Victory means exit strategy, and it's important for the President to explain to us what the exit strategy is.    The Honorable Governor of Texas, George W. Bush

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.    Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Seriously Amusing

The verb muse means to ponder. It's from the French muser, which means snout. I guess it's something like standing there with your mouth open, oblivious to what is going on around you. Think of yourself going "huh?" while pulling back a bit, tilting your head to the side, and scrunching up your upper lip and nose. Go ahead, do it. You can see where the snout part comes in.

So it's not so much to ponder, but to act pretty silly doing it. Amusement, the bringing of one to such a state, is silly stuff, and not serious. A thing can't be serious and amusing. These are mutually exclusive terms (which are different from collectively exhaustive terms, though I don't have any idea how). George Carlin did, and does occasionally still, a bit about mutually exclusive terms, such as jumbo shrimp and semi-boneless ham and wrapping up with military intelligence, and that's some pretty funny stuff.

Is there a point to this? Not yet. I can't think of a good segueway, either. Word doesn't even recognize segueway, so I guess it can't be that important, anyway.


Nothing spawns bad ideas like bad ideas. That's because people have such a fierce loyalty to their bad ideas that they'll shoehorn the most ungainly aspects of these ideas into a fit, while squinting just enough to make it all look right. Take the right wing's privatization mantra. Outsourcing the care of disabled veterans to private concerns does not improve care, nor does it reduce costs. Organizing the Social Security prescription drug program into dozens of programs being offered in many variations by hundreds of insurers does not make pricing more competitive, the only competition is in the effort to confuse the elderly, most of whom long since priced out of the almighty free market.

It just doesn't fit. It's pig-headedly stubborn to stretch the concept of free markets to the point of shopping life or death. Prevention and diagnosis don't pay, treatment does.

What's profitable isn't what is most needed. Somewhere there is a very stupid idea behind this.

In spite of the light bulb in the cartoons, most ideas come from other ideas. I will venture that if an idea has merit, it will generally propagate ideas that are good; since those thinking along the lines of the good idea have already demonstrated superior ability. Same goes for the bad, I reckon. Therefore, it is more likely than not that a bad idea, as in the above example, will have a bad idea as it's source.

This all started as I sat (laid me) down to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a very disappointing and bizarre sequel to a fairly enjoyable movie, both with The Little Hun's beloved Johnny Depp in the lead. Among the descriptors for whatever the rating was, which I didn't notice, was something I did notice:

mild violence

Huh? I have to admit, I was amused. (see how this whole effort ties together now? Well, maybe ties isn't he right word, but here we are at the beginning)

What the hell is mild violence? Have you ever heard a weather bulletin for mildly violent thunderstorms? Are there victims of mild domestic violence out there, maybe whose husbands wear boxing gloves? Where do they draw that line? One stab and no twisting?

It's totally absurd. I don't know much about the movie ratings system, but I have good reason to suspect that this lunacy is the result of a lunatic notion to rate movies in the first place.

That's how it works with me.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

An All Seriousness Aside

In Atlantic City, Florida, a woman drove with her niece past the local theater. Noticing on the marquee a rather famous show about womanhood, the girl asked, "What is a Vagina?" The aunt reports that she was a bit uncomfortable with having to answer the question. She undoubtedly believed that this discomfort was caused by an affront to her propriety, though I suspect puritanical reaction is generally a false front, erected to hide inability and/or laziness to think things through, or to think in general.

The feministos on the blogs generally go like, "What's the problem? It's the canal between the vulva and the uterus. She should know about her body. Big deal." As if the niece, being old enough to read and curious enough to ask, wouldn't sit there and wonder, "Okay, why did someone write a play about that?"

So, the aunt did what all folk who are so viciously victimized into using their own brains do; she complained. To the theater owner.

And so now the marquee reads, "The Hoo-haa Monologues".

"Auntie, what's a Hoo-haa?"

"I have no idea."

A solution of blissful ignorance; perfect.

Now, that's funny. The whole story is flat out hilarious, not that my retelling of it helps any. If she'd go see the play, she might learn how to answer the question without getting, shall I say it, all squirmy. I can't take any of it seriously, from the author's goofy tantric celebration of the yoni as a symbol of women's superior spirituality, to the critics' decries of male bashing, to the liberals' indignation that the marquee was changed.

