Category Archives: Essays

The Flat Earth Society

When I look at the sun setting, I don’t think the sun is actually moving; although, from my point of reference it may look that way. But knowing that Earth revolves around the sun and that the Earth, itself, rotates, I’ve long-since conditioned my mind to reason that when I see the sun setting, I’m seeing my little section of the Earth rotate into it’s own shadow.

It’s easy to understand in hindsight. I don’t blame the ancients for getting it wrong, but once the mechanism is understood, it sure is a lot easier to understand things like seasons and shorter or longer periods of daylight (the angle of the Earth to the sun), eclipses (bodies entering shadows cast by other bodies), and the movement of other planets (each revolves at a specific speed, and when Earth ‘passes’ the other planet, it looks like that planet is moving backwards in the night sky).

The ancients had all sorts of explanations for all of this, but they were just claptrap. Actually, some Chinese and Greeks figured it out millennia ago, but the common wisdom remained, by definition, more popular.

What continues to bother me though is that the ancients thought the world was flat. I know this is not true. The evidence for it not being flat was all over the place. I can buy that very few people had any idea how large of a ball we were on. (Columbus’s big idea wasn’t that the world was round, but that the round world was much smaller than commonly thought. He was terribly wrong in his calculations, assuming that when he landed in the Caribbean he was actually in India. Hence West Indies. Hence Indians.) But that anyone other than some backwater hermit thought that the world was flat was just not paying attention to anything.

Scientifically, it was easy to prove with shadows. The Greek, Eratosthenes, took measurements of two pillars and their shadows at known times in two different parts of the world. Using a new field of mathematics called Trigonometry, he computed the circumference of the world. Circumference, by the way, implies roundness.

The ancient world was dominated by trade and conquest. Much of this trade and conquest moved over huge portions of land or sea. Any explorer knew that the edge of the world was just an illusion. There was always something waiting over the horizon. Anecdotally, everyone knew the world was round.

By example, they knew the Earth was round. By looking at the phases of the moon, anyone can clearly see it’s a sphere, not a circle. If one were to take a flat plate, and try to mimic the phases with a light source, he would be disappointed as there would be no shadow until the light source moved completely behind the plate. It takes a sphere to produce those shadows. And the ancients, watchers of the sky, would have seen the shadow of the Earth cast in its own sky creeping along in twilight until it enveloped the heavens. That creeping shadow implies a curved edge, not the hard edge of a flat plate.

We can still see that shadow, on clear nights, but it’s difficult to notice, and, by the time I think of it, it’s already nightfall.

The evidence was all over the place. The ancients knew the world wasn’t flat. Why do we think they did?

I think of this when I hear people talk about what is commonly known, what everyone believes. How can millions of individuals know something, but it will invariably come out wrong when everyone believes it’s opposite? The world wasn’t flat, no one believed that it was, but somehow everyone thought it was flat. The political and social world of today is filled with this magical thinking. No one I know believes any of it. And yet everyone believes it.

The way to end this is to stop–not only to stop believing in the common wisdom, but to also stop believing there is a common wisdom. The people selling it are people who are selling us things that we wouldn’t buy unless we thought our peers were buying it too. This is in all things, physical and intangible. Consider that any idea that everyone believes is not to be trusted, look for it’s faults, break it into smaller pieces, and form your own opinion. In this time of the fractured media landscape, the remaining gatekeepers are desperate and determined to hold onto any group of believers that they manufacture. We don’t have to assist them by aligning with them.

Taking the Service out of Customer Service for over 20 years.

I hate TicketMaster and Live Nation with a passion, so please take this example of what never to do in customer service with a grain of salt. A rock god is playing a once-in-a-generation event in my area, and I was going to see him, even if it meant purchasing tickets through the hated brokerage, TicketMaster. I signed up for a lottery that would give me access to pre-sale tickets, got that access, and still had to purchase tickets in a far more expensive area than I had planned, because all the cheaper seats had sold by the time I could purchase mine.

Again, that was still in the pre-sale phase. And it’s not at all what I want to complain about, since that’s part of the price, purchasing through a ticket monopoly, that I’ve been painfully aware of for the past 20 years. What is in important to highlight, however, is that I purchased my ticket package, which included some “free” merchandise, four months before the date of the show. Four months before any of the shows. Once the tickets were purchased, I was given a link to “order” my “free” merchandise, and a coupon code so the merchandise would be “free.”

The link took me to a site called FanFire.com. If one were to visit FanFire.com without any other tracking info embedded into the link, one would quickly find herself on the Live Nation Store site, as it immediately redirects. In other words, FanFire is just another front in the giant Live Nation monopoly. However, the link that I was given had some other cruft, which kept me within the FanFire domain, and allowed me to order my “free” merchandise. Four months, remember, before any concert began in that particular tour.

