Thursday, November 13, 2008

Look, you OBVIOUSLY are aware of who you're calling.

Sometime last month, I started receiving calls on my cell phone from a specific number. It comes from the 913 area code, so I know it's somewhere local to the Kansas City, Kansas locale. Ordinarily, I don't answer calls from numbers I don't know, so for weeks I've been watching this same number pop up on my "missed" call list on my cell phone.

My cell phone is registered to a 314 area code, so it would need to be a pretty distant coincidence that someone from the area code I live in now would randomly call another area code, to reach my cell phone (also living in the first area code with me). It's just unlikely.

The many times I've been called by this number, I have never answered. So too, the caller has NEVER left a message. Ever. It's rung enough times that the caller could definitely have gone to my voice mail and heard "Hi, you've reached Andy Schwartz. Etc. etc." So if they wanted to find out who the number belonged to, or to confirm that it belonged to me specifically, mission accomplished.

But they've kept calling. In fact, my phone's missed call list goes back 10 numbers. That's the last ten times that the phone has started and stopped ringing without me interacting with it. Of those 10 since November 5 (the most distant entry), 7 are from this number. The most recent three calls are all from that number, and all since yesterday!

Finally, I'd had enough. Earlier this afternoon, on what would be the fourth time in 24 hours, I picked up the phone.


There is generic office sounds on the other end as well as distant breathing. I have enough time to say "Hello?" once more before there is an intake of breath as though about to say something....

... and then they hang up.

If I were on 24, this would be the terrorists verifying my voice through electronic means, or my daughter struggling to wiggle the gag out of her mouth. Right before she screams, "Daddy! I'm at the old sugar mill!", the head terrorist's foot crashes down on the phone. Which, strangely enough, always seems to hang up the phone. In real life, gadgets are much more resilient than that, and would still transmit sounds even as the case cracks and the microphone is dislodged. But that's the movies.

And I am not in the movies. I have no idea what the story is. This person was so desperate to talk to me that they would call over and over, but on the verge of contact, they hang up? Perhaps it's a woman who's been suffering an unbearable attraction to me, but just cannot speak it out loud. That adds an element of romance to what is probably just a very persistant autodialer for a credit card company.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How easily can I be replaced?

I came across an interesting question on a discussion forum this morning: how easily can you be replaced? It's a hypothetical question which has more relevance than "would it be possible with time travel to kill your own grandfather?" even though we're not really equipped to deliver concrete answers to either one.

In thinking about this problem, I was worried that it would make me depressed. At first glance, I'm totally replaceable. Certainly, I could be replaced in terms of economics: I teach a few lessons here and there. One wouldn't have to go very far to find a musical replacement, either. Years of auditions have shown me that there is a small but persistent community of bass trombonists who have more or less the same skills I do. I've contested with them many times, and it often comes down to who has the luckier day.

But those thoughts were mainly about filling my place with someone completely different. What would it take to actually REPLACE me? As in, what would the list of requirements be to actually have someone take my place AS me?

In a lot of automatic (but still very important) ways, I am not replaceable. To my family (surely) and my friends (hopefully), I'm individualistic enough that I could not be easily replaced by someone else. Perhaps my replacement would use enough three-syllable words to earn the same "must read the dictionary for fun" cracks I've experienced. Maybe he'd tell stupid puns and get eye-rolled all the time, too.

I'd need to be replaced by someone who loves learning and understanding more than just about anything. It would need to be someone who had spent the majority of his adult life so far in school for a degree that may not EVER lead to a career, but who wouldn't let that get them down. It would have to be someone who draws happiness and satisfaction from helping other people. It would be someone whose friends know they can count on for just about anything and any hour (I'm still working on incorporating the 2AM-7AM bracket).

It would have to be someone who enjoys learning enough to put up with listening to people fight, simply to find out what they're passionate about. A person who is interested in every scrap of paper that his friends would put up on their metaphorical refrigerators. A person who looks at all the things he doesn't know how to do well, like cooking, running, organization, painting, programming, memorizing, composition, electronics, and think about how much exciting room for improvement he has!

It would have to be someone who can handily accept the sincere apologies and treat it as water under the bridge, while still never forgetting the circumstances in case it became important later. It would be someone who paradoxically loves people who are passionate and hates the arguments between the zealous.

A person who learned the hard way that there is only so much he can (or should) do to help friends fix themselves.

A person who, even after studying politics and national issues for years, wonders why we all can't be a TINY bit more accepting of each other. A person who appreciates any pay for a musical gig, no matter how small, because that means getting away with money for something he'd gladly do for free.

I've barely scratched the surface, so don't start cloning anyone based on this list alone. Whoever that is would end up a poor replacement for me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

50 Facts About Doctor Andy Barack Obama

I love the trivia posts that are found on blogs, where people reveal random information that we, their friends, may not realize.

