All the talk about trade and outsourcing and so forth always ignores the point that Thomas Friedman made in today's Times. The War On Terror (TM) isn't just about shaking down old ladies at the airport and illegally searching through credit card records to find out who's buying porn. It's also about how we relate to the rest of the world. And helping everyone everywhere earn a decent wage is something that, if we can stomach it, will go a long way toward helping our image.
I've been meaning to update my blogroll (and blogrolling method) for some time. It is now on another page. Lots of commenters I've been meaning to recognize, lots of reciprocal links I've been meaning to make, and lots of lurkers I've been meaning to flush out of the bushes. If I've somehow overlooked you or placed you in the wrong category, smack me upside the head and I'll make it right.
Abandon all hope, ye that click here.
Ellen Goodman at the Globe totally ripped off my column. Similar titles, we both quoted Charlotte's little soulmates line, and we sort of arrived at the same point. Except her column was worse, and later.
We are totally going to have a hair-pulling, nail-scratching, knock-down drag-out in front of the Globe tomorrow.
Bill Gates gave a talk at MIT today, and I was among the chosen few who were there to witness the event. You might wonder what the wealthiest man in the history of time would be like when speaking about his passion, computers. So I'll tell you.
He's pretty boring.
Expectations are bound to be inflated for the world's foremost billionaire tyrant, but I have to say: he strikes me as someone who's been miscast in his own life. His stage presence is miserable, he wears his pants comically high, and his voice sounds pretty much like the composite prepubescent teen. The best thing I can say for him is that he has an ineffable geek charm that makes you like him in spite of himself, sort of like a pug. A pug with over thirty billion dollars. That's Bill.
This actually isn't even the first time I've heard him talk -- he was the keynote at a conference I attended in 2002 -- and I was struck by how similar the talks were. Then, as now, there was tremendous anticipation, and tickets for the event were hard to come by (even though, then, as now, there were plenty of extra seats). Both talks was fairly bland, both from a content perspective and in his use of Powerpoint. He is prone to make an occasional Microsoft joke -- today, he was discussing spam and he flashed and image of one message that said "Having legal troubles?" while remarking, dryly, "This one was of particular interest to me."
But I have to give the man credit: when he's done talking, he takes questions. At the conference a few years ago, I remember a question from a young man who was practically vibrating in anticipation. When his turn finally came, he unleashed a vituperative complaint about Microsoft's little help characters: "That paper clip is USELESS, MAN! EVERYONE HATES IT! YEAH!" He was thoroughly pleased with himself, although the audience shifted in their seats uncomfortably. Bill didn't sweat it one bit.
"Yeah, it didn't really work out how we'd hoped, but we're incorporating the feedback we've gotten from users, and we're going to try something new in the next release. But I'm not going to apologize for trying to innovate. That's what we do at Microsoft." So, ok, a pug with $30B and the ability to think on his feet.
Anyway, today's talk was mostly the vanilla "MIT is great, Microsoft is great, we're so great together" kind of yakkity-yak that I expected. A few interesting notes:
The best part of the entire shebang was at the end, when the last questioner asked about Microsoft's finances -- something like, "Why does Microsoft have $50B in liquid assets, and how do you justify having that much cash on hand?" Bill laughed (cackled maniacally?), and said, "I sleep very well at night, thanks."
(I also took a bunch of pictures of the event, which I'll post tomorrow in slideshow form.)
About three years ago, I was sitting in my adviser's office, waiting for him to finish a phone call so that we could start our meeting. His long conference table was always strewn with reading material that had been given to him by cranks and geniuses from around the world. I remember poking through it while I was waiting, finally opening a little tri-fold pamphlet entitled "The Next American Ice Age."
As I was flipping through it, my adviser came back, saw what I was reading, and asked what I thought. Ho-ho, I laughed. There's always a weirdo out there with some doomsday scenario.
This pamphlet, he told me, was given to him by someone working for the federal government.
The basic idea is this: as global warming heats up the Earth, the polar ice caps start to melt. Because they melt freshwater into the ocean, the ocean becomes less salty. This change in salinity changes what floats and what sinks in the ocean, most notably, ice. Of course, if ice floats, it can be periodically melted by the sun. But if that ice instead sinks, it can cause a drastic change in the the temperature of that part of the ocean.
Drastic temperature changes in different parts of ocean mean drastic changes in the weather. And while it's impossible to accurately predict exactly what these changes might be, this pamphlet said that significant changes to the jet stream (which blows the weather west to east across the US) could basically turn the entire North American continent into an extended version of Alaska. And that the whole thing could happen in less than thirty years.
So I wasn't the least bit surprised when the Pentagon released a report saying that the national security threat from drastic climate change is greater than the threat of terrorism. In fact, this Pentagon report was more optimistic -- it just suggested that Britain would become a new Siberia, water shortages would be catastrophic, and Southern California would become a wasteland.
Of course, the Republicans don't have such a great track record on environmental issues, so I was again unsurprised when the report was quickly downplayed as pure speculation. I am shocked -- shocked! -- to find the manipulation of data happening in this establishment!
