Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Slow Season

Wow. Almost a week has sneaked by without a post. I suppose that's to be expected at this time of year. Many things going on as the holidays swoop by. I don't really know, since I haven't blogged through a holiday season before (though my perception as a blog reader has long been that things are slower this time of year).

I notice that in my absence, Blogger has finally gotten its new software out of beta, and somewhere along the way they've managed to relocate the search bar that was supposed to be at the top of this blog all along. So that's progress.

The primary reason for my absence has not, in fact, been holiday celebrations (although there have been some). Mostly it is the fact that my little software startup company has moved into its first offices, and I've been spending a lot of cycles doing things like debugging the network, chasing phone lines, and learning where to buy lunch in the neighborhood (San Francisco, near the Civic Center, sort of).

So at least some of the time, I will now be commuting to the office, which has its good and bad points. I like the fact that I will get to see my coworkers more often. I regret that I will spend more time in transit, though much of that will be on BART. I believe it will also be easier to get to baseball games, as I will be much closer to the stadium when I am at work.

A secondary reason for my absence from scribbling on the blog is that I've been reading a very long book, Twenty Years After, which is the (first) sequel to The Three Musketeers, which I reread a year or two ago. It's very long, but I'm almost done, and struggling to finish before we take off for holiday visits. Because I really don't want to schlep an 800-page book along with me, just so I can read the last 50 pages or so.

I won't spend a lot of time writing about the book, except to say that it's quite engrossing. Not quite as swashbuckling as The Three Musketeers, which is to be expected, I suppose, with them all being twenty years older. More about politics and the motivations of the characters.

I find that it would probably be helpful to know some French. Even a little. I allegedly studied some Latin in high school, but that doesn't really help here. I've picked up some insight into the idioms in the translation, but it's no substitute for actually understanding the language. One very helpful item in the Oxford World's Classics edition I'm reading is a little two-page map of Paris in the 17th century, highlighting the locations that figure in the story. That little touch is extremely helpful to me, and would have been nice to have when I read (a Penguin Classics edition, as I recall) the first book (or Les Miserables, for that matter). But I'm learning.

Particularly interesting is the way the story meshes with my limited knowledge of European history. I've had a fascination for the 17th century ever since I took a course called Rhetorical Theory and Practice of the 17th Century back in college. It was fascinating to read Descartes, Moliere, Bacon, Jonson, and many others, and learn about them in the context of a century of intellectual upheaval. Cool stuff.

So I haven't been wasting my time, really. I just haven't been sharing very much of it with y'all.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Baseball, Wealth, and Rationality

One of the fine things about being a baseball fan is that during the off season, I get to think about baseball. Now, obviously I think about baseball during the season, too. But in the off season, I get to think about baseball without the distraction of actual baseball games.

Fans have long called it the "hot stove league," sitting around a hot stove during the winter, speculating about what happened in the past, what will happen next year, and what their team should do about the burning issues of the day.

Which brings us to money. Baseball players make a lot of it. Even not-particularly-good players make a ton of it. The minimum annual salary for a Major League ballplayer next year is $380,000. That's just for being on the team: $380K even for sitting on the bench and scratching occasionally.

Now, I realize that when one talks about money, and particularly about large amounts of money, rationality rarely enters into the equation. It's easy for me to sit here on my couch and say that Barry Bonds should play baseball for a mere $10 million a season, when he feels he needs $16 million. Really. For those of us not involved, it is hard to imagine how $10 million vs. $16 million makes a difference, particularly when one pocketed $90 million over the previous five years.

Heck, even if I hadn't banked $90M (and I haven't!), it seems like $10M would be just fine.

My wife, with the prestigious MBA, would probably say that it's like tulips, Cabbage Patch Kids, Beanie Babies, and Internet stocks: supply and (irrationally inflated) demand. With some ego thrown in on the side.

Which makes you realize that timing is very important. You can make a nice living in the tulip market today, but nothing like you could in the 17th century. And you can make a nice living on Internet stocks today, but not like you could in the day.

But because of this timing issue, it's important to remember that just because the commodities in question were highly valued (and apparently, overvalued), we should not necessarily devalue those in the same business outside the bubble. I got to thinking about this today reading some humorous commentary on current baseball contracts. My favorite is the section about what Willie Mays' agent would say if Mr. Mays were a free agent in a market like this after one of his greatest seasons.

And at the same time, it's probably important to recall that those who profit off a bubble are not necessarily wiser or more worthy than those doing the same thing in a different era. I admire some of the people who created some of the technology that begat the "dot-com boom," but they were not necessarily smarter or somehow better than those who labored in different fields or at different times. By the same token, I know a lot of people who made a lot of money just for being in the right place at the right time. And I know that some of them are not nearly as capable as some of their contemporaries.

So it's important that we not judge people by how much money they have, or how much people are willing to pay them at any given moment.

It is always hard to compare people (baseball players included) from different eras. But that's the most amusing part of the hot stove league. Because discussing who was the best player of all time is fun, and the discussion has no definitive answer. And because worrying about where your team is going to pick up a better first baseman can only take you so far on a cold, rainy day.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Unintended Consequences

The seasons are changing, and my wife and daughter both have rather dry skin, so of course, I will gain weight.

Huh?

For the dry skin, someone recommended coconut oil. Now, my family smells wonderful.

And I have a strong desire to eat a Mounds bar. Ah, the sacrifices one must make for soft skin.

Be Excellent to Each Other

I haven't talked about torture here for a while. I suppose that's good; I don't like to dwell on torture, and it's a subject that I would prefer not to have come up very often. Indeed, the frequency with which the subject comes up these days is itself almost as disturbing as the torture itself.

Anyway, the thing that brought me to the subject today was reading this post by Scott Lemieux on Lawyers, Guns and Money (LGM). Although I don't think what's currently being done to Jose Padilla constitutes torture, per se, it is inexcusable, or as Lemieux puts it:
This kind of systematic mistreatment of prisoners is an utter disgrace on every level: moral, political, legal, and pragmatic.
I hate to think that my government, my countrymen, tortures anyone for any reason, but at least in the case of active warfare or imminent threats, I can understand how one might arrive at some kind of rationalization. But when one has incarcerated and incapacitated someone for literally years, the ongoing abuse loses any rationality.

It's sick, it's wrong, and it's pointless. So stop it. We need to get remove from power the people who seem to think it is a good or useful practice.

Friday, December 01, 2006

This Just In: E-Voting is Bad!

Big shock to those of us who have been following the issue: The National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) has examined voting machines, and preliminary reports say that they come up lacking (PDF).

The standard they apply, and which I like, is "software independence":
A voting system is software-independent if an undetected change or error in its software cannot cause an undetectable change or error in an election outcome.
Essentially, that means that the ability of election officials to tally and audit election results cannot depend solely on the reliability of the programming of the voting machine.

News reports after the November elections indicated that some jurisdictions had issues when they went to verify results, like sometimes the machines reported different numbers.

Clearly, this is no way to run a democracy. A vote is a vote, and no matter how many times you count it, the vote should still come out the same way. I realize that in some cases (as we all learned in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, dimpled chads and all), there are ambiguities, and reasonable people might interpret the same data differently. But in those cases, humans should be able to examine the evidence and make a ruling, not just accept the "judgement" of a technological system.

I like this quote from the end of the Washington Post's story today:
"Why are we doing this at all? is the question people are asking," said Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrustUSA, a group critical of electronic voting systems. "We have a perfectly good system -- the paper-ballot optical-scan system."
Anyway, enough ranting for the moment. More to come, obviously.

Mexicoland

As noted earlier, we recently returned from a week in Cozumel. I had been there once before, about ten years ago. Friends had told me things had changed, but I don't think I fully appreciated the degree of the change until we got there.

