Thursday, September 3, 2015

Why I'm Quitting Facebook

I've decided to delete my Facebook account because it's no longer adding to the sum total of my happiness. I enjoy being able to keep in touch with distant friends and relatives, but there are other ways to do that. Besides, look at your own Facebook feed and tell me whether most of the content has anything to do with that. I looked at the first 100 items in my current feed and only 15 were direct posts from actual friends, as opposed to ads, commercial posts from organizations I made the mistake of following, and indirect posts ('liked by', 'commented on', 'tagged in', etc. etc.). That's a miserable ratio of things I asked for to things I didn't ask for, far worse than the ratio of programming to commercials on TV.

I'm certainly not the first to observe the strange and probably harmful worldview found in commercial media --- commercial defined as something you read, watch or listen to that you didn't directly pay for. It's a loose definition; I pay for Netflix but it has many of the same problems. That worldview goes something like this:

- You are an awesome and unique creation and will become even awesomer by reading this story/clicking on this link/buying this product.

- Every illness has a cure if we could only raise money/spread awareness/educate people

- The normal human condition is to be very happy every day, and if you're not, you need to take some kind of action which we will help you with, for a price.

- All conflicts can be resolved if we just get to know each other.

- You are unique in your awesomeness, but also much like other awesome and amazing people we will now tell you about.

- Every person has unlimited, and therefore equal, potential.

- The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong. You also have to have a compelling personal backstory.

- Your life will follow a story arc in which problems will be encountered and then overcome. After your to-do list has expanded and then tapered to zero, you will enter a type of nirvana.

- Life is laden with meaning. Death is a meaningful event that happens to other people.

- When something goes wrong, it is usually the fault of another person.

- People do wrong not because they are acting out of self-interest that conflicts with your own, but because they are inherently evil like the Riddler or Lex Luthor

I could go on.

I don't think it's healthy to be bombarded with this stuff for hours a day. You may think you're smart enough to see through the bullshit, but think again. Do you think you can outsmart professionals who spend millions of dollars conducting ads and media campaigns that exploit every weakness, appeal to your vanity and greed, pander to your biases, and keep you in a perpetual state of unbalance and dissatisfaction in order to get you to act how they want you to act? I think not.

When my kids were watching TV and a commercial came on, I used to tell them, "The product is you." It's time I took my own advice.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Basilica San Clemente

I just got back from Rome. At the risk of turning this blog into a travelogue, I have to write a few words about a site that was so interesting and full of history, the trip would have been worth it if I had only visited that one place.

The place is the Basilica of San Clemente. It's not far from the Colosseum, a short way up the Coelian Hill. It's a church operated by the Irish Dominicans ever since the Pope gave it to them in the 1600s as a refuge from the persecutions of Cromwell. Like many medieval churches in Rome, you can just walk in during the day and look at the architecture and art. The current active structure was built in the 12th century. There's a guy asking for money near the door, but I wasn't quite sure whether he was actually affiliated with the church, so I didn't put any money on his plate.

Once you're inside the church, there's a small ticket office where you can pay 10 euros to see the "archaeological area" as they (under)state it. For God's sake, do it. It was the best 10 euros I spent on the whole trip.

What is the "archaeological area," you ask? In 1857, the Prior decided to excavate under the basilica. Why? Maybe he was just a bored Irishman making his own fun, as the Irish will do. One imagines there were rumors of ancient chambers under the structure, but there are probably rumors like that about every building in Rome. Perhaps he was talked into it by de Rossi, an archaeologist who supervised the excavations with him.

From some maps I bought in the bookshop, it looks like they initially dug into the floor of the sacristy along an interior wall. It turned out that the wall was the outer wall of an entire earlier basilica (the sacristy protrudes from the floor plan of the earlier basilica.) That basilica, which was actually somewhat larger than the current structure, was built in the 4th century. After several decades of excavation, they had nearly completely uncovered the 4th-century basilica. They observed that  columns supporting the roof of the old basilica had been incorporated into foundation walls, the rooms had been filled with rubble, and the walls of the new basilica had been built more or less directly on top of the lower walls.

