Friday, December 30, 2011

L - Dyna-What?

So this was on the counter at the doctor's office today. What's next? Turbo-Lube? Why do I feel like I stumbled into a weird cross between an auto repair shop and an adult gadgets store?

On the other hand... No. Not going there.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I - Cell Phones or Booze... Tough Call

NTSB Proposes Cell Phone Ban

I have not generally been a fan of a total ban on cell phone use while driving, but the more I watch how people seem to be infected with a total stupidity virus when behind the wheel the more I consider it. The real problem is that it is a type of behavior that is very hard to catch people at so is very difficult to get any real traction in enforcing. Without strong enforcement there is really little chance of changing behavior. Here in Oregon they outlawed talking on hand-held phones and for a few months people pretty much stopped, or at least got a lot more cautious about it. Now my observations show that probably around 10% of the drivers around here are on their phones, which is about what it was before the ban.

What really gets me about this issue is the regular citing of a study that showed that people were more dangerous driving while talking on their phones than they were driving drunk. That study has been bantered around all over the place, but no one ever seems to really think through the evidence. All the test really showed is that someone fully engaged in talking on their phone is less aware of their surroundings than is someone who is drunk and fully engaged in their driving. The problem is that virtually no one who is driving drunk is really as engaged as they are for the study. In the study they knew that they were drunk and knew that they were being observed. Those on the phone were also being told to stay on the phone and talk. The real-world situations are going to be a bit different, as most people who are on their phones are going to respond to traffic issues by stopping or interrupting their conversations. They aren't going to do as well as they might if they weren't on the phone, but they won't do as badly as they did in the test. Likewise, one of the major dangers of drunk drivers is that they are not aware that they are impaired, so they don't try to concentrate on their driving. Instead they are busy talking, messing with the radio, racing other cars, using poor judgement and taking excessive risks - all factors that the test effectively removed from their behavior. So let's just throw out that whole "cell phones are more dangerous than booze" thing and consider the real issue.

Fundamentally, the problem is not cell phones, it is concentration and distraction. Distraction is actually a pretty nebulous area since what constitutes being dangerously distracted at one time, say on a busy freeway at rush hour, may be quite different in another time and place, like a quiet rural road with no other traffic. There are a lot of ways people distract themselves while they drive. I've seen people using their laptops, programming their GPS, fixing their makeup, eating lunch and even reading the newspaper while driving. Actually I've seen all of that in one day. The problem is obviously not the device, but the operator.

Now banning the device may prove to be an effective interim solution, although history would tend to indicate that it won't be, but the ultimate solution is one of education and training. After seat belts started to come into use it took at least a full generation before they were widely accepted and used. I still know people who will hook the belt over their shoulder to fool the cops but won't buckle up because they are afraid of getting trapped in a burning car or feel that they are safer getting thrown out. But younger people seem to just automatically buckle up when they get in a car, especially when they are in the front seats. The difference is education changing cultural understanding and expectation. There will probably be more results from a long-term media campaign than from any legislation. Only when people decide to change will the law be effective.

Texting while driving is a different animal, however. I can think of no circumstance where I would consider it to be even remotely acceptable. The problem again comes down to social training. We have become trained to answer the phone when it rings and to respond to a text ASAP. That training puts us in danger when we are driving because even when we know the risks it is hard to resist the urge of social pressure. This is where our instant society has conditioned us to expect instant gratification, so we can't stand having it delayed. Imagine a room full of young people - say, 16-30 years old - who all have cell phones and who are all receiving a variety of calls and texts during a 1 hour period but are not allowed to answer any of them. They know they are coming in and they know that none of them are critical, and they know that at the end of the hour they will be able to answer them, but they can't do it when they ring. That crowd will go nuts. They have been trained since the days of Alexander Graham Bell to answer the ring as soon as it comes in. What we have to find a way to do is to re-train ourselves as a society to be able to delay that gratification when we know that satisfying it is a higher risk than it is worth.

I don't know how to do that, but that's also not my job. My job is just to point out where society is getting weird.

And more on it from Time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

T - Real People

One way of taking the temperature of society is to go to any news web site and read the comments. This is especially true if you read the comments on the opinion or entertainments or humor columns. A few minutes studying the gems of literary bombast that flow from the (hopefully) inebriated minds of the average web reader will convince you that average IQ is probably a severe exaggeration.

