Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fascinating tests at Harvard's Project Implicit

Harvard's Project Implicit has developed the Implicit Association Test to learn what people are unwilling or unable to say about themselves. They have some amazing tests on their site, which you can use to measure your subconscious prejudices for skin color or race, weight, age, and other factors.

Friday, November 30, 2007

On Sewage and Gasoline, with pictures!

I own an awesome house in Rochester. City developers built it in 1920 when Rochester was booming, and like many old houses its plumbing system is a network of pipes of different sizes and substances and ages. From time to time, pipes clog up or break, sometimes accessible but at other times buried under concrete floors.

I've tasted sewage water in a siphoning attempt gone bad. I've gotten crud beneath my fingernails that just wouldn't wash out. And I've developed a close relationship with my plumber, Bob. He's been through sewage and back with me, with humor and patience and without fear of getting dirty.

So when my basement floor took on water as it rained outside on Monday night, Bob was there in less than 15 minutes.

Bob, a plumbing hero

The clogged pipe was a good 30 to 40 feet in front of the house, near the entrance to Monroe County's sewer system. Bob did his best to break the roots, and he got some out, but he eventually had to leave. I kept using his auger and snake to try to loosen them up, but to no avail.

Root Systems

So the next day I called Monroe County's Department of Environmental Services (DES). They said they'd dispatch a van sometime that day, and would even call me ahead of time. Why can't utility companies do the same?

The DES guys arrived in the early afternoon, and asked me if I had a "lot line clean out." I had no idea what they were talking about. They got out their metal detector and after a good deal of searching, measuring hundreds of feed from the nearest manhole cover, and digging, they hit the jackpot.

Lot Line Cleanout

The only 2 references I see to "Lot Line Clean Outs" online are on a Rochester real estate web site and a City of Rochester plumbing regulations document. Interesting. The guys with DES said that if you have a Lot Line Clean Out it can positively impact your home value by as much as $2000 because it gets you free preferential treatment for county sewage services. Free preferential treatment is exactly what I got, though I'll talk about my qualms in a bit.

A giant auger

So the DES fellows went ahead and used their high powered augers and cutters that are supposedly banned from county use to try to cut through the roots. They were having a really rough time with it. Every once in a while they'd pull out their high-tech video camera to watch what was going on inside the pipe, but since the pipe was clogged and the camera couldn't see underwater, it mostly just told them when they hit water. I could devise a $2 machine that would do the same.

In-the-pipe view

They spent a long time trying to get through the roots. While they worked their van was idling and the generator was running to power their equipment.

The County Plumbers

Eventually the DES broke through the routes, but they said the solution was only temporary. The next day, they'd call in the big guns.

Closing a road for me

The backhoe is a useful tool for digging large holes. But the hole they dug in front of my house would really be quick work with a shovel. Maybe some roots would be a bit of a pain, but it seemed like overkill to have multiple trucks idling and then bring over the backhoe.

Shovels are faster and less destructive

It didn't take long, though, before the backhoe's lack of precision caused a problem. The gentlemen digging the hole hit the electricity that powers the street lights.

Whoops, we busted the street lights

I left soon afterwards, but it appears they covered up their work and called it a day, waiting for the City Water & Lighting people to fix the broken line.

Bike next to hazard lights

So yesterday I watched as two City trucks sat idling in front of my house. Is there some sort of gasoline quota that municipal employees need to meet? Then this morning, the backhoe was back, this time joined by a truck mounted with pipes. They were finishing the job.

A lot of gas burned, much by trucks and equipment not regulated by vehicle emissions standards. Maybe more pollution than the amount I've avoided by bike commuting this year. Hopefully the pipes they put in will last a long time.

Here's something to consider - companies make caustic chemicals that kill roots but also possibly contaminate groundwater and kill more than just roots. I generally avoid purchasing chemicals that I'm not supposed to get on my skin. But could I have kept the pipe roots at bay and avoided all the problematic fossil fuel burning by dumping chemicals once a year? Would that have been a good trade-off?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Xbox 360 and Halo 3: First Impressions

I absolutely adore the Halo series of video games. I've been a longtime fan of Bungie, the developer, and the science fiction backstory of this game and other games they've released in the past fascinates me.