Unfortunately the floor of the new basilica was built slightly lower than the ceiling of the old one, such that a lot of late-antiquity mosaics and frescoes were cut off about 3/4 of the way up. I am no judge of medieval religious art, but they are said to be quite significant. It is suggested that one fresco is a portrait from life of Theodora (500-548), the controversial wife of the Emperor Justinian. The bottom of one badly deteriorated fresco reads, "Whosoever may read these letters of my name, let him say: God have mercy on unworthy John." I read those letters and said what he asked!

Oh, by the way, it is believed that St. Cyril was buried in a corner of the 4th-century basilica. You know, St. Cyril, who with his brother Methodius brought Christianity to the Slavs, including a translation of the Bible using the first Slavonic alphabet, which they invented and which evolved into Cyrillic? There were a couple of Russians there to see Cyril's original burial place. The remains were lost in 1798 but supposedly some were returned in 1963.

There's also a fresco containing what is claimed to be the oldest existing written Italian, as opposed to Classical Latin. The sentences contain the phrase, "sons of bitches."

My favorite thing was a marble slab with a pagan inscription on one side that was later flipped over and re-used with a Christian inscription on the other side. They have the thing mounted on an axle so you can turn it over and see each side. That's almost too perfect - I wonder if it is some kind of fake.

After digging out the 4th-century basilica, the archaeologists realized that it was actually the converted second story of a commercial building dating from the 1st century. So they dug out a portion of the ground floor of that building, a narrow alleyway, and another building across the alleyway. The other building was a private home that contained a Mithraeum --- an altar of the Mithraic religion, which was briefly a competitor to Christianity in the waning days of the Roman religion.

Apparently the Mithras cult always worshipped in secret, underground, so the Mithraeum was probably in use at the same time as the 4th-century basilica, after the 1st-century street level had been raised one story. It would have been situated as the basement of the building across the street from the basilica. The Mithraeum would have been abandoned in the late 4th century when the emperor Theodosius banned all pagan religions.

 The Mithraeum

In the very bottom corner of the 1st-century structure, a large natural spring issues forth and drains through a duct built in 1937 that joins with a larger discharge, the preclassical Cloaca Maxima, that runs under the Forum to the Tiber River. Before that duct was built, the lower level was full of water and unreachable.

I only relate here the things that made a big impression on me. There is a lot more to it, and in fact, a lot more that could be excavated if they had the funds. You can learn more and donate at the basilica's website.

San Clemente is not exactly obscure (I learned about it from a TV show) but I bet not one in a thousand visitors to Rome goes there. At times in the 1st-century level, I could not see or hear another person, and it's dark and damp. I'd call it creepy, but a better word perhaps is ominous. I could feel the presence of others. This place made an enormous impression on me. It is the kind of thing we simply cannot experience anywhere in the New World.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Slaves to Authority

You used to hear a lot about the East Coast being traditional and hidebound, in contrast to the freewheeling West Coast. I always thought this was malarkey. Maybe it was true 100 years ago, when you had to be kind of an adventurer to make it west of the Rockies, but it couldn't be true any more, what with coast-to-coast air travel being so cheap.

Well, after living in both places, I have to say it's all too true. I don't need to give examples of weird and eccentric behavior from California, but what you may find more interesting are examples of Easterners being absolute slaves to tradition and authority.

1. I had some contractors move a window as part of a kitchen renovation. They found a bundle of TV and phone cables running toward the second floor, across the location the window was supposed to be moved to. I told them to just cut the wires, because we don't have any TVs or phones upstairs, and if we wanted them in the future, they would be on Wi-Fi. They absolutely did not want to do it. They called their boss and he told them not to do it. I said I would sign a note giving them the OK to cut the wires, but that wasn't enough. It was either cut the wires or cancel the whole kitchen job, because if the window could't be moved, it would disrupt the whole layout of the new kitchen. It took an hour of arguing over the phone before they finally relented. I'd have cut the damn things myself but I was at work at the time.

