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31 December, 2011

Seeing the objective truth... so hard

I jump to conclusions. So often. And it's mood dependent. I get a thesis statement going in my head about what reality is, and then I start "seeing" all the data that supports my theory, and "not seeing" all the data that refutes it. That's a bit ironic for a researcher to take such an approach to life. I certainly hope that is not the way that I conduct my research.

And I am so convinced. So sure. I have tried to be more open than I used to be. I have tried to see all sides of a situation. Of course, I think I have always portrayed myself as someone who sees all sides of a situation. But I think that perception is probably distorted, because I continually come to the realization that I am not doing it.

It's just a forever continuing work in progress.

I have a hard time walking the line of recognizing that I lack the compassion and openness that is possible, without immediately devolving into the self-flagellation of what a bad person I am for lacking it. What it comes back to is the place where it all needs to start, which is compassion and openness with myself.

I started off talking about objective truth, and there's an interesting paradox of "objectivity" when talking about one's own inner states. Because you'd think that "about self" is fundamentally "subjectivity" but there's an objective truth about ourselves as well.

The other day, I was listening to someone give their sales pitch about the Landmark program. Of course, I am not a subscriber to cult philosophies, not so much because there's no value in them, but because I am very careful about assigning myself to any sort of community -- even my participation at my yoga studio is starting to feel a bit cultish, but that's another blog.

In his sales pitch, he talked about how there are "facts" and there are "interpretations" or something like that. In our day to day lives, there are things that occur that actually occur and then there is the layer upon layer of filtering or interpretation that we place on top of it. The result is that we often do not even see "the facts" because our brains have created this compelling story on top of it - and that story is based on what he referred to as our "point of view". These are self-limiting approaches. And to really see, we need to remove the interpretation layer.

Now, I don't need to join a cult or self-help program, or read a thousand books to heed that common sense. It is just common sense, right?

But I don't heed it.

And it's all mood dependent. In my best moments, I have the openness, and try my best to experience life as a series of moments. But in my darker moments, which are sometimes many, I spiral every "fact" into a web of worst-case scenarios. And that makes me feel worse.

Here's an example.

I send you a message. You reply immediately. I send you another message, asking you a question. You don't reply immediately.

This happens all the time, with everyone in my life. But the interpretation is mood-dependent. If I am in a good mood, I just wait for the reply. Or if it's urgent, I call. But if I am in a bad mood, then that lack of immediate response immediately becomes "they don't want to answer my question" or "i am not important to them" or "why are they avoiding communicating with me". Then, reality turns out to be any of a series of natural causes: driving, text took a long time to go through, got a phone call, was eating dinner, fell asleep, etc.

The sad part about this is that I rake myself over emotional coals running with the worst-case scenarios. And for some reason, my brain is particularly adept at spinning worst-case scenarios for even the smallest of scenarios. The paranoia kicks in, and everyone's motives are questionable.

I know this about myself, and it still happens. I also know that the first step toward self-improvement is self-awareness. But unfortunately, self-awareness is a little bit more uncomfortable that selfish oblivion, particularly in the short-term.

17 October, 2011

A cow, a dollar bill, and a memory of the past

A red wooden pedestal, measures approximately 2.5" x 1.25" x 0.5". Rising up from the pedestal is a thin red post, about an eighth of an inch in diameter, and 3" tall. Atop the post, a quarter-inch thick wooden cow, white with brown spots, black eyes and hooves, and a black nose. Skewered by the red wooden post, a single dollar bill. It's upside-down, so I cannot see the vintage. But if I lift it up, and examine the other side, it reads L-series (meaning it is from the San Francisco Mint), serial number L86314752M. Series 1995. Robert Rubin was the U.S. Treasurer at the time. But this is not the first dollar bill to grace this ornamental and sentimental object that I have had in my possession for 25 years, and about 5 months. The first dollar bill to grace the cow remained in its throne from 1986 until sometime, I would estimate, in early-1998. The one that is presently in its place has likely been there since. And there's a story behind that, but I'll come back to it.

The "Cow and a Dollar Bill" (as I have always referred to it) came into my hands from my sister, when I was in the hospital, recovering from minor surgery that had been the result of a car accident. It was just a silly gift. That's the kind of person my sister was. Funny, random, clever, sarcastic. It was not something that necessarily needed to have any significant meaning, but it ended up having very significant meaning because I attached the meaning to it. I am not sure if the cow traveled with me to college, or if it remained in my bedroom at home. It's been too long for me to remember. But the cow traveled with me to Seattle, where it now sits in front of me.

So why did it have so much meaning? Well, the events that wound me up in the hospital, which I will not share here because they're not really relevant to the story at hand, led me to do some existential and philosophical pondering about truth, honesty, life, and the importance of many things. Somehow, because the cow and its dollar bill showed up in this time window, I ended up making a proclamation: The day I need to use that dollar bill is the day that I know that things have become really bad. Or, the flip side, I'm never going to use that dollar bill, but I'm going to keep it right there on this cow, as a reminder of what it is like to not be in need, and to keep the entire ornament with me everywhere I go, as a reminder of the same.

Yet, you might ask, "What happened to the dollar bill that was on it originally?" (which I might note, was tattered, and very fantastically antiquated, even though the currently positioned crisp bill has actually been "in office" for a longer period of time; I guess the original must have started off in a more worn-out state)

That, too, is a different story and, as it turns out, the bill was not spent in a moment of need. Rather, it was something I chose to release, in a moment of what I had believed to be personal growth and "letting go" of the past. It was donated, in a sense, to a cause that I briefly believed in, but ultimately to which I did not cling. In fact, one of my slight regrets in life is that I parted with that dollar bill when I did.

Sadly, the cow and the dollar bill have come to take on a new symbolism. And the loss of the original dollar bill feels eerily poignant. See, my sister who gave this to me is not the same person she was, just as the dollar bill is not the same dollar bill. She's had a neurological condition for most of her life which, until recently, did not have any noticeable cognitive effects. But in the last 5 years or so, she's unfortunately undergone a gradual decline in her cognitive abilities, particularly when it comes to memory and analytic reasoning. It's been significant enough that she is now really not the same person she was for most of her life. She doesn't really engage with people anymore, and is uncomfortable in situations where it is necessary. Her long-term memory seems to be well-preserved, but she has difficulty forming new memories. She's withdrawn, and sad. She's somewhat aware of the loss that she's suffering, and that probably makes it even worse for her.

When I look at the cow and the dollar bill, much as when I look at my sister, I am reminded of the person who gave it to me, and everything that she represented in my life. But when I see this imposter dollar bill, not the one that my sister gave me, I feel like something is lost, and I know that it can never be regained.

One thing that troubles me is that, while there's no way I can ever imagine myself parting with the inanimate reminder that I keep, I have already distanced myself from the person of whom I am reminded because, while it's possible for me to look at the cow and the dollar bill, and have everything it has ever been and ever meant evoked in my mind, the same is not true for my sister. Communicating with my sister now reminds me only of what is lost, and what she is no longer, and will never be again. I feel like she's gone, but she is still here. And I have a hard time with that. I suspect I should probably be trying to make what connection I still can, while she is still here at all, rather than lament what is not. I am a little bit afraid of that. I think it betrays a problem I have with mortality. I'm trying to deny it. But as I come of the age that more and more of those dear to me will become frail, ill, or die, it's going to become increasingly unavoidable. I need to face it.

