Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lawyers, guns and money

A bit of background: Since 2001 there have been several military prisons throughout the world where hundreds of suspected terrorists are held.

OK, so terrorists are bad, they kill people, they should go to jail. Most of us can agree to that.
Of course, being an American, I was brought up to believe that there is a certain system of justice involved. Terrorism is a crime, so catch the criminal, try him and send him to jail. We have this "Constitution" thing that talks about all that.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the way things are working right now. Suspects have been rounded up and thrown into chain-link cages and kept there for years without even being officially charged with anything, let alone being tried as criminals.

Yeah, I think that's kind of repulsive. There are lots of reports, essays, documentaries and the like that discuss how the people in charge of this are behaving badly and violating the US justice system and basic human rights, etc. I'm not going into detail, you can find it all over the Internet.

Let me, just once, make my stance on this clear, and move on to my point: There are bad guys out there. I would like to see the bad guys caught and locked up. I would also like to see all this done properly and legally, with some sense of ethics and honor on the part of my own government. I don't want to feel like we're the bad guys. Do it right, get it?

So, on to Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba (you know, Cuba, where US citizens aren't allowed to go?) There are around 500 prisoners there, many have been held for five years without being charged of anything specific, or granted the right to a trial or legal representation or anything that your basic child-molesting serial killer would get.

There have been lawyers from prominent firms in the US volunteering their time to represent the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay prisons who have actually been given the right to trial. This is not because they support terrorism, this is because they support the American Ideal that everyone who is charged in the US justice system should be given a fair trial.

We have rules, we have standards, we do things a certain way. And, dear Reader, if any of you are inclined at this point to say "Well, they wouldn't do the same for us." let me point out that we are supposed to be the good guys, which means doing the right thing even if others don't.
Last week, Charles D. Stimson, who will hereafter be referred to as "Stimpy" had a bit to say about this. Stimpy is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs. He publicly attacked these lawyers who have volunteered their time and knowledge.

He named the firms to which these attorneys belong, and suggested that corporate clients stop dealing with them. He claims that their work is somehow undermining America and damaging their business interests. After naming about a dozen of the top law firms in the country, I mean, Stimpy was quoted as saying:

"I think, quite honestly, when corporate C.E.O.'s see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those C.E.O.'s are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out."

Do you notice how Stimpy used the term "alleged terrorist" there, in reference to all those individuals who have not yet been proven guilty, or in many cases even formally charged? Yeah, me neither.

Sorry for ranting today, but I find this whole thing, and Stimson's comments in particularly, nauseating. Most of all, I'm ashamed for my country.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Do I really need high-tech running shoes?

As part of my new years resolution, I've started running again at least five days a week. Just 2-4 miles at an easy pace. This is good, and I'm enjoying it.

While I'm already beginning to see the benefits of running regularly, even after just a week or so, I'd started having questions about whether my $100 and something dollar New Balance stability shoes are really any help.

I'm a big guy, and over the years that I've been running I have been very conscious of the possibility of injury. I've been pretty lucky so far. The worst injury I've ever had, I have to admit, I got while running, but that had less to do with the shoes and more to do with the Chevy that hit me.

Once upon a time, when I was semi-serious about racing, I used to mix the occasional barefoot session at a rubberized track into my weekly running schedule. It was always fun and, although I went a little slower, it never actually hurt in any way.

Skip forward ten years, and now there's a lot of buzz about shoes like the Nike Free, which allows the foot to move like it would without the benefit of a running shoe. On the other hand, we have shoes so advanced that they have computers built in to adjust the cushioning as you go.

I did a little research and found arguments on both sides. Some argue that it is impossible to run without artificial assistance, and that to do so risks serious injury and biomechanical inefficiency. The other argues that the human foot is a complicated machine which functions best when allowed to move naturally.

Now, although I'm neither a biologist or an engineer, I can see a certain logic emerge from this. The concept of the high-tech running shoe, the very idea on which a billion dollar industry is based, is that human feet are evolved for something other than walking and running. Interesting.

Now running barefoot is fine and dandy on a well groomed lawn or rubberized track, but I've lived in neighborhoods where I actually had to step over used needles on the sidewalk during my morning run, so I figured I'm not entirely ready to abandon the idea of shoes.

As an experiment, yesterday I put on a pair of black Chuck Taylors and headed out for my usual route, a nice packed-dirt path with a block of my house.

Nothing hurt, I wasn't sore, no pain, after the first five minutes I didn't even feel and major jarring or jostling. I found a nice, smooth pace and didn't try to overdo it. In spite of having no EVA foam, elevated heel, torsion bar, motion control, air pockets or any sort of claim to major technological advancement, my Chucks didn't seem to hurt me at all. In fact I felt better than I did the day before.

