Monday, April 30, 2007

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WikiFray Under Construction

By all means...


Off topic

Stuff and nonsense...

  • Yeah, I'd say Jacob Weisberg's probably not too concerned about us Fraysters and former Fraysters.

    At least I wouldn't be, if I were him. (HT: Kaus)

  • One thing about the Edwards haircut deal -- one of the things that seems so strange about it is that presumably there would be other ways for the barber to be paid other than campaign funds. If you were John Edwards barber and a supporter of his campaign, would you want a campaign issue made out of how much he paid for your services? So that they did it this way tells me the Edwards people (and the barber) thought it was no big deal.

  • Never was much for the NFL draft, so no big thoughts there.

  • If you're so inlclined, check out my post at MBB about the Great Strides walk to fund research to cure Cystic Fibrosis, which my 2 year old daughter has, and consider supporting us.

Turd Party

William F. Buckley Jr, apparently still alive, posits that the Iraq war may end up killing the Republican party.

I don't think it's impossible, and there is a recent precedent north of the border. In five years, from 1988 to 1993, Canada's Progressive Conservative party went from ruling power and majority to non-existence. (See here and elsewhere.) In our case it was a binding hate, for one reason or another, of one Brian Mulroney. As with Bush if it happens for you, those feeling the wrath of the voters were hapless followers, not the criminal-in-chief.

While your system seems pretty much rigged against the emergence of a viable third party, it's obviously not impossible. Plus it's time, obviously, what you have is more of a one party system with two choices. (And please, this isn't an abortion post.)

I think what any third party needs first and foremost is an exceptional leader. Without that you're not going to get off the ground. Necessary characteristics I think include intelligence, honesty .. no, forget that, or fill in the list yourself, it's too obvious. In addition to all that the person needs to be an ultra-charismatic larger-than-life leader, because he's got to take whatever new party from nothingness to viability.

Not really going anywhere with this, more of a question for y'all: is there somebody, anybody, out there who could be that person right now? I mean blue-sky the thing, no roadblocks at this point .. who could be the person?

My vote below.

Barack Obama: not perfect, and tied to the system, obviously, but those sort of traits. Maybe if Hillary gets in, and does to Bush what Bush has done to Saddam, 2012 is the year

Friday, April 27, 2007

Highly Inappropriate Presidential Haiku

Write your own! No better way to kill off a day at work! It doesn't have to be obscene! It doesn't have to include exclamation points!

Springtime in D.C.
Behold the bounty of earth.
Cherries! Turdblossoms!

Pinky and the Brain
want to take over the world.
Just like Wolfowitz.

Alack! My little red
button. How I long to press
you. So long, Paris!

Alberto, please let
me habeas your corpus.
Oh sweet Gonzales!

Harriet Meirs.
Harriet Meirs. Harri-
et Meirs. Spank me.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mike Huckabee--Authentic Crook

I just watched the rerun of last night's Colbert Report, and was treated to the spectacle of Colbert lobbing softballs at Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and current Republican presidential hopeful. Colbert led with a montage of clips showing Huckabee saying the word "authentic" over and over again. In the interview, Huckabee explained his concept of authenticity: "It's like an apple. If you cut into the apple, and it's an apple all the way to the core, that's authentic. If you cut into it and it turns out that it's plastic fruit, there's no nourishment there."

Huckabee then launched into an attack on Mitt Romney, the message being that Huckabee is an "authentic conservative," unlike Romney, who doesn't really hunt, isn't really pro-life, and presided over a state where--gasp!--homos can get married!

Colbert wasn't taking Huckabee all too seriously; he made fun of Huckabee's standing in the polls ("trailing Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, and six guys named Thompson"). But Huckabee's been making inroads; he scored some points in South Carolina over the weekend, and made a big splash last week in the press by calling for Attorney General Gonzalez to resign. Huckabee's become sort of a media darling--besides Colbert, he's appeared on The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and was a frequent guest on Imus. Of course he's appeared on all the Sunday morning political shows.

This has to be nipped in the bud, right now. So, let's talk about authenticity. Huckabee is a Baptist minister; as such, you might expect him to be an authentic man of peace (you know, like Jesus). Quite the contrary. Huckabee is a fanatic supporter of the war in Iraq (watch here as he paints the war in Iraq as a "struggle for existence."). He authentically believes that Armageddon is coming and that Israel must be defended at all costs. He also is a big proponent of the death penalty, with sixteen executions occurring while he was in office, including a triple header--three in one day! Is he an authentic Christian? I'll let you decide.

Huckabee's apple metaphor is more than apt, as long as you consider the apple to be rotten. Huckabee was the most corrupt governor Arkansas has had in recent memory. He accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from supporters, used state aircraft for personal trips, stole furniture from the governor's mansion, and ignored admonishments from the state Ethics Commission. Besides being a crook, Huckabee was a constant embarrassment to the state. He referred to conservationists as "environmental wackos," called Arkansas a "banana republic" on the Imus show, and lived in a triple-wide mobile home on the Governor's Mansion grounds while the residence was being rennovated. His son once tortured a dog to death, with no reprisals. (Read a summary of Huckabee's tenure as Arkansas governor here.)

One would hope that the press would begin giving Huckabee a closer look, particularly if his campaign begins to pick up steam. He despises such scrutiny, frequently lashing out at the press if they dare to question his integrity or to demand accountability. His thin skin will ensure that he is unable to survive as a viable candidate; the sooner that Huckabee is exposed, the better off the country will be.

Baghdad Tech vs. Virginia Tech

In the wake of sensational reports of violence, I wasted an hour or two yesterday playing around with casualty numbers and populations. A lot of fear has been used to sell this war, fear that terrorists might infiltrate U.S. institutions and wreak havoc. Not that it takes Al Qaida to do that, as residents of Blacksburg are recently quite aware. The spectacular murders there have put a lot of focus onto safety measures there as well.

Here at Slate Jake Weisberg latched onto the "regularity" of school homicides, which despite his alarm, are quite rare, amounting to about 20 per between 1992 and 2005 There were about 60 million Americans between 5 and 19 (according the 2000 Census), making the rate of school shooting about 3e-7, on the order of a hundred-thousandth of a percent. A school homicide is nearly a hundred times less likely to occur than a murder in the American workplace, according to these data, which isn't too surprising, especially for the under 10 set. I've got a thousandth of a percent chance of being gunned down by a disgruntled someone at work in any given year. (Although maybe it's a little better than that here. Obviously I'm taking no effort to break down risk groups. It's a fucking Fray post.)

By similar rough-order-of-magnitude reasoning, my annual odds of getting killed in a traffic accident are about a hundredth of a percent, or one in ten thousand. That rate is enough that in a moderately-sized community, it'll make for an impressive headline every couple of months when it happens to (hopefully) someone else. I take this as a good point of reference for risk assessment, call it the I-95 test. Driving on the highway represents a sufficiently low level of risk to my life that I consider it basically beneath notice. How does a homicide at school shooting to driving on the highway? My kids are a thousand times safer there than in the car with me.

It's harder to generate a yearly stat on terrorism, of course, but unless the mushroom cloud is really looming, it's not high. Even considering only the year 2001, you had a better chance of having a skyscraper fall on you than having your office-mate go postal, but you were still 200 times more likely to die in a flaming car wreck.

Over in Iraq, the odds of a civilian dying in combat are about 65 thousand/20 million/4 years, or about a tenth of a percent--a hundred times more likely to get shot by a soldier than I am to rack up my Subaru. The annual odds of dying there as a result of the war is over ten times higher than that, better than one in a hundred, and that's to say nothing of the kidnappings, threats, desperation, poverty, and general lawlessness. You are probably acquainted with a hundred people. That's like taking half a dozen kids from every school in the U.S. and putting a bullet into them.

Recently, General Petraeus told the Washington Post that "Iraq is going to have to learn – as did, say, Northern Ireland – to live with some degree of sensational attacks." That comment is hard to swallow, considering the United States' overwrought concern about any sensational attacks is, approximately, how this excursion slipped through the congress.

Yesterday's news also had an item about a bombing at the Technical University of Baghdad. The radio mentioned some 200 casualties there so far (trying to grab that one from memory, OK), and reports have, unsurprisingly, the Iraqi University system in shambles. The casualty rate may be exceeding 1% among what's left of the Iraqi intelligentsia, but people are still going to the University. (Of course, it's not clear their odds of survival are much different outside of school, and there can't be many other constructive ways to spend time, but still.) Would an annual 1 chance in a hundred of getting killed be enough to keep an American student from an American university, where the casualty rate is a more like 0.00001%? Is 1% annual chance of violent death something people can live with? A blogger (who knows who he is) got me wondering last week why the ants don't more often rise up. Maybe the answer is that a lot of people can bear those odds for a few years.

Monday, April 23, 2007

New voice recognition software alert...

Okay let's try this dance again. This is really annoying.

I'm trying to learn how to use a new voice recognition system. My old one finally ate its shorts and this new one is kind of like dealing with the Rainman. I have to speak very slowly and carefully or I may as well be sending up smoke signals.

Once I get it taught I think it will work well. The state-of-the-art has definitely improved since the version I have been using all of these years. Luckily the headset doesn't appear to pick up helpless laughter or swear words, or least it's more enough not to try to transcribe them.

