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Date:2010-12-21 22:43

Handgun ownership is an issue in American culture and politics that seems to have a lot of vocal adherents on both sides and very little real data. As someone who can see, very clearly, both sides of the issue, I'd really like to figure this issue out for myself, at least. In general, I oppose restricting ownership of objects by adults, as it works poorly and is intrusive. But there is a tragic amount of handgun violence in society, and I'm not naive enough to believe that people can be neatly sorted into "good" (who deserve handgun ownership in order to defend themselves and will never commit crimes with them) and "bad" (who will own handguns and use them for crime regardless of their legality).

I also acknowledge that the Bill of Rights comes down pretty clearly on the side of individual gun ownership. After all, if the other amendments confer an individual right, why wouldn't the second? I'm prepared to accept and defend the parts of the Constitution that make me squeamish in exchange for the parts I believe in. That's part of the deal, in my opinion. So while I might be persuaded that the Second Amendment should be repealed, I don't believe it can or should be ignored. Moving on.

One argument that handgun opponents seem to fall back on is that a gun is somehow special, in that it is designed solely to injure or kill human beings. I call bullshit. Another thing you can do with a handgun is change someone's mind, often quickly and decisively, without firing a shot. If you're menacing me in my home with a baseball bat, and I pull out a gun, cock it, point it at you, and yell, "Drop the bat and back slowly out of my house, or I'll shoot," and you don't want to bet your life that I'm (a) kidding or (b) chicken, you might very well decide to get a new bat and menace someone else, or get out of the bat-menacing game entirely, all without a single shot being fired or anyone being physically injured. And if you decide otherwise, I'll probably shoot you, and you'll probably be gravely injured or killed, and while I take no joy in that fact, if one of us has to die, I choose you. This same principle applies to any conflict between two people, one of whom has a superior weapon (fists vs. a knife, knife vs. gun, whatever). Guns aren't special.

On the other hand, gun advocates suffer from a failure of imagination. The only alternative to today's society they can envision is one where innocent citizens are prevented by law from having handguns, and everything else is exactly the same. If that were likely to be the case, I'd be scared of it, too. The thing is, that's not what would happen. A society where individual handgun or ammunition ownership was 100% illegal, with stiff prison sentences meted out to those caught owning or using them, would be a society in which very few guns were manufactured or imported, and those handguns and ammunition that were available would be very, very expensive, well out of reach of the casual street criminal. Also, the cost of ammunition, and the absence of safe places to practice marksmanship without the long arm of the law coming down on you, would make gun ownership nearly useless. In such a society, few people would feel the need to own a handgun for home defense. Such societies do exist today: Japan is one good example.

But let's say you're still not convinced. In that case, here's what you do: You buy an illegal gun and ammunition on the black market, you keep it well hidden, and you obey all the other laws and keep a low profile. Then, if someone wielding a handgun breaks into your house, which has become vanishingly unlikely because handguns and ammunition are all but unknown, and even the bad guys don't know how to shoot, you retrieve your illegal gun, shoot them dead, and when the cops show up to arrest you for owning a handgun, you surrender peacefully, go to court, plead self-defense on the homicide, and plead guilty on the gun possession charge. Then you go off to prison for five years, but you're not dead. Mission accomplished.

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Date:2010-08-27 13:36
Subject:Developing a consistent attitude toward religion and its role in society

As most of you know, I am not a religious person. In fact, I do not believe that there is a supreme being of any kind. I am open to the idea that I am wrong, but the idea that there is no supreme being seems much more plausible than the idea that there is one, so until I have some proof, I'm going to remain an atheist. That's all I can or want to say on that particular subject.

However, since I have the mixed fortune of living in the most religious rich country on earth, I feel that I must, for the sake of my own sanity and my interpersonal relationships, develop a logically consistent, non-bigoted attitude toward religion and religious believers. Here's what I have so far:

I respect the absolute right of adults to hold whatever religious beliefs they wish and practice those beliefs to the extent that they do not interfere with the rights or happiness of others (including their own minor children) or violate the law.

