Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Review: A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepness in the Sky (Zones of Thought)Vernor Vinge
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ - - - -

This book is a mile wide and an inch deep. And way, way too long.

It seems like Vinge has fun introducing new people, places, accents, terms, and technologies, and then is happy to abandon them, superficially outlined, when he gets bored or thinks of new ones.

To attempt to summarize the plot: two space-faring human fleets, the Qeng Ho (over-the-top free-market traders) and the Emergents (cult-like slaver-megalomaniacs) fly simultaneously to the mysterious OnOff star system which has one planet, Arachna. Arachna is populated with beings called Spiders who are on the verge of developing nuclear weapons and spaceflight. Upon arriving at Arachna, the Qeng Ho and the Emergents battle; the Emergents win and enslave many of the Qeng Ho traders with a kind of mind control. Then all parties sit and wait for the Spiders to advance enough for their purposes – for the Emergents, to use Spider technology to repair their ships and then enslave them, and for the Qeng Ho, to use Spider technology to free themselves and then to profit off them.

The story had about eight million characters and place names, none of which I cared about and many of which I confused with each other. Many of the characters had flashbacks which did little to explain their motivation and which in turn introduced still more characters and place names.

Just as one of the many story lines in the book would appear to be getting interesting, it would disappear into vagueness and switch to a different story. You never hear the guts of anyone’s ideas. For example, when Pham Nuwen (one of the many main characters) is talking about what he wants for his Qeng Ho fleet in the future, Vinge only gives us Pham’s introduction and conclusion and glosses over the content in the middle of his speech, saying only that his “words flowed.” This type of thing happens over and over.

As in his earlier book, A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge does the best job with the aliens, the Spiders. The Spider characters were more understandable, likeable, and consistent than most of the humans.

There were several typos (e.g. “precentage”) and incorrectly-used words (e.g. “runway” instead of “runaway”) in the edition I read, especially towards the end, which made me think that perhaps the editor was having a tough time that deep into the book as well.

It appears, however, that I am the only one who officially feels this way about this book. All the reviewers and two of Vinge’s cronies – David Brin and Gregory Benford, both of whom I like a lot – raved about the book like it was the next Foundation series. Asimov’s Foundation universe is just as grand in scope, if not more so. But I cared about Asimov’s characters and he described worlds and ships well enough that their names meant something to me. Anytime he introduced new technology, I felt like I understood it enough to see its import.

I think if Vinge had focused on any one (or three) (or five) of the places, characters, incidents, and/or technologies in this book and explored them more deeply, it would have made for a pretty good book.

Obama Puts on a Clinic in Political Maturity

As much as I usually loathe Maureen Dowd's shallow, personality-driven take on politics, I do have to say that her Sunday New York Times column is an excellent summary of the Obama-GOP meeting that occurred on Friday and that I urged folks to watch in full on the web.

This British-Parliament-style "question time" displays the Obama that I still must say I believe in, the Obama who understands that his place in American history may involve becoming the leader of – or at least midwifing the birth of – a new centrist or center-left party – they could call it the American Party or something like that – that blows up, once and for all, this ridiculously intractable red-blue partisan divide that we find ourselves in.

Can't say I got the shout-out to Camus though.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

There's Inventory Growth, and Then There's Economic Growth

I remember Dean Baker or Paul Krugman or somebody talking about how it's important not to be fooled by growth in inventories, which Calculated Risk (CR) mentions also in this helpful post about the recent report that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) zoomed ahead at a 5.6% annualized rate in the fourth quarter of 2009.

That 5.6% growth rate for Q4 did sound faintly ludicrous to me...and CR points out that without what he calls this "transitory" increase in inventories, Q4 annualized growth would have only been 2.3%.

It's nice that businesses feel confident enough to fill up their warehouses again, but it's important to remember they haven't actually sold any of that stuff yet. As CR points out, if personal consumption expenditures don't pick up soon, they won't be selling any of that stuff anytime later, either.

We need a second stimulus, preferably one focused on making our houses and buildings more energy-efficient.

Thanks to Karlissimo del Banco for the pointer.

Image by Matt Wright via a Creative Commons license.

Öreilles Gaüloises (Metal Edition): Black Sabbath (Black Sabbath)


When I was in growing up in CT, the first few friends I made in high school were into hard rock and heavy metal music. I liked "hard rock" as a genre in general (Deep Purple, Aerosmith, etc.), but I didn't know very much about Metal. I thought Led Zeppelin was heavy metal, but I really didn't understand the true meaning of the words Heavy Metal until my friend Adam played me some Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and the mighty Black Sabbath!! I had seen some of their records lying around in his room, and he finally played me this album after I asked him one day: "What is the big deal about Sabbath?".

I think we were driving around Fairfield and Westport during one of our customary Friday night cruising escapades, and he put the tape in the cassette deck....out came the sound of falling rain and this cold, distant bell, and then, suddenly, this MONSTER three-note riff! It was the most terrifying sound I had ever heard (for many years I couldn't even play the song if I was by myself)! I remember thinking "If there is a Hell, this is what it sounds like!". Even looking at the album cover caused me some anxiety: what is that dark figure? Is that a witch?

