Tuesday, April 22, 2008

And so it continues...

Why Popular Vote Tallies Are (Mostly) Meaningless

Photos: Béatrice de Géa / Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battle it out today in Pennsylvania, and everyone's been talking about margin of victory... Is 10 points enough for her to go on? will Barack keep it close? how does a 6 point victory look versus a 4 point victory? I'm totally serious about the last one. Anyway, early exit polls—which are, admittedly, unreliable and tend to favor Obama—have it at 52-48 Clinton-Obama, which would be a welcome development if those results hold up.

To be sure, the percent margin of victory will be important in the perceptions game; however, what really matters is Clinton's absolute margin of victory in terms of votes. Voter turnout will play a big role in this, and a high turnout will likely favor Obama, by all indications. Either way, if Clinton fails to make a significant dent in Obama's 700,000 vote lead, she'll lose one of her (albeit already tenuous) rationales for continuing the nomination process. In short, she needs to make her move now, but she's running out of track.

That said, I really can't believe the popular vote is being seriously considered at all.

(1) The rules stated that delegates would determine the nominee, and the campaigns adjusted accordingly. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe has made the fair point that if the popular vote was going to be weighed heavily, they certainly would have allocated their resources differently. For example, they would have gone all-in in California.

(2) No, the individual state tallies can't be compared to a general election tallies, because there are no consistent rules state-to-state. Open vs. closed primaries, primaries vs. caucuses vs. primary/caucus hybrid systems, some caucus states don't count turnout... Really, how could anyone (other than shadowy Clinton operatives) call these tallies legitimate in any way?

I recognize that this is one of the few avenues left to pursue for Clinton's ebbing candidacy, but jeez! must we seriously entertain this line of reasoning??

Has the whole world gone CRAZY?! Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules??! (Mark it zero!)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Obama Makes Appeal to "Dunkin Donuts Voters"

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Barack Obama offers coffee to his volunteers who have come out to get out the vote, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008, in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Why Obama voted "Present."

In recent months, US Senator Barack Obama has been hammered, quite unfairly, for his present votes during his tenure in the Illinois state legislature from 1997 to 2004. Peculiar as it may sound, in Illinois, legislators have three voting options available to them: Yea, Nay, and Present. In fact, one of the most common reasons for voting Present is the senator's determination that the bill in question would be unconstitutional. It needn't be distorted as waffling.

In March 2001, Sen. Obama voted Present in the Illinois State Senate on a series thinly disguised anti-abortion bills, so-called "born-alive" bills that sought to protect aborted fetuses determined to be "possibly viable." He took a lot of flak on this for not voting Nay—from the left for not taking a "bolder stand" for women's right to choose, and from the right for not backing up his "tough talk" rhetoric.

Senate Bill 1093 was the first in the series of three bills in which he voted Present. During the discussion, Obama alone among the senators presented a lucid defense of abortion rights in asserting the bill's unconstitutionality. In the end, the bill passed by a vote of 34 Aye, 6 Nay, and 12 Present. His vote was, in this context, a principled stand against voting for a bill that would be struck down by the courts:

Illinois Senate Transcript: March 21, 2001, Senate Bill 1093

Senator Obama:
". . . I recall the last time we had a debate about abortion, we passed a bill out of here. I suggested to Members of the Judiciary Committee that it was unconsitutional and it would be struck down by the Seventh Circuit. It was.

I recognize this is a passionate issue and so I -- I won't, as I said, belabor the point. I think it's important to recognize though that this is an area where potentially we might have compromised and -- and arrived at a bill that dealt with the narrow concerns about how a -- a previable fetus or child was treated by a hospital. We decided not to do that.

We're going much further than that in this bill. As a consequence, I think that we will probably end up in court once again, as we often do, on this issue. And as a consequence, I'll be voting Present."

Final vote on the bill was 34 Aye, 6 Nay, and 12 Present.

Discussion of bill begins on page 84; Obama's remarks are on pages 85-87:

Friday, January 18, 2008

Obama's Narrowing Path to the Nomination

On the eve of the Nevada Democratic caucuses, I see one of three scenarios playing out for Barack Obama.

Ideally, Obama wins Nevada. Even a slim margin of victory should give him enough momentum to steamroll over Clinton in South Carolina. Those two back-to-back wins should then generate enough positive media coverage to make him competitive in Florida, maybe even enough to win. With two or three solid wins under Obama's belt (remember, he's the underdog in Nevada and Florida), he'll be virtually unstoppable come "Tsunami Tuesday" (Feb. 5th) when 24 states, representing over half of the convention delegates, vote in their primaries. In this scenario, whatever John Edwards does would be largely irrelevant. Barack Obama should coast to the nomination.

If Clinton's lead in the current Nevada polls holds up (current RCP avg. = +3.7), Obama will come in a close second, and his candidacy will be teetering. With a strong performance on CNN's Tuesday night debate, he should be able to pull off a decisive victory in South Carolina. As the presumed SC frontrunner, though, he won't gain much traction from that win, and he would likely lose the Florida primary. However, an embarrassing defeat on his home turf might—might!—cause John Edwards to rethink his political calculus, finally drop out of the race and perhaps endorse Obama in the name of their mutual change agenda. Even if Edwards doesn't endorse Obama, polls show that Edwards voters would swing overwhelmingly to Obama. That may tilt some of the Feb. 5th states (maybe Florida as well!) to Obama and finally create that unstoppable juggernaut we've all been waiting for.

Scenario #3: Clinton trounces Obama in Nevada. In this case, Obama will bide his time, but it will probably be game, set, match. "Welcome to the White House, President John McCain."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mike Huckabee's Fatuous "FairTax"

Mike Huckabee's tax plan lies somewhere between The Ice Cream Glove and The Stadium Pal in terms of unworkable absurdity. As columnist Jonathan Chait of The New Republic put it:
It is difficult for me to find the words to explain just how crazy this idea is. The national sales tax is crazier, by an order of magnitude, than any other crazy idea I've seen at the national level. It's so crazy that even really crazy right-wingers think it's pretty crazy.
Lest I leave any doubt, the so-called "FairTax" plan has been thoroughly debunked in the following article by conservative economist Bruce Bartlett. Main conclusions: it's not enactable, not enforceable, and clearly unfair.


As one of the points of greatest deception, the proposed sales tax rate is 30%, not 23%. That's the tax-inclusive rate they're quoting. Sales taxes are usually presented tax-exclusive. Example: While you'd expect the price of a $1.00 good to rise to $1.23 after the Fairtax, it'd actually be $1.30 (23% of $1.30 is $1.00, HAHA gotcha!).

Anyway, I can't believe this garbage is given any legitimacy at all. Final parting shot from the Jonathan Chait column:
So how did Huckabee come to support the fair tax? He was asked about the idea by fair-tax supporters on the campaign trail, bought the book touting it, and was persuaded. Lord help us if he gets his hands on a copy of Das Kapital.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In defense of the Iowa caucuses

An op-ed in today's New York Times assailed Iowa's caucuses as "undemocratic," criticizing them for not releasing the first round tallies from the initial caucus head-counts (see The Des Moines Register for a primer on the Democratic caucuses).

I don't like the argument that they should release the "popular vote" tallies. If you're going to have a caucus system, it doesn't make any sense to undermine the caucus results with potentially conflicting tally results.

Besides, the rationale for the caucus system is pretty good, in my opinion. The whole point of the caucus is to force candidates to pay attention to the whole state and to reward those precincts with high participation in the caucuses year in and year out. When you have a field of so many candidates, does a primary win with, say, 38% (Kerry, NH '04) really mean something? Caucuses help the winnowing out process, so that you end up with at most 3 or 4 candidates per precinct. Plus, it really does give it that town-hall feel, since the result reflects the preference of the precinct, not individuals.