Cozumel used to be a diver destination, and that was about it. The vast majority of the tourism to the island was scuba divers. Much of the reef system off the west coast of the island is a national park, ecological preserve, or other protected area. That's great, and very healthy, and the diving is quite spectacular (weather permitting). Much of the economy of the island, therefore, catered to the needs of divers.

The biggest change since my last visit is the increase in the number of cruise ships visiting Cozumel. A decade ago, there were several each week, and the big scandal among divers was that they had dynamited a reef to put in a cruise-ship dock. Today there are three or four such docks, and multiple cruise ships in port every day except Sunday.

The result has been that virtually everything in Cozumel is now geared toward extracting dollars from American cruise-ship tourists. [I'm reminded of a line from a song about Cancun: "Montezuma extracts his financial revenge."] Virtually every price on the island is quoted in U.S. dollars, and dollars are accepted everywhere. I never had to acquire any pesos, although I did get some in change. Nearly everyone on the island seems to speak and understand English very well.

Compared to my last visit to Mexico (when we went to Puerto Vallarta and stayed in the old part of town, not the newer, touristy part), it was almost like not being in Mexico at all. More like being in a sort of Disneyland version of what Mexico might seem like to American tourists, or as I came to call it, "Mexicoland."

Is that bad? Hard to say. The island seems much more prosperous than it did ten years ago, in spite of some of the lingering damage from last year's hurricanes. The town is clean, and the food is good. Even driving through some of the back corners of town (yeah, we took a couple of wrong turns), one never go the impression of rampant poverty. Some parts of town are less nice than others, but nothing awful.

And on the other hand, you have Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway, and a Hard Rock Cafe. Not exactly what I look for when I travel to another country, but I realize some people want that.

More interesting to me is that the locals seem to prey on the cruise ship commandos. They ask you what ship you're from, and apparently they raise their prices accordingly. One diver told us a cab driver quoted him a cab fare of US$6, and when he replied "I'm not from a cruise ship," the cabbie lowered his request to $4. Prices in general seem to have gone up; Cozumel is not a cheap vacation spot. But it appears that it's cheaper for those staying in the hotels than for those who debark from a ship, hit the market square, and take off again.

And my personal complaint is against Royal Caribbean cruise lines, who for some reason feel the need to blast their P.A. system outdoors at 5:30 am as the ship pulls into port (outside my hotel). I can understand making announcements to those on the ship, but it was clearly audible in my room, probably a quarter mile away. Grrrrr.

Ultimately, Cozumel was still a terrific place to visit, and a wonderful place to dive, but I left with this weird sensation that I hadn't really been to Mexico. Walking around the Mission district in San Francisco feels as much like Mexico as walking through most of Cozumel. Maybe that's globalization. But it felt like Disneyland (especially when the Disney cruise ships were in port!).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Visiting Trebekistan

I've been holding off writing this post, because I didn't want to spill some beans for a particular reader. But now I know it's safe, so I'll go ahead.

One of the great things about this here "blogosphere" (even more so than the rest of the World Weird Web) is the way one can stumble from one place to another and meet all kinds of new and interesting people, places, and things. And books to read. One of the topics I have meant to cover in this blog is books I've read, but that seems to elude me thus far.

But I want to write about one, partly because I discovered it via blogs, and partly because I really liked it, and partly because it hit home in a number of unexpected ways for me.

Let's cut to the chase, and then I can explain the back story.

The book in question is Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris. I've mentioned Bob and his blog a few times here, mostly because he's led me to some interesting stuff (including pudus). His blog is often funny, as well as insightful, in part because he is (or has been) by trade a comedian.

I was attracted to the book partly because the proprietors of several blogs I read recommended it, and I had appreciated Bob's writing. But more than that, I am a longtime fan of the TV show Jeopardy!. And among other things, Trebekistan is about Bob's experiences trying to get on the show, getting on the show, studying, winning, losing, and so on. If you like Jeopardy!, you'll find something to like in Trebekistan.

But the book is about much more than that. And that's good.

It turns out that Bob Harris and I are approximately the same age, and although we have different backgrounds, we went through some of the same stages at similar times, so I could relate to a lot of what he writes about. That was cool. And he has a rather offbeat sense of humor, which appeals to me. And his venture into Trebekistan brings him into contact with a professor of Rhetoric at Berkeley, which happens to be where I studied (although not from the professor in question).

And then there's Jeopardy!.

I can remember vividly, sitting at home as a kid, watching Jeopardy! with my family, and realizing that my mother knew a lot of the correct questions (though she was truly devastating when it came to Name That Tune). Anyway, being a kid, I figured Mom should go on Jeopardy!, be on TV, win some money, get famous. But mostly be on TV. Mom explained that although she knew a lot of the answers, she was sure she wouldn't be able to call them up under the pressure of the game. Prisoner of Trebekistan is about, among other things, what it takes to acquire enough knowledge to succeed, and also what it takes to be able to recall that information in a game setting. On TV. It's fascinating stuff.

About the time I was reading the book, my sister mentioned that a number of years ago when Ken Jennings was making his historic run through the Jeopardy! record book, she took a small TV to the family's mountain cabin just to follow the show. So I figured she'd like the book, too.

Here's where it gets personal. One of the things you learn about Bob from his book is that he also has a sister, and his sister has a very debilitating autoimmune disorder called Crohn's Disease. And as it turns out, so does mine. Thankfully, my sister's Crohn's doesn't seem to be as severe as Bob's sister's, and is currently well controlled by medication. But I can really relate to the frustration of trying to pin down just what's wrong (autoimmune disorders can be incredibly difficult to isolate and identify), and worrying and wishing that someone you love could just be all right.

That's tough, serious stuff for a book that is often humorous. But the book is much like life: it has its ups and downs. Bob has a good perspective on the winning and losing, and it extends well beyond the set of Jeopardy!. That's part of the power of the book: Bob lets you into places in his psyche that most people wouldn't admit to, or at least wouldn't admit us into. Whether it's his love life, his family life, his obsession with Jeopardy!, or any number of other things, the book is ultimately satisfying because it feels real.

Is it real? Hard to say. I don't actually know Bob Harris (we've exchanged exactly one e-mail in each direction), but I feel like I do, and that's very unusual for reading a book. I expected to come out of it knowing a lot about Bob Harris, and feel like I came out with much more. So that's a good deal.

It's a small world, and Trebekistan is an interesting and fun part of it. Go there. Buy the book.

The Island Blues

We decided to go away for the Thanksgiving holiday week to Cozumel to do some diving, and the song running through my head is an old Styx song that was popular when I was in college:
You've been working and saving for your Jamaican dream
Paradise is waiting across the sea
But when you plane lands, Montego turns to Monsoon
You've got the Island Blues

'Cause nothing ever goes as planned....
Indeed, Nature seemed to be inclined to thwart our plans to dive by blowing in a wind the locals call "El Norte." Great for kiteboarding, apparently, but it closed the port to small boats (such as those that take out divers).

OK, but hey, we're in the tropics, so we can just hang at the pool, maybe lie in a hammock under a palapa and read a book or snooze. Or not. Because that same lovely wind is blowing the ocean into wave that splash right up against the seawall at our hotel, splashing into the pool and soaking the hammocks. And did I mention it was windy? Like, all the time?

*sigh*

At least it was a pleasant 3-mile walk into town, so we got a little exercise each day, and had plenty of time to sample the cervezas and tequilas. And we could sit in our room and admire the big cruise ships that ate up much of the view.

But I can't complain. We were on vacation, and the hotel room was a nice enough place to nap or read, and there are a number of good restaurants in town that made it a bit less painful.

Eventually we rented a little car and drove it over to the other side of the island, which is the first time I'd been over there. We found a pleasant place to sit and watch the ocean and sip more of the cervezas and eat some fish tacos. Apparently, that side is usually the rough side, while the side with the tourist hotels is calm. But El Norte changes all that, so the east side is suddenly very quiet and pleasant, and we tourists all flee the west.