What I do know is that this past winter was among the most severe in Massachusetts history. For example, three days between Jan9 and Jan15 were colder than 10F. We hadn't had three days that cold in a single year since 1920. Broke that record in a week.
But, you know, I'm sure it's just a coincidence and that it'll all turn out ok. I'd just buy an extra couple of winter coats if I were you.
First, the pick incident from last week.
Then, it happened again yesterday, during a meeting yesterday with a (different) professor. I'm sitting there, we're talking, looking directly at each other, when he begins a vigorous, tool-based use of the index finger to excavate the nasal cavity. I completely lost my train of thought because all I could think was, "AGAIN?"
And, as if that weren't enough, I go to class this morning, arriving early to get a choice seat. At 9:40a, well after class has begun, a big doofy kid with bottle-cap glasses and a haircut that he probably gave himself bursts into the room and shambles over to the seat next to me. Suddenly, my olfactory senses are overwhelmed by this doorknob's smell. Not only had he not showered that morning, I question whether or not he'd showered in days. I seriously had to breathe through my sleeve for the entire 90 minute period.
Now, I understand as well as anyone that we live in an age where intellect is king. Advances in technology have allowed the human mind to triumph over nature time and time again. We stay warm in our buildings. We traverse the land in our cars. We prevent disease with our vaccinations. We explore the universe with our robots.
And yet, for every mile that nature surrenders in the technological battle, she seems to recover another in the war with our selves. Cell phones allow us to communicate with anyone anywhere, and yet they also keep us distant from the ones with whom we are physically close. Computers allow us to explore simulated environments as perfect avatars while we sit behind them, obese and uninspired. The very minds that overcome nature's greatest technical challenges seem unable to master her simplest interpersonal exchanges.
It is in this spirit that I make a call to arms. Citizens of MIT! As you go out to do battle with the forces of chaos and darkness, do not neglect the war at home! For if we are to truly understand ourselves in the context of the greater universe, we must also understand ourselves in the context of each other. Apply your intellect to the betterment of the self as to the betterment of the world.
More precisely: Take a shower and stop picking your fucking nose.
Before I get started on today's rant, I have to come out of the closet: I am a Sex and the City watcher. I've watched it for some time, and I generally enjoy it. There, I said it. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.
However, last night's final episode (which SPOILER WARNING I'm going to discuss below) cemented a question I had about the incongruity between the show's popular image and its substance. SATC bills itself as nothing short of an agent for social change (a point which was flogged to death during last night's self-serving "documentaries"), and yet marches to the beat of a very traditional drum. A closer examination of the show reveals it to be, depending on your outlook, either brilliantly subversive or utterly hypocritical.
The relationship between the show's hype and its heart, in fact, mirrors the relationship between the characters' talk and their action. In both cases, a veneer of progressive rhetoric obscures a shamelessly traditional foundation. The show is constantly written about as if it's a bellwether for single women: "These characters are totally fabulous and happy and independent and -- lookie! -- they don't need men!" The characters often echoed this idea though their conversations ("Maybe we can be each others' soulmates!"). All the well-documented frank sexual talk only reinforced this idea that these were late-nineties women, they didn't need men, and they weren't to be fucked with (and I choose the preposition carefully here). And, to give the show its due, much of the behavior, especially early in the series, was worthy of these claims. The characters were empowered to be ... as casual about their sexual lives (and as graphic in discussion) as the stereotypical man is. Progressive? Yes. Progress? Depends on what you think of single women who are proud of a sleep-and-tell lifestyle.
The latter viewpoint -- a subtle rejection of "progressive" views on acceptable behavior for single women -- eventually started seeping into the plot, especially as the show began to conclude. Charlotte was relieved of the conflict between her traditional views and the reality of her failed marriage, finally finding matrimonial bliss with Harry. Even the ultimate denial of her conventional (read: feminine) nature -- her problems with fertility -- was alleviated through first a dog, and then an adopted child. While Charlotte began as the straw woman that the other characters would blow down, she eventually ended up with everything she wanted. Miranda was the same way: her challenges as a smart, career-driven woman in the market for a comes-after-my-job relationship were eventually dropped as she got married to Steve, literally moved out of the city and started a family. She even wins Magda's approval when just a season or two earlier, she was proudly standing up to Magda's hopelessly outdated views on women and sex toys.
The diehard fans among you are already screaming, But the show did grapple with these ideas! All the time! Which is true. In fact, my favorite episodes were where the characters really grappled with the conflict between modern and postmodern values. When Carrie cried because she really wanted a man in her life -- and was crying, in part, because she felt bad for crying about it -- I thought the show was capturing ideas that were accurate reflections of the challenges faced by single women today (or, at least, my view of the challenges faced by single women today). Those moments were, in my opinion, perfect. Not only because they didn't claim to have all the answers, but because they were making a case that there were no answers. Sometimes you just can't work it out, and you feel bad.
