Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

--John McCrae

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene + random guy's junk = good times.

I am sooooo glad someone got this video! I was watching when it happened. Tip o' the hat to BoingBoing for posting it.

You were expecting a post with "random guy's junk" in the title to be safe for the kiddies?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Territoriality and the public self (draft post).

People who have bumper stickers are more aggressive. The more bumper stickers, the more aggressive. A quote from a Washington Post article on aggressive drivers:

Social scientists such as Szlemko say that people carry around three kinds of territorial spaces in their heads. One is personal territory -- like a home, or a bedroom. The second kind involves space that is temporarily yours -- an office cubicle or a gym locker. The third kind is public territory: park benches, walking trails -- and roads.

Increased territoriality leads people to treat public and temporary territory the same as personal territory. So as the public becomes the personal, it seems so would more abstract public notions become personal--the sense of ownership and territoriality would extend to ideas, which would bring about frustration when different or opposing ideas came into that extended personal space. Read my bumper sticker, love my stance, as it were.

This is something I'd considered, so I'm glad to see the validation. The article also notes that the more bumper stickers a car has, the more aggressive the driver (where owner and stick-er are the same person). What strikes me about people with lots of bumper stickers is the noise level of their expression--so much to say, and making damn sure that it gets broadcast. I think this goes equally for t-shirts, buttons, tote bags, whatever.

More on this as I think about it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

LivingSocial ad art: Where timeliness and poor taste intersect.

LivingSocial has an ad on DCist that is inadvertently timely. Check out the art for the ad.

We hear a lot about Robyn Gardner's disappearance in Aruba because she was from the DC area. Natalee Holloway's disappearance helps up the newsworthiness, too. It could be that because of the news coverage, I'm more sensitive than I would be otherwise. And if you talk to any of my college buddies, they'll assure you that I might not be the first person to avoid saying something that could be in poor taste. (If it weren't for poor taste, I'd have had no sense of humor at all back then.) However, even I'm wondering if LivingSocial shouldn't reconsider the art and text combination for this ad.

Edgy? Sure. But was it intentionally so? That's what I'm curious about.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What's the difference between a banjo and a ukulele?

It takes you twice as long to burn a banjo.

Interesting event at the Strathmore, near DC: UkeFest 2011. I must admit that I can't think of a ukulele without seeing Tiny Tim playing it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

HP Lovecraft: Mayan cosmonaut.

Okay, not really.  That statement would hack off Lovecraft, I think, but I'd hope he'd laugh. 

Here's a quote from an excellent interview on BoingBoing by Maggie Koerth-Baker with John Hoopes, an authority on ancient Mayan culture and one of MKB's former professors at the University of Kansas. Think the 2012ists are crazy? You're right, and here's why. There's more to it than you think.

My interest was piqued with the following quote:

[T]he most recent research I’ve been doing, and I haven’t published on this yet, but I’m finding links between the work of H.P. Lovecraft and influence of that on 2012. Michael Coe was a huge Lovecraft fan, even. I’m working on a manuscript on that right now. But Lovecraft is at the root of a lot of the ideas here, like the cycles of destruction, for instance. That’s not Mayan, that’s Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself had a lot of skepticism and felt that spiritualism was appropriate for fiction but didn’t believe any of it in everyday reality, and he kind of used his fiction as a way to mock those beliefs a little. But now that’s being used as reality.

Whenever I read items like this interview, I am first grateful that there are still rational thinkers out there. I'm also concerned about how to change culture so that there's less crazy and more sane, with more sane being better critical thinking. I admit, I could've done a better job of teaching critical thinking when I was a university instructor; it's a hard task to take on, and it requires at the very least cooperation from students, with the best ones being the ones who change their process. 

So can this task be done? Can we make people into better citizens? Accusations of racism and classism fly when the term "better" comes out. But there has got to be a "better," because otherwise we are doomed to the lowest common denominator.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Sir Bertrand Russell: Wise consideration.

Say what you wish about Russell's beliefs, lack therof, and attitudes, this is the sort of advice from which we all--yes, I mean everyone--could benefit. I find myself wishing more frequently that I had people like this in my life as I was growing up. If you're not familiar with Sir Bertrand's work, be careful about dismissing his words too easily, and be especially careful about quoting Rodney King back at him.