By now we've missed three of our planned five days of diving, and things are getting desperate, so we tell the dive shop that if the port is still closed the next day, we want to rent tanks and drive them over to the east side for some shore diving. Miraculously, when the port is still closed the next day, they have decided to organize a trip across the island, so at least we didn't have to schlep the tanks and weights over for ourselves, and they provided a dive guide.

The shore diving at Chen Rio and Punta Morena was OK, but unspectacular. It was nice to be in the water instead of just looking at it, anyway. The big win on the first dive was seeing a pegasus fish (sorry...I can't find a picture online that does it justice). Oddly, none of my references says they live there. Hmmmmm. Second dive, one of our buddies found the endemic splendid toadfish in a hole. So it wasn't a complete loss.

Finally on Thursday (Thanksgiving), the port was open, and we were able to do "real" Cozumel diving on the spectacular reefs of the west side. We got two dives on each of our last two days, so it wasn't a complete washout, but not nearly as much diving as we had planned.

On the other hand, we were able to channel some of our free time into locating things such as tasty lobster dinners for US$18, so I shan't complain too much.

More about the culture of Cozumel later.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Language and Government

Just saw a link to this speech by Ursula K. LeGuin. [hat tip to Jonathan Schwartz.]

I like the speech for a number of reasons, including its brevity and eloquence. But it also touches on the importance of literature, and the relation of that literature to government and freedom, including the inherent tension between government and literature:
Government and Literature, even when they share a palace, exist on different moral planes. Each is the ghost in the other's bedroom. A government can silence writers easily, yet Literature always escapes its control. Literature cannot control a government; poets, as poets, do not legislate. What they can do is set minds free of the control of any tyrant or demagogue and his lies and disinformation.
And indeed, it is the ability of writing to acquaint the mind with both the habits of thought that can detect tyrannical control and the knowledge of evil without the experience of it that make literature so critical to freedom. Governments manipulate language and ideas [Or as the journalist I.F. Stone notably said, "All governments lie...."], so it behooves us to understand that and learn to deal with it. And the key to that is using and learning about language.

This was one of the essential points made by John Milton in his classic treatise against censorship, Areopagitica (my emphasis):
Since, therefore, the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
There are not a lot of phrases that stick with one over the years, and it has been nearly 30 years since I read Areopagitica in my high school Oral English class. But "the benefit...of books promiscuously read" stuck with me, and I think it fair to say that my reading habits qualify as reasonably promiscuous. So among the many debts of gratitude I owe to Mr. Dansky, the Oral English teacher, is that he forced a lot of us to read and comprehend Milton's rather difficult language, and to appreciate both the language and the lessons contained.

And one last note about Ms. LeGuin. I like her writing, although I have only read a few of her classic novels. But I have to note a small family connection. Ursula Kroeber (that's the "K.") grew up in Berkeley, California, where her father was a professor at the university. The anthropology building on the campus is named after him. One of her school classmates and close friends was my aunt Pat. I just think that's cool.

Anyway, go read something (besides this). It's good for you, and it's good for all of us.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Language and Rationality

Returning to one of my favorite subjects, civil discourse. I was just reading this fine post at Dr. Free-Ride's blog. Great discussion in the comments.

The issue, in this case, deals with a child saying a "bad word." The bad word in question is "bitch." Now, admittedly, in some contexts it would be entirely inappropriate for a kid to use that word, particularly if applied to a person, such as a classmate. Name-calling is not good.

On the other hand, the child in question apparently didn't know the word. It was spelled (incorrectly), and the child pronounced it, at which point someone tattled, and stupidity ensued.

This brings me to two points:
  1. Intention is key. A word is not a "bad" word if it is merely pronounced. You'd think from the administrative reaction to this event that merely invoking the word "bitch" would cause one of the Ancient Great Ones to manifest on the spot (which would probably make dog shows a lot more interesting to the layman, but I digress) or something equally dramatic. The child in question didn't call someone a bitch, just said the word.
  2. Context is also key. Clearly there are times when using the word "bitch" is useful, appropriate, and correct (e.g., the aforementioned dog show) and inoffensive. And in other cases, such as when applied to human animals, it might be offensive (although I'm unclear how this makes it a bad word). I can think of other words that have no useful, correct, inoffensive uses (though I'm finding it amusing to try). But somehow, making it a punishable offense to say the proper names of certain female animals, free of context, seems absurd.
And ultimately, where I'm going with this: There really are no bad words. To paraphrase my second-amendment-booster friends in defense of the first amendment:
Words don't offend people. People offend people using words.
Words are like guns and bullets (more like bullets in this context, but I think this simile is going to be dangerously overextended if I pursue this): they are useful tools that can be used for good or evil (and a huge range of other things in between), but they have no intrinsic value. It is we humans who employ and interpret them that determine goodness and badness.

Overreaction seems to be what we do best these days. As my scuba instructor used to say, "Stop. Breathe. Think." Good advice in many contexts.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day: Progress By Regression

How cool...that image looks just like the little sticker I got for voting.

Anyway, the best news is that not only did I vote (and apparently there was a mid-morning "rush," as all four little carrels were in use, with at least one person waiting), but I voted with a paper ballot! Apparently this time, unlike in the primary in June, we scrounged up enough scanners.

And the poll workers had a good attitude, chuckling as they handed me my "voting device," which looked suspiciously like a black ballpoint pen, and my privacy shroud, which strongly resembles a manila file folder. Cool.

So I voted. The way it should be, with human interaction. There's a paper trail. I even have the torn-off tops of my ballots so I can prove it.

And I have a little sticker, of course. Very important.

Make sure you get your sticker, too. Vote!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

ARGH!!!!!

Note: No one actually needs or wants to read this. I'm just venting. Go on about your lives: I'll be fine. Really.

OK, so I get that there isn't truly such a thing as an uninterruptible power supply. I do. But would it be so hard for the beastie to somehow indicate that it was no longer functioning as even a momentary backup to cover for glitches in our fine (and normally dependable) electrical power? A light, a beep, an e-mail, a wink, a nod...SOMETHING??? Is that so much to ask?

The "UPS" on my desktop system appears to be defunct. We had some tiny tick in the power an hour or so ago; tiny enough that NOTHING in the house noticed except the one computer that I would most like to have continue running, thank you very much.

This is about the fourth time something like this has happened recently. That happens to be the computer most responsible for my current livelihood, and I would really appreciate it not crashing while I'm working on it. Apparently tomorrow I get to go shopping for a new UPS.

I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Amen

This is right on.

Pretty much the only freedoms you lose are the ones you give away.

Watch your back.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Voting with a Spork

If you can ignore all the typos, this article is pretty good. I particularly like this line:
Now we are trying to eat the soup of democracy with the spork of voting, known as electronic ballots.
Remember: we have an important election coming up. Make sure you vote, and make sure your vote counts.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Nature Photography

This is awesome. Pelicans are wonderful. My lovely family bought me a print of this picture for Father's Day last year. My luck: we were in Australia the first weekend in September, which is Father's Day there. So I had two such holidays in 2005.

I'm a lucky dad.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

27 Years of Beer


One of the things I like about Jimmy Buffett is that fairly often, for no reason I can fathom, one of his lyrics or tunes pops into my head. I was just shutting down the computer for the night when I realized I was humming one of his old, clever tunes:
And across from the bar is a pile of beer cans,
Been there twenty-seven years.
Imagine all the heartaches and tears
In twenty-seven years of beer.
That's from "Ringling, Ringling," and I still have no idea how it got in my head this evening. Doesn't seem to have much to do with debugging browser compatibility issues in my Ajax code.

