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February 29, 2008

Currency balancing

I took a look at the exchange rate for dollars and euros this afternoon, which is a win-lose situation for me at the moment. My expenses will be higher in Valencia, on the losing side; on the winning side, the IAAF started pricing my time in euros this year, so the dollar’s slide means more dollars for each job. (I’m delaying invoicing for a lot of this spring’s work for just this reason.)

What puzzles me is that the announced prize money for the World Indoor Championships is still in dollars. There may be systemic reasons for this, but it seems like an increasingly bad bet for the athletes. I wonder what the political ramifications of the IAAF switching to euros as the currency for its prize-money events would be? One more blow to consumer confidence in the US? Would anyone notice?

Now Playing: Blackbirds from Distillation by Erin McKeown

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February 27, 2008

Your spell-checker will not save you

By now, I hope, everyone has figured out that there are some cases where the spell check can’t help, and that’s where the misspelling you’ve found is the correct spelling of another word.

More accurately, though, the problem is homophones (words which are spelled differently but sound similar) being confused in situations where the author simply doesn’t know the original meaning of the figure of speech they’re using.

In track writing, the first problem comes when we have two contenders facing off. If it’s two individuals in one race, that’s a “duel”, a noun naming a kind of single combat. On the other hand, if it’s one team against another with no other teams present, that’s a “dual meet” with “dual” as an adjective modifying “meet”. The Stanford vs. Cal “Big Meet” is a dual meet. Khadevis Robinson vs. Nick Symmonds is a duel. I’ve seen the phrase “duel meet” used and I have to hope it’s an unconscious neologism rather than a misguided attempt to use colorful language by mixing metaphors.

Now let’s consider leashes and other forms of power over another. If you stop restraining your pace, or take over a job, you’re talking about “reins”, the lines used to guide horses. That’s the proper spelling for “giving free rein” to your inner grammar curmudgeon, or “taking the reins at USATF.” On the other hand, if you’re dominating an event and get defeated, your “reign” is over—the word for a ruler’s time in power. It’s actually possible to construct a figure of speech in which either of those might be correct (“free reign”), but the meaning will be slightly different depending on which one you select.

Don’t get me started on “bridle” paths being called “bridal” paths. A bridle is something you might attach reins to. Don’t try this at a wedding.

Most people who make these mistakes know this, and the problem comes from their fingers moving more from reflex than from conscious thought. I suppose it’s the triumph of spell-checking over careful editing.

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February 24, 2008

And in good news...

…no stories about doping so far this year. And the reporter who was writing the “no doping stories this year” article a few years ago did a story about how the U.S. men are getting internationally competitive in distance running, i.e. a positive story. We’ll take ‘em where we get ‘em.

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Posted by pjm at 4:24 PM | Comments (1)

A bit more about newspapers and track writing

Having hinted that there’s more to say about the state of newspaper coverage of track, it may also be helpful to look back on this little grouch I wrote almost two years ago, because that covers a lot of what’s wrong. (Go ahead, I’ll still be here when you come back.)

The issue I faced, more specifically, last night was that newspapers in general don’t consider athletics worth column inches in most cases. This isn’t universal—the New York Times has Frank Litsky here—but Litsky came up on Amtrak from New York, he didn’t fly from Minneapolis. The other papers present are local.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the problem of how newspapers in general plan to stay relevant and, indeed, in business in the internet age. Certainly their available budget is a big motivator for the actions they’re taking, but for right now, we’ll consider the budget a black box and just think of them as geo-located producers of news which have a regional bias determined by their location.

They have decisions to make about which sports they cover and how they cover them. For the most part, they’re opting to hit the widest possible population in their market, which means covering local teams in the major pro sports (baseball, football, basketball, and sometimes hockey,) and local or regional high school sports, generally also focusing on those same team sports but sometimes adding, say, soccer.

There is no room left for Olympic sports unless there’s a doping scandal or an actual Olympics. (There was a discussion in the media tribune this morning about how many major papers now have “doping correspondents”.) In some cases this isn’t a major problem; many papers can run the USATF press release unchanged and do fine. What we’re losing isn’t one more general story about the meet; we’re losing the localized viewpoint those papers bring to the event. The Kansas City Star would devote more column inches to Maurice Greene than anyone else in the country, and in the Internet age, that meant you could go to the Star if you wanted to read more about Greene.

