July 31, 2008

Serves Its Purpose

For the past month or so, John McCain has been struggling to get noticed by, well, pretty much anyone. He's found a way to touch a nerve, though -- the "celebrity" ad that his campaign put together and is running to burn through the rest of the primary money before the public funding and its attendant spending limits kick in after the RNC. Obama and his supporters have criticized the ad and some have gone so far as to call it "racist," but McCain is defending it. I think he should. Decide for yourself -- here's the ad:

First of all, it's not racist. The momentary flash images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton do not suggest (to me, at least) the racial stereotype of the sexually voracious black man preying upon naïve, innocent white girls. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are neither naïve nor innocent. There is no hint whatsoever of a desire by Obama to sleep with either of them. (Why would he? He's already got a hot wife.)

Secondly, it criticizes Obama's policy platform and reminds voters that charisma alone is not the reason to vote for a candidate. Blunting the impact of Obama's charisma is an important campaign goal for McCain and it's absolutely correct that a President's superficial media appeal is, at the end of the day, low on the list of reasons why one should vote for him as opposed to his opponent.

Now, I'm not 100% sure that the policy content of the ad is all that accurate. It's certainly not true that Obama is in favor of more foreign oil, although it would be fair to say that implementing Obama's policies would have the result of making the country more and not less dependent on foreign oil. It seems that both McCain and Obama favor variations on the recently-implemented cap-and-trade system for pollution control amongst electricity producers, so the "tax on electricity" thing doesn't make a lot of sense to me. On the other hand, suggesting that Obama's policies, taken as a whole, would result in higher and new kinds of taxes seems to be a very legitimate criticism of what he proposes. An Obama Presidency is going to be expensive.

But advertisements work on an emotional level as well as a factual one. And the emotional question: "Is he ready to lead?" is a powerful one indeed, and that's a strong card for McCain to be playing.

And, the advertisement serves its tactical purpose very well indeed: shifting momentum. The campaign has moved back into the mode of an exchange between the campaigns instead of the Barack Obama Show. People are talking about John McCain again.

Book Review: Gone

The author of this book is a blogbuddy, so I admit I'm somewhat biased in his favor. But I mitigate my admitted affinity for the author on a personal level with the fact that the style of the book is substantially different from his online writings. Online, Michael Grant (a pseudonym) writes for adults, using adult language, adult phrases, and razor-sharp humor. His newly-released book, Gone, is aimed at teenagers and I'm quite confident that it will scare the hell out of them. In a good way.

The book is set in and around a small town that is quite obviously a derivative of Pismo Beach, California. The names are slightly changed, but if you're at all familiar with that part of California's central coast, you'll recognize all of the real-life places referenced either by actual or only slightly altered names. (I don't know if Grant thought of it, but setting his story there would allow him to visit the eventual film set located conveniently near the best vineyards for Cabernet Sauvingon in the United States while enjoying beautiful coastal paradise.)

The story begins abruptly when everyone over the age of fifteen simply vanishes in an instant, and the kids are left behind to their own devices. Trapped in a world that almost immediately begins to change in sinister and incomprehensible ways, the kids even find changes in themselves which are both dangerous and powerful. I was thinking The Stand meets Harry Potter, although others have said it's Lost meets Heroes. Either way works.

The first thing that really got me about the book was how the author changed his writing style from the breezy, cynical, and quite adult way I'm used to reading him, to tailor his book for the target audience of teenagers. And very much to Grant's credit, he did it without talking down to his teenage audience at all. Indeed, if I were going to fault him for use of language, it would be in the other direction -- one character uses some words that are obscure for some adults, and the conversation sometimes has a Dawson's Creek level of unnatural maturity to it.

But the thing is, Grant has a good eye for how smart the average teen really is and gives his teen readers credit for possessing both sufficient intelligence and worldliness to deal with sophisticated vocabulary and some tough situations for the generally sympathetic characters. He also has a good understanding of the sorts of things that the average teenage reader, at least in America, is used to dealing with. I'll be a little bit less elliptical: Grant incorporates some scenes and themes of pretty tough stuff -- some of this stuff would be emotionally difficult to read in an adult novel. The most disturbing thing for me to read was the slowly-paced issue of what happens to the character Mary.

He's right to include that element, and stuff like it. After all, kids could put together that some of these things would happen and they see some of these things happening in their real lives (like with Mary). Other things (like Caine's way of keeping control of his minions) are seriously twisted, and fascinating in their perversity. That last bit, by the way, was both pleasingly creative and horrifying.

The story moves forward with many relatively short scenes. This isn't a Dan Brown book, so the chapters are longer than two pages each, and many but not all of them end in cliffhangers. (J.K. Rowling did that in her Harry Potter books, too, albeit with longer chapters incorporating many scenes.) The narrative barely ever pauses for breath, which makes for a good story. One fly in the ointment: if you're fourteen and need to look up one or two of the words that are being used, though, you might be tempted to plow ahead with the tense narrative rather than pulling out the dictionary to decipher what Astrid the Genius just said.

My big complaint: as compelling as the overall scenario is, and as powerful as the almost-never-pauses-for-breath narrative is, it lacks verisimilitude. While a lot of the details of the story make logical sense under the fictional circumstances, and I'm more than willing to suspend my disbelief for some of the big plot elements, others don't quite ring true. A lot of the kids seem eager to work and do some of the really unpleasant sorts of things necessary to keep a society functioning and my experience is that kids need to be firmly prodded by authority figures even when the need for certain kinds of action on their part seem patently obvious. (Looking back on it, it's a wonder my parents didn't kill me during my own teenage years.)

That's not to say that there aren't mature, responsible teenagers out there, but it is to say that the frequency of such kids in this book seems unusually high. Maybe I'm supposed to infer that tough circumstances mature the kids faster than they might otherwise have done, and one of the central characters must confront some personal failings in this regard, but the necessity of keeping a functional society working makes Grant impute a higher degree of personal responsibility to these kids than I was ever really persuaded to believe.

Of course, that sort of thing is actually quite appealing to the parents of teenagers who will generally be the ultimate source of the money plunked down for the book. Parents considering this book for their kids will need to be aware that some scenes are violent, although in a comic-book sort of way -- . The kids use adult devices like cars, although by the time your kids are fourteen they've visualized themselves driving anyway. But mainly, there are some scenes and themes in which very gruesome or very emotionally trying challenges confront the kids. This world is not free from death. There are romantic themes between the boys and girls, although they are sanitized and go no further than hand-holding and kissing, and those feel both appropriate and realistic for kids this age.

So yes, I liked the book my online friend wrote very much. But I can honestly say that, appreciating its target audience, I would have liked it even if the author had been a complete stranger. And you know, I've never met the man in person, we've just exchanged comments on one anothers' blogs. So take that for what it's worth.

Grant has kept explanations for a lot of the phenomena in reserve for sequels -- I understand that the next book in the series is already written even as this book is only in general release for about a month. I'll look forward to reading it and hope for good things for the character I liked best, Elidio. Teens and their parents will find the book immensely entertaining and should not hesitate to buy the book.

If You Think About It, He Must Have Had Them

A private prosecution has been undertaken in England against a London art gallery that is exhibiting a statue of Jesus with an erection underneath his robes. Christians, do yourself a favor -- don't click on the link unless you really want to see the photograph of the statue in question. Your imagination is, I assure you, is all you need.

Is it vulgar? Sure. Crude? You bet. Intentionally offensive, particularly to devout Christians? I rather suspect that was at least part of the artist's objective. But don't they have some kind of concept of freedom of speech there in the UK? Freedom of speech is not just for speech that most people find socially acceptable. That's as true in the UK as it is here.

And if you think about it, Jesus was a man. Men get erections, that's part of what it is to be a man. To say he was fully human means that this, too, was part of his human experience. If you believe he was also God, then this admittedly crude reminder of what it is to be human might be bothersome to you, but on the other hand it might just make you think for a second about what God becoming human really meant in practice. Seems to me that's a worthy subject of contemplation for a religious person. And for skeptics like me, it points out what is being claimed by the religious when they say Jesus was fully man and fully God at the same time.

Oh, and what's the deal with a "private prosecution"? Is that UK lawspeak for a civil action based on violation of a criminal law, something like what we would call negligence per se here in the states? Or can private citizens really initiate criminal prosecutions if the Crown refuses to do it? British lawyers out there, help me out here, please.