I do not respect, at all, religious beliefs themselves. I think they're all silly, including yours. Again, they're your business, and many fine people whom I like and respect hold religious views, but I don't believe in your deity any more than I believe in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. If your religious beliefs compel you to live in a certain way, and that works for you, good for you. If your religious beliefs compel me to live in a certain way, or you advocate legislation based on them, you can go get stuffed.

People often ask, "If you don't believe in a deity, how do you know how to act morally/ethically?" It's really not that hard. Treating other people the way you would like to be treated, being honest and loyal are not exclusively religious values, and they are my values. Do I always live up to them? Of course not. No one's perfect. Just as religious people sometimes sin, and if they're sincere they try hard to repent and to do better next time, I sometimes fall short of my own values, and when I do, I admit it, try hard to set things right, and try hard not to do it again. It's pretty basic.

When it comes right down to it, who would you rather be alone in a room with: (1) Someone who believes that if they stab you to death they'll be punished in the hereafter by their deity; or (2) someone who has no wish to harm you because he/she respects your individual rights and endeavors (usually with success) to behave ethically and respectfully to others? I'd pick #2, obviously. Living in constant fear of divine reprisal is no way to live.

If your religion is one of the monotheistic ones that require belief in your deity to reap a reward in the afterlife and punish nonbelievers with eternal torment, ask yourself this: Why would an all-powerful deity need mere humans to believe in him (I use the masculine pronoun for simplicity only)? Why would he care? If your deity loves me, as you insist he does, why is he willing to punish me, without end, no matter how good a person I am on earth, simply because I fail to believe in his existence, which incidentally he doesn't exactly do a great job of making manifest? Even the most horrible torture on earth ends when the torturer finally kills you, but this deity who loves you is willing to punish you forever for a minor transgression? That's not love, it's the most heinous abuse imaginable.

So it really comes down to this: Religious beliefs are irrational, and after an adjustment period, people will be better off without them. If you insist on holding on to them, which is your perfect right, don't complain to me when they make your life miserable and keep you from having fun. And don't you dare try to make me live by them. I won't do it.

Have a nice day.

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Date:2010-08-27 12:19
Subject:Taxation and public spending

Like many people, I spend a good deal of time thinking about what levels of taxation and public spending are optimal. Unlike many people, I believe that the most important consideration here is that tax revenues and public spending more or less match each other over the long term, with governments running deficits in lean times to stimulate the economy and paying them back in flush times. Basically classic Keynesianism. So far, so good.

One problem is that the typical American loves government spending on him/herself and people similarly situated, hates government spending on the "other," and believes that lavish public spending should be funded by, for lack of a better word, magic. This is basically how five-year olds think.

Another problem is that we can't agree on what to tax. Some people think we should tax consumption, but this rewards people who earn a lot and spend little of it (i.e., the rich and frugal). The result is a highly regressive tax, where the poor, who spend all of their income, pay tax on all of their income, and the rich, who sock away a lot of their income in savings and investments, pay tax only on that portion of their income which they spend. Regressive taxes seem intuitively wrong to me. Other people think we should tax real property, but in California we tax like-valued real property at vastly different rates depending on how long the current owners have owned it. We do this because over the long-term, house value is not a very good proxy for ability to pay. To me, the answer to this very valid concern is to not tax real property, but the way we currently do it makes no sense.

This brings me neatly to the next point: The fairest tax is one that falls most heavily on those with the greatest ability to pay. But how do we measure ability to pay? The best proxy I can think of is gross income from all sources, adjusted for varying costs of living and perhaps varying family size (to a point — the fact that our tax system rewards people for having a dozen or more children strikes me as grossly unfair). I don't believe that we should have a separate tax to fund Medicare and Social Security (public pensions), and I don't believe that different ways of generating income (wages, salaries, tips, interest, dividend, short-term capital gains, long-term capital gains, lottery and game show prizes, gambling winnings) should be taxed at different rates. Income is income. I do believe that tax rates should be sharply progressive: If I make $10 million a year, and you tax the last $8 million at 90%, what difference does it make? Would highly progressive taxes make Opra Winfrey and Bill Gates stand on soup lines? I don't think so. Would they be able to be multi-billionaires? Perhaps not. BFD.