Perhaps I should see if she remembers the cow and the dollar bill.

06 October, 2011

Why everyone should keep a journal

Last night, I spent almost two hours rereading journal entries from 2008. I'm speaking of a "diary" that happens to be online, as opposed to this blog. From time to time, I go back and start rereading what I've written. And it's never easy to be reminded of where I was before. I don't often write about fluffy topics in the journal. It usually is about self-exploration, or venting the struggles I'm having with various situations happening in my life.

The hardest thing for me is when I see huge sections of my emotional history that have repeated themselves. I can find a page from 2008 that could just as easily be written today. New situation, different year, different people involved, but the same me. And, consequently, the same struggles and same questions. Sometimes, reading those excerpts leads me to question whether I'm growing at all. Am I truly repeating the exact same mistakes as I was three years ago? But there's a tendency to latch on to the negatives, the similarities in plight, without recognizing the small, but significant differences.

In 2008, I had written a little "vision statement" for where I wanted to see myself heading in the future. It was originally intended for this blog, but I'd moved it to the journal instead, because I was worried it would be a little too sensitive for people who may have felt "involved" in the birth of that vision. I think enough time has passed that I can post it here:

There are ways in which I wish I were more capable.

I wish I had the discipline and motivation to drive my career toward productive ends.
I wish I had the wisdom and restraint to not engage in commitments that I cannot keep.
I wish I could be a hero.
I wish I would realize that being a hero is a commitment I cannot keep.
I wish I could decide to focus on exercise, and it would last longer than a week.
I wish I could learn to keep promises to myself.
I wish I would never cause anyone pain ever again, myself included.
I wish I would set for myself more realistic wishes.



When I look at this now, I realize that I've grown a lot more than I thought. Certainly, I experience many of the same feelings and fears as I did three years ago. And certainly I have made some of the same mistakes. But when I look at the list above, I realize that, by and large, I have achieved every one of these goals. But the unrealistic wishes that I had then, to some extent, still persist as an Achilles' heel for me. I still battle with wanting to be a hero. I still labor over the fear of being hurt, or hurting, in such fashion so as to render me rather risk-averse.

It's a good thing to see that I set these goals for myself three years ago. Going back and reading it in a journal is a helpful way to realize who I was, who I am, what's changed. And it serves as a reminder of the direction I've set for myself. Definitely something I would recommend to everyone.

I've got a ways to go. But it's getting better.

How surfing is like dating

I was sitting on lava rocks, in Kona, at a beach named "Magic Sands," watching the surfers on the water in front of me. I was on my cell phone having a conversation about relationships. And suddenly, the combination of the conversation and the visuals in front of me, brought about the following metaphor:

Surfing is a lot like (online) dating.

I add the term "online" in parentheses because I think it is probably a nearly obligatory modifier.

So, how does it work?

Simple. Let me explain. You sign up for an online dating site, and you've essentially grabbed your surfboard and decided to enter the water. Easy enough, right? And then, you watch and wait. For something with potential to come along. Sometimes there's nothing. Sometimes there's plenty. Finally, a wave comes along that looks like a good one, so you decide you're gonna have a go at it. Of course, one of the most critical things, no matter how good the wave is, is that you need to time it right, and use the proper technique for picking up the wave. Sound familiar? Much the same as online dating, where you need to read that wave, and start off with the right kind of communication, or else you never even get a date.

So, getting a date is sort of like standing up on your board and starting to ride the wave.

What happens next, of course, is completely unpredictable. Sometimes the wave disintegrates immediately, and you fall right off your board. Sometimes the wave gets too big too fast, and swallows you. That's like when you discover on the first date, or shortly thereafter, that it's not what you had hoped, and you either abort, or get tossed. Or sometimes people come on too strong, and it's necessary to run away.

Occasionally, you get off to a good start, and you're on that wave, reading the changes in it, and feeling like everything's completely under control. That would be "steady dating." Even then, sudden twists and turns, or missteps, or interference from other currents in the water throw you off sooner than you might have expected. The failed relationship.

Rarely, almost never, you ride that perfect wave, handling every nuance of it, and eventually find yourself still standing, well clear of the surge, and coasting gently to shore. Ah, commitment.

Much like surfing, you usually take on plenty of waves of highly-varying quality and duration before finding that one that takes you home. The metaphor breaks down for me a little bit when I think about the fact that there are various ways to leave the game of surfing. You could get injured. You could have so many bad waves that you finally decide to leave the water on a less-than-optimal note. Conversely, one could be so obsessed with the novelty and rush of every unique wave that comes along, that you never want to leave the water.

Do we have the capacity to know when we're on the most awesome wave we're ever going to see? Or is it only in hindsight that we look back and think about an amazing wave, perhaps idealizing it to have been bigger, and more perfect than perhaps it actually was?

I do not know.

27 September, 2011

THE GAP in quality... the price of fleeting fashion

Let me start with a disclaimer. I have not done everything according to "the books" in the story I am about to relate. Nonetheless, I feel that the experience I had does not reflect exemplary customer service. In the end, I have decided that the keyboard may not be mightier than any figurative sword, but it's about all I've got left.

For Christmas, I received a very nice blue and black flannel from THE GAP. The shirt was a medium, and it barely fit before washing. After a few weeks' delay (due to my schedule), I managed to make it into the Downtown Seattle location of THE GAP to try to exchange the shirt for a large. They did not have a large in stock there, but said they'd be happy to have the shirt held at another location. Just to be sure, I tried on a large of a very similar (but not the same) flannel that they had in stock, and it seemed to be a perfect fit.

A few days later, I went to the Redmond location of THE GAP and picked up the large shirt they had held for me. MISTAKE #1 that I made was that I did not try on the shirt before taking it home. I was in a hurry and, since I had already tried a large of a similar flannel, assumed it would be perfect. When I got home, sure enough, the shirt did not fit. It was absolutely huge, and it also had a weird variation in how the top button was latched, which differed from the medium of the same exact product code. Odd.

MISTAKE #2 is that my schedule resulted in me not managing to make it back to THE GAP to exchange this oversized shirt until the first week of March. MISTAKE #3 is that I did not have a gift receipt. Thus, when I went to the Downtown Seattle store to exchange, they informed me that they no longer were stocking this shirt, because it had gone out of season. As a result, in the absence of receipts, they could only credit me the old-stock price of $29 (the original price of the shirt was $54). Grudgingly, I purchased another shirt from THE GAP, that was currently in style, for $54. At this point, I am now down $29, but such is life, and such is the penalty for making a few mistakes, and taking too long to handle an exchange.

The new shirt is a gray, Western-style shirt with metal snaps that have white overlays affixed to the metal snaps. Very cool looking shirt. I wear it once, and one of the white overlays falls off in the washing machine.This surprised me a bit. There was nothing that said the shirt was dry-clean only. Nonetheless, I grabbed my Super Glue, and reattached the overlay. I wear the shirt a second time and, while wearing it, a different button falls off the shirt while I'm just sitting doing nothing. At this point, I decide that I should really return this shirt.

