Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cheating and whining

I suppose nearly everyone who gets a traffic citation thinks their ticket was unfair in some way. At least, I do.  Don't you?  It's just human nature to rationalize and excuse one's own misbehavior.  I was thinking about the irony last night of sort of semi-cheating on the on-line Traffic School course I was taking to make up for
"sort of semi-cheating" on a minor traffic nit-pick citation (or at least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it).

Actually, the "cheating" on the traffic school was just a matter of printing out each chapter, letting it run in the background until the required study time was up, and then using the print-out to take the exams "open book."  Nothing says that's illegal.  Besides, the questions are really nit-picky and tricky.  They purposely ask things you'd never be able to figure out without directly reading the sentence from the course text.  Do I feel guilty?  No.  I don't feel guilty about the citation either.  Mad, yes.  Guilty, no.  That's likely just my self-excusing, but that's the truth.  I'm not upset about doing the crime, just about getting caught.

The citation was from one of those stupid and corrupt red-light camera robotic thieving automatic citation machines.  Yes, I know, rationalizing and excusing myself.  But really, those things should be illegal.  This particular one was especially bad.  I didn't get the ticket for running the red light.  I got it for failing to come to a full stop on a red arrow before turning right in a dedicated right-turn lane.  It wasn't illegal to turn right on red.  It was just illegal to do it without coming to a stop first.  That's not really what those cameras are supposed to be catching.  The accidents caused by that behavior are not nearly as serious as those from people actually going straight through an intersection on red light.  But as it turns out, the right turn tickets are where they make almost all of their money.  And make no mistake, it's all about making money.  They only put them up at intersections where they can make money.  And they don't work.  They can't work.  If the cameras actually stop people from running red lights then they don't make money, and if they don't make money, they take them down.  So they only operate the cameras at intersections where they are pretty sure people will get caught unawares.  They are, as far as I'm concerned, cheating.  They justify the cameras based on the straight ahead red light running accidents, but then most of the tickets they give out are for something much less serious.  The system is a lie and a cheat.  And they know it.  If they really wanted to cut down on accidents, the simple and free way to do it is to introduce a time lag between when the light turns red in one direction and when the light then turns green in the other direction.  That works really well.  It just doesn't make any money.

The thing is, I actually have no way of knowing whether I actually ran the red light or not.  I was totally unaware of it at the time.  I did not knowingly run the light.  A month or so later I got the ticket mailed to me.  I was totally dumbfounded.  Did I really run the light, or is their equipment just set to make it look that way?  I have no way of knowing.  If I believe their equipment, then I did it.  Should I believe their equipment?  I don't know.  I know that law enforcement is often corrupt.  I know that machines often malfunction.  I know they would likely not admit it if they knew it was malfunctioning.  I know they have no scruples.  Did I really run the light?  I really don't know.  I'm not in the habit of doing it on purpose.  I go through that intersection every day, and they have had the equipment there for several years, so apparently I have never run that light before.  I may have done it that one time, but I can't really say one way or the other.

In the photo, I had the sun-visor down, because the sun was shining directly in my face.  I was coming down a hill and around a corner facing into the sun.  The red arrow is obscured by an overgrown tree at the bend until you get around the corner.  I had only a very brief time to see the red arrow, and there are lots of other things to be paying attention to:  Watching the car in front of me; Watching for pedestrians; Watching for cars coming from the left. 

The risk was nil.  The risks all had to do with the things I actually was watching for, not with the red arrow I apparently didn't see.

I seriously thought about fighting the ticket.  The code section cited on the ticket was somewhat dubious.  The tree obsuring the view of the light may have been a justification.  But in the end, I figured the traffic court commissioner has heard all the excuses a thousand times and isn't likely to be sympathetic.  They have a well-oiled system of extracting money from drivers, and that system pays their salaries.  They aren't going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.  In the end, my whining would get me no where.  Their view would be that regardless of all that, it's my responsibility as the driver to find the light and obey it - end of story.

So, I paid the exhorbitant roughly $600 for the fine and traffic school, and did my time (or most of it).

