Surly Curmudgeon

   The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
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    Saturday, December 26, 2009


    It's a decent movie, not a great one. The "greatness" comes from the special effects, and I've long since grown out of the idea that special effects make a movie.

    The story is "Dances with Wolves... in Spaaaaaaace". Bad people encroach on good people's land. Bad person suffers mishap and "goes native", switching perspective to agree with good people. In the process, he finds himself in conflict with his former friends.

    No spoilers there, since you can glean all of that from the trailer.

    In matters of interpretation about what the movie means, one might be tempted to accept wholesale the proffered "evil corporation destroying the environment" plot, which is on its surface what James Cameron wants us to see. However, I think he fails miserably in this respect. As this reviewer said:

    ...the "corporation" here is basically a mini-state, or an arm of a state--it has an army going around killing and destroying (Lester Hunt makes this point here). In fact, in the review of the leftish Mark Kermode of the BBC, he just calls the bad guys the military; even he is not taken in by the corporate facade. And the libertarian hosts of Free Talk Live (12/19/09 episode) get it right too: the plot is about property rights. In particular, the property rights of the Na'vi, in an established tree-city that they have clearly homesteaded. The Na'vi are not just some uncivilized savages as some curmudgeonly reviewers imply; they live they way they do because of the wondrous bounty of their strange world and some unique features it has--which, again, I can say little of without spoiling, but suffice to say it's grounded in reality and extrapolative science fiction, not some quasi-mystical nonsense. They even have a sophisticated homesteading technique worked out for ownership of the wild, pterodactyl-like creatures known as Banshee or ikran. In addition, the main Na'vi character, Neytiri, although she is betrothed to another Na'vi, is permitted to change her mind and choose someone else--respect for individual choice and autonomy.

    It does not matter what facade James Cameron was trying to sell us. What matters is what's actually there. And frankly, I run into this a lot when talking politics with my leftist friends. They rail against capitalism and corporations, but the actions they bring up as "evil" are almost always empowered by or the result of some policy of the government.

    If a man tells you he hates apples, then spends the rest of the conversation describing oranges as the objects of his hatred, his error is not in hating apples. His error is in not knowing what they are.

    Posted by Tom, 12/26/2009 8:17:59 AM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, December 25, 2009

    Christmas with the Curmudgeons, 2009

    Yesterday was an interesting day. We got a strong winter storm early on, with first rain, then sleet, then hail, all driving in horizontally on viciously powerful winds. The power went out at around 11:30, and I was suddenly tasked with going out into the mess to try and get some firewood split so we could keep some heat going. We hadn't had many power problems in this house for the 8 months we've lived here, so I was less prepared than I should've been.

    I got a fire going, and we were discussing how to handle the rest of the day when the lights came back up. As it has many times in the past few years, the topic came back around to backup generators. I think it's moved near the top of our list for major home improvements.

    We liked the fire, so we kept it going all day. At one point I needed to go out to the "far" woodpile to get some more wood. I thought I'd make the trip easier by driving the little yard tractor and its trailer over. I hadn't been outside for about 4 hours at this point, so I didn't count on contending with snowdrifts 2 or more feet deep, and an accumulation of snow at least 5 or 6 inches in the flat spots. That sort of thing just doesn't happen in Oklahoma.

    Naturally, the little tractor got stuck and I had to wrangle it back into the garage. Foolishly, I though I'd just grab Richard the Deep Breather and make the trip. Richard got stuck as well, just 10 feet from the workshop where he's usually stored.

    After digging Richard and putting him back where he belongs, I resigned myself to loading up the little garden wagon with wood, and tugging it through the snow. This proved rather more difficult than I first imagined, but after about half an hour I had a nice pile of wood in the breezeway, and commenced splitting it.

    Incidentally, our breezeway is perhaps my favorite feature of our house. It provides a place out of the weather to wrangle the dogs when we're bringing them in on rainy days, a place to store all the dog food and recycling, and now a place for splitting (and perhaps storing) wood. It certainly helped my mood to be out of that biting wind while I chopped up a little pile of firewood for the evening. I figured all this exercise was probably making up for all the cookies my grandmother had sent (and which I've been going through like a starving orphan), so it really didn't bother me too much.

