Friday, December 27, 2013

Mouth, Meet Foot. Foot, Mouth.

"I can't be fired for things I say while intoxicated, can I?"

Of course you can.  It all depends on how you say them, to whom you say them, or in what venue.  Sometimes, what really matters is all of the above.

Justine Sacco is was a public relations professional with the large media company IAC, which includes such presences on the web as, Vimeo, and news sources like The Daily Beast.  Apparently Sacco is now trying to blame at least part of her amazingly bad judgment on "unfamiliarity with Twitter," but according to other sources she has had been using Twitter for years and simply hadn't completely grasped some of its "nuances."

Being boorish, racist and paralytically obtuse vis-a-vis likely public reaction to such things, while being a supposed expert on exactly such things, is a paradigm almost beyond belief.  Were it played before me on a stage I would deny it as an unlikely fiction.

Justine fired off this tweet right before she got on a plane to her native South Africa:
Take note of that destination: South Africa.  Clearly Mandela didn't get through to everyone.  Clearly some prejudices remain.  And since she was on a plane from New York City, she was in the air for 12 hours, incommunicado, while easily- (and in this case very rightly) offended and even thicker skinned individuals read it, gasped in disgust, and raised their arms in uproar.

Uproar indeed.  Take note how I've carefully edited out the tenses that describe Sacco's state of employment.  She was.  Now she is not.

If you take this tweet at its face value, that of a tasteless joke, it is merely inflammatory.  You can easily find worse than this on the twitterverse and if you went looking, you probably wouldn't have to look far to find it.  But the real rub here is who Sacco is.

Sorry, my bad: was.

Public relations director for IAC.  Holy catfish.  Even if you have made something of a reputation for yourself as a loose cannon on Twitter, you still can't go around making fun of an entire population suffering the slings and arrows of runaway HIV, and then toss off the even more insulting statement that you'll be safe because you're white.  You just can't.  The only kind of people who can get away with saying things like that are Adolf Hitler and David Dukes, and the only reason they get away with it at all is because it's expected of them, because they are Towering Monstrous Assholes.

And when you align yourself with people like that, suddenly you become the kind of person no one wants around: not as an employee, not as a representative, not at all.  Even if your statements are strictly your own and do not reflect philosophies or views of your employer, so what?  You are associated with your employer.  You can be fired any day for any legitimate reason, and in at-will states for no reason at all.  Every day is another performance review.  Just because you're on private time doesn't mean what you do, how you behave, is also private.  If you take your thoughts and actions public - like I'm doing right now - you can and will be judged.  Sometimes that judgment comes from the boss.

In Related News:

Phil Robertson's suspension from his own show has already been reversed.  I was surprised they dared to do it in the first place.  He went over the line into topics on which he isn't supposed to speak, which he has done before...and not been punished for it before.  Well, I guess they had to step up and be serious about their restrictions eventually.  But like a parent disciplining a child, consistency is key.  Don't waffle back and forth.  Either you mean it or you don't.

In More Related News:

Jesse Jackson, who was once respectable but has since descended to the level of "race hustler," has jumped onto the lurid coattails of Robertson's loose lips to build himself a little podium.  Read his diatribe if you like, but it'll sound like a lot of other stuff Jackson has said in the past.  The bit about "without cover of the law" is a little weird.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Phil Robertson vs A&E. Who erred and how?

Phil Robertson has somehow run afoul of the the A&E cable channel.

Actually, there is no "somehow" in this.  How it happened is pretty clear.  Robertson, the patriarch of the Robertson family that is part and parcel of the Duck Commander brand and erstwhile star of the Duck Dynasty "reality" TV series, gave an interview to GQ magazine, an interview in which he spoke openly about his views on civil rights-era blacks and gays in general.

How dare he.

There are certain finer points that we don't know.  We don't know whether Robertson's contract speaks to what kind of topics he may not comment upon when giving interviews.  We DO know that Robertson and his family laid out some unassailable rules on their side of the contract, as reported by GQ: "their faith" (exactly what about the faith is not disclosed in the interview), there would be no betrayal of family members, and duck season was off limits.  Other shows might go on hiatus in the summer, but Duck Dynasty takes a break when duck season opens.

You can read the entire interview here.  The language is often coarse and frankly far below the content threshold I had expected from GQ.  Apparently its standards have fallen quite far since I last opened it.  That's a subscription I won't be signing up for anytime soon.  But in the interview Robertson gives his views on such things as gays - the sex doesn't compute for him - and civil rights.  He cites his own recollection in a time before the civil rights movement, working in fields alongside the black workers who were "singing and happy."  He says he never saw the mistreatment of a black person, possibly because as far out in the sticks as they were in Louisiana at the time, everyone was already equal: dirt poor.  To mistreat anyone would be to mistreat someone in just as lousy a condition as yourself.

I might be projecting a little, there.

But Robertson cited some Bible verses to support his stance on gays, and that's good.  It means he's not coming from prejudice or hatred, but doctrine.  He's living as he's learned.  Good and well.  Unfortunately he probably doesn't read Greek or he could have read the original text and decided whether it had been translated correctly.  There's a good chance that verse was actually a disavowal of pederasts.

A&E generally edits out the Robertsons' use of the phrase "in Jesus' name" at the end of their mealtime prayers, ostensibly so they don't offend any Muslims watching the show.  I find it very funny that both I and Phil Robertson asked the exact same question: "How many Muslims are watching the show?"  If A&E actually has a metric for that, I will be surprised.  I will be even more surprised if it is more than 1,000.

1,000 out of an 11,000,000+ audience is a negligible loss.  And to my mind there are entirely too many people, Muslim and otherwise, who are entirely too willing to take offense at stuff.  Chill out, people.  If you're that upset about it, we'll mute all those guerilla fighters screaming "Allahu akhbar" at the tops of their lungs.  You know, equal time.  Or, um, equal silence.

I don't think the problem here is that Robertson has a negative opinion of gays or a narrow personal experience of the civil rights era.  I don't think the problem is that he spoke his mind.  These are rights that cannot be legally curtailed in this country, thank goodness.  No, what he did was worse.

He didn't ask permission first.  As a TV personality, Robertson has network executives who are constantly watching the bottom line, the metrics, the audience reaction.  Those things are the butter on their bread, and anything that might impact them negatively must be anticipated, spun, handled.  Except Robertson is already independently wealthy, not dependent upon the network at all, and as anyone who watches the show already knows, not one to hold back on speaking his mind.  So he just says what he thinks and A&E edits out that which offends them and those few Muslims and the world keeps spinning...unless Robertson's comments get major play in some other large venue, like a premium magazine.  Oops.  Didn't see that one coming.

For their own part, completely in character with their own stated rule of no betrayal of family members, the Robertsons have released their own statement about Phil's unfiltered comments.

I just discovered that A&E have had to take Phil behind the woodshed once or twice for stepping beyond the bounds of no-go topics as described in their contracts.  So I was right about that much, there are rules in place and he broke them.  This isn't the first time and as evidenced by an A&E executive responding to the "crisis," he wasn't surprised.  "Disappointed," but not surprised.

I also understand the LGBT groups and GLAAD are upset.  Get over it.  Some people hate gingers for no reason, at least here you have a lifetime of conservative dogma informing his current stance.  It isn't hatred, it's just disavowal.  Listen up people: IT ISN'T HATRED.  Read the quote carefully and see if you see any hate there.  It isn't.

So who erred here?  That's the meat of the meal, isn't it?  Who screwed up, who has to clean up the mess.

Who screwed up first: this is a chicken-and-the-egg question.  Did Robertson screw up with his off the cuff remarks, or did A&E screw up when they signed him on?  A&E brass already knew Robertson has a history of speaking his mind on these very topics, and exactly which way he leaned when he spoke.

I say Robertson screwed up.  He opened his big mouth, knowing it was big and knowing it had gotten him in trouble before.  But considering the relatively benign nature of the comments - go read them, they're not as inflammatory as you might think - he could have done a lot worse.

Then A&E screwed up by allowing things to blow the hell up.  And then they screwed up even farther by suspending Robertson from his own show.  I mean, guys, really.

So who has to clean up the mess?  A&E.  They have the most skin to lose in this game.  Robertson, meanwhile, is riding high on a wave of public support and A&E, GLAAD notwithstanding, look like the bad guys in the public eye.

