Monday, September 29, 2008

Bad Bad Bad: Deadly Iranian Shipment

The South African Times reports on the mysterious deaths of several pirates after hijacking an Iranian military-owned merchant ship in Somali waters. The Somali pirates "suffered skin burns, lost hair and fell gravely ill “within days” of boarding the MV Iran Deyanat. Some of them died." According to the report, the pirates had not opened any of the cargo containers before falling ill. Folks, there are only a few things in this world that deadly. Some have alleged the ship was to deliver chemical weapons to Somali fighters. Scary as that would be, lets hope that's the worst of it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Don't Roll Up Grandma

I'm not really big into themed weddings, particularly not video-game themes, but I have to admit this couple's Katamari wedding cake is pretty brilliant.

Good thing it's still too small to roll up the wedding guests, although it's big enough I'd probably keep the babies away. (If you're thoroughly confused right now, Wikipedia might help).

Doooooo doo doo doo doo-doo dooo dooo doo-doooo doooo doo-doo doooooooo...

Friday, September 26, 2008

The S-Word

Stephen Trimble shares a PowerPoint slide of the US Air Force's newest airborne networking strategy. Just don't call it SkyNet.

A Pair of Bailout Perspectives

An old friend, K, posted her opinion of the bailout yesterday on Facebook, including this corrective to those who are themselves crying for a piece of the action arguing against using taxpayer funds to rescue Wall Street:
The bailout is meant to fix the credit market and stabilize the economy.
Individuals aren't the only ones who use credit - companies use it too, and they use it just like we do: to cover expenses until they have the cash to pay them off. These expenses include: money owed to other companies for supplies, copyrights, etc., and of course, payroll.

If companies have their credit lines cut or severely reduced, they won't be able to cover their expenses...and this doesn't apply only to poorly managed companies. A bad credit market affects everyone, including well-run, ethical businesses. There were financially sound Fortune 500 companies that almost didn't make payroll last week for this very reason.

So, what happens if there's no bailout is employees don't get paid, companies go under and countless workers are laid off. This is what the bailout is meant to prevent. It might not give money directly back to the taxpayers but it will help them keep their jobs. Aiding companies that have used poor business practices and people who made bad decisions with their mortgages is an unfortunate side effect, but it's better than the whole economy going in the tank.
Very true, and probably the most succinct argument I've read yet for the necessity of the bailout. Then this morning, Charles Krauthammer agrees with K and adds an additional (and vital) warning against the instinct to punish Wall Street's supposed malfeasance:
Congress has every duty to be careful with taxpayers’ money and to suggest improvements in the administration plan. But part of Congress’ reaction has nothing to do with improving the proposal and everything to do with assuaging the rage of constituents — even if it jeopardizes the package’s chances of success, either by weakening it or by larding it up with useless complicating provisions designed solely to give the appearance of sticking it to the rich [and] window dressing such as capping pay packages, which the Bush administration has already caved in to. I’ve got nothing against withholding golden parachutes from failed executives. But artificially capping the pay of people brought in to lead these wobbly companies back to health is a fine way to tell talented executives to look elsewhere for a job.
I like having smart friends.

I Want One: Steampunk Raygun

What a beautiful piece of workmanship from the people at Weta Works:

HT: Gadget Lab

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pre-Gaming President Bush's Economy Speech

Apparently the president is making a speech tonight about the current economic "crisis". (The scare quotes aren't to diminish the seriousness of the situation; I'm just really sick of that word). Anywho, an advance copy of the president's speech seems to be making the rounds. An excerpt:
To sustain this shining city on a hill, we need to rescue the ignorant, irresponsible folks — from Wall Street to Capitol Hill to Main Street — who got us to where we are today. We must guarantee that no American suffers the soft bigotry of being forced to live with the consequences of his bad decisions. Our financial system rests on a foundation of huge banks, brokerage houses and quasi-governmental agencies that followed Washington’s lead by gambling on long-shot, poorly-collateralized investments.

Now this glorious way of life is threatened, and we must act to preserve it. We need to guarantee that the structures, systems, people and products that got us to this point won’t be tossed on the ash heap of history. If these giant companies fail, then America will be left with nothing but thousands of small to mid-sized financial firms that made prudent investment decisions during the past 15 years.

