Monthly Archives: January 2007

Trust no one

Yesterday I read an interesting column by Ben Stein at the New York Times website, entitled “The Hard Rain That’s Falling on Capitalism.” It’s about the miracle of American capitalism through most of the last century, and how it only works when the playing field is level, which it increasingly is not. The “hard rain” of the article’s title is runaway corporate greed and government complicity.

Here’s Stein’s central thesis:

[I]n capitalism, the most fundamental building block is trust.

When yeoman farmers sent their savings to banks in London and Glasgow and Paris, they had to be able to count on it not being stolen. That was what allowed capital to be accumulated and deployed, and for the entire world economy to take off.

(Incidentally, the taking-off of the world economy in just this way during the 17th and 18th centuries is one of the big backdrops for The Baroque Cycle [and it’s about a million times more interesting than that makes it sound].)

I always thought the whole point of everyone being equal under the law is that you don’t need trust. Trust is what they used as the basis of commerce in the Middle Ages, and look how well that turned out.

When the state enforces every proper contract, trust is irrelevant. If you sell your car to some guy across town, it doesn’t matter that he’s a slimeball whose check later bounces and who won’t then return your calls. The state’s got your back, with process servers, sheriffs, judges, jails, guns, and more, all working for you.

You might say this requires people to trust that the government will do its job protecting your rights and your property. But there again, trust is the old model. Serfs could do no better than trust that nobles wouldn’t come and club them over the head and make off with their women. In the new model you don’t need trust, you just vote the bums out of office when government stops doing its job. (This is why capitalism pairs so essentially with democracy.)

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is, of course, infinitely more subtle. To vote the bums out of office you have to be able to trust the vote. To trust the vote you have to trust the companies providing the voting equipment (until someone comes up with an economical trustless voting system). To trust the companies you have to trust that the government will punish any misdeeds swiftly and decisively. This is where things get circular. What if the ruling party and the voting equipment makers choose to collude? There’s the rub. More broadly, what hope is there for democracy or capitalism when business and government decide to work for each other — which seems to be the sole ambition of the Republican party, in almost as many (few?) words — and cut out the little guy? As Ben Stein writes,

Empires come and go. Economic systems come and go. There is no heavenly guarantee that capitalism will last forever as we know it.

Trust is great for interpersonal relationships. It’s terrible as the basis of governments and economies. Until we can entirely banish trust from those systems, it can be exploited, as it has been so shamelessly these last few years.

We know what we can trust Republicans to do. Ben Stein is a notorious Republican. That’s why it’s ironic that, by his own argument, a vote against Republicans is a vote for capitalism.

Clever climb clock

The rate-of-climb indicator, also called the vertical-speed indicator or VSI, is one of six instruments in the standard instrument cluster familiar to airplane pilots. It reports the rate at which the airplane’s altitude is changing, in hundreds of feet per minute. (Interesting fact: in an unpressurized airplane cabin, a comfortable rate of descent is five hundred feet per minute. Much more than that and passengers will begin to feel ear pain from the pressure changes. So a pilot flying 5,000 feet above the elevation of his or her destination should begin descending while still ten minutes away from the airfield.)

The VSI does not need a power source. It doesn’t need to be wound or filled or set. There are no tubes, wires, gears, levers, or lines of any kind leading to or from it. It just sits there, bolted into the instrument panel, requiring nothing but some clear space around it for air to flow freely. How can it possibly work?

The altimeter, another standard instrument, is much easier to understand. It registers the airplane’s height above sea level by measuring the ambient air pressure. (Interesting fact: the ambient air pressure runs to the altimeter through a tube originating at a tiny hole in the skin of the plane called the “static port.” An airplane in flight affects the pressure of the air all around it; the static port is strategically placed where the effect on the surrounding air pressure is neutral.) Air pressure decreases at a pretty constant rate the higher you go, so if you know the pressure at sea level (a setting that changes from place to place and from hour to hour — pilots periodically get the setting from a radio broadcast and adjust a knob on the altimeter), and you know the air pressure, then you know your altitude. The altimeter is nothing but a funny-looking barometer calibrated in feet above sea level.

