Archive for May, 2009

Step 1: Read This. Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit!

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

I was in an elevator the other day and noticed the instructions for firemen to operate the thing with their special keys. Isn’t that something they tell you when they give you the key? Are all elevators unique? Anyway, it got me thinking about unnecessary instructions.

I’m not talking about dumb instructions, like the line on the car window shade thing that says not to leave it up while you’re driving. I’m talking about actual, intended-to-be-helpful instructions that are totally unnecessary because any semi-sentient being can figure the thing out without reading a manual.

My first thought for the most unhelpful was those restroom automatic hand dryers. “Push button, hold hands under the air to dry” seems pretty useless to me, because the entire mechanism consists of a giant button and an air vent. It should only take you, at most, one failed attempt before you figure out what the button does.

But then I realized that the absolute most unnecessary set of instructions come on envelopes: “Place stamp here.” If you’re mailing an envelope, and haven’t figured out where to put the stamp (or that it needs one at all), no one’s going to be able to read what you wrote anyway.

So that’s my nomination for most useless instructions. Anyone got anything better? Or, rather, worse?

I was born, lucky me, in a land that I love/Though I’m poor, I am free

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

I was catching up on my survivalist calendar, and discovered belatedly that Monday was Victoria Day in Canada. That has no significance to me, but it does give me a chance to post this quirky video of The Fall covering the songVictoria” by The Kinks.

Compare and Contrast

Friday, May 15th, 2009

When Terrance Graham was sixteen years old, he was charged with armed burglary and assault and battery arising out of a restaurant robbery where an accomplice hit a victim with a pipe. He was sent to a juvenile detention facility for a year and given a probation term after that. During the probation term he committed another armed robbery. A judge revoked the probation and sentenced Graham to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

When Joe Sullivan was thirteen years old, he and some friends burglarized the home of a 72-year-old woman. The woman was also raped, although Sullivan denied committing that crime. He was tried as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

When Daniel Hood was thirteen years old, he and a seventeen-year-old friend kidnapped Hood’s fourteen-year-old cousin. They covered her eyes and mouth with duct tape, wrapped duct tape around her wrists and ankles, and threw her on Hood’s bed, using more tape to bind her down. While Hood held her down, his friend raped the girl with a toilet plunger. They eventually let her go. The friend, tried as an adult, is serving a ten-year prison sentence.

Hood spent some time in a juvenile detention facility, but was later admitted to a private Catholic high school. There, he excelled as a student and athlete. By all accounts, he has truly reformed himself. The principal of the school said he would stake his school’s reputation on Hood. Even the victim of his earlier crime has written letters on his behalf. A few weeks ago, the University of Tennessee offered Hood a football scholarship.

The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear appeals of Graham and Sullivan’s sentences. Prof. Berman has written about the cases extensively. Hood’s case received some coverage in the sports media — for example, here, here, here, and here.

I’m not saying that these cases are indistinguishable. Even the two cases the Supreme Court took seem to have important distinctions. Maybe Graham and Sullivan don’t deserve a second (or third) chance. And maybe Hood didn’t either. But in considering the cases of Graham and Sullivan, maybe we should keep Hood’s case in mind.

Book Review: Mysteries of the Middle Ages

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Fresh off of taking 3 years to finish my previous book, I managed to get through this last one in about a month. Part of that is me spending more time reading. Most of it is going from a 1000 page small print biography to a 300 page large print book with lots of pictures and side notes.

For those unfamiliar, Mysteries of the Middle Ages is part of the continuing “lynchpins of history” series by Thomas Cahill. Previous editions in the series include How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and Sailing the Wine Dark Seas. Of these I have only read the Irish book, which was very enjoyable. As one who enjoys those points in history where a singular event can determine the course of a people, I was looking forward to this book.

With that lead in, I was a little disappointed. It wasn’t a bad book. To the contrary it contained a number of interesting bits of trivia. Many facinating details about well known figures like Thomas Aquinas, plus the stories of lesser known personalities like Peter Aberland, Hildegard, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. One of the more interesting chapters had to to with the rise of the “modern” university, and how the study of the Christian sacrament gave rise to modern science.

What disappointed was the disjointedness of the book. There was no flow. At one point the author even realizes this, and states to the reader that the book is all over the place because that’s the way the Middle Ages were. While I don’t disagree, it would’ve been easier to group certain themes together, or made more of a point of how the stories he picked related to each other. The overarching theme he tries to tie through the book is the persistant philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and how the pendulum swings back and forth between them. How the focus changes from the heavenly/ideal to the worldly/accessable. And the fact the western world is, and always has been, basically a Greek creation.

Another irksome aspect is the author’s penchant for interjecting his personal politics. He does it very openly and honestly, and does not try to sneak it in by selective fact selection or narrative manipulation. The first time he did it in the book, I was actually appreciative of the method he used. But then it happened again. And again. And again. When someone picks up a history book, they don’t do it because they want to be preached to about modern policy.

At the end of the book, the author lays out a list of characters he would have loved to talk about but didn’t have the space. But the book wasn’t that long, and had very large print (at least in paperback). He could have easily included these peoples’ stories and still had a very readable book. And he couldn’t have excluded them because they fell outside the non-existant storyline.

All in all, not a waste of time. But in the end it felt much like a dark comedy that the trailers make to look like a regular comedy. When you watch the movie, even though it’s good, it’s not what you expected so you come away feeling overly critical.

Next on the reading list, James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. I’ll get back to you on that in 3 years, give or take.