Archive for August, 2008

Abortion protesters never get old

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

I don’t have much time to blog today, as Obama’s acceptance speech at Invesco Field (combined with the fiasco of the change of venue) is sucking all of the oxygen out of the atmosphere. It was actually hard just to find time on a computer. So I’ll focus this post on one little quirky aspect of every Democratic Convention I’ve been to so far (every one since 1992): abortion protestors.

In case you haven’t realized, the abortion protesters are really serious about what they do. They aren’t violent at least, so they tend to get a response of bemused indifference from the police instead of active hostility. This allows them to demonstrate a lot closer to the convention venues, so they’re typically the only protestors convention-goers ever see (along with all of the pro-Democratic protestors like Code Pink, anyway). The more violent demonstraters, like the anarchists, are typically relegated to having clashes with hundreds of riot-clad police blocks away, so you really only see them on television.

The abortion protester’s favorite tactic is to wave around large banners of partial-birth abortions. That their images don’t really have much relevance to the vast majority of abortions doesn’t faze them; they’re going for the extreme example. So as a result you get to see all sorts of fun pictures of mutilated fetuses on your way into and out of the convention. It’s kind of cruel to force the little kids who are going with their parents to see this kind of stuff, but I guess that’s the First Amendment for you.

Unfortunately, I think their tactic has backfired on me. I’ve seen these images so much that they don’t even viscerally affect me anymore (and a visceral reaction is all they have going for them). They only have so many pictures of mutilated fetuses to work with, and I’ve seen them all. So I’ve resorted to making sarcastic comments when I go past these people, like “Yummy!” or “Thank God that one was aborted, look at how ugly it is!” Consider it a counter-trolling of sorts.

In the end, none of the photographs these protesters have shoved in front of my face have changed my views on abortion at all. I’m still pro-choice, and that belief is not based on any visceral reaction, but rather a long and considered internal debate. And keep in mind, photographs of any number of surgical procedures are pretty much guaranteed to be visceral. I’m sure a photograph of a full face transplant surgery in progress is a lot more disturbing than any of their abortion photographs, but it wouldn’t serve as evidence to convince anyone to ban the procedure.

To their convention-goers’ credit, they are responding to the protesters well, which is to say they’re completely ignoring them. Trying to engage people this far gone in a debate is a non-starter, so it’s best not to even bother. That’s why my brief remarks to them are flippant at best, and I never stop moving as I deliver them. Plus, nearly all of their arguments are prejudiced on religion anyway, so when they try to “convince” me they completely miss the mark. We don’t even share the same worldview.

And on one last note, it’s interesting to see how the abortion protesters have recognized the power of language. They distort their language to their own aims, no matter how inaccurate it is. Thus every month-old embryo isn’t referred to as an embryo, but as a “baby” or “child”, which is of course thoroughly inaccurate.

Musical talent comes out to Colorado to support Democrats

Monday, August 25th, 2008

I saw Sheryl Crow, Sugarland, and Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds in concert last night. The venue was Red Rocks Ampitheatre, a gorgeous natural ampitheatre surrounded by red sandstone peaks on multiple sides with a beautiful view of nighttime Denver. It was probably the best concert venue I’ve ever been to. The only disadvantage was having to climb 200 steps just to go to the restroom.

The theme of the concert was the environment, with talks by various famous people including Colorado governor Bill Ritter, Colorado congressman John Salazar, Virginia governor Tim Kaine, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Ironically, my dad is currently suing one of the sponsors of the concert for polluting the environment, so perhaps it’s best to remember the distinction between what one says and how one acts.

Sheryl Crow and Sugarland were good, if not really my kind of thing. Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, on the other hand, were great. I’d never heard of Tim Reynolds before, but he’s an amazing guitarist, and he stole the show. He played the really intricate parts while Dave Matthews played the rhythm parts (and, of course, sang). Dave Matthews came off as being really high, or at the very least, “quirky”. Ignoring the weird stuff he was saying between songs was probably the best course of action. They played a lot of Dave Matthews’ biggest hits, most of which I was able to sing along with, and I was surprised by the richness of sound just two acoustic-electric guitars with no other musical backing were able to put out. A lot of that was thanks to Tim’s skill (and of course his large set of effects pedals, which had his guitar sounding like a Chinese mandolin in a couple of songs).

