Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Kindle, or “Geek is skeptical of new technology.”

My wife, constantly on the lookout for ways to reduce clutter and organize our home, took an interest in the new e-book reader from Amazon, the Kindle. She spent a good amount of time looking into it and other e-book formats, and given the rate at which our bookshelves expand, it makes sense to consider it as an option. I’ll admit I tried to be noncommittal while she talked about it, but, ultimately, I’m a Luddite when it comes to books. I like my printed page. There are a lot of reasons for it, and I’ll leave what I think is the strongest argument for the last. It’s a killer, in my opinion, but I think the emotional appeals have to come first.

If there is one thing that has dominated my personal history more than anything else, it is a love of (or, as some would call it, “an unhealthy obsession about”) books. One of my earliest memories is of protesting that Mom and Dad were about to throw out some old volumes to make space. I argued, cried, and cajoled, but they insisted that they were only taking up space, and no one was reading them. To fight that argument, I grabbed the top one and sat down to read. These weren’t my books, mind you, or even children’s books. They were old, musty novels. I could barely make out a word here and there through my tears, and didn’t understand a bit of what I was actually managing to read. My parents eventually won the argument based on that, but it sticks in my mind as one of my first major anxiety freak-outs. I couldn’t have been more than six or so.

Now, given that I had such an attitude so early in my development, it’s natural that I’d work on accumulating a library. I’m a pack rat anyway, but books virtually never leave my personal gravitational field. There’s something about the most trivial of words that becomes special when it gets written down. It’s been transmitted, and has the potential to then be reread as long as the page holds up. The printing press is what made the world what it is today. It’s how the world exploded from darkness into light, making it impossible to keep an idea hidden away or suppressed. That truth has always burned brightly in my mind; a printed word is a free word. I still have virtually every book I’ve ever owned, barring accidental destruction and loss. I don’t think I’ve ever willingly thrown one out. Even the silliest, most formulaic story or screed has some value to impart by its very existence. As much as I find pleasure reading online, I find it hard to make the same connection with a computer or device.

A second personal factor is the feel of the book itself. Books aren’t sterile. They gather dust, their pages yellow with age, handling wears them down; they are dropped, bent, spilled on and otherwise abused. It gives a book life (literally, in some cases). Some books become imbued with a sense of familiarity that makes them treasured to a single person. A folded page here, a note or underline there; that’s your book, your reminder, your story woven into the book itself. They become more than what they began as; they become mnemonic devices that remind us of the significant things that happened while we read them, or even just remind us of the pleasant time we had the last time we sat down and flipped those same pages. Flipping pages is an engrossing tactile sensation – the very fact that we must do so to move on increases tension, drama, and humor in a good book, when put to use by an author or illustrator. Some of this argument is well-summed up by a fictional character, Rupert Giles (the relevant part is around 44:28).

Ultimately, though, the biggest case to be made is one of obsolescence. The printed word stands the test of time; to this point, no other information storage technology has lasted more than a few decades. I have cassette tapes that play virtually nowhere. VHS is dead. DVD is giving way to the next generation of video. New computer compression formats vie constantly for position in a crowded marketplace; choose incorrectly and your files are useless. I think the best illustration here is one from my own experience. About ten years ago, I was part of the student government at my college. In the past couple of years, the yearbook, run by my fraternity brothers, for the most part, was a pile of shit. They wasted money, botched simple information, and basically ruined a couple of editions through sheer incompetence. The proposal was made to expunge them, turn the endeavor over to the media group, and produce a video yearbook. I fought one aspect of that plan tooth and nail. I didn’t care that my friends were being dragged through the coals; they had blown off responsibility entrusted to them. I didn’t care that it was being turned over to someone else’s pet group, as long as they did a solid job. What I objected to was the replacement of a hardcover printed book with videotape. I lost out, by an overwhelming majority. Now, I can go to my father’s shelves and pull out his yearbooks from half a century ago. He can pick out a name and turn straight to that person. Individuals, groups, and specific memories are easy to find, which is especially crucial because one doesn’t necessarily give a damn about everything in that book. In my own yearbooks, there are probably less than a dozen people I care to remember with any depth, though I can pick out most anyone I choose to recall. The people who have that video yearbook have no such surety. That college yearbook on videotape makes quick search impossible. Even if you know where to run the tape to your favorite parts, you wear it out rapidly; now, just a quick decade later, it’s even a hassle just to look at it at all. Admittedly, technology does begin to make up for this as time goes on; DVDs are easier to search and divide up into relevant chunks, but even they make quick searches harder than a simple book, and DVDs will be gone before long, too. My books may last a century or more; some already have. A reader will likely never be able to say that. I can pass my books to others, loan them out, trade them, sell them, or keep them as I see fit. I can’t do that with a reader. I can hold a page on my book and flip back to reread other passages, even look at other books. I can easily move between multiple books (as I often do, spread about the house and work). I just don’t see that happening with a single piece of hardware.

A Kindle, or something like it, may change the way the world reads. I don’t know that it’s a good thing. Technology ages, fails, and is replaced at a rapid pace, but the printed word reaches out over centuries and millennia. Over-dramatic, I know, but it’s the truth.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Night Sounds

I was lying in bed with my son the other night, having some quiet time after the completion of his bedtime story. I insisted on the light being out, which he didn't mind too much with me there. As we snuggled up, I head a train clacking and blowing in the distance. The train tracks in question are about two miles from our house, were you to measure out a straight line. That's a pretty good distance over which to get clear sounds, but there's a lot of open land between us and the tracks. We live fairly close to an airport (the sky is rarely empty over our house), but get relatively little noise from it. I talked to my boy for a minute about the noises, but he wasn't paying a lot of attention; it was dark, and he was tired. The thoughts persisted for me, though, and I got to thinking about other night sounds I've known.

I grew up fairly close to a "main" road (as things go in West Virginia), and less than a quarter mile from an Interstate. I learned to sleep to car sounds and the rumble of tractor trailers on an overpass. It seemed comforting that no matter how late my insomnia kept me up, there was always someone out there in the same boat, running around in the night. I could hear the cars for some distance as they approached, the sound rising and falling. That wasn't all when it came to night sounds, though. Living in an ancient trailer (and trailer park), there were always creaks, sounds of movement, people talking. Things were never quite quiet, and anything out-of-the ordinary would wake me up fast. One of the more important sounds, though, was one I almost always slept through.

Dad was a volunteer firefighter, so he carried a pager for station calls. I still remember the pattern that distinguished calls for his station from others on the frequency -- a long low tone, a long high tone, and then about ten or fifteen fast, pulsing tones. And, as it was supposed to be an attention-getter, it was loud. I mean, "the neighbors across the road heard it" loud. Being for a volunteer emergency response group, there were no shifts, and things happen at all hours. However, no matter how many times my father (and later, brother) left the house to fight fires in the dark of night, I almost never woke to the pager. Occasionally, I'd hear them running through the house, or a door slam, but never the two or three pager calls. My rare bouts of sleep had tuned them out; somewhere in my brain, something managed to say "not for you". That's something that's both served me well and harmed me over the years.

My brain is good at sorting night sounds into "no problem" and "weird, needs action". That it can do it at all is one of the few things that allows me to sleep, the fact I still wake up at night has a tendency to make me a bit paranoid when it happens. Even in college, the smallest sounds would filter through. My first dormitory has an issue with people pulling the fire alarm at night. Sometimes it was random, sometimes it was on a schedule. What most people didn't notice was that the alarm was wired in such a way that you could hear an electric hum traveling through the system before the siren actually went off. My brain learned to wake up during that second and a half of hum, so that I wouldn't be startled awake by the alarm. Often, I'd be swinging out of bed before the alarm sounded. I also had a far more accurate internal clock while asleep than awake. When people were pulling alarms on schedule, or when I consistently woke with an alarm clock, I'd almost always wake a minute or so before they sounded, because I didn't like waking to noise.

The same thing happens with my family. I can sleep through most anything, but I've woken to my kids' breathing patterns changing on the other end of the house. That was as a new parent, though. My brain has learned when to take notice. I think, ultimately, I end up missing some things I'd like to hear, though. I like nighttime. I like hearing insects and animals, and we live in a rural enough spot to get some of that. I like hearing that train in the distance, no matter when it comes through. I guess I'll just have to close my eyes and listen more.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Skeptical news

Big stuff going on on the Stop Sylvia Browne front. Skeptools tells the story better than me, though, so go there and do what he says, if you haven't already.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

It's getting serious

You know they mean it when they pull out a Cunningham:

I'm not that shocked to see Ron Howard doing this. I'm moderately surprised to see Henry Winkler. Seeing Andy Griffith knocked me out of my shoes -- you don't get a lot more conservative than him.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Coincidence is fun

A parallel to the Robert Frost anecdote from a recent post was mentioned in this week's Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Woo! I must be psychic.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Monstercon 2008

The Comics and Toys Monstercon has come and gone this past weekend, and my feelings were a bit mixed.

