Once upon a time the place to buy PC hardware was Newegg. Their selection was great, their prices were good, their shipping speed was good, and their community was fantastic. But my last few experiences have soured me on them.
A few weeks ago I bought a new SSD hard drive from Newegg. They had it for a good price. It happened to come with a free Assassin's Creed game; I did not care about the game and have no intention of ever playing it (I haven't liked the previous Assassin's Creed games). Instead of getting one invoice for the purchase (I only clicked a buy button once, so I expected only one invoice) I got two. Once invoice was for the game and showed me paying full price for it ($59.99). The other invoice was for the SSD and it had a $59.99 discount on it. I call shenanigans! Clearly Newegg is helping Ubisoft (the makers of Assassin's Creed) boost their software sales numbers by making it seem like more people wanted and paid full price for the game than they did. That seems pretty shady, though certainly not unheard of. What I'm more offended by is that their implementation of the scam means I get twice the emails related to a purchase as I would receive and have to spend a couple of minutes figuring out what is going on (e.g., "Why did I just get charged for a game I was told is free?").
And just today I made a purchase with Newegg for a build-your-own gaming computer only to have my one order divided after purchase into four separate invoices, each charged separately, with three emails to confirm my purchase, three emails to tell me I've been charged, three emails from PayPal telling me I was charged, three tracking/shipping/download emails, and another three emails related to the sale (a free game coupon from Newegg as part of it, a Google Trusted Store confirmation email, and something else). I got fifteen emails within ten hours as a result of placing a single order. And they have engaged in more shenanigans by they giving me a free game but then insisting on charging me $0.99 on an additional invoice only to then deduct that $0.99 from a separate invoice. Because of how they've split the orders up, performed their freebie shenanigans, applied coupons, etc. it's needlessly complicated to know if I've been properly charged and what I actually bought. I'm sure Newegg has technical, financial, and logistics reasons for doing what they are doing, but it's onerous and absurd, something I would have expected in 1999, not 2015. I can't think of any Amazon or other purchase experience which has been this convoluted.
Recently I was waiting for files to be migrated to a new hard drive and couldn't escape a sense of ennui. Buying a new computer or upgrading an old one just doesn't induce the same excitement it once did, what was once fun now feels largely tedious. Curious about the nature of the problem, the reason for the shift in my perception, I began to jot down a list of the computers I've owned. And within a few minutes I had compiled a list of just over 30 computers... These were my personal, daily-use computers; I didn't include in that count any servers, computers I bought for others, etc. And this number also didn't include personal devices, which can require equal amounts of fuss and bother (between smartphones, tablets, and Android sticks I'm sure there have been at least 15).
No wonder I sometimes feel bored with it all, tired of migrating, fixing, backing up, restoring, worrying about...
Still, it was fun to remember some of the good old days, and some of the more exotic computers. From my earliest days on my Vic-20 and tape drives, up through the Commodore 64, 64c, and 128 and 5 1/4" floppy disks, the Tandy PC-6 (a pocket computer), then into the Amiga 2000 and it's 3.5" drive and ultimately 20 MB hard drive, then through the Amiga's Bridgeboard into the world of IBM clones, to an early Sager laptop, a custom machine I built to be rackmounted in an SKB music case, the brilliantly small Toshiba Libretto, a fantastic custom lunchbox computer, the Sharp Zaurus, the OQO Model 02, and on... I wonder what it would take for a new computer to blow me away as so many of the aforementioned did. I wonder if it's even possible, computers don't seem to make leaps and bounds as they once did, they are now just a pleasantly dull churn of improvements.
Some minor moments in life stun you. Today I learned that the moon looks upside down in the southern hemisphere. Having lived in Buenos Aires for almost a year I am embarrassed that I either never noticed or just forgot.
I assumed I would love modern "flat track" roller derby. I was vaguely aware of its previous incarnation (of the 1940s through 1970s) and it seemed pretty exciting. When I heard it was back and that it had come back led by women and free any ugly sexism, that was supposed to have been a part of it before, I thought, "Great!" A few years ago when I was in Los Angeles some friends were going and I had planned to go along, but at the last minute I couldn't. Without any roller derby near me, and without any friends who go, it just slipped from my attention. And then the other night as a tangent to searching for roller skating videos on YouTube (after watching the so-bad-it's-good Roller Boogie movie) I clicked over to see just what a modern roller derby match looked like.