The sad truth is that most of the people writing comments seem to be utterly selfish, hopelessly stupid, incredibly bigoted, abysmally uneducated and irritatingly illogical. If you allow yourself to realize that this is the voting public you suddenly understand why our political system is irreparably broken. These people should never be allowed to vote and preferably never allowed to breed either. Good grief! At least gain enough literacy to be able to tell the difference between news and opinion. Think long enough to understand that news articles are written without all the facts that will ever come out being available. If you waited for all the facts you would still be waiting to read about President Kennedy's assassination. And for the sake of all of us who aren't utterly humor-deprived, develop a sense of humor! When a humor columnist writes about "5 ways to tell your dog is depressed" you can pretty much make bank that it isn't going to be chock full of veterinary advice - key word here "humor" - get it?

What the heck, it's not likely to change soon, but my suggestion is an IQ test before you are allowed to post a comment on a news article. Or better yet, a common sense and normal humor test.

Monday, September 5, 2011

L - Goodness all around!

Nothing says yummy like a two gallon jug of pork rinds - and here's a whole pallet-load of them!

Friday, September 2, 2011

L - Hip Hop

Hippity hop-hop. Hopalong Hippy.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

L - Footnotes

If books can have footnotes, why not blogs?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

L - It's the Pits

Sometimes it's just the pits.

Some time back my wife and I were looking at patio furniture and portable firepits for our deck. We found ourselves in a store that will remain unidentified other than as "the Shopko on the North side of Bend, Oregon" where we found a nice set of seats with a table between them (in the background with the Dear Wife being a leg and wrist model) and a matching fire pit. It actually looked pretty good to us, so I did some more snooping around and studying how it was made and all - sort of due diligence for the deck set. I soon found a slight oddity that perhaps reflects poorly on the floor staff at the store:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

L - Shingles

Protect against shingles - stay off the roof!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

R - Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, By Leo Tolstoy

So you want to read something with some weight to it? I think I can help you out there. I just finished reading A.K. a couple days ago - of course I started it about a year ago - and it is a book that I can recommend to anyone who loves long, involved plots with lots of characters and an overwhelming amount of detail. In the best Russian novel tradition it includes lots of sitting around and brooding about stuff and deeply passionate, albeit somewhat irrational, inter-personal relationships.

Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina in the 1870's and it first appeared in serial form in a literary magazine. The ending was not published in the serial so the first time the entire novel appeared was when it was published in book form. When you consider that the paperback version runs some 960 pages you realize that the literary magazine was evidently a pretty hefty thing - of course they did spread it out from 1873-1877, so that helped a bit.

Many critics consider Anna Karenina to be one of, if not the, best novel ever written. It is also widely considered to be the greatest of the "realist" fiction novels. Fyodor Dostoevsky lauded it as did many others at the time of its publication. Even today there are many who recommend it highly.

OK, enough of all that stuff, on to my opinions.

As you can see on the left, I read this on my Kindle (greatest electronic gadget ever, BTW), which saved me from having to lug around a 20 pound novel for months at a time. The translation I read was done by Constance Garnett in 1901. I have no idea how accurate a translation it is, but I had no gripes. I like Russian novels for their weight and their brooding thoughtfulness, so I entered into this project with a hopeful and positive attitude. I was not disappointed.

Anna Karenina begins with one of the all-time great first lines "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." From that point on it moves quickly to introduce us to the main characters and their situations. For approximately the first third of the book it is really a pretty easy read, but it does begin to get challenging as you go on. The greatest challenge (and greatest reward as well) is that Tolstoy moves into a lot of events and detail that enhance the characters but don't really advance the plot. This is, of course, the nature of the realist novel. It chronicles the life of the characters and allows the plot to build over time. You could probably make a condensed version that left out a huge amount of that detail, but it would be devoid of the richness that makes the people real.

Tolstoy also uses the novel as a platform to exercise his own opinions regarding the state of the peasants, the decay of the government, the ultimate disaster of immorality and the challenge of righteousness. The unfortunate truth is that it is very hard to really grasp the soul of this novel without multiple readings, something that few of us will do. But despite its size and all the weight of brooding detail it is fundamentally an engaging story and a thought-provoking development of it. Don't read it if you are prone to depression, but otherwise I can endorse it with a thoughtful, brooding, look.

Besides, Tolstoy has a great beard! And that's a good enough reason to read it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

I - All the news you can use

Seriously? "sturs"? On the front page of the USA Today web site? I can understand the odd typo or two, but this just screams "I flunked out of the third grade!"