One large flaw I'm running into is that it doesn't appear to speak directly to my writing organization system. At this time the only application on my system will talk to properly is Word. And even there it's crawling like a six-month-old baby. It's taken me nearly half an hour to speak these three paragraphs and get an accurate result.

I remember when I first started using the other system. I remember how painful it was to teach it how to understand me. That one required over 50,000 words before it would even begin accepting natural language. This one did better than that after only one chapter of Dogbert’s management wisdom.

Making corrections is harder than it needs to be. I'm not quite sure how to make this work. Since I'm on a laptop the hotkey they have mapped the correction menu to does not exist. At some point I'm certain I will figure this out. But there will be grumbling as I do.

In the meantime, if you run into something in my writings that sounds like it came out of the Jabberwock if you could drop me a discrete e-mail I would greatly appreciate it.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Qualities of Light

Long ago, I had a dream about Mt. Rainier. I couldn't see the mountain; I only knew it was Rainier because it was a dream, and because of a certain quality of light that filled every piece of the dream, a diffusion in the Doug firs, a green that I've never seen anywhere lower than 7,000 feet above sea level, and a refraction among glaciers.

Moloch's description of running reminded me of this dream, and made me think of light. Kyu once wrote a post on a similar theme (and better), but it seems to be gone. Here's my effort. Please feel free to add others.


When I lived in Seattle, I played frisbee for hours on end. In the mornings I got up and ran around Green Lake, then settled into the Honey Bear Bakery (now sadly extinct) to do my Chinese homework over a pumpkin muffin. I biked to school, I biked to frisbee, and when I coasted back home, sunset and streetlights glowed across the lake and into Elliot Bay. You could breath light there, better than air.


I had a Seattle flashback over the weekend when mrs. august and I went to Oregon for a wedding. We drove three hours south of Portland, to a town prey to the logging industry. A river flowed behind our hotel, and the flowering trees (pink dogwood, magnolia, cherry) reflected the riverlight. Driving back, mrs. august read aloud to me from Julie on Julia, and I fantasized about boning a duck. When we got home, I made scones, which cooled in racks on the dull marble.


Light in the Northwest feels fecund and alive. In Norfolk it feels like a swamp. Humidity makes the light heavy, as does the monotonous flatness. The city is near the (failed) Roanoke colony and the (successful) Jamestown version, and in both cases one imagines the English arriving to great disappointment. Oysters make life worth living, but the light is only bearable at dawn,. I prefer Norfolk at night – its movie theaters, its docks, its diners where my friends and I tried to sober up.


The light here is both humid and blinding, heavy like Norfolk, yet the world becomes vaster in the Taipei sun. At times the mountains and clouds seem illuminated from every angle, and the world cast in a sweaty blue. Then comes the rain, and there is no light. Getting off the plane in Taipei is like cleaning your glasses. It's as if light had an electric charge, and one crackled with every act of vision.

Off topic

The Imus shark attacks, passivity, etc.

  • Per Kaus:
    Shark attack story : 9/11 = Imus story : VT shooting

  • There's been some commentary that the VT shooting was exacerbated by American's passive attitude. John Derbyshire was been beating this drum, in his apparent quest to brecome the go-to person for blaming calamties on social trends he doesn't like influencing the victims' behavior (The thing everyone seems afraid to mention about the Holocaust was that the gas chambers were only closed for three minutes, which should have been long enough for a reasonably fit person to hold his breath. But I suppose I'm thinking about a time when physical fitness was a priority, and that time has long passed... Hey, why is everyone calling me a jerk?), and then playing the victim himself when he is criticized.
    John Podhoretz has a good rejoinder to this notion.

    But let's assume there really is a right way to react to a madman walking into your classroom and shooting people. It seems that the students did not know this way. And that's fine with me.

    They might not have known how to respond to that situation because it is exeedingly rare. I want engineering students worrying about how to build usefile engines that don't run on fossil fuels or contribute to the greenhouse effect, rather than learning how to respond to violence.

    Derb and his travellers can call it the death of self-reliance. I call it specialization. And when I was in college, my campus was safe enough that I had time to learn that specialization yields great economic gains.


Agnes Elin Anna Maria Josephine Furgale Fournier is born.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gonzales Must Go

There's no excuse.

Blue State is live-blogging the testimony, and I've listened to bits on C-Span.

Gonzales claims he's firing people for poor management and lack of judgement (see responses to questions posed by Brownback). At a very minimum, Gonzales has demonstrated has failed to uphold the standards he claims to be maintaining in the Department.

All that overlooks the fact that he lied to the press, and that he at least did not prepare, and in all likelihood mislead Congress, in his earlier testimony.

Finally, there's the continuing problem that he doesn't seem to understand law. Blue State has a clip of his position on Habeus Corpus, which is Orwellian. He's a major idealist of the dictortorial presidency, and it's about time he learned something about the power of Congress. He's intellectually bankrupt and morally compromised. I don't see how he can keep his job. If he were in any other department, maybe, but Justice requires at least some appearance of propriety.

I wonder what the administration's play will be. Does Bush support Gonzales and dare Congress to make a move? Or does he make the issue go away?

Oh Baby, Please Come Back

I swear, honey, I swear, I'll never do that again.


Forum is fixed, but users will have to re-register (please). Abject apologies for the inconvenience.


In response to Witold Rybczynski's series on building New Daleville.

One of the most interesting things about watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is seeing people trying to articulate what they think they want. When it comes to architecture and design, they often lack any sort of language to identify the causes of their discontent. One guy will say "I was thinking of a place just to chill out, relax. Maybe a black leather sofa and some bar stools." Poor Tom (I think Tom is the architect) will listen to this with a blank look on his face, then ask a series of questions to figure out what the guy wants. Turns out he feels hemmed in, needs light. Tom knocks down a wall, puts in a skylight, adds a sofa (not leather) and all is right with the world.

What made me think of Queer Eye was the revelation that people go to developers' show houses for decorating tips, which strikes me as truly desperate. The spaces we inhabit -- the way we move, the people we encounter, the access to outdoors or to solitude -- shape the way we live. Most of us haven't studied architecture, nor given much thought to space at all (I didn't until an architect friend started talking to us about our house). So when we make choices among pre-fab houses, we don't really know what we want. Just as bad -- look at the evolution of the design for the Freedom Tower. You'd think Americans want nothing more than to make our country ugly.

I'm not knocking suburbs. I know the complaints about the godless, ennui-ridden teenagers and the David Lynch colors, but I respect people who see such places as sanctuaries. I also think pre-fab can work very well at low cost. Konyk for example, offers remarkable choices that show real thought about what might take place inside the house, not simply attempts to recreate a neo-colonial ethos among the wannabee gentry.

I think people tend to reproduce what they have seen and are mostly not familiar with problems of design, or the vast array of possible solutions. I think there are low-cost ways for people to have houses that actually make their lives better, that facillitate, for example, better family dynamics (ever read "A Room of One's Own"?). Developers, of course, have no interest in such matters unless the market drives new choices.

For me, the "Design, Life, Now" exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt in New York has been eye-opening -- a glimpse at possible futures. You can't make choices if you don't recognize that you have choices. It seems to me that this kind of exhibit is the kind of thing that might help change market dynamics. I'm feeling optimistic about the tools that will be available to improve our lives, pessimistic about our capacity to use them.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

My Policy Prescriptions

So, JohnMcG, what policies would you favor in light of the VT massacre?


  • Do not pass any laws named after any of the victims of the massacre, or that contain the words "Blacksburg" or "Hokie."
  • Do not increase campus security.
  • Do not pass gun control.
  • Do not relax gun controls.
  • Do not turn next year's VT football season an inspirational story about the campus coming together in shadow of a tragedy. Let them just play the games.

The thing about tragedies like this is that the damage is not limited to the immediate victims. In many ways, we're still paying for Columbine and 9/11. Thanks to them, airline travellers have to arrive hours earlier and take off their shoes, kids get thrown out of school for having nail clippers, and we're engaged in an unwinnable war in Iraq, and have lost moral and military authority.

I am not willing to give Cho Sueng-Hiu that power. And I'm not willing to send the message that the shortest path to achieving this type of power is to commit a massacre.

This massacre didn't manifest any new technological or societal developments that must be addressed. If something was a good idea on Sunday, it's still a good idea today. And if something was a bad idea on Sunday, it's a bad idea today.

It's right and proper for us to honor the victims. But radically altering our policies in response isn't giving honor to the victims -- it's giving honor to the massacre.

And it doesn't deserve it.

Never the Right Time

There has been some debate over when is the proper time to cite the killings in Virginia Tech to advance a political agenda.

I'll deal with that in an upcoming post, but there is something worse to do -- you can indulge in a rant about your pet issue that has no chance of convincing anyone, and is just pretty much an attack on Those People Over There.

Here's one example. Apparently, according to Miss Shaidle, the proper Catholic response to this crisis is to express how distasteful and embarrassing we find their method of grieving, in the hopes of embarrassing them into what we would consider more dignified methods of grieving.

Now, let's say an actual grieving person who might be inclined to incorporate some soft rock and stuffed teddy bears in their her grieving process. Somehow, she comes across this post. What is her most likely reaction:

1. Realize the error of her ways, and proceed post haste to the nearest Catholic church to light a candle and begin a novena.

2. Decide that Catholics are a bunch of judgemental jerks disconnected from human experience, and swear never to walk into a Catholic Church again.

