Son of Superpest

As I’ve written before, my mom once adopted the nickname Superpest for her ability to wheedle conciliatory goods and services from large corporations that had failed or wronged her in one way or another. Her secret weapon: dogged reasonableness.

Early last year I took the plunge and got a big plasma Philips TV for the living room. Between that and my DTS sound system I was in home-cinema heaven! But after a few months I noticed an intermittent problem: when turning on the TV, sometimes the display was distorted in one of a couple different ways.

Wrong Right
Wrong Right

Sometimes there was no picture at all. Turning the screen off, waiting a few seconds, and turning it on again usually fixed the problem. Sometimes a second power-cycle was necessary.

The problem only happened a few times per month and so was extremely hard to diagnose. A succession of authorized repair centers variously (a) tried and failed, (b) pretended, and (c) refused to fix it. Over and over again, I directed appeals to Philips, only to be referred to another local service center, who would eventually send me back to Philips, which would assign me a new case number and the cycle would repeat. Add in several unanswered phone calls and letters and you can see how this stretched into more than a year.

Finally I sent them this letter:

To whom it may concern,

Eighteen months ago I purchased a Philips plasma TV. For the past twelve months I have been trying to get a defect in that TV repaired. The lengthy saga of those attempts involves incompetence, unresponsiveness, and evasiveness among a variety of authorized service centers, along with miscommunication, misunderstandings, and other less outlandish obstacles. A detailed chronology is enclosed.

A few weeks ago a technician from C—-‘s TV visited my house to inspect the unit. His opinion was that it could not be repaired. For one thing, the problem is very hard to reproduce. It happens only two or three times a month. For another thing, if he went with his guess and replaced the circuit board that he suspected was the culprit, any replacement he might try would come refurbished from Philips, not new, and would be likely to have its own quirks. He didn’t want to see me trade one minor problem for another possibly worse one.

He had a point. The problem I’m dealing with is minor: occasionally when I turn on the TV, the display is garbled or blank, but I can fix it by turning the TV off and on once or twice. He said that, if I’m lucky, the problem isn’t a circuit board at all but is due to bad grounding. His parting suggestion was that if I observe the problem again, I should try fiddling with the wires and the connections and rapping on the components in the path between the TV and ground.

Since his visit I have observed the problem two more times, and I followed his advice, but to no avail. The problem persisted until I power-cycled the TV. I despaired of launching yet another go-round with Philips customer service seeking some sort of resolution to this problem, certain that I’d end up chasing my tail once again. But then I had an idea:

I can live with having to power-cycle my TV two or three times a month. My main concern is that the problem will worsen somehow, to the point where my ability to enjoy the TV is substantially degraded. Maybe one day I won’t be able to fix the problem by turning the TV off and on. Maybe one day the screen will remain persistently a little garbled.

So here is my proposal to you. As long as the problem remains an occasional minor annoyance, I will live with it and leave you guys alone; however, if it should significantly worsen, then even if it is out of warranty you will replace the TV with a new, comparable unit and a new warranty at no cost to me, since the problem has existed since the TV was under warranty and remains unaddressed despite my own best efforts.

If this proposal is acceptable to you, I would appreciate a written acknowledgment, however I will also consider a lack of response (within two weeks of your receipt of this letter) to be an acceptance of this proposal. On the other hand, if this proposal is not acceptable to you, I must unhappily resume my efforts to get this problem resolved and insist that you take new steps to remedy it.

Sincerely, etc.

Two weeks passed and I heard nothing. Another couple of weeks later I got a call from Philips: “Your replacement TV is on its way.” Yesterday it was delivered and installed.

Yay! Chalk one up for dogged reasonableness (and for maintaining a detailed chronology of phone calls, repair visits, and so on). The moral of this story is that customer service costs money, and eventually it’ll impact their bottom line less just to give in to your reasonable demands. Or kill you, but for big-screen-TV-peace-of-mind that was a risk I was willing to take.

The anti-Clone-Wars

My kids saw The Clone Wars when it was in theaters earlier this summer. Mercifully I didn’t have to; they went with a friend’s family. I’d seen and heard enough to know that, if the three prequel films were so bad that they made me “retroactively dislike Star Wars” (as I have been fond of hyperbolizing), The Clone Wars was so toxic it could have put me off movies altogether.

After they saw the movie we were subjected to many days of Anakin this and Count Dooku that. The occasional four- and six-year-old Yoda impressions were pretty amusing, but the rest was hard to take.

