Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.
Purpose two: muse.
Saturday, December 31, 2011
Bolick interviews and quotes Stephanie Coontz, who wrote a book, "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage." I have not read it. The point seems to be that love in marriage is a relatively recent thing. Bolick expands on this in the article, saying that marriage in the past was functional, something more like a business proposition than an expression of sentiment.
I have heard this before, and it is true that marrying someone because we like them and want to have that person in our lives is a product of the 20th century. The reason for this is progress. The desire to build relationships this way has always been there, only the ability is new. You can see this from the romantic love stories of the past, both real ones and fictional ones. For instance, from the middle ages we have the story of Abelard and Heloise and the poem of Romeus and Juliet, and from the greeks the most classical story of Paris and Helen. In Native American and Oriental folklore, I have heard several examples of young lovers paying the ultimate price for their stupidly romantic feelings.
I want to go even further back to the oldest story of all: Adam and Eve. (Assuming the bible is older than the legends informing The Illiad, which I know is not a given.) In the garden of eden, when Adam chose to eat from the apple after Eve did, and then side with her against god (by hiding with her), he violated the first commandment and like all other young lovers after him, paid dearly. So much so that, according to the legend, not just Adam, but all his descendants, had to pay the price. In my copy of the bible, this happens on the 4th page. I cannot think of either an older or a more dramatic expression of love between spouses.
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
I was sad to hear of your death December 15, 2011. I have no doubt many pieces have been, and will be, written in remembrance. There is little I can say to add or subtract from these, yet, my admiration for you is such that I must try.
There are several dimensions to this admiration. I will mention two of them, the first being the courage of your convictions, and the intellectual honesty to go where these convictions logically led you. You wrote scathing obloquies attacking sacred cows, with no regard how these might be received by your edidtors, your fan base, or the public at large.
Other writers have noted how this trait made you continually defend your position on Iraq. I find that curious; lots of reasonable people disagreed about that war. I have been more impressed with your dissection of the Mother Theresa myth. There was a time when I thought criticising Mother Theresa in the 20th century would have been like trying to criticise Hildegard in the 12th. Yet, your hostility to religion compelled you to pull this off.
The other aspect I want to mention is our shared contempt for the bullies of humanity: the fascists, tyrants, dictators, intimidators, thugs, puritans, all the various oppressors in their various guises. They make our lives miserable and you ceaselessly, resolutely, pointed that out. For this reason alone, your passing is a loss to us.
I know according to your own beliefs, there is nothing left of you to receive any part of this letter or my thoughts. Nevertheless, I offer my gratitude for what you left, in impressions and in print.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Below is one of the better bits in the movie. General Devereaux (Bruce Willis) and Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) is talking about how to get information out of a captured terrorist while a stupefied FBI Agent Hubbard (Denzel Washington) watches, then launches a supreme, if short, soliloquy.
The movie is not perfect. I found Bening unconvincing as a CIA officer, let alone a high-placed one. She is too emotional. I do not believe women (or men) with that kind of conscience are likely to end up in the position Kraft is implied to possess, or would at least not confess openly to strangers with no clearance.
In the movie, Washington plays the hero, a diligently principled FBI agent. In reality, the FBI is as big a threat to our civil liberties as other Federal agencies. The FBI got an undeserved favorable treatment in the movie, but I do understand they needed a Federal cop with some authority to get the script to work. I liked Washington's character here and believe there must be officers like him in the real world.
They went over the top a bit with the domestic application of the military towards the end, but it works to increase the action and the drama. If you have not seen this movie, again or at all, since 9/11, add it to your Netflix queue or run down to your favorite video store and get it now.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Sunday, October 16, 2011
I think taxes should be low, simple and even. The Bush cuts realized the first of these with lower rates, but at the expense of the other two. In particular, by lowering the rates so much for dividends, we now have a skewed tax system where investors pay a lot less than wage earners.
There is a fairness issue here, but I want to focus on the economics of this. Many free-market economists are against the mortgage-deduction (as am I), because there is nothing that tells us, a priori, that home ownership is better than renting. By giving a big tax break to home owners, the ownership part of the equation gets a lot heavier, instead of letting people decide on more natural factors.
