road or two, but in the wake of the storm there are no roads at all.

Enter the wooded path.  There's a convenient footpath through the woods from the remote neighborhood to the school that serves pretty well.  A half-mile of walking from one end to the other, while roads and whatnot are being rebuilt the path is patrolled by adult volunteers as kids make their way to school.  And some low-speed motorized traffic (think golf carts and utility vehicles) are shuttling back and forth carrying seniors and performing path maintenance.

A half-mile of walking is good.  Entirely too many people see a walk of more than two blocks as reason to break out some kind of wheels.  But for the principal of the school to call out the kids who are making the trek to laud them for their extra effort is, I think, inappropriate.

First of all, I walked a half-mile to school as an elementary student.  Second grade, every day, rain or shine.  No big deal.  And then when the day was over, I walked back.  As a high school student, I rode my bike about a mile each way every day.  No big deal.

In an age when we're wringing our hands over the increasing rates of obesity in children, walking to school isn't something that should be held up as praiseworthy.  It should be obligatory.  Or just take the Playstations and Internet connections away, force them to go run around outside and work off that last trip to Golden Corral. That they're doing it is good, that other kids aren't is pretty sad.

A teacher at the school in the news item said his GPS spent too much time displaying "Recalculating," and he turned it off and figured out the best route for himself.  I'm really disappointed by this.  First of all, the Global Positioning System device's default behavior is to assume that the user is only on roads and will need whatever directions it gives to be in the form of road directions.  Secondly, the teacher was relying on GPS.  It's also a point brought up by the article that these people were coming from "the dark side of the mountain," that they had no electricity.  Before long the batteries in the GPS will die and then what will the teacher do?

I've said it before: maps always work.  Even when they're incredibly old and out of date, the odds of the roads the maps depict being actually gone are next to zero.  And in this special case where roads really are gone, the maps still depict relationships of things to each other, and when the power goes out the map still works.  So if you can find any landmark and make a rough guess at what direction is north, you can fake your way until you find more concrete references or familiar territory.

I like to say that no matter how lost I am, I can't be too lost: there are still lines on the road.  Sweetie took it a step further one day: "How lost can we be?  There's still a road."  She was right, of course.  I've never been anywhere that someone else hadn't been there before me.

I think our pioneer forebears would look at our blundering, tenderfoot "making do" and shake their heads in plain dismay.  To them, the path would be like a broad, paved highway, a cleared and delineated route from one place to another.  So while it's good to see the kids determined to get to school and not letting the absence of roads hold them back, I'm not impressed that they're so proud of having achieved it.  It's just not that big a deal.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Frustrating Lie of the A-Lister Body, and Why It's Okay

Looking at Google News, skimming over the Entertainment section, I see photos of famous people who have famously maintained their shapes.

In spite of having three kids, Julia Roberts is still slim.  She's my age, plus a couple of months.  After a few kids and a few decades, the metabolism slows down, the body takes a little extra effort to keep it that trim shape that was so easy to maintain as a teenager.  How does she do it?

Easy.  She's a star.

You hear about A-lister celebrities, the ones whose very presence make whatever event they're attending somehow more important than other events.  I contend that that's a load of old tosh but Hollywood doesn't work that way.  People like Sigourney Weaver and Julia Roberts and Will Smith automatically get the flashbulbs going, even if all they're doing is just walking down the street.  Roberts and Smith are my age, Weaver is over 60.  And let's be honest, she looks great.  What all these people have in common is: they're wealthy, and they don't have steady jobs.

That leaves plenty of time and room in the budget for personal trainers.  If I was a movie actor, my face and body would be very large parts of my stock in trade.  As it happens I'm not tall, not especially muscular and a little funny-looking if I haven't shaved my head recently.  Thanks to genetics, my hair doesn't come in on top and if I don't keep the rest under control, it grows in a Bozo-like pattern.  So I'd have to go all Bruce Willis on it and just like Bruce, I'd have to spend time at the gym.  At 56, Bruce is built like an offseason hockey player.

So instead of five days a week, 40 hours a day (I know that came out wrong but I'm leaving it in, some days it feels correct) of holding down the desk, working the phones and email, running parts and turning wrenches, these people are spending time keeping toned for the next time the cameras roll.  Sometimes they can skip it for months on end, even years, and get it back when a picture comes around.  Schwarzenegger has been way off form lately (being governor of a big self-contradictory state can do that to you) but could - and probably will - pull himself back together ere long.  He's only 64.  He's got plenty of acting years left in him.

