"That you may ruminate"

Archive for March, 2009

…On Passover.

Posted by Steve on March 30, 2009

Several years ago, my dad forwarded me a highly amusing version of the haggadah, Michael Rubiner’s Two-Minute Haggadah. From it I took the wonderful motto, “Free people get to slouch.” Well, following in his footsteps and thus carrying on a family tradition of seasonal sacrilege against the faith of my paternal ancestors, I’m pleased to provide you with this link to the Facebook Haggadah.

May you laugh as I did!

And as to why Pharoah’s Advisor’s thumbnail pic is Rasputin, I have no idea.

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…On The Loo(m/n)ing Elections.

Posted by Steve on March 28, 2009

Today is Saturday, March 28, 2009. Today, I saw big signs for candidates in a major upcoming election.

Fortunately, it’s an election that will at least take place this year. There’s no excuse for campainging right now for the 2010 elections – or the 2012 elections, though that hasn’t apparently stopped some people (see “Straw Poll comma CPAC 2009”).

But I live in Virginia, and in Virginia, state elections are held in odd-numbered years. So, there’s an election for governor (where His Excellency Governor Kaine’s prohibited from running for re-election because this ass-backwards state not only calls the governor “His (or hypothetically Her) Excellency”, but prohibits reelection), and for the state House of Delegates. And while a bunch of city offices are elected in even numbered years – so last year we voted for mayor and part of the city council – the County and City Sheriffs (Yes, City Sheriffs, because in Virginia a City is the same as a County in any other state. We also have Counties here. That’s why Richmond County contains no cities and is 50 miles away from City of Richmond which is not in any county. Did I mention “ass-backwards” political structure?) and the Commonwealth’s Attorneys (DAs elsewhere).

As a result, people have begun campaigning for Governor already. I mean, the election’s only in November, so it’s only 219 days away. Of course, there’s primaries, but the big signs I saw were all for Bob McDonnell, who is… running unopposed in the Republican Party primary. I think he’d have been ok waiting a little while.

On the other hand, there’s 3 guys running in the Democratic Party’s primary (Brian Moran,Creigh Deeds, and Terry McAuliffe) and and since that’s going to be held on June 9th, the three of them really need to get their signs up – they only have 72 more days to campaign in!!!!!!!!!!

Seriously, the “campaign season” takes too long and becomes farcical. If they’d wait at least until after Tax Day to start, I think there’d be a lot less mudslinging and asinine horse-race sort of “news” coverage. Maybe it wouldn’t actually improve the quality of campaigning from the crap we get right now, but it would at least cut down on the quantity of the crap.

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…On Product Selection.

Posted by Steve on March 25, 2009

There’s an old saying everybody knows: “The customer is always right.”

Obviously, that saying isn’t true. Sometimes the customer’s a moron. Sometimes the customer’s a jackass. Either way, sometimes the customer’s just plain wrong.

However, there is one thing that the customer does always be. Namely, the customer does always be the one who knows what it wants. Unfortunately, as that inexplicably popular band sang, “you can’t always get what you want,” because sometimes what the customer wants just isn’t available. As another old saying went, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Now, sometimes the issue where the company won’t make the desired product available is trivial, as with Model T colors or the fact that Taco Bell only makes the best thing on their menu available in Atlanta and Minneapolis, but not where I live. It’s annoying and I make a point of complaining about it whenever I fill out a customer (dis)satisfaction form, but in the great scheme of things, including my life, it isn’t that big a deal.