The Candyman Can

Who can help you beat the rap of an obscenely large possession charge? If you live in Redondo Beach, Dr. William S. Eidelman, M.D. can, with some patently astonishing testimony. You know, I say "legalize it," but if the appellate courts are going to buy arguments like these, isn't it practically legal now?

Hat tip to Shaun Martin, who correctly notes that the quantities of marijuana involved here are suitable for, shall we say, "mass consumption."

UPDATE: Post now complete with gratuitous Christina Aguilera reference. As if a reference to her on this blog could be anything but gratuitous.

Before You Ask Me...

I approve of the trade for Manny Ramirez. L.A. is a place for big stars, and Manny is certainly that. The Dodgers badly need some swat in the middle of the batting order. Andruw Jones has been a major bust. More power at the plate seems like the ticket the boys in blue need to get over .500, where they've hovered all season on the strength of the pitchers.

I remain greatly on edge about the situation in Green Bay. Reportedly, the team offered Favre $20 million over ten years to stay retired. That may have been an overbid for the team's desire to see him off the field and not playing for any division rivals. But at the same time, management will not rule out trading him to Minnesota, which now seems to be Favre's target. Other likely trade destinations are Chicago, New York (the Jets), Miami, and Tampa Bay. Baltimore seems to have dropped off the radar somehow. Favre would not be a good fit in most of these places. Favre needs receivers spread out all over the place and capable of improvisation. The whole Green Bay offensive system was built around him. Dropping him in the Meadowlands every other week will mean he will have to deal with a very different set of expectations, abilities and strategies; so too would a new team have to adapt to him. Especially given that the season will start in a month, I have a hard time seeing things clicking well anywhere but Green Bay for him

Well, he'd do well in Seattle, for obvious reasons, but then again, the Seahawks already have a quarterback.

She Couldn't Have Got A Sitter Even For This?

There are people out there who seem to bring their children along for everything they do. They bring their kids to the store with them. They take their kids out to eat, even at places inappropriate for children. The kids come along for movies that are obviously inappropriate for children. They bring their kids to court. But this one takes the cake -- this mom brought her toddler along with her to rob a bank. I hope she at least rolled the windows down while she left the kid unattended in the car during the actual robbery.

Sell San Quentin!

There’s a proposal that the state sell off some of its more valuable real estate holdings to make up for the budget shortfall. For instance, San Quentin State Prison is 275 acres of waterfront land on the north side of San Francisco Bay. If there weren’t a prison on it, it would be luscious and intensely valuable land. Even with the structures there, the sorts of people who consider such things consider the land to be worth north of $100,000,000.

I disagree with the idea. This year’s state budget deficit is projected to be more than fifteen billion (with a “b”) dollars. $15.2 billion, to be exact. Were the state to get full value for San Quentin, that would drop this year’s budget deficit down to $15.1 billion. And we’d be out a prison, the only one in the state equipped to perform executions. Every prison in the state is already overcrowded. Or would the purchaser operate it as a “private” prison? I’m leery of the idea of “private” prisons, which make money by using the inmates as a labor force to produce consumer products – this is, literally, slave labor and while I realize these are convicted criminals we’re talking about and the Constitution permits that sort of thing as punishment for a crime, it still feels wrong to me. Making road signs and license plates? That’s something seems different, somehow.

Selling San Quentin would also mean we’d need to relocate the thousands of prisoners incarcerated there. No room anywhere else.

And once we (“we” being the state) sell off an asset like that, it’s just plain gone. We can never get it back; we’d never be able to afford to repurchase property like 275 acres right on the Bay.

No, we’re going to have to make up the shortfall with budget cuts. Period. It’s going to suck. But the only other alternative would be to raise taxes significantly.

July 30, 2008

No Hobgoblins Here

It occurs to me that my earlier thoughts about opt-out organ harvesting laws may be, in a significant way, fundamentally incompatible with my thoughts in the same post condemning laws forbidding the sale of one's own organs. This disturbs me somewhat less than it seems it ought to.

On the one hand, if my organs are my own property, then I get to say what happens to them, not the government. I ought not to have to take some affirmative action to keep the government from taking what is mine. And if I get to say what happens to my physical property, like my car or my house, once I'm dead, then I certainly should be able to say what happens to my body once I'm dead.

"Escheat to state" is always the last resort of the law of intestate succession. The proposed law in Canada would put the state first in line to get my organs when I die.

But on the other hand, harvesting organs may create a much greater social good than the somewhat silly idea of preserving my "right" have my organs rot or turned to ash uselessly, despite the fact that it is something of an upending of traditional notions of property rights and bodily autonomy. I need to go out of my way to have other parts of my property destroyed upon my death; why should my body be any different? Yeah, it's kind of yucky, but get over it -- isn't the question whether we're going to let thousands of lives be lost and tens of thousands degraded in quality to preserve the unasserted "property right" of someone who is already dead?

I suppose in one way, this is another permutation of utilitarianism versus deontology, the great philosophical struggle of the modern western world and to which no principled solution has yet been found.

And the problem has to be solved by law one way or the other, because the resource of viable human organs is evanescent because organs must be harvested soon after death if they are to be used effectively -- and because most people can be counted on to take no action one way or the other and will go along with the "default" provision of the law through inactivity. The great good that can be realized from organ harvesting requires that there be a sufficient supply of organs to save the lives of the living but very ill. So if there is to be organ harvesting at all, it makes sense to harvest as much as possible to avoid waste and to preserve life.

I don't think one necessarily has to be ideologically consistent about all things, all the time. It would be good if that were the case, but it's possible to take that to an unreasonable extreme. I like the idea of a free market economy as an ideal, but I also like the idea of the government participating in and sometimes manipulating that "free" market for a common benefit that the market would not realize on its own.

Maybe the way to reconcile my conflicting thoughts -- on the one hand, those organs are mine and the government should not simply presume to take them, and on the other hand, the government is uniquely situated to prevent the waste of those organs and realize a greater social good -- is to have the government pay my estate for my organs in the absence of any instructions otherwise. The payment would be a minor consolation to those I leave behind, defraying end-of-life medical care or funerary expenses.

Of course, that's an inconsistent thought with the idea that the government should be frugal as a general proposition; buying organs from dead people would wind up being quite an expensive undertaking in the aggregate. And the widespread prevalence of organ harvesting may well lead to a wide variety of unintended consequences -- one of my favorite science fiction writers contemplated this exact issue and theorized that society would impose capital punishment for nearly every kind of crime so that organs could be harvested from the criminals, creating a horrific and unjust society. And apparently it is also the subject of not one but two dystopian movies scheduled for release in 2009.

But the real point here is that in order to explore thoughts and weigh issues, sometimes one must entertain different kinds of thoughts and find a way to reconcile them. This can be intellectually difficult and after several mental returns to this morning's initial enthusiasm over the idea of changing the "default" law for organ harvesting, I find myself even more twisted between the differing imperatives that are implicated by this idea. It's the sort of mental uncertainty I enjoy and from which I think much intellectual profit can be derived, at least before the issue becomes ultrasimplified for political exploitation.

Monkey Money

Capuchins are small monkeys endemic to the rain forests of Colombia, Venezuela, and the Central American isthmus. They look like the fellow to the left, an adult male, who is about two feet long, not counting his long tail. Cute. Smart, despite a very small brain that seems hard-wired for two functions -- eating and mating.

But he's smart enough, it seems, to learn how to use currency. Scientists taught a troop of seven of these monkeys that they could exchange small metal discs for food. Give the scientist a disc, get some food. Got no disc? Get no food. This is a big deal for the capuchin, which in an environment of plentiful food will literally eat until it vomits and immediately begin eating new food again.

So every day, the monkeys would be given an allowance -- twelve tokens each. They could "buy" different kinds of food, and quickly learned how to react to changes in market conditions (simulated when the researchers changed the amount of different kinds of food given in response to tokens). The monkeys also were taught how to gamble, but did not like to most of the time, preferring the certainty of reward of "market" exchanges. They also did not demonstrate much affinity for saving tokens for future rewards. They learned how to steal tokens from one another so they could get more food. But the really amazing part is this -- remember how they're wired to do nothing but eat and mate? Well, after teaching the monkeys what money was, sex was monetized as well:
Once, a capuchin in the testing chamber picked up an entire tray of tokens, flung them into the main chamber and then scurried in after them -- a combination jailbreak and bank heist -- which led to a chaotic scene in which the human researchers had to rush into the main chamber and offer food bribes for the tokens, a reinforcement that in effect encouraged more stealing.

