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How young are these United States?
I'm somewhat optimistic
Four is the magic number?
Only 4 seasons of Doctor Who
Super-objective evil
NBC got a clue!
And they say only Muslims are terrorists...
TiVo really does rock
Some time on the phone



The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in anyway.

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 Tuesday, 31 July 2007
Tuesday, 31 July 2007 07:52:15 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

I was listening to a segment on NPR this morning, about Senator Stevens from Alaska, who may have accepted bribes from an oil company. I wasn't remotely surprised to hear that yet another Republican politician is probably bought and paid for by big business - nothing new there.

But here's what caught my ear: Mr. Stevens was part of the Territorial government and was one of the people who orchestrated Alaska's statehood! This just isn't the sort of thing a person usually considers.

I grew up on a steady diet of books about exploring the frontier and settling the territories. These stories are the core of the American mythology: stories of tough, honest men and women braving the wilderness and the greedy, dishonest men and women to carve out the nation we know today as the United States.

But they are history, as in dead and dusty. At least to most people, including myself.

So here comes this radio segment, reminding me that some of that history is still alive.

Whether Mr. Stevens is crooked or not is something we'll find out as the investigation unfolds. But regardless of whether he's one of the tough, honest men, or one of the greedy, dishonest ones, I sit in awe of the fact that he lived through a period of time that saw the transformation of a territory into a state.

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 Friday, 13 July 2007
Friday, 13 July 2007 10:47:23 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

I took this optimism quiz from BeliefNet. The end result is divided into four categories: negative, balanced but negative, balanced but positive and glowy.

I’m balanced but positive:

Sunshine with patchy fog: Everything's coming up roses--most of the time. Your outlook is optimistic, but you tend to think more positively in the short term rather than in the long run. You see the good side of the present moment but don't necessarily incorporate that into your overall attitude.

I’d say this is about right. I do look on the bright side as I go through life, but I always plan for things to go horribly wrong in the future. In fact, this has been my motto for most of my adult life:

Expect the best, plan for the worst.

It turns out, in my experience at least, that if you plan for the worst, then it is usually the case that the worst isn’t all that bad.

If you plan for an economic downturn by establishing some savings, then you don’t’ suffer so much (or at all) during the downturn.

If you plan for your company to do rounds of layoffs, then you are already prepared to find another job (and even might find a better one if the layoffs don’t happen).

I find that it is much easier to have a rosy view of life, and to view the people around you in a positive light, if you have planned for life to get complex without warning.

Being all bright and glowy may be nice, but it makes you vulnerable to life’s quirks. At that point you either become a pessimist, or you “fall back on your faith” and just assume life sucks because God hates you (or loves you and is testing you?). Either way, any bright glowy-ness at that point is merely a façade…

Being pessimistic (entirely or with some balance) means you go through life looking at the darkness in everyone and everything. Ugh!

Yes, people and life have darkness. That’s the nature of the world. But people are basically decent, conventional wisdom would say (I do so love Rush!), and given a choice, most people will choose to exercise their light side over their dark side. A little planning ahead of time puts you in a position to help that light side dominate.

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 Saturday, 02 June 2007
Saturday, 02 June 2007 09:37:12 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

First Doctor Who, and now BattleStar Galactica: four seasons and out. Though with Galactica this is excellent news (imo), because it means they can have a very clear, closed and powerful story arc.

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 Thursday, 31 May 2007
Thursday, 31 May 2007 08:40:09 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

This is bitter-sweet: there will be a fourth season of Doctor Who, and then they are done.

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 Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Wednesday, 30 May 2007 22:35:45 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

People are fond of viewing other people as evil. At least in the US this appears to be true.

Conservatives, especially religious ones, view everyone else as evil (or at best misguided and/or deceived by Satan  - which is about the same as being evil).

Liberals listen to conservatives, can’t imagine a world where the conservative viewpoint is sane, and view conservatives as evil (or at least incurably insane – which is about the same as being evil).

So what’s with the “evil” thing?

Well, like almost everything, it depends on a certain point of view.

From a subjective point of view, anyone you don’t know is potentially worthy of your fear or hatred. In theory they are equally worthy of your love or compassion, but human nature tends to default to the fear response thanks to our genetic fight-or-flight programming.

This is reinforced by the rhetoric flying around in the media and the blogosphere. Someone you don’t know, but whom you believe to be outside your political or religious group, is easily dismissed as being potentially dangerous and worthy of fear and hatred.

The thing is, once someone from side A gets to know an individual from side B, that individual ceases to be abstract. You’ll often encounter religious conservatives who acknowledge that individual Muslims can be decent people, but that the rest of the Muslims in the world are evil – or at least irredeemably corrupt and unsavable. Similarly, you can easily find liberals who acknowledge that their few conservative friends are merely misguided people, but who wouldn’t shed a tear if masses of conservatives disappeared off the face of the earth.

