Archive for October, 2010

I used to vote Republican

October 30, 2010 1 comment

…but not any more, and here’s why:

“I remember which party wants to take our country back, and which party wants to take our country forward. And on November 2, you should remember too.”

Oh, and as far as I can determine, these folksy hard-working Real Americans are not actors hired to look photogenic. (h/t Les Jenkins at SEB)

Categories: Uncategorized

Against the next war

October 30, 2010 1 comment

Definitely the bumper sticker of the day:

Bumper sticker: Already against the next war

Bumper sticker, car on Normal Avenue, I'm already against the next war.

Being against the next war requires some advance planning. Including but not limited to: voting for candidates who view out-of-control military spending as a dangerous waste, who foster international relationships even with our enemies, who work to understand other cultures, who can recognize and admit that we aren’t the greatest in everything, and who generally view US foreign policy with a critical eye.

If such candidates are not available, then vote for the ones nearest to that model, or against the ones farthest from it. Above all keep nationalist chest-thumpers away from the reins of power.

Categories: Uncategorized

Changing your life at college

October 28, 2010 2 comments

Ed Darrell at Millard Filmore’s Bathtub tells a story about 40 colleges that have banded together to make their mission to change students’ lives.  It’s great and I especially encourage high school kids to read the article.  Here’s an excerpt:

Choosing a college can bring on all sorts of angst.

You worry about choosing the right college — the one that will advance you toward your dreams, the one where you’ll fit in (yeah, we all worry about that), the one that you and your family can afford, the one where you can cut it, and the one where you can shine.

I urge you to consider a group of colleges known collectively as Colleges that Change Lives (CTCL).

But I also think aspiring college students need to think about college as the time when you have social permission to change your own life.  I mean sure, you can change anytime, but you’re swimming against the expectations of your entire social context.  Changing your life is what college is for.  It’s when you stretch and explore not only the topic of your major, but also your own possibilities in personal development.  This is true no matter what college you attend, and you can get a lot more out of your college experience than many of your fellow students will by looking at it a little differently.

One of the biggest obstacles to personal growth is the desire to be cool.  Enthusiasm is socially constrained to just a few things: group identity and sports for example.  Getting personally excited about music or marketing or math or law or computer science or history makes you a geek and, well, you know where that could lead.

It could lead to moments in your life when you have an original thought, when you create something, when you are taken outside yourself in pursuit of the living experience.  Moments when you flow.

When you’re in the state of Flow, you are completely focused on the task at hand.  You forget about yourself, about others, about the world around you; you lose track of time, you feel happy, in control, creative, productive.

In our culture we’ve come to accept the idea that happiness is an average level, like water in a graduated cylinder.  I’m sure that’s true for some people.  But to me it seems like settling for an existence where all the peaks must be manufactured by an artificial entertainment of some kind, where something else is the engine and you are having an exhilarating ride.

Our culture seems to avoid the moments when you are the engine.  Or to rarefy them as inaccessible to you and me.  Look at Michael Jordan!  Steve Jobs!  Yo Yo Ma!  Only people like them experience flow at work, only supermodels experience great sex, (awfully illogical when you think about it) and there’s no point in singing because, well, listen to how great Taylor Swift is at it.

Those moments are peaks, and there may be long troughs in between them.  But maybe the social convention of expecting consistent happiness gets in the way of getting above the level plain for even a brief view.

College – any college – can be more than just a line on you resume.  We’re a couple months into the semester now, and each academic year begins with a frantic recruitment effort by campus in-groups; fraternities, sororities, religious affiliations.  And that’s fine but my little suggestion is this: look for groups that focus on some well-defined exploration like (playing, not watching) sports, doing drama, experimenting with computer science, etc.  Let the group identity flow from the art,  because art usually does not flow from group identity.  And take advantage of this time in your life to geek out: it’s the only way you’ll develop the personal confidence to overcome coolness.

Categories: Uncategorized

I get email: impending election edition

October 26, 2010 2 comments

We received an email from a friend who wanted to know if hr4646, a bill that would place a 1% transaction tax on almost all exchanges of money, really existed. Someone had sent her an  email saying that Nancy Pelosi and “President Obama’s finance team” were the source of the horrible Socialist bill, and said it was introduced by Democrats DeFazio and Harkin.  She wanted to check it out before forwarding it. Here’s a sample:

“One percent transaction tax is proposed President Obama’s finance team is recommending a transaction tax. His plan is to sneak it in after the November election to keep it under the radar. This is a 1% tax on all transactions at any financial institution i. e. Banks, Credit Unions, etc.. Any deposit you make, or move around within your account, i.e. transfer to, will have a 1% tax charged. If your pay check or your social Security or whatever is direct deposit, 1% tax charged. If you hand carry a check in to deposit, 1% tax charged, If you take cash in to deposit, 1% tax charged. This is from the man  who promised that if you make under $250,000 per year, you will not see one penny of new tax. Keep your eyes and ears open, you will be amazed at what you learn…”

Following is more or less what I replied to our sensible friend.  It rambles a bit because I wrote the first draft after my bedtime, but here goes:

OK, let’s see if any facts at all are involved.  Yes, such a bill exists, and it’s called the “Debt Free America Act”.  I’ve seen crazier ideas, and the public will have to pay for our national debt one way or another, sooner or later.  It has some serious proponents which you can look up for yourself if you’re interested.  But the bill was introduced by one Congressman, who suddenly found himself standing alone. Yes, it’s in committee right now but there’s as much chance of passing it as there is of repealing the law of gravity.