When I get home, I'm coming off a long day of doing whatever needed doing.  I'm just tuckered out.  Could I go another couple of hours at a gym, toning up?  Probably.  But I wouldn't enjoy it much.  I lift weights, a little, do some sit-ups and some push-ups, a little.  But I've done my bit - I want to rest.

It's ironic, isn't it?  Most of us work too hard to have an A-lister body.  I don't know many women who look as good in their mid-60s as Helen Mirren does.  But as a wealthy actress, she can devote a lot of time and effort to that physique.  That's great for her, and kind of frustrating for a lot of the rest of us.  The vast majority of everybody knows, "oh, she doesn't have a regular nine-to-five, she can spend all day every day at the gym keeping that shape."  But then you see shots of her in her pink bikini and intellectual rationale just goes away.  What's left is "dammit, I want to look like that."

Dammit, I want to look like that.  Okay, maybe not exactly like Helen - the bikini straps get wound up in my chest hair.  But I want to be a star.  But I also have to confess I don't need it.  And not needing it, I can live without it.  And if I want that appearance badly enough, I can lift more weights, I can do more push-ups.  I don't have to also tolerate the stresses of being an A-lister.

Can you imagine spilling your drink as an A-lister star?  Coca-Cola all down your front, and next thing you know it's in the tabloids.  What a pain that would be.  And God forbid you have an itch in a place you shouldn't scratch in public - there's nowhere private enough to deal with that when the paparazzi are climbing trees to get a better look at you.

Is it any surprise that Harrison Ford, another A-lister (whose presence on the A-list may not be warranted anymore) lives somewhere in the middle of 800 acres of Wyoming wilderness?  If I had to bust my butt working out to keep my butt trim into my 60s, I'd want privacy too.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TV Thinks We Hate Smart People, and TV Writers Think We're Too Dumb to Know Why

Sweetie really enjoys the show House.  In fact, the boys do, too.

I'm the only one that doesn't like it.

Gregory House is supposed to be brilliant, in an aloof and dispassionate kind of way.  Hugh Laurie, the British actor who plays the American Dr. House with no British accent at all, achieves the dispassionate delivery very well.  Dr. House doesn't like anyone at all.  He doesn't appear to care for his patients, not for his colleagues, not anyone.  Of all the doctors you could have treat you, his bedside manner would be the only one you would remember.  Where any other doctor will have the usual platitudes and couch bad news in careful language, House just drags it out drops it on the floor.  Boom, bad news.  There it is.

The character is deeply flawed.  I can only say that his lack of impulse control and unrelenting destruction of relationships is so deep and so willful that it must be the result of some kind of neurological damage.  No one can be that hateful, can they?

Maybe they can.  Obviously someone imagined a doctor so disinterested in his patients, the patients themselves are only a vehicle that delivers the episode's puzzle to the main character.  The feelings of the patients are glibly rattled by Dr. House, disregarded when inconvenient, mocked when House has a minute or two to spare on the patient.  At least he's acknowledging their existence when he does that, most of the time he doesn't bother.  House is brilliant, diagnosing bizarre and contradictory constellations of symptoms, eventually arriving at (usually) the correct diagnosis and saving the patient.  But he does it the same way a bulldozer removes a tree: brutally, finally, with no regard for the environment in which it is performing its function.

Perhaps the single greatest miracle of House is how he manages to get through entire seasons without having been knocked cold by an angry patient or patient's spouse.  If I was in a room with him for any length of time, I'd probably measure his width and length on the floor with a big left jab.  Because he's a jerk nonpareil.

Big Bang Theory features three extremely intelligent young men and Sheldon.  Where the young men are the upper half-percentile on the intelligence scale, dreadfully clever fellows who theorize about quantum physics and design space station parts, Sheldon is smarter yet.  And he is utterly alone.  His wants are needs, and the needs of others rank below his wants.  He exists in a universe similar to our own, but incontrovertibly separated.

BBT also features Penny.  Penny is the attractive girl who lives in the same apartment building.  She is not especially smart except unlike Sheldon, she can drive a car, get a joke and sit in any chair, anywhere.  Sheldon might be very intelligent, but he is also woefully incomplete.

This is a recurring theme I've seen in TV shows.  People who are incredibly gifted have to also somehow be handicapped.  The writers of these shows seem to think that we, the viewers, have to be able to whisper to each other, "look, they're not perfect.  At least we still have _______.  We can do _________."  You fill in the blank.

