Lessons To Learn

Having a kid is an enlightening experience in many ways.  One of the unexpected benefits for me has been how it brings into focus my own shortcomings, both current and past.  The process of asking, “What can I teach my child?  What are the really important life lessons they need to learn?” requires introspection, and produces answers varied and many. There are, of course, the classics like, “Toasters and scissors don’t mix” and, “Why poop is not paint.”   But I think every parent has that list of Really Important Things They Learned Later Than They Would Have Liked, where the really interesting stuff lies.

One of the items on my list is,  “how to recognize your inner moral compass”.

I went through a good portion of my life knowing how I was supposed to behave – everyone around me was telling me what to do and what not to do – but in some ways that was just an invitation to explore all the stuff I could get away with in spite of the rules. Where could I push the limits with no consequences?  And so when it was convenient, I shoplifted, I lied, I cheated, and probably a few other things.  Hell, I even set fire to a National Park once (sorry about that, Yellowstone!) Mind you, none of this was too serious.  Misdemeanor stuff, at best… but… still.  It’s not the sort of thing to be proud of.  And I’d be lying if I said I was doing this to explore the boundaries of what I was allowed to do.  No, I just liked the perks that came along with stealing, lying, and cheating.  And the fire thing – well, I’m just a pyromaniac at heart.

But I was acting on all this because I wasn’t listening to my moral compass.  I wasn’t paying attention to that voice that says, “You know this is wrong.”

Ideals are easy when there’s obvious consequences.  You just don’t do things that will hurt people.  But there is a lot of middle ground where there’s no tangible consequence to compromising ideals.  Piss off a stranger in passing, someone you never see again – where’s the harm in that?  Toss a cigarette butt out your car window – a street cleaner will (probably) pick it up.

Or, as happened to me  this morning, send a rude email to a company that doesn’t deserve it – who really cares?  It was while I was doing my usual morning inbox sift that this happened.  I got not one, but 7 (seven!) spam emails from some company I’d never heard of  inviting me to join their service.  I shot off a quick and fairly rude reply telling them to leave me the hell alone.  It was only a few minutes later when I read a friend’s email telling me about this great new service he’d signed me up for to manage the 7 (yes, seven!) projects we’re working on together, that I realized where this “spam” had come from.  They were invites from my friend.

So… ‘guess I was wrong to bark at that company after all.  But so what? It’s not like there was a real cost to anyone. The company will just chalk my message up to some ignorant user getting confused.  And I really didn’t have the time to follow up with another email explaining the mistake.  No harm, no foul, I could just ignore this little transgression and go about my day, right?

… and that’s when I heard it, “You know you were wrong“.  Something in my subconscious was telling me that this was important.  This was a violation of some conviction I held.  Regardless of how trivial this seemed, I needed to pay attention.

The lesson I’ve learned, and that I hope to teach Dash, is that our convictions are important regardless of the circumstances, and we will be confronted by them at unexpected times, in the most seemingly trivial of ways. But that doesn’t make how we act trivial.  Our awareness of where our ideals and convictions lie and the way in which we act on them are what define us.  To act in accordance with them makes us better, stronger.  To violate them, especially when we do so consciously, is a compromising of self that is soberingly destructive.

So this morning I took the time to write a reply that company, and to apologize for my rude behavior.  They may or may not read it.  They may or may not care one way or another… I’ll probably never know.  But… I will know. I’ll know exactly how I behaved this morning and how I’ll behave in the future.

That, in a nutshell, is the inner moral compass.  It’s the voice inside you that tells you when you’re headed in the wrong direction.

I don’t now how easy this will be to teach my son.  I know my parents tried with me.  I remember in particular my dad saying, “to thine own self be true”.  (Repeatedly.  I certainly gave him plenty reason to!)  But it took me a long time to realize this is precisely what he was talking about.

So, we’ll see I guess.  And to some future Dash who may be reading this, “Pay attention to what that voice is saying.  And enough with the poop painting!”

Reading Library EPub Books on a Kindle

Our local Library uses the OverDrive Library Reserve System to make online content available to its patrons.  This includes, among other things, the ability to “reserve” and “check out” e-books.  While cool in concept, it’s rather problematic for Kindle owners, because the books are only available in EPub format, which Kindles don’t support.

So what are we Kindle owners to do?   First, yell loudly at Amazon!  Seriously go there right now, click the “Contact Us” button, and demand support for the EPub format.

With that out of the way, here’s what you do in the meantime.  Unfortunately this is probably out of reach for non-technical readers – you’ll need to be comfortable using your system’s command line interface (Terminal.app on Mac, “cmd” on the PC).  Also, I’ve only done this on my Mac. PC owners, your mileage may vary.

Here are the steps:

Get the EPub file

The file you download from your library website isn’t actually an “.epub” file.  It’s a “.acsm” file that tells Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) how to download the EPub book for you.  Once ADE has downloaded the book,  you’ll need to locate the .epub file.:

Mac: It’ll be in the ~/Documents/Digital\ Editions directory.