Something else happened during that chaotic scene, something that convinced Chen of the monkeys' true grasp of money. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of money, after all, is its fungibility, the fact that it can be used to buy not just food but anything. During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)
Prostitution! The scientist had tried to soft-pedal this behavior and not leak it out, but I think it's an enormously important thing to have observed. It proves, more than anything else, that the monkeys had been taught what money was.

It would be no particular surprise if the monkey exchanged sex for food; that has been well-documents in many species. But this monkey exchanged sex for "monkey money" and proved she knew what she was doing when she demanded food in exchange for the money. The scientists taught basic currency economics to two-foot long monkeys. This may not be natural, instinctual behavior, but once it was taught, the knowledge is transmitted from monkey to monkey somehow and individual monkeys figure out new dimensions of an economic system on their own once they're in it.

We know that a wide variety of animals engage in politics, for instance -- to take just one example, packs of dogs or wolves in the wild periodically used ritualized combat to determine which animal will be the leader of the pack, and other dogs obey commands given by the "top dog" without further conflict (including a dog who once was the leader and has been recently displaced).

Dolphins engage in playful athletics like surfing, and in recreational sex. Indeed, many dolphins are bisexual and will have recreational sex with dolphins of the same gender as often as with the opposite gender, and without regard for whether the female (if any is involved) is fertile at the moment.

African monkeys have been observed to eat certain berries known to have depressant effects on their physiology, apparently to enjoy the high created by taking these "drugs;" some have even been observed to habitually seek out and eat the berries despite the loss of opportunities for food, sex, or safety, and thus could reasonably be called "addicts."

Whales communicate with sophisticated "songs" that vary by the whale's location above or below ocean's thermocline and so seem to distinguish between short-distance and long-distance communication. What they are saying to one another across hundreds of miles of open ocean is still a great mystery to us; maybe they wait until they're down deep to gossip about the humans so we can't overhear them.

Perhaps a great many sophisticated behaviors are really more deterministic than we'd like to believe. If politics, drug addiction, long-distance communication and casual dating are not unique behaviors to humans, why should economics be any different?

Conservatives: Do You Still Think Bush Is One Of You?

As if leaving a half-trillion dollar budget deficit for the next administration wasn't enough.

This morning, President Bush signed into law a $300-billion bailout for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He had threatened to veto the bill because it included $3.9 billion for local communities to purchase and maintain foreclosed homes. But he signed it anyway.

Now, you may well ask, "What choice did he have?" And that's a good question. It's certainly true that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac cannot be allowed to fail. Far too many Americans have home mortgages in which one of these two government-sponsored corporations have financial stakes. And something like one in five hundred homes in America is in foreclosure.

What's wrong with the "tough love" angle? Would the foreclosure of .2% of homes going to have that significant an impact? Overall prices would drop, yes, but once the inventory resulting from the foreclosures gets sold off, that will be that. The market correction simply needs to happen, be done with, and then the rest of us have to pick up the pieces and move on. The system has already been shocked. This is closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.

When you have a bandage that needs to come off, you have to rip it off even if it's been stuck on a bunch of hairs. Yes, it's going to hurt. But since you know it's going to hurt, the best thing to do is to rip it all off at once, take all the pain at the same time, and then it's done. Isn't that the same situation we face with the housing market correcting itself?

Keeping The Vulgarity Score High

The progress of retail chain expansion marches on in Georgia.

Rhode Island Clam Chowder

Some friends spent a week in Rhode Island and fell in love with Rhode Island clam chowder, which is based on a clear broth. So when I stumbled across this recipe, I thought of them and I include an edited version of it here. I do not think quahogs are available in California; I suspect that gooseneck clams are about as close as you're going to get here. I'm excited to make it and try it myself.

10 to 12 quahogs in the shell
1/4 pound salt pork, diced to ½-inch cubes
1/2 cup onions, diced into ¼-inch cubes
3 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (optional; I understand this is quite controversial among Rhode Islanders)

Scrub the quahogs and rinse clean under cold running water. Discard any that aren't tightly closed; they are dead and not good to eat. Put quahogs in stockpot and cover with 6 cups of cool water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cover the pot and cook about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove clams as soon as they open; don't overcook them. (Rubbery clams, yuck. -- TL) When the shells cool enough to handle, remove the cooked quahog meat and chop finely. Meanwhile, keep clam broth warm.

In a large saute pan, cook the salt pork over medium heat until the fat renders and the meat is browned and crisp. (This would be good with pancetta, too. -- TL) Remove meat, set aside. Add onions, cook in pork fat until translucent but not browned. Add skillet contents, including pan scrapings, to stockpot; deglaze the frying pan with a ladle of broth and return to pot. Raise heat and bring broth to a gentle boil and add potatoes. (Maybe a touch of chive or green onion? -- TL) Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.

When potatoes soften, stir in the salt pork. Season with white pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Return cooked quahogs and heat through for a minute before serving.

You Don't Own Anything After You're Dead

Another good idea from our friends up in Canada. If this law passes, there would be no more organ donor lists in Ontario. Instead there would be a "not a donor" list. You would have to opt out of rendering your body subject to organ harvesting, unlike the present system (like the one that prevails here in all 50 states) that you have to opt in to being harvested.

Personally, I think everyone should be an organ donor. If you're dead, why shouldn't your body parts be used to save the lives of people who might benefit from them? You're not going to be using those body parts anymore because you're going to be dead.

Organ harvesting creeps people out. People want to think they won't ever die. People want to think that if they die, they're going to come back and need those organs again. They think that doctors will be anxious to kill them to take their livers and adrenal glands. They think that they'll be pronounced dead too quickly and wake up on the coroner's table. Some people have religious objections to organ harvesting or autopsies; their cultural or religious traditions think of that sort of thing as a desecration of a corpse.

So fine. The proposed law has an opt-out provision; you fill out a form, and your body will not be harvested after you die. As I see it, there are three alternative states of existence: 1) you really want your organs to be harvested after you die; 2) you really don't want your organs to be harvested after you die; 3) you don't care enough about the issue one way or the other to bother filling out a form or some other document to let the people who survive you know what your wishes were. This law only affects people in the third category. And it only affects them after they're dead.

Then there's the actually much more valid objection that you own your own body, and it is not the property of the government. I agree with that. The government can't take your body from you while you're alive. But dead people don't have rights. They don't own anything. That's why the government can create laws about things like the proper disposal of human remains -- the dead person no longer owns anything, including her own body, so someone has to do something with it and that is the job of the government.

And again, the law is really already there anyway. You can create a will or a trust while you're alive saying what you want to have happen while you die. And the law will honor those wishes even after you're dead, in order to vindicate and honor the exercise of property rights you made while you were still alive. But if you don't bother to exercise those rights, there has to be a default provision for what happens to your property when you go. That's why there are laws in every jurisdiction, everywhere, for intestate succession of property.

Now, in the U.S., we have a law against the sale of one's own organs, either now or in the future. The idea is that a poor person will sell her kidney for a song and thus be "exploited." Query if that is truly "exploitation" in the same sense that, say, a predatory mortgage loan or a Ponzi scheme is true exploitation. Maybe yes, maybe not. There are also worries that the owner of a right to harvest an organ might do something untoward, like say, kill the donor to harvest the organ early. I can certainly see regulating a market for organs, particularly so the donor and the purchaser do not know each other and the transaction is truly conducted at arms-length. This would require a third party (possibly a government agency) to serve as a broker. There are surely other logistical and legal kinds of issues that would need to get worked out. But I can't think of a moral objection sufficient to justify an absolute ban on truly voluntary, informed organ sales -- particularly organ futures, where you sell the right to harvest the organ after you die of other causes. I can think of logistical hurdles to making that happen, but if I sat down to really think it through, I'd probably also be able to think of ways to overcome those hurdles.

