Assorted Ruminations

Well. What an interesting couple of weeks it’s been. Summary commentary follows, on subjects as diverse as writing, politics, socializing and privacy. Read on, dear friends, and be enlightened.

“Society” Isn’t Responsible For Your Bad Choices

Big Al and I have engaged in several recent conversations about Occupy Wall Street, and in particular, about the nature of the main claims emanating like a vile penumbra from the protestors’ wish lists. The crux of the debate: To what extent is society responsible for the condition of people saddled with huge student loan debt and no strong employment opportunity?

Although Alaric refuses to state categorically that he thinks the protestors are totally free of moral culpability for the current condition, he does seem to argue that they aren’t solely culpable and therefore deserve a personal bailout. He asserts that the overwhelming social message that “college is the key to success” means that people really had no other choice if they wanted to be successful, and that colleges have misled many students about the value of their chosen courses of study. As best as I can tell, his position is that the social pressure to attend college mixed with bad or misleading counsel about the options available for majors means that many unemployed students were effectively sold a bill of goods. Therefore, in the interests of the macro economy, it makes sense to lighten their load and to implement reforms to prevent such from happening again.

Our debates have been lively. Although I appreciate his perspective — and do, in fact, concede that social pressure is a not-insignificant contributor to the higher ed bubble — I cannot agree that debt-laden students get a pass. For one thing, imprudence isn’t a virtue. Yes, I’m sure some people really did think that a degree in puppetry would be fulfilling — but did they bother to check the expected labor market for such a focus? Research is abundant and free, beginning with the Department of Labor public databases. As an ethics major, I realize that the only job I’m qualified for is one that requires “a degree, any degree” — no one is actively looking for someone with a B.A. in moral philosophy. I knew that going into it. I made my choices, and I have to accept my consequences. Choosing to go in willfully blind doesn’t provide a layer of insulation for when times get tough.

I get that for many people, life is challenging. I don’t think it’s society’s problem.

Evening of Cocktails and Fine Dining

Last Saturday I welcomed the opportunity to have dinner with Jon and Emilie, Tony and Jen, and Joe. We started with cocktails at Tony’s office in Lansing, then went to Copper for dinner. The meal was delightful and the company was heavenly. We had a great time and settled on the dates for the “All Things Tony” trek to The Happiest Place on Earth in early June.

Scotch Is Good for the Soul

Good Scotch whisky is proof of the existence of a benevolent God. In recent weeks, I’ve enjoyed Ardbeg 10-year (a staple of Jim Murray’s list of top whiskys) and now I’ve laid hands upon another rare bottle of Ballentine’s 17-year. Add to that a good deal on Lagavulin 16-year, and life is good.

But added to the mix: Gentleman Jack. I saw a fascinating Discovery Channel documentary on how Jack Daniel’s is made, and it impelled me to pick up a bottle. Glad I did. GJ may become my default sipping whiskey.

NaNoWriMo Is Harder Than It Looks

So I’m writing a novel. It’s harder than it looks. The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to produce a minimum of 50,000 words in the month of November. Some people have already met their goal, and bully for them. I remain stuck in the low four figures, mostly because I started late and have been planning as I go. The prose I’ve generated so far, I’m mostly happy with. And I purchased Scrivener for Windows — an all-in-one writing application for professional writers — and sync its data files with SkyDrive so I can pick up on any of my computers. So far, so good.

The “discipline thing” presents something of a self-improvement opportunity. My goal is to generate 80,000 words and shop it for sale. As a published writer of non-fiction work, I hope I have at least a tiny bit of credibility to get an agent to look twice at my submission. But if not — it doesn’t matter much. I’m enjoying the craft of writing for writing’s sake.

The fun thing about NaNoWriMo? The social aspect. There are active forums and chatrooms for local areas. The “Ottawa County – Grand Rapids” group has been a blast. I’ve done two write-ins with fellow novelists already, and will do more in the coming weeks. It’s been motivating, and fun to connect with fellow local writers. Even if Elizabeth insists on circulating a paper chat room while I try to write and even if Jennifer won’t bring me Scotch. At least Adrianne gave me chocolate because she’s a nice person.

I’m Not a Commodity: Or, Facebook+Spotify Sucks Huge Donkey Dick

Having read of the hype around Spotify, the streaming music service recently made available in the U.S., I was eager to install the app on my phone and enjoy a wide library of musical bliss. The downside? The only way you can actually register for Spotify is to log in with your Facebook account and agree to share an astonishing amount of personal information (including your name, age, location, friends, and profile details) with Spotify. There is no other way to gain access to the music service. Spotify, seemingly caught off-guard, insists that people can create dummy, empty Facebook accounts if they wish — which seems to defeat the purpose.

Long story short: I refuse. I uninstalled Spotify. And for good measure, I logged into Facebook and stripped all of my data from the service. I deleted all my photos (except a really crappy one for the profile), untagged myself from everyone else’s photos, removed all my personal profile details, and set all privacy settings to the most restrictive level. I even “unliked” almost everything I’ve liked in the history of Facebook — only a few dozen things, but still. My profile is now mostly an empty shell devoid of useful marketing data. Fuck you, Mark Zuckerberg.