Ugh. It was awful. I had no idea what the rules were. I tried figuring it out by watching, but it made little sense. And it was just quite possibly the most boring sport I've ever tried to watch (arguably worse than curling, snooker, and sheep herding). Any strategy or logic in flat track roller derby seemed so subtle as to be irrelevant, and despite little of interest seeming to happen the score incomprehensibly climbed faster than any sport I have ever seen (almost 2 points/minute).
Here's what I observed (my impressions before subsequently reading the rules)...
A person or two standing like they were at a starting line. A few clumps of people in front of them, one clump five feet or so ahead, another clump ten feet or so ahead. And then the single people run at the group of people, get caught up, and very likely get pushed out of bounds, at which point they go back to where they started. And this just repeats itself ad infinitum. Occasionally the single people do get past a clump of people, but instead of zooming super fast away or this being the start of something dramatic, the person goes just a few feet and then slows down and returns to the starting line. Whoopie?
The biggest thing I don't understand about modern flat track roller derby is, they've gotten rid of speed, they've gotten rid of a feeling of motion and dynamism, so why have they bothered to keep the players on roller skates? It feels unnecessary and forced. If the argument is that skates make the game harder, well, sure, but why not just play on a slippery surface or wear slippery socks? Roller skates are made to allow people to go fast, to be graceful, to be able to go big distances. The old roller derby clearly understood the purpose of roller skates. But this modern flat track derby requires none of these roller skate features.
I ended up glancing at the rules of scoring, and learned that all points are earned by a team's designated "jammer" passing members of the opposing team (not including their jammer); and both jammers I gather are active on the track at the same time.
And so I wondered, what happened? Why was I expecting this to be exciting? Had I misunderstood what roller derby used to be? I clicked on a YouTube video of a 1950 New Jersey vs. Philadelphia roller derby match (separate male and female matches) and wow, it was as I thought, that game made sense, that game was much more fun to watch, stuff actually happened! The people were constantly in motion circling the track, which is somewhat enjoyable to watch in and of itself, and because everyone is already at speed they can then do a great many interesting things to try to move the jammer forward, like one or more people sacrificing their own speed/energy to propel their jammer forward, by whipping them forward with their arms. Also because they were at speed and the track is banked people can quickly fly to the inside or outside of the track to try and get by, akin to auto racing. And because there was an outside railing the jammers are not constantly going out of bounds every two seconds and needing to restart.
I assume that the primary reason the sport has become so insufferably boring is because of the elimination of the banked track. Moved out of the velodrome, speed is severely limited. At speed the centrifugal force would fling anyone not paying attention out of bounds. With a flat track you could not have people smoothly loop the track because every turn would be a chaotic mess. No doubt they moved the sport out of the velodrome because velodromes are hard to find, and they were able to broaden the sport as a result. But, having gotten rid of the banked track they had to get rid of the constant circling motion of the teams, and having gotten rid of that, well, everyone is mostly just standing around in slippery shoes. Maybe some rule changes could have compensated, made the sport still interesting, but I don't know.
I'm in a miserably hypocritical state these days. Fall has come, mice have invaded my home and my car, and I have had to commit myself to their destruction. As someone who has spent 25 years not eating meat and tens of thousands of dollars keeping animals I love alive through veterinary care, I now feel like one of the evilest people alive having to kill mice, who under other circumstances I would find utterly adorable and worthy of my protection. But I feel I have run out of options.
I spent countless hours a few years ago trying to mouse proof my house, digging a trench around the base of the house and burying aluminum flashing a foot deep and sticking up a foot to prevent their entry. I found other holes inside the home and sealed them with copper mesh and expanding foam. I have spent something like $500 on mouse deterring sonic devices. I spent another $100-200 for mouse deterring sprays, powders, and granules. None of my actions have ever kept them away, they have remained a recurring presence. And so with reluctance I have had to turn to far more severe measures: killing them in traps.