With other things, though, it can be meaningful. Computer software, for instance, is (I think) an area where that’s particularly true. Microsoft’s the poster-child for this. Don’t need, want, or like the new features and functional changes in the new version of Office or Windows? Too damn bad, because we’re not going to support or sell the old version anymore: the new version is the only version. Firefox 3’s another example: you can put up with the way they’ve ruined the location bar’s functionality, or you can not use Firefox, since their piece of crap changes are unremovable from 3 and previous versions are no longer supported. Frankly, in my opinion, the computer software industry’s almost as bad as the textbook industry for putting out unnecessary new versions and new versions that are just plain worse than the old versions (at one point while I was in college, I was taking a class in a department where 4th edition of the textbook was required. Another class in the same department required 5th edition of the same book. The professor for my class proudly explained that 5th edition was 4th edition with the contents rearranged and assorted spelling errors added, and was only available as a $90 new book as opposed to the $30 used 4th edition. I believe the adjective he used to summarize his feelings about the 5th edition was “criminal”.). I think both industries would benefit from applying Barbri’s motto to their product development: do it once, do it right, never do it again. Putting out a Textbook 2nd edition or a Browser Version 2 usually means a fuck-up, either in the original or the new, not an improvement on a good thing (as when the 2009 model of a car gets better gas mileage than the 2008 model which got better gas mileage than the 2007 model).

But hey, it’s the company that decides what their product is. So when they decide it’s time for 5th Edition textbooks or Office 2007 or Firefox 3, the customer is always right might as well sit down and shut up. Apparently “your way, right away” is only at Burger King. A shame, really.

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…On What $25 Will Buy You.

Posted by Steve on March 21, 2009

Apparnetly, $25 won’t just buy you the exact same service that used to be free, it’ll also buy you somebody stealing your stuff while they do what used to be free.

Yes, I realize that checked baggage didn’t used to be “free”, it was just included in the airfare. But, did airfare go down a corresponding $25 when the $25/bag fees went in? No. So, we went from a seat on a plane and a piece of checked luggage costing, say, three hundred dollars to… the same seat and piece of checked luggage costing three hundred twenty-five dollars! That additional charge also doesn’t prevent them from losing (or apparently robbing) your luggage, so it’s pretty clear that the quality of the baggage handling hasn’t improved with the additional charge.

Wonderful: consumers get to pay more for the exact same thing they’d been getting! That’s almost as good as “pay just as much for less”, which is what they’ve started doing with ice cream. Used to be, ice cream came in a half gallon. Then they dropped it to 1.75 quarts; now, a lot of companies have switched to 1.5 quarts (I’m looking at you, Breyer’s and Kroger’s), but not lowered their prices accordingly. As far as I know, the only exception is Blue Bell, which 1) costs a lot and 2) is not available in most states – including mine (unless you’re willing to pay $120 to get 2 gallons shipped to you… I’ll pass).

These things annoy me, but I don’t know what can be done to change them. I mean, asides from eliminating inflation and population growth so that there’s never any more economic change… honestly, I wouldn’t object to eliminating change, once everything gets to a state worth keeping in eternal stasis, but the world is in no such condition yet.

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…On Grassley.

Posted by Steve on March 17, 2009

You know, in certain older civilized cultures, when men failed as entirely as you have, they would throw themselves on their swords.

Indeed, and well they should have, for an utter failure’s life is forfeit. The only alternative to suicide, then, is execution. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley hit upon it rightly yesterday, in his comment about AIG executives: “The first thing that would make me feel a little bit better towards them if they’d follow the Japanese model and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say I’m sorry, and then either do one of two things — resign, or go commit suicide”. Indeed. Their gross failure – and the failure of many others like them – do indeed merit seppuku or execution, and their deaths are months overdue.

But now Grassley’s saying “he doesn’t really mean they should kill themselves.”

Well, I do. As the Good Book says, the wages of failure are death.

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…On Betrayal.

Posted by Steve on March 15, 2009

Last night I finished reading the second volume, Day Watch, of Sergei Lukyanenko‘s Night Watch series (the translator for his website is clearly not Andrew Bromfield, who translated the novels, since it spells his first name “Sergey” and calls the books “Night Patrol”. Bromfield did a damn fine translation, let me tell you.) The series tends to be a downer – although the protagonist of the first volume does get happy endings in both the first two volumes (I’m into the third, Twilight Watch, now). But the thing is, the protagonists of Day Watch all get unhappy endings, since they’re treated as disposable pawns by those they trust.

