Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Original Sin and Wendy's: aka (Fear and Loathing at Wendy's)

In Christianity, there is a sense that we are created in God's image, endowed with great powers of thought and reason, capable of such love and such tenderness.  Yet we fall from this ideal, committing sin.  In fact, translated from Hebrew, sin essentially means "missing the mark."  The best analogy we have in today's world is that of Wendy's fast food restaurants.  On every billboard, on every commercial, we see a large, juicy hamburger perfectly arranged.  The bun appears crispy and fresh, the lettuce crisp, the fries golden brown, and of course, we need never ask "where's the beef"--it is always there smiling back at us.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  As a fast food gourmand, I take my fast food seriously.  In a world filled with sickness, disease, war, and poverty, one of the few pleasures we get is fast food.  After the occasional  long day of dealing with extreme hardship, the only thing that gets me through is hope, hope that I can have fresh fries and a tasty cheeseburger to drown away my sorrows in carbs and grease.

I have had Wendy's all over the country.  I have tried it in rural locations, in city locations, and in suburban locations.  It doesn't matter where I go--all of them are shitty.  Whether it be rude service or ice-cold french fries, Wendy's never fails to disappoint.  If you are on the brink of despair, just travel to Wendy's to pitch your last loaf of hope.  In this way, Wendy's should be served as a last meal to those on Death Row as one last, final punishment.  This is never going to happen, though, because the Constitution provides against the serving of cruel and unusual punishment.  We can put someone to death, yes, but never make someone eat Wendy's.

In fact, there should be a banner above the door, similar to above that in Dante's Hell, which says "Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here".  One time I went through the drive through and clearly said I wanted a cheeseburger with "everything except tomato and lettuce."  Knowing they were likely to fuck it up, I said this twice and very clearly.  Ten minutes later, as I am driving home and opening the wrapper to my cheeseburger, they left off everything except tomato and lettuce.  There was no ketchup, no mustard, nothing.  Why didn't they just stone me?  Those fucks.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt another time, I decided to "dine" in the restaurant.  I hesitate to refer to "dining" as what happens at chez Wendy's, but nevertheless I am feeling generous, what with it being Christmas and all.  Anyway, I approached Zeke, the human surprise, working the counter.  He looked at me suspiciously.

 "Yes, I would like a Wendy's single combo meal, please".

Zeke rang up the order.  Less than one minute later, my order was ready.  Zeke and associates, all five of them, were chatting.  Apparently people aren't breaking down the doors to eat at the place.  Looking at the limp, pathetic entities below me, I took a bite.

 "These fries are ice cold, can you please make me new ones?"  I asked.  Zeke came me a the ole' one tooth scowl.

 "Ya," he replied.  "Just a minute".  I sat down and had my cheeseburger, sans the fries.

Ten minutes later, still no fries.  I went up to the counter.  Zeke and Bo were chatting with another associate. They looked at me and kept talking.  No response.  Three minutes later, they were still talking.  I looked over at the hopper and there sat my fries, now cold.  I gave them a look and the best shit eating grin I could bear.  Still no response.

I literally had to leave because they absolutely wouldn't bring me my fries.

Several months passed.  I decided to try another Wendy's, this one far removed from the banner Wendy's of my prior acquaintance.  This time, there was no one standing behind me in the line (surprise, surprise).  I ordered a large french fry.  As part of the order was up, I grabbed a fry and ate it, as I was filled with joy that I was actually getting fresh fries for once.  Wrong move.

"That's not your fry"  the girl barked at me.

"Who's are they?" I asked, as there was no one else around.

"That was a reorder".  "You don't just grab someone's fries without knowing they are yours!" the girl said.

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize they weren't mine.  No one else is around".

"Well, that's not the point.  You don't just grab someone else's fries!"  the girl grew more vehement.

I couldn't believe I was being bitch slapped by a Wendy's associate, and this girl meant business.  My wife was going to defend me given the girl's rudeness.  However, having read the Dante banner above the door, I knew better.  I was being punished for my sins, and this little devil was there to deliver evil justice to me.

Almost a year passed.  Either hopelessly naive or incredibly stupid, I decided to give it another college try.  This time, I embarked upon yet another Wendy's adventure.  "There's no way this is going to get fucked up again", I thought to myself.  Wrong again.  This time, the cheeseburger was half baked.  Or perhaps it was the worker who was half baked, I don't know. Either way, the cheese on my burger wasn't melted.  This only helped to highlight the pathetic state of the burger itself, which was made lopsided and the bread day old and Auschwitz-biscuit hard.  Not wanting to loose a filling, I gave up.  My days of Wendy's were over.  I accepted my fate and knew that no matter how hard the day, no matter which Wendy's I went to, I was going to be tortured.

Not that it is better for the employees, mind you.  I know a woman who worked at Wendy's for over 25 years.  Given the turnover of fast food establishments, this is a marvelous feat in itself.  You would think Dave Thomas would have flown in himself to congratulate the woman upon retirement (this was when Dave was still alive).  Did Dave show up to congratulate and thank her for her many years of service?  Fuck no.  Zeke Jr. practically kicked the woman in the ass, sending her away with stone cold fries and a cheeseburger with nothing but tomato and lettuce, no ketchup or even mustard.

Just the sound of the name "Wendy's" makes my skin crawl.  Tea Partiers are always going on and on about the efficiencies of business over government.  Wendy's is a perfect example of how capitalism can go wrong.  No doubt Marx got the idea for Das Kapital after eating at Wendy's. The post office can deliver my mail for .44 cents to the continental United States and lose money.  Yet Wendy's can fuck up my food any day of the week and make gobs of money doing it.  It's enough to make you join an Occupy Wall Street event.  Seriously, I doubt the top 1% are eating at Wendy's.  If they are, they must also be into other masochistic activities, like getting their Kindle Touches to actually work or using the Mac operating system.

I don't know where Dave Thomas is now.  God rest his soul.  But if he were to be revived after being cryogenically frozen after 200 years, lord knows he would be awakened to a world of new wonders.  Robots that look and act like people with human intelligence, flying cars, and holographic movies.  The only thing he would recognize of his former world would be on the corner--a fucking Wendy's tended by the great great grandchildren of Zeke, chatting while his fries were getting cold.

