Not Getting It, TSA vs. Butcher Knife in Purse Edition

First off, who carries a butcher knife on a blind date, “just in case?” I really, really hope I have never been out charming a woman on a blind date on pain of death. Be that as it may, I suppose, if you are the type to put a butcher knife in your handbag “just in case,” you’re the type to forget it and leave it when you go to Newark to get on a plane to fly somewhere later.

Be that as it may, the fact that the vaunted TSA managed to FREAKING MISS THE GREAT HONKING BUTCHER KNIFE in the woman’s purse is ridiculous.

I can’t improve on the woman’s travelling companion’s summary of the situation:

“Suppose someone else had this knife and their motive was to hijack the plane?” Bell Gowens said. “Come on, now. We had a butcher knife. How do you miss that? How many years do you need to get this right?”

How many years indeed? Apparently more than the three and a half years that have passed since 9/11/01.

Sometimes I Love Being Me

My only shot at ethnic coolness (and it is a long, long shot) is my Scottish ancestry (MacKinnon and McIlhatten), which is possibly swamped by my boring, roast-beef-eating, white-bread making, vegetable-boiling English ancestry. Nonetheless, it’s as close to a minority as I’ll ever get, so in today’s group-identity-based culture, I’m clinging to it like, well, a Scotsman clings to a penny.

That’s the stereotype in England, so I hear, that Scots make Jews look like spendthrifts–because we would never allow our religion to deny us free ham. (Note the “we”? Cute, how I slipped in my more-or-less created identity in there). Whether genetically determined or not, my family, we know how to save-a da money.

So it gave me a deep-ethnic-roots thrill a week ago when I had more than $10 in savings on a $28 grocery bill (net owed, $18–sweet!). But this week, I managed to have:

Total before savings: $32.40
Your Total Savings: $14.77
Total After Savings: $17.63

All bonus card buys except for one item, which I had a coupon for. And one of the bonus items? I had a coupon for that, too, biatch! (OK, I’m fairly sure my ancestors never said “biatch”. Some of my still-living, extremely distant relatives may, however–and say it with a funny accent t’boot.)

Two things to note, however:

  1. A real penny-pinching Scot would never spend as much as I do on dining out and Internet access, to name a couple of luxuries, so please don’t imagine I live on milk crates or take dates to places for which I have coupons if you don’t yet well know me.
  2. My skeptical side reminds me that I’m overpaying for those goods the rest of the time, so really I’m just not losing as much as I normally would on the transaction. If I actually consistently switched to the lowest-price version of each item and bought in bulk, I could save far more regularly. Nonetheless, I have a small apartment and like what I like, so slap! I’m Scottish, biatch!

Who Does More for Society?

While I think it’s a mistake to judge your life solely by how worthwhile you perceive it to be for society rather than your own enlightened satisfaction, I still sometimes take stock.

All my schooling was in the humanities, and I always seemed to do better there even in grade school. My verbal score saved my SAT, for example. But although my compatriots in the humanities (and my company’s clients) often view themselves as the ones who are important because of the beneficial work they do for society, I often have my doubts.

Who, in 200 years, will be more important to society, and have affected it more, Jonas Salk or Mother Theresa? Both are roughly equivalent–practically-focused, giants in their field but not on the level of an Einstein or a Ghandi in terms of turning their field on its head.

I would argue that by a country mile, Jonas Salk will be more often-discussed and often-thanked than Mother Theresa. She did good work saving orphans and children, but Jonas Salk was the one without whom millions of children would have died and another multitude been stricken with deformities.

They’re rare to see in the United States now, but when I was very young you would still often see elderly with crippling deformities they’d been living with all their lives as a result of polio. But as we no longer see them, we don’t see the impact the way we do of the current do-gooder.

The tougher question is, who does more good in the long run: Ghandi or Einstein? Ghandi, for all he was not a living saint, did indeed bring pacifism to the mainstream of social conflict. Einstein, of course, recast much of what went before as a special case and made much of the technology we take for granted possible. Both required fairly strong creative leaps given their positions. Both have undoubtedly helped people. But who will help people later?

It’s tough to say, because science such as Einstein’s is largely value-neutral, except in that understanding the world more completely is a virtue (that is to say, ignorance is not a virtue). So whether his impact is for good or ill on society rests more on whether we use applications such as GPS or nuclear weapons more, both of which are byproducts of his theories. Ghandi’s pacifism is a human construction and can be ignored as easily as it can be taken up. In that sense it may not be value-neutral, but it is subject to the whims of human action.

So when you think about drug companies versus relief organizations, remember that they both save lives, and it’s not so clear cut which benefits society more, whatever the price they charge or misuse scandals they suffer.

Not Getting It, Napster Flunks Math Edition

The neutered Napster wants you to Do the Math and compare how much it takes to fill up an MP3 player on their site versus on iTunes. They claim it’s $10,000 compared to $15.

How? It’s $15 a month (roughly) to use the Napster To Go service. A 40GB iPod holds 10,000 average pop tunes. They offer as many downloads as you want (they use the term “unlimited,” which is misleading as I’ll show in a moment) for $15 per month.

