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Alan Arvesen's Journal
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Date:2009-05-18 13:15
Subject:In Dreams

One of the most moving quest lines in the World of Warcraft is a level 60 quest that takes you all over the Plaguelands. Essentially, you find a lonely old man in a cave, who eventually ends up being a disgraced paladin, whose child has succumbed to the Legion and now leads that Scarlet Crusade. When you finally, after many quests, confront the child, who is of course a man, he has a moment of clarity and tells you...

For so long, I have been a puppet of the Grand Crusader. What reason was there to fight against what the Scarlet Crusade had become? It has been decades, yet the memories of my father; those precious memories, they are what have kept me alive.

I have dreams, stranger. In these dreams my father is with me. He stands proudly at my side as I am inducted into the Order. We battle legion of Scourge, side by side. We bring honor to the Alliance, to Lordaeron.

I want not to dream anymore.

Take me to him.

Still chokes me up.

For years, my standard stress and anxiety dream has been "finals are next week and I haven't gone to class all semester". I can pretty much pinpoint when I'm stressed out because I start having these kinds of dreams again. Usually, I'm at the same age that I am now, and usually I am skipping some class that I felt bad about skipping in undergrad (such as difficult calculus or chemistry). I wonder to myself in the dream, what is going to happen to my 3.75 GPA? Maybe I can cram enough in to learn this all? Where is the syllabus, shouldn't I be in class right now?

At one point I had this dream so often that I made up a rhyme to try to remind myself that I was not in fact dreaming. I'm a fairly lucid dreamer; that is, I often know inside of a dream that I am dreaming. I can occasionally bridge the gap between waking and sleep and remember something from my real life. The rhyme was pretty simple: something like "I am not enrolled in class nor am I failing fast." It was pretty bad, but it did help a little bit in the dreams.

These days, my stress dream seems to have shifted instead to a fear that I am not feeding Erica appropriately. I would wake in the middle of the night and ask Michelle in a flush of panic about some ritual that I was supposed to be performing in order to feed her. Or protect her. Or something. These aren't really dreams, they are more in that "hypnogogic" state where you are barely awake and barely asleep. So I have a hard time articulating exactly what I am fearful of, and Michelle just tells me to go back to sleep.

But I still have other dreams.

A few nights ago, I dreamt that Michelle and I were up on campus at UT. We saw a little boy by one of the buildings who looked alone. We talked to him, and figured out that his parents were inside the building. Inside was a library, but it wasn't his parents, it was a baby sitter who was studying for class. She thanked us for bringing him in. Then there were lots of kids around, and someone told me I had a beautiful daughter; what was her name? In the dream, I couldn't remember, and I had to ask Michelle. Then the other end of the hallway, that wasn't leading to a library, turned into a convenience store. In the store was a bunk bed, and small children were crowded into the beds, rolling over each other and giggling like a mess of puppies.

The store expanded and became as big as a walmart. I looked out the big windows and saw it was sunny outside. "That's strange", I thought, "it should be dark outside still, I don't remember the sun rising. A-ha, I bet I am dreaming." As I walked down an aisle, I looked away from the windows, then looked back and it was snowing. "Yes, I am most definitely dreaming", I said to myself.

This is an interesting thing about lucid dreaming: once you become lucid, you have to keep yourself calm. It's exciting to know that you are dreaming, mostly because you can control the dream, but it's easy to become too excited and wake yourself up. It is also easy to fall back out of lucidity and just begin plain old dreaming again. And, oddly, you are prone to "false awakenings" while you're dreaming, where you think you've woken up but really are just moving into another dream.

With all this in mind, I try to keep myself under control, and I wonder what I am going to see. If I am outside in a lucid dream, I always try to fly somewhere (this may sound weird). Since I was inside, my next favorite thing to do is to walk up to people in my dreams and scrutinize their faces, trying to see how detailed they really are (quite detailed) and seeing how they react when I tell them that I am dreaming them (usually with a laugh).

As I walk by the window, I look over into the next aisle and I see my old friend Brian Buck. Brian died about four years ago from cancer, and as it moved along it kept eating up parts of his body: an arm, a hip, and finally everything. But Brian here is like we were in high school, fully limbed and wearing an old green army jacket that I used to wear. He waves at me, and I am so happy to see him.

We begin to walk, and I tell him, "now I'd like to see Pete", who was another of our high school friends. And of course Pete walked around the corner, and all three of us were seventeen again, laughing away.

We walked to the corner Pete had come from, and around it was a bar that looked like a Hooters. I said something about Brian having two arms, and he told some old joke. I told him his joke was old, but that "that's the good part about being dead, you get a pass on it." The three of us thought this was enormously funny.

Next to us in the Hooters, there was a table filled with hair metal looking guys. They were all singing "Smooth up in ya". The three of us joined along in singing with them. I was thinking to myself that I had to keep my exuberance down to keep the dream going, but I felt so profoundly happy to be here with my friends, at least one of which I would never see again, and doing something we would never be able to do.

I felt a literal tug on my sleeve, and I knew the dream was ending. I told Brian and Pete goodbye, that it was time for me to go.

I woke up, falsely, back into the hallway by the library, and Michelle and I discussed what we were going to do that day. And then I woke up in my own bed in real life. Michelle was awake with Erica in herrood, and I went in and told them the story.

Brian and I drifted apart after undergrad. He ended up getting married to a woman I didn't care for, nor she for me. Michelle met him on a trip we took to New York in 2002, just after the towers fell. He had lost his arm by this point but not his hip and things were looking like they were in remission. We ate dinner somewhere with our buddy Michael Henderson and, I think, his now wife Lisa.

I don't feel guilty about drifting; that is what happens to people, and drifting is a two way process. After Brian died, I honored him in my own small way by naming a new computer after him. I still play WoW, and indeed played that very quest line, on Briandavid, which still chugs away most nights.

I do, of course, miss him, and think of how irreplacable a life is. All of those times we spent, just sitting around his kitchen with his scary dog Zeus, or joking about how cars work (he was a fiendishly informed mechanic), or the ridiculous over education we all endured in undergrad (he was a film studies major at NYU), all "those moments lost, like diamonds in the rain." Good old Roy Batty.

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Date:2009-02-13 13:19
Subject:The Labor

Depending on how you count it, the labor had already been going on for 62 hours. Michelle's contractions started on Sunday morning at 4 am. By noon they had gotten down to four minutes apart and we went to the hospital for the first time. The doctor said she wasn't dilated and that the contractions, though well timed, were not "productive". He sent us home.

Contractions continued all the next day. We went back to the doctor at 1 on Monday afternoon and there was still no dilation. We were just two days away from the due date, so we discussed what our options would be. The doctor suggested that we could induce labor if contractions continued much longer. He took the folder that her medical records were in and drew a quick chart. He explained that the best time for the baby to be born was right about now, as it would not be too early (when they may have breathing problems, etc) nor too late (when they are bigger and more difficult to pass, and they may possibly have a bowel movement while still in utero). He pointed to the dip he had put on his chart and said that this is where we were right now in terms of risk for the baby. He drew a flat line across the chart, very low, to indicate the risk of induction. He said that there were possible risks, but that they remained constant, regardless of when we induced.

We agreed to give induction a shot on Thursday if nothing had happened.

Monday night and early Tuesday morning, the contractions greatly increased in strength. We had stopped bothering to time them. Michelle could not sleep. I could barely sleep. At about four in the morning, Michelle's spirits were at a nadir. The pain had increased along with the strength. I tried to calm her down. I told her, it's normal to feel pain. I told her, Trapper's office opens at 7:30, we can call immediately when they open. I told her, we can call him right now if you'd like. I told her, we can induce tomorrow if that's what we need.

Right at 7:30, we called Trapper's office. They said meet him over at the hospital, he was already there delivering. When we got there and they examined Michelle, she had dilated to 4 centimeters. Trapper observed, "We've got a keeper."

Michelle's contractions were very strong, but they were no longer regular. Trapper suggested that we go ahead and start a pertossin drip. This is what they use to induce labor, but in this case it would be to get the contractions closer together. He suggested that Michelle had endured enough and would probably be best getting an epidural.

Epidural at 11:15. Pertossin about 11:45. Trapper broke her bag of waters during the noon hour, and Michelle managed to get a little bit of sleep. The baby continued to move lower during the afternoon, and at 4 pm Trapper pronounced Michelle fully dilated and said it was time to push. He advised us that first time moms take a little longer, but he hoped that we'd have a baby by six o'clock.

Michelle pushed for two and half hours. Around 6:30, our nurse was consulting the endless readouts that measure both the mom's contractions and the baby's heart rate. She told us, "just push every other time now."

Trapper came in a few minutes later, perhaps to a silent summons from our nurse. He also looked at the readouts. He asked Michelle to stop pushing.

From the looks of things, he explained, the baby appears to be getting tired. At this point, it's not good for her to keep on pushing. We have to discuss our other options.

These options are essentially either a mechanical extraction, in this case forceps, or a caesarian section birth. Trappers assures us that he is an old pro with the 'ceps; two of his four kids were born that way. However, there are risks to the baby, all the way from bruises to brain damage. He believes that the c-section is less risky for the baby, but that it is a much higher risk for the mother.

"Any way we turn now, there is risk."

His suggestion: prep for the caesarian. While Michelle is on the operating table, he will give the forceps a shot. If those don't work, they can immediately preform the cut.

I am holding Michelle's hand. All I can smell in the room is blood. I can see Trapper standing there, patiently waiting for an answer. I don't know if our nurse is looking at us. Michelle is looking at me and she is thinking.

I think of the women I have know who have had caesarians. They are laid up for weeks after the birth. A c-section is major surgery, cutting open the woman I love, possibly watching her die on the operating table. I think of Michelle before she was pregnant, of holding her smooth, flat belly in my hands and wondering what the scars would look like, what would happen to the tender veins and the hard muscles once the knife tore into her.

I think about some distant image I conceived of when I was small, back when I had asked someone, probably my mom, about forceps. I have no idea when this was. I was probably five years old. But I clearly see the tongs of the forceps, which in my mind look like the tongs my father used to move hot charcoal in our grill, crushing the head of small child in an x-ray like view. I know the forceps look nothing like that. I know that people are delivered this way. And yet, and yet.

The forceps we saw in our baby class are much larger than those tongs. The blades are as large as your hands. They are light and metal and hollow, almost as if they were something you'd find on an expensive racing bicycle. I imagine those bladed hands entering my wife, I imagine those bladed hands crushing my child.

No matter which we way we turn, we are faced with risk. There is violence at every turn.

Probably no more than a second has passed. Michelle is still looking at me and thinking.

James Dickey said that the problem with peace time is that you never get to find out if you're a coward. I get to find out right now: I am awash in fear, crippled with the terror, and I have to make some sort of decision. I have to act. All my sins, all my lies, all my bullshit come down to this. What do you do? What do you choose?

Who do you choose?

