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(This was written a few days after the mass killing by a lone gunman at a Connecticut elementary school which claimed 27 lives).

For the past few years, my mom and I have been busy guessing who will be picked as person of the year by Time magazine. So far I had selected John Roberts (for trying to manage a polarized judicial system and political system) and Steven Colbert. Colbert is my personal favorite; he is an American original; his satirical edge is always on-target and takes Poe’s law to its extreme. Conservatives would  probably enjoy him too (even if  they recognize that he is poking fun of him). I think  the presence of Colbert and Stewart (and probably others)  contributes to political culture without poisoning the discourse.  We should all be thankful for rhetoricians like Colbert. I never cease to be amazed at how effectively Colbert conveys his ironic message underneath the apparently conservative rhetoric. 

Over the weekend, though, I’ve decided that this has to be  the year of the Lone Gunman. Yes, GunMAN (these types tend to be males – although not exclusively). The Lone Gunman has the potential to move society at will; he has some  personality malady and lives in a society that not only permits the ownership of gun for personal protection – it encourages it.

It’s a personality type; I lose track of which individual is which – how many calibers are their weapons and how many rounds are fired – even how many have died.  As gracious as  presidents are when giving these eulogies, I almost wish they  weren’t there to do that. The president’s primary role should be decider-in-chief, not comforter-in-chief. The schedule of the decider-in-chief ought not to be set by the Lone Gunman.  Yes, I realize that comforting the afflicted is politically expedient and it’s a natural role for a president to fall into.  It is society’s way of recognizing the enormity of a tragedy. It also happens to be counterproductive for society as a whole. 

Politicians can and should enact laws to solve problems. They should be held accountable if they don’t or if they fail to support the correct policy.  When politicians offer comforting words during these times of mourning,  it obscures the fact that the politician is not in fact aggressively fighting for laws to combat the problem.

Update: Tom Tomorrow dramatizes the pattern of these kinds of events.

Update #2. Looking at the previous winners, I realize that very few women have won the award, no entertainers have won the award, many international politicians have won the award and that “gimmicky” awards to groups or things tend to occur roughly once very 5 years (and since last year the winner was The Protester, it seems unlikely to happen 2 years in a row). I still vote for Stephen Colbert – who would be a nice change of pace.


Progressives in Texas may already know about how Houston climate change activists are protesting the XL Keystone Pipeline with a hunger strike. But do most Houstonians know?

A hunger strike is a blatant attempt to manipulate public opinion by staging a public act of self-denial. The thinking goes, if the activist demonstrates that his willpower is stronger than his  oppressors, that has enormous persuasive value.  These things can be very annoying for public officials who for one reason or another find themselves on the opposite side of the policy question.

The Houston hunger strikers are protesting their wrongful arrest at a Valero refinery. As of this date, they have been striking for 18 days.

That is not a trivial amount of time, and the issues behind this strike are not trivial either. Diane Wilson and Bob Lindsey broke the law by locking themselves to Valero tanker trucks in November. Valero is likely to benefit from the XL pipeline, and local environmentalists accuse Valero and other companies of poisoning the area around the refinery. The protest website states,

Valero Energy Corp’s refinery emits life threatening poisons and pollutants that directly impact Manchester residents. Valero fills the air, water, and land in and around the community with toxic chemicals linked to terrible rates of cancers, asthma, and lung and skin ailments, with the full knowledge that the impacts of its pollutants will disproportionately affect the people of Manchester. With a nearly 90% Latino population, this is an obvious example of environmental racism.

Manchester is completely surrounded by industry. To the north and east is the Valero refinery with the Lyondell-Bassal refinery to the southeast, Texas Petro-Chemicals plant to the south, a Rhodia chemical plant and a trash shredding facility to the west, a wastewater treatment facility to the east, a Goodyear Tire plant to the southeast, along with the Interstate 610 overpass bisecting the community and an industrial rail yard forming the community’s southern perimeter.

Valero refinery entrance in Houston

I once  visited this area for a tour organized by the Sierra Club.  It’s about 30 minutes away from where I live. It is a heinous place to be; no person would want to live anywhere close to this hell hole. Yet the place is inhabited by a lot of lower-income people and families. There is a school a few miles away that because of its proximity was once labeled the most dangerous school in America.

Even if fewer people lived there, the place would be a nasty eye sore and a potential hazard for Houstonians. Even if we didn’t have to worry about climate change, the place would still be a bad source of carcinogens and a possible source of dangerous accidents.

The two people who were arrested were seasoned activists. Bob Lindsey had a father and cousin whose deaths can be traced to toxic chemicals released into the Gulf; his sister developed cancer which can also be tied to the petrochemical industry. Diane Wilson, a 4th generation shrimper in the Gulf Coast, has continuously petitioned the Courts and lawmakers to prevent chemical companies from polluting the  bays where her family and friends went fishing. Diane has used hunger strikes before, and both are serious committed people.

I suppose I could talk about the reasons why the Keystone pipeline are to be opposed, but they have been adequately covered in many places.  Honest people could disagree both about their tactics and the policy they are protesting. Why then has the Houston Chronicle provided so little coverage of the hunger strikes? Googling a bit, I see that almost 3 weeks ago the  FuelFix energy reporter wrote a “he said, she said” article about their arrest. Not a bad article considering, but the Chronicle has never followed up on it. And certainly the subject bears revisiting — 18 days is a long time to wait before writing the follow up on a hunger strike article. Do these nonviolent activists have to go on a killing spree to awaken any media interest?

Shouldn’t a city newspaper report on such events? Or should it instead provide reports about the zoo’s cheetahs, a winning football team, or Christmas decorating tips? I can’t explain the Chronicle’s avoidance of this current event. Is it just lack of resources? Or does the Chronicle have a policy against covering hunger strikes? Googling a bit, I see that a week ago the  Chronicle published a news service report about Iranian hunger strikers and has even figured out a way to “monetize” site visitors  looking for news about hunger strikes.   hunger-strike-search-results

I have a unique perspective on the issue because in fact some of my college  students in Albania participated in hunger strikes against their government.  A few days before it happened,  the US embassy had already brought me to the capitol city of Tirana, but when I heard about what the students had done,  I predicted (correctly as it turned out), that it would  cause all the schools in the country to shut down. True, Albania is a much smaller media market country, and in this case there were 60 students protesting, but the issues are no less important in Houston. The fate of the planet is at stake.

In Albania, the hunger strikers precipitated a series of unfortunate events. The Berisha government declared the hunger strikes illegal because the students hadn’t received the proper license (apparently it is illegal to have any strike without obtaining the proper license). That caused the police to sneak into the university building to arrest the students, causing a fierce gun battle which cost lives.  It was a tragedy for all, and that action triggered lots of violence and civic unrest (which eventually caused Peace Corps to send us home).

When these events happened in Albania, emotions were strong on all sides. But it would have been unthinkable NOT to cover the hunger strikes. Even the state-run Albanian  TV covered the hunger strikes.  To contrast, there is practically no coverage in any mainstream outlets of the Pipeline hunger strikers  (except Channel 39) and skimpy coverage even by progressive media.

I’d almost prefer to think that there was some conspiracy not to cover this event in the mainstream media. Instead,  it’s more likely that mainstream media is too busy with other things (some important, some not-so-important). I really don’t have a problem with general news site providing news about entertainment, sports and technology. These things are certainly important in their own way.  But if the bigger news sites focus too much on these things, the burden of reporting these things  falls on unpaid bloggers and Facebook groups.

Bloggers can certainly do a good job of reporting (see here ) , and Facebook groups like this and this can provide you with interesting news (and that not just  about  consciousness-raising/media manipulation events  like hunger strikes).  Both bloggers and Facebook groups provide incomplete versions of what’s happening. But does that mean mainstream news is better? In many ways, these mainstream news sources are much much worse because they provide the illusion that they are covering all the news that ought to be covered.

The sad fact is: if I want to find out what’s going on in Houston, reading my city paper is probably the least helpful thing to do. That’s very sad.

P. S. Both individuals are my heroes.

Update #1. The hunger strike has now lasted 29 days. The Houston Chronicle still not deigned to provide any coverage of it.  As I write this, the top story on the web edition of chron.com is (I kid you not!) Best Lines of Ron Paul’s Career.


(Here’s a post I wrote 2 years ago and forgot to publish).

You don’t actually have to read the original article,  but the complaints on CNN  about the alleged outbreak of hookups are more insightful (and funny).

I had taken Matt to be making fun of the way these articles about the “hookup culture” are set pieces that have been written the same way for decades. The articles always take the same same basic phenomenon (college kids having sex with people they barely know while drunk), wildly overstate its prevalence, and write from the perspective of (invariably female) students who aren’t interested. Invariably the article presents the “hookup culture” as some novel phenomenon, despite the fact that people have been writing the same article for decades.

The “date” is dead as a phenomenon on college campuses, but there are scads of students who engage in romantic, non-hookup dating. Invariably these articles ignore those couples in favor of interviewing (female) students who complain that all the guys are interested in is hooking up. The possibility that the interviewees are unrepresentative is never explored.

This article is a perfect example of the genre.


This is one ridiculous piece of journalism. It makes me think back to the tripe that the Vanderbilt Hustler used to put forth back before I recently graduated, I reference the Hustler because Ms. Boyle used to write some of the most jaded and noxious columns in the editorial section, and this piece wreaks of that similar stench. Raging at Vanderbilt? I went to Vandy, I was in a fraternity, and I drank and partied quite a bit, most undoubtedly more than others, but Vanderbilt is one of the more tame campuses you are likely to find. Furthermore, the hook-up culture is pervasive. That they would pick a small private school where the average cost of attendance is over $50,000 per year as a microcosm of university life is ludicrous. Next, that they would reference one student taking a stand against hooking up and incorporate "true role models" like Lady GaGa, illustrates the short-sighted nature of this article. Who the heck cares what someone chooses to do or not do? It’s none of my business. All I know is that decrying the hook-up culture on college campuses does nothing to put an end to it. There’s drinking to be done in pretty much any college, and drinking promotes bad decisions. However, it’s a lifestyle that some, like myself, chose, and to tell you the truth it’s really pretty lame to hear this tired old rhetoric time after time. Seriously, what utter garbage


The report states: "An April 2010 study from James Madison University in Virginia revealed more college women tend to want a relationship out of a hook up compared with men who prefer to stay independent." Note to James Madison University – you actually needed to conduct such a study to find this out??!! Note to everyone else – make sure you don’t attend this university!!


Of course the article most certainly not written by a dude….


If you find inspiration from Lada Gaga to maintain your celibacy, YOU’RE A COMPLETE IDIOT. Period.


Wow imagine going to school to learn….wow!!!!


this poor girl just committed social suicide

no she didn’t. haven’t you seen any John Hughes movies? she’s going to hold out. the cool jock is going to try to woo her. then he’s going to change his ways and they’re going to fall in love.