(And by the way, 95% of Americans have realized a tax cut in the last two years.  That’s a fact.  Aside from this alleged issue, all the fuss has been simply about letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, expire on-schedule.)

Also, the bill has some specific exemptions, including one for stock transactions, which tells me that the congressman in question is in the pocket of investment firms that practice robo-trading which makes the market on which your pension and mine depend, less stable.  (75% of all stock purchases are re-sold within 11 seconds by the computers that bought them, no humans involved.  It’s computer-driven parasitism on the stock market, and certainly an argument for a small transaction tax, at least specifically on stock transactions.)

But here’s the thing: that panicky email you received, describing it as a “stealth Socialist takeover” directly from The Mind Of Obama (or Pelosi, depending on the version) may very well have come from the strategy room of a PR firm.  The folksy style is part of the presentation.  These emails follow a predictable trajectory wholly orthogonal to the facts and all in one direction – to the right.  There’s the conspiracy angle (Directed by Obama!  Pelosi!  Soros!), and the plea to “send this to everyone you know!”  They want you to do their distribution work for them.

Remember that since the Citizen’s United decision, a tsunami of money has been washing in from the cheap-labor conservatives to make it possible for corporations to write the laws that apply to them. These are the guys who want to abolish the minimum wage, or who promise to be really, really careful to keep salmonella out of your eggs if only the pesky government would stop bothering them.

Of course they dress it up as grassroots organizing, heroic small businessmen (instead of the giant corporations that actually proffer the $2bn so far this election cycle) and someone’s grandma who has put it all together and emailed it straight to you.

When people like Sharon Angle, Michele Bachmann and Christine O’Donnell suddenly start getting 8-figure donations from anonymous organizations, you have to wonder; who benefits?  What does it mean?

It means that people with more money than God want to write the laws for their own benefit, that’s what it means.  These are the one-tenth of one percent of Americans (and foreign individuals like Rupert Murdoch) whose income equals that of the bottom 120 million of us. Seriously.

30-second political ads, talking-points on that faux-news network, and pretty-but-crazy (or maybe stupid) candidates are not a sound basis for political decisions.  Start by simply ignoring all political ads, and be sure to read serious journalists from both right and left ends of the political spectrum.  That means The Economist and Mother Jones, not Communist Voice and World Net Daily.   Look for “cherry-picking” and outright lies (like attributing one congressman’s work to a whole administration.)

Finally, look for the politician who is willing to give you the bad news. Tax rates will probably have to go up.  There probably isn’t a practical way to fix the deficit without some tax increase.  Luckily the current rate is at historic and international lows.

If they say; “We’ll cut taxes and cut unnecessary spending”, make them tell you exactly, specifically what they plan to cut, and be ready to add up exactly how much that really means, deficit-wise.  If they can’t do that, or if they won’t admit that tax cuts affect the deficit the same way that spending does, they’re lying.

Of course, hardly any politicians are that straightforward: this is a better filter for deciding who to vote against than who to vote for.  Just be very, very suspicious of the ones who are telling you what you want to hear.  Make them spell it out, piece by piece. And good luck.  I have a hunch all of us will have a bad taste in our mouths after this election, but at least we can try to avoid the outright poison.

Categories: Uncategorized

A Tuesday morning

October 26, 2010 Comments off

National radar compositeThis radar composite looks like a tornado…We’re just about in the center of it.  Going to be interesting riding to work this morning.

Diane says the weather site she’s looking at compares it to the 1975 storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Categories: Uncategorized

Mahalia 1995 – 2010

October 23, 2010 12 comments

Sweet, gentle soul

She lived the best possible life a cat could live, basking in and returning the affection of people who loved her. In January when she became very ill, I didn’t want her to go in Winter, so we gave her insulin injections, thyroid medicine; she gained weight and rallied. She enjoyed the Summer and Fall outdoors, looking and sniffing and soaking up the warm weather. A couple weeks ago she even chased a squirrel.

Last week she took a turn for the worse, and this morning it was evident she was headed downhill fast. We took her into the vet, who gave her an injection of liquid happiness that would sell for who-knows-how-much out on the street. She relaxed, dozed in my arms; her breathing became regular and it was obvious she was feeling no pain at all. Then the vet came back in and gave her the other injection, which acted instantly. To all appearances her passing was painless and peaceful.

We called her Holly. She is survived by her brother Oscar. We will all miss her.