My strikeout with the Twin Cities papers highlights this: Jenelle Deatherage was a runner-up for a national title, and qualified for her first-ever international team, and barely anyone talked to her. Her story from this meet is pretty much unavailable, and that’s a real loss.

The Foot Locker national cross country championships used to do research the local papers for all the athletes who made Nationals, and after the meet they would have all the runners, regardless of place, come in to a media center in shifts. The Foot Locker media staff would call the sports desks of these papers, one by one, and say, “Here’s the athlete, here’s where they placed, want to talk to them?” And they used to get a phenomenal number of local-newspaper stories about their event and about the runners who competed. These athletes’ local areas learned who the local stars were and learned to follow their progress.

It’s not happening like that anymore, at any level. I don’t know if the problem is the sport not spoon-feeding the papers the way Foot Locker did, and making itself easy to cover, or if the problem is that the papers just keep saying “Thanks, but no thanks.” But either situation isn’t helping the sport.

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February 23, 2008

Newspapers don't care about track

At the suggestion of a colleague, I tried to drum up a little extra work for myself tonight. Jenelle Deatherage, who is based in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, took second in the 1,500m, punching her ticket for the World Indoor Championships. (Which are in Spain in two weeks; perhaps I’ve mentioned them.) “Nobody’s here from the Minnesota papers,” they told me. “Call the Star Tribune and see if they’ll take a story if you get it there before their Sunday deadline. If they don’t bite, try the St. Paul Pioneer Press.”

So I called the switchboard of the Star Tribune, got a voice-directed robot to transfer me to the sports desk, and made my pitch. “Interesting,” they said. “If you’ve got a press release, send it to…” I’m not offering a press release, I said. Well, they replied, we’ll probably just cut it down and run a paragraph in the “briefs” somewhere anyway. I said if that was all they needed, there was probably already a release at the USATF site. Thanks, they said.

So I called the Pioneer Press. One “press three for…” and I got the news desk, who sent me to sports, who sent me back to news, me making my pitch each time. “No,” they said, “we wouldn’t really give a freelance assignment on anything like that.” So I suggested the USATF press release again, and they thanked me for bringing it to their attention.

This, I suspect, is par for the course in newspaper sports desks. Area woman makes her first international team of any sort in years of trying, but area newspaper doesn’t care, even with no football or baseball to write about. (There is hockey there, of course, and probably loads of high school sports at this point.) And I, for once being a little proactive about marketing myself as a writer, instead wound up essentially doing volunteer publicity work for USATF. Not necessarily a bad thing for the sport, but not a terribly effective use of my time.

I have a lot more to say about this—it’s a telling little anecdote—but I have a sort-of press release to write, and this was really just the warm-up.

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Function poker

I found myself in a card game with some friends last night, and pretty early in the game I realized that I was finding “runs” in the cards which simply weren’t playable by normal rules. Most games only recognize runs where the run follows the function ƒ=1n, like 3-4-5. To me, holding 3-6-9 in any suit seems like it should count as a run as well, where ƒ=3n. Other functions would allow somewhat more esoteric runs (2-4-8 counts for ƒ=2n, for example, or a Fibonacci run could include 1-2-3, 2-3-5, 3-5-8, etc.) Maybe a specially-designated “wild” card could be the λ card which would allow one to use functions for runs? Now that would be a card game for geeks.

Posted by pjm at 8:35 AM | Comments (2)

February 22, 2008

Spirit of the Marathon

Last night I went to the “encore presentation” of Spirit of the Marathon down in Hadley. I’ve read a lot of rave reviews of the movie, but I came in with a somewhat more skeptical viewpoint.

The positives are many. The characters followed in the movie are fantastic: Deena Kastor displaying her “relentlessly positive” nature, training for Chicago ‘05 through a stress fracture in her foot; Daniel Njenga, twice third and once second in Chicago; graduate student Lori O’Connor, who probably could have convinced theaters-full of spectators to run marathons just on her own; and several other less speedy runners whose marathons went somewhat less smoothly. (One didn’t even start the marathon.) I liked seeing many of my friends and colleagues up on the screen, talking about the things they know best. (I never realized that the founders of the Boston Marathon drew a parallel between the legendary Pheidippides and Paul Revere, the rationale behind the great race’s Patriots’ Day scheduling.) And the movie made Chicago itself look spectacular; it’s like an hour-and-a-half advertisement for the Chicago Marathon and should go a long way towards repairing the damage done by the disastrous 2007 edition.

