Archive for January, 2012

Living in the present is real work

January 31, 2012 7 comments

If you are not a cat person, you might want to skip this one.

This is Oscar. We got him and his sister 16 years ago; she died last year from diabetes and thyroid problems.

Oscar is my friend. I don’t mean that as some kind of metaphor; I mean he seeks my company and I seek his, and we hang out together. He greets me when I get home from work and as I type this he’s lying on a cushion on my desk that is there for him. And being a cat he ensconces himself in my arms at night and stretches out and puts his paws on my shoulders and purrs himself to sleep. He’s my little buddy.

The health of an old cat

He isn’t doing very well. His health is deteriorating and his mind isn’t doing very well either. He often goes downstairs and calls out, looking for his sister. Yes, after 16 years I know his vocabulary at least that well.

He has cataracts, and moves with caution.. It takes him a long time to negotiate with his joints to lay down and get comfortable. He’s lost a lot of his formerly splendid muscle mass. We’ve had a couple near scrapes in the last few months, with vet visits, pushing fluids, medicine for his kidneys, treatment for impacted bowell. Last week I went looking for him in at three in the morning and found him under the steps, unresponsive.

Fluids, antibiotics, some kind of medicine for his kidneys. And more fluids. And he has rallied, again, and is getting around and enjoying life. Only I’m not sure he can do it another time; his liver is tender. It just may not be able to metabolize any more medicine. So while I don’t know how much time is left, there clearly isn’t a lot.

We’re just trying to make his time as nice as it can be and enjoy his company while he’s here.

But here’s the funny part, and by ‘funny’ I mean ‘funny-to-think-about’ not ‘funny ha-ha’.

I don’t know how various animals conceive of time, but it’s a fair bet that cats really don’t think about the future much. I think Oscar lives in a sort of eternal ‘now’ with little bits of ‘back then’ in his furry little memory. His confusion arises when he thinks his sister Holly is ‘now’ and he goes looking for her.

Not me though. Like most humans there’s a part of me that pretty much lives in the past – which is not as fixed as we would prefer to think. And quite a bit of me lives in the now, handling what I’m doing at the moment. And there’s also a large chunk of me that lives in the future.

This is the planning part of me, the worrying part of me*. And as I’ve found every time a friend, human or animal, approaches death, the part that gets an early start on grieving. That part of me lives in a time where Oscar is already gone, and already misses him.

Nobody said it was rational; it’s just human.

I don’t want him to go, but before long he will. It takes extra effort to tell that part of me to shut up so I can enjoy the present. The all-too-predictable future will get here when it gets here… I keep telling myself.

NOTES and updates:

  • The virtue of living in the “now” instead of in the future is subject of songs, poems, sappy novels and movies – even scripture. And sure enough that’s true when spending time with an ailing friend for example. But I’ve suffered through some things that were made easier by the fact that I knew they were time-limited; either I would get better or, well, stop hurting anyway. Considering what lay ahead gave me perspective to endure that present.
  • The worrying part of me is something my employers pay for. I can often anticipate what could go wrong so when it does, we’re ready.
  • We got Oscar and Holly from a box of kittens in a trailer court with a sign on it: “Free Kittens”. I was taking a nap and woke up with two little kittens dumped on me.
  • People with different cultural and family upbringings – not to say individual neurochemistry – probably have different proportions of past, present and future in their makeup.
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Revenge of the Electric Car, part 2 of ?

January 30, 2012 2 comments

After the documentary there was a mini- auto show in the Marriot hotel next door.  You can visit the photo album from the link at right, where there are 24 pictures from the show.

Motor-powered Transportation photo album, to which I just added 24 photos of this auto show.

Of course everyone wanted to Ooh and Ahh over the Tesla roadster, but the most impressive vehicles there were the high-production models. These included the Mitsubishi MiEV, the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt and the Fisker Karma.

The Chevvy Volt seemed like the least audacious entry, designed to appeal to people who wouldn’t want anyone to know they were driving an electric car. But it is somewhat understandable; Chevrolet has not had good experience with innovative designs. Conventional has always been their comfort-spot.

Most daring would certainly be the Nissan Leaf; the company CEO basically bet the whole corporation on it. But it’s only daring in terms of corporate survival; the Leaf is a practical-looking vehicle designed for small families.

The Mitsubishi MiEV looks funny but don’t be fooled; it’s bigger on the inside.  It just doesn’t waste space on a long hood and trunk. People I saw getting in and out of one seemed to do so very easily and the interior was really roomy. The only way to improve it would be to manufacture it at the Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois, dammit.