Bummer.   Try to hold the guy to the terms of a contract he signed and you get smacked for it.  Damn, that bites.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stop "Stop and Frisk" Everywhere

Watch this:

I am not a law enforcement expert but I can see what's wrong.  "Stop and frisk" laws are passed by politicians who represent them as "proactive policing," a dodgy phrase that makes it look like bad guys can be sorted out of the general population and caught before they do something illegal.

A few facts: out of the 4,000,000 (that's four MILLION) stops since 2002 when stop-and-frisk laws took effect in New York City, 90% were doing nothing illegal nor carrying any contraband of any kind.

While we're on the subject of percentages, the ratio of female-to-male stops is about 1 in 10.  With the ratio of white vs. other skin color stops also being about 1 in 10, if you're a white woman in NYC you stand a fair chance of never being stopped.  So if you're a white female criminal mastermind, head to NYC immediately, it is your playground.

A little quick math tells us that 10% of four million is 400,000 bad guys hauled off the streets.  How bad are they?  Let's take a quick peek at why some of these folks got stopped and how I, an ostensibly normal and generally law-abiding white man, compare:

My random sample is the 005 Precinct, 3rd quarter of 2011.  Here's a few gems:

  - "Wearing clothes commonly used in a crime"  - 7 males.  I tend to wear pants to all functions, criminal or otherwise.  Hoodies and hats keep my bald head warm, and gloves keep my bald hands warm.
  - "Proximity to scene of offense" - 138 males, 11 females.  Wrong place at the wrong time.  Move along, folks.  That's like searching my car because the guy in the next lane had a trunk full of Mexicans.

While we're on the topic of Mexicans, Latinos are heavily represented in the stop-frisk-search profile, too, 20-30% of the total as opposed to the mere 10% of whites.

  - "Evasive response to questioning" - 109 males, 6 females.  'Where you headed with that big knapsack?' 'None of your effing business.'  That is a valid response and believe it or not it is defensible.  You'd have a lousy, hard day in court defending it and maybe no love from the judge in New York, but in most other parts of the country it's solid.
  - "Suspicious bulge" - 7 males.  I saw a video where a cop was searching a man for reasons unknown, grabbing something and saying, "What the hell is that?"  And the suspect, bless him, said, "That's my penis."  Can't fault the guy for that, mine goes with me wherever I go, too.

What I'm really looking for is something to quantify the badness of these 400,000 bad guys.  First of all in this 10-year period we're looking at, you know a fair portion of that is going to be repeats.  Even so, digging through the NYCLU's website I'm finding some other bits: frisked young black and Latino men are less likely to be found with a weapon than white men, even though young black and Latino men get frisked about four times more often.  Another report indicates that as the stop and frisk rate drops, so too does the crime rate.  You can look at that two ways: either fewer people are doing bad things or the fewer stop-frisks are instigating fewer criminal reactions to the stop-frisks themselves.

A complete stranger stopping you on your way from A to B would be, at best, irritating.  That same stranger grabbing you and pawing at your clothing would likely get a faceful of knuckles on most American streets.  The protection afforded the police by the stop-question-frisk law means they get to physically assault "suspects," AKA random American citizens, for no more reason than the individual watched the cops driving by, and didn't look away.

As I recall, William Tell refused to be cowed by a display of oppressive force, and the bad guy in that story wound up with Tell's arrow in his eye.  Never mind that he was the ostensible governmental representation, like a cop - he was a jerk and had it coming.

My ultimate point is that while the stop-question-frisk procedure may have some legitimacy as a crimefighting practice, it is woefully subject to abuse by its practitioners.  Allegations of racial profiling - and the NYPD's own statistics read like a racial profiling manual - are rife.  Allegations of abuse like the one cited in the first hotlink are also plentiful.  What it is is the very worst elements of a police state with insufficient oversight and restraint.

Vote now, vote loudly, vote often.  Don't let your freedoms be curtailed by a desire for "security," a security that is, itself, cause for fear.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

My Take: Man Of Steel

I don't go to movies when they're on the big screen.  I don't want to risk that much money on what might be a stinker.

Man of Steel (Warner Bros 2013) starts well and builds beautifully...and then plummets to earth like a Kryptonian baby rocket.

The first hour or so follows a full-grown but still searching Clark Kent, old enough to be out of college, out on his own, and yet still not fully informed of what he really is.  Through a series of flashbacks we're introduced to Clark's discovery of his origin, to his small scale but highly tangible heroics, to the source of his angst.

Some superhero films take the hero through an "awakening" process.  Spider-Man (Columbia 2002) depicts Peter Parker's exploration of his powers culminating in one crazy, sticky night of web-shooting followed by a kind of post-"first time" buoyancy and general bon vivance.  In case you aren't sure, it's really equating Peter Parker's becoming Spider-Man with puberty.  You might think I'm making a gross comparison but it is in fact the literal metaphor intended by the director.  The Incredible Hulk (Universal 2003), on the other hand, acts and reacts like an adult would to situations, except all actions are colored by blinding rage and affected by superhuman strength.  There is no awakening, it is just the id unleashed, given full and unfettered rein.  Fortunately the lust-oriented parts of the id don't get much play in this paradigm.  Compare that to the nearly lifelong training and honing of skills and talents that make Batman (Warner Bros 1989 (origin depicted much better in Batman Begins Legendary/Syncopy 2005)) into what he is, a darker and more driven individual.

And to contrast against those, we have Kal El of Krypton, AKA Clark Kent of Earth.  Literally a man of two worlds, Clark is the truer identity of these two.  He may be Kryptonian in his genes, but his upbringing is 100% American farmboy.  He's not entirely satisfied with life on the farm.  His father's careful, measured approach to how Clark should reveal himself to the world frustrates his young instincts.  And in one heartbreaking moment, when Jonathan Kent sacrifices his own life so Clark need not reveal himself in the wrong way, Clark discovers just how important a life can be.  Not just that having one, but the quality of that life, is of such high value that its protection is worth such a price.

This is the kind of thing we see in the first half of Man of Steel.  Clark's search for meaning both within and without himself is fascinating to watch, and seeing him slowly putting the building blocks together is pleasant viewing.  After a little while we're introduced to Lois Lane, who is also pleasant to watch.  I'm not saying this as a sexist pig (although Amy Adams, the actress, is very attractive), Lane's clever, methodical running down of the trail of rumor, of legend brings her all the way back to Clark's Smallville roots.  Without any help, she figures out who Superman really is.

Of course, they aren't calling him "Superman" at this point.  At this point of the movie, they haven't been calling him anything.

And at about this point, everything just goes to hell.  The movie runs wildly off its psychological exploration rails, the only path that digs deeply into the one place where Superman really has any vulnerability, and the rest of the writing is done by 12-year-olds.  From this point on the action is nonstop, the explosions are huge, and the quality is abysmal.  It's Transformers: Dark of the Moon except with no cool organo-mechanical sound effects.  Metropolis gets halfway destroyed, Superm - sorry, Clark - gets the stuffing beat out of him and his Kryptonian baby rocket gets turned into a black hole bomb.  Countless thousands of people get pounded into wet hamburger but that's glossed over.  Several skyscrapers get toppled over.  An Air Force Colonel converts American and Kryptonian flying machines into a gravitational singularity.  And finally, at the center of the smoking Ground Zero of a battered Metropolis, Lois and Clark share a kiss and a super-cheesy joke.  The only thing missing is the laugh track.

Watch the first hour.  Then take the DVD out and throw it away.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela: The Least Important Thing He Ever Did

Nelson Mandela has died at the end of his long life.  It is the most unimportant aspect of his story, that it now has a final chapter.

Mandela's death is the beginning of a transitional state, one in which he rises from an inspiring living figure to an inspiring historical one.  A peaceful struggler against South Africa's systemic racist apartheid government, Mandela managed to craft a mostly peaceful shift from the old racial injustices to a more-or-less equal government for all South Africans.  It still isn't perfect of course, but let's be real: he spent 30 years as a political prisoner incarcerated for his protests.  In that time, the apartheid government continued in its path and its philosophies gained more traction simply as the status quo.  Once status becomes quo, it's pretty hard to dislodge.

So now we have a Nelson Mandela who cannot screw up in the future.  Past misdoings may come to light, but past heroism may too.  His well-known and much respected public speaking, his unprecedented presidency of a formerly white-dominated South Africa, his unswerving exhortation for peaceful change all continue unabated into the future, a call for the betterment of both South Africa and mankind.  With a legacy like this that stands in his stead now that his body has died, what possible impact can his death have on the world?