Some things never change.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Merry Christmas", and Other Offensive Remarks

I'm not sure when it started, but within the last ten years or so it has become fashionably unpopular to say
"Merry Christmas" to strangers.  Even though Christmas has become totally commercialized and essentially de-Christianized in popular culture, we dare not speak the horrific phrase "Merry Christmas".  Bah humbug to that.

Good or bad, most people in this nation identify themselves as Christian.  The vast majority of people, religious or not, celebrate the secular version of Christmas.  This being the case, it shouldn't be such a fucking big deal if we say "Merry Christmas" to strangers.   If I were a Jew, Hindu or Muslim, I wouldn't be so sensitive that I would have a heart attack if someone said this phrase to me.  The notion that most people celebrate a holiday I may not celebrate doesn't and shouldn't offend me.  If it does, than piss on me.  I deserve to be offended.

In this country, sports has become a sort of secularized religion.  I often have store clerks ask me "How about them Browns?" In my mind, I am thinking "Hell if I know.  I didn't realize they were still in Cleveland".  But I don't take offense because these things matter greatly to many people, even though they don't to me.  "Well, sports isn't religion", you may be thinking.  Obviously you haven't met any Cleveland Browns fans.

There is one exception to this, however.  If you know that someone is a practicing member of something other than Christianity, such as an observant Jew or Muslim, don't be a dickhead and say "Merry Christmas" to them anyway.  If you do, then you are most likely an asshole with no social IQ whatsoever.  In that case, the person deserves to be offended.

Another group of turds are atheists who have a conniption whenever there are prayers at school graduations or when religious songs are performed at Christmas concerts.  If you are an atheist, you know full well that these prayers mean something to the people there.  If prayer isn't for you, then bow your head and just be quiet.  No one is forcing you to do anything.  The entire thing is innocuous.  Don't be a wet blanket and ruin the fun for those who get something out of it.  It isn't that big of a deal.

The thing that really bothers me is that business is behind all this "Happy Holidays" bullshit.  Afraid of offending advertisers and commercial sponsors, Christmas has become a "holiday".  Yet "Happy Holidays" is such a sanitized phrase it doesn't mean anything.  In the name of preserving the almighty dollar, Christmas has become neutered into an amorphous "holiday".  It's like saying "I support the troops."  WTF does this mean?  Who doesn't support the troops?  Maybe a few Nazis or two.  But this phrase has nothing to do with questioning legitimate concerns about the war in Afghanistan and the former war in Iraq.  It is an empty phrase that means everything and thus means nothing.  It is designed to shut down conversation and end rational discussion.  As soon as you question anything, you are poo pooed because you are not "supporting the troops".  Nonsense.  There is a difference between supporting the soldiers themselves and questioning government policy, doublespeak notwithstanding.

I'm not super religious.  And it isn't my interest in converting anyone through the phrase "Merry Christmas".  It is about not being so sensitive that you are annoying.    This is the problem.  So go ahead, say "Merry Christmas"  If someone gets offended and tells you, tell them "Merry fucking Christmas" instead. Whatever you do, don't be offensive and insult their intelligence by saying "Happy Holidays".

We are all too smart for that.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kindle Touch vs. Nook Simple Touch: Battle of the E-Readers

After much consideration, I decided to get a dedicated e-reader.  Some of this had to do with cost--I didn't exactly have $500 to spend on an iPad just to use for reading.  Plus I like the look of the new Pearl e-ink and the non backlit nature of the dedicated e- readers.  The final consideration was weight--I needed something light which would be easy to hold for a long period of time.  

Figuring that Amazon would ultimately prevail in the long run given its recent sales of the Kindle Fire and its aggressive marketing strategies, I decided to get the Kindle Touch.  The design of the device is gorgeous.  It feels well made, the angles on it are nice, and holding it is comfortable.  The e-ink screen had nice, clear text.  Plus it can refresh the page every six pages, unlike the older generation Kindle Keyboard, which refreshes after every page, causing a flash which can be distracting.  

I used the Kindle for a few weeks.  I found myself enjoying the experience.  It was great to have dozens of books on file, and I could borrow books from the library already in the Kindle format.  Unfortunately, the Kindle has one major,  fatal flaw--the firmware is terrible.  So terrible, in fact, that I had to return my Kindle after researching the problems further.  When you attempt to search for a book, sometimes the Kindle will lock up and give an error message that says "Unable to Start Application."  Once this happens, nothing can fix your Kindle.  You can't hit escape, you can't reboot, nothing.  The only thing that works is deleting all your books and starting over.  It is terribly frustrating.  Apparently Amazon must have been in a rush to get this device out, because the firmware is so dreadful the thing should not be sold as is.  Hoping to keep my Kindle, I looked online for a firmware update from Amazon.  As of now, none is to be found.  

This wasn't the only problem with the firmware, however.  Another problem is that sometimes the Kindle Touch will simply delete the contents of your books.  You can see the titles and go into the books, but nothing is there.  It is bad.  The last time this happened to me, I could not restore my library.  My Kindle Touch was bricked.  I had to return it.

Deciding to fight another day, I bought a Nook Simple Touch.  After having some time to review it, I can say that this device is much, much better than the Kindle Touch.  First, it has expandable memory, so it can hold up to 32 gb of storage.  This means about 64,000 books.  So theoretically you could have your own public library with you, and portable, too!

Second, the firmware is solid.  The device has yet to lock up or give me a device error message.  Having been out longer, there was even a firmware upgrade that I downloaded that made the text even more clear and dark, and sped up the Nook by quite a bit.  In fact, I could flip pages and navigate through the menus at least twice as fast as the Kindle Touch.  This was great.  I also liked the graphical user interface of the Nook a little more.  You have the option of viewing your books both as a list and as titles, which is like looking at a real bookshelf.  To flip pages, the Nook offers the ability to tap, swipe, or press physical buttons on the side of the device, which is an improvement over the Kindle's touch only method.  

The design of the Nook isn't as beautiful as that of the Kindle Touch.  It has sharper edges and while all the pieces and parts are okay, it isn't like the Kindle, which feels like it is crafted out of a block of pure metal.

Having a reader that gets out of the way and lets you read instead of bricking itself is refreshing, however.  For this reason, I recommend the Nook Simple Touch and don't recommend the Kindle Touch until a firmware upgrade that solves its problems is released.

