Thursday, July 19, 2012

Of Bike Theft and Morality

When I was twelve or thirteen my father bought me what I consider my first "serious" bicycle: a kid-sized Specialized Rock Hopper in a ghastly shade of green with some trim that came from exactly the wrong side of the color wheel to compliment the primary coat. I loved the hell out of it regardless and, frankly, I needed it, because I was a new 6th grader at the middle school three miles across town and my parents couldn't drive me every morning to class.

That bike was the catalyst of three firsts in my life: my first independent mode of transportation; my first trip to the hospital after I clipped a pole near the house; and my first bout with bike theft.

For cyclists, bike theft is as inevitable as death and taxes and, when it happens, feels like a little bit of both. Bike theft is the tax we must pay to ride and when it occurs a little piece of you -- the piece you gave to that ride -- dies inside.

This is not to say that I've had my bike stolen recently, thank goodness, because if I did I am so effing broke that there's not a chance I could replace it for months. Not a victim, for now, but victimization is all around me and sometimes I feel like the wolves are just beyond the tree line waiting for me to screw up.

My coworker's bike -- my Tuesday evening Conzelman Road riding buddy, Alex -- was stolen last month after he got drunk in the Financial District and neglected to take the proper security precautions. A bit closer to home, two months ago somebody kicked in our apartment building's main door and made off with our friend's kick scooter, but could have easily grabbed the bikes. In fact, why the hell didn't he? Unfamiliarity with the operation of the hook each bike hangs from?

Then just recently a teen in SF was arrested after police found 114 stolen bikes in his family's house's garage and storage units in Oakland. That's a hell of a bust, amounting to about a third of the bikes officially reported stolen in a year in SF (about one a day according to police, but it's not difficult to conjecture more are stolen and not reported). These thieves were prolific, but profoundly stupid. The teen (and probably his family) were stealing the bikes in SF and selling them on Craigslist and at the Laney College flea market on weekends. Eventually something was going to give and somebody was going to ID their bike, putting into effect a police sting and yadda yadda. Which is exactly what happened.

If you're an aspiring bike thief listen up, I'm going to give some sage wisdom now: if you steal a bike in the Bay Area, sell it in LA. If you steal a bike in LA, sell it in the Bay Area. If you're a Craigslist or eBay seller, don't sell in the area, do the same thing as above. Also for online sellers, don't do business with an out-of-state buyer or the penalties if caught will be greater due to interstate commerce laws. Had your fill of Criminality 101?

What I'm presently conflicted on is the morality of purchasing parts and/or whole bikes from somebody you suspect of being a bike thief. Back in May I visited a parking lot swap meet in Cuppertino and wondered the entire time how much of those piles of components and fittings were lifted. How many of the patrons were looking for their cranks, or brakes, or wheels back? In their defense, none of the vendors looked the part of the thief and I'm doing that community a grave disservice by even insinuating that there were hot parts there.

Anyway, without any statistics to back me up except a burning feeling in my gut, I'm going to say that 99% of all stolen bikes and parts are never recovered. Yeah, no figures or evidence at all, but I'd bet my bottom dollar I'm within a percent of the correct number. So, if you're willing to agree with that, with the recovery rate so abysmal how can we say it's wrong to buy something you suspect is stolen? If not you, some other opportunist will probably come along and snatch up a good deal.

Honestly, I'm torn on the matter. There's a base injustice to it, sure, but only you would know of it (unless you blabbed to a friend or something). That's a big deal, to be certain -- I already have trouble living with myself over the meager crimes I've perpetrated in my lifetime thus far. I suppose it will come down not on an academic argument, but what's in my heart if ever presented face-to-face with the situation.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Perusing the arXiv

Remember a couple months ago the announcement of OPERA's faster-than-light neutrino experiment? Boy, it seems like only yesterday; insert witty time travelling neutrino joke here. Something that's overlooked in that story is that news outlets did a run for the endzone with that headline before the paper had actually been officially published -- it was a pre-print slated for peer review, not a set-in-stone finding! Very unscientific of them, but that's the ambulance-chasing media for you. Where they found it, and where I imagine a lot more science reporters and laypeople are now paying attention to, is, the open access repository of pre-print (or, as they call them, "e-print") scientific papers currently operated by Cornell University.