The sound of the band was like nothing I had ever heard: Tony Iommi's thick, heavy riffs, combined with the pounding of one rock's best rhythm section (Bill Ward on drums, and the amazing Geezer Butler on bass!), all of it covered with Ozzy's ominous voice - a perfect recipe for an young and impressionable mind like mine! The lyrics also left me no doubt that these guys were clearly devil worshipers ("Black Sabbath", The Wizard", "N.I.B."), which made them that much more cool in my eyes!*

This album really expanded my musical horizon, and led me to many other heavy metal bands that I still listen to to this day (Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Slayer, and many more), and I go back to it periodically to remind myself where it all started - for me, and for the Metal in general.

* For the record, the band never was into devil-worshiping, but their record label tried very hard to make them look like they were, for marketing purpose, much to the band's displeasure.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Tu Bishvat

My friend Alex Sugerman-Brozan produced a lovely five-minute slide show for a seder (festive meal) this evening commemorating Tu Bishvat, an ancient Jewish holiday that marks the "New Year of the Trees" and which now serves as something of a Jewish Arbor Day for what Wikipedia calls "ecologically-minded Jews."

Once in a while I will look at a tree – just really look hard and study it, all the different structures and textures, the fractal pattern of the branches moving up and out (or sometimes down) in ever-smaller diameter branches and twigs, the individual leaves like little green solar panels, the veins in the leaves. And of course the role of trees as a seasonal calendar.

I had never heard of Tu Bishvat before, but it sounds like an excellent holiday. I don't think we have a Tree Festival or Feast Day in the Catholic Church, but I could be wrong about that.

Link to view video on YouTube: Tu Bishvat Tree Slideshow

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Radical Democracy

In response to my post a couple of days ago about Cornel West, Karlissimo del Banco asks, "How did Cornel West define 'radical democracy?'"

You know, it's funny. I'm sure he went into it on that cold night in St. Paul, but I don't remember now exactly what he said. And I've never gone back to find out. I've never even read even one of his books or articles, I don't think. All I know of the guy, really, is that he said that phrase, that he records rap albums, and that he maybe had some sort of dispute with Harvard president Larry Summers which caused him to leave Harvard, and that now he teaches at Princeton.

But after a friend posted a link to a recent story about him in the New York Times, I recalled that "radical democracy" phrase and how important it was to me. Over the past few days I've dipped my toe into Cornel-Westdom, becoming a "fan" of his on Facebook and watching a video message he recorded to Barack Obama (here's a link to the video; there is an ad at the beginning).

The video message reminded me how much I love the way the man speaks. And being his Facebook  fan means that I find out what he's thinking, and I like the way he's thinking. For example, today his Facebook message is "After watching President Obama's State of the Union Address 2010 and keeping in mind Dr. King's legacy of love tilted toward the weak, what do you feel is your responsibility as a U.S. citizen to help the American government achieve economic recovery?"

I thought it was a totally original insight. The government is weak right now, obviously not in a military sense, but in the sense that it is unable to respond to the demands of the people.

So, back to "radical democracy." Like I say, I don't know for sure what he meant by it. To me, it means that for democracy to work, we small-d democrats must be constantly acting. Constantly doing what we can to expand the voice of the people, all the people, even, or especially, those with whom we disagree.

That's why even when I have political debates with my family members, I always try to tell them to keep standing up for what they believe in, keep speaking out and acting. Because it's in that action that your ideology and beliefs are tested against reality.

Too much of "the left" takes an academic approach to politics. We seek to understand the workings of power and we try to stay up-to-date on the latest exercise of what we take to be illegitimate power. This is fine, as far as it goes. But for too many of us, me included, that is as far as it goes.

To me, "radical democracy" means that we need to cultivate in ourselves and in our political allies a bias toward action. A willingness to "Ready, Fire, Aim," which means that we try lots of different types of action and messages, we learn what works and refine them and improve them, and we discard what doesn't.

So-called "educated people" are often very skilled at pointing out the flaws in someone else's idea. This is something I think they might learn in college discussion sections – "I have to say something smart so that the T.A. marks me down as having spoken." This is of course a ludicrous way to have a discussion. It does favor the guy who did manage to do all the reading, but since most grad students are not very effective discussion moderators, it also favors the glib and the sarcastic. It encourages people who are unsure to keep that uncertainty to themselves. Obviously this carries over into business meetings, which is why there is always such a danger of Groupthink.

I see this happening big-time now among my progressive allies. Obama and the Democrats are disappointing us. We spend a lot of time detailing those disappointments and making "if only Obama had done X" arguments. It seems like we are doing something productive when we do this, but we aren't really. It may be a good and necessary first step to proclaim our differences with the Obama administration, but it's not political action.

The tea-partiers, for all their ideas which we take to be strange or paranoid, are taking political action. And – surprise! – it seems to be having an effect. If the tea partiers are the only ones practicing "radical democracy," then we're going to get more tea-party-friendly public policy.

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

"From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than 'objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble."