It's entirely possible that we, the American TV viewing public, can handle being presented with someone who completely outstrips us in every measure.  Lord knows I got used to that in gym class, I can handle it.  I'm never going to be a superhero or have a headful of luxurious wavy hair or win the Nobel prize in any category.  I can accept that there are seven billion people on this planet, a great many of whom no doubt exceed me in any or many qualities.  It's okay, I can take it.

Stop trying so hard to be so diplomatic.  Like the ridiculous soccer games where every kid gets a trophy, even the kids on the losing team, it gets pretty insulting.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fun with Mice

At one time I had a coworker whose name I will disguise as Jane.  Jane was an extremely pretty, extremely well dressed, extremely passive-aggressive woman who was never satisfied with 'no' as an answer.  That emergent situations should take priority over her wants did not impress her, she would mutter under her breath and complain about a lack of responsiveness and an attitude problem.  She did this to a lot of people, not just me.

When you have a problem with all the people around you, consider the common denominator in each relationship: it's you.

But that's not what this story is about.

Jane had complained about mice in the basement of the building where she worked.  I asked how she knew about them, since I knew for a fact she could not be driven into the basement at the point of a gun.  It was, at the risk of a pun, beneath her.  She had been informed by others, and couldn't stand the thought of them, she said.  Fix it immediately, she said.

"Well," said I, "I'm on my way home.  In fact I'm a half-hour over right now.  But I'll be over first thing in the morning and leave you some traps to set.  It'll only take you a few minutes to set them."

"Oh, no.  I can't set the traps.  I'm not going down there."

"Fine.  It may be later in the day then, if at all.  My schedule is already very full."

I left, hearing her grumbling faint imprecations as I did.  And in that moment I hatched a plan.

At this time of my life, Sweetie and the sons were raising mice for fun.  In fact, Son #1 had won the county-wide science fair with his mouse breeding research project, so we had quite a few.  Mostly they didn't even faintly resemble wild mice with their beautiful gold coats or pink eyes, or white coats or even glossy black coats.  They just looked too good.

But there was one in particular, an affable little fellow who liked to putter around in my hands and squeak quietly to himself, who was perfect.  For his habit of constant little squeaks, we called him a "talker," and he's not the only one like that we've had.  His fur was the color of a squirrel's, and he had the dark eyes of a wild mouse.  If you held him up to a wild mouse you would see obvious differences between the two in the shape of the eyes, of the body and the size of the head, but all by himself he was very plainly just a mouse.

The next morning, just before I left for work, I slipped that mouse into a carry cage.  He had food and a very small crock of water, and I felt a little bad for making him ride by himself.  He was one of the more sociable ones.

When I got to the facility where Jane worked, I tucked the mouse into my capacious shirt pocket, picked up the stack of mouse traps and the jar of peanut butter plainly marked "BAIT" on the top, and went in.  I went downstairs to set the traps.  Then, as I came up the stairs, I gently pulled the mouse out of my pocket.

"Okay, Jane, I've set the traps for you..."

"And about time, too," she mumbled quietly, not paying attention as she fussed and flounced around the outlandish decor she was lavishing on the place.

"No, no...look!  I caught one!"  And I held that handsome little mouse out to her.

Jane's eyes popped wide open.  She opened her mouth and screamed.  She screamed like a smoke detector with fresh batteries.  She backed into the corner and was actually climbing the walls, she was trying to retreat from the mouse so hard.

Jane's supervisor came jogging down the hall.  "What in the world is going on?"

"Look, Mary, I caught one of the mice!"  I held him out to her.  She smiled.

"Cute,"  was all she said.  As I had expected, I might add.  Mary is a rather more levelheaded sort of person. "We're always glad when you visit, but we'd rather you didn't bring guests."  She went back to her office without commenting on Jane.

Jane resigned her position about three months after that.  I don't think that helpful little mouse had anything to do with it, but if he did, well.  I guess I'm sorry about that.  Maybe not as sorry as I ought to be.  She was, after all, a very unpleasant person.

The next mouse-related stunt came just last year.  We had allowed our previous population of mice to die out from old age, then started a new colony.  They're getting old and as of this writing only two still survive, truly geriatric mice each nearly four years old.  But last year I couldn't understand why Sweetie was so very serene in the pew one Sunday morning, smiling to herself and occasionally fidgeting with something in her pocket.  Finally, somewhere around the second hymn I asked her,  "What is up with you today?"

