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    Kiss and say goodbye

    Posted by Sean at 23:44, January 31st, 2010

    I didn’t know until the Grammys did the obituaries section that Kate McGarrigle had died a few weeks ago. How sad. I liked their ’70s albums as a child, but I loved Heartbeats Accelerating all through college and beyond. I have no idea what she was like as a person, but as a musician she was generous-hearted, mischievous, heart-gripping. RIP


    変形菌類線

    Posted by Sean at 08:10, January 28th, 2010

    Via A. Nicholas at Ghost of a Flea comes this report on one of the delightfully bizarre ways extremes sometimes meet. The photographs have a spooky beauty, too:

    When presented with oat flakes arranged in the pattern of Japanese cities around Tokyo, brainless, single-celled slime molds construct networks of nutrient-channeling tubes that are strikingly similar to the layout of the Japanese rail system, researchers from Japan and England report Jan. 22 in Science. A new model based on the simple rules of the slime mold’s behavior may lead to the design of more efficient, adaptable networks, the team contends.

    Every day, the rail network around Tokyo has to meet the demands of mass transport, ferrying millions of people between distant points quickly and reliably, notes study coauthor Mark Fricker of the University of Oxford. “In contrast, the slime mold has no central brain or indeed any awareness of the overall problem it is trying to solve, but manages to produce a structure with similar properties to the real rail network.”

    Initially, the slime mold dispersed evenly around the oat flakes, exploring its new territory. But within hours, the slime mold began to refine its pattern, strengthening the tunnels between oat flakes while the other links gradually disappeared. After about a day, the slime mold had constructed a network of interconnected nutrient-ferrying tubes. Its design looked almost identical to that of the rail system surrounding Tokyo, with a larger number of strong, resilient tunnels connecting centrally located oats. “There is a remarkable degree of overlap between the two systems,” Fricker says.

    Travelers on the Tokyo commuter rail systems often compare themselves to sushi packed in tight, so perhaps this whole ferrying-of-nutrients parallel isn’t so odd after all.


    We belong

    Posted by Sean at 00:30, January 28th, 2010

    Instapundit says that Lech Walesa will be campaigning for a Republican gubernatorial candidate—literally. I didn’t see anything on Adam Andrzejewski’s website to indicate it, so I wondered whether Glenn Reynolds might be making a Polish joke. Apparently not, which is very cool. OTOH, I still think it’s worth mentioning that another famous American springs readily to mind when you think “Andrzejewski.”


    My bottle of Laphroaig and I are watching the SOTU

    Posted by Sean at 21:17, January 27th, 2010

    21:12 or so: “The government has been unable or unwilling to solve many of our problems.”

    Hmm.

    Gee.

    I wonder which one it is.

    *******

    21:25: “When you talk to small-business owners in Allentown, Pennsylvania,…”

    …you realize that you don’t know crap about economic reality and should stop trying to manipulate it?

    *******

    21:27: “…the infrastructure of tomorrow.”

    Oh, no—here comes the choo-choo train.

    *******

    21:28: Offshoring is evil. Shifting jobs abroad may do things like give low-income consumers cheaper goods to buy, but who cares about trivialities like that?

    *******

    21:32: “Look, I’m not interested in punishing banks.”

    I’m just going to impose a fee on them that’ll get passed on to their depositors and debtors…at least, if the banks are big. Being a big business is almost as evil as offshoring. Or maybe more.

    *******

    21:36: “And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill.”

    There was a doubt that these people were thinking of problem-solving in terms of a comprehensive [fill in the blank] bill? Oh. I was not aware of that, actually.

    *******

    21:37: “We need to export more of our goods.”

    Doesn’t that mean other countries are offshoring jobs to us and are therefore all kinds of venal and stuff, then? Or are we only going to export things no one else makes?

    Every time you give a non-American a job, God kills a kitten.

