Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Love Stories from the Ancient

The November issue of The Atlantic has an article, "All the Single Ladies," speaking about marriage in today's Western world from a woman's perspective.  It is a good read, and if you are a single male it is a must.  The writer, Kate Bolick, is successful, gorgeous (when I saw her picture on the front cover I thought she was a model), a woman in a marriageable age that has an abstract desire to maybe be part of a couple, and yet continues to seek something elusive, just like many of us, not clear on exactly what we would give up our empovered single life for.

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

Letter to an Old Contrarian

Dear Mr. Hitchens:

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. 

In memoriam.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Plutocracy Launch

Last week I received the main shipment of Plutocracy.  It has been three long years in the making.  Lots of people have encouraged me along and helped me out.  I keep telling people, in all seriousness, that this is a labor of love -- and it has all been worth it.  In particular, seeing and hearing my friends having fun with has been some of the best motivation. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Siege, Prescient Movie from 1998

The Siege came out in 1998, three years before 9/11. It anticipated a lot of the controversies arising out of the reaction to this terrible event, such as the Patriot Act and the use of torture. Of course, the writers did not know of specific legislation ironically called "Patriot," and the issue of rendition did not come up in the movie. Nevertheless, it is an outstanding treatment of the issues surrounding the war on terror.

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

What Horror Movies Get Right

Horror Movies are generally known to be so bad it almost constitute its own separate B-category.  It is true the acting is sub-standard, the lighting is purposefully disturbing, story lines follow a predictable template and the dialog is cheesy.  Yet, there are some things they get almost consistently right, at least as entertainment vehicles.  These are things I often find lacking in artsy films and even mainstream ones.

(Caution: Youtube-links below are all viewer discretion advised...)

The most important is the pacing.  Horror movies always move along at a good clip and keep the tension throughout.  They are also generally short, where many of the more serious kind drag on way too long, the producer too fond of his own work to cut unneeded scenes. 

Horror movies establish the conflict up front, often with an introductory scene where we see the first victim getting it.  Not even in the worst C horror movies have you any doubt who is going to be after the protagonist.  (The protagonist is often established later, because in horror, the monster is really the main character, even though POV typically follows someone else). 

To stay with the conflict theme, in horror, the fight is not only between the monster and the people, but always between the people themselves.  In the best horror movies, a group is trapped somewhere, whether on a spaceship, on an antarctic ice-shelf, or an old house.  This is a terrific concept for drama.

Unlike many pretentious 'films' made by pretentious movie-makers, horror flicks do not take themselves seriously, even making fun of themselves.  I usually get at least one good laugh out of them, something I do not always get from comedies. 

American movies are fraught with invincible heroes and happy endings.  This is true even for the more serious ones.  Horror movies have no such delusions.  Anyone can get it and endings are never happy. Nothing and nobody is perfect, just like the real world.  Irony squared. 

So if you get tired of the longish, boring, inflated, stale, or muddled fare, check out some gore!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

He Could Not Even Cut Taxes Right

When Elizabeth Warren's video went viral, it produced some furore.  It surprised me a little, partly because it did not sound like she said much we have not heard before, and partly because I mostly agree with the first part of her speech.  I was strongly against the Iraq war and the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit that Bush pushed through.  I was initially on the fence about Afghanistan, but do think the US should have left long ago.  I also was not a big fan of the tax cuts, and in response to the debate following her video and some recent comments from friends, I started thinking about why.

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

Food, Good and Bad

"If it tastes good, it is bad for you."  I have heard and read this many times.  I wholeheartedly disagree.  Plenty of things taste awesome and is good for you.  I love raspberries, and they are full of fiber and B-vitamins and phytochemicals.  I love pistachios and walnuts, and   "Nuts are a powerhouse of good nutrition, packed with protein, fiber, monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, folic acid, magnesium, copper, and antioxidants. Although they are high in fat, it's unsaturated heart-healthy fats."  I love eggs and I believe they are one of the most healthy sources of protein -- the double beauty of eggs is that they fill you up fast, so that you are less likely to eat too many of them. 

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. 1/2 cup strawberries
  2. 1/2 cup blackberries
  3. a lemon or a lime
  4. 1/4 cup walnuts
  5. 1/4 cup raisins (golden if you like them)
  6. 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
Mix the berries.  Squeeze some citrus on it, to taste.  Sprinkle the raisins in.  Stir the coconut milk and add it.  Then stir the whole thing together.  Top with the walnuts.  You can also grate some of the citrus zest into the mix, after adding the 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

Tourists Are Like Wild Animals

  1. Unpredictable
  2. Clueless
  3. Mostly dangerous when surprised
One of the bad things about living in a nice area is that other people also think it is nice and come here in droves over the summer vacation.  Every year I suffer through four months of tourist traffic, from early June well into September. 

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

Mong Kok: Kernel of a City

Mong Kok is a special part of a special city.  It is the most densely populated area in the world.  It is a mixture of so many different kinds of sights and experiences it is difficult to describe.  In Mong Kok, you can walk down an alley and come upon a traditional market in full swing, complete with vegetable booths, food stands and live chickens they will carve for you on the spot.  You then suddently find yourself in front of a modern mall entrance with thick auto-sliding glass doors.