We hadn’t realized that the theatrical release was only an extended commercial for the new TV series, and we might never have found out (we don’t have cable) except that we were staying with friends in Seattle when the show premiered and the kids got a double dose of it, goosing their fervor.

But then the situation was defused by something that I wish I could say I had planned, because in hindsight it was obvious that a new batch of adventure stories with better writing and better acting and stories that actually engage the intellect would cleanse that Clone Wars garbage from my sons’ developing minds:

Classic Trek!

We’ve watched a couple of episodes a week for the past few weeks and the kids have stopped saying “roger roger” and “young Padawan.” They are now talking about “beaming down to the planet,” “repairing the anti-matter nacelles,” and “red alert, all hands to battle stations!” It warms my heart. Here is the birthday card that Jonah made for me a few days ago. It depicts the entire family in bed, watching an episode of Star Trek.

(It’s strange that he depicted an old-style aerial antenna on top of the TV. Watching all of this 1960’s programming may be affecting him in ways I hadn’t previously suspected — just like when Spock was trapped in that ice age and reverted to the primitive behavior of the Vulcans of that era!)

Coincidence fatigue

Part 1.

The first time I heard the song, “Going in the Right Direction,” by Robert Randolph and the Family Band, I thought this lyric sounded familiar:

I was lost
I thought the losing dice were tossed

Wracking my brain for a minute produced the answer: it’s also a lyric from the song, “Just In Time,” an old standard from mid-century.

Part 2.

Out of the blue several days ago, Andrea calls me and asks whether she should buy a group of discounted tickets to an upcoming Cal Bears game. “College football?” I asked. (I was right.) I said sure — it’d be fun to take the boys, and maybe a friend or two, not that it had ever occurred to us before to go see a live football game. We’re baseball people (and we barely manage even to see that once a year).

Part 3.

Our friends Michael and Julia are buying a house! I’d previously offered my help moving their belongings when the time came. But when the time did come, it coincided with the Cal Bears game. “I can help later in the day,” I told them apologetically, “but meanwhile, if it helps, we can take your son (Jonah’s friend) to the football game with us so he doesn’t get in the way.” Oh my God, came the reply: their son is already scheduled to go with his aunt to the same game. This, from another family that has exhibited no particular interest in football before now.

Part 4.

Driving home from Point Reyes this afternoon, the song, “Going in the Right Direction” comes up in my thousand-song MP3 shuffle. As usual I idly try to remember the name of that other song that has the same lyric, but this time I draw a blank and then forget all about it. The very next song that plays is a Mel Tormé rendition of “Just In Time.” I am gobsmacked. I explain the coincidence to Andrea. She hears the identical lyrics. Shrugs. I do the verbal equivalent of grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her, but she is unimpressed despite the long odds.

My only explanation is that she has coincidence fatigue from the business with the Cal Bears tickets.

Boy heaven

We did an amazing thing today.

As usual, Andrea had to drag me out of the house to it. I’m getting over a cold and all I wanted to do was catch up on blogging and work and Netflix discs, all of which sounded more interesting than driving to Point Reyes Station to see the culmination of the Giacomini Wetlands restoration project. But Andrea insisted, and I’m glad she did because she was right as usual, and it was amazing.

It’s a former marsh that was walled off from Pacific tides sixty years ago with a series of levees to create pastureland for cattle. Eight years ago the land was purchased by the National Park Service to begin a wetlands restoration project, which it turns out is a lot more complex than merely ripping out the levees. It’s taken from then until now for the project to reach its climax, which happened at high tide this morning. The public was invited to trek across the former ranch as water poured through a brand-new levee break and flooded the land for the first time in three generations.

Turnout was huge. Hundreds of nature-lovers showed up on a crisp, picture-perfect autumn morning to walk across a vast flat range of grasses and overturned dusty soil where construction machinery had been hard at work. A shallow channel was dug into the ground, making a straight line for the open water that we could see on the horizon; and when we’d walked far enough across the pasture, we came to a spot where a trickle of water was turning the dusty channel bed damp. As we watched, fingers of mucky water reached inland, inch by inch.

We stepped out of the channel onto the grass, which lay a few inches higher, as the water slowly overtook the spot where we’d been standing. Jonah and Archer tentatively placed their feet in the new muck.

A few minutes later they were notably less tentative.