Dating can be expensive, especially if you’re a guy and you have traditional women expecting you to foot all or most of the bill. If women want to go on dates, about they invite us and pay for it. As a college student living on a budget, I’d rather spend my five bucks at a frat party and get laid. As long as you’re protected, it’s a lot of fun. For every chick who gives up on hooking up, there are thousands more who welcome it. Gotta love freshman girls.
Plenty of time to go on awkward dates and $80 dinners (appetizers, main course, wine, dessert for 2) after college when we actually have jobs (if we get lucky with this recession).


I’m deeply, deeply disappointed that the link to Lady Gaga declaring her celibacy is dead.


Over the years I’ve grown sick of these kinds of articles and the false morality they profess, as well as interviews with alleged experts. I think an article can and should be written about the topic, but you can do without delving too deeply into lurid  details and  actually offer  insights about what dating on campus is actually like. I have less of a problem with abstinence per se than those who are promoting it and shouting down those who refuse to see things in black and white.  Abstinence is not really an abstract decision but something arising from your situation and the people involved. The problem with “abstinence” is that people tend to regard it as a good in and of itself. But of course it’s not intrinsically good (except for ministers and monks).   It’s not a bad thing either; I regard it as neutral.

I once faced a dilemma about a dating profile on eharmony.  A woman’s profile was moderately interesting (and curiously, one of the few without a photo). But her profile sounded more interesting than 75% of the others on eharmony. She was 33 or 35 or 37 or something like that, and she specified in her profile that she was dedicated to the idea of “No Sex Before Marriage.”  The question become: should I respond to this ad?

I hemmed and hawed. Frankly, the thought of  meeting a woman who refused the very idea of  sex before marriage did not particularly bother me  (I mean, I had already been celibate for quite some time, so a year of no-sex dating would not be an undue burden). On the other hand, I had complex views on the subject and merely because I agreed to contact her/go out with her did not imply that I necessarily agreed with her point of view: it would merely mean  that I would be willing to make an exception in her case. At the same time,  her statement of principles would compel me to state my own principles prematurely. I could easily anticipate a first date consisting only of a discussion of why she promoted no-sex-bef0re-marriage and why I had reservations about it.

I didn’t want to have that kind of conversation, especially on a first date. It  was (to put it crudely) a dick-shriveling topic. It took the excitement out of the romantic pursuit; it turned the focus away from attraction and romance towards religion and condemnation. Practically speaking, I probably talk to lots of women who are determined not to have sex before marriage; they just don’t wear this belief on a sign!  The fact that this woman on eharmony was announcing it on her profile meant that she was establishing it as a filtering mechanism towards all future husbands. Maybe her intent was simply to ward off casual dating, but it served also as a signaling device. If the woman had absolutist positions regarding sex, just imagine what her positions would be about politics/art/career/ the environment.

Frankly, if I had met this person at a party and I never knew about her beliefs, I might have gotten to know her better. Who knows? That’s the  thing about online dating. In many instances, I acknowledged that my own criteria weren’t correct, but sometimes you have to make snap  judgments.

At college I dated a lovely girl whom I surprised one day …. lighting up a cigarette!   She had been hiding her habit from me because she thought (accurately as it turns out) that I was very anti-smoking. It’s true. I almost never would view a smoker as a potential life partner. But when I discovered her subterfuges, I realized that my unspoken rule about smokers just didn’t matter in this case.  This girl  was a great person in every other respect; it would be folly to exclude her from my affections just for that . (As it turns out, her religious beliefs made her oppose premarital sex as a matter of principle, so I guess abstinence  really does exist on campus).

Online dating is one example of the follies of snap judgments. But there are many instances where initial impressions mislead. Looking for a job is a classic case of this. A perfectly qualified person can have a lousy interview or lack sufficient number of  buzzwords on the resume, and still turn out to be a great employee. I’m currently hiring voice talent for an audio play, and frankly, I’m not sure whether my criteria for choosing a candidate will result in the best qualified candidate getting the job. In fact, they all look good in their own way.

Two years ago, I decided that I would no longer apply for any technical writer positions in the fossil fuel industry.  I had been reading a lot about climate change and remain convinced that the fossil fuel industries were contributing to the problem in a huge way. But now that I have set my core principle of values, how do I implement it? Practically speaking,  I find that many kinds of companies in Houston are embedded with the oil and gas industry in some way, and it  is often  hard to draw the line. What if a company merely provided software for the fossil fuel industries? What if a company merely provided IT services? What if a company were providing safety inspections for an oil rig and needed someone to write the safety manual? What if  a company designed software which could be used by oil companies, but also on many other kinds of projects? What if a law firm wrote and reviewed leases for oil companies, but that was only about 40% of their business? These are real-life examples where the ethical dimensions are not clear cut.

The problem comes when your discriminating principles don’t allow exceptions or flexibility.   I almost never read genre fiction; frankly I find science fiction to be a bore – although I’m occasionally surprised. Intellectually, I know that a certain percentage of writers in any genre are doing amazing things; in fact I almost delight in stumbling upon someone in a genre who is actually writing outstanding things. Literary genres are a marketing construct; do I really despise “chicklit” as much as I assume? (For the record, I greatly enjoyed Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City”). Legal thrillers, spy novels, YA. I don’t know what these terms actually mean – and I guess my problem is more with the low ambitions of people who write for these genres. At the same time, we need labels to separate things into different piles, or else we would go insane!

When you buy something like a cell phone, you are dealing with a known set of features. The options may be ridiculously complex, but essentially we all know what 2 MB Camera or “free weekend minutes” mean. But when you are selecting a book or an employee or a romantic partner,  you are dealing with a infinitely complex set of features.  I haven’t read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice yet but it’s hard to deny his central argument that  the endless number of options can be paralyzing for the consumer. Instead of giving him more freedoms, they give him more stress. 

The irony is that most of these differences are minor. Often when I buy software or devices, I end up agonizing over features or specifications which I rarely notice or use after I make a purchase. I need to buy a laptop, a subject that I am generally familiar with.  But there are dozens of brands and dozens of cost-reducing or cost-increasing features which I need to sort through.   I need to read customer comments  and also consider how this laptop might run in Ubuntu. I also  need to consider where exactly I will buy this product and the general reputation of the brand (and distributor).

Then again, I can simply visit a local computer store and buy something. Ugh!  I have $800 to spend. What’s the best thing in the store? I can take the thing home in 2 hours, and as long as I don’t fret too much about better and cheaper products for sale at other stores, I’ll be fine. I like how online stores   use faceted Search  to let the user feature out certain products (“8 gigs or more” or “Between 100-150$”). At the same time, this sort of precise filtering leads manufacturers to cheat a little. So a laptop may have 8 gigs of RAM but have a crappy CPU (something the consumer wouldn’t know enough to look for).  I can go onto a Slashdot page and hide all the results which were ranked 3 stars or lower. This basically guarantees that all the comments I see are interesting and relevant. But it also means that I am missing a lot of insights because – let’s face it, the best comments rarely get the karma love they deserve.

Taking shortcuts is necessary because frankly we rarely have enough time to consider our options as closely and carefully as we would like. Maybe it was for the best that I chose to filter out smokers on match.com; I didn’t want to face the time burden of distinguishing between smokers who were not health conscious and the rare pretty and liberal and generally health-conscious woman who still smoked but was trying to quit. I was once dismissed by a match.com woman who wrote a polite but pointed reply saying, “My ex was a clueless playwright. I have no interest in dating artistic types anymore.” 

Ouch. I guess it feels different to be on the receiving end of a snap judgment. I have been trying to promote an author’s ebook and I find curiously that many decent critics rarely review ebooks or even indie-produced ebooks.  It must be a book by a well-known publisher. Is that fair? No. (Indeed, I would argue that that it makes these people less effective critics).

It’s possible to waste a LOT of time reading a mediocre book. But how allergic are you to mediocrity? If you wanted, you could read nothing but Nobel Prize winners (and maybe National Book Award winners if you tire). Using that criteria exposes you to a lot of interesting and profound literature, but is that enough? It exposes you to only a small number of literary types. You end up missing  so many things, so many different ways of looking at the world.

I used to be extremely fussy about what I read.  But  this fussiness presupposed that my initial impressions (based on packaging and book reviews and literary awards)   guaranteed  quality (or at least, what seems to be quality to me).  A book cover can signal many things about what a book is about, but a bad book cover doesn’t signal anything. Anyway, the ultimate goal of reading is to read a good book, not  something with a good cover or critical reviews.

One curious result of this ebook revolution is that there are now oodles of free and low-cost ebooks, most of which are crap. But there are also lots of high quality free titles out there – as long as you’re willing to look and take  chances. Yesterday I downloaded about 50 free titles from the free page for Amazon. I regularly go to Inkmesh to download the free Nook titles (my preferred device).  Truthfully, I don’t read most of these free titles, and even the ones I read I barely finish. But I’m grateful to have access to these kinds of freebies.

Time, time, time. Everything  boils down to time.  Lately I have been ripping a lot of CDs, both from the library and from CDs I bought. I read consumer guides to music, and even though I enjoy flipping through these things, one can’t regard them as gospel.  For example, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau has reviewed a LOT of music. Most of the albums he assigns an A or A- letter grade to are pretty good, but he overlooks a lot of good stuff (and even mocks them sometimes).

I often will put on hold music CDs  which have been recommended to me by  critics and find them unremarkable. At the same time, I will randomly pick random albums off the shelves and discover remarkable things just as often (see this, this and this)

Dating is supposed to be a serious choice. Hook ups are supposed to represent a failure to exercise good judgment and yes, taste. Alas, I have spent way too much time refining my tastes in all realms, even dating….and am I the better for it? I don’t know. I don’t know.

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Two nastygrams about climate change

I often get irate about climate change, and here are 2 emails I have sent about climate change.  They are not so much analytical but contemptuous in tone. Why? Frankly, because I think shaming is the only acceptable response. Certainly it would be possible to give a point-by-point response to Mr. Morano’s jabberings, but that would be essentially conceding that a paid disinformer has the right to waste my time. (Skeptical science can easily answer all of Morano’s pseudo-arguments).

The funny thing is an unsuspecting person who heard the CNN debate would no doubt assume that the energy guy “won’” the debate.  Even a reasonably educated person might reach this conclusion. It is really easy to throw out what seems to be arguments and then keep repeating them and out-talking the opposition. (Romney basically did the same thing in the first  debate and basically “won the debate.”) But Morano’s Gish Gallop doesn’t really amount to anything. (Nye’s opposition was pweak – he is an effective advocate for science, but this is not one of his finer moments – though the format of the CNN debate practically guaranteed that rationality would lose).

