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End of the Ride?

We have a second car, a 1994 Honda Accord affectionately referred to as MySweetRide, which I’ve not taken great care of. It’s never seen the inside of a garage, braving the elements in the Deep South and the Fucking Cold North. I don’t drive it very much, but it comes in just handy enough to keep around. At least until we have to make any kind of serious outlay of cash for it. Which may be soon.

You can hear the car idling on the street from my basement. There’s a gaping maw in the dashboard where the stolen stereo once lived. A short in the driver-side door keeps the dome light on. Every hinge creaks like a drawbridge and there’s enough decomposing flora in the shelf where the trunk shuts to compost a medium-sized garden.

And yet, she is loved.

2AM Sunday morning. Awakened by a phone call from friend who had the car*. A screw had punctured a tire and put the trusty steed out of commission a few miles away. (Ironically, the car was being used to transport home a bike that had just gotten a flat tire.) We jacked her up, unlugged the nuts, and then … could not get the damn tire off. Like me, it just didn’t want to let go of the Ride.

We left her for the night.

2173318670_f78fecff88.jpg

In the cold light of day we lubed her up and still could not get the tire off. We were about to give up. Just then — and I swear it was quite honestly right then — the dirtiest tow truck I’d ever seen drove up and out leaned a similarly hygienic individual asking if we needed help.

Aw, hell, he’d seen this thing before. He got out of the truck, walked up to the tire and kicked it as hard as he could. Nothin’.

No problem. He reached back into the cab of the truck and pulled out a baseball bat that clearly had a few stories to tell. He scooted under the car and swung for the fences behind the tire. Voila! Off it came. And away he drove, our guardian angel Cooter of Hazzard County.

Of course, the spare was flat. Probably should have seen that coming.

It’s all good now, but it does have me wondering if 2008 is the year I need to put MySweetRide out of its misery.

* You may remember that MySweetRide is at the center of an informal car-sharing service and, as such, has its very own Twitter site.

Update: Due to an overwhelming number of requests to help out in some way (one comment so far) I’ve added a Donate button. The money is pouring in ($1 so far).

Resolved 2008

Last year was the first in a while where I set no specific goals for myself in the new year. Maybe it is because I was tired of batting slightly better than .500. Or maybe I wanted to see what a goal-less year would be like. (Answer: not great.)

In past years I laid them out (2005, 2006), reviewed them midway (2005), and then gave a final assessment (2005, 2006).

This year I’m getting back to it. Shall we place bets?

  1. Simplify.
    Instead of doing ten things at once, do four. For all aspects of my life.
  2. Moderate.
    Related to above, but in quantity not complexity.
  3. Start to write a book.
    Been researching it for six months now (or is it all my life?). Time to get back to the word.
  4. Make more music.
    This one looks promising. There’ll be an announcement soon …
  5. Get back into distance running.
    Why? Because it is the simplest, cheapest way to exercise.
  6. Not travel as much.
    See point one. See also my family. See also my sanity.
  7. Visit Tibet.
    Wha?! I thought you said … Well, I know I’m going to China at least once this year, possibly for the last time in a while. Might as well make it worth it. (And by worth it, I mean riding the Permafrost Express to Lhasa!)
  8. Figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
    I’m open to suggestions.
  9. Learn to be ok with doing nothing/being still.
    OK, enough of that. Let’s move to the next thing,
  10. Visit more of the neighborhoods of Chicago.
    This requires more than just idly ambling around the city which would be inefficient and possibly dangerous. It requires a plan. I have a plan.
  11. Read more books.
    You know, books. Spine-bound, pulp-paged tomes.
  12. Eat more slowly.
    What occurred to me is that if you can’t recall what something tasted like five minutes after you’ve eaten it, it is time to eat slower. (Or find tastier food, I suppose.)

Begin.

Did I choose to write this post? Or was it chosen for me?

We almost have the house back in order after the cataclysm two weeks ago. One upside to reconstructing the basement is that lots of books have to be put back in place and this has given me the pleasure of rediscovering a bunch of titles I’d forgotten about.

This past week I grabbed two volumes, completely at random, on two separate trips to the toilet: Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in Nutshell and The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Admittedly, not exactly bathroom fare, but such was what laid about en route.

And this is where it gets odd. Not too far into my first, um, session I randomly opened the philosophy encyclopedia to the entry on Molina, Luis de (1535 – 1600). Molina was a Spanish theologian best known for his doctrine of “middle knowledge,” a way of reconciling human free will with the predetermination implicit in the idea of divine grace:

Middle knowledge, God’s knowledge of what persons would do under any set of circumstances, enables God to arrange for certain human acts to occur by pre-arranging the circumstances surrounding a choice without determining the human will.

Basically Molina has it both ways. God has foreknowledge of what humans will do but only because he knows all the possible choices that humans can freely make in the omnipotently-arranged circumstances. He doesn’t direct people’s actions, just sets the stage. And because He set it, He gets to know the possible acts that can be played out on it. The elegance of this proposition, it seems to me, is that it comports with a purely rational view of the world. Remove the deity from Molina’s equation and it is still entirely valid as a description of how people act.

During my next visit to the W.C, I had the Hawking book, a really beautiful follow-up to his Brief History of Time. Just flipping it open I landed in chapter three where he discusses histories of the universe:

Even if the boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary, it won’t have just a single history. It will have multiple histories …. There will be a history in imaginary time corresponding to every closed surface, and each history in imaginary time will determine a history in real time. Thus we have a superabundance of possibilities for the universe. What picks out the particular universe that we live in from the set of all possible universes?

Hawking’s answer invokes the “anthropic principle” which basically states that “the universe has to be more or less as we see it, because if it were different, there wouldn’t be anyone here to observe it.” Might seem like circular reasoning, but it makes complete sense, especially if you flip it around: humans would not exist to think about alternate universes in the first place if we did not inhabit one that could sustain intelligent life. So that’s why we’re in this one.

We can conceptualize alternate histories (e.g., one in which I posted about how much I love taco pizza instead of this rambling) and posit parallel universes that behave differently than ours, but we can only ever know the one we’re carving a path through. Not because the choices have been made for us, but because we are choosing from the finite number of paths that are permissible given the universe we live in.

Now, I’m no philosopher and, though I really did want to be an astrophysicist when I was little, I am regrettably not a member of that profession either. But it seems to me that Molina and Hawking are describing the same thing, essentially. Or something very similar, anyway. Haven’t fully parsed it all out yet.

In a way, both acknowledge that the sum of one’s choices — one’s personal “history” — is constrained in some external way (Molina by God; Hawking by the physical properties of the universe). What I find interesting is that they both also suggest a kind of human obliviousness to this constraint that allows us to live as though we were fully in control. Whatever I’m reading into these two passages, it is strangely comforting to me.

And the fact that I just randomly opened to two passages both related to free will? Well that’s just spooky.

See also: “Gone out of experience”

Halloween in a pill

So, I’ve been taking some medicine lately where one of the side effects is “changes in dreaming.” Hmm, I thought, that could be interesting. More vivid? Super-sexual? High-definition?

Alas, no, and this is why I am telling you about it on Halloween. What the pharamceutical company should actually write in the warning is: “This drug will give you nightmares. All night. Every night.” It has gotten to the point where lying in bed waiting for sleep is really a memory game trying to come up with all the real world fodder I predict my subconscious and this insidious drug will warp into a dark nocturnal narrative.

I’m not afraid of going to sleep. That I am dreaming so much each night means I am deeply asleep and pretty well-rested in the morning. But it does remind me of Wes Craven’s really genius turn in the original Nightmare on Elm Street in making falling asleep — something you cannot ultimately resist — the one thing you don’t want to do.

Happy Halloween!

If you squint hard enough you’ll see a pattern

Lots of little things going on in my life, none seemingly important enough to warrant a full post. But this does not stop the party, no.

A few weeks ago my wife performed the role of arm-candy (yeah, that’s right, she’s that good) for my brother at the ground-breaking event for the Calatrava Spire (called, alas, the Chicago Spire). My brother is the salesguy for all the in-unit automation at the Spire. When built this corkscrew will be the tallest building in North America and will redefine the skyline. Impressive site too.

If you are interested in knowing exactly the kind of video I can watch hundreds of times and still laugh, this is it.

I recently moved from my beloved Thunderbird to the Mac Mail app. Why? Better handling of IMAP. See, since I got an iPhone I have wanted it to be completely in synch with my desktop mail app (inbox, archive, sent, all of it). POP don’t cut it, so I had to move some 30,000 messages to the server. This took forever as Thunderbird (where it all lived locally) ain’t the stablest with IMAP servers. But it is done. I also wanted webmail so here’s how it works:

  1. All my addresses forward to GMail. Every single one.
  2. GMail, which does not support IMAP (sigh), archives a copy and punts to an IMAP server at my hosting provider.
  3. The iPhone and my desktop clients on PC and Mac all synch with the IMAP server.
  4. Outgoing mail on all is routed through the IMAP server and thence to GMail, so there is always a web-accessible copy.

A massive pain in the ass, but not nearly as bad as escaping Outlook.

We’ve undertaken an experiment with compact fluorescent bulbs. Nearly every light, including in utility rooms and closets, is strangely wired to a dimmer in this house, which makes things challenging. We replaced a bunch of dead incandescent cans in the kitchen (because, you know, it happens). Truly, they are cheaper for the life and wattage, but it does remind me a bit of a laboratory. Anyone have thoughts on CFL’s that don’t make think I should be titrating?

28 Weeks Later is an amazing movie. It is not a slasher flick or really a horror flick, exactly. It follows on the acclaimed 28 Days Later about a guy in a coma who wakes up in London to find Jolly Olde England overrun by zombies. This movie is, um, some time after that and shows what happens when the US Army (Mission Accomplished, baby!) quarantines a section of London for survivors. It is a fine flick and might contain the best scene in all of 2007 film. Let’s just say that it involves a field full of zombies and a helicopter. Oh, also, how can a film in which zombies sprint not be good?

I’m absolutely smitten with the audio/sequencer/DJ app called Ableton Live. It takes a while to wrap your head around, but once you do, it is pure heroin. I can’t not mess with it. More on this in an upcoming post on how I’ve left my job to be a terrible DJ at hipster bars.

In the category of links that did not make the del.icio.us feed but which I strangely feel important enough for a full post we have Wakerupper. It offers free telephone reminders with an iPhone-optimzed version to boot. And GrandCentral, one of Google’s acquisitions to centralize phone stuff in a web interface (hey, not unlike what I just did with IMAP). Anyone using this have some tips on how to make me not so scared of it?

Keep squinting.

Thunderbolts and thievery

Dear Internet,

Don’t take this the wrong way, but lately it seems that you think all I do is travel the world and party (as-a-verb) with friends. This is not altogether true. You see, this blog is really a carefully pruned excerpt of a mostly mundane and often exasperating life (in-progress). People sometimes read this blog and say “I want your life.” Well, Internet, I’m here to tell you that all is not rosy at 1¢ Stage.

Recently we’ve had some intense summer storms here in Chicago. We lost power during a lightning strike. This was initially charming in the way that the buzz from one beer is fun where the stupor from eight really is not. Several hours later, well into our gridless stupor, the lights came back on and I realized that my two networked media drives were no longer accessible.

Connection Failed

This is, perhaps, the worst technological calamity which could befall my home. For this is what happens when you have digitized all your CDs and DVDs and wired up the whole place to access it from the network. And this is what happens when you were midway through a really well-intentioned, disciplined backup strategy but couldn’t afford that second terabyte of space.

So now we are a home of disconnected media islands. The kids’ Apple TV only has on it what was synched there before the electrical storm. The only music in the house is what I had on my iPod at the time. My hope is that only the controllers are fried and that I can get the media off the drives. Damn you, Zeus. We hurl our fists at you from the Archipelago of Re-Runs and Tiresome Playlists.

Oh, but it gets better. You may have read about how wonderful the iPhone was overseas as a conversation-starter. Well, here’s a conversation for you. I had assumed that international data roaming rates were only going to be as bad as the highway robbery of international voice roaming. In fact, it is grand larceny. While AT&T offers an international unlimited data package for the Blackberry, the iPhone gets a lovely two-cents-per-kilobyte surcharge. That may not seem like much, but the iPhone was made to view the regular web, and regular maps, and suck down regular bytes — not watered-down WAP-py data. 2.7MB, for instance, comes out to $54. That’s a hefty 10 minutes of web browsing. So what did the entire week of intermittent data access run me? Over $800.

Bill

Each tiny hit is itemized. I’m sorry, but the server log-as-customer bill is asinine.

When I called to complain I had to slog through the Three Stages of Customer Service: Encounter with the Script-Reader, Argument with the Pablum-Spewer, and Anger Management Therapy with The Middle Manager. Well. They certainly weren’t going to waive the fee. Heavens no. Just because I didn’t know it was two cents per KB didn’t mean I could get out of paying for such lunacy. If only I had drilled several dozen pages into the byzantine innards of the miscegenation that is the merged Cingular-AT&T website to learn that international data roaming is their dirty little secret. Seriously, it took two separate agents over 15 minutes to figure out what the rate was. And they work there.

Turns out there is a plan for international data. $25 gets you 20MB. Then it is a half-cent per KB after that. That will still bankrupt you if you are trying to do much more than, say, nothing — just more slowly. I switched to this plan and they “re-rated” my past charges to it. Ultimately I “saved” over $700. Oh, and I am now paying $25 more per month.

I swear, the irony of a user-focused company like Apple working so closely with a it-ain’t-my-problem company like AT&T gets more and more bitter every time I pause to think about it.

So, Internet, that’s what’s been going on. My life isn’t all warm, mixed nuts on trans-Atlantic airliners, you see.

Yours Sincerely,
John

PS – I also have a toothache at the moment.
PPS – Are you really just a series of tubes?

Back alley transaction

This Saturday we’re participating in a multi-family garage sale here in Roscoe Village. Hopefully beery Retro on Roscoe festival-goers will stumble by and lighten their wallets. Update: An address might help. Stop by 3537 N. Leavitt between 8am and 2pm, Saturday, August 4.

Garage sales in the city have always seemed odd to me, given that garages are in the rear on the alley. But I do like them, having grown up with a grandmother pathologically addicted to scouring them. But then, who doesn’t enjoy sifting through their neighbors’ detritus? Socially-acceptable dumpster-diving.

In advance of the sale I figured I’d offer up some of the geekier goods we hope to offload. Consider it an early-bird special. Let me know if you want more detail or photos or if you want to make an offer.

SOLD! Harmon Kardon HK3270 Receiver
Basic stereo receiver. 65w/channel, A/B speaker switching, five stereo inputs. Makes a great second-zone or audio-only amp.
$45

SOLD! Sony VHS-C Camcorder
Includes extra battery, recharger, carrying case, and VHS adapter.
$35

SOLD! Audiotron [Note: A friend of mine has two units he’s willing to sell for the same price each, if you are interested.]
Network audio player. Scours network for playable audio files and offers a variety of ways to access them for playback through your stereo system. Mint condition. No moving parts. This is a choice piece of hardware. More info here.
$45

Roku Photobridge (formerly HD-1000)
Network media player, akin to Audiotron but for photos and video (including HD). Includes image packs. Also mint condition. More info here.
$45

SOLD! Canon Powershot G1
3.3 megapixel camera. Includes 1GB microdrive. You may have this camera, but you may not have the love in my heart I have for it. More info here.
$65

Sony Wireless Stereo Headphones
Infrared-based, 40′ range. For use with stereo or television at home.
$15

Gateway VX1110 20“ CRT Display
1600 x 1200 max. resolution. It ain’t flat, but that’s still a lot of screen real estate.
$75

Nokia 447Xi Plus 17” CRT Display
1280 x 1024 max. resolution. Best CRT I ever owned.
$50

Pronto TS1000 Universal Remote
Screen-based, highly-configurable universal remote. Download templates for your A/V components from the web. More here.
$20

Moodbuster

Been in a funk all day. But the funk has broken, so to speak.

I was playing tennis with my brother, getting my ass handed to me on a platter on a crappy public court (massive weed-strewn fissures down the hardtop, sandstorm-grade dust blowing over from an abutting dog track — nice design there, city, net two cranks too low) and it was freaking hot. Perfect to maintain my stroppy disposition.

But then I see a couple near a park bench. One or both of them is deaf because they are signing like mad. Not sure if they were arguing but whatever they were saying it was intense. And then one of them gives the sign (I’m guessing here) for “Screw this, let’s SMS” and they pull out identical smartphones. They regain composure, sit down and start texting back and forth, right next to each other, happy as clams.

It was the most beautiful thing. I think I broke my brother’s serve after that.

Instant messaging peeves

In a bit of a mood today so here’s my chat annoyance list.

When status says “not available” or “do not disturb.” I have never understood this. If you are using a chat application but not accepting messages what’s the point? Log off.

“I just e-mailed you.” Yes, thank you I see your note sitting right here in my inbox. This is only slightly less annoying than people who call you to let you know that they’ve e-mailed you right after clicking send. E-mail is asynchronous, people. Look it up.

“On the phone” or, worse, “otp.” Yes, that’s why I chose to ping you instead of ring you. And if you can’t do two things at once, why are you on chat? IM isn’t for uni-taskers.

When people treat IM like an e-mail. “Dear John, I am writing you to follow up on the matter we discussed … [18 lines later] … Sincerely, Mary.” Nice selection of medium there, Mary.

“Are you using [insert app here]?” This would be like asking people if they are using Outlook before sending an e-mail. Who cares?

12:51 PM     Mary: you there?
12:51 PM     John: yes
1:47 PM     Mary: just seeing if you are around

And the obverse:

2:15 PM     Mary: there john?
2:15 PM     Mary: hello??????

When you know someone is typing (“Mary is typing …”) and it takes forever. People, put down the Strunk and White and hit return. Chat. Not oration.

OK, all done. Damn you, Mary.

Set trimmers to kill

Buzzed my hair down to the scalp today. Up yours male pattern baldness!

Chop

Update: Best comments on new buzz:

“Did you get lice in Russia?”
“Overclocked brains require better heatsinks, right?”
“Your back hair is now officially longer than your head hair.”