The same is true of the Bush cuts. By taxing dividends at lower rates, the government is moving the incentives around to favor investors -- but there is nothing that tells us income earned through dividends is somehow better than income earned through wages. From an economics perspective, I cannot see how this makes sense. We should not assume one is better than the other, and therefore, we should tax the two at the same rate. (Which rate that should be is a different discussion).
As an added defect, the sunset provision is bizarre. It was almost as if he tried to saddle his successor with a political hot potato, as he must have known it would not go quietly. Sunset provisions on almost any other Bush-era initiatives would have made more sense: Sarbanes-Oxley, the wars, the Patriot act (actually part of the Patriot act does expire, and some portion got renewed quietly by congress).
I have not even gotten into the whole issue of cutting taxes while increasing spending. It's dreadful when they cannot even cut taxes in a way that benefit the economy -- or us, which is the same thing.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Of course, you should not eat too much of what you like. That is true of anything, though. You should also not eat too much of what you dislike, it is just easier. Seriously, you should enjoy a varied diet. Eating (or drinking) too much of any one thing, especially something you enjoy on a daily basis, can get your body in trouble.
Epicurus advocated a simple diet designed for health, rather than an extravagant one designed for pleasure. I think it is possible to have both. Here is a recipe for a little desert or snack that is easy to make, delicious, and contains only ingredients that are good for you. The portion below should serve 3-4 people.
- 1/2 cup strawberries
- 1/2 cup blackberries
- a lemon or a lime
- 1/4 cup walnuts
- 1/4 cup raisins (golden if you like them)
- 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
If you are used to using lemon or lime with dairy, be careful with the citrus here, though. The dairy takes the bitterness out of the citrus and leaves the sweet fruit-taste for you to enjoy. Coconut milk is not dairy, so does not have quite the same effect.
Another of my favorite things is yoghurt mixed with some fresh fruit and lots of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Here I wanted to go for a vegan dish, but you could use yoghurt instead of coconut milk.
Sunday, September 25, 2011
- Mostly dangerous when surprised
I do not subscribe to a view that most drivers are worse than me. My theory is an 80/20 rule in traffic, where most of us suffer at the hands of the fifth or so of the worst drivers. That said, people not used to two-lane mountain roads drive terribly on them. I know this is true not just from observing the tourists, but also from friends that come visit. I frequently hear comments about how the driving is different, how it takes some getting used to, learning curves (no put intended), etc.
Number 2 above might be construed as an insult to animals; what I mean is that animals are clueless about the activities and motives of the people around them. So it is with tourists and locals. I believe this to be true not just in driving situations, but it really stands out on the roads. The depressing bit is that the sloppy tourist driving is not just a source of slow-downs, but is also dangerous. Crossing the center line and pulling out without really looking are two of the more common and scary errors I see.
If you are a tourist and you read this: please, you are welcome to visit, but pay attention when behind the wheel, both in front of and behind you, obey the rules of the road, and if somebody flashes their lights or waves or honks at you, it is time to look for the nearest turnout.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
The street life is a perpetual hubbub that goes on well into the night. I have heard that "mongkok" means busy, and I totally believe it. The street markets close down early evening, but as night falls, activity just moves around a bit as residents are eating out or doing late shopping or just trying to get home. You see the restaurants filling up, many of them with tables or make-do furniture out on the streets.
Mong Kok is famous for its markets, for good reason. In some way it represents a microcosm of Asian commerce. There are traditional markets with the mobile booths and store markets with dozens of mini-malls on each block. Many of them have a theme, such as the Ladies Market or the Tech Market. Some are only open at night. Some of them are just a few blocks from each other and they are all busy all the time they are open.
I did not partake in the night life, but I did sometimes get back to my hotel quite late, and though activity does slow down after midnight, it was never completely dead.
One contrast that really struck me was with the stores. There were a lot of hardware stores, which was itself interesting. Interspersed with these were restaurants of all kinds, tea rooms, even massage parlours.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
There was an article in Reason discussing the lack of quality art about 9/11, but it missed 'On Top of the World' by Tom Barbash. I took a couple of classes from Tom, and have great admiration for him. His book about 9/11, and the almost miraculous saving of Cantor-Fitzgerald is first and foremost a heartbreaking account of what families of the victims had to go through, within the overall arch of what Lutnick and his executive team had to do to get his company back on its feet after losing 658 employees in the towers. Unfortunately, it looks to be out of print. Which is too bad, because it really is one of the better books about 9/11.
