Mac Crack

On July 4th I started an experiment with Apple's Mac when I bought a MacBook. I also started a measure of how much of Apple's hype is legit and how much is just hype. Time for an update.

The Applesauce meter was last at 80% water/20% apple, where the more water, the more fake Apple's hype. It shifted to 75/25 when I went looking for software and security updates. Not only was the process real simple, but the security updates actually sped up the MacBook's boot up process. I was stunned.

Now, two serious problems have popped up with the Mac. First, I noticed a hairline crack in the side of the case, near a steel screw by the optical drive slot. Let me say that I have treated the MacBook very gently, even bought a cushy backpack to carry it around in. The polycarbonate case is supposed to be near indestructible and the white MacBook's gleaming case makes you want to treat it very gently.

I checked the Mac site's support discussions and there are others who have had this problem. Some had the case replaced completely, and then had it crack again. The great number of cracks were stress type cracks in the case in the back hinge area or the screen's case top. Some people managed to get it replaced under warranty, others not. A trip to the Apple store resulted in them saying that they consider any such damage on a unit owned for several months to be the owner's fault. How convenient for them. Apple has a reputation for being stingy and unresponsive when it comes to support - see the iPod battery replacement fiasco.

The second problem is that in the last couple of days the battery, which has been providing about 4 hours plus since I bought it, decided on Thursday to go into tailspin and ran down in about 2.5 hours. The computer is about five plus months old - way too early for the battery to head into senility. It might be just in need of a calibration, which I did on Friday. It's still giving about 2.5 hours of charge, according to it's own estimate.

These are two hardware problems coming one after another. While Mac has fine software (Mac OS X rocks) and nicely designed hardware, there are people who complain that Apple goes cheap on the hardware. Case in point is the iPod case, which scratches real easy supposedly and launched a whole industry in case covers and skins. The early MacBooks also were knocked for running really hot.

The Applesauce meter now stands at 90/10. In the past I have faulted Apple for being so hyped about its design acumen that the design actually is poor. The crack in the case may be a sign of that. If it doesn't spread (I am not paying $300 to fix it), then it won't be a big deal. The battery, on the other hand, I will have to deal with if another recalibration doesn't fix it. That has to be a warranty-covered repair.

The Mac experiment is edging closer to being not just a failure, but possibly a mistake. The ideal situation, as one Mac analyst said, would be if Mac OS X could be put on non-Apple PCs and laptops to have the best of both worlds.

Evangelicals' morality is left behind in real time stupidity

Video games, like comics and Dungeon & Dragons before them, have become the societal punching bag for anything that anyone who might have played one has done wrong. Oh yeah, let's say violent video games, although no one really makes much of a distinction. Never heard someone denounce violent video games and extol the virtues of nonviolent video games. They probably don't think they exist.

The hypocrisy of this situation was brought to the fore with Columbine, where people blamed pretend violence for causing, inciting, training those two nutjobs to kill in real life. The truth is, that like any other form of imaginary play, violent video games are not bad. They are safe sandboxes where people can explore lives, worlds and conditions they would never do in real life. They can even be good where normal, natural aggressive feelings are vented in a safe environment. There will be more about this in a future post.

The stupidity about violent video games continues now, but has flipped all around because of religion, with the idiotic Left Behind video game. The Left Behind book series is a Christian fantasy series where the Rapture occurs and all the good people go to heaven and those left behind on Earth duke it out with the satanic nonbelievers as judgment day approaches. It's a thin cover for evangelical jihadist-Crusader fantasies. Now there's a video game about it.

The game is violent and is predicated on a Christian crusade to convert or kill the unbelievers. But since Christians are committing the Christian violence, it's all okay:

The game's makers contend that the violence from the good side — the Tribulation Force — is exclusively defensive, and should not be seen as contrary to church teachings.

"Christians are quite clearly taught to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies," the company website says. "It is equally true that no one should forfeit their lives to an aggressor who is bent on inflicting death."

Oh, so Christian violence is okay in self-defense (like in Doom, where the mobs attack first, right?). And, they point out, there's no police killed and no decapitations or blood. Apparently all of the police are sent to heaven in the rapture. The Trackball is cursoring over some serious bullshit here.

Christian websites that review the game speak in glowing terms about how Mom and Dad can play this with junior and how it is 'inspirational entertainment'. Look Mom, that evil nonbeliever just wouldn't convert, and he was getting kind of all 666-twitchy, so I took him out with an attack helicopter! Funny, but some of those same sites, endorsed by Focus on the Family, knock games like Call of Duty 2 for the same kind of self-defense violence that is in this one. Nazis were Christians, remember, and killing them is a bit more objectionable than wiping out 'nonbelievers' by the truckload, apparently.

If you are feeling some deja vu here, it's because the same thing happened when Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ came out. It apparently was bloody and gory as all get out, but because it had religious content, it was all okay to Focus on the Family.

You'd think that leaders of a religion would take a second and ponder a scenario that is straight out of Hypocrisy 101. Can we throw a cross in Grand Theft Auto IV and it will be okay to them?

Am I opposed to this game because it is violent? No. Do I think the books should be banned? No - the only way to ridicule these things is to put them out in the open. I do oppose the rest of the world sitting by and letting these fundamentalists spew hatred and in response simply turn the cheek only in their case because they are Christians. Maybe when one of the wack job fans of the series goes on a shooting rampage or tries to blow up a mosque or a temple or another government building, the media will raise an eyebrow at the Left Behind books and games.

Until then, please Goddess, forgive these double-talking assholes who have no moral core at all and just want to promote their religious PR. I pray to Humanity that they will see through this fig leaf of religious cover and have the courage to identify hatred and religious intolerance regardless of which invisible avenger in the sky is being invoked.

The limits of one brain

As one who is intrigued by the creative and innovative powers that people possess, I am still flabbergasted at how much better several minds can work on a problem compared to just one. Adults have burned so many white hot neural pathways into their brain, essential for developing one's mind, that they have created ruts. We are trapped in our own minds to a large extent. No matter how multifaceted we think our thought process is, it's nothing compared to putting some heads together. Somehow, focusing more than one brain on something can negate the individual ruts.

This collaboration, this interaction of intellects is a key ingredient to advancing any aspect of life. Someone can have a genius insight, or be totally stuck on a dilemma, and just running it by another brain can unlock whole new avenues of thought on the thing in question. That genius idea can be enhanced or shown to be foolish, that dilemma can be solved or explained or at least put in a different perspective. If this power were properly harnessed, human civilization would probably advance at a faster clip.

Many people abhor the idea of communicating with others and prefer to stay trapped in their own limited intellects. But those that seek out feedback are richly rewarded. Knowledge can truly only be built by multiple minds and the greatest minds are usually those that have surveyed a lot of other minds. There's a reason that renaissance people are so talented.

This is why I am looking for readers for the science fiction novel. The second draft is done. This thing has banged around in my head for so long that I don't know what else to do with it. I am facing seriously diminishing returns to tinkering with it and the overwhelming mental stench of me is getting to be... overwhelming. I need other eyes to see it, other minds to process it, other brains to influence it.

So if you are interested, contact me. I will give you a couple of sample chapters and probably use you as a guinea pig for my query letter for the novel, complete with tagline, hook, plot synopsis.

I realize that many of you are simply curious, or want to be supportive to be nice, but I would really like some hard-nosed, constructive criticism. If it sucks, tell me why. What parts work, which ones feel not right, like you just whacked your funny bone, what is not clear? If it were in a bookstore, would you keep reading? I will have a bunch of questions. Yes, it will be very much like being a test movie audience. If you hang in there, you can read the whole draft.

The title is The Crashpoint Cascade.

Thank you.

My sci-fi

Now that I've revealed the Secret Project as a science fiction novel, I want to clarify what I mean by sci fi. Like any other genre, it covers a wide range of subgenres and as it turns out I am kind of picky.

My sci-fi is human-oriented and somewhat realistic. No monsters or aliens, which I consider kind of cheesy and a story crutch. There may be other life out there, but I think they make for weak stories, because most of the time, aliens are used as stand ins for exploring human drama. So why not study the human drama directly?

Oh, and no time travel. The ultimate story crutch. It's the high fructose corn syrup of plot devices, overly sweet and the end result is just wanting more.

My sci-fi is driven by human drama and human society. Call it social science fiction. It's not 'hard' sci-fi, which is defined as sci-fi that is driven by lots of 'hard' physical science. Hard sci-fi often comes off as written for the author's amusement rather than for the reader. And the hard sci-fi crowd thumps their chests about how they follow actual physical laws, except when they don't, because wouldn't that be cool? Fiction about the laws of physics or biochemistry is not really dramatic, especially when you get the feeling that Geordi will just channel power from the structural integrity field at the last moment to save the day.

Social science fiction is more concerned with how human society will develop in the future. Are there better forms of government or economics or family arrangements? There are plenty of examples of this subgenre from every point of view (one of the most audacious for its time being Robert Heinlein's 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress'). Still, this kind of sci-fi is relatively hard to find as one can see that most sci-fi stories swing between high tech dictatorships or enlightened democracies.