This law is a modification of the law of intestate succession of a particular item of one's property, mainly one's own body. Nothing more. If it's not what you want to happen to your body when you die, you can still control that outcome. Particularly given that we have created a legal scheme in which one cannot sell one's own organs and therefore they must either be given away, burned up, or put in the ground to rot, I think that making the "default" provision that of donation rather than against donation is a great idea.

July 29, 2008

I Have A Question

More poll respondents indicated they believed in angels than indicated they believed in God. What's up with that? How can you believe in angels but not in God?

We have come to depend

We have come to depend on the internet. With no net at the office over the past week, I was much less productive than I could have been with it. We finally got the Intertubes back today and it was amazing what a difference it made.

Legionnaire's Lamp

Further to my last post, though, there would be one thing I would be pretty sad to see destroyed. It's a small thing, which actually may not be particularly valuable. But it's very unusual, and very old, and therefore it would be quite difficult to replace. It's my legionnaire's lamp, pictured to the left.

I got it as a present. My parents took a trip to England and bought it from an antiquities dealer there. It's not big -- maybe five inches long. Much lighter than you might think; it's made out of relatively thin terracotta. It was probably decorated with a stamp press rather than hand-carved. The stamp decorating it is an erotic scene, a heterosexual couple with the woman in what professional adult entertainers would call the "reverse cowboy" position, reclining on a Roman-style couch.

I know from my parents, who were told this by the antiquities dealer, that the lamp was unearthed at a dig of a Roman campsite in England, and it was dated at between 1,900 to 2,000 years old. Trade between Roman Gaul and Britain had been going on since Caesar's conquest of Gaul. So it's possible that the lamp came before the legions, or that it got to England in the pack of one of Caesar's men as part of one of his two brief expeditions. But it's much more likely that the lamp came with a soldier during either the Claudian invasion in 43, or in response to the Bouddican revolution in 60.

So I think about that soldier sometimes, the man who bought a cheap little reading lamp in Rome or some Roman town in Italy, and put it in his pack with the few other personal possessions he had room for after he had joined the legion. It would have been a good lamp for that purpose because it was so light, and reasonably durable if he wrapped it in some kind of padding like a spare sock.

There's no name scratched on the lamp, so I don't know what his name was. He could read, obviously, or else he wouldn't have needed a reading lamp in the first place. Based on the mass-production qualities of the lamp, he didn't spend a lot of money on it. That makes it likely he wasn't an officer. A centurion at the most, a regular soldier of the line more likely. The lamp is made of terracotta, which is more common in southern Europe than northern France or England, so that means it was carried from somewhere like Italy, Greece, or Provence up to England. I'm assuming the soldier bought it in one of the Romanized areas of the Empire and took it with him, but it's reasonably possible some merchant did that, and then sold it to the soldier once he was in England -- the ancient equivalent of a BX or an outsourced quartermaster.

The solider could have had any of a number of duties. Infantry were the basic need; something like two-thirds of a legion would have been infantrymen. The soldier would have spent days, weeks, months drilling with his comrades in arms. Ten of them would have been a maniple (that translates to "finger") and ten maniples would have been a century. His century would have practiced various maneuvers all day, breaking down into maniples and individual soldiers, so that on a single barked command from the centurion, each of the hundred men would know where to be and how to position themselves and execute various maneuvers.

His best friend was his oversized rectangular shield, which would have been painted red with either a geometric design or the insignia of his legion on its metal front, lined with leather or wicker on the inside, and weighed between twenty to thirty pounds. The shield was his best friend because it kept him safe from enemy arrows and spears, and was a formidable weapon in its own right. He could have held it in front of him as he charged the enemy and if he had enough arm strength (and he probably did) he would have used the weight of it as a huge bludgeon upon first impact with an enemy at hand-to-hand combat range. After that, he could use it to trip or stab at his enemy, while also using it to block sword, axe, or spear blows.

He would have had a gladius, a straight, double-edged sword about two and a half feet long. Weight would be a factor, so a super-long sword would not have been practical. Long swords would be good for slashing from about five feet away, but the big Roman shield would have let him guard against an enemy trying thing. He beat his enemy by getting in close and stabbing. Stab wounds, by the way, are much more effective at taking the other guy down than a slash wound. Once the enemy is taken down, he can't fight back, so it doesn't matter if he's dead or not -- when you win, you can go back and kill him, or not, as you please.

In addition to the gladius, he'd have carried two javelins, one about a foot longer than the other, with detachable heads. The heads were detachable because earlier generations of soldiers found that their enemies would pick up the javelins and throw them back at the charging Roman legions. If the head detaches on impact, it still does damage to the enemy, but can no longer be re-used. The long spear would be deadlier for its greater weight, but the short spear could be thrown a little farther. There would have been endless hours practicing throwing the unarmed spear shafts while running -- running up hills, down hills, across fields, through rivers.

So that's how he would have fought. First he and his mates would form a tortoise -- they'd lock their shields together for protection from arrows and spears, and march at a slow pace to where they wanted to be. When they got there, they'd form up and wait for the enemy to get too close. When the enemy did that, they'd charge. On the run towards the enemy, they'd throw first the short spear, then the long one, and by then they'd be close enough to ready their shields for impact. Bam! Hopefully the shield would help knock the first guy back, or at least off balance, and then stabby-stabby with the sword, until all the enemy were dead.

He'd do all that wearing about forty pounds of iron or bronze armor. It looked a lot like the armor you saw the soldiers wearing in the movie Gladiator, with the leaves of plates over the shoulders sitting atop a solid cuiriass with leather straps for a little extra protection making up his sleeve and a low-hanging fringe below the belly. If he had some money or a generous general, he'd also have metal greaves and sleeve guards to protect the fronts of his arms and legs. He would not have protected his back very much -- his enemy was never supposed to see his back in the first place, so there's no need to armor it. Besides, that gets heavy. And he'd have a metal helmet, of course, to protect his head. I'm assuming that my guy was a regular soldier so his helmet would have been unadorned with any decoration and would have had leather straps to keep it tied to his head during combat or training.

Probably the most important part of his uniform on a day to day basis wasn't his armor but his boots. He walked everywhere. He probably walked from Rome to the English Channel, and then walked from wherever he landed (Dover, if he was in the initial invasion, or London, if he came in response to Boudicca) to wherever he fought. He needed strong, comfortable boots. But no matter how good his boots were, his feet were going to hurt at the end of the day.

His pack also would contain the most important tool he had -- his shovel. Every night, after marching fifteen to twenty miles, he'd have to help dig trenches and lay out the camp. The camp was a square, with a ten-foot deep moat dug around it and the earth dug up into a ten-foot high battlement just inside the moat. It took half the guys in the legion to dig the moat and build the battlement, and they did it in an hour to an hour and a half. Other guys levelled the earth inside the square and set up tents, all in neat rows and columns. My soldier and his mates from his maniple would share a tent in an assigned spot; every night his tent would be in the same place.

Let's assume that he landed in London to go fight Boudicca. After disembarking, he'd be hungry. He'd have probably been seasick on the passage across the Channel and up the Thames, and lost his lunch and his appetite along the way. Upon arriving in the military encampment and surrounding town of Londinium, he'd have been given a few hours' liberty to get something to eat and drink, and told to report to the permanent camp there. He'd have spent a few coins getting some bread and meat and whatever vegetables were in season from a public house near the harbor on the north side of the Thames, near where the Victoria Bridge is today. If he were of a mind and heavy with coin, he could rent a girl, but chances would be good that he wouldn't have had time for that sort of thing. London would be his last chance to visit anything like a decent bath for weeks, so that would be a higher priority. Cleaned and shaven, he'd have collected his things from the locker in the bathhouse and walked about a mile north to the big camp on the hill at the edge of town, where the financial district in The City is found today. It's London we're talking about, so he'd have been chilly and had to peer through fog to find the camp. If it wasn't raining, that is.

After slogging it up the hill in the rain or the fog, he'd get to the camp gate and maybe had to have given a password to gain entry, and proceeded to his tent. He'd have known where to go without needing to ask anyone. Same tent, same place, every night. There, some of his mates would have built a little fire and maybe they would pass around some wine and tell bawdy stories to one another. Because Londinium was a permanent camp, there would have been cots. He would not enjoy such luxuries out in the field. Like nearly all soldiers, he'd have fallen asleep more or less instantly upon laying down.

