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September 30, 2005

I corrected the URL in Sunday's post to link to the new, louder version of song 1 from last Friday's jam.

Via Faisal: "...who would demand equal time for the theory that the Holocaust never happened?"

Yngwie Malmsteen will in SF soon (at The Independent!), but I think I'll skip. I've seen him before and I don't know who any of his touring musicians are.

We went to the midnight showing of Serenity last night and it was excellent. Plenty of costumed browncoats and Inara-wannabes and Jayne Cobb hats as far as the eye could see.

September 25, 2005

On Friday the rack got its first test drive (8MB MP3 file). Details are on my music page.

On Saturday we biked to Sausalito for the first birthday party of Zach Breindel at Robin Sweeney Park. Good times. Crunchy wasabi cashews? Eh. I liked the dried pineapple better. We took the ferry back because the grueling ascent from sea level to the Golden Gate Bridge (240 feet or so, which is a little higher than the 20th story floor in a typical office building would be if its ground floor were at sea level) is just too much. But, we biked 16.02 miles according to Kim's odometer, and a lot of that was hilly, 'cuz hey, it's San Francisco. Burritos for a late lunch / early dinner totally hit the spot.

I totally need a new bike seat, a bolt to hold my horn on, some padded gloves (numb fingers = scary) and to lubricate my chain. This time, though, I actually wrote it down so I won't forget and remember during my next ride like I usually do.

September 21, 2005

Last night we saw The Presidents of the United States of America at The Independent which is a pretty darn good venue for that kind of music. Good sound + well made drinks at reasonable prices + minimal ticket/security hassles + good bands = good venue, though I wish we had been allowed to go up on the balcony but apparently that was closed for an Oracle party? Last week I saw Living Colour there as well. Earplugs as always are a must but the sound was great. My guess that an "Doors 8:30PM Show 9PM" show would take until 10:30ish for the main act to come on stage proved to be pretty accurate in both cases. I might have missed one song by each band, since I got there at 10:30 both nights (on purpose). Sorry to the opening bands but I do have better things to do these days.

I sold my old bass amp on Sunday only to have to take it back yesterday. As it turns out, what I thought was an environmental hum in my apartment is actually an amp problem, so now I have to fix it. Since it's worth $200ish and weighs 42 pounds, I really don't want to ship it far far away, since the shipping in both directions plus parts and labor might cost $200. I was looking for local repair places and found a few, but my favorite has to be Vacuum Tube Valley. If ever your vacuum tube gear falls into disrepair these guys will fix it. Boy do they look the part. I bet they're really male models and they have to put on prosthetics and make-up to reassure customers that they do in fact know electronics and stuff. Kind of like bankers needing to wear a suit. You just wouldn't want to trust your money to some guy in a Hawaiian shirt, cutoff jeans, and flip flops. Likewise your tube amp goes to a guy with male pattern baldness, thick glasses, a collared shirt, and preferrably stacks and stacks of electronic test equipment surrounding him. I'd be equally eager to give my stuff to a 12 year old girl with bright purple spiked hair, some sort of goggles pushed up onto her forehead, a tank top, oversized black boots, and yellow shorts, but that's because I've seen way, way too much anime for my own good.

It's harvest time in the Central Valley, but where are the farmworkers? Well, they're illegal immigrants mostly, upon which our economy depends even though many people think they took our jobs. But it looks like nobody else actually wanted those jobs. In fact the illegal immigrants don't even want those jobs because they're making too much money working on the construction part of the housing bubble. What's interesting is that obviously there are far more jobs than there are workers, even with a certain number of illegal immigrant workers, but that this may be due to the offered wages being below minimum wage.

One major reason to employ illegal immigrants is to avoid labor laws. If you're working illegally, you can't go to the authorities and complain about illegal wages or illegal working conditions because you'll be deported immediately. As with my experience with H-1B visa holders in my own past workplaces, the law says one thing but reality is different. H-1B candidates must be paid the same as citizens, and the employer has to prove that there were no qualified citizens available. In reality this temporary, employer-bound visa gets great foreign candidates into the position, and more significantly into the tax base and operating within the law, but the threat of deportation means these folks send most of their money home to their families and only maintain a meager lifestyle here, and the extreme difficulty in switching employers has a chilling effect on salary negotiation or any other sort of employee issue or complaint. In both cases, the attempt to regulate immigration to help citizens keep their jobs results in a system that puts immigrants at a negotiating disadvantage, so actually employers have an incentive not to hire citizens, provided they're willing to hire immigrants (either via the tedium and expense of an H-1B sponsorship, or by hiring illegal immigrants).