Here's another take on this.

Then there's Timothy Noah's column about gun control.

First, I probably support some of the gun control measures Noah supports, but I deeply oppose his method of argument.

Cherry-picking some passages...

Indeed, a local handgun ban in the District of Columbia was recently struck down by the D.C. Court of Appeals; it remains in force while the city government seeks a review by the full D.C. Circuit. So, even if Congress were to legislate significant restrictions on gun ownership, there's a decent chance the courts would rule them unconstitutional. That's the political state of play, and if I were advising a Democratic presidential candidate, I would tell him or her to steer clear of the issue. This country, speaking through its government, does not favor gun control.

Well, there's also the matter that there's an amendment to the constitution solely about establishing a right to bear arms. That probably has more to do with why the courts strike these laws down that the current political winds.

The massacre at Virginia Tech is a logical consequence of that reality. Are we sorry that 32 people, most of them no older than 22, were killed? Of course. But we aren't so sorry that we intend to do anything to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.We value the lives of Mary Read, Ryan Clark, Leslie Sherman, and all the rest, but we value more their killer Cho Seung Hui's untrammeled right to purchase not only a Glock 19 and a Walther P22, but also the ammunition clips that, according to the April 18 Washington Post, would have been impossible to obtain legally had Congress not allowed President Clinton's assault-weapon ban to expire three years ago.

And everyone who opposed the war in Iraq cared more about Saddam Hussein's right to construct WMD's without interference than the cops and firemen who were killed on 9/11.

This is a cheap trick Noah's deploying here. We know the names of the victims of this and other massacres. We don't know the names and faces of those who might be saved by the opposing policies.

Yes, that's why we're not enacting gun control. We don't care enough. I can just see those opposed to gun control reading this passage and nodding along. Indeed, Mr. Noah, you've got us pegged. We don't care enough. In fact, I think that's a main thrust of the NRA's campaigns -- "we're not sorry enough about tragedies to do something to end them."

Can Noah conceive of the notion that there may be another motivation for opposing gun control than insufficient care for victims? That an armed citizenry might have stopped the killer before the body count reached double-digits? That he might have been deterred by the possibility that his planned killing spree could be stopped before it became newsworthy?

I don't know that I completely buy all these arguments, but someone making the case for gun control has a duty to at leas acknowledge them.

I also can't help but wonder if Noah is truly sorry about this event, or pleased that it gives him an opportunity to take a whack at gun control opponents.

There are people in this country today who, one day in the future, will be gunned down by psychopaths like Cho Seung Hui. Future presidents will be assassinated, if the past is any guide, and probably the odd pop star, too. We could spare these lives—some of them, at least—by making it difficult or impossible to acquire a handgun in the United States. But we choose not to. Tough luck, whoever you are.

Many more, including a current governor, will be maimed or killed in automobile accidents. We could save these lives by passing serious restrictions on automobiles -- preventing them from exceeding certain speeds, not allowing cars to run unless the driver's seat belt is buckled, lowering speed limits. But we choose not to. Tough luck, John Corzine and others.

There are trade-offs, and there are winners and losers. At times like this, it is tempting to say that there is no countering good that outweighs the loss of 32 people. And if my daughter were killed in an automobile accidents, I wouldn't think anything was worth her death.

But that's not what we've decided. We're not willing to all drive 25 MPH, or accept other controls that would probably save lives. (though they may cost lives in other ways).

But Noah makes no attempt to address the trade-offs. We don't have gun control because we don't care enough.

Maybe we don't have it because those advocating it would rather indulge their desire to rant than make a case for their policies.

Quick note.

The best way to access my blog is now at, Link.

Don't know. What do you think?

Expand this post...

Insert removed. Forum here.

In loco Grand-parentis

My younger son's girlfriend had her baby. There is a whole lot of soap opera yet to go through, but if you go through all the various scenarios that could happen, this little one is going to be my first grandchild in one way or another here pretty soon.

Hence the title of this post. I'm not officially his grandmother, but I'm sort of standing in that position. I'm going with it, and I get to make a proud announcement.

At 4:07 am Pacific, Christopher Myron was born. He was 6 lbs, 2 oz, and was 18 1/2" long. I can personally vouch he's extremely cute (even when he wizzed on me) but I'll have pictures soon for your second opinions.

The Disapproval Network

"You're such a whore, Phil."

"Keifus! How can you say that? Dr. Phil is not a 'whore'."

"Are you kidding me? Listen to him shill. What the hell is it this time? Some weight loss crap*? In the name of intervention? The dude's totally shameless...and not exactly the slimmest guy in the world, I might add."

"I don't care. He's not a whore. Look at that little girl crying. You can't fake that sort of compassion."

"Compassion? The knob's exploiting the poor kid's emotions on TV like that. If he really cared about these people, he wouldn't be embarrassing them on national telelvision. But you know, Sweetie, anything for ratings. The whore."

For some reason, my wife doesn't like watching TV with me very much.

I've got kind of a love/hate relationship with the medium. While I enjoy some television programming outright, I choose to apply a relatively high standard if it's purporting to keep my attention between the crass ad breaks. I'm for a free market (with some big caveats), but that doesn't mean that I'm not bloody tired of all the consumerism jammed into every goddamn crevice of my life. I hate the way TV shamelessly angles for the susceptible: those primetime ads at least attempt to entertain me between the allegedly superior programming, but children's telelvision, and the crap on the emotion-pandering-on-the-cheap world of daytime TV just offer up a barrage of inferiority complexes. So when I'm stuck in that hell, I take every perceived opportunity to unleash my inner prick. You know, make my own entertainment. And anyway, Phil McGraw is a fucking whore, and deserves to be called on it.

My libertarianism is more of a pursuit-of-happiness than a laissez-faire stripe. I'm all for that free speech, and for as little government power over individuals that can leave an overpopulated society still functioning. The government will make no law abridging the freedom of speech, but communities can still pressure people to behave, and national television makes the network homogeneous. The TV lessons range from acceptable (friends matter!) to sketchy (love the cops!) to awful (the solution to violence is more violence!). Since we have shit that needs to be peddled and TV, even with cable, is a broad brush, we get the lessons most easily absorbed by the most, and it reinforces the values of the dumbest of us. Sex is bad, says the tube (but we can't get enough--what are our neighbors doing?!). Ditto killin' people. Ditto our opinions on who's not to be trusted, and who can't be punished enough. Don Imus didn't survive this long because he had a good radio voice. He got adopted as some brand of jowly bullshittin' culture reinforcer, a dinosaur remembering the semi-mythical good old days when the uppity mice were kept away from the eggs.

Dr. Phil's message could be worse, I suppose. Self-actualization is one thing, but I could do without the busybodies chasing around the poorly actualized. One of the more odious Dr. Phil guests is a retired detective, who spies on and professionally confronts people. The segment I remember showcased a teenage bride in a sketchy (possibly illegal) relationship with an older man. The camera followed the citizen police into the home, caught his shouting match, filmed him dragging the young woman out to the car. Meanwhile, the mother tearfully milked the Nielsens back in the studio. It worked out well for the young person. On camera it always does, but how many wannabe citizen soldiers have been heartened to bust the doors down on nonconformists?

If the free market means that I have to put up with marketing, then the free exchange of ideas means that insecure people will constantly try to shame you with their loud voices. Good arguments wouldn't rule the day even in libertarian la-la land. Even then we'd have to listen to the chorus of the disapproval network. And don't get me wrong, it's not conservative ideas about community that I'm attacking here (although I'll happily single out a couple of 'em if pressed), but rather the means of reinforcement: by peer pressure, by accentuating insecurity, by barrage.

The prices of freedom, I tells ya.


*It was probably something else last time I was watching, actually, but the diet aid dominated the Google search. Phil-endorsed Shape Up! supplements were something he was actually called on by consumers. The handful of shows I watched had him hawking either his books or somebody's self-help or emotionally-sanctifying product of some kind. In Phil's defense, the books are a lot less bad than the television.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Blame my enemies...

All the other pundits are doing it, so I thought I would take this opportunity to point out that the political and social conditions I am opposed to are to blame for the terrible shootings at Virginia Tech yesterday.

Particularly, in my case, this includes:

  • NBA teams tanking in order to get a high draft pick
  • Politicians and journalists appearing on the Don Imus show
  • The Fix the Fray project being disingenuous about soliciting user input
  • The airlines lying about the danger of cell phones in order to maintain the ban
  • Noodling
  • MLB starting the season on Sunday night, rather than Tuesday afternoon
  • Carbon offsetting
  • NCAA teams attempting to score the winning basket without a time-out
  • Pundits expressing approval for John Edwards's decision to stay in the presidential race in spite of his wife Elizabeth's cancer
  • Billy Packer

The link between these developments and yesterday's shootings is obvious to anyone who's paying attention. Those who claim not to see it are deep in denial.

Monday, April 16, 2007

OK, Wiksters. Tell me what you think.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Tanking -- The Unintended Consequence

As the NBA season has worn down, it is becoming apparent that some teams are not giving their all to win every game, and in fact purposely tanking games in order to improve their draft position in the hopes of nabbing one of the two budding superstars who may enter this year's draft -- Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.

This has been examined by Bill Simmons and the Michael McCann at the Sports Law Blog, but I think there missing one factor -- this tanking is an unintended consequence of the much-praised policy of the NBA imposing a minimum age for the draft.

