New Year's Eve 2007

So for New Year's Eve, Ali and I got together and had wine, pizza, and plans. We played a few games of 1980's Trivial Pursuit she got me for Christmas (both of which she won) then took a nap around 11 and didn't get up until morning in 2008. All that really matters anyway is that we had a good time with one another.

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Otto Hauser, Ben McConnell, and Jim Colby at Boulder Coffee

Ali and I headed to Boulder Coffee Co.MySpace link (100 Alexander St.) to check out the show. When we got there Jim Colby was playing — he played acoustic guitar and generally sounded good although I couldn't seem to immerse myself in his lyrics. Next was Otto Hauser and Ben McConnell. They set up like "dueling drummers" and played off one another. It seemed experimental and improvisational so I liked it a lot. I also found that I stayed interested despite that it was, well, just a couple guys playing drums.

The only thing to taint the evening, though, was that Boulder kept the house music on while the DJ's were playing between sets. Ali and I were between the two rooms so it made for a disorienting amalgam of music. I guess it was kind of interesting sometimes and annoying other times.

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How Far is Too Far for Cheaper Gas?

I was thinking about how people travel to a distant gas station to get gas that's cheaper. I mostly thought of it as a waste of time, especially with the 10-gallon tank in the Civic. If I filled it all the way, a 5 cent difference in gas price would net me all of 50 cents. So if I'd be willing to cross the street, but not cross town — driving the distance isn't free.

So what's the break-even point? Well let's say the price of the cheapest fuel we can get without going out of our way is P0. Further, let's assume we fill up about the same amount — like if we run similar errands each week, we might need to buy half a tank each week. Let's call that volume of fuel V0, so we pay C0: P0 * V0. So now we see fuel at a cheaper price, P1, elsewhere. But it'll use more fuel to get there, so we'll have to now buy a volume of V1 instead, costing C1: P1 * V1. How far out of our way should we go to still save money?

The break-even point is when the two costs are the same:

C0 = C1

which is also

V0P0 = V1P1

but we want to talk about distance. The ratio of the the distance traveled to the volume of fuel used is your fuel efficiency or "gas mileage" in miles-per-gallon:

E = D/V

we can rearrange that so

V = D/E

and substitute above so

P0(D0/E0) = P1(D1/E1)

Now, if we make a broad assumption that the efficiency is about the same — that your gas mileage is the same whether you go to one place or another — then we get:

P0(D0/E) = P1(D1/E)

and we can eliminate the efficiency factor on both sides leaving

P0D0 = P1D1

So let's say that P1 is some percentage cheaper and that D1 is some distance further:

P1 = ( 1 – cheaper ) P0

D1 = ( 1 + further ) D0

And then substitute P1 and D1 to get:

P0D0 = ( 1 – cheaper ) P0 ( 1 + further ) D0

And now we can cancel out P0 and D0 from both sides:

1 = ( 1 – cheaper )( 1 + further )

But what we want to know is how much further we can go — for now as a percentage of how far we usually go before filling up. So we get:

1 + further = 1 / ( 1 – cheaper )

or, deriving some more:

further = 1 / ( 1 – cheaper ) – 1
further = 1 / ( 1 – cheaper ) – ( 1 – cheaper ) / ( 1 – cheaper )
further = ( 1 – ( 1 – cheaper ) ) / ( 1 – cheaper )
further = cheaper / ( 1 – cheaper )

So in other words, we'd need to travel less than (further) percent further to come out ahead which is the percentage cheaper divided by 100% – the percentage cheaper.

To bring this back to the real world, let's start with the fact that most cars today can go 300-600 miles per tank. So it's not unusual to get about 200 miles on a half of a tank. Now let's say we find gas that's 5 cents cheaper than other gas at $3.25 — about 1.5% cheaper. The percent difference is then (1.5%)/(1-1.5%) = 1.5%/98.5% = 1.52%. So if we filled the tank halfway, the cheaper gas would need to be 1.52% * 200 miles = 3 miles out of the way. That's "out of the way" so if it's a separate trip, it's only 1.5 miles each way.

And that's just to break even.

