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Monday, June 30, 2008

Thems the Brakes

Last time it was the bank and cable company that provoked my Mongo tendencies, today it's the automotive industry. I may just start buying foreign cars from now on because of this injustice. Fine. I will calm down and try to rationally explain my previous outburst. But, I will have you know that I want someone to bring me the head of the General, now.

I have driven a certain type of vehicle since I could legally drive. While I try to be objective and not bash anyone personally I will hold true to that and refer to the company as BM instead. Make your own assumptions on what it really means and what BM could stand for and you'll feel my pain. When my car died in 2005 of a blown head gasket I was forced to buy a car immediately. BM, along with a lot of other manufacturers, was running a special for employee pricing. This meant instead of the sticker price you pay what an employee would pay for the car. It seemed as if there was ever a time I would own a brand new car, it would be now. At that point I had been the proud owner of pre-owned vehicles that had their own issues but were endeared to my heart. We worked the dealer down some more on the price and drove off the lot with a brand new 2005 car. Since then, it has not passed inspection on the first try, three years running. The culprits are always the same, worn rotors and tires.

I suspect that BM is fully aware of the junk they put on their cars and for the life of me I can't understand why a bumper to bumper warranty does not cover everything between one bumper and the other within the allotted 36,000 miles. Within a year and 12,000 miles both my front tires and rotors were worn down. The tires were not covered and I had to purchase two new ones at $140 total. The rotors had become warped and needed to be replaced however, the dealer's solution, probably on instruction from the manufacturer was to machine the rotors within specification. Now, I am in no way a gear head or have any great knowledge about how cars work other than the few things I have fixed myself, but I would think that a bumper to bumper warranty means that you would replace a faulty part. Apparently, I was wrong and my car passed inspection with new tires and machined rotors.

The next year, just as before the other set of original tires and my rotors, again, became worn down and had to be replaced just inside another 12,000 miles. Again, I had to purchase new tires at $140, but this time I figured they would have to replace the rotors since it is near impossible to machine rotors within specification twice. Again, I would be wrong and the dealer wouldn't budge on this. So, the car passed inspection with brand new tires and twice machined rotors.

Somewhere in the last year, probably do to devoting all mental capacity towards fatherhood, I forgot that my inspection was coming up and while shelling out money for party planning items I nearly had a heart attack when the garage called me and said that my car would not pass inspection and would require new brakes and new rotors at a cost of $300. Feeling like Uncle Billy Bailey and looking for a string on one of my fingers, I suddenly remembered that I had twice machine rotors on that car and that they would more than likely be shot come inspection. Also, I had over 37,000 miles on the car and therefore I was totally screwed. I swallowed my pride and ponied up the $300 to have the car road ready.

It has now become apparent that when I do buy a car again, I will pursue a pre-owned model, possibly of foreign make. And, I will make it known to BM, the dealer, or whoever will listen to me why my choice will be as such. I am tired of spending money on a car, only to spend money again for maintenance every year after while I hold a worthless piece of paper that says WARRANTY on it. Let someone else make the mistake of buying a brand new vehicle and have all the junk be replaced before trading it in and I will buy that car with better parts on it.

Actually, I am such a sucker that I will probably stick to buying cars from BM. Mostly, because I have a credit card that gives me cash toward the purchase of one of their vehicles. It came in handy with the purchase of the car in 2005 as I received $700 off the price. But, that being said, I will march into the dealer, select the car I want, and then state my issue with the price. "OK, that's the price you're giving me, now you're going to take $600 off the price." When the sales associate finally stops spitting out his coffee and asks me why he should my response will be, "Because, as soon as that car leaves the lot, I am going to spend that $600 on new brake pads, rotors, and four brand new tires that aren't crap." If he has a problem with that statement and refuses my demands I will shake my fist violently in the air and say, "Good day to you sir," and leave heading for the nearest car lot with used foreign cars on them. After looking around I will go home and sulk and wait for the phone to ring. Perhaps the salesman will have come to his senses and will grovel at my feet for a sale. So, don't call me, I don't want to tie up...
Hold on.

OK, sorry, I thought the phone just rang..... I don't want to tie up the line for when he calls....

sorry, one more second.

I apologize, that was the fire department looking for a donation....

You know what, I'm just going to go back to the dealer and see him. His phone might not be working properly.

Interesting link for the day.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Where Should We Be

The final part to the series, Good vs. Evil: The Internet.

I had a real tough time trying to come up with this last post. My focus has been scattered and my brain can't process information over a few sentences long. So, you can see how writing an entire blog post about where we should be in terms of the Internet evolution can be a daunting task. In fact, my first stop on the web today was to read an article entitled, Is Google Making Us Stupid? Oddly enough, the writer complains that we, as a society, have neither the discipline nor mental capacity to absorb information if it isn't in little blurbs, yet his article is rather lengthy. Much like my blog posts.

In this case, I totally agree with the author. We are becoming dumber. Actually, let me rephrase that, we're becoming more dependent on the Internet to do everything for us. Google has positioned itself to be the 'perfect' search engine. Its ultimate goal is to predict exactly what you want when you search for something and return that result to the top of the page. That's a lofty goal. In fact, if it ever does succeed 100% of time I think we need to worry. The desire to turn Google into an artificial intelligence is exactly the thing that science fiction has predicted will cause our demise. Look at the Terminator, The Matrix, or I, Robot, movies. The back-story to those films are rooted in the desire for man to give up control of everyday banalities to machines who in turn see us a threat to them or to each other. Machines don't hate or discriminate, but they can calculate probability and foresee possible reactions. In short, they take emotion out of the equation and what's left is the logical ideal that man will decidedly destroy itself. For that, machines will calculate that a person can not logically operate a vehicle without guarantee of bodily harm and therefore, should not drive at all. You are now one step from saying that humanity can not logically exist without harming itself and therefore should not exist at all. Every little computation a computer does it a part of its sum. You can not program logic to deny itself. Sure, you can program random occurrences of illogical actions, but you are still accounting for and inserting that into the programming. Perhaps this is what we refer to as a soul. A computer will never have one and it shouldn't lest it have control over our lives.

I always follow this rule of thumb when dealing with the ideas behind science fiction, if you want ensure conflict of man vs. machine, make the humans blindly look to machines to do the most menial of labor. That's a jumping off point for disaster. It's the equivalent of cutting your nose off to spite your face. Computers are not smarter than humans. That's a little egotistical, I'll admit. However, a human built a computer. A human gave a computer the ability to do calculations. A human told a computer how to do those calculations. In other words, lest a computer be built by God or a supreme being, it's still man made and therefore subject to be no more intelligent than the smartest person. Is it quicker, more efficient, and less likely to make a mistake? Yes, but it is not smarter than a human's potential for intelligence. Yet, as we devise new ways to allow computers to do calculations for us, freeing us for other thoughts, we lose the ability to be the smarter of the two. With the Internet now controlling a lot of our calculations and processes, we have severely crimped our capacity for analytical thought.

The Internet delivers so much information, so quickly, and without interference that we have to become faster at absorbing. Long prose gets scuttled for quick sound bites. Our brain is literally being rewired to accept these changes in thought and viewing, stripping our thought process to the bare minimum. In aviation terms, its been pared down to a flying gas can. We use the internet on a daily basis for information gathering and then we forget it. We don't need to remember what the information is, we know where to look for it. The brain, like a muscle, simply does not get used the way it did and atrophies like the legs of a spinal cord injury patient dependent on a wheel chair for mobility. So, I asked the question, "Where Should We Be?" The answer is "Where We Were." Instead of giving control over to computers with an Internet connection, let's use the Internet to give us better control over our lives and our world.

The Internet and I guess computers in general need to be an improvement on a process, not just do the work for you. Phrases like, "Reinventing the wheel" and "Building a better mousetrap" are terms that state that in order to make something better, you need to identify what is wrong with a process and fix it, leaving what works. In art you get Michelangelo's thought process for David, "It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.” "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." The same applies here. If the Internet and computers just does the work for us, we are always dependent on them for that process every time. But, if the Internet or computers simply assist us in doing that work, we still have the control and do not lose ourselves. My father-in-law is a retired technician who worked for over 30 years at Westinghouse. 10 years later, he's gone back to work doing the same kind of technical work he did before. The only difference is everything he does involves email. Something he's okay with at home on the computer, but his job uses a different program and he doesn't get it as easily. While, I sometimes tell him that it's not that hard and that it's essential to learn this system, he reminds me that, for 30 years, he did his job without it and the work was finished on time and of quality. There's a human element needed sometimes.

Web design should be clean and simple removing everything that isn't needed. However, where does that 'everything' fit into the Internet? Google. Everything you can think of adding to or piling onto a search engine is done or in the works. When I first looked at the Internet in terms of being good or evil I said, "What would make Google better? Instead of giving me little gadgets and stuff, actually take a concept and improve it." For instance, traffic patterns. Every time I figure out directions for some trip, I always laugh at the estimated time for travel, because I know for a fact that there is construction on a particular road. But guess what? Google has live traffic information on its maps. So, that being said, I really can't think of anything that could make the Internet better.

