Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Age of Unreason

Is reason dead? Has critical thinking lost credence in the world today? I fear it may have. It seems that “the public,” that amorphous mass of unwashed, uneducated peons, has lost interest in facts, considering them less important than what sounds good.

I suppose that’s a natural result of depending on television for our news. A successful network can devote only a limited time to news, and that limited time has to include ALL of the current events that the producers deem to be “newsworthy.” Those constraints place fairly harsh limits on the amount of time a news anchor can devote to any one story. That has conditioned us to accept a 10-second “sound bite” as a legitimate and complete statement of position on an issue. Yes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but in TV news, a video of someone’s face adds little to the message. The message itself is usually short enough that it would be considered a summary paragraph in a newspaper article or formal essay.

In such a limited format, there’s no time to present details and supporting facts. In addition, the journalists love to report controversy, which means that instead of reporting facts on which to base our decisions, they report the sound bites and bullet statements from “both” sides – even if there are more than two points of view to be found. And to increase the friction, they often show the most extreme supporters on each side, guaranteeing maximum vitriol and malice in their claims of the evils of their opponents.

And THAT’S where the problems get even worse. The issue and the proponents become completely polarized. The spokespeople, trying to sway the maximum number of people in their limited time in the spotlight, turn their sound bites away from statements of fact toward emotional pleas, misleading claims, and personal attacks on the opposition.

Over the next several days, I’m going to take a look at one such issue – illegal immigration. I had originally intended to cover several of the more obvious simplified arguments within this single entry…but I discovered I had too much to say on them. Rather than simplify and shorten my own arguments, I’m asking you, my loyal readers (both of you) to follow with me over the next week or so.

Edit, 28JUN2007 - I lost interest in the examples. Sorry. If you really want them, let me know. Moving on now.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Indianapolis 415

It was an ugly, ugly race.

I knew Indy had made some rules changes. For starters, the IRL is now running on 100% ethanol. They changed the fuel tank sizes, and eliminated the “dial-a-mixture” option that let a driver trade speed for fuel mileage when the situation called for it. But there must’ve been some other changes, because this was a totally different race than what I’ve seen in the last several years. Impressions:

  • Rain, rain, go away. Bad enough that we had to sit through a three-hour rain delay at lap 113, unsure if they’d get the track dry in time to restart. Worse, they only managed another 53 laps before the rain came back and ended the race for good. Poor Tony Kanaan, who led the pack into the delay, must be truly annoyed that they took away his victory when it was obvious to everyone that they still wouldn’t be able to make the full 500 miles before the rain returned.
  • Clean track, messy race. Speaking of rain, apparently, it had been raining on the track all day Saturday, too. That cleaned off all of the rubber that a full month of practice and qualifications had deposited, leaving the track clean, pristine…and very, very slick. There were seven separate one-car crashes that appeared to be at least partly caused by a car straying off the groove. Granted, they were also partly caused by less-experienced drivers coming up too fast on competitors, and having to dodge or slow down too fast – but that sort of thing doesn’t usually lead to this many cars hitting the wall
  • Nobody ever pulled away from the pack. Usually, there will be a “lead pack” of three or four cars, then another small group of cars that stay on the lead lap without ever really being competitive, then a whole bunch of cars that gradually slip farther and farther off the lead. I’m accustomed to seeing a few cars five or more laps behind by the halfway point, and as many as ten or fifteen laps down by the end, with several cars scattered out with lesser deficits. Not this time. Little Al did fall five laps back by the end, but the next-slowest driver still running was only three laps back, and there were 13 cars still on the lead lap. There would have been 17 if not for a major accident right before the rain. The huge number of cautions probably had something to do with that – 10 separate yellows for 55 laps, about 1/3 of the race. But mostly I think that no one had the speed to really pull away…almost like the cars had governors installed to restrict everyone to the same maximum speed. I’m sure that isn’t literally true, but I suspect the rules changes may have had much the same effect.
  • Cascading lead changes. There were nine different race leaders, and they swapped out positions 24 separate times – and that doesn’t count the times when someone would take the lead in the first turn, and then lose it again before they crossed the Yard of Bricks. Nobody had enough speed to hold on to the lead…they couldn’t overcome the speed advantage of the car drafting behind them. Besides, the pit stops got skewed during the various cautions, so every time the leader came in for a refuel, someone else could stay out and take over. It made for exciting racing, I suppose, but it also made things very hard to follow. There was just no way to tell who was doing well and who merely held the lead because the real leaders were making up ground from their last pit stop. Dario never really seemed to be challenging for the lead…but when the checkered flag came out, there he was in front.
  • Safety first. As if the seven single-car incidents weren’t enough, Marco Andretti made an ill-considered pass right at the end, and took out himself and three other cars. His car flipped, and it looked like he ran about a hundred yards with his helmet touching the track. Despite all that, there were apparently no serious injuries…Marco even gave an interview outside the clinic shortly after the race. I’m not sure that I like ALL the rules that control the cars’ setups…but you can’t fault the safety devices.