Alternatively, what if you could get gas at 10% off — something like $3.00 instead of $3.33. Then it's a distance difference of 10%/90% = 11%. If you had to get close to a full tank and you could get 400 miles, then you'd still save money up to 44 miles out of the way.

The trap, though, is that it's still not a lot of money. Like if you went 10 miles away, you'd have to get 420 miles of gas at $3.00 instead of 400 miles-worth at $3.33. If you were driving a truck that got 15 miles-per-gallon, that's 28 gallons at $3 or $84 versus 26.7 gallons at $3.33 or $88.91 so you'd save all of $4.91.

But at least now you have a way to figure it out.

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Running Barefoot and Glass

Yesterday I went out for a run and mixed between water-shoes and bare feet depending on whether the pavement was snow-covered or not, respectively. Due to the minor thaw I was even able to get out onto the canal path. It was around 25°F outside. I decided to run barefoot through the snow-covered sidewalk on the last 100 yards down the street. Naturally my feet got extra cold but I'm trying to get increased circulation and I figure the way to do that is to train my feet that they need it — not so bad that I get frostbite, but enough that it's uncomfortable.

Anyway, this morning I got a sharp pain my toe. I figured I'd stepped on something yesterday, although it could have been around the house or any time since yesterday morning. It looked like a sliver of some kind so I dug around and cleaned it out. When I finally got it, I realized it was a tiny piece of glass. I was so excited: I finally got cut on glass! It's usually the first thing anybody says when I say I run barefoot on pavement, "aren't you afraid of glass?" Well usually I don't run through it — I pay attention to the ground when I run. But I guess in the winter I can't see it under the snow so I might get a cut now and then.

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The Quandary of Doing What's Right

So recently I was involved in a discussion that didn't turn out to everyone's satisfaction. The scenario is this:

I was at a social engagement where everyone knew one another fairly well; in a small-group discussion when one of the participants — let's say Jack — started describing a bigoted encounter he had with someone he associated with as part of his job. Just as he was about to quote the third-party, someone walked into earshot — let's say Jill — who's a member of the group who was targeted (and also the only person around who's a member of that particular group). So Jack stopped and said, "I'll tell you in a minute," and everyone got quiet. I insisted that he continue and invited Jill to the conversation to hear — after all, this is a quote of an encounter, and not representative of his personal belief.

So we all talked for a few minutes. Naturally Jill was shocked but apparently not upset at what Jack had to say. Things went okay and the topic changed and the group broke up a bit. Jack asked that I never put him in that situation again. I apologize but add that he shouldn't bring up such things in my presence because I would probably react the same way.

The universal response has been that I was wrong. I should have let sleeping dogs lie, let the conversation go fallow because Jill probably didn't notice, and everyone would have been much more comfortable.

Now I don't think my solution was ideal, but I think it was better than nothing. First of all, the argument that Jill didn't hear anything is specious — for if it was indeed true, then Jack should have continued without pause, and clearly even Jack felt that Jill could hear him. Second, I don't believe discomfort is as bad as it's cracked up to be — for is it better to maintain comfort or point out something unethical? "Well," you argue, "Jack wasn't really being unethical, right?" At that moment, probably not, but I think that overall his behavior wasn't purely right. Here's what I think the chronology was in this case:

  1. He had an associate who surprised him by saying something bigoted.
  2. He disagreed with the sentiment but probably said nothing of it to avoid a conflict at the time.
  3. I assume his association with this other person changed — perhaps he never needed to deal with them again, and perhaps he just avoids associating with them. But what he didn't do was to directly address the issue — for instance to say that he was disappointed that such ignorance persists in this day and age.
  4. When relaying the story, he was not proud of his actions — and he did not want to reveal that he didn't defend the group to which Jill is associated.

Let me put it another way, this time with a hypothetical encounter. Two guys are talking. One is Jewish and the other is not. The one who's not reveals that he works with a guy who's anti-Semitic.

DAVE: "Don told me this off-color joke about Jews at work today." (unspoken: "it's okay to say this because it wasn't me".)
JOE: "So what did you do?" (unspoken: "such jokes reinforce that being Jewish is inferior in arbitrary ways and I think you agree that this is not true".)
DAVE: "Well he's my boss so I couldn't do anything." (unspoken: "I didn't want to make him angry because I might lose my job — or worse. You know how those people are".)
JOE: "What a prick." (unspoken: "I would have hoped that you are a good enough friend to help me even if doing so is not to your immediate advantage. I feel disappointment because I now respect you less than I assumed I could".)