Whatever your political persuasion, be it left, right or center, try to "relinquish the safety of silence" whenever you see injustice. I myself have been silent too much and for too long. Or, if not silent, then cool, ironic and detached. Getting too old for that now...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

There is No Crying in Politics, My Gen-X Bretheren and Sisteren

Am I disappointed in Barack Obama? Yes. Am I disappointed in the Democratic Party? Yes.

But I'm disappointed in them in the way that I am often disappointed in myself. They took too much for granted. I often do the same.

Obama is not a king. We have to carry our end of the load, even when it seems like Obama isn't carrying his.

I still maintain, I still believe, that he has a longer-term project in mind: moving us past the baby-boom political cleavage that has dominated my life and yours since nineteen-bleepin'-sixty-eight.

It is time for Generation X to stand up and be counted.... We Gen-Xers, of which Obama is an early model, have to drop our cool, alienated stance, a stance that served us so well as we came of age in the blasted American landscape of the early 1990s, and we must take charge.

We must sweep away the narcissistic Baby Boomers who came before us, and lead the idealistic Millennials who come after us into battle against the forces of ignorance, hatred, fear, anti-science, and division.

We cannot afford to be cool and detached any longer, fellow Gen-Xers. We're entering our 40s. It's time, in the words of Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith, to "kick ass."

The First Leon

The First Leon,

The Angels did say

Was a certain poor shepherd

In fields did he lay

In fields where he

Lay keeping his sheep

On a cold winter's night

That was so deep.

Leon, Leon, Leon, Leon

Here is some snow that you can pee on.

Reading is Fundamental. So is Crap.

Crap: How to deal with annoying teachers, bosses, backstabbers, and other stuff that stinksAs a kid, my mom took me to the library at least once a week. You didn't have to ask me twice to pick up a book and start reading. But not everyone is like that, and librarians know it. I think they take it as sort of a challenge to figure out what topic, what plot, what sort of character is going to get a particular kid who for whatever reason hasn't caught the reading bug to finally pick up a book.

Is there any nobler vocation than a children's librarian? In my book (sorry), it'd be right up there with firefighter and public defender (two other jobs that don't exactly top the pay scales).

One of our oldest and dearest friends, Jake Miller, co-authored a book that came out last year called Crap: How to Deal with Annoying Teachers, Bosses, Backstabbers, and Other Stuff That Stinks. (Disclosure: At the time this review was posted, Jake Miller was posting on this blog under the pseudonym "Bokeh." On February 9, 2010, Jake began posting under his own name. This post was written on my own initiative, without any consultation with Jake.)

And, just last week, the American Library Association named the book to their annual list of the best books for "reluctant young-adult readers," which is a nice way of saying "teens who hate to read."

My copy of Crap hasn't arrived from yet, but based on the blunt title and the funny and casual tone of the excerpts available on the Amazon website, I can see why it made the list. Actually, it looks like it would be of use to readers of all ages and enthusiasm levels; after all, who doesn't have to deal with crap once in a while? Well done, Jake!

Oregonians Decide that the Wealthy and Corporations Should Contribute More in Taxes

Some frankly amazing, to me anyway*, news out of Oregon on Tuesday. The Oregonian reports:
It looks like Oregon corporations and high-income earners will pay higher state taxes as voters weighed in Tuesday on two hotly debated measures. [...]

Measure 66 raises the income tax paid by households earning at or above $250,000 a year or individual filers who make $125,000 or more. Measure 67 raises the state's $10 minimum corporate income tax.

Together they generate an estimated $727 million, which has already been budgeted by the 2009 Legislature for public schools and other state services.

The tax measures were strongly supported by the state's teachers and other public employee unions. They argued that schools and public services would face damaging cuts.

A coalition of Oregon businesses, including the state's grocers, mounted a campaign to defeat the taxes, arguing that they would cost jobs at a time when the economy is already struggling.

This is a welcome bit of clarity out of the Beaver State after the muddled message of last week's Senate election in Massachusetts. Measures 66 and 67 will reduce the regressive nature of Oregon's state tax system (PDF), in which the poorest 20% of Oregon families, those making under $18,000 a year, pay 8.7% of their income in state and local taxes, while the top 1% of families, those making more than $417,000 a year, pay a state and local tax rate of 6.2%.

Unemployment in Oregon peaked at a crippling 12.2 % back in May 2009 but has since fallen back to a still-completely-unacceptable 11%. Without this rebalancing of the state tax code, that unemployment rate would likely have gone higher as state and local governments shut down services and shed employees.

Raising income taxes on the wealthy — instead of relying on the usual solutions of lotteries, casinos, or sales-tax hikes —is the fairest, most effective way to raise revenue while protecting jobs and vital public services like schools and health care. The political default position is always against higher taxes (after all, no one wants to pay higher taxes, other things being equal). It is never an easy matter to rebalance a tax code, even in good times. For progressives around the country facing state budget shortfalls and cuts in vital public services, the Oregon story ought to be investigated and the relevant lessons learned.

Thanks to YW Chong for the pointer.

UPDATE: The Oregonian, in a later dispatch, reports that the final margin of victory was big, 54 - 46. Also remarkable is that this is the first voter-approved statewide income tax increase in Oregon since the 1930s.

*I am not always the best guide to what is actually amazing.

Image by vcs.student. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Hyperinflation, Chuck? Really?

