Saturday, December 23, 2006

Unstructured Wordplay

I've seen the following bit of clever wordplay floating around the net for a long time but I've never been able to find out who wrote it. It turns out that it was written by Jack Winter for the New Yorker back in 1994. So, with all due credit, here is the story of

How I met my wife

It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate.

I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.

I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I'd have to make bones about it since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn't be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do.

Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or a sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion.

So I decided not to risk it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make heads and tails of.

I was plussed. It was concerting to see that she was communicado, and it nerved me that she was interested in a pareil like me, sight seen. Normally, I had a domitable spirit, but, being corrigible, I felt capacitated -- as if this were something I was great shakes at -- and forgot that I had succeeded in situations like this only a told number of times. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings.

Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. Wanting to make only called-for remarks, I started talking about the hors d'oeuvres, trying to abuse her of the notion that I was sipid, and perhaps even bunk a few myths about myself.

She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savory character who was up to some good. She told me who she was. "What a perfect nomer," I said, advertently. The conversation become more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A White F#@$king Christmas!

As you may have heard, a nasty blizzard is blowing through Colorado. For me this means two things:

1) Losing two days of work due to a snow closure (which is unpaid, since I'm a contractor).
2) Not being able to fly out of here to see my girlfriend over the Christmas weekend because Denver International Airport has been shut down.

So Mr. Lias is not having a very merry Xmas at the moment, although I suppose it could be worse. I have a friend who not only wasn't able to fly out to see her family, but she also learned, just a few days ago, that she's going to be losing her job.

As soon as the roads clear, I think I'll be going out and getting an extra large carton of eggnog and some spiced rum. I can at least drown my sorrows in a seasonally appropriate manner.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Whiskey Tango FoxTrot

Some of the very best newspaper comics are geek comics. The first time I ever saw Bloom County was as a clipping posted up in a computer lab. The Far Side found much of its sensibility in the very geeky world of science humor. Dilbert gained its initial impetus from its audience in the I.T. world. Even Calvin and Hobbes found popularity in geek circles well before it became established as a timeless family classic.

It is thus that I was sad to learn that the very geekiest of newspaper comic, FoxTrot, will be going to a Sunday-only format as of the start of the year. According to the sources I've read, the move is entirely the decision of Bill Amend, the strip's author, who simply does not want to spend the majority of time creating daily strips anymore.

I certainly respect his decision and I am also relieved that it's not going away entirely, as too many great comics already have (which is frustrating given the sort of dreck that never seems to go away). Never the less, I will miss my daily dose of uber-geek Jason and the rest of the family. At least we still have Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On Elves and Oafs

When we think about elves we tend to think of them as graceful and (generally) benevolent beings (either that or as Santa's little helpers... but I think those twerps are more closely related to leprechauns).

The latest update to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words came as something of a shocker to me. It turns out that word "elf" is closely related to the word "oaf", which seems to be the antithesis of what elves are supposed to be like! How can this be.

Well, elves didn't always have the benevolent associations that they do in the modern era. Originally, elves were thought of as devious, and often dangerous, beings who were best avoided, nor were they imagined to be creatures of great beauty. In fact, elfs [sic] and goblins were very nearly considered to be synonymous. An oaf was, in fact, the name used to describe a changeling, which is to say an elf's child left in place of a human child. An oaf has the distinguishing characteristic of being uglier and stupider than a normal child.

So where did our modern notion of elves [again, sic] as quasi-divine beings come from? In a word, Tolkien. Tolkien can be thought of as a one-man PR firm for the race. The first thing he did was to change the plural from elfs to elves, which rolls off the tongue much more gracefully. He then created an elaborate mythology and history which gave them the noble bearing that we now assume they possess. Some of the original flavor of elves was preserved in the form of the Orcs which are, in his books, elves that had been corrupted and debased.

Because of Tolkien's influence over modern fantasy (an influence that didn't really take hold until the 60's, which is about the time that the fantasy market exploded into its own genre), the popular conception of elves has been thoroughly altered. It is with some irony that any modern fantasy author that wanted to present a more authentic conception of elves would have to take deliberate pains to overcome their reader's modernist preconceptions. In other words, most people would find "real" elfs to be just a bit too unbelievable.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Ferrofluid Sculptures

At first I thought that this video was computer generated but, in fact, it's an actual video of a real substance. Ferrofluids are a special class of liquids where nanoscopic magnetic particles are suspended in a viscous liquid. The fluids display very interesting behaviors in the presence of magnetic fields, as you can see for yourself.

Friday, December 15, 2006

On Liberalism and Conservatism

A good long time ago, I was surprised to find that my friend Kyle considers himself to be a conservative. This surprised me given that he's a Wiccan and that he holds a number of beliefs that would seem to fall under the traditional umbrella of liberal values, so I asked him why he considered himself a Conservative.

In his reply to me he caught me off-guard with a counter-question: "how do you understand those words, and why do you call yourself liberal?".

Like many seemingly simple questions, this one contained a lot of depth. At first, I thought that I'd be able to give a quick answer but, the more I thought about it, the more difficult I found it to actually answer that question. Indeed, I've been pondering the question since last March. I think that I've finally come up with something that works, at least for me.

Since it's usually a good idea to start with a dictionary (and always a bad idea to end with one) when trying to understand a concept, let's see what Webster's has to say:

Main Entry: lib·er·al·ism
Function: noun
1 : the quality or state of being liberal
2 a often capitalized : a movement in modern Protestantism emphasizing intellectual liberty and the spiritual and ethical content of Christianity b : a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition, the self-regulating market, and the gold standard c : a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties d capitalized : the principles and policies of a Liberal party

I think that it should be apparent that definition 1 is fairly useless and that 2a only applies to the realm of theology, which isn't under discussion. 2b is interesting mainly because it's a fairly close description of the economic theories that tend to be advanced by American conservatives. Parts of 2c seems to have potential, but, to me, it seems to miss the mark a bit, not least because the idea of individual autonomy and political and civil liberty is also embraced by many who call themselves conservative. I'm also not willing to assume that conservatives don't believe in the essential goodness of the human race, nor am I convinced that liberals are necessarily going to accept the premise. 2d seems to me to be circular: What's liberalism? It's what Liberal parties adhere to.

Main Entry: con·ser·va·tism
Function: noun
1 capitalized a : the principles and policies of a Conservative party b : the Conservative party
2 a : disposition in politics to preserve what is established b : a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change
3 : the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change

The 1a definition of conservatism has the same issues as the 3d definition of liberalism: it seems circular. 1b is even worse. 2a seems to have potential but, again, it seems to miss the mark as well. 2b also seems to have potential but, like 2a, seems to lack something. 3 seems to recapitulate 2a and 2b, only extending them outside of the political realm.

It quickly became apparent to me that one of the biggest problems with discussing liberalism vs. conservatism is that the discussion often gets side-tracked into discussions of political positions, many of which don't have any necessary mapping to either side.

Let's take conservation as an example. In modern American politics, conservation (often referred to as environmentalism) is considered a liberal position and is, in fact, one of the central planks of the Democratic party (which is generally considered to be the major left-wing party in the American political landscape). Opposition to environmental regulation is typically associated with conservative politics and the Republican party in particular. However, the history of conservation does not make these obvious associations. Many conservation movements (especially German and Japanese sylvan stewardship) has strong conservative roots and, even in the United States, the National Parks system got its start under Lincoln and was expanded by more than a few conservative presidents (up to and including George W. Bush). It wasn't until the publication of Silent Spring and the subsequent association with anti-corporatism that environmentalism came to be thought of as a leftist movement.

