Friday, October 22, 2010

If you're not with us...

This morning I saw a bumper sticker:
Aren't you glad that your mother
was pro life?
This logic is about the same kind of logic is "If you're not with us you're against us."  Neither makes sense.  In fact, the bumper sticker is false - my mother is "pro choice."

People who are not anti-abortion (note the double-negative there) are not baby killing savages who are out having sex just to go through the abortion process (which is not pleasant, by the way).  They are people who believe in a woman's right to choose that method of birth control should it be necessary...and the key word here is "necessary."  Nobody really wants to have an abortion.

The key here is that my mother (and father) made a conscious decision to have a family.  They didn't do so for reasons of family or religious pressure, but because they wanted children and were prepared to raise a family.  My parents weren't wealthy.  There were times during my childhood where our family did struggle a bit financially, but my parents put aside the expensive cars and other luxuries at that time to make sure that we had a good childhood.  My father would work overtime at his job for the extra money.

So to all you pro-lifers out there, please get one.  I'm not with you, but I'm not against you either.  Abortion, while not a pleasant alternative, is sometimes the only one.  A child born into a family that can't take care of him or her is a far greater "crime" than abortion will ever be.  I realize that may go against the religious beliefs of some of you, but then we're not supposed to be basing our legal system on your religious beliefs.  However, in a majority of cases, even those who are pro-choice are generally looking to bring their pregnancy to term.  They want a family, and they have made their choice...which happens to be the same as your's.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Roku Second Impressions

Here's an update to my article on Roku First Impressions posted the other day.

To recap, I had issues with audio on the Revision3 videos on the Roku briefly "cutting out" periodically.  I feel I must post Roku's response.  Note that this is a perfect example of incredibly bad technical support (no sarcasm, names the same to embarrass the guilty, highlighting is mine):

Thank you for contacting ROKU Customer Service. My Name is Sunil and I will be helping you with your query.
We apologize for the inconvenience and delay in responding to your valuable query.
I suggest you to try streaming Revision 3 content on your computer.
Kindly go through the following instructions.
1.Turn off the Modem, Router, and the Roku player.
2.Plug the Modem back in, give it some time to settle down.
3.Plug the router back in and when ready, turn on the Roku player.
If you have a cable modem, kindly unscrew the co-axial cable, wait for 30 seconds and then plug it back in.
Please feel free to email us for further queries.
Thank you for providing us with an opportunity to assist you and thank you for choosing ROKU.
Best Regards,
Sunil
Roku Customer Service.
Why is this a bad response?
  1. I indicated in my "valuable query" that other content worked fine. This should have  immediately caused the question to drop into "oh, something may be wrong with that provider's content."
  2. If I wanted to stream content on my computer, I wouldn't have purchased the Roku player.
  3. I'm not sure that the cable company would like the idea of people being asked to remove the coax cable from the cable modem.  I can imagine "Joe User" doing this and then not being able to get anything working again!
  4. As I have come to expect from companies these days, they always redirect any fault from themselves to someone else.  In this case, the customer service rep clearly feels it is a problem with the cable company.
A good response would have offered more than one possible solution, and an opportunity to follow-up to see if the problem was corrected.  This response was clearly a cut-and-paste response, with the exception of one line.

Paying attention to customer issues is important because it can identify underlying problems with the product that can be corrected, resulting in more satisfied current and future customers.  The customer feels they are being heard, and the product gets better.  It's a win-win situation.

What I will need to do now is further troubleshoot the problem on my own and contact Revision3 to see if they can find anything in their own Roku application that may be causing the difficulty.  I have to hope that someone there actually can take responsibility for the issue and possibly contact Roku with more information.

My other options is, as a Roku application "developer," post my problem to the forum and see if someone at Roku will listen and possibly take a look at the player's source code.  I'm very afraid of the response I would get if I told them about the YouTube problem in that last posting.

I will reiterate that Roku is getting increasing competition in this area, and if they don't take these kinds of issues seriously and work to resolve them, they will soon find themselves out-of-business.

