31 January 2009

Foreign

A nation of 300 million shouldn't be judged by the vapid drivel of Latoya Jackson. I know an Englishman who has asserted that America is one of the most foreign countries he has visited, and he is well traveled (though his knowledge of America is mostly limited to the television; the only city he has actually visited is Atlanta). I have bristled at the characterization, but I cannot deny it.

I spent last weekend in Las Vegas. Is it possible that a more surreal place exists? I rode an elevator with a man who looked and sounded like Uncle Junior; his thick glasses were insufficient aid to allow him to read the floor numbers; fellow riders had to assure him that the 27th floor had not yet been reached. Las Vegas Boulevard at night has a continuous line of Mexican (likely) immigrants in orange T-Shirts bearing their employers' ID numbers. To attract your attention, they flick their fingernails against cards advertising escort services; when you look up you are handed a small stack of the cards bearing airbrushed photographs and unlikely names.

Overweight tourists queue for all-you-can-eat buffets. It is the largest city in the world founded in the 20th century. Built originally by a small group of organized crime bosses, it is now dominated by a small group of corporate bosses. Older casinos are constantly being razed to make way for newer, bigger replacements. During taxi rides the driver repeatedly asks whether you want a "massage"; the cabs are brimming with entertainment guides and sport LCD displays which stream advertisements continually.

Sex and drink and gambling are everywhere. Entertainers repeat the same tired shows year after year. Cross dressing actors impersonate performers who themselves are already caricatures (e.g., Cher and Joan Rivers). Souvenir shops are all full of the same cheap Chinese made trinkets. Prices outrageous at home are shrugged off; money's value undergoes a strange distortion. Middle aged cocktail waitresses squeeze into dresses cut high and low. Dealers range from wry to sullen to silent. Casino hotels bear twenty story high images of demi-celebrities like Donnie and Marie.

It is a city that markets itself as Sin City, but to be honest, most of the sins committed are relatively venial.

Even in today's uncertain economic times, Las Vegas seemed relatively busy.

Foreign indeed.

29 January 2009

Bush Legacy (Cheese)

In one of its final acts, the Bush administration demonstrated its free trade bona fides (ahem, or lack thereof). They slapped a 300% tariff on Roquefort cheese; this tariff will hurt the single French village where the cheese is made and leave the rest of France with a little more cheese. Tariffs were also raised on, and I quote, "fatty livers of ducks and geese" (presumably, their disdain for all things French prevented them from naming foie gras. Most peculiar.

Commentary (The Economist)

Article (Washington Post)

28 January 2009

Spineless Sycophant

"As long as I am in the Congress, I will continue to fight for and defend our sacred values."
Phil Gingrey (R-GA), apologizing for having opposed Rush Limbaugh.

Don't get me wrong, I hate both parties. But I think I hate the Republicans more, probably because I was one, and they have sold out.

Rush Limbaugh is a petty, hateful, fear-monger. So is Sean Hannity. And Bill O'Reilly. And Lou Dobbs. And most of the people at Fox.

Goldwater would despise these small-minded partisan hacks.

Limbaugh has unapologetically stated that he hopes Obama fails. He hopes Obama fails. He would rather be right and have the country suffer, than be wrong and have the country prosper. And he has the audacity to assume the mantle of a patriot?

He is the most contemptible of men. He does nothing but stir the pot, foment discontent, encourage hatred, collect a sizable salary, and enjoy the life of a celebrity. Really, it's hard to get lower than that.

Update: I can't believe I left that harpy Coulter off the list. They're all going to the ninth circle.

WAFC 1-1 LFC

I am generally an apologist for Benitez, but even I can only characterize his moves tonight as bizarre. Benayoun and Babel have been consistently inferior to Kuyt and Riera on the wings, but they both started. Liverpool looked the better side, but not in a way that would suggest they would challenge for the title. Benitez obviously had his eye on Chelsea. Or he's mad as a hatter. I can't conjure a third explanation.

He apparently believes that a draw away to Wigan is OK if he gets a win at Anfield against Scolari's charges. His better wingers came on as subs, but then took Torres and Gerrard off. If Liverpool beat Chelsea this weekend, they have a chance. Otherwise, Manchester United will have claimed another title, as early as February.

