Archive for September, 2010

The dangers of too much frugality

September 26, 2010 2 comments

It had been 2 years since water-sealing the front porch. I meant to do it last Summer, but you know, surgery and all that.

So this week I pressure-washed the porch and waited a couple days for it to dry. Yesterday I noticed clouds building up so I thought; “You’d better get that sealant on it before it rains!”

Of course the hose connection broke off the sprayer. With clouds approaching, I quickly fashioned a new one by drilling a ¼” hole in a dime, soldering it onto a piece of copper tube to make a flange, chucking the tube in the drill press and filing off the rim of the flange until it measured the right diameter to fit in the locking collar, then some silicone and quick assembly, and the spray can was fixed! Ha!  Just enough time to seal the wood before it could rain!

Except the gallon can of sealant in the garage was almost empty. Had about 1 cup of liquid in it. Apparently I hadn’t wanted to throw it out. Did you know a nearly-empty can looks exactly like a full one?

Torrential rains followed, and the temperature dropped, so the porch is drying ever so slowly…

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System changes at the decrepit zone

September 26, 2010 3 comments

You might have noticed that (with a lot of much-appreciated technical help from Les Jenkins) I’ve transitioned my blog and Diane’s from Expression Engine to WordPress.  Well that ain’t the half of it!

Nothing at all wrong with Expression Engine, but WP is being used more widely on campus so it makes sense for me not to divide my effort.  Also as Les could tell you I never quite got the hang of EE administration.  There are a lot more books available for WP and now I’ll be using it at work and at home.  So hopefully I can get a few neurons to lurch in the same direction and grok this thing.

I also changed the back end hosting from GoDaddy to DreamHost.  Suffice to say, “DH, where have you been all my (online) life?” Their services are powerful and managed through clean, logical control panels.  Prices are good-to-excellent.  Love it!

One other note… having spent around three hours Friday and yesterday managing my domains and email accounts on GoDaddy, pointing them to the hosting at DreamHost, I have had it with GD’s website.  It’s cluttered, and they can’t do anything without trying to sell you something else. As the domains expire, I will be moving them to another registrar.

Also I have seen all I ever want to see of the “GoDaddy Girls”.  Bob Parsons, the GoDaddy CEO, decorates his pages with women he considers “smoking hot” (his words).  Mister Parsons – that shtick was funny in one Super Bowl ad after the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, but you should have moved on by now.  In case you are wondering why there’s a dearth of women in technical fields, you might start by looking in the mirror, you sexist creep.

Anyway this work also entailed new mail servers, which meant more changes for MrsDoF.  She’s been a pretty good sport about it so far.  Wait until she’s writing a post, and types in raw HTML in the Visual editor, and it shows up in the post.  It’s happened to me a couple times at work already – I ain’t used to these here newfangled contraptions.

There’s lots to do yet – templates and plugins and fine-tuning, oh my – but please take a look around, and visit MrsDoF‘s blog as well, and let me know if it passes the smoke test.    To Infinity And Beyond!

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Changing web hosts and all that complication

September 24, 2010 3 comments

I’m in the process of changing web hosts, starting with MrsDoF’s blog.  Once she’s comfortable in the new host, I’ll be moving this one as well, to DreamHost.  So if you notice that Diane’s site is down, don’t fret.  She’ll be back with beautiful creative crochet projects, insights on education, stories of her days and vignettes of church life in a day or two.

But hey, never change only one complicated variable at a time, right?  Les Jenkins is also exporting both blogs from Expression Engine to WordPress for me.  I suppose in a month of Sundays I could have figured out how to do that export but he is the go-to-guy since he did it for his much larger blog,  Stupid Evil Bastard

In fact, I’m changing two hosts at a time; we initially tried to move Diane’s blog to a host I had on GoDaddy, but it wasn’t a flexible enough plan to handle multiple domains.  I called GoDaddy to cancel the host and I must say, their phone service is always great.  They are fast and courteous and they get it done, whatever it is.  I have nothing bad at all to say about GoDaddy, but their web control panels are made for someone with better eyesight than I have.  So the proposal of multiple domain hosting on even one of their upgraded plans gave me eyestrain just thinking about it.  Thus the change to DreamHost.