Tip o'the hat to BoingBoing for this one.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Haters gonna hate.

Haters gonna hate.

Love me some scientific nerdliness first thing in the morning. Post updated with image; link goes to original source (sort of).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tourons, light-colored clothing, and predator behavior.

In DC, it's touron season (I will leave that neologism to the student). It occurred to me just now, from the bar of Hill Country on 7th in Penn Quarter, that tourists dress in light clothing more often than not because the new environment reduces their situational awareness, and that's why they are easy marks. Discuss.

Why, again, are we not building a moon base?

PC Magazine et al have articles today about how our Russian friends are going to scuttle the ISS in 2020. So why aren't we planning a moon base? If we need something to fire human imagination, I can"t think of anything better.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

PonPonPon (or maybe you can explain it better).

Two things.

1. David Lynch and Eraserhead. The emotion in the performance struck me as being something like joy squeezed through a toothpaste tube.
2. Remix not of remix culture. It's overlay, not appropriation and revision.

I found the urgency unsettling at times. I know I'm a weirdo at times with some pop culture stuff (I think Disney is like The Prisoner, for instance), but this was one of the most stressed-out attempts at happiness I've seen. Did someone have a gun on her off camera?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rabbit holes.

I stumbled upon The Labyrinth of Genre just now, thinking it'd be about literary genres. Not only is it about music, which is awesome, it plays an example of the genre you just clicked and expands the genre tree with related genres, both of which make it awesomesauce.

They even have mathcore as a genre. Who's not going to love that? Other than my mom. And your mom.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

November 11, 1997 -- July 15, 2011

I'm posting this while I still have the resolve to do so. I can't write about her yet here on the blog. I've started a remembrance book, though, and I did want to mark it in some way online. I can't deal with posting it on Facebook or anywhere else just now.

She was the sunshine in my life, the most wonderful companion I could have asked for. Sweet baby girl, I did everything I could for you at the end, and so did the doctors, but it wasn't enough. I'll always love you, Maggie.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The strategic importance of Afghanistan.

Nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism (at least on the part of the United States), the Taliban, or terrorism. This article makes more sense:

The development of the Russian oil industry in Salkhallin, an island almost the size of Japan and other areas of the Russian Far East, combined with Central Asia's oil reserves, will be more than sufficient to replace Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other OPEC producers of the Middle East in their entirety as far as future U.S. strategic energy requirements are concerned.

 I knew that Afghanistan was more important as a site for crossroads than as a thing-in-itself. What I didn't realize was the size of the strategic reserves in the 'Stans. Yes, Iran has interests in keeping a front going against Sunni Islam (yawn), but this is bigger than that, given that, as I understand it, Sunni Islam controls more oil production than Shiite Islam does. With controlling interest in the country that is a key crossroads for all those pipelines, Iran would become a kingmaker in global terms.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is there such thing as a reliable narrator?

And if not, if the words of a narrator cannot be trusted because they are too "subjective" (difficult to reconcile how a nonexistent being can be subjective), then can the words of the author be trusted? Part of the conventions of reading is to ignore the author when the author is not being deliberately intrusive. One of the signs of a conventionally "good" author is self-obliteration (thus the death of the author, much discussed in the early 90s lit crit circles). How can we trust a figure whose goal is to efface himself and replace his voice with one that is inherently untrustworthy?

Can any narrative be trusted?

Must we be condemned to nothing more than subjectivity?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hamlet: An interesting take on epistemology and the soul.

Robots and humans in mutual need.

NYT: In Robotics, Human-Style Perce

Why don't we figure out a way to interface these robots with people who are in near-vegetative states--the ones whom we know are locked inside their bodies yet likely conscious? They regain the ability to act in some ways, not to mention communicating again, and we learn from them about both their condition and the robot interface.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Brain on Trial.

Still reading this (longish) article, but I can tell already that there's lots to pull from it. The responses on the  Gen-X list are both predictable in some instances, which is fascinating within the context of the article, and helpful in formulating counterarguments.

Here's to brain chemistry.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Solitude beyond the life of the mind.

