Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The laptop hunt

Laura's old laptop is nearly kaput; the battery no longer functions, it's old and slow, it's not upgradeable, and it doesn't have enough ram or processor power to run some of the apps she needs (specifically VectorWorks Spotlight 12.5 -- the newest version of the CAD program she uses for lighting design). She's about to go on tour for a few weeks, and it would be seriously convenient for her to have a functioning laptop to take with, so we're searching for a new one.

The laptop hunt is a little complex. We're not sure about which brands are reliable and which companies offer the best technical support. The only thing we're sure of is that we're avoiding Toshiba; I had too many bad problems with my ancient Toshiba laptop, and the company was borderline evil in dealing with the problems. Two of the tech issues required a class-action lawsuit to resolve, and my biggest problem (the mouse would function intermittently, and even an external mouse wouldn't work) was never resolved. And apparently their customer service has gotten even worse in the decade since then. I've heard HP makes decent laptops, but that they preload them with around 800 megs of spyware, adware, and irritating garbage. I had a computer salesman tell me that half of their HP returns are because people can't deal with all the preinstalled ads and crap. Laura's really happy with Sony, and they make nice laptops as far as I can tell, but they're about 30-50% pricier than Dell for comparable hardware. I'm liking the Acer laptop at work, and I like the Fujitsu laptops I was playing with at Fry's, but again I don't know much about their customer service. The Acer is having pointer issues, and I can't find any hints about it on the website. And I don't know if I want to take a stab at a more obscure company like Lenovo or MSI. They make laptops that look good on paper, but I can't find much about their customer support or long-term hardware problems.

Another complexity: whatever laptop we buy is likely to have some variation on the theme of Vista installed (I'm thinking Vista Kenny Loggins). The expensive, specialized programs Laura uses don't necessarily run well on Vista, and we're fairly sure that the portable printer doesn't have Vista drivers. So our first criterion is that XP drivers have to be available for whatever laptop we buy, in case we find out that we need to be running our software in XP. This is more complicated than it seems; as far as I can tell, only one manufacturer -- Fujitsu -- makes XP drivers conveniently available, and then only for their 17" laptops. And nobody will tell you in advance if they still provide XP drivers for their hardware; it's apparently in their Vista license agreement that they're supposed to pretend that Vista is their only supported operating system.

I'm a little irritated with this. For one thing, Vista sucks. This is apparently true in general, but it particularly applies to RAM and processor cycles. I was at Fry's last week scoping out laptops and saw the system monitor running on the desktops of some of their demo machines. Vista was using about 50% of the system resources while idle, not running any programs. I mentioned this to one of the sales staff; it turns out that they left the system monitors running on purpose, to show how system-intensive Vista is. They all hate Vista. I get the impression that a new laptop with 2 gigs of ram and a dual-core processor will run programs in Vista about as well as our old work laptop runs programs in XP on its meager 512 megs of ram.

I can't believe that I'm the only person with a bunch of expensive, proprietary XP software in need of a new laptop. I'm surprised that Microsoft (and PC manufacturers) haven't caught on to the deeper ramifications of this problem; sure, they want to push Vista as the new and only option for OS. But if they aren't going to pay attention to their huge customer base who are chained to the older OS, they're forgetting that there's still an easy, relatively convenient way for people to run XP-only software on a new machine: buy a Mac, and run Parallels. It's what we're doing at work, and we're having relatively few problems with it. It's just a shame that Mac hardware is so darn expensive; for similar capability, you pay roughly double for a Mac laptop. Sure, they're well-designed. But their bottom-of-the-line notebook starts at around $1100; you can't find anything with a dedicated graphics card for under $2000.

At the moment we're leaning towards a Sony Vaio CR series, or a Dell Inspiron 1521. They've got similar specs, both look like reliable machines from companies we've had good dealings with in the past. And, they both come in red. This was one of two criteria Laura gave me when I went window-shopping at Fry's. I think her exact words were, "See if you can find me a nice laptop. Preferably a Vaio, ideally a red Vaio." But I think she'll like the Dell too.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Uh oh -- bike trouble

In the process of dealing with deceased kitties on Friday, I totally forgot that my bike developed mechanical issues. Laura drove me to work Friday because I started the ride and made it about a block before my rear derailleur (the part of the bike that changes gears) started jumping gears on its own. I didn't have time to diagnose the problem Friday, and I was planning on dealing with it over the weekend. On the easy side, it might just be a slipped adjustment somewhere; on the hard side, I might have to replace a cable. And it's pretty simple to replace a cable. It makes me happy when the worst-case likely scenario is so easy to deal with. There's also a chance that the derailleur itself has a problem, but it's not likely. I've probably got less than 3000 miles on the bike, and I wouldn't expect mechanical problems like this for quite a while.

It's odd being without my own transportation again. I've enjoyed riding my bike everywhere, and it's practical transportation for almost everywhere I go (though I still use the Jeep when it's time to buy cat litter). I ride it in all weather, any time of day or night, and it's fun and reliable. It also tends to keep me more in tune with where I am -- when you're in a car, your environment is the car. A bike makes you more aware of distance and neighborhood and hills and road quality and other vehicles. I'm becoming more aware of a Zen in-the-moment quality to riding a bike, which is why I never listen to music or books on tape while I ride. The bike ride has turned into my kinetic zazen practice, my daily exercise in awareness and concentration. And I miss it if I spend a few days away from the bike. So my evening agenda today will revolve around bike repair.

I'm wondering what I'll do this winter. I'm planning on cycling until the weather makes it impractical; I think I'm okay with the cold, but I'd prefer not to ride in the snow. And, again, I'll see how I feel when it actually gets cold. My definition of "impractically cold" might change when it starts getting chilly out....