Categories: Uncategorized

Correlation between lawn care and campaign signs

October 19, 2010 4 comments

Riding home every day for many years I’ve had a chance to observe certain correlations.  For instance, the homes with biologically diverse lawns (green plants that can be mowed can stay) usually have Democrat or Green Party signs on them.  Maybe they don’t like chemicals, or their kids and pets use the lawn for actual playing, but they have better things to do than train real grass to look like fake grass.  There are also a few houses on the avenue that have ludicrously neat lawns.  They always have Republican signs on them.

One house had a completely monocultural lawn, mowed each week on geometrically perfect alternate diagnonals. Once it got a different species of grass in it, and the guy who lived there actually put Roundup on his entire yard and then replanted it in a single species.  His signs were always Republican.  He eventually retired or moved away or died or something and the new residents are letting the lawn return to being just an ordinary lawn.  They have no political signs at all.

The yard next to it is a study in yard-care perfection.  I think the grass is edged by laser beam, and even the flowers have to stand at attention. The guy who lives there had Alan Keyes signs up when it was Keyes vs. Obama for Illinois Senate.  And in the last presidential race, he had multiple McCain/Palin signs. Today, more Republican signs.

The apparently perfect lawn at the next house went mysteriously brown last month – every blade at once, so maybe he was also punishing all the blades of grass for a few sinners in their midst.  Then today it sported a lovely coat of brand new turf.  I wonder why he doesn’t just use Astroturf and be done with it.  Maybe it’s too hard to stick Republican campaign signs through plastic.

I also wonder if any candidate could be stupid or loony enough to turn them aside.  Do lawn chemicals affect the brain?

I confess that I’ve chuckled at the thought of tossing wildflower seeds on their lawns as I go by, but only at the thought.  The actual deed, if anyone really did it, wouldn’t be funny.  The lawn, like their signs, is their personal expression.  Pranks shouldn’t actually damage stuff or mess with someone’s expression.

Disclaimer: although the correlation in my “study” is 100%, it’s an awfully small sample size: just three blocks of one street in one Midwestern town.  So it means exactly diddly, but I thought it was amusing.

Categories: Uncategorized

The percentage of geekiness

October 19, 2010 1 comment

Son calls, asks; “How do you do lossless rotation in Gimp?”

Well I really don’t know; in Windows I normally use XnView for this purpose, and I never looked into it on my Linux machine.  So I do a little quick searching and much to my surprise, Gimp doesn’t do lossless rotation.  But gThumb does, so I talk him through using Synaptics package manager and we both install gThumb on our machines.  And a little messing around and presto! we’re doing lossless rotations.

Me: “Gee, son, I feel like we both just got a little geekier.”

Son:  “Expressed as a percentage, I just got a lot geekier than you did.”

That’s actually a pretty geeky way to look at it, son.  You may already be geekier than you realized…

Categories: Uncategorized

It has been thirty years…

October 17, 2010 6 comments

Diane at a romantic picnic 2008

Our exotic honeymoon location? The Pittsburgh airport Holiday Inn. And it’s pretty much gone like that ever since. We follow the first rule of picnics: “It’s not the food, it’s the company.”

Categories: Uncategorized

How churches and bars are alike

October 15, 2010 4 comments

Bars and churches are both primarily social institutions. Drinking alone is of course a danger sign, and churches tend to distrust private (i.e., non-doctrinal) spirituality.

Both bars and churches serve up something that interferes with rationality. The difference is that it’s more immediately obvious at a bar: church members don’t fall over and suffer from slurred speech. (Well OK, Pentacostals…) And each tends to frown on the other’s product.

It’s snark, of course, and the point of snark is to focus exclusively on the amusing similarities, not to paint the whole picture. Snark is usually easily deconstructed.

“Social Institutions” – yes, but beyond the occasional donation jar next to the register, bars don’t impose mutual responsibilities that reach beyond the institutional walls. To varying degrees, church members are obligated to care for one another. But that kind of ruins the joke.

“Interferes with rationality” – yes, but even doped up on morphine in the hospital last year, I was never tempted to believe in god. And most people in a bar don’t get drunk: they’re observing a technical limit so they can drive home afterward. Maybe a similar percentage of bar patrons get stinking drunk as church members speak in tongues, I don’t know. Again, it kind of ruins the joke.

Painting a fuller picture shows that the common element between churches and bars is that human beings – often the same human beings – can be found in both of them. Of course there will be similarities.

Unfortunately political ads are almost all snark. Here’s an example I saw on television last night: when Mark Kirk’s attack ads against Alexi Giannoulias focus on money lost by the college tuition fund he was running, or the failure of his family’s bank, they try to make him look dishonest or incompetent. Kind of ruins the joke though, when you realize that almost all funds lost money during that period. Small banks got sold to larger ones.  People who are experts on finance saw their self-managed accounts diminish.

This season, try to ignore political ads and phone campaigns. Listen to the people running for office, and read large chunks of their writing if you can find some. (Which is to say, things they wrote not during a campaign. Politicians don’t have thoughts of their own during campaigns.) Visit disambiguation sites like Real Clear Politics. Turn on your cognitive windshield-wipers and try to clean the campaign noise off your windshield. Otherwise, all you’ll see is the snark.

Of course, getting a really clear view can be depressing.  Maybe I need a drink.

Categories: Uncategorized