    *******

    21:40: Color me skeptical that any education reform, bipartisan or no, will be undertaken in a way that spanks non-performing assets ensconced in the NEA or AFT and keeps them from screwing over kids anymore.

    *******

    21:41: Watch for college tuition to increase by an average of US$2500 a year once that tax credit goes through.

    *******

    21:47: “As temperatures cool….”

    WTF? I thought there was scientific consensus around global warming?

    *******

    21:56: “Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades…”

    …you should face that it’s time to STFU and do what my fellow-travelers and I want anyway.

    *******

    21:57: Did you know that lobbyists had been excluded from policy-making jobs in Obama’s administation? ‘Cause I didn’t know that lobbyists had been excluded from policy-making jobs in Obama’s administration. And naturally, he and his fans are for the Incumbent Protection Act McCain-Feingold.

    *******

    21:59: You know, I care about earmarks, too; but I care even more about whether congresscritters actually know what’s in stimulus and health-care legislation before they vote on it. It’d be nice if they posted that on a single, accessible website, too. Maybe I’m weird that way?

    *******

    22:00: You were the one whose triumphant line was “I won,” buster. And the “permanent campaign,” as it used to be called, started under Clinton. IIRC, he was one of yours. Also, if you don’t like hearing people blame the other side all the time, maybe call a moratorium on the Bush-blaming?

    *******

    [ongoing]: Laphroaig, why you so good to me?

    *******

    22:09: “North Korea is more isolated than ever.”

    Brrrr…it frightens me just to think about it. I mean, if North Korea supposedly idealized something like…oh, I don’t know, “self-reliance,” then maybe it’d be different.

    *******

    22:12: “If you abide by the law, then you should be protected by the law.”

    And if you violate tax law, but you have a cool resume, then you should be in my cabinet.

    *******

    22:14: The DADT thing sneaked in—Eric was saying it would.

    *******

    22:16: “Cynicism”? Uh, no. Just not child-like faith that government can solve everything by butting into it.

    *******

    22:19: You know, I hate to sound like a jerk, but the idea that that little boy thought his allowance should go through Washington to get to the needy in Haiti, and that Obama finds that stirring, is telling.

    *******

    22:33: I’m watching at whitehouse.gov, where a bunch of aides are sitting around a table fielding questions submitted electronically. My primary feeling is that every one of them really needs a good lay.

    *******

    22:59: Good grief, stop saying, “That’s an excellent question.” They’re all hand-picked. We know they’re all hand-picked. Nothing that isn’t considered a strategically good question for some reason or other is going to figure into this dog-and-pony show. Affecting any surprise at all at the perspicacity of the question you’re called upon to address fools no one. Just once, I want one of these Ken dolls (or the one Barbie in the group) to show some spirit, look unblinkingly at the camera, and say, “That’s the dumbest f***ing question I’ve ever heard in my life.”

    Added later: Eric sort of ended up live-blogging; his verdict is here.


    808 State

    Posted by Sean at 18:53, January 27th, 2010

    Is this thing on? Super. And for Pete’s sake, good thing they’re letting me have the TelePrompTer considering all the FLAK I’ve been taking after that school thing. I mean, seriously? Second Assistant was all, like, “Mr. Prez, I realize that you’re used to giving speeches to segments of the electorate that are no more sophisticated than middle-schoolers, but that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to use the ‘PrompTer in front of an actual classroom of sixth-graders!” Oh, snap, Second Assistant, snap! Like I’m supposed to be able to figure these things out anymore.

    Speaking of which, you people drive me up the wall sometimes. Why bother electing me president if you’re going to throw a fit every time I actually try to PRESIDE over something? I keep trying to introduce some European enlightenment into this place—FINALLY!—in fact, “Light Bringer” sounds like a cool nickname. Wonder what it is in Latin? ANYWAY, I TRY these European things you said you wanted when you voted me in, and then what do you go and do?

