I need more Pandora in my Facebook this season

Pandora has this feature I wish was on Facebook. Sometimes there’s a song you really like that you…. just don’t want to hear for a while. You don’t want to throw it away and skipping past it doesn’t really help if it shows up an hour later, you’ve just fallen a little out-of-love with it temporarily. When this happens, Pandora has the ‘I’m tired of this track’ option.

It temporarily takes it out of rotation. You’re saying “I love you, song, but we need to take a break so I don’t end up hating you”. It’s great, it’s still in your life and influencing other song choices in your listing, you and the song are still friends, it’s just _elsewhere_ for a little bit.

Relationships with songs seem complicated, right? We associate them with events in our lives, the way they make us feel, a technical appreciation for their structure, all sorts of things. But compared to relationships with people they’re simple. Songs don’t change, but people change every second. Songs don’t turn nasty or associate themselves with vileness suddenly (ok, except for maybe some Wagner, tough break there) while still being the song you liked previously. Songs stay themselves and we’re the only dynamic one in the relationship.

So… how is it that a song for Pandora can offer such a useful feature for managing those rough patches while Facebook (“The Social Network”) doesn’t?

There’s something about this election (more so than others I remember) that seems to be bringing out the worst in folks. I’m sure others think the same about me, don’t get me wrong, but that goes back to the whole ‘people and relationships are complicated’ thing. These last few weeks, I’ve seen folks whom I like adopt shocking opinions and downplay some outrageous things. People whom I like have said things that knock me on my butt but… I still like them as People, I just don’t know how to deal with them as Participants In Election 2016.

Facebook has a few hamfisted tools for this. You can unfriend people, you can block them, and you can unfollow them. Each of these are pretty strong medicine and permanent without conscious effort. If you block someone, they’re goooooone until you remember to unblock them through some interface you’d probably have to google the instructions for. With unfollow, they disappear from your news feed and likewise will be elsewhere until you remember to track them down in settings and re-enable them. Unfriending people is pretty rough because if they notice, it sounds like you’re sending a message ‘we are not friends any more’. I’ve been unfriended before by folks who didn’t see it as a big deal and I still smart from it because it feels like rejection. For some of us, forming relationships is hard work and doesn’t ‘just happen’, having the other person make a conscious choice to no longer be ‘friends’ feels like a punch.

So what’s the solution? What can Facebook do to help people like me who feel like a kindergartner who accidentally wandered into the front of some terrible machine-gun battle?

“I’m tired of this track”.

It’d probably need a different name. Maybe…. “Temporarily mute friend”, or… “?” (Kikazaru, the monkey with the hands over its ears) or something clever. Basically, I’d like a feature in Facebook where, when I read that some friend of mine has one of those Election-Specific opinions about something on which I don’t want to battle, I can just not see their posts for a few weeks. It’d be great if it automatically deactivated after then so we can just continue as before. No out-of-the-blue friend requests, no chance to screw up and forget who you unfollowed, just a temporary break.

I don’t want to have to maintain some rolodex/action list of people to re-follow or re-friend after the election’s over because I’ll screw it up and the “wait, you unfriended me?!” conflicts sound pretty awful too.

I don’t think I have too many illusions here. Some of the things that upset me now might end up being deal-breakers. I think a few of my friendships are in some real peril now because of some pretty upsetting endorsements and excusals I’ve read recently. No doubt there are people out there who feel the same about me, too, but I’ve got to hold onto the hope that some of them are going to get better when this election is over.

Facebook and Pandora have plenty of functional overlap. Our actions and relationships affect suggestions and behaviors already, maybe it’s time to get inspiraton from another function for the sake of maintaining friendships.

Maybe this stuff is easy for the rest of all y’all, but this kindergartner’s ready to come in from the war for a little bit.

Crossing the tragedy streams: Local and Global

A few months before our first son was born, we owned a couple cats. One of them, Forest, my wife had had for years. She’d raised him from a kitten. He was a pretty wild cat, the kind who liked to jump from the ground up onto your shoulder even though he weighed 5+ pounds. He’d stabilize himself with claws, and whether you were wearing a shirt didn’t really make a difference to him because that’s apparently not a thing cats worry about. Some days we’d find him sitting on the top of a door because it was the highest place around from which he could lord over his domain. Somewhere along the way, he got an infection in his gums and needed to have his teeth pulled. Once he figured out he couldn’t bite things anymore, he learned to box. Hard. He could really, really whack something with this big murder mittens of his, it was impressive.

