21 February 2016

Homelessness - Part II "Never Going Back to My Old School"

If you haven't read it, or want to better understand the context of this post, please read Part I of this series, here.

My first semester in college was the most exciting time of my life.  Not necessarily the best, or the most fun, but everything was new and scary and possibilities seemed absolutely limitless.  Regardless of how tethered one remains to their family, it is the most independence and responsibility you're likely to have encountered yet in your life.  I still get strange shivers and butterflies when I hear some of the music I listened to during those first few days and weeks, or even when I just think of what my dorm room looked like.

It didn't take me long to make new friends, and my friends from my freshman dorm were some of the best friends I ever had in my life.  We had some great fun together, and made a lot of memories.  I think there were seven of us who all pledged the same fraternity, and along with two or three guys from the dorm next door, we formed the core of the largest pledge class our house had had in many years.

It's important for me to explain that I attended a small northeastern college that was not that much bigger than my high school.  Anyone whose experience of college fraternities comes from their experience at a large college or university where 10% of the men were members of fraternities is not going to completely understand what fraternity life was like at my college, where as many as 65 or 70% of the men were fraternity members.  For most of my time in college, there were 12 fraternities and approximately 1,100 men on campus.  Frat guys at my school were not all entitled douchebags (anymore so than most of the students at my small northeastern college were in general).  There were popular houses that were rather discriminating in who they chose to extend invitations to, but they didn't interest me much.  There was the "rich" house, the "football" house, the "slightly less conformist athlete" house, and the "drunken slobs".   And then there were several flavors of more "mixed bag" houses, which were clearly more interesting to me.  But one place was full of really interesting guys of all backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities, and they were most all friendly and welcoming.  Pretty early on, I figured out that was where I wanted to be.

This is where my new friends and I found our home, and it was the place where I felt the most comfortable to be myself that I had ever known.  Our guys were weird, and kind, and funny, and we had to be the only house on campus that was more ethnically diverse than the campus as a whole.  That fraternity house was a spiritual home to me as much as a physical home, and it was more my home than my parents' homes were for the next several years.  I discovered myself in that house, and how I related to other people.  I discovered amazing new ideas, and some of my greatest joys and pains.  I found hope in seeing a diverse group of guys work together towards common goals, and we worked out our differences as adults, in ways that I'm still proud of today, and in ways I wish more people could in the wider world.

Anyone who knows me could tell you that I am not a "joiner" by nature.  Some people come to a new school and join a dozen clubs, and they might end up actively participating in a few of them.  When I join a group, I only do so if I'm prepared to go "all in" and pour my heart into it.  In my four years of college, I think I only joined three clubs:  Radio Station (which I participated in all four years), College Bowl, and my fraternity.  I joined because I believed in my friends in the house, I believed in the openness of these particular guys towards others outside of the fraternity, and as corny as this sounds, I believed in the ideals that this particular fraternity was founded upon.  I would have had a hard time reconciling myself with a fraternity with a racist and exclusionary past that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world.  As ugly as fraternity culture is at many schools, our house was never those things, and I have no shame whatsoever about my association with my fraternity or the men I spent those four years of my life with.

I guess my enthusiasm showed right away, because my pledge brothers elected me pledge class president, and that was the first of six consecutive semesters where I served as an officer of the fraternity, relinquishing responsibility only in my last semester, as was traditional in our house.  I was elected president as a sophomore, which still ranks among the most honored I've ever felt, and I put more effort into growing and improving our house and our standing on campus than I put into my studies at times.

Because our pledge class was so large, we came to transform the house in our image.  I know that a few of the guys who were seniors when we were sophomores didn't like some of the changes we made and some of the potential pledges we rushed to the house, but as I saw then, and learned more over time, that is simply the nature of clubs and groups.  In my junior and senior years, we brought in two more large pledge classes full of guys who I really liked and felt would continue the membership of the fraternity for years to come in the vein that we had established.

But as I said above, that is not the nature of clubs and groups.  Just as my class had irked the older guys when we started to assert our control over the direction of the fraternity, so did many guys in my class start to feel a bit alienated as the newer guys came into their own.  This was especially true of the ones who identified more with the older brothers when we came in.  I was always more inclined to look towards the future, and I tended to identify more with the younger guys who I'd had a hand in bringing into the house, so I didn't really feel displaced as I approached graduation.  What I felt, unfortunately, was scared that I was losing my home and my friends and my comfort zone.  Just when I had really figured out how to be a college student, too.

I knew that even after graduation I'd be back to visit, but I came back a lot.  Too much.  At least once a month, often for three-day weekends, I'd come back to visit and see my friends.  I was living at home with my parents, working temp jobs, and reading a lot.  Mostly, it was pretty boring, especially in comparison to my college years where there was always a friend a shout away to hang out with.  Some people I knew were anxious to graduate and get their lives started, but I was never, ever, anxious to leave college.  I had everything I wanted right there.

Most of the first year felt pretty natural, but as time went by, I felt less and less a part of the group.  A few events took place in the summer a year after my graduation that changed things forever.  Firstly, the fraternity was forced to move to a new house because they did not have enough members to fill the large house we'd had for the previous forty-something years.  There was a sorority that could more than easily fill it (there were only six sororities on campus, and their memberships were much larger on average than the fraternities), and they had a much smaller house just off-campus, so we switched.  The new house had actually been the original house when our fraternity was founded in the 1930s, but it was completely new to me and everyone else.  To alumni like me, there was no "home" connection, and it helped bring into sharper focus that it was time for me to move on.

Also, the brotherhood had changed.  By this time, only the seniors were guys that I'd lived with, and the sophomores weren't even in college at the same time I was.  The bonds with the remaining close friends I had were lesser than their bonds with the brothers they still saw every day.  The same thing had happened with me as I'd grown through college, and it was now happening to them, and I was just an old fossil who showed up for a party every few weeks.  There were several times that I was painfully reminded that they were "brothers" to one another, and I was no longer one of them.  I've never been known to take a hint well, or quickly, especially when it would mean acknowledging a painful truth.  There was no single event that marked the end, just a series of a few visits where I felt less and less welcome and at home.

This ending began my long period of travelling and moving that has continued to the present day.  From the time I moved out of the fraternity house, I moved at least once in every calendar year except one over the next 11 years.  When I wrote Part I of this series, I had recently moved to my fourth city in the previous three years.  In the three years since, I've moved twice more, thankfully in the same metro area, but it's still hard to establish a home when you keep moving to new houses.  It becomes even more painful when you have to uproot your children in doing so.

To be continued in Part III "I've Been Everywhere, Man".

29 September 2014

Who's Gonna Stand Up?

I'm feeling pretty despondent lately about the future.  I'm losing faith in democracy as a means to govern in the best interests of the majority of society. 

Majority rule, government of the people, by the people and for the people, is one of the most basic ideas behind our republic, but I feel that certain more dedicated and organized groups are gaming the democratic system to not only work it to their own benefit, but to make it so that even when the majority is organized against them, it cannot wield any power.  It's one thing to feel depressed over an inability to create an electoral majority, but it is another entirely to feel that even if you can, it will be made impotent by a minority dedicated to thwarting it or scuttling the entire system to prevent progress and change.

When you lose faith in the system, you look to other means, and working outside of the law necessarily involves use of force and threats of violence.  This, of course, is against everything I stand for on the most fundamental level, and I fear that even entertaining such extrajudicial measures undermines my political philosophy with such hypocrisy that the philosophy itself loses integrity.

But how do you convince your fellows of your positions using logic, when the positions they hold are not based in logic in the first place?  How do you engage in non-violent protest when the people you are fighting have no qualms about doing violence to you, and the people you are trying to win to your side have no consciences about seeing the weak and innocent attacked and harmed?

Ever since the 60s, the left has had a severe political disadvantage.  The right does not FEAR us, because we believe in peaceful change and appeals to conscience and to reason.  The right may fear the changes we advocate, because those are a threat to their worldview and power structure, but they do not fear US, or our ability to enact those changes because they are willing to sink lower and use tactics and methods that we consider ourselves beyond and above.

There was a time when the rich and powerful feared the working classes.  We were unwashed barbarians, under the spell of socialism, and we could become violent at any moment in a mob frenzy and put all the oligarchs to the guillotine.  They don't fear us anymore.  Now we're just a bunch of dirty hippies camping out, smoking weed and banging drums.  They make fun of us from their office windows and then sent their police to pepper spray and disburse us. They don't fear the destruction of their property or a few thrown stones at their Pinkertons either. That just plays as "looters and rioters" on the tv news, and it keeps the fearful people on the oligarchs' side, especially if the protesters are black or Hispanic or weird looking hippies.  The oligarchs have secured themselves to such an extent that they will not fear unless it is their very bodies that are threatened, and they are locked behind doors and fences with guns and guards to prevent that ever happening.

No entrenched power has ever voluntarily relinquished any of its strength without at least the implicit THREAT of violence, and today there is no such threat.  So they push their advantages further and further with each passing year, with no fear that there will ever even be resistence, much less a counter offensive.  The pendulum will not be swinging back our way, because they have rigged the pendulum and are pushing and pulling it their way.  Eventually, they'll just break it off and we won't even know that the system has been permanently taken.

