Anger & Fear

I’m not angry; I’m just very, very disappointed.

It seems a lot of the people who voted for Trump were very angry and frustrated. People do not think rationally when they are angry and frustrated, and Trump made sure to keep them angry and frustrated right up to election night.

There was also a large undercurrent of fear as well, and there are two ways to deal with that kind of anger and fear:

“I need to have power over others so they can’t do anything to anger or frighten me”

or

“I need to help others so they won’t give me cause to be angry or fearful”

Sadly, in this last election more people who voted chose the former over the latter.

It is difficult to reason with someone who is angry, frustrated, and afraid – they don’t generally react with thought but instead with emotion. And since emotion is close buddies with our “fight or flight” response, someone who reacts with their emotions will have essentially just two responses: fight or flight. They will act (or in this case, vote) in a way that gives them power to “fight” (i.e., punish or control) whatever frightens and angers them – or they will choose “flight,” which means either running away (or ignoring) or pushing away what angers and frightens them.

This all might seem quite reasonable until you remember that what angers and frightens these people is… other people. Groups of people who are different, who look different or act different or think different. And this means that the emotions of these angry and frustrated and fearful people made them choose a course of action that will punish, control, and push away people just because they are different.

Anger, fear, and politics are a terrible combination. It is all to easy to rationalize terrible behavior and poor decisions when you’re angry and afraid.

“I had to shoot that person; he was coming right for me!”

“We have to get rid of all people like them, they could all be murderers!”

I’m the one who needs a job, not you!”

Rationalizations like this are bad enough at the personal level, but when they get translated into policy or enshrined in law, it becomes much, much worse. An individual can move past their fear and re-think their decisions and change their behavior fairly easily and quickly, but changing public policy and law can take ages – if it ever happens at all.

It’s often been said you shouldn’t make important decisions when you’re angry, and electing a president is one of the most important decisions a country can make – yet we seem to have made this decision quite rashly and while decidedly angry. That this will turn out to have been a terrible mistake seems a foregone conclusion.

All we can do now is try to calm down now that the election is over and put aside the anger & fear we felt and consider our situation carefully. We can still the frustrated fervor that has infected our politics from top to bottom and approach our problems with reason and compassion. It will take effort, certainly, but we cannot sustain this level of anger and fear forever.

The sooner we do this, the better – and the less of an impact this hasty mistake will have on ourselves, our country, our world, and all those future generations that will follow us and judge our actions.

On Endings & Beginnings

My God, what have we done?

Well, it happened. America voted a racist, misogynistic, fear-mongering idiot as its chief executive, head of state, and commander-in-chief. This is arguably the first President elected entirely out of spite.

He campaigned on fear and hate and it worked – and what do you think that says about us? It says that we are a bunch of fearful, small-minded, and angry people, and now we have to put up with the consequences of our choices.

We put so much emphasis on “winning” that we chose our candidates and elected someone based on whether we thought they could win, rather than if we thought they were actually going to be good at their job.

If we don’t want this to be the start of an ending that has been a long time coming – a long, slow decline that has now come to a precipice – we need to stop being so concerned about “winning” (or preventing someone else from “winning”) and start being more concerned about “doing well.” From how we choose candidates to how we compromise on differences of opinion, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about doing good and avoiding the most harm.

I suspect this is going to be very difficult – change always is – especially with all the momentum we’ve built up as of late. “Cooler heads prevail” is a nice thing to say but it rarely happens in practice. Yet we must do it, or else that same momentum will take us right over that precipice, and future historians will look back to this time and say “2016 marked the beginning of the end.”

Our divisiveness has allowed this to happen, has made it virtually inevitable, and continuing to be this divisive can lead to only one conclusion, and that is that nobody wins, and everybody loses. We must stop this, we must stop being so divisive, being so afraid of ourselves that we can’t work together.

United we stand; divided… well, you know the rest.

It’s Time to Let Go of American Individualism

America has long cherished the spirit of individualism, but these days we could stand to maybe loosen up a bit in regards to it.

America has always had an obsession with the idea of “Individualism” but this is increasingly becoming a dangerous and unhealthy obsession, especially since lately we seem to be holding ever tighter to the idea, almost to the point of fetishizing it, instead of letting it go (or at least relaxing our grip a bit).