There will be changes to this blog as well.  I’ve been restless lately, even thinking about taking a long break to re-group, but I realized that what I really want to do is up my game.  How could I quit blogging with an election coming up? 

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It just seemed appropriate…

September 17, 2010 4 comments

…that before pouring in the rest of the cat litter, I pick up my camera and commemorate this headline:

glen beck headline in cat litter
From Notes
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“Tie me kangaroo down, sport…”

September 13, 2010 6 comments

Well it wouldn’t work very well to secure a wandering wallaby, but it’s a surprisingly handy thing to have in your toolbox:

I have a dislike/hate relationship to zip-ties; they are useful once in a blue moon but mostly they exist to make it impossible to service multimedia consoles while I am twisted into an awkward position trying to unplug something.  I much prefer securing cables with Velcro or a short piece of wire.

This bundle is from about 20 feet of CAT3 signal wire, stripped of its outer insulation and cut into 12-inch lengths, formed into a heavy bundle and twisted to hold them together.  Throw it in your tool bag and pull off a strand or two when you need it.  Strong enough to organize cables but much easier to cut (or un-twist and re-use) than a nylon zip-tie.

Making such a bundle is even easier if you get one of those fat trunk bundle cables of 100 wires, but it isn’t hard to find old phone wire thrown away.

By the way, anybody remember this song?  And could you get it out of your head if you heard it?

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Protesting xenophobic ignorance

September 11, 2010 4 comments

Today is September 11, 2010; the anniversary of the 9/11 attack and the day that pastor Terry Jones of the ironically-named “Dove Center” in Florida intended to burn Korans.

Well possibly not.  Late yesterday Jones said that he had been in contact with Imam Rauf of the Cordoba Center in Manhattan, and received a promise that no mosque would be built at Ground Zero.  So he now says he isn’t going ahead with his plan to burn the Koran.  (Rauf denies this conversation, and Jones’ daughter is concerned that he may be losing it) 

Anyway, it got me thinking about book-burning as a symbolic protest and I decided to hold a little protest of my own: I spent a couple hours reading the Koran.  After a few more sessions I’ll write my impressions, but for now the point is that we can handle ideas contrary to our own without the Earth splitting open and swallowing us up.

And this is something we Americans should practice more.  As a people we’re not usually multilingual (said the man reading the Dawood translation of the Koran), but the very least we can do is try to understand.  And we won’t get that understanding by listening to angry heads who demonstrably know next to nothing about our putative “enemies”.  You’d learn more about Islam in one lunch hour with a Muslim friend, inviting them to talk about their experience than you would in a year of watching Fox News.

Now the odds that we’ll really succeed in understanding are, admittedly, slim.  But the attempt has value in itself.  For one thing, we might figure out that “they” have the same, terribly human problem of trying to understand us.

With a little effort we could try to understand that there are different flavors of Islam, just as there are of Christianity.  We could learn that there are poor and rich Islamic countries, and that a couple of them are secular democracies.  We could study the ugly history of Western intervention in oil-producing lands, which are predominately Muslim. 

The alternative, sadly, is to look at videos of planes crashing into buildings and say; “Everything I need to know about Islam I learned on 9-11”.  As if all 1.2 billion Muslims were all members of the tiny faction, Al Queda.  As if American Muslims (been around since George Washington’s time, actually) didn’t serve in our military.  And as if, well, a hundred other things.