Winner:  Nook Simple Touch

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Those Damn Automatic Flushing Things

Before the fall of the Roman Empire, no doubt one of the prevailing signs of decay and utter decadence was the surrender of the average person to flushing their own waste.  As we know from Pompeii, the Romans had plumbing, but before they did, they also had lots of slaves.  While the barbarians were at the gate, no doubt Lazius Maximus was busy having his slave wipe his bottom for him.

In America, we have finally reached that level of decadence.  Go to any diner, truck stop, rest stop or big box retailer, and you will find the "automatic" flushing toilets and sinks.  You know how it goes--you sit down on the Great White and do your business as quickly as possible.  Lord knows if you have to even be here, you aren't happy about it--this was naturally an emergency.  Hoping to make a clean getaway without being detected, you wipe and expect the toilet to automatically flush--wrong.  It never flushes.  The damn sensor won't work for anything.  You can beg, you can pray, you can wave your hand in front of it, but it doesn't matter one bit--it's never going to flush.  Yes, we can send a man to the moon.  We can design phones that have attitude and talk like people, but we can't make a toilet that flushes for shit, or flushes shit, rather.  Someone else walks in the bathroom.  Now you are caught, someone knows your in there, and they see your feet through the bottom of the stall door.  The smell indicates what happened, and you aren't flushing.  They are judging you, "Dirty bastard", they must be thinking.  You look for the button to press to manually flush the toilet.  No go.  This is an iToilet, meaning in the name of simplicity of design it doesn't have one.

You are forced to make the walk of shame to the sink without flushing.  Once again, you find yourself defeated--it's one of those automatic faucets.  You move your hand across the sensor.  Of course it doesn't work.  After you pull your hand away, the water turns on, but not long enough for you to reach it and get your hands wet.  Waving your hands up, down, side to side, it doesn't matter.  You aren't going to be getting your hand clean.  And even if you did, forget about properly drying them.  They have one of those damn air drying hand dryers.  You know, the kind that take four hours to dry your hands and don't actually remove the filth?  The kind that are installed because the establishment is too cheap to buy hand towels or too lazy to change the trash when they are discarded?  The end result of all of this technological progress is millions of toilets cluttered with shit, millions of unwashed hands, and lots of dryer towels being saved.

At least the trees are happy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why I Am Waiting To Buy An iPad

I read all the technology blogs, including Ars Technica, Slashdot, CNET, and Wired.  The enthusiasm for the iPad and other tablets seems to be unbridled.  Everyone, it seems, has one.  And with the increase in Android based tablets and the Amazon Fire, this trend is only increasing.  I see the benefits of a tablet--they are light, portable, simple to use, and fun.  You can sit comfortably on your couch and surf the internet without the threat of a laptop melting your junk or being stuck in front of a desktop monitor.  The biggest drawback to the iPad is the price--at $500 for a new entry level model, that isn't cheap, especially since you can buy a netbook now for $200 that does even more than an iPad.

The Android tablets vary in quality from the no-name Chinese made pieces of trash to the higher end tablets like the Galaxy Tablet, which sports an amazing touchscreen, lots of memory, and is built of the highest quality.  The Android operating system is free and open source, so manufacturers will continue to innovate on hardware while the software keeps improving.  This competition will ultimately drive the price of tablets lower and lower, similar to what we are seeing with the desktop and laptop computer markets.

After spending some time using the iPad, I have to confess I am not used to working with a touchscreen.  I find them difficult to use and unwieldy.  My fingers are invariably too fat and apparently they don't register well.  Many times I press a key and it registers the wrong one.  It is very frustrating.

Next, I tested the Kindle Fire at Best Buy and couldn't get the pages to turn.  "You have to be more deliberate about how you touch the screen", the customer service guy told me.  I didn't know the Fire was so sensitive.  I felt deliberate enough.  Clearly a case of human error, no doubt.

I also have a hard time using the smaller screens to surf the web.  At home, I use a 32 inch monitor to surf the internet and to edit my photos and videos.  I am used to the larger real estate.  It is very awkward for me to use the smaller screens.

I also hate that tablets don't have regular USB connections and normal, full size HDMI connections.  If I want to hook my regular keyboard, mouse, digital camera, and other peripherals up to my tablet, I can't do it.  Worse yet, Steve Jobs has decided to make this even more difficult by using a special iPad connector to do everything with the iPad.  I hate it when Steve Jobs makes these kind of hair brained, proprietary decisions (by the way, I am happy with my HDMI port, thank you very much.  Lose the thunderbolt port on the Mac).

Some tablet computers lack front and back cameras.  This means I can't use Skype to chat with my brother and my niece who live out of town.  This rules out the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, along with most of the reasonably priced Android tablets and the first generation iPad.

I also thought having a tablet might be nice for reading.  However, after testing an iPad to read some pdf documents, I realized the weight of the tablet totally stopped that notion in its tracks.  I would be suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome in no time reading for extended periods with that kind of weight.  So for me, a tablet computer would be more appropriate for reading my office documents and shorter pieces, not reading War and Peace or Moby Dick.

The bottom line is that despite all of these concerns, I still want one, but not until several things change:

My future tablet must have the following or I won't buy it:

1.  It has to have at least one USB port so I can plug in normal peripherals.
2.  It must have an HDMI port so I can hook it up to a regular LCD monitor.
3.  It must have at least a quad core processor and 3 gb of RAM.
4.  It must have an SD card slot so I can add extra memory to it.
5.  I must have the ability to edit video and photos on it.
6.  It cannot cost more than $300.00.
7.  It must be at least half as heavy as the first generation iPad.

The new Transformer Prime is supposed to have a quad core chip in it.  It will be around $550.  This means that next year, before Christmas, it will be around $300.  If the upgraded versions of this or other tablets can meet the above specs, I am good.  Otherwise, it will be some time.  After all, the iPad just came out in 2010.  We are only on the second generation of these devices.  They have a long way to go before they are truly ready for prime time.