To me, this sort of thing just spells j-0-b o-p-e-n-i-n-g.

Update: 8/15 - it now says "spurs".

L - What's in a name?

What can I say? This just seems like a really poor naming decision by someone.

Not sure what it really means, but I think I won't be stopping in to find out.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

L - Staying Together...

Continuing with the theme of odd juxtapositions, and courtesy of Google Earth, here we have yet another convenient side-by-side arrangement. The green field on the left, with all the little white dots, is the Belle Passi Cemetery. The field to the right, filled with the colored dots is M & M Metal Recycling - AKA "The Junkyard". So now after you have your little problem with the DMV and the liquor store, assuming the worst and that your personal stake in this present world has come to an end, you and your car can end up in the same general location on lots next to one another.

Ideal for those whose relationship with their automobiles is the defining emotional attachment of their lives they can now be planted next to where their car is being parted. Together forever - such a beautiful thought...

Friday, June 17, 2011

T - Nice Car!

So I pull up at a stop light today and glance over to my right at the car next to me. The driver is a very well-dressed woman probably in her mid to late forties. She is perhaps dressed a bit young for her actual age, but tasteful. Her hair and makeup are absolutely perfect and she has that "successful divorcee" look about her. So what kind of car was she driving?

A Cougar, of course!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

L - Let's Get Together....

Some things just don't go together.

If you look very closely at the sign in the accompanying picture you will notice an odd juxtaposition of businesses. Consider how the bottom three businesses work together. First, we have the DMV, the infamous Department of Motor Vehicles, where people go to get their driver's licenses. At the DMV you have people going out to take the driving test, nervous, uptight and worried. They come back and wait anxiously to hear that they drove OK and finally they get the go-ahead to legally drive in Oregon. Oh, happy day!

And what better way to celebrate that you are now a legally licensed driver than to swing by the Liquor Store for a celebratory bottle. So convenient! And now, fortified by bottle and license you can take to the streets and drive like most of the people in Central Oregon. If the unthinkable happens and your driving skill combined with the contents of the bottle fail to keep you safe on the road then you can wend your way back to this little mall, where, between the liquor store and the DMV you will find a Rite-Aid drug store - the ideal place to acquire those necessary post-accident bandages and analgesics.

One-stop shopping! Ain't it great!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

T - You Really Can't Cure Stupid

Intermittently humorous comedian Ron White is famous for his "You can't fix stupid" line and the realities of daily life seem to reinforce that viewpoint over and over. Case in point: yesterday I was driving home from the bank and the car in front of me was having a really hard time staying between the lines. It waited almost all the way through the green light at one intersection and then puttered along a 35 MPH road at a screaming 20. Even at that hyper-cautious velocity it managed to nearly rear-end the car in front when that car stopped to make a left turn and sat at a 3-way intersection allowing everyone in sight to go through for several cycles before a gentle beep from the horn of one of the people following inspired movement.

Drunk? Talking on cell phone? Nope - just too busy trying to eat an ice cream cone to properly manage the car! It did, however, get me thinking about distracted drivers and especially distracted drivers and cell phones.

A couple years ago I did some casual research (OK, I stood on a street corner and counted for 15 minutes or so) and found that about one in 10 drivers was talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving. Others have claimed that it was a lot higher where they were, but few had ever actually tried to count and see. That was before all the hands-free laws and about the time that groups were claiming that a driver talking on a cell phone was more dangerous than a drunk driver. The funny thing is, though, that the accident statistics never really bore out the claim. The rather small up-tick in minor accidents was pretty hard to pin on the cell phones and there just wasn't the huge increase in wrecks you would expect if 10% of the drivers were actually driving drunk. The hands-free laws were mostly passed on the basis of lab-type research and common sense, which surely tells us that holding something in one hand while driving doesn't improve your driving in any way, shape or form. The funny thing is that it seems to me that the people I now see driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone really are driving like they are drunk. I doubt that I see even one in 50 any more, but it seems that the ones who still do it are the very ones who never should have.

The sorrowing realization is that there are certain people who probably just plain drive like they've been lobotomized - regardless of whether they are distracted or not. These also seem to, unfortunately, be the same ones who think that they drive just fine while talking on the phone, putting on makeup, reading the newspaper, answering texts, changing CDs, programming their GPS, slapping their kids or even while eating an ice cream cone. Not only can't you fix stupid, but you can't fix bad drivers either.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I - OBL dead - Oh, Big Deal!

