Monday, April 30, 2007

Price of Books

When did most paperbacks become $14? I realize that in the long run it is only $14 but really now. $14 is a month's worth of Netflix. The hubby and I can pick up dinner at CalTor for around $14.

If I did not have student loans to take into consideration with almost every purchase I make and perhaps if I did not want to own a home, I would not even notice the $14. But, sadly, my reality is what it is. And again, when did a paperback become so expensive? When did renting movies become less expensive than buying a book?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The (probable and not at all Cher-like) bittersweet retirement from organized quizbowl tournaments.

Last Sunday, Tim Young, Rick Terpstra, Phil Castagna and I went to TRASHionals to defend our national title against the 39 other teams that had received qualifying bids. TRASHionals, for those who may not know, is the national finals of a series of regional tournaments, with questions based on sports and pop culture. It was, as always, great fun playing with my esteemed teammates of more than four years. And, because we were starting to feel it was time, we decided that this would be our last tournament as a team.

This is chiefly because Phil and Rick (and to a lesser extent, Tim and I) are feeling like we’re too old for this stuff. We're not the oldest people there, by a long shot, and we've still got the skills, but as we are all passing our 3oth birthdays this year (me last, as per usual in almost any group of friends) or so, we feel that we're too old to play organized tournaments. Also, the tournament next year will probably require more travel than this years, which was held at College Park. A grand and wonderful journey of 10 minutes. Last year, we went to Austin, and it was awesome for a lot of reasons. The weather was great, we won the title, we had amazing barbecue at the Salt Lick, I had just gotten engaged, as had Rick, and I basically had a great time with three of my great friends. But that was really as far as we were willing to go, and only because we all flew. This year, we all went because it was so close to us. We're getting less patient with long, (relatively) expensive road trips, and that's sort of the deal. I'd like to think we're outgrowing it, but I don't know. The real reason for the Cher-like farewell tour is that without these three guys, playing in tournaments won't be that much fun.

So, we decided, especially after we finally won the tournament last year, earning the treasured Martini Glass Trophies, that we had achieved all that we really wanted to, but that since the 2007 TRASHionals was so close, that we would defend our title. That we could do that, and retire with no regrets. And that's what we did. We ended up losing two games in the playoffs, which put is in third place, one game out of the title game. And the two teams that managed to beat us (both only clinching a victory on the last question of a 20-question round) were the ones that finished first and second. I'm proud of how we did. In the last four years, our team finished fourth (2004), second (2005), won the damn thing in exciting, soul stirring fashion (2006), and third (2007). I'm pretty proud of that. The whole experience was, as per usual, a blast. A lot of our matches were excitingly close, which actually doesn't happen that often (We tend to blow out a lot of people).

Over the two days, we experienced all of the team-related activities that I have come to know and love, including: Bitching about the quality of the questions, everyone collectively having to explain "how the hell did you know that?", the thrumming tension of a match before it begins, the tension in a close match when the whole thing comes down to the last few questions, the thrill of beating an old rival, the satisfaction that comes from being the fastest guy in when everyone has a collective "oh!" moment and suddenly knows the answer, the fact that people know my name even if I don't know theirs, and the handshakes after every match. Makes you feel like a sportsman, and less of a geek, I guess. Mostly, it's just the fact that the team worked so well together, and complimented each other's strengths and weaknesses. I'll miss all of it. I suppose that it's time. (Unless, of course, we decide to keep playing. Cue the Blues brother's clip. "We're getting the band back together"). I guess people have to grow up, a little bit.

But, it has been an incredible run, and I have been fully privileged to play with my three friends, who can loosely be called "gentlemen", and who brought the TRASHionals belt to my wedding. Which, despite what the wife thinks, was AWESOME. Truly, the thing I would miss the most about playing would be hanging around with those three guys, so all isn't lost. I can still hang around with them, and have as much, if not more fun. This is the wonderful thing about all friends, including (or especially) my dear readers. They're always there, not just to relive the rare old times, but to create new and better memories. So the melancholy is fleeting. Which is good.