ArXiv -- pronounced "archive" -- is a fascinating place where the contributors represent the bleeding edge of what I like to call the Awesome Sciences (physical sciences and mathematics, even though I'm just terrible at the latter). It's neat just to browse the archives, reading the titles and taking in the abstracts. Doing that feels to me like a big whiff of smelling salts that snaps my mind into remembering we live in a universe of sheer wonder, even when this world of Starbucks on every corner and football games with fifty goddamn awful commercials for American Idol try to lull us into mediocrity.

There are people out there, now -- right this very instant! -- who are peering into the secrets of the quantum foam and peeling away the 'branes of reality. What a thing of beauty.

It can even make you laugh every now and then. Boing Boing had a link today to Backreaction, the blog of two physicists who've collected their favorite silly arXiv e-print titles. It didn't take much deliberation on my part to name 22 and 23 my favorites.

I'm a fairly silly fellow.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Bend Like a Reed

Tomorrow I channel my inner Jacob Riis and see how the other half lives: tomorrow I try yoga.

It's a really, really good thing I have little sense of shame or propriety in public, because somebody with either of those would surely think different of trekking up to El Cerrito to contort my body in unnatural ways, in front of the Beautiful People that frequent upscale yoga joints around these parts. I won't be alone, thankfully, as Akane and a troupe of future people-that-know-a-dark-secret-to-blackmail-me-with are coming along for what will no doubt be an experience for the books.

My opposition to yoga is longstanding and well-known. Frankly, I am still not convinced that what essentially amounts to advanced stretching can have the health benefits that its supporters claim. I'm going to expand my horizons. I'm going because there will be an extraordinary amount of women in tights in one room. I'm going because I could use the touted stress relief.

Oh, and I'm going because the gang's hitting up a brewery afterwards and I'll take any excuse to guzzle some beers.

Did I mention it's Bikram, the infamous "hot room" yoga?

Stay tuned for embarrassing photos and commentary.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Attack of the Red Pearls

If foreign cuisine were partitioned archaeological dig sites, you may be surprised--despite having lived there for three years--that there are many, many layers in many, many grids of Japanese food that I haven't drilled down to yet. And I'm not talking the semi-exotic stuff like hachi-senbei (crackers with bees baked inside) or suppon (a range of dishes made from the Pelodiscus sinensis turtle), which a lot of Japanese haven't eaten either. No, there are plenty of "common" flavors I simply never got around to trying or only sampled in passing and promptly forgot about. Ikura is one of them.

You can find them in virtually any Japanese restaurant: the pearl-sized mostly translucent red eggs of salmon. From what I've heard they're a nice bonus for salmon fishermen who make their catch in the fall as the fairly large egg sacks that contain hundreds, if not thousands of individual eggs, fetch something like fifty dollars per pound. It's fascinating to me the price gap between all the different types of fish roe, really. Black and Caspian Sea sturgeon roe (caviar) can fetch a hundred times this price, for example. I'm guessing there's a market-driven purpose for this, but would't be surprised if those little obsidian-colored balls are the proverbial diamond of the sea.

Still, good ikura can be mighty pricey, but in this case Akane and I lucked out big time. Her friend, Gosei, got his hands on some of the raw egg sacks from his wife's friend who finds the stuff just completely unpalatable (a not uncommon opinion of ikura), and after curing the eggs with the perfect amount of salt and secret Japanese hobo spices we got the call to come over and dig in. I've never had these kinds of heaping amounts of salmon roe before.

Whether I like them or not I can't quite say yet. I'm getting used to the flavor, that's for sure, but what I'm now trying to push past is the crunchy popping sensation that accompanies each rhythmic chewing action. It's like a slightly salty, wet, warm firecracker going off in your mouth. Am I the only human that finds that sensation disconcerting?