So at the subjective level there are two aspects, bound together by the level of abstraction. In the abstract, a person of persuasion A tends to view people not of A as being evil. But at the individual level they make exceptions, acknowledging that the specific individual is somehow “different” from the other people in their group.

There’s also the concept of objective evil. Or societal evil. At some basic level there’s general agreement, at least within a nation’s culture, that some things are or are not evil. In the US wonton murder is evil. Genital mutilation is evil. These things fit that definition for people of virtually all political or religious persuasions.

Unfortunately, extremists in both the conservative and liberal camps sometimes paint other people as being murders or rapists or torturers. Thankfully, the vast majority of US citizens, regardless of political or religious viewpoint, never fit this definition of objective evil.

Consider that roughly half the country is basically liberal, the other half basically conservative. If conservatives really were wife-beating sadists, half the country would be evil. But think about your neighbors and the people you work with. Are half of them evil? Doubtful.

Finally there’s the concept of super-objective evil. I use this phrase as an extension of super-natural. Super-objective evil requires an assumption, or belief, that there’s some morality imposed on the universe that transcends humanity. Some believe this morality comes from a god or gods. Others believe it is due to some natural order, or the programming of the human brain.

Regardless of its source, super-objective evil is defined outside human relative terms. Conservative Christians use this definition to condemn gays. There’s no objective human rationale for homosexuality to be considered evil, but there are passages in the Bible that might suggest that God created a large group of people just so they could go to hell. Very odd, but that’s religion for you.

Super-objective evil isn’t found as much in the liberal (or at least rational) world, because rationality and logical thinking tend to preclude super-anything as a justification for a viewpoint.

However, there are liberals who use super-objective thinking to grant plants and animals human-level rights. There’s no objective rationale for such a concept, but there are spiritual or philosophical reasons for such viewpoints – and again we’re into the super-objective.

So what’s interesting about all of this, is that the subjective abstract fear-hate-evil response is tied deep into the reptile brain at the core of our minds. Giving in to it is natural, but fighting and overcoming it is one of the primary parts of being civilized. Of transcending our base, animal natures.

The subjective familiar exception-to-evil response is also natural, and is tied deep into the social-animal part of the brain. Humans are social animals, and once they adopt an individual into the group, that individual ceases to be a source of fear and instead becomes a source of comfort.

The objective fear-hate-evil response comes from a collective societal definition. This definition is often codified into law, or at least social mores, and is generally a good thing. Societies need common morality to function.

The super-objective response is irrational. It may be unavoidable, because there’s some evidence that a large number of people in the world are unable to cope with reality unless it is wrapped in some type of mythology. It is this response that is most dangerous overall, because it isn’t driven by animal instincts, nor is it controlled by societal consensus. Instead it is created and fed by extreme viewpoints that are always irrational and are always in conflict with reality itself.

When confronted with the choice of accepting reality, or needing to try to warp reality to meet mythology, too many people choose to warp reality. Due to this you end up with Muslim suicide bombers and Christians murdering doctors and blowing up clinics. None of these people have a grip on reality, and rather than getting a grip, they are trying to warp reality to match their twisted mythologies.

If anyone is evil - these are the people who meet the objective definition.

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 Saturday, 19 May 2007
Saturday, 19 May 2007 17:10:19 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

I am impressed. First, the show Heroes absolutely rocks, and NBC didn't f*ck it up as the season went on. It is amazing to think that a network TV show could be this incredibly good, but there you have hit.

Even better, their fall lineup includes two more SciFi shows: a time travel show, and a retake on the Bionic Woman. Not that BW was a great show originally, but if they take a similar approach with it to what they've done with Heroes you never know. Same with time travel. The only one that was really worth watching was Sliders, and it wasn't really time travel at all.

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 Friday, 27 April 2007
Friday, 27 April 2007 09:09:10 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

If you cruise many conservative, evangelical Christian blogs or web sites you'll rapidly discover that they generally view all Muslims as culpable for all terrorism. Many call for the erradication of the religion, viewing it as fundamentally violent and flawed.

Totally unlike Christianity, which is entirely peaceful and is purely good.

Yet those same people are the ones who count terrorists among their number. Yes, it is true, there are Christian terrorists too. Christians who feel just as powerless, just as unheard, just as hopeless, as the Muslim terrorists. Christians who plant bombs in cars, just like their Muslim terrorist counterparts.

It is sad that hypocrisy runs so rampant through the ranks of conservative evangelicals. If they were truly honest with themselves they could, perhaps, be a force for good. But as it is, they are merely a vehicle for driving fear and hatred: which means they are a breeding ground for terrorists...

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 Friday, 20 April 2007
Friday, 20 April 2007 21:08:07 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

We've had DirecTV with Tivo for a long time now - perhaps 3 years. Tivo is a life-changing technology, not unlike the telephone. And I'm not kidding.