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Random DVD observation

I think everyone's irritated that you can't fast-forward through the pile of copyright warnings that precede movies on DVD. They aren't necessary, for one thing: video pirates ignore the warnings, and honest viewers don't need to see it. The fact that the warnings are repeated in French is an added irritant; the movie I just watched (Stranger Than Fiction -- quite good, by the way) doesn't have a French language track, so it's a good bet that anyone watching it won't need the warnings in French. I blame Canada. Our discs here are region 1 encoded (part of the irritating yet easily-bypassed copy protection scheme), and can therefore only be seen in Region One, which includes Quebec but not France. However, there are more people who speak only Spanish in the region-one countries than there are people who speak only French. And, technically, America doesn't have an official language. Therefore, I think the warnings should be either English-only (the most common region-one language), or should be shown in every conceivable language that someone might speak. Because, who knows? It's possible that someone will be entertaining thoughts of copying their DVD and embarking on a life of crime, and because of the warning will realize the error of their ways and instead choose to become a stockbroker. Spending two hours of DVD time scrolling through the warnings in Farsi and Apache is a small price to pay for helping someone down the straight-and-narrow.

I've always enjoyed the irony that you don't actually see the warning if you're copying the DVD, only if you're trying to actually watch the movie....

Friday, July 27, 2007

Covers all over

On a happier note, here's the New York Post's list of their 100 favorite cover songs. I was surprised to know that some of the songs I thought were originals were actually covers. I didn't know that Soft Cell wasn't the creator of "Tainted Love", Pearl Jam didn't write "Crazy Mary", or that The Kingsmen didn't originate "Louie Louie". The list also serves as a checklist of songs I need to hear. I had no idea that Cake covered the Muppets "Mah Na Mah Na" song, and I really want to hear the HIM cover of "Wicked Game".

Laura and I have a running disagreement about cover songs. I'm a firm believer that almost every song from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Doors is better when covered by someone else. She, being a child of the 70s, believes this to be utter heresy. I'm curious to see what she thinks of the list....

More kitties gone.

It occurred to me this morning when I was in the garage collecting my post-hole digger and my carpet scrap (to pile the dirt on) that I've reduced burying cats to a science. I'm lamenting the fact that I've had to do this so often that it seems almost routine. This morning as I was leaving for work, I found Z-Cat in the side yard. It was pretty obvious that he was killed by a dog. Then, when Laura and I went to the backyard to bury him, we found Tosca dead as well, also the victim of a dog attack. And two more of the outside cats who usually hang out on our back porch are missing as well. The optimist in me assumes that they were just scared away by the dogs last night, and that they'll be back eventually; I'm hoping I see them tonight when I get home.

Tosca and Z were two of Laura's three favorite outside cats. Tosca was an inside cat for a while this past winter, and he always escorted Laura from her Jeep to the house every time she came home. Z-Cat, the zen cat with the Zorro mask, was absolutely the most inoffensive cat in the world; he never fought with any of the other cats, and he usually lived on our front porch on the little shelf under our white wicker plant table. He was the runt of his litter, and was almost a year old. He was just getting friendly enough that he would eat from our hands. Laura was inconsolable when she found out they were dead.

Me? I'm more angry. We and other neighbors have called the city dozens of times about the pack of wild dogs that lives in Brookside Park. The city apparently hasn't done anything about it; I can tell, because the dogs are still there. It's not an idle concern; stray cats keep the rat population down, but stray dogs can kill people. And I accept that dogs and cats fighting is part of the natural order. But I'm not happy that it happened in our fenced-in back yard. We're nervous about letting our inside cats out for the night now; if one of them were attacked by a dog in our yard, I'd be tempted to violence. For now, we're just keeping an eye on the cats and making sure we lock the gate. The bigger dogs can jump our fence, though, so I don't know how to really keep them out.

UPDATE: Pouncer and Cooper were hanging around this morning. Whew!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Of The Creepy

Last night I watched The Grudge 2. The original was a highly creepy Japanese-made horror film, and I liked it a lot. The sequel was good, too, for some different reasons. The real highlight wasn't the movie, but the extra features on the DVD. The director, crew, and cast spent a lot of time talking about the differences between Japanese horror and American horror, between the movie business there and here, about the experience of actor and director working through an interpreter, and about the conventions of storytelling that Americans have to have in their movies. And I mean that literally. Apparently, our standard storytelling format has to be in our movies, because American producers won't make movies that violate the standard. They talked about the hundred or so meetings between the Japanese director and writer and the American producers, trying to decide how to tell the story. Essentially, the American team wanted to make an American movie, and the Japanese team wanted to make a good movie. They compromised on an Americanized J-horror picture that was decent but not great.

Most interesting was the discussion about non-linear storytelling. This was a very nonlinear movie, and creepier for it; it jumped between three story lines, and you don't find out until the last minute or two that the separate story lines happen in a specific order, not simultaneously. You have to think about it a little to figure out what happened, and I liked that. Also interesting was the idea of the cyclical structure of American horror movies; there are scary moments and non-scary moments, and we the audience always know what we're seeing. We can occasionally be fooled, but in general the scary moments aren't surprises, at least not in a structural sense. Japanese horror movies, on the other hand, have much more staccato scares, and they're more likely to come without warning. There are no slow moments that you can be sure are free of creepiness, and that's also a refreshing change.

I'm recommending the movie, but you need to know that it's a creepy horror movie. If you don't do those, you won't like this one either....

Monday, July 23, 2007

I know it's old and tired....

but I still feel the need to check the lolcats page every week or so. Cat owner, easily amused -- that's me.