Americans value the liberty they have to buy homes they can’t afford, to invest in securities backed by nothing but hope, and to draw six- and seven-figure salaries based on the courage to risk taxpayer dollars on deals that even the dealmakers don’t understand.
Man, I wish this was going to be his speech. Not that I disagree that the recent bailouts were necessary (that judgment is well beyond my expertise, so I'll trust the experts), but instead of hearing politicians rail against greed [pointedly coughs in Senator McCain's direction], I'd like to hear a bit more of an admission of how we've gotten ourselves into this situation through our own collective irresponsibility. Aspects of the current crisis have been fed by poor (and bi-partisan) decision-making in Congress, on Wall Street, and at our own kitchen tables. If our politicians succeed in placing some quick blame and doing a legislative patch-job, we'll only succeed in laying the foundation for more trouble down the road.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Taheri's Last Word

Amir Taheri takes two steps back to explain how Senator Obama's extraordinary private foreign policy fits into the bigger historical picture (or more accurately, is without precedent). He relates how figures from Edward Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Hillary Clinton have refused even to comment on the status of their government's negotiations with a foreign power, citing the long-standing political tradition that a loyal opposition does not undermine the standing government's foreign policy diplomatically, but uses the appropriate legislative channels.
Every agreement and every treaty contains mechanisms for its suspension or abrogation. Therefore, even supposing Bush was negotiating an absolutely terrible agreement with the Iraqis in which he would be selling the family silver, Obama should have waited until he saw the text, and then demanded the cancellation of the accord through the constitutional channels.

One key feature of all mature powers, at least since the Congress of Vienna, is the reliability of their international commitments. Even putschists who seize power in a military coup make sure that their first pronunciamento includes this key sentence: We shall honor all of our country’s international obligations and commitments.
Senator Obama is the leader of a loyal opposition in the United States, not the chief of an insurrection or a revolutionary uprising. What we are witnessing in the U.S. is an election, not an insurrection or a coronation, even less a regime change.
Obama and his followers seem not to recognize the difference.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What is Foreign Policy Experience, Anyway?

Clifford May asks this important question today over at National Review Online. Important, because it's something that everyone's talking about even though it's not at all clear that we know what we mean by it, or that we all mean the same thing. Does Governor Sarah Palin's gubernatorial experience with foreign trade delegations count? For something, maybe. Does the fact that Alaska is kinda close-ish to Russia, or that she is nominally Commander in Chief of the Alaska National Guard? Hardly. Similarly, the other three candidates are from the Senate, where they have had at best a spectator's experience of foreign policy. Even if any of the candidates did have experience in executive decision-making, it still comes down to a fundamental problem of looking to experience in electing any executive: the new leader will face situations nobody will have predicted, few if any of these situations will be directly analagous to anything he has done before, and even an entire lifetime's worth of experiences is too limited a library for anyone to rely on past personal experience. A candidate's record matters insofar as it provides a witness by which to make judgements about his judgement. As May puts it, "The best a voter can do is attempt to discern ... a candidate’s values, temperament and, yes, ideology — which is to say his political philosophy." He then poses a series of key questions, the sort I wish the media were asking of all the candidates. Let's stop arguing about who has foreign policy "experience", and start looking for evidence of foreign policy judgement.

Obama's Two-Faced Ad

Jake Tapper's Political Punch blog over at ABC News exposes the incredible dishonesty of the Obama campaign's recent Spanish-language attack ad "Dos Caras" ("Two Faces") in which out-of-context Rush Limbaugh quotes are used to paint McCain as an immigrant-hating nativist. Except Rush isn't much of a fan of McCain and particularly opposes him on his immigration policy, which is well to the left of Rush's audience. Furthermore, neither quote from Rush is at all hateful in its original context. I know this is Spin-proofing 101, but if they're only giving you five or six words of a quote it might be worth looking up the whole thing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Landlines Obsolete?

Mike Elgan wonders why you still have a landline phone. As he says, "It's 2008, and the landline phone should have been made obsolete by now." He blames the poor service and expense of wireless carriers, which is a big part of the situation, I'm sure. 20 million American households do rely solely on their cell phone for all telephony needs, but that's "just" around 17 percent. Personally, that's 20 million too many. Far too few people realize their cell phone is unlikely to work in an emergency situation. Terrorist attacks can bring down cell networks by damaging key infrastructure as on 9/11, but also by triggering a massive surge of call use like that which brought down cellular service following the London Tube bombings. Not all cell towers have backup generators for simple power outages, and even those that do will likely be interrupted temporarily. Ditto for the servers that run VoIP-based telephony, whether Skype or digital landlines like Vonage. In short, your "obsolete" landline is the one most likely (by far) to keep working when the lights go out or worse.

