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June 25th, 2010

11:48 am - I predict an unfortunate failure...
(Wow... posting on LJ? What a concept. I must be bored. ;) )

As noted in today's New York Times, Studio Ghibli is planning to get into the games business, releasing their first epic storyline video game late this year.

This makes me sad.

I love Studio Ghibli, and not just because I'm a nerd. It's a company that has stuck to its roots and its guns despite overwhelming pressure to change, and has profited by it. They built a small museum in a public park (in Mitaka, Japan) that is every bit as quirky and lovable as their films, and they limit access to it despite enormous profit potential, because fewer people make the experience better for their guests. (I visited in 2008 and got a guided tour from a staffer I was working with - it was teh awesome!!) They still painstakingly draw and paint every cel in their movies by hand, while the rest of the industry has gone full-on CG, even for 2D animation.

And that last point is why I am sad. No studio since Disney/Pixar has ever made the hop from hand animation to CG, and had a success from the start. Even Pixar has scrapped or completely re-written a couple of films well into the production process, and they're arguably the best in the business. Making that hop would be a painful enough process for Ghibli.

But then you add interactivity, which is another hard nut to crack, and one at which most linear-storytelling firms fail badly on their first time. I see Ghibli making unfortunate sacrifices in their storytelling, and Level-5 making unfortunate sacrifices in their interactivity, in order to keep peace in the partnership.

In short, I see this game being an incredible (objective) failure. And worse, a giant, public, highly-publicized failure, since both firms involved have so much prestige, street-cred, and geek cult following. There will be those that love it despite its flaws, no doubt. But unless lightning strikes and the fairies grace this game with superhuman luck, it is highly probable that this will be the project that is heralded as Ghibli's first major failure. Game versions of films are generally thin and dissatisfying. Film versions of games are generally formulaic and stunted. There is no truly successful partnership between a production house and a game house right now, because their pipelines and their creative processes are just fantastically different. It's changing, but it's not there yet -- the intuitive design technology that will merge those processes seamlessly is still a few years away, and the experienced visionary who will invent the pipeline to make it happen has yet to emerge. There is no model, and no rational buzz about potential models. Ghibli is walking into a sand pit.

And I don't want them to fail. They're far too awesome.

So go out and surprise me, Ghibli! Tell me that you're not succumbing to the pressures of the digital world, and making the hop just because you feel that you have to. Tell me that you have a plan, and that you're doing something radically different that no studio has ever done before. (Because those things that have already been done like this have been, well, awful.) Tell me that this isn't how you follow up Ponyo, which is, to be honest, your "Empire Strikes Back"...

It's going to take a lot of Spirited Away screenings to wash the taste of this one out of my mouth, I fear.
Current Mood: sadsad

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May 20th, 2010

03:45 pm - Mutually Assured Inaction
Sometimes news stories are more than just info on the world around you. As part of a group organizing a conference in Seoul Korea this winter, the latest shenanigans perpetrated by North Korea have a direct effect on our ability to proceed with plans. For one thing, our organization's policies prohibit sending representatives into places that are considered active warzones...

While I may be preaching to the wrong audience here, I cannot escape the thought that non-violence isn't always the answer. Back during the Cold War, the doctrine developed to handle nuclear weapons was MAD -- Mutually Assured Destruction. Nobody would ever use a nuclear bomb, because they knew that the nukes would be flying in the opposite direction before the first mushroom cloud dissipated. Post-cold-war, the policy shifted to AD -- Active Denial. If you didn't already have nuclear weapons, then we threatened you with preemptive strikes if there was any indication that you were building them.

It seems to me, however, that the modern age of humanitarian-thinking is self-defeatist at best. North Korea is the poster-child example. For nearly a decade now, we've been playing footsie with them, and ignoring one provocation after another. The reason? They're supported by China -- and the reason they're supported by China is that the Chinese government wants a buffer between themselves and the US-supported South, and because they have no desire to deal with a massive refugee crisis. Yet over the last year, even China has stopped doing anything more but supporting North Korea by policy. Only two weeks ago, the Chinese denied an aid package to NK and sent "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il packing back to Pyongyang a week earlier than expected.

The longer we play at diplomacy, the more mischief the reclusive North can get into. The argument not to flatten Pyongyang on humanitarian grounds is nothing less than a real-world instance of the Trolley Problem. The longer the regime endures, the more secure they feel in assaulting their own peasantry. Witness last year's currency confiscation/devaluation or the un-alleviated famine now in its second year. Would killing a few hundred or thousand people with a bomb truly be more cruel than letting their own government starve them to death or kill their relatives in forced-labor camps for the "disloyal"?

