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Thursday 25 July 2002

Car Trouble!

I have not been writing much lately because I’ve been busy with other things.

A couple of weeks ago now, I was driving along, minding my own business, when I heard a loud BANG from the rear of the car, followed by a bunch of (slightly) quieter BANGs. Kind of like BANGbangbangbangbangbangbangbang etc.

I pulled the car into the AOL parking lot , BANGing along all the way. Turns out the car had rid itself of the #3 spark plug, forcefully. This spark plug is difficult to get to, and at some point in the past, someone had screwed up the threads. About a year before I bought the car, it had blown out the same spark plug, and the damage had been repaired by G&W Motorwerkes. G&W is a very reputable place, but for some reason they did a lousy job on this repair. An insert was put into the now-larger spark plug hole, but it was not sealed to the cylinder head; instead, it was sealed to the spark plug. Sigh!

Anyway, when I changed the spark plugs a while back (and in the process discovered this problem), I did more damage to the new, larger threads, and it was only a matter of time before the thing needed repair.

A trailer was hastily rented, the car was popped on it, and the whole assembly towed back to the ranch. I tried a temporary fix in the AOL parking lot by liberally slathering the blown-out insert with red Loctite, screwing it back in, and waiting a few hours; this held just long enough to get the car on the trailer.

The car was towed back home without incident, except that it was impossible to get the trailer turned back around in the driveway. In the end, it was necessary to use the lawn.

The engine was disassembled, and the head spirited off to be repaired properly.

With the engine out of the car, it only made sense to clean the gunge off of everything. This resulted in one of the messiest experiences of my life. This thing hadn’t been cleaned in 35 years; the shiny aluminum transmission case you see in the photo was solid black; and when I decided to clean up the engine tin — this is the shrouding that directs cooling air to the right places — I discovered that, at some point, it had been repainted. Whoever had repainted it had not, however, troubled to first remove the grease. So the cleanup process went like this: degrease; sandblast the paint off; degrease the grease that was under the paint; sandblast some more; etc. Eventually I got everything down to bare metal and repainted.

Now I’m waiting for the return of the cylinder head. This was originally supposed to take “a couple days”, then it’d be ready “the middle of next week” (i.e. yesterday). So I’m hoping to claim the thing today or tomorrow, and return to the world of the motorist once more.

Posted by tino at 12:30 25.07.02

Spam Filter

The spam has got completely out of hand around here. As a result, I’ve been testing a new spam-trap. It uses Perl and Mail::Audit to ‘read’ incoming messages, so to speak, and to check for certain dead giveaways that the message might be spam. Legitimate e-mail never, for instance, confuses the e-mail address with the name (e.g. Dear tino@tinotopia.com, …)

It might be better to just check headers (i.e. a mail sent from one domain, relayed through another, and with a return address in a third, is probably spam), but the spammers can, if they’re smart, avoid leaving that kind of evidence in their messages. Instead, I check the content: mail that seems to be about Viagra, or penis enlargement, or e-commerce, or mortgage refinancing, or any of a bunch of other favorite spam topics, gets rejected.

In the event that you would like to correspond with me on a non-commercial basis on any of these topics, putting the word “NOTSPAM” somewhere in the subject header will result in the mail being routed through the system to me, regardless of content.

If you are thinking of abusing this facility for the purpose of sending me advertisements, I warn you that falsifying routing information in unsolicited commercial e-mail is a illegal in Virginia. Violators may be subject to criminal prosecution, as well as liable for civil damages. See http://www.spamlaws.com/state/va.html for more information.

Posted by tino at 11:47 25.07.02

‘Diversity’ and ‘race’

The Washington Post recently ran a seriesabout ‘the camouflage company town’, that is, life on a military base. One story, on the front page, was headlined “Acceptance Amid the Diversity”. The story told of the multiracial utopia that is Andrews Air Force Base, in the Maryland suburbs just outside Washington, D.C.

Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Arthur Rivers, who is black and who lives on base at Andrews, is quoted in the story:

“I’ve lived in both the civilian world and on a military installation, and I probably feel more comfortable on a military installation,” Arthur Rivers said. “There’s a real cross of cultures here. As a parent, I think it’s important that my children get exposed to different cultures.”

Cough, cough. Frankly, I’d expect a Master Chief to be a bit more insightful than that. The man lives on an Air Force Base; everyone in his neighborhood works, ultimately, for the same organization. All the kids that his kids play with are children of people in the service. Neal Stephenson summed this up nicely in Snow Crash, while describing the army-base childhood of his imaginatively-named main character, Hiro Protagonist:

Their skins were different colors but they all belonged to the same ethnic group: Military. Black kids didn’t talk like black kids. Asian kids didn’t bust their asses to excel in school. White kids, by and large, didn’t have any problem getting along with the black and asian kids.

You see, Master Chief Rivers is confusing culture with skin color. There’s very little cultural diversity on a military base; none at all, relative to the outside world. And this is why people get on well together there.

Part of Martin Luther King’s famous dream was that his children would ” live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I think that, in very large part, we are now a nation where one is judged more on the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin. Unfortunately, a lot of the people so judged would rather, it seems, be judged on the color of their skin. If a lot of people don’t like you because your skin is black, it’s the people who don’t like you who are in the wrong. If a lot of people don’t like you because you’re an asshole, well, you are the problem, and have some work to do. It’s easier to ascribe it all to racism, absolving one’s self of responsibility.

