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September 30, 2011

Vacation Vacation

We just got back from a short vacation visiting my friends and family. While the visiting itself was great (thanks, all!), the vacation time itself was spent traveling a lot. As anyone knows who has done it, traveling is strangely tiring. Although you sit on your ass in the plane and the car, you wind up tired as hell whenever you arrive somewhere.

The trip down was a "me" travel experience; anyone who frequents this blog knows what I mean. We had delays while planes were fixed, late departures, rude flight attendants, and even mysterious liquid dripping on me from a hole in the plane (turned out to be water condensation, but still). Luckily, the trip back was a "her" travel experience; pretty much smooth sailing, everything mostly on time, no hiccups or real issues. It was a nice change, as we've had more "me" travel experiences lately.

The thing is, we arrived in Atlanta exhausted. We then spent the time there fighting with the Hotel Melia over silly things like crappy meals, them cleaning the dried vomit off our balcony (never did get it cleaned to our satisfaction), and getting wash cloths from the housekeeping crew (only got them two days out of four and one of those days was because we complained at the front desk in person). Stuff you shouldn't have to complain to a higher-end hotel about, frankly.

The trip to SoCal was equally tiring, especially when we had to add on the hour and a half of driving out to my mother's house after the plane ride from Atlanta to Orange County. Then we spent the time there driving to shopping, driving to visit my friends, driving to see my father and his wife. Then we had to get up at 4am to drive into Orange County for the plane back home.

I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation. As my wife said, we're going to sit on our asses and do nothing this weekend to relax from all the vacationing we just did. While I agree with that sentiment, I'll likely be working on getting the wood pile into the house before winter starts hitting the area (or maybe not, looking at the weather report-- might be raining for the next, oh, week or so).

Again, I loved seeing my friends and family. Wouldn't trade that time for the world. But all the traveling just wore us both out. Next time, we'll have to plan things better, and hope for more time there, so we can be more relaxed about our vacation. Maybe then we won't arrive home in need of a vacation!

September 21, 2011

Right to Privacy

People have an expectation of privacy. While many claim we have a Right to Privacy, the Constitution itself doesn't grant that, and the Bill of Rights only grants privacy in certain circumstances. The Ninth Amendment has a vague, open-ending statement that some interpret as protecting privacies not enumerated in the Bill of Rights. But, as a whole, the people have a certain expectation of privacy, and that is why governmental agencies must get warrants in order to breach that privacy.

Lately, I have been using application, websites, and utilities that take a different approach. Facebook, for example, has made numerous changes to its features, all of which have provided more of my data to either Facebook itself, to its partners, to the apps people/businesses create for Facebook, or to other members. The problem I have here is that Facebook a) didn't ask me if this was okay, b) didn't tell me they were doing it, c) didn't give me an option to opt out (or hid that option so deeply I had to do a web search in order to find out how to do it), and d) didn't tell me they were doing it until after it was already done. This led to people I didn't necessarily want to know I was on Facebook finding me, information I didn't necessarily want made public (I had used Facebook's own privacy settings to hide it from those I didn't want to have access to it) to get out, and an increase in my spam due to my private email settings being given to app designers without my permission.

I just read an article that OnStar, the vehicle navigation and assistance program championed by GM, is changing their privacy policy so that they have the right to sell your data to third party people if they see fit. The caveat is that they will maintain a two-way connection to your vehicle even if you cancel the subscription. Basically, if you have OnStar, you will be connected and they will track where your car goes and the speeds you drive. wrote a nice article explaining this and the possible threats to your privacy. Once again, they assume you are "in" the program unless you contact them and opt out.

Credit cards have been using this tactic for years. Nearly every change is for them, gives them the right to email and snail mail you with in-house offers, and allows them to sell your name, credit worthiness, and personal info to third party vendors unless you go through the complicated system to opt out. Most of them, even in this internet age, still require you to send a postcard via the snail mail to opt out, rather than having a simply system online where you can click an account setting to say No.

The government in America went through a phase where they passed laws allowing them to do warrantless eavesdropping in order to ferret out terrorists. In Canada, the conservative government is currently trying to pass internet laws that would allow them to have warrantless access to every internet user's usage habits.

I propose that the government make a law that says, in effect, "The right to individual privacy is paramount to an individual's rights. No government, company, or individual shall infringe the right to an individual to hold their personal information private. Any request to do so must go through due process (gov't) and be done with the individual's full consent (companies and individuals)." Or something more "legal" to this effect.