And while Barack Obama isn't my friend (not even on MySpace), I did find a list of 50 interesting things about him, courtesy of the London Telegraph.

Full list is HERE.

Some of my favorites:

He won a Grammy for the audio recording of one of his memoirs, making him the first president so recognized.

He's left-handed, ensuring scads of "sinister president" comments through the next years on this and other self-important, overly pompous, and intellectual blogs.

He can speak Spanish, which is bound to be handy. It's kind of embarrassing to have our presidents jetting around speaking only English everywhere.

He's a smoker. This must be the modern equivalent of FDR's wheelchair: every journalist probably knows about it, but I've never heard it mentioned. He also promised Michelle he would quit before running for president, which adds something else to the list of things easier than stopping smoking: becoming a U.S. president.

His favorite book is Moby Dick, but he also collects Spiderman comics.

He doesn't drink coffee. I guess that means Starbucks will have to carry on without him on the publicity of their new drink, the Barakachino.

He took drugs like marijuana and cocaine while a teenager. Remember how much publicity Clinton and Bush got for their drug use (marijuana and alcohol, respectively)?

And he only repaid his student loans four years ago, after he signed a book deal. By that mark, I had better get busy having an amazing and unique life story.

"Is your mother a whore? Don't get offended! I'm not SAYING she's a whore..."

Being fearful is a horrible state to be in. That being said, I do find myself failing to empathize with certain kinds of irrational fears. I realize this is because I am NOT afraid of whatever they ARE afraid of; being able to see the man under the rubber mask renders the monster much less frightening.

I don't know what sort of a nation we'll be living in as a result of electing Barack Obama, but I can guarantee you that it's not going to be as great as people hope for, or as awful as people fear. It will most likely be in the vast middle ground that doesn't have a whole lot of sexy soundbites.

Mr. Obama has a long slog through a lot of thorny issues. The president does have a lot of power, but he's not (even under George Bush) capable of single-handedly altering everything that comes across his desk. Obama faces a list of things he's likely to face significant opposition in: repealing DOMA (Defense of Marriage), closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, a broad health care inclusion, and so on. He'll fail at somethings, succeed at others, and have an awful lot of compromises under his belt by the time his term ends, I'd imagine.

The campaign got rather nasty in the closing days, with lots of hints of John McCain's senility and Obama's terrorist buddies. The campaign ads have stopped, but dislike of Obama allowed the negative campaigning to continue. Reading the opposing viewpoints, Obama is already the most anti-American president ever. And he hasn't even been inaugurated.

Today's article comes from the Associated Press, via Google. Republican congressman Paul Broun from Georgia gave an interview where he effectively says Obama is Hitler-in-training. Latching on to comments Obama made about having some sort of national security corps, lightening the domestic need for military forces on American soil, Broun says Hitler started the same way. He finds this, plus Obama's opposition to assault weapons, may lead to the banning of weapons from civilians.

Does everyone remember your constitutional process classes? There's nothing a president can do to repeal an amendment to the Constitution. But let that be.

Rep. Broun encourages us that we cannot be complacent. "You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany. I'm not comparing him to Adolf Hitler. What I'm saying is there is the potential."

He gets my "I do not think that means what you think it means" flag for the day. When you say a person resembles another person in some way, that's a comparison. And when the congressman says, "He's doing things that Hitler and Stalin did," that's a comparison. Perhaps Rep. Broun meant to say "I'm not equating him to Adolf Hitler."

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My 2008 Voting Experience

This is the third presidential election I have voted in. The first, in 2000, was performed via a paper mail-in ballot while I was living in Columbia, MO. It was also the first document I needed the assistance of a notary public to certify. I had just moved to Columbia in August to begin my master's degree.

On one level, it was very exciting. Here's this piece of paper that has the names of those candidates who have been mentioned for weeks. There's a moment of "I've heard of those guys!" when you look over the list. After the initial WHEE! rush, it's a little pedestrian: there's a little card with punch-out dots, and they provide you with a state-approved "selection tool" (basically a thicker-than-normal partially-straightened paper clip). I performed my electoral right on my couch at home, weeks before the actual election. Afterwards, the onslaught of ads continued on TV, seemingly unaware that I was no longer eligible for persuasion. How disappointing!

In 2004, I was voting in Kansas City, after having just moved here in August to begin my doctoral study. Sounds familiar... Anyway, I once again voted through a mail-in ballot.

Now it's 2008. I still live in Kansas City, but for once, I actually voted in-person in my actual district. Granted, that district isn't Kansas City: I'm still registered in St. Louis County. When I visited a couple of weeks ago, I voted absentee in person. This means I went to the county election board office on a chilly Saturday morning. Driving up to the office park where the board is located, there were cars every where. Fortunately, most people seemed to see that and feel the need to park at the nearest end. I found that the parking lot on the far side of the office was somewhat empty close to the end. Score!