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Date:2010-08-20 06:24
Subject:Why are Americans so obsessed with home ownership?

There are three things I'm good at: Windows system administration and general computer-related things, loving my wife and cat, and crossword puzzles. There are a number of other things I'm not that good at (if "good at" is even applicable) but enjoy, such as reading, TV, movies, games, etc. Construction, home repair, plumbing electrical work, and yard maintenance appear nowhere on either list. My company is good at developing, maintaining, and marketing medical imaging software and services, and it's perfectly content to focus on these and leave the procurement, maintenance, and repair of its office space to another company whose core competency lies in those areas.

No one in their right mind would consider a company that doesn't own its own office building to be profligate, immature, or unsuccessful on that measure alone, but there seems to be a prevailing view in America that if you're an adult with a full-time job and don't own your own principal residence, you're something of a failure or at best an eccentric. The government even subsidizes home ownership by allowing you to deduct your mortgage interest and property taxes from your taxable income. This of course drives up both house prices and interest rates, so the tax savings are illusory, but that's another topic.

I love my house, and I hate moving, but if I could find someone to buy it from me at fair market value and then lease it back to me at 1/240 of the purchase price every month (a ratio The Economist thinks is reasonable) for a year with an option to renew, I'd jump at it. Of course, Amy is responsible for half of this decision, and she might not agree.

Real estate agents will always tell you, "If you rent, you're flushing money down the toilet," and it's true. What they don't tell you is that the money you're flushing down the toilet is their money, in terms of foregone commissions. Occupying space over time costs money, just as eating food, driving a car, powering the computer on which I'm typing this, and nearly everything else we do costs money. So what? If you want to spend less money, there are ways that nearly everyone in America could tighten their belt without having to endure abject suffering. If you want to spend no money at all, you'll have to die, and that has a lot of undesirable side effects and is generally not recommended until you've lived a good long time.

We spend about 45% more money in mortgage (principal and interest), property taxes, homeowner's insurance, and yard maintenance than it would cost to rent a comparable house, and that doesn't even take into account repairs. If you tax-adjust the mortgage interest and property taxes, and then recognize that paying mortgage principal is generally forced savings that you pay to yourself (i.e., it comes out of your checking account and goes into your home equity) the cost of owning, again not including repairs, is maybe 2-3% more than the cost of renting. If you rent, someone else takes care of repairs, and if the property is destroyed in a disaster, and you aren't killed, you salvage as much stuff as you can carry, collect on your renters' insurance, and move somewhere else. The plot of land that now contains house-shaped debris and is essentially worthless even though the landlord still owes the bank is not your concern. Furthermore, if you rent and you get a new job, or want to move closer to your existing one (which I, with my $31 daily commute, would dearly love), you can, as long as you wait until the end of your lease or find someone to sublet or assume the lease.

The other fallacy is that housing prices in a given area will always increase. As we've seen recently, housing prices (like those of financial assets generally) are highly susceptible to bubbles. The Economist had a nifty article last week explaining why. If you can always purchase a house after the bubble bursts, and then hold onto it until the next bubble, you'll make money, but you'll move a lot (unless you limit these adventures to rental property, which comes with a host of other burdens and risks), and if your instincts are wrong, you can lose your shirt. Besides, a price increase only helps you if you move to a cheaper area or a smaller dwelling, since prices of like properties in like areas tend to rise and fall in sync.

The only argument for home ownership I can think of is that you are forced to build equity (i.e., savings) by making principal payments, and most Americans are not diligent savers. Of course, if you are a diligent saver, this goes right out the window. There are pro-home-ownership arguments from a societal perspective, such as the old saw that owner-occupied neighborhoods have less crime. To my knowledge, no one has ever bothered to test whether this might be due to the strong correlation between owner occupancy and financial status/educational level. I was a good renter and took care of the property because that's what responsible adults do. The fact that it wasn't my property was irrelevant. I hypothesize that if you compare a neighborhood of affluent college graduate renters, say in San Francisco where home ownership is out of reach for most, with a neighborhood of similar homeowners, you'll find little difference in crime rates and other forms of social blight. If someone with more expertise in this area would like to test this hypothesis, I'd be very interested in learning the results and willing (nay, eager) to admit it if I'm wrong.

