Thursday, March 31, 2011

Social Insecurity: Not a Ponzi Scheme, Not Doomed, but Not Enough, Either

When I first started working on a regular basis, I noticed straightaway the little bite taken out, set aside for Social Security.  "Aha," thought I, "I'm saving for retirement.  Good."  How gullible of me.

Did you make the same mistake?  Did you think the benevolent government was taking a few bucks out of each paycheck, setting it aside in a box with your name on it, for your future use?  Don't be misled, it ain't so.

You might think your money is your money ad infinitum.  Well, before you start thinking that, ask yourself: whose name is on the money?  If your name isn't United States of America, then that's one mistaken concept down the tubes.  Where you work and live, the laws of the land define what happens to your taxes.  Strictly speaking, the money pulled out of your paycheck for Social Security is a tax and is funding an ongoing government trust.

Now let's digress just a little.  This is the point where a lot of people point to Social Security and say that it's a Ponzi or pyramid scheme, that it takes money from the rising generation to give it to the retiring generation.  Grossly simplified that is essentially true and is an element in common with a Ponzi scheme.  But that's where the comparison pretty much stops; there are transparencies in the Social Security structure that do not exist in a Ponzi scheme.  The Ponzi scheme's essential goal is to mislead and defraud in order to get hold of your money.  But there is nothing in the Social Security Administration's statements that promise you huge returns on your "investment."  It's not an investment and it's not a pyramid scheme.  A pyramid scheme tries to pass itself off as an investment and keeps its nature well concealed.  By its very nature however, the Social Security Administration tries to be very open about its workings; you can have pretty free access to the SSA via the Freedom of Information Act.  Your government is your government - you bought it with those very taxes bitten out of each paycheck.  Want to know more?  It's as close as this.  Don't be afraid, it's just the government.

You can and probably will wind up collecting more Social Security than you paid into the system.  That's a complication that probably wasn't fully appreciated by the original framers during the New Deal back in the 30s.  Roosevelt et al were anticipating continued growth of the American economy for the foreseeable future and for about the next forty years or so, they were right.  The rolls of workers grew and grew, and the coffers of the Social Security Administration were more than equal to the slowly growing rolls of retirees.  But here's where things start to collapse:  Baby boomers are retiring in droves.  There is a huge influx of folks who are stepping out of their jobs, and there aren't as many workers stepping into jobs to keep Social Security afloat, to keep those older folks in Icy Hot and fuzzy slippers.

Part of that problem comes from, I think, globalization.  Back in the day, American companies hired American workers and American consumers purchased American products.  But times change.  American companies have discovered the economic advantages of shipping work overseas to cheap labor.  That's tough on workers now, and tough on retirees later.  It's beginning to be tough on voters, as we try to muddle our way through the murky future.  Can we legislate our way through free enterprise following the path of greatest profit, while still providing social security benefits to retirees?  That's not a path I could chart, I don't think.

This is why good presidents surround themselves with smart people.  There won't be an easy solution, and there's no way to formulate one that will please everybody.  It's going to be a tough row to hoe, and it'll take a lot of smart people to figure out the best way to keep Social Security solvent in the future.

One of the ways to do that is to increase the FICA tax, also known as the OASDI tax.  That's Old Age, Survivor's and Death Insurance.  Pay more money into the trust now, so there's more money in the trust, period.  Pretty much all that's going to do is delay the inevitable.

What's the inevitable?  I think that the inevitable must be a reduction in benefits.  Social Security cannot continue to be the full-ride allowance that it's been.  Americans will have to step up and take more responsibility for their own fiscal liquidity as they enter retirement.

Before you start weeping and wailing and tearing your hair, look around.  There are many vehicles by which you can do this already: mutual funds, 401(k)'s in assorted flavors.  Just socking money away in the bank is better than nothing, but it has its own risks there - if it's in an open account, you can spend your future.

This is where the main problem lies, I think.  Americans expect someone else to do the heavy lifting for them, that at some point they get to put their load down, and someone else will pick it up.  You've done your bit, now you're going to be carried the rest of the way by the rising generation.  That's irresponsible.

Am I counting on Social Security to be there?  Yes - to a degree.  I can't reasonably expect that it will get the whole job done.  I'm socking money into 401(k)'s; if the house were paid off I'd probably be paying in about twice, maybe three times as much.  More now is lots more later.  So rather than thinking about how much you'd like to trade in that grungy old 2008 Chevy, why not reconsider that?  2008 is young.  You didn't trade in your three-year-old child, did you?  It's cheaper to keep it, not take another hit on the new car purchase.  Don't try to fool yourself with leases, either.  Pay the house off NOW.  Get an amortization schedule from your lender, find out how many principal payments you can pile together and knock off a few years' worth of payments.  Tighten your belt.  Don't eat out.

Social Security is running out of money, but it isn't running out of commitment.  It will continue to be there, but it won't be able to keep you alive, not anymore.  It's up to you to do that.  Take steps now to more fully ensure your future welfare.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dilbert = Dumbert? Not So!


Thank you, Scott Adams.  Thank you for realizing how difficult it can be to come up with a topic to write about, some days.  Thank you for providing conveniently low-hanging fruit.  I don't even need to reach up to pluck this delicate morsel.

In fact, it's more of a stoop.  Or is it?

Now let's step away from the kneejerk reaction.  First, let me direct you to some copy he generated on his own website.  I'm not going to reproduce all of it here, just click the link, read up and come back.  That's not his website, obviously.  For good reason, he took his original post down.  Too many jerking knees.

Read the whole thing.  The first block of text you find makes your temperature go up.  It looks pretty damning, especially in light of the fact that he has since deleted it.  Somebody cut-and-pasted pretty darned fast.

If you're not the link-clicking type, you're probably the reason why my ad revenue hovers around $0.  But moving on!  To paraphrase, Scott Adams declares that dealing with women isn't too much different from dealing with children or the mentally handicapped - you follow the path of least resistance.  When women complain about pay inequality or workplace harassment, men simply do what's easiest, which is to give them what they want, because that makes the problem go away.

That's bad enough.  In fact, that's about as bad as it gets.  But you can bet that a lot of people pretty much stop reading there.  Scott Adams is a jerk!  Sexist pig, who the hell let him out of his misogynistic little box?

But in the next bit, he goes on to say that really, men don't care much about 90% of what's going on around them.  I can't speak for "men" but I can speak for me, and in that regard, he's right.  I don't care.  In the case of pay inequality, I wouldn't think about it until a woman pointed it out, and then when she did, I'd say, "If you're producing at the rate a man does, then you should be paid the same."  The woman I live with produces at rather higher a rate than I do, and by golly she does earn a bigger paycheck.

He isn't talking about dealing with women in general.  He's raising the gender pay disparity as an example of what drives male behavior.  But you get the wrong mindset looking at that post, and boom!  The feathers begin to fly.  The word I'm thinking right now rhymes with "feminazi."  Oh wait, it actually is feminazi.  I don't have the first problem with feminine rights, especially when you're talking about eliminating the differences between the genders, rights-wise.  But then there are folks who just can't see the world except through the lens of social injustices, both real and perceived.  They're good people with laudable goals, but good grief do they ever become tiresome after a while.

There's a couple of reasons I can think of that might have caused the pay inequality to come about.  Look back just a couple of generations and you find that the working population was largely male.  Dad worked, Mom stayed home.  Never mind that Mom was busting her butt keeping the house afloat, it generated no paycheck and was therefore not "worth" much.

Yeah, right.  I've tried to, and cannot do it.  There's more work there than I can handle.  I do enjoy laundry, I'll wash dishes, I'll do yard work.  I can do it all.  Get it all done at the same time?  Forget it.  Easier to torch the house and start over every week.

Let's get back to the point.  Adams is talking about behavior.  Long story short, he's talking about male behavior in particular, behavior of men when faced with a problem.  His example is that of solving issues of gender inequality in the workplace, a touchy subject.  Maybe you should've left that grenade alone, Scott.  Anyway...

So Adams says that when it's necessary, it's easier to consider the emotional realities, the emotional needs of people around him because that's the path of least resistance.  That's the path toward reducing the level of discord and frustration in the people around him.  Reducing discord is good, it means we can focus on our original goals.

The second block of text in the link gets around to pointing up where Adams is coming from, and goes on to prove that while the first block made him look like an insensitive yutz who shouldn't be allowed to breed, the second one points up that he's pretty sure men in general are insensitive yutzes who just don't like distractions, regardless of what they are, and will do whatever it takes to get rid of them.

If men in power will grant equality (it shouldn't be granted by assumed, but that's not the environment we live in, not yet) simply because that's the least-bumpy road to less friction in the workplace, then what does anyone care how they got to that point?  If you're dissatisfied with your work environment, and a complaint gets it changed, then what difference does it make, the machinations between the ears of the people who made it happen?

I don't think about people I can't see.  They're abstractions, numbers.  I think, in general, the minds of men are pretty bloodless places.  Adams opined that most men are solely concerned with whatever's right in front of them at the moment, and I'm inclined to agree.  I haven't done any research on it but it would sure be interesting to spend some time, interviewing and crunching numbers.  When a gender pay disparity comes up, that's the thing that's in front of a man at the moment.  He hasn't considered it until he has to, because it just isn't on his mind.  It becomes an issue, deal with the issue, move on.  Very goal oriented.