At least I never say anything that sounds like "All Your Base...".

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Possible retail therapy

So, as usual, I've got a running list of toys I want when it's time for Retail Therapy. Here's a somewhat representative sample of the list:
I know I'm not actually going to get myself any of these (except maybe the rear fender). But it's fun to daydream about.
----
Update: though I generally don't wear printed t-shirts, because I have no occasion to wear them, I'd still like the XKCD "Stand Back: I'm going to try SCIENCE" shirt.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

For sale -- kidding!

Indy's nicer neighborhoods are rife with fake for-sale signs like this one:
I pedaled past a house in Lockerbie Square with one of these signs in the front yard on the ride home today. The owner was out watering the lawn, so I stopped and had this conversation with him:
Jeff: "Hey, how much are you asking?"
HomeOwner: "...what?"
J: "My wife and I were looking at this neighborhood, and I was just wondering what your asking price is."
HO: "...what?"
J: "You've got a for-sale sign in the yard, but there's no phone number on it."
HO: "Oh. We're not selling. We're protesting our enormous tax bill."
J: "...oh. You know, you shouldn't tell prospective buyers that."

I was feeling sarcastic but not particularly confrontational, so I didn't say anything like, "Oh -- protest by lying. Nice!"

Again, I want to mention that, yes, taxes did go up in Marion County. But the tax rate increase wasn't much -- the real kicker was the fact that homes are now being assessed at their resale value, not their construction cost, so people in really nice neighborhoods had a much higher tax increase than those of us in the 'hood. And I'm a bit tired of hearing people in Indy's most desirable neighborhoods say, essentially, "Waah, my taxes are being assessed fairly for the first time ever -- woe is me!"

I caved...

My original plan was to bike a different route home every day of the entire summer, but today I just didn't have the mental energy to experiment with a new route so I repeated an easy trip that I did a few weeks ago. I caved, gaah! On the plus side, though, I made it to mid-July without repeating a route....

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Deathly Hollow spoilers

The last Harry Potter novel hits the stores tomorrow at midnight, but a lot of people have managed to get copies in advance. Spoilers abound on the 'net, and you can buy advance-of-sale copies on eBay for -- surprisingly -- less than cover price. A local radio station is reading the last three pages, a page a day, at 10am Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday this week. I don't want spoilers; I want to read the book before I hear people talking about how it ends. And I assume I'm not alone. With that in mind, I'd like to see a few fake spoilers floating around on the web, so the disinformation balances out the actual spoilers. I'd love to read a "spoiler" that says that Harry kills Voldemort at the end of the book, but the battle isn't without price: Harry will spend the rest of his life walking around on chicken feet. Or one that says that Hermione dies early in the book, and Ron and Neville become a couple. I'd enjoy some fake spoilers stolen from bad slash fanfic....

We have a reserved copy of Deathly Hollows waiting at the downtown Borders. They're throwing a Potter Party on Friday night, for all of the people who want to wear costumes and pick up their copies at 12:01 am. Unfortunately, it's the Friday night of the Black Expo Summer Celebration; nobody will be able to find parking, and downtown will be one huge party. I'll probably skip the party and pick up the book after work Saturday afternoon. Even though I've got free parking, I don't feel like the two-hour round trip it'll take to get downtown Friday night.

The funniest Harry Potter thing I've found online: Lore Sjoberg's rating of magic spells. Check it out.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Good movies

If you're in the mood for the best action movie you've probably never heard of, give Equilibrium a try. Christian Bale plays the Extreme Badass, after he filmed American Psycho, before The Machinist and Batman Begins. It's got some of the best-choreographed action scenes I've ever seen, and the movie's got some quality science-fictiony goodness. The director is also unfortunately responsible for one of the worst movies ever filmed: Ultraviolet. But he did a good job with this one, at least. If you don't feel like watching the movie, I at least recommend this YouTube clip of the last seven minutes of the film. It's one big long action sequence, and it rocks hard.

Also recommended and obscure: Below, written and directed by David Twohy. He also wrote and directed Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick. He also wrote the screenplays for Warlock, G.I. Jane, The Fugitive, and Impostor (as well as Waterworld, which I'm apparently the only person in the entire world who enjoyed). Below is sort of a horror movie, sort of a mystery, and sort of a ghost story, but it's not a monster movie; most of the creepy comes as a natural part of a movie set on a submarine in World War II. If you haven't seen it, it's pretty good and definitely worth a rental.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

More on the tax hike

People have been protesting the tax hike for a few weeks now, with pickets outside the state house and the governor's mansion. One common thread is that the protesters tend to be from nice neighborhoods, because they're getting hit harder than anyone else. I didn't discuss this in my last rambling tirade about the property tax increase, but I think it bears mentioning. This is because the government has changed (at the court's demand) the way they assess value. Until recently, the assessed value of your home has been its estimated replacement cost. We've been told that if our house were located two miles west and five miles north, it'd be worth four or five times its current value; what holds our property value down is our neighborhood. But this hasn't been reflected in the assessed value, until now. Now all of the houses that are no nicer than ours, but located in extremely desirable neighborhoods, are actually expected to pay more tax than we do, to reflect the fact that their home is actually worth more. I have a hard time feeling much pity for these people with large incomes and nice homes in neighborhoods where they never hear gunshots. It hits them hard, of course; nobody ever lives beneath their means, so an extra bill every month is a hardship for everyone. But I'm actually enjoying, a little, the fact that for a change a government policy is harsher on those in nice neighborhoods than on those of us in the 'hood.

