Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cellular Degeneration

I don't want to download music on my cell phone. I don't want to check NASDAQ or the New York Stock Exchange. I don't want to watch TV shows, make movies, pay bills, take crappy photos, check a Facebook page, play video games, or catch up on the latest football news, either. I don't need a colour screen, or "great graphics", or 4000 features that I'll never use. All I want is a phone that makes and receives calls, that doesn't fall apart in six months, and has a long battery life. And that's what, evidently, no longer exists. All you can get now are overly complicated, infuriatingly fragile phones, with battery lives about as long-lasting as a trip to the backstage broom closet with Colin Farrell.

Take my last cell phone - a Sanyo from Bell. It began falling apart within two months (headphone jack got loose, charger stopped working, etc.). Now, not two years later, the battery no longer holds a charge. I'm lucky if it lasts 90 minutes - when I'm not talking. It also had an infuriating snooze feature: within at least two minutes of the alarm going off, a follow-up "snooze" alarm would go off, and if you can believe it...there was no way to disable that feature. I emailed Sanyo customer service twice about it; both times the agent confirmed that there was no way to disable the follow-up ring. And making it worse was that it was quite difficult to turn the follow-up alarm off; so frequently, the phone alarm would go off every two minutes for a ten or twenty minute period after the initial wake-up, while I tried to remember just how to turn it off.

My wife had another Sanyo on the same contract package; that one stopped working altogether about six weeks ago. So, she started using mine. No problem, I thought; this piece of garbage is on its last legs anyway. I'll just try to find a more durable, sensible phone.

So, I drove down to London Drugs and picked up a new phone compatible with new, no-contract provider Koodo. I got the base model Samsung - which started malfunctioning almost immediately (dropping out for a few seconds about every minute, no matter where I was). I brought it back and swapped it back for a Motorola. That one worked fine on the way home. Finally I'm in the clear, I thought. such luck. I realized as soon as I got home that the phone didn't have the standard 2.5 mm headset jack. It was on to bigger and better things - the USB port. GARG. I like wearing the ol' headset when I'm driving, and I actually like the cord since it makes it harder for me to lose. problem, I thought. I'll just get a new corded headset which fits into the USB port.

I then visited every electronics shop in Victoria - none of the salespeople had ever heard of a corded USB port headset. The only compatible headsets were Bluetooth.

The old corded headsets you could get for twenty bucks - the Bluetooths were all four, five, six times as much. And they also seemed fragile and small: perfect for breaking and losing. More GARG.

I bit the bullet and decided I'd try a high-end noise-reducing Bluetooth headset. Another bummer - turns out I needed to charge that just like I charged the phone (one more charging thing to worry about). And though the battery was supposed to last "a really long time" (according to the sales agent), it peetered out in no time. Who knows - maybe there was an on/off switch I was supposed to have turned off overnight - or five other switches. Even getting the dang thing to work in the first place was a chore; for some reason, my phone's Bluetooth capability kept shutting off, so I kept having to go in to turn it back on, and the piece itself had two different buttons...anyway, you get the idea: high maintenance, fiddly, probably going to break, etc. More GARG.

"Progress" in cellular phone technology, in my case, no longer exists: each gain is at the cost of losing some feature I valued, like durability, battery length, and ease of use. The old Audiovox CDM9000 I started with ten years ago on Telus was the best phone I ever had: while there was no text message feature, it was slim, simple, indestructible, and the battery lasted forever. Normal headphone jack, normal features, easy charging, no problem.

Why don't providers offer phones like that anymore? Maybe it's because folks like me are in an extreme minority.

But maybe, just maybe, it's because cellphone companies have overlooked an enduring customer preference, of some size anyway, for durable simplicity over fragile complexity. And if the day ever comes when one of them stops overlooking it and offers the solid, sensible type of phone I want, I'll be the first to sign up. But I'm not holding my breath.

Lone Star Falling

People around the world have been watching the ongoing story of Texas's removal of 400-plus children from a Mormon fundamentalist polygamist compound like it was some kind of entertaining TV movie. Where is the outrage?