It is now a week before the concert that I’m going to, and about two weeks since the concert launched. I, of course, have not gotten any of my “free” merchandise. So I go to the site and check on my order status. There is no information, other than the order was received. There is a link to inquire about the order, so I click on it to get this page:

A form for me to fill out to find out the status of my order. The key visual here is that there is no indication that this is going to go to Live Nation instead of the proper FanFire contact.

The text at the top that is impossible to read says, “We’re here to help! The best way to contact us is to use the form below….” So I do. (Oddly, the order date is a month later than my actual order, but I don’t particularly care, as I have my original email receipt.) I ask the nice form if it knows when my order will ship.

I get a response one hour later:

Hello,

Thank you for choosing Live Nation Merchandise. For all information about your VIP or Premium Ticket Package, please contact tickets@fanfire.com.

If you have any further questions or concerns, feel free to contact us.

Sincerely,

Taylor
Live Nation Merchandise Customer Service
http://www.store.livenation.com/

Huh. So the best way to find out about my order is to fill out a form on the FanFire.com site, which forwards to a Live Nation rep, who tells me that he cannot help me. Yes, that does seem like it was the best way.

I actually wrote back to ask, “Are you unable to answer this question or even forward it to the proper department?”

Within minutes, Taylor responds:

Hello ,

Thank you for choosing Live Nation Merchandise. The VIP ticket packages are handled by a different division of our company. That is tickets@fanfire. You must email them regarding an updated status on this order being that the merchandise is fulfilled and shipped out of their facilities. If they have not responded to you after a few business days please contact me back.

If you have any further questions or concerns, feel free to contact us.

Sincerely,

Taylor
Live Nation Merchandise Customer Service
http://www.store.livenation.com/

I don’t have the heart to tell Taylor that I actually did not choose Live Nation Merchandise. Ever. I purchased my tickets through TicketMaster, was sent a link to FanFire to order my merchandise, and used the form on FanFire to inquire about the status of my order, some four months after the purchase was made. At no point did I choose Live Nation Merchandise. I do choose to believe that monopolies suck and there is no way that this behemoth of a company should be allowed to survive.

I will enjoy the concert that I’ve paid way too much for. And I know that the couple of t-shirts that I’m getting for “free” will be just as nice after the concert as before. I don’t believe that the artist that this revolves around should be implicated in any way, because Live Nation is the only game in town, and there is just no way to have a nationwide concert series without using them in one of their guises. In all, I can’t really say that Live Nation is doing anything any differently than any other way-too-large company with it’s thousands of divisions that don’t actually talk to each other.

But I know the Web. I know a bit about usability and the tenets of extremely basic customer service. And point number one in any lousy presentation that is going to bore the caffeine out of everyone: Don’t force your customers to fill out something that won’t go to the correct department. That’s just stupid.

Jonny Tewkatz

Writing about my cats is easy. As cats, they have no expectation of privacy, so I can tell everyone their dark, dark secrets. They’re soft and cuddly, and have a built-in audience, slightly smaller than the audience for dogs, slightly more than the audience for other people’s children. And, since I spend an inordinately unhealthy amount of time with them, I know my cats’ personalities better than I understand my own. My cats can’t surprise me, but I often surprise myself.

That being said, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Jinx and Indy together on bed
Jinx and Indy on the bed. Indy wonders what I am doing with that black thing above his head.

Jinx is the larger, black cat. It’s no optical illusion. She’s big. She got up to about 19 pounds, but with a very relaxed diet regimen, we got her to about 16. She’s got huge paws and a huge head, and I believe if we exercised her everyday, we’d probably get her to about 14 pounds, but no smaller. She’s just a big cat.

She jumps, scared, at everything, and walks around the apartment as if she suspects that something will pop out and attack her. The casual observer might think that this has to do with the much more energetic grey cat, Indy. And Indy does actually pop out and jump over Jinx every now and then. But Jinx is a year-and-a-half older than Indy, and she did her creeping and reflexive jumping long before Indy. She’s just a very nervous cat.

Odd, to me, is that she’s friendlier. She hangs out with people and tolerates touching. Indy takes a little bit of time to warm up to strangers in the house. He runs under the bed for a few minutes to make sure that no one else is coming in, then cautiously circumnavigates the room where the strangers are. Eventually, he’ll come up and sniff them. His major sticking point is that he thinks that hands at his level are play-toys, and he’ll eventually start to swat at at anyone who reaches down to him enough. He’s not aggressive though, and his initial swats are without claws. Of course, being a little boy, I will tend to continue to taunt him and evade his swats, so he’ll get riled up and eventually go into that grab with front paws, bite, and rabbit-kick with claws-out back paws thing that cats like to do. My hands and arms are a testament to his perseverance. Because I play with him this way, he does assume that all humans play this way. You’ve been warned.