She drew her hand out of her pocket and laid it across the hymnal.  A black mouse sat up on its haunches and started vigorously preening itself, sleek and glossy in the autumn morning.

I was not able to finish the hymn.  I did not laugh out loud, but it was a near thing.  We played with the mouse through the rest of the service.  I have no idea what the sermon was.  I don't remember anything except Sweetie's broad smile and that cheeky little face peering up at us from the hymnal.

When the service ended, Sweetie tucked the mouse back into her coat pocket and after getting to the Fellowship Hall, handed her coat to Son #1.

"Take that back to the house, please."  We live very close to the church, just a five-minute walk away.  "And be careful with it."

"Why?"  He held up the coat.  "Something in the pocket?"

"Yes.  There's a mouse in there."

Son #1 looked doubtful.  His mother can be sardonic, and sometimes carries small artworks or other peculiar things in her pockets.  The mouse might be made of anything.  So he checked the pockets until he drew his hand back quickly.  "Is that...?"  He peeked into the pocket.  "Wow."  He didn't let it be known he was carrying a mouse, somebody might have gotten irrational and in the post-service crowd that could be risky. Some of our congregation's members are downright old and might not survive too rough a jostling.

But he had a big smile on his face as he carefully handled the coat on his way out the door.  I noticed him stop in the driveway as he headed homeward, fishing in that pocket.

The wild ones, sneaking into my house and eating holes in my bread bags, are pests.  But these sweet mice we've known and loved, they've been fun.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why Barack Obama Can't Be President

The numbers aren't there.

I will say right now that I had about 1,000 words that followed that first line, but I just now deleted them.  Here's why:

I can't make sense of our situation.  I thought Congress was utterly saturated with Republicans but it isn't.  The House has a Republican majority but the Senate has a Democratic majority (barely, and not if the Independents swing red).  So what you have is a Congress that can stalemate itself, which we watched happen during the debt ceiling bill issues at the beginning of August.

It just feels like it's soaked with Republicans because of the extraordinarily strident Tea Party representatives in office.  They're highly motivated, highly ideological, and extremely vocal.  No wonder it feels like there's more of them.  Anyway.

So with a Congress so closely divided, you have a President who has no clear direction to jump.  With a friendly Congress full of Democrats, he could pass whatever he wanted.  No sweat.  Facing a largely Republican Congress, he'd know from the outset that whatever came his way would be the result of carefully crafted compromise.

With a balanced Congress, there's little way of knowing exactly what will work out.  The way I understand it is, the debt ceiling bill that eventually passed had actually been introduced weeks before but was shot down that first time.  So we could have avoided a lot of hand wringing.

Let me get back to the numbers bit.  Obama's approval rating is only 20% right now.  Combine that with his Strongly Disapprove rating of 42%, and you see a President who's in the red by 22%.  That's got to stink.

There are things you remember when you go to the voting booth.  Things like, "he's the guy that was in the chair when S&P cut our credit rating," and "what do you mean we're not going to go back to the moon?"  He's got some scores in his favor too but, like the networks will tell you, good news doesn't sell like bad news.  You won't remember that Osama bin Laden was taken down during Obama's administration, you'll only remember that it took ten years to find one guy.  Never mind that Obama wasn't President for most of that time, that's not the fact that sticks.

Too many bad things have happened during his Presidency.  I haven't been able to keep close enough track of who was running the events, and how they might have been kept under control.  But I'm fairly certain that the frightening maelstrom in which we find ourselves can only bring Obama's campaign down.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Subaru Forester

I've always been a quiet fan of Subaru.

For years, they were the peculiar little also-ran of Japanese carmakers in the North American market.  They were, if you will, the AMC of Japanese carmakers.  Unlike AMC however, Subaru has survived the crucible of the late 80s, and the next crucible of the middle 90s when Daihatsu and Isuzu decided they couldn't cut it in the hotly contested American market.  That Subaru made it is a bit of a surprise.