And I got them for $19.99


Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Real Men Don't Coast

For many years now I've been an avid cyclist. I've raced bicycles, commuted by bicycle and fixed bicycles for a living.

I started out with the usual single-speed kid's bike with a coaster brake and training wheels, worked up to bmx-type bikes and old ten-speeds, and finally, in high school, got a mountain bike with shifters on the handlbars.
Years later, when I was "grown up" with a kid of my own, I graduated to grip-shifters and triple front chainrings, giving my mountain bike 21 gears or more. On my skinny-tire road bike, I had shifters that were integrated into the brake levers so I never had to move my hands from a riding position. The rear wheel featured a cluster of 9 cogs, each one accessed in crisp, accurate clicks by a twitch of my fingers. My bikes had grown progressively more complicated, from heavy steel to aluminum and carbon fibre, with more and more gearing options.

Then, somehow, something changed.

Out of curiousity, I built up a mountain bike with only one gear. I used a catalog-clearance frame and spare parts, and made it as cheap as possible, with the intention of having a no-maintenance city bike.

But I made the mistake of taking it off road. I was hooked on "single-speeding". No shifters, no shocks, just muscle, skill and a willingness to occasionally walk the bike uphill. It was good, muddy fun.

Then came the fixed-gear road bike.

Single-speed bikes are fun, like a cruiser or bmx bike. It's easy to understand how, if you're not in a hurry, the low cost and durability of a super-simple bike can be appealing. It's pretty easy to understand, after all, and pretty easy to explain.

Why anyone would want to ride a fixed gear, on the other hand, is much harder to explain to the uninitiated. A fixed gear bicycle has only one gear combination, it's a type of single-speed bike. The "fixed" part is what makes it different. The rear cog is screwed directly onto the rear hub with no freewheel mechanism. Without some sort of ratcheting freewheel, the rear wheel cannot move unless the chain moves too, and the chain can't move unless the pedals go 'round, and the pedals can't go 'round unless your legs are moving too. In short, you can't coast.

Nonstop pedaling isn't that bad. If you watch racing cyclists, or even serious recreational riders, you'll see that they hardly ever stop moving their legs. You won't go fast, after all, if you keep letting your bicycle slow down. The tough part about riding a fixed-gear bike, or fixie, is that there is only one choice of gear ratio. That means that if you have a low enough gear to get up a hill, you're going to have to spin like mad going down. On the other hand, if you have a gear ratio that lets you spin comfortably going fast on flat stretches, or down hills, you need to do leg presses to get up a hill.

As hard as it can be to ride a bicycle like this over Central Jersey's rolling hills, it's even harder to explain to non-cyclists, or sometimes even other cyclists, why this is fun. Why throw away a century of innovation and technological adancement so you can work harder to go slower? Why ride a silly, risky, evolutionary throwback like a fixed-gear bicycle?

Probably the best answer that I, or any other fixie aficianado, can come up with is the same answer that people who hike the entire Appalachian Trail, run marathons, swim the English Channel or enjoy any of a thousand other difficult, dangerous and unneccesary challenges give:

"Because I can"

Wikipedia article on fixed-gear bicycles

Monday, January 8, 2007

Your REAL Resume

Job hunting, it's been said, is the worst job out there. I've come to see the truth of this firsthand in the last couple of months as I've been shipping out a small forest of resumes and wading through a mountain of applications.

The resume, of course, is your chance to sell yourself, and you spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to present yourself as a smart, polished professional. You toil and sweat over each sentence as you try to re-frame that job you had swamping out bathroom stalls as a position as a "Facilities Maintenance Professional", and you load your "Skills" section with so many keywords that even you are no longer sure what you actually know how to do.

But consider the radical idea that an employer might actually be interested in you, the actual person. You know, the one sitting there in their boxer shorts reading this. Yeah, you. By the way, you just dripped salsa on the front of your t-shirt. Very professional.

So, what would you put on your real resume?

Let's experiment, shall we? Of course, being the altruistic soul that I am, I'll volunteer to be the first

Matthew DeBlass
New Jersey, United States

To obtain a job that pays my bills and is either fun or not too demanding. To actually have something to look forward to when I get up in the morning. Also, I wouldn't mind meeting a nice woman who is willing to put up with how weird I am. If you could help with that too, that would be great.

