Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Is it Me or He Who Misses the Point? (Not I)

Okay, I know the grammar of the title is wrong, but I preferred the sound, and so broke the rules. That's a typical fiction writer for you.

Thanks, Dr. Sanity, for adding me to this week's Grand Rounds. See Sense of Soot at the end of the second paragraph of red links. A few of you may laugh when you read it.

Here's an oddball Reuters story about a Welsh reverend who's installing Wi-fi in his church for the pleasant convenience and diversion of attendees of services. Rev. Keith Kimber says, "I have no problem with people quietly sending an email or surfing the Internet in church, as long as they respect the church."

But they won't respect the church if the reverend himself devalues it to nothing more special than a coffee bar. Isn't that the point? We look for diversion when stuck in places we don't respect or despise, like train stations and hospital waiting rooms. If Kimber's loftiest goal is to get butts into seats, regardless of whether the attached consciousnesses are making even token efforts to engage with the presented content, I would suggest a future career in university recruiting where that thin notion of success is lauded.

Those with active minds that wander need peaceful surroundings to keep redirecting our thoughts back to larger, neglected issues of human existence. If you've ever tried to immerse yourself in a movie when a Gameboy player or Blackberry freak's seated next to you in the theatre, how much more difficult will it be to concetrate on the divine with pews of disinterested timekillers paging the box scores and porn on all sides?

Compromises to appease the common majority may be good for fast-food franchises, but lousy policy if Rev. Kimber's goal is to communicate so-called eternal truths. Maybe he'd simply be happy to have the kind of church whose chief products are lively rummage sales and well-attended potlucks. Maybe St. John's already is that kind of church, but a venue is most likely to become a place of special reverence and affection, a place to think uncommon thoughts, when it doesn't reflect the sameness of other spheres of life. What are ever-present are places with cacophanous throngs, employing further noise as background decor, parading short-term dazzles for those with the tastes of magpies and the attention spans of gerbils.

Even aside from our usual environments, the unsacred is carried within our undisciplined minds. Peaceful, beautiful, contemplative quiet is at a premium in current civilization. Reverend Kimber is reinforcing the modern myth that any worthwhile endeavor is material and diversionary. Transcendence beyond that which decays and which fails to feed the spirit's deepest hungers will be just that little bit scarcer and harder to find. Thanks for holding up the side, pal.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Oh So Brief Holiday Blogging. Pop music blows.

In this AP story, it's reported that a phone ring tone called Crazy Frog Axel F is set to conquer the top of the UK pop charts, edging the latest single by Coldplay.

"Music purists might not be too happy at the prospect of the "Crazy Frog" outselling Coldplay, but it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise when you consider its huge novelty appeal and the massive amount of exposure it is currently getting," said Castaldo.

I've got news for them. There ain't much difference to me. To music purists, or even simply those who like something nonsucky, the drop from Coldplay to Crazy Frog ringtones isn't nearly as far as the headfirst plummet music took to get to Coldplay in the first place. Where the heck is the rocking, the beauty, the angst, the coolness, you puerile vaporheads?!

Eleven year-olds aren't noted for their discernment. Hand the keys of the culture castle to them and the rest of us get nothing cool to see and hear. What we need is a national moratorium on excessive allowances and splurging by guilt-ridden parents. If the disposable income from the pre-pimple set dwindled, the entertainment industry would have to start pitching stuff for grownups, or at least to least high-schoolers. Tell me that high-schoolers can do more than whine and sulk. Tell me they're still capable of grooving or swinging, or- dare I hope- rocking.

I may be shopping in public venues later suffering involuntary music injections from the crappy store sound systems. Barkeep, innoculate me with another shot of Misty Mountain Hop. Please.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Memorial Day: Will it be Bowling or Beaches?

If you're still stuck at work and surfing the web to survive those last agonizing moments before beginning a three-day weekend, you should cast your mind forward to the holiday fun that awaits.

1) As I said in my competetive eating post, I do consider bowling a sport. At last, someone's made a documentary about these unsung athletes called The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Christy Lemire's review begins:

It's hard to imagine Tiger Woods scraping ice off the roof of his mobile home after winning The Masters. Or Andy Roddick driving himself to the U.S. Open, then staying in some motel in Queens. Or Alex Rodriguez having to supplement his income with nightly karaoke gigs after Yankees games.

Did she say karaoke? I already knew bowlers rocked! This film reveals the personal trials and triumphs of the kings of the sport and highlights efforts to increase exposure and fan support. As a kid in Texas, I can tell you there were fewer cool and comfy places to hide from the midday's solar strafing than a frigidly airconditioned, unwindowed bowling alley. Bowling alleys combine undeniable climatological comfort with often cheap weekday rate packages, ubiquitous snack bars, and game rooms with arcade machines or at least pool. That's summer fun, ya'll. Roll a few this weekend for the veterans. Among other noble ideals, their sacrifices mean you can enjoy one of America's idiosyncratic leisure subcultures. Beer Frame!

2) For those of you heretics who'd rather celebrate the holiday baking yourselves while covered in goo and laying on grit- too much like breaded catfish fillets for my enjoyment- here's Dr. Beach's review of the top 10 sandy stretches based on 50 different criteria including facilities, management, scientific, and ecologic factors. Has there ever been a popular beach that didn't waft more latrine odor molecules than a NY Subway? The good doctor is actually a scientist in coastal research, but is it a coincidence (or a divine message in billboard-sized letters) that his real surname is Leatherman?

I'm betraying my bias here, but it's probably just my bitterness that my flounder-colored skin doesn't respond to solar radiation with anything but blisters and flakes. Ignore me. Until next week, enjoy the sun, you golden beauties!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Talking to Myself

Sometimes, dear Reader (meaning me), I know I'm only talking to myself here. Just whistling a tune in a graveyard where the only people who might relate are the artists and philosophers whose sayings I collect in a little notebook. Luckily, they're mostly dead strangers, or they might rightly consider themselves above such an unwilling exchange with me.

I have more unproven ideas than energy. I mistrust my capacity to execute. Even minimal acknowledgement, much less success, seems distant and hardly inevitable. This is whining and compaining, I admit. But even this doubt and grimness serve as a kind of fuel for working.

It's tempting to escape to my balcony, try to pick up a smoking habit, and give up the day to drinking. Of course I won't. But not because I feel myself to be so gifted that I would deprive the world if I didn't keep trying. In fact, I'm less comparatively sure of my own talents than ever. No, today I'll do at least a couple things for my unborn career because I've grown too stubborn to quit. And because I acknowledge that in borrowing support from those who care about me, my freedom to pursue this folly is an inestimable luxury. Further, I'm unwilling to give up my identity as a writer despite the fact many people find my current claim to it illegitimate. I'm resisting the permanence of failure even though I know it's a strong possibility.

No one will be harmed if I stop. No one will be saved if I succeed. That is the truth of most writing, perhaps especially fiction. But what remains within this formless, meaningless endeavor is a little spark that I experience as purpose. This silly thing I've found that feels like what I'm supposed to do. So I'll do it. Knowing there are a thousand ways I could be more useful to the world that all seem worthwhile but false.

Thanks, me. I needed that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Segmented Sleep and Psychic Tits (cheep, cheep)

After my link-rich and almost coherent posting yesterday on a single topic, I am drained. For the nonce, I must remove to my recamier and napping blanket. Here are topics which may interest. Or not. I'm too spent to care.

1) Hat tip: Arts & Letters daily. What interests me about this New Yorker review of A. Roger Ekirch's At Day's Close: Night in Times Past is not that he took 20 years to write it, though that does make me feel better about my own literary output. What fascinated me was that citing references to first and second sleeps, Ekirch asserts, "until the close of the early modern era, Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of wakefulness.” The author references Plutarch to John Locke as evidence of this long-accepted truth, and he also restates a study showing broken sleep developing among people deprived of artificial light. The biological state of the body during this mid-might wakefulness may have been conducive to certain kinds of reflection. So, if you're like me and often experience, long after bedtime, an awakening with inspirations and the compulsion to haunt your own home before returning to sleep, this might explain the phenomenon.

2) I don't have problems with psychics for "entertainment purposes only." For example, here's a link to Ian Rowland, whom I've never seen but I've heard is amazing. He's entertaining, mystifiying, funny and admits his prodigous talent in "mind-reading" represents hard-learned skills in psychology and the fundamentals of magic. I did Tarot card readings at my high school carnival to raise money for the Spanish Club. Bow down to the coolness, really.

