Archive for June, 2010

What Would Jesus Buy?

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

So I sit here watching the end of “What Would Jesus Buy?”, a movie about the Church of Stop Shopping (now known as The Church of Life after Shopping) and it got me thinking once again about how our actions directly affect the world around us.

I used to be the biggest consumer whore (literally, I have been 250lbs). I used to think “big box stores”, shopping Malls, and Starbucks were King. I used to “enjoy” wondering around the local shopping mall with a latte, buying random crap. Heck, I still enjoy buying random crap, but I am trying to be more responsible with my actions, and I’m trying to learn that I don’t always need what I’m being told to buy (I canceled my Cable, so good luck advertising that crap to me anyway). What I do also directly affects the world around me. One seemingly small decision – do I buy that item? where do I buy it? am I supporting my local community? – can make a difference. And numerous small decisions can add up to real change, or at least force folks to sit up and listen for a while.

In the vain of self reform, a few years ago, I made a few promises to myself. One of them was that I would never shop in a Walmart store (I can go into one, I just won’t buy anything). Like other corporate behemoths, they come to small towns across this country and slowly put the local stores out of business, with products typically made in far away places for the lowest price possible. Quantity is the order of the day. People (many of whom can afford to pay more and instead choose not to) have become so obsessed with the lowest possible price that they have often completely lost track of where their products are made, under what conditions, and at what cost. It seems as if the only important thing in the eyes of many consumers is that their groceries and plastic crap are a few cents cheaper than they might have been had they been bought at a local store instead. I don’t want to support that kind of economy, so I do my part by never going to these kinds of stores ever again.

I stopped going to Starbucks more than a year ago for similar reasons. This is why you won’t find me in there these days. There are literally dozens of great local alternatives where I live, which brew good (often locally roasted) coffee, that tastes good, and they afford their staff a little more freedom to be creative and self expressive than they might have been elsewhere. And this week, I made a resolution never to purchase products made by the big brewers in the US, for reasons similar to those for giving up Starbucks. Although alcohol in this country is still pretty screwed up (see for example how distribution works), there are thousands of microbreweries and “craft beer” brewers in this country today striving for a small piece of the 5% of the market not sewn up by mainstream beer – most of which isn’t worth using to clean a toilet with anyway, in terms of its taste. I am glad the US is rediscovering good beer and that there are alternative choices in most markets.

It’s not just Walmart, Starbucks, or the big breweries. They’re an easy target because of their size. My attempts at self-reform are more directed at understanding the economics, social impact, and environmental cost of the consumption habits that I have. I now often look at the corporate structure of stores I have shopped at (right down to ceasing to buy a particular laundry detergent a few months ago, or choosing one pharmacy over another because of their political affiliation) or will be shopping at, who the senior management team gave campaign contributions to (especially if they elected to muddy the waters between their personal and corporate views – for example, I stopped shopping in Whole Foods after that anti-Healthcare reform rant in the Wall St. Journal last August), and what their stance is on various issues.

I’m far from perfect, but I am trying to get better. I’m also late at this party, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth coming at all.


Wisdom Teeth

Friday, June 18th, 2010

So I had my wisdom teeth removed this afternoon at my local dentist. They had been bothering me (teeth ache, ear pain, you name it) and I had been putting this off for literally several years, but finally it came time to just get it done. And in the end, it was very minor. If you’re interested in a first-hand account, read on for more detail.

Photo: My wisdom teeth (alas I was not allowed to keep them)

I have a problem with dentists (and doctors). Having spent a long time in hospital once with a rare blood disorder that could have killed me, I’ve never quite gotten comfortable with medical stuff. I can’t even go into a dentist’s office if I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do (usually by reading in very specific levels of detail beforehand, studying the chemical layout of Procaine, etc.), and am sure they’re not going to try to gas me when I’m in there. When it comes to wisdom teeth, I’d built up this assumption that the only way they would remove them is under some kind of anesthetic – very common in the US – which concerns me far more than the procedure itself. Fortunately, it’s not some weird requirement to do it that way.

Being British, my teeth are hardly my best asset at times. Like many Brits, my teeth are covered by “The Anglo Files” and I was almost allergic to the notion of gleaming whites. When I moved to the US, they needed a fair bit of work, which of course I didn’t get done. Eventually, I had a bunch of fillings and a root canal, which made things much better. But every time I went, I would get nagged about the wisdom teeth and how they were impacted and becoming quite decayed, and I would then freak myself out. About the only really good thing about my teeth is that they’re reasonably strong, and I only ever had two (upper) wisdom teeth – I’m in that small percentage of the population without lower wisdom teeth to begin with. That’s a good thing – lower wisdom teeth can be a lot more of a pain in the ass.

Eventually, I decided it was just a good idea to have it done, so I scheduled today’s appointment. I had a filling and two extractions, and I have to say that the filling was more involved than the extractions! I’d built this thing up in my head – in part because of the absolute nutticisms in the States over wisdom teeth and how everyone seems to get actual hospital surgery for this stuff as a weird kind of “right of passage” right before going to college – but the actual procedure was only a couple of minutes, relatively comfortable, and less annoying than a root canal. And for the record, a root canal is not as bad as you might think that it is. The older expressions were born before we had really good dentists and pain treatment.

So anyway. The dentist shoved some things into the gap between the teeth and bone, wiggled (technical term used), and then yanked each tooth, first the top right, and then the top left. The top right one came out easily, the top left took a few more tools and a bit of hard yanking to persuade it to come out. Both teeth really were quite decayed, and I’m hoping they really were the cause of a lot of the hassles I’ve had. I asked the dentist to write me a prescription for my favorite antibiotic just in case, in order to avoid infection, and then I headed home (via the pharmacy). At this point, I can feel my mouth again, and I’m on regular over-the-counter stuff for pain, but it seems not a huge deal so far. I’ll relax and hope it isn’t much worse tomorrow.

No free lollipop at the end, but a very happy patient, who is glad that this is all done with. If you’ve been putting this stuff off for years too, I hope the least I can do is convince you that I really am the worst patient and I didn’t think it was that bad. I recommend just getting them whipped out one Friday, if you’re concerned.

Cyberwar: it’s all bullshit

Monday, June 14th, 2010

So this evening, there was another 60 minutes “OMG, the sky is falling!” story about how evil bad guys might break into the power grid (“oh no! not the power grid! how will I watch my reality TV? and waste my life?”) and turn us into cave dwellers once again. And assorted other scaremongering. It was really quite good sensationalism.

First, some basics:

1). The US power grid isn’t one system. The notion of a “cascade” shutdown from the “really super dooper” dude they interviewed was utter bullshit. The power system in this country is actually in at least three pieces – there is work to implement some sharing, but it is not complete – and it is run by regional ISOs. So you can’t shut it all down in one go by knocking out a few power generation facilities.

2). Even if you could shut it down, the grid can be restarted in a matter of hours or days. This has even happened quite famously on a few occasions. Economic impact yes, reality TV viewing disruption for sure (and that would be a great societal benefit in any case), but no return to the stone age.

3). The regional ISOs require annual cold start testing for each generating facility that is required to perform a restart. So we not only can do this, but we test for it annually and know that the power system can be restarted.

And besides, if it weren’t for the stupid trading nonsense designed to drive up energy prices and profiteering, the system could be more closed than it is today. As it is, direct control is not connected to the public internet, only the trading stuff is in some regional ISOs. And probably there are a few places connected that shouldn’t be, and running Windows. But in that case I can only laugh loudly.

When 60 minutes report these stories, they mention how some government computers are “hacked” (in technical parlance, it’s called “cracking”, and not “hacking”) by people leaving USB thumbdrives around containing nasty computer viruses (“oh noes! my computerz have teh colds!”). What they fail to mention – and any serious journalism entity should do – is that the problem here is two-fold:

1). Obviously US government personnel shouldn’t be plugging in stuff they find in the parking lot. It’s just a bad idea in the first place and should rightly be banned.

2). Microsoft Windows is so laughably insecure that I can’t take you seriously if you use it and expect security. And when the government use it, I just sigh and wonder aloud how many billions of dollars are going to be wasted by the US Congress “protecting” us from attacks on badly designed systems that are insecure by design? If they didn’t use Microsoft *crap* then they wouldn’t have half these problems. And I don’t just mean “use Linux”, I mean use something else. Almost anything else.

The latter point of a global dependence on bad Microsoft crap is generally ignored. In all these stories. And then they go mentioning these silly-and-pointless 24-style “cyber command” places (likely filled by people who just about know a bit more than how to use Microsoft Word, but still largely use pointy-clicky crap with giant video screens in over sized and over expensive “mission control” rooms) where the government can protect us from bad software design and morons who plug important shit into the outside world so it can be broken into in the first place.

Half the time, I feel it’s like there are these people running around justifying their need to fight off bad guys while most of the issues are pointless to begin with.