Sunday, May 07, 2017

The Month That Was - April 2017

I have been planning to get somewhere in the path of full totality for the August solar eclipse, and my ideal spot was Jackson hole WY -- small chance of clouds, beautiful backdrops. All hotels are booked of course, but I spotted a perfect Airbnb in town center. I was geeked! Of course by the time I got myself signed up for Airbnb and made sure the dates would work with flights, it got taken out from under me. Bastards. Now if I want to stay anywhere near Jackson Hole I would have to drop multiple thousands of dollars. Arrgh! The hell with 'em. I'm back on the hunt for another locale.

I can stay too upset. Spring is here and beautiful as always. Of course, that means to house projects begin. Painters and landscapers and window repair, oh my.

[Movies] Rogue One
[Tech] Routers and Laptops and Chromebooks
[Rant] My Old School

[Movies] Rogue One

It is the most adult of the Star Wars films; less cartoonish characters; a good solid action flick (but not on a Marvel Studios level). Interesting -- a friend of mine doesn't want her Star Wars obsessed 7-year-old to watch this because she thinks it's too dark, which I suppose it is considering what happens to all the characters.

It is admirable, however. In A New Hope we were given the macguffin of plans to the death star which Leia hides in R2D2 -- "Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" -- eventually leading to Luke's trench run in his X-Wing. Rogue One the story of how those plans got to Leia. Admirable because, there was a great cost in life to be payed for them. Unlike other Star Wars films where the good guy deaths are of characters to which you have no attachment or ones who for whom it is obvious their time has come, in Rogue One the ultimate sacrifices are on a relatable level, which is why you might want to think twice about letting a 7-year-old see it. It's nice to see someone looking at the cost of things. I'm reminded of George R. R, Martin's motivation behind the gritty reality of Song of Fire and Ice.
"You see that at the end of the ['Lord of the Rings'] books, when Sauron has been defeated and Aragorn is king," Martin told the Advance. "It's easy to type, 'he ruled wisely and well,' but what does that constitute? What was his tax policy? How did the economy function? What about the class system?

"The orcs," he continued. "There are still tens and thousands of orcs at the end of 'Lord of the Rings.' Did he pursue a policy of genocide toward them? Or did he reach out and try to educate them and bring them into the mainstream and civilize them? We never get answers to any of these questions. We just get 'he ruled wisely and well.'"
Thanks to Rogue One you've now got more than "Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans."

Unlike the other films, these characters are shaded grey, not mythical constructs of good and evil. The android comic relief is actually funny this time, and uniquely, there can be no sequel (although I suppose a prequel is possible). There is some silliness, of course, for merchandising purposes and the callbacks to the trilogy are awkward and unnecessary, but apart from that, it is one of those well-crafted, entertaining action films that this era of civilization will one day be famous for. Worth seeing, even if you're just lukewarm on Star Wars.

[Tech] Routers and Laptops and Chromebooks

But first, I had to replace my router. I have horrible luck with routers. They rarely last me more than a year. I had one, made by SMC, that lasted nearly a decade, but all the others have failed just outside their warranty period, just like the TP-link Archer C7 that came so highly recommended did last week. Sigh. So I splurged on a expensive Netgear job. It is noticeably faster. We'll see how long it lasts.

That solved half my connection problems, the other half being a problem with the wi-fi adapter in my laptop. Also my laptop has developed very annoying inaccuracies in the trackpad. As if some of the sensors are broken or confused -- no response to clicks, or right clicks when I should be getting lefts.

It's clear, the time has come for a new laptop, which sounds like something I would have said 10 years ago. We now live a world where various shapes and sizes of mobile devices allow for a better functional fit than a laptop, which was, and still, conceived as a do it all computer. So what exactly are my needs?

Well, virtually everything I do, I do on the web with one exception -- maybe one and a half.

1) Photoshop -- actually Photoshop Elements. Two or three times a year I travel somewhere with my DSLR and when I get back I need to edit the RAW files for publishing on my Smugmug site. Although there are numerous web based photo editors, none can do the things that Photoshop Elements can, especially with RAW. For this I also need a Core I7 level processor, and the ability to drive a full sized monitor at reasonably high res.

1.5) I still have stored MP3s that I use for my running playlists and disconnected listening. I need to load them onto my little SanDisk player and my old Windows Phone as a dedicated MP3 player. This only counts as a half because I'm sure I could sort things out so that I could store all my music on one of the streaming services. Hell, it may already be there without my realizing it (thanks, Google, or maybe Amazon!). But as it stands it takes 32gb to store them (and on rare occasions download more). Arguably, I could use a streaming service with the old Nokia/Windows phone, but not the little San Disk which is not connected in any way and doesn't even have bluetooth. Even so, I suspect this problem is solvable, if disruptive.

If it weren't for those, I could snag a Chromebook on the cheap and have everything I needed. I do all my writing, my finances, etc. on the web already. Anything I do when travelling involves the web also.

I might get away with a tablet, I suppose, but that would require a bluetooth keyboard for writing and at that point it will likely be more expensive than a good Chromebook.

Phones are too limited in viewing size and, especially, for typing.

