Category Archives: Personal

Posts of a personal nature–what is happening with me.

A DIY Media Center for $145

Over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, I worked on a DIY project for my home. The idea was to create a Linux-based media center on a Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi is a tiny but remarkably powerful computer on a circuit board designed by the good folks at the Raspberry Pi Foundation (http://www.raspberrypi.org). It can run a number of different operating systems, including various Linux-based distributions and a stripped-down version of Windows 10. The original idea behind the Raspberry Pi was to create a tool that educators could use to teach young people about computers and programming languages. The official, supported, Raspbian OS is based on the Debian Jessie Linux distribution and comes with educational games, math tools, programming environments, and other software packages for children. But the low-cost computer (about $35 on Amazon) has since proved extremely popular with the DIY crowd, who have used the thing to power everything from robots, to automatic plant waterers, to magic mirrors. Search the web for “Raspberry Pi projects” and you’ll find long lists of ideas, as well as fully developed projects that people have already created using the tiny computer.

I can’t take credit for the media center idea. Many intrepid enthusiasts have been there before me and passed down their experiences in a plethora of web pages, blog posts, and YouTube videos. Moreover, I’m indebted to the many programmers and open source enthusiasts who continue to contribute their time and skills to the Kodi (https://kodi.tv/) and OSMC (https://osmc.tv/) open source projects for the software to make this work. Nevertheless, I had to solve enough problems to get the everything working in my network environment and with my particular digital resources to make the project both engaging and fun.

The end result is a pleasing graphical application that displays on my television and offers a single interface to access and organize my entire music collection, all my collected videos, my digital photographs, and streaming media from various online sources. I orchestrate it all from a small, wireless, bluetooth keyboard or an iPhone application.

The hardware and software components I purchased to create this project are listed below:

CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Kit with Clear Case and 2.5A Power Supply – $49.99
SanDisk Ultra 64GB microSDXC UHS-I Card with Adapter (you could do fine with a smaller one) – $14.99
Logitech K380 Multi-Device Bluetooth Keyboard – $24.95
Western Digital My Passport Ultra 1TB External USB 3.0/2.0 Portable Hard Drive – $49.95

MPEG-2 license key – £2.00 GBP (from the Raspberry Pi Foundation)
VC-1 license key – £2.00 GBP (from the Raspberry Pi Foundation)

Total cost of project: $144.88

Advertisements

Advertising Culture

Americans spend thousands of hours every year watching commercials and viewing advertisements in print and online media. While I occasionally hear complaints, those complaints mostly center around the interruption to their favorite television show or the aggravation of dealing with popups and the other aggressive ads that take over your internet browser. Rarely do people seem concerned about the content of the advertising they watch or the effect it has on the watcher.

Advertisements are designed to convince the consumer of something. The goals vary. I often watch TV for a few hours before retiring for the night. Most of the ads I see could be translated as some variation on the following:

  • I will be happier/healthier if I purchase this product. (If only it were so easy. No soap or grooming product I’ve tried has shifted my mood so much as a millimeter. Nor, for that matter, has one ever gotten me laid.)
  • I should feel good about this company. (It may contribute millions of pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere every year and pay no taxes, but it’s made up of people just like me, so how could it possibly be bad.)
  • This political candidate has my best interests at heart. The other one does not. (I’m actually more concerned about each candidate’s policy initiatives. But those are rarely mentioned in ads—and never in enough detail to allow any rational evaluation of the initiative or the candidate. )

None of the claims implicit or explicit in the advertisements I watched last night were based on anything resembling truth. Not a single one. Some were more subtle in their lies than others, but all of the ads were designed to make me think or feel things that were not supported by fact or reasonable analysis. Yes, burning rubber doing donuts in a parking lot does look fun, but I do not need, nor do I want to pay for the gasoline guzzled by a 300 horsepower muscle car. All of the messages encouraged me to behave in a way which would serve the interests of the company or organization sponsoring the advertisement. Rarely would those coincide with my own. Adults presumably have a greater capacity than children to discern truth from fiction, and thus, to shield themselves from any ill effect from all the messages blaring from every television and computer. But even if I discount the possibility of damage to the mature, according to statisticsbrain.com, the average child will watch 16,000 commercials in a year. What effect does all that advertising have on children whose capacity for rational thought is not fully developed? If nothing else, think of the last time you saw a child screaming for candy in the grocery store.