To me, it's just a funny story.

How do people survive without getting the joke? We look at a little baby and wonder what's going on in that precious little head. And then, an amazing thing happens. It laughs. It thrills us to no end to see this, and we make it happen over and over again.

Then what happens?

I'm still that little baby, I guess. This morning, realizing there was no milk for my Wheat Chex and, more seriously, no coffee, I headed out for the store. Actually, I headed for the local diner, and then the store. On the way in, I picked up a weird little local publication called The Beacon. This free paper is about two thirds county board news and such, and about one third humor and satire. Sort of a Mayberry Gazette meets The Onion. After reading all about the winter carnival's plans to proceed with or without winter, I turned to the back, and Dave Barry.

Since Dave retired more or less from thinking up funny stuff in his underwear, the column may been a rerun, but I don't remember having seen it. It was all about fat-free America and soy ranchers and veggie burgers and I chuckled right along as I ate my #1 with wry toast. He said we don't eat ants because they are considerably more fat free than cows and well, you had to be there. In fact here is there, if you like. (sorry if the link has grown old)

At the end he adds:

POSTSCRIPT - After I wrote this column, my editor, Tom Shroder, sent me a note saying he thinks he read somewhere that ants do contain fat. I think he's wrong, but since we're both professional journalists, neither of us will look it up.

Much to the astonishment of the local patrons, I laughed aloud at this, disturbing the dulcet tones of country muzak wafting over what was apparently to be a very serious Thursday morning. I think there may have been some perturbation in the waitress's voice when she came over to ask what was so funny.

"That Dave Barry, he always gets me laughing."


"You've never heard of Dave Barry?"


Honestly, I think she wished she had, 'cause I'm pretty sure that, as with all diner waitresses, she wants me. But she hadn't.

The greatest American humorist since Will Rogers. Wasted on her.

It's no wonder we're always at "war".


Monday, January 15, 2007

An Apple® a Day

I've gone and done it. I've slipped over to the other side.

No, I haven't ordered a new Mac G5 quad core processing super computer with 30" Cinema display, (retail $4,500.00 at your friendly Apple website). I might like such a thing, should I ever have the time to want to compose symphonies by ear or make full length movies. (Actually, I'm hearing that many long time pros in graphics and such return to PCs, irritated by the Apple's smug, patronizing insistence of doing things their way)

Still, the minimalist art that is Apple product is almost worth it.

No I haven't given up on my PC, though it clearly has bus or memory issues. In a way, I have taken a bolder step.

I have laid the hint for and received for Christmas an iPod 4G nano. In authentic Apple brushed aluminum, no loud colors for this one.

This is radical departure for me into the world of compressed audio. Compressed audio, and we'll resist getting too technical here, is cramming digital music into smaller files. All those ups and downs on a sound wave require a lot of digital bits to reproduce. Stereo is recoded onto computers at a rate of 1.5 or so megabits a second. That's 11 megabytes a minute, times two tracks for stereo. For Take a Pebble, by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, that's about 275 MG. That's a lot of storage and download time, even as capacity and bandwith explode.

But, you don't have to describe every pixel in a digital photograph (bitmap)--you can use language to describe what is happening to sections of information (JPEG). This can be done to music. Think of a football field marked off in a grid. To describe a diagonal move, you could say "He moved from (x,y) to (x+1,y+1) to (x+2,y+2)," and so forth, but you can see that this would entail a lot of writing. Or you could say (and I'm not much of a mathematician any more, so you won't get a trigonometric formula for this) "He started at (x,y) and moved one yard right and one yard up forty times. One of two of the moves were only a half a yard, but don't worry about it." This is kinda the idea, along with many other kinds of prediction and analysis.