As always, I welcome other points of view.

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Date:2010-01-09 16:48
Subject:My first blog entry from Kuala Lumpur ever

Wednesday was not a typical day in my life. As I was riding BART to SFO, I noticed a woman standing near me reading a book. As I'm curious and rarely see people reading in America, I attempted to see what the book was. I didn't get very far with this, as it turned out to be written in Icelandic! There probably aren't a million people on this earth who can read that language. What are the odds I'd run into one of them on BART? Icelanders are, however, prodigious producers and consumers of the written word, with one in 10 being a published author. And one of my favorite novels of all time, Independent People by Haldor Laxness, is widely regarded to have put Icelandic literature on the world map back in the mid-20th century.

I don't like to eat a lot before I fly, so after I checked in, I ordered some wonton noodle soup, ate it fairly slowly, and then went through security, which was quick and cursory. I found an electrical outlet on the wall just past the checkpoint and sat there for an hour, charging my laptop and iPhone and reading What the Dog Saw, a collection of articles by Malcolm Gladwell which I can't recommend highly enough. Then I boarded Japan Airlines flight 1 to Tokyo/Narita.

The food on the flight was edible if a bit small, but beer was free, so I enjoyed a Kirin with my first meal and an Asahi Dry with my second meal, which was actually a nice rice porridge with shrimp, scallions, and ginger. The demure Japanese woman seated next to me also drank an Asahi straight from the can, while her husband drank orange juice.

The first thing I noticed was how every in-flight announcement in Japanese required a flurry of politeness words and took forever. Even my seatmate asking the flight attendant to stow her jacket in the overhead bin was accompany by mild bowing and a chorus of arigato gozai mas from both participants. In America, we typically accomplish the same thing by grunting and pointing. I immediately decided that I liked the Japanese way better and felt bad that I can't understand more than three words of that delightfully musical language. There's something about every syllable ending in a vowel (why yes, I would like more biru) and all syllables being pronounced with the same (lack of) emphasis that I find very soothing.

About 11 hours later, we were discharged at Narita. I followed the line for international connecting flights and found myself facing another security screening, even though I'd walked about 200 feet and had had zero opportunity to acquire anything of any kind. This time, I did not have to take my shoes off, but I did have to pull out my laptop. No big deal. Then I found myself in a hallway with a ton of shops, one of which sold chocolate and snacky items. I tasted a sample of some snack sticks that were curry flavored. They were delicious, so I bought a large box (600 yen) and three assorted large chocolate bars (1150). Since I had zero yen on me, I used a credit card, and the clerk offered to charge the card in USD, but I knew that scam and insisted (politely, of course) on paying in yen. My Capital One card offers awesome exchange rates and no fee (many banks add up to 3%, sometimes separately, sometimes as a separate line item). When she gave me back my card, she held it in both hands as if it were a baby bird.

Near my gate, I found a snack shop and bought a small bag of mystery-flavored Doritos and a Coke Light. This cost a very reasonable 260 yen, which is how much just the soda would have cost at SFO. I wondered whether Japan has anti-airport-gouging laws like Portland and Vancouver. After consuming both and futzing around on my laptop for a while (no Internet access, sadly), I wanted to call Amy, but I had no cash with which to buy a phone card. On a lark, I asked the lady at the snack shop whether they sold them, and they did. I bought a card with 1,110 yen on it for 1,000 yen and paid with my awesome Capital One card. She took out a coin, scraped off the number, and presented me with the phone card and the multi-page instruction sheet opened to the English section. So much more helpful than I'm used to. I was able to get through to Amy's Oakland-based mobile phone on the first try, though the cost was a whopping 58 yen/minute. By then, they were boarding my Singapore flight, so we only talked briefly.