Instead of hiding and/or making the process of opting out so difficult, the process should be obvious and should involve these companies/people/agencies having to ASK US for the information. Having something like this in place, form the get-go, would pretty much stop every one of the incidents I mention in this article before they even began. Facebook would have to program things in such a way that we, the users, have to opt in to the company giving away our data. OnStar would have to assume ever current or former member is opted out UNLESS the person gives permission otherwise. Credit Cards would have to build in better privacy policies. And the two governments in question would have to either attempt to repeal the law or get the people's buy-in to suspend it before trying to do something like this.

Proponents may argue, "But if you are not doing anything wrong, you shouldn't be worried." What about those news reports of the Government, RIAA, and other groups attacking innocent older people who have wireless connections or unscrupulous family members who use their internet connection to illegally download, send threats, or hack? Mistakes happen all the time, and if those companies or agencies had to go through the proper channels in order to get the information, build a case, and then present it, they would most likely have discovered that the blue-haired old lady in question didn't do it.

What about some of the situations that Wired article brings up-- what if an eager police force decides it is cost-effective to buy data from OnStar and send tickets in bulk to all those who were reported as going over the speed limit on any given road? We all speed at some times and for various reasons; if a cop has to pull you over and finds out your wife is in labor, he's going to be much more willing to forgive you the infraction. But OnStar doesn't know that; it simply knows that on that day, on that street, you were going 74 in a 40 zone. Zing! Ticket!

Another false argument I hear all the time: "Oh, you're using Facebook? That's a social site, you can't have any expectations of privacy on a social site!" Well, when you go to your work site, do you announce each morning to all of your coworkers your name, age, height, weight, sexual orientation, marriage status, and the last 10 things you purchased, searched for, or viewed on the internet? That's a social site as well, but you would never think of doing that except to your closest, most valued friends. Same with online social sites-- I want to be free with some data and restrict other data based on how close I am to some people as opposed to others. This is reasonable and, in many cases, programmed in. It is when the application changes those settings, assumes I want to share everything and I have to opt out, or adds new features that change, ignore, or disable my privacy settings that I start having issues.

As you can see, there are a lot of gray areas.

In the end, my feeling is that the right to privacy should be better and more distinctly protected. This would have a snowball effect through the government, business, and individuals that would allow people to have the expectation of privacy in their dealings with one another and the world at large. It would also cut down on the headaches and battles we have to wage on a daily basis keeping our private lives private.

September 20, 2011

Darker Isn't Better

The flaw I see in the reasoning of movie executives is that they think The Dark Knight did such bang-up business because it was so "dark," rather than believing it did so well due to a combination of excellent acting, a good story, and Heath Ledger's untimely death (and superlative acting).

Movies, especially comic book movies, do not need to be darker. Captain America, Superman, and many other heroes represent what is best and brightest about America; our morality in the face of overwhelming evil, our compassion in the face of overwhelming threat, our heart in the face of overwhelming despair. Certain characters, like Batman, Wolverine, and The Punisher, can be dark and be successful because of the background of the character. The Dark Knight worked as a dark film because the character of Batman is a lonely, frightened boy who is raging against the world that took his parents away from him. That rage both fuels his war on crime and eats away at him because he knows, deep down inside somewhere, that his war is unwinnable. That's some pretty heady, deep, and, yes, dark psychology going on there.

Each comic book movie in production since has at least had the executives say, "Can't we go darker?" This is not the right question that these people should be asking. Looking at those comic book movie properties that are successful on the screen, they should be asking, "Can't we stay true to the character and write a movie that is quality for this?"

While a success, I wish that Captain America: The First Avenger had been more successful. The movie is a very solid story, with good acting, good dialogue, and good action. It has humor, a somewhat lighter tone in many spots, but services both the character that comic book fans know and love and presents an action hero that those who do not normally like comic book movies might be willing to get behind. Like The Rocketeer (an underrated comic book movie, directed by the same guy as CA), it is more of a period piece with a guy wearing an interesting suit than a "comic book" movie. You could easily put Indiana Jones into the lead role here and you wouldn't need to change the story much at all to make it make sense -- because that sort of story works for Captain America.