Steve Jobs would have hated a picky pain in the ass like me.  But then again, from the biography of him that I read, it appears he was no less picky about his devices.  Maybe next year will be my big year to invest in a tablet.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Climate Change Is Real, But It Doesn't Matter Anyway

I believe in climate change.  I believe that the consensus of scientists around the world is valid--indeed, the Earth is getting warmer, and this will have dramatic effects on local temperatures, making some warmer, some colder, seasons more erratic, drought in some places and floods in others.  Some animal species will be threatened, some coastal cities will flood, and in general, bad things will happen.  However, it is my contention that this won't literally be the end of the world.

In the early 1800's, Thomas Malthus, an economist, proposed in his writings that there would be a population boom that would lead to eventual starvation and destruction of a fair part of the human species.  At this time, the world population was nowhere near the total 7 billion lives we now know.  Malthus, like many thinkers, failed to account for the genius of human creativity and invention to help ameliorate human problems.  Left unchecked and without new innovation, then the population explosion would have been disastrous.  Fortunately, however, improvements in agriculture, pesticides, fertilizers, and biotechnology have enabled us to keep up with demand.  The world didn't end.  While the world cannot feed an endless number of people, it has been shown that once many economies throughout the world improve, the fertility rate drops dramatically.  Once people have more money, they have less children.  This means the world population will eventually stabilize, well before it is all gloom and literal doom.

Both sides of the climate change debate get bogged down on whether it is caused by humans or not.  If it is a natural trend, then there's nothing we can do about it.  If it is caused by human activity, then we need to make changes now or people will suffer and die.  I believe these arguments are a waste of time.  What we believe isn't going to change anything.  The scientific consensus is that if climate change is human-made, then we need to make drastic reductions to our contributions of carbon to the atmosphere.  Unfortunately, even if this is true, on a world wide scale the poorer, emerging nations like India and China have already stated that they are unwilling to curb their emissions of fossil fuels.  They believe that the U.S. and Western Europe already had their chances to use these dirty energies to become First World nations.  Why should the Third World suffer?  The citizens of the world are simply unwilling to make the kinds of sacrifices to their lifestyle and income that would be required to make any kind of real dent in stopping climate change.  In the U.S., Obama lacks the cojones to push any sort of climate change legislation, and the Republicans certainly won't help him on this one.  Plus, with the economy in its current state, energy restrictions and carbon taxes would only cause the economy to sink even further into the abyss.  The bottom line is that climate change legislation within the U.S. and around the globe is a no go.  Europe is too busy bailing out failing Eurozone members to bother with climate change legislation as well.

If climate change is not human-made, then there's little we can do to stop it.  The supposed bad effects of it are going to happen one way or another, so we might as well spend our energy adapting to it.  After all, the planet will still be here, it will be less habitable and more miserable, but with the right adaptions we as a species can still survive.

Perhaps innovation and creativity may save us once again.  As it stands now, we are betting on climate change ruining all the fun.  But we haven't wagered on the introduction of newer technologies to help save the day.  Each year solar technology gets better and better.  Within the next 20 years, it should be powerful enough to provide enough of our energy needs.  Advances in nanotechnology and other technologies should provide alternative energy sources that are meaningful in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.  According to Ray Kurzweil, futurist and analyst of technology progress:

"Solar panels are coming down dramatically in cost per watt. And as a result of that, the total amount of solar energy is growing, not linearly, but exponentially. It’s doubling every 2 years and has been for 20 years. And again, it’s a very smooth curve. There’s all these arguments, subsidies and political battles and companies going bankrupt, they’re raising billions of dollars, but behind all that chaos is this very smooth progression."

According to Kurzweil, within 16 years there will be 8 doublings (every two years solar technology is doubling), which is an exponential growth of this technology.  When it happens, if we can capture 1/10,000th the sunlight that falls on Earth, we could meet all our energy needs with little difficulty.

Why have fossil fuels been so prevalent despite the rapid advances in technology?  It's because they are so cheap compared to the amount of energy you get from them.  Electricity from coal is cheap, reliable, much less hazardous than nuclear power, is abundant, and sourced from the good ole' U.S. of A.  The problem is that coal is dirty.

When it comes to climate change, we must be realists.  People aren't going to make the sacrifices needed to stop climate change meaningfully.  If it is not caused by human activity, then it's going to happen regardless of what we do.  Either way, it's going to happen.  We can adapt to it, or die out.  This is what happens to all animals and species.  Whether we can meet this challenge as a human race remains to be seen.  Somehow, given our track record, I feel pretty good wagering on human ingenuity.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Publishing Industry Should Be Afraid, Very Afraid

In 1999, Sean Fanning created a little Internet sharing program called Napster.  Napster allowed users to share their music files (stored in mp3 format), thus eliminating the need to purchase entire CDs of music from the record companies.  Millions of dollars in revenue for the music companies were lost.  Until this time, record companies made huge profits selling music in a physical format, whether it be vinyl, CD, or cassette tape.  It was difficult and unwieldy to copy music effectively, so piracy wasn't a serious financial threat to the music industry.  But after Napster, music became as easy to share as clicking a button.  You could own thousands of songs for free.  As many in the market know, it is tough to compete with free.  The record companies then freaked out, sued Napster and shut it down, and went after music fans by suing them for copyright infringement.

iTunes attempted to make buying music cheap and easy, thus reducing the incentive to steal music.  The profits earned by the record companies have never quite recovered.  Yes, people still buy CDs, but many more buy music at a greatly reduced price online through iTunes.  The problem for the record companies is that the times have changed, and their old business model of selling physical media has become obsolete.

The movie industry now fears the same kind of problems.  Getting pirated movies online is more difficult than getting music because the file sizes are much larger and the process of working with different video codecs and standards confuses the average person.  As bandwidth increases and the process becomes more simple, movie piracy will increase.  This is especially so after more televisions are connected to home computers, which is the next step in the evolution of home media.

The last holdout in all of this is the publishing industry.  Thanks to the convenience, clarity and ease of use of the printed book, the publishing industry has been safe so far.  People generally don't like reading novels and other print on their laptops.  You can't curl up in your bed with your laptop because of the bulk of it.  And the eyes tend to get sore staring at LCD screens for too long.  Then came the Kindle.  While the early iterations were okay, the newer e-reader devices are greatly improved.  They are light, the text looks clear and isn't hard on the eyes, and the readers themselves are inexpensive and light.  e-books sold through Amazon are also cheaper than their paperback cousins.  If the mass adoption of e-readers continues, things are going to change for the publishing industry in the same way they have for the music industry.