2. Had a new slide-in stove delivered, and I had to also pay them to install it, because my wife wouldn't let me make the gas connection. When the installers showed up with the stove on a truck, they said they would not install it, because they do not install slide-in stoves as a matter of policy. They were afraid of getting in trouble for damaging the countertop. I said (a) this particular stove doesn't actually touch the countertop, and (b) why did they bring the stove all the way out to my house if they weren't gonna install it? I couldn't get it through their thick skulls, so they left. Later, I talked to the people I ordered the stove from, and they gave me the excuse that the opening wasn't the right size. The installers never even measured the opening! And they must have noticed that the old stove already in the opening was the same size and make of the new stove. They really tried to twist and turn to get out of installing the stove. Mind you I was paying them a fee to do this. Finally I got it through to the manager that it was in their interest to at least try to install the stove, that is if they wanted me not to cancel the freaking order.

Now I'm trying to get our local school system to let my son do independent study in math instead of taking their standard course. He would still take the exams, but he'd study with me because I could move him about twice the normal speed. I don't need to tell you that when I brought this up with the math department, you would think I'd asked them to let him bring a pet cobra to class. Absolutely out of the question. The frustrating thing is, if I'd brought them a doctor's note saying he had to be given triple the standard time on tests due to a learning disability, plus had to be allowed to submit his answers in Old Church Slavonic, they would have allowed it, because the Authorities say you must let students do those kinds of things.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Being There

When I was a kid I used to dream about being involved in space launches and designing jet engines and things like that. They were big but achievable dreams, and in fact I have achieved them. At certain moments I stop being my adult self who carries around a history of gradual effort and advancement, and I go back to being my kid self and I just say, "I can't believe I'm doing this." For example, when I gave a presentation to NASA on how to fix a certain part of the Shuttle after the Columbia accident, for a few seconds I became my 12-year-old self who launched model rockets from the backyard, and I said, "I can't believe I'm doing this." That was also the time I am sure I felt my grandpa standing behind me, in his high boots, all covered in coal dust.

I have several friends who must have had the same beautiful and frightening experience, like my friend from high school the standup comic who did a set on Leno. I bring this up not to brag --- my dreams probably sound boring to some people, and that isn't the point.  I bring it up to make the point that there are certain experiences money cannot buy. It's not just greeting-card bullshit. You cannot buy the experience of discovering a law of physics or painting a masterpiece.

You may say, well, Elon Musk spent $1 billion because he wanted to build his own rocket. That's true, but the$1 billion by itself didn't get him all the way there. He didn't just give some people $1 billion to go off and design a rocket he could slap his name on, he actually designed the damned thing. (With help from a lot of other people, of course, but he was the driving force.) When the rocket launches, it is primarily by his own hand. This is what I try to explain to my kids when they talk about careers. Like most kids, they would prefer to get rich, but what is the point of money if not to enable you to have certain experiences, even if it's just the experience of living in a 5th Avenue penthouse? But there are experiences that money can't buy. Lots of people have donated money to try to cure cancer, but they cannot buy the experience of actually curing it. Would you rather be the billionaire whose money enables cancer to be cured, or would you rather be the person who cures it? Come to that, you can't buy the experience of living every day of your own life, whether your situation is happy or sad. You are the one who gets to live it --- or choose not to do so, I guess. This is what Steve Jobs meant when he said "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life." Saturday, May 16, 2015 Election 2016 Special! I don't take electoral politics seriously. Most government policy is made by unelected bureaucrats who can create whatever regulations they feel like, the law be damned. Most people either vote a straight party-line ticket or choose a candidate based on superficial things like height, a good speaking voice, physical fitness, a serious but not grave demeanor, and a lack of facial hair. In addition to these qualities, I also feel that a politician should provide entertainment. (It has been said that politics is show business for ugly people.) It is very hard for the politician him- or herself to be entertaining, because politicians are carefully trained not to outrage even the most strange and bizarre opinions. It's hard to tell a funny joke that doesn't offend someone somewhere. This is where Presidential brothers come in. We have a great tradition of goofy Presidential brothers - Billy Carter, Roger Clinton, Neil Bush. I don't remember much about the Carter Administration except for the hostages in Iran, and a drunken Billy Carter having peed on an airport runway in the presence of the news media. So, I plan on voting for the candidate with the brother most likely to make an ass of himself. Here's a rundown of the potential for brotherly embarrassment for some of the major candidates for 2016. Hillary Clinton: We have some real potential right off the bat here, with brother Hugh Rodham. He had to give back$400,000 he got from a guy who Bill Clinton pardoned. As a bonus, he is both fat and sloppy, which adds color to any comical missteps. The only trouble with Rodham is that he may have learned to stay out of trouble based on his experience during the Bill Clinton administration.