27 January 2009

Observation vs Faith

Secret "girlfriend".

Even confronted with the obvious explanation, she still denies it because "we have taught him from the bible". I pity her oblivious ignorance and the living hell her son must be enduring.

26 January 2009

Tea and Madeleine

I have just finished reading Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist. I found the first couple of chapters strained, but he eventually hits his stride. Apparently, thousands of books are published each day; I found this one worthwhile, though maybe just because I've been giving thought to the ghost in the machine (the philosophical one, not the Police album).

The author has worked in neuroscience, and found connections between that field and the work of Woolf, Escoffier, Stein, Proust, Stravinsky, and others. These artists have shown remarkable insights into the working of the brain; years ahead of science's understanding.

Limits on Spending

Surely this is inevitible.

Kaka's transfer to Manchester City may have fallen through, but the numbers that had been discussed are so insanely large that only enormous subsidization from outside sources can fund them. When Manchester United are priced out of players, what hope have Boro or Bolton?

Limiting a club to endogenous financing favors the bigger clubs, but those big clubs have too much power to allow complete equality. I thought that the FA should have stepped in when Chelsea were overspending.

In the NFL, most league revenue is shared equally by all clubs. This makes nearly impossible the kind of dynasties that Manchester United and before them Liverpool have had in the recent past. In the sixteen years since the Premier League was chartered, only four teams have won it (and one team has won more than half the time) . Clubs with storied histories like Aston Villa, Everton and Sunderland have no real chance to add to their legacy as league champions, even though at the moment at least two of those are managed well enough to challenge. But they can afford neither the depth nor the most expensive players.

Posts Will Resume Shortly

I was in Las Vegas over the weekend (thus the lack of posts). I've got some thoughts that I'll edit and post after work.

22 January 2009

Question Authority

I was born in 1962. While I only have a vague recollection of the sixties, it is still an important formative period for me. After all, every adult in my childhood had just been through it. Woodstock, the summer of love, hippies, Viet Nam protests, the Civil Rights Act, the whole lot. By the same measure, my parents were children of the depression even though they were born after the worst of it.

This entry's title is an expression that I have always associated with the 60's. I have always understood it to mean government authority. Even in that narrow interpretation, it is not bad advice.

Socrates was given the opportunity to avoid the death penalty if he agreed to abandoned his pursuit of philosophy; in response he said "the unexamined life is not worth living." That is what question authority means; it's not just some petty rebellion against political leaders.

Not everyone has the brains for it, but if you do, questioning authority is a moral imperative. Don't blindly follow dogma. Or if you do, don't vote.

FUD

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are tools used to keep you in line. Making the decision to not allow others to manipulate you with those tools is liberating.

Confession

When I was a practicing Catholic, I experienced most of the sacraments. Confession, now reconciliation, was the one I avoided. I recall being brought to tears as a boy by the prospect of a stern priest. Now that I have left the church I think that it may be the most useful of the seven.

There are things I would confess, transgressions against others that I regret. I am confident that the person I wronged would forgive me (I suspect in most cases they might not even remember), but I wouldn't know how to contact the person. So instead, I carry these minor guilts around with me. I don't want to sound like some martyr, none are so burdensome that I lose sleep over them. But some closure would be good.

Self Pity

Feel sorry for yourself?

Stop!

You're not doing yourself any good, and everyone else find it tedious.

Kissing Susan Kolber

Peter King's weekly Monday Morning Quarter Back feature at SI has many faithful followers, but I can't read his stuff any more; I find his style too distracting.

Kissing Susan Kolber won the "Best Sports Blog 2008" award (note: it's a web-voting popularity contest, so the winners may or may not really be best). Anyway, a regular feature is for one of the writers (Big Daddy Drew) to add ridiculing commentary to clips from King's MMQB article.

You can decide for yourself. Here's King's article, and here's KSK's article. Unfortunately, KSK uses recurring gags and inside jokes that assume you've followed MMQB for a while. Still, I read it every week.

Artful Dodger?