I firmly believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved by the people acting together in concert.  We lack only the political will to do these things.  Most of the problems we face today have KNOWN SOLUTIONS, but there are entrenched powers that are working against the solutions, either because of greed, or because of fear or ignorance.  Poverty and the slide of the middle class into subsistence living is not an accident, and it could be reversed easily through economic and tax policy prioritization, but it will not happen in any political environment I can foresee.

We do not have forever to fix some of these things. Climate change will not wait for consensus, nor even for the market, and it certainly isn't going to wait for a democratic government being stymied by an entire political party.  I am ashamed to say that I want to see those people wiped away, but I fear that it may be humanity's only chance to avoid a horrific future. 

I wish I believed that God was coming to smite the evil people of the world, or to divinely inspire humanity to a spiritual transformation to a better, more just and peaceful society.  But I don't.  What I see is a worldwide bifurcation occurring between those who want to make a better world for the future, and those who want to return to an imaginary past that never was, and I see no way to drag those reactionaries into the future, even if the futurists had vast majorities, which we do not.  I would love for there to be a major evolutionary event that would end the lines of the reactionaries, but I don't see that without a worldwide civil war with unimaginable bloodshed and trauma.
So I watch, and hope, without much reason to hope.  Who do the Giants play this weekend?

14 March 2014

Missing The Point About Pono

On March 11, 2014, after over two years of rumors and speculation, Neil Young and his team finally formally launched PonoMusic, a music player and download store for hi-definition digital music files. Opinions both positive and negative abound. Despite a fair amount of mockery for having a Kickstarter funding campaign opening on the launch date, Pono met its 35 day, $800,000 funding goal in under 10 hours, and as of this posting (now about 55 hours in), the project has nearly 8,500 backers and has raised nearly $2.8 million dollars. Even Neil's most hardcore fans seem universally impressed, if not shocked, at the project's early success.

At this point, I am not completely sold on the product, although you might not know it from my postings on fan forums the past few days. I am not yet a "backer" of the Kickstarter, primarily because I'm not ready to drop $400 on an untried machine (and my wife would kill me if I did). But I do believe in the goal of bringing hi-def music to a wider audience at a reasonable price with easy portability, and based on the marketing I've seen so far, I have confidence that Pono will meet with some success. The reason I focus on the marketing is that is what is going to make or break the project. The product can be brilliant, but if it is not sold properly it will go nowhere. This team seems quite savvy.

Anyway, among the negative articles I've read in the past few days, this one in particular stood out, and I felt that it demanded a point-by-point rebuttal. Ed at Gin and Tacos calls it the "Fire Joe Morgan" treatment, and while I don't plan to dissemble every line of his piece, I did have more to say than could fit in a Facebook post, so welcome (back) to my blog!

OK, so the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs of this article start, "I want to say first that I love Neil Young. I have been a fan for many, many years. And I respect his crusade with Pono, but...", and "Don’t get me wrong, I have no love for MP3s or other lossy formats, but..." respectively. This is always kind of off-putting in an opinion piece, like the author doesn't have enough confidence in his argument to let it stand on its own without first trying to caress the reader, whom he already suspects of being skeptical of his position. Perhaps rightly so, as most people reading about Pono the past few days are likely supporters of the idea, or at least open to it. Still leaves me with a bad taste at the beginning.

"Don’t get me wrong, I have no love for MP3s or other lossy formats, but they’re a utilitarian truth at this point. They are designed to be portable, and that’s the market I think Pono is trying to win."

Well, this is at the heart of the entire article, and is probably the author's basic mistake underlying all the analysis that follows.  Yes, Pono is trying to introduce portable hi-def audio, but they are not trying to "win" over MP3.  At least not in the short term.  There is a great deal to recommend MP3 and their players.  They are a very compact format that retains very good sonic integrity, and every smartphone in the word can play them.  Listened to through shitty earbuds on a subway train, they do just fine, and if the MP3 is prepared properly, they can even sound pretty good through good headsets.  They aren't going anywhere any time soon.

But that does not mean there is not a niche in the market for higher end portable music and higher end portable music players.  A 100MB FLAC file is no less "portable" than a 5 MB MP3.  You just need more storage to carry as many, and storage just keeps getting smaller and cheaper as time moves on.

"But what kind of a listening environment are you in when you’re listening to portable music? The car, the bus, walking the dog, the subway? Not exactly acoustically treated palaces of sound. If you’re a serious music lover, you have your inner sanctum where you have things set up to get the best possible listening experience you can get. And the best possible listening experience it still to be had from listening to records. I have my studio, where my turntable’s set up and when I want to sit down and do some serious listening, I can do it there. It’s set up for that purpose."

OK, dudebro, I'm gonna have to stop you there. While a popular rhetorical device on the internet, douchebaggery is not a particularly persuasive one. "Treated palaces of sound"? "Your inner sanctum"?  Is that where you get to fully express your deepest "sanctumony" towards those poor unwashed cretins who don't have a "studio" where they "have things set up to get the best possible listening experience you can get"? I have a computer with a nice sound card, pretty decent old Harman/Kardon desktop speakers and a set of Koss Porta-Pro headsets and I consider myself to be a pretty "serious music lover".  And even with my humble music set up, I can easily discern the sonic improvements in 24 bit audio over CDs and MP3s. I aspire to one day, like you, have my own sound-proof masturbatorium in my home where I can play my studio-quality files (and my vinyl records) through an expensive stereo set up, but until then I'd like to HAVE the hi-def files and get the most my system can provide.

"Just watch the Kickstarter video for Pono. How many of the celebrity endorsers are railing on the evils of vinyl? Zero. They’re complaining about MP3s and CDs."

Vinyl isn't portable. CDs and MP3s are. Pono is portable. They're comparing apples to apples, not to vinyl.

"When I’m in the car, or tooling around town with headphones on (probably earbuds, which are generally not the best option for serious listening) MP3s are more than fine. They get the job done."

In general yes, they are. But even in my car, I can tell a well-mastered CD or MP3 from a bad one, and if I could play hi-def in my car or through my in-ear headphones (earbuds totally suck, I don't know why anyone stands for them), I'd like to do that. If I can feel a difference, it's worth it.

"Ultimately, I just wouldn’t look to a digital solution like the Pono as a serious listening solution."

I'm sorry, but who the fuck are you again, and who are you to decide what is "serious listening"?

"And I don’t think the average consumer will either. I don’t think the average consumer will even care.
"The argument Neil’s making the same argument that folks use against fast food: It’s bad for you. It is a subpar eating experience, etc, etc. But folks still eat it in droves and they don’t really care because it’s easy, it tastes pretty good and it’s cheap. Most people will only think that far."

And here we are back to the original assumption.  This product, in the short term at least IS NOT AIMED AT THE AVERAGE CONSUMER.  It's aimed at "serious listening" douchenozzles like you, who have a great love of the finer points of music and some disposable income that might be left over after furnishing their studio for optimal listening pleasure. The regular schlubs might come along someday, or maybe they'll prefer to have 20,000 bad songs on their phone instead of 4,000 great ones once storage capacity catches up with the idea. Who knows?

"What’s even more sad is Neil is so late to the party here that he’s created a product that’s obsolete before it exists. He created this to save us from MP3s and other lossy files, but you know how many MP3s I have on my phone? Zero. I listen to everything when I travel from place to place through streaming services. How many of you do the same? How many of us will get there in the next few years? Is he going to be able to figure out a way to find the bandwidth he needs to pipe Pono-sized files through satellites?"

Jesus. Do you remember what bandwidth was like on your phone five or seven years ago? Do you think we have reached the apex of wireless bandwidth here in 2014? We don't even have the best bandwidth in the world today here in America, you myopic grease. So, yes, I do expect that eventually there will be PLENTY of bandwidth to stream hi-definition audio files for the people who want it and want to pay for it.

But more critically, I don't trust streaming audio. In addition to the poor sound quality, it is subject to breaks and slowdowns in bandwidth, dead zones where there is no 3G or 4G, and other things completely out of my control that ruin my enjoyment of the music when the music stops flowing. When I lived in Omaha, I used Pandora and Google Play music all the time, because they had excellent 3G coverage and few customers. But I stopped using those services almost entirely when I moved to Atlanta because the 3G network was so clogged with users that I couldn't get them work worth a damn. Also, have you ever driven across the middle of America, or "flyover country" as I imagine you'd call it? There are still a lot of places, even along major highways, that you can't get 3G service for many miles at a time. Driving without music in such places SUCKS.

Now I have 4G, but my cell provider has also eliminated unlimited data plans, so I have to pay attention to my usage for the first time in years. When I play MP3s that are physically on my phone, I have no data download issues, and virtually no playback issues. If I had a dedicated MP3 player that were not also my phone/pocket computer, I'd have zero playback issues. For a serious music lover like me, who finds the tiny gaps in playback between MP3s terribly annoying, pauses in playback in the middle of a song I love are completely unacceptable.

