Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thank You Ursula LeGuin

I received a signed book plate from Ursula K. LeGuin in the mail today! LeGuin is a giant in the science-fiction world and most famous for her 1969 groundbreaking and multiple award winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Earlier this month I read The Left Hand of Darkness, and although I found the first 100 pages of this 218 page book quite boring, the back half of the novel depicts a peerless tale of friendship, courage, and endurance.

After I finish a novel it's my custom to research the book on the Internet; reading reviews and criticisms post facto. While researching The Left Hand of Darkness, I found Ursula K. LeGuin's website and learned that she is alive and well in Oregon. Her website provides her physical address so fans can write to her and receive a signed bookplate. On her website, LeGuin writes that she can no longer sign people's books because of the weight and hassle of returning said books; but she encourages those wanting a signature to send her a self-addressed stamped envelope and she will return a signed adhesive bookplate. Needless to say, I sent LeGuin a short letter and a return envelope and today I received my bookplate!

How cool is that?! A living legend who cares about her readers and freely sends them signed bookplates for their volumes when asked. Everything I read about LeGuin describes her as a tender and caring woman, and I think her personality softly radiates in her main characters in The Left Hand of Darkness, and in the bookplate she sent to me. Thank you Ursula LeGuin.
I stuck my bookplate in my first book club hardback edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, I purchased at a local book store; what a find!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Going Synthetic

Tonight I made the switch from conventional motor oil to synthetic. I'd been thinking about switching over to synthetics for a while now but didn't want to shell out the extra money for the technologically superior oil. But since school let out I've been in mechanic-mode so I figured now was good time get under the truck and change my own damn oil and make the switch. Now I'm running Castrol GTX High Mileage in my Dodge Ram (107,500 miles).

I've known how to change oil since I started driving, and for the first few changes I kinda liked doing it. Yet as the years rolled on and time grew scarce I began taking my truck to those quick-change shops, or the Tire & Lube center at the WalMart. I figured $30 wasn't too much to pay to have a professional (in the sense that they get paid to do the job) do all the work properly and dispose of the used oil. I'd never had a problem with their work and it gave me 30 minutes to mine the $5 DVD shit-bin for movie gold.

But I've been in mechanic-mode lately due in part to watching two hours of Spike TV's "Power Block" --a block of four shows all devoted to wrenchin': Extreme 4x4, Horsepower (my fav.), Trucks, and Muscle Car-- every weekend for the last month. All those TV shows recommend synthetic oils and I figured changing my own oil would satisfy my "manly" gene and give me a chance to investigate the synthetic hype.

I went to my local auto parts shop to compare the prices of conventional oil (Pennzoil, Quaker State, etc.) to synthetic oil (Castrol, Royal Purple, etc.). To my surprise, a quart of Castrol GTX High Mileage was only a buck more than a quart of Pennzoil motor oil! That, in my opinion, is a small price to pay to go synthetic. Seeing as how my Dodge only needs 4.5 quarts that translates into a $5 difference. Not too shabby. Also while I was at the auto parts shop I picked up a Haynes repair manual for my Dodge Ram. (I felt slightly embarrassed that I didn't already own one, as any do-it-yourselfer needs a manual for their vehicle.)

Before I took the leap and shelled out my dough for the oil, I figured I'd see what WalMart charged for a synthetic oil change; and here's the price gouge that will really blew me away: $55. That's a shit-ton of money for an oil change, especially when one aisle over you can buy 5 quarts of Castrol GTX for $14 and a Fram high mileage oil filter for $7. Add those together and you can do your own synthetic oil change for $21; a savings of $34! That's huge!
So that's what I did. I bought the fancy filter, 5 quarts of the super synthetic oil, drain pan, funnel, shop towel, and a jug of windshield washer fluid (I was dry), and my grand total: $37. Even factoring in the cost of the Haynes manual I still only spent $57, which is $2 more expensive than the synthetic WalMart oil-change, but lands me all those essential shop tools and the invaluable repair manual.

This post probably sounds like a consumer alert piece, and it is a little bit, but if you have the gumption to change your own oil you will save money and get a better bang for you buck. I'll leave you with one last cost comparison: WalMart conventional oil change-$30; changing it yourself oil with synthetic oil and fancy filter-$21. Now that's thinkin' with your dipstick!

The torque rate for a Dodge Ram oil plug in 25ft/lbs. Thanks Haynes!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sacred Safety Sticker 交通安全ステッカー

I know how dangerous riding motorcycles can be, so the more I can stack the deck in my favor the better. I keep myself as safe as possible by wearing a helmet, and I keep my bike safe with my Shinto "safety in traffic" sticker (the yellow one with the red shrine gate in the pic).

As Americans, we don't customarily put these kind of stickers on our cars. Sure we've all seen the "Jesus is my co-pilot" bumper stickers, but these are totally different from the "safety in traffic" sticker.

