Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New Layout/Thoughts on Good Blog Aesthetics

If you've visited this blog before this week, you probably noticed that it suddenly looks different. Rest assured that it is still the same Jim/Blog as always (sometimes when blogs I enjoy change their layouts I'm temporarily unsure if I've visited the wrong site.)

Anyway, I've know since I began blogging that I needed a better layout. Up until this most recent change I had been using one of the basic layouts that blogger offers. It wasn't particularly professional looking, interesting, or even easy to read. Unfortunately, I also haven't had the time to change it. Until now.

As I considered what I wanted, I came up with this informal list of things I look for in a successful blog layout:

1. It shouldn't be overly generic looking. In my case, I wanted something that was unique and customizable enough to be distinctive.

2. It shouldn't look like a boring web magazine or tech support site.

3. It shouldn't have white text on a black background. I know many of my friends blogs have black backgrounds and white fonts — and that has kind of a cool, edgy look — but it's also really hard to read. Every time I read those blogs (especially in low lighting) my retinas feel burned.

4. It should still look professional. Again, in my case, just because I wanted to it be exciting doesn't mean I wanted it to look like a 14 year-old's myspace page.

As is probably apparent, I am still using a generic blogger template for this site. I briefly used a different template I found on a third party website (it was up for about a day), but Laura told me it looked like a blog about heavy metal, so I changed it. I disagreed, but it was nevertheless still someone else's template and I wanted something that wasn't masquerading as unique.

Instead, I've decided to try to keep the layout simple and slowly make it more distinctive over time. I made the banner at the top of the page, for example, the other night. (I'm still working on making the banner more legible). Also, I'm using a fairly ugly gray as the background. That should change as I find a good background color that is neither white nor black. Ultimately, however, I decided that I was just going to have to learn HTML to come up with exactly what I wanted. In the meantime, however, I've gone with this one.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday Movie

Thinking about my blog, I've decided that A) I need to have shorter posts, B) I need to post more often, and C) I need to post more things that people might be interested in.

Enter "Monday Movie."

What I hope to do is post a movie recommendation each Monday. I always appreciate getting good movie recommendations from people (especially people whose cinematic taste I trust), so I thought I'd offer more suggestions of my own.

What this won't be is an analysis or discussion of movies. I'll still do posts like that from time to time, but for "Monday Movie" I'll just throw out a recommendation and maybe include a few sentences about why I like that movie.

So, without further ado, today's recommendation is Cassandra's Dream. This film was directed by Woody Allen, but is probably the least Allen-esque film I've seen (at least in a while). It's actually quite dark (if still kind of funny at times) and doesn't really have the archetypal "Woody Allen" character in it. Still, it's a great watch.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Animals, Food, and Compounding Problems

This morning I read this New York Times OpEd, which basically argues that many animals are being subjected to cruel treatment and that that needs to stop. I agree, but was appalled at the proposed solution: genetically engineering animals so they cannot feel pain.

Initially, I couldn't believe I was reading such a shocking and idiotic idea. Surely the author's intentions (eliminating animal cruelty) are worthy, but this seems like an absurd way to go about it. Instead of actually addressing any of the current problems with animal/meat production (of which there are many), it actually suggests that all those problems can be solved (or skirted) with a quick and easy fix.

Obviously, this raises ethical questions, (is it right to eliminate animals' ability to feel pain?) but it also raises more practical ones as well. For example, wouldn't it be better to eliminate the conditions that produced the problems in the first place? Can a technological fix solve problems that are the result of technological farming in the first place? Doesn't this article itself reveal the severity of the problems? Doesn't that mean we should try to solve them at their roots (or reverse their causes), instead of simply reducing animals' sensitivity to dangerous conditions.

The proposal also fails to adequately acknowledge the dangers that current meat production techniques pose to humans. Though I'm not, as a rule, opposed to all genetic engineering, I am opposed to raising animals in ways that are both cruel to them and unhealthy to the people eating them. The article points out, for example, that some animals are suffering because they have an unnatural high-grain diet. That diet not only hurts the animals, however, but also makes the eventual meat they become far less healthy for people to consume. Altering animals to not feel pain doesn't begin to address that problem. In essence, the same things that are producing cruel situations for animals are making meat products dangerously unhealthy for humans. Genetically reducing animals' pain would allow unhealthy practices to continue, ultimately causing far more harm (to animals and humans) in the long run.