You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two

Image: Reuters

21 January 2009

America

I watched Obama's speech with a crowd of colleagues (including, surprisingly, our CEO) in the lobby of our office. I was pleased that he didn't shy away from the facts that we face difficult challenges, and that we must participate responsibly in a world that includes other sovereign nations.

The United States has recently enjoyed hegemony through a combination of luck and industry. The luck part: our forebears settled on an expansive, largely unpopulated land that is rich with natural resources. Then we emerged with industrial capacity from an isolationist cocoon just as parts of Europe were trying to annihilate each other. But it wasn't just luck - Americans, especially new ones, have worked very hard to improve their lot.

Americans love to take credit for their role in World War II. To be sure, many Americans made the ultimate sacrifice in North Africa, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany. At home, food and gas were rationed. By any measure, the American contribution was remarkable, but I think that nearly seventy years is long enough to rest on those laurels.

Most Americans alive today have not known real sacrifice. I do not believe great things can be achieved without voluntarily forgoing comfort. We have collectively dug ourselves into a hole, and we haven't even stopped digging yet. After we do, there will be pain involved in getting out. Democracy tends to favor candidates who promise good times soon and punishes those who don't (I have an American friend who is an unapologetic monarchist for this reason). My fingers are crossed because I think this president may be our best hope to act with a long view. If he fails, his successor will likely be elected on pledges of something for nothing. Nature abhors a vacuum: there is no such thing.

Much of the apparent prosperity of the past twenty years has been funded by debt. We are "living large", but our children will bear a heavy burden. We should be glad that seventy years ago, our grandparents and great-grandparents were not as selfish as we. And it is time, I hope, for us to stop acting collectively as spoiled children and to start acting as responsible adults.

It is not reasonable to expect one man to effect this change on a nation. But I am hard pressed to imagine a more likely candidate than this one. Hail to the chief.

20 January 2009

20 January

What a difference between the eloquent oratory of this president and the mutterings of his predecessor!

Trivia: The president's desk (currently in the oval office) was a gift from the British government.

19 January 2009

LFC 1-1 EFC

A spirited but sloppy match that Liverpool didn't deserve to win. Credit to Moyes, who has built a scrappy team on a modest budget. Everton looked more aggresive in midfield, and won more than their share of balls in the air. Torres showed flashes of brilliance, but in the end had only a miss to show for it. Gerrard looked to have rescued another match, only for Cahill to nod a free kick in for the draw. Once again, most of the Liverpool squad looked mediocre. Carragher is a poor right back. Reina looked shaky. Alonso looked more like last season (which saw Rafa trying to sell him) than this. Just not good enough. The same Blues will return to Anfield in six days time for the FA Cup.

Humbling

The 2008 Weblog Awards have recently been announced. I already follow three of the winners (xkcd, ksk, and cake wrecks) as well as a handful of the finalists. Those happen to cover light subjects like sport and cocktails. I followed the links to some of the other winners, and I realized the gaping chasm in quality between this journal and the best blogs.

If you are reading this, you have my apologies; I am determined to do better. Also, if you're interested in quality writing, you can do worse than check out some of the finalists. Strictly speaking, by reading this, you already are doing worse than checking out some of the finalists.

Bad For Soccer (sic) in the US

One might think that America's premier sports network (ESPN) carrying Premier League football would be good, since most cable and satellite contracts include ESPN in the base package. But it is likely that ESPN would only show one or two games a week (certainly not seven or eight). And they would prefer an exclusive contract (so that they can extort higher rates from advertisers). Also, I find most ESPN announcers disappointing, the exception being Andy Gray during Euro '08.

I am happy with the current situation: I pay a nominal rate for Setanta and FSC and get nearly all games.

There's a name for it

I had mentioned the striking sight in Prague of trees covered in fine ice crystals on a foggy morning. It turns out there is a name for it: hoarfrost (or just hoar). You can see some dramatic examples by using Google image search. In my defense, I was familiar with hoary.