Something I found today and am musing about:

What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude? The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. They took this in for a second, and then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?” Well, I don’t know. But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time.

This is from an otherwise white liberal guilt-ridden article on class distinctions and Ivy League education. Don't get me wrong, the article is well written, but it's transparent in its disingenuousness. Surely no one can be that callow.

Anyway, I'm thinking about this now. I think about solitude a lot because, one, I'm an only child and have been alone all my life, and two, I know how important solitude is for my own well-being. More on this as I muse on it.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Weak ties, strong passions.

I frequently tell people who don't live in the District that it's easy to meet people here, but it's not a good place to make friends. There are easy-to-list reasons for that: a transitory population, people devoted to a cause rather than to a community, and neighbors who are high IQ and high income.

I think there's more to it than that. My sense is that people who do well in DC are those who prefer weak ties to strong ones. A recent article in Wired by Jonah Lehrer discussed weak versus strong ties and community activism, noting that "weak ties play a seminal role in building trust among a large group of loosely affiliated members, which is essential for rallying behind a cause." Life in DC is all about being affiliated with some kind of cause, some passion. Nobody comes here just to hang out. (The people who hang out and do nothing else--the street-pacing idle--are largely natives who fall within the poverty demographic. I don't mean to sound dismissive about poverty, but that'll have to be another blog post.) People work, and work hard, at something they believe in. To gather a group together for a common cause, you need to focus on the work, not on the relationships. It's one of those commitment to truth things. Focusing on the higher ideal will carry you through the human messiness that comes from working with others.

No wonder I found DC to be an easy place to assimilate. I've spent my life making weak ties rather than strong ones. Anyone else do this?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Hung Far Low: Welcome to Chinatown, honey.

Many thanks to Ryan Barrett for taking this pic for me last night on the way back to the Hilton Portland from Ping. Yes, the sign really says that.

The food at Ping is awesome--Asian small plates. I had a lamb skewer, two Kobe beef skewers over which I nearly wept, and a pork shank. One of my dining companions had a vinegar soda (really kind of a vinegar Rickey, but without alcohol). It wasn't bad, I have to say. Another companion had a tamarind soda that was really good, and yes, you need to like the flavor of tamarind first.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Anyone on this yet? Looks like Google's pulling together some current functionality, renaming parts of it, and creating a platform for connecting with people. Also looks like the emphasis is on f2f interaction, unlike Facebook, which emphasizes Facebook interaction. Hard to say if the pendulum is swinging back toward f2f activities yet.

My Paint skills are UNRIVALED.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Heaven is not complete without a singing Neil Gaiman.

Quote from BoingBoing writeup by Maggie Koerth-Baker:

WITS is best described as the very nerdy, slightly tipsy, younger cousin of A Prairie Home Companion. There are authors, there are musicians, there are the creators of MST3K heckling from a balcony seat. In other words, you'd love it.

I very much miss this kind of environment. Aye, DC, I love you, but you're a bit dull.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The ring chose you. Use its power to defend our universe.

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil’s might
Beware my power...Green Lantern’s light!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Finland: Explain, please.

On the one hand, I see its value. Looks like some good core strengthening work. Then they start galloping and jumping verticals. All I can think of are ponygirls.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Happy birthday, Alan Turing.

What a tragic life you led, Dr. Turing. I know you not so much through your own work, but through your characterization in Cryptonomicon. I would have liked to have known you.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Another sign of the apocalypse, or, Heather sees naked people and gets confused.

This gallery (totally NSFW) on BoingBoing has me confused. They're supposed to be naked, right? So why are they wearing clothes, body paint, and/or masks? And shouldn't the gentleman in this image be mindful of that bike seat?

Scratch that. I might find out that he's feeling inviting.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Woolite: Your demise is imminent, but your laundry is brighter.

Reassurances about your delicates courtesy of Rob Zombie. Now, if we could just get Treyarch to make commercials for Walmart....

Monday, June 20, 2011

There can be only one NIH Highlander.

Link is to an excellent, though brief, article in The Scientist about the first NIH researcher. Yes, there was only one. James Kinyoun was the NIH Highlander. He was such a badass that he did not require a sword to decapitate his foes.

Corollary 1: Scientific thought, as derived from rigorous examination and the scientific method, will lead us to ideas that will eventually become axioms.