The dictionary defines “individualism” as “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant,” and “a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control,” which sounds great on the face of things – though in today’s interconnected world I question how truly independent or self-reliant an individual can really be.

The American idea of “Individualism” though goes beyond just “I can take care of myself” and “I want to be free to do what I want without the government telling me what to do.” Instead, the American idea of “Individualism” twists it into “I should take care of myself (and so should you)” and “I should be free to do whatever I want and the government must not tell me what to do, ever.”

We’ve always valued individualism, ever since our earliest colonial days. The United States is a big country, and back in the days when the fastest mode of travel was by horse, it seemed even bigger. As a result, when you were building your home in this big New World, you had to learn to depend on yourself and only on yourself – because there was no one else around! And in these early days, individualism was a good thing, a positive trait, something that you almost needed to survive here.

law of self-reliance
We’ve taken the idea of self-reliance way, way, way beyond this.

Even as cities and railroads and even cars came along, this spirit of individualism remained – again, partly because the US is just such a big country that even with motorized travel there were still huge sections of the country where you would be more or less all on your own. So this idea of being independent, of being reliant only on yourself, became ingrained as part of our culture.

However, as the country grew – as towns became cities and urbanization took hold, and as transportation and communication tied us all together into a connected whole rather than isolated pockets – the need to be individual and the benefits of individualism have become less important, or even counterproductive. Truthfully, in the 21st century, the idea of being completely free and totally self-reliant is basically dead. Oh sure there are still wide open places where you’d better be able to take care of yourself, but we are an interconnected society now, and we all rely on one another to some degree. Individualism will only get you so far. We’re all in this together (for better or for worse) and believing otherwise is just deluding yourself.

We’ve romanticized the idea of individualism too much – we’ve placed this ideal on such a high pedestal that it is quite literally impossible to reach.

Furthermore, this idealized individualism has a dark side. The higher we hold the standard of self-reliance, the lower we hold those who aren’t. If being self-reliant is great, then having to rely on others must not be great – it must be bad, or even shameful. If being free and able to do whatever you want is the ideal, then being subject to group rule – no matter how much or how little – must always be undesirable.

It’s fine to want to be able to take care of yourself (indeed, I think this is still a worthy goal to have), but it’s not OK to look down on those who can’t take care of themselves. It’s great to strive to be independent of others (as much as is realistic these days), but it’s foolish to base every decision, without question, on whatever lets you depend on others the least amount.

There’s another flip side to all this as well – the idea of individual responsibility. As an example, if you’re self-reliant and you built your own home completely yourself, from scratch, that’s great – but when a tornado comes along and knocks your house flat, individualism says that you and you alone are responsible for rebuilding it.

It is important to realize the limits of self-reliance and what individualism can mean, and not delude ourselves into thinking it’s more (or less) than it is.

The key here is balance: as with most things, it is important to strike a balance between extremes. Too often we pursue individualism & self reliance at any cost and prioritize it above any other concern. Over-emphasizing and over-valuing the idea of self-reliance and individualism necessarily causes the de-emphasis and under-valuing of the opposing ideas of needing help (from family, community, society, or government) and being part of a larger whole. This extremism is not helpful to anyone, in the same way that extremism/polarization in politics doesn’t help anyone, either. (The subject of WHY we’ve trended towards such extremism and such black & white thought is a topic for another post.)

After all, I don’t think anyone is arguing for true total freedom of action and self-determination – otherwise we’d all be free to run around and murder one another – so really the discussion is about where on the spectrum of “some freedom of action” and “some self-reliance” we should be. The problem comes when that over-emphasis of the value of individualism causes us to consider decisions solely in light of whether they decrease self-reliance or individual rights, and not whether they actually make sense or benefit the most people.

Like it or lump it, we are a collective society. Individual rights are important and good, yes, but the idea that they are paramount and should always trump any other concerns is simply not workable in a world with as many people in it as there are today. In order for society to function we must, of a necessity, give up some individual rights (how much we give up is of course open to continuous debate – and, again, a topic for another post.) Given this, continuing to idealize and romanticize individualism (and denigrate non-individualism) is fundamentally counter-productive.

As a nation, we Americans need to come to grips with the fact that we’re not living on the frontier anymore, that there are some 318 million of us and that we are all deeply interdependent on one another (whether we realize it or not) and, most importantly, that this is not at all a bad thing. It’s fine to try and make it on your own, sure, but don’t take this as the only measure of success – and especially don’t think that failing to do so makes you less of a person.