MISTAKE #4 is that I probably waited a month from the time that the second button falls off the shirt before I get around to going back the Downtown Seattle location of THE GAP. When I go to my closet to grab the shirt, I notice that yet another button has fallen off the shirt, and the overlay piece is just sitting on the floor of my closet! It fell off the shirt while I wasn't even wearing it! I bring the shirt and the two missing buttons into THE GAP. They ask me if I have a receipt, which I do not. They tell me that I can only exchange the shirt for the old-stock value of $29 because it is now out of season (it's summer by this time). At this point, I am not happy, but I very politely explain my lengthy story, and they call the manager over to speak with me. The manager tries to make it right. She agrees that this is messed up. The solution is that she will order a replacement of the shirt from the warehouse, at no charge, and she will also give me a gift card for $20, which brings me almost back to Even Steven on the entire amount that I am into clothing from THE GAP (including the original loss of $29 from the first round, minus $9 difference).

I feel like this is a victory.

But alas, it's not that easy...

A week or so later, I receive a package from THE GAP. I leave it on the kitchen table for a few days because, at this point, I am not particularly excited anymore about anything from THE GAP, and I've learned to expect the worst.

Finally, I open the package.

The replacement shirt is missing two button overlays. And they're not even in the damn bag! They actually sent me a shirt that was missing buttons straight from the factory!

Back to THE GAP. This time, it's September, and I'm at the University Village location. I tell the manager my story. She tells me that it has really been too long, and they've really done all they can do. She understands my frustration. The solution this time, which is not entirely satisfactory, is that she refunds me another $6 (a discount on the defective shirt), and suggests that I try gluing the two buttons (from the original version of this shirt) onto the missing spots on the replacement shirt. I agree, because I realize I'm not going to get a better solution than this. And, fool that I am, I spent another $60 dollars on more clothing! I'm a glutton for punishment, right? Or a devoted customer... you be the judge.

I am pretty sure that it won't be long before more buttons fall off the shirt, and then I'm probably going to have to just suck it up and realize that clothing from THE GAP is not meant to last more than a few wearings. Further case in point, which is one that I have not even bothered to raise during my visits, is the fact that I have a quarter-sized hole in the back pocket of a pair of 1969 jeans that are less than 2 years old, and have probably only been washed 15 or 20 times. Contrast that with Levi's that I've had for a decade and have no rips, and I just have to believe THE GAP clothing is made to not last.

The staff at THE GAP have been nice. They've never been rude to me. They agree the quality should be better than it is. But I don't feel particularly satisfied with my Christmas Gift Experience... it ended up requiring multiple visits to multiple store locations, only to end up nearly even, but with a slightly defective shirt.

Here's to finding out if THE GAP searches the blogs for customer stories...

12 September, 2011

Moments: Red Truck (1/30/2006)

Forty days and forty nights.

Looking out the window again. The red pickup truck is still there. The rain is still falling. Did Seattle deserve a great flood, or what? I wonder, will the red truck move before tomorrow? The view being the same, it's sort of like reliving yesterday. Steel-gray sky. Whatever. Maybe should think about better words to describe the sky. The red truck (again) catches my eye, as it's the only - well, almost the only - bright-colored object in view. And, as red trucks go, it's pretty drab, at that. Rusted-out near the wheel wells, paint faded. Almost an orangey-red. Could be a Ford. Or a Dodge, or a Chevy. But that's not my specialty so, without further investigation, I'm just guessing.

So, I lied about the brilliant colors. The building behind the red truck has a reasonably bright-blue roof. That's something, right? The neighbors have a bright-yellow milk crate in their backyard, amidst an otherwise brownish-grayish yardscape.

I don't know what I'm expecting to see out there. Perhaps this is just a realization that urban-world or, for that matter, any-world, is not particularly colorful. I mean, this isn't the tropics. Yet, I am still focused on the lack of color.

An orangey-brown flower pot is near the yellow crate. Large pot. Didn't see it until I moved closer to the window. Green barbecue cover, too. Saw that, but didn't think it warranted mentioning.

What am I looking for? I don't know. Maybe I should stop looking. But probably it's better to keep examining this landscape until it looks like home, instead of a holding pen.

Moments: From My Window (1/29/2006)

The sky is steel-gray, or maybe it's lighter than that. I can't really picture steel. Call it brushed aluminum, then, I guess. But from here, I'm trying to appreciate this view that I never particularly asked for. But looking on the bright side, as I now am, I can see what is one of the islands or hills or whatever. Seattle has so many of them. Who can keep track? Maybe it's Magnolia. It's definitely not Mercer. That much, I've learned. The beautiful power plant sits off to the left of the plane. Why does anyone ever get stuck with a power plant near their home? Seems like this junk could go underground or on some platform in the ocean.

Large black dog is led down 8th by a woman in a scarf. The dog was gigantic... wolf-sized. Or maybe the girl was tiny? This is not pleasing me, but I'm losing the moment, so let's bring it back. Out the window. A chimney sticks up straight ahead. I can sight along the sharp 50 degree angle of the roof that holds it. Moss covered on the north edge, but clean on its south side. Weird how just a few inches is the difference between moss and not. A few inches, distinguishing a favorable environment from a tundra. Is the light really that different between those two spots? The moss knows.

I still can't see why this view is special. It's expansive, but everything in my line of sight is drab. Too low to really see the mountains. I've always come by this neighborhood from above, and thought that to the west was a somewhat stark or barren or industrial-looking landscape. But now it's my view, so I guess I'd better start seeing the beauty in it.

03 August, 2011

No eagles to spare

I come from New England, where the largest bird you typically see is a seagull, which can hardly be called a bird. In fact, we used to refer to them as "rats with wings" because they're noisy, vile, and a generally aggressive nuisance.

When I ventured outside my tiny bubble, I discovered that there were some amazing birds of prey out and about everywhere in the country. Notably, sightings of hawks is commonplace, especially when driving on the interstate highways. It is always mesmerizing to look up and see those giant wings circling and watching the ground for some small movement. Hard to believe that relevant stimuli could be detected from hundreds of feet above the ground. One of the many ways (besides the obvious capacity for flight) that birds are amazing in ways that we simply can't comprehend.

But it was only when I came to Seattle that I encountered the Bald Eagle.

Weird that the symbol for our nation is something that can only be seen if one is lucky. Why isn't our national bird the pigeon, or the sparrow or, even better, the crow?

But it was in Seattle that I first saw an eagle. And under the strangest of circumstances (to me at the time). One day, in the Maple Leaf neighborhood, there was a giant ruckus outside. Crows were going insane, squawking and flying everywhere. I had no idea what could be the reason for their madness. Then I saw it. They were chasing a giant bird, a bald eagle, that looked as if it were 3-4 times as large as any of them (and the crow is not exactly a small bird). They were chasing it, and it was fleeing, but not really fleeing in fear. It was sort of just flying about, impervious to them. I was later told that the eagle was likely trying to raid the crows' nests. What was happening was a collective effort by the crows to essentially "harass" the eagle until it became not worth its while to keep trying. It was an amazing sight to see.

