Thoughts on a Small Smartphone

On Thursday I bought an Alcatel C1, technically known as a 4015T.AT&T GoPhone - Alcatel C1 4G No-Contract Cell Phone - Gray - Larger Front  My Nexus 4 is at a repair shop, having sustained a small crack in the touchscreen.  I picked this up at Best Buy for $50, which compares favorably to the $300 I originally spent on the Nexus.  One might expect the C1 to offer 1/6th of the value; I instead place it at about 3/4ths.

To be sure, this is a $50 smartphone.  The graphics tend to be grainy and the audio (both directions) is inferior.  It has less memory, storage, and speed.  The screen only looks good if you’re looking squarely at it.  It has fewer ringtones, notification tones, and menu options.  It’s running Android 4.2.2 and seems uninterested in snagging an upgrade.  Perhaps it is incapable of running a higher version?

And yet, for all that, I like it.  I like its smallness.  The 3.5″ screen is tiny compared to the Nexus’s 4.7″, but I have to admit that I don’t mind the smallness very much.  I used to think that acreage was king when it came to smartphones and I always wondered why the iPhone, Cadillac Of Them All, didn’t grow like the others.  Now I see that the small screen has its own appeal.  Overall, the little phone is more comfortable.

It also has its problems.  Google Maps is much harder to use.  Many websites can’t get their content small enough to fit, requiring the viewer (moi) to scroll horizontally.  The poorer resolution makes the little I.D. pictures beside Facebook posts pretty much worthless, and this problem persists anywhere small graphics are displayed.

I’ll be glad to get my real phone back.  It’s a central tool in my business and daily life and, as with my other tools, quality makes me money.  Even still, it makes me happy to see a little gizmo like this Alcatel available for $50.  It’s something close to a miracle.  With free wi-fi all around us and VoIP cloud numbers available for free from Google Voice (questionable quality) or for $3/month from a provider like Voipo (which I use), a person could get a $10/month plan from an MVNO and an app like CSipSimple on his $50 phone and be running with the big dogs for very little money.  (For more info, check out my friend’s essays on the topic.)

From Lincoln to Obama, the Legacy Continues

There’s a well-known rule that one mustn’t criticize a politician or an influential person.  If you haven’t heard that rule, then you must need for me to tell you the complete version of it: one mustn’t criticize a politician or an influential person if the rulers agree that you mustn’t.  For instance, even many blacks had uncomplimentary things to say about Mike King before he was murdered in Memphis in 1968 under his assumed moniker “Martin Luther”; but once he was apotheosized, he became untouchable.

So it is with Abraham Lincoln.  A number of books have appeared throughout the last 100 years which interpret his presidency in an accurate and unflattering way, the most devastating of which, despite some inexcusable errors of detail, is probably DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.  Lincoln, however, has been declared untouchable by our rulers to such a degree that, for instance, Mel Bradford could be “borked” from his nomination for chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities because he interpreted Lincoln unfavorably.

If I were in any way dependent upon the rulers, they would do the same to me for writing this blog post.

In one episode of the Beverly Hillbillies, Granny, explaining the Civil War, declared “That was when the Yankees invaded America.”  There’s a little bit of truth in that.  The South, for all of its faults, had the Constitution on its side and, as such, held the rightful title to the American tradition.  Lincoln’s War was a revolution which, like all of Lincoln’s politics, had as its goal the fundamental transformation of the United States.

The Emancipation Proclamation now comes to mind.  Lincoln declared that the slaves in Rebel-held territory were no longer slaves.  Where did he get the authority to declare that a slave is not a slave?  He made it up.  If you pretend that he had authority from God, doesn’t that imply that everyone else had the same authority from God to declare federal laws and annul state laws in spite of the entirety of human history — pagan, Jew, and Christian alike?  Wouldn’t that make for an interesting body politic, where each man went around speaking reality into existence and declaring as law whatever he thought desirable?  Sorta sounds like a banana republic, doesn’t it?

Lincoln didn’t have the authority, but he did have lots and lots of guns; and, as Chairman Mao pointed out, “Every Communist must grasp the truth: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”  In the Western Christian tradition, however, we believe that the natural rights of man dictate that constitutional laws are supreme over all government officials.

I’m writing, of course, because Obama made his own Mexification Proclamation tonight in defiance of Congress and the clear majority of Americans.  Where did he get the authority?  Why, from Lincoln, of course!  And Lincoln won it through conquest.

What we’ve been enduring for the past century is the outworking of the principles set in place by the revolution of 1861.  Clear-sighted men wrote about it, especially in the years 1830-1860.  Many understood then, but they were outgunned.  As Jefferson Davis observed later in his monumental Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, “When the cause was lost, what cause was it? Not that of the South only, but the cause of constitutional government, of the supremacy of law, of the natural rights of man” (2:763).

This alone explains the unbroken failure of conservative activism and the steady slide of the nation into Marxism.  Blaspheme a god and you’ll be excommunicated; that is to say, criticize Lincoln and his heirs and “you’ll never work in this town again.”  Theoreticians are therefore cowed, and their strategies can never strike at the root.

Solar Energy at the Memphis Agricenter

I like cheap stuff and do-it-yourself stuff.  I wish that there were a way to generate my own electricity.  I’ve looked into it for years.  The answer is always the same.

I got to thinking about the solar farm at the Agricenter this evening.  I drive by it occasionally while traveling out Walnut Grove.  It is one big honker.

I decided to run the numbers on that boondoggle and see what they looked like.  I got the data (and the above photo) here.

The farm was supposed to generate 1.6 gigawatt-hours per year.   Whether it is meeting that goal, I don’t know, but it seems very unlikely that the goal was understated, so let’s assume it’s reliable.  Basic arithmetic converts that into 1,600,000 KWH.  Residential rates for electricity vary somewhat, but $0.07/KWH is pretty close, so multiplying that by the farm’s output yields $112,000 worth of juice per year.  And that’s the retail price.

