Monday, May 30, 2011

Stop Buying Stuff!

It's Memorial Day, a day when Americans traditionally honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. We honor them in classic American fashion ... by going shopping.  What better way to exercise our freedom?

Except that it's not. Shopping is not an exercise of freedom at all. It's what every capitalist enterprise in the land tries to manipulate us into doing. TV, news media and many Web sites all exist only to show us ads which try to pry our hard-earned dollars away from us. Defective products, software bugs and incompetent, indifferent or hostile service are all just the result of cost-cutting. The Geneva Accords may ban putting prisoners in stress positions as torture, but there's nothing to protect airline passengers. Banks can transfer billions of dollars around the world in a fraction of a second, but try getting through to customer service.  ("Your call is important to us." ... just not important enough to actually answer it.)

These same banks are so busy wheeling and dealing with your mortgage that they ran themselves into the ground.  So who did the government bail out?  (Hint:  Not you!)

This past weekend, I reserved a cargo van from a large moving van rental company. (Of course I can't mention their name, U-Haul, in this blog.) When I got to the appointed location to pick up my truck, I was told that I actually had to pick it up at another site, adding 40 miles and over an hour's drive to my already long trip. "Oh, we reserve the right to send you to another nearby location," they said.  I guess nearby to them means "in the same timezone."

Ever read the End User License Agreement you're supposed to accept before using any commercial software? It basically says: "If this software doesn't work as promised, too bad.  If it also destroys your data and/or makes your computer unusable, tough noogies." And we tolerate this, over and over again.

Businesses, by their nature, try to take in as much money as possible, and shell out as little as possible. That's what a business is. The only thing that can slow them is if people actually draw the line somewhere and say "No!  I'm not going to fork over my money for some unreliable, poorly designed product or half-assed service." But we don't do that. We just go along, giving these businesses a license to keep charging more and delivering less.

That's why cable TV and Internet and phone rates keep going up, even though the technologies get cheaper all the time. That's why you have to buy a new iPad every year, and why everyone's pushing eBooks and on-line movies that you think you're buying, but never actually own. You are actually just paying for a license to use this content in ways the company sees fit.  Other uses violate the license.

They say we're supposed to buy stuff to help the economy.  What has the economy done for you lately?  But really, when they say "the economy," guess what they're talking about.  Businesses!  The theory is that if you spend enough of your money, businesses will recover and start hiring, and you'll get a job in time to pay those credit card bills.

Some ads claim "your money back if not completely satisfied."  Better yet, don't give 'em your money in the first place!

Friday, May 27, 2011


This year, New York City marked the 200th anniversary of the street grid system ... the famous avenues running up- and downtown, and streets running cross-town. That system has made it possible for New Yorkers and visitors to find their way around hectic mid-town Manhattan ... as long as they don't go below 14th street, where all bets are off. That's because most of that area was already settled with twisty winding roads before the big plan of 1811. (The other boroughs are also challenging for the navigation-impaired.)

The beauty of the grid is that you can basically count blocks in the East/West and North/South directions to know where you are. Streets and avenues are (mostly) conveniently named to give you your location: Fifth Avenue, 42nd Street, etc.

It also kept them from having to build weird stuff like this:
Well, almost.

It's no wonder Broadway is the theater capital, since it slashes dramatically through the grid on a diagonal.

The idea of using grids to specify location is commonly attributed to René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician. He's the guy who said "I think, therefore I am," so he must have been pretty smart. (Or at least he thought he was.) Actually the concept can be traced back even further, at least to 5th century BCE urban planner Hippodamus of Miletus.

We use this idea not just for physical locations, but logical ones. Think of a table of data. Frequently, the rows and columns are in a particular order, indicating a progression of ideas along the horizontal and vertical dimensions. For example:


This manages our expectations, so we're surprised to find, in the lower right cell, that the 'p' is bold.

Whole games are built around this idea.  The chessboard is obviously a grid.  In fact, the old convention of noting chess moves in terms of pieces (e.g., "pawn to king 4") has been more or less replaced by just specifying the starting and ending squares ("e2-e4.")