    Well, okay, Massachusetts just went and elected a senator who once posed nude for a national magazine, which is sort of like what happens in maybe Italy, but that’s not the Europe I mean. I mean France and Germany, geniuses. They have national health systems, and they’re all kinds of cool.

    For a while there, I was heartened by the whole “Tea Party” thing I was hearing about from my staffers whose job is to look out the window sometimes. The UK doesn’t consider itself part of Europe, really, but it may as well be, and they have tea parties there. Class-act tea parties. Then Anderson Cooper told me you were actually “Tea-Baggers,” and I was like, Blech! BAG TEA? What is America now—one gigantic rest-stop diner? Seriously, your personal assistant can learn to make tea from proper loose leaves. You’ll love it. Serve it in Limoges. And then you’ll really be worth partying with! Almost, dare I say, European.

    But really, it’s not even just Europe. Let’s talk Japan. (Actually, am I supposed to call that Prime Minister guy soon? I need to find out from someone.) Japan invented sushi and Kurosawa movies, and you’re fine with those, but Japan also has a national health service, and you’re all up in arms because I might want to give you something like it. Who knows—maybe once we have a national health service, our countrymen will come up with better food and movies, and you in the hinterlands won’t all be stuck eating at Taco Bell and watching crap from James Cameron.

    Okay, fine. That’s fallacious reasoning. POST HOC ERGO PROPTER HOC. I know all about that because I went to Harvard Law School. Just, look, forget what results…don’t you want to be more like the Japanese? Remember: sushi! Kurosawa!

    Oh, yeah. Japan also has that bad-news economy that totally wasn’t helped by those stimulus packages. Meh. Let’s think about Europe again.

    If you’re in a snit and not going to take the national health care system—which, let me be perfectly clear, the people in Washington would totally have a plan completed for sometime after the bill passed and before the first bureaucrat manning the help line put a citizen on hold—maybe you can take something else France and Germany have (and hey, Japan, too!): a super-zoom-zoom-fast choo-choo train! Those of us who get around on private jets have been totally trying to get you to assent to one of those for for-flipping-EVER. Seriously, que es el holdup?

    On the other hand, I can’t say that I like the way the AP talks about it here (via Reason, where people keep insisting on pointing out that they did NOT VOTE FOR ME):

    A day after delivering a State of the Union address aimed at showing recession-weary Americans he understands their struggles, President Barack Obama intends to award $8 billion in stimulus funds to develop high-speed rail corridors and sell the program as a jobs creator.

    Excuse me? I don’t have to “sell” anything. That railroads create jobs is, like, manifest. The song isn’t called “I’ve Been Underemployed on the Railroad,” now, is it?

    The official said the projects are expected to create or save [Like that? I came up with it myself.–Yr. Prez] tens of thousands of jobs in areas like track-laying, manufacturing, planning and engineering, though there is no time frame for how long it will take for those jobs to develop. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak ahead of the president’s announcement.

    Okay, if a certain Anonymous Official had said what he’d actually REHEARSED, he would have left out the part about “no time frame.” I mean, sheesh—do you have any idea how many unions we’re going to have to massage? Where do people think jobs are supposed to come from, entrepreneurship or something?

    With that in mind, Obama will spend about two-thirds of his speech on the economy, telling Americans in specific terms that he understands their struggles. He’ll reinforce that message in the coming weeks by laying out a number of job creation initiatives, the first of which will be the high-speed rail grant awards to announced Thursday in Tampa.

    Trust me, I lobbied hard for Palm Beach. Who the hell goes to Tampa? But those staffers of mine are total martinets.

    Even experts who favor high-speed rail question whether the awards Obama will announce Thursday can turn into the job generators the administration is hoping for. Because the U.S. has never had the kind of bullet trains found in Europe and Asia, there are no U.S. engineering companies or manufacturers with experience in high-speed rail. Anthony Perl, who heads the National Research Council’s panel on intercity passenger rails, said that means much of the technology will have to be purchased abroad.

    And that’s a problem? At least the ignoramuses may end up letting me import SOMETHING, I say.