Note to Big New Media: I’m a human being, not a data profile. I own my information. You don’t. I grow weary of being offered “free” apps or services only to discover later that the fine print says that you get to commodify me into a package of information that you can sell to others and that I have no say in the matter (not even to opt out or to at least curate what gets shared). I’m also out of the game of “logging in with Facebook” (or Google, or Twitter, or …) — give me the chance to log in using de-identified information, or forego me as a customer. Next up for scubbing: Google. I’m watching you, Mountain View.

State of the GOP Presidential Race

Here’s what I know. Most significantly, Rick Perry managed to disappoint me; I can forgive a bad debate performance, but not a 100 percent failure rate in debate performances. Mitt Romney really does look like the default nominee, and despite Erick Erickson’s bloviations, I think he’d be a strong contender and a solid POTUS. Notwithstanding my lack of enthusiasm for his early debate performances (where he came off arrogant and picking fights on social issues he didn’t need to wage) I think Jon Huntsman might be the best man for the job — he’s sufficiently conservative, smart, polished and experienced. Paul, Gingrich, Bachmann and Johnson should probably exit, stage right. And Herman Cain? He just needs to implode and retire from the race before too much damage is done to the GOP brand. Between the sex scandals and the implausibility of 9-9-9, the risk to Republican seriousness is high.

What a Difference A Gigabyte Makes …

Last week, I acquired for the low, low price of $44 a 2 GB memory chip for my netbook (the package also included an 8 GB micro-SD card). I installed it, booted up the machine — and it purrs like a kitten. Still not quite as fast as my full-sized laptop at home (what, with its dual-core Athlon processor and 4 GB of RAM) but the netbook is keeping up admirably with a dual-boot Win7+Fedora16 setup.

Truth be told, I think I’ve finally settled on an all-Microsoft approach to data management. My laptop, netbook and smart phone all run Microsoft OSes, and I use Windows Live SkyDrive for all my personal cloud storage. I’m increasingly centralizing information with OneNote, conveniently synchronized across all my screens. Although it’s not a perfect setup, I’m satisfied with it and am more productive than I was in the days of miscellaneous FTP syncing and random OS mixes.

… Also, a Single Settings Tweak

The only non-MS device left in my portfolio is my HP TouchPad. Granted that I acquired it at firesale prices, I find WebOS to be snappy and elegant. I was tempted to install the CyanogenMod tweak to push it to Android, but why screw around when WebOS works? The only problem I had — and it frustrated me to no end — was TouchFeeds, an RSS reader that’s simple and robust. However, it would hang the tablet on occasion and sometimes be mind-numbingly slow. Slow, to the point I wanted to chuck it at the window and grind my boots on the shards just to show it who’s boss. Funny thing, though: Simply changing the TouchFeeds setting to stop auto-mark-read-as-you-scroll completely fixed the problem. Now, I just push the “mark all read” button and it flies like a dream. Sometimes, just screwing around with settings solves problems.

Pictures on the Wall

Last weekend, I finally got around to printing 21 4-by-6 photos for the huge wall-mounted photo display I got for a steal a while back. Picking which 21 I wanted to print prompted a delightful trek down memory lane. It also reminded me of how bad of a job I do at taking pictures, despite having a 5 MP camera in my HD7. Now the display is prominenly affixed to the wall of my living room.

News Roundup III

Of interest —

  • Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City argues that making illegal immigrants pay a fine, catch up on back taxes and learn English in order to become lawful residents is not “amnesty” because the illegals aren’t getting something for nothing.  Ummm, OK.  He also says that the Catholic Church supports a country’s right to enforce its borders, although the U.S. bishops believe (apparently, anyway; straight answers are hard to come by) that current U.S. policy is unjust because … well, just because.  Inasmuch as there are signs of hope within the U.S. episcopacy regarding its recovery from its jackbooted leftism following Vatican II (remember how the bishops got involved with nuclear disarmament?), on some issues the Men in Purple haven’t quite figured out how to reconcile state sovereignty against the nostrums of left-wing human-rights activists.  Although I am sympathetic to the plight of many poor Mexicans who seek employment in the United States — I dealt with some of them, working for a Meijer store near a farming community, and came away from that experience with a positive impression of itinerant laborers — one would think the bishops would seek first to influence the socioeconomic situation in Mexico before reflexively criticizing the push by some conservatives to enforce existing border-security laws.  This is a supply-and-demand problem, but wouldn’t it be more consistent with authentic Gospel teachings to agitate for reform in Mexico’s redistributionist, crime-ridden culture than to berate Americans who oppose an open border and all the social and economic externalities it entails?
  • I am giving serious consideration to dumping my Facebook profile. The growing privacy/security instability of that platform is really starting to worry me; I am not a fan of having my personally identifiable information made available to the masses, shared without my consent and sold like a commodity with no compensation pushed in my direction.  There is a call for an open-source set of APIs to replicate Facebook functions without needing to use Facebook.  I’m considering doing something similar with this blog — deleting the Facebook and using as my central social-networking repository, with Twitter as the outbound push and all of my data focused inward, under my complete control.