The filmmakers do a very good job presenting the essence of a big-city marathon: the crowds of otherwise non-athletic people dedicating hours and months to training, the sweep of the thing (there’s a spectacular aerial shot of the race start which just keeps panning up and up, looking farther and farther back in the crowd, and the crowd - just - never - ends.) They capture the scale of the undertaking very, very well, right down to the joke I always make about how the people who run the marathon are swearing never to do another and the people who watch are promising they’ll run next time. And I liked picking out faces in the “crowd,” like the men running around Deena Kastor in the marathon.

My problem with Spirit is with the tag line they use, a direct quote from an interview with Dick Beardsley in the opening minutes. “Once you cross that line, no matter how fast or how slow, your life will change forever.” Maybe so. But I’ve crossed the finish lines of three marathons (and the start lines of five, for what it’s worth) and I think it’s fair to say that none of them have changed my life.

I think the reason for this is that I’m not really the target audience for this film. I don’t need to be sold on the marathon; I bought in a long time ago (and then bought out when I realized that marathons aren’t for me.) I bought in on many of these ideas back in junior high school, when I first started running cross country; they’ve been part of my way of thinking for twenty years. My life was changed forever some time in eighth grade when I realized that the longer the race was, the more likely I was to outrun the other kids my age; there was no change left for the marathon.

I think this is one of the problems with the way the movie has been marketed in the U.S. The pattern has been promotion through running publications, running websites, and the running community; the only non-runners or non-marathoners (the ones who will really be seeing something new to them) who see the movie are ones brought to the showings by runners. Maybe that’s fine, but it seems like the audience the film speaks to and the one which actually turned up in the theater are a bit different.

The theater was about half-full (A said when she went, last month, it was almost completely full) and only six or seven of us sat through the credits for the “extra” features at the end. I can’t say they missed very much, to be honest, although it was fun to see a bit more of the work that went in to making the film at all.

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February 20, 2008

Reminder band

It’s been a few years since everyone in Athens (or who wished they were in Athens) was wearing a $1 yellow rubber wristband with LIVESTRONG printed on it, and the yellow-bracelet fad has pretty much passed. The True Believers are the ones still wearing theirs, and you can get similar bands in nearly any color at the corner convenience store, sometimes as a fundraiser for something, sometimes not.

I’ve come by two in the last six months or so, despite having passed them up for nearly four years. I got an orange one when I registered for the fall foliage walk put on by Amherst’s A Better Chance chapter. (I ran the course in a bit more than two hours.) More recently, I got a purple one from Two Trials which I’ve been wearing nearly every day.

I’m not going to try to explain Two Trials in three sentences or less. Go read the story, and you’ll get the idea. I ran with Emily for a few miles during the 2000 Boston Marathon (that was before she got good, and I figured out that marathons are not for me), and she and her husband have been a real part of the Mid-coast Maine community in recent years. I made my contribution on the first day the site opened, Maddie’s fourth birthday.

The inside of the band has an url from the manufacturer—reminderband.com—and it doesn’t really lend itself to forgetting. It’s loose enough on my wrists that I sometimes wonder if I could get it around both wrists; it doesn’t stuff easily inside the cuffs of my shirts. Having it bumping around in there does remind me periodically to check in and see what kind of progress Emily and Maddie are making. They’re not quite halfway at this point, with two months to the Olympic Trials.

Now Playing: Providence from Acoustic & Intimate by Steve Kilbey

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Posted by pjm at 9:54 AM | Comments (0)

And the other ten percent?

Dave McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon and, this year, the Olympic Trials Women’s Marathon, is interviewed today on runnersworld.com. Talking about the Trials course which crosses the Charles on Massachusetts Avenue (the “Smoot bridge”), he says,

…I’ve run over that bridge and on Memorial Drive over 1,000 times. Eighty percent of the time, it’s the most enjoyable run I have all year. And then ten percent of the time, it can be windy.

I guess what Dave’s not saying is that the other ten percent of the time, it’s driving snow in his face.

Now Playing: The Deep Ache Mix from Parallel Universe by The Church

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February 19, 2008

Sometimes higher pay comes with higher pain

I don’t serve ads on this site, and every now and then something comes along that makes me positively happy about that. There are ads on eliterunning.com, a site I have no formal connection to other than sometimes writing articles or tweaking the templates when A doesn’t understand them, and I’m now on my second installment of “updating” the ad tags at the request of her ad network, which will remain nameless for now. (It pays better than Google for this site.)