    So anyway, yeah, more jobs and a sophisticated, environmentally friendly, employment-providing new set of transportation systems. What could be better? And I’ve been looking to get away from all the bankers and car makers, too. With this project, I can leave all these industries whose reputation has been sullied by decades of greed and inefficiency behind and just settle into working with, you know, railroad magnates and transportation authorities. Can’t wait.


    Dont’ worry ’bout my recovery

    Posted by Sean at 04:07, January 27th, 2010

    Unlike Eric, I don’t feel much pressure to live-blog the State of the Unions…er…Union address, and therefore plan to give it a dyspeptic listen in private. I will just note here, re. the Wall Street Journal article Eric links to, that this drives me bananas:

    The point people for the small-business initiatives will be embattled Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Small Business Administrator Karen Mills, administration officials say. Thursday, Mr. Geithner will travel to Minneapolis to tour a Honeywell factory and have a roundtable discussion with local business leaders.

    In the poll, just 11% of Americans feel positively about the Treasury chief. Nearly one in five have negative feelings about him, while more than half said they didn’t know his name or weren’t sure.

    Melissa Sharp, a spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Business, the small-business lobby, said the Hatch-Schumer proposal may be a step in the right direction. The organization, though, would like to see a broader measure—one that doesn’t just apply to the longterm unemployed.

    Hiring tax credits have been controversial. Some economists worry businesses could fire then rehire workers to claim the credit, or divide a full-time job into two part-time jobs.

    Yes, the best way to encourage entrepreneurship is to make the tax code more complex. People with big dreams and modest means love that, because there aren’t already enough little decision-distorting little rules plaguing their lives to begin with.

    I mean, don’t misunderstand: I’m for lower taxes as much as I’ve ever been. The part that drives me wild is that this is yet another example of the government-as-handyman approach, in which it’s assumed that Washington’s role in the economy is to push through yet another set of micromanage-y dicta to “help” enterprises of this or that description. I suppose I should be grateful that Sharp’s lobby isn’t powerful enough to wangle a bailout for its more luckless members. And along those lines, how is it we hope to help small businesses by visiting a Honeywell [!] facility and talking to people who are already business leaders in a major urban area? I’m aware of the distinction between long-running small businesses and start-ups, and I suppose the discussion could be intended to elicit ideas about what small businesses need in order to succeed. But, as Virginia Postrel was pointing out around the time of our last health-care policy-push fiasco, it’s hard for even economists to figure these things out in a way that produces “helpful” policy:

    Small business is, apparently, the opposite of the weather: Everybody praises it, and everybody does something about it. But all this posturing is based on bad economics and worse politics. Contrary to endlessly repeated conventional wisdom, small companies do not account for the vast majority of new jobs.

    That notion stems from the work of David Birch, a former MIT researcher who now runs a consulting firm called Cognetics. In the 1980s, Birch claimed to show that most new jobs came from small companies. His findings were trumpeted by small-business advocates, notably the Small Business Administration and my former employer, Inc. magazine. It seemed impolite to subject Birch’s research to normal scientific checking.

    But Birch has now recanted. He says, “The relative role of smaller firms in generating jobs varies enormously from time to time and place to place … Most small-firm job creation occurs within a relatively few firms–the Gazelles.” These “Gazelles” are, quite simply, high-growth companies. That growing companies hire more people than non-growing companies is hardly surprising. The “Gazelles,” says Birch, represent every sector of the economy and are extremely unstable.

    As a celebration of a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy, Birch’s vision is appealing. It holds up on anecdotal grounds. Birch cites such Gazelle successes as AST Research and Federal Express. But his research has absolutely no predictive value. You identify a Gazelle by looking at its past growth, not predicting its future prospects. The implication of Birch’s research is that no one, including David Birch, knows where new jobs will come from.

    Not that that’s going to stop them from pretending they do.