American football also uses a gridiron playing field.  (This is one of those weird double metaphors ... the football field looks like a gridiron, which looks like a grid.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Are You Smarter Than a Computer?

C’mon. Admit it. You've felt like that, right? We all have. We hate computers. At best, they're miracles of technology, always out-thinking you, out-communicating you, out-social-networking you and just generally being smart-asses. At worst, they're stubborn pieces of techno-junk that refuse to give you what you want, just because you didn’t use the right secret handshake. ARGGHHH!

That’s why everyone ran out to buy an iPad … Oooh! A computer that will be nice to me! But that honeymoon’s over now too. One of those passionate affairs that burns itself out quickly.  Even the iPad has that passive-aggressive behavior so common in modern electronics.

In old Star Trek episodes, you could destroy a computer just by asking it some paradoxical question. Back then, computers understood speech perfectly, so you could just say “Computer, this sentence is false. True or false?” and it would immediately (because computers are so fast, you see) start spinning reels of tape back and forth, and showering the room with sparks and smoke.

Nowadays, of course, computers are much more robust. Now, to get a computer to crash, you have to do something wild, like … oh, say, try to view a Web page, or accidentally click a button twice or something extreme like that.

Seriously, if computers can process literally billions of instructions every second, why does it take so freakin’ long to do what you want? To understand this, you have to know something about how computers work.

The hub of a computer's nervous system is the Central Processing Unit (CPU).  This is the part that actually runs programs.  On most computers, there's a program running all the time, called the Operating System (or OS).  The OS is the software that waits for you to type and click and scream and swear, and then, if the weather's right and the moon is in the correct phase, it deigns to run whatever program you actually asked for.

But really, the operating system only wants to run a program called Idle.  Idle is what's running when you're not doing anything.  Idle is itself a program that doesn't do anything, but computers seem to find it amusing.  So what the operating system is really trying to do is get rid of you so it can get back to running Idle.  I guess it's kind of like Facebook for machines.

So really, whenever you use a computer, you're interrupting it when it's trying to play its favorite game.  If you've ever been the parent of a teenager, you know how successful that is.

Any more questions?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sex News of the Week (For Better Or Perverse)

For those who follow all the news of sexual misconduct, as I do, this has been a banner week. On the reality show we call news, third place goes to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (aka Sperminator).  Schwar ... oh hell, Arnold admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock with a member of his household staff 10 years ago.  All we can say is "Happy Birthday."

In second place we have former I.M.F. chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (aka DSK), who tried to force his attentions on a chamber maid at his $3,000-a-night hotel.  Apparently he didn't understand what was meant by turn down service.  By the way, I.M.F. is the International Monetary Fund, not the Impossible Mission Force.

But first place goes to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (aka the US Conference of Catholic Bishops), which commissioned a report blaming the clergy sex abuse scandal on lack of training and the loose morals of the 1960's and 1970's.  Evidently it was all just a simple misunderstanding.  The priests were never told not to molest the children in their churches.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

She Stoops To Concur

The latest theory in evolutionary biology is that we developed our tremendous reasoning ability not to solve great problems, or to unravel the mysteries of the universe. We reason in order to win arguments.

That's right! Genuine scientists actually believe that winning arguments helps the species survive. Obviously they've never been married. Any husband or wife knows that winning an argument is not going to lead to any reproductive activity.

In a paper called Why do humans reason?: Arguments for an argumentative theory, cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier claim that reasoning ability evolved primarily as a way to win arguments. Admittedly, both of these guys are French. In France, arguing, like everything else, may be an aphrodisiac. But since primitive humans were not French (except for the cave painters at Lascaux, the Pre-Impressionists), this theory is still questionable.