So it seems I have a choice between a laptop and a combination of a Chromebook and a desktop (planning to reuse my current full size monitor either way). But wait! One problem with a Chromebook is browser selection. I have come to admire a new and little known browser called Vivaldi; that'll be Right Out. There may be other compatibility issues. I also worry about speed with the underpowered browsers. Maybe the thing to do is pick up a Chromebook and see how it works. It'll probably be less than $400. I can use my current laptop as a desktop until then. If I find the Chromebook to be sufficient, I can snag an inexpensive I7 based desktop. Maybe I'll give that a shot. Amazon will let me return it if it turns out to be unworkable, won't they?

To further confuse things, Microsoft is said to be coming out with a Chromebook alternative -- a cheap laptop-y thing with a version of Windows that works online only like Chrome OS. Or maybe I should just get a real laptop and be done with it.

Obviously writing this post has not clarified my needs. The world shouldn't be this complicated.

[Rant] My Old School

A year after it happened, word dribbled down to me that my high school -- Southfield-Lathrup High -- was closing. Although the building will still house a high school it won't be the one I went to. It is being replaced by what appears to be a some sort of "college prep" track school. Time for more reminiscing.

When I was a teen, there were two public high schools in Southfield, Michigan: Southfield High, and Southfield-Lathrup High. 1) Southfield High was older and pretty damn close to the Detroit border. It was not a nice place and kept an on-site police presence (a rarity in the suburbs in those days). 2) Southfield-Lathrup High (my alma mater), was newer, cleaner, further from Detroit and therefore more safe. It was a standard issue late 70s high school. Freaks and Geeks featured a mid-Michigan suburban high school of that era and got it pretty much correct.

Southfield-Lathrup is now University High School and claims a "rigorous and differentiated college preparatory curriculum" making it the spot for anyone with promise. Southfield High is now Southfield High School for Arts and Technology whose mission is "To prepare all students with the knowledge and skills necessary to become life-long learners and contributing members of a global society" so it's the place for average joes. And there is now a third option, Southfield Regional Academic Campus which "houses two programs designed to graduate students on-time with their class," meaning this is not where you want to be.

Perhaps apropos of nothing, despite the use of multi-racial stock footage on their websites, all three schools are effectively entirely black. As is Southfield itself. It is in fact, often cited as a prime example of a successful, predominantly black, middle-class suburb.

When I was in high school, everything was about inclusiveness and diversity. We had various programs to force kids of all stripes to interact in the hopes of increasing empathy. As far as I remember there was no effort to differentiate kids academically in any way as that would have been -- elitist? divisive? I don't know, but the supposition was that by forcing you to interact with kids who were not of your ethnicity, economic class, or academic level, you would learn tolerance and understanding. (Mind you this was 1974-1978, a time which popular culture today would have you believe was only marginally better than slavery.) We believed doing such things made us good people, even though forcing kids into those situations probably caused more resentment and hostility than tolerance. It was akin to forcing bully and victim together in the hopes they would come to respect and appreciate each other. It's not how life works, but that wasn't what counted. We were being good. It was all very well intentioned, as most counterproductive public policies are. Happily, I don't think anyone sees much value in that sort of thing anymore. But we still have to believe everyone just needs time together to understand each other to achieve harmony or we are no longer good. How do we reconcile this? How do we stop strong-arming kids into bitter inclusiveness but not abandon the principle we value so much?

The answer is through words. If we can no longer separate kids based on ethnicity or social class or intellect, we can on the basis of their goals. It's pretty clear that if you are an ambitious, capable child with engaged parents who is headed for college you are going to shoot for University High School. If your future amounts to some classes at the community college before you end up working in a mediocre public works job, meanwhile you're just happy to play on the basketball team and hang with your friends, you'll end up at Southfield Arts and Tech. If you're measurably dysfunctional or an outright criminal, you'll end up at the Academic Campus where, unless you are one of the unlikely few who straightens up, you will be looked after for a few hours a day to keep you out of trouble until your eighteenth birthday at which point you'll likely end up in and out of jail for the rest of your life.

In other words, we have successfully segregated the students (a practical need) and we have done it without referring to their social status or native intelligence (so we can still be good). If you think the spectrum of students at the three schools won't accurately track IQ and socioeconomic status, you're fooling yourself, but since the differentiation is based on academic goals -- college prep or fair-to-middlin' or avoid-arrest -- we're covered, we can still be good in our own eyes. Aren't we clever these days? I mean that sincerely. I think is good and positive and frankly I wish we had something like this back when I was in there. The plain reason being that troubled students will drag the good students down, but good students do not elevate bad students -- either academically in the realm of socialization -- as everybody hopes and dreams will happen.

That is, I think, one of the very important lessons I learned in high school: On equal terms, bad destroys good. The barbarians are always at the gate.

The fact that the school district is mono-racial makes this a lot easier. If the college track was mostly Asian, the standard track mostly White, and the remedial track mostly Black, all Hell would break loose. Had this been tried during my years there, the college track would have been majority Jewish and wealthier Gentiles, the standard track solidly middle class Gentile, and the remedial track split between the poorer Gentiles and Chaldeans (there were never more than one or two Asians or Blacks in my day). Had we let that happen we would not have been good people, would we?

Theoretically, as you get older, your memories are supposed to mellow. If anything, my feelings about high school have gotten worse. I have zero good memories from high school. Not a single one. Not a friendship or a teacher stands out as a valued memory. To me, it was nothing but a frothing pit of delusion, dysfunction, and sociopathy as described above. The only thing of value I got from my time there was the strength that comes from something that doesn't kill you. I never returned after I graduated and am glad it's gone now. Good riddance, Southfield-Lathrup High School.