PS: Yes, last night I did have problems with my cable Internet service, but that was not happening when the Revision3 streaming problem happened...  Actually, our whole area experienced problems...and we may be still, I'm not entirely sure...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

TiVo's Revenge

As if someone from TiVo was reading this blog, all of a sudden today they announced that Pandora was now available on the series 3 TiVos, including the TiVo HD.  In addition, I was first told this by "Interceptor" (yes, I do remember who you are) in a comment and Susan D. in a private e-mail.  I'm sure I will continue to hear this for the next couple of weeks, but I do thank y'all for letting me know about it.  To add insult to injury, TiVo also put a message on my TiVo HD that Pandora was now available for the Premere, even though I was not on a Premere and it really did work on my TiVo HD.

Ugh.

Does this change my opinion of TiVo?  Unfortunately, no.  The damage has kind of been done already.

On that note, I found a cartoon from The Oatmeal titled Why I'd Rather Be Punched In The Testicles Than Call Customer Service that I think is appropriate here...

Also, my RoadRunner service has been failing intermittently all evening long.  It seems I have somehow evoked bad Karma from somewhere...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Roku First Impressions

I received my Roku XDS media player on Saturday (two days after ordering it).  That, in itself, is amazing.  I have to say that both Roku and the US Postal Service did a great job in getting the player to me with hardly a thought.

The XDS is a very nice tiny unit in appearance - measuring about half the size of a hard cover book.  There is a single power light on the front that Roku dimmed down to almost completely invisible.  Is that a problem?  In this case, no.  I am sick and tired of blinding blue LEDs shining out of every piece of equipment I have purchased lately.  This light does nothing but tell you that the unit has power, so there is no need to have it bright and always visible.  The only time you'll really need to see it if the media player stops working -- if that happens you'll get up and look at it close-up anyhow!

Set-up was a piece of cake, but be prepared with a computer close-by before you start.  Despite the effort by Roku to try to make you feel like you'll never need to use your computer once you have this device, it is clear that this is not the case.  To activate the unit and have it upgrade its software you will need to register it with Roku's web site, which involves entering an activation code to the web site that displays on the screen.  Roku calls this their Rendezvous registration process, and you will find yourself doing this often.  Even though there are a lot of free Internet services you can access on the Roku platform, many services (like Pandora) link to your existing account, and this is the way that Roku saves people lots of keystrokes or using "Ouija board" typing with the remote.  It's not a pain if you have a laptop handy near the TV, but if you don't you should probably somehow bring the Roku player near a computer while you set-up programming from the "channel store" or you'll find yourself running back and forth between the TV and computer.  Aside from the computer, about all you need to do to set-up this box is plug it in.

I mentioned in my earlier postings a concern about advertising and that I didn't think there was any.  I now know that there are most definitely ads on the screen, specifically on the main screen.  It isn't terribly intrusive (not like TiVo, where they almost trick you into selecting them), but nonetheless they are there.  It looks to me like they really want me to use Amazon's video-on-demand service.  I actually would like some way to say, "Please leave me alone, I was thinking about it anyway."  I would really appreciate it if they would keep this to a minimum.

Most of  the main user interface is modeled after the modern iPod and Windows Media Center graphic displays that flip items back and forth using the left and right arrow keys on the remote.  While this does make it so that an idiot can use the XDS, I don't feel that this scales well and I find it a little annoying.  I think I would like an option where I could either categorize my channels or put them in a list format of some kind.  As the number of channels available increase and the number of channels I have in my subscription list increase it will become more cumbersome to flip through all the choices all the time.  Think of it like having a stack of CDs to play -- when you have 10 or so CDs it isn't bad to flip through them all to find the one you want.  Once you have more than that, you alphabetize them and/or organize them by genre or the like.  On the plus side, the configuration screens are very intuitive and function well.  They ship the device with a short diagram on how to hook the thing up (I laughed when I opened the box and staring me in the face was a card with only the word "Hi!" printed on it).  Really, that's about all you need.

Since I have a Netflix account already, that was the first thing I tried.  I tested it by watching an episode of Tripping The Rift that was in my instant queue, and was disappointed that the audio and video became horribly out-of-sync as the show continued, and the video was mediorcre.  Knowing that I have had this experience with some Netflix online movies before with the TiVo I tried watching Outsourced and fast-forwarded into the middle of the movie.  Not only was the audio OK now, but the video itself was impressive.  I also tried to view a program that didn't work correctly on the TiVo, and it messed-up in the same spot on the Roku player.  So the problem is Netflix, not either player.  Unlike the TiVo, you can do searches for movies on Netflix right from the Roku player.  If the Amazon video-on-demand service works as well as Netflix (or better) then this is going to be pretty cool.

The next thing I tried was Pandora...of course.  That worked without a single problem.  Having seen the Flash (yuck) version of Pandora on occasion, I do miss some of the features that they support there and would like to see those on the Roku version.  Otherwise it worked just like I wanted when I contacted Pandora over a year ago.  If I had to make one complaint, it would be that they somehow punch the volume way up on the music to the point where I have to remember to turn my home theater amp's volume way down before playing that channel.  The interface for Pandora on Roku is very nicely done for HDTV, in that it just looks really good.  I wish that Pandora for a browser was done in Java instead of Flash.  Sigh.

There are two issues that I had with channels and these are a bit annoying.  On Revision3's programs, the audio occasionally cuts out for a second during the program.  I think this may be because they drop a few bits in the audio stream for whatever reason, and my home theater amp takes a second or so to figure out what kind of digital audio it is receiving and then start playing it.  I feel this is a bug in the home theater system, but in any case it is annoying.  The other one is much worse and I don't know what to do about it:  I tried watching newer episodes of Is It A Good Idea To Microwave This? using a third-party YouTube application, and my Sony HDTV barfed on the video stream (it said it was receiving video in an "unsupported format").  It is hard to tell whether this is a limitation of my TV, a problem with the third-party application, or a bug in the Roku player's firmware.  I contacted Roku about the first problem and have yet to get a response, which is a bit disappointing.

Today I joined Roku's developer program, which allows one to write applications to use with the Roku media players.  I can't say much about it yet since, well, I just joined.  However, I am impressed with what looks like a very open development platform.  Seeing the documentation that Roku provided makes me respect the engineering that went into making Roku's players and how much thought went into the hardware and software.  In any case, Roku applications are written in a language called BrightScript, which seems like a cross between BASIC and Javascript.

A few other random things worthy of mention...
  • There is not any local disk storage...so anything you watch is streamed (not stored), although there does appear to be plenty of memory for buffering.
  • Only port 80 and 443 seem to need to be open outbound in your firewall for things to work (it is not necessary for any inbound connections)
  • When they say that you should not locate the unit near a source of heat (like home theater receiver) they aren't kidding.  The bottom of the XDS gets fairly warm by itself despite the excellent ventilation on top.
  • The remote control has no volume control (it is a very basic remote without learning capabilities).
  • ...also, the remote control has no power button as the Roku players are not meant to be turned off.
  • The XDS pulls between 5-6 watts of power no matter what it seems to be doing, according to my Kill-a-Watt.
  • I have not tried the wireless capabilities yet, but will soon...
Given the $100 price tag for the XDS, I'm not sure if this was a good buy yet.  I'm clearly not disappointed with the player, but at the same time I'm not overwhelmingly impressed yet.  Given that some Blu-Ray players are now doing similar things while being able to play Blu-Ray disks at the same time, I think that Roku's survival is going to depend on how well they can attract content providers and to provide a pleasant user experience.  The open development platform seems like a good first step in attracting content providers, but their draconian legal agreements are kind of intimidating.  As far as improving the user experience - again, the user interface needs to scale better for increased programming.  No ads would be nice too.  Good customer support is a must.

I will try to write more about this as I get more of a chance to use it.  I am trying to get a really good idea how I feel about it while still in the 30-day money back guarantee period.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

ExiTiVo

I have made my decision:  The TiVo is going away.  I have thought a lot about this, and feel that there is no reason to continue with TiVo.

In addition to the issues I have with TiVo (explained in the previous posting), I found out something about the TiVo Premere that, if true, is equally disturbing.  Woot was selling a refurbished TiVo Premere and there was some talk about the device on Woot's discussion forum.   Coming into question was the stability of the unit, and that TiVo had disabled one of the CPUs due to stability issues.  The disabling of the CPU caused the unit to be sluggish.  It sounds like an all-around bad deal in general.

Here's my plan that has already begun to be implemented:
  1. Add a signal distribution amplifier to the antenna (the reason will be understood in #2) - I have purchased and installed a Channel Master 3414 (aka PCT model PCT-MA2-4P) 4-port antenna distribution amplifier.  This is a good-quality distribution amplifier that provides 4 outputs with 8dB gain per port.  I also purchased a power injector so that I could provide power to the amp from inside the house where the UPS-protected power is located.  I installed this today and it works great.  The signal quality has remained constant as measured on my TV sets, but I am receiving a few more channels and adding additional splitters has not degraded the signal (exactly what I was looking to do).  Remember that an amplifier does not improve signal quality - if you have a bad signal, it will only amplify the same bad signal.
  2. Purchase a SiliconDust HDHomeRun dual TV tuner - The HDHomeRun is a network-based TV tuner.  That is, there are two coax antenna connections coming in, and a network connection going out.  I have heard good things about this tuner from other people, and SiliconDust has kept the network protocol used to access the HDHomeRun non-proprietary.  There is software for Windows, Mac, and Linux alike, and great support for all three platforms.  Better still, having the TV tuner as a network device means no weird TV cards installed into the computer that require special drivers.  I will write more about this when I get to play with it a little.  I was very impressed with what I saw.  The fact that there are two coax inputs (one for each tuner) means I will need to use a splitter to provide two antenna connections.  This is the reason I bought the distribution amp.  Finally, having the tuner as a network device means that I can access the tuner from any of the computers on my network.  This will be useful while I'm testing.
  3. Implement MythTV as the DVR replacement for the TiVo.  MythTV is an open source TiVo-like DVR program that runs on a Linux-based PC. Because it is open source, I have the source code and can modify it and fix problems if necessary.  It is free, as in I don't have any software to purchase.  There is a group that provides TV guide data for $20/year (yes, per year) that provides the TV schedules that you'd use to see what's on, or to program the DVR software to record a show.  While MythTV looks really good, I have not looked extensively at it yet.  I do plan on getting more serious about this when I come back from vacation.
  4. Purchase a Roku XD|S box to view streaming online programming.  The Roku is ordered, and I should have it before I leave for vacation (will be taking it with me to show my parents).  My reservation about Roku is their terms-of-service (I also discussed this in an earlier entry).  However, they are more universally compatible with streaming media services like Netflix, Amazon, and (soon) Hulu+, as well as others, than any other device.  People are generally happy with what Roku provides, and while I am grumbling a bit about the price, I feel it is likely to provide satisfaction that I don't currently see with TiVo.  While I see that Windows 7 and Windows Media Center could potentially fill this role, I see the Roku as being much more polished and dedicated to the task.  Time will tell.  I tried Windows 7 and the WMC at work and while I saw some positives, overall it felt clunky to use.
  5. Purchase a new Netgear GS108T v1 8-port Gigabit Ethernet switch with web-based management capabilities.  The switch is both for the increased number of devices being connected to the network, and to help solve an unrelated problem that has recently come to my attention.  I have been having spotty wireless network problems since I moved the WAP back to the "study" (aka. the mad computer science laboratory).  As I was brushing my teeth the other night I realized why:  The WAP is on the wall opposite the big mirror in the master bathroom.  It is also behind the big flue pipe for the fireplace.  That poor WAP has no chance of being able to provide good service to the side of the house where I need it most (on the other side of the mirror and fireplace flue).  So the WAP will need to go back to the living room, and I would like to move to all Gigabit Ethernet-capable networking throughout the house, as much as possible.  This Netgear switch also supports multiple virtual LAN (VLAN) capabilities and 802.1q trunking that I am used to using at work.  There are some ideas I have been throwing around about having some of my devices on a more secure network, and this would allow me to do that.
The TV tuner and switch should arrive tomorrow, and the Roku sometime next week.  The first thing is to get familiar with the hardware and make sure it will do what I want.  Next will be to integrate everything together.  The final phase of doing MythTV is a bit up-in-the-air at the moment.  I can either move my main server back into the living room and hook it to the TV and use my server as a DVR as well, or I can purchase a small Intel Atom-based mini-system and use it as a DVR front-end at the TV (and leave the server where it is).

You may have already deduced that all this costs more than an annual TiVo subscription (and maybe even a TiVo Premere).  I am not doing this to save money overall - I am doing it because TiVo is charging me money and disappointing me at the same time.  What I hope to accomplish here is to regain control over my home entertainment choices, and to avoid paying for services that are clearly not providing appropriate value for their cost.  I also see the TV tuner (definitely) and Roku box (questionably)  as being good long-term investments with no ongoing subscription costs.

If TiVo had fulfilled its promises for the device I purchased to do all that they claimed, then most of what I am doing would be unnecessary.  On the other hand, once I have all this new stuff in place and working, it could be a showcase for what could be done as an alternative to cable TV and TiVo with ongoing costs and frustrating customer support.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Message Regarding NY Trip

This is a note to those people interested in seeing information about my travels on the NY trip:

I am not going to post much in the way of specifics on this blog, for two reasons:
  1. There will be some personal information (like where I live) I don't want posted here
  2. There will be people who will be getting the personal information about the trip that I don't want over here
Therefore, if you would like to read about my journey and how things are going, then please contact me privately (through e-mail) and I will send you the link and a password (if needed).

If you don't know my e-mail address, and I know you well enough, and you still want to view that private information, then please say so in the comments, and I will try to find a way to get in touch with you.

Ten Ten Ten

I seem to remember saying something about checking to see if I were still alive if I forgot about 10/10/10.  In order to avoid needless checks of my pulse, here it is.  I remembered.

The idea of ridding myself of the TiVo HD is still on the table.  At games night on Friday, Emil suggested that I look at Blu-Ray players that have Internet capabilities.  I did, but was not terribly happy with the outcome.  It seems that all these devices are not really autonomous devices accessing specific services, but rather they connect to a consolidator (for lack of a better term) that translates from the menu-driven interface on the device to the service that you wish to view (like Netflix or YouTube), and they all have varying levels of support for different services.  Roku, while supporting a very large number of services, pretty much does the same thing (see below for some unpleasant surprises with that).  Therefore, if one of these services goes away, then so does the ability to use your Internet-ready capabilities with this device.  It also means you are at the mercy of the provider as to what is presented and how it is presented.

That brings me to my next comment:  Ads.  I was looking at Roku's terms-of-service and apparently they slipped in a phrase saying that they reserve the right to insert ads into the service at any time, and they also reserve the right to remove or add features as they please.  This disturbs me.  If the content provider chooses to place ads into their content, then while I may not like it I have to accept that this is their way of gaining revenue.  However, there is no reason (technically, anyway) why a consolidator needs to do this.  The reason why the company that makes the Roku provides ways to access content is so that they can sell their box.  If the box can't get any content, then they wouldn't sell the hardware.  I'm not sure why this concept seems so foreign to people.  Now I know that Roku doesn't have ads on it right now, but then why do they have this in their terms-of-service?  Stop it now.  Stop it everybody.  Once you charge me for a piece of equipment, that should be your revenue stream.  If you feel that your product requires an ongoing service, then please bill me a reasonable amount for that service (I will not buy your product if that cost is unreasonable).  Don't play these dumb games with people.  Let's not even talk about the fact that they're collecting statistical information about people's viewing habits and selling that too.

This whole thing has me tired from thinking too much.  I am trying to resolve a home entertainment plan that addresses my sense of ethics without preventing me from viewing potentially useful and/or entertaining content.  My gut feeling tells me that the Roku is really the right way to go even with their disturbing terms-of-service clauses.

Aside from thinking about this and performing a 4-hour middle-of-the-night upgrade at work (that went very successfully, as far as I can tell) I have been trying to rest this weekend.  In a couple of weeks I'll be in a Prius headed for New York.  Wow.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Planned Obsolescence

If you've been reading this blog for a long time, you may remember back when I purchased my TiVo HD in December, 2008.  Since the beginning I have had various issues with this device...or, rather, not really with the device, but with TiVo as a company.

A few months ago, TiVo released a new DVR called the TiVo Premere.  I wrote about this back in April and my fear (that I didn't write about) was that TiVo was going to fail to do any further updates to the TiVo HD that I owned.  That fear appears to be coming to reality.  Now I know that technology progresses quickly and all that stuff, but the features they are leaving off the TiVo HD are simply a ploy to force people to move to the new platform.  I don't know about all of you, but I don't just buy a $300 piece of equipment to throw it out in two years.  The proverbial knife-in-the-back from TiVo to me was the fact that they're now offering the Pandora (www.pandora.com) music service on TiVo, but only on the Premere.  I wrote Pandora about a year ago suggesting that they partner with TiVo.  Now, in order to use that, I need to buy a new TiVo.  Well, that just sucks.

What also sucks is that I have been unable to watch episodes of Is It A Good Idea To Microwave This? on YouTube for the second half of the past season on my TiVo.  There have been numerous problems with YouTube and the TiVo HD's ability to access certain programs.  Has TiVo made any effort to fix this?  Is there even any place for me to complain?  No.  In my opinion, this system, while serving me well as a DVR, has fallen short of the promises that TiVo made about it.  As a customer, I feel betrayed by TiVo.  In addition to paying for the DVR, I also pay a monthly service fee that totals about $130/year.  Even this isn't enough for TiVo, though, since they also have advertisements on the unit as well.  All this, and the best they can do is give a discount off the price of a new TiVo.  I don't want a new device -- I want the one I paid for to do what it was supposed to do.  I want the additional money I pay for the privilege of using their device and the revenue they get from throwing ads in my face to further the capabilities of the device I have.  If that's not possible because they screwed-up and didn't properly develop the unit I have, then instead of  making me pay $200 for a newer model, why not allow me to trade-in my current system, along with all the recorded programming moved from the old system to the new one, for (perhaps) a $50 fee?  Why not?  Because TiVo doesn't really give a damn about its customers.  I should have known that from the first experience I had with their customer support department, and the fact that they didn't even compensate me for my trouble.  What a crappy company.

I'm thinking that it's time to handle TiVo the same way I handled cable TV when it wasn't performing as it should.  It's time to cut my losses, stop paying TiVo for their pathetic service, and go in a different direction.

My friend Mary showed me her Roku box the other day, and it was actually pretty impressive.  Roku is not a DVR, it's a small Internet appliance that allows one to view various Internet-based programming (like the stuff from Revision3) and pay-for content like Netflix and Amazon On-Demand.  It doesn't cost anything monthly (aside from what you'd pay Netflix or Amazon), there are no advertisements in the device, it sells for under $100, and has an open development model that allows people to create services that can be viewed with it.  Is it perfect?  Well, no.  It has no disk storage capability, so you're limited to Internet streaming.  It does do what they say it does, and many people are fairly happy with it.  I think this device could probably take the place of those services TiVo promised but didn't deliver.

For DVR-type functionality...I think the best thing to do now  is to look at a media center version of Microsoft Windows (yes, you actually heard me consider this!) or try getting open source MythTV to work.  Either one can provide a usable DVR platform for over-the-air broadcasts.

I'm about to go on vacation in a couple of weeks.  When I get back, I'm going to make my decision.  At the moment, though, I have reached the limits of my patience with TiVo.  I can't see giving them another cent of my money if they can't deliver on the TiVo HD platform what they said they would deliver.  I don't have any confidence that will change in a month's time, and so prepare for the next change in my home entertainment plans.  It's going to be a wild ride!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

American Muslims

I was trying to stay out of the controversy surrounding the construction of a mosque near the former World Trade Center site.  I was trying to stay away from that discussion because I'm certainly not religious, and really don't have any business being for or against construction of any religious house of worship.  I did a good job of staying out of the debate.  Today I am breaking my silence.

The reason I am speaking out is because I just saw the ABC News episode of 20/20 from last night discussing the truths and misconceptions about Muslims and Islam.  I realized that these people and atheists have something in common:  We are both feared and discriminated against for our beliefs (or lack thereof).  Something else touched me:  At one point in the program, there even was the revelation that Muslim belief is that all people should be united together, including atheists.  When I heard what the people on the program were saying, I saw sincerity.  I then realized how bigoted a large portion of the American population has become.  It is no different than it was when I was in high school -- If you're different, you're worthy of ridicule and people are to fear and loathe you.

Such as the case with the mosque at the so-called "ground zero" site.  First and foremost, it is not on the site of the former World Trade Center.  How close is too close?  Why does it matter?  The only people who are concerned about things being close to their "shrines" are, well, Christians.  Timothy McVeigh is Christian.  Should we prohibit a church from being built near the site of the Oklahoma City bombing because a Christian performed that act?  Oh, wait.  There is a church right next to that site.  Were they involved?  Should we be suspicious of Christians in Oklahoma City because they may be potential terrorists?  Of course not.  In reality, McVeigh's motivations were political, not religious, even if he were to say was his actions were in the name of some deity.  Same for those people who orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Center and the U.S. Pentagon buildings on September 11, 2001.  They were not representative of the Muslim faith, but of an extremist group with a beef against the United States that used a radical interpretation of the Islamic faith to justify their actions.  These people are no more representative of Islam than McVeigh is representative of Christianity (although sometimes I do wonder about what some Christians are trying to legislate...).

The second important distinction about what is being proposed by the Muslim community is the purpose of their structure.  They have been holding religious services in that building for a while now.  It already is a mosque.  The controversy is over a Muslim community center with recreational facilities.  You know, like a YMCA.  In case you didn't know, YMCA means Young Men's Christian Association...it isn't just a song by The Village People.  In reality, the "Y" is the same kind of thing that the Muslim people plan to build on that site.  It's not a mosque, because the mosque is already there.  That's right Pamela Geller, you ignorant bigoted bitch.  Since a principle tenet of Islam is to help the poor, as with Christianity, and effectively to help thy neighbor, the community center is open to anyone.  The only problem here, really, is that the people who are against the center being built will have a problem sitting next to someone who is Muslim.  That's bigotry folks.

I'm not saying I have any belief in Islam or am a closet Muslim.  I'm an atheist...or as I like to say, a "free thinker."  I like the latter because it describes my belief system - I am willing to listen to what people say, and then make a decision based on my ability to sort through the details and think about them.  I don't believe in blind faith.  I have been saying from the very beginning that this "war on terror" is really a war against a specific group of radical extremists who are against our meddling in a culture that isn't ours.  It is a political war, fueled by hate, and justified by extremist religious belief.  To further assert my disagreement with Pamela Geller, Muslims in the United States, even if they were trying to spread their belief system, are no different than a Christian mission going to some other country giving aid and spreading "the word."  If you ask me, Pamela Geller is an extremist and a terrorist and should be put in jail.  Look at the damage she has already done.

Prior to this whole mosque debate America was in debate over the Latino (Hispanic) community and how we should be "tolerant" of those different from us.  There was (and still is) debate over what constitutes illegal immigration from Mexico and whether we should give leniency to those who have illegally come to America and are now living "productive" lives.  In return, a vocal group of these people have forced their own culture and language down our throats and continue to assert how their culture doesn't matter to us.  It doesn't matter to me.  This is America.  We have a culture.  Embrace it, add to it, help to refine it, make it better, but don't shove your own beliefs and language down my throat.  I bet that most Mexican immigrants ultimately feel this way, but look at how a vocal group of people with an inferiority complex can shake-up things and cause a chasm between people.  We don't need more polarization.  If this country is going to succeed at being United, then we need to come together as Americans and show the world that our way is better.  Americans are Christians, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, and so on.  We're white, black, and brown.   We're men and women, gay and straight.  All of us should be afforded the freedom to live here peacefully and united as Americans so long as we follow the laws of this country.  The minute we discriminate against a group because they're of a different ethnicity, religion, or sex, then we undermine what America is about.

The people who destroyed the World Trade Center do not agree with our culture, are against our economic and political system, and feel that we need to be punished for our beliefs.  If we start wrongly holding a specific religious group responsible for that action, we are guilty of the same injustice as those who performed those horrific acts.  In fact, because we claim to profess otherwise, we may even be worse.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Another One Rides The Bus

Today I had to go to do something I loathe:  Go to the ophthalmologist (try spelling that one without a dictionary).

My optometrist again thought that I may have a hole in my retina, and wanted me to go back and get checked by a specialist again.  Of course he first had to dilate my eyes, which is always a pain in the ... eyes ... for me.  As if this process weren't annoying enough, he poked on my eye with an instrument while looking into my eye with a scope trying to determine how the gel-like fluid in the eye called the vitreous was interacting with my retina.

The good news:  I don't have a hole in my retina.  The "spot" is still a thin spot of my retina.  The bad news:  Apparently the vitreous in my right eye sometimes does something to the retina where it sticks to it kind of like tape and then pulls on it (as best I can understand it).  The danger here is that, over time, the retina could be pulled loose, or worse, could tear (as in rip).  The doctor suggested a laser surgery to fuse the retina to the eye in the place where the retina is being pulled in order to reinforce it (turns out to be in a place in my far peripheral vision).  Now I know some of you are saying, "Cool!  Lasers!"  For me, not so cool.  I mean, lasers are cool, but shooting them in my eye isn't.  Oh, and did I mention that the doctor said, "Before we start the procedure we use a needle to numb the eye in a couple of places so that the process won't hurt so much?"  Uhhhh...put a what in my where?  As in, "Cross my heart and hope to die?"  Needless to say, this is one surgical procedure that I'm going to think about and get a second opinion first, and hope to heck that they give me some serious drugs that'll put my mind into a "special place" while they perform a procedure that resembles medieval torture (or, perhaps, something from Guantanamo Bay).  Thankfully the situation right now isn't urgent...and hopefully will remain that way while I weigh my options.

A new experience that was a lot more pleasant was my travels getting down to the doctor's office.   There is a CapMetro (short for Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority) bus stop right outside the building where I work. Looking at Google Maps showed that there was a bus stop right outside my ophthalmologist's office.  Since I had to be there for an 8am appointment, I didn't much feel like driving down to the medical center area in rush-hour traffic, looking for parking, that I would have to pay for.  Then I would also need to drive to work afterward with my eyes dilated, which isn't the safest condition to be driving in (although I have successfully done this before).  It turns out that there was a bus route that ran from where I work to where I needed to be, and my job allows me to ride the city bus for free, sweetening the deal.  So I figured, "Let's try the bus."  I never really used Austin's public transportation system before.

It was actually a pleasant experience.  The bus arrived at the bus stop on-time at around 7:04am as scheduled, and arrived at the stop right outside the doctor's office building at 7:30am (also as scheduled).  The ride was comfortable and stressless (minus the anxiety over pulling the "stop cord" at the right time to signal a stop at the place I wanted to go).  Likewise, when I finished my appointment, I got to the return bus stop across the street right as the bus arrived, and ended up across the street from where I work.  No fuss, no grumbling at stupid drivers, no driving with dilated eyes, no finding and paying for parking in the med center area of Austin.  Now that's cool.

Unfortunately, Austin really isn't set-up well for a mass transit system that everyone can ditch their car for, like the ones in Manhattan or Washington, DC.  I should also add that the weather was beautiful outside today - not 98 degrees in sweltering heat or pouring down rain.  In this case the bus probably wouldn't have felt so convenient, and to me this demonstrates two of the less important reasons why Austin, TX isn't really the kind of city where you can give-up driving.  Additionally, Austin is less of a large city and more of a small city with a very large and sprawling suburbia.  This is the reason I am against the idea of a rail system in Austin.  I'm not against public rail transportation, but I don't see where it will work well in Austin.  A bus system, on the other hand, is a reasonable solution since routes can be modified as population and transportation trends change.  While it is still hard to modify bus routes, it is much harder to move train tracks.  Suburban sprawl and gentrification kind of by definition causes these kinds of changes.  In any case, the bus system here works, and it seems as though it gets plenty of use.  Even if it weren't free for me, I think the normal $1 each way to avoid the hassles of driving to my appointment would have been well worth the money.

So there you have it.  I have been agonizing over this appointment now for the past couple of weeks, which is why I haven't been writing much.  I have been busy at work too, which is another situation entirely.  Stay tuned:  The Great NY Road Trip is on again...and this time, it's seriously looking to be happening.