Saturday, November 29, 2008

bumping into things, all day long

I woke up this morning with a big, painful pimple on my nose -- right where my glasses ride. So I'm spending the day without wearing my glasses. It's a bit like an extremely nearsighted vacation; I can't really do anything that requires eyesight, like driving or watching movies. I can type, by a combination of leaning in close to my laptop screen and using Firefox's handy zoom feature. And I can read, by holding the book close to my face. But I've got terrible eyesight without my glasses, so even a bunch of ordinary stuff is a bit challenging when everything looks fuzzy. I even had some difficulty making espresso this morning. It'll be an interesting, and extremely inactive, day. Which is good; I've got a huge backlog of books to read....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Technology marches on, and sometimes directly over

I love watching purists cave; it's almost a hobby. Most recently, it's been photographers. At one time, I knew a large number of professional photographers who swore they would never take digital pictures. Only with film could you truly capture the essence of a moment; digital photography is for grandmothers and amateurs. Then, they caved, in stages roughly like this:

First stage: okay, maybe I'll take digital photos, but only hobby shots -- no art shots, and no paid shots like weddings. Because digital is a nice toy, but not for real work.

Second stage: okay, maybe I'll shoot weddings in digital. It's more convenient, changing "film" is silent, and I can take a lot of pictures, and only use the best. Instead of taking 200 shots and showing them all to the client, I'll take 500, and only show the best 200. But I'll never Photoshop my work. Photoshop is for amateurs who can't take good pictures.

Stage Three: Okay, maybe I'll do a little Photoshop, just to correct lighting or maybe touch up red eyes or brighten up a dark image. That's not really cheating -- it's still art, just with error correction. But that's where I draw the line.

I even know a few who have made it as far as Caving In, Stage Four: okay, maybe at the family's request, I'll Photoshop the missing brother into the group shots. He couldn't make it to the wedding, and it's important to the family that they see him in the pictures. But that's the limit. No further.

And these people will stay here at Stage Four, mostly because there really is no next step with existing technology. Who knows -- maybe in a few years, they'll be rendering wedding photos entirely digitally, from stock shots of family members, or making members of the wedding party lose dress sizes, or Photoshopping all of the alcohol out of the reception shots to show to conservative, teetotaling family members.

I've also been watching DJs cave in to technology. They go from all vinyl, to vinyl and CDs, to all CD, to all digital. Even club DJs do this, transitioning from dual phono decks and a mixer, to a Serato Scratch box and a MacBook. And, as with photography, you can do so much more with the digital gear. You're in no way bound by your tools; whatever sound or effect you want, you can create with digital DJ tools. But purists still take time to catch up with the technology.

Caving in to technology isn't limited to photographers and DJs. I've watched woodworking artists do this with power tools, shifting from hand tools to power tools in stages, each stage accompanied by high-quality rationalizations. I've seen it happen with lighting techs, computer programmers (I know a guy who still codes in cobol by choice), writers (some of whom still work via typewriter or even handwritten manuscript), and even house painters. And sometimes, refusing to embrace technology can work to your financial advantage. I know a wedding photographer who charges more than average, and promises no digital photography, and people pay the difference. Some high-end club gigs require DJs to be analog and vinyl. Woodworkers advertise "hand-crafted" as a selling point. And it works for them. I doubt there's any advantage to analog, in terms of the product. In fact, digital work is often better than anything you could create analog. But, to a subset of buyers, it's less about product, and more about process. As much as product is important, they want to know that expertise went into the process; they want to know that someone's sweat went into the work. (This explains fashion, too -- it's less important how the shoes look, as long as the right name is on the box.)

And some of it is a matter of perception. I know more than a few DJs who are entirely digital; they bring all their music on hard drive and play it all through a digital audio interface. But they still bring cases of CDs and a big analog mixer into which they plug their digital converter. The first time I saw a guy bring a full digital system plus a mountain of CDs, I asked him if the CDs were just the music he hadn't yet uploaded to his hard drive. His answer: "It's all on the hard drive. The CDs and huge mixer are all marketing; if I just show up with a laptop, it doesn't look like I'm worth $200 an hour." He didn't want it to look like he could easily be replaced by a teenager with iTunes, so the analog accouterments are strictly to justify his pay rate. I suspect the same is true of most analog work; the simple wooden bowl doesn't look like it's worth $500 unless it's clearly labeled "hand-carved". And a photographer can be a lot sloppier if he's digital. There's effectively no incremental cost in taking five times as many pictures, so as long as 20% of your pictures are usable (or fixable via Photoshop), you're effectively the equal of the pro who takes fewer shots but does them all well. You can screw up a lot, if you've got the option of fixing it digitally. In fact, the only photo problem I can think of that's not easily Photoshoppable (is this a word?) is focus. You can't sharpen a fuzzy picture and make it look good, even with good tools.