Smoking hot headlines and big news this week! Osama bin Laden has been found and killed by Navy Seals at his compound in Pakistan. It really is a big deal in one sense, in that the capture or killing of OBL has been a priority in the U.S. for the last decade, but on a more realistic note, look down the CNN headline picture on the left. Down... farther... just a bit farther... Yes! There it is! Just below the sub-head that reads "Latest News". See that item there? The one that says "Gas could soon top $4 nationwide"? How about them apples, huh?

Sure the killing of OBL probably deserves some big headlines - at least for a day or two - but the real issues are down below the fold. (OK, old newspaper terminology, I know, but it fits.) Down there are the issues with the economy, the flooding in Missouri (and the rest of the Midwest), the twisters across the South and Southeast, and a whole slew of other real problems that haven't changed a bit while we froth at the mouth over the killing of one terrorist leader. You can't even *find* a current article on the nuclear reactor mess in Japan.

Al Qaeda has not really been hurt by this action, and it probably has done more harm than good to the international opinion of the U.S., but the press wants to make it into a huge thing. I have to suspect that at least part of the motivation is to make our president look more presidential, but I think I hear the Nobel committee asking for their prize back. Terrorism will continue (and probably get worse for a while), and the economy will stay in the tank. Lybia will still be a huge challenge and Afghanistan is going to keep soaking up dollars and lives, but the press will feel good about the war on terror. Frankly, I think that Dubya hit the nail on the head back in '02 or whenever it was when he said that he neither knew nor cared where Bin Laden was. It didn't mean that he wasn't interested in getting him if the opportunity presented itself, but it meant that he understood that the real problems of global terrorism went back to nations like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who support terrorism or provide the economic conditions that drive people toward the radical elements.

When we defeat terrorism, in all its guises not just Al Qaeda, it will owe more to Wal-Mart than the Navy SEALs. We will defeat terrorism when all of the people in these countries have a standard of living that allows them hope for the future and the ability to pursue happiness in their lives right now. Only with the replacement of totalitarian regimes with governments sensitive to the needs of all the people and with diversified economic growth not tied to the elite few will the radical element begin to recede. But that's a process for the decades and doesn't make the kind of headlines that sell papers, I guess.

Friday, April 1, 2011

R - One Man's Wilderness

One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, By Sam Keith from the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke

In 1968 Dick Proenneke was flown into the Twin Lakes in Alaska and started to build a cabin. Dick was 51 years old and had a lifetime of working with his hands behind him. He possessed the type of skills that were essential to making his dream of living in the Alaska wilderness possible.

This book, taken from Dick's journals and re-worked by Sam Keith, chronicles the construction of the cabin and the first two years that Dick spent there. I ended up reading it because my wife has a strong attraction to Alaska and told me it was a "must read". Roughly the first two-thirds of the book are devoted to the process of building the cabin and the challenges he faced during that period. The last part is mostly concerned with some of his explorations around the area and the wildlife he encountered.

I have to admit that I found the first part of the book far more interesting than the latter part. That probably reflects how I tend to get very involved in books that are focused on the engineering aspects of life, the "how do we do this?" kind of thing. There are some rather interesting thoughts that occurred to me while reading those pages. First, I thought about how I would have done some of it a bit differently. There are a lot of ways to build a log cabin and there is certainly nothing wrong with how Dick did it, but it provides me with a great deal of enjoyment to visualize alternate approaches that might have taken less labor, yielded better (in my mind) results, and possibly made less use of non-natural materials. Case in point is that Dick assembled many parts using nails where I would have used wooden pegs. He also used tar paper and plastic sheeting on the roof under a thick layer of moss. His method worked very well, but I would have probably split shakes instead.

The other thought that kept coming to my mind was that he was in phenomenal physical condition (and obviously remained that way since he lived in the cabin all or part of each of the next 30 years). I kept thinking that there was no way on earth I could do what he did. I might have the skills, but I no longer have the strength or stamina, and that was a bit of a melancholy thought.

If you have an interest in the Alaskan wilderness and in log cabins and isolation then I think you would find this a very good read. There are also a couple of follow-up books and the journals are available on-line in PDF format. I'll post the links as I find them.