What’s a Fisker Karma, you ask?  It’s a luxury electric sedan and oh baby is it sweet.  That is one beautifully-finished automobile, and it seems to be designed so the owner won’t have to make excuses for its comfort or craftsmanship. If you are a one-percenter and your Bentley is starting to bore you, this is the car for you.

I wish I could have nicer things to say about the Tesla Roadster.  Sure, it really burns up the asphalt but the best thing that comes to mind is; “It will draw attention to electric vehicles.” The craftsmanship wasn’t all that impressive, and it was entertaining to watch people trying to climb into and out of the car.  Heaven help you if you go over a bump of more than four inches.

I very much enjoyed seeing the custom-made electric motorcycle that somebody made out of an old Harley, and the old 1975 Vanguard Electric car. That Vanguard is probably what people think of when they think “electric car”.  I think of “spending $400 on ‘fuel’ each year instead of $1,400″.

It is true that all-electric cars have limited range and take hours to charge up. But for commuters I’m not sure how much that will really matter.

NOTES and updates

  • Part 1 – GM executive Bob Lutz vs the real world
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Football and light bulbs

January 29, 2012 2 comments

I heard there’s a big football game on next week; it’s an annual event where advertisers try to be so entertaining that  we will actually watch their ads. There are also traditions of viewing parties, food and drink consumption, and the suspension all normal rules of family inclusion where those who do not “get” football are concerned. It’s the biggest game of the year: it’s just Super!  Fans look forward to it all year.

It’s actually coincidental that I just got ’round to writing this post today, because I am going to make a “Modest Proposal” regarding their favorite sport. I’m going to propose that football go the way of the 100-watt light bulb.

Now of course when the 100-watt light bulb goes away, we won’t be sitting in the dark: we’ll be illuminated by less-harmful light bulbs. Over time they’ll get better and better, and we’ll just have to sit in our well-lit rooms and endure lower electricity bills and a safer environment. And so it is if we gradually stopped watching football; we’d watch other, less-harmful sports.

Wait a minute – what the hell do you mean, “Football is harmful”?

The armored millionaires you see on television were selected from a pool of college athletes, who were selected from a much larger pool of high-school athletes. And the cruel fact is, that it’s the high-school athletes who really take it in the head.  Many of them walk away from the sport (or are carried away) with subtle injuries that will hurt them economically for the rest of their lives:

This research builds on previous work documenting the hazards of football for the teenage brain. In 2002, a team of neurologists surveying several hundred high school football players concluded that athletes who had suffered three or more concussions were nearly ten times more likely to exhibit multiple “abnormal” responses to head injury, including loss of consciousness and persistent amnesia. A 2004 study, meanwhile, revealed that football players with multiple concussions were 7.7 times more likely to experience a “major drop in memory performance” and that three months after a concussion they continued to experience “persistent deficits in processing complex visual stimuli.” What’s most disturbing, perhaps, is that these cognitive deficits have a real-world impact: When compared with similar students without a history of concussions, athletes with two or more brain injuries demonstrate statistically significant lower grade-point averages.

- Jonah Lehrer, The Fragile Teenage Brain: an in-depth look at concussions in high-school football

High School Football, collision

That kid on the bottom? He may have trouble concentrating in class after this.

Of course Lehrer frames his question as “Can Football Be Saved”; he’d be run out of town on a rail if he suggested it shouldn’t be.  But I don’t work for a major magazine so I can say it: football is barbaric and it promotes tribalism, and its talent pool flows from massive numbers of injured teenagers whose lives will take a less-favorable arc because of that participation.

We already try to protect teens in other ways

In football, not even the most advanced helmets seem to cut injuries (see links below).  And the worst effects are on kids, whose brains are still developing. Which leads me to this: if we don’t even let kids operate dangerous machinery in an after-school job, why in hell do we send them out on a football field?

Imagine these two questions:

  1. “Mom, Dad, I’d like to get an after-school job operating a forklift where I might lose a limb or be crushed under falling  crates. What do you think?”
  2. “Mom, Dad, I’d like to participate in an after-school sport where kids smash their bodies together while wearing poorly-understood armor and have a massively higher chance of subtle, permanent brain injury. What do you think?”

I have no illusions that high school football could ever be banned; we can’t even get rid of hundred-year-old lighting technology without an annoying whine-fest from “traditionalists”. For football there would be open warfare and even more dangerous informal leagues. But maybe it could be shamed out of existence.