But as Charlotte and Miranda began the slow march toward conventionally "stable" lives, that idea started to fade away. And, in case it was fading too slowly for you, the final episode slammed it into a coffin, nailed it closed with a pneumatic nailgun, encased it in concrete, and sunk it in the deepest part of the Atlantic. Would Carrie take a chance on an inexplicable but wonderful relationship by moving to Paris? Yes. And that turned out to be wrong because Big is now totally changed, New York was the right place to be all along, and she'll be happier at home. Will Samantha retain her relentless free spirit and live life on her own terms? Yes. But she gets breast cancer, loses her sex drive, and finally "sees the light" and settles down with Smith. Both Carrie and Samantha were punished for their decisions, and forced to submit to The Bottom Line: a happy ending for each character meant finding one man and settling down in a monogamous relationship.
So what was the point? That sex cannot be casual for women? That traditional relationships are important, and perhaps central, to a healthy life? That we were right all along, and all that talk about not needing men or soulmates or marriage or whatever was really just a blind alley? What's the final conclusion: can a single woman live happily ever after without a conventional relationship or not?
I'll follow my own advice here that I don't have an answer, and I'm not sure there is one. I guess I'm just disappointed that the show didn't say the same thing.
Evil Corporate Baron: I hate our customers so much.
Lackey #1: Yes! They always call us complaining that our product doesn't work.
Lackey #2: They should throw it away if they can't get it to work!
Lackey #3: I like weiners.
ECB: I would like to take more of their money, but without giving them anything in return.
L1: Yes! But it's going to be difficult. Most of them are not so stupid as to give us more money for nothing in return.
L2: Some of the stupider ones might. If only there were some way to find them.
L3: I have a stamp on my weiner.
ECB: That's it! Lackey Number Three has a brilliant idea! We can identify the dumb ones through the mail! We'll tell all our customers to send us a letter -- or else!
L1: Yes! If they don't send us a letter, we will break into their homes and hold them hostage until they turn over more money!
L2: Brilliant! I'll run this by legal. Let's meet again tomorrow.
L3: Weiner go wee!
(The next day ...)
L2: Bad news. The legal department has some problems with our plan to break into consumer households and steal their money if they don't send us a letter.
L1: Dammit! I thought that was a winner for sure.
ECB: Curses. (*twirls mustache*)
L3: Have you seen my weiner?
ECB: Wait. I've got it.
L1, L2: Tell us!
ECB: Instead of breaking in to consumer homes and stealing their money if the don't send us mail, we'll just take more of their money at the beginning and not give it back to them if they don't send us mail.
L1: Can we do that?
L2: Aren't we just raising our prices?
ECB: No -- we'll allow resellers to advertise the price AS IF we've already returned the money.
L1: Even though the stupid ones won't send in the mail altogether?
L2: Shouldn't the resellers have to add on the cost of sending the mail -- stamps, envelopes, copies?
ECB: Nah. We'll just screw the consumers out of that money altogether.
L2: I love it! It's so devious! What shall we call it?
L1: It's like we're baiting the consumers into giving us too much money.
L2: Well, the bait is the advertising. This is like a second form of bait. It's ...
L1, L2, ECB: Rebate!
I have to write so many things. Research abstract. Qualifying talk. Emails. Web pages. Report recommendations. It's driving me nucking futs. Here are my five most irritating writing idiosyncrasies. .
5. Lists. The last refuge of the mentally bankrupt, a list is really nothing more than a melange of thoughts which you can't connect in a more meaningful way. The numbers take on this ordinal quality when the truth is that they are, at best cardinal. Why is lists #5? Is it less important than #4? Honestly, they're a temptation that's very difficult to resist on the blog. I know that I'm about twice as likely to read a blog post if it's broken into parts that I can see during a two-second skim. And I will read a story about just about anything that has a list. I'm a list-whore. There, I said it.
4. Rhetorical questions. I like to think that there is a Socratic conversation in my head, but the truth is that I can't get from one sentence to another. Like now. That's all I've got here -- my rhetorical questions are shitty transitions from one idea to another. Why am I still writing?
3. The double-dash. -- What, exactly, is this thing? For me, it's a reflection of a conversational style. I like to talk and talk and talk -- and then talk some more. I like to make my point -- and then go on to make my next one before you can interject. I think what I really like is the way they look. -- See all that white space? It's like a sub-paragraph break.
2. Aesthetic considerations. This is really among my worst habits (hence it's #2 position?). I don't like any paragraph that appears to be too long, even if the idea being developed within is more complex. Like, item 5 on this list is longer. Too long. I don't like it. I have a compulsion to go back and shorten it, just because the other items are shorter.
1. Empty content. I would say that, for every 5 things that I write, between one and two of them actually contain content that's really worth the time that it takes to read it. With all the hours and hours of text that are being produced in the world, I feel I have a responsibility to make sure that I don't waste words on, ahem, really stupid ideas.
This morning, I'm in a meeting, sitting next to a professor with whom I'm friendly. We're both uninterested in the topics under discussion, so he begins making sarcastic little asides in my direction. I'm amused, and figure that it's my job to return fire. So I come up with something clever to whisper, and as I lean over to deliver it ...
He's about three knuckles deep into his left nostril.