None at all.  Barack Obama said "Nelson Mandela belongs to the ages now," but he was woefully late to the announcement.  Mandela has belonged to the ages for decades.  His influence will affect human society for decades.  The only difference his death makes is that whatever future changes come, Mandela himself won't be here to see them.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Drone Attacks on Civilians, on Civilization

American drone warfare policy is terrifying stuff.

In their earliest incarnations, drones were targets.  They were pilotless aircraft that could be safely fired upon by actual soldiers and pilots, a moving, challenging target that would be harder to hit than some plywood cutout propped up on a hillside or sliding along a wire across a valley.  Very early drones were sometimes even harder to hit than the real thing, being very small and fast for their size.  Their entire raison d'etre was to make actual fighters more effective.

But that isn't even the thrust of this post.

Now Jeff Bezos, multi-gazillionaire founder of Amazon and honest-to-goodness techie, wants to put drones in the air, delivering Amazon purchases to customers.  It's a brilliant concept on the face of it, and a strong testament to the technological developments that make such a thing possible.  But I think this is an  incredibly bad idea.  Here are a few reasons why:

Even unarmed drones can kill you.  Just because it's small doesn't mean Amazon's flying robopostman is safe.  Maybe it isn't big enough to take off the top of your head - I bet it's big enough to take off some of your fingers...or your child's.  How badly do you want that brand new multifunction universal remote control to risk that?  Wait a day while an actual delivery person conveys it to you.

Tech is vulnerable.  Yet another electronic gadget - in this case, one that you aren't even allowed to play with, only watch and admire as it brings you your amazing new multifunction universal remote control - is yet another opportunity for hackers to break in, take control, and wreak some damage.  It's bad enough when hackers can get into your computer and do stuff with your personal credit ratings.  How much worse will it be when the technobastards can actually wreck stuff with a flying lawnmower?  And let me point out that the linked article is two years old.  You can bet they've developed more tools for breaking into vehicle systems.  And just imagine if an enemy entity decided to take over a slew of Amazon drones, load them with their very own, and likely rather dangerous, payloads and send them to new destinations?  Is it necessary to make it that easy for the bad guys to hurt us?

 It isn't just vulnerable to hackers:

The drones as envisioned aren't especially fast and fly in straight lines.  I'm a pretty good shot at near- to medium-range and could easily take out a delivery drone with nothing more lethal than a pellet gun.  Your multifunctional universal remote control is now mine. 

It isn't pretty.
I'd rather watch starlings flying than see one of these flitting through my neighborhood.  And to put that in perspective, I effing hate starlings and blast them when I see them at my bird feeders.  With a pellet gun.

While we're on the subject of birds, how much would you like to bet one of these will occasionally be attacked and brought down by a bird?  Many species are aggressively territorial and will go after an invader.  And not only will the load go down, the whirling blades will almost certainly injure the bird, too.  Everybody, including you, loses.  Your multifunctional universal remote control is lost behind enemy lines.

Lastly, it aggravates an already-growing trend of self-importance in American society.  I mean, it's just a remote control.  It's just a book.  It's just a necklace, a memory card for your computer, it's just a thing.  You can afford to wait for it, whatever it is.  You don't need it.  You need air, water, food, shelter.  You need support of people around you and governmental representation you can trust.  You don't need another thing delivered that much more quickly.  Instant gratification is a terrible letdown in the long run.  It trains you to be unable to appreciate delayed gratification, and in the larger scheme of the entire world, gratification is more often delayed than it is instant.

Nothing is so important that we need to pollute the view with ugly flying boxes conveying yet more optional stuff.  Let's step back and take another look at whether this idea is a good one.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Stuff Worth Owning: LL Bean Wicked Good Flannel

I would include a photo of my own Wicked Good Flannel shirt, but for some reason my computer's card reader doesn't cooperate.  So here's a shot from LL Bean themselves:
A new one of these shirts is a cool $50.  That's a decent chunk of change for a shirt, especially when you're a tried-and-true thrift store shopper.  I can find new shirts - not just new-to-me shirts, new shirts with the store tags still in them, at our thrift stores.  I don't even take the employee discount, a new shirt for thrift store pricing is just a good bargain no matter how you slice it.  And they're not just any ol' shirt either: I can find St. John's Bay, Arrow, Ralph Lauren.  Brands you've heard of.  Finding a new shirt from these brands for under $12.50 is a jump-at-it-right-now opportunity.  In a paradigm like that, you can imagine and you'd be right that I would be hard pressed to pay more than $12.50 for any shirt, ever.

But for these LL Bean Wicked Flannels, I will pay full cover price.  Allow me to explain:  Those other brands are great, and I can usually get a good five years out of them.  In that time, I've been wearing them to work - I'm a handyman and spend a fair amount of my time under things, over things, getting dirty, hot and sweaty.  I don't work hard at keeping my clothes clean.  I get to work around 8:00a and am often pretty dirty by 9:00.  A shirt going five years in service like that is a pretty hard-wearing shirt.  That's one of the reasons I keep buying those recognizable names: fancy or not, they generally take the abuse better than cheaper "bargain" brands.

I've been wearing these LL Bean Wicked Flannel shirts since 1993.  That's 20 years.  They finally look rough enough that it's time to get rid of them.  Pills at the collar from my beard that's been on my face for the last 20 years, a very small glue stain somewhere on the green one, general small scars here and there.  They just don't look great anymore.

My point, however, is this: compared to any other shirt I've ever owned, they look far and away better than any other 20-year-old shirt I have, because I don't have any.  These shirts have survived through two full rotations of my entire closet and run down everything else that came along.  I'm lucky if pants survive three years, a five year old shirt is probably a keepsake, and a 20 year old shirt just doesn't compute.  It's a statistical anomaly, an outlier.

A $50 shirt spread over 20 years is a $2.50 per year shirt.  That's right there with my thrift store shirts.  When a new shirt can perform at the same price point as a thrift store shirt, a new thrift store shirt with a thrift store price, perform for four times as long, that's a damned good shirt.  You can even say it's a Wicked Good shirt.  But even a Wicked Good shirt has to wear out eventually, especially when it's worn by someone like me, someone whose entire body is a bumper, whose entire face is 120-grit, whose pets are rototillers with tails.  Clothes can't last forever.  And as long as they've lasted and looked good that whole time, these Wicked Good shirts seem to have had their day.  It's been a long time coming, but they finally don't quite look Wicked Good anymore.

So I'm going to get rid of my excellent, soft, comfortable, warm and ultimately very durable and extremely economical Wicked Good flannel shirts.  They have finally gotten to the point that they aren't quite nice enough for work.

But I'm not getting rid of them until I have a couple of new ones to replace them.  Not having a few of these in the closet, well...that would be Wicked Bad.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Warrantless GPS Tracking Update

It does require a warrant.

This is the position I took when I wrote about this subject the first time.  Evidently Antoine Jones took his case all the way to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, or at the very least is riding on the coattails of others who did.

Like I said before, there is no big defense Antoine Jones gets to bring to bear here: he got caught with a buttload of cocaine and a mountain of cash.  However, the manner in which those things were discovered is also indefensible so at best the cops can only apprehend the coke and the money and Jones gets a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

This time.  With a haul like that we can safely assume it isn't Jones' first trip to the Coke machine and probably not his last.  He'll get nailed good and proper soon enough, never fear.

Courts in other districts have ruled that warrantless GPS tracking is admissible in court as evidence; I find it strange that the Third Circuit Court would differ and wonder how the conundrum would be settled if a plaintiff used one court's stance for precedent and the defendant used another court's stance for defense.  It could become a pretty silly slapfight pretty quickly.

Friday, October 18, 2013

An Open Letter to Congress: You're All Fired

Every last one of you.  Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Librarians, whatever.  I don't care what party affiliation you have.  Pack your crap and get out.  I want you gone by the end of the business day.

Allow me to explain my rationale.  All of you:

1) are members of parties that have become so polarized against each other that you will take our country to the brink of default rather than find compromises.  That's not government, that's hostage-taking.

2) have been party to the process of creating a state of constant war against drugs and terror but with little to show in the way of progress  in those wars.  The actual products that we see of those wars are a slowly rising tide of fear.  Did anyone ever stop to ask whether war was the right course of action?

3) have been spitting into the rapidly warming wind of global climate change.  The time for debate was decades ago, as was the time for action.  A solution - and there is no single solution - will not be litigated.  Solutions must be encouraged, rewarded and extolled.  Browbeating, denial and obfuscation will not change the fact that as the population grows and resource use accelerates, we humans have a tangible and far reaching effect on our environment.  Stop standing in the path of people who can improve matters, stop putting stumbling blocks in their paths.

