Odds and Ends

From around the Intarwebs:

Ed Driscoll has dug up an old review of Michael Moore’s movie Roger and Me. I found it interesting because she exactly describes what took me years to figure out. Blatant lies notwithstanding, the key quote is:

It does something that is humanly very offensive: Roger & Me uses its leftism as a superior attitude. Members of the audience can laugh at ordinary working people and still feel that they’re taking a politically correct position [242-245].

Yeah. And doesn’t that seem to be common these days from the left? Disagree and you’re a rube, worthy of contemptuous mockery.

Freeman Hunt links to a thorough take-down of the Penn and Teller “Vatican” show that I found so appalling. Seems they were more than a little factually challenged. Confirmation bias is the enemy people: Take a chainsaw to them hobby horses.

This Doctor Zero guy at HotAir is pretty dang good. Here he’s talking about confidence, and talks about the way the government bumbling through the private sector tends to undermine it. These talks of health care nationalization—well, not so much the talks as the fierce drive that always seems on the verge of achieving it—undermine the medical sector. I suspect we’ll see some shortages even if it doesn’t pass. (If it does, shortages are a certainty.)

My old pal Nick Hodges re-tweeted Jeff Atwood (of Coding Horror) about the apparent increasing effectiveness of placebos. I tend to be cynical about this stuff and just assume the pharmaceutical companies were lying about the effectiveness of anti-depressants.

Chuck B. (back40feet on Twitter) tweeted about this cool book, The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension. Total nerd moment here.

Finally, I’ve been sitting on this post from “Cloven, Not Crested,” a blog I occasionally read, entitled “Are Women Unhappier?” I suspect that, on the whole, they are (as I suspect men are, on the whole), but a segment is probably far happier than they ever would have been. But I haven’t had the time to do the topic justice.

Check ‘em out!

When Spam Is Weirdly Relevant

Got a diatribe about Catholicism in my e-mail today, which was weird because I don’t associate any e-mail in this blog. I didn’t recognize the sender, but it just seemed like it was in direct response to my Vatican post.

Then, as I scrolled, there was a graphic selling me all the usual penile things.

Which, I guess, they have a 50-50 shot at some relevance there.

And I suppose that the whole point of sending out random fragments to millions of people is that you will occasionally hit a coincidence like that. Though, you know, does someone really read about the Church and Gallileo and the Inquisition and then go, “Yeah…They make a good point, I could really use some ED meds/male enhancement pills”?

I Bought A Used Car Off Of Craig’s List

The above phrase strikes me as emblematic of the Internet age. Buying a used car is bad enough. Buying one off the Internet? Buying one off of Craig’s List?

What am I? Stupid?

I did, in fact, get ripped off. Or, more accurately, the guy who sold me the car intended to rip me off. Did he succeed? Interesting question. The car in question is a ‘91 Geo Metro convertible, which had 92,000 miles on it. I paid $940. It ran well enough, but it needs some cosmetic repairs. (Both “needs” and “some” should be regarded as a casual use of English.)

I was careful. The guy did a vigorous test drive. He put the top up and down. I had him take it to my mechanic. The guy fed me a lot of lines, including about how good the gas mileage was. I didn’t take those too seriously. (I ended up being a bit disappointed anyway, as it only gets 27mpg. It should get mid-’30s at least.)

My mechanic checked out the engine the next day and said the only thing that looked potentially bad was an excess of transmission fluid. I figured that was a calculated risk and told the guy’s friend—who had been sent to close the deal—that I would still take the car, but for less money (to $940 from $1,000).

Later, I remembered that the guy had told me that he had overfilled the transmission, and e-mailed him to tell him I wanted to give him the $60 (and also some pants left in the back seat) but never heard back from him.

I soon found out why. I had noted the tags on the back of the car were up-to-date and didn’t think anything else about the registration. When I took it to the DMV to get the registration in my name, it turned out the car had not been registered for four years. Far from a standard-issue used-car lie, my Craig’s List pal actually lifted the tags off a properly registered car. (Even my mechanic was surprised by that one.)