“D’oh!” say you, “Why have I been such a schmuck on iTunes when I can sign up for a month of Napster, download all the songs to my iPod I’ll ever want, and then sign off again?” This is of course the calculation Napster is making.

Several things of course are wrong with that statement. By the numbers, math students:

  1. Napster isn’t compatible with the iPod. That means they have lost 70% of the MP3 player market right there. So if you have an iPod, you’ll have to shell out another $350+ for a “Napster-compatible” MP3 player. If you have one of the few Napster supports, you’re golden. If you don’t, it’s off to the store with you. So add $350 to their price right off the bat.
  2. If you are superhumanly quick and perseverant, you might be able to download a tune every five minutes (this includes searching for as well as actually downloading and transferring your tune to your non-iPod MP3 player) for 18 hours a day. Well, you’re already spending $30 as it will take you a month and a half at that pace to download 10,000 songs. Of course a normal human might, if they were very invested, do it for an hour a day. You’ll have to do this every day for 2.2 years or so, meaning that the downloads have cost you $420, not $15. Do you really plan to spend $420 on downloadable songs in the next two years? I sure don’t.
  3. But wait, there’s more! Act now and you’ll hear the songs. Stop your subscription and…wha? Oh, no, wha happa? No tunage! Suck, dude! Yep, you’re renting the songs, not owning them. So if you go off Napster and want to listen to that cool tune you discovered, well, you’re toast. So number of songs you have the month after your $420 to Napster? 0. 0/$420 sucks much worse than 420/$420.
  4. We’re not done yet, weird bad-math cat-like creature! If you’re clever, you think, “Ah, well on iTunes if I ever want to have completely unrestricted access (using non-iPod MP3 players, putting them on an MP3 CD, moving them to more than 5 computers, whatever) I just burn them to a CD. I’ll just burn my Napster tunes to a CD and re-rip them. Score!” Bzzzt. Nice try, but if you want to burn your Napster tune to a CD, guess what you have to pay? 99 cents per song. So add $420 to your $420 if you want to keep them. So, price on iTunes for 420 songs: $420. Price on Napster for 420 songs? Two months of download fees ($30) plus 99 cents per song: $450. Whoa, that’s, like, smart, dude.

So, what are we left with? A service that is better described as for-fee, very personalizable and time-shiftable radio. There may be a market for that. If there is a big market, you can bet iTunes will have it soon. However, I doubt there’s a big market for that, as people will cease wanting to pay $15/month once they’ve finished collecting the tunes they want to keep. Simpler to just pay for them the first time, and never really worry about it again AND keep your iPod. Don’t have one and don’t want one? Burn them to CD and re-rip, or, consult one of the many DRM-cracking programs out there or exploit the analog hole.

Napster is never getting me, as a) the vast majority of my collection is from my own CDs, b) those few songs I want to pay for (to date a whopping 5) I don’t want to have to pay for again, and c) I don’t own an MP3 player. I just play them on computers, and iTunes is available for Mac and Windows.

Do the math, and you’ll find out that Napster costs you more money in the long run under realistic assumptions.

Maybe Squeak Isn’t as Stupid as I Say He Is

I have, as has been tediously pointed out in the motto above, a cinnamon cockatiel who named himself “Squeak”. He has all sorts of cutesy behaviors, and my theory was that some of his odder mannerisms came from having too much input and too little brain with which to process it. If you’ve ever seen a toddler get excited and suddenly stop, shiver, and then go on, you’ll know the idea. Just too much stimulation.

Now, however, science is dripping cold water over my cherished myth of birdie b├ętise. Apparently these little guys can do more than we give them credit for.

Certainly, for something with a brain scarcely larger than a green pea, my little guy can do some fairly adroit things. He understands the command “flap” and can do all sorts of mimicry. But smart? At what point does mimicry imply intelligence?

One of my problems with certain types of liberal arts student has been the language majors who think because they are fluent in a language, they are therefore experts on the politics and culture of the language’s home country. However, linguistic ability does not always correlate with analytic or empathetic ability, which are necessary traits. True, they have an easier time digesting materials in the home language, but there are plenty of people who can read a paper perfectly well in English who nonetheless have nothing valuable, or indeed apposite, to say about US politics. Parroting (if you’ll forgive the semipun) what you hear on NPR does not make you an intellectual.

However, it has been fairly well demonstrated that the larger parrots can develop fairly sophisticated ways of interacting with people that are, if not metaphysically intelligence, sufficiently indistinguishable from intelligence as to render the distinction moot. You never know–except for you, Skinner could be right and the rest of us are just incredibly sophisticated meat puppets that happen to pass the Turing test.

You were conditioned to believe you read it here first.

Clinton Is UN Tsunami Envoy in Charge of Party Down!

The Beeb lets us know that the UN have chosen their Tsunami Relief envoy–Bill Clinton. Call me cynical (“Hi, Cynical!”) but don’t you get the immediate, gut reaction that had this been the Russian Far East tsunami disaster instead of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster with sun and sand at every photo op, he might have passed?

I like Bill better than our current President, but you always wonder about the frat-boy angle to everything when you hear him in the news. That’s why I miss him–he did more to undermine the idea that politics should be an important part of life than any libertarian could ever dream.