The link above is satire, but it contains a very important truth about the practical value of understanding.  It isn’t a touchy-feely kind of value, but a real improvement in our prospects.  If we know the differences among Muslims, and have a more accurate understanding of the cultures within Islam, we have a better chance of not playing the role of xenophobic idiots.  We won’t protest things that are actually all to the good.  We might find more allies among the larger Muslim population, who after all are not all that fond of Al Queda either.  And we might make some new friends and make the world a safer place.

But we’ll never know unless we try.  I’m not holding out much hope that Jones will try, but the rest of us don’t have insanity as an excuse.


  • Today has been dubbed “Burn a Koran Day” by Terry Jones, but also “Read a Koran Day by Huffington Post’s Jesse Berney.  I didn’t get the idea from him; it just seemed like an obvious thing to do.

  • I’m not kidding about what you can learn around Muslim friends, vs. what you “learn” on Fox News.  Having experienced both the contrast is striking.
  • PZ Myers, who knows something about symbolic acts himself, shares a video ridiculing Jones
  • Take a look at these Ramadan pictures for another visual perspective.
  • Obama says, correctly, that the Koran-burning is a recruiting bonanza for Al Queda.  PZ has interesting reasons to argue that shouldn’t be a factor.
  • Obama, echoing Bush; We are not at war with Islam.  Given that he actually does know something about Islam (which was one of several reasons I voted for him) the statement has some positive meaning.
  • ***Dave has

Exploring offensive symbolic expression

September 10, 2010 2 comments

There’s a Christian pastor in Florida named Terry Jones, who claimed he was going to burn some Korans tomorrow, as a protest against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (which is actually a civic center a couple blocks away from Ground Zero.)  He’s calling it; “Burn the Koran day”.  Despite being a complete nobody, he got international attention, with protests all over the Islamic world, and even a response from the President of the United States.

That’s more attention than some hateful loser with fifty followers deserves, but OK, he’s news.  So let’s talk about symbolic acts; I’ll start.

The first confusion is whether the government should “let” him burn Korans, or “let” Imam Rauf build the Cordoba Center in Manhattan.  Clear that up right now: if they’re his Korans, he has the right in this country to burn them, as a form of free speech.  Freedom of speech is really about freedom of thought, and there is no more fundamental freedom.  Maybe that’s why it’s the First Amendment.

Ditto for the Cordoba Center in Manhattan: there are other religious institutions in that area, plus a strip club, a porn shop, and some good restaurants.  It’s a busy, multicultural place.  The minute we say; “Our religion but not yours” we’re just that much less American. Freedom of ideas – and by extension, of religion – is one of the things that defines our nation.  So assuming fire laws and zoning regulations are equitably enforced, the government isn’t going to intervene in either case.

So the big question is; “Should he?”  And there have been some test cases recently that let us explore the symbolic space of offense and protest. 

The first is PZ Myers’ “Crackergate”, in which he defiled a consecrated communion wafer, a page from “The God Delusion”, and a page from the Koran.  His point was that ideas aren’t sacred, and as you might expect it got thousands of responses from Catholics (many threatening violence), including Catholic League president Bill Donahue.  Atheists didn’t seem upset that he damaged Dawkins’ book, and only a couple of Muslims responded to his damaging a page from the Koran. And if that was all you knew about it, you might think; “Gee, why would he poke Catholics in the eye like that?”

Actually, it was a symbolic protest against a very non-symbolic threat against a very real college student, who walked out of church with a consecrated wafer.  You might think the priest would visit him and explain the importance of the Host, and he’d either repent or not, and that would be the end of it, but noooo… Bill Donahue got involved and tried to get the kid kicked out of college.  The young man faced constant harassment from other Catholics and even some threats.  Crackergate was Myers’ way of saying; “Hey Donahue, pick on somebody your own size!”.  That’s one case.

Another was Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a novel that offended some Islamist Muslims.  A price was actually put on Rushdie’s head, copies of his book were burned, and to this day he could be killed for writing the novel; a very concrete response to the expression of unwelcome symbolic ideas.