Despite the near consensus on climate change, it’s interesting to note how often popular media (both in print and online) seems to cast doubt on the consensus. Readers and viewers may not realize how news is manufactured, but media sources receive oodles of press releases from lobbying groups and “experts” who are available to speak on a topic. These are not really the most qualified people on a given topic, just the people most available and eager to speak.  It’s a lot easier to throw together  a pro-and-con debate than to try to delineate what conclusions and observations are made with a high degree of confidence. Major media is more worried about selling commercial air time than dispassionately discussing the issues. Sure, they want qualified journalists to do their job…but only if it doesn’t threaten their bottom line. 

These are examples of “futile” letters.  They don’t really accomplish anything except blow off steam. Why do it then?  Partly it is to suggest that actions have consequences and that a person like me can’t stand idly by and watch. Oddly, I used to write politicians fairly often..until I realized that they didn’t  read their email. Most of my representatives are right-wing pro-Bush and pro-oil, and it appeared unlikely that they would budge on most issues. John Culberson or John Cornyn will never support climate change legislation no matter how many people write them. It seems more effective just to ignore them and support credible opposition.

To: Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Sheriff, Harris County

I am pretty shocked that Harris County has imprisoned some climate change activists who are now on hunger strike.

The cause they are fighting against (the XL pipeline) is just, and it reflects very badly on the Houston/Harris County justice system to have them arrested.

Furthermore, I am shocked that you feed your prisoners in Harris County jail baloney sandwiches and no vegetables. That is despicable. By what basis do you have the right to deprive ANY prisoner reasonably nutritious food?

This incident calls attention to an environmental injustice; it only puts you in the spotlight for causing  these  deplorable conditions.

Finally, if you would like to enforce justice in Houston, why don’t you ever take any action to enforce the $18 billion judgment against Chevron. (which the US Supreme Court recently reaffirmed last year ).

I realize that the Ecuador lawsuit is a civil lawsuit — and seemingly unrelated to the actions of the hunger strikers–, but this judgment and the attempt to collect this judgment has been derailed by the US legal system. Oil companies like Chevron are scofflaws who are using the US legal system to squirrel out of the most significant environmental case in world history. Chevron’s  world headquarters is  in Houston; the plaintiffs  badly need the court and law enforcement system in Houston to intervene,  but you have failed to do so.

This disparity between your county’s failure to help the Ecuadorians  collect their judgment against the Chevron and your overzealousness in punishing practioners of civil disobedience against Valero is shocking.

You should be ashamed of yourselves. You are clearly not on the side of justice, but simply on the side of the rich and powerful…who by the way are slowly destroying the climate for future generations. 



I am writing about the bad coverage you gave on climate change last night. In Piers Morgan you featured Bill Nye and Marc Morano having  a "debate" about climate change. I realize that this is a forum for people to express opinions, but I know a bit about climate change and I know the background of Marc Morano, and so I can’t help but wondering why you allowed a confirmed paid disinformer like Morano to appear on the show and in fact to dominate the discussion.

I realize that you are not endorsing the positions of your guests, but I would assume that inviting a guest to speak on your show implies that you think this person’s opinions are interesting and respectable and intellectually honest. But even a little fact checking would reveal how false and frankly dishonest Morano’s statements on your show are.

This tendency of Morano’s is well-known, so I hold your network responsible for inviting him on your show. Up until now I have watched CNN occasionally and check the website daily. I have even defended CNN to my friends on occasion. But now it seems CNN is not interested in hosting honest and fair discussions, merely in stoking controversy. That puts you on the level of Glenn Beck and even on the level of Romans who fed Christians to lions in the coliseum. That would boost ratings too, wouldn’t it?

I realize that some of your reporters and TV analysts do a good job overall (and by the way Bill Nye is a decent reasonable contributor), but if your quality control allows you to invite irrational scoundrels like Morano on the air, I’m afraid that I will have to stop watching your shows and visiting your website. Why should I patronize a media website which engages in such deplorable practices?

I have watched CNN for 20+ years. I have seen lots of things that I have disagreed with. But in my entire time watching CNN, I have never found a segment so unfair/biased and shallow as what I saw on Piers Morgan last night. For this reason, I have decided to stop watching CNN altogether and visiting your site. That segment you aired is beyond contempt.

You should be ashamed of yourselves for airing it.


In reviewing Monk Turner’s latest album, Kaleidoscope, I wanted to try a technique that writer Paul Ford used when reviewing SXSW music tracks. He wrote 6 word reviews of every single music track  at the festival (all 1000 of them!).

White. Ebullient vocals bursting ahead –with piano.
Blue. Nonsequitur lyrics, skipping  outside, lightly, saxily. 
Fuchsia. Joyful Jingle about an unpronounceable word.
Marron, Chic, catchy  madcap Euro-lounge nonsense.  
Beige . Encomium to Blandness. Uncontroversial neutrality — hurrah!
Deep sea blue … Lullaby for the forlorn. Waltzing Alone.  
Chartreuse:  Jazzy sensual investigations: Peculiar!  Sexy! Gross!  
Zymenchlora — moody & somewhat lugubrious  long tones….
Silver — being 2nd Best ain’t so bad.
Gray – Slow, Sullen  warbling. Strange,  pretty singing. 
Bistre — glistening, enigmatic lyrics  transforming into — what?
Purple — Slow  Wistful  duet on AM Radio.   
Solid Gold. Great 80s car commercial, retro slacks.
Cerulean. Happy-go-lucky wistful upbeat duet.
Yellow. Cool, sassy female. Totally  fbomb-worthy!
Green. hazy postmodern multilingual sampling. Choppy unpredictabilities! 
Tan. Self-Assured Recitative about graham crackers.
Magenta. Pondering, wondering, elusive strumming. Is it….?

In summary: quirky songs (with outbursts of poetry)

Added bonuses. Read my profile of Monk Turner’s other album projects and a 20 minute dialogue between Turner and Alanna Lin about the writing of that marvelous song Totally Blue

Kaleidoscope cover art


My 2006 South by Southwest Journal (Very long)

Every March between 2002 and 2010 I regularly attended an Austin tech conference called South by Southwest Interactive. In 2006 I offered  to TechBlog to blog about my misadventures at SXSW. I generally liked that experience although it kind of ruins the fun of attending the conference. Some of the tidbits are dated now (but some are definitely not!) . I’m reposting the whole thing for archiving purposes.

[click to continue…]


Some Amazing Musical Deals on Amazon

April 2013 Update: It now seems clear that with a few exceptions, Amazon.com’s prices are higher than average, especially when compared to emusic, a service I highly recommend.  So I would recommend first becoming an emusic member (minimum of $6 a month) and then take advantage of their discounted member prices which usually stay the same.  That said, Amazon.com occasionally has “flash sales” for 1 day only  for Top 40 albums. (They can cost 99 cents or 2.99, a pretty good deal). Selected compilation albums can be cheaper than other music sellers — I am thinking of the Johnny Mathis, Edith Piaf, John Prine and some of those trance compilations. But by the time you click these links, these sales may very well have ended.  Finally the Big Box series of classical music tend to have amazing 99 cents sales — although they rotate the sales.  Click this link to see which Big Boxes are currently on sale).

First, I should announce that I am working on an ebook about collecting digital music which I expect to publish in early summer 2013.  I have been  researching lots of stuff about that.

There are really 3 challenges in making a music collection:

  1. How do you stay within a budget for music purchases?
  2. How do you discover new music without letting the major music studios dictate your tastes?
  3. How do you find the classics for a low cost?

These are the topics for the ebook.

At the moment, digital music is so arbitrarily priced that it’s next to impossible to figure out how much you can and should pay. About 95% of the digital music selling on Amazon is a rip off. By that, I mean that the music is good, but you can still find the CD for significantly cheaper.

At the same time, some smaller labels and band “get it”. Instead of trying to sell all albums for 9 or 10 dollars, they sell it for  $5 or $6 or $7. And guess what? I almost always buy it at that price – especially when it’s a “Greatest Hits”  or award-winning album, or something like that.

Here’s a list I am compiling of great digital deals.

  1. Francophonic (Volume 1). Classic 2 CD collection of Congolese jazz guitarist Franco. This is not cheap at $17.98, but easily the best thing I had bought over the past decade.   Volume 1 (i.e., Thin Franco”) covers up to 1980, while Volume 2  (i.e., “Fat Franco” ) covers 1980 to his death in 1989. With many African performers, you don’t have lots of cheap CD’s floating around, so you end up having to pay a premium price for   recordings (digital or physical). I am saving my money for Volume 2! But Volume 1 is certainly enough to keep me happy.  Francophonic: A Retrospective Vol. 1 1953-1980
  2. Sonny Rollins: Night at the Village Vanguard. A 2 CD collection of a classic live performance (mp3s for sale at $10). One of the most famous jazz recordings ever.
  3. Best Of Trance 2011 – 99 Tracks. 11 hours of music for $9! I usually hate those mega-collections of trance music. A low percentage of them are good, and sometimes the album only includes shorter edited version (which can often be frustrating).  This collection is above average for Trance compilations, plus there are no edits! I’m listening to it now, and so far, I haven’t heard a bad track!
  4. Best Of Bonnie Raitt On Capitol 1989-2003 I am only a so-so fan of Bonnie Raitt, but this compilation is really great and for $7 you can’t miss it.
  5. Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6. For $12 you get 115 minutes worth of rare tracks . All amazing and intoxicating stuff.
  6. John Prine, Singing Mailman Delivers. For $8 you get 2 CDs worth of early songs by a classic folk singer who has been generally overlooked.  I’ve only started listening to this guy, but it surely will be great.
  7. Johnny Mathis. Fifty Favorites. For $7 you get 50 tracks from the early period of Mathis (when he was still amazing).
  8. Dexter Gordon, Go. The problem with collecting jazz music is that almost all of it is good, but very little of it is outstanding. Also, people like Dexter Gordon record over a 100 CDs, so it is really hard to know where to start. Fortunately this album is one of the best  and acclaimed by all and accessible and only $6.
  9. London Suede is an eccentric post-glam British band. Best of the London Suede contains 35 songs (certainly their best) for $9. I knew the band other from only one or two songs, but once I listened to their entire album, I saw how high quality and overlooked they really are. The Best Of
  10. Benny Goodman Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.  ($7) Various producers have tried to fix the audio problems of this concert (and generally I prefer the original Columbia/Legacy recording for $17 ). But the budget edition I linked to sounds good enough and is substantially cheaper and has almost all the same tracks (minus a few).  For $7 you can have a passable version of this dynamite concert.
  11. DJ Tiesto, In search of Sunrise 4 Latin America. All of the ISOS albums are on Amazon and each cost about $9. This one is supposed to be his best mix and contains 6 1/2 hours of Trance Music.
  12. Beethoven Symphony #9, conductor Andre Cluytens, Berlin Philharmonic. (Only $3.50!)  Third Ear Classical Music Guide ranked this as the best version of Symphony #9, and I agree. Slender, lively, just perfect.  Note that Joseph Krip’s complete Beethoven Symphonies is on mp3 for $7 total. That’s awesome! I listened to these recordings. Good, middle of the road interpretations, although I thought #3 and the even numbered symphonies stood out.
  13. Edith Piaf. 100 Hits!  $4.29. Pretty amazing and comprehensive collection. I’ve only listened to the 1 CD compilations, and I look forward to listening to this one.
  14. Doo Wop Classics. $7.99. I didn’t buy this album, but I own a similar 2 CD set with almost the same playlist, and I can say it’s amazing. This album has 64 songs totalling 192 minutes. Trust me. This one is going to be a winner.
  15. Andrew Sisters. Swinging with the Andrew Sisters (27 Hits).  $5.99 Andrew Sisters is my all-time favorite band, and I can officially bless this $6 collection as being an awesome deal which includes some lesser known Andrews greats.

