About Me

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Armchair theorist, poet, and occasional IT manager, Sascha B. is equipped with a Master's Degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas, and is not afraid to use it. His work has been published by the University Press of America, Edwin Mellen Press, University of Texas Press, and a variety of small journals nationwide. He is also the proprietor and baker for 3141 Pie, of which you should eat many.

The Deal

I stopped blogging in 2013, when life overtook me. My father became ill and died shortly thereafter, and my mother was left with increasing dementia. I became the primary caregiver, and now orchestrate my mother's care and our family estate.

Now, I am coming up for air again.

Looking for the next book to read. All suggestions welcome.

My reading list is over here.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Quotes For The Day


"The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.... We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community."

And then;

"Too much cannot be said against the men of wealth who sacrifice everything to getting wealth. There is not in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune....Such a man is only the more dangerous if he occasionally does some deed like founding a college or endowing a church, which makes those good people who are also foolish forget his real iniquity. These men are equally careless of the working men, whom they oppress, and of the State, whose existence they imperil. There are not very many of them, but there is a very great number of men who approach more or less closely to the type, and, just in so far as they do so approach, they are curses to the country."

--Theodore Roosevelt, 26th US President, Asst. Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Nobel prize winner, educational reformer, conservationist, and...Republican icon.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quote For The Day

See, Ma? Economists really do have a sense of humor!

"...a policy prescription such as taxing height (Mankiw and Weinzierl, 2010) is obviously not socially acceptable because it violates certain horizontal equity concerns that do not appear in basic models."

It's actually a very good paper on optimal taxation models. None of which violate concerns for horizontal equity. The three policy recommendations the authors make won't have the 1% jumping for joy:

  1. Very high earners should be subject to high and rising marginal tax rates on earnings.
  2. The earnings of low-income families should be subsidized, and those subsidies should then be phased out with high implicit marginal tax rates.
  3. Capital income should be taxed.

Econometrics for the people. I like it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another Vexatious ADA Lawsuit that Never Should Have Happened

Our neighborhood can't seem to get a break from this. You'd think there would be more action than "raising business owner awareness" which is the current City strategy, when we continue to have stories like this one:

It began when Roberto received a letter from a customer who claimed that certain features in Roberto’s store violated the ADA. All were minor violations such as a recycling bin placed too close to a door and a pastry case located too close to a counter. Roberto did not realize his store was in violation of the ADA but quickly made the requested changes and notified the customer.

The customer acknowledged that Roberto made the requested changes yet sued anyway and sought nearly $90,000 in damages.
(emphasis added)

They eventually settled -- after more than a year -- for just under $20,000. But here's the thing: the law is written to enable exactly this sort of action. The identification of an issue, notification of the business, and resolution or "reasonable accommodation." So here you have a small business owner following exactly the trajectory the law has demanded, in spirit and letter, and still getting completely screwed.

The only reason to go forward with such action is the pursuit of financial gain, rather than a correction of the problem. And this is like poison to the judicial system, as well as to the small business world. Despite my support for the ADA laws and their intent, and my desire to see as much accommodation made as is possible I have no sympathy, and no respect, for those who file and pursue suits like this one.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Don't Tell Me Libraries Are Obsolete

Because, you see, it's the last place left where we have a chance to teach some semblance of critical thinking skills, now that we have elided them from the more general educational curriculum:

Consider the efforts of Frances Harris, librarian at the magnet University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois. (Librarians are our national leaders in this fight; they’re the main ones trying to teach search skills to kids today.) Harris educates eighth and ninth graders in how to format nuanced queries using Boolean logic and advanced settings. She steers them away from raw Google searches and has them use academic and news databases, too.

But, crucially, she also trains students to assess the credibility of what they find online. For example, she teaches them to analyze the tone of a web page to judge whether it was created by an academic, an advocacy group, or a hobbyist. Students quickly gain the ability to detect if a top-ranked page about Martin Luther King Jr. was actually posted by white supremacists.

Read Thompson's whole piece here. I won't go so far as to say that the rise of information technology is making us stupid; but I will say that it is most certainly allowing us to become less discriminating, less mentally acute, and overall a society of the intellectually lazy and gullible.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

From a groundbreaking 2009 report on multi-tasking:
Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.  

And now, the author's 2011 ruminations on the same topic:

Historically, when someone tapped on our shoulder, they were necessarily physically next to us. So they knew if we were already holding a conversation with someone else, and could adjust their behavior, or withhold their request. We, in turn, felt compelled to respond to the tap on the shoulder when it came. But now, the incoming chat message, the phone call, and the television announcer, all tap on our shoulder in a sense, trying to get our attention. They are entirely oblivious to each other, and solicit our attention as if they were the only ones. We, on the other hand, feel the same obligation to respond. It may be that our social norms and instincts are not scaling at the rate of communication channels. In this way, media may have brought about a new tragedy of the commons - by aggressively trying to grab our undivided attention, they have threatened the very notion of undivided attention.
I think the moral is that we desperately need to begin exercising more control over our focus and our interactions. Shut off the iPhone. Turn off the twitter feed. Read a book. Have an uninterrupted conversation with the person or people right next to you.