About an hour before dawn, he'd wake up, go to the hole dug for use as a privy, and taken care of that business. Then he'd get into his uniform, eat a piece of hard-tack bread, and pack up his things for muster. His centurion would have been briefed either that morning or late the previous night about the day's assignment by one of the general's legates. Since I'm imagining that my soldier came to fight Boudicca, he would have been told of the wild woman leading a pack of a hundred thousand screaming Britons wearing only furs and blue clay smeared all over their faces. This would have amused him more than it scared him. The centurion would give instructions for what to do if there were a surprise raid on the column, and give the command to move out. Today's direction -- north into the wilderness.

All day, he'd have walked. He'd have made conversation with his buddies, maybe talking about religion or politics but more likely talking about his family back home or what it was like in his buddy's home town. He'd eat lunch while walking, and on his turn for guarding the column, he'd quiet down and watch on his flank for anything suspicious in the woods or fields nearby. He'd never lose sight of his standard -- a wooden carving of an eagle, gilt in gold, bearing the legion's name and number and a flag hanging below it to show which century it belonged to. The strongest, best fighter in the century would have the honor of carrying the standard. When it was time to fight, he'd have to drive it into the ground before drawing his weapon, but any soldier could look up at any time during the fight and see the eagles on the poles, and know where he could go to rally with other soldiers if he got into real trouble.

Come dusk, the general would identify a suitable place for building the camp, hopefully near a stream or river to get fresh water. Local trees could be cut down to build towers or pikes to guard the palisade, and scouts would go out hunting local game, but my soldier would be digging the moat. After an hour of digging, he'd be down his ten feet and another soldier would pull him out. On a good night, some deer might be brought back and passed around. On a not so good night, the men would pull salt pork out of their packs and cook that along with the flat soldier's bread they'd bake in their pans over their small campfires. Fast messengers would arrive with packets from Londinium. He and the other men in his maniple would draw straws, and the short straw had to do guard duty. Tonight, my soldier didn't mind getting the short straw so much because there was a message from him in the packet.

That's when he'd pull out the little reading lamp, which now sits on my bookcase. He'd pour a little olive oil into it, and run a small piece of twine or flax down the hole. When the wick was saturated with the oil, he'd use a flint to spark on it until the flame caught, and it would give off acceptable enough light. Then, sitting atop the palisade, he'd have just enough light to read the letter from his sweetheart back home. No soldier away from home was ever more happy than when a letter from his girl came. True then, true now.

When he was done reading, he'd maybe take a few minutes to write her back, using a small stylus and some charcoal. Ink would have been hard to carry around. The charcoal would smudge a little bit but that was what would be available to a soldier -- and it would really have been no worse than a letter written in pencil today. He'd seal up the letter and write his sweetheart's name and city, and if it was a big city, her neighborhood, and get it to one of the camp boys to put in the morning dispatch back to Londinium.

Next day, same thing. North again. March another fifteen, twenty miles, build a camp. But that night, a bad message came in from Londinium -- the town had been attacked by Boudicca. The battle was still going on when the messenger left on his dispatch to the legion. News would have shot through the camp like wildfire and sleep would have come harder for most of the men, but not my soldier -- he hadn't slept the night before.

Come muster the next morning, my soldier would have been surprised to hear that the legion's orders were not to wheel back to Londinium to relieve the garrison there, but to march west, towards what is today St. Alban's. But soldiers follow orders and that's what the legion would have done. Another two days of marching, more sullen this time as news of the sack of London came in along with some refugees seeking shelter with the legion. Dispatches from the Empire would stop until the line of communication back with Gaul was re-opened. That meant that the enemy had to be met in battle, soon. By this time, the legion would know that they were to rendezvous with the Roman governor of Britain, Seutonius Paulinus.

When they did, they might have been discouraged to find that the combined force totalled only about 10,000 men. Two-thirds or more would have been infantry and the rest auxilliary units like archers and cavalry. There would also be support personnel -- quartermasters, young boys (we'd call them "interns" today) running messages around, cooks, blacksmiths, and the like. Few women, but some, selling themselves for the "comfort" of the centurions and junior officers. But a pitifully small number of fighting men pitted against what the men would have been told was upwards of a quarter million angry Britons, as ten or more tribes had united under the warlike Queen of the Icenii.

Only six days after landing, my soldier's legion would meet a force of fighting men (and some women) who outnumbered the Romans by nearly twenty to one. Seutonius had a few advantages, though -- he picked the terrain of the battlefield, and chose a hilltop with forest on two sides, so he would only have one direction in which to face his enemy. His men were better-armed, better-armored, and much better-trained. My soldier had practiced and drilled every day since joining the legion, and he feared the beating and shame his centurion could administer much more than he feared his enemy. Still, it is a daunting thing to confront an enemy who outnumbers you by that much.

The battle was joined early the next summer day. It did not end until the sun went down and the Romans won. My soldier would have thrown his spears, bashed in heads and arms with his shield, and bloodied his sword many times. He would not have been seriously touched, though, by the relatively untrained Britons he fought -- they would have been wearing heavy furs or leather, and his sharpened sword would have cut through those easily, and pierced the blue-painted flesh of his enemies many times. The dispatch sent back to Rome of the battle that day listed eight hundred Roman casualties, with about 400 dead and about 400 wounded out of the 10,000 fighting men who took the field. Seutonius claims to have defeated a force of just over 200,000 Britons, killing some 80,000 of them. That's a 200-to-1 kill ratio. If that number is even close to accurate, my soldier would have had to have killed one man every four minutes, from sunrise to sundown, eight men that day to do his share of the slaughter, and he probably wounded about an equal number. If he were in the infantry, though, it would have been more than that.

You might imagine that no amount of training or conditioning could possibly prepare someone for a day like that. But that just might be underestimating the power of Roman infantry training. The odds were very good that my soldier would have survived with only superficial wounds and bruises; in retrospect it seems his biggest danger would have been exhaustion or heatstroke during extended periods of hand-to-hand combat. Adrenaline can only take you so far. So he must have had the surreal experience of being relieved on the battlefield for what amounted to a lunch break while the battle wore on.

Boudicca herself eluded capture, returned home, and poisoned herself rather than be taken captive. My soldier would have learned why she revolted -- after not paying her husband's debts to Seutonius, she was declared no longer under Rome's protection and some soldiers like himself had raided her camp, abducted and tortured her, and raped her daughters. She began her rebellion seeking personal revenge, which the soldier would have understood if not exactly liked, and ended it by claiming three massive victories in the cities known today as Norwich, Colchester, and London, sacking and essentially destroying each Roman encampment before finally being defeated at somewhere in the west Midlands, traditionally identified as somewhere near St. Albans. He'd have acquired a high level of respect for Boudicca and, while he would have seen the Romans as the good guys and the Britons as the treacherous rebels, one can imagine his feelings towards his enemy were not unlike the kind of grudging admiration and respect that Union soldiers in the Civil War must have felt for Robert E. Lee -- a capable and worthy enemy, one from whom much could be learned.

My solider would have stayed on for many years in Britain, keeping the peace, protecting tax collectors and second-tier politicians, building roads and aqueducts, and maybe having a few engagements with minor uprisings, but nothing like the Battle of St. Albans ever again in his life. I imagine he had a sweetheart back home but he must have got lonely and maybe found a girl in Britain. I wonder, did he marry the British girl or did he go back home to the girl in Italy? Maybe he got a grant of land and was encouraged to settle in the land he had helped re-conquer for the Empire. Maybe he got transferred to Gaul and helped acclaim Vitellius in the Year of the Four Emperors. I hope not, for his stake -- Vitellius did not do well and wound up having to give way to Vespasian.

My hope is that my soldier got to make a good life for himself, building up what had been destroyed in the revolution, and that he got to go home and marry the sweetheart who wrote him love letters while he prepared to face the horror of St. Albans. Maybe he lost the lamp in the battle; it could have fallen out his pack and into the muck and mud raised by all the troop movements, and never recovered in the cleanup after the battle. If it had fallen out while wrapped in his sock, and got trapped in mud near the camp, that would explain its good condition and its survival over the years to be unearthed in the closing days of the twentieth century.