Now, it’s not my intention here to draw a parallel with the socialization of medicine, which I understand is causing something of a ruckus these days, but I’ve always been impressed by the degree to which governments show their lack of concern for anything other than collecting their money.

Like, I got hit hardest with taxes when I was self-employed and starving. There was no recourse, no concern, no need to justify the government’s desire to see me work for someone else. You can see it in public schools, from the lowliest Head Start program to the biggest University: The System Just Doesn’t Care. Even if you find individuals who do care, the rules are the rules (except when you’re “important” or some bureaucrat wants to make your life hell).

Even now I’m wrestling with a government-based health payment issue, where the sliding scale is free-$50-$800 for a 30 minute consult. I can’t get a single breakdown for the $800; that’s simply the arbitrary price It Has Been Decided I Should Pay.

Anyhoo. Needless to say, the DMV—which, by the way, is quite efficient if you call ahead and make an appointment—does not care that I was swindled. They do not care to find the malefactors who operated this vehicle for four years. No, they simply insist that I pay all the past due registration fees, along with any late penalties or whatnot they decide to levy.

Back fees? $441.14, bringing my total cost to $1,381.14. That kind of hurt, considering it was Christmas.

That wasn’t all. The guy had tweaked the engine in such a way that it had a lot more oomph than you might expect out of a 3-cylinder engine, and the upshot was that when it was cold—which, of course, I never saw before buying—it would stall.

This one drove me—and my mechanic—nuts. It wasn’t just “it’s cold, it won’t start”. It would start perfectly and then as you drove, it would get slower and slower, no matter how much you punched the accelerator. Though you could sometimes get it not to stall if you could start it, floor it, and then keep it floored. This was a challenge leaving the driveway.

My mechanic tried a few things and then stopped, figuring he didn’t know what was causing the problem, and figuring there was no point throwing a bunch of money at trying to figure it out. He told me to wait for it to get worse, and so I lived with it for a while.

And then, a few months later, the problem went away, never to return.

Weird, eh? Maybe evil spirits. Exorcised by my sunshine-y nature.

Anyway, all-in-all, the car cost me about $2,200. Maintenance has been cheap, just piddling things, maybe costing me another $300 over about two years.

Now, the reason I bought it in the first place is that, even though I don’t go into work much, when I do, I have to park in this really cramped underground lot. And when I took The Airplane—our massive mini-van—it was like trying to navigate the Queen Mary through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Only with the other SUVs, kind of like trying to navigate Pirates simultaneously with the Lusitania, the Titanic and the QE2.

I hated it. I figured I had enough cash to buy a hunk-a-junk that: a) would be tiny, and b) wouldn’t matter what happened to it. I’m way more comfortable with small cars than I am with big ones. The Bumblebee (as my mechanic christened it) more than fits the bill. I can practically do doughnuts in the underground parking lot.

But the funny thing is that everyone loves this car. The convertible is probably the key thing. Hunk-o-junk though it be, the convertible-ness gives it a certain cachet. The kids, as you might imagine, love it.

And though it needs a bunch of body work, it constantly draws favorable comments. Well, the first one I got was, “HEY!!!” from some guy at a stoplight who had just followed me off the freeway. When I turned, he said, “I have to take your picture! You’re so funny-looking!” I’m probably on some jerk’s blog or Facebook page right now.

I can’t really argue with him. With the hat and sunglasses and—well, you’d have to see a picture to understand, and that ain’t happening—but let’s say I wouldn’t disagree.

Over the past two years, I’ve gotten a dozen comments on this car. Some people telling me they have one just like it, others saying they used to, some inquiring as to gas mileage, even offering to buy it.

I’ve put about 10,000 miles on the car. And will probably have about 12,000 on it by the two year mark, which means that each mile will have cost me less than 20 cents a mile, factoring in the base price and extraordinary costs. (The insurance is ridiculously small and lowers the insurance on my other car, for reasons I don’t understand.)