"And what Neil forgets when he says he’s trying to save young people from the evils of first hearing music through their virgin ears on a format as inferior as MP3 is that all of us music geeks fell in love with music while likely listening under even worse conditions. I fell in love with music listening to records on a mono Sears & Roebuck portable turntable I got for Christmas when I was ten and to songs recorded by holding a tape recorder up to a speaker and taping them from the radio. That’s how I fell in love with music. It was the innocence, both mine and the music’s, that created the magic, not the media format. The music survives, the experience is there. Pono is not going to save music. Music doesn’t need saving. We just need more kids and more more music."

As much as anyone might have said that they're "trying to save young people, etc...", I don't think that's really part of the business model here. If you're going to write a long article about why Pono is doomed to fail, at least address the business aspects instead of erecting strawmen that are, if such words were ever actually uttered by Neil or anyone else, just a rhetorical device incorporated into the marketing language. Success or failure of Pono will be judged by profits and losses, and even if it ultimately loses money, by the success or failure of any other providers that follow in Pono's footsteps.

"Look at the folks that are interviewed in the Pono Kickstarter video. All of them are musicians, record executives, etc. All of them are among the converted, they fell in love with music when they were kids and they are forever chasing that initial high. But how many average Joes did Neil put in his video? Zero. Why? Probably because the average person would just say, “Cool,” and nod their head. And maybe they could hear a difference, maybe not, but the experience of hearing the music wouldn’t fundamentally change. Not every was forever altered by the experience of listening to music. And it’s a prime example of exercise the false consensus bias to design a technology that provides an experience that only a small number of people are looking for."

Again, this is not for "average Joes", or for people who have not already fallen in love with music. Having famous musicians in the promo video was PERFECT, because the target audience knows those people and respects their opinions about music fidelity. We aren't interested in what some chucklehead who is not a serious music fan thinks about Pono, precisely BECAUSE said chucklehead isn't interested in it himself. Americans put far too much stock in the opinions of average Joes. We put our lives and futures in their hands every election day and that's scary enough. I'll keep my music choices based on opinions of people I know and respect.

"That’s why the Pono is destined to fail. Neil has created a product ten years too late designed to solve a problem that only exists for the people who recognize there’s problem, not for the average person."

You see why I'm sensing a pattern here? It is MEANT for those who sense a problem. You can only lead a horse to water, you know? If they don't want to drink, fuck 'em. But I want water.

"And that problem is already solved for folks who recognize the problem…buy records."


"If Pono had come out in 2005, not 2015, maybe it could have been a solution that gained traction,"

or maybe it would have crashed and burned because you would have needed to carry around something literally the size of a brick to have enough storage, and the downloads would have taken WAY longer, even over "high speed" ISPs at the time.

"...but now Neil’s asking people to step away from a decade’s worth of infrastructure to reinvent the wheel and the vast majority of folks just won’t do it. He’s marketing a product to compete with a product that doesn’t really exist anymore (both the MP3 and the CD)."

If the "infrastructure" you're referring to is iTunes, there are numerous competitors (albeit not nearly as successful), so there is clearly room for a similar service that focuses on a niche market. If you mean the fact that most MP3 players are built into phones now and people don't carry separate iPods anymore, that is true, but there is no hi-def iPod out there right now, and I'll bet that within 3 years, if Pono has any degree of success, there will be Pono equipped smartphones on the market. If you're referring to streaming music services, then perhaps their shitty product is what Pono is really aiming to cut into, not CDs and MP3s, which are as you point out, on their way out already. And as I said earlier, I have no doubt that streaming hi-def is not too far away.

"He’s missed the point that the magic of music is not in the media format, but in the music itself and in the ears of the listener. The music comes through if it’s good and excites the imagination of the listener, creating cathedrals of sound in their minds, which are not subject to lossy formatting. He’s kind of coming off an the old man shaking his fist at the sky (and yelling, “More barn!!!”)."

Um, OK bro. Good music excites the mind, but for every person like me, who was raised on tapes and CDs, there is a first WOW moment of hearing a song you know and love, either on vinyl or remastered well in a digital format, that makes you understand that there is SO MUCH MORE that you've been missing.

"Do I want to hear Pono? Sure. If it takes off, will I buy one? Maybe, but probably not. I have a great turntable and hundreds of records. But I’m one of the acolytes."

"Acolyte"? Oy vey. Since you can't seem to understand the non-portability of records, I'll throw some facts at you about records. Sales of records are booming in recent years. It's the only commercial format that is actually growing in sales. You know who's buying records? It's not middle-aged naysayers like yourself. It's young people, millennials, high school kids and people in their 20s. And you know what else those kids love? Their PHONES, and their portable music. Now imagine that when they buy the new record by their favorite band at the record shop, instead of getting a just a free MP3 download of the album, they maybe get a coupon for a cheap or free download of the album from Pono. You think they might like the idea of hi-def audio "to go"?

"I’m still chasing that initial high I got from listening to songs I taped off the radio. But in terms of technology and marketplace, designing Pono and selling it now is kind of like designing a better Zeppelin and touting it as the better way to fly when we all know that planes are faster and less likely to blow up on you."

Actually, it's nothing like that at all. Hi-def audio files are better, or to your metaphor "faster" than MP3s and streaming services, not the other way around, and in my experience streaming audio is MUCH more likely to "blow up on you" than files on my device. Yes, Pono has its issues and limitations, but being an inferior product isn't one of them. And by the way, they DID design a better zeppelin, one that uses helium instead of hydrogen, for to reduce the blow upping.

"If Neil’s really looking for a way to save fidelity in music, maybe be should look at how music is being produced these days, not how it’s being reproduced. He’s campaigning against low-bit rate reproductions of music, but the reality is many folks are recording music in their homes or studios at 44.1K or 48K, therefore creating the lossy files at the source that Neil and the Pono are crusading against."

This is a good point. There is, however, no reason he can't do both, and the reason many people are recording music at CD quality (which is not technically "lossy, but simply "low bitrate") is because they assume the music will be listened to at even lower quality. Perhaps if hi-def music sales are out there in greater force, more artists will record in better quality.

"I just recently got to the point where I was able to record at 96K and I’ll probably never get to 192K."

Firstly, who are you again? Secondly, 96kbps is plenty. Even most of us Rusties know that 192kbps is overkill. Thirdly, I bet if you were SERIOUS about producing music, you could get a computer that could record at 192kbps. I mean, I can record at 96 on my home computer and the only music I've ever recorded was me and my 10 year-old son playing "Cowgirl In The Sand" through my webcam. I bet my next computer will be able to do it, and I don't even CARE if I can or not.

"So, Neil, it you want to save the sound of music, buy us all new,  super-expensive computers and amazing outboard gear or analog tape machines and lifetime supplies of tape. Otherwise your PonoPlyaer will eventually just be playing back files that started out as lossy to begin with."


"I’ll be the first to back that Kickstarter."

No, you won't.  It's got thousands of backers already who actually believe in the project, so basically, shove it up your ass.

"Or if you have some time available at your studio you’re willing to donate, I’ll take that, too."

Neil Young doesn't owe you the sweat on the back of his balls, and you can't have that either.

"But mostly I’m just happy to make and listen to music just about any way I can."

And we will all happily never buy your music.  Enjoy!

29 January 2014

NASCAR Drivers Can Eat My Snow

EDIT:  In my original post, I very insensitively excluded any mention of my wife and children, who were waiting at home for me through this whole ordeal, and who excitedly greeted me upon my return.  My wife was especially worried for me, and was very sweet throughout, even if it did sometimes make me feel worse because it made me feel even more helpless to do anything to allay her fears.  She was very loving towards me when I arrived home, and let me sleep all day despite being exhausted herself from one of our boys being up crying with an upset stomach for two hours in the middle of the night.  I love you very much, and I'm sorry I mentioned the cat and not you in my original posting.  I'm a dick.

Yesterday, it snowed in Atlanta and much of the southeastern United States.  Some places received over 6 inches of snow, which is a real problem, even for places that are used to snow every year.  Atlanta received about 1 to 2 inches, which for any city that receives snow on any kind of regular basis is a joke.  Unfortunately, Atlanta gets snow accumulation of any kind only once every few years, and the region was utterly unprepared for this calamity.

Now, I'm relatively new to Atlanta, but I had heard stories.  The last time there was a major ice storm here, about five years ago, they said the city was essentially shut down for four or five days.  But this was not predicted to be a major ice storm.  This was going to be 1 or 2 inches of snow.  It was going to be warm enough to melt from the streets by the next day, and probably all from the lawns in two days.  No sweat.  Atlanta drivers are terrible, and the road system is horribly susceptible to systemic and widespread traffic jams, so I expected that it would probably double my commute time home, but I really had no idea what this city could turn into, which was more akin to The Walking Dead than I ever thought I would see short of a major natural disaster.