First, I'm glad that they moved into a larger venue. This con was spilling out the doors it's inaugural year, and they finally scaled up to space that was more than adequate this year. I'd like to see more comic creators, but the crew that was there was great. Tsunami Studios was well-represented, and I always enjoy speaking with them, though Garry McKee wasn't there (he did an awesome Conan sketch for me at last year's Heroes Convention). Budd Root and Andy Smith were on break when I went by, so *pthhbbt* to them, in a friendly manner. The movie guests were spectacularly friendly, Chuck Williams and Robert Harris in particular . Brian Krause was fairly nice, though smaller than expected (of course he acted alongside short people for years -- it must have made him seem taller), and we got to see him eat from the concession, like us reg'lar folk. The vendors were pretty good, overall, and had some decent swag. As always, we enjoyed the demos from the SCA. Costumes were great, and there was some good cross promotion with Scarowinds. The price to enter was good, especially for pre-registration, and there were some good charity auctions and raffles. Last year, they also tied in some charity, including a blood drive. That's a strong positive, and I think they need to keep that aspect up as time goes on. We didn't get to hit any of the gaming or evening activities, but that's the price you pay for attending with kids.

That last bit relates to the biggest negative; last year, this was probably the kid-friendliest con I'd been to. It had plenty of activities for the smaller folk, and the bouncy castle they had was wonderful -- one parent could watch the kids entertain themselves while the other wandered. This year, not so much. There were a couple of kid events that looked thrown together at the last minute, and that sort of disbanded after a few hours. That was disappointing, both to us and our kids. I was also a bit put off to see two local "paranormal societies" represented. Sure, it's partly a horror con, but most of the people seem aware that monsters aren't, well, real. Maybe I should aim Alison Smith and S.A.P.S. at them

I get the feeling that Monstercon really, really wants to be a horror convention with other elements added in, but I don't think it'd have quite the draw without the diversity from comics, toys, and gaming. As it is, I think they have the right blend to keep growing (especially if they can continue to land decent guests). They just need to remember that kids come to cons, too, and plan accordingly, and I think that success will continue.

Critical thinking outside the lab

There have been quite a few things to interest me lately that I should have written about. I'll lead off with look at incorporating critical thinking skills into a secondary curriculum. I was speaking with a close friend (who happens to be a high-school teacher) a while back, and the topic of her students' progress on the "thinking skills" requirement came up. She's currently teaching seniors, and for the first assignment along those lines, she gave them a list (the Ten Commandments, though I don't know which set), and asked them to organize it into different categories, defend why some items were placed together and others not, etc. That's a very basic assignment, particularly for the grade level. Other teachers were apparently appalled, though, because she didn't lead them by the hand, reviewing the basic steps in the process of organizing information. These kids are seniors. If they don't know the basics by now, there's no point in reviewing. An educator at a higher level has to have a reasonable expectation that those at lower levels have successfully imparted information.

Now, while the organization of thought is a basic need in an English course where writing is a requirement, critical thought may not be. However, to reasonably defend thought, critical thinking is an absolute necessity. Skeptical thinking is most often placed squarely in the realm of science, but the realm of literature is, in my opinion, a very fertile training ground. Combining the skills needed to examine a work, evaluate it, and defend the evaluation is the basis of a literature and composition course; not coincidentally, these are the same skills needed to determine the strength of any argument, be it scientific, philosophical, or historical. Composition, whether on paper or orally, is how we develop the skills to argue a point. To argue a point well, you must have evidence; the means to find and determine the accuracy of that evidence, critical thinking skills must be developed concurrently. There are several ways that this can be done.

First, a good examination of literature demands several things. Not only must you look at the work itself, but you must also examine the context in which it was created. Even the works most open to varying interpretation can surrender some mystery to hard fact. As an example, one of my college acquaintances related a story of his father's experience in a poetry course. The class was examining a work by Robert Frost, and the professor spent quite a bit of time discussing the metaphorical structure, the author's motivation for creating the work, and so on; all the standard poetry ideas. When he turned it over to the class with the question, "Where else do you think Frost's motivation might have come from?"

My friend's father raised his hand and responded, "Maybe he just looked out his window one day, thought it was pretty, and decided to write a poem about it."

After spending a bit of time essentially ridiculing such a mundane idea about a great poet, the professor finally asked, "What would make you think such a thing?"

"Well, when they asked him about this poem on TV last night, that's what he said."

I realize that such a third-hand anecdote hardly qualifies as evidence that such a conversation took place; however, even if the veracity is in doubt, such a tale serves an allegorical purpose. Among the lessons of the story is that, even if an argument is well-structured, logical, and likely, it may fail to agree with the facts. And, because of that, the argument is invalid. The instructor's interpretation was based on assumptions about how poetry works, about the author, about the subject, about any number of the aspects that are constantly argued about in literature, and even about the knowledge held by his students. Assumptions are the little devils of organized thought. We always have them, and we constantly make them; however, they are also most often where we go wrong. That's why Occam's Razor is such a universally useful tool.

The Razor is often misidentified with the the phrase, "The simplest explanation is the best." That is a patently false and easily manipulated idea. Many utterly stupid ideas are very simple, and very wrong. The proper statement is, "An explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory." (definition parsed from Wikipedia). That's a bit wordy, so the first half, "An explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible" is close enough for our purposes. Again, while we often see this applied to science and pseudoscience, it's applicability in the humanities is quite clear. Occam's Razor is a means to determine context by examining what is known versus what must be assumed. Now, first, we need to define what an "assumption" is. Something backed by overwhelming evidence that has faced repeated scrutiny should not be considered an assumption ("The sun will rise tomorrow," "When I step off the curb, I will not phase through the street," etc.). They may be simplifications, but not assumptions. Something that doesn't pass a reasonable evidentiary test may be considered an "assumption" ("Aliens stole Bob's cow," "Napoleon Bonaparte developed the first machine gun," "Jim went to Vegas Tuesday instead of to work."). Some of the greatest debates in literature are based on the fact that we don't have hard evidence concerning older works. For example, the manuscript we commonly know as "Beowulf" is assumed to have been altered by early Christian scribes to minimize Norse pagan imagery and add Christian themes. There is circumstantial evidence for this, but, lacking an older copy of what were primarily oral traditions to begin with, it remains an assumption. The arguments surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare's works contain a great deal of evidence and speculation. The rub comes when two sides can't agree which is which.

That brings up another major issue of critical thinking. When looking at arguments from various perspectives, the difference between evidence and assumption varies wildly, as everyone has different thresholds for what they find reasonable and convincing. I think this is the spot where hard science has the greatest advantage over critical thinking in the humanities. You can replay the experiment in science; replication and verification are the heart of the scientific method. Evidence is weighted based on what biases or errors might have confounded the process ( the Science-Based Medicine blog has a great article on ranking the usefulness of the much maligned anecdote). It's much harder to do that with literature or philosophy, and when you factor in schools of thought like postmodernism, it buggers up pretty much everything. I think, then, that for a discussion of "soft" subjects, all sides need to agree on ground rules and definitions at the front. This is especially important in an educational context; one must define what controversial (and possibly even basic) terms will mean before discussion begins, what standards must be met for evidence to be considered valid, and other variables. This is something easily within the control of a teacher in the context of a classroom discussion, and it should prevent more heated exchanges is desired. It can also be used to demonstrate the power of assumptions, as mentioned above. If you change a definition, or raise the bar on one type of evidence, how does that alter the discussion? Does it make one position weaker, or stronger?

All in all, I think that students are not introduced to critical thought early enough. Given modern educational "standards" geared toward rote learning and regurgitation, little time is devoted to developing methods of thought, and those must be developed early to foster a healthy, lifelong skepticism toward the world. Composition and literature are ideal places for this, I think, due both to the wide range of material and to the level of control that can be exerted over guidelines. Perhaps some of the major skeptical outreach organizations might consider this approach. Not all ideas are presented in terms of science, after all.

