The Croods

Poster for The Croods Today I picked The Croods on Netflix, figuring I’d watch twenty minutes or so of a silly caveman comedy to pass the time. I wasn’t expecting the wonderful, philosophical movie it is. It’s about ideas vs. stagnation, exploration vs. safety at all costs, thought vs. brute force, light vs. darkness. At the same time it presents a fantasy prehistoric world that doesn’t even try for scientific accuracy, lots of action, and some stunning scenes.

A couple of favorite lines of mine:

“That wasn’t living! That was just not dying! There’s a difference!”

“No more dark. No more hiding. No more caves. What’s the point of all this? To follow the light.”

It was the perfect antidote and answer to Earth Hour.

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Pinker’s “The Psychology of Pessimism”

Being pessimistic by inclination, I find Steven Pinker’s “The Psychology of Pessimism” a valuable corrective. He notes that violence is at historically low levels, yet many people think the world is going to hell. He mentions three emotional reasons for pessimism: that more different bad things could happen than good ones, that people become more dissatisfied as they grow older, and that criticism of wrongs is seen as a virtue. In addition, bad things are more newsworthy and memorable, creating a cognitive bias toward pessimism.

When I’m convinced that the future of the world is one of constant surveillance, censorship, and nominally elected dictators, it’s good to remember that things have often been worse in the past. Two hundred years ago, the US had widespread slavery. A little less than a century ago, Americans were thrown in jail for opposing the war and the draft. Fifty years ago there were state laws against interracial marriage. Has the tendency toward freedom stopped and reversed itself? Maybe, but I might just not have the necessary perspective. There are still good things happening, such as rapidly growing awareness of the injustice of civil forfeiture.

I can think of another reason for pessimism. We can change the future but not the past. We need to think about bad things that could happen in order to prevent them; when looking back, though, we might as well remember the good and let the bad go. Planning against disaster should make us more optimistic, since we’re prepared, but it can turn into worry and expectations of doom.

Murphy’s law was originally a reminder that the way to make a reliable product is to make as sure as possible that nothing can go wrong. In popular culture, it’s turned into the idea that the universe conspires against us. It’s important to remember the difference betwen preparedness and pessimism.

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What we can learn from Phil Robertson

Let’s make a few things clear at the start. I don’t want Phil Robertson censored. I don’t want him to lose his job. If someone acts on his claims and kills people, it’s the murderer’s fault, not Robertson. In fact, I think we can learn something from his words, in a perverse way. Here’s what he said:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

If it happened to them, they probably would say ‘something about this just ain’t right.’

Phil Robertson (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)Well, yes, something about that would not be right. The same thing would not be right if fanatics broke into Robertson’s home, claimed that Christians say there’s no right or wrong, and raped and murdered his family. But the clear implication is that the atheist would be wrong, that in fact there is no right or wrong if the target of violence doesn’t believe a deity exists.

I wanted to make sure I was understanding Robertson correctly, knowing how distorted media accounts can get. It was conceivable his next words were, “Of course something about this ain’t right. People don’t stop being human just because they don’t belong to your religion.” However, I haven’t found any claims that his words were ripped out of context. I did find a defense of Robertson by someone named John Nolte. This piece calls the denunciations of Robertson “ignorant” and “bigoted.” Nolte says Robertson was making “a perfectly valid point about a Godless world in which there is no Ten Commandments and by extension no basis to judge right from wrong.” This clarifies an important point: the scenario applies not just to atheists but to anyone who doesn’t have a belief system that includes Moses. He could equally well have talked about raping and killing a “little Hindu wife” or “little Buddhist daughters.”

I don’t think he’d act on that principle and murder unbelievers, but there are people who do just that, for the reasons he gave. They kidnap, torture, and kill on the principle that anyone who doesn’t recognize their form of religious authority falls outside all moral consideration. Robertson points to the Bible as his revealed moral authority, and Islamic State and Boko Haram point to the Quran, but there’s no way to decide which is the “true” one.