18 January 2009

Oblivious

While waiting to pick up our sons this evening, I left the motor running (it's fairly chilly in Atlanta at the moment) but switched the headlights off. Ordinarily I leave the headlights in the "Auto" position; I use the switch very rarely. I then noticed (discovered?) that my car, which I've had for two and a half years, is equipped with fog lights. My colleague will be pleased to know, then, that they have been switched off during all clear weather in that period. Unfortunately for me, they have also been switched off during all foggy weather.

I wonder what other features I've paid for and been missing.

Belief is not Knowledge

Belief is an important part of how we make sense of the world. I believe my house will be there waiting for me when I leave work. It would be impossible to make any plans without reasonable expectation of future events. But belief is not the same thing as knowledge. You can argue about what we actually know, as have philosophers from Plato to Descartes. We believe (there's that word again, which is part of the problem) we know those things which we have personally observed. To varying degrees we accept as justifiable truth the observations of others. I believe that astronauts walked on the surface of the moon, but I wasn't there nor am I personally acquainted with anyone who was. Others believe that aliens crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in July of 1947 (I remain unconvinced).

Most religions embrace the idea that a supernatural entity (notably, their supernatural entity) created the universe. This abiding belief in a creator may have started by logical inference: if the universe operates by cause and effect, surely there must have been an ultimate cause. Some believe the universe was literally created in six days. I believe that, if asked, most of these believers would say that they "know" that the universe was created in six days. Many believers use the word "know" freely, but in fact they only accept the testimony of others. That doesn't necessarily make it false; it just makes it harder or impossible to verify (e.g., moon walks and flying saucers). The testimonies they accept were actually translated by humans from the words of others long dead, who transcribed the words of others (dead even longer, well, you get the idea) who repeated the words of others for many generations. Those words are of those who claim to have interacted directly with their god. I have botched grocery instructions given directly to me by my wife. But that's a very different matter than believe the reporting of countless nameless ancients.

I believe that most lore has basis in truth. For example, I believe that something happened in Roswell (though I doubt it involved aliens). I believe there was a man named Moses who led the Hebrews. But I just don't see any reason to believe that the laws of physics are ever suspended. A bush that burns without being consumed? Nope. The Red Sea parts on command? Sorry. I don't begrudge believers their faith. But I wish they'd recognize the difference between knowledge and faith.

The federal government operates a registry that allows you to "opt out" of telemarketing. But there is no way to opt out of the implicit proselytizing that believers bombard us with. Most American Christians have no idea of what it is like to be the religious minority and lack a healthy respect for the right of others to have a differing perspective of faith. The constitution protects that right (though to some this means we can choose whichever Christian denomination we like).

I was raised within the Catholic Church, since then I have vacillated between believing and not. I don't begrudge people of faith; I have close friends and family who are devout, and I respect that.

I started this post a couple of weeks ago, and I'm still not sure what my point is. I feel like I should draw some conclusion. How about this? Faith is fine, but it must yield to facts. If there is a God who gave us brains, surely it was so that we could understand the world, not ignore our observations. I don't believe that a supreme being plays gotcha.

The below has been attributed to Galileo; I don't know if he really said it, but I'm prepared to give him credit for it. I think he earned the right to have the last word.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

16 January 2009

Jermaine Pennant

It is obvious that Rafa has given up on Pennant. While our "fat Spanish waiter" is at the helm, Pennant will not play. Kuyt and Benayoun are preferred, for while neither has Pennant's pace, both are industrious and consistent. And in spite of his pace advantage, Pennant seems no more effective on the ball (which suggests a quality deficit).

Real Madrid have expressed interest in Pennant, but allegedly his wage demands scuppered the transfer. AC Milan has also been linked. Now comes word that Liverpool have agreed terms with Pompey, only to have Pennant say he would rather fight for his position at Anfield. He has started all of three matches this season (two in the league), with one substitute appearance. He has also been unused on the bench twice, and he hasn't even been listed on the squad since October. Two players on the reserves (Insua and El Zhar) have figured more prominently than Pennant in the first team this season.

This is no whimsical Benitez rotation. I see two possible explanations: One is that Pennant is sincere, which suggests that he is so thick that he can't see that, short of a catastrophic series of injuries, his playing time at Liverpool is over. The other is that, his contract being up in the summer, he will gladly accept a Liverpool paycheck through the spring. In the summer he will be free to move clubs after the season without Liverpool selecting the suitor. Liverpool can offer him a contract that would then entitle them to a payment if he moves on in the summer (and could unilaterally renew his contract if he were to be make an appearance quota thought to be fifteen). It is a messy business.