Amazon has a good way of letting you browse the cheap mp3 titles. Here is their Editor’s Picks for albums for $5. Here is their list of greatest hits under $8. Keep in mind that these low cost editions (even the compilations) may not necessarily be the best deal for your money. Often there is a better  compilation which consists of  2 CDs but can often be purchased for only 2 or 3  dollars above the single  CD Greatest Hits. Don’t believe me? Ok, Supertramp’s Greatest Hits is for sale as mp3  for $7, but the later compilation CD Retrospectacle sells for $8 on half.com for $3 shipping (or less if you buy multiple items). Best of Talking Heads  sells for $5 on Amazon (a great deal), but Popular Favorites 1976-1992: Sand in the Vaseline by Talking Heads (a better 2 CD compilation)  sells on half.com for $2 plus shipping.  (The same 2 CD compilation sells digitally on Amazon for $17). Just recently, I was going to buy an mp3 compilation of George Benson’s jazz music for $6 , when I discovered that a better collection (with twice the number of tracks and better quality overall)  was for sale as a CD for $4 + $3 shipping.

Two other notes. Google Play has become a big deal in selling mp3s. Every few weeks they feature steep price cuts from major music labels.  Most of it is the same old garbage for 6 to 7 dollars, but last summer they featured about 100 great classic albums for $3 or $4. That’s enough reason to keep me looking at their promotions.

What about other places to buy music such as from the musician’s own sites? Usually that is not a good proposition because  most musicians are not good at  the buying and selling thing. Plus one condition of selling on Amazon is that Amazon can automatically meet or beat the price of any other place the album is being sold. So there’s a built in incentive for musicians not to try to compete with Amazon. On the other hand, one reason you should still check the musician’s website is to see if they have set up in other stores which provide a bigger percentage of the profit for artists. Bandcamp, for example, is supposed to give greater share of the royalties to  artists than Amazon – if only fans would buy from them!

I have long been a proponent of creative commons music – which is as good as if not better than commercial music. See my picks about the best free creative commons albums to download and my free download links to Benny Goodman mp3s on archive.org.

Finally, a request. I will try to add and subtract to this list of deals as I become aware of them.  If you know of a great “deal” on a musician, feel free to jot it down in the comment section. (I may not like every musician, but the better the deal, the more willing I am to take a chance. During last summer’s Google Play deal, I ended up buying for $2.99 a Duran Duran CD and a John Cougar Mellencamp album. Both were excellent albums, and well worth the $3 for the digital download. Believe me when I say that I never could have imagined myself spending more than $3 for either album.

Update: I’m going to mention several outstanding music references. First, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die  by Tom Moon  which is probably the most outstanding musical reference out today. (Here’s his weblog and a weblog by a fan of the book) . Second, Robert Christgau’s rock criticism (an invaluable reference) and Acclaimed Music (a Anglo-centric book of musical lists).


More nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize

So the winner of this year’s  Nobel Peace Price is …. the EU? What the heck? Who’s going to be awarded the 2013 peace prize — the Nobel Peace Prize committee itself?

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2014 will be awarded to the word “peace”  … for its undeniable power to help people express their ideas more easily.

For 2015 the Peace Prize will be awarded to “Life” for demonstrating  temerity not to shirk from terrifying nonexistence and to  infuse people with the desire to live and let live.

For 2016 it will be awarded to the “smile” for its unsung role in promoting peace and cooperation.

For 2017 it will be awarded to “paper” without whom the leading peace treaties would never  have been possible.

For 2018 it will be awarded to “war” — which frankly has gotten a bad rap these last few centuries — but whose contrast helps us to value what peace itself is.

For 2019 it will be awarded to “myself” , the place where all peace has to start.

For 2020 it will be awarded to “traffic lights” for its crucial role in preventing collisions and disputes.

For 2021 it will be awarded to “Rainbows” for suggesting a kind of society which unifies all kinds.

For 2022 it will be awarded to “wimps” who are brave enough to embrace the path of nonconflict against intimidation and aggresison.

For 2022 a joint award will be given to   “cannabis” for promoting the cause of indifference to conflict.

For 2023 it will be awarded to “Martin Luther King” because there’s nothing wrong with repeating oneself sometimes.

For 2024 a joint award will be given to “mouthwash and underarm deodorant” for helping people to get closer.

I realize that with this year’s  award, the Nobel committee has made a clever  and interesting point about the benefits of international bodies. But the main purpose of awards is  to identify and reward extraordinary individuals. You are squandering this real value of an award when you try to reward  institutions  rather than individuals. Individuals are the ones who actually  fight for these concepts. They are outgunned and underfunded. Their individual struggles matter, and awards can help expose these struggles  to a wider audience and raise the status of these people in their own society. Peacemakers, contrary to what you might think, rarely make the news; they rarely work with a sizable PR budget, and frankly they don’t often “win” (even if ultimately their point of view ends up prevailing over the long term).


(the photos you see are for the intersection of Westheimer and Greenridge in Houston, Texas. Click here for a Google maps street view (here is the actual address in Google Maps)

Pardon the macabre nature of this post, but I wanted to call attention to how often cars come to killing pedestrians and cyclists. It frightens the daylights out of me. Drivers of cars are oblivious they are when they are hauling around this ton of metal. It’s bad enough that car drivers are gradually eliminating the climate as we know it; they also have a gigantic capability to issue a fatal blow to another human without trying very hard.

I vividly recall a tragic moment from my college years. I was speeding down  a country road — taking a short cut to reach the highway to San Antonio and I crushed a fairly large turtle in the middle of the road which was lunging away from me as fast as a turtle could. I also remember a time when my dog got loose and ran onto a crowded road and was hit by a car. As tragic as these deaths were, I recognized that for drivers it was more dangerous to swerve away from these animals than to crash into them. The nightmare scenario involved swerving to miss a cat and running into an SUV and killing everybody in  the process.

Another vivid college memory. While driving my parents to San Antonio, I got a traffic ticket for speeding. My dad never let me hear the end of it. On the way home, my dad insisted on driving, with me on the passenger seat (my mom went home separately). We turned into Schulenberg to get gas, and as we headed to a four way stop on the feeder, my dad  accidentally pushed his foot on the gas instead of the break. The action flustered him so badly that he didn’t realize what had happened; he thought the car was out of control. We looked ahead and we saw an 18 wheeler truck ahead of us which we would surely hit. I quickly honked the horn several times, and the truck driver and another driver managed to yield to us while we flew past the stop sign and back onto the freeway again. Eventually my dad realized that the problem was merely a misplaced foot, but we both recognized that this random mistake could have cost  us our lives. Years later, both of us would recall that incident with the same feeling of trepidation and the sense that my quick thinking (and  luck) had probably  saved  our lives.

Those are memorable moments, to be sure. And I’ve had several small accidents which could have been worse than they were. But I have had a LOT more near misses as a pedestrian or cyclist than as a driver.

In 1991 or 1992 on Kirby and West Alabama,  I was knocked off my bike  by a pizza delivery boy in a pick up truck. He just hadn’t seen me. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention; who knows? He was  sorry (and did pay for my bike). Luckily I wasn’t hurt. A few years later in the Rice Village, I was waiting at a stop light on the right lane. Various cars were inching forward to turn right on the red light. Even though I wasn’t at the front of the line, all the cars ahead of me had advanced and turned right at the red, so I ended up moving forward also.  Then the car behind me turned right – brushing me down swiftly. The driver hopped out apologetically. He was a doctor and obviously  a responsible person. He had hit me after coasting a few yards  and accelerating. It didn’t hurt me or my bike, but it scared me because it was so unexpected. It never occurred to me that a stationary car at a red light could just run into me. As the doctor went back to his car, he said, “Be careful!”. “No, you be careful!” I jeered in as contempuous a tone as possible.

I can’t find the video or article in question, but a pedestrian once crossed a busy intersection with her two children of elementary school age. Both kids were killed, and instead of the driver being charged with involuntary manslaughter or  just ticketed, the mother herself was charged with a felony. All right, you say, what kind of crazy woman would walk with her kids across a busy street? As it turns out, the situation was substantially more complicated. The mother lived in an apartment complex with a few hundred residents.   There was no crosswalk to walk down; the nearest one was a mile in the opposite direction. There was not even a path to this nearest red light/crosswalk. There  were simply tall weeds. Many of  the apartment dwellers who didn’t have cars crossed the middle of the street in the same way.  The woman eventually escaped the felony charge, but this horrifying incident  underscores how bad urban planning often is partly to blame.

Of course, if a pedestrian or bicyclist is negligent, he or she rarely ends up killing the other party. I won’t deny that there are probably some daredevil bicyclists on the road, (most are just ignorant or uneducated), but most of the bicyclists follow the law to the letter. Why? Because they are absolutely terrified of being struck dead by a motorist who wasn’t paying attention.  About  once a month I come close or somewhat close to a near fatal accident. 95% of the time, it’s not my fault.  It’s the fault of a motorist who wasn’t looking or talking on the telephone.  Here is my nightmare vision of my mortality:

A woman who is happily chatting away on the telephone makes a rolling right turn without stopping or realizing that she has just crushed  a pedestrian or bicyclist who had been  trying to cross the street.  That split second that matters – when the woman is busy talking about Starbucks or the latest episode of the Bachelor or sharing the latest office gossip – is the moment which will determine whether I will live or die.

About a month ago I was at a complete stop while waiting for the light to go green. In the meantime, a woman in a Honda on a cellphone just coasted by me to take a quick right turn on the red. She did not see me and practically hit me. She was going only 10 miles an hour (if that much) but the sudden acceleration to take advantage in the  traffic lull was unexpected and downright scary.

When that happened, I immediately backed away from the curb to the sidewalk only to have the very next car (another girl talking on the cell phone) do the exact same thing!

Here is another scenario which happens almost once a month. I am on a side road on Westheimer – Greenridge(the same one where the woman almost hit me). Westheimer is a major Houston street, but at this red light intersection,  there is no protected green. I am on my bicycle and  waiting to cross Westheimer. I am not turning right; I just want to cross Westheimer and continue down the same road to my apartment. But oncoming traffic wants only to make a right turn onto Westheimer. Westheimer is where everybody wants to be, you see.

