Traditional Monsters Play on Three Fears

First, they echo the predators who chased our ancestors. You fear the fangs of a vampire the way you fear the fangs of a wolf. That’s an external fear, a fear of the Beast.

Second, they evoke human aggression and human perversion. A vampire looks like a man and yet it is an eater of men — here’s a hunt of cannibalism, our oldest taboo. That’s an internal fear, a fear of the Best Within.

Third, we fear transformation into the Best — a chance bite form a wolf can turn you into a bloodthirsty monster, Dr. Frankenstein can reanimate your corpse with a bolt of lightening, the right combination of chemicals can turn good Dr. Jekyll into evil Mr. Hyde. We fear the monster’s capacity for evil because we can recognize it in human hearts.

From Idlewild, by Nick Sagan.

79th Annual Commencement Exercises of Bennett College for Women

With the commencement address by California’s House member Diane Watson, the 79th annual commencement’s direction at Bennett College had been set. This is an important note as I cannot figure out what a House member from California has to do with Bennett (other than maybe being a black women who had it tough, as noted many times during her speech), but the unexplainable oddities of the commencement had begun. The mayor of Greensboro, Yvonne Johnson, would be in attendance and would give a speech along with Valerie Amos, Gregory Barmore, Andrew Harris and Evelyn Lowery, the four honorary degree recipients along with Diane Watson. Scheduled to last just over two hours, it was set to be quite a memorable and value-packed ceremony except for one major footnote on the program: It was going to be at the campus quadrangle — a giant field outside.

That’s right — the ceremony would be held outside on campus starting at 11:00am. With an expected temperature of 88 degrees, the giant field with no real shade from the North Carolina sun, and no real relief from the heat other than complementary bottles of water was sure to make an impact on all guests. It seemed a little strange that the entire ceremony was scheduled to coincide with the hottest, most dangerous time to be out in direct sunlight but I suppose it would have been too much to start things at 9:00 or even 10:00.

Sure, the majority of guests were not really affected much by the scorching sun beating down but nearly all of the minority white guests I noticed were sunburned. Speaking with faculty member Johnny McGee afterward, he mentioned, “I was sitting in front watching that guest Gregory Barmore’s face just blister throughout the day. He was getting redder and redder!” I do not believe Mr. McGee knew what his own head looked like as he reminded me of someone who had gotten pissed at the beach and later fell asleep in the sand.

A lot of rumors were about as to why Bennett decided on having the commencement outside when it has been held indoors the last few years, but the way I hear it is that the alumni get to decide on the location and this year they decided on having it outside on campus. Perhaps they were being vindictive.

If it were my graduation, I would be pissed off and sure to be vocal about it. In any case, you can count me out of attending next year if it will again be held outside.

A Test of Courage

It was barely 10:00 in the morning and here I was, faced with a serious dilemma which proves an individual’s leadership skills. Well, deciding one way or another probably won’t change earth’s axis if inclination but this was still one of those moments where you have doubts about whether or not it’s really happening.

I had to gather my thoughts on what just happened and stare up at the wall in front of me in order to not freak out again by viewing the awesome disaster which was unfolding in front of me.

Here’s the moment of truth. Do I go back to my desk, go back to work, pretend like nothing ever happened and act surprised and dumbfounded when someone eventually discovers what’s happened? Do I instead handle the matter myself, owning up to my problems and tackling them with little inhibition? This would be the kind of gusto that the hero of movies always demonstrates.

From where I am located in the building there are two bathroom options which are about the same distance away. One is what I call the executive bathroom. This bathroom’s wallpaper is a dark color. The stall walls are a fake dark marble. The sink has ornate decorations. There’s even a fan that’s always running and a can of mango-scented air freshener available. Using this bathroom is feeling like you’re important and the time you’re devoting in there is cherished.

Then there’s the other bathroom, the peon bathroom. Everything is older and slightly rundown. No dark colors anywhere; everything slightly resembles the tacky look of a dentist’s office. The sink is fully exposed and there’s no fan and mango-scented air freshener, so it typically stinks for up to several hours after it’s been used. I typically use the peon bathroom as it’s next to the break room and I can refill my mug on the way back to my desk. But on this day I decided to treat myself a bit to the executive bathroom just because I can.

So I walked in to find the bathroom empty. Score! It was going to be a mango-scented bliss to drop a few kids off at the pool.

Several minutes later and I was ready to flush away what seemed like just another session. And that’s when I encountered the first hiccup: the toilet began to back up. I stood in front of it in slight curiosity as this never happened before; the toilet and I had a pact. Luckily it didn’t overflow, probably due to the understanding we had.