It's a plausible enough story.

Just Stuff

Today's earthquake got me thinking. If a really bad quake hit, and the house got knocked down, or all the stuff in it got burned up, what would my reaction be?

I'd be bummed, of course. But assuming that The Wife and the critters were okay, I could only think of a few things that would really bother me if I lost them. Most of the stuff can be replaced, and that's what insurance is for. It would only be things that would be really difficult, or impossible, to replace. The Brett Favre autographed football would be tough but not impossible to replace. Backup data for the computer would be difficult, but I've had to start over from scratch with computer data before. We've got some nice wedding gifts around. The Wife has some old pictures that would be gone forever. She has some old furniture that's better-made than anything contemporary, but it's been beat up pretty good by a lot of moving and dogs gnawing on it and other parts of life.

But most of our stuff is just -- stuff. Not fungible, no more valuable than any other couple's stuff. Replaceable, and indeed replacing it all would, in the long run, probably be more of an opportunity and a blessing than keeping what we've got. We just hang on to our stuff because it would be expensive and inconvenient to replace most of it all at once.

Even the house could be replaced. Because the land wouldn't go anywhere, and we have earthquake insurance, so we would have a new house rebuilt. Maybe even the foundations wouldn't survive an earthquake, so we could get a similar-sized house designed just the way we would want it to be, with even more modern fixtures and things than this early-nineties job that we've got now -- not that it's bad, but we could replace it with another house and it would be just fine with us.

It's just stuff. There's no need to be emotionally attached to it. Think about yourself, Reader -- if you lost all your stuff all at once, you'd be bummed, too, but would it be more than that? Would you be crushed? How much of your stuff could you lose now, and not replace, and never notice any real difference in your life? The less attached you are to the stuff, I predict, the happier you would would be.

Well That Was Fun

About an hour ago, there was a 5.4 magnitude earthquake near Diamond Bar. I was out to lunch with a couple attorneys from the firm and felt the ground shake and noticed the light fixtures in the restaraunt swinging. One light bulb fell onto an empty table. Nothing else of significance here. I'm interested in learning about whether The Wife experienced it, too; some people even at the restaraunt claimed to simply not notice it at all. She's not experienced any of the other earthquakes of significance before in California, either; in fact, I think the biggest seismic event she ever felt was a less than three-point jolt in Tennessee that was centered less than a mile from The Estate At Louisville; that one felt like a truck had backed into the building. Today's was a classic earthquake, with a swaying, rolling motion that lasted about twenty seconds. If she didn't experience it, she'll be disappointed.

July 28, 2008

Get On The 405

I've long noticed and been bemused by the tendency of Southern Californians, myself included, to refer to freeways with the definite article preceding the assigned highway number, as in "The 405" or "The 10." Elsewhere in the country, people refer to freeways without any article, as in "Get on 90 east towards Chicago." Occasionally, older folks use the prefix "Route" to denote that a highway is being discussed: "I was out on Route 12 last week, and..."

My reflexive use of the definite article to identify a freeway is one of the ways I know that despite having family roots in Wisconsin and having lived in Florida for a time as a youth, I am ultimately and will always be a Southern Californian. Even when I was an East Tennessean I was a Southern Californian because I kept on referring to Pellissippi Parkway as "the 140" and getting blank stares from people around Knoxville.

About the only exception to the use of "the" as the denominative for a highway number that I can think of Southern Californians using is "Highway 99," the freeway that runs along the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. I'm willing to bet that most Californians do not know that "Highway 99" is the name of an old blues song and that's probably where the parlance has come from.

Also, you'll sometimes hear people -- traffic reporters more than anyone -- identify freeways in the Los Angeles area by name. I pay attention to that sort of thing, so if you talk about the "Hollywood Freeway" or the "Harbor Freeway," I for one will know what you're talking about. But I feel like I'm about the youngest person in Los Angeles County who does. It gets confusing because the Hollywood Freeway is what most people think of as two freeways -- a segment of the 101 from downtown to Studio City, and then the 170 into Burbank. So too is the 110 the Harbor Freeway from San Pedro to downtown, and then if you proceed north on the 110, it becomes the Pasadena Freeway.

This confuses a lot of people, particularly those who haven't figured out that the name of the freeway is its destination, viewed from the perspective of someone in downton Los Angeles. That's why the westbound 10 from downtown is the "Santa Monica Freeway" while if you go east on the 10 from downtown, it's the "San Bernardino Freeway." Same interstate, different names. Because everything radiates out from downtown.

Anyway, Kevin Bush offers an explanation for why Southern Californians have the distinctive use of the definite article before a freeway's identification number. And it's a relic of the freeways having names, which itself is a relic. Kind of like the "sigalert" that you hear about all the time. Few Californians remember what a "sigalert" originally was and the first time I heard of a "sigalert" in the Bay Area I just about choked because it was supposed to be an "only-in-LA" sort of thing, and most Bay Area residents I know would rather be force-fed small cubes of Velveeta cheese than have to concede the creep of Los Angeles culture into their oh-so-sophisticated world that has traffic every damn bit as bad as Los Angeles.

Invisible Hand At Work

Americans are, at last, driving less. This is almost undoubtedly due to the continued increase in the retail price of gasoline. Things have even declined moderately recently, but I still paid $4.20 a gallon at Costco today (California is usually about $.25 more than the national average) and I'm feeling the bite despite staying very local (only one out of town trip for several months, and that was just to the Valley). Nearly everyone I know or speak to has complained that increases in gas costs have begun to impact their lifestyles, even people who are still dong well financially. For some people facing greater financial challenges, they are having to make some hard choices about how to subsist.

A little bit of research reveals some interesting numbers. I've compared the number of miles driven on U.S. highways to the national average price of regular unleaded gas going back to 1990 (using data from the links above). It's useful to see the numbers side by side, I think. I've also adjusted the price of gas for inflation (using 2007 dollars), although that's a dicey proposition -- the price of gas is itself an inflationary pressure on the economy. But there was other inflationary pressure going on all this time, and as you can see, when you adjust for inflation, the real price of gas fell during the 1990's and didn't really start its huge climb until 2003. Finally, I include a number I've computed called "elasticity" which is the product of demand (as measured in total road usage) divided by the inflation-adjusted cost of gasoline. I've assumed no inflation between 2007 and the present point of 2008, although that's obviously not going to be quite accurate. Here's the data:

YearMillions of
Miles Driven
Average Price
(Raw Dollars)
Average Price
(2007 Dollars)

Now, that tells you something. At least, it tells me something. What I think, looking at this data, is that the real breaking point of price to demand is somewhere around $2.75 a gallon (in adjusted 2007 dollars). I say this because demand for driving time remained pretty close to constant from the previous year in 2007. Before that, the demand for gasoline (as measured in number of miles driven) increased each year no matter what happened to the real price of gas.

My "elasticity" number is also useful, although I haven't bothered to determine if simple division is the actual way an economic would figure out price-demand elasticity. Still, it provides a rough index of price to demand and it gives us an understanding of the shape of the demand curve. Comparing real price to the elasticity of the demand curve, we see that price and elasticity passed one another in 2005, and the trend since then has been to drive less. We're only noticing it now because the people who would have been first affected were the people with the least amount of money to spare, and it's taken since then for the impact on demand to make itself felt. The tipping point, when the change becomes dramatic enough to change the flow of overall demand on the market as a whole, looks like it happened which real prices exceeded $2.75 a gallon or so.

So I'm going to have to modify some of my previous opinions. It looks like the demand curve for gasoline is a little bit more gentle than I'd thought; it's just that measuring the impact of rising gas prices on demand for gas turns out to be a bit more complex than I'd initially thought. But in 2007 we passed the point that the curves became steep enough to change the direction of the market, and demand has begun to decrease. This suggests to me that equilibrium will be reached sooner rather than later -- either that, or we are hitting the point at which the pain at the pump has been felt far enough up on the economic food chain that the "kink" in the curve has been reached.

The good news? If I'm right, prices will not rise that much more from where they are now. We will not see $5.00 a gallon gas soon, at least not until inflation indexes the raw price up to that level. The bad news? This is equilibrium. Right now, baby. The price isn't going to fall very much from its current national average of about $3.90 a gallon. Pretty much ever.