Robertson and IS believe that humans are incapable of moral knowledge on their own and that anyone who doesn’t follow divine authority doesn’t count as a human being. For Muslim fanatics, this applies even to people who don’t hold their exact interpretation of the Quran; they kill more Muslims than non-Muslims. There’s no need to feel moral doubt while committing mass murder, since apart from God’s orders there is no right or wrong.

It’s an escape from personal responsibility. The people who accept this view don’t have to bear the burden of deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. By accepting that they’re incapable of independent moral judgment and have to follow divine orders, they escape the need to think and the risk of doubt. The ones who take up violence literally would rather die than think.

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Dumping my Comcast cable modem

Comcast is one of America’s most reviled companies. It’s not hard to understand its obnoxiousness when you realize it lives off government-granted monopolies. While people conceded vast powers to the FCC because of the questionable threat that it would throttle competing video streams, the real problem has remained untouched: its widespread status as a local cable monopoly. For broadband I have two choices: the cable monopoly (Comcast) or the phone monopoly (Fairpoint). When Comcast raised my rates, I planned on returning to Fairpoint once their strike was over. The delay wasn’t because of moral opposition to strike-breaking, but levels of service that had fallen from poor to almost nonexistent during the strike.

However, after the strike Fairpoint didn’t even say on its website what it’s charging for broadband. Their website says “‘High-speed Internet’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.” That’s true, and that’s all they tell you. Considering that the reason I’d left Fairpoint was its tendency to drop connections, I decided they aren’t interested in new broadband customers. So I’m stuck with Comcast.

However, “stuck” doesn’t mean “totally stuck.” $10 of my $54.99 charge has been for leasing a cable modem. This amount has actually gone up as the device has aged. Once I decided that I wouldn’t escape Comcast quickly, I looked into replacing it with a purchased device. This was pretty easy for me, but describing what was involved may help some others. If you have Comcast Internet service and plan to keep it for a year or more, you should definitely escape that ridiculous lease.

The first step is to look at Comcast’s list of approved devices. There are lots of choices, many of them not too expensive. Just make sure you pick one that will keep up with the service level you’re paying for. You might want to check which manufacturers have been caught putting spyware in their devices, but that’s a matter for a different post.

Linksys DPC-3008 cable modemI bought a Linksys DPC-3008 for about $60 from Amazon and set it up. It has just a single Ethernet port, so to keep things simple I connected my main computer directly to it. At this point you have to be patient. If I’d waited long enough, maybe ten minutes, it would have redirected any URL I entered to the Xfinity activation page and I probably could have done it online. But I thought that it wasn’t going to do that, so I called Comcast service. A successful battle with the phone tree led to a real person, who transferred my call to another person.

One of them, I think it was the first one, asked for the last four digits of my Social Security number (my “social,” as people call it when they’re trying to beguile you into handing over confidential information). I declined firmly and wasn’t pressed on the matter. (Why does Comcast make its customers’ Social Security numbers available to its support people!?) I had a bill at hand, so I gave my account number and they were satisfied with that.

Before connecting the device up, I had already copied the serial number and MAC address from its underside. Having these numbers available is important; it’s annoying to read tiny print off the bottom of a connected device while on the phone.

The woman who handled my setup was initially confused because she had the model number listed as a Cisco rather than a Linksys. Apparently it’s both. After asking some questions to make sure it really was what I was saying, she went ahead and did whatever magic occurs to recognize the device. (Comcast makes no secret of its back door to your modem.) There was a slow reinitialization and then I tested a well-known website (cnn.com, but any reliably accessible site will do), and all was well.

The next step was to get my wireless network working again. I’d previously put my Netgear Wi-Fi router into bridge mode, meaning it simply passed all traffic through to the cable modem. I connected up through it and my computer worked, but my Wi-Fi devices couldn’t find a local network. I went fishing on addresses like 192.168.1.1 and 10.0.0.1 and couldn’t find anything. Then it sank in that this box really was just a modem and had no IP address or browser-accessible service. Not really a problem; I just had to take my router out of bridge mode.

However, putting it into bridge mode had lobotomized it. The router now had no IP address of its own to talk to. The only option was to do a full reset on it, which for some reason took several tries at holding the recessed button in for 10 seconds. I then had to re-enter all the Wi-Fi settings, but it worked.