I began using the industrial strength coiled plunger but it didn’t appear to be having any effect. To make matters worse, as I’m in the middle of frantically pluging the hell out of the toilet, somebody walks in.

I freeze until they leave again, lest they recognize my shoes and forever scar the image of me as that guy who clogged the toilet.

Now, I don’t recall what happened next as it all happened so fast, almost fast to enough to have my life flashing before me, but I think I flushed the toilet again thinking that I had loosened up any blockages and before I knew it the toilet which had always been good to me was overflowing and wouldn’t stop.

So there I was, not only standing in front of the toilet which had overflowed for what seemed like hours, but also standing in about half an inch of natural, crystal clear, smooth water (it was anything but natural, crystal clear or smooth but I’m leaving out the mental-picture-making details as it’s not important — it was mostly my own shit and I was standing in a crap load of it). This was the moment that I might’ve been waiting for my entire life: the moment where I make the choice to prove my courageousness, show integrity and fix the problem at hand; or, meander back to my desk to continue working like nothing ever happened. “What? The toilet in the executive bathroom overflowed and nobody said anything and now somebody’s going to have to clean up that mess? Nope — wasn’t me who did it. I had Mexican for dinner last night.”

OK, perhaps this wasn’t the moment I had been waiting for my entire life and it certainly wasn’t as character-defining as it sounds — it’s attending to an overflowing toilet — but it was such an awesome disaster that its resolution seemed pretty important.

As if deciding on combo meal number two instead of number one, I decided to clean up my mess and see it through no matter how much I later realized I didn’t want to. I needed to go through the series of steps to be rid of this problem.

“Has the toilet stopped overflowing water?” Yes, I jiggled the lever until water was blocked from coming down the tank. Next. I need a way to soak up all the mess on the floor.

Mop bucket“Paper towels will take ages. I need a mop bucket. I know there’s one in the break room closet but it’s locked. Dammit, I need to see Kevin to get the key.” So much for keeping this quiet. That’s going to be one person who knows too much.

So I walk out of the bathroom, stop in front of the door and check to make sure nobody’s making their way to it, otherwise I’d have to tackle them if they got too close. I walk over to Kevin’s office and ask for the key to the closet. “Nope,” he says, “Gabe is the one with that key. Let’s go see him.” Dammit, two people who know too much.

We go to Gabe’s office and get the key from him. During the walk to the closet Kevin asks, “What do you need the mop for?” Luckily a quick “Do you really want to know?” put an end to any further details leaking.

He opens the closet, tells me to close it back up when I’m done and walks away to leave me alone. Great, now if I can only get this yellow mop bucket to the bathroom I’ll be safe.

Not a chance.

Not even half way through the room and Steven walks in. “Hey, whatcha cleaning up?” Then Amanda walks out of the women’s poen bathroom, “You can come by and clean up my house after you’re done!” With each word I hear I pick up my pace, hopefully avoiding any further prodding from the now four people who know too much.

Got back to the bathroom. Put a sign on the door which read “Out of order” since I couldn’t lock the door. Started with the cleanup. At some point Gabe poked his head in and asked if I was alright. I had to admit to what had happened. “Oh… OK…,” and he slowly poked back out wishing he hadn’t asked in the first place. Three people who knew too much and now one who knew it all.

I had the entire floor spick and span again in no time without any further interruptions. Some of it required manual intervention with paper towels, but nothing enough to make me lose my lunch. The bathroom looked as good as new again, certainly nothing to give away any hints of the Desparado-like bathroom it was just hours ago (you know the one, it had a hidden door to the money counting room). I then wiped off the sweat on my brow and began on the mission to get the yellow bucket back to the closet without adding any further knows-too-much tallies — but not without first spraying some more mango on my way out.

Poked my head out of the door to make sure the coast was clear and raced back to the closet without bumping into anyone else in the breakroom. Mission accomplished.

There I sat, back at my desk again, with that feeling of an accomplishment under my belt but at the same time a kind of defeat. I thought we had a deal. I thought we had a deal.

All of the names except for the air freshener have been changed, it really was mango. And yes, it really happened to me.

Stephen Dubner at UNCG

The dictator game is a very simple game in experimental economics that touches on the altruistic value in humans. The game is simple. You participate for the experiment and are seated in a room along with one of the people running the experiment. They give you ten one dollar bills which you are then allowed to keep no matter what. You are not the only one in the experiment, however, and there will be someone coming in next after you leave. Do you wish to give any of your money to them? If you do, you will leave with whatever is left out of the ten dollars and they will start with ten dollars — like you did — plus the amount you donated to them. You won’t get a chance to see them and they won’t see you, so it’s completely anonymous — no one ever knows of your generosity and they cannot thank you for it. Of course, there are no other people in the experiment and each participant is presented with the same choice.