When you think about it in those terms, The Airplane will need to have over 60,000 miles on it to catch up. And it was cheap, too. A modest $30,000 car—hardly an extravagance these days—would need to be run for 150,000 miles to catch up with that.

And that’s assuming The Bumblebee falls apart at the 12,000 mark, which I suspect it won’t. I think I’ll be able to get 50,000 miles out of it without taking any heroic measures.

The only downside, really, is that we’ve become sort of attached to it. I’m inclined to fix it up a bit. I actually think, despite the guy’s attempt to rip us off, we got a great deal.

But the kids hate it when I say, “Buddha says, ‘All life is suffering. The origin of suffering is attachment.’” They have some choice words to say about the Buddha.

But it’s still spectacular driving down the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset in a convertible.

Oh, Noes! They’re reading our mailz!

Do you remember the Gmail kerfuffle back when Google started that service? Gmail pays for itself (ostensibly) through targeted ads. The ads are targeted, of course, by what’s in your in-box.

Oh, no! Google’s gonna read your mail!

This did not alarm me. First, my e-mail is pretty boring most of the time. I don’t even want to read it. (I also don’t worry about the government spying on my e-mail, except at the conceptual level.) Second, of course, was that no human was going to be going through everyone’s mail. A computer was going to “read” it and take some wild guess about what you’d be interested in buying.

Lastly, of course, I knew the algorithm wasn’t going to be very good. Getting a computer to “understand” simple, basic English is marginally possible. Getting a computer to understand complex English, with allusions and context and humor? Probably not in our lifetimes. (Sorry, singularity guys.)

But I didn’t know how bad–how sloppy, even–the algorithm was going to be. How bad is it? Well, when you go to your spam folder?

You get recipes for Spam™. Spam™ Imperial Tortilla Sandwiches, Spam™ Swiss Pie, Spam™ Quiche, Spam™ Breakfast Burritos (serve with salsa!) and on and on. I might think it was a clever ad campaign by Hormel or an ironic statement by Google–but it’s always a Spam™ recipe, every single time I click on it.

So, not only is the advertising not targeted based on content, Google would seem to be serving ads based on the text they put on the page–not even distinguishing between your mail (or spam) and their own designation of items as spam.

As I said, the singularity may be less than imminent.

Things That Have Ruined The Internet, Part I: “Free”ware

So, I went to make a recording. (I’m not much into recording. I prefer to let any given performance, warts and all, be ephemera. I find myself more easily convinced by the praise of others when there are no records to disabuse me.)

I fired up SndRec32, the multimedia extravaganza application built-in to Windows (my only mic is on my Windows laptop, though thinking about it now, I could’ve booted it to Ubuntu, hmmm) and recorded for about 3 minutes.

‘course, SndRec32 stops recording after a minute. You can force it to go in minute increments with some trickery but I thought, shoot, I could put together a simple recorder in 5 minutes. (Might, even.) Surely, there would be a plethora of simple sound recorders.

Which brings me to something that’s ruined the Internet: A proliferation of pages offering “free” software that tops any search you do, where the software isn’t free at all–or the download link for the free software is almost completely occluded by a bunch of links to paid software.

I ended up downloading a program called AVS Audio Editor, a “full featured audio editor”, which was so not what I wanted. (I just wanted a slightly less dumb SndRec32, fercryingoutloud.) But what the hell, I figured I’d try it and see. If it were a genuine limited-use software I might stick with it. (For what I need, I don’t really want to pay $40. And even more than the $40, I don’t want the overhead of keeping track of some registration key and upgrading, etc. etc. etc.)

So I hunt around on this massive panel for a “record” button, set up the microphone (oh, yes, it required setup, because this is a Serious Audio Application) and got to recording. Recorded my three minutes again and used the special effects panel to boost the rather soft results. Went to save and discovered that the “trial” version inserted a blank second for every 5 seconds or so of recording. In other words, you couldn’t save.

Well, fine. I guess. I looked for a free app, instead I got a non-free one by mistake, and it was so crippled and annoying that there’s no chance, ever, that I would buy or even use this application. Of course, I uninstalled, but nothing ever really uninstalls in Windows.