Tonight we’re seeing Crosby and Nash in concert, along with some others I haven’t really heard of before. If nothing else, at least the Democratic National Convention has attracted some good musical talent. I don’t think the Republicans quite get this caliber of musical talent at their events. In fact, I think they mostly just get sued for ripping off popular music by musicians who most definitely do not agree with their views.

Initial impressions of Denver

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Here are some of my impressions of Denver so far, in no particular order (you may recall I’m here for the Democratic National Convention).

The teenagers here suck. Talk about midwest suburban angst. I’ve seen so many piercings, bad haircuts, and outright horrible emo-style outfits. Columbine actually makes some sense to me now. The teenagers that weren’t busy pissing me off with their stupid appearances were busy pissing me off by begging for money. I’ve never seen so many young beggars before (some of whom appeared homeless and baked out of their mind). Seriously, get a goddamn job. Maybe dropping out of high school wasn’t the smartest decision you ever made. One group of hoodlums begged my parents for money, saying “I’ll be honest, I just want a beer” (that might work when begging from college students, but not from Baby Boomers). And then as we passed them for a second time in the night they got all hostile, hurling insults at us. I don’t think they quite get the idea of begging.

The Hyatt Convention Center Hotel is nice. The Colorado Convention Center itself is huge, and it’s just being used as a staging ground for the actual Convention, which will take place at a basketball stadium and then a football stadium. There’s a good pizza place a block away from the hotel.

I ran into James Carville in our hotel two nights ago (this was either my second or third time meeting him, I can’t remember). He’s still as freaky looking as ever.

The Media Party last night at Elitch Gardens (which is actually a Six Flags) was fun. Imagine going to a normal amusement park, except the lines are a lot shorter and everything — food, games, alcohol — is free. The games of chance become frankly unbalanced when one has unlimited free tries at winning them. I saw so many people struggling around with huge stuffed animals. I hope they’re not trying to bring them back on planes anywhere. Also, Flobots performed at Elitch Gardens, which was fun to see, because their single Handlebars has been getting a lot of play time on the local radio stations in Washington D.C. Their bassist was good, but to me the star of the show was their female vocalist/electric violinist who was hot as all hell and good at both of her roles. It’s too bad she doesn’t feature in their breakout single at all.

There are so many police officers in and around the convention center. They’re really taking things seriously. They meander around in groups of four to over a dozen, and travel on foot, in patrol cars, in armored convoys, on bicycles, and I even saw a squad of them hanging on to the outside of a police pick-up truck, garbage-man style. Most of the police officers I’ve seen are equipped with heavy riot load-outs, including fully-shielded helmets, bargain-sized canisters of mace, taser guns, three-foot-batons, and bunches of plastic riot handcuffs. There are parts of the convention center that have more police officers in them than staffers actually going about their convention duties.

So, that’s about it for the first two days. The convention officially kicks off tomorrow, so things will be getting really busy. I’ll bring my camera with me and hopefully I’ll find some interesting people to take pictures of.

Going to the Democratic National Convention

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

I’m getting on a plane to Denver, Colorado in a couple of hours to attend the Democratic National Convention, so my blogging here might become rather sporadic over the next week or so depending on busy my schedule ends up being. I’ll try to post photographs, at least.

$2 bills are NOT rare. Go out and spend them

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

I like spending $2 bills. A lot. I suppose I’m a bit of a currency eccentric (I also like $1 coins and do the whole Where’s George thing). I find $2 bills a lot more convenient than $1 bills, since they take up half the space in your wallet for the same dollar amount and the “worst” that can happen from not having $1s is that you get a single $1 bill in addition to some coins as change. I don’t particularly believe in carrying around larger denominations, as I mostly use cash for buying food and I frequently run into situations where no one can break a larger denomination bill (say, a coworker has gone and brought back lunch). So at the very least $2 bills are efficient for my purposes.

But spending $2 bills is also some good clean real life trolling fun. The average cashier will go months if not years without seeing a single $2 bill, so spending many at once gets all sorts of fun reactions. I’ve never not had one accepted, but I have gotten lots of flabbergasted cashiers wondering why I’m spending bills that are “rare”. Well, that is at least a misconception I can clear up.