The argumentative theory goes on to say that winning arguments by reasoning helps when a group of people are trying to make a collective decision. Suppose you're a cave person, and you and a bunch of other cave people are trying to decide what to do for dinner. You want seafood, but some of the others want mammoth, and still others want roots and berries. So you all have a big argument, and you, by virtue of your superior reasoning skills, convince everyone to go for seafood. Sure, you might have impressed some of the opposite sex with your persuasive eloquence, but after a heated argument, you've probably made enemies of the mammoth eaters, not to mention the root and berry fans. And just wait till the check comes!

Of course, if we did indeed evolve to argue, that would explain a lot about our politics.


Back in the quaint era known as the 1970's, our ancestors used primitive computing machines called computers.  These were clunky devices about the size of two or three refrigerators side-by-side, with disk drives the size of washing machines.  The ancients interacted with these devices by typing on keyboards, and looking at displays of numbers and text.

And what did they do with these primitive computers?  They could communicate with each other by email and messaging.  They could manipulate information in databases and spreadsheets.  They could access files on other computers, create beautiful typeset documents, manage calendars, contact lists and other personal information, and write programs to do just about anything else they needed.

In other words, they could pretty much do what we do with our gadgets today.  But now we run on smart phones and tablets with graphical displays and multi-touch interfaces.  We drag icons around and flick our fingers on the glass to carry out actions that used to require typing.

So pretty much all we've accomplished in the past 30 years is eye candy. Literally ...
Left: Mike and Ike Berry Blast candy;
Right: standard OS X "OK" button.
Sure, devices have gotten smaller and faster, but much of that increased speed now goes to drawing all the cool buttons and  handling all those multi-touchy things.  Ask yourself ... is your [computer | tablet | phone] too fast for you?  Didn't think so.

So in the first 30 years or so of electronic digital computers, from World War II to the 1970's, almost all of the key technologies of today ... Arpanet (later Internet), email, spreadsheets, databases, personal computers, the mouse, Microsoft and Apple and Oracle, video games, computer animation ... were created.

And the 30-some-odd years since then?  The Web, Google and portable devices.

So remember that next time someone says the pace of technology is increasing.

EDIT:  This post is really from May 11, 2011.  For some reason, Blogger decided to change the posting date when I edited the keyword list.

Monday, May 16, 2011

No News is Bad News

Peter D. flipped open his morning paper and scanned the headlines as he sipped his coffee.  He shook his head and clucked in dismay, causing him to dribble coffee on his shirt.

Here is the opening paragraph from a front page story in today's The New York Times:

ATHENS — His face contorted with anguish, Anargyros D. recounted how he had lost everything in the aftermath of the Greek economic collapse — the food-processing factory founded by his father 30 years ago, his house, his car, his Rolex, his pride and now, he said, his will to live.

and here's one from today's The Boston Globe:

WALTHAM — Lights dimmed, a hush fell over the hallway as Nicole Porter, cradling Ava in her arms, walked gingerly toward the powerful imaging equipment that would allow researchers to peer into her baby's developing brain.

These are both from the dead tree editions, but the online versions featured the same text, as of this morning.

These are both prestigious newspapers, with large circulations, multiple Pulitzer Prizes, etc.  Yet they both have front page stories (below the fold) that start with anecdotes about random strangers.  We don't know who Anargyros D. or Nicole Porter are and, ultimately, most of us don't care.   This style of journalism dates from the days when writers were paid by the word, so Dickens could begin a story with a list of oxymorons ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...")  The days when newspapers still had the "The" in their titles. The days when people sat on the front porch of the general store, feet up on the pickle barrel, and swapped stories.

Actually, I don't know anyone who's ever done that, but you get the idea.  This is journalism for people with free time.  Not just free time, but free attention span.  People who can say to themselves, "Gee, I wonder who Anargyros D. and Nicole Porter are, and what will become of them."  In a sense, it's for people willing to be led by the writer or editor.

But with today's media, nobody wants to be led by a writer.  We want to pick and choose our news, scan it quickly for important points, and move on.  We want photos, graphics, and short videos and animation, since they're quicker to absorb.  Not like TV news, which is all fires and rapes.  We still want hard news, but it's got to be in fast-acting caplets.  (Oh, and it shouldn't challenge our existing beliefs and opinions.)

