Tag Archives: personal

This American Life: 129 Cars

We recently had to buy a new car. I say “had to” because the one we were driving at the time was twelve years old and had 185,000 miles on it. A lot of little things weren’t working. The engine itself—block, pistons, and transmission—was fine, which I’ve had more than one mechanic say if the engine is fine then the car is maintainable; everything else can be replaced or really isn’t necessary to getting from one place to the next, but if the block, pistons, or transmission get damaged, selling it for parts or trading it in for a new one is far easier than replacing the block. Sure, you ostensibly pay more in payments than in repairs, but then at least you know that you have reliable transportation. Since all this was coming from my mechanics over the years, I’ve had a hard time even attempting to refute the logic.

But over the last couple of years a lot of little things were going wrong, and driving our old car was a death by a thousand cuts. The driver-side sunshade decided it wouldn’t stay in the roof any more; the keyless entry stopped working entirely, we had to manually manipulate all the locks; and the A/C stopped working altogether. When we saw the cost to replace the struts and repair the A/C, we decided buying a new car was the cheaper option, at least for the first year, but easier in terms of convenience over the long term. Good enough reason as any since we felt we had successfully continued our long tradition of driving our cars into the ground.

When we were coming to the realization that we were going to have to buy a new car in the next six months, I had already heard about the 129 Cars episode on This American Life, and grabbed it off of iTunes for 99¢. Since then I must have listened to it a hundred times. This quote, and you really have to hear the delivery, cracks me up every time:

A customer says they’re not ready to buy a car. Let’s go over it again. They’re at a car dealership. They got in their car, drove through hell to get here, looked for a parking spot for ten minutes, parked, got out of the car and walked into a car dealer. Not because the coffee’s good, we went over this, because the coffee here’s not good. They came here because we sell cars and they want to buy one.

There was a lot of useful information in there that, while not directly applicable, altered our approach such that we were able to have much more reasonable time purchasing the car. In talking with people each car company and each dealership all have their own ways of doing things. But that quote, I think, comprehensively framed our mindset walking into the dealership. They didn’t need to know that our current car was falling apart, but we didn’t waste their time and ours deluding ourselves or them that we were “just looking.” They know we were in the market for a new car, but they also knew—because we told them—we were weighing our options in what they knew to be a competitive market. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say we were not hostile in any way, and ended up with a great deal without a lot of hassle.

If you are in the market to buy a new car, I highly suggest listening to that episode a few times to catch all the details. I still listen to it from time to time if only to hear that quote. I have found it immensely useful in other areas as well—washers, dryers, refrigerators, furniture, and anything else that requires a salesman to coordinate the purchase. Unless you are in the washer business, you are not “just looking.”

Death Becomes Him: Confessions of a Mortician

I tend to read a lot about morticians (for some reason that I have yet to surmise), and this one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the topic because it captures perfectly both “sides,” if you will, of morticians and non-morticians:

Of course, we like to keep our distance in this way, which is why we pay the death fairies to take care of it. Americans don’t like to talk about the inevitable: Our screens are filled with zombies, and yet speaking frankly about death is seen as “morbid” or “unhealthy.” Surely the recent Ebola panic is a product of this repression, a way of turning our own mortality into a foreign threat, an illegal immigrant landing on our shores. Death is embarrassing to us, even a bit unpatriotic. I’ve discovered this about my own fear of extinction. When I bring it up, people tend to shift in their chairs, as if holding in a fart. A look of impatience crosses their faces. Just as often, too, they can’t understand what the hell I’m talking about.
Death Becomes Him: Confessions of a Mortician

There’s so much I could quote, and I don’t want to ruin it, but this paragraph really struck a nerve:

I switched on the TV. Game of Thrones, which I’d never seen before, was on. It was some grim and pretentious business. A bunch of bearded dudes were trapped inside a castle, waiting to be slaughtered. Mostly they walked around muttering about how scared they were. Before long the bad guys, a motley crew that seemed to include giants and woolly mammoths, stormed the castle and began to bash people’s heads in like watermelons. Normally I was hardened to this sort of stuff — who could go to the movies these days without seeing the insides of someone’s head? — but now I felt like I might actually throw up. What did it mean that this was one of the most popular shows in America? Why did we need our death porn and our sealed caskets, too?