Today, I watched Watchmen again with a guy from work. And rewatching it, it became clear to me what about it was most disturbing to me: You’re in the way of my revenge. Nothing personal, big guy. Other parts were more revolting, other parts were more depressing, but that was the most… I guess I’d say the most outrageous, as in the most causing of outrage. And it’s not because of the specifics of what and how happens. No, it’s the who does it, the why they do it, that bothers me. In my mind, trust gets betrayed there. It gets betrayed later, too, of course – and with colossal treachery. Those other betrayals, though, I think are less severe in that they weren’t so… cold, so purposeless, and so unconcerned for the person betrayed.

And that’s the takeaway: betrayal is an awful thing to do. It can be justified sometimes, by more important causes, but if you do betray somebody, you’d damn well better have a good reason to do it.

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…On this “Popcuts” store.

Posted by Steve on March 13, 2009

Back in September, I read an article on CNN’s website about a little new online music store called Popcuts. I did some research on it, even signed up for it, and I ruminated on it here. Well, a few months ago they selected certain users for a phone survey on the service, and I was one of them. For the hour and a half or two hours of my time on a Sunday night (it was only supposed to be one hour, but the interview was conducted by a hired consultant that was using VoIP and having major problems with it), I got $25 of store credit with Popcuts.

Which is how I can now actually give some meaningful commentary on the store, which a small number of people do actually use.
Read the rest of this entry »

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…On watching Watchmen.

Posted by Steve on March 6, 2009

I watched the 12:50 showing of Watchmen today. I haven’t ever read the comics (written by Alan Moore and some other guy who actually let his name be put in the credits), so I don’t know how good an adaptation it is.

I just know what sort of a movie it is.

It is an amazing movie. It is a human movie. It is a beautiful movie.

Oh, its world is grimy and dark, its superheros are a mix of the bloodthirsty, the callous, and the apathetic. In its world righteousness and cruelty are inextricable. It insinuates that people’s love for each other is rarely more than just lust’s lee from an Arrakeen storm of isolation and despair. The Pandoran hope it holds out for humanity is based upon lies and slaughter.

Oh, this superhero movie is human!

And watching it played havoc with my emotions. I should have been able to feel the full measure of disgust at its more gruesome and twisted moments. I should have been able to feel the full measure of awe at its more awe-inspiring moments (on an aside, it makes wonderful use of Koyaanisqatsi with a brilliant splicing of “Pruit Igoe” into “Prophecies”. It never hurts to borrow from the single greatest film score ever. Actually, in general this made great use of music, including Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”). I should have been able to feel the full pathos at its declaration of the one true miracle in the universe. But for the most part, I felt a feeling of failure. A particular, individualized failure, not the ever-present low grade “toothache” sort of failure felt from believing that the characters Rorschach (who is as much an Avatar of idealized justice as he is a man) and Ozymandias are both to significant degree philosophically right. No, this is a feeling of personal failure. The sort of bone-deep sense of inadequacy that comes from answering questions about envy: Who do you envy? What do you envy? Why do you have to envy it?

When Batman Begins came out, I watched it several times in the theaters because it was a spectacular movie. But, much as I loved it, I went home afterwards feeling bad about myself every time. In comparison to Batman, well… Batman is not someone I could compare myself favorably to then, and he isn’t someone I can compare myself favorably to now. Batman is strong. Batman is inspiring. Batman is motivated to push himself successfully in the service of a great purpose. When you get right down to it, Batman is someone I would much, much rather be than be me.

Batman is a far nobler superhero than the superheros of Watchmen. Far more deserving of the “I wish I were that. I should be that.” sort of respectful envy that I feel towards so many fictional characters (and believe me, that sort of embarrassing admission, far more than any concerns over potential professional, legal, or interpersonal consequences, is the reason I avoid personally identifiable information and the use of my last name with this blog). Of course, though the Watchmen are so much less pure than Batman, I’m also less now than I was then. Or at least, that’s how I feel.