I think that the conventional associations of many positions that are presumed to be on the left or the right also lack any necessary association with their assignments. I can, for instance, envision a world where the right to bear arms is championed as a liberal cause under the theory that, in its absence, society has no recourse to advance against repressive institutions. I can also imagine worlds where gay rights are considered a conservative stance, perhaps because they are enshrined in the dominant religion.

A second and more subtle problem is that there is a general perception that liberalism and conservatism are mutually exclusive. The two philosophies are considered to be antagonistic, holding opposite stances on all major issues. I found myself asking if this was necessarily so and coming to the conclusion that it was not. (More on this later.)

So how do I answer Kyle's question? With much thought I think that it is a question of core values. What is it that matters most to either side? Let's start with conservatism.

I think that the core value of conservatism is the preservation of the Good. A conservative looks at the world and sees that there are many institutions and traditions that are good and he is loath to change those things for fear that altering them, even with good intentions, could have the effect of replacing that which is good about them with something that is less desirable or even evil. This is a fear that finds empirical justification given the ample evidence that unintended consequences frequently subvert attempts to enhance a system and that, the more complex the system, the greater the chance that unintended consequences will crop up. Given that society is the most complex system of them all, efforts to make changes to it should be given the utmost contemplation and consideration before we move on to implementation. That said, conservatism doesn't require the preservation of all institutions. Few modern conservatives would argue, for instance, that ending slavery was wrong. Since slavery was a manifest evil, eradicating it was the correct and just course of action in spite of the upheavals that its eradication caused and despite the myriad consequences that stem from its elimination.
The core value of liberalism is harder to define. I think that liberalism predicates itself on a theory, which I would call the theory of the Just Society. What is the Just Society? The Just Society is the one all people are treated fairly, where all institutions support the common good and where all laws are just.

The Just Society does not exist. Instead, it's a sort of ideal. It is a frankly Utopian vision. Indeed, one of the most frequent criticisms of liberalism is that it's unrealistic. Sure, it's nice to imagine a perfect world but, in the meanwhile, we have to get our heads out of the clouds and deal with the real world. Although the concept of the Just Society is Utopian, it does not follow that liberalism is necessarily Utopian. One can concede that the Just Society can never be truly obtained while never the less asserting that any changes that move us closer to the ideal should be encouraged.

From the theory of the Just Society, I think we can describe the core value of liberalism as progress towards the Just Society. If I were to give liberalism a bumper sticker motto, it would be, "If the world could be a better place then it should be a better place."

(If anyone would like to suggest a non-pejorative conservative motto, please feel free to do so.)

I think that the advantage of these definitions is that they are descriptive while, never the less, allowing for a great deal of flexibility in practice. What exactly is the Just Society? Is it a society where all wealth is redistributed? Some may say yes while others would certainly say no. What is the Good? Is racial segregation a good thing? Many thought it was and now many don't.

Although it may be tempting to try to come up with core definitions which aren't open to dispute, neither liberals nor conservatives are monolithic which tell me that the core values of either philosophy must be subject to interpretive disputation, which is precisely what we find in the real world. Two liberals can agree that moving towards a just society is necessary without having to agree to what that society is or how to reach it. A pair of conservatives can have a dispute over what, exactly, is good and deserving of preservation while still holding the preservation of the Good as a central value.

Even if a majority of liberals subscribe to a given viewpoint, it doesn't follow that that viewpoint must be adopted by all liberals or rejected by all conservatives, which is why I think that efforts to catalog a person's position by their stance on various issues often leads to seeming paradoxes (such as the existence of conservative Wiccans). The apparent paradoxes are artifacts of perception that have no bearing on the reality. Even though most conservatives aren't Wiccans (and are, indeed, fairly hostile to Wiccans), if a person, who happens to be a Wiccan, accepts the core value of preserving the Good then that person has every right and cause to call themselves a conservatives. The same can be said of liberals who oppose abortion (and so forth and so on).

If we do accept these definitions we find an interesting thing happens: it becomes apparent that neither philosophy is necessarily antagonistic towards the other. One who values social progress can concede that there are institutions that should be preserved. The Just Society could (and almost certainly world) encompass many values that we currently hold. Likewise, one who desires the preservation of the Good can admit that there are institutions that should be overturned and that it's even possible, and desirable, to replace a current Good with an even greater Good (although we shall want to approach the proposition with caution).

These definitions suggest a shift in our perception of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism. Instead of viewing them as naturally antagonistic we, instead, can see them as part of a larger process; a sort of social dialectic, in fact. There is a kind of practical antagonism given that liberal philosophies will inevitably call for the overthrow of institutions that conservatives are wary of discarding, but this antagonism describes a conflict of plans as opposed to a fundamentally ideological conflict. To be sure, the ideologies tend to generate conflict but they don't require conflict.

One can imagine society as being a bit like a car. Conservatism acts as a social brake while liberalism is a kind of accelerator. Just as with a car doesn't move at all if you only hold down the brake, and just as it is apt to spin out of control and crash if you only press the accelerator, the Vehicle of Society needs to have both elements to move forward at a prudent rate. Of course this is an inexact analogy. In the real Vehicle of Society, you have millions of people stomping down as hard as possible on both pedals while simultaneously trying to jerk the steering wheel to one side or another. (It also has the curious feature that if you press down on the brake hard enough, it can actually go backwards, and the same is true of the accelerator!)

Be that as it may, there is no fundamental reason that liberals and conservatives have that requires them to be in conflict over any given goal. Every so often we should expect that the interests of the two groups should align. More importantly, we should find mutual value is trying to find those cases of alignment. Liberals should be willing to admit that all progress is not good progress and conservatives should be willing to concede that not all that is preserved is worth preserving.

This leads to Kyle's question: why do I call myself a liberal?

Truthfully, I'm tempted to toss aside the label altogether. Even though I still value the theory of the Just Society and sincerely want us to move towards, I also concede that preserving the Good is not only laudable but critical. It would be simple to say that I am neither. I would also be disingenuous.

Although I can see both sides, the truth is that I tend to come down on the side of progress far more often than I come down on the side of preservation. I sincerely believe that more institutions ought to be either overturned or improved than preserved and that efforts to preserve social institutions seem to disproportionately favor the perpetuation of injustices. At the same time, I can be glad that there are people like Kyle who stand on the other side of the fence checking my desire to gun the engine. I believe that we are both a necessary part of the whole and even if I get frustrated by the specific rate and nature of my culture's progress (to say nothing of the occasional regress) I have confidence that, in the long run, society does move forward, inching its way towards that infinitely distant utopia that I dream of.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Year That Was

Jib-Jab's wrap up of the year.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Unstructured Scale

Every so often, it helps to have a little perspective.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Behold, the joy of pancakes!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Unstructured Venn

Like many on the geek/nerd continuum, I've always been fascinated by graphs and Venn diagrams; however, my interest in the subject pales next to this guy.

My favorite is his diagram illustrating that the intersection of a mythical king, elves, and magic is either Lord of the Rings or Christmas.

It makes you think.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Visual Structure of Poems

If you've been reading my blog for any amount of time, you've probably noticed that poetry is a hobby of mine. Like many hobbyists, I take mine quite seriously (and I think I do well at it, thank you very much).

I am fortunate that I have a set of friends who are willing to not only indulge my desire to share my poems but who are also willing to critique them. I was recently discussing a batch of poems with my friend Rob when mentioned that the shape of a poem -- which is to say the layout of the words on the page -- is an important part of a poem.

Rob replied that he really didn't see that and that, for him, the only thing that really mattered was the way that a poem sounded when he read it. A composed a response to him that is, with some modifications, today's essay.

For this essay I'll be using three of my own poems: "Cheops", "Fragments", and "Origami Redux". I want to state up front that I don't consider any of these to be particularly excellent poems (all of them are very early works of mine); however, they do have the advantage of being illustrative of my points.