Back again

I've been quiet for a while now, for a few different reasons. For one, work has picked up substantially, though that may ease off a bit now that I finally have a direct supervisor again. My son started school recently, and that's been a roller coaster, to say the least (he loves the place; now if only he could refrain from beating on other kids for no apparent reason, we'd have something). There has just been a bundle of activity both in the immediate and extended family that make the blog a low priority. That's sad, because it's a good place to vent and think through a keyboard. I'd like to do that, for no other reason than to get used to it again. It's hard to do any serious writing when you can't force yourself to put words on the screen.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ankle deep in the effervescing blood of fools!

I've been reading a good amount of Carl Hiaasen, lately. The title of this post is a quote from my most recent read, Sick Puppy. It stuck out. I wonder why.

Hiaasen novels tend to be about the despoiling of natural riches (Florida's, in particular). Developers, politicians, industrialists -- they all get the treatment. Florida, it seems, is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. That's not to say there aren't good guys. There are quite a few. The problem, it seems, is that everyone is crazy. I'm talking totally off their gourd. Even the good ones. Hiaasen populates his novels with a wide variety of nutjobs, but none so weird or outlandish that you don't believe they couldn't exist, somewhere, sometime.

His bizarre casts are one of two things that seem to keep his novels interesting for me (the other being excellent overall writing). Most of his books I've read are, well, formulaic. Pick any one of them up, and I guarantee you'll find these characters: The near-animal meathead thug, with some odd proclivity, whether it's a collection of 911 calls, overwhelming steroid use, or a tendency to collect roadside death markers; the greedy developer/industrialist with a formerly criminal background; the enabler, who's more of an asshole than evil, but who facilitates the plans of the industrialist -- likely to have an odd sexual proclivity, as well (otherwise, the industrialist or thug will, if not all three); and Clinton Tyree. I won't describe Clinton here. I can't really. He's a good enough reason to pick up the books all by himself.

Hiaasen also has a fondness for sex workers, be they hookers, strippers, phone-sex girls, or some other working Jane. They are scattered liberally throughout his books, with the possible exception of his juvenile works, which I haven't read. Hiaasen varies his protagonists fairly well, working with anything from the "crazy" to "caught up in a whirlwind" archetypes.

Overall, I enjoy reading Hiaasen. I get a good laugh out of the wry, sardonic quips, and I empathize with the heroes (such as they are). I'm starting to get a nagging feeling, though, that I'm reading the same book over and over. When the strippers start to run together, you know you've been at it too long.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why? A philosophical question.

No, not one of the big "Why"s, like "why are we here", etc. I saw this question on the Randi boards, and though it's been asked there many times before, it's been a while since I thought about it myself. To quote part of the OP over there:

What stops you from cashing in?
It seems that every idiot willing to lie, mislead, or cheat people can make some if not a lot of money doing so. This message board is full of well-educated and well-informed people who see what it takes to sell BS to the general public. I am just wondering why you people fight on the side you fight on. What stops you from using your knowledge and cashing in?

My basic answer is that I'm not a sociopath. I feel empathy, and dislike being deceived. I don't like the idea of living off of lying to other people. That's why if my company every seriously tries to get a homeopathy business off the ground, I'm going to start a job hunting. Sure, we make a lot of cosmetics with the idea that "You'll look younger" will sell. That's a subjective thing, anyway, though. The whole cosmetic industry is, so I don't feel any guilt there. That's the game, and both the producer and consumer know it. All the drugs we make, though, are proven safe and effective for what they claim. Snake oil, on the other hand, just feels wrong.

I can spout new age drivel with the best of them. I can cold read. I can do enough magic tricks to form a cult around myself. I'll do it all for fun, but not profit. I don't want to take advantage of vulnerable people who want something to believe in, because I don't think I'm a bastard. I know I don't have a higher purpose for doing any of that stuff, and I'm reasonably certain that anyone else who does the things I can replicate doesn't either (at least those who knowingly do so -- it is possible to do some of this stuff unwittingly).

So what do you have to say on the matter?

Saturday, August 16, 2008


In regards to the abducted child below:

An anonymous tip led the police to the mother today. She'd been all over the southeast, but the dad is in possession of his son again, and the mother is in custody. Please update anyone you passed this along to. I'd hate to see this turn into an urban legend "forward this email" thing.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Public service

A quick note concerning two pleas for help:

First, please follow this link about the abduction of a child. This is the son of a good frie...hell, let's go ahead and call him family. While the odds are long you'll be able to help, take a look anyway and spread the word.

Secondly, go to http://www.skepticsunite.com/ and do something to help Robert S. Lancaster. He's a big teddy bear of a man, as long as your goal isn't to scam the vulnerable. He's done measurable good in the world by working to bring down scammers and leeches upon society, and has recently been laid low by a stroke. His prognosis is very good; however, Robert and his family will need help and support to get through this period. Do what you can. He's one of the good guys.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In which I reference the title of the blog

My wife called to let me know she had spotted a underpass hobo in town the other day.

Am I wrong to feel a bit tingly?

Friday, July 18, 2008


Again with the two posts in one day. It's madness, I tell you, madness!

I know I'm late to the game on this, but I've started playing around with the streaming radio service called "Pandora". It's an offshoot of the Music Genome Project, which combines the original aim of that project with a much more dynamic means of accomplishing it.

In basic terms, you start out by telling Pandora about a favorite band, song, or type of music. It will then start a streaming music station based on that. It looks at elements typical of that music, and chooses items that are both stylistically related, and and that are appreciated by others who like the same kind of music. From there, it gets more hands-on. You can proceed by simply telling it whether or not you like the songs that are playing, and it will tailor further selections that way. Along with that, you can simply continue to enter favorite groups and songs directly into the system, and it will blend in those considerations. You can do this with a single music stream, or you can separate out several different ones along any criteria you wish (mood, genre, etc.). Myself, I just cram them all into one. Most of my circle of friends are into "musical whiplash", or rapid genre shifting when it comes to music. It comes from loading an eclectic music collection into a MP3 player and hitting random. Pandora lets you do that writ large, as well as throwing in music and artists that you may never have heard of or considered before.

I'll admit, I have rapidly become addicted to the service. My favorite part is that you can ask the system why it chose a particular song, and it will give you a list of reasons, such as "...it features modern r&b stylings, funk influences, disco influences, a subtle use of vocal counterpoint, and a subtle use of vocal harmony", which happens to be playing as I write this. The new IPhone even has Pandora compatibility. I think it beats syncing a play list, hands-down. Check it out.

Pro Wrestling

I have to admit this with no small amount of guilt: I like pro wrestling. That's not to say I watch it, mind you. I rarely do, because I don't like the modern product. What I like, though, is the business itself; the combination of athleticism and stunt work with the characters and storylines of a comic book is fascinating to me.

I grew up during the era of wrestling where the regional territories were fading in favor of a national, big-name product. Rather than being based around, say, Memphis or the Tri-State, many wrestling leaders were looking to land national TV deals and centralize promotion control. However, there were still several big confederations when I was growing up, particularly the NWA and AWA. Every Saturday morning, I watched for the Rock & Roll Express to pull out a victory over the Midnight Express, barring interference from the tennis racket-wielding Jim Cornette. I didn't know what a "face" (good guy) or a "heel" (bad guy) was, but I could pick them out. Back then, of course, I thought it was real. Most little kids do. I think I was probably younger than ten when I realized that at least some of the moves were faked (basically, I looked at someone taking a flurry of punches without bruising or blood, and said, "Bullshit"). I no longer bought the "kayfabe".

That, however didn't deter me from becoming excited about the rivalries and action, much in the same way you'd root for someone in a movie or TV show. What I discovered was that, while some of the stuff was clearly faked (I remember watching a Wrestlemania video where Andre the Giant "sold" a ring post ram where his head didn't come within a foot of the thing), a man being thrown from the top rope is a little hard to completely stage. I started to examine the matches as stunt arrangements, and I rapidly discovered that I was actually more impressed with the wrestlers in this case.

Wrestling, while often choreographed to a greater or lesser extent, relies heavily on the ability to absorb punishment. Sure, the punishment can be mitigated, but many of the things that occur in and around the ring just aren't supposed to happen to a human body. Take, for example, a vertical suplex. A wrestler lifts an opponent over their head and then down into a flat-on-the-back position. It's a move that looks good, and, with proper positioning, much of the impact can be distributed in a fairly harmless manner. Take that same move six or eight feet in the air, off of a turnbuckle, and you have a different animal. The principle is the same, but the force is greatly increased, and there is much more opportunity for injury. The vertical suplex is a very mild example. Many, if not most of the more high-flying moves entail far greater risk of injury than even the most vicious-appearing mat wrestling moves.