Killing them does not come easy. For many years I trapped and released mice using Havahart traps, but with the rise of the hantavirus that no longer seems like a wise or viable solution. The mice in my house are deer mice, and statistically 14% carry a very deadly Sin Nombre hantavirus; 36% of people who catch the hantavirus and show symptoms die within 5 weeks of exposure. All it takes to catch the virus is inhaling the aerosolized vapors from recent mouse urine or feces (recent being within one week). And mice produce a neverending supply of urine and droppings. You can simply walk into a room where a mouse has defecated within the last week and in five weeks you are dead; since this happens all the time and people do not die, clearly there are other factors reducing the odds, but the fact remains that is all it takes. Given that the risk of infection is so serious you are supposed to wear a P100 mask, goggles, gloves, and booties to be in the presence of these mice or their feces I do not see how one could safely transport and release the mice. If you have ever live caught mice you know that: the traps are not air tight (they need to breath), they defecate and urinate quite a lot once caught (out of fear or frustration), and you cannot release them in your own back yard (they will simply return to your house). As such, trying to live trap and release deer mice seems like a recipe for hantavirus infection. Killing seems required.
As for my mouse killing protocol, I have tried to make it as "fair" as possible, erecting the equivalent of warning signs at mouse height. Much like an East German border crossing of the 1960s, I do my best to scare the mice off before I demonstrate my uncompassionate, sadistic willingness to kill them. Each killing trap is placed within the presence of one or more deterrent products meant to warn him off. The mouse must ignore the ultrasonic sirens blaring only feet away and the almighty stench of the aromatic oils they are clinically proven to hate. Only after ignoring those do they reach the trap and die.
I keep trying to comfort myself with the knowledge that life is hypocrisy. Despite my avoiding meat and catching and releasing the odd bug, I accept that I am directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds or thousands of animals, insects, and other living creatures a year. I walk to get the mail and must crush bugs under foot without a thought. I drive down the road and dead insects cake themselves on the windshield. I eat carrots fresh from fields where no doubt tractors made roadkill of moles. Simply being alive requires the direct and indirect killing of teeming masses of other creatures; there's just no way around it. So, maybe I should face those realities and feel no special qualms about my direct involvement here... But it is not easy, it haunts me, grieves me. When I see their lifeless body I see my dog, I remember my hamster, I connect with my feeling cold when camping and just wanting to find a shelter. I wish them no harm, and yet I bring them death. And I say I grieve for them, and I do, but clearly not enough to not set the next trap; I feel like a monster. And I suppose that is good on some level, to feel so horrible. Blithely accepting the killing of those we can relate to has led to countless historical atrocities. I take slight comfort that I am not likely to be the next Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.
In perceived defense of my life, I kill. No activity is more fundamental to our natures than that, I suppose. What a pity that it comes to that.
I saw a bizarre and somewhat disturbing product advertised today, the VibeRider Motorcycle Seat Vibrator. It is a vibration device meant for sexual pleasure that one can install discreetly in the rear seat of a motorcycle. The device varies its vibration in concert with the bikes RPM, as well as inputs the driver makes to a control box.
I'm sure the vast majority of people who buy this device are right minded souls who will only use this with their informed and consenting partners. But as I read comments from potential purchasers on a few different sites I realized that this device could be used to diabolically, insidiously sexually abuse a lot of women. Someone with this device could invite a non-partner to get on the back of the bike and could then subject the passenger to vibrations which the passenger may not even know were being generated for their non-consenting sexual pleasure, rather than simply vibrations caused by the bike as part of its normal operations. And that makes this product potentially scary, and somewhat unique in the danger it poses.
Someone walking up to a non-partner and without consent putting a vibrator against the other person's genitals would pretty roundly be recognized as sexual assault. But I can imagine many people claiming not to understand that this is the same thing. Maybe the offender would claim "It was just a joke." or "But the bike is already vibrating, what's the difference?" And well, there's a quite profound difference: intent.
As horrible as the terrorist events on 9/11 were, the worst thing that happened on that day we did to ourselves. We forgot the truth within the 18th century quote (variously expressed, and variously attributed to Jefferson and Franklin amongst others):
Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
How can anyone argue the truth of that statement? How can anyone argue that we did not betray that guiding principle?
