That Was Fun, Let’s Do It Again!

4.5 stars!

My novel Night is a Shadow Cast By the World is free from Amazon again, this time on New Year’s Day. Start 2013 with a rollicking adventure.

Wander through the pink city of Jaipur, explore an eccentric book store, smuggle guns, fly a DC-3 below radar, play the flute with exquisite skill (and kill somebody with your performance), walk a brilliant dog, eat sushi, drink stinky water, fix things with epoxy, ride a camel, spy on supermodels, fight the CIA, sign a confession, take a bath, deceive your inlaws, flirt with an old flame, swear in church, drink tequila and dance in the alameda, brush up on your Spanish, steal a fuel truck, try on a dhoti, foil a Russian plot, land on a burning runway, fly a kite, crack a secret password, pick a lock, set off some fireworks, mitigate poverty, study your spouse’s dreams…all this happens! Really!

Details here.

Crazy Environmental Effort #2: Solar Hot Water Heater

Solar Hot Water Heater

Actual photo of our actual roof – honest!

We have on the roof of our house a solar hot water heater. The system, made and installed by Global Solar Energy Inc., takes municipal cold water under normal pressure and heats it before delivering it into our gas hot water heater, reducing the amount of energy needed to heat the water, and shrinking our carbon footprint.

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My Novel, Free on Xmas Day

NiaS paperback

My exciting literary adventure novel about books and aviation and travel and love, Night is a Shadow Cast By the World, normally USD$3.99 for the ebook, is free on December 25th from the Amazon Kindle Store. Grab yourself a copy for your (new that day?) Kindle, Apple iOS device, Android device, or to read on your Mac or Windows computer. There’s a lot of information, including an excerpt (and a link to the serialization of the first third of the novel) available on the book’s official website.

If you prefer a paperback, you can get it from Amazon here, or from Lulu here.

Read it, and let me know what you think. And happy holidays!

Guns: Two Memes Sum it Up Perfectly

“One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns.”

~John Oliver

I don’t think there’s a better example of how policy is shaped by lobbying, rather than rational thought.

And on that topic, those who claim that gun regulations have no correlation with gun violence have some explaining to do about the character of the American people. If it’s not your lax gun laws that account for the disproportionate number of gun deaths in the United States, what is it? Your propensity toward violence, or the rampant inequality in your society? I do not ask this as a rhetorical question: why then so many gun deaths? You’ll have a hard time coming up with an answer you’re proud of, patriots.

gunstats

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The Austerity Myth

Harper's cover Oct 2012

“The problem is that although austerity may work for individuals, it seldom works for economies. To the contrary, frequently it makes matters worse. If all individuals tighten their belts, demand for goods and services will fall, workers will be fired, and demand will fall even more. Business won’t invest without growing sales: this was Keynes’s message in a nutshell. He argued that government had to supply the spending for goods and services that would restore incentives to invest, while simultaneously lowering interest rates. Rather than adjusting down, unemployment could stay high indefinitely.”
~Jeff Madrick, “The Austerity Myth,” Harper’s Magazine: October 2012

Note that it’s rich people telling everyone else they need to tighten their belts. Let the rich tighten their own goddamn belts.

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Crazy Environmental Effort #1: Heating Only As Much As I Need

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When I make tea, I drain the kettle, fill the mug I’m going to use, and pour the water from the mug into kettle. That way I am boiling exactly the correct quantity of water, saving both energy and time.

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Consumer Reports Vindicates Steve Jobs

I’ve been listening on my cycling commutes to Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography of Steve Jobs. As a Mac user since the early days, with only minor detours to the PC side when I didn’t have the means to afford a Mac, I’m enjoying the backstory behind some of the products I’ve used and loved (and sometimes loathed), from my first girlfriend’s Mac Plus, through my Power Computing clone, various G3s and G4s (I still own a functional PowerBook G3 “Wallstreet” running OS9), and finally the late-2009 unibody iMac i7 on which I’m writing this post.