For a long time, that was the only time I'd ever witnessed an eagle.

Then, one day, driving along SR520, a necessary but rather miserable excuse for a "highway" that we have in the Seattle area, I look up, and I see a bald eagle just sitting there atop a highway streetlight. Immense. Awe-inspiring. I don't know how it didn't cause daily wrecks, with people rubber-necking to see this breathtaking animal.

I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime observation. But it turned out, it was not. Time and time again, I would see the eagle, perched on the same post. This was part of its territory. This was clearly one of the places that he wanted to be. And it felt neat to think that a completely man-made object, a streetlight, had become a lookout point for one of the most awesome predators on our planet.

Just last week, I was crossing the bridge, and I saw him eating some sort of kill up there. Maybe a rodent. Maybe a fish. Maybe a small bird. Who knows?

And that's the last time we'll ever see him.

This week, the eagle was struck and killed by a vehicle at that very same location. It had swooped down to the road to get at some roadkill that was ripe for the picking. And it was hit. And it died.

From the article, I learned that the eagle was part of a nesting pair that had been living at a nearby golf course. All I can think about is that eagles are scarce enough that, if you lose half the nesting pair, there isn't going to be another male to come along and take up the vacancy. So the death of the male is tantamount to the death of the breeding pair. And who knows if the young they had stand a chance of thriving to replace their parents?

Just like that, the metal machines that we love so much bring us one step closer to eradicating completely irreplaceable pieces of our natural world.

It's tempting to level all kinds of hatred at the imagined driver of whatever vehicle committed the act... "I'll bet they didn't even slow down" or "I'm sure it was probably some giant, ridiculous SUV" or "They probably don't even care that they hit 'a bird'"... but the reality is, it was almost certainly a horrible accident. And the person whose vehicle hit the eagle probably had no chance of stopping. And they probably feel utterly miserable.

There are just too many of us, and too much of our toys and machinery, to avoid these inevitable erasures.

The Bald Eagle is a few ticks closer to extinction on the evolutionary clock. And it was the saddest news I've heard in a long, long time.

20 July, 2011

Conspiracy Theory #131: MENSA Sarah P

Sarah Palin? Michele Bachmann?

Look at the things they've said... the views they espouse... the massive gaffes, and seemingly shameless manner in which they recover from them. The only possible explanation is that it's all an act. The American people, on average, are of below average intelligence. And people like people who are like them. So if you get up there and act like a world-class moron, people will like you. They feel comfortable. They can relate. And what's even better? When the "liberal elite" start pointing out all the ways in which these folks are wrong, it just makes them look stodgy, intolerant, and overly perfectionist. And that strengthens the bond with these caricatures even further.

So I say: Good job, Sarah. Good job, Michele. You've got everyone fooled.

19 July, 2011

Netflix, Conjoint Analysis, Market Simulation, Voila!

I just took a market research course last week learning about a method called Conjoint Analysis. Basically, it goes like this: Any product or service is comprised of a series of attributes ("features"). Each of these attributes could possess any number of levels ("options"). For example, if you're talking about cars, the attributes might be "brand", "price", "fuel efficiency", "number of doors", "sound system", "type of loan", etc. Each of those attributes has a variety of possibilities... Toyota, Honda, VW... 35mpg, 40mpg, 25mpg... 2 doors, 4 doors, hatchback... and so on. In conjoint analysis, you do a survey where users are presented a series of random combinations of different levels of each attribute, and people pick the best one of each series. If you analyze all the data from a bunch of survey respondents, you will end up having an estimate of the relative importance of all the attributes. For instance, you might find that price is the most important thing for people deciding about what car to buy, followed by brand, and that sound system doesn't really influence their choices much, in comparison.

After you've done a conjoint, you can then do a market simulation. In this process, you can identify a series of hypothetical (or real) products that combine these attributes in specific ways. And you can predict what market share each product would achieve (all other things being equal). For instance, I might determine that a new version of a Toyota Camry that gets 40mpg instead of 30mpg would gain 10% market share over competitors, all else being equal, even though it raises the price of the car by $500 to produce.

So where am I going with all this?

I thought about Netflix recent price hike. And then I thought about the competition. There's really no viable competitor to Netflix right now. A nice article in the Huffington Post summarizes the options. The conclusion is that nothing touches Netflix. And not only does nothing touch Netflix at $9.99/month, nothing touches them at $15.98/month (and probably not even at $19.99/month). If you were to do a conjoint analysis on movie service options, and then consider the market share (and resultant revenue) for a hypothetically more expensive Netflix offering, what you'd undoubtedly find is that a) for modest price increases, there will be no loss of market share, and b) for even sizable price increases, the loss of market share (either to competitors or drop-out) pales in comparison to the increased revenue that results from the elevated pricing.

Tranlation:  Even if Netflix lost a quarter of their customers due to these hikes (which is highly doubtful), they'll still probably increase their revenue by 10-20% (if not more).

If Netflix wants to buy back the karma, the slam dunk would be to increase the availability of titles for their streaming service (which is already pretty good, but could be better). Perhaps even offer specials, such as periodic offerings of newer films on the streaming service (perhaps during off-peak hours), or a pay-as-you-go streaming offer for newer movies (on top of the unlimited basic streaming plan).

Unfortunately, the more likely thing is that they're going to see how this increase flies, and if it does not have significant negative impact, and (big if) the competition doesn't step it up, then I wouldn't be surprised to see yet another rate hike in the 6-12 month time frame. And, in a capitalistic market, why shouldn't they?

Essentially what Netflix has done is to get us addicted to their product, and now start jacking up the cost. Pretty smart marketing for them. And possibly a good time to invest in Netflix, I would think.

03 July, 2011

Guitar Series: 2000 American Series Fender Telecaster

Shortly after I joined the band, it became evident that I was going to be playing almost exclusively Telecasters. That's the way they wanted it, and I was inclined to go along with that wish. The only Telecaster I owned, at that time, was my 1978 (which you can see in another post in this blog). I had some qualms about gigging with that guitar, and even more qualms about touring with it, because its value is substantial (last time I had it appraised, it was about $3500). So I needed a Telecaster that I didn't mind bringing with me everywhere.

During one of my routine "see if there's anything cool today" trips to Trading Musician, I saw this guitar, shown below. Immediately, I was in awe, because it was just about the coolest guitar I had ever seen.

The color was something I'd never seen before, and the finish had an amazing antique-like appearance to it. Immediately, I knew that I had to have this guitar. It would be "the guitar". I played it with the anxiety one plays an instrument when they're looking for validation of a choice, as opposed to objectivity. The guitar *needed* to sound good, because of how it looked. And if it didn't sound good, or play correctly, it would then be a question of how much work would be required to make it right.

Here's the kicker. The price was $350. And it's an American-made (Corona series, I later discovered) instrument. It could easily have gone for much more money, but the store considered it to be devalued because of the odd paint job.