Even the airspeed indicator, which is a bit cleverer, is easy to understand. It uses two sources of air pressure: the “static” air pressure (from the aforementioned static port), and the “ram” air pressure, which is the pressure of the oncoming air as measured by a tube (the “pitot” tube, rhymes with Frito) pointing forward. Via some simple plumbing, the static pressure is subtracted from the ram pressure and the result is shown on the airspeed dial, calibrated in knots or in miles per hour.

The design of the VSI is a whole ’nother level of cleverness. For a long time I tried to puzzle it out myself before I finally relented and looked up the answer. Can you figure it out?

Continue reading

My Civic duty

My car, the Nimble Imp, is a nine-year-old Honda Civic hatchback. On Thursday it wouldn’t start, so we towed it to a garage. On Friday we learned that it had a dead battery ($100) and a leaky clutch master cylinder ($600) — and that according to Edmunds, it’s worth $767, or $67 more than the cost of the repairs I’m facing.

On Saturday I began car shopping.

Fuel efficiency is my main criterion. I’m intrigued by the Toyota Prius — I’ve driven one and liked it — but the car I’m really after is the new Honda Fit. I have some lingering doubts about the Prius’s hybrid drive — just how long do those batteries last, anyway, and what is their true environmental impact? — whereas the Fit’s gas mileage is almost as good, its price is right, and it doesn’t have a distracting video display in the center of the dashboard. Only the name is a little off-putting. (I like its European name better: “Jazz.”) Yes, it’s tiny. No, I don’t have a problem with that. So I ordered the Consumer Reports price report and started calling Honda dealers to find one where I could test-drive a Fit.

Marin Honda didn’t have any. Neither did Honda of El Cerrito. Nor did the San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland Honda dealers. I called Walnut Creek Honda — no luck. I called Concord Honda — no. San Leandro, Burlingame, Hayward, Redwood City — no, no, no, no. At Vacaville Honda (42.7 miles distant) they thought they might have one or two on the lot and promised to check and call me back in five minutes. Mmmmmmmmmmno. I began to feel like I was living in the Cheese Shop sketch.

Glickstein: You do have some Hondas, don’t you?
Element: Certainly sir! This is a Honda shop, sir. We’ve got–
Glickstein: No, no, don’t tell me. I’m keen to guess.
Element: Fair enough.
Glickstein: Element?
Element: Yes.
Glickstein: Ah! Well I’ll buy one of those then.
Element: Oh, I thought you were talking to me, sir. Mr. Element, that’s my name.

It took a not-inconsiderable effort of will to psych myself into buying a car this weekend, but psych myself I did, and for a couple of hours on the phone Saturday morning I persisted in spite of the best efforts of Bay Area Honda salespeople uncharacteristically to prevent me giving them my money. But they finally wore me down, with the result that I authorized the $700 repair of my $767 car. I am “Fit” to be tied.

Today is Thursday, 2007

Yesterday I finally got around to resetting the clock on my answering machine at home after the big power failure we had recently, when I noticed this oddity for the first time: it prompts for day of the week, time of day, and year. No month, no date. As I write this, according to my answering machine, it’s Thursday, 12:14pm, 2007.

This year it will be Thursday at 12:14pm fifty-two times. Not having the month or date is a real obstacle to knowing which one is meant. And when I play back my answering-machine messages, the machine says, “Thursday. Twelve. Fourteen. PM.” No year. Furthermore, while knowing the year would allow the machine to compute whether February has 28 days or 29 (assuming the machine knew or cared about the month and date), it makes no difference to the progression of days of the week.

So why does it prompt for the year? How will it know when it should change to 2008?

Upon reflection I can think of only one reason — an evil one — for requiring the user to enter the year: programmed obsolescence. When it gets to be perhaps 2009 — 731 days, more or less, after the user sets it to 2007 (that’s 365×2 days, plus one for leap year) — maybe AT&T plans to have a new model out so my answering machine will just stop working and I’ll have to buy a new one.

Which begs the question: why, knowing or suspecting all these things, did I obediently set the machine’s year to 2007?

The laundry saga

The first several months of 1986 were a low point for me. I was suspended from college for low grades and had moved into a squalid tenement-style apartment with a roommate named Paul. I felt lonely, with my friends continuing to attend classes. Often I had to listen to Paul having sex with his girlfriend in the next room.