On average, three dollars is typically donated proving that humans are innately altruistic.

Let’s run the experiment one more time except this time let’s change the amount you are allowed to give from -$1 to $10, -1 being that you can now take one dollar from the next person. On average the number was zero for this experiment, proving that humans are not all that altruistic this time.

Now let’s run the experiment one last time but further change the amount you are allowed to give from -$10 to $10. So now you are able to take all ten dollars of the next person an and leave with twenty dollars if you so choose. What do you think the results of this experiment turned out to be?

On average, -$1.5 dollars was chosen; the participants anonymously stole $1.5 dollars from the next person.

This was just one of the stories told by Stephen Dubner at his guest lecture at UNCG on March 25. Although he does not proclaim himself to be an economist or even to know anything worthwhile in the field, he co-authored Freakonomics with Steven Levitt — who, incidentally, is an economist. Knowing that Dubner is not an economist but rather a journalist is important to realize beforehand as the book is a record of dozens of economic anomalies presented in a very easy to understand and enjoyable fashion (the Dubner aspect of the book, I suppose).

On the whole, the lecture proved to be very interesting. Dubner was able to just appear on stage and instantly dive into an hour long lecture as if it were a comfortable conversation piece. He easily segwayed from one economic topic on to another and made the audience forget that each topic, which was presented more like a story, was on the often-boring and mundane subject of economics, which is often called the dismal science as it tries to reduce the splendors of life down to mathematical equations.

The other interesting story of the lecture was the story of Yale economist Keith Chen and his idea of introducing the notion of bartering with money to capuchin monkeys. The purpose was to introduce the idea of exchanging money for food and see if the monkeys somehow exhibited some sort of behavior that we humans could learn from.

The enclosure was separated into two main cages, one where several capuchins lived and another which was empty where the assistants would interact with the monkeys. The two rooms were separated by a gate. Every day, Chen and his assistants would open the gate to let one monkey into the empty room and give him several small plastic discs. They would then take them out of the monkey’s hands as they gave him grapes. They repeated this process for several months until they monkeys began to understand that when they give the humans two discs they receive a bowl a grapes. This was the first phase of the experiment.

Chen then began to alter certain aspects of the monetary system. For instance, they raised the price of grapes to four discs while leaving the price of bananas to two. The capuchins picked up on the price hike and went without the more expensive but tastier grapes in favor of the bananas in order to save more discs. Another incident of the price hike was the robbery of several discs. One day when the capuchin was in the empty room and presented a tray full of discs he smashed the tray backwards so that the discs flew into the other room for everyone else. The monkeys exhibited a lot of the same behaviors that humans do with money, even in hard times.

It was during this time that Chen noticed something very unexpected. He watched one of the male capuchins gather several discs from his private stash, walk up to one of the females, give all of the discs to her, have sex with her and then walk away. Chen had witnessed capuchin prostitution.

One last interesting tidbit that I picked up from the lecture was that of the realtor and pimp and the value they bring to the table. If you’re trying to sell your house, hiring a realtor to sell it will yield a smaller return on investment than a prostitute who uses a pimp. Dubner calls this the “pimpact.”

Cornel West Visits Bennett College

Cornel WestI was fortunate enough to attend a guest lecture by Cornel West at Bennet College on March 26th at the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel. It appeared to be an open topic lecture, which started off mostly ad-lib and evolved into opines on many broad topics including US politics, the current financial system, racism, black history and other related topics.

I had heard of the name Cornel West in passing many times but it wasn’t until his guest appearances on the HBO show Real Time that I began to get to know him. I went out of my way to watch the episodes where he would appear and would be astounded by nearly everything that he spoke of. He has a very profound way of expressing new and thought provoking ideas on nearly every subject. This was the Cornel that I had gotten to know and enjoy. This was the Cornel that he put on for that particular audience. At Bennett College, on the other hand, I got the chance to see a much more relaxed version.

Bennett College is listed as one of the 103 remaining historically black college and universities (HBCUs) left in the US. They were founded before 1964 and serve the black community. In addition, Bennett College only admits women. So Cornel was in prime location for some inspirational words of wisdom. While I knew that much of it wouldn’t be too inspirational to me (I’m not a black woman) it would still live up to the Real Time Cornel that I got to know. It turned out to be inspirational in different ways for me.