I've written myself about how tanking is a bit of a sucker's game in the NFL. There does not seem to be a strong correlation between college success and success in the NFL.

McCann's article lists several factors for why tanking is prevalent in the NBA and not other sports. Basically, a single player can have a tremendous impact on a franchise, there is a greater differentiation on the impact of players at the upper levels of the game, and few people follow late season games for losing NBA teams.

There isn't a real great way to police tanking, so the greatest risk is a revolt from season ticket holders. The team is selling them an inferior product for full price, so the season ticket holders have to buy into what the team is dong. And in order for them to buy into it, they have to share management's value of the players at the top of the draft. And the age limit has helped make that happen.

As Simmons noted, the age limit helped lead to a wonderfully competitive college basketball season and NCAA tournament, with the quality of play at all-time high levels. Another benefit is that we as fans got to know wonderful players like Oden and Durant before they joined the NBA and hit the steep learning curve.

But at the same time, the high profile of these players has given the teams cover to pursue their tanking. We've all seen Kevin Durant and Greg Oden play, and it's hard to argue that it's not worth throwing away a few games for a better chance of grabbing them.

The lottery came about in the early 80's when Patrick Ewing, a player of undeniable talent and prominence was emerging from college. But not only was Ewing talented, he had a very high profile, having appeared in the Final Four three of his four seasons at Georgetown. And while he had a successful career, there are many players whose careers significantly overlapped Ewing's who had more success -- Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler. The problem wasn't so much that Ewing was talented, but that everyone knew how talented he was, and would thus be willing to accept their favorite team losing for a chance to grab him.

If Durant and Oden were coming straight from high school, we wouldn't know much about them, similar to LeBron James a couple years ago, when there was not this widespread tanking. But now we have seen Oden and Durant play, and succeed, against tough competition. They cannot be dismissed as hype, as the high school LeBron James could.

This doesn't mean the age limit was a bad idea, just that it has this unintended consequence that has not been accounted for. This can be addressed in several ways, including Simmons's idea of restoring the draft lottery to its original truly random origins. That had some unintended consequences as well, notably the Orlando Magic winning consecutive lotteries, but those were more acceptable than a half dozen teams spending half the season trying to lose.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


I grew up in a very small town, the son of parents without money. There was no library except the one at the school, and so I, a voracious reader and world-class nerd, spent my summers waiting on the slim pickings of the county bookmobile. The bookmobile was long on children’s books and short on pretty much everything else, but they did have a few science fiction novels, and it wasn’t long (what with the nerdiness and all) before I was hooked. Of course, the selections of the county tended to run toward the innocuous—lots of Asimov and Clarke, and nothing particularly subversive.

One summer afternoon, my mother loaded us kids into her old Buick and drove over to Perryville to do her banking. While she busied herself in the bank, my brother and I slipped into the drugstore on the square. I had a couple of bucks of my allowance left, and I thought I’d pick up a new science fiction paperback. The only one they had that I hadn’t already read was Cat’s Cradle. I knew nothing about the book or Kurt Vonnegut, but I spent the two bucks or so, and, just that quickly, I changed my life.

I was hooked. Vonnegut’s style was like nothing I’d ever read—science nerds don’t get much satire mixed in with their rockets and robots, and any social commentary is generally unsharpened and clumsy. From then on, I read every one of his books I could get my hands on. The bookmobile took requests for books to add to the mobile collection, and I requested all the Vonnegut they could bring. Eventually, that led to Slaughterhouse Five.

Like most young teenage boys, I was self-absorbed and ignorant of the world outside my little town. I thought that war was glorious, and that the United States could do no wrong. Slaughterhouse opened my eyes—just a little—to the idea that maybe the John Wayne movies I saw on our family’s little black and white TV weren’t true life, and in fact, maybe the world wasn’t black and white. I remember being horrified by Vonnegut’s descriptions of Dresden after the bombing. I was approaching draft age, and Vietnam hadn’t quite wound completely down. Suddenly peace began to seem very appealing to me, and not completely for selfish reasons.

On Wednesday, I kept a kid cornered in my office for nearly an hour, trying to talk him out of his decision to join the Army. This kid is bright, and funny, and he has an incisive mind that usually sees through bullshit—a student that keeps a professor honest. But, Justin has a horrible family life, and feels he has to get away. He sees the Army as a chance to make his own way in the world—to be independent (the irony apparently lost on his usually sharp mind). I told him that being a soldier is a necessary and honorable thing, but not for him—that he’s destined to be a surgeon or a journalist, and not to waste his life in a useless war—but it was to no avail. I failed utterly. I’d wasted my time, and made him angry.

I heard yesterday of Vonnegut’s death on NPR. I remembered reading Cat’s Cradle, and Galapagos, and especially Slaughterhouse Five. I could see the smouldering ruins of Dresden, the way Vonnegut had described them. And I thought of Justin. Maybe he’ll read my copy of Slaughterhouse.

Pregnancy TV?

I read a Slate article today. Evidently, there's a pregnancy-themed sitcom on ABC in the works.

It sounds absurd on the face of it, right? A woman's pregnancy will only get you through a season of programming, unless you take a truly weird take in which she's eternally preparing her nest, or has a new one just in time for every sweeps week. It's not a cartoon: sitcom kids aging is part of the deal.

But it's not like focusing on a year in the life is an unusual marketing ploy. To move all those beauty supplies, consumers are pursuaded to twist themselves to a mythic ideal of an eternally 18-year-old body. Gotta convince the tweens they need to look older, convince the twenty-somethings they're too fat and wrinkled and the forty-something men they should still be rutting like rabbits (note to self: re-evaluate on 40th birthday). (Of course developing all those products takes chemical engineering as much as advertising, so I guess it's nice that something's driving the economy these days.)

We pass through those famous couple of years hardly realizing it, even those of us who are pretty enough to achieve the body ideal. Even shorter than the traipse though the adult/teen threshold are those ten or twelve new baby months. Yeah, the passage takes about as long, but the magic rubs off a hell of a lot quicker. Without marketing, the saccharine thrill of being new parents evaporates completely by the time Junior finally starts sleeping through the night. Sure, people may have more, out of biology or carelessness or love, but I don't think most second-time moms get pushed into spending a fortune on this stuff. (I could be wrong.)

But there's a whole pregnancy industry, a bizarre time-like loop that exists betweeen the moment you find out the blessed news and the time you decide you're sick of midnight feedings. There are pregnancy magazines, pregnancy books, pregnancy party supplies, and baby registries full of endless pregnancy products. It's a pregnancy lifestyle that they push. The magazines are surreal. Covers of celebrities shooting across the sky in their moment of pregnancy fame, doing their gravid photo spread. It's a lifestyle that no one lives in very long except for the editorial board. Maybe if they push it hard enough, women would want to get pregnant again just to relive the magic.

Can Underbelly last as a sitcom? They'll have to either get an audience of well-conditioned pregnancy groupies, or else replenish the demographic every couple of months. I'd call it an insane strategy, but outside of television, there's a pretty good record of it working.

Keifus (meh. I tried to make it interesting)

Listening to Don Imus for the articles

I've been reluctant to comment on the Don Imus controversey because in my opinion, the more attention it receives, the better Imus emerges from this. Let's face it with the McCain campaign sputtering, Imus didn't have much juice. Now he's topic A. And even if CBS fires him, he will pop up somewhere else, and when he does it'll be a big deal. As opposed to a week ago when he was off everyone's radar. I'm not saying he did this on purpose to draw attention to himself, but I'm not convinced this episode will be a net loss for him.

But we're at the point now where I don't think my drop in the proverbial bucket is going to make a big difference.

I am not a regular listener of the program. My dad would listen to him occasionally when I was a teenager and I was in the car, as he was on New York's sports radio station, shortly after he emerged from rehab. I don't recall being particularly impressed.

His market niche now seems to be Howard Stern for people who don't want to admit they would listen to Howard Stern. So we get the raucous locker room humor, with an interview with a big politician or journalist thrown in for gravitas.

The result is something like Hooters -- yeah, I'm there for the great wings! The fact that there's scantily clad women around is a nice bonus, but not the reason why guys would say they hang out there. We get the racy content with the cover that there's at least a theoretically plausible alternative reason for us being there. With Howard Stern a a strip club, there's no escaping what's going on, Imus and Hooters leave open the possibility of something else.

Which begs the question, per Timothy Noah's article, of what's in it for the bigwigs, the McCains, Russerts, Gregorys, who come on the show. To me, it seems it give them an opportunity to burnish their "regular guy" cred, in a way that appearing on, say, NPR, does not. They know about the other side, as their Jeckyll/Hyde explanations acknowledge. They get to expand their audience to the kind that enjoys locker room humor, who might not ordinarily watch Meet the Press or any other news show. So maybe on election night, when Joe Sixpack is deciding which station to watch to get results, he might watch the channel with that guy he heard on Imus.

Noah refers to how Imus often uses co-host Bernard McGuirk to say the most offensive stuff. I submit that Imus's A-list guests use Imus in a similar way -- they get access to an audience that enjoys crass humor without having to get dirty themselves. And the audience is using them as a cover to access crass humor.

No winners here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Kilgore Trout, R.I.P.

There are few human beings that make me proud to be a member of the same species. The foremost among them died today.