Teens think they’re invulnerable because their brains aren’t fully developed yet. We know better and it’s our job to at least make sure they have all the facts and are provided with better alternatives. And not put pressure on the parent who says “No.” Just as no light bulb is environmentally benign, but some are less harmful, no sport is perfectly safe but some are much better.  We can do better, if we try.

Your thoughts?

NOTES and updates:

  • This post has been altered for accuracy.  Originally I thought the game was today. An alert reader informed me: “FYI, The Super Bowl seems to be next Sunday”.  He added: “Though it’s certainly an understandable mistake: I had to look it up on Wikipedia.”
  • Scientific American, Cocktail Party Physics: What Woody Woodpecker can teach us about Football
  • Slate: The National Brain-Damage League
  • Sanjay Gupta on the documentary Big Hits, Broken Dreams
  • Yes, I am aware that no sport is perfectly safe, but we have put the most funding into one so dangerous it’s necessary to wear armor to even have a chance of walking away. Really, seriously… we couldn’t think of something better to do with high school funding than maintain a football team? How about we put the same money into a high-school health club? Get them started on a lifetime habit of exercise.
  • I know a little something from personal experience, about the effect of concussions on the developing brain. We should be telling kids the truth, teaching them the latest science on the subject. Instead of wrapping them up in armor and sending them out on a football field for the development of tribalism and – let’s face it – for our entertainment.
  • Minors working in agriculture are considered less worthy of a safe workplace, for some reason
  • New efficiency standards for lighting go into effect in 2012
  • But of course the current Congress pulled funding for enforcement of the law, and business-at-all-cost types are pleased as punch
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Slush guard

January 28, 2012 1 comment

I’ve seen various solutions to crud-encrusted front derailleurs, but nothing beats a hunk of inner-tube material zipped onto the seat tube and the brace between the tire and the bottom bracket.  Keep the front derailleur oiled and protected this way and it will keep working even under very adverse conditions.

Front derailleur guard

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Revenge of the Electric Car – part 1

January 27, 2012 4 comments

Thursday evening we went to see Revenge Of the Electric Car at the historic Normal Theater. The documentary followed GM executive Bob Lutz, Nissan president Carlos Ghosn, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and renegade engineer Greg “Gadget” Abbot as they raced to bring an electric car to market.

I’ll probably have three or four posts about the documentary in coming weeks. But here’s one incident that stuck in my mind. It was about GM executive Bob Lutz.

Lutz was a top exec for GM who made the decision to destroy the EV-1 electric car. Not just to terminate the program, but to take the cars back from people who had leased them… and have them physically crushed. Later he came to regret the decision and backed the Chevrolet Volt. But he’s the archetype of the cigar-smoking, swaggering jerk of the auto industry who figures you can’t sell a car unless it drips testosterone.

The incident:

So here’s the incident: He was at an electric car show and saw an urban policing vehicle. I think it was a T-Motion EV-1, very small and efficient-looking and clearly made for parking enforcement and dense traffic. There was a young woman, a model, standing next to it, which is common at car shows. He smirked at her and said; “Honey, tell you what. I’ll run away in my Corvette ZR-1 and you see if you can catch me in this thing.”

The model smiled back at him; I’d pay money to know what she was thinking at the time. My guess would be a reference to some body part. But the point of the story isn’t Lutz being a jerk; it’s Lutz misunderstanding the world.


Let’s say a policeman is driving her little urban electric police car. It has a top speed of, maybe, 50 miles an hour and is so small she could drive it on a sidewalk if she had to. It looks like it’s equipped with all the basic cop equipment though, and probably features a super-reinforced passenger cage as many tiny cars do now.

Now let’s say Bob Lutz does something stupid in his ZR-1 where our electric-car-driving officer can see him. Remember they’re in the concrete canyons, not the open road. She turns on her flashing lights, pulls out behind him and he decides to make a 500hp run for it. What happens next?

Most likely he gets stuck in traffic, but the officer can drive right between stopped cars and pull up behind him. But suppose he gets away and hits a highway on-ramp. He’s home free, right? No way the little electric cop car can catch him.

She doesn’t have to catch him. She’ll pull over and consults the video from her dash cam, isolating his license number on the touch screen and accessing the OnStar law enforcement channel. She’ll have OnStar cut the engine on his Corvette and then request backup. Just about the time mister Lutz realizes he’s been had, he’s swimming in flashing lights and sirens.

Economy, Information and “freedom”

Something like eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas now; a car capable of more than 100 mph is more of a burden than a symbol of freedom. The power isn’t in Lutz’ monster V8 engine; it’s in the information and connectivity wielded by the cop. All he can do is sit there and fume as she walks up to the door and tells him to keep his hands where she can see them.