Microsoft, Bungie's owner, released Halo 3 last week exclusively for the Xbox 360 system. I enjoy video games from time to time but usually stick to previous generation video game systems - it's cheaper and the games are often just as fun. However, with Halo 3's release looming, and its "must-have" status in my mind, my brother and I made an agreement - we'd go in on the Xbox 360 together, splitting the price of the system, the extra controller (so we could play cooperatively), and Halo 3. Eventually, my brother would buy the whole system from me. This sounded like a good deal to the consumer in me - eventually, when my brother buys me out, absolutely free.

So I ordered the Xbox 360 online, and it arrived last week on the day of Halo 3's release. Halo 3 arrived the next day.

The Xbox 360 is infamous for its technical problems, which Microsoft has (apparently falsely) claimed affects an average of 3%-5% of consoles. I was happy when I fired up the Xbox 360 and everything worked fine. A user shouldn't give a sigh of relief when a piece of consumer electronics actually works, but I had read too many horror stories to be confident about the 360.

It was the night before Halo 3 would arrive, so I got the system ready for play. I tried signing up for the Xbox Live online gaming service and got a "Xbox Live sign up is currently unavailable. Please try again later." error message. Since many "try again later" messages turn out to mean you did something wrong, I looked it up online. Microsoft's knowledgebase article on the specific error gave a number of solutions to try, which I worked through for a good hour and a half.

Of course, every time I got the error message the 360 sent me back to the beginning of the registration process. Some of the fields I had entered were saved, but many steps of the process required text reentry. I even created a new Windows Live/Passport/Hotmail account to see if my original account was in error. Nothing worked. I tried it again in the morning and successfully signed up. It turns out that the real problem was simply that the Xbox live service was unavailable because too many Halo 3 players tried to play at once, bringing the system down - I should have trusted the wording of the actual error message and not Microsoft's article about the message.

My brother came over on the following night so we could experience Halo 3 together, and arrived to find me in the kitchen making us dinner and the Halo 3 disc already in the 360, the title screen loaded up. After I had some rice and beans going, we headed into the living room to play, and found the Xbox 360 powered off.

I figured it was a power saving feature. I turned the 360 back on, and instead of a green circle on the front of the console, on came a 3/4 circle of red light. Meaning that the Xbox 360 was effectively dead.

There was a lot of swearing at the console and the corporation that produces it. I made a couple calls to Xbox technical support and they told me, apologetically, in accents I could hardly understand, that I'd have to send the Xbox in for repair. I gave them my home address when they asked for it, but then I asked if they could ship the repaired console to my work address because I wouldn't be home to sign for it. They said they already had a address on file for me, and the process to validate the new address would take weeks and hold up the repair process. This was just minutes after I gave them the initial address without any sort of validation process. Frustrating.

So my brother and I have made an investment in a brand new game for a brand new system, and have yet to play a minute of it. And now rumors fly about a new version of the 360 to go on sale soon that costs about $70 less than the system we just bought, with all the functionality we needed (a memory card to hold save games instead of the hard drive). The system might be out before we get ours back from repair.

Our Xbox 360 is now headed back to Microsoft. We'll see how soon it comes back, in what condition it comes back in, and whether or not I actually get it back because I can't sign for it.

Microsoft issued a press release today, announcing that Bungie is becoming an independent studio after 7 years of being a Microsoft property. Thank goodness. There's now a chance, a very small chance, that Bungie's next game will be available on a system other than Microsoft's faulty Xbox 360. The 360 has been out for almost 2 years now, and still has the problems that plagued it from the start.

Like many things in life, I won't know how I'll feel about this whole debacle until it's over with, but right now I'm wishing I preferred board games to Halo 3.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fredrick Douglass and the Fourth of July

In the year 1852, Fredrick Douglass gave a famous speech in my home town of Rochester, New York. This speech, now called the Independence Day Speech, is one of my favorites. The world has changed immensely since he gave that speech, but much of what Mr. Douglass says still applies today.

