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October 29, 2009

Gas Stations

You live in a town with only one gas station, which sits on one corner of a crossroad. As this is the only gas station in the town, you are at the mercy of whatever the owner charges for gas.

Soon, a second gas station is put up on the corner opposite. The first gas station owner now has competition and must be more careful with raising rates and being competitive with amenities and other considerations, or you will start getting gas from the other gas station. However, there is still some chance for collusion between the two, as they are the only game in town and might find ways between themselves to increase their profits at the expense of the people who live there.

The town continues to grow and soon a third gas station is built on the third corner of the crossroad. Now, both existing gas station owners have competition from another gas station. The opportunities for collusion go down with more diverse ownership, and the competition for customers goes up. The people of the town have a lot more choice and can pick which gas station to use depending on their immediate or long-term needs.

Finally, the government steps in and builds its own gas station. It is a no-frills gas station, without bathrooms or any food/beverages, there are no full-serve lanes, and there is not a mechanic on duty. However, it can charge really cheap rates for gas. Initially, the other three owners cry foul because many of the town's people use the cheaper gas as an excuse to go to the new gas station. However, after the initial thrill of the cost, they soon realize they like having full-serve, even though they pay more. They like having a mechanic to look things over and fix their cars when something isn't right. They like getting food and beverages for the long trip ahead. Soon, many realize that it is worth the higher cost of gas at the other stations in order to get the service and amenities they want. However, those who simply cannot afford those other services continue to use the cheapest government-run gas station for what they need most-- gas to run their car.

Now, replace "gas" with "insurance" and "gas station" with "insurance company/ies" and you have the health care debate explained in simple terms.

A public option will NOT raise rates or cause insurance companies to go out of business. It provides more competition and an additional, no-frills option for those who cannot afford more or better coverage. If you like your current insurance company and results, don't change. But if you think you need more, or less, coverage, you will have yet another option to choose from. Hopefully, insurance companies will then also create their own option in a similar coverage amount and cost to the public option, giving them access to more clients and more income -- which will further lower rates for all, as they have more clients and money coming in.

And, more importantly, if an insurance company drops your coverage (which is supposed to become illegal, but we'll see if the reality holds true to the desired goal), you have an option that cannot deny you coverage. For those with pre-existing conditions are very expensive treatments, this is a godsend.

October 28, 2009

Random Thoughts

It personally pleases me whenever a public figure actually speaks his or her mind and uses "inappropriate" language. Political Correctness has been the norm for far too long and I am just waiting for the day someone uses a term like "faggot," acknowledges the use of the word, and then does NOT apologize for it or "go to rehab for anger issues." Yes, he or she will have some backlash at first. But when a movie company wants to sell tickets, that person will be hired. When a team wants to win, that person will have a job. And, you know what? They will be successful, the people will mostly forget or forgive, and those who were somewhat offended by the use will realize that life went on. If the person continues on that path and if people are truly offended, they will stop seeking out that person's products, team, or whatever. Why can't we admit that many of these words are simply ways to vent anger and frustration and move on? Why can't we hurt feelings any more?

Realistically, would you rather hire Mel Gibson to be in your movie, knowing that a small contingent of Jews are going to avoid the movie and possibly picket a few locations, or do you want the extra $50 million in box office his name alone brings to the project?

While on the subject, it irritates the hell out of me that women can't be gay. I see the phrase "gay and lesbian" far too often and used by people who are educated enough that they should know that "gay" encompasses female homosexuality. In some ways, I am more offended by men being called "gay" and "homosexual" while women are only ever referred to as "lesbian" -- we don't need yet another term when talking about the group as a whole as "gay" or "homosexual" encompasses both males and females. A "lesbian" is simply a homosexual/gay woman. The word derives from the island of Lesbos and the reputedly homosexual women who followed the female poet and orator Sapphos who lived on that island.

If you keep your penis in your pants and bribes out of your pockets, 95% of all news stories relating to government would cease to exist. How hard is it really to take the attention home to your wife? How difficult is it really to say no to the bribes.

Why not have a system wherein all political donations go into some sort of pot and then is apportioned out based on seat, level, and seniority to those within the political party for campaign use? In this way, an individual cannot be as tempted by large sums of money or feel like they are voting against their best fiscal backer and won't get reelected.

Let's say, for example, that in any given year the total amount of money donated to each person in the Republican party adds up to $100 million a year. Let's say that, rather than a company or person having to donate $5,000 to this senator, and $10,000 to this Representative, and $1,000 to this other person, instead it/he just writes one check for $16,000 to the Republican Party Campaign Fund. The money is then apportioned out by the oversight committee with more money given to people whose seats are more in question and where the fight will be tougher. Maybe $20 million per year is set aside for the Presidential campaign, so each year they have around $80 million to start with. The individuals in question are not swayed by this company or person, as they don't know where or from whom the money for their campaign came from. It is much harder to feel beholden to certain groups or people if you don't know how much they contributed and if "their" money was siphoned back to you for use on your campaign.