Some aspects of the caucuses are truly arbitrary, to be sure... like the 15% rule (why not 10% or 20%?). Not enough is said about how much the location of that viability cut-off truly affects the final results. But because of that rule, any popular vote tally would have little to no predictive power, anyway. It'd essentially be meaningless, and would serve only the spin-doctors of losing campaigns.

Now, if you really want to change the caucus rules, as the authors of that op-ed obviously do, that's one thing. But I don't know why you would want to simultaneously keep these rules and also release preliminary tallies that would undermine the final result. Without a clear outcome, Iowa's impact on the nominating process would surely be diluted. I have no idea why the op-ed's authors, who are all Iowans, would want that to happen.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Skittles: taste the bullshit.

Hey! Remember the "guess the number of Skittles/jelly beans/M&M's in the jar!" game? That game rocked—when you won. Basically, the Responsible Adults thought it'd be a great idea to give one lucky kid 2000% of his daily sugar intake in the form of a 32 oz. bag of Skittles they dumped into an attractive-looking jar. Yeah, you remember. Anyway, I've never organized one of those, but I was thinking... how did they figure out that there were 927 Skittles in that jar?

I mean, I assume they didn't literally sit down and count them one by one (Eww! Grubby Fingers on The Sacred Skittles?! Plus, humans make mistakes!). Eh, then again, maybe they did. Gross. I should've called Health and Human Services on their asses.

Now the cleverer Adults would probably have tried to use some sort of weighing technique, but how do you weigh with enough precision to get 927 and not 928 or 938 for that matter?? This is important. It's potentially the difference between going home with 927 Skittles all to yourself, or losing to that pimply faced brat who's got pull with the Adults 'cause he tattles on your ass in exchange for Skittle-bribes, that sonuvabitch.

Presumably, the protocol would go something lie this: weigh one Skittle, then weigh the jar, then weigh the jar with the Skittles, then divide the difference by the Skittle weight. If you wanted to be less rigorous, I suppose you could trust the "32 oz." on the outside of the bag, but that's bound to be off by a couple tenths of an ounce. Pay it no mind, you say? Nay, say I! Those two-tenths of an ounce represent 5.3 precious Skittles!

In all seriousness though (and I'm a very serious person), what scales are we talking about here? If you use your normal letterweight scale, you could probably determine the Skittle's weight to be, say, 0.03 oz. That's only one significant figure! If you divide that by the total weight of the bag, you'd have like a 100-Skittle margin of error!

To do this right, you'd need an all-out analytical balance that can weigh things out on a milligram scale, so the Skittle weight ends up being something like 737.1 mg.* Then if you wanted to be really rigorous, you'd measure 3 or 4 other Skittles so you could get an average and standard error. Your Skittle weight could then be something like 736.8 ± 7 mg. If you divided by the weight of the bag, which you also determined accurately, you'd get a good estimate of the number of Skittles in that bag (complete with confidence intervals!).

But did the Adults take all of these steps to ensure honest accountability? No. They lied to us. They said there were exactly 927 Skittles in that jar. They were wrong.

*Update: Using an analytical scale, I determined the actual mass of one Skittle = 1066 ± 8 mg (N = 10, ± s.e.m.), or 0.0376 ± 0.0003 U.S. ounces. On a scale of 927 Skittles, this translates to a standard error of about 7 Skittles.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Can Joe Biden really surprise in Iowa?

So I've been reading some speculation about how Biden might "surprise everyone" and finish 3rd in the Iowa Caucus come January 3rd.

While I would love that outcome, anything to get him in the top tier, I just don't see how it happens in the Democratic caucus system in Iowa, logistically speaking.

As I understand it, you need ~15% in a precinct to be viable. Since the latest RCP avg has him at 4.3% in Iowa, are there really that many precincts where he breaks 15%? I know he's a lot of voters' 2nd choice, but I don't see how that helps if you're not viable in the first place.

Even where he does hit 15%, to make a strong showing, he'd have to peel voters away from nonviable candidates to get an appreciable share of delegates. What seems to be important is how many 2nd tier supporters have Biden as their 2nd choice. It doesn't seem to help him to be the second choice of Clinton or Obama supporters, since they'd probably be viable in most precincts.

My point is, while I can see Biden leap-frogging Richardson into 4th place, since they both draw on the same pool of foreign policy-minded "experience counts" voters, I can't see how he gets anywhere near or past Edwards. But hey, didn't someone say something about the Politics of Hope?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Flynn effect and the conceit of IQ tests.

James Flynn
What Is Intelligence?
Cambridge; $22

I cringe whenever someone invokes his or her IQ score in the course of bullshit justification—as if the ability to "pick the shape that doesn't belong" were the only indicator of intelligence. Citing your MENSA membership doesn't make you smart; rather, it exposes the unfortunate extent of your douchebaggery.

Now, I get that pattern recognition undoubtedly plays a large role in that amorphous quality we call "intelligence," but I think we can agree that some people will respond better to geometric shapes than others. It all stems from Plato's contention that there is something mystically universal about geometry that every *intelligent* human being surely understands. The logic problems on IQ tests are concerned with Aristotelian logic, which is entirely theoretical and certainly not universal to all cultures. My point is, IQ tests don't measure intelligence; they measure your performance on IQ tests.

Which brings me to James Flynn's latest offering, What is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect, and an excellent book review by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. It turns out that absolute IQ scores have been rising worldwide at a more or less constant rate of 3 points per decade—the so-called Flynn effect. By Gladwell's estimate:
If we go back even farther, the Flynn effect puts the average I.Q.s of the schoolchildren of 1900 at around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.

For IQ fundamentalists, this is not what you want to hear. Average IQ scores aren't supposed to change over time. In 1996, Herrnstein and Murray infamously asserted in The Bell Curve a racial hierarchy based on IQ statistical averages. James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, recently attempted to lend credence to this claim by musing publicly that "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really" (ironically it turns out that Watson is about 12% black).

Flynn's central conclusion revolves around the idea of "cognitively challenging" environments, arguing that children brought up in such environments do better on things like IQ tests. It helps explain why children of German mothers and white or black American GIs fared similarly well on IQ tests, or why the performance of Southern Italian immigrants skyrocketed upon assimilation.

Cognitively challenging environments, like the advent of the media age, also help to explain why the most common IQ test, The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), has been "updated" four times, each version slightly more difficult, in an effort to keep pace with the rising scores (we're currently on WISC IV). That said, one of the book's weaknesses appears to be an overuse of this phrase as a catch-all for any number of already verified beneficial factors, such as two-parent affluent households with access to books, etc.

All of this should not detract from Flynn's assertion that we need a better way to measure intelligence, and that it might not be possible to have a unified worldwide test. Given the importance attached to IQ tests (childhood stigma or criminal defense pleas), it's a crucial distinction. Thankfully, What Is Intelligence?, a result of 25 years of research, takes us a long way toward understanding the cultural underpinnings of intelligence measurements.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rudy's advisor: 9/11 gave us World War IV

Rudy Giuliani's foreign policy advisor is Norman Podhoretz, whose positions could only be described as terrifyingly ultra-hawkish. Here's an essay Podhoretz wrote in The Wall Street Journal last May entitled "The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it."
Although many persist in denying it, I continue to believe that what Sept 11, 2001, did was to plunge us headlong into nothing less than another world war. I call this new war World War IV, because I also believe that what is generally known as the Cold War was actually World War III, and that this one bears a closer resemblance to that great conflict than it does to World War II. Like the Cold War, as the military historian Eliot Cohen was the first to recognize, the one we are now in has ideological roots, pitting us against Islamofascism, yet another mutation of the totalitarian disease we defeated first in the shape of Nazism and fascism and then in the shape of communism; it is global in scope; it is being fought with a variety of weapons, not all of them military; and it is likely to go on for decades.