Even if I'm skeptical whether most self-professed psychics could sense a reuben sandwich without standing in a deli, people delight in thrill rides, horror movies, and dipping their toes into the paranormal waters. However, they can tend to submerse themselves dangerously when under stress and painful trauma. Here's a Townhall article by John Stossel about psychics, some charging exorbitant fees, clamoring to aid a desperate woman whose sister disappeared. I can only hope there's a special subterranean circle for those who defraud the grieving.

3) You only tolerated the other items to get to this one, didn't you? Well, tits then. Bearded Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Marsh Tits, Sombre Tits, Willow Tits, Crested Tits, Coal Tits, and Blue Tits. Yesterday, Instapundit referenced a blog that caught Reuters mislabeling a nature photo as a blue hummingbird in India, a creature more mythical than the Phoenix. But following nested links, I further discovered in Silflay Hraka's blog, Adventures in Journalism , this older revelation of a sadly misjudged Great Tit.

Boy, the search strings from eleven year-olds are going to drive the traffic today. HA!

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Sharin' the Hate (of socialized medicine)

The following two stories from across the pond got me thinking about how much I dread and despise the notion of universal, government health care. (Thanks, Scrivener) There are many links, since I wanted to provide some background. I'm not just playing Dixie out my hindquarters on this one.

Here are recent, inciting outrages: "A nine-year-old boy has died after an operation to treat his severe epilepsy was cancelled because Britain's top children's hospital had run out of money." AND "The National Health Service should not have to give life- prolonging treatment to every patient who demands it because that would mean a crippling waste of resources, the Government said yesterday."

These reminded me of another story announcing the Swedish prime minister delayed his hip surgery for 8 months in order to demonstrate solidarity with the common Swede who pays taxes for the privilege of waiting in line for medical aid. Of course, when the press release touting the P.M.'s egalitarianism was announced, no one mentioned how the pain and impediment might affect the quality of the job he was supposed to be doing for his constituents (or that living with treatable pain isn't a humane burden to inflict on anyone in the name of "care"). Here's a Canadian couple who, instead of waiting for the wheels of their system to grind, flew to Belgium and (gasp) paid for their own surgeries by refinancing their mortgage. They call it "the best investment they've ever made."

People gripe and huff about American Big Pharma, portraying the industry as an evil cabal seeking to gouge the sick and vulnerable out of their last dimes. This spin exists despite the fact that drug spending as a portion of health care hasn't increased since 1960 and pharmaceutical management of medical conditions often reduces the need for more drastic and expensive treatments later. Another fact many don't consider is that new drugs or devices can take 15 years of expensive investment before getting to market while many in development never make it at all. Also, since generic drugs can legally be manufactured 7 years after the original is marketed, there is a limited window of time for corporations to recoup their initial investment and make the profits required to fund new research.

Glaxo Smith-Kline wants you to know that Pharma profit margins aren't higher than other American industries who aren't simliarly resented. GSK also posts their own argument as to why price controls stifle innovation and reduce quality of care. But many simply assume that scientists working for corporations, as opposed to universally benevolent institutions like academia or the government, don't care whether their work helps humanity, and these unethical Frankensteins let their money-grubbing bosses' agendas overwhelm their attachment to reason and their vocations.

However, a BIG factor in this debate which I don't see covered enough is that another reason for the high price of American pharma is that we actually SUBSIDIZE socialized medicine abroad! Our Congress has actually passed international trade agreements that mean American pharma can't negotiate decent prices for their products in countries with centralized health spending. If you weren't aware of it, read this Senate policy paper stating, "Many of today’s industrialized countries impose strict price controls on pharmaceuticals despite their developed economies. These price-control policies inhibit fair and equal market access between the United States and its trading partners, causing U.S. consumers to shoulder a disproportionate share of the increased worldwide spending on pharmaceuticals." We've been propping up other countries' still-collapsing, shoddy medical services with Cadillac drugs sold to them at Yugo prices. And that means the prices are higher here in the free market to compensate for the inequity elsewhere.

My takeways:
1) If I'm ill, I don't want any bureau dictating which treatments I'm able to consider. I don't want anyone deciding for me whether I have adequate quality of life to merit its continuance. If I'm willing to pay, and to waive my right to punitive litigatory claims should any unorthodox decisions bring me harm, I want access to whatever I think I need. As we've seen, case-by-case decision-making is not easily accomodated by Central Control. But no one is more alone than in suffering, and it's a time when individual cases and desires must reign paramount.

2) If all medical payment comes from a single piggy bank, bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption become endemic and one-size-fits-all treatment plans are a necessity. Citizens begin to lose touch with the direct cost for health, feeling that health is the gov't's concern alone, taking less and less responsibility for their own choices. Haven't we all seen people take something they didn't want just because it was free? When people spend from their own wallets directly, they tend to make more careful determinations, reducing wasteful expenditures and shopping for bargains on essential components. Individuals across various professions can negotiate trade-in-kind with health care providers, and are more likely to feel the spirit to support private health initiatives and charities which can provide customized health care to those in need.

3) Universal Health Coverage would require a national ID and centralized recordkeeping. For many who say they support the idea, these obvious consequences don't seem important, though I keep hearing them yell about the Patriot Act which doesn't yet reach this level of invasiveness. I don't want anyone who can hack a single database to have access to all my personal data and medical history. I don't want some obscure gov't agency to decide behind closed doors that they can include my information in studies without my knowledge. I don't want them to decide to publish my information to someone who they believe (though I may disagree) has a compelling reason to want it. That could be incredibly corrosive to individual liberty and the much-vaunted, though elusive "Right to Privacy."

4) Most people grit their teeth every time they have to suffer through the horrors of governmental administration. IRS, DMV, and passports are all painful, and sometimes unjust, hassles. People who are currently collecting from welfare, Medicaid, and unemployment make legitimate complaints abouts inefficiencies, inability to redress errors, inconsistency and poor quality among the government employees who simply ride out their tenures to retirement, immune to the personal accountability and performance evaluation common in the private sector. Now, we should put our lives in their hands?

If you want more and more health care news and commentary regarding the benefits of the free market and private health care versus centralization, look at Andrew K. Dart's Socialized Medicine page.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Melancholy? Try Star Wars or Eating Death Candy

Another lame title jamming together mostly unrelated stories of interest to me. Pick and choose as you will.

1) This NYT review of Peter Kramers "Against Depression" gives a good overview of his crusade against the too-long romanticized view of depression when applied to artists. As a person who's been depressed and who knows plenty of depressive, creative types, let me add my guarantee that depression is not the source of unique insight or artistic perspective. ''It is fragility, brittleness, lack of resilience, a failure to heal,'' he [Kramer] writes. It is sadness, hopelessness, chronic exhaustion allied with corrosive anxiety, a loss of any emotion but guilt, of any desire but to stop, please stop, and to stay stopped, forever. Depression doesn't make artists; it debilitates them.

2) Here's Part II of Larry Getlen's excellent article about the competetive eating arena, as published in The Black Table. This piece culminates by examining the essential, unequalled Kobayashi's achievements as well as how he's enlivened the sport and other competitors. Melancholy? Tre Uninspiring. Kobayashi? Now I'm Fired Up!

3) In the kind of coincidental tragedy that's statistically inevitable in places as densely populated as NYC, two children died from choking on big peppermint balls within days of each other. The loss of their human potential and the sadness of their families is awful, but now the New York Post (in typically understated fashion) is reporting that "The city's delis and bodegas are a minefield of killer candy."

I think any feeling person might sympathize with recently grief-stricken parents' desires to see all such candy outlawed, but that doesn't make them reasonable, especially since the menace has been on every store shelf in New York for years without an epidemic of deaths. If you think back, you may be able to remember, as I do, how many things you almost choked upon in childhood, not all of them even food. Parents ought to be as careful as they can, and hopefully will learn the Heimlich. But even so, terrible accidents will sometimes happen regardless of candy size or the extensive legal labeling that people have learned to ignore as background noise anyway. What worries me in this latest assault on my admittedly nostalgic affection for penny-candy (which now costs much more) is the demonstrated cultural tendency, when tragedies occur, to run for the apron of the state and its promised comfort of arbitrary legislation. More meaningless law that will fail to protect while reinforcing the nanny-state worldview that every accident is the avoidable result of someone's malfeasance is not, in my mind, a societal improvement.

4) Hat tip: Michelle Malkin (I'm trying to trackback, but probably miffed it again.) So, link here to see Cap'n Wacky's Parade of Unfortunate Star Wars Costumes with commentary. Hit the big Next under Chewbacca's head for more, because there are so many more...

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Iceburg and Papyrus Haiku

Who commands the ice?
Science with scholars reveal
Greek, mummified truths.