The snow began falling around noon, and for most of the afternoon it was falling at a significant pace.  Some people began to leave the office in the early afternoon, and the initial reports I heard back from people were pretty bad.  It took 45 minutes to get out of the parking garage and another hour to get on the highway, things like that.  I figured that by the time I was going to leave, half the people would already be off the road, so while the traffic would be bad, it wouldn't be ridiculous.  I left at 4:40 and it took me 85 minutes to drive about a half mile down a side street to get to the other side of the Perimeter highway.  I had decided long before I left that I would not be trying to take the highway at all on the way home, but in the end it would make little difference.

One of the things that you need to understand about Atlanta traffic, especially in the northern suburbs, is that there are several "barriers" that you might need to cross in your journey, and the crossing points are extremely limited, creating awful bottlenecks even on a normal day.  The roads surrounding my office building complex are particularly poorly designed, which is why it took so long just to get that first half mile, but the Perimeter (I-285) was just the first of three major barriers I needed to cross to get home.  The second is SR 400, a major north-south freeway that serves northern Fulton County.  I had planned to make a crossing westward about 2 miles north of the Perimeter, but after three hours, I was still just short of the turn and traffic had come to a standstill for the previous half hour.  My gas was running low (I had started the day with a little over 1/4 tank, but now the light had come on), and I needed to get past the 400 to find gas stations, so I turned around and headed to the previous cross street.  The temperature was also dropping rapidly, and the streets were becoming sheets of ice.

Here was where I first saw what I had only previously suspected was causing much of the traffic problems.  The bridge over the highway here is part of a rather steep hill, and people were just spinning their wheels and failing to get up the hill.  There was a cop at the highway entrance ramp, so I couldn't just drive up the empty lanes on the other side of the road as I would have liked, and had to wait a bit for enough room to fit between the flailing motorists who simply did not understand that pushing the gas pedal harder was making their situation worse.  I cruised past many idiots, nice and slow up the icy incline, waved at the cop and was able to proceed for the next mile and half virtually unimpeded.

Here, I'd like to give a few basic tips for driving on icy roads, lessons that I now know people from the South have never learned, despite their disturbing love affair with cars and big trucks, which almost rivals their disturbing love affair with firearms.

1.     If you are driving up a hill, DO NOT STOP.  Your (even minimal) forward momentum is critical to not losing traction entirely and ending up vainly spinning your wheels and slipping sideways or backwards.

2.     Pressing the gas pedal hard is guaranteed to make your wheels spin.  All these good ol' boys with their big-ass trucks, you'd think they'd driven in mud or sand at some point in their lives.  The concept is the same.  You spin your wheels, you dig a hole, or in this case smooth the ice, and lose your traction and ability to move forward, OR backwards.

more lessons later...

The first gas station I got to on the other side of the 400, I was shocked to find, had NO GAS.  It was at this point that I began to give up on the capability of anyone in this town to survive anything approaching an ACTUAL natural disaster.  So, I rolled my eyes and moved onward, cutting through a strip mall parking lot to avoid another 15 minutes of traffic, and to arrive at a second gas station, which was ALSO OUT OF FUEL.  Now I was actually a bit worried, as my gas should have been able to get me home on a normal day, but in traffic like I was encountering, I was unsure if it would, as I didn't quite know my conversion of miles per gallon to gallons per hour idling.

This gas station was at a cross street that I knew I could follow to cut off a lot of traffic, as I'd used this route before, so I headed into the residential streets.  At the first right turn, I saw a car that had piled into a brick mailbox tower because he had failed to make the turn.

Next lesson:

3.     DON'T USE YOUR BRAKES.  Seriously, on ice, you shouldn't even touch your brakes if you are going over 10 miles per hour, and if you cannot slow yourself to less than 10 mph before needing to use your brakes, you're driving too fast.  Hitting your brakes is only going to make you lose control of your steering because you have lost your traction.  If you have ABS brakes, they will make a horrible sound when you press them, and this is NORMAL.  DON'T PRESS THEM HARDER.  You'll lock them up, stop your tire spin, and lose control of your car.  Often times, when you feel a spin begin, or your traction begin to slip, you can just take you foot off the brake and regain traction and control.

So, how can you slow down without using your brakes?

4.     Use your gear shift liberally.  Even if your car has an automatic transmission, you can gain a great deal of control over your car by using different gears for different times.  Use high gear (D) for going up hills, and use low gear (2 or 1) for going down hills.  A car with an automatic transmission in gear 1 will go very slow, even down an icy hill, and you will be in MUCH more control than if you are riding the brake pedal.  I drove past MANY people who stared at me in awe as I slowly maneuvered between crashed and stuck cars on hills, simply by cruising slowly through them in first gear.  Importantly however, do not use 1st gear for going UP hills, as this is more likely to make your wheels spin.  You want to be in the highest gear possible when you need to accelerate, as this will turn your wheels slowly and in control.

When I emerged from the residential streets back onto the major road that would eventually lead me almost all the way home, I was disappointed to find a cop there who informed me that the road was closed at the bridge over the river.  The Chattahoochee River flows from northeast to southwest across the north side of the Atlanta metro area, dividing northern Fulton County from southern Fulton (Atlanta city), and Fulton from Cobb County in the northwest.  This particular crossing, which I use every day to and from work, is the only crossing for 3.5 miles in one direction, and over 5 miles in the other direction, and that's "as the crow flies" along the river, not how far you must drive on surface streets.  But the road approaching from both sides of the bridge is rather steep, and I can understand why the police were forced to close the road to all traffic.  I can only imagine what that road looked like, with accidents and abandoned cars on the icy slopes.

Since it was the only way to possibly get home, I doubled back, and headed north towards the next river crossing.  Unfortunately, everyone who was commuting home to Cobb County was in the same situation, so the traffic moved VERY slowly, and I had still not found gasoline.  I knew there were stations up ahead on the road, but I didn't know if they too would be sold out if I eventually made it to them.  At this point, I began to think that I might not be making it home at all, and I needed to think of alternate accommodations.  A good friend from work lived on the road I was now on, just a few miles away, and I was hoping I could crash at her place long enough to let the traffic subside.  After all, my issue was not with the roads being undriveable.  I knew I could drive home, if everyone else would just get out of my damn way.  Even on limited fuel, I figured I could make it home if the streets cleared of cars.

Unfortunately, when I reached my friend on the phone, she was even further behind than I was, since I knew the streets better and had the all-wheel drive to help get past some places that were giving others fits.  After travelling about a mile up the road towards the bridge, and having about 4 more miles before the bridge, and again reaching a stand-still in the traffic, I finally decided that my only chance of not freezing to death when my car inevitably ran out of gas was to turn around and head back to my office.

It was 10:15, and I had traveled less than five and a half miles in five and a half hours.

The drive back to the office was actually pretty easy, except for one spot where there was some traffic, there were very few cars going the other direction.  I got to see a MARTA bus sliding backwards into a power pole with numerous pedestrians gleefully shooting video of it with their phones.  But mostly I just saw empty streets on the roads I had recently traveled, with a few cars parked on the sides of the road.  I arrived back at my building a little after 11:00, where the night watchman informed me that I was not alone, and that about 140 people were still in the building.  I found a couple dozen people in my office, mostly sitting around chatting, some trying to accomplish some work, and I related my story to them and then finished off my leftover lunch, which was a better dinner than most had had there.

As uncomfortable as my night was going to be, it was a pretty significant victory that I had actually made it to someplace warm and familiar without having to walk through the sub 20 degree weather in my dress shoes and slacks, with no hat or scarf.  I had to try to sleep on the floor under my desk, as it was the only place dark enough since the fluorescent lights lit the entire office and we couldn't turn them off.

At 7:00 am I started trying to find a gas station that was not sold out, and fortunately found one about 2 miles away, the wrong direction from home, but in that neighborhood there had been no rush on the gas stations.  Knowing where I could go, I left the office with all my things at first light, hoping that the roads would be clear enough of cars for me to make my way home.  I nearly lost my shit when no gas came out of the nozzle, but it seems they were just out of regular.  I happily paid the extra 20 cents per gallon for mid-grade and felt secure in my situation for the first time in 12 hours.

The entire drive home was like a scene out of The Day After or some other disaster film.  Almost no cars were driving on the roads, but I saw literally hundreds of cars abandoned on the sides, some barely on the sides and more accurately "in the middle" of the road.  It took me 12 minutes to get back to the point where I had been forced to turn back the night before, and I smoothly cruised past the bridge over the river, with my biggest obstacles being the cars lining the road on every hill along the way.

When I reached the main east-west road that was going to lead me home, I had my first real taste of treacherous driving.  From the town square in Roswell, Marietta Highway starts with a pretty steep incline downhill to Willeo Creek, and then another equally steep climb back up on the other side.  The ride down saw the need to weave around stranded cars and trucks and a school bus.  There must have been at least 100 vehicles just on that incline alone, but I relatively easily slid through and climbed the next hill.  At the top, I encountered traffic for the first time in the morning.

I know that on the other side of the hill, there is another pretty steep slope down, at least as steep as the last two, and obviously there was an accident or something blocking the way.  At this point, I was only 5 miles from home, and I had come too far to let something like this get in my way.  Besides, I had said that once I was across the river, I could be resourceful again and find some alternate route home.  So I turned and crossed the grass median (a trick I was not 100% sure my CR-V could accomplish), and headed back down the hill to the cross street at the bottom.