We didn’t have kids so we were really, really emotionally invested in our pets. We loved them, they put up with us, it was the perfect relationship you could have with a cat.

Living in Los Angeles, we had to keep them indoors, and this was a challenge. Just outside was this magical, mystical land of smells and sounds and the cats WANTED OUT. Lizzy made a couple half-hearted attempts but eventually settled for the inside life. She’d sit in the window sometimes, but she seemed to accept her lot in life. Forest, however… Forest was not a quitter.

Being a big, dynamic cat, he had a lot of energy and muscle and inertia. Being a little crazy, he also eventually worked out A System.

I remember one day watching him tear around the apartment in circles, faster and faster like some kind of superconducting kitty supercollider. “What the hell are you doi-” I began when he straightened out his path and beelined for the standard-issue armored metal screen door so many LA apartments have.

BAM! He slammed into the door at just the right angle and… it opened.

He’d figured out a way to pop it open by hitting a lower corner and, faster than you can swear, he was gone. A couple hours later, he swaggered back, covered in dirt and so happy with himself. He’d braved the outdoors and was ready to eat. We pulled him in, brushed him off, and thought that was that.

That was not, of course, that.

Once in a while, we’d hear a big BAM! and sure enough, he’d have let himself out. Without AC, the door was our primary ventillation so we pretty much HAD to use the screen like this, but it was unnerving. He kept coming back, though, so it eventually just became a part of life.

Until the day he got him by a car.

We were devestated. Absolutely shattered. Our emotions were so tied up in our pets, we were destroyed by this and we cried. We turned inwards, held each other, and grieved and it was so rough.

After a couple days, it still hurt almost as much and I was surprised when my sister called me one morning.

“Hey, you guys doing ok?” she asked. She sounded sad and I was really moved. We’d tried to play it cool about the cat, but family knows these things.

“We’re hanging in there”, I told her, but she could hear in the roughness of my voice that I wasn’t really that ok. It had been three days since he died, and I still couldn’t quite believe it.

“This is really tough”, she assured me. I agreed, and for the next couple minutes we had a nice conversation where she was asking after our moods and how we were ‘handling things’. I agreed it was hard, she talked about how little experience we had with situations like this, I was impressed at how much sympathy she had for us and our departed cat.

But the wheel of time turns, conversation progresses and passes and eventually… things start to break down.

After a few minutes of about 99% heart-felt platitudes and recognition of shared grief (I was moved at how strongly she felt about Forest dying, she’d maybe met the cat once), I could tell something was wrong. A conversation is… kinda like a machine. There are gears and springs. The movement in one area causes action in another, and a good conversation will have people bouncing these forces of ideas and thoughts back and forth smoothly so that at the end, both feel fulfilled and something productive has happened. The machine turns smoothly.

Today, there was sand in the gears. Also, some of the gears… were the wrong size.

The conversation machine was starting to tear itself apart from the inside out, and both of us were obviously confused. The responses we were giving each other weren’t landing quite right and both of us were getting a little upset because we didn’t understand why this was happening. Finally, one response was just a little too wrong, and my sister was the one to exclaim:

“Ben, what are you talking about?”

This is a question that’s about as welcome in the middle of a an emotional talk like this as a sheriff showing up in the middle of a wedding ceremony with a stack of warrants. It’s proof that something has gone horribly wrong, that somewhere along the way something terrible has happened and two people are very much not on the same page.

“I’m talking about our cat Forest… what are YOU talking about?” I’m absolutely gobsmacked, we’ve been on the phone for almost 5 minutes. What’s going on?

There’s a moment of shocked silence on the other end of the phone, then I hear: “Oh Jesus Christ, Ben, turn on the TV.”

Super puzzled, I hunt for the remote. As I’m picking it up, I ask “what channel?”. This time, she responds immediately.


It turns out, she was not calling about our dead cat. This was, of course, 15 years ago today.