DISCLAIMER and BACKGROUND: Not only do I stink at haiku, but I believe that human-caused global warming isn't nearly as iron-clad a scientific conclusion as most media report. See post here. However, contrary opinions don't get a lot of play, and competing data gets a lot of spin. In fact, here's a recent post with a report saying that now cleaner air is hurting us. In case you've forgotten what a good old-fashioned, apocalyptic pants-peeing feels like, see this recent New Yorker article thoughtfully listed under "fact." It quotes a lots of people on the ground who say weather's changing- no argument from me- but that it's humans who've screwed the climatological pooch and now the planet's doomed and broken, running contrary to its own nature. That's the part where we disagree. Onto the new stuff. I must again doff the cap to the Scrivener who brings such news to my notice.

1) If your notion of Antartica is a something shrinking down to its carrot nose like Frosty the Snowman, here's new research reported in Nature as East Antarctica Puts On Weight.

Increased snowfall over a large area of Antarctica is thickening the ice sheet and slowing the rise in sea level caused by melting ice...The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that sea level is currently rising at about 1.8 millimetres per year, largely through melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets as a result of global warming. But the panel also expected that climate change would trigger an increase in snowfall over the Antarctic continent, as increased evaporation from the oceans puts more moisture into the air.

Hmm, increased snowfall offsetting the scary rise in sea levels? And it's been expected? Funny, I didn't read that anywhere before. While the scientist quoted here says the thickening ice sheet isn't infinite or a "long-term protection" from rising sea levels, he also says that because of technological limitations, we're only beginning to be able to measure accurately the ice loss and/or snowfall across the continent. I can't wait to see what we know once we can actually measure the thing.

2) The fabulous folks at Nasa have helped an Oxford team discover that multispectral analysis is making sense of half a million scraps of papyri found among the "rubbish heaps of the vanished city of Oxyrhynchus." This Chicago Tribune article details how after only reading 1% of the collection in the last century, we've deciphered more in the last few weeks than we have in ten years. Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, Sappho, and new gospels are all in the queue, and perhaps we'll even be able to read underlying cartonnage in the papier mache that wraps mummies. This could give an unprecedented boost to the study of history, anthropology, literature, and the neglected and unfashionable Classics.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Shutting the Yaphole is So 20th Century

Now, I'm not for repression and oppression and regression and the rest of the essions that mean people can't freely speak up about injustice. But my idea of tolerance has always been a society where we maintain a common respect for principles protecting property, safety, and ambition. And as for the rest of the crazy quilt of human experiences and opinions... we could just try not to take things too personally.

Well here's the pretty pass we've come to in accepting hurt feelings as the trump to law and even logic. A female doctoral student bought a Koran which turned out to have defamatory markings from a used bookseller whose transactions are brokered through Amazon. Here are accounts from CNET and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette .

1) She's a graduate student in Women's Studies and a Muslim who's decrying her shock and trauma, although (after hiding in her apartment for 3 weeks post September 11th?) no attack against her personhood has been stronger than random comments on the street. She should try being obese or ugly for a day. The fact we consider her distress as important is because America actually values women, providing equal protection under the law and access to education. Consider the implausibility of her Women's Studies doctoral program existing in the vast reaches of the planet where women are not only disenfrachised but routinely mutilated and murdered.

As a refresher, here's what real persecution looks like:
- You can get beheaded in Saudi Arabia for owning a Bible.
- The forgotten genocide of over a million Armenian Christians.
- I don't have room for all the links, but perhaps you can think of another outnumbered religious group living somewhere the Middle East facing near-universal hostility and violence?
- Lastly, can't forget the destruction of Buddhas in Afghanistan. Let the Buddhists worship freely, and before you know it, their forces will overtake Tibet in storms of misery and bloodshed. Oh, I forgot, that's what happened to them.

It strikes me as one of the glories and misfortunes of life in America that people who come to live here can so quickly adapt from understanding true threat to acting like princesses who backsides are bruised by peas.

2) People have made countless inconsiderate, even cruel, judgments of me. I have never yet called a press conference to complain or beg for redress. I didn't used to think of this as a virtue, but apparently we're a vanishing breed who clear our systems of emotional toxin by muttering to sympathetic friends. Perhaps I need a more fashionable special interest affiliation. I debated whether to draw more attention to this non-story by commenting on it, but I really am disheartened by the media who covered it. But believe me, it's getting harder and harder for the MSM to disappoint.

3) The victim (since when did thin-skinned melodrama-queens become victims rather than loudmouth cranks?) and her equally-ruffled pals at the Muslim Public Action Council have an inspired solution to the oversight: destroy a small business that employs six people. Never mind that the owner responded promptly, apologized, offered replacement then refund, and also instituted improvements to his quality checks. Never mind that he employs people who have to work to survive. Dare I ask if our injured party gets any public funding or loans for her education and whether she understands it's the devlish working stiff who pays taxes to make that possible?

4) My last and final point. IT'S A USED BOOK! I check out books from the NY Public Library with crap written in the margins. My used college textbooks were always graffitoed. By definition, someone got rid of this Koran because he or she didn't value it enough to keep. Buying used means valuing price and remaining usability over the shrink-wrapped pristineness of new. People say that the Koran has to be understood as even more sacred in its physical integrity than the Bible is to Christians. All I can say is if the Koran represents to her the precious mainfestation of Allah himself, she already devalued Him when she tried to purchase God in the bargain basement.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Return to the Odd. Competitive Eating, baby!

Thanks to author Larry Getlen for sending a link to Part I that's posted on The Black Table. (hat tip: NYC Writers Group). Otherwise, I might've missed this comprehensive look into a little-understood athletic endeavor, competitive eating. Not a sport you say? Well, I'm one who includes bowling. Besides, every year thousands run marathons and triathalons, and we marvel over the pain and endurance, but most of them don't exactly look or behave like you and I anymore- they've become otherworldy bone and sinew people with quads like drumsticks that flap when they run. MMMMmmmm, drumsticks.

But in the world of competive eating, the air is even rarer among competitors, and normal people you pass every day could be unrecognized champions. In this progressive sport, gals and guys hunker over their hash shoulder to shoulder. One married couple, nicknamed the Thurston and Lovey Howell of eating, boasts two top ten finishers. Another serious gobbler, and just ramping up, is 105 lb Sonya Thomas. The eating scene contains the big and small, the young and old, because success is about technique, aptitude, training, and iron will. It's an equal opportunity for glory if you can fight your "urge contrary to swallowing." Can you be dominated, or will you become the master of the enormous spectrum of challenges: hot dogs, matzo balls, pancakes, ice cream, sushi, shrimp, burritos, candy bars, pickles, doughnuts, onions, peas, pumpkin pies and hamantashen... whatever that is?

It's a long article, but worth your time. It runs down the players and their stories, revealing intricacies of approach and training that you probably never suspected. As in all things, there's good, better, best. Give these people their props, and prepare yourself for Part II, the timed-glutton extraordinaire, the phenom known as Kobayashi.

I'll be linking here, of course. It's my duty to you and my delight.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Self-Destruction? Let's Talk Art.

Late post, sorry. Well, yesterday and today are my biggest blog traffic days ever. And that's mainly because of a bogus midgets vs. lion story! Apparently, I was one of a few bloggers rhapsodizing about it, so curious Georges and Jeannies seeking freakish horrors found me. Many welcomes to you all!

Still, I know I can't replicate the phenomenon, as much as I'd wish to please you and earn your loyal readership. After all, the midget story was forwarded to me in the first place. So, I'm going to spiral down the pit towards the morass of my own indulgence and perverse enthusiasms, which include freaks and fakery, but also art. Hear the crickets chirping? Ah, well. As I say, it's bad judgment that adorns the fool.

Browsing Art.com online ought to be great, but it isn't. They have arguably the best domain name for the subject matter ever and an enormous collection of mostly posters, but just try to isolate something good to look at. Here's their newest initiative, Art On the Verge:

Created by both established and emerging Member Artists from our Original Art & Photography program, these affordable, quality prints range in style from traditional, to contemporary, to eclectic and experimental. Explore, discover and indulge.

I'd love to, but when I click View the Collection, what I get is an undifferentiated mass of 1281 items. ITEMS? Oh, you can sort by most popular, most recently added, price, and my favorite, size. But are any of those things what you FIRST consider when shopping for art or even simple decoration?! Even size and price come second to appearance, don't they?

How about sorting by style, era, photos vs. prints and/or paintings? To help decorating, they could add the criteria of dominant colors and theme. How about sample groupings of visually harmonious pieces by different artists or schools to show how to combine a variety of work? Art.com has the thumbnails- thousands and thousands of them. All it would take is some engagement with the content, some categorization and coding. Instead, years after launch, they still don't offer anything about how the damn stuff LOOKS!