Things didn’t stay so bleak for long. Thanks to a tip from my friend Mike, I got a programming job at the University of Pittsburgh, and took a couple of classes there, too. I continued to see my friends from time to time. I was busy looking into other schools, thinking that I’d prefer one with a creative writing program rather than the computer science program that had drawn me to CMU. And my friend Julie, whose relationship with her boyfriend had grown strained, took up with me.

Reefer madness

When my college friends George and Merle rented a house together in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh, I went to their housewarming party. Because I was a special friend — I’d visited George often when he was hospitalized the previous winter — they took me aside to show me their secret pot-growing closet. Inside was a veritable jungle of pot plants. The closet was lined with tinfoil, reflecting the blaze of numerous grow-lights. I was duly impressed. George volunteered to give me one of the smaller plants, which he concealed inside a green garbage bag for my walk home.

There’d been plenty of pot-smoking at the party, but I’d only had a couple of tokes, never having been very much into drinking or drugs like some of my friends. Nevertheless, I must have gotten a pretty serious contact high, because as I walked home in the wintry dark carrying that garbage bag, I kept having the same strange experience: I’d be at the beginning of a block, and suddenly I’d be at the end of the block, with no memory of having walked the intervening distance.

That didn’t change the squalor in which I was living. I had a tiny closet of a bedroom that was mostly taken up by the bed. In a corner of the room was a growing pile of dirty laundry. The only other things in the room were a reading lamp and a small marijuana plant on the windowsill, a gift from my friends George and Merle. It never flowered.

I was almost never in my apartment except to sleep and shower. The laundry pile grew and grew, because there were no laundry facilities nearby, and even if there had been, I was on the third floor of a walkup, and all those stairs made an effective barrier. I knew I should get to a laundromat before things got totally out of hand, but before I knew it, they had.

There came a point — it took surprisingly long — where all my clothes were dirty. When I dressed in the morning, I picked the least dirty clothes out of the laundry pile. I think I may have washed some socks and underwear by hand in the bathroom sink from time to time, but that was it.

Finally I’d had enough of living that way. It was time to have some clean clothes. One way or another, I had to do laundry.

I waited until midnight one weeknight, by which time I figured students at the Morewood Gardens dorm building would be finished using the laundry room there and I could monopolize as many machines as I needed for as long as necessary. I had assembled a pile of one-dollar bills. These I planned to feed into the change machine in the dorm’s video game room in order to get quarters to run the laundry machines.

I hauled out my giant denim duffel bag and started stuffing clothes into it. And stuffing. And stuffing. You never saw clothes packed so densely. I was determined to fit everything into that one bag, because if I couldn’t, it meant finding another good bag (which I didn’t have) or making two trips, and I was hellbent on getting all the laundry done in one shot as quickly as possible.

I managed to fit everything in the bag, but it was so tightly packed I literally couldn’t lift it. I couldn’t even dent it. Literally.

I called for a cab, then dragged the duffel bag across the floor of the apartment, out the door, and to the top of the stairs, which descended straight down to street level with no turns or landings.

I gave a shove, and down went the clothes.

When the cab came, I wrestled the bag into the back seat with me with great difficulty. I rode the three long blocks to Morewood Gardens, paid the driver, and for the next twenty minutes manhandled my clothes to the dorm building’s basement.

With the duffel bag in the laundry room, I walked upstairs to the game room to get my first batch of quarters, about three dollars’ worth. I used some of that to buy a box of detergent powder from a vending dispenser. I put in more quarters to buy dryer sheets, but the vending machine jammed! I couldn’t get my quarters back either. Oh well, I thought. Little did I know I should have given up right then and there.

There were three washing machines, and I loaded them up. At once I saw just how long I’d be there. The duffel bag seemed no less full after removing three washer-loads of clothes!

I sprinkled some detergent into the machines, fed in my quarters, and started them going. Then I went upstairs to play some video games. After twenty or thirty minutes, I stopped by the change machine again, having used up the last of my quarters — but it was empty! Cursing, I crossed the street to the University Computing Center, where there was another change machine. But now it was after 1am and the UCC building was locked. There was yet another change machine in Skibo, the student center, but I knew that building would be locked too. Finally, I remembered a vending machine in one of the academic buildings, Baker Hall, and the change machine that stood next to it. Baker Hall was clear on the other side of campus, and I sprinted over, eager to get the next load of laundry started so that maybe I could finish before sunrise.