This is a serious pick. His left elbow is about eye level as he's prying away with his index finger. Tears are coming out of his eyes as he contorts his face to allow for maximal nasal penetration. This pick is so involved and serious, I would have thought twice before doing it while driving alone on a dark highway. And he's doing this in full view of a room full of nearly 30 people!
Suddenly, he sees I've leaned over and nearly rips his nose off trying to disengage. I'm so unprepared for the situation that I sit straight up in my chair and involuntarily cover my mouth to keep from laughing. Which would have been horrible -- this man has tenure. He's a deeply respected member of the academic community. He's a consultant to government research institutions. You can't just grin and say, "So ... gettin' any bites?"
So I did what any normal human being would do: I pretended that I didn't see. Never happened. As far as I was concerned the whole 30 second period never even existed. We didn't make any more snarky comments, but we did have a very professional discussion afterward about one of the meeting topics. There was absolutely no evidence that anything uncouth ever transpired. It might as well not have ever happened.
Except, shortly after I caught him, he totally wiped it under the table.
So, for any professors or would-be professors out there, remember: You can pick your graduate students, and you and pick your nose. And, if you have tenure, then you can wipe it on a piece of Institute property and get away with it. But under no circumstances can you pick your graduate students' noses.
I'm so irritated that my Valentine's day sojourn with Sonia is over, I'm reduced to lashing out at whoever's handy. I picked up a copy of MIT's student news paper (The Tech), and read an editorial about gay marriage by a guy named Adam Kolasinski. And then I wrote the following "letter to the editor." I used all my posting time for the day to write it, so I figured I might as well post it.
Bowling for Gay Marriage
I have found, in recent weeks, that the national debate on gay marriage has taken the form of a very poor bowler. Most attempts at rational argument end up in one of two gutters, and the results have no real impact. On one side, arguments about marriage from a religious point of view are over before they begin (and beside the point in the public arena), and on the other hand, endless speculation about the political ramifications of one position over another trivializes what is, for many people, a very personal and important issue.
So it was with great anticipation that I read Adam Kolasinski's Feb17 column ("The Secular Case Against Gay Marriage"). However, the resulting impact left too many pins standing for me to be satisfied. His conclusions do not follow from his arguments, and his arguments are based on questionable assumptions. If this is the secular case against gay marriage, I enter a motion for summary judgment.
A questionable assumption submarines Mr. Kolasinski's argument in the very first paragraph. His second sentence states that "state recognition of marriage is not a universal right." Assuming he meant "legal right" instead of "universal right" (even free speech isn't a "universal right"), this statement is patently untrue. Marriage is an explicitly stated right of United States citizens. In Loving v. Virginia [388 U.S. 1 (1967)], the United States Supreme court said: "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival ..." This oversight changes the entire course of the discussion; the "burden of proof" is now on gay marriage opponents, and not "gay advocates," as is suggested in the fourth paragraph.
But even if we grant Mr. Kolasinski his premise, his argument that gay marriage does not meet this burden is specious. Most of his column focuses on the idea that the state issues marriage licenses, "Because ... propagation of society is a compelling state interest." This assertion is presented as a well-known fact without any hint of background or attribution. It simply isn't true.
There is no official, public "reason" for marriage licenses. Antagonists have suggested that marriage "licenses" originated as a mechanism to allow states to to prevent interracial marriages. Others point to the fact that some states have marriage records that extend back to the late seventeenth century, suggesting that it all started as a bookkeeping venture. The Massachusetts SJC decision addresses this very question, and they create a laundry list of reasons for marriage licenses. They begin by suggesting that civil marriages "enhance the 'welfare of the community'," and then list reasons like bookkeeping, property distribution, and the welfare of children. In six pages of reasons, they do not once mention "the perpetuation of society" or anything like it.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (sort of the "defendant" in this case) does later suggest that "providing a favorable setting for procreation" could be a valid legislative rationale behind a ban on same-sex marriage (this may have been the origination of Mr. Kolasinski's argument). However, a rationale for new legislation is a far cry from a reason behind an existing system. And the distinction is important because Mr. Kolasinski's argument suggests that the marriage licensing system is some sort of intentional, well-functioning piece of social engineering that gay marriage would disrupt. This assertion, properly made, would require a great deal more historical evidence (or, really, any historical evidence at all).
And the proof is in the pudding: civil marriage is completely orthogonal to procreation. Mr. Kolasinski attempts to make it not so by sweeping aside the large number of childless marriages by declaring them too expensive to discover (sterile couples), too few to be bothered with (elderly couples), or too impossible to ascertain (couples who choose not to have children). He then blusters through a half-baked pseudo-scientific recounting of "empirical evidence" about children who grow up with gay parents, and finishes with a demonstration the circular nature of the procreative argument (good marriages focus on procreation because marriages that focus on other things are bad).
Mr. Kolasinski does make one compelling argument near the end of his column. He suggests that, if fecundity is not used as the sole qualification for a marriage license, then there is no reason to exclude polygamous marriages, or incestuous marriages, or (as Sen. Santorum didn't quite say) man-dog marriages. Having rejected the procreative argument, where would I put the boundaries for an acceptable marriage?