I still enjoyed the race, of course. The imminent rain added a sense of urgency to every lap, and every lead change. Seeing Marco and Danica in second and third when the first rain delay hit was very exciting – though disappointing when they finished 24th and 8th, respectively. And I sort of like Dario, so I’m pleased to see him win. All the same, I hope they tweak the rules a bit next year to give the mechanics a little more freedom to stand out…and I REALLY hope it stays dry next Memorial Day Weekend!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Get the Facts!

I read a story by reporter Kim Barker in the Chicago Tribune yesterday. It started with an anecdote about a deployed Soldier going through a divorce during the four-month extension on his original one-year deployment. The implication, of course, is that the extension CAUSED the divorce, but that is not specifically stated. The article continues by mentioning three other pending divorces and various other “family” problems the Soldiers in his unit are experiencing.

The article goes on to discuss the reason for longer deployments, and asserts that these extensions will hurt Army retention and recruitment, possibly even leaving the all-volunteer Army “permanently damaged.” As evidence, it includes a mention of a Pentagon survey of over 1700 Soldiers and Marines: “A survey…said longer combat deployments could hurt troops' morale and mental health.”

That may all be true. Extended deployments may be causing broken families, reduced retention, problems in recruiting, lower morale, reduced Army effectiveness, and maybe even loss of hair and poor taste in neckties. I AM sure, however, that this so-called “news story” doesn’t provide any useful information to back up the hints, assertions, and innuendo.

For starters, a survey of troops is capturing their opinion on the subject. Unless the respondents were all military psychologists, psychiatrists, and chaplains, then their untrained, uninformed opinions are pretty much meaningless. I haven’t seen the wording of the actual questions the troops answered…but from the brief mention, it sounds much like asking 1700 United Auto Workers “Would increasing the work day to nine hours with no extra pay damage morale in your workplace?” Why don’t we have the numbers on USEFUL questions?

  • What is the divorce rate within the Army and Marine Corps now, as compared to seven years ago?
  • What is the military divorce rate as compared to the nation as a whole, both now and pre-9/11?
  • What is the military divorce rate compared to the divorce rate of other high-stress jobs, like air-traffic controller or police officer? Or compared to other jobs that involve family separation, like traveling salesman or long-haul truck driver? Again, both now and seven years ago?
  • What is the military divorce rate within six months before and after a deployment, as compared to within six months of a one-year unaccompanied assignment to Korea?
  • What is the Army-wide retention rate, then and now? How many troops are choosing to stay in? How many are reenlisting within a year or two after getting out?

Those would all be useful statistics in determining the damage that long deployments are doing to the force, and I suspect that all of them are available to a hard-working and moderately intelligent news reporter. They might even support the tone and implications of this editorial-masked-as-journalism – though my recollection of statistics in other reports doesn’t quite match up with that. But with no truly useful information, this story is a waste of newsprint or electrons.

I brought up this issue not to criticize Ms. Barker. Her news story seems to me to be fairly typical of journalism today – a heavy emphasis on anecdotes and emotional appeals, while minimalizing hard facts. Fortunately, I’ve found several resources that encourage critical thinking.