Let us start with "Cheops". I wrote this poem in imitation of a 19th century fad where poets laid out their poems in the form of pictures (the most impressive one was of a swan). "Cheops" is a fairly simple example of the style.

He will
not steal
These loves
The Nile that
moves slowly or
the feel of blood
I am Pharaoh I will
rise above the wretch
for I am a god and time
will bow to my holy whims
Now let us contrast this with a version laid out in a more conventional format:

I see Death

He will not steal these loves:
The Nile that moves slowly
Or the feel of blood

I am Pharaoh

I will rise
Above the wretch

For I am a god

And time will bow
To my holy whims

In both cases we have the same words, but notice how the layout impacts how the poem is read and interpreted.

You might suppose that I'm going to suggest that the triangular layout is superior but, in fact, I think that it ends up detracting from the poem by distracting us away from the words and lending a perception that the entire poem is really just a gimmick (which is precisely what it was when I originally wrote it). The second layout, on the other hand expresses the core ideas of the poem while also giving us a number of subconscious cues.

Note how the first, third and fifth stanzas are single lines and note the content of those lines. On the one hand it sets up a sort of mental cadence (short, long, short, long, short, long) that impacts how we read the poem (which, in turn, impacts the sound of the poem). Even more subtly, stanza one introduces the person of death, stanza three introduces the person of the Pharaoh, and stanza five expresses the relation of Pharaoh to Death (he's a god and thus above Death). Stanzas two, four and six, by contrast, are narrative stanzas that tell a miniature story about Pharaoh's love of life, his self-perception, and his desire to defeat death.

The second version of the poem, which only differs in shape from the first, has layers of nuance that the first completely lacks. Although the triangular form has a sort of rude cleverness, it actually ends up subverting poem, turning it into a cheap trick. The very same words, in a different form, give us something that is, I think, much better than the original.

The next example is a poem called Fragments. It's a fairly maudlin poem, but it has a very unusual sort of structure.


holding him


doesn't care

(i do)

you and him
him and you





Once again, we can write this in a more conventional style:

You holding him
He doesn't care

I do

You and him
Touching him and you

I'm alone

Overlooking the fact that the poem is hopelessly self-pitying, I don't think that the second version is all that bad in terms of the structure conveying the message of the poem. However, it lacks the vigorous sense of emotional fragmentation that the first version conveys.

The scattered words give the indication that the author has been struck a shattering blow. The words are blown apart with the single exception being the triplet of "you and him / touching / him and you", offering a stark contrast of stability and unity that the rest of the words, especially the isolated and parenthesized "i do", lack.

Finally, note that the final word, "untouchable" is, itself, broken, which simultaneously expresses the brokenness of the author's heart while, at the same time, suggesting the potential for healing (since the last word is actually "touchable").

Although the more conventional layout does a decent job of conveying the core idea of the poem, I think that the first version adds a dimension of expression that the first simply does not reach.

My final example is a poem called "Origami Redux". The poem, itself, is fairly angst-ridden, but it provides a good example of how subtle structural changes can alter the way we read a poem. We'll start with the original:

I fold myself away
In silent shame
And shameless pity.
I cry,
And no one sees me;
Invisible tears
Gain no sympathy.
I long for the painlessness of sleep
And the sleepfulness of death.
And all the anger
and misery
Make me fold again
Note the linear distribution of emotions from lines 10 thru 14 in the first version. Each emotion has a crisp, visual impact that hits your eyes -- bam, bam, bam!

Now let's compare that to this version:

I fold myself away
In silent shame
And shameless pity.
I cry,
And no one sees me;
Invisible tears
Gain no sympathy.
I long for the painlessness of sleep
And the sleepfulness of death.
And all the anger
Fear, hatred
Embarrassment and misery
Make me fold again

See how the list of emotions -- the core feelings that explain the rest of the poem -- simply get lost in the body of the poem? Note also that the first rendering makes the last line stand out (which is a rather critical line, given the title of the poem) while the last rendering fails to distinguish it.

Now let's do a third rendering that's somewhere in the middle, by breaking the poem into stanzas:

I fold myself away
In silent shame
And shameless pity.

I cry,
And no one sees me;

Invisible tears
Gain no sympathy.

I long for the painlessness of sleep
And the sleepfulness of death.

And all the anger
Fear, hatred
Embarrassment and misery

Make me fold again

In this example, the divisions of the stanzas create logical partitions of the feelings that the poem is expressing.

Stanza one expresses a metaphorical action: folding away.
Stanza two expresses an action: silently crying.
Stanza three is an introspection about that action: the world doesn't care.
Stanza four expresses a desire: I want to die.
Stanza five is a litany of feelings: anger, fear, hatred, embarrassment and misery.
Stanza six recapitulates stanza one: folding away.

All of these exist in the previous versions but separating then into distinct verses helps them to stand out and gives the reader a sense of narrative motion that the first two versions don't convey as strongly.

It should go without saying that the structural impact of the majority of poems is much more subtle but I would contend that it's always there. I believe that even the way that the ragged right edge of a poem lines up can leave a subconscious impression on the reader.

I don't think that it's the reader's job to look for hidden cues in the layout. A good poem doesn't demand itself to be read in a particular way or with a particular understanding, but it should lay out a path for the reader.

A good poet should be able to subtly influence the way that his poems are read without beating the reader over the head. I believe that the shape -- the visual "feel" of a poem -- does matter and that it does require attention when composing a poem, even if the reader never notices it on a conscious level because, even if that reader doesn't realize it, he's going to be influenced just the same.

Friday, November 10, 2006

An Open Letter to the Democratic Party

Hi guys. First of all, let me say congratulations. You've been out of power for a very long time and I know you've been waiting for the pendulum to swing. So, kudos and all that.

I'd also like to say that I'm, personally, happy that you took back Congress. Even if I didn't already have deep misgivings about Bush, I don't believe that it's healthy for a single party to control all three branches of government. I'm a big fan of checks and balances and I think that having one party in control erodes them.

I'll also be upfront and state that I am a liberal. I should caution you that being a liberal does not mean that I'm a Democrat. In point of fact, I think that the mapping of Democratic principles and Liberal ideals is inexact and that the contention that Democrats are a liberal party is misleading. That said, I recognize that you are the more liberal of the two parties and that having you in office does a better (albeit far from perfect) job of representing my interests and values.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, please don't blow it.

You have a long, long history of sabotaging yourselves and I'll be frank: I think a big part of that is that I don't really think that your leadership has either a strong sense of commitment to your own purported values or the skill to pragmatically pursue your agenda items. Way too often you come across as a The Three Stooges by way of Machiavelli, which is a big part of the reason that people just don't trust you.

That said, let's talk about some specific issues.

The War

This is the big one. This election was, in fact, a major referendum on the war and I think that everyone appreciates that, including the president (why else would Rumsfeld "resign" the very next day). I think that you may not understand what, precisely, it is that people want, though.

The public has decided that the war has gone on for too long. They want it to end, and the sooner the better. However, there's two ways that it can end: victory or withdrawal.

Americans like to win. We hate losing at anything, especially wars. The reason Vietnam worked so hard against Kerry was because Americans still have a bitter taste in their mouths over the fact that we "lost" and Kerry's enemies were able to successfully associate him with the side that promoted defeat.

Given an alternative, Americans would like for us to be able to declare some sort of victory. You need to work with the president (yeah, I know -- a bitter thing to do but, unfortunately, he's still the Commander in Chief) to define a victory condition and to do what it takes to achieve it. That may well mean putting a whole lot more troops on the ground. Obviously you'll need to avoid a draft (again, that would bring up too many associations with Vietnam, to say nothing of making your base go ape shit) but do everything you can to get the job done.