The farm cost $4,300,000.  Dividing that by its annual output, it would take over thirty eight years to reach the break-even point.  Of course, a solar farm doesn’t operate itself.  You must pay maintenance people, some of whom must be technically astute and, therefore, expensive.  One salary might run $50,000 when you include benefits, Social Security, and so forth.  Can they maintain that farm completely by hiring one person and no outside contractors?  Is the equipment insured against hailstorms, tornados, and flying beer bottles?  Just what are the annual maintenance costs?  Might be approaching $112,000, depending on how you figure it.

Will it last thirty eight years?  Oh, be serious!  Warranties on these panels tend to be twenty to twenty five years, but even with that, their electrical output diminishes with age, which shifts the numbers into even more unfavorable territory.  Additionally, the Agricenter is proud to point out that their panels slowly rotate in order to be always facing the sun, which improves their output twenty percent!  How much power is consumed moving 4,160 solar panels throughout every sunny day?  And how long will the motors last which accomplish this nifty feat?

This nonsense is built and owned by an outfit called Silicon Ranch, the principal of which is former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen.  You might think that poor Phil isn’t good at arithmetic, spending $4.3 million on something that is guaranteed to lose money.  But I assure you, his arithmetic skills are doing just fine.  First, he sells the electricity to MLGW at market rates.  Next, he gets a handout from the TVA (your wallet, in other words) amounting to $0.12/KWH.  That’s $192,000/year, in case you don’t have a calculator handy.  Last, he will sell the junk to the Agricenter in ten years.

Is this a great country, or what?

More on the Water Line Insurance Scam

Earlier I wrote a post about a scam that’s going around, but I didn’t name names.  I got another version of the scam in the mail today and it irritates me enough to go ahead and identify the perps.  Luckily, nobody reads my blog; so if they come after me, they can’t claim damages.

The outfit is HomeServe and the big name they use for promotion is Rudy Giuliani.  (Apparently he’s got some skin in the game — which doesn’t matter one way or the other.)

Their latest disgraceful move has been to mail out material that is carefully crafted to look like it came from the utility company.  To be sure, each piece in the mailing has a paragraph stating that HomeServe is an independent company separate from the utility company.  But why did the graphic designers make it look like it came from the utility company?

I know the answer.  And if your capacity for abstract thinking is high enough that you can read this without moving your lips, you know the answer, too.

For several reasons, I consider such deception to be nearly the lowest form of scumbaggery.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Install Glacier Bay Faucets

Glacier Bay is the “house brand” for Home Cheapo’s plumbing fixtures. In other words, it’s just a label they slap onto some disgraceful junk made by Hu Flung Dung far across the ocean.

Glacier Bay is good at making their stuff look presentable. A hapless shopper wouldn’t know the difference. Six months later it’s gonna look like it’s been through the war; but on the shelf at Home Cheapo, a Glacier Bay faucet looks pretty good.

But it isn’t good. It’s bad. Bad, bad, bad!

I found one on a customer’s sink one day, dripping woefully. Customer said it was installed about a year previously. I took it apart and found that the actual cartridge had broken. (The cartridge is the internal part under a hot or cold handle.) I had never before seen a broken cartridge, especially not one that had barely seen one year’s worth of residential use.

And get this: I took it to Home Cheapo to buy a replacement and was informed that such cartridges were not available any more. The customer had to buy a whole new faucet. You can bet the new one wasn’t a Glacier Bay.

Tonight I got to a house where a Glacier Bay faucet had been leaking internally for quite a while and dripping into the cabinet below.

ruined_cabinet

Don’t you make the same mistake.

Angelou and Ugliness

Philosophers always struggle with the concept of “beauty.”  Defined as “pleasing to behold,” the next question is “pleasing to whom?”  An old Latin proverb says that there is no accounting for taste, and I certainly understand why the black coffee that pleases me is repugnant to others.  But if we say that beauty is simply subjective, like ones taste in food, we lose the right to pronounce something ugly.

If someone were to tell me that a sunset were ugly, I would not say that he has a right to his opinion; I would say that he is wrong.  Despite the near impossibility of articulating a complete definition of beauty, we find within ourselves a conviction that beauty is not ultimately a matter of opinion.

As an example, consider this stanza from Byron’s well-known “She Walks in Beauty”:

One shade the more, one ray the less,
   Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
   Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
   How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.



One who can read English well sees immediately that Byron wrote unusually well and created a poem of great beauty describing a girl of great beauty.  This is not a matter of opinion.

Now consider this from Maya Angelou’s “Momma Welfare Roll”:

    Too fat to whore,
Too mad to work,
Searches her dreams for the
Lucky sign and walks bare-handed
Into a den of bureaucrats for
Her portion.
‘They don’t give me welfare.
I take it.’

Ugliness. Ugly writing about an ugly woman. If a high-school junior turned that in as homework, I would not consider her to have any unusual writing talent.

Another Customer Review

This came today via a text message:

I just wanted to thank you for doing such a great job fixing our plumbing issues. We’ve been suffering with that shower for years because I was told they needed to tear open the wall in order to fix it. I’m so thankful to have found someone knowledgeable AND honest. Thanks again for your work. We have a toilet that might be leaking from underneath so I’m sure we’ll be using you again! :-)

It isn’t hard to understand how to be a super hero in the service business.  If you just show up on time and keep your word, you’re already 90% there.  Admittedly, keeping your word isn’t always easy.  Sometimes it can even cost you money.  When Proverbs 15:4 describes those who are accepted by God, it includes “He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.”  It’s a rare trait.

In my opinion, the remaining 10% of being a super hero is mostly desire.  For some reason, I want to help people.  That makes me go out at night when I’d rather stay home, keep trying to find a solution when I’d rather give up, take extra time on a job when I’m already losing my shirt.

As I said, it isn’t hard to understand.  As a comparison, it isn’t hard to understand how to be slender: except in cases of medical abnormality, it’s just diet and exercise.  Yet, everybody’s still fat.  Likewise, plumbing companies struggle to stay afloat and try to compensate for their failure with expensive advertising and rapacious pricing and overselling.  Their customers hate them, but they keep using them (unless they discover me) because, like abused children, they think that’s just they way the world is.

The Water Line Insurance Scam

This scam has been circulating in Memphis for a while.  Today I got another postcard in the mail, advertising it.  Customers have asked me about it.