Instead, we pretend that they're merely acting like misguided children, and that if we only give them more time, they'll honor their word. Not that they'll kill 46 sailors in an un-provoked attack, or send assassins to kill high-ranking government officials. Or even shoot their own starving refugees in the back if they attempt to flee the country.

Now, we also allow them to actively destroy economic value on the Pacific rim by sowing fear, uncertainty, doubt and disruption among at least 2 of the strongest economies in the region. As far as investment and future development is concerned, threats by madmen are nearly as destructive as actual action.

Published US intelligence is that NK is a year or so away from placing a working nuclear warhead atop a missile. Since we've abandoned Active Denial in the face of a "humanitarian crisis", will Mutually-Assured Destruction work on a regime that has killed more of their own citizenry than the Korean War did?

The problem with a world that preaches a desire for unconditional peace is that you've tipped your hand to your own limits. Ronald Regan wrote hundreds of pages on how he feared active war and didn't think he'd have the guts to ever drop a nuclear bomb on Russia in any circumstance other than retaliation. Yet Russia, self-admittedly, spent a good 5 years believing that crazy bastard in the White House was ready to push the big red button at any moment. That's how brinkmanship works.

What we're doing with North Korea is trying to put a toddler with a gun into Time Out. Sometimes you just need to take their toys away and give their asses the whuppin' of their lives. You may destroy peace and happiness in the household for awhile, but that's generally a lot better than letting the bodies pile up outside your front door for years to come.

In the meanwhile, we're probably personally going to lose a few hundred thousand dollars over this (a mere drop compared to the billions that South Korean and Japanese companies are losing), and watch as the economies of northeast Asia are slowly destroyed. All because our government would rather watch the North Korean populace starve to death and become a nuclear power, than risk anyone thinking we're not "caring humanitarians." I just don't get it.
Current Mood: annoyedannoyed

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March 29th, 2010

11:46 am - Comfort in the Unreal
I've been reading a lot of publications lately, mostly as a result of real-life conversations that I wanted to know more about. At zoethe's prompting, I read a study on High Fructose Corn Syrup in rats. I skimmed a few of the references on whether vaccines cause autism, in the wake of a US Court ruling. I ready a study that found the first conclusive link to addictive properties of fatty foods that are akin to cocaine.

And then, of course, I read the press articles describing those studies to the public at-large.

For years I've been smugly dismissive of people who make life-changing decisions based on junk science and the over-digested, out-of-context sludge that appears in the press. Vegans tend to be a target of choice, for me. I enjoy laughing at Scientologists. I was pretty sure from the start that the runaway Toyota Prius in California was a publicity hoax, since neither computers nor mechanical systems work quite the way that guy claimed... (though it didn't stop a couple of imitators from duplicating his situation in the following days. Consequence-free high-speed joy ride, anyone?)

But to some extent, largely due to the autism thing (and reading posts from mind-whacked mothers desperate for any sort of relief), I'm coming to realize that I might be wrong. Fighting junk science with science is a losing proposition, and always will be. Scientists need to learn from the politicians, who discovered long ago that people don't want to be told how complicated the situation is. They want nice, digestible little packages of certainty that they can absorb and internalize.

Research, by nature, cannot ever give us inviolable answers. It's open-ended. It's conditional. It's often highly-specific and cannot be broadly applied. Will a study on white male rats under 6 months of age apply to black female humans over 40? Was there a strong electrical field in the area of Experiment A that wasn't present for Experiment B? What genetic or environmental factors haven't even been identified, much less isolated? When you read a study, it always sounds like the researchers are hedging... nobody ever gives you an answer. All you get are suggestions with a bit of causality. It doesn't even matter which side of an issue you're on, because if a publication has been adequately peer-reviewed, chances are strong that both sides will find conclusions they can take issue with.

Junk science, on the other hand, is conclusive. It relies on correlation. If people are getting fatter since McDonalds was founded, then McDonalds must be why people are fat. If the heartland is losing jobs since Wal*Mart moved in, then the collapse of the rural economy must be due to Wal*Mart. If my baby developed autistic traits at age 2, then the 20-month vaccinations must have caused it. We're human, and we always make connections in the world... we have to, to survive. If the bottle has a skull on it, then it must be poison, and we shouldn't drink it. We're trained to do so, and to some extent, it's the closest thing human beings have to instinct.