For years, Subaru didn't bring a lot to the party: odd little cars with odd little engines.  An unattractive sedan that was also available as an unattractive wagon, and you could have them with four wheel drive.  Weird.  There was also a peculiar little truck, entirely too small to be any use as a truck.  They called it a BRAT.
Image from Cars Directory.net

As you can see the Leone looks like it was styled in the clay buck by someone who only had a cheese wire and a ruler.  And this is what came out.  The BRAT, from a slightly earlier generation than this, had somewhat curvier shapes.  The Justy, Subaru's very compact car, was a three-cylinder little shoebox that looked a bit like this did.  Interestingly, it also could be had with four wheel drive, which by itself cast it into a completely unique category: micro offroader.

Subaru will say that they were the ones to make the first crossover and they have some merit there - but I say AMC beat them to the punch with the venerable Eagle.  Desperate for a new product to rebuild customer interest, AMC went rummaging about in their parts bins, found lots of Jeep bits and the Concord chassis and somebody wondered aloud, what if we mix these up?  Eagles in good condition command impressive resale prices considering their age.  So do Subaru BRATs, for that matter.

Fast forward a few years and we find next to nothing actually moving in the crossover segment.  The Eagle is long dead as a model because AMC is long dead as a marque.  It's 1998 and Subaru has tested the waters with the excellent Legacy Wagon Outback and gotten good results.  There's lots of people that want a tallish wagon without having to go the full Monty on a minivan.  Enter the Impreza.

The Impreza is Subaru's capable compact car, also a full-time AWD offering like everything else Subie cranks out since 1996.  If you want front- or rear-drive only, look elsewhere.  Subaru drives all four corners on everything.  But anyway, there's the Impreza, a popular alternative to the Corolla, certainly with much greater sporting chops than the Corolla.  It's fairly roomy inside.  But some people want roomier than the the Impreza without having to move all the way up to the big, expensive Legacy Outback.  They want their outdoorsy capability, but not necessarily all that length and weight.

Subaru saw the need and got out the cheese wire.  The '98 Forester was born.
 Image from CarGurus.com.  But my car looks exactly like this
one - I've even removed the roof rack's crossbars like this one.

It's compact in length and breadth like the Impreza, the weight is a manageable ton-and-a-half, and the power is relatively modest at 165hp.  That power output, by the way, makes the Forester far and away the most powerful vehicle I have ever owned.

In its most recent iteration, the Forester has grown in every dimension.  That's the way things go: model bloat.  As a car model ages, it gets bigger.  Power usually goes up too, and that's the case with the brand-new-for-2012 Forester.  But the growth is modest.  A few inches in length and breadth and height.  Weight only goes up by 100 pounds or so, really not too bad, considering.  Take a look at what happened with the Scion xB in its second generation model: a weight increase of nearly 600 pounds.  Yipes.

So in 13 years of production, the Forester has only gained 100 pounds.  That's pretty good.  Engine output is up a bit in the new model to help cope with the added weight, and Subaru is retiring the aging EJ series of engines (including the trouble prone EJ25 that my Forester follows down the road) to introduce an entirely new range of engines, the FB25 will have similar output but deliver better fuel economy, eliminate the notorious piston slap of the EJ's big bore, and also return the valve timing duties to a chain instead of a maintenance-heavy belt.

Hopefully they've sorted out some other stuff, too.  My Forester came to me with some other issues, it's eaten its own head gaskets a couple of times now - I work for a charity Subaru, didn't realize it was you - and it billows smoke from under the hood when at rest.  That's rather embarrassing.  Maybe the next time I get the timing belt changed (goodbye money, come back when you can stay longer) I can ask the mechanic to root around under there and find what the heck is causing that.  Because I blinking well hate that.

That's the downside of cylinders not all in a row.  If you blow a head gasket, you replace them both.  Twice the cost, nearly.  To do the job according to the book on my car you have to pull the engine entirely out of the chassis, though my mechanic has figured out how to do the job without going quite to that extreme.  Good on you, mate.

The Forester hasn't been hard to own, despite its assorted failings.  We got ours used so some failures can't be blamed on the builders.  For instance, the stereo came with a couple of buttons not working, and more dropped out of the race as years went on. Since Son #1 and I found an excellent factory installed Pioneer stereo in a Legacy at the junkyard a couple years ago to replace the original however, the radio landscape inside the car is pretty entertaining.  And this radio, while badged at the factory as a Subaru unit, was never offered in the Forester.  So it's factory, but it isn't stock.  Funny.

The clock didn't work.  Looking around online, I found instructions on what to look for and how to fix it.  Whip out Sweetie's wood burning iron, sizzle sizzle, hey presto!  Fixed.  One of the few first-gen Foresters on the road with a working clock.  I'm still over the moon about that, and it's been a year since I did the repair.