The ad begins with the polysyllabic trigger word “failing infrastructure,” as though America is crumbling from the shorelines inward.  All they’re referring to is that your plumbing might break, duh!  Even people who voted wrong in the last presidential election probably know that already.  You can figure it out by studying the trucks that go around in your city.  Do you see any with decals indicating that the driver is a plumber?  Well, just a little higher-level thinking will tip you off that he probably makes his living fixing broken plumbing.  It happens.

Next revelation: repairs cost money.  I will just leave it at that.

Punchline: these postcard-mailing bloodsuckers will sell you an insurance policy that says they will cover the cost of the repair or replacement if your water service line has an emergency.

As with all insurance, the question is “What are the odds?”  Quite obviously, the company cannot make money unless the odds are in their favor.  In this case, however, the game is rigged; it isn’t even fair.  The odds of anybody needing this coverage are pathetically small.  Your water line is fine!  Save your $60/year in a jar somewhere for when you really need a plumber.

This company, by the way, is just one more “home warranty” provider and the water line scare is a low-cost gateway for them you upsell you later.  I mean, if you’re going to cover your water line, then why would you leave your air conditioning system at risk?  And your indoor plumbing and drains?  And your appliances?  And your computer?  And . . . and . . . and . . . .

Home warranties are a bad deal.  They’re overpriced and usually the service techs they use leave a lot to be desired.  Many customers have told me of their bad experiences with home warranty companies.  Yes, sometimes they’re a godsend and sometimes people hit a jackpot at the casino.  I recommend neither.

Sewer Replacement Scams

“They told me they need to dig up my sewer and replace it.”  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve gone through this with a homeowner, but it must have been scores.  Ninety percent of the time I’ve found it to be a scam.

The Electric Roto-Rooter Machine was invented during the Depression so that people would be able to unstop a clogged sewer “without putting a GRAVE in your yard” (and they would display a picture of a trench going through a yard).  Nowadays there  are many makes of sewer machines in addition to the ones made by Roto-Rooter, but they all do the same thing: a motorized cable with blades on its end is pushed through the sewer pipe to cut up the stoppage so that it can be washed away or, in some cases, retrieved.  If the machine simply can’t accomplish the task, then surgery is necessary.

Why might a machine fail?  To tell the truth, a lot of the time it is incompetence on the part of the technician.  It is also possible for a root stoppage to just be impervious.  (This is very rare in Memphis.)  Most of the time it is a problem with the pipe: broken, caved in, or separated and displaced.  The tech should be able to show the homeowner the evidence in the form of mud caked up on the blades, indicating that the blades have left the pipe and gone into the surrounding soil.

Unfortunately, we have a tool for larceny that was unavailable when I began cleaning drains in 1990: The Camera.  Running a camera down a sewer line is roughly analogous to showing a car owner the metal filings from his transmission.  (Such filings are normal, not proof that the transmission needs replacing.)  A homeowner is made to think that the camera is a benevolent gesture on the part of the plumbing company for more precise diagnosis.  Au contraire, mon sewer, plumbing companies know that it is really a sales tool.

When a plumbing company gets a call for a clogged sewer, everybody’s ears go ka-ching!  The camera goes into the van and the raid is underway.  At the house, the tech runs a sewer machine and cleans the drain (hopefully he does a good job), then he offers to run The Camera at no extra charge.  The customer watches the little TV screen during the performance.

Have you ever seen the security camera recordings of a robbery at the Quick Stop?  They’re usually pathetic.  You can clearly see that the robber has two arms, two legs, etc., and may be black or hispanic, or maybe not.  Sewer camera results tend to be like that.  Techs like it that way.  Why?  Because they aren’t trying to learn something, they’re trying to sell something.

Many of my customers have asked me “should I get a camera to look down the pipe for problems?”  Ordinarily my response is “I got my blades all the way through and back.  If there were a problem, I would have felt it.”  When I’ve hit mud (a sad day) and they ask the same question, the answer is “we already know it’s broken; otherwise I couldn’t dig into mud.  The camera won’t add any useful info.”  A good drain tech basically NEVER needs a camera.  There are exceptions, but they’re rare.

A tech trying to sell an unnecessary sewer replacement, however, ALWAYS needs a camera.  It may not provide him with any useful information, but it can certainly bamboozle a customer.

As the camera goes down the line, the customer sees what looks like a tunnel.  It’s rather blurry and indistinct, but clear enough for the salesman’s purposes.  They come to a place where some stringy roots are hanging down.  “Oh, you see that?  The roots have penetrated your line!”  They come to some irregularity.  “Yep, it’s broken there.  You see that right there?”  They come to some water lying in the pipe.  “You got a belly in the line.  It’s washed away underneath and is sinking.”  They come to a joint where the stub ends of some roots are visible.  “Oh, no — more roots.  I can’t believe it; they’ve penetrated everywhere.”  Finally the diagnosis is complete:

Mr. Smith, this line just needs replaced.  You got roots coming in everwheres and it’s just gonna get worse.  It’s breaking, it’s sinking down.  I mean, my God, it’s sixty years old.  Every time we come out it’s costing you $200.  You’d just as well as to go ahead on and replace it now and cut your losses.  This oughta cost seventy two fifty, but we’re slow this week and I know I can talk the boss down to sixty five hunnerd if you’ll do it this week.  And we even give a senior discount on top of that.

Roots are in nearly every sewer line.  It’s no big deal. Call me when the sewer clogs up every 18-24 months and I’ll shave ‘em out for $100-$150.  Most sewer lines have minor “bellies” where they’ve settled and sagged; ignore them.  Broken line?  If the blades still pass through, that line might be fine for another twenty years.  Age?  It’s just a number.  There are sewer pipes in Memphis that have worked fine for a hundred years.  Price?  Even after their phony discounts, these bandits are usually 50% higher than I.  (If I’m charging $4,000, they’re charging $6,000.)

Last week I replaced a sewer for $4,500, and that was underpriced a little.  (You never really know what kinds of problems you’ll encounter when you undertake a project like this.)  The owner called me originally because another company had said the line needed replacing.  I cabled the line and found no problem.  But this house was for sale and the buyer insisted on the sewer being replaced first.  Great expense, thanks to The Camera and a plumbing company without a conscience.

