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March 31, 2007

Favorite Movie

In response to what I wrote about the movie Brazil, Andrew inquired about my favorite movies.

But, for now, let's not talk in particular about movies or favorites. Movies, like anything else, are specific forms of abstract ideas, and favorites, well... I just don't have them.

I find it difficult to assign the word "favorite" to anything. I like some movies more than others, some people more than others, some cities more than others, and some public transportation systems more than others. I don't keep favorite movies or best friends or anything like that in my head, though.

How does one determine a favorite? Consider, for example, the drinks I enjoy. Wine is elegant, beer is comfortable, Scotch is sophisticated, gin martinis are cosmopolitan, Champagne is traditional, and limoncello is another world altogether. Is it possible to reconcile all these different drinks and all the special circumstances in which I drink them into one single category and then rank them, from top to bottom, in order of preference? I don't think that can be done.

The same goes for movies and people and cities and public transportation systems. They are so diverse in their qualities and the situations through which they can be experienced that I would find it to be a task of monumental futility to attempt to find a handful of favorites, to say nothing of a single favorite that outranks the rest.

I thought about answering Andrew's question directly by spending some time thinking about the films I found memorable over the past ten years. It was, indeed, a futile task: at every point in my consideration, I was unable to find a "good" reason to justify putting a particular movie on the list. Sorry, Andrew!

March 30, 2007

Amazon.com Marketplace

I have been an avid patron and fond supporter of the Amazon.com Marketplace for over four years. At the Amazon.com Marketplace, Amazon.com customers buy and sell their own goods at their own prices, and Amazon.com takes a small premium off the top. It works well for everybody involved.

I have, in the past, sold a number of books through that scheme, and more recently, I have sold almost my entire collection of CDs. Occasionally, I buy a book or a CD through the Marketplace, and in most cases, it shows up at my door within a week.

Until a few days ago, I had never had a problem with it.

On March 18, I purchased a book from a seller called eastonjain. This seller priced the book slightly higher than some others, but because the seller was in Pennsylvania, I thought I'd pay an extra dollar or two in order to shave a couple days off the time the book spent with the Postal Service. Which worked out just fine.

However, when I received the package in the mail, I opened it, and it was the wrong book. It was a book on the same topic, but it was about six years out of date. So, I sent an email to the seller, who responded with a message saying he never listed the book I purchased. He also said he would refund my money if I returned the book. This is where things get messy.

Knowing that I was clearly not at fault for ordering an incorrect book and feeling that I should not be held responsible for any shipping charges greater than what I had already paid, I contacted Amazon.com directly and explained my case. They gave me kudos for trying to work through the issue with the seller before contacting them, and then Amazon.com refunded my money.

After which, I received an email from the seller:

  I did give you refund back to your accout in full if you could return my book as soon as possible.

Clearly, the seller is not a Harvard graduate; nevertheless, I immediately plunged myself into a retort and responded in kind:


You seem to be missing the point.

You sent me the wrong book, and it is not my responsibility to pay even more money than I already have, to get it back to you. If you want to send me a check for the cost of shipping the book, I may be able to find time in the next couple weeks to get to the post office and send it back to you.

I am generally very busy, which is why I order books from Amazon.com in the first place, and I simply do not have the time or motivation to spend part of my day at the post office.


Indeed, spending $3 or less to ship the book back to this gentleman is no skin off my teeth. However, spending part of my day at the Post Office is. The USPS does not allow parcels over one pound in weight to be sent through ordinary mail boxes; those parcels must be sent at a physical Post Office location. In 2003, I discovered this rule by way of having such a parcel, which, in fact, contained an Amazon.com Marketplace item, returned to me, stamped accordingly.

At any rate, I now wonder: will he send me a check for the cost of postage? Will I then be obligated, after waking up at 3:00 in the afternoon as usual, to curtail the utter enjoyment I receive from drinking my first cup of coffee and reading the BBC News so I can get the book in the mail before the Post Office closes?