Our grief took a very unexpected turn that morning. I can’t add anything that a million better writers haven’t already captured about the events then or the years of worldwide change that followed, so I won’t try. From a personal perspective I will say… that in the following months, we had our first child, then shortly after, our second son was born. As happens, our own priorities changed and while we still really like our pets, our kids are obviously the vessels into which we put the hopes and optimism for the future that felt so distant that September morning. We still like our cats (A LOT, don’t get me wrong), but when one dies or disappears, it’s just a fact of life. It’s a brief interruption and then… things goes on. The people and animals pass in and out of our lives and we continue and I couldn’t tell you even what YEAR some of our beloved pets have died now or how old our cats are or any of the other little things that used to seem so personally important.

In one of those strange ways our brains work and associate global things to the personal, when it comes to remembering that our cat Forest died on September 8th, 2001, I’ll never forget.

Track injustice

In elementary school, I was part of track. I wasn’t very fast or good, but I tried my darndest because it was something to do and it was a bunch of the physical activity I got.

At a trackmeet, I was in a 50 yard dash and I was in the far-right lane. The starter pistol fired, and we were off! The other runners pulled ahead because they were faster but I was still running as fast as I could. The crowd was packed up against the side of the track in a wall.

Then, disaster that I still think of 30 years later. As the main wave of runners passed, someone stepped out into the track to get a better view of them.

Stepped out in front of me.

I skidded to a stop so I wouldn’t run into them, defeated, then slouched off in embarrassment. The person who stepped in front of me didn’t even notice and I felt so bad about not being fast that I thought I was the offender.

Today, I wish I’d braced myself and just smashed right into that goddamn oblivious crowd-member. Just… BOOM. I still wouldn’t have won, but I wouldn’t be sitting here more than a quarter century later thinking about this little injustice against a kid who wasn’t very physical but was trying his goddamndest to get into better shape and turn things around.

I quit track that day.

Inductive Reasoning

Everyone knows that intersections commonly have field sensors embedded in the asphalt to detect vehicles so they can control the traffic lights, right?


I’m basing this off some inductive reasoning because about ten of my fellow motorists and I were held hostage this morning for several minutes by someone ‘giving the intersection some space’.

Did they face some existential crisis when the light failed to recognize their presence? Or did the mental hate rays (and occasional horn) convince them that no, it was the UNIVERSE that was wrong? Did they shake their head at “yet another intersection that just doesn’t like them”?

If everywhere you go smells like poo, check your shoes. If every intersection ignores your presence, maybe it’s not the intersections that are broken.

Now, I realize none of YOU would ever do this and you’re all amazing drivers who know about induction loops and how they need a mass of iron or steel above them to trigger the sensor and all that, but if you could help your FRIENDS realize they’ve got to pull forward to the appropriate spot, that’d be greaaaaat. Your motorcycle friends (riders, that is. If you’re friends with a motorcycle, we should talk) already know because reasons, but even cars need to be within a freakin’ car length to make this work.

Meanwhile, this morning’s Mr. or Ms. Magoo continues to spread blood pressure spikes and upset drivers in their wake. I really thought I knew all the ways to make the world a little worse by now, but this morning I learned a new one.

Let your fingers do the plotting

A few weeks ago, a “Yellow Pages” suddenly appeared in front of my house. I know within 10 minutes of when it showed up because it wasn’t there when I went into the house, but when I came out… Boom, ancient relic.

Kanye West tweeted: “I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle”. Deep down inside, I guess I’m like Kanye West, except with a phone book instead of a water bottle. Also, maybe not as talented or publicly ‘wacky’. Anyways, I didn’t sign up for this. I didn’t ask the world to be responsible for an outdated reference book that I’ll never use because it’s the year 2016 and I have the Internet. Deciding fast, I grab it and jump into my car. I know these books are distributed by someone driving through the neighborhood and throwing them. Like the Cylons, I have a plan.

I will give it back.

I will choose NOT to be saddled with this… burden. Driving, it’s easy to tell which houses have been hit by the phantom thrower. I glide quietly, my hybrid in “panther mode”, scanning back-and-forth. I’m trying to find a pattern. Am I heading towards them or just retracing the path that led them to my house? An old phonebook looks like a fresh one, there’s no way to tell.

I give up and decide to brute force the neighborhood.

I drive up and down every road, my head on a swivel. Every time I go through intersection, I do that thing we all do at supermarket when we’re looking for the person we came to the store with. A few times, I see something promising and look. Each time, it’s a false alarm and if there’s anyone in the car I’m checking out, they stare at me as I creep slowly past. What’s this LOOK like to them? Well, that’s a question that doesn’t occur to me until afterwards so I continue my mission, leaving a trail of freaked out helicopter parents and neighborhood watch enthusiasts in my wake.