That, as much as cost, is why newspapers are so threatened by new media.

Sorry if I took up too much of your time.

Friday, May 13, 2011

No Such Thing As A Free Market

I've heard it said that if you feed birds in the winter, you have to keep feeding them until spring.  That's because the birds cancel their travel plans when they find your food, and if you cut off the supply, it'll be too late for them to book a swanky resort down south.

I've also heard it said, I think by some of the same people, that we should shop at small local stores, instead of the big box stores or ... gasp! ... on-line.  I think the idea is to support virtuous, caring neighbors instead of big impersonal, ruthless corporations.  But somehow, those virtuous neighbors are like the poor little birdies in the winter.  We're not doing them any favors by deluding them into a false sense of security.

So it comes down to the question: Do we want the good guys to win, or do we want the market forces to decide.  "Market forces" is one of those great guilt-avoidance terms.  Businesses don't succeed or fail based on individual buyers, even the bird-and-neighbor-loving kind.  They are driven by market forces.

Of course, the free market advocates will say that the good guys always win.  That's because in the free market, "good" is defined as "winning."  The "invisible hand" is a kind of Capitalist superhero who sees to that.

Let's say some meat packing company decides to sell dog food as hamburger, to cut costs.  Sure they save money, and they can sell their "hamburger" cheaper than anyone else.  But once people start to get sick, and it's traced to this meat, it will hurt business and the company will suffer.  See?  Automatic justice by the invisible hand.

Of course, if no one gets sick or traces it back to this company's meat, then you're going to be eating a lot of Alpo.  All of the competitors of this company will start doing the same thing.  They have to, in order to compete.  And there's that invisible hand again.

So that's how the economy works, which is okay as long as you're not a dog or a bird.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Home Is Where the House Is

I sometimes fantasize about the absolute dream house. I'm sure a lot of people do this. I'm never going to actually live in that house, but it's fun to think about. One reason my wife and I will never occupy our dream house is that it's really two different houses.

Hers is a classy modern house, full of sunlight and space.  There are gleaming hardwood floors, and just enough tasteful furniture to be inviting.  There's a piano in the solarium, whatever that is, and some large-leafed plants, for that large-leafed plant look.
My house, on the other hand, is more like Merlin's tower in The Sword In The Stone.  It's architecturally grotesque, and filled with every conceivable kind of mental diversion and amusement.  It doesn't have to be a tower, of course, but when I look out the window, I want to see trees, not someone else's window.  It will be chock full of books and what we now refer to as media.  Ideally, the floor won't be visible at all, and I don't have much use for bare walls either.
So, as near as I can figure, the only way to work this out will be to build a contemporary split fronting a Medieval castle, on a semi-urban street, with the back abutting hundreds of acres of conservation land.  The front door will be minutes from shopping and public transportation, while the back will be impervious to the sound of internal combustion engines.

Visitors will enter a brass-and-glass gallery of selected art works and musical accoutrements, and then proceed back, stepping over piles of ancient tomes and strange devices of wood and stone.  I'll have to get to work on the plans.

Unless we find one already for sale.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Strategic Reserves

Most Americans are aware of the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserves.  Over 700 million barrels of oil, enough to power the U.S. for about 15 minutes, are stored in underground caverns along the Gulf of Mexico.  In case of emergency, these reserves can be used to allow the President to continue flying around in Air Force One.  They can also be used to fuel military equipment, in the event of an attack against Louisiana.

What many people don't realize is that there's also a Strategic Food Reserve.  These stockpiles, hidden in Northern Alaska, can be quickly deployed to preserve our precious American obesity in times of threat.  At a signal from the White House, the strategic food reserve folks can quickly distribute billions of quarter pounders (with cheese), five-layer burritos and ball park hot dogs.  And yes, you can get fries with that!  There will also be millions of gallons of Big Gulp drinks and coffee.  Black Hawk helicopters will drop potato chips, pretzels and popcorn into blighted areas, and our nation's interstate highway system will be commandeered for chuck wagon use.