The last step was to return the Comcast device. Fortunately they have a shop in Nashua, so it was a short trip for me. I brought a recent bill for any account information they might need, and an Ethernet cable just in case they insisted that one belonged with the modem (they didn’t). My bill should now be reduced by $10 a month.

I hope this level of detail has been helpful rather than frightening. I will say that the Comcast people I talked with were polite and competent. They’re probably impressed by anyone who doesn’t take their anger at the company out on them.

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Tchaikovsky

Music has always been central to my life. When I was little, my family had records — 45 and 78 RPM in those days — of many different kinds. There were Mickey Mouse Club songs, Greek folk songs in Greek, rock and roll, and other current hits. There were also the classics. I especially remember having a set of RCA Red Seal 45s with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Most of the pieces filled up a side of a record. The “Waltz of the Flowers” took two sides.

What was it that appealed to me at such an early age? Most of the pieces are very rhythmical, and they’re short enough to fit a child’s attention span. The descriptive titles helped; it’s easier to get interested in something called “Chinese Dance” than in “Allegro ma non troppo.” That particular piece (if you’ve seen Fantasia, it’s the bit with the mushrooms) was one of my favorites, with its bouncy bassoon line and pizzicato strings.

Later on I picked up LPs of some of his longer pieces. Dorati’s recording of the Fifth Symphony was one of the first classical LPs I got for myself; I’m pretty sure that either that or Karajan’s recording of Dvořák’s New World symphony was my first. It has a very direct appeal; I liked the way the interruption of the slow movement with a sudden fortissimo made me jump. These days I have to admit the last movement is a bit noisy, but I still love the symphony. The 1812 Overture, of course, is very easy to enjoy. The record I had not only used real cannons but included a spoken section by Deems Taylor explaining their use.

Along the way I picked up Van Cliburn’s famous recording of the first piano concerto. Just recently, though, I read an article telling me that the way I’ve always heard it isn’t the way Tchaikovsky wrote it! It was revised after his death, apparently without following any lead from him. Kiril Gerstein has recorded the concerto in the composer’s own revised version, and I’m eagerly looking forward to its delivery. I heard some clips from it on a site which I can’t find now, and the authentic version of the opening especially impressed me. The usual version pounds out the piano’s accompanying chords; Tchaikovsky’s own version lets them fit more smoothly with the melody.

Some composers took longer than others to appeal to me. Beethoven quickly followed, but I was in college before I developed a liking for Mozart. Since then I’ve found out-of-the-way composers such as Raff and Spohr. But I think Tchaikovsky is the obvious choice for introducing a child to classical music.

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Violence against free speech

A disturbing number of people want to restrict free speech to statements they agree with. They claim that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to speech they hate, or in their vernacular, “hate speech.” The outgoing ombudsman of NPR, Edward Schumacher-Matos, apparently thinks the First Amendment shouldn’t apply to anti-blasphemy laws:

I do not know if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution, but I know—hope?—that most Americans would. It is one thing to lampoon popes, imams, rabbis and other temporal religious leaders of this world; it is quite another to make fun, in often nasty ways, of their prophets and gods.

There’s a case for reading these as the words of an abject coward who wants to drag everyone else down to his level, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt — if you can call it that — and assume he really means that religious authority pre-empts human rights, that he wants to ban Life of Brian and not just the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. After all, he says the majority of the country agrees with him, so he must be counting the religious right.

Mob assaulting anti-abortion activists near University of OregonSome Americans go even further, committing acts of violence against people whose views they didn’t like. It’s reported that a mob of students assaulted anti-abortion protesters at the University of Oregon. The Daily Emerald reports:

Several students surrounded three anti-abortion activists at the intersection of 13th Avenue and University Street on Tuesday before attempting to destroy a graphic poster one of the men was holding in protest. …

History major Allison Rutledge was the first to damage the anti-abortion activist’s poster. She stood on it and claimed that the activist didn’t have the right to display the graphic imagery.

“All I’d like to say about why I decided to actually take the sign from him is I realized it was his property, but it was a piece of paper. I considered the sign obscene and offensive and intending to anger and start a scene,” Rutledge said when contacted for comment. “I didn’t want to look at that obscenity.”