    Speaking of big dreams and the inability to engineer the future, Sarah Hoyt has another guest post up at another blog, this time discussing whether current science fiction deserves more readers than it gets:

    The other part of this is that no one can cast a future world without thinking through things like economics, sexual roles, politics, mass movements. No one can write a world no matter how bubblegum—oh, all right, maybe seventies French sci fi porn (I only read it for the spaceships)—without putting his or her thoughts into it. If you don’t believe me, go and analyze Star Trek. Or even better read one of several volumes of serious analysis that already exist. Messages are not what you think. Moral fables with pre-determined outcomes are rarely entertaining and besides, if you have children, go and look at what they read in school. They’re immersed in these “the world is unjust and we must wallow in it” screeds. Full up. If anything this turns them off reading. Why should they go looking for more of this boring stuff on their own time?

    I’d like to say these are my very reasonable and reasoned suggestions, but I feel more like all this has been simmering for years (and panels) untold and now it’s 1517 and I’m Martin Luther, nailing my theses to the door. I fully expect a storm of excommunication. But some things are worth saying.

    Relax your grip around science fiction, gentle ladies and kind gentlemen of science fiction publishing and critique. Allow writers to dream and they will. Allow stories to inspire dreams and the readers will come. And perhaps one of those young people attracted by the “impossible” FTL process will be one who invents a way to travel almost painlessly to and amid the distant stars. Because his high school teacher will say it’s impossible and our reader will be mulish enough to prove it all wrong. Perhaps one of the young women who just missed out on reading another screed on how she is oppressed for being female, will create bio-wombs that will free women from the physical hardship of pregnancy. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

    Stop trying to push people toward dreams you’ve envisioned for them, yes.

    On a not-entirely-unrelated note, the three youngest kitties in Mark Alger’s household were born a year ago last week, at the very dawn of this era of hope, change, and promotion to executive-branch positions after non-payment of taxes. Happy birthday to them.

    On a bizarrely not-entirely-unrelated note, here’s Olivia on rejecting high-handed attempts to help with “Recovery”:

    Added later: Combining the themes of Sarah Hoyt, not pigeonholing people, and kitties, Sarah has a post up about cat names. Priceless sentence: “Dead cats aren’t particularly safe.”

    Added on 29 January: I knew I had a photograph of my parents’ Romeo and Ludwig in full superiority-complex mode:

    The dryer wasn’t even running, BTW.


    Good girls don’t

    Posted by Sean at 19:09, January 21st, 2010

    If you liked Sarah Hoyt’s guest post here the other day, you may also like what she’s written at Classical Values and at The Lensman’s Children. In both spaces, she wrote about sex relations against the backdrop of sci-fi and, to varying degrees, the current culture wars. (At The Lensman’s Children, be sure to check out the commenter who uses “libertarianesque” as if its horribleness—of meaning, not of euphony, I mean—were, like, totally obvious. Sarah mentions her in the Classical Values post.) Well worth reading. I’m glad the blog tour for her book is going well.


    Noblesse oblige

    Posted by Sean at 21:52, January 19th, 2010

    As a libertarian, I’m not entirely thrilled with Scott Brown, and more importantly, as a gay man I think he’d have looked yummier with a lot more chest hair in his early twenties. But his win over the irredeemable Martha Coakley is good to see:

    Scott Brown takes over a seat in the United States Senate that has been held by one family (including its seat-fillers) for just over 57 years, since John F. Kennedy was elected to it in 1952, before Brown was born. Massachusetts hadn’t elected a Republican senator since 1972. In the closest U.S. Senate race of the past decade, Democrat John Kerry won by 35 points. All 10 of its House members are Democrats, and about 90 percent of both legislative chambers. That’s a well-entrenched political establishment. And as so often happens with long-ruling parties, it has seen its share of corruption: Three consecutive House speakers have resigned under clouds. It’s no surprise that Massachusetts Democrats have finally encountered the kind of voter reaction that national Democrats did in 1994, and national Republicans in 2006 and 2008.