That is not to say that technical moves cannot cause injury. Rather, modern wrestling's shootfighting roots are very real. The difference is primarily found in that a hold can often be made to look painful without actually being so, and many joint and pressure locks can easily cause lasting damage while appearing no different than a similar move being "sold" as painful. I, myself, have been on the receiving end of a few demonstrations, and can attest that, if someone wanted to hurt you with a "fake" wrestling hold, they likely could.

Add to this the storylines of the wrestling world, the "kayfabe" of evildoers and freaks versus heroes and patriots, and you had something of what drew me in long ago. "Kayfabe" actually does not refer to these stories, as such, but rather the idea that they were real, and that these guys didn't go out for a beer after the show. Few companies enforce kayfabe anymore, as the cat has long since been out of the bag. Back when I was a kid, it was simple. Sure, there were quite a few bizarre plot lines and characters (Kevin Sullivan's weird devilish characters come to mind), but there were plenty of basic heroes and villains. A rivalry like that of Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair was easy to understand, and was that much more exciting because it involved two of the most talented and technically skilled wrestlers in history. I don't care for much of the modern plotting, which is much of the reason I don't watch anymore. I don't tune in for the acting and story, which is what much of the modern "sports entertainment" model is based on. I like the stunt work.

There are some people who give their all for the business, sacrificing themselves to entertain the fans. I admire Mick Foley, in particular. Wrestling was his dream, and he followed it, destroying his body (and some of his mind) in the process. He took abuse that I didn't think a human body could possibly endure, and came back for more. He followed that with several bestselling books, and expanded himself into other realms, all while embracing the business that he loved, even just as a personality when he could no longer wrestle.

I've recently been playing some wrestling sim games by programmer Adam Ryland. One takes place in a world where the competition is "real", and is treated as a strategy/roleplaying game where you develop a wrestler and try to win matches and build a career. The other is a "booking" sim, which is more like real life. You run a wrestling company, and must book shows, gain sponsors, manage personalities, write storylines, hire and fire; in short, it's a very deep simulation that encompasses multiple continents, companies, and a massive amount of interrelated data. It is a smorgasbord of goodness for someone familiar with wrestling's background, and an introduction into its complexities for someone who isn't.

I've noticed that ESPN Classic is airing old AWA shows late at night. I've got one recorded to the DVR now. I'll watch it later and spend some time remembering Saturday mornings.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


I am now the proud owner of a link from a fairly popular website, ERV. All I really had to do was ask, and the threshold for inclusion on her Blogroll was, shall we say, low, but I'm still happy about it. Scienceblogs has driven virtually all of my "non-acquaintance" traffic, mostly from my comments on ERV, Respectful Insolence, and Pharyngula. While I can't hope to match the level of most of the great contributors they see, I can try to be mildly interesting.

The thing is, I only rarely get in-depth with my blogging. Also, most of the subjects I have at hand are either personal, or niches that may not appeal to a broader audience (book/comic review, etc.). My ego tells me that I don't just want to write for myself, though as I've noted before, a broad purpose of this is to refresh my writing skills. It's a tactic well-used by a friend who just completed his first novel. If I get used to relaying my thoughts to text, I'll perhaps finally get some of these stories out of my head and do something with them.

Given that, there's no reason not to hone my skills on the science and skepticism that brought me to those blogs in the first place. I've tended to hold off on that because others (like Bronze Dog) already do such a great job. There's always room for another voice, though. Also, I can work in some of the other oddball things I come across on the interblag (knowing someone who works for Ripley's doesn't hurt).

We'll see how it goes. Thanks to anyone new who is stopping by!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Vacation's over

Well, I’m back to work after slightly more than a week’s worth of vacation. Apparently, I picked the right week to be out – production was slow, but the coordination of other things was intense. Having the time out was wonderful. It was shared with almost all those that I consider to be real friends, and as always, it ended too soon. We gamed, and gamed, and talked, and gamed, and toured, and reviewed the first draft of Coralius’s book, and talked. These are the people that I actually miss when they aren’t here. One set is close by (Coralius and Aradia), and the other (Caliban and someone who doesn’t have a regular alias, whom I shall call “K”, until she gives me a decent option) lives some distance away. Even so, when any of us are together, it’s as if someone just left the room and came back; we pick up right where we left off. I’ve seen a conversation continue with months in between exchanges.

That brings up one of the stranger aspects of our relationship. As much as we miss each other, and love being a part of one another’s lives, we don’t actually talk much when we’re apart. Virtually all our interaction is face-to-face. I occasionally shoot an email or blog comment to Coralius, but it’s the dinners and game nights where we actually get into some depth. I rarely speak with Aradia outside of being with her, unless she’s calling to speak to my wife (note: alias shall henceforth be “Amberle”) and I get the phone, and that’s not usually deep conversation. As for the non-locals, we rarely even exchange emails. We don’t call, except when planning a trip, and even then, it’s often along the lines of “We’ll be there Friday.” I’ve spoken with Caliban about this before. He said that they find it odd, as well, but that it also happens with other people they know. What it seems to do is encourage us to get together as much as possible. Given gas prices, that’s getting harder. Ultimately, it won’t stop us, though.

There was a hint that the “distant” couple is considering a move down, should opportunity arise, and there was much rejoicing (at least in my head; while I’m not exactly a stoic, I don’t do a lot of jumping up and down, either). They’re both talented professionals, and shouldn’t have much of a problem, other than finding exactly what they want. Hell, I’d probably hire either of them before I’d hire myself. I’m likely to find myself networking for them (as if I had any real connections).

In any case, the time was too short. Being with these people is my idea of paradise. When it comes to people, I don’t need many. I have my wife and children; my father and brother. Then, there are these people, who are more family than any of my other blood kin. Aside from my grandparents, who have all passed away, none of my “real” extended family ever showed me a need to stay connected with them. There’s bickering, theft, dismissive attitudes, airs of superiority, and passive-aggressive behaviors that make the Cold War look nice and friendly. That’s blood. There’s a bond there, but I don’t have a lot of reason to pursue it. While that might have brought some shame in the past, especially because my parents worked so hard to document my family and their history, it doesn’t now. The history is important to me; the present, not so much. I have dozens of cousins, some old enough to be my grandparents or young enough to be my own children. I’ve pretty much left that clan behind. I’m friendly when I see them, but lacking that interaction doesn’t really harm me in any way.

I guess one way of looking at it is that the world has opened up new possibilities, but a lot of them haven’t taken the opportunities that are there. As can be said by many younger mountain people, I got out. I wasn’t even that far in to begin with, but I still left the old, clannish ways behind. So much of my family, as spread out as they are, still lived within that network of shared bonds. It held them back from ever discovering much outside the network. My personal network is smaller, but I think it’s better.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Book Reviews

Two posts in one day! Woo!

I've started several posts offline, because there are quite a few things that I'd like to write about, but once I get the opportunity, I lose the drive. Part of that is that, most of the time, the opportunity occurs when I'm just home from work, at which point my brain usually shuts off in response to the day. At least, until the rest of my family gets in, at which point the opportunity for concentrated effort, regardless of mental state, pretty much goes out the window.

So, what have I wanted to talk about? Well, I've finished several books since I last posted; There's a big post about Upton Sinclair's OIL! floating in the draft folder, so I'll skip that for now. I completed Charles Stross's Halting State on the recommendation of Coralius, and I have to say that I'm impressed. The book is one hell of a window on near-future technology, with a solid mystery plotline and some great twists. I'd call it a must for fans of tech, mystery, or espionage. I completed two by Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. The first is the more scholarly tome of the two, although it deals with little hard science. It's more of a collection of short works or speeches, including his minority report on the Challenger disater, the most technical item of the bunch. Mostly, it turns out to be a book on how to really think about things; not in a dogmatic way, but in a critical and detailed way. It shows some of what made him a legend as both a scientist and a character. The latter book is much more off the cuff, and focuses more on the character of Feynman, as it is really a sort of autobiography that skips over most of the "boring science stuff". Instead, it focuses on his early career as a youthful tinkerer, safecracking, meeting people, travels, playing drums, womanizing, learning to create art, testifying on behalf of a strip club operator, scoring a ballet, and everything else that made Feynman like the crazy uncle of modern science; he was never sure where he was going, but he'd be damned if it wasn't going to be fun when he got there. I highly recommend both books, but if you have to read only one Feynman work, make it Joking. If it doesn't convince you that there's something worth reading in his other work, then nothing will.