The cargo cover was an optional item - one our car didn't have.  But wandering through the Knox Area Rescue Ministries Thrift Store one day, I noticed a retractable cargo cover.  I don't know what caught my eye about it, but I asked the manager if I could test its fit in my car.  As it turns out it's an original Subaru cover - just not the same color as my car.  But what the heck, the cover is grey and the car is beige - that's like the difference between store brand vanilla and Breyer's vanilla - they both still taste like vanilla.

That same Legacy that donated the stereo also provided a couple of new buttons for the dash, to replace original switches whose lights had burned out.  Can't replace the lamp, have to replace the whole switch.  But no sweat, it's a no-tools process, they just click in and out in a minute.

All its faults aside, I do enjoy the Forester.  In snow it's really quite a blast, leaving everything behind.  It's not especially economical but since we carpool, Sweetie and I don't worry about that too much.  25mpg isn't awful. And I like it's no-nonsense shape, a basic box with seats inside.  I like that simplicity.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Case Against "Green"

I've heard entirely too much about Green.

It's hard to say there's a Green movement.  There's a Green political party and after spending, admittedly, only a few minutes researching the Green Party, I find that it is an extremely progressive party.  It has some decidedly pro-environment (more on that in a bit) aspects in its cross section, but that is by no means the center of its platform.

I'd like to point out, since I'm talking about a socially progressive political party, that at one time (like around when Lincoln was running for office) the Republican party was that of the social progressives, the bleeding heart liberals.  How times change.

No, the Green I mean is that practice of changing one's behavior in an effort to minimize one's impact on the global environment.  This includes weighing the options of paper bags at the grocery checkout (kill a tree) versus the plastic bag (choke a sea turtle).  And one must also make allowances for the committed greenies, those who bring their reusable cloth bag.  Never mind that the cloth bag is made of synthetic fibers, nonbiodegradable, and manufactured in a Taiwanese sweatshop by underpaid minors.  But that's not my point.

I humbly submit we discard the term "green" to describe this school of thought and behavior.  In its place I suggest we adopt the term "environmental responsibilitism."  This describes a pattern of behavior and a philosophy, perhaps not too unlike Buddhism.  Where "green" behavior attempts to describe environmental responsibility, ER speaks more specifically to the unstated goal of which environment is being preserved.

What tree huggers and other "green" activists are trying to preserve is the global environment, but that's an awfully big concept, "the environment."  Which one?  Big planet you know, lots of different climates, regions and populations involved.  If you don't specify which one you mean, you're just talking into your hat.

The environment those people are talking about is the global human environment, the one in which we exist right now or, perhaps wistfully, the one of about twenty years ago.  People who are trying to preserve things want to try to rescue something that may already be dead.  Too little, too late.  But that's not my point.

I'm not speaking to the human environment in which we humans interact with each other, function and move around, but rather the human environment of things we dream about and wonder at.  To grow up watching National Geographic films about coral reefs and PBS Nature specials about the Serengeti is to form a romantic notion that there is a huge and beautiful world that has nothing to do with people.  You don't see people in those places.  There might be people in the films - scuba divers, khaki-clad rangers tearing across the landscape to tag a rhino for tracking.  But those aren't people in the environment any more than astronauts are native to the sky.  They can't stay there for long.  If the rhino wants the rangers gone, he slams his flanks hard against the Land Rover and wheels off in another direction.  Khaki shoulders shrug and the rangers call it a day.  The scuba diver has to surface eventually.  So while we can see our species in those strange and wondrous environments, we know that we aren't actually of that environment.  We know we can't belong there.  That environment has its own rhythm and flow, and places strong demands on the creatures that live there - demands humans can't meet for long.  Those environments are destructive to us.  We can't stay long.  We have to go back to where we can live.

Then we read in the news that human activity here is having destructive effects over there.  Water temperatures rise and the corals bleach, ejecting their symbiotic algae.  The coral reef dies.  The dreamlike palette of colors and textures goes away.  Where does it go?  We don't know yet.  It may just go...away.  As in, be gone and not come back.  The spring rains arrive weeks, then months late in the Serengeti, and go away again too soon.

