Sunday, April 26, 2009

At Home in the City of Oaks

I love living in Raleigh. Even though I don't feel especially close to anyone here, and I don't avail myself of all the opportunities for entertainment and socialization which the city has to offer, I still don't think I'd want to live anywhere else. And while I have loved being in some of the major cities I've visited (London, Boston, and Atlanta, in particular) I can't say that I would really want to live in any of them for extended periods. Instead, I wish some of the best parts of those cities would come to Raleigh.

For instance, all of those cities have underground mass transit systems of one degree or another with the most elaborate being in London. Granted, subways are something which really need to be built at the start of a city's creation, but Raleigh is hoping to construct a ground level regional train system which would connect the city center with a few of its major suburbs and with the cities of Durham and Chapel Hill, the other two points of the Research Triangle. At least its something.

Another benefit more common to Boston and London is the focus of mixed use buildings with retail on ground level, then some blend of commercial and residential space on the higher levels. I'm sure that sounds like a no-brainer if you live in a large city, but it is something which Raleigh only began zoning for within the last 5-10 years. Previously business and residential zoning never mixed here. Thankfully, it seems the gods of progress eventually won out.

Another thing I really loved about the large cities was their friendliness toward two-wheeled vehicles. In London I saw as many Vespas as I saw cars, and in Boston bikes were fairly commonplace in certain areas of the city. Because of their friendliness toward bikes and scooters each city was very pedestrian friendly which led to healthier looking residents. Part of Raleigh's Comprehensive Plan for the next 20 years includes plans to redesign its roads to include and promote greater bike traffic. Couple this with the city's plan to focus growth in only a few select locations to promote urban infilling of currently "suburban" feeling areas of the city and you have a plan for Raleigh's future that I can fully support.

The only problem I have now is my impatience. The current quest to revitalize downtown Raleigh began when I was in high school in 1990. I've been dreaming of what Raleigh would become for 19 years now. And the Comprehensive Plan won't be complete until 2030, if then. I will be 56 years old and will have waited 40 years for Raleigh to transform into the urban metropolis I've been hoping for before it is all done. And by then there will likely be all new ways in which the city could grow and adapt.

Unless Ray Kurzweil's predicted convergence of man and machine comes to fruition there is every likelihood that once Raleigh has become the gleaming City of Oaks I will be too old to fully enjoy it. Now maybe you can see why the idea of becoming a cyborg is so attractive.

Have fun and keep living life... because the future could come any day now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Grotesque and Mundane

The semester is winding down. Exam week is the first full week of May, then I'm done until Fall. Unless something drastic happens I expect to either make 3 Bs, 2 Bs and an A, or (this is least likely) 2 As and a B. I entered the semester needing straight As, but I'm not too bothered right now. Next Fall will be the worst semester to date as far as pressure to do well is concerned.

To that end, I will need to register for classes this weekend. I'm hoping I can get into all classes I want and need. Since all the classes are do overs, scheduling will be my biggest concern for now. The humanities class is an afternoon seminar, so it won't be as hard to schedule as the two math classes and the literature class. I still haven't decided which literature class to take.

Last Thursday, my philosophy professor had us watch clips of art films to determine what qualified as art and what truths about life, if any, were revealed by the clips. Among the clips we watched were The Amputee and Lumiere from David Lynch, of Twin Peaks and Mulholland Dr. fame. The clips were horrifying in their juxtaposition of the grotesque with the mundane, a concept Lynch has revisited in several of his professional works. It is hard to fully explain the clips, or why I found them so horrifying, but as a result I've been afraid of silence and the dark ever since. Only now am I getting back to being able to sleep in the dark, even though I have to keep a podcast running on my iPhone while I fall asleep.

In more mundane news, I finally broke down and joined Meetup and signed up for three groups thus far. One of the groups, one devoted to Doctor Who, had two meetups this week that I attended. The group gets together mostly to watch episodes of the show which has been running on the BBC off and on since the early 1960s. The group is largely made of 30-40 somethings but since they have a narrow focus (love of a TV show) there isn't enough there to make me feel like I don't fit in. And, besides, watching TV with other people is more social than sitting at home alone. We'll see how well I fit in with the other groups I joined.

My financial experiment hit another snag. Due to a minor miscalculation which I won't go into except to say that investment websites really should give you real-time quotes for free, my investment account has been reverted back so I can only use funds from "settled trades" again. This is quite a significant blow to my experiment at a time when I really needed some expediency to build my account up. As it stands now, I once again have to wait three days between trades before I can buy new stocks. Since my account had only grown to $3000 when this happened, and I'm forced to take out $1000 for the next month's expenses, I've essentially been made to restart from scratch again!

That seems almost as grotesque as a David Lynch film!

Have fun and keep living life... or some approximation thereof.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Just another LOL Cat

I wish I could get someone to type up my blog posts for me. I'm one of those writers who likes to put actual pen to paper before transcribing it to my chosen medium. Hence, I have about three posts sitting in my notebook waiting to be posted. I'll get to it within the next day or two, I promise.