PC: Probably under “My Documents” somewhere?

Unzip/Re-zip it

I’ve found that most of the EPub books I get don’t have the proper file format to be read by the script I use to remove the DRM.  So to get things to work, it helps to rebuild the book file by unpacking and re-packing the book.  EPub books are just ZIP files under the covers, so unpacking is easy:

> mkdir mybook
> cd mybook
> unzip ~/Documents/Digital\ Editions/the_book_you_downloaded.epub

Re-packing is a little trickier; you can’t just use the ‘zip’ command.  The file has to have a very specific structure, so use an app designed specifically for this:

Mac: I use ePub Zip.app.  Just point it at the ‘mybook’ directory, and click “Choose”.  It should create a “mybook.epub” file alongside the mybook directory.

PC: Maybe use ePubIt, or one of the other apps on that page.

Remove the DRM

*sigh* … and this is where we get into the legal and moral quagmire of digital copyright protection. While the act of bypassing DRM restrictions on copyrighted content is not illegal, distributing the software for doing such apparently is.  At least, according to Wikipedia..  Thus, there is probably some line I shouldn’t cross in terms of how  easy I make this for you.  So rather than get into the weeds on this process here, I’ll just point you at the i?cabbages blog that showed me how to do it. Read it for yourself… or at least read everything after the “Here are the scripts:” part.  It’s not hard.

Convert from EPub to Mobi Format

Once you have a DRM-free EPub file it’s pretty easy.  Install and run Calibre (available on Mac/PC/Linux).  In Calibre:

  • “Add books” to add your [now DRM-free] EPub file to your library
  • Select your book
  • “Convert books”
  • Make sure the output format is set to “MOBI”
  • Click “Okay” and wait for the conversion to finish. (Click the “Jobs” button in the lower-right corner of Calibre window to monitor the progress)

Send to your Kindle

If you plug your Kindle into your computer, Calibre can upload it directly for you.  However, I find it’s often easier to just email it to my “free.kindle.com” email address and use the “sync and check for new items” feature of the Kindle to download it over wifi.  (You can get to the mobi file by right-clicking on the file in Calibre and selecting “Open Containing Folder”.

It’ll probably take you 15-20 minutes to walk through this the first time, but once you get the hang of it the process it’s not too hard.  It’s just sad that this is the current state of affairs.

Sharing Secrets

If this is a democracy, and I still believe that it nominally is, then if the government kills people, then I’m killing people and I object to the damage that does to my soul. I think it diminishes us as a people, and as a nation and I’m opposed to it on those grounds.

Steve Earle, Musician

While getting up to speed on the news around WikiLeaks and their recent release of 1000’s of secret documents, I came across Time Magazine’s Top 10 Leaks page, in which WikiLeaks appears not once, but three times. They appear there right alongside such notable incidents as the Valerie Plame affair and Watergate.  And at #4  was the video footage of an Apache Helicopter shooting of Iraqi civilians and Reuters reporters, which I hadn’t seen before. The full-length video, along with an eye-witness account from one of the ground troops who arrived on scene afterwards can be found here – be warned that it is very disturbing.

Meanwhile, on Monday George W. Bush visited Facebook to promote his new book. I didn’t attend in person – I didn’t trust myself enough to not get in trouble with some inappropriate outburst – but I did watch the event on video, and talked to my coworkers who attended.  Most were thoroughly enamored with how personable and charming Bush was, which I guess I understand.  But for me, listening to him recount all the events that occurred while he was president, I simply couldn’t help but be reminded of things like the trumped up WMD claims that led to the Iraq war, the Valerie Plame scandal, the firing of US attorney generals, the “lost” emails, Guantanamo, and the whole waterboarding thing. I found myself getting angry all over again.

It was in the middle of this that Bush commented on how WikiLeaks releases violate national security and the people involved should be prosecuted, a sentiment shared by many of the conservative elements in our society.

It was shocking to me how confident he was in this statement.  He seemed completely oblivious to the role his administration, one of the most secretive and scandal ridden on record, had in this.  It is the secrecy of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the Bush cabal that has led so many to question what is actually going on behind all these closed doors.  They are the ones who created the demand that WikiLeaks satisfies.

I also wonder if  the people leaking these documents and videos are doing so because they believe that what we are doing is wrong, or because they believe hiding what we are doing is wrong.  Probably both, I suppose.

I get that national security requires some measure of secrecy – I’m that much of a realist.  But in principle, we are members of a democratic nation and as such we are each in some small way responsible for the actions of our government. It would be nice to trust our government to provide us with a reasonable level of disclosure, regardless of what the backlash might be, but that hasn’t been happening.

As a result, we’ve been denied the opportunity to form opinions about these things, to express our support or outrage, and to participate in a public dialog about how to address the mistakes that may or may not have been made.