The problem is that, for the second time, the tags they’ve sent are buggy. I’ve yet to install these tags and have them “just work” the way, for example, Google stuff (e.g. Analytics) does. Every time I make the template changes, save, load the page, and … blankness. This time I fired up Firebug and saw a slew of code in the head section of the page which simply does not belong in a page header. (Images? Hello?)

I don’t get paid enough to debug these folks’ code for them, so I reverted the pages to the “old” tags, and sent back a nice detailed email telling them which flavor of fail they had shipped and requesting troubleshooting. I wish I could’ve used the phrasing I had in mind, which was somewhat more terse and called their ability to write functioning code a bit more directly into question.

The other annoying part about this company is that when they get email from me, they tend to reply directly to me without copying A, even though I’ve copied her on every message I send, and her address is at this particular domain and mine is not. It’s as though they’ve decided that since I have a male name, obviously I must be the one who’s really in charge. Last time I specifically asked them to copy her on every message; let’s see if they are a snuggly enough bunch of pandas to remember.

Update, 20 Feb.: Cynicism wins again: they forgot.

Now Playing: Monster Ballads from The Animal Years by Josh Ritter

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February 18, 2008

Where are the women's movies?

I got sent a link today about Born to Run, which isn’t surprising given my known interests. However, it would probably be a surprise to the link sender to know that I finished watching the trailer feeling mildly annoyed.

Before I get started: Born to Run, based what I could work out from the trailer, is a film about several top-flight American distance runners training for the Olympic Trials Marathon held last November in New York City. It focuses on their training, their lives, and their backgrounds, tracing them up to the race itself. (It happens that one of their athletes, Ryan Hall, won the race.) The trailer is full of driving music at the interface of hip-hop and rock, lots of funky camera angles and shots out the windows of cars as the athletes go on their punishing training runs. It looks exciting; it looks like something that makes distance running, even marathoning, look kind of cool. So far, so good.

But this is where I apparently lose the plot. First, I had this feeling that I’d seen this film already, and within a minute I came up with not one, but two recent direct-to-DVD productions following the same path with different races: Five Thousand Meters (Nothing Comes Easy), about the men’s 5,000m final at the 2004 Olympic Track Trials (a curiously depressing film, since the athletes on screen spend so much time talking about how hard they work and how little return they see on that work), and last year’s Showdown, about the 2007 USATF cross-country championships.

Both movies followed the same pattern (apparently) that Born to Run appears to follow; I have to wonder if the different event (the marathon) is likely to make a notably different movie in any way. There’s the tantalizing offer of race footage from major races like the 10,000m at USATF Nationals in Indianapolis last June, but I honestly don’t have a whole lot of appetite, at this point in time, for more gaunt young men telling me how hard they’re working for their narrow chance to win an Olympic berth.

Second, and perhaps it’s Showdown that had me thinking of this: where are the women? That’s three movies about the men, from 5,000m to the marathon, and aside from Deena Kastor’s leading role in Spirit of the Marathon (which I have yet to see, incidentally), no focus on women. Showdown was an egregious offender on this score, treating the Boulder cross-country championships as though Goucher vs. Torres vs. Ritzenhein vs. Culpepper was the only race on the card, when the Olympic-medalist Kastor vs. new-American-Record-holder Shalane Flanagan promised to be equally thrilling, if not more. You could be forgiven if, after reading the entire website for Born to Run, you were unaware that there is also an Olympic Trials Marathon for women, and that it will be held in Boston in April.

(If you’d like to brand me as a hypocrite on this score, I had an article published in a recent issue of Running Times in which I called Bernard Lagat’s medal in the 1,500m in Osaka the first won by an American since 1908, or something like that; I should’ve said “by an American male”, of course. I don’t think this gaffe makes my point false, though.)

(It’s not just movies, either: all the good running novels are about men. Is there something about women’s running that makes it incompatible with the form? Or is it that only men are getting running novels published?)

Maybe this makes me a bad running fan, but I’m ready to move on from the interviews-and-races format in running movies. I’d be a lot more excited to see a Bud Greenspan quality film of the Trials race by itself. And I’d like to see it in a boxed set with the women’s Trials race film. And that means I just can’t get that thrilled about Born to Run.