Bloodless.  Dispassionate.  And on the face of it, careless and inconsiderate.  I think that's not entirely fair - if it's a problem, it gets fixed - that's what we, as men, are raised to do.  We deal with problems.  Until someone points it out, though, we don't think about it.  We don't go looking for trouble.

Adams wasn't looking for trouble.  He was making an analogy that in hindsight could probably have been phrased a little better, but on the whole I don't think his message is wrong.  It's more an observation of the behavior of men than of women.

Let's try to take the correct message away from his original statement.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Peanuts, Rights and Entitlement

Where I work, "entitlement" is a loaded word.  It's used to describe the state of mind an addict is in, the state that justifies the abdication of responsibility and reason that partaking in one's addiction permits.  There's a lot more to addiction than just that, of course.

But now there's a news item that's really caught my eye.  It would appear that in order to attend school, this child with a life-threatening peanut allergy is so susceptible to the effects of the otherwise benign tuber that everyone around her has to significantly alter his/her habits.

Whatever state (or commonwealth, don't jump all over me from Kentucky or Virginia) you live in, every child has the right to attend school.  That's established.  So this little lady, bless her, is guaranteed a certain minimum of education which the state will cover from tax coffers.  As a living, breathing person she is entitled to certain rights that come with every beat of her heart.

But now let's pause a moment to consider all the other kids in the school.  They have a right to attend school.  They know that a certain range of behavior and activity is expected while at school.  But now here's this one kid whose health issues are so severe, all - "all" is a wooly term not clearly defined in this case, I can't make out whether it's all the classmates in just the child's classroom, or the entire school - the other kids have to step up to a higher level of hygiene.

Let's back  up a tiny bit.  I'm of the opinion that a little dirt is good for you.  Polio, for instance, didn't become a serious health threat until people started undertaking serious hygiene.  When people were dirtier, you'd get exposed to little doses of polio as a child, and your body's immune system would develop a resistance and learn how to fight it off.  There were no adult cases of polio.  Then when everyone started washing their hands before every meal, after every trip to the loo, right after waking and whatever else, a person might not get exposed to polio at all - until s/he got a big ol' faceful from someone who was incubating.  Boom, you've got polio.  No built-up resistance.

I read somewhere, years ago, that Japan has one of the highest rates of allergies in the world, and the writer speculated that Japan's mania for sterile packaging and cleanliness was to blame.  Having never been exposed to irritants, their immune systems go berserk when presented with anything new.  I don't know for certain whether that's entirely correct, but it got a fact or three right: Japan does love its well-protected products.

So a little dirt now and then keeps your immune system on its toes, and yet also relaxed.  Your body has an idea of when to not worry about things.  It was a news item not too long ago that even hypersensitive people could reduce their intolerance for peanuts, alleviating a lot of unnecessary anxiety.  It's not uncommon to see a little line at the end of the ingredients list on so many things, "Packed in a facility that also processes peanuts, tree nuts and milk," or something similar.
This Product May Contain Nuts

So there's a viable treatment that can sharply reduce the child's sensitivity.  Good.  Now, instead of disrupting the lives of dozens, maybe hundreds of children who aren't otherwise affected by this one child's allergy, how about the child herself change her own habits, and not only not deleteriously affect the education of her classmates, but also improve her own quality of life?  Isn't that the smarter way to do things?

At the beginning, following the law of the land the Florida school system where she is enrolled was backing her right to attend school, and well they should.  And the parents of those other children were picketing the school, demanding that the allergic child withdraw from school, so as to not have their own children affected by someone else's allergy.  Again I say, good.  That's reasonable.

We're touching on entitled rights.  You have the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.  I like that phrase, "pursuit."  Nothing in there about being guaranteed happiness.  You have the right to an education.  You have the right to personal security, knowing that your health, welfare and comfort shall not be unlawfully abridged by anyone, ever.  (There is such a thing as lawfully abridged - that's corporal punishment, or the death penalty)  But what about when someone else's health and comfort infringe on your health and comfort?  When it's one-on-one, you could reasonably expect to come to some sort of compromise.  But now, what about when it's the health and comfort of one - whose rights are custodially protected by a government agency (in this case, a school) infringing on the health and comfort of many, custodially protected by that same agency at the same time?  This comes close to being a special rights case, a case of some animals being more equal than others.  Were I the principal at the school where this case is an issue, I would probably be shopping around for a different job, something with fewer gray areas.  

Now the ban on nut products at the school has been eased, and kids won't have to mouthwash twice a day.  That's good, but I'm a little sorry too.  I was a janitor for a while at an elementary school, and I swear twice-a-day compulsory oral hygiene would've done a lot of good for some of the kids at that place.  But that's beside the point.

You do wonder where the mouthwashing idea came from.  Maybe I'm a little old-fashioned, but I don't recall much frenching going on when I was in third grade.

The school system is doing the right thing but there's a bit of wiggle room, too.  The Federal Disabilities Act is what requires they continue to provide service for the child, but there's usually a provision in there under the heading of "reasonable accommodation."  If the child's health is so shaky, and can be compromised by something as chaotic as a schoolroom environment, then the most reasonable accommodation would be for the child to be taught at home or in an otherwise controlled environment.

And those parents should look into the desensitization therapy immediately.  The kid will be healthier for it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Liberal Media, Conservative Bias

Cranking one of these out every day isn't easy.  I haven't exhausted my entire stock of family stories, but frankly since they're family stories, it has to be the right kind of mood before I'll let one of those out of the box.

Every Sunday evening when we all gather for dinner and ice cream at the grandparents' house, at some point we seem to wind up talking about pets.  I'm not inclined to do that, either.

My heart gave a little pitter-pat when I read the headline that Sarah Palin has announced that she was "through." Turns out, she's through griping about the liberal media.  Yeah, yeah, yeah - why is it the media is always "liberal?"  No griping about Fox News, I notice.  They're not liberal about anything except their scorn for the Democratic Party.  Nice job crossing the aisle, guys.  Way to cooperate.

Not that any other media outlet is doing much better.

I'm going to look at, much after the fact, the NPR debacle, the so-called "Muslim Brotherhood in America" fiasco that shoved the news outlet to the front page.

As I've mentioned before, it's not a good thing when the news itself becomes part of the story.  How well can we trust our news sources when the sources themselves are the news?  You wouldn't trust a doctor who operated on himself, would you?

What started the NPR fiasco?  That's easy: James O'Keefe.  And who, you may ask, is James O'Keefe?

He's a nutjob.  No offense to his parents, but the guy is a loose cannon.  O'Keefe has been arrested for tampering with the telephone system serving the offices of Senator Mary Landrieu, accused of association with white supremacy groups - I'm having trouble finding more on the veracity of that claim - and flat-out lying when presenting "evidence" showing NPR's culpability and corruption when receiving large donations.  Reading up on the actual events of the Muslim Brotherhood "visit" and the timeline, it quickly becomes clear that good reputations have been tarnished unnecessarily, and O'Keefe cannot be relied upon to represent the truth.

1) Bob Schiller had already tendered his resignation in January, well before the meeting took place in March.  He was serving out his time; he did not resign as a result of this fiasco.
2) The video as presented by O'Keefe shows Bob Schiller laughing at things that aren't funny (like the spread of sharia law throughout the US, patently ridiculous)
3) O'Keefe defends his actions as "going undercover to get at the truth."  Except then the heavily edited video he released shows Schiller reacting in one way to a question, when in fact the unedited version - the actual truth - shows him reacting in a completely different way.

In short, O'Keefe's "truth" is a fabrication.  Whether his goals are laudable or not can't even be determined now.  Whether his suspicions have any merit cannot be determined, his evidence is so suspect, his methods so underhanded, the vehicle by which the data arrives is completely untrustworthy.  What has happened, then, is a conservative radical - a Republican Shiite, if you will - has gone and blown himself up all over a news outlet that has been taken to task in the past for being, depending on who you ask, too liberal or too conservative.

In my book, that's a fairly balanced source.  Nobody likes it, neither the conservatives nor the liberals.

My apologies on the part of the American journalism to Bob Schilling and Vivian Schilling (no relation), who parted company with their careers in an effort to stem the tide of hate rolling toward NPR.  You deserved better.

My admonitions to Congress, crying for NPR's immediate defunding.  Do that and the only news sources easily available to the American public will be funded by advertisers, billionaires, big corporations.  You want fair and balanced?  Good luck with that.  NPR currently gets the lion's share of its funding from the government, which unless you missed a class or three, is actually a pretty-well balanced representative.  It's good that a news outlet might take your lawmakers to task.  That's what the voters are there for, and the news outlets are how we voters find out.  If NPR has to rely on government money to do their job, watching the government itself, then how can you possibly find them at fault, suspiciously eying the hand that feeds them?  With their own heads in the noose at all times, they continue to report the news.  Few things can keep you fairer than having your funding controlled by the very body you're reporting on.  If a little too much bias one way or the other is liable to get you summarily axed, what's left?  Just the facts, ma'am.