I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, and based on what I’ve heard I have no interest in it either. I’ve been involved in some kind of medical publishing my entire career. Horror and gore in TV and movies really doesn’t do anything for me anymore. If anything, I find “death porn” confusing.

Hollywood still doesn’t have any new ideas

Matt Reeves says that the plan isn’t ever to “remake” The Planet of the Apes, but to do something more reboot-ish…
io9.com: What Could Another Planet of the Apes Remake Look Like?

New rule: Anytime a Hollywood executive uses the words “another…remake” in a sentence, even speculatively, needs to be immediately stripped of their decision-making authority.

I’m “iffy” on reboots. There is bias on my part in that I really only care about those franchises I like, and I never really cared for Planet of the Apes. Then there are those rare franchises that lend themselves to “reboots,” like the James Bond series. And let’s be clear: “reboot” is just a fancier term for “remake,” like “pre-owned vehicle” is just a fancier term for “used car.”

Either way, given the current prevalence of remakes and reboots, is Hollywood really so starved for new ideas that this is the new norm?

Morning Coffee

SCENE: 06:30, Saturday Morning

Daughter: Daddy, let’s play a game!
Me: How about “Daddy Drinks Coffee?” That’s a game we could play. I’m playing it right now, actually.
Daughter: Daddy! [Laughs] That’s not a game!
Me: You’re right. It’s not a game; Daddy must have his coffee every day.
Daughter: [blinks]
Me: How about we play Minecraft?
Daughter: Yeah!

Star Trek to Star Wars: Just One Thing About J.J. Abrams At The Helm

(Warning: This article contains spoilers for movies that have been out for at least a couple years now, though given the title if you are reading this article you have seen the films in question.)

Ars Technica has a good review of the Star Wars trailer because it doesn’t dive deeply into the details but instead looks at the overall context:

One alternate explanation for the excess of familiarity is that, unlike 2009’s Star Trek, The Force Awakens is a true sequel and not a reboot. Abrams’ first Trek film hit a big reset button for a franchise that was in much worse shape than Star Wars is now—even though reviews of Episodes I, II, and III were mostly negative and remain popular punching bags to this day, they were still big financial successes. The same cannot be said for Star Trek Nemesis and Enterprise, the final fizzling embers of the Star Trek revival that began with Wrath of Khan and The Next Generation. Abrams had a lot of latitude in reimagining Trek’s most iconic elements, but The Force Awakens is sticking closer to the aesthetic established in the original 1970s and ’80s films.

I agree about the prequels. Lucas fucked up. I saw all of them in the theaters, but I only ever saw them once. I have zero inclination to see them again, much less buy DVDs remastered or otherwise. For me, Episodes I, II, and III just never happened, and I will only revisit them when my kids ask “Hey, this is Episode IV. Where are Episodes I, II, and III?”

As for J.J. Abrams’ treatment of the Star Trek reboot, I have mixed feelings about them. For both the films, I really like the overall look and feel; the original uniforms with the movie iconography and sets. I think he really captured the overall aesthetic across the entire franchise that I grew up with.

The conclusion to the article sums up my feelings about these new Star Wars films:

Of course, this trailer gives us just a glimpse of what we’ll actually see in theaters in December 2015, and it tells us nothing about the stuff that really ruined the prequel movies—boring stories, wooden acting, and stilted, ridiculous scripts. We’re inclined to be hopeful, given Abrams’ track record, but we’re still in for a long wait.

This is also where I pause on Abrams taking the helm of Star Wars. Case in point: the plot to the second Star Trek reboot movie—you know, the one where Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan—because it speaks directly to my single biggest complaint about Hollywood in that there are so few original ideas. How many remakes of already-written plots do we need? How many Superman origin stories do we need set to film? Why have all of these action movie soundtracks been simplified down to non-orchestral bombastic textures? (I’m looking at you Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer.) As soon as Cumberbatch revealed he was Khan, I was ready to leave (but didn’t because the theater seats are way more comfortable than the lobby seats). When Spock and Kirk flipped the infamous engine room scene from Wrath of Khan, the Abrams version went into the same “I want two hours of my life back” bin I have for Episodes I, II, and III. My time for movies is severely limited, and I find more satisfaction out of other types of film than the current trends in high-end sci-fi/action. Maybe I’m just getting old and no longer the target audience for The Avengers, but my patience for seeing the same memes used across genres and franchises is already stale.

The point here is not that I expect an old plot will be rehashed in Star Wars—obviously, there shouldn’t be in what is clearly going to be a canonical sequel—but that Abrams has made what I consider to be showstopper mistakes with a beloved franchise. While I don’t think he will make a “second Death Star” mistake (speaking of rehashing old plots), there is still a lot of room for error here.

I do—however, ultimately, honestly, and truly—wish him the best of luck with Star Wars. The Star Trek reboot was a visual love letter to a great franchise, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the first one if only because he gave Star Trek a long-needed “edginess” to it, and the Star Wars trailer looks to be the same. Seeing and hearing those X-Wings skimming on the water, and the Millennium Falcon taking on a couple of TIEs, had the kid in my craving much, much more. Abrams is clearly already more on the mark than Lucas was; amazing what a fresh pair of eyes will do to a franchise. But we still don’t know anything about the plot, despite all the picking apart by fandom with their rumors in hand, and we all know as irrefutable, immutable law of film that no amount of special effects will save a bad story.

Speaking of fandom, the comments to the article are amusing in a William Shatner, Saturday Night Live skit kind of way (says the guy writing about a Star Wars teaser trailer on his blog), which I don’t normally read but I just had to look, and this one sums up the tone perfectly:

Yes, LET’S ARGUE ABOUT LIGHTSABER CONFIGURATIONS ON THE INTERNET IN THE TIME HONORED TRADITION

May the force be with J.J. Abrams and his team.

Is it January 2nd yet?

I find the holidays, in general, to be uninteresting. To put this another way, I don’t like the holidays the same way I don’t like lima beans or lime chutney.

This isn’t a religious thing. Just a totally secular and non-political distaste. The combination of red, green, white, the smell of pine, and outdoor lights just don’t move me the same way they move others. Turkey is not something I particularly care for and choose not to eat it any other time of the year. Like some people and coffee, I think turkey smells great being prepared but not great to consume. Pumpkin pie, frankly, is just unappetizing and unsatisfying. Cranberry sauce is disgusting, especially from the can. That stuff is foul and ought to be avoided if only on general principle. That’s where my lack of interest starts and stops. Purely superficial, with no insult to any deep-rooted sense of tradition or heritage intended.

I could go through the litany the complaints about holidays—particular relatives, shopping, traveling, and the like—but this is really no different than anyone else, and I don’t care enough about the holidays to give it that much energy. Nothing terrible happened to me as a kid that has ruined the holidays, no extraordinary dramas that have left me scarred. They were pretty blasé best I can recall. I just have a much harder time than most other people maintaining that façade of not just being perfectly okay with it all, but rather even just showing any interest. I don’t mind that other people enjoy it, I’m very much a “live and let live” kind of person when it comes to this sort of thing. I personally don’t care for or about the holidays, and I wish people would stop expecting more out of me than I am capable of giving on this one.

I figured having kids would turn me around on this, seeing the holidays anew through their eyes and all that. Nope. Instead, I found that I have to double down on the “fake it ’til you make it” for a couple of months. Don’t want to see Santa? No problem, kiddo, for we have better things to do. Let’s go build stuff with Lego.

Please pass me the wine on your way out the door, and let me know when the sun rises on January 2. Cheers!

Gates Notes: Online, All Students Sit in the Front Row

I don’t talk about my going to school much here, for a variety of reasons that I don’t delve into here, but this piece from Bill Gates provides a good overview of the current state of continuing education:

In my experience, what separates the great courses from the mediocre ones is the quality of the professors, whose passion and expertise bring their subjects to life, as much online as in-person. That’s why it’s critical that during this time of transition we keep our focus on the instructors. They are the ones who inspire and guide students. The best online learning technologies expand the reach of the most inspiring professors by allowing more students to be part of their classes.
Gates Notes: “Online, All Students Sit in the Front Row”

This, however, is just as important point as the above:

The biggest challenge facing all higher education institutions is how to ensure more students stay in college or university and complete their degrees. They are looking everywhere for solutions. Arizona State University, for instance, discovered that the college catalogue overwhelmed students with too many class choices and gave them too little guidance. So the university redesigned the entire experience. The new, personalized online catalogue features “major maps,” which outline a major’s key requirements, optimal course sequence, and career options to help keep students on the path to graduation.

I can see where students, potential and otherwise, would have a problem with course selection, as with anything where there is a lot of choice and minimal guidance. I’ve faced that dilemma a few times, especially now that I am mopping up the last of my non-credit requirements, and more able to choose the courses I want to take. But course selection is an answered question in the form of advisors. The key to good curriculum choices is to have a plan walking into school. If someone doesn’t have a plan, a good advisor will help create one. But, course selection is the least of my problems as a continuing education student.

The larger, and much harder, problem is balancing school with other responsibilities. There are times when my passion for school outweighs my passion for work. Work is, at times, mundane and uninteresting because I am in maintenance mode, fixing bugs in Applescripts and my utility apps because of some application or operating system upgrade. Compare that to learning something completely new to me in any of my classes, and I can’t get out of work fast enough to go to class or do homework. Then there are times like this semester when the opposite is true, where my passion for work exceeds my passion for school, and doing enough work to get good grades (not passing grades, good grades) is really hard. Add two kids in the mix—five and three this year—and I occasionally get overwhelmed. There’s been a lot of “take a deep breath” moments over the past several years because quitting my job, dropping out of school, or ignoring my kids is never an option.

Being smart about my time is at the core of that balancing responsibilities. Good time management means everything is strategized and planned, from what I eat to maintain a semblance of good health, to when I spend some time with the kids so they don’t feel ignored, and all the way down to when I go to bed to get enough sleep to press on the next day. Courses are at night by necessity, which means I don’t get home until 23:00 (at the earliest if I don’t need to speak with the professor right after lecture). I love going to campus and sitting in the classroom. Online lectures are convenient and I get the meat of the course, but nothing beats the atmosphere of being in a classroom watching the lecture live, and being able to ask questions. But, my morning alarm goes off at 04:00 for a variety of reasons, and there are times when I have to choose sleep over live lecture and instead watch the course online when I am in a better state to do so. Honestly, most nights I don’t go to be because I am relaxed and tired; I often go to bed simply so that I can get enough sleep for the next day’s activities. Not that any of this is a complaint; this is all simply a statement of fact. I will never complain about school because I have chosen to take on the challenge, and I believe one ought not to complain about those things for which one has volunteered.

I have a course I am taking this semester now where the professor is really great, very engaging as is the material he assigns, challenging coursework in all the good ways, but the papers are philosophical, therefore very time-consuming, and sections are required (though my understanding that is against the school’s policy, but, hey, each course is its own little kingdom as my advisor once told me). At the same time, I have a company-wide project I’m now leading at work that just got approved after years of flogging to the powers that be. For that, I need to be alert and awake for some really tough meetings where I have to make tough decisions. That sounds very cliché, I know, but it’s true. Building a content management solution that my company will live with for probably the next ten years requires making decisions at morning meetings that will impact our workflows for years to come.

All things being equal, a project with years of impact that will be a huge addition to my resume, unfortunately, has to trump one grade out of thirty-two I’ll complete by the time I’m done with school. To put it another way, school will be done in two years, but this system, and my job, will be around for a lot longer. Instead, I have to focus on the core coursework needed to get a passing grade and finish off the semester with my sanity intact. My professor likely wouldn’t agree, not that I would blame him, but my getting burnt out will do no one any good, least of all myself.

School is a lot of things, but in this context, it’s an endurance race. I don’t expect schools to address that issue for me as a student, and so I wouldn’t expect to see that in Bill Gates’ article. But, his article does cast a light onto a gap in the conversation about contenting education: how best to approach the balancing of school, work, and other responsibilities. Schools are doing amazing things now to accommodate non-traditional students (here defined as not having gone to school right out of high school), but their efforts are only a part of a larger problem for many people. There is not a government or school policy that is going to provide a solution to that problem.