    Anyway, with electricity restored, a cheery little blaze in the fireplace, and a stack of DVD's from Blockbuster, Mrs. Curmudgeon and I settled in for the evening and enjoyed ourselves a happy Christmas Eve. This morning, the wind seems to be gone, and the Curmudgeon hacienda is blanketed in the peaceful stillness of a white Christmas.

    Posted by Tom, 12/25/2009 6:10:50 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Wednesday, December 23, 2009

    The cat's coming out of the bag...

    Looks like Apple has ratcheted up the intensity of speculation on the mythical Tablet today:

    The Apple tablet is threatening to approach Yeti status, but here's an indication that it will turn out to be real: the company has told some of its key developers to prepare versions of their iPhone apps that will work on a device with a larger screen, in time for an event next month.

    Add that to the news that Apple has reportedly booked the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco "for several days in late January," according to the Financial Times, and it's pretty easy to connect the dots. It's a very good bet we're getting a look at this thing within the next 30 days or so.

    Downside: the article suggests that the thing is built on the iPhone version of OSX, which might preclude the use of a BlueTooth keyboard. That would kill my desire for the device in an instant.

    Posted by Tom, 12/23/2009 10:05:50 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Monday, December 21, 2009

    Verizon iPhone?

    TUAW has some interesting rumination on Apple's corporate schedule, including the probably dates of 2010's World Wide Developer's Conference. In it, there is speculation about the iPhone getting to move to other carriers:'s also possible that Apple is waiting until its exclusivity deal with AT&T ends -- the exact day its exclusivity deal ends -- before announcing an iPhone for Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint.

    This speculation comes only a few days after TUAW's revelation that AT&T hasn't been working as hard on their network as they've led us to believe:

    With some pretty damning evidence, both FSJ and Gizmodo are shouting at AT&T, which claims that they've upgraded their network although they've spent less each quarter on upgrades since the iPhone was introduced in 2007...


    With another look at the information found in AT&T's Financial and Operating Statistics Summary [PDF Link], you begin to see tremendous flaws in AT&T's logic. They've consistently made more money (80% more revenue compared to Q4 2007) from wireless data, yet on average, AT&T has spent less each quarter for network improvements.

    Oh AT&T, your tears will be like sweet candy if this comes to pass... sweet, sweet candy...

    Posted by Tom, 12/21/2009 7:31:35 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Sunday, December 20, 2009

    Thought for the Day

    Life is a series of interesting choices.

    Posted by Tom, 12/20/2009 9:07:19 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, December 18, 2009

    This week's round-up

    Tiger Woods: don't care

    GM dropping Saab: GM's still in business? Seriously, don't care.

    Health Care Bill: Hoping for a deadlock that kills it, don't really care what it says at this point

    Copenhagen climate conference: sound and fury, signifying nothing

    Verizon iPhone: stop teasing me

    Mac Tablet Rumor Mill: seriously, stop teasing me

    Sarah Palin: Still hot.

    Avatar: Planning to see it, now stop bugging me with spoilers.

    Posted by Tom, 12/18/2009 5:43:52 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Monday, December 14, 2009

    Quote of the Day

    The integrity of the criminal justice system isn't necessarily undermined by the fact that fraudulent experts and bad testimony occasionally creep into criminal trials. That's going to happen. But when the courts and government learn of these problems and not only do nothing to address them but actively engage in trying to cover them up, it's time to start questioning the legitimacy of the entire system.
    -- Radley Balko, A Tale of Two Forensic Scandals: Ontario vs. Mississippi

    Posted by Tom, 12/14/2009 7:23:38 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, December 11, 2009

    Slow Month

    I expect December to be a slow month for blogging. There's plenty going on in the world for me to gripe about, and I'm certainly disgruntled about most of it, but it's also Christmastime and I've got better things to do. I'm sure there will still be things to write about come January.