Monday, September 5, 2011
Imagine a dogs and buns economy, where a dog costs one dollar, a bun costs one dollar and the hot-dog product costs two dollars. It doesn't matter how big this economy is, how many people are in it or how many dogs and buns are produced. If we change one variable at a time in relative terms, it will help to understand the difficulties in evaluating the currency.
What happens in this economy if the population grows by ten percent? Assume that productivity and relative consumption is exactly the same, so that the number of buns, dogs and hot-dogs also grows the same ten percent, but the monetary base -- the amount of dollars -- is the same. What happens to prices in this example? Under the theory that a unit of currency follows the same laws of supply and demand as every other commodity, one dollar is now worth more relative to other items in the economy, so the price of a hot dog would go down a bit. I doubt it would go down by exactly ten percent, but it is hard to say.
What happens if, instead of the population growing, productivity grew? Let us say that the productivity of dog production went up 25 percent, so that a dog now costs 80 cents, and productivity of bun production went up 11 percent, so that a bun now costs 90 cents. A hot dog would then cost $1.70. The price again fell, but for different reasons. (I am assuming a linear progression for simplicity; if there are no other products in the economy, it is not clear the price would actually fall that much, but the whole point is to keep things simple).
Now assume that in addition to the productivity increase, a new product is introduced: the double dog, which consists of two dogs and one bun, and costs $2.50. The double-dog is hugely popular and half of the hot-dog market is taken over by this new product. The average price of the products is then $2.10. To somebody at BLS (where CPI is calculated), it looks like the price of hot-dog products increased, though it actually decreased.
As these variables change, even in this simple example, I find it near-impossible to determine what the value of a dollar is. As the CPI article explains, the economists at BLS and BEA uses various measures to calculate it, but in a real-world economy, even the most heroic effort is inadequate and the nominal inflation will always be different from the actual inflation.
How important is this? Because of the compound nature of inflation, it is much more important than other econometrics. GDP is also miscalculated, but it is recalculated every year. If the GDP is off by, say, ten percent, it will be off by approximately that slice every time it is calculated. Errors in the rate of inflation is compounded over the period it is used. If you wanted to calculate the 2008 US economy in 1980 dollars, assuming a 2% annual inflation rate you would get $9,322 billion dollars, using a 1% annual inflation rate would get $11,470 billion dollars. That is a 19% difference. Assuming a 1.8% inflation, instead of 2%, gives a difference of 4% over the period. The articles mentioned before indicates that the measured inflation probably is off by a full percentage point. The econlib.org article mentions 0.08%. (That is the difference in the rate, not a relative difference).
Sunday, August 21, 2011
To make up Arbre, Stephenson has developed a complete history, several cultures, novel institutions, some language and more. These are all impressive, and no doubt significant factors in its positive reception. I found it continually interesting that though the world is so different, especially the belief systems of its inhabitants, the internal psychology of the people in it completely mirrors our own. You can then speculate, as the author teasingly infers, how many parallels to find in our own history, past, future, and fictional.
It is also a terrific story.
Despite these awesome advantages, I was still disappointed. The first point of weakness was the slow start. The first 200 pages or so goes into describing the world -- not the entire world, but the world of Erasmas, the narrator. Of course, as all half-way decent novels must, the real plot starts on page one, but a discernible story-line with a direction does not take shape until you are a quarter way through. That is a long time for a reader to wait, and if I had not already been a Stephenson fan, I am not sure I would have done it.
Another weakness is a certain drone aspect to the writing. Stephenson's characters are never full-fledged, but some of them here are low points even for him. Ala, in particular, comes across as pure mystery. Ala is Erasmas' love interest, and I have no idea why he likes her, or why she likes him, other than that the author tells me. Ala ends up in some kind of executive role, not clearly defined but one of authority, and I have no idea why she is appointed to such a high position in a delicate and crucial world-scale operation. It would be like some graduate student appointed to coordinate the attack on Osama bin Laden's compound. This is true for the others as well. Erasmas ends up in the final, decisive operation, not just by himself, but miraculously along with all his closest friends. This is so unlikely that it distracts even in this fantastical setting, but at least a reader can give the author some artistic license in allowing his pre-existing characters to drive this section rather than invent and give us new ones. No such allowance exists for Ala, though: it seems she gets her position for no other reason than to impress the reader, though it succeeds only in the opposite, due to its arbitrariness.