As a final note, in the spirit of bragging about my vast storehouse of shameful useless knowledge, here are a few of the toss-up answers that I personally got in last weekend's tourney. There were/are a lot more, I just can’t remember all of them.
The Brown Noise
Tragic Kingdom
Double Secret Probation
Unreal Engine
Free Republic
Rockstar Table Tennis
Easy Rawlins

And there were a lot of others Rick and Phil write them all down. I’m sure that they could help me out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On shameless explotation of tragedy, later on heroes

In the wake of what happened at Virginia Tech, there have been many outpourings of sympathy, condolences, brotherhood, and all that is decent and admirable about people. And as sure as the sun rises, the yin of all that is good in human nature is being countered by the yang of craven opportunism. Read this post from John Derbyshire . I suppose in his own world, every American is a Rambo in sheep’s clothing, able to spring into action at a moment’s notice, and immediately tackle the gunman firing the two semiautomatics. And Rambettes, of course. No need to be sexist. But it imagines that it is the easiest thing in the world to charge at a guy with a gun and disarm them. After all, “It's not like this was Rambo, hosing the place down with automatic weapons. He had two handguns for goodness' sake—one of them reportedly a .22.” In his mind, the people failed because someone should have made a suicidal charge, rushed this guy, because he only had a couple of small caliber handguns. How much damage could they have done? There are 32 people that could tell this jackass how much. Not that I’ve ever been in this situation, but a big wad of money says that John Derbyshire hasn’t either. He’s just someone who writes inflammatory stuff for the National review, so people will talk about him. After all, this is the same douche bag that advocated the execution of the British sailors who were captured in Iran (on grounds of treason) because they cooperated with their AK-47-wielding captors, rather than be summarily executed. I suppose that they should have just rushed them. I suppose that I’m not sure I would expect better of him, really.

Not only that, but it’s incredible that there are so many people that are exploiting this tragedy just to raise their own profile. this is discounting the many, many people who will use this incident to make a point either for gun control or against it. That is at least tangibly relevant, though both are still taking inappropriate advantage of a terrible tragedy. I suppose that if something good can come out of it, that would be good.

I see two possible outcomes from this tragedy. Really, 3, but only the first two are funny. The third will probably happen.

1. All guns are banned, except for those carried by law enforcement agents. Anyone owning or carrying a gun gets jail time, and their gun taken away. Good luck with that. Let me know how that goes for you.

2. Following the opinions of Ron Paul, former libertarian presidential candidate, to their logical conclusion: this would have been prevented if everyone had been allowed to carry a weapon, because someone would have shot him. So, to prevent crime, EVERYONE gets a gun. Probably something like a .22, that can’t do that much damage. And must carry it, and be accountable for the ammunition spent. Ideally, the bullets are tagged with the holder’s DNA or some other way of identifying them, so that if a bullet goes into someone, the cops know who to ask first. this would work, but bear with it, because in the first couple of years, a lot of people are going to get shot.

3. Nothing of any significance will happen. Whee! bills will be introduced making gun laws get slightly tougher, and the NRA will shoot them down in committee, because any sort of controls on the fully automatic weapons that people need to hunt dangerous or delicious animals, and defend themselves from the rapists and murderers that surround them everywhere will NEVER be accepted.

Look, it’s not that I’m against guns. They’re tools, like any other tool, that can be used for good or bad purposes. I agree that guns don’t kill people, people do. But, the gun does help. I’m just saying it’s a lot harder to kill 32 people with a crossbow, an axe, a knife, or a sword. Unless you’re in a Ninja movie.

At least the gun control people have a stake in this issue. But there are plenty of people who are exploiting this for reasons of fame. Derbyshire isn’t the only craven opportunist. There’s Jack Thompson (anti-video game crusader), who on the day of the shooting, while the situation was still being reported (okay, about 1:15pm, but still shamelessly exploitative of the dead) blamed video games for previous shootings, and opined that the shooter had to be motivated by video games, as well. (For a point by point analysis of why he’s either saying things that can’t be proven, or lying, look at this.) But that’s hardly the point. He was on TV hours after the shooting, and hours before we knew anything about the shooter. His opinions were based entirely on his own conjecture, which happened to fit perfectly into his own biases and viewpoints. He had to be playing video games. Why else would he be violent? there were no murders, ever, before video games, and since video games have been introduced, murders have increased tenfold, in every country that has them. right!? Right?! But that’s what Thompson and his ilk do. they tie their favorite cause into the tragedy of the day, regardless of how tenuous the link is.

There’s even Dr. Phil, who blames the violence on video games and mass media. I don’t know about you, and I know that the plural of anecdotes is not data, but I watched a lot of violent media, and I play video games. I’ve never killed anyone in my life. Neither have any of my friends, who play video games, and have even occasionally participated in insidious murder simulators like Laser Tag. There are always going to be people who want to act out what they see on the screen. But 99.9999% don’t ever do it. and for those who do, violent images are not the only warning sign. No one snaps without warning. Those people are crazy, and ideally should be detected and helped before they kill people. Much like guns killing people, violent media doesn’t kill people. People kill people. But violent media doesn’t make it easier to kill. It doesn’t cause people to kill.