The first alternate route was a residential street that had obviously seen many people try and fail to climb the night before as it was lined left and right with abandoned cars.  I made it through, nice and slow and easy, to the top of the hill and after a mile or two, I was on a cross road that I knew would take me right home.  Then, just as I crossed the line into Cobb County, I found the road completely blocked by an accident.  That was extremely frustrating as there was no traffic, just several cars on the road on a slope, and two cars crashed into each other in the middle of the road.  So close, but I had to turn around again.

Back at the last intersection, I met a guy in a big truck, and I asked if he knew if the road was blocked any other ways.  He confirmed that I could not turn right and end up back on the original Marietta Highway, I already knew alternate route #1 was blocked, and I asked if he thought I could make it across on the next street north.  He said that was blocked as well and laughed.  Said he'd been out all night trying to help people, and he thought the only way to get across was to go all the way back to Roswell and take Hwy 92.  In addition to not wanting to climb back up that hill into Roswell (the one with the 100 cars on it), going all the way to 92 seemed excessive considering how close I was to home now.  I'd rather wait it out in my car at this point, since I had gas and heat, than to go that far just to see IF the road was open that way.  Besides, I hadn't given up on finding an alternative route through the various residential subdivisions, which were unlikely to have crashes and pileups.  I just had a feeling I could sneak through some way.

I did sneak through to the next major east-west road, and just as the man in the truck had said, the road was blocked.  This one was particularly infuriating, because there was one car that if it could be moved just a little bit, I could possibly squeeze through.  But that icy hill was actually the first place where I though I might lose control myself, so I turned around and consulted my Google Maps to see what way there might be around.  I turned down the first side street and parked to check it out.

A woman walked up to my car and asked how the roads were, since her husband had also been forced to stay at his office and had not been home yet.  I told her I had made it all the way here from the Perimeter North in only 75 minutes, but that I wouldn't necessarily recommend the trip to someone who did not have 4 wheel drive on their car, as I had driven up and down some hills that i'm not sure a different car could have done.  Her family had recently moved here from Kentucky, so they were a bit more used to snow and ice than these Georgians, but still, they were not Northerners, and he was not in the best car for the conditions.  I told her where I had encountered trouble, in case he wanted to try, and she informed me that this street I was on, which I had planned to use to get around the accident on alternate route #2, actually went through to the south to alternate route #1, and it looked on the map that it would come out past the accident that had previously turned me back!  I said good bye and good luck, and a few minutes later was back on my first route home, with no further obstacles in my path.  Stick it, Mr. Truck Guy!  I found the path through!

One of the hardest parts of the trip was those last 2 or 3 miles, knowing I was going to make it, and trying not to get too excited and drive out of control.  I had to keep it very cool and controlled, as the roads were even more icy and treacherous in Cobb County than they had been in Fulton.  I don't think Cobb has a single salt spreader, and if they do, they would have concentrated on the major highways, and not the feeder roads that I was now traversing.

What a feeling to pull into my driveway and enter my house the conquering hero!  I felt like Gordo Cooper in The Right Stuff.  "Who's the best pilot I've ever seen?  You're lookin' at him!"  After checking in with friends on Facebook and by text who had been anxiously waiting to hear if I'd made it home safely, and after giving my kitty cat (who had obviously missed me terribly the night before) some love, I crashed out for about five hours to recover from my daunting adventure.

And just as I'd said last night on my ride home, when I thought I would actually make it home, however late, "I'm sleeping in tomorrow, and I'll show up at work when I damned well feel like it."

06 December 2013

Mandela was More than a "Man of Peace"

In remembering Nelson Mandela, it is absolutely critical that his legacy not be sanitized. 

He was not always a saintly old man, with the near universal respect of the world, who brought peace and reconciliation to the most troubled of lands in a way no one else could have.  Yes, he was that, but he was SO much more than that as well.

Mandela, above all things, was a FIGHTER for social justice, and that does not just mean the end of the vicious Apartheid regime.  He was a fighter for equality and JUSTICE, not just for black South Africans, but for oppressed people all over the world.  And not just for those held down by racist laws and governments, but for women and minorities held down by religious and social traditions, and especially by ECONOMIC INJUSTICE, as it manifests in the perpetuation of wealthy, privileged classes in all nations, and transnationally keeping whole regions and peoples impoverished in order to advance their own wealth beyond the point that it could ever be spent or used.

In remembering Mandela the FIGHTER, we are obligated to remember two things that are true of ALL fighters.  Firstly, one does not become a FIGHTER if there are not forces aligned fighting AGAINST him, and the forces aligned against Mandela and his fellow ANC brothers and sisters were MASSIVE and well connected to money and power worldwide. 

Some of those people are STILL in power, and there is NOTHING UNSEEMLY about politicizing the death of a revolutionary by drawing attention to what he fought for, and how that applies to the struggles we continue to engage in today.  We SHOULD remind the world that Dick Cheney voted AGAINST sanctions against South Africa in 1986, and that Ronald Reagan VETOED the bill, before having his veto overridden by a Congress that included a GOP controlled Senate.  Only THEN did the United States government tangibly oppose the racist institution.

Secondly, we must remember that sometimes fighters must resort to VIOLENCE when violence is used against them.  For every example of non-violent protest by MLK or Gandhi that we are taught to remember from history, there are as many or more examples of protest that involved violence, or the implicit THREAT of violence, in order to achieve social justice.  Occupy Wall Street achieved relatively little despite its numbers because the powerful did not fear them in the same way that they once feared John Lewis and his mine workers, or even Gandhi and his millions or MLK and his.  Gandhi may have been the most peaceful of men, but what the British saw was millions of Indians striking in the streets, and they were scared it would become violent.  The powerful have NEVER given over their power to the people without first having the VERY REAL FEAR that it would be TAKEN if not turned over peacefully.

Yes, Mandela and the ANC used violence to fight the violence that was being done upon them by the Apartheid government of South Africa.  He was jailed in 1963, not for his words, but for his ACTIONS.  He was a convicted TERRORIST.  But in the end, he was not only victorious in his fight, he was COMPLETELY VINDICATED.  You have dig pretty deep into the scum of the right-wing to find those who still think he was not completely justified in his struggle, and in his tactics. 

Mandela will be remembered for all of human history as a hero to his people and all people.  Those who opposed him will be vilified, or forgotten.  He lived to know history's judgment.  That is the greatest gift a man may receive.

08 November 2012

Cracking The Mirrored Marble

One of my favorite songs, by one of my favorite bands, on the topic of expanding one's mind.  
Completely off topic, Doug's guitar is exactly the same color and model as mine, except he seems to have nicer pickups.  I'd never noticed before.

Yesterday, Barack Obama was re-elected President.  From an electoral vote perspective, it wasn't really close.  I had been telling anyone who asked (and many who didn't) for weeks that Obama had a comfortably wide path to victory, even losing several key swing states.  Romney's path to victory was much narrower, needing to win most of the large swing states to have a chance of reaching the 270 EV threshold.  This seemed pretty elementary, being that Obama had scored 365 EV in 2008, so he could afford to lose 95 EVs from that map and still win, even if that would not be a strong way to win politically.  Needless to say, I wasn't sweating the final result too much.

My confidence also came from the fact that I'm a poll junkie, so I try to catch as much information about the polling as I can from as early on in the cycle as I can.  I watch the trends, within the different polling outfits, within the individual states, not so much on a national level, because that is not how we decide the Presidential election, but I watch those too.  Most importantly, I pay attention to the polling aggregators such as Nate Silver (aka "poblano") at FiveThirtyEight.com and Sam Wang at Princeton Election Consortium.  These guys, and others like them, take a wide sampling of the polls done by all of the dozens of pollsters in the field and crunch all of those numbers to come up with odds for certain election outcomes.  Nate Silver's background before doing this professionally was in baseball statistics (think Moneyball) where he was also quite successful in modelling predictions of future performance.

Silver gained great notoriety (and his New York Times gig) by his great accuracy in predicting the 2008 Democratic primaries and general election, where he called 49 of 50 states correctly (missing only Missouri, which was the closest race in the nation, taking several days to finally call for McCain).  Wang quietly predicted all 50 states correctly in 2008.  They have continued to tweak their models over the years so that they would be even more accurate predictors, and with not quite all of the returns in this year, they appear to have done just about as well (Silver got 50 of 50, Wang 49 missing only Florida, which is again the last state to call).

Of course, there were dozens of pundits on TV and with other media outlets who made predictions on the election outcome in the days prior to the vote.  Some did much better than others.  If you look at the linked predictions, you'll see that the right-wing pundits tended to give the race to Romney by varying margins (many of them laughable, especially in light of the 126 EV margin Obama ended up winning by).  Now, one could say that this was done somewhat cynically, in order to not depress Republican turnout and to give their guy a chance to win, but based on some of the WILD predictions, and some of the reactions when Obama ended up winning, I think that most of these people were genuinely shocked that Romney was not victorious.  How did the once mighty right-wing message machine come to ultimately believe their own bullshit?  