About 15 minutes in, I finally realize this isn’t going to work. Either these people are way faster than I imagined, or we were the last house in the neighborhood. Maybe they’re halfway to Reno to blow their phonebook blood money on doing a gamblings or whatever it is physical spammers do with profits, I don’t know.

I give up. I tuck the phonebook in front of my seat and head back to the office.

A day or two later, my wife notices it on the floor of my car and asks what it’s doing there. I tell her, and she’s immediately practical. “Throw it away or put it in the recycling”, she tells me. “If your plan was to give it back and they’re gone, just get rid of it”.

This doesn’t sit well with me because I feel like then that means the world gets another victory over human decency. The kind of people who throw phonebooks at houses get a pass, and the rest of us need to deal with their anti-social behavior. It doesn’t seem quite right, like I’d would be giving up.

“Well, I was thinking”- I lie, having been doing no such thing, everything I’m about to tell her is occurring to me as I speak so nobody is more surprised than me when that sentence continues: “that maybe I’ll just wait until I see someone who’s parked terribly and maybe put the phonebook under their windshield wiper as some kind of silly, petty protest.”

Hearing it out loud, that actually doesn’t sound half bad. Out of the thousands of ways people have objected to antisocial parking over the centuries, this is a pretty inoffensive one. Yeah, I think maybe I could actually do this. It’ll be great!

Then I remember I’ve just been talking to someone, the level-headed practical bedrock in my life who keeps me together. I can sit here patting myself on the back all I want, but the woman whose opinion is important to me and whose judgment I trust would probably have some input on this grand scheme. I brace myself, this idea may not survive the cold light of logic and sense. These thoughts happen in a flash, she responds instantly.

“Then go get some more of those phonebooks from our neighbors”, she suggests reasonably, “there’s lots of bad parkers. If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right”.

Damnit, I love this woman so much.

NPO Energomash to re-brand RD-180

....and the rocket's red glare
NPO Energomash has begun experimenting with a technique to add colors signifying American patriotism to the exhaust flames so that each launch may serve as a reminder.

MOSCOW, Russia (AP) – NPO Energomash has announced that their successful Ракетный Двигатель-180 (known in the west as the RD-180) will be renamed the “Reagan-180”, freeing it from further threat of trade restrictions imposed by the United States.

“Some senators in the United States”, announced NPO spokesman Dmitri Moiseyevich, “have expressed concerns related to this reliable, mission-proven RD-180 engine. After careful consideration, we are proud to announce that this high-performance propulsion device shall now be known as the Reagan 180, named”, he added, “after the brave President and Actor respected by so many over… there.” He continued to note that a careful reading of attempted restrictions on the engines has revealed that the limitations on use for defense payloads is keyed off the name of the engine itself, not the country of origin.

“We are seeing in document”, Mr. Moiseyevich said, pointing at a printout of the latest defense spending legislation, “that specifically is calling out ‘RD-180’ and so we are asking selves: are we being too proud to change name?” Shaking his head emphatically, the spokesman assured gathered reporters this was not the case. “Absolutely not, and we have chosen your Ronald Reagan as the new name of the engine to honor this great statesman, not simply to give it a name that would make it politically impossible to ban.  Looking significantly into the crowd, he continued that “to suggest such a cynical strategy for defeating the wishes of, say, a respected war hero in your Congress is beyond mention.”

The Reagan-180 American Freedom is fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen, and the NPO Energomash rep noted that from a statistical standpoint, every flight almost certainly uses at least some oxygen that had at one point been breathed by the founders of the United States of America. “Is propelled by freedom!” he enthused.

Wisdom in the larceny of youth

Many Earth years ago, one of my sons was 5 years old and made a color copy of a $1 bill (both sides), cut them out, and taped them together. As an added bonus, he wrote “20” on each corner with a green marker then tried to present it to me.

After telling him about counterfeiting and the various problems, I added that it wouldn’t even work because most people would look at it and know instantly it was counterfeit.

“But I don’t have to fool all the people,” he responded, “I just have to fool one person”.

That left me thinking for a while.

Life's too short to be nice