During the recent presidential election I had to assume that one of the candidates would probably represent my interests better than the other, but none of the ads I saw in the run-up to November 8 were useful determining which one that might be. So Hillary Clinton will do things to benefit families and the middle class. What things, exactly? Are her proposals likely to get past Congress? Nevertheless, I expect the ads were convincing to some voters. After the election, many pundits speculated as to why voters voted the way they did. Personally, I was amazed how many voters were willing to ignore Donald Trumps many offensive statements and vote for him despite any misgivings. Some were clearly swayed by the vilification of “Crooked Hillary” by the Right. (“Lock her up!” Trump supporters chanted. For what, exactly? If were any real evidence of wrongdoing, she would have been prosecuted before she received the majority of the popular vote. Trump, on the other hand, has been party to some 4,000 lawsuits in the past thirty years and is named 75 ongoing ones—this according to USA Today. Crooked indeed!) I wonder if some voters weren’t so numbed by the messages on television—and so distrustful of them—that they simply discounted everything they heard and picked their candidate simply because they perceived him to be more of a change from the current—disappointing—one.

This year, my National Public Radio station significantly increased the number of corporate sponsorship messages they air. Worse yet, they began to broadcast out-and-out advertisements (as well as more frequent promotions of their own content). I feel betrayed. The unspoken contract to which I have been a party for years has been that NPR will not broadcast ads. In return, I will assume less bias in their stories, and I will pay for the privilege of listening to this unbiased content with regular donations. No public discussion, as far as I am aware, proceeded this change of policy. My response has been to redirect my giving to other causes.

Can it possibly be a good thing to expose ourselves to a barrage of untruth every day? I have heard marketing apologists argue that the best ads simply bring to a person’s attention to a product, company, issue, or candidate that they might not otherwise know about. While this is certainly true, it absurdly reductive. Ask yourself this: are the products advertised the most the best ones on the market? Are they any better than the no-name equivalents next to them on the supermarket shelf? They are certainly more expensive. What about the cholesterol medicines pushed on television? Are they better than the generic equivalents? What about other treatments? Shouldn’t my doctor be making such assessments based on clinical data rather than ad-prompted patient requests? Capitalists may argue that exposure to advertising is the inevitable price of economic progress. I would like to examine this idea more closely, for it seems to me that the current state of our country may be the result of a Faustian bargain.

Dr. Anonymous

I’m at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania tonight to hear about Dr. Anonymous—John Fryer—who famously spoke out against the psychological profession’s classification of homosexuality as pathology at the American Psychological Association in 1972. You can find out more at the HSP website.

Launch day for Billy Goat Stats, Second in the DIY Family Series

Today is launch day for Billy Goat Stats, the second in my DIY Family series after Music Box. I’ve described Billy Goat Stats in detail elsewhere, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to write about the DIY Family series as a whole.

Billy Goat Stats

As a gay man, I’ve long heard stories from friends and acquaintances about impossible expectations, abuse, and heartbreak—the trauma of an oppressed minority. But I’ve also seen the other side of that coin: men and women whose unconventional relationships have turned into long-term commitments, former lovers whose ongoing friendships glow with the patina of shared experience, and men whose families have redefined their qualifications for membership out of compassion or respect for freedom. These people have forged new families from the hot steel of rejection. Their battles against social convention, religious dogma, and the unfair constraints of traditional gender roles have tempered them into extraordinary people. These are the people I love, and the people I have tried to write about.

Music BoxIn Music Box, compassion drives two older men to help a younger one who is related, not by blood, but by a mutual love of music. In Billy Goat Stats, a young man finds that a successful basketball season requires that he nourish bonds between people of very different backgrounds and experience.

I have more stories to write, but I’m sure you have your own. I’d love to hear about them.

On Gay Marriage: It’s Time to Learn from our Past

This is not a political blog. I normally limit my topics to writing or publishing. My purpose is to document my experiences as a writer, and to offer a window into my life for readers who may want to know more about me. However, some of what I write is M/M romance. As such, my choice to speak publicly about my writing is inescapably political.

For the past two days, I have been tracking the arguments in the US Supreme Court regarding California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). As a gay man, my feelings on the subject are strong. They are also personal and perhaps outside the scope of this blog, but I think a statement of my beliefs at this historic moment is appropriate.

I support the right of adults to marry and to raise children. Race, religion, sexual preference, or gender do not enter into it. I believe that marriage is, first and foremost, a declaration of commitment to a shared life: shared goals, shared resources, and shared experiences. I believe that marriage requires communication, strengthens human ties, and teaches community-building skills. As such, I believe marriage to be a social good, which should be encouraged and supported by the state for all persons who can be convinced to embrace it. I think that DOMA and Proposition 8 are wrong, not only because they create a class of persons for the purpose of discriminating against them, but also because they don’t serve the interest of the country or its citizens. Marriage is responsible behavior. It does not make sense to me to engage in law-making for the purpose of discriminating against a group of citizens who merely wish to engage in responsible behavior.