My romantic side dreads that that might come to pass in an unescapable way, that there may be a future that has, for example, no coral reefs at all.  The images in old National Geographic magazines might be an abstraction to future generations, that they can only imagine that there was ever such a thing to see.  Under the ocean, all that might be left would be duller, drearier colors: grays, muted umbers, blues and greens.  Environmental Responsibilitism looks into that future, finds it wanting, and takes steps to stave off its arrival.  However mundane the steps taken, Environmental Responsibilitism is the motivation behind them.

So perhaps more than anything else, Environmental Responsibilitism isn't as much a philosophy as it is a practice of prophylaxis.  But that's not my point.

There's a lot of debate as to whether human activity is the root cause of global climate change - and even whether there is any global climate change.  I won't touch on that because I know entirely too many conservatives who rail loudly and with great conviction against it, and just as many liberals who take the opposite view.  (It's worth asking, why does it come down to opposing political views that also take these two opposing scientific views?)  But there can be no denying that human activity has environmental effects.  For instance, before white men settled North America and vigorously expanded westward, passenger pigeons were found in vast numbers, so vast that no amount of natural predation could reduce their numbers.  The passenger pigeon species had adapted a successful solution to the problem of natural predation: be fruitful, and multiply.  They bred in such huge numbers that all predators in the area were utterly sated and wouldn't take any more pigeons.  Lose a few thousand here or there, have a few thousand babies here and there, and it all works out okay.  The two populations were in stasis.

Human predation, however, wiped them out.  That's an entire population numbering in the billions, gone.  Human activity made it happen in about 120 years.  We've been doing other things since then, and we've tried to be rather less heavy handed with animal species, having sort of learned our lesson with a species we initially considered so prevalent that we could never use them all up.  Whaling, for instance, isn't the mighty industry it once was.  Of course drilling for oil on conveniently solid ground took a lot of wind out of the whaling industry's sails too, but the point stands.  Rather than use all the whales up, humans decided to stop using whales for anything (mostly).

Dang.  At this point Blogspot went all kerflooey and lost a bunch of stuff I wrote.  Let's see if I can reconstruct it.

Nope.  Fie on you Blogspot!  Okay, picking back up:

Where calling a product or activity "green" implies that it is somehow benign, it doesn't leave room for the fact that nothing is without ramifications.  Like my grocery bag example, the steps you take may be great one way, but not so great in others.  To instead use a label like Environmental Responsibilitism, we introduce the these products and practices in the arena of philosophy.  This puts us in a new place:

To say you're an environmental responsibilitist doesn't say you actually are environmentally responsible.  It's an aspiration, not an absolute.  I say I'm Christian, I don't dare claim that I might be Christ-like.  That's a goal to shoot for, but no one assumes I'll ever achieve it.

We can strive for environmental responsibility the way Buddhists strive for Nirvana, the way Olympic gymnasts strive for a 10.0 from the Chinese judge.  You might get close, but to actually achieve it simply cannot happen.  At some point, we have to accept - and this is where reality grinds its heel into the unequivocating label of "Green," - that we aren't going to become completely benign.  We do damage.  Eventually the global environment heals itself; that's what it does.  It may become something that we don't appreciate as much as the global environment we know now, or remember from the our own youth or the youth of human culture, but it does heal.

Environmental Responsibilitism, then, is the practice of trying to slow down the damage caused by human activity to a pace that doesn't exceed the rate at which the global environment can restore it.  And that's my point.  It isn't a movement, and not an absolute.  It's an ideal which may not be achievable, but that doesn't make it any less worth striving for.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What are the Costs of Letting Them Die?

There are some thoughts you have, that you worry what other people might think about you if you were to speak those thoughts aloud.

We as a nation are spending a lot of money projecting our force overseas.  Forces in Afghanistan, incursions into Pakistan - granted, the maguffin of killing off bin Laden is about worth the price of admission, but still - aid missions in Somalia and elsewhere.

How many American lives, how much American money, do we save if we simply keep our forces at home?

China has recently called us out for spending money we don't have.  Fine, China, let's see you step up to the plate and do some lifesaving.  Oops, the country whose dissidents simply disappear might not be as humanitarian as that.  Oh well.

So the question I ask myself, the thought I sometimes think and feel ashamed for thinking it is, what if we just let them die?

What if we simply packed up all our soldiers overseas and brought them home?  Gather up all the food shipments to aid projects in Somalia where there is no government, pull the US Navy out of the pirate-ridden waters of the western Indian Ocean, just pick up our ball and go home.