All the grownups in the vicinity participated vicariously in Jonah’s and Archer’s delight at tromping through the mud, splashing in a dozen brand-new streams, pitching pebbles, ripping up tufts of grass, and conducting miniature impromptu soil-engineering projects. One onlooker commented to us, “Boy heaven.” (Lamentably, we saw almost no other children with anything approaching the liberty that we gave Jonah and Archer to explore and get absolutely filthy.)

Wherever we saw a limb of water, we could watch it reach into the low places in the land, rills of water filling one tiny depression after another. In some places the matted vegetation underfoot would grow first squishy and then splashy. Now and then a field mouse would emerge from a flooding hole and head for higher ground. Clods of dry soil would darken, crumble, then melt into thick dark mud through which Jonah and Archer gleefully trod. (We’re amazed it never sucked their shoes off.) Newly flooded sections of the plain bubbled noisily long after the last bit of earth was covered up.

When the tide began sluggishly to reverse itself, we retraced our steps through the pasture — at least, those parts of it that were still dry — returned to our cars, and reconvened a few miles down the road for a champagne celebration with the Park Service rangers and scientists for whom this was not merely an incredibly cool way to spend a Sunday morning. That it had been a lot of hard work was obvious, as was their satisfaction at its outcome.

Brush with t3h h4wtness

Several days ago, my sister Suzanne was “friended” on Facebook by Dina Meyer, the actress, whom you may best remember as the other woman in the love triangle in Starship Troopers.

Don’t let the alien-ichor-spattered battle armor fool you. It’s a romance.

The friend request included no explanation beyond the message, “OMG!” So Suzanne started sleuthing and enlisted my help and our dad’s.

Thanks to ye vasty Internet we learned that Dina Meyer grew up in Forest Hills, New York — just like us. She was born in 1968 — right between me and Suzanne in age. She has an older brother named Gregory — just like an early-childhood playmate of mine (who had a younger sister named Dina). The clincher came when our dad recognized Dina’s mom in a picture of the two women.

Gregory and Dina were neighbors in our apartment building, just the right ages for me and Suzanne to play with. They had a different last name then. Our playdates (though in those days they weren’t called playdates) also included Jackie and David, two other neighbor kids who were just the right ages for us.

Eventually, Dina and Gregory moved away. As I learned just recently, their parents split and their mom remarried, which must account for the new name. Later our own parents split, and a few years after that our dad remarried — and weirdly, Jackie and David became our stepsiblings!

And now, because you know I’d never leave you hanging, here’s a picture of Dina literally using my sister (bottom left) as a stepping stone to stardom. (Those Hollywood types are all the same.)


Geez, the end of October, already? So much has happened that I haven’t blogged about — my birthday, another Disneyland trip, a Seattle trip, the pathetic but exhilarating (but pathetic) implosion of the McCain campaign, finishing Anathem, and a little thing called the global credit crisis.

Over the next few days I will attempt to break this “blogjam.”

What are the odds?

Our PlayStation 3 is not just a gaming console; it is our entire living room entertainment delivery system. It has replaced our DVD and CD players, and with its front-facing USB port I don’t even need CD’s; I just load up a thumb drive with music, plug it in, and play.

I have a thousand songs on one of those thumb drives, and I always play them in “shuffle” mode. Yet it seems that there is always a lot of overlap between one listening session and another — the same songs that I heard yesterday are in today’s mix. You’d think that with a thousand songs to choose from, it would be a while before I hear the same song twice, unless there’s something not sufficiently random about the PlayStation’s song randomizer.

I was all prepared to fire off an indignant letter to Sony’s customer support department when I decided I first needed to understand exactly how unlikely was the overlap I was encountering.

Figure that a “listening session” includes twenty songs. There are 339,482,811,302,457,603,895,512,614,793,686,020,778,700 (339 duodecillion) different ways to choose twenty songs from a collection of a thousand. This result is given by the combinatorial formula:

n! / k!(n-k)!

where n is the number of items to choose from (1,000, in this case), k is the number of items to choose (20), and “!” is the “factorial” operator that means “multiply the preceding number by every other number between it and 1.” Five factorial, for instance, is written “5!” and is equal to 5×4×3×2×1, which is 120.

The combinatorial formula above is sometimes abbreviated “nCk,” pronounced “n choose k.” The very very big number is the result of calculating 1000 C 20.