While it is uncomfortable to acknowledge and awkward to discuss, the slew of bombings and suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan is actually a good thing. History shows us that bombings and suicide bombers are nearly always the last gasp of an extremist group before they fade off into the sunset. It is just sad the lives they take with them as they fade.

I have absolutely no issue with people having faith and going to church. But I do have an issue with people who stop thinking the moment they (re)discover their faith. They literally blind themselves and only can hear or see that which their religious leaders tell them, regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, one such person recently posted a link in Facebook to an article about the "evils" of Halloween. This article had no research done on it, for it ignored all the history before certain leaders of the Catholic church got involved with Halloween in the dark ages and corrupted its meaning, ignored that most of what she was talking about concerning the evils of the holiday were lies the church spread in order to take power away from certain groups that challenged the church at the time, and ignored that most religions today feel that Halloween is nothing that should worry anyone -- many, in fact, take it as a time to reinforce the faith of their parishioners by having celebrations and special events. Instead, this writer talked about how covens of witches were going around to stores and cursing the candy so that children's souls would be tainted, among other things. Come on, really? That's the best you can come up with?

If every single site that allowed two-way communication required that you sign up with something that positively identified each person, the internet would be a much happier place. Most of the negatives come from anonymous people anonymously attacking those who have expressed different feelings, opinions, or facts that these people disagree with. How often would YOU post death threats toward, argue with, or verbally abuse another person if all that person had to do was click your name and have your address and phone number? You'd really think twice before calling someone names or issuing death threats if you could actually be held accountable for it, wouldn't you?

October 24, 2009

Marathon Man

So the dream I dreamed all night long involved me having a secret Macguffin of some sort and running from those who wanted it. And by running I mean the dream started in something that looked a lot like my home town area of 29 Palms and ended with me still hiding out in someplace cold and very wet, much like where I live now.

The upshot of all this is that I am now awake, my body is sore as hell, and I'm tired. There is nothing worse than waking up from a "good night's rest" tired. And by a good night's rest I mean that I went to bed at a decent time, fell asleep at a decent time, and slept the entire night through. But I'm so damn tired now, in the morning, and feel beat up from the many harrowing escapes, runs, and fights I was in to keep the mysterious Macguffin from "their" hands.

I can barely twist side to side because my ribs ache so much. Both hands and wrists are sore from the bare knuckle fights I had along the way. And my feet and legs are simply tired from the huge distances and long hours I had to spend running.

Now I'm going to spend the day fatigued when I did everything right and should feel rested and willing. It is sometimes hard to believe your brain can be so powerful as to convince you that you are in these types of situations! I may have to look for a nap sometime this afternoon.

October 23, 2009

First Flame

It got cold enough in the house yesterday that I went down to the basement, clear some things away from the stove, and lit our first fire of the winter to warm things up. I didn't make a "John-special" that would drive us out of the house with heat; my goal was to start it around 2:30 pm, tend it until around 7-8 pm, and then let it die down. I figured the residual heat and the fact it was supposed to be a little warmer and dryer today would carry us.

My wife was sure happy to come home to a warmer house. When it gets down to around 20 C she starts complaining, and the last few days have been low 19s, so she's been making a lot of comments. When she got home yesterday, it was 23 C.

The tending plan worked well; it was still plenty warm last night when we went to bed, even though I had stopped looking after things at around 8. This morning, sure enough, the house is still pretty warm with most of the house registering in the 21-22 C range.

I don't think we'll be needing a fire every day already, but it sure felt nice to wipe the frostiness from the house and take off my sweater last night.

October 21, 2009

Musically Inclined

M and I have come to the belief that most artists today don't know a) how to finish their songs and b) when to finish them either.

I am a big fan of Prince. I've enjoyed his music from the early 80s on. However, the vast majority of his songs are between 1 and 2 minutes too long. He lingers. He gets lost in the guitar strokes and carries them well past when they are viable. And he's not alone.

I can't tell you how often I get the inkling to flip the station after about 3 minutes of a song. I'm not saying these are bad songs; quite the contrary, many of today's songs I find quite worthwhile and filled with meaning. But the artists drive that point home with one two many repeats of the refrain, one too many guitar, drum, or keyboard solos, or way too many nonsense lyrics, grunts, and moans.

I'm not a big fan of the Beatles, or Elvis. I respect them, of course, but just never found their music or their points to be relevant to me. However, especially their earlier stuff, was tight. It was succinct. It made its point and then they ended it. Same with the early Motown stuff.

