Wednesday, April 30, 2014

7 reasons I ended my affair with e-readers

When e-readers came on the scene a number of years ago, I, like J.K. Rowling, was initially against them. In 2011, though, I suddenly decided I needed to have one––and asked for a Nook Simple-Touch for my birthday. I fell deeply in love with it. And then several months later I sold it and never looked back. At the time, I wasn't really sure why I even decided to do it, but, in the two years of buying and reading regular paper books since then, a list has slowly developed in my mind.

1. E-readers give you too many options. Font size? Serif or Sans-serif? Words per page? You make a change, and then you feel like the way it was before was the proper way it should look, so you change it back, and then feel the same way about how it was after the first change. How am I to be expected to make decisions like that and still enjoy whatever I'm reading?

2. I do judge books by their covers. 

3. The e-book titles are often not really that much cheaper than a physical copy. Especially if it's already out in paperback. 

4. In my mind, at least half the point of reading books is really to be seen reading them. But seriously, when you're sitting in a coffee house, or on a park bench, or a plane with an e-reader, no attractive girl ever comes up to you and says: "I've been thinking about reading that for awhile now. How is it?" or, better, "What do you think the attraction between Basil Halward and Dorian Grey that he talks about in chapter 2 reeeeeeally means?" It just doesn't happen. 

5. Physical copies of books just give me a feeling of contentment that I can't quite explain. Your iPad, Nook or Kindle may be a source of envy for others around you, but regular books just have a spark they never will.

6. No one knows what you're actually reading––so who knows what they imagine you might be reading? It's a terrifying thought. It really is. It's like going to a high school football game with a dark tinted nalgene water bottle and taking a gigantic swig out of it every time there's a touchdown. It doesn't matter if it's really water. No one will think that. Likewise, when I'm in a public place with an e-reader, I may be reading something by C.S. Lewis, but I'm absolutely convinced everyone thinks I'm reading E.L. James. 

7. Book-burnings are so much less exciting. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

The PLCB - An explanation for those not lucky enough to live in PA

While conservatives are quick jump at any industry receiving government subsidization or regulation as a sign of communism, the realty is that most of those industries could only technically be considered some manifestation of democratic socialism. Utilities, education, now healthcare, could all fall in that category.

There is one great exception, though, and that is the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. It is a technically accurate example of communism. Abbreviated with the Stalinist-sounding PLCB, it is the arm of the Pennsylvania government that owns––not subsidizes, not regulates, but owns––every liquor store in the state.

This leads to a number of interesting occurrences that form a unique part of the Pennsylvania experience.

If you ever hop across the border and go into a wine shop in New York, you are likely to be greeted by a pretty twenty-something girl dressed as a leprechaun who smiles and asks if you need help with anything. In Pennsylvania, you are invariably scrutinized by a severe looking fifty-something man dressed as a TSA officer who looks as though he spends his weekends leading a boy-scout troop. Or perhaps a Gulag work gang.

As you might expect from communists, the hours are inconvenient and selection on the shelves somewhat limited. But the prices more than make up for it. While most states earn revenue from excise taxes on the private liquor industry and––preferring their citizens not to be alcoholics––make sure that prices stay artificially high, Pennsylvania gets its revenue from selling booze directly to its citizens. Therefore, being aware of supply-side economics, the PLCB––which is also tasked with running public awareness campaigns about the dangers of alcohol use––sets the prices a good 30% lower than you would see them in the state next door* in order make sure people purchase more**. That is a great thing for the hard-working proletariat, and more than compensates for the lack of decent hours and sexy leprechauns.

Despite being communists, the PLCB actually does make some attempts at marketing and branding. They advertise on Pandora and Facebook (under an alias, of course) and have regular price promotions. Many stores also have attractive signage, and adopt happy, Western sounding names like "Fine Wine & Good Spirits."

But then there are some that don't. My favorite one––in fact––is the liquor store in Troy, Pa. Like most of them, I've never been inside, but I like it because it makes absolutely no effort to hide the fact that it belongs in the former Soviet Bloc. Rather, it could be said to embrace that fact. I'm not sure if it would be possible to get a half acre of Eastern Siberia shipped around the world and planted in a small American town, but if you could, I'm pretty sure it would look like this:

*Clarification: This is in comparison to New York. Many states have lower prices. 
**Correction: The PLCB does not directly set the prices, rather it's done by the supply end (see comment by Albert Brooks).

The Morality of Achievement vs. the Reality of Aptitude

I try not to write about things that annoy me too often. When I do, I try to limit it to the things that annoy me most. Probably beyond the point of what could just be called annoyance.

