This made me smile yesterday on the bus

I take the bus almost every single day, and I don’t usually smile on the bus. The bus, on a good day, is a time when I can be alone and have some quiet time with a good morning radio show or with the latest Keane album. Unless my wife is with me, I don’t want to be making chit-chat or interacting with people. In fact, random strangers trying to chat me up on the bus really annoys me.

But I saw something yesterday that made me smile.

A woman came on the bus. She looked tired (this was at about 5:30 PM). Her face was drawn down. She had a bit of a shuffle more than a walk. As she was shuffling down the length of the bus heading toward its rear, a seated passenger reached out and grabbed her by the waist without saying anything. For a split second, she looked extremely distressed. I imagined, based on that quick glimpse of her facial expression, that she was thinking, “Oh, my God. I’m being accosted by some crazy person. I just want to be left alone.” But then she turned to look at the person grabbing her, and clearly it was someone she knew. She quickly turned her horrified face into a widened smile and sat next to this guy and began talking to him.

I couldn’t hear anything they were saying. Nevertheless, they were so happy to see each other that I couldn’t help a wide smile myself. I knew nothing about these people. They didn’t appear to be dating. They clearly liked each other and either are or had been emotionally close at one point. Maybe they hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Maybe this guy was visiting the area from far away. Imagine that they happened to be on the same bus at the same time by accident. I loved that moment. I still have no idea who these people are, and they somehow managed to brighten my day at the end of my evening commute.

Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Not to discount your hard work…

I confess—I love watching the E! True Hollywood Story. I love seeing the stories behind the stars and watching their rises to fame and fortune.

I am baffled by one thing, though. Why do they (either the stars themselves or their friends, family members, managers and agents) keep trying to make it sound as if the stars got to where they are today through hard work and talent alone? Yes, I understand they had to work hard. Yes, I understand a certain degree of talent is necessary to succeed. Still, do you really want to tell me good looks or connections had nothing to do with the road to success? Being the child of another famous actor didn’t open any doors, really? Having perfect bone structure and facial symmetry didn’t do anything for their careers?

Now, again, I’m not saying that you can just coast on your good looks and family connections or money. You have to do something. The acting won’t come by itself. The gigs won’t fall into your lap. But how many good-looking children of famous people are there who tried to break into Hollywood and couldn’t get an audition? I can’t imagine there are that many. There are, however, tens of thousands of ugly people who have no connections but who have talent and probably cannot get an audition.

I’m not going to lie. I’m a child of privilege. My parents both have advanced degrees. I grew up in a rich suburb with a more-than-adequate education system. I know that I’ve been offered a lot of advantages most other people don’t have. Have I had to work? Certainly. I did all my school work and earned the grades I got. And at all the jobs I’ve had I’ve worked as hard as I could. Still, I know that if I had come from a family of poor uneducated parents who didn’t speak English and who brought me up in a neighborhood with a failing school system, I’d have had a lot more obstacles to overcome.

So, folks—don’t lie about the roles of privilege, connections, and good looks in your career paths, especially you Hollywood folks. Yes, I know you’ve probably had to work hard, probably had to work damn hard. But so do many people. Some people work hard all their lives to make minimum wage with no health benefits. Those folks also have talents. Not to discount your hard work…


Drawing the line between labels

What is art? What is obscenity? When is someone a child? When does someone reach the age of consent? At what stage during pregnancy does human life begin? Is it music or noise? Or both?

Much of debate in public life is about drawing arbitrary lines between labels. Some people think if you allow gays to marry, that’s only one step away from allowing people to marry more than one person legally or marry their pets legally. Others think it’s the logical next step after getting rid of miscegenation laws. Some people think human life begins at conception (when the sperm and egg meet). Others think it happens some time in the middle of the pregnancy. In many places, the age of consent is 18 years of age. So a 17-year-old in a sexually explicit film is legally the victim of child pornography but an 18-year-old in the same film is a consenting adult in a legitimate industry.

We all know that lines can get blurry and, in fact, much of life isn’t about lines but appreciating spectra and variation. One person may reach adulthood at age 13. Another may reach it at age 23. Still another may not reach it ever. One group of people may consider a certain film art, and another group of people may consider the same film obscenity.