Jinx plays less often, but she’s always interested in swinging strings and thrown small objects. Both our cats fetch. They will bring back the toy mice or plastic rings that we throw, more or less to our feet, but with random longevity. If Indy is somehow preoccupied, Jinx will fetch for several minutes, but if your throw lands short and is too close to Jinx, she considers the game over; she likes long-distance throws. Once Indy gets involved in anyway, again, the game is over. If Indy is fetching, he usually gets bored faster but has a much faster turn-around time. He can fetch 3 or 4 times in a minute, whereas Jinx usually takes a full minute to chase, then stalk, then pick up, then make sure no one is going to pop out and scare the bejeezus out of her, then jog back, then look around again to make sure that no one is going to pop out and scare the bejeezus out of her, then drop the object and meow that it’s our turn again.

Throw the object into something, and you can really see the difference in their personalities (felinalities?). Indy will jump in or at the object with gusto, absolutely no fear, but if the object isn’t readily available, Indy gives up after a few seconds, and returns, looking expectantly at the thrower. You can deny that you have the object, but Indy doesn’t believe you. Jinx, however, will run up to the place where the object landed and begin to do some detective work. She crouch before the box or chair or where ever the object is hidden, and, with ears back, peer over the edge to see if she can see the object. She’ll pace around the area, checking things from multiple angles. She’ll sniff the air to attempt to catch a whiff of it. It’s highly amusing. If she can’t find it, she will give up several minutes, and usually sit in the box or chair or where ever, and begin to do a sing-song meow that reminds me of throat singing, because it resonates and sounds like she’s trilling.

The photo above shows the two cats in a rare moment of proximity where they are not licking each other or wrestling. They don’t fight that often; although, my wife insists that any time they do is too much. But a couple of times a day, Indy will go up to Jinx and start licking her. Jinx licks back. They do this in an increasingly aggressive way, giving each other dirty looks. I find it extremely amusing to see aggressive licking. It reminds me of two people giving each other increasingly nasty backhanded compliments. If one of the two doesn’t back off, they’ll begin to wrestle. This will end relatively quickly, and the worst that happens is that Indy gets a clump of Jinx’s hair stuck into his mouth. Jinx sheds like mad, and I assume that she uses her shedding ability as an analog to the quills on a porcupine.

As noted, Indy usually goes up to Jinx to start the licking fight, but I’ve seen Jinx go over to Indy and just smack him in the face. She also has this one move where she rears back, hunched on her hind legs and one front paw lifted, and thump rapidly on Indy’s side, one-two-three thumps. I find that one hilarious. These will usually regress into quick wrestling matches and then guttural grows and a pathetic high-pitched meow from Indy. He’s clearly dominant in these situations, but it reminds me of Michael Jackson in the “Bad,” video yelling, “You ain’t bad; you ain’t nothin’!” Jinx finds it convincing, and will roll on her side in a submissive position. Indy, clearly unschooled in the etiquette of catfights, will jump on her. They’ll roll around with Jinx making an awful screech which actually scares both cats (and any humans in the area), and they’ll jump off each other with that embarrassed, “I don’t know what you’re looking at” position house cats are so good at assuming.

I do spend too much time with these furballs, but they amuse me endlessly.

My cat’s breath smells like carrots

Look, I completely understand the desire to eat well-rounded meals. It’s great that we’re ever concerned with eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing white starches, increasing our sources of protein. But I’m here to tell you: Your pets don’t need it.

A few weeks ago, I was struck by the increasingly needless crap manufacturers are putting in cat food. I was looking for a high protein food for my two cats, because, even though we limit the amount of dry food we feed them, I have one 17lbs flabby fuzz-ball, and the smaller 10lbs cat is beginning to gaining weight. The second ingredient in almost every dry cat food is cornmeal, so I figured that the cats were gaining weight because almost a third of what they eat is carbohydrates–and cats need no carbs, ever. Instead of finding higher protein dry foods in premium brands, I found ingredients like brown rice, carrots, and even fruit.

The only time a cat would ever naturally eat a piece of fruit is if it were in the digestive system of a small animal that became kitty’s din-din.

Don’t buy these premium “natural” or “holistic” cat foods. I think it’s great for humans to eat natural foods. I’m not even opposed to the word “holistic” if it’s applied correctly and not attached to chiropractic nonsense. But a cat’s body doesn’t do anything useful with fruits or grains. Cats need milligrams of fiber, normally supplied by the undigestible bits of their prey, so a pot of cat grass is more than enough if their food doesn’t supply it. But cats and humans share one digestion issue–unused carbs are stored as fat. Since cats’ digestive systems don’t readily break down sugar for energy, however, almost all carbs are stored as fat.

At any rate, after looking at the protein levels in dry foods, I checked the moist food labels, assuming that having recognizable chunks of meat would mean more protein, but I was surprised by what I saw. Moist food usually has around 10–15% protein, and 4–6% of fat. (Not a big concern for cats. Cats cannot get high cholesterol or suffer heart problems from diets rich in fat. Fats do have more calories, so there is potential for a cat to gain weight on a high fat diet, but it’s not an issue in and of itself.) Cat foods often have ash and other questionable undigestible bits, but dry food lists around 30% protein. Even with cornmeal or brown rice the bulk filler in most dry cat food, the dry seems to have over double the amount of protein.