Hey, I said I wasn't going to get too technical! The gist is, stuff like MP3 was invented to address transfer and storage issues, and became further popular because CD players don't work so well in a portable environment. Digital tape, without compression (any more than in CDs, anyway), suffers from the same mechanical limitations as any tape format. It has to be wound to the correct position. Before current capability, DAT tape was a stalwart for home studios, and many stand by their trusty old ADAT recorders, a great machine that terrified the music industry with it's CD quality reproduction. Affordable hard drive recorders (like your Tivo) and CD burners have made DAT obsolete. I actually have machines of a competitor format to DAT called DCC. These machines are extremely rare, and may be quite valuable one day. Until recently, I still used my portable DCC player and wired headphones to exercise. You can't carry it on a Nordic Trac, it will skip and it's too heavy. And you have to make those tapes, an entire new one for variety. I would have switched to the improved variety and portability of a good MP3 player except for one thing. MP3 sounds like crap, especially in the higher ranges. Cymbals hiss. Rock has lots and lots of symbols, and this quality is unacceptable to any serious listener, no matter how conveniently produced.

Then comes Apple's ACC format. Forget about it. Put all 600 CDs on 36 GB of your hard drive, back them up off site, and you have a permanent, instantly accessible and programmable music collection that is virtually indistinguishable in quality from CD. It's that good. Be sure, in preferences, to set error correction on to eliminate pops and clicks that imperfections on your CD might cause before embarking on this monumental task. (Apple not making a big huge point of this not being the default is as every bit as dense as Windows not having the firewall on by default)

And then iTunes exports whatever you like (more or less) to the credit card sized iPod nano. (such blatant disregard for things like capitalization is what causes bloggers to enter amorphous blobs of comments that glaze the eyes, as if they were the first e e cummings ever) I have no interest in the larger, video displaying unit, I have enough hobbies for now. From the main library, you drag and drop to new lists, as I have one for general exercise, and then subsets of that for tempos suitable to the Nordic Trac and the slightly slower stepper. iTunes automatically updates changes to the lists you would like to keep updated on the iPod. Perfect. It will shuffle the songs on demand--you don't know what's coming next, a fantastic feature, especially in an exercise mode, where one needs all the non-monotony one can get.

When one selects shuffle, however, the player shuffles all the songs in the iPod, and starts playing them all. You have to back out of that and select the playlist you want, which will be shuffled, though not visibly. It's a little confusing.

It keep photos, and iTunes will download my favorite Public Radio shows like a Tivo, and all and all it's pretty cool. Stuff is coming soon that does all this and takes pictures (good ones) and telephone and internet and god knows what else, but I think I'll be using this little sucker for a while.

Here's a look at my Nordic Trac list for now:

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sac à Merde

I don't watch much opinion laden television these days, but, one aspect of my self-improvement meander is to get to bed at a decent time, and so I found myself having been awake for two hours at 6:00 am and resorting to some semblance of entertainment that doesn't involve the eye strain of another sudoku marathon. Hence the Imus show, and the unpleasantness of an interview with John McCain, heir apparent to the Imperial Throne. That's he, on his high horse. When he gets a little crazy, it's pretty hard to tell him from Bush the Lesser, isn't it?

His screed? Damn the torpedoes, and full speed ahead. Oh, he knows there is chaos in Iraq. And he's aware that Afghanistan is worse than when we found it. He knows better than you or I, he has better sources. Yet he shills the absurdity that 20% more troops might turn chaos into security―might tip the scale toward victory, as if the balance of human survival might swing on such a fractional effort.

You might be tempted to attribute McCain's escalatory attitude to a political manouvre―a ploy for consolidation of all those who would rather sacrifice a few thousand more lives than to accept that we might have made an error in Iraq, and there is no doubt that McCain is ready to parade his lightning steed right down the center of Main Street to invigorate those bastards. But to attribute such a position to mere pragmatism, despicable as such a possibility may be, falls dangerously short.

McCain's apparent blindness isn't Presidential fever. His infection is militarism. He started this morning's interview with a discussion of his favorite Herman Wouk and Hemingway novels. This is how it is with warriors, who tire quickly of peaceful scenarios. Even their recreation must be steeped in the gloriousness of soldiering. Though he dusted off the old saw, "We must learn from our history, or we are doomed...," he clearly is just reveling in the heroic, rather than absorbing the big picture.

The reality is that Napoleon met his Waterloo, Hitler his Stalingrad, Hannibal his Metaurus, and Harold K Johnson his Tet offensive. Invasions are expensive, messy and, if of any ambitious scope, generally (so to speak) unsustainable. How can McCain miss that point?