The way to spot bias is to be biased.  If you think NPR is biased one way or another, before you decide for certain that they are, first ask yourself whether you aren't.  Then try to step outside of your own political leanings, and look at the issues from the other side.  Don't be surprised if you see bias going back the other direction.  Lo and behold, that's balanced.

I've listened to NPR news for about twenty years now, and Fox news for a few minutes, and MSNBC for a few minutes, and the big three for a couple of years.  None of them is an ideal, completely neutral source.  But so far, the one that offends me the least is NPR.

So when donation time rolls around, NPR, count on my support.  I'll be there for you as long as you're there for me.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Customer Service Is Everything

When what you have to offer isn't that much different from what everybody else has, what can you add to the experience to bring customers to your door?

Well, I gave you a big hint already.  It's that word, "experience."

This morning I wanted to snag a sandwich for breakfast on the way to work.  No biggie, right?  Wrong.  Let's look at the options.

Panera.  I love Panera, and I have a favorite location where the guy running the grille greets me by name, the ladies behind the counter know my name, and it's just a great place to be.  The parking is lousy and it's often almost too busy to be comfortable, but the people running the place put it over the top.  I don't know how they work chit-chat into their time, but they do it.

McDonald's.  McFood is tasty and cheap, half the cost of Panera.  But the people behind the counter don't know me and don't have time for banter.  Tasty and cheap brings me back but if my accounts are even a little flush, McDonald's is almost automatically vetoed.

IHOP.  It's pretty darned expensive and I don't usually opt for the International House of Pancakes but sometimes I'll pony up for it because the service at my preferred location is top-notch.  After an absence of over a year, we came back and the waiter recognized us.  Not bad.

These used to be my only choices for breakfast out, except on Sundays when I might go to Shoney's.  What can I say, the buffet is quite the draw.  And Etta, our favorite waitress, knows us on sight and sends us to our favorite table.

See a theme here?  The service makes a lot of other stuff worthwhile.  I'll tolerate the cramped parking or a wait in line, because the rapport with the people is so good.

So when we heard Subway was starting a breakfast menu, Sweetie and I had to give it a try.  On our way to work - we share a ride, carpooling is just smart economy - there's a Subway and we stopped in.

First time the wait was pretty long.  I wouldn't have minded the wait but we were the only ones there.  It took ten minutes to get our sandwiches, in that time I could've walked to the McDonald's on the far side of the parking lot, ordered some breakfast, and gotten back before my Subway order was ready.

We stayed away for a while.  The second time we tried the Subway breakfast, we got there at 7:20a.  The posted opening time is 7:00a; the guy unlocked the door for us, turned on the lights, and spent another ten minutes getting things unpacked before he could take our order.

We stayed away for a while - about a year this time.  This morning, we walked in at about 7:25a.

"Be with you in a minute."  The girl behind the counter was scratching idly at her chin, tapping keys on the keyboard.  She didn't look up at us.  Inside my head, I wondered why it was so difficult to have this shop ready for business at the crack of 7:00a.  All the compute work should be done, all the unpacking should be done.  By 7:00a, you've done your housekeeping, now make yourself available for customers.  We waited exactly sixty seconds.  She didn't look up from the computer, just kept tapping.

We left.

This bodes not well for this particular Subway.  But there's a branch not too far from our offices, so we decided to give it one last try as the clock wound closer and closer to You're Late.  We walked in at the North Knoxville Subway and were greeted by Mike.

"Morning, folks.  Looking for some breakfast?"  Already, with the door not even shut behind us yet, we were having a better visit here than the previous branch.

"Yup.  We each want a breakfast sandwich."

"That's what I'm here for."  And he paused briefly to wash his hands, then pulled on food handling gloves, and started pulling ingredients.  While he was at that, another guy - also Mike - came around the corner.

"Hey, haven't seen you here in a while."  I recognized him - I don't think he'd ever worn a name badge before - he's usually the guy doing a fast one-man sandwich tornado for the lunch crowd.

"Been busy.  Tried to get breakfast at the other location, not going to do that again."

"Swing on by here, then.  If you're money's good, then so's the food."  Bingo, rapport.  Banter, recognition, service.  It's not that hard to do.  In under five minutes we had our sandwiches, were paid up and on our way out the door.

My money's good.  The sandwich was good.  It's not the food that keeps me as a customer, though that is part of it.  But anybody can make decent food with little difficulty.  It's the experience, the smile, the understanding that everybody wants a smile and a howdy and at least the impression of attention, of consideration.  Mike and Mike were excellent hosts in the brief span they had with us this morning, so I'll definitely be back.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Solar Power

Let's talk a little more about solar power.  I got started a little bit yesterday, but I'm a geek about it so I'm diving back in.

As I said, the rule of thumb is a kilowatt of energy lands on every square meter of full sun.  That's pretty good.

The best photovoltaic panel returns maybe 25% of that as electricity.  The rest gets converted into heat, which is why it hurts to touch a car hood on a sunny day.  That's converting nearly all of the energy into heat, and reflected light.  But you don't have to settle for such a low rate of return if you don't want to, and you don't have to go through the hassle of wiring it up to your house.  Read on:

Visible light is only a small portion of the energy the sun sends our way, but that's the only part we consciously use.  There's also a huge amount of heat, which we don't think about. We can make use of a bigger piece of the spectrum.  Simply acknowledging that infrared light is there, but we don't see it, and that's the wavelength where heat radiation lives, we can tap into that energy stream.  It's stupid easy to make a solar heat collector: just park your car in the sun.  That's a real quick demonstration of a flat plate collector, and a really lousy one.  Sure it's crazy hot to you, but let me tell you - you ain't seen nothing yet.

Spend $100 on materials and you can make a solar heat collector that will make a dent in your heat bill.  Spend more, and make a solar water heater that keeps your home's water heater warm without relying on the utilities.  Some of these things can get pretty expensive, but once they're paid for, you're done.  Everything it does after that is knock a few bucks off your utility bill.  Utility rates gone up recently?  Wouldn't it be nice to pay what the bill was last year...or the year before that?  It can be done.

Got windows in your house?  Of course you do, code requires windows at least in the bedrooms.  Do they face south?  Excellent, open the curtains on a sunny winter day, make the most of that light.  Let the heat in.  You haven't spent a cent, but already the solar power is right there, just knocking to come in!

My front door faces south, and a big picture window in the living room, dining room, and kitchen.  On sunny days, we open everything.  After a couple of hours, we might open the slider on the storm door a little, to let some of the excess heat out.  Without turning the first screw or building the first gadget, in the right conditions my house climbs into the middle 70s on solar power alone.  If you have anything like that kind of asset in your favor, put it to use.

Summertime though - wow.  Then there's too much solar power.  Well - maybe not.  If you have a solar water heating system, then you might just not have the electric elements in your water heater come on at all.  Size the system right and there's enough hot water for everybody's shower, and then it just regenerates over the next day.  Add the fact that the solar collector is interposed between your home and the sun, and there's less sun load on your home, less heat load on your air conditioning.  Again, a few bucks off the utility bill.  Less stuff for equipment to do, so your AC system lasts longer.  One expense when you install or build the solar collector, then a little off the bottom line for however long it lasts.

How long does it last?  Decades.  A cheap solar collector made with plastic and lumber might be good for five years.  Drop a hundred bucks on that, save a few hundred, you're coming out ahead.  A high quality system with an aluminum frame, copper water pipes and soldered connections is a lifelong item.  That should be good for however long the house can hold it up.  Replace the pump motor every once in a while and forget about it.

Circulator pump motors are notoriously well designed.  I have one pump motor here at work I've been watching since it was 1997!  It's been running continuously since then, that's over 120,000hrs without a failure.  Your mileage may vary, but don't be shocked if you do better, either.

What about solar electric, photovoltaics?  Well, more good news there.  No moving parts.  Barring actual breakage, solar panels are pretty much foolproof.  The industry standard is a 25 year warranty, which means you can expect it to last longer.  The technology is getting better all the time, the prices are getting better all the time.  Nanosolar recently perfected a roll-to-roll production process that generates photo panels in a manner not too unlike how a big printing press works.  They can generate miles of solar panels.  They're pushing hardest at the dollars-per-watt envelope, making it affordable and even economically smart to install photo panels.

Unfortunately, they're currently only offering at the bulk utility level, selling megawatts of capacity at a time.  Megawatts, as in 100 = Norris Dam on a good day.  But someday, they're going to be open the phones to retail buyers, and when that happens, I'll have my wallet open.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Nuclear Power and Tradeoffs

You can't get something for nothing.

That's the hard and fast rule of life.  There is no such thing as perpetual motion, you can't have life and riches without death and taxes.  Eventually, the ride has to come to a stop, and everybody has to get off.

Nuclear power begets nuclear waste.  That's the hard truth.  So-called "breeder" reactors generate their own fuel by bombarding other material inside the reaction chamber with neutrons.  But what about the fuel that generated the neutrons?  Right, exactly: that gets used up, and becomes waste.

Gotta do something with it.  The Earth is a closed-loop system, you can't push a giant lever (shaped like Florida?) and have all the bad icky nuclear waste just "go away."  Nothing ever "goes away" unless you manage to launch it completely off the surface of the Earth at something more than escape velocity.  Even then, it's no guarantee unless you score a bulls-eye on the sun (best option) or some other planetary neighbor (so much for camping there, future generations of space explorers will spit on your grave).