Ken Ham Won the Debate

At Bob Jones I and about 5,000 other unwilling students were forced to sit through formal debates. The university debate team was a fearful opponent, routinely taking first place in competitions against other colleges near and far. But there were many other teams within the school, and they debated one another.

I didn’t like the debates for two reasons: (1) the topic was an issue I didn’t care about, and (2) the teams had to be able to debate either side of the question. To me this seemed intellectually and morally questionable. I didn’t believe that there were two sides to every question; I believed that there was one side, the right one, and it was everyone’s duty to find the truth and argue for that position only.

Mine was a naive stance borne of ignorance, overconfidence, and immaturity. On paper it might look plausible, but in fact the quest for truth doesn’t work that way. Humans are too imperfect, our knowledge is too limited, and questions have too many variables; for instance, which is better, a Cadillac or a tractor?

Watching debates at the university educated me and ruined me at the same time. Since then I’ve never been able to sit through a debate because I’ve never seen one conducted properly and argued by well-prepared contestants. What I’ve always seen was two windbags throwing irrelevancies at one another and barnyard fertilizer at the audience.

Last night was different — sort of. Somebody somehow had gotten two guys to actually engage in some kind of structured debate and remain silent when it was not their turn to speak. I haven’t seen the likes of that in thirty seven years.

The question of “who won the debate” hinges, of course, on what you mean by “won.” By what criteria do you judge? I give the prize to Ham because he stuck to the topic better. Bill Nye, on the other hand, wasn’t prepared to do that.

The topic was “Is creation a viable model of origins?” That does not ask, notice, whether or not creationism is the best model or whether the Bible is true. Nye spent most of his time presenting evidence for a “deep time” universe (17 billion years since the big bang) and an “old earth” (4.54 billion years, give or take a week). This says very little about creationism. Suppose creation occurred in deep time? (I don’t believe it did, but that’s not the point.)

When Nye wasn’t presenting old-earth evidence, he was belittling the Bible and demonstrating that he was out of his league. This occurs in evolutionism debates routinely: guys who are smart scientists think they can put to flight scholars in a topic totally outside their field and they make fools of themselves in the eyes of those of us who know the Scriptures.

Ham was never distracted by Nye’s antics. He carefully gave definitions of the terms he would use and steadily argued that creationism was a model superior to the molecules-to-man model of atheism. Also, to my delight, he included in his model a clear presentation of the gospel upwards of six times (I didn’t count them). This is a strong argument for biblical creationism, by the way, because the atheist alternative is powerless to explain the purpose and dignity of human life.

In my opinion, either contestant could have been shredded if he had faced a better opponent. Nye seemed oblivious of the actual scientific arguments of creationists and was blindsided by Ham’s approach. Ham, on the other hand, did little to assure the listeners that creationists have responses to Nye’s deep time evidence, nor did he articulate clearly where the philosophical boundaries lie. Assertions such as “There’s nothing in astronomy that proves the universe is old” and “You cannot prove the age of the earth” are rather unconvincing when Nye had appeared to do exactly that by presenting one proof after another. (For the slow who might read this, I repeat that I do believe in a young earth.)

The debate was obviously a PR success for Ham and the Creation Science Museum. They rake in plenty of money as it is, and this event was very popular, sold out in two days, and streamed to perhaps a million viewers. DVDs and videotapes are already for sale on the AIG website. Nye did well, also, as Nye’s normal speaking fee is $50,000 to $75,000, according to Celebrity Talent International.

Ham probably knows that one cannot “win” a debate over such a topic in such a format. If his goal was to preach the gospel to hundreds of thousands of unbelievers, he succeeded wildly. Nye, on the other hand, might have won a few creationists to the “deep time” position if they’d never seen the evidence before. Nye’s strength does not lie in debate, but in celebrity interviews where he doesn’t have any opposition. This event surely has won him a large number of such appearances and their accompanying fees.

Dwight Gustafson, R. I. P.

Dr. Gus died today.  He was the dean of the School of Fine Arts while I was at Bob Jones University and he was my first and only orchestral conductor. He was one of the most gracious people who ever endured me.

dr_gus As a sophomore I sat at supper one night and a cellist at our table complained that she had to play double bass in the orchestra because there were no bass players.  Intrigued and ever adventurous, I asked her how someone might join the orchestra?  “I guess you’d talk to Dr. Gus,” she replied.  (Music majors never had to ask such questions; the opportunities were actually requirements.)

I found Dr. Gus somewhere on campus the next day and said “I’ve heard that you’re short on bass players in the orchestra.”  He conceded, “Oh, we need bass players badly.”  I announced “I could probably play as badly as anyone else.”  I then outlined my professional experience: I had played the electric bass in beer joints as a country musician and in high school as a big band jazzman.  And although I had plucked an upright bass a few times, I’d never held a bow in my hands.  “But I could learn!” I cheerfully chirped.

Always gracious, he lamented that there was no way for me to play at the level of the university orchestra, but I could join the “string ensemble” and perhaps try out for orchestra the following year.  That satisfied me and I joined the string ensemble right away.  I could read music well, but knew nothing about the bow.  After watching me on my first day, a cellist had to inform me “You’re supposed to change your bowing direction with every note.”  Oh.

I worked hard, excited by all that I was learning.  In about three weeks Dr. Gus dropped by our class and just observed.  After class, Mrs. Pollard approached me and said, “Dr. Gustafson says that you are to report to orchestra practice this week.” Thus ended my career in the bush league.

No other member of the university orchestra loved it more than I, but none knew less than I.  They were patient with me, but Dr. Gus could be very firm when he thought it wise.  I remember an oratorio when we were in the final hours of rehearsal before performance and he had admonished the huge choir up in the loft to project.  They weren’t getting it, so he stopped the music and upbraided them, showing a bit of anger.  He ended by shouting a one-word command: “PROJECT!” I’ll warrant you, everybody projected!  But I noticed his daughter Dianne (1st chair violin) smiling up at him with an expression that subtly said “Oh, Daddy, quit putting on!”  He just wanted us to do our best.