Let me be clear in saying that I don't blame the immigrants at all - they're just participating in our economy as much as we'll let them. In fact, they work super hard because compared to jobs in their own country, the job here is a high-paying gig that they want to hang onto as long as possible. But our system is set up so that their earnings leave the U.S. economy and go back home. Similarly, if there are higher-paying jobs that illegal immigrants can get, why wouldn't they take them? Even as a black market in labor, it's a market. Farmers are just going to have to pay more and suffer the housing and construction bubble woes with the rest of us. Or maybe the INS could give these people green cards, or some sort of half-citizenship (to avoid the dreaded "flood of unskilled immigrants draining our precious entitlement budgets" problem that really scares people here) that lets them work? A seasonal work visa? Why the hell not? If you only let the workers in when there's work to be done, you don't have the social security, medicare, education, and welfare entitlements to pay for... and you could tax at a higher rate if desired... you could even charge a substantial fee for the visa. Whatever. Figure out a way to make it work, and everybody still wins. Right now everybody seems to be losing, except to some degree the folks who got across the border since they have a crappy job but one that's still better than what they had at home.

September 19, 2005

Saying that someone graduated high school makes the speaker sound dumb. Graduating is something that a learning institution does to students. They grade you. People at the chemistry supplies factory graduate a glass cylinder with little white lines painted on the side. Universities graduate students. They mark them as being worthy of a degree. Road crews graduate a road surface to make it less flat. The idiom of graduating from something, as if you were escaping, is common and accepted, but it's an idiom based on "was graduated from", using the passive voice. If you drop the "from" then the relationship is reversed, making you the actor and the learning institution the object, and it sounds ridiculous. You do not give a degree to a school, nor do you mark it with evenly spaced lines for measurement. Okay, yes, for the obstinate smartass reading this, "except in special cases where the context is totally different (such as maybe a school rating system or some sort of school building maintenance situation)". Thank you, drive through.

The cartoonists in the local weeklies are really outdoing themselves mocking the administration's response to Katrina: This Modern World, Troubletown.

Via Mike: this joke column by The Onion came true.

September 12, 2005

Since I already have an iPod, I haven't rushed out to get an iPod nano. But it's so cute! And tiny. Besides, I like having 20GB for songs; my last iPod had 10GB and that wasn't enough. The nano maxes out at 4GB right now so that would be a pain. But it would be cool to have the Harry Potter engraved logo version anyway. I don't think I'd use the audiobooks, especially if they include this (<- HALF BLOOD PRINCE SPOILER!). But at least a new iPod wouldn't include a worm on the built-in hard disk. Oy. Embarrassing...

The Onion has put Katrina into perspective for us. Some folks assert that race played a major role in the slow response to Katrina, or that maybe it's nepotism since Louisiana lacks a critical emergency response resource that Florida has: a governor related to the President. Whatever. The blame game seems to have reached a quick ending with the identification of the failed horse lawyer but it's still worth figuring out what mistakes we made months in advance of the hurricane that we could un-make. It's hard to sort out the valid pleas for budget allocations from pork and crying wolf, but that is somebody's job, and the people who decided that we could get along with weak levees are probably the ones who should pay the price. One estimate said that there was a $60 million request that was denied and I've seen $50+ billion as a conservative estimate for the cleanup. That's a pretty serious case of penny wise and pound foolish.