The real problem we face is a discomfort with blurriness, spectra, and variation when it comes to law. We already have many “it depends” situations in law, and we don’t want to have an “it depends” that can’t be spelled out in advance, for some reason. If one 12-year-old is old enough to drive, how can you make the case that another 12-year-old is not old enough to drive? Why does your opinion about each kid’s maturity and skill matter in deciding? Instead, the state decides arbitrarily that 15 or 16 or 18 is the cut-off point where someone under that age doesn’t have the physical and mental maturity to handle a motor vehicle, and someone above that age supposedly does.

I don’t have an easy answer. I do think a 7-year-old, no matter how “mature,” is too young to have sex. And I do think that almost all 50-year-olds, no matter how “immature,” are likely to know what they’re getting into if they engage in sex. I know if we draw a line in between that it’ll be arbitrary and if we don’t draw a line, we’ll basically be condoning pedophilia. Same deal with abortion. If I kill an egg and sperm that have just started dividing into two cells and four cells, I don’t really think I’ve murdered a human being (yes, some fringe conservatives on the extreme right might disagree with me, and I would concede in a British accent that “every sperm is sacred, every sperm is good”). But I also don’t think there’s a definite line you can draw in the middle of a pregnancy that is when human life “begins.” There isn’t a moment. Nor was there a moment when I changed from child to adult. I know when I was 6 I was a child. I know now after 30 I’m an adult. But it’s not as if there was one day or even one year that I can say was the threshold I crossed that changed me from child to adult.

As I said before, there are no easy answers. Nevertheless, people should also stop looking for them. There often is no line in life, even if we must draw a line in the law.


My last word on the election before it concludes

You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging about the US presidential election much. It’s mainly because I think most of what could be said about the election has been said already. And most of it is mudslinging at the other party’s candidate, anyway.

I do want to say one thing before the polls close tomorrow, and that’s this: no matter who wins is going to be in a tough position. And if the winner isn’t able to get the country out of all of these “wars on terror” and the global economic crisis unscathed, it doesn’t mean the other guy would have been able to.

I’m not a big fan of George W. Bush. I haven’t approved of most of his policies or approaches to things. I think he’s made some terrible mistakes as president. Yet I don’t imagine that that automatically means Al Gore or John Kerry would necessarily have done a better job.

I’m a Dennis Kucinich man, and I liked Hillary Clinton while she was still a main contender in the race. But, make no mistake about it, only one of two men will win this election by tomorrow night—John McCain or Barack Obama, and given those choices I definitely prefer Obama.

If McCain wins, though, and we stay in this economic downturn, and the war in Iraq continues for 8 years and even longer, I won’t think, “Well, clearly if Barack Obama had won, all of these problems would have been solved.” Nor should McCain fans, should Obama win, think “Well, clearly if John McCain had won, all of these problems would have been solved.”

The country isn’t doing well, and this is a terrible time for anyone to step into the presidency of the United States of America. I don’t agree with either candidate on everything, and I don’t agree with John McCain on most of the hot-button issues. But I do think both men would try their best to make this country better, and both men would have a hell of a time just keeping us afloat. So godspeed to whomever wins tomorrow.

My two other posts on the election:
Successful politicians will be political
Obama v. McCain – I have to say this before November


What convinces you to change your mind or try something new?

I grew up going to a Christian church, and for the past 3+ years I have been a Linux user, so you can bet I have heard and participated in a lot of debates about whether it is right and/or effective to evangelize to gain more “converts” or not.

The evangelism (for religion, operating system, or anything else) usually comes from good intentions. Although sometimes it can feel to the person being evangelized to that the intention is more “I’m right, and you’re wrong, and you’d better see things my way”; the intention is usually more, “I didn’t realize what I was missing until I saw this, so I want you to see it too.”

I was an extremely argumentative child and adolescent, and even though I thought I had some pretty good arguments, logic, and examples, there were few arguments I ever won or lost. Pretty soon I realized that arguments for the purposes of convincing someone to adopt a new outlook or change her mind are a waste of time. Arguments as intellectual exercises or fun pastimes are fine. And you can sometimes bully someone into giving up fighting you, but you haven’t really changed her mind. You’ve just intimidated her. To see how this is done, watch Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. It basically consists of a lot of interrupting and yelling.

So if you’re someone who truly thinks “I didn’t realize what I was missing until I had this” instead of “Ha ha! I’m right and you’re wrong”; think about the last time you changed your mind on an issue or decided to try something new. What was the impetus for that change? Was it someone arguing with you? How did you start seeing things in a different way or open yourself up to trying a new product or lifestyle?