And it’s all due to these jerky pages serving these “free” apps and, besides plastering 10 ads on the page, hide the legit app to full you into downloading a fake one.

I miss BBSes.

Dead Men Throw No Switches

So I started doing the nutritional program in earnest, along with The Boy, and got a bit of a scare. It’s probably nothing, and may be related to the antibiotics I’m taking (for the ear infection from hell), but I’ll be having a thorough medical examination as a result. 

It’s not really something I look forward to. 
But it got me thinking about my mortality and taking care of business. Death isn’t something I fear, generally. When younger, I had some brushes with mortality to which my reaction was “Well, I guess if it’s my time…" 
I know that we get a sense of invulnerability, immortality, that nothing bad can happen to us, but there’s also the "who cares?” aspect of it. When you’re young you consider yourself sovereign over your life, and if you’re going to do something reckless well, what’s that to anyone else? You can see young death glamorized in a way that mortality otherwise is not.
And then you have kids. 
Well, crap. Now it matters if you live or die. (And if you’re thinking, you realize it mattered before–back when you were SuperTeen–to your own parents. A feeling of embarrasment is normal at this point.) I mean, the finances are easy enough to handle. In fact, the traditional male role is easy to fill: I think a widow with children can probably much more easily plug in a new male into her life than a widower is likely to find a woman willing to take care of another woman’s home and children. And how much more traumatic is that, that the primary caretaker be replaced by a relative stranger?
Of course, it happened a lot in the Old West (for example), with mortality in child birth being so common. And certainly it’s happened that a step-father has a callous and indifferent (or worse) attitude toward another man’s children.
Anyway, having a kid changes the game, if you were indifferent to your survival before. If you’re cancerous and would rather just let it take you than endure the medieval treatments we have for handling it, you really don’t have much of a choice. You have to fight. Congratulations: You’ve become more important than yourself.
It should also mean that you’re not exposing yourself to a lot of unnecessary risk, like extreme sports, daredevil ballon rides, base jumping, etc. But that doesn’t always happen.
Given the rather severe separation of my online life versus my real one, I’ve often thought about setting up a “dead man’s switch” that would notify people should I not throw it. I figured the most likely result of that, though, would be a false “Blake’s dead!” message. Heh. That might be funny once or twice, but sort of defeats the purpose should it happen a lot.
There’s now at least one service that will do this for you, I think. It’s been in the news a lot lately. But I suspect a lot of us don’t give enough thought on how online folks would be affected by our sudden disappearance. (I’ve had it happen numerous times, and I don’t know to this day whether the person just dropped out or something had happened to them.)
So, it’s something worth thinking about.

Brick and Martyr: TMI

The telephone broke this week. (So did the refrigerator and the water heater, but more on that later on.) Well, it had been breaking for a while. It had been submerged in water more than once, and was slowly losing features. The LCD panel was the first to go, of course, so all the caller ID features were gone. And last weekend it stopped ringing.

Fine with me.

But ultimately, no, the flashing light on the phone is not enough to alert me that it’s ringing. And tragically, it sometimes matters. So I went to get a new phone. It was kind of funny. I was walking around Fry’s and first saw a book on Tenzing Norgay. The only reason I know of Tenzing Norgay is because I’m a fan of the Coen Brothers, and the following exchange is from Intolerable Cruelty.

Wrigley: Who are you looking for?
Miles Massey: Tenzing Norgay.
Wrigley: Tenzing Norgay? That’s someone she slept with?
Miles Massey: I doubt it. Tenzing Norgay was the Sherpa that helped Edmund Hillary climb Mt. Everest.
Wrigley: And Marilyn knows him?
Miles Massey: No, you idiot. Not the Tenzing Norgay. Her Tenzing Norgay.
Wrigley: I’m not sure that I actually follow that.
Miles Massey: Few great accomplishments are achieved single-handedly, Wrigley. Most have their Norgays. Marilyn Rexroth is even now climbing her Everest. I wanna find her Norgay.
Wrigley: But how do you determine which of the people on here are…
Miles Massey: How do you spot a Norgay?
Wrigley: Yeah.
Miles Massey: You start with the people with the funny names.