Of course, digital has its dark side, too. It makes it much easier to make bad work presentable. Digital photography makes it easy to make a photograph with ideal color, beautiful lighting, and very poor composition. You can make smooth, perfectly curved wooden bowls that don't sit on a flat surface. You can digitally produce catchy, meaningless songs that are great to dance to, but that all sound somehow the same. Because what digital craft really does is shorten the technical learning curve. In a photo class 20 years ago, you started by taking your camera out, recording your settings (arpeture, shutter speed, et cetera), and taking a picture. Then you change the settings, record them, and take an identical picture. And you repeated this for a few rolls of film. You learn the tech end of taking good pictures, and it's a slow process. With digital pictures, it's much quicker to learn what your camera settings do (and, with Photoshop, the settings are less important; you can fix it in post). But technology doesn't flatten the learning curve for figuring what makes a good picture. A digital camera can teach you pretty quickly about exposure, or just let you skip it and use the automatic setting. But it won't help you learn about good composition. And it won't teach you the meta-skills that separate a master from an amateur. This might be why the best work still seems to be done by people who have mastered the analog, and then switch to digital. They keep their knowledge and taste, and expand their tool set.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Heightened battery expectations

I'm typing this on a MacBook Pro (borrowed from work for the weekend), and I'm amazed at the battery life. It's close to six hours -- provided you turn the display brightness down almost all the way, turn off the wifi, and run no software other than a smallish text editor. This is up from around two hours when I'm playing music on iTunes, with the brightness on full, and running Firefox with the WiFi on. Triple the battery life, just by toning it down and killing the internet connection -- depending on what I need to do, this is a fair trade.

This makes me wonder about the battery life of netbooks, like the Dell Mini 9 (4 hours) or the Acer Aspire One (6 hours), or an eeePC (up to 10 hours). They don't tell us what settings and software they used to get their numbers. Are they running the same bare-bones setup I am, or is this seven hours with reasonable brightness and wifi use? This is something that'd be important to know, but which is hard to find out.

I keep staring at various netbooks, debating whether there's one in my eventual future. One of my biggest questions is, can I actually type on one for hours? And, I think I found my answer -- I think the keyboard is the same size as my GoType Palm keyboard, which I found comfortable and easy to use. That is, the specs say a GoType has 17mm key spacing, standard is 19mm, and the keyboards on netbooks are generally listed as "88% size". So keyboard size is not a problem; the only issue might be hand position and keyboard layout. I tried a folding PocketPC keyboard for my Axim a few years ago, and it was nice except for the fact that they put the up arrow where the right shift key should've been. Dumb, and it rendered the keyboard very difficult to type on. So I suspect I'll have to try one out before I take the plunge and buy it, assuming I can find a way to test drive one. And assuming I've ever got that much unbudgeted money all at once.

Car with widgets

When Laura was on tour last week, she rented a car for the trip. This not only left me with the Jeep (thanks, babycakes!), it let her drive a new, cool car for the week. The rental: a 2008 Nissan Altima, and it was a cool car. It got decent mileage, it handled well, the brakes are great, and it had a great stereo. It's got an odd blind spot, but I suspect you get used to it in a hurry. And it's got a lot of features we don't have in the Jeep: power windows, automatic transmission, a trunk, doors that lock, windows that don't unzip....

It also had an RFID widget instead of a key. It has a starter button, which only works if you've got the key-fob widget in the car with you. So you can leave it in your pocket (once you get it out to unlock the doors), and never worry about locking your keys in the car. You can't lock your keys in; you need the widget to lock the doors. The lack of a key took a little time to get used to, but it's such a convenient feature, I suspect that when we get back to driving the Jeep full time, it'll seem so barbaric and anachronistic, that you have to insert a small metal tab into a slot on the steering column and rotate it to make the car start.

Our other deep observation on the Altima: it's a very grown-up car. We felt mature (in the middle-aged sense of the word) every time we got in it. My last car was a sporty red Saturn coupe, and my bike is extremely not an adult vehicle (though almost everyone I see riding bikes are adults). And Laura's Jeep is definitely not a grown-up vehicle. Grown-up vehicles don't have bumper stickers that say in upside-down text, "If you can read this, help flip me back over!" for sale at the dealership. The Altima is the polar opposite of a midlife-crisis car. It's the car you sell to put a down-payment on a Mustang, when your midlife crisis hits. But it's all the things a grown-up car should be: comfortable, safe, economical, packed with convenience-oriented features, and even fun to drive.