Corollary 2: The more rigorously derived ideas we have, the better.

Corollary 3: It is important to distinguish between bad ideas rising to the surface for examination and dismissal, and bad ideas being recycled by those with even worse motives.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Science and truth: Couldn't have said it better myself.

This comment was posted by commenter Johan(tm) Strandberg in a discussion of a Richard Dawkins piece on preferential sex selection. Unlike numerous other Internet venues, on BoingBoing there's remarkably little Bible thumping and irrational sky gazing. Like numerous other Internet venues, though, there's a good bit of narrow or otherwise selective argumentation. Johan(tm) Strandberg makes some clear, well-considered points about science and its corollaries:

Science as a collective iterative process to get closer to The Truth. This goal is never attainable as such, but we can get arbitrarily close to it over time. Science in this sense is neutral and judgment free. In retrospect, it might also be wrong.

Scientific Investigations are not value neutral — although the best ones strive to be.

Applications of Science is by default to be considered biased and with selfish motives — but sometimes it rises above that. This should in no way reflect on the value of science itself, only on the entity who is [claiming to be] applying science. Sometimes the claimed use of science is based ignorance or other motives [e.g., homeopathy]. This should only reflect on the entity making the claim, not on Science itself.

You will never know for sure. The very essence of Science is that is a collective refinement over time. At best you later discover that some particular part of Science was wrong. However, once consensus — based on a large set of opinions — has been established, it is OK to assume that that particular piece of science is "true".

Get used to never knowing for sure, and be very suspicious of people claiming to be.

Nice use of simple typographic conventions to indicate distinctions among terms, too. I have long argued that science is the only way we'll get closer to understanding objective truth. The fact that I am convinced there's an objective truth at all is enough to make some people stop listening to me. (Eh, we all have our blind spots.) If someone wants to cling to subjective truth as an item of value, they're welcome to do so, just as long as they don't then try to make it into an objective truth through some fallacious appeal.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cthulhu: He'll cure what ails ya.

Who couldn't love these lollipops?

After the cold I've been nursing for the past 10 days, I think Doctor Muñoz would give me one. Strange, I suddenly feel a draft in here...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Your blog is the new business card.

I read a fair bit about blogs, blogging, and how to do more/be better/all that. Reading about productivity is one of the biggest time sinks I practice. Ever since I got onto Twitter, which mind you was in June 2006 (yowza five years ago), I've been drawn to the production of social media. Early debates about Twitter versus blogs had to do with audience. Some argued that a good tweet could sum up a blog point (valid only if you're interested in communicating solely through topic sentences), others insisted that blogs would die off in the face of tweet competition, and yet others used Twitter to sell their blogs (which were usually about blogging itself) and blog services. Lots of recursive data in those early days.

I think it's clear now that there's space for both, though I am always concerned about the value of information versus the time spent reading it. I worry about shortening attention spans; perhaps I would be instead cheering the demise of assigned research papers of specific lengths.

So if it's okay to be a blogger, then how does one gracefully mention one's blog? Where does good taste fit into this?

I've decided that a blog should be mentioned with the grace and frequency that one would produce a business card. Nothing is more off-putting than having someone comment solely to mention his blog, just as nothing is more graceless than a party arrival who's plastering hands with his business card.

Be a good person, worthy of attention, and you'll be someone people will want to read.

This is harder than it seems.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

HP Lovecraft: Topology and Stephen Colbert.

Contrary to what most people think, HP Lovecraft was not a horror writer. In fact, he considered horror to be hack writing. Instead, he wrote weird fiction, and defined it thus in his essay, "Supernatural Horror in Literature":

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Or as I call it, Thursday. Interestingly, Lovecraft's feel for the tone of shifting perception was mentioned in this article on four-dimensional space and topology. The author, Richard Elwes, uses Lovecraft as an intro to his notion that four-dimensional spaces are remarkably similar to the shape of Yog-Sothoth as Lovecraft described it. Perhaps that's all we should say about that, lest eldritch horrors appear.