The successful Republican electoral majority of the last generation has always depended on the votes of large numbers of people whose economic interests were in direct conflict with the policies devised and espoused by the leadership of the party.  These "social conservatives" were never going to benefit from tax cuts for the rich or elimination of the estate tax or capital gains taxes, or truly any other tax shelter devised to benefit the wealthy, and would in fact lose out on the societal infrastructure benefits that would be cut to pay for those tax cuts.  But these social conservatives do love America, and they love freedom, and they love God, and they love unborn babies, and they hate Communists, and they hate liberals, and they hate homosexuals, and they're scared of black people and foreigners, and they distrust scientists and intellectuals and anyone who thinks or acts differently from them, and they respect and trust authority, and they stick together, and their religious faith makes them ready programmed to believe unbelievable stories and contradictory explanations for complex things.  They were the perfect foot soldiers for the conservative movement of the late 20th Century, and they were the greatest political force in America for over 20 years.

The problem was, they were a Frankenstein's Monster creation of the conservative economic and intellectual elite, and eventually the Monster was going to demand a part in the direction of the movement.  It began with the old guard of the Republican Party simply using them to get elected in the 1980s by promising social action that was either impossible to achieve or which they had no intention of acting upon.  Then in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich found that  if he could get a bunch of yes-men elected to Congress who would be 100% loyal to the Party, the Party would be much more unified and powerful, so his GOPAC trained recruits not to think about policy (Newt had that all taken care of himself), but simply to follow orders, vote as told, and repeat prescribed talking points.  FoxNews brought the orders and talking points to the masses, expanding the message beyond just the evangelical churches to a much wider conservative audience who could also now all be on the same page.  Rush Limbaugh and other talk radio icons brought the emotion to the message and taught the listeners not just what to think but how to feel about the issues.

By the 2000s, practically all dissension in the conservative movement had been eliminated, with policies coming from the White House, passed uniformly by the Republicans in Congress, and accepted as right and good by the Republican rank and file, regardless of contradictions from supposed principles of conservatism.  But like all centralized authoritarian movements, there is a short lifespan because it is not dynamic and alive with new leaders rising to replace the old.  What ended up happening was that the old puppet masters like Gingrich and Cheney and Bush Sr. started to be replaced by their yes-men like Dennis Hastert and John Boehner and Tom DeLay, men with no ideas, only the ability to keep other lesser minds in line.  

The final step in the demise of the modern conservative movement is the Tea Party, a group of credulous ignoramuses with reserves of anger that only needed to be focused by someone at something.  Like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the GOPAC kids, now the nominal leaders of the Republican Party and conservative movement, thought they could control the minions like they had seen their masters do in the past.  But their kung fu was not strong enough, and the Teabaggers got themselves elected to Congress and would not be told what to do by these old, corrupted career politicians.  Now the Republican Party has not a great mind among them in elected office, and no real prospect of any coming up in the ranks.

Throughout all of this time though, outsiders always had this ominous sense that there were brains behind the scenes who knew the truth of the world and simply drew up the devious plans and lies and deceptions and fed them out into the world, laughing menacingly to themselves as the dupes of America unwittingly dug their own graves while bequeathing their meager fortunes to the men in the smoke-filled rooms.  What we appear to have witnessed in the past two years however is that there is no one left, even behind the scenes of the GOP, who has any idea what they are doing anymore, and they may in fact not even be aware of the truths of the world in order to fashion effective lies.  The Republican primaries of 2012 were a clown car of complete jokes of candidates, including the intelligent but morally repulsive Mr. Gingrich, none of whom should ever have been considered by anyone to be qualified for the highest office in the land.  Mitt Romney was winner of the nomination by default, due in large part to his good looks, great wealth (and wealthy backers), and his willingness to say absolutely anything to win votes and to destroy his opponents.  But when he finally had to face a real opponent in President Obama and his campaign organization, Romney and his campaign looked every bit the crew of amateurs and fuck-ups that they were.  If it weren't for Obama's unwillingness to call out Romney on his heavy stream of bullshit in the first televised debate, Romney would probably have never come within 5 points of Obama in the national polls, and the electoral blowout would have been even worse than it was, because even the slanted and deluded pollsters wouldn't have been able to keep it appearing close enough to keep hope alive among the Party rank and file.

Which brings me to the Republican information bubble.  It has gone by many names over the past ten years including "echo-chamber", "feedback loop" and "cone of silence".  The basic idea is that conservatives, with the advent of FoxNews and of right-wing radio and websites and newspapers, can happily go through their lives now without ever hearing any opposing viewpoints from the media, if they choose.  If any opposing or conflicting ideas do manage to creep in, the sources of that information are derided as the "liberal media", or some other ad hominem slur designed to deligitimize anything that source says or does.  Lies are created and repeated, thus reinforcing them because when you hear even false information from multiple sources it has the patina of truth, and attempts to correct the falsehoods are blocked out as being lies themselves, from conspiracies of liars outside the bubble.  It is such a strong analogy because the information originates in the bubble, bounces around, and the bubble effectively prevents any outside information from penetrating.  The thing is, life inside the bubble becomes a severe distortion of reality, often bearing no resemblance at all to reality outside the bubble, which is damaging to the people inside, but when those people choose to act upon the world outside based on their distorted worldview, it becomes dangerous to everyone.

Once upon a time, I became very interested in the nature of the mind and consciousness, especially the idea that one could expand one's consciousness through directed thoughts and actions.  I was engaged by the idea that people use only a small percentage of the powers of our brains and minds.  I was fascinated by the abilities of some people to be aware of things around them that most people did not ever notice.  I saw patterns in apparently random natural phenomena that some mathematicians were able to explain and approximate through computer models.  I did a lot of research, both academic and practical, on the subject of consciousness and developed numerous theories and metaphors for the relationships between the elements of the body, mind, and spirit with the rest of the physical world.

Critical in any discussion of mind and consciousness is the idea of perception, or how we experience ourselves and our surroundings.  I came to conceive of consciousness as an "I" (or "eye") inside the mind, through which all is experienced.  It experiences simultaneously the physical senses of sight, sound, touch and taste/smell, it experiences emotions, and it experiences memories through recall and remembrance.  I tended to view the I as a pair of poles, like the poles of a magnet, with a field passing between them, a field of experience, of perception, the passing of which we understand as the passage of time.  

(If you wish, you may think of the I as the "soul", that part of you that is most centrally you, but also most purely universal and like every other living thing.  A little drop of Godstuff connected by an infinitely thin thread to a tree of similar threads from other people, animals, plants, and all things, possibly to the great oversoul of the earth and the universe.  Your religious conceptions may vary...)

Our experience, our consciousness of this experiential field limited by two factors.  The first is the energy of the field, which I would illustrate by the distance between the two poles of the I (it's coincidental, but useful, that in my illustration the "I" is shaped like a capital letter I , with the top and bottom being the poles, and the field passing through between).  The more energy in the magnet of the I, the further apart the poles can be, and the more "experience" can pass between the poles.  This is an expansion of consciousness, greater awareness of yourself, your surroundings, your thoughts and senses.

The second limitation is the ego, and I illustrate the idea of the ego as a hollow, spherical glass that is darkened much like mirrored sunglasses.  All experience from the mind (the triangle of the senses, emotions and memory) first passes through the filter of the ego before it can pass through the I.  Over a lifetime, the ego sphere is burned and stained by the experiences of the individual, affecting and coloring all subsequent experience in ways that make your experience uniquely "yours".  In fact, most people are so colored by the ego filter that they identify themselves as the ego itself.  But as the Buddha and others of great expanded consciousness have told us throughout time, the ego is only an illusion of self, and a limitation on our experience of the truth of the universe.

In most people, in times of normal consciousness, the I is very small in relation to the ego in which it resides.  It floats around in what can seem like a massive sea of the experiential field, moving from sensation to sensation, thought to thought, feeling to feeling, grasping only small slices of the total experience of life at any given moment, and this can lead to the false perception of disintegration and isolation from the universe and other I's.  Many I's may have the perception that the inside of the ego sphere is the whole of the universe, not even conceiving of the fact that the field of experience about which they float is merely a filtered version of reality, colored by the ego and reflecting this false self.

But the great teachers have taught throughout history, and prehistory, that we can expand our consciousness to crack through the mirrored glass of the ego, to experience reality without the filter, and to be able to look back at the falsehood, the smallness, and the insignificance of the ego-self.  Yogis, shamans, prophets, and other spiritual adepts have devised techniques, exercises, meditations, concoctions, and other methods to enable expansion of consciousness as a way to be more in touch with the reality of the universe.  The experience of breaking through the ego filter is akin to having spent your entire life wearing sunglasses (scratched and dirty sunglasses at that) and then for the first time taking them off.  All experience is suddenly more immediate, more integrated, more clear, and more TRUE.