  • is the best resource I know to combat “I’ve heard…,” “They say…,” and “Everybody knows…” Mr. and Mrs. Mikkelson research rumors on nearly any subject, especially those that deluge your e-mail inbox. They depend on and link you to multiple and reliable sources to confirm or deny the truth behind the rumors – and when they can do neither, they tell you their best opinion, clearly identifying it as such.
  • Mythbusters is an extraordinarily entertaining TV show. Adam and Jamie are remarkably good at portraying themselves as overgrown kids with truly wonderful toys, up to and including a cement mixer full of explosives. But behind the explosions and laughs, they clearly demonstrate the key steps of the scientific method – propose a hypothesis, develop an experiment to test it, and keep an open mind about the results. They have debunked a lot of what “everyone knows,” and surprised themselves with things they were certain would never work. And besides, they usually manage to destroy something in a spectacular manner by the end of the show.
  • The Skeptics Society has a variety of publications – the two I’m most familiar with are the Skepticality podcast and the Skeptic e-newsletter. I’m a little behind on the podcast…I started with their archived episodes, and have only gotten as far as August 2005. At any rate, both of them include interviews, news items, book reviews, and other tidbits, with people such as Adam Savage (Mythbusters), James Randi (The Amazing Randi, debunker of psychics), and Michael Shermer (author of Why People Believe Weird Things and The Science of Good and Evil). They tend to focus on atheism/agnosticism vs. religion and spirituality, especially in areas like the Intelligent Design/Evolution debate, and “psychic phenomena.” So far, their underlying attitude is a bit too self-righteous and self-congratulatory for my taste, but the information and arguments they provide more than makes up for it.
  • NPR provides another useful podcast – Science Friday. These are recordings of the weekly radio show, presenting science news and headlines. The host, Ira Flatow, frequently brings in guests with differing viewpoints, providing a genteel debate that often serves to bring out more truth than a newsreader could manage alone. He also takes calls from surprisingly intellectual and well-informed listeners with often insightful questions – I assume the callers are well-screened, but the screening process does not appear to filter out reasoned disagreement.
  • Scott Adams writes The Dilbert Blog. It may not truly belong on this list, as I find some of his writings to have more certainty than the evidence supports. But he frequently comes up with brilliantly bizarre looks at current events that can make you think about them much harder than you normally might. He often proposes solutions to “unsolvable” problems (like the Middle East) that initially draw a dismissive laugh…but then cause you to struggle to find the flaw that makes them unworkable. Reading the “comments” sections will also show you dozens of examples of fuzzy thinking. Plus, of course, he’s frequently funny.
  • – This site, more than any other, inspired this blog entry. Affiliated with George Mason University, the Statistical Assessment Service analyzes news stories to identify bad science, misleading statistics, poor research, and deliberate misinformation. Reading the articles on the site has made me much more suspicious about the articles I read elsewhere…and that suspicion and skepticism enables me to more easily spot the missing facts. That, in my opinion, is a key skill for any would-be informed citizen.

As Robert Heinlein said in “Time Enough For Love” - “What are the facts? Again and again and again--what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what "the stars foretell," avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable "verdict of history"--what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!"

Even if the journalists won’t give them to you.

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Losing Game

My wife was placed on her first diet in second grade. When I met her, thirteen years later, she weighed about 250 pounds. Over the next 20 years, she see-sawed between 250 and 350…losing a little on this diet, a lot on that diet, as much as 100 pounds over a year and a half on one…but eventually those losses would slip away, usually leaving her heavier than when she started.

I say this not as a criticism, but to point out that she is completely familiar with the curse of obesity. She knows more about dieting than some nutritionists. She knows what it feels like to weigh two or three times her “ideal weight.” She knows what it feels like to lose a significant amount through months of hard work and deprivation. She’s read up on genetic causes of obesity, and has intimate knowledge of food addiction, stress-related overeating, financial penalty of a healthy diet, dieting as a family, dieting with a partner, dieting with a support group, and dieting alone. No matter what aspect of obesity or weight loss you want to bring up, she’s been there and done that. Despite a lack of formal training on the subject, she has a level of expertise that no 120-pound aerobics instructor, patronizing doctor, or egotistic talk-show hostess with a private chef and a personal trainer can possibly match.