I found the change machine, fed in two dollar bills, and then got the dreaded orange light — “machine empty.” Eight more quarters was not going to get the job done! But at fifty cents a cycle, it was enough to start three more washer loads and one dryer load while I hunted for still more quarters. I ran back to Morewood Gardens and flipped up the washing machine lids to remove the clothes, and this is what I saw:

  • In one machine, although the cycle had finished, the dirty water hadn’t drained.
  • In another machine, although the cycle had finished, there were soggy, sticky, undissolved clumps of laundry detergent clinging to my clothes.
  • In the third machine, my clothes were clean and damp.

For the next five minutes or so I suffered a major frustration attack, swearing, banging on machine lids, and on the verge of tears. Then I pulled myself together. I moved the clean clothes to a dryer and started it running. Then I moved the clothes from the dirty, undrained machine to the empty machine and ran that. Finally I re-ran the machine where the detergent hadn’t dissolved.

Now what? There seemed to be only one thing to do: walk two long blocks down Forbes Avenue to the Mini-Mart and beg them for quarters. While there I could also pick up some liquid laundry detergent, which wouldn’t fail to dissolve like the powder I’d bought; and some dryer sheets.

The Mini-Mart had just closed. It was a few minutes past two.

I walked several blocks farther into Oakland, where there was a 7-11. I asked for twenty dollars in quarters, all prepared to tell my tale of woe, but the look on my face must have done the job, because the cashier unhesitatingly complied. I picked up some other needs — snack food, a magazine or two — paid, and left.

On the walk into Oakland, I hadn’t noticed the cold, being overheated from frustration and anxiety and running. But I had spent several therapeutic minutes in the 7-11 and as I plodded back to Morewood Gardens my sweaty skin made me freeze.

The load in the dryer wasn’t dry. The load with the undissolved detergent still had undissolved detergent. The load in the good machine was clean. I moved that load to a dryer and ran it; I re-ran the not-yet-dry dryer load; and I moved the undissolved load to the good machine and ran it for a third time.

From that point on things proceeded slowly but without much further incident. I could use liquid detergent in the machine that didn’t dissolve powder, and the loads came out fine. I discovered after a few loads that the dryers barely did anything, so I stopped using them. I’d brought hangers, but the wet clothes were too heavy and difficult to hang, so I crammed them back into the duffel bag. I’d deal with them when I got home, if I ever did.

With just two machines going at a time, it wasn’t until after 9am that I finally was back in my apartment with my even-heavier duffel bag of soggy clothes. I have no memory of getting the duffel bag back up the stairs. The human brain has an amazing capacity to block memories of pain.

I hung up my clothes, passed out, woke up at night, and got drunk with my friends.

Greatest hits: Alex FAQ

I just unearthed this e-mail to my dad from 1995. He was coming to visit me and Andrea but was wary of staying under the same roof as Alex, who was then a very energetic dog. My dad and dogs — not so much. (Actually, once upon a time, me and dogs not so much, but Alex worked her doggie magic and changed me. As it turned out, she did the same for my dad.)


Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Alex

1. When Alex charges at me, should I cringe? Is she attacking?

No — she’s giving an enthusiastic greeting. If you cringe or block her, you’re telling her in clear body language, “I have no desire to become acquainted with you.” This is in direct opposition to the purpose of nearly every dog: to make friends.

If instead of cringing, you kneel down to greet her and give her a few moments of attention, she’ll be satisfied. Otherwise… well, imagine how you’d feel if someone came into your house and, every time you held out your hand and said, “Hi, I’m your host,” you got a cold shoulder?

2a. When Alex barks, is it because she hates me?

Not at all. When you’re accustomed to communicating only with humans, the language of dogs can be bewildering and misleading. There are only two words in the dog vocabulary that mean “I don’t like you”: a low growl (I don’t trust you, keep your distance), and a teeth-baring snarl (I am preparing to attack). Neither can be mistaken for the series of loud, repeated barks that is Alex’s customary way of greeting newcomers to the house. It usually takes about five minutes until Alex is all barked out.

2b. So if barking doesn’t mean she hates me, what does it mean?