4) are paid too damned much to behave in the manner you have.

5) get paid too damned much, period.

The United States' wars overseas do not make sense to me.  A much better policy would be one of global non-aggression.  That option may not be available anymore.  I would strongly recommend exploring it.  Let the aggressors kill each other off and take no side in hostilities.  If you must take a side, provide humanitarian aid to the sides we support.  Heck, even offering humanitarian aid to the side we DON'T support would be universally positive karma.  But that avenue may be irrevocably closed to us.  Too bad.  We can afford to build a lot more hospitals and schools than we can tanks and bombers.  Hospitals and schools are cheaper.

The United States could be nearly energy independent with the vigorous support of alternative energy development.  Yes, the infrastructural demands of oil and coal are well developed.  So what?  Developing other technologies provides jobs, jobs, jobs.  Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, building the job market is good for the economy, good for national morale, good for your constituency.

So that's it.  I've had enough of the pack of you.  Obama is on his last term and as near as I can tell hasn't screwed up anywhere near as much as the bunch of you Congressmen, so I won't bother him.  But the rest of you, forget it.  Sign your time card...have any of you EVER had to work a real job that involved punching a clock?  I bet not.  You should try it.  Honest work with dirty fingernails and a satisfying fatigue at the end of the day.  Not flying a desk and bickering with other rich lawyers, something a bit more real than that.  Anyway: sign out, turn in your keys, and go home.  Your performance warrants dismissal, and it's time for you to go.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Too Smart?

How much "smart" is too much smart in our luxuriously convenient panoply of personal technology?

Cellphones with so-called "smart" features - essentially a small computer that is easily carried around on one's person, a "smart phone" - have to have a certain minimum of capability in order to do what people want them to do.  Users want to be able to surf the Internet from anywhere, check email, take and upload photos to social media sites - all of that requires a fair amount of processing power.  Not as much as even a mediocre laptop, but a fair bit.  But these silly things also play games, offer sales discounts and tell you exactly where on the planet you are in relation to the sales.  Smart phones are indeed pretty smart.

Comparing to the various computers I've owned, the ranking of processing power goes like this, from lowest to highest:

Timex-Sinclair 1000 ("Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to Early Pleistocene")
Kaypro II
Commodore 64
Commodore 128
Texas Instruments TI-86 (this is a handheld calculator)
nameless IBM clone running DOS
Packard-Bell running Windows 3.1
Compaq running Windows XP
Raft of parts assembled by Son #2 running Windows 7.

This last one was a shoestring computer that cost about $400 total, and it equals about ten times the processing power of all the other computers combined.  And in standardized dollars, it was the cheapest.  My mom got me the Kaypro back in 1986 for $200 - when $200 would buy one hell of a lot more than it does today.  Now when a working example approaching 30 years old is available on eBay, it is either priced according to where it lands compared to other computers - worth $20-50 - or as a borderline historical artifact, worth $50-100.  And even so, a Texas Instruments calculator that can run rings around it costs more, and is the better bargain.

I would hazard a guess that the best smart phone on the market is equivalent, possibly even more powerful than my next-to-last computer.  The graphics they can generate are utterly gorgeous.  Certain brands make arguably better cameras than they do phones.  Most play a broad array of games, virtually all - even my current, unimpressive budget phone - can do email.

How much is too much?

There's a news item today about a couple that discovered to their horror that someone had hacked - and there's some argument among the commentariat whether "hacking" is an appropriate term in this context - into their baby monitor and was talking to their sleeping baby.  On a related note, it would appear that with very little work you can probably find your way into someone's "smart" TV and observe them through the onboard camera.  So while you're sitting there on the couch watching TV, someone somewhere is watching you through the TV, just like for Winston Smith.

How long before the inclusion of a simple sliding shutter that covers every built-in camera becomes a standard feature?  How long before regular consumers start to get a little creeped-out at how connected their lives are, and how much that connectedness has pried the covers back on the privacy of their own homes?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Shaaliver Douse, and Considering the Aftermath

Trayvon Martin had one thing against him in particular.  He was black, walking by himself with his hood up at night through a gated community where he didn't live, and one fed-up neighborhood watch coordinator can get just a little suspicious.  The one thing against him was the confluence of all those elements happening at the same time.  If anything had been different, he'd probably still be around.  Exactly how things played out after Martin and George Zimmerman met isn't entirely clear, and may never be clear.  Some reports want us to believe the jury thinks Zimmerman got away with murder.  Maybe he did, maybe not.  We'll never be sure.  Like I said before however, I sure as hell would hate to be Zimmerman.

In a completely different, less ambiguous light we find the most recent shooting victim.  The facts could not diverge more broadly from those of the Trayvon Martin case.

Shaaliver Douse, 14 (fourteen!), was observed and recorded firing a weapon three times at a small group of people.  The shots were heard by nearby foot patrol cops, who came running toward the sound.  They saw Douse, who fired again.  At this time it isn't immediately clear whether the kid was shooting at his intended target or at the cops.  Whatever the case, he didn't drop the gun as ordered, and one of the officers shot him.

Douse is dead.  Dead in a gang-related gun crime, dropped by police, at the age of 14.  My wife just pointed out a very important observation, one that armchair quarterbacks would do well to remember: "A person with a gun is a gunman.  He isn't a fourteen year old kid with a gun, he's a gunman.  He can kill you."  Age isn't a consideration in such life-and-death situations.  You might want it to be, and after the fact people will try to make it one, but in the moment it cannot be.  The issue at hand isn't the age of the hand holding the gun, it's the gun and the hand holding it.  Age is a minor detail to be considered in the luxury of time, not in the emergency of confrontation.

The kid's aunt is quoted in the linked story as saying "the police get away with murder."  Well, no.  The cop that shot Douse is immediately placed on leave while the particulars of the shooting are sorted out.  There are recordings from more than one angle that Douse had a gun out and was aiming at someone.  And when the cops showed up, he didn't relinquish the weapon as instructed.

One thing I hear - and I heard this a lot when a person got shot and killed in the course of a shoplifting incident where the shoplifter pulled a gun - is that the people who are left behind when a person is killed by police complain that the police didn't just shoot them to wound.

That's dumb.  Shoot me in the leg and I still have my hands.  I can still shoot back.  Shoot me in the arm and I still have another arm, I can still shoot back.  The problem with guns is that they can kill, the person wielding a gun can kill someone else at a moment's notice from a distance.  The one sure way to make sure he cannot do that is to kill him.  If he won't put his gun down, there aren't many good ways to compel him to do so short of killing the gunman.

Douse wouldn't drop it.  The policeman killed him.

I imagine that the policeman is having a bad day.  Possibly worse than Shaaliver's family is having.  Douse had a history of gun violence and even a court appearance pending for same.  He's been in trouble before.  The area where he lives is raddled with gangs.  As upset as I know they are, I wonder how the family can be surprised.  Certainly they must have known something like this could happen, given Shaaliver's history.

As awful as it is for the family of the slain, the policemen's condition must be considered.  Sent as rookies to patrol a known hotbed of gang activity, they must have been nervous as hell.  Out of the police academy only a month, and they're involved in a shooting.  Not just a shooting, which is a tornado of paperwork in its own right, but one that results in a fatality - a whole 'nother tornado of not just paperwork, but stress.  Holy cats.  This is the kind of thing that can end careers, in this case almost literally before they've begun.

It just crossed my mind that the link above regarding stress talks about the psychological support provided for the policeman involved in the shooting.  Is any support offered for the surviving family members of the deceased?  I doubt it.  Counselors come out of the woodwork for victims in a crime, counselors are provided by the workplace for policemen and security officers and soldiers.  But what is provided for the survivors of the fallen criminal?  I wonder if there is some unspoken desire to punish those who raised such a detrimental person.  And yet, sometimes the families aren't that bad.

Was any kind of counseling offered to the families of Dylan Kebold and Eric Harris, the two kids who killed 13 people and injured over 20 more in the Columbine massacre?  I don't think so.  Not only do I not think so, I think maybe they were the ones who needed it most.  On top of their children being dead, somehow they were blamed.  "How could you produce such a monster," and "why didn't you see this coming" were common refrains they had to weather.

Douse's mom must be going through something similar.  In fact she's probably been thinking this sort of thing already, and whether it's valid or not, it must be addressed.  In a mess like this, everyone gets splattered, at least a little.  And almost no one can settle the issues by themselves.  We all need help in times like this.

Taking Matters Into His Own Hands

A death row inmate in Ohio has jumped the gun on prison officials by hanging himself ahead of his execution date.