We tend to rent a car whenever we need to make a long trip out of town; the Jeep is getting old, and it's not great for long trips. I've got pals at Enterprise, so we tend to get great deals on our rentals. And it's always fun getting to, essentially, test drive a new car for a week. Our all time favorite is still probably the Toyota Rav4, followed closely by the Altima, a Ford Escape hybrid, and, at the far bottom of the list, a PT Cruiser.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The decreasing intoxication, very odd.

My strange observation for the day: I'm working the only party I can remember at which the crowd as a whole is getting less drunk as the evening goes on. It's a sorority dance, and everyone showed up hammered. Really -- we had two people puke in the first twenty minutes. They must have spent the entire bus ride here slamming tequila shooters or something. But then they got here and ate a big dinner, and the bar here refuses to serve the under-21 people. So the younger ones are steadily getting more sober as time passes. And those of age aren't getting any more wasted than they were when they arrived; the worst of them are merely maintaining.

Highlight of the evening: watching 160 drunken sorority girls and their drunken dates, all trying to do the Thriller dance in sync. It was a moment of much comedy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Burger Math

While lunching alone at Steak-n-Shake today, I was staring at their $3.99 value menu. You can get a triple steakburger, or a double with cheese, or a single with bacon and cheese, and they all come with fries. Since a triple and a double with cheese cost the same, you can infer that a patty equals cheese. And, since a double with cheese equals a single with bacon and cheese, you can infer that a patty also equals bacon. So, bacon=cheese=patty. And, we can see elsewhere on the menu that fries cost $1.99; this means that bacon+patty+cheese+bun+condiments=$2.00. And, on the regular steakburger menu, the difference between a single and a single+cheese is $.39. So cheese=bacon=patty=$.39. So the cheese+bacon+patty=$1.17; this means the bun+condiments costs $.83. You could theoretically get two patties, cheese, and bacon with no bun or condiments for $1.56, or double bacon and double cheese on a bun with no beef patties for $2.39. Do you realize what this means?

It means I should never dine alone at a restaurant, ever. That's what this means. When I dine alone, I do menu math. Nothing but trouble ensues.

Monday, November 17, 2008

New bikes from Trek

Even though I'm not in the market for a new bike, I really enjoy looking at new bikes. It's important (don't ask why -- it just is!) to keep up with what's new and to see how new technology is finding its way into cycling. My bike is a Trek Navigator, from the old days (2003) when they were numbered in hundreds (Laura's is a Navigator 300; mine's a 500) rather than decimals (the high-end new model is the Navigator 3.0). I'm happy with it; it's got design features I would change (like the grip shifters) and things I would add (like a rack and fenders), but it's a good commuter bike overall. And I think I've got at least another few years on it, before I'll really need to replace (or upgrade) it. Still, it's fun looking at new bikes and daydreaming.

(Just noticed I'm extremely parenthesis-heavy today. And a little incoherent. It probably says something about my mental state, but I couldn't guess what.)

Trek has a few new bikes out that I've been browsing online. If I had to buy a new Trek bike today, it'd probably be an Allant ("French for mobile", says the capsule description). It looks solid and comfortable, with nice gear ratios, good shifters, and built-in rack and fenders. The geometry looks nice, and I suspect it would be a nice ride. And, not too expensive; the MSRP is $540. More than a Schwinn, but one of the cheapest high-end bikes. Trek is one of the companies which still makes many of their women's bikes with step-through frames; I'm not sure why manufacturers still do this. The original rationale was to allow women to bicycle with discretion while wearing a long skirt, which hasn't been an issue for decades. It's a less-stable frame geometry, as well, so it has no practical advantage. The only reason I can see is marketing; people assume women's bikes have step-through frames, so they sell women's bikes with step-through frames. Their racing bikes (which sell based on performance rather than appealing to childhood memories of what women's bikes look like) all have standard frame geometry, and the women's racing bikes are differentiated by seat design and frame proportions (things which really should be different on women's bikes). The Allant WSD (Trek-speak for "women's model") not only has the standard girl-bike frame design, the rear rack is replaced by a basket mount for the front....