We let the Patriot Act happen, we let the NSA and other clandestine agencies run wild, we began a forever war, creating new enemies perhaps more quickly than we can kill the old ones. Will freedoms lost ever be restored? Surely not. Technology has only made it easier to violate our freedoms and harder to detect when they are violated.
Most confounding to me is that many of those seemingly most comfortable with this situation, with the violation of the above seemingly inarguable (to me) truth, are the same people who are the most unyielding when it comes to any suggested restriction of gun ownership. How can one be unwilling to have any government involvement in weapons ownership/transfer for fear of encouraging tyranny or loss of God and Constitution given freedoms, and yet permit/accept the same government should be able to observe our phone and online activity? It seems like wild hypocrisy to me, but maybe I'm not understanding some nuances involved in the argument; or maybe for those individuals it's really not so much about a love of freedom so much as it is a love of the gun (and its use).
Ah well, another sad 9/11, for so many reasons.
(Racism comes in so many varied and often subtle forms that it complicates talking about it; you need to be pretty specific about just what element/manifestation of racism you're talking about. In this case I'll discuss one of the uglier and most visible kinds.)
To my mind the worst form of racism is the belief that one race is superior to another and that the superior race should take action (legal, social, religious, etc.) against the inferior race as a result of that conviction. Examples are legion, and included nations as well as social/political organizations (South Africa (during Apartheid), Germany (during the Nazi reign), U.S.A. (during antebellum and Jim Crow), as well as the KKK, neonazis, etc.)
What boggles my mind is the idiocy and dishonesty of their position.
When I was 14 I was at a small summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina. Everyone working at the camp and everyone attending the camp was lily white; no one of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent. Almost everyone at the summer camp was from the surrounding Southern states. Racism was rampant but fortunately ugly comments rarely came up since there was not but a pale face to be seen or insulted. But I remember this one time the topic came up, and this one boy, whose name was the name of a kind of monkey, suddenly announced, "I am smarter than any black person on the face of the Earth." What made this seem instantly laughable, distracting me temporarily from the horrendous and vulgar racism, was that he was truly one of the stupidest people (of any genetic background) I'd ever encountered; he was almost sitcom human stupid or perhaps penniless Trump stupid. But he was serious, horribly serious, and I feared and felt for anyone of any non-white hue who might ever cross his path. Several of us there argued with him, tried to point out the ridiculousness of his statement, but he was having none of it. He was so unaware of his own place in the universe that one could hardly hope to convince him of anyone else's place within it. I was still young, but I had certainly come across quite a few people, made from all sorts of different genes, who I knew or strongly suspected were vastly smarter than I was. How could this idiot imagine he was smarter than ~1 billion or so (depending on what you count) people he'd never met? That is idiotic and worse deeply dishonest, as he lived in a major city in the South, and surely had encountered many black people who were infinitely smarter than he was, and he simply chose not to notice or believe it.
But it is not hard to imagine why he (and others) seem to need to believe such an absurd position, need to believe that they are better than an entire race, because things get rather confusing for them if they don't. The wildly racist often profess strong values, and no doubt most try to live in accordance with them. And many of their values involve a love of freedom, family, righteousness, justice, etc. So to avoid a deep and disturbing sense of hypocrisy they must write off the members of the group against which they stand. If all blacks people are inferior to white people then they can see a logic in allowing them fewer rights, deeming them unworthy of a full and equal position in the world, and any white actions taken against blacks are reasonable in defense of white interests. If these racists allow that some percentage of black people are actually their (individual) superior (across many facets of being, including intellectually), then what are those racists going to feel? I think some parts of their brain would cry foul, detect their hypocrisy, detect their injustice, and threaten their ordered world view. And so it is only a stable and comfortable position if every white man is inherently superior to every single black man (a position requiring ample employ of idiocy and dishonesty).
I keep wondering if that particular camper ever wised up. I hope he has.
Cults have always fascinated me. It is only natural as several relatives of mine have been members of organizations which most people, myself included, would consider cults. Of course these relatives don't believe their groups are cults, no cult member ever does.