You're feeling courageous? What about an automatic sanity check fail? Here's a mashup of Stephen Colbert and Cthulhu, intended for 3D printing at Thingiverse. Never heard of 3D printing? It's just the most awesome thing ever. Almost as awesome as finding two Lovecraft references to start your day. Tip o' the hat to BoingBoing for both of these.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Solar blowout.

Holy crap--part of the sun just freakin' blew off. Tip o' the hat to Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy fame (@BadAstronomer).

Monday, June 06, 2011

Two sources for how to write.

Providence has dropped wonderful things into my lap once again. First up is Time magazine's list of The Best Blogs of 2011. I'm not going to debate blogs, or the legitimacy of their list, because what's important to me is the descriptions of what makes these blogs interesting. Want to know why anyone should read a given blog? Peruse and adapt.

Second is a list from Famous Writers about the process of writing a book. The range goes from David Crosby (yes, the one of rock music and liver transplantation fame) to Cory Doctorow. I cannot imagine two more different people. At this point, I am not in mind of writing a book, but this is a fine set of pointers from people who know, from my point of view, everything that needs to be known about the process.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Post Hunt 2011.

It's been a crazy two days, with a multicelebrant birthday party most of yesterday and last night, and the Washington Post Hunt today. I'm holding down the fort at Corner Bakery (14th and G NW) while the rest of our group of about 25 solves the puzzles.

This year's format is different, it seems; no opening puzzle to determine coordinates, no list of extensive red herrings mixed in with a few correct answers. Here's hoping that everyone has fun. If not, there's always dinner at Gordon Biersch tonight at 6.

Friday, June 03, 2011

General Electric's tumblr: Well done, sirs.

I'm a fool for scientific and geekly pics. And I'm going to ask the GE tumblr out on a date this weekend. They've even got a pic of an electric car charger from the 1900s. This, however, is my favorite:

As of this post, the "GE Instagram" (as they're calling it) has only two tumblr pages. Best get on it early to stay caught up. Happy drooling!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Washington in 1814.

Now this is snappy.

While watching this, I concluded that the one message I would send those in our collective past would be, "Thank you." What was normal for them seems insurmountable to me. It's not just that we're soft today; I don't have the skills needed to make my way in that world. They're just as smart, crafty, and innovative as we are, yes, but still, there's something about the world of 1814 that reminds me I'm suited only for my current time at the earliest.

I'm also reminded that I have nowhere near the skills of the people who did the work on this mapping project. Thank you, geologists and geographers of the past. Your data has provided essential continuity for the lives of those who have followed you.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Wunderkammer to explore when next in London.

Curio shops--are they even called that any more, I wonder, or are they now all lumped under the sign "antique and resale shop"--are something that I've loved since I was a kid. My mom and stepfather used to visit one in Gulfport, Miss., called The Purple Lantern. I was enchanted with it; the interior was done in a vaguely Arabian manner, with flowing fabrics covering the walls and dividing the shop into sections, each with a rambling assortment of curiosities linked loosely by theme. No surprise, then, that this article on Viktor Wynd's Little Shop of Horrors (tip o' the hat to BoingBoing) caught my eye.

Only I call my office a Wunderkammer. If I had, as Viktor Wynd does, "a box reputed to contain some of the original darkness that Moses called down upon the Earth (nailed tightly shut, I’m glad to say)," then perhaps my office would measure up. For now, my miniature D&D figures, New Orleans Saints toy ball, glow-in-the-dark skull, reproduction antique tin of dog treats, and plastic jellyfish will have to do.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Obligatory drink post, the second.

The hubby made a batch of these for a party we're got this afternoon. They should make a big splash; the hosting couple have their own regulation-size beer pong table, so it's going to be one of those kinds of parties. And frankly, it's about time.

Important safety tip: Cut the jelly slab into 1"/2.54 cm squares, no matter what the devil on your shoulder urges. The shots are potent. I used Mandarin orange segments and maraschino cherries, cut into fourths, for the garnish. Mine do not look nearly as nice as the photo here, which is from the linked article.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Obligatory drink post, the first.