4/25/09 UPDATE: Sorry for the delay. I've been busier than usual and I also spent some time procrastinating. I've added the three posts to the blog and they are found below. Hope you enjoy them. I have some homework to do for Monday, and I need to wash clothes and fill out some more financial aid paperwork, so I'll post my next two updates hopefully Monday night.

In the meantime, here's another LOL Cat:

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Meet TED

For the last week or two I've been obsessed with watching the lectures presented by TED, the Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference. TED has been hosting lectures by some of the western world's finest minds for the last 25 years. Past speakers have included the likes of such luminaries as Bill Gates, Jill Tartar, Craig Venter, and Al Gore. TED even has an iPhone App that I've been using to view lectures during downtimes at school, where I have access to WiFi.

The thing I really love about TED is that it reflects a convergence of intellect which, if these people are given the chance, could alter the course of humanity's future for the better. For instance, during a lecture from Venter, the founder of The Institute for Genomic Research, revealed that his newest endeavor, Synthetic Genomics, was working on developing artificial microorganisms which have the potential to convert carbon pollutants into biofuel for cars. Imagine the potential benefit to society if Venter's group could be successful. His bioengineered lifeforms could clean our air and solve our energy problems at the same time!

And while Ray Kurzweil, who has invented a host of systems for information input, probably won't be single-handedly responsible for altering mankind, I nonetheless found his lecture on the coming convergence of man and machine incredibly fascinating. For years I have dreamed of a day when I will be able to extend my life by an extra century by downloading into a cybernetic body. (Yes, I'm completely serious! Stop laughing! Why do people always do that?) I don't want to live forever, but an extra century would be nice. I have a slight fear that something really cool is going to happen a couple of years after I die and that I'm going to miss it. So, I'm all for anything that has the potential to extend my life span.

TED has helped bring to light the work of so many brilliant people, such as Nicholas Negroponte whose One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program is helping third world children leap frog into the modern world by giving them a window beyond their impoverished existence. Well over a million low cost laptops have now been distributed to places as far away as Iraq and as nearby as Birmingham, Alabama (I won't editorialize about the level of impoverishment endemic to Alabama!).

I like TED because it helps confirm my optimism about humanity. While some of these visionaries are certainly working for fame and fortune, most are working for the intrinsic good that comes from the search for answers and the quest for solutions to the problems of the world. If that doesn't describe the communist ideal I don't know what does.

Have fun and keep living life... and don't stop thinking about tomorrow!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Call Me the Prime Optimist

I've been called a pretty negative person, at times. I admit it. In the past, when something bad would happen, I would often expect the sky to fall on me at every turn. And the thing is that if you go looking for trouble you tend to find it.

The strange thing is that I actually think of myself as uncharacteristically optimistic when it comes to my view of individual humans. As a group, humans can go to hell as far as I'm concerned since groups inevitably fall to the sin of group think. Let's face it, a bad idea is still a bad idea no matter how many people subscribe to it at the same time. But, individually, humans can be reasoned with, most of the time. And individuals tend to want to do what is right even at their own inconvenience.

The reason I bring this up at all is because I had lunch today with Maryanne, an old friend who is the mother of the first girl I ever fell in love with. Maryanne doesn't seem to trust government at all, regardless of who is at the helm. For my part, I'm pretty fond of government so long as it is run by people I like and agree with; otherwise I see government as obnoxious at best and oppressive at worst.

Maryanne and I got into a discussion about capitalism, socialism, and communism. Since I grew up in a trailer park, once lived out of my car for a month or two, and have grown to hate the hypocrisy of wealthy, religious, conservatives, I've become rather fond of the romantic notion of pure communism. (Before you freak out, with the exception of a few experimental villages or a couple of primitive tribes, there has never been a purely communist society on the planet. Nor has there been a purely capitalist one. Both are extremes along a continuum.) But since communism is so hard for capitalists to wrap their heads around (capitalism almost seems like a religion to some people) I'm happy to compromise with socialism.

What does this have to do with optimism? Well, in order to believe that pure communism could work you have to believe that people are intrinsically good. I do, because I see it all the time. When Raleigh was devastated by Hurricane Fran in the Fall of 1996 the city was without power and phone service for a week. The area could have descended into chaos, but it didn't. People came together and helped each other to cope with the situation until our technology was restored. And that is how most people respond to a disaster.

But the good in human nature goes deeper into psyche. Think about our entertainment (books, movies, TV shows). We don't normally root for killers, or rapists, or greedy businessmen. Our heroes, the ones we really like and root for, save the little guy, protect the distressed damsel, and fight the oppressive system for the betterment of society. We like watching characters do the good thing because intrinsically WE want to do the good thing. And we want to do the good thing not because some antiquated religious text tells us to; we want to do the good thing because we are good to begin with, and need to be, in order for the species to survive.