Her obesity has caused her many problems over the years. She has been denied jobs due to her weight – in one case, she was refused an unpaid volunteer position at a library because of her size. She has suffered from health problems due to her weight. Some of those were directly caused by the excess weight – a problem with weak ankles has been repeatedly exacerbated by the extra force her body put on them. Other problems were caused by the reaction of her doctors – no matter what health issue she brought to them, they blamed it on her size. Sometimes they claimed it was the cause of the problem, sometimes they claimed it would interfere with the treatment, and sometimes they simply felt the need to lecture her – as in the doctor who delayed treating a painful case of swimmers’ ear so she could lecture Rita (in her good ear) about dieting. Perhaps she thought that fat earlobes trapped excess water in the ear canal? The fact that she was generally quite healthy, despite her size, was lost on them – for instance, her comfortably low blood pressure and normal blood sugar levels were a constant surprise to them, though that seldom prevented them from warning her about hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes. Unsurprisingly, she developed a hatred of doctors’ visits – a problem would have to get very serious before I could convince her to see one, and even then she wanted me to come along to protect her from unwarranted attacks by these so-called professionals.

Even walking in public was a trial for her. People would turn and stare, pass by her with whispers and giggles, make rude comments pitched for her to overhear or even make them directly to her. I felt she was overly sensitive to such things, seeing insults where none were actually given…but I saw enough of them confirmed to make me unable to reassure her when she saw something I didn’t.

About two years ago, she underwent that most extreme of weight-loss surgeries, a gastric bypass. Prior to the surgery she spent a few weeks enjoying eating whatever she wanted, knowing what she’d be giving up – then we had to move before the paperwork was finished, forcing a year-long delay while she started the process from scratch with her new doctor. That “last chance” mindset, the interminable delays, and a crippling broken ankle just two months before the surgery pushed her well over 400 pounds for the first time in her life, and finally broke her normal healthy constitution into “incipient diabetes.”

In those two years, she has dropped over 270 pounds. She reached her goal weight of 165 a few months ago, and has successfully maintained her weight within five pounds of that goal since then. She dropped from a dress size of 5X down to a size 10. She no longer attracts attention on the street. Her weight loss turned around the diabetes. She watches her nutrients carefully, and has had no complications at all. By almost any possible measure, the surgery has been an outstanding success.

These days, anyone who has noticed her weight loss or otherwise finds out she has had the surgery asks the inevitable question – “Are you happy about it?” The question is universally accompanied by a pleased smile, inviting Rita to gush about how much better she feels, how much happier she is, how much her life has improved. Sometimes they even make it a statement – “I bet you are so much happier now!”

They lose. She isn’t.