It isn't a progressive tax, though. The percentage is the same, regardless of the home's value. But people with nice houses pay more because they have nicer houses, just like they pay more income tax than I do because they make more money than I do. Given that, I don't think the cries of "Unfair!" are legitimate. It's bad policy, I think, but it's certainly fair to base property tax on a home's value, rather than its replacement cost....

Comical observation: most of the protests have been organized behind the scenes by the libertarian party. The party isn't attaching its name to the protests, but the people organizing them and the people being interviewed by the news are familiar names, if you read the libertarian column on the ballot every year. Sneaky, no?

Relaxing, on my day off!

I don't tend to take days off. That is, when I'm not working, I tend to be doing other things that would probably qualify as work, except for the fact that I don't get paid. So yesterday was a rarity: I did absolutely nothing, all day, that could possibly resemble work. Laura and I even went on a picnic at Garfield Park for eight hours. We talked, we read, we ate, we talked more, and we had a great time.

That's the news; nothing else happening today. I'll try to be more interesting tomorrow!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Fun YouTube Trick

Had an interesting event last night at the Artsgarden, for disorganized and stressful values of interesting. We hosted a beauty pageant/father-daughter ball for a church-based summer camp, and it was blatantly organized by a committee. Everything was last-minute; they bought the gift bags for the pageant runners-up at the mall, after the event started. They had three different versions of the schedule, with start and end times varying by an hour. The "producer" did have an itinerary for the evening, but she only printed one copy, and it was wrong in any case. Worse, they did their best to make all of their organizational issues somehow reflect on the venue (that is, us). On the positive side, the band was good, and they improvised well; several of the girls' talent entries involved singing, and most didn't bring music, but the band guys vamped along behind them and made it sound like it was on purpose. And the food was yummy. Our caterer, Ritz-Charles, does an excellent pasta bar, and Brandon, Ritz's manager-on-duty, improvised a very nice punch with ginger ale, pineapple juice, sparkling white grape juice, and a few other odds and ends.

I also got to improvise a bit myself. One of the girls did a gymnastics routine, and the "organizers" made a vague attempt to give me her music. They handed me three unlabeled CDs and told me that her song was on one of them, and that it started with bells, so I should be able to find it. I listened to all 55 tracks, and heard no bells. They figured out that they didn't bring the right stack of CDs, but they knew her song was the Mission: Impossible theme (which, I feel the need to point out, most distinctly does not start with bells). I didn't want to spend my own money to download the theme from iTunes or another online music store, so instead I searched on YouTube and found a video which used the M:I theme as background music. I played the video for her routine; everyone else was watching the gymnastics, but I was watching the MacGyver mashup. Fun!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Why Scooter's pardon matters

I've been following some of the commentary following the Prez's decision to overturn Scooter Libby's prison term for perjury. I don't think a lot of people grasp what this is actually about. All politics aside, a lot of our legal system is based on the concept that people don't lie under oath -- that when someone promises to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, that we can then believe what they say. This is really a pretty naive foundation upon which to base a justice system, but it has generally worked so far. As a practical matter, our justice system works to exactly the extent that people trust it and believe in it. And this faith tends to collapse when people stop believing in the concept of honesty under oath.

The President, in explaining his action, said that he felt the 30-month prison term was unnecessarily harsh punishment. But perjury needs to be punished harshly. Perjury should be one of the most harshly-punished crimes, because it not only breaks the law, it violates the fundamental trust upon which our legal system rests. And nobody seems to be talking about this. At its root, perjury has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with faith in the system. And this faith must be maintained for the system to continue to function.

Nothing On Hold!

I can't afford to purchase all the books I read, so I spend a lot of time at the library. Even through their recent rounds of financial and construction trauma, they've done a good job of keeping up with new books and movies. They're also great about ordering odd titles if you request them; I just picked up a copy of Cherie Priest's Dreadful Skin, which they ordered for me. It was only available in a limited-edition, signed hardcover, and they ordered one anyway. How cool is that?

I picked up Dreadful Skin yesterday, and I just checked online to see what else I have on hold. For the first time I can remember, I have nothing waiting in my hold queue at the library. Wow! I'm not short on reading material yet -- I've got ten books from the library waiting in a pile at home, so I've got at least two or three weeks of reading lined up, plus I want to re-read the last two Harry Potter novels before I pick up #7. And I've got a few dozen books I'd really like to read. I suppose I should start placing them on hold at the library; I'd hate to have to actually purchase books when my reading pile shrinks to zero....

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Not a Parts Radio Shack

Radio Shack is going down the tubes these days. This jumped out at me in Norfolk when I ran down to the local Radio Shack to pick up some emergency electronics parts. They had the usual slide-out trays, but they were unlabeled. And unorganized. I opened a few trays at random and found a sparse assortment of unrelated items in each. They had resistors in the same tray as little light bulbs and stereo plugs. I asked the store manager if he could somehow check on the computer to see if they had the parts I needed, before I went to the trouble of digging through every single bin in the hope of finding the right electronic doodad at random. He said they didn't have much of a selection, because they weren't a "parts" Radio Shack. They were located in a mall, so their chief interest was in selling cell phones and calling plans; nobody really comes to their store for electronics components. He recommended I drive down the street a few miles to the next closest Radio Shack, since they were more of a Parts Radio Shack.

The other Radio Shack at least had labels on their parts bins, but they didn't have what I needed either. They mostly sold phones, too. The store clerk expressed surprise that I was even in a Radio Shack store looking for electronics components. He told me that if I really need something technical, I should be looking at Radio Shack's online store, where they carry a wide variety of pieces/parts. This was amusing; if I wanted to shop online, I could find a pile of stores that carried electronics components and had better selections, cheaper prices, and better customer service than Radio Shack. I went to a Radio Shack because I needed parts right away; I don't think I'll waste the effort in the future.