All in all, I'm pleased with my gastronomic choices today--kabocha pancakes by morning, heaping mounds of salmon roe and sashimi by night. That and thanks to our after dinner entertainment I found out that the country that uses the most toilet paper is Russia, the country that consumes the most instant noodles is Korea and the country with the highest alcohol consumption per capita is Estonia (if the variety show's statistics were correct, those Estonians must be drunk eighteen hours a day!). Facts are fun!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Whatever Gets Me Moving

Akane and I just finished watching Limitless on Netflix and I wasn't at all disappointed in the premise or execution. Really, it was a pleasant, if not confusing, surprise to find it on the streaming service -- hadn't the film come out just this year, maybe early summer? It's a distraction to check now, but I'm wondering if Limitless didn't do all that well at the box office. Sci-fi all too often doesn't, even when it stars Hollywood's Hot Young Thang, Mr. Bradley Cooper.

To tell the truth, Cooper's growing on me as a screen presence. He's versatile, playing comedy, dumb-as-bricks action and even some drama roles respectably well. And shit, can he nail the hyper-intellectual drugged-up jet set New York douchebag in Limitless like nobody else my mind can imagine. The guy speaks fluent French, too -- perhaps the source of his chops in this role. (I kid, I kid. Experience has taught me not to believe the prevailing public opinions about the French character.)

What I really enjoyed about the film (other than when Abbie Cornish used a little girl as an improvised melee weapon of last resort -- beautiful) was how it ended. That just can't be said about enough genre movies in my opinion. It had just the right amount of resolution to wrap things up for Cooper and Cornish's characters, yet doesn't leave so much dangling that there could have been a depressingly mediocre sequel. Thank goodness for minor miracles.

What's more, it left just the right amount of What Nows and What Ifs about the future of the movie's universe to set my mind racing and spark discussion between me and Akane. What is the fate of NZT, the drug that enhances Cooper's cognition? What will its effects be on society if/when it finally leaks? Will it widen or narrow the divide between the Haves/Have-Nots? Will it hasten a Singularity event?

I suppose the possibilities are...limitless.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Seventeen Years Later, I Am DONE With Star Trek: TNG

I've just finished reading James S.A. Corey's Leviathan Wakes, his first novel in the Expanse trilogy, and it's left my childhood love of Star Trek: The Next Generation in shambles.

It's a classic case of one media synergizing with the other at just the right time to give the consumer (me) a new outlook on what fiction could, or even should, be. The sea change in my mind happened suddenly and without willful input. Now, thanks to it, I may never watch another TNG episode ever again. (With the exception of Darmok and The Inner Light.)

Now, it really should be mentioned early that Leviathan and ST:TNG are in entirely different arenas of sci-fi, with the former falling into the "hard" sci-fi circle and the latter being a nearly perfect specimen of science fantasy. Leviathan takes place within the inner Solar System, mostly in the asteroid belt, and all the tech and physics are within our contemporary realm of understanding. Gravity is simulated by good, old fashioned acceleration, there is no faster-than-light travel, resources are precious -- that kind of thing.

But my issues with ST: TNG have less to do with genre and more to do with formatting and vision.

Mere hours after finishing the novel I had a spare 45-minutes and browsed through Netflix's ST:TNG offerings, deciding to screen Season 6, Episode 20, The Chase, after many years of missing it on late-night reruns. I recall the fond memories of it specifically from all those years ago. In this episode (and this is hardly a spoiler seeing as how this episode aired, dear God, eighteen years ago) Captian Picard's former archaeology mentor, Professor Galen, drops in and drops in the lap of the Enterprise crew a mystery spanning the entire Alpha Quadrant. Using DNA fragments scattered throughout biospheres across the region a computer program is extrapolated that turns out to be a holographic message. The ancient avatar's words are heavy indeed: its species was the first intelligent one in the galaxy and after finding no other life to interact with they decided to seed potentially fertile worlds with the foundations of life as a monument to their existence, so that other life could one day coexist.