In these fractions of second, I feel my fear crest. I let it come. It let it go. I feel inside of myself for a place of clam that I know will be there. Inside my chest, inside my heart, I can feel it, the softly ringing silence. I have been to this place before. I was here when I stopped that guy from coming down the aisle of the bus towards Traci. I was here when I told Andy that I was quitting Garden.com, throwing away my career, getting in my car, and "driving East". I was here when I was fumbling for my words with Michelle, trying to pull the ring out of my pocket.

It's the place I always imagine you'd be if you were ocean size: huge and silent, no talking, just all action. It's the place I imagine where the tao lives, or what is left when you finally stare mu shin or sunyata in the face. I imagine it's where the saints and martyrs go.

Courage is not the absence of fear; it's having the proper amount of fear towards the proper things.

I want my baby. I want my wife. All choices are freighted with risk. I must be strong, I must be brave, I must not fear.

The calculus of ascending risk seems to me clear: forceps then c-section. Michelle is saying this to me. I am agreeing with her. This has all happened within seconds.

They put me into an operating gown, cover my had in a shower cap, give me enormous rubber boots and a mask. All of the nurses are now wearing masks as well; their eyes are watchful and detached above the blank squares of white. I make some weak joke asking Trapper if, since we are going to be in the OR together, he will please call me "Hawkeye". I don't remember what he says back to me.

They ask me to wait by the sinks where they scrub in. I am in a metal chair, hollow and light like the forceps themselves. No one is exactly ignoring me, but it is clear that no is talking to me either. I watch the blank faced nurses, intent on their tasks. I watch Trapper talking to a younger doctor, telling him "Not sure if I'll need you" but asking him to be ready just in case. I watch Trapper talk to an older doctor, kidding each other about "causing trouble". Just a couple of old boys doing their jobs.

The fear has not left. It's a palpable presence with me at my side. To keep it under control, I think about the Litany Against Fear. More than one person has confessed to me that they, too, have fallen back on this tiny bit of fictional comfort. In the midst of all the ridiculous, rococo world of Dune, the imaginary ninja-catholics got this right.

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer, fear is the little death. I will let me fear wash over me."

Days later, I will look up the Litany on the net to see how close I got it right

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Right after seven o'clock, they tell me that they are ready in the OR. Inside, the walls are yellow and the table is black leather. It all looks older than I thought it would. There are about ten people standing here. Michelle is on the table, a sheet draped across her middle just as you would expect it to be. They have moved the metal chair inside the room now, and put it by Michelle's head.

The doctor Trapper talked to earlier introduces himself as Kevin something. He is the anesthesiologist. His face, like mine, is covered. Another man talks to me over my other shoulder. His name is Cody and he is with the newborn ICU. They will examine the baby when she is born. His face is also covered. He asks me if I know the gender, and congratulates me. They both shake my hand. Everyone refers to me just as "Dad".

I sit by Michelle. I hold her hand with my left and with my right I stoke her hair. Behind me on the right is Kevin; behind me on the left is the team from the NICU. On the other side of the sheet are a half dozen nurses, including UT nursing students. They stand in a loose semi circle, quiet and watchful. To my left the machine which measures contractions is going again, and a single nurse is watching that.

Trapper stands in the middle, between Michelle's legs. He has an affair of absolute competence and authority. He walks forward with the forceps and shows them to us. They are cold and metal and hollow. He does a quick demonstration of pulling on his fist with the blades. I can't help but think this is like the medieval torturer, showing the victim the instruments before he is put to the Question.

Trapper resumes his spot below Michelle. Someone else is by him. Trapper advises us that the nurse by the monitor will tell us when the next contraction is. When it happens, Michelle will push three times. He will try the forceps for the three pushes of that contraction. Then, we will go to scalpel.

Trapper tells the nurse to tell us when the next contraction is. Then he announces to the room, "let's see if we can have ourselves a baby."

When the nurse says it's time to push, Michelle crushes her face in effort. She tells me later that she has never pushed harder for any reason at any time in her life.

Push, push again. Push a third time. Ninety seconds to go for the next contraction.

I can see that Trapper has put aside the forceps. I don't know what this means.

Ninety seconds later, the nurse excitedly tells us to push again. Michelle pushes once, pushes again. I hear someone say something about the head. I stand up to see over the sheet. In Trapper's hands, I can see our baby: silent, brilliant purple, one foot still in the birth canal, eyes wide and surprised to see this bright cold world.

It's 7:09 pm on Tuesday, February 3, 2009.

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Date:2009-02-12 11:56
Subject:Launch goes offline today

Well, sort of.

Way back in 2001 my buddy Jeff Goke recommended a site called launch.com for streaming audio. It had the awesome features of letting you skip songs, letting you rate songs, and trying to play new songs that it thought you would like. It was free with commercials. After using it for several months, I went ahead and ponied up for the paid version, It was a modest $3 or $4 a month, and I was listening to it essentially 40 hours a week.

8 years later, I have still been listening to launch. I have loved not buying CDs. I have loved going from job to job and still having "my" music. I love being able to listen to it at work or at home. Even after they got bought by yahoo, things were pretty much the same as they ever were.

I had minor quibbles, essentially being that I couldn't listen to it via Firefox or on a mobile device. I would have dearly loved to be able to listen to my station as I tooled around town lake or driven around town.

About a month ago, I got a note in my email. Launch had been sold to CBS, and CBS is discontinuing the paid version of the stream. This means that "my station" will no longer be there. I can tune into many different channels, but none of them will be tailored to my unique test, and I assume they will have commercials.

I have tried a few other channel based streams. I love to work to dance music, so I tried both soma.fm (http://somafm.com/) and digitally imported (http://www.di.fm). Waaaay back before launch I listened to spinner. It looks like it is still around, but maybe not in the same line of business.

There are other sites that will learn what you like. I have heard that both pandora and last.fm are good. The launch guys suggest going to rhapsody. I may have to switch.

Once I found out they were going under, I thought about all the songs I had rated. You can use a 0 - 100 scale; 100 means "love it", zero means "never play again". You can rate bands, albums, or songs. I did a quick look at "my station" and found that I had rated just over 7,700 songs. Goodness!

Luckily, you can view all of your song ratings. Unluckily, you can only view 99 at a time and then hit "next". Egad. With a little perl hacking, I wrote a script that would generates URLs as if I had hit the next button 77 times and downloaded all the pages. Then I wrote another perl script to coalesce the data into a tab delimited format, and finally I pulled it up in Excel to crunch some numbers.

The numbers weren't that interesting. The most interesting, perhaps, is that of those 7,700 ratings, approximately 3,5000 were "never play again". Ha!

But most important, I hope, will be a list of songs that I really liked at some point (you can change the ratings over time, so the current list of favorites has changed over the past eight years). Because one of the best things about launch was finding out new music that I had never heard before but ended up really liking.

Today (Feb 12th) is the last day "my station" will be available, so I thought I would share just 15 of the songs that launch introduced me to that I have enjoyed. Tricky's "Hell's Around The Corner" is one of those, but since I made a whole post about it, I guess I won't include it. In no particular order...

The Mars Volta - Goliath/Rapid Fire Tollbooth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPvCz2xuVJo)
De La Sol - Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa (only the instrumental version on YouTube, sadly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPvCz2xuVJo)
Jesus and Mary Chain - Birthday/Happy when it rains/Sidewalking (only crappy live versions on YouTube)
Emmylou Harris - Where Will I Be - (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YpE47V1AHE)
Timbaland - Lobster & Scrimp, et al - (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1niTSAD8tXI)
Fu Manchu - Squash that Fly (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7DKurc35qI)
Go Betty Go - Son Mis Locuras (embarrassing machinma http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUnS_pFsksc)
Peter Bjorn And John - Young Folks (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51V1VMkuyx0)
Flogging Molly - Cruel Mistress/Float/et al (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcEEAjGtAkY)
Tiesto - Adagio for Strings (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O666kGBEvF0)
Mya - Lock You Down (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpy4hWncDqY)
James McMurty - Rachel's Song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4x1UY4DdyFc)
Ugly Duckling - Visions of Grandeur (http://www.myspace.com/uglyduckling)
Inspiral Carpets - Weakness (crappy live version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBKJ_1o1fFw)
Tarbox Ramblers - Ashes to Ashes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcBwOelBeL4)
TV On The Radio - Wolf Like Me (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUB1xSAAADk)

Okay, that last one I heard in a coffee shop last year, but I loved it too much to not include it. I spent a whole week just listening to it obsessively.

So long launch. It's been a great 8 years.

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Date:2008-11-21 20:47
Subject:Articles of Faith
Mood: cranky

I'm reading up about the current slow motion implosion in the financial world, that of Citibank. Those fuckers were gorged on the trough of Enron-like organizations called "Structured Investment Vehicles". Those of you who read anything about Enron's "Raptors" would note a resemblance between the two stinkers: stuff a bunch of crap into an "off balance sheet" vehicle so that you can record some fake gains while hiding any fluctuations and losses off in the weeds.

Citi not only took a page from Enron, but is also taking a page from current uber-failures such as Bear and Lehmans. Part of that page reads "reiterate your 'strength' in the face of a crushed stock price and serial capital raising". At the same time as Citi was firing fifty thousand (yep) people on Monday, they were madly spinning that they had enough money and "strength" to make 2009 even better than 2008 lolz!

Anyway. Their stock is down around $3. Which doesn't strictly "matter", in that the stock price doesn't really effect day-to-day operations, except that it does. And it matters because stock price is widely seen, correctly or not, as a measure of health of the company. As the stock slides, some entities (such as pension funds) will have to sell because they have by laws prohibiting them from investing in speculative penny stocks. Other companies will demand more collateral in order to make deals with Citi, which will further erode their capital. And at the root of all that capital are plain old bank deposits, which are provided by the hoi polloi like you and me. Folks are very familiar with getting screwed by having too much dough in one bank (see: IndyMac), so you can expect withdrawals to start happening. And that will be the final crushing which will lead the FDIC to take over the joint.

But why would people start withdrawing? Because the faith runs out.

I had to look up what articles of faith actually are - a list of beliefs professed by some Christian sect. "We believe in the Bible is the word of God". Essentially a first principles document for your sect.

But it all starts with that "we believe". That belief underlies not only the revealed wisdom of Christianity but also that of capitalism. For even the most basic of economic transactions, there has to be a level of trust and belief (i.e., this horse you're trading me isn't sick or full of greeks). As you move past barter into money economies, the trust has to be ramped up. Being able to accept that money is a "store house of value" means that you accept that someone else will accept this. And as you move from asset backed currency (such as the gold standard) to fiat money (such as the money in your wallet right now), trust is the only thing providing value at all.

A bank run is similar. Banks only have on hand a fraction of the money "on deposit" with them. If everyone goes at once, the bank dries up and blows away. Amazingly, if everyone would just calm down, and not try to withdraw at once, your bank would usually survive. But no one wants to be the last one holding the bag, so the rush is on.