The idea of a Strategic Food Reserve seems simple enough.  Most people outside California find food more vital than oil.  However, many issues had to be addressed in planning an operation of this size.  Consideration was given to kosher and vegetarian diets.  This was resolved by setting aside whole vegan tundras under strict rabbinical supervision. Because of the limited storage facilities, major congressional squabbles broke out over questions of whole milk vs. skim, original vs. extra crispy chicken, and Sweet'N Low vs. Equal.

Of course, global warming now threatens the entire Strategic Food Reserve.  Over time, the country will be switching to canned and freeze-dried foods.  To avoid wasting the existing supply, it will be gradually distributed to the population over the course of a few Superbowl Sundays.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How Health Care Works

With all the talk about health care in this country, it would be helpful to get an understanding of how health care actually works from a qualified expert.  In the absence of such an expert, however, this will have to do.

When a person (hereinafter known as a patient) has some kind of problem, such as a pain in the whatsit, he or she goes to the doctor (hereinafter doctor.)  More precisely, the patient goes to the doctor's office, a large sterile environment decorated with early 20th century magazines.  Here the patient has the opportunity to pay an exorbitant fee (hereinafter co-pay) and take a seat.  After waiting the requisite 59 minutes (longer if there's a paid parking lot), the patient is escorted into another sterile room, called the examining room.  The patient is asked to undress and then wait another 59 minutes in his or her underwear (hereinafter skivvies.)

Eventually, the doctor enters the examining room and performs a thorough physical examination, sometimes lasting up to 90 seconds.  The doctor jots down some indecipherable notes, and dispatches the patient back to the front desk to a) pay another fee, b) schedule another appointment, and/or c) get instructions for using some prescribed drugs or equipment such as a framistat.

The doctor has had extensive training for this.  He or she has been through at least 4 years of medical school following college, and has also undergone 3 or more years of residency, during which he or she has been required to work long and erratic hours, treat actual patients, and have a series of torrid but ultimately unsatisfying affairs with other residents, interns and people with medical sounding titles.  (This is all vividly documented on Gray's Anatomy.)

Despite these apparently ample qualifications, however, the doctor's judgement is ultimately subject to review by the health insurance company (hereinafter bloodsuckers.)  The insurance company designates a medical claims specialist to review the case.  The specialist underwent rigorous college training majoring in Basque Literature, which enables him or her to divine all the pertinent facts about the patient's condition from a few three-letter codes on a claim form.  Based on this detailed analysis, the specialist can determine a) that the condition could be treated with a whoosiejigger instead of a framistat, and the whoosiejigger is 1/10 the cost, b) that the patient has not yet met the annual deductible of $16 million, so the whoosiejigger will be paid out of pocket, and c) that the patient's premiums should increase due to the cost of processing the claim.

Monday, May 2, 2011


Let's be brutally honest here. It's not about justice.  It's not about winning the War on Terror. Terrorism won't go away. Even Al Queda won't go away. Oil won't suddenly be plentiful and the ice caps certainly won't re-freeze.

It's about revenge. It's a feel good moment, like when Emperor Palpatine gets the shaft in Episode 6. (In the Lucas universe, every spacecraft must have one or more large shafts which lead straight to the nuclear reactor. A bomb or main character is required to fall into one of these at least once per episode.)

Of course, the elation of that moment was quickly dampened when Luke pulled off Darth Vader's helmet to reveal ... Uncle Fester! Don't believe me?  See for yourself ...

And, like Star Wars, this story doesn't begin with 9/11. There are all those weird early episodes that can't compare to the original trilogy. It began with bin Laden working in a construction business on the desert planet of Tatooine. Back then, he was a good guy, resisting the evil empire's invasion of Afghanistan, and happily hooked up with Queen AmeriDolla. But once that exploit was over, he was seduced by the dark side, and he turned on us. From then on, it was a series of more outrageous and terrifying ... uh, terrorism.  Until now.

There's nothing wrong with a good revenge yarn. But reality is still out there.