I think Trek hired a new copywriter for their new bike lines. My favorite might be the District model. According to their writer, it's "Aggressive. Edgy. And entirely progressive. The District's where things happen. It's fast, unapologetic, and, well, not for everyone. You either get it or you don't. For those that do, the District offers an experience unlike anything else out there." If I were to describe it, it'd be "pretty much your standard high-end fixed-gear bike -- now with bright orange wheels!" But this might be because I don't "get it". They also refer to the Valencia as a "two wheeled [sic] there-and-back machine". I know it's ad copy, but this still seems awfully pretentious.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Scare-a-thon

Shortly before Halloween, YA author Lauren Myracle challenged a dozen of her fellow YA authors to a scare-a-thon. They all had to face a fear, in a documented way. The highlight of this contest was Scott Westerfeld, facing his Greatest Fear. You so need to watch this video. If you're as amused as I was, you should then read everything he ever wrote. Really -- if you're in the mood for a good YA sci-fi story, you can't go wrong with his Uglies trilogy, and his Peeps is one of the best YA vampire novel I've ever seen. Peeps actually features intelligent characters; you never want to smack the crap out of any of them, which puts it light-years ahead of that other YA vampire series that's been big news lately.

And, yes, if it's not obvious -- I'm reading author blogs tonight, instead of trying to hack my way through my latest novel boondoggle. I'm bad.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Back to the exercising

I somehow hurt my shoulder a few weeks ago. I really don't know how; I don't think it was this, since the hurting started two days later. But it's kept me from exercising for too long, and I'm starting to feel like a slug (an energetic bicycling slug, but still...). Whenever I get a joint or back injury, I follow the reasonable-sounding advice I got from a chiropractor a few years ago: wait until it stops hurting. Then, however long that took, wait twice that much longer before you stress it, to keep from re-injuring it again. Just because a joint injury stops hurting, doesn't mean it's really healed.

Today was my first day back exercising. If I had a choice, I'd be doing the CrossFit Workout Of the Day. But it's not an option, for two reasons. The first is that a lot of them require equipment I don't have (olympic weights and high ceilings, most significantly), and the closest appropriately-equipped gym is seven miles out of my way and costs more to join than I'm willing to spend for inconveniently-timed classes. The second reason is, these CrossFit people are all absolutely, completely insane. I say this with much respect. I'm in pretty good shape, and it's a rare CrossFit WOD that I'd actually be able to finish. For instance, Monday's workout:
Five rounds for time of:
25 Inverted Burpees
25 Pull-ups
25 Burpees
You should check the link to see what an inverted burpee is. A total of 125 of these, 125 pull-ups, and 125 burpees is a bit beyond my current fitness level, unless I'm making it a long-term project (which would make the "post time to comments" interesting; I'd be the only guy whose time was measured in days). Even when I was 35 pounds lighter and rock climbing a lot, I was barely doing pull-ups in sets of 25, and now I'm doing -- ahem -- significantly fewer.

So instead, I'm trying to modify the exercises to something I can actually do in a reasonable time, while maintaining the CrossFit philosophy (roughly, "do a set of several diverse, hard exercises, as fast as you can. Repeat until miserable. Repeat again."). And, I limit myself to half an hour. That, plus the average of 40 bike minutes a day, seems like it should be adequate to keep me in shape. Today's workout: three sets of 12 pull-ups, 10 handstand push-ups, and 40 squats, and this felt like plenty. Maybe I'll eventually be in good enough shape to do the real workouts....

Friday, November 14, 2008

Weekend off, coming right up!

This is not the same as a Free Weekend, however. It's already looking like it'll be busy, with very little time to cram some writing in. Therefore, I'm going to stop this blogging right now and work on some fiction instead for the next few minutes until dinner's ready.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

XM Radio does the switch

It's official: XM Radio and Sirius have merged. Just like when they remote-disabled the FM transmitters in our radios via firmware update, they didn't warn us in advance; our first clue was that all of our stations changed. We were a bit surprised to find our classical dinner-music station had jumped to NFL sports talk. Really, it's not a big change. Most of the stations are the same content with different names (the modern hard rock station is still on XM48, but it's now Octane instead of Squizz). Plus, we've now got the NFL live network, so Laura can listen to Redskins games in the car; NPR; an '80s hair-band station; two stations produced by Little Steven; two more stand-up comedy channels; a station that promises "the music of action sports"; and, of course, two channels of Howard. But we've got to pay extra to hear the former Sirius stations that aren't a direct replacement for an old XM station. It'd be nice if we could do this a station at a time. My ideal would be NFL and NPR, but no Howard.

We also now have five single-artist stations, none of which (thankfully) is Metallica: Elvis, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Springsteen, and the Grateful Dead. I wonder how they pick these. Why is there an Elvis station, but no Beatles station? AC/DC, but no Eagles? I assume they base the decision on a combination of which single artist will attract the most listeners, and which single artist wants the biggest pile of cash for broadcast rights. This is probably why there's Zeppelin but no Metallica.