The other day I had occasion to think about cults and it struck me that cults are really just magic shows on a grander stage, and with far more and lingering audience participation. Everyone who joins a cult joins to see "magic" worked in their lives. They can no longer wait for or no longer trust the more traditional routes to their better selves. And so they seek out or end up at the doorstep of any of thousands of cults, religious or corporate, ready to be deconstructed and reconstructed. And if they give the group their money, their time, their compliance, and often a bit of voluntary servitude, they just might become the people they imagined was lying beneath all the accumulated baggage from their many pre-enlightened lost years on this good earth.
But the magical analogy goes further, I think. Because a magician's show is built as a collection of tricks. And the tricks themselves are clever combinations of many discrete techniques chained together (e.g., the "force", the "dual reality"). These individual elements form the well used language of magicians. Each element might come in many variations, but at their core are the same trick. Most magicians go to great lengths to make their shows feel new, fresh, exciting, draw in new paying audiences, but the reality is, there is little new in magic. The presentation has been improved, the patter upgraded, but the fundamental building blocks and end result of the tricks remain the same. And so, too, with the cult leaders, the gurus, and their groups. For hundreds of years (at least) the new guru has relied mostly on repackaging the old guru's teachings and presenting them in language and formats more palatable to each more enlightened generation. The Eastern-heavy new age movements of the 1970s become the more sophisticated Western, corporate awareness training. But what's different about them really?
Cult leaders manipulate experiences, emotional states, and outcomes using a clever combination of discrete (primarily psychological) elements. For example, they might use "breaking", wherein members or staff within the group are encouraged/led to confront and challenge another participant in the group. It is a simple trick. When you have multiple people ganging up on someone using strong and challenging words/ideas, in a context in which the individual cannot easily escape, because leaving would be socially unacceptable, painful, awkward, etc. then you can create in that individual considerable doubt, desperation, and compliance, almost regardless of the content of the challenges. We humans are social creatures, built to respond to significant doubts leveled at us with significant doubts bubbling within us.
Imagine if this happened in your life, perhaps you are at the wedding of your brother and four close family members come up to you saying they need to talk, they all tell you that they love you and that they are worried about you, that they believe your job is not good for you. You actually like your job. You politely try to explaining that to them, but they begin ad hominem attacks saying that you are just defending your job because you are too cowardly to face the real truth that your career is going nowhere. You try to end the conversation and move away but they follow you and insist that you are leaving the conversation because you know what they are saying is really true. They say you are being disrespectful to move away because they are doing this out of love. You stop. You feel trapped and listen to them some more. After some period of time the episode ends, either because you have capitulated enough or because they feel the important seeds of doubt have been planted. If you had even the slightest doubts about your life, your job, your career, their confrontation surely magnified them. Our brains are not meant for such circumstances. These people seem to care about you, seem to have your best interests at heart, why would they lie to you? It seems inconceivable. They are saying everything so strongly, surely there must be some merit to what they are saying, usually when people speak so strongly it is because they have some basis for it. You do want to move ahead in your career, maybe you are not moving as fast as some friends of yours, maybe you have seen others get a promotion you thought you deserved. In a matter of minutes or hours you go from happy with your job, with the normal level of dissatisfaction and hopes for more successful tomorrows that practically everyone feels, to thinking that perhaps you should quit your job, change careers, something. Everyone has insecurities, doubts, weaknesses and cults know a host of methods by which they can magnify them to motivate you to some end, their end (which they insist is really in your best interest).
Another technique they use is "love bombing", creating situations and environments in which people experience a heightened sense of connection with those around them to the point that they feel a heightened sense of love from those around them. Who wouldn't respond positively to feeling more love from those around them? Participation in the group activities creates a feeling of love, an experience that can't be easily be gotten on demand outside the group. So you are trained to keep going to meetings. There are many, many tricks that cults and groups use to gather and control their members. Some do it for power, some do it for money, all do it for allegedly noble reasons.