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Date:2009-12-31 13:42
Subject:Best Company Name Ever

I was at lunch today in Foster City and saw a van with the name Johnson Controls on the side. Is it just me, or does this sound like a company that makes devices to tame the overactive male libido? I would expect to see an entire fleet of these trucks at the Vatican.

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Date:2009-10-30 10:25
Subject:An interesting conversation about health care reform

I had a chat with a colleague who falls squarely into the "America is awesome, I started out poor and became upper middle class, so anyone can do it" camp. He also proudly watches Fox News though he's not apparently unintelligent.

Anyway, he says he supports reforming health care so that it's not tied to your job, but he opposes mandatory coverage on the grounds that insurance is something you purchase to level your risk, and that if you are comfortable with a given degree of risk, you needn't purchase insurance. I countered with the thought that anyone who's not Bill Gates rich, or at least Fortune 500 CEO rich, would be foolish to forego coverage, because it's easy to get a disease or injury that would rack up six or seven figures in bills, particularly at the inflated prices that health care providers charge the uninsured.

He told me that when he was 22, he did without health insurance because he felt he didn't need it. I asked him what he would have done had he racked up a seven-figure bill. He said he would ask his family for help. I countered that he had just told me that they were poor, and I asked him whether, struck down with a treatable, curable (but fatal in the absence of treatment) condition whose cure was out of reach to him for purely financial reasons, he would have just shrugged his shoulders (assuming it wasn't a shoulder injury), said, "Oh well, I guess I chose wrong. I should have purchased health insurance. I'll just lie down in this ditch now and die. Don't worry about me." He said that he would have. I sincerely doubt that this is the case and said so, to which he insisted that it was. I countered that while he may sincerely believe this about himself, it's only in the luxury of not having to face that outcome that he can say that with such confidence. He disagreed. At this point, there was no point arguing further.

Other than the suicidal and people whose self-worth is absolutely in the basement, I don't think there's a single person who would willingly accept death in the face of a curable illness/injury simply because he/she lacked money, any more than there's anyone who would willingly accept starvation for the same reason. They simply don't exist. Furthermore, people who are not willing to bear their share of the risk by purchasing health insurance (or in the case of a single-payer system, paying taxes) when they are well, but who nevertheless demand treatment at public expense when they are ill or injured, are not entitled to be called adults. This is the sort of thinking that most intelligent eight-year-olds in the Netherlands could figure out. What exactly is wrong with us?

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Date:2009-10-30 09:24
Subject:Accounting honestly for vehicle usage

The IRS allows $0.585 per mile for business use of a vehicle, plus actual parking fees (but not parking fines) and tolls. Since they are not generally known for their generosity, I suspect that this figure is a fair representation of the actual cost of operating the average vehicle. My vehicle, a 2004 Toyota Avalon XLS which gets around 20mpg in mixed city/highway driving, is probably about average. Accounting only for fuel and failing to account for the true cost of driving is the reason so many people perceive public transit as being more expensive than driving. I am, fortunately, smarter than that and take public transit whenever practicable, which admittedly isn't often as I'm often starved for time, and unless you're going into San Francisco at rush hour, public transit generally takes longer than driving.

Starting January 1, 2010, I am going to take weekly odometer readings and start putting $0.585 in cash per mile actually driven into a Pringle's can or similar container. When the IRS changes the rate, I'll change what I put in the can. Whenever I buy fuel or need repairs, oil changes, tires, scheduled maintenance, insurance, registration, smog inspection, or anything related to my car except parking fees, parking fines, or tolls, I will take the money out of the Pringle's can. Every three months, I will deposit the contents of the can into an interest-bearing savings account or, ideally, a certificate of deposit or treasury bill maturing in January 2019. When my car is no longer economically feasible to drive (I'm predicting another 140,000 miles [it has 60,000 now] or 9-10 years from now), I will take any money in the can/account and put it towards purchasing another car, assuming we haven't come up with an entirely different way to travel by then. I suspect there won't be much money left.

What do you think?