While I trust in Christopher Nolan's vision and eye toward story, I am fearful that Warner Brothers will be/is making changes to the upcoming Superman movie to make it "darker." I'm already a little upset with the choice of villain in it (there are many, many rogues in Superman's gallery that can go toe-to-toe with him who are NOT Kryptonians, use one of them instead), much of what has been leaked seems to indicate a darker, gloomier tone that just doesn't fit well with "the big blue boyscout." Let those character who are all about hope, morality, and light portray that on screen.

Lastly, with all that is going on in America (and around the world) today, characters that exemplify what is best in Americans, and people in general, should be plumbed. Let's show people what goodness, doing the right thing, morality, and righteousness can do toward the betterment of people. I think that those stories might just draw a steady crowd at the box office, since we are all seeing the fear, negativity, and violence of the real world on the news, in our politics, and on our streets.

I don't need darker movies, I simply want better quality movies.

September 12, 2011

Working for a Brighter Tomorrow

Since World War II, the way in which America has overcome depressions and recessions are with infrastructure building and scientific advancement. So, why has it taken the President so long to propose a jobs bill that proposes one or the other?

We got out of the Great Depression primarily due to infrastructure building, including such worthy endeavors as the national highway systems and Hoover Dam. Projects like going to the moon staved off economic worries and put thousands to work.

There are only two ways to improve an economy of a country: get people to spend money and/or cut what the government is spending. The current administration is cutting like mad, but there is only so much cutting you can do and still have a government. So, we need people spending money. Unfortunately, people are still worried about the economy, so they are hording their money. If you put more people to work, get more people spending money, then other people's worries are relaxed and they spend money, too. It's an odd cycle, but the government actually needs and wants each person to "keep up with the Joneses," as the old saying goes. If the Joneses buy something, and you buy something of equivalent or better value, and the Smiths buy the same or better than you, then the economy improves and the entire country improves.

The nation's infrastructure is crumbling. We have 100-year-old sewer systems and water pipes, decades-old roads and bridges, dams and waterways that are close to collapse, overcrowded and technologically ancient airports, and other issues throughout this great nation. If we can get even half of the almost 10% of out-of-work people to fix those issues, then the economy booms. Because those people cannot do the work without training, which puts teachers and trades to work training them. And all of those workers need oversight, so there are those who will be put to work administering the projects. And, it is frequently less expensive to build temporary houses/communities nearby to where the people are working than to try to commute them to the work-site, this put builders, contractors, architects, and more people to work. And these people need food, clothing, entertainment, etc. while they are working on these tasks, so many thousands more get work. Once the snowball gets rolling, you can see that many people get jobs and many people are spending money, and the economy for all is improved.

The second thing that America needs to do is re-teach people to buy American. Yes, we all want the best value for our dollar. We all want the deal. But buying American does two things: it gets the buyer a quality product and it pumps those dollars spent back into the American economy. The reason we've had more recessions and depressions in the economy over the last 30 years is the rise of cheap foreign goods on the market. Because everyone wants a deal, they buy the cheaper foreign good. However, the money spent is siphoned back into the American economy; instead, it goes to the foreign company and improves its workers and the economy wherever it is based. So, rather than the money siphoning its way back upstream to the American manufacturer, who then has more money to invest in making more product for more Americans to buy, that money enriches only the end-vendor (the Walmart, Target, Best Buy, etc.) and then the money leaves for the foreign company's coffers, enriching its workers' lives and its country's economy.

The third thing we need to remind Americans is that, while 'keeping up with the Joneses' helps the economy, and buying America keeps the economic engine running, buying within your means keeps you, personally, safe while you do it. Too many thought the housing bubble would never burst, and got talked into 100-year mortgages for houses costing $750,000 on a $35,000 a year income. Too many more became convinced that having 10 credit cards at 19% interest and $20,000 limits each was fine. But as the bills piled up, they never thought about the fact they had over $100,000 debt sitting on those credit cards, on top of that house they really couldn't afford, with that $35k a year job. They felt they were fine just making the minimum payments and continuing to charge, charge, charge, never once realizing that the credit card companies were getting rich off of them and they had balances that wouldn't be paid off in their lifetimes at the rate they were going.

Fourth, we need to relearn accountability. You are not entitled to have a house. You are not entitled to have a car. You are not entitled to have that college education. You are not entitled to have that executive position. All of these things must be earned. First, by doing well in school. Only the top children, those with the best grades and academic achievements should be going on to higher education. Everyone else should be going to trade schools, military, or straight into the work-force. Once in the work-force, you should have to work for advancement. You should be getting top marks in your field. You shouldn't be complaining that Joe and Sally do less than you but get more pay, you should be outworking everyone and earning that extra pay.