And, one disappointment with the switch: one of my favorite digital-cable music channels is Pulse, which is also on Sirius. And it's still on Sirius, exclusively. Personally, I'd be fine to trade the Grateful Dead for cool ambient electronica....

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Another actual conversation

I should preface this by mentioning that Laura just finished some stressful work on a live Billy Joel show -- not the actual Billy Joel, but a good cover band with interesting backup. Also, we wake up to Jack-FM on the radio, all classic rock, all the time.

Laura: "You know that, for the next few weeks, we're going to have to turn the radio off when a Billy Joel song plays."
Jeff: "Okay. Even 'Piano Man'?"
L: "Yes."
J: "How about 'Still Rock and Roll to Me'?"
L: "Yes.... Were you planning on listing his entire catalog?"
J: "Pretty much, yeah."
L: "Oh, you so don't want to go there with me."
J: "Yeah? 'We Didn't Start the Fire', by the way."
L: "Okay, 'Leavon'." [I despise Elton John, but it gets stuck in my head easily.]
J: "Ouch! 'Modern Woman'!"
L: "'Honky Cat'."
J: "Okay, okay -- I surrender and apologize! You fight dirty!"
L: "You know it!"

But I got one last one in -- I just text-messaged her with, "UPTOWN GIRL!"

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Illiterate Bike Mechanic (me!)

And, more cycling fun for the day: I just bought new brake pads for my bike. It wasn't stopping as well as it should, especially with the rear brakes, and it was starting to make me nervous. I bought new pads for both wheels for $20; this seemed like a great deal, compared to buying pads for a car, until I realized that I'm going through a set of pads every 5k miles, and you're expected to get 60k miles from a set of automotive brake pads. Then again, it also averages to ten bucks a year to re-brake my bike; even adding in this year's new chain and rear chainrings, my total maintenance cost is roughly what it costs to fill up the Jeep once, at $4 a gallon. I'm still dirt-cheap, relative to a vehicle with an actual motor and complex moving parts.

Installing brake pads on a bike is a simple task: release the brake tension, pop the brake arms down, unscrew the old pads, and bolt the new ones on. Quick and easy. And, they're designed so even an idiot could align correctly. They've got a little ramp-like edge which faces the rim direction, so it's functionally obvious which direction they orient. In addition, the pads are clearly marked with a direction arrow. And, just to make sure that nobody could possibly install them wrong, they're also helpfully labelled LEFT and RIGHT in large, friendly, clearly-visible letters. So it should come as utterly no surprise to anyone that I put them on backwards. They still work, and I'm not sure how much difference it makes which direction they're facing. But I feel the need to switch them around, if for no other reason than the labels. I feel a bit illiterate having my right brake pad clearly marked with the word LEFT. It's embarrassing, even if I doubt anyone but me ever looks that closely at my bike....

Election-related gun sales: a recession-proof business

I caught a news item today that I didn't expect, but which also doesn't surprise me: since Obama's election last Tuesday, gun stores have experienced a huge sales spike. One store owner was quoted: "you can't find an AK-47 from a distributor anywhere in the nation." Creeepy. I'm going to be nice and assume this is all about stocking up, under the assumption that our president-elect will ban them all as soon as he takes office. This is a bit short-sighted, but knee-jerk reactions are what the post-election season is all about. And it's a friendlier assumption than my first thought, which was that scary conservatives are arming themselves for the revolution....

Keeping warm less cold on the bicycle

I've figured out a new concept for cycling in comfort: stop caring about cycling in comfort. Very Zen koan-ish, I know, but true. Previous winters, my focus was on staying warm on the bike. My ideal was a nice, toasty, sitting-by-the-fire glow, inside my many thermal layers. This is hard to achieve in extremely cold weather if it's windy. The layers add wind resistance and make it harder to turn your head and watch traffic. Too many layers will also make you sweat buckets, which gets worse if you have any stops to make before you get to change out of your cycling clothes. This resulted in my worst cycling day all last winter; I rode four miles to breakfast with a nice tailwind, sat for an hour and a half sweating, rode another two miles on an errand, then rode six miles back into a strong headwind. I was so hypothermic by the time I got home, I needed two hands to get the key in the door lock. Not smart, but a learning experience.