Our founding fathers wisely created a political system insulated from religion. They understood that organized religion is inherently exclusionary. Its fundamental proposition is that we true believers are right, and you non-believers and heretics are wrong. Yet we live in a world of diverse religions and beliefs. Historically, when we have tried to put religious beliefs into law, our actions have inevitably resulted in oppression of non-believers, often in the most brutal and inhuman of ways.

I believe that most opposition to gay marriage in this country is religiously motivated, and that we are wise to keep this motive out of the statehouse. In my lifetime, our country has made great strides in lessening the misery caused by its discriminatory laws and oppression of minorities. I propose that we should learn from our past, and treat all citizens with dignity, regardless of their sexual preferences, and afford them the equal protection and application of the law. DOMA and Proposition 8 should go.

My Mother has Cancer

Five weeks ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV (Metastatic) Breast Cancer. By the time it was diagnosed, the cancer was well advanced, even for Stage IV. Things my mother has said to me directly and things that she has said to other family members suggest that she has known for some time (perhaps years) that she was ill. However, she chose to treat her illness with herbal preparations and other alternative approaches. She did not visit an MD until she was having difficulty breathing and one of her arms had swollen to three times its normal size. She went so far as to cancel her Medicare Part B insurance some months ago. She has no other insurance, apart from government-provided Medicare and Medicaid.

It’s hard to assess my mother’s reasons for refusing medical treatment until it was too late for radiation or chemotherapy to be effective. She says she has lived a full live and that she’s not sorry to go. She does not show any sign that her comforting beliefs in alternative medicine, reincarnation, and spirit guides have waned in the face of her illness. On the other hand, she’s not had a long-term intimate relationship since she divorced my father in 1967. Perhaps fear of living alone and growing progressively more feeble due to illness motivated her to find a way to go quickly. Perhaps she was in denial about the severity of what was happening to her. Perhaps she she really believed that herbs would cure her cancer.

My own feelings are mixed. I don’t share her belief system, so it’s hard not to dismiss her ideas about reincarnation and spirit guides as wishful thinking. I know this: I’m not ready to lose my mother. I wish she had gotten effective medical treatment sooner. Now all I can do is tell her that I love her and wait.

Update: my mother passed away December 23, 2011. She was lucid and speaking to the staff of the nursing home until shortly before she died.

Prosthetic Legs, Plain Speech, and a Borrowed Suit

Odd questions arise when you’re writing historical fiction. What kind of prosthetic limbs were available to World War I veterans in 1919? Of what were they constructed and what did they look like? That was one set of questions I had to answer when I was writing my second novel, The Door Behind Us (due out in a month or so.) The novel is set mostly in 1919 and 1920. To get a feel for the time and locations that figure in the novel, I visited libraries, read historical documents, bought one obscure and expensive privately printed account of the operations of the Friends Ambulance Unit, and spent a lot of time searching the web.

It turns out that prosthetic limbs were still crude in 1919. They were heavy compared to the limbs available today and not particularly flexible. One manufacturer of products that would have been available to an amputee in 1919 was the Ohio Willow Wood Company of Mt. Sterling, Ohio. They still manufacture prosthetic limbs today. As the name suggests, they made legs out willow wood. Willow, it turns out, is light, resistant to cracking, and even grained. (It also looks good, a factor which figures in my story.) Better options for amputees didn’t really begin to appear until World War II.

Other questions I had to answer for The Door Behind Us had to do with Quaker plain speech. In 1919, many Quakers still used plain speech, which involves the use of the singular (familiar) form of address as opposed to the plural (formal), and substitutes words like thee and thine for you and yours.  For Quakers, the use of plain speech is a testimony, a way of demonstrating one’s beliefs with one’s actions, and a part of the testimony of simplicity. One of my characters in The Door Behind Us is a Quaker. He drives an ambulance for the American Friends Ambulance Unit, a fictional organization based on the real-life Friends Ambulance Unit, which operated in France during the Great War. His father uses the plain speech.

My fascination with this dialect comes from my own experience listening to my grandmother’s plain speech as a child. I thought it exotic and beautiful. I regret that it is rarely heard anymore, even among the Quakers.

In researching the Friends Ambulance Unit, I ran across an interesting anecdote. In 1947, the Quakers, as represented by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the British Friends Service Council, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their service and efforts to promote peace. The award was accepted by Henry Cadbury, a relative of the chocolate-manufacturing Cadburys. Perhaps not surprisingly for a Quaker raised in the tradition of the testimony of simplicity, Cadbury did not own a long-tailed coat appropriate for the award ceremony. He appeared in a suit borrowed from an AFSC warehouse, which had been collected in a charity drive for the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.