Lastly, we need to hold our politicians accountable for the laws they pass (or don't) and how they behave both in office and toward their constituents. Most of us are moderate. We lean left on some things, we lean right on other things. Most of us can agree to disagree and come to a compromise that favors us both, regardless of our leanings. We need to hold our elected officials to the same standards we hold ourselves and our neighbors. When they do wrong, kick them out of office. Watch their voting records and call them on it when/if they vote against their platform or for something you don't like. When they lie to us, kick them out. If they are found stealing from us, taking bribes, or doing anything illegal, fire them and send them to prison. Make both sides talk to each other and compromise on the end-result. As it has been said, a good deal profits all and benefits none; our Republican and Democrat representatives should always feel like they left something on the table, but that the deal going forward will benefit the country at large and the people in particular.

I'm hoping that the President's new plan to put people to work will be approved, whether outright or with significant (but not overwhelming) input from both sides to make sure it is fair, reasonable, and sound. I also hope this is but a phase 1 of a multi-faceted plan to teach Americans how to be responsible, how to save AND spend their money, and how to be accountable. And here's hoping that the people accept it, keep an eye on it, and learn from these current issues and hurdles and do better over the next decade and beyond.

September 8, 2011

HP and Death


I decided to reread each Harry Potter book and watch each movie, one after the other. My original goal was to compare and contrast the books to the movies and see what and how much they changed and/or dropped in translating the books to film. However, along the way, my focus changed. I came to realize that Ms. Rowling has some very nice things to say about friendship/love and death.

The entire thesis of her seven-book opus is that those who love are more powerful and better off than those who seek power, which is necessarily a singular task that does not brook relationships. She then takes this a step further and suggests that those who have love are not overly scared of, are accepting of, and are willing to brave death, while those who seek power are scared of death and will fight against it at all costs and to their very detriment.

Harry Potter originally survives because of the sacrifices of his parents, in particular his mother, in risking their own death to save their son from the evil Lord Voldemort. In doing so, they provide Harry with an invisible but extremely powerful protection that turns all of Voldemort's hatred and power back on himself and nearly destroys him.

Harry is then raised by his Aunt and Uncle in the "Muggle" (non-wizard) world. Although his time there is a trial, the fact that he is with family gives him an added protection from Lord Voldemort that makes him nearly untouchable while under their roof. It also teaches him to be humble, so that when he arrives in the wizarding world, the friends he makes are true, honest friends, rather than sycophants who will leach off of his celebrity.

In contrast to Harry, people gravitate to both Lord Voldemort and Draco Malfoy, two of the main antagonists in the stories, due to their notoriety, connections, and seeming power. However, those that do surround Draco and Voldemort are either weak servants (Crabbe, Goyle, Wormtail), or those who just want to be on the "winning side" and in place to take some amount of power from the one who have it (Lucius Malfoy, Bellatrix). In particular contrast is the apparent home life of Malfoy versus Harry's best friend, Ron Weasley.

Malfoy has:
  • A father who is cold, domineering, and power-hungry
  • A mother who is cold and closed off
  • No siblings to share his life with
  • Wealth, a large house, and influence in the wizarding community, but no affection
Ron, meanwhile, is the polar opposite, having:
  • Multiple brothers and sisters, who constantly show affection (even if some use playful banter and tricks to show it)
  • Two parents who show a great deal of affection for each other, their children, and their friends
  • Not a lot of money, but a wealth of spirit and love, which allows them to always get by
Throughout the books, when it matters most, Harry is constantly helped, encouraged, and even saved by his friends, family, and teachers, all of whom feel some amount of affection for him. This happens even when he is acting petulantly, angry, or is currently at odds with one of his friends. This is because they genuinely care for Harry, and understand that some things are more important than the momentary spat they are having.

Voldemort, however, does not have this affection. As we learn more about his history, and see his actions in the present, we learn that he always shunned friendship in favor of power and preferred to use people and either move on or kill them. He had fear, a type of power, and a certain respect, but always felt he had to do everything on his own. His followers desert him when he needs them most (when his attempt to kill Harry as a boy fails), do not look for him for ten years, and few return to his side when he calls them. When more rally to his side later, it is because he appears strong and to be the side that will "win;" they do not return to him out of love or respect, but fear.