Any or all of the following: “Welcome to my house!” “This is my couch!” “I seem to remember your smell!” “Maybe later we can play!” “Check out how impressive I sound!” “Bob and Andrea sure seem excited to see you!”

3. Why, when I try to make nice with Alex, does she keep her distance?

It’s because she’s afraid of you. You’re so much bigger than she is! When you heave your massive bulk in her direction, naturally she retreats.

The proper way to put a dog at ease is to make yourself small, either by kneeling or by sitting. Permit the dog to come to you. Remember, the dog is nervous and can only be reassured by (a) smelling you and (b) trusting that you won’t exploit his or her vulnerability. This means staying put while the dog checks you out. After you’ve been given a once-over, you can reach out your hand to pet the dog. But again, simply reaching out your hand can be misinterpreted, so before you go to pet the dog, hold your hand out for inspection — palm up, under the dog’s chin, never over the dog’s head.

4. Those teeth! Those claws! I’ll be torn to shreds!!

No, you won’t. Even when I play rough with Alex — where the object seems to be for Alex to immobilize one of my hands between her teeth while we’re both swatting at each other’s faces — I get nothing more than a few red marks and tooth impressions on my skin. In seven years there’s never been even a drop of blood, and there’s been plenty of roughhousing. The worst that’s ever happened is, we’re tumbling around on the floor and Alex’s head comes up under my chin and gives me a solid uppercut, knocking my jaws together and making my ears ring. Ow.

In fact, when on occasion I feel our playing is becoming too rough, I’m always able to tell Alex to take a breather, and I make sure she knows it’s all fun and games by asking her to give me a kiss, which she never fails to do.

So don’t worry.

O say, can you see?

Over the years, I have written at length to numerous people (and even persuaded some of them, really!) arguing against the so-called “flag desecration amendment” that keeps rearing its head in Congress. This is a proposed Constitutional amendment that would make it a crime to burn the American flag (e.g., in protest) or mistreat it in various other ways that constitute “desecration.”

Never mind that the very word desecration (deriving from the same root as sacred) implies a religious aspect that the flag does not deserve — there are all kinds of reasons why amending the Constitution for this purpose is a very bad idea, beginning with the fact that there is no flag-desecration emergency in this country, and we don’t amend the Constitution on a whim, without a clear and present need. (The only real need served by this amendment whenever it comes up is the need of some senators to appear patriotic — or to make others look unpatriotic.)

Unfortunately, one of my senators, Dianne Feinstein, supports this amendment whenever it comes up. Last year it came dangerously close to passing the Senate. Here’s an exchange we had on the subject.

I wrote:

Dear Senator Feinstein,

Our poor Constitution can’t take much more abuse.

You must oppose the amendment to permit laws banning flag “desecration.” America has no flag-desecration crisis, and even if it did, the right answer would be to rally the flag-wavers in opposition to the flag-burners.

Here’s the slippery slope we’re creating:

Burning the flag: illegal
Smearing mud on the flag: illegal
Smearing mud on a 49-star flag: illegal?
Smearing mud on a picture of the Statue of Liberty: illegal?
Smearing mud on a picture of the President: illegal?
Speaking ill of the President: illegal?

I won’t quote her entire response, which was quite long. (Of course it was a form letter.) A small excerpt:

Unfortunately, we will have to disagree about this issue. I strongly believe that the American flag holds a unique position in our society as the most important and universally recognized symbol that unites us as a nation.

Here was my reply.

Thank you for your response, Senator. I would like to leave you with two further thoughts on this subject:

  • You movingly described the impression made on your 12-year-old self by the famous Iwo Jima photograph of the flag being raised. The lump in your throat came not from the law, and not from the flag, but from American ideals of courage and achievement. Do you expect that a legal obligation to respect the flag will make the same impression on a 12 year old today?
  • While the flag may be the only official symbol of the nation, for all practical purposes it is roughly co-equal with a pantheon of other images: the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the White House, John Hancock’s signature, etc. Do we extend to those images the same Constitutional protections? If not, expect to see the Statue of Liberty burned in effigy where once you might have seen a flag burn — is that an improvement? Or if we do, how is this not a slippery slope?