And, as if the finish on the front were not weird enough, if you look at the back of the guitar, it's got strange "artwork" embedded into the finish. It appears that it was the work of a child, actually.

I was able to determine, through searching the web, and subsequent emails, that this guitar belonged to someone in a band named Branta. Hence the "Branta <3 Sea Horses". It was kind of cool to know where it originated.

As soon as the members of the band saw and heard this guitar, it became "The Gold Standard" for Telecasters, as far as they were concerned. In fact, I was pretty much forbidden, under penalty of extensive harassment, from using any other instrument. In fact, our lead guitarist gave this guitar a nickname, "Greengo", a play on the word "Gringo", which ended up sticking. If I ever played a different guitar, the guys would say "Where's Greengo? Why aren't you playing Greengo?!"

On numerous occasions, I was approached after shows, by people from other bands or audience members, who asked me to tell them the details about this guitar. Many inquired as to the vintage, expecting to hear that it was something really old, especially supported by the apparent aged look of the instrument. Of course, all were surprised to know that it is, technically speaking, "nothing special".

Why does it sound so good?

Well, something about the pickups seems to result in a bit more clarity of individual notes than you typically hear with Telecasters. I've played many, and own three now and, when you push the drive levels with pedals or gain, Telecasters tend to get a blending of the notes of a chord. This one does the same, but not nearly as quickly. You can get a pretty biting, hot tone, and still have the distinctiveness. I've played other Corona-made Telecasters from similar vintage, and they are quite similar. So it's something about the model. I contemplated trying to acquire an identical one as a backup, but never did. Lately, it makes less sense, since I'm not performing.

I've done a little bit of work on the guitar, but mostly in the form of advanced setup. I wanted to change the string gauge to 11-52, and in order to do that, I ended up needing to make multiple adjustments; not just the usual truss rod and string height, but also needed to get into neck angle, which was a whole new bag for me. Reading instructions on the internet, I was able to do it without getting into any trouble.

The custom strap shown in the first picture is from Levy's Leathers. They make the coolest straps of anyone, and they have a wide variety.


I've had a few lucky finds, and good purchases through the years. But this one stands out as the biggest bang for any buck I've ever spent on music gear.

08 June, 2011

Lifestyles of the vapid

The airport is a great place to listen to people who are completely full of it, and have nothing to say, but say something anyway.

Right now, as we speak, the guy next to me is relating, over his cell phone, the intimate details about how his rider-mower has been missing spots in his yard. Yep. It's true. When he's riding along, the right side often misses some blades of grass. He's moved onto another topic now, which has something to do with things being very clean, and moving fast, and needing to have the belts changed. I have no idea what the device is that he's discussing.

Earlier, in line for security, a doofy looking man with curly gray hair was having a conversation with a young Asian woman who was clearly his colleague. And she was also clearly under some appendage of his that must resemble a "wing" because he was imparting to her all of his words of wisdom, as she stared blankly at him, and smiled at the appropriate times, while it was evident that she was secretly wishing for a bomb threat. Can I even type "bomb threat" while sitting in an airport terminal? Could they even know? Who knows. Well, here's to finding out. At one point in the conversation, he managed to cram into a single sentence the words "best practice," "task force," "consensus," and "standardization." Seriously. The best part is that he stated "I was appointed to a best-practice task force." When you hear someone using words like that, the only thing that becomes painfully evident is that their work probably consists of nothing of any substance and that, if they happened to be kidnapped and tied up in a cabin in the woods of Vermont for, say, 4 months, there would be absolutely no disruption in the main flow of business in whatever venue he is employed.

I am sure there will be more depressing experiences to relate to you. But, for now, that's all.

Apple iPhone Unsolvable Software Problem - Home Button

So you've got a problem with your iPhone?

Let me guess. Sometimes -- perhaps often -- you find that pressing the "Home" button doesn't exit you from the app you were running. In fact, on a bad day, you might find yourself pressing the "Home" button 20-30 times, every time you try to exit anything.

The standard procedures for handling "glitchy" things like this would include the following: (1) exit all apps running in the background, (2) perform a soft reset, (3) reboot the phone. Unfortunately, when the "Home" button problem is happening (which, turns out, is intermittent, and without an easily identifiable pattern), none of those typical fixes solve the issue.

The more radical procedure, of course (and the one they will typically recommend at the Genius Bar for any weirdness), is to perform a clean restore of the latest operating system, wiping your phone clean. This solves the problem... temporarily. After a few days or maybe weeks if you're lucky, the problem recurs.

For those of you who have come here, and are trying to figure out what's wrong, this is *not* a mechanical problem with the "Home" button itself. It's a software problem where the OS is not responding to the activation of the button. This was confirmed by the people at the Genius Bar.

And that brings me to the Genius Bar... I waited a couple of hours to speak to someone at the Genius Bar last month. What I learned was the following: (1) It is, in fact, a software problem, (2) Apple is, in fact, aware of it, (3) There was not (as of a few weeks ago) any solution, (4) This is a very common problem (the Genius Bar representative said that he, as well as most of his friends, are suffering the same problem), and (5) Apple will be happy to replace my phone, but in all likelihood, the new one will develop the same problem.

He also implied that he had the impression that Apple considers this to be an urgent problem.

So, with that... a few complaints for you folks at Apple.

First, I'm disappointed that there's such a major experience glitch, affecting large numbers of users, out there in the wild. Hard to believe that not enough testing was done to avoid such things.

Second, I'm surprised that Apple did not have a "Get Out Of Jail" approach for reverting back to an operating system on which the problem would not occur (this issue spontaneously started shortly after, I think, the 4.2 iOS (give or take a minor release).

Finally, shame on Apple for not even making a press announcement that they're having issues that are affecting customers. If you call Apple Support, their line is that they have not heard of such a problem. That's in conflict with what was said in the Genius Bar. So Apple clearly has an "official story" that they're sticking to, save for the staff who are going rogue and telling customers the truth.

Needing to press the "Home" button 20-30 times is more than a minor inconvenience. It's absolutely ridiculous. I am walking around with what is arguably one of the most technologically impressive mainstream consumer products ever produced. And it's flawed.

I expect a little more from Apple.

28 May, 2011

Hey! Can I get some bass?

The long process of emerging from a musical funk took a baby step forward today.

For weeks, I've been thinking, vaguely, that I should get my bass back into a condition where it could be played easily. It's a 2000 USA Fender Jazz Bass, and I've barely ever played it because I'm primarily a guitarist. But if you want to do home recording, you need a bass. This one seems to have drifted, through the years, into a state of having very high action. And I can't afford to have any hindrances to my already lacking bass-playing ability. So I've been contemplating learning how to set up a bass guitar. I've done plenty of set ups on regular guitars, including some more bold adjustments such as neck angle. And I've become reasonably comfortable that I can get myself through whatever adjustment is needed; at least on an electric guitar. I don't feel nearly as comfortable with acoustics unless it's just bridge height.

So, after pondering for weeks, I finally got down to it today and, in less than 20 minutes, I've got myself a bass that plays as well as you could possibly want.