On the surface, Dave and Joe seem more comfortable than if they dug deeper — for there is tremendous discomfort that runs very deep. But is that really healthy? Doesn't it serve to reinforce bigotry? If Joe confronted Dave, I think Dave would react defensively — that he would be more upset about being called out for his lack-of-action than with the original situation.

So then you ask, "what am I supposed to do about them? I'm not a bigot and I don't support them. Isn't that enough?" Let me just put it this way: are you confident and proud of your actions? And I don't mean as a form of denial: can you really defend your beliefs, thoughts, and actions in a rational and sound way?

The reason why I live by this code is that it helps me get to sleep at night. For as much distress I cause in people, I need to come to the conclusion that I did the most right thing I could at the time — to be confident and proud of my actions.

I'm not thrilled about making Jack uncomfortable. I don't know if it changed anything for the better, if it made Jill upset, or if it disrupted Jack and Jill's relationship. But I think that what I did do was force Jack to reconcile his actions — for if he was proud and confident of his behavior, he'd have no problem facing Jill. (So I guess I have an ulterior goal to coerce other people to be the best they can be.)

The catch is that I don't know if I read the situation correctly. If, in fact, things happened like I thought they did, then I'm proud and confident of my reaction. When I look at my own life experience and situations in the past like these, I think my assessment was correct, though.

Now if only I could forgive myself for things I couldn't have known …

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ClearWire Sucks Dot Com

I got an ad in the mail for a thing called ClearWire which promises wireless Internet access "anywhere" at speeds of cable modem or DSL. It looked rather promising but I was suspicious — what's the underlying technology, for instance? And will it be cheaper and/or better than what I have now?

So I did what I always do: I type in the name of the company and "sucks" into Google. The first thing to come up is ClearWire Sucks Dot Com. It puts forth a compelling case that while ClearWire may be fine for commonplace uses, the draconian policies for termination are worse than most cell phone carriers. Overall I was completely unimpressed for it seems the company hinges on secret additional charges (i.e. rental fees for equipment) to push the price beyond "competitive" and it has a standard 2-year contract with an early termination fee: including if ClearWire decides to terminate your account without cause.

I'm not particularly impressed with the terms for Internet services these days, but it's worth it for me to quietly maintain my connection and keep my options open. I'm also unimpressed with cellular telephone service — in quality, cost, and customer service — so the last thing I want is to associate with a company that brings more of the same.

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No Satisfaction Guarantee When You Do It Yourself

Last weekend I had taken out our 1992 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon to run some errands and to shake it down in preparation for driving to Pennsylvania in the coming weekend. I had noticed a problem with the oil pressure gauge: it would read normal pressure (20 psi at idle up to 45 psi or so when revved) but then would flutter occasionally, reading a much higher pressure (30 psi to maximum at over 60 psi). I was worried it was the oil pump but ruled it out for two reasons: if it were the pump, it would likely show low pressure and never high pressure, and the gauge was changing faster than it would be possible to do so (10 psi changes in a fraction of a second whereas a 10 psi change would ordinarily take a half-second or more).

I finally got out and checked under the hood. I figured the wire on the oil pressure sending unit was loose or broken — and when the engine vibrated, it would get loose and give those erroneous readings. Well I found the unit and went to wiggle the wire when it popped off in my hand. I figured it was some other sensor (like a block-temperature sensor perhaps) that just press-fit on. But when I cranked over the car, oil spurted out and the gauge read maximum. Indeed it was the oil pressure sensor, and it had been hanging on by a thread of rust.

I was very fortunate that it didn't break on the road because it would have dumped all the oil in a matter of minutes and I'd have to have it towed.

Unfortunately, that's not what happened.

Since it was back in the driveway I decided to just buy the replacement part and install it myself. Perusing the Internet offered little help, other than that the sending unit for this particular model required a gigantic deep-well 1-3/16" socket. I didn't have a socket big enough so I decided to go ahead and buy a new sending unit. I went to an auto parts store and they had a replacement unit on hand, but it took a 1-1/16" socket instead, and they didn't have one deep enough in-stock. They did have a 1-3/16" socket but I thought that maybe the replacement was the same size as the existing one even though they looked a little different in construction.