One one of the housing bubble blogs I read, I saw this article about the unintended effects of rencent bankruptcy leglislation. The concern is that small businesses are really the reason for most personal bankruptcies and that we should worry about small businesses being less bold now that you have to actually pay back your loans. I really don't have a problem with this, actually. I'm a bit worried that we had a culture of loans only being paid back if things went well and that this was considered a good thing. Won't it be easier to get capital now that you don't have to also pay for the other borrowers who failed and then declared bankruptcy? The whole point of a loan is that you pay it back. I noticed this in a different context during the dot-com crash: business owners never seemed to care about making sure that when things went wrong, they could gracefully wrap up the business. The plan was just to run the thing into the ground and then stand back and marvel at the crater that it left, unless some miracle saved the company from ruin. I guess if there's venture capital involved the crater could be a few million dollars across and might ruin the founder, so it makes some sense, but it never really dawned on me that staying in business came first, then creditors, and then employees last. OK, duh, that makes sense, I guess. But I don't like the result: when all the money runs out, it all goes to staying in business and creditors and employees get screwed. I wonder if changing this so creditors actually get paid is a bad thing; at some point the business looks like it's going south but there's some money left. This might force the owner to shut the tanking business down immediately and just distribute what cash is left so that the debt left over is as small as possible, instead of just keeping the paychecks going and then laying everyone off with a shrug and a wave at the very end.

Krista points out a really funny story about toughness.

I can understand why Oracle is buying Siebel but I don't understand why eBay is buying Skype.

September 8, 2005: The Culture of Comfortable Thinking

I hate the phrase "choose to believe". It implies that the truth is relative and all you have to do is wish upon a star and your dreams come true. Consider a person who heard the voice of some kind of angel or deity, and/or felt the presence of some kind of divine spirit, and bases their faith upon that experience. Was it a hallucination, a dream, or the touch of something supernatural? That's very different from someone who knowingly, explicitly chose to indoctrinate himself with something that disagreed with their senses and reasoning, stepping out of the reality that they could sense into a reality that's a whole lot more pleasing but wholly unsupported by evidence. If you have to choose to believe something, you don't believe it. If you have to isolate yourself from anybody who doesn't believe it and participate in repetetive indoctrination rituals to reinforce these ideas until they seem normal, it's time for cult deprogramming.

And yet, this is how human civilization has worked for millennia. Fighting loneliness and helplessness, we create systems of superstition to provide us with the comfortable illusion of control. We sacrifice animals, pray, whisper to dice, shout at thoroughbreds, and build complex rituals around the idea that wishing for something really hard will make it come true. She loves me, she loves me not. A world that works by its own rules must be replaced by a world with an infinite number of levers that our desires can directly manipulate. A universe that doesn't revolve around us is terrifyingly large and uncaring.

Yearning for the safety we felt as children protected by our parents, we identify the best among us according to whatever value system we prefer, and elevate them to positions of leadership or even godhood. The instinct to create and maintain a dominance hierarchy is ancient and deep. We need to feel that there is someone in charge, better than us, who has our best interests at heart and who is looking out for us. Someone has to scare away the monsters under the bed.

Our ego has run away with us. The world needs us; we are powerful and in control; our values are best because our leaders tell us they are. We must tune out the negative information that tells us we are dust in the wind, that we cannot wave a magic wand to take out the trash, that we haven't actually read or traveled much so maybe our little tide pool isn't the same as the rest of the ocean. We tune out the information that makes us uncomfortable.

This tendency leaves us extremely vulnerable to megalomaniacs and liars. They spin yarns based on our limited readings and even more limited understanding of bronze-age mythology. Our fuzzy Cliff Notes understanding of religion and philosophy and spirituality and nature and space and time and psychology leaves us only with a few disjointed, contradictory sound bites and rules that can be used like strings to manipulate us into feelings and actions that we chose not to question when we were children. The government is out to get us. The government can solve all problems. The market can solve all problems. The market is evil. And the worst of all: I will lead you to the promised land.

The manipulators of our self-made puppet strings don't even have to be very artful. They just have to avoid causing us discomfort. Provide us a path to comfortable, uninterrupted certainty and we follow excitedly. Tell us that the solution to all problems is simple and that you just need a bit more authority and time and money, and we happily hand it over. Don't question it; it's very complicated. You wouldn't understand. Pat us on the head and send us on our way. No matter what happens, find a way to make it fit your story. Lie if you have to. Lie in the face of evidence to the contrary. Lie as loud as you can for as long as you can. Create strawmen to blame for things that don't go the way you wanted. Create a heroic struggle between good and evil, and polarize it between yourself and your strawman: If the devil did not exist, then it would be necessary to create him. Cast anyone who even slightly disagrees with you as a follower of the enemy. If you're not with us, you're against us. Burn the witch. She has had relations with the Communist party, the Taliban, Islam, the Protestants, you name it. As long as the lie remains loud and strong and comfortable, we will still follow, becase we need that feeling of security. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Until one day when the truth hits us so hard that we can't hear the beauty of the lies anymore. The levee breaks and the terrible tide of disillusionment sweeps us away. We hear the lies telling us that everything is fine and wonderful and beautiful and everything's going great but the horrors of the abuse and torture and countless innocents killed and the stench of corpses and shit and poisons make us sick, until the sound of our own retching drowns out the lies.