Recommended human intake is 20–25% of total calories, and cats should have well over double this amount. Their whole metabolism is based around high protein diets. This would make dry food look like the ideal choice, except that ounce per ounce, the wet food actually far higher in protein. The dry food labels are stating what each kibble contains, but the wet food labels are showing the percentage of the entire can, which contains far more water. The hyperbole on the dry food packaging explains how well-rounded the cat food is because it has wholesome grains. But the grains are just filler; the cats don’t want it, although it does fill them up faster. And parsley or sweet potatoes or blueberries? Useless. Beyond useless. Wastes of money and food. Again, any carbs that are not passed as fiber are broken down into fat, rather than energy, cats gain weight quicker on dry food, and are susceptible to kidney disease and diabetes.

Cats can’t even taste sugar. How can they get diabetes? We’re basically poisoning cats by thinking that they need or desire a “well-rounded” diet. Cats aren’t gourmets; they are carnivores, and unlike humans or canines, they can’t live on plant proteins or even an exclusively seafood diet.

Too long between Guinness draughts

I just finished off a nice can of Guinness. In a plastic cup. On a train. It only bothered me a little bit that a pint of Guinness is only 14.9 ounces. But the taste was exquisite. When I was really drinking the stouts, I preferred Murphy’s to Guinness, especially on tap, but having that last pint, in a plastic cup, on the train, tasted just like a Murphy’s Irish Stout after downing a pint of Anchor Steam’s Old Foghorn (on tap) while hanging out with Tom McTeirnan at Tubby’s in Hauppauge. After drinking the bitter barleywine, Murphy’s tasted like liquid chocolate. On the train, too, drinking that can of Guinness, yum… liquid chocolate.

Today was a pretty good day for unexpectedly delicious treats. I grabbed some coffee that my wonderful wife brewed before she left for work. I think it was Amaretto-flavored. I don’t sweeten my coffee, and flavored coffees tend to be rather bitter without sweetener, but I’ve gotten used to it. At any rate, today I thought I’d pour in some Silk eggnog into the coffee, and it was rather tasty. I wasn’t sure what it was going to taste like, but it actually reminded me of an eggnog latte from Starbucks.

I’m going to backup here. Silk’s eggnog, like all the Silk products, is made from soy. So, yes, it wasn’t a milk-based product; it was soy. I know several folks who would be repulsed by this, and I used to be one. But when I worked at a vegetarian kitchen, they didn’t feel comfortable with animal’s milk in the refrigerator, and I reluctantly tried some Silk in my coffee. The plain flavor didn’t do much except cool the coffee down. But the vanilla and hazelnut flavors were pretty good. All alone, soy-milk is chalky, but when it’s in coffee, it’s pretty smooth. And then there is the soy-milk eggnog. I like eggnog, but it’s so rich that I can usually only have one cup a year, and then I’m good until next Christmas. Two years ago, on a whim, I purchased some Silk soy eggnog. It’s definitely not as creamy as the real thing, but it was delicious and it didn’t leave me feeling like I just drank 12 oz. of liquid butter. I could have two or even three glasses of it in a season.

Another thing that’s increased my consumption of eggnog, and led me to appreciate it even more, is discovering that it’s made for whiskey. Get a decent Bourbon in there and it’s a jolly Christmas season. Grind a bit of nutmeg on top and it’s kind of like Jesus was born to just experience this. Putting whiskey (or rum!) and nutmeg in Silk eggnog allows me to have more than one, which, of course, is the point. The milk/cream version is richer, and a slight bit tastier, but the Silk-version doesn’t lack for anything.

So, back to breakfast, I had my coffee with the Silk eggnog. No whisky, though. Then for lunch, I had a sandwich that my wonderful wife had purchased for me the night before from The Good Steer in Lake Grove. The Good Steer has been around for 50 years. It’s a Suffolk County institution. It’s mascot, on the sign in the parking lot, is a smiling bull’s head with a halo between his horns. Many of my friends referred to it as angel cow. I now live two blocks away from the Angel Cow, and they have great burgers, shoe-string onion-rings that my wife has a love/hate relationship with, and a nice turkey-meat Reuben. That’s what I usually go for when we eat there. Just give me rye bread, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut grilled together with Thousand Island dressing to dip it in, and it would buy it. The turkey meat is in there to justify the $12 price tag.

The Good Steer has a cole slaw that people who would never consider eating cole slaw actually eat, and a pretty decent red-potato salad. I had both of those with my cold, left-over sandwich for lunch. Reubens are meant to be eaten warm, but I don’t really care at what temperature I eat my food. Well, let me be more specific, I prefer cold food unless it’s French fries or white rice. Anything else, congealed or otherwise, I’ll eat right from the fridge.