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Date:2009-10-19 16:04
Subject:Longest theory

A colleague and I were discussing the old canard about how Black History Month is in February because the white man insisted on giving black people the shortest month. We both agreed that that's not really true, but it did get me thinking about which month is the longest month.

Before 2007, if you lived in an area of the USA or Canada which observes Daylight Saving Time, October was the longest month by an hour because the first Sunday in October had 25 hours (midnight to 2am = 2 hours, then the clock springs back to 1am and 1am to midnight = 23 hours, total 25 hours). But now that we set the clocks back in November (a 30-day month), all the 31-day months are exactly the same length, except when they add a leap second on December 31, in which case December becomes the longest month by one second.

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Date:2009-10-19 08:55

I've often been accused of being an elitist. These accusations used to sting, and sometimes they still do. But I've decided to embrace my elitism. After all, it's not based on anything arbitrary like race, money, or even years of formal education. I'm an elitist in that I prefer the company of, and appreciate the opinions and viewpoints of, people who are not fucking idiots. There. I feel better.

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Date:2009-09-18 12:32
Subject:How much does that metered parking space really cost?

Now that Oakland is charging for metered parking 12 hours a day, six days a week, I decided to revisit the mental exercise of "How much does that metered parking space really cost"? Let's assume, for argument's sake, that you leave your car at the metered space all the time, that you pay during all the hours that payment is required, and that a parking space is 5x8 feet (40 sq.ft.). In a week, you would pay $2 per hour x 12 hours of metered parking per day (8am to 8pm), time six days per week (Sundays are free). That comes to $144/week, or $7,488/year, or $624/month, or $15.60 per square foot per month. Typical Oakland apartment rents are probably closer to $1.50-$2 per square foot per month.

So a parking space in Oakland costs 8-10 times as much as an apartment. I've always thought that street parking was too cheap, as most days all spots are occupied and there are people driving around looking for a spot. In the pure supply/demand sense of "too cheap," that remains true, but in terms of how much it costs to rent a tiny patch of land, it's exorbitant.

And yes, I realize that no one occupies parking spots in the way I have described, and that feeding meters is illegal. The comparison is merely a thought experiment.

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Date:2009-09-11 12:39

From Matt Yglesias, a fascinating analysis of why Quebec nationalism is (thankfully, IMNSHO) dying out.

If you're a progressive, you really should be reading Matt's blog. I only discovered it a few days ago, but I'm thoroughly hooked.

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Date:2009-09-09 10:42
Subject:Excellent Wednesday crossword result

I finished today's New York Times crossword in 4:11, putting me 13th out of 610 people who have solved it against the clock so far. This is better time than I had Monday or Tuesday this week.

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Date:2009-08-28 16:32
Subject:Silly probability question

I don't know why I'm having so much trouble with this, but I am. I am calculating how much money one would win if one were financially and physically able to purchase every possible MegaMillions ticket, thus guaranteeing that one would hit the jackpot, and one were the only jackpot winner. The number of possible tickets is (52 choose 5) x 46. So far, so good. This would give you one ticket that won the top jackpot (currently about $210 million if you take all-cash and not the annuity). You would also have 45 other tickets with all five numbers but the wrong mega number, each of which would win $250,000 (not in California, where all jackpots are parimutuel, but that's another discussion), for a nice bump of $11.25 million.

Where my math skills are leaving me is: How do you calculate the number of tickets that have 4, 3, 2, or 1 out of the five numbers? Since a ticket only pays on the highest jackpot, I'd have to eliminate a 4-hitter that was also a 5-hitter.

This is of course nothing more than a mental exercise, since (even if you had the money) it would be physically impossible to purchase all of the tickets in the time between drawings even if you had people lining up at every lottery retailer in the participating states. Also, unless the top jackpot is truly record-breaking, one other person sharing it with you would put you in loss-making territory. But it's still an interesting gedankenexperiment. Thanks in advance for any help.

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Date:2009-06-29 10:17
Subject:iPhone users laugh until they pee for 99 cents!