Via Bleeding Heartland, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley tells the Des Moines Register that he feels that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has been too soft on inflation:
“I’m waiting to see what he says about the fight against inflation,” Grassley said about Bernanke. “And I think we’re in for hyper inflation in a couple years like we had in ‘79 and ‘80, if something isn’t done about it and I’d like to see something.”
This is just bizarre beyond belief. Worrying about "hyperinflation"  when the number of unemployed Americans has doubled in the last two years, is, in a word, goofy.

It's like worrying about the water damage while you're trying to put out a house fire.

It's like thinking about a new layer of shingles while the foundation of your house is crumbling into the ground.

It's like — No, wait. These ho-hum "house similes" just don't quite capture the utter wackiness of Grassley's statement.

How about this: Worrying about hyperinflation now, after two years of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, is like worrying that a flock of crazed Canada geese is going to swoop down into Iowa from Minnesota to commandeer all the corn harvesters within a 20-mile radius of Ottumwa, after which this honking gang of super-intelligent goose-fiends organize a mechanized corn harvester batallion to lay waste and destruction to the central Iowa counties of Jasper, Poweshiek, and Story. Could it conceivably happen? Well sure, anything is possible, I suppose. But the chances are so small that worrying about it for even one second would be a waste of time.

I think Grassley tipped his hand when he used the term "hyper inflation." It's so over-the-top that it can't be based on any real, non-ideological analysis of the situation. It sounds to me like a poll-tested scare word, just like his twirl around the dance floor last summer with "death panels."

My well-thumbed copy of The Penguin Dictionary of Economics (Seventh Edition) defines Hyperinflation as follows:
"Very rapid growth in the rate of inflation in which money loses its value to the point where alternative mediums of exchange (e.g. barter or foreign currency) are commonly used." (Italics added.)
Somebody back in my home state needs to hold Grassley accountable for using language like "hyperinflation." Any Iowans out there who want write a letter to the editor? All you'd have to do is quote the definition of hyperinflation I gave above and then ask if Grassley is afraid we will have to start stocking up on gasoline, cooking oil, flour, and Canadian loonies.

What has happened to the cardigan'ed senior Senator from the Great State of Iowa? First death panels, now hyperinflation. The guy used to be kind of a statesman.

Image: 5 Billion Reichsmark Note, Germany, 1928, uploaded to flickr by Adam Crowe and used here via a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A New Sweater for Lucas

Cornel West

I would have to give Dr. Cornel West some credit, or blame, for pushing me into political work. It was 1992 or 93 I think. Probably his Race Matters book tour, so whenever that came out.

Anyway, he came to St. Paul, Minnesota to speak at Hamline University. I went to see him and the place was so packed that I had to stand out in the cold and hear his speech on loudspeakers.

The phrase I remember from that speech was that we needed what he called "radical democracy." It was a concept I had never heard of, but it immediately made sense to me.

Within a year I had quit my job as an editor and was working as a dreaded "community organizer" on the North Side of Minneapolis. That led to more political work at United for a Fair Economy in Boston.

Though I'm old and grizzled now, and deeply suspicious of most political slogans, manifestoes, and ideologies, Dr. West's concept of "radical democracy" still speaks to me.

Good on ya, Kristof

A while back I castigated New York Times columnist Nick Kristof for preposterously holding up Costa Rica as some sort of relevant model for U.S. foreign and economic policy.

But, I must say that I really loved his column on "The Power of Half," the story of an Atlanta family that sold their enormous house, bought a smaller one, and donated the difference to assiduously-researched charities.

It's the sort of "small step toward a much better world" that I can get behind.

Wanted at the Fed: An Inflation Dove

I was just reading that Janet Yellen, recently mentioned as a possible replacement for Fed chair Ben Bernanke, is considered on Wall Street to be an "inflation dove," which means that she considers maintaining full employment to be -gasp!- "as important" as controlling inflation.

I also wonder about Brad DeLong at Berkeley. He was in the Treasury Department in the Clinton Administration. He's a free trader, which I guess is neither here nor there when it comes to monetary policy (and not necessarily bad in any case), but I like that he's an economic historian.

In any case, we strongly need someone who will put reducing unemployment tops on the list. I know, from personal experience, how unemployment can convulse a family. My dad, a middle manager in corporate America, died at age 41 after being laid off from five separate companies in five years. Chasing new work forced him to move his young family from Kansas to Texas to Iowa in the space of two years. Then, just as he seemed to find stability in a new job in Iowa, the brutal double-dip recession of 1980 - 1982 cost him his job again. He never recovered from that one.

The costs to my family of that loss are obvious. But the costs are broader than that. When the economy lost my dad, it lost a certain amount of knowledge and experience, and the productivity that went with it. Now I can't say with certainty that if my dad hadn't lost his job of 11 years in 1978, that he wouldn't have died five years later anyway. And, the vast majority of unemployed people will survive, obviously. And, I'm not arguing for an open-ended dole. But, research has shown over and over that bouts of unemployment, especially for the father in a family, carry with them permanent and "baked-in" costs, both to the unemployed person's family, and to the economy at large. I just ask that these costs of unemployment to productivity and economic growth be somehow factored in when the balance between inflation and unemployment is being struck.