He starts off with an incredible opening, challenging his audience:

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

Mr. Douglass was a powerful advocate for American slaves of African descent, because he himself was an escaped slave. The abolitionist movement reaped great benefits from having an eloquent writer, speaker, and debater like Douglass as a leader in their movement. Contrast that, in modern days, to people like Maher Arar - whose ability to speak about his year-long U.S. Government-sponsored torture and imprisonment in Syria is a heavy reminder of the injustices we must fight against in today's America.

Perhaps Mr. Douglass would be considered a buzz kill by today's standards:

Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.

He was not congratulating his audience, his country, for all the progress they've made; rather, he was reminding them of all the suffering they still had left to stop. This is much different from the feel-good messages and quick-fix solutions that many modern advocacy groups broadcast to their members donors.

Note that Mr. Douglass used language that would make Cindy Sheehan blush:

There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour.

Sadly, that statement is still true. What would Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh say to Mr. Douglass? Would he last even five minutes on Bill O'Reilly's show? Today's political discourse is in the hands of the oppressors, and the American people have bought it. A man like Fredrick Douglass would not be able to work with today's presidents to set wartime policy; today, that's the job of corporate think-tanks, not social justice types.

I recommend that you read the speech when you get a chance. And imagine what it would be like to be in the presence of the great leaders and liberators of our ancestors. To live in a time when change was easier to believe in.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Tumblr is fun, but not playing well with del.icio.us

I've set up a tumblelog at http://adamdurand.tumblr.com/ and so far it's been fun to use. I haven't told anyone about it yet because I'm really quite a private person, and figure if someone really wants to find it they will.

Tumblr's service is very cool - it lets you add RSS Feeds to your tumblelog, automatically adding your Twitter posts or del.icio.us links as you publish them.

But for some reason, Tumblr is not playing well with my del.icio.us account at the moment. It gives me an error, There was a problem importing this feed., each time it imports the first link in my del.icio.us feed. Tumblr can find your del.icio.us feed if you only tell it your username, but I've tried adding the RSS feed from del.icio.us manually, and I get the same result.

I haven't seen too much mention of this from other users, though one user, Kristian Cee, mentions some similar erratic behavior.

I like the idea and implementation of Tumblr, but if this del.icio.us problem persists the frustration might drive me away.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Slavery in America, Today

It's commonly understood that the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery. But wait, it has an exception! Here it is in its entirety (emphasis mine):

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

As a major part of my incarceration at Wayne County Jail between May 16 and June 25 last year, I found myself forced to work in a kitchen almost daily, three times a day, serving meals to other inmates. I also spent a day dismantling an abandoned nursing home (and helping to improve a shooting range), and for my last day in jail, literally breaking apart gravel with a pickaxe.

Many aspects of forced labor were completely new to me; for example, the incentive to wake up on time (at 5:00 am) was to avoid getting yelled at or threatened by the corrections officers. Any resistance to an officer's orders could result in either solitary confinement or extra days spent in jail. The system is built on absolute power and fear, which is nothing new in human history, but it was new to me.

And fear is a good motivator. I found it strange to help install a sink and food prep area at a shooting range, where guards practice how to use lethal force against inmates like me. I found it strange to distribute 150 battery cage eggs a day, each egg equaling a full day a poor hen spent in deplorable conditions, when I was in jail precisely because of my resistance to battery cage egg production. And I found it strange to aid in the functions of a system that was causing pain and hurting families much more than it could ever benefit society. But I thought, correctly or not, that I had too much to lose to resist.

One could claim that the injustice of modern slavery is for punishment, or for safety, or to maintain civility. But should any society, as common practice, give any person complete power over others, as a correction officer has over an inmate? Or, to consider it from a different angle, is any western society ready to drastically reform its criminal "justice" system so it becomes a system of rehabilitation instead of oppression? Every US citizen should agree that our justice system isn't working, and perhaps it refuses to function, in large part, because of all the injustice at its foundation.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Telling Women What to Think and Do

I once enjoyed reading the group blog Pandagon, even if it sometimes stepped over the line of good taste or honest practices - but I stopped reading it regularly in January when Amanda Marcotte posted a disrespectful rant comparing PETA to Operation Rescue. One should welcome a straightforward and honest comparison between two groups that are among the most effective in their movements, including criticism of tactics that may render the groups' campaigns less effective, or even criticism of the very goals these groups work towards. Amanda's arguments, however, are crude, dishonest, and hurtful towards actual women who have dedicated their lives to a noble cause.