I suppose it could be somehow related to me picking up my framed poster from last year's concert at the Fillmore Auditorium (by local mosaic portrait artist Jason Mecier) today. It looks very nice, and I can't wait to hang it in my office. Let's see if I can convince Blogger to show you what it looks like...

Of course, he didn't sing that song at that show. And I don't recall drinking 27 years of beer, either. Go figure.

About that Rum Punch


What you see above is the cause of me drinking all that rum punch. That rotten wood is the base of a post that supports the middle of two decks, one above the other (plus a trellis above the upper deck). There is now a distinct dip in the middle of the decks (duh).

But no one was hurt, and we now get to redesign the decks and the backyard.

And drink rum punch now and then.

Good Grief!

It's not all about how/whether they count the votes. It's also about whether they actually show your name. This just grates on me. It's about basic competence. Any beginning programmer knows you have to deal with this stuff.

And anyone who buys products that are this lame deserves to be fired. It shouldn't matter how long your name is when you run for office. And for that matter, Jim Webb's name isn't that long!

Oy. Two weeks to a major election, and we find out some of our election officials have some kind of learning disability or something. Or gross incompetence. Or they just don't care.

More discussion at Daily Kos.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Twenty-five Years

Hard to imagine, but my dad's been gone for 25 years today. My sister writes most eloquently about dad. I don't have anything to add at the moment. Or maybe I just have too much to say, and can't pin it down. Same thing, I guess.

Take care of yourselves.

Friday, October 20, 2006

May Need More Rum Punch

Yipes!

I had an inspector come today to check out the deck (and other stuff...the house itself is in good shape, thankfully). In addition to the one really obviously bad post, there are two others showing signs of rot, as well as some joists and some of the railing and some of the decking.

*sigh*

Looks like we'll be in the market for some new decks. Did I mention how many large decks we have on this house?

I Knew This Man was Brilliant

Thirty years before it was in vogue, Tom Stoppard wrote about one of my pet issues:
It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting.
That's from his play Jumpers, which I have yet to read. I guess I have some homework to do.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Blast From My Past

Someone just pointed me to this post. It hits home on a couple of grounds.

One is that the subject of the article, Vic Fazio, is someone I used to work for. Vic was my first employer after I graduated from college. Although I was always a lot more liberal than Vic, I respected his political savvy and ability to get things done. Since I didn't have to stand for election in a changing district, I could afford to take somewhat more extreme stands than he could. I learned an amazing amount about politics and government in the two years I worked on his staff.

And then it turns out that Sherry Greenberg, who wrote that piece, used to be the Executive Director of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation, which is the organization I interned for one summer, and where I was volunteering when I got my job with Fazio. [Update for clarity: I worked there before, possibly long before, she did.]

Small world, this.

Wow

This is intense.

I must admit I've had some of the same feelings, of detachment, of knowing I should do more to stop the madness.

We all have a lot to answer for.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Maybe It Was The Rum Punch

I'm still recovering from the party we threw last night. Might take a while.

For the last decade or so, my wife and I have been throwing Big Parties about once a year. It started as kind of a reunion of our high school speech team (which is where we met, originally), and has since grown and morphed into sort of an invite-everyone-we-know event. It's great fun, and usually produces a diverse and fun crowd.

In years past, we would hold the party between Christmas and New Year's, which originally facilitated attendance by out-of-town friends who came to the area to visit their families for the holidays. As the years have passed, fewer of them are coming home for that, and as everyone seems to have conflicts at that time of year, we decided to try something different this time.

So we've moved it out of the holiday season, which should mean fewer conflicts, and also moved it to a season that should provide better weather, allowing us to move some of the party outdoors onto the decks.

Great idea! So we set up kids' activities downstairs, using the big TV room and the lower deck, while most of the food and drink was upstairs in the kitchen, dining room, living room, and upper deck. The weather was reasonably cooperative, though we expected things to cool off as the evening advanced. But with the party starting at 4 pm, we figured on getting some goo use of the outdoors.

And it started off that way.

But just as dusk was approaching, I was standing inside chatting with some guests, when several of the adults came to get me, telling me I needed to check out the deck, because something bad was happening: the deck was moving. Moving?

So, I'm thinking there's a loose board, or maybe one has rotted a bit and is squishy to the step. Um, no. The middle of the deck appears to have dropped several inches. My mind immediately flashes to news stories from a few years back about an overloaded deck collapsing at a party, with several people killed. Luckily, my friends are very calm about things, despite their spouses and children being on (or under) the decks. We quickly get everyone on both levels indoors, and several of us go to check out what's happened.

From the ground outside, it is quite apparent what has gone wrong. One of the posts supporting the middle of the decks has rotted at the bottom, and is collapsing. That post has dropped about 4-6 inches, and the decks have dropped a bit there, too. It doesn't seem like things are in imminent danger of collapse, but it seems clear that we need to keep everyone off the decks for the rest of the evening.

Fortunately, the house is large enough to handle the entire crowd (nearly 140 people total, including about 40 kids). We had planned to have all the drinks in coolers outside, so my clever guests move the coolers right outside the doors, blocking exit, but enabling people to get their drinks. And my wise friend Todd sits me down and hands me a cup of rum punch (and another, and another...).

So, no harm, no foul. The guest list included two architects and an engineer, who all agreed that yes, there is significant damage, but it should be relatively easy to fix. So aside from the fact that I have to spend much of the rest of the night recounting why there are signs taped over all the deck doors that say "keep off the deck," all goes smoothly.

Now I'm looking forward to my Monday morning calling people to fix my deck. But at least I have some leftover rum punch to help me through it all.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Perspective

I live in Oakland, CA. It's a pretty nice place; at least, parts of it. I get e-mails from the neighborhood watch group, just because I think it's a good idea to know what my neighbors are thinking, seeing, etc.

Now, parts of Oakland are rough, riddled with gang violence, drug trafficking, drive-by shootings, and the sorts of things you find in the bad parts of just about any major city. This is not true of the area where I live. There is some crime here. You would expect that in an area where relatively affluent people live not too far from those in greater need: some burglaries, purse-snatchings, car thefts, etc. But to hear some of the neighbors talking, you'd think we lived in Baghdad or something. We don't. Even the worst parts of Oakland are nothing compared to a war zone.

And it strikes me that most people have no idea. No perspective. In part, I suppose that's because of the lack of actual news coverage of the current war. I am old enough to remember tuning in to the evening news, hearing Walter Cronkite intoning the day's death tool in Vietnam, accompanied by pictures of fighting and pictures of flag-draped coffins.

Here's Cronkite, in a 2002 interview, talking about the differences:
Since the Vietnam War, Cronkite said, the media has not been allowed to take its cameras, pencils and notepads into the field with the soldiers to give an accurate account of what is happening.

During World War II, reporters were in fox holes, and during the Vietnam War they were on the battlefields.

In many cases during WWII, the reports would have to go through intelligence officers all the way up the ladder to London, where top military censors decided if the information could be released. If security reasons prevented its release, the news was held until the threat passed. But information was not kept from the American public.

Cronkite said Americans may have thought they got the full story during Operation Desert Storm, but the media was denied much of the type of access it had been granted in the past.

"[In past conflicts], you wrote it to be the history," he said. "We have no history now of the Persian Gulf War. We have only what the military reporters wrote and thatÂ’s what their bosses told them. ThatÂ’s not good enough."
Of course, the U.S. government won't allow pictures of the coffins of today's returning dead. We get pictures of the aftermaths of car bombings: people combing through rubble or a shot of a burned-out vehicle, and it doesn't look that different from a domestic natural disaster, an industrial accident, or the remains of the .

But there is a difference, and it's real. This is manmade, done in the name of a government. And those who claim otherwise do a disservice to both those who serve and those for whom they fight. This column puts that in perspective:
Day-to-day life here for Iraqis is so far removed from the comfortable existence we live in the United States that it is almost literally unimaginable.

