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?


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


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.