Ultimately, this article advocates a dangerous idea. It will deceive consumers into thinking that they're getting a better product when they're actually getting something that is the same, or worse, as usual. Instead of figuring out how to make animals more comfortable in horrible situations, we should be figuring out how to eliminate those situations. We could give them the proper food, space to grow properly, and a more natural environment to live in. There are serious farming-related problems out there for which we urgently need solutions, but simply reducing animal pain would mean winning one battle while ignoring a much larger war. Fighting that war might mean higher prices for consumers (and/or less meat consumption), but side-stepping it with more genetic engineering will only compound a terrible situation.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In-N-Out is a Typical Chain Resturant

Recently, In-N-Out infiltrated northern Utah, where I currently reside. It's been a big hit. However, I'm always surprised by the quasi-religious devotion that the company engenders. Its food is decent and, having grown up in California, I've partaken of it many times. On the other hand, it isn't the best out there.

With the company's continued expansion, I think it's important to remember one`` thing: In-N-Out is a chain. Like all chains, it does some things well, but it also does some things very poorly. Generally speaking, it promotes a particular world view that, while perhaps more salient than that of McDonalds et al., is no less generic.

More specifically, In-N-Out, as a chain, works against local communities in a number of ways. Most obviously, it siphons profits back to its California headquarters. Though it reportedly pays its employees well and ranks high in customer satisfaction, the bottom line is that the people getting the richest are concentrated in one central location. In my case, that location also happens to be hundreds of miles away.

In addition, the company competes with and undercuts more unique businesses that are based in the community. Someone will probably read this and complain that if those businesses can't compete they deserve to go under, but what options are available to them when confronted with the billions of dollars and virtually unlimited resources of a huge company? Without any real advertising budget or marketing strategists, it might take years for a local burger joint to achieve profitability. If In-N-Out decides to open a store nearby, they're immediately out of time to win over new customers. Entrepreneurial vigor obviously wilts and with it creativity and diversity. Because of the chain's clout and name recognition, then, consumers don't really have a chance to make informed decisions.

There are lots of reasons that In-N-Out, like all chains, is destructive to local communities, but the point here is that it isn't extraordinarily cool, unique, or better than other companies that are frequently lampooned as "evil corporations" in popular culture. It surely siphons less profits back to its corporate headquartes than McDonalds, but it still does it.

Of course, some people would argue that In-N-Out is a family run business, not a franchise, and that that somehow makes it better. And it's true, the company certainly isn't as big (or as bent on world domination) as other companies. Yet, aren't most huge companies "family run" at some point. Wal-Mart, for example, was started by the Walton family. McDonald's began with two brothers. For In-N-Out's turn, it's not actually owned by the original family anyway, so how exactly is it a family company?

Other devotees maintain that the company embodies admirable values. They cite things like the Bible verses on the food packaging, or the good treatment of employees. To these claims I would say that there is no doubt that In-N-Out is less bad than bigger (and less personal) chains. However, it's also less good than many local businesses, which may espouse the same values.

What is so surprising about this debate, however, is how thoroughly people believe in the image that In-N-Out is selling. Much like
Apple Computers (which I use and love), In-N-Out has marketed an ethos of coolness, underdog values, and small-time business. Increasingly, however, the image is simply the result of slick corporate packaging. Compared to local businesses, the company merely puts a facade on a bloated profit-machine. They've essentially duped the consumer into thinking they're better than other chains, when in reality, they're the same.

Ultimately, people have a right to eat what they want. Also, I'll probably eat at In-N-Out again at some point in my life (after all, I don't dislike their food). I'm not arguing that the chain is evil, but rather that it isn't particuarly helpful to non-So Cal towns. Basically, I can't imagine that there is any community anywhere that has an In-N-Out but also doesn't have something better. The Provo/Orem area has quite a few better burger joints (here, here, here, here, here). And, not only do they have better food, but the money they make stays in the community. Though In-N-Out markets itself as hip and small, it's really just pushing these kinds of places out of business.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day Tradition

Sometimes it's fascinating how traditions emerge. This weekend Laura and I engaged in our annual Valentine's Day celebration. That includes going to Doc's Pizza Buffet in Provo, followed by attending a movie at the dollar theater.