I confess that I am devoted to vintage cocktails, and for a couple of reasons. One, I remain a bit miffed at bartenders today who repackage vintage cocktails and call them something new. Who can trust a bartender practicing such trickery? Someone needs to be present who can call them out when they've taken a sidecar and renamed it a "Belly Button Licker." Two, I find myself still reeling from the recent barrage of 'tini drinks; this should require no explanation.*

Before I start sounding too arch, I must also confess my love of tiki culture and tiki drinks. (There goes my rep.) I grew up with an interior designer for a mother, and when I was a preschooler and schoolchild, our living room was done Polynesian style--thatching on the walls, palm trees in each corner, solid teak furniture with legs and columns carved like tiki gods, war masks on the walls, emerald green carpet and draperies, and a 50-gallon fish tank with an actual, live, real piranha in it (my mom bought him on the black market, and yes, I know they're from South America). I even love the cheap tiki stuff at party stores.

In other words, the following tiki drink recommendations are inescapable. These are all good for mixing in big batches. The links will take you to Serious Eats recipes, but that's just to get you started.

Scorpion: This is a pleasant change of pace from the age-old pina colada, which to me should be served only to children (alcoholic or not).

Mai Tai: Many, many variations and ripoffs of this drink abound. The original cannot be duplicated; it called for a vintage of rum that has all been drunk. (Seriously. You can't get that kind of rum any more; no bottles are left outside of private collections.) The key is to not get the ingredients out of balance. If you've had a Mai Tai from a bar, chances are you've had an overload of juice and syrup. This recipe should be a pleasant change.

Fog Cutter: I'll always have a special place in my heart for Fog Cutters (or as my mom jokingly called them after a night of one too many and slurred speech, Frog Cutters). You'll notice a trend in these recipes: Lighter, more naturally sweet, and nuanced. If you've had a Fog Cutter in a bad Chinese restaurant before, don't despair. This recipe should help.

Planter's Punch: I have made many a bad pitcher of this punch and drank them gleefully. I've also ordered many a glass of this drink; no two were alike. Yes, it can be a fruity, oversyruped concoction with umbrellas AND fruit AND a whirlygig AND a plastic whale; Planter's Punch can also be a more streamlined and classic cocktail. I've included recipe links for both here.

It's getting to be time to plan a tiki party. Aloha kakou!

*Yes, I understand that you, you right there, have a favorite 'tini, and I know that the cosmopolitan is a classic cocktail that was stomped to death by Sex and the City. I can't help preference and history.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Gauss facts.

Tip o' the hat to Sam Waltz on the GenX-Ms email list for this one. A sample:

Gauss can get to the other side of a Möbius strip.
Gauss can colour any map using only one colour.
There are no postulates, only theorems Gauss believes are unworthy of a proof.
Gauss disproved Godel's Incompleteness Theorem by exhaustion.

The Wikipedia article on Gauss is here.

Corruption and its contexts.

Corruption is one of those words that's been cheapened through overuse. Still, with regard to some subjects, there's no better way to describe it. This article by Stratfor gives a good overview of the broadest context of corruption within Mexico today. Here's a quote:

The example of the Guatemalan DOAN (and of more recent Mexican police reform efforts) demonstrates that even a competent, well-paid and well-equipped police institution cannot stand alone within a culture that is not prepared to support it and keep it clean. In other words, over time, an institution will take on the characteristics of, and essentially reflect, the environment surrounding it.

As unlikely as it is to happen, the solution for now seems to be to protect the United States as best as possible from the violence that has taken over northern Mexico's hinterlands, whether by constructing more walls, setting up more armed forces, or something else. The situation strikes me as being much like that between Israel and the Palestinian territory. I very much agree with Israel's construction of the security walls (recognizing that I am in the minority on that, usually) and from day one I've been in favor of the walls along the southern US border. Like Robert Frost said, good fences make good neighbors.

Human permeability is behind institutional permeability, despite our efforts in the US to give institutions a life of their own through legal definitions and court decisions. I think this environmental effect goes through every area, every level of life. As I've posted on Facebook before, if you want to change your life, you have to change your values. This is way more complicated than blithely observing, "Do what you always did, get what you always got." The latter is so easy that it's dismissive. Changing values is some of the hardest work anyone will do. If it's that difficult on a personal level, then how much more difficult must it be on the national and international level? People rail about incremental change, but frankly, I don't see any other way that change can happen. So for now, I approve of the walls, the increased numbers of guns and agents, and the heightened awareness being used along the US-Mexico border.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Happy Towel Day!