My other Radio Shack disgruntlement came this afternoon. I saw that they had a steep discount on SanDisk flash drives, so I wandered over to the Radio Shack at Linwood Square while the drugstore was filling my prescriptions. I found what I wanted, but it was bolted to the sales rack. I rather resent the fact that Radio Shack assumes we're criminals. It's a going trend in retail, and shrink is a serious problem. Still, I was annoyed that I had to have an employee unlock one for me, and the employees were otherwise occupied. One was busy engaging in a high-pressure sales pitch toward a guy who couldn't speak much English, trying to talk him into way too many options on his cell phone plan. I listened in and figured out that the guy was paying for about $100 a month in services he didn't need and would never use. But, hey -- he got the cheap phone for free, just for signing a two-year contract! I didn't realize their new business plan includes preying on immigrants as well as not selling parts. The other salesman was busy talking someone into upgrading their cell phone and service as well. I waited a few minutes, but neither salesman was interested in helping me, so I left. I didn't take it personally; they also weren't interested in helping the older gentleman trying to buy a camera, or the guy with the kid who wanted to buy a Transfomers toy. Cell phone plans ├╝ber alles!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Weber Grill

We've got a new neighbor at the Artsgarden: a Weber Grill. Weber Grill the restaurant, that is. I wouldn't want you to think that a huge charcoal grill moved in next to us; that would just be silly. Oh, wait:


So I suppose we've got two new neighbors, a restaurant and a huge honkin' charcoal grill. The sign is tacky and a little grotesque (in the original sense of the word), while the restaurant is oddly upscale; they sell onion rings and chili, and they also sell $36 steaks. I'd love to tell you if the food's good, but I don't know. I can't actually afford to eat there. I'd like to try one of their burgers, but I don't want to spend the money. I suspect that no hamburger can live up to its $11 price tag; for that kind of money I'd rather wander down the street and get fries, chili, and a shake with my burger for the same price. They had special preview meals for cool important people, but apparently I'm neither cool nor important enough to qualify for advance-dining priveleges. Not that I'm bitter. :-)

I'm impressed that they grill all of their food on Weber charcoal grills. I don't know that it actually tastes better than food grilled over a gas flame, but it definitely gives them a signature style. And, because of the ventilation system required for the charcoal grills, we can smell yummy grilling every time we walk out of our office. I don't know how long I'll be able to resist the temptation to blow too much money on lunch; the aroma is highly tempting, and it'll only get worse. When they fix the escalators, we'll have to walk by the front door of the restaurant every time we make the trip from the Artsgarden to our office. Thankfully they keep a menu posted next to the door, so the prices will help keep me out....

Science explains the Crazy Cat Lady

The New York Times ran an article about parasites a few weeks ago. At the end of the article, she comes up with a biological explanation for the Crazy Cat Lady: toxoplasmosis. It's a parasitic infection which can live in humans, but which can only reproduce in the intestinal tract of a cat. When a rat is infected with the toxoplasma parasite, its behavior changes; it's no longer threatened by the presence of a cat and isn't driven away by their smell. A researcher in Prague did a study of humans infected with toxoplasma; the results showed that "infected women ranked relatively higher than noninfected women in measures of warmth, self-assurance and chattiness". Add the inability to notice cats' smells and an increased level of comfort around cats, and you're looking at the crazy cat lady.

I found this extremely amusing and thought I'd pass it along. For reference, Laura and I are highly aware of our cats' various smells, so we're probably not infected. And even if we are, we won't be passing it along unless our cats eat us....

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Not Really A Bike Lane

The city of Indianapolis made a big deal a few years ago about adding bike lanes to downtown streets. Cyclists were happy to see the city finally taking steps toward making downtown a more bike-friendly place. But, after spending a few months trying to travel the bike lanes, I've decided the city was just kidding. They painted several blue lines a few feet from the curb on several downtown streets, but they didn't change anything else. Like removing the parking meters. If cars can park in the bike lane, it's not a bike lane -- it's a parking lane:

It might be worse than having no bike lane at all; if there's a bike lane painted on the street I try to stay on it, so I was spending a lot of time swerving in and out of the traffic lane when I pass parked cars. I've hit the point where I just pretend there is no bike lane and ride with the cars. This actually works out pretty well, since some of the bike lanes are also turn lanes:

The Old-maker

So, I was sitting around a few days ago in the company of a bunch of people who, while younger than me, are clearly adults -- out of school, real jobs, the works. I made a reference to the Val Kilmer movie Real Genius, and nobody got the joke. Because none of them had seen the movie. None of them. This is a movie that most people my age have seen, and all nerdy people my age have seen. It helped determine the colleges I applied to. And none of these people had seen it. I think I'm officially no longer young.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Weeding, just like the parable says

I did a bit of weeding in the driveway today. It's the weeding I do when I'm feeling lazy, because anything that sprouts in the gravel has shallow roots and pulls up much easier than similar weeds growing in good soil. I was reflecting on the nature of the plants growing in the gravel, and it all seemed strangely familiar -- like I had read about this a long time ago. I finally realized why it seemed so familiar. Agrarian bible references: the chief benefit of the Catholic-school education.

I'm a little proud of my memory; I actually remembered the parable of the sower was in Mark 4....

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ducking

When people videotape their performances at the Artsgarden, one of the prime spots to set up your HandiCam is right in front of the sound board. The sound guy can send you an audio feed, and you've got power there in case your camera battery can't handle an hour-long video session. The disadvantage is that you're behind a walkway, and a lot of people will cross in front of your camera.