Music in general had this opinion -- no song should be longer than 3 minutes, and 2 minutes is often better. There were many reasons for this, but it came down to playing as much different music on the radio as possible during the day. Shorter songs meant more songs could be played.

In the late 60s and into the 70s, this changed. You started having songs like Bohemian Rhapsody and artists like Pink Floyd, The Who, and Led Zepplin that crafted operatic albums with lengthy songs. Soon, artists of all genres were stretching what it meant to be "radio-friendly."

In the 70s and especially the 80s (and now), the new class of artists that were studio/album only performers started to become more popular to both the labels and to the audience. These artists didn't have to tour, so there was no real need to make songs that fit into a live performance venue.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are plenty of lengthy songs that I find perfectly enjoyable and like listening to the entire song no matter the length. November Rain is about 8 minutes long, and I enjoy it all. The aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody is about 6 minutes long. Prince has a number of his (older) hits that are long and enjoyable (Purple Rain) or short and to the point (Baby I'm a Star). But these kernels are found amidst a plethora of chaff.

Ultimately, I'd like to hear more songs on the radio that, by minute 2 or 3, I'm not reaching for the tuner to see what else is on.


Recently, SJ had a severe down pour that lasted about two and a half days of nearly constant rain. A few days ago, I was sitting in the office with the window slightly open (the office gets very warm and stuffy) and M had gone to bed.

I heard some strange sounds from outside the window. I couldn't place them, so I moved to the bathroom window to get a better look but did not see anything. Returning to my chair in the office, I heard strange sounds again. This time I moved to the larger windows on the double-doors in our kitchen and looked out. I noticed that Romy was sitting looking out the windows intently.

This is what caused me to stop looking out into the yard for whatever I heard and instead look where Romy was looking... and directly on the other side of the glass was a a large, cat-like face wearing a mask looking back first at Romy and then at me!

I flipped on the light and found three raccoons on the porch outside our kitchen doors. I would guess two of the three to be about 25 pounds and a bit bigger than Romy in both length and girth, with the third being about the equivalent size to our cat (but maybe still heavier).

The one at the door obviously was smart enough to know what it was seeing, and actually walked over to where I was standing, made eye-contact with me, and scratched on the door like a cat or dog to be let in. The other two kept curling into a ball and trying to avoid the rain.

I woke up M and asked her what, if anything, I should do about the situation. She didn't know, but I convinced her to come take a look. We stood fascinated for a short time while the three raccoons moved around, curled up together, and then slowly moved on down the stairs and off the porch into the darkness.

M could tell I was pretty amped up by the encounter. This was the closest to raccoons I've been, and I found the creatures fascinating to watch. They are very smart animals, problem solvers, but these particular 'coons looked so wet and forlorn that I almost wanted to let them in (yes, I realize that would be a horrible idea and they would never leave, let alone what sorts of potential disease and bugs they would bring with them).

Raccoons have moved up on my list of favorite animals because of the encounter. Now if I can just get them to stop knocking over our compost bin and strewing the contents over the yard.

*Not the raccoons I saw, just a generic pic off the internet of some 'coons

October 17, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Taking a book that is some ten lines long and turning it into a 90 minute movie is a challenge. Having that book be beloved by millions makes it doubly difficult. In most respects, Spike Jonze has succeeded.

In the book, Max is mischievously bad. He acts up and his mother sends him to bed without dinner. There, his imagination takes over and he "sails" to a land of the Wild Things where he is soon crowned King and leads them in a wild rumpus. However, he soon grows lonely and homesick and "returns" from that land to his bedroom to find that his mother has set out his dinner, still hot. Basically, it shows that, even if his mother has to punish him for being bad, she always loves him.

In the movie, Max comes from a family of divorce, whose father is absent, sister ignores him and wants to be with kids her own age, and whose mother is overworked and stressed out. He acts out in ways that are not mischievous; he directly opposes his mother and physically attacks her, biting her hard on the shoulder (assault), and speaking out at her in despicable ways. He then actually runs away from the house and throws a temper tantrum in the woods. He finds a small sailboat, boards it, and sails away in the dead of night. At no time is this shown to be a figurative adventure; it appears to the audience that this small boy actually sails away and is on the boat at least all that night and well into the next day.

He lands on an island where he finds strange creatures. He soon lies his way into being their king, and then leads them on a wild rumpus that involves many dangerous and violent escapades. At first the Wild Things are happy and enjoy his leadership, as they come together as a group and are having fun without reservation. Soon, however, his antics start causing rifts between the Wild Things and they stop trusting his opinions. Carroll, his closest friend among the Wild Things, finally goes ape and chases him with the intent to eat him. Max escapes and decides he must go home again, as he is lonely and misses his mom. The other Wild Things help him leave and Carroll comes to his senses and says goodbye too.

Max arrives back at the same dock he left at night and runs home, to find his mom waiting up for him. She hugs him tight, makes him dinner, and falls asleep watching him eat.