Up until now, the publishing industry, like the music industry, has served as the gatekeeper of popular taste.  If it didn't invest in you, then you weren't heard.  The cost of publishing a novel or music album on a mass scale is immense, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The average person simply couldn't afford to self-publish on that kind of scale.

But with the dawn of youtube, facebook, and other means of communicating with others at a near zero cost, this is changing.  Now you can have a music video go viral on youtube, sell your album online, and make some money by selling your work online.  The same goes with the publishing industry.  You can now self-publish a novel, sell it online, and have it digitally delivered to millions of readers at almost no cost.  This could mean a great explosion of creativity and self-expression.  I for one, welcome it.

Now you have to choose between tablet computers like the iPad, which is relatively heavy to hold, and the e-reader, such as the Kindle, which is light but only has black and white text.  As time goes on, tablet computers will become so light and easy on the eyes you won't mind reading with them and accessing the Internet and doing the other things you might otherwise do on your laptop.

The problem for the publishing industry is that authors cannot make money on side item, value-added products like musicians can.  Lady Gaga can sell concert t-shirts, clothing, and other items.  She can tour.  But many authors don't have the same kind of "star power" that rock stars do.  Many authors may find themselves writing without an expectation of payment.  This means less career authors, which is unfortunate.

A related phenomena is happening to newspapers.  As online advertising doesn't command the same kind of expense as print advertising, newspapers are finding themselves broke.  This means no money for important journalists to get paid, which is bad for everyone.  The future looks uncertain for the journalism field.  We may find ourselves becoming a nation of bloggers but no full time journalists.

You may be saying, "I love my books, no one is going to replace them with an electronic device".  Perhaps you are right.  It is going to be some time before paper books are totally replaced.  However, as e-readers improve, the convenience and quality of owning these devices is hard to resist.  They are light, take up almost no space (you can hold thousands of books on one device), cheaper than paper books, better for the environment due to the reduced use of trees and truck fuel used to ship them across the country, plus they permit an interactive experience.  Paper books are static, but e-readers allow you to see moving objects, listen to sound, and engage in multimedia.  The entire experience is more interactive.

I will miss paper books when they are no longer around.  I fear the growing use of "cloud" computing, where Amazon owns the content and you have to pay a subscriber fee to access it.  I fear the growing use of digital copyright restriction, which oftentimes means you don't own the electronic copy of the media you bought.  This means the company can "take back" your digital property at any time.  It also means limits on sharing your media with others.  With paper books, you can lend a book as you see fit, you can give it away, and view it wherever you want.

In the end, some people will be smart enough to get around these types of restrictions by using their own means of hacking.  It is done with smartphones all the time--it is called jailbreaking.  Perhaps people in the future will jailbreak their books.  It will be a sad day when we have to hack our books just to read them, or to share them, but no doubt it will be the last vestige of yet another industry trying to hold onto an obsolete business model.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Nature is Overrated

"[The state of nature of mankind is such that life is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
--Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Chap. 13, para. 9)

"Nature is a whore"
--Kurt Cobain (In Bloom)

For most of human history, it was understood that the state of nature is not one of perfect tranquility, balance, and harmony.  Early cavemen saw the forest as a place where predators lurked and dangerous elements awaited.  Whether it be a bear, lion, or some other creature, danger was never far behind.  Hurricanes, floods, violent storms, and other natural disasters were just a part of life.  Drought and famine were commonplace.  The average lifespan was less than 30 years old.  

In fact, in some parts of Africa such as Angola, the average lifespan is still less than 35 years old.  It has only been since the early 1900s that lifespan has doubled in first world nations to the age of 78.  Left alone, nature doesn't give a damn about whether human beings have feast or famine.  Producing food organically is difficult and yields such low amounts that if we relied upon it instead of modern industrial farming, the 7 billion person population of the world would starve itself down to a fraction of this amount.

Left alone, nature has evolved horrific communicable diseases such as polio, smallpox and TB that have ravaged entire populations and caused untold suffering and misery.  

Millions of people inherit diseases caused by mutations that at one time might have been helpful but now cause epidemic levels of disease.  Many inherit gene mutations that cause them to die of heart disease and cancer despite eating a healthy diet.  Some people of African descent inherit sickle cell anemia, which may protect against malaria but causes serious health problems.  If it were not for the artificial synthesis of human insulin, every Type I diabetic in this world would be dead. Again, nature itself is not intelligent and certainly far from perfect.  It is only through the application of science to medicine that we have ways to deal with nature--vaccines, innoculations, the creation of artificial insulin, chemotherapy against cancer, surgery, and the like are sometimes the only barriers between us and early death.

Toward the end of his life, Steve Jobs admitted regretting his decision to delay surgery for the pancreatic cancer which would take his life.  Instead, he chose "natural" remedies, including fasting, drinking fruit juice, and other alternative therapies.  During this time, the cancer had 9 months to grow and proliferate.  By the time he did choose surgery, it was too late--the cancer had spread to the surrounding tissues.  The ten year survival rate for those with the same type of rare pancreatic cancer which afflicted Jobs was above 95%, assuming the patient received surgery and radiation early.    

Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring is credited with beginning the modern environmental movement.  Carson asserted in the book that the use of chemical pesticides such as DDT led to the widespread death of birds and other natural creatures, poisoning the earth and causing untold damage to humans.  Environmentalists in the 1960s came to argue that the state of nature was one of balance, tranquility, harmony, and perfection.  They argued that it was modern science and the chemical industry which was detrimental to the well being of humans, not nature itself.  Of course, these arguments are lobbied not by mountain men like the Unabomber from a remote wooden cabin, but from college educated folks from their comfortable urban abodes crafted on their Macs in a state of air conditioned lux.  This is ironic given that without the agricultural yields produced by genetically engineered crops and petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides, we would have famine and starvation at a massive level.  Modern cities could not exist because farmers could not produce enough food to feed such densely populated areas.  At the turn of the 20th century most people were farmers.  Now, only 3% of the U.S. population farms, yet we have an abundant and relatively cheap food supply.  While we have banned DDT to protect the animals, the levels of malaria have risen dramatically in Africa and cause many, many unnecessary deaths.  But at least the birds are happy, right?