Should Giuliani be elected president and Podhoretz follow him to the White House, let me say it now... may God help us all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Rudy Giuliani: a review.

I'll post some commentary later, but for now here are some articles. Taken as a whole, they're a sad reflection of the staggering extent of Mr. Giuliani's quite unsavory past. They also give the best insight into what a Giuliani presidency would look like (hopefully no more of this or this).

Rudy Awakening, by Rachel Morris, The Washington Monthly, Nov. 2007:
As was also the case with the White House, the events of 9/11 solidified the mindset underlying his worst tendencies. Embedded in his operating style is a belief that rules don't apply to him, and a ruthless gift for exploiting the intrinsic weaknesses in the system of checks and balances. That's why, of all the presidential candidates, Giuliani is most likely to take the expansions of the executive branch made by the Bush administration and push them further still.

Rudy the Rude, by David Freddoso, National Review Online, Feb. 14, 2007:
If Giuliani’s stances on babies, guns, and gay marriage do not sink him in the Republican primaries, he will probably suffer in a general election campaign from the fact that there is so much evidence in the public record that he is a total jerk...

It understates the case to say that a massive terror attack saved Giuliani’s political career — it would be more accurate to say that nothing short of 9/11 could have saved it.

A Tale of Two Giulianis: Politics and Power, by Michael Shnayerson, Vanity Fair, Jan. 2008:
On the back of 9/11, Rudy Giuliani refashioned himself as a national hero, a top presidential candidate—and, through his consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, became a very wealthy man. But the questionable backgrounds of some of the firm’s clients make one wonder what Rudy wouldn’t do to make a buck. As Giuliani’s former crony Bernard Kerik faces trial, the author uncovers troubling signs of greed, poor judgment, and conflict of interest.

Funny Man: Rudy Giuliani hides his rage behind ridicule, by Michael Crowley, The New Republic, Dec. 10, 2007:
For months, Giuliani has coasted above the campaign fray on the strength of his 9/11 celebrity. But, in New Hampshire this past weekend, things took a sharply rougher turn, as Giuliani and Romney bashed one another repeatedly over their respective governing records. The general election promises to be even more brutal, if recent history is a guide. Can Giuliani really suppress his inner bully? Already, one can glimpse flashes of a darker side, as when Giuliani accuses Democrats of "defeatism," "pessimism," and emulating "foreign principles."

Mayberry Man, by Peter J. Boyer, The New Yorker, Aug. 20, 2007:
When Giuliani’s tenure as mayor ended, in 2002, he left behind a city that was grateful, and more than a little relieved to see him go. He had achieved much of his program of radical reform, and he performed well on September 11th, but it had felt like an eight-year fistfight. Giuliani had fought with teachers and with Yasir Arafat, with the Brooklyn Museum and with Fidel Castro, with squeegee men, tennis fans, street venders, taxi-drivers, his own police chief, and, of course, his wife. He had repeatedly chastised New Yorkers for their incorrigible jaywalking and careless bicycling. . . Many Manhattanites felt that when the rest of the country experienced the Rudy Giuliani they knew—the flashes of pique, the slashing remark—the celebrity glow would quickly fade.

A fate worse than Bush: Rudy Giuliani and the Politics of Personality, Harper's (subscription), by Kevin Baker, Aug. 2007:
Rudolph Giuliani has, by far, the most dubious known personal history of any major presidential candidate in American history, what with his three marriages and his open affairs and his almost total estrangement from his grown children, not to mention the startling frequency with which he finds excuses to dress in women's clothing.

Bible polls, Mitt Romney, and two-inch nipples

Rasmussen poll: 75% in Arkansas, Alabama Believe Bible Literally True (Only 22% in Vermont, Massachusetts).

Oh, and how does anyone buy this Romney 2.0 conservative schtick? Ken Silverstein wrote about it in last month's Harper's. I mean, I know politicians pander, but this is ridiculous. Clintonian trangulation is nothing compared to Mitt's all-out metamorphesis.

Rolling Stone's take:
The most common thing you hear from voters after a Romney event is how impressed they are by his demeanor and delivery, his obvious vitality, by the fact that he looks like he could do this twenty-four hours a day and twice on Sunday, taking off only twenty-six minutes once a week to make monogamous, missionary-position love to his baby-factory wife.

This is amazing... "The Ron Paul Song."

The Onion is amazingly prescient. (thanks, Spring!)

In other news, Mentos can give you two-inch nipples.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Hillary Clinton: tragically misunderstood?

Yes, I'm back, and no more urinal stories this time, I promise. I'll start off with politics...

Anti-Hillary screeds have always had a hollow ring to them (scroll to the comments section)... Their coarse indictments, their sputtering rage... As if the person had willfully ignored the recent past and instead succumbed to her opponents' attack campaign circa 1994.

For starters, Hillary Clinton is not anti-military by any means (check out this fascinating profile by Michael Crowley in The New Republic). She doesn't advocate a hard-line gay marriage position (civil unions with spousal benefits as a good first step). Nor does she advocate a single-payer universal health care system, which is the only way it could truly be called “socialized medicine.” Indeed, out of the Democratic contenders she is probably the most business-friendly—she didn’t get on the cover of Fortune magazine for nothing.

It’s true that some of her positions have evolved over the years, occasionally in ways that could be interpreted quite cynically. Still, her views have hardly been more elastic than, say, Mitt “Multiple Choice” Romney or Rudy “Three Wives Club” Giuliani.

Regarding her Iraq war vote, I think Sen. Clinton was against pre-emptive war from the beginning, though she took a more nuanced position that recognized the global dangers we faced, unlike some of the more knee-jerk pacifists of the Left. Her current characterization of her vote on the Iraq war authorization is just as she originally framed it: she voted for the authorization so that Colin Powell could better leverage the UN Security Council into drafting a resolution that would give inspectors unfettered access to Saddam's illegal weapon stockpiles.

In fact, here is her original speech on the Senate floor regarding her vote on Iraq war resolution (October 10, 2002):

“If we get the [U.N. resolution calling for unfettered inspections] and Saddam does not comply, then we can attack him with far more support and legitimacy than we would have otherwise . . . My vote is not, however, a vote for any new doctrine of pre-emption, or for uni-lateralism, or for the arrogance of American power or purpose — all of which carry grave dangers for our nation, for the rule of international law and for the peace and security of people throughout the world.”

Lost in all of this is a Senate record of work ethic that even her detractors have begrudgingly admired. Despite the demands of a national presidential campaign, she has missed a scant 3% of roll call votes in the Senate this year, which leads all candidates currently serving in Congress. She has a knack for impressing her Senate colleagues with her dedication and preparation, and there’s little reason to think that Hillary couldn’t impress the American people as well.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Cell Phones, Cancer, and Fearmongering Assholes

That's it. I've had it. Man is inherently evil. God is dead. People are sheep-like, gullible, and there is no hope for our species. Seriously, what is this crap about cell phones causing cancer?? Who started this?? Give me a name, oh Jesus, just give me a name. I'll be glad to go over and stab he or she in the fucking face. Here's exhibit A:

In other words, we may today be "poisoning" a new generation of cancer victims -- young people now in their 20s and 30s who routinely spend several hours a day with a cell phone pressed against their head, emitting radio frequency energy into their brains at close range.

It may be 2020 or so before the epidemic emerges. And, of course, it may not happen at all.

Seriously, who are these people? Has anyone considered the scientific logistics here? The "ultrahigh" radio frequencies in question here are in the 1800 MHz range. To get cancer you have to be able to cause chemical changes in your DNA, which means you have to be able to excite electrons and break chemical bonds. These kinds of reactions require minimum energies that correspond to light frequencies of around 10^9 MHz. These are UV rays (that actually do cause cancer) and they're about a million times more energetic than the radio waves in question.