Across the top of the sticker are four Japanese characters (kanji): 交通安全. The first two characters, 交通 (koutsu) mean "traffic," and the last two characters 安全 (anzen) mean safety. Beneath the "safety in traffic" characters is the name of the shrine whose god is looking out for you and your vehicle, which in this case is my favorite-and coolest-shrine in all Japan: Washinomiya Shrine, 鷲宮神社; the shrine of the small town I lived in for two years. 僕の鷲宮の友達宮内Shinya君が「交通安全」のステッカーを僕に送りました。本当にありがとうございました内友! Underneath all the writing is a drawing of the shrine gate and the eagle (FYI: "washi," as in "Washi-miya" means eagle 鷲).

As I've written about in earlier posts, most if not all Japanese people are Shintoist--at least culturally. Shintoism holds that all objects contain a god, kami 神. Things like trees and stones, rivers and mountains all have gods in them. That's peaceful to think about. But man made things also contain gods, like coffee mugs, pencils, and even, you guessed it, vehicles. In fact, it's not uncommon in Japan to see a new car and its proud owners being blessed by Shinto priests in the middle of the shrine grounds. Nothing like seeing a Mercedes getting blessed. (Click here to watch a Shinto car blessing video on YouTube.)

When cars are blessed (if that's the right word for it), the priests bless the car's spirit and ask that the car be a good and safe car for its new owners. After the blessing, many Japanese people will buy a "safety in traffic" sticker from the shrine and put it on the back window. Some shrines also sell "safety in traffic" stickers for bicycles, which are both smaller and cheaper. The going rate for a car sticker is 1,000 yen ($10) and 500-800 yen ($5-8) for a bicycle.

Even though my motorcycle wasn't blessed at Washinomiya Shrine, I believe it still has a spirit or god in it--after all it is a Yamaha--and it's nice to know he's being taken care of. My "safety in traffic" sticker helps keep my motorcycle safe and functioning properly, and that keeps me as safe I can be with my helmet on.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Your Best Worst Weakness

Anyone of us who's ever interviewed for a job has been asked this age old question: "What are your biggest weakness?" It's a standard question that all of us have answered successfully; well, those of us with jobs at least. Isn't it strange that our weaknesses will actually land us a job providing those weakness are good ones?

I know interviewers love to ask this question; but is it a good question? I was kicking this issue around the other day at work after one of my supervisors finished interviewing a potential student assistant, and the more I think about this question the less I like it.

It's not that I don't have weakness or that I hate talking about them, but I just wonder how valuable the "weakness" question is when it comes time for employers to choose the right person for the job. Asking the "weakness" question could easily be paraphrased as: "Why shouldn't I hire you?" Now if you think like I do, you're thinking about pleading the 5th on this one.

Here's the standard reasons for asking the "weakness" question:
-It makes interviewees think on their toes.
-It tells interviewers what they need to watch for if they hire the person.
-It humbles the interviewees and forces them to quit boasting about themselves.

All of these are good reasons to ask the "weakness" question; only there's a few flaws in the reasoning. For example, the whole question-and the entire interview process-hinges on the interviewee telling the truth. Undoubtedly, it is stupid to lie about where you went to school, your employment history, or any criminal convictions you might have, because the interviewer can verify your answers. But how can they verify your greatest weaknesses? Sure, they can call your old bosses and find out about the quality of your work, but they've probably already done that if they're interviewing you. So when it comes down to answering "What do you feel is your greatest weakness?" why not spruce up your answer, I mean, they're asking you a subjective question anyway.

And there are even more flaws in the logic of asking the "weakness" question. Chief among these being that no one is surprised by the question anymore. The few moments interviewees spend thinking of an answer to this question is not spent introspecting their characters, but is spent deciding which of the canned answers are most likely to please the interviewer. There's a ton of canned answers out there, the standard good ones are:
-"I work too hard."
-"I'm a perfectionist."
-"I'm too detail oriented."

The problem with these good answers is that they're too good, and because they're too good everybody's heard them before. However, giving a good canned answer might be better than giving one of my true answers, which are at the moment:
-"I eat too many potato chips. I can't resist those damn things. Got any?"
-"I talk too much. I'm a very curious person."
-"You mean work related?... uh..."

These are bad answers. I know the interviewer could care less about my potato chip addiction, but it is a big weakness for me, I can't resist those damn things. And thus we arrive at the moral dilemma: is it better to tell the truth, or kinda lie and get the job? Do you see the catch-22 the "weakness" question places on applicants?

Here's my solution that removes the moral dilemma, requires little in the way of lying, and is generally a fun loving question. My question to interviewees would be: "If you could have any superpower what would it be?" You might think that's a stupid question, but it meats the three criterion the "weakness" question supposedly satisfies. The question makes the interviewee think on their toes; it tells you what to watch out for if you hire the person (after all, what if they really possess that superpower?), and it makes them stop boasting about themselves because usually, psychology tells us, that people want superpowers that compensate for their perceived weaknesses. (I'm not sure what psychology tells us that, but it makes good sense to me.)

So for all you interviewers out there, think about the moral implications of asking the "weakness" question and consider asking the "superpower" question instead. The latter will spice up the interview, but watch out for canned answers: flying, teleporting, and telekinesis. Be especially weary of people who want invisibility and telepathy--those people are most likely greasy voyeurs.