This year, I've found the secret: it doesn't matter if you're comfortably warm. The important thing is, don't be so cold that you're risking damage. This morning, I was on a bicycle, in the rain, the temperature just above freezing, with a 15mph headwind. Extreme comfort isn't even an option, under the circumstances. But I can keep my exposed skin to a minimum to avoid frostbite, and I can wear just enough that, on my 20-minute ride, my core temperature doesn't start dropping. Being a little chilly even inspires me to pedal harder. I'm finding that, at the freezing point, I'm comfortably chilly in polar fleece sweatpants, a long-sleeved polyester thermal shirt, a windbreaker, and wind-resistant gloves and hood. When it gets colder, I'll probably add another pair of fleece sweats, and maybe a fleece shirt under the windbreaker. But for now, I'm happier a little bit cold than warm but bulky and sweaty.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

And, one last election thought for the year

Here's an election result I have utterly no explanation for. Looking at the returns, I was shocked to see that in our local race for county coroner, John Pless lost to Frank Lloyd, taking only 40% of the votes. This amazes me. Party politics aside, Pless was extremely more qualified. I have no idea how any voter could look at the candidates and issues and decide that Lloyd was a better man for the job. It's giving me fits of random italics.

And, only 132,000 people voted straight-party Democrat. Lloyd got over 200,000 votes; this means over 70,000 people deliberately voted for Lloyd, rather than just pulling the party lever and letting it ride. I mean, really -- the differences between the two candidates' qualifications was extreme. It's the equivalent of choosing a phlebotomist as your primary physician, when your other option is the chief of surgery at a major hospital....

Deep political thought for the day

We were watching Obama's speech on election night, and we were both impressed; he made me want to volunteer for something. But when he walked to the podium, my wife said, "this is an awfully exposed space. I hope the secret service has all the sight lines covered." I agreed; we were both hoping he wouldn't get shot in the middle of his speech. And it occurred to me: if McCain had won, we never would've wondered if some liberal wacko was going to take a shot at him during his speech. I can't put my finger on why, but it seems it's always the reactionary/conservatives who are the dangerous ones. I don't know what angry liberals do; sign petitions, maybe? But in my memory, it's been angry conservatives who blow up federal buildings, shoot doctors, and beat gay teenagers to death.

Or, now that I think about it for a minute, angry liberals are naughty too: they trash animal testing labs, spike trees, and vandalize mining equipment. But they don't have a body count....

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Social engineering failure

The running joke is that if you've got a tape measure or clipboard and look like you know what you're doing, you can generally go anywhere and do anything unchallenged. This is actually mostly true in practice; looking like you've got a clue will get you just about anywhere except at facilities with actual military-style controls in place. This is all social engineering; we're trained to accept authority at face value.

I mention this because I had a social-engineering failure this week, possibly for the first time ever. We had a new exhibit load into the Artsgarden this week, and when I started unloading pieces, I had someone ask me who I was, what I was doing there, and why I was taking artwork off the truck. It was a valid question; I had no identification, I look a bit scruffy, and the guy in charge didn't introduce me. But still, it was shocking to actually have someone violate the looks-competent rule and ask me what I was doing.

I think one reason live-interaction social engineering scams work, is that authority figures make it so painful to question them. The right kind of person will make you miserable for doubting them (I almost did, but fought the urge), so you tend to err on the side of avoiding the pain. I watched this happen a few years ago at a concert. Everyone had to show a badge to get into the stage area, and the production manager tried to bully his way past the guard without showing ID. He actually pulled a "Do you know who I am? I'll have you fired!"; I thought that only happened in bad TV shows. But the guard stood her ground and called the supervisor over before she'd let him in. And, true to his asshole word, he tried to have her fired. The facility manager didn't fire her; he explained to the PM that it wasn't company policy to fire people for doing their job. But he did reassign her (as much for her benefit as the PM's, I suspect) to an area where she wouldn't have to see him for the rest of the night....

Monday, November 03, 2008

Screwing with ballots

I had an interesting conversation with co-workers last week. They all voted early, because they wanted to make sure no shenanigans happened on election day. I mentioned that, if I were in charge of getting McCain elected in a swing state, early votes would be how I'd start. Anecdotally, early voters are heavily Obama voters, and in a close race, the margin of victory will be smaller than the number of early ballots. The brilliant thing is, you don't even need to invalidate them -- just get them questioned long enough for Obama to concede. Once that happens, it doesn't matter who actually voted for whom. I'd screw with chain of custody, or question the legality of some of the registrations, or any dirty trick I could think of to keep the early votes provisional or under question.

One of my co-workers said, "wow, you've obviously thought about this a lot." Actually, I haven't; that's all improvisation. I'm a little scared of the people whose job it is to put McCain in office, and who have thought about it a lot more than I have.

And, the other thing that worries me a bit this election. It's hard to say it better than GraphJam did:
Seriously, I'm surprised more people aren't worried about this kind of fraud or corruption....