On top of these books, I finally finished last year's (maybe the year before, even?) birthday Present from Aradia and Coralius: Konstantin Nossov's Ancient And Medieval Siege Weapons. This is basically a scholarly text disguised as a coffee table book. Nossov is a master of his field, which is ancient warfare, weapons, and fortifications. He takes the reader from the earliest recorded fortifications and weapons used to breach them (unmortared walls of clay brick and long spears, respectively) through early cannon and firearms and sophisticated seige tactics for both aggressor and defender. The only things not included in this richly documented and lavishly illustrated book are the blueprints for each weapon, although there's more than enough detail to figure it out if you wished. Nossov's passion for history and his subject matter is clear, as is his attention to distinguishing fact from theory and even outright fabrication (as ancient historians writing 300 years after the fact are prone to doing). A great read for anyone interested in the subject matter.


Ah, the wonderful rollercoaster that is work. The ups and downs are coming in rapid succession now, and are bouncing me around quite sickeningly. Lets take some of them point for point:

1. I'm understaffed. I was told to submit justification for all my needed positions so that we could post and fill them rapidly.

1a. That was over a month ago.

1b. Some of my people that were out on medical leave have come back, and at least one person I was worried about having to fire is shaping up.

1c. One of my key people is out for two weeks for reasons I don't care to share here.

2. Vacation in a matter of weeks!

2a. Paperwork is mounting at an astonishing rate, and I need to get it done if I want to keep people out of my office while I'm gone.

2b. Customer audits over the next several weeks.

2c. Switching to the new planning system has rapidly exposed every single damned weakness in my raw materials area, which is throwing wrenches into every stage of production (which has moved beyond all reason, anyway). I have to fix it. Now. At least well enough to make it to July, when we'll be auditing the whole damned thing. If any of the capabilities were were promised actually existed, maybe the months of research and work that I put in on the data last year would have been worth something.

2d. They're not. Worth anything, that is.

2e. Did I mention that I'm the one that has to come up with how to fix all this crap?

3. The children refuse to sleep on a regular schedule. That has nothing in particular to do with work, but as an insomniac, I need whatever sleep I can get, and I'm frequently getting disturbed in the middle. This raises the overall stress level.

4. I recently got word that my company is likely to pick up some homeopathic products, which makes me so happy I could rip someone's throat out. Hell, that's the type of thing that could get me actively looking for another job. Even in all this economic murk, my company is still growing like mad, but they're doing it on legit pharma. I don't want my name anywhere on this mystical, pseudoscientific horseshit, and there's no good reason to take it on. Maybe I can do something to convince the higher-ups that associating our name with "magical" products will hurt our reputation with real pharma companies. Maybe our internal lab will protest when they realize they can't actually test this junk. I know our validation group will go insane. That might be the best thing. If we can't validate it, we won't make it.

5. That new planning system? It's changing the way we do testing. Now it coordinates three layers of entry and review before allowing release, with no duplication allowed.

5a. Did I mention that there are only two layers of people available to test and review in my area?

I feel like I'm doing a bad job. I'm hearing otherwise, but that doesn't seem to help when nothing changes for the better. I'm a glorified paper-pusher most of the time, rather than a problem-solver, which is what I am supposed to be doing. It depresses me that all the problems are either gigantic and need instant resolution, or miniscule and not a priority. I don't run into in-between things right now. All I have are extreme issues and fluff. I can't delegate, because I have no one to delegate to. Even the ones that might be capable are so backed up that anything else just won't get done, and the ones that aren't backed up don't have experience in the areas where I'm having the issues. I'm missing a layer of management above me that is actually supposed to be handling about a third of this crap, and the layer above that, while helpful, isn't someone I can drop the grunt work on. Give me a chance to analyze, and I'll fix your issues. Bounce me from artificially induced crisis to artificially induced crisis, and you'll get some decent spackling, but no solutions.

That's enough bitching for now. It was good to vent, though.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Sometimes it's hard not to write in-depth about work. Often, I write to de-stress and find some catharsis, but because work is my primary stressor, the convolutions I have to put in to avoid identifying material can get a bit awkward. I try to avoid a lot of identifying notes for reasons I've covered before: it's bad practice to link your public view to the workplace or talk about co-workers; my closest confidants know that I'm irreligious, but few others do; I work in an industry with a lot of proprietary knowledge being bandied about; etc. That second one is even a bit more iffy now, because I submitted a "deconversion" story to a contest, but left my signature in the email, so it was published online with my real name. Admittedly, Googling my name is far more likely to bring up a porn producer than anything actually traceable to me, but it's out there now.

Back to work, though. The place is driving me crazy. My department is running at about half of ideal staffing levels right now, and at least two of the people that are there are turning out to be unemployment line material. Added to that, my direct supervisor retired last month, dumping part of that workload in my lap; our second-largest customer (whose demands were excessive to begin with) is demanding that we scale up production by 50%, where we had already moved up their entire schedule by a month. It's a recipie for disaster in a regulated environment. Now, I put in for my old manager's job; frankly, I'd take it in a heartbeat if it could just reduce my workload at all, much less pay more. When they made me salaried earlier this year, they raised my base pay by 20% to make up for the amount of overtime I put in, and it'll still be less than I made last year. If they included a designated nap time in the benefits package, I'd jump at it.

It all boils down to the fact I'm too nice to just walk up to people with a copy of their paperwork and yell, "WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?" Honestly, if they had actually written down what they were thinking when they were doing it, things would be better. If you can back up a decision, even if the reasoning is faulty, we can work with that and make it a training experience. If you give me nothing to work with, we're both dead in the water. The last answer I ever want to hear is, "I don't know why I did it that way." I hear it all too often, though.

I love the company, though. We're growing at an unheard-of rate. If it was publicly held, the stock price would be going through the roof. A lot of companies would kill to have growth of 5%; we're looking at closer to the 30-40% range. Hell, we've already almost hit the budgeted growth numbers for this year. If you can survive it, there's a lot of potential for success. Surviving it is the key. Somehow, I keep my end of things running. Hell, even the CEO likes my analysis work, although he might deliberately misread it to further his own agenda (A CEO looking to manipulate investigation statements to justify actions that will benefit the bottom line? Naaaaah...). I think I'm doing a crappy job, looking at it from the inside. My director even told me I was doing great though. My wife thinks that I'm too self-critical when it comes to my work, and that I have some issues with giving myself credit. I just see that I'm not doing the level of work that I'm probably capable of, and I see that holding me back in the future. Of course, that's not now, but I often have trouble living in the present. I usually have a forwarding address in the past, though, not the future.

At any rate, that's as much of a rant as I can sustain right now without naming people to be assassinated. Workplaces generally frown on that sort of talk these days, anyway.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Things you notice

It's an odd feeling when your blog, which has a regular readership approaching six, suddenly has a traffic spike from eastern Finland.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Traffic Spike

I’d like to welcome the new readers who have made their way over from more popular and in-depth blogs lately. I see some of you have come back more than once, so I’ll endeavor to provide more content (preferably of some substance). I enjoy the traffic, and hope you’ll continue to return. For those of the scientific/skeptical/atheist bent, you might check out these past posts (not that there are a lot to sort through, anyway). Please leave comments anywhere you wish, as I appreciate any level of discussion.


Oh, and for the person who actually did a search on what "Hobocentrism" is, I cover that in the first post.

The philosophy of Dad

As I’ve gotten older, I realize more and more exactly how much my father has influenced me. While that may seem to be a statement deserving of a hearty, “Duh”, I find a little more there to investigate. My Dad doesn’t think he was around to do much parenting; for most of my home life his work schedule had him out of the house long before I woke up, and back home with only a few hours before one or both of us fell asleep. While he attended the sports and academic competitions, he didn’t make practices or often directly participate in the study. Weekends were often spent separate or just quietly at home with books. Because of all that, he thinks all the raising was done by my mother. While she may have done a lot of the day-to-day work, both my brother and myself derived a lot of our personality from Dad.

For one thing, my attitude toward work was greatly shaped by his example. Work was what you did, where you found it. While it is possible to enjoy it, providing for your family is the important part. Ultimately, you just do it; you don’t laze about and complain that you can’t find something. There’s always work, if you’re willing to do it. His job, by the time I reached my teens involved a one-way commute of up to two and a half hours, because he wasn’t willing to pull his family out of a good school district. It was inconvenient for him, but that job paid decently and provided full health and retirement benefits. Since then, I’ve discovered that potential employers are amazed at my willingness to travel to get to a job (Admittedly, this is also partly a West Virginia thing; when a trip to the grocery store is a half-hour drive, an hour or more to work doesn’t mean as much.).