And of course, I think there's something in a treaty somewhere that would probably write big frowny faces all over the plans for launching tons of nuclear waste on iffy rockets.  Besides, there's not enough launch capacity to keep up with all the waste.  So let's just forget that idea.

So which would you rather have?  Hundred-meter-high smokestacks from the fossil plants, burning tons and tons of coal?  We have one of those close by, see it all the time.  It's not my favorite, but it means my refrigerator keeps running.  Sorry about the acid rain.  Fun trivia: highly acidic rain makes limestone buildings fizz.  Whee!

Hydroelectric power looks pretty sweet, doesn't it?  Never mind it's only useful where there's a sufficient fall of water to turn the turbine.  Never mind that it drowns entire square miles of land upriver of the dam.  I live close to one of those, too: Norris Dam, built in 1933.  I wouldn't trade it, but there's no denying that it uproots a lot of people, it disturbs a lot of ecosystems.  Can't get around it.  If you're a fish, I mean that literally: you can't get around it, not until you up and evolve some legs.  Are you a fish with spawning grounds upstream?  Sounds like a long, dry spell in the offing for you.

Ha ha ha.  I pun.

What other options?  Big ol' diesel.  Not great, but not as bad as you might think: the biggest diesel engine in the world, the Wartsila-Sulzer RTA-96C (shown here in its three-story glory),

actually achieves over 50% thermal efficiency at its best loading rate.  That's better than a good coal-fired power plant, so good on you, Wartsila-Sulzer!  But dang, where does the other 50% of the energy go?

Heat.  So maybe you could wring a few more efficiency points out by using the waste heat of the exhaust to run, I don't know, a steam turbine or three.  Can't hurt to try.

What else is there?  Wind.  Big ol' oscillating fans, or as the treehuggers like to call them, bird blenders.  And there are others who are wringing their hands over whether we're having an effect on the weather, changing the wind patterns like this.  That's a tough call, but I guarantee you that the wind gennies do indeed have an effect.  Whether it's big enough to detect or not I can't begin to say, but again I must reiterate: the Earth is a closed-loop system.  What goes around literally comes around.  Eventually.  Give it a little time.  It's a closed loop, but it's a big loop.

So what drives the wind that drives the gennies?  Heat.  And where does the heat come from?  Ahh - there might be a hole in the loop.  Where does all the energy come from, where did the energy that made the plants that grew and died and got squashed into coal or rotted into oil come from?  What makes the sea evaporate and rise into the sky to become clouds that rain down into rivers to sluice through our giant hydroelectric dams?

The sun.

Solar power.  Efficiencies aren't the stuff of fantasies: 25% is a benchmark that is pretty much unattainable in practical use.  Shoot for the high teens.  Even so, that's not bad.  A kilowatt of energy lands on every square meter of full sun in summer, 15% (being conservative) is 150 watts, no questions asked.  A well-made solar electric (aka photovoltaic) panel will last decades - 25-year warranties are standard.

So why not roof over everything you ever walked inside of with photovoltaic panels?  Every gas station, every swimming pool shelter, every motel, restaurant, grocery store and especially Wal-Mart?

Why not indeed.  The potential is there to run the meter backwards, to feed more energy into the power grid than you take out.

That doesn't mean you get to get rid of the power plants.  We'll still need nukes, coal, something.  The Earth turns her face away from the sun.  Her backside rotates toward the sun every day too.  China needs some light, you know.

Sorry, China.  I make jokes at your expense.

But the silicon in the panels has to come from somewhere, excess panels have to go somewhere.  The beaches are all gone (not an actual risk, chill out).  What's up with all those mirrors in the desert (actually not a dumb idea, read up on assorted marginal land solar installations).

Which tradeoffs are you willing to accept?  What will you set aside to minimize the burden on future generations?  Is an American Fukushima an acceptable scenario, or
an overtopped dam?

Humans make messes, then wonder where all the clean land went.  We have a long history of messing stuff up, because we use up resources faster than the energy of the sun can power the natural processes that make the waste products back into resources.  It took millions of years to generate all that coal and petroleum, at the rate humanity is using it up, it will all be used up in approximately five hundred years  - that's total, since humans started seriously using it.  It's getting harder to find, harder to get out of the ground as fast as the rest of the economy demands it.

Why not pull the power out of the sky, instead?  The sun is free.  It shines on everyone equally.  The tradeoffs are lower.  The grass won't grow under your solar panels?  Fine - build a house under the solar panels, and now you don't have to worry about taking up too much space with your energy demands.  Maybe there'll be some power left for your grandkids.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Becalmed, Part 2: Fair Winds

Now that we were through the most congested part of our trip - Boston notwithstanding - we could settle down.  Sis and her husband Steve, they of the Putting Voices In Your Head story, welcomed us and made us feel at home.  They showed us around their little neighborhood, the larger city, and took us hiking.

Let me tell you about hiking with Steve.  The man's a former Boy Scout and a current Scout leader.  He's outdoorsy to a large degree.  He's also a sport jumper, which I thought was simultaneously mystifying and hilarious.

"Why would you throw yourself out of a perfectly good airplane?"

Steve held up a staying hand.  "Don't be so quick to judge.  On one occasion when I got to the ground, the plane was already there, on fire."

Okay, so he had me there.  Sometimes throwing yourself out of a plane isn't mystifying, it's just proactive.  But still, it didn't then and still doesn't sound like the kind of thing I'd want to do.  Steve will go do a jump if it's pretty weather, if the yard's freshly mowed - it's something he does, the way some people play Nintendo.  And since it isn't playing Nintendo, I can't fault it much.  But even so, flinging yourself...

Anyway.  A few big things really stick out of our visit to family in Massachusetts.  One was the hike up Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire.  We hike up Clingman's Dome here in the Smokies all the time, but the usual pattern there is to park near the summit and walk up the pleasant paved trail about a mile to the top.  It is what you would call a very easy hike, unless you're a hiker in which case you would scoff.

Monadnock, not so much.  While Clingman's Dome trumps Monadnock in elevation by about a thousand feet, as I said at Clingman's Dome you start with most of the climb already done by your car.  At Monadnock, you start at the bottom.

The trail is marked with cairns of stones.  It's rough, in places very steep, very wooded.  You will be assaulted by chipmunks near the trailhead.  The little moochers will come right to you, waiting for handouts.

As you get higher, the tree cover opens quite a bit.  The last thousand feet of elevation is sparsely wooded, affording wonderful vistas over a spreading New England.  At the top it's just bald rock, bare granite and rainwater pools.  We sat down to rest, watching circling hawks from above.  That was quite a view, you don't often look down at the birds flying.

That's not my picture - it's from

On the way up, the kids climbed the mountain twice.  They scampered ahead, found something to tell us about, then sprinted back to tell us about it and chivvy us along to go look at it with them.  Then they'd scamper ahead again.  And in the video that he shot of the day, Steve caught the kids going up ridiculous slopes, the kind of surfaces that later made both Sweetie and my mom make strangled noises.  It was like climbing a mountain with a couple of especially enthusiastic goats, the pygmy kind you sometimes find bouncing from rafter to rafter in a barn.  Anyway, the verticality of the hike didn't make much impression on the kids.

Coming down didn't make a big impression, either.  I was pretty fatigued, walking on autopilot.  Sweetie was dehydrated.  Neither of us really noticed much on the way down.  Kids were having a blast, though.

Later in the visit, Sis wanted to take us whale watching, but I nixed that idea.  Sis was pretty annoyed, but I pointed out that how could Sweetie possibly watch whales while she was busy feeding the fish?  Sis didn't get that, until I explained about the Lewes ferry escapade.  So we went to the Boston Aquarium.  As a compromise, it works: lots of sea life to observe, and a firm footing.

If your town has an aquarium, go to it.  If you have to drive for a couple of hours to visit an aquarium, find your keys.  There's two sort of close to me, one in Gatlinburg and another in Chattanooga.  I've been to both, and they're both completely worth the price of admission and the drive.  It doesn't matter if you have small kids or not, the aquarium is just fascinating.  Take time to read the placards.

After visiting was done, we headed home, taking breakfast at the most wonderful little diner in Connecticut, Side Track something-or-other.  I wish I could remember its name.  Whoever you are, your food was great and your waitress was a hoot.

We decided to take a turn through New York.  Big mistake!  Traffic was exciting, in the oh-God-oh-God-we're-all-going-to-die kind of exciting.  Sweetie navigated and I just did what she said.  We got through New York in under half an hour with no wrong turns.  Trust your copilot.  I'm not always good at that, but this time I was and as stressful as I've heard New York City can be, it was a pretty fast drive for us even though we were complete beginners.

A brief stop on the other side of the river found us at the visitor's facility to the Statue of Liberty.  It was still in painfully recent memory, the felling of the Twin Towers, so the security process was prohibitive.  I took a couple of pictures of the security station, especially the sign on the propped-open door saying the door was to remain closed at all times.  A security guard approached, asking if I had shot any pictures.  Of course, I said no, asking if it was illegal to take pictures of the security tent.  He made noises that it was, which has to be complete nonsense.  Any fool with a long lens could shoot it from almost anywhere, it's just not allowed from close up?  Preposterous.