Election eve: who I'm voting for, just for reference

For President: Obama. What he said. And I had a nightmare a few weeks ago involving President Palin. Really, who ever thought she would make a good President?

For governor: tougher. Our gov, Mitch Daniels (R), has done some pretty good things. He's very good at attracting out-of-state (and out-of-country) employers to Indiana, though some of what happened during his term was actually the result of work started by his predecessor. On the down side, he was Bush's former budget director, and it shows. He "balanced the budget" by leasing the Indiana Toll Road for a huge lump-sum payment, then factoring this one-time cash infusion as revenue. It wasn't a financially sound decision; he traded 75 years of steady income for a single sum roughly equivalent to eight years' earning. It's bad math, but it makes it look like he balanced the budget. On the other hand, his opponent, Jill Long Thompson (D) has never criticized this decision (or, while mildly criticizing it, has never threatened to stop it or to not spend the money generated). Who's really interesting in this race is the Libertarian, Andrew Horning. He's been running for office for years, and he's actually in the right about a lot of important issues. He's an intelligent, thoughtful guy, and he never quits. He's in the wrong on only a few issues, but on these he's catastrophically wrong. So I would never want to see him in office. But I really respect the guy. I suspect I'll vote Jill Long Thompson; Daniels has the race locked solid, but I don't want it to be a landslide. That is, I don't want him to think he's got a Mandate From God, or anything. I might even vote Horning, in a moment of polling-place whimsy.

U.S. House, District 7: Andre Carson (D). Multiple reasons here; Gabrielle Campo (R) is straight party-line Republican on pretty much every issue, and her platform looks to be cut-and-pasted from the national platform. The Republicans didn't invest much in her; she's running against an interesting, incumbent Democrat, and they don't see much chance she'll win. Personally, I like Andre, even if he was elected primarily because he was related to the previous rep (Julia Carson, who died in office). So far, Andre is everything Julia wasn't -- he's neither visibly corrupt nor apathetic. And, I think it's interesting to have more Muslims in congress.

Indiana Senate, District 34: Jean Breaux (D). She's been on the right side of a lot of issues so far. But, really, the fact that her challenger, James Rainey (R) didn't even respond to the Indianapolis Star's issues questionnaire is a pretty bad sign. Again, the Republicans weren't trying too hard with him.

Indiana House, District 100: John Day (D). This is an interesting race, mostly because there's no Republican in it. Day, the incumbent, is challenged only by a Libertarian running strictly on a no-taxes platform.

Marion County Circuit Court Judge: James Joven (R). This is an odd one; I normally vote party-line Democrat for judges. But Louis Rosenberg, the Dem running, is a bit of an idiot and a windbag. I read their question/answer in the paper, and I was amazed at how much better Joven did than Rosenberg. One highlight: the paper asked the candidates their stance on an issue relating to prosecutions and the serious issue of jail overcrowding at the Marion County jail. Rosenberg had a lengthy answer; Joven simply said, "this isn't really an applicable question -- the circuit court doesn't handle criminal prosecutions or have anything to do with the jail system." Good answer, and completely bullshit-free!

State Attorney General: Linda Pence (D). This was a tough call. On one hand, Pence really has nothing special recommending her. Neither does the Republican candidate, Greg Zoeller; neither is an incumbent, and on almost every important aspect of the office, they're remarkably similar. Both are "tough on crime" (as opposed to all those mythical attorneys general who are soft on crime). Both are tough on child predators, to differentiate them from the hypothetical pro-molester candidates. I ended up digging pretty deep to find much difference between them at all. My final decision was based on their negatives. While Zoeller was endorsed by the state police union, he's also endorsed by Right To Life Right To Life, which scares me. And the biggest chunk of his political experience came while he was -- wait for it -- Dan Quayle's assistant, both in the senate and as VP. Quayle, a veep so inept he's almost Palinesque. So I'm going with Pence.

My favorite race: Marion County Coroner. I'm pulling for John Pless (R). He's extremely more qualified than his competitor, and he was no part of the corrupt team which just got booted out of office. The current coroner has a 3 to 6-month backlog for death certificates. This means families have to wait up to half a year to start processing life insurance claims, among other traumas. Pless promises to clean up this system. Also interesting, his stated goal is to eliminate the office he's running for, replacing the elected county coroner with an appointed medical examiner. Appointed, and therefore easier to fire for screwing up royally. The recently ousted coroner was scandal-ridden and corrupt; I'm looking for the most radical change possible, which is Pless. He seems honest, and he's documentably extremely competent.