It's almost impossible to describe what it feels like being stalled in traffic, your heart pounding, wondering if the vehicle in front of you is one of the three or four car bombs that will go off that day. Or seeing your husband show up at the door covered in blood after he was kidnapped and beaten.

I don't know a single family here that hasn't had a relative, neighbor or friend die violently. In places where there's been all-out fighting going on, I've interviewed parents who buried their dead child in the yard because it was too dangerous to go to the morgue.

Imagine the worst day you've ever had in your life, add a regular dose of terror and you'll begin to get an idea of what it's like every day for a lot of people here.

War is hell. A much more hellish hell than the everyday life of even the worst-off among us here at home. Or maybe the Secretary of State has these problems wherever she travels in the U.S., too:
In a reflection of the deteriorating security situation here, Rice's plane was forced to circle Baghdad for almost an hour before landing because of a mortar attack near the airport.
This came after she had to leave her regular plane for something more secure:

Traveling from Israel on Thursday morning, Ms. Rice had to abandon her comfortable official jet at an American air base in Turkey and to board a C-17A cargo plane equipped with antimissile technology for the final, 90-minute leg into Baghdad; that procedure has become routine for all high-ranking Bush administration officials visiting Iraq.

From the airport in Baghdad, Ms. Rice flew by military helicopter to the heavily fortified American-controlled Green Zone, bypassing the dangerous, explosives-strewn airport highway into the city.

Things are great! Just like being at home. Oh, maybe she doesn't have to wear the flak jacket at home.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Had MORE THAN Enough, Thanks...

Simple and brilliant. I like this idea.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Baseball: Closing Day

*sigh*

Just spent the last weekend of the baseball (regular) season at the ballpark. Watching my team go down to ignominious defeat to their arch rivals. Three days in a row. Watching the other team celebrate making it to the playoffs, on our home turf. Watching my guys play with little or no enthusiasm, going through the motions, acting like they just want to go home for the winter.

There will be BIG changes on this team over the winter. Nearly half the team is eligible to be free agents, and my guess is that no more than three or four of those eleven guys will be coming back.

Mixed feelings. Despite being "in contention" until the last couple of weeks, this was NOT a good baseball team most of the year. It was pretty painful to watch at times, most especially the last few weeks as they fell out of contention for the postseason and just seemed to lose interest.

Much grumbling from the neighbors who sit near me. What the team does to reshape itself will likely determine whether some of them come back.

On the other hand, a couple that shares the seats to the right of mine came today with their two young daughters, decked out in full team colors. The older girl sat rapt much of the time (although a lot of that was looking for the mascot). The baby sat contentedly on laps, reminding me of how much I used to love bringing my baby daughter to the ballpark.

And there it was: It's not about the team on the field (although a fun, competitive team is certainly more fun to watch). It's about the family coming out to the park together, sharing the game, sharing the stories, remembering the good (and bad) times, eating the food, taking a break from reality, running around the bases after the game.

Is that worth buying season tickets? Maybe not. But it was nice to get that reminder that there is much more at work here than just winning an losing, and who's going to get paid how much next year.

For the next six months, I will miss the sunshine, the hotdogs, the little kids getting excited to see the weird guy in the big, fuzzy mascot suit, and the men running around playing a kids' game for a living.

Can't do much better than to quote Bart Giamatti on the subject:
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.
April 3rd can't arrive too soon.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Yet Another Political Scandal, with Ickiness

I really don't want to talk about the current scandal on Capitol Hill. It's gross and nasty, in ways that the everyday corruption and stupidity can't touch. But I actually have been a little closer to that scene than most people, and I haven't seen some of these issues raised.

Now, in case you've been living in a convent or simply being smart and not reading the news, there's trouble brewing because a Florida Congressman had some inappropriate contact with at least a couple of different Congressional pages. Many people are drawing analogies to the earlier scandal involving the previous president of the United States and a former White House intern, but those cases are quite different for a number of reasons.

Background on me, first:

I was an intern for two summers in D.C., on Capitol Hill. One of those summers I worked in an office in the building where the pages live. I later worked as a Congressional staffer, including two years working for a member of the House Ethics Committee who was also on the page board. I wasn't directly involved in those matters, but was aware of some of what it entailed.

So, now the point.

A number of sources I'm reading online contend that this is a partisan political issue, specifically that members of the leadership of the majority party may have tried to cover up this scandal to protect the interests of their party. Given that they had knowledge of the matter, withheld that from the one page board member from the minority party, and held onto the information for nearly a year, the notion of coverup is a fairly obvious conclusion. It seems apparent that these actions were politically motivated.

From my perspective that is not only perverted, but also an enormous change in how the House deals with issues regarding its pages.

Pages vs. Interns

A lot of people learned a little bit about interns a few years back during a couple of other scandals, one involving the White House and the other the Congress. People have this notion that young people run off to Washington to work or play or entertain the elected officials or something, but they don't have much clue as to what really goes on.

Interns are generally college students, sometimes recent college graduates. They generally work for free or a small stipend, but for most purposes, they are volunteers. Thousands of these folks descend on Washington throughout the year, but mostly in the summer. As the most junior (and generally very temporary) members of staffs, they are usually assigned to entry-level work, such as opening and answering mail, doing research, and so on. Some get school credit, either for the internship itself or for academic work done along with or in conjunction with their internship. And internships are often in private offices, such as lobbying groups, non-profits, think tanks, and law firms, as well as governmental offices of all sorts.

For purposes of this discussion, I will discuss only Congressional interns.

Pages are something else, altogether. Each house of Congress has a program for pages. Pages are high school students, in their junior years. They commit to spending an entire academic semester or two working as a page, during which time they also attend the page school full time. The job of a page is basically to be helpful to the operations of Congress in exchange for the opportunity to learn about the legislative process up close. In practice, that means messenger work, picking up letters or packages from one office and delivering them to another. A number of pages are generally assigned to the chambers when Congress is in session, to facilitate communication among Members and their offices and committees.

Pages are sponsored by the Members of Congress who represent their homes. Not every district has a page; I don't know that they can have more than one at a time. While participating in the page program, the pages live in a page dorm, which is a secure, chaperoned facility.

So, the short summary of the differences are 1) age: college vs. high school, 2) status: temporary staff vs. sponsored helpers.

The life of an intern is, as you might expect, the life of a college student away from both home and school for a prolonged period. The life of a page is more like that of a kid at boarding school, but with less free time.

In my experience, both interns and pages are very important to the running of Congress. Interns are basically free (or very cheap) labor. They do a lot of the same kinds of things that full-time staff do, but because of the short-term commitment, they have less expertise and less depth. But they are well-integrated parts of the Congressional staff. They report to the office every day, work with the same staffers a lot, and often socialize with the younger staff (who are often not far removed from being college students and/or interns themselves).

Pages, on the other hand, have very little substantive contact with Members or their staffs. They are mostly pretty anonymous; when you call for a page to deliver something, you never know which one will show up, and they are usually only present for a moment or two. The office that sponsors a page might have a little more contact, but nothing as extensive as with an intern.

Members of Congress take very seriously their duty to protect pages. When a Member sponsors a page, that Member takes a degree of personal responsibility for this child of one of their constituents. Many Members have children of their own (some of whom serve as summer pages, in fact). They are keenly aware that these are kids, that they are in the care of Congress in general and of their sponsor in particular. No one wants anything bad to happen to a page. I think it is worth noting that when the harassment originally started, it was the parents of the page who reported it to the sponsoring Congressman, and he took that complaint to the House leadership.

I'm not clear that the Congressman did the proper thing here. I can't see why he went to the political leadership, rather than to the board that oversees the page program or the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (Sadly, the "ethics committee" doesn't actually do anything much anymore, but an allegation of a Member harassing a page would certainly fall under their jurisdiction.), but I'm getting ahead of myself.