Point is, it doesn't matter if your head becomes a "resonator" for the radio waves. Your DNA will not care. Your DNA will instead worry about the plethora of other carcinogens in your body that are actually dangerous, like, say, reactive oxygen species.

All of this would hardly matter, except that it does. The U.S. Supreme court refuses to throw out cell phone cancer lawsuits, worried parents are being exploited, and scientists are wasting money.

Whoever you are, O Disseminator of Misinformation, face it: you're just an anti-corporate hypochondriac fearmongering asshole. And you deserve to be stabbed in the face.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Cleared for Takeoff

In your cramped aisle seat you sense acutely the muffled rumble of the jet engines and the distant roar of compressed air as another plane begins its own miraculous departure. Your plane taxies around the runway, wheeling around aimlessly, it seems, and you peer across your aislemates out the window only to see the wing bounce precariously with every bump. You realize you have staked your entire well-being on that wing but it's okay because it's strong and made of metal and metal's strong, right? Isn't it?

The plane straightens out and the pilot jerks it to an abrupt halt. Apprehension envelopes the cabin. Your neighbor fiercely clenches her armrests. You imagine the pilot staring down the two miles of asphalt into the quivering heat, gripping the throttle testily, waiting for The Voice to give the word. Back in your seat you reflect on the unnatural cylindrical shape of the fusilage and how you never see rooms like that normally and how the volume of a cylinder is pi r-squared h, right? and how you're about entrust your life to a metal tube with wings.

The roar begins. An invisible hand shoves you into your seat and you're off, and you think about how much this wild contraption weighs as it strains violently with the stress of acceleration, and you're going fast, but you glance out the window and it doesn't look like you're going that fast, well, not quite fast enough to lift off, and you wonder aloud in your head, "just how much lift do you suppose this thing needs?" and "so where is the end of the runway, anyway?", and at that moment, the nose tips up and, sure enough, you leave the earth and lurch skyward, leaving your stomach in your bowels, and the engines roar menacingly and you're still looking at the wing and you're wondering, "man wouldn't it just suck if that wing were to break off right now?"

Weather-wise, it's such a lovely day.
Just say the words, and we'll beat the birds
Down to Alcapulco Bay.
It's perfect for a flying honeymoon, they say.
Come fly with me! Let's fly, let's fly away!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Is that what passes for dancing these days?

So we were all out at the Rue Bar tonight, livin' it up, dancin' it up, you know the deal. Now, I should say that I don't usually do that sort of thing. Nevertheless, as I found myself sandwiched between two voluptuous women, our hips gyrating in rhythmic unity, I couldn't help but wonder if it's "ground" or "grinded." I mean, obviously, you say "the pepper was ground," but since "to grind (against someone)" is a derived construction, does it follow the same pattern? Anyway, I think I lost the rhythm somewhere in that thought. After all, it's sorta hard to stay focused while grinding.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Driving Solo at 78.0 mph

I merge onto I-75, gun the accelerator of the beast of a V6 engine I have on my mid-size family sedan, and quickly hit 70 mph. A trucker is barrelling down on me in the right lane, but then politely merges to the center to allow me to get in. I hit 80 mph as I merge into the right lane and speed ahead of the truck who has conveniently created an open region in the middle lane just in front of him. I never pass unless I can see the car in my rear-view mirror, which usually gives me at least three or four car-lengths of passing buffer. I set my cruising speed to 78 mph. I am cruising.

Why 78 mph? It's the ideal interstate driving speed. See, in the state of Florida, the speed limit on the interstates is usually 70 mph. However, the penalties for speeding are such that it's not really worth the officer's time to pull you over unless you're running at least 15 over the limit. It's all a matter of balancing risk with payoff.

The difference between risk (a $150 fine and 4 points on your license) and payoff (getting to your destination 7 minutes faster on a 200 mile drive) with 90 mph vs 85 mph is huge. Pass a cop in a speed trap going 90 and you're almost certain to be pulled over. Your risk factor is extremely high. Going 85 is 15 over, which isn't too bad, but will still get you in trouble with irritable cops. Go 80, on the other hand, and you'll fly through speed traps with impunity 95% of the time. For a number of reasons, it's just not worth the cop's time to pull you over. For one, it's only 3 points on your license for a moving violation under 15mph over the limit, and secondly, the fine is significantly less.

Now why not 75? At that point, the fine is only about $80 and you have practically 0% of getting pulled over for speeding. But that's the point-- the difference in risk between 75 and 80 mph is probably only about 4%. For most people, that's worth the 7 minutes they'd save. On the other hand, the difference in risk between 80 mph and 85 mph is probably about 20%. That is, if you were to pass a speed trap going 85 mph, I think you'd have a one in four chance of getting pulled over. Just a guess. Risk at 90 mph is probably 75% and risk at 95+ is probably about 98% (the cop could have been looking down to wipe off the jelly from his donut). Those extra 7 minutes look increasingly less appetizing as the speed ramps up.

So what's the solution? I think that, unless I'm in a huge hurry, the 25% risk of 85 mph is just not worth the time saved. That said, the 4% difference in risk between 75 and 80 is not enough to keep me from saving a little time. So why 78 mph? Well, the second speed "echelon" is actually 75-79 mph, not 76-80 mph. I go 78 simply to account for random error and drift in cruising speed, along with a potentially inaccurate radar gun. By extension, when I'm in a hurry, I'll cruise at 83 mph. Eh, you only lose a minute or so. Managing risks and rewards: the key to good decision-making.

*Updated 12/10/06*

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Globetrotter par excellence

It looks like this'll be more of a real bloggy-blog type post. Um, yeah, so today (in about 2 hours, in fact) I start my whirlwind tour of THE WORLD. Well, I guess I should be more specific than that; after all, the world is an awfully large place, contrary to the opinion of that friend from high school you just randomly met at a coffee shop the other day. Anyway, so I'm gonna be visiting graduate schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Zurich, and Boston over the next couple weeks. I leave for San Francisco today; it'll be my first time west of, um, Houston I suppose. I'm even polishing up my prose to make sure I include plenty of "dude" and "totally." Well, not really. That'd just be silly. And artificial, etc. And I, moi, am not an artificial person, I'll have you know. No sir, no sir-- I'm a regular OPEN book, let me tell you. Anyway, then I fly down from SF to LA on Friday, and take a red-eye back to Florida Sunday night, arriving Monday morning. Why? Because I'm ca-rrrazy like that. Argh! Argh! Watch out now! I'm so ca-rrrazy, you never know what I'll do! Argh!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Hazards of Portable Electronic Devices

I ran into a *situation* the other day in the men's restroom. Noo, not that kind of situation! Anyway, I don't mean to launch into another tirade on urinals, but I think that a slimy public restroom can create some singularly thorny situations that really prey on our personal insecurities. What's more, it's one of those rare times for solitary contemplation. Breathe in... and now... exhale...

But now suppose, just for the moment if this is not in fact so, that you are male, and that you have entered... The Dewomanized Zone. Indeed, you have stepped foot inside a public men's restroom (complete with a line of urinals and everything). After having judiciously chosen a urinal (second from the end, not the short one, and not the first or last one), you settle in to take care of the business end of this affair.

Before you can even get started, however, That Guy wanders in and chooses the adjacent urinal to your left, despite the overwhelming surplus of alternatives. He has committed an unpardonable breach of bathroom etiquette. That Guy is a well-dressed youngish chap, at any rate. "He's right 30," you might say, if you were from that part of the world. He looks friendly enough, and if he were a friend-of-a-friend that you met at happy hour, you know, you'd probably buy him a beer. But you are not at happy hour. You are attempting to urinate.