We stopped by my folks' again, staying the night.  We came home.

Several weeks later, we finally finished reading the Harry Potter book we had picked up on the trip.

Monday, March 21, 2011


It was a few years ago.  Kids were still pretty young.  Our family car was that fleet standby of young parents everywhere, a minivan.

Ours was a 1991 Dodge Caravan in dark blue(sorta - more on that another time).  This vehicle had enjoyed a couple of small modifications.  On a previous trip to Minnesota (the long way, via Canada around Lake Superior's north shore) it had been the foundation of a homebrew tent system, a sort of collapsible RV.  It worked pretty well for that trip.  Now here we were a couple of years later and ready for our next trip.

This one wouldn't require the tent.  The trip was to visit my sister (not an actual sister, a dear friend since third grade - I care for her too much for her to not be family) in Massachusetts with her new husband.  The journey would take us right past my parents' home, and there would be plenty of lodging to be found along the east coast as we went further north.  Part of the point of the journey was to experience a lot of the country.

So: the van enjoyed a big service from me.  I changed the oil and filter, changed the air filter, dug around under it looking for grease fittings and lubing the chassis where I could.  I spent a couple of hours clambering around the inside of the van, removing every interior panel, placing small leather pads under each panel where it contacted the body or another panel.  I was on a mission to eliminate squeaks.

It worked.  The van hadn't been this silent on the day we bought it.  It wasn't perfect, but it was a lot better.

I installed a cruise control.  Unlike the fiasco with the aftermarket cruise control in our previous car, the Hyundai, I resolved to install this one myself.  It was a snap.  We tried it out over several highway trips and it worked perfectly, tapping up, tapping down, disengaging with brake applications.  And since I did the installation myself, I was already certain that there could be no cable snags to send us careening across the countryside.

Finally the day came.  Sweetie had already compiled a comprehensive packing list, which we then followed.  Sweetie's organizational skills are far beyond my own, so I simply packed what she said.  The van's luggage space filled right up, dumbbells under the seat, wedged in by small bags, larger bags in the wayback.  Occasional bags stayed in seats close to boys, so they could have easy access to their books and games while driving.  A small cooler full of ingredients could be called into play at any moment to make food on the road, to save a few bucks.

The time for the off came.  We were off before sunrise, drove for an hour to make the turn northward onto I-81, doing well.  This part of the trip is utterly unremarkable.

Our initial plan was to bend our route at Roanoke, to proceed across the width of the state and bend north again in Richmond.  Having only taken this route once before - and most of that at night - we thought it might be interesting to see some new sights.

We eventually arrived in Roanoke, VA.  Once upon a long, long time ago I lived in Roanoke while my father was a student at the college there.  I don't remember it, that's how young I was.  But as it was the western terminus of any major roads spanning Virginia from side to side, it was a good place to stop for a late breakfast.  Besides, we had never stopped in Roanoke before.

We had breakfast at a place called Famous Anthony's.  Well, it couldn't be too famous.  I'd never heard of it. But the service was astoundingly fast.  My order came to me in less than two minutes.  The food was simple, inexpensive, and tasty.  We enjoyed ourselves.

Over breakfast, we debated a little and even took a vote: who wanted to go east and see a new part of Virginia, and who wanted to go north and get to the grandparents' quicker?  It was unanimous: let's get to the grandparents faster.  I voted last, so I wouldn't influence the kids.  I need not have worried.

We fired up and headed on, pausing briefly to take in an especially charming older part of Roanoke, and enjoy its library's dramatic design.  Sweetie was a librarian at the time, so we were always interested in libraries.  When we got back to the car to keep going, it stumbled.

"What's up?"

"Dunno."  It stumbled a lot.  Power went way down, way way down.  Finessing and feathering kept the car moving at a snail's pace.  I limped it into a convenience store lot and shut it down.  We called AAA.

About fifteen minutes later, AAA's on-call mechanic showed up.  He poked around under the hood.  "Well, whatever it is, it's none of the usual suspects.  Your battery's fine, ignition seems to be okay, tranny's okay.  Judging by how it's acting, I think your computer's dead."

"How bad is that?"

"Sorry to say it, but pretty bad.  You say you were able drive it here after it started going out?"

"Barely, but yeah.  I really had to work at it."

"Well, I'm impressed.  Usually when the computer goes, that's it.  Never heard anybody keep it moving before."

We got a tow to a nearby service shop, one that was fortunately only a couple of blocks away from a motel.  As disastrous as this breakdown was, here's where things actually started going right.  First, the tow was less than the free ten mile limit, so that was that.

The guys at the service station were very sympathetic.  "Well, we can crack it open and see what's what.  Maybe you got lucky and we can have you running and on your way."  This was Merchant's Tire and Auto Centers, I think.  I thought that with a name like Merchant's Tire my problem would be outside their range, but they told me not to worry.  "We do it all.  I drive two vans just like yours, myself."

Next, the motel had a stranded motorist rate, maybe only half of their usual rates.  They were extremely helpful, offering to provide the usual amenities a traveler would have: toothbrushes, shampoo, that sort of thing.  We had it at hand, having already toted it up from the auto service place.  But hearing someone offering to help was taking a lot of the edge off.

We started to relax.  Being as flexible and adaptable as only young kids can be, the boys pulled their swim trunks on and jumped into the pool.  Sweetie went with them, but they didn't stay long: the pool was very cold.  I got my feet wet and decided that was plenty cold enough, thanks.  We got dry and warm and ordered pizzas delivered, and watched movies on cable.  We had already planned to overnight somewhere, so my parents weren't expecting us yet.

The next morning, I called Merchant's.  First surprise, they were open on a Sunday.  "Well, I hate to say it but it isn't looking good.  It looks like your computer's completely cooked.  You're going to need a new one."

My heart sank.  "Is that very expensive?"

"Well, it is and it isn't.  Chrysler cranked out about a zillion of these vans, so there's lots of parts available.  But the engine computer is usually a lifetime thing, so they don't make as many of those available as they do, say, windshields.  A new computer is going to be around a thousand bucks, give or take."


"Yeah.  But it's cheaper than a new car."

"Yeah.  Okay, I'm going to get a rental for while we wait."

I called around.  Paradoxically, only one rental company would really talk to me: National Car Rental.  You'd think all the rental places would be just dying to rent a car on the weekend.  National sent a guy to pick me up, and fifteen minutes later we had a Chevy Malibu back at the motel.  Now we weren't stuck at the motel, which was a good thing.  We puttered over Roanoke, looking around, enjoying the sights.  But still when we got back to the motel, we were living in a motel.  It had only been a day, but it was already starting to wear.

The next morning, I called Merchant's again.  "I found you a computer, it's on its way."

"Definitely the computer, then?"

"Oh, yeah.  You said you were able to keep it running?"

"Not very well, but yeah."

"Wow.  Anyway, your computer ought to be here Wednesday.  Give us a day to plug it in and test it out and it's good to go by Thursday morning."

"Okay, thanks."  I hung up.  I told everyone the news.  "It looks like the rest of our vacation is cancelled.  We can't make the trip and have a decent visit before we have to turn right around and come back."

Son #2 spoke up.  "Why couldn't we just keep the rental and keep going?"

Let me point out that Son #2 was about seven years old at the time.  At any rate, why indeed.  I called National and asked if we could simply retain the car.  "Sure.  Have a great trip."

We went to Merchant's and removed the rest of our luggage, and here's where I discovered something amazing: the trunk of the second-gen Malibu, ca 2002 is like a Las Vegas magic act.  Sweetie was pulling from the van and handing to me, as I took from her and arranged into the trunk of the Malibu.  All of a sudden, I had my hands out and nothing was put in them.  I almost fell over when I didn't get my expected load.

"What's up?"

"Van's empty.  That's everything."

"That can't be right, I can still see the floor of the trunk."

"Well, it's empty back here."  And it was.  What I had had to distribute carefully throughout the van fit so easily into the trunk of the Malibu, it looked like there was room back there for luggage for at least two more people.  I was amazed.  We closed up the van and I left instructions with the Merchant's manager.

"If there's a fire, get everyone to safety and just roll it in."


So we set off.  Let me add now, I'm not a big fan of General Motors in general.  I hear too much Chevy love from my southeastern neighbors and have to go all contrary.  But with that said, this Malibu was a jewel.  It was fast, silent, smooth and impressively comfortable.  Having lost their individual bench seats in the van, the boys were still perfectly satisfied with the excellent seats in the Chevy.  And it got fantastic fuel mileage compared to the van.

We got to my folks' house and spent a night or three with them.  At one point, Dad being who he is, we had to take the Malibu for a spin so he could feel a Chevy after fifteen years away from them.  "This is pretty nice," he said.

"Yeah.  I'm not sure I'm giving it up when the time comes."

After leaving the folks, we did start taking the scenic route.  There are glorious old towns to be seen in Delaware, awash in history and old charm.

The Lewes-Cape May ferry, even in such sheltered waters as these, made Sweetie horribly seasick.  The bartender took one look at her and said, "Bar's closed!"  And he jogged aft to get a small package of Dramamine.  Sweetie took one of those and sipped carefully at a tumbler of ginger ale over the rest of the trip.  To this day, she doesn't like to talk about it.  The boys and I ran all over the ship, enjoying the view and the wondrous, ponderous roll and pitch as we went along.  I'll bet Sweetie reads that line and closes her eyes, regretting having seen it.  Sorry, luv.