For a while we stagger around in shock, questioning everything, afraid to look anywhere or think anything because it's all too painful. We recoil and turn inward. We ponder and doubt. We ask each other questions. We shake our heads. How could we have been so blind?

And slowly, quietly, the voices begin to agree. We have a new strawman, a new devil to blame for all the evils of the world. The pharaoh becomes the pariah. A power vacuum is forming and someone always steps in to fill the void. And the cycle begins again...

Or does it? Is the pain so great that we forget that our own choices to blind ourselves and abdicate control led to this? We wish for the impossible and create leadership roles that only pathological liars can fill in our minds. Can we really find solace in an endless cycle of abuse, always blaming our ex for all of our problems in life?

It comes back to ego. The self-described paragon of virtue needs a throng of admirers to worship him, just as the admirers need someone to tell them that their values are the right ones and created such a wonderful being. We deserve to be insulated from a complex world full of difficult decisions and things we don't have simple, unquestionable rules for. We deserve to have someone take care of us and to tell us what to do. All we have to do is choose to believe their lies. Anything else would make us uncomfortable.

September 5, 2005

Finally! I renamed and uploaded the last of the pictures from our June vacation: Rome and Ninfa (which is a huge enclosed garden that used to be a medieval town).

I also took some pics of the completed, installed bass gear rack: front and rear. Ready to RAWK!

Apparently supply and demand are less important than the fundamental human right to cheap gas in California. Yes, let's declare a state of emergency so that the attorney general can enact price controls on gas. Here's an idea: why not eliminate the light truck emissions loophole that created the SUV market that created the sudden oil demand problem in the U.S. in the first place? Or better yet, how about just leaving things the hell alone? Let the oil companies and the people with gas guzzlers work out just how much it's worth to them to drive an 8-seat 4 ton car to work and back every day. It's not like there aren't alternatives to driving an 8-seat 4 ton rollover deathmobile to work and back every day all by yourself.

It's remarkable how different the search results are when you search for logic table sample when you meant to search for logic tabla sample.

CDBaby is the coolest. All hail Derek. All must read the interview.

September 4, 2005

On Friday Kim and I cleaned out the attic, our closets, our bookshelves, the kitchen, various drawers and containers and piled stuff up in the living room. On Saturday from 9am to 2pm we had a garage sale. Before 9am there was already a line of people demanding to see all our CDs, DVDs, electronics, and men's shoes. One driveway was dedicated to just clothing and we sold quite a few things, but I had brought down five large garbage bags full of clothes and shoes and at least four paper grocery bags full of clothes, and most of it was left at the end of the day. The DVDs and CDs all sold; the recent computer games and software all sold; the 5-for-$1 old software was untouched, except for a copy of Microsoft Visual C++ 6.0 that sold to a guy who also bought most of our Beatles and Monkees audiocassettes. I was surprised at what sold and what didn't.

One curt, agressive guy double parked his truck with the engine running and roughly pawed through the men's pants to check for jeans. As usual I mentioned my waist and inseam measurements so he could save time looking at labels. He barked "I don't care I'm just looking for 501s!" When I told him I was sorry but didn't have any, he immediately left. Another guy bought my old leather jacket, an unopened cute kitty themed memo pad Kim got as a party favor, two shiny purple candles, and a glass bowl. He hung around for about 30 minutes telling us all sorts of things about his friends and relationships and family illnesses and advising us to definitely seek therapy if we ever had any problems because it was so great that we each had somebody who loved them. Ours is a busy street and it was pretty funny to see people driving by, almost, and then slamming on the brakes and backing up to park and look at our stuff.