What about making the homepage (or a separate page) to highlight a different On The Verge artist everyday? Plop in thumbnails, a photo, a bit of personal history and artistic philosophy. Wouldn't the employees, investors, and artists benefit if Art.com became a destination site, a place people checked every day to load something new into the old sockets?

I feast upon the following sites almost daily, because they know how to serve up the visuals in fresh, seductive morsels.
1) Drawn: a Canadian uberblog of Illustration
2) Cornwall Cam: Charles Winpenny's daily photo journal of the gorgous coast and environs, logging the rhythms of flora and weather. Red letter days with sheep or wild ponies.
3) Your Daily Art: Martha provides great moments in art history with brief blurbage.

4) Last but different. This site's content is static, and contains a strange family of works, however, at least the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery gives you some categories and context with search and explanations to guide your way. There's also the Curator's Choice to highlight parts of this collection. And the goodies are glorious.

It used to be a big deal just to find merchandise online. But not anymore. Now it's about how you package it and service your customers. So what the heck is Art.com waiting for? You want to sell me some freakin' art? Stop sucking!

P.S. I also have visions for the future evolution and marketing of Blockbuster that I'll save for another day. Interested parties may e-mail me. The advice is free. My reward is a more beautiful, functional world.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

I'm Crushed. Kittens and Bedbugs Shooting French Vaccines!

I'm plowed under with editing/writing/responding to administrative crapola, so here is the lazy blog o' links.

1) Follow-up research demonstrates that MMR vaccines (measles-mumps-rubella) don't increase the risk of children getting Crohn's disease. This and autism have both been blamed on childhood vaccinations but without substantiation beyond rumor. The increasing diagnoses of autism obviously warrant study of possible causes. But once again, I say that the fashion among the wealthy and healthy to dissuade and defund (especially developing nations) from vaccinating in childhood is knee-jerk reactionism with malicious effects on the people who most need this lifesaving advantage.

2) Bedbugs are back! Why you ask, after their eradication decades ago, are we now encountering a springtime with these parasitic bloodsuckers? Because faulty research on DDT (the most effective wide spectrum pesticide ever) has been grandfathered into public consciousness as gospel. At least the first world can now suffer with the second and third who we won't allow to use DDT either, despite its undeniable effectiveness against skeeters and therefore malaria. The upside of this resurgence in bedbugs among high-class NYC hotels is that we'll finally see the well-heeled and influential become extremely motivated to take another, more reasoned look at DDT. I hope this will spare discomfort in America, but it could save millions of lives internationally.

3) You may know how the French view our ignorant, barbaric, hyperzealous theocratic citizens. But what do other Continentals think of the French? Not so much as it turns out. What's so funny about this article is that the uncontested condemnation came as a result of merely asking for a general description of French folk. (hat tip: Scrivener)

4) When you're stressed, annoyed, and overwhelmed, who couldn't use a kitten? Updated Mews every freakin' day.

Monday, May 16, 2005

What time in Indiana says about people

If you're not familiar with the hyena-craziness of timekeeping in Indiana, read this USA Today article about the brouhaha now that they're finally trying to fix it. The issue is first that different counties, even different streets, disagree about which time zone they're in.

In Santa Claus, Indiana: The grocery store operates on Central Time -- or "slow time," as locals call it. The hardware store next door runs on Eastern Time -- or "fast time." The doctor, newspaper and nearby monastery are on fast time. The schools, churches and post office are on slow time. The American Legion hall has two clocks as a compromise...

Tracy Caddell, the school superintendent in Switzerland County, east of Santa Claus, has his kitchen clock on slow time and his living room clock on fast time. His school system is on slow time (Eastern Standard), but neighboring Ohio County and nearby Cincinnati are on fast time (Eastern Daylight). "The optometrist is on fast time. The dentist is on slow time. Granny's restaurant is on fast time. The post office is on slow time," he says. Wedding invitations and funeral notices specify fast time or slow time. Married couples set clocks to different times on opposite sides of the bed.

The next wrinkle is that, when daylight savings time occurs, different locations disagree about whether to observe it.

..Fast and slow time vary, even if the clock doesn't change. Sometimes fast and slow time are the same. Sometimes they are different. And sometimes fast time is actually slow time... On April 3, Indiana's 10 slow-time (Central) counties went on daylight-saving time and suddenly were on the same time as Indiana's 77 Eastern Standard counties. "For some people, the day the clocks change is almost like Christmas," says Mike Shriefer, transportation director at the Spencer County schools. That same day, though, the five Eastern Daylight counties moved ahead an hour and went out of sync with the state.

If you haven't heard about it before, you might not believe it. But it's all real. Living in Chicago, I'd travel to or through Indiana with no idea what time it was. And still, Hoosiers have been too stubborn to yield or conform, not even to remedy the cause of so many pointless headaches.

First world country, check. Twenty-first century, check. That the situation has lasted this long has to say something about Indiana, but to me it says more about the essential backwardness built into the human animal, the absurd drive to cripple its own best interests not for noble aims, but for the pettiness of municipal committees. The kind of numbskull ideas that got Burger Meister Meister Burger on Santa's bad side in the first place. I'm as insecure and neurotic as anyone, but I don't remember ever taking even false pride in my time zone.

However, Indiana's not alone in bang-your-head-against-the-bricks nonsense. Just recently, I was quizzing an administrative "manager" about the likely and unpleasant outcomes of a silly, unenforeceable policy. She told me she couldn't be expected to answer all these questions about consequences, yeesh. Look in municipal codes and legislations anywhere, and you're going to find buttinski-flavored oversight that makes life harder than it needs to be. It's already common and propogates in the hothouses of petty bureaucracies everywhere. But if this is what humans are, and it sure seems to be how we roll, if only in self-defense, you have to laugh.

I am disappointed about one thing though. Playing with notions of "true time", how to fake out time travel, and overlapping histories, I planned a yet unwritten scifi story around the unique temporal circumstances in Indiana. So much for writing it now. Unless I backdate.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

One African Lion, Many Dead Midgets

It's hard to know how to introduce an article I received by e-mail last night with a BBC News header (can't link, sorry, so I'm pasting). I was stunned, disturbed, saddened, and all while laughing at the absurdity. You decide how to handle it.

Lion Mutilates 42 Midgets in Cambodian Ring-Fight

An African Lion much like this (sorry about missing photo) is responsible for the death of 28 Cambodian Midgets. Spectators cheered as [the] entire Cambodian Midget Fighting League squared off against [the] African Lion. Tickets had been sold-out three weeks before the much anticipated fight, which took place in the city of Kâmpóng Chhnãng. The fight was slated when an angry fan contested Yang Sihamoni, President of the CMFL, claiming that one lion could defeat his entire league of 42 fighters. Sihamoni takes great pride in the league he helped create, as was conveyed in his recent advertising campaign for the CMFL that stated his midgets will "... take on anything; man, beast, or machine."This campaign is believed to be what sparked the undisclosed fan to challenge the entire league to fight a lion; a challenge that Sihamoni readily accepted.

An African Lion (Panthera Leo) was shipped to centrally located Kâmpóng Chhnãng especially for the event, which took place last Saturday, April 30, 2005 in the city’s coliseum.
The Cambodian Government allowed the fight to take place, under the condition that they receive a 50% commission on each ticket sold, and that no cameras would be allowed in the arena. The fight was called in only 12 minutes, after which 28 fighters were declared dead, while the other 14 suffered severe injuries including broken bones and lost limbs, rendering them unable to fight back. Sihamoni was quoted before the fight stating that he felt since his fighters out-numbered the lion 42 to 1, that they “… could out-wit and out-muscle [it].”
Unfortunately, he was wrong.

P.S. I'd think 42 midgets could handle a lion, but they'd need a unified game plan and a lot of knowledge of lions. And why not sneak in a blade, like wrestlers do? There's not enough detail here to know how all the deaths occurred, although many lost limbs is a graphic clue. Still, with the huge count of tiny bodies, I couldn't help but imagine my Boston terrier (my barely terrier) shaking the tar out of his toys, displaying the characteristic neck-snapping move they use against rodents.

P.P.S. What would it have been like to be in the audience? Were cameras not allowed because organizers were filming it themselves? When they "called" the fight after 12 minutes of carnage, did it only require a couple of guys with tranq darts and netting to subdue the lion afterward? Why did they wait until 2/3 of the midgets were dead?