(BTW, fractional reserve banking isn't evil at all. It's perfectly normal. If I borrow $100 from you and then let another friend of mine borrow $50, I have just engaged in fractional reserve banking. Though I still owe your $100 - or, to look at it another way, you have $100 of deposits with me - I now only have $50 on hand.)

The same thing would happen if your mortgage company all of a sudden demanded the rest of your mortgage get paid off this month. It's likely you wouldn't be able to, and would have to declare bankruptcy.

So trust underlies the banking system, and indeed the whole financial system.

But what else does it underlay? Personal relationships, naturally. Work relations, too. Sometimes you can tell that folks have lost the confidence of their peers and that they're sliding out. Or the company itself has lost confidence in its business plan and it's falling apart.

I think it's relevant that parliamentary governments hold "votes of no confidence" in order to drive someone out.

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Date:2008-10-21 22:33
Subject:Coolest thing I have yet to see

Back in Feb, I was reading some Austin blog about seeing local boys Ghostland Observatory. Austin has a lot of bands, and I frankly don't care for a great many of them.

This was about a show GLO had just done. They were then heading out of town.

GLO is a weird outfit. The one guy who makes the music just sits in front of his keyboard with his canned rhythms. The singer has a squawky voice and channels Freddie Mercury or Joe Cocker. Not everyone likes them. The folks who do like them seem to slaver over them, which always makes me cautious.

So, anyway, I'm reading this blog, and it's talking about how effing awesome the show was. Especially the climax, "The Band Marches On":


Once you watch that, you can check out this one with a little more intro:


Michelle actually played in the UT band for a year. I have to believe this would be the coolest thing ever for a band geek to participate in. And to see. In that first video, when the drums start blasting, you can hear some woman shouting "OH MY GOD".

Reminds me of a scene in On The Road when Sal is in San Francisco watching some jazz. He describes the drummer as not caring about anything but banging his busted tubs. That is the way I would feel, hammering away on my drums under the hot lights while the crowd... goes... wild.

GLO is back at Stubbs mid-November. Will my desire to see them win out over my desire to go to bed by 9 o'clock?

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Date:2008-10-08 19:21
Subject:How to make $13,000

Put $20k into the S & P 500 index in November, 2007. Financial genius here. Good thing I won't be retiring for a few years yet.

I've been trying to make this investment stuff my hobby over the past few years (figured I would replace WoW with dough, you know). I've been somewhat successful at that. I'm starting to realize, though, that I'm in danger of becoming that guy who only talks about this stuff. Which is rather dreadful. Even among guys who I figured would be interested in this stuff (like, folks with MBAs) I start getting these kind of glazed looks and vague, off putting statements like "ah, investments must be nice, we're saving up for XXX".

In my defense, I'll plead that we're having the most exciting and disturbing financial situation in our life times.


Other things to talk about: working out! I've been sticking with my one-day-a-week run pretty well. I aimed to try a schedule of bike-gym-run-rest, so that I'd be running every four days rather than 7 days. The knees don't seem to like that, so I guess I have to load up on the other two. Though it pretty much ends up being, over any one week, 1 day of running, 1 day at the gym, and two bike rides.

I've been kind of undergoing a renaissance in the gym. I managed to blow my back out earlier in the year doing dead lifts + other crap. I decided that deads just aren't for me. Or maybe they could be, but you need to exercise some restraint, and I just can't do that.

I didn't go the gym at all for about three months. When I say "blew out my back", I don't mean my previous "oh snap, my back is sore for a few days" issues. I mean, "oh snap, I can't farking stand or sit or turn or get in and out of the car or lie down or sneeze without excruciating, crippling pain". Sneezing was, indeed, incredibly painful. The doc said that is common. Great.

The physical therapy did the trick for me, but man I was gunshy of the gym.

So I started going again regularly a few months ago. I decided that it was time, finally, at my age, to check the ego at the door and accept lighter weights when I'm doing stuff. I decided to revisit some old standbys and really focus on doing them correctly instead of just moving the weight around. I was also interested in firming up the old backish regions, which include your butt, hip flexors, and other obscure muscle groups.

I used to be very proud of my 300 lb squat, but my form has gone to hell since college. I was nervous about getting back into it due to the back thing. So I thought, hmmm, maybe I'll try some squat variations. And maybe work on some of those exercises that are good "helper" exercises for your squat. What I mean is that guys like the Westside Barbell crew, who are interested in training world record type squats (we're talking more than 1,000 lb here), are big believers in doing weird exercises that help target the smaller muscles that help your squat.

So I sucked up my embarrassment and decided to give some of these new exercises a shot. I have given the front squat a try with the great weight of... just the bar. That means getting into the damn squat rack, putting just the 45lb bar in there, cozying up to it and grabbing on, then backing out and trying to do ten solid, perfect reps with just this skinny bar in front of you. No wheels on either side. Nothing that looks like a strong back squat. No groaning and struggling under the weight of the world like Atlas.

I've never trained like this before. In the front squat, as implied by the name, the bar is in front of your neck and resting on your anterior deltoids, rather than behind your neck across your trapezius muscles like in a normal squat. With just this crappy little bar, I'm watching my knees wobble and shake all over the place as I try to focus on my balance. I'm trying to both keep my elbows high to hold the bar in place and not choke myself with the damn thing. I'm thinking about how straight my back is and how low I can get and how flexible my ankles are. I'm thinking about just moving up and down in a smooth line.

Really, it's something else.

Other humbling exercises have proven to be the walking lunge and something called a "bulgarian split squat". In the BSS, you essentially do a lunge, and the put your back leg up on a box or bench. Then you squat up and down like that. With no added weight (though remember I clock in at 260), I can get 5 - 6 reps per side before my legs have swollen tight with blood and are in extreme duress.

I've been working in an ancient standby, the good morning (which is essentially bowing) and trying to mimic some of the stuff I did in physical therapy. And, through it all, trying to keep up with the back stretches the guys taught me.

I plan on hitting the gym this afternoon (you know, in 26 minutes), so I'm thinking about this stuff now.

Last bit: we heard this song "Wolf Like Me" the other morning at Flipnotics. I've been listening to it over and over on YouTube. TV on the Radio is like David Bowie meets Jesus and Mary Chain. Each song is different, so it makes it a little harder for me to get into. But this song is great. And it's about being, you know, a werewolf.

Okay, last last bit: for the egg head book club, I've skipped ahead to reading Thucydides. May have trouble finishing it in time for the November meeting, but so far so good. In between the mind numbing recitations of whatever tribes are attacking whatever city, there's some real drama in there. Sea battlers where Phorim is cutting apart the Pelopennese, or the plague in Athens, or even the imperiousness of Pericles. Amazing stuff.

First thing out of Pericles mouth, when the Athenians are trying to decide if they should go to war or not:

I have always held to only one principle, and that principle is: no concessions to the Pelopennese.

Oh yeah, it's on.

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Date:2008-10-06 15:55
Subject:Garage Sale - done

Though tiring, the garage sale went off smoothly. Sold a good chunk of stuff, then ran around to the used computer store, Goodwill, pawn shop, Habitat for Humanity, and the Yellow Bike Project to donate/sell various left overs. We ended up with three boxes of left overs, so we got rid of the strong majority of stuff.

Poor Michelle has been laid low with allergies. She had to go so far as to take some benadryl last night (which I refer to as "the nuclear option", since it knocks you out cold, giving you relief either through anti-histamine action or pure stupefacation). In my loooong experience with allergy misery, getting away from the allergen and sleeping are about the only two things that are effective once you're getting the beat down.

Since I take Zyrtec nearly every day, I have a glow of magical armor around me that does a good job of repelling most allergens. It is, alas, not impenetrable - last winter we played a round of frisbee golf in a cedar forest, and I was laid out for two days afterwards.

On Sunday, our neighborhood organized a block party. We have never, as far as I remember, had one in the eight years I have lived in the house. They ostensible reason was to celebrate that our streets have finally been repaved after apprx 15 months of water line work. I'm not going to missing driving over and around the holes in the street on the way to work, nor dodging the dirt movers that would move from corner to corner over the past several months.

Michelle wanted to go but had to stay at home (see: allergies). I walked the two blocks over the party at 4 pm. For a spur of the moment thing, they had done a great job. They blocked off the street for about four house lengths with plain old saw horses. Inside the horses, they put out a few tables for the potlucked goods. The organizers had ponied up to grill some hot dogs and everything else was either bring your own or rely on luck.

A couple of the scruffy neighborhood kids set up their band equipment another four or so houselengths down - they were concerned that they'd be too loud for us oldsters. It was actually really nice. Us old busted fogies swilled beer and ate hotdogs while they rocked out; the teenaged kids hung out by the rock band away from our direct influence and observation; and the little kids whizzed back and forth between the band and the kids on their bikes, scooters, skate boards, etc etc.

We did a cheezy but funny "human powered parade" to walk around the block and show, uh, our solidarity or something. Then back to the hotdogs and to chat up the neighbors for a few hours. It ended up being a heap of fun.

Today, I plan on wrestling with a VM all afternoon and crying to myself as the market continues to hemorrhage.

Special note: JR had her appendix out this weekend. Michelle was planning on visiting (see: allergies again) to say hi. I think she'll still get up there, but I'm glad that your mom came to town to help take care of the kid. I hope you get to feeling okay. How does one get appendicitis, anyway?

I told Michelle that in order to cheer you up that she should remind you that chicks dig scars.

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Date:2008-10-03 15:43
Subject:Garage Sale

As you well know, we live in a tiny little house. 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, 1000 sq ft. We're in the midst of shuffling some things around in preparation of the kid. Part of that is pairing down what we have so we can fit the influx of baby gear.

To that end, we're having a garage sale tomorrow. We've got a good supply of stuff. Put our ad in Craig's List today, I'll go work on signs this afternoon.

In the past, we've made anywhere from $100 - $300 from these sales, so that is always nice. After the sale is over, we pack up everything that is left over and send it to Goodwill. Off she goes, and we have a little more room.

It felt like we did an awful lot preparing for the sale. Now when I start looking around the house, there seems like more we could get rid of. But we should have plenty for the impending kiddo.

Next things up: planning on buying a car next weekend, possibly re-painting the room we're moving into, and then of course moving all the furniture around. Michelle and I are planning on sharing a computer for the time being, we'll see how that goes. She insisted that we cut down to only one desk, and hence only one computer. Upside is that we can go dual headed on the monitors. We're hoping that our different usage patterns (she works in the morning, I play games in the evening) will work out.

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Date:2008-10-02 21:24
Subject:Back on Campus

So I did, in fact, go about the big bike trip yesterday.

Texas has a program called "TexShare" which affiliates libraries with each other. You go to your home library, such as the Austin Public Library, and get your TexShare card. Then you go to your target library, such as the University of Texas, show them your card, and they issue you a special borrowers card. Then you check stuff out. How cool is that? Go Texas.