As the goblins say, "time is money, friend!" And, indeed, spending an hour, standing in line with obnoxious people on cell phones in a warm and overcrowded room simply to spend 30 seconds at a counter to ship a book that was mistakenly delivered to me in the first place, just does not seem worth the effort to me.

March 25, 2007

Brazil (A Film)

The original movie poster for Brazil
Last night, I watched the movie Brazil, written by, among others, satirists Terry Gilliam (Monty Python) and Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead). The film was released in 1985 and is now part of The Criterion Collection.

I'm not really writing about the film, here, though; I'm more interested in one small difference between the cinema of 20 years ago and the cinema today: the hero. Of course, I'm no film critic, but I find the disparities intriguing.

Brazil highlights a near-futuristic dystopian society in which bureaucracy reigns supreme, paperwork is everywhere, and the totalitarian government tightly controls many aspects of everyday life. Despite this noble satirical effort, I found it very difficult to find a specific plot in the movie. A single main character was the spotlight of many scenes, but I don't think he followed any particular sequence of important events. He became caught in a number of situations about which he seemed, simply, utterly confused. The circumstances caused his actions, rather than him causing them.

This tells us the main character isn't a hero, per se, and that's perfectly fine. But, if you've seen any popular movies with similar motifs that have been released in this decade, you will have noticed the main character always wants something, and that character's actions provide an impetus that defines the story the movie is trying to tell.

Consider Children of Men, for example. Released in December of last year, it details a future in which humans can no longer procreate and the government of England attempts to control the disheartened populace by forcing otherwise ridiculous regulations upon them. Enter the naïve pregnant girl, the hero, who, along with a fair-weather faction of rebels, tries to achieve safe haven for the baby with the mythical Human Project. These rebels have a true goal with which the viewer can sympathize. Brazil does not even have this: there is no explicit objective; the protagonist just wanders through a sea of paperwork and silliness for two hours and 22 minutes.

I think we like watching a hero because it gives the film a purpose. That is, we want to be able to sympathize with somebody's cause in order to sit around for two hours and feel like something useful has happened. It gives us perspective. But, movies like Brazil do not have that. Quite a lot has changed in the film industry in the past 20 years, and it seems this is just one example of that.

March 23, 2007

Banana Box is Back

The banana box, as it's now being affectionately called by my friend Shea, is back. She had a panic attack while searching for the one on the comments page earlier today, which led me to find that it was missing!

If you posted comments over the past couple days, they didn't appear because my blogging software thought they were spam. You can re-post them now, if you'd like. Sorry about that!

March 20, 2007

A Visit from Texas

Instead of me visiting Texas last week, Texas visited me. I hosted Tamara and Arin separately and together for a total of about six days.

We ate, we drank coffee, we drank beer, and we ate some more. We also played Scrabble, StarCraft, and Civilization IV. Ah, it was relaxing indeed, and it was lovely to simply sit around and talk at length about meaningful things with intelligent and young friends.

One of the places we ate was Quaker Steak & Lube, a race car-themed suburban and rural tradition in this part of the country. Arin and I tried their "atomic" wings, the hottest they have. As the name suggests, they were pretty spicy, but they weren't anything we couldn't handle. My only problem was that some of the sauce got on my lips, and they burned like crazy for five or ten minutes. We were drinking St. Patrick's Day Guinness, though, so a couple pints of creamy stout later, everything was just peachy. I still have a couple atomic wings in my refrigerator, and I think I'll dig into them later tonight.

Though seeing my friends was lots of fun and a good time was had by all, my introverted self is back to enjoying being with my cats and working from home all day. Now, then, back to the grind!

March 11, 2007

New Blog Stuff

I finally got around to playing with the layout of my blog in the wake of the blog catastrophe a few weeks ago. I think I like the brown theme, but the background of the entries is a little too pink. I'll get around to changing that later.

I also updated my academic information so that it blends better with my blog. I think it looks quite nice, really, and very professional.