I weigh 140 pounds. I will never play football in the NFL. This doesn't annoy me, though, for two reasons: The first is simply that I never dreamed of being a professional football player. Second, and much more significantly, people do not view my lack of aptitude to be a professional football player as a moral failure.

It's a shame. If you'd put in more time at the gym and increased your protein intake, you'd've made it.

If you'd only applied yourself in high school sports, you'd have been a great safety.

If you'd just learned to focus, you'd be making at least six figures right now.

––Are all things that no one ever has said to me, because they are obviously entirely and outrageously absurd. That's good, because if someone I cared about at all ever said that to me, I would probably feel somewhat hurt. And if I knew that everyone I know thought those things, I would probably be downright despondent about life.

Yet, I frequently do hear all those things said, not in reference to my body, but in reference to my mind.

When I was five or six, I did dream about being a scientist. Unfortunately, then it took eight years of struggle, tears and summer school just for me to learn to read. That was because of an actual learning disability. My complete failure at any form of higher math in high school despite summers of private tutoring by math majors and tons of supposedly cutting-edge learning programs, I can only attribute to the fact that––like many people––I simply don't have a brain that was built for it. I did well in biology, but then died in chemistry, and by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, it was painfully apparent that someone with my mind would never be an astronomer, geologist, chemist, biologist––or for that matter engineer, medical professional, financier or programmer––any more than someone with my body would ever be an outside linebacker.

Regardless of what the PC Police may say, IQ––just like muscle mass––is a real thing. Both can be enhanced slightly through effort, but the enhancement is only ever a tiny percentage of the base, and the base is entirely a function of heredity.

Yet, for some odd reason, there's a moral stigma around mental performance––or the lack thereof––that isn't found in other areas. To hear teachers, parents, relatives and people who do excel academically talk, you'd think anyone who struggled in school is a lazy pothead who isn't getting anything out of life because she doesn't want it.

If he'd just put in the hours studying he'd have passed.

If he'd just apply himself, he'd be a success.

If he'd ever just focused, he'd be the one with the high paying job.

For some strange reason––perhaps some lingering remnant of my childhood dream––during much of my college experience, most of my friends were math or engineering or pre-med majors. Once, while I was out for coffee with a number of them, the wide-ranging discussion turned from theoretical physics or the future of medicine to our schedules that semester and from there to study habits. After explaining how much time I spent on homework outside of class, they looked a bit askance and then––almost sheepishly––explained that they always finished all of their assignments during class. And why not? It's bad enough that you're even forced to attend class when you could pass the midterms and finals without it.

That's an entirely anecdotal observation (although its one I've made again, and again, and again of different people in intellectually demanding fields of study) and it's not to say that most successful intelligent people don't work extremely hard when it counts. On the contrary, I've been very close with some brilliant people who devoted themselves with discipline I could never claim to possess to using the gifts they have. It's just to say that there's something innately different at play in it.

There are those of us who will spend six months lifting weights for an hour a day and taking lots of things we probably shouldn't just to gain seven pounds of muscle––and then there's the kid who puts on 170 pounds just by hitting puberty. And that's just seen as a genetic difference.

There are those of us who took remedial courses multiple times, endured humiliating hours with tutors in the "learning center" and spent vacations watching video tutorials online in a desperate attempt to understand a subject––and there are the people who skimmed the textbook, showed up for the final, and won a scholarship.

Yet the message that gets sent is always somehow a moral one. The College Board changed "Scholastic Aptitude Test" to "Scholastic Achievement Test" when all research suggests the first title was correct. Parents and teachers give pep-talks about "motivation" as if it were the source of potential, and "application" as if we all have something to apply.

I would submit that we don't. Perhaps there's a handful of Wernher von Brauns out there throwing their lives away for want of the motivation to be rocket scientists. And for them, the moral degradation may be constructive.

For most of the rest of us, though, I think it just adds insult to injury.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Show Time

I spent this Wednesday morning finishing my weekly product review video, ate lunch, and then pondered what I should do for the rest of the day. The normal options are, catch up on bills, catch up on reading (I've been back-logged since I was approximately 12), work out, watch something on Netflix, or cook something particularly time consuming for supper. Somehow, I did none of those things. Instead, that evening found me 160 miles away, racing beneath the illuminated dome of the Pennsylvania State capital on the way to a concert I was late for––with half the band in my car.

But rewind.