My next point is more subtle and may only be of interest if you have already read the book, or at least read some about it. It is an issue that I thought about as I was reading the novel, which in itself means it may be a weakness that speaks to the novel's strengths, since making the reader think is a definite plus.
The avout in the mathic orders are purveyors of knowledge. They are philosophers, scientists and librarians. Stephenson gives us the impression they study all disciplines -- math, chemistry, biology, engineering, genetics -- and there are many examples of some incredible ideas, abstract and practical, that they have come up with during time. Yet, the social sciences are completely lacking from their repertoire. They do not study economics, political science, sociology, or even history, except in a meta-sense as it applies to other disciplines.
This is such a gaping oversight I was trying to find explanations. One could be that the avout are not supposed to study anything related to the saecular world. That does not hold up, because the mathic worlds have plenty of social issues of their own to study. One glaring example is when the fids graduate and have to select, or be selected into, orders. This is a process that recurs through millenia, so you would have thought the avout would have some ideas how best to go about it. Yet, Erasmas and his friends, as well as the elders involved in their selection, goes through this as if they were the first ever to encounter that problem.
Another social issue that comes up is more intricate and I found it fascinating, and thus even more disappointed Stephenson missed it. I do believe he missed it, because it comes up as an issue in the story, yet, again, it was never studied, but left alone, with no explanation why. Here it is: the mathic world, more than physical places, is a discipline involving certain rituals and creeds. The overarching theme is knowledge. Inevitably, these sometimes conflict. For instance, a biologist might want to leave the concent in order to study an organism not found within its walls, but mathic discipline does not allow it.
You would have thought the avout and the saunts would have developed theories about how to resolve this: tomes would have been written, theories developed, orders adopting this or that one and arguing, peacably, which is superior. Instead, in Anathem, these otherwise brilliant people act like sheepish doctrinairians adhering to dogma. When Orolo, Jad or Erasmas are challenged on their lack of commitment to mathic discipline, they do not have an established theory to help defend their actions, in light of it being within the reason for the existence of mathic orders, that of securing and advancing knowledge, and help the saecular world when called upon. This is a distracting omission and disappointing because it would have been so interesting to see where pursuing such a dilemma would go.
Like his other novels, Anathem is edifying. Reading Cryptonomicon, you will understand cryptography better, reading Snowcrash, you will understand cyberspace better, reading The Diamond Age, you will understand nanotechnology better. This is Stepheson's greatest strength. You will pick up clues and information through the stories, often without realizing it. Anathem is no exception. It is a great, if long-winded, story, and you will learn from it (unless you already know more about the subject than the author). I cannot say what you will learn from Anathem without spoiling it, though. If you are already a Stephenson fan, you will not want to miss it, but if not, I recommend you start with one of his other novels.
Note: I link to Amazon because it is a good source of information on books. I make no money off referrals.
Monday, August 8, 2011
The movie languishes because of Lou Ford, the main character. I like Casey Afleck much better than Ben, but his character here fizzles. The problem is that it is not a character at all. A character, even a poorly written one, will have some traits that makes his or her actions fit a pattern. A poorly written character fits a stereotype, is transparent in motive, or is defined by superficial characteristics. A well-written character will have more depth and nuance, and may do unpredictable things that the viewer might only understand upon reflection. Either kind must be established so that the viewer recognizes it as a human -- or a sentient being, if the setting is science fiction or supernatural.
There are good examples of such character action in Magnolia. There is a brief scene where Phil Karma, the nurse taking care of a dying Earl Partridge, is supposed to be relieved. Phil tells the other nurse that he will "see it through." At that point in the movie, it is unthinkable that the character would do anything else.
In "The Killer Inside Me," there is no such finesse. Instead, Lou Ford does whatever the screen-writer decides he should do. He is a screenwriter drone. There is no reason for him to beat up Joyce the way he does. There is no reason for Joyce to react the way she does. They just do what they do because the screenwriter wrote them that way. You can see by the comments in IMDB that I am not the only one who feels this way.