My sci-fi is the kind that tries to report back from the future, or a version of the future. The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson delves a bit into these issues, for example. While outlandish futurescapes may be fun to gawk at, they're pretty lightweight as far as exploring ideas unless they have a link to something realistic. And the best sci-fi is idea driven.

Batman versus Superman

Micro Trackball is into some serious superhero worship, just like I was when I was his age. He is in love with Batman and Superman. I have been getting a heavy dose of both of these guys (and together in Justice League) and I am amazed at how my reactions to them has not changed over time.

Batman has always been my favorite. Show me the bat symbol and a little zing of excitement goes through me. Why? He's the world's best detective, he is dark and brooding, has cool gadgets, has the Batcave and gets to use his dark side to do good. But most importantly - he has no superpowers. All his powers are of his own creation. The only thing he inherited from his parents was a fortune and a sense of basic decency. He is the ultimate meritocratic hero - a meritocrat disguised as an aristocrat. He wears the cowl because he can scare bad guys and because it is so cool. Batman could exist today. I could be Batman. You could be Batman.

Superman, on the other hand, is kind of empty. He is such a thin shallow character because he is nothing more than a fantasy, a godlike figure who comes from another world to save us all from ourselves or other space aliens, or to save Lois Lane again and again and again. He can essentially do anything to the point that his very existence is ridiculous. None of us can be Superman because we're human and not worthy. His personality and brains are kind of missing and there's not much there there. And the villains, other than the simplistic Lex Luthor, are all from bad sci-fi casting 101.

Truth is, Superman is the Man of Cardboard, not of Steel. He sounds like a bad idea from a grade school creative writing assignment. The whole Superman story should have been left behind after a broken pitch meeting for a direct to video sci-fi film if it had been created now. But at the dawn of comics, in the Depression, he became wildly popular. Now he still exists as a hugely popular superhero. But the question persists - can a Superman story stand on it's own without Lois Lane? Not really, because between the two of them, she's the only actual character.

Batman has some interesting narrative possibilities. He is a vigilante who has vowed to not kill. He is compassionate but a loner. All of his villains are other normal or abnormal humans. He isn't loaded with all the angst and bitching and whining of the Marvel superheroes but he does have his problems. He is pretty human. He is a standalone character with more story potential and doesn't need the same old supporting cast to keep it interesting.

Superman, if he were alive, would be universally reviled. The public really dislikes 'perfect' people. A guy who is better than anyone is hated by everyone. He would be told that us mere mortals can solve our own problems, thank you very much. If his super hearing picked up two people in mortal danger, and he could save only one, he would be hated for letting the other person die. Maybe if he had a gut, or a heroin addiction, or was funny or something, he could fit in better. But the public would still love to hate him.

Batman would have rock-star status, in part because he would be a dark mystery.

While both heroes are of course, escapist myths, they are strongly different flavors. Flavors that probably say something about the type of people drawn to them. The best escapist fiction needs to provide the audience with a way they can fit into that world and to be happy there. Superman, while more cheery (no ghettos in Metropolis) offers a bleak view of how the reader might fit into such a universe. You either are Superman (and you're not) or you just panic for a while until he shows up. Everyone is scenery or cannon fodder for Supes and his godlike foes. Actually being him would be a really boring gig. Fans just want his powers, not his job or his life. Supes is like being God in the Old Testament - omnipotent, but not really the focus of attention and not really challenged. Someone else's Deus Ex Machina. People buying into that ideal are waiting for a savior to sweep in and fix everything that's wrong. That's fine if you're three, but not if you're an adult.

Batman, on the other hand, usually lives in a more realistic universe with a human scale. The villains are people too, and even though Gotham is gritty, people can choose to be good or bad, to make moral choices and to live with the consequences. Everyone bears responsibility for how their life has turned out and how their community does. Batman does judge people and dislikes the helpless types waiting for a superman. Here is a billionaire who not only runs a huge corporation that is oriented to help Gotham, he is personally cleaning up the streets too. He is not going to pat you on the head because he respects each person enough to expect them to do better. That's great if you're an adult, but it's perfect if you're three, or five, or nine years old.

So we'll see who Micro prefers as he gets drawn deeper and deeper into the superhero realm. I've already noticed that he while he really digs Superman, he doesn't know what hardly any of his powers are and when playing with him, doesn't know what to do with a guy who can beat up everyone else. Batman he understands better - he needs a Batgrapple to fly through the air, he throws Batarangs, he has a distinctive voice. Batman can win or lose. He hasn't pondered yet what a fight between them would be like, but he's right on the cusp of it.

The truth is, Superman would kill Batman in a second. But Batman would know that ahead of time and would use all his skills and smarts to figure out a way to avoid the fight or to neutralize Superman's powers.

What would Superman be thinking about such a fight? Um, nothing? Who knows?

Go Batman.

The end of the Aikido experiment

Several things conspired to make me give up Aikido, at least for the time being. One was scheduling: the class ran past my bedtime and I was getting seriously exhausted from going twice a week.

A large reason was a junior high-ish feeling of inferiority. I was by far the smallest person in the class, the most physically inept. And with Aikido being one of the hardest martial arts, and me just a newbie in the martial arts realm, the odds were against me. Most of the other students have had previous martial arts and/or military training and have much easier learning curves than I. There was no flow going on at all, except in very brief moments that came at very long intervals.

This all added up to it being less than fun for me. And when something is not fun, I drop it like a cold stone. Boy scouts as well as many other activities ended for the same reason. The truth is that life is short and I go where I can maximize my enjoyment.

The Secret Project Revealed

So after much unexpected mystery and muddling, the inquiring minds figured out what the Secret Project is. The truth is that I'm relieved that the mystery is over.

It is a science fiction novel.

It's been underway for quite a while. I'm almost done with a second draft that weighs in at over 560 manuscript pages. Much of working on it has been hands-on learning how to write a novel. And the learning curve has not been adequately climbed, I'm sure.

Why? I've been into creative writing and story telling since I was a toddler. I've got several stories banging around in my cranium that I would like to get out. Not all of them are science fiction.

If you want to know more, I'm happy to talk about it. But as a rule, writing anything is a solitary effort and is done mainly without doing much talking. But talking shop is something any one in this position enjoys and could use to get some sound-boarding on ideas, plot points, characters, etc. In Hollywood, they are called story meetings. Just be warned that any talk about the novel is going to feed right back in to the novel itself, whether it's feedback, or letting me refine the tagline or the story pitch, character development, etc.

The High Def Moment

It's been a long time coming for me to join the HD world but it has finally happened. To some, maybe even many, this is no big whoop. The truth is it is a big deal to me. Such a big deal that it's hard for me to get my head around the fact that the long wait is over and I can go on with the rest of my life. It's been years of saving, meticulously following the latest HDTV news and reviews, the price drops and so on.

Yes, it was quite materialistic of me to desire a big screen HDTV. Some people argue that materialism is insatiable and that as soon as you acquire one thing, you don't enjoy it as much as you thought and you go on to your next craving. If that sounds like an addiction, it's because that's what the anti-materialists believe. Maybe that's what happens to them. The more stuff they own, the more it owns them. I pity them, because that's like being allergic to the air you need to breathe - you will always be miserable.

The more stuff I own (that I want), the more free I am.

But I know that every time I walk in the room and see the TV, I will smile inside. The same is true for several other objects I own (clothes, Legos, hardwood floors). They all create mental sighs of contentment. Materialism, at least to me, is a means to an end - mental comfort. Not having the material things I want leaves a constant ache, a point of mental discomfort. As I get older and am able to obtain more of what I want, I realize that there is a mental multiplier effect from material comfort.

The flip side of this is that there is a limit to the mental bang for the buck from buying stuff. You have to shoot for the big comfort boosters. There is a smaller and smaller pile of stuff that I don't have that I want. It's still quite a big pile though, it's just shrinking.

At a certain living standard point, one becomes kind of post-materialistic. We're essentially all at that point since material needs are pretty minimal. But that doesn't mean we're anti-materialist, it means that we can be choosy about what stuff excites our neurons. Like fine food, music, experiences or good company; it's not the quantity, but the quality.

And a HDTV is all about the quality.

The Sins of the Parents

A lot of people blame their parents for a lot of their problems and they are just being stupid and whiny. For every neurosis that someone thinks a parent instilled, I bet it's mostly genetics repeating across generations. Everything from height, body type, voice, face, sweat glands, you name it, is given over to the offspring. All it takes is to know yourself pretty well, then have children and watch how the same traits and behaviors all pop up in your kid without any prodding from you. It's cloning with a few wild cards thrown in and is kind of cool from an ego standpoint.

For better or worse, who your parents are can drive a lot of how the margins of your life turn out. Outside of their input in your rearing (where to live, reading books to you, values to instill, etc.) research is showing lately that height and looks contribute materially to one's success or lack of it in life. These are not the sins of the parents.

The sins of the parents are the conscious choices that their children have to bear for the rest of their lives. Getting poor prenatal care. Damaging one's sperm and eggs through drug use or stupid, avoidable exposure to toxic chemicals. Smoking during pregnancy. Reproducing with the scum of the earth who are abusive or irresponsible. Waiting far too late to have children and there by upping the chances of causing crippling disabilities. Expecting the schools to feed your kids three times a day so you don't have to.

The truth is that a good portion of parents are the same lazy, self-interested assholes you see every day. The enormity of this is hard to appreciate until you become a parent and see these morons in action. It's clear they didn't have a child thinking about how their own stupid decisions and habits will manifest as a host of medical problems, deformities or disorders years or decades later. They just wanted a thing, an ornament, a play doll or a pet or a status symbol to make their spouse or relatives happy.

So they commit their short-sighted sins, and damage, doom and hamper the next generation. Their kids, like all others, already will have the usual genetic roulette wheel to deal with, as well as the consequences of their own behavior. They don't need to bear their parents' stupidity as a cross for their entire lives.

The Trackball doesn't hold anything against people that they cannot control, but he is totally merciless in condemning them when they screw up what they can control. Lucky for many of them that it's almost impossible to tell how much of a congenital defect is due to their screw up versus random chance. It helps the child back off of feeling outright rage towards Dum and Dud and muddles it down to bitter disappointment.

The Sins of the Cola

The Trackball's kidney stone crisis is over. ToT passed the stone, much like a Logitech trackball spits out that hand grime that collects on the ball itself. Aikido is not really to blame and I will return to it.

But there are two more stones waiting in the other kidney. Their days may be numbered too because my urologist sounds a bit aggressive. The real question is whether more stones will occur down the road or if this was a one time thing.

A one time thing because of cola.

In the ToT's younger days, much cola was drunk but no water was touched. Chocolate and cola were often consumed in great quantities: an oxalate-rich double whammy. This lead to the oxalate-based stones that have been plaguing me for several years.

ToT has not touched cola in about two and a half years and has drank a tidy barrel of water per day. Obviously, the sins of the cola can be punished much further down the line after they happen. This is the way these low-level activities can seem to be having no effect, and then way down the road you're flat on your back wondering why you ever did them.

Like eating frosting straight from the can after frosting a cake is probably the sugary path to type 2 diabetes down the road. Or not exercising enough (it's never enough) can leave you in your 70s with reduced muscle and bone mass, accelerate the slowing down that leads to accidents, illnesses and death. But if those are the only vices I can come up with, this is like calling dust bunnies furniture because they are in an empty room.

Balancing how much effort to put into life and health preserving activities versus the more pleasurable ones is tough. Lifting weights for an hour a day solely to forestall diminished physical abilities when old seems a bit too much (one can die of cancer, heart disease, stroke or Alzheimer's and be in great physical shape and all those hours would be a waste).

But, as the old saw goes, most people would love to have my problems of trying to tweak one's lifestyle to enhance long term health prospects. We all have a lot of control over the behaviors that will endanger our wellbeing and these are to be stacked atop those genetic flaws that will give us another set (like possibly creating kidney stones). The best we can do is to minimize the ones we can control so we can deal with the cosmic hand of cards we were dealt genetically. Because the genetic ones can be a real bitch (more about that later).

Trackball rolls badly; Aikido experiment is threatened

The Trackball of Truth went to Aikido class last night amid some bad instinctual mojo. Didn't really want to go, felt some vague hesitation, experienced the occassional questioning of why he bothers with it at all. Today, Trackball is laid up on percocet and is sleep deprived after a night of severe pain. Lesson: always, ALWAYS listen to the instincts.

Trackball is not so great at rolling. Aikido rolls, that is. These rolls involve straightening an arm, ducking the head and shoulder and gracefully go ass-over-tea kettle into a stand about 7 feet in front of where one started. Batman does this stuff all the time. Very useful if you get thrown so you don't get hurt. Remember the don't get hurt part for the irony later on.

Somedays when ToT does them, they're good, other days they're Goddess-awful. Last night we worked on a technique where the attacker (the Uke) ends up bent over with his arm locked behind his back. His only escape: a forward roll and come up in a defensive stance facing the defender (called the Tori). It looks cool as hell.

I've done this move several times -- but without the finishing roll. The brown belt instructing me asks if I want to try it after my 15 year old Uke does his first one flawlessly. Sure, I say what the hell. Nothing ever turns out well when I say or think that.

I did everything about the roll correctly except to get enough forward momentum by throwing myself forward. Imagine a bicycle that stops going forward - what happens? I flopped on my lower left back, right where my kidney is. It hurt both times I did it on the left side. (ToT always does stupid things twice before learning.)

Apparently, my left kidney coughed up a kidney stone, which I thought was back pain. So, in a sense, I really didn't get hurt at Aikido, I just sped up the inevitable.

As they elder students say, good, you only have to do it another 1000 times before it's right. And I'm looking at 997 more attempts and going, are you kidding? Is taking Aikido a good idea? It is a martial art, albeit the most peaceful and least harmful. The class has a preponderance of guys with tough guy builds with other martial art and military experience plus high school students who all outweigh me. I have low muscle tone. ("Really push down on my elbow." "I am really pushing down on your elbow." "Oh."). I'm getting flashbacks to living in the party dorm my first semester in college - I don't belong.

It might be time to hang up the gi and retire as the world's longest holder of a white belt.

When no one drinks coffee anymore

The ToT does not drink coffee. This fact is always met with quiet puzzlement by many. The ToT is puzzled why so many people are addicted to it. It's not just a casual beverage for many; it's a critical part of their diet.

I simply don't see where the value-added is. Caffeine is a nasty drug that gives me headaches and dehydrates the drinker. It costs a lot of money these days because it's gone upscale. Coffee grounds are just plain disgusting. The taste is apparently something that one must get used to - always a warning sign to the ToT.

Like alcohol, I suspect many drink it so they can seamlessly fit in with the majority and their enthusiasm is really not for the drink but for the conformity.

I'm not anti-coffee - my parents drank it and the rich smell always reminds me of breakfast. But I also can see how coffee drinking might mostly disappear in the future, discarded like a bad idea that only a few stalwarts stick to, like smoking, beating children, abstinence until marriage and being drunk most of one's waking hours (see the pre-Prohibition era).

There's a natural progression of moral awakening that evolves over time, guaranteed to make the older generation upset that some beloved part of their life is now considered verboten.
It is a cycle at least as old as America: one old pilgrim says to another "Quakers in Massachusetts - outrageous!"

Something is lurking out there that shocks each generation by its disappearance when they get older. Boomers and those older than them can't get around the acceptance of gays, but younger people do, for the most part. Racial tolerance is growing by birth year too. So as the ToT moves through his 30s, he wonders what is it that will shock and outrage us Gen X-ers? Pissing in public? No, that's the reactionary response. It's always something that is patently wrong but going on all around us, something that if we thought about a bit, we'd go, yeah, that's not right. And then go about our business. Like segregation in the 40s.

If you can't imagine coffee drinking disappearing, I am with you, well at least most of the way. It probably won't happen for a long, long time. But it's Achilles' heel is the caffeine. American society has become less tolerant of body-altering drugs and caffeine is becoming the one that is still considered acceptable. But for how long? And why?

Some of you are wondering how you would be able to get going in the morning without coffee. Hello, you have a caffeine problem. Either you don't get enough sleep, or that sluggishness is withdrawal from your last caffeine fix from the day before (coffee with dessert?). Ew, now caffeine starts to sound like cocaine and not as attractive. This is how the mindset will change.

Yes, there probably will be a drink of social interaction, even if coffee disappears. I don't know what it is. Water would be the healthiest option. But I do know that the future will come for us Gen Xers and knock some common pillar out of the world we are used to. And it's something that we're all subconsciously aware of already.

Trackballs in Paradise

It's been a while since I posted because Dr. Trackball and I went on vacation to Maui (with no computer). Minnie and Micro Trackball went to hang out with their Grandma and Grandpa Mouse up in My Shire.

This trip was a big deal because it was a 10th wedding anniversary thing, a much belated honeymoon thing, and a kidfree thing. Such a big deal that now the after-trip portion of our lives feels a bit unexpected, like we didn't really think we'd make it to the trip, so why bother thinking of what comes after? But the biggest, most omnipresent aspect of the trip (other than being just with one another) was being in Hawaii's tropical climate.

The Trackballs have been finding themselves becoming more sensitive to weather over time. Partly it's because moving to an area (Maryland) with four seasons annually makes one appreciate the advantages of warmer weather. Also, we've become more adverse to cold weather and more tolerant of hot weather. This is most likely because we weigh less, eat better and spend more time outdoors than we did when hunkered down in the Northeast. In Maryland, we live in AC all summer, at home and at work.

Imagine how weird it was that the airport in Kahului, Maui had no windows or AC. And how right. The condo we rented on Napili Bay had no windows, just wood shutters and screens. To those from lands that suffer from the scourge of fall, winter and spring, this looks ludicrous. Even if the temp is between the 70s and 80s ALL YEAR ROUND it's hard to get one's snow-navigating mind around never needing thick glass windows. Even when you're inside a building on Maui, you feel like you're outside on a lanai: it's mostly open (no) windows and ceiling fans. It's all very relaxing.

The Trackballs have been dreaming of living in places where you're not cold outside, and Hawaii fits the bill very well. Minimal clothing is perfectly comfortable - it's a climate designed for the human body. You can go exercise or just be outside all year round. It does get hot in the afternoon and the sun is relentless, but there is shade and a nice breeze blowing most of the time (at least while we were there). In a small sense, that climate is our natural environment, and now we're back in the zoo in our gilded cages, living large but noticing the temps are starting to drop a little each day already.

Everyone says that once you go to Hawaii that you'll want to move there. Despite the perfect climate, I didn't feel that way. Maybe I'm still too East Coast. But Dr. Trackball is mentally still somewhere on Napili Bay beach. I think it's her new happy place. So here's the plan - all you cold weather neo-polar bears who are stuck in paradise - go take your money and your sweaters and move up north. That will make all the perfect weather paradises cheaper for us humans to live in.

The National Museum of Boomer Nostalgia

It was a two family trip to the Smithsonian's American History Museum in DC today. We went because the 2-3 year old boys would love the "America on the Move" exhibit. And they did. But I got a near lethal dose of the dreaded BN.

A note of full disclosure: the Trackball has had it up to here with the Boomer Nostalgia. I was born in 1973, which unfortunately was the same year that BN started - "American Graffiti" came out. It's a great movie by a great director. But it lead to Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Grease, Back to the Future, the Wonder Years, American Dreams, oldies stations, Forrest Gump and all the other stuff that is anchored in the Boomer's golden age, which apparently stretches from 1955 to about 1965. Maybe 1968 or 69. Then, as we all know, the world effectively came to an end (maybe because the oldest boomers had to get real jobs for the first time). I'm not saying that I don't like any of these things, but could we let some other generations get a word in, say the ones who fought WWII, or the Revolution, or how about Gen Y, which is bigger than the Boomers? (And no, movies and History Channel specials about WWII are just Boomers reliving their childhood.)

So here I stood, in this exhibit that is supposed to stretch from 1876 to the current day, trying to figure out if my Boomer nostalgia antennae were getting a false reading or not. The exhibit moves through the 1876-1920s pretty quickly, except for the parts that Boomers had some connection to, like trains, trolleys and street cars that were still around when they were kids. The whole horse and buggy thing was dispensed with kinda quickly. Apparently America also never had waterways or air travel.

And then the cars portion came and went on and on and on. The glorification of the 1930-1960s cars included Route 66, a car dealer showroom, hotrods and neon and sleek Buicks and Fords. Drive-up diner thingies straight out of American Graffiti. Even the mass transit was all set in the 1950s.

The exhibit only soured on cars when it got to the 1970s, where sprawl, the gas crisis, and foreign imports all help evoke Boomers' feelings that the party was over. If it was too subtle to make this point with the placards, they stage a huge traffic jam with a minivan and a 1977 Honda Civic. For modern day they showed a depressing map of L.A.'s sprawling cityscape and a digital tickertape of old news about terrorism, the 1999 Seattle riots and general misery. Oh, happy modern day.

I wasn't convinced though until we went into the exhibit's gift shop. It was like walking into a toy store in 1966. It was all 50s and 60s toy cars, a couple of WWII-type planes thrown in and lots of other toys from Boomer childhood days. There should have been a sign: no one admitted unless they are a Boomer grandparent who will want to give their grandchild the EXACT same toys they had as a kid. I've felt less out of place in Victoria's Secret pushing a stroller.

The museum will be closed and completely renovated. When it reopens, one can only hope that it doesn't turn out like the retro Tomorrowland at Disney World: a tribute to a previous vision of the future that ignores its current visitors, who must be wondering why no one seems to care about what happened before 1947 or after 1969.

The Lair that's barely there

Lots of people keep going on about the Lair, how I'll never get it, how it must be so grand, I'm so lucky to have it, it must be tied to the Secret Project, etc. Lots of misunderstanding going on out there.

It's time to puncture your warped delusions, dear readers. The Lair does exist, while at this point it is mostly a mental space (and it looks like the Pulse Orlando bar here -click 'more references' - and this and this and this and this and this). And it ain't grand. So, to put some reality to this whole thing, and confuse the Secret Project Projectors even more, here's a couple of thousand words.

The Lair as of 7/24/2006:

Notice that the lair is not totally devoid of other people's crap. Child bike helmet, dishes(!), luggage, a christmas tree, etc. But my stuff is mostly all there. There's enough room for me to stand there by the bookcase and say "we will call this lair... ... .... this lair."

Note the spaceship model display on the broken white shelves to the right. Is this bookcase straight ahead involved in the Secret Project? You betcha. Too bad you don't know what's inside... Now, panning to our left...

What's this? Could it be something that people think is part of the Secret Project?

Could it be LEGOS??? Pirate Legos???

Oh yeah. Involved with the Secret Project? Ha ha ha ha. I'm not saying. I hoped you enjoyed a tour of the Lair. I also hope that the LEGO wing of the Secret Project Projectors is now hopelessly confused.

The Secret Project puzzle

There's been discussion in some quarters about what the Secret Project is and why is it secret. Most of you couldn't give two shakes about hearing more about it, but some are intensely trying to figure it out.

I have to admit it's a hoot to keep you pondering it, especially since all the clues were in the original Secret Project post, even if they were subtle and layered in misdirection. So, to keep my entertainment level high, here are some links to sites that may or may not have anything to do with the Secret Project. Please, for those who know, don't go spoiling it for the rest. They're really enjoying the mystery and are acting reluctant to find the answer which is so obvious.

Many of these are based on the current set of suspicions, but one (or more) will reveal the Project's true nature.

Shiny. Let's be bad guys.

The title of the last post may have thrown some folks. Gorram? If you dong ma what gorram means, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't understand, well, doesn't gorram seem a might familiar? Like you can get it (goddam, but more guttural) without knowing exactly what it means? It's like a Firefly litmus test.

Oh wait, you're asking what's Firefly? Is Trackball about to dip into some weird ass sci-fi thing?

You bet. Firefly ran for 2 episodes on Fox before announced it was canceled in 2002. I remember seeing the commercials - cowboys in space, spaceships and horses, people saying reckon and swearing in Chinese in deep space and thinking it was just weird looking. Wasn't surprised to see Fox cancel it either - since when did Fox do sci-fi?

Then I became a Whedonist (big fan of Joss Whedon) thanks to the TV series Angel and American Dilettante. After, without a Whedon fix, I was looking around for something else. American Dilettante points me to Firefly after I shoot down the high school soap opera that is Buffy. Whedon wanted a series that was like all that Han Solo stuff on the Millenium Falcon that was so awesome in Star Wars - I'm down with that. Okay, so I Netflixed Firefly shortly after Serenity, the major motion picture sequel to the cancelled, failed TV series, came out last year. At about $1.75/DVD (Netflix is great), if it sucked, I send it back and that's that.

What can I say? It was beyond shiny. The dialogue, story-telling and characterization are first rate. Whedon himself thought he had perfected the ensemble-type show that he had to build up to over several seasons on Buffy and Angel. The actors on the show knew it was something special. There are few things that, after I watch them, I could pop them back in and watch again. Firefly is one of them (Batman Begins is another). I got a copy of the series DVD set and am enjoying the whole thing all over again.

There is now a wide and deep base of fans for this little show about a little ship; they're called Browncoats. Like the Trekkies of old, they would like to bring back Firefly, if only a network would pick it up, even almost 5 years after the series aired its 10th episode. Looks doubtful, but not because of the crew - Whedon and the cast would come back at the drop of a fuzzy hand-knitted hat.

So I'll end this pitch for Firefly with some choice quotes that make the show and movie worth knowing:

Might have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.

Your mouth is talking, might wanna see to that.

Do you know what the chain of command is here? It's the chain I go get and beat you with to show you who's in command.

Well, my days of taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.

This is the captain. We have a...little problem with our engine sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then...explode.

I aim to misbehave.

No Gorram MacKool-Aid, Yet

The Great Mac Experiment has begun.

Yes, the ToT, longtime critic of Apple and Steve Jobs, bought a Macbook. My current and past feelings on Apple and Steve Jobs are as such: Apple is like communist China. It only cares about selling you one thing: more hardware. Everything else is subservient to that. They think you are brainless consumers who get sucked in by shiny objects and a proletarian propaganda campaign really only aimed at tech elites. In return for your money, they constantly screw you by obsoleting the hardware as fast as possible (Apple II to Mac, iPod batteries, PowerPC to Intel chips), and pulling the rug out from under you on software (backward compatibility?).

Apple proclaims that Windows is a patronizing, confusing leviathon when the Mac world is the very insular one (proprietary software only available on proprietary hardware) and much more tightly controlled by Jobs and company. Windows lets everyone play, which is why it's such a mess at times. Microsoft even uses Apple hardware to demo Windows Vista. Apple is operating a sandbox with high walls and it doesn't peek out much.

Windows is America, Apple is China.

Exhibit 1: The cool Apple guy in the cool Apple store couldn't really say much about Windows vs Mac because he had no experience with Windows. Exhibit 2: The 'Switch' ads which have been deftly criticized for highlighting relatively minor Windows flaws and non-issues. Apple's over-inflated propaganda machine doesn't seem to have taken the time to get familiar with the competition. This is kind of evident in the touting of cool interface features which are... also in Windows. See where the China metaphor comes in handy?

So why did I go Mac for the new laptop? Because it was one of the best laptops out there according to level-headed PC experts. Because a preponderance of techy, geeky guys have recently Switched and had good experiences. It wasn't even massively overpriced compared to buying the same set of specs for a Windows laptop. The bottom line reason though was that it was the only laptop that, after a whole lot of research, left me wanting it. Apple does have a sense of playfulness and geek cool that makes their MacBook compelling.

[But I'm not going to game with it. Microsoft is still tops in my book when it comes to video game platforms, whether it be the Xbox or an XP box. Nope, I'm just doing boring productivity stuff like the Secret Project and blogging, surfing, etc.]

This will be an experiment. With Mac OS X, with Apple hardware, with the Mac software. The ToT will give an objective and reasonable assessment of how well this goes. There will be no downing of Apple Kool-Aid: I am immune. Remember, I used Apple II and Macintosh exclusively in high school and college.

The Experiment so far:

The Good.
  • Yes, it worked right out of the box.
  • The unit itself is just cool looking as hell.
  • Magnets, magnets, magnets. Thought you couldn't have magnets near a hard drive and a monitor? Think again. Magnetic latch for the LCD screen, magnetic power connector for the AC adapter. For anyone who's ever broken the flimsy latch on a laptop, you know what I mean.
  • The user interface is well designed, but unfamiliar. The emphasis is clearly on geek-cool rather than intuitive user-friendliness.
  • I'm really digging the Menu bar on the top of the screen which changes when the active program changes, so you don't have to use a menu inside each window. There's lots of neat little things like that in OS X. A casual computer user may not notice this stuff though.
  • The bundled software is not irritating come-ons (AOL - I hate you) but full-fledged programs you can't get elsewhere. Garageband may be the biggest timesuck on the entire machine. Widgets are very useful. Gotta avoid it and stick to the Secret Project.
  • Gives me wireless capabilities I didn't have before.
  • Heat issues were not as bad as I feared and this 5 pounder is nice and portable.
  • The screen is to die for, although the widescreen aspect is something to get used to when looking at text documents.

The Bad.
  • Apple has gone on for decades that they have the most user-friendly interface. This was true back in DOS days. But Ubuntu, again a free Linux distribution, allows you to pick one of three desktop interfaces and allows you to run 4 copies of your desktop at once. Think about it - one desktop for surfing, another for word processing, another for a spreadsheet or coding, etc. each with a thumbnail of all four on the bottom of the screen. And Windows has become the QWERTY of interfaces (GUI in techgeek speak) which means that people have voted with their feet on the most user-friendly interface for the masses.
  • I've never felt the urge to get a book (or even wonder if there's been a book written) that explains for experienced computer users how to get around in the interface. And this no-textbook needed approach has gotten me through learning these OS interfaces from scratch:
    1. proto-DOS
    2. DOS
    3. Apple II
    4. Macintosh
    5. Windows 3.1
    6. Windows 95
    7. Windows 98
    8. Windows ME
    9. Windows 2000
    10. Windows XP
    11. Ubuntu 5.10
    12. Ubuntu 6.06.
But I bought the MacBook on Tuesday and had David Pogue's door-stopping "Mac OS X: The Missing Manual" checked out of the library on Wednesday. Partly this is because there's lots of cool hacks that Unixy OS X can handle (got a book on industrial OS X hacks too), partly it's because I don't know how to install more cool widgets or navigate the folders. Maybe none of the other OS were worth investigating.
  • It wasn't as simple to use as Windows when I installed my first program. The free, open-source OpenOffice suite for OS X requires a Unix program to run in that also causes a Unix terminal window, with command line, to open each time. The only way to get rid of it is to type Unix gibberish in the command line. Is this Apple's fault? Not really, but there are a whole bunch of software issues like this with OS X. One is because it IS Unix. Ubuntu requires some command line work too, the difference being it doesn't pretend to be easier than Windows to use and bends over backwards to give you the gibberish you need to paste in to the command line. But Ubuntu came with OpenOffice pre-installed and it doesn't need a separate program to run in.
  • Apple has a stick up their butt about other people's software. Their iWorks word processor Pages has a limited set of document formats and doesn't support .odt, which is becoming one of the big doc formats around the world. Like a lot of Mac software, Pages seems to only acknowledge MS Office formats, which Apple in general is shilling way too much for. Apple's line: Hate MS Windows! Love MS Office! doesn't make much sense. Especially when it rejected a .doc I tried to import from OpenOffice.
  • Another problem is software selection now that they've switched from PowerPC CPUs to Intel CPUs. All you PowerPC people are watching the sun go down on your hardware AND software. And us Intel Mac users don't have all the software that you guys have. We have to use messy emulation programs or hope the developers reunite to reissue your old programs - which you have to pay for again if you 'switched' to Intel. And this is the computer for the rest of us? My Windows 95 games still work in XP. That's 11 years of backward compatibility. Not a big problem for me given that NeoOffice and OpenOffice and some other programs allow work to continue on the Secret Project.

The Unknowns.
  • Haven't hooked up any devices other than, you guessed it, my trusty Logitech Trackball, which works fine.
  • Also haven't tried a lot of the bundled software.
  • The Unix nature of OS X lets you hack the heck out of the Mac and that might allow me to do some neat stuff.
Finally, here I debut the Applesauce Meter, a metric for judging how much of the Apple hype is water and how much is apple. Before the MacBook went Intel, the Meter stood at 90% water, 10% apple. Now, I'd say it's 80/20. If it drops to 20% water, then you can safely call the ToT 'a Mac guy'. The only way that happens is if Apple earns it.

Don't get too comfortable

One of the grand story lines of America is that our living standards are real high and rising and what a great deal. The contrarian line is that this comfort sucks, modern life is corrosive and it would all be better if went back to some other time when things weren't so good. Hard to get a date on when that was though.

As usual, the truth is not some split-the-difference in the middle on these two, but somewhere underneath both statements. The truth is that we have grown a large amount of comfort into our lives. The key to dealing with all this comfort is managing it properly. This lies underneath the soundbites because the truth gets overwhelmed by the louder tug of war over whether comfort is good or bad.

Food, sleep, complacency, web surfing and loafing are too easy to have too much of.
Exercise, companionship, challenges and sex are too easy to have too little of.

Comfort has its own siren song and it has to be resisted but not ignored. As one calibrates the various sectors of one's life to get this balance right, it's like playing cosmic hot/cold. Your body and your instincts give you pretty constant feedback on whether you are hotter or colder.

This is one of the reasons I have invaded my own comfort zone with Aikido, which actually refers to this type of balancing in a way. I dread going and the couch, the Secret Project, the TV, the Xbox and the DVD player all beg me to sit down and relax. But after the class I feel so much better. It's a difficult challenge and has a modicum of exercise. There may be some learning going on too, although it's often hard to tell.

And this explains a bit of why the posts have not been as frequent. I'm balancing my butt off over here.

Ten years... and a week

Mr. and Mrs. Trackball have passed the 10 year wedding anniversary with nary a pause. Are 10 years a milestone or simply the semantic addition of a second digit?

The answer doesn't really matter. Marriages that work are not seen as a burden but as a boost, and that's certainly been the case for us. People who talk negatively about their marriage, or marriages in general, seem to think that they're all alike, but anyone in a successful one can't really explain some generalizable ingredient for success.

Lots of people are not cut out for being married or living with anyone, for that matter. The divorce rate is really driven by these folks with their multiple marriages. While half of all marriages end in divorce, much less than half of ever-married people have ever been divorced.

The idea that marriages take work or that they are hard to maintain is mistaken. They are relationships, no different than any relationship between two people in the sense that it needs a certain amount of attention. But if one sees supplying that attention as a burden, you really ought to rethink the relationship.

So here's hoping that Mrs. Trackball will keep me around another decade. One week down...

My Shire

Now, everyone has a special affinity for their hometown, or where their formative years took place, even if they never return to it. Except, it seems, for the Trackball. As has been noted before in this space, the Trackball is not your average point-and-click mouse. A bit of this is being a contrarian, but for the most part it's just about being different. And given where the Trackball grew up, it made for a disjunctive childhood.

Very early on, the ToT felt like he didn't belong. By third grade, he felt like he had been adopted in the way that a duck would feel being raised in a community of polar bears. The ToT was in the wrong place. And it only became more apparent as time went on.

Why? To paraphrase Luke Skywalker my attitude about my homeplace was that if there was a bright center of the universe, I was on the planet that it was furthest from. I was going to call this post My Tatooine, but after thinking about it some more, I realized that it really should be My Shire. Remember that both Bilbo and Frodo had to leave the Shire permanently, in part because the Hobbits there didn't like them anymore. They were too different when they returned and heterogeneity doesn't fly in the Shire.

My Shire is a friendly place, neither entirely rural, urban or suburban. Residents think it's a great place to raise kids, but being a kid there is a boring ordeal and the young adults with futures are leaving as fast as they can. The economy has been in freefall for decades but people there are perplexed as why others would leave to find jobs. It has all the vitality of a plate of cold pancakes.

One of its dominant traits is that it's heavily homogenous. Same culture, education, race, religion, thoughts, opinions. Conformity, being 'normal,' is much prized. This is directly linked to the lack of knowledge of the outside world. Those who have left tend to return, often browbeaten by family into living nearby. Trying new things is quietly discouraged, often just by example. There is so much in the world that is 'weird.' It's amazing to think that the area was settled by pioneers who had moved across oceans and mountains and cultural barriers.

Diversity is a dirty word there. If you stick out from the crowd in any way (religiously, racially, mindset, sexual orientation, clothing, lifestyle, choice of fiction reading, being a geek, artist, intellectual or from another country) you will be treated like you have the plague. So ToT was on the outs very early on.

Where ToT got into the most trouble was in the weird thinking department by asking why, challenging stupid traditions and poking holes in the elders' smug ignorance. This reflected a schism between the ToT and My Shire about education and knowledge. The average Hobbit considers education akin to vaccination shots - they hurt, getting them is a hassle and you'll probably never need them really but you have to do it. Libraries there are empty spaces where the elderly go to read the paper on weekday mornings. Knowing about the outside world is kind of frowned upon - people who do that tend to get funny ideas in their heads and want to live elsewhere. You can see where the Shire analogy becomes obvious. While ToT lived there, dealing with this aspect of the place was like having someone continuously scream in your ear.

My Shire, unlike Frodo's, has a yawning morality deficit. The lip service-morality is very Easter/Christmas Catholic or righteous evangelical. But, everyone is on the prowl for the latest get rich quick scheme. Umbrage is taken at those with financial success, usually in the form of being angry that the lucky SOB found a get rich quick scheme that worked and is as crooked as a dog's leg. Get welfare, sue for damages, steal, cheat on taxes, embezzle, all are fair play. Although those that are caught are publicly vilified. But they are also privately admired and imitated. Injury lawyers dominate the billboards along the deteriorating highways.

This is combined with financial idiocy because legitimate ways of making money are beyond the kin of these Hobbits. They have become so convinced it's impossible that legitimate business success, like magic tricks, are considered suspect. Every business transaction is treated as a screw job and the prevailing wisdom is to get away with as little value for the money one is given. Jobs are considered good gigs to have while you can hold on to one, but thinking about a career is weird: you ride the crashing wave of economic destruction hoping that you can hang on long enough to retire without getting drowned.

The idiocy extends to spending money too. Economists have long scratched their heads at the ability of downsized Hobbits in My Shire to take a severance package, use it to put a pool in the backyard, not cut back any other spending and not bother looking for work until the unemployment runs out. Retrain, go back to school? Not a lot of takers. Saving money is for suckers too, because what's the point of rubbing nickels together today when tomorrow you will be rich after Mr. Wonka gives you his chocolate factory?

Some of the Trackball's kin probably have hopes that the Trackballs will return. But it is the last place on Earth that I would live, and I certainly would not want to subject the little Trackballs to what I experienced. And, hidden in the family history is this streak of anti-Shire sensibilities that has encouraged a few to leave home, go where the action is, do one's best and see what the rest of the world is like. The ToT is hoping he is following closely in Uncle Bilbo's footsteps.

Gone nuclear in the affluenza academic arms race

So the first offspring of the Trackball of Truth (Minnie Trackball?) has entered public school and as a result, Mrs. Trackball and I are getting one heck of an education. We knew we were in for it, but didn't realize how badly. Haughty teachers, check. Overly-protected kids, check. Uncommunicative bureaucracy, check. We had both gone through it as kids ourselves.

But academic doping? Insider trading for teachers? Selective disability advantages? Geographical high school selection considerations? Over-maturation strategies?

In areas of the country caught in the grip of a horrible ongoing affluenza outbreak, education status (as in my kid is smarter than yours) is a bigger deal than the car you drive or the clothes you wear. The rush to get your kid into a primo elementary, middle, high school, gifted and talented track and then college is a damn near obsession for many apparently mature adults, usually starting somewhere in the preschool years.

For those who grew up in less cosmopolitan areas of the country, like us Trackballs, where attending a good college was not a deeply desired parental goal, this can come as a big shock. As I'll detail later, "My Tatooine" was a place where college was either a ju-co or a 4-6 year kegger. Only the weird kids with AP credits went to brainy schools and they were few and far between (me and the Mrs.). And for K-12, parental involvement in the education substance stopped at the school bus door and maybe forcing you to opt out of sex ed for religious reasons.

So we ventured forth into the land to find a place where there were educated people who actually valued education, knowledge for knowledge sake and liked going to libraries and bookstores. We wanted the two of us and any children we had to grow up in an environment where learning and academic achievement were honored. And the schools in Affluenza are excellent and the kids are doing stuff at least two years ahead of what our schools expected 20 years ago.

What we found, however, was the other extreme. Once you're into the school system, you are in the loop on how it all works and the tips and tricks to get your kid to the next level.

Fasten your cap and gown, here we go.

The over-maturation manuever. Minnie was born right at the beginning of the school year calendar. So when to start kindergarten was an issue. For me, with a summer birthday, your age was always your grade + 5. Except here in the state of Affluenza, though, sending a 5 yr old to kindergarten is quickly becoming akin to child abuse. At first we thought it was because people wanted their kid to be the bigger, stronger, more mature kid on grade-specific sports teams.

No, no. Our school tracks kindergarteners academically and they believe that a child won't be down-shifted to a slower group. So if you get into the advanced track in kindergarten, she's good to go for the gifted and talented program (GT) through high school. And that is the good college track. So parents wait till the kid is 6 before packing him off. There's no max age for kindergarten. And when 'all' the parents are doing this, everyone else follows suit. Except the Trackballs.

But holding off on kindergarten till 6 is not enough. They do assessments on kids as they come in, so you better get junior all prepped to do double digit addition and read independently before they step into first grade. Preschool will only do so much, so you send the kid to private school kindergarten first when she is 5. Then have her repeat it at 6 in public school. For older grades, use academic summer camps to put your kid ahead of the others or just send them to Sylvan during the school year for extra prep. Just like the never-ending campaign in politics, cram time is now a year round thing and not the week before the SAT and finals.

Insider trading. But that may not be enough. All teachers are not created equal. You don't want Susie to essentially lose a year of math progress in K or 8th grade because the teacher is a dud. Like the NFL Draft, you have to do some scout work each year.

So you volunteer at the school (yeah, moms, drop those jobs or you won't even be allowed to chaperone on field trips, much less get the insider info). You volunteer a lot. Like several times a week. You become the teacher or administration's best friend.

And you find out about which teachers are good, okay and bad, which ones are getting the advanced kids, the on grade level kids and the remedial and special ed groups. Then you either directly or indirectly lobby to get your kid with the star teacher. If your school has been traumatized by over-involved parents demanding specific classroom assignments, like ours has, and has adopted a policy forbidding such requests and underhandedness, then you have to get all stealthy about it. More strategy has been pored into pulling this off than the entire anti-terrorism effort in the U.S., I can assure you.

Selective disability advantage. You don't think that after all that work that affluenzaed parents were going to let the kid make or break the education experience themselves, do you? You can't just get your kid into GT with a height/weight/age advantage and the best teacher and just hope for the best. There is an entire zero sum war for school resources to win. You can score extra resources for your GTer by getting them classified as learning disabled. They get an individual development plan, extra attention from teachers and possibly more time to take tests. Stigma? Watch the stigma get into Harvard.

Academic doping. Then there is the actual academic performance. It's student eat student out there and your kid needs that extra edge when it comes to filling in bubbles with a number two pencil. Yes, I mean having him or her take performance-enhancing drugs such as amphetamines. They are perfectly legal, there are no rules prohibiting them and they do help your kid think better. Apparently there are no long term consequences to the kids health, although I am doubtful. All you do is go to the pediatrician and claim the kid ADHD or ADD. Yeah, that kid sitting quietly in the exam room crunching quadratic equations needs a shot of speed.

Geographical high school selection considerations. So what is a parent to do? Compete in this environment? The problem is that having junior graduate from Affluenza High actually will hurt their chances of getting into a top-notch college. They only take so many over -achievers from the same place at a state flagship or the Ivys, no matter how good they are. You would be better off living in some less advanced place so you're kid can be the big fish in a redneck pond.

Of course, this alternative has its own problems. Namely, will your child resist the anti-education environment of such a place and still excel? The entire culture of East Lowskill may encourage them to maybe not even complete high school, or graduate with either a meth habit or a baby in tow. And will the dearth of AP and IB courses and meaningful activities (hanging out in the Burger King parking lot only goes so far on a college application) doom your child more certainly than not becoming a speed fiend? It's a tough call.

The moral angle. It's one thing to prepare your children to be competitive in school and the world in general. But almost all of these techniques are morally shady if not outright cheating. Schools need to crack down on this stuff. No amount of charter schools, vouchers or hot lunches is going to level the playing field for poor kids if the rich ones are dropping uppers on test day. There's also a nasty lesson for children here - do whatever it takes to get ahead, blow right past any ethical issues and grab everything in the school system that you can. What's next, room mothers knee-capping the other smart kids on test day? Or Harvard students who have run this rat race getting their cheated outed finally?

Wait that's already happened.

The Rites of Spring and its Wrongs

Easter is nearly here. I don't like Easter. Never have. It's not a coherent holiday of any sort. A christian religious holiday has tried to supplant pagan and Jewish springtime holidays and the result is a pastel-shaded mess of a broken chocolate egg on a horny rabbit's head.

For centuries, the rites of spring were celebrated by nearly every culture. These celebrations were nearly all centered around the spring equinox, the return of flora and fauna and fertility.

Yeah, that's right, sex. Spring is when mother nature gets it on. As any sufferer of pollen allergies can attest to, we're getting swamped by plant ejaculate. Most ancient rituals had to do with boosting or encouraging plant fertility to bring in a good harvest, which of course was key to survival. Somewhere deep in the memory banks I also remember reading that pagans in the U.K. also had orgies to celebrate the spring equinox, but I don't remember where I read this. Planting seeds, indeed.

When the christians came along with the Jesus crucifixation commemoration, they tried to hijack not only the rituals, but the stories. Fertility gods that were born of virgins and died and reborn annually were recast with Jesus in the central role. In the early days, christianity, like the pagan religions it was competing with, had to absorb and adopt to the popular myths of the time to appeal to a mass audience. Nothing wrong with that: just read Joseph Campbell if you don't believe me.

So the bunny is a sign of fertility, the chocolate is an aphrodiasiac, the egg signifies the ancient myth that an egg could balance on it's end at the equinox (and another fertility sign), and the baskets and pastel colors are just spring time foofery. And it's all been superficially sanitized of sexual meaning for kids. But it still creeps me out.

Plus it all hits a wrong chord. Sex, death, resurrection and pastel colors don't go together. Can't we keep the sex and (sanitized love for kids) on Valentine's Day and the wedding/prom season and the death and resurrection on Halloween and Cinco de Mayo? And rabbits are fuzzy little vermin that are the enemies of gardeners, plant life and farmers. Why are we celebrating them when trees and flowers are coming back?

If spring is mainly a celebration of life returning and plants growing, why not have a blooming flower as the main symbol instead? Give each other plants and flowers for Easter? Given that Earth Day is right around the corner and the green St. Patty's day is right behind us, wouldn't this make a perfect melding of seasonally appropriate traditions to have a green holiday focused on life's resurgence? The entire gardening industry could get into the thing.

Happy Spring!

When religion and morality collide

The hardball lobbying job underway by the Catholic Church to not extend the statute of limitations for bringing child sex abuse lawsuits in Maryland and other places has wheeled the Trackball around to the Gordian Knot that is religion and morality.

The Catholic Bishops are going all out to stop the flood of lawsuits by children molested by church officials over the last bunch of decades. Their record on this is as fragrant as that of Halliburton facing an overcharging scandal.

Except. This. Is. About. Protecting. Child. Sex. Offenders.

Who happen to wear clerical collars. And the organization that enabled their reign of terror.

Is there a shred of morality anywhere in their behavior on this issue? Countersuing the victims, accusing the parents of incompetence, questioning the legality of criminal prosecution, covering up the scandal, and pooh-poohing parents' concerns over their children's safety in the rectory.

Note the effect that the public morality has already had on the church. It is not insignificant that public outcry has wrenched the church to the position of: Yeah, yeah, we're sorry that it happened, blah blah blah, but we shouldn't have to lose money over the whole thing! This is a clear case of religion and morality in conflict.

Shouldn't morality stem from religious teachings, you say? Oh, that spin is far off from the truth. Religion, like patriotism, has been misused in the past and present to house blatantly immoral acts. The gentle and kind statements of various religious founders generally don't match the actions. Public morality often runs way ahead of the religious orthodoxy. Look at civil rights, where the majority of religious leaders in America were either on the sidelines or quoting the Bible about the virtues of segregation. So too with the abolition of slavery, the rise of democracy, women's equality, birth control, the spread of literacy and acceptance of homosexuals as equal citizens (still waiting on that one, by the way). A couple of right thinking and vocal ministers in a movement doesn't offset the silent majority.

Lest you think that I'm singling out the Catholic Church, every religion has these kind of moments. Hardly any are as hierarchical as the CC, so it's easier to use them as an example. However, the lack of outrage over Shiite/Sunni slaughter in Iraq is a good one for Islam, Israeli treatment of Palestinians, Hindu violence in India, white protestants on civil rights in the South, and Buddhism-fueled torture and trampling of human rights in Japan's history. And they all have lost the moral path when it comes to proper treatment of women, although the sins here are of varying degree.

Oh, wait, you guys, the secular humanists, the religious humanists, freethinkers, atheists and agnostics who are all smiling at one another, you have transgressions that need to be reversed too. You are the ones charged with protecting morality when the organized religions don't and you have been derelict in your duty. The biggest failure has been not being vocal enough about a morality that transcends any religious dogma. The kind which people of all faiths know and understand - that a person should not be harmed or humiliated, that he or she has a set of rights that dictate that he or she should be treated well and protected when defenseless.

Without that kind of defense, the others will try to tie morality completely to their gods, making it null and void when their day to day prophets find it advantageous to disregard it. Those day to day prophets are human too, and prone to err when their self interest collides with their advanced ethical training. When such a thing happens, people of all faiths should strike back and wrench the errant religion back on to the moral course, like has been done through the ages.

It's a woman's world, thank the goddess

The truth is that we live in a woman's world. It's a pretty nice place, even for men. Especially for men like me, who like to go several decades between beatings by bullies and who appreciate the verbal arts. So before you think that this is a misogynistic rant about the fall of men or contrarianism for cuteness sake, turn off that crap filter and hear me out, because it's none of those things.

Round versus square. Without diving into religion too much here, there's a reason why lots of creation stories focus on woman be created after men or the supreme being is a woman. Men are humans 1.0, women are 2.0. Men have external genitalia, poor impulse control, weak immune systems, limited verbal abilities and bizarre hair placement. Women seem to be better designed in all these respects. Men are square and utilitarian, women are roundy and curvy. Note that almost anything in nature that is considered attractive is round or curved. The sun, the Earth, the moon, the eyeball, the pupil, flowers, clouds, rainbows and women. So the world literally is a woman's in the sense that both have intrinsic aesthetic appeal. Don't believe me? Put a picture of a human face (round, with round eyes, round mouth, round ears) next to a 2x4 and tell me which one your eye is drawn to.

The Female Memes. In all the important aspects, all human societies are run according to female sensitivities (not that all women share them, or that all men don't). And to the extent that ancient societies were more run by men's ideas, there is a huge shift away from those and towards women's worldview. Societies are verbally-oriented. Violence is considered horrible and is stigmatized more and more. Children and babies are adored, sex is frowned upon. Disease has been hunted down by insisting on doing those things that men resist - proper cleaning, cooking, and education. Stable, safe and happy lives and homes are expected to be a major priority for each person and is reinforced by mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends.

Yes, in the unimportant aspects, men still superficially run human affairs. They run corporations, governments, armed forces and social institutions. But none of these has ever been responsible for getting society conditioned to say please and thank you. And the oppression of women continues every where in the world including in the United States. But the men in charge are consistently pushing the feminine memes: safe food, environmental protection, protecting children, maintaining civil society, etc. And women are quickly gaining on men where it counts, like in their higher college graduation rates, a sign that even the window dressing may not be male dominated in the future. Neither gender is in charge of the world, but both are actively spreading the feminine memes, or ideas.

And yes, there is much in the world that shows a profound lack of respect and dignity for women. But is treating women properly and equal to men necessarily a female meme? Do women practice that with one another when no men are around? Do they even believe it? If so, why are there unceasing mommy wars, cattiness, cliques, etc. etc. at all ages? How come every woman thinks she's ugly when she has aesthetic beauty? Are these masculine memes that only affect women and have managed to survive the general ascendancy of feminine memes? Possible, but unlikely. Men don't have anything approaching that kind of intra-gender sexism and self-loathing. So not all feminine memes are good, just as there are a few masculine memes that are good (and the reason that last clause sounds so strange is a sign that we live in a woman's world.)

Not a man's world. Still don't believe me? Okay, let's picture a man's world.

  • Nothing would need ironing. Clothes would be disposable or recyclable and highly flammable.
  • Everything would be dirty and food poisoning would be a major cause of death.
  • You could cut in front of any line by growling or beating the people in front of you. There would be no such thing as manners.
  • Babies and children would be sent to reservations to grow up to keep them out of public view and earshot. People who like to babysit would be considered freaks who can't control their deviant desires.
  • Organized religion would cease to exist. So would the PTA.
  • Every teenage boy would start lessons at the local, publicly funded walk-in tantric sex clinic at the onset of puberty. This would be done mostly as a mental health initiative, to reduce juvenile crime and to get them all to graduate from high school.
  • Belching after a meal would be considered complimenting the cook.
  • The environment would be completely totalled.
  • Women would be free to go out with that asshole they find attractive and would never have to settle for the boring nice guy.
  • Paintball and powertool operations would be major sports in gym class at school. At every education level there would be a recess after each class that required sitting still for more than five minutes.
  • Life expectancy would be about 45, as would the literacy rate. Except for the nerd colonies that would protect themselves with the coolest weaponry ever built.
  • There would be no subtlety in interpersonal communications.
This is not our world. And I think everyone can agree that what we got is a lot better. It's the feminine memes that make civil society... civil. So thank the goddess and pass the meme.

Going Future

The truth is that our language has been taken over by the worst empty phrases and words to ever come from hacks in a corporate PR shop. "Now more than ever" is particularly bad and representative. It doesn't mean anything other than 'this is important' but it is consumed by a shallow attempt to create the appearance of newness where none exists. "This blog, now more than ever, is composed of words."

Since 9/11, we've had to endure the phrase 'times like these'. This is especially prevalent, now more than ever, in ads targeting the elderly. "In times like these, it's hard to get a good night's sleep..." This makes it sound like 9/11 events were a daily occurence. Is the world ending? Is it 1935, or 1106, or 1863? In times like these, life is actually pretty good by any objective measure. Unless you're a senior citizen that is under the impression that whenever you were young things were better, in which case, you are kinda delusional, now more than ever, and in this country.

The worst hack phrase, in times like these and now more than ever, is the phrase 'going forward.' Used to be that when people meant some time later, they would say 'later' or 'in the future' or better yet, the decree-like "from now on". Now we here crap like "Going forward, the government is going to improve it's ability to pretend to do something about the prescription drug program." If they wanted to say that they would continue doing something despite opposition or setbacks, they would say 'I will not stop' or say they were 'resolute' or 'undeterred'. Now it's "we continue to go forward." Can you imagine the civil rights movement succeeding with a wimpy-ass theme song titled 'We Shall Keep Going Forward'?

The only use of this phrase is to describe physical movement, as in "he put the car in reverse, but it continued going forward." Programs, movements and plans, none of them can go forward. They can advance, happen, continue, overcome obstacles, and persist.

I think the rise of the going forward stupidity is because of fear of the future. We used to embrace the future in this country but now we fear it, perhaps now more than ever. Maybe it's because we live in times like these and people think that the future can only be worse. These people need to wake up and smell the color cell phone and the longer life spans. We shouldn't shape our language around these cowering fools.

Or maybe an aging society is more nostalgic than forward-looking. So the hacks figured that we should just avoid talking about the future. It's not PC, meaning polite. The Trackball will have to post about this irritating trend some time in the future. You're either forward looking or backward looking and the entire society really depends upon us keeping ours forward.

Or maybe the future is so bright, we have to wear shades. My meaning is that the future promises so much more change and uncertainty and possibility that the hacks have figured people have to be focused on little steps or you'll scare them into catatonia. And steps are like movement, hence the use of going forward. I say stick the future in their face, because I want to live there and it's a nicer place than this.

Don't put the future into the hands of the hacks and the fearful. Going into the future is the only way to go.

The Secret Project (or things to do with a lifespan before you're dead)

I think there are actually one or two people out there who are wondering what the Secret Project is. How interesting.

Let me first explain the context of what it is I am doing, because that will be much more interesting than the substance to many of you.

The Context:
Every person has a set of gifts, talents and strengths. They might be something learned or discovered or genetic or a bit of all three. They're usually enjoyable and can easily dump you into a flow state.

The truth is that whether we use these talents and how often can define not just how enjoyable a life can be but the entire trajectory of that life. The ToT has been intrigued by the idea of what would happen if more people realized this, or even if economic productivity came to rely on people being in flow on the job more often than it occurs now. What if the school system was geared to help kids discover what it was that got their juices going? What if it worked and the pace of change accelerated while society also got better at everything it does?

The ToT has also been trying to organize his life around moving from one flow-inducing activity to the next. In that lies the route to happiness. After a bunch of decades of existence, I have a real good idea what those activities are and which one of those are talented areas for me. There is one particular activity that has been a big deal in this regard for me going way, way back to before I could even read and write.

There's the context. What's the Secret Project? In a way, I've already told you here. It is fraught with the possibility of failure, complicated as all hell, a learning experience, intellectually challenging and impossible to stop doing. Can you figure it out?

Tribalists amongst us

Lately there's been renewed focus on religious, ethnic and racial tensions around the world. The ever present but more noticeable anti-Arabism in the U.S. and especially in Europe, muslim sectarianism in Iraq, old feuds in Russia, Chinese-Japanese antagonism and the rise of fundamentalist religious extremists everywhere. And then there's the gall of old fashioned white supremacists proudly meeting in public in Northern Virginia.

What's going on?

Among the Trackball's earliest forays into truth were earnest efforts in the realm of race relations. Growing up in a rabidly racist place that was about 95% white and 99.99% closeminded, combined with my ability to see things as they really are, lead to some uncomfortable conclusions. 1) I had to get the hell out of there, because amid the desperate straining for homogeneity in everything, the Trackball was already an outcast, and 2) prejudice is alive, well, voluntary, more a mental disorder than an opinion, and relatively easy to spot. Coming out of undergrad, I was seriously planning on working on racial relations in grad school.

This is a long way of saying that I've followed this issue quite closely for a long while. Even took the Harvard implicit racism test and, no surprise, I scored as not preferring whites over blacks or vice versa. How did you do?

The problem is that the prejudiced discriminators are shifting in numbers and tactics. They can be divided into a couple of groups: the Overts, Quiets, Deniers and the Tribalists.
  • The Overts openly discriminate and don't care who knows. They are a shrinking breed of haters thankfully.
  • The Quiets maintain a neutral front, but when pressed or when they feel comfortable within their group, they'll cop to their prejudices, often shamefully.
  • The Deniers really seem to believe that they're not prejudiced, even though they keep showing otherwise over and over again.
  • Then there are the Tribalists, who are prejudiced because they think that life is a zero-sum game for groups and that they need to do their part for their side.

Somewhere along the way, many of the Quiets figured that they could take it up a notch and become Tribalists. They began to feel free or even obligated to 'help' their 'team.' They feel that others are getting more tribal, so if they don't, then they're group will lose out. Even though it's wrong, and they know it, they figure that people in a particular group just need to do whatever they can for their 'team.' They think they're being realists, when they're only rationalizing immoral behavior. But the rationalization gave them a new lease to be actively prejudiced.

Here's but one example from a recent Courtland Milloy piece on the PG county school superintendent:

The majority-black school board on Thursday selected a white superintendent from a tiny district in California to run one of the largest predominantly black school systems in the country.


"Let me tell you, this was an agonizing decision for me," said Howard W. Stone Jr., vice chairman of the school board, who is black. "We've had three black school superintendents who didn't work out, and I sure didn't want to leave black people and especially black students with the impression that a black can't lead.

"Did I want to turn this system over to a white man? Not if I'd had my druthers. But after looking at all of the candidates, this was the best guy to lead the system, raise the test scores and get our kids the best education possible."

Judge those statements as you will; I'm not sure who should be more offended, blacks in the county or the new superintendent. But to some extent, it's irrelevant. As you can imagine, the Tribalists have turned every effort to turn back discrimination into an opening salvo in some group-based Oklahoma land rush for jobs, money, housing, celebrity, etc. They cite the gay agenda, America and the West, gentrification, affirmative action, secular government and schools, development, the women's movement, democracy, etc. like they were mob hits on their group and that they should be free to hit right back. I guarantee you that at least a dozen white Tribalists read that article in the Post and decided to give a black person the shaft that day in retaliation. Never mind that their true fear is that individually they won't measure up without the help of some unfair group-provided advantage which is disappearing.

This of course leads to the worst possible feuds, where the prejudiced in each group sees evidence that the others are being tribal, their numbers swell, and so the cycle continues. Tribalist prejudice activities have exponentially negative effects. How to stop them?

Well, the reason I didn't follow through on the racial relations work in graduate school is because I realized that prejudice's voluntary nature makes it nearly impervious to external persuasion. It's a mental illness that is eagerly sought. No amount of research or public policy will dent it.

The only cure is for moral leaders to strip away the false rationalizations
and explain that in fact we're all worse off when the Tribalists gain power over us in sections. This would marginalize the Overts, shame the Tribalists back to Quiets, the Quiets back to Deniers and make some Deniers become enlightened. Everybody but the Overts know that their prejudice is wrong, but when moral leaders remain silent, all rightly assume that these leaders have become Quiets or even Tribalists themselves.