In addition to the color changes, I've also added a rudimentary spam filtering feature for posting comments. Andrew notes the word banana is peculiar for that feature, but I must admit it was simply the first thing that came to my mind. For whatever reason, later in the day after I set the word to be banana, I really wanted to change it to fox. I'm not sure why I never changed it. But, anyway, Andrew, there is no particular reason for the word to be banana; that's just how the dice rolled.

March 10, 2007

Grey's Anatomy

As part of my adventures with Netflix, I started watching Grey's Anatomy a few weeks ago. I finally decided there would be no more Dr. Meredith Grey in my life yesterday, after not quite getting through the second DVD of the second season.

The show is like a soap opera, focusing mainly on the relationships among the staff at Seattle Grace Hospital, while all but ignoring the medicine they practice in the background. Drs. Burke and Yang are entwined in an affair they want to keep secret; Drs. Grey, Shepherd, and Shepherd are an annoying love triangle; the chief of surgery doesn't like spending time with his wife; Dr. Bailey is pregnant and vocal about it; and Dr. Karev has a thing for Dr. Stevens but only in a fair-weather sort of way.

The only character not involved in a relationship at this point is George O'Malley, and he's the only one I enjoy watching.

So, goodbye, Grey's Anatomy. I hope other people like you more than I do.

March 07, 2007

Robot Ethics Charter

I guess it's that time in the evolution of our civilization when we need to start thinking about the ethics of the relationships we have with our automated friends.

To this end, South Korea is drawing up a Robot Ethics Charter that aims to preserve the rights of both humans and robots. Perhaps it's now a little premature to get world governments involved in this sort of thing, but eventually, establishing the roles of robots in our lives will be a necessary step toward maintaining good relations with those lovable buckets of bolts.

I'm looking forward to reading about how this progresses.

March 05, 2007

Cat Proximity

I've written here before about the comic called xkcd. By reading this comic for more than about a week, I think I've set a new personal record for paying attention to a regular web publication.

Today's comic is a gem about cats, and all the cat owners among you will surely be able to relate to this one.

You can click on the image to go to the xkcd web site and browse more fantastic comics.

March 03, 2007

Back Pain

I flew to Houston on Tuesday, and at some point between parking my car at the Pittsburgh airport and getting on the plane, my back started to hurt. Like, really hurt. By the time we were in the air, my back felt like it was on fire from the pain.

I had a layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I picked up two packets of extra strength Tylenol, each of which contained two pills. I took the contents of one packet along with about a liter of water and a Millionaire Margarita (which actually only cost $14 at some bar where the bartenders say "hola, amigo!" when you sit down), and after deciding that wasn't helping around the midpoint of my connecting flight, I took the other two Tylenol. None of which seemed to do anything for the pain.

The following day, in Houston, I visited my "family" doctor, whom I hadn't seen in seven or eight years, and he prescribed narcotics, muscle relaxers, and anti-inflammatory agents. Yesterday, I went back for a follow-up, noted the pain was worse, and was prescribed steroids, more potent narcotics, and X-ray series for my chest and back. The chest X-ray was performed in case my lungs had something to do with the problem, and I can only assume the back X-ray was done to determine whether my spine was doing gymnastics without me. Alas, both X-ray series were clean. Which is a good thing. But also a bad thing.

So, here I am, back in Pittsburgh, with five prescription bottles, back pain that's only getting worse, and no diagnosis. This seems to happen once every few years, and it's really starting to worry me. After all, my current prognosis is "it'll probably get better in a few days."

For those of you who are curious, my current list of medications reads something like Darvocet, Mobic, Soma, Vicodin, and Prednisone. I really hope I don't need to go begging to my doctor here in the 'burgh for more pain medication when all this dries up.

I'm off to bed now, surely to wake up in several hours wondering why someone is stabbing me with ice picks...

Oh, and by the way, if you ever take Prednisone before getting on an airplane (or shortly after getting on an airplane, as I did this morning), I highly advise putting a lot of food in your stomach, too. The turbulence during landing in Charlotte today didn't exactly help things, but without slow, deep breaths, I would have undoubtedly have been feeling around seat-back pockets for barf bags.