Sweetie napped on and off the rest of that day.  Dramamine will do that to you.

We saw Atlantic City.  All the billboards face you on your way in.  There are no billboards offering anything on your way out.  Atlantic City welcomes you!  But when you have no money left, they're done with you.  Good-bye.  Come back after you've saved up some more spending cash.  I was glad to leave Atlantic City, it was awful.

We went up the Garden State Parkway.  It was beautiful, for about one hundred yards on either side of the road.  After that, disaster.  A lot of New Jersey isn't very attractive.

We slept in a motel in New Jersey, not far from Sandy Hook, I think.  I had kind of intended to see the nude beach in Sandy Hook, but we got there late.  The police were called on people in rooms above us twice during the night, so we didn't get a lot of sleep and didn't really care to hang around in Jersey.

We skipped through New York, just brushing the north end of the city.  Connecticut didn't make much impression on the way through.  I blinked and missed Rhode Island, it took about forty-five minutes to drive through.
To Be Continued

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Putting Yourself Out There

A couple of weeks ago, this cute young lady by the name of Rebecca Black had her little video suddenly take off.

Why is that?  There's a couple of reasons.

1) The song is dreadful.  I mean, in the wide world of bubblegum pop that is almost devoid of meaning beyond the three and a half minutes of the song, this one is pretty vapid.  It has potential but it falls flat in a bunch of places.  It could have been better.  At least it has a nice beat and a catchy tagline.

2) Tosh.0 picked it up and roasted it through and through.  Tosh's site is hugely popular; if you want to get a lot of notice, even bad press from Tosh.0 guarantees a quick bump on your hit count.  "Friday" was holding at a few thousand views on Youtube, but since Tosh.0 gave it some airtime, Ms. Black's passed 20 million views and is gaining altitude.

It's not a great song.  Tosh.0's title for their segment on the song is "Songwriting Isn't for Everybody," and man are they ever right.  But to Ms. Black's credit, she didn't write the song.  She wanted to do a song, her parents were amenable to the idea and footed the bill.  It wasn't cheap, but it wasn't like one of those awful $50,000 birthday bashes we used to hear about, either.  Besides, with the kind of press she's getting, there's a better than even chance that money is going to come back.

So let's get to the part where it turns out Rebecca Black is worth watching.  First, she got off her butt and made the video.  Second, when offered two different songs to do, she evaluated them and rejected the one covering, as she puts it, "adult love."  She says she hasn't experienced that yet, so it didn't feel right to sing about it.

That's wisdom and discretion.  Like Justin Bieber singing about holding hands with his girlfriend, Ms. Black has chosen a little modesty.  In a day when so many kids are in an all-fired hurry to do the grownup things, it's a refreshing change.  Don't forget, this kid is thirteen.  She just cracked into the teen years, and she's making smart choices.

It doesn't hurt that she's attractive on video.  She's got a big smile, and cheekbones that vain people will probably pay money to have duplicated onto their own faces.

So what did she sing?  Well, if you're like approximately 1/350th of the entire human population, you already know she sang about Friday, Friday.  Gotta get down on Friday.  She's a kid, the last day of the week has its own special ambience that the weekend does not.  I mean, shoot - the weekend is your free time and when you get there it's great but Friday is the line before the roller coaster.  It's anticipation, plans, a happy daze of possibilities.  There's an awful lot of stuff out there that really, the buildup is as good as, or even better than the real thing. You could apply that to the "adult love" category, too.

I've listened to the song a couple of times now, and frankly that's plenty.  Ms. Black has a good voice, and I think we're far, far from done hearing from her.  I think she's got a future in the music business.  But if I never hear "Friday" again, well, that's okay by me.

Sing us something else, kiddo.  I want hear what you've got.  I bet it's going to be great.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Comfort Zone: I'm Not In Mine

This evening I auditioned for a part in a play.  I don't know how big a part, how visible, whether I'm expected to dance or do something very outre.  This is the first part I've auditioned for since...hmm...second grade.

That was quite a while ago.

It's quite the fantasy.  We see the stars do amazing things on the silver screen, we watch our familiar performers make us laugh every week on the little screen.  Sometimes, if we are lucky, we catch a live performance.  Few and far between, it turns out, are actors.  It's always the same names in lights, the same names scrolling in time to the music.  You see screen actors on TV and TV actors in the movies.  Movie and TV actors step outside their comfort zone to play on stage.

Shakespearean actors take command of the Starship Enterprise.

How would it be, then, to be the face the others watch?  As a handyman I'm well attuned to the physics of bending inanimate objects to my well.  Sometimes that takes literally bending them.  But what does it mean to make that happen over a distance to a person?  I love to make people laugh in conversation, if I were to describe my dream job it would probably fit "professional comedian" to a T.  But I'm no comedian.  I just like wordplay, puns, jokes.  Having fun is good.  Making other people laugh usually means they're having fun, too - and that's even better.

Can I do that for a crowd?  Can I do it not one-on-one but to a whole audience of people who are sitting there, expecting me to make them laugh?  I'm funny (I think) with mental gymnastics and timing - it's completely different to work from someone else's material.  It's completely different to have so much of my performance rely on someone else's performance, too.  It's a big production, 17 actors all doing their thing.

We'll see.  I've always told people I suffer from crippling stage fright.  I watched one audition and decided that if nothing else, I would probably at least survive an audition. 

We'll see.  And in the meantime, this is the only reason I'm going back to facebook.
Check them out: Norris Little Theater facebook page

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Smart Phone, Dumb Idea

I heard on Monday morning that some iPhone owners were discovering their phones couldn't keep track of Daylight Savings Time.  It gave me a chuckle and I shook my head.  So many people have bought these so-called "smart" phones because of their advanced capabilities, the capacity to run "apps," all that jazz.

When I went up to a meeting later that same morning, I noticed that my supervisor, usually very punctual, was a little late.  I asked him what time he had.

The man doesn't wear a watch.  He popped his iPhone out of his pocket and tapped it.

"Five pm?"

I laughed very, very hard.  And loudly.  But consider, even if I had forgotten to reset my watch on Sunday (I did it in church), it wouldn't have been off by more than an hour.  And not relying on the watch to give me an actual reminder of when things are supposed to happen, I could perform the mental gymnastics required to add an hour to the time it showed, and realize I was off schedule.

The more you rely on machines to do your thinking for you, the more you tend to fall out of the habit of doing the thinking in the first place.  That's my take on it.

Now there are plenty of voices to be heard that will tell you, it's just a tool.  Better tools make for better workers.  They're not wrong, but I think in the case of the smartphone, they're not right, either.  Consider the tools the smartphone can provide.

For the sake of brevity, I'm only going to call on the iPhone for an example, but I'm sure there are others you can think of.

The iPhone tells time.  Big deal, so does every other cellphone out there.  My "dumb" phone gets a time signal from the tower and doesn't rely on an internal clock or software to tell it what to show on the screen.  And if you don't have a phone, that's no biggie: without turning far at all, I can see three more: on the microwave oven, on the wall, and on the computer.  The computer also gets an updated time signal so it's always right.  And of course, there's also the wristwatch.

The iPhone can be a flashlight.  Well, no, it can't.  You can download an app that makes the whole screen light up white, so it's a diffuse area light.  Not very useful over a distance greater than about three feet.  I have a flashlight on my belt so bright you can't look directly at it  That said, I have once or twice used my dumbphone in similar manner, flicking up a bright image to cast a pale light.  In a pinch, it isn't worthless.  But don't be misled, it isn't worth much.

The iPhone lets you surf the web.  Well, my dumbphone doesn't do that.  But when I'm not at my desk, I'm doing things that don't require web surfing.  I occasionally see people trying to remember something or other, trying to fetch a certain bit of recall, and they give up very quickly - they whip out the iPhone, look up the factoid they're trying to dredge up, and go on with their conversation.  I think that's permitting the memory skills to lapse through disuse.  Why try to remember anything when you can just google it?  Why indeed.

The iPhone is great for texting.  Yeah, well - how great is texting?  How much pointless drivel are you sharing that really doesn't need to be expressed?  How much bandwidth are you taking up, sharing every little thought off the top of your head on Twitter?  Charlie Sheen, as entertaining as he is, need not be the center of the universe.  You don't have to read whatever left field noise he's spouted in the last five minutes.  There are real live people right around you - why not talk to them instead?

Talk about things you don't do with your iPhone, I mean.

One thing I saw recently, the iPad being used as a ridiculous MaxiPhone.  The iPad doesn't have iPhone functions, but the owner had engaged a couple of apps so that he could use his iPad, running Skype, while holding it up to his head.  In the trend of ever-smaller, ever more-adaptable portable devices, the large iPad against the man's ear was frankly pretty amusing.

The commercials say such tools are essential, that you won't imagine how you ever got along without them.  But if you don't have an iPhone or other smart phone, then you are already getting along without them.  Can you imagine the next five minutes without an iPhone?  It's not that hard, is it?