I have seen something similar in Battlestar Galactica, which I have watched some of in the last year. I am moving through it slowly, because it is somewhat of a disappointment. Part of it is that the story-line keeps taking annoying left-turns, but a large part of it is the drone aspect of the drama. For instance, an interested viewer might burn with the question, "who is going to be the next Ceylon revealed?" The answer: "whoever the screenwriter thinks it should be." There is no rhyme or reason to it. They just pull it out of their bottoms.
There are lots of examples of screen-writer drones, and I have lost patience with it. Give me some real characters, and leave the drones in computer games where they belong.
Sunday, July 31, 2011
The quote is from Capitalism and Freedom, and succintly captures why I myself am often sceptical of aggressive government intrusion:
Government can never duplicate the variety and diversity of individual action. At any moment in time, by imposing uniform standards in housing, or nutrition, or clothing, government could undoubtedly improve the level of living of many individuals; by imposing uniform standards in schooling, road construction, or sanitation, central government could undoubtedly improve the level of performance in many local areas and perhaps even on the average of all communities. But in the process, government would replace progress by stagnation, it would substitue uniform mediocrity for the variety essential for that experimentation which can bring tomorrow's laggards above today's mean.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
On the way back I spent a couple of weeks in the Portland, Seattle and Bellingham area. Below is a shot from the pictureque Chuckanaut drive.
Monday, July 4, 2011
To honor America's Independence Day, here is a brief quote from the Declaration of Independence:
Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Almost exactly three months later, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. Naho and I went to Hiroshima to visit the Peace Park, just before the new year broke. I succeeded in hitting the site on one of the three days in the year that the museum is closed. Still, we enjoyed the Cenotaph (pictured right) and the park (pictured below). You can also see the Memorial through the Cenotaph. The park had several peace-oriented inscriptions, commemorating the victims and expressing hope that mankind has learnt from the events. Judging the decades since then, that has sadly not been the case.
Not being able to visit the museum, we instead spent the rest of the day at beautiful Miyajima.
Monday, March 21, 2011
"The longer they stay the more dangerous it becomes for them," said expert Margaret Harding. "I think it is a testament to their guts for them to say, 'We'll stay and if that means we go, we go.'"
Sunday, March 6, 2011
All the temples I have seen in Japan are in beautiful spots. Still, Miayjima, on an island outside Hiroshima, is situated somewhat perfectly between the lush hills, dramatic peaks and a blue ocean.
Miyajima is distinct for having its gate out in water. Believers have to pass through the gate when they pay their respects, they do not get a break just because you can fit a cruise ship between it and the sanctuary.
Some of the woodwork is centuries old. Notice the rice scoop with the inscriptions. I saw several of those spoons of many different sizes throughout the area. You would think there would be some ceremony or spiritual significance attached to them -- and so there is, but I was told the inscription is provided by a company that 'made a contribution.' Another sign that in the Japanese culture, there is no hard boundary between religion and commerce.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Monday, January 31, 2011
Above is a short video I took outside of Yasaka Jingu shrine, just a minute or two before midnight on New Year's eve. It was a different experience for me. The crowd was full of anticipation, while still calm and all I heard was chatting from all corners. There was a big woo at midnight, then we left. It was a challenge moving through the pack, but luckily we had another group breaking trail for us.
These are some pictures of the shrine from earlier in the evening, when we had a chance to go in and explore a bit. As usual with religious sites in Asia, inside was a mix of commercial booths and various chapels where people were revering.
We also saw this little chapel in another part of town. This one was in the middle of a retail area, the hutong maze of Kyoto. I am getting the sense that the line between spiritual worship and appeals to temporal fortune is very much blurred. This particular spot was designed as if its purpose was religious, and I understood it to be built and maintained by monks. Yet, the way people approached and acted here, and the way Naho talked about it, it seemed more secular in nature. Its location in between all the shops makes sense, since it is dedicated to fortune and prosperity.
Our meal on the morning of New Year day. Of all the terrific meals I have in Japan, on a repeat basis now, this one still stood out. I like exploring what is in the various bowls -- the lids add to the mystery!