Emergency preparedness is pretty low in America these days, the government's well-intentioned efforts notwithstanding. We've already seen far too many Americans incapable of helping themselves when disaster strikes. It won't help the situation when they can't even make a call.

I'm Willing to Bet...

...that a good percentage of the people gleefully sharing and perusing the hacked contents of Governor Sarah Palin's private e-mail account are the same sort of people who are up in arms about the invasions of privacy involved in the Bush administration's terrorist wire-tapping policies. Just sayin'.

I Want One: NWA Bumper Sticker

Zombie snapped this photo of a San Fransisco bumper, including the obligatory Obama sticker along with one advocating the National Waffle Association:

I'll pass on Obama, but I sure love waffles! I'm in!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I Want One: USB Bottle Opener

Mike Elgan gives this USB flashdrive/bottle opener the ever-fleeting title of Worst USB Gadget Yet. But this is one of the better ideas out there, if only because you can never have enough of bottle openers built into other tools, particularly if you, like me, drink a lot of imported beer and microbrews. I had a roommate with a bottle opener built into a pair of his sandals, and I probably opened about half the beers I drank in California with his footwear.

Vote for Jesus!

Dan at Necessary Roughness has a comment on religious appeals to voters:
If Jesus came down and said that he wanted abortion providers to finish the job if babies were born after the procedure, or that he wanted everyone dependent on government, or that he’d soak the rich and tax evil oil companies, I’d still vote against him. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and I thank him for that.


Last week, Amir Taheri reported in the New York Post that Senator Obama had sought to negotiate his own foreign policy with the Iraqi government on his last visit there this summer, allegedly urging the Iraqis to hold off on the Strategic Framework Agreement until the next (presumably meaning his) administration. Here's the crux:

According to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Obama made his demand for delay a key theme of his discussions with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in July.

"He asked why we were not prepared to delay an agreement until after the US elections and the formation of a new administration in Washington," Zebari said in an interview.

Obama insisted that Congress should be involved in negotiations on the status of US troops - and that it was in the interests of both sides not to have an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in its "state of weakness and political confusion."

It's disturbing (and as far as I know, unprecedented) for a candidate to be out making foreign policy as self-assumed president-in-waiting. He's actively undermining the legitimacy of a sitting president, with a key foreign government, no less. Obama has apparently decided it's not enough to already act like president, he needs to prevent anything out of his power from happening in the meantime.

Now, this story been sitting quietly in an open browser window for a few days because I didn't want to blog on it until we got some verification. That came today with the Obama campaign's masterful non-denial:

But Obama's national security spokeswoman Wendy Morigi said Taheri's article bore "as much resemblance to the truth as a McCain campaign commercial." In fact, Obama had told the Iraqis that they should not rush through a "Strategic Framework Agreement" governing the future of US forces until after President George W. Bush leaves office, she said.

Which is completely different from "[asking] why we were not prepared to delay an agreement until after the US elections and the formation of a new administration in Washington". That's quite a denial: "It's all dirty lies. Our candidate most certainly did not do x. Rather, he did x." Huh? The only difference is in the wording, which sounds even worse in Morigi's account. At least Zebari had Obama making a suggestion; Morigi says he simply told them what to do.

Good For You, Whoever You Are

Congratulations to the hackers who successfully stopped the posting of al-Qaeda's annual 9/11 terror message this past week. These people are, apparently, working hard on their own time to disrupt the communications of terrorists. I love it, and I wish there were more of them. A patriotic mob of online thugs could accomplish things no Pentagon-basement cyber-warfare unit could dream of (and for that matter, things that would be criminally spooky if not illegal, were the government doing them). I hear murmurs that many of the cyber-attacks on the US are carried out by just such groups from other countries, when are we going to start firing back? I guess there's pretty safe odds we already are.

UPDATE: Rusty Shackleford of The Jawa Report whom the Hindustan Times noted as one of the likely agents of the attack on al-Qaeda's website in the above-linked story, has denied his involvement. And admitted that, even if he were involved, he would deny it then, too.