Tom Price Means Well

Dr. Tom Price, who represents the Georgia 6th in the House of Representatives, is a physician. This district had previously been represented by Johnny Isakson and Newt Gingrich. Every indication is that Dr. Price is a decent fellow. I have written his office twice and received personalized letters in response, and I have spoken to a member of his staff. Unfortunately, he follows the party line religiously (religion is a big deal for Dr. Price), and that means that he will follow Republican doctrine and rhetoric, even in the face of contradictory evidence.

We are certainly in a severe recession, and a variety of factors makes its immediate reversal unlikely. A week ago, I received an email newsletter from his office which included the excerpt below. That rhetoric plays well with people who haven't studied Economics. I am not aware of any economist, even conservative ones, who think that the government should go on an austerity program; the consensus seems to be that this would damage the economy even further. Right now, individuals are saving. Out of fear for the future, they're not spending. The problem is, they're saving (i.e., not spending) too much. We live in an economy based on consumer-spending. That may not be ideal in the long run, but it does not appear that Dr. Price realizes just how terrible the "short term" can be. Nor how long its affects can last.

I imagine that this is just the first in a series of unhelpful statements spewing vitriol at the soon-to-be POTUS.

Harmful Fiscal Policy on the Horizon
Last week, the President-elect rolled out a so-called stimulus plan that starts with a $775 billion price tag. With the federal deficit projected to reach $1.2 trillion this year before this 'new' spending even begins, the time to end irresponsible government handouts has long passed. Unfortunately, many in Washington still seem to think that we can solve our ongoing economic problems by throwing money at them – money we don't have! Instead of relying on the government to provide what is, at best, an expensive temporary patch for our struggling economy, we should instead focus on long-term solutions that encourage businesses to grow and individuals to save and invest.

15 January 2009

Software Geeks Only

Jeff Atwood writes good stuff, and if you write software, this article is especially worthwhile. This one is good, too.

14 January 2009

Another Airplane Movie

On the flight back from San Mateo this morning (I actually set my alarm for 3:45 AM, yikes!), I watched Bottle Shock, the story of the landmark 1976 wine competition that awakened the world to the possibility of world-class American wines. Unfortunately, I did not find a very good movie on any level. I didn't learn anything about making wine or the wine business, none of the characters had any depth, and the plot was not compelling.

Best exchange:
Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman): Why don't I like you?
Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman): Because you think I'm an arsehole. And I'm not really. It's just that I'm British and you're... not.

To commenters: Yes, Delta upgraded me and yes, I did some work on the plane. Sheesh.

11 January 2009

Another Note on the Stoke Match

It was the kind of a match that, if you knew someone who was thinking about following footie but had heard it was dull, could convince someone to never watch another match again. Just dreadful.

10 January 2009

SCFC 0-0 LFC

Liverpool, with their two expensive strikers on the bench, was unable to solve Stoke City's disciplined defense. But for a bit of pressure at the end of the first half, Stoke City rarely showed more than a passing interest in scoring; they were playing for a nil-nil draw from the outset. Liverpool, on the other hand, had many unimpressive performances: Lucas, Mascherano, Benayoun, Reina, and Skrtel will be especially disappointed. Torres was introduced late and was not much of a factor. I could write more, but to be honest, I'm too distracted by the poor result.

09 January 2009

Movies on Airplanes

WALL-E - Consistently entertaining if a bit predictable. Recommended.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor - Decent special effects, but painful dialog. Also, completely predictable. Not recommended.

Wanted - Fairly silly premise (a guild of assassins formed a thousand years ago in Moravia that use a binary code reading of random weaving imperfections? Really?). If you can get past the willing suspension of disbelief, you might find it worthwhile. I did not.

Eagle Eye
- Another silly premise. More compelling than Wanted. Obvious conclusion. Not recommended.