Kurt Vonnegut is in heaven now*, and the world is a little sadder, and darker, and things make a little less sense.

*If you don't know the quote, don't bother telling me about his humanism/atheism.

Our Text for Today

Italo Calvino on "Exactitude" from Six Memos for the Next Millennium

"First I shall try to define my subject. To my mind exactitude means three things above all:

1. a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in general

2. an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images: in Italian we have a word that doesn't exist in English, "icastico"...

3. a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.

Why do I feel the need to defend values that many people might take to be perfectly obvious? I think that my first impulse arises from a hypersensitivity or allergy. It seems to me that language is always used in a random, approximate, careless manner, and this distresses me unbearably. Please don't think that my reaction is a result of intolerance toward my neighbor: the worst discomfort of all comes from hearing myself speak. That's why I talk as little as possible. If I prefer writing, it is because I can revise each sentence until I reach the point where -- if not exactly satisfied with my words -- I am able at least to eliminate those reasons for dissatisfaction that I can put a finger on. Literature -- and I mean the literature that matches up to these requirements -- is the Promised Land where language becomes what it rally ought to be.

It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty -- that is, the use of words. It is a plague affecting language, revealing itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas, to dilute meanings, to blunt the edge of expresssiveness, extinguishing the spark that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances."

Written in 1985 in the months leading up to Calvino's death.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

No WMD's on my hip...

Problem: There's a nuisance. It would make everyone's lives more pleasant if you could get rid of this nuisance, but the fact that it's a nuisance isn't a good enough reason to do it.

Solution: Link the nuisance to some problem there is consensus for eliminating, and borrow moral authority from that to get rid of the nuisance. Lie or pretend to know things you don't know (or don't know things you do or can easily know) if neccesary.

Such is the logic of the FAA's continuing to tell us that cell phone use can interfere with navigation equipment to continue the ban on in-flight cell phone use, as approved by Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein

Such was also the logic of the Iraq War.

Look, I'm not sanguine on the thought of being trapped in a cabin for four hours with a bunch of folks chattering (loudly) into their cell phones. But that doesn't mean we should all go along with a lie to spare us the nuisance.

It seems are government and society and economy have a number of mechanisms for getting rid of or discouraging things we don't want. We shouldn't have to hide behind a lie or willful ignorance to do it.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Fixing the Fray (i.e. Slate)

Dear Slate:

It looks like you have your hearts set on a “forum”. You’re invested. It’s too late to backtrack now. There’s no point in thinking outside the fray box. I suspect. So, I’ll talk about fixing the fray, but first, I’d like to talk about why a “forum” is a mistake you needn’t make a third time.

To do that, I first need to convince you of the validity of questioning the very existence of a forum. As luck would have it, that particular task is best handled by your peers and benefactor. Salon has “comments” in response to articles. The Washington Post has “comments” in response to articles. Even the up and comers like The Huffington Post have “comments” in response to articles. So if comments are the standard, why does Slate have a forum? Is Slate purposely trying to be different? Is keeping the fray a conscious calculation? I suspect not. I suspect that the fray is simply so engrained into our idea of Slate, that its continued utility is never truly questioned. But once you honestly question why Slate sends comments to a separate url, and a forum, it doesn’t take long to recognize that the reasons have more to do with the way things were back in the youthful days of Slate and the internet (the 90’s), and virtually nothing to do with the way things are in this day and age.

I don’t know for a fact, but I find it perfectly reasonable to suspect that in those early days, the technology for “comments” either didn’t exist, or wasn’t yet proven. So instead Slate turned to the standard at the time--forum software--to meet their needs. Needs still rooted in the print media’s model--an electronic substitute for “Letters to the Editor”--and the print media’s mentality--the need to distinguish and filter reader’s opinion from that of the publication. Uncharted territory back then, but not now. Now, allowing readers to publish their comments and trackbacks on the same page as the article they are responding to isn’t a cause for hand wringing anywhere but, it would appear, at Slate, where they still call those comments “appends”, as if there’s still something special and exclusive about that formerly rarified space at the foot of articles. As a result, fewer and fewer people are spending their time commenting on and linking to Slate. Preferring instead to invest their energies on sites where their comments and trackbacks are treated as assets (see Google/Web 2.0) by allowing them to share the page with the content they are engaging. How else to explain how an upstart like The enjoys the same PageRank as the venerable old In fact, given all of Slate’s advantages, including the butterfly effect, you begin to wonder if the fray hasn’t been more than just a drain on resources and personnel. You begin to see that the fray has been worse than a distraction because of what it’s distracting you from. Because the fray doesn’t cut it outside a select group who have special knowledge of it, Slate has been without a mechanism for readers and writers to respond for years now. To the outside world, Slate might as well be an echo chamber.

Lastly--and if you’re objective about it this really is the lynchpin of the case against using a forum for reader feedback--switching to the industry standard of comments and trackbacks within each article not only puts Slate back on a level playing field with its competition, it solves, in one fell swoop, the raft of “issues” your Fix the Fray project is attempting to address, as well as all the “issues” that are inherent to online forums for which there simply are no solutions. No more off topic posting. No more squatters trading insults 24/7. No more social engineering. The list goes on. Yes, there will be some fallout. But you have to ask, who are these people who would complain about the loss of the fray? Are they your target demographic, or are they a minute, ragtag group of socialites upset by the loss of their little fiefdoms? It’s the latter. And the few worth keeping happy? Well, they’ll be happy to “append” their comments to the articles or be among the first to blog about what Slate is saying in the hopes their trackbacks on Slate will catch a bit of that butterfly’s breeze.

That’s my case. As for fixing the forum, if you really must have one, simply follow the example of the most popular forums out there. Forums appeal to a certain type. The most popular forums are flat (not threaded). They feature avatars, emoticons and the ability to post pictures. Change the fray to include those 4 elements, and you’ll be well on your way to claiming a share of the forum seeking public.

Off Topic

The Masters, Rudy and the Pro-lifers, Pelosi, etc.

  • Well, Tiger finally didn't win one that he had a chance at on Sunday. Now, things might get interesting.

    Or maybe not..

    The story of this tournament wasn't that there was a showdown between Tiger and Johnson, and Tiger blinked. Tiger didn't have his game. And even still, only one golfer was able to beat him out. So, I don't think the king is quite dead.

  • I've got a couple of posts over on MBB about Rudy Giuliani's recent slip-ups with the pro-life crowd.

    The GOP can nominate Rudy if it wants to, but if it does, nobody better come to me and tell me that I am obligated to vote for Giuliani for the "non-negotiable" issue of abortion, or I may just scream.

  • I don't have a problem with Nancy Pelosi wearing the head scarf to the mosque, and I don't even have much of a problem with her conducting her own visits.

    The Blamer's rhetoric notwithstanding, I'm not sure that brashly disdaining local religious customs was part and parcel with being a feminist, or that Pelosi self-identified as a feminist anyway.

  • There's been some criticism about the behavior of the British soldiers who were captured by the Iranians.

    First, I'm probably not well positioned to judge the soldiers' behavior, since I don't know what their conditions were.

    Still, it's disturbing to see soldiers so quickly turned to mouthpieces of propaganda to the other side. It does seem apparent that there is not the patriotism that was there in previous generations. The idea of a military that is not fiercely loyal is troubling, especially for those who are counting on that loyalty.

    But these critics don't examine things far enough. They seem to stop at, "Kids today!" or even "Britain today!" and lament that children are not socialized to have the same patriotism their forefathers (gender specific term chosen intentionally) did.

    But loyalty is a two way street. I'm not sure about the British forces, but I think a lot of American soldiers enlisted for reasons other than the opportunity to police a civil war in Iraq.

    We may have to adjust to a post-patriotic reality, where each individual's steadfast refusal to harm his country cannot be assumed.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Land Mines : Photography and Advocacy

What kind of an image moves you?

Over on Today's Pictures, I've been trying to answer that question while browsing through photographs about land mines. My visceral reactions surprise me. A picture of mourners at a funeral did not do much for me. I recognize and understand the emotions, but I do not feel them. On the other hand, this photograph of an elephant's mangled foot horrified me. Why should I feel more for an elephant than a person? And what might my answer say about photography and art?

I suppose one answer would be that the elephant is clearly innocent by virtue of its species. War is a mostly human habit, and when I see pictures of humans injured in land mines I might wonder how they were connected to the conflict. Sure, landmines kill bystanders (and their particular tragedy is that, like radiation in Nagasaki, they continue to kill after the end of hostilities), but any given person portrayed might easily be a combatant. Elephants do not require further explanation.

I think there is another, more important reason, one that has me questioning a certain amount of what I thought I knew about art. I'm remembering a lecture given by Ira Glass, who began completely in the dark. He was making a point about radio, and voice. So many of our cues are visual, he argued, that by concentrating on sound, radio allows us to identify with people at a much more visceral level. A picture of a wounded person is not as effective as hearing the person describe what she experienced, an article about poverty and violence not (generally) as direct as listening to kids who live in the projects talk about guns.

Cartoons are a visual equivalent to radio. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud suggests that comics allow us to put ourselves into the story. Precisely because Snoopy is a simplified representation, we can shape Snoopy in our own image. In emotional terms, less can be more. I've seen similar arguments made for the power of books over movies.