I've been noticing that most people are pretty observant and pretty polite -- they're aware you're videotaping, and they duck to get out of your camera shot. I've also been noticing that people have no idea how tall they are. People will duck as they pass in front of the camera, but most people don't actually duck far enough to get out of the way. The height you lose when you duck isn't as much as it seems. Try this experiment: stand next to a wall, and put your fingertips on the wall at shoulder height. Then duck until your head is below your hand. Further than it seems, isn't it? And, it's not easy to duck this far when you're walking. It's almost exercise. I'm really happy that most people will make the effort to get out of the way of your camera; it redeems my faith in humanity. But I'm still amused by the fact that they don't actually get out of the camera shot.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Latvians Rock!

The every-five-years (pentannual?) Latvian Song and Dance Festival is in Indianapolis this weekend. The Artsgarden hosted one of the music stages Thursday and today, and I really enjoyed the performances. The music was good, the organizers were organized, and the people were all great to work with. I was impressed; usually when you get 60 performers together, you end up with a few jerks. But everything went off without a hitch, and the performances were fun to watch. I need to reiterate here: 60 performers, all of whom were good to work with, all of whom were good at what they did. This is a rarity -- and I'm happy and grateful for the chance to work with them.

All of the singing was in Latvian. It sounded pleasant, but I had no idea what any of the songs were about. Sometimes, it's more fun listening to music when you can't understand any of the words; it's all about music, not content. This doesn't stop my brain from occasionally overlaying English lyrics over the Latvian music, though, especially if the group introduces the song and tells us what it's about ("this next song is about a man who has some very fine horses, and can't decide whether to take his girlfriends for a ride, or his sisters; he decides to take his girlfriends, because he might get more out of it").

The performers all wore traditional Latvian clothing. Some of it's pretty cool, and a lot of the men's clothing could almost pass for street wear. I don't think I'm nearly cool enough to wear any of it myself; I look dorky enough just in khaki shorts and a t-shirt, and the dork factor of ethnic clothing would push me into the people-pointing-and-laughing category. And, I keep forgetting that "traditional" isn't the same as "old-fashioned", so it tends to strike me as odd when I see some traditional Latvian dress with cell phones clipped to the belts.....

Friday, July 06, 2007

The property tax increase

So, Laura and I got our new, improved property tax bill. Ours was about a 50% increase, which is in the typical range for the stories I've heard. The rate increase hit us hardest; the reassessment wasn't bad. It's possibly the only perk of living in a crappy neighborhood: your property values don't increase so fast that you can't afford your property tax.

I'm still unsure how I feel about the property tax increase. On the one hand, I'm fairly convinced that Americans don't pay enough in taxes. Our government owes more than it can ever expect to pay back, and I'd be happier paying for the debt now than in thirty years when the only option is total insolvency and financial collapse. I think one of the root causes of the problem is that the people who make the decisions tend to be old and wealthy. They're fairly certain that the long-term costs won't ever affect them personally; they'll be dead or out of office by the time calamity strikes, and their children will have money, which tends to insulate people from problems. On the other hand, the political cost of doing what's necessary to fix the problem now will definitely fall in their laps. Wise spending would help, but it's not enough to solve the problem; we need to pay more in taxes.

That being said, the reason we're experiencing such a harsh property tax increase in Indy has nothing to do with reducing deficit spending. A tiny fraction of the tax is going to pay for public safety issues; apparently crime in Indy has gotten bad enough that even people in nicer neighborhoods are feeling the bite. This is also spending I support; hopefully some of the steps taken to reduce crime will trickle down to the 'hood.

The greatest part of the tax increase isn't a revenue increase at all. The increase in property tax mostly balances out the fact that Indiana eliminated the business inventory tax. With all that lost revenue, the state had to balance its budget from another source, and politicians apparently believed that a property tax increase was more palatable than a sales tax or income tax increase. And only part of the bite is from the tax rate increasing; the townships also reassessed properties so their assessed value bears more resemblance to their actual value. In principle, I'm not opposed to this either; a lot of the $750k homes on North Meridian Street had assessed values that dated to the 1950s, and property owners in some of the city's nicest neighborhoods have been underpaying their portion of property tax for decades because of the huge gap between assessed value and actual value.

What I am opposed to is the fact that the state decided to shift the tax burden from corporations to individuals. The theory is that ditching the property tax will help entice businesses to relocate here. I don't see why this is expected to make a difference; most of our larger companies were given sweet tax-abatement deals when they agreed to relocate here, and don't pay much in taxes anyway. I'm generally opposed to this shift in taxes wherein companies pay less, and homeowners and renters (that is, everyone not a business) pay more to make up the difference. And I'm shocked that anyone in office thought it was a good idea to drop the rate increase and the reassessment on property owners at the same time. Ideally, this kind of tax increase should be phased in over a few years anyway; I can only imagine the political thought behind handling the increase this way.

The Indianapolis Star has been running a series of stories about how the tax increase is affecting individuals. Some of them generate quite a bit of sympathy; we've seen a few tales of retirees on fixed incomes whose property tax bills are now greater than their income. On the other hand, I have a hard time dredging up empathy for the two-lawyer family who, until the tax increase, were paying the same property tax on their half-million-dollar home as we are on our little house in the 'hood. Theirs is a tale of woe, to be sure: the property tax increase hit them so hard that they'll probably have to trade in one of their Mercedes for a Volvo or a Saab (you might think I'm making this up, but I'm not). They might even consider moving out of the county, God forbid!