Elizabeth Warren: She has three older brothers, but they keep a low profile. All I could find was them supporting Warren's discredited claim about being part Indian.

Rand Paul: He has two brothers, but what interests me is his dad, Ron Paul, who was himself a candidate the last time around. Ron Paul was generally regarded as the most conservative Congressman of his time, and now he's retired and doesn't have to stand for office any more. He is both a free and original thinker, as well as a very likely source of gaffes and embarrassing associations.

Jeb Bush: Neil Bush is still the likeliest Bush brother to do something entertaining. George is far too savvy (don't be fooled by that down-home personality.) But like Hugh Rodham, Neil Bush has had time to sharpen his game, so he may be less likely to go off message.

Jim Webb: He has a brother, but I couldn't find anything on him. Webb himself may be the more likely source of entertainment. He likes to say what's on his mind, which is why he couldn't be a senator any more and why I don't see him making it far in the primaries.

Bernie Sanders: Now here is where it gets interesting. Bernie Sanders has a brother, Larry, who moved to England years ago and was recently defeated in an election as a Green Party candidate. Bernie Sanders himself is an actual socialist, so his brother is probably a real flake.

Lincoln Chafee: He doesn't have a brother, and moreover, is from an old-line New England political family. Bor----ing.

We have several strong contenders here. Will Larry Sanders tell a British tabloid that his brother's favorite song is the "Internationale"? Will one of Elizabeth Warren's low-profile brothers be caught on video saying "We Chinese, we play joke, we go pee-pee in your Coke"?  Or will Hugh Rodham show us all that he hasn't learned from his mistakes? Only time will tell.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Warning: Dangerous Post

Recently I went through an experience familiar to most people with jobs: the dreaded annual safety training. I work in an office building and spend most of my day either sitting at my desk or at a table in a meeting room. Once a week or so I might go down to the lab, where they are so worried about peoples' eyes getting injured that they give you a brand new pair of safety glasses every time you go into the lab, and you can just throw them away afterwards. No expense is spared to keep your eyes safe.

My building is climate-controlled, handicapped-accessible and in strict compliance with all safety regulations of the State of New York. But, once a year, I have to spend an hour or two looking at web-based safety training so that I do not trip over a loose rug, strain my back trying to lift a parcel, accidentally guzzle a bottle of whiteboard cleaner with my lunch, or run like a maniac through a plate glass window when the fire alarm sounds.

Things have really changed since 1989, when I worked as a construction laborer to earn money for college. In that job, I dug holes, moved lumber, broke up skids, and ran a power grinder. This was in a high-rise, and several of the upper floors were still unfinished and open to the four winds. I could and did go onto the the roof of the building, which had no safety railing whatsoever.

They were using cranes to lift big slabs of very nice pink marble, like 10 by 20 feet, that formed the outer face of the building. These must have weighed several tons each. Frequently I would have to walk directly under the slabs as they hung from the crane. I also had to walk under ironworkers who were working on the framework above me. Once a guy dropped an enormous wrench that must have weighed ten pounds, from thirty feet above me. If it had landed on my head, it would have driven me about a foot into the ground like a big nail.

Once I and another guy had to use an acetylene torch to trim off several vertical beams that were sticking up through the roof, while standing near the edge of the roof at least fifty feet above the ground. Then for good measure we hauled a pile of torn-up fiberglass insulation to a dumpster. We just picked up big strips of it with our hands and threw it in the dumpster. It itched. One of my jobs was to empty waste barrels into a big rollaway in the basement. Whenever I did that, a big cloud of some kind of dust would blow up into my face. Not to gross you out, but I used to hack up black phlegm at night.

The safety training for that job consisted of the foreman handing me a hard hat and telling me to be careful.

But even by 1989, industrial safety was advanced. They already had the concept of a "confined space"; if you needed to go someplace you couldn't get out of right away in an emergency, you were given a special briefing and someone had to stand watch until you got out. In contrast, I was watching an old movie of some guys building a solid rocket motor in 1956, and two guys shimmied right into the bore of the motor, which was about a foot and a half in diameter. Now, that's a confined space, but if something had gone wrong, no amount of training would have saved them.