Now Playing: Exit Music from Concert to End Slavery by Mutual Admiration Society

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February 14, 2008

More specifics about the good news

If you look at the domain at www.lacucinaitalianamagazine.com at the time I’m posting this, you’ll get redirected to a page on www.lacucinaitaliana.it, the pages of Italy’s oldest and most successful cooking magazine. If you look at them sometime in the afternoon of Friday, February 15th (“tomorrow” as I’m writing this) you should see the first stage of the site we’re building for their U.S. edition at work. (This is the “big, new job” I mentioned a few weeks ago.)

Monday we’ll start in on Phase Two. Phase One would’ve been much easier if we hadn’t spent quite so much time building foundation for Phase Two, but Phase Two is where we go from “just above the minimum you’d expect from a magazine’s website” to “hey, this is pretty cool,” so there’s plenty to do before our next big deadline.

Posted by pjm at 9:43 PM | Comments (1)

February 12, 2008

Unemployed and on the streets

You see a lot of litter when you run. Generally it’s of the beer-can-and-McDonalds-bag variety, but the odd stuff sticks out.

Today I spotted not one, but two 5 1/4” floppy disks, about a mile or so apart. They did appear to be from the same box (at least, they were the same color.)

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February 10, 2008

Polarity

I am giving some thought to the possibility that I simply reversed the wires on the battery connector for the Fuzz Face. While the wires on the other two pedals were red (positive) and black (negative), just like the battery connector, the wires on the Fuzz Face were black and white. I assumed that black was still negative and white was positive, but maybe not?

The problem now is, both my amp and my guitar have such finicky connectors that I was unable to get a note from the amp tonight, even without the Fuzz Face in the loop, so I haven’t been able to test. I’m tempted to use some 1/4” female to 1/8” male connectors (and a male-to-female adapter) to splice the pedal in between my MacBook and my computer speakers, because I know those work.

I’ve also started trying to map out the wiring schematic of the thing, just to figure out where to put the multi-meter to check connections.

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Surprised there are so few

So this photo is the only one on all of Flickr with the tag “thisonegoesto11”. I only found three more (all much less appropriate to the tag, in my opinion) by changing the digits to a word.

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February 9, 2008

This one goes to 11

For two or three moves, I’ve been toting a small white box labeled “GUITAR JUNK”. Inside is a bunch of music, six or seven 1/4” audio cables, and three effects pedals. Before tonight, none of the three functioned; now two of them do.

All three use 9V batteries, and all three had, at some point, corroded the contacts and ripped one (usually the positive) off the battery connector. I’ve carried them around figuring some day I’d fix them, and today I determined that I would. I stopped at Radio Shack this evening, got a packet of five connectors for $2, and after dinner I clipped off the old connectors, stripped a little wire on the new ones, and twisted them on.

For the chorus pedal (“sound like the ’80s!”) and the delay (“any echo you want!”) that was all that was needed. Unfortunately, new power didn’t revive the Fuzz Face, which stifles all sound when it’s on. I think I need to go at it with the multi-meter later. I’m interested in making this one work again because (a) it’s a great sound, a crunchy distortion effect as you might expect from the name, and (b) the new ones go for $150. If this one hasn’t had it’s 30th birthday, it’s coming soon.

I tested them sitting in the basement with my little 15W Gorilla practice amp. For all the years I’ve had that amp, I’ve never ceased to be amused by the fact that all the dials do in fact go to 11. I can’t tell if this was done unironically or if it is actually dripping with irony.

(I’ll explain what an “effects pedal” is if anyone wants to know, but if I get into that now, this will be twice as long as it is.)

The Fuzz FaceFace's contactFixed!Gorilla

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Posted by pjm at 10:40 PM | Comments (0)

Silly car story of the day

Starting my run today, I was waiting for a walk signal in downtown Amherst when I saw a guy drive by in a dark-green Miata. He had on a winter hat of the kind the Russians call a shapka, with the ear flaps down.

I know this because he had the top down on the Miata.

I wonder if it was stuck down, or if he thought the current weather was relatively balmy? I hope the second, because it started snowing a few minutes after I saw him.

Now Playing: World Party from Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys

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February 8, 2008

Nouns and verbs

I’m about to teach you something about track and field. Pay attention, and you, too, can be smug and knowledgeable about this next time the Millrose Games is on tape delay.