Individualism was great when our country was just getting started, but our country is grown up now and we need to be as well – we need to let go of this idealized fantasy of individualism and total self-reliance and come to grips with the fact that things aren’t like they used to be, and this is not a bad thing. No man is an island, as the saying goes, but together we form the better part of a continent, and I think that’s something we can all be just as proud of.

Behind the Wheel: 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300

A look at Mercedes’ former entry level sedan, and a lesson in “all Mercedes are not the same.”

Recently my car was in the shop again (more electrical problems with the various exhaust sensors) so I had a chance to spend a bit of time with a loaner car – in this case, a brand-new 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300 4MATIC sedan.

First off, the C300 is a fairly handsome looking car – I do like the way this car looks, which I can’t say for very many cars these days.

Needless to say the interior is very nice and very comfortable – at least for the front passengers. Rear passengers don’t get a lot of leg room if you have your front seats pushed back a bit. The center seat in the rear is also mainly for show – there’s no way anyone over the age of 8 could sit there comfortably.

With all the possible power adjustments you can make to the seats, there’s no way you won’t find a comfortable driving position – though at first my preferred position had my head touching the roof! As someone who normally drives an SUV, adjusting to a lower seating position took some getting used to. I also don’t like the tendency of cars to force you into a “lean back” position – I prefer to sit upright. However, after some fiddling I was able to find a comfortable position that didn’t have my head brushing the roof.

And speaking of that roof, there is a pretty darn big sunroof in this thing – a dual sunroof, in fact. The front section is enormous, while the back section is fairly small, but still it is a lot of glass. However, the sunroof does not open all the way – it goes back about 80% of the way. Presumably there just isn’t enough roof space for it to open all the way. Still very nice, however.

touch pad thingThe media controls in this car take some getting used to, and I’m not sure how I feel about this touch pad thing that’s becoming common in these types of cars. I kind of prefer just having the wheel, to be honest.

And speaking of interfaces – the interface on this car seems awfully sluggish, especially compared to my 2014 GLK. Menu movements just seem slightly delayed, like a computer with an under-powered graphics card.

I also don’t like that there’s no dedicated next/back track buttons – if you’re not in the media screen (either on the center screen or the screen on the dash) there’s no quick and easy way to change volume or tracks. (There is a pop-up menu button on that touch-pad control, but that still involves multiple clicks.)

HVAC controls and ventsAs for the climate controls, everything is very nicely done – I love the vents on this thing, but I do have a soft spot for round vents. There’s no dials for temperature or anything else climate related, just rocker switches – and you have to look at the middle screen to see what you’re changing it to.

Now, as for the engine – this particular model has the 2.0 liter turbocharged inline 4 cylinder putting out 241 HP and 273 lb-ft of torque, and I have absolutely no complaints with those numbers. It isn’t neck-snapping fast, but once that turbo kicks in you will notice exactly how plush the seats are as you’re shoved back into them. This car isn’t terribly heavy either, so all that power gets you up and moving very quickly – and it also has 4MATIC all-wheel-drive, so it has no problem putting that power down to the ground.

There is more than a bit of hesitation right off the line, though – that 2.0L I-4 really doesn’t have a lot of grunt on its own without the turbo, and the somewhat mushy accelerator doesn’t help (though switching to one of the “Sport” modes does vastly improve things). Before the turbo spools up you are reminded that there is a very small engine under the hood.

However one thing I did notice was how differently the transmission on this car is programmed compared to mine – it’s the same 7-speed automatic, but it jumps gears much more quickly (2nd gear in particular might as well not exist). This seems to be done in order to keep the engine in its power band and keep the turbo spooled up – but it can occasionally get a bit annoying as the car lurches a bit as it jumps gears, and sometimes the shifts just didn’t feel as smooth as on my car.

I also have to comment on the auto start/stop feature that’s becoming common on cars these days. Although the car starts up again very quickly, it does shake the whole car enough to be noticeable, and it gets annoying after a while.

Additionally, when you’re making small movements forward (as you might when in mostly-stopped traffic, or when pulling those last few inches forward into a parking spot or garage) the engine starts & stops so much that it gets downright infuriating. Thankfully of course you can turn this feature off at any time – but it always comes back on the next time you start the car.