Hopefully the police and university will investigate whether Rutledge in fact committed the assault and said those words, and she will be prosecuted if she did. Assaulting people in order to silence their ideas is a crime not just against the person attacked, but against the principle of a free and open society.

This attack has gotten strangely little news coverage; apparently only the local university press and some conservative and libertarian sources have reported it. Some may think, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s violence in a cause I approve of.” Some may even like a society where people who express those views aren’t safe on the streets. But when censorship and violence restrict what people can say, falsehood wins. The people who can’t offer a rational defense of their views are the ones who have to resort to force.

Minuteman Health’s online terms

Recently I signed up with Minuteman Health, and I began the registration process so I could automate my payments. When I came to the terms of service, I read them more carefully than usual, since they could affect my insurance agreement. That was a good thing, since I came upon this:

V. The User shall: … 4. Keep confidential all information that he or she obtains from the Site, including, but not limited to, information about Minuteman Health’s business practices, providers, or rates of payment to providers.

That means I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about how well I’m covered, what doctors are in their network, or how what sort of service the company provides online. I immediately backed out and wrote a check. Using Minuteman’s online services under those terms is simply unacceptable, and it doesn’t give me a good feeling about the company.

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Clinton’s email server

I try to avoid addressing specifically political issues on this blog too often, since I could easily get carried away with them to no useful purpose. This post is an extended reply to a couple of Twitter responses from a friend; discussing anything complicated on Twitter just doesn’t work. Also, it relates to issues where I have a bit of knowledge.

While she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton used a private server for the large majority of her official email. According to the New York Times, she didn’t even have a .gov email address. This doesn’t appear to have violated any laws, but legal isn’t the same thing as reasonable and prudent.

An article on Gizmodo discusses the security risks that may come with a less than expert setup of an email server. She used the domain clintonemail.com, managed by a company called Perfect Privacy, LLC. Perfect privacy sounds good, but names are easy. It’s hardly likely that its security was as good as the State Department’s. (Although, perhaps … she had reasons to think that hostile spy agencies had completely compromised the State Department’s email and she escaped to a private server? These days you can’t be too paranoid, but it isn’t clear how her course would have helped much. Future news developments might yet surprise us.)

The problems with such a system include lack of credible authenticity (If you got a message from “clintonemail.com,” would you think it was from the Secretary of State?), easy confusion with other domains, an uncertain level of security, and a far too convenient ability to delete anything she didn’t want known. Whether President Obama knew she was using this server is very confusing. A Guardian article says, “Barack Obama emailed Hillary Clinton several times at her personal email address, the White House said on Monday, while insisting the US president did not realise his secretary of state was operating an independent email system detached from government servers.” How is that even possible? Whatever Obama is, he isn’t stupid. Would he accept email from any old address that claimed to be his Secretary of State, without even wondering about it?

Maybe I’m just underestimating how tech-stupid most people, even intelligent ones, are. Some email clients, like the inexplicably popular Outlook, do their best to hide the address from which you got any email, showing only the name. When I had to use Outlook at a previous employer, even I found it hard to tell what address a message really came from. (Which isn’t to say that an email address authenticates anything. They’re trivial to forge.) This affair has me wondering just how vulnerable high-level government email communications are. Maybe it isn’t so unreasonable that Obama would be oblivious to an unfamiliar address. There must be clever technical people in Washington constantly begging high-level officials not to do stupid things, and I don’t envy them; who’d want to tell someone at the White House or Cabinet level, “Don’t do that, you idiot” for a living?

When caught, Clinton blustered; that’s a normal politician’s reflex. It only made her look more stupid to me, but not that many people understand the technical issues. I know how to read email headers; most people don’t know anything more than “From” and “To.” I’m regularly surprised when people don’t know things I consider common knowledge, like that Linux is an operating system or that Lenovo shipped Superfish with many of its computers. There are as many things I don’t know that other people take for granted. But somebody, in all that time, should have noticed that Clinton was engaging in seriously bad security and accountability practices. I suppose no one dared raise the issue.

The Helva CD project

In the early nineties, Helva Peters often sang at conventions in the northeast and MASSFILC gatherings. At the time she had a very impressive voice and gave a moving interpretation to her own songs as well as songs by others. She can be heard on the Wail Songs tapes Shoot the Moon, The Programmer and the Elves, and Let’s Have a Filk Sing, as well as the CD set Balticon Tapes. Since then, various health issues have taken their toll on her, though she still sometimes comes to filksings.

Things have lately taken a more serious turn with her; she now has Stage IV cancer, and family sources are advancing her money for a trip to Tijuana, where she believes a treatment not available in the US will be more helpful to her. She’ll be piling up a lot of expenses and would like to be able to return at least some of that money.

At the same time, it would be a wonderful thing if more of her old recordings became better known to filkers. Her presence at early MASSFILC meetings was one of the things that kept me coming. We’re both fans of the Ron Perlman-Linda Hamilton TV show Beauty and the Beast, and her song “Vincent (Wells)” is a favorite of mine. Helva is her fannish name, taken from Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang, and she’d often sing Cecilia Eng’s “Helva’s Song.”

To accomplish two things at once — raising some money for her medical expenses and making this happen — Helva and I are working on a crowdfunding project to produce a CD of her recordings. Harold Stein has been enthusiastic about the idea, and some other people have set out digging for recordings of her performances. The current plan is that I’ll run the campaign on her behalf. If you read my earlier post asking about raising money for another person, now you know the reason.

I’ve made a video of Helva talking about her situation and asking for support. It will be a while before the campaign is actually online, but I want to start building awareness now. If you have photos or recordings that might be usable, please let me know. If you might like to donate something as a premium, let me know. I’ll be throwing in some number of copies of Tomorrow’s Songs Today. The basic premium will, of course, be the CD. We expect to offer downloads through Bandcamp as well.

A lot is still fluid, but I can promise that everything after expenses, which we’ll keep minimal, will go to Helva. None of the other principals will be paid anything.

The “discriminating” reader

Lately there’s been a really bizarre and disgusting notion going around. It’s a “challenge” to spend a year reading only books by people of specified racial or sexual characteristics. Its source is an article by K. T. Bradford, titled “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year.” It wouldn’t be worth paying attention to except that I’ve seen others seriously discussing it. Now K. T. can read anything or not for any reason. It’s the “challenge” which is offensive.

K. T. Bradford (I think), warning you not to read Neil GaimanIf you accept Bradford’s advice, you have to start by deciding whether you’re allowed to read the article itself. Is K. T. a man or a woman, and of what skin shade? There are several pictures on the page which don’t actually say they’re of Bradford, but it seems likely; I’ve linked to one of the pictures so you can decide before clicking. Of course, anyone who’s taken the pledge can’t read this post either, so that really doesn’t help.

People who take the pledge will have to research the authors of every piece they decide to read. That will pretty much kill their reading for the year, thus solving the problem. Or there’s an easier way: You can let gatekeepers give you a list of permitted reading. Bradford is, just by chance, available to provide you that service. The article ends with “some reading list seeds to get you started.” Relying on Bradford and other gatekeepers of permitted literature is really the only way a serious reader would make it through the year without sinning.

The idea seems to appeal to some readers as a way to explore new material they might have otherwise missed. As a way to find new material to read, with ideas that might challenge their usual ways of thinking, seeking out authors off the normal path can offer value. But for Bradford, it’s the exact opposite of this. She’s retreating into her comfort zone:

Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn’t enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.

I can sympathize with wanting to avoid upsetting material; there are a lot of books I’ve given up on and a few I’ve tossed across the room. But she decided it was the race, sex, or sexual orientation of the writers that was upsetting her.

A discriminating reader will ask questions like: How good a writer is the author? What outlook on life do the author’s works present? For fiction, what kind of story do they tell and what kind of characters to they portray? For nonfiction, how good is the author’s research and presentation? But the “discriminating” reader, in a much uglier sense of the term, will ask: What’s the author’s skin color? Is the author male or female? What kind of sex does the author engage in? It’s the supermarket tabloid mentality.

Let’s judge authors by what they write, not by their appearance or private choices.

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