I worked at a solid rocket motor plant for a couple of years. When a solid rocket is built, the propellant is cast right into the motor, so there were literally tons of live propellant in many of the buildings. They obviously needed a lot of safety precautions. My favorite was that if you parked your car outside a building where they were handling a lot of propellant, you were supposed to park with the car heading away from the building, with the keys left in the ignition. Then, if something went wrong while you were in the building, you were supposed to bust through the nearest breakout panel (thin plywood panels built into the walls every 50 feet or so), jump in your car, and gun the throttle to get away from the building as fast as possible. They didn't say we had to yell "Waaaaaaaa!" but I would have. I wanted to do that at least once, just for fun, but never came up with a fake reason to.

 Here's the building I worked on in 1989. It's the William Green Building in Columbus, Ohio.  I used to go up on the roof (the pyramid-looking thing on the top is just an open framework) and throw paper airplanes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Fads and Fashions in Computing

When I was in high school, we had an IBM PCjr. Despite what you've heard, it was a pretty decent computer. No, it didn't have a GUI, but neither did any other computer of the day except for the Mac, which cost $2495. I think the PCjr was about$1200 including a big color monitor. They both shipped with 128K.

The funny thing about the PCjr was how all the newspapers and magazines complained about the "chiclet" keyboard. They didn't like all the space between the keys; said it wasn't ergonomic. The New York Times said reporters "gasped with dismay" when they first caught sight of it. They said, "Its keyboard is not designed for extended typing." Of course, in the same story, they claimed a 16-bit computer is faster than an 8-bit computer because it can process more bits at one time. That sounds like common sense, but it's completely incorrect.

Anyway, here's the "horrible" chiclet keyboard of the PCjr:

here's the ideal keyboard of that time, the big 101-key Keytronic keyboard.

aaaaand here's a standard Apple keyboard from 2015.

I'd say the PCjr was about thirty years ahead of its time. We used to be such snobs about keyboard quality, and now we type with our thumbs on a flat piece of glass.

Everything old is new. In the early days of the Internet, all the snobs looked down on amateur web pages with flashing type, meaningless counters, animated GIFs, and disorganized or confusing layout.  The worst offense was to have your webpage automatically play a song when it loaded. What if you're surfing the 'net on your lunch hour? Do you want to risk everyone hearing your computer play a MIDI version of "Dixie" when you visit a Civil War website?

Let's see...flashing type, distracting sidebar items, and autoplaying audio. Sounds like pretty much every news site I visit now. It looks a lot slicker, with Flash and whatnot, but it's the same old crap people were complaining about in 1995. The old-timers may have been wrong about the keyboard, but they were right about this.

On a similar note, I was forced to learn Pascal my freshman year in college. Language of the future, they said. FORTRAN's days are numbered, they said. Fortunately, I paid just barely enough attention in that class to get a B, and then immediately forgot Pascal. Sometimes laziness does pay off.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Robotic Cars and Your Basic Human Dignity

As an engineer, I really hesitate to criticize Elon Musk. This is a guy who, when it's all over with, will probably have done more for technological progress than anyone since Edison. So this is like Joe Shlabotnik criticizing Mickey Mantle. But success can breed hubris. Musk thinks that, for safety reasons, it should eventually become illegal for people to drive cars. All cars will be driven automatically by an algorithm.

Cue the satire.

Banning human-driven cars? Not a moment too soon, I say. Over 30,000 people a year are killed in car accidents in the U.S. If there's one thing that made this country great, it's the avoidance of all possible risks. Who can forget the great Federal Actuarial Council of 1968 that calculated a 10% risk of death for the Apollo astronauts, and pulled the plug on the foolhardy moon mission? Or the Over-land Travel Committee of 1840 that made it illegal to cross the Mississippi without 180 days' hard rations, six draft animals per person and a federally approved wagon? That stroke of genius stopped what would have been a disastrous mass movement to the west. Experts say that without that act, America would have eventually taken California from Mexico. When you look at the miserable standard of living in, say, Palo Alto these days, I consider that to have been a bullet dodged. America the Safe.