Next, there is an entire health industry now selling "natural" products which essentially play off the notion that all things "natural" are better than things which are "unnatural."  We are told ad nauseam how modern medicine and drugs produced by the big bad pharmaceutical companies are going to harm us.  If we take herbs, we are told, then we won't have side effects and the remedy will be safe--implying that all things which come from nature lead to healing and well being.  The problem with this, however, is that it just isn't so.  Modern medicine relies upon rigorous testing for safety and efficacy.  Double blind, placebo controlled studies help separate effective treatments from non effective treatments.  This is the point of evidence based medicine.  The natural product industry faces no such requirements.  The bottom line is that we simply don't know what works and what doesn't.  And contrary to the "nature-is-better" notion, some herbs and vitamins can be downright harmful, much more harmful than their regulated, big pharm cousins.  For example, St. John's Wort is an herb used to treat depression.  Prozac, an SSRI medication, which is made by Eli Lilly and Co., is also used to treat depression.  Many people are afraid of the side effects caused by SSRI based antidepressants, which can include sexual dysfunction and insomnia, therefore they try St. John's Wort.  While Prozac has been on the market for 20 years and has been tested in hundreds of studies as to its long term effectiveness and safety, St. John's Wort has not been studied nearly as rigorously.  Worst of all, if you are taking other medications while on St. John's Wort, there is a chemical inside of it that can cause dangerous drug interactions for many people who take it.  While we may be more afraid of the pharmaceutical drugs, sometimes this is just because the drug manufacturer is required to list the side effects. Natural products require no such listing.  However, this doesn't mean that there aren't side effects.

Not all that is natural is our friend.  Poison ivy, skunk spray, snake venom, and porcupine quills are all much more natural than something like cortisone cream.  Yet one can cause great harm while the other can bring about great healing.  

I suffer from inflammatory arthritis caused by my immune system attacking multiple joints in my body.  It causes redness, swelling, the buildup of fluid in the joints, particularly my knees, and extreme pain, particularly in my hips, spine, jaw, knees, jaw and feet/ankles.  Before receiving treatment, my knees were so swollen that they were 3x their size.  Walking 50 feet to the restroom at work was so painful I carefully monitored my liquid levels to avoid having to make the trip.  I also suffered from general flu-like symptoms, including body aches, fatigue and malaise.  Pain and stiffness upon waking was excruciating.  Life was miserable.  My quality of life was reduced to nothing.  

It took awhile before I was referred to a rheumatologist who diagnosed my condition and began to treat me. Because the immune system is out of whack in this disease, the treatment consists of taking medications which essentially poison the immune system to weaken it, thereby alleviating the damage to the joints.  I began taking the prescribed medications and did indeed begin to feel better.  The redness and swelling decreased and I began to have a better quality of life.  The drawback was that I had to get my liver enzymes checked for possible liver damage from the medications.  A few months into the treatment, I started showing signs of liver inflammation.  This scared the dickens out of me.  After the medications were withdrawn, the monstrous pain and swelling returned.  I tried to take gluten out of my diet and reduced my consumption of red meat.  I hoped I could find something natural to treat this disease without harming my liver.  I drank copious amounts of green tea, which is supposed to help fight inflammatory arthritis.  Yet despite my diligence, the natural remedies simply didn't work.  The only thing I could clearly ascertain was that avoiding dairy seemed to help some, but not enough to make my condition bearable.  I found myself once again living in hell.

Thankfully, in a few weeks my liver healed itself.  My liver enzymes returned to normal.  The doctor tried a different mixture of drugs.  These didn't hurt my liver and my condition again improved.  For whatever reason, my body can handle some drugs as opposed to others.  I am now on a newer infusion based medication which is bioengineered.  It is lab created and totally artificial.  It is not a poison.  Instead, it regulates the immune system to bring it back into balance and reduce symptoms.  It has helped me a great deal and every day I thank God for it.  If I was alive 70 years ago, my only treatment would have been aspirin.  I would literally be crippled and living my life in a wheelchair.  Life would be unbearable.  It is only through the blessings of modern science and medicine that I have any quality of life now.

Of course, science and technology are not perfect.  Harmful medications sometimes do make their way through the FDA.  Some pesticides, in large enough amounts, can indeed be carcinogenic.  Science, after all, did lead to the creation of the atomic bomb.  Yet as humans we have come too far to abandon ourselves to the fickle state of nature, not unless we want to return to a time of disease, starvation, and decay.  Nature is not our enemy, but nor is it necessarily a friend.  The real problem with nature is that it just doesn't give a damn, and we deserve better.  Using our tools and understanding, we attempt to make life better.  It has taken the human race thousands of years, but we are making incremental progress.  Infant mortality is down, lifespan has doubled over the last 100 years, vaccination has reduced some of the worst communicable diseases, and modern treatment has extended the lives of those suffering from diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke.  There is room for optimism because the future is in our hands, but only if we want it to be.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I'm Just Not Into Sports

Maybe it's because I'm a nerd.  Or maybe it's because I was no athlete as a child.  Whatever the case, I'm just not that into sports.  I never have been.  It's not that it isn't in my blood--my father had a passion for the Cleveland Browns that was nothing short of fanatical.  I remember when the Browns were in the playoffs against Denver in the 1980s.  When Cleveland fumbled the ball and blew their chance at victory, my father fell to his knees, grabbed his chest like the guy from Sanford and Son, and said "You better pray, I'm going to have a heart attack."

Needless to say, the value of sports was not neglected in the Kucharski household.  My mother wasn't too much of a fan.  Sure, she would host Superbowl parties, but this was nothing more than an excuse to eat buffalo wings and other tasty treats.  Even then, which team won really made no difference to me.  I was in it for the commercials.

I have tried to care.  I have tried to bring myself to some kind of emotional connection to the Browns, the Indians, or whomever.  Yet, somehow I can't find it in me.  Like the man who prays and keeps coming up wanting, I am the listless Cleveland fan.  I just don't care.  Whether the guy from this team beats that team ultimately makes no difference in my life whatsoever.