On the other hand, Rush Limbaugh downplayed the effect of games in this shooting. Never thought I’d have respect for the way that Rush didn’t come to preconcieved concusions, and told his audience to do the same.

In short, was there anything that could have been done to prevent this guy from acting like he did? Yeah. Most mass murderers plan their crimes months in advance, and there were warning signs, apparently. But sometimes, people just snap without enough warning. As Chris Rock said “Whatever happened to crazy?” This guy was obviously disturbed, and there were signs. But no one caught it in time. There will always be tragedies that we can’t prevent. Not because we have too many guns, or not enough guns, or because or civil liberties haven’t been restricted enough, or because people weren’t brave enough to make a suicidal charge. But because some people are just crazy. So is there any hope?

For me, I hope that if I am ever in that sort of situation, I would be able to be even a tenth as brave and selfless as Liviu Librescu, the 76-year old Israeli who taught at Virginia Tech for 20 years; and was internationally known for his work in aeronautical engineering. He escaped the holocaust, and then later escaped from communist Romania. The gunman shot him as he used his body to hold the door at his lecture hall entrance so that his students could escape. He was a renowned scientist, a respected teacher, a survivor of tragedies and troubled times, and in the end, he died saving his student’s lives. He died doing what was right.

John Derbyshire is wholly wrong. he bemoans the fact that no one fought back, tried to rush the gunman. He wonders where the heroes are, who will step up and protect us from harm when need arises. I can tell him that one is currently on a plane, being sent back to Israel for burial. And I don’t doubt that there other similar stories from that day. And as long as heroes like that exist, there is hope for all of us, even in the darkest of days.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007 not on my side...

Okay, if you picture the stones singing it, it's funnier.

This one will be short, because as the Marshall has noted, time is something that is currently in shorter supply. Well, spare time. And that is kind of bad. didn't we all use to have a lot more time? I know that QueenDweeb and anyone else who essentially works hourly and has their pay tied to it, can sympathize. Salaried people get to leave work when they're done, and people who work hourly work until they run out of work, or are sent home. Because we get overtime. Anyway, I'm on one of those killer projects that takes up, generally, 12 hours a day actually at work, and time on weekends. (This is why I'm relatively uncommunicative. If you drop me a line, I swear, I'll write back. Work is boring, except that I found Porn in some guy's emails that I was reviewing. An opportunity to summon everyone in my few acres of Cubicle Farm and laugh at this guy.)

And, it's amazing to wonder where the time goes. Twelve hours at work, combined with about 45 minutes of (very pleasant) commuting each way. That goes to about 13.5 hours. Meals are eaten at work, so no time lost there. And I wake up at 6:00, and snooze until about 7:00, so that's an hour (again, a generally pleasant one). We're at 14.5. Showering and getting ready, kissing the wife goodbye, etc. ideally takes about another 1/2 hour, so we're at 15. The wife is actually generally dedicated to getting a good night's sleep, so there's sleep at around 11:00 or 12:00. So, that's 6 or 7 hours. (21 or 22 hours). So, basically, there are two or three free hours, assuming I sleep enough. Wow. I didn't write it out before. Yikes.

So yeah, that, my friends, is why there's not enough time in the day. Fortunately, this project won't last forever, and I probably could work less, but my last evaluation faulted me for not doing enough hours, so there's a balance to be kept. And there's the money. There's the tension between a better work-life balance with more interesting work, and the golden handcuffs locked around my wrist. (They're probably made of some less valuable metal, like copper or electrum. I do okay, but not golden handcuffs. Those are superduperfancy, and probably encrusted with bling and lined with fur from extinct/wholly imaginary animals.).

Anyway, It's not really so bad. Seriously. I know how it looks. As I often say to the wife, I just work long hours. It's not very hard work, and lord knows there are people who have it worse. I'm just bored, and slightly melancholy.

On a much funnier note, ask me sometime about a wedding gift from one of my coworkers. And, the wife and I just got a new couch and loveseat, which was delivered, amusingly, sans feet. After some vociferous complaining by your favorite Optimistic Cynic (or is it the other way 'round), the feet are being shipped to us from Wisconsin. Home of quality wooden feet.

And, TRASHIONALS are in two weeks at U of MD! Whee! We just have to come up with a new team name, and then defend the championship.