I tried to convince myself I wanted a smart phone.  I looked at the apps, I looked at the texting capabilities.  None of it matters, it's not that useful in the greater scheme of things.  The much greater resolution of the camera was very compelling, but not essential.  Certainly not essential enough to make me want to get the necessary data packages for the smart phone's other features, not essential enough to warrant the purchase price.  For the price of the purchase, I could buy two good cameras and still not have to pay for the data package.

Sure, it's versatile.  It's flexible, it can do many things.  But those many things aren't doing you much good.  You'd be better served to carry a Vise Grip in your pocket and wear a dumb phone.  You can't tighten a lug nut with a smart phone.

It might make a fine hammer though.  Go on, bash it on something.  Tell me how it works out.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Dividing Line Could Be Perforated

You've heard the jokes: "If pro is the opposite of con, what's the opposite of progress?"  "If he's having sex, he can't be a Republican...but that's his wife, so he can't be a Democrat either."  Even Reagan is famously quoted with another one: "The nine most frightening words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"

Ah, Ronnie.  The man was affable and entertaining, whatever you think of his politics.

This country is pretty much a two-party gig.  You're either conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican.  The other parties really don't count - sorry Libertarians, that's just how it is and more on that in a minute.  For every American, you're supposed to somehow pigeonhole your entire schema into one or the other of these broader definitions and hope for the best. There are stereotypes that are supposed to be typical of each party, rich businessmen, ecologically conscious greenies, unions.

What bugs me is the divisive nature of politics, especially in light of the phrase right there on every American coin: E Pluribus Unum.  If you don't already know what that means, it's From many, one.  The implication is that though we are many and diverse people, we are one nation.

The chief difficulty in politics, I think, is the second guessing that goes on.  For every decision one person thinks is good, there's at least one person as highly placed and bearing as much authority, who thinks it's either a bad idea, or his own is better.  That sparks a debate.  Other authorities weigh in.  The media starts throwing gas on the fire, and the public decides they're all idiots not listening to their constituencies.

That last bit might be just me.  I can't easily talk politics with a lot of people, because while I'm generally liberal, I do have conservative leanings.  I think taxes are generally on the low side and we could all afford to pay a bit more.  On the flip side of that, I think the government is more than big enough and could afford some trimming.

Blaming Obama for the state of the economy is as dumb as blaming Bush for the Iraq war.  Sure, there are things the man is doing at the moment that aren't spot-on, but still.  The sitting President has to contend with the hand he's dealt, and the game's been going for quite some time.  Repercussions continue to ripple back and forth through the American economy, domestic and foreign policies from decisions that were made fifty years ago.

I said this during the Clinton administration, and again during the Bush administration, and now I'm saying it during the Obama administration: what if we put aside our political differences and simply let the government proceed?

There are a great many ways, I think, that we could make some progress.  The Office of Management and Budget tries to present a huge whopping budget that then gets picked apart by the two sides in Congress.  That's bad for everybody.  I know it's not the way things are done now, but just as a thought experiment, what if the OMB presented a budget and Congress picked out all the stuff they couldn't agree on, and pass what was left?  There would be a fine handshake moment, and then they could hammer out the other stuff.

Just for kicks, you know.  Rather than one side or the other holding the entire federal budget hostage, reach across the aisle and get some cooperating done.  Act like we're of one mind, at least on a few things.

From many, one.  And maybe, once we've had the heady experience of agreeing on some things, maybe we could do it again, and again, and again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Springtime

Well, it's warming up a little.

It sure is!  And that means it's time to start thinking about what's planned for the yard.  Stuff's about pop out of the ground, get taller, all the stuff you look forward to after a couple of months of gray cold days and long freezing nights.

Yeah.  Time to fire up the mower, too.

Yup.  So let's ask ourselves - did you get the mower ready for storage, or did you just shut it off and shove it into the shed?

Duh.  Shoved it into the shed.  More time for me: winning!

Yeah, you're not as cool as you hope you are.  Okay, so let's start the year off right.  Change the mower's oil, change its air filter, change its spark plug, and drain out that gacky old fuel.  It's halfway to being varnish by now, just get it out of there.

And do what with it?

I pour the old fuel into my pickup.  Add it to a nearly-full tank, that quart or so of old gas won't affect anything significantly.  No worries, and no hassle trying to find an environmentally responsible way to dispose of it.  Just burn it as fuel, like you had planned to do with it in the mower.

Okay, all the old bits gone?  Good.  How about scraping all the caked-up grass out from underneath?  Yeah, do that too.  Then do this:

Wash the mower really well.  Seriously, get it sparkling clean.  Then wax the underside of the mower deck.

Why the heck would I do that?

You'd do it so grass clippings don't stick so well.  It'll also protect the metal a little bit, make the mower last longer.

Couldn't I just get a new mower at Wal-Mart?  Their cheapest is only a hundred bucks...

Sure you could.  And you'd have to get another new one next year.  Why not read this before continuing with your old, wasteful habits.  I've been using the same mower for ten years now.  It's needed a couple of repairs here and there, and it's not even a high-end mower like a good Snapper.  It's a middle-of-the-range Craftsman electric, it cost about $180 when I bought it, and it's worked like a charm for 11 years.  Do the math: your new Wal-Mart el cheapo for $100 every year, or my good mower for about $17 per year.  Take good care of the cheapos from Wal-Mart and you can make them last a few years, take good care of a good mower and you'll have it for a long, long time.

Okay, okay. The grass isn't quite long enough to cut anyway.  What about the yard?

Well, if you intend to do any seeding, now is the time.  I don't often recommend seeding, though.  If you've done it once already and it didn't take, then maybe you're using the wrong seed.  Certain varieties don't like heavy shade or heavy traffic, sometimes you're asking a grass variety that's just too foreign to your region to become something it just can't be.

Well, what do I do?

Change the game.  If you live in Nevada, forget Kentucky Bluegrass.  It wants too much water.  And if you live in East Tennessee, good luck keeping your cactus from rotting at the base.  Plant what's local.  Don't plant anything that needs special treatment.

But I deserve that green lawn, the commercials keep telling me.

That's crap.  No one deserves a green lawn.  What you deserve is a topic for a whole 'nother discussion, the philosophical ramifications of which may rattle your entire world view.  But if you want to waste a lot of money paying for extra water and chemicals to nourish an exotic species in your yard, that's your wallet you're cracking open.

Ah, we're back to saving money the sneaky way.  Okay, I'm listening.

Like fresh fruit?  Like low-lying ground cover?  Plant strawberries.  Or for a little pizzazz in your mashed potatoes and a compact shrub that looks a lot like a yew, plant rosemary.  How much of your yard can you eat?


Too bad.  But you can fix that.  There are lots of plants that are pretty to look at and taste good too - plant those.  If you have to water once in a while, at least you get some of that investment back with edibles.  

It sounds like gardening.  I'm not any good at gardening.

Neither am I.  But my first example, rosemary, gets along just fine with minimal attention and is hardy for several years.  There's also thyme, bergamot, sweet melissa.  These are all mint relatives and will take over the yard if you let them.  You don't have to have a green thumb, just step back and enjoy the show.  After they get some size on them, you could pick a mess to dry and make a fine herbal tea, or just enjoy the occasional hummingbird at the bergamot.

There's lots of beautiful trees to be had and the shade they throw is very nice.  Why not plant an apple tree?  They provide shade, too.  Or a pear, or a plum.  Read up and be sure you have what you need - some fruit trees need a pollinator specimen close by or else they just grow but don't produce.

In light of everything that's going on all around the world, maybe it's time we start to think about Victory Gardens again.  Not keen on sending your money to foreign countries to pay for fuel?  Well, when you pony up for a cabbage at the grocery store, did you ever think about where that cabbage was grown?  Probably not close by.

You can uproot that difficult, diffident and downright drab flower patch in the front yard, the one that refuses to ever look half as nice as it did in the seed company's brochure, and replace it with something just as colorful and a lot more useful.  Your annual pansies can give up their space to a thick stand of bush beans which will flower just as prettily.  Hmm - maybe you should keep the pansies: they're also edible.

If you're one of those people that likes to lay out in the sun for a tan, why not spend some of your toasting time tending the rows?  There's certainly nothing productive to be done just laying there soaking up rays, why not put an audiobook and save yourself a few bucks?

Mankind used to enjoy many more hours of leisure time per day back when we were much less sophisticated.  As hunter-gatherers, we didn't spend so many hours of labor trying to earn money to keep our houses lit, our cars fueled.  We just wandered along, picking snacks as we went, occasionally catching some animal for meat and augmenting our diets that way.  There's lots of food to be found if you don't mind changing how you view your yard.  You can make your yard part of your pantry.  You might save a little money, you will definitely get some use out of your yard that far outweighs any arbitrary "curb appeal," and what the heck - you might even have some fun.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Hate Church: Update

Westboro Baptist Church is so far offline, its native websites don't appear on the first three pages of Google searches anymore.


Now, the suspicious part of me says, what if the WBC is in fact a Joaquin Phoenix of subterfuge?  What if their original goal from the very beginning was the outpouring of sympathy and support their activities generate for the people they picket?  Fags need love too.  Feel bad for the families of those fallen soldiers.  Wherever the WBC goes, support for the people they picket just skyrockets.  If you want to see a crowd of people rush to a stranger's aid, just roll video on a WBC protest.  Their message is so far outside of what I see and hear in church, it's almost hard to believe they call themselves a church too.