I would suggest that the state stop issuing marriage licenses altogether. Personally, marriage represents my commitment to another person, and the state's approval or disapproval means very little to me. The legal issues -- health insurance, property transfer, etc. -- are exactly that: legal issues. They should be resolved by legislation that applies directly to health insurance, or property transfer, or whatever. Because when governments try to make decisions about which relationships deserve our approval and which don't, the just can't seem to keep the bowling ball out of the gutter.
Comcast Wants Mouse, Yankees Get MVP SS To Play 3B
In a shocking turn of economic events, Bryamerica Industries acquired a new fondue pot this weekend.
"Frankly, I was just too cheap to spend a hundred bones on a fondue dinner this weekend when I could buy a friggin' pot of my own for half the price," Bryan Adams, Supreme Allied Commander of Bryamerica Industries, said.
The pot, a Rival 3-quart, RV5820, was the last of its kind available at Canadian Tire. Its market value was estimated at $52.90, based on the little sticker on the bottom of the box. With eight little fondue forks and a fully-adjustable thermostat, this fondue pot has a 0.000001% share of the keeping-things-warm-while-eating-them market.
"Why do they call it a fully-adjustable thermostat?" Adams asked, rhetorically. "Is there a partially adjustable thermostat out there? Doesn't 'adjustable' mean 'able to be adjusted'? Does that really need a quantitative specifier?"
This acquisition means that the Bryamerica Kitchen Division will now include four heating devices: a George Foreman grill, a toaster, a microwave, and now the fondue pot.
"The RV5820 will significantly increase our ability to heat liquid items, allowing us to better serve whatever food-heating needs arise among myself or anyone who visits me. Ok, really, just me and Sonia. But still," Adams said.
In other economic news, Comcast is thinking about buying Chris Berman and several Mickey Mouse Ears hats, and the New York Yankees took one more step toward fulfilling their ultimate dream.
In March of 2002, you grabbed me. I was surprised, but delighted.
I've been delighted ever since.
There is something seriously wrong with my ability to accomplish things at work. If I have an impossible deadline, something that requires total concentration and dedication, then I work like a machine. I make lists of problems, then I go through them, one by one, and solve them. Then I put the list of items, each checked off, on the top of the giant stack of these lists. In a good week, I'll make about four of them, 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, covered in notes written conversationally to myself. "Maybe fix the membrane voltage model? (check) Need to include refractory period, only after verification of runtime frequency." Seriously, it's like a transcript of two nerds trying to fix an old Atari. Excited, enthused, and oblivious to the world around them. I look up from my last list and it's 6:30pm. I don't even feel like going home yet.
Then the the deadlines stop.
Suddenly, the very act of opening up Microsoft Visual Studio seems like something that deserves a five minute break and maybe a trip down to the vending machine. Who's on the Times editorial page today? Jesus, Bush is an idiot -- I wonder what Krugman will write next. I wish I could write like him. I should go read some blogs, or maybe write in my own. Everyone's so fucking funny. Everyone has a little slice-of-life episode happening to them, some clever piece of minutiae that totally symbolizes the insanity of life. Fuck them and their lives. Nothing happens to me. What's going on over at Salon? What's on ESPN?
What's irritating to me is that energy begets energy and that laziness begets laziness. That's backward: a classic positive feedback loop. You spend all your time leaning against the rails of your ability on both sides. How much code can you write in a single day? How many times can you check Salon for an update? These are not the things I'm interested in finding out. If only it were the opposite: the more I worked, the more I felt relaxed and the more I relaxed, the more work I wanted to do. Then I could just chug along like the steam engine that I'm supposed to be.
Dumb. My brain is wired all wrong. It's no wonder I can't get shit done.
It turns out the mob stole money from millions of consumers using cell phone bills (thanks to the elusive Matty for the link). How did they do it? From the article:
The organized crime figures used a company that consolidated billings for service providers, allowing them to bill through local phone companies and collect their fees, fees with innocent-sounding titles like "voice mail services" hidden deep within the phone bills, unnoticed by all but the most dogged consumer.
Genesis 6:7 So the LORD said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created -- people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them."
I have what can only be described as a tenuous connection to my past. Perhaps it's partly in the nature of science and technology to discard things that are old or outdated, but it's also partly that I simply do not wish to recall many of my distasteful developmental steps.
Take, for instance, Valentine's day, 1997. I took my then-girlfriend, E, out to a nice dinner and a show. "Nice" might actually be overstating the case: I distinctly remember paper napkins at the meal, and my only recollection of the show is that we were sitting so far back that I could rest my head against the back wall of the theater during the show.
It was a typical Boston February, and by "typical," I mean "horrifyingly cold." E was only wearing hose, and clearly wanted to take the subway. I was already calculating my receipts for the evening, and didn't want to spend the $1.70 for two T tokens. E and I always made decisions using a variant of jiu-jitsu that involved passive-aggressive statements and emotionally loaded sighs, and, on this occasion, I emerged the victor. We would walk home. To this day, I can remember her walking so quickly she was practically skipping, occasionally squealing and trying to cover her exposed legs with her hands.