I Knew Those Things Were Trouble

A study conducted by Sheraton hotels finds that 35% of business travelers would choose their BlackBerry over their spouse.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Credit Where Credit is Due

I have to give Senator Obama credit for his recent appearance at Columbia, in which he supported the repeal of the university's Vietnam-era ban on the ROTC, now continued in ostensible opposition to the Department of Defense's so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. McCain called first for the return of the ROTC, which is no big surprise, but Obama's agreement on the topic wouldn't have been expected. Regardless of one's position on the propriety and tenability of the policy, Obama says "we should have an honest debate while still offering opportunities for everyone to serve.” Sounds good to me. Some people, though, just don't get the point, calling this a "flip-flop" from Obama. He never said he'd changed his mind on Don't Ask Don't Tell, though, and I assume he still opposes it. A future leader of America live-blogs the appearances, reminding me that I really need to save up my downpayment for that cabin in the woods.

Now, while crediting his support of the ROTC, I can't give him a pass on his Orwellian "Plan for Universal and Voluntary Citizen Service", and Shikha Dalmia explains why. I'm all for service, mind you; I'm in the Army after all, and I personally believe that truly voluntary charitable work could be perfectly capable of providing the entirety of our social "safety net". It's when community service is funded, organized, mandated, and coerced using government money and enforcement powers that the whole thing starts feeling a little bit, well, fascist.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bad Bad Bad: Oil War in the Delta

Bad bad bad. Militants in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria have declared an "oil war" against the government. The Niger Delta is one of the most productive oil fields in Africa and according to some analyses the most influential on the world oil market. I've voiced my fears about Nigeria before. This is not encouraging.


It's the weekend, and I'm posting this story (HT Renaissance Biologist) about a hamster that was found running with traffic in its plastic ball. That's pretty much the whole story, but the hamster's really cute. And its name is Treacle. Treacle! What a fantastic name for a hamster. Or any pet, really. Hey, I can't post hard-hitting political commentary (or cribbed rehash of other bloggers I agree with) every day of the week.
'Once upon a time there were three little sisters,' the Dormouse began in a great hurry; 'and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well--'

'What did they live on?' said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

'They lived on treacle,' said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

'They couldn't have done that, you know,' Alice gently remarked; 'they'd have been ill.'

'So they were,' said the Dormouse; 'VERY ill.'

Palin and the "Bush Doctrine"

Charles Krauthammer shares some insight into the "Bush Doctrine" and why it was entirely appropriate for Sarah Palin to request clarification when asked about it by Charles Gibson in last week's ABC interview:
Charlie Gibson got it wrong. There is no single meaning of the Bush doctrine. In fact, there have been four distinct meanings, each one succeeding another over the eight years of this administration — and the one Charlie Gibson cited is not the one in common usage today.
I know something about the subject because, as the Wikipedia entry on the Bush doctrine notes, I was the first to use the term.
So just for kicks, when someone tries to criticize Palin for not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is, ask them what they think it is. Or better yet, just ask them, "Which one?"

Saturday, September 13, 2008

They Must Be Wishing...

... that they could take down their archives, when people are digging up stuff like this. Markos Moulitsas of The Daily Kos, probably the biggest left-wing "netroots" blog out there, railing in 2005 about how any Senator who voted against the Coburn Amendment (to divert funds from the Bridge to Nowhere to Hurricane Katrina relief, which amendment Senators Obama and Biden voted against) has "zero credibility on issues of fiscal responsibility. Zero." I'm sure he'd still stand by that statement today.

Friday, September 12, 2008


The latest attack ad from the Obama campaign slams McCain as being out of touch because he admits he doesn't know himself how to use a computer or send an email. Thing is though, he makes daily use of these technologies with the help of his wife and/or his staff. See, he has a bit of trouble using a keyboard. Something to do with having had many of his bones broken multiple times in a North Vietnamese prison. He also has trouble tying his shoes and combing his hair, are they going to make fun of him for that, too?

Incidentally, in this interview with the New York Times [HT Jonah Goldberg], McCain sounds like he's got a reasonable level of online engagement for someone of his age. For that matter, I don't really give a pair of fetid dingo's kidneys whether my president keeps up on all the top blogs or not. If he's not farming that work out to some (extremely) junior staffer I'd have serious doubts about his ability to delegate responsibility.