There is a throwing event called the shot put. This is a noun phrase built out of a noun and a verb, like the pole vault. The noun, the direct object, is the shot. (The athletes in this event sometimes call it “the ball,” because it is nothing but a sixteen-pound metal ball named for its resemblance to a cannon ball.) The action is “to put.” The athletes put the shot. However, there is no object you can point at which is called a “shot put.”

If you are particularly careful about your terms, you are even careful about using the verb by itself. Individual puts can be called “tosses” or “efforts” but there are other terms which are to be avoided; I don’t mention them because I may get them wrong.

There are other things you need to know about track and field. You can take a step or two off the track to the inside if you’re jostled or stumbled, but three consecutive steps outside your lane is beyond acceptable. You’re supposed to have “a full running stride” of lead before cutting in front of a runner you’ve just passed; I suspect this rule is more often honored in the breach.

Millions of people know the standard for American football receivers making a catch inbounds, and there are even a few million who have managed to understand the hideous complication known a soccer’s offsides rule. I suspect there are even a few hundred people who are not hockey referees and yet understand what “icing” is supposed to mean. However, I think I am one of a couple dozen or so people in the U.S. who know that the object which is thrown by Reese Hoffa is not “a shot put,” despite however many millions used to be on the track team in high school or junior high.

And I’d like to thank Mr. Burnham, my junior high school gym teacher and track coach, for explaining all this to our team when I was in 7th grade. Because we might never become star athletes, and many of us were never going to get anything more than a high school education, but we were damn well going to learn what the sport was about if he had anything to say about it. Anything worth doing was worth doing correctly, he figured, even if we didn’t do it particularly well.

So here we are, twenty years later, and I am actually capable of getting a certain limited amount of work based on my ability to tell a shot from a shot put (much like Bill Bryson, who claimed to have convinced the London Times to hire him because “they needed someone on staff who could reliably spell ‘Cincinnati.’”) I have to imagine that this was a wholly unexpected consequence of my two junior high track seasons.

Oh, and you know how “soccer” is called “football” in the rest of the English-speaking world? They also refer to “track and field” as “athletics.” This comes in handy when you’re looking at a British newspaper’s sports section.

Now Playing: Munich by Editors

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February 6, 2008

Paying for those tickets

I suppose the airlines’ struggle to reach (or sustain) profitability this decade has led them to try to squeeze as much direct revenue from their frequent flyer programs as possible. (This is as opposed to the indirect revenue of supposedly motivating travelers to fly more often with them.)

What brings this to mind is the deluge of credit-card offers I’ve been getting tied to my several frequent-flyer memberships. (I have five with some amount of miles in them.) The credit-card companies probably pay the airlines some fee to be allowed to mail to their list; whether it’s a straight-out fee per flyer, or a bounty per member who actually signs up for a card, either way it’s revenue to the airline. I’ve been getting these offers for years, but the frequency of their arrival in my mailbox seems to have increased.

(Yesterday, I even got a solicitation to get an affinity card for US Masters Swimming, but they’re a non-profit, so the “help us generate revenue” pitch can be a good bit more up-front.)

I feel a good bit of cognitive dissonance about this, considering that we’re being hammered with news stories telling us how our borrowing habits have led the country to the brink of recession. (If you haven’t had this connection traced out for you already, ask; I won’t do it right now.) On the one hand, it’s entirely reasonable for a company to say, “Wow, American consumers borrow a lot; is there a way we can make money from this?” But the idea of using a national problem like this for specific gain feels a lot like marketing liquor specifically to alcoholics, and the consumer who signs up for the credit cards is like someone curing a hangover with “the hair of the dog.”

On a more personal level, I’ve never signed up for one of these cards. On one hand, I must look like a great potential customer, because I’ve never defaulted on a loan, but since several years ago I’ve also made a point of never carrying a balance on a card if I can help it, so I seldom pay interest. Also, these cards almost invariably carry an annual fee, and why would I want a credit card with an annual fee when it’s so easy to find ones without?

Now Playing: Lucinda from Glitter In the Gutter by Jesse Malin

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February 5, 2008

The paralysis of choice

This has certainly been a delicious political season for those who enjoy that sort of thing. I’ve read a lot of impassioned arguments in favor of one candidate or another, but I’ve also read a remarkable number of people saying, “I know this is really important, and I just can’t decide how to vote.”

(I was amused to discover, using the electoral compass, that Ron Paul was third on my ordered list of candidates closest to my personal beliefs, but given that they only recognize six remaining candidates, I suppose that doesn’t mean much.)