So there is a vast number of possible listening sessions. But in how many ways can one listening session overlap with another? Let’s consider a second listening session that doesn’t overlap at all with the first. The way to think about this is that the first listening session “used up” twenty of the available songs, leaving 980 to choose from — specifically, 980 from which to choose 20, or 980 C 20, which is 225,752,650,356,644,030,123,857,337,771,499,346,518,885 (225 duodecillion).

So of the 339 duodecillion ways to choose 20 songs from a thousand, 225 duodecillion, or 66%, do not overlap — but that means that 34% do overlap. There is a one-in-three chance that at least one song in the second session will be the same as one in the first.

This was a stunning result to me. I never expected the odds of an overlap to be so high.

That doesn’t mean that the PlayStation is working correctly, necessarily; it’s my impression that I’m getting multiple-song overlaps, and I’m getting them much more than one-third of the time, so the PlayStation still may not be adequately randomizing its playlist. But this result does send me back to the drawing board to gather objective data about just how much overlap I am getting.

Wait for it…

[This post is participating in Mystery Man’s Tension blog-a-thon.]

In preparation for this blog-a-thon I have been thinking for days about suspense in the movies and I now know exactly what makes it work.

Take the scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing in which Kurt Russell has tied up everyone, taken blood samples, and then poked each blood sample with a hot wire. He has reasoned that if one of them is really the Thing in human form, then every part of it can live on its own, be capable of shape-shifting, and so on. Even a blood sample from the Thing will have a survival instinct and should try to evade a hot wire. One by one he pokes the wire into a petri dish of blood. Poke… sizzle. Just plain blood. Poke… sizzle. Just plain blood. If he finds one that’s not just plain blood, what will it do? What will the tied-up “person” do when revealed to be the Thing? The scene is enormously tense because we don’t know whether something is going to happen, or what it will be when it does. That’s suspense.

Hmm, come to think of it, maybe that’s not suspense. I’m remembering now that when I saw Batman Begins, my heart was pounding like a triphammer in the scene where young Bruce Wayne exits the opera with his parents into a dark alley. I knew exactly what was about to happen, and I desperately didn’t want it to. Maybe that’s what suspense in film is all about: letting the audience see the bad thing coming before the characters see it. This was Hitchcock’s usual approach, so there must be something to it. It’s the same dread I felt as Matt Damon’s son was winding up to jump into the swimming pool in Syriana.

But then how to explain the even greater tension in similar scenes in Schindler’s List and Pan’s Labyrinth — scenes in which a sympathetic character is at the mercy of a psychotic military commander pretending at kindness that you know can explode at any second into depraved cruelty? We don’t know what horrible whim is about to be indulged, we just know that it’s gonna be bad, real bad; and there will be no escape for the victim, and no repercussions for the psycho. In these cases the evil is all too credible — the psychopath is recognizably human, not a cartoon; and the victim is someone in whom we’re invested, and with whom we identify. Maybe the secret of movie suspense is simply to depict fully realized, three-dimensional characters in bad situations.

This would certainly explain why the suspense in parts of Maria Full of Grace was so unbearable. People say “the suspense was unbearable” and they don’t mean it literally; but I do. I literally had to stop the movie because I was so keyed up and fearful of what would happen next. More than once. Why? The peril in which Maria places herself in that film is no greater than that endured by hundreds of other heroines in hundreds of other movies; in fact you could argue it’s much less. But the vérité style of the film, the simple and sympathetic depiction of an ordinary person in desperate circumstances, and the unflinching portrayal of a nerve-wracking ordeal combine to make an excellent film almost unwatchable.

Then again, maybe you can have suspense without such close identification with the characters. Consider the scene in Aliens where Ripley and Burke and a few surviving Marines have barricaded themselves in a room, rifles at the ready, while a motion sensor shows a veritable army of aliens closing in on them. Nothing against the writing or the performances in that film, but I don’t think it’s character that makes that scene suspenseful. You just know shit’s coming, which brings us back to the first point I was trying to make. (The scene ingeniously ratchets it up a notch when the motion sensor paradoxically shows the aliens already inside the room, even though the door is still barricaded. When the characters realize the aliens must be in the suspended ceiling, there are a few moments of even more suspense as one of them climbs up to poke a tile out of the way and have a look.)

So there you have it. Movies create suspense when you know something bad is about to happen, but you don’t know what. Except when they don’t, in which case they create suspense by letting you know exactly what’s coming. And if they don’t let you know exactly what’s coming, or even whether anything is, they can still create suspense by building real characters and suggesting that something might.