Sure it’s fun to think about cutting donuts on the salt flats, or zooming down picturesque highways along the seashore, but in the environment where we actually live, the ability to maneuver and park means more than zero to sixty in four seconds. So much the better if the car can advise you of tangled traffic in time to take a different route, and best of all if it is very inexpensive to run. Then the owner has the freedom to spend money on something besides gasoline.

We almost lost GM entirely to Lutz’ mindset. Unfortunately it reflects our national mindset for living on Earth as well. It might help if we were more maneuverable, adaptable, and a whole lot smarter. We have too many Lutz-es in politics, broadcasting, and business already.

The documentary was next door to a mini auto show, where we saw a Nissan Leaf, a Chevrolet Volt, a Tesla roadster, and a Fisker Karma. I’ll have more to say about those next.

UPDATE: Revenge of the Electric Car, Part 2 – the auto show at the hotel next door to the theater

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The loving veneer comes off

January 21, 2012 37 comments

Cranston High School vs US Law and a courageous student

At Cranston West high school in Rhode Island, an atheist student named Jessica Ahlquist requested that her school administration remove a prayer banner that had hung in the gym for some thirty years. While the banner had a positive message, she said, it was couched in religious terms that excluded people of non-Christian religion, and also atheists. By no small amount of case law, that is illegal.

Her request was refused, and was followed by school board and town meetings that, in the words of the case judge, “resembled revival meetings”. This did not help their claim that the banner was, in fact, somehow secular. The judge ruled as expected in favor of Ms. Ahlquist and the ACLU. That’s the pro-forma part.

Then the really interesting part began.

Jessica had to leave Cranston High* under a storm of threats and invective. I’m talking actual death threats, rape threats, and death-plus-eternal-rape threats. No, I’m not making this up; I wish I were. On Facebook, Twitter, in blogs and discussion groups, and even letters to the editor, it was painfully obvious this young woman simply wouldn’t be safe at Cranston High. Police finally began investigating some of the threats but there are too many to follow up on.

Rhode Island congressman Peter Palumbo, pandering to the majority, called her “an evil little thing“.

Prayer banner at Cranston West high school in Rhode Island

Prayer banner at Cranston West high school in Rhode Island (Does anyone know who I can credit for this photo?)

When the FFRF tried to send flowers to Jessica, two florists in town simply refused.

At a school committee meeting, one of her 16-year-old friends stood up to give an explanation and was booed by the “adults” present.

Would this be a good time to look at the content of the prayer? Why yes, it would.

They seem to be having a little problem “smiling when they lose”. Or showing any of the positive attributes advocated in the banner.

My point here isn’t that “All Christians are big fat poopyheads”, because there’s plenty of counterexamples to that.  No, I’m trying to show that tribalism is an easy trap for anyone to fall into, and most people do. And almost every atrocity ever committed in the history of humanity was a manifestation of tribalism, whatever label it was given at the time.  And that our secular constitution was an attempt to light a path beyond tribalism, which is also known as “exceptionalism”.

Someone asked me what I want Christians to do in these all-too-common cases. I want to see Christian leaders get up in front of cameras and microphones, and look into the camera with steely determination and ask their fellow Christians: “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you think we need the Government to protect our religion? Do we even want the government involved in our religion? Do you think it serves the Prince Of Peace to threaten a high school student?”

It doesn’t do much good for me to say these things – I’m just a filthy atheist. But a popular Christian minister could straighten out this travesty real quick if he or she wanted to. Can you guess what conclusion I draw from the fact that they don’t?

Here’s the short version of US law:

It pretty much amounts to this: Religious expression is allowed in schools, but not by schools. Or by any government agency: religion is a private-citizen thing. Schools can teach citizenship, ethics, morals, even manners, but not religion. Students are free to be as religious as they like, but teachers, when acting as representatives of the school, must be secular. You can read the judge’s excellent opinion here.

I’m still trying to figure out what’s so damn complicated about that, or why Christians get so upset when they can’t get an unconstitutional government endorsement of their religion.

NOTES and updates

  • Author of the Cranston High school prayer outraged - be sure to scroll down and listen to the interview with Jessica. Keep reminding yourself she is only 17 years old, because she speaks with more clarity and maturity than her critics.
  • Early reports that Jessica was leaving Cranston high were not correct: she is staying. She has said she intends to graduate from there. Read the threats against her linked above and then imagine going to classes every day, the lunch room… that is courage.
  • Author of Cranston High banner lashes out at Jessica Ahlquist – in a new editorial he… well you just have to go read it. He’s really something, that fellow.