Remembering this is painful -- why didn't I notice how cold she was? I would gladly pay $17 today to expunge this memory. It gnaws at me that, even though she may have completely forgotten about it, she also may still grit her teeth every time she thinks of me because of it. Remembering myself in that light, and thinking of someone else remembering me in that light, gives me a sense of what God must have felt when he looked at his creation: I hate this, and I want to destroy it. Not just destroy, but eliminate -- blot out from the earth. Remove it from existence.
Of course, God didn't blot out the earth entirely. Leaving aside the question of how or if he blotted out the fish, he also saved Noah and, depending on what chapter you're reading, either two or seven of every animal. It's a classic allegory, open to a variety of interpretations. It's tempting to think of ourselves as God, and the sinful world as our mistake, and Noah and his Ark as the lessons we learn from our misdeeds. Or, perhaps we are Noah, and the wickedness of mankind represents our sin, and the Ark is our salvation, washing our sins away while we survive and multiply.
But I am compelled to admit to a different interpretation (or, as Tarantino might suggest, "That shit ain't the truth"). I can't help but think that Noah is the tidy little anecdote that I choose to remember, the hoards of evil humans are the big mistakes that I've made with my life, and the rain is my psychological defense mechanism, trying to eliminate the mistakes of the past. See, when I was writing this post and thinking of an anecdote for that second paragraph, I rejected a lot of stuff that's not sort of cleverly bad, but stuff that's truly awful. Cheating on E in college. Denting my first car and lying about it. Picking on a handicapped kid in fifth grade. I never got my comeuppance for most of these things, and in some of the worst cases, I never made any attempt to apologize. There weren't rainbows and covenants and multiplying -- there was simply pain, inflicted by me, that was later washed out of my mind while the moments where I was good huddle together, two by two (or maybe in groups of seven), in a boat.
Of course, none of this is surprising, or even unique. I'm sure that everyone has memories that they don't care to share with anyone, or even themselves. And it's certainly not a surprise to God. In Genesis 8:21, God says, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth." I did some awful things growing up because I was born with the capacity to do them. These misdeeds which I am so keen to forget were foreseeable before they happened. They are utterly unsurprising in retrospect. And they are an inevitable part of my future. Indeed, what's amazing is the fact that I have ever overcome my God-given capacity for evil and, say, made another pot of coffee when I drank the last bit. I'll take one cup of atonement, lots of cream, lots of sugar.
Finally, I have to share one short anecdote from class today. The professor was doing her irritating semi-rhetorical question routine again when she asked "So ... why didn't Adam and Eve multiply while they were in the garden? God told them to be fruitful and multiply ... ?" But instead of the requisite "is this a question I should answer?" pause, one girl's hand shot up. This was the first time in two classes that I had heard her speak. She said, from behind a Cosby sweater, leggings, and coke-bottle glasses: "Because Eden was supposed to be a place without sin, and we've all been taught that sex is sinful even though it's not and IT JUST MAKES ME REALLY MAD because there's NOTHING WRONG WITH SEX!" And by the end, she was literally shouting and quivering. These, as Mr. Rodgers would say, are the people in your neighborhood.
"I'll tell you, though, I'm not going to change, see? I'm not trying to accommodate I won't change my philosophy or my point of view. I believe I owe it to the American people to say what I'm going to do and do it, and to speak as clearly as I can, try to articulate as best I can why I make decisions I make."
--President George W. Bush, on Meet The Press, 2/8/2004
Watching President Bush's performance on Sunday was, for me, like listening to country music or watching NASCAR. I know that tons of people love this stuff, but I just don't get it. As I watched him -- the awkward body language, the strained facial expressions, the seemingly-interminable pauses between phrases -- every part of him confounded my understanding. He is a thoughtless man. Not in a "rude" or "absent-minded" way, but in a very literal "no thoughts" way. He clearly doesn't think much, he doesn't value thinking, and it ticks him off when he has to do it. It's a shame that the irony in blaming Iraq on "intelligence failure" will be entirely lost on him.
But nothing in his performance was more disturbing to me than the above-transcribed quote. I actually hit the "repeat" button on TiVo because I couldn't believe he would say such a thing out loud. I assumed that, when the news wire reports came out, this quote would be among the litany of criticisms. I had already filed this away between the "misunderestimating" comment and him calling a NY Times reporter a "major-league asshole." And yet, it's been mostly overlooked as political boilerplate. I just don't understand.
What I do understand is that, as an over-educated science-head, I'm his opposite. There's nothing I value more than thinking. The President likes to lead using his intuition, his faith, or his gut. I categorically renounce each of those things, because I know how wrong they can be. My gut thinks that a feather and a dime fall to the earth at different speeds because gravity is pulling on each of them differently. Thinking tells me that my gut is wrong -- gravity pulls on everything with (almost) the same force, only friction with the air makes things fall at different speeds. And if you drop a dime and a feather in a vacuum tube, you can prove that your gut was wrong.