P.P.P.S. It's a fake, of course. Read the details of how the story began here and be sure to look at the original news report they created. The link I received was to a more authentic-looking web page without any disclaimers or "fake" labels, and I looked through the news archives for a real link before being sure I smelled a dead fish in Denmark.

But what a story! It practically screams for reality TV to flesh it out, non?

Friday, May 13, 2005

Celebrity Lobsters and Pitching Novels by Synopsis

Okay, lame way to wedge every topic into the title, but...

1) Today, Dr. Sanity explains Acquired Situational Narcissism afflicting politicos. But this is also the disease of celebrities that no star will ever pimp a telethon to cure. As Simon Doonan of Barney's said of JLo's debut as a fashion designer, "We've only ourselves to blame because we've given celebrities these deranged feelings of omnipotence. She'll be doing brain surgery next."

2) Conservation zeal collides with government intervention and bad science again. Gov't agencies falsely decried declines in lobster catches, even advising consumers to avoid lobster completely on the Seafood Watch List. From the WSJ, I think it's a freebie:

Last fall, an independent panel of highly regarded population-modeling biologists reviewed the NMFS science. The panel's conclusions are stunning: The models are unreliable, they depend on woefully inadequate data, and the NMFS management criteria should be abandoned. "There is no possibility," the panel wrote, "of using the models being considered, given the available data, to reasonably manage on this basis." In fact, catches and traps have risen 3X due to the historic conservation practices of Maine lobstermen. Now they need to plan for downcycles, but they'll do that better than the gov't, too.

3) Another freebie in the WSJ about the PitchFest where 220 screenwriters got 5 minutes apiece, timed by cowbell, to sell their project ideas to fifty "decision makers."

"A lot of these people are just dreamers," he [one exec] said bluntly, describing his participation as a chance to give back to the community and, frankly, a chance to do some networking of his own. "Mostly we give advice and try to point them in the right direction. But who can say? This whole business is based on not listening when someone tells you, 'No, you'll never sell that idea.'"

Builds confidence, doesn't it? Pitching television, and especially film, is tougher than novels. Fewer are produced, the costs and risks are higher, and you're supposed to affect Hollywood slickness, whereas authors are given more slack as social misanthropes. But the process is similar. You're instructed, "If you can't put your book into one sentence, you don't know it." Don't bother arguing that even Nietzsche knew that storytellers are good narrators and bad explainers.

Ugh. Now my suspense novel exists in single sentence form. And a single paragraph size for queries. Another one-page version. And the longest, the 5-page synopsis, which still condenses every ten thousand words into a paragraph. These forms are designed to meet individual and industry format preferences, thereby streamlining the return of NOs, but the real problem is how crappadocious book-length writing sounds that way. Style and complexity become shallow, slang shorthand that's comprehensible but bears (I hope) little resemblance to the final product. An example of the one-sentence, verbal pitch:

WS (writer-supplicant): A man with his eyes on the bottom line meets a girl with her head in the clouds.
AP (agent and/or publisher): Okay....
WS: And it's in nineteenth-century colonial India, isn't that wild? Awesome elephant rides.
AP: I love elephants.
WS: Me, too. Elephants are great.
AP: Why don't you send me a couple chapters with a synopsis and outline?
WS: (Drools thanks incoherently)

Many APs are quite personable and smart, but if there are lots to pitch at an event, you collect business cards from everything with a pulse until your time or pride is spent. I don't love it, but it is a gauntlet that culls dilettantes and APs who can't use your kind of work. I'd still rather present a single page of prose for evaluation than hype the storyline via pitching, because, while every novel's unique, every plot's a retread. That's why cliches can accurately, albeit horrifically, describe them. There are several books cataloguing the overarching plotlines in fiction. The number they acknowledge vary by philosophy. This book says there are 7.

As Willa Cather opined, "There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." But Dostoyevsky for the optimistic tip-in, "There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it." The worth of the story isn't in the topic, it's in the telling.

Established authors say this process eventually works, and I believe them. But if I'd aspired to write encapsulated diaper-fodder like this, I'd create movie ads. "In a world where...."

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Brief 'told you so' and onto CARS!

1) As I remarked in my oft-referenced (at least by me) ivory-billed woodpecker post, I don't think it gets publicized how many species die out on their own, are being created, or get discovered. AP reports a new rodent in Laos discovered by the man who also scored a new striped rabbit in 1999.

2) Today, James Lileks bleats about buying his wife a new car, writing:
Do! Not! Write! With! Advice! Please. I thank you, but these decisions are personal – and besides, I sit next to the guy who edits the auto page, and he has an extraordinary amount of knowledge about cars to boot.

I had to laugh. Nice try, but no admonitions or trust in his intelligence and resources will stop the inevitable.

UPDATE: HA! Tim Blair's already making suggestions and inviting more!
2nd UPDATE: Instapundit piles on!
Even though Tim's an Aussie (another wide country), it only proves my point when the biggest, busiest bloggers can't resist car talk or even just referring to car talk.

Here's a related post last month by Vodkapundit that I remembered laughing about. VP is well-acquainted and enthusiastic regarding matters automotive, and when asking his readers for feedback about specific models under consideration, he laid out clear guidelines of his acceptable scenario and rationale for each option, concluding with (editing mine):
One more thing. My next car will be one of these four. Please, don't try to sell me on the merits of ... or any car not already on this list. That aside, please share your thoughts.

Be sure to read the comments if you want to be amused by the vast numbers of well-intentioned folks pushing unwelcome ideas they're sure he'd love if he thought hard enough. When it comes to advice, nothing spurs a normally respectful American nose to insinuate itself into someone else's beeswax like the subjects of cars or children. And as certainly as parenting is personal, Lileks makes the point that autos are personal, too.

Americans are blissfully irrational about their cars. I've heard people who can't tell a tailfin from a pushpin rhapsodizing to me about the superior vehicular content of their garages. Maybe it's because we spend so much time in our cars, maybe it's our culture of acquisition, maybe lots of things. For me, it has something to do with freedom, independence and individualism, the gypsy optimism that something great is just around the bend. My cars weren't ever just Pintos, but my Pintas, noble ships for exploration.

Arriving in America for their first visit, many people I've met from across the Atlantic marvel at how large the country is. You don't get a sense of the vastness until you've covered those hours' then days' worth of land (thank Jah we've upgraded from covered wagons). And though we all speak roughly the same language from coast-to-coast, the pronounciation, usage, and vocabulary differs tremendously even if you're visiting nothing but TGIFridays. Because the geographies and climates vary so widely, and therefore the natural resources and industries that follow, the people who've settled in a place and the kind of newcomers a place attracts have distinct qualities, too.

We take a fair bit of jawing from the Continent about the ignorance of incurious, untraveled Americans, because they don't count the thousands of miles and diverse worlds we can span without needing a passport. They don't grasp how many discrete, sovereign lands are within America and how many we can visit simply by driving until hitting big water. I don't expect an Irishman who works in Munich and vacations in Majorca to immediately acknowledge how different Salem, Oregon is from Salem, Massachussets. But it is. In how it looks and feels and how life is lived there. So, too, Manhattan from Metairie, Phoenix from Pittsburgh, the Conch Republic from Coeur d'Alene, and so on. The highways and byways connect us to alien vistas and invite us to see how the other millions live.

I've been de-autoed since moving to NYC, and my car lust increases with time. The latest object of my automotive desires is a real charmer. Not a dream machine, like an international star you'd realistically feel too lowly and conspicious to be seen with. But neither is it like dating the neighbor since childhood, someone trusted and well-understood but not stimulating to the imagination. No, this one is like the attractive stranger. Perhaps you don't know the skeletons in every closet, but you like everything you learn. And you have the feeling that perhaps this new friend is just a little (but not too much) more wonderful and attractive than you deserve.

That, my friends, is true love.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell's a Hack

I've got some topics covered, oh yeah, I've staked them like the undead. Now all I do is sit back with my feet up and let the updates roll in. The living is sweet.

1) About excessive water drinking (which I covered here) , John Stossel has this for Townhall: drinking eight glasses of water is not necessary, because we get plenty of fluid from our food. When your body does need more fluid, it has a marvelous mechanism for telling you to drink up. It's called "thirst." Now get off my back, water fascists!

2) Even a blind squirrel occasionally gets a nut. This NYT story's about a fortune cookie company who prints lottery numbers on the backs of their fortunes, and 110 people won second place Powerball awards using one of their combinations. (hat tip:Althouse)

3) Okay. What I said above about MG is scurrilous and untrue. I'm a hack and he's brilliant, but here’s Gladwell’s review in The New Yorker of Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good for You, a contrarian title that instinctively appeals though I disagree (again) that new smartness is emerging from consuming television and especially video games. My earlier screed on Flynn’s IQ research is here. Disclaimer: I adore escapism and the pleasures of consumption, but prefer honest labeling.