In our first reading of Verdi’s Rigoletto, we came to a place where the entire orchestra became silent except for the double bass “buzzing” a note behind some offstage trumpets.  That trumpet group wasn’t in place yet, so I would be playing those four measures all by myself.  I knew nothing about the piece, and when I heard everyone else stop playing, I thought I must have read my music incorrectly, so I also stopped.  Dr. Gus continued directing in the silence and called out “double bass!”  I quickly tried to play, but that “buzzing” (tremolo) was a bowing technique entirely new to me and I didn’t have the dexterity to do it.  I clawed and gouged for a few beats and then, in a characteristically irreverent attempt at humor, asked, “Had enough?”  He looked at me as he continued beating the time and shouted “PLAY!”  I played.  And I doubt that there was ever a bassist in the instrument’s history who practiced a tremolo more assiduously than I did that week.  You can bet I had it down by the next rehearsal.

Despite my meager attainments on the instrument, Dr. Gus always treated me like a colleague.  As we took our places after an intermission, I recall him catching my eye from his position at the conductor’s stand and giving me the “OK” gesture with a wink, just reassuring me (howsoever falsely) that I was doing fine.

He was an immensely talented conductor, partly because of his technical proficiency, partly because of his loving heart.  We wanted to follow him.  And he said such funny things.  I reminded him in his office once of how, years before, he’d put his conducting wand on his music stand and turned to the cellos and said “that phrase should descend like a fat woman slowly sitting down into a huge soft sofa.”  He grinned and asked, “Did I say that?”  Such images arose effortlessly in his artistic mind.  (He was originally a graphic artist.)  Another time he warned the violins that they needed to play the high note in a phrase and immediately go to the next notes without slowing down: “Fiddles, you’re trying to build three tabernacles on that note.”  (See Luke 9:33 if you don’t understand that.)

A few years ago one of my kids was graduating from the university with some degree or another and I happened to see Dr. Gus standing around in the Amphitorium.  He was about eighty years of age by then and, of course, wouldn’t remember me.  I still wanted to greet him, tell him my name and what years I played for him, and let him know what the Lord had done through me in church music with the things I’d learned from him.  Always gracious, he gave me the reply that I’m sure he gave to hundreds of others: “Well, we played a lot of beautiful music together, didn’t we?”

Freeze & Burst: the Short Tutorial

The arctic temperatures continue marauding through Memphis and people’s pipes continue to freeze and burst.  And I continue to hear about it.

Some things cannot be helped.  If  a meteorite comes through your roof and smashes your toilet — well, we all have days like that.

On the other hand, there are things you can do to protect your pipes from freezing and bursting.

First: insulate them.  I got to one home and found the copper icemaker supply line running across the attic with no insulation until it descended into the ceiling over the refrigerator.  After I repaired it, I took a roll of insulation which obviously had lain up there for decades and I spread it over the length of copper tube from beginning to end.  Anybody could have done that before the freeze.  It would have saved thousands of dollars in flood damage.

Second: block the air vents, by which I mean the little windows around the foundation (if the house is on a crawl space) and the gable louvers.  Often I will see all of the pipes under a house doing just fine except for the ones near an open vent.  The ground has heat in it and it radiates under the house.  If the vents are closed up, it helps to keep that heat in.  Also, the moving air has greater ability to freeze a pipe.

Third: keep things warm when a pipe is near an outside wall.  I saw a home where the heating system was poor, so they closed off a bathroom, trying to heat the rest of the house.  Without the indoor heat to help, the pipes in the bathroom wall froze & burst.  This is a common problem in a laundry room because they’re often located in an out-of-the-way spot that, for the same reasons, isn’t heated.

Fourth: add some heat.  You have to be  careful with this step lest you burn something, but adding heat is the only way that some situations will stay thawed.  A halogen work light puts out a lot of heat.  In a somewhat closed-off space, a 60 watt light bulb can make all the difference in the world.  (Think of the space behind a washing machine with, perhaps, some cardboard lying atop it.)  If the attic vents are closed off completely, opening the door to the attic will allow heat in from the house.

Fifth: leave each faucet (except for the outside hose bibbs) running.  Everybody knows this trick; by continually replacing the cooling water with warmer water from underground, the pipe doesn’t freeze.  (If you read some expert talking about a “piston effect,” ignore him.)  A stream as big as a matchstick will do the trick.  For the outside faucets, just insulate them well.  Those styrofoam covers work well, but you can also wrap the faucet with heavy terrycloth or even newspaper, which is a great insulator, albeit short-lived.

Last of all, everybody needs to know how he will shut off his water if something goes wrong one day.  There are a lot of clueless people wandering through life, but you don’t have to be one of them.   Does your house have a shutoff in it?  They’re usually about a foot off the floor in a cabinet or closet.  Is yours in the basement?  The older homes in Memphis (pre-1980 or so) must be shut off at the meter by the street.  Such folks are doomed without a meter key.

The Market for Plumbers

The state of “the trades” in this generation, and probably the previous one as well, is abysmal.  There’s still room for more decline, to be sure, but that’s a small consolation.  Little education (albeit much indoctrination) takes place in grades K-12, so we’ve developed this idea that everybody should go to college.  That system of mass re-education and its resultant lifetime of student loan debt scoops up most of the young people and convinces them that they should be able to sit at a computer and make $50k.  Who fixes the plumbing?

Generally, the leftovers.

It is not my intention to denigrate any capable individual; I am one and I’ve met others.  But bright and capable students these days seldom dream of leaving high school and working with their hands, learning a trade, and building a business from it.  One of my bosses, who had been hiring plumbers for years, told me quite sincerely (with acknowledged hyperbole) “all plumbers are either drunks, dopeheads, or lazy.”  Students who are otherwise will ordinarily avoid the trades.

Over time, this sorting process has produced a plumbing industry where plumbers mistreat customers (to put it mildly).  Small wonder, then, if plumbing companies mistreat plumbers.

Every so often I look around and see what the plumbing companies are up to so that I can warn my customers.  I got to looking at ads on Craigslist.  Many companies are seeking plumbers to hire.   Like lonesome singles in the “Personals” ads, they really try to sound adorable:

See what can be yours:
Top Pay & Bonus Plans
Paid Vacations
Flexible Schedules
Drug free work environment
Steady work throughout the year
Paid training on-site and off site
Best equipped/designed trucks in the country
Full Benefits: Medical, Dental, Vision, Prescription, & life Insurance

I began comparing this luscious beauty with what I already have at home (being a sole proprietor) and I saw that all I lack is “paid training.”  (When I read the manufacturer’s websites on new products, I have to do it on my own time.)  I also happen to know that this company charges $1,500 for a job that I charge $700 for.