In recent decades, the US Treasury has printed $2 Federal Reserve notes many times, spanning series years of 1976, 1995, 2003, and 2003A. The most recent printing of the 2003A series was in September 2006 (note that series year and year of actual printing can diverge by many years), and the total print run of the 2003A series was 221 million bills. That’s almost enough for every American to have one. So $2 bills are still in print, they’re not rare, and they’re only ever worth above face value if there’s something unusual about them (just like with all other bills). There’s absolutely no reason not to spend them. And if supplies of them ever run low for whatever reason, the Federal Reserve will be more than happy to print more!

All it takes to get $2 bills is to go to the bank and ask for some. Believe me, they’re more than happy to get rid of the ones they have, because they tend to languish untouched in bank register drawers for months on end. The last time I was at the bank I only got 100 $2 bills, but the cashier was practically begging me to take the rest of the ones they had. And if the bank is out of $2 bills, they should be able to order you some more. I had to do this once when my regular bank completely ran out of $2 bills, and as a nice bonus, the bills that I got were completely new, uncirculated, and with sequential serial numbers.

So I suppose there’s one last question to address: if the $2 bill is so infrequently seen in real life that most people mistakenly think that the bill itself is rare, why does the US Treasury still bother printing them? There’s a one-word answer to that: seignorage! Seignorage is the profit that the Mint makes on the difference between how much the currency costs to produce (in the case of bills, a few cents) and its face value ($2 in the case of the $2 bill, obviously) if the currency is taken out of circulation. The Treasury makes comparatively little in seignorage on $1 bills, because they’re so incredibly common that hardly anyone intentionally takes them out of circulation by saving them. But $2 bills go out of circulation very frequently due to to people saving them and then never spending them, so the Treasury makes a pretty penny.

So the next time you’re at the bank, ask the teller for some $2 bills and then actually go out and spend them. They’re a great way to strike up random conversations as you’re buying things (which is otherwise a very boring process). Waiters love receiving them as tips. And they truly are the most beautiful of any of the bills currently in circulation, with Thomas Jefferson on the front (what a cool dude) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back. Eye-pyramid of the Illuminati, eat your heart out!

Getting nostalgic for stop signs

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Is anyone else getting nostalgic for stop signs? Oh, I’m not talking about the everyday stop sign, the kind that is unnecessarily put at any intersection between two small suburban streets. I’m talking about the real stop sign, the kind on an intersection between busy streets that actually requires that vehicles stop. At the stop signs I’m interested in, having multiple vehicles at the intersection at once isn’t a rarity, it’s the norm. These real stop signs used to be a lot more abundant in number, but they’ve been whittled away at over the years, being replaced with traffic lights.

Why am I nostalgic about stop signs, you might ask? Because they create actual human interaction on the road, which is so rare these days where nearly every real crossing is minded by mechanical masters. Following a colored signal on a box in the sky is a menial task an unskilled robot could do. But tracking every car in queue at an intersection and negotiating who has the right of way next — that requires human interaction. And it creates a feel-good feeling too, graciously letting others that arrived at the stop sign before you proceed ahead, then receiving that same courtesy in turn when it is your turn to go. Stop signs restore faith in humanity. And they even restore faith in human intelligence, as it’s especially nice when more sophisticated coordination occurs and more than two vehicles pass through the intersection simultaneously — for example, two cars in one set of opposite roads making rights and then two cars in the other set of opposite roads making lefts.

The best stop sign intersection I’m aware of is at the corner of Edgewood Rd. and Rhode Island Ave. in College Park, MD. Edgewood Rd. has a median down the center of it, and each of its faces onto the intersection is two vehicles across. This allows the negotiation of some nice simultaneous intersection crossings with more than four vehicles, the kind that are pretty much only handled by traffic lights anywhere else. The dance as as a long line of cars during rush hour make a nice, orderly crossing of the intersection is a sight to behold. And I’m going to cherish that intersection as much as possible, because inevitably the county is going to come through and put up a traffic light at some point, ruining all of the magic and taking just another tiny step toward removing all human interaction from our journeys on the road.

Why men’s gymnastics is better than women’s gymnastics

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Men’s gymnastics is better than women’s gymnastics (not that either is even close to my favorite sport, mind you). Here’s why.