So the light turns green, and I ride straight. Normally, when there is no protected right turn on green, you are always supposed to yield to oncoming traffic. But here’s the thing. Oncoming traffic almost never yields to a bicyclist going straight ahead in the opposite direction. Instead, oncoming cars usually tear ahead of me to turn left onto Westheimer.  Occasionally it’s because the driver hasn’t noticed me, but most of the time  it’s because the driver just feels that even though the bicyclist has the right of way, the car (by virtual of its size)  doesn’t need to, and instead the bicyclist needs to do the yielding. This ambiguity is what creates the danger.

These are regular occurrences for me. I read a horrifying article about bike safety. It reported fatalities involving many  experienced and safety-conscious bicyclists  who were wearing all the right gear and obeying traffic regulations to the letter. The problem they didn’t anticipate is that the driver would never see them; either they weren’t paying attention or weren’t attuned to this kind of distraction.  There are these amazing bike lights called Knog lights which shout their presence to cars. The problem is that if you are coming at a less-than-ideal angle or speeding, this extra light may not do anything to deter a driver’s behavior.

Daniel Duane wrote a [paywalled]  ground-breaking article discussing how rarely the driver is punished or even ticketed for extinguishing a bicyclist life:

In stories where the driver had been cited, the penalty’s meagerness defied belief, like the teenager in 2011 who drove into the 49-year-old cyclist John Przychodzen from behind on a road just outside Seattle, running over and killing him. The police issued only a $42 ticket for an “unsafe lane change” because the kid hadn’t been drunk and, as they saw it, had not been driving recklessly.

You don’t have to be a lefty pinko cycling activist to find something weird about that. But try a Google search for “cyclist + accident” and you will find countless similar stories: on Nov. 2, for example, on the two-lane coastal highway near Santa Cruz, Calif., a northbound driver lost control and veered clear across southbound traffic, killing Joshua Alper, a 40-year-old librarian cycling in the southbound bike lane. As usual: no charges, no citation. Most online comments fall into two camps: cyclists outraged at inattentive drivers and wondering why cops don’t care; drivers furious at cyclists for clogging roads and flouting traffic laws.

But studies performed in Arizona, Minnesota and Hawaii suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. And there is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene. When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.” If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough.

“We do not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted, except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run,” Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told me.

Laws do forbid reckless driving, gross negligence and vehicular manslaughter. The problem, according to Ray Thomas, a Portland, Ore., attorney who specializes in bike law, is that “jurors identify with drivers.” Convictions carry life-destroying penalties, up to six years in prison, Mr. Thomas pointed out, and jurors “just think, well, I could make the same mistake. So they don’t convict.” That’s why police officers and prosecutors don’t bother making arrests. Most cops spend their lives in cars, too, so that’s where their sympathies lie.

Drivers are always killing bicyclists and pedestrians, but bicyclists and pedestrians never kill drivers. That’s the way of the world. The only way these flaws of urban planning  are corrected when a death of a cyclist or pedestrian is particularly horrific. If I am one of the unlucky ones, perhaps they will stumble upon this blog post and realized that the danger was always there and acknowledged – but no one bothered to do anything about it.

From now on, I will compile a list of these strange drivers who through stupidity or inattention nearly killed me.

  1. Oct 1, 2012. I exited my Metro bus, and when the light turned green, I was nearly going to walk on the crosswalk when a man in his fifties hurriedly drove to the intersection and stopped 3/4 of the way into the crosswalk. If I had not been particularly careful, or if I had started walking when the light turned green, he would have certainly hit me. I was so shocked that I yelled out the man (I was wearing a business shirt and slacks). But the man was fiddling with his radio and he didn’t even  notice me.
  2. Oct 17, 2012. I was riding my bike early in the morning. I was ready to cross Voss at Voss and Westheimer. I had a WALK sign, but one of the oncoming SUVs from Westheimer was 1/3 through a right turn when the person noticed me.  I think the driver knew I was there (there were no cars on the road), but I was amazed that the car never really stopped when turning right and how close the car actually got to me.
  3. Oct 20, 2012. (Voss/Westheimer) A young Indian man in a small car was talking casually on the phone  to a friend, and as he turned right on a red light, just happened to notice that unless he slowed down he would surely kill me!
  4. Oct 21, 2012.  (Greenridge/Westheimer)At a red light, an impatient man in a huge pick up truck gave me a dirty look when he realized that I was manning the pedestrian lane and ready to go forward on the green. This man clearly saw me, but the way he drove ferociously to cross the pedestrian path ahead of me was frightening. Pick up trucks not only are loud, but they can accelerate very quickly.
  5. January 18, 2013 (Richmond and Fountain View). A cute and well dressed lady in a small car was preparing to turn right at  Richmond to Highway 59. The light was red and she was inching forward to turn right on red, but she didn’t notice that I had already  started to walk my bike across the street.  Luckily, she caught herself  by the time her car came within 4 or 5 feet of me. Close call!  She gave me the usual humorous and apologetic expression that suggested she certainly had no idea she was so close to running me over.  I guess I should be relieved that she looked so apologetic; on the other hand,  tigers tend to be very playful and friendly to their prey before they tear them to pieces!
  6. May 13, 2013 (Greenridge/Westheimer). A Toyota Camry sped up to beat a red light and in the process nearly destroyed my life force. I’m careful enough now to count 5 seconds before crossing the street, but it’s still shocking to think that for the inexperienced bike rider, he or she would never be alert to this possibility.
  7. August 2, 2013 (Greenridge/Westheimer). This is not a near miss, but a VERY scary situation. A man driving a huge  SUV that was very elevated off the ground, was at a red light, and so was I. We were waiting together. I was ahead of him and planning to go straight. The SUV driver was planning to turn right onto Westheimer. But his hood was so high off the ground that he probably couldn’t see me or my bike — and I’m a tall person! He was pleasantly talking on the phone to someone, while inching ahead. I tried signaling him with my hands to make him aware of my presence; eventually I started shouting! But the man was unable to hear. The SUV had insulated all the outside noises, and plus he wanted to hear what his buddy was saying to him about the latest game. I was almost ready to back off and just let him pass — a sudden jerk of 2 or 3 feet could possibly destroy me and my bike. But as luck would have it, the man was a cautious driver and he waited a few seconds for the red light to turn green before advancing.
  8. September  25, 2013.  (Fountain View & Woodway). A totally bizarre encounter. An older woman on a cell phone was trying to make a right turn on a red. She was inching her car slowly ahead. But it  didn’t occur to her that there was one bicyclist (me!) and a pedestrian waving frantically from her right trying to get her attention so we could walk across the crosswalk to the other  side. We were yelling at the top of our voices, but the woman could not hear. She was still talking on her phone, waiting for the right opportunity to turn a rapid right. But the woman never saw us; we had the right of way; we had limited time to cross the street, yet this woman’s phone conversation made her so oblivious to the people 4 feet away from her that the pedestrian and I decided to wait for the light to turn green and red again before trying to cross.
  9. October 11, 2013. (Greenridge/Westheimer).  An Indian woman and her daughter in a gigantic SUV (Range Rover) were in a parking lot driveway for a strip mall with a red light. She was trying to make a right turn onto Westheimer on the red. Even though she clearly saw my bike go by, she didn’t realize that I was parked to her right at the right side of the lane — prepared to go forward. Again, the bad angle of the SUV driver seat made it hard for her to see me, but her daughter in the passenger seat finally noticed me, so the woman waved me ahead.
  10. November 6, 2013. (Greenridge/Westheimer). At 6 PM I tried to ride across the street when the light turned green. But three cars coming in my direction decided that rather than yield to me — that was only the LAW — they would simply turn left ahead of me and hope that I would yield.
  11. December 17, 2013 (Greenridge/Westheimer). At about 5:30 PM, I almost got hit by an SUV driver who cut in front of me from the Chilis parking lot driveway. (Ironically it occurred 15 seconds after 2 cars cut me off by going left when I had the green light on Westheimer). The SUV came within 5 feet of me and after I yelled at the driver — he did slow down, but luckily I had time to brake to prevent a collision. (H ave I told you that I’m paranoid about SUVs?!) The driver slowed down to lecture me about why I didn’t wear reflective clothing. Sadly, I have to conclude that even if I had done that — he probably wouldn’t have seen me anyway. The problem was the high position of the SUV obstructed a bike level line of sight, and that the driver simply wasn’t looking for me.
  12. January 9, 2014 (Greenridge/Westheimer).  Almost identical to what happened on November 6, 2013. The situation is that if you are going straight behind another car, cars turning left will be totally surprised to see a bicyclist behind a driver. It is really hellish to be behind a car who has already turned and face a car who is trying to turn left in front of you. The question becomes: do you keep going (and stay consistent) or do you slow down and create more uncertainty?

Note about the video: I invited Pedestrian Pete  (former Houston City Councilman Peter Brown) to walk with me and videotape the area.  He’s a local advocate for more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. He and a small camera crew take walks around neighborhood and record their experiences on video. I wanted him to see how many pedestrians were in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, he arrived in the middle of the day when all kinds of traffic were at their lowest and the temperature was 100 degrees! We tried walking across 9 lanes of traffic, and we almost got hit by a truck! And 10 seconds later, by another SUV!  The walk down the side street of Winsome where I live was quieter, but still fraught with danger. I couldn’t have scripted it any better than what actually happened. Several cars pushed us off the road; despite this and the searing weather, we encountered several bicyclists and quite a number of pedestrians. Here’s a great quote from another Pedestrian Pete video: “The pedestrian is the indicator species of a healthy community.”

Update #1. Strangely, I happen to know personally the woman who was charged with fatally hitting a bicyclist and failed to render aid. To me the driver was nice but somewhat clueless — certainly no monster. I tend to think she is mostly culpable, but Houston roads generally make it hard for bicyclists to ride apart from cars with any degree of safety.


Everybody has their tales of awful customer service, and I’m going to share mine.

I paid for a family member to have Comcast broadband Internet. The price was about $30 per month for 6 months, then Comcast increased the price to the “normal” monthly price of $46.97. I switched Internet providers, and called to cancel Comcast service.

I called and was put on hold. Then it hung up on. me I called several times again and was mysteriously hung up upon. I spent an hour trying to wait on hold, only to be hung up upon. In desperation, I sent an email to customer service and copied the email to their Vice President of Customer Relations (or something like that). Fairly soon thereafter that office got back with me, leaving a message to call back. I called back and thankfully talked to a human who gave me a number to call in Houston to cancel service.

So I called that number.  The person in Houston billing processed the Cancellation request fairly quickly and said that they could not undo the automatic withdrawal of $46.97 which would happen on May 1, but that a refund for the remaining balance would be sent to me in a few weeks. I think the woman said  3-4 weeks, but I am not sure.