Yet he drones on about the preposterous goal of a Vichy Iraq, as if he'd never seen Casablanca. Is he dissembling? Yes. But the truly frightening aspect of all this is that he believes himself, in spite of the evidence. It's irrational. Delusional. He is a dog of war.

And this is what passes for sensibility in such a mindset:

When I was a young man, and all glory was self-glory, I responded aggressively and often irresponsibly to anyone who questioned my honor. I still remember how zealously a boy would attend the needs of his self-respect. But as I grew older, and the challenges to my self-respect became more varied and difficult, I was surprised to discover that while my sense of honor had matured, its defense mattered even more to me than it did when I believed that honor was such a frail thing that any empty challenge could threaten it.

The courage of the living and the dead taught me that. They taught me to dread dishonor above all other injuries. They taught me to be afraid of shame.

The Honor. After all the strategic analysis, punditry and positioning is through, the argument of the aggressor always comes down to this stalwart. The point is not the debilitating effect on a society that endures or wages war. It's not that the loss of young men and women is a tragedy. No, the point is that this loss might become a shame.

The Honor and the Glory. I don't intend to diminish the heroism of the defender. This is important illumination of those selfless deeds.

But let's not be unwary of those who might be staring into that sun a bit too intently.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Rising Sun Never Sleeps, or Sets, or something

In 1941, Japan, with rather insane delusions of grandeur, decided to attack the United States. As we had a gazillion times the industrial capacity of Japan, the numbers eventually caught up with them. They also found it a bit difficult to occupy every stinking island in the Pacific, like so many other forces that have found occupation impossible. (yet this lesson remains unlearned somehow, most recently in Iraq)

So they lost. But they never gave up.

Wave after wave continues to assault our shores to this day. Oh, sure, at first the devastating defeat took it's toll on their output, and the best they could muster was the export of millions of cheaply made tin toys, the sharp edges of which were responsible for merely thousands and thousands of sliced American youths' fingers. But they got better.

The 50s turned into the 60s and the siege took a more sinister turn with the export of the transistor radio, and we became slaves to our media. Great big chunks of our sanity began to fall off as there was no longer any escape. Not the woods, Not the beach, Certainly not the subway. Sonic frazzlement became the order to this day, the latest circuit board wizardry being responsible for the chirp chirp of walkie talkie telephony, not to mention the jolting launches of hideously mechanized ringtone versions of Für Elise whenever someone's "bud" wants to know "are you, like, busy or something"?

Having learned how to distract us, in the 70s they went for the throat, in the forms of Datsun (Nissan, for you younger folk) and Toyota. Entire industrial cities were laid waste, as the sluggish American auto industry struggled to respond to the Toyota Celica GT with such immortal lines as the Chevy Vega, Chevette, the AMC Gremlin, and the explosiveness that was the Ford Pinto.

The cat was out of the bag, then, as these altered relative perceptions of American and Japanese quality infiltrated the home electronics industry, and we bought up millions and millions of Sony VCRs and Hitachi TVs and Panasonic stereos. And while we were listening and watching and barbecuing on the Hibachi, the Japanese were working 15 hours a day coming up with their latest weapon.

Nintendo. Perhaps the greatest assault on American productivity ever invented. Its reach is so profound, its hold on Americans young and old so tenacious that it remains, with it's cousin, the Sony Playstation, a principal weapon for the 80s, 90s and 00s. Sleepless, half-blind, Vitamin D deprived and plagued with tendonitis, we are in poor array to withstand this perennial assault. Oh, sure, there were the productivity gains hatched from the American led PC revolution, a significant insurgency, but the mindlessness of "gaming" appears to have weathered that storm, as folks knock each other to the floor to get PSIIIs, not laptops.

Not that the Japanese are resting on their laurels. In the never-ending crusade to sap American productivity, there is always another front. For their latest trick, they have turned our weapon on ourselves. Dell, in the 70s, started to publish an old number game by the dopey name "Number Place". Nobody paid much attention to it here, but it gained some play in Japan. No doubt fully appreciating the addictiveness of this little game, they renamed it with a cute Japanese name and sent it back here in 2005, what the hell? Sudoku. More billions of American work hours down the tubes.