Job History:
Do you really care? I mean, I've got this stupid string of pointless retail jobs which all went nowhere, who cares. I've learned to put up with a lot of crap from people and keep smiling, if that's what you want to know.
Actually, I had one job, years ago I really liked. I worked for a children's theater company. But it didn't pay well enough so I had to quit. Now I'm all depressed and nostalgic, thanks for asking painful questions. If you want a reverse chronological listing, it'd look like this:

Job that cut my hours so I'm talking to you - Present

Job I hated - Last year

Job I hated but didn't even pay as well as the job after that - Three Years Ago

Dead-end job that I left for something that initially seemed more promising - Four Years Ago

Job I really liked but couldn't live on the salary - Five Years Ago

Pizza Delivery

I'm on the twelve-year plan! I go to community college. I'm poor. I mean, really, if I weren't desperate for cash, would I be applying for this job anyway? Once I finally work my way through that degree, I'm leaving your company anyway. Oh, I get good grades because I'm thirty something and don't go out drinking every night.

I generally get along with people. I can cook a little. I know four verses to "Auld Lang Syne" and can sing them in an authentic-sounding Scottish accent. I can juggle, but not that well. I can play the drum part to "Wipe Out" on any remotely flat surface, even if it wasn't actually intended to be a percussion instrument. I've been told that I'm pretty good in bed too, so if that will help me during the interview process, please, let me know.

Awesome, Totally Awesome, Hire Me, Desperate, Rock Star, Will Work For Food, Please Give Me A Job, Team Leader

Sun Sign:
Scorpio: The eighth sign of the zodiac is intense, passionate and loyal to the death. Scorpios thrive on challenges and creativity, but can fall victim to jealousy and self-indulgence. Compatible signs are Cancer, Pisces, Virgo and Capricorn.

So, that's the Matt DeBlass resume. The challenge, if you're bored or need yet another excuse to procrastinate, is to post your own version in the "comments" section. Tell us who you really are.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Loreena McKennitt's "An Ancient Muse"

An Ancient Muse, gives fans of Loreena McKennitt's "eclectic Celtic" music exactly what they expect, nothing more, but certainly nothing less. McKennitt picks up right where she left off with 1997's The Book of Secrets, this time with her songs inspired by the Silk Road, English poetry and classical mythology.

The sound of An Ancient Muse continues down the path McKennitt started on with 1994's The Mask and The Mirror. While she hasn't completely abandoned her roots in Celtic Folk, the songs are heavily influenced by Mediterranean and Arabic traditions, and feature instruments that many American and Western European listeners would be hard pressed to pronounce, let alone identify.

The worst that can be said about this album is that it doesn't give us any surprises. The songs, for the most part, follow the formula that McKennitt established on her previous two studio albums. Like previous albums, there is an opening piece featuring almost arrhythmic instrumentation and wordless vocalizations by McKennitt. There is the mandatory setting of a classic poem featuring ill-fated lovers that end up dead in the end. There are a couple of lively instrumentals, and the album ends with a meditative ballad. McKennitt's harp is regrettably scarce.

Of course, one of the best things to be said about the album is that it is very much familiar ground. Fans who waited nearly a decade for new material are getting exactly what they've been waiting for. McKennitt has created a genre of music all her own, with elements of folk, classical, world music and pop rolled together and backed by some phenomenal instrumentalists, such as Hugh Marsh and Nigel Eaton on fiddle and hurdy-gurdy respectively.

One of the few, and most interesting changes from past albums is a greater use of the western-style drum kit. The drums add a certain degree of punch to songs like "The Gates of Istanbul" and "Caravanserai".

The tracks

Incantation-An airy, shapeless instrumental that sets the mood and beckons us into McKennitt's world

The Gates of Istanbull-An upbeat and rolling piece, the drum kit gives it an almost reggae-like beat that you can tap your foot to

-Possibly the strongest track on the album, after the typical long intro, it breaks into a powerful, rolling gait, pulling us along on the back of a camel towards the titular caravanserai

The English Ladye and The Knight-A setting of a poem by Sir Walter Scott about, what else, ill-fated lovers. Very pretty, but it drags somewhat compared to the songs before and after it.

Kecharitomene-Another brilliant instrumental that builds slowly and solidly until Marsh's pyrotechnic fiddling puts the last minute into overdrive

Penelope's Song-A piano driven track that takes the perspective of Odysseus's wife, who waited for him at home all those years.

Sacred Shabbat-Yet another quality instrumental, this time with it's roots in the traditions of Jewish music

Beneath a Phrygian Sky-The longest track on the album. A haunting call to arms for the forces of love and unity.

Never-Ending Road (Amhran Duit)-McKennitt sends us on our way with this gentle benediction. About the never ending journey that is life. "Here is my heart, I give it to you/ take me with you across this land"

For more information go to Loreena McKennitt's Quinlan Road site