But consider the case of photography. Creating the same effect might mean leaving out detail, depicting people in silhouette, or blocked from view. The problem, it seems to me, is that one then gets photographs without specificity, and the lack of detail makes a duller picture. Yes, I reacted to the elephant's foot, but I did not look at it for long, and if I did I suspect the effect would be to desensitize me rather than making me more politically engaged. Photography can be abstract, sure, but it can't be vague. Otherwise, what's the point?

Which brings me to this amazing picture, the final frame ever shot by this photographer (Robert Capa), one that must have been similar to the last image of thousands of others who were killed in Vietnam. Here, it is easy to insert myself into the action, but not as a character in the frame but as the person looking through the lens. It's a shattering photograph, a tragedy in a rectangle.

I'm obviously not suggesting that photojournalists embark on suicidal missions to prove my obscure aesthetic point. I am saying that making a political argument with pictures is very difficult. Capa's final picture also changes the way I think about pictures. They are records, first, of the experiences of photographers, men and women we do not see, and thus can imagine ourselves being.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Daoism 101; The Early History of Qi

"Qi" has become China's most robust export. No new age guru can cut his teeth without coming up with some explanation of what it is ("unity" seems to be flavor of the week for qi catchphrases) Because it's become an English word, its usage is immune to my curmudgeonly sinology. And heck, new age types seem happy, so far be it from me to interrupt their reverie.

However, my topic is the thought-world of the first three centuries BCE, and "unity," or "energy," or any of a number of current explanations won't help us understand early China. Pat Robertson is undeniably a Christian, but you don't necessarily look to him for insight into the Counsel of Nicea.

So too with Daoism. It is easier to understand if you begin at the beginning, and that can mean trying to forget a lot of what you already know. To distinguish the past from the present, I will put qi in italics when I'm talking about early China, and leave it in normal though when I'm talking about it's present-day valence.


"Stuff" may seem an awfully pedestrian way of talking about nature, but philosophers throughout Chinese history have considered qi to be the basic stuff of the universe. You might think that it is similar to atoms, but the language used to describe qi uses a metaphor of liquid rather than particles. Daoists, Confucians, and virtually everybody who took an interest in the cosmos described qi "freezing" into dense, solid substances, or "flowing" like waves throughout the world. Another modern craze, modern craze ,"Feng Shui," originally purported to study the flow of qi (whereas Fifth Avenue interior decorators are mostly concerned that dirt will not sully the armoire, Chinese practices concentrated on choosing appropriate gravesites. Either way, it's all about stuff).

Another way to think of qi is as a combination of matter and energy. The problem with this description is that qi was supposed to moral qualities. Very refined qi could lead to happiness and to proper moral action. Muddied qi caused turpitude.

The idea of "qi" was a glue that held together the idea of a cosmos – that is, of a whole in which all the parts were related. Qi proved an efficient way for thinkers, including Daoist thinkers, to connect universe, state, and body. In the body, qi could account for both physical processes and emotional fluctuations. Qi seemed to determine the rise and fall of states as well as the vicissitudes of weather, constellations, and cosmic forces.

A core belief of most early Chinese philosophy and religion (really the two are indistinguishable), was that the cosmos was constantly regenerating and transforming itself. It did not begin with a creator and evolve, rather it underwent cyclical change. It was the job of doctors, rulers, and astronomers to understand such changes.

Yin and Yang

Most westerners find yin and yang fairly intuitive. Think of sunshine on a mountain. The part of the mountain with the most sun is the yang side, the shady bit is the yin side. Of course, the balance between yin and yang will shift as the sun goes over the mountain, but as one moves through day and night the Chinese though that there was a balance between shade and sun. There were, in short, constants, but change was built into the constant.

The metaphorical extension of these ideas corresponds (mostly) to the English connotations of light and dark. Yang represented strength, action, masculinity. Yin represented yielding, receptivity, femininity. There is one pitfall – yang and yin did not map onto the English "good" and "evil." It's true that ghosts were yin, and thus to be feared, but there were good ghosts and bad ghosts, all equally yin.

Yin and Yang were states of qi. Yang qi was considered to be more refined, lighter (rather like steam) and yin qi was thought to be heavier. Ancient thinkers in general, and Daoists in particular, explained body, state, and cosmos in terms of the fluctuating balance of yin and yang.

The cosmos was in an ever-changing state of equilibrium. Human action – particularly immoral action – could disrupt this equilibrium, causing chaos – sickness, drought, rebellion, dynastic change, and the like.


So what were the regular transformations of yin and yang? Some are obvious. The alternation of night, day, night, day was the most basic (and one reason why an eclipse – an interruption of the normal equilibrium – was an ominous event). The changing seasons were another example. The Chinese felt that human bodies changed states along with the seasons – what was healthy in winter could be dangerous in summer.

There was also another kind of cyclical change, the "Five Phases" of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The cosmos moved through exactly these phases, so they could be detected in any kind of change. Thinkers drew up elaborate tables of correspondences: each Chinese dynasty, for example, stood for one phrase. If you considered your dynasty to be a fire dynasty, then usurpers would claim to be forming an earth dynasty that would (inevitably) displace you. The bodies complex humors also had such correspondences, as did the known planets (Jupiter – wood, Mars – fire, Saturn – earth, Venus – metal, Mercury – water).

The best known cultural relic of this ancient thought is the Chinese zodiac. This year is the Year of the Golden Pig. You could just as easily say "metal pig," as gold was the prototypical form of metal. The animals corresponded to cosmological symbols, to hours, and to years. Next year will be year of the Earth Rat. Lots of Chinese folks are having babies now, because, well, between a Golden Pig and an Earth Rat, which would you prefer?

Okay, with this basic vocabulary in mind, my next post will be a general overview of Daoist practices, and then I'll turn to people – actual living, breathing Daoists. For now, the important thing to keep in mind is that all aspects of the cosmos were interrelated. Learning about the body could in theory tell you something about being a better ruler, as could watching the movement of the planets. There were thus aspects of this philosophy that fostered observation and experiment, as well as elaborate rituals and a somewhat authoritarian style of rule.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

American Idol Midseason Notes

I suppose I can be succinct. I’m not sure whether the show has simply run its course, American has run low on talent, or it’s just an off season (‘cause by now I’m usually rooting for someone). I’m really just half paying attention, I admit (says it all?), but counting only 9 8 contestants left last night--it hit me that the show may be as popular as ever, but not for the usual reasons. Truth of it is, at this point, the only thing keeping me (and I think a lot of people) interested in American Idol this season, is a twisted desire to be witness to whether American will vote American Idol off its pedestal by voting for Sanjaya Malakar. Or to put it another way: This season of American Idol owes Sanjaya Malakar what past seasons have owed their eventual American Idols.

So before slamming Sanjaya or the people who are voting for him, first slam the apparent lack of talent and/or appeal of Sanjaya’s completion. Sanjaya isn’t special, but neither are any of this season’s other Idol wanabees.

Poll: Tech Diggers - How Long Does It Take to Code a Reader’s Forum? is updating its long neglected reader’s forum. Naturally, Slate’s long neglected readers are skeptical. One suggests that given the timeline, the call for reader input via email, polls and posts is a ruse, and that the new look and function of the forum has already been decided. What say you web developers, coders, designers? Can you code a fully functional reader’s forum for a major online magazine in just 14 days 6 weeks?

Click on image to go to Slate article.

Background: WikiFray (this blog) owes its existence, in part, to Slate’s neglect. It’s Slate’s reader’s reaction to being left in the dark ages while Web 2.0 came and went. You may not have an opinion as to how long it takes to code a reader’s forum, but since you’re here, how about an opinion on what a reader’s forum for a preeminent online magazine should look like in this day and age? Here is Slate’s official announcement, but as a veteran of Slate, I would suggest your input is more likely to get noticed on this blog or on Digg than in Slate’s reader’s forum.

Lastly--and this is actually the good part--if you’re a web developer, coder or designer and are interested in showing Slate (i.e. self-important journalists) how the 1% roll, I’d like to hear from you. Drop me a line at

Underfunded Troops In Iraq Is A Great Idea

Congress Suffers Troop Withdrawal Symptoms: Integrity Shakes, Political Vomiting, Moral Diarrhea
•Syria Negotiates Peace Treaty With People's Republic Of Berkeley
I Want The Taxes I've Paid To My Government Back, Misappropriation Of Funds, Blackmail, Usury, Insider Traitoring, Rape

Well I don't know about you, but it's beginning to look a lot like Christians are less concerned about their spiritual health and more concerned about their fiscal wealth, because throwing the baby out with the bathwater almost always leads to a dirty baby and a damp spot under the window.

Still, are we winning the war with surgery? Probably. Are we defeating Stalislamofascimocracy around the globe, our planet, earth? Sure. Is Lebanon "feeling the love"? You know it, baby!

But in these confusing times of terrorble tortured logic, one thing we can all agree on is that underfunded troops is a great idea.

They'll learn valuable life-lessons they can carry with them in their return to civilian life, if they ever get to leave not being dead

Without properly armored Humvees, they'll learn to scavenge for scrap metal and apprentice in the lucrative field of welding. Without adequate body armor, they'll learn the oft clich├ęd though highly regarded art of "dodging bullets", literally. And without a proportional troop surge to support those who are on their 5th tour of duty, they'll die not living forever.