My biggest areas of praise for the movie are:
  • It does not talk down to children in any way. It presents the story straight, without platitudes or overly obvious metaphors and allows children to make up their own minds about it.
  • The music and pacing seemed spot on.
  • The use of actual puppets rather than CGI was a great choice. It made everything more real and allowed the child to actually "make eye contact" and be "there" with the creatures. Too often directors rely on CGI when a puppet or a person in some sort of costume would be a better choice.
  • The dialog was spot on and felt like what a child would say. It didn't feel forced or phony.
  • The action was believable.
  • The male lead, Max Record, was exceptionally believable in the role of Max.
  • The Wild Things accurately represent various aspects of Max's personality and life at home, and he learns valuable lessons by interacting with them.
My areas of complaint are:
  • There is NEVER a time in a movie or a TV show that shaky-cam is viable. Making your audience sick to its stomach and headachy is never a wise or smart choice. And otherwise excellent movies (like this one, or any of the Bourne movies, for example) can be graded down a notch because of it.
  • My wife pointed this one out to me: The main character and plot are very male-centric. Girls/females may not "get" everything about it, as they aren't as into building forts, telling stories, and adversarial play.
  • The child in the movie should be spanked and possibly sent to juvenile hall for his actions. The fact that he is so bad to his mother and then she apparently completely forgives him because he ran away and came back may send the wrong message to children who miss the message of Max's time with the Wild Things... all they may learn is that you can be a horrible felonious child, run away to avoid punishment for your actions, and all will be forgiven when you return. It would have been nice to show Max accepting responsibility for his actions (which he did with the Wild Things but never does with his family).
  • It is not clear whether Max's time with the Wild Things is a flight of fantasy or if he really ran away and was gone for a few days. This was much clearer in the book and should have been as clear in the movie to help children more fully understand what is going on.
Spike Jonze has taken Maurice Sendak's much-beloved classic children's book and turned it into a film that may become a classic children's movie. It is finely crafted and beautifully adapted. It does not speak down to its audience. Its deficiencies are in the use of shaky-cam and the fact that boy is too bad to just be forgiven by his mother. Without an adult there to discuss the film and explain a few of the finer points, some children may come away with the wrong message.

All in all, this movie would get a solid A grade, but the shaky-cam use knocks that down to an A- and the lack of clarity on the final message of the film further knocks it down to a B+. Still, well worth a watch by both parents and children, especially as a tool to spark conversation on the merits of what Max did and what he learned.

October 11, 2009

The Pass-Thru's the Thing

We have a rather complicated setup with our electronics in the front room of our house in order to get cable, our DirecTV, and TiVo to all function at the same time. One thing that made this slightly better was finding and purchasing a special pass-through cabel from Paterson Technology. This device hooks up from the TiVo USB to the DirecTV USB slot and changes the channels correctly for us.

The great thing about the Paterson pass-thru device is that you can flash the ROM on it and set it to redirect what the TiVo sends to the correct channel on the DirecTV. This was important when we got the HD receiver in that room, as we only have Standard channels via DirecTV and that meant that every channel that the TiVo turned to that had both an HD and an SD channel option needed to be redirected to the SD channel for us to view it. In other words, TNT is channel 245. However, the HD is 245 (1) and the SD is 245 (2). So if the TiVo changed to channel 245 without the pass-thru cable, we got 245 (1) and recorded an hour of a black screen.

A few days ago while I was trying to watch some TV, I noticed that every time I changed the channel in the front room, it was going to the next channel. By that I mean that I would enter 245 and I would get 246 (or whatever the next channel that was programmed). As we had the pass-thru cable set to use a redirection of "Next Channel" in order to get the SD programming in channel slot 2, I quickly realized that something had changed on the DirecTV and that the redirection was no longer needed.

All of this is a very long, technical explanation that shows a problem we had been having-- for awhile, our pass-thru was unable to consistently change the channels on the DirecTV, and we were frequently recording the wrong channel/show. A reset of the DirecTV unit would solve the issue, but it was annoying to deal with as we would get excited to sit and watch a favorite show and get something horrible like The Office instead, or the dreaded black screen.

Now that the DirecTV seems to have solved the issue and we no longer have to the redirection, the pass-thru and the TiVo are easily changing the channels and everything we have wanted to record in the living room has recorded with no issues.

What I find ironic is that we called DirecTV as well as emailing their support and reviewing their FAQs, all of which said this is how the system was supposed to be working the entire time. We complained about it and, as usual, got lied to by inept telephone personnel who didn't know as much about the system as we do.

We're hopeful that DirecTV now has its head out of its ass and it will continue to function as it is now. We're quite happy with the new setup and love that we can easily and quickly change channels and that our TiVo is recording the correct shows.