Finally, the line "things have changed in the last 26 years, but McCain hasn't" could just as well come from a McCain ad. Do they seriously not realize this is one of the reasons we like him? Even those of us who wish he were more ideologically conservative respect the fact that he is a man who has, from 1982 to today, voted according to his own convictions rather than flapping in the breezes of public opinion and party lines.

UPDATE: InstaPundit has a great recap of the response to this ad. A few favorite comments:
"It's extraordinary that someone who wants to be our president and our commander in chief knows how to send an e-mail ...but not how to do a five-minute Google search."
"I think they spent months trying to figure out how they can position Obama as better qualified than McCain, and basically came up with the fact that Obama can type."


I've got ants! In my bed! Not just any ants, fire ants! Why are they there? Nobody can explain. I keep my room clean and I live on the third floor! And yet there are ants in my bed. And no place else in the room. Not in my food, not under the fridge. Just in my bed. I washed the sheets yesterday, thinking they were attracted to something. But no. They came right back. It defies rational explanation.

I feel like this guy.


Wondermark, as usual, has me pegged.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Today is September 11

And we must never forget. Even more importantly, we must remember correctly. Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of flight 77, the plane that was flown into the Pentagon, has this vital reminder, published last year, but ever more important. A few excerpts (emphasis mine) :
There is a disturbing phenomenon creeping into the public debate about all things 9/11. Increasingly, Sept. 11 is compared to hurricanes, bridge collapses and other mechanical disasters or criminal acts that result in loss of life, with "body count" being the primary factor that keeps it in the top spot of "worst in the nation's history."

Misremembering is as dangerous as forgetting. If we must know one thing, it is that the Sept. 11 attacks were neither a natural disaster, nor the unfortunate result of human error. 9/11 wasn't the catastrophic equivalent of a 3,000-car pileup.

Our fellow human beings were not "lost" in 1993 or on 9/11. They were torn to pieces. We must not give the enemy any quarter. We must confront the reality of their acts.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

LHC Dangers, Pt. II

Shane alerted me to yet another reason to fear the Large Hadron Collider: apparently, Gordon Freeman works at CERN! For those not big into video games, Dr. Gordon Freeman is the protagonist of the extremely popular Half-Life series of games, in which researchers at a secretive facility accidentally open a rift in space-time, allowing montrous inter-dimensional life forms to break through onto Earth. Kind of a spooky parallel, no? I'll be scanning the news for any suspicious reports out of Switzerland in the next few days.

UPDATE: Apparently one of the villains of the game has been spotted in the CERN publicity spots as well!

Wierd. Eerie.

The Tree-Sitters Give Up

Zombie reports from Berkeley on the final acquiescence and removal of the so-called "tree-sitters", a group of hippies who have been living in a grove of trees on the U.C. Berkeley campus for the last 21 months, in order to save them from being felled to make way for a new athletic complex. It's a classic Zombie photoessay, and typically amusing. My favorite moment is towards the end:

As a hilarious side note, the construction company which had built the scaffolding in record time must have seen how many people were taking photos of the scene, so two workmen quickly attached a sign to the poles to take advantage of the free publicity. Some guerrilla capitalism amidst the anarchy!
Too, too perfect.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Large Hadron Collider

Scientists at CERN are ready to fire up the Large Hadron Collider. They assure us that there's no chance of it destroying Earth, though the fact that we need the assurance is itself not exactly reassuring. Jeffrey Rowland has his own take on it, in which his zombie cat Joanna decides to stop the LHC (new to webcomics? This is just the first strip, just keep clicking the right arrow link under the comic for the rest of the story).

Bridge to Somewhere

It amazes me that the Obama people are still squabbling over whether or not Governor Palin actually killed the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, to the point of accusing the McCain campaign of outright lies. Thing is, Alaska Democrats seem to think she did. And Alaskan newspapers. Regardless of the merits of the argument, is this really an issue the Obama campaign wants to draw attention to? Did they really think nobody was going to look up how Senators Obama and Biden had voted on that particular amendment? In fact, knowing that they had both not only voted for it once, but then voted specifically against diverting the "Bridge to Nowhere" funds to Hurricane Katrina relief, you'd think they might have wanted to just let the story die.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Customer Service

USAA's customer service is clearly underworked, and I say that because their agents had time to chat casually with me for close to an hour. I love their customer service, mind you, they're great. At the same time, though, if I had been in a hurry to get this done it might have been a pretty frustrating experience.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Af-Pak War