Johnson argues, and Gladwell seems to agree, that from Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas to The Sopranos and reality TV, modern television's making more cognitive demands on us. Part of the cognitive demand they describe is closure. Not the icky grief kind, but the human faculty to generate assumptions that fill informational gaps. Seeing the parts and perceiving the whole. But if we're talking closure, a prime example isn't new media. It's comics.

Comics display selected shards while you interpolate the rest of the images and action. Did you have to struggle with your thinker the first time you saw a comic? Probably not. Comic books and modern TV using non-explicit storytelling employ, but don't add, a capacity humans already have in spades. And as to multiple viewpoints a la Sopranos, the Batman TV series from almost 40 years ago alternated between as many as 5 or 6 viewpoints in an episode: Commisioner Gordon, the Chief, Batman and Robin, the villain(s), and sometimes Batgirl
all operating independently with nothing but a Meanwhile... or KAPOW! to ease the transition. Nobody accused that show of being brainy.

This next peeve's personal, since I write fiction. Gladwell says approvingly that Johnson's only half-joking about books (versus video games) following a linear path leaving readers passive passengers. Dreck! A reader not only fills details using closure but creates sights, smells, and every sensual impression from mere two-dimensional, non-representational squiggles. Books require participation and become a unique creation between each reader and the author. As for following linear paths, fiction depends on multiple viewpoints, timeshifts, and even unreliability of narrative. You'll never wonder whether a video monster is lying about or pretending to kill you, whether he's killing you in an alternate future or past, or if he's just a figment of dreams or drugs. The monster is always now, simply trying to kill you.

Video games are escapism that temporarily liberate us from social mores, natural law and even logic. But you can't use the skills of game consumption anywhere else without augmentation. Compare the mere gamer to the game reviewer who also plays but knows how to write and creatively pad expense accounts. While it's true most video game designers started as gamers, they may be only mediocre players while they must excel as creative strategists who use elements of art, computer programming, and enough process diagrams to crush a middle schooler. You can't get a scholarship for playing videos, but athletics still pay for college and the side effect of health is useful and attractive. The gamer's brawny thumbs often accompany the general vigor of a marshmallow with eyestrain.

With few exceptions, most of the celebrated "problem-solving" within games doesn't represent logical reasoning of probabilities, but using context-exclusive rules (okay for testing, lousy for living) and grinding trial and error. The most decorated Narcotics officer can't find all the goodies in Vice City because they're hidden arbitrarily to extend the game time and force you to appreciate every polygon. Many games that "withold critical information" actually rely on pixel-hunting or their own developers anonymously posting hints at online forums. If gaming builds the tolerance for delayed gratification as Johnson asserts, explain to me why all these Einsteins spend so much time swapping tips and money on cheat codes mags.

The willingness to rule nothing out and tenacity (itself rarer among gamers than Johnson suggests) isn't the same as intelligence. Let's just say I'd prefer a doctor that makes a diagnosis based on the most probable, not one who subjects me to every scan, scratch test, and oscopy that exists just in case I have an Easter egg in some canal.

We recognize intelligent problem-solving in real life as quick application of experience and likelihood, but it's not about memorizing nonsensical sequences that only have meaning in single instances without connection to physical or social realities. No matter the method of killing the last video monster or surmounting the last obstacle, though the previous challenge may well be required before alowing me to advance (too linear for anyone?), it won't conquer the next level for me where the rules may all change. Variety extends gameplay, but regardless of the bonus health points for shooting each tentacle before the third head, in the real world, there's nothing that a close-range barrage from an automatic weapon to the brain pan won't stop.

The virtual logic of gaming may one day converge upon life as most of us live it, though many parts of the world will have a long way to go, and I'm personally happy we're not there yet. But even now, people are working on ideas like sex suits with stimulators that will be activated by online interaction with people or games. Yay.

In some dystopian future, as robots tend the tubes and wires from which our failing meat sleeves dangle, as our synapses misfire while mentally reconstituting landscapes once accessible by shriveled tootsies we no longer use, that entity which we consider our being will encounter that last blue screen of death. And whatever remains of ourselves once the molecules have scattered will arrive at the Pearly Gates to answer St. Peter's query, "Restore your last saved game?"

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Perspectives from Privilege, Airports Again and Still

1) Thomas Sowell in today's Townhall echoes my feelings about so many of those who are compelled to dictate what's best for others: they've never had it too bad themselves.

Once you have ever had to go hungry, it is hard to get worked up over the fact that some people can only afford pizza while others can afford caviar. Once you have ever had to walk to work from Harlem to a factory south of the Brooklyn Bridge, the difference between driving a Honda and driving a Lexus seems kind of petty as well...The general public has never been as worked up about "income distribution" as the left has.

Stats show many successful entrepreneurs first go through financial straits and even declare bankruptcy. But many who fall will rise again, Trumpy pants. Redistributing income based on a person's current finances would saddle many with a permanent identity as a taker from society not a contributor (welfare anyone?). But a wonderful feature of the American identity is its fluidity, and a wonderful feature of our society is its revision of judgements based on changed circumstances. Does anyone love a heroic underdog or redemption story more than we do? Assigning financial castes, even for supposedly noble purposes, locks people into stratified destinies, but a free marketplace liberates them faster than any bureaucracy can reclassify them.

2) Here's talk from Cal Thomas about the manifold imperfections of current airport security and Bruce Schneier argues that ID checks don't work. (I'm still pondering.)

I categorically do NOT want to have to "show my papers" just to walk around outside, although one could argue the ubiquitous driver's license is already a capitulation. However, I also don't want unobstructed passage for illegal visitors, especially those who aren't following the work/family model of successful immigrants, but who already seem to have tons of cash for a variety of nefarious purposes. So what to do about the airports?

My top choices as of this moment:

  • Tighten border controls considerably, so we can be more relaxed about people once they're here.
  • Increase technological screening for specific materials so Grandma may arrive unfrisked and I may clip my nails.
  • Give airport security back to private companies who will follow the enhanced guidelines, but can do it more efficiently and cheaper, mandating communication of valuable innovations between airports and providers. Firms' competitive edge should be execution not methodology.
  • Tremendously expand specific intelligence gathering on persons and threats. Intelligence-gathering can be intrusive, but isn't universally oppressive, and at least procedural checks exist to monitor requests and weed out the improbable or excessive. No secret police, just more investigators who feed evidence to the accountable justice agencies for verification, arrests, and prosecutions.

I think it would be a decent start.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Health Care at Gunpoint, The Death of Eccentricity

First, many thanks to Dr, Sanity for listing my post on IQ at the top spot in her Sunday's Carnival of the Insanities. It was a treat to be there among so many notables. Now, if I can get my blogroll working...

1) From Capitalism Magazine, Richard E. Ralston gives the poop about Medicare, the health care you're forced to pay for and leveraged (in the Capone sense of the word) to use. Medicare determines which treatments you may receive, regardless of your doctor's views or even your ability to pay for others. Read how unfree "free health care" can be. See what a guarantee it becomes, despite its stated aims, that only the richest will have good health care since only they can afford to defy the system and shop for the options they want. Hmm, sounds like the broken services of Britain, Canada, France...

2) I always love Thomas Dalrymple's articles in City Journal. The Roads to Serfdom details the changes to the British character since WWII. Dalrymple launches his analysis from the now prescient-seeming work of Austrian economist F.A. von Hayek who, in his work of a similar name in 1944, wrote the following:

“There is one aspect of the change in moral values brought about by the advance of collectivism which at the present time provides special food for thought. It is that the virtues which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those on which the British people justly prided themselves and in which they were generally agreed to excel. The virtues possessed by the British people in a higher degree than most other people . . . were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility . . . non-interference with one’s neighbour and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.”

Aside from the anti-collectivist tone, to which I must Amen, what I noted was the sad loss of peaceful tolerance for the strange. I'm fairly sure as the grey hairs come in, I will be labeled an eccentric. I aspire to it. There used to be a certain mostly gentle amusement about people who were functional but odd. Whether as whims or coping mechanisms, I find eccentricities in myself and others entertaining and, depending on the sounds and smells involved, not usually offensive.

What happened to good-natured laughs at ourselves and each other? We're so concerned now that laughing over a slip on a wet floor or an idiosyncratic sartorial choice represents a cruel, sociopathic lack of empathy. Growing up Catholic, I thought it was part of the package to endure gracefully and even learn to share the laughs at your expense.