Anyway, robotic cars are still driven by humans, they're just driven indirectly by humans. Someone still has to design the car and determine how the steering algorithm functions. But let's face it, most humans are unqualified to decide the safe speed for a car, and they're getting worse by the day. The average person has little understanding of rigid-body dynamics. The navigation of cars should be restricted to those who can write the Lagrangian for a mass-spring-damper model of an automobile and derive the equations of motion.

 The Google self-driving car

 The self-driving car from Sleeper by Woody Allen

I say let's take it to the next logical step. Many car trips are unnecessary anyway. The best way to avoid an accident is to just stay home! If your car can control which route to take and how fast to go in getting to the destination you select, then certainly it can just refuse to start at all, if its algorithms determine you don't need to be taking the trip. It should be very simple to track how many trips to the grocery store you made this week. Let's face it, if you can't get your groceries in two trips, you should just order out. In fact, it should be illegal to drive to the grocery store at all. It's much more efficient and safe, and easier to control your food consumption, for the grocery store to make delivery rounds with an automated van. And I hardly need to tell you how many people are abusing their driving privileges to attend demonstrations, visit the wilderness and annoy government officials in their places of work. Enough is enough.

Call me a dreamer, but I envision a day when nobody will leave the house at all. We can just stay inside, happily consuming infotainment and food of scientifically calibrated goodness.

Libertarian extremists think everyone has the right to choose his own level of risk. But that kind of anarchy has led to the situation we have today, where maniacs think that just because it's a clear, dry day free of heavy traffic and they are late for their daughter's wedding, that it's OK to go 73 miles an hour down a rural interstate. What's next, the return of do-it-yourself auto repairs? Yeah, like I really want to drive on streets filled with cars whose oil was changed by shade tree mechanics instead of ASE certified automotive technicians.

The future looks bright. Instead of the constant, day-to-day grind of having to make decisions in the face of incomplete and uncertain information, people will be freed to live tranquil lives in which the only course of action permitted is that determined as optimal by algorithms created and approved by a central body of experts. You'll wake up and a message on a screen will tell you which color pants to put on.

Satire concluded.

The question you have to ask yourself is: are you using technology help you live, or are you using it to live life for you?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Time I Almost Got Killed in a Car Accident

When I was 22 years old and working at my first real job, I of course bought my first new car. I was a single guy making engineer money and looking for something to spend it on. I bought the car that had the lowest ratio of 0-60 time to purchase price. Yes, this is really how I made the decision. I still think this way.

The car was a Plymouth Laser, the two-wheel-drive turbo version. Ha, you say, a Plymouth? This thing was a rocket ship. It was a really light, small car with 190 hp, and handled like an American sports car, which is to say not very well. When the turbo kicked in, the torque steer would yank the wheel out of your hands.

I bought the car from a dealer in Columbus, Ohio - I picked out the options and they had it shipped over from another dealer somewhere else in Ohio. When the car came in, I went down to pick it up and the salesman started writing up the deal using the sticker price of the car. Whoa, I says, I'm not paying sticker price. He said, oh, OK, how much are you going to offer? I don't remember exactly what I paid but it wasn't sticker. What I do remember is the salesman, who was extremely fat, like 450 lbs, telling me about how he walked a paper route on his off day to "keep in shape and earn extra money." He was good, this salesman.

Anyway, I had fun driving the car all summer. I used to have to drive over to the Transportation Research Center for work, and it had a long driveway on its private property, maybe a mile long with only a couple of gentle curves in it, so you could really get up some speed. I had it up to 115 once and was still accelerating but chickened out because the wipers started lifting off the windshield.

 The TRC driveway where I went 115

That winter, one Friday night some of us at work decided to get together at a roadhouse in a tiny town called Broadway, which was a few miles north of the office. We never made it to Broadway. We pulled out of the office around dusk. (At that time, the entire American Honda design department fit into one room in a low building now occupied by the Honda Federal Credit Union, on State Route 739. I had badge 125; they must be close to 10,000 by now. But I digress. )

So three of us, myself and Jim and Tim (not their real names), went busting up 739 toward Broadway. I was way ahead of both of them and didn't notice the curve until it was way too late. I was probably going 80 on the straightaway and maybe braked down to 60 by the time I hit the curve, so there was no way I was going to stay on the road. It would have been OK except there was a drainage ditch along the road, and when I went off the road, the ditch flipped me. I think I went over three times, but don't really know. It was definitely more than once. Time really does slow down to give you a chance to think about your lifelong regrets in a situation like that.