"A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value--you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you--daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

"More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit, etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost." What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cocktail culture and its reversals.

Flirty aprons. Highball glasses with inexplicable designs. Polynesian themes. Safe exotica. Men and women playing subtextual games with cool intensity. That was my childhood environment; I watch Mad Men with a feeling of both pleasure and surprise, as I'm sure a lot of us do, and marvel at what it recalls.

But that was then. I think we've inverted all those behaviors, despite the recent (and now fading) popularity of that vintage. Courtship practically no longer exists. I suppose people still flirt, though in my experience we have lost our sense of subtext. Using subtext to flirt requires mindfulness, delicacy, respect, all of which are time-consuming activities and which require attention to others' responses.

I think that's what people are trying to get back. Cocktail culture has a set of understandable, attainable codes, and even though those codes are a bit old-fashioned, they're not so out of date that they can't offer us anything. I'd even go so far as to argue that there was more sexual equality in the original cocktail culture than there is now. Flirting, coyness, playing hard to get--all of those things are games, and games are for those on equal ground (if the rules don't potentially apply to all, i.e., if all players don't get an equal chance to win, then it's not a game). Might there be a difference between the balance of the sexes and their equality?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Context, trustworthiness, and truth-telling.

Multiple links behind this idea: Here is an interesting blog post about context by Stijn Debrouwere, and here is the source for the quote below, an article by Jay Rosen of the NYT about where journalism may be headed:

Long ago, something went awry in professional journalism the way the Americans do it, and it left these visible deformations. In my own criticism I have given various names to this pattern: agendalessness, the quest for innocence—most often, the View From Nowhere. The problem is not what it is usually said to be: that the press is supposed to remain “objective” but no one can be totally unbiased. The problem is equating trustworthiness with the prohibition on taking sides, when the actual result may be exasperation with he said, she said, rage at the helplessness that “leaving it there” creates, and mistrust of the formulaic ways in which journalists try to advertise their even-handedness.

This is part of the problem that I keep coming back to with regard to truth. Again I quote Mark Clark, my classics and Greek professor in my undergraduate studies, who asserted that in order to be a good skeptic, one had to believe in the truth. I immediately saw the wisdom in his statement and adopted it as one of my own truths. Here, though, the question is, how can we have journalism if we can't have truth? How can we have anything at all, really, if we can't have truth? We are slowly being reduced to facts only, yet we refuse to endorse science, which functions on facts, wholeheartedly, out of our fear of offending the religious. Facts are data; truth is our understanding of the larger implications of facts. Where will the idea of the truth be when we need it? Locked away somewhere because we can't trust ourselves to be right? Hidden because we are too afraid to take a stand? We have reduced truth-telling to court decisions and legal documents; that's the only safe place left for the truth to be judged, and I fear that even that is disappearing.

We have given up our responsibility to gather facts, understand them, and judge for ourselves, instead becoming wheedling and fearful. I fear that there may be a tipping point already passed, that we've taken on too much fear as a culture and will not be able to overcome it in order to reach the truths we'll need to survive.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Buildings in LEGO at the National Building Museum.

I've never quite been sure how LEGOs create a world once they're assembled. Maybe it's the strength of the image on the box; maybe it's the detail that the LEGO builders manage to include despite the essential clunkiness of the blocks. Maybe it's wishful thinking. This exhibition is running until September 5. I'll be there with my microscope.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

George Washington's rules of civility.

Is civility relative? Given that by its nature, civility is about common ground, do we have a sense of what that is? Is our generation--and by "our" I mean mine, GenX--the last generation raised with the duty of civility? Is it possible that civility is something that we truly hold in common?

I ask this because Washington's rules of civility strike me as being just as apt today as they were when he copied them from the Jesuits. (Now that I've been to the George Washington Masonic Memorial, I cannot picture him without a Masonic apron.) I cannot profess an ability to get inside the minds of all classes and creeds, nor do I pretend to include the most extreme or isolated groups in this. I mean the middle ground. Is a sense of civility what begins to define the lower edge, so to speak, of that middle ground?