And speaking of starting the car, I’m still not exactly sold on the idea of push-button start on cars. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I prefer to use a key – there’s no ambiguity as to whether the car is “on” or not when using a key.

Handling is excellent, but not exactly “sporty” – you can dive into corners with confidence, but this car isn’t quite “toss-able” the way lighter, sportier cars are… but then again it isn’t really meant to be. That’s not to say it isn’t fun to toss around – because it is – but it’s not something you’d spend all day doing. It’s fun for a bit, but eventually you get the feeling that this car just wants to go back to being “comfortable” – which is, unsurprisingly, where it excels.

Like a lot of cars these days, the C300 has multiple driving “modes” – and not just “economy” and “sport.” In particular, it has:

  • Economy
  • Comfort
  • Sport
  • Sport+
  • Individual (basically, user-set options)

All of these modes adjust 5 different things: throttle response, steering tightness, shift points, enabling or disabling the auto start/stop feature, and climate control restrictions.

The economy mode is what you’d expect – the engine turns off whenever you stop, throttle response is very muted, and the transmission tries to keep it in as high a gear as possible all the time. It also dials back the climate control (mainly air conditioning) to help save a little bit more fuel.

Comfort mode should really be called “normal” because that’s what it is – throttle response is light (bordering on mushy), steering is average, shifting is fairly normal, the auto start/stop is enabled (but isn’t quite as aggressive as in economy mode) and all climate controls are left alone.

Sport mode is also what you’d expect – the throttle response becomes nice and crisp, the steering tightens up a bit, and the transmission stays in lower gears longer. However, the auto start/stop is still enabled, and climate controls remain unchanged.

Sport+ mode is basically sport mode, but more so – and to be honest I don’t really like it or see why they have it on a car like this. The throttle response is great in Sport+ mode, and so is the steering, but the shifting is just awful – it really clunks when changing gears in this mode, especially under full throttle (which you’d expect to be using in this mode) – to the point where I almost wondered if something was broken. For a car of this type, I just don’t see why you’d have such an aggressive mode. (Sport+ is also the only mode that disables the auto start/stop feature – though you can turn it off manually using a dedicated button in any mode.)

All in all though the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300 is a thoroughly nice car, if a little misguided in the Sport+ mode. It’s not a car I’d buy (the transmission and auto start/stop would drive me nuts before too long), but if you’re looking for a luxurious (but relatively small) 4-door sedan that can also be a lot of fun, you could certainly do much worse than the C300.

The Quest for the Perfect Alarm Clock

How hard is it to find a good alarm clock these days?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little bit picky when it comes to alarm clocks. Not very picky, mind you, but I do have some standards. And in the last 5 or 6 years or so, it’s been increasingly difficult to find a reasonably good alarm clock.

Let me explain.

My requirements for a good alarm clock are:

  1. Has a decently large display (I’m nearsighted so unless the digits are fairly large I can’t read them at night when I’m not wearing my glasses)
  2. Can be dimmed (bright lights at night are not good for sleeping)
  3. Doesn’t use blue lights (these appear much brighter than any other color – the best would be red because it doesn’t destroy your night vision)
  4. Has 2 (or more) alarms
  5. Can plug in to an iPod or something to play music instead of just beeping
My old alarm clock was a variant of this.
My old alarm clock was a variant of this.

Years ago, I used to use an alarm clock with a huge red LCD display and 2 alarms, and it was perfect (except for the iPod thing). I could put it across the room and I’d still be able to read the time at night when I didn’t have my glasses on, and the red display was dimmable so it didn’t disturb my sleep.

However, eventually that clock died and I went to replace it with something newer. Unfortunately, about that time was when most alarm clocks switched to using blue lights instead of red – it was almost impossible to find anything that didn’t use blue (and often quite a bright blue).

In the end, I went with a small Sony alarm clock – the display was not quite as big, and it was still blue, though it could be dimmed. And it had a dock for my ipod – sweet!

The "DreamMachine." The face of the clock is actually blue in real life.
The “DreamMachine.” The face of the clock is actually blue in real life – for some reason the only photos I could find of it all have the colors very faded.

However, after a few years, when I moved to my new house, this clock started to show its faults as well.