It'd be a tough call to say what I expect to be the most tricky foreign-policy challenge of the next few years, but I can think of three that must be on anyone's list: confronting Russia's regression to imperialism, containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, and preventing a complete collapse of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The third is the most troublesome in that it is a situation where we really have very little control over the outcomes. And I refer to both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single situation (following Michael Yon, who has named it the Af-Pak War) because it is impossible to deny any longer that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is still receiving safe haven and quite probably material support from elements of the Pakistani government. In the current New York Times Magazine, Dexter Filkins interviews Pakistani government officers, tribal leaders, and Taliban militants on the Pakistani side of the border about their perspectives toward Pakistan's supposed role as an American ally in the war against the Taliban. A few excerpts:
“I cannot lie to you,” [Taliban commander] Namdar said, smiling at last. “The army comes in, and they fire at empty buildings. It is a drama — it is just to entertain.”

Entertain whom? I asked.

“America,” he said.

When it comes to the militants in their midst, it’s easier for Pakistan to do as little as possible. “There is a growing Islamist feeling in the military, and it’s inseparable from anti-Americanism,” I was told by a Western military officer with several years’ experience in the region. “The vast majority of Pakistani officers feel they are fighting our war. There is a lot of sympathy for the Taliban. The result is that the Pakistanis do as little as they possibly can to combat the militants.”

... [a] retired Pakistani official offered another explanation — one that he said could never be discussed in public. The reason the Pakistani security services support the Taliban, he said, is for money: after the 9/11 attacks, the Pakistani military concluded that keeping the Taliban alive was the surest way to win billions of dollars in aid that Pakistan needed to survive... “Pakistan is dependent on the American money that these games with the Taliban generate,” the official told me. "The Pakistani economy would collapse without it. This is how the game works. [...] The U.S. is being taken for a ride."

So how should America respond? Well, that's the hard part. Frankly, despite its long position in the public mind as "the right war", the chances of seeing something resembling victory in Afghanistan are to me far slimmer than they ever were in Iraq. Quite simply, and very much unlike Iraq, the plot of land currently labeled "Afghanistan" has simply never been a functioning country. From the time of Alexander the Great forward it has been the redoubt of bandit warlords, the mountain waste between the empires that have ever fought each other to hold this or that slice of it. The reason Pakistan is inseparably tied to it is that a good-sized chunk of that ungovernable mountain waste lies on Pakistan's side of the border, and the sizable population of that region's ungovernable mountain people have no interest in having anything to do with Pakistan or Afghanistan. And we pay Pakistan ludicrous amounts of money to fight the Taliban; is it any surprise they aren't particularly interested in winning?

I know it's just old colonialist instincts, but I just can't help wondering if the rest of the world might be better off if we drew a new line around the Pashtu homeland instead of through it, and just left them alone in their medieval xenophobia. Talibanistan. It's got a nice ring to it.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Would You Like Fries With That?

From Melody's farm report, in reference to their new calf:
His name is Jr. Cheeseburger, a tribute to his size, heritage (part dairy, part beef) and destiny.

Palin and the Media, pt II

Jonah Goldberg writes today about the media reaction to the Palin selection, offering at least a partial alternative explanation for the frenzy:
But another part of the answer is that the press was simply surprised. Cockroaches scatter when shocked by a flipped light switch. Grizzly bears attack when startled. And when caught napping by big news, the press corps floods the zone. Editors scream at underlings who missed the story. Networks fret they’ll be scooped. And all of a sudden, the norms and standards become a blur in the race to be first.

High Noon

Speaking of the current Weekly Standard, you might enjoy the cover image:

Palin and the Media

William Kristol uses the current Weekly Standard to thank the liberal media for their ultimately self-defeating attacks on Sarah Palin. An excert:
By the end of the week, after Palin's tour de force in St. Paul, the liberal media were so befuddled that they were reduced to complaining that conservatives aren't being narrow-minded enough. Thus, Hanna Rosin--who has covered religion and politics for the Washington Post, and has also written for the New Yorker, the New Republic, and the New York Times--lamented in a piece for Slate: "So cavalier are conservatives about Sarah Palin's wreck of a home life that they make the rest of us look stuffy and slow-witted by comparison." I suppose it was ungenerous of conservatives, in our broad-mindedness and tolerance of human frailty, to have let Ms. Rosin down, just when she was counting on us to bring out the tar and feathers. But she gives us too much credit when she suggests we make the liberal media look stuffy and slow-witted. They do that all by themselves.
This Rosin character pretty clearly confirms what I suspected early on: much of the liberal media (and particularly the hard-left blogosphere vanguard in all of this) seemed to have honestly expected conservative Americans to be shocked and outraged by the Bristol Palin pregnancy story, and they still don't understand why we're not. Now we're hearing "hypocrisy" thrown around, as if holding an ideal of behavior that isn't always easy to maintain makes one a hypocrite.

On Education: Prerequisite Reading

As I continue my own reading and musing on the topic of education, I'd like to suggest the essays of Paul Graham, particularly Why Nerds Are Unpopular. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the gist of it is that the society American students have created for themselves has profoundly twisted ideals, especially for an institution supposedly preparing students for the "real world". In adult society, the phrase "popularity contest" is used derisively to characterize a decision-making process that has lost all reference to valid criteria, and yet we seem to have no problem that the social climate of our institutions of secondary education consists of little else, and little curiosity as to why this should be the case. Intelligent students with real-world ambitions end up behaving much as an adult would if dropped into the same situation: they get what they can out of it academically, make no great effort to fit in, and pay the price for it socially. A few great quotes:

If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies. Like a lot of American kids, I read this book in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn't get the additional message. I wish they had just told us outright that we were savages and our world was stupid.
Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it. In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to.
A lot of people seem to think it's good for smart kids to be thrown together with "normal" kids at this stage of their lives. Perhaps. But in at least some cases the reason the nerds don't fit in really is that everyone else is crazy. I remember sitting in the audience at a "pep rally" at my high school, watching as the cheerleaders threw an effigy of an opposing player into the audience to be torn to pieces. I felt like an explorer witnessing some bizarre tribal ritual.

Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose. What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates.
Okay, that's quite a few quotes. Read the whole thing. There'll be a quiz.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Preservation Bias

No, I'm not talking about my favorite jams and marmalades (though while I'm on the topic: elderberry and bitter orange), I'm referencing an interesting point brought up by today's Dinosaur Comics. T-Rex raises the issue that our view of the past is exclusively based on those artifacts of the past which survive to the present day, and thus with increasing temporal distance we rely on less and less necessarily representative evidence. As T-Rex puts it, "maybe millions of years ago life was awesome and surreal, but only the boring specimens got preserved. Maybe the non-chumps knew how to avoid riverbeds and tar pits! Maybe dragons don't fossilize." I'm not arguing for dragons here, but the principle is important to remember when considering ancient history. The classicist in me cringes with every popular depiction of early civilizations as primitive and exotic, because they simply weren't. The problem, which is very difficult for many to look past, is that the artifacts by which we judge these ancient societies have all run the gauntlet of about two millenia's decay, so most of the truly fine workmanship has perished in the meantime, which is why I love to see exhibitions of fine craftwork in those few materials that do survive through the ages. Early safety pins are unmistakably familiar. Roman glasswork looks like something you'd pay way too much for at an antique shop. Mummies of nomadic Scythian warlords wear some pretty awesome tattoos (that some people are now having done themselves) and were buried with beautiful works in gold. What I love about these things is how familiar and almost unremarkable they are. I love the overwhelming feeling of shared civilization one gets studying the ancients. Reading Bronze Age epic poems (which bear traceable echoes of Stone Age stories!), one is filled with a sense that people throughout time and place have shared similar hopes and fears. This is not coincidentally related to similar feelings that come from world travel. Human nature doesn't change, not over time nor distance. This is why movies like Apocalypto and shows like HBO's Rome work so well, and why 10,000 BC bordered on the insulting.

Hollywood Comes to St. Olaf

My alma mater will be part of the backdrop for the new Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man. Set in the Twin Cities suburbs, the story focuses on a middle-American college professor in the middle part of the 20th century. The directors needed some classrooms that fit the image of mid-60's academia and found a fit in the fortuitously vacant Science Center at St. Olaf, which has just been replaced with the opening of the New Science Center Regents' Hall (that'll take a few years to sink in, after everyone calling it the New Science Center for the last half-decade of planning and construction).