Dad also taught me how to do good things quietly. My mother was the type that would crow an accomplishment to the hills for as long as people would listen. I learned a bit about that, too, but Dad’s example was more about when to do it. If you’re doing something to go on a college application or the like, the whole point is to sell yourself and draw attention. If you’re doing something just to accomplish it, or to do a good thing, there’s no reason to make a big deal of it. Additionally, this gets across the idea that doing good things isn’t something that needs an external motivation; if you’re not doing it for recognition or reward, then good deeds are to be done for their own sake. I’ve only just begun finding out about some of the things he did for my brother and I. Things like joining school board special councils, having constant meetings with my principals and teachers, and my most recent discovery: the volunteer fire department that he spent fifteen years serving with was joined so that my brother and I would have good references and contacts for college when we got older. I was probably less than two years old when he joined.

It wasn’t just good things that Dad taught me to be quiet about either. The man is, to be blunt, a sneaky sonofabitch. Not a mean one, mind you, but sneaky. He knows how to trick, hide, cheat, misdirect, and mislead you about most anything he chooses. I was probably seven or eight before he confessed that he used a marked deck for most of the card games we played. He also evades stories about his “wilder” days of forty years ago. He hasn’t been able to deny that they exist, because other people have let details slip, but he won’t give up anything juicy. A lot of the sneakiness has rubbed off on me; as my friends can attest, I have an unnerving habit of being right there without you realizing it. He’s also a spectacular joker, who actually once shocked me repeatedly with a hand crank telephone before teaching me the trick and sending me off to get the rest of my friends and family.

That phone also brings up my love of science. I learned so much basic stuff from Dad that I don’t know how I can possibly live up to it with my kids. Knowledge of electromagnetism, biology, fossils (I could write for ages about, at the age of eight, being forty feet up, gripping onto up a 75° rock face, chipping away at vein of shell-filled rock.), and chemistry were all imparted. Hell, aside from my own chemistry set, I got to play with his, shelf life be damned! I’m a big dork, and it’s his fault. I didn’t even find out he was salutatorian of his high school class (like me) until long after I graduated.

That’s just an overview of what he did to shape me, without much realizing it. Work hard, do good, be smart, play it close to the vest. Not a bad start, I think.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Comic Pull 05 April 08

Last week's books:

PS238 #30: This is likely the conclusion of the Vegas plotline. For the none of you that follow this book (though you should be, dammit), several of our young heroes have been tricked into hitching a ride to Las Vegas, in order for a young super-villain in the making to use his super-genius at the tables to finance his army of doom-bot hover tanks. Vegas, in this reality, is sort of a "Casablanca" for metas -- the town is neutral and peaceful, and they have the muscle to back it up. Our young card sharp has been caught and recruited by the most powerful casino magnate in town to aid in catching a cheat who has managed to walk away with large sums by using surrogates. Hilarity ensues. The plight of Julie Finster, who has kept up a personal crisis about not being "unique" among metas (she's the 84th known to have the powers of flight, invulnerability, speed, and strength) continues, with a nice resolution at the end. We also get some flashes to a previous storyline and our usual main character, Tyler Marlocke, which likely lead us into the next arc. A strong issue of a strong book.

Jonah Hex #30: Standard Hex story. People are dumb enough to disturb Hex while he's drinking. They die.

Buffy, Season Eight #13: Now that everyone's gotten over the lesbian tryst in the last issue, the story moves along with some Dracula moments. He's apparently lost his mojo whilst betting on motorcycles. The winners have worked out a way to make Slayers normal girls again. Serviceable, with some great writing in the Drac bits.

Anita Blake #10: Slow book this time. As I recall, this part of the novel wasn't great, either. We get an abrupt reveal of the bad guy, but a decent cliffhanger alongside my favorite character Edward. The best thing going in this issue is the art.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is how people identify with groups. Most people try to find some sort of tribe or culture that they fit into and can identify with. Most anything that finishes the sentence, "I'm a ..." qualifies. There are countless classes that people fit themselves into, particularly for social reasons, but there are others that bear little to no relationship to how you interact with others. I'm going to examine some of the ones I belong to.

On a general level, I fall into the "geek" subculture. While the rules and variations are ever-changing, geekdom generally involves bright people who obsess over stuff that a most everyone else just doesn't "get". It includes gamers of all stripes, though board/war/card/and role-playing subtypes form the core; science-fiction and fantasy fans; anime and cartoon fans; comic fans; and a whole host of other interests that are considered a bit weird. These groups are highly interrelated and cross-populate with ease, though hierarchies exist (click here for an example). For a long time, geekdom was an underground sort of thing; while you were probably easily recognized as one, you kept it to yourself, and quietly sought others with which to associate. Not keeping it quiet of lead to beatings in the younger set. Then, the geeks grew up and made assloads of money, and suddenly we are much more socially acceptable. Geekdom has its bitter rivalries, but as a subculture, it has gown to a high level of recognition and acceptance.

I also identify as a skeptic. Please note that this is different than "cynic". I like evidence for outrageous claims, no matter their origin. Skeptics like science and the scientific method, because it is an effective way of examining the world around us in an orderly manner. Skepticism is still fairly embryonic as a movement when it comes to numbers, despite concerted efforts over the last several decades (not to mention the Enlightenment), because while most of us are pretty happy people, in awe of the natural world and just how amazing it is, being a skeptic entails stripping away illusions, even if they are nice ones. Most find that the truth is a far more amazing thing to behold, in the end, but it's still a hard sell. As I read on a blog recently, "The truth will set you free, but first it will probably piss you off." Skepticism has a strong online presence, so it is easy to find like-minded folk to converse with. Finding one in meatspace is often a bit harder, but regular conventions (and even weekly drinking bouts) are constantly being arranged. Skepticism attracts a wide variety of people, but a random sampling will pull a lot of white males, along with a disproportionate number of magicians. They are a prickly bunch at times, and getting them to agree on anything outside of a good skeptical investigation is like herding rabid, science-oriented cats.

There's a high amount of crossover with skeptics and atheists, although by no means should the groups be conflated out-of-hand. Skeptical thinking about, say, psychics, often leads to the same about religious claims, and vice-versa, but the same results are not always reached. As a community, though, atheists are even more wildly disagreeable with each other than skeptics.

I'm a Republican, although I don't know for how much longer. I don't identify with my party like I did when I signed up. I have no desire to tie myself with the flailing impotence that is the Democratic party, and I'm not nearly batshit crazy enough to be a Libertarian. It's probably the Independents for me, after this election cycle, and we can probably assume that they don't have a far-flung organization or ideology.

Honestly, and this comes as both a surprise and no great revelation to me, I identify very tightly with my home state of West Virginia. Most of us in the Hillbilly Diaspora do. Most people leave West Virginia for better opportunities, not because they dislike the place. Let's face it, though; outside the scenic vistas and unique history, a lot of the place is a dump. It is, however, a dump that engenders a fierce pride and militant defensiveness. West Virginians are used to being the butt of the national joke. If you're talking about inbred, toothless, shoeless, musket-firing rednecks, why you must be talking West Virginia. Hear those dreaded banjo notes from Deliverance? That was Georgia, you idiot, but no one seems to remember that. We have a direction in our name, but it isn't "North" or "South", nor is there an "East Virginia" to accompany us. Correcting someone who says, "Don't you mean Western Virginia?" often involves a punch. There are a lot of people in the hills of West Virginia that just scrape by, but they do it with hard work and determination, and an attitude that says, "Bet you can't do it." Hell, when's the last time a solid chunk of your state shut down because management and labor were shooting at each other? It's been less than two decades for West Virginia. Like many cultural and economic underclasses, an extremely tight and insular bond has developed. We are loyal to a fault, and hold others accountable for the same.

A good example of this was the recent defection of the WVU football coach to Michigan. This was a hometown boy made good, consistently coaching his alma mater to the top of the ranks. Bigger schools tried to woo him a year before, and he turned them down. This year, he bolts after a blown game keeps him from the national championship, and the venom still hasn't stopped. Lawsuits, defacement of signs and statues, threats to his extended family, and recommendations that he hire movers rather than set foot in the state to retrieve his belongings are some of the milder occurrences. If West Virginians invest trust in you, discarding that trust is a dangerous proposition.

As a group, we don't necessarily relate to each other well. It is best not to cross one of us, though; you might just get all of us.

These are just a few of my group identities; I didn't even begin to write about who I actually am as an individual. I think, though, that an examination of belonging is just as important to knowing yourself as anything else, and it's sometimes amazing what you can find.