For me (I won’t even try to speak for anyone else)—whether it was my outlooks on race and gender, my choice of operating system, or my mode of transportation—any time I opened myself up to something new or changed my mind, it had nothing to do with getting into arguments with people. In fact, when folks argued with me, I tended to cling more strongly to the familiar than to open myself up to something new.

I change my mind or embrace something new when I come to it instead of it coming to me. I need the resources to come to, of course, but I need to come to those resources. I don’t want someone knocking on my door trying to sell me something. I don’t want a friend pestering me to switch to something or to change my mind about something. I do want, however, many books and websites available on the topic. I want the pros and cons clearly laid out in as unbiased a fashion as is humanly possible.

Thus, in the spirit of the golden rule, I’m going to do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I will write my opinions and leave them here as a resource. If you disagree with me, I don’t want to get into a futile argument with you. You can lay out your own opinions, and I will read them when I am ready to read them. You can also read my opinions when you’re ready to read them.


Disneyland “Security”?

I have to say that Disneyland and California Adventure have a pretty smooth operation. Yes, they charge you an arm and a leg and a kidney for the two theme parks (especially if you want to go to both and not just one), but they know how to manage large crowds of people.

The people leaving rides exit one direction. The people getting on the rides enter from the other side, and only after the people leaving have left. The staff rope off sidewalks for parades so that there’s a clear division between those who want to sit and watch the parade and those who want to pass through the area. The “fast pass” system makes it easy to get into semi-popular (not the absolute newest, though) rides without waiting in line for hours.

But what is up with the “security” check when you first arrive at the park? It’s not like airport security (which has its own problems and holes)… it doesn’t even resemble security. If you have a bag, they have you open the bag, and they take a cursory glance inside the bag. I had a backpack and unzipped the large pocket and that’s all they saw. I don’t know if they were checking for guns, drugs, or bombs, but I could have had any or all of the above in the small pocket of my backpack, the large pocket (but buried underneath the top layer of stuff), or my jacket pockets.

The second time I went through the check, they picked up my little insulated lunch bag and asked “What’s in this?” I said it was some snacks. They believed me and put it down. How is that security? I can say it’s full of snacks. Of course I can say that. It could really be full of fireworks or spray paint or box cutters. They’re going to take my word for it?

Generally Disney has a smooth operation going in its theme parks. If they could just get the “security” check out of there—or actually checking people’s bags thoroughly—it’d be even smoother.

Health Life

My first yoga experience

For years I’d been hearing about yoga, knowing my friends had done it and seeing TV and movie characters engage in it. I’d never done it before, though. That changed recently when my wife invited me to attend a “mellow yoga” class with her. It was an interesting experience, definitely. I wasn’t too keen on the poem-reading and om-chanting, but the actual yoga exercise was relaxing and fun.

Of course, I was also totally lost. The instructor kept telling us to do all these poses I didn’t know (the names I’d heard before but the details I had no mastery of), some of which were supposed to be done with our eyes closed (I had to peek to make sure I was doing it right). Not a big fan of the tree pose (in which you balance on one foot while the sole of the other foot is on your calf or thigh). There was this great reclining pose we did at the end that I thought I’d fall alseep in, though—that I could have done for hours.

In the end, I decided I may go to another yoga class every now and then, but it’s not my cup of tea for on-a-regular-basis-exercise. Squatting and twisting requires too much coordination and intense muscle pressure. I’m more of a runner/walker.


My Obsession with The Biggest Loser

I do believe that fat people are often discriminated against and mistreated in society. I think there is too much of a stigma attached to fatness and an overglorification of thinness. That said, some people are overweight, and I love seeing those people work hard to lose it and actually succeed. I realize reality TV shows are manipulative and always have the main purpose of getting high ratings, no matter what the cost to the participants psychologically, but I feel that The Biggest Loser is probably one of the best reality TV shows out there in that it actually helps people get healthier.

Yes, it does that silly thing where some contestants have to vote off other contestants. I think that’s ridiculous. The only people who should be eliminated are the ones who lose the least amount of weight. There should be no voting.

And, of course, they do the duh-duh-duhn focus on faces in reaction to scale readings right before the commercial break for maximum manipulative suspense-milking.

Oh, and the whole show is a just a long advertisement for 24-Hour Fitness gyms.