I graduated 15 years ago. It's kind of hard to completely avoid campus since it's really part of downtown. A good portion of my jobs have been within 15 blocks of it, and Michelle has worked nearly across the street from it for the past six years. But I haven't spent a lot of time there in the past decade, and I certainly haven't spent time inside of the buildings.

Unsurprisingly, some things have changed in the big library, the PCL. The automatically-revolving-door, which was installed while I was in undergrad, has been replaced by a plain old manually-revolving-door. In the lobby, the towering hulks of card catalogs are all gone. They've managed to put in a coffee shop into the library, replacing I-don't-remember-what.

As I got my Courtesy Borrower's Card, I talked to the librarian about things that have changed. The Undergraduate Library is gone, now housing (I think) the Life Sciences library. When I reflexively began to recite my social security number for her, which was your ID for like everything, she told me that this was no longer the case, and that even grubby ex-students like me had been assigned new Electronic IDs. Well I'll be.

I managed to guess correctly which floor my book was going to be on and managed to find the catalog search. A few more clicks, and I found the stacks ("5R", I believe) that contained the books I wanted (PG38 something or other, since UT uses the Library of Congress system rather than the old-and-busted Dewey Decimal used by APL). In amongst the batched of Russian and Hebrew language books, I managed to find not only Nabakov's 2 volume (!) line-by-line (!!) and sometimes word-by-word (!!!) commentary of Eugene Onegin, but also a book devoted entirely to one character of the novel. Good Lord. I finally dug out an English language survey of EO criticism, which should be enough for my purposes.

I checked out my book and found another surprise: the road that goes between Jester and PCL doesn't actually go all the way to MLK anymore; the Blanton art museum is in the way. Ah well, good thing I was on my bike.

I started reading through the book last night, and had more uncomfortable flash backs to undergrad. It makes you realize how much bull crap there is in academia. So many catch phrases and buzzwords. I know the point is to be precise, but what you really end up with is defensive obfuscation. Am I really helped by knowing that so-and-so's critique focuses on the "structuralist" elements of the text? Naga, please.

Ah well. I had a great bike ride around the city, the weather can't be beat right now, and I felt like I had reimmersed myself in the great stream of learning. What a great day.

Now, my big choice tonight: watch the debate at 8 o'clock, or watch the Chris Rock special?

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Date:2008-10-01 10:39
Subject:The End of Summer

I was riding my bicycle in to work this morning thinking about this song

This is for warm days that drift away
While the sun sets and the ghetto plays
Long nights on a hot summer's block
When you sip your brew and never touch your Glock

Summer's nearly over and October always gets me going again.

There's financial armageddon going on, which has everyone worried. Including me, naturally. As of Monday the retirement fund had lost $40k, which is always a lot to swallow. As Peter Lynch said, the most important organ when investing is not the head, but the stomach.

But, as I rode into work today, I thought about money and what we're spending it on. The kid'll take up some dough. Retirement will take some up, so hopefully we aren't sitting in a nursing home somewhere. But right now, what exactly do I spend money on?

Today my big plan is, for lunch, to ride my bicycle over to the Austin Public Library and get a "TexShare" card. This lets me check out books from other libraries, including UT. Then I plan on riding over to UT to look for a book about Eugene Onegin for the upcoming nerd book club. It's a potent combination: exercise, knowledge, and zero dollars.

Michelle and I have talked about our spending before. When we look at the credit card bill, a significant part is going out to eat. We have tried to curtail that somewhat by going out "only" twice a week. Some of that cost then gets moved over to groceries, but I guess it's less overall.

Anyway, at the time of our discussion, I estimated that I personally spent most on food, books, and trips. I've since joined the library and have drastically reduced how much I spend on books. We still go on trips, and I still love to eat -- and of course I've currently gotta drink beer that's $10 a six pack rather than $5.

The context of the discussion was about general "stuff" that people buy. In particular, a college friend of hers who had just gotten divorced and the two of them declared bankruptcy. When we would visit them, up in Pflugerville, they had nice, but not extravagant, things. And there was a lot of empty room in their house. This was why their bankruptcy was puzzling to us - two newish cars, a new 2000 sq ft house in affordable Pfluger, a new TV, a new set of living room furniture, new I guess appliances, etc. No ridiculous things like, eh, collecting expensive gizmos or outrageous home automation. Just lots of middle class crap.

And the thing was... I don't think they even cared that much about it all. I mean, the new living room stuff from some chain store like Foley's. It was just, you know, a nice living room set. $2k or $3k down the drain for a sofa and matching chairs. The cars were, I think, a new Jeep and 1 year old Honda. Sensible bourgeois cars, but new. The TV was pretty big, but wasn't monstrously so. I don't think anything they owned was a purchase motivated by a feeling like, "you know, I've always wanted a Cadillac, let's buy one!" Nor were they at the mercy of a terrible outside circumstance, like a major illness or bailing out a loved one.

Just plain old, unloved stuff. And it bankrupted them.

One of the best object lessons I have ever had was Thomas More in a A Man For All Seasons. When seeing that his erstwhile protege has perjured himself in return for some sort of Welsh honors, More tells him, "Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?"

To be clear, they had other issues as well. It's hard to know if their money problems caused their marital problems, or vice versa, of (most likely) the two were intertwined and reinforcing.

That kind of thing scares the bejesus out of me, much more so than a market decline (JP Morgan, when asked what the stock market was going to do, famously replied "It will fluctuate"). Which when I look at it is a little strange. I'm more afraid of something I can control, i.e. the buying of useless crap, than I am of something I cannot control, i.e. market issues.

I don't know where exactly I got this attitude from, but I've felt it ever since I left my parents' house and went to college. I've always been suspicious of stuff. I've always distrusted debt. I've always been worried about being destitute.

That worry in itself is a conundrum. I was reading through old canceled checks recently, and I see that in undergrad I would often have a frightfully small sum in the bank. We're talking $20 here. Of course, Mom and Dad were there to back me up, but I never overdrew my account. I always managed to live within those means. So though I've been worried about going into debt, I've never (other than the house) actually gone into it.

Another facet of that is that when I was poor, I was actually very happy. I managed to go skiing the first year I was out of college, even though I only earned $7,000 that year. I remember sitting in my tiny little 300 sq ft apartment in the hood, listening to "Linger" by the Cranberries of all things, and thinking, "I am truly happy right now". Even back then, I was a good saver, and seeing my little UFCU account creep up month by month was a big thrill.

But as Jay Z says, more money more problems. As I've gotten older and wealthier, I find myself worried about it a lot more. I worry about being broke a lot more than I'm not poor than I did when I was poor. I used to talk to a co-worker about this, and he said he had the same issue. He had won the options lottery at another company and had plenty of dough in the bank. But he lived a nearly monastic lifestyle. He confessed to me that his sister, who was a public school teacher, challenged him by asking, "do you think this money has really made you happy? You worry about it all the time."

Yeah, yeah, "wish I had that problem", I know. I'm not complaining here. I'm curious about it, is all.

Michelle and I were talking about our ability to save recently (if you get the impression that we talk about money a lot, you'd be correct. I have always believed that we should be absolutely transparent about our finances). We've been lucky in that we both have good jobs. But, at the same time, we've made choices that are unusual. We share a single, 11 year old car. We live in a 1,000 square foot house. We don't have a ton of clothes (see: 1,000 square foot house). I think riding my bike to the library is something fun to do.

I haven't balanced my check book since about 1995, so I'm not exactly sure how much we spend each month (I just got in the habit of looking at the starting balance and the ending balance each month. If the latter was bigger, I was satisfied). But I'm pretty sure it's a lot less than most folks. We can't help but save money.

Back when we had the conversation above, that we spend money on books, food, and trips, Michelle said, "true, but those are the most awesome things".

Haha. I agree with it of course.

That is one of the threads of this post that I am trying to get back to. I mentioned the folks who bankrupted themselves on unloved stuff. I compare this to when Traci bought her first car, a Honda sedan. Traci had come up from nothing: moving to the US when she was 10, she and her mom leaving her dad with $20 between them in her teens, making it through undergrad and law school, and finally buying a car. Hell, she even had to take driving lessons before she bought the car.

At the same time she bought her Honda, I bought a little Nissan truck. I bought it because I needed a car, it was an automatic, and I could get zero percent financing.

I hated that truck. I hated every ding I got because it was a ding on my brand new truck. I hated paying the "new car" payment of $300/month after it was no longer new. I had substantial buyer's remorse.

When I talked to Traci, I had a revelation. She loved her car. She told me that she would go outside and just stare at her car because she loved it so much. I told her that when I looked at my truck I thought, "I love zero percent financing".

Spending money on something you love makes sense. Even if what you love is your car. After all, money is, at the end of the day, there to be spent.

I imagine that like many people, money represents complex and conflicting things to me. It represents freedom, because we're not tied to jobs we hate and because we can travel anywhere we want to (that was my dad's definition of being rich: being able to go the airport and buy a ticket for anywhere in the world). At the same time, it represents restriction, because now I am careful to shred statements, and I find myself worrying about it more. It represents both physical success and spiritual impoverishment - the suburbs where I grew up are excellent examples of both. It represents an ability to help out liberal causes, like our annual donations to Safe Place, as well as an obligation to consider fiscal facets of governance.

Dennis Kozlowski, the convicted felon who was CEO of Tyco, was asked at one point, why did you do all this crazy illegal crap to earn more money? You already had a shiat load of money. More money than folks could reasonably spend (he had what a coworker once called "stupid cash: enough cash that you can buy stupid stuff with it". See: $2,000,000 birthday party). Kozlowski said that he kept going further and further because money "was a way of keeping score." Which is breathtaking in both its honesty and its avarice.

Which is an aspect of money, and one I also wanted to get back to. It does feel like a measure of success, and more is always better, right? But why is that? Money in the bank doesn't "do" anything. I was thinking about it today, about riding up to UT on my bike. Here I'll be, the sweaty old guy in the library with the backpack. Is that a frugal guy with money, or is that a bum?

I guess it shouldn't matter, but it does.

I'm not looking for anyone's adulation, nor would I feel comfortable receiving it. But I do want to be generous in spirit and in deed. I read one time that Jerry Jones always picks up the check when he goes to lunch. As the article said, even if there were 1,000 people eating at that lunch, you'd have to shoot Jerry to get him to not pick up the check. My dad has the same habit: he always wants to pay, and I suppose that's where I got it from.

Anyone who's reading this has probably eaten with me, and knows that I usually pick up the check :)

That is what that money lets us do. Gives us the freedom to buy lunch for our friends. Which may be a minor matter, but I think it's pretty cool.

I occasionally think we should go buy a boat, or a second home somewhere where we can ski, or join some country club, or some other retarded thing. Maybe someday we'll be rich enough for that.

This post has gone a lot longer than I intended it to. I have mentioned several revelations I have had about money over the past twenty years. I'll tell you one more.