It never ends.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

There Was an Explosion

There was an explosion. The glass walls of buildings were blown into flesh tearing shards that raked across the industrial space first in one direction, and then, with compounding cruelty, swept in reverse by blasts of deadly debris-laden air inrushing to fill the vacuum created of what had been a day like any other day.

Riddled victims, those able to regain their footing, began to struggle in the dust and smoke for exit. Concussion racked, amnesiated minds struggled to make sense of the horror around them, some trapped under debris or immobilized by injury and increasingly terrified as a flaming hell gathered up around them.

Shocked relations of survivors gathered, unknowing of their loved one's fate. Some prayed, some sat stonily. Others expressed their incomprehension in anger at the sudden uncertainty of their fates, at the inability of anyone to make immediate sense of the bewildering chaos made of their lives with such instant totality.

A massive rescue and fire mission was launched. The press was notified. Helicopter reports interrupted The View and The Opening Bell and CNN Headline News. Local news vans rushed down the shoulders of expressways to set up remotes. Reporters tried to shake the cobwebs from shocked victims and get the coveted eyewitness report. Within days the news would spread as far as the Manchester Guardian and the ubiquitous Wikipedia.

Scores were injured, and three were dead. A big fire. A big story. The Sunday paper led with pages.

A big explosion. One big explosion.

Now add up all the heartbreak, loss, shock, uncertainty and grief spawned by this event, multiply by a thousand, and maybe one can begin to comprehend what Iraqis have gone through. In one month. How many thousands of pages would be necessary to tell the stories of the victims?. How many hundreds of hours of air time to relate the tales of heroism in the direst of circumstances?

I don't know better than anyone else what is to become of Iraq. I don't know what role, if any, we ought to play in Iraq's present or future. I don't know how many of Iraqis' horrors are directly or indirectly our responsibility.

But I know this.

In the enveloping shroud of such human suffering there is no place for pride. Along the cadaver strewn road that will lead humanity out of this hell there is no room for dignity.

And in the midst of this enormity of human suffering, if one's humanity is to remain at all intact, there is no prestige.

There are decisions to be made. Plans to unfold, be unraveled, and be planned anew. There are directives, reprisals and compromises to consider.

And if one is yet human, there is no suffering to waste on the bruised American ego. If one feels at all, there is no emotion to squander on the distasteful reality of American surrender.

At 8:06 one day there was an explosion. Days later, the shock waves continue to buffet a Midwestern city. Lives are destroyed. Now imagine that one had followed at 8:21, and at 8:36, and so on toward an unreadable future. This is the wicked pulse of Iraq.

To consider for one moment, while in the course of resolving the hostilities that bedevil these people, whether it is important or not that America shall be seen to surrender is unfeeling in the utmost.

To have the emotional capital to even suggest such consideration is to devalue life.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

And in Local News

The Elkhorn Independent reports in today's edition that a James Hartwick, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, has won the 2006 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Religion and Education Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. That's a Lot of Engraving, right there.

The title of this remarkable dissertation is "An Investigation Into the Spiritual, Religious, and Prayer Lives of Wisconsin Public School Teachers: the Inner Life of a Teacher". His motivation? " ... I feel that prayer helped me to be more centered, patient, understanding and ultimately more receptive to my students."

Or to put it another way, I believe my belief helps. Now, I know you'd have to be some kind of secularist asshole, and I am, to suggest that piling belief on belief pretty much leaves one with a pile of, well, faith. And not much else, from a purely scientific, and therefore damned, point of view. How are you going to prove such a thing to the nons, who might be a little uncomfortable with your third recommendation of setting aside a "sacred space" in public schools for teachers to prepare themselves spiritually to face the little gremlins at their charge?

Need more research, and onward marched our faithful charge to all corners of the, well, Wisconsin, to accumulate this scholarly body of evidence. And so it turns out that 60% of the 91.5% of teachers sampled believe that praying does make them a better teacher. Hey, I believe him! The paper may shed some light on this, and I'll certainly never know, but I am assuming the other 31.5% don't pray professionally. Do any of these believers not believe that prayer makes a difference? I doubt it.

And so we come to the realization more or less that all the teachers who believe in prayer believe it works. Brilliant!

Hopefully there's just enough tax dollars left to provide someone who can explain to me what the hell 60% of the 91.5% of teachers sampled means.