I’ve also done tech support for both platforms, which gives me a clear perceptive on which is superior. When asked to recommend Mac or Windows (something that happens infrequently these days), I recommend Windows – that is, if you have a large, responsive, and highly competent IT department on which you can rely heavily. Otherwise: go Mac.

From Isaacson’s bio, we get to see the positions held by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Steve Jobs regarding integration of OS and hardware:

Jobs believed in an end-to-end integration of hardware and software, which led him to build a machine that was not compatible with others. Gates believed in, and profited from, a world in which different companies made machines that were compatible with one another; their hardware ran a standard operating system (Microsoft’s Windows) and could all use the same software apps (such as Microsoft’s Word and Excel). “His product comes with an interesting feature called incompatibility,” Gates told the Washington Post.

My experience suggests that the divide between the manufacturer of the machine (Dell, HP, Asus, etc.) and the creator of the operating system (Microsoft) has been exploited by both parties to pass the buck. Machine won’t boot properly? Machine slow? Crashes? Call Dell, and they’ll send you to Microsoft. But Microsoft is going to send you right back to Dell. It makes for incessant fingerpointing, and no happy fix for the consumer.

When your Mac doesn’t boot, it’s Apple’s fault. And because of this, Apple is motivated to ensure that the OS functions harmoniously with the hardware. Not only that, Apple is almost always willing to accept the blame when something goes wrong. Anyone who’s been to a Genius Bar with a malfunctioning Apple product knows what I mean.

I was delighted and frankly a little shocked to see the following page in the November 2012 issue of Consumer Reports:

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A phrase sums it up: “…one brand stands out as the best all-around choice: Apple.” Support, build quality, integration, reliability – in every respect related to quality, Macintosh beats Windows. This from the magazine that would not recommend the iPhone 4 due to the “Antennagate” affair. It also placed the Samsung Galaxy SIII above the iPhone 5 in their latest ratings. This is not the opinion of a bunch of blind Apple fanboys; Consumer Reports is a respected, independent journal, which refuses all advertising, tests independently, and surveys its readers to collect large samples of data.

Listen Windows users, think about this one annoyance you probably have to live with on a frequent basis. If you plug a memory key into your Windows PC, do you have to wait while it installs a driver first? You get to see that little pop-up in which the OS declares, “hey, I’m so inferior I’m going to make you wait around while I dig up and install the driver for this thing.”

On a Mac, you plug in a memory key, and its icon appears on the Desktop. Always. No waiting.

Same goes for mice and keyboards. Heck, on Windows just moving your mouse to a different USB port can prompt a full driver re-install for the device. I’m even told it “might take a while.”

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Recently, I wiped and reinstalled a Toshiba laptop. My Macs always ask if I want to install updates, and will never spontaneously update and force me to wait and defer shutting down until it finishes up. This kind of thing has actually made my wife late when trying to shutdown and stow her Dell laptop when she needs to get to the kids’ daycare and avoid a fine. I’ll wager she risked her life rushing to arrive in time.

Michael Dell in 1997, speaking about what to do with Apple:

I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.

To summarize: Mac good, Windows bad. Michael Dell…moron.

I will leave you with my surreal gallery of screenshots (captured with my iPhone 4) showing the various messages I encountered while configuring the Toshiba. Yes, one of them does say, “Installing update 2 of 150.” I have to clarify that to the Mac users out there, who may believe the shot is a hoax.

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Cons Say: “Liberals Are Selfish”

You may be poor, but not as poor as the uncalibrated picture on the left.

This morning I listened to This American Life’s episode #478: Red State Blue State about rifts in families and friendships caused by clashing politics. On it, we heard from a Republican woman who cannot fathom her friend’s Democratic views because, to paraphrase, “she’s not selfish, but liberals are selfish.”

This is standard rightwing fodder, the idea that liberals want “free handouts,” etc. I recall when I used to dog conservatives on forums for right-leaning news sites (where the cons were relentless at responding – I always had to get back to my job, don’t they have jobs?), and whenever I supported some liberal policy I’d invariably be accused of being a welfare recipient (which I’ve never been, btw). The idea here is clear: that I had to be defending liberal policies because I was benefiting from them, i.e., only someone on welfare would support welfare.