This has been a long process, that of emerging from a year-long musical funk. I am still not completely out of it yet, but there's been a gradual shift. For about 9 months, I hardly touched a guitar. Probably didn't even play for an hour in that entire time. For some reason, every time that I did touch a guitar, I felt like nothing that came out of my hands was worth playing. It all felt trite, and pointless. Then, about a month ago, I dropped the tuning on one of my Stratocasters (a mint-green Mexican model, that just happens to play very well) into open-D tuning and, suddenly, the "player's block" seemed to be lifted away. Something about being in a tuning where I have only spent a little time seems to free me from the feelings of triteness (I have always had a dabbling interest, due to guitarists like Keith Richards and Michael Gurley (of dada), each of whom have used a little bit of this tuning -- though, as you surely know, Keith is much more of an open-G player). It's like forcing your brain to get out of the automatic patterns because even just playing a simple 1-4-5 progressing is, not difficult, but different than what you always do. Eventually, you discover that new patterns make more sense in the different tuning. And that new rhythms reveal themselves when you're in fresh snow.

So these have been two steps in the reemergence. First, playing again. Second, getting the gear ready.

I can't say what will come of it, but I feel like the one certainty is that it has to come from the fresh snow.

28 April, 2011

Kill your facebook

Today marks the end of the social networking experiment for me. Not that it was ever an experiment. It was just a huge time sink, into which I could dump countless hours of each day, with nothing to show for it. I don't think I could even estimate how much mental bandwidth I have actually spent there, because it doesn't often come in giant blocks. It's something that I would go to over and over, obsessively. And part of the reason that it has become so viral in my life was not just because of the main showroom that is my "wall," but because of other things that may not look like facebook, but actually are.

Examples: Scrabble, Bejeweled Blitz.

Who knows what other thing will occupy my mind, my check-out time, my available space. I really don't know. But it's not going to be the social network. I've heard of others getting out, and it has always sounded interesting and compelling to me. But then I think about what I'm going to miss. I think about the posts I won't be able to make, or the photos I won't be able to view at leisure. And then I go to the next level of absurdity, and think about my Scrabble rating! My Scrabble rating! Yes. As if that is a real "thing." And I know it's a bit hypocritical for me to talk about how it may not be a real thing, when only yesterday, I was pointing out how I didn't want to play nice with one of my opponents, because I didn't want to risk hurting my rating.

But that's just the point. My level of dissociation from reality has gone to the point that I buy my own lies.

There are many reasons why I shut it down. And I don't feel compelled to share them all here. One thing that does bother me is that facebook, which is honestly nobody I trust (the entity that is facebook, I mean), has the rights to my entire personal life. They know everything about me. It's all in their database. I told them everything. And then I spilled it all via emails, and wall posts, to people I know, and people I barely know. My inappropriate asides, through the years, are also probably captured in some fragment of the many billions of petabytes of data that facebook is sitting on.

I don't delude myself for one second that shutting down my account makes any of that go away. It's there. The damage is done. Facebook has the rights to my story. I clicked some checkbox somewhere that said it was okay for them to do whatever they wanted with the information. And why? Why do we check the checkbox? Because we want to see a cool feature, or see the results from some inane quiz that we took. Our momentary curiosity is our justification for signing it all away.

So, then, what good does it do for me to delete my account, if it's all out there already?

I don't know that it does any good for the integrity of my private factbook (not a typo). But it creates space in my present life to do things that are not plugged in to the Borg network. I don't know yet what I'll do with the time that I don't play Scrabble. I may write in here, and other places more. I may work more. I may listen to more podcasts, which I've recently taken a great liking to. I may play more music. I may sit and stare at nothing.

Who knows.

But I only know that I won't be contributing to the database.

24 April, 2011

Blogger with lost voice

Lately, I've been suffering from a feeling that nothing I could write is worth saying.

I recognize fully that this is not the first thing I want someone to see when they happen upon this blog, because it is not going to do much good for my readership. Perhaps this will be my way of boxing myself into writing more entries, to push this down the page, replacing it with insightful pithy observations about the world.

It's strange, because there are have been times in my life where I have not been writing, because I've been down, and have not felt like expressing myself. That hasn't been the case lately. If anything, life has been going very well. But it seems like the creative voice in me is muffled, or perhaps being smothered under a big fluffy pillow called "Life." And I have mixed feelings about what that means in the long run. Would I forever trade my creative self for a happy self? I'm conflicted.

In the last year, I've started three other blogs. Each of them came with the expectation that it was a new, "special" project. One that had a cause. One that I would diligently update. Because there was a cause, and there would be a readership. Great ideas, one and all. But I didn't stick with them. They're also sitting there, languishing. So now I feel like I've got four creative endeavors, instead of only one. All of them in stagnation.

Clearly the problem right now is an inner-critic problem. I've written entries that I've deleted or saved without posting. I've had ideas that later get dismissed as "not worthy."

I don't know whether to push forward with some "Blog-A-Day" rule for myself, hoping that sheer brute force will get me through this colossal writer's block. Or if I should accept that I'm not there right now, and wait. Because I don't want to write shitty blogs.

Something tells me I need to not worry about whether they're good or not. Just write.

Starting now.

Smash the guitars

It has been almost 10 months since the last time I stepped on a stage.

And in the time that has passed since, I've probably held a guitar in my hands for fewer total minutes than I did during just that last show alone, which happened to be a Marathon two-hour set on the back of a flatbed truck, in my final show with my former band.

What's happened to me musically in the aftermath could best be described as similar to when someone goes through a really bad breakup (though, oddly, I tend to recover/rebound from those quite readily). I have pretty much stopped feeling like a musician. And I am not sure I'll ever be again, if for no other reason than the psychological obstacles I've created for myself.

I had a good situation in my former band. It was essentially the fulfillment of my musical dreams. I couldn't have dreamed of doing more, because it would have been pipe dreams. But after doing it for two years, I have come to realize in retrospect, my commitment to the effort waned. In fact, it would be fairer to say that the commitment gradually eroded over the course of the second year, and culminated with my being let go after violating just about every rule you don't violate if you're trying to make people feel that you're part of the team.

I stopped hanging out with the guys after practices.
I stopped riding to shows in the van, instead driving separately.
I invited others (girlfriends) into the private circle of the band, at the expense of having band bonding time.
I stopped hanging out at the shows, opting to isolate myself and occupy my time until or after we played.
I was reluctant to take vacation time to travel with the band.
When I did travel with the band, I would often travel separately, meeting up with them, causing inconvenience.
I was routinely late for rehearsal.
I waffled on my commitments to the band, when those things were in competition with other commitments, such as relationships or work.

I left my bandmates to drive themselves home, intoxicated, when I was sober.

That last one hurts the most. And I am not even sure if I got "dinged" for it directly. I'm not sure that it was even one of the reasons for my dismissal. But when I did it (it was a show in Tacoma and I'd driven separately), I knew that it was the wrong thing to do. It felt like I was abandoning them. And I rationalized to myself that it wasn't my responsibility to drive them home because they didn't stay sober. But the fact is, it was my responsibility. Because I was a member of the band. Leaving, in a sense, meant that I was *not* a member of the band. That was maybe a week before the whole thing came to an end.