(I tried reading The Satanic Verses, but didn’t care for it.  Mostly I read non-fiction, and occasionally short, action-packed novels.  But mostly I prefer comics.)

Which leads to the Danish Newspaper that published 12 cartoons of Muhammad.  It lead to riots, death threats, some people were actually killed, and a lot of property damage.  And why?  Because Muslims are forbidden to make images of Muhammad – and by extension we non-Muslims apparently are as well.  A violent response to a symbolic act.

But the Muhammad cartoons were a symbolic response to another violent act, the murder of film director Theo Van Gogh following a book and film that were critical of Islam.  The paper was concerned that calls for “self-censorship” had no built-in boundaries, and would quickly calcify into a convention that one could not criticize religion, or more specifically Islam, for fear of violence.

There are many – too many – examples I could give where symbolic acts “triggered” violence but let’s remember what a trigger is.  Triggers do not push bullets out of guns; there already has to be stored violence to be released by the trigger; if it is not already waiting, the trigger can do nothing.

I still believe the most profound question is; “Can we all just get along?”  In historical times our failure resulted in endless slaughter, but our methods have “improved” to where we can’t afford NOT to get along anymore. 

I can’t believe that some kind of mutual agreement to tiptoe around and not offend each other is even practical in the short term, let alone a long-term solution.  Progress happens when the bad ideas of the past begin to look ridiculous, and that’s never easy or inoffensive.  Trying to respect the un-respectable postpones that moment almost indefinitely.

So the answer to “Should he?” is yes, he should, if he is so sure that’s the best expression of his ideas.  He should find a symbolic way of illustrating his ideas.  Use words, use dance, paint a picture (or a draw a cartoon), but find a way to express your ideas without killing anyone.  And of course others are free to try and convince him not to do it, too.  If he goes ahead and someone responds violently, we will have to prosecute that violence in some appropriate way.  But only offensive speech even needs protection, which suggests that it is precisely offensive speech that is intended by that principle.  The response is a risk we must be Constitutionally prepared to take, or live in constant fear.

Here’s my long-term prescription: we must resolve to stop killing one another over symbols.  We will always have our hands full responding to actual acts of real violence or oppression; we don’t need to be blowing each other up over ideas.  And if the objection is made that some cultures lag behind us in that conviction, we won’t help them catch up by becoming terrorists ourselves.  Our best strategy is to demonstrate our convictions; stick by them, live them, and never back down from showing the world what freedom looks like. 

Tomorrow is still “Burn A Koran Day”, and I have a response to pastor Jones.  I’ll post it tomorrow.

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The restored version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”

September 5, 2010 1 comment

Last night MrsDoF and I saw Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, Metropolis, recently reassembled to its original length and story line after 80 years of existing only in a badly cut-up version and lost bits in various archives.

That’s right; I said “1927”.  It’s the longest silent film I’ve ever seen, but in its restored story line it made a lot more sense than in the cut-up version that I saw many years ago.  They did a great job putting it all back together, even restoring the script from the original German censor’s files. 

Some of the special effects, like when the inventor copied the heroine’s flesh onto the body of the robot, must have been seriously mind-blowing stuff back then.  I was amused by the way he referred to the un-formed robot as “my mechanical man”, when it looked like a very female C3PO.  In some ways you’ve seen at least conceptual fragments of Metropolis -  in Blade Runner, Star Wars, Star Trek, and even Futurama

Produced during the Weimar Republic in Germany, the story takes place in a future dystopia where the powerful live in a glorious city while the poor live underground, working 10-hour shifts at exhausting, dangerous jobs, and dying young.  The son of the Central Bank’s president takes a romantic interest in a (for want of a better term) socialist leader and the bank president engages his inventor to produce a robot replicant of her, to break up the worker’s plans.

There are many sub-plots, and a few scenes in which the original audience wouldn’t understand why modern audiences were laughing (like when it really looked as if the banker’s son and his father’s assistant were about to start making out).  And silent film acting is just so… over-the-top.  Has to be, I suppose. 