So back in the early 1980s, there was an enormous scandal involving two male Members of the House (one from each party), each with a different page (one male, the other female). Both Members were censured by the House in the summer of 1983 (when I was working as an intern!); one was defeated for re-election the following year; the other served at least five more terms before retiring.

As a result of this tumult, the House put a bit more structure into its long-standing page program. The two most important bits were the creation of a Page Board to oversee the program, and the establishment of the page dorm.

As it turns out, the Congressman I worked for (after my internships) was a member of (and if I recall correctly, chairman of) the Page Board. The board consists of three Members of Congress, the Clerk of the House (basically the administrative head of the House) and the House Sergeant at Arms (the head of security). Its purpose was to make sure there was institutional control over the page program, coordinating the sponsoring Members with the officers of the House.

The page dorm was created to have a single, nearby, secure facility where all the pages would live, providing them with safe surroundings and also removing the need for them to leave the Capitol area. Their home was across the street from the House office buildings.

As it turns out, I worked an internship in the building that contained the page dorm in the summer of 1984, so I know what it was like. It was a converted old hotel. A couple of floors had been dedicated to the page dorm, and the rest was turned into offices. To enter the building at all, one had to pass through a metal detector and show identification to a member of the Capitol Police. After working hours, the building was locked, and one had to be admitted by the Capitol Police. Pages may have had keys, but I rather doubt it.

Access to the page dorm floors was by special card keys. I passed those floors on the way up the stairs to my office. The doors were closed and secured; their access system was different from the rest of the building (my office's floor had an unlocked door to the stairwell, and the office had a regular key lock).

What I'm trying to get across is that even twenty years ago, the House had taken substantial measures to protect pages from outside influences. However, the job of a page requires some contact with Members of Congress. There are areas of the House chamber where pages are designated to stand and wait for requests from Members to take messages or letters. It makes sense that there will be some friendly chats. (I don't know if you've ever been around a Member of Congress, but it is virtually impossible for them to pass by someone without saying hello and shaking hands. It's just the way they work.) They are gregarious people, for the most part, and I believe they sincerely want to make the pages feel welcome. As noted earlier, many of them have children of their own, and realize that these kids who are away from home for a semester or two might need a little friendly contact.

But it appears that now and then, some of these adults violate the trust placed in them, and turn from friendly hosts to harassers or exploiters. And based on my experience back then, no Member felt it was acceptable for another Member to have relations with a page (with the notable exception of one of those censured in 1983, who claimed it was a consensual, adult relationship that had broken no laws). The sponsorship of the student/page, the custodial duties, the trust placed by the parents, the unequal stature of the participants all dictate that such a relationship is inappropriate and unacceptable.

I listened to the censure debate in 1983. It wasn't really a debate. It was more of an affirmation by the House of its custodial responsibilities and a repudiation of the actions of the Members who had transgressed those duties. I cannot recall a single person standing up to defend the actions of the accused Members, but at the same time, I cannot recall any aspect of partisanship or politics entering into it. No one thought to exploit the issue for partisan gain (although it probably helped that there was someone from each party accused).

For members today to have acted as it appears they have, to have stymied investigation into allegations, to have enabled the accused Member to not only stay in office, but to continue to have contact with pages, is inexcusable. To have sacrificed the interests of children placed in their care for political gain is reprehensible.

Maybe my views on this have hardened now that I have a child of my own. A week ago, had someone asked me whether I thought it was OK or "safe" to have their child serve as a page, I would have unhesitatingly said yes, believing that the program was designed to protect those in it. I hope Congress can do something to restore that trust. The page program is a great way for kids to learn, firsthand, what our legislative branch is about. Unfortunately, I fear the current batch of interns is learning all too well whose interests are being looked out for on Capitol Hill.

Attitude is Everything

Sorry for disappearing. Business, you know?

Anyway, I started to write a post from the road last week, when some website in another window just demolished Firefox, and I lost it all. So I decided to go to sleep instead.

Last week's business adventure took me to New York City. This is notable because it was, remarkably, my first actual visit to The Big Apple. And much to my surprise, I liked it!

To be completely fair, I had been in NYC once before, long ago. One summer during college, I drove from San Francisco to Washington, DC, for an internship, and one of the guys who drove with me lived in New York City, so we went through there and dropped him off. He was kind enough to let us shower in his apartment (which we badly needed, after three days of driving across country in June with no air conditioning). We parked the car across from his Greenwich Village apartment next to a huge pile of garbage (there was a garbage strike going on...it was hot...I leave the details to your imagination). Had a quick bite to eat in a cafe, then headed off into the teeth of rush hour to try to find our way to D.C.

Now, I can already hear some of you saying, "What the hell were you thinking, DRIVING in New York City, at rush hour, without a clue as to where you are or where you are going?" Chalk it up to youthful naivete or something. Needless to say, the experience was not a pleasant one. I got honked at. A lot. A lot of people pointed me in various directions with other than their index fingers. I heard some colorful language. And eventually, I found a tunnel off the island, back onto the highway, and south toward D.C. (via the New Jersey Turnpike).

So for years I've had this notion that I don't like NYC, don't want to go there, etc. And along comes this assignment to go to a meeting in New York last week. OK, I'm a big boy now; I can handle this. I hedged my bets by booking the same flight with my boss so we could share a cab into the city. Then of course, his schedule changed, and I was on my own, arriving at JFK airport after midnight, knowing only the name and address of my hotel.

And it turned out just fine. Had a pleasant ride, chatted with the cabbie. Arrived at the hotel without incident. Met a coworker the next morning who knows the town, and he led me around midtown for several hours before our meeting. And it was really fun. It helps that the weather was gorgeous: sunny and warm, but neither muggy nor hot. Just great. Saw all kinds of stuff, like Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Deli, Grand Central Terminal, the public library, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, lots of theaters.

So I guess one lesson I can take from all this is that your attitude is very important in how you perceive things. If you expect to hate something, you probably won't like it. [Why do I feel like I've had this discussion with my daughter about foods?] So even though I have said these words often, I found that by keeping my mind open, I had a great time. Good to put that into practice.

I won't go so far as to say I love New York, but I am actually eager to go back and see some shows and try some things out. Another place to explore: yay!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Electronic Vote Stealing

OK, that's it. Paper ballots for me from now on!

Check out this video from a lab at Princeton U. [Hat-tip to Bob Harris] It's amazingly easy, and pretty much undetectable.

This is pretty much what a bunch of us techies have been warning about for years. I'm glad someone has made such a clear, simple demonstration.

I Can't Believe We're Having This "Debate"

It truly sickens me that the United States government is discussing what they euphemistically refer to as "alternative interrogation techniques." Never mind that when the government starts using euphemisms (e.g., "collateral damage"), it's time to run the other way. Basically the government is looking for a sanction to torture people without calling it that. Great; as if it doesn't hurt to torture someone as long as you call it something else.

I have already written far more in this blog than I ever wanted to about torture. It is self-evident to me that torture is bad, it is wrong, and it is dangerous, disastrous public policy. It demeans both the torturer and the victim, and it lowers the threshold for future abuse.

Josh Marshall made a good point the other day:
If you were to pick the single greatest hypocrisy of the Bush Presidency, wouldn't it have to be this: that the man who ostentatiously claims Jesus as his favorite philosopher (he of "do unto others as ye would have them do unto you" fame) would say, in all seriousness, "Common Article III says that there will be no outrages upon human dignity. It's very vague. "What does that mean, 'outrages upon human dignity'?"
WWJD, indeed?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Arrrrrrr....


No, not an expression of irritation--it's a greeting for a holiday! There seems to be no reason for it, but it's fun. And Pastafarians everywhere know that the world needs more pirates!

So, enjoy, me hearties! For those in need of remedial pirate-talk lessons, check this useful video.

Voting, Yet Again

The Washington Post has a lengthy article today about how, just maybe, there might be problems with the use of electronic voting devices this fall. And maybe, just maybe, some localities might not have adequate fallback procedures.

My favorite quote from the article is this:
What is clear is that a national effort to improve election procedures six years ago -- after the presidential election ended with ambiguous ballots and allegations of miscounted votes and partisan favoritism in Florida -- has failed to restore broad public confidence that the system is fair.
Well, duh. You don't solve a credibility and accountability problem by hiding the mechanisms behind an opaque, electronic curtain. Secret ballots are important, but once the votes are cast, transparency and openness are vital to public acceptance of the results.

Buried at the end of the article is the fact that despite recommendations that partisan administration of elections be abandoned in favor of nonpartisan means, virtually nowhere has that happened (including here in my home state of California). Elections and voting are too important to be a political football. There should never be a question of partisanship in the administration of elections or the counting of votes. There is already enough political pressure in the election process.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Business Travel

I haven't been on a business trip in a couple of years (one of the benefits of taking time off work, then working for a tiny company in its early stages). But this week I had to fly to Philadelphia for a couple of days. Great! September is usually a great time to be on the East Coast, since the humidity has gone, and the cold hasn't set in.

Forecast for just the 2.5 days I was to be there: Rain. Showers. More rain. *sigh*

And apparently the Pennsylvania highway department has it out for non-locals. Because if you make just one little slip, you're on the ramp onto the turnpike instead of the road you wanted. And not only does this mean you can't turn around for 10-12 miles, you also have to pay for the privilege. Cruel. Frustrating. Especially when one is already a bit jet-lagged.

But our meetings went well. Nice people. Got to have dinner with a dear old friend.

And then that wonderful weather decided to play havoc with my flight home. I had carefully found a 2:00 pm flight that would get me to San Francisco by 5:00 pm so I could join my wife and a friend for dinner at 6:00 before our 8:00 theater tickets. Hahahahahahahaha.

The 2:00 flight took off sometime after 4:30. We touched down at 7:34. I was in Row 31 of 32 on the plane, so I was almost the last one off. Luckily, no checked bags, so I ran to the taxi stand, and we set some kind of land speed record, arriving at the theater at 7:59 for the 8:00 curtain. I actually had time to sit and catch my breath (and stow my carry-ons under the seats) before the curtain went up.

I'm looking forward to a nice, relaxing weekend at home. After we get back from seeing the new dinosaur exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Naughty Words

See? I told you so. Civil discourse is going to hell in a handbasket, and it's all because we can't control ourselves in front of our kids. I exaggerate here, but truly, these people appear not to get it. Small children (here I'm talking up to about age 6 or 7) just don't know how to read the context of a conversation, so they don't understand when or why it might be appropriate (or not) to swear.

And if they hear it all the time from their parents, what conclusion can we expect them to draw? It's one thing if they occasionally hear one of their parents swear when they get very angry or something, but if every sentence is punctuated with F-bombs, then of course they will parrot them.

I was stunned when a friend of our told us her kid (about 2-1/2 at the time, I believe) had told her to "F*** off." Then she explained that the kid had learned it from watching The Sopranos. Ah, well, what did you expect?

We learn from our teachers. And when we are the teachers, others learn from us. Or as Jack Flanders said, "What seems to be coming at you is coming from you."

It's not cute. It's obnoxious.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Foofaraw

I've been trying to ignore much of the fuss over ABC's planned 9/11 mini-series. I mean, I saw the phrase "ABC mini-series" and knew there couldn't be much of interest there.

In all fairness, I don't watch much television, would certainly not have watched that show, even were I to watch TV. But I am inspired by some of the rhetorical flourishes I've seen in the discussion.

This one is my favorite, from Roger Ailes:
Bush was fully informed about the threat from Bill Clinton himself, Richard Clarke, etc. and did nothing. If Bush had "ample warning," then how did the Clintonites "know better." What the fuck was the Clinton administration supposed to do, refuse to turn over power until all terrorists were eliminated? Stay in office until Bush passed a reading comprehesion test? If Bush was not prepared to deal with terrorism from day one, he should have never stolen the election in the first place.
The whole fuss is interesting, and it's been intriguing to see how much pressure has been put on ABC about this show. It will also be interesting to see if they cave in and pull the show, as has been rumored.

I feel like I'm watching a circus through a telescope or something.

I am also amused that Blogger's spell-checker suggested that I replace "fuck" with "Fuji". Given the frequency with which that term appears in blogs, I'm surprised it's not in their dictionary!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Wow

Go: watch, read.

I always enjoyed Keith Olbermann when he was a snarky sports reporter on ESPN. But I've come to appreciate his integrity as a reporter when I occasionally catch his Countdown program.

There are few in his business who will even offer an opinion (except maybe to bolster Conventional Wisdom). To actively criticize the administration, and to do so for over five minutes, is stunningly rare.

And a particularly good quote from Edward R. Murrow at the end:
“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Random Quotations

This seems harmless. I've seen it done on a couple of blogs, so I'll play, too.
The rules: "Go here and look through random quotes until you find 5 that you think reflect who you are or what you believe."
My first five (You have to stop when you find five; otherwise, it's endless!):
  1. "Examine what is said, not him who speaks." Arab Proverb
  2. "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity." Unknown, Hanlon's Razor
  3. "You don't stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing." Michael Pritchard
  4. "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire (1694 - 1778)
  5. "I base my fashion taste on what doesn't itch." Gilda Radner (1946 - 1989)
Not an awesome collection, but not bad, either. Your turn....

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Haven't Been Doing My Share


Been busy. Thought this site was cute, though.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Trivia

You know, I like trivia. I like trivia a lot. My head is amazingly full of truly useless and unimportant information, and some of it bubbles to the surface at odd moments. (For example, recently at a party, someone was trying to recall who recorded the song "War" -- you know, "War...HUH...What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" -- and I knew that it was Edwin Starr.)

But I also understand the difference between trivia and important facts, and I try to make a point of learning the latter, even at the expense of the former. That seems perfectly rational to me.

And then I run into something like this (at tip to Bob Harris):
Three-quarters of Americans can correctly identify two of Snow White's seven dwarfs while only a quarter can name two Supreme Court justices, according to a poll on pop culture.
Perhaps the only shocking part of that is that 25% could not name even two of the dwarfs, but still.... Some of the other findings are equally disturbing. On the other hand, they do explain a lot of the attitudes and opinions held by the masses. If you can't be bothered to learn about the world around you, don't be surprised if the world isn't quite what you want.

Oh, and the ironic bit about learning of this from the aforementioned Bob Harris is that Harris was a frequent participant (and sometimes winner) on Jeopardy!, a TV game show featuring trivia. I believe Mr. Harris understands the distinction between the trivial and the important. Apparently he has also written a book about (among other things) his appearances on Jeopardy!. Sounds like fun reading.

Oh, and for the record, I can name all seven of the dwarfs and just named eight of the nine current Supreme Court justices off the top of my head (I forgot Justice Souter).

Monday, August 14, 2006

Gratuitous Plug For Some Friends

Being older than a certain age, I come a little late to the online music party. That is, I have listened to various streaming services over the years (especially Radio Margaritaville), but most just haven't interested me that much. I used to listen to a favorite radio station from my Santa Cruz days, KPIG, but they went to some weird, proprietary Windows software, and I gave up on them.

Then a couple of years ago, a friend pointed me to a beta test of some music technology his company was working on, and I thought it was kind of cool. Now it's been a real service for a year or so, and it's still very interesting.

They're called Pandora, and their shtick is that they have analyzed the heck out of a lot of music, and if you give them a starting point, they'll stream a bunch of music that's related to what you liked. And the results are quite good: they've opted for high-quality audio, which is refreshing.