Nevertheless, when I see these people going from 350 lbs. to 180 lbs. and also getting rid of their health problems (diabetes, heart disease, etc.), it’s pretty inspiring, especially when I know many of them probably have a genetic predisposition to gaining weight. Anyone who knows me well knows I am a nurture person all the way, and it’s not because I don’t believe in the power of nature—I just don’t believe in giving in to nature if you also have the power of nurture. I’m genetically predisposed to being diabetic, but I’m not going to just throw in the towel on that one. As long as I can, I want to avoid being diagnosed with diabetes, and when I am finally diagnosed, I want to put off needing insulin shots as long as I can and also avoid losing my eyesight or limbs as long as I can. My wife and I had together all four of our grandmothers outlive their husbands, so, as a male, I’m genetically predisposed to dying earlier than she does, but I want to maximize my life as long as possible.

If you’re fat and happy with yourself and healthy, that’s great. Stay that way. But if you’re fat, have related health risks, and think that your genetic predisposition cannot be overcome, then I think you need to start exercising and eating healthily and fight what nature has thrown your way. You may have to exercise more and eat more healthily than some folks who are naturally skinnier, and that’s life. And some naturally skinnier people may actually have health issues despite society telling them they “look” a healthy weight, and shame on them.

It is an injustice that anorexics get treatment and pity while overweight folks get mistreatment and ostracization. That doesn’t mean they don’t both have problems. Would I love to see a The Biggest Gainer? In theory, yes. But people who are excessively skinny and have an eating disorder could gain weight just for the show and then still remain psychologically anorexic or just add bulimia to anorexia. You can tell when you watch The Biggest Loser that these people are already psychologically ready to be thinner. The problem is purely physical, and psychology comes into play only as far as competitiveness and motivation are concerned.

Waiting for my DVR to record the next episode…

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Life Ubuntu Windows

The limitations of car-computer analogies

I’m less understanding of those who don’t want to learn how to take care of and fix their own computers than of those who don’t want to learn how to take care of fix their own cars. In many ways, cars and computers are similar—both cars and computers are complicated machines made up of various hardware pieces and some software (newer cars have software, anyway).

Nevertheless, there are some important differences between the two as well.

  • Even if you’re getting ripped off for car repair services, rarely will the cost of a repair rival the cost of buying a new car. The same cannot be said for computers.
  • While there are certainly communities and jobs that involve a lot of driving and no computer work, we are increasingly living in a digital age. If you work an office job of any kind, chances are you spend upwards of 50 hours a week on the computer, combining work and home use. Unless you are a truck driver, it’s very unlikely you are spending upwards of 50 hours a week driving.
  • Car repair is often more involved than computer repair. Yes, there are exceptions. It’s much easier, for example, to change an air filter in a car than to change a processor in a computer. That said, if you regularly do your own repairs on a car, you need an extensive workshop of tools and a dedicated garage. And it’s sad to say, but cars these days are being made so as to make it difficult to do your own maintenance. When I was growing up, my dad showed me how to change the oil and oil filter on my car. When I got a newer car, the oil filter was positioned in such a way that it wasn’t possible to get to it without a car-lift and specialized tools. Usually, with a computer, if there are hardware repairs or replacements that need to be done, all you need is about nine square feet of space, two screwdrivers, and your own two hands.
  • Computer repair is less physically dangerous. Yes, it’s possible if you do something stupid, you could probably electrocute yourself with some of the electronics inside the computer, get a minor cut from some of the sharp metal edges of the computer frame, or get a bruise on your pinky if you stick it in the fan while it’s running (shame on you for not unplugging the computer first). Still, I know of no one who has suddenly died from interaction with a home computer. I do, however, know people who have been seriously injured or killed by cars. If a car isn’t in proper working order (particularly the tires and brakes), you could kill someone. It’s okay to fiddle with your computer, as probably the worst you’ll do is fry your motherboard or cut a wire. It’s not okay to fiddle with your car unless you know what you’re doing.

The other thing to keep in mind is that almost all problems with a car are hardware-related. If there is a software problem with a car, you can’t just boot your Linux CD into the car and scan for viruses or edit configuration files. Computers can have hardware problems (loosely connected cords, failed hard drives, dusted-up fans), but the vast majority of computer problems are software-related.