Yes, reducing unemployment by tolerating higher inflation transfers money from the financiers to the workers. But given the enormous increase in inequality over the last 30 years, most of it driven by skyrocketing returns to capital, I'd say it's time for a re-balancing.

Image: oddsock, via a Creative Commons license.

Hayek vs. Keynes Rap

This comes from the Hayek side, which I'm not supposed to like, but I don't care. It's just too awesome not to share.

UPDATE: The PBS Newshour did a nice backgrounder on this rap video, and the Keynes-Hayek debate that it dramatizes, back in December.

The Fed and the Treasury: Heads Should Roll

Krugman's "one cheer for Bernanke" notwithstanding, I think some heads have to roll here. Any favorites to replace him?

I've heard Blinder, Yellen, and Volcker mentioned.

And at Treasury, am I wrong to dream of a team featuring Brooksley Born, formerly of the CFTC, Elizabeth Warren of the TARP oversight panel, and maybe Sheila Bair of FDIC? Make Born the Treasury Secretary, Bair the Comptroller of the Currency, and Warren the head of what should be a new Financial Product Safety Commission.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Existentialism from a Catholic Monk

Thanks go to Andrew Sullivan for posting this quotation on his blog a couple of days ago:
"Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself,"

- Thomas Merton, "Letter To A Young Activist"

Stepping Up to the Plate

Since last Tuesday's momentous Senate election here in Massachusetts, I've been railing at my political allies to stop focusing so much on Obama and how he's "betrayed" them. I tried to inject a dose of realpolitik and encourage them to look at the situation from the perspective of someone who simply wants to get re-elected. To direct their ire anywhere but at Obama, because there's no way he's going to do what an outraged lefty base wants him to.

Obama's announcement that he wants to freeze domestic spending for three years is not just bad economics and bad politics, as desmoinesdem ably summarizes at Bleeding Heartland. It is a punch in the gut. My gut, specifically.

But I can't let it discourage me. I have to take responsibility for my own actions. I have to turn off Jon Stewart and Colbert and drop the detached cynicism that I've lovingly nurtured since Sept. 12, 2001.

The tea-partiers have been acting for a year as I sat on my hands and laughed at them. I'm going to get off my rear end now. I hope it isn't too late. Regardless, all I can do now is take responsibility and act. For me, that will mean calling my friends and relatives and encouraging them to act. I don't relish the task. I'd rather read my new copy of The Bauhaus Group. But, as desmoinesdem noted recently in recalling the words that Miep Gies used when asked why she risked her own life to shelter Anne Frank from the Nazis: "I have no choice."

Wollaston Beach

Conan's Rejection of Cynicism

Image: Clay Larsen.

I didn't watch it live, but I did see a tape of Conan's final farewell message on Friday night.

I've been proud to call myself a cynic for most of my life. It felt good knowing that there was no use believing in anything, and that only suckers assumed the best intentions on the part of others.

But recently I've gone through a re-evaluation. A crisis, you might say. A crisis that is occurring in the middle of my, uh, what is it, oh yeah, life. That kind of crisis.

My priorities are going under a radical re-shuffling. In short, I am chucking cynicism over the side and focusing on all the good things in life. And boy do I have a lot of them. More on that later.

So even though Conan addressed his message to the "young people," I was highly primed to hear him when he said that he "hates" cynicism. And that it's his "least favorite quality." And he's right: Nothing turns out the way you think it's going to. But if you work hard and be kind, amazing things will happen to you. Or at least, relatively amazing things.

Can I just brag a little bit and say that Helen and I saw Conan in a Brookline (his hometown) deli on Easter Sunday morning about 12 or 13 years ago. He was there eating brunch with someone. Nobody bothered him, though he is impossible to miss. As he left, the deli owner did go shake his hand. Who knows, he had probably been going there since he was a kid.

This also seems like a good time to re-link to my favorite all-time Conan video, on old-time baseball re-enactors (something I myself participated in, as one of the "cuckoo" fans, back in 2005). Imagine my delight, when on the final episode of his original, New York show, he announced that this was also his favorite video. Wow. I still get chills thinking about it.

Sports Videos, News, Blogs


Citizens United v. FEC

I haven't looked into this decision too closely, but my initial take is actually that it could cut two ways. The first, obviously, that corporations and unions will be able to have more direct influence over political candidates. But on the other hand, and related to this, perhaps this will get rid of the fiction that corporations and unions were somehow walled off from politics by the prohibition on corporate and union donations.

It ought to be pretty simple to come up with a way to show a given legislator's corporate and union donations on a "smart" TV or internet screen whenever they are on there talking or are quoted in the press (similar to the way corporate financial data can be quickly linked-to in online news stories about publicly-traded corporations).

In short, it could actually clarify things in a way that is healthy.

Postscript: It bears repeating that while the individual unions spend a lot of money on politics, the corporate sector as a whole outspends organized labor about 10 to 1.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Vikings Lose. Again.

I wonder: What did the real Vikings do when they were defeated?