So I waited. And waited. And waited. At the end of July  I thought, “did I ever receive that refund Comcast promised me?” I checked my bank account and was dismayed to discover they hadn’t.  Irate, I called billing and said, “Where is my refund?” The Comcast billing person replied that the refund for $21.92 was still being processed – nothing was wrong – and that in the middle of July, the refund request was close to reaching the final accounting stage of  being processed.

“Do you realize that you’ve been keeping my money for 3 months? MY money?”

“Don’t worry, you will be receiving the check within 2-3 weeks.”

“Why can’t I receive it NOW?”

“That’s not the way it works,” the woman on the telephone replied.

“I can now transfer funds to any person or company in a matter of seconds. Why does a multibillion company like Comcast need so much time to process a $20 refund?”

“Don’t worry, you will receive your refund in 2-3 weeks.”

But more than 4 weeks went by, and still no refund. I called Houston Comcast again and asked when I would receive the refund. The person on the phone confirmed that the $21.92 was due to me, and that it was sent on August 22 (more than a week ago).

“I never received it,” I said. Neither I nor my family member  at the service address had received any check from Comcast. “Can Comcast provide an estimate about when the check should arrive?”

“It should take approximately 2-3 weeks.”

“Yes,” I said mournfully, “that’s what the other woman said 4 weeks ago.”

I have a theory about why Comcast requires so much time to send a refund: Pure unmitigated greed. Comcast already has my money; why on earth should it be in a hurry to give it back to me? Of course, the extra liquidity and interest is always a pleasant bonus. 

My case  is hardly unique. Many Americans have had experienced similar delays from big companies when receiving refunds.   It can take weeks if you’re lucky. Eventually you will get your money, though if you are not paying attention, sometimes you may forget to notice that the big corporation never sent it to you. Besides losing access to that money, Americans waste  a lot of time on angry  telephone calls and emails.

Big companies like Comcast pay no price for these kinds of delays.  They know that the amounts of these refunds are small enough that consumers won’t bother to take legal action about it.  At the same time, all of us know that if customers took 4 months to pay bills, Comcast would have cancelled service immediately (and probably turned the matter to collections). Comcast expects consumers to pay their bills on time; at the same time, they insist upon the right not to abide by that same standard of promptness.

In the meantime, the dollars keep rolling in.

I read online that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts earned $26 million last year. That’s almost a dollar earned for every second of every  day in the year.

Comcast’s revenues for last year was 55.8 billion dollars. That means Comcast as a company has earned $1800 in revenue for every second of every day in the year.

In fact, in the time it  took you to read my complaint (3 minutes), Comcast’s CEO earned $160 and the company itself earned $324,000.

So I feel pretty sure Comcast can afford it.

October 22, 2012 Update. Comcast finally did send the $21 refund 3 weeks after I wrote this message. I wrote this blog post mainly to shame them, but frankly, I don’t think my protestations made a single bit of difference. In the meantime, Comcast took over my apartment complex as the sole broadband provider, so I’m afraid I have to deal with them again.


News Flash: Green-headed Dufus Repents!

Yesterday I got my hair cut at a budget hair salon run by  Vietnamese people. Mostly older woman, but a few young men. Probably none  of them spoke English other than a few key phrases. (“Thank you” “You want hair cut?”, etc).

I arrived in the middle of the day when half of the workers there were idle. One older woman motioned for me to sit down, and after I did, she said, “How you want your hair?”

Knowing that the nuances were likely to be misunderstood, I kept it simple while motioning with my hands: “Straight in back,  keep it the same around the ears, I comb everything back.”

The woman nodded and proceeded to give me the worst haircut of my life. On the right side, she shaved off ALL the hair  up until an inch about my ear. At that point, I immediately stopped and said, “NO!” and asked her to cut anymore there. Just cut it evenly on the other side.

To add to the  horror,  I noticed that the right side of my head which was now exposed had several large green spots. This had nothing to do with the woman or the haircut, but earlier that day I had gotten some greenish ink or food coloring over my fingers. I have no idea where this green color came from, but it had been all over my hands and mostly refused to come off despite repeated washings. I still had bluish-green around my fingertips, and now I see that the result of having inadvertently brushed my hands through my hair earlier that day.

I left the haircut place stewing and aware of how abominable I looked. The ink would eventually fade, but the haircut would linger, and there’s not much another barber could do except shave the whole thing off. I had to stop by the grocery store on the way home, a store frequented by all sorts of youngish and single adults. I don’t exactly dress up for it (but I always remember one friend’s  rule that one should dress up no matter where you are going  because you never know who you will meet). I trade glances with a random pretty young woman. I wouldn’t call it a flirt, but we definitely smiled.

Then it hit me that I must have appeared to people as absolutely redorkulous.  Did this mystery woman notice my green spot? Or my horrible haircut? To my dismay, I realized that the collar to my stylish red shirt was pulled up against my neck. I  began to smooth it down when I realized that the reason the collar was sticking up was that I was wearing the shirt inside out

New rule: Always (and I mean always!) look at a mirror before leaving home.

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Stumbling Upon a Book Idea

Over the last month or so, I’ve been obsessed with the subject of building and organizing a digital music collection. So much so that I have decided to write an ebook about the subject.

I’m writing as a dedicated amateur (not an expert), and the treatment will be somewhat technical, somewhat journalistic, somewhat superficial.

I write a lot of “serious” stuff and often it takes forever to  get them into finished products. Also, I write my serious stuff  under pseudonyms, so it would be nice (finally) to write something under my own name for a change.  Although I plan to make this ebook useful and interesting and personal, I also will make it short – something I can finish in 6 months, and then update over time.

I may or may not blog about some of the subjects for this ebook.  But I want to mention an outlining/note-taking tool which I’ll be using for this book project. Over time I have used Personal Brain mind-mapping tool to store my research and organize my thoughts.

The web dump is here: http://webbrain.com/brainpage/brain/9E6A5930-6FFC-DBCD-DF75-35B2D4DCCB77;jsessionid=342C824536322A57D5F17127FCA1B14E#-1

(I am not linking to it because I don’t want search engines to know about it, plus I may eventually mark it as private).

The desktop interface is a little better.  You can open your brain up in an expanded view (See this screenshot).

Personal Brain is a costly tool ($200-250, although there’s a free version), and I would not use it for certain kinds of projects, but it does two things extraordinarily well:

  1. It lets you store disparate kinds of information in the note section.
  2. It lets you display and organize your ideas in a very visual manner.

There is another important and easily overlooked advantage.  I often work with projects over a long period. Sometimes I start with a lot of enthusiasm and start writing and researching. Then – for various reasons –  I have to put the project on the back burner. Later when I try to pick up the same project, I discover that I cannot get into it again.  Either I  misplace my notes or cannot read them. Also I cannot remember the logical connections I once made. When I keep my thoughts and notes in Personal Brain, I am also retaining the logical relationships I am making as well.  Now it becomes much easier to resurrect my notes when I return to the project later.

Interestingly, although I have used Personal Brain for mind-mapping big projects, often the finished product bears no resemblance to the brain I made for it. That is not the point. The primary purpose of personal brain is not to provide a skeleton for the actual book or essay you will write. Rather it is  to organize and store  thoughts for easy reference before the writing actually begins. The organization in Personal Brain may roughly correspond to your writing outline (especially at high level), but that would merely be a coincidence;  the writing process is much too fluid to be tied down to a preset organization structure.

Thebrain  lets you sync your local brain with a webhosting site.  I paid for the web brain component  as part of my license. The cost is not small, and my subscription lasts only for a year (after which I will have to renew). I don’t really need public or web access – that is just a nice extra feature. A local brain is good enough.

Personal Brain has a lot of advanced features which I have not investigated.  I would love to reorganize thoughts and add lateral relationships and jumps (which I know is possible, but I keep forgetting how to do it). 

Personal Brain seems to be the ideal tool for a book project of this nature. (The superficial and middlebrow Malcolm-Gladwell  kinds of books).  Actually I think historians and literary critics  might find it useful as well.  I haven’t actually started, but I have 3 other projects which I’d like to transfer onto a Personal brain.  This tool not only stores information; it provides   a glimpse of where your ideas are bringing you. When you write things, you may not even know that until after finishing the first draft.


Getting Up All Riled Up for Nothing

Duty CallsThis morning I spent 2 hours reading about a semi-scandal on the Net. I am not going to be specific or even link to commentary about the scandal. I don’t want you to be distracted; I actually spent a lot of time reading about it and the back and forth between players. I even wrote a few comments on several blogs and even emailed one of the instigators of the semi-scandal to express my disapproval.

This sort of thing happens every few weeks or so. For a media junky like myself, I can’t help but get sucked into it.  Usually I just lurk and follow the unraveling of everything.  Sometimes I will add my own two cents. Generally, because I am reasonably well-informed, I can make a rational (i.e., non-crazy) comment, but days or even later, I look back and wonder: Why did I spend so much time reading about THAT? Why did I bother spending so much time coming to the defense of X or going to great lengths to show that Y doesn’t know what he  is talking about?

In most of these cases, the people involved genuinely feel the way they did; they are not in fact trolling or trying to bait anybody. But usually by the time you hear about the semi-scandal, most of what needed to be said has already been said; the rest is just piling on. If you think about it, almost any intellectual discussion can be completed with less than 20 statements. But some threads contain dozens or even hundreds of comments and replies.  Why do people do it?

Online debates will devolve, even when the stakes are relatively high. With climate change controversies, the climate hawks literally believe that the fate of the planet is at stake and that the denialists are helping that to become a reality; the doubters believe that the climate change people are nothing more than communists dedicated to imposing their world agenda of dominance. Both sides are wrong on this, of course. But at least you can understand the depth of the passion. With the semi-scandal I learned about today, I can safely say that it doesn’t matter very much; in a week or so, it will be completely forgotten about. Some people were duped; some people exaggerated and said things they shouldn’t have, but ultimately it will barely register as a blip in anyone’s long-term memory.

Why do people do it? Why do they succumb to the temptation to  mouth off about things  when they haven’t heard the full story? Perhaps some people simply get hot-headed (a charge I am occasionally  guilty of). But  anger can be a fascinating emotion; it entangles a person to the point where it becomes impossible to become untangled.  Some get invested in these semi/pseudo scandals because they feel (correctly) that mouthing off about it has no  long-term repercussions.  I never ceased to be surprised at how rarely  the people who mouth off actually pay  consequences. Ironically,  Facebook is the only place where you actually hear back from your peers that something you said online wasn’t right. My mother (who never  — and I mean NEVER — reads my blog –  hi, Mom!) occasionally will scold me for things I have said on Facebook. I don’t deny that on Facebook I am often willing to participate in lengthy discussions about hot-button subjects. While I occasionally feel regret about something I wrote (more for how MUCH I have written and not for WHAT I ACTUALLY WROTE), I rarely have considered deleting my comment; I said it, why deny it? Besides, the kinds of people who keep tabs on you (i.e., potential employers or dates) rarely take the time to collect and process everything.  The response  of today’s youth to the problem of Internet permanence  is simply to drown the world with cat photos and funny youtube videos and produce so much material that only the truly obsessed could track it all down.    I’m sure I have said rabid things about George W. Bush or other hot-button topics that probably would embarrass me to read now. But why start deleting? Chances are that these ill-considered remarks are destined for the dustbin of obscurity anyway.