If the picture is not showing up, here’s the text of the prayer banner:

Our Heavenly Father. Grant us each day the desire to do our best. To grow mentally and morally as well as physically. To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers. To be honest withourselves as well as with others. Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.  Teach us the value of true friendship. Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West. AMEN

Only slight edits would be required to make it constitutionally acceptable.


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Meditation on a simple pattern: Perpetuum Mobile

January 16, 2012 1 comment

This lovely piece of music resurfaces every so often – I think I overheard a few moments of it in a commercial for something or other yesterday. It deserves its own showcase. Enjoy!

This piece has been described as “a musical joke” – it could be, and has been, overlaid on many animations and stop-motion videos. Like any meditation it is a creative starting point, not a destination.

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“No one here is smart enough – including the rocket scientist” Movie review of Margin Call

January 7, 2012 4 comments

First, the trailer:

Margin Call is a drama about life inside a giant Wall Street trading firm during the 36 hours before the bottom fell through. Or more correctly the bottom already had fallen but only a small group of analysts knew it – and the question of whether to have their traders act on that information in the four or five hours before the rest of the planet figured it out.

And in fact the story feels more like a stage play than a blockbuster movie. There’s no violence and only a little music: everything is done with acting and dialog and directing. How you take 36 hours in the life of some characters, compress it down to 109 minutes, and in the process humanize them and give context to their actions I leave to people who understand literature.

Notice I said “humanize them”, not “excuse their actions”. Because, while it isn’t clear they could have done anything differently once things came to a head, there is a strong sense of consciously-made steps leading for years into disaster by brilliant people who knew better.  We are presented with a kind of moral nihilism possible only with tightrope-walking levels of balance and skill. Not by all the characters, to be sure – but by the most powerful ones.  The less-powerful characters sounded warnings, yes. In plenty of time to do something about it. It rings true because it echoes nearly every human-made catastrophe I have ever studied.

109 minutes. Highly recommended.


  • See also the documentaries;  Enron, the smartest guys in the room and (of more direct relevance to this film) Inside Job
  • There’s also a scene that will make you look at bridges a little differently from now on.
  • I said “moral nihilism” but on reflection, there’s as much fatalism as nihilism.
  • Update: I forgot to give credit to alert reader Chas who emailed me to recommend the film. Thanks Chas!
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Winter comes to the Illinois prairie

January 2, 2012 5 comments

From I-74 between Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington, IL. Hard to hold the camera still in a 30mph wind at 20 degrees f. (Click to embiggen)

I drove down to Champaign today for a great meeting with @RelUnrelated, and then back to BloNo in the face of advancing Winter. The turbulent wind and blowing snow made every mile a new visual feast, a joy of sheer, unendurable beauty. Clouds and snow do amazing things with sunlight. And on the prairie you can see clouds and storms far enough away to get a sense of how they move and fill space.

The wind was gusting across blacktop slicker than boiled flaxseed, with white-out visibility sometimes dropping to 100 feet.  I lost count of the cars in the ditch; there were miles of emergency vehicles and tow trucks. One pickup had rolled over and landed on its wheels again. When I got back to Bloomington, I saw a minivan come down an on-ramp, frantically blowing its horn and trying to brake. Cars were able to move out of the way; it shot through the intersection and hit a traffic light pole, snapping it off at the base. It didn’t look as if anyone was hurt, which is a testament to modern car design.

Folks, let me just say this about adverse driving conditions. Please set your Celebrity Voice Imaginator to “Samuel L. Jackson” for the following Public Service Announcement:

“Hey, when snow crashes in and you suddenly can’t see where you’re going, turn on your G*D* flashers and slow the f* down! And that speed-limit sign don’t mean s* when the road is slick! This ain’t no race!”


  • It is a little odd/worrisome that real Winter did not arrive until January 2. Cold Winters are important – they keep crop pests and invasive species down.
  • I stopped at an off-ramp and shot this picture a short distance from the car. It was cold but the howling wind gave it teeth; unprotected in shirt sleeves you’d die in a half-hour. But yes, I did have full Winter gear in the car in case I needed it.
  • I once knew a guy who died shooting a photograph. There are worse ends; lots of people die in office cubicles.
  • My old Honda is only fair in the snow but it has good aerodynamics, which is a plus with high winds. And the tires are past their prime. But I notice something: when you turn on your flashers and slow down, people actually follow your example.  You still get the odd vehicle – usually a big SUV or pickup, blasting by at the speed limit, only to decorate the ditch further down the road.
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