At 2pm we decided that everything left was free, and loaded up our neighbors' pickup truck for a run to the used bookstore and Goodwill. The used bookstore guy bought every one of our O'Reilly books and a few sci-fi paperbacks. Goodwill was packed with donators but they efficiently took all our stuff, except for a disassembled Ikea desk that I can't remember how we got in the first place. We fueled up the truck and marveled at how expensive gas is, even for a little 4 cylinder beater with a smallish gas tank. It's so rare that we drive a car, and when we do, we either aren't paying for gas or it's part of a larger trip that only uses about half a tank anyway, that for a free truck to cost us a bundle in fuel costs, it stood out. That was only because I decided to fill it up completely as a way of saying thanks, which seemed like a reasonable gesture until I saw the price of the fill-up. Ouch! Living in the suburbs must be expensive these days.

The apartment is not quite a disaster but it's really messy now, as things are now finding new homes in places that used to be filled with stuff that's gone now. There are a few big things like a broken CD rack that lived in the attic for no good reason, and a cardboard box full of bubble wrap (utterly redundant in light of the hefty bag full of packing peanuts and 100' roll of bubble wrap that I mail-ordered a few years ago) that are soon going to be disposed of. Nothing came back inside that went out to the sale, and nothing is going back up in the attic that doesn't actually need to be kept for a good reason. The attic is now half-empty, which is amazing. It was pretty crammed before. We figured out that between the yard sale and used bookstore, we made $347. We sold a whole lot of stuff and then donated one and a half pickup truck loads of leftovers. Most of this stuff has moved with us at least once; a lot of it moved across the country with us when we originally moved from Washington, D.C. to California. We could have made a lot more money by putting this stuff on eBay but the feeling of release and liberation is more than worth it. Each of those little items had some kind of chore associated with it, or maybe the hope to perhaps someday spend lots of time doing something that involved having it. All those future chores are gone now. All those possibilities are still open to us, and will cost a teeny bit more if we choose to do them, but the weight of regret and frustration every time we saw them and thought about what we should be doing to make good on that purchase but for some reason had not yet done, is lifted. Cutting the entanglements and moving on with our lives is totally worth it.

There are still a few more small items that we didn't have time to dig out and sell, and some things that require a bit of preparation to sell because we really did want to make more than a token amount from selling them. I kept telling myself "this isn't the last yard sale ever" to help me skip over stuff that would have distracted me from the big obvious stuff. Now that we have a little attic space and some drawers and have found some things that were buried, I'm sure we'll do this again pretty soon. I'm glad to have found some of those things that I hadn't forgottten about but couldn't find under all the junk.

I'm beginning to be able to breathe normally again after having a really shitty day yesterday with constant sneezing and runny nose due to all the dust we kicked up. Years of respiratory allergies taught me to recognize and tune out pointless histamine reactions, but it was too much to ignore. Yeah OK I'm digging through a pile of clothes that's been in the corner of my bedroom for months. It's dusty. Achoo. I get it. But while I was outside sorting a sofa-sized pile of clothes, I couldn't take it and had to just go inside a couple of times and blow my nose furiously. Picture the Ren and Stimpy episode where they join the army and get tear gassed and their eyes turn into geysers and their noses are just gushing snot. Yay! After about noon it calmed down because the stuff was all outside and sorted. Packing it up and donating it, it started again. Ugh. A nice spicy Thai late lunch blew it all out and then I was mostly OK. After doing the unthinkable (taking down the signs after a yard sale!) we went to take a nap. That nap lasted about, um, 12 hours. I guess running up and down the stairs with hefty bags full of clothes and boxes of books and two desks several dozen times counts as exercise.