Violence in Knoxville

No struggles here. Just tragedy. Yesterday, an apparently deranged gunman entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville and opened fire. He killed two people and wounded several others. The UU Church is one of many beautiful old churches in a row along Kingston Pike, one of the main thoroughfares of the city, just west of the University and Alcoa Highway (one of the two ways to get from the city to where my parents live, south of the river).

The killer's derangement seems to have been a combination of too much inflammatory right-wing agitprop and frustration at Knoxville's notoriously bad job market. The fact that he was a right-winger is not, itself, enough to have classified him as dangerous and there seems to have been little indication that whatever dislike of political liberals he had, it would turn bloody. But the fact that he was a right-winger does seem to have had an impact on his choice of victims. It could be that people just plain figured out "This dude's kinda weird," and nobody would hire him.

Some members of Rationalists of East Tennessee who The Wife and I knew back when we lived there were also members of the UU church. It's a good fit -- the UU church does not particularly demand belief in divinity so much as challenge its members to share fellowship and community and to do good works and to be moral people. Many UU members identify their religious beliefs as being "spiritual." So these are friends of friends who have died. And the guy could have easily targeted RET itself, because those godless atheists are also all a bunch of godless liberals (actually, as I recall, RET had a good mix of people of many different political stripes and debate was -- and still is -- lively on a variety of issues of the day).

I've little doubt that the authorities will throw the book at the guy. Shooting people in a church. That's going to fly like a lead balloon with an East Tennessee jury.

A closing thought, from a UU hymnal:

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

It's Like 9/11 Again, Only In The Forties

Picture this: You work in the tallest building in New York City, one of the tallest buildings in the world. You go in to work, and everything's great for about an hour, an hour and a half, depending on when you get in. Then, out of nowhere, an airplane hits the building, about three-quarters of the way to the top. The noise is like nothing you've ever heard before. The whole building shakes and sways back and forth. There is fire and smoke everywhere. You are trapped above the flames and can't get out.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It happened on this day, sixty-three years ago, at the Empire State Building.

The B-25 Mitchell bomber that struck the world's tallest building was being flown by a veteran pilot, one who was perhaps a little bit too cocky about flying in heavy fog after a lot of landing in brutal conditions in Europe. The mission was to ferry a number of servicemen into New York for processing and rotation into the war, which was in its waning days. The pilot had been warned off of an attempted landing at LaGuardia Airport by civilian air traffic control on his approach from Boston, but proceeded anyway. As a military pilot in wartime, he had priority over the civilian ATC's. But he apparently made his turn a little bit late and somehow wound up flying southwest down a heavily-fogged Fifth Avenue, below the tops of the skyscrapers.

He could only hold it together for a few seconds before crossing 39th Street and hitting the 79th floor of the Empire State, which at the time was occupied by the War Relief Service office of the National Catholic Welfare League. Good people, trying to do what they could to make life better for people during the war.

It's hard to say what exactly made the plane go off course or why he didn't simply pull the nose up and seek safety above the city -- he may not have had enough time to think it through. But when the plane hit, it ripped a twenty-foot wide hole in the building. The fuel did not catch fire until about half of the plane had penetrated the outer shell of the tower, and then it sprayed out over five floors and down a staircase, spreading flame everywhere.

One of the airplane's engines went in along with the fuselage. It disconnected from the wing and flew ahead on its own momentum, severing an elevator cable and dropping a car, with an elevator operator in it, down into the sub-basement. The operator survived, but was found with nearly every bone in her body broken. The engine lost momentum in another elevator shaft and it, too, fell to the sub-basement. The other engine separated from the plane from the force of the impact but flew onto the roof of a twelve-story building further down Fifth Avenue.

The number of people involved was higher than one would expect on a Saturday, because the war effort had caused most people to move to six-day work weeks. Fourteen people died (eleven workers in the building and three of the passengers on the plane) and a lot were badly hurt. Twelve of them were killed in the crash and the resulting fire; one of them was recovered from a palisade on the 64th floor; it is not clear whether he jumped or fell after dying; the last died of smoke inhalation injuries three days after the crash. The rescue operation took hours and nearly every emergency vehicle and responder in New York City.

The structural integrity of the building was not compromised, and it still stands proudly on the corner of Fifth and Thirty-Ninth.

July 27, 2008

Lasagna Challenge

Like a lot of people, I really like lasagna. So I made it a personal challenge to make some. As will surprise no one who has actually put a lasagna together from raw materials, it's quite a lot of work. I'd give the recipe here, but to be honest, after two hours of preparation and assembly, I don't remember everything I used or did.

I can tell you that for each ten-by-sixteeen baking pan (I made two) I used a box of lasagna; half a pound of ground turkey browned with onion and Italian herbs; two reduced jars of tomato sauce base doctored up with some good red wine, garlic, more herbs, and a variety of cheeses; a pound of mozzarella cheese mixed with a generous grating of Parmesano Reggiano; half a head of spinach mixed with a pound of ricotta cheese, garlic, and more mozz-parm mix (bound together with an egg) and looking sort of greenish from the spinach. All told, the ingredients for these two brick-like food structures probably totals a hundred dollars.

I can tell you that grating the hard cheeses with a mini-planer is a good way to scrape off some of that skin you didn't need on your knuckles and that layering hot pasta in a baking dish is a good way to cauterize those wounds (after you've washed the blood away, of course). Finally, I can tell you that if you're not the sort of person who just plain enjoys two hours in the kitchen making something that you won't be able to eat for several hours after you're done, you'll be just as satisfied buying a frozen lasagna in the grocery store and baking it. It's a lot of work and if cooking is not a labor of love for you, you'll be unhappy with it. Me? I had a great time.

Also, I can be assured that no matter how good the lasagna turns out, it will not compare with my mother-in-law's lasagna. The Wife remembers her mother's lasagna as the best thing she made. How can I compete with that? Personally, I don't know whether my own mother, or her mother, makes better lasagna because their recipes and techniques are similar (and they form the foundation of my own) and they are insanely good. This being my first solo lasagna undertaking I'll be looking for ways to improve aside from adding height to the dish once I get a bigger baking pan to make it in. For now, I'll be satisfied if I get a gooey, creamy, tangy, and savory taste and all the pasta has a uniform texture.

Bad Analogy

Plenty of spoilers here, in case you've not seen The Dark Knight. But on the other hand, if you read either entertainment or political columns on blogs, you've probably seen this stuff already. Here's my take on it.

Somehow, an opinion column by Andrew Klavan in the Wall Street Journal has touched a nerve. Everyone on the Internets, it seems, wants to agree or disagree with Klavan about the liberal or conservative bias of The Dark Knight. In a nutshell, Klavan's argument that Batman is a metaphoric image for George W. Bush goes like this:
  • A noble leader must show courage and fortitude, and in particular must weather public criticism and trying circumstances, and not lay down his burden of public service until the job is done (Batman is widely criticized as a vigilante and is ultimately villianized for the public benefit);
  • Exigent times call for exigent circumstances, and that means temporarily setting aside some of the finer points of civil liberties for the purpose of realizing safety for society as a whole (Batman tortures the Joker to save important people and to stop the killing of innocents);
  • Violations of another country's political autonomy are minimal problems compared with the overarching objective of neutralizing the common enemies of civilization (Batman performs an "extraordinary rendition", which otherwise might be called a "high-tech kidnapping", in Hong Kong to get a bad guy); and
  • The use of untruth in the pursuit of justice is justifiable under appropriate circumstances (Batman takes the blame for a series of murders committed by Two-Face, so as not to tarnish the memory of Harvey Dent as Gotham City's hero);
  • No moral equivalence exists between terrorists and the protectors of the free societies terrorists prey upon, even if those free societies occasionally make mistake (Batman operates outside the rules of society but keeps a steady moral compass while he does it).
A variety of liberal rebuttals point out some of the following ideas:
  • When the government breaks its own rules, for instance by torturing captives, ignoring civil liberties, or destroying private property, its always produces more mischief than good (when Batman tortures the Joker, he gets bad information, thwarting the rescue plans and creating more evil than had existed before);
  • States cannot tolerate the use of force within their jurisdictions, regardless of the putatively moral goals of those who would operate outside the law (Gotham officials do not question the need to apprehend and pursue Batman);
  • Vigilantes are, in the end, as lawless as the criminals they pursue and therefore contribute to, and do not fight, the atmosphere of lawlessness that they claim to fight (Batman is, in many ways, responsible for the creation of super-criminals like the Joker);
  • Questionable allies in the fight against evil are not allies at all (Lieutenant Gordon's unit of the police department is filled with officers who Gordon knows are on the take, and he fights a losing battle keep their corruption under control); and
  • In the end, one cannot operate outside the boundaries of socially acceptable conduct and also earn the respect of society (Batman, in the end, must be pursued as the criminal that he ultimately is, because society cannot have it any other way).
Now, all of these statements, on both sides of the debate, are true to some degree. And like a lot of good fiction, the script touches on some contemporary issues (torture of prisoners in exigent circumstances, extraordinary renditions) and there is ample room for debate and moral ambiguity.