I feel a certain sense of guilt.  After all, it is practically unamerican to dislike sports.  In a country divided by religion, race, ethnicity, social class, and political partisanship, we can all come together to root on our local team claiming victory over the other guy's local team.  Yet I just can't do it.  I am so sorry.  I'd rather listen to the marching band and space out.

For men, watching sports is supposedly a bonding activity.  I was having a drink with a friend of mine, and he asked if I liked to watch football.  I didn't want to let him down.  I didn't know how to respond. The truth was I would rather watch paint dry than watch football.  The notion of watching it for two hours seemed unbearable to me.  I hoped he would forget the matter and not ask again.  Thankfully, he didn't.

I know my local postman well.  He's a sports fan.  He listens to sports radio all day.  He's a nice guy and I like talking with him, so I will briefly read the sports section online so I can have something to talk about with the guy.  That's all I can handle.  Sometimes the writing for sports columns is well done.  Analyzing the psychology of this player or that is interesting to me, but the actual game itself is not.

For many people, sports is a good outlet.  It allows them to identify with this tribe or that, and it provides the drama and entertainment that helps make life more bearable.  Elementary and high school athletics teaches young kids about discipline, teamwork, leadership, and achieving goals.  I think these are important lessons.  I certainly support the rights of others to engage in sports--so long as they don't involve me in it.

There was a time when I briefly enjoyed watching the Cavs play.  As a Clevelander, I knew they weren't going to go anywhere because Cleveland is cursed.  Deep down we know that we suck and this prevents us from winning.  LeBron James, as a native of this area, knows full well how to make it to the pinnacle of success and supremely blow it.  It is written into his DNA.  No amount of talent or team trading in the world is going to erase Cleveland from him.

Like many Clevelanders, I dislike LeBron James.  I don't blame him for leaving Cleveland--that he had a right to do.  I dislike him because he's a douchebag.  His ego is out of control, he is unsportsmanlike, and his ESPN decision special was a shameless act of narcissism if I've ever seen it.  That is why I dislike him.  His personality stinks.

Perhaps as I grow older I will mature into the love of sports.  Perhaps then I can join with my fellow man and worship at the church of the local arena.  In the meantime, I feel like a heretic, and living in Cleveland, where religion is less important than football (just see the level of attendance on Super Bowl Sunday), it is a difficult place to be.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fall 2011 in Ohio

Why I Don't Twitter, Text or Tweet

Every time I go out in public, I see teenagers furiously tapping away on their telephones.  I don't know if they are texting, tweeting, twittering, or doing God-knows-what, but all I know is, I certainly can't make my thumbs do that.  Perhaps there was some kind of mutation that allowed the Millenial Generation to text in a way that makes speaking obsolete and typing more efficient.  Whatever the reason, I don't have it.

In fact, my cell phone is for old guys.  It's not at all "smart", unless you consider dropping calls a wise decision.  It's a flip phone that is 5 years old, practically a dinosaur by modern standards.  I can text, although I prefer not to.  Perhaps it's just laziness, but typing is so much work, I'd rather just talk and be done with it.  Someone told me the other day that amongst the younger generation now, it is practically a breach of etiquette to call when you might otherwise text.  I missed this on the Emily Post column.  

I've never twittered, or tweeted, or whatever the hell you call it.  All I know is, it involves lots of typing on the telephone, lots of intrusive messages, and lots of work involving tiny screens--all of which I don't like.  It seems like such an investment--kind of like keeping up with the Real Housewives of Whatever or watching Dancing With The Stars.  I just don't have that kind of energy.

I am not knocking Twitter.  Apparently it was used to organize the Arab Spring protests which changed the course of history in the Middle East.  It is behind the organizational efforts of Occupy Wall Street, which I endorse.  Perhaps the effectiveness of Twitter was that it was a way for the young to organize under the noses of the older generation running things.  The older generation had slower thumbs, so they lost their power.

Maybe that is why these things are for the young.  Only a 14 year old can keep up with the Kardashians.  In this new age of technology, even 30 somethings can be easily left behind.  The pace of change seems to be accelerating.  After all, I am a member of the Gen X generation, the last generation to get through high school without the Internet.  I remember the card catalog at the library, rotary dial telephones, and Saturday morning cartoons.  

I can only imagine how things will be in ten more years.  Perhaps I will be considered a fogey because I don't have a computer chip embedded in my brain like everyone else.  I will still be pining for the days of my flip phone, rested thumbs, and unfatigued eyes.

Whatever the case, somehow I have a feeling the revolution won't be televised.  It will be tweeted, and I'll probably miss it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

R.I.P. Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

                                        --Hamlet, Act I Scene II

An artist, innovator and entrepreneur, Steve Jobs will go down as one of the great icons of the 20th century.  Starting Apple Computer in his parents' garage, Jobs took his vision and used it to create technological poetry--and in doing so, he changed the world.

Oozing with charisma and charm, the ex-hippie Jobs was more a poet-turned-businessman than engineer.  With his characteristic perfectionism and incessant drive, he demanded the most of his employees--and of himself.  He would stop at nothing to create the most beautiful, simplest to use, and most gorgeous products.  "We don't make junk", Jobs would frequently say.  

It wasn't about the money.  Even after Apple made him a multimillionaire, he was known to wear simple clothing, including his characteristic blue jeans and black shirt.  His home had minimal furniture and was sparsely decorated.  For Steve, it was more about implementing his vision of beauty, design and functionality than it was about impressing anyone.

When asked about the secret to success, Jobs said that it takes two things.  First, you have to have a passion for what you are doing.  If you do not, then you will give up.  You have to be willing to do something well beyond where others would have given up because it is too difficult.  For this reason, you won't succeed outside your area of passion.  Second, you need to surround yourself with the best talent.  You can't do everything yourself, so you need to have others help you. 

 Jobs followed this formula to success more than once.  After starting Apple, he was later fired by the company that he built.  At the age of 30, he was out.  But he wasn't down.  Jobs went on to start a computer company called NeXT.  Then he bought a little unknown company called Pixar.  The two companies struggled and faced bankruptcy.  Yet Steve held on, and through his vision, Pixar would go on to tremendous success with the movie Toy Story.  Innovating once again. Jobs found himself a billionaire after Pixar was the driving success behind computer generated graphics.  The operating system on the NeXT computer would later be the foundation for the operating systems used on the Macs.  Jobs returned to Apple in the 90's and rescued it from oblivion.  In 2001, the introduction of the ipod and later in 2007, the introduction of the iphone helped Apple become one of the most successful companies in America.  All of this was because of Steve.