Probably the most influential money book I have ever read was "Your Money or Your Life". Among many great revelations (you've made more money than you think; wages are what you get in return for hours of your life, which are irreplacable; being poor will make you miserable, but being rich won't make you happy; et al) was one about the "happiness" curve. They draw a curve based off of how happy people are vs. how much money they make. The curve is, somewhat, surprisingly, a parabola. That is, the richest folks aren't the happiest. Instead, the peak of the curve is somewhere further behind.

The authors build up to it perfectly. They say that was you can see, there is a peak to this curve. And this peak has a name. Do you know what it is?

You turn the page, and there is the same curve, but this time there is a circle drawn around the top of the curve. Next to the circle is a name. And that name is, simply, "Enough".

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Date:2008-01-24 15:19
Subject:I'm a good neighbor

This song is off of Tricky's 1995 album, Maxinquaye.  I've always liked this song and now I'm obsessed by the video


The lyrics were always strange; hypnotically droned out in Tricky's stoned slur with the occasional bright flourish of Martina Topley-Bird descending from heaven, they hint at some internal cohesion that is barely beyond your grasp.  I guess it's about drugs, or about his terrible upbringing, or something.

I take further evidence.
I seem to need a reference to get residence
A reference to your preference
To say
I'm a good neighbour,
I trudge
  so judge me for my labour
Lobotomy ensures my good behavior
The constant struggle ensures my insanity
Passing the indifference ensures the struggle for my family
We're hungry, beware of our appetite
Distant drums bring the news of a kill tonight
The kill which I share with my passengers
We take our fill, take our fill, take a feel

That seems pretty straight forward.  You're a suspect guy, so you need a reference in order to make it into the better, bourgeois parts of town ("I'm a good neighbor").  And good reason you're suspect - if you're listening to distant drums and sharing the kill with your passengers, I had better be wary of your appetites.

But maybe not quite so easy to figure out.  Where is he going with this?

Mr. Quail's in the crevice
And watches from the precipice
Imperial passage

Is it just word play?  Or is "Mr. Quail's in the crevice" really "Mr. Kray lays in the crevice", which I assumed was a reference to the British gangster.  Or are we even talking about Mr. Quaye, as in Tricky's grand dad, Maxine Quaye's father?  All very through provoking.

Added to that is the video which I am now currently obsessing over.  Go ahead and give it a watch.  It gives me the heebie jeebies, with Tricky as a kind of strung out Mephistopheles.  For such a simple video (95% of the video is a close up of Tricky singing), it has some surprising depths.  Why the hell does he have a cross on his hand?  What is up with that makeup?  The head shake thing to transfer between himself and Martina is a simple and clever device -- but what is more interesting to me is how similar it is to the device used in "Evolution Revolution Love".


Same thing - Tricky is singing, but his face literally changes between people here.  Very strange.  It makes me think there is some obsession of his own playing out here.

Back to the Hell.  The other thing that I find really interesting in this video are the facial expressions of Martina Topley-Bird.  She was very young in 1995, like 17 years old. The ingenue shines through at 27 seconds in.  The little eye lift and the shrug speak volumes.   Same with her slightly longer appearance 2:22; the slight uplift on "shelter" and  "isms schisms".

What I find so interesting is not just her (though I love her voice.  One of the few albums I have bought in the past years is her debut.  As someone said about Raymond Chandler, I think she sounds like a slumming angel).  What I find really interesting is how very little movement in the first appearance, literally a few centimeters worth, conveys a very distinct and complex impression.  An impression of unsurety, if that is even a proper word.

What is so amazing is how much humans can infer from so little about each other.  This is both good and bad of course - it lets you understand someone's interior feelings very quickly, which is undoubtedly useful for a societal animal.  Bad in that it leads quickly to prejudice, and bad that you can of course interpret minor movement incorrectly.

I think about it sometimes - how extremely minor changes make all the difference in how someone looks and how we then react to them.  An inch on a hairline, or a bust line, or a hemline, can completely change the impression we get of someone.

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Date:2007-07-30 09:53
Subject:Waiting for my Man

I'm in San Jose again, surprise surprise, and I'm two hours ahead of everything due to jet lag.  Not so bad, really.  Getting up at 5:30 in the morning has its appeals when it's not making your whole body scream in pain.  Go down to breakfast and there's not many folks, just the one group of young people (do I really call these kinds of folks "young people" now?) from the same company, comparing notes about how one guy slept in a bush on Saturday night after he got drunk, and the same guy is introducing a young lady to his co-workers whom I assume he picked up pre- or post-bush snooze.

Me, I've installed Warcraft so I could keep up my raiding commitment.  Heh, raiding commitment.  Remember how I was going to cut back?  My team killed three new bosses on Friday night in Karazhan, leaving only one boss in the whole place unpwnt.  Making in-roads on Gruul the dragon killer after our 2nd week or punching High King in the face.  Ah well, ah well.

I read Harry Potter, and man it was good.  The epilogue had me in tears.  Michelle hadn't read anything past the first one.  So we caught her up by going to see "The Order of the Phoenix" this weekend, and she is now reading "Half Blood Prince".  She asked me, "does Snape turn bad?" and of course I had to bite my tongue.  Someone I know said that book 7 was as good as "Dickens or Irving", hmmm, by which I assumed she meant John Irving, but maybe she was talking Washington.  Book 7's plot twists do remind me of something like "Tale of Two Cities", where everything gets all tied up at the end.  And, of course, we see Dumbledore as Basil Exposition, but that can be forgiven.  It's a role he's played in all the books, particularly the ones that followed the formula of trouble at privet - go to hogwarts - dumbledore alludes to some mysterious danger - children are plagued by Snape and Malfoy throughout the year as they close in on danger - fight danger and voldemort - dumbledore ties it all together - end of school year.

Mentioning Voldemort, the "Order of the Phoenix" was as good as all the HP movies have been.  Good all except for... Voldemort.  Hogwarts looks cool.  The Great Hall looks completely cool.  Quidditch looks cool (though no Quidditch in this one, and the broomsticks across London scene was a little cheesy but forgiveable).  Hagrid looks exactly like you expect him, as do Snape, Dumbledore, the children, everyone.  Everyone but... Voldemort.

In "Order of the Phoenix", Voldemort doesn't look menacing.  He looks... stupid.  The first view we have of him is in the the train station, King's Cross I suppose, in his... pin stripe suit?  What?  I guess this is some dig at Fudge, but Fudge isn't possessed by Voldemort, he is in denial.  But with the pale bald head and the sharp suit, he struck me as an 80's fashion icon of some sort.  Like David Bowie at his most insipd 80's look when he was winding off of the whole Ziggy Stardust thing.  And then during the climatic battle, when Harry is having these flashbacks and flash forwards of scenes of descruction, we keep seeing Voldemort pop into the picture, offset to one side, swinging his arms around.  Obviously he is meant to be casting spells, and supposed to be terrifying, but it's as scary as an 80's music video.

In fact, the first thirty or forty seconds of the Eurtyhmics' video "Sweet Dreams" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OufZbzsUtIo) stikes the same note as this supposedly terrifying descent into madness.  And Annie Lennox's beautiful mouth aside, she's got the pale, bald, suit wearing thing down.  Hell, she's even got a wand.

(now I'm listening to "Into the West" on youtube, what a wonderful song)

In the airport, the book selection seems to have been drastically reduced.  Either hardcovers or trashy paperback novels.  Now, I am not a snob when it comes to trashy novels (I read the Danielle Steele book "The Gift" whilst skiing one year).  But none of these particular ones appealed to me, not even good old Robert Ludlum who still appears to be cranking them out.  So I bought a "Harper's", which I hadn't read since undergrad when Traci subscribed to it.  Hey, David Foster Wallace wrote some funny stuff for them, maybe it will be cool.

Well, there was a cool article about a bizarre 3,000 mile race that's run in Queens around one city block (yeah, they just go around... and around... and around).  The rest of the magazine, though...  it was obsessed with its own intellectual and moral superiority.  I mean, there was an article about how environmentalists were sell out capitalist lap dogs.  The friggin Nature Conservancy was just a sell out organization, and you were a sell out too since you had the audacity to have a job.  Mmmmkay.

There was a reasonably interesting story called "Fiction", and an atrociously stupid short story called... uh... something else that started off without any verbs ("The beach, the sea, the blue umbrellas.  A sail. Then another, like a long arm climbing the horizon...Flat, feverless, an ocean too exhausted to make waves, an ocean that had see too much travel".  The story, btw, is called "Self-Portrait with Beach").  A paen against school choice vouchers (another insidious aspect of capitalism), a hatchet job against Giuliani (how he's a crypto-racist and drag queen), an incredibly snide interview with an author you've never heard of  (he doesn't bother to quit reading the paper), and a flaccid, meandering piece that was stitched together from a dying's man outline of a story about "Battling the Hard Man".

That "hard man" thing, in and of itself, was ridiculous.  Not only was obviously incomplete, but it didn't even make much sense.  The subtitle was "Notes on addiction to the pornography of violence."  Man, how I have come to hate that term "war porn."  It's once of those things that was shocking and now is just silly.  I get it, I get it - porn is a trope that represents that which satisfies our basest instincts.  So let's trot it out because people are morbidly fascinated with death.  While we're at it, let's use to label Lifetime movies (though "divorce porn" and "adultery porn" are probably already niches filled in the real porn world) and ESPN (where, also, the cheerleader is a staple in actual porn).  "War porn" is hardly new.  Look at any Grecian urn.  Friggin' Plato was writing about the tripartite soul and how that guy couldn't tear his eyes away from the dead bodies of the battlefield.  Is it because we can all say "porn" now without it sound so naughty, so low class, since we've all come to the tacit realization that we have the internet, and after all, the internet is for porn?

Heh.  Also mixed into all this "left winger than thou" are ridiculous bits about sex.  A prison house dictionary which obviously contains many sexual terms.  An excerpt from a scholarly work that a guy wrote about ejaculations - I kid you not - and by scholarly I don't mean medical, I mean referring to Aristotle, Beaudrillard, and Derrida.  One guesses that Derrida took up the mantle of Masters and Johnson after he tired of the pomo shtick.  A poem by Jerry Hall, yes, that one, which ends with the complaint that all Mick gave her was VD.

Bah.  Look we're so intellectual so we can titter at all this base sexiness.  Word porn or something.  Grapho--pornography.  Yeesh.

Anyway, I was pretty disappointed with Harper's.  It's getting harder and harder as I get older to bear with the Left.  Yet I can't bear to read the New Republic or any of that other claptrap.  Can't we get some good old Clintonian triangulation around here?

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Date:2007-07-10 00:09

We went and did a spinning class this afternoon.  For those who are unfamiliar, it's basically riding a stationary bike... but with 15 other people also riding stationary bikes and being "led" by an instructor.  The instructor tells you helpful things like "turn it up half a turn" (i.e. increase the tension on the bike so it's harder to pedal) or "get out of the saddle".  At our gym, for whatever reason, the spinning room is kept in near darkness with black lights (!) on during the actual class.

Back in the day, I was pretty strong on the bike.  That is no longer true.  I told Michelle at the end that I was going for Rocky I style - I just wanted to go the distance.