My new bedroom was bigger than my old one, which meant the clock was further away – and I was having trouble reading it. Also, the alarms were not easy to change and the blue light was starting to bother me.

So I started looking for a better alarm clock.

Sadly, what I found is that the idea of a small bedside LCD display alarm clock is basically a dead item nowadays – nobody seems to really be making anything beyond the most basic, simple of models. Additionally, anything that has any sort of iPod/iPhone dock in it tends to be:

  1. Very large
  2. Very expensive
  3. Small display
  4. Blue display

The reason, I think, that small bedside alarm clocks have gone the way of the dodo is because everyone has a smartphone these days which they tend to keep by the bedside, and they just use that as an alarm clock instead. “Need an alarm clock? There’s an app for that!”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either – I mean, after all, it’s one less item to have plugged in, and one less thing cluttering up your bedroom. So once I accepted that I couldn’t find a physical clock, I started looking for the perfect alarm clock app.

Now, you might be asking why I didn’t just use the built-in alarm feature found in most phones. The reason for this is that although perfectly functional as an alarm, the built-in alarm feature is (in my opinion) very clunky to use and of course does not display the current time unless you press the home button to wake up your phone… and what I wanted was an app I could run while my phone is plugged in to charge on my bedside table that made it look at least somewhat like an actual bedside clock.

So I started looking at alarm clock apps and almost immediately found that despite there being dozens and dozens of them, most of them are absolute crap.

Free alarm clock apps that emulate the look of an old LCD display are all over the app store, but most of them are poorly thought out and just cheap cash grabs (many of which are ad-supported to boot). They might look neat, but they fail to perform in the ways I actually need them to. Either they aren’t dimmable (strike 1), don’t offer music playback (strike 2), or don’t allow multiple alarms (strike 3).

There were a few apps that showed promise, but they always seemed to have one last niggling issue or shortcoming that was just annoying enough to keep me from using it. Sadly, it almost seems to me like the glut of crappy free alarm clock apps has discouraged anyone else from trying to develop an actual good app. Non-free apps didn’t fare much better, either – probably because they are so crowded out by the free ones – which is a shame because I was more than willing to pay for a decent app (if I could find one!).

In the end though I did find one app that suited my needs. It’s called “Rise” and it hit all the important features for an alarm clock for me:

  1. Large display
  2. Can be dimmed
  3. Doesn’t use blue
  4. Has multiple alarms
  5. Plays music instead of beeping

That said, it doesn’t hit all of these points perfectly. The large display is limited of course by the size of my phone screen – but that’s not much of a concern anymore since I keep it beside my bed. The display can be dimmed – almost to the point where you can’t see the time anymore – but the screen itself still gives off a slight glow, even though it’s glowing “black.” I think this is an oddity of the iPhone hardware itself though.

The "Rise" app, from SimpleBots
The “Rise” app, from SimpleBots

The display for the time doesn’t use blue – but it does use white, with no option to change the color. I’d rather it use red, but since it can be dimmed quite low this isn’t too bad. The background for the display can be switched to black as well.

The number of alarms it can have is virtually unlimited – as you’d expect; it’s software after all and not limited by physical switches. The alarms are also super-easy to change as needed, which is nice – all my old alarm clocks were a pain to change the alarm time, usually requiring pressing & holding multiple buttons.

Finally, the music playback is great – it even slowly turns up the volume so it doesn’t startle you and wakes you up gently. Though it can only play 1 song – I’d like it more if it could pick randomly from a playlist. Still, it works.

Rise also has a very, very minimal UI – almost to the point where it’s a bit obscure and hard to figure out. But once you get it, it makes sense, and I have to admit it does look pretty neat.

Now, in my case I had to stick to iOS apps – it is entirely possible that there’s an even better alarm clock app out there for Android devices. Sadly though, I don’t own one, so I’m out of luck if that’s the case.

Still, although I never thought I’d end up using an app as my alarm clock, in a way it makes a lot of sense. I never have to adjust the time for Daylight Saving Time or when I travel – I’ve always got my phone with me, which means I’ve always got my alarm clock with me. (And it is nice to not have a big clunky clock cluttering up my bedside table.)

So although it took me quite a while and also probably more effort that most people would consider reasonable, in the end I did find a nearly-perfect alarm clock that I think will serve me well for the foreseeable future.