I can, however, think of several things that the Internet can do to make humanity better. For starters, let's slow it down. I don't mean speed of search or speed of connection. I mean speed of discovery. I can think of several other worthwhile things for the brain trust of this world to be working on instead of making the Internet better. We haven't fixed major issues in this world outside the realm of computers for years. What's the last disease we cured, Polio? Our best and brightest are so busy making televisions larger and computers smaller that they forget that hey people need to use them and can't if they're dead from disease. Maybe, there is a way to take what advancements we've made in communication and electronic design and apply them to realm brick and mortar problems.

Here's my proposal. The top propeller heads at Google work to make it a better search engine. How about use their abilities to make the world a better place. I'm sorry but the Internet is not going to win a Nobel Prize. But the concepts and ideas that help shape the Internet can be applied to engineering in civil settings. We spend so much energy trying to make computers free up time for us yet we are working longer hours and commuting farther in order to do so. Design city infrastructure based on concepts that make the Internet work. We have a device on our "pipeline" that shapes the traffic on our Internet connection, giving importance to business critical functions and leaves poor schmucks like me looking for the sports score to watch an hourglass. Why not figure out a way to plan roads better. Hell, we've got a sandbox right now in the Middle East to test and design theories. I may be speaking in terms of apples and oranges but there has to be a way to look as the Internet and computers as a model for making offline life more efficient. Instead of doing everything we can to use the Internet to waste time, find ways to have the Internet enhance our time.

Classroom texts can be outdated and have no value beyond a second edition or third edition. I still keep a couple of books for reference material but an Internet repository for information and knowledge about school subjects allow educators and students to keep abreast of the most current of ideas and in essence, remove paper from the system. It's Lean and Green. Perhaps government should fund a pilot program where small schools are made paperless. In other words, each student is issued a laptop or Kindle device that accesses a central repository of information in a curriculum. Lessons are assigned through the computers to the students who then complete them and workflow is established to ensure accountability and punctuality. The devices have no internet capabilities outside the classroom without VPN into the closed network of the school and each student is provided a flash card authentication to ensure no tampering. This frees up classroom time for discussion, theorizing, brainstorming. The teacher uses a smart board to put up concepts, teach the lessons, and the smart board then zaps it into the repository for student consumption. Discussion threads spark creativity among classmates and educators and we weed out a lot of minutiae. Students are actively participating as a grade requirement and their tasks assigned by the application keep track of their work towards that goal. You could even branch out globally and connect classrooms from all over the world to learn from each other. There is your beginnings of a global community. I still think that children should learn technical skills alongside analytical skills. Yes, there are people still needed to fix cars and air conditioners but at least give them the training to do both. Let's correct the mistake that our parents paid for when the factories closed down and they had to learn all new skills in computers to gain employment.

Of course, I'm probably way behind on the times and this is already in practice at some school and the world is once again, passing me by like I'm just getting the punch line to a joke from a half an hour ago. But these are just two ideas that hit me while I was in an 'executive meeting' today..... Sooner or later expect there be desktop furniture in the bathroom for people to work on their laptop while they do their business. Why not? We take the Internet wherever we go. Why not take it to the bathroom and enjoy my bullshit along with your own. Just remember to wash your hands...and your keyboard.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I Love NY But Not NKOTB

Every generation has its musical trends that don't quite sit well with the older folks. In the 50's it was Elvis and Rock & Roll. In the 60's it was The Beatles. Those of us, who grew up in the 80's had to weather our own strange trends and when you look back 20 years later you scratch your head and sniff the ridiculousness that was in your mind the end all/be all of existence. That's one of the downfalls of childhood, the ability to take something so mundane and unimportant and turn it into a huge deal in your life. Relationships are the same way. William Shakespeare was either way ahead of his time or the luckiest S.O.B. who every put quill to paper. Look at Romeo and Juliet from this angle. The importance of their forbidden love was just that, theirs. Youth and raging hormones have a way of ratcheting up the importance when it comes to emotions. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet took their love a little too seriously in terms of death before distance. The melodrama that plays out in Shakespeare's text is meant to be romantic and tragic. To think that two people were so in love that they were willing to die rather than be apart is a noble and inspiring thought. Today, we just chalk it up to adolescence. I do think Shakespeare was ahead of his time and wrote to his audience. In fact, if he were alive today, he'd be writing soapy teenage dramas for the CW or Fox. Kevin Williamson would have renamed Dawson's Creek, Dawson upon Potter's Creek. In any case, the writing on those shows would be ten times better, although I suspect the acting would still be too much for any sane person to handle.

Yet for every trend that passes into our history, it has a tendency to reemerge again, only to serve as a testament of the reason for its original demise. Beverly Hills 90210 is getting another shot on television. Why? Aaron Spelling is doing somersaults in his grave. Also, another notable event this year is the reformation and touring of The New Kids on the Block. Again, why? It is because of this resurgence in NKOTB drivel that I am reminded of how I felt like a love torn Shakespearean character whose adolescent mind made Much Ado About Nothing when it came to love.

During my years in Junior High, which consisted of the 7th through 9th grades, I was in a transitional phase of my development. In other words, I was going through puberty and an awkward phase. I wore braces and was two years away from contact lenses and any sense of being somewhat normal looking. In an effort to further my chances with a certain girl in my class, I professed my unwavering "like like" of a group I would normally just call fruity and only for girls. This of course was New Kids on the Block. Guys at my age couldn't fathom the idea that girls at my age could be so enthralled with a bunch of high falsettos dancing and singing. To us, you liked Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Run DMC, and Def Leppard. Boy bands were not something we gave much thought to, unless you were trying to win points with a girl. In that mindset we talked a tough game about how "New Kids sucked" or "They have no talent," but when the guys left it was all, "Yeah, I think Joey is the talent" and "Donnie just fronts being a bad boy." Honestly, this has to be training for any guy who later has a debate with his wife over which color looks better on the bedroom wall, eggshell or ivory.

See, I was marked for death in this potential relationship early on, I just didn't know it yet. The girl in question, we'll call her Layla, was already in a relationship with a guy. Of course, at the age of 14, what consisted of a relationship? Do you meet at the mall or does one of your moms drive? Do you buy her dinner at a fancy restaurant or do you spring for Pizza with your grass cutting money? Remember, we're the same age as Romeo and Juliet. Everything is important. I was the "friend" she confided in about her guy problems. I was the safety. I thought I was in love with her. So, in order to score points with her, I listened to NKOTB. For awhile, I choked back the vomit and kept up a pretty good cover on liking this band. Secretly, I loved listening to "New Kids Got Run Over By a Reindeer" on Dr. Demento's Sunday night radio show. My plan was working. In fact, she had told me several times she had planned on breaking up with her boyfriend. That was my chance to help the process along and be there for her during the rebound.

About that same time, our History class had a field trip to New York City. It was a three day trip that couldn't have come at a better time. Layla's boyfriend was not going to be on the trip so I had the entire time to worm my way in and make her mine. She even agreed to sit next to me on the bus during the six hour bus ride. It was all playing out like a classic 80's movie. All I had to do was get her alone at night in some romantic spot with the skyline behind us and everything would take care of itself. I was the sensitive friend, who was also the closest warm body in proximity. The odds were in my favor. She would be drunk on the allure of New York's charm and I would strike. I was set. Nothing could stop me. I was going to win this round and then I could stop listening to those damn New Kids. What could go wrong?

At one point during the bus ride, Layla disappeared, saying she would be right back. She ventured to the back of the bus to talk to a friend. I didn't see her for the rest of the bus ride. When we got to New York, she was suddenly absent from our little group of friends that were going to be sight seeing together. Still, I loved every minute of seeing the top of the Statue of Liberty, and we even ended up in the receiving line of a wedding St. Patrick's Cathedral by accident. But, no Layla. We went to the top of The World Trade Center and Empire State Building and looked over the city. We ate at Houlihan's and a real New York style pizza. But, no Layla. In fact, I hardly saw her the entire trip. At one point I caught a glance of her talking to one of the other guys and they were holding hands. WHAT?!?! How could this be? That's my moment. Who are you to get in the way? On the way home, it finally sank in what had happened when I noticed her sitting in the back next to her new friend.

Layla did in fact go back to talk to her 'girl' friend during the ride to New York. While there she noticed someone she never noticed before. Sitting directly across from her friend was a boy who, until recently, had never looked like much. He was tall and lanky and wore glasses and button down shirts. Somehow, during the previous summer he changed. He bulked up and joined the wrestling team. He suddenly had huge, muscular thighs and arms. He traded in his button down shirts for attire that accentuated his growth spurt. Now, the running joke was that he was on steroids but this was years before Barry Bonds and BALCO. This was during the Bash Brothers era of the Oakland A's. So, while I'm up there, alone, syncing my Walkman to play, "I'll Be Loving You Forever" at the moment she comes back. She's back there batting her eyes at Marco Solo. Somehow, I missed my opportunity.

I had missed a lot of opportunities, it turns out. This guy wasn't sensitive. He wasn't interested in her feelings towards things like good piano sheet music for cheesy 80's songs by Cher and Peter Cetera. He didn't even claim to like NKOTB. He was the total opposite of everything I did to win her favor and it worked. She dumped her boyfriend and moved right in and they dated for the next two years. All the ground work I laid, all the chiseling away at her wounded heart, all the bile I choked back listening to "Oh Oh, Oh Oh Oh" was for nothing. I carried the ball from my own 20, down to the opposing five yard line and this yahoo gets the ball and takes it an easy walk into the end zone for the touchdown.