Initially, this tradition started as a kind of parody of the holiday. A few years ago, while we were still dating, we felt like we should go do something to celebrate. However, neither of us were actually very big fans of the holiday (for the usual reasons: commercial, arbitrary, etc.). So, we decided to do the most unromantic thing we knew. We went to Doc's, which is an extremely cheap family buffet which has mediocre pizza at best, and then went and saw The Departed (an excellent, but fairly violent and wholly unromantic gangster flick).

The next year we did the same thing (I can't remember what movie we saw), thinking that it was a good way to do something together while simultaneously making fun of a pointless "holiday." In fact, we've done the same thing every year since then. It has become our tradition.

This year, as Valentine's Day approached, I was really looking forward to cheap pizza and a cheap movie. I was not, however, thinking about how our activities would satirize consumerism or artificial holidays. Basically, the original point of our "celebration" had been lost and I was just looking forward to doing something fun.

I still look down on Valentine's Day, but apparently Laura and I now have a real tradition that is a lot less ironic than I ever imagined it would be. If I'm being honest, it's probably one of my favorite holiday traditions of the year. I'm not sure what that means, other than serving as evidence that if I do something long enough, it will take on sentimental significance even if the original purpose was to satirize it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine's Day Movie Recommendations

Laura and I watch a lot of films and this week we watched a couple that are perfect for Valentine's Day. The first, Adam was originally a Sundance film that screened in 2009. (It was actually the only movie I've tried to go standby for but didn't make it in.) This last week we finally Netflixed it, and I was substantially more impressed than I had expected to be.

The plot revolves around Adam (Hugh Dancy), a 29 year old New Yorker with Aspergers syndrome, and his romantic relationship with Beth (played by Rose Byrne of Sunshine and 28 Weeks Later fame).

Initially, that premise made me a little skeptical. I originally wanted to see it at Sundance because I was going in a group of people and a love story seemed relatively likely to please everyone. Then, I put it on my Netflix queue mostly because I hadn't been able to see it before and I wanted to know what I had missed. I was also skeptical about another movie about a guy with a mental disorder. After Tropic Thunder's hilarious and pointed critique of that trope, could any movie do mental problems without seeming pandering or trite?

In this case, Adam mostly avoids the problems that Thunder was making fun of. If the film deserves any criticism it'd probably be for trying too hard to be hip (but what Sundance film doesn't have that problem?) Still, it's an affective story with a truly remarkable, if not wholly satisfying, ending. It demonstrates that romantic comedies can be inventive and refreshing and is well worth a watch.

You can watch the trailer here.

My second recommendation is Conversations With Other Women starring Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter. The film came out in 2005 and is presented entirely in split screen. Though Laura and I were initially worried that that approach would get tiresome and annoying, we both got used to it quickly. As the film goes on split screen is used to show the different characters' perspectives, or to show how one person might be feeling two ways at once. Some critics were divided on this aspect of the film, and it's definitely an experiment, but I ultimately felt like it succeeded.

The film also displays some fine acting. I'm used to seeing Helena Bonham Carter as a crazy, Tim Burton-character, but this film shows off her feminine and emotional side to great effect.

If you're into film making, Conversations will also be interesting because it was the first film to have the Final Cut Pro logo at the end. They shot the whole thing digitally and edited it mostly on a laptop, which is still pretty unusual (the special features go into more detail on this topic, though I have to admit that by 2005 I thought a lot of filmmakers had made the switch to Final Cut Pro).

Anyway, it's a well acted and entertaining film. It's not a romantic comedy, per se, but it is a romance and it's funny in some parts. More importantly, it's all about how two people give and receive love over the course of many years.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Kneaders for Breakfast

For quite a while now I've been meaning to try Kneaders all-you-can eat French toast breakfast. I'd heard good things before, and French toast happens to be one of my favorite foods, so it had always seemed promising. So, this Saturday Laura and I decided to give it a try.

Kneaders serves breakfast until 11 am and you can get the French toast to-go or to eat in. We decided to eat in, as using the drive through wouldn't have allowed us to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat aspect. We showed up around 10 am, on a Saturday and I was shocked at how crowded the restaurant was. We visited the one on Bulldog Blvd in Provo and the line snaked through about half the building. Thankfully, it moved relatively fast and we were able to order.