So there is great comfort in junk, and a queasy unease in truth. More often than not, there is even active disdain of inconclusive truth. If a study can't tell me that Food X won't cause heart disease for anybody, under any circumstance, at any point in time, well... then there's still a chance that Food X caused my heart disease. (Corollary: And I know that it did.)

(Corollary 2: And so I'm going to sue...)

What really irks me, though, is that people are used to playing the averages. If you're in a foreign country, and all of the hikers around you are eating the little purple berry off the trailside bushes, most people will eat the little purple berry. When a body of evidence builds up, people can make snap decisions based on the facts they are given, even if their internal judgment or prior beliefs are violated in the process.

And yet with junk science, they don't. In fact, usually when research is published that actively refutes one's beliefs, that does little more than to reinforce their belief. (I, for instance, am pretty darned convinced that High Fructose Corn Syrup isn't any worse for you than sucrose, but at least am willing to admit that the first study linked above may well be the vanguard of new data to indicate that it is. But that study alone is somewhat insufficient!)

The irony is that people who spend no effort to judge the truth of an issue, will make life-changing (often potentially dangerous) adjustments to conform to their beliefs. Those life changes are usually much harder and long-term than researching the science -- or even doing the research themselves -- would be. So much effort expended to chase a dream, rather than chase the truth. Undergraduate college kids are really the best at this, so maybe we just never really grow out of that phase. They'll twist themselves into moral pretzels to avoid even the slightest bit of navel gazing, or objective research, on any topic more meaningful than how many squares of toilet paper to use in the morning... and often, even on that. I know. I was once one too. ;)

Researchers worry about their credibility, and so they responsibly refrain from making many absolute statements. Maybe it's time to worry less. The junk science advocates have no such qualms, and it doesn't seem to hurt their future credibility as they continue to vomit their drivel into the face of reality. In fact, the researchers' unwillingness to take a stand does more to hurt their credibility in the court of public opinion than would the inverse.

It's time for science to take back the propaganda pages. It might not make you feel good, but at least it would be real. Because sooner or later, un-vaccinated kids, fad diets and environmental tinkering will start to kill people. Maybe that's ok... Darwinism in action? But it's rarely fair for the innocent to take the bullet for the ignorance of others. Reality needs to reimpose itself before kids start dying.

Oh wait. Too late.
Current Mood: annoyedannoyed

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March 27th, 2010

04:49 pm - Stay the course cap'n...
So I don't make many posts about personal finance. But I'm compelled to because I'm still in a bit of a state of shock...

Back before the bust in real-estate, my wife and I bought our house on an adjustable-rate mortgage. When things starting going south in the housing market, all the press was screaming about "Exploding ARMs" and how terrible they were for people. As a result, there was a mad rush out of ARM loans and into fixed-rate mortgages, that were at a low, but not extraordinarily low rate, at the time. People paid millions (if not billions) of dollars in refinancing charges to banks and brokers to get out of the loans everyone said were going to blow up in their faces.

I shopped around and nearly refinanced, but pulled up short after I did the math. Paying down the principal at a fixed rate during our 3-year lock-in period, we'd still be better off for as long as 3 years beyond the lock-in, even if the ARM increased at its maximum-allowable rate every year during that time. Three years is a long time, in mortgage terms, and even if the credit markets stayed locked up, the chances of not being able to refinance into something in the span of 36 months seemed unlikely. Our first year beyond #3, the rate did, indeed, increase the maximum annual amount of 2%.

But since then, rates have plummeted through the floor. It went down 0.75% the following year, and 1.25% the year after that. This year, with US Treasury T-Bills at their lowest rates in decades, my rate went down again.

... to 3.125%.

At this rate, my loan would have to increase its maximum amount every year for the next 4 years, and then stay capped at the maximum for 6 more years in order for me to be behind on this transaction. And, in fact, that's impossible, since my mortgage should be paid off before then.

It really makes me wonder precisely how many people would still be in their homes, from the latest bust, if there hadn't been the wild, mad, "common knowledge" rush out of cheap early 2000's ARMs over the last few years. A 1% swing in the APR of the average American mortgage is about $220 per month in interest. All those people that refinanced around 6% on a fixed-rate could potentially be paying as much as $550/month less on their mortgages right now. $550/month is no small-potatoes amount!