This all started with PETA's successful State of the Union Undress, wherein a PETA staffer takes off all her clothes while talking about the kinds of animal cruelty that most Americans refuse to face. The video, designed to draw traffic to PETA's web site, was picked up by everyone from Bill O'Reilly to Amanda at Pandagon and Jill at Feministe. The interesting part is, Bill O'Reilly goes comparatively easy on the woman.

The blogs attack PETA and the naked staffer from all sorts of different angles. One blog asks if "this a globally broadcast incident of sexual harassment," alleging that when a woman takes off her clothes for a cause she believes in, we must immediately be suspicious that coercion is involved. Jill at Feministe picks apart the woman and her actions, calls her and other women in PETA campaigns "erotic novelties," and goes as far as criticizing the staffer's choice to trim her pubic hair. And Amanda refers not only to the staffer's subjugation ("They think women are just bodies to be manipulated for their ends"), but diverts the discussion away from feminist issues by stating that PETA is anti-science, and by giving legs to the meme that PETA hypocritically kills animals (which she admits is a concept sponsored by the food industry). Amanda's post is filled with so many low blows that anyone who supports even just a portion of PETA's work would probably be driven away, and those people are the target audience of Amanda's post in the first place.

In perhaps the most offensive of related posts, Ross at The Talent Show starts off by saying "[Fuck] PETA . . . No, seriously, I literally mean that you should go right now and have sexual congress with them. Because that's apparently what they want you to do." To Ross, taking off your clothes (in a completely non-sexual way) means you are just asking for sex. Perhaps this is all said in jest, but this is a dangerous thing to imply.

While Ross gives props to the feminist arguments by Amanda and Jill that inspired his post, he seems to only appeal to feminism to advance his own perspective, and his "she's just begging for it" suggestion shouldn't be construed as a feminist argument. But his post, which focuses heavily on the staffer's trimmed pubic region, isn't far removed from what I understand Amanda and Jill are saying - women must not get naked for a cause they believe in, because they are just being used as a tool by a sexist society/organization, and their own decisions don't count in that context.

The American Women's Rights movement has been working pretty much in full force for over 150 years, and their work is far from over. But we as a society seem to be hitting some speed bumps along the way towards equality. I would argue that Amanda and Jill have become prominent voices in the movement, which is why I find it disheartening to see all the missteps they take, and all the grief they cause women in the name of promoting freedom, justice, and equality. Feminists should be the last people to attack women for using their bodies as they see fit with phrases like "PETA can . . . go fuck themselves."

I do not work for PETA and have never organized a PETA protest, but I personally know many people at PETA, both male and female, who achieve various states of undress for their campaigns. They are all highly dedicated activists, with pretty thick skin - something the women in particular need when taking off their clothes for a public media stunt. It's far more controversial, of course, when a woman takes off her clothes than when a man does, and I think it says something about society when, for example, PETA sponsors a protest with a topless man and woman, and only the presence of the woman gets covered in the media.

Naked or bikini-clad protests are controversial, and do run the risk of alienating Christians, Muslims, some feminists, victims of abuse, etc. But these protests are almost consistently effective at garnering massive media attention, which helps PETA move their message with much less money than the advertising budgets of the companies they oppose. PETA may be able to find other ways to make the national news that run less risk of driving people away. Civil disobedience comes to mind, but I don't imagine PETA wants to endanger their 501(c)(3) status or fight costly court battles associated with peaceful lawbreaking. PETA's other attempts at controversy, such as comparisons between animal exploitation and human slavery or the Holocaust, have been just as successful as "naked demos" but much more divisive.

I don't see why non-sexually-explicit nudity would offend feminists. Women, even in recent years, have campaigned to be allowed to take off their clothes in public. In my own town of Rochester, New York, a group of women successfully convinced the appeals court in 1992 to allow them to bare their breasts as men do in public venues. In a concurrence, Judge Titone states that "the People have offered nothing to justify a law that discriminates against women by prohibiting them from removing their tops and exposing their bare chests in public as men are routinely permitted to do." The ability for women to be topless or wear swimsuits in public, as men can, or to be naked in private among consenting adults, should be seen as a right, and in contexts that do not harm women, should be defended by those concerned about equality.

So why should PETA, which is run by woman and has women in positions throughout its ranks, receive so much criticism for allowing its employees or members to voluntarily hold public demonstrations or produce videos or print ads that feature naked bodies in a sex-free or non-explicit way? The people who model or campaign aren't just showing off their bodies on a whim like one does at the beach - they use that attention to speak their mind through press releases or media appearances. Pamela Anderson, for example, who has appeared naked in many a tasteful PETA advertisement, is quite eloquent in her PETA video.

In which contexts does the modern feminist movement feel comfortable with naked women? I imagine most feminists feel comfortable with woman-positive commercial campaigns, like Dove's Real Beauty campaign, or with art that promotes social justice for people, such as the film Boys Don't Cry. These are commercial endeavors where attractive women get naked - do the rules somehow change when a nonprofit starts advocating for animals?

Does it make sense to chastise attractive women for getting naked to protest, to criticize them only because they are all at once attractive and female and protesting, but not notice the naked PETA campaigns of men like Ron Jeremy and David Cross? Aren't we parsing gender differences and superficial traits more than people dedicated to equality should? In the end, is there any way for PETA to run a naked campaign featuring a woman that would be suitably woman-friendly in the eyes of these feminists?

I should note that PETA's campaigns that feature women in states of undress may be problematic simply because people like Amanda and Jill oppose them. Amanda and Jill represent the thoughts and opinions of many modern feminists, and without the support of these progressive individuals, PETA is only making their job of dramatically changing society's treatment of animals harder. But that shouldn't validate Amanda and Jill's position that it's wrong for a person to take of their clothes for the animals because they're a woman. PETA most likely weighs the amount that each stunt alienates particular segments of society, and adjusts their strategy accordingly. Certainly, if they see enough criticism to the point where they think they're losing steam, female PETA employees and volunteers will try other methods.

I'm not sure Amanda Marcotte would as readily accept a course correction. When popular bloggers who make feminism their main concern have such a problem with women who voice a particular concept in a particular way, it serves to divide people rather than unite them behind a common cause. This post was actually inspired by Amanda and Jill's recent posts about abortion being a "moral good," which includes such gems as:

The “I think abortion should be legal but I would never have one” argument grates on my nerves. . . . Saying that you think the little ladies should have the right but you are morally superior enough to never terminate a pregnancy is condescending and completely unhelpful to the abortion rights movement.

And also:

The “I’m pro-choice but I think abortion is wrong” thing crops up a lot in these discussions . . . I seriously don’t get why people think that it helps anything to hand wring about how terrible abortion is if you’re supporting the right to have one. . . . Having the notion that women are moral midgets and that abortion is an evil, even if you think it’s one that should be tolerated, being reinforced by pro-choicers does the pro-choice argument no good. . . . Also, saying that abortion is morally questionable, even if you’re pro-choice, is a huge insult to the brave men and women who risk life and limb to perform them.

Here we have a slightly different take on why women must do and say what Jill and Amanda believe, this time dismissing a valid opinion because it doesn't play into the pro-choice movement's strategy. But similar to what they would say to female PETA staffers, Jill and Amanda are insulting women (and also, to some degree men) and their beliefs instead of convincing them based on sound arguments. Any movement should be happy to have supporters who don't personally wish to gain from the movement's goals but still support them, and yet here we have rude responses to the opinion of many choice supporters.

Much of what people write is useful, because it draws attention to problems even when it doesn't help solve them, but I think these sorts of attacks are an exception. This sort of dismissive rhetoric is a major stumbling block within many different movements. I hope to some day soon share my thoughts on similar problems within the heart of the animal protection movement.

It is important, when holding public discussion in the hopes of forwarding the ideals of justice and peace, to do so out of love and compassion. One can achieve orders of magnitude more progress by appealing to people's own goodness and desire to do better, than one can through hurtful or negative rhetoric. If one sees another's deeds as truly bad, this doesn't mean they should hesitate to criticize, but they should be the epitome of love and not hate, of understanding and not ignorance.