This one made me smile:

[XYZ Company] has grown to the point where we are adding 2 premier service plumbers! And we offer premier benefits like health insurance, vacation pay, sick pay, holiday pay, retirement plan and year round work!

[XYZ Company] also offers GUARANTEED weekends off! Now who does that?

They’ve “grown to the point” that they’re hiring?  Suuure they have.  One of their former employees told me a few weeks ago “Nobody can work for that guy.”  GUARANTEED weekends off?  My friend told me, “Yeah, once a month!

I can’t fix these companies.  Like cockroaches, no matter how many you kill, there’ll be more.  All I can do is say “Go toward the light.”  As a sole proprietor I have decentralized plumbing service with the use of computers and a mobile phone.  Memphis could use a hundred more: individual guys building and living off their own reputations, teaming up with friends when a job requires it, providing personalized service to grateful and loyal customers.  Maybe the idea will catch on some day.

Post Mortem on Memphis’s Frozen Pipes

Another wave of thawing and bursting swept over the city today.  I received a number of calls, nearly all of which I referred to a plumber friend.  I just spoke with him at about 10pm.  He was on his way to his last call of the day. He made over $1,000 today.  I made about $225, but I only worked nine hours and got home around 7:30pm.  I had some friends in trouble and some promises to keep — the kinds of stuff that don’t pay much money.

At the supply house today I learned that one plumbing company was booked three days out and had turned down forty calls.  My customers were lucky that they know me.  All of my callers were served.

I even missed a chance to be in the newspaper.  A reporter whom I know called to ask if he could do a story with pictures about plumbers and frozen pipes, but I had to decline since I was spending the day doing mundane stuff.  My fifteen minutes of fame — down the toilet.  Story of my life.

Finally, Our Nation Is Unified

Much bemoaning has been heard in the last decade about how divided America has become.  I think we’ve gotten past that this week.  Across all racial and religious lines, despite Marxist leftism and Americanist rightism, irrespective of age, college football team loyalty, or propensity toward cell phone moronism, America has come together to say with one common voice:

It’s too darned cold.

Yahoo Weather told me at 7:00am that it was five degrees out on the streets of Memphis. That’s just downright disrespectful. My phone began ringing at 7:30 as victims reported waking up to frozen pipes.  Those pipes have been just fine for twenty three years, but nooooooo, the weather had to dive down to South Dakota levels and wreak havoc across our beloved southland.  And I don’t even want to know what South Dakota is like today.

In fact, that last paragraph was written over a bowl of beef stew at Jason’s Deli on Highland.  This paragraph is being composed at home ten hours later.  What happened, you ask?  A housewife called me in the middle of lunch to complain that bucketfuls of water were pouring through her ceiling.  Some women have a low tolerance for that sort of thing, so I closed my laptop and headed for the truck.  En route to her house, another girl called with a similar problem.  Before I could finish that conversation, I received a third call: water pouring through the ceiling.  I got home at 9:20pm.  Mankind was not created to live like this.

It’s getting better.  The forecast for tonight shows a low of 23 degrees, which is a far sight better than five.  It’s supposed to climb into the 60s by the weekend.  But for tonight, I can’t bear the thought of opening a refrigerator door.

Some Dopes are Now Legal in Colorado

This week’s news stories would make you think that the sky had fallen or the Lord had returned to establish his kingdom or something. Marijuana was legalized.

This is hardly a big deal. You still can’t smoke it in public, so stoners will have to do it in private. How is this different, pray tell, from what they were doing before?

“But it’s legal now!” Again, I have to ask, “So what?” Everybody who wanted to smoke dope was already doing it, and practically nobody was getting caught (since cops have other things to worry about).

There are three distinct arguments among my libertarian friends for legalizing recreational drugs:

  1. People should be free to do as they please, except for fraud or the initiation of force.
  2. The effects of prohibition are worse than the effects of legalization.
  3. The benefits of legalization are too attractive to pass up.

The first argument is an assumption based on atheism. Since there is a God and he has given certain rights and responsibilities to the State (and others to individuals), the first argument is powerless, although it does provide a powerful tool for criticizing government actions.

The third argument is profoundly unsound. No amount of tax revenue could justify an otherwise evil action.

I have a lot of sympathy with the second argument. The “War on Drugs” has been the most colossal failure of anything government has ever done (and readers, that’s saying a lot!) It seems incontrovertible that nothing is going to stop people from doing dope. Why, then, sink hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into the effort?

This argument says nothing about the morality of using drugs. Instead, it says something about the purpose and responsibilities of the State.

There is a higher level on which the issue might be discussed, too, and that is the matter of personal responsibility. I favor a world where people can take their chances and take their losses. The old saying is that to protect people from the consequences of their folly will be to fill the world with fools.

There was a time when drugs were legal. You could buy heroin at the pharmacy. “Dope fiends” were scarce. That day could return.

Ron Paul and Guns in Schools

In an earlier post, I recommended that school staff, including teachers, who were willing, trained, and supervised be allowed to carry guns for the sake of the schools’ safety. Shortly afterwards, the head of the NRA made a public recommendation that every school be provided an armed guard. In my post, I had pointed out how an armed guard would be ineffective. Since LaPierre’s statement, many critics have also done the arithmetic on the idea and shown its impracticality.

Yeasterday, Ron Paul weighed in with the libertarian insight that turning the schools into a TSA-type guarded compound would be an unacceptable advance into an Orwellian nightmare. Although I agree with this much, his statement also went so far as to disapprove of arming the staff themselves, claiming instead that “real change can happen only when we commit ourselves to rebuilding civil society in America, meaning a society based on family, religion, civic and social institutions, and peaceful cooperation through markets.”

Paul’s statement needs a couple of corrections.

First, armed citizens do not constitute a police state; instead, we are freemen who fear neither the state nor one another. Allowing teachers the freedom to defend themselves is just basic Americanism.