Billy Slagle stabbed a neighbor to death in 1987.  No word on exactly why, but he did it.  And it's not like he used an illegal firearm or a dangerously long knife to do it, he used a plain old pair of scissors.  So when the alarmists call for more regulation on weapons and certification before ownership, ask yourself just how much regulation and certification is necessary before everyone is 100% safe all the time.  You won't ever get there.

That Slagle killed the lady is undeniable.  He was sentenced to death, also history.  But now he's had 26 years of life on the taxpayer's dime, all that time spent on appeals, challenges, etc.  Finally he ran out of appeals and the governor of Ohio decided not to grant clemency.

So what happens next?  Slagle hanged himself in his cell three days ahead of his execution date.

One quick question: how much did it cost, per year, to keep Slagle alive and safe, solely for the purpose of ending his life at a time and place of the state's choosing?  I can't find facts for Ohio but a quick search points up that an inmate on Death Row in California costs about $90,000 more per year to keep alive than a prisoner sentenced to life without parole.

More.  Per year.  If we assume Ohio's rates are comparable, that means keeping Slagle alive for those 26 years cost an extra $2.3M than it would for someone just on life w/o parole.  And ultimately that money is gone because when his time comes, Slagle is dead.

This is where I hate the death penalty.  Not just for the burden it lays on the spirits of those who must carry it out, but for the burden it lays on us, the law-abiding citizens who support it.  Yes, we want these people gone, never to mix with decent society again.  But does it have to break the bank?

After 26 years with only a short time remaining, Slagle killed himself.  Instead of Death Row,it might have been more appropriate to put him in Life Row, where the sun never shines on a free man, and a convenient length of stout rope always hangs from the ceiling, ready and waiting.  A condemned man can leave prison at any time...but not on his own feet.

You might consider it cruel and unfeeling, these suggestions I'm making.  Well, how cruel was it for Slagle to stab a woman 17 times?  The first three or four times could have been in anger, what about the last dozen or so?  Why should a society that holds justice and freedom so dear have to support a person like that?

If the prisoner wants to eat, let him work a field.  If he wants clothes, let him earn the money to purchase them.  And if a condemned man wants out of prison, he can leave.  He can leave by the one freedom still left to him.

The chief failing, in my opinion, of prison is that it punishes endlessly.  In prison criminals are thrust together into a poorly ordered, barely contained powderkeg where what mostly happens is that the strongest, most violent offenders continue to be strong and violent, subjugating other offenders to their will.  It would cost more up front, but I think it would be better to keep offenders separated at all times so they cannot teach each other criminal skills, compare tactics and whatnot.  They can work for their food just like free people do, they can earn their privileges, what few they should have in prison.  Perhaps, after spending their entire prison sentence at a job, they will have developed some work habits that are more positive and socially acceptable than robbing, stealing and assaulting.  If I don't work, I don't eat.  Why should a prisoner have it easier than that?

It's harsh.  But I think it's fair.  When this society is working hard to legalize such things as assisted euthanasia for the terminally ill, I think the terminally incarcerated should have the same option.  And even so, it's still more mercy than the prisoner ever showed for his victim.

Monday, July 29, 2013

More Irony

The blind lead the blind, the unfollowable disavow the unelectable.

Eliot Spitzer, former good guy, former governor of New York, refuses to support Anthony Weiner in his bid for mayor of New York City, and even went so far as to say he would fire anyone who behaved like Weiner.  You gotta admit, in consideration of everything else, that takes some chutzpah.  Wow, Eliot.  That's one of the most hypocritical things I've heard in a while.

Here's why: Spitzer, you may recall, fell from grace in a prostitution scandal.  And lately none of us seem to be able to forget what Anthony Weiner is up to, because he keeps tweeting pictures of it.  Stop that, Tony.  We don't want to see it.  Put it away.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Irony in the News

Anthony Weiner

I almost don't need to add anything after that.  Weiner's name by itself is entirely too perfect for a guy, a political candidate, who can't seem to stop posting pictures of his insufficiently-clad self online and sexting people.

Now here's a thing: there's nothing strictly illegal - except there is - about what he's doing.  Things like this going on between adults is pretty much blameless assuming everyone is of age and consenting.  But Weiner is married, an adult who is supposed to be capable of making smart decisions, and a former politician who lost his seat in the heat of a scandal that formed around this very behavior.  These other considerations throw his current behavior into a much less flattering light.

I'm a little confused why it's illegal to willingly send images of yourself over the phone to a willing recipient, but all manner of hardcore porn continues to travel over the same networks for Internet consumption.  That's another of those places where technology and law collide and grind.

Déclassé, tacky, amoral, unbecoming of a government official, yes.  And the fact that he's just flat-out lying when he says he isn't sexting people anymore, well.  He's doing that on camera, for the record.  That ought to tell you something about the guy's character.  How is it he hasn't dropped out of the New York mayoral race yet?

He says he isn't addicted.  I disagree.  Someone who isn't addicted would stop.

Amanda Bynes might actually be crazy

I've talked about Ms. Bynes at some length in these pages and if you'll recall, I pointed out my concerns that she is probably not entirely on the same plane as the rest of us.  Now, in the aftermath of setting some stuff on fire on a stranger's driveway, accidentally dousing her dog with gasoline and stripping off her pants to chase it down (!?), Amanda has had her freedom temporarily curtailed so the state of her sanity can be assessed.

I also asked the question, where were her parents.  As it turns out, they weren't clueless.  Amanda's parents are seeking conservatorship over her so they can, hopefully, put the brakes on the train before Amanda wrecks it completely.  Good job, folks.  I just wish you'd stepped up before things got this bad.  Then again, considering Amanda is an adult with plenty of her own money (aka power and autonomy), it would be hard to take conservatorship over her if she wanted to fight it.  And as combative as Amanda has been on Twitter lately, I would imagine she would fight it pretty hard.  The advent of the 5150 hold has given her parents a lot more leverage, and maybe we'll see Amanda get her head on straight.  Let's hope.

Speaking of train wrecks...

The driver of the high-speed train that went off the rails in Spain had posted boasting remarks on Facebook of passing police cars and setting off their radar guns.  The curve where the train derailed is posted for 50mph and the train was travelilng at over 100 mph.  Whether that would be sufficient to derail the train on that curve isn't clear at this time.  There's also a puff of smoke from about halfway back along the length of the train immediately before the derailment, and it is currently unknown whether that was associated with a proximate cause of the derailment, or the result of the chain of events of the derailment, some of which was undoubtedly taking place in such a way that the surveillance camera that captured the accident couldn't record it.

Whether or not the speed was the direct cause of the wreck, you know it can't possibly have made things any better.  78 people are dead in that accident; if the driver had been adhering to the posted speed limit of the curve, the deaths would most likely have been radically fewer.

Kidnapper behind bars

How this guy didn't get the death penalty is almost beyond belief.  I would be strongly inclined to send him for a fast ride on Old Sparky regardless of however he pleaded.  I reckon that's a good reason for me to not seek a career in law enforcement or justice.

A sentence of "Life plus 1000 years" is an unequivocal death sentence...eventually.  He will die in prison.  No chance of parole.  In fact if you wanted to very strictly adhere to the terms of the sentence, he would die in prison and then be buried under the prison exercise yard.

Now, this is just me: since we're committed to him dying in prison, why not skip the intervening expensive 30-50 years of food, shelter and health care and just get rid of him?  It takes thousands and thousands of dollars per year to keep a prisoner alive, and there is clearly no intent to ever let him back into society.  Why not just kill him, save the community hundreds of thousands of dollars, and be done with him?

Please note: I hate the death penalty and everything about it.  That doesn't preclude the fact that there are a lot of people who shouldn't be permitted to continue living.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Paula Deen: Damned?

There is a general impression that to be relegated to eternal suffering in hell is irrevocable.  Once you're in, you're in.

Popular science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in their revisitation of Dante's Inferno version of Hell, explore the possibility that Hell is, in fact, the last possible chance for redemption.  I don't know where Niven and Pournelle stand on God or religion in general, but I think I like this version of Hell better than most.  If we accept that God is a loving god and wants only what is best for us, that all souls are actually His from the beginning, then it stands to reason that He would be reluctant to ever declare a soul completely and utterly beyond redemption.  As an infinite God, He's ready to offer infinite opportunity to find the right path.