Helen, who comes from Viking stock, says, "A lot of wine drinking and embarrassment. Slinking back home to fight another day. Definitely no excuse-making." Oh, so basically the same thing that the Vikings in purple and gold will do.

I lived in Minnesota for four-and-a-half years, but was never really a Vikings fan until I moved away to Boston in 1995, at which point my chief allegiance shifted from the Dallas Cowboys, who by then were resurgent and really too good for their own good (I am something of a foul-weather fan; plus my Cowboys fandom started in the Tex Schramm era...Jerry Jones is an atrocity).

On a day much like today in late January 1999, Helen and I drove from Burlington, Vermont to Providence, Rhode Island listening to the NFC championship game between the Vikings and the Atlanta Falcons. After picking up my mother-in-law and driving to a movie theater in Seekonk, Massachusetts to see "A Civil Action," I dropped them off at the door, parked, and sat alone in the car in the parking lot listening to the radio as Gary Anderson missed a chip-shot field goal – his first miss all season — that would have won the NFC championship. I stayed in the car long enough to hear the Falcons win the game (I did miss the first bit of the movie, but I had seen it once already).

And, now, they lose again. There will be no opportunity for them to advance to the Super Bowl and win their first one in five tries.

I'm really, really bummed about that. Favre, what were you thinking, forcing a pass at the end of the game when you were in field-goal range?

But, I am genuinely happy for the Saints. Back in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, I was in Mississippi for three weeks with the Red Cross, tending to a whole lotta displaced Saints fans from New Orleans. They deserve a happy day. Beat the Colts!

(I suppose it is fitting, historically speaking, that the Vikings were defeated by Saints. Saints Patrick, George, Andrew, Olaf, and others all did a pretty good job of converting the Vikings and Viking-descendants that they encountered.)

Image: 878 AD, A fleet of Danish longboats suffers defeat by King Alfred the Great's navy at Swanage in Dorset. The Vikings had been trying to wrest leadership of England from the Anglo-Saxons for two centuries, and continued to do so for years to come. Original Artwork (Photo by Spencer Arnold/Getty Images) Content © 2008 Getty Images  All rights reserved.

Zero to Zero

I recently heard from an old friend from college who had just taken her young son to his first basketball game. It reminded me of my own introduction to roundball.

When I was in first grade, I played "basketball" in a recreational league sponsored by the YMCA. I put the word in quotes because what we were doing really bore no relationship to the actual game of basketball. For example, we used a volleyball instead of a basketball because most of us were too weak to heave a real basketball up to the hoop.

Anyway, after my first game, my mom brought me home and my dad asked me, "Who won?"

"It was a tie," I replied.

"What was the score?" my dad asked.

"Zero to zero."

At which point my dad roared with laughter. I, having only the vaguest idea of what a typical basketball score might be, was totally nonplussed. It did go on became a favorite story of my parents when their friends asked them how I was doing.

Book Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon The Deep (Zones of Thought)Vernor Vinge
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ - - -

As advertised on the cover, this certainly is grand-scope, universe-covering sci-fi. It is generally well crafted and many of the ideas are cool. But I found that I lost interest in most of the story lines.

Vinge divides the galaxy into concentric regions, from the core to the periphery: the Unthinking Depths, the Slow Zone, the Beyond. The regions’ names reflect the level of technology that will work in them; as you go out from the core, you are able to use progressively higher and higher levels of technology. (Faster-than-light propulsion won’t work in the Unthinking Depths, for example.)

Outside of the galaxy is a region called the Transcend which is the home of entities that are so unbelievably powerful that humans can’t even comprehend their abilities. A group of humans living at the farthest edge of the galaxy accidentally wakes up an evil entity in the Transcend, and the entity starts to take over the galaxy, turning more and more worlds to its thrall as it makes its way inwards.

One group of humans is able to escape with a space-bending tool that can stop the evil entity. Unfortunately, they end up crash-landing on a planet in the Slow Zone and all the adults are killed by the planet's medieval dog-like indigenous residents so it is up to the human children to save the galaxy.

I found the adult humans in this story generally annoying. The kids were okay and I liked the dog-creatures a lot. Each dog-creature is actually a “pack” made up of anywhere from four to six individual living “elements.” By themselves, the elements can’t think well and tend to run around randomly, but when several are combined into a pack, they can form a single highly intelligent being. The book picks up when it is focused on the dog world but it definitely slows down when it switches to the human story lines (which, unfortunately, take up most of the book).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Desert-Island Album Edition) - In on the Kill Taker (Fugazi)

Way back in the 90s, I would sometimes buy an album that would simply blow my mind on the first listen, and fill me with excitement and joy. The kind of record you play from beginning to end, and then think to yourself "I'm going to start a band!". This is one of those records.

Fugazi came together in 1987 in Washington DC, and quickly became indie stars there, and in the punk/alternative community in general, known for their great songwriting and incredible live shows. They released three records before this one (13 Songs, Repeater, and Steady Diet of Nothing) and several more until they stopped playing together in 2001. All of their albums are worth checking out, but this is the one that grabbed me.