Second, society did not massacre the children at Sandy Hook and rebuilding society will not stop the next massacre. Paul is certainly right about the value of freedom for improving civil society, but that is really a different issue. Evil men will always try to prey upon the weak, even in the best of societies. The weak must be protected by the strong.

Understanding Participatory Culture and Weighing Its Value to the American Church

The idea that we have moved into participatory culture has attracted the attention of social scientists for about ten years. For instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology housed the foremost thinker and writer in the area, Henry Jenkins, who was the director of their Comparative Media Studies Program until his recent move to the University of Southern California.  The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has poured $50 millions into the topic. Microsoft is currently researching and reporting on the topic, and participatory culture has become something of a buzzword within such fields as education, library science, and political activism.

And yet, for all that, it has not attracted much attention in Christian literature. The closest thing to it has been occasional references in the emerging church movement to participatory music and worship, actually ancient ideas. Furthermore, the emergent movement self-consicously sought to adapt the church to the postmodern culture; but Ryan Bolger, Associate Professor of Church in Contemporary Culture at Fuller, has opined that participatory culture is actually the next stage after postmodernism. So even the emergers don’t recognize the scope of the changes.

For Christians to take a closer look at participatory culture will have two specific values. The first one is obvious: a correct understanding of a culture is an essential element to effective communication and ministry. The second value is a little less obvious: since this cultural trend is so effective at garnering participation, what can it teach Christian ministries who need more participation?

Definition

To introduce the idea of participatory culture, I will relate an example from media scholar Henry Jenkins:

Ashley Richardson (Jenkins, 2004b) was a middle-schooler when she ran for president of Alphaville. She wanted to control a government that had more than 100 volunteer workers and that made policies that affected thousands of people. She debated her opponent on National Public Radio. She found herself in the center of a debate about the nature of citizenship, about how to ensure honest elections, and about the future of democracy in a digital age. Alphaville is the largest city in the popular multiplayer game, The Sims Online. (Found here.)

A generation has arisen that understands itself not only to be a consumer of media content, but also a creator. Through blogging, Facebooking, multiplayer gaming, YouTubing, and various other online activities, a culture of participation has become their natural way of thinking and living. Jenkins (p.7) defines a participatory culture as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

Facebook immediately comes to mind as a setting where these things are true, but it is only one in a sea of others.

What has Changed?

“Participation” is nothing new, especially in church life. The Protestant Reformation emphasized that worship was for participants rather than spectators. The black church in America developed a style of worship often described as “call and response,” which expressed an African cultural tradition of participatory communication (See Sundermeier, The Individual and Community in African Traditional Religions, 49-50). The Charismatic Movement highlighted the New Testament teachings regarding every member’s responsibility to identify his spiritual gifts and to use them in ministry.

The new culture, though, has lifted participation to a new level, primarily for three reasons:

  • Lowered cost. The cost of internet access, computers, and recording devices is near zero in many cases, cheap in most others.
  • Mentorship. Abundant help from around the globe awaits any inquirer who wants to participate in something.
  • Audience. Anything offered up has hundreds of millions of potential viewers, so there’s a good chance of attracting a few who express appreciation and feed the ego.

The effects of this culture change have been profound. Jenkins reported, “According to the Pew Center for Internet and American Life, more than sixty percent of American teens have produced media, and a significant portion have distributed that media content online.” Most of those who were teens then are adults now.

Free Software as an Example

The participatory culture is not limited to kids uploading photos to their Facebook pages. There is a comparatively little-known movement called FOSS, which stands for “free/open source software,” which marshals the labor of thousands of volunteers to provide computer software at little or (usually) no cost to the end user.

The biggest entity in this movement is Ubuntu, which is one “distribution” (or variant) of the GNU/Linux operating system. After Microsoft and Apple, Ubuntu is the most widely used desktop operating system in the world. It boasts 20 million users and a goal of 200 million by the end of 2016.

According to their web site,  Ubuntu is the product of “thousands of individuals and teams” who work on software development, design, bug stomping, local community groups (LoCo teams), language translation, documentation, testing, support to new users, and the Brainstorm website (“Anyone can suggest new ideas and the community votes on which ideas are the most important”).

The sponsoring organization, Canonical, holds an Ubuntu Developer Summit  annually (the last one was in Copenhagen a couple of weeks ago) that sees participation not only in person, but also via IRC, live streaming, and microblogging. Participants work together worldwide using a collaborative text editor called “etherpad.”

Understanding

Whence the desire on the part of so many to contribute so much? A number of scientific studies have been made  and the motives are found to be understandably diverse; but, broadly speaking, the majority fall into the category of wanting to contribute to something good.

As we seek to increase participation among those to whom we minister, there is a temptation to consider original sin insurmountable and recalcitrance to be incorrigible.  Yet here we see a remarkable level of self-giving among a class of humanity with no identifiable Christian commitment.

If we refer back to the earlier bullet points, we can see how such participation reflects Jenkins’s description of a participatory culture.  Summarized, we can say that this is how people, as people, behave under given circumstances.

Conclusion

If indeed  our younger people have grown up in a participatory culture, we should expect a certain impatience on their part with a church structure whose inner workings has high barriers to entry, a paucity of readily available mentorship, or precious little feedback when attempts at participation are made.  It may be that technology can be incorporated in adaptation to culture, but the issue is deeper than that.  Although the tech revolution has given us this culture shift, the motives for participation are greater than just the desire to play with toys.  Tech itself is very often a distraction more than a help, but understanding the participatory culture and fostering it in whatever ways may be found effective bids fair to unleash a torrent of creative power for the work of Christ.

Thoughts on the Sandy Hook Massacre

I would summarize what I’ve been hearing from the mass media since Friday as

When in trouble
When in doubt
Run in circles
Scream and shout

Angry people, grieving people, ignorant people, and conniving people are throwing dust in the air and shouting Somebody do something! Just what is to be done is a secondary concern (except among the conniving). The main theme has been that we cannot accept this, so we must do something.

Since the shooter used a .223 caliber Bushmaster, many speakers have called for banning assault weapons. Hopefully they are speaking from mere ignorance. A hurting person can be excused from saying ill-advised things at a time of emotional upheaval. The suggestion remains, however, ill-advised. Most of those favoring this move cannot tell you what an assault rifle is and how it differs from, say, a deer rifle. For this reason they cannot tell you how the elimination of these weapons would make a school massacre less likely. But assault weapons look scary, and that’s enough for such commentators.