Cornel West currently teaches at Princeton University under the African American Studies department, with courses directly in religion or based on religion being his primary offerings. The lecture he gave in many ways was a sermon, although there were too many times that what he was talking about was very inappropriate for church — masturbating, orgasms, sex, drugs, etc.

He did a very good job of bringing out the black perspective. Not to insinuate that he fabricated problems which affect the black community out of otherwise cross-racial and cross-economic issues, but he was able to always discover, point out and focus on issues and how they affect the black community as a whole. The inspirational aspect of the lecture came about in his advice for overcoming and moving past such issues by mainly “looking in the mirror to discover your true self and in doing so will you only then be able to realize others’ faults and look past them.” However, I did notice a few glaring mistakes in Cornel’s observations which led me to believe there were other inconsistencies with his findings.

In his talk about Obama, he likened Obama to someone who is a descendant of the slave times, grew up knowing many hardships and being part of the blues. As Obama has shattered the glass ceiling by making into the White House he has to remember about those still in the basement; while it’s a grand accomplishment, he mustn’t forget about his brothers. While he made it into the White House, it’s still just a house built by slaves. While we have records that the White House built in 1800 was done so by slaves, what about the rebuilding after the War of 1812? Further, while it’s a historic event that we are able to elect a bi-racial African-American, he is not a descendant of slaves. His mother wasn’t a descendant of slave owners and his father was from Kenya.

Cornel also insisted that when Obama won the vote in Iowa, “the people of Iowa were a little less racist that day than they were the day before.” Now, I’m no expert on Iowa by any means but isn’t it a bit of a farce to insist that everyone in Iowa is racist against black people but, considering who their choices were, they voted for Obama? Perhaps the entire state is racist. Perhaps, given a choice between someone they hate based entirely on the pigment of their skin and an old guy with a woman VP, they voted for the thing they hated the least. Perhaps Cornel sees a lot of people as possibly or potentially racist.

Many of the topics made me feel uncomfortable as they devolved into racism. Perhaps as a person who has been privileged enough to lead most of my life without racism as a forefront thought, I am unable to so easily find the racism effect in so many prevalent issues in society, so it was jarring to hear of it. Too many times it felt almost as if everyone in the chapel was about to collectively give me a dirty look in my direction. To be fair, I was in the minority as I’m a white and a male and an immigrant.

The entire lecture was very interesting in so many ways and it was awesome that I had the opportunity to see Cornel West in person. If the stage hadn’t been descended upon by half of the audience, I would’ve liked to have chatted to him for a minute.

I really liked the man before getting the chance to see him in person. Now I respect him.

ISPs and “Three Strikes”

Over the past few years in an effort to stymie innovation to their industry, the content providers — the RIAA, MPAA, et al — have gone on a relentless pursuit to sue anyone and everyone involved in any sort of file sharing which resulted in unauthorized distribution of their copyrighted works (I will refrain from using the term “piracy” because this issue is not related to boarding another’s ship and/or pillaging and raping, as well I am not referring to selling bootlegs). For years they have sued anyone supposedly caught sharing their works on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks: grandmothers, children, deceased, people who don’t even own computers; and the list goes on and on. The thought behind this was to scare people away from the ease of grabbing music online; when the content providers refuse to change their distribution models to reflect that of their customer’s desires and instead aim to keep it just the same as it’s always been for the last half a century, the best they can do is to try and put the cat back in the bag.

But after years and years of suing their customers with little change, the content providers have started targeting ISPs to do their dirty work. They have come up with the “three strikes and you’re out” idea, and many ISPs are beginning to implement it. The EU has let up on France so they can now implement it, Italy thinks downloading should be a crime, Ireland — and now, South Korea.

The idea being the “three strikes and you’re out” idea is simple at first. On the first occasion that a copyright holder notifies the ISP that one of their customers is infringing on their copyright, the ISP notifies the customer — first warning. The customer then can receive up to two more warnings in the same fashion after which their connection will be terminated.

The idea sounds simple and sounds like it may work, except for one glaring problem: the copyright holder is not required to provide any proof! This smacks in the face of due process.

You get accused of unlawful behavior three times by an outside business and you lose access to something you’re paying for. No trial. No requirement of proof of an actual crime. Nothing more than “you’re guilty” is needed to terminate your access to the Internet.