The French toast breakfast is about $5. It initially comes with two pieces of French toast, a small cup of syrup (refillable), wiped cream, and strawberries. All of it was excellent. The French toast was very thick and the syrup was unique but delicious (it made me remember how inadequate many store-bought syrups actually are). After having eaten everything on my plate I was actually really full. Still, as it turns out the breakfast includes as many pancakes as you want, in addition to French toast, so I decided to go back for more. I went back up to the counter and the guy there immediately served me a large, fluffy pancake. Laura and I were both so full, however, that we decided to split it instead of each getting our own. Unfortunately, they did not give me more wiped cream or strawberries, though I'm more of a syrup guy anyway so it wasn't a big deal.

If the food was fantastic, the eating experience was considerably less so. Not only was the line long, but the actual eating space had at least twice as many people in it as it should have. People were standing up eating, and all the tables were surrounded by vulture-like patrons ready to pounce as soon as someone got up. Luckily, we happened to be next to a table when a family left and we we're able to sit down. However, throughout the meal people constantly bumped into us, pushed by us, and stared covetously at our table. I also have no doubt that if a fire marshal showed up he would have had to close the place down for being over capacity.

Of course, we probably went at the busiest time of the week (and possibly to the busiest Kneaders location too). However, if they're going to offer such a popular product it seems only fair that they figure out a way to see that product without such over crowding. As we walked out people who were finishing at the same time joked to other patrons that they would be taking the highest bid for their table. The whole thing was was pretty ridiculous.

Overall, the food was fantastic but I'd definitely recommend using the drive through if you're going on a Saturday morning. They provide more than enough food on a single plate, and the all-you-can-eat component didn't really end up mattering very much to me and Laura.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rick Steves and Empathy

If you've never seen Rick Steves' Europe, you should check it out. Literally. The Provo Library has a bunch of DVDs you can get for free and if you live somewhere else, your local library also may have them.

For the uninitiated, Rick Steves is a travel writer and hosts the show mentioned above. He started out by writing a book called Europe Through the Back Door and has expanded his travel empire since.

As a travel writer, Steves' is both useful and cheesy. As he goes around Europe you get the distinct impression that he is a very much a tourist. He dresses like an American, he can't really speak any European languages, and he balances hard to find spots with very tourist-y places.

But the thing that really stands out to me about Steves is that he seems like a genuinely nice guy (don't know him personally, so I can only say here that that's how he comes across in his work). He also seems to have a genuine love for the places he visits and the people he meets. In other words, Rick Steves' travel approach is all about visiting places with empathy.

At certain times I've mentioned my love of Rick Steves' travel materials to friends and have been surprised to find out that some people look down on the genres of travel writing and TV shows. Certainly, the argument could be made that this sort of thing mainly appeals to bourgeois, middle-class Americans who want to "understand" a place by visiting it for an afternoon (or, worse yet, but simply seeing it on TV).

Yet, as I think about it, I'm not sure there is any genre of writing that is more empathetic to different people than travel writing. The whole point of the genre is to soften the visitor's impact on the culture he or she is entering. Travel writing is supposed to bridge cultural divides and is directly concerned with communication and understanding. Certainly some people use travel information to appropriate and totalize, but ideally it would be used to build understanding.

Rick Steves' is a master at this because he understands both the places he visits, as well as his audience (who, in my case, is sitting at home). He's an entertaining link that makes empathetic travel seem possible.

Google Docs

Between my various different jobs and my old and failing Apple Powerbook G4 12 inch, I'm using a lot of different computers these days. Rather than use flash drives and email to ensure I have access to all the necessary documents, I have switched to using Google Docs. In fact, I haven't opened Word in almost a month. If you haven't used Google Docs (probably you have, but who knows), all you need to do is make sure you're signed into your gmail account and go to

Though Google Docs isn't perfect, it is pretty great. Here is my review of the program.

Pros: Google docs is easy to use. Really easy in fact. It's possible to set everything up so that it pretty much mimics the folders you have on your computer. Right now, for example, I have three folders; one each for my blog, the Daily Herald, and Rhombus. Obviously if I'd been using Google Docs longer, I'd have more folders.

The best part about using Google Docs, however, has to been that you never have to mess with sending files, saving them somewhere, or transferring them. If needed, you can send them as attachments, but you can also share them and make the available to others through Google Docs itself. This approach to creating and storing files (i.e. cloud computing), is so much better than traditional computing that I can't figure out why it hasn't completely caught on yet. The biggest disadvantage that I see is that I still have store music, video, etc. on my computer.