Fewer troops in Iraq means a lower unemployment rate amongst military personnel currently deployed in Iraq

Which means there's always something to do, less boredom, and, therefore, higher troop morale. Nothing ruins a battalion's mood quicker than firefight ennui. And I won't even mention the fact that a thrifty military workforce is an excellent example for the entire region to follow.

Europe will be forced to chip in and start doing their fare share and start pulling their wait


Okay, Pierre McStinkyton: Put down the Gitane and the Vichy water, pick up a gun and some deodorant, and start shooting anything that moves. Or, rather:

Grab your weapons, citizens!
Form your batallions!
Let us march! Let us march!
May impure blood
Water [their] fields!
(I was going to insert a Satre joke here, but then I thought, "What's the point?")

[cricket chirp]

Fewer troops in Iraq means by its very definition that fewer troops will be blown up into millions of little pieces by IEDs

Face it folks: It's become a pretty unpopular war. And one surefire way to redeem this police action from the bottom of the Nielson Ratings is to have fewer flag-draped coffins returning stateside that we never see splattered across our TV screens every night. You do the math.

The war would probably be prosecuted better were it being run by Joe Garagiola with a busted cell phone and the guys from Minikiss


Dang it! Wrong list. Again. Why do I keep doing that? Mea cupola. [cough]

We're teaching Iran a lesson

Namely, we'll fight a war whether we want to or not, whether we know what we're doing or not, whether it's justifiable or not, whether it's winnable or not. That'll keep that mostly non-towel-headed freakshow Ahmadinejad on his hairy little toes.

An underfounded [sic] war in The Middle East means Israel can start shooting first and asking questions never

The thing about that whole "Israel Problem" is that it's not really a problem at all. We've always had each others' backs, and we always will. Letting this little Iraq "skirmish" snowball into World War 3 might just be the quickest way to thin the Islamic herd, if you catch my drift.

So, to sum up: Underfunded troops is a great idea because of "being all that you can be" operating from a deficit, welfare doles, La Resistance Francaise (Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ooh la la!), body bags bought in bulk, rock&rolling all night/partying every day, Brinkmanship: Mr. Magoo Edition, and forced evolutionary eugenical religionism.

I think it might be time for one of those reality bites the kids are so crazy about these days, because I feel like I'm watching a cross between Big Brother and Access Hollywood. That can't be pretty.

Thoughts On "Fixing the Fray"

What few people seem to realize is that nobody has any intention of fixing the Fray.

What they are talking about is creating a whole new forum, with a completely different look, different tools, different capabilities, and different ways of interacting with other Slate readers.

What they are not talking about is making the font bigger, or the page longer, or...just about anything about which people are commenting.

Sure, there will still be something called the Fray, but it won't be a threaded bulletin board.

The old Fray, the Fray we have known, loved and hated for the past seven years, will be gone. It may be accessible in an archive form, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if it weren't.

So...what they really want you to talk about is:

1. I want to upload audio of me reading my own poetry.
2. I want to upload video of me and my friends acting out the Battle of Antietam with hockey sticks for guns.
3. I want every post of mine to carry a picture of my cat.
4. You get the idea.

You're failing them.

They're failing you, too. I'm guessing that Geoff or Adam wrote the survey questions, which are oddly disconnected from the actual initiative - they're administrative issues/decisions, not features for readers.

The Fray is dead.

Long live the Fray.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Five More Thoughts (Psycho Smart Ed.)

Don't be threatened by the title, this post is meant to be about smarts, and believe me, it's meant to be ironic. If it makes you feel any better, you can snicker to yourself about the brilliance I actually display--it is mostly about me after all--but I'm aiming for unseriousness here. So what if it's Tuesday.

1. Brightness, after all, is a curse. I'm doing okay in the faculties department, at least relative to the general population, and in some rare cases, I even know when to shut the fuck up to avoid looking like a dolt. But I'd so much rather be a genius. It would make life so much easier.

Certainly, I'm no physical genius. I'm okay at some sports (and miserable at others), but certainly I'd be unlikely to achieve a competitive level even if I wasn't too old. Never had that killer instinct anyway. I play music, but even though I can bang out a tune, sort of, I can easily project an arc that has an asymptote well short of art (best I can hope for is a stuttering voice, which as it happens is good enough for me). I always wanted artistic skills, but even more than the music, my pen yields sketches that at best are "identifiable." In high school, I was bright enough to skate entirely, and even college required only select applications of effort. Grad school killed me though, as it was evident that I'd reached a level at which real study was required. If I were a brilliant scientist, then I'd have breezed right through that and right through a post-doc, publishing with reckless abandon, really making a mark. Even though I've managed to milk an occasionally clever streak, for most of my career I've had to slog hard for nuggets in order to succeed. Unfortunately, I'm not a genius of self-motivation either. No, there I'm totally retarded.

It's good to be a all-around above-average type and all, but I'm jealous of brilliance. I'd settle just for something really cool to stand out from my peers. I suspect any one of you I can point at can multiply big numbers on demand, read 200 pages per hour, recite the most obscure trivia, woo women (or men), aim, make the hard sell, memorize long numbers, perform convincing sleight of hand, bend your joints backwards, play brilliantly by ear, put people at ease, hold absurd amounts of liquor, find level and plumb by eye, bloviate. With six and a half billion people in the world, people with distinctive brain skills will rise up and concentrate to a high degree to the somewhat better levels of discourse, and stumbling awkwardly through them myself, I keep bumping into all you damned savants.

2. Well, maybe one thing I can claim is some minimal writing skill. One way I deal with my essential laziness at work is that when my schedule is full of desk tasks, I can crank out reports and proposals in a third the time that anyone else can, leaving me lots of time to scrawl crap like this.

Right now, I have a big one going on. I shouldn't be anywhere near the blog, but one thing about getting into a writing mode, is that it's actually hard to stop. I love it when my brain's in high gear--wish I could do it at will. When I go to bed tonight more words will be chasing each other around my skull. It'll stop when I get tired enough.

3. My older daughter keeps a journal for school. It's designed to keep the children in form for the writing assessment part of their evaluation testing, but it's cool, it's a good project, and my little girl--child of two engineers--is pretty good at it. I was looking through it recently, and here's what she had for her November entry:

"I'm thankful for my dad because there are already two monkeys in the family, and it's good to have at least one real person..."

Like any good father, I take every opportunity to compare my kids to lesser primates, but to tell you the truth, I don't find actual monkeys (by which I mean apes--chimpanzees--monkeys are more like squirrels that can smile) very funny at all. Staged simian hijinks always seem a little sad to me, the underlying coercion doesn't escape my notice. But the Platonic "monkey" is still pretty amusing though. The pure essence of monkeyness spends lots of time masturbating, chattering, and flinging poo. Comedy gold.

Amusing. I sometimes like to believe that I have muses. All those voices in my head, it's a barrelful of monkeys in there. Fun like that, and with a lot of flying turds.

4. That last thought was pretty shamelessly recycled, but I'm gambling that anybody who's gotten this far (either of you) didn't catch the original. If you're all tired of that thought, consider it scribed for posterity then.

We all have our own series of little performance routines, but depending on how big's your repertoire, how much you change it up, and how skilled you are at singing it, it can grating over time for anyone. One of the few upsides of meeting new people is the prospect of a fresh audience. Last week, I had such an opportunity, to meet some long-lost offshoot of my in-laws' hopelessly complicated family tree. It was fun to see my wife's parents pull out their classic material--hadn't seen it in quite a while ourselves--and be reminded that some people are best when you first get to know them. (A problem with knowing people for a long time is that you lose energy for the fun dances, or else you try your friends out as a focus group for dangerously untested material.) It was great to see them spewing out mock-philosophy with friendly enthusiasm, and just to see the general animation. Naturally, I held myself bemusedly above the fray, benignly aloof, accessible just outside the clamor. That's a big part of my act.

5. It's funny how we meet people, what with the few degrees of separation and all, contrasted with all the billions of us. I know I've read this before (probably from one of you crazy savants) that even if we find one person in a million worthwhile, that still makes for a handful of hundreds right here in North America. Blogging, and upon a time Fraying, it's like I'm chipping away at the several hundred who have similar interests and mindsets. I link to X bunch of people, who connect with Y, who… One drawback to this model is that folks like us probably pop up a little more frequently than in the ppm range.

But say there's a couple thousand that, by criteria I don't entirely understand, I'd really rather get to know, and a good couple million that I wouldn't mind in my general circle. It can't be done. Even with the help of the internet, our little communities can only reach so far. Couldn't even hope to meet a signifiant fraction of them.

This drives me batshit. In a way, it's like everything I've ever tried to organize. You'd really like detailed information for every entry, with proper cross-references, and detailed notes for all. In truth, you really end up filling those things as they're relevant. If there's anything that keeps me from going over the edge into obsession though, it's a profound sense of "good enough," call it a fundamental laziness or else call it (as I prefer) a measure of wisdom to be content in the first local minimum that's pretty comfortable and has a reasonably good view. Even though this makes me a poor carpenter and scientist, it does keep me more sane. Even though there's a maddening sensation in the back of my mind that so much is always left incomple

Monday, April 02, 2007

[post removed out of respect for people with either type of genitals, or both, or first one and then the other, or none at all, even]

One of the commentors said that she has a hard time holding these extreme political position against the men she loves.