I hunted all around, stopping at 3 other auto parts stores. I finally found a socket that was deep enough at Sears so I bought that and headed back home. Naturally the original sending unit was 1-3/16" so I ran back out to the first store and bought their socket. Now I'm $50 into this project.

I got back home and tried to get to the sending unit from the hood-side, but there was just no way. I resigned myself to getting the jacks out and going in from the bottom. This was comparatively easy and I was done in 15 minutes. The car fired up with no oil leak and the pressure gauge read something close to normal.  It did spook me on the trip, though, because it didn't seem to change — I was worried the replacement unit didn't have the right wiring and was falsely reading 40 psi. It started to work better as we continued so I think it's working okay.

So I think I would have been better off having it dump its oil in the middle of the road. I'd have had it towed, sat in some shop for an hour, and they would have replaced the sending unit — probably all at a cost of $200. The advantage would have been that I would have not had to fight last-minute holiday shoppers plugging up the roads and not spent 6 hours and not had my fingers freeze off in the cold.

I guess you win some and you lose some.

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Blowup at the Dryden and the Holidays

I headed out to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Blowup. I had not seen it before but I was glad to do so. It settles well after a few days: it's art-house and avant garde but still accessible. At least to me where I am now … I imagine it's not unusual to watch this and just not get it.

The protagonist is a fashion photographer. At first he seems a bit eccentric — like a stereotypical artist-type from the late 1960's: that Andy Warhol pop-culture variety. He doesn't seem to agree with society on what has value and what does not — in fact, he seems to have no sense of some things having value and others not. From the beautiful women he photographs to an antique wooden propeller to music to food and drink to people — nothing is any better than anything else.

That is, until he examines his own work and discovers the trappings of a murder. He's intrigued. It's voyeuristic: he works from his safe and familiar nest, observing that which is most dangerous and visceral. And here the film perfectly captures that essence: inviting the strange into your safe haven through a portal — a window, a TV screen, or a photograph.

But then it's all taken away. And in a brilliantly poetic finish, he comes to realize the balance between the real and the imagined — and through that, what has value.

So here we are, at the cusp of another end-of-year holiday season — dripping with the insidiously sticky notion that we should buy totems of love for people we can't seem to find the time to listen to for the whole of the past year. Several thoughts cross my mind.

1

Last month I got this "Amish Friendship Bread" recipe from Ali from someone she works with. I did some Internet research and discovered that it wasn't all that special — and probably didn't even originate with the Amish. It's basically a bread starter: a mix of yeast, flour, sugar, and (in this case) milk — a living yeast culture. The gist is that over 10 days you keep the starter alive (adding ingredients to feed it at one point) then split up the batch of starter 5 ways, make one batch of bread with one of the splits, and then distribute the other 4 to your friends along with the instructions.

My bread came out okay, but I wanted to shove the underlying philosophy back to tradition. I wanted to make it a personal experience, and an evolution. I wanted people to copy the recipe by hand then notate how they changed the recipe and what the outcome was like before passing it on.

Unfortunately, with Christmas shopping and all the frenetic activity, I didn't have the chance. I read, though, that you can freeze a bread starter. So that's what I did. I'll work on it next year sometime.

2

In an article titled Fuck the Cheerleader; Buy a Gift Card, Save the World, the folks at Violent Acres outline why gift cards — particularly those Visa cash-like cards you can get at the bank — are such a perfect gift. The gist is this: you can't be bothered to spend time with people you love, and everybody you know has more stuff than they know what to do with, so you'd like to get them nothing and them to get you nothing — perhaps just spend some Quality Time™ together instead. But, people get all uptight about not giving gifts. So instead of bestowing heavy politics on them about it, just get them a fucking gift card.

I have no idea what the cheerleader has to do with it.