Now, again, I cannot stress enough the mindset of a fourteen year old boy in the middle of adolescence. This was devastating to my psyche. I went from fourteen to three in a matter of minutes. I did everything but hold my breath and roll around on the floor over this injustice. I became the sorest loser in the history of sore losers. This obsession and consequential undoing of any cool points I had earned up till then lasted for four years. She had moved onto other guys and I still had my head up my ass. Although, I did have a brief shining moment during my freshman year. Our version of the 'prom' was called the 'Freshman Farewell1' and I didn't have a date. Layla had been forbidden by her mother to go with her muscle bound beau and was also dateless. I, once again, seized the opportunity and through a playful exchange ended up asking her to the dance. She said yes. I felt like a mediocre golfer who went out and triple bogeyed 17 holes only to birdie the 18th, It's the kind of faith renewal that will bring back the most jaded of duffers.

It was all set. I would reset my plan to finally work. Then, in the background of the halls, I picked up on the subtext. She was using me to go to the dance and once there she would discreetly leave me and go hook up with her forbidden Fabio. I caught wind of this about the same time that I caught wind of something that had gone right over my head. There was a girl who was a year behind me that really liked me. In all the hustle and bustle of trying to rectify the NY situation I completely missed it. So, I sat down with Layla and explained that I knew what was going to happen if I took her to the dance. I wasn't going to be that guy, again. She became visibly agitated at the thought that I was giving her the boot. I went to the dance with the other girl and had a blast. We dated for about three weeks and she dumped me. Still, it was slump buster. There was hope for a schmuck like me to actually find someone who wanted the nice guy. Even though it only lasted a few weeks it was enough time for me to learn a few things.

  1. Teenage relationships are never as dire and important as we make them out to be. Just have fun and don't take yourself so seriously.
  2. You shouldn't have to pretend to be anyone else or like something you hate, just to win points. after all, eventually you will have to come clean.
  3. In figure skating, a Toe Loop is a take off from the back outside edge of the right foot and are launched by the left toe pick, not to be confused with a Toe Walley, which is a take off from back inside edge of the right foot.

Ok, fine, I pretended to like figure skating for a month. Sue me.

1. In a moment of being both bumped and clumsy I lost control of my Pepsi at that dance, spilling it all over a dear friend's dress. I apologize immensely for it every day of my life. I'm sorry.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Coffin Story

In case it hasn't become pretty apparent in a lot of my posts, I love a good story. I also love wordplay. Puns and double entendres are two of my favorite uses of the English language in writing. Mix that with a good story and even greater storyteller and you've got one of the greatest gifts that we have as human beings, the power of speech. When I was a sophomore in college I had finally broken into the ranks of the acting realm among my peers. It was a workshop production of Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna. It's a tale based on the historical account of a village that turned on its tormentor and while under investigation ordered by the King of Spain, all the villagers proclaimed that "Fuente Ovejuna did it!" Kind of a 15th century version of "I am Spartacus."

The play was directed by a very talented and funny grad student who is now teaching at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He's also been in a few movies and has written a book entitled Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion And Rebellion in the Star Wars Films.
He's a truly gifted storyteller and has even on occasion performed the entire Star Wars saga using props from a McDonald's. Being from New England, he has that ability to tell a story with a certain flair of speech. Now, I'm going to butcher the hell out of it since it was 14 years ago, but the buildup is still there. So, these are my words you're going to read.

Growing up in a small New England town we have a lot of old Victorian homes in the area. A lot of them had that Gothic look to them with the metal work around the roofs. As kids growing up in any small town we were all subject to certain hazing and initiation rituals by the older kids. In order to be considered cool, you had to bend to their whim. They usually consisted of perform some sort of task that required you to do something humiliating or even slightly illegal. If anything else it was something that was meant to scare a child, leaving them completely vulnerable to ridicule by other kids their age. Fear was something you didn't show as a youth. Fear got you marked for life.

During the summer on one such occasion it was my turn to prove myself to the cool kids. My task was to venture into an old house on the hill up from my house. The story went that Old Man Johnson and his wife lived their for years. Every so often, the old man would be seen driving his antique car into town for supplies. His wife didn't get around much and he tended her all of the time. Eventually, she died, and by some sort of weird allowance, he was permitted to take the casket home. It's said that they never spent a night away from each other since they were married and he made sure to keep his promise by bringing home her casket and placing it in the basement of their old Victorian home. After that the old man was barely seen leaving the house. They had no other family so it's unclear whether or not he had died and the house was cleared of all belongings, including said coffin. It became the stuff of folklore to the kids in my town. In order to be in the club, you had to go into the basement and touch the coffin.

This years initiates included myself and two other equally frightened kids. We made our way up to the cellar door of the old house and opened it with a creak. Carrying only a flashlight and all the courage we could muster we filed down into the dark and dingy basement full of cobwebs and whatever our imagination could scare up. We reached the bottom of the rickety steps and turned to the left. In the far corner we made out what looked to be a work bench. As we moved closer it appeared to not be a bench but an altar. There it was. Old Mrs. Johnsons' coffin lie in state for all to see. It was black and immense. Our throats tightened. The legend was true. We had to go touch it or branded cowards by the eighth graders.

We crept closer to the coffin as our flashlight beam became more visibly erratic. It was like some weird and Gothic rave with a strobe light for ambiance. Just then, there was a sound like something being dragged on dirt. We looked all around the basement but could not find the source of the noise. Then it happened again and we shook with a start. On the next sound we noticed that the coffin had visibly moved position towards the edge of the slab of which it was laying. Perhaps, one of the older boys had snuck down into the basement ahead of us and was hiding behind the coffin making it appear to move. I held my ground with that thought as the other two boys quaked in their shoes. With that thought, the coffin reached the edge of the slab and tipped on to its end straight up in the air. Ok, now I was scared.

All three of us began taking steps backwards towards the stairs, never taking our eyes or our only source of light off the coffin as it began to slide, no bounce towards us, making the most horrific of sound. This was too much for my companions and they tripped over themselves and me trying to get out of the basement, knocking the flashlight from my hand. As they ran up the steps I reached for the flashlight but the coffin had bounced closer yet, now closing the distance between us, leaving the flashlight in a position nearer to it. Had I reached down to grab it, I would have been in a prime spot to be grabbed by the bony hand of Old Woman Johnson if she decided to fling open the casket lid and do so.

I crept backwards tripping on my fear towards the steps. Without my flashlight I had no weapon available to defend myself. Another bounce. I quickly searched my pockets for anything to use. Lint was definitely not a great idea as anyone will tell you that only a fool brings lint to a coffin fight. Another bounce. Here I was at the base of the steps, frozen in fear. My feet had left the situation and my brain was just about to grab the door on its way out as well. Still searching my pockets for anything. Another bounce! Now, the coffin stood a couple of feet away from me. The sunlight was just a few steps away, but I can only see the darkness of the ebony lacquer with my own frightened expression looking back at me in the reflection. The coffin was in position to strike, another bounce and I would be its next victim. Just then my thumb and index finger located something in my pocket. From my pocket I pulled out a Smith Brothers' lozenge. Not giving Old Woman Johnson the satisfaction of feasting on my flesh I did the only thing I could do. I threw the lozenge at the coffin with all my might. It with such intensity that it shattered into a million pieces and suddenly......

The coffin stopped.

Ok, somewhere by the third paragraph, I'm sure you knew where that was going. Of course, this particular story is an old campfire tale for Boy Scouts but it was the first time I had heard it and he had me at every word. My father is just as good at pulling you into a story that has a silly ending. He has a way of making something sound so legit, that you dare not question its foundation in reality. Once we all got over the forced laughter at such a dumb story, we moved onto our rehearsal and to this day whenever I get a group of people that need instruction or direction, I pull out that old story, dust it off, and give it a whirl. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Either way, the look on some one's face as you have them fooled is enough to make me appreciate a good tall tale. That's something that we don't have anymore in this society, for good or bad, storytelling is a lost art. Flashy CGI and other computer trickery has made us lose perspective when it comes to storytelling. The magic is in what big things you can do with very little in your pocket.....even a cough drop.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Comfortably Dumb

In our third part of the series, Good vs. Evil we explore the effect the Internet has on our minds. Has the Internet made us dumber as a race? When I say race I mean the human race. It’s not like dogs are out there looking up chew toys on eBay. During my look at the Internet as being evil or good, I realize that I may have been too specific in saying that it’s one or the other. That’s like saying a gun or the atomic bomb is evil. It’s not. It is simply a thing. Granted the atomic bomb is not a realized idea unless it’s activated or exploded. Simply being is not its purpose. The intended use of an atomic bomb is for evil. The process by which the reaction occurs is not evil. It can be very beneficial. Such is the Internet. The Internet can be a useful thing. It can also be used for evil as I’ve babbled on over the last few parts of this series. Regardless of alignment, has the Internet made us a dumber species? Are we smarter than we were 15 years ago? Have we put so much reliance on the Internet that if it were gone tomorrow, would we be able to cope? By that token, is the Internet evil?