What become of uniqueness and personality when the assertion of singularity is interpreted as merely sotto voce hate speech against other possibilities? When we can't abide strangeness with good humor, and we accept the rightousness of thin-skinned indignation, we abandon the ideals of liberty and take one big step closer to the soul-sucking abyss of conformity.

Respect and appreciation for the different are attributes of a civil society, but only bloom as an outgrowth of culture. Tolerance is a societal virtue but an immeasurable civil goal, and it cannot be imposed without quashing the freedoms necessary to cultivate it.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

When Endangered Animals Snack!

This AP article is about federally protected sea lions trying to enjoy their annual feast of also-protected salmon.

The sea lions have been feeding near the first dam on the Columbia River for years. But this year only about 100,000 salmon are expected to swim up the fish ladders at the Bonneville Dam on their return journey to spawn, less than half the 250,000 that had been forecast. Scientists don't know why the spring chinook run is only a fraction of what was expected.

Well, we didn't do a boffo job of knowing that the ivory-billed woodpecker was extant, not extinct. Have we looked hard? Perhaps the rest of the salmon, unaroused by the monotony of spawning ladders, are enjoying caipirinhas and casual sex off the coast of Rio.

The states and the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Columbia River dams, had to get special permission from the NOAA Fisheries and the Coast Guard to run the two-day hazing experiment at Bonneville Dam. The joint operation Thursday involved dropping 21 "seal bombs," underwater firecrackers that send a mild shock wave that spreads about 20 to 30 feet beneath the surface of the river to scare the sea lions. The percussion devices do not pose a threat even to smaller animals, such as fish, Snyder said. "There's no evidence in all their years of use there's been any harm to fish," she said.

However, in contradictory reporting, a 1996 article from AP says(bolding mine):
Acoustical devices used to keep "voracious" harbor seals away from British Columbia salmon farms..."may also be giving killer whales and porpoises some headaches. Continued use of these devices can apparently have a "pronounced, highly significant" effect on harbor porpoises up to two miles away. Researcher Alexandra Morton notes that this system has "potential for far-ranging effects on non-target species." Government officials await further studies.

Okay, how do we (or did we?) research this one? We could just drop explosives in different bodies of fresh, saline, running, and still water. If no fish float to the top with Xs for eyes like in cartoons, we'll figure everything's fine. I'm not that tiny, and I think two days of underwater firecrackers and shock waves in even an olympic-sized swimming pool would work my nerves, and possibly my bowels according to indications from the sonic weapons front. Even if this is a normal fishing method for rednecks (ha, being of the South, I kid the South), it seems a little weird to have game authorities doing it. What if the increasing use of seal bombs has unknowingly disturbed the growth of a delicate, microscopic creature in the salmon's digestive canal that aids fruitful reproduction- oho, who'd be sorry then?!

Nature is fascinating and surprising, and any biologist can tell you how much is still mysterious. TONS. HEAPS. That's why so often, unless my particular species is threatened, I like to see how Nature works it out, because she has all the manuals. (Okay, Lousisiana's nutria hunt might seem like wholesome, varmint-shooting fun, but is it any more effective than bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon?) However, never say I'm not adaptive. If our nation's wildlife management goal is keeping scarce predators from hunting their scarce prey, I'm totally signing up for the study team to poke every marine creature in the eye and spray it with mace in case we need to evaluate more serious deterrents.

There's no question, if you're a sea lion, this whole situation blows. You've been ranked in preferential endangeredness, found wanting, and devalued below things you crap out. You might have thought with your dark lashed eyes, whiskers, comical locomotion and taxonomic proximity to human mammals, that we'd relate to you and let you go about your business. But no. Current fashion finds you disgusting with your corpulent blubber and leathery hide from extended exposure without sunscreen. Put down that oily fish, you glutton. We're going to create a salmon-shaped, organic soy patty that's ecologically responsible and lowers your body fat percentage. How do you feel about yummy rice cakes? It could be worse...

Indian tribes have already asked Oregon and Washington fishery officials to request federal permission to kill sea lions that prove to be repeat offenders at the dam.

Perhaps this will all work out. After all, salmon dishes on menus today are ubiquitous and largely boring. I'd love to see some Manhattan chefs - the first being French, of course, because they have a recipe for everything - revolutionize dining rooms with savory sea lion entrees. At last, an endangered species I can feel good about eating!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Serendipitous Updates to Recent Posts

Even though I tend toward strong opinion, at least strongly-stated opinion, I do try to audit what new information or perspective is available. Surprisingly, I've got timely updates on topics I've just posted.

1) If my Wednesday post on global warming coverage left you hungry for more contrarian viewpoints, read this article in Nature. After being lambasted for dismissing work that's skeptical of anthropogenic (human-related) global warming, they've finally found a way to twist the set-up but keep the doomsday punchline! The article posits how Earth's cleaner air (that's right, cleaner) may be enhancing the greenhouse effect. Can't win for losing.

2) Last week, I criticized the enormous landgrab by the Dept. of the Interior for their Corridor of Hope in Arkansas, the home of the once considered-extinct Ivory-billed woodpecker, because I fear how attached restrictions may economically hurt the area. This USA Today article talks about how tourism dreams have been rekindled. (Okay) Then, I got to the part where an already poor county has suddenly limited its hunting and fishing to conform to the new protective guidelines. These people were hunting and fishing for subsistence. I wonder how long will it take for new truck stops and hotels to provide jobs replacing the food they're losing today? I'm being small-minded and intractable.

3) In the same post, I commented on our not much-publicized, but increasingly forested America. For subscribers only (gnash teeth here while respecting capitalist imperative) today's WSJ has a great story on the comeback of forests and how we can use them locally. I excerpt liberally, but not unforgiveably, I pray.

"Not since the collapse of Mayan civilization in Central America more than a thousand years ago has such a vast landscape reforested itself, says David R. Foster, director of the Harvard Forest unit near Petersham, Mass., and lead author of its new report...William Schuster, executive director of the nonprofit 3,785-acre Black Rock Forest preserve 50 miles north of New York City, says students who come there bring an almost universal abhorrence of logging. In forest-management classes, when he discusses options, he says students almost always say, "Don't cut the trees."...In a 2002 study, "The Illusion of Preservation," Harvard Forest scientists reported that because of tree growth in the Northeast, "We now have the opportunity to cut trees locally, in a heavily forested and ecologically resilient landscape, in order to reduce the impact on often more fragile and globally threatened forests."

It's not only safe to log our ample woodlands, it's responsible (as demonstrated by the California wildfires) to manage forests so they're safe, productive, and good habitats for wildlife. But many people are reflexive naysayers, unwilling to perceive their local hunters and loggers as conservationists.

Most exurbanites are two or more generations removed from hands-on rural life, Mr. Donahue says. Many grew up hearing logging is bad for redwoods, spotted owls and the climate. "They don't have a clue" where their wood comes from, Mr. Donahue says -- but consume it in record amounts. Is it responsible, he asks his students, to build and furnish homes in a giant New England forest with wood cut from Canadian wilderness or Borneo's tropical rain forest?

4) From my suggestion yesterday about using foreign languages to test IQ, if you want to learn more about the damnable difficulties in deciphering lost languages and how many are yet impenetrable, the Straight Dope has the fascinating run down of need-ems vs. got-ems.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Using skill to denote intelligence

To disclaim, not everyone believes in IQ tests. There's always been difficulty in removing experience and skill from the measurement. But, since we've begun giving them, we've tried to measure IQ using tools that are removed from everyday education, plunging the testee into unfamiliar waters and seeing how quickly he breaks the surface of the problem. Lately, the trend to dissociate testing from reality has become more pronounced with revisions so that we don't discriminate against less worldly or educated folk when we're merely trying to assess their native intellectual horsepower. According to James Flynn's work, described in this Wired article by Steven Johnson, IQ scores have been steadily rising, and it may be attributable to our culture of electronic entertainment.

As new revisions of tests are created and normalized so the average IQ score is 100, Flynn noticed that modern testees (not testes) would have scored higher on the old tests. The phenomenon is most significant with the Ravens test.

When you take the Ravens test, you're confronted with a series of visual grids, each containing a mix of shapes that seem vaguely related to one another. Each grid contains a missing shape; to answer the implicit question posed by the test, you need to pick the correct missing shape from a selection of eight possibilities. To "solve" these puzzles, in other words, you have to scrutinize a changing set of icons, looking for unusual patterns and correlations among them...