Granted, we don't always succeed at doing the good thing, but that doesn't stop us from trying.

Have fun and keep living life... and be good to one another!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Ebb and Flow of My Personal Economy

I spent the day being responsible for a change. I did my taxes and renewed my FAFSA information for the next school year. It cost over $80 to do my federal and state taxes online. This is the first year I tried doing it that way, but since I had to claim all of the stock trades I did last year I couldn't use the 1040 EZ form that I've used in the past. At least its done now.

I'm hoping that the info on my FAFSA will help me get a decent amount of financial aid in the fall. Since I didn't have a job after getting fired in late July my income was pretty low. In fact, for the first time in a decade, I'm actually going to get a tax refund this year of around $250.

This school year I had the luxury of living completely on financial aid. Granted, I've now racked up about $5000 in student loans so far, but I suppose that is par for the course for many college students these days. Hell, even Barack and Michelle Obama were still paying off their college loans as of a few years ago.

My financial experiment is FINALLY starting to have some positive movement. After over a month of falling and stagnating in value it seems the market is starting to pick back up for a change. Unfortunately, my stock in Citadel Broadcasting lost half its value when they chose to move to the OTC (over the counter) market. It was already insanely low ($0.11 a share!) when it was de-listed. Sadly, OTC stocks don't have as much dynamism in price since they aren't traded as heavily as those on the NYSE, for example. I'm still holding on to it, for now, in the expectation that it will eventually bounce back before I absolutely have to withdraw it.

Luckily, the other $1000 of my initial investment has been rising. My total experiment is now worth about $2600, in spite of the 50% loss in value of my Citadel stock. That figures out to about a $1000 increase since I began. I am hoping that a combination of good luck and aggressive trading will get me up to around $4000 total by May 1st when I will have no choice but to take out $1000 to get through the month.

The really frustrating part of relying on financial aid for my living expenses is how to make the money last until my next aid check, which in this case isn't expected until probably late September at the earliest. That was one of the big reasons I chose to engage in this financial experiment in the first place. I wanted to see what was possible rather than accepting what was rational. Let's face it, no fully rational mind would think of doing this. The risk is too great (as I've already experienced) and the rewards are left up to too much chance. Still, it seems like less of a risk (to me, anyway) than just taking $2000 to a casino or buying lottery tickets.

Have fun and keep living life... or some approximation thereof.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Too Much Information...

Are you comfortable in your own skin? I'm not really, but then you probably already figured that out if you've been following my blog for any amount of time. I try to be comfortable in my skin, but then I invariably do something which is apparently socially unacceptable.

The thing about me is that on some deep level (okay, it ain't that deep!) I really enjoy saying whatever is on my mind and seeing how other people react. For some reason, most people don't seem comfortable with the level of honesty that I'm willing to convey. For instance, about a decade ago, while at a party, I was talking to a bunch of people I'd never met. I confessed that I had once dated a girl who wasn't really that into me purely based on the fact that I enjoyed giving her oral pleasure. The group went totally silent. I thought it was hilarious! I mean, they had been sharing stories about people they had dated, so I wanted to tell my own story. It seemed like the most amusing story I could tell at the time. Hell, I still think it's amusing!

And there was the time in General Psychology when the professor was discussing the mental and physiological processes involved in hunger. She mentioned how the pains of hunger go away and re-occur after a certain amount of time until you actually eat something. I chose to reveal, to an auditorium of at least one hundred students, that she wasn't correct. I then proceeded to recount my personal experience of starving myself as a form of personal punishment, when I was experiencing severe depression, and how the feeling of hunger would only return once or twice in the first twelve hours. Then I wouldn't feel any hunger again for at least three or four days, and once went a full seven before feeling anything. However, once I started to eat, my hunger hit me like a truck! Well, half the auditorium turned around and stared at me like I was crazy. Even the professor was flabbergasted for a moment. I was just sharing personal experience... I'm not sure why everyone was so freaked out by it. And in a psychology class, no less!

I wish I could feel comfortable being who I am, but it seems like a given that if I want to be socially proficient I have to be willing to wear a mask of some kind 99% of the time. I can't even be my true self around my friends or loved ones as evidenced by the people on Facebook who have threatened to de-friend me or have otherwise complained that my updates or comments have been a bit too revealing.

It's hard to tell the world to go fuck themselves when I feel such a desire to become socially connected with people. I don't want to have hundreds of friends, but I want five or six who really GET me and have fun with me while letting me be me. What good is being close with people if they don't see you for who you really are? And if you are only my friend so long as I hide behind a mask, what happens if and when the mask breaks?

Perhaps it is a fault in my logic to want everyone else to adapt to me rather than me adapting to everyone else. But I guess it speaks to how uncomfortable I am in my own skin. Maybe the mask has to be there as much for my own protection as for yours.

Have fun and keep living life... or some approximation thereof.
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