This got me thinking about another episode, Relics, that guest starred James Doohan reprising his role as Scotty. In this episode the Enterprise discovers Scotty's old ship crash landed on the outer shell of a Dyson sphere.

Relics and The Chase were both part of Season 6, episodes 4 and 20, respectively. There was still another season of TNG before the ax came down on the series. Now, you'd think that discovering a stellar megastructure and the truth about the origins of life in our galaxy would each deserve their own storyarc, follow-up episode or even just a damn casual mention in the final season. Maybe it'll pop up in DS9 or Voyager? Nope. Nothing. Nada. Insert the Klingon word for "zilch."

The first discovery in and of itself -- a fucking Dyson sphere! --is enough to devote a season to, at least. These hypothetical megastructures are pretty much impossible to build due to the model of physics our universe operates on. The material constituting the shell would necessarily need to have bonds stronger than the nuclear force to withstand the Coriolis effect. Just the surface technologies gleaned from studying such a structure would give whichever government could lay claim absolute supremacy over every species in the galaxy. Period.

And this thing is sitting in Federation space.

Heck, the Federation could literally move every member species' population inside it, have tons of room left over and never have to worry about attack from outside, because breaching the shell would be impossible.

So back to Corey's Leviathan and how it knits into this rant.

Leviathan climaxes with a discovery and an event that shakes the very foundations of human civilization. In this case I won't be specific, you'll just have to read it. The next book will no doubt begin with the consequences of said climactic events and build on that -- it's just basic continuity. ST: TNG has some smattering of consequence and continuity with the Borg and Q, then later on as the Marquis are introduced, but by and large it follows the same "monster of the week" format that the original series did.

That format is what Gene Roddenberry knew and loved, and he was involved with the conception and production of the series up until his passing. I get that. Afterward, though, the creative staff had a real opportunity to do something bold with the show and for whatever reason didn't do it. Maybe it was loyalty to Roddenberry's vision, maybe they were simply comfortable. This was right around the time seaQuest DSV and Babylon 5 -- well known for its grand five-season storyarc -- were spinning up and they had to know these shows would be competing for their fanbase.

OK, I'll concede that TNG being the ST follow-up Roddenberry had been trying decades to make probably swayed their decisions with creative direction. But what I don't understand, and what's practically a crime, is the introduction of a sort of Chekhov's Gun in the aforementioned episodes that really fails to "go off" with any effect in the larger Trek-verse. Obviously the discovery of a Dyson sphere or the progenitor to all life in the Alpha Quadrant should have changed the face of the known universe. Maybe the sphere builders were the species that seeded life. Where did they go? What other relics of immense grandeur did they leave behind?

It's these questions and possibilities, plus more, that rattle around in my head when I think of any TNG episode following Relics. So I'm swearing off the show FOREVER. If I ever watch another episode of the series (with exception to the prior allowances) I will rant so hard about its depiction of society in a post-scarcity economy that my jaw will fall off and blood will flow from your ears like a red Nile.

Pray that day never comes.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Like the Flash on Angel Dust

(Title inspired by #10 on this list.)

Lately I've become a bit lax about how I spend my Thursday and Friday early morning working meet-ups in Piedmont. At first I did blog posts here. That's all good and fine, I suppose. Then I tried studying Japanese, but the cafe setting, and particularly their schizophrenic tastes in music, isn't terribly conducive to information retention. Then I just had to devour Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a genuinely delightful sci-fi novel(-ette?) that latched on like a brain slug.

Perhaps a better way to spend the time, though, would be to jolt my brain into being more proactively creative. How to go about doing that is the trick. Embarking on a grand, long-term project isn't much my style, but flash fiction--creating a story of perhaps just a few hundred words in length--is certainly up my alley.

With any luck I can publish the stories in a seedy anthology magazine, start a cult religion based on them and become the next L. Ron Hubbard!