In addition to having events that focus on grace, flexibility, tumbling, vaulting, etc., men’s gymnastics has at least two events that focus mainly on strength: pommel horse and rings. And why is a focus on strength important? Because then you can’t have fricking 12-year-olds with forged passports from a host country illegally competing in a gymnastics event (can you tell that I’m bitter?).

Look at all of the male gymnasts. They’re built. You’re not going to see that kind of muscle strength on a twelve year old. In men’s gymnastics, there is no temptation to try to skirt the rules and run a gymnast who’s under sixteen because any gymnast under sixteen would be utterly trounced. There’s simply no way they’d be strong enough to handle some of the events. By comparison, there is a big impetus in women’s gymnastics to try to sneak in under-agers because there’s nothing other than the rules that would make them unable to compete.

Besides my bitterness over the United States getting beat by a team of way-underaged Chinese gymnast cheaters, there’s another reason for preferring men’s gymnastics: Since the competitors are older, they frequently start later in life, allowing them a couple more years of unfettered childhood before they’re shipped off to gymnastics camp gulags. There’s no way in hell what’s happening to these girls who start training at the age of 4 is healthy.

This is what a maxed out Verizon FIOS connection can do

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Having moved into my current residence less than a week ago, the next logical thing to do was to test out our new blazingly fast 20 Mbps downstream/20 Mbps upstream Verizon FIOS connection to see if we were really getting what we paid for. A simple online speed test reported numbers of 20.5 Mbps and downstream 18.5 Mbps upstream, which is very good considering I’ve never actually seen results that close to what was promised. But that was only a measure of momentary bandwidth. Next, I wanted to test our connection over sustained periods, to see if Verizon was going to automatically throttle us at some point.

So I opened up my BitTorrent client and let it seed from everything I’ve downloaded in recent memory. Then I kind of forgot about it and just left it running for 24 hours while I attended to all of the other tasks involved in moving into a new place. I think I may have accidentally left an upload cap in place, so I’m in the process of running the test again. But the results were still impressive nonetheless: When I checked on BitTorrent 24 hours later, I had uploaded 150 Gigabytes. That’s 150 GB in a single day, for an average sustained upstream bandwidth of 14.2 Mbps. That is really nice, and it makes me think I’m never going to have problems downloading torrents quickly ever again (as the download speed is largely limited by the upload speed thanks to the BitTorrent protocol).

So far I’m very impressed with Verizon FIOS. It’s definitely worth the $70 a month, split three ways, that we’re paying. This house having FIOS availability was actually an important part of choosing to rent it, as ADSL is way too slow and the only cable provider in the area, Comcast, is notorious for bandwidth throttling, traffic shaping, and pretty much doing everything else in their power to prevent having to give you what you paid for.

Improvements in broadband service are proceeding at an agonizingly slow rate here in the United States, with most providers like Comcast focusing more on limiting what their customers can do with their service than building out the critical infrastructure that is so desperately needed. This tactic can only work in the short term, and it will begin to fail spectacularly as the average American begins watching more streaming video on the web and starts buying products via digital download (up until now, Comcast has gotten away with cracking down on people who use lots of bandwidth because most of them are file sharers, i.e. involved in illicit activities).

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a company like Verizon who isn’t taking the low road and is making a serious effort to deploy fiber to the home to provide the bandwidth that will continue fueling our digital revolution. As the New York Times pointed out recently, Americans now spend almost as much on bandwidth (in all forms — Internet, digital TV, mobile Internet, mobile phones, etc.) as they do on energy. Bandwidth is a vital input to our economy, and Verizon’s approach of actually giving us a lot more bandwidth is infinitely superior to Comcast’s approach. I highly recommend Verizon FIOS.

KDE 4.1 is out and good enough for everyday use

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Version 4.1 of the K Desktop Environment (the first release of KDE 4.x suitable for everyday use) for GNU/Linux came out recently, and last week I decided to give it a try. It’s pretty good, but it’s still a bit unpolished. Installing it in Ubuntu was simple, except for an error with one of the packages that forced me to remove them all, then install them again in a specific order using the dist-upgrade command. The process will become smoother when it hits the main Ubuntu branch, but for now, just be forewarned that it still has a bit of a “beta” feel to it.