Some people say that they don't like science or math because there are "right" answers, but I find that aspect of it liberating. You can be wrong in math and science, and it's not personal. My misunderstanding of the feather and the dime isn't a personal shortcoming. When I saw the vacuum tube experiment in 8th grade, I was free to believe something different without having to re-evaluate the way I had lived my life. What makes science beautiful, in my opinion, is that it can change. You can change your understanding, and, in doing so, grow in response to the world around you. Every time I find out something new about how the world works, my increased understanding only fills me with a deeper sense of wonder at the richness of creation.
But President Bush has proudly rejected this process. He's not going to change. He will not respond to feedback. He won't try to understand the world more deeply and, in doing so, increase the sophistication of his thinking. Five hundred body bags without a single WMD do not make him re-evaluate his instincts because he simply does not value the thinking process that such re-evaluation would require. He is so fully immersed in his faith in himself that he has stopped looking at the world to see if the dime and the feather are falling at different rates. He will defend his personal hypothesis about the world to the death because it's all he has. He is Popeye writ large: he is what he is and that's all that he is.
This is a crass oversimplification by a shamelessly liberal kid, but I need something to help me understand how you can watch that man struggle to put two thoughts together and feel good about the United States.
This falls under the general category of things that I don't think I should have to say, but recent experience has demonstrated that this category is vastly overpopulated. So I'll say it: Do not try to take my money without asking me first.
Twice in the last two days, a business with whom I conduct regular transactions has tried to squeeze me for some extra dough. The first was DirecTV. I pay a monthly bill that's usually around $60 (I split that with the frat). I pay with the "on-line billing" option so that I don't have to waste time, stamps, and trees by writing out a check every month.
However, when I downloaded last month's transactions into Quicken, I noticed that the DirecTV bill from January was $100. I naturally assumed that some of the frat guys had ordered porn, so I called their customer service line and inquired about the extra charges. Instead of informing me that I had purchased "Return From Planet Nipple" 14 times, the customer service rep told me that I had been "awarded" (her word) a "DirecTV Guide" subscription (sort of like regular TV Guide, but on steroids) at the low price of $40. Without asking me. Just signed me up. I took it off, said some bad words, and went back to my normal life.
The second transgression, the next day, was even worse: Netflix. My folks gave me a one-year Netflix subscription as a gift for my birthday last year. Since I now have TiVo and a thesis, I figured I don't need Netflix anymore, so I decided to let the subscription lapse. I returned my movies at the end of January, and I assumed my account would be closed.
Nope. I got three more movies back at the beginning of February. I assumed it was a mistake, and sent them immediately back. Got three more movies again, and so I logged in and checked my account. I was surprised to learn that, once your gift subscription expires, they automatically renew your subscription with whatever credit card they have on file. That's right -- it's Netflix policy to automatically take another gift from the giver once the first gift has run out. I canceled the subscription and wrote them a nasty email.
The whole thing reminded me of a conversation I had once with an unnamed person who works peripherally to the cellular phone industry. He (or she) pointed out to me that every cell phone bill (at least in New England) carries roughly $4 - $5 in "carrying fees" and "industry taxes" and so forth that are basically industry-wide bill padding. It allows everyone to advertise a monthly bill that's significantly lower than what you actually pay. "It's because nobody really reads over their bills, so the phone companies get away with it," he (or she) said.
While I recognize the evolutionary aspect of this kind of practice (i.e., businesses that do this and get away with it are more likely to survive), I find it deeply saddening. There's an image of business as this big guy, perhaps in an apron, who worked real hard on something he wants to trade for your goods. You want his stuff, he wants your money, so you make an exchange and you wish each other well.
It's a lie.
The reality is: businesses look at you as a finicky ATM, and they are willing to press whatever code is necessary to get you to dispense the maximal amount of cash. If they can get extra money from you without your noticing, they will happily take it. If they can give you something you didn't ask for, they'll give it. And if they can screw over someone giving a gift, they'll do it. That's how business works.
Of course, another perspective on the issue suggests that these policies are all small taxes on people who don't keep careful track of their money (which, it turns out, is the vast majority of folks). In some sense, people who allow themselves to be suckered in by these scams help subsidize the services that I get scam-free. So, if you're someone who doesn't check your bills or balance your checkbook or use financial software, I guess I have just one thing to say: thanks.
I bit the bullet and actually went to my class today -- 21L.458: The Bible. I have mixed emotions.
I want to enjoy the class because I'm interested in learning more about the Bible. I enjoy how you can say "Well, the Bible says ..." and then say just about anything with tremendous authority. I also like its dense quality; in many ways, the Bible is more like code than language. And the professor, a woman I'll call IL, obviously knows a great deal and has dogeared her text in a way that shows tremendous enthusiasm for the material.
However, this is an undergraduate class. Which has two serious drawbacks.
First, the material is being taught to a median student who's bright, but has ADD. So we're getting copious writing on the board which has to be copied down by hand. And lots of "Guys! Guys! This is SO IMPORTANT!" while pounding on said board. We also covered less than a third of what was on the syllabus for the first day, which means we're only going to make it to about "Obadiah" before the class is "Ober" (a little Bible humor). And we've already had a few examples of my most bitter pedagogical pet peeve, which is the rhetorical question that's asked seriously, so no one responds and the class grinds to a halt during the ensuing battle of wills (absolutely true example from today: "Ok, guys, which came first, Freud or Adam and Eve?" [20 second wait]).