I am going to strongly warn you against pushing for immediate withdrawal. I think that it would work against your interests and I also think that it would be wrong in terms of our national security (leaving behind an anti-American Islamic theocracy would be bad, m'kay?) as well as morally wrong. I think that the war was a mistake but that doesn't negate the fact that we brought about the environment for the current chaos.

If you, never the less, do make this your goal, you are going to need to figure out a way that we can do so honorably. Figure out a way that we can leave without giving every American the feeling that we have egg on our face. If you can't do that you will lose in 2008 everything that you've gained in 2006.


This is another hot-button issue which ended up costing the Republicans a lot of votes. The problem is that they correctly gauged that this is something that Americans care about and are upset about, but they misjudged how we want to deal with it.

Let's be very clear: the thought that illegal immigrants are coming to America and enjoying legal benefits pisses people off. I'll grant that a lot of the anger is over exaggerations but that doesn't alter the fact that people hate the idea of illegals enjoying a better life by violating the law.

I know that you're afraid of losing the support of the Hispanic community. You need to be aware, though, that what lost the Republicans the support of that community wasn't that they were in favor of curtailing illegal immigration. What lost them support was the over xenophobia and racism that pervaded their message.

Someone who has gone to the trouble of obtaining citizenship isn't going to be opposed to the idea that illegal aliens need to be discouraged, as long as they don't feel like they're being attacked as well.

I hate to say it but the Presidents plan actually has quite a bit of merit. Make it easy for foreign laborers to get work permits and streamline the process for obtaining legal citizenship while you're at it. Go ahead and offer amnesties to the illegals who are already here but then get serious about punishing and evicting the ones that don't follow legal routs afterwards.


This is a tough one. You and I both know that the tax rate has been kept artificially low at the expense of a rising debt. The Republicans are sincerely hoping that you will be the ones to raise taxes because they know that one of the biggest things to influence voters is their pocketbooks.

This is one case where I'm going to say that you need to be ruthless. You and the Republicans are in a game of chicken. You can not be the party to raise taxes, especially not in the first two years. Beat them at their own game. Slash spending. You can get some happiness out of this by going after their own pet programs. You might also be able to get away with letting certain tax cuts expire. If you do, only do the ones that directly benefit the wealthy (and make it loud and clear that you are). You can also score a whole lot of points by aggressively going after pork. That damned Bridge to Nowhere got you more traction than you realize. Resist the urge to gorge on your own pork and publicly criticize Republicans who pork their own districts and you can, once and for all, demolish the perception that the Republicans are the party of fiscal responsibility.


The big T. The threat of terrorism is exaggerated but the people's fear of terrorism is sincere. You can not afford to be soft on this subject. You need to aggressively promote efficient programs to combat terrorism. At the same time, though, you need to start standing up for the Constitution. I don't think that Americans are really comfortable with secret prisons and torture. Push to have terrorists brought out in the light, tried in public, and put away permanently (and yes, that means executions). You need to prove that we can fight the enemy without becoming the enemy. This is the single most important task you have before you, so don't fuck it up. If you can't make that case then I fear that the end result will be a police state. This is a matter that genuinely transcends politics, so don't be afraid to reach across the aisle. There are plenty of Republicans who don't like Bush and Company's Stasi tactics. Find them and work with them.


One word: don't. I know that the Republicans have been bashing you down unscrupulously and I know that the temptation for payback must be immense but now is not the time for it. Fortunately, you've already taken impeachment off of the table. That was a very smart thing to do. I'm worried, however, that you're still planning investigations.

Heaven knows that we need some investigations (especially if we're going to solve anything), but I know how you guys can get carried away by this.

In particular, you can not give the people the impression that you're just going to spend the next two years getting even. That's not why you were elected and that's not what America wants. If you do give in to this temptation I will guarantee that the Republicans will do a better job than you did of making it look mean and spiteful. They're just more competent when it comes to that kind of thing.

Keep your focus on what matters.

Other Issues

You need to reconnect with your core values. You are supposed to be the party of the little people. The party that stands up to big business. The party that opposes authoritarianism. You've lost that vision over the years. What crumbs you've retained are just stale relics. Rediscover yourselves and return to that which gave you meaning. That means that you need to take a hard look in the mirror.

I think a good place to start would be to take a hard, objective look at what things are important to the youth of the nation. Right now they are a very cynical bunch, which is rather strange given that youth is usually the font of idealism. Try to figure out why they are so cynical. I think you'll discover that a big part of it is that they feel that no one represents them and that no one, even more fundamentally, cares. They see you are being just another branch of the Republican party. That is a bad thing. Worse: they have a point. You can't ignore the middle but there is a point where you need to draw a line and say, "We believe this to be true!"

One of the reasons that the Republicans have been so successful is that they genuinely believe their message (they don't always practice it, but that's another story). They have a set of values that they want to promote. They have an honest to God mission. You did too, once, but you seem to have lost that. If you don't have something that you believe in, no one is going to believe in you.


These are not happy times. Humanity needs a better world than this, and America has more influence than any other country in determining whether or not that will happen. This is an historical time. Such times call for people to do better and to be better. You have an opportunity to do just that. You have the chance to help make the world a better place. It is an awesome responsibility and history will judge you by how well you handle it.

One more time: don't blow it.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Iraq and the Kubler-Ross Model

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published an influential book called On Death and Dying which was one of the first scholarly books to examine how people cope with the news that they are dying.

Central to the book was a thesis that has come to be known as the Kubler-Ross model which describes five stages of grief that terminally ill go through. The model has, since then, been generalized to apply to any situation where one is coping with catastrophic news.

Perhaps this may sound flip, but it occurs to me that the current Administration seems to be going through something akin to those five stages with regards to the war in Iraq.

Stage 1: Denial

After the initial exuberance of military victory, it quickly became apparent that occupying the country was going to be much more difficult than anticipated and that, worst of all, awe were not being universally greeted as liberators. To the contrary, an insurgency quickly emerged from the initial chaos and it rapidly became obvious that the insurgency wasn't going to go away easily.

Never the less, the Administration's initial reaction was denial. Rather that admitting the obvious, they claimed that the insurgency was composed of foreigners and "dead enders", that it was weak, that it didn't have any popular support, and that it was, of course, in its "last throes".

Stage 2: Anger

As the conflict continued and popular support begin to wane, the Administration became angry. The anger wasn't merely directed towards the insurgents but was also directed towards critics of the Administration as well as the fledgling government of Iraq. We were told that criticism emboldened the enemy and that speaking out against the handling of the war was almost (and, perhaps, exactly) tantamount to treason. Press conferences started to become contentious. When the President and his spokesmen responded to charges, the tone became contentious.

Stage 3: Bargaining

I believe that this is where we are at right now. The President and his staff have admitted that things aren't really going well but they are pleading with the public to be patient. They are assuring us that, if we just give them another chance, they can still make things right. Instead of denying that there is a problem, or lashing out at those who point to the existence of the problem, they are saying that there's still an opportunity to correct it if we only give them more time.

Stage 4: Depression

I think that we're starting to see signs of depression. There are subtle indications that some administration insiders are starting to believe that the situation may well be beyond hope; that the war may well be a lost cause. It is impossible to know how high up this sentiment goes but it is apparent that the optimistic front the Administration has put forward is crumbling.

Stage 5: Acceptance

I don't believe that the Administration is ready to accept a loss quite yet but there does seem to be a growing sentiment among the GOP that the situation can not be salvaged and that it's time to start thinking of what to do next.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

An Absent Moment

Broken Clock

The moment was only notable in its absence:
A nick in the tick-tock of time

Few noticed

A couple of cats stopped, quizzical and curious
A dog or two whimpered and wuffed
And, over the Andes, an Ecuadorian condor's glide
Was briefly and minutely perturbed

It then disappeared into the amnesia of history
As fully and easily as an average life

Photo courtesy of "zen♫♪'s photos"

Saturday, October 07, 2006



My basement has become
Infested with archetypes.

I can’t go to check the furnace,
Without having to confront Cerebrus
Barring the way, three faced and furious,
As prelude to an Orphean quest.

Or if I want to store away
A box of Christmas lights,
The demons of my id
Try to flay me in the hells
Of Christmas past.

One day the dog went missing.
He had slipped into the Primal Womb
And was reborn as some sort of
Gaean monstrosity.

Animal control loved that one.

Photo courtesy of "vasishtr"

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Unstructured Weird Al-ity

Weird Al Yankovich's new album, Straight Outta Lynwood, is going to be in stores this Tuesday.

If you're impatient, you can already download it from Yahoo!Music, although you might want to get the actual CD/DVD since it has 6 videos, including animations by Bill Plymton and John "Ren and Stimpy" Kricfalusi.

In the meanwhile you can enjoy his new video, White and Nerdy.

That is all.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Kinetic Art

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Evil Empires

It is said that revolutions against tyranny invariably reproduce the tyranny they seek to overthrow. It is obvious that Google is striving to topple the Evil Empire of Microsoft. Many have rallied to them because of their "Don't be evil" mission-statement. Their recent entry into the censor-licious Chinese market has put some strain on that claim, and Bill Gate's recent charity work (in the form of the Bill and Melinda Gate's Foundation) has led others to question whether Microsoft is genuinely evil... or more like an innocent man-child rapacious appetites aren't really his fault at all.

That said, I'm a willing minion for the Google empire, if only because my overlords have much cooler toys than those other overlords.

The latest bit of candy that's being dangled before my bedazzled eyes are two online utilities that I've been wanting for years... an online spreadsheet and an online word processor.

Google Spreadsheet is a fully functional spreadsheet that has a look and feel that should be familiar to anyone who's every used Excel. It had a feature set that should satisfy everyone short of the most advanced power users, and you can easily share your work with others, if you so choose.

Writely was originally a third party online word processor. Google has recently bought them (much like they bought Blogger), but haven't quite folded them into the main Google label (again, like Blogger). Again, the product is a fully functional Word processor with a look and feel that should be intuitive to anyone that's used Word or any of the other major word processors out there (which would be... um, Word), and, again, you can easily share documents for mutual editing.

The single strongest feature of either product is that you can save and open Microsoft documents (as well as PDFs and other common filetypes), meaning that if you use Writely, for instance, you aren't isolating yourself from any collegues or businesses that prefer Word documents. Given that much of the Microsoft dominance of the market has been the fact that it's already dominant, this goes a long way towards providing a viable alternative.

Before I get flooded with dozens of irate letters from Linux users, I am aware that the open-source market has also had viable alternatives for Office products that allow for the same sort of cross-communication; however, in the majority of those cases, you have to install a new operating system on your machine (as well as new software) in order to use them... an act that's beyond that skill-set or comfort level of the ordinary user. Clicking on a link and being able to compose a letter than your boss will be able to read, on the other hand, is piece of cake. The fact that you don't have to install Office on your home laptop in order to do work is also a tremendous benefit -- so long as you have web access (and who doesn't, these days?). Likewise... and let's be honest here... the Google name, itself, gives people confidence. The average person has never heard of Red Hat, but everyone has heard of Google.

Will this finally break the MS stranglehold on these markets? Who can say. I know that Microsoft is taking a very serious look at them while Google is coyly saying that these utilities are merely ment to supplement the existing products and that, anyway, online collaboration is wholly different market (and that they have some Floridian swampland to sell to anyone who believes that). Meanwhile, Microsoft's lawyers are sharpening their canines. Time will, of course, tell.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Once upon a time the State of the Union address was just that... a report of the state of the Union by the President to congress. Since the television age, however, it's become a way for the president to get some free air time and, as a consequence, every president in recent history has used it as a political soapbox to push the party agenda rather than being an actual and objective report on how the country is doing.

I really can't fault G.W. for using it the same way as his predecesors have, although I am getting rather tired of 9/11 being trotted out and put in the spot-light every time there's an election year. I'm also astonished that 9/11 is still being used as a justification for the war in Iraq given that the administration has openly stated that there was no connection between the attacks of 9/11 and the former regime of Iraq... but not half as astonished as I am by the fact that a significant fraction of the public believes that such a connection did exist, all evidence to the contrary.

Be that as it may, here's a rather interesting video montage of the last SotU with everything but the hot-button words and phrases edited out. Of course this comes with the usual caveat that it is important to read the whole speech in context (and I do recommend reading it rather than listening to it -- it leaches it of alot of the unnecessary emotional overtones that can be conveyed by voice and expression). Never the less, it's absolutely fascinating to see how many times he hits those specific words and phrases.

Draw your own conclusions.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Polkas? Yeah, we got 'em!

What kind of madman would post two polka videos to his blog is the span of a single week?

Well, buddy... you're looking at him.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Unstructured Braaaaaaaaaains

When it comes to the undead, most people seem to prefer vampires to zombies. I can understand why. Vampires are sexy, they have that whole goth chic think going, and, really, which would you rather be? Never the less, I find that zombies are more fun.

Although you can certainly have more interesting conversations with a vampire, a zombie is never going to get all pretentious on you or bore you with long winded monologues on the "pain and agony of my eternal curse", nor will a zombie ever try to make you feel oh-so-subtly inferior to it. Let's face it, most vampires act like they're in an exclusive club and that, in all likelihood, you aren't going to be cool enough to get past the velvet rope. Zombies, on the other hand, are pure proletariat and will be perfectly willing to let you join their community. Zombies are all about inclusiveness and diversity.

Today's little bit of fun is the Zombie Simulator, aka The Incredible Zombie Machine v1.0b which, as the name might suggest, simulates a zombie outbreak in an urban area. The sim has a number of configurable parameters including number of normal humans and soldiers, soldier efficiency, whether or not zombies can break down walls, and so forth. It also lets you start dropping bombs when things threaten to get out of hand.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Leva's polka

Today we have a kick-ass Finnish polka. Just because.

(If you need a bit more visual, um, stimulation, here's a bit of eye-candy to go along with it.)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Unstructured Coolness

The one thing about Creationists that I can understand is the tendency to be overwhelmed by the complexity and beauty of the natural world. There is an understandable temptation to throw our arms up in the air and declare that it simply can't be the result of unthinking processes.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn't do to answer one mystery by positing yet another, even larger mystery. This is particularly the case when we attempt to account for something of finite complexity and comprehensibility with something that is supposedly infinitely complex and incomprehensible.

Be that as it may, the inner workings of a cell is one of those things that tugs at our intuition and which strains us to suspend disbelief. I think that it is no coincidence that the proponents of Intelligent Design love to harp of the workings of cellular biology so very much.

Today's link is to a video that shows those workings with some truely vibrant animation. It should be stressed that a few liberties were taken in order to be able to actually show anything at all (real cells are very crowded places that don't lend themselves to visualization) but that the essential scientific accuracy of the images are intact.

By the by, that funny little walking thing, towing a vesicle, is a kinesin and they really do walk much like they are portrayed as doing.

Sit back and be amazed.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Steve Irwin, Dead at 44

I'll spare everyone the dumb "crikey!" jokes. Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin has died due to injuries inflicted by a sting ray while filming an episode for his daughter's TV show.

Although most people will remember Irwin for his over-the-top persona and his daredevil reputation, I think his real legacy is as a conservationist and environmentalist who has helped to save countless endangered animals.

Requiem in Pace, mate.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Falling to Eternity

There was no preamble to the miracle, unless you count the thunderstorm that had marked the horizon, earlier. It was a beautiful storm full of thick, crooked, violet fingers. Perhaps it was a prelude, which would be right. If the sequence were reversed, it could only have been an anti-climax.

It was near to nine o'clock and I was outside. On a normal night I would have been inside, reading or watching television. I'm not sure what brought me out there. There was no sense of anticipation or foreboding, and none of my neighbors were out there with me. I just wanted to be alone under the sky. To have the feel of an early October sky on my face.

It was a moonless night and the stars seemed brighter than usual. It was as though every light in town has been dimmed or extinguished. It was like the stars that one can only ever see out in the country. I could see them very clearly, indeed, when they started to move.

I didn't jump or flinch or curse or, to best of my memory, say or do anything at all. I just watched.

The constellations were instantly distorted out of all recognition as parallax briefly revealed their true depths. All the familiar stars disappeared over the horizon in a matter of seconds as new stars streamed into and out of view in a continuous sequence that seemed, to me, to resemble a swarm of fireflies caught in a wind.

Some part of me wondered if the sun, too, had become unmoored from the sky. Was the entire solar system being carried across the universe, or was this a journey solitary to the Earth? Did even the moon accompany us? I looked for the planets but I couldn't discern any still, bright points in that flowing panorama. Perhaps they were below the horizon. Perhaps they were light years away. Perhaps I was simply too distracted and amazed to find them.

Suddenly the stars disappeared from the east and coalesced to the west. To my vast wonder I could see the entire galaxy, huge and edge on. Dust clouds riddled the vast central bar and the core was gigantic and so luminous I could see distinct shadows on the ground. Globular clusters hovered around the core like angels waiting in attendance to God Himself. I had seen many pictures of galaxies and have been to my share of planetarium presentations, but nothing could compare to the sight of our galaxy taking up a third of the sky. Some part of me wondered if it could possibly be this bright at this distance but, in the face of the impossible, one doesn't worry too much about the details.

By and by the Milky Way itself receded into the distance as other galaxies crawled, walked, and then sprinted across the heaven's vault. Most were tiny blobs: spiral, elliptical and occasionally irregular. Others would briefly loom over the entire sky, turning it blue with their brightness. Some we plunged straight through. And still we traveled, and still we accelerated.

I wondered about the physics of it. I didn't see an evidence of Doppler shift or Relativistic foreshortening. The atmosphere didn't glow with Cherenkov radiation. I wasn't being baked by hard gamma radiation or a superluminal flux of cosmic particles. I didn't feel the least tug of acceleration. Perhaps we were exempt from the rules. That seemed to make the most sense.

I wondered how many people confined themselves to watching this marvel on TV. I wondered when it would end. I wondered if it would end. I wondered if this was, in fact, the End that we've been imagining since the beginning of days. If so, I could think of worse eschatons.

Faster and further. Deeper and farther. Falling to eternity.

By and by I fell asleep, out on the grass, under that transcendent sky. I wouldn't have thought it possible but, even in the face of miracles, the mind becomes overwhelmed and the body demands its rest. By the time I had woken up, we had arrived.

Now we are here, and happy.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

More Forbidden Acts

I've gotten quite a response to the 700 Things that Mr. Welch is no Longer Allowed to Do. I thought I'd share some of them:

The Vampire lord's name is not Count Chocula.

No matter how good I roll, my first-level assassin cannot poison the water supply of the entire opposing army.

"F--- the Federation!" is not a very nice thing for a Star Fleet captain to say.

I will not bring a knife to a BattleMech fight.

There is only so much damage that I can inflict with a potato.

No matter how many skill points I have put into tumble, I cannot juggle Spheres of Annihilation.

I will not give the catatonic princess a wedgie.

My familiar is not an invisible rabbit.

My elf is not worried that the other members of my party are out to get his lucky charms.

I will not sew tiny bells into the thief's tunic while he's sleeping.

Orcs do not understand that Tourette’s Syndrome is an uncontrollable disease.

"Allergic to wood" does not justify my mithril quarterstaff.

I may not create a flesh golem, dye it pink, and name it Frankenberry.

For the last time, I may not cast Continual Light on the ogre's eyelids.

My character's special power may not be "Immunity from the Rules".

It is considered tasteless to block the exits to the underwater grotto full of merfolk, sealing a bomb inside, and then make any reference to "fish in a barrel".

Even though magically transforming wounded team members into blow-up sex dolls does give us time to get them to the hospital, it should be understood that there are fates that are worse than death.

I may speak my mind. I may not use my psionic abilities to speak the minds of anyone else in the party, however.

My rogue's alignment is not Evil Except When That's Inconvenient.

If I want to build gigantic monsters in my basement, I will need to get an excavation permit.

My characters are required to have a vowel, or at the very least a Y, somewhere in their names.

I will not use quantum mechanics to justify bad behavior.

I am to refrain from violating the laws of physics, logic and causality more often than once a day.

I may not attempt to literalize the phrase "The world is my oyster".

The "Hokey Pokey" is neither a dwarven nor a Klingon battle song no matter how emphatically I sing it.

I am not allowed to set my TARDIS to resemble a giant mushroom.

Nor am I allowed to make it look like a gingerbread house.

The paladin's alignment is not Lawful Hall Monitor.

My license to kill does not come with a daily quota.

When the king commissioned us to rescue his daughter, it was with the tacit understanding that we wouldn't try to sell her to the highest bidder afterwards.

I will not use any combination of science, magic or time travel in order to become my own evil twin.

I will not put fizzy tablets in the party's pet water elemental.

Nor will I put food dye in it.

The Wand of Wonder does not require me move my head rhythmically while wearing dark sunglasses.

My bard's instrument of choice is not a tuba.

My thunder mage is no longer permitted to ask people to pull his finger.

The other members of my party are not to be considered ammunition.

My dwarf's beard is not a weapon.

It is also not a contraceptive.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

On the Subject of D&D

I thought I'd repost this old classic that supposedly happened in some campaign or another, especially since Google is showing a distressingly slim number of hits for it on the inter-tube:

"Okay, you enter a large meadowy area. You see a gazebo."

"Does the gazebo see us?"

"Sigh. No, the gazebo doesn't see you."

"Is the gazebo asleep?"

"No, the gazebo is not asleep."

"I attack the gazebo with my sword!"

"Okay. Roll to hit."

"I hit armor class 2!"

"Okay. You hit the gazebo. The gazebo doesn't react."

"I shoot an arrow at the gazebo."

"The gazebo doesn't react."

"But it was a +3 arrow!"

"Fine. The gazebo wakes up and eats all of you."

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

700 things Mr. Welch can no longer do during an RPG

Like any hobby, roleplaying seems like an obsession on the verge of madness to anyone who doesn't share it. Unlike most other hobbies, roleplaying often does verge on madness, as can be attested to by the 700 things Mr. Welch can no longer do during an RPG

From campaigns I've been in, I would add:

701. Even though my character is able to, it's not appropriate to scrape enemy agents off of a building using a billboard.

702. I will not politely hand the Dark Lord the only weapon in the universe capable of defeating him.

703. Lightsabers really don't have any place in our fantasy campaigns.

704. Neither do "swamp gigglers".

705. I am no longer permitted have a wolf as a pet.

706. If I do get a wolf for a pet, he will not grow to the size of a small town.

707. If I do happen to own such a large wolf, I can not hide in its fur in order to sneak into a town.

708. The hands of ancient, dead deities are not shoulder pets.

709. Although my character is able to teleport parts of his body, he will not use this power to mess around with the food and beverages of other party members.

710. I will not perform a flying kick on any moving vehicles.

711. Unless we're playing an epic level campaign, the phrase "The Norse gods are in trouble and need your help" is probably not the best way to start an adventure.

712. Neither is having a giant wall stalk the party in order to get them to move in a particular direction.

713. There is no such thing as "spider nip".

714. If the GM is attempting to introduce my character to the party I will not have my character behave in such a way that the party is required to kill him outright.

715. "Large Noisy Food", while amusing, isn't a particularly useful spell.

716. A bag full of stray cats is not an acceptable solution to a dungeon full of traps.

717. I will not summon large animals, in midair, from a high parapet, in order to drop them on my enemies.

718. I will certainly not summon large animals (etc, etc) in order to drop them on fellow party members.

719. "Let's trade watches" does not refer to what I'm wearing on my wrist.

720. In most situations, using a tsunami as a weapon should be considered overkill.

721. Telekinesis in a privilege, not a right.

722. I will not launch fellow party members into orbit, especially if they are neither in a space ship nor wearing a pressure suit.

723. "Pickles" is not a kill word.

724. I should probably re-think any attack that involves rolling an entire bucket full of dice.

725. Any "no normal defense" attacks that target sensitive portions of the male anatomy are strictly forbidden.

726. Cthulhu is not on my Rolodex.

727. Neither is he my co-pilot.

728. Nor do I have the Necronomicon on Books-on-Tape.

729. Bigby's Offending Hand is not a real spell.

730. I may not secretly replace the magical reagents with Folger's crystals.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Story of Job

I decided to re-write the biblical story of Job as an in-game chat:

S: Hey God, ur teh suxx0rs!
G: Shut up n00b!
S: lol! No 1 lieks u!
G: Shut UP! job likes me
S: roflol! that's only 'cause u twink him
G: O yeah?
S: yeh!
G: ok, go ahead an haxx0r him
S: hey job, I pwn yoo!
J: whatever
S: **PWNED!**
S: hahahah!
J: this sux! hey god, WTF?
G: shut up, or i'll pwn you even harder
J: okay, srry
G: kkthnx
S: hey! wtf is that!
G: lolerskatez! i win!
S: u are such a cheater!
G: whatever, dw33b

Thursday, July 13, 2006


I've long had a love/hate relationship with mathematics. On the one hand, I love the elegance and the theory. On the other hand, I always had the hardest time with the practice of it. I was just never very good at working my way through the problems in the necessary manner.

This little video helps me not at all (but it is quite funny).

Monday, June 26, 2006

Mentos: The Fountain Maker

If you think of Mentos, you probably think of those annoyingly snarky commercials from the early 90's that featured people getting away with obnoxious behaviors under the influence of them (sort of a milder version of the Twinkie Defense).

Recently, people have discovered that combining Mentos and diet soda results in a gyser of liquid. The folks in this video took that insight to the extreme by producing a spectacular Mentos and Diet Coke fountain show.

Thanks to my good friend Arturo for pointing me to the link.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


This is why cesium bubble bath never caught on.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Understanding Celsius

Since we're moving into the hot part of the year, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about temperature. Celsius, in particular.

I know a lot of people who are otherwise happy with the idea of going to metric (and don't get me started on the irrational stubborness of my country with respect to this subject) who are, however, adverse to Celsius.

Generally the reasons fall into the category of vague objections that it's too imprecise or something like that. Certainly those were the excuses that I used to give. I think that the real reason is that it's simply not intuitive for someone raised with Fahrenheit. When you're accustomed to 80 degreed being hot, 30 degrees just doesn't sound right. This is compounded by the fact that there's no good rule of thumb for conversions. It's one thing to say that a meter is about a yard, that a kilogram is about 2 pounds, that a kilometer is a little over half a mile, and so forth, but to get from C to F you have to add 32 and then multiply by 1.8 (and do the inverse, of course, to get from F to C).

Fortunately, I came across the following conversion that doesn't bother with degrees. The temperatures are in Celsius:

    40   - Very Hot
30 - Hot
20 - Warm
10 - Cool
0 - Chilly
-10 - Cold
-20 - Very cold
-30 - Frostbite weather
As you can see, every 10 degrees Celsium represents one perceptual shift in temperature.
Not only is this nicely intuitive but, once you start to think in these terms, it becomes obvious that Fahrenheit really isn't that intuitive after all.

That said, it's about 25 degrees outside, so I think that I'm going to go out and enjoy the beautiful weather we're having. Have a good Memorial Day weekend, everyone.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Little Too Good to be True

I received the following bit of email floatsam recently:

German Parking Garage

This is pretty amazing! Can you imagine how all this operates? How do they lock each car in its cubicle for safety.

Talk about German efficiency! The two photos below were taken at a new parking garage in Munich. The actual space that the facility occupies is approximately only 20% of a comparable facility with the traditional design that is used primarily in the US. Not only is the German structure less expensive to build, but vehicles are also "retrieved" in less time and without the potential of being damaged by an attendant.
The email was accompanied by these two rather amazing photos.

I thought that this was a rather cool idea, not least because I had a similar idea a while ago. Of course, I wanted to pass this along, but I wanted to see if I could find a quicktime version of these pictures so that you could all see the thing in action.

It's good that I did. When I did my search, the first page to come up with was Snopes, which is a site that debunks Urban Legends. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Were these just photoshops? Fortunately, it's not quite that bad. The pictures are real, but it isn't a garage. It's a Volkswagan storage facility for new cars in Wolfsberg, Germany.

The real story is actually pretty cool. The Wolfberg facility is kind of a cross between a dealership and a theme park (with shops, cinemas, restaurants, and various attractions). When you take possession of your new car, it's fetched from the tower.

So, instead of a story about German efficiency, it's a story about German whimsy. How often do you come across one of those?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Unsolicited Musings

I swear that it is not my goal to turn this into the Honor Harrington Cover Art blog, but my friend Rob, who was much inspired, created a mock up (in more than one sense of the word) of his own Harrington art using City of Heroes and Photoshop. I particularly like the shoulder kitty. (Click the pic for a larger image)

Rob is also the owner of an excellent site that's part blog, part web page. Among other things he has quite a lot of essays as well as some top notch game reviews. Be sure to check it out.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Quick Health Update

I know that some of you are interested in knowing whether I'm about to keel over or not, so here's a quick update on what's going on. I still have a 6mm stone but the doctor's have decided to let it sit. In another 6 months I'm to get another round of x-rays. In the meanwhile, we're just going to let it sit and (I hope) stay put.

I did get an insurance scare. I got a bill for around $7,400 with a note that Kaiser would pay $3,400 of it. The thought that I was suddenly responsible for $4,000 made me seriously wonder if I would need a second job. It turns out that it was a misprint. The actual bill was only $74.00. I suppose that if it had to be off two orders of magnitude, it's better that it was in my favor. I can just imagine how I'd feel if the corrected amount was $740,000. That would be the point where, ironically, I'd be selling my own organs on the black market.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Evolution of Honor

The feedback of my critique of the cover art for Honor at War has inspired me to do a brief retrospective of the covers for the entire Honor Harrington series. Click the pix for larger images.

Honor stars in a gender-bending version of HMS Pinafore. It's also clear that, when she gets old and grey, she's going to be the absolutely scariest cat-lady in the whole damned universe.

I'm not sure if Honor is going through a Goth phase, here, or if she's just really tired because she stayed up way too late listening to emo rock.

It was big, floppy beret day down at the local minor league ball park.

Uh oh, Michael Jackson's got a gun! We'd better beat it!

Honor as some kind of pirate/samurai (if only she were a pirate/ninja). She'd better be careful or that amulet around her neck is going to put her eye out.

"Don't bother me with war talk, I'm on a conference call."

Honor as an ascended being with a very bad case of stellar acne.

Honor takes some time out from battle to sit in the world's most uncomfortable optometrist's chair. Notice that the video thingy in front of her is displaying the image on the side facing away from her eye?