I wonder if the rampant undecidedness has much to do with fact that so many states are actually holding primaries while there’s still some contest for both parties’ nominations. This is the first time in my voting lifetime (this will be my fifth presidential election) that I’ve had the opportunity to vote in a primary that meant something. While I think the telescoping of the nomination process is a good thing—I wouldn’t mind seeing a single, national primary on one day—I wish it might be a little closer to the general election. (Maybe a six-week gap, max, between that national primary and the general election?)

And I wonder if the ability to examine candidates critically, rather than in red-party/blue-party duality, has atrophied in some of these electorally-big states like New York and Massachusetts. We’re so used to having candidates delivered to us by the parties—if you’re Red, get behind this guy, Blue, go this way—that we’re not used to considering our positions carefully.

So, I’m all in favor of contested primaries. I expect I’ll still be voting for the politician I dislike least in the end, and I don’t doubt which direction this state’s electoral votes will go in the general election, but somehow the existence of a primary which isn’t pointless makes me feel oddly hopeful.

Now Playing: The Day I Let Glory Steer from This Town Is Wrong by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

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Posted by pjm at 2:03 PM | Comments (0)

February 4, 2008

Residential trade-offs

Living in a university town has benefits, without question. The wide array of services aimed at the students and their sometimes-visiting parents far outstrip anything that would arise to serve the residents of the town alone.

The downside—or at least part of it—seems to include a police helicopter cruising the neighborhood around the end of major sporting events, and articles in the newspaper explaining what the town and campus police departments are planning in order to restrain rioting.

Now Playing: Another Day at Bay from Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight by Marah

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Posted by pjm at 9:11 AM | Comments (0)

February 2, 2008

Safer strategy: don't mention COBOL

My databases professor would frequently mention “the C word,” by which he meant COBOL. (“The F word,” of course, was FORTRAN.) I was thinking of this last night while wondering why a local company would be hiring a COBOL programmer. (The most probable answer, as it always is for COBOL, is support and maintenance of legacy green-screen applications in the finance and supply-chain-logistics areas. And the link was sent to me; I don’t make a habit of browsing the help-wanted ads.)

That led me to trying to remember when certain advances in computer technology actually happened. It’s sobering to realize I couldn’t always sit at a laptop at the kitchen table and tap out obscure rants to be stored on a server in Los Angeles via my own personal wireless network.

I first encountered Windows (3.1) on business desktops in high school, sometimes. It wasn’t until I was nearly out of college that Windows became something more than a program that ran on top of a command-line machine; I had classmates who went straight through college with entirely text-based computer experiences. (I was a Mac person from the beginning, of course, but being able to color-code folder icons was considered a marketable feature in graphic user interfaces then.)

This led me to how long green-screen applications have hung on. I was using one as late as summer 1992 at my summer job, and I know that application survived at least a year or two more. (The business stopped operating before the software did.) So, “only” fifteen years ago, or so, and GUIs didn’t take over many other applications until much later. We used dumb terminals connected to a DEC tower in a closed room elsewhere in the building. I’m pretty sure it ran ULTRIX; Linux, at the time, was the late-evening project of a Helsinki CS student, if that. I doubt anyone actually spent significant time in the ULTRIX shell, though, other than the one or two times I went browsing around to see if I could find anything I recognized.

I did discover vi but not emacs (which was a problem for me then, as I only learned to limp along in vi many years later). vi, with its smaller footprint, made more sense than the sprawling emacs (which, famously, even includes a therapist: M-x doctor) when disk space was at a premium.

Which brings me to the inevitable and tiresome conclusion: I have a USB flash drive, not even a very large flash drive, with as much disk space as the computer I graduated from college with. I burned that HDD onto a single CD-ROM when I retired the drive. You can put the entire filesystem of what we used to consider a mainframe on a pocket drive. Why decide between emacs and vi (or, for that matter, ed or nano or TextWrangler or TextMate or Eclipse or carefully calibrated butterflies which are built into emacs anyway) when you can have them all?

And the only thing I can come up with is, maybe it’s better if I just don’t think about COBOL. I have to compile a library which appears to be principally FORTRAN, though (actual entry in the documentation table of contents: “Contents of the tape”), so I can’t forget about that just yet.

Now Playing: Starry Eyes from Mutiny by Too Much Joy

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Posted by pjm at 8:51 AM | Comments (0)