Second, the class is populated entirely by people for whom I could have babysat in 1993. Among these well-developed-zygotes are all the typical MIT types -- the girl with the cell phone that went off twice, the girl who's read the whole Bible in 18 different languages and made sure we all knew it five minutes into class, the frat-boy class clown, and a geek who's clearly bent on making science jokes whenever possible (absolutely true example from today: "You know, the creation story is kind of an example of reverse entropy!" laugh-laugh-laugh-snort).
I just have to keep repeating to myself: "thou shalt not kill ... thou shalt not kill ..."
Phase I: Optimism
Got up early. Showered, put on nice clothes. Combed hair. Took bus to school. Gonna get some coffee, a good seat in the back, and do some learnin'.
Phase II: Doubt
Should I have gotten the book for this class before the first day? What if I'm the only one without it? I don't wanna have to look off someone else. Maybe I have time to run to the bookstore before 9:30 ...
Phase III: Disappointment
Bookstore has no more used copies of the book I need. Damn. Tried to pay with credit card, their "system" is "down" ("I believe it was hit with a burst of charged particles, sir. Do you have cash?"). Pay for book with last vestiges of cash; no remaining money for coffee.
Phase IV: Retarded
Ok, here's the room ... Athena Computer Cluster. Uh oh. That can't be it. Better run in and check the room on the web. Wait -- what's the combination to unlock the door? I haven't gone into one of these things in years ... must flag down an undergraduate for help.
Phase V: Indignation
Finally, the room ... already 20 minutes late and filled with self-loathing. Sweet Jesus! Looking in through the window, I can see that undergraduates are filling the room like muppets in the Happiness Hotel. I'd have to sit on the floor! At age 27! I could break a hip! Fuck that, I'm skipping the first day. I'll come early on Thursday.
Phase VI: Defeat
Subject: Missed class
Professor, I'm sorry I had to miss the first day of class -- I've been under the weather. Were there any assignments?
Subject: Re: Missed class
Bryan, I'm sorry, I already have too many students in the class and cannot accept anyone who didn't come on the first day.
Best wishes, Prof.
Me (trying to appear nonchalant): Is, uh, something wrong with the webserver?
Sysadmin (trying to appear sane): Yes. We know.
Me (turning the nonchalanter up to 11): Oh. It's cool. I just, uh, put some files, uh, on my uh ...
Sysadmin (not buying a word of it): It'll be back up as soon as we fix the fileserver, blog boy.
My recent birthday has given me a new perspective on my advancing years. But age is just a number -- it's what you do with that age that counts. I have chosen to spend my late-twenties yelling at old people.
Not just any old person -- one in particular. I'm on an Institute committee that includes a wide cross section of academic types: administrators, a professor, a couple students, a dean or two ... and one old alumnus, Jim. This guy is the composite American grandpa. Wispy hair covers his egg-like scalp. His stories are always a tangent on a diversion from a point that no one ever cared about. His glasses magnify the middle of his head so that he appears to have muppet-sized eyes.
And he's conservative. In particular, he hates lawyers.
This is a problem for me because my dad is a lawyer. And I grew up believing (and still believe) that lawyers are NOT the root of all evil in society. I don't put up with lawyer jokes, lawyer slams, or anti-lawyer ideology. Jim knows all this because we've served on several committees together, and every time he says something anti-lawyerly, I rebuke him. These rebukes usually bounce off him like a kickball off the side of the house, but I always try to be gentle anyway. The guy hikes his pants up to his nipples. I always try to treat him with, if not respect, at least mercy.
Jim was droning on about fire inspections and how much he doesn't like them. In his opinion, fire inspectors are really coming down on students due to, as far as I could gather from his rambling argument, a malevolent desire to save lives. In the course of demonizing these heartless, life-saving bastards, he slipped in, "Most of the time, I think they're just worried about some lawyer suing them ..."
And something inside me burst. Maybe it's my old age, maybe this was the straw that broke the student's back, maybe I was just tired. But before I could help myself ...
"Aww, Jim ... SHUT UP," I yelled. Yelled, like, in all caps. I had my "it hurts my eyes just to look at you" face aimed directly at his stupid little raisin head. I think I might have said something about them just doing their jobs and fraternities being fire traps and so on, but deep down, I was thinking this:
"I just told a senior citizen to shut up. That is so cool."
So if you have any older people in your life -- grandparents, neighbors, fellow committee members -- who need to be yelled at, I'm available. Just give me a phone number or address, and I'm on my way.
In case you were in a cave, the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVIII last night. So, in celebration, everyone set my block on fire.
Seriously, I live about a block from Fenway Park in a little area called Kenmore Square. It has become a karmic sporting ground zero, and the site of some serious mayhem last night. I was there and took pictures. I put all my rioting commentary in a little slideshow here:
(By the way -- I've scaled the images down to a reasonable size so that you don't have to wait years for the pages to download like last time.)
A few other Super Observations: