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BMW’s been running a series of “if we all switched to diesel” ads lately, a bid to make their cars (in general) seem more environmentally friendly. The mileage they are advertising is actually “good but not great”, as their roadsters are advertised at 36 miles per gallon of diesel (diesel is slightly more energy-dense to start with, so there’s actually no increase in engine efficiency for the car itself, and as we’ll see below, diesel is a much less plentiful resource than gasoline). That “36 mpg” is also a highway measurement, and the real-life city measurement drops precipitously because diesel engines have a much narrower power band than gasoline engines. Diesel engines are made for “long haul, steady use” applications, such as trains, heavy truck shipping, and electric generators. They’re much more inefficient than gasoline engines when it comes to stop-and-go traffic.

The major conceit in the advertising is a ridiculously false basic premise. As I discussed somewhere a while back, the split of various products produced when you “crack” (distill/refine) a barrel of crude oil is more-or-less set. It can be massaged by maybe 2-3 percentage points through advanced distillation methods, but there’s only so much of each given type of hydrocarbon in the barrel, and you get what you get. It’s theoretically possible to convert diesel to gasoline or vice versa, but the problem is that once you start doing this, you are spending more energy than you will get back and thus, you’re just wasting fuel.

The underlying conceit of BMW’s ad – that it would be possible for every single person to switch to a diesel vehicle – falls flat. The ratio in a given barrel of gasoline to diesel/heating oil is approximately 2:1. Diesel vehicles already have to compete with demand for heating oil; that’s part of why diesel prices rise around October, when homes above the 40th parallel generally begin turning off their air conditioners and turning on their oil-based heaters for winter.

Indeed, it seems that the secondary assumption of BMW’s ads – that it would be a good idea for even a small chunk of the market in cars to switch to diesel, say 10% or so – doesn’t work out. A few years ago, the price of diesel fuel went above the price of gas, and the price of jet fuel, heating oil, and other “associated products” went up. Or rather I should say, they didn’t “go up” so much as they were available in less quantity. The factor was that ethanol replaced MTBE as the fuel stabilizer/octane-booster of choice for gasoline blends in the US, aided and abetted by some very junk science the EPA used to mandate corrosive ethanol-laced gasoline in certain major metroplex markets such as Chicago, New York, Houston, and Los Angeles. The “hidden” factor was that the gasoline blends went from using ~2% MTBE to 10% (or sometimes even sneakily greater with severe consequences) ethanol. Instantly, in other words, ~8% more “gasoline” was being produced per barrel of oil and shipped out. Faced with a relatively static demand for gasoline (the primary product from the barrel of oil), the oil refiners scaled back, and so diesel, heating oil, and everything else suddenly had an ~8% supply availability drop with a corresponding rise in price.

Now look to modern time. Decrease the demand for gasoline by 10%, and increase the demand for diesel/heating oil by a corresponding amount. How does the idea of $7/gallon diesel fuel sound to you? Essentially, a shift in demand for diesel is going to disproportionately punish diesel usage, and as was just shown above, BMW’s diesel vehicles are not any more energy-efficient (in terms of joules per mile) than their gasoline counterparts.

Of course, I’m sure BMW doesn’t care. They get an ad campaign claiming their cars are “clean” and “better for the environment”, and most of the population is too stupid to understand what’s really going on. The real fright will come if/when other car companies begin mimicing BMW, and there’s enough of a shift in usage patterns to make diesel and heating oil cost-prohibitive.


Category: Road

In the videogame/media world recently, there’s been a major push for “download-based” or “managed server based” delivery systems. In particular in the videogame world, there are now two parallel, competing channels for content. Major games are released on disc and go to stores (Walmart, Target, Gamestop, etc). Minor games and past classics are distributed/resurrected via the download services provided by Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, and even for the computer over venues such as Valve’s “Steam” service.

Sony has recently taken this to a new level with their “PSP Go”, an ill-conceived console that can only purchase games from Sony’s download store, and takes ~3 hours to download a single purchase. Meanwhile, over at Slashdot there’s a raging debate over EA’s latest few debacles, most notable their constant stripping of game content off into “nickel and diming” paid DLC. Some estimates of the actual price of certain EA titles go to over $90 after the “release day” DLC, which most people agree is necessary to make the game playable.

Of a larger part in the picture, however, is the game companies’ repeated attacks on the used-games market. EA has teased the idea of games whereby certain downloadable content is only available to the “original” purchaser, making the title crippled (possibly even unplayable) if purchased second-hand. Sony, a while back, patented a system whereby games would “burn in” their processor ID number the first time a game was used, on a special section of a disc, and subsequently the disc would refuse to play in any other console (particularly vexing given that the failure rate of many consoles is 20% or higher, and an entire library of games could be made worthless by something as simple as a power surge). The PSP Go has no possible game cartridge slot unless Sony releases “pre-programmed” memory cards, meaning that the only time any store is likely to see any money from it is when they sell the console itself.

From the companies’ perspective, the more common internet access becomes, the easier it is to bypass the brick-and-mortar retailers. This isn’t unique to the video game industry, since the movie and music industries have been pioneering it (poorly) to some extent, but the hatred towards the secondary market (and to some extent, the multiple personality disorder, since Gamestop regularly cuts “exclusive release deals” with many game companies) in the videogame market is particularly strong.

I cannot put much of the blame for the situation on Gamestop or the other secondary-market stores (heck, it’s so lucrative even Wal-mart wants in on the action). Movies sell for (relatively) cheap, oftentimes less (thanks to ongoing borderline-illegal price fixing by music companies) than a movie’s corresponding soundtrack. Most people buying a movie have already seen it once (either in theater, over broadcast/cable, or via rental) and know what they’re buying. Videogames, by contrast, are purchased more or less blind. There are many cases in which a game has been preceded by a massive hype machine, only to be sold back to the store in droves because it was either way too short, particularly godawful, or some combination thereof. Most games have enough of a market of “hey, I don’t like this at all” types that within 2-3 days of release there will be at least a handful of “used” copies available at the secondary-market stores. Game manufacturers feel “cheated” by the fact that their new-title sales get cannibalized this quickly, and would prefer to stop it from happening entirely; at least one company attempted unsuccessfully to force Gamestop into a contract barring resale of their titles for at least a month after release, in hopes of making a bit more money that way. At the same time, rumblings of attempted copyright actions against Gamestop in the past smacked of antitrust violations and violations of first-sale doctrine, and attempts to claim a percentage of the revenue from Gamestop’s sale of used titles (via threat of withholding new-sales product) were outright extortion. In a market where a term for bad product (“shovelware”) exists and is commonly used, game companies are much more to blame for putting out product that’s so easily sold/forgotten and thus making the current system (whereby a given disc cycles through a Gamestop-style store an average of 5-6 times in its usable lifespan) to their own disadvantage.

Meanwhile, of course, from a pure revenue perspective I can’t blame the game makers from salivating over the prospect of both ongoing revenue streams (original title $59.99, DLC to the tune of $6-10 every couple months, onwards onwards) and for the “noncannibalized” sales model of downloadable content. It can’t escape them that every sale of a game over Xbox Live Arcade, for instance, can’t be resold or transferred to anyone else unless someone sells their entire console and transfers the Xbox gamertag information/login to the new owner (which may, or may not, violate some part of the Xbox Live ongoing subscription contract). From their perspective, when Gamestop sells a used disc they see no money, whereas any time someone buys a game via download they get “their cut.”

Of course, the generalized form of this debate is nothing new. A long time ago, booksellers tried to kill the idea of public lending libraries on the idea that it would put them out of business, and an attempted deal for Google to offer a sort of “online” booksearch/lending library model is going through all sorts of hell currently. What is new is the fact that, armed with the DMCA (some of the worst garbage legislation ever written), certain companies actually have been given the option to try to hide their content behind so many layers of “protection” that they have, in fact, begun attempts to destroy the customer’s right of first sale entirely.

I can’t imagine that this bodes well for consumer rights, or for the market in general. At the very least, should trends continue, Gamestop’s in real trouble 10-15 years down the road and we might see Target/Best Buy/Wal-mart’s electronics sections seriously reduced in size.


Category: Market, Theater

An interesting case before the Supreme Court this time around offers an interesting question: when does the “Miranda Rights” warning expire?

Miranda, of course, is the famous case that gave us the famous warning-to-all-people-being-arrested that begins “You have the right to remain silent…” The followup case, Edwards V. Arizona, established that anything said after you say “I want a lawyer” can’t be admitted to court unless it is proved that your lawyer was right next to you, in the room, during any subsequent police interrogation.

This time around, we get Maryland V. Shatzer. The bare-bones are: a suspect was in jail. A police detective came to interview him, read him his rights, the suspect said “I want my lawyer”, and the detective simply closed up the case rather than spend the time getting the lawyer present. Two years and 7 months later, a different police detective turns up, reopens the case, goes to the prison, interviews the suspect, reads him his rights again, and begins “interrogating” the guy without a lawyer present, eventually getting him to waive his right to counsel and getting an admission of another crime out of him.

The case is interesting on two points. The first point is how long a “Miranda warning” lasts, the second is possible ways police could try to get around it. Under the initial Edwards test, from the moment a suspect invokes the right to counsel, and as long as they are “in custody”, the police may not speak with them (at least to get admissible evidence) without a lawyer present, and requires a “re-reading” of rights if they “break custody” and then bring them back for another interview. So (for example), the police can’t read you your rights and then hold you in custody for a week after you ask for a lawyer, constantly bringing you back for an “interview” every hour or two and badgering you to waive your previous exercise of your right to counsel. They can, however, read you your rights, say “we’re done, you can go home” when you ask for a lawyer, send you home, and then call you back in (say, a week or a month later) for another “interview” and ask you to waive your right to counsel again as long as they have broken the “chain of custody” in the meantime. They also can get your lawyer in the room, yell, scream, lie, and otherwise badger you (with your lawyer likely constantly telling you “don’t answer that”), and pretty much do whatever they want hoping to provoke a reaction and a statement that they could use, with your lawyer then being “under the gun” to convince a judge to throw any statement you made in his presence out on the grounds of coercion.

The police in Maryland are claiming that the original canceled interview, and the new one, constitute this break in “custody.” The problem for them (at least for a lawyering perspective) is that this guy was sitting in prison the whole time, “in the custody” of the state. Yes, he might not have been in the lockup of that one specific precinct, but as far as his lawyers are concerned, he was in jail – movement restricted, access to even his own lawyer restricted, etc. From their perspective, the second police detective had no right to show up (even a couple years later) and conduct a second interview without the guy’s lawyer present.

As a thought experiment, it’s supremely interesting. The question of “chain of custody” between police jail, and county/state lockup, is odd – saying the police had “broken custody” on those grounds could lead to police simply transferring suspects over to a neighboring county lockup, then badgering them there, in order to get around an exercise of right-to-counsel. The question of police trying to reopen an old case – and launching a new “interview”, with a new reading of rights, while not paying attention to previous directives from the suspect – is dodgy at best. The underlying real “nasty tactic” which seems to be legal, would be the police letting someone go home and then showing up the next morning to arrest and “interview” them each day until they finally gave up their right to counsel, though it seems any competent lawyer at trial ought to be able to quickly get that tossed out on grounds of coercion, harassment, and abuse of police powers.

Fairly warned, the case is unlikely to have any aid in its defendant; indeed, one of the tenets of legal thought (“easy cases make bad law”, with its necessary corrolary “hard cases also make bad law”) comes to mind. The problem? The guy is serving time for “sexual abuse of a child”, according to the court docket, and the subsequent interview and the crime he supposedly admitted to (with the level of officer-badgering unknown and no lawyer present) is sexual abuse of another child, and the reopening of the case was prompted by his wife (or possibly ex-wife, court documents sometimes being vague and referring to things as they were “at the time of offence” rather than current situation). This makes him, as defendants go, roughly as unsympathetic as can be. The Supreme Court is theoretically pretty good about setting aside the idea of the unsympathetic defendant (especially given that they only see the lawyers for each side) but it’s a crime that tends to raise emotions regardless.


Category: Courthouse

At “Free Money Finance”, a blogger offers up regular shots of “tips on how to save money”, but also has collected a “top 10” list of the advice that was absolutely reviled by readers. Like any list, it’s subjective, but I feel the need to take a few of these apart myself:

10. Be healthy — Let’s face it, people don’t like being told they are fat and lazy. I think that’s at the core of the disdain for a healthy lifestyle – Here at HC, we regularly go rounds on why it is people live unhealthy lifestyles. In truth, the supposed “ultra healthy” types (bodybuilders, gym rats, etc) kind of weird me out too. If anything, those people are a portion of the problem with getting people to exercise – I found it a lot harder to go to certain “upscale” exercise chains that are regularly full of gym rats, than I did during my time with a YMCA membership where (for the most part and with only a few outlying exceptions) the people exercising looked a lot more normal.

9. Move to a foreign country (or even visit for health care) – as they admit, this one is probably best for retired folks, since otherwise finding a job is a prerequisite (oh, and did we mention the language barrier’s going to make that extra difficult as well?). That being said, the suggestions of “cheaper” areas to live reminded me of why nobody in their right mind should live there (especially Mexico, which is due for a violent revolution any time now even if you don’t consider the current constant war between police and drug-running gangs to be one already).

7. Buying used — Let’s list the things people hate about buying used: 1) it’s not new; 2) someone else has used it; 3) did I mention it’s not new? – 4) you don’t always know what you’re getting, 5) it’s out of warranty. Yes, I know things go out of warranty on their own anyways, and many warranties are of the “not worth the paper they’re printed on” variety. Yes, I speak as someone who usually extols the virtues of either buying used, or knowing how to repair your own gear. That, however, is just it: I know how to evaluate something if I’m buying used. I know how to get the most out of it and do the repairs myself. For people without that knowledge/skillset, buying used may not be the brightest of concepts, since they may wind up with useless junk sitting around and just going off to buy more used junk. The blogger goes on to list that “most of us have generally accepted that a good-condition used car is less expensive than a new car” – and again, horror stories of people who bought used-car lemons abound.

2. Not buying a pet – even the blogger admits this may be bad advice. Yes, pets can add up as an expense. On the other hand, they’re cheap entertainment, they’re good for raising kids and teaching them responsibility (not to mention strengthening immune systems), they’re good for keeping your blood pressure under control, and they keep your feet warm on cold nights.

1. Moving to a lower cost-of-living city — This one really puzzles me. Not only is it that people don’t like this idea, but they REALLY don’t like it. As in “you’re the stupidest financial blogger ever” sort of don’t like it. But what do I care? I still have my day job. 😉 – I’ll say it: “you’re the stupidest financial blogger ever.” People move for a variety of reasons, but unless you have 6 different job offers in 6 different cities, there are pretty much three general criteria people follow when picking a location: #1, proximity to job. #2, proximity to family (whether you pick “real close”, “kinda close”, or “other side of planet” is your call, but everyone wants it somewhere on that spectrum for their comfort zone), #3 Everything Else. This one is reviled because, quite plainly, it comes across as sanctimonious nonsense. If you’re independently wealthy? Go nuts. If your “job” is something that can be done anywhere you can get your hands on an internet connection? Maybe. If you’re like most (employed) people, however, you’re tied to your job, and the idea of “I’m gonna move out of my house/apartment, load everything into a moving van, and haul ass to somewhere unknown and hope I can find a job there to live cheaper even though the reason that things are ‘cheaper’ there is that all the jobs in the area pay peanuts” is… well… read it again. THAT is what this “advice” amounts to, and why people peg it for the terrible advice it is.


Category: Coffeehouse

Over at Computerworld, Jeff Ello offers an interesting proposition – that the stereotypical IT person (antisocial, anti-management, anti-bureaucracy, etc) is merely a logical being who reacts in a logical way to their stereotypical environment. In particular, this quote caught my eye:

    Antisocial behavior — It’s fair to say that there is a large contingent of IT pros who are socially unskilled. However, this doesn’t mean those IT pros are antisocial. On the whole, they have plenty to say. If you want to get your IT pros more involved, you should deal with the problems laid out above and then train your other staff how to deal with IT. Users need to be reminded a few things, including:

    – IT wants to help me.
    – I should keep an open mind.
    – IT is not my personal tech adviser, nor is my work computer my personal computer.
    – IT people have lives and other interests.

    Like anyone else, IT people tend to socialize with people who respect them. They’ll stop going to the company picnic if it becomes an occasion for everyone to list all the computer problems they never bothered to mention before.

Without fail, not merely for myself but based on the experiences of friends/family I have known in IT, this is a major failing on the part of many organizations. IT people are “leaned on” constantly. They’re expected to fix their friends’ computers, neighbors’ computers, the computers of family members. Heck, they are sent questions by family/friends in other states who think that things can be fixed remotely. Co-workers piling on with this add to stress, especially if it’s done (a) often or (b) unappreciatively. Trust me when I say: we don’t mind, once in a while, helping someone out of a jam, especially if it’s something Worst Buy/Geek Squad/etc routinely screw up on or overcharge for. On the other hand, when we get 10+ requests for such help in a month, there’s a point where even we say “enough is enough.”

There’s another part as well:

    Insubordination — This is a tricky one. Good IT pros are not anti-bureaucracy, as many observers think. They are anti-stupidity. The difference is both subjective and subtle. Good IT pros, whether they are expected to or not, have to operate and make decisions with little supervision. So when the rules are loose and logical and supervision is results-oriented, supportive and helpful to the process, IT pros are loyal, open, engaged and downright sociable. Arbitrary or micro-management, illogical decisions, inconsistent policies, the creation of unnecessary work and exclusionary practices will elicit a quiet, subversive, almost vicious attitude from otherwise excellent IT staff.

I’ve added the emphasis above for the basic point – people who go into IT, fundamentally, are (again) logical beings. They approach computers and technology, which are logical machines, in a logical fashion. They appreciate people like Will or Will’s normal working-environment types who, when they bring a problem up, bring the background research (error code, method to reproduce, etc) with it. They don’t appreciate Carol in accounts payable who sends in a request saying “this stupid thing doesn’t work come fix it while I go to lunch”, leaves no indication of what application is “not working”, leaves no recorded error code or method to reproduce the problem, and then has a screaming fit when she comes back to the office to find an email or note indicating that the IT staff would like her to inform them when she is available so that they can observe the problem and implement a solution.

IT people react quite well to Will-types, who we usually refer to by titles similar to “power users.” As far as IT goes, Will-types are collaborators; they respect us, we respect them, and when they ask for help, they’re willing to work with us to see that the solution is found and works well. Likewise, IT people react well to what I’ll refer to as “Joel”-types. Joels are people who know that computers are logical, have a little trouble grasping what they are doing, but are (a) patient about a response and (b) willing to be present and educated on what to do. Yes, we may have to answer the same question 2-3 times for a Joel in order for them to remember what they are doing, and occasionally they forget how to do something, but they recognize when their knowledge is insufficient and call for help rather than making things worse.

There are two other types we have to deal with. As I referred to a moment ago, there are the “Carol” types. Carols are the type who believe that somehow, with zero information and zero cooperation on their part, the magic box sitting on their desk can be made to do whatever they want to do. They believe that sending an email or help request along the lines of “this fucking thing isn’t working fix it” with an “available time” of ASAP and perhaps a threatening note about “reporting IT to the VP” if it isn’t done by the time they’re done with their noon “rendezvous” will somehow make it so that the fix “just happens.” Carol-types are also the type who insist their computer is “so slow” and “takes forever to log on”, but scream bloody murder if you want to remove the 10 different “IE Toolbar” apps, instant messaging apps, screwy spyware-laden screensavers, and other non-job-related miscellaneous widgets that they’ve put on their computer.

The final type I’ll refer to as the “Todd” type. Todd-types are the IT department’s nightmare. Todd-types, in fact, account for 99% of the aggravations that sparked my response to Farhad Manjoo’s column (hey, I warned you; we IT-types are anti-stupidity) earlier. The problem with Todd-types is that they are the portion of the world who overestimate their own competence. They believe (for example) that because they managed to plug in their DSL modem in at home and get their computer plugged in, they are competent to build and maintain a 500-machine network, or that because they managed to install “free” software package X at home, it should be used by everyone in the company (setting aside all questions of the legality, licensing, and security questions of doing so). Worse yet, when they encounter an issue, they don’t check in with us first. Instead, they flail around, delete this, rename that, alter this setting, alter that setting, and instead of coming in to implement a simple fix based on a known error code, we are then forced to work backwards through all the other things they messed up along the way. Todd-types are the type who jam in print cartridges without removing the packaging tabs or “rip-cord” tab first, damaging printers/copiers in the process. They try to remove a paper jam by hand the wrong way, turning a simple removal process into a 4-hour process of taking the printer half apart to get to the one scrap of paper still covering the jam sensor. They see an “error” and download a “driver search” package infested with malicious software. In short, Todd-types are the reason that many companies lock down computers and take “admin” (software installation) permissions away from most users in the first place.

Now, looking back above, what’s the difference between the Will/Joel and the Carol/Todd types? I’ll take them in sequence.

– IT wants to help me. Both the Will-types and the Joel-types recognize that IT wants to help them. IT wants them to be able to do their jobs well. When Will-types feel that IT is taking things away, it’s probably helpful to remind the Will-types that for every Will in an organization, there’s probably an even dozen Carol/Todds, and upper managment freaks out when they see “problems” like that (for example, when “Carol” screams bloody murder and IT’s only defense is to give the now-screaming VP a list of all the extraneous crap loaded to Carol’s computer or else see themselves subjected to the VP’s wrath).

– I should keep an open mind. Again, Will-types and Joel-types do this. When IT tells Will that they may not be able to be there instantaneously, or that they may need to do some research on a fix, Will knows they’re right – hell, he’s already been researching it himself. When IT tells the Joel-types that they would like to schedule ~30 minutes (5 to fix it, 25 to train Joel to better use the application), he gets it. Meanwhile, the Todd-types lie about their thrashing (lest IT twig them for what they did and start proceedings to restrict their access to prevent future damage) and then complain that IT didn’t “completely fix” their issue, and the Carol-types are just downright uncooperative from the start.

And, of course… the Carol and Todd-types are also the most likely reason your IT guys don’t go to the company picnic.


Category: Office, Server Room
To: contact@eiffeltheatergroup.corp
From: Guy Webster
Subject: Food & Service

Dear Theater Where I Can Get A Beer, Meal, And Movie At Once:

As a loyal customer of some time, I would like to commend you on staying open and even expanding your chain. At the same time, I must lodge my protest with the alterations to service recently provided. It is obvious that the quality of “standardized” pre-show entertainment in the chain has deteriorated. It is obvious, too, that the new waitstaff are either not receiving the same level of training, or not caring enough to be good waitstaff, as the previous employees.

I recognize that waitstaff have a high turnover rate since many are highschool/college kids, but one would hope the training would make up for this.

Finally, I must protest a number of the food-provider choices made recently, which have made it impossible for me to order a number of previously-favorite menu selections without the presence of foods I am allergic to. The worst offender, but not only offender, has been the cheese plate which formerly was orderable without the Jalapeno-Pepper Jack cheese, and now is not.

Sincerely,
Someone Who Will Not Be Spending Nearly As Much Money In Your Establishment Should This Continue.

To: Alfred Matthew Yankovic
From: Guy Webster
Subject: Your Music

Dear Al “Weird Al” Yankovic,

First of all, thank you for the years of entertainment and laughs.

Second of all, please reconsider the method by which you are creating/marketing your recent music. Based on past album history, for my tastes, you have an aggregate 80% “entertaining” rating with the low on a given album being 70%. Based on the four songs produced for your new “EP” titled “Internet Leaks”, you are sitting at a mere 25%.

Also, as a fan of your whole band (who are, let us face it, insanely talented musicians), I miss seeing the rest of them in the background and bit-parts of your videos. The whole “animated music video” kick you have been on is somewhat entertaining, but it misses some of the essence of what has made your music great.

Sincerely,
A Fan.

To: parking@facilities.sotech.edu
From: Guy Webster
Re: Aggressive incompetence

Dear Parking And Transportation Department Of My Employer,

You, collectively, as a department, are amazingly managing to be more inept and behind-schedule this year than the DMV. You simply suck.

Sincerely,
Angry.

To: editor@dailypacker.sotech.edu
From: Guy Webster
Subject: Viewpoints come in more than one variety

Dear Chief Editor Of The Newspaper Of My Employer,

Please recognize that viewpoints other than those which exist in your rather insulated echo chamber, and the echo chamber of your classrooms, exist in the world.

Sincerely,
Aghast.


Category: Market, Office, Theater

Back when I was at Southern Tech, I struck up a friendship with a girl named Renata Guittierez. Despite having very different political views, we got along well in most every other respect, did quite well hanging out with each others’ friends and family, and turned out to have mutual friends like Hubert and Will, most of whom she’d known during high school while I met them in the dorms.

In fact, numerous friends continually tried to get us to date. We both demurred – probably for the best given that she met her eventual husband at Hubert’s wedding.

Throughout the years, the one major issue on which we were opposed has always been politics. She’s extremely activist; I’m more laid-back. She has “key issues” on which, quite frankly, I think the fundamental premise is fatally flawed. Despite this, even our political discussions were usually quite lively and fun, because we didn’t take anything said personally, and because we both knew to stay on the realm of discussing policy rather than mouthing the usual platitudes/insults that pass for “political discussion” from the political parties these days. Any time I wanted to mentally say “all members of X party are Z”, I mentally remind myself of Renata and Hubert, who didn’t come even close to that 95% of the time.

A while ago, however, she and her husband moved away from Colosse, so that he could take an offered job in neighboring Pontchartrain. Ever since, her level of political discourse has been steadily deteriorating. Very little is about policy for her any more – it’s much more about making personal insults towards leaders of the opposition party, while explaining away her party’s very real faults as being something the other side supposedly “cooked up” or that “shouldn’t matter.” Whereas before, I could count on her for a relatively accurate fecometric (read: how much of an asshole are they) reading on a politician from her own party, that’s no longer the case.

I’m beginning to wonder about Pontchartrain. I know it has a growing Hispanic population. I know it’s more heavily tilted towards her side of the aisle. I didn’t think it would do that much damage, however, and I have to confess some serious concerns as to whether the city itself is such an echo chamber, or whether the move to a new city – and her strident political careerism plus the ability to “pick” a new set of local friends, most likely gleaned from her starting pool of political colleagues – has simply led her to construct a close-knit echo chamber of “new friends” with some extreme blinders as to the fact that we on the other side are not, in fact, represented by some of the vitriolic rhetoric she’s lately been spreading.


Category: Coffeehouse

A post by Will regarding a MamaPundit outburst brought up an old memory.

My experience with abortion, in a “firsthand” sense, stems around my aunt. She and my uncle were overjoyed the first time they found out she was pregnant, as was the rest of the family. I, my siblings, and my cousins were told (just as we had each time before) about how wonderful it was. We were about to get a new cousin. Somebody new to be around for Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ place, someone for me to (eventually) babysit for, someone to play with, someone to show our world to as they learned about theirs.

Unfortunately, my aunt then ran into a nightmare of a problem – 5 months in, doctors determined that my unborn cousin was either going to be stillborn or not going to live for more than a few days. Part of his brain had not formed, and he would have been born with an “open” (e.g. lacking partial bone structure) skull. (I’m sure Clancy could fill in more “medical” terminology but that’s how it was explained to us).

Between that, and the various hormonal complications the pregnancy was causing, it was determined to “terminate” (e.g. abort) my aunt’s pregnancy. From the perspective of my relatives, there was no doubt that this had ended a human life, but it was better to stop the pregnancy than to risk taking my aunt’s life as well. My stillborn cousin was baptized and buried in a small, private family funeral; I did not attend as most of us cousins were deemed “too young” to attend or fully understand the circumstances at the time.

For much of my family, the thought was that this was a heinous necessity. This was, to them, “the taking of a life.” The fact that my cousin would be born essentially already dead or “brain dead” and only kept alive with machinery didn’t matter to them – they wouldn’t have aborted a detected Down Syndrome baby, or missing a limb, or any other congenital condition. The single fact that made it acceptable and not a “sin” to them was the life of my aunt, who (had the pregnancy been carried to either “birth” or natural miscarriage) would have had to endure pain, suffering, possible internal organ damage, possibly even the loss of her ability to try again, and as an outside but not “insignificant” risk, perhaps even death. From my perspective, I can’t say that I was (or am today) as severe as they were on it, but I can understand where they were coming from.

I also have to wonder – how much of the ongoing abortion debate is medical, how much is pragmatic, how much religious, and how much the functional argument between those who want and cannot have, want and can have, and don’t want but do have, children? The difference between my aunt and uncle – who had been trying and trying to get pregnant – and someone who is “surprised” pregnant and doesn’t even know who the father is (or knows full well that the father will only be so in a “sperm donor” sense) may be a vast gulf to bridge indeed.


Category: Coffeehouse

In case you were wondering, this stuff is downright frightening in person.

As in to say: the grease literally drips right off it in front of you, and the smell is nauseating.


Category: Kitchen

Over at Least I Could Do (a webcomic as well as a blog), a post about the abysmal education numbers recently announced from Washington DC:

They’re telling us that only 12% of DC’s 14 year olds can read proficiently.

That’s insane, that’s ludicrous. Hell, it’s bloody criminal.

That statistic keeps rattling around in my head, and I admit I’m having a hard time accepting it. In a day and age when media, the internet and literature are so freely distributed, how can this be the case? This is a statistic I would expect in a developing country, and not in the United States of America, not the nation’s capital for Christ’s sake.

These kids need to put the drugs away, lay down their right to bear arms, leave their gang, stop going to war and pick up a book.

Can someone honestly tell me what we’re teaching our kids in school, if not how to read?

I really want to know.

As the thread goes on, there’s a lot of left-wing “Evil Dubya Bush and the No Child Left Behind program” attacks, but very little substance beyond that. A few teachers have weighed in, to point out inherent problems in the national education system, some of which are connected to NCLB and some of which have other causes.

I’d like to offer up a few points from my perspective – having gone through public schools and private schools, and in my current employment with an entity that tries to train the next generation of teachers.

#1 – Teachers really don’t get the support they need.
#2 – Regional and social factors aren’t helping.
#3 – Insistence on “self-esteem” hurts the system.
#4 – Insistence on keeping all kids together hurts the system.

In my mind, the last is the worst portion of the problem – (public) schools in America have largely done away with the idea of having more-advanced and less-advanced classes, except for the required “remedial ed” courses based on teaching kids with severe mental handicaps or psychiatrically determined learning/behavioral disorders. If you see a grade school with 3 classes per grade (small, I know), you will never see them arranged by previous academic achievement, with the smartest kids all in one class. No, you’ll see them arranged by random lot, with the smartest kids in each class bored stiff while the teacher desperately tries to educate the idiots who don’t even want to be there and whose parents don’t care about their kids’ education. Add in the socially promoted kids (those whose parents threatened to sue the school district for daring to suggest Johnny repeat a grade or three), and pretty soon you have an entire 8th grade class that’s reading on a 3rd grade level – the idiots because they’re idiots, the rest because they’ve never been given anything better as each successive teacher simply taught to the idiots’ level. Just to cap it off, a teacher who actually fails a kid is to be punished, and no thought ever given to culpability on the part of the kid (who goofs off, doesn’t do homework, makes spitwads with his books, etc) or parents (who, blissfully clueless, insist that the teacher “just hates our little Johnny” when his conduct and lack of study are brought up in conferences).

This is a system that completely fails kids on a psychological level, trying to force-feed “knowledge” without experience or learning. For the kids who respond best to being challenged, being stuck in a “pace of the slowest idiot” class is the surest way to teach them that school is worthless – why should they explore and learn and experiment, when they’re spending 8 hours a day being re-taught something they already absorbed years ago? In the current system, the overachiever will soon learn that going above and beyond is going to be punished; the rest of the kids in the class will see them as a “showoff”, teachers will peg them “disruptive” for getting off the lesson plan, and independent thought… well let’s face it, in the edjamacashun factery, that’s just not to be tolerated. The lesson to the overachiever is simple: overachievers are not the good little drones the system wants.

For the kids who are naturally competitive, they completely lack a reason to compete and a proper metric by which to measure it; grades are quickly noticed to be meaningless, and class ranking means nothing either. Since the overachievers are being beaten into submission, they don’t have anyone in a “top tier” to compete with anyways. When half of the school system are “honor students,” and the other half don’t care about it, competition loses its meaning. And of course, in the name of “self-esteem”, direct competition between students is to be avoided.

For the kids who are natural underachievers, the unstratified system provides no notice whatsoever; quite the contrary, there is a complete lack of attention to them. There is no “congratulations, you’re in the dummies class” shock that might wake a few up and make them realize that they should work harder. There is no definitive attention on how they got where they are. There is no drive, however small, to get out of the “dummies class.” The system assumes every kid is just like them, and makes everyone else wait for them to catch up. If that weren’t enough, the system specifically (in the name of “self-esteem” again) denies all but the barest identification of just which kids it is that are holding the class up.

Stratify the system, and you can get some marvelous results. Yes, you have a whole class of kids who are moving at the slow pace… but you also have classes that aren’t. A class full of geniuses, semi-geniuses, and just average-but-competitive-natured kids will do wonders, the geniuses and semi-geniuses with their natural love of learning and exploration, the competitive ones in trying to keep up with their peers. The teacher in the class with the remedial kids will have a more solid reason to urge that a kid be held back (they’re already underperforming), and won’t have to deal with the disruptions caused by bored-out-of-their-skulls kids who already learned today’s lesson three years ago. It’s a win-win situation.

Just to be clear on this point: when most kids were sneaking in comic books to read during class behind their real books, I was sneaking in the works of Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Anne McCaffrey. Did any of my schools support this? Far from it. I was actually told at one point by a school counselor that if I deliberately scored poorly on a couple tests, so as not to be on the top of the GPA list, my classmates would probably like me more. It seems the school system had decided to “grade on a curve”, in that they took the top score of the class on each test (and the aggregate homework grades) and “recentered” it so that the top score was the “new 100.” If the top score was an 80? Everyone got a free 20 points to add in. Unfortunately for the school, each class had 1-2 kids who threw the system off; we were scoring consistent 99-100’s while everyone else got 85 or less.


Category: School

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Queenland

Greetings from Stonebridge a fictitious city in a fictitious state located in a tri-state area in the interior Mid-Atlantic region. We're in western Queenland, which is really a state unto itself, and not to be confused with Queensland in Australia.

Nothing written on this site should be taken as strictly true, though if the author were making it all up rest assured the main character and his life would be a lot less unremarkable.


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