The book on

More Readings From One Man's Wilderness - A huge PDF file of Dick's journals from 1974-1980

Alone in the Wilderness - a web site by Bob Swerer about Dick Proenneke

Thursday, March 31, 2011

I - Face it, 1984 was an underestimate.

Google making app that would identify people's faces

George Orwell wrote the book "1984" to highlight the decline in personal privacy and the rise of government intrusion into the lives of the citizens. Somehow I think he was a bit conservative in his evaluation of what was going to come. When I read an article like this - knowing that the technology is not only out there, but being widely used by police forces and businesses already - I have to wonder just how soon we will be without freedom of any sort other than what the "powers that be" are willing to grant us.

We already have red light cameras that identify our license plate and mail us a ticket. How long before every illegal action is filmed and the perpetrator identified by the computer? Sounds OK, until you think about the number of people who look similar. Eyewitness testimony is the least reliable when it comes to identifying criminals, is the computer going to do better? More to the point, what else can be done with this?

The government knows what car you drive and where you live, thanks to DMV records. Combine that with every other bit of data about you that is floating around and there is reason to start getting paranoid. Do you own a gun? The state knows that, even if you think that they don't. It's quite simple, if you have ever bought a hunting license or gotten a concealed weapons permit they can be pretty confident that you own one or more. Now lets put a camera outside every gun store and we have an even easier way to identify that particular dangerous element.

Maybe you just like to try to tweak the local politicos on one subject or another. With a bit of technology they can follow you from one surveillance camera to another until they catch you doing something they don't like - and it doesn't take any people to do it, just a faceless computer. Now it is cheap and easy to keep tabs on all sorts of people you previously would have ignored. Eventually you can monitor everyone in the country to make sure they aren't doing anything questionable (by government standards).

But the government is only half of this equation. The other part is that this is very useful for companies trying to sell their products. They can now cross-reference you to your interests for more tightly targeted advertising and then use what they learn about you from other sources to manipulate you to buy (or to support them in other ways - think of subtly coercing the majority to forgive BP for the Gulf oil spill). The more they know about you the more they can influence you. Once again, this doesn't take a single person to do it, it is all done by a computer program mining the internet for data about you.

These things are here. We can't un-ring the bell, we just have to learn how to adapt to a society where it is virtually impossible to do anything that is not only recorded somewhere, but is actively used to track you, manipulate you and quite possibly to oppress you.

Orwell missed by a few years, but in a lot of ways he was a pretty good prophet.

Monday, February 28, 2011

I - Oscars or Oscar Mayer?

So the Oscars weren't quite as exciting as people hoped. Strange. The movies this year weren't all that great either. Maybe the two are related - or maybe three hours of watching people who exist in a fantasy world fawning all over themselves and each other is just not really interesting.

I think they need to start giving out awards for corporate auditors. They could have a category for most graft uncovered and for fastest exposing of undeserved bonuses. They could show film clips of the contestants studying balance sheets and making the ten-key rattle. Not only would it be highlighting something that is both real and important, I doubt you could get more than about 15 minutes out of the whole program, half-hour tops, and that would be good too.

The other really strange thing is that the same people who are griping about the Oscars being slow and boring are the ones who complain that football is slow and boring. Lets compare three hours of watching a bunch of overpaid, narcissistic, extroverts - no, wait, that applies to both - try 3 hours of who did the best job of pretending to be someone else to 3 hours of the most complex and intellectual sport ever invented. Plus with football you get violence (always a top seller, and football violence isn't done with stunt-men), you don't have to wear a tux, and you can get up and get a hot dog. So we're back to the Oscars - Oscar Mayers, that is.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

L - Big Load

Well, it's been just over 40 weeks since I last posted. That's enough time to produce a normal human baby, so I guess a new post is reasonable.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see a semi-load of Styrofoam? Here is your chance. I took this picture at a rest stop along I-5 in Washington State. The truck is hauling a full load of Styrofoam blocks. I gave the driver a hard time about having such a heavy load, but then found out that the blocks are actually part of a bridge construction system and will be used as forms for pouring concrete. The styrofoam allows for complex shapes and hollow (ok, filled with foam) parts, creating elaborately engineered load-bearing structures that take less concrete and are more rigid and able to handle earthquakes and such better. Amazing what a semi-load of foam can mean.

We sometimes fall into this pattern of thinking where we assume that something is a big load, or a light load or a worthless load, and don't take the time to really find out what that load is all about. Life has a lot of things in it that are not what they seem, even the light loads can turn out to be pretty significant down the road.