The end result of these situations is that Voldemort grows to fear death above all things. His need for power, respect, and greatness forces him to overcome the liabilities of his mortal shell and cheat death. This causes Voldemort to go down a very dark path, splintering his soul into multiple pieces, and making him take on a more alien, snake-like, and despicable mien. While it works, his life, such as it is, becomes a nearly unbearable existence for a time, where he must do even more reprehensible actions to gain back a semblance of the life he knew before. Voldemort simply cannot understand, and unconsciously refuses to accept, that there are worse things than death or that there are beliefs and people worth dying for. It also causes him to treat death rather cavalierly in his minions and followers; he does not value the life in anyone except himself.

Harry, meanwhile, grows up with death as a constant presence in his life. He knows his parents died, and later learns they died so that he might live. Throughout the books, others are injured and die to protect him (Sirius Black, Dumbledore), while fighting with him (Cedric Diggory), or toward the cause of stopping Voldemort's assumption of power (Snape, Tonks, Lupin, et al). In each case, however, it is their choice to do so, and they make it freely. The cause, or Harry himself, is more important to them and they make these sacrifices either to ensure someone's safety or insure that the cause will survive. In many cases, and much to Voldemort's chagrin, these dead people come back in some form or another to help Harry with his cause:
  • Harry's parents return in the Mirror of Erised and teach him a valuable lesson, one that later allows him to get the Sorcerer's Stone and keep it from Voldemort.
  • Cedric and his parents' shades erupt from Voldemort's wand and give Harry the time he needs to escape the graveyard when Voldemort returns to the mortal coil.
  • Sirius' death teaches Harry the deadly business he has undertaken is not a game. It is the impetus for Harry actively taking on the threat of Voldemort rather than constantly reacting to Voldemort's attempts to kill him.
  • Dumbledore's and Snape's deaths both empower Harry and show him what he must do in order to defeat Voldemort once and for all.
Snape actually winds up being the clearest example of this, in the end. Throughout the series, you assume he is one of the antagonists that Harry must overcome. At every turn, Harry seems to find evidence that Snape is working with Voldemort. When Snape kills Dumbledore, that seems to clinch it for all. However, in the end, Harry learns that Snape made the biggest sacrifice of all out of love; Snape loved Harry's mother so much that he changed his Patronus, helped her son, and pretended to be working with Voldemort and his cronies for years in order to set up Voldemort's eventual overthrow and death. Without that love for Lily Potter driving the constant sacrifices he was making on a daily basis, Snape could never have succeeded at his goal or made the necessary sacrifices to do the job.

Lastly, the biggest difference comes down to the prophecy that started the whole chain of events and how Harry and Voldemort interpret it. Voldemort assumes the prophecy means that one must kill the other, and so he attempts to kill Harry as a boy (and, so, marks Harry as his equal and giving Harry power, setting the prophecy moving forward), then multiple times during Harry's years at Hogwarts. Each setback causes Voldemort to seek out more magic, stronger spells and wands, and more violent confrontations in order to reach his goal.

Harry, meanwhile, comes to learn and accept that he must sacrifice himself and die in order to defeat Voldemort. He makes the choice that Voldemort cannot understand or make himself. The many sacrifices of those who helped Harry, and his great love for his living friends, makes this sacrifice worthwhile to him. It means he will save his friends and reach his ultimate goal of defeating the enemy. He goes not without fear, but with acceptance. And, because of that acceptance, he is able to overcome death, rise again, and defeat Voldemort once more.

Harry understands, in the end, that he has become one of the Horcruxes that house a tattered piece of Voldemort's soul and, as long as he is alive, Voldemort will exist. He must die to release that piece of soul, eliminating another Horcrux, and bringing Voldemort one step closer to his ultimate destruction. What makes this decision heroic is that Harry has no knowledge or even belief that he can survive, come back, or overcome his own death. He goes to his death understanding that his death is imminent and unavoidable, but also the right thing. His ultimate strength, his courage, shows him to be far stronger than Voldemort, who does everything in his considerable power to cheat death rather than face it.

Voldemort is the strongest wizard on the planet, but Harry Potter's fortitude and strength of character alone are enough to overcome all that strength and power and defeat his evil.

Ultimately, I think the Harry Potter series is good in that it teaches its reader this subtle message: that love is stronger than hate, and that friendship is stronger than power. From love and friendship flows a subtle but strong force that builds character and allows people to make decisions and sacrifices they simply cannot without those relationships. It also teaches readers to accept responsibility and do what is right rather than what it is easy.