I swear: maybe 20% of the knowledge I have comes from a dogged pursuit of a particular topic while the other 80% comes from random mentions in pop culture. I saw this cool physics book
as well. (I’m looking for something for The Boy that is not too math heavy but also not juvenile. My own texts from school are pretty dry, as well, and this looked like a good mixture.)

Fry’s is interesting. The branches communicate to the main office through a text-based system on (I think) a private network, and none of the hundreds of computers anywhere in the store are hooked to the Internet. But I had my Blackberry with me and began to wonder:

Is this really a good price for the Tenzing book? (It was $8; I can get it used for half that–including shipping–from Amazon.) Is it a good Tenzing book? (So-so. The minimal reviews on Amazon are all over the map.)

What about the Head Start book? I can get a new one cheaper or save a few bucks on a used copy, but I also get the reviews that say it’s a practical book. About the mechanics rather than the more difficult-to-grasp optics, audio, etc. areas. So, actually, it’s perfect.

I put those two books back.

I also wanted to pick up a scanner. (I have a scheme to put some things on t-shirts.) But the scanners just sit there in boxes with numbers on them. Very unhelpful. I realized I didn’t know what I needed. I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?”

Fry’s is the sort of place you go when you know exactly what you want. The best deals you get there are on discontinued things. (A lot of people think they’re getting an incredible price on cutting edge stuff and end up disappointed. A lot of people get angry at Fry’s. A lot of people are dumb.)

But then, a funny thing happened: I still needed a phone. I generally shop at Amazon because of the free shipping, so I went there. And you know what? It was too much information. Too much dubious information, actually.

I need a phone that’s nigh indestructible. The only feature I can’t live without is the speakerphone. (I hate holding the phone up to my ear.) The caller ID is good, too, because I don’t have an answering machine or even a phone book, really, so if you want a call back, you better be IDed.

The reviews on Amazon were things like “Oh, these are great. We only had to take one of the three we bought back.” Also, Amazon’s inabiality to do a secondary sort sucks. In other words, yeah, I want the most relevant items first, but after that, I want the cheapest.

I went to Radio Shack instead. But, of course, there was no one in the Radio Shack, so I went to target. This was actually strangely reassuring. I had gone to Radio Shack for an antenna coupler last weekend and actually got one there for $2.70 and it actually worked! Almost everything at Radio Shack is ridiculously overpriced and then doesn’t do what I want, so I was actually disturbed when I got in and out in five minutes with just what I needed.

Going in this week and finding a bunch of overpriced phones that no one was around to sell me was comforting.

Anyway, I went to Target and picked up a phone for about $25. I have no idea how good a phone it is, but it has a handset speaker and caller ID. It’s probably good enough. Which is good enough. And I guess the brick-and-mortar stores still have their uses.

Of course, it hasn’t been submerged yet. I give the Barbarienne 3-4 weeks to feed it to the toilet.

Beating A Dead Hobby Horse

I was looking at some articles from a guy I found through my old pal Esther on Twitter.

He’s got one labeled “Why Linux will crush Windows 7”. First thing that amused me was in the comments, the same old Microsoft astroturfers hawking lies about Linux and how great the next version of Microsoft’s bloated old OS. (It’s always the next version that’s going to be the good one.)

But what was really funny were the latest comments (here). That’s right: An op-ed on Operating Systems has turned into a flame war on Proposition 8 and homosexuality.

Only on the tubes, folks.

Searching For Change

One little thing I did this year was switch my search engine over to Ask.com.

It’s an almost necessary irony for a company whose rule of business is “Don’t be evil” to become the most evil company ever. I’m not saying Google is there yet; I’m just suggesting a literary necessity that they get there.

Even more, I would suggest that their journey will be archetypal. Believing themselves to be good (and that makes them different from evil corporations), they will be able to justify any action they undertake.

And we all know where that leads.