On the web there is the tendency to engage in what I call “non-constructive activities.”  There’s a great Star Trek episode where the Emergency Medical Technician (a humanoid medical robot) short circuits every time he contemplates a dilemma of medical ethics. His positronic brain literally explodes every time he reexamines the same dilemma (which he can’t help doing because his memory banks are wiped clean before the reinitializing of the brain can begin).  Surely psychology has developed behavior modification techniques to help people  disengage from nonproductive or self-destructive activities.  I am no psychologist, but here are some techniques I have found which helped me to ratchet down my involvement in an online matter.

Disengagement Strategies

People who are not writers will  suggest not writing the thought down at all unless you want  it to appear on the front page of the New York Times. That is an absurdly high  criteria, and it ignores the fact that most writers value   their own ability to take a stand and use their words to criticize. I believe it is impossible to suppress the desire to write a snappy retort. But you can limit the length of this retort and the frequency of retorts. If you find yourself in the middle of a thread war, you should limit yourself to 2 replies (or maybe 1 per day).  Ideally a comment in a heated discussion should be no more than 2 paragraphs – anything longer than that, and you are just ranting. Besides that, the phenomena of trolling should make you aware that sometimes the very act of writing may be a way of conceding defeat. (i.e., if you write another response, “then the terrorists have won.”)

Another thing you can do is to make your tone as lowkey and dispassionate as possible.  Often I have used extreme language to criticize something and later realized that my criticism wasn’t entirely valid  or that  with the passing of time, the matter no longer seemed important enough to feel  irate about.  I rarely have regretted the substance of my remarks – though I sometimes regret jumping to conclusions so quickly. But  I almost always overestimated the psychic value of being right  or  besting someone in argument. Ultimately, no one cares – although people will always remember how much you blather – without bothering to remember if the points you made were actually right. Politeness is not only  a good strategy for keeping things friendly, it’s also a way to insure yourself against the possibility that you may have been seriously wrong. It also reduces the awkwardness if you end up meeting an  adversary in meatspace. (Yes, it happens sometimes).  More than likely, people won’t remember the insightful remark you made on a blog or forum. Hey, that’s life. But people certainly remember online instances where someone acted like an asshole. Avoiding assholes online is actually an evolutionary stable strategy for humans. It’s probably embedded in your genes somewhere. If humans have a natural tendency to avoid assholes in real life, the logical strategy to adopt from an evolutionary point of view  is that one should avoid being perceived as an asshole. A businessman friend  who sells a lot on ebay told me that he never gives negative feedback  for customers or other sellers even if he felt the other party was unreasonable  or dishonest. Why?  Doing so creates the risk that the other party would reciprocate with negative feedback, creating a vicious circle.  One way to succeed is to stay as objective or dispassionate as possible. Injecting a little bit of passion or emotion into an argument is not necessarily a bad thing. But when dealing with an unhinged person online,  strenuous or passionate arguments can only aggravate the situation.

You should be content not to have the last word. For writers and wonks and polemicists, there is a tendency to want to post replies to every point your opponent has made. Your foe responds, and then you must respond to everything in the response (while making  additional points).  That’s a surefire recipe for an extended argument that will lead to absolutely nowhere and suck oodles of time. At some point, one of the parties has to stop responding.  But how stubbornly and tenaciously you stick to the argument has nothing to do with who is more right or logical. Quite the opposite.  Sometimes the inability to disengage may indicate an irrational fear of being bested. If two people end up wasting a day or two on a pointless discussion thread, what have they accomplished? What other things could they have spent their time doing?  (This sort of thing ended up sucking so much of my time that I decided to start charging money for it).  Failing to respond to a troll or even a legitimate arguer  can be a courageous and fully logical act. It takes a wise person to recognize when it is better  not to add your two cents. (Update: I have a solution to this: “That fish has been fried!”)

Concede ground when you are wrong or unaware of the complexity of an issue.  That increases a person’s credibility and earns good karma. Discussions are adversarial. Either Person A is right about something or Person B is right.  But if Person A admits that on subpoint 1 he was wrong, it not only advances  the discussion,  it sets a tone that  Person A is  flexible and reasonable. It might even inspire  reciprocal concessions. Both sides can become  less worried about saving face and more dedicated to making the discussion worthwhile for both people.

How do you know when you are wrong? And how do you say it?  A blogger  can simply provide an update at the end of a blogpost. Blatant apologies often are appropriate and appreciated. If you were wrong, why not admit it upfront? Earlier, I said that people almost always remember online assholes. But they remember public apologies just as much.

When participating in a long thread, it’s important to ask yourself, “Is my  contribution  actually unique and interesting?” Obviously you are an interesting person, and obviously you think that anything you write has to be interesting. That is self-evident.  But on a heated discussion where many people are weighing in, there is a tendency to overestimate the value of one’s own potential contribution.  If you didn’t make this comment, would the point still be made? (Or was it already made earlier?)  Some threads actually  increase in value with more contributions. This usually happens when individuals can provide illustrative anecdotes , recommendations or when individuals can locate citations or further not-so-obvious evidence. Roger Ebert’s blog threads, to pick an obvious example, are replete with worthy comments by people offering alternate interpretations about a movie.  On the other hand, policy and technical blogs often don’t need contributions by readers. Many readers are simply not well-versed on the topic or they remain unaware that their arguments or grasp of facts are incomplete or long since disproven.

I find it helpful to apply this criteria to my potential comments or contributions. Would a neutral person regard my comment as a rant?  The secret to eloquence is in avoiding the accusation of being a ranter.  Let me explain. A rant exhibits certain characteristics: prolixity, rhetorical flourishes (wit, sarcasm, etc) and a tendency to cover EVERYTHING when arguing. Rants can be fun especially when they are a form of self-parody. But what matters the most is context. If I rant on my blog, that’s ok because  it’s my blog. I can do and say whatever I want. But if I rant in a comment to someone’s Facebook post or someone else’s blog post, chances are that the other person doesn’t appreciate and may even resent my attempt to steer the discussion.   Sure, some bloggers or forums don’t care as long as your comment contains interesting information  and doesn’t go on  too long.  Others are less forgiving. You need to factor in that your estimation of other people’s tolerance level for your rhetoric will probably be higher than it actually is.   No matter how brilliant or informed you or others think that you are.

You should ask, is this a good use of my time?  By definition almost all Internet activity is a waste of time.  But when you engage intellectually and emotionally in a certain hot topic or thread, you risk throwing away time which you may never get back. This morning, instead of working on ebook production, I spent 2 hours reading/feeling irate and drafting pointed comments towards strangers I will never meet about a semi-scandal that ultimately does not matter. Looking back at it, I just wish I had  worked on ebook production tasks and not bothered. (*See Note)  I rarely think back about online battles I have waged and feel satisfaction about my words or actions. More often, I just wish I had that time back. Years later, I never revisit those same  threads and think,  “What an eloquent bastard I was!”    An intellect has many useful functions, but rescuing people from ignorance on forum threads just doesn’t rank  that high in importance.

Finally, a confession.  After reading this essay, you might assume that I never make rants and never waste afternoons  writing pointless comments on threads. Far from it. I write with  insight about this subject precisely because I fall into these rhetorical traps so often.  I will probably  continue to  commit the same errors out of stubbornness, boredom and pride.  Over the years, I have made these kinds of mistakes less often  – thank goodness!  but I’m sure I will succumb again. But at least I will recognize the malady when it hits.  Mea culpa, mea culpa. Eloquence isn’t always great or beautiful; sometimes it can be  downright annoying – but at least you can choose the best way to make use of it.


* Actually one good thing came from all that reading and feeling irate: writing this essay!

Cartoon Credit: XLCD

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One sign you have become an energy geek is when your bedtime reading tends to be academic tomes about renewable energy. Despite my literary tendencies, I don’t deny that I find these volumes to be engrossing and fascinating; the subject seems to have an urgency missing from the software or publishing world.  I have come across many books  on the subject over the last 2 years (including many free titles available as PDFs).  I haven’t finished reading these titles yet, but all are worth reading. Here’s my current list:

  •  Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era (2011) by Amory Lovins is an excellent in-depth analysis about energy needs, business innovation and policy. It has the depth and research about the subject and covers a wide variety of topics. It has a good holistic view of the subject. The Best Book on the Subject
  • Eaarth by Bill McKibben. (2011) This journalist, advocate and protest leader makes the spiritual and moral  case for fighting climate change policy. McKibben doesn’t claim to be an expert on anything, but his well-researched book indicates a good understanding of the problem – both from a political and ethical point of view.  This book is very easy to read and passionate as well. Recommended for Laypeople.
  • Our Choice by Al Gore. (2009) Gore has always been a divisive figure in climate change politics, but that doesn’t detract from his ability to do his research and explain technical matters well. I use this book often as a reference guide for  the various energy solutions; Gore certainly has mentioned it here.  Reinventing Fire is a much more comprehensive book, but newcomers to the subject may find Al Gore’s overview to be sane and refreshing.
  • Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen. (2010)Hansen was one of the earliest scientists to call attention to climate change; he has done tireless amounts of research on the topic. In this book he delves into detail about how openly the Bush Administration disregarded the pronouncements of climate science. Even I was shocked.
  • Earth: The Operator’s Manual by Richard Alley (2011). In preparation for the PBS Science series, Alley wrote a science book for the general audience.  This was a very thoughtful and generally nonpolitical book which nonetheless lays out the evidence for climate change in a seemingly incontrovertible way.
  • Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air by David JC MacKay.  (2009)When I started reading this book, I immediately grasped its usefulness.  It defines terms about how to measure the effectiveness of various policy measures and how scientists calculate things like energy efficiency. It also explains the scientific principles and formulas for gathering data.  It doesn’t necessarily make policy recommendations, but clarifies how to have an honest debate without getting lost in quantitative analysis and semantics.  The full book is available for online reading and also downloadable as a PDF… for free!
  • Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. (2012)Expert Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists.   This well-researched guide for consumers helps them to make purchasing decisions and to figure out the carbon footprints of their lifestyle. Although the introduction to climate change is necessary, the rest of the book provides valuable information for consumers and environmentalists alike. Recommended for Consumers
  • The Two Mile Time Machine (2001) by Richard Alley gives a first person account of how scientists use ice core samples from glaciers to estimate the carbon levels and temperature levels of previous millenia. This book is over a decade old, but well-beloved by people in the climate change field.
  • Hack the Planet (2010). Eli Kintisch and How to Cool the Planet (2010)  by Jeff Goodell are two books I’m reading by journalists about the important topic of geoengineering. Many climate scientists warn of the dangers of taking affirmative actions to manipulate the environment to combat global warming, but these two books are the first to describe the ethical and practical problems of doing so.  One climate scientists said that we have been already manipulating the environment through greenhouse gases; we might as well get past the ethical concerns about geoengineering because humanity will have no choice to implement these measures.
  • Global Warming and Climate Change Demystified by Jerry Silver. This book reads like a high school textbook, and that is good. It summarizes the results of the IPCC conference and explains the basic science principles behind  climate modeling and measuring change. Unfortunately, even the IPCC data is out of date (on sea level rise for instance). Nonetheless, this is a good place to get a basic foundation in the science. (Recommended for Students).
  • What’s the Worst that Can Happen? by Greg Craven (2009). Craven is a high school science teacher who put up a short series of entertaining climate change lectures on youtube. I picked a used copy of this book and was struck by the clarity of his reasoning and explanations. Interestingly, this book is less a book about climate change than about how to weigh evidence and how to derive policy conclusions from scientific evidence. This readable book addresses on a more basic level why embracing climate change policy is an example of sound and rational thinking. The book is essentially a manual about how to think scientifically.  Recommended for students and conservative skeptics.
  • Solar by Ian McEwan. (2009)  (A novel). I don’t consider this to a masterpiece, but it is the first attempt to describe global warming as a cultural influence. (leaving aside Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol series). Solar is a social satire of environmentalists, professional deniers and how academia cossets both types. By the way, I am writing a sort of comic novel about climate change as well. I didn’t think the novel worked overall, but several of its set pieces were effective and provocative.