A mortgage is an investment like anything else. It generally really does pay to take the long-run and stay pat with your decisions. I'm darned happy that I didn't succumb to the fear generated by the press over the last few years and flee my "Exploding ARM"... It may well turn out to be the best-yielding investment I've ever made. And it's a salutary lesson in not taking life lessons from the media!
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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March 5th, 2010

02:28 pm - Fear and loating in the skies -OR- How I stopped flying Delta and learned to love Orbitz
Once upon a time, in a land seemingly far, far away, some bright fellows invented a magical flying machine. It would soar through the skies, while smartly-dressed employees served medium-rare steak and bubbly champagne to the honored customers who came aboard in their Sunday finest.

That time is gone.

If you've flown lately, you probably know that modern air travel is pretty much a rapid-delivery Greyhound experience, with the added bonus of a cavity search prior to departure. It's an industry both over-populated and badly run, dragging a 40-year legacy of bad decisions, worse governmental regulation, and unmet passenger expectations along behind it.

I'm not exactly a traveling salesman, but if you know me, you know that I spend some time away from home. The last several years have seen me flying ~100,000 miles annually. For my efforts, I have the coveted "Elite" status on two different airlines, and two different global alliances. But this is not a story about my travels. This is, instead, a story of loyalty and customer service. And a cautionary tale of how not to run a business, no matter how enticing the balance sheet might look.

For many years, I fed my business to Northwest Airlines. A generally mediocre carrier in the grand scheme, but one that flew most of the places I wanted to go, and generally had a fair price to go there. The airline might not have been the best run in the world, but they had a friendly upper-midwest attitude about them. When you became a loyal Elite, you could count on their help if you got into a jam. I once even had a NWA agent help me with a US Airways baggage issue, when I got re-routed after a cancellation and then US lost my bag. Their service was so good, in fact, that one year, Elite fliers banded together and threw a party for the customer service agents at NWA's lead facility in Chisholm MN. Say what you will about the airline business, but that sort of customer loyalty and appreciation is unusual in any business.

But like all things, there was a dark side to the business. It was losing market share to discount airlines, and unlike many of its competitors, it already offered a sub-par "hard product", with no in-flight entertainment or other perks that could be easily cut to save revenue. They declared bankruptcy, and engaged in a pretty serious bout of union-busting to cut costs in its maintenance division. Still, through all of those years, the customer-facing product was maintained. They updated their website and customer service tools even as they were screwing over their flight attendants and firing their mechanics. And so, quite rightly when you come down to it, customers stayed reasonably happy and loyal.

Then about 18 months ago, they sold out to Delta. Citing market efficiencies and opportunities to create "Best in Class" service for their customers, the two airlines merged.

Over the following 18 months, the two airlines desperately tried to merge their back-office operations to achieve the efficiencies promised to employees and investors. Because of some fairly hard-core difficulties in doing so, they devoted their efforts to completing things as rapidly as possible. Sort of the Band-Aid theory on change management... They changed their fare structure, they gutted their booking tools, they merged their customer service operations while neither Delta nor NWA employees had ample training on the others' systems.

Behind-the-scenes, things like maintenance requests and fuel load-in systems merged. Pilots could be scheduled, flight attendants got their cans of Coca-Cola aboard. And while the great and fiery Eye of Delta was turned inward, everyone sort of forgot that without customers, you don't have a business... In places where frequent fliers congregate, like FlyerTalk.com, customers starting publicly complaining about not being able to do simple tasks. Prices to Asia would double one day, and then those flights would be gone the next. Frequent Flier award tickets became unavailable for less than hundreds of thousands of miles per trip. Making changes to an itinerary or trying to upgrade a seat became either physically impossible, or fantastically expensive.

The same customer service agents whose customers had thrown them a party a few years before, were suddenly unable (by technology, or by policy) to even help customers in the top-tier of their Elite program with their problems. A phone call that used to take 5 minutes turned into a call that took 30 minutes on hold, followed by being transferred to 3 different people. A few months later, those top-tier customers couldn't even contact those agents, without a fantastic amount of either persistence or luck.

Right about here is where many of you are saying: "Yup, sounds pretty much like trying to buy an airline ticket these days." And sadly, you'd be correct. But the point of a loyalty program is to retain customers. No matter what business you're in, it's always easier to retain the customers you have than to go out and cultivate new ones. Particularly in a price-driven business, you rarely get a second chance to win market share lost to dissatisfaction.