I was counting up all the traffic tickets I have ever received.  It's more than I would have guessed.  I think I've gotten 6 tickets in 46 years of driving.  Oh, yeah, I also got one riding my bicycle back before I had a driver's license - riding my bike on the wrong side of the street - that was really nit-picking.  And then there was a jay-walking ticket.  Some of the auto tickets were legitimate (one speeding, one actual red light I didn't see).  Most were at best nit-picky (two red-light cameras - this one and one for being a fraction of a second late; one for being in the wrong lane with a trailer).  At least one was out and out corrupt on the part of the cop (a supposed failure to yield right-of-way that never actually happened).  On the other hand, I have probably gotten away with far worse things.

The reality is that most drivers could be cited for something nearly every time they get behind the wheel.  A defensive driving instructor in one class made that very point.  If a cop followed you around constantly, you could get a ticket every day.  It's kind of a strange system in which everyone is guilty, most of us quite frequently, but we get caught rarely, and when we do, it is often for minor nit-picks rather than for the probably far more serious things we should have gotten caught for.  Does that system end up producing safer traffic?  Not sure.  It's more like God and the prevalence of sin.  We are all guilty and live only on grace.  Should we whine when our guilt finally catches up to us?  Probably not, but we do anyway.

Monday, March 21, 2011

e-books (or are they now ebooks?)

With my new "Bob's Big Boy" library card hot in hand, and my new pin # ready to give me access to that great big wonderful world of public library e-books, I ventured over the digital divide into the great unknown vastness of the unexplored e-book world. 

So far, I am, of course, Bemused.

I quickly discovered several things:

A)  Why I quit going to the public library and went on Amazon instead:  It's because Amazon actually has what I want, when I want it (well, with only a few days wait for delivery).  The public library has what they have, which is not all that much to start with, and the books I really want are wanted by everyone else too, and so are already checked out and on a waiting list.  Get in line and take a number.

B)  What I didn't count on is that e-books get "checked out" just like paper ones.  Weird.  It's just a file on a server somewhere.  That file is still on the server.  Why can't I read it whenever I want to?  Oh, yeah, it's that copyright thing.  The library only owns the right to one copy, so only one person at a time is allowed to read it.  So, all the books I really want have waiting lists.

C) That I tend to write in lists.  I'm never going to become a novelist writing in lists.  Computer programmer, maybe, but novelist, not so much.

D) That reading a novel on my i-phone (or is that iphone) is not nearly as pleasant as reading a real book.  Among other things, it's a lot like trying to read a novel written by a kindergartner on that paper with the big wide lines:  You get about ten words on a page, and have to keep turning pages constantly.

OK, forget the list format.  Let's talk (or write).

The really funny thing is that after going through the few novels the public library site had available, looking for one that was not checked out that I actually want to read, the one I ended up with is "Innocent" by Scott Turow, from his (wait for it) . . .   "Kindle County" series.  e-book. Kindle County. Get it?  That just can't be coincidence, can it?  Was the Amazon Kindle named after his novels?  Did he promise to publish his books digitally if Amazon named their Kindle after his series?  Did he publish his books on the competing e-pub format for revenge because they stole his word?  A brief googling of that subject did not turn up the answer.

Getting back to the main subject, the other irritating thing about reading a book in digital format, which became particularly evident with this particular novel, is trying to flip back and forth to check something earlier in the book.  The first chapter starts off with a date, which is not very memorable.  When each future chapter starts with other dates, I need to check back on the date on the previous chapters to understand the sequence of events.  Paging back and forth, one page at a time, is painful. 

On the other hand, it is certainly handy to have a novel in my pocket any time I have my cell phone on me and a little time to kill (was that a Grisham novel?  No, not quite).

And as for this new e-dict (oops edict) by some style manual, that e-mail is now spelled email, I'm not so sure that's a good ide-a.  More likely it should be "e mail" (two words).  Or at least e'mail, like a contraction.  Is the old slow paper alternative to email now spelled "smail"?

I have long noticed that reading anything on a computer screen longer than what fits on one page is not pleasant.  In fact, I notice that any e-mail longer than one page just doesn't get read.  I start it, then set it aside to finish later, and never do.  I think it has something to do with TV induced attention deficit disorder.  Except, it's not nearly as true of things printed on paper.  There's something about a digital screen that makes it hard to turn the page.  To read a longer e-mail, I print it out, then I can read it - just not on the screen.

Maybe if I had an actual Kindle instead of an i-phone, reading an e-book might be more pleasant, but I'm thinking that so far, I still prefer hard copy books.  Maybe books aren't yet obsolete after all.