The reply to her was something along the lines of, if she'd just realize that she wasn't at the centre of the issue, she wouldn't personalize it so much.

Who could argue with that?

(content at "I Blame the Patriarchy", for the curious)

— — — —

Retraction Retracted

My original post said something about being unable to resist linking the blamers, even though I felt certain they'd eat me for dinner. Then something about being meat. Something about being oppressed by my shoe collection.

It was cute, I thought, riffing on self-consciousness and objectification and shame. I guess you had to be there.

I give you the Blamers.

Intel Leak, NAMBLA Saves Day (Part I?)

(This one's a bit… odd. But I wanted to try something, just to see if I could pull it off. Feedback, as always, quite welcome. Thanks.)

Secret "Gardeners" Plan "Landscape Redesign" For Middle East's "Leech Field"
•Covert "Tree Service" Contracted To "Remove" Large "Cedar" From Israel's "Backyard"
OLMERT: "WE'RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER 'STUMP GRINDER'" [makes quotation mark thingies with raised hands on either side of head]
Land Of Milk And Honey Desert Of Sticks And Stones

Uh-oh. Hold on to your man-dress and hide the detonator, because it looks like our beloved Israelis™ may or may not be ready to step up to Elijah's plate and drink his wine. And the timing couldn't be more perfect, what with the celebration of the savage murder of their king and all coinciding yet again with being passed over and out.

It's just that this time the writing's on the wailing wall. I haven't seen this much botched political posturing since John Kerry aborted and then mowed down all those American babies in the Mekong Delta with his swiftboat back in '68.

What follows is a previously redacted document leaked from the Pentagon. Since I minored in cryptography, I was able to cut through the censored bits like white on rice. (Though it didn't hurt that the redacted sections were redacted with disappearing ink. One too many missing links in that chain of intelligence, methinks.)

Some of the documents were emails and memos, so I retained their form, where I could, and then I completely disregarded them because I suspected a hoax. But most of the pertinent ones were Instant Messages, so you can imagine my shock and horror when I realized I had to comb through all that chatty-cathy bullshit just to get to the substance of the matter. (I couldn't edit out all the "soft porn" because the context is crucial for the payoff.)

It wasn't hard hacking into the DoD's mainframe; the hard part was backing out through Department of State's online dating service without being hit on. Let's just say there were none too few awkward moments and not a little "back pedaling".

So, submitted for your consideration: A grateful nation sings. Read 'em and weep, literally.

RumpRanger007 (5:37:50 PM): are they those knit shorts?
Man_Hole_Mossad (5:39:10 PM): yeah… the blue ones.
RumpRanger007 (5:39:46 PM): omg! i love those! :>0
Man_Hole_Mossad (5:41:03 PM): lol
RumpRanger007 (5:43:14 PM): lol
RumpRanger007 (5:44:32 PM): hey, are you in a position to kill ahmadinejad this weekend?
Man_Hole_Mossad (5:45:33 PM): 4 sure, i'll do it fri night after my pedicure.
RumpRanger007 (5:46:56 PM): cool!
Man_Hole_Mossad (5:47:21 PM): lol

CIAnalList (7:12:34 PM): that's how i do it, makes it easier to clean the pillow. lol
RumpRanger007 (7:13:14 PM): lol. i'd just flip it over. lol.
CIAnalList (7:14:24 PM): lol. it's so hot here, my hotel room is like a pizza oven with all those italian guys in wife beaters. hot hot hot!!!
RumpRanger007 (7:16:35 PM): that sounds hot alright! ;>o are you sweaty?
CIAnalList (7:18:46 PM): a little. i took my shirt off… now i'm just in my boxer briefs…
RumpRanger007 (7:21:10 PM): stop, u r driving me crazy!!! wish i was there :>(
CIAnalList (7:22:39 PM): me too :o(
RumpRanger007 (7:23:56 PM): ;o) hey, manhole's doing ahmad fri night.
CIAnalList (7:25:15 PM): this fri?
RumpRanger007 (7:26:25 PM): yeah. woohoo!
CIAnalList (7:28:35 PM) : ahmadinejad's in orlando all weekend; got multi-day-park passes
RumpRanger007 (7:29:00 PM): fuck!
CIAnalList (7:31:03 PM): taking the whole family, out of pocket most of next week
RumpRanger007 (7:33:54 PM): shit, I gotta go
CIAnalList (7:35:34 PM): okay, i know the routine, good luck, lol
RumpRanger007 (7:37:05 PM): lol

Man_Hole_Mossad (8:34:22 PM): he's sooooo easy, what a whore! lmao
MI69 (8:35:44 PM): such a whore, lol! 'sup?
Man_Hole_Mossad (8:36:35 PM): not much. i'm icing ahmadine fri, prolly do it after intimate dinner with steve
MI69 (8:38:56 PM): u still seeing that bitch! %>( he's kinda dumb. i don't care if he single-handedly invaded lebanon last year to make it look like the idf killed civilians. he's a doofus. lol
Man_Hole_Mossad (8:38: 49 PM): lol. i know. but i'm really into looks. anyways, i guess i could either sneak into the palace and slit his throat, or just take him out from a mile away on some rooftop. i excelled at snipery on the farm. lol
MI69 (8:41:12 PM): rotflmao! that and cattiness. what the hell are you talking about? slit whose throat?
Man_Hole_Mossad (8:42:59 PM): ahmadinejad. he's toast tomorrow night
MI69 (8:44:10 PM): well, that'll be a neat trick, considering he's been in rio since last monday and plans on popping over to p diddy's white party in cabo. so before you start capping people's asses you might want to check the guest list.
Man_Hole_Mossad (8:47:13 PM): seriously? wtf? puff blew me off a month ago at spago's so i've not returned any calls. guess i burned that bridge a tad on the too soon side. lol
Man_Hole_Mossad (8:48:53 PM): hang on, some1's giving me an urgent thingie. gotta go.
MI69 (8:49:10 PM):l8er ;o)

RumpRanger007 (8:50:58 PM): abort the assassination. ahmad's at disneyworld. supposed to be there all week.
Man_Hole_Mossad (8:52:10 PM): er, i just heard he'll be in cabo next week. where are you getting your information?
RumpRanger007 (8:53:25 PM): same place we all get it, star magazine. anyway, forget the whole thing.
Man_Hole_Mossad (8:55:33 PM): well fuck. where the hell is he? great. now i'm stressed out, and this humidity is giving me split ends. christ.
RumpRanger007 (8:58:30 PM): sorry. try to relax. i always bring an extra bottle of conditioner when i'm over there. nexus makes this great deep cleansing solution that you use before you shampoo, clears the ends right up. surely you can get some.
Man_Hole_Mossad (9:01:40 PM): brilliant. i'll just stroll on over to the tehran cvs store and ask the dude behind the counter if he'd like to blow my head off before or after I put in my pin number. idiot.
RumpRanger007 (9:04:23 PM): meeeeoooow. simmer down, betty. just put in some mousse.
Man_Hole_Mossad (9:05:48 PM): i didn't bring any fucking mousse!!! i was supposed to be in this shit hole 24 hrs max. oh, did i mention i forgot to pack any kiehl's? my pores look like someone hit me in the face with a dog brush.
RumpRanger007 (9:07:01 PM): ouch. well, concealer: it's not just for women any more…
Man_Hole_Mossad (9:08:59 PM): yeah, well. i was told specifically by my station chief that ahmad had to be dead as a bag of mud sunday pm at the very latest. it's my understanding everyone/thing's in place. give me some good news.
RumpRanger007 (9:10:11 PM): uhh… there's a rumor cher may be coming out with a new cd.
Man_Hole_Mossad (9:12:37 PM): sweet! at least the entire world hasn't gone completely insane. standing by. for cher. and for the other thing…
RumpRanger007 (9:14:56 PM): yeah, it's supposed to be the ultimate duet album, with josh grobin, clay aiken, bono, the lead singer from danzig, andrea bocelli, eminem, kd lang, beyonce, marilyn manson, justin timberlake, there's a rumor she's even gonna be a guest judge this season on Idol. just fabulous. keep your fingers crossed…

CIAnalList (9:17:07 PM): so i'm fuckin' this guy up the ass the other night, and afterwards he wants to cuddle. what a fag!
RumpRanger007 (9:20:01 PM): yeah, i do love that joke. lol
CIAnalList (9:21:45 PM): classic. lol
RumpRanger007 (9:23:25 PM): say, i've got another good joke: how in the fuck can ahmedinejad be in florida when he's actually in south america? i just heard he's laying low there till diddy's white fete. what gives?

GManLove (9:35:45 PM): uhh… okay, that's not "tossing the salad", that's a rimjob. big difference. anyways, dinejad's deader than charlize theron's career. let's just say one of the 17 secret herbs and spices in his falafel wasn't curry
MI69 (9:37:52 PM): i hope you're kidding. latest intel places ahmad either in orlando or rio, though you have to admit they're basically the same place when you get around to it.
GManLove (9:39:43 PM): then who did I just kill? either the president of iran is dead, or there's gonna be one pretty unhappy family of a tucson marriot shuttlebus driver come sunup. lol.
MI69 (9:40:05 PM): lol
GManLove (9:43:50 PM): lol
MI69 (9:41:23 PM) lol… wait, that's not really funny. uh-oh…
GManLove (9:43:10 PM): lol
To be continued?…