Shortly after finishing my review, I got a text from an old friend, Pete. We'd met in Italy as teenagers  when he lived there and I was a student. We both came back to the states shortly after that, but to very different places, so I've only actually seen him and his wife, Amanda, twice in the five years since then. His text said their band was playing a show at a college in Mechanicsburg––that evening. Mechanicsburg isn't really close––but it's closer than Brooklyn, and a much easier drive. So, that was that.

Three hours––and one stop for coffee at Alabaster in Williamsport––later, I was driving slowly around Messiah College, feeling very much like a creeper as I rolled down my window and asked students for directions to the hall where the concert would be several hours later.

Just as I found the building––and ordered some wonderful cafeteria food––my friends showed up. They had setup to do, so, rather than get in the way, I decided to walk around the college a little bit. Was a nice campus, but it felt really weird. The weirdness wasn't that I felt out of place. More that two years after leaving a small, Christian liberal arts college, being there felt normal, and it was a jolt back to reality when I realized it wasn't. Girls playing Ultimate in a grassy field beside the school. students walking out of a night class still in conversation with their professor. Kids bent over books and screens in the library. It's funny how things change.

I got back into the concert room just in time to hear that there'd been some kind of disaster. A broken string––and the notable lack of a replacement––as it turned out. The nearest music store anyone knew of was almost half an hour away on the other side of Harrisburg, and rather than another band member driving Pete there in their van, I offered to drive.

So, fifteen minutes later Pete, Amanda and I were speeding through downtown Harrisburg and across the Susquehanna, on the phone with the music store which we found out had closed five minutes ago trying to get the salesperson to realize the gravity of the situation and stay open fifteen minutes longer. We passed the Forum where my high school graduation ceremony was, seven years ago, and I thought, again: it's funny how things change. Could I ever have possibly imagined the things that would happen in my life between walking across that stage and now? Could I have possibly imagined I would be back there that night, doing this?

My reminiscing was ended by nearly hitting a car as I cut diagonally across the spaces of a huge outlet parking lot and lurched to a stop in front of the music store. After all that, the salesmen were still there standing out front. When they tried to give Pete the wrong strings, though, and then proceeded to crash the point of sale system by logging in after-hours, we ended up sitting there––seconds ticking down to showtime, for almost twenty minutes.

It was an even wilder ride back to Messiah, but despite my best efforts, things started a few minutes late. Once they started, I don't think anybody cared, though. It was a great show.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Shape of My Heart

So, I really like Sting. Believe it or not, I actually can remember hearing his music when I was three or four––I was sitting on the floor in my grandparents' living room when it came on the TV set––and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. And then I didn't listen to it again. Period. That is, until relatively recently when I decided to give it a go again on the high recommendation of one of my former professors. And, I've found I love it nearly as much as when I was three. I've also found I enjoy playing/attempting to learn to play it myself now, and it inspired me to do something I haven't since I was an anxious something-teen year old. So here is my cover of "Shape of My Heart." I assure you, it sounds nothing like him, but if you're in a benevolent mood––or better yet––if you're slightly drunk, feel free to give it a listen:

Saturday, April 05, 2014

I had a positive interaction with the DMV. No, really.

I have had some frustrating experiences with the Pennsylvania DMV in my day. If you've known me for long, you've probably heard me tell some before. If you only know me from reading this blog or from some other venue on the interwebs, then you probably have not heard me talk about the Pennsylvania DMV, but that is only because I refrain from talking about it online, because anything I hither-to-now had to say about it might have been interpreted as a threat of terrorism.

It's not just a PennDOT/PADMV issue, though. Living in Tennessee for a couple years, things with T-DOT were no better, and my friends in New York always seem equally frustrated whenever they speak of it.

The acronym "DMV," it seems, is almost universally synonymous with bureaucratic density, inefficiency and stupidity. One might almost use the idea of having a positive interaction with the DMV as a potent metaphor for improbability: "When pigs fly I'll...." "It'll be a cold day in hell when...." "'ll be the day I have a good time at the DMV."

But this week, it happened. 

For reasons that are rather complicated, at work this week, I needed to find out how many trucks weighing above 26,001 pounds trucks were registered in Bradford County.

A similar study done in the state of Wyoming that I was using as a template cited county treasurers as the source of the information, so on Tuesday I fired off an email to our treasurer in Towanda. The next day, though, I got a response back that she didn't know, or have much idea who might.

My next guess was the DMV. It was a logical guess, but not one that I was very hopeful about that Wednesday morning. In fact, as I filled out the contact request form on and clicked submit, I was about as hopeful about getting a helpful response back as I would have been petitioning the government of Nigeria to provide me with accurate data on internet commerce conducted across its borders.