So my Reuben was cold, but it was so so yummy with the cole slaw and potato salad.

And on the way home from work, I wasn’t really hungry. I often get something in Penn Station, just because I’m bored waiting for my train and can’t resist temptation, but, tonight, nothing grabbed me. I didn’t feel like a beer, either, until I thought that I hadn’t had a Guinness in a while. For those people who don’t drink beer, you may not be aware that Guinness, and other Irish stouts, are in a class by themselves. Comparing a Guinness to any lager (like Budwiser) is like comparing a stylish hat to white jockey shorts. Sure, they’re both technically clothing, but only one of them demonstrates my extremely refined tastes.

The major problem with buying beer in Penn Station, though, is the lack of vessels to pour it in. I’m a firm believer in letting the scent of beer be a part of the experience of drinking beer. As much as I prefer bottles over cans when purchasing a beer at a store, I prefer pouring a bottle into a nice pint glass when I drink it, because bottles trap the aroma of beer. Guinness is one of the few beers that I buy in a can, because of the amazing widget that adds nitrogen to the beer upon opening. (Other than Irish stouts, Sapporo is the single beer that’s better in a can than in a bottle.) But drinking straight from a can of Guinness is an awful beer experience. It’s foamy and soapy–not yummy. But when I went to see what the beer vendor was selling, I saw a stack of plastic cups next to him. I got the cup, and the beer, and waited for my train.

I finished it before the train left the tunnel on it’s way towards Long Island. It was chocolatey and delicious. I had, honestly, forgotten how good a can of Guinness was. I think I have to pick up milk when I get home tonight. I think I’ll get me a 4-pack of Guinness, too, when I’m at the store. I’m going to let the deliciousness continue this weekend.

The Police at Jones Beach

I saw The Police play at Jones Beach on August 5. Back in the early spring, my friend Melissa said she was going to the August 4 show. At the time, I was sure I missed the opportunity to see The Police in their extra-final-for-real-we-mean-it concert, as they had came through the area last year, and the August 4 show was already sold out. But through a perfect example of serendipity (but not synchronicity), the day that Melissa came over, they had just added the August 5 show and the tickets had gone on sale that day.

The seats I got were expensive, but not great seats. Still, Katherine and I were sitting in the middle of the theater, and, while in the top section, we had a great view. Some of those seats at the top suffer from really awful echo effects due to the concrete walls around that section, but we far enough away from any of them, so the sound was pretty good, too.

Now, when I purchased the tickets, the Ticketmaster site proclaimed that Elvis Costello and the Attractions were opening the show. Of course, it was Elvis Costello and the Impostors, since the Attractions bassist, Bruce Thomas, and Elvis Costello haven’t spoken for over 10 years. Still, I was extremely excited to see a show that I could have very well seen back in 1979, except that it would have been very irresponsible for my parents to let an 8-year old go to a new wave concert at CBGBs.

I am a huge fan of Elvis Costello, and his opening act was fantastic. He’s a performer-extraordinaire, and he got the thin but dedicated crowd excited and involved. (Most of the audience didn’t begin to enter the theater until the sun began to set around 8 o’clock, but Elvis got on stage before 7:30.) However, except to mention that Sting came out to sing “Alison,” and all three of The Police came out dressed as late 70s Elvises during Elvis’s last song, “Radio Radio,” I’m not going to talk more about Elvis’s set here.

Nor will I point out that most of the audience, a bit on the older-side, was there to see Sting, because he is so sexy or something, and not the band “The Police.” My wife, Katherine, was amused at the inappropriate shoe-selection of many of the women in our section, high up and plenty of steps to get there. “What?” she wondered, “Did they think that Sting was going to see them up here and notice how sexy their shoes were?”

The Police started off their set with “Message in a Bottle,” and “Walking on the Moon.” Both of these were a bit jazzier than their studio-versions, but very recognizable. Sting sang every song with a kind of wizened detachment. It seemed he was older and didn’t recognize the kid that wrote these lyrics–or maybe that was more of a reflection of the person watching Sting. I don’t know how many people recognized “Demolition Man,” because it’s not often played on the radio and it certainly lacked the signature horn-section from the studio-version. It was then that I noticed that The Police were just the three of them. I knew it was just going to be the three of them. But I’m jaded, I guess, seeing concerts with 57 people of stage. But they’re a power-trio. It’s only going to be them on stage. So, I dug “Demolition Man,” even though it was vastly different from the only version I’ve ever heard before. The essence was there without the production.

At this point, I noticed, too, that Sting and Andy Summers were using a single bass and guitar, respectively. They didn’t have racks of instruments behind them, using a different one for each song. The varnish on their guitars was wearing off in spots. This really impressed me for some reason.