Amy and I downloaded Smack Talk from the apps store yesterday. You speak into the microphone, and a cute, furry critter (guinea pig, puppy, kitten, or chihuahua) repeats what you said in a high-pitched voice. Then you laugh, and the critter mimics your laugh, then you laugh again, and after a while you can't breathe. Highly amusing. It's especially funny to make cute, innocent, furry critters say horribly filthy and depraved things. If your iPhone or iPod Touch lacks a built-in microphone, you can buy and connect one, but of course that will cost significantly more than 99 cents. Check it out!

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Date:2009-06-20 18:45

Yesterday, Amy and I got up around 5am and drove to Emeryville to stand in line for the new iPhone 3GS phones. We got there at 6 and there were already two long lines, one for people who had reserved phones (us) and one for people who had not. For some reason, our names were not on the list, even though we had visited the same Apple store the day they were announced and reserved a white one for Amy and a black one for me, but we talked to a manager and got put on the list. They were letting in seven people from the reserved line for every four from the non-reserved line, so it made a huge difference. By 9am, we were on our way out the door with our brand new iPhones, and our numbers were ported over from Sprint. It was surprising smooth and easy.

Unfortunately, my phone didn't get activated, so around 6pm I called AT&T from home, and a very helpful and friendly young woman named Elizabeth Reyes fixed it for me in minutes. The voicemail still didn't work, but we had to leave to go to a movie, so I told her I'd call back later. By this morning, the voicemail had fixed itself, and all was well.

The iPhone is amazing! You can drive down any street and see how much the houses you're driving past are worth according to Zillow. You can look up a movie and see what Rotten Tomatoes thought of it, then find a theater near you based on your GPS position, and buy tickets. You can scan a bar code of an item in a store and find out how much various online stores are selling that item for. For $3.99 you can download a BART schedule app that tells you when the next train will actually arrive (the one that tells you when it's supposed to arrive is free). Ninety-nine cents buys you a beautiful subway map of New York City, and $4.99 buys you a Monopoly game with a computer opponent that actually plays fairly well, unlike the one on PalmOS. And the graphics! You shake the iPhone to roll the dice, and since I was the penguin token, I would slide on my belly down the board, using my stubby little wings as rudders. The iPhone is aware of its position in 3D space, so you can play games like iBall (an old-fashioned labyrinth game of trying to keep the ball away from the holes while navigating a maze - free!) by tilting and rocking it. There are online banking apps, and of course it's an iPod with full-color album covers. You can make custom ringtones (when I call Amy, her phone plays "Let's Stay Together" by Al Green).

In case you're not sure where I stand, the iPhone is the greatest gadget ever. It shits on my Palm Treo, which I'm hoping to offload for cheap on eBay. There are literally thousands of apps that do everything except fry you up a smoked oyster and cheese omelet. It beat my ass at Scrabble ($4.99). There's a Scrabble word lookup app ($1.99), and no doubt there's something that will find the cheapest gas on your way to work. There's Google Maps and Google Earth and a Zagat restaurant guide, and you can do today's New York Times crossword ($5.99 a year).

I'd keep ranting about the unparalleled greatness of the iPhone, but I've got to go play with it some more.

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Date:2009-06-08 13:20
Subject:Piano recital

Saturday afternoon was my piano's teacher's annual recital for all her students who are foolish enough to show up. Being a natural exhibitionist (no, not that kind, you dirty, dirty person!), I though it might be fun to show off my (admittedly limited) stuff. There were 15 kids and three adults on the program, and one of the adults didn't show up due to flu. The kids were mostly dressed in their Sunday best and looked so adorable and grown up. Michelle, the little girl who played first, couldn't have been more than seven or so judging by her missing baby teeth. She was trying to play from memory but soon lost her way, and when she couldn't recover, she buried her face in her hands out of embarrassment. At that moment one of the adults in the front row (apparently the aunt of a young girl who played beautifully later in the program) started applauding, and the rest of us joined in, and Michelle was able to move on to the second piece and play it fairly well. She was clearly the youngest and least experienced student in the group, but you have to give her mad props for showing up and trying her best.