  • The post-surgery care was a travesty. Poor pain management, contradictory instructions from the doctor’s brief visits and the nurses’ written orders, and no physical therapy whatsoever. The hospital’s lack of a comprehensive post-op plan set her recovery back by weeks, and forced her to manage her own recovery by trial and painful error.
  • She has to record every bite she eats. On a normal diet, you mostly count calories, or food exchanges, or points…in any event, a fairly straightforward process. Post-surgery, however, she has to cram maximum nutrition into a sharply limited amount of food. She tracks calories, protein, iron, calcium, and potassium, and has to tailor her diet to accommodate all of those factors…within the restriction of three cups of food a day.
  • She cannot eat processed sugar. At all. Even a couple bites of anything sweetened, iced, or frosted causes her extreme nausea in a matter of minutes or even seconds. In many cases, she can use sugar-free substitutes, but not always – sugar-free candy, for instance, almost universally includes Maltitol, which affects her just the same as sugar. Alcohol also has the same effect – a couple sips of a margarita or long island iced tea will send her running for the restroom.
  • She is always cold. Last week, temperatures hit 80 in this area, and the building in which she works has not yet turned on their air conditioning. She stood at her cash register not merely fully dressed, with her “uniform” jacket on top of that, but with an extra layer of thermal underwear hidden beneath her dresses – and still noticed a chill from a fan running nearby. When we go biking together, she wears her long johns and a jacket, and sometimes gloves, on nights when I am comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts.
  • Her flesh literally hangs from her bones. Skin has a limited ability to shrink back down after being stretched, and her weight loss has far exceeded that limit. While her shoulders and back show her bones, she has inches of loose skin hanging from her arms and sagging around her middle. This excess flesh bunches up under her clothing, sometimes even developing open sores. All that extra skin is why she has stopped at 165, when the “ideal weight” for her height is probably 30 pounds less – you can’t diet away skin, and if she tried, she could well suffer the health problems related to anorexia while still being counted as “overweight” on the BMI Index. We still both hope that her skin will slowly “tone up” over time – but what we’ve read on the subject doesn’t do much to confirm that hope.
  • She lives with the constant fear of relapse. She’s looked at the limited statistics publicly available – they show that the majority of bariatric surgery patients are successful. But that depends on a weak definition of “success.” Apparently as long as the patient keeps off HALF of their excess weight, then the surgery is successful…and the time period they consider is not “forever,” but merely “long-term,” a measure of time so far undefined in her searches. From what she’s read, she could regain 130 pounds over the next few years and still be considered successful…and could regain the rest eventually, while still suffering all of the permanent side effects and risks. As near as we can tell, if she gets back up to 400 pounds by age 55 and then dies of a weight-related heart attack, she’d still count as a “success” on their statistics – which means she has no prospects of ever being able to relax her rigid control of her eating.
  • She feels cheated. All her life people have told her how much better her life would be if she “only” lost the weight. “You’ll be healthier,” “You’ll be so much prettier,” “People will like you better,” “You’ll be so much happier.” That turns out not to be the case. Except for those last few months, she was always healthy, despite the extra weight – she has to be more careful of herself now than ever before. She can’t look in the mirror at her hanging flesh and tremendous scar and tell herself she’s prettier – and my opinion has never convinced her, then or now. Most people liked her no matter what she weighed, as she’s always been a friendly and likable person – but now, she hesitates to trust new people, wondering if they would have liked her when she was heavy, or if their friendship is too shallow to go beyond obesity. She even worries that some of her old friends and family with their own weight problems will turn away, jealous of her “success.” Is it any wonder that she isn’t any happier…or that she feels the world broke a promise?

Imagine spending two months in constant intense pain, prescribed only enough medication for someone half your size. Imagine spending at least an hour a day calculating the food value of everything you put in your mouth - forever. Imagine never, ever eating a candy bar or drinking a glass of wine again. Imagine needing long johns as beach wear. Imagine doing all that, with no assurance that it would do any good at all, “long-term.”

Now imagine dozens of people, even total strangers, coming up to congratulate you on your accomplishment, expecting to share in your excitement and joy. Imagine feeling that most of them would have ignored you or turned away in disgust rather than talked to you a mere two years ago. Imagine trying to blandly agree with them, confirming their evident belief that fat people can’t be happy, and that you must be skinny to be worthwhile. Or imagine trying to answer them honestly, hint at the prices you’ve paid – only to have them show confusion, disbelief, or even anger when you betray their moral certitude. Imagine even your doctor, when confronted with an honest answer, hemming and hawing, finally dismissing your honest uncertainty, confusion, and anger with a facile “You were too young to have really suffered much from your weight – if you hadn’t had the surgery, you’d have had a lot of problems when you reached 60.”

THAT is a successful gastric bypass.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Making Claims

Last Friday, as you may know, my wife was involved in a minor accident. As required, we reported it to our own insurance company, but since the accident was clearly the fault of the other driver, we filed the claim with his – Progressive Insurance.

I expected them to require an inspection by their own claims adjustor, then for me to provide three estimates, then for me to pony up the funds to pay for the repair prior to them reimbursing me…along with possible delays in that reimbursement. That’s not exactly what I got.

