Friday, March 5, 2010

People Hate To Be In Control When Bad Things Happen

War: Blame it on God. Murder: Blame it on Insanity. Rape: Blame the Victim. Hot Coffee: Blame the McDonald's. Unintended acceleration: Blame the Automaker. Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame....

Last night I watched "The Invention of Lying", a rather novel Ricky Gervais movie. The film begins in a world where lying doesn't exist. Everyone says exactly what they feel, does not embellish, exaggerate, downplay or flatter. Then Gervais' character, under tremendous pressure after losing his job and having no way to pay his rent, finds the ability to lie, and everything changes. It gives one pause and makes one think how many supposedly good people lie constantly, for the sake of not hurting others, for the sake of making others feel good, and for the general peace. While the second 2/3 of the film was less entertaining and novel, showing what things might be like without lying caused a chain reaction of thoughts that led me to wondering what the world would be like without blame and how pervasive and insidious blame is in our society.

People fabricate fictitious understandings at will to keep themselves out of the target of blame. The recent Toyota debacle is the epitome of this. With less NHTSA safety complaint filings than 16 other automakers in the US, the level of scrutiny and blame that was placed on Toyota was out of line. In chain-reaction style, acceleration, braking and steering systems were all blamed for people's accidents.

Having a decent working understanding of auto mechanics and electronics, I've seen a pattern develop where the focus has gone from legitimate need for part modification (in 'Murican made components only ARRGHHH) where drivers were still culpable, to misunderstanding of how hybrid braking/ABS systems work resulting in panic, to completely spurious correlation of a manufacturer's design and responsibility for keeping one's car on the road

Here: let me clear the air. Do you see the picture of the overtuned SW1 that flipped off of a retaining wall in '04 attached to this post? That was MY fault. It wasn't Saturn's fault for making a car that didn't handle like a McLaren F1. It wasn't KYB's fault for making struts that didn't respond fast enough, Stillen for making cross-drilled rotors that didn't dissipate heat fast enough, Kuhmo for making tires that didn't stick enough, or Sylvania for making Silverstar bulbs that didn't shine far enough down the dark road. It certainly wasn't the fault of WRC for my enthusiasm of for driving too quickly on back roads. It was my fault. I wan't even intoxicated. It was simply my adrenal gland versus reason, and the adrenal gland won. Shall I blame the adrenal gland? The genetics? No. It was my fault. It was avoidable. I paid for it. My insurance went up. I continued to pay for it. Argh.

Unfortunately, the Toyota debacle continues to devolve, with owners of fixed acceleration pedals still blaming phantom car behaviors This is pitiful. When these senile idiots on medication at the CVS vault an embankment because they picked the wrong pedal before putting the car into park, they shouldn't be allowed to drive anymore, but the manufacturer should not be blamed.

We need more serious driver's education in this country. People should have some idea how a car works before being allowed to operate it. The fact that a California State Trooper failed to recognize that the brakes are stronger than the engine and that neutral exists is the saddest example I have ever seen that our driver's education system is an utter catastrophe. Daily, someone uses the terminology "V-4" to refer to a four cylinder engine when they're shopping for a new car with me. While V-4s exist,, they're not sold in any automobiles in the U.S. It goes to show that people have NO IDEA what is going on under the hood. What is under the hood, Mr & Mrs. average person? Perhaps it's God, asking them to start a war, sue the company that brewed their coffee, rape someone, and then vault an embankment when they press the wrong pedal but then lie about it out of embarrassment, because there's certainly not anything they understand under there. If they could understand how it worked, though, they might feel they were at fault, and they probably wouldn't like that.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

On The Joy of a Well-Worn House Shirt

There are many things in this material world that I love, but are dirty.

I love cars. Despite my green leanings, I am intoxicated by that feeling of power that (for now) cheap energy brings when you press the gas pedal. I enjoy leaving a trail of rubber granules on the ground when rounding a corner at the limits of adhesion. I love knowing that the composite of friction materials are giving their existence to my braking experience. That the transmission fluid suffers just a bit with every shift so I can grab that next gear. That the coolant breaks down so that my block and pistons can have longer life. That the timing belt or chain dies just a little bit over time so that the raucous symphony of explosions can continue. It's a visceral thrill that is a dirty. When I first buy a car, it seems so clean and wonderful. In several years, the parts on the outside break down, regardless of how much love I show for them with fancy products. The glass becomes pitted. The rubber becomes dry rotted. Let's face it... even a Prius...even an electric car..... even if the car were solar powered, it would still be dirty, somehow.