Their next songs were “Voices Inside My Head,” joined with “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around.” Then, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” and “Driven to Tears.”–a nice “Zenyattà Mondatta” set. “Zenyattà Mondatta” was the first album I really got into, thanks to my mom. She would play it often, and the sound of this album was truly unique. Years later, I found out that The Police were rushed in the production of this album, and were never satisfied with the end results. There were problems in the studio, and they had lost the original track reels. It was this reason, that in 1986, they went back in the studio to re-record “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” We all kind of dodged a bullet there, since the re-recording sessions were so awful, ending The Police recording together That 1986 version was really, really awful and is never discussed in polite company. The concert version on August 5 was closely hewed to the version from “Zenyattà Mondatta,” thankfully.

“Everything She Does Is Magic” followed a wonderful version of “Hole in My Life.” Then they played “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” where I explained to Katherine that the song helped increase my vocabulary way back when, with words like alabaster and fruition. My dad had a cat named “Mephistopheles,” so I already knew that one. They followed that with “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” which I believe decreased my vocabulary way back when. And then they played “Invisible Sun.” For most of the concert, the screen behind The Police was just showing various close-ups of the band, with the occasional gratuitous graphic embellishment thrown in. But for “Invisible Sun,” the images were black and white photographs of children’s faces, mostly, I suspect, from war-torn nations because most of the children were not white. All at once, I remembered why I practically worshiped The Police back in high school. The song, nominally about growing up in Northern Ireland, has not, sadly, lost its relevance. “I don’t want to spend my time in hell/Looking at the walls of a prison cell/I don’t ever want to play the part/Of a statistic on a government chart.” Seems there are a score of places I can apply this to. I’m shocked that my nation is one of them.

The Police aren’t all about geo-politics though, and their next songs returned the screen to what the audience wanted to see, Sting and his skin-tight shirt soaked through with sweat. Blending “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “Reggatta De Blanc” into an audience participation bit was inspired, and it closed the first set.

They opened the next set, or the first “encore,” with Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” I imagine this was a bit for Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers to show off their chops. Then “Roxanne,” “King of Pain,” “So Lonely,” and “Every Breath You Take” completed that set. “Every Breath You Take” may have been necessary, as it’s their most popular song, but it was as much a downer live as it is on the radio. The video was cool, I remember, but just about everything else about this song rubs me the wrong way, from fans misunderstanding its totally horrible message of controlling another person to its constant overplay on the radio and its use in an even more awful Puff Daddy track.

But all was forgiven by a second encore of “Next to You,” my second-favorite early Police song. (The first is “Hole in My Life,” for those of you with scorecards.) They showed pictures of the roadies and technicians on the tour while they played it, and Sting came out without his shirt to sing it. Everybody wins.

Katherine had heard they were closing the show with “Synchronicity II,” but after “Next to You,” the lights came on and we were done. At 10:30. Old people suck.

At any rate, the show was worth every dollar. I wish it wasn’t, since it just encourages these older acts to charge way too much for shows. The concert t-shirts–“without sleeves,” I kept yelling–were $35. (With sleeves–$40. I wish this was a joke.) The bottled waters, oddly not branded by The Police, were $4.50. And there’s no beer at the Jones Beach Theater. Bah. I guess complaining about things is another thing older people do. Now get off my lawn!

Freedom Rider

There is nothing that irks me on the road quite like speed bumps. They exist solely because some group of people have decided that I don’t know how to drive safely. Long Island doesn’t have many areas with them; usually just private roads in apartment complexes where they’re trying to discourage thru-traffic. I understand this, but I think it’s backwards to punish the 95% of drivers who will use those roads, e.g. the tenants who are paying for it, to prevent the 5% who may or may not actually speed in a residential area.

Recently, I came across a private community that had a single access point for entry and five speed bumps. These bumps were on slopes and may have, at one point, been painted white, and were very difficult to see. One was marked by a tiny road sign that indicated it was there, in one direction–to people leaving the community. The first speed bump was located just feet from the entrance, making it difficult to react to when you turned in, and it was completely redundant on the way out, since the exit was bounded by a stop sign. So drivers had to slow down for the speed bump before they slowed down for the stop sign immediately after. Why was it there?

Florida would have speed bumps on nominally public roads. Where I drove, the Fort Lauderdale area, most public roads were huge 6 to 8 lane monstrosities. There were no speed bumps there, or there would have been blood, but turn off any main thoroughfare and you wouldn’t know what you were going to encounter. Often it was cul-de-sacs, and often those cul-de-sacs were littered with speed bumps designed to keep traffic bobbing up and down at 10 miles per hour, between bumps of course. I know the idea is safety. They design roads with speed bumps in areas that have pedestrians, especially children. But again, speed bumps punish good drivers. Dangerous drivers may be discouraged by them, but they’re not learning to drive better because of them.

There is an article in The Atlantic describing why driving in America is so screwed up by people trying to make things safer. Because of the ubiquity of signage and prohibitions, we’re creating drivers who react slower and don’t use foresight to consider driving conditions.