As they instructed me, I drove my van in to their office on Monday morning. I showed up about 10 minutes early for my appointment, and they didn’t have all their staff on hand yet, but the one clerk present directed me to the available coffee/tea/cocoa table and told me someone would be with me shortly. The wait was indeed short – once another clerk arrived, she took my information and key, had me sign the rental car contract, and walked out with me to look at the damage. I pointed out the impact area, noted a few older dents that were unrelated (gaining her thanks for my honesty), and turned my van over to her. She pointed out my rental vehicle – since I was bringing them a van, they provided me a van to replace it. I’d actually rather they’d asked about that, since I didn’t expect to need the extra room this week and would rather drive a small sedan, but I still have to count it as a thoughtful and considerate gesture. I made a quick inspection circuit to confirm that the rental was in good shape, got in, familiarized myself with the controls, adjusted the mirrors, and got on the road. Glancing down at the clock, I saw I’d been there a mere 20 minutes – INCLUDING the time I had to wait due to showing up early.

Before the end of the day, their inspector had taken off the bumper and determined what needed replaced, checked with their contracted repair folks, made sure parts were available, and called me to let me know the details, including an estimate that I could get my van back on Wednesday.

An e-mail on Tuesday confirmed that they were still on schedule, and a phone call today let me know for certain that I could pick it up tonight. That process was just as simple, and took me about five minutes. While I was trading keys, the clerk reminded me that the repairs had a lifetime warranty, then he handed me the paperwork and I was on my way.

I don’t file insurance claims very often – maybe all companies handle them this way now. And though I think I need to ask my own company about their claims process, I’m not certain I want to switch over. I am certain, however, that if my car gets hit again, I want the OTHER driver to have Progressive!

Monday, May 7, 2007

...But The Radio Rolled Me

How often do you listen to the radio?

If you’re a frequent listener, you’ve probably noticed a lack of variety on your favorite station. Top 40 stations, of course, are expected to play the same songs over and over, but it seems to me that nearly EVERY music station now has a fairly short playlist. My own preferred station used to be an oldies format – “the best of the 60’s and 70’s.” You’d think that with two decades of hits to choose from, they could avoid playing the same song twice for long periods of time, but that turned out not to be the case. Instead, they made a big deal out of providing a “no-repeat workday” – they managed to avoid repeating a song for a mere eight hours, and thought that worthy of mention in their advertising!

Just to make things worse, the oldies format apparently no longer fits their preferred demographic, so they’ve switched over to a “classic rock” format. Still some good music, but it has an even smaller selection from a longer time period. I don’t track their playlist, of course, but one Saturday while I was running errands, I managed to catch the same song THREE times in the course of the day. I might not have noticed, but it was a song I hate – “Radar Love.” (I can name that tune AND change the station in six notes, Jim!) Even songs I love, like “American Pie,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Black Water” begin to pall the third or fourth time I hear them in a week.

Wil Wheaton offers an explanation of the problem in his Geek in Review column. (Not Safe For Work – you may prefer to read this blog entry on the subject.) In short, he suggests that the recording industry profits depend on selling a lot of records by a few artists, instead of a smaller number of records by a larger number of artists. That reasoning makes more sense for “new music” stations than for oldies or classic rock, but it isn’t completely unbelievable for any station format – especially with more than half of broadcast radio stations now owned by a single company.

Of course, thanks to the Internet, we have an option – Internet radio stations. They’re really not practical for the car, yet, but Launchcast, Last.FM, NPR, and other smaller stations provide a huge variety of options for a listener with broadband Internet access. The choices include the same formats you can find on the FM dial, like Top 40, R&B, Oldies, or Classic Rock. Or you can look for niche formats, all the way down to a specific artist. Or try out a specific DJ who listens to his own eclectic selections from a variety of genres, and is eager to share them with you.

But not for much longer, perhaps. Mr. Wheaton’s theory is well-confirmed, in my opinion, by the RIAA’s heavy influence on the recent decision by the Copyright Royalty Board to change the performance royalty rates for digital broadcasts – specifically, for Internet radio stations. The CRB, a government entity empowered under the Library of Congress, changed the calculation from a percentage of the station’s revenue to a per-song, per-listener rate. Most sources I’ve seen indicate that this will raise the total royalties by 300-1200% - that’s three to twelve times the current fees. It is very hard to see such a huge increase as anything but an attempt to kill or cripple the entire concept of Internet radio. For the smaller independent stations, the fees will exceed any amount they could dream of receiving through advertising – even Yahoo! Music’s Launchcast service has stated they will be losing money on every listener under the new rates. For that matter, even NPR is concerned about the massive increase in fees, despite a “non-profit organization” exemption that partially frees them from royalties up to a certain number of listeners.