And by the way, those notes at the bottom of e-mails saying to consider the environment before printing the message:  I don't buy the theory that printing it out is more harmful to the environment than the energy wasted running your computer when you could have turned it off and read it on paper instead.  And paper is actually a "sequestered" form of carbon.  Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere to make cellulose.  The tree gets turned into paper, and the paper gets stored (on my desk) for decades.  To save the earth, print out this blog and turn off your computer.  Oops, too late, you already read it on screen.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Checking out the Library

I went to the Library last night.

That sentence wouldn't used to have been worth writing.  I used to spend lots and lots of time at libraries.  I remember a junior high school English class essay assignment I had to write on the subject of "My Favorite Teacher."  I dodged the delicate question of whether to insult or suck up to that English teacher by writing an essay saying that my favorite teacher was the Library.  That was probably true, too.  I was then and am still a voracious book reader.  Going to the library was truly a favorite thing to do, and I have learned more from reading library books than from any other teacher.

We used to go there as a family with the kids when they were young, and come home with great huge stacks of books.

But I haven't been to the Library in so many years that my card with no expiration date had finally expired anyway.  I knew that only because I tried to log onto the library website and was denied access.  My card was literally disintegrating.  I just haven't gone to the library in many years, even though it's less than a mile straight down my own street.

So last night, I finally managed to get there and got a new library card.  They offered me my choice of picture cards.  I got the one with the photo of Bob's Big Boy on it.  Actually, it's a photo of Glendale's 2002 Rose Parade Float that had a giant Big Boy statue, almost like the Statue of Liberty, except holding up not the torch of Liberty but the Hamburger of Obesity.  In Glendale times have changed only somewhat - the library is going digital, but the photo on the card looks back to the previous century.  Us oldies remember cruising Bob's drive-in on Friday nights, but those drive-ins have all gone now, replaced by drive-thrus.

I think what most bemused me though is thinking about why I have been away from the library so long (and, oh, by the way, they said I have 80 cents in overdue fines that have been on my account for many years).  Why did I quit going to the library?

Sadly, one reason is that with all the government fiscal problems over the last 30 years, they have kept cutting back on hours until it is rarely open when I am around.  I did try to go there a few times, but every time I tried, it was closed.  It is open 'til 8 only a few nights a week.  Most nights, it closes before I get home from work.

Another reason is that combination hero/villain of the book world, Amazon.  Buying a novel didn't used to seem like a reasonable thing.  Why buy a book I was only likely to read once and then have no use for?  Still true, but it's just easier to order and have it arrive magically a couple days later, and really, I LIKE owning books.  And besides, looking at books on Amazon is surprisingly fun and convenient.  No, this is not a plug for Amazon.  I was really sad that two bookstores in Westwood went out of business in the last three months, mostly due to internet competition.  But I have admit that I buy more books on line than I ever did in stores, and for more reasons than just price.

Which gets back around to the irony of what actually got me to the library this time:  To get a pin # so I could download e-books from the public library website.  In other words:  I went to the library so won't have to go to the library any more.  I went there only to get free access to the ephemeral digital replacement for books.  We got our daughter a Kindle for her birthday - even Amazon is putting itself out of the book business.  I'm still clinging to paper books, but I think their days are fading.

I get the feeling the library, and the books it stores, are about to go the way of the Bob's Big Boy on my library card - nostalgic memories. I heard someone say recently that owning shelves of books used to make one look educated; now it just makes you look old. 

I will lament the demise of the library even though I hadn't gone in years. My grandchildren know what a library is. My grandson said going to the school library was one his best days ever. Their children may see libraries only as museums for those antique paper things.  Should we feel sad about that, or happy?  In the end, isn't progress is about gain, not about loss?  Aren't we happy that technology progresses, from carvings on clay, to handwriting on scrolls, to manual printing presses, to automated presses that mass produce easily affordable books; from typewriters to word processors, from handwritten snail mail to internet blogs;  from the shelf of Encyclopedia Brittanica, to the limitless expanse of the Internet, instantly updated?  We may recall with fondness things we used to enjoy, but that doesn't mean we really want to go back to them.  I have this nagging sense of something extremely valuable being lost, but I think the reality is that it is going away only because it has been replaced by something much better.