The album was recorded in 1992, and released in early 1993; to me, it is the ultimate soundtrack to the horrible political and social atmosphere of that time - we had just lived through four years of George H.W. Bush in the White House, which gave us a bloody war in Iraq, the political peak of the Christian Right, and an economic recession). Music had started to become exciting again (at least at the mainstream level) with the advent of Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and others, but not many bands could capture the feeling of unease and uncertainty that was hanging over my head, being fresh out of school, barely working, and mostly broke. Somehow, Fugazi's music resonated with me: great guitars, with smart and poetic lyrics about politics, art, sex, and the overall challenge of being twenty-something and clueless.

If anything, this is a "guitar" album. Not the shredding kind, or with the long and complicated solos, but the kind of guitar sounds that set the tone without being overwhelming, and make you want to jump and dance in a sea of sweaty bodies, all trying to forget their troubles for an hour or two.

Coughing inside your coffin
Like at the bottom of the sea


Sheraton Commander Hotel Sign

Original photo by Tieger. Remix by Hartman.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Gender Factor

I haven't followed the special election here in Massachusetts for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat closely enough to say whether Attorney General Martha Coakley is to blame for mismanaging a campaign that she could well lose tomorrow. A couple of weeks ago, nobody was giving her opponent, State Senator Scott Brown, a chance.

Though there are many differences, the 2002 Massachusetts governor's race might offer a bit of an explanation. In that year, a conventionally handsome, moderate-sounding outsider named Willard Mitt Romney defeated an accomplished, tough, insider pol with two X chromosomes, State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien.

In both cases—2002 and 2010—it's hard to imagine that if the hard-bitten insider had been the man, and the sunny outsider the woman, that the insider would have lost. We tell women in politics that to be treated as equals they have to "get down in the political trenches." But when they do—Coakley had a reputation as a tough prosecutor as Middlesex County D.A. and it's easy to imagine her driving a hard bargain in a legislative conference—we don't necessarily care for that either.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: Dreamsnake

Vonda N. McIntyre
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ - -


Yes, the cover of this book's 1986 mass-market paperback edition makes it look like it’s going to be one of those super-goofy magical fantasy novels. But it’s really quite good.

It takes place on a post-nuclear-war Earth (always a good start). Nobody remembers what society was like before the war – or even that there was a war. They are all living either in small towns or as nomads in the countryside. All overt modern science and technology has been lost.

Or – that is what it appears at first. It turns out that some science does remain, although it is not very well understood, even by its practitioners.

For example, the main character, Snake, is a healer. She has a set of venomous snakes that she uses to cure people. At first it seems like random ritual but it turns out that the snake venom actually is an antibiotic and that the training the healer received was essentially first aid and basic nursing – so there is a reason why it really does work.

At the beginning of the story her key medicinal snake, the Dreamsnake, accidentally gets killed by scared townspeople and Snake has to go on a long journey to find another one. Along the way she also happens to be able to get the people of the towns and the people in the countryside to stop being prejudiced against each other. It is an okay road trip story; the characters Snake meets up with are mostly interesting and the locations are good. I especially liked reading about how the land is spotted with giant pits—which everyone avoids—that you gradually realize are nuclear bomb craters still full of radioactivity.

But I definitely thought the best part of this book was the way McIntyre presented an apparently undeveloped, backwards world and then gradually allowed you to see how science lay under the superstition. It was a good take on how knowledge might survive but be transformed after the sophisticated structure around it is lost.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Classics Edition) : Here Come the Warm Jets (Brian Eno)

Brian Eno is mostly known for his work as a music producer (U2, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Coldplay, etc.), or his short stint as a member of Roxy Music in the early seventies (the first two Roxy Music albums - Roxy Music (1972) and For Your Pleasure (1973) in which Eno is listed under "synthesizer and tapes", are a must in any glam rock fan's music collection!).

But Eno also has an extensive catalog of his own musical work, either as a solo artist or in collaboration with other musicians, a career that started after his departure from Roxy Music in 1973, with the release of his first solo album Here Come the Warm Jets that same year. He's made many albums since, but this one remains my favorite! There isn't one bad song on this album! There are so many innovative sounds on this release, it's hard to find a (good) contemporary musician today who hasn't been inspired by Eno's work in general, and this album in particular. Eno has this amazing ability to write very weird and experimental songs that still sound very melodic and super-catchy ("Needles in the Camel's Eyes", "Cindy Tells Me", "Baby's on Fire", "Dead Fink don't Talk").

On this album, Eno gets help from fellow Roxy Music alums Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay, as well as the amazing Robert Fripp (with whom he would make other albums), and future King Crimson bassist/singer John Wetton. Warm Jets and many other Eno albums were reissued and remastered a few years ago by Astralwerks, who did a masterful job! I would urge anyone to check those albums out (at least through 1977's Before & after Science, and many of the ambient works he's released since 1978's Ambient 1: Music for Airports). Dive in and discover the wonderful musical world of Brian Eno!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reply to "Anonymous"

In response to what I thought was a relatively anodyne comment on my cohort Karlissimo del Banco's bold if at times overly ambitious financial regulatory scheme, the aptly-named "Anonymous" chimes in thusly:
I suggest that you take a long hard look at the history of economic development as it relates to human culture. I really don't want to go back through 9th grade "Western Civ" again. The experiment which you propose has been tried again and again, across the globe, always with the result of failure. The nature of a sentient being is to profligate. Right or wrong, your moral determination is misguided. So, there.
And so I pick up this gamely-flung-to-the-ground gauntlet:
Dear Anonymous,
The free market is indeed a marvelous thing. One need only saunter down the aisle of a modern American supermarket to see that: the incredible variety of hyper-palatable food, all produced extremely efficiently on the margin. No, I do not want a panel of commissars deciding how many cans of beans and how many pairs of shoes to produce in a given year. In that, we are in agreement.