    Posted by Tom, 12/11/2009 5:53:19 AM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    Harry Potter, books 1 - 3

    I've recently taken the Potter plunge, blazing my way through the first three books in the Harry Potter series. I also re-watched the first three movies in roughly the same timespan.

    As a kid, I used to say that "the book is always better than the movie, no exceptions". Part of that was because I truly believed it, and part of it was because I wasn't allowed to see most of the movies my friends were seeing, so I contented myself with reading the books instead. I'm happy to report that the Harry Potter series is no exception to this rule.

    The characters in the books are more sharply drawn than those in the movies. I identify most with Harry, the naturally gifted kid with loads of potential who's too hung up on being a social misfit to develop most of it. Everybody knows his name, even strangers, and all of his friends seem to know the "rules" in social situations, rules which completely baffle Harry -- and both of these peculiar situations happened with disturbing regularity as I was growing up. Harry glides through most of his classes on talent and hates the idea of having to work hard to master every little skill; instead he picks and chooses the things which interest him or are necessary to achieve his goals, and discards the rest. In my mind, I imagine Harry meeting the same fate I did: running off to wizard college, getting frustrated with both the teaching and his inability to keep coasting, then dropping out and going off to learn on his own.

    Hermione Granger is a dead ringer for my high school friend Tim. She's smart enough to know her way around a library, and has absorbed every fact therein through some kind of intellectual osmosis. It's easy to see why she gets along with Harry, as they're both socially awkward in their own way, just like Tim and me, and they're both relatively good students -- Harry because he's good at whatever he decides to try, and Hermione because she works hard at being good at everything.

    Ron Weasley is a far more tragic character in the books. His family is poor, and while that's communicated in the movies, Ron's distress over it is not. It's a major facet of the character; Ron hates being poor, to the point where he doesn't seem to see the wealth he has in his family. He knows Harry's got a mountain of gold left by his parents, but doesn't seem to grasp the fact that Harry envies him for the love of his family just as he envies Harry for his monetary wealth. Were it not for his friendship with Harry and Hermione (and the value system of his parents) keeping him grounded, I could easily see Ron being tempted enough by wealth to begin pursuing the Dark Arts at some point in the future.

    With the books fresh in my mind, watching the movies was an entirely different experience. It's clear that in the first movie, these new child actors were just beginning to figure out their jobs, as the acting is very stiff and forced. It's considerably better in the second, and (if memory serves) gradually gets better as time goes on.

    Changes were made, as they always are, and the edges of the characters were softened, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. For example, Hermione knows a fair bit more about wizard society than she ought to; in the books, she literally doesn't know anything that she can't find out in the library. When Draco Malfoy calls her a "mudblood" for the first time, she doesn't even know what it means, and is confused rather than upset. In the movie version of the same scene, she does know what it means. It seems a small change, but Hermione's naivete in the books is one of the character's major vulnerabilities, and erasing that in the movies makes her less accessible.

    The one thing that both the movies and the books have, which completely annoys me, is the utterly arbitrary point system for deciding which of the school's four houses "wins" each year. Teachers and administrators award and penalize points completely at random, with no apparent rhyme or reason behind the number of points given or taken. The students are supposed to be invested in the task of helping their house earn points, but I can only imagine being thoroughly depressed by the haphazard nature of the system.


    In the first book, the Slytherin house is far ahead of Gryffindor, and in the final scene Dumbledore just arbitrarily awards Gryffindor enough points to pass and beat them. His reasons are supposedly valid, but it feels cheap, a deus ex machina just to allow Harry and his pals to come out on top. I think it would have been a far better thing to see Harry win the day with regard to the truly important things that needed to be done, but lose the contest between houses, to demonstrate that sometimes you have to make hard choices between what seems important to you and what's really important in the grand scheme of things.


    And it would have been nice if J. K. Rowling had just made some mention of a guide to earning and losing points or something -- anything -- that would have communicated the idea that the number of points wasn't just being pulled out of thin air, with values being made up on the spot and forgotten in the future. Beyond that one disagreement however, I find myself enjoying the books and would heartily recommend them for just about anyone.