The story blends themes of capitalism vs. workers, the futility of anarchy, of identity in a technological society, and of the biblical apocalypse,  and the 7 deadly sins, and Death, yet somehow it holds together very well.  The robot-woman basically becomes the Whore of Babylon, and threatens utter destruction on society by her wiles.  Scenes where she entices the monied elite with her sensual dancing are… surrealistic.

Lang had a flair for visual composition.  To see many examples, visit Google Images and search “Fritz Lang Metropolis”.  (It’s my cute way of saying I couldn’t figure out how to make a proper search link that would land you there in a single click)

Movie editing has tightened up a lot since the late ‘20’s, and it was a bit long.  At the same time, it was enlightening to see how so many complex ideas and relationships could be exposited using so few words.  Maybe all web designers should see it.

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The puzzle of industry and society

September 5, 2010 1 comment

If you are a regular reader of The Pump Handle, you’re familiar with industry hazards from a policy perspective.  But of all places I happened on a good article in Parade Magazine this morning.  It’s a reminder that when we buy products, turn on the lights, drive down roads or do almost anything, there are people who make it happen by showing up every day and doing something that could kill them:

A former supervisor, Toby Workman, walked me through its musty mazes. He talked; I took notes. At every station, he described the job—and the danger. It was like listening to a foreign language: skip cars, pulverizers, fly ash, coal crackers.

“We were working with a continuous controlled explosive: pulverized coal,” he said. “We’re the men the public doesn’t see. We’re in the hole in the dark, and most people don’t know we exist.”

Soon Toby started responding before I could ask: “Yes,” he said, handing me a 12-pound wrench, “your dad used this… Yes, he came to this window to check out tools… Yes, your dad stood right here and sweated until his clothes dripped.”
Parade Magazine, 5sep10, The place my father didn’t want me to see

The killing isn’t always an industrial accident; often it’s a fatal erosion of the body, chipping away at health over years, so that children miss their parents far too early.  But often they suffer in silence; when people step into the voting booth, people who never knew their stories, all that is forgotten and what remains are political slogans about “red tape” and “jobs”.

When you see rhetoric about “job-killing regulations”, don’t be fooled by the stock photos of handsome men and women in neatly pressed blue work shirts and hard hats; they are not the source of the expensive advertisement.  You can be sure the real source is an advertising agency, and they are charging a lot of money to people who will lose profits if they are required to provide a safe workplace.  Often, it isn’t even about the icing on their corporate cake we’re talking about, but the thickness of the icing, or whether there are sprinkles. 

Thing is, people will buy electricity, for example, regardless if it costs a little more or a little less.  And the difference is often very little.  When the company says a regulation will cost them “$20 million dollars” it sounds like a lot, but it might be thirty cents on your electric bill so “the men the public doesn’t see” can have adequate ventilation or the forests don’t die in acid rain. 

Letting workers die soon after retirement is a good deal for companies that have raided their workers’ pensions, and it externalizes the costs of their illnesses to the commons – as does sloppy environmental protection.  So you wind up paying that thirty cents many times over, because of the difference between an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure.

The unwritten lesson in the Parade piece is that no industrial process happens without people who know how to do it, and risk-averse financiers who backed the facilities where it’s done.  And they tend to lobby and advertise in favor of the status quo.  I often hear; “Why don’t we just switch to wind power?” and I wholeheartedly agree, along with solar and wave and nuclear and other low-carbon power sources.  But “switch” is the wrong word, one used to minimize the process of change.  It’s as if they haven’t a clue as to the scale of industry, or its inter-dependencies, or of cultural inertia.  I honestly don’t know if we can change fast enough to beat peak oil, or global warming, sea life depletion or the population bomb.  It’s rather a socio-cultural puzzle as much as a technological one.


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