If there's anything worse than providing inferior customer service to begin with, it's providing superior customer service, and then taking it away. While horror stories swirl in the news about thousands of travelers stranded somewhere, or flights canceled with the next chance of getting out days away, a certain quiet minority of travelers used to float through that system. Quietly bumping to the top of standby lists, being re-routed on partner flights, or catching a routing through a different city that others didn't think about.

Not about to let those benefits go into that dark night, Elites began to rebel. Other airlines smelled blood in the water, and made it easy to do so. Continental started matching elite status level-by-level, and giving airport club members significant discounts to defect. American and United did much the same. (I jumped ship back for Continental in December after a Delta agent told me that it was impossible to book a ticket I found for $785 for less than $1100. I booked it 5 minutes later on Orbitz, while on the phone with her, to prove that it wasn't. They then refused to honor their own "Best Fare Guarantee", because it was "an error". An error which apparently then persisted for another 2 weeks, as I made sure that all of my traveling companions booked that fare too... it was the last flight I took on Delta.)

Now the airline discussion forums online are abuzz with ex-Delta fliers learning the ropes of their new "home" airlines. Star Alliance is inducting three new airlines this calendar year, and their award mileage requirements to most places in the world are about half of Delta's. The complaints on the Delta forums have become shrill and desperate... but also quieter, as many long-time contributors no longer post there. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported in February that the combined market share of Northwest/Delta fell more than 10% in 2009 from prior years, while budget carriers grew and other legacies like Continental remained closer to flat.

The last straw for me came early this morning, when a Delta rep came out in public with an announcement saying, essentially: We realize that there's been some problems, and hope you'll bear with us as we make changes to an online booking tool that won't actually fix our underlying availability issues, and we don't have an ETA even for this yet, but this is progress, right? You'll stay loyal, right?

Wrong. Air travelers are increasingly pawns in a bureaucratic nightmare of a game, where fear-mongering, tax-hiding and propaganda play larger roles than customer service or product delivery. Faced with that reality, those who have to get on planes frequently for whatever reason expect a bit more than the average vacationer who gets on an airplane once every few years. A little bit of abuse can be tolerated if it's attached to the reward of a 2-week vacation somewhere sunny... But when a company pisses on your head and tries to tell you that it's raining, as you travel for work every week or month, it becomes a little hard to bear. Loyalty is like integrity. Once you've lost it, it's pretty much gone forever. The Delta/Northwest merger will likely end up in the business textbooks of how not to run a customer service operation.

I leave tomorrow for Boston. My upgrade on Continental has already cleared, and the agent I spoke with to fix a problem on my account addressed me by name, spoke fluent English, and solved my problem in less than 3 minutes.

I like where this is going. Here's to the start of a beautiful new relationship.
Current Mood: tiredtired

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March 4th, 2010

02:35 pm - Credit where credit is due...
In case you weren't aware, new credit card regulations went into effect in February. As one who doesn't tend to use credit cards as credit, I don't usually spend a whole lot of time digging through my statements for the fine print. Balance due, payment, done...

But under the new regulations, banks are required to make statements easier to read. This involves putting things like terms, interest rates, and minimum payments in big, visible print on the statement. So I couldn't help but notice them.

And holy crap.

Of course, I realized that credit card interest rates, fees and penalties were insane. That's why I never racked up credit card debt... asking family for a loan, paycheck advances from an employer, or payment deferral from a creditor were generally the lines of defense I employed when I was a penniless college student. And I guess I'm glad I did.

One Month worth of charges on my personal credit card. Nothing serious this month... a dentist visit, oil change for the car, a couple of dinners out, vet bill for the cats. If I pay only the minimum payment for this month of lavish expenses, I would pay off the balance owed in about 17 years. During that time, I would pay the bank an estimated total of $3,321.00 in interest.

Should I miss a payment? If I did, I would pay a $39 late fee, and my interest would increase to a "Penalty APR" of 29.99%. Paying my new minimum under that scenario means that it would take 24.8 years to pay off my 1 month of credit.

Holy f'ing crap.

So this seems like a very interesting example of "success disparity" in modern society. More colloquially referred to as the "Section 8 Satellite phenomenon"... Wherein if you drive through an upscale suburban neighborhood, you'll see a satellite dish on the top of every 5th or 6th house, and a Hummer in a driveway or two. On the other hand, if you drive through a Section 8 neighborhood, you'll see satellite dishes on every other building, and a pimpmobile in every 5th driveway.