Cons: Probably the biggest downside to using Google Docs is that you give up some freedom to manipulate your work. For example, I love fonts and have downloaded and installed quite a few on my computer. These fonts didn't come with any program and I had to find them on my own, usually because I was making a particular kind of document. As of right now, I can't really figure out how to get extra fonts into Google Docs. That means that either it can't be done, or that doing it isn't quite as easy as doing anything else in the program.

For me, this is a big disadvantage to Google Docs. Though I rarely use Word any more, I'd be reluctant to get rid of it completely because at some point the basic style settings aren't going to cut it. (On the other hand, I guess I could just buy Photoshop and only use word processing programs for basic writing.)

The other big disadvantage is that Google Docs relies on an internet connection. For most people that's not a big deal, though Laura and I use the neighbor's unprotected wireless network and we thus don't always have a stable connection. The times I've opened Word during the last month or so have been when I couldn't access the internet, and therefore couldn't get into Google Docs. This is extremely frustrating.

Of course that's more my problem than Google's, but it seems that people are going to have unstable internet connections more often than their computers are going to crash, which means that using Google docs will almost always be less reliable than Word.

Conclusion: The world is almost ready for a complete switch to Google Docs (and cloud computing, generally). We're not quite there yet, but once internet access is as stable as, say, landline telephones, there will be no reason to have much storage space on personal computers.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Teaching at SLCC

I've mentioned a few times in previous posts that I'm currently working at the Daily Herald in Provo. However, that is only a part time gig. In addition, I'm also teaching at Salt Lake Community College. I teach two sections of advanced writing. In many ways, the job is a pain. I have to get up early, commute 40 minutes there and 40 minutes back, my class sizes are relatively big, and the pay is terrible.

However, despite all those negative aspects of the job, it's really kind of cool. Also, because I was previously teaching at BYU, I can't help but compare the two teaching environments. BYU pays much better (even though I was a graduate instructor I made roughly twice as much), has smaller classes, and better facilities.

Yet, in many ways, teaching at SLCC is a better experience. The students, for example, are at least as engaged as BYU students. In fact, many of them are more engaged. They make a lot of comments, and have insightful things to say. There is also a lounge for instructors that has complementary hot chocolate. I don't have a cubicle (as I sort of did at BYU), but I do have most of the resources I need to teach.

The other big thing that makes teaching at SLCC interesting is the diversity. It's no secert that BYU is a pretty homogenous place, but I think that a lot of people at BYU kid themselves into thinking that it has some substantial diversity too. (I know I did this.) Sure, there are a handful of international students, and a slight variation in economic class.

Yet, at SLCC probably a third of my students can barely speak English. Virtually all of them have jobs, and they practice a variety of different religions, political ideologies, and value systems.

Diversity, by itself, may not be inherently good (though I tend to think it is), but the advantage it offers is that class discussion is more lively, nuanced, and probing than it tended to be at BYU. No one can simply take values for granted. If someone starts assuming something about everyone else (like, for example, that everyone agrees politically or religiously), there are a bunch of people to immediately call that person on it. This rarely happened in my courses at BYU and those students who were different (who were, say, moderate democrates) tended to either get shut down by other students or danced around their actual beliefs in an effort to avoid alienating people. (That didn't always happen, but my point is that in this regard BYU pales in comparison to SLCC.)

There are a few reasons this matters. First, I think it'd be useful for BYU to attempt to diversify itself. If the point college courses is to encourage critical thinking (which it was in the courses I taught), diversity is one of the best and easiest ways to accomplish that.

Second and more broadly, however, I think that people (especially university-educated people, including myself) should avoid knocking community colleges. Personally, I can't remember a time in my life where my sphere of university-bound kids or university alumni didn't look down on community college.

As I've been teaching at SLCC however, I've come to see this as not-so-thinly veiled class politics. It's a way to look down on certain people, and a way to believe that one group is "better" than another. Of course, few people would actually admit to these attitudes and perhaps few even personally hold them. But the over arching meta-narrative in the university world is that community college is filled with the incapable, the unmotivated, and the unpromising.

My experience thus far at SLCC suggests otherwise.