But at the end of the day, shoehorning The Dark Knight into a metaphor about the GWOT does not work. Batman is a vigilante. His story, in all of its many variants, is about urban crime and our government's ability (or lack thereof) to deal with it. Urban crime is different than terrorism. Sometimes it is about money (most of the "regular" criminals in the movie are in it for the cash) and sometimes it is about a criminal's violent expression of his pathologies (The Joker's twisted crimes are ultimately about his sadistic enjoyment of watching people suffer).

But urban crime is not about political change. All of the figures of interest in The Dark Knight deal with one another on the level of crime, not at the level of politics. The Joker does not want to become Mayor or otherwise take political power. Two-Face rejects the use of political and law enforcement power as ineffective to realize his goals. Batman does not seek public accolades or recognition for his "good deeds," altruistically, he wants the criminals to be punished and deterred, and personally, he wants someone like Harvey Dent to come along and clean the city up legitimately.

The relationship of a cop to a criminal, is a different one than that of a soldier to an enemy. And even more so, a criminal's relationship to the vigilante who hunts him is different than that of a political leader to the terrorist who seeks to undermine him. The tactics and tools available to each are sometimes similar, but the are different and they are employed to different ends. And society as a whole looks to these relationships differently.

One thing missing from The Dark Knight which would have rung true would have been greater public praise for Batman. It seems to me that people like vigilantes, and overlook their lawlessness. Bernard Goetz, for instance, was actually celebrated in some quarters for shooting and killing the young toughs who tried to rob him. We like that the vigilante takes criminals out of commission; we see justice in making them afraid because they have made us afraid. We share the vigilantes' frustrations with the slow and sometimes ineffective pace of legitimate law enforcement, bounded as it is by rules and the need to respect the civil liberties of even the criminals it is tasked with apprehending and convicting.

Too easily, we ignore that by inspiring fear in the criminals, the vigilante encourages the criminals to escalate the very violence that outraged the vigilante in the first place. Fearing the vigilante's actions, criminals will arm themselves more heavily and will take greater care to destroy evidence and witnesses. We overlook the creeping anarchy that a vigilante represents and the ease with which a vigilante can hurt those that he claims to protect. The public (as represented by the media in The Dark Knight) is quick to realize these things -- quicker than people in real life, in my opinion. The public is more like Gordon's young son, who admires and looks up to Batman, and wonders why he has to be chased at the end of the movie, and does not understand his father's explanation. He sees only good, and no ambiguity, in the Batman, because the Batman fights those who are unambiguously evil.

But vigilantism is morally ambiguous, which is why vigilantes make for such interesting entertainment. The Dark Knight is not a movie about terrorism or politics at all. Rather, it is an illustration of the risks, rewards, limits, and consequences inherent in giving in to the impulses of responding to violence in kind.

July 24, 2008


I don't know anyone who looks forward to dental work. Certainly not me. There's no substitute for it, unfortunately, and usually not much you can do to avoid it. I brush my teeth twice a day, I use antiseptic mouthwash, I floss (most of the time). Still my teeth need constant work. Old fillings need to be replaced, especially when they get painful. The decay is a constant danger. I've not yet had a root canal in my approaching-forty years on the planet but something tells me that day is as inevitable as the one when I have to file my tax return, no matter what I do to try and prevent it.

Judicial Ethics Restrain Me...

...from blogging about the only really interesting case I heard today in traffic court. I continued the trial to August 6, so it's still a pending matter and I'll not write about it until it's done. And since I ordered the continuance, I'm the one who will go back and finish it.

You Ever Wonder What Happened To Someone?

Of course you have. Former lovers. Old friends from school. Maybe even enemies from the past.

But you probably haven't wondered what happened to that baby who was photographed on the cover of Nirvana's breakthrough album Nevermind -- you know, the naked boy chasing a dollar bill on a fish hook?

Well, that's why there's an NPR, so someone can get paid upwards of $22,000 a year to think about such things and follow up on them for your idle "news" amusement. Yesterday when I heard the story on the radio, I laughed out loud at the money quote: "Quite a few people in the world have seen my penis, so that's kind of cool."

RTFA and learn how much money Spencer Elden's dad got paid to throw his son in a pool near the Rose Bowl, for the photograph with no idea that the resulting picture would become so ubiquitous. (The family got sent a platinum album later, so that makes up for it a little bit.)

I won't call it "news." But I will call it interesting -- especially because this by-all-accounts typical Los Angeles teenager has "virtual memory" of the Nineties as a more innocent, worthwhile, and honest time. I say "virtual memory" because of course he has no conscious memories of that time, any more than I have memories of the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing. My "memories" of those events are gleaned from the media and popular culture and talking with people older than me about the events of those days. So too does Spencer Elden not have any real personal memories of the 1990's, just what he's been able to learn secondhand about them.

Happy Birthday, Detroit

On this day in 1701, French military commander and minor nobleman Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded a fort at the narrowest point on the river connecting Lake Erie and Lake Huron, between what are today Michigan and Ontario. It's been almost all downhill since then. Detroit is 308 years old today and home to some of the nation's highest murder rates, least valuable urban property, and most perennially underperforming football teams in the NFL.

Detroit represents to me a symbol of the biggest challenge facing America today -- a major city rotting from the inside. Can Detroit be saved? Sure, the outlying suburbs can actually be quite nice, if you're lucky enough to have some money. But that's true everywhere. Can middle- and working-class Detroit be saved? Can urban blight and crime be replaced with something livable and sustainable? Can our major industries be revitalized and made globally competitive again? Can race relations heal? How long will it take, how much money will it take, what kind of ideas and effort will it take? No one has good answers to these questions -- I don't think anyone has ever really even tried to answer those questions.

Vanity Fair Gets In The Act

Yes, this is satire. It's second-generation satire at that, since it's a satire of a satire. It, too, is funny and it, too, is bound to be misunderstood because Americans lack subtlety in their senses of humor.

July 22, 2008

Wordle Yourself

Click on the picture for a better look. You can make your own here.


I keep telling myself, no, no, no. The Green Bay Packers are not going to trade Brett Favre. They're doing due diligence. They're just seeing what other teams would really trade for him, that's all. They're not going to take the chance to let him go play for someone else.

Like the Vikings. Or the Bears. They can't afford to have Brett Favre playing for an NFC North team, or for that matter any team that is on the 2008 schedule, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Because they absolutely, positively, cannot take the publicity blow that would be Brett Favre quarterbacking another team and defeating the Green Bay Packers.

And then just when I get myself to calm down and I'm about to convince myself that it's all just leverage for negotiation and they'll find a way to either keep Brett retired or get him back to Lambeau, I see this:

I wince. I tell myself it was a disgraceful fluke. But then, I close my eyes again, and I see this:

I even see this and realize that it, too, is just wrong:

And then I despair. What else can I do? Because this could easily be the future:

The horror! The horror! Oh, why couldn't Brett Favre have just stayed retired? Why'd he have to unretire? Why'd he have to attack the team management this way? How could this have happened?

But there's thirteen million reasons spread out over the next three years why Green Bay would be willing to trade. There's plenty of teams that could use a veteran quarterback to support the team while it rebuilds elsewhere. Four teams come immediately to mind: The Fish, the Bucs, the Ravens, and the Falcons. Bonus points for irony if it turns out to be Atlanta.

What about Cleveland? If it has to be somewhere, how about Cleveland? Maybe Packer fans could live with that?