The Texas Child Protective Services raid on the "Yearning For Zion" ranch was absolutely disgusting. I'd actually like to see its instigators imprisoned. On the basis of just ONE anonymous (fictitious) report of abuse, now known to have been placed by a mature, mentally-deranged member of Mormonism's mainstream variant (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) from Colorado with a history of prank phone calls and no affiliation with the FLDS, CPS goons busted in on private property and took over four hundred children away from their parents. It was basically a state-sponsored mass kidnapping. And no doubt, it has been terribly scary for the children.

Where is the outrage? Why should it have taken the state's Supreme Court to clarify that there was no legal basis for CPS confiscating the children - and subjecting them to invasive physical tests, testing by psychiatrists and state bureacrats, putting them into foster care with perfect strangers?

How did it come about that in so many countries with legal systems based on a presumption of innocence, that bureacrats have been given free reign to presume guilt whenever they like, act like thugs, and then force those they decide to accuse to prove themselves innocent?

There is an entire class of people on the planet (and they span from the left to the right) who are incapable of believing that any sane human being could, or should, desire a lifestyle other than what they think of as "the" ideal. For the secular social activists cheering on the raid, "ideal" means egalitarian marital relationships. For the evangelical Christians cheering on the raid, "ideal" means following the "true Jesus", and getting out of Joseph Smith's cult. And boy...they just couldn't wait to bust up the ranch, could they? The Mormon fundamentalists were doing it all wrong, weren't they? Thank God for that one phone call. Manifestly, in 2008, in the state of Texas, that's all it takes.

The levers of government - at least those of American government - were never designed to be used to enforce any particular mode of living. The Declaration of Independence itself states that people have the inalienable right to the "pursuit of happiness". And if that happens to mean in some case, living in a desert compound sharing one man with ten other women...that's what it means. What business is it of anyone else's?

Where there is solid evidence of a child being abused, then of course law enforcement should investigate (that case). But that's not what happened in Texas. What happened there was an outrageous abuse of state power, on wholly illegitimate, specious grounds. Really sick.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Lost Plot

I saw the new Indiana Jones movie tonight...

I don't know what my problem is. After all, this movie's probably getting great reviews. I've only come across one review so far (which was favourable), but I'd lay money on all the standard superlative-laden cliches on 95% of all the reviews that ever come out: "an action-packed thrill ride!"; "Blanchett is fantastic!"; "a fun-filled adventure that leaves you on the edge of your seat!".

But the only reason I sat through it was because I'd invited my wife out for the evening and I didn't want to spoil everything. Yes, I'm saying I thought the movie was a waste of time. The story is convoluted and gap-laden; there's a crystal skull with magical powers, and some old professor friend, and Indy has to travel to Peru, and there's some lost city of gold, which turns out not to be of gold at all, but of "treasure", which turns out to not have "treasure" at all - or I should say, the "treasure" turns out to be knowledge, though we never even get to find out what the knowledge might consist of...and weird aliens who number fourteen, but also assimilate into one, and can waft in and out of our dimension, who are from "the space between the spaces"...and I would bet a thousand bucks that not one of ten of the people who emerge saying they loved the movie could give any coherent account of its plot.

However, there are all the requisite giant explosions and people-eating insects and car crashes and cutesy jokes and magical survivals after falling down three gigantic waterfalls and being shot at by fifteen Russian soldiers with machine guns ten feet away. And because the bad guys are the commies, there is also Spielberg's misguidedly dutiful depiction of how evil American anti-communists were (sort of a scaled-down reminder of Spielberg's attempt in "Munich" to show "both sides" of the 1972 PLO kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes. "Both sides" of murder? Maybe Spielberg in the future will also take time to show us "both sides" of the Menendez Brothers story, the Ted Bundy story, and the Charles Manson story).

Cranky? Sure. I couldn't even stand all the hammed-out "Indy and Marion Together Again" nostalgia show (probably not least because the indescribable glee that Karen Allen understandably feels at finally finding another Hollywood job after twenty years just seemed to ooze off her in every scene. Everytime the camera panned over to her, her facial expressions were such that I thought she was going to start screaming, "thank you Steven! Oh God! Thank you! Thank you SO MUCH! FINALLY ANOTHER ACTING ROLE! FINALLY SOME MONEY!"). And that Indy and Marion ended up falling in love and getting along famously and then getting married, when their incorrigibly on-again off-again love-hate dynamic was firmly established two decades ago, seemed awfully forced. I just don't see it.