...Over the last 50 years, we've had to cope with an explosion of media, technologies, and interfaces, from the TV clicker to the World Wide Web. And every new form of visual media - interactive visual media in particular - poses an implicit challenge to our brains: We have to work through the logic of the new interface, follow clues, sense relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are the very skills that the Ravens tests measure - you survey a field of visual icons and look for unusual patterns.

If our tests more closely imitate what we're culturally exposed to, shouldn't we revise the tests to recapture the base case of unfamiliarity of the challenge? I agree wholeheartedly that GUI (graphical user interface) has its own logic that allows me to understand various modern devices using an unspoken symbolic and functional logic. I also agree that video games, et al, provide training for the kind of unreal, visual pattern recognition that Ravens employs.

By example, for any modern gamer, there will be no delay in understanding the desired outcome since visual arrangement is itself a familiar and worthwhile objective. However, I suggest that brilliant Ben Franklin wouldn't do so well in these timed exams, given the restrictions on forewarning and the delay in communicating to him the point of such an exercise in the first place. Modern game consumers are well-used to graphical challenges that result in neither profit nor health nor change to reality, which is not to say that entertainment doesn't have its own rewards, but that's for another day. However, as the underlying landscape of the IQ test becomes more culturally familiar, the test becomes less likely to reveal intelligence than experience.

Sadly, I think it may become ever more discerning to reintroduce extensive language tasks to the IQ test. Given whatever's foreign and an appropriately limited Rosetta Stone, we can measure how fast and accurately the testee, unused to the challenges of text, can derive the common rules and decode and comprehend the written word , itself having finally become purposeful as a meaningless graphical abstract.

I have muttered against the National Endowment for the Arts, but the current NEA chairman, Dana Gioia, in a Boston Globe op-ed, explains how literacy provides not only personal enhancement, but enhancement of citizenship and the values of civil society. As she reminds us, "Reading is not a timeless, universal capability."

So, are we really getting smarter, or just measuring our lost literacy?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Compare the Science Coverage for Yourself

If you're one who thinks "facts are facts", you probably didn't major in Statistics. No matter what your position, if you look at recent articles on two major issues of social and political concern, the scientific approach applied to them seems, I don't know, different. Here are the story links.

Pot Smoking and Global Warming

1) About the possible increase of mental illness among juvenile marijuana smokers:
While researcher Neil McKeganey claims, "If we wait until we understand that mechanism, we will lose thousands of young people," another researcher who is also quoted extensively is taking a more measured approach.

...Paul P. Casadonte, MD, a psychiatrist and associate clinical professor at New York University, cautions in an interview that research is not yet strong enough to show a causal link between marijuana use and serious mental disorders... "That's dangerous territory. It's politics more than science at this point," says Casadonte, who is also director of substance abuse treatment programs at New York Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center..."Marijuana has more of an addiction potential than most people want to believe," he says. "But basically we just don't have the science" to claim a causal link with mental illness.

This report is from Fox News, hardly considered the bulwark of liberal bias, but they provided a legitimate voice against reactionism. It's already illegal to smoke pot, so I'm not sure what else McKeganey is hoping will save the youth. However, I might imagine this preliminary research will get less reasoned (or zero) coverage elsewhere where its conclusions are less welcome.

2) About the human causes of global warming:
Two of the world's leading scientific journals have come under fire from researchers for refusing to publish papers which challenge fashionable wisdom over global warming.
A British authority on natural catastrophes who disputed whether climatologists really agree that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity, says his work was rejected by the American publication, Science, on the flimsiest of grounds. A separate team of climate scientists, which was regularly used by Science and the journal Nature to review papers on the progress of global warming, said it was dropped after attempting to publish its own research which raised doubts over the issue.

With marijuana, let's do further research, don't rush to judgement, even though recreational marijuana use is already illegal and I'm not sure what else McKeganey wants done to save the youth.

But if it's global warming, let's accept the doomsday scenario, spend billions, squelch dissent and devlopment, and pretend everyone agrees.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Remember the phrase "Healthy Competition?"

As our educational system suffers a loss of concrete standards in favor of mediocrity-inducing esteem building, it's good to know we aren't alone. Read this refreshingly graphic comdemnation from Sir Digby Jones, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry. He and other businesspeople are the ones who have to hire modern graduates and try to teach them remedially to be useful for something. (hat tip: Scrivener)

"I want sports days," he added. "I want medals for first, second and third, not for everyone who takes part. I want exams that you can fail. But we must reach down to those who do not come first, second or third and give them the confidence to find out what they are good at."

Also, read his analysis of the tremendous importance of understanding risk, another concept our failure-averse system isn't teaching.

In case you missed the worm turning on this feel-good, know-nothing educational strategy, there was a big L.A. Times article in January where the following self-esteem analysis took place. That piece is now archived by the LAT, but if you go to Dr. Sanity's blog archives from January, and scroll down to Self Esteem is Not Necessarily Good For You, our good psychiatrist has the juicy excerpts with her own commentary.

Here are some of our disappointing findings. High self- esteem in schoolchildren does not produce better grades. (Actually, kids with high self-esteem do have slightly better grades in most studies, but that's because getting good grades leads to higher self-esteem, not the other way around.) In fact, according to a study by Donald Forsyth at Virginia Commonwealth University, college students with mediocre grades who got regular self-esteem strokes from their professors ended up doing worse on final exams than students who were told to suck it up and try harder.Self-esteem doesn't make adults perform better at their jobs either. Sure, people with high self-esteem rate their own performance better — even declaring themselves smarter and more attractive than their low self-esteem peers — but neither objective tests nor impartial raters can detect any difference in the quality of work.

A close family member (and recovering teacher of developmentally deprived and special needs children) told me that all the happy talk in the world doesn't matter, because the kids know when they don't measure up, and lying to them about it only builds distrust and confusion. She said she had much better luck with her second graders when she was candid about their poor performance while assuring them that with their effort it would be improved.

If lying about poor performance won't hornswaggle kids into achievement, and inflated egos don't lead to more productive or even happier adults, wouldn't it be a better and simpler policy to encourage everyone's best while only lauding that which is genuinely praiseworthy?

Monday, May 02, 2005

So Many Wonderful Topics. Skim Away

I have much to do, but also many items of pique, so I'll blurb lightly and you may skim away.

1) First and lightest, about pets- I mean companion animals. For myself, I like my dogs not for how they resemble humanity, but how they live harmoniously with us while remaining different. As examples, my pooches always look charming while never worrying about fashion or etiquette. Their moods are reliably sanguine, perhaps because they usually match their concrete circumstances which are short on need and long on comfort. However, as much as I enjoy the canines (and felines, too) and believe they may feel something akin to affection for me, should I shuffle off this mortal coil and no one discover it soon, I feel certain their perception of me would adapt from Empress to buffet. In this article, Let the Fur Fly, Daphne Merkin of the NYT admits to being almost indifferent to pets. It's as contrarian as you'll see in the Times, so enjoy it.

2) The AP reports that leaders of Pikesville, Kentucky are irate over how the A&E progam, City Confidential, portrayed their city. To be fair, the CC series always covers some heinous crime which it attempts (not always successfully) to tie in with unique regional characteristics. Pikesville does boast (?) a heinous incident of note, but the coverage of that crime is not what bothers the local residents who cooperated with the production. What disturbed them is what is very widely accepted practice among television and features. Any southern locale outside CNN headquarters in Atlanta is routinely portrayed as nothing but a dumping ground for unreconstructed ignoramuses.

I've never been to Pikesville and have no idea how "progressive" it is or what that term implies anymore. By today's criteria, sometimes I'm "liberal" since I believe in free market principles, but I'm against the centralized nanny-state. Using measures related to spending, immigration, and criminal prosecution, I'd be considered "conservative", but beyond restricting the broadest harms, I don't have a legislative agenda for decency issues, even when I think they're beneficial to society. What I can say with more conviction is that the Democrats in my South used to resemble Georgia's hawkish maverick Zell Miller a lot more closely than Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid who would have been, I think, considered mush-mouthed meddlers.

3) Onto the travesty of socialized medicine. In the blog of the essential Melanie Phillips, who monitors the state of British dhimmitude, she identifies yet another snarl in the execution of the much-vaunted (among those who don't have to use it) National Health.

...GPs were refusing to book appointments more than 48 hours in advance in order to meet the government target that patients had to be seen in that time...it drives you absolutely crazy to have to try to phone the sugery at a given time to make the appointment for the following day, only to find all the phone lines are busy and by the time you get throgh the slots have all been filled.

Despite gov't explanations about the limited scope of the problem, many audience members where Tony Blair appeared protested that this delay in scheduling medical care due to central policy is rather common. Blair was reportedly (as Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca) shocked... Shocked.