I used to think that was just people being stupid with their money, and digging themselves into debt. Which, of course, it is... But it's more complicated than that. As you achieve certain levels of success, your measures of success shift. You want a nice house, and some cash in savings, and to go on a relaxing vacation once a year. When you live in a tiny flat and are shaking down the couch for coffee money, getting a big-screen TV, or satellite, or spinning chrome wheels become the measures of success. This is one of the reasons why Rent-A-Center has been around since the 80's, while there hasn't exactly been a massive explosion of travel agents in the inner-cities...

And I think this is what makes credit cards so insidious. Used properly, they're a leveraged convenience. A way to not have to carry $500 worth of cash into your dentist's office when you have a root canal treated. They're the reason why check fraud is half as prevalent now as it was a decade ago (by incidence... by dollars, it's way up, but that's because fraud cases have become much bolder).

On the other hand, they're a magic sliver of metal and plastic that gives out free money! Or, at least, that's what a lot of people think they are. When you have to write a check to Rent-a-Center, you might have to wait 6 months. When you can use a credit card, you can have it today! And as the credit card wave grew, that temptation worked its way up the economic chain as the "new status symbols" of Hummers and LCD TVs and Ethan Allen furniture started to sound like good investments.

But make no mistake, credit cards are investments. They're risky, they're prone to default, and an awful lot of people use them as a convenience, not a line of credit. (Like me!!) People like me are quite literally making it more expensive for those less fortunate than I to have credit. You need to have a substantial interest rate to generate investment in credit funds. If you didn't have investments, then you couldn't offer people credit. When you have freeloading balance-payers on the sheet, you need to have an even higher interest rate to carry their float until the end of the month.

So, from that perspective, the 18.99% APR on a credit card isn't that bad. 10% for investors, 5% for overhead and profit, and 3-4% as a hedge against borrowers who aren't paying into the system, because they never incur interest charges. Show signs of default, and we double your rate... It may sound predatory, but if they can extract that 18.99% of committed value from you in a shorter time before you default, that's a pretty sound business strategy. Loans aren't gifts, and investors will bail if they don't get paid. I can understand and appreciate that. The system only works so long as there's profit in it. Otherwise, investors might as well bury their money in a mattress, because it'd be a lot safer there if it's not growing.

But if you're on the opposite side of that investment instrument, think long and hard about that big screen TV. It may be a measure of success, but it's one that you might be paying off for 17+ years if you can't actually afford it. If money's tight, suddenly some deep austerity measures sound better after you run the numbers... I like beans and peanut butter a lot better than indentured servitude.

The system works - credit is available and simplifying. You're just not going to like it very much if you use it without understanding it.

As horrifying as the numbers are, I'm betting this new easy-to-read bill has almost zero effect on America's love of credit. Printing 29.99% APR in big bold letters isn't going to stop shoppers any more than big, bold Surgeon General warnings stop smokers.
Current Mood: nauseatednauseated

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February 16th, 2010

01:36 pm - I am such a freaking nerd...
Sometimes, I'm such a nerd that I can't quite even bear it.

I went home for lunch today, to eat leftover spaghetti. As it's microwaving, I look in the living room and see that my DVR is recording something. What on earth could it be recording on daytime TV??

Well, I'd forgotten that I told it to record parts of the Olympics. I turn the TV on to see what's recording, and end up getting sucked into Curling.

Curling! USA versus Germany in the 5th end. I stood there, bowl of spaghetti in-hand, for a 30 full minutes. As Germany threw their last stone, I caught myself screaming at the TV... "Come on!! Miss you bastard! MIIIIISSSS!!!!!"

Screaming. At the TV. At 1:15 in the afternoon.

At Curling.

*shakes head*
Current Mood: amusedamused

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January 22nd, 2010

02:50 pm - Need dentists, drugs and money - the shit has hit the fan.
Calling all potheads, acid freaks, coke hounds, and assorted other drug enthusiasts!!

Question: What in the hell do you enjoy about being lit up?

The long-fought saga of my rear molar flared up again this week. I had a root canal re-treated yesterday, and as part of that process, I got a prescription for Endocet -- basically oxycontin plus acetaminophen. I am absolutely fried out of my gourd right now, and I have zero idea why people enjoy this. I'm spacey. Everything feels all tingly, when I can feel at all. I'm certainly not stressing about some of the things that I'd normally stress about -- I rather lack the mental acuity to stress about them.

But I just absolutely hate this feeling. It's both physically uncomfortable, and mentally distracting.