Congress is looking into changing the CRB’s decision through new legislation. If passed, Internet radio will, initially, pay the same rate as Satellite radio, 7.5% of revenue. That’s still considerably more that broadcast stations pay. While standard radio stations do pay composition royalties identical to digital stations, the broadcasters do not pay performance royalties at all – and those are the rates that have been raised by the CRB.

If the RIAA and ClearChannel succeed in their attempt to kill Internet radio, then your listening options will be sharply curtailed. Naturally, you can make your opinion known in a number of ways. Write a letter to the editor. Post on your own blog. Write your Congressman. But there’s an even simpler way to really make the point to those who want to control your music.

Stop listening.

Yes, that’s right: boycott. Turn off your radio. This is not like that stupid “don’t buy gas for one day” boycott e-mail that you’ve probably seen – I’m actually asking for a sacrifice. Turn off your radio. If everyone in the country did that for one day a week, even on different days, that would be about a 14% decrease in listeners for broadcast radio. That’s enough to make a significant difference to their advertisers, their profits, and their lobbying budget. If you can manage it for two or three days, or better yet, all week, the effect is even better. It won’t be immediate, of course…but if even a minority of radio listeners make a significant change in their listening habits, it can have an effect.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to stop listening to music – you have other options. If you’re at home, tune into an Internet station – not the live stream from a broadcast station, but an Internet-only music source – that is, for as long as they’re still around. For the car, it depends on what technology you have available. Worst-case, you can make your own mix tapes or burn CDs for your car. If your stereo will play MP3 CDs, you can put 8-10 hours of songs on a single CD. Even better, buy a cheap MP3 player. You don’t need an iPod – a no-name 1 GByte player is now in the $20-$30 range, and should hold almost as much as a CD, even if (like mine) it requires a space-wasting format to work with the copyright protection software the RIAA has forced on the manufacturers. There are several name-brand players in the 2 to 4 GB range for less than $100. Better, you can swap the songs on that player whenever they get old, or use it to play podcasts that are new every week or so. You’ll also need a personal FM transmitter to get the songs from your player to your car speakers, but those are around $20-$30, too. My 2GB player held nearly enough music to cover a 20-hour round trip to visit my mom…without a single repeated song, nor any trouble with losing stations as I drove out of range. It is more than enough to handle a week of city driving, including my 40-minute or more one-way commute.

Make the commitment. Pick one day a week, and boycott your favorite radio stations. You may find you like your other options better, anyway, and that you’d rather listen to them all the time…and that could send a message that even the RIAA can’t ignore.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Beautiful Words

Most people agree, the three most beautiful words in the English language are “I love you.” I’ve found, though, that in some situations, other words are even more welcome.

When my wife was pregnant the first time, we were a little nervous. Her mother died in childbirth, so we knew there could be problems. The problems surfaced when she was placed on bed rest halfway through the eighth month. Two weeks later they started trying to gently induce labor, and spent three weeks on that. When that, too, failed, they used the more forceful method of Pitocin for two days, before finally giving up and resorting to a C-section. Under those circumstances, “It’s a boy!” was a very welcome phrase…second only to “Mother and child are doing fine.”

Our second child didn’t make us nervous for quite as long – we only went to the hospital so the doctor could check on his condition. Under those conditions, the phrases “the baby is under stress” and “emergency C-section” were unexpected and unpleasant. But a few hours later, as I held a healthy baby in my arms, I heard the nurse say “Your wife is waking up.” Surely I only imagined the angelic choir in the background.

A couple years later, I went away to war, leaving my two babies and their mother behind. During that seven month separation, my wife not only struggled along as a single parent while also dealing with the stress of a husband at war, she worked hard to make sure that my boys did not forget me. The memory of both of them reaching out to hug me while Michael called me “Daddy,” can still bring tears to my eyes.

Today Rita was rear-ended in her van. When she called to tell me about the minor accident, hearing her say “I’m not hurt,” immediately elevated that phrase near the top of the list of beautiful words.