Anyway...I think that in an effort to keep things rolling, this movie tried to do way too much. It could still have featured lots of action; but clearer, tighter plot lines and more actual drama - as in, believable characters interacting with each other as humans in believable ways - would have helped (see "Casino Royale", which, for my money, combined these things very successfully).

Just my two cents,


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Everything in the Entire World Causes Cancer

Forget about making a list of suspected carcinogens - I'd like to know what items have not been labeled "carcinogenic" by one stupid study or another over the past thirty years. Why doesn't the entire scientific community just put out a press release which says, "we have now determined that EVERYTHING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD CAUSES CANCER FOR EVERYONE FOREVER", and be done with it?

Look at your newspaper tomorrow; somewhere inside it, there will be yet another article on how goldfish, or dental floss, or picnic baskets, or anything, "has been linked to increased risk of cancer". Evidently, like the speed of light, it is an immutable law of the universe that there is no better way for a scientist to secure funding for a study than to announce s/he is hot on the trail of a "hitherto unknown possible cause of cancer!". And evidently, no better way to secure a headline, or sell papers or TV ad space, than to trot out the old "c" word again.

Nor does the ease of the cancer game make it any less effective. For example, if you don't really get any solid evidence of a link in your study, but you still think there might be a link, or would just rather there be a link, you just announce, "we have concluded that there may be a link between Item X and cancer".

That is, you only say what everyone in the world actually already knows: that there "may" be a "link". Well, yeah - sure. There "may" be a link between what I ate for breakfast this morning and who will win the World Series next year; there "may" be a "link" between any two things in the entire universe. It's just that this doesn't tell us anything important. Very rarely are we even told what kind of "link" it "may" be, which is another problem. For example, I could justifiably say that there is a "link between being alive and cancer", since only live people get cancer. But this doesn't tell us much. Anyway, none of this matters, because the merest reminder that something scary is possible is enough to rivet us. It's certainly enough to get us to buy the newspapers and books, watch the shows, etc.

Fortunately for the cancer-scare industry, it is quite easy to wind up with "evidence" of carcinogenesis. All you need to do is locate a chemical in some substance safe for human use - say, in a pesticide or disinfectant spray - and then multiply its concentration to astronomically high levels, wildly in excess of what any human would ever encounter in real life; and then, voila! CANCER! Hooray!

There is something deeply irrational in this. The evidence showing that DDT, or a thousand other items, is perfectly safe when used correctly, just melts into nothingness when humans hear about evidence that the item is UNsafe when used INcorrectly. We can even talk about our latest cancer fears sitting next to our children at dinner, all of whom are holding a utensil called a knife, which if used incorrectly, would be lethal, and not notice any irony there.

A large enough amount of anything will kill us. A large enough amount of many substances will specifically trigger carcinogenesis. If we are doing things like constantly inhaling ash into our lungs, or eating forty crates of unwashed, pesticided cabbages every day for six years, yes, we should be concerned about cancer and change our behaviour accordingly. Overall, though, it seems to me that the incessant onslaught of cancer scare media pieces is hardly worth our notice 95% of the time. (Maybe it's 99%...).

Just my two cents.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Paul Harvey Turns Four Hundred and Twelve, and Other Random Thoughts

Random Thought 1:

It's funny - I still catch Paul Harvey now and again on the radio, just like I did ten years ago; and ten years before that; and ten years before that; and just like my parents did when they first got married, and when they were in high school, and when they were in junior high, and elementary school, just like their parents did as relative newlyweds. He was broadcasting from Pearl Harbor before Pearl Harbor was bombed. He's one of those guys who was old, like, in 1972. Yet he's still going strong (maybe it's all those vitamins he always tells everyone to take). Now my own kids catch him every once in a while...and literally, he could still be on air when I have grandkids. Pretty amazing.