 Route to near-oblivion, also known as State Route 739

Luckily, I came to rest wheels-down and still strapped into my seat. If I hadn't been wearing a seat belt, you would not be reading this blog. I was kind of dazed, but actually not hurt at all, except for some small cuts on my head from flying glass that I didn't notice until the next day. Gradually I regained my senses as the mangled windshield wipers came spontaneously to life, working back and forth over the empty frame where the windshield used to be. There was not a square foot of that car that didn't have damage on it. I remember calling in the claim to my insurance company and them asking me if it was a total, and I said, "Uh, yeah...I'm pretty sure."

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Separated at Birth

 Mr. Van Driessen from Beavis and Butt-head
 Teacher from a brochure recently sent to my son

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Dope Filter

Mario Cuomo died this week, so he was in the news. Something that caught my eye was the following thing he said: "You're telling me that the Mafia is an organization, and I'm telling you that's a lot of baloney."

Now, Mario Cuomo was obviously a very able and intelligent person, so I can't imagine he really believed that. But was he lying? For normal people the answer would be yes. For politicians, though, the answer is more complicated.

I believe Cuomo was employing what you might call the "dope filter". Good politicians know how to use it. The dope filter is what you pass your real beliefs through before stating them for public consumption. Cuomo certainly knew that the Mafia is a real organization, but that most Italians are law-abiding. But he also knew that many voters can't understand that both of those statements can be true at the same time. For them, it's one or the other.

Given the limited ability of many people to deal with subtlety, Cuomo chose the path of least harm. He said the Mafia wasn't an organization not because it was true, but to preserve the fact that most Italians are law-abiding.

Most average people don't really care enough about the Mafia to get upset if some politician pretends it doesn't exist. The ones who do can be divided into two groups: Italians and "law-and-order" types. There is of course some overlap between the two groups, but only the "law-and-order" types would take issue with what Cuomo said. And when they did, he could easily deflect it by constructing some weird definition of an organization that the Mafia doesn't meet, or say that he really meant they have five organizations in New York and others in other cities, and they aren't all masterminded by one guy, so therefore it isn't "an organization", or other weaselings.

Don't get the idea that I am looking down on dopey voters. (Well, I am a little.) If you ask me why the Columbia burned up, I'm just going to say the heat shield was damaged by a piece of ice. I'm not going to get into the fact that this had happened many times previously, so the real cause was a flawed means of assessing the damage, blah blah blah, because it's just going to obscure the basic facts.

Sometimes I worry that people are using the "dope filter" on me. I'm a very literal person, so I don't catch on to body language and tone of voice as well as other people. I can imagine that people have to adopt a special, unusually direct way of talking when they talk to me, for fear of not communicating. They have to turn down the bandwidth a little, so there are things they can't communicate to me that they might be able to communicate to others.

Monday, January 5, 2015

We Who Write Bad Books

I read some interesting quotes by George Kennan, the diplomat and historian, so on impulse I bought his diary and a short book he wrote called Around the Cragged Peak, which was sort of a grab bag of his personal musings on politics, foreign relations, culture and whatnot. I figured anything he wrote would be worth reading, because he lived so long (101 years) and was involved in so many momentous events of the Cold War, an era I've always taken an interest in.

Well, I figured wrong. The diary was so whiny that I wished I hadn't ordered the book, but it was already done. I understand that a lot of diaries are whiny, but you shouldn't publish the ones that are. One thing I did learn was why the military has always been uncomfortable with the State Department. Guys like Kennan, Dulles (both of them) and James Jesus Angleton were so literate and glib that they could say one thing and then convince you they'd meant the exact opposite and that it was your fault for misunderstanding.

The book was better than the diary, but man, was it long-winded. He takes about four pages to say that nationalism is good as long as you don't take it too far. You know how Strunk and White say to omit needless words, like "at this juncture it is perhaps not inappropriate to point out that"? He must have skipped that chapter. I've come to dislike that sort of excessively precise writing, like "He had had a serious operation" instead of just "He had a serious operation". If you need to support your ideas with so many props and ornaments, maybe you had better consider whether they are good ideas. I think I mostly agreed with Kennan's politics. I think.