Think back to 1993. I was a recent high school graduate. If I wanted to know someone’s address I had to look up their phone number and hope that I could decipher the short hand, abbreviated address next to their name. It became worse if they had a last name like Smith, Miller, Jones, or any other common name. Some people had their first names shortened to a single letter and then the problem became exponentially more difficult. You could try calling all the numbers in hopes of finding the right person. That is, if they were home or had an answering machine to give you some kind of clue as to who they were. Today, a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse can give us more information than we ever could find without a friend in the DMV or police department. I can tell you how old you are, possible relatives, and known cities of residence. Then I can use another website to try and locate your address and phone number. With that same bit of information, depending on your city or county, I can tell you how much your mortgage was on your house and who you bought it from years ago. I can then take that information and use it to do bad things. Granted, I’ve gone beyond my point, but the above is a model for how much information is available to us.

Fifteen years ago, I had to type a school paper on a word processing program like Microsoft Word or Word Perfect. I had to be pretty diligent to adhere to writing standards. Granted, spell check was available and some grammar checking was around at the time, but if I wanted to make sure I was speaking in proper English, I had to have some instruction in school. Now, I can write a paper with multiple errors, hit a couple of buttons and whoosh. It’s all fixed. That’s not because of the Internet. However, if I wanted to plagiarize that paper, I have a bigger pond from which to fish. Only in the last five or six years has the education system taken measures to guard against this thievery of prose. Still, the backend dealings of p2p and torrent sites have ways of making you a tidy little profit if you can bypass the search engines and regularly monitored sites. There are various ways to get yourself a top notch paper and you don’t even have to spend any time in the library. That’s another thing. When I had a paper to do for a class, my first stop was the library. I had to look through the card catalog to find a resource. I had to sit at a table, quietly and read, taking notes for my assignment, making sure to cite that source correctly. Now, who needs to even take a step into the library? A simple search on the subject matter can return tens of thousands of results with bibliographies in tow, all without having to even read the book.

Writing in general has become a joke. Do you remember in elementary school when you used to get a pizza party as a reward for getting enough stickers from some writing academy? Our teacher used to take a black marker or piece of masking tape and put a diagonal line on our desks for where the top edge of our paper was to be placed. If you were left handed, I imagine you were screwed. We’d all put our cursive and printed letters in between the lines and hope that the no one would screw up so that we could get that pizza. Then, as we grew older, our penmanship skills started to suffer as educators began to require all papers to be typed. I used to think that writing skills were going to disappear from the face of the Earth. What kid knows penmanship in the computer age? Now, I’m worried about the English language in general. Kids today do not write to each other in full sentences. They use leet speak. Leet, a variation on ‘elite’ was a hacker language. Online bulletin board systems sometimes had ‘elite’ areas that contained various pirated software or instructions on how to construct explosives or manufacture drugs. If you were considered ‘leet’ you could have access to them. Changing letters into homoglyphs was used to bypass text filters which would red flag administrators or system operators of inappropriate behavior. Typing ‘pr0n’ instead of ‘porn’ would bypass early filters. An example for anyone over the age of 30 is Journey’s Escape album which is written on the cover as E5C4P3. Since then, the n00bs have taken over and it is no longer elite. The younger, Internet aged, generation has adopted the stylings of leet for texting or messaging with abbreviations or acronyms such as ROFL, LOL, BRB, and BFF. Soon, I imagine any kid born after 2005 will have no idea how to type on a keyboard. They’ll be lost trying to figure out how to make their thumbs reach the inside keys while holding they keyboard with both hands. In fact even typing has become lackadaisical with spelling and grammar. Since the ‘T’ and the ‘H’ are close together, sometimes they are often switched when typing the word ‘THE’. ‘Teh’ has become known as ‘the’ in Internet Chat and texting. I fear pens will soon be a thing of the past. We are so pwned.

Math… Don’t even get me started. I took Physics during my junior year of high school and the biggest advantage anyone had in that class was either having a graphing calculator or a having a cover for your regular calculator that you could stick a crib sheet with formulas on it. There are websites now that can do graphing for you in flash. Homework can be done online and someone has already done a lot of the work for you. If you can think of a way to get around doing the work, someone already has and it is literally a few keyword searches away.

Now, these examples just cover what happens to us in our formative years. Think about the workplace. As it is, I’m type this blog at work, during my lunch, and anytime I have to wait for a web page to load. My posting schedule is restricted to my free time and that only happens at work. This country probably loses more productivity to the Internet than any other detrimental distraction. For the most part, we shop, read news, and look for other jobs while we’re supposed to be working. But, on occasion we are doing absolutely nothing on the Internet. It’s the equivalent of channel surfing. Maybe I’ll play a game, take some stupid online personality test, or just watch some badger bounce around the screen as a couple of mushrooms pop up, occasionally. People actually devote websites to wasting time. And, email, oh boy email. Wow, how much crap do we see in our inbox that comes from coworkers and friends? I have tried to do my part here at work. Every time I get a forward from someone, I try to be proactive and research it on If it’s a hoax or a fake, I try to reply to everyone telling them to not pass it on to more people. It’s just my part for bandwidth conservation.

On a side note, here is how bad it really is when it comes to the Internet making us stupid. An acquaintance recently saw an advertisement either through email or on the Internet advertising pug puppies for adoption. In the message, the person was either a doctor or worked for UNICEF and had to move to Africa and could no longer take care of the dogs. For $400, they would ship the dogs to this person. After paying the money, the dogs made their long trek to the U.S. but were stopped and quarantined in London. Another communication was sent saying that more money was needed to clear them. They begged and pleaded on behalf of an animal lover’s good hearted nature. They didn’t to see these dogs mistreated or kept in horrible conditions in another country. Are you seeing the pattern here? There are no puppies in quarantine because there are no puppies. This is a scam and unfortunately, this person and another friend were duped for over $400 by this scam. It’s nothing new. I get tons of emails from smart people who think that if they forward it to ten people something amazing will happen. “Hey. Did you hear? Appleby’s is giving away gift certificates if you forward on this email.” “Bill Gates will give me money, if I send this on, keep it going!” What surprises me is not the amount of people that send this email but the amount of times it keeps coming back year after year. Missing kids, unreal photos, gas pump bans all flood our inboxes with surprising frequency. Just in case you think you should forward on that email about Wal-Mart banning the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ from employees vocabulary, yes, it’s true, and it’s also been over for about three years now.

Still, as much as I want to say that the Internet is to blame for all of this, I have to believe that we, as humans are dumber because we let it happen. If the Internet went away tomorrow, I would be lost, for about a month. Everything I do at work involves an Internet based application. My banking, my bills, my blog… It’s all done on the Internet. I have all my utilities, my mortgage, car, and credit card payments set up automatically on the Internet. Sure, I won’t be able to see if they’re paid, but does my bank also use an Internet connection to draft those payments? Banks don’t hold my money anymore. They hold ones and zeros in a program and that gets sent electronically from one computer account to another. If a situation like the one in James Cameron’s series, Dark Angel, happened would we be thrown into chaos? We would. Hell we all though that the year 2000 was going to be the apocalypse, not in a biblical sense, but in an economical and technological sense. We spend so much time trying to be foreign oil independent we lose sight that everything that runs this country doesn’t necessarily run fuel. It runs on a server in a room somewhere with cables flowing through every nook and cranny and into the oceans. We could very well destroy ourselves by pushing the wrong button on an ATM.

The Internet is Evil
(but only because we made it that way.)

If you find the square root of Deus Ex Machina from The Matrix Revolutions and multiply that by a faked photo of an iceberg and then divide that by the Tron Guy, you get Hansel and Derek Zoolander trying to work a computer.

In terms of being evil, the Internet was created in the image of its maker. We are evil and we are dumb. Hopefully we won't pay the ultimate price for it. Hmm, I better start boning up on my penmanship. I may be writing my blog in ink in the future.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Holidazed and Confused

This past weekend was my first official Father's Day and I've been white knuckling it for the past two years when it comes to holidays. You see I don't exactly have good luck in this area. In fact, my insurance company starts to get scared when they see a little date on the calendar listed in red. Let's take a look at why I should be worried.

Halloween 2006

We live in a neighborhood that is bustling with young children. Each year, we manage to get around 50 or so trick or treaters. My Sister-in-law brings her daughter over and we make an evening of it with hot dogs and sauerkraut. Because of the amount of people that we tend to have eating dinner, my wife usually relies on her Mother to help her manage the cooking.

This particular year was different. As hordes and hordes of kids depleted our candy stock, my wife was getting overwhelmed in the kitchen when the call came. Her grandmother, who lives in an assisted living facility had fallen and needed to be taken to the hospital. My wife's Mother just happens to be the only one of the kids that takes care of her. She left to g0 to the hospital, leaving my wife with a boiling pot of sauerkraut.

We managed to get through the evening but it was rough. I shouldn't complain since I was sitting at a table eating hot dogs while an 84 year old woman was lying in a hospital with a broken leg.

Thanksgiving 2006

By this point I had a lot to give thanks for. My wife and I had just found out we were pregnant and we're excited for the holidays. Just after the holiday, my in-laws were on their way to a Christmas party when they got another call from the nursing home. The grandmother had been just out of the hospital with the broken leg and was under orders not to try and get herself out of a chair and into bed. Of course, she disobeyed them and attempted to hoist herself into bed falling again and taking the metal cover from a wall heater with her in the process.

They leave the party after just arriving and spend the evening in the hospital with the grandmother.

Christmas 2006

Christmas is a special time in my wife's life. Her parents' house gets all decorated and so does ours for that matter. It's like a Yule tide floods the house. On Christmas Eve, her parents have a huge party with tons of food and it really helps put a capper on the season of weight gain. While we were there, my wife began complaining of an itchy watery eye. The next morning she still had an itchy eye and feared a it was pink eye. Usually, we go to her parents' for breakfast to open up gifts and then on to my parents' for dinner. We never made it out of the house. Turns out another call from the nursing home sent her mother back to the hospital. My wife's grandmother began throwing up what looked like coffee grounds that morning. I've been told that this is a tell tale sign of liver failure. We missed out on breakfast because her mom was at the hospital all evening and we missed out on dinner because the chance she did have pink eye.

The next day we got some good and bad news. My wife did have conjunctivitis but her grandmother didn't have liver failure. She had a bleeding ulcer around a hiatal hernia. She went back to the home the next day. The day after that, we were all set to go to my parents' house for my Dad's birthday. My sister misses it because of a horrible bout of flu which in turn my nephew got it. My mother comes down with it next. We are afraid to go anywhere near my parents' because my wife is two months pregnant.

New Year's Eve 2006

We spend all of that Friday, most of Saturday, and part of Sunday cooking, cleaning, prepping for a big party at our house. Midnight dinner on New Year's has become a tradition at our house and both my wife's parents look forward to it. At 11:20 that evening, my Father-in-law decides to bend over to pet our cat and hears a 'POP.' He pulls his artificial hip out of place. Next thing you know, there's an ambulance at our house and by midnight every one is leaving.

We, then, proceed to the emergency room to be with her Mom. We end up staying until 5:00 AM hospital with him. If you ever want to see the downside to partying on New Year's Eve, go hang around an emergency room after midnight. Various drunks and wackos permeate the place and you get to see the effects from idiots drinking and driving.

We left and made it home with just enough time for about two hours of sleep before we had to reset the entire house for dinner with both of our families that evening.

Since then, we have dreaded holidays. In fact, my daughter's due date was July, 7th, 2007. Now, normally, I would think that to be a very lucky number, but with our history, I was ready to get Vegas odds on whether my wife would go into labor on the 4th during a cookout.

Our luck did change and my wife, her grandmother, and every other relative we have stayed out of the emergency room past Independence Day.

For someone who feels so superstitious about holidays, you would think the last thing I would want to do is add any more to my life. However, Father's Day is one of those holidays that mark a milestone like an anniversary or birthday. Granted, the banks and post offices aren't going to close business on November 5th just because I got married. I celebrate with my wife and that's a holiday in my book. With Father's Day I get to celebrate the event that marked a change in my life. One for the better, I might add. Fatherhood has taught me many things. One of which is that you take whatever accolades you can get. Another is that for every bad fish tie and horrible pair of socks you get the joy of knowing that you have someone who loves you enough to bother. It also means that there is a girl or boy who calls you "Daddy" and that is worth more than any seasonal meal undisturbed by a family member's accident or illness.

Just to let you know, my wife and daughter got me a new gas grill for Father's Day. It's better than socks.....but then again, when it comes time for the fourth of July cookout, a pair of socks never landed anyone in the emergency room. I'll still take those odds.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Seven Sins For Seven Virtues Part 3: Diligence vs. Sloth

A continuation of the Series Good vs. Evil: The Internet

Can you just see where this one is going to play to?

Writing school papers were always a burden to me. I would get the assignment and pretty much put it off to almost the last possible minute. There was always something better that I would rather do then to sit at my old 286 PC or Apple IIC and pound out a four page paper on any subject. Still, I had hopes of being a writer and that kind of procrastination is evidence as to why I am not one today. However, when I would sit down and begin to write, I could get in the zone and within a couple of hours, I had five to ten pages of my paper written. I could bullshit with the best of them but at times the gas tank would run dry and I'd find myself adding some margin space or extra words to fill up the page. But, I made sure I followed the advice of Dr. Meredith from Real Genius who said, "Always... no, no... never... forget to check your references" So, I kept musty old books and MLA style guides riding shotgun as I fluffed my paper. Then, during my junior year I had to perform a mighty task, an electrical outline. Simply put, our crazy Physics teacher had us do a huge paper on chapters from our Physics textbook. This was the same assignment that my brother had done when he took the class six years before. The teacher was so behind with the times that he used the same tests for years and made students covert all the metric units into English in order to take the test. So, when it came time for me to write my outline I figured if his tests hadn't changed maybe his electrical outline hadn't either. I asked my brother for his copy and I reproduced it on my computer. The teacher thought he was keeping us honest by marking every page with a pen so that we couldn't simply change the name and submit one he previously graded. All I did was follow the work of someone else and typed it out word for word. I got a B. He docked me because the printer ink was a little lighter than his liking. It was all worthwhile since I made a $100 selling it to another student the next year.

Now, I told you that story as a basis for how the Internet can help to blur the lines between diligence and Sloth. In 1991, the United States went to the Persian Gulf to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupancy. Gone were the days of going to the movies to see Moviola reports on the Allied efforts during WWII. Now, we could watch up to the minute reports on CNN. We could see grainy black and white POV footage of missiles as they flew through windows and exploded. News and information just became an instantaneous commodity. One the Internet would take to new extremes.

In the race to be first and grab the audience, the Internet has made it possible for news and information to be available 24/7. However, there are casualties in the war for information supremacy. Diligence has become one of those casualties. Newspapers and other media outlets want to be first and its hard to compete with the Internet for first place in the race to report. An example is something I mentioned in my last 7 for 7 post, the Sago mine disaster. While the the reports came in unchecked that all but one miner was alive, the news outlets scrambled to report the good news. What they didn't do was check their facts and wait to see if there was a mistake in the chain of information. It turned out that all but one died in the tragedy and the devastation to the families was second only to the confusion at how a mistake like that could have been allowed to happen. For that matter, how could it have made it half way around the world before it was caught?

Now, before you start throwing fits, I don't believe that the Internet suddenly became sentient and started telling everyone bad information. Anderson Cooper was right there and he got the word, too. But with the Internet as a player in the game, everyone wants to scoop everyone else and to beat the Internet means you have to be quick. Facts be damned. One hand washes the other. There's even been times where the legitimate, and I use that word loosely, have relied on the Internet as a source of information, only to discover it was a prank. In fact, now, there are times when I watch the news where stories or images are credited to websites, like or instead of actual reporters. Sometimes, a lackey with an itchy trigger finger and too much Red Bull has pushed the button prematurely on a story before the facts are all there. In an attempt to be the first to prey on the grief of the world, templates are even prepared for obituaries of prominent people and Joe Intern has accidentally left the door open. The interchangeable obituaries leave room for nasty errors like "Dick Cheney was the 'UK's favorite grandmother.' One quick edit could drop the grand and have been accurate. For the record, Elvis is still dead, but Abe Vigoda is very much alive.

The other side of the coin being Sloth. I'll have you know that I'm writing this post from work right now. Remember when I said I would rather find something better that sit and do a paper or any work. I've re watched movies, bad ones, more than once even though I have work to do. I am a professional procrastinator. There is nothing I can't do that the Internet can't help me to do in the act of avoiding work. Although, I do make an effort when I am on the clock. I only stray towards an open browser during lunch or when I'm waiting for my little SAP or Sharepoint window to load the next screen. Usually, it's checking alternate email accounts or reading news. Of course, my work has blocked most fun sites. Oh you name it and it's blocked, most radio station homepages, Facebook, myspace, Youtube, Lottery sites, and anything mp3 or streaming music related, and so on and so forth. I'm surprised eBay is still active as well as ESPN.

When I first started in Customer Service in 2001 I was on a team of four, who were responsible for all orders for the west coast. We handled maybe 35-40 calls on an average day. Since I was the new guy, I had to work most shifts from 11:30 am - 8:00 pm. This usually meant that around 6:30 pm the phone went silent and I was alone in the office with one or two credit analysts. Since the phone wasn't ringing I was surfing. Pogo,, iwin, CNN, eBay, everywhere. My usage probably made IT's head spin as I commandeered the bandwidth pipe and went nuts all to keep myself busy until my shift was over. As I gained tenure, my hours became more regular and the work load became more. My usage became less, still whenever there is a lull, I was out slacking around the net. Today, since most of my favorite sites are blocked, I have to wait until I'm home to do some fun stuff.

My wife asks me what the hell I'm doing. I say, "Getting a third of my $156.00 worth of money spent on cable." I play casino games, scrabble, and other little goofy aps on Facebook, check the job sites of various companies and catch up on email. If I have some time, I even try to finish up a few blog posts to build up my library so that I don't have to scramble at the last minute to keep up with my three a week commitment.

I am not much different than, well, anybody. I get up for coffee or to go empty out my recently ingested coffee and I see numerous screens. Doing a search of "Work Internet usage" in Google News returns a lot of results from Canada and the UK. The Internet has even been a part of a few lawsuits in employee termination cases. Diversions from work are a part of everyday life and the Internet, or more importantly those who create and market sites on the Internet, know it and use it to make billions of dollars a year. What would happen if it all just went away? No more penguin tossing or flying a paper airplane through the office. Go read Richard Clarke's Breakpoint. Of course, his novel is more about terrorism and government networks, but just think of it in terms of slacking. First there would be complete and utter chaos followed more or less by increase of productivity. Maybe, that would be a good thing. Then again, if that happened, how would those 2.5 people who actually read my blog see it? I discovered the .5 was someone who just scanned through and didn't actually pay attention to any posts. Go figure.

Therefore it is the judgment of the Mongo Municipal Magistrate that the Internet isn't evil in terms of diligence vs. sloth.

The Internet isn't out to get you or make you lazy. You are. "It's PEOPLE!"

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Sometimes when you think you are ahead, you're really going backwards. I just got off the phone with Bombast...I'm changing the names to protect the insolent. Turns out my year long plight with them hit another speed bump. Recently, I had been paying way more than I thought I should or could afford, so I called the cable giant and had words. You would think that keeping a log of all communication and price changes with them would go a long way with being able to cut through the B.S. with them. Turns out, they just don't care what you did in the past. In fact, they can't even recall your account information all that well. Hey, buddy, I worked in customer disservice for five years. I know how to lie to a customer when it comes to being in the wrong. You are just not cutting it. Go back to training and learn how to disguise the sound of pounding keys in vain.

Anyway, after all was said and done which included, "Oh, your promotion ended," " I don't know why that charge was different," and " I think your bank messed up that one" we finally got things straightened out. Then I check my dwindling bank statement to see that a debit to them was $30 more than last month. I called, I hemmed, I hawed, and left unsatisfied. Funny how it's always the last person's mistake not the company's and apparently, that person no longer is in that department. They must have been promoted to CEO.

I accepted the latest of four different total prices for service, took the CSR's name and wrote it down on my laundry list of issues with them and said, "That'll show you." Meanwhile, that guy turned in his headset for a corner office and key to the executive washroom. Tomorrow, he'll be wearing a three piece suit with a pocket watch chain draped across a matching vest while chomping on a cigar spouting Gordon Gekko mantras.

No sooner did I hang up the phone but my long time friend, National Pity, call to interest me in some low, low, so low we can't even advertise interest rates on loans. I had been fumbling through my online statements and noticed a discrepancy, and it wasn't the fact that my checking account dwindled down to triple digits. There was a finance charge on my Visa card. I had opened the account in November to play the balance bounce game once more. That's where you have an outstanding balance from six years ago and you keep transferring it to new 0% credit cards for a year until you pay it off in full. I am a credit card companies worst nightmare. I am the equivalent of a credit booty call.

Mr. I-am-so-natural-with-reading-a-script-that-Hollywood-is-calling-next-week was quickly thrown from his spiel into checking out my huge $10 finance charge. Why not? I would have been calling them anyways. He transferred me to someone who informed me that the fine print at -26 pt. font below the -2 pt. font states that the promotional 0% rate was for only six months and I'm actually two months to my advantage in not being billed. I used the tried and true way to deal with folks of this ilk and asked if there was any other promotional offers going on before I decide to pay off the balance and cancel the card. "Well, let me transfer me over to someone." This of course Customer Service speak for, "Yeah, you caught us jacking you up to 12.99% and now I'm going to transfer you to someone with the same amount of authority as me to make it seem as if they have more power. Pay no attention that supervisor behind the curtain!

Ms. I-have-an-important-sounding-title-yet-it-means-no-more-than-customer-service-rep informs me that they are going to set me back to 8.99% on purchases and index. I asked if that was promotional. She says, no, that's what it's going to be going forward. See what I mean about getting caught. Of course, that 8.99% isn't some fixed rate. It will probably bounce around because it's 2% plus some arbitrary median rate which at the moment is 6.99%.

I still intend to pay off the balance and close the account. That's where my one step forward came into effect. Thanks to an increase in my tax return from having a child and the Economic Stimulus checks, I've been able to take a huge whack out of my debt. Yes, I still have a car payment, a mortgage payment, and various bills, but this is the first time I've actually been able to make a dent in my debt. As soon as I pay off this last amount I will begin making payments towards my wife's. Hopefully, by next year, I can start making a bigger impact on my mortgage and start saving more for my daughter and retirement.

It's funny that at age 33, I've started thinking about retirement. Hell, I'd like to retire tomorrow with a nice fat bank account but no rich benefactors have decided to step up and make a contribution. I'm still hopeful, though.

So, here I am all happy that I'm being diligent and making more than the minimum payments and actually getting my financial life headed into the black and now I have to scramble and back fill my bank account with some of my super, secret, don't-tell-the-wife, slush fund in order to cover the outstretched hands coming from all around me. It's like they know when you're doing good with your finances. "Hey, guys, he's almost paid in full, start ending all his promotions and start making 'clerical' errors with his account. You, too many hyphens in your name, cancel his services. Where's my cigar?"

So, there you have it. Just remember that you are in control when it comes to your finances and always keep an eye on the bills. Computers make mistakes as much as people do. Always ask about promotions, reductions in rates, and if you notice a mistake, I'm a tell you like Wu told me. Cash rules everything around me. Singin' dollar dollar bill y'all (dollar, dollar bill y'all)

Where my money at?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Seven Sins For Seven Virtues Part 2: Purity and Lust

Purity vs. Lust
A continuation of the Series Good vs. Evil: The Internet
When I first decided to tackle this idea I didn't give it much thought. There's Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues. How hard could that be? Yeah. Not everything on the Internet be boiled down to seven ideas. I knew what I wanted to say against the Internet as far as Lust but I really don't have a clue how to show the Purity side of the Internet. I guess in terms of Chastity or Purity there's websites for every single religion out there. In fact you can get yourself ordained as a minister of an online church like the The Universal Life Church of Modesto California. I did. Seriously, I did. Back in 1995, The ULC made it easy for anyone who wished to be a member of the church the right to be ordained. Their thought process is that we are all in this world together regardless of race, creed, or gender. It shouldn't matter what you believe in as long you seek to provide a fuller life for everyone, eternal progression, and that you live and help live. As long as you are doing what is right without infringing on the rights of others you are getting the message correctly. According to their belief we are already ordained by a higher power, they are just recognizing it. In other words, it's just as real as any other religion out there. It's not what you believe as long as just believe.

Of course all religions have gone online to spread their message and provide clarity to their cause. In a world where decisions and information are dealt out in a matter of seconds, sometimes the message needs a little clarification. Case in point, during the Democratic primaries a lot of people refused to vote for Obama because they thought he was a Muslim. Granted his ancestors may have been raised Muslim even though he is Protestant, but the issue is that the Internet and the 24 Hour News Cycle has let information slip past the editors before they have all the facts. Remember the Sago mine disaster. Every one glued to a monitor got to share in the pain and suffering as the reports of alive miners flooded the airwaves before the family members were told of the mistake. By then papers were printed and the mistake was made.

However, this part of the post isn't about what is wrong, but what is right. As short and useless as it is, there are points to be made. If you are unsure which path to follow, I highly suggest going right to the source of the religion and read what they have to say. Stay away from the news sites and political sites. Use an ounce of common sense. If I want to know about Methodists or Presbyterians, I'm not going to Fox News or other slanted media outlets. I'll go to or Although, I highly recommend checking out the Church of the Subgenius or my personal favorite, The Flying Spaghetti Monster also known as Pastafarianism. Of course those are parody religions but organized religion is itself a parody of the actual message that has been lost over time.
Now onto a topic that is a little easier to comment on in terms of the Internet, lust. It used to be for someone to see images or movies of a certain nature, you had to visit a particular store, theater, a section of a magazine stand, or even perhaps the saloon style swinging doors at your local video store. Now, you can literally type any childish or clinical term into Google and hit search and everything is one click away and there is no embarrassment of having someone see you or your car at a retailer of ill repute. And if you click the Image tab, look out. Now there is even a video tab, too. In fact, the more we try to filter stuff from innocent eyes and minds, the more technology and the rampant nature of website creation slips past the radar and your ten your old is asking you what 2girls1cup is. But were just talking about you alone with the lights off in your home.
What if you're thinking about straying from a relationship? In the pre-Internet days, you had to cruise a bar or a place that had people. Maybe you searched the papers for personals. Either way, you had a lot of tracks to cover and intentions to conceal. Sneaking around had a sense of stealthiness to it. With the Internet, it has become so much easier and there is a wider pool to choose from. Chat rooms, myspace pages, adult websites, and even craigslist can find you someone to keep you warm at night. Granted, with all that convenience there is a modicum amount of evidence of your deeds. Cell texts, emails, Internet cookies and history can all expose you for the devil you are. The Internet has made cheating a lot easier to do but also a lot easier to get caught. Even famous people get caught with their hands in the cookie jar thanks to the net.
The Internet leaves a nice little bread crumb trail for the authorities to find you..or at least your significant other. It doesn't even have to be cheating in your spouse. Just ask Mark Foley. Most people involved with sex scandals are lucky if they end up just divorced. The real scum are the ones who troll myspace or seek out underage kids. Those guys mostly end up having a blind date with Chris Hansen. Trolling message boards and chat rooms for underage kids, these sickos end up meeting with the Dateline crew instead of their intended victim. What kills me about that show is that people still get caught. They even admit to watching the show.

"Are you OneUglyMutha22?"

"Yes. What the hell are you?"

Although, do you really want them to wise up or do you want these bastards caught and prosecuted? The name of the game hasn't changed but the types of equipment have. I do believe the Internet is a gateway drug for Lustful actions because of its high tech whiz bang gadgetry and accessibility. I even think that in the fight between purity and lust, lust wins out in a heartbeat. It's easier to find porn than religion on the Internet. But is it inherently evil? If you are dumb enough to want to cheat or commit crimes of a sexual nature be prepared to end up divorced, on Megan's Law websites, or even in jail.

In this matter, the Internet is only slightly evil, yet makes us profoundly dumber.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

MyBabysDay Makes My Baby's Day

They say "Mother" is the word for "God" on the lips of children. Although, sometimes, "Father" can translate to "Hero" in the eyes of a child. That's my job. Hero, protector, provider, example, especially in what not to do. It's hard to know what to do when your little one gets hurt or loses something. The last thing you want is for them to be sad or upset but at the same time you don't want to give them an unrealistic vision of what the world is like. I'm not saying sit a three old down and tell them to start studying for college entrance exams and putting away those pennies from Aunt Margie for retirement. I just mean that a kid needs to have a realistic sense of expectations. I learned this when my 11 month old daughter takes a toy or a piece of food while sitting in a high chair and drops over the side, looking to see if it hit the floor. Usually, I manage to catch it and put it back into her path of grasp. Sometimes it hits the floor and I have to say, "It's gone. It hit the floor and now it's dirty." You have to because sooner or later everything ends up in their mouth. I don't intend to take away the object forever, just until I can clean it. Well, except for food. We'll just get another one. However, not everything can be fixed. Broke is broke in the case of some objects. That's when the look of hurt and confusion really makes me get a knot in my throat. Recently, a knot was induced when one of my daughter's favorite toys was broke. It was nothing spectacular other than a miniature beach ball that was given to us.

It was a Saturday maybe two weeks to a month after she was born. We were on our usual Saturday morning breakfast trip to Bob Evans when a lady approached us. As a parent you tend to be wary of people approaching your child. It's a sad commentary on the times where even when you are with your kids you fear that someone will try something inappropriate or just downright sadistic. I try to be a little more optimistic but have my reflexes at the ready. This particular lady didn't set off any red flags in my mind. She merely commented on how adorable our little girl was, I take full credit on that, and gave us this little piece of schwag. For those of you have never heard of the word schwag, take a look at your pen. If it has a company or brand name on it, it's schwag. That coffee mug with some corporate logo, that's schwag. These promotional items that advertise a brand are like Levi jeans and Beatles albums to the Cold War era Russian people. They are inexpensive, but everyone scrambles to get one in the office when someone has them. This particular piece of promotional goodness had a website logo printed on it. They are a quaint little business outside of Pittsburgh that developed a software program to help track a baby's daily activities. Anyone wondering why their little one is doing what their doing when they break out of their normal routine can find this software useful.

Often when someone offers you a promotional item it becomes more about the actual item than the advertisement. We forgot all about what was written on the beach ball and just loved the fact that our girl was batting it around the room and actually throwing it back and forth between us. She'd chase it around the floor and it's round and smooth texture would slip from her grasp and she'd laugh as it would scoot away from her. Then she would lower her head and charge off again after the ball. I think it was more of a joy to us to watch her play with it then it was for her. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, disaster struck. It was during the Pittsburgh Penguins glorious win in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals here in Pittsburgh. We were all sitting on the floor watching the game and playing with the beach ball. It looked as if it needed a little more air so I picked it up and began to inflate it as the Penguins scored. I must have got excited and over inflated the ball because it began to deflate right in front of my daughter's eyes. She looked heart broken as she picked it up and looked at me. I was devastated. Her favorite toy and I had ruined it. She looked at me as if I had told her the truth about Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, and then took away her puppy all at once. After she had gone to bed I grabbed the ball and decided that I wasn't going to let her down again......this month. I went to my computer and looked up the website on the ball. I sent a message pleading for help and within a week I had two beach balls in the mail. We'll keep one as a backup, well, because it's now Game 6 and I'm afraid I won't be able to control my excitement as the Penguins continue to hold on in the series.

The other I quickly inflated and walked up into our living room where my daughter was climbing all over her grandfather. She looked at me and saw what I had. She instantly smiled and scrunched up her nose in that all too familiar look that made me smile. She got down on the floor, I tossed the ball onto the carpet, and off she went leaving her Pappy to recover from the attack. She raced around the room batting the ball everywhere. Once again she was the gleefully playful child I always love her to be. This was all thanks to a hopeful plea and a piece of promotional material. So, thank you MyBabysDay. You made me a hero in my daughter's eyes once again. I don't suppose you brand ponies, do you? Her first birthday is coming up in a couple of months.

P.S. Let's go Pens.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Post Apocalyptic Pool Hall at the End of the Outer Banks

No, it's not the title of some B grade science fiction movie, this is the recounting of a tale from a few years back. Since we are now full into the summer season according to the public pool schedule, I figure it's time to have old Uncle Mongo give you some advice. I've been taking vacations down in the Carolinas for a few years and I've come to learn a few tricks and tips and I always like to pass them on if I can. First and foremost, never, under any circumstances back up on the beltway around Washington D.C. They don't like that. If you miss your exit, you either take the next exit and double back or it's "Big Ben Parliament, kids." If you have to pass around D.C. in any of your trips, I highly suggest hitting the beltway before dawn or after dinner. Traffic tends to get hairy once everyone heads to or from work. Do not mess with them. These people are professionals and will put you into the barrier without a thought.

If your destination is Myrtle Beach, here are some suggestions to help make your stay enjoyable. With rising costs just about everywhere, you really need to take a look at your priorities. What is important to you on your trip? Do you want a full service hotel to wait on all your needs that costs a lot of money? Do you want to just have some place nice and quaint to sleep at and spend your money on other things? If you want to just have a place that's clean but not full service, I can only suggest one place as I stayed there nearly every single trip I've taken to Myrtle Beach. It's not a flashy, four star joint, but it has clean rooms and it's ocean front for not much cash. It's called The Gazebo Inn. It's right on 16th street South. They are a family hotel so remember a couple of things. They are catering to kids and that means that there will be plenty of them in the pool area. I suggest going there in May or September when the rug rats are in school. I also don't suggest getting a room on the ground floor as it opens into the pool area and can be loud if you are a late morning sleeper. I suggest the Gazebo Room on the third or fifth floor. It's a little more but it comes with better amenities. With Dining there are tons of buffets and Calabash dining, but few actually are great and aren't just a polished turd. Three places I highly suggest.

Crabby Mike's
Angelo's This place is a diamond in the rough. Not your usual buffet, it's Italian food. The staff serves you your choice of excellent food from behind a wall of glass away from kids and the green mustache brigade. Top notch dining and not too expensive. I highly recommend going more than once. And, for those of us who love the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are a Steeler Friendly environment and decorate their bar as such.
Preston's Another large seafood buffet place with a lot of good food and interesting decor. Located near the entrance of Bearfoot Landing.

Of course, I have to end my trip with a stop into the International House of Pancakes. Accept no substitutions.

Here's another tip about dining. This goes for wherever you decide to vacation along the coast. Usually, outside the restaurants you will see a little podium. These are those scammers who try to get you roped into seeing condos or time shares. Avoid them at all costs. Usually, a polite no will suffice, but sometimes they get persistent. The standard, "We're on our way home, right now." doesn't always work. Without resorting to violence as so many of us wish we could just pummel them into goo, there is one tried and true method to escaping their assault tactics. Find a buddy to run cover for you. By buddy, I mean a complete stranger that is leaving at the same time you are and by cover I mean put them between you and the podium so that they will get nabbed and you will be free to keep hurrying to your car. Don't look back and don't run. Just walk briskly to the car.

Now, if your tastes lie along the OBX and you aren't a seasoned island adventurer, here is my cautionary tale of how not to attack a trip to the Outer Banks. In 2002 my wife and I decided to take our usual trip to Myrtle Beach. This was the third year in a row and by Thursday we had felt a little burnt out from the beach. We wanted to be spontaneous and impulsive. We started looking into maybe stopping at the Outer Banks on the way home for a night. We were big lighthouse fans and I always wanted to see the one at Hatteras. We figured it was on the way home and couldn't be more than a couple of hours drive and we'd get a chance to check out the sights. We also didn't have any reservations for any lodging and figured we would wing it.

From the get go I knew this would be a bad idea. I don't mind being a little spontaneous with road trips, but the ones that involve staying somewhere overnight and are in other states than my own worry me if I don't have a plan. I didn't exactly have an available Internet connection in my hotel room so I couldn't research any of this. We did this like the pioneers did. Those pioneers being my parents who spent their honeymoon in Delaware during the pouring rain without any reservations and only a truck to stay in overnight. After all, who could have known that geography and driving distance have no real correlation. That old adage about the shortest distance between two points is a straight line only works if you don't have to cross water. You basically have two choices in getting to the Outer Banks by car. You either go in on the two main roads that lead into Kitty Hawk (158) and Whalebone (64) or you take a ferry. If you're coming from South Carolina, driving to either land routes is pretty much an all day trip, so ferry is the quickest trip. However, if you do not plan your trip, like we didn't, you may find yourself trying to drive from one ferry port to the other trying to make it. Unfortunately, you have to go West to go North which takes time. While Myrtle Beach doesn't look that far from Cedar Island, let me tell you, it is. It's about a five hour drive. Not to mention you tend to question your sense of direction and safety for that matter when you find yourself in front of a tank. Yes, I said tank. Apparently, you drive through parts of Camp Lejeune on your way and for a minute I thought we were trespassing into a blasting area.

After we finally reached the ferry, we realized that we had just missed it. The next one would be around for two hours. Now, it's around 4pm and we're starving. We filled up on vending machine food that expired sometime around the first George Bush's administration and had a revelation. Perhaps we should call and see about getting a room as we are definitely going to make it home tonight. I grabbed a phone book and began searching the yellow pages.

TIP #45: Do not expect to get a room on a Saturday night in August at a hotel in the Outer Banks.

I called four places, two of which were not answering probably because the phone book wasn't current. The others were completely booked up and I was beginning to lose hope. Finally, we got some luck on our side. A little place called the Castaways Inn in Avon said they had one room left. I should have suspected something was not right but I was just thankful that we found something. We booked the room and the ferry returned to shuttle us to Ocracoke Island. Two hours later we reached Ocracoke and wondered how to get to Hatteras Island. Apparently, there is only one road along Ocracoke, so it was pretty easy to figure out. What we didn't realize was that we had a very short amount of time to reach the other end of the island to catch the next and last ferry. Little thing about driving on Ocracoke Island at night. There is nothing outside of Ocracoke but a two lane blacktop in between rows of sand dunes. You couldn't see five feet off the edge of the road because of the height. I guess this is to keep it from washing out. Once we reached the other side of the island we were fortunate enough to catch the last ferry. It was dark and foggy and straight out of a bad swamp movie. The ferry moved along at a crawl among the eerie looking marshes. Reeds and grass slapped against the side of the small boat. It was like waiting to hit something in the dark for a half an hour.

TIP #56: Any place that tells you they have one room left is lying. Don't stay there.

Reaching our destination we now had some room to breathe. The first ferry took us from 6pm to 8pm and now we were going on 9pm and still hadn't made it to the hotel, but at least we didn't have to travel by ferry and at least we had a reservation. What we didn't have was a full stomach as those decade old funyins were beginning to disintegrate the inner wall of my stomach. In the middle of a flat piece of land devoid of any life stood The Castaways Inn. It was dark and looked like the bar from the move From Dusk to Dawn at this point a run in with vampires would not have been a surprise or that scary. We approached from the main road and passed a duck crossing sign. Previews of coming attractions. Considering the place was "full" there was ample parking and the place reminded me of what the Hotel California would have looked like if it had been vacant for a hundred years. It was a family run place and by the looks of the staff it was the family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wondered if Leather Face was going to get our bags for us. We inquired about food but at that moment the diner sign wen t dark so we kind of figured that was a no. Tall and wide concrete hallways lead us to our room. I was beginning to realize that they had a lot of vacancies and every person who called was told there was only one room left.

We entered our room and were just thankful to have a place to sleep for the night. Our relief turned to heart burn as we entered our room. Navy blue shag carpeting went from coral colored stucco wall to coral colored stucco wall. A little sink and faucet in one corner had nice marble looking counter tops flanked by cobwebs and dust. I didn't even try the water. I was afraid to. I fell back onto the bed in exhaustion and nearly ended up with a concussion as it was a step up from a wooden plank in softness. I highly recommend it for anyone who can't find a really firm mattress. While my wife, then girlfriend, checked the bedding for bugs, I did a little investigating. You know those little envelopes that the housekeeping staff leave for you if you should feel they deserve a tip? Well, they are a handy little indication of when the room was last cleaned. This one was done in May, of the previous year. Turning my attention to the balcony I could see that not only was there no light on it, there wasn't a view anyway so saving money on electricity was a good idea on their part. Of course, it made my wonder why being on a higher floor still constituted having a wooden 2x2 wedged into the sliding glass door track. I guess people forget their keys......a rooms other than their own.

The pangs of hunger were now in full force and we really needed to get some food. We hopped in the car and headed south again on really the only road there is in the area, route 12. We passed closed business after closed business. After 9pm, the island must shut down because nothing was open. Then, like the Parker family on Christmas after the Bumpuses' dog had eaten their turkey, we found that the only place open for business was a Chinese take out joint. Going with the safe bet we ordered chicken and noodles. We hurriedly rushed back to our palatial ocean side palace to dine on pure decadence. Like everything else in the OBX, it was pretty bad. I couldn't make out what the flavor was but, it certainly wasn't chicken. Afterwards we decided to maybe get a look at the ocean before bed. We had come this far, why not?

TIP #76: While a very large dead spider is nothing to fear. Not knowing what killed it and whether it's still around is.

The answer to that question lies in the title of this post. We had come down to the back entrance and walked directly into something that looked like it was out of Blade Runner or The Terminator. It was a dingy old breezeway with a cigarette machine and a snack vending machine. Off to the right was what looked to be a game room with a pool table. It looked like it hadn't been used in years. Inside the snack machine was void of food except for a pack of Toasted Cheese which had seen better days. The cigarette machine wasn't empty but it was odd. Considering this was 2002, the prices were less than today's standard of $4.15 a pack. However, I think $2.00 a pack is a little telling of the last time it was filled. Then we saw it. It was on top of the cigarette machine. I think it was a spider but I don't know. Frankly, I've never seen something that big up close. I assume it was dead as it was curled up on its back but I probably should have run. It looked like a dead face hugger from the Alien movies. The fact that it was dead wasn't so bothersome but wondering how it died sent my imagination into overdrive. We proceeded out the back of the hotel and headed for the shore. From the back entrance there was about 100 yards of grass and then huge dunes that rolled down into darkness. A wooden bridge connected the hotel to the water and went through a valley in the dunes. We took a few steps out onto the rickety bridge and then retreated. We could hear water but there was only darkness. The closer we got the more of an angle the bridge sloped to one side. We began to question whether this was a bridge or a pier. In fact, I would have rather walked that bridge in Temple of Doom, blindfolded, before walking any further on that death trap. Fearing we'd fall off into the water or that we would find the killer of the spider we decided to just go back to the room and put an end to this miserable trip.

Once back in the room, we tried to get sleep but found it hard on the mattresses. Eventually, I drifted off but was awoken by the sound of my wife asking a rhetorical question. "Are you kidding me?" She had gotten up to go the bathroom when she noticed a bug taking advantage of the owner free toothbrush on the vanity. "I want to go home, now." She cried. I wanted to oblige her but it was three in the morning and I was exhausted. I promised her that we'd leave as soon as we got some sleep.

TIP #90 When beauty is struck down in front of you. It's time to get the hell home.

The next morning we left without brushing our teeth. We made a quick stop at the three light houses in the area and snapped some pictures. A hellacious thunderstorm rolled through and I was about to step off the back porch of the Keeper's Quarters at the Bodie Island Lighthouse to get a great picture when there was a flash and crack of thunder. A bolt of lightning struck right behind the lighthouse and I slowly brought my left foot back onto the porch and turned around. We finally had enough and decided to just cut our losses and go home. We managed to get to a rest stop just south of the Virginia border and needed to stop for a bathroom break. We returned to the car to leave and stopped at the exit to watch a lone butterfly flutter across the road. Realizing that this was the most beautiful part of our hellish excursion, we wanted to enjoy this innocent creatures flight. Just then, an eighteen wheeler drove by causing the butterfly to be sucked into its trail and subsequent vehicles just hammered into it and fell to the side of the road, lifeless. That was it. We just sat there, stunned at this cruel reminder of how bad this little side really was. We left, vowing to never return to the Outer Banks again.

We stayed away for three years.until September 2005 when we decided to give it another try. We rented a house in Duck and spent most of our trip in the house due to the high surf from hurricane Ophelia which was bearing down on the Outer Banks. Why do we bother?

Actually, renting a house is not a bad idea. If you can gather enough trustworthy and tolerable friends, renting a beach house is a fun way to enjoy the Outer Banks. Remember the following when trying to set up a rental.

To make money, they need to rent out the house. That doesn't mean it has to be to you. Be willing to walk away and you may get some discounts.
You probably won't get them to drop the base rental fee without consulting with the owners. However, work them over on the fees and other charges. They can do those on their own.
Play good cop/bad cop. I'm always good cop and I tell the agency how much I like the place and then my wife becomes the bad guy and they want to help the poor husband out.
May and September are always better priced months but the weather isn't. Hurricanes are more likely in September. It's a trade off of money vs. safety.

Well, that's the long and long of it. Have fun out there and be careful. And remember, if you see a big dead thing, drive all night if you have to, but get the hell out of wherever you are. Its killer may be coming back.

Here is a picture of what a live version of the spider might have looked like. I found this in my yard last night. Notice the circumference of the red peanut butter jar lid and the size of the Chapstick as a point of perspective.

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