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Food Meme

What a great way to finish off my block leave: a food meme! Shane pointed me to this list of the Omnivore's Hundred, or as Shane puts it, 100 Things to Eat Before You Die, originally from the Very Good Taste blog. Items I've had in the past are in bold, my commentary is in italics, and items I've had in the last two weeks of leave are in red, just for kicks.

1. Venison (though only in the form of garlicked summer sausage, which could be made from fetid dingo's kidneys and nobody would know the difference).
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue (though the last time I had it, I had so much and was in such a bad mood, I'm not sure I ever want it again).
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear (yeah, remember field exercises in Texas? I hate to get my revenge on the buggers somehow).
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (though seriously, I think only once. I'm a quarter-pounder sort of guy).
56. Spaetzle (best. staple. starch. ever).
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores (do they count if I never have to patience to actually roast the marshmallow?).
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin (only if you count using Kaopectate, and I don't).
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake (heck yeah county fair!).
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare (wait, just hare? or does rabbit count?).
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

52. Just over halfway there.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On Education: A Good Place to Start

As I said in my previous post, I'm not yet prepared to dive fully into fever swamps of education policy in America. But here's a place we can all start: parental involvement. Daniel Akst shares some good common sense in today's Wall Street Journal, namely, that high-performing students tend to have encouraging, involved parents who focus on education as a collective goal of the whole family. He also scratches the surface of a deep cultural problem that I believe will continue to undermine American education for the foreseeable future, namely the indifference and opposition of many parents toward education. We all complain that many parents don't value education, but nobody seems to acknowledge that many parents actively undermine education. They disparage the curriculum, subvert students' respect for their teachers, and lobby for easier workloads and lower standards. Teachers who try to combat these tendencies are seen as engaging in a power struggle against the families. And there most certainly are some educators who are trying to subvert the influence of families on young students, which just feeds the perception of education as a struggle between opposing camps, instead of the partnership it ought to be.

Monday, September 1, 2008

On Education

I've been formally requested, now, to write a piece (or what will probably amount to several pieces) on education. Problem is, I've got to figure out exactly where I stand myself. I've got some reading to do, see. But one thing I am convinced of, however, is that the whole culture of mass education in America is misguided at best. I definitely agree that college is not for everyone. Thing is, I'm pretty sure high school isn't for everyone, either. Or oughtn't be. But I've got some reading and pondering to do before I can get my thoughts into a coherent order on this remarkably convoluted subject.

I Want One: Everything-Proof Convergent Phone

For the inauguration of my "I Want One" category, I bring you the everything-proof convergent phone from Sonim. It's waterproof, shockproof, and dustproof (a huge plus in this line of work), plus it includes such non-standard "apps" as a compass, thermometer, barometer, and altimeter. Which is to say, not only can it survive water, shocks, and dust, but it could also make itself very useful in places where such hazards are to be found. Needless to say: I want one. Apparently the manufacturer is still looking for a distributor, so I might have to wait a bit to get one of my own, but you know I will, if only to show up all those hipster iPhone users. "Ooooh, you're phone goes 'boing' like Mario while you jump up and down? Sweet, but can it tell you the ambient air pressure? I didn't think so."

The Hurricane Has Won

In discussions on the proper prosecution of anti-terrorism strategy the argument often comes up that if we, as Americans, change our behavior or compromise our shared political ideals, then "the terrorists have won", by successfully changing our behavior in what is fundamentally a culture war. So why, after making such a show of maintaining our American spirit in the face of terrorism, have we completely capitulated to a hurricane? Nobody at the Republican Convention can do anything one way or another to prevent damage from Hurricane Gustav to the city of New Orleans. It's not like they're putting their activities on hold so they can all head down and sandbag the levees. But it's a sign of the Oprahization of America, apparently, that it's now apparently insensitive to go about your business when someone (or in this case, someone's property) may be suffering, somewhere. Sensitivity requires us all to put our lives on hold so we can sit around wringing our hands in the face of any incipient potential "tragedy".

Sidenote: New Orleans is deserted. The evacuations were mandatory and thorough. There will be no tragedy. If the city were to sink below the waves, the only people to go with it would be the unconscionably foolhardy. And the reporters. No tragedy. I know it would be pretty hard on all the people whose homes would be devastated yet again, but in light of this world of ours, I can't quite bring myself to get too hung up about a bunch of people losing their stuff.