Another young girl of about 9-10, Isabella, played Spring from Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Pachelbel's Canon and did an amazing job. She probably has a future in classical music. Several other kids did pretty well, but there seemed to be a dividing line between ones who felt really comfortable around a piano and playing for an audience and others who were just there because their mothers made them take piano lessons and who would rather be playing outside on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

I played second to last. My teacher introduced me by saying that I had been playing only four months and was evidence that you can teach an old dog new tricks. This seemed to warm up the audience and lower expectations, but I was still more nervous than I had thought I would be. I had chosen Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu and Bach's Minuet in G. I played the Chopin pretty well but made one fairly noticeable error (playing a G instead of an A or vice versa, I forget) with my left hand while playing the correct note with my right hand. The Minuet started out okay, but about halfway through the second pass (one plays the first 10-12 measures twice, with a different two-measure ending each time) I got irretrievably lost and had to apologize and start again. Given that the whole piece isn't more than a minute long, no one seemed to mind, and the second time, I nailed it.

This was my first time playing on an actual stage in front of people other than Amy and a couple of close friends, and my first time playing on a baby grand (my teacher has a serviceable but unfancy upright, and I have a full-sized but low-end digital Casio), so it was an interesting experience. I definitely played better than the woman who came after me, but in all fairness she chose much more complex pieces. Then it was all over and Amy took me out to Ruth's Chris Steak House in Walnut Creek to celebrate. I'm already looking forward to next year's recital.

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Date:2009-06-06 11:31
Subject:Opera at the Ballpark

Last night, Amy and I went to see Puccini's Tosca at AT&T Park. Admission was free, and there were probably 30,000 people there. The performance was simulcast on an enormous high-definition screen from the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, and the picture and sound could not have been better. I can't imagine anything more surreal than watching an opera while munching on hot dogs and garlic fries, and the experience was unparalleled. The ballpark audience is much less restrained than the opera house audience. We hissed when Scarpia appeared, cheered when Tosca stabbed him, and generally had a great time.

I am more of a fan of symphonic and chamber music than opera, but I get a kick out of how opera is generally considered upper-crust entertainment for the rich and well-dressed, while the storylines are no more sophisticated than something you'd see on All My Children. The romantic lead is loving, noble and good, and the villain is duplicitous, greasy and bad (and in case you couldn't figure that out, he sings in a really, really deep voice, just to clue you in). I don't know about you, but my life isn't really filled with singing, lusting, and stabbing, and if I were about to jump off a parapet to my certain death, I probably wouldn't be blasting out an aria. The entire thing is just deliciously silly. And the costumes make English high court judges look like homeless people by comparison.

Anyway, if you missed Tosca at the ballpark, and you live anywhere near San Francisco, be sure to see the next simulcast, Il Trovatore, on Saturday, September 19. If you visit the San Francisco Opera web site you can sign up for free 6:30 admission (those who forget to sign up get in at 7:00; the show starts at 8:00).

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Date:2009-06-06 11:29
Subject:Mortgage recommendation

Amy and I recently refinanced our mortgage through Brad Shiffman of Quicken Loans. He was incredibly professional, straightforward, and helpful, and the process was unbelievably fast and easy. If it weren't for the appraiser's backlog, we could have closed in four days. If you're buying property or considering refinancing an existing loan, give him a call at 800-226-6308 x66253.

I am in no was associated with Quicken Loans, nor do I receive any compensation for recommending them, nor will I accept any liability if for whatever reason you don't have a good experience, but I am a highly satisfied customer and think excellent performance should be rewarded with referrals, so I'm posting this.

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Date:2009-03-23 10:45
Subject:Writer's Block: Things You Don't Want to Know

If you knew that a friend's significant other was cheating on him or her, would you tell your friend the truth or keep it to yourself?
It depends on whether it was a one-off or something serious. If I saw the friend's SO coming out of a brothel, I'd probably leave it alone, but if I saw him doing so twice, I'd tell the friend. One indiscretion should probably be kept under wraps, but a pattern of betrayal is something different. Either one would lower my opinion of the perpetrator quite a bit, though.

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