Friday, March 7, 2008


I try to avoid writing about work too much, for various reasons. One is that so many people get burned when they write about something unflattering, or even proprietary, and then post it in a public space. I don’t think anyone at work knows about my blogging, or even cares, but it would be easy enough to figure out my screen name in one way or another. Given that I use it all across the interwebs, it’s feasible that a search could be constructed to pop me up (although my various self-Googlings generally show otherwise) and cause me issues. Another reason is that I generally get the bug to blog about work when I’m at work (Like now. Shhhhh.). Bad practice, that; aside from using business time and resources for personal use, I run the risk of being keylogged or running afoul of other corporate security measures. I feel guilty, but only a little.

Anyway, my work situation has changed somewhat. I’m still at my same level (lower management, woohoo!), but now I have an office in our new, shiny production facility. I like the office. It runs about two-and-a-half times the size of my old cube, though I am now lacking shelf space and filing cabinets that were built into the old locale. My desk is arranged such that I have screen privacy, at least. I was moved because the majority of people and functions that I cover are now at this building, leaving a couple at the other facility that I will now manage mostly at a distance, until one of them moves and the other is absorbed by another manager. Overall, it’s better for me in terms of work and career.

On the other hand, I miss the people a great deal. I’m a well-established geek, and the lab folks provide a much greater wealth of conversation in that vein than do the office or production crews. I’d share and discuss books, rant about movies, or even talk comics and gaming with a few. Now, I’m unlikely to see them with any regularity. Hell, even the guys I talked sports and did fantasy football with aren’t going to be moving at any point in the near (or even middle-distant) future. Being that real social interaction has never been my strong suit (I can work my way through a gathering, but chit-chat is not my style), this break represents a solid loss to me. I don’t have a lot of close friends. Hell, the number dropped by a quarter a few years back when one couple dropped out of the picture. Even, “positive acquaintances” have been hard for me to come across, but this group represents a big mass of my comfort zone.

This all makes me sort of ambivalent about the move. Sure, my work will generally be easier, and I’ll have a lot more contact with the corporate side of things. I’m likely to advance faster and produce better solutions overall. The problem is, though, that I don’t value those things quite as much as I could. I’d get there anyway, most likely. I want convenient access to my friends, dammit. They’re harder to come by.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Rights? Who needs 'em!

I was saddened today to hear that the Senate passed a bill that both gave a long-term extension to the Bush wiretapping program, but also extended immunity to the communications companies that handed over records. I think that Chris Dodd put it well when he said the incident would be looked back upon as a test whether the United States operates under “The rule of law, or the rule of men.”

Right now, I’m reading an excellent book by Anthony Lewis on the history of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and this situation seems like it would have been a no-brainer to include in the text (part of it may be; I’m not finished with the book yet). The book is titled Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, and it mostly traces the shifting judicial interpretations of the Amendment since its inception. One theme that has been abundantly clear is that, in times of fear, rights constrict, regardless of the reality of the thing feared. There’s a lot of shifting ground to cover, from the various sedition and loyalty acts (until now, I didn’t know that Woodrow Wilson was such a bastard) to the expansion of the rights to the press, to the idea of privacy as a right. That’s where this situation comes in, I think. Privacy was never explicitly written into the Constitution, but over the last hundred years, it has wedged its way in through the First Amendment. How does the freedom of speech necessarily evolve into a right to privacy? The clearest link is that we have a right to think and believe what we wish. One can choose to share that in a non-public manner (such as a private conversation), and neither the press nor the government really has a right to expose private opinions, especially if such an opinion could cause personal harm. Lacking that privacy, the marketplace of ideas and expression suffers. If you fear privately express a radical idea, or argue for a type of change that current powers don’t agree with, then progress can’t occur. In a society such as ours, that encourages discourse and the marketplace of ideas, many radical or unusual opinions are not kept quiet; that how ideas are stirred together to make new ones. Just because you think that someone’s ideas are 99% crazy doesn’t mean you won’t think that last 1% has some merit and incorporate it into your own. Society needs unpopular ideas; that’s how we make popular ones.

The United States, however, has a very distinct historical pattern of trampling on ideas not shared by the people in power. Usually it comes in a xenophobic frenzy about foreign influences or threats. The FISA bill is just such a trampling. The wiretapping itself is bad enough, but in the past there was at least a judicial review beforehand. Even if the secret spy court was a rubber-stamp body, there was a check for someone to say, “No, that won’t do.” Now even that tiny speed bump is in the process of being removed. What was it that Kissinger said? “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a bit longer.” In this situation, it is far easier to do something “legal” and hope no one brings suit on Constitutional grounds later. Even though the law only allows for the examination of non-citizen calls, does anyone really expect that to be a realistic limitation? The retroactive immunity is also a sham. While the phone companies may have acted “in good faith” as far as the government is concerned, they certainly did not act in such faith to their customers, and should very much be open to suit for not living up to the consumer agreements.

The point, I think, is that fear creates opportunity for unscrupulous people to grab for power and stifle the rights of others. Fear leads to people not thinking about the decisions they make, and what concessions they make to have an air of safety are hard to get back when the fear subsides. Our courts have done a decent job of preventing permanent reversals of freedoms, but that’s something that happens over history. I’m living with it now. I want to live in a society where I can speak my mind openly, even if I embrace an idea or opinion that horrifies the mainstream. Where I don’t have to worry an oppressor listening to my private conversations. It’s not even that, in the end. I once had a friend defend such a policy by saying that good people wouldn’t have to fear, or even ones that just kept controversial ideas to themselves. That doesn’t work, though. Even if no “evidence” could be brought to bear against me, can the same be said for my employer? My doctor? My child-care? Are all those people “perfect”, or can their faults be used to make them bring pressure on me? The whole idea is that, with the idea of thoughtcrime, you don’t even have to do anything wrong to be a victim. My advice? Don’t buy into the fear. Sure, things happen. There are scary-ass people and things out in the world. Isn’t it important to talk about them, though? Isn’t it important to be able to hold your head high and say, “I have a better idea”? People control through fear and intimidation. Terrorists use it to influence, and those who would clamp down on society to prevent terror often manipulate fear to their own ends. I don’t think that fear is that scary. What scares me is not being able to say what I want about it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

An Economic Thought

I recently heard a Libertarian (who also happens to be a scientist of some stature) refer to their brand of anarcho-capitalism as “evolutionary capitalism”. As a scientist that has had to defend evolution from all sorts of ridiculous attacks, he should have known that such a comparison wouldn’t help his position with other evolution supporters. While the selective mechanism certainly makes sense, a somewhat regulated market can still be selective, as well. Mutations and permutations of business, if correlated to evolutionary biology, don’t look that great. Mutations are more often harmful or benign than beneficial, so I don’t understand how protective regulation that prevents too many “harmful” mutations in the system is a bad thing. There are some things that are known to work or not work. There are things that, if changed, might be more convenient for a business, but could cause long-term harm to the consumer. Anarcho-capitalists figure that such things will eventually out and market pressure can force changes. The problem becomes, though, one of how many people have to deal with being harmed before it becomes unprofitable for the business. If regulations exist saying you need to cook meat to temperature X to reduce the chances of a nasty infection, that generally is easy to meet, has a discernable benefit, and prevents harm. I have heard it argued, however, that such a regulation is unnecessary. If a business chooses to undercook (or, in the real-world case of the argument I participated in, maintain a certain temperature level of meat in a holding area), they should be allowed to, and as people get sick, word will get around and people will stop eating there, forcing a change in practice or forcing the organization out of business. Now, that of course relies on people not only correctly identifying the source of illness, but that they make the results publicly known, that there are comprehensive outlets for finding and distributing such information, and that it happens with enough frequency that, likely, large numbers of people have been harmed on some level. That’s a lot of potential harm that could have been prevented with a single regulation.

Most of economics is a balancing act between market forces and regulations designed to prevent harm. If you regulate too tightly, it stifles innovation and even the ability to succeed. Too lightly, and you run the risk of a great harm of some type (health, financial, etc.) escaping notice until it is too late for some innocent schmuck to avoid. A lot of regulation comes after the horse has left the barn for the first time already; it just gets put in place to prevent it happening again. Too many of the big “L” guys seem perfectly fine with exposing me and mine to potential harm, as long as it all balances out in the end. The problem is that, sometimes, it’s easy to make a quick profit without and short- or long-term harm being noticeable. Market forces can’t be brought to bear in that case, but if regulation and enforcement are already in place, it stands as a potential barrier that wouldn’t be there otherwise. I can see anarcho-capitalism as a reaction against the sometimes-ludicrous over-regulation that occurs in the business world. Just because the system isn’t perfect, however, doesn’t mean we should scrap it. It still serves a strong and necessary purpose. You just have to work on that balancing act.

Friday, January 25, 2008


It’s been a while, and given my normal topics of discussion in meatspace, I guess it’s time for a political commentary. Now, politically, I’m one of those folks that drives the pollsters nuts. My religious outlook is discussed below, and it of course squares perfectly with the fact that I’m a Republican.