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

Top of the World: Remembering 9/11

It was ten years ago today that evil terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers. Today we remember the victims

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

Inflation, Schminflation

I have been thinking a lot about inflation lately. If you believe the standard numbers, as Robert Reich does, then it looks as if middle class income has been stagnant for 30 years.

This cannot be right. I digged around on census.gov and bls.gov for some numbers on how our living standards have changed over the last decades. The chart shows the growth in square footage of the median of US homes, and the number of homes equipped with central airconditioning. I picked these because they were easily accessible. Browsing around reveals a number of ways our living standards have increased: we travel more, watch more movies, go skiing more, etc. Recent posts by Russell Roberts and Don Boudreaux prompted me to think about the issue. As these posts show, the paradox that real wages have declined, while our standard of living improved, is largely a result of overstated inflation.

Inflation is a currency fluctuation where the value of money decrease, so that prices increase -- they inflate. Historically, prior to the advent of central banks in the 19th and 20th centuries, currency fluctuations went in both directions, so that deflation and inflation came in alternate waves. Central banks usually aim for a low level of inflation. They do this because it would be impossible to hit exactly at zero, or neutral. Economists largely agree that inflation is slightly better, or rather, less bad, than deflation. So central banks choose the lesser of two evils. That is one reason why inflation is ubiquitous now.

Just as it is impossible for the central bank to achieve a complete absence of currency fluctuations, so it is also impossible to measure it at that precision. Indeed, for some of the same reasons. To illustrate currency fluctuations, I will use Krugman's Dogs and Buns Economy.

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). 

Inflation is such an inaccurate measure that adjusting for it introduces as much uncertainty as it resolves.  It is a useful excercise to estimate it, as it can bring some insight when comparing prices from different time periods.  The important thing is to always take it as an approximation and to be careful drawing comparisons or conclusions when inflation is involved. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Anathem: Stephenson's Weakest Novel

Anathem is Neal Stephenson's post-Baroque-cycle novel, set in a fictionalized world resembling our own in important ways, different in certain interesting respects. Importantly, the characters, though we would consider them alien, have psychologies that are totally analogous to humans'. This is doubly interesting because Arbre, their planet, is not even in our universe.

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

Character vs. Screenwriter Drone

I watched "The Killer Inside Me" and was bored so much I almost stopped it. It made me think why the movie failed. It was well-shot and well-directed. I liked the setting, a small Texan town in mid-20th century. The actors was a mix, but above-average. It had lots of sex and violence. It even had Jessica Alba!

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

Honoring Milton Friedman

Today is Milton Friedman's 99th birthday. To commemorate him, I am sharing an interview excerpt and a quote. The excerpt is a quick overview of all the problems with the Drug War and why it is counter-productive.

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

Denali Pictures

I finally got my pictures from the Denali trip organized and you can see them on the Picasa album:

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

Happy Fourth

I am back from Alaska. Below is a picture from my Denali trip, the only one for now. It was our first view of the mountain itself, after three or four miles of climbing up the Kahiltna.

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

Denmarks Liberation

It was 66 years ago today that Denmark was liberated from German occupation, by nature of the Germans in Norway, Holland and Denmark capitulating to the English. In these days of earthquakes, terrorism and environmental alarmism, it is worth remembering that the second world war is the most devastating and atrocious event humans have inflicted on ourselves. Nothing matches it in destruction or evil intent. That is not to belittle the hardships incurred by current events, far from it. I just cannot help celebrating all the little, and big, milestones leading to Nazi Germany's defeat.

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

Disasters and Heroes

The devastation in Japan is mind-boggling. I am sure you have seen lots of news reports on the carnage. I want to mention something positive about these events. What always impresses me is the heroic action of self-less individuals. For instance, 343 Firefighters died during rescue efforts after the 9/11 attacks. This time around, it is particularly the staff at the Fukishima plant that continually puts the safety of the public ahead of themselves. From the article:
"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.'"

Another thing I want to point out is that Japan provided awesome help after Hurricane Katrina.

Ronald Bailey writes a sober overview of the issues with nuclear power, from Fukishima to California.

I contributed to Americares.org. I picked them for two reasons: 98% of their funding goes towards programs, and just as importantly, 73% of their contributions come from individuals. I believe it is important for an organization not to be beholden to one or a few main contributors, whether corporate or governmental.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Scenic Temple

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

Happy Chinese New Year

It is still Chinese New Year here in the States, though as of right now it is the day after in China. I am breaking out of my sequence and posting a couple of pictures from my last visit to Shanghai. Above is my friend Sharon, who were incredibly kind and attentive to me. Thanks to her, I got to see areas of Shanghai and facets of China I had not yet experienced, but I will have to share that at some later time.
To the right, yours truly in front of that unmistakable Shanghai landmark, the Oriental Pearl Tower.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Japanese New Year

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!