We like a number of television shows, mostly science fiction: Stargate SG1, Battlestar Galactica, Smallville, Stargate Atlantis, etc.

It used to be that we'd schedule our lives around the need to be home for a certain hour of a certain evening. We passed up many other opportunties for fun or fulfillment just to meet the arbitrary schedule of the TV networks.

But Tivo changes all that. All of a sudden it doesn't matter when a show is on, we just watch it when we have time. And given how much I travel these days (around 40% of my time), I actually get to watch all the shows I care about. They are just waiting for us when we have time to watch them.

Even better, a 1 hour show is actually only 42 minutes long. A 30 minute show is just 21 minutes. The ability to easily fast-forward through commercials saves an incredible amount of time!

Unfortunately a few weeks ago the hard drive on our Tivo crashed. Remember, it isn't just a Tivo - it is a dual tuner box integrated with the DirecTV service. So I called DirecTV and they were very nice (we're essentially charter subscribers, so they like us quite a lot). As I knew however, Tivo and DirecTV had a falling out a while back, and so the replacement box is not a Tivo.

I figured that by now, nearly a year after the falling out, that DirecTV would have a DVR comparable to Tivo. But it is not so. Sure, the basic features of recording and watching shows is similar. But this new DVR is not even in the same league with Tivo - and that's very sad...

My primary issues:

  1. The user interface was obviously designed by a geek, not a normal human. Now I am a geek, and this is the kind of UI I'd create - and it sucks. Common features are buried in obscure menus, and little used features are easy to find. Many powerful capabilities are hidden behind arbitrarily colored buttons rather than behind buttons that have some intrinsic meaning. Even for a geek like me this UI is totally crappy.
  2. Any interaction with the video (fast-forward, pause, jump back 6 seconds) causes skipping and sync issues between audio and video. This makes it very difficult to skip forward or backward, or even to pause and resume, because the result is almost always odd skip/sync issues that last for a few seconds.
  3. Along the same line, but more irritating, is the fact that skipping forward 30 seconds a couple times, and then back 6 seconds a couple times, will often cause the DVR to think I want to totally stop watching the show. This happens a lot, because we use the skip 30 seconds button to skip commercials, and when we overshoot by a few seconds, the skip back 6 seconds gets us back to the resumption of the show. At least 1-2 times a day the DVR just decides that we've pressed the Stop button instead, and stops the playback. Serious PITA!!
  4. Numerous times I've had to turn the DVR off and on again to get it to play back a show. Otherwise when I try to start the playback I just get a black screen. Turning it off/on makes it work again.
  5. Last week Stargate SG1 totally messed with the DVR. The jump forward 30 seconds went in slow motion. Turning the device off/on had no effect - it still did the jump 30 seconds in slow-mo... No other show has done this, but that particular episode of that show totally fubared the device.
  6. Last night the Colbert Report also messed with it. The DVR did its "you pressed Stop" bug and so I was fast-forwarding back to the spot where we were before the foobar, and the fast-forward went into an infinite loop. Seriously. It got to a point in the video and jumped back about 10 seconds, then it got to that same spot and jumped back 10 seconds - over and over and over. I had to watch in normal speed to get past that point in the video, then I could fast-forward again just fine.

Tivo had none of these issues. Tivo's UI is elegant and clean and intuitive. Tivo never skipped in odd ways, or had sync issues with audio/video. The issues are almost certainly all software, and it is simply clear that DirecTV needs to find a new DVR software vendor that actually has a clue about things like quality, testing and usability...

It is sad that Tivo seems to be having a lot of trouble getting their business model under control, because it looks very likely that the best product will die, leaving us all stuck with a load of crap instead.

On the other hand, even with all the stupid issues this DVR has, the life-changing effect remains. We are still in charge of our own lives rather than allowing the TV networks to control our schedules. It is just frustrating that we had perfection, and lost it due to a hard drive crash and some poor business decisions on the part of Tivo and DirecTV.


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 Saturday, 27 January 2007
Saturday, 27 January 2007 14:24:01 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

A few minutes ago I recieved an unsolicited (and thus illegal) phone call from Card Services Incorporated. Normally this wouldn't be a huge deal, I'd get connected to an operator and tell them to remove me from their list, along with at least some level of threat of federal legal action.

But this time something odd and interesting has happened. I did get connected to an operator, who almost instantly rejected my call. But she did in in such a way that I'm in a netherworld where I am "piggy-backed" on other calls. One after another, I get to listen in on their conversations!!

Now I am only hearing the operator's voices, not the inbound callers (all of whom are women thus far). I keep waiting to get some juicy personal info like a phone number or credit card number, but all the callers thus far have been smart enough not to provide any such information to the operators.

One can only assume that "Card Services Incorporated" is a relatively incompetent scam. Though I've heard at least four operators now, so they are big enough to have a number of employees and a (somewhat buggy) automatic phone system.

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