If we were suffering through a rash of flag burnings, and if they were dangerously destabilizing to society somehow, I might feel differently. But we’re not, and as it is, I submit that it’s more likely for the very sight of a burning American flag to move a 12 year old to patriotic fervor than anything the legislature is likely to do.

For every American who burns his or her flag there are thousands who will wave theirs proudly. This country will remain great exactly as long as we are confident in that fact.

Bob’s “Hobbs End” end

For a few years I’ve been trying to remember the name of a cheesy old science-fiction film from the 1960’s that I saw on TV a long time ago, involving an excavation in London that reveals an ancient buried spaceship. Actually I’ve been trying to recall the name of the (fictional) location of that dig because I remember there being something interesting about it, but since I can’t, I need the name of the film in order to look up the location.

On the flight back to California yesterday I sat next to someone who spent most of the flight poring over a screenplay, making edits with a ballpoint pen. I knew it was a screenplay from the way the text was formatted on the page. I guessed he was the author and that it was still early in the development of the screenplay, based on the fact that the pages weren’t hole-punched and fastened with brass brads. It may sound crazy but it’s true: in Hollywood, it doesn’t matter if your script is a surefire blockbuster, no brass brads means no movie.

For the most part, my natural politeness won out over my natural curiosity and I managed to resist reading the screenplay over his shoulder. But over the course of the long flight I did glimpse three character names: Riggs, Breen, and Quatermass.

Back at my computer this morning naturally I googled that collection of names. If there is a big Hollywood epic now in production, I want to know about it (so that after it’s released, I can casually mention, “Yeah, I sat next to the screenwriter on my flight to the coast” while polishing my fingernails on my shirt front).

Googling revealed the long-running British hero, Professor Bernard Quatermass. He was the main character (and someone named Breen was a lesser character) in Quatermass and the Pit (a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth) — which is the very movie I’ve been wondering about for years! A little further googling gave me the answer about the fictional location: “Hobbs End,” once spelled “Hob’s End,” a reference to the devil.

Ahh. That serendipitous resolution to the mystery was worth waiting for. Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled for a new Quatermass adventure, coming to a development hell near you.

The Baroque Cycle

[Now moblogging from a layover in Baltimore on the way back to California. Maryland temporarily has two Bob Glicksteins.]

On the way to New York the other day, I finally finished The System of the World, the third and final volume in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. I was immediately sorry it was over and want nothing more now than to begin reading it again from volume 1 (Quicksilver).

Stephenson has a reputation for writing great stories with weak, hurried endings. His seminal novel Snow Crash (a personal favorite) was one such, as was Cryptonomicon, which didn’t quite rise to the challenge of tying together its two plotlines, interwoven but separated by a half century.

One lament among pilots is that you can fly for hours smoothly, swiftly, and safely, but if you get a little bounce on landing, your passengers will judge you unaccomplished. The same thing goes for writers, great stories, and endings. I love Snow Crash — I even once based the name of a startup company on a passage from it — but its pat and hasty wrapup has always nagged at me.

Perhaps Stephenson took this criticism to heart, or perhaps he simply took greater care with this, his masterwork, because I’m happy to say that The Baroque Cycle ties its numerous threads together neatly (but not too neatly!) and very satisfyingly. This goes even for the character of Daniel Waterhouse, whose biography for most of the cycle troubled me insofar as it was not very interesting — except, like Forrest Gump, for the company he keeps (e.g., Sir Isaac Newton) and the historical events at which he’s accidentally present. I detested Forrest Gump for this, but I stuck with Waterhouse on the faith that the author was laying a lot of groundwork for Waterhouse finally to become interesting in his own right, and I was not disappointed.

In all, this Entertainment Weekly review perfectly captures Stephenson’s achievement: “he might just have created the definitive historical-sci-fi-epic-pirate-comedy-punk love story.” Except I’d change “might just have” to “has.” Check it out.

I run rings around you logically

[Moblogging from New York, where my mom is now getting decent care and is doing well.]

Andrea reports this exchange between herself and Jonah (age 4 3/4) yesterday, while waiting for Jonah’s friend Kenzo to arrive with his family for a playdate:

Andrea: If I were you, Jonah, I would clean up all of your markers before Kenzo arrives.
Jonah: No, if you were me you wouldn’t, because I am not doing it.

Legalistic and airtight! I am so proud.