Sewn and Quartered

‘Just thought I’d share a little mom-love today.  I’ve blogged before about the sewing machine I picked up a few months ago, but what I haven’t shared is that of all the tools I’ve bought through the years this machine is quickly becoming my favorite.  Part of it is the unexpectedness of it – I’ve never thought of myself as a seamstress (or is it “seamster”?), and still don’t.  But I do enjoy sewing projects.  I’m used to working with metal and wood, or dirt and stone, and even some glass, but cloth and thread…? It’s a new domain for me.

But as it turns out, it’s not entirely new.  As I work through the in’s and out of working with this machine for projects like, oh, turning my son’s “onesie” pajamas that he’s outgrown into little shorty outfits that are more appropriate for the summer weather (see photo), I’m reminded of times spent with my mom when she tried to teach me how to use her sewing machine.  Oddly enough, she sent me some letters recently, from when she’d written to my grandmother about the “new” (to her) sewing machine that I remember her having when I was a kid:

We made a mervelous new purchase a week ago – a 1923  Singer sewing machine, cabinet and all.  It’s a grand old machine and, although it goes a little slowly now and then, it sews beautifully.  We only paid $20 for it…

That from a letter dated Aug 4, 1967, a mere 6 weeks after I was born.  It’s pretty fun seeing my mom’s excitement back then, and I chuckle to think I only paid $15 for the much more modern machine I have.  As you can imagine that machine was quite the antique, but sewing machines haven’t changed all that much.  The path required to thread that machine and the one I have now are not all that different.  The main difference, for me, is how challenging it all is.  Back then, with my mom trying to teach me, I remember being incredibly frustrated at how complex it was.  It was alchemy, going through the motions with no real appreciation for why, and I just never really took to it like I expect my mom would have liked.  Until now… 30-some years later.  Now, it all makes sense, and really is pretty darn fun.

So, a big, and very belated thanks to my mom for laying the groundwork for me.  I really do appreciate it (finally!)

Oh, and about this post’s title…  You’ll notice that I have Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt” on the table next to Dashiell’s chopped-and-cropped onesie.  It’s one of a series of novels I’ve been reading about the Dark Ages, it’s good, but rather bloody.  So when I noticed the similarity between Dash’s post-op onesie and the old practice of drawing-and-quartering… well, there ya go.

The Poverty Threshold

Five years ago I blogged about a phenomenon Andy and I had termed, “The Aristocracy Threshold“, and that I later learned was more commonly known as wealth condensation.  It is a formalization of the “the rich get richer” adage, and in terms of daily mind candy it’s pretty attractive.  It is the carrot that drives many of us to go to work each day and strive to better ourselves.  Or buy lottery tickets.

“If I can just make enough money to retire …”

What we spend less time thinking about is the opposite side of that coin, “the poor get poorer”.  There’s good reason for that – it’s not something any of us are striving for, there’s nothing attractive about it, and hopefully it’s not something we see on our personal life trajectory.  But it’s still an interesting economic phenomenon, one that if we hope to do some social good we really should understand.

In the Boston Globe article, “The sting of poverty“, we learn that mainstream economists generally blame poverty on poor decision making:

Compared with the middle class or the wealthy, the poor are disproportionately likely to drop out of school, to have children while in their teens, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes, to not save when extra money comes their way, to not work.

I expect this reflects our own personal views as well.  The simple act of giving money to that panhandler on the corner is always accompanied by a gnawing doubt – “Is this money really going to help this person?  Or are they just going to be stupid and waste it on booze and drugs?”

But in the Globe article we learn that Charles Karelis, a philosopher and former president of Colgate University, is arguing that the decision to buy drugs may not actually be a “bad” decision – that, in fact, it may be completely rational. He argues that the difference is in how the barrier between poverty and affluence is perceived.  To us it is conquerable – “Put on a nice suit, get a job, save some money, pay off your debts and, voila, it’s little-house-with-white-picket-fence time.”  But if you’re destitute that’s not how you see things.

Karelis argues that being poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all.

For example, imagine you have $100 but owe $4K to the bank, the utility company, your landlord, and the hospital. Does it really make sense to give that $100 to any of them? You’ll still owe about the same.  In fact, next month, you’ll probably owe more anyway.  So does it really do you any good? But you have $100 today, so what would make a difference?  What might make you feel better about things?

A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb.

That panhandler guy?  Not sounding so stupid now, is he.

Much of this is intuitive, and reviews of Karelis’ book, “The Persistence of Poverty“, criticize it for not providing more concrete data to support his assertions.  So the jury is still out on the significance of Karelis’ work.  However as an engineer the symmetry in the economic spectrum to be pretty interesting. The poverty threshold provides the stick to the Aristocracy Threshold’s carrot, as it were.

Update: If you happen to spot this critical review on Amazon, please be sure to read Charles’ response.