Come to that, I've lost interest in the "magnum opus". I used to think it would be cool to write a magnum opus; you know, put down on paper the sum total of your views on some topic of importance. But why? The theme of a magnum opus isn't the ideas, it's the author. And let's face it, most of us aren't that interesting, except to people who know us personally. If you want to write a magnum opus, you should give it away free to your friends and family, not charge a stranger money for it.

The technical equivalent of the magnum opus is the textbook or handbook. When I see a textbook with a grandiose title like Fracture: An Advanced Treatise, I just want to run in the other direction. Geezus, a treatise? The worst one is The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Gould. The fact that he didn't just call it Evolution should be a warning to you.

I got drafted into writing a chapter of one of these magisterial handbooks about five years ago. The trouble with handbooks is that they usually can't get the best people to contribute, because the best people are too busy to write handbook chapters. I happened to be in a slow spot in my career where I had some free time and was looking for something to do, so I finished my chapter right away, and the editors used it to get the whole project greenlighted for publication. You can guess that all the big shots who were supposed to write the other chapters took a lot longer, and in fact the book is still not done. At this rate, the material will be obsolete before it ever hits the presses. If you think you need a handbook, my advice is to find a good review article written by a bona fide expert.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

I Stole A Bike

Once upon a time, I stole a bike. Sort of.

It was a weekend morning in the spring of 1990 and I was walking from my apartment on East Norwich Avenue in Columbus to the Ohio State football ticket office, which I believe was in French Field House at the time. Spring is when you buy your discounted student football ticket at Ohio State, and in those days, you had to do it in person. I was almost there, around some bike racks near some dormitories, in the area now occupied by the College of Business.

That's when I saw it - a bike I had to have. It wasn't even locked to the rack, and it was so early there was hardly anyone around. You certainly didn't have to worry about security cameras in those days. So I hopped on the bike and took off. I had it back at my apartment in just a few minutes. Then I walked back to the ticket office and bought my ticket. I figured it was a little too soon to be riding around that same area on the bike.

You know there's going to be more to the story. The reason I had to have that particular bike was that it was in fact my bike. Or, it had been my bike, depending on your point of view. It was a beat-up 10-speed I'd had since high school and had brought down to campus the previous spring. I'd stored it, chained and locked, on the bike rack in front of Taylor Tower where I lived.

During the two- or three-week break between spring quarter and summer quarter, I'd left the bike on the rack in front of Taylor, but when I'd come back to campus for summer classes, it was gone. I had heard there was a campus rule against leaving bikes on the racks during breaks, so maybe the campus police cut the chain and took it away. But it's not like there was a sign to that effect. It's also possible that someone just stole it. At that time all over campus you'd see front wheels chained to racks but with the rest of the bike stolen, because people had run the chain only through the wheel and not the frame of the bike. Or, at the kind of rack where you set the front wheel into a big slot, some idiot would lean on the bike until the wheel bent, so there were these old, rusty bent front wheels all over the place.

I also seem to remember that the campus police would sell bikes they'd confiscated for not having a sticker or whatever, so maybe someone had paid the police for my bike. But I might be remembering incorrectly about that.

Anyway, someone had my bike for almost a whole year. The day I was going to the ticket office, I spotted the bike and knew it was mine, not just someone's similar bike, because there was a rip in the seat that I'd fixed with some of that sneaker repair goo that comes in a tube. It was definitely mine. I had the bike all that summer, but not long after, it got stolen again, this time for good. I didn't have another bike until spring of the next year, when my girlfriend (wife-to-be) bought me a nice mountain bike for my birthday. Wisely, I chained the bike frame itself, not the wheel, to the rack outside my apartment, but they just stole the wheel. Eventually someone came with a bolt cutter and took the rest of the bike, too.  It is as if people considered bikes to be communal property.

So, overall I left Ohio State down two bikes. But it felt good getting the first bike back for a while. It halfway felt like stealing, so it was kind of exciting when I took off on it, but how can you steal your own bike? Just because I hadn't seen it in a year didn't make it any less my bike, did it? Who the hell knows.