September 2, 2005

Again and again (this time, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) our large-scale coordinated emergency response and humanitarian aid capabilities are shown to be catastrophically flawed. In the WTC, in Iraq, and now in New Orleans, communications and resource management are botched or altogether absent. I'd say that a functioning communications network is more important than centralized, top-down planning and management, since people generally will make good decisions and solve problems themselves if they have adequate information. If aid organizations want to coordinate their efforts under a single authority, they will still need a solid communcations infrastructure to do that. Cell phones may enable guerilla terrorist insurgent types to coordinate attacks but they also enable citizens to call 911 (or the local equivalent) when they see thugs sneaking down the street with what looks like an IED, and they enable humanitarian aid groups to find resources and still-working infrastructure. If we assume that the people trying to do good outnumber the people trying to do evil, then enabling the rapid flow of information does more good than harm, in proportion to the good/bad ratio. Since terrorists and looters are in the vast minority, robust communications move things tremendously in the good guys' favor. The Transparent Society touched on this, in the realm of privacy versus transparency. The Pentagon's New Map refers to "connectedness" as the determinant of peace and prosperity or war and suffering. The book I'm reading right now, The Future and Its Enemies, favors "dynamism" over centrally controlled stasis, and in particular mentions FEMA as an example of a centralized controlling organization that has in the past had problems accepting help from informal aid organizations and individuals not under its official authority. The Wisdom of Crowds would further suggest that on-the-ground, loosely organized local aid groups would do a much better job than a big bureaucracy anyway. (Associated sound bite: "Since when has a bureaucracy responded quickly to anything?")

In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq I saw a number of military technology specials talking about the increased battlefield communications efficiency now vs. Operation Desert Storm over a decade ago. What stuck with me was the fact that now we could actually coordinate inter-service operations in less than a 48-hour window. Huh? Rewind... yes, the guy explained that until recently, maybe the Navy would use cruise missiles and then there'd be a "cease fire" period of at least a day, maybe 2, to get out of the way before the Air Force came in and blew stuff up from the air, and then another couple of days of pulling out and getting fully clear before the Marines arrived. Now we can have everybody on the battlefield at once with animated computer displays of who's where and where the bad guys are and one service can request a strike on a certain position and that strike will happen within perhaps an hour. Maybe we could demilitarize some of this technology for official, centralized aid workers, and let the unofficial folks plug into it? Maybe we can get the young hax0rs working on something to combine Google Maps and cell phone triangulation and NextBus and GasBuddy and Where's George? Click here to get directions to the nearest source of running water. Speak the name of your illness and press the pound key to hear the name of the closest hospital that has supplies to handle your condition. The nearest evacuation site is trail-ways-bus-sta-tion and the next bus will arrive in four-hours-and-twenty-three-minutes. If you want to reserve a place on this bus enter your credit card number now. Your Ticketmaster convenience fee for this evacuation will be $6.75.

It's interesting that we praise the free market most of the time, but when things get really screwed up and it becomes extremely difficult to enforce top down control and rules, we revert to martial law. Maybe that makes sense, in that the value of freedom versus security is evaluated differently in a disaster scenario, but I think it's more of an issue of confusion and impaired flow of goods and information that drives us to revert to barbarism or anarchy. Is looting motivated by panic, or is it a rational (but evil) response to a new set of constraints, taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity? What if, in Brin's Transparent Society, the pervasive public surveillance infrastructure were still in place? What if connectivity were resilient enough to survive the disaster? Looters must think that they're operating in a temporary consequence-free zone; what if it was just a delayed-consequence zone? What if, instead of spontaneously converting a city to authoritarian central planning and currency-free rationing enforced by the barrel of a gun (i.e. temporary Communism), we allowed people to jack up the price of water, food, fuel, blankets, and boat rides? Yes it seems ghoulish, but stay with me for a second. People from all around would swarm to the disaster site to bring whatever relief goods they had. Middle class folks could just buy supplies on credit, which would be easy if the communications infrastructure were still in place. Amateur, uninsured firefighting teams could be paid on the spot to put fires out, reimbursed by the building insurance after the fact. Those same teams could be the poor folks who can't afford the elevated prices of basic food and shelter and supplies. It'd be a black market, but with accountability; really, just a different market until things got back to normal. We've never seen this in practice, as far as I know, since communications infrastructure is deliberately targeted in war and is insufficiently resilient to survive a large-scale disaster. As strange and ghoulish as my proposition of peer to peer free market disaster management may seem, I think it'll be an inevitable result of our increasing recognition of our dependence on communications infrastructure. At some point in the future, there will be a war or natural disaster that doesn't destroy the local, hardened communications infrastructure, and what happens there will be very different from (and much better than) what came before.

Some folks are blaming conservative budget cuts in the face of dire warnings for the deplorable response efforts in the aftermath of Katrina. This image is an amazingly concise summary of that point of view. (via Faisal)