But good luck with that. The negative that I haven't heard anyone talking about is that, in an already stagnant real-estate market, it's going to drive home prices down and make it even more difficult to sell a home. Here's some rough math. Say you bought a $200,000 house five years ago. You now owe $185,000 on the mortgage, and you were paying $1200 a month. With your property tax increase, your odds of selling your home for even what you paid for it just went way down; the anticipated monthly payment of your house is now $1330 a month. This is the payment you'd expect to make on a $225,000 house, before the tax increase took effect Worse, refinancing for the amount you now owe won't even get your payment back to the break-even point. The new buyer's going to get a lot less house for his mortgage dollar, and he knows it. And, with taxes increasing, and more people wanting to sell, the home market turns into even more of a buyer's market. Add to this that a lot of people were barely managing to afford their homes anyway when their ARM mortgages adjusted, and we're looking at the potential for massive foreclosures. Not good, and also not talked about at all, as far as I can tell.

And, I feel the need to mention that, to add insult to injury, there were print ads tucked in the envelope with our tax bill. One was -- no kidding -- a Discover Card application.

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UPDATE: The morning after I posted this, the Indianapolis Star ran a front-page article about the tax hike is damaging home sales and property values. I didn't think of it first; a reporter thought of it and had time to research and write an entire story about it....

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Me, in college: a real bastard!

While we were digging through the boxes in our basement, I found some of my old college papers which I had totally forgotten about. My senior seminar was taught by a professor I didn't much care for, but her class was required for graduation. Some professors do what they do because they truly love their subject. I had a history professor who loved the fact that he essentially was getting paid to research and talk about his favorite subject in the world. My senior seminar professor wasn't this type of professor; her chief interest was in the politics and prestige of being a professor, and she looked upon interaction with students as a necessary but faintly unpleasant part of the job. Shortly before the semester began, she was nominated to the board of the Indiana Humanities Council. And as part of our required pre-graduation cousework, she required all the senior English majors to do a huge volunteer project for -- guess who? -- the Indiana Humanities Council. This struck me as a blatant conflict of interest, but I couldn't get out of the project or do a project for someone not the Humanities Council. I challenged the assignment as a conflict of interests, all the way to the president of the university, where my protests fell on deaf ears. On the way out, his secretary informed me that the president and the professor were old friends, and were having lunch together just a few minutes after my appointment. Needless to say, challenging the assignment didn't endear me to the professor. So I fulfilled all of the requirements of the project and more, but made the project something which would be of utterly no practical benefit to the IHC, ever. I believe it was a complete digital catalog of a bunch of already-useless information which the IHC had archived, formatted for minimum ease of use.

We also had to write a twelve-page definition of "English Studies" as part of our senior seminar. I found mine in a box in the basement. It included this:
One of the chief goals of an English Studies program must be to produce students who can write effectively. Students must learn that good writing is clear, precise, and concise.... conciseness is apparently taught via contraposition, through projects such as twelve-page definitions of English Studies.
And, later on, in the section wherein I discuss all of the things that students learn, that teachers don't necessarily realize they're teaching:
Another core, though usually unspoken, component of an English Studies program is the idea that quality is equivalent to verbosity. Every writing assignment's first criterion is its length, defined by a minimum number of words or pages. Assignments usually have no maximum length, only a minimum to which students must sharply adhere; grade penalties for falling short of the required length are often as harsh, or harsher than, the penalties for poor thinking. Thus students are taught that the quality of a thought is of equal or lesser value to the number of words used to express it. To succeed, students must quickly learn the art of expanding six pages of good thought into twelve-page definitions of their major.
I did extremely good work in this class and surpassed all of the requirements for all of the assignments. I expected the teacher to give me a low grade anyway, but I managed an A. It might have something to do with the topic of one of my research papers for the class: "An Appraisal of the University's Policies for Challenging Unfair Grading Practices". It's a messy procedure which I'm sure most professors wouldn't want to hassle through. I might give Professor C the benefit of the doubt and assume she gave me the grade I earned because punitive grading wasn't in her nature, but I suspect it had a lot to do with the research paper.

I should stress that I was only this antagonistic towards this one teacher in my entire college career. I got along very well with every other professor I had in the six years (and five majors) I spent getting my degree; I'm inclined to think the problem was on her end, not mine. I just checked the IUPUI faculty directory; she's still there, sitting on a pile of committees and delving into the depths of the bureaucracy. I hope she's no longer the senior seminar teacher....

Cleaning House

Laura and I spent Sunday cleaning the basement. It started with grocery shopping. A few years ago, ketchup was our stockpile item. Every time we'd go to the grocery store, we wouldn't remember if we had any ketchup at home, so we'd buy a bottle just in case. Of course, we already had seven or eight bottles at home, because we could never remember if we already had any. Our ketchup hoard has since diminished, replaced by a stockpile of canned black beans. We couldn't remember if we already had any, so we bought more. It turns out, we don't actually have room on the pantry shelves in the basement to store all of the black beans we now own, so we had to reorganize the pantry. First, I organized the spare light bulb collection into a milk crate and stored them elsewhere in the basement to make room for the beans. Then the cleaning frenzy spread. We dug through the boxes of books we've had stored, and we're actually getting rid of the books we aren't ever going to read or look at again. We dug through old paperwork and burned all of our old tax paperwork we've been saving (we're assuming we have to save it for seven years, so we felt comfortable getting rid of Laura's 1991 tax documentation). Laura's going through her twenty-year collection of Gourmet magazines and clipping her favorite recipes. I think she realized that it's nice to have the recipes she likes, but having them somewhere in the middle of 250 issues of a magazine is less useful. Next I'll go through my old collection of Men's Health magazine. Not much to clip in them; I might even toss them all in bulk, without flipping through them first.