Incidentally, the coroner debacle has been an eye-opener for me. By watching the traumas caused by the incompetent occupants, I finally figured out that some of those silly offices I used to just vote party-line for are pretty important after all. As a result, I've actually been paying attention to races like county surveyor and county treasurer.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Political thought for the day

The election is two short days away; it's likely that in 48 hours, we'll have a pretty solid idea about who will be our next President. I'm waiting for it to be over, not least because my inbox is crammed these pre-election days with people passing along witty/evil stories about one candidate or the other. Last week, one of my favorite aunts sent me one of these, an infinite .fwd supposedly from some preacher, saying that the only real issue in any election is the candidate's stance on abortion. Normally I shunt these directly to my trash, but on a whim I actually responded. And, for the first time in years, I accidentally Replied To All. So, since I already shared, here's what I wrote back to my aunt:
Wow. It’s astonishing how people can ignore five hundred political, social, trade, and international issues of importance, in favor of merely looking at a candidate’s stand on one single issue. I wish I could do this; it’d save me the trouble of actually working to stay informed at election season....

Ready for Jeff’s Deep Thought Of The Day? Here goes. You’ll notice that for the four years between 2002 and 2006, we had the most strongly Republican, most ostensibly pro-life house, senate, and White House we’ve ever had since Roe v. Wade. You’ll also notice they did utterly nothing about the issue of abortion. Know why not? Because it’s not in their best interest to win this fight. As long as they can keep it an issue, they’re guaranteed 25% of the vote without actually doing any work to improve anything in the country. As soon as they ban abortion, they’ve suddenly got to do actual work to appeal to this 25%, and they know they’ll be in trouble. Sure, they’ve got other hot-button issues, but none carry the conservative weight that abortion does. The next big conservative/religious issue on their list is “sanctity of marriage”, and it’s pretty far down. We all know gay people in happy relationships, and it feels uncomfortable to tell them they don’t deserve hospital visitation rights or communal property. It’s an issue with a face, and the face is of loving couples trying to build a life together. It won’t get people to the polls like abortion does, and it’s a pretty weak single-issue-voter issue. Conservatives survive on the abortion issue; even in the most strongly Republican states, they only win by 25% of the vote. If you no longer could count on the knee-jerk support of pro-life-only voters, you’d be in trouble. Imagine having to stand on your voting record, instead of merely sounding more pro-life than your opponent. They can imagine it, which is why they don’t ever do anything about the issue.

I don’t want this to sound like an attack; you know I adore you. So I’m a bit defensive when politicians try to manipulate you.
I heard back from quite a few of the people on the original distribution list, most of whom got a kick out of it. So thought I'd share.

Also, for reference, you'll notice I never take a stand on the actual issue of abortion. I'm not talking here about the right/wrong of this [harmless standard medical procedure/horrible fetus assasination technique]. This is entirely about cynical politicians, regardless of their personal views, taking advantage of a subset of conservative voters.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The math underlying phenomenally bad rationalization

I bicycle everywhere. It's good exercise, it's a cheap mode of transportation, and it's a phenomenally bad rationalization for eating poorly. On a regular basis I catch myself thinking, "I rode my bike today; I can eat [extremely unhealthy food product] and it'll balance out!" But the math doesn't actually support this. In an hour of cycling, a person of my weight and fitness level burns somewhere around 675 calories per hour above the base metabolic rate (that is, the amount of calories I burn sleeping). On days when I commute, I burn about 540 calories on the bike. And here's a partial list of foods I've rationalized by cycling in the past two weeks:
  • an entire box of O'Malia's gourmet chocolate chunk cookies in one day (2000 calories)
  • a large mocha from South Bend Chocolate Company (very yummy, but 550 calories)
  • a jar of honey-roasted peanuts (1800 calories, and the equivalent fat of 3/4 cup of Crisco)
  • a package of Oreos (2400 calories)
  • a Cinnabon Classic and a MochaLatta Chill (1100 calories)
Yeah, the math isn't in my favor on this. That box of O'Malia's cookies, of which I had three: each box balances out almost an entire week of cycling. And I've eaten three boxes of these in the last two weeks. Ouch! I think I'll have to expand my awareness about my rationalizations, and work to do it less and eat healthier food.

Or, better: expand the rationalizations themselves! See, I move a lot of heavy things at work, and that burns calories. And I put some things on a high shelf for Laura this morning -- more calories burned. I vacuumed yesterday, too, at about 100 calories per hour. I bet if I add up all the incremental exercise I get in a day, I'll be able to rationalize even more bad dietary habits! I love it when my math skills save me from exercise and/or dietary self-control!