And I had an epiphany. Conservatives cannot conceive of the idea that someone would support policies that aren’t of direct benefit to themselves, because conservatives only support policies that are of direct benefit to themselves. The idea that I want systems in place to help the poor because I care about the poor can’t even enter their consciousness. It causes a short circuit in their thinking, because they themselves are incapable of thinking in this way. Help other people? How exactly does that work?

The TAL episode fascinated me because a conservative relative of mine and I have clashed in email (he usually sends me some spurious anecdote “all in fun,” which I subsequently attack with logic “all in fun,” and then his wife emails and tells me to stop upsetting him), and ultimately his arguments can be boiled down to how he doesn’t want his taxes to support liberal schemes. In other words, he wants to keep more cash for himself, to spend on things like a $400 specialized calibration of his plasma TV (true story).

So answer me this question, ye conservatives: what is more selfish, to agree to spread one’s own wealth to improve the lives of all people and society in general, or to keep one’s money to get a prettier TV picture?

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Voting, or, Pushing a Whale

whale rescue

from Barotrauma, © Capt. David Williams

A recent Freakonomics podcast explained that economists do not vote, because, according to Steve Levitt, “there never has been, and there never will be, a vote cast in a presidential election that could possibly be decisive.”

He’s wrong. Think of voting like “pushing a whale.” A whale* washes up on a beach. The townspeople collect, and determine that the whale can be saved if she is pushed back into the sea. And collectively they push, they shove, they haul. More people join, and eventually, there are enough hands pushing, and the whale is successfully returned to the water, where she swims off with a departing, appreciative flap of her flukes.

No single person was decisive in saving the whale. But the whale could not have been saved without the effort of the minimum number of pushers required to move that whale.

When you vote, you are part of the group, working together to achieve a goal. Each person who joins in strengthens the effort. You are being decisive.

The difference between the whale and the election: while it’s clear when your collective is big enough to push the whale (it moves, or it doesn’t), you don’t know whether your single vote is necessary to bring victory to your candidate. Win or lose, you’ll never know**. But does that mean you should sit there on a beach chair like Steve Levitt, eating chicken wings, watching everyone else do the work? Absolutely not. In fact, not knowing if your effort is needed makes your vote even more important.

So head on down to that whale, and push, dammit! Vote!

*For you conservatives who don’t give a shit about the whale, try replacing “whale” with something you love, e.g., “oil tanker.”

**Disregard polls. They only predict the outcome insomuch as they make people enact it.

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A Plea to Canada Post: Please Give at Least the Illusion of Caring

I walked up to the door of my house – occupied by my wife, who has been inside all day – to find this notice from Canada Post:

notice from Canada Post

Yes, she was home at 2:30*. Did someone knock on the door or ring the doorbell? Nope.

This is hardly the first time a Canada Post driver has eschewed the nuisance of interacting with a human being – you know, all that getting-a-signature and handing-over-a-package business that makes the job so tedious – in favour of dropping a card in the mailbox. What the hell, eh? The customer can just pop on over to the local post office to pick it up – in two days, when it’s finally available there. Oh, let’s just check Google maps to see the route to that Canada Post pickup location:

It’s only going to be a 4.6 kilometre round trip. This is the journey everyone in our neighbourhood faces if they aren’t on their front stoop shouting “I’m standing right here, hand me my package please!” when Canada Post makes a delivery. Too bad if you’re without a car, elderly, disabled, or all of the above. Until about three years ago, the location was here, a mere 700 metres away:

…but the store in which the outlet was situated closed, and Canada Post’s solution was to switch the pickup location so it’s well over triple the distance.

Combine the laziness of Canada Post drivers with the astonishing distance customers must travel, and you have a very inconvenient arrangement. Not quite the advantage I was expecting when I ordered from 123InkCartridges.ca. This will certainly make me consider a different vendor in future. As for Canada Post? May I recommend that you start giving a damn?

*no, the attempted delivery time was not 2:30 a.m., as the card’s text that reads “24 Hour Clock Time” would lead you to believe. But really, do you need another example of Canada Post apathy?