This is not Ludditry: this is retraining ourselves to think with focus in an age dedicated to the disruption of that thought.

(h/t Sullivan)

Friday, November 04, 2011

Living in the End Times

Great. First we have Citizens United, and the reification of the concept of corporate personhood, where a fictional entity made up of the interests of multiple individuals is granted the same positive rights as each of those constituent persons, but none of the responsibilities, moral hazard or downside risk that comes with those rights for any single person. Now we have, at the opposite end of the spectrum, this brilliant bill being egged along by Haley Barbour in the great state of Mississippi, which will "define a fertilized egg as a person with full legal rights".

I'm waiting for the first pregnant woman to speak on behalf of her fertilized egg for its inalienable right to purchase a gun.

Just How Low Have We Sunk?

After the Second World War, we introduced the GI Bill (the "Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944"). While it grew over the years, in its origin it was a response to the return of our military forces to civilian life after a devastating conflict. For the returning vets, it offered up a college education, a year of unemployment compensation and loans to buy homes and start businesses. It altered the course of millions of lives, and spurred an unprecedented era of economic expansion for this country.

Now, after 9 years of unending war overseas, and thousands of lives lost, and irreparable change in our social fabric from the "war on terror", we have another generation of military coming home. This time to an economy more depressed and less inviting than any since the mid 1930s.

Now, as then, we have the opportunity to use this challenge to our advantage, and create a new "GI Bill" or at the least massively invigorate the existing measures, to both create a means of welcoming home those troops on whom we have placed such a wretched burden over the last decade, as well as to recharge an ailing economy with an influx of highly trained and capable workers.

Unfortunately, it seems the best we can do is the “Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011”:

It would offer a tax credit to companies that hire out of work veterans and increase an existing credit that already goes to companies that hire veterans with service-related disabilities.
A tax credit for hiring companies? I'm sorry, but that's pathetic.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Dire Metaphor for Our Times

Since I was a teenager piddling away my spare hours in my public high school's art studio classes, I have looked at Cooper Union as a beacon of light in a sea of ever-darkening waves. For more than a century, the school has stood as an example of the ideal of free education for any who are qualified, regardless of class, race, status, birth or belief. But now, through a mixture of poor management, bad luck, ill-timing and the general malaise of our times, Cooper Union is considering reinstating a tuition fee. Not for everyone, and not in certainty. But for an institution which weathered the Great Depression and two world wars without fees, to come to this point is a sad reminder of how far we have strayed from the dreams of the past: of an enlightened, educated population without the barriers of class or commerce holding back those who showed promise and desire. Of a literate and dynamic civic population, steeped in the wells of critical thinking, creativity, and applied intellect.

In a way, Cooper Union has stood as an educational antithesis of the fallacies of libertarian theories; of proof of the value of a social contract which demands balance against the open markets and self-interest.

We need more places like this, not fewer.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why Herman Cain Might Be The GOP Nominee

In the words of Andrew Sullivan:
Perry is simply too dumb and lazy to be president. Romney too transparently opportunist for a purist party. Paul is disqualified because of foreign policy. Bachmann is a programmed bonkers-bot. Santorum is a frothy substance whose views of the world are frozen in place sometime around 1986. Gingrich is an asshole who could never win the presidency, and even those who like his permanent smirk/snarl understand that. Huntsman might as well be Al Sharpton, because of his views on climate change, gays and because of his working for Satan. No wonder Cain has a shot.
Thankfully, I suspect that winning the GOP nomination this election is a bit like winning 4th place in an Olympic medal competition: you might have done really well, but no one is going to give a damn the next day, and someone else is walking away with the gold. I have no qualms at all with Herman Cain walking away with 4th place. After the Sarah Palin as VP debacle, even a blowhard shallow-minded pizza CEO whose knowledge of global affairs and statecraft runs the gamut from A to B could be a step up.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Your Daily Dose of Crazy

Courtesy of TPM and dear, dear Michele Bachmann: It's a brand new Cuban missile crisis, courtesy of.....Hezbollah. You can't make this stuff up. I'm going to purchase my tin foil hat now.

Friday, September 23, 2011


I mean, really?

Wasn't the grinding down of eBay and the failed run for overlord governor of California enough?

And HP: wasn't one high profile female CEO disaster plenty for now?

HP Names Meg Whitman CEO

On Palestine

Today, as the Palestinians present their formal request for statehood at the UN, I am struck by the disconnect in the language being used: If you listen to the US and the Israelis, they speak about "peace" --- that peace is only achievable thru negotiation. If you listen to the Palestinians and the Egyptians, they speak of independence and freedom:
“There are small countries in the world that have gained their freedom and independence but we still haven’t got ours,” Mr. Abbas told his guests. “So we are going to demand this right.”
It seems to me that this is a major disconnect, and that the US has failed to broker the gap between. Peace has little to do with freedom, just as electoral democracy has little to do with stability (cf. the election of Hamas in Gaza). If the US and Israel are trying to shift the frame of the discussion, then they are losing that battle. Most of the world sees independence as the keystone here, not an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I think it a cruel historical irony that in this situation the US is in the role of imperial Britain, and Palestine somewhat in that of the North American colonies -- and Israel in the role of Mandatory Britain, and the Palestinians in the role of the fledgling Jewish State. And while it is in our diplomatic interest to maintain an effective brokering position to promote peace, we frankly have failed to do so lately, and it comes as no surprise that the Palestinians are fed up with the failure of talking, and wish for exactly what Israel desired in 1947: recognition, self-determination, and the freedom to govern their own destiny. No, it's not peace. But perhaps at this point we are overrating both the value and possibility of such a thing in such a place. Independence can be granted. Peace will have to be learned.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Update, en passant

Well, between travels in Europe, multiple job craziness, and a pretty overwhelming schedule of late, I haven't had a chance to comment on Congress, the President's economic proposal, the insanity of the local hubbub over our upcoming mayoral election, or anything else for that matter. But in the meanwhile, if you want some random mutterings from me, please look over to the left of this page and click on a couple of my Kindle stories, and have a read. And maybe by the time you're done, I'll have a fresh rant for you right here!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

..and if you thought it was getting better

...you were wrong. Here's a depressing report from IPS on the intersection between grossly overpaid executives and corporate tax evasion:

Executive Excess 2011: The Massive CEO Rewards for Tax Dodging - IPS

Don't read it if you want to feel good about corporate America. This is all about the negatives of our model of captitalism: the perverse incentive to focus on internal profit rather than external production.

Yes, it makes me angry.


Apparently, we can cut the boarding time for airplanes in half. Easily. And now it's been tested and proven.

I'll fly on the first airline which takes up the Steffen method described in this BBC article. But I suspect it's far more likely we continue to have queues that file, block by block, inefficiently, into our flying metal cigar tubes.

Great News

The DOJ, in a fit of clear thinking, has filed to block the AT&T / T-Mobile takeover.

And yes, as proposed it is a takeover, not a merger, at least from the consumer perspective. Nothing of T-Mobile would be left: not their price structures, not their services, not their network bands.

This is a positive move during a very bleak moment for consumer rights, and I applaud the decision makers who have come down on the side of the American people.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Coolest. Music Video. Ever.

OK Go has a new interactive video out that is built entirely on the new HTML5 web standard, and it is genius. It only works in the Chrome Browser, so fire up chrome and go here to watch and hear one of my favorite pop bands do something amazing. Seriously. In comparison, just watching it normally (below) is like eating soup with a fork.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Question For All Republicans

A serious question: with most everyone in congress acting like spoiled bullies and petulant 6 year olds, do any conservatives really believe that the current tactics and actions of their elected officials are in the best interests of the nation, short term or long term? Because from my own vantage point, which while informed by my socialist-tinged past, is primarily a centrist one, I have a hard time seeing that any actions currently happening in Washington are anything but trouble for us.

In the short term, we are fraying the social fabric of the majority of the country; on the long term, does anyone really believe that any legislative action taken by this (or any) congress can actually be expected to continue to be held to force in the way it was originally intended 20-30 years down the road? Because that is effectively what the GOP is demanding.

Like trickle-down economics, like tax reduction causing massive increases in economic growth: it has never happened before, and there is no reason to expect it to happen now.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Independence Day's a-comin'

And while Jim DeMint's new book on the 2-year history of the Tea Party is due to hit bookstores tomorrow, and while I appreciate the unsubtle direct relation he makes between the current radical movement and the radical religious upheavals of past American history --- more people should think about this, and realize that we're not seeing a simple political movement but a really radical, reactionary, religious uprising with a political mask --- may I suggest some lighter holiday reading fare:

Click Here For Shameless Self-Promotional Plug!
Seriously though, whatever you decide to read, enjoy the holiday weekend.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Words Will Make You Out N Out

I always have been intrigued by the challenges of bringing roundabouts to US roadways, and am happy to see some headway. But I never thought that the reason we were, as a nation, so oppositional to their use was that they were too jesuitical:
"Behind the wheel, we're less likely to abide by an orderly pattern of merging that, though faster for the group, may require an individual to slow down or, God forbid, yield."

Americans tend to be orthogonal in their thinking and behaviour, he says.

"We like right angles, yes and no answers, Manichean explanations. Roundabouts require more subtlety than we're used to."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

When Balls Meets Borderline Ineptitude

So a Nigerian man boards a Virgin America flight in NYC bound for California with an expired boarding pass with someone else's name and an expired ID that doesn't match, and no one notices. But when he is caught trying the same thing a few days later, I gotta hand it to him:
Noibi spent several days in Southern California before returning to the Los Angeles airport on Wednesday, when he tried to board a Delta flight bound for Atlanta. The FBI said he again presented an expired boarding pass and had no valid identification.

A search of his bag found 10 expired boarding passes, none of them with his name.

Noibi was then arrested.
10 expired boarding passes? Damn. Balls of brass to try that. And as for TSA's theater of faux-protection: just what were all y'all up to there?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

In Passing

I am currently reading Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order, and while I continue to disagree with much of his philosophy, and grind my teeth when he contradicts himself with sweeping grandiose (and unfootnoted) ideological statements just pages after presenting strong evidence for its opposite....despite this, he is still brilliant, and every single person with libertarian leanings, or an overly fond love of Hayek, should take a moment and read chapter 17: The Origins of the Rule of Law.

And if, perchance, you have a more liberal take on political economy than libertarian, this book will challenge your preconceptions, and force you to think about the things you think you already know. Which is, of course, the definition of a good read.


We've given corporations the same rights as individuals, but we've allotted them none of the governance we demand for individuals. This creates the perverse incentives we see being abused int he so called free market today, even in mainstream areas where perverse incentives are not necessarily built into the nature of the market, as they are in health care.

If we find a rapist, we punish him. If we see someone working a a pimp or a trafficker, we throw them into jail.

In a lovely write up in the NY Times, we now have a view into a recent report on executive pay levels. It looks not at the absolute figures of absurd compensation, but at that compensation as a measure of a company's overall output. And frankly, if I were a shareholder reading this report, my first thought would be that these executives are raping the company, and acting as pimps who demand their "perks" and cut of profits, working their prostitutes into the grave.
The report, for instance, compared earnings per share with cash pay — just salary and bonus, if there is one. It identified 24 companies where cash compensation last year amounted to 2 percent or more of the company’s net income from continuing operations.

Topping this list is Allergan Inc., the health care concern whose top executives received, after taxes, an estimated $2.6 million in salaries last year. That amounted to 50 percent of what the company earned from continuing operations, the report said.
That's just one example of many.

I don't see a mad rush to change things coming from this report, however much I would wish it. I just think that the longer we allow dysfunction to rule our world, and rule the organizations to which we cede so much of our liberty and polity, we are going to see nothing but a faster and faster rush toward towering inequity, rampant greed, and a predilection to socially destructive forces becoming entrenched in our system of governance.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Wow. I hadn't much followed the Citi security breach, but the NYT has an article detailing it, and Oh. My God. They were hacked with an exploit that I was protecting against back in 1999, a security hole so deep and wide and obvious that it is truly terrifying to think that in 2011 a major banking institution could be caught with its pants down on this.
In the Citi breach, the data thieves were able to penetrate the bank’s defenses by first logging on to the site reserved for its credit card customers.

Once inside, they leapfrogged between the accounts of different Citi customers by inserting various account numbers into a string of text located in the browser’s address bar. The hackers’ code systems automatically repeated this exercise tens of thousands of times — allowing them to capture the confidential private data.

The method is seemingly simple, but the fact that the thieves knew to focus on this particular vulnerability marks the Citigroup attack as especially ingenious, security experts said.

One security expert familiar with the investigation wondered how the hackers could have known to breach security by focusing on the vulnerability in the browser. “It would have been hard to prepare for this type of vulnerability,” he said.
First, these "security experts" should be sacked , tarred and feathered, and laughed out of the industry if the quotes are accurate and in context. This exploit was the antithesis of "ingenious" or "hard to prepare for"; a basic rule for any web developer --- let alone a banking ecommerce security expert --- is that you never expose unencrypted security information in the query string (those letters & numbers tacked on the website URL), and if you do, you do not use them as the primary security key. Use cookies and other unexposed keys to secure a unique session for a user.

There is no way for an institution to protect completely against dedicated hackers: any wall that can be built can also be cracked. But Citi here is guilty of the worst sort of sloppiness and disregard for its customers. It is at a level where one suspects either willfulness or utter stupidity, or both.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Just this morning, we were discussing the weird and offensive PR campaign for San Francisco's weird and offensive attempt to outlaw male circumcision. And now in this morning's paper in a related blurb, I find the world's most hilarious job title:
Jena Troutman, a lactation consultant and the mother of two boys, had been leading the charge to gather signatures to qualify a circumcision ban for Santa Monica's 2012 ballot. But she said she was scrapping her efforts because of intense media focus on the religious component of circumcision.
Lactation Consultant? Seriously? Does any woman on the face of the earth really need a consultant to help her along with what humans have been doing since...well, since before we were even human? What's next? Morning Post-Coffee Bowel Movement Advisor? Yawning Coach? Blinking Assistant?

Sheesh. I was going to write something about the whole circumsion thing, but now I'm not sure I can get back to that sane and rational happy place where I can avoid choking on my coffee in bemused and almost fearful dismay at the displays of 9 kinds of crazy that I'm seeing.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Well, I have made it to the doorstep of another year of life; As I find myself unexpectedly rushing toward the end of my first half-century, I think back on my adolescent suspicion that I'd never make it past 23 years, and I'm a little bemused. And impressed. And having this day ushered in with well wishing friends and family and loved ones is a benison indeed.

And yet, walking across this threshold (as I must, we all must, there is no stopping time) is somehow so daunting, I suppose it's just "excelsior!", and time to tale the garbage out, and do the dishes.

(Before enlightenment: chop wood, fetch water. After enlightenment: chop wood, fetch water.)

Do me a favor: read poetry.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Teaching That Matters

In the NYT today, there is a little article which, couched in the context of teaching current events in an AP class in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, actually provides a subtle and scathing critique of the current state of High School education in the US, and re-emphasizes for anyone who might have forgotten just what value there is in a good teacher with the guts to actually teach beyond (and even against) the standard rote requisite. A key swipe at the status quo:
When Mr. Doyle began his career 25 years ago, schools taught current events. But standardized testing and canned curriculums have squeezed most of that out of public education. The A.P. history course is a yearlong race to master several centuries’ worth of facts that may or may not turn up on the exam in May.

“A lot of A.P. is memorizing timelines,” explained Anna Hagadorn, who memorized enough last year to earn a top score of 5.

Even the College Board, which makes so much money selling SAT and A.P. tests that it can pay its president, Gaston Caperton, $872,061 a year, has acknowledged that its A.P. American history exam needs to be revamped. Mr. Caperton has promised by 2013 to deliver a new test that will do a better job of fostering analytic skills.
Doyle's response to the testing bloat is to teach his students 5 weeks of current affairs curriculum on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The author of the article notes that this learning does not indoctrinate, nor persuade politically: it merely does what good teaching is supposed to do: inform, engage, and draw students into the process of grappling with the nature of what they know on one hand, what they do not know on the other, and being equipped intellectually to tell the difference --- and to move information and experience from the latter hand to the former.

This is important, despite being a buried lede in the local area pages of the paper, because it speaks to a larger theme: if we care about the world we live in, and the country we live in, and the culture we take part in, then we cannot, and must not allow one another to act as bystanders while the forces of inertia or fear or reactionary politics or religious zealotry slowly dismember the underpinnings of what allows us our place in this weave of life. There's a lot of stupid out there, and a lot of crazy, and we are more and more driven to perceive our passive actions (online, at home, wherever) as the replacement for action. And this is a recipe for disaster.

Just knowing about a war is not the same as understanding what that war means to you, and your world.

Sending a Facebook note to someone is not the same as sharing a conversation with them over coffee.

Memorizing dates and timelines is not the same as learning to think.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Post-Rapture Insanity

With this delightful morsel of insanity picked up by FP's Joshua Keating, I'm left....well, I'm just left.
"The real bin Laden died years ago after receiving treatment in American hospitals for his various illnesses," ...."His [bin Laden] body was frozen and kept in storage for a date when it would be of advantage to the United States to use it for maximum advantage"...
I am so glad that the world has ended; I don't think I could put up with much more silliness like that.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Little Self Indulgence, Please

My birthday is coming up in a matter of days. I will be all of 45 years of age come next saturday. What does that mean? I've no idea. I've also no idea how one should celebrate a midlife milestone in the midst of a mental landscape that sees a great deal of challenge --- a landscape of vast deserts and rocky plains --- but very little in the way of celebratory oases. So: what to do? A quiet dinner? A cocktail party? A living wake? A bottle of '61 Lafite and a straw? I really have no idea.

Suggestions welcome. Let me know what this marker on the lifeline continuum deserves.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

And another Thing....

Yes, the Queen is in Dublin, the first reigning British monarch in 100 years to visit the Republic. And yes, there's all sorts of crazy to be found in the papers today. But after much deep thought, I truly feel that exploding watermelons has to win some sort of prize.

Don't Like

And with one word, a new low is reached in social networking (and wrongheaded baby naming) history:
Facebook inspires Israeli couple to name baby 'Like'

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Luddite Literature

There is something that to me is strangely soothing, calming and sane about writing (and reading) poetry which is not meant to be slammed, staged, performed and woot-wooted once finished. Poetry which is in its totality not only words spoken but words put on a page, and seen on paper just as much as heard --- whether in the mind's ear or out loud. The rhythms and cadences of the written poem, and of the written poem recited, are something which I can neither pinpoint in their nature nor really want to. I can contrast them with most of what is considered poetry today: what you'll hear at slams and most performances, which is all great stuff, but a different (I believe) category and genre of writing.

The poetry of measured internal cadence, of line and meter, of lyric and epic, of image and imagination. Words on a page that leap out at you with more force than they appear to carry; emotional impact which is more than the summ of its parts, and not because of the brilliant delivery, but because of the resonance of the words, the words, the words...

Yes, I've got more poems out for those who indulge. And yes, they are small, and lyric, and I can only hope that at time they strive to reach a level of meaning and impact like that which I describe above. But only you can decide that.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Happy Birthday, Old Grey Donkey

It's Eeyore's birthday today. He is 140 years old, and continues to look not a day over 85.

If I have a literary icon, talismanic hero, or shameful mirror image, it is this guy.

Three cheers for the Old Grey Donkey!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Value Of Torture

I am aghast that once again the nation is engaged in the wrong discussion about the wrong problem. Suddenly we have the debate again of Team Cheney/Rice ("Torture works! It gave us the information we needed to get Osama!") and Team Moore/MoveOn/HuffPo ("Torture doesn't work! All it gets is lies and disinformation!"). And it makes me sick, because both those arguments effectively accept the legitimacy of the act itself: the conscientious applied torture of another human being.

It doesn't matter whether torture might provide valuable information: robbing a bank provides valuable funds, but we don't accept it as morally or legally legitimate. It makes no difference what someone might say after being waterboarded 183 times. Or once. The point is that we, as a people and as a nation, have a choice to either uphold our ideals, or debase them utterly. There is no middle ground here: you can't "sorta kinda" torture someone. It's all or nothing, just as murder is all or nothing.

So we have that choice: uphold our ideals, or debase them utterly. By choosing to accept the current basis of discussion --- "does torture work" rather than "is torture right" --- we have started down the uglier of those two paths.

I've said this all before. I'll keep saying it. We are the sum of our actions, and if we choose to accept and practice actions which are degrading, inhuman, and immoral, then we too become as degraded, inhuman, and immoral as the acts themselves.

It's not a slippery slope, folks: it's a sheer precipitous cliff.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Bin Laden Is Dead

BBC reports. Obama is supposed to be making a statement in moments.

This is very strange feeling news. Both enormous, and weirdly inconsequential.

further... Listening to Obama speak now. This is an astonishing moment. Hearing the president take personal responsibility for this action, was just...remarkable.

further... Has it really been ten years? It feels as though we've been at war forever...."Justice has been done". So says the president. And he is right.

further... "we can do whatever we set our minds to"; it's both a confirmation of American exceptionalism, and a subtle repudiation of the failures of the last decade. Bravo, Mr. President.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Random Thoughts

Timothy Dalton wasn't a bad Bond; but he wasn't that good, either.

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison? Pure genius.

There are good martinis and bad martinis, but there is no such thing as a 'meh' martini.

Occasionally I've dreamt in black & white, but my nightmares are always technicolor.

As you get older, there is less and less room for 'maybe'.

There is no such thing as Equality

If you have any personal sense of social justice, then you too will likely find this document (pdf) to which Krugman links today to be the most depressing thing you read about the current state of economic inequality in America today. It's the IRS publication summarizing just what the top 400 wealthiest taxpayers actually receive in income, and what they contribute in taxes.

If you thought you understood just how much wealth is concentrated at the very top of the pyramid these days, think again: it's worse than that, whatever you thought "that" was. And when you look at the trend --- the publication traces it since 1992 --- it's even more disheartening. In most cases, there has been a ten-fold increase in the concentration of wealth, and a reduction by 50% or more in the amount of tax paid on that wealth.

And Michelle Bachmann thinks it appropriate to compare the current tax burden to the Holocaust.

The disconnect we have between reality, morality, and politics continues to astonish me.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Call Me Foolish

But this news makes me sad: we have just seen the end of the twilight for typewriters, and have begun their long, long night.

I plan on stocking up black and red ribbon for my still-marvelous and entirely functional L.C. Smith & Corona machine, with its lustrous burgundy lacquer job permanent aroma of newsrooms past, and keeping at least that one dinosaur alive, for those days when the power is out and the cell towers are down.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Ideology, Again

It even affects those who actively struggle against it. In this post by Andrew Sullivan, on health care cost containment, and the reality that a "free" market solution simply doesn't exist for it, states emphatically --- in the face of empirical proof otherwise ---
"I don't want to believe this"
...and there you have the problem.

Despite proof contrary to cherished beliefs -- in this case that there are market solutions to all problems, and that conservative thinking and rational individualism are always the best of all possible outcomes -- we struggle to ignore facts and hold onto faith. Not because we disbelieve what we are shown, but because we don't like it. And we don't like to be wrong when being so subtly (or not so subtly) alters the very basis for how we percieve ourselves within the universe.

To see what is in front of your nose in indeed a constant struggle. And one that requires humility, and flexibility.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Tool is only as smart as its user

An interesting case in point: apparently this business owner is a bit wiser than the speed camera company, and the local police:
For each ticket, Mr. Foreman digitally superimposed the two photos - taken 0.363 seconds apart from a stationary point, according to an Optotraffic time stamp - creating a single photo with two images of the vehicle.

Using the vehicle’s length as a frame of reference, Mr. Foreman then measured its distance traveled in the elapsed time, allowing him to calculate the vehicle’s speed. In every case, he said, the vehicle was not traveling fast enough to get a ticket.

So far the judges have agreed.

"Smart" Phones?

Yes, they are cool. Yes, they do lots of stuff. But....Smart? It's a misnomer that falls squarely in the middle of a problematic issue in our current discourse on technology, and intelligence, and knowledge.

Let me back up a minute, and mention a few things that bring me to this topic. First, there's been some chatter online about blowback from our incessant checking of our mobile accessories, to the point where rudeness in person has become acceptable behavior. On this topic I'm with the commentator from SXSW: if I'm taking the time and making the effort to engage with you face à face, then please: stop checking your facebook feed for the time it takes to have a conversation. Just because we are amidst a tidal wave of ADD-enhanced distraction, that doesn't mean that the basic tenets of politeness vs. rudeness have changed.

Along with this, the recent discovery that your iphone is tracking your whereabouts. All the time. Without your knowledge, and with the potential for disclosure of that information to pretty much anybody.

Finally, after seeing the very interesting and entertaining (but in my opinion flawed) theater piece Wirehead, and listening to the President of the Singularity Institute discuss his prognostications for tech and AI over the next 30 years, I am amazed at the conflations we are so apt to make right now between the quality of human intelligence, and the quantity of tools for summarizing and processing data.

Look, technology creates tools. It doesn't enhance intelligence. We certainly make more and more powerful tools, in less and less space, that operate more and more quickly, BUT...the qualitative difference between a calculator and an intellect still remains. Turing tests get harder and harder, but still are unable to cross the barrier of moral sense and idiosyncratic, multi-contextual emotive responses.

When I hear from a very smart person that in 30 years computers will be "smarter" than people, I wince. Because they are measuring a qualitative value by quantitative measures. By those measures computers are already "smarter" than humans. They can calculate more, faster, and more accurately. BUT...they can't determine if a result is morally of value, or if 8 year old boys will find humor in the results, or even if there will be greater value by not providing a full answer swiftly --- and yet these are exactly the sort of concepts that in truth define intelligence and awareness.

So, your smartphone: is it smart because it is 300 times smaller than the machine required to do the same activities 30 years ago? Or is it actually just enabling a shorter attention span, and a fraying of existing non-virtual social fabrics?

A tool is only as useful as its user is wise in using it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Tail Wagging The Ideology

Here's the problem with fervent belief: it tends to blind us to what's actually going on around us. When a person is utterly convinced of their own ideological bias --- Objectivism, free market, socialism, conservative Christianism, Orthodox Judaism, white supremacy, black supremacy, free love, authoritarianism, whatever --- if you have a preconceived set of notions about what is important, and what the outcomes of your actions will be, then you will, guaranteed, miss what is actually going on around around you. Because if anything in this life is certain, other than death and taxes, it is that the Law of Unintended Consequences is king.

Paul Krugman has a blog post today implicitly illustrating this bracing concept. His example, the cost of prescription drugs in the market model of Medicare-D vs. costs in the nationalized model of the VA, is exemplary in illustrating why so many folks on the far right side of the fence are still touting a solution that has already proven to be the poorer of two options.
Obama called for using Medicare’s purchasing power to reduce drug costs; Paul Ryan, in his hissy fit response, held Medicare Part D — which specifically denies Medicare the ability to bargain — as an example of the cost savings that can be achieved through privatization
But you see, Medicare-D doesn't work as well as the VA model. It just doesn't. It costs a lot more, and does less to control those costs. But Ryan is already convinced that market forces will always provide the better solution. So when faced with the reality that the VA in its non-market, socialized approach, has costs which are 40% lower, he does the only thing he can do: ignore reality, and press harder for what he knows must be right. And when I say convinced, I mean conviction in the most religious sense.

There is no difference between political ideology and religious faith when approached this way; if I suddenly had incontrovertible proof that there was no afterlife, I doubt that many religious people would simply shrug and stop believing.

Ideological beliefs must be approached less as universal dictates and more as moral guides. When your beliefs are countered with a reality that sings a different song, you need to reconsider your approach, or face the wrath of heaven.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Moment For Today

Nothing like Harry the Hipster, Betty Boop, and a little Ovaltine to make the day just a wee bit brighter:

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Breaking News

California GOP adamantly against the right to vote!