3

No Impact Man is a guy — specifically Colin Beavan — who spent 2007 trying to minimize his environmental impact while living with his wife and kid in a New York City apartment. He posted an insightful piece recently titled The No Impact Dear Santa letter. I've been fascinated by Beavan's trials and tribulations, but this particular post has this poignant personal observation: "I was thinking how when I talked to a bunch of third graders a while back and I said to them, 'How many of you know the feeling of really wanting something and then when your parents finally get it for you, instead of feeling excited, you feel kind of disappointed and sad?' Three-quarters of the kids raised their hands."

Gifts, when given without the heart to back them up end up feeling hollow to me. Last Christmas I know I got some stuff. The only thing I remember offhand, though, is the scarf Ali made for me. I think that's amazing. I don't know how to knit things and although I think I can understand how it's done, I don't have the right aptitude to do the repetition right so it comes out. And she made it.

But most of all is that she backs it all up with her love. Through joyful days and trying days she's still there. It's funny that it's kind of like the scarf: stitch after stitch, row after row — before you know it, it's something meaningful. You know what else: I remember picking out the yarn colors and she wondered whether green and orange would go together, but I insisted.

And you know? Somehow it works.  Twenty months to the day, in fact.

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Fun times at Solera

I finished things up at home then headed out to Solera Wine BarMySpace link (647 South Ave.) for a glass of wine. There were three guys at the end of the bar and I'm listening but I couldn't quite pin down what it is they're talking about: something to do with countries all over the world, expensive things — or at least something to do with high-society, and they like it. I'm stumped. The bartender knows them and introduces me: they're wine dealers. And they brought a selection of wines to share amongst one another — and now me as well. They're all excellent. For the sake of talking about it, I wish I could recall what they were. It was fun to get my nose to work again — I was actually able to pick out aromas and relate them to other things. It was a fascinating game: cooked asparagus … burnt cherries … walnut meat … turpentine. Fine wines are the bomb.

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The Man Who Would be King at the Dryden

I headed out to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see The Man Who Would Be King. Despite the snowstorm, there were quite a few people in attendance — the movie was excellent and well worth the risk. Basically it tells the tale of a couple con-men. They head to a country called Kafiristan (which is a fictional place north of Afghanistan) where they intend to become kings. The plan is simple: based on the notion that the warring tribes are largely without solid leadership, bringing a bit of British army leadership would make it easy to take over tribe-by-tribe and eventually take over the country.

Well, they almost die on their treacherous crossing of the high mountains. [In fact, I wondered if they did indeed die at that point and the rest of the film is just fantasy — something to think about.] Once in Kafiristan, they get into one of the first tribes they find, get a translator, and succeed in defeating the neighboring tribe. In the battle, Danny is struck by an arrow that — by luck — doesn't even scratch him yet stays in place as he rides around, continuing to fight. The people start rumors that he's some kind of god and he quickly ascends to the status of the second-coming of Alexander the Great — Alexander's son, to be exact.

So now Danny is king and god, ruling with a commoner's wisdom and absolute authority. Danny's Earthly-anchored partner Peachy notes that they should cut-and-run: they made it to the top, and the best thing they could do is to pack up a lot of riches and quietly slide out of the country. Danny has other plans — he's realistically gripped by power. He is believing what his followers are telling him: that he actually is the son of Alexander.

I'll leave it at that in case you want to find out for yourselves how things resolve.

But the thing about the whole movie is that it's so solidly realistic. It's not like Danny becomes evil through his power — he is overcome by the power. The pragmatic man he was is swept away in the current of illusion. He becomes falsely anchored in "the now" because he's averaging between an infinite past and an infinite future. His delusion comes from his followers elevating him ever higher: an equally destructive position as to being thrown down a deep chasm. It is a lucky man indeed who can survive either fate. Very lucky.

I greatly enjoy pondering the significance of the movie. It's good and sticky … something that will continue to haunt my personal philosophy.

But then on the way out of the theater, I come upon a most peculiar scene. A man is lying on the ground on the side of the driveway with another one on a cell phone summoning help. It turns out the guy was walking home and slipped on the ice. He said he heard something pop in both his legs — a police officer with medical training suggested he probably dislocated his hip. After a few minutes an ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital. The small crowd that had formed — thankfully a few people were his friends that he asked me to try and locate — stood around impotently while experts treated him. I felt bad that I couldn't do anything to help him. It looked to hurt like hell, but rolling him around to make him more comfortable would have only made things worse.

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