I really don't think anybody was keeping score on all of these things. In hindsight, I've had a lot of hours and months to add up this score, and realize my accountability for crafting the outcome which resulted. But I think the reason that things went as they did is because I just didn't have the desire to be as committed as one needs to be, to be in a band that's trying to get stuff done. In the end, I was "phoning it in." And I didn't even realize it, because I was more absorbed in the other things in my life. I did, however, know that phone-ins were one of the things that were least respected and least tolerated by the The-Band-Powers-That-Be, and rightfully so.

So now, I'm living my life, minus music. I own some fifteen guitars, and hardly play any of them. I've pretty much decided that I don't want to go back to playing in a band again, because I've been there, done that, and literally, got the t-shirt. Though, the largest reason why I don't see myself going back to it is that, once you've had a really good opportunity, such as the one I had, it would be hard to go back to some crappy bottom-tier band that would be lucky to get a show at the Blue Moon.

So the alternate plan was to try to pursue working on my own music. That's an avenue that has been barely traveled in my life, having only written a handful of songs, and a few dozen partially-completed ideas. It seems unlikely (though that's the problem with negative thinking) that I'll suddenly become prolific. Nonetheless, I decided to get myself set up for doing home recording, and purchased some reasonably-priced recording software. And then, did nothing with it. Will I ever? I don't know.

Part of me would rather just work on fun recording projects, without worrying much about writing songs. But then my inner critic gets going and tends to shut that down as well. All that leaves me sitting here on a Sunday afternoon, feeling like I should just sell all the gear. And the main reason I don't is because I'm sure I'd regret it, I don't need the money and, honestly, I just really like these guitars.

16 February, 2011

No charges in woodcarver slaying: Seattle Police above the law

It's not really surprising at all, yet it still sickens me that, once again, an innocent person is not only apprehended, but shot and killed, by a police officer. And there will be no criminal charges for the assailant. The entire case has been one long charade of ignoring the obvious: a man was killed pretty much for being homeless. Because, in this city, it's a crime to be homeless.

The notion that Ian Birk, a 27 year old police officer, with a gun, in broad daylight, in a public place, "feared for his life" is just ludicrous. He made the choice to approach the victim. He could have chosen to keep a safe distance if "fear" was the emotion he was experiencing. If an elderly homeless man carving wood causes Ian Birk "fear" then perhaps he was in the wrong profession all along. Perhaps he should work at Starbucks. Although they do have hot liquids there, so maybe that would be a bit frightening as well. Maybe at a yarn store. Though, if an elderly woman came in with knitting needles, there's no telling what he would do.

I don't mean to make light of this in any way. I just find it disgusting when our legal system allows the trees to obscure the forest. Ian Birk was unhinged and gun-happy. He shot the woodcarver because somewhere in his mind, he knew he could get away with it. And the fact that he had the audacity to do it in front of witnesses only demonstrates that the Seattle Police suffer from a severe deficit in the area of screening the mental health of their officers. If, on the contrary, our city has an unspoken goal of removing certain individuals or types of individuals from our society, that's a different story altogether.

I don't have a whole lot more to say about it, beyond what others have said. I'm just putting my vote of no confidence in our law enforcement and legal system out there for the eyes and ears of whoever happens to be performing a Google search on this sad story.

15 January, 2011

Asinine violation of rights: Tacoma student sent home for wearing Steelers' shirt?

Not sure if you heard about it, because it wasn't exactly national news. But in Tacoma, yesterday, a middle-school student was sent home from school for wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers' uniform shirt, on a day where students were permitted to wear their Seahawks' shirts. This was at a school where there is typically a standard dress code. For the purpose of "Seahawks' Spirit" there was an exception to this dress code.

Apparently, only Seahawks' colors were permitted.

I feel that this is a violation of this child's rights. First of all, Tacoma is not even part of Seattle, so technically the school was permitting their dress code to be broken, already, for a purpose that was unrelated to school- or city-spirit. For this student to act on his wish to show his spirit for the Pittsburgh Steelers seems completely within the realm of acceptable expression. It's especially innocuous because the Steelers were not even opposing the Seahawks, so this should not have been considered inflammatory by anyone (not that this should make any difference).

There are so many things that are important, and should be enforced in schools. And seriously, this was not one of them. It was a petty act on the part of the school administration, and the message it sends to youths is that authority is all about petty demonstrations of power.

Shame.

14 January, 2011

Windows Phone 7 supporters more fanatic than iPhone supporters

Over the years, I have posted many blog entries flaming the iPhone for its various shortcomings and annoyances. The manner in which I did it was informal, crass, and impulsive. Often, after making those posts, I would later realize that I was just in a bad mood that day, and taking out my frustrations on an inanimate object. But never once did my posts about the iPhone lead to anonymous verbal assaults for my expressing opinions on here.

A few weeks ago, I decided to post a blog entry about the new Windows Phone 7. My intent was not to be inflammatory, and it was not done out of knee-jerk reaction. Actually, it was a "formal" review of my experience with the Samsung Focus. The intent of the blog was to share my experiences with others online. And part of the reason for this was because I felt that the handful of posts that were already out there on the web were completely inconsistent with the experience I was having, slanted heavily toward the "cheerleader" angle. In fact, most of what I read felt like it was written by people who had an agenda. So, I was merely trying to give a different perspective.

The result?

I've received hate mail. Some of which I've published as comments, and some of which I have omitted. People have told me that I should just not post such things like that anymore (apparently, they feel that expressing one's opinion online is something that only some people should be allowed to do). I've also received messages directly attacking me as a person. That's entertaining and, of course, says far more about the mindset of the people posting than it does about me.

I'm not sure when it became unacceptable to dislike something, and let others know about it. Would it be better if we went to sites like Yelp! and saw nothing but positive reviews of restaurants? Would it be useful if we went to Amazon.com and saw every product rated with a 5-star rating? It's true that sometimes people's reviews are colored by bias, and sometimes reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt. But it's the reader's right to decide which are which.

07 January, 2011

Tax savings = Lost revenue (or is that not obvious to you)

Have a look at this website. It's one of Tim Eyman's "things."

At the bottom of the page, they spout off with great pride how they've saved Washington taxpayers over $15 billion with the three initiatives that they've passed (I-695, the $30 tabs; I-747, the 1% property tax cap; and I-776, also related to tab fees). Sounds great, huh? We've got $15 billion more in our pockets that we can use to buy shit that we don't need. You'd think that this would be good for everyone, right? Saves us all money, right? Well, the property tax initiative doesn't help anyone who doesn't own property. And the tab fee initiative saves more money for people who drive more expensive cars (who, ironically, would not be impacted in the least by the higher tab fees - if you can afford to drive a goddamn Escalade, you can pay $500 a year to keep it on the road, if nothing else than as a punishment for such an environmentally unfriendly choice). But no. That would be unfair, right? People (even rich ones) should not be penalized for the choices they make, right? Why should they carry a higher burden?