Perhaps it’s wrong of me to watch superhuman feats of martial arts and condemn myself for the inability to replicate them. But then, I am morbidly obese, and in the past few weeks where unemployment’s given me far too much time on my hands I haven’t corrected that. Surely, then, my condemnation is deserved.
Perhaps it’s wrong of me to watch suicidally unwavering commitment to a cause & course of action and condemn myself for lacking such dedication. But then, I’ve never finished any of those books I started writing, and in the past few weeks where unemployment’s given me far too much time on my hands I haven’t corrected that. Surely, then, my condemnation is deserved.

Strange thing about it is, these characters I compare myself to so unfavorably, well… unlike several of them, I have never murdered innocents or passively witnessed such. Surely that makes me a better man than they. But what of it? To paraphrase Chris Rock, “Whaddya want? A cookie? You’re not supposed to murder innocents, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!” Or to quote the Confiteor, “I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.”

The characters of Watchmen deserve opprobrium for their sins of commission. I, for sins of omission. The absence of power is every bit as unworthy of respect as the misuse of power. These characters intersperse power used for ill with power used for good. I just don’t have any power, for good or ill. I lack will-power, and watching Watchmen required me for a few hours to stop burying that in my mind and trying to avoid it – and its implications – in my consciousness.

Soon enough, that will pass. Like the masses in Watchmen, I will bow my head to the weight of my inadequacy and shoulder on through the life of my own making. For as this movie tells us, to those great enough, the world’s smartest man might as well be the world’s smartest termite – and I am not the world’s smartest man.

I am, however, rambling. So to take away: Watchmen, good movie and accurate portrayal of the essence of humanity. Me, real person – but not one I’m proud of.

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…On weighting the issues.

Posted by Steve on March 2, 2009

Courtesy of the second-latest post at Volokh Conspiracy, I now know that a study has been put out by a research center at George Mason University (oddly, the two authors are assistant professors at Texas State University and the University of Buffalo, not George Mason University. So you’d think it would have been published at either TSU or Buffalo, not at a third-party university) that performs a statistical analysis on all 50 states’ laws in order to rank them according to personal and economic freedom.

I’ve looked through the study, and I can’t say I agree with it. Things I think have between no and minimal relevance to freedom are, in a few cases, weighted heavily in their analysis (elements of education policy, for instance). Likewise, they weight campaign finance laws more heavily than alcohol regulations and blue laws, which I disagree with. And because in their overall index they give economic freedom equal weight with personal freedom (something I disagree with – freedom is for people, economic matters are for machines and drones), tax levels count for more than the combination of marriage & civil union laws, arrests for victimless crimes, and occupational licensing schemes.

But that’s ok. They’ve published their coded data in Excel files. The report explains what each data code means. And, as they explicitly invite people to do, you can use that data, assigning better weightings, to get a corrected index.

They were even kind enough to code data they didn’t use in their report. And I quote page 6:

Our definition of freedom presents specific challenges on some high-profile issues. Abortion is a critical example. On one account, the fetus is a rights-bearing person, and abortion is therefore an aggressive violation of individual rights that ought to be punished by government. On another account, the fetus does not
have rights, and abortion is a permissible exercise of an individual liberty, in which case government regulation of abortion would be an unjust violation of a woman’s rights. Rather than take a stand on one side or the other (or anywhere in between), we have coded the data on state abortion restrictions but have not included the policy in our overall index.

I think I may just go ahead and play around with their data and some point, see which state comes closes to the my ideal.

And not that this matters, but I never would have used the phrasing “on one account/on another account”. Either “on one/another hand“, or else “by one/another account”, but not that bastard idiom.

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…On Fire and Ice.

Posted by Steve on March 1, 2009

To hell with the Robert Frost poem, I’ve found something far more interesting: making fire from ice.

There’s a story behind this, that begins with me wondering how I can learn to make a bow and arrows by hand. This lead to me finding out about PaleoPlanet, where someone posted an illustrated message about making fire with lenses carved from ice. A quick search on Google turned up an even more comprehensive source, as Wildwood Survival has a multi-author, multi-part guide to the process.

An upside to being temporarily unemployed? Once it quits raining on… Tuesday… I’ll be able to try this out with all my free time!

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