    Posted by Tom, 12/11/2009 3:58:38 AM (Permalink). 4 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Sunday, December 6, 2009

    Quote of the Day

    May God grant us the wisdom to discover right, the will to choose it, and the strength to make it endure.
    -- King Arthur, First Knight

    Posted by Tom, 12/6/2009 9:45:11 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Saturday, December 5, 2009

    Quote of the Day out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
    -- Philippians 2:12

    Posted by Tom, 12/5/2009 6:05:49 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, December 4, 2009


    The big technology buzz for about the last year has been the persistent rumor that Apple will be producing a tablet PC. For those of us who try to avoid Microsoft products, especially in niche platforms where support and user communities can be spotty at best, this would be a godsend if -- and this is a big if -- we have an actual use for the tablet form factor.

    Tablets have been put to use by people who need to be able to walk and compute at the same time. I've seen delivery drivers use them, for example. Think of any activity that would make a clipboard handy, and this is where the tablet would fit in nicely. The Amazon Kindle is essentially a limited-use tablet, in that it is primarily designed for reading books. It's a medium-sized (larger than a cell phone, smaller than a laptop) portable electronic device, easily held in one hand, with the controls accessible to the holding or non-holding hand.

    Speculation has it that the Apple tablet would in some respects be like a very large iPhone -- with an interface that allows the user to eschew a mouse in favor of their natural pointing device, their fingertip. I immediately like the concept because, nice as it is to have my iPhone handy for browsing when necessary, the browser really is a pain to operate on most websites, with all the multimedia content folks are barfing onto their pages. Add to that the fact that my fingers, while not large and stubby, are pretty much average-sized male fingers, and have trouble hitting the right areas on the tiny little screen. This usually happens when I'm in a great hurry, of course, which adds to my frustration.

    CNN Money has this to say about the rumored device:

    Apple's lips are sealed about its widely rumored tablet computer, but technology experts are giddy about the device, already exclaiming it will be the gadget to end all gadgets.

    Executives at Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) never discuss products that are in the works, so there's no confirmation that the thing even exists. But rumors are circulating that Steve Jobs and Co. have designed a magazine-sized, touch-screen, hand-held, all-in-one device that is half-iPhone, half-Macintosh computer.

    As for other sources, there are literally thousands of rumorware and wishful thinking blog posts and honest-to-goodness published articles about the thing. Here, let me google it for you.

    As it happens, I'm developing a need/desire for a portable device bigger than my iPhone. I've been shopping netbooks for a while, and have come to the conclusion that it really needs to be a little bigger than that. I have a Windows laptop provided by my employer, but I'd rather not use my work computer for the projects I have in mind -- it's not that they're nefarious in any way, it's just personal stuff.

    I've become interested in the 13" MacBook Pro, but have been thinking that the proposed tablet would be the perfect device for my needs, assuming it had what I wanted. I'd need a decent amount of storage, all the standard OSX apps, a Kindle interface would be nice (Amazon is reportedly working on an OSX version of their Windows Kindle software), wireless networking, and all the wonders of the iPhone touchscreen.

    In addition, it MUST have support for BlueTooth keyboards, a feature sorely lacking on the iPhone. Part of the purpose to which I envision putting the device will involve a lot of typing, and I refuse to make do with Apple's stupid software keyboard like they have on the iPhone... God I hate that thing. It's fine for short bits of text, but writing anything serious is an exercise in rage and frustration.

    I would also want the tablet to have a decent battery life, equivalent to a quality netbook or the newer MacBook Pro's: 7 to 10 hours. I'm beginning to desire devices that will keep a working charge all day long and only need to be plugged in at night, and the purposes I have in mind for the tablet would make this a mandatory feature.