On Thursday, though, I received a courteous and not at all automated looking reply from someone at the DMV saying they'd received my question, but that it would require further research and they had forwarded it to their "research department."

This, was at least something to tell my boss, but I didn't feel particularly more hopeful. In college, saying something "required further research" was always one of those famous-last-words phrases. "Thank you for for submitting your application, we will contact you if it requires further attention." "It was just a misunderstanding, honey, trust me." "While the authors of this paper strongly propose the superiority of hydrolysis to the use of a reagent in the decaffeination of coffee, a real argument of the issue would require further research." 

Yesterday afternoon, though, while walking back to my desk and pondering how to go about getting information for another segment of the study that seems even less accessible, my phone rang. It was a woman named Cindy at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. She said their research department had looked into it, and asked if I had a pencil ready. She then directed me to a bank of non-searchable PDFs on their website that contained the information on vehicle registration in all counties in PA. The most recent data on those, however, was from 2012. So she said they had looked up the as yet unpublished numbers from 2013. And then she told me the exact number of trucks weighing over 26,001 pounds in Bradford County, and wished me a nice weekend.

And that, friends, was the day I had a positive interaction with PennDOT.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Pain and failure and endings

It's over.

That was it.

We'd better go to bed soon.

I dread that moment. I dread that feeling. I dread those words.

We're impermanent creatures who live an impermanent life. Everything comes to an end. There's nothing we can do about it.

Yet I live so much of my life in fear of that moment. That moment when whatever I'd been waiting and working for hours, days, months or years to feel, comes to an end.

I hate it. I hate it so much that I sometimes avoid doing anything just because of it.

For a long time I was a runner. I'd run for hours and hours not because of anything that it did for me, but because it was something that I could keep on doing, and doing, and doing. Inevitably, though, I had to stop. And I hated that. Hated how it felt.

For the pretty recent past, I've tried really hard to structure my life around things that don't lead to obvious ends. Not too much of this. Not too much of that. Margin. Consistency. Structure. Discipline. Onward. Forward.

Even those things ultimately come to the same end, though.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway wrote about a "deadly wheel.... that drunkards and those who are really mean or cruel ride until they die." Being one thing, and then trying to compensate for it by being another thing.

I've spent a lot of time and effort trying to escape that wheel ("It was making me dizzy for a couple of times," as Robert Jordan said).

But in the end we can't get off of that wheel, can we? We can only change the duration of the cycles. Even the best choices and the lives lived with the most wisdom come to the same end as the worst choices and the most foolish lives.

"The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, 'What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?' And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.... How the wise dies just like the fool!"
(Ecclesiastes 2:14-16 ESV)

"I wouldn't trade one stupid decision––for another five years of life," sings James Murphy in Pitchfork Media's #2 song of the 00s, All My Friends. In my worse moments, I'm inclined to agree with him.

And yet it's not even a trade we have to make, is it? Who can say that by not making a stupid decision they have five more years to live?

Everything eventually falls apart. That's the real reality.

For a long time, my response to that was despair. And there was a sort of abandon in that that felt good to be sure.

Growing up, I always felt a great deal of pressure to do something. To be something. To "make something of myself." Of course, I eventually realized that we aren't successful at  everything, whether it was school, relationships, church, etc. and all those things end, no matter what. When I finally came to the understanding that everything inevitably does end in disaster, though, I felt like it gave me the freedom to not do anything.

Lately, though, on the up-cycle of that old wheel, I've been coming back to another thought: Since everything ends in the same disaster, why not do anything? If the right thing and the wrong end the same way, then why wouldn't you do the right thing?

Believe it or not, for a brief (and rather depressing) time in my teens, Ecclesiastes became one of my favorite books of the Bible. But it confused me with its seemingly bipolar swings between saying how wisdom met the same end as foolishness, foolishness as wisdom, so on and so forth––and then ending by saying wisdom was what you should pursue.

"Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them'; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain....  or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it."
(Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 ESV)

I'm sure I'm likely wrong, but I wonder if the reasoning behind that isn't the same. We don't do the right thing in a situation to keep it from ending. Rather, we do the right thing because it will end.

God is ultimately the only unfailing, unchanging Person, so in light of our frailty and impermanence, shouldn't we remember Him? Even if our efforts often do fail?

Pain and failure and endings are all a part of life. But what if instead of being paralyzed by that reality, we should be empowered by it?

And maybe not feel quite as disillusioned when it happens.