I love computers and gadgets. I can absorb and transmit information faster than ever before. I can stay connected to people far away and find the answer I need in an instant. I don't have to be stuck at my desk. I don't even have to be in range of a cell phone tower. My latest BlackBerry could even provide me entertainment and help me save and retrieve bits of information in a remote cave for several days. But all of it becomes irrelevant over time. My old iMac, bought in 2000, should probably be recycled. It will do most anything on the internet, but certainly not at 1080p or beyond and certainly not very fast. It won't store much information by today's standards. My BlackBerry has a faster brain and more memory... My new iMac, 24" and so on, seems good for now, but in ten years, tops, it will suffer the same, dirty fate of obsolescence.

I love flavorful consumables. I've developed quite the cultured palate when it comes to tasty espresso and beer. Say what you will about the legal drugs contained within these substances, it's the intoxication of the carefully nuanced flavors of beans that are grown, roasted, ground and extracted with steam just so that is dirty. It's the unique taste of hops and barley that were grown with care, brewed with pride and intelligence to yield the intoxication of beer that is part alcohol and part transcendence, but....dirty.

The above loves which I call "dirty" are not "dirty" to me because they are addictive in the sense of behavior. One could argue that they all are. That one could live without all of them, somehow. That's not my point. One could argue that they have a morally reprehensible quality to them. That each one leads to some form of corruption of purer modes of movement, thought and experience. Also not my point. These loves are "dirty" because they don't allow one to continue to enjoy without input of further money.

I could drive a car carefully, prolonging it's life, until it no longer operates, performing little or no maintenance at all. The potential for physical or financial disaster here is extreme, so there is nothing relaxing about that course of action unless I had little instinct for self preservation. I could own computers and gadgets for an eternity and pretend I wasn't falling behind and wasting my time, but the ever-increasing utility of newer gadgets, within reason, leads me to believe otherwise. I could drink over-roasted, burned swill. I could abstain from tasty brew. Results from tests of doing either have not been positive. I seem locked in to all of these "dirty" habits in one way or another.

My antidote to the "dirty" habits which I enjoy but seem to vacuum money from my checking account? The well-worn house shirt. Whereas fashion is inherently dirty in the manner of the passions listed above, the house shirt is not. The house shirt may as well be the clothing of monks. You see, the house shirt doesn't care about fashion. The house shirt does not care about signs of wear. The house shirt is like Chuck Norris. You cannot kill it easily, and it soldiers on for a long time even with wounds. Is there a hole in the house-shirt? Who cares? If you care, perhaps you are not welcome in said house. Is there a sign of wear at the cuff of the house shirt? Look closer, and discover there is a fist at the opening of said cuff. I write in jest, for the house shirt is a peaceful item.

When I get home, look in my closet, and decide what to wear, I reach for the house shirt when weather is cold. What matters about the house shirt is that it fits, provides above-average warmth and has buttons on it so it can be layered over a t-shirt. Nothing else really matters. I have one house shirt that is about ten years old, and one that is closer to 15. The house shirt does not want you to listen to what it worries about. It doesn't have to go to the vet. It doesn't need you to change the oil, upgrade the software, RAM or buy more because you've run out. The house shirt IS. The house shirt becomes the kind of dirty that needs washing, but not every day. Not the kind of dirty that takes up space on a budget's pie chart. The house shirt is a pure sort of experience. Warm, economical, unbiased, impartial. Joyful, even.

My father had a brown plaid house shirt for many years of my youth. I couldn't understand why he wore the same thing so much when he was at home, or why he held on to it past a point of being publicly fashionable. Now I understand. House shirts are the best shirts of all.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Computers love us now, but we should never turn our backs on them.

I am starting my day with a "QuickMix" on Pandora One. My music preferences are understood by some of the most amazing algorithms and databases ever to be created to analyze music. The name of said math has a really cool name: "The Musical Genome Project". The Human Genome Project brings to mind heavy shit like ethical issues, cloning people, deathly diseases, political battles where these issues all go head to head in bloody battle. The Musical Genome Project simply brings to mind that wonderful feeling of discovering music that you love, hanging out at a good friend's house.

"You've got to listen to THIS, man!!!"