KDE 4.1 also did something weird with my xorg.conf, so I have to restore it to a working version upon each boot or I get dumped back into the basic vesa driver which can only display a resolution of 640×480. Luckily I hardly ever reboot, or this would be more of an annoyance. Again, I expect this to be something that’s fixed in the final release. I don’t think these problems are even KDE 4.1′s fault, but rather, a problem in the way the Ubuntu packager configured things.

So, after debugging the problems (and you wouldn’t even be interested in checking out bleeding edge software releases if you seriously minded contributing to the edge being bleeding in the first place), KDE 4.1 is up and running, and it’s really nice. Whereas KDE 3.5 seemed to draw inspiration for its appearance from Windows 95, KDE 4.1 draws its inspiration from Windows Vista, and even gives it a run for its money. KDE 4.1 is a pleasure to look at, right from the boot-up screen all the way to the everyday tasks performed in the desktop environment. Even the applications menu, with its smoothly animated sliding pages, is well done. Appearance matters a lot more than most free software folks will admit to, so it’s good to see a free software project that really gets it.

KDE 4′s best new feature has to be the desktop plasmoids. A plasmoid is a view of a folder that goes on the desktop, so it is always beneath all other opened applications and does not show up on the taskbar. The simplest use of a plasmoid is to show the contents of the desktop folder (creating a desktop folder plasmoid the size of the entire screen emulates the behavior in other desktop environments). Plasmoids are nice because they corral the icons that normally overwhelm a desktop into a nice sortable box. And then the real power of the plasmoid is revealed when you create other plasmoids — one plasmoid for your Documents folder, another for the download directory for Mozilla Firefox, another for the download directory for BitTorrent, etc. All of the files you need are always at your finger tips, in a neat orderly manner that don’t overwhelm your task bar. Organizing your files is as easy as dragging icons from one plasmoid to another. It’s such an incredible user interface improvement it makes you wonder why no one else has thought of it before. Oh wait, they sort of have — anyone remember Windows 3.1 and its persistent folder windows?

KDE 4.1 is also lacking some configuration options in comparison to KDE 3.5, but it’s apparently already a lot better than KDE 4.0 was, and most of the configuration options should be restored soon in future releases. All of the basic options are there, you just don’t have the kind of intricate configurability that long-time KDE users might expect.

I would love to write about all of the new desktop widgets, but alas, I couldn’t get any of them working, and this error is echoed by others out there trying out the Ubuntu build of KDE 4.1. This looks like another error by the packager. Oh well. KDE 4.1 on Ubuntu is still perfectly usable as is, it just doesn’t have all the bells-and-whistles. If the problems I’ve listed so far aren’t deal-breakers for you, go ahead and download KDE 4.1 and try it out. Otherwise, you might want to wait another few weeks or so until the official mainline release is out. Even if you’ve never used KDE before (which is quite common for Ubuntu users, seeing as how Gnome is the default window manager), you ought to give it a serious try. You might really like it.

The move is complete

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Let’s see, I graduated college a year and three months ago. I initially looked for housing in the local area with one of my college buddies, but our plans fell through, and in August of last year, almost exactly a year ago, I moved back in with my parents. Yeah, I know, not the coolest thing in the world, but hey, it was cheap and close to work. But moving back in after college kind of wears on you, you know? So I knew I would get out eventually; it was only a matter of time.

Well, the stars aligned and I have now moved back out of my parents house as of last night. I’m living with the friend I looked for a place with a year ago (whom you know as Grokmoo, for those of you from Supreme Commander Talk) and another friend from college, who just graduated this year. Just a half hour ago I finished wiring this house up with CAT6 cable, so our local area network is alive and well. And since it’s attached to 20/20 Mbps Verizon FIOS, well, it’s a pretty nice network to be on! Hence the lack of a blog post yesterday, and also why this one is so late: I really didn’t have Internet for over a day. Yeah, I don’t know how I survived either.

It’ll probably still be another couple weeks before I’m settled in here. I still have all sorts of things left to move from my parents’ house. Right now my bedroom just has a bed, a desk, and a lot of boxes — the dresser, nightstand, and bookcases haven’t made it over yet. I’m actually dressing out of a suitcase right now. But at least I have all the essentials. And a longer commute, unfortunately.

The usual non-navel-gazing blog posts should resume tomorrow.