I think a lot about social markers and markers of privilege. Washington, DC, is a battleground of those markers; we are each assessed, day in, day out, by those in each rung. Civility as self-discipline, as an external signification of self-control and self-mastery, is the least of the lessons that we carry forward from Roman stoicism. Yet these limits imposed on the self seem to be slipping away from us. Perhaps it's not that we've lose a sense of civility so much as we're losing belief in ourselves. After all, self-discipline requires one believe that such discipline is possible and fruitful.

Bread and circuses did not help Imperial Rome outlast external aggression. For all our democratizing of education and social access, we still cast bread about and set up circuses to entertain. What will it take for us to believe in ourselves enough to master ourselves?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Unspoken Truths.

Hitchens is undergoing treatment for throat cancer. If it overcomes him, it will be a great loss to the world of writers. This essay is a simple, fine example of that. I don't mean that statement to be a pre-emptive eulogy, either; it'll be a damned bloody loss if the cancer takes him. We do not have enough Hitchenses to replace him.

In this essay, Hitchens's topics range from the painful mundanity of radiation therapy to the friendship of Heraclitus and Callimachus; and of course that's the range, because Hitchens is learned and mindful. But the idea of voice goes farther than that. Here's a quote that I, as a former college writing instructor, identified with:

"To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice."

Italics are Hitchens's. Unbeknownst to me that Hitchens used these ideas to harangue his students, I was doing the same thing when teaching. I'd even have my students read their essays aloud in small groups so that they could hear the flaws and correct them (and they did, scratching out swaths and making margin notes). Funny how good ideas survive through movement among persons, not the stasis of pages and screens. At any rate, Hitchens's essay is a reminder that voice, a voice worth hearing, is not simply sound.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Brownian motion of the borderland.

When I first read the Stratfor article linked above five years ago, it fundamentally changed the way that I looked at immigration in America. Here's a quote.

"Sicilians might remember Sicily, they might harbor a cultural commitment to its values and they might even have a sense of residual loyalty to Sicily or to Italy — but Italy was thousands of miles away. The Italian government could neither control nor exploit the migrant’s presence in the United States. Simply put, these immigrants did not represent a geopolitical threat; even if they did not assimilate to American culture — remaining huddled together in their “little Italys” — they did not threaten the United States in any way. Their strength was in the country they had left, and that country was far away. That is why, in the end, these immigrants assimilated, or their children did. Without assimilation, they were adrift....

"The immigration debate in the U.S. Congress, which conflates Asian immigrations with Mexican immigrations, is mixing apples and oranges. Chinese immigration is part of the process of populating the United States — a process that has been occurring since the founding of the Republic. Mexican immigration is, to borrow a term from physics, the Brownian motion of the borderland. This process is nearly as old as the Republic, but there is a crucial difference: It is not about populating the continent nearly as much as it is about the dynamics of the borderland."

I recommend Stratfor to people all the time (and no, I don't receive anything for doing so, nor do I work for them). This article in particular is refreshing in its clarity and precision. I need more of that, daily; I think we all do.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Zombie preparedness: CDC gets on board.

For a bit, the CDC servers crashed from the traffic, but the post title link above should work now. Meanwhile, the debate on DCist over proper home defense supplies is raging. I am in favor of a flamethrower for perimeter control and possible group control should retreat to another safe house be required, but others are adamant about its lack of efficacy.

Yes, and.

I've been reading and thinking lately about people who live life according to the principles of improvisation. The title link above is to the blog I found this morning; looks like it's got good insights, or at the very least foundational ones. So the questions are, do changes really happen when people shift to a "yes, and..." way of doing things; do those changes reflect only a different inner state; and does that distinction matter?

Our souls against the weight of a feather. I am still convinced that this is by what we will be judged. Thinking again about a "yes, and..." way of living, the emotional work required to shift one's inner space would necessarily change the weight in the scale pans.

NB: Yes, I watched the Jim Carrey film Yes Man. I think it lacked the core of ideas necessary to make it an equivalent to Groundhog Day, which is unfortunate because we could use another film like that.

I've also been thinking about how the film Eyes Wide Shut seems like Hollywood allegorizing itself yet again, but that may be unnecessarily reductive. Might turn into another blog post.