    I've looked at a bunch of mocked-up photos of what folks think a tablet might look like, and so far this is the one that expresses exactly what I'm after (other than the stupidly redundant touchpad on the end of the keyboard):

    Apple's MacWorld conference is coming up sometime in January or February. If they don't announce a tablet then, I'll probably start looking to buy a MacBook Pro and call it a day. There's a faint chance I might last until the World Wide Developer's Conference in the summer. I'd really like to see a tablet, but given that rumors and speculation about the device go back at least 3 years, I'm not holding my breath, and I don't want to get caught in the trap of always waiting "just one more product cycle". Buzz about the tablet has reached a fever pitch this season, so if it's not announced by the end of MacWorld, I think I'll probably just take a deep breath and move on. I just don't have the energy for another year of this.

    Posted by Tom, 12/4/2009 7:39:33 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    Contracts and Coercion

    This story is quickly making the rounds:

    Col. Van T. Barfoot, a local Medal of Honor winner, is under the gun from his Henrico County community's homeowner association.

    In a five-paragraph letter to Barfoot that he received yesterday, Barfoot is being ordered to remove a flagpole from his yard. The decorated veteran of three wars, now 90 years old, raises the American flag every morning on the pole, then lowers and folds the flag at dusk each day in a three-corner military fashion.

    In a priority mail letter, the Coates & Davenport law firm in Richmond is ordering Barfoot to remove the pole by 5 p.m. Friday or face "legal action being brought to enforce the Covenants and Restrictions against you." The letter states that Barfoot will be subject to paying all legal fees and costs in any successful legal proceeding pursued by the homeowner association's board.

    The immediate response of most is to say that the guy earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, so they should just leave him alone. Indeed, that is my response: they should leave him alone. But they are not required to, nor should they be, at least not by force of government.

    The man signed a contract ceding a portion of his property rights to the Home Owner's Association in his community. When they choose to exercise their power, his proper remedies are to either comply or move. If he didn't like the contract, he should have negotiated modifications when signing. And since nowadays it seems HOA's all over the country are going after people with flagpoles, it would seem a pretty good idea to make sure you get a flagpole clause up-front, in writing, if you're looking at fighting that battle.

    As I wrote above, government should not be involved in settling these disputes beyond enforcing the contract. But I think it would be perfectly satisfactory for the folks offended by a 90-year-old war hero's patriotism to suffer non-aggressive, non-violent social reprisals from their local community. Somebody knows the identities of the board members of this HOA. Becoming known in the local community as the "people who harass 90-year-old war heroes" could have an interesting effect on the way they conduct their business. The law firm representing them could do with some social pressure as well. Just a thought.

    Personally though, I think it would be far better if people just started refusing to move into these godforsaken HOA communities. I live in a "housing development" without covenants or restrictions. I signed no HOA agreement allowing my neighbors to tell me what I may or may not do with my property. I can build a shed, erect a flagpole (indeed, one is already erected), paint the house any color I want, mow my lawn (or not), edge the drive (or not), keep 3 noisy dogs, build a fence, park in the driveway or the yard, etc. The only "rules" I have to follow are the local ordinances zoning the neighborhood for "hobby farms", and while I'm philosophically opposed to zoning, it seems there's precious little I can do about changing that particular aspect of the real estate landscape.

    My neighbors have the same freedoms. Every house in the subdivision is a different architectural style. Some have fences, some don't. Some have livestock, some don't. Some folks mow their lawns twice a week, some twice a year. Do I wish some took better care of their property? Sure, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. I keep my own property looking halfway decent, and that's all I have a right to complain about. If I have anything to say about it, that's the way it will always be. I no more want to tell my neighbor across the street to stop parking construction equipment in his driveway or the truck driver next door to stop parking his big rig in the center of the cul-de-sac, than I want them telling me I can't build a big ol' fence to let my dogs run around in.

    As P.J. O'Rourke wrote, there are just two rules in a free society: mind your own business, and keep your hands to yourself. Why anyone would want to voluntarily surrender their rights, especially after having fought in 3 wars to defend such freedoms, is completely beyond me.

    Posted by Tom, 12/3/2009 6:23:48 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...