They've also added an option called "Backstage," where you can get more info on artists, songs, and albums, and search for similar stuff. That's more like what they were doing when I first looked at their technology. It's all based on something they call the Music Genome Project, which is an attempt to break down music into some of it's component characteristics, and then do some fancy matching to figure out what's similar.

Based on my use, they've done a nice job. You can define a number of different "stations" in your profile to suit different moods. It's pretty cool. Go. Try it. It's free (at least for now). They have paid options, too, but if you're willing to put up with a little advertising, you can just listen.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Yesterday, driving my five-year-old daughter to school, she mentioned that she had recently taken one of her favorite books to sharing day at school. She is currently hooked on the Magic Tree House series, and the book in question was the one on the Civil War (Civil War on Sunday). Her teachers told her she could share, but she would have to share a part of it that wasn't about the war, because it might scare some of the younger children. And she did. She got that.

So today we're driving to school, and she says "I'm not afraid of war anymore." Oh? "I'm old enough now that I'm not afraid of war." Now, this is a conversation I've been dreading. As one who follows current events pretty closely, I know there are a lot of wars, conflicts, police actions, and so on. I would rather she not have to think about such things (although a little historical perspective is useful).

So I explained that I thought wars were pretty good things to be frightened of, and that they scare me. She changed the subject to something else.

*sigh* I want my daughter to be strong and fearless. I don't want her to worry needlessly about things that are very remote. And frankly, at her age, I don't want her to know just how horrible wars really are. But she needs to know that wars are bad things, and should be avoided. Of course, she has no way to understand the gruesome depths of humanity. And I'd like to keep it that way, at least for a while. But hey, there are newspapers lying about. There are televisions (though rarely turned on in our house). People talk.

Or you might just be sitting on an airplane, when someone gets the bad news.

Is it really possible that those who started this war and insist on "staying the course" don't feel the gut-wrench when faced with something like that? They must realize that some of us feel it, which is why they won't let us see the bodies being repatriated.

There's a word for people who can't feel the pain of others: sociopaths. And they have no place in high office. So many topics I don't want to discuss. Let's go back to "Dolphins at Daybreak," shall we?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Politics and Primary Elections

I guess I cant be the only one in the blogosphere who isn't writing about the primary election in Connecticut today. Clearly, I live on the opposite coast, so I don't have a horse in this race. I have neither contributed to nor otherwise endorsed a candidate in this election (not that it would matter to the few who actually read this). But my take on this is rather different from either what I see in the traditional press or in the blogs.

I come at this from a somewhat different perspective, having worked as a Congressional staffer many years ago, and having addressed the issue of primary elections in the context of a debate over redistricting.

I will cut to the chase here, and say up front that I think primary elections can be a great thing.

Now then, about that redistricting. The argument I often hear in favor of changing the way legislative districts are drawn is that they're too political, and that they tend to favor incumbents, or at least the party of incumbents, and few "competitive" elections. My response is that this is a good thing.

Let's take an example near to my heart: California. Let's just say for the sake of argument that half the voters in California are Republicans, and half are Democrats. If you craft the boundaries of the voting districts so that each district also has roughly half-and-half of each party, you should have "competitive" elections in all of them, with one candidate winning by a narrow margin in each district. That's very exciting if you work in the elections business, but from the perspective of those doing the voting, odds are roughly 50% that you will be disappointed in the results, no matter where you live, and roughly half the state will feel they are not properly represented.

Note that in that scenario, it doesn't actually matter which side wins a given election: just under half are unhappy, statewide. And although probability suggests that the overall outcome will be something close to half of the races going to each party, there is also the chance that due to exogenous factors (local weather conditions, scandal, national or international events, etc.), one party will win a disproportionate number of the races, meaning that the overall representation of the state is skewed, at least for that election cycle.

Now, take the other extreme. Suppose you could construct voting districts that were all pure, 100% voters of one party or the other. Half the state would unanimously elect Republicans, and the other half would unanimously elect Democrats, and in theory, everyone would feel they were being represented by someone they support. Heck, you would barely need to have elections at all...at least, not general elections.

Because here's the thing: What becomes interesting in this "pure" district case is how each party chooses the candidate that will represent it. They don't have to fret over what happens if they re-elect a senile old geezer, fearing that voters will instead choose a competent member of an opposing party. They'd just have a primary and choose another, acceptable member of their preferred party and get on with it.

Or, suppose you have someone representing you that you really, really like, except now and then (s)he does something you find really offensive? You could find someone who agrees with that representative on all the important stuff--including whatever offends you about the incumbent--and run them in a primary. The voters get to decide which is more important to them, and either way, they get someone who agrees with them at least most of the time.

OK, so this leads me directly back to Connecticut. I hear the traditional press commenting and editorializing that Ned Lamont is trying to unseat Joe Lieberman in today's primary solely because of their disagreement over the handling of the war in Iraq. And they say this like it's a bad thing. Now, from my reading it's clear that there's a lot more involved. But even if it came down to that, I still don't see what's wrong with that. If the Democratic Party in Connecticut says they want a senator who is just like Joe Lieberman except for his stand on the war, why shouldn't they elect one in the primary? That's what primaries are for. That seems far more logical than expecting them to re-elect Lieberman without even considering such an alternative. It seems highly unlikely that the large number of Connecticut voters supporting Lieberman would choose to vote for a Republican candidate if given the choice of Lieberman or a Republican. So why not let them choose a more palatable Democrat?

To me, the thing that's striking about this particular race is not that it's an unreasonable sort of race, but rather that such races are so rare? Who represents you in the legislature is incredibly important, too important to just settle for someone with the right general leanings or the right party label. Voters should find the candidate who most closely mirrors their views and whose judgment they trust, and elect that person. And if that means treading on the toes of an incumbent, so be it.

OK, enough rambling. It's just fun to see a real election now and then, instead of a race where people find themselves forced to choose for the least of the evils presented to them. Connecticut could do worse than to re-elect Joe Lieberman. But they can also do better, and I have a feeling they will.

Friday, August 04, 2006

You're a Mammal: Get Over It

Odd juxtaposition of stories on Yahoo's most e-mailed news list today. The top of the list is a story that says children who were breastfed have fewer anxieties as they grow up. The third story on the list is about people agitated because a parenting magazine's cover picture is of a baby nursing. (The #2 story is about a woman getting stuck to a toilet seat in a mall...really.)

Now, I realize that I not only live here on the Left Coast, but also right near the breastfeeding capital of the country, if not the world. So my reaction is not likely to be typical. I also come from a long line of breastfeeders. My sister and I were born at a time when breastfeeding was out of vogue. My favorite story is that when my mother was in the hospital after giving birth to my sister, the nurses refused to bring the baby to mom to nurse! So she checked out and took my sister home and nursed her there.

Anyway, here's my point. We're mammals. One of the defining characteristics of a mammal (and indeed, the one that gave us our name), is that we have mammary glands so that we can feed our offspring before they can feed themselves. That's what breasts are for.

I can appreciate that people may not want to watch others breastfeed. There are plenty of other bodily functions that we generally choose to do privately. Of course, in most cases, we provide facilities for people to do those things in private. If you don't want to watch, don't look. If you really don't want to have to look away, provide places for people to go out of your sight. But don't condemn people for doing something natural and necessary.

Now, as for the picture, here's the thing: it's not a picture of a breast. It's a picture of a baby. It's a really cute, happy baby. There happens to be part of a breast in the picture, too, but that's really not the focus. I think it says a lot about those objecting to the picture that they tend to characterize it as a picture of a breast.

By the way, the picture link there is to a really interesting site called BAGnewsnotes, which does interesting analyses of visual images, generally those in the news. Quite fascinating.