Those of you who know me, know that I have something of a troubled past with drugs. Not troubled in that I was addicted to them -- rather the opposite! I'm actually allergic to pot... Even second-hand pot smoke will give me a screaming migraine that lasts for ~6 hours. I'm anesthetic resistant, to the point where dentists need 3 ampules of novocaine to even do a filling, and the one time I was hospitalized in serious pain, it took intravenous demerol to even chill the edge. The only time I was ever given a prescription amphetamine, I got incredibly horny for about 5 minutes, followed by a burning stomach ache, and then I fell asleep. The one mushroom I (involuntarily and unknowingly) ate in Australia made the world turn bright blue for a couple hours, before I vomited into a hot tub. I do not recall the episode with fondness.

So what the hell is the big deal about drugs? Or, more to the point, why can't I derive anything but discomfort and annoyance from them?!? I feel left out of some kind of party, at the same time that my prior experiences (and an overwhelming fear of needles) pretty much ensure that I will never experiment with anything in the future.

Now that we've established that I'm as clean as the driven snow, we get to the subject that led me here: Dental procedures. I think health care in the US is pretty good -- I'm certainly not one beating the drum of health care reform, though I think that we'd be far better off with changes in insurance regulations, tort reform, patent reform, and a fleet of other barriers to truly exceptional health care in America. But dental care, on the other hand, is about as freaking awful as they come.

If you have surgery on your finger, it's a health care issue and you call your doctor. If you need surgery on your tooth, it's a completely separate ballgame. Dental insurance is either measurably more expensive than the procedures themselves, or inexpensive and so riddled with exclusions that you end up paying out-of-pocket for anything other than routine checkups anyhow. If you join a health plan, and have a heart attack the next day, you're covered. If you join a dental plan, you can't have a root canal for 12-18 months?

I shelled out $1200 yesterday to re-operate on a tooth that I already shelled out $1900 for ~6 years ago. The best prognosis that the specialist I was sent to could give me? "Well, I hope this will fix it." Success rate for root canal re-treatments is apparently about 75%. If it fails, I'll be paying him another $1000 to pull out the tooth that we just invested $1200 in.

I could jam a disease-infested oyster shell directly into my jugular, and there's at least 3 institutions within 5 miles of where I'm sitting who could fix me up right as rain by the end of the month. Have a chip in a tooth, and even a specialist can't speculate on whether or not his procedure is going to be successful for "3-6 months, and we'll take a look at it again."

WTF people? Maybe this is why people take drugs. Their dentists drove them to it!! Somebody call Nancy Pelosi and insist that the American People need Dental Reform.
Current Mood: confusedconfused

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January 19th, 2010

04:31 pm - Populism and the Balance of the Universe
There's an unexpected horse race happening today in Massachusetts, and whatever the outcome, I think we've all learned something important about ourselves over the last year.

1) No matter how much "the people" want change, they will almost always reject it because it's not enough.
2) No matter how much "the people" want change, they will almost always reject it because it's too much.
3) The majority is never anything more than the ones with the biggest targets on their backs.
4) Political life isn't about the outcomes, it's about the game.

Of course, none of this is a surprise. But in the age of Information Ubiquity, the game has been to a whole new level. Few people who count themselves as "worldly" can just sit back anymore and count that their interests are their neighbors' interests. If you're not spinning your position, someone else will be out there spinning the position that hurts you most.

What does surprise me is that, at least in my social circles, the level of engagement in the game seems to be increasing. I'd have expected that the more ridiculous things got, the more people would disengage and fort-up to protect their own interests, no matter what happened. Instead, the more ridiculous things get, the more average, everyday people are crawling out of the woodwork to pile more invective onto an already-oversized heap. And not in a productive way... revolutions may start with the pen, but they never succeed if their adherents aren't willing to go any further.

My political views are an awful lot like my religious views when you come right down to it. To me, religion is like bowling: It's a vital part of a lot of people's lives, though I've never understood why. They do it every week, or more. It's the subject of epic battles, but there's at least as many people who participate regularly for the beer and camaraderie as for the activity itself. And while I own two sets of ugly and slightly-uncomfortable shoes for it (different brands), it's ultimately just not that important to me. I'll go every once in awhile in a social situation just to see how the game has changed -- though it rarely does.

The difference between religion and politics, however, is that there aren't that many people who participate in the latter because it's fulfilling for them. In fact, politics tends to attract the sort of Spanish Inquisition-grade personalities who do bad things because they believe they have to, and any good things they might do are means to an end that they'd intend to achieve anyhow.