I haven't heard that as much as I used to, because I have told Pandora I like this or that song, I have told it I like this or that artist, and it's got good recommendations as to what I might also like. It's expanded my tastes, within my comfort zone. Minds may function like parachutes, only when open, but the hand has to find a motive to pull the cord. Friends used to pull that cord for me. They still do sometimes, but it's not as unique a roll for humans now.

Pandora is not alone. eMusic, iTunes, Amazon, Google, facebook,,, Yahoo and every site I visit that has an article with something I am interested in, they all vie for my attention. Advertising and marketing used to be synonymous with annoyance to me. I don't want light beer, I don't have plans to clog my veins with processed cheese product, I am definitely not shopping for a minivan or SUV. I still can't stand television, traditional radio, and newspapers. These media are all dead to me. Of course, those media have been slowly transitioning online, and becoming similar to the newer types of media.

Yes, computers are my friends. They understand me. I don't mean to imply they replace real friends. They don't. They do nothing to help you understand the differences between us and for all the love that we may show on social networking websites, it's just not the same as what we may be face to face with one another. The general public does not respond as if programmed by an algorithm designed to make the world more compatible with my mind.

I sell cars. It I use words like "understeer", "oversteer", "compression", and "Macpherson strut" with every one of my customers, I will have a lot of glazed over looks and few sales for the month. Every one in 1000 customers who comes in will know what I mean and might still end up purchasing elsewhere because I present data too objectively. I cannot pretend that the physical world is like the online one where things bend to my preferences and speak my language.

Still, the world of 2010 is exciting to me because ideas are less shot into the dark and more aimed at a useful target. The world of 2010 is one in which cold fusion of ideas is possible, not just uncontrolled fission reactions of ideas that go nowhere.

Thanks to the modern interconnectedness of things, I can sign 20 petitions a day in under 10 minutes to exert my political will for change. Thanks to this modern web of ideas and data, if I don't know something about anything, I can look it up, from the gadget in my pocket, and link in to the context of word, statement or idea.

Computers are our friends. Still, as in real friendships, one must be aware. In 2010, just as in 1910, one can have "friends" that cause one to think that they need no enemies thanks to the role these "friends" are playing. Our vices, prejudices, and general habituation can all be exploited by algorithms. Whatever makes us good can be amplified. Whatever makes us bad can be amplified. The key here is to stay one step ahead. Don't pretend you can ignore the pace of technology. Don't pretend it's not following you. Perhaps it's outpacing you. Don't let it.

Stay one step ahead with the most astounding algorithm of all-your mind.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why Can People Care About Natural Disasters and Not National Disasters?

Picture: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Disaster: a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction; broadly : a sudden or great misfortune or failure (Merriam-Webster Online)

As I made coffee this morning, I was musing on the fact that Fox News was feigning emotion and concern in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake disaster. The big screen in the employee lounge was filled with images of crumbled concrete buildings interspersed with plasticized, botoxed slim women and overweight men furrowing their brow to the best of their ability with skin that stretches so tight.

Normally Fox News (Fair and Balanced???) is the epitome of banal partisan hate mongering and mud slinging from the far right in the media. Normally issues that are destructive for large groups of minorities, particularly poor and black people or LGBT people are simply dismissed. It's not system that needs fixing. It's the fault of the victims. Really? In one of the only developed countries in the world where medical bankruptcy is even POSSIBLE, it's the fault of those without the money when calamity strikes? In the UK, Germany, Japan, Taiwan and Switzerland, to name a few, there's no way to lose your financial soul when you are out of work and you become seriously ill. What about sub-prime loans and foreclosures? Crack in the projects? You get the idea...

So disaster struck Haiti, and here was Fox News, dropping everything to provide constant coverage. Make no mistake, the situation deserves coverage. 7.0 on the Richter scale is beyond serious in an urban area with no rebar in their concrete, no building codes for resistance to damage in a seismic event. For the few not aware, the Richter scale is exponential. That means that the death toll for a 7.0 is worse than a 6.0 in an extreme. Look at your ten fingers, and imagine that for each finger you lost, your rate of blood lost per minute was multiplied by ten. Welcome to logarithmic damage. Remember Hurricane Katrina? Yeah, I bet you do. The conservative news media "cared" about that one too. Did they give proper attention to the underlying issues that affected who suffered and died and who didn't? Nope. For that, I recommend you watch Spike Lee's four-hour epic documentary "When the Levees Broke".