The feeling of awe the magician and the cult leader can generate is muted once you know some of their tricks, and see them being worked into their acts. The magic is still fascinating, but no longer short-circuits your rationality. In the cult setting, when you see most of a room of a hundred people reduced to broken, sobbing masses expressing their inner most limiting beliefs you do not ascribe this to the power of the truths being revealed by the leader, you ascribe it to the power of the psychological trick being used to manipulate the group. You know that almost any cult leader could create the same response in any similarly ready group of people with "truths" that almost any rational person would reject. The technique matters, not the guru, and certainly not the underlying truth. But everyone in a cult always thinks on some level that they are smarter than that. Just ask the participants in the Milgram experiment, they believed they were immune to authority.
The question I would ask of any cult or group is, what percentage of your members 10 years after first being introduced to the group believe the experience was positive and worth the time and money they invested in it? I would suspect that for almost all groups which use cult-ish methods the percentage of people indicating they were satisfied with the experience 10 years on is less than 10%. I believe this anecdotally based on the people I have met who have been in cults, the experiences I've read about, and my belief that those entering these groups did not do so with sober minds, most of them were duped on some level, had their wills bent into participation. They did not make free, sober, rational decisions to participate. And this low satisfaction score (if it exists) would prove to me that the groups are fraudulent. The groups will blame the former members and say they chose to give up too soon, that they weren't the right sort of people, that they didn't keep learning what the group had to offer, that others have benefited so the people who didn't are solely responsible for their lack of benefit. But, to me it's a hollow kind of defense. People routinely make succeed and make millions selling bogus diet pills. They achieve success because most people won't ask for a refund (most people will be as fat or fatter but will be too embarrassed or afraid of confrontation to complain), b) they always recommend combining exercise with the pills (and exercise does positively correlate to weight loss), c) the placebo effect will guarantee some percentage of users will find some new will to modify their behavior because of powers they ascribe to the pill. Just because 10% of the people buying a fat loss pill are satisfied doesn't mean the product contains any ingredients which actually work.
There is always a new cult, a new group selling a new method to solve a very human problem, an existential dissatisfaction, a sense that life can and should be more than it is. It surprises me that cult-entering people can't see the pattern. Can't see the endless stream of cults formed and reformed, regurgitating the same (but now repackaged) esoteric "truths". But, alas they will not... Cults will never run out of followers.
It reminds me of a line from the Sherlock Holmes story A Case of Identity by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it Holmes decides not to reveal to his client that her missing lover was actually her step-father trying to wound her into life long maidenhood so he could have her money. Holmes explains to Watson his decision to keep quiet about it, "If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, "'There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.'" (I try to ignore the contextual misogyny, and see it as a truth which applies to deluded men and women alike.)
And I may be wrong of course... but I do feel I at least have the carcasses of many abandoned cults and many disaffected followers adding weight to my side of the argument.
Being well informed about the world around has always been important to me but I think I've reached a point where I realize the bad of being informed outweighs the good. I can no longer keep tabs on the world and feel joy. How can one stay positive, optimistic when the news delights in relating the world's most miserable stories? The news media seems fixated on the doom and gloom, on the miserable problems we collectively can't seem to fix.
I'm old enough now that it feels like I've seen all the headlines before, so many, many times. A new war, a new plane crash, a new earthquake, a new kidnapped child, a new miracle diet; there is no end to the outrages, brutalities, and scandals, they are all different, yet all the same. The world is like some terribly unfunny situational comedy, the next week or month or year the show begins again with everyone and everything back as it was, as though we learned nothing from the previous episode.
This week the new stories which did it for me included the renewed struggles of Israelis and Palestinians (and everyone's pointless pontifications about how the problems can be solved, but somehow won't be), horrific stories of dogs being sadistically abused by one person and eaten by others, the grizzly horrors of the recent Malaysian shoot-down over the Ukraine, and yet another announcement heralding some new possible test for Alzheimer's that will let you know what's coming decades before you unavoidably succumb to it (as yet they offer no cures or meaningful treatments). The news delights in disproportionately reporting the horrors of the world, making us all feel unsafe, uneasy, unwell. I've had enough.
And so I think I will stop reading the general, unfiltered news. I'll customize my news feeds to show me only technology stories, stories related to my career, stories matching keywords of importance to me. I will let the rest of the news and the world worry about itself for a while. For all my decades of scrutiny and attention, my knowledge of world affairs has not been helping it, and its only been hurting me.