Whatever happens in Massachusetts, America is once again poised for a sea change of opinion, propaganda and activism. There's been too many of those already, of late. The ultra-Liberals who were encouraged last year are very likely to be smacked down into a bit more silence, 'lest they sink the whole ship. The ultra-Conservatives who were discouraged last year, are likely to be more vociferously pompous in their demands, and they'll push for increasingly unpalatable policies that don't actually benefit anyone. Those in the middle will be courted with ever-more outlandish compensation to support agendas that say very little, but lay the framework for the most outrageous of future events. The "Hope and Change" message will die... we had the hope, we got the change, and it was most fecklessly squandered by those to whom it was entrusted, when they had the chance.

I'd expect things to quiet down. I'd expect the wheels of politics to grind slowly to a halt, and for bureaucratic gridlock to ensue. I'd further expect the overly-enthusiastic among the population to become disillusioned, even as the terminally-lazy get the message that maybe they need to take a bit more interest in their own futures, because nobody else is going to. In short, I'd expect things to drift towards the middle, and hang around there in an overall atmosphere of apathy.

And yet, I don't think it will. The quiet, secular days of the 21st century in the West haven't dampened the overall enthusiasm for religion in America, any more than the demise of Wide World of Sports in prime-time dampened the enthusiasm for league bowling... (that is to say, they're both a bit diminished but not in danger of going away anytime soon!) The quiet, uneventful days of gridlock in government ought to shut up the Obama-hounds and the Tea Partiers alike.

So why am I convinced that tomorrow morning, things will only be worse?
Current Mood: depresseddepressed

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December 28th, 2009

04:57 pm - The expensive consequences of complex systems
There was a time when you could go to Store X, and buy Widget Y. All of the parts for Widget Y were produced by company X, assembled by company X, and supported by company X. When a problem occurred with Widget Y, you called Company X. End of story.

Today, you can't hardly buy anything that hasn't been outsourced, insourced, cross-sourced, bi-sourced and re-sourced. Anything in your possession probably has bits and pieces that have changed hands 20 times by the time it landed in your pocket. In general, the net effect of this is that prices have declined and variety has increased.

But sometimes it backfires.

Toyota, for instance, has started manufacturing vehicles to a specification that no parts supplier wants to pick up. For a company that was recently lauded as the top car company in America, this is a decidedly consumer-unfriendly move, particularly on some of their higher-end vehicles. When you outsource parts, and suddenly there are no parts available, the system tends to break down.

Earlier this year, I bought a 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It came with a set of expectedly-crappy Toyo Open Country A20 tires, but the real surprise was their size. They're a 245/55 R19, which is a size that fits no other vehicle on the market in North America. That size is apparently common in Japanese vehicles, but no manufacturer aside from Toyo and (formerly) Bridgestone would pick up the bid to manufacture them for North America. The volume is just too low to make it worth their while.

As a result, there's suddenly an awful lot of Highlander Hybrid owners, with < 2 year-old cars, who are going out to buy replacement tires and finding that their only options are:

1) Horrible, badly manufactured tires from Toyo, that are suicidally awful on snow, reviewed in the bottom 5% of all tires in their class, and yet sell at a massive dealer-markup premium.
2) Spending the money to buy new rims and go to a completely different sized tire, at a cost that will run well into the 4-figures until all is said and done.
3) Putting tires on the vehicle that aren't the exact same size, and therefore cause a variety of issues with everything from the speedometer to the hybrid system.


Of course, Toyota disclaims all knowledge of the fact that there is any issue here. Dealers won't talk about it. But 3rd-party tire retailers are all too happy to tell you how massively screwed you are, and to outline what few (expensive) options are available to you.

I'm in the process of going through #3... a 1.5% error in my speedometer and ABS system is well within any reasonable safety tolerance, by all accounts, and so it seems like the most palatable option. Palatable, if you consider $225 per tire, for a slightly-less-boutique size of tire, as a palatable option.

This is my first seriously negative experience with Toyota. I'm going to have to call shenanigans on them for this one... providing tires on a new vehicle that wear out in less than 20,000 miles, manufacturing to a spec that no supplier is willing to pick up, and then refusing to even acknowledge that there is a problem? For shame, Toyota.

The case that I should have bought the Honda Pilot is beginning to pile up, as winter progresses. *sigh*
Current Mood: annoyedannoyed

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