My biggest irritation in the basement has been the huge pile of empty boxes. They come in handy around Christmastime, but I don't think we need quite so many of them; I estimate we've got over a hundred boxes and gift bags of different sizes taking up space in the basement. And we're finally throwing a bunch of them out. It's nice to have a few around for impromptu gifts and storage, but we've definitely got some packaging overkill downstairs. And now they're mostly gone, yay!

We also found some fun stuff. In the pile of Laura's tax paperwork we found her old day planner pages. And I found the page with our first date penciled in. Awww! And we found a pile of old journals, cards, notes, and letters. It's fun digging through all that; it's an interesting snapshot of our lives at a moment in the past.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Book triage

I've managed to keep my pile of books waiting to be read at a pretty constant size (the size? Huge.) for a while now; I've also managed to pare down my currently-reading pile to three books: a fiction book, a non-fiction book, and an e-book. I just put down my most recent fiction read; I didn't finish it, because it was starting to irritate me. As a rule, I like KW Jeter, and Noir was packed with interesting cyberpunk-ish ideas and a rich world, but his dense, self-important writing style just isn't what I'm looking for now. Because the world was so good, I gave it an unheard-of 100 pages of benefit-of-the-doubt, but dropped it there.

Now I'm having to figure out what to read next. I just picked up a pile of good books from the library, I've got a recommendation from a friend (an oldie: Timemaster, from Robert Forward), and I really want to read Tobias Buckell's Ragamuffin, which I picked up at the book signing last weekend. I think I might put off Ragamuffin for a book or two; I really enjoyed Crystal Rain, and I might let the excitement build for a week or two before I dive into it, especially since the next book in the series is still a year from publication. I tend to bump library books to the top of the reading list, since I feel bad keeping them out of others' hands any longer than necessary. I'm leaning towards starting Max Barry's Jennifer Government. It's been on my list for a while, and it just popped up in my library hold queue yesterday. Also, by coincidence, Max Barry's second book, Company, also arrived from the library yesterday. I'm also looking forward to Tim Scott's Outrageous Fortune. I picked it up at Borders a few weeks ago and thought it looked a bit like the kind of thing Terry Pratchett would write if he were American and into post-singularity sci-fi. I've also got a few other odd books I'm looking forward to, but none with the intensity of these. When I'm done with these five, I think I need to spend some time reading fiction that isn't specifically science fiction. For now, I'm pretty sure I'll finish all five of these before I read anything else. I'm leaning towards Jennifer Government first. I'll let you know if it lives up to my expectations.

Monday, July 02, 2007

My small pile of cash

I had some money stolen out of my closet sometime in the past few weeks. It was only $80, but the theft was pretty depressing. Not the fact that it had to have been stolen by one of our party guests last weekend (which isn't a happy thought either); that's more angering, but I'm not really even thinking about that. It's mostly depressing. Normally when I spend money, it comes from Laura's and my joint bank account; any money I spend is technically our money. And anytime I spend money, I have to do some mental calculus to justify spending it at all, instead of using it to pay off debt. So in January I started saving a little money. The Jeff Fund started with $10 of leftover Christmas cash, which I found while doing laundry. And I added to it a little at a time, a dollar or two or three every week, tucked into a bank envelope in the junk tray in my closet. When I had enough cash in the envelope, I went to the bank during my lunch hour at work and changed the pile of ones for a twenty. Visiting the bank to get my twenty-dollar bill seemed like an occasion, like I had done a good deed. It was my own little pile of fun money, which I could spend on whatever I wanted, without having to justify the expenditure or feel guilty. I was planning on taking the money to the book signing on Saturday, so I could buy a pile of new and used books at Don's; that's how I found it missing. I know it sounds silly, but not having that little pile of money I saved for, that I could spend on whatever I wanted guilt-free, is really messing with my sense of order. Not having my tiny pile of cash is depressing.

It's funny -- when I reached for the bank envelope and it wasn't there, I had to do the complete search. I checked all through everything in and near my closet to see if I had maybe misplaced it. I knew it wouldn't be anywhere else; I always put the envelope in exactly the same place every time, in the way that only mildly obsessive-compulsive people do. I think it even faced the same direction every time, though that was more a matter of practicality than compulsion; I put the flap of the envelope against the side of the junk box, to hold the envelope shut. But I still had to check absolutely everywhere to make sure I didn't put it someplace different....

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Book signing!

Yesterday I went to the John Scalzi/Tobias Buckell Book signing at Don's Books in Kokomo. I had a great time, and I enjoyed meeting both of the authors. Also, the bookstore owner (oddly, not Don) is also a blast to talk to, and I'm grateful he makes such an effort to get writers in for signings and readings. It really felt like a vacation, spending two hours in Kokomo with very good speculative fiction writers. And I'm taking mini-vacations wherever I can find them; Norfolk, as much fun as I had, was in no way an actual vacation.

Tobias Buckell was a fun guy to talk with, and I'm glad I got a chance to meet him. I have to admit, I hadn't read his book before. When I heard he was signing with Scalzi, though, I figured it would be courteous to read his first novel, Crystal Rain, so I wouldn't have to completely ignore the blonde guy sitting next to Scalzi at the signing table. Turns out, it's actually a great book; I enjoyed reading it, and I bought the next in the series in hardcover. And I really enjoyed talking with Tobias about the book and how he wrote it. If you're up for some good character-driven sci-fi, Crystal Rain was worth the read.

And of course John Scalzi was also much fun to spend time with. He's an ideal mix of clever, funny, and thoughtful, and he and Tobias are even more fun together than they are apart. For everyone who said they might come to the signing but didn't: hah! You missed a great time!

I bought a shirt at Don's. It's my first t-shirt with writing in years, but I really liked it. Here's the front; the back has the Don's Books logo.