You can stop laughing now.

I signed up for my party back in the heady days just after high school, where I was a member of the young conservative movement of the early nineties. I believed in the Contract with America. I had a savage dislike for Bill Clinton’s careless use of language, because I had the idea that what one speaks is what one should mean. While my feelings about (Bill) Clinton have somewhat softened, I still consider his weasel-like manipulations of language to be his greatest failing. The man lied even when the truth would have served him better, and it seemed almost pathological. I was a Rush Limbaugh fan, though I retained enough original thought to avoid being a Dittohead. I had a naive belief in Regan’s America, much because I saw the harsh oppressions of Soviet Communism falling, and because I really felt that the optimism exuded by this amiable old actor was a positive force for the nation. I didn’t understand the scandals; I was really too young for that at the time, and by the time I was old enough to understand, they were a part of the irrelevant past.

Signing up for the Republican Party was also an act of youthful defiance, not so much against my parents, but more against the idea that I didn’t have a choice. Anyone from West Virginia, particularly the southern part, can tell you that if you run, you run as a Democrat. The only major exception to this rule is often the Governorship, but, in general, you don’t get elected without that (D) next to your name on the ballot. Hell, you barely get to vote in a primary without that, because there are no Republican candidates. We had a friend of the family that ran for virtually every county office as a Republican, and couldn’t get a vote. He changed to Democrat, and won in one of the largest landslides in county history. Nothing he said had changed; just the designation by his name. To a young conservative, that was intolerable.

One of the big things that attracted me to the Republicans, though, was the fact that I had a strong libertarian (not “Libertarian”) streak, and the old Republicans were the party of individual freedoms. It was the Democrats that sought to restrain my speech, my viewing, and my actions. The Republicans were willing to leave me the hell alone. Of course I also didn’t fully understand the alliance between the Religious Right and those I envisaged as my ideological allies; I was young and stupid. While the positions haven’t exactly reversed, I don’t take well to assaults on my rights and protections.

The nineties didn’t do a lot to change my opinions, other than to disillusion me about the Republicans in Congress. The Inquisition they set up was a massive waste of time and money, for no more than a minor skewering of a lousy man who was a serviceable President. Yes, he was a philandering bastard who lied about virtually everything (definition of “is” notwithstanding), but he did a good amount of positive work, particularly in the international area, and his personal failings weren’t worth the attempted destruction of the office. Then came 2000.

I wasn’t given a choice from my party, as the primary race was over long before it got to my home state. John McCain was my choice then. He was on the ballot, but out of the race. So I got Bush. I voted for Bush for one reason; I hated Al Gore. I despised the man as an uncharismatic lump that had abandoned his principles, as well as facilitating his wife’s assault on free speech back during the Eighties. I thought that a potted palm would provide more dynamic leadership.

Well, shit happens. I defended Bush early on with 9/11. I still believe that Afghanistan was and is the right war at the right time. Had we stayed with it to reasonable completion and through a positive rebuild of the nation, I think we’d have one hell of a strong ally in the region. Unfortunately, the dipshits in office wanted to bite off more; they wanted Iraq. Now, being a child of the first Gulf War, I knew the Powell Doctrine by heart, and I knew that it was the set of guiding principles that kept us out of the quagmire of Iraqi occupation the first time. I knew that, if applied to the current situation, it would still dictate staying the hell out. I knew when I saw Powell himself defending the idea of going into Iraq that his potential Presidential run was never going to happen. He toed the line of official loyalty, even as we all knew that his opinions were different. It killed his credibility and career. It killed my loyalty to the party.

Now, given all the crap that has happened in the ensuing years, I’ve stayed a Republican. Partially, it’s because I think that the Dems are fairly rudderless – even when they have a uniting cause and a ton of momentum, they tend to screw it up. The Anarcho-Capitalist Big “L” Libertarians are just sort of crazy (even though our last two Fed chiefs fall under that umbrella), and I like having some say in the primaries, which means turning Independent is out. I like to think I’m trying to drag my party back to sanity, kicking and screaming. Also, if I ever plan to run for any sort of office, it’s the way to go around here. It’s sad how I look at it that way, given that the same idea angered me greatly a decade and a half ago.

Now, with all that background, here’s my take on the candidates of the current Presidential field.


Mitt Romney: Slick, polished professional politician. Has some executive experience. Has already declared that people like me don’t belong to the American ideal. Religious in an even more batshit way than most. I don’t think I could vote for him even out of desperation.

Mike Huckabee: Another batshit insane type, he has essentially proposed changing the Constitution to remove all those nice protections and freedoms, at least for those who don’t agree with his vision of god. I would rather elect a half-consumed water buffalo carcass that was running as a Libertarian.

Rudy Giuliani: More autocratic than Bush ever dreamed of being, he’s ghoulishly trying to ride the disaster of 9/11 into more power. He’s marginally qualified, but very, very scary to anyone who likes the idea of not provoking the rest of the world.

John McCain: I’m torn here. This was my man in 2000. He readily crosses party lines. He’s not afraid to call bullshit, and seems to believe in reasonable separation of powers. However, he still thinks Iraq was a good idea. That is firmly established as being “incorrect”, to put it lightly. He’s also an older candidate, which while not necessarily a knock, is a concern for the long term. He didn’t pander to a lot of special interests in 2000, which is why they drove him out of the race, and has been a strong voice against hypocrisy in politics. However, he’s edged that way more and more the last few years. He’s played it with a wink and a nod, though, managing to keep most of his centrist cred while gaining ground with conservatives. I don’t know how much I trust it. He’s my top Republican, but I don’t know if I’d vote for him in a general election or not.

Ron Paul: See Big-"L" Libertarian thing above. Plus, like many "Constitutionalists", he has a nasty tendency to ignore the parts of the Constitution he doesn't like. Y'know, like those amendments that legalize an income tax, and things like that.


Before I start, I’ll say my ideal candidate here is already out of the race. I liked Richardson on experience and policy (though his Iraq ideas were unrealistic). He just didn’t have the machine or media support, though, but even so might make a strong case for a V.P. bid. I think the field is weaker than expected, though, and could still use the wisdom of a Richardson, Biden, or Dodd.

Barack Obama: Young, fresh, and energetic. He’s got some good basic ideas down, and a hell of a lot of charisma. He is, however, a first-term Senator. There’s no executive clout or seasoning there, and that’s his biggest negative. He hasn’t done anything except be young, fresh, energetic, and charismatic. Without a flawless general campaign, a strong Republican would maul him.

John Edwards: Barack Obama with less charisma and skin tone. The “Two Americas” message isn’t going to play to the affluent of the other party. Equality is a good push, but you still haven’t done anything. Experience will be the factor putting him out of the race. Won’t get V.P. consideration, because he couldn’t draw the south as promised last time.

Hillary Clinton: The most divisive candidate in the field. The is no “kinda-sorta” when it comes to opinions on Hillary. I must say, I fall to the negative. I didn’t like her during her husband’s Presidency, partially because she tried to take on policy issues as if she had been elected. “Spouse” doesn’t qualify you to administrate anything. Now, I’m sure she had some knowledge and input on what Bill did; it’s impossible to be married and not. However, it’s been firmly established that she neither sat in on cabinet meetings nor had security clearance. She was not a Co-President; she was a strongly independent and capable litigator who happened to the spouse of the President. She has a frosty, calculated demeanor, though. It seems that every move she has made since leaving the White House has been geared toward gaining that same power for herself. Running for Senate would have seemed less like a calculated bid for influence had she run in, say, Arkansas, where she had real connections, instead of New York, which just looks better on a Presidential application (more electoral votes, too). It all looks like she calculated a Presidential run in from the beginning, rather than looking to serve a constituency. Looking at the facts, she has actual experience of barely a year or two more than her main rivals, if that much, and, like them, none of it was executive. Proximity does not equal experience. I think she would be petty and cold in office, and would do little to regain the dignity of that office or restore the balance of power. That said, I’d still be more likely to vote for her than any Republican, save McCain. In fact, he’s the only Republican that I would even consider favoring at this point.


Michael Bloomberg: If he runs as an independent, he’ll be the Perot of the Democrats (much more so than Nader ever was), virtually guaranteeing a GOP victory. He’s got a lot of business experience, and he’s done the same mayoring as Giuliani, but that isn’t enough to be President, as far as I’m concerned.

In conclusion, I’m not in a great dilemma as to who I’m voting for, unless McCain wins the nod for the Republicans. We’ll see how it all works out.