What did I tell you? She put her eye out.

Oh, no! Honor's disembodied head has been grafted to the Death Star and they're assaulting it with techno-dildos!

Either she's dropping LSD or she fell into the Matrix.*

*It's been noted that this last one isn't part of the Honorverse, and that's correct (note my clever use of "she" instead of Honor), but I wanted to include it anyway, not least because it looks so much like a Harrington cover that it really ought to be one.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Unstructured Trends

Google has a nifty new toy in their lab called Google Trends which gives you a running graph of how many hits a particularly search term has gotten over time (it also correlated it with new hits and a regional breakdown).

As with all right minded people, I fear the return of the Great Old Ones. Until now, however, one could never know where Cthulhu's dread cultists were congregating. Thanks to Google Trends, we can see that they're mainly located in Helsinki. (You can click the pic for a larger image.)

I never did trust those Finnish bastards!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Unstructured Commentary

If you read science fiction, you've probably heard about Baen. And if you're familiar with Baen, you're probably familiar with David Weber. In case you aren't, imagine that Tom Clancy was a science fiction writer (and that he had the prolificacy of Stephen King) and you've got the general idea of what he's about.

Weber most famous series is the Honor Harrington series, which is loosely based on the Horatio Hornblower novels. The eponymous heroine of the story is one of those hypercompetent individuals that one only ever finds in military fiction (and spy novels, to be fair). She, and her sentient "tree-cat" companion go from humble beginnings, through victory after victory, until she's very nearly a demi-god among mortals.

But I'm not here to talk about that. Rather than judging the books, I thought that I'd judge a cover. Baen has a non-enviable reputation for producing the ugliest dust jackets in the genre. This is even taking into account the lamentable 70s when every cover looked like something out of a geeky acid trip. The cover for the latest Harrington novel, At All Costs, however, sets a new record for sheer god-awfulness.

The covers for most of the novels depict Honor with some sort of resolute and determined expression. She's usually in uniform and her hair is generally pulled back. Typically, there's some sort of space battle going on in the background (see the example in the upper-right). In the new book, however, the illustrator decided to go in a different direction. Instead of the standard-issue military pose, we have a sort of Madonna and Child (and book) thing going on. Honor has let her hair down, ditched the uniform, and picked up a kid (you can probably guess the relationship, but I don't want to be accused of spoilers).

The first thing that makes it a bit creepy is the look on her face. I think that they were trying to go for something maternal but what we actually get is a vague, slightly cross-eyed expression that makes her look like she's been lobotomized. But what really pushes it over the edge is her tree-cat. Understand that the tree-cat is supposed to be a good character. The picture, however, makes it look like some sort of Satanic imp. The fact that it's dangling a dangerously pointy bauble within arm's reach of an innocent (indeed, archetypical) baby only adds to the air of malevolence. Clearly this hell-spawned beast has bewitched our beloved Honor and is now preparing to claim the soul of the child as well!

I've included a picture just so you can see for yourself that I'm not exaggerating. Try not to have any nightmares.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Dork Tale

It came to pass, one day, that the Lord of Dorkness, who was having a horrible snit, called together his three favored minions.

"Attend to me, O minions," said the Dork Lord, "for we have a grave situation. Sir Mix-a-Lot's accursed song, Baby Got Back, is still cool!"

His minions gasped and exclaimed, "But how can that be? Did we not commission a Latin version to rob it of its coolness?"

"Alas, our plan has backfired. People are enjoying the Latin version as hip, post-ironic geek chic!

"Oh, the post-irony!," they cried.

There was a great wailing and gnashing of braces and retainers, then, but the Dork One held up his hand and said, "Enough! We must try again. Minion 1, what do you suggest?"

Minion 1 pushed up his thick rimmed glasses by the masking tape that bound the cloven halves of it together and said, "Let us create a new version. A version sung by a talentless white guy with a ridiculous street name."

"Ah yes," said the Lord of Dorkness, "the Vanilla Ice gambit. This is good, but it is not enough. Minion 2, speak!"

Minion 2 fidgited with his slide rule for a minute before saying, "We must also make a video. A bad video with horrible production value."

"This, too, is good, but not good enough. What of you, Minion 3?"

Minion 3, who was called the Anti-Fonzie, straightened his bow tie and took a hit from his inhaler as he thought deeply. Finally he spoke and said, "My Lord, we must change the song. We must remove all traces of fun and sexiness from it. Let us make it wholesome, and not merely wholesome, but a song about religious values. Let us turn it into a Christian rap song about..."

He paused and pondered.

"Let us make it about reading the Bible!"

The Dork Lord chuckle/snorted and said, "My true and faithful servants, you have pleased me well. Let us create this uncool thing. We shall call it Baby Got Book".

And so it came to be.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Religion in America

I found this chart of religious belief by county. Before anyone writes in, there's a few things that bother me. First of all is that the percentages are based off of adherants of "religious bodies that participated in a study by Association of Staticians of American Religious Bodies". Even assuming no bias, I don't think that attendence in church / temple / what have you can be considered an accurate gauge of belief or, for that matter, non-belief. I also don't like the granularity of the results and the numerical divisions seem odd, to me.

Be that as it may, this does, more or less, match my expectations, for whatever that's worth. I suggest taking it with a grain of salt but I find it interesting, all the same.

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Sunday, April 30, 2006



When I was eight
Our father brought home a galaxy
For us to keep and care for

It was a young thing
Full of dust, stars and glory
Big enough to bear us
As it flew across the fields
Outside of our estate

If you leaned in close to it
And closed you eyes and held your breath
You could heard the radio whisper
Of newly born civilizations

At night it would hover near the ceiling
Turning slowly, stately, serenely
Making the night a friendly thing

We were told to feed it
Three ounces of finely ground dirt and hydrogen
Twice a day and once at night
To give it precisely seven clockwise swirls
To wash out any excess nebulae
At least once a week (sometimes more)
And most importantly
To sing soft songs to its societies

And we were good to it
So very good to it
At first, but not at last

As our attentions wandered
It's edges grew thick and uneven
It's stately swirls merged and blurred
And its worlds fell into silence
One by one by one

Father finally took it away
To a place where they put it down
And the night, forever more
Was cold, quiet, and lonely

Photo courtesy of "justasungod"

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Unstructured Fun

Most people have never heard of the Curta although, among those in the know, it's status is legendary. The Curta was the earliest pocket calculator. Unlike modern electronic calculators, however, it was a mechanical device. Although one might suppose that this would imply that it is a primitive device, the Curta had a sophistication of design akin to that of a fine swiss watch. Even though modern technologies are more complex, no electronic calculator can match it for sheer elegance.

I once had the opportunity to, briefly, use a Curta that was owned by a former professor of mine. I would love to own one of my own, but the minimum cost for a unit is around US$500+ with the better models going for closer to US$1,500 and up. Given that they haven't been manufactured since the early 70's, that price is guaranteed to continue to increase over time. Never the less, I'm grateful that I have had the pleasure of actually holding one in my own hands, if only for a moment.

As you can see from the picture to the right, the Curta somewhat resembles a pepper mill, with sliders on the sides and numberical counters arranged along its top. In order to perform a calculation, you would set the numbers using the sliders (which could also be shifted by several orders of magnitude). You could toggle another slider to indicate whether the operation was additive or subtractive. After that you rotated the crank one revolution and the result would be calculated. It also had a ring which could be used to zero out the results.

The description simply doesn't do the device justice. Fortunately, the Curta Calculator Page has a pair of very nice simulations that give you the feel of using the device. What is most striking is how perfectly intuitive and enjoyable it is to use it.

Go ahead and give it a try, and then take a moment to reflect that sometimes progress, although a good thing, can also leave worthwhile things behind.

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