Not everyone repairs her own car or computer, and that’s fine. Nevertheless, the level of ignorance of basic, common sense computer use I see goes way beyond the ignorance of good driving practices I see. Not everyone obeys traffic signals, changes their motor oil regularly, or drives defensively. But almost everyone I know who drives knows to fill up the tank when it’s low on gas or petrol. Drivers know to turn off the car if they aren’t using it for extended periods of time. They know not to drive 100 Km per hour in 1st gear.

I don’t see this same level of common sense amongst most computer users I know. They don’t think it’s worth their time to get to know how to take care of their computers (back up important data, learn how to navigate menus, avoid social engineering).

I’m not saying all this to be some kind of snob. I was in that place before, not long ago. I was a computer user who lacked common sense for a long time. Eventually I finally embraced computer literacy, because I realized it makes sense to do so since I had to spend a lot of time using the computer at work and began increasingly spending more time using it at home as well. I don’t think it’s that most computer users are stupid or lazy. I think it’s mainly that they’re scared.

To most computer users I know, computers are mystifying. When you’re scared of something and don’t understand anything about how it works, it’s easy to use it only for what you need it for and then ask for help whenever you need help instead of exploring things for yourself. I’ve had to teach a Mac OS X user how to install VLC, teach another Mac user how to add songs to iTunes, teach a Windows user how to change her Firefox homepage—these are all things that can be easily explored through the GUI if you just click on a few menus and read the directions.

If we do want to make an analogy between cars and computers, let’s consider a little bit of social engineering. Someone goes to a website and sees she “needs” to download an “ActiveX plugin” to view the site properly. All of a sudden, the computer slows down and there are pop-ups everywhere, and if she closes one pop-up two more pop up in its place. This is like driving to a store and having someone in front of the store say “Can you give me the keys to your car? You’ll need someone to watch your car while you go in the store.” Would you give that person your key? If it’s not a store and it is a restaurant, do you quickly learn to tell the difference between a genuine valet and a con artist valet? Maybe not with 100% accuracy, but I’d say most computer users indiscriminately click on things without considering what is trustworthy and what is untrustworthy, while they’ll at least consider whether a valet might be a real valet or not.

I’m not really sure what the solution to the problem is. How can we demystify computers for computer users who are afraid of computers? How can we convince them it’s okay to explore menus and read the messages in those menus? How can we get them to recognize that it’s worth getting to know how to take care of something you spend 50+ hours a week using? All I know is that the car-computer analogy doesn’t fly in terms of maintenance and repair.


I don’t drink coffee

I’m not sure how you define “a morning person,” but I don’t consider myself one, even though I do tend to wake up earlier than my wife does. Maybe, by my definition of “morning person,” there are no morning people. I consider a morning person someone who not only wakes up early but also doesn’t feel groggy and doesn’t feel immediately like going back to bed again.

So why do I wake up early? I like mornings. Lately, I’ve been going on morning runs in the park before work, and I like how quiet and beautiful the park is in the morning as the fog rolls over the grass and water. And on the weekends, I can’t sleep in too much, because I don’t want the whole day to just waste away, and I also don’t want my body getting used to that kind of sleep cycle on the weekends so that waking up on Monday for work is even more difficult than it usually is.

Still, I don’t drink coffee.

I know many people who need coffee to function in the morning. If they don’t have coffee, they are cranky, discombobulated, and inarticulate—sort of the way I am if I haven’t eaten in eight hours (give me three meals a day, please; thank you). I’d say there are three major reasons I don’t drink coffee:

  • While my high school friends were starting to drink coffee in order to feel more grown up, I didn’t really care to feel grown up. I wanted to be intellectually mature. I wanted to be respected. But I didn’t particularly want to get drunk, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, have sex, get high, or have an early mid-life crisis. I wanted to enjoy my youth while I still had it. Of course, some people would say all the stuff I didn’t do as a teenager is enjoyment of youth. I’ll respectfully disagree.
  • I don’t really like taking drugs—caffeine, over-the-counter headache medicine, etc. I will take drugs if I have to (if I have a really bad headache or need antibiotics after surgery), but I try to avoid them if possible. I just like not to mess with my body if I don’t have to, and I also worry that my body could build up an immunity to certain drugs if I take them too often.
  • I guess the most important reason is I just don’t like the taste of coffee. The smell isn’t too bad (doesn’t turn me on or anything, but I can stand it). Coffee taste? Bleh.

Yup. I’m a freak. I don’t drink coffee.