Paula Deen, answering honestly in a court deposition regarding a discrimination suit against her brother, not against Deen herself, admits to dropping N-bombs in anger when held at gunpoint during a bank robbery.  She goes on to say that she doesn't consider it an offensive term when used in a non-derogatory manner.  More on that in a moment.

Now let's look at some things:

Robbery took place in 1986.  That's 27 years ago.  If this were a legal matter, the statute of limitations would likely have run out by now.  In an armed robbery, emotions tend to run pretty high - when was the last time you were furious?  And did you say some things in the heat of that moment that you wouldn't say otherwise?  I bet you did.  I do.  We can call that "mitigating circumstances."

Speaking very bluntly I think Paula Deen has been getting, for lack of a better term, screwed.  She's been a proponent of very rich food for a long time, cheerfully slathering butter on everything.  She sells her name and likeness to anyone who wants it, so there's Paula Deen cookware, food ingredients, magazines and possibly even clothes.  I haven't checked that last bit.

But then she disclosed that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago, an announcement that coincided with her association with Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company that specializes in diabetes treatment.  That's got to look pretty hypocritical, after years and years of cheerfully selling fatty cookbooks and describing a gigantic hamburger that uses a Krispy Kreme doughnut instead of a bun and adding bacon to way more foods than you ever thought possible, to sign on with one of the most visible major diabetes medicine providers.  Had she disclosed the illness at the time of diagnosis - which she is not required to do, of course - it wouldn't be hypocritical then.  It's just that the timing is so cynical.  She knew she was sick but didn't mention it...until the fact of the illness could be leveraged into making her name and likeness more relevant for yet another celebrity endorsement.  You have a reputation for rich foods, so continue banking on that, until it's time to bank on something else, something the rich foods may have contributed to.

It's worth pointing out that several other prominent chefs have expressed displeasure at Deen's enthusiasm for foods we shouldn't have, at least not in such quantities.  The US is one of the more obese countries in the world, pushing cheesecake for breakfast isn't helping that at all.  It doesn't make much of a difference to Deen herself, she's been raking in the bucks and of course all those people out there are supposed to be monitoring their own food intakes.  That's their jobs, not hers.

But the timing, Paula.  The timing.  It was so cynical to play those cards that way.  The backlash was pretty strong, and then we heard reports of Deen being nonplussed at the lack of support from people when they found out she was diabetic.  Well, first of all diabetes isn't the big deal it used to be.  Secondly, the way we found out is just bad.  "Hey y'all - y'got sugar diebeetus?  Novo Nordisk kin help!"  Or something like that.

So already Deen's image had suffered some tarnishing in the media and public opinion.  But the fact of dropping N-bombs is, in my opinion, not that big a deal.  When mainstream rappers do it on the radio, nobody calls them out.  Deen says she's using such words in the context of describing conversations between black people, and of course the robbery.

I had a conversation about this with a black friend at work, and we came to the conclusion that younger people using such language wouldn't relate with our experiences.  I told him, "when I was a kid, it didn't matter what color you were.  If anybody of any color said that word to anybody else of any color, he got punched."

And he replied, "Damn right."  We concluded that rap culture is what brought the word back to prominence, and as long as there are people who can make money off a population that continues to feel oppressed, bad words like that will have power and utility - marketplace utility, which equals money.  But that's not part of today's point.

My point is that Paula Deen is being punished for having committed the crimes of opportunism and having been angry.  It's cynical and hypocritical as hell to hold the fact of an illness to yourself for your own reasons, only to disclose it publicly when you've made a deal with a sponsor who provides medicine for that illness.  But it isn't illegal.  I don't think it's immoral.  Cynicism isn't immoral.  It just doesn't look good.

Words aren't illegal.    Anger isn't wrong.  Deen's use of certain words in an emotionally charged situation shouldn't be held against her, and describing how people speak in a derogatory fashion to each other shouldn't be held against her.  That she spoke frankly, honestly, about these things when she didn't really need to is, I think, more an expression of an absence of wrongdoing than anything else I've heard from her.

All those companies that dropped her, I think, have made a big mistake.  Having done nothing wrong, Paula admits to having done things that, while not wrong, are less than stellar.  Embarrassing.  And who hasn't done that?  Who are we, the public, to punish endlessly for an absence of wrongdoing, to punish for embarrassment?  That's a little harsh, don't you think?

Who are we to put Paula Deen in hell?  And isn't it about time we let her back out?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Justice for Trayvon?

It's a news item today that there are over 100 "Justice for Trayvon" rallies going on around the country.  Those people are foolishly wasting their time.  Here's why:

1) There can be no justice for Trayvon.  Trayvon Martin is dead.  Nothing living people do can affect him, and will have little effect on his family.  What all these people are rallying for is in fact their displeasure at the court's ruling that didn't reflect their own opinion.  They may express "support for the family" and a desire for the "spirit of the law" to be upheld, but really what they are is a mob trying to rule.

2) The law has no spirit.  The law is as it is written and must be interpreted by the courts to ensure the original framers' intent for the law's scope and power to be brought to bear.  If these people are dissatisfied with how the law was interpreted and enforced, a rally isn't going to have much effect on that.  When dissatisfied with laws, get yourself elected and start working on improving the laws.  That's how the system works.  Holding up signs and shouting doesn't work.  Ask any number of students in Tiananmen Square.

3) There are a remarkably small number of people directly accountable for how the Trayvon Martin case has shaken out: George Zimmerman - and I would certainly hate to be Zimmerman right now - the judge and jury, and Martin himself.  And of course, Martin has gone to where questioning, evidence and human justice do not matter.

Even with the trial now over, and I watched a very short postgame assessment by none other than former President Jimmy Carter that suggested a possible criminal retrial was not possible, Zimmerman isn't out of the woods yet.  There could be such a thing as a civil trial that comes back to chew Zimmerman up, and hard.  That's what happened to OJ Simpson in the aftermath of his troubles: did he kill his ex-wife?  No one knows for sure, but in the civil trial the bereaved family managed to convince a jury that Simpson was culpable, and hammered him with, as I recall, a $30M damages charge.  I wonder how big a bill the family will try to lay on Zimmerman.

It's gotta suck to be George Zimmerman right now.  He even said, in so many words, "I'm truly sorry."  In the racially-charged aftermath of this controversy, former leader of the NAACP CL Bryant has singled out such mouthpieces as Jesse Jackson (whom I have met) and Al Sharpton (whom I will not) as "race hustlers," leaping onto Martin's dead coattails to raise their own profile.  He might be right.  My take on that is this: if you're not directly involved, hush.

And that goes for me, too.  I'm done.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thinking About Cars: Hybrids

I've already written about that most iconic of the modern hybrids, the Prius.  But since then I've bought a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid, and can speak a little more on the subject, having a bit more firsthand experience than just driving one at work a few miles at a time.

Firstly, while I was shopping I tried a few Prii.  I drove a first-gen Prius and liked it well enough, and the second-gen model was even better.  But for some strange reason all the Prii at the dealer where I was shopping had suffered a sort of sandblasting treatment, so that the paint of their hoods was peppered with chips in the paint.  Only one hadn't experienced that treatment and we were ready to deal on it, but the bank didn't like the price vs. the Kelley Blue Book valuation, so we stepped away from it.  In fact, body damage of one sort or another was a defining factor of the cars at that dealer, so I've decided I'm not keen on them, though the prices they ask are really quite low otherwise.  If you can repair paint or bump dents, you could have a cheap ride in return for a little weekend bodywork.

My '03 Civic brings home a few features I hold dear: it has a cruise control.  That's pretty important to me.  I like the cruise control because when I set the speed to my specification, I can then freely ignore tailgaters.  It becomes so much easier when an automatic control dictates my speed, and not the looming grille in my rearview mirror.  I try to ignore the looming grilles, but sometimes they feel awfully aggressive, and it becomes difficult.  The cruise control, however, will not be cowed.

My Civic has a manual transmission.  I have already written at length about my preference for manny trannies, and I cannot help but laugh at the fact that car thefts and even car jackings have been thwarted by that third pedal on the floor.  On top of being mechanically simpler and more efficient, my car is safer from criminal activity, by virtue of the fact of that simplicity.  On top of that, Honda didn't build many of these with the manual.  The vast majority of Americans purchase only automatic transmissions, but there's still a hard core of us who prefer to stir the gears for ourselves, and Honda is one of the few manufacturers that still caters to us.  Interestingly, in the bread-and-butter midsize market, Ford offers a manual transmission in the Fusion, but Chevrolet does not in the Malibu.