Consider the stop sign. It seems innocuous enough; we do need to stop from time to time. But think about how the signs are actually set up and used. For one thing, there’s the placement of the signs–off to the side of the road, often amid trees, parked cars, and other road signs; rarely right in front of the driver, where he or she should be looking.
Then there’s the sheer number of them. They sit at almost every intersection in most American neighborhoods. In some, every intersection seems to have a four-way stop. Stop signs are costly to drivers and bad for the environment: stop/start driving uses more gas, and vehicles pollute most when starting up from rest. More to the point, however, the overabundance of stop signs teaches drivers to be less observant of cross traffic and to exercise less judgment when driving–instead, they look for signs and drive according to what the signs tell them to do.

The author, John Staddon, is from the UK, where they use traffic circles instead of stop signs at many intersections. I’m not a fan of traffic circles, or roundabouts, but this may change my opinion:

Roundabouts in the U.S. are typically large. But as drivers get used to them–as they have in the U.K. over the past three or four decades–they can be made smaller and smaller. A “mini-roundabout” in the U.K. is essentially just a large white dot in the middle of the intersection. In this form, it amounts to no more than an instruction to give way to traffic coming from the right (that would be the left over here, of course, since the Brits drive on the left).

This makes perfect sense. Roads don’t have to be widened, and it trains drivers to be cautious at intersections. Late at night, when I’m crossing service roads with traffic lights, I still slow down going through them, because, even though I have the right-of-way, drivers on the service road act as if they’re on the actual highway. Too many times, I’ve seen drivers blow through those red lights as if they weren’t there.

The article concludes with this, “…U.S. traffic policies are inducing a form of inattentional blindness in American drivers,” and I couldn’t agree more. Yes, I am advocating for fewer signs and “safety” features on the road. Driving is something that takes skill and constant vigilance, and it’s time for both drivers and traffic laws to grow up.

Acid Trip to the Past

I’m not one to think that things were better in my childhood days. The 70s, for all those who choose not to–or are too young to–remember, sucked. Really. The 80s sucked, too. Sure, we’re all nostalgic for big hair and men in shorty-shorts, but except for an underground music scene that would pay off dividends in the 90s and beyond, my generation was the first to find their world more difficult to prosper than the previous generations in America. But, wait, I come here not to whine.

Instead, I find myself chuckling at this article from Newsday about a group of kids arrested after one of them was found with an “apparent ‘caustic liquid'” on his clothing. Because one of the group may have said something about “blowing it up,” this vague threat lead to four arrests and bails in the $60k range.

So here’s a case where I can say, “Boy, times sure have changed,” and think wistfully back to childhood, where one of my friends, in junior high school, could bring a glass beaker, filled with a clear liquid, covered with tinfoil, and sporting a taped label saying “Dangerous: ACID.” He was not stopped the entire day, even though he displayed it at various times, including leaving it on the lunch table, during which a couple of other friends and I would mercilessly tease him about carrying “acid” in his bookbag covered with a flimsy piece of foil.

This is a true story, so I will not name my friend on this blog. Suffice to say, he knows who he his, and so do most of my friends, and so does the Mock Trial club from that year; because the beaker was not filled with “Dangerous: ACID”–it was filled with a pint of Vodka. Oh, it still cracks me up that the “acid” got no attention from anyone, but when a dozen kids were later caught in the girls’ room with their dixie cups, it became the crime of the century.

Times have changed, though. These kids, today, in the mean-streets of Levittown, may have actually had an acid, since the ‘caustic liquid’ kid’s shirt was burned, but I do believe that the authorities are over-reacting, as these four were going to be as successful in their “blowing it up” as the Mock Trial kids were in getting their booze on, all those years ago.

Update: Setting the record straight. There was a Mock Trial scandal, but this wasn’t it. Mock Trial was high school. Some of the kids involved with this one were involved in the later one, and I just blended the times together. I apologize for the mix up. (Thanks, Laura!)

It’s a Gas

It’s all about Oil! today at MacPhoenix. There are three illogical and pandering ideas floating out in the memesphere today. Let’s approach them one at a time.

First, we have the scary Iranians who won’t take good old dollar bills for their tainted oil anymore! There is a long-standing fear when some company or supermodel won’t take money in US Dollars anymore, but it’s irrational. Iran is certainly using it as propaganda, however. It sounds very scary.

The only thing it reflects is that, since the dollar is falling, anyone who sells something by contract will want to minimize loss between the time that they sell something and the time that they get paid. So Oil Producer sold 1 barrel of oil on Monday for $100, but didn’t get paid until Friday. If the dollar fell .1% by Friday, Oil Producer lost 10 cents because the $100 was now worth $99.90. When the dollar falls, it makes sense for any international company to try to get paid in a stable currency.