Sure enough, the crowd is here to vote. There's a line of approximately 100 people streaming out of the polling doors and down the sidewalk. I took my place at the end, noting the color of the car I'm standing in front of to use as a starting marker. I'm standing behind a small family. A young white suburban grandmother holding her grandson, while the young mom with unwashed hair and a camouflage jacket smoked incessantly. Her husband, sporting the darker skin of South American decent, flipped continuously through a voting guide.

Behind me, a young couple: man with Dodgers cap on, woman smiling. They're talking to an man with gray stubble on not just his chin, but also the remnants of a shaved head. This man (I'll find out later in line) is a native of Russia, who moved to America 30 years ago. He's followed by an older black gentlemen, wearing a navy veteran cap with a ship name.

As we move through the line, we pass a sign saying "No Electioneering within 50 feet of polling entrance". This doesn't prevent people from talking politics. The Russian man talks about how much voting means to him, compared to living in the Soviet Union. The Navy man talks about segregation and the ease of voting during his Navy years, avoiding the polling intimidation.

Topics of conversation include Sarah Palin's wardrobe (the story broke the day before), an oil pipeline, Joe Biden being Catholic, John McCain as a war hero, etc. As I look through the line, there's a real sense of the community of America. The old, the young, the men, the women, the black, white, asian, native American, Indian, and all the undefinable inbetweens. If anyone's complaining about the wait, they're keeping it to themselves.

The line moves in chunks, as the polling doors open intermittently to allow another group of 25 or so into the building. Every time, a worker comes out and shouts some basic rules. There are lengthy ballot issues, so to cut down on reading time at the machine, they've printed the text on flyers while we're waiting in line. "Can I have them back when you're done, and don't mark on them! The next person doesn't care how you voted."

I finally work my way up to the counter, where several people in their 20's are standing in front of mis-matched laptops. My driver's license is the only proof I need that I am who I say I am. I noticed that my ID from Mizzou would also be accepted; no doubt UMKC also. The worker checks me off and tells me to stand in the gray line. It, and the pink line adjacent, sort you based on the township of residence.

Moving on to the actual polling room. 15 or so machines set up along both walls of a long narrow room. These are "touch machines" that I've heard about for years. "Will they miscount my vote?" is my first thought. I've never heard any stories that talk about touch-screens working well, just the negative ones where the machines break down and seize hostages, demanding more use of anti-bacterial hand creme by the operators.

Each machine has blades jutting out from the side, which operators are supposed to pull close to their shoulders to avoid eavesdropping. Few observe those instructions. Were I so interested, I would have been able to follow the voting of the man in front of me exactly.

Most voters move efficiently (though not quickly) through the process. An older couple ahead of me in the gray line is ready to vote. The wife is directed to a machine first. She starts to guide the man along with her. The polling worker stops them, asking if the man needs assistance voting. "No," she answers. The woman is directed to the empty machine again, and again the man follows. The election worker frowns. There's more talk, as an assisted voting needs to be accompanied by a form, etc. etc. I can't follow that any more, as it's my turn!

I'm directed to a machine, where the worker takes my registration form. She notes the various codes scribed on the top and steps in front of me to the machine. Around her neck is what appears to be a block of plastic. It's smaller than a hand, but shaped like a rectangular ink stamp, with no writing or symbol on the bottom. She places this block into an analogously-shaped hole on the machine. The hole is smooth, with no connecting pins or obvious markings. Must be some sort of RFID master key, because it produces an immediate change in the machine's screen. The worker inputs the cryptic symbols "E87 WARK= 2 3410" and off I go. Very science fiction science fact!

The screen is excellently designed, trying to account for every type of visual deficiency possible. All options are colored in extreme contrasting colors, what I refer to as "Fisher Price colors". Bright yellow, medium green, fire engine red, rich blue. In additon, making a selection changes the color of that button, adds a texture to the color, places a giant checkmark by the selection, partially grays out the other options, and causes the entire button to pulse slightly in intensity. It's almost overkill, but I can appreciate all the effort used to create a system to which no one can say, "I didn't know what I picked!"

After picking a particular candidate or opinion, it can be immediately changed again and again. There were 11 pages of offices, candidates, judges, and ballot issues. At the end, you're asked to go over a summary of your choices. Confirm the summary. Press the "CAST BALLOT" button. Another confirmation screen, informing that after the final confirmation the choice is irreversible. Confirm!

"Thanks for voting!"

Off into the morning. Total experience takes about 50 minutes from first entering the line, which isn't bad. Looking back as I head to my car, the line at 10:00 is now twice as long as when I first arrived. Long day for the poll workers. Luckily, everyone who's in line at 12:00pm, the poll closing time, will be allowed to vote.

I did feel much more involved in the process than I normally do. Standing out on the sidewalk with lots of other people makes casting a vote a much more visceral and meaningful experience. Hooray for civic responsibility.