The music choice was unusual, but I liked it.  Two songs local boy Bob Schneider, AC/DC, Michelle's favorite Tom Petty song, that Superman song by Three Doors Down, Hey-ya by Outkast, and perhaps most surprising, "Say It Isn't So" by Weezer.  Friggin Weezer as a workout band, who knew.  I mean, I knew that Weezer Rocks, but this is new.

As I was grunting through all of that, I thought back to when I would ride the bike for two hours straight during that triathlon class just for the hell of it.  Of course, that was about the same time I didn't have a car and would actually ride my bike miles every day just to get around.  The spin class was about forty minutes and it was rough stuff.

The worst part of it, I suppose, is the elevated heart rate and all for hours afterwards.  It's after midnight, and I still don't feel like going to bed.

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Date:2007-07-05 09:45
Subject:The rarest of birds

Is one that actually makes me re-evaluate something important to myself.

I mentioned below that I've been reading The Affluent Society.  I'm as big a fan of it as now as I was when I wrote that earlier.  The last two chapters I read were about, respectively, using economic production as measure of general welfare (this is what they are talking about when measuring the Gross Domestic Product) and quanitfying consumer desire.

The two topics are related.  One of the issues with Bush's bread-and-circus tax rebate was to provide "economic stimulus" and spur not production but consumption.  The problem with Great Depression was, originally, that there was a surplus of goods that people couldn't buy.  This lead to deflation (since the goods were unsold, the prices went down) and people losing jobs (since dollars were worth more due to declining prices, old salaries became unbearably expensive to carry - as well, of course, as reduce revenue from the unsold goods).  So a significant part of a healthy economy is something that they call the "velocity" of money - that is, that it needs to keep changing hands to keep the economy moving.

The notion that velocity is healthy on a macro level is counter intuitive to the notion that saving is healthy on a micro level.  We, as consumers, provide the velocity in the economy, but we, as savers, provide not only our own security but also provide money that can be, assumedly, used even more efficiently by investors.

I remember reading an autobiography of Alexander Hamilton a few years ago, and he was famously against honoring the back payments of soldiers from the revolutionary war.  This is because in, his view, normal poor people just spend money, whereas rich people invest it.  Investment leads to a more efficient use of money, where efficiency is defined as "more goods are produced with fewer inputs", and GDP goes up and blah blah blah.

But, people still need to buy stuff at the end of the day.  The consumer sector, and in particular the service sector, of the US economy is enormous. If people aren't buying, then things aren't doing so hot.  So what do people buy?  That was the topic of the chapter I read this morning.  Economists have had to deal with, as JKG called it, "the indigestible fact" of price differentials.  In particular, why are some things that are very useful extremely cheap whereas other things that are extremely frivolous very dear?  Adam Smith referred to the situation of water and diamonds: the former is extraordinarily useful and free, and the latter is only used for decoration and is extremely expensive.  Remember that Adam Smith wrote before both metered utilities and industrial diamond usage, but the point still stands.  Water costs me approximately 1/10th of a cent per gallon from the city, whereas gem quality diamonds command thousands of dollar per 1/5 of a gram (or, as we call it, one carat). 

This is an interesting problem, and is related to another facet of economics.   That facet is that people never seem to become completely satisfied.  Indeed, if they did, then they would stop consuming, and the economy as a whole would suffer.  The fact that people are willing to pay a lot for things they don't really need is good for production, since it means that new desires can be created or realized and those desires can then be fulfilled from something else.

For an extremely contemporary example, look at the Apple iPhone.  For years and years the Apple camp railed on Microsoft for many reasons, one of which was that the bastards had a monopoly over the world and used that monopolistic practice to extract undue profit.  The iPhone, which, c'mon guys, is a fucking phone,  commands a staggering fifty-five percent profit margin.  That's right.  Half of the thing is pure profit.  Compare that with, say, garden.com, which did not compete on price, and commanded an approximately 20 percent margin.  Or compare it to a super market, which does compete on price, and typically enjoys a 1 percent margin.

Profit, of course, can be directly traced to demand.  Demand is related to supply, and of course no one else is supplying an iPhone.  But there are literally hundreds of options for plain old "phones", and remember, at the end of the days this is, as I said, just a fucking phone.  And nothing I have read has talked about how the phone sounds or dials (you know, the things that make a phone a phone).  But something about this phone makes people want it so desperately that they will pay double what it costs, and sit in line for a week like that freak in New York, just to own one.

I'm sure that there's an underlying point here about conspicuous consumption, but I'm not interested in that.  What I am interested in is that the iPhone can create a desire and demand that wasn't there before.  This desire is very, very compelling and, if you are not a fanboy, difficult to understand.  The same can be said for N Sync or World of Warcraft.

The underlying thesis of The Affluent Society is that historically, makind has been poor and, suddenly, this is no longer true.  Life was nasty, brutish, and short.  It is only very, very recently that a few countries have moved beyond poverty and into general affluence.  This is shocking, and surprisingly, our psychological apparatus and defenses are not holding up as they should.  I remember reading a Men's Health article once that put it succinctly: the reason we get fat is that we were bred to expect famine, and that our bodies haven't caught up to our "easy street address".

I'm only halfway through the book, but I'm suspecting that JKG is going to lay into this production/demand cycle.  Back when everyone was impoverished, it wasn't hard to calculate demand and supply it.  You literally couldn't make enough bread to feed everyone in mid 19th century England.  But now... having enough is a natural way of things in the US (ignoring poverty and credit card debt etc. etc.).  However, the economy still needs to produce to ensure that continuing affluence.  So how does that happen? It's not so much the supplying that is a problem, it's the creation and identification of desires.

JKG is, I think, going to have a lot to say about advertising later on.  He has already mentioned it explicitly.  And in the third sentence of the book, he says that poor men have know what they want, which is more of the necessities of life, whereas rich men are unsure of what they want.

So that's a discourse on what I'm reading at the moment, but how is it actually changing me?  It made me think about Joe Dominguez's belief in "enough".  If the economy must keep producing more to maintain affluence, where the hell is "enough"?  Can the two notions be reconciled?

This is pretty important to me.  I'll have to write next about accupuncture and the scientific method, because I started thinking about that a month or two ago (short version: accupuncture, which appears to me to be bullcrap, can't actually be tested in a double blind study like more traditional western medicine such as drug trials.  It can't be double blind because you, supposedly, need a skilled practitioner to administer it, so one of the people knows if it 's supposed to work or not.  That opens to me an very interesting avenue of exploration... of course there needs to be ways other than double blind studies to prove efficacy, otherwise things like surgery or orthopedics wouldn't be testable either.  But it made me think about a problem in software testing, which is that unit testing isn't effective for UIs.).

Given that we need to keep spending money, and increasing output, does "enough" make sense?  Is it just a difference between micro and macro economics?  Hmmm.

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Date:2007-07-03 14:03
Subject:Smoking bidis as I burn my calories

Subject line is from a hypnotic section of "Fugee La" by the Fugees

I sit 90 degrees underneath palm trees
Smoking bidis as I burn my calories
From Brooklyn rooftops to Brooklyn teepess
Who that be?
Trying to get the best of me
From Hawaii to Hawthorne I run marathons
Buju Banton I'm a true champion
Farrakhan reads his daily Koran
It's a phenomenon
Lyrics fast like Ramadan

I'm thinking about it because I'm reading a Fark post about clove cigarettes.

I have always considered myself an anti-smoker.  The smell and filth of the habit is disgusting.  Smokers' houses always stank.  Smokers' breath stank.  Even in high school, people having "nic fits" were just sad.  Congratulations, you've sold out to the Man by buying his friggin smoke sticks.  And you're going to kill yourself, and you're making yourself broke.

Even in college, I knew a few folks who were die hard smokers.  I always thought it was a retarded habit that was just a waste of time.  Drinking, I was all for.  Smoking, whatever.  I remember one guy in our philosophy circle, John Cogburn, who absolutely loved to smoke.  He claimed that if he could inject nicotine, he would.  He would hack out philosophy papers for hours on end while using an old shiner bock bottle as an ashtray.  The disgusting sludge of backwashed bock and endlessly masticated cigarette butts made an awe inspiring site.  And smell.

(And, let me put in my special dispensation for my good friend Michael Henderson, whom I reverently refer to as the Last of the Great American Smokers.  Michael's as smart as they come, and is an unabashed lover of the tobacco.  I remember one trip he took to Ireland.  he told me he was getting the patch.  I asked, oh finally giving it up?  He said, no they just don't let you smoke on the plane anymore... gotta get through the eleven hours without a cigarette.)

However, take that with a big side of hypocrisy.   Back when it was cool to do so (i.e. the mid nineties), I went through a minor cigar phase.  Not too different from my beer, or salsa, or scotch, or wine phases, I tried a bunch of different kinds and settled, more or less, on the H. Uppman as my weapon of choice.  Of course, cigars are as nasty as any other tobacco product.  Your fingers get the smell on them, and your mouth ends up fried from sucking on smoke for an hour.

The biggest thing I liked about smoking was just watching the smoke.  I remember infuriating one cigar weenie by sticking his high end stogie in my mouth and puffing on it like I drinking bubble tea.  Drove him nuts until he finally gave up, laughed, and said, "you just like seeing a lot of smoke, don't you?"  Sure do.

So I went through that phase, and I had the phase where I hung out with a couple who smoke incessantly.  I got in the habit of sticking an unlit Marlboro Light in my mouth, and maybe smoking one a night.  I smoked the cigarettes like I would smoke the cigars: no inhaling, all smogging.  I did like inhaling through the unlit cigarette and tasting the tobacco and, hah, I am sure the other addictive chemicals they put in there.  I am sure I looked like a dumbass, but who cares.

Cigarettes were good because you're much less committed to the smoke.  I get bored with the smogging within ten minutes.  With tven a small cigar you can be sitting there for an hour waiting for the thing to burn out.  And re-lighting it was never as satisfying as that first burn.  Cigarette burns out and is gone, no more worrying about the annoying smell.

And, of course, when I went to Paris with Traci, we smoked Gauloises while walking on the Champ d'Elysees.

Now hidden within this smoking thing was the occasional Djarum.  I first saw these things in undergrad, when a woman I knew named Noreen would smoke them.  At the time I was fascinated by their metal tin (one of my many affectations was writing with a fountain pen, and the tin made a perfect storage container for the ink).  Years later, i picked up some for some damn reason.

They still had the metal tin.  They were wrapped loosely and had no filters.  And that clove taste turned your mouth numb, in a weird and thrillingly dangerous fashion.  The tobacco even seemed weird and scraggly, compared the near pate like consistency of American cigarettes.

Looking at the Djarum site, I am not even sure that they still make the kind I smoked.  Wikipedia implies that they were the "Originals". Not sure if the metal box is gone, if the cigarette itself is gone, who knows.