Seriously though: this feels like the most absurdly self-destructive move a political body has made here in a while. And they've made quite a few over the last few years. But refusing to allow the people the opportunity to vote on a vital issue, even if to only voice our solid displeasure....it reeks of paternalism, irrationality, fear and poor politicking. Refusing to allow the vote, demanding a new laundry list of silliness including funding for county fairs (?!?!), and then blaming the unions?

Somehow this smacks of awfulness of a level that says the state really is screwed, and even the best efforts of governor Brown are going to fall short.

Monday, March 21, 2011


First: I think that the intervention in Libya is wrong. Not because we shouldn't be involved, but because I believe there was too little effort made to twist the arms of the Arab League in terms of real commitment; and while there are reasons for Libya being of concern, so is Yemen. So is Bahrain. This might be the only path, but I don't think we are walking the right line along it.

Second: I can't even begin to speak on the tragedy in Japan; the nuclear issues are a distraction from the real horror of more than 18,000 now listed as dead from the earthquake and tsunami. Somehow that is far more of an immediate horror than the need for people to drink shelf-stable milk for a few months until the cleanup of the reactors is complete.

Finally: The AT&T/T-Mobile merger announced yesterday is going to be a consumer catastrophe, and bodes ill not just for the telecom industry, but for tech innovation, market competition and the hope that after 2008 something mattered more than the short term profit for shareholders of megafirms.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Breaking the Silence

So I haven't said much here lately; it's not due to the stunning tidal wave of events overtaking North Africa and the Middle East which, quite honestly, I didn't expect could happen. It's not that I don't have anything to say about the craptastic union busting going on under the mask of "budgetary conservatism" in Wisconsin (and Ohio, and Indiana). But here's the deal: I've been distracted.

By pie.

My first public venture into baking (at least since I taught some basic cooking courses in Santa Cruz back in the early 90s) is happening this week, with the presence of 3141 Pies at the New Taste Marketplace in San Francisco. So despite the world turning upside down, what little of my brain that my day job has not consumed has been subdivided between my work with the SF Playhouse, and preparing pie recipes. Also, trying to relax and allow myself to succumb to the twitterdom that is requisite these days for getting the word out.

So, as of today, I'll be trying to be more conscientious about not only ranting my thoughts, but keeping you up to date on the pie situation.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I Give Up

When Tim Pawlenty, a state Governor and viable candidate for US President says apologetically to Jon Stewart, comedian and TV personality, at the end of their subtly contentious interview, "your brain is too complex" ---- I know that we're doomed.

Watch the interview. At first I thought Pawlenty was being evasive and obtuse, but after that last comment, I think perhaps he really just doesn't understand what the hell is going on. And that --- for him, for us, for the people of Minnesota --- is a tragedy. The inability to dissociate content from context, to extrapolate from the specific to the general, the overarching lack of all the intellectual skills one would expect from a leader --- or a salesman, even --- is astonishing for someone at his level.

And again, I wonder: why must we now look almost solely to our satirists for rational responses to our condition?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Incredibly Cool

Literally: an orchestra made of glacier ice.

And in an effort to not have my head explode with the inability of so many right now to understand the ramifications of their words, I will say little on the tragedy in Tucson; only that one of the choices we face when given liberty, and freedom, and the right to free speech, is to choose our words wisely, or else discover what evil hides in the corners of our world in which we care not to look.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

When "Politically Correct" means "Just Plain Wrong"

Samuel Clemens must be writhing in his grave:
Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama to publish a combined volume of the books, said the N-word appears 219 times in "Huck Finn" and four times in "Tom Sawyer." He said the word puts the books in danger of joining the list of literary classics that Twain once humorously defined as those "which people praise and don't read."

"It's such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers," Gribben said.
Sadly, it isn't the word that is the barrier, it's the profound lack of context that too much of our nation rejoices in when it comes to understanding our own history and literature. As the other Twain scholar in the article notes, "If we can't do that in the classroom, we can't do that anywhere." Frankly, I'm not sure that we teach Twain solely for people to get a "marvelous reading experience" --- although that is certainly one of the benefits, and I am happy that when I was reading Twain in school, my teachers were able to address quite directly and baldly the issues of race and class and prejudice as they are seen in the text, as well as the text in its historical context, and what it means to read it now.

I somehow have a hard time seeing that happen when "nigger" is transformed to "slave", and "Injun" to "Indian". The word is the point. Replacing it is the same as taking a 3,000 calorie patty of ground fatty beef along with overly sugary bread, chemically stabilized cholesterol-laden sauces, deep-fried potatoes, and a triple-sized sugary soda drink, adding a plastic breakable toy, and declaring it a "Happy Meal".