Deaths would skyrocket.  Populations that are limping along from one US-subsidized meal to the next would just starve to death.  Warlords in contested areas would become even bolder without having to worry about answering to the occasional Marine sniper.  The pirates would have a free ocean.

But no more American soldiers would die.  At the risk of sounding like an absolute monster, I'm going to come out and admit it: I don't care about those other countries.  I don't care about the people who live there - I don't know any of them personally.  I don't care about those other countries' governments.   Pakistan was hiding bin Laden whether they knew it or not; they can be officially irritated by the incursion of American forces to go get him, but they should be damned embarrassed.  Bin Laden is was a force for evil.  Whatever his stated reasons, the one thing he contributed most to was chaos in general.  We did Pakistan a favor, killing that bastard off.  He had it coming and he knew it, and he also knew it was only a matter of time.

Somalia as a nation has come completely apart.  There is no government.  There is a sort of ersatz coast guard, but evidence strongly suggests the so-called Somali coast guard is also the pirate fleet.  Not the pirate fleet exclusively, but some of the faces on both teams are the same.  When a pirate is captured if he is turned over to any kind of Somali "authority" he gets released.  There is no government structure in place to process criminals.  What there is is a raft of gangs.  The gangs don't prosecute the pirates, and the gangs steal the food aid shipments, doling them out as suits themselves.

Mohamed Siad Barre, murderous monster though he was, had laudable goals when he took over as Somalia's supreme dictator.  Stamping out tribalism is a good thing.  But he failed to achieve that; as soon as he died and the government collapsed, tribalism was right back again.  And that's the downside of a dictator: as soon as the head dies, the government suffers a tremendous shock.  I'm looking forward to Fidel Castro kicking the bucket, I bet Cuba lasts as a communist republic for no more than five years after that.

I've sometimes loudly wondered why we don't just nuke the entire Middle East to a flat plain of volcanic glass.  So many of those people hate each other so much, I'm certain that there will never be a complete and lasting peace.  The Pax Americana has only gone on 50 years and there are parts of the world that it just hasn't touched, can never touch.  Rather than wait for that bad dog to go completely mad and hurt someone, why not just shoot it and have done?  Nuke the whole region and get it over with.  Yes, it's bad.  Yes, it's unnecessarily harsh.  But it has the added bonus of expedience and thoroughness.

Except not everybody in the Middle East hates everybody else there, or even us.  We are on polite terms with Oman, for instance.  Happily, Oman is one of the few countries still on speaking terms with Iran, so if there's need for diplomatic contact with Iran without anyone bringing guns, Oman can be the message bearer.

While there is officially no war on in Iraq, there are still factions within the country that continue to kidnap, murder and bomb the general populace.  I have no idea what their goals are.  One would think that it would be enough to simply live and let live.

Syria would like to shuffle off its government heads.  Careful you don't find yourself going the way of Somalia, Syria.

One bright flash and it would all be over.  Nothing left but fused soil and cockroaches.  Whoever wants the oil fields can have them.

But by playing the part of the good guy - or trying to - the US plants seeds of doubt in the minds of populations.  Their governments tell them the US is bad and decadent and Imperialist and lord knows what all else.  But we send them a few thousand tons of rice and wheat - how bad can we be?

Working to eliminate very real threats, working to silence the voices of chaos and hate increases the overall safety of the entire world.  People in power, people who hate the United States and what it is trying to maintain (a democratically governed, peaceful world) instigate, motivate and alienate.  And that is simply intolerable.

You want Saddam Hussein gone?  Okay.  We do too.  Guy's nothing but trouble.  Since you can't seem to do it, we'll send a few thousand of our own best and brightest and hunt that rascal down for you.

Osama bin Laden got you down?  We're pretty annoyed with him ourselves.  Where's he hiding?  What...?  Pakistan?  Really!  Well, Pakistan was just sure he wasn't there...well, anyway, fire up the choppers and we'll take him out.  Boom.  No more bad guy.  Who's next on the list?

Remove the rabblerousers, the hate preachers, and the general populace just wants to go about their lives with a minimum of fuss.  Get rid of people like bin Laden and I reckon quite a few people have a moment to think about whether the Americans are such bad people.

I mean, all we want is to be left alone, too.  Stop killing each other and we won't have to worry about how long before you guys all go completely crazy and start trying to kill us too.  Then we wouldn't have to send troops and aid to your enemies and working to subvert your governments.  We wouldn't have to, because we wouldn't care.

There wouldn't be anything to care about.