I probably smoked, eh, forty of these things over the space of five years.  Always seemed to be a conversation started at parties.  People had smoked cloves in their youth, or were worried that cloves are somehow more carcenogenic than other cigarettes, or just wondered what the heck it was.  The majority of them, however, I smoked on my balcony back at my Gables apartment.  That was back when I was a big phone talker, and I could spend hours yakking and yakking on that balcony.  Or I'd just sit there and watch the cars go by on 38th, remembering Noreen who smoked Djarums, or Daksha who smoked bidis, or Traci when she used to smoke Gauloises.

For a long time after I gave up even the limited amount of smoking I did, I kept the cigar box with all the accoutrements from those days.  Cigar cutter, lighters, matches, and the last stray bits of tobacco (of course, I was always accused at parties of using it as a stash box).  I still have the box, but no more smokes at the house.

I remember the last Djarum I smoked.  Michelle was gone for the weekend, and I was home alone.  I had a shot or two of whiskey and rummaged out this old, wrinkly, decrepit cigarette.  I smoked on the porch in front of the house and felt that weird cool tingle in my mouth.  I was working up my courage to call Michelle's folks and tell them I was going to ask her to marry me, and it felt both foolish and complete to indulge in a few bachelor habits before I made the call.

I don't know that I'll ever buy another pack of cigarettes.  Smoking reminds me of clubs and of being lonesome.  It's a strange feeling to think back on that period of my life.

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Date:2007-07-02 17:24
Subject:The Affluent Society

One of the more remarkably nerdy things I like to read about is economics.  There are some truly interesting works in the economics cannon.  The first several books of Wealth of Nations are both enjoyable to read and remarkable insightful.  I enjoyed reading Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom.  I liked reading Sowell's Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy, even though he could can get a little too barking right wing for comfort's sake (e.g. it's good to price gouge hotel rooms during hurricanes).  I gave Das Kapital an honest try about four years ago, but Marx was friggin impenetrable.  Not to mention that the labor theory of value is so obviously flawed that it made it hard to get past the first 80 pages (haha, though apparently Adam Smith subscribed to it as well... oh well).

I am currently reading The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith.  JKG is a heft lefty so he can balance out that Sowell and Friedman I have read in the past.  Even better though is that the guy is genuinely enjoyable to read.  Even to the point of being actually funny.  It's like reading Camus.  His fist sentence:

Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.

with its superb dry wit reminds me of the opening of The Myth of Sysiphus: that he had never yet known anyone to sacrifice their life for the ontological proof of the existence of God.

He also reminds me of Camus in another fashion.   Traci used to say that the most striking thing about Camus was that he was so damned decent.  He was incredibly humane and understanding, at least in his writings, and even in the cases of The Stranger and The Fall.  Meursault and Clamence aren't exactly meant to be likable characters.  I mean, they are respectively a murderer and a felon.  But the Camus is very careful in his descriptions of them and his descriptions of their actions.  Both are of course absurd characters.  And both of course are very different: while Clamence maintains no illusions about his fundamental depravities, Meursault is as self reflective as a stick.  However, Camus wants us to take a look at these guys and see that they aren't so very different from you and I.  This isn't a comment about the banality of evil, but rather a comment on the human condition.  Clamence leads a life where he wants to be admired but knows at heart he is a fraud; Meursault not so much leads a life as follows one, and his actions are both unexpected and unmotivated.

But here is the rub: even when both of these guys are bad, and of course shooting someone for no reason on the beach is pretty damn bad, Camus doesn't want you to hate them.

The height of this is The Plague, where each character is uniquely human and uniquely flawed,and you can tell that Camus loves each of them. And he wants you to love them as well.

The feeling I get from The Affluent Society is that Galbraith is keeping his eye on Everyman.  The first few chapters (other than the coinage of the phrase "the conventional wisdom") focus on the pessimism and uncertainty inherent in classical economics.  By this I mean that with traditionally, laborers were expected to get the short end of the stick.  Not only because of collusion between the owners of the means of production and the avarice of land lords, but because of technical reasons in the economy.  The short of which revolve around such theories as that paying workers more leads to inflation, which erodes their purchasing power until it falls once again to only being able to support yourself and your progeny to the point that the "race" of workers will not die out.  Heh.

TAS was written in the late 50's and some of the things no longer apply.  For instance, inflation is not a serious threat in the United States.  Nor is Marxism regarded as a viable system of economic policy any longer.  And unions do not hold the same sway they once did.  But just like reading The Federalist Papers, some of the topics are surprisingly relevant.  JKG talks about job security and how losing your job is supposed to be a feature of a competitive free market and can, in general, be tied to one's own incapability or sloth.  Of course, that doesn't count for things like losing your job because your employer, rather than yourself, is incompetent.  And as, JKG points out, these sorts of dictums are usually opined by college professors, who enjoy tenure and nearly indefeasible job security.

I remember in undergrad that some of my friends proclaimed themselves as Marxists, which I thought even then was retarded.  However, the surveys and secondary material (see: Marx considered impenetrable, supra) that I read on Marx pointed out some very strong critiques of capitalism (JKG says that the allure of Marxism centered around this: since he was so "manifestly" correct about some things, could he not perhaps be right about every thing?).  Such as: capital tends to concentrate rather than disperse.  Such as: there are obviously economic classes, and that there is obviously class friction.

But then of course you spin off into Marxist fantasy land with the proletariat revolution, the classless society, and the withering away of the state.  What we find, of course, is that some animals are more equal than others, and that classless societies re-stratify.  And without the rule of law - after all, that is one of the primary purposes of the state, to monopolize violence so that the rule of law can be enforced - the guys who end up in the top layer of society tend to be bullies and crooks.  Such as pretty much any feudal prince.

Anyway, JKG is trying to stick up for the little guy without being a Marxist.  So far it's an admirable job, though I sure Dinseh D'Souza has something bad to say about him.

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Date:2007-06-28 12:30
Subject:Strange Fits of Passion

Or, as we cleverly spoonerized it in undergrad, "strange pits of fashion I have known."

I've never been a big Blake fan, but my roommate Trent was.  At UT, he was in the English Honors program, which was widely regarded as an extremely challenging and worthy enterprise.  He was writing his thesis on James Joyce, and I guess that means that you end up back filling in on all the early modern British authors you can get your hands on.  In particular, I think he was reading Blake in conjunction with Milton and Shakespeare.  He would quote "The Proverbs of Hell" to me, marvelling at the sheer audacity of the insane mind of Blake.

At the same time, I was gearing up for philosophy honors and was working through what, until then, had been the most difficult book I had ever read: Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabakov (the thesis bound Religion and Nothingness would eclipse Ada the next year as "hardest book I have ever read").  I remember Trent was struggling through Ulysses at the same time.  We would both chain ourselves for hours at our preferred reading spots around campus, filter back to the room around 11 o'clock at night, and inevitably decide that we should go to Kerbey Lane and order some pancakes to reward our efforts.

Trent and I talked a lot about the books we were reading.  We'd often disagreed and argued, but I also felt like we learned a lot about what we were reading just because we could think about what the other one was reading.  I even went so far as to read both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist in my later years.

Undergrad was the first time in my life that I realized how much I enjoyed learning.  And it was the first time that being smart was actually cool, and that you could actually find people who were interested in talking and thinking about things beyond the everyday and newsworthy.  When i was younger, I was always considered smart and, you know, tested well, but I don't recall being partiuclarly proud of it.  If anything, it was embarassing and painful since you were so friggin different from everyone.  All I craved back then was a huge influx of social skills so that I wasn't so damnably awkward around everyone and everything.  Even amongst my other smart friends we didn't spend time talking about, uh, smart things, but rather talking about all the same stupid and vital crap every other teenager talks about: relationships between people, whether amicable, romantic, pedagogic, whatever.

Probalby my very first enlightened experience of enjoying learning was being a kid with my modem and talking to a freshman at Georgia Tech.  He explained the basics of quantum mechanics to me, and I thought it was the most intersting thing in the world (I never realized that absorbing thousands and thousands of pages of D & D material was actually learning).  Then when I got into undergrad and got through the first semester or two of bull crap classes, I remember reading Descartes' Meditations and having no idea what he was talking about with a "plenum" of experience.  I was in the Perry Castaneda Library's reference room, and I went up to that giant two foot thick dictionary and looked up nearly every word in the sentence.  I had never done that before.  And I remember the feeling of the "aha" moment when I finally got what he was trying to say.  Later on, I read some academic refer to this, embarassingly, as a "mental orgasm".

Our philosophy club hung out and we all thought we were smarter than everybody else, naturally, but you really could stay up all night talking about things and pushing your brain down paths that it had never been down before.  Along the way I managed to pick up those social skills that I had been lacking, so the drinking and partying naturally came along as well.

I guess I started thinking about this because I was just reading something on slate about 300.  It's kind of foolishly dramatic, but the way I thought of us back then, walking along the edges of our understanding and pushing back against the great dark of ignorance in ourselves, was kind of like Leonidas and his boys.  Trent and I would start talking about Shakespeare and poking into the experience of  "bottomlessness", or I would try to understand what the hell Nabakov was saying in Ada, and I started to get a dizzying feeling of not qiute knowing what the heck I was doing or where I was.  Eh, no, that's not it... it's maybe better explained by standing in front of the library and thinking about how many friggin books were in there, and how few I was ever going to read.   And, maybe, how few I was going to understand.

I remember a remarkable passage from The English Patient, of all things, when Ondantjee is talking about the bomb defuser.  He compares him to a knight preparing to storm a castle, or maybe inside the castle, who knows; and all the knight has is his own strict work, his own disipline and tools, to carry with him to win the day.  There is something bare and pure and exciting about matching your wits against something that is very very hard to understand.  Sure, you read secondary sources, and talk to your friends, but there is a moment of pure illumination when you understand whatever it is.  Notihng else can fake that illumniation for you.  You try to push as close as you can, each step coming closer or from a different angle, but at some point there has to be a jumping off into something new.  It's like achieving satori, I guess, even though your awareness is limited to understanding inductive proofs rather than the vibrant void.

Sadly, I don't quite understand inductive proofs any longer.  I can still kind of cook one up, but I don't have the same certainty I had in their truth and operation that I had when I was writing them in undergrad.  Put another way, I look back over some of my old papers and find it impossible to understand what I was talking about.  This could be due to opacity, or confusion at the time of writing, but I think it's just that your brain is like any other thing in your life.  Disuse leads to atrophy.  And it's not general brain atrophy, it's specific skill atrophy.  I was very surprised that after we came back from New Zealand, and I hadn't written code in six months, that I found SQL very hard to write.  Something I had written daily for six years, and now six months later, i was struggling to recall inner joins.

Use it or lose it, eh?

That bit early about 300 does have relation to that bit about The English Patient.  As it does to Warwick's death in, uh, 3 Henry Vi:

My parks, my walks, my manors that I had.
Even now forsake me, and of all my lands
Is nothing left me but my body's length.