So I've stated that people (at least the Fox News set) care, or at least feign care about natural disasters when they don't care about other serious things that devastate lives and result in death. Exploring the definition of disaster, I think it all comes down to the "sudden" aspect. I guess my idea of "National Disasters" is poorly defined because it isn't sudden, but long-term. People easily care about things that happen suddenly. They lend themselves to television. The big numbers are easy to grasp. The uncertainty of how many people are alive with broken bones under a collapsed freeway overpass is more gripping than wondering how many people will have their lives torn apart by AIDS in any given year. A major city in Haiti being leveled is more cinematic than thinking about how hard it is to live past the teenage years in certain neighborhoods in Baltimore (thank you, creators of "The Wire", for changing that a bit).

Simply put, the attention span of our hearts sucks, as a nation. We worry about what will affect our taxes next year, the amount that we can battle to save on the purchase of our homes and automobiles, and we remember the sweater we were given last week as a gift, but we can't see the growth of the forest from the weeds. We drag our heels on any issue that could result in a more livable world for our great-great-great grandchildren. We think selfishly.

Perhaps National Disaster is the wrong title. Perhaps National Disease is more appropriate.

1 obsolete : trouble
2 : a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms : sickness, malady
3 : a harmful development (as in a social institution)
(Merriam-Webster Online)

So, in answer the title of today's blog, I guess many of us here in America understand disaster, not disease. Or perhaps we do, but are so skilled at micro-managing the focus of the exploration of disease to suit partisan slander and pitting one group against another. We suck at focusing the fix on the biggest problems.

Simple-Disaster-Earthquake, Flood or Volcanic Event.

Hard-Disease-Health Care in America, AIDS, Climate Change.

Let's find a way to dig down and donate to our charities of choice for the disaster in Haiti today, but let's also find a way to support change from our diseases (harmful developments) in our bodies/homes/neighborhoods/cities/states/country/world. Let's expand the attention span of our hearts.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Rich and Hokey, Cool and Poor, or Neither?

I was in an automotive sales training yesterday. I was not being paid whilst sitting through something that was keeping me from my livelihood for seven agonizing hours. If I were learning material that I could apply without restriction, then it would have held my attention. Unfortunately, some of the methods of the sales approach were against the policies of our dealership. Great. Just what an ADHD-addled bundle of nerves like myself needs. A reason not to pay attention and become disengaged. During a section of role playing, things got outlandishly cheesy, and the instructor noticed that I wasn't repeating back to him the role play lines like the other members of his congregation, er, class. I told him that I "wasn't that Jersey". He looked me in the eyes and said "Repeat after me: 'I'd rather be rich and hokey than cool and poor' ". To get him off my back, I repeated the line, and took part in the role play.

Later in the day, I inspected the ingredients on the label of the "Cookie Diet" bag of "cookies" he had with him on the table during a break. Ridiculous. A bunch of crap. Later still, he randomly testified that he'd lost 40 lbs using said diet. He was still overweight, with the kind of job history that surely didn't help him keep his blood pressure down-mostly a string of general manager positions at car dealerships. Who knows what serious health issues will eventually ensue if he stays on this "Cookie Diet". Forget actual nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, just use the cookie diet! This man is NOT my hero.

When I returned to the showroom to get back to the business of finding customers to actually sell cars to via phone, internet and walk-in traffic, things were fairly slow. At least I hadn't missed a lot of action. The most exciting thing going on was a few employees who had gathered near the desk of one of our internet sales managers. He had a blood pressure monitoring device. Apparently, his cardiovascular was not doing so well either. Several others were checking their blood pressure. Several were a good deal over ideal, a few were somewhat over ideal, and mine was within two units of perfect, give or take. My blood pressure was ideal, despite not having visited a doctor in 6 years. I had spent my money at the health food store, not the hospital, and my choice had been effective.

"I'd rather be rich and hokey than cool and poor"

If rich and hokey is overweight, high blood pressure, a failed marriage, lots of money but no health, I'll pass. Cool? I've chosen eclectic over cool a long time ago and haven't looked back. You know who's cool? Other eclectic people who can live healthy lives being themselves. I love those people, especially when they share something in common with me and love me back. There are times you should avoid asking me simple questions. If I was given a choice between rich & hokey and cool & poor, he would have wished he hadn't asked. I'm not a fan of speaking if I'm not telling you something I believe.

I believe health is wealth.


"I'm RICH Beeeeyaaaaaaaaaaaaaatcccchhhh!!!!!!"