He settles in. Your concentration is broken. Worryingly, you sense that you may not be able to pull it off. Inside your head, where your brain is and your discomfort lies, your agitated pleas grow increasingly despondent and you find yourself glancing up and you're worried that he overhears the commotion: "come on, relax, just let it go, just let it leave, let it go home, just go home, home in the porcelain bowl, are you too good for your home?!!"

Suddenly, just as your new companion settles in for the job and you are about to convince yourself to do likewise, a strident (and very much unsettling) uproar erupts in the near pocket of his pants: "Die muthafuckas, die muthafuckas, DIE!"

It is his ringtone. Someone is calling him. Now you know very well that he can't exactly answer his call at the moment. Nor can he reach down to silence the offending device. Not during The Business. And so the ringtone drones on, interminably repeating: "Die muthafuckas, die muthafuckas, DIE!"

He glances embarrassingly in your direction. You turn your hips slightly away from him. You think of Donny and Walter and the Dude: "You're phone's ringing, Dude."... "Shut the fuck up, Donny." Soon, it is over. But not completely. You know what is coming now. Wait for it... wait for it... ::shrill beeping::.

It is his voicemail notification. He has received a voicemail. At this point, he has also regained a free hand, so he apologetically reaches down to silence the unruly beeping (you scoot over to avoid the reach-down; meanwhile you have given up on any business ambitions of your own). He finishes The Business sans flushing and hurries out the door while dialing his missed call. The bastard. Motherfucker didn't even wash his hands.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Would you kindly step back from that ledge, sir?

"Sir, you should take a look at this. It's amazing what some people write these days: Let [Muslims] rot back in the dust bowl they came from."

"You know, I've gotta say-- I totally agree with that guy. God, Muslims really just poison our democracy. We should get rid of them."

"What, by pre-emptive nuclear action?"

"Exxxcellent idea... exxxcellent."

"Well, I was merely being ironical."

"What? Anyway, it still stands that Islam is an inherently violent religion since I'm always hearing about Arab guys blowing shit up in the name of Allah or whatever."

"Isn't it possible that Allah would rather they spoke for themselves?"

"Oh God no... Jesus, who the hell is Allah, anyway?"

"Ahem, well, let's get back to the point. So you don't think we could peacefully coexist in an inclusive secular society?"

"Huh? Listen, all I have to say is that if they call me a godless infidel one more time...!"

"Um, sir, would you please wipe the rabid foam from your mouth."

"Youuu commie BASTARD!"

Prepubescent Priorities

I was back at my parents' place for the weekend, and rummaging through my old stuff, I came across a basket containing old trinkets from the crinkly pages of my youth. It was kind of like in the movie Amélie when that one guy Dominique Bretodeau finds the nostalgic tin box she leaves for him in the telephone booth...

The creaky hand grip exercise thing for a better wrestling grip. The Know-a-State memory cards. The "Scientist" activity pin from Webelos Scouts. The beloved red butterfly yo-yo that used to turn the tip of my finger purple when it would cut off the circulation. The notes written in cavortingly cursive script from high school girlfriends, surreptitious correspondence passed ever so furtively from assigned seat to assigned seat. The unsolved Rubik's cube. The action figure of a Christianized Roman tribune, complete with a holy cross on his breastplate (goddammit, I've lost his sword and shield).

Intriguingly, I also came across a diary that I had tried (and quickly failed) to keep when I was eight years old. I'm going to faithfully reproduce it here, exactly as I so eloquently penned the words. We all come face to face, from time to time, with a likeness of ourselves we may not even recognize, but which we must grudgingly accept as part of our singular nature, that which we've become. I might snicker at eight year-old Edwin and his teetering steps toward self-articulation, but there's no getting around the fact that I am he. Just as, for that matter, you are he as you are me and we are all together.

1 January
We had a real blast that day. We had a lot of fireworks. First, me and my family blew some fireworks of our own. Then we went to our neighbor's house and had a real blast. We countdowned to the last second, then boy how we screamed. We screamed as loud as we could. That must of woken up the neighbors. It was a fun and tiring night.

6 January
Today was Ephany [Epiphany]. I got a 500 piece puzzle, Talkboy, this diary, a picture album, one pair of wrist bands, and a set of the world book encyclopedia. My favorite was Talkboy. My worst was the 500 piece puzzle. Then the wristbands. Then the picture album. Then this diary. And then, Talkboy.

7 January
That night, after my soccer practice, my dad wanted to me to take away the soccer ball while he was guarding it. My brother was trying to make a goal but instead, hit me in the thigh. My dad picked me up for about 20 seconds. Then it felt better. The moment he put me down, it began to get hot and I couldn't play. Just because of that I couldn't play Super Nintendo [recent Christmas gift] for the next two days.

8 January
That afternoon, after school, my friend Johnson came over to play. First, Johnson, my little brother Davin and me play Super Nintendo. Then we had a snack. Then we played some more Super Nintendo. Next, we played dominos and made domino spitters [???]. Then we play Connect Four and watched T.V.. Then, it was time for Johnson to go. He put on his rain poncho with a hood because it was a rainy Friday. It was a good thing Johnson came or my dad wouldn't let me play Super Nintendo.

[End of diary.]

Sitting on a cornflake,
Waiting for the van to come.
Corporation tee-shirt
Stupid bloody Tuesday.
Man, you been a naughty boy,
You let your face grow long.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

On "Reading"

People who say that they are interested in "reading" or that their hobbies include "reading" or that they "love to read" should have dry scratchy papyrus paper shoved down their throats until they asphyxiate and die. Anyone who is at least half-way literate probably enjoys at least something they read. What, do you especially love the process of reading? Why not put down "semantics" or "contextual linguistics?" Or perhaps you like reading about "anything and everything." No worries then, since that only makes you a vacuous and pliant tool.

"Reading" is a basic skill most of us master in order to learn about other stuff. Really, you probably just enjoy the particular subjects and ideas about which you read. So cut the bullshit and be more specific: "I like comparative politics" or "I'm into contemporary art." We'll assume you can read; there's no need to announce it to the world like an asshole.

snowy mountain trail near Grenoble, France

Friday, January 20, 2006

Why TheTrayTiger, you ask?

So for the IB program back in high school, we had to complete 200 service hours during the course of our junior and senior years. For my requirement, I chose to work in the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen in downtown with my friend Mark during the summer. Our first day was Monday at 7:30 am. When we arrived a bunch of 60-something year old grandmothers looked over at us, "OHH Estelllle! It's the two young men Abigail was talking about! You boys ready to help out?" "Um, yes, that's why we're here" "Great! You can start by slicing those carrots over there [hands me an enormous knife]." So the next hour or so was occupied by slicing and dicing various fruits and vegetables, fruits et légumes, frutas y verduras, Obst und Gemüse-- you get the idea.

After that hour, Estelle could tell I was a little bored with the affair and wanted to move on. "Mike! How about you show this young man around, maybe show him the food line!" Mike was sort of a shady character you weren't quite sure if you trusted the first time you saw him. He talked real fast, but didn't look you in the eye, and he had been in Vietnam... Anyway, he was the guy who did all the dirty work around the place, like cleaning the bathrooms and stuff... "Hey, kid, what's your name." "Edwin." "Alright Edward, lemme show you around. Right here we got the foodline, you know, that's where we serve'em the food." "Cool." "You gotta keep hot water underneath to keep it all nice and hot." "Right." "And over here to your left is our dish washing station." "Alright." "Actually, the only dishes we wash are the trays, cause they sort of double as plates. I used to have to wash all the trays by hand with soap and water. It got to be pretty tough keeping up with the exit crowd."

He directs me over to a large square metal contraption. It has a old crusty piece of tape on the front of it with the phrase in all caps "THE TRAY TIGER!!!". "So about two years ago we got this here tray-washing machine donated to us. This guy at McDonald's showed me how to use it... hm, he's dead now. Anyway, so it has three stages, the first washes with soap and water, the second hits it with bleach, then the third.. I dunno what it does, but the whole process takes less than a minute." "Why is it called The Tray Tiger?" "I dunno, it's been there awhile. I guess we were so happy about getting the machine."

I ended up working as the tray-washer for two and half months that summer. I got to be pretty efficient and I was subsequently nicknamed The Tray Tiger myself. When my tenure came to a close I decided I should leave some kind of legacy for myself. I went around to a few office stores and finally found one that would stamp out onto an acrylic name plate "THE TRAY TIGER!!!" (yes, I did get a "wtf?" look from the guy at Office Depot). It was a black lacquered finish with bold white font. My last day at the soup kitchen, I went and affixed it to the tray-washing machine with this permanent supertape. I hope it is still there to this day.

Following this experience, I had been trying to decide on a good screenname. The one I had at the time was wholly inadequate and relied on numbers after the name to establish its uniqueness. TheTrayTiger was my solution, as it was a combination of letters so singular that it had been hitherto never created as a screenname, nor did it return any Google hits. It was perfect. My screenname was distinct. It required no numbers. I was THE one and only... TRAYTIGER.

St. James Park, London

Sunday, January 15, 2006

That Kid Every Professor Secretly Wants To Strangle

Slouched in his front-row seat, he assumes a coolly relaxed position as his beady eyes peer with feigned attention through two crooked panes of glass. He lounges with one arm crossed across his chest and the other propped up by the first so that his hand reaches to support his pimple-ridden chin. He sports his daily uniform: an extra-large Stairway to Heaven t-shirt drapes his awkwardly gaunt frame and faded Levi's. Wait, he speaks. In his first proclamation of the day, he sagaciously observes that our professor of differential equations has forgotten to carry over a meaningless constant term from the previous line (never mind that the term was to cancel out anyway). He has barely finished settling into a self-congratulatory stupor when again his astute mind strikes again with yet another useless correction. He deserves to be stabbed in the face.

bizarre sunset in Strasbourg

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Un Destin Nucléaire

Pour mes lecteurs francophones (le français n'est pas ma langue maternelle, alors je te prie de pardonner les fautes grammatiques ou orthographiques):

Tant que je maintiens cette image devant les yeux, je pourrai me souvenir de ce beau paysage expansif sur lequel donne ma fenêtre. Je suis chez moi. Je viens d’entendre dire que la Corée du Nord va nous attaquer. Il est certain qu’elle a lancé au moins soixante engins balistiques nucléaires, chacun à une grande-ville différente. J’habite à Séattle— il est sûr que nous serons annihilés. Bien que les bombes soient déjà lancées, la Corée est loin d’ici, alors elles n’arriveront pas avant quelques minutes. J’ai encore du temps.

Quand il ne restera plus de temps, je m’imagine qu’il y aura un calme sur la ville. Nous deviendrons solennels devant notre destin, comme les dinosaures avant que le météore les ait frappé indifféremment. Ou peut-être sera-ce l’inverse. Il est possible que mes voisins veuillent m’accueillir chez eux pour faire la fête une dernière fois. En retour, il serait étrange qu’ils le fassent parce que, franchement, ces quinze minutes ne suffisent pas pour faire la fête.

Je réfléchis à ce que je ne ferai plus dans ma vie. Il est naturel que je sente ainsi, quoiqu’il vaille mieux ne pas sentir ainsi. Cependant, pour que notre esprit humain ne se taise pas, il faut que nous nous souvenions de tout ce qui nous rendait heureux. Il est probable que je ne jouerai plus du piano ; les ouvrages de Chopin, Beethoven, et Debussy se tairont devant la fission nucléaire. Heureusement, je suis capable d'entendre encore ces maîtres dans le monde tranquille qui est ma tête.

Il est probable que je ne verrai plus ma famille. Elle n’est pas là. La semaine dernière, ma femme et nos enfants sont allés chez leurs grands-parents. Ils habitent en Floride, alors il est impossible que ma famille revienne avant les bombes. Il vaut mieux quand même qu’ils restent là-bas. Je doute que la Floride soit bombardée.

Oui, je suis triste. Mais il faut comprendre que devant une certitude de mort, on ne considère pas la tristesse. En fait, il est intéressant qu’on ne pense qu’à la certitude curieuse qu’on ne pensera plus dans quelques minutes. Ayant cette pensée tranquille, je regarde encore le beau paysage en attendant les petits atomes d’uranium qui arriveront avec une légèreté meurtrière.

La scène du dôme de La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur à Paris

Those darned particle physicists...

Now you have to be careful. Just because electrons and muons are leptons doesn't mean they're hadrons too, although it is true that they are fermions like baryons, which are also hadrons. Mesons, however, are also hadrons, though they are bosons, and they include pions and kaons. Incidentally, protons and neutrons are nucleons that are baryons, which are hadrons that are fermions, made up of quark-quark-quark combinations held together by gluons, and sometimes they can give off photons, which are bosons but not mesons.

Highlights from living in Strasbourg last year.

Église St. Paul, Strasbourg, France

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Infiltration of IM-speak

I am a child of the 90's. I rode the crest of the the technology boom, learning to use Microsoft Works before my parents could even figure how to get out of that damn MS-DOS interface. I only vaguely remember what life was like before cell phones, when portable computers were the size of tuba cases and a play station was the ball pit you played in after you finished your Happy Meal at McDonald's. The significance of one technological phenomenon, however, won't be appreciated but for another 10 years, when the children raised on it rise to positions of relative power.

Instant messaging. Instant messaging changed the way we did homework. Gone were the long nights spent toiling away at your English paper with nothing but the deafening silence of your tiny room and the occasional phone call to an insomniac friend to distract your thoughts. Your productivity plunged as you alternated windows in an effort to maintain eight simultaneously lucid conversations. Social networking grew exponentially as the possibility for impersonal cyber-conversation greatly expanded the circle of potential acquaintances. Instant messaging occupied a middle region-- a notch above email, but below the intimacy of a telephone call. Tellingly, AOL Instant Messenger has become the de facto typing pedagogue for today's children.

Its success, coupled with an increasingly frenetic lifestyle, presaged a peculiar form of shorthand typing specific to instant messaging. Pressed by the need to maintain simultaneous conversations, expressions like "brb" and "ttyl" and "lol" emerged. This was by no means restricted to English speakers. The musings of French IMers massacred their beloved mother tongue as well, producing in extreme cases expressions like "koi29?" to substitute for "Quoi de neuf?" (What's new?). In English, nuanced progressions in expressed amusement appeared; in order, we have: hehe, haha, lol, HAHA, LOL, rofl (rolling on the floor laughing) = lmao (laughing my ass off), ROFL = LMAO, ROFLMAO.

But I can't do it. I simply can't bring myself to type "lol" in an instant message without at least a dose of self-conscious irony. The problem is that there's no real substitute for it. I mean, if I genuinely laugh out loud, what do I say? I want to convey that I really thought what the person said was funny. I guess I could just rely on the old "hehe" for internal smiles, "hahaha" for real smiles, and "HAHA" for a actual laughs. But you know, it's a tough call there. I mean, if someone's being side-splittingly funny I don't want to be typing "hehe" and "haha" all the time even if I truly am laughing. This is a concern of mine.

So I guess I just smile ":c)" and say hehe a lot. I use ":c)" (though I've recently seen the innovation "(:", which has a distinct why-the-hell-didn't-I-think-of-that quality) instead of ":)" or ":-)", because those usually induce emoticons, which are just silly. What if I want to convey a sarcastic grin? I don't want some goddamned cutesy yellow smile or anything. To be sure, it is only through context and judicious word choice can one arrive at the notoriously elusive sarcastic grin.

Anyway, to sort of make a point out of all of this, I recently overheard on the bus a girl squealing into her cell phone, "That is sooo funny! L-O-L!" Yes, she spelled it out. Now I'm all for innovative language and everything, but seriously, come on. Some things are just stupid.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Flip the slice!

Okay, so here's the situation: I'm making a sandwich and I've hastily grabbed two slices of bread from the bread bag and have made the amateur mistake of forgetting to flip one of the slices over to give two mirror image slices. It is of utmost importance that the small half-circles of bread matter at the top of the slices line up perfectly. This is particularly crucial with peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, where the global implications of such an oversight become glaringly apparent. It results in wholly intolerable asymmetries. That is, one may find areas of peanut butter coated bread with no jelly to counter its sticky smackiness, or, worse yet, no peanut butter to insulate the porous bread from the nefarious penetration of jelly! Don't make the same mistake I did. Don't forget: Flip the slice!

Friday, January 06, 2006

Parking lots have feelings too.

So a couple days ago, I got back to the town where I go to school. I needed bedding supplies and I needed jeans, so I went to a shopping center in which Target and Old Navy were nearly adjacent to each other.

Why Target and Old Navy, you ask? Target is the civilized alternative to Walmart. I hate Walmart. Not so much because of how shittily they treat their employees, since I'm thankfully not one of those, but how shittily they treat their customers, since I occasionally become one of those (but only when the circumstances require it). Their stores are either harshly lit or poorly lit, have uncomfortably narrow aisles, have shit perpetually piled up in the center of their aisles, have markedly unknowledgeable "team members," and basically just give you the urge to shop as fast as possible so that you can leave that horrible horrible place. Walmart does not respect you and me, the consumers. Walmart expects you and me to tolerate these affronts in exchange for "Always Low Prices." We are whores to Walmart.

"Not I," say I; "I won't be a whore," I said. "Go to Target I will," I say. And so it was. I went to Target, with its spacious clean aisles and brightly lit smiles.

Then to Old Navy. Old Navy because their jeans are cheap: only $18.50. After all, jeans are jeans are jeans, as far as I'm concerned. It took me all of two minutes to choose and pay for the jeans. I already knew my size and my style; was there more to debate? Decisive shopping is best.

Getting back to my car from Old Navy, I noticed one of those enormous minivan/SUV's had parked within a foot of the right side of my car. Drats! Darn you, insensitive SUV driver! Getting into my car, I started to back out of my spot. Now, I didn't exactly creep out or inch out, but I didn't go out all that quickly either. I'd say that I probably went out a tad too fast considering the gargantuan SUV that was blocking my view to the right.

Anyway, as I backed out, I looked to left first, then, looking right, I slammed the brakes. Shit. Two four-year-old girls and their father had just emerged from behind the SUV. I hadn't really come close to hitting them, but I definitely hadn't seen them. The girls hadn't seen me and were skipping along as if nothing had happened. But their father had seen me. Our eyes made contact in the split second as I hit the brakes. He had struck an instinctively protective pose, with one arm shielding one daughter and another arm grabbing her sister by the waist. His eyes stared piercingly into mine, wordlessly yet unmistakably informing me that he would do whatever was necessary to protect those girls.

Slightly shaken, I waved to him to indicate that I had seen them, and took the car out of reverse for good measure. He hurried his daughters along, then I very carefully backed out of the parking spot. I drove away, wondering if I too would have reacted with such selfless vigilance.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Prized Possession

I think one of the greatest feelings in the world is when you open up a new package of bar soap—you know, when it still has the brand logo imprinted on it and all of the edges from the mold are still there—and you use it for the first time. And then when you start to lather up and all the edges start to fade away and the logo is just barely visible, you feel like, "Hey, that's my very own bar of soap. It's mine."

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Porcelain Waltzer

So in the grand tradition of holiday togetherness, my family and I took the opportunity to revel in the movie-going festivities of Christmas Monday. After all, what better way to enjoy real quality time together than to spend two hours watching the same colorful flashing images in lieu of actual conversation? It seems to be my family's social gathering of choice, and who can blame us? Conversation is hard work!

We decided on Fun With Dick and Jane, starring Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni, respectively. During the movie, I found myself in need a potty break; luckily it wasn't one of those posturing Tom Clancy thrillers that injects a pretense of plot complexity by flooding your senses with irrelevant details and if you even miss one second or word or gesture the entire movie will be lost on you because it's so complicated and you have to know every detail and oh my god what jargon are they speaking gosh it sounds so complex! Yeah, it wasn't one of those.

Thankful that I could make my way to the restroom with a clear conscience, I stepped inside and realized I had a decision to make:

Any veteran of urinals can appreciate the situation: You've gasped your way to the restroom. You stop. You stare down the line of urinals in trepidation. You could choose the first one because that's the closest, but it's also the short one for those incontinent brats who make you avert your eyes when they pee 2 feet away from the urinal. That one definitely gets the most spatter. You could choose the second one because it's not the short urinal and it's also pretty close, but it's probably also the most frequently used since everyone else is undoubtedly thinking the same thing.

So you think, what about the last one? The last one, hm, it's a tempting choice. But then you think, "Wait, every OCD case in the world probably picks that one." Everyone thinks the last one is the cleanest, but in reality it's the dirtiest one that the janitor never bothers to clean cause he's probably itching to get out of there by the time he reaches it. The last one is out. The situation is getting desperate. You have not yet chosen. You are getting nervous, and Oh No! a toilet just got flushed and you hear the trickling water and the urge is greater than ever. You are afraid.


You hurriedly choose the second-to-last urinal. Free of OCD patients, incontinent children, and impatient spatterers, it is the ideal urinal. Success.

You head back to the sink and carefully wash your hands. Back in the movie, Jim Carrey is belting out R. Kelly in a corporate elevator. All is well with the world.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Why Gap, Hollister, Abercrombie, et al. can shove it.

So I was out gift-shopping this past Christmas Eve, regretting every second of the time spent power-walking in wild-eyed desperation with the rest of those last-minute holiday shoppers. My little brother, 19, had indicated that a new belt would be nice, leaving me scrambling around looking for an appropriately hip clothing store. Now my brother is very much a Hollister kind of guy (mostly because he works there and gets good discounts). However, even during the mad rush, I realized I couldn't countenance the idea of actually entering one of those stores and buying something.

For one thing, I feel like there is something inherently wrong with a clothing store that uses more floor space on showcasing their wood floors and their lighting than on the clothing itself. Funny, when I go into a clothing store, I look for clothes. I realize that their goal is to highlight the finer points of their merchandise and draw attention to each individual item, but I don't like feeling like I'm paying them to waste potential shelf-space. Every square foot of empty space is extra overhead that the consumer, which is you, subsidizes. The same goes for interior design gimmicks like Hollister's beach shack image. I'll allow that this sort of contrived originality may help sell the brand, but it doesn't mean I'll be getting duped too.

Which brings me to my second point: the voracious appetite of today's suburban youth is satisfied only by dishing out contrivedly unique products for their exquisitely nuanced sensibilities. That is, and I suppose this is necessarily true of popular culture in general, it's not really unique anymore when everyone's got that shirt. So what's a pitiable suburban youth to do? Well, there is no shortage of options, but there is something to be said for the franchise phenomenon in American consumerism. Aside from a handful of our major metropolises, we Americans seem infinitely more at ease when patroning a well-known franchised establishment than an unknown independently-owned alternative. Why go to Emiliano's Café or Las Margaritas when you've got TGI Friday's and The Olive Garden? Or, if you'd prefer, Chili's, Flinger's, and Chotchky's?

I guess I'll have to expand more on this franchise phenomenon later, but back to the original point: Why Gap sucks. And it's not because of sweatshops in Bangladesh or wherever; hey! that's valuable foreign capital investment there. No, they suck because their products are uniquely unoriginal and cheaply overpriced; because their decor is distinctly inefficient and studiedly stultifying.

That said, I ended up finding a belt for my brother after all. I got it at PacSun. Hey, at least there were clothes strewn all over the place.

"Hey what are you doing for lunch today?"
"Well, our specials are barbecued chicken - it's actually right over there on the board. Excuse me."
"I was asking what you were doing for lunch. Would you like to have lunch with me?"
"Oh, are you serious? Yeah, I don't, I don't think I'm supposed to do that."
"Oh. I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna go next door and get a table and if you'd like to join me, no big deal. All right? And if not, that's cool too. Okay?"
"Uh, when you say 'next door', do you mean Chili's or Flingers?"

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The glass is half-what, bitch?!

In the interest of avoiding silly psychoanalyses based on mere semantics, I propose that the glass be said to be "half-empty" if at the halfway mark it is in the process of being emptied, and "half-full" if it is in the process of being filled.

That is: at V(t) = (1/2)*Vfull, if dV/dt < 0, then the glass should be said to be "half-empty;" if dV/dt > 0, then the glass should be said to be "half-full."

Friday, December 23, 2005

Jumbled Rock n' Roll

Once upon a time, you dressed so fine,
Sexy Sadie, what have you done?
Well, they said you was high-class,
Wanna whole lotta love?

Oh won't you take a ride on the flyin' spoon?
The boulevard is not that bad.
We always take my car 'cause it's never been beat;
If you start me up, I'll never stop.

Ninety miles an hour, girl, is the speed I drive;
I'm on a highway to hell.
Eight miles high and falling fast...
I have become comfortably numb.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Great Soap Dilemma

One of the greatest dilemmas I face in my life is a very familiar one that occurs in the twilight of a bar soap's life: whether or not that bar of soap has exhausted its cleansing utility. You know what I mean. It's always a tough choice; after all, how small is too small? There are those among us who do not believe in waste and will use the slippery bar until the last remnant has been surrendered to the calcified water. Others use that familiar benchmark—the small bar's fracture into two equally worthless pieces. How do I resolve this quandary? I dunno, I guess I just get out a new bar of soap.

Holy Omelet! A Pax Republicana?

--Why the GOP leadership might not be so clueless after all.

Faced with the recent befuddling decisions by the Republican leadership, it would be quite easy to dismiss its headliners as clueless halfwits altogether indifferent to our nation's future. Led by the usual suspects, Republicans under President George W. Bush have been responsible for such policy gems as: 1) unprecedently cutting taxes while fighting a costly war, giving American citizens no personal stake in the war while discouraging consumer saving; or 2) nominating to the Supreme Court a woefully underqualified fawning crony who vacillated on even the most basic constitutional issues; or 3) publicly opposing anti-torture legislation at a time when America desperately needed a credibility facelift in the "War of Ideas;" or 4) passing a budget bill so laughably laden with earmarked pet projects, you wonder if those much-vaunted Republican budget hawks actually exist.

However, and I ask for your indulgence, what if: the plan all along was to establish not a sprawling compassionate conservative hegemony, but a small-government conservative dynasty? What if: the GOP was cutting taxes while increasing expenditures and creating a huge deficit so that future conservative administrations will be "forced" to cut government spending and shrink the size of government in the name of fiscal responsibility? Given the inherent unpopularity of spending cuts, the GOP probably knows that it must persuade voters to accept the cuts as absolutely necessary measures for our national fiscal well-being (and for our national security, they might even add). So perhaps they plan to starve the government of funds, then cut off a couple of its limbs to compensate.

We already have examples of this-- two of last century's towering monuments to social liberalism, Social Security and Medicaid, have been systematically hacked away in recent years. Whether or not we would be better off with a more privatized system is a matter for another debate. Nevertheless, it still stands that the GOP has been attempting (none too transparently, I'll add) to dissolve the responsibility of the federal government to maintain a social safety net. In short, the current debate among Republicans over whether to cut taxes or social spending is not a matter of which to do, but which to do first.

Regarding the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, maybe Bush knew that she would split the Right and would be ultimately unconfirmable. But he needed to get a strong firebrand conservative on the Court. After Miers stepped down, Bush could then nominate a highly qualified, but highly conservative judge to the bench. After having unloaded so much effort on the Miers nomination, his critics wouldn't be up for a bloody fight, he might have reasoned. To critics of his new stalwart conservative pick, he would say something like, "You wanted someone qualified, didn't you? You've already conceded that Miers' views weren't as important as her underqualification." Indeed, compared to Harriet Miers, practically any thoughtful federal judge would look like the next Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

As a result of the Miers tactic, he was "forced" to appeal to his evangelical Christian base and nominate Judge Sam Alito, a far more conservative nominee than would have been otherwise possible. Aside: I think Alito will be confirmed in the GOP-controlled Senate; a recent bipartisan compromise restricts the filibustering of judicial nominees to "extreme circumstances" that would be difficult to prove here, despite Alito's disturbing tendency to treat grown woman like girls. What's more, Bush will probably enjoy more support from social conservatives in the long run, now that he's served them up an abortion-slayer. Both evangelicals (who were lukewarm about Miers anyway) and conservative Beltway intellectuals (who hated her) have rallied around "Scalito."

It is true that the Republicans have paid a political price for their excesses, in the form of a newly emboldened Democratic party. The pervadingly negative image of the administration's handling of an Iraq war that produces little news of concrete progress, together with the loud cacophony of corruption scandals back at home, has continued to frustrate the administration's efforts to spend its political capital. I'm not saying that these difficulties fit into some grand Republican power scheme at all; I think they are simply political miscalculations. True, meticulously planned strategies for victory have never been strong suits of the current administration. But no matter-- the trick is to win before you plan.

Regardless, concluding that "Republicans are a bunch of idiots!" doesn't give them enough credit. After all, they're politicians-- you might not want to invite them to housesit for a month, but they can be generally trusted do what is in the interest of themselves and their party (and occasionally their constituencies). Along the way, it makes sense that Karl Rove and the GOP would have to break some eggs in their quest for the Holy Omelot: their dream of a Great Republican Majority.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Traffic signals? Seriously, wtf?

So what's the deal with pedestrian crosswalk signals? Are you supposed to hit the button or not? Is the button even necessary? Will the signal last longer if you hit the button? For that matter, do intersections REALLY have detectors that monitor traffic flow and regulate signal changes accordingly? Is the button sensitive to the needs of pedestrians? Do traffic signals have feelings?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Metaphors? Pshh, who needs them?

What is a metaphor, anyway? It's just a circuitous way of arriving at what you really could have said by pure exposition. It's so long-winded and unnecessary. Society would get along much more smoothly if people did away with all of this metaphorical doublespeak. Doublespeak is how the government controls you, anyway. Everyone should just say exactly what he or she means in the most precise terms possible.

You know, when you think about it, this duplicitous speech is really what launched Hitler and the Nazis into power. They told everyone they were going to kill the Jews, introduce a new world order, and have Aryan domination everywhere.... but noooo, no one believed them; they all dismissed it as pure hyperbole. And you know why that was? People had gotten so used to this metaphorical doublespeak, that's why. Face it, people... Metaphorical language killed the Jews.

Do you want to face another Holocaust? I didn't think so. You had better not use any damn metaphors then. As for me, the blood of innocents will most definitely not be on my hands. HAH! And there you are now, a fiend cackling with capricious delight! I'll have you yet! You all and your metaphors... SHEESH!

The first post! ::cue dramatic chord::

So some of you may be surprised to learn of my nascent blog-writing interest. Others who have endured my AIM diatribes may be wondering why it took this long to get one of these things going. At any rate, seeing as my life is bound to get more interesting next semester (between traveling, interesting classes, and life-changing decisions and all), I'd might as well write some of it down. Allons-y!