Back from Prague

I flew home today from Prague. My first flight was at 7:15 (which meant getting up at an ungodly hour). The temperature in Prague has remained below freezing for many days. There was a fog this morning and of course it was still dark when I arrived at the airport at five-thirty. Most of the trees are bereft of foliage. There are firs which look like flocked Christmas trees. Or rather, look the way flocked Christmas are meant to look. Sitting at the gate, the image of the planes being moved about in the darkness was striking. The darkness and fog meant that as these looming behemoths approached, they would slowly materialize from faint outlines in the fuzzy darkness. I was reminded of The Hunt For Red October, when the submarines would appear from the murky deep.

Sadly, no pictures. I had a camera with me, but I couldn't get outside, and it was too bright inside.

07 January 2009

Did I Mention It's Cold?



Cold or no, Prague really is a charming city.

06 January 2009

Dobry Den

I am in Prague for meetings and stopped at the neighborhood market to buy some water. The two large bottles (3 liters) in the picture cost me a total of 20 Czech Koruna (a shade over $1 US). The Marriott stocks the room with water. The bottle of (imported) Evian (.33 liter) is 90 Koruna (about $4.50) and the Toma (.5 liter) is 45. I don't begrudge Marriott a premium for the convenience, but the a price multiple of 13.5 seems a bit much.

04 January 2009

Football Commentary

The first round of NFL playoffs are complete. Arizona and San Diego, the two teams who to qualified for the playoffs primarily on the basis of being in the weakest two divisions, beat their opponents (Atlanta and Indianapolis, respectively). Baltimore and Philadelphia looked like contenders against pretenders Miami and Minnesota (a whole state? is that really fair?). Of these results, Arizona is the most surprising.

Most NFL commentary is awful. The announcers hype the stars, and belabor the arbitrary statements they gave before the games start. The "color" commentators almost never provide any insight, and the play-by-play men (and they're pretty much always men; women are consigned to humiliating sideline duty) occasionally fail to even describe the action. Seldom do I feel they have enhanced the enjoyment or understanding of the game in any way. There are web sites (and I'm too lazy to find any of them at the moment) dedicated to highlighting the worst offenders.

Non-American Football (Football, Soccer, Futbol, etc.) commentary is necessarily very different. There is not a thirty second delay between each action, and possession shifts rapidly between players and between sides. Often, simply naming the player on the ball is all there's time for.

While watching a match a week ago, the commentator used the word opprobrium. In the history of official NFL commentary, I'd wager the word opprobrium has never been used once. Further, I suspect most announcers would not even know what the word means.

03 January 2009

PNEFC 0-2 LFC

Preston North End lacked the pace to stretch Liverpool. The visitors dominated much of the game, though Preston's performance improved dramatically in the second half. Riera's first half goal was enough, with Gerrard gifting Torres a goal at the end of stoppage time. Preston should have equalized but for an unnecessary foul by Parkin on Carragher.

Riera had struggled lately, but today looked comfortable and confident. Not so Robbie Keane whose run of good games has ended at two; Keane looked tentative in front of the goal and squandered several opportunities to decide the game. Alonso had a strong outing before being substituted at the half with an injury, and Mascherano also left the game with a limp. Carragher continues his unconvincing assignment as right back. Hyypia is regularly the slowest player on the pitch, but he wins every ball in the air and is seldom beaten. Cavalieri looked better than his last outing but still has a long way to go to challenge Reina.

Next up: away at Stoke City.

02 January 2009

Backwards policy

Oregon, of all places, is exploring ways to tax more fuel efficient vehicles at a higher rate than their gas guzzling counterparts. On the one hand, I understand the concern - a hybrid driving one mile imposes the same wear and tear on the road as a non-hybrid vehicle of similar weight driving a similar distance. Since road use taxes are imposed per gallon, the hybrid gets a significant tax discount for the same benefit. And if all the cars were instantly replaced with hybrids, the revenue would plummet even as the road use remained constant. On the other hand, taxing fuel is an excellent mechanism for assigning an appropriate cost to the externalities of fuel use. I hope that Oregon's per-mile tax is in addition to the per-gallon tax. Unfortunately, democracies and pandering politicians being what they are, I'm not not optimistic.