He was the business genius and the artist.  Steve Wozniak was the engineering genius.  And together, they were like the McCartney and Lennon song writing machine that forever changed the landscape of music.

I don't own a Mac.  I don't own an ipad.  But I do have an ipod.  And I use a computer with a graphical user interface.  I use a computer with a mouse.  And I have a computer in my home.  If it weren't for Steve Jobs, I would be typing in command line codes on my computer using the keyboard only.  Steve Jobs made the personal computer accessible.  He brought the music industry into the digital age with itunes.  As there was rampant pirating of music before this, he may well have saved the music industry itself.

He had his detractors.  Some say he was impatient, hyper-demanding and a micromanager.  Whatever he was, with all his faults and eccentricities, he was a man of passion.  And that passion has forever changed the world.  He may have only lived 56 years, but he certainly made the most of it.  We have all lost a little something today, October 5, 2011--the day Steve Jobs died.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Facebook and The Politics of Unfriending

Each morning, I slowly get out of bed, my spine and joints frozen from inflammatory, immune system induced arthritis.  It takes awhile for my joints to loosen up.  I grab my cup of coffee, and sit down to check my email and Facebook account.  Aside from becoming annoyed at the new changes that Mark Zuckerberg has foisted upon me in the form of "upgrades" to my Facebook, I look at my number of friends.  I have about 278 friends.  If this number goes down, I know I have been "defriended."  Facebook at least is polite--it doesn't tell you when you have been exterminated from someone's life--it merely drops the person from your list and you cannot see their postings anymore.

You would think that being defriended wouldn't matter to me.  After all, the folks who have defriended me weren't that close anyway.  Some of them I haven't seen for years.  But nevertheless, I confess, it hurts.  I feel the loss, even though I shouldn't.  I can't help but think "Why, what did I do?"  Was it because of something I said?  Or did they merely not consider me even worthy of being on their list?  Apparently so, otherwise I would still be their friend.  Sometimes, remembering who it was that defriended me can be a challenge in itself.  This can be difficult to remember when you have a few hundred friends.

Defriending someone, according to all the unwritten rules of etiquette, should not be undertaken lightly.  After all, you are basically telling someone you no longer wish to have any contact with them whatsoever.  It's kind of like a divorce, the only difference is it's done in the middle of the night.  You don't even get the courtesy of a Dear John letter.  One day you are friends sharing cell phone photos of your children, the next you are deleted.

I suppose this is the way the modern technological age works.  Pre-Facebook, getting rid of friends took more work.  You had to actively decide to rid yourself of someone.  The computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey murders the crew by turning off their life support pods.  The viewer only sees a monitor showing the life support functions have "malfunctioned", meaning the crew members are now dead.  The killing is silent, no blood spilled, and without emotion--kind of like defriending someone on Facebook.

Aware of the ramifications of a defriend, I have not done it often.  However, I am well aware of situations where family members have defriended each other, and boy does it make for an awkward family reunion.  What is the etiquette when your cyberlife has been wiped out?  Does this mean we don't talk at parties anymore?  And why did you defriend me?

 I suppose I won't be asking you to pass the turkey, after all.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Self Checkout Lines from Hell

It bothers me that I have to pay more to get less.  As large corporations and even government agencies become more automated, they get to save on labor and health benefit costs, while passing the headaches on to me.

When I go to a certain grocery store in my town, half the checkout lines are "self checkout".  This means I have to go through the hassle of figuring out how to ring up produce, which doesn't have a bar code.  Inevitably, the machine, in all its condescension, declares I have made some sort of "human error,", i.e. something won't ring up properly.  This leaves me waiting for the actual, human clerk to come over and remedy the problem.  If the clerk would have been available to check me out, then I wouldn't have needed to bother with the machine in the first place.  Stores will try to sell these machines to you as being more convenient and faster.  However, they are neither.  Part of the reason you pay more at certain stores is to get some level of service.  The last time I checked, the prices didn't go down when the machines went in.  Instead, the profit margins went up while my level of frustration went even higher.

This seems to be the trend in business now.  Even more disturbing is when government tries to join the fun.  I went to the library the other day and decided to check out some books.  There are two "self-checkout" machines.  Because these were being used, I approached the clerk.

"Yes?" she inquired, doing little to conceal the look of irritation on her face while eyeing my hands filled with books.

"I need to check out these materials."

"The self-checkout line is over there," she responded curtly.

"Yes, I know. Those lines are busy."

"Fine!", she said, practically rolling her eyes.

The last time I checked, one of the duties of the clerks at the library is to check people out, along with putting away the library materials.  It seems that they have come to believe that now they only have to do 50% of the work they did before just because of the self checkout machines.  She should be mindful of the fact that if they invent a machine to allow you to self check in the items, then she suddenly has no actual purpose for having a job anymore.  This is not the case with the reference librarians, who still serve an important function at the library.  But for the lower level clerks, they should be shunning the introduction of automation, not becoming annoyed when they have to do their jobs.

What if I prefer to have human interaction at my library?  Call me old fashioned, but I don't always want to interact with a machine.  The same goes for my bank.  I don't use the ATM.  I prefer to have a human process my transactions.  I like it when they remember my name, which usually they do.  In fact, I know the tellers by name as well.  It is one of the niceties of daily interaction that is quickly becoming automated and eliminated.

Dealing with electronic voice systems on the telephone is enough.  If I have a problem and I need to call someone for customer service, there is a 99% chance the automated system isn't going to be smart enough to help me.  If it could, I wouldn't be calling in the first place.  Therefore, the system only serves to annoy people into giving up and leaving the few remaining human workers alone.  If I want automation, I will use the Internet.  If I am calling, I need to speak to a person.

As a lawyer, I charge hourly.  That means my time has a value.  Corporations and government agencies, however, don't value my time.  They somehow think that the time wasted by people trying to get through the automated systems has no value.  Perhaps if I start sending them a bill for every minute wasted by their computer systems or for when I have to check myself out, things will change.  Somehow, though, I doubt they even care.  Their machines separate them from their customers.  And that is just the way they like it.