Random Thought 2:

"Raisin' Raisin Awareness"

Well, all those Minuteman went down with their guns to the US/Mexican border to keep Mexicans out and "raise awareness" of illegal immigration. But I'm a lot more concerned about another kind of "immigration", which definitely should be made illegal. I'm talking about the immigration of RAISINS into foods where they don't belong. I'm talking about perfectly good cinammon rolls RUINED by the shriveled little blights. I'm talking about otherwise perfectly good chocolate chip cookies. I'm talking about otherwise good salads, and buns, and cakes, and breakfast cereals. I don't get it. Why are they there?

As far as I can tell, raisins belong in things like muesli and trail mix, and that's about it.

Random Thought 3:

Madonna looked great during the "Ray of Light" era. Now she looks like she's trying way too hard, and it's embarrassing.

Random Thought 4:

What's up with pro soccer jerseys not ever having the name of the team on them? All you see is the sponsor. Turn on any Premier League game and you'll spend twenty minutes trying to figure out which one's Reading and which one's Wigan. Can you imagine baseball or hockey jerseys looking like that? Instead of that "NY" on the Yankees uniform, you see the "Denny's" logo like the evil team on "The Bad News Bears"? So lame.

Random Thought 5:

I still spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about last year's Rugby World Cup, and it's starting to concern me. I keep reliving plays in my mind, like I'm in some kind of waking dream state...

I keep thinking about how tightly disciplined the South Africans were. It was like watching a single organism out there, or fifteen guys who could all read each other's minds. And Bryan Habana was fantastic. And kicker Percy Montgomery made Wilko (England's Jonny Wilkinson) look almost bush-league.

And I keep thinking about the Argentine team. As a former resident of Argentina, I was thrilled to see them do so well (third place overall, after South Africa and England). Coolest of all was watching their style of play. They were very unlike the super-disciplined South Africans - they were creative, passionate, spontaneous. Even the English fans were full of compliments for them (I watched most of the matches in a pub in Forest Hill, outside of London).

Random Thought 6:

Time for me to go to sleep.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

No matter what happens now, the 2008 election will probably always be my favorite. Why? Because it's the year in which the distasteful fruits of the founding philosophical seeds of the Democratic Party were made most evident.

Consider this: for the last six months, the Democratic Party has been ripping itself apart over whether Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton should be the party's nominee. The high-profile supporters of each have been going on television shows broadcast all over the world calling each other "idiots", "lunatics", and everything else. Bill Richardson, on "Larry King Live", went so far as to say that the Clinton machine seemed to think its candidate had some sort of "divine right" to the presidency. Clinton diehard James Carville has publicly labeled Richardson a "Judas". As I type this, the Democratic Party is at war.

Yet here is a fact: not one in a hundred supporters of each could muster so much as a guess, let alone an evidenced, definitive answer, as to any major policy difference between Obama and Clinton. And the reason why is that there ARE no major policy differences between them. The Democratic Party has been ripping itself apart over two candidates which, positionally, are almost indistinguishable.

Does this sound insane? A bit, yeah. But underneath the surface, it is actually quite a logical outcome for a party which has always viewed humans more in terms of groups, and their group affiliations and rights and histories, than as individuals with individual rights.

After all, once we commit to thinking of humans primarily, and even ultimately, in terms of groups, we take on the task of finding, and then always keeping in mind, distinguishing group characteristics. And humans not wishing to make more work for themselves than necessary, the most obvious distinguishing group characteristics (call them "DGC"s) tend to wind up as the preferred DGCs. So, for those in this mindset, someone's sex, or race, or sexual orientation, or income level, wind up more important than the content of one's character, or one's personal ethics, or one's ideas and opinions. The more superficial the marker, the more preferable it is. The more meaningless it is, the more loudly the "groupophiles" claim it matters.

Thus, for virtually the whole core of the Democratic Party, it really, really matters whether their candidate is a half-black male or a fully white female. The characteristics below those external markers, like past successes or personal integrity or actual policy positions - things which I would argue are infinitely more important - have been all but forgotten by them. The result is a completely stupid civil war, the consequences of which have probably already guaranteed Republican nominee John McCain the presidency.