It's a four-door.  The Civic is one of the most variable of vehicles, available at various points in its history as a coupé, a four door sedan, a four door hatch, a tall wagon, with front and all wheel drive, slowing growing through the years from a subcompact to a surprisingly roomy compact.  It's almost amazing to realize that there's another 15 cubic feet of interior space to go before my car reaches the space of a midsize.  But with four doors, a compact is comfortable enough for all four of us, including two of us at 5'10 and 6'0, to spend an hour or more just cruising around, getting our shopping done and having plenty of room for everyone.

It has air conditioning.  Now, my truck never had air conditioning and I have called that out as a plus.  But I'm old enough and earn well enough to afford air conditioning, and I don't intend to go without if I don't have to.  East Tennessee's heat won't kill you, but the humidity might make you wish it would.  When it just gets too steamy, I like being able to turn the AC on for a few miles.  Having AC in the Civic and our Subaru, neither Sweetie nor I will just turn it on and leave it.  Generally we turn it on for downhills, and off again for uphills.  It only gets left on nonstop when all four of us are riding together.

Plus, I don't think you can own a Civic built in the last 20 years without AC, so there's that.

Honda was caught napping when the Prius was introduced, and wound up rolling out their show car the JV-X in 1997 even as the Prius was already available to Japanese buyers. They didn't dawdle too long, however, as they got the Insight onto the Japanese market in December 1999, and beat the Prius to the North American market by over six months.  So while we were hearing faint rumblings from across the Pacific about a car that was sometimes gas, sometimes electric, we suddenly found, tooling about in our urban traffic, this tiny little two-seater runabout that got ridiculous mileage and made no sound whatsoever when paused at stoplights.  I had been reading about them and remember stopping to watch one go by one day, grinning from ear to ear as I listened and heard nothing but the faint crackle of the tires.  Its engine was off even as it was going 25 miles per hour.

In just a few years Honda got a lot better with hybrid drivetrains and increased their output to drive a bigger car, like the Civic.  That caught on in a big way with people who wanted hybrid thrift without having to drive hybrid looks.  Nobody would mistake the Prius or, for that matter, the Insight for anything else.  But the Civic Hybrid looks exactly look contemporary conventional Civics.  The only outwardly identifying feature is the Hybrid badge on the rear.

Hybrid cars aren't new technology, not by any means.  Back in 1898 - the late Cretaceous of automobile history - Ferdinand Porsche built a series hybrid, a vehicle with an internal combustion engine driving a generator, and the generator powered four hub motors.

This, by the way, is how really big machines are driven, when there just aren't clutches and transmissions that can take the load.  You drive a big genny and power several motors with the electricity.  Works for trains, works for especially large earth movers, ships, submarines.  Turns out it scales down and works for cars, too.

As early as 1916 parallel hybrids, vehicles in which the electric drive and IC drive can work together, were available.  Top speed was poor at 35mph, but the fuel efficiency - 48mpg - was comparable to my Civic right now.  And in nearly 90 years of development, the fuel economy hasn't changed.  Shameful.  At least, having plummeted to dreadful, nearly single-digit performance, it's on its way back up.

In 1979 the magazine Mother Earth News talked to a guy who had built his own series hybrid using a tiny gas engine, decided his results sounded too good to be true and built their own using a larger compact diesel engine.  The engine ran at nearly constant speed to keep topping up the batteries as necessary, while the batteries provided surge power and extra current as required for higher speed travel.  Mother's diesel version whistled up, as I recall, about 84 miles per gallon.  That's pretty good no matter how you slice it.  And their results were better than the original example, more power, bigger car, better mileage.  This isn't a unique result, Toyota got the same with their Prius.  Funny how it works out.

Knowing that all these efforts are so old, it's amazing that it has taken so long for hybrids to gain such prominence in the marketplace.  Well anyway, here we are at last.

I'm a participant at the hypermiling website,  More than just hypermiling - driving with high fuel economy in mind -  the participants at ecomodder also modify their vehicles to improve their fuel mileage.  I've done a couple of little things to my truck, which can be reasonably expected to get 22mpg combined.  It is currently averaging just a little under 32mpg, which is pretty good even for a new truck.  So far my Honda has only one fill under its belt - a single fill lasts an awful lot longer than I'm used to, and the tank is even smaller than anything else I drive, so I haven't had to fill it up but once at this writing - but that fill yielded a little better than 47mpg.  Since the Honda is supposed to deliver about 40 in combined driving, I'm doing pretty well.

But I bet I can do better.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Let Go The Undying

In ancient Egypt, only the Pharaoh had a shot at becoming a god, at being reborn into an undying state of eternal joy and power.  His assorted wives and concubines and many many slaves and indeed his cats could accompany him, but they would be born again into a state of eternal subordination.  Just like in life.  His life would be remembered on the walls of his many memorials and the tomb, and even speculation of his future in the afterlife would be put up for all to see.

Now more than ever before, lives are chronicled in such a way that anyone might know of the people who lived them.  In the aftermath of 9/11, many people held on to their old cell phones long after the contract had lapsed, to preserve the recorded voices of loved ones, sending voice messages from within the doomed towers.  Facebook has a small but significant population of ghosts, pages belonging to people who have died, and occasionally a message from loved ones will show up on the page, keeping it current.

Youtube is especially poignant in that it preserves the moving image of people.  That's what video is, and even though we are all very accustomed to pictures of people who are no longer with us, it brings a whole different dimension to the experience when the pictures talk and move about.  You can find recordings of people going about their daily lives, mundane things.  People will post almost anything on YouTube.  But a video of someone going about his daily life is a more wrenching memorial than some cold stone in a field somewhere.

I don't like cemeteries, not least for the grim reminder they provide.  I don't like thinking about the fact that I have to die someday, who would?  And I'm not thrilled about tying up all that prime cropland with dead bodies, either.  That's a waste, all those bodies are doing is lying there, while the living still need to eat.  Cremation is, I think, the much better solution.  But enough about that.  And I've never made sense of the practice of going to a cemetery to "visit" someone's grave.  Why do that?  All that's there is immaculate lawn as far as the eye can see, and cold, square stones.  Bleah.

When I want to remember someone, I get out the photo albums and look them up.  Lots of shots are posed and are good to remind me of how someone looked, but better are the shots from when we were doing things.  Playing Frisbee™ or jumping into a river or standing at the kitchen sink, these are the moments of life that are easier to bring back to memory with a photo, much easier than a posed sitting.  Even posing on the back porch doesn't come to mind as quickly as sitting around the dining table, everyone looking for the puzzle piece with the bit of white picket fence.  Posing is when you set life aside for a moment, everybody laughing out loud while Gramma insists that she's just going to watch - while doggedly gathering up the picket fence bits so she can work that part of the puzzle - is a slice of life that is a moment set aside for preservation.  That is a better memorial than any stone, no matter how deeply you might engrave a name or date.

A name and date can tell you how long the life lasted, but it can't tell you how the life was lived.

I was startled to hear of Cory Monteith's death.  I am an unabashed fan of Glee, I've said so in these pages before.  I was never especially fond of Monteith's character "Finn Hudson," in fact I'm not especially fond of any of the characters at all, with the possible exception of the lovably daft Brittany Pierce.  But the dynamic between all the characters makes it an eminently watchable show, and in the show as in life, when someone dies I'm left wondering, now what do I do?

When my grandfathers died, I wondered, now what do I do?  It was an odd question to ask of myself, since I would go months or even years at a time without even talking to either of them, and now they were gone.  In neither case was it a surprise, but still it rattled me.  Not bad, but a rattle.

So here I am, wasting time worrying about a pretend world with pretend people, asking myself, now what do I do?  Obviously I can do nothing whatsoever since my involvement with the show begins and ends with the word "customer" and I can choose to buy the next season or not.  But I'm already in a weird place.

I watch everything on DVD.  There isn't a cable connection to my house - though my experience with AT&T as an internet provider may change that - nor even a TV antenna.  If it isn't on a DVD, I don't watch it.  As a direct result of that, all of my TV viewing experience is seriously time-shifted.  I have to wait for a season to come out on DVD before I can see it.  I won't watch it online, though Sweetie will with certain PBS and BBC shows.  So I've finished Season Three of Glee, but have yet to receive Season Four.  It hasn't been released yet.

When Season Four gets here, every time Finn Hudson is on the screen, a small voice in the back of my head is going to remind me, "that guy's dead now."  Like YouTube videos of loved ones long gone, here he is, walking around onscreen, talking, laughing.  It's Glee, so: singing and dancing, too, in that decidedly stiff Finn Hudson way.