(I had to go look it up... and I thought it was Buckingham rather than Warwick, so I spent a bunch of time reading throuh Richard III)

The point being intellectual challenge does have a way of stripping off your protective coating. I don't mean debate, since often a debate is won through rhetoric rather than truth, that is through a skill rather than an honest endeavor.  But one of the lasting things I took away from philosophy in undergrad was Nosce Te Ipsum, of which a natural corollary is intellectual honesty.  No one likes giving up a sacred cow or learning that they were wrong about something.   But coming down to it, you can approach the problem with interest and humility, in a supsension of choice between the poles of dialectic, until you hit the moment of decision and illumination.  You jump over that pause of ignorance and uncertainty and suddenly a realization opens up for you, and you have found something new.

It's the best part of coding, too.  Finding that new way of solving some problem... that is heady stuff.

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Date:2007-06-20 19:07
Subject:Intellectual Freedom Depends on Material Things

That's supposedly a quote from Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own.  "Supposedly" because I have not read the book.  Only Woolf I've read is To The Lighthouse, which I found fantastically, gigantically, stunningly brilliant.  Michelle hated it.  Christina, who is a Woolf fan, believes that you either love or hate Woolf.  I keep meaning to read some more because Lighthouse was so heart achingly true to life.

But, all that aside, it's a very interesting supposition.  If by "intellectual freedom" one means the ability to think and feel whatever one chooses, then the statement isn't necessarily a foregone conclusion.  The Stoics of ancient Greece thought material goods didn't matter, even so far as believing that you could be happy under torture.  The very notion of "ascetic" holiness, regardless of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or other underpining, is that material things are not only unnecessary for intellectual freedom, but they down right interfere with it.  Thoreau of course is a famous hater:  "I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business. " There has always been a strong, anti-propertarian current amongst men of the mind.

And it's not hard to see why.  From the Buddhist point of view, accumulating wealth is a form of desire, and the Second Noble Truth says that desire is the root of suffering.  From a day to day point of view, getting a living can easily take up all one's time away from intelluctual freedom.  We've all know folks who need to have the latest, best piece of gear.  And we've all known folks who allow that desire to drive them into debt and end up on Suze Orman shows or declaring bankruptcy.  I find it hard to believe that having the collections agency on the phone does a lot to ease up one's mind and allow for intellectual freedoms.

Which I guess is the point of the title.  Maslow layed out the hierarchy of needs. Down there at the bottom are "safety" and "physiological".  Both of those are, more or less, accomplished with material things.  Even if you don't have money, e.g. you're out killing bears in the woods, you're still using material things, e.g. the bear's skin, to fulfill these needs.

If the collections guys are reposessing things, you may be losing some lower points on the pyramid.  Or at the very least you're losing out  in those self esteem levels of the pyramid... unless you're a sociopath, but hey, who am I to judge.

The book Your Money or Your Life has a kind of kooky finance plan, but it has one very, very powerful graph that stuck with me.  They talked about that the people who are least happiest are in the lowest quartile of income and, conversely, the highest quartile of income.  Strangely enough, people do get happier as they make more - but only up to a point (The Economist noted the same thing: that very poor countries tend to have unhappy people, but once GDP rises to a modest, uh, $2,000 or $10,000 a head, happiness levels off).  The way Joe Dominguez exemplified this was to draw a kind of parabolic graph, with rising money along the X axis and rising happiness on the Y.  At the top of the parabola, he drew a circle and said, "You know what this point is called?


I think that is where Virgina Woolf is going with her take. If you're sweating about paying the health bills, you're probably not writing to great American novel.  But at the same time, like Jay-Z says, "more money more problems."  Getting a little scratch means that you now start worrying about the money that you have, rather than the money you don't have.  It's kind of stupid.  When I was broke but debt free right after college, saving money was exciting.  Now I worry about rate of return and catastrophic penury.  I remember talking to my man Dwight about this a year or two ago, and he said he had had the same experience.  His sister challenged him, "is that money really making you happy?  You worry about it all the time."

Enough.  A great idea.

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Date:2007-06-19 15:43
Subject:"Ana" and "Mia", amirite?

Since I obsessively watched that Celebrity Fit Club thing to see what Screech would do, I trolled around the usual workout sites to keep my own exercise motivation topped off.

While I was free associating, I remember some time ago that anorexia had become fashionable among certain people, and that it was now referred to as as goddess named "Ana" (you can probably guess whom "Mia" is supposed to represent).  That sort of freaky thing is my kind of bag you know, baby, so I tried to dig up some of these ana worshiping sites.

Google, not surprisingly, turns up a lot of stories about the epidemic of the big (heh) on anorexia crowd.  But, perhaps, unsurprisingly, not a lot of sites devoted to it.

Of course wikipedia came to my rescuse and introduced me to both the terms "thinspiration" and "pro-ana".  A little more digging brought me to House of Thin as well pro-ana-nation.  Both of them seem to be more concerned with dealing with anorexia as a disease, and the pro-ana is more "pro-anorexics" than "pro-anorexia".

It's not hard to draw a comparison between something like this Ana and Mia nonsense and something like self cutting.  Though I wager that cutting is more common than kooks who actively thing that anorexia is a great life style choice, the (admittedly two) websites I looked at seemed to display the same sort of imagery, text, and tone that we have all come to lovingly associate with being "emo".  In undergrad we called them "PIBs", that's pee-eye-bees, as in "people in black", because, it was, you know, amusing to marginalize people who are already ostracized by society.

This isn't to knock the kid who is cutting himself, or to knock the folks who have managed to get so screwed up that anorexia is a viable option for them.  Both of those actions are underpinged by serious psychological problems.  It's not like you can "snap out of it".  Furthermore, I don't disbelieve that there is bound to be some site out there, amongst the millions and millions of sites, that caters to how to both cut and purge "better", more effectively, with less chance of detection.  The internet is a wide and scary place, and as someone said, no matter what you're most treasured childhood memory may be, there's porn to it.  Out there.  On the internets.

However, the Ana and Mia crap is, in my deeply researched opinion, some sensationalist bullcrap cooked up from some reporter.  Just like the regularly scheduled drug scare stories that, when you read them closely, don't make any sense.  Like the rampant use of heroin, especially the oh-so-scary "cheese" heroin, in the Dallas area.   It was on the front page of CNN.  Some poor guy's son died from it.  It's everywhere, right?  Searching on "rampant drug use dallas" says that 21 kids have died from it since 2005.  Eh, okay, no primary source given, but let's look a little deeper.

According to their website, Plano ISD alone has 51,000 kids (That obviously doesn't include the other independent school districts in Dallas.  I have no idea how many more times that would be, 5, 10, what.)  Assuming that the same 51,000 kids don't change from 2005- 2007, that's .04% of the population dying from heroin.  Of course that's making a lot of assumptions.

From 1994-2005, 31,000 people died due to teen drivers in Dallas. Doing the division gives you 3444 people killed per year by teen drivers.  Of course some of those folks aren't teens.  So cut it in half. And round down. 1700 teens killed each year by teen drivers.  Or 80 times as many killed by heroin over a three year period.

And, again, that's making a lot of assumptions (number of teens, Dallas vs. Plano numbers, etc).  But the point is clear: it's not killing people off in swathes.  Driving however is.

Heroin use simply isn't on the rise.  Just because some kinds in Dallas are killing themselves with it doesn't mean it's on the rise everywhere, and it doesn't even mean it's on the rise in Plano.  Random clustering is a fact of life in statistics.

I veered off into talking about how silly the "cheese" scare mongering is because it's just as silly as the pro-ana scare mongering.  You look on the internets long enough, you'll find all sorts of disturbing crap, from cannibalism to John Ashcroft.  That is the difficulty.  You want to be apprised of dangers in your life, but like the Freakonomics guy pointed, we are bad at assessing risk.  He uses the example that your kid is a lot more likely to drown in a pool than get shot accidentally, but that people are more comfortable sending their child to the friend's house with the pool than the friend's house with a gun.

Bruce Schneir, in Beyond Fear, made the same point.   Dramatic risks (terrorists blowing up your building, which as he points out has an approximately zero percentage chance of killing you) make a huge impact, whereas everyday risks do not (dying from falling in your house is a relatively common occurence that happens 137 per year in West Virginia alone - with a shamefully amusiung picture at the top).
And add in that news papers, at the end of the day, want to titillate and appeal.  Natalie Holloway is big news, as is something like heroin burning through the staunchest white republican area you can imagine.   I further imagine that Ana and Mia are diseases exclusively of an upper class nature. If you've got real problems, are you really going to have time to get farked in the head enough to starve yourself to death?

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Date:2007-06-18 17:55

So, on Friday night, I gorged myself on my (used to be) favorite pumpkin tortellinis and something went terribly wrong.  I stayed up all night expelling whatever I ate that was bad so on Saturday I sat on the couch and watched TV all damn day.  And one of the things I watched was "Celebrity Fit Club".

Haha, if you haven't seen the current season, it's a gem.  Screech is one of the contestants.  Who would've thought that Screech would be a bigger tool than gangster rapper Warren G.  or comedic country goon Cledus T. Judd.  I had already heard about Screech's, ahem, sex tape, but watching the show I'm just aghast.  What a friggin jerk.

So of course I hit up the web site and they are milking his jerkitude.  Watching his continual melt down of non-sequitors, self righteousness, and literal insanity are amusing, in the cliched train-wreck sort of way.

It of course starts out with Screech making a big deal that he uses "logic and truth"  (it's like something your dad would tell you... anybody who has to tell you he is honest isn't).  So then he tells the fit club pros that he's here to try their program, but he's going to do it his own way.  He's going to eat what he wants.   Of course, logic and truth have gotten you up to 215 pounds Screech.  You're not morbidly obese, but, you know, your plan isn't working so hot.

Originally it was men vs women, but by (I guess) Episode Three the cracks are showing.  The whole deal is that the teams are weighed as one to compete against each other.  So if one guy isn't losing weight, it hurts the team.  He and Cledus get into is, and Screech is pissed.  He tells Cledus that they are a terrible team and that they are not helping each other.  He then immediately tells him that they should be supporting him in his own particular way of "losing" weight.  Because, you know, being a team means supporting the members who are actively sabotaging the team.  Or... wait... that's co-dependency.

So of course it gets freakier and freakier.  Apparently Dustin freaks out when people call him "Screech", but he drops the "Marcia Marcia Marcia" bomb on Maureen McCormick.  He's also the kind of jerk who makes himself so farking annoying that when people lose their shite and want to wring his neck he starts smugly warning them how his lawyer's going to send them up the river.

But, my favorite, is when he's all pissed off about some referee call that the host, a guy named friggin Ant, made.  He says he wanted to challenge him to "physical combat".  I guess since Screech beat Horshack on that celebrity boxing show he's feeling bad ass.  His challenge is repeated in front of the drill sargent guy, who blows his top.  He askes if Screech is, wait for it... wait for it...



Man, I just love hating this bastard.  After he tells the guy they'll set up "a UFC match", he gets self righteous about the Sarge threatening him.  What a farking tool.

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