Other Books

Here are some books that I know somewhat well but which I haven’t read for one reason or another.

  • Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions, (2012)” by Mark Z. Jacobson (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012) is probably the best college textbook on the subject of climate change written by one of the best climate scientists around. (If you don’t believe me, read his Scientific American article or other ones). The book sells for $130 new and 86$ used, but I expect in a year or so that the price of used copies will go down at least 20%. So keep it on your wishlist until then. (The book’s slides are here).
  • Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2011) by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Oreskes and Conways are science historians who found direct connections between the propaganda effort to sell smoking and the effort to sell fossil fuels. Although the book doesn’t try to do media criticism, Oreskes is famous for her study which found no disagreement from the science consensus in journals while significant controversy in articles written for news publications. I’ve seen several of Oreskes’ public lectures on youtube.
  • Straight Up (2010) and Hell and High Water (2009)  by Joe Romm. Romm is an energy policy wonk who used to work for the Dept of Energy under Clinton. His Climateprogress blog is one of the best informed about climate change policy. Romm does not duck controversy and sometimes may seem too argumentative, but he understands better than anybody the various tradeoffs you make with each climate change solution. I haven’t read either book, but I suspect they have culled the best parts from his blog.
  • Hockey Stick and Climate Change by Michael Mann. Mann is a scientist who was thrown into the limelight after publishing an estimate of the relationship between climate change and carbon over the millennium. Practically every major scientific body has validated Mann’s research, but he has been the subject of an unrelenting attack by the right-wing attack machine.  I’m sure it will be an interesting read, but for more Mann’s personal story than for what he says about climate change.

Other Free Stuff

I’ve downloaded a ton of free white papers about various climate change issues. Here are some favorites:

  • John Cook at Skeptical Science has published two mini-ebooks (each about 15 pages) about climate change. The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism (PDF)  summarizes the arguments about why humans have caused climate change and why it is a serious problem. It also answers the common charges made against it. This PDF packs an incredible amount of stuff in 15 pages!  The Debunking Handbook is a summary of insights from social psychology about which persuasive techniques have proven to the be the most effective. A fascinating read.
  • Climate Change Impacts is a summary of the potentially disastrous effects that climate change can have on American life.  The federal government commissioned some of its top experts to cover all the major bases, and it is informative and not particularly controversial.
  • National Academy of Science reports. Did you know that you can download practically any NAS report as a PDF? Sure, you have to register for free, but you can get access to first-class analysis for easy reading on your ipad! I haven’t read any of these titles yet (but plan to), but these seem to be the most substantial.  Climate Stabilization Targets (2011)  does a lot of number-crunching about the practicality of meeting targets, America’s Climate Choices (2011) gives a less scientific overview, Understanding Earth’s Deep Past: Lessons for our Climate Future gives a more rigorous overview of the historical climate records.
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Here is the link to Jake Seliger’s The Story’s Story blog. (Good blog about literature, writing and culture, by the way).

You can ignore this post. Apparently through some bureaucratic  mishap, his domain was not extended, and godaddy snapped it up and is now selling it for $38,000.  I’m just giving some much needed google juice to his blog. One benefit of having a long-running blog with a stable URL is that Google tends to reward it in search results. I predict this will be in the top 5  results on Google for “Jake Seliger” in an hour or so.


Brief Book Reviews 2

Here are some abbreviated book reviews. (The brevity neither reflects on the quality but simply on my inclination to write a thorough review at the time). See also: my index of book reviews which I recently started. Please note that at the bottom of this post I’m going to try to mention books which I’m currently reading and plan to review. No promises obviously, but  the To-Read is more for my reference.

alley-orig Earth: The Operator’s Manual. By Richard Alley.  This book written for the general reader provided the foundation for a PBS series about climate change and earth science. This is not great writing, but the tone is dispassionate and fair-minded and full of useful information. Alley first came to prominence through his work with ice cores and testifying before Congress. He doesn’t have strong political views, but he understands the places where people commonly misunderstand the science and is a good explainer.
image With One Eye Open by Polly Frost  ($2.99). This  is a  series of sophisticated but hilarious sketches by Polly Frost about popular and Net culture. It’s light and fun reading, poking fun at writers, Facebook, theatre, commercialism, dieting, celebritydom, software to write novels. These are obvious targets of satire, yes,  and the humor is so topical and trendy  that I wonder if it could have been  written 6 months from now. Most  take place under a Manhattan backdrop, with a love/hate relationship towards technology, publishing and the bohemian lifestyle. Among my favorite stories were “Final Paper You Want From Me” (a college girl dreams up new and crazy social networking sites), Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way (seminars to teach people to resist the impulse to write) and  My Dog Breeds (an illustrated guide to dog breeds for today — such as the iDog). Frost and her husband Ray Sawhill are the writers behind Sex Scenes, sexy audio stories about Hollywood. P.S., I read almost every piece on the bus while standing up! Recommended.
image Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans. I bought this 2006 book by accident and have greatly enjoyed it (and used copies are selling for next to nothing on Half.com and Amazon).  The book consists of 75 chapters of about 3-4 pages each. Each chapter contains a hack or technique for creative problem-solving or just mental exercises. Sounds hoaky, but page after page is loaded with insights: how to think analogically, learn an artificial language, ask stupid questions, cultivate the naïve mind, construct memory palaces, hold a question in your mind. In addition to being well-written, it is also well-researched.  Lots of  references to important cognitive psychology and self-help sources , including a reference to my all time favorite  How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett.  Even if you are not seriously interested in the subject or the specific techniques being proffered, it is still a great read. Highly recommended.
image Offshore. by Penelope Fitzgerald  I read this with high hopes (after reading her incredible Blue Flower book about the life of Novalis).  Structurally, this book had lots of short chapters, but the story dragged … lots of talk, not really any development.  I kept waiting for the action to proceed, but the not-so-interesting dialogue became the sole reason for reading. I gave up. (Hard to believe that this won the Booker).
ctrct_7 Contracts: The Essential Business Desk Reference by Richard Stim.  (Ebook price: $20).  This ebook gives an alphabetized list of contract terms and examples of how they are used and the legal principles behind these terms. The important thing to know is that this is more like a reference or dictionary than a how-to guide. I would have preferred a better organization system to help me understand the relationships between the different terms. This ebook would have been perfect if it provided a hyperlinked & hierarchical outline of related terms in a Part 1 and then provided the alphabetical list in Part 2. Instead, the only way to read this ebook was alphabetically – which is ludicrous.  The explanations and writing for this book were outstanding; too bad  Nolo didn’t have enough insight to provide different paths to look through the digital content.
image Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.
I read 100 pages and was utterly bored, both by the style and action (the premise was somewhat interesting, but far-fetched).  The premise was good, and I could tell the book was headed somewhere, but until that point, the narrative just wasn’t doing a lot.  I have fond memories about some of Heinlein’s earlier books (like Tunnel in the Sky), but this one just didn’t engage me.
image Arthur & Edith, Mike & Gloria. by Donna McCrohan (print book only) describes the reaction to the show in the 1970s  I wondered whether anyone had ever written about this milestone TV series, and I am happy to report that this book is every bit as revealing and insightful as I had hoped. This book reprints reviews by TV critics and does in-depth analysis of how characters evolved during the show. It also provides a lot of background about how Norman Lear started the show and how his primary aim was entertainment and not really social commentary.  We need more books like this: short, well-researched books about historic TV series which allow readers to appreciate what social forces influenced the show and how the public responded. Highly recommended.
File:Lost Moon.jpg Lost Moon: Perilous Journey of the Apollo 13. By Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.  This book (upon which the film Apollo 13 is based) provides a lot more details and background information about the accident. I’m guessing that science journalist Jeffrey Kluger had a major role in shaping the narrative (which was expertly told and whose chapters alternated between flashbacks and current dramas). The book highlights things missed in the movie: the vast amount of flight experience Lovell already had (having flown twice around the moon),  the personal connection Lovell had with ill-fated Apollo 1 tragedy, the social protocol NASA astronauts had (including that of Lovell’s wife, who had to keep one wife “busy” while NASA prepared to deliver the news of her husband’s death), the nitty-gritty detail of the necessary burn operations they had to take,  how the “venting” of oxygen  surrounded the ship during most of the  return home (and interfered with visibility). The book certainly captures the exciting and heroic efforts of the astronauts and crew; strangely, the whole story is told in third person, which papers over the fact that (inside the spaceship at least), the perspective is entirely Lovell’s.  Recommended


Still reading: The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air by David J.C. MacKay, Lying: 10 Easy Ways to Spot a Liar, Two Mile Time Machine by Richard Alley, Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch, Puddenhead Wilson by Mark Twain, Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living (Union of Concerned Scientists),  various accounting books,  Using Drupal (Oreilly). Reinventing Fire by Amory Lovins, Walking Words by Eduardo Galeano, What Philosophy Can Teach you about your Cat by Stephen Hales, Revised Kama Sutra by Richard Crasta, Last Tragedy by  Herb Mallette,  Every Vote Equal by John R. Caza.

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