In a large way for the celebrities of the modern era, and to a lesser but still significant degree for the rest of us, the ongoing memorial is available to us.  The Information Age can keep a greater representation of us burning brighter in memory than the old grainy Super-8 home movies and fading sepia photographs ever could.  And I have to wonder if that's a good thing.

It's good to be remembered.  When I've shuffled off this mortal coil I won't care one way or the other what's going on, but it's nice to think right now that someone then will remember me, remember what my contributions were.  But you want to only be remembered, not clung to.  I think the Facebook pages and cherished voice messages, while sweet in the moment and poignant to hear about, are ultimately stifling.  They give the bereaved a stronger icon to cling to, one that is more brightly renewed with each time it's replayed.  It invites the bereaved to continue to live in that captured slice of life, rather than just remember it and move on.  It doesn't do to dwell on the past, not even the good times.  They're past.  I know right now that I don't want anyone to get caught up in missing me that they become fixated on recordings of me, of pictures or videos or even a handwritten note that we need to buy eggs.  If I'm gone, I'm gone...but other people aren't.  Be in the same world as they are, the one that is still real.  It's a better world than one glimpsed through a window into the past, where nothing ever changes.

Remember your loved ones.  Remember your favorite movie stars, artists, friends, pets.  Remember enemies and furniture.  Remember a scary storm or a quiet evening.  They made an impression on your life and all of them had an impact on how you became what you are now.  But only remember them.  You can delete the Facebook pages and erase the YouTube videos, and let your memories be just that.
A simple stone in the ground might suffice after all.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Google, Rembrandt, and Missing the Point

Today, if you haven't noticed, is Rembrandt van Rijn's 407th birthday.

There's a better than even chance that you did notice.  Google celebrated the famous artist's anniversary with a Doodle, a little bit of stylized art that embellishes the usual colorful Google name and logo at the center of the homepage.

Today, instead of the usual colorful Google greeting us, we found the darker, brooding style of Rembrandt's usual art.  And where the Google name appeared, instead of the usual particolor style we found a dark, narrow style that fades away behind an image of the painter himself.

It caught my eye but I didn't think too much about it until I found this little tidbit in the news.  And I can safely say that he has gotten the interpretation 100% wrong.

The very good news here is that I can safely say it because it is my opinion.  My opinion is only that, an opinion.  It is not a statement of fact, just of interpretation.

But if you read the fellow's article, you see that he is less than impressed with Google's homage to Rembrandt because it isn't impressive.

Well, of course it isn't.  It's not Rembrandt, it's an homage.  It's a quick bit of art equipped with a hotlink to throw you to a page of links that will give you a big slice of Rembrandt, a big thick slice that will cut through the layers of his life and give you the chance to really appreciate not just the artist, but the man.  But even here we haven't come to the main reason why Jones is wrong.

Here's the main reason:

Google is not obligated to do anything whatsoever.  You could have clicked your internet connection this morning and been met by the usual white background, colorful letters and the search box.  And you would have gone about your business with no problems...just like right now.  Even with its Doodle, Google continues to function as you expect.  It doesn't detract from your experience, it doesn't require you click on a tiny hidden x to make the image go away.  It's just there.  Explore or don't, it's up to you.

The point of art is to make you think, to convey an idea, to raise awareness.  It isn't merely putting a word on a page but an attempt to capture a moment in time or a thought.  Any fool can write.  I can write.  Jonathan Jones can write.  But I cannot paint and neither, I suspect, can Jones.  What Jones can do is criticize, which unfortunately places him in the sights of no less a philosopher than George Burns.  I'd like to point out that George Burns was a lot more of a contemporary of Rembrandt than Jones will ever be, so perhaps we should consider George's wisdom with more than just a chuckle.

At least a few people now know a lot more about Rembrandt, today, than they did yesterday.  They know what they know because they had their curiosity piqued by Google's Doodle, clicked some links and made some discoveries.  And unfortunately now we have this classist, this overeducated, snobbish nob who thinks that just because he's some sort of authority - we won't clarify exactly what sort - that his opinion is right and others' are wrong.  It's more important to remember that what he's spewing is OPINION.  It isn't factual.

If you clicked the Doodle and learned some things, great!  More power to you.  If you are a painter, much more power to you and I hope you cast a deaf ear on the critics.  Do what moves you, not what moves them.  Not unless you're doing a commission, in which case do whatever it takes to earn the bucks so you can afford to do what moves you.  That is what art is about.  Self expression, not repression.  So thanks to you, Google, for providing what no one asked, for reaching beyond when no one expected.  And Mr. Jones, shut your mouth and let the teachers teach, if you don't have anything helpful to add.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Justin Bieber, Again

I said at one time that I didn't understand the rampant hate for Justin Bieber.  The kid, as I said back then, has some talent.

I still say he has some talent.  His musical product has moved in a direction that I don't care for, but that's a matter of taste.  It sounds like hiphop, and I don't like hiphop at all.  That isn't going to change, but I can admit it takes but skill and art to create, even in a style I don't like, so that's the end of that part of the statement.  But two years ago I said I liked Justin Bieber, and that has changed.

Bieber appears to have accumulated wealth and influence before he developed the intelligence and wisdom to know how to handle them responsibly.  And now he appears to be making the possibly fatal error of mistaking wealth and influence for rights and privileges.

Interesting side note: the origin of the word "privilege" means "private law," as in rules that apply only to those who can afford them.  It's also worth noting that in the United States, there isn't supposed to be any private law.  If you live here, you are affected by and expected to abide by the same laws as everyone else, every time, all the time.  Also interesting: "privilege" in its original definition could also mean a law that acted against one person in particular.  Funny how some meanings fall away.

Anyway, Bieber is in the news again.  He's been in the news quite a bit over the past year: annoying his neighbors by racing his brand-new Ferrari up and down the quiet residential streets of his rich suburb, playing loud music to also annoy those same neighbors, and now he's peeing into a mop bucket at a restaurant.

There have been reports of drugs on the tour bus, walking out on entertainment bills worth hundreds of dollars, being amazingly, densely self-absorbed in the visitors' log at the Anne Frank Museum and while taking a pee break in the janitor's closet, for some reason shouting F-bombs at Bill Clinton.  I just have to marvel at that last, I mean...really?  The guy wrapped up his presidency when you were still in nappies, Justin.  And last I heard, you were still a Canadian citizen, wouldn't you rather shout imprecations about Stephen Harper?  Or at least Pauline Marois.  In any case I strongly suspect Bieber isn't aware enough of the political world to be shouting F-bombs at anybody.  If he's gonna drop F-bombs, he might lob a few at the guys driving his Ferrari while intoxicated.  Getting your Maranello special impounded is worth a few choice swear words.

So here, I think, we have a case of rising too far too fast.  Like what I said about child actors, there is such a thing is losing the opportunity to develop wisdom and context while you're young and subject to the vectors that shape responsible behavior.  Bieber first got famous at the age of 13, when most other kids are still in sixth grade.  Generally you don't worry about stuff like demo tapes when you're in sixth grade, you worry about your English homework (or in Bieber's case, your French) and a pickup soccer game after school.  Irresponsible behavior yields bad grades, rudeness gets your nose bloodied, and afterward you come away from the experience with your pride appropriately shrunk to a manageable size and a better understanding of the rights of others and when you need to step up and deliver what is expected of you.

What began as a likeable kid with a good voice has become an obnoxious young adult with a good voice.  From one end to the other he has had legions of screaming fans and even now they still scream, but I think that's going to start changing within the next three to five years.  Firstly it'll change because he won't have the very young good looks of the kid he was but instead will begin to look more like a man.  That will kill most of his appeal with the very young teenybopper crowd.  While he has a distinctive sound and is pretty good with it, he's no Justin Timberlake.  Timberlake is Bieber's (too many Justins for this post) strongest musical competition, a white R&B singer who, besides being ridiculously successful, has managed to grow up as a responsible person in spite of his success at a young age.  Of course there's room in the firmament for more than one of this type of star, but I suspect that Bieber's may be on the edge of burning out.

Bieber appears to be going down the path that leads to Off The Rails.  Like Lohan, like Bynes, his behavior seems to be devolving into something ever more self-destructive.  Yeah, he's an adult now and technically responsible for his own actions.  That doesn't mean somebody shouldn't grab hold of him and try to steer him into something more positive.

Right now I predict about a 30% chance Bieber will be dead by his own actions within ten years. Drugs, car crash, or suicide after his career comes to a screeching collapse.

I just hope I'm wrong.