But it doesn’t affect the price of oil or whether or not our currency is falling. There are several reasons for that, the biggest being that our trade deficit is too high, but not because companies want to get paid in another currency. If oil were priced in Quatloos, and our dollar was falling, it would still be more expensive for us to buy oil.

America is not permitted to do business with Iran, in any case. Iran, as the CNN article notes well after the scary lede, has been divesting itself of dollars for years. This makes sense. When you can’t buy something from the merchant, why keep the scrip?

On the second meme, CNN provides more laughs with an interview with the head of Shell Oil. Bet you thought that the $7.8 billion profit was excessive. Well not according to John Hofmeister:

Look at our revenues and our income for the last quarter. If we had made $7.8 million on $114 million of revenue, nobody would call that excessive, because that’s 7.5 percent. We made $7.8 billion profit on $114 billion revenue — same 7.5 percent. So to me that is not an excessive number when banks and pharmaceuticals and IT companies earn a whole lot more.

Okay. For no reason in particular, I want to write out the zeros in 7.8 billion. Please indulge me. $7,800,000,000. Only eight zeros! Damn that .8! But Mr. Hofmeister is correct. In 2004, Shell Oil was only the 5th most profitable company in the world, while banks like Citigroup and HSBC, IT companies like General Electric, and that famous pharmaceutical, ExxonMobil earned a whole lot more.

Anyway, the main thing here in the CNN article is the idea that America must drill more oil in order to meet the supply, and by implication, help lower or stabilize the cost of gas at the pump. This is false. Oil is sold on market that is worldwide. If oil is extracted in America, it is still sold on this worldwide market. We have something on the order of 4% of the known oil underneath us. If we extracted ALL OF IT, IMMEDIATELY, it would raise the amount of oil on the market by 4%. Since we consume about half the world’s oil, one can figure that it would save us about 2% to purchase that oil.

Of course, all things aren’t equal and there is a cost to extracting, refining, and shipping that oil or gasoline. It also actually can’t be extracted immediately. It would take years. Additionally, there is no reason to expect that any other oil producing nation won’t adjust it’s output to keep oil the same price, since that would be in its best interest to keep the price stable and it can sit on their reserves as long as necessary. However, once we extract all our oil, it’s gone forever, leaving us in a weaker position than before we drilled the oil.

What does it do for us then, if we drill for more oil? It makes money for companies like Shell Oil who make profits on drilling, refining, and shipping oil and gasoline. It isn’t so strange then that the president of Shell would advocate drilling for more oil. It isn’t so strange that President Bush would continue his call to drill in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, as he has done for 8 years now.

Finally, the last meme is the political pandering calling for a summer of tax-free gasoline. This is another bad idea. The way that John McCain wants to do it, it would amount to a tax break for oil companies. You know, the same companies that earn around $7.8 billion dollars EVERY THREE MONTHS, because the supply of gas is maxxed out. We’re paying as much as we can because it is high demand, but the supply can’t be raised. If the tax rate is dropped, it will raise demand, but there is no more gasoline to be had, which will cause the price to shoot up! Hey presto! More money for Mr. Hofmeister.

Hillary Clinton’s plan sounds more palatable to your average socialist, since it would pay for the tax relief by increasing the tax on the oil companies. Except, hey! once again, remove the tax at the pump and increase demand which will drive up prices. It doesn’t help consumers one bit, and the increase in taxes that the oil companies pay would be offset by the huge run on the tax-free cost of gasoline.

So, OPEC may continue to accept dollars, we may open up protected parkland to oil drilling, and we may have a tax-free summer at our gas pumps, but not one bit of this will help consumers. The only thing that would seem to help our falling dollar and the price of gasoline is to reduce our demand for oil.

When is that meme going to start floating around our oil-slicked stream of consciousness?

Wendy’s Fresher Catch

An update, since I get about 2 dozen hits a day from people looking up Wendy’s fish sandwich. The last time I wrote about it, in 2003, it wasn’t that good. But they re-introduced it for this Lenten season (so of course, I write about it 5 days before Easter), with a big advertising push. So I tried it again, because they indicated that they put in a nice solid piece of fish.

Well, it’s pretty good this time around. It easily beat McDonald’s Filet o’Fish. The fish is a single piece of whitefish, flaky and moist, with no fishy aftertaste. The batter is crispy and tasty. They put a variant of tarter sauce on it, obviously made with garlic powder. Keep this in mind if you’re looking for something mild–you’ll probably want to hold the sauce.

I didn’t have mine with cheese. It really doesn’t need it. I don’t know if they just slap a cold slice of cheese on the top like they do with their burgers. That would be a shame, because it would take away from it. And Wendy’s is still using those buns which are a step down from their old potato-flour buns. They got rid of them shortly after my first review. I know. Four years is a long time to hold onto a fast-food ghost. But I really stopped going to Wendy’s after they got rid of the potato buns.

I don’t know if it’ll be around after Easter. But it was pretty good, and if they keep it on the menu, I won’t be so reluctant to eat there in the future.