The wonderful thing about successfully achieving an extra-egotistical experience is that even if you cannot permanently hold on to that state of expanded consciousness (the way the great prophets attempt to achieve nirvana through the ultimate dissolution of the ego), it is an experience that you can take with you back to a more "normal" conscious state, allowing you to subsequently perceive life differently.  You remain aware of the existence of your ego, of its relatively insignificant place within yourself, and you remain aware of its flaws and stains and how those imperfections affect your perception of truth.  You have new perspective, because you have experienced life from the outside looking in, and the outside looking out, and you know that the tiny space you generally inhabit deep inside of your mind and ego is very small, and significant only to you.  It is merely your own personal distortion of reality.

Something quite remarkable occurred yesterday regarding all of those election predictions.  While the whole world was watching, Nate Silver and Sam Wang and those who tried as hard as they could to extract themselves from their predictions of the election, relying as much as humanly possible on numbers and data and mathematics and objective reality, proved that they were superior in their predictions of reality than so-called "experts" and "insiders" and "experienced political professionals" who had made careers of analyzing political contests through the filters of their egos.  They proved that, even in the world of politics, there is an objective reality, it is measurable, and it can produce predictable results.  And while I would be hopelessly optimistic to think that the reality of the lies and distortions of the FoxNews bubble will become evident to large numbers of those who willingly have placed themselves in that information cocoon, I do hope that there will be large numbers of people, especially in the non-Fox political media, who will finally come to recognize that the FoxNews bubble is not only insular, but it is distorted and perverted to the point where no information emanating from it can ever be trusted to be anything but hopelessly distorted and perverted.  Maybe, we'll get just a little more truth.

04 August 2012

Homelessness - Part I "My Hometown"

Before I begin, no, this is not going to be about actually having no roof over one's head.  I'm fortunate to have that, and being that there are more than 5 times as many vacant homes in the United States as there are those without homes, it is a problem that we should not have in a civilized country.  But we are not civilized, we are capitalists, and that is for another day...

No, I want to write about the more esoteric meaning of "home".  About how much of one's identity comes from that understanding of having a place in the world that is yours, and that you are its.  It's a feeling that I believe I've always sought, but which has eluded me for most of my life.  Somehow, my wife and I got speaking about this tonight, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, so I'm going to write it all down.

Despite the fact that I was fortunate enough to live in the same hometown and attend the same public school system for 13 years in my youth, "home" was not a single place or sense for me after I was nine years old or so.  Right at the end of third grade, we moved across town to a new house, and although it was technically in the same elementary school zone, for some reason my mother decided that it would be better for me to go to a different elementary school for fourth grade.  My little sister continued in the old school all the way through, but apparently there was something better, the gifted program perhaps, that it was important for me to be a part of and to separate from all of my friends that I had made over the previous four years.  I remember my mother telling me that when all the elementary school students joined back together for fifth grade at the intermediate school, it would be "like I was fluent in two languages" because I would know kids from both schools.  The fact is that I ended up feeling illiterate in two languages, because I was the new kid at the one school that I only attended for one year, and I became separated from my old friends for a full year, which caused a rift that never truly healed.  I knew kids from both schools, but never really belonged to either.

At this same time, my parents divorced.  My new house was affected before it could become my new home.  In fact, the central events in the divorce seem to have gone down during a week that I was attending a sleep-away soccer camp, the only time I ever went to sleep-away camp as a kid.  I came home, and "home" was dramatically different, in ways I could sense even if I couldn't fully intellectualize them at the time.  By the time my parents took me aside to tell me that they were getting divorced a few weeks later, I was not shocked, even though life had changed very little for me over those weeks, except that my dad was away, like on a very long business trip.  I knew, even though I didn't know.

So, three major life changes all happening within a few months to a nine year-old.  I guess I can add on top of that my mother going to work for the first time in my life, both sets of grandparents moving from their homes that same year (places that had a multigenerational "home" feeling for me), and both of my parents having new relationships and getting remarried within a few years.

With my parents divorced, it meant I was away with my dad every other weekend from that time forward, further separating me from my friends, who had experiences on the weekends I was away that I could not be a part of, and which made me feel less close to them.  I always felt like I was missing something when I was away, even if what I was doing was often objectively more fun and interesting than anything I might have missed.  It led me to have a deep insecurity about being on the outside, even in my groups of close friends.  As I got older, I always made it a point to stay until the end of the party so I would make sure I didn't miss the best part, even though the end of the party was more often than not relatively boring.  I chose not to take advantage of opportunities I had to travel abroad, first with my grandfather in high school, and later in college, for fear that I might miss something at home, and those are decisions that I very much regret.  I guess, at some level, I feared that if I went away for any period of time, I'd come home and everything would be changed and I wouldn't be able to understand why, or I would become an outsider to my old friends.

Eighth grade was probably the worst.  Surely, I'm far from the only person to ever say those words.  But my home-life had a few major changes at that time that made "home" more up in the air than ever for me.  My dad and step-mother bought a house much closer to where my mother lived.  Unlike my dad's old one-bedroom apartment, this was a very large house with many bedrooms for my sister and me, and within a year, a new baby brother.  My dad and step-mother truly made every effort to make their new house a home for me and my sister, they really did.  But despite having my own room and bed and some furniture and things there, it was never really my "home".  It was my dad's family's home, and I had a place there, but I was just a very frequent visitor.  I blame no one for this, it's just how I felt.  My little brother, and little sister born two years later, grew up in that house, and it was their home all the way through high school.  I really envy that, the stability, the permanence, the "home" of it.  I loved that house, and it was the home that stayed at most of the time when I was home from college and for the year after I graduated, but by that time, it was just a more comfortable place to be, where I had more personal space, than my mother's house.

At the same time, the summer after eighth grade, my mother got married.  My step-father had been living with us for some time before that, which was a change in my "home" in itself, but what really changed was that after they were married, his daughter came to live with us full time, not just as an occasional weekend guest.  At that time, she and I could not have been more different, and we did not get along at all.  I was very upset at the new arrangement, and I let that be known.  What had been a house where I already felt it difficult to find a space of my own, became that much more so.  It's not like it was a tiny house, or that we had to share bedrooms or anything like that, but there was just something about the design of that house that made it so that every sound echoed through every room, and there was no peace to be found.  My step-sister and I are cool now, but she was not a welcome addition to my home when I was 14.

I tried to spend as much time at sports practices or friends' houses as I could, coming home in time for dinner and bed.  My friends never came over to my house.  Part of that was because my house was the most distant from everywhere else we'd ever go, but a lot of it was that there was nowhere to be there, nowhere that my sisters weren't, and frankly there was nothing to do there.  My rooms in both of my homes were always rather spare and undecorated because all I ever did there was sleep or do homework.  I didn't want to spend time there, why would anyone else?  When I was allowed to borrow the car later in high school, it only increased my ability to not be at home.

Even after I had a car to use, my weekends with my dad made my high school years somewhat distant from my hometown.  I was away many weekends, and even when I had the ability to drive the 20 minutes back to my town, it seemed that so many years of my not being around contributed to my not being included, or invited, for many get togethers.  My best friends were always there for me, but I believe that I could have had a wider social circle had I not spent my teen years out of town half of the weekends.  I never met or knew a single kid from the town where my dad lived, and even my hometown was not fully home at the time in life when identification with your town and school seem to be the most important.

Now it's 20 years later.  My mother and step-father retired to New Mexico in 2004.  My father and step-mother retired to California in 2008.  My step-sister and her family live not too far from where I grew up, but I don't have any other remaining family in the area.  There is no more "home base" where I can stay if I ever travel back.  For this reason, between my step-sister's wedding in 2007 and my cousin's wedding in 2011, I never even set foot in the state.  I still have friends there, and many more friends who still have family there, whom I'd see at holidays and such, but I don't ever see them anymore, because even my hometown is no longer "home" in any way.

And me?  I keep moving...

To be continued in Part II "Never Going Back To My Old School".

17 July 2012


I appreciate your willingness to engage on this subject.  This deserves a well-planned and thorough response, and you shall have it.  I’m going to start with generalities, and I hope my arguments will become more persuasive and pointed as I finish.

Firstly, I have already read this article.  It was probably the top laughingstock opinion piece in Left Blogistan this morning.  Although David Gergen is far from the worst hack D.C. pundit (Alex Pareene seems to respect him enough to have not included him in either his “Hack 30” or “Hack 20” lists either of the past 2 years), he is a fine example of the Washington, D.C. “Village Elite” class of journalists.  In other words, he is someone who is entrenched in the establishment, and the way one becomes entrenched in the establishment is by jettisoning one’s journalistic sense of truth or falsehood and replacing it with a motivation to be “even-handed” and share the other side of the story, even if it is complete bunkum.  After all, you don’t get invited to all those swank Georgetown cocktail parties if you start pissing off the people throwing the parties, know what I mean?

OK, so the ad hominem portion of the program is complete, except for the fact that Gergen comes out directly in his second paragraph and states that HE IS BIASED in this area because of his numerous friends at Bain and his numerous financial dealings with them!  Yes, I suppose it is better for him to disclose these connections before writing an opinion piece on the subject, but it begs the question, “Wasn’t there some OTHER Senior Political Analyst at CNN who could have written on this topic, rather than the person in the bureau who is most in bed with the subject?”  It’s damned near impossible to take anything he says seriously after this confession.

But, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and see if he actually has any sense to make.  In his next paragraph, Gergen explains the nature of his bias in more detail.

I have come to admire and like the leaders of Bain Capital because I have learned firsthand that in a private equity industry, where there are obviously some predatory companies, Bain stands out for the respect in which it is generally held and for the generous philanthropy of some of its partners. Nothing I have seen so far has shaken that view.

So, David Gergen has met and knows several people associated with Bain, and he likes them, and they are charitable, and nothing he has read so far has shaken his view that his friends are nice and charitable, as far as vultures in the private equity business go.  That's high praise indeed, Mr. Gergen, but of course, it has nothing to do, one way or another, with any actual facts or evidence regarding Mitt Romney, his tenure with Bain Capital, or his statements from the stump or in SEC or FEC filings to the contrary.  But thank you very much for adding that little taste of honey for all your readers before you get into the serious stuff.

Gergen, to his credit, proceeds to fairly properly, if rather narrowly, lay out the nature of the controversy and the meaning behind it, by explaining that yes, it is proper to scrutinize Romney's Bain tenure (since he is basing his campaign almost entirely on his past experience as a business leader, in the most general sense), and that it would be a significant revelation if it turned out that Romney had in fact been involved in some of the unpopular outsourcing, job killing, and fetus disposal business that Bain is known to have engaged in during the period when Romney was primarily running the Olympics from February 1999 through August 2002.  Unfortunately, Gergen seems to imply that this is the ONLY possible significant revelation from the filings, statements, and other evidence that have come to light regarding Romney's tenure at Bain, both before 1999 and after, and regarding statements and testimony he has given in the past 10 years about it.  But I'll cover what Gergen neglects later.

The real hackery begins with the next section, where rather than diving right into the known and accepted facts of the matter, the Villager in him can't help but first ask whether Romeny has "handled the scrutiny well".  While this is interesting from a political angle, and may shed some light on the type of President Romney might make, who gives a shit, David?  Is this all just a game to you, a horse race, entertainment to fill programming hours on your network?  Your headline says that the FACTS don't support Obama's criticisms.  Well, I haven't seen FACT #1 yet, but you're already discussing whether Romney his handling the scrutiny well or not.  It would be hard to craft a better parody of D.C. insider wankery.  

Fortunately, he answers his stupid question correctly, and also answers his next slightly off-topic question correctly when he says that Romney should release his tax returns.  Not that anyone came to David Gergen, Moral Compass, to find out what a presidential candidate should or should not do, except that Gergen is a political analyst, so he gives his answer based on what would make for the best optics for the Romney campaign.  

As an aside, I have a feeling that Mitt Romney and his campaign team have already considered this imaginative solution, David, and they've come to the conclusion that unfortunately, the better optics are to NOT reveal what is in his last 10 to 15 years of tax returns.  Mitt Romney has many shortcomings as a candidate, but being stupid and uncalculating is not one of them.  As bad as it looks to stonewall, showing his tax returns would look worse.  I'll leave the reason for that to your imagination...  

In any case, Gergen has now completed the maneuver in Centrist non-Analysis that I like to call the "Sensibility Shuffle".  He has made several statements that are quite sensible to practically anyone in the political middle, and even leaned a touch to the left by weakly calling for more transparency from Romney.  Now he can feel free to shift to the right and say things that might not stand up to scrutiny on their own, except that he has given himself political cover by speaking some sensible centrist platitudes first.  I'm not going to simply follow the magician's hand, though.  Let's see what he actually does (and does not) say when we get to the actual issue he is claiming to address in this article.

Gergen asks the question, "Has Romney basically lied about when he actually departed Bain?  Has he tried to mislead the public or investors?"  He concludes that there is not sufficient evidence to support this.  I think, after all of the evidence that I have seen over the past few days, I might have to agree that Romney and Bain probably did not try to mislead their investors.  There was a offering brochure for one of their investments in 2000 that referred to Romney as being part-time (or something like that, I can't find it right now), and I think that is a fair disclosure to give to potential investors, and I have no reason to believe that other investments were not handled similarly.  But if we're going to discuss whether Romney has, at any time since 1999, tried to mislead the PUBLIC, you have to be willfully obtuse to come to any conclusion other then "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!"  Mitt Romney misleads the public with virtually every statement that comes out of his mouth.  For the past 25 WEEKS, Steve Benen has been Chronicling Mitt's Mendacity for the Maddow Blog, and he backs up all of his claims of Romney's lies with links to the truth.  It's a marvelous resource, if you're interested in truth.

The "investigation" by Gergen of the "facts" is pitiful by any standards of journalism.  He wants to know how it all went down at Bain during the period in question, and so he goes and asks some of his above mentioned Bain friends about what happened.  This is not an entirely useless exercise, as first-hand insider accounts add much color and detail to investigations like this.  But it is the ONLY investigation he did, and he took their accounts on their word, because he knows these people, and they are good and honorable men, who give money to charities and throw great parties, and would never dream of buying a company in 40:1 debt ratio leveraged buyout, pay themselves eight figures in management fees, and then declare bankruptcy leaving dozens or hundreds of people out of work.  

Oh, and how many of his Bain friends did he speak to?  "But based on relationships over several years, I trust his or her account."  ONE!?!  Did you speak with ONE person, David?  Or was it two, and you're just trying to hide whether it was one or more?  You clever investigative reporter, you.

But what corroborating evidence does Gergen present?  Why, he presents Factcheck.org!  And the article he cites "was co-written [CO-WRITTEN!!!] by a man who was once a top investigative journalist for CNN."  Wow!  The same organization that employs such stellar fact checkers as YOU, David?!?  Regardless of one's opinion of Factcheck.org, it is simply another analysts opinion that happens to agree with Gergen's.  It is not by any stretch "corroboration".  It is "self-validation", which may be great for Stuart Smalley, but does nothing for journalism.

Most importantly though, in focusing ENTIRELY on the question of whether Mitt Romney was "no longer actively managing the company," he completely misses the LIES that Mitt Romney has told, in both written and spoken testimony, in the years since.  

No informed liberal partisan has been arguing the strawman that Gergen refutes in this article, namely that Mitt Romeny, while simultaneously working 100 hours a week to save the SLC Olympics, was taking a concerted, active, day-to-day role in managing Bain Capital in Boston.  What we HAVE been saying is that THESE are the FACTS:

1) Mitt Romney left Bain in February 1999 to take over management of the, and in the two and a half years that followed, Bain's SEC filings listed Romney as the "sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president".  Whether he was actually performing all of his duties under those extremely important titles, whether he was managing the operations of the company and its investments in depth on a regular basis, he was still, according to federal filings, the party legally (and from the Obama campaign's political perspective, morally) responsible for all of those operations and investment management.  This is probably the least important LIE exposed of late, but it sure looks bad when...

2) Mitt Romney collected a salary of (at least) $100,000 per year during the period of 1999 to 2002 for those "executive duties", apart from his earnings from investments and dividend.  Either he was actually doing SOME work under his numerous titles with Bain, or he was collecting a six figure salary for doing absolutely nothing.  While absolutely hideous from a political optics perspective, there's nothing illegal about drawing a salary for doing nothing.  Unfortunately for Mitt, there is quite a bit of evidence that he was doing more than nothing...

3) In June 2002, Mitt Romney testified before the Massachusetts Ballot Law Commission in order to establish that he met the residency requirements to run for governor.  In that testimony that during his Olympic tenure, "[T]here were a number of social trips and business trips that brought me back to Massachusetts, board meetings, Thanksgiving and so forth."  The testimony also disclosed that he "remained on the board of the Staples Corporation and Marriott International, the LifeLike Corporation," all Bain investments at the time.  Regarding the Staples board meetings, "I returned for most of those meetings. Others I attended by telephone if I could not return."  

And what did Romney's personal lawyer say about these matters at those MBLC hearings?  He said that Romney "continued to serve on the board of directors of a significant Massachusetts company and to return here for most of its board meetings," and, "Now while [the Olympics management] was going on, very much in the public eye, what happened to his private and public ties to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? And the answer is they continued unabated just as they had."

So, I think, even if Romney was not heavily involved in the management of Bain Capital during the period in question, his involvement was far from ZERO, and he certainly painted a much more involved picture when it served him to try to establish his residency in order to run for Governor.  This is the REALLY big problem, because...

4) On August 12, 2011, Romney filed his federal disclosure form with the FEC for his current presidential campaign, in which he ATTESTED under penalty of perjury, "Mr. Romney retired from Bain Capital on February 11, 1999 to head the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. Since February 11, 1999, Mr. Romney has not had any active role with any Bain Capital entity and has not been involved in the operations of any Bain Capital entity in any way." The 2002 testimony above directly contradicts this statement.  This is where the Obama campaign's charges of perjury stem from, and David Gergen didn't address this point AT ALL in his article in yesterday's Washington Post.

So did he lie under oath to the MBLC in 2002, or did he lie under oath to the FEC in 2011?  Both cannot be true, no matter what your definition of "is" is.