    Anything that helps put paid to the idea that there’s a Ted Kennedy “legacy” to be maintained is a worthy end in itself, though interrupting Coakley‘s upward mobility is a conspicuously pleasant side effect. Kennedy the private person may have spread joy and light to all who knew him, but Kennedy the public figure was the worst combination of condescending fake-patrician magnanimity (with other people’s money) and genuine rube-ish vulgarity of predilection and habit.


    Love makes the world go ’round

    Posted by Sean at 20:40, January 17th, 2010

    Andrew Stuttaford, posting at Secular Right, links to this post about what Camille Paglia used to call “coercive compassion” and about those who, getting things exactly backwards, argue that religion used to be nice and tender and caring until it was coopted by belligerent, bloodthirsty types. We can, I suppose, recapture the state of grace enjoyed by our preliterate ancestors by rediscovering the joys of diffidence and nice-making:

    Anyone who makes the mistake of clicking on the link to the Charter for Compassion […] may suddenly find themselves sympathising with the idea of rage-fuelled violence, because it really is just the most awful – well, here, see for yourself:

    If you’re not on your knees after that, praying to your God for the cleansing hellfire to engulf all the simpering cretins in that advert, you’re spiritually dead inside.

    The video embedded above has to be seen to be believed. Actually, having seen it, I’m still not sure I believe it. No, seriously, if you like having a good, wicked laugh at the expense of the scintillatingly stupid, pour yourself a tall drink, gulp it, and then click “Play.” It’s mentioned by way of pissing on this opinion piece in The Guardian, which is the latest to insinuate that, well, really, we can’t expect terrorists to stop murdering Westerners if we’re going to keep acting so murderable, or something.

    Like Mr. Eugenides, I have a few doubts about this. Real old-time religion consisted of spooky ritualistic magic forged from desperate attempts to get the elements to stop pulling the rug out from under fragile, nascent human communities. It was once resources were a little more secure that care for the aging, ill, insane, and others who weren’t productive through no fault of their own became possible.

    You can see this very clearly when you look past the vaunted Japanese “love of nature” to the actual artifacts of Japanese literature and culture from long-gone eras. The much-tried Japanese, whose homeland pitches earthquake, typhoon, mudslide, blizzard, and tsunami at them on a regular basis, fear nature as much as they love it. You get candied, pretty-poo odes to nature in later phases when artistic forms have rigidified with time, but the older works have a fresh, raw numinousness and fierceness to them that comes of living with nature in all its unpredictable ferocity.

    All of which is to say, the idea that we can repair to some compassion-based system of belief that is more fundamental than and existed prior to nasty violence is malarkey. It’s civilization that’s our buffer against primitive impulses toward brute assertions of power and vengefulness, but brute power and vengefulness will always be with us, and they require dealing with. An approach that couples an inexhaustible willingness to be guilt-tripped with an “All You Need Is Love” approach to miscreants seems unlikely to accomplish much besides making it clear what pushovers we are.


    See Chip run

    Posted by Sean at 18:10, January 13th, 2010

    Ann Althouse, by way of Gawker, links to this interview with Harold Ford, Jr., who appears not to understand that when normal English speakers talk (or even write), they signal ease and human-ness by using these things called “contractions.” He ends up sounding disturbingly like something run through Babelfish:

    And, again, you combine the central issues confronting the country, which confront New York in a more meaningful and tangible way, arguably, than other cities and locals around the country.

    I often have said to people that there are really two cities in the country where the outlook is always forward-looking — there is never really a backward-looking tendency. My banking work has taken me out to Palo Alto, what is commonly called Silicon Valley. And you sense out there is always a forward-looking outlook. And New York City. There is a desire to allow people to become a part of something that is so great and so big.

    Actually, a lot of people in New York City are looking backward at their previous incomes, though at Ford’s level of privilege, I’m not I am not surprised he hasn’t has not seen that.