Happy Mother’s Day.

News Roundup

Several interesting news items —

  • Apparently, the human brain is hardwired to multitask two items, but only two items, simultaneously.  Anything more, and we lose the ability to track the risk/reward matrix for all tasks concurrently — or we reduce choices until a binary pair remains.  Perhaps one day, the business world will internalize the wisdom of this and will create systems that reduce multitasking stress among employees.
  • David Sirota, in a media-criticism piece in Salon published April 16, suggests that the state of journalism as a profession is on the downswing. He suggests that journalists who are struggling for access, either to their sources for lucrative book rights, or to subjects for potential subsequent employment, are causing significant damage to the industry: “Are many of today’s opportunity maximizers destroying journalism? Clearly, yes — and unless the media sachems institute some basic ethics rules, the parasites within their ranks could end up making sure there’s no journalism industry left to save.”
  • On the “power of the purse” front:  President Obama has ordered HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebilius to direct hospitals that receive reimbursement from Medicaid and Medicare to implement policies that allow same-sex partners to visit patients or to make decisions on their behalf. This seems like a gross overreach of federal authority, and one that Congress should consider revisiting. Legislating via executive directive may be convenient but it hardly comports with the principle of representative democracy.
  • Former Michigan governor John Engler, who was term-limited out of office in 2003 after three four-year terms, has purchased property in Michigan; after leaving office, he moved to Virginia to take over the National Manufacturers Association. Although confidants doubt he will seek further elective office, the 61-year-old could be an interesting candidate to take on Debbie Stabenow in 2012.
  • A Kalamazoo-based wrecker service, T&J Towing, is suing a Western Michigan University student for starting a “Kalamazoo Residents Against T&J Towing” group on Facebook. The company is suing for $750,000 and requesting a cease-and-desist order, and the suit apparently includes Facebook. Reaction in the community was swift; there are more than 8,000 members of the Facebook group.  T&J is accused of towing cars inappropriately. Commentators in the social-media space are sharing T&J horror stories. As a former WMU student, this humble blogger is acquainted with T&J and has little grounds to doubt the horror stories.
  • For the first time in 101 years, General Motors has dropped out of the top 10 of the Fortune 500 list. A tragedy, entirely avoidable. A few weeks ago, I was part of an interview process for a project manager who hailed from GM; he recounts how frequent and even normal it was for manager to scream at subordinates, throw things in the office and make vulgar threats. A change of culture at that venerable automaker is an absolute prerequisite to future success.
  • Kent County, citing financial constraints, is refusing to enforce a new state-wide ban on smoking; the county’s health department will not enforce the ban at any establishment that does not serve food or drinks, including Laundromats and hair salons. The state will have to manage enforcement in those facilities. Of course, perhaps instead of limited enforcement, it makes sense to move to no enforcement.
  • Paul Keep, the editor of The Grand Rapids Press, has seen fit to write a column praising his newspaper for making a difference. Claiming that the printed newspaper and (a state-wide aggregation of local newspapers) reach 81 percent of adults in any given week, Keep believes his paper is performing a valuable public service.  And perhaps it is.  Yet I cannot help but notice that as senior, seasoned writers are disappearing from the staff roster, the quality of writing has declined substantially.  Circulating more of a second-tier product may not be the best thing to crow about; it works for Wal-Mart but is less effective, perhaps, for a newspaper.
  • Speaking of local media, behold the power of self-selection. A new opinion column at The Rapidian (by its publisher, no less) amounts to a plea for engagement. Suggested story topics: Road delays, opinions on healthcare, eating organically, top parks for kite-flying.  Yes, really.  As a “new reporter” who receives weekly story  ideas, I can say that the arts and “sustainability” are frequent subjects.  All of which prompts the question: Is The Rapidian attempting to be a hyperlocal source of community news, or a hyperlocal source of progressive-left news?  The first page includes stories on organic farming and a positive review of the anti-corporate manifesto Food Inc.  I don’t see much by way of hard news or center-right commentary. This prompts the question of whether the experiment in local journalism will merely become an echo chamber.
  • I feel her pain, but this is ridiculous: Juanita Westaby, a self-appointed flagellant of the Catholic Church, “apologizes” for the Church’s sins even as she confesses that she is considering abandoning the Church. Her column contains the admonition, “Remember the mission.” If only she would, and if only the The Grand Rapids Press had the good grace to avoid elevating holier-than-thou laity to speak on behalf of the Church Universal.
  • An upbeat note … a prominent Pakistani cleric has declared a jihad on terrorism.  Yes.  It seems that some Islamic religious authorities are beginning to struggle against radical Islamism. This is a good thing, and we can all pray to the God of Abraham that their work meets with success.

All for now.