The truth is, eliminating assault weapons (if they could be defined) would not have affected this massacre at all. One feature of an assault rifle is a high-capacity magazine, which means you don’t need to reload as often. But what’s the hurry if you intend to shoot kids and teachers in a school? A simple revolver would work just fine. Kill the teacher first, squeeze the trigger five more times, stand at the door so that the first graders cannot leave, reload (it takes about 20 seconds for an amateur, but someone who has practiced a lot can cut that in half easily), then squeeze the trigger six more times, then repeat, etc. Schools are a mass-murderer’s dream come true: countless easy targets and nobody can shoot back.

The chattering classes also love the word “semiautomatic.” You can just hear the thrill of excitement when they call a rifle a “semiautomatic rifle.” It’s like when a Bible college undergraduate first learns the word “supralapsarianism.”

For those who may not know, a semiautomatic is simply a gun that you don’t have to cock before firing. As a boy, I hunted birds with my uncle, who carried a semiautomatic shotgun, and my father, who carried a pump-action shotgun. I carried a single-shot .410 and I may have killed as many birds as they, simply because I aimed more carefully. When a covey of quail flew up, Daddy probably got off as many shots as Uncle Max, even though he had to cock his shotgun before each shot. (A pump-action is pretty quick.) Being able to squeeze off rounds more quickly (with a semi) doesn’t obviate the fact that you still have to aim the #@$% gun if you’re going to kill anything. Even a simple revolver can be fired repeatedly without cocking it. The quick action of a semiauto adds nothing to the success of a school massacre.

Schools are already locked down, with visitors required to sign in. That doesn’t work, either. I needed into a high school recently and, since my appearance fits the profile of a safe person, kids hanging around inside just opened the door for me. (School had ended for the day some minutes earlier.) Signs were everywhere telling me that all visitors had to sign in; I ignored them. When I’d found the teacher I’d come to see, he showed me a door near his classroom where I could park my truck and come right in. “It’s probably unlocked,” he said as he walked over to check it. “Yeah, it’s unlocked; just park out there and bring your stuff in this door.” They’d have to turn the place into a prison to control all the access points. And how secure are those points when 3,000 kids are trying to get in and begin the day?

While we’re talking about banning the weapon — has anyone considered how easy it would be to drive a car onto a school playground? Anybody sick enough to shoot first graders multiple times is sick enough to drive onto a playground and mow them down.

In anything like a free society, the only solution is to maintain the ability to stop a massacre if it begins. You cannot always stop one from beginning.

Some conservatives are repeating the idea that there should be an armed guard at every school. I have to wonder if these kibitzers know anything about handgun combat, or any combat at all? Apparently not. Does a sicko like this Lanza kid want to pull a massacre at a school which has An Armed Guard? He simply walks up to the guard, draws a weapon, and kills him. It’s easy to do unless the guard already has a gun in his hand and is alert because the attacker looks unusual. And how formidable is the average guard? These days, they’re only on the premises of most places for insurance reasons and to operate a buzzer to let people in. They are obviously not combat ready.

Or suppose, like Lanza, the killer intends to die with his victims? He starts shooting children at the far end of the property and the overweight and aged guard (in another building) begins huffing and puffing his way to the sound of the shooting. Twelve people are already dead and the killer is reloading his revolver for the third time. Fatso comes through the door and, out of breath and trembling from excitement, he levels his semiautomatic handgun and empties it in the direction of the killer. Out of fifteen rounds, one of them manages to hit the thug and the murders are over. Instead of twenty dead, it’s only twelve. Not much improvement, and that’s a “best-case” scenario. Give the perp slightly better weapons and the foresight to watch for the guard and the improvement diminishes to near zero.

A effective measure would be to have many armed guards in every school, all of them combat ready. I am referring to the school staff themselves. Those who are willing can be trained, tested, and supervised. (Hoplophobes, read that sentence repeatedly until you understand it.) When the school is filled with capable handgunners, punks like Lanza cannot get far. Such scum might open fire at a school, a mall, or a bus station, but the school would be a place, like a gun store or a police station, where an evil doer is the least able to work his will.

Fiscal Cliff Deception

Nobody’s telling the truth about the fiscal cliff — at least, nobody in the federal government is.

The true condition of Washington’s finances is beyond repair. Any number of accountant-types on YouTube can show you in simple terms how the debt and the deficit (those are not the same thing) are out of control. There’s not enough money anywhere to eliminate the deficit and pay the debt.

All this talk about reducing spending is equivalent to a clown juggling tennis balls: it entertains, but it makes no difference. Remember when Romney said he would eliminate Big Bird? That’s about like going into a forty-acre field, plucking a blade of grass, and crowing “Now we’re making progress; this field is finally getting mowed.” They’re spending $1 trillion a year more than they’re taking in and the entire PBS costs $445 million, Roughly 1/2,000th of the overspending. (PBS is much more than just Sesame Street.)

Obama wants to increase taxes on the rich. Why? If taxes on rich people went even so high as 100% it could only fund 1/3 of the annual overspending, and it would obviously increase unemployment. Taxing the rich won’t help the problem.

As anyone knows who has managed a business or a family budget, spending has to be reduced to whatever one can afford. The problem, of course, is that politicians get elected and re-elected by offering people stuff that someone else pays for. As a rule, only such thieves can be elected, so any who display economic sanity will eventually be defeated at the polls.

The immediate responsibility falls to the Supreme Court. Most of what Congress authorizes is unconstitutional and it’s the Court’s job to declare it so. That would prevent elected thieves from running the credit card bill up another trillion. Most of the entitlement spending would thereby be phased out.

The next step would be to streamline the tax code so that businesses have the incentive to advance and the ability to predict their futures. Eliminating the minimum wage laws would address unemployment decisively. Tax revenues would stabilize and the budget could be set accordingly.

None of this will transpire, of course, so we will certainly go off a fiscal cliff. Not in January, to be sure — that’s just political theater — but eventually America will collapse financially.

Have a nice day.