So now, over the last 8-10 years, what it all means is that we've had $15 billion less in revenue that could have been used for getting things done in this state that we can't afford to get done. I wonder how many services were cut? Aid to homeless? Elderly? Health care? Education? Road maintenance? I wonder how much you could do with $15 billion dollars?

But we should be thankful, because Tim Eyman and company gave it back to the taxpayers.

Thank you, Tim.

Legislative accountability? Or getting things right? Which is more important?

Tim Eyman (along with a couple of independent groups) is going to fight the tolls being imposed on SR-520. The grounds for the battle are that the recently passed Initiative 1053 dictates that any new "fees" be voted on by the legislature. The proposed toll, Eyman argues, is a fee (I'd prefer to call it a "tax" but we're splitting hairs). Therefore, the Transportation Commission should not have the power to impose the toll on their own.

It's an interesting quandary, actually. For starters, I am not a fan of Tim Eyman. I don't understand why he's so popular, except for the fact that he repeatedly promises people they'll pay less if they support his initiatives and, since people are inherently selfish, they find his ideas appealing. I also am not entirely sure why he bounced back so gloriously from the illegal activities he engaged in previously (diverting money to himself from funds raised). But there you have it with Eyman.

The thing that is interesting to me is that I see his point here. Why should taxes be imposed with no vote? There are a few reasons for this: (1) The will of the people is not considered (I'll come back to that one), and (2) Our legislature gets to skip-out on accountability for such taxes.

The second item above is the one that bothers me. The legislators obviously know that to fund the SR-520 project, we either need to raise taxes (somewhere, e.g. toll imposition) or cut elsewhere in the budget (I don't think state governments have the same luxury of running massive deficits like the federal government does). The legislators who would oppose the toll would anger people whose services are ultimately cut. Conversely, the legislators who favor the toll would anger people who don't want to pay a toll. One can argue that they should at least have to take a stance, and not think purely about their next election bid.

The first item... well, that's one over which we can have a philosophical argument from now until the end of time. The question really is: Should we honor the will of the people, regardless of whether people know what's best for them or not? I'm not calling the average voter stupid. But I do think the average voter (often, myself included) thinks short-term and in their own self-interest. The beauty of democracy is that the will of the people is upheld. But the seedy underbelly of democracy is also just that: the will of the people is upheld.

People would call me socialistic, if I assert that it's better for a Commission to decide what must be done, for the good of all. But perhaps that's what is needed. At the federal level, the will of the people is required in every budget decision (with the exception of certain military appropriations, in case of emergency). However, some decisions are handled by the courts. A commission, is not unlike a court, but it's operating around a territory that overlaps with legislative areas. That's not that much different from the way that ballot initiatives are now overlapping with decisions that would typically be made by the courts (i.e. gay marriage, assisted suicide, etc.). We do not run our government in absolutes division of responsibility. There is crosstalk between branches. I'm not exactly sure what branch of the "government" the Transportation Commission belongs to? I am guessing it's probably Executive? Or is it not even part of the government? I'm out of my depth here.

The right thing to do here, given the situation we have, is to impose the toll. As I said below, I'd rather see the toll go on I-90 and SR-520, or for them to at least act quickly to toll I-90 if it clearly becomes a traffic nightmare. But it does bother me a little bit that our legislature doesn't have any accountability in this decision (as of yet).

Of course, if you want to know what I think would have really been the right thing to do, it would have been the damn income tax. Given that Washington has the single most regressive tax policy in the entire country (yet we're supposedly a liberal state), I think it should have been a no-brainer. And it should definitely have not appeared as a ballot initiative, for the reasons I mentioned above.

I guess we're back to me sounding like a socialist again.

06 January, 2011

Tim Eyman may actually be right this time

For the most part, I have considered Eyman to be a villain. An enemy of infrastructure, who seeks to work every angle to make sure that the state is strangled for funds. That's been my general attitude. But, on one particular topic, I think he may be correct.

The proposed tolls for SR-520 were to be imposed by the Transportation Commission. These are not elected officials. They are appointed officials. Given that a toll is a type of fee, the recent initiative (1053, penned by Eyman) would require that the legislature vote on all fee increases. He's now arguing, therefore, that the toll must be approved by the legislature. And he's probably going to be successful in making sure that it does go to a vote. Unfortunately, political pressure on members of the legislature will make it very unpopular for them to vote in favor of the toll. If the toll is rejected, then there will be a shortfall of funding in the state. How will they make up the gap? Probably, they'll have to make cuts in the budget, unless they run a deficit (which I'm not even sure the state is allowed to do, right?).

So, this would be bad, right? We need that toll! Or else we can't balance the budget and get the necessary projects completed.

True. But I think that what Eyman's initiative does is to force the members of the legislature to take a stance on what they support or do not support. They'd all be happy to sit "Mum" while the Commission imposes the tax, because then nobody's hands are dirty with making people pay more.

But wait! There's more... Seattle building largest tunnel ever!

If there's one thing you can be sure of, it's that any major project that the City of Seattle attempts to launch will experience all of the following: (1) It will encounter major efforts, via ballot initiatives, to block it from happening, (2) It will cost far more than estimated, and (3) It will likely create a massive disaster, and not turn out as planned.

The latest? The Alaskan Way Viaduct which, in truth, could crumble at the slightest shaking of the soft earth on which it resides, is going to be replaced. Rather than replace it with something that sounds conservative, such as, perhaps, another elevated roadway adjacent to the current one, they're going to dig under the ground. They're going to make the largest tunnel ever built. Fifty-seven feet in diameter. Everyone has always talked about how Seattle has the problem of most of downtown being built on landfill. But I guess they've got that all figured out. Actually, it doesn't really matter if they've got it figured out or not. Because, if shit goes wrong, they'll just keep paying the contractor, and the bill will go to the taxpayer.

I'm not opposed to infrastructure improvements. In fact, I am all for them. But I'm opposed to the obvious idiotic approach that this state seems to take, regarding all attempted improvements. They don't want to do small things to make our system better. They want to do big things. And they don't care if they do them well. They just need to be big. I suppose I should be grateful that, after living here 10 years, during which time there was nary an improvement to infrastructure, except for the start of the light rail system (which is a good thing, but it's too little, too late), they're finally taking on big projects. But what's it going to look like for the next five years while all this is happening? We're already looking at one diversion disaster with 520 traffic jumping over to 90. And one can imagine that there will be an overlapping period where 99 traffic will be jumping over to 5 (especially since, if you read the fine print, they're going to put a toll on the new 99 tunnel). The other thing that doesn't make much sense to me about this project is that they want to increase volume on this stretch of road, compared to the viaduct. But I don't see what good that will do, when you've got cramped two-lane roadways north and south of the viaduct, with odd exit-ramp setups. It's like replacing one section in a chain of Crazy Straws with a toilet paper roll, and thinking you can drink faster.

Anyway.

I know this is a rambling blog entry. And I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. And you can't have it both ways. And I suppose it's better late than never. I'd just like to think that if someone moves to Seattle in 2017, and looks at the transit system: a new 520 bridge, a new 99, a light rail system that runs from North Seattle all the way to the Airport, perhaps they'll think "This is a city that got its act together."

We'll see.