You write, "The nature of a sentient being is to profligate." I will grant you that. But good God, man! I submit that we do not want to return to a state of "nature," where after all, life was "nasty, brutish, and short."

The entire history of "Western Civ," as you put it, is the history of restraining the natural urges of men to profligate. Remove those constraints, and it is back to "might makes right."

Now perhaps you are reasonably well-preserved and under such a brute-strength regime you may well prosper. But I for one do not yearn for a return to our arboreal home. I rather enjoy the "inefficiencies" of the modern welfare state, including clean food, water, and air, relatively well-regulated markets, a reasonably secure, if small, old-age allowance via Social Security, and so on.

I need not grant that the libertarian tradition is an honorable one — it defends itself. Individual human freedom is obviously a worthy ideal to safeguard; indeed it is the pre-eminent ideal. "Freedom," as hollered by Mel Gibson in "Braveheart," does, legitimately, move men to lay down their lives. But in the real 21st-century world, we must balance competing interests. Make compromises. For me, Canada — with its universal health care and its status as the spawning ground for SCTV, Mike Myers, Rush, Rich Little, and countless other vital cultural touchstones — is a worthy, and most importantly for us in the United States, conceivable, model.

Presumably you have in mind a different ideal society. I welcome your thoughts on what that might look like, and how might we arrive there.
Very truly yours,
M. Rondin de Fromage

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Drop Spindled, Gartered

The Twin Peaks of Kilimanjaro

Just got off the phone with a friend who mentioned that his wife is currently on an expedition to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which of course immediately reminded me of this classic Monty Python skit:

And, for good measure, this song from the most underrated band of the 1980s, Toto. (my apologies for the questionable "jungle fever" imagery):

Haiti Earthquake Relief Links

Harry Smith, a good friend and the best shortstop the Loan Sharks have ever had, sends along this message with links to reputable organizations now on the ground in Haiti, along with a request to call the White House regarding Haitian nationals who are now living in the U.S.:
Even though the full extent of the death and injury toll from the earthquake that struck Haiti is not yet known, estimates are coming in that thousands of people have been killed and up to 3 million people have been affected.  Here are a few things you can do immediately to help:

1. Donate money to trustworthy international development/aid organizations. Clothing, food, etc. donations are good, but money is better, because it helps not only with the immediate crisis situation, but also for the long-term, more difficult work of reconstruction.

Partners in Health You can make a donation to support the temporary field hospitals they have set up.

Other donation sites:

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Oxfam America

Grassroots International

2.  Call the White House (202-456-1111) or the Department of Homeland Security / Janet Napolitano and urge them to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians who are in the U.S.

TPS does not need legislative approval and the executive branch has the authority to grant it. TPS is there precisely for this type of tragedy. TPS protects people from being deported to a ravaged region due to civil war and/or natural disaster, and it gives people a temporary working permit so they can work in the U.S. in peace. In 1998, Nicaraguans and Hondurans were granted TPS in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. In 2001, Salvadorans were granted TPS due to earthquakes. So there is no reason why the Obama Administration should not do the same for our Haitian brothers and sisters.

Harry Smith

I donated $25 to Partners in Health, a great organization co-founded by Boston doctor Paul Farmer.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bonds. Cheese Bonds.

I just bought three Cheese Bonds from Wendy Levy, a.k.a. the Cheese Snob, to help her fund Curds and Whey, her soon-to-be cheese and tea shop in Jersey City, New Jersey.

The bonds have a face value of $10.00, redeemable in cheese and/or tea, and she's selling them for $9.00 each. That's an 11% payback right there. Plus, the bonds are callable at any time, so if I cash them in in three months, that's a roughly 44% annual return.

Of course, that 44% is not risk-adjusted. But I've been watching Ms. Levy from afar for a while. She has been methodically planning this store for over a year. There are lots of ducks, and yet they are all in their row. I am going to get my cheese.

Also, it is true that cheese and tea are a bit less liquid than cash, so I should probably throw in a little liquidity discount there as well to adjust my expected return. And then, opportunity costs: Is cheese-and-tea really the best use of my $27?*

But even given all that, we're still talking north of a 30% annual return: Beat that, Bank of America! (On second thought, Bank of America, don't try to beat that...maybe just stick to savings accounts and stuff like that for a while.)

For more info: The Roquefort Files.

*Well I do love cheese — and tea! And my household consumes quite a bit of both. Plus as I have entered my dotage, I have become a bit of an epicurean in matters gastronomic (and sartorial), so my utility function has changed from five or so years ago. In short: Yes. This is the best possible use of my marginal $27.00. You have my word on it.
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