Posted by tino at 00:31 25.07.02
Wednesday 10 July 2002

Airport Security ‘Improvements’

There seems to be a lot of talk, following last week’s shooting at LAX, about ‘improving’ airport security, and how much of a pain in the ass this is going to be. Airports will have to be totally reconfigured, the DOT is saying, and passengers will have to wait yet in yet more, and longer, lines.

Yet taking any of this seriously requires that we ignore the facts of last week’s shootings: the bad guy only killed two people before being killed himself, by an El Al security officer.

I realize that that’s probably little solace to the two people killed, or to their families. But if this kind of swift and powerful reaction were to be expected, people wouldn’t go into airports intending to shoot up the place to begin with. Even if you’re a fanatic and plan to die in a hail of bullets, you’re going to think twice about the wisdom of sacrificing yourself in exchange for only getting off a few shots.

If the gun-control laws were changed to require every adult American to carry a gun at all times — and to know how to use that gun — you’d wind up with a lot fewer shooting deaths, possibly something approaching zero.

This only works, of course, if you believe that the good guys outnumber the bad guys in society in general. I believe this myself, but I’m not so sure about the gun-control lobby.

Anyway, if every adult in an airport terminal, or in a McDonald’s, or in a high school, had a firearm close at hand, it’d be impossible for a would-be terrorist or mass murderer to shoot more than one or two people before himself being killed by a bystander. Sure, it’d still be possible to back yourself up into a corner and open up with a machine-gun, but that is not, in fact, what happens. I can’t think of a single case where the classic nut-with-gun scenario couldn’t have been brought to a quicker and happier resolution by a person with a .22.

That we’ve seen the value of a gun in the right place at the right time — and in the hands of someone on the side of civilization — at LAX recently has been conveniently ignored in all the media accounts I’ve seen.

Posted by tino at 00:11 10.07.02
Tuesday 02 July 2002

The Pledge of Allegiance

I have never liked the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s not the concept that bothers me — in a nation of immigrants, it’s probably a good idea to drill some kind of common nationalism into everyone — but the Pledge itself.

Most obvious is the fact that it’s a pledge of allegiance to the flag. The flag is nothing but a piece of fabric. On its own, it’s meaningless; equating it with the United States and the philosophical underpinnings thereof is exactly like equating the Golden Arches with the lousy food and sticky floors that they are a symbol for.

I continue to be horrified — really, I never cease to be surprised and amazed — as, at least once a year, some Congressman drags out the anti-flag-burning Constitutional amendment proposal. The reasoning goes something like this: Millions of men have died defending the freedom represented by that flag, and to honor their sacrifice, we’re going to see to it that you’re not free to set the flag on fire. That ought to make it clear that the U.S. flag is to be venerated as a symbol of freedom, as opposed to the flags of some of those countries that restrict freedom of expression!

I don’t think the anti-flag-burners see the irony in that; I also am pretty sure that the people who would burn U.S. flags in the United States don’t see the irony in their actions. Frankly, it’d be fitting if, every fourth of July, every American stepped out into his front yard and set a flag on fire. Not only would this boost the stock price of Consolidated Bunting and Flag Co. (thus saving the economy), but it’d keep us from the idiocy of allowing veneration of a symbol from destroying the very thing that the symbol is meant to represent.

Posted by tino at 21:57 2.07.02

Schools ‘crisis’

A recent Washington Post editorial on the whole school-voucher kerfuffle begins:

The failure of many public school systems around the country to offer any semblance of an education to millions of children is not a matter of serious dispute. Wealthy and middle-class people have an out: private schools or a move to a jurisdiction with better public schools.

It appears that they’re leaping to a conclusion here. Children in schools in better neighborhoods perform better. Ergo, the schools there must be better.

This ignores the fact that people who live in better neighborhoods are, almost by definition, more successful. High-achieving people who live in decent neighborhoods that are served by lousy public schools — like, for instance, nearly all neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. — already send their kids to private schools. Isn’t it at least possible that these higher-achieving people are passing along to their children values that result in them performing better in school? Has no-one noticed that certain classes of immigrants seem to succeed in any kind of school, no matter how economically poor their families are? Might that suggest that the school is just a resource, one that’s used or not according to the cultural value of the student?

We’re not likely to find out soon. The first kids from lousy neighborhoods to attend better schools on vouchers will be the relatively high-achieving children of relatively high-achieving parents — the parents who value their children’s education enough to jump through the voucher hoops. The average performance in public schools will then drop; even assuming constant funding and no flight of teachers to the now-larger market for private schools, sending the right-hand fringe of the bell curve to other schools will certainly cause the public school’s performance to appear worse. The critics will point to this as irrefutable proof of their argument that vouchers undermine the public school system. It’s not until the currently low-performing students start going to ‘better’ schools on vouchers that the truth will out.

At which point, of course, there will probably be some other excuse put forward, that the private schools are not ‘culturally sensitive’ or some other garbage.

Because it must be the system and the schools that are faulty. Accepting that the student is primarily responsible for his own education — not his teaching — would mean that the students of failing schools, and their parents, are at least to some degree responsible for their own failure. A larpe proportion, possibly a majority, of students in failing schools are ‘minorities’. While the mainstream opinion seems to readily accept that one’s culture is an important factor in determining who one is, it very much wants to avoid having to deal with the simple fact that some cultures prepare their members for certain things better than do others.

Posted by tino at 16:37 2.07.02