No provisions are made to provide the customer any outlets to appeal the accusations. In the United States, the power company cannot cut off a customer’s electricity without some kind of legal recourse. The city cannot turn off a customer’s water or sewer. While it has yet to be classified as such, the Internet is fast becoming a utility. Internet access is no longer something that’s nice to have. For many people it is the ability to communicate to family, an essential part of employment, the way to conduct finances, and a host of other facets of people’s lives. Cutting off Internet access with nothing more than an accusation is not akin to cutting off someone’s health club membership or tanning salon access; the Internet is becoming an essential part of daily life. In most areas of the U.S. there are monopolies, and, if you’re really lucky, there will be more than one option for an ISP. With these monopolies around as the only options for getting online, what recourse do customers have to get back online when they get blacklisted?

I find it interesting that the U.S. is willing to spend millions and millions of dollars of public money to make sure that every home is online and yet enact laws which make it easy to kick people offline. You can’t have it both ways.

As a side note, during my time in Japan in 2006 my ISP, USEN, had already instituted this policy of “graduated response.” They allowed a third-party company operating in China to listen in on traffic and flag customers at which point USEN’s customer service department would then call and warn me. They are always ahead in the technology game.



The instructions recommend that in cases where reading them raises a question that you hook up a one-mile extension cord to the IKEA store and hold the phone up to your ear. I don’t know how that’s supposed to solve your confusion — I mean, you can’t even dial anyone as the phone receiver is hooked directly to the building. Perhaps some of the confusion is in trying to assemble the furniture while still in the IKEA parking lot?

Visited IKEA today for the second time. Had to park in the back of the store as literally every other parking space was occupied. When leaving, I noticed that the local police had blocked off all entrances to the store and were turning around all cars that were trying to go in; the store was filled to capacity — probably beyond! Insane.

The Prevailing American Right

The financial state of the United States as of late has been anything but stellar, in fact it can better be described as nosediving. But where did this financial crisis arise from? What actions prompted so many banks to give out ever-increasingly risky loans? Why were so many banks and other companies climbing over each other in the attempt to profit off of anything and anyone at the least amount of expense?

Greed. Pure, unadulterated, unchecked greed.

This aristocratic era that America seems to be willing to submit into stands for everything that the forefathers of the country fought against. No longer is the notion that people are allowed the opportunity to pursue happiness but rather that they are given it because they deserve it based on some metric which they created — a sort of lie to themselves. This notion was implanted into the subconscious by the multitude of advertising everywhere, movies and TV programs, and general behavior condoned and supported by our elected government. The idea given is that being American is a right; being American means belonging to the “greatest country on the planet” and as a result everyone deserves a 2,000 square foot home, a 600 cubic foot automobile, access to credit cards, a flat screen TV in every room and a cell phone no matter how incompetent, inefficient or otherwise unproductive they are to society. This is a pipe dream that, of course, anyone is willing to submit to at first glance because we are all inherently lazy, but it should be quickly ignored with the realization that nothing is free. Despite this, the “American right” was believed by small numbers — mainly those whose luck was running out or turned to “guns and religion.” Corporations who were out to turn profits quickly caught on to this growing epidemic and exploited the situation, offering risky loans to people to make purchases they could not repay. This could not be further from the ideals written into the justification for the colonies to rebel against England. The entire idea was to give people the opportunity to succeed without having to compete against firms that produced nothing. Nobody wants to buy an American car; nobody wants to use plastic discs to listen to their music from; and yet, we — the population as a whole and our government — are wasting our time and money trying to save these sort of failed business models. This is basic microeconomics: Firms which are able to profit while producing goods and selling them to people who are willing to buy at a fair price will survive. Why are we convinced that these companies which have demonstrated that they are unable to turn a profit are entitled to their income. Let capitalism take its course, let these firms fail and free up the resources that they were using for other more innovative firms.

Friday the 13th Goodness, UNIX Style

Epoch fail

A peculiar, one-in-a-lifetime occurrence in computer science is upon us: Friday, February 13th, 2009 UNIX time will reach 1,234,567,890 at exactly 18:31:30  EST. UNIX time is a measure of time that’s counted in the number of seconds since 00:00:00 January 1st 1970 UTC. If you want to find out the correct time for your timezone, you can use this Bash command:

date -d@1234567890

Or this handy Perl oneliner:

perl -e 'print localtime(1234554321)'

Apparently also occurring on the same day is the palindrome 1234554321.

For those that want to apply a New Year’s Eve-like countdown to the whole thing, there’s even a web site where you can watch the seconds count down.

So where will you be on this momentous occasion?

NY Waterway Ad

From a NY Waterway ad campaign:

NY Waterway

Life is full of surprises, like your husband coming home from work and beating you again, but your commute shouldn’t be.