But what if...?

Have you been messing with us all this time, Phelps?  Has the WBC been pulling the old switcheroo, making us care for and support each other in the face of adversity because that's really what God wants us to do?  The poor will always be with us, after all.  We're supposed to do unto them, et cetera.

Sneaky, sneaky.

Naaah.  It's too subtle.  I don't think Phelps has the wit for it.  I don't think Phelps-Roper has the patience for it.  And the grandkids were too cheerfully cruel, admitting they'd keep on picketing people even if they didn't think they were ordered to by God - because it's fun.

Japan: Shaken, Not Stirred

I speak from a position of ignorance.  I am not Japanese, have no Japanese friends, and have never been to Japan.

I drive two Japanese cars.  Okay, one's a truck.  My electronics are Japanese.  I occasionally enjoy Japanese food.

Once when I was very young we were shown a film - remember when a film was an event in class, requiring somebody to go the school library to get the projector, and hopefully someone could remember how to thread the film through the machine, and lights were dimmed - that touched on life in Japan.  At the time the life it showed was rigorous, formal, restrained.  At the time, even at my young age, I thought that the Japanese looked like they could learn a thing or two about having a good time.  They seemed repressed.

I had no idea.  The Japanese are both repressed and irrepressible.  Don't forget, this is a tiny island nation that dared to give the US a swift kick in the butt at the height of the second World War.  Granted in retrospect that was probably a bad idea, but there's no denying: that took guts.  And leave it to Japan to have the guts to do it.

In the intervening decades since the war and even that classroom movie, Japan's culture has been changing.  Its young people are wildly exuberant and achingly polite in the same breath.  It's hard to imagine an American or European teenager serving his urge to express himself in individualistic fashion and honor the cultural mores and history at the same time, but the Japanese youth do it all the time.  They are more western now than at any time in their history, but still - no other culture comes close.  Is it any wonder the suicide rate in Japan is one of the highest in the world, more than double what is experienced in the UK or the US.

In quintessential Japanese fashion, families of suicide victims (are they really victims when they do it to themselves?  We almost need a new word to describe them more accurately) are billed for the disruption caused to train schedules, when the suicide jumps onto tracks.  The trains are notoriously reliable in Japan and they guard that reputation jealously.

Japan is crowded.  It has a little more than a third of the US' population, but less than a twentieth of the US' land area.  If all the buildings were gone and the people evenly spaced, each Japanese citizen would have a square of land about 180 feet on a side to call his own.  That's less than an acre.  Compare that to slightly more than ten times as much land for each American citizen, and you can see that some potentials develop rather rapidly.

Humans tend to live near water.  There's lots of livelihood to be made from water; if you live near an ocean - and Japan is an chain of large islands utterly surrounded by ocean on all sides - fishing is big industry, water taxis and ferries get workers to and from their jobs, and a lot of commerce happens over the water.  So to be near their livelihoods, a large proportion of Japan's citizens live close to the coasts.  Part of the reason for that is the land area is so small, the coasts are simply that much closer to everywhere in Japan - you can't get that far away from one before you run into another coast.  Of Japan's 20 most populous cities, only four don't lie directly on the coast.  Of the rest, many lie in bays.  Bays are good for business, since the often provide sheltered waters for docks, good news for shipping concerns.  But when a tsunami hits, a bay tends to concentrate the wave, make the energy of the wave drive the water even higher; its potential to wash even farther inland, do more damage at the seaside quays and warehouses is all the greater.  That's where the tsunami gets its name: in Japanese, tsunami means harbor wave.

Even as close as a half-mile from shore, a tsunami is nothing.  You'd ride it out and might not even notice anything had happened, until you got back to the dock to find at had been washed a half-mile inland.   But where the land and water meet, the trusted high tide line is soon underwater and everyone is running for their lives.

Japan is no stranger to earthquakes.  Kobe was badly rattled in 1995 by a strong earthquake.  You can tell Japan is familiar with quakes by the evidence of their building codes: codes placed in effect in 1981 resulted in most of the buildings built to that standard surviving that quake in good condition.  But there was no tsunami associated with Kobe.  The big quake last week hit off the coast of Sendai, lurching parts of Japan about eight feet closer to California.  Unfortunately, long-distance tolls are not reduced by this new proximity.

My point is that Japan has long history with disasters.  Its close proximity to the sea and the long fetch of the Pacific yields tremendous waves that do terrible damage ashore.  Typhoons are nothing new to Japan.  Earthquakes are part and parcel of life along the Pacific Rim, as are volcanoes.  Japan has all of these.

Japan is tough.  Japanese are tough.  Does it hurt, absolutely.  But they'll bounce back.  This is, I think, a comparable blow to what Katrina was for our Gulf Coast and even now we still haven't got the Gulf Coast back to what it was.  There is still widespread devastation to be seen in the wake of Katrina six years later.  Six years after now, we'll probably have to look very hard to find any evidence of the damage this quake and tsunami have done to Japan.

Fight on, Japan.

Slightly unrelated note: if you ever wanted to invest in Japanese stocks, now's the time.  The index is down across the board.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Daring Darwin

It's become a meme of its own in recent years, particularly since the advent of the Internet, that anyone who dies by his or her own foolishness has become another notch in the belt of the great Charles Darwin.  Darwin is remembered as the man most associated with the development of the theory of natural selection, by which species of life improve themselves through successive generations, where those forms that are most well adapted to their environment survive and pass their characteristics on to their offspring.

Stupidity, in other words, is bad for your health.  It will kill you.

Now, we're doing Darwin a disservice by pairing his name with a seemingly endless list of people who don't look both ways before crossing the street.  The man was brilliant, plagued by ill health and the deaths of a couple of his children (leading him to wonder if he himself was not a viable specimen to reproduce) and the endless ridicule, haranguing and second-guessing of the public at large and the religious establishment in particular.  Nonetheless, in his lifetime Darwin saw his theory go from the lunatic fringe of junk science to the mainstream acceptance of the public.  I guess that's something.

Backing out of a parking space - where we were closely hemmed in by a Chrysler Sebring - a young woman walked directly behind our car, between my rear bumper and the front of the Chrysler, even as we were already moving.  I was astonished and infuriated.  Inside my own head, I railed and ranted.

"What the heck is wrong with you?  Nobody drives a Sebring!"

Okay, that was for funnies.  But the pedestrian didn't have any room to spare, and it was only through quick reactions (not her own) that she didn't get badly hurt.  Make no mistake, it doesn't take much force to do a human body damage, and even rolling at idle a car puts out enough power to break bones.  Not just fingers, legs.  Like the ones that would have been trapped between my car and the other.

She kept walking.  She's young, fit, and kind of fast.  Before the Subaru got completely slithered out of where it had been crowded in, she was already at the far end of the block, stepping out into traffic without looking to see if cars were coming.

Again and without giving proper credit to the man, I call this kind of person a "practicing Darwinist."  Successful Darwinists have completely removed themselves from the gene pool, this one is just hanging on to the edge, maybe looking for the ladder.

I want to take up hang gliding.  Almost desperately, I'd love to be able to feel the sensations of flight with as little aircraft around me as possible.  I suspect it's a high akin to a religious transportation, an orgasm of both joy and exhilaration in a medium few others can share.  But I have also read my life insurance policy, which states in no uncertain terms that injuries or death sustained while hang gliding are not covered.  That is to say, if you take up hang gliding, the life insurance company expects you face a much higher likelihood of dying an untimely death than someone who is, say, crossing the street.

So I have the bumper sticker for Altair Hang Gliders, but no hang glider.  No hill ticket.  No Hang Two license.  I'm not ready to die, not yet.

Surfing.  Motorcycling (another rush that I love, but don't do).  Running with scissors.  There are risks we put ourselves in front of all the time without thinking about them.  When going downstairs - and I almost invariably take the stairs instead of the elevator - I hold the rail.  I almost can't descend stairs without holding the rail.  I'm relatively young, in decent condition, no inner ear problems.  My balance is actually pretty good.  But I've trained myself to hold the rail and would no more approach the stairs without the rail than I would drive a car without the seatbelt.

The broad, dramatic steps in front of municipal and government buildings give me the shivers, nearly.  I go up along one side, where the rails are.

Too much OSHA Safety Training won't kill you - it just makes you realize how many things out there might kill you.  I'm not a safety nut - to this day I don't wear a helmet when riding a bike, assorted scars of my youth be damned.  But spending just a little time with one's eyes open, you see that there are all manner of things you might just up and do, that you wouldn't do if you thought them through.

I would not take up hiking and backpacking in the Middle East.  As a white guy with only French for my backup language, I would stick out like a sore thumb.  There are too many headlines describing dead Americans in the Middle East, I don't feel a need to join them.  I don't go to gun shows.  No rollerblading.  I don't fire lasers at mirrors.

You're going to die.  Everyone you ever met, will meet, is going to die.  That's the downside of life, that it must come to an end.  There's nothing to fear from it, except perhaps the unknown of what must come after that last breath.  But in the meantime, I also see no reason to add myself to the list of those who found themselves on the wrong side of Darwin's theory.