Sunday, December 31, 2006

Building the machinery

I am surprised at how little I have been blogging lately. I suppose it has something to do with the holidays and the other writing I have been doing.

I have been reading a lot of mathematics. I want to return to some mathematical texts I read a couple of years ago. To do that, I need to arm myself with better tools and machinery. I do not see an end in sight, for I have much to study. It does not provide much fuel for the blogging fire though.

I have large stack of nonfiction books I must get through also. These books provide a welcome break from the frustration of learning math at an almost glacial pace.

At any rate, I suppose I will return to blogging now that the New Year has come. Maybe, it is just the rain, fog, and Sunday morning making me feel that way.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mission Accomplished

They hanged Saddam tonight. Are you feeling better now? Are you feeling safer?

Meanwhile, there are still all those folks rioting outside the recruiting stations to go to Iraq, and all the folks lining up at the IRS building to pay the tab for the Iraq war. I love it when people vote with their feet.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Nixon Pardon

I read Barry Werth’s 31 Days during the holidays. The fast-paced narrative tells the story of the first 31 days of the Ford administration and focuses on the Nixon pardon and the battle for Nixon’s papers and tapes. It also documents other events such as the rise of Rumsfeld and Cheney.

The Nixon pardon offers two perspectives. If Nixon had stood trial with his subordinates, the trial most likely would have lasted for well over a year. Ford thought the nation could not endure further agony over Watergate.

Others have felt that the whole thing was a setup from the beginning of Ford’s appointment as Vice President. Nixon’s subordinates went to jail while Nixon received the perquisites of an ex-President. The unfairness still rankles. Yet those who work for a President ought to keep in mind that punishment for criminal activities will fall harder on them than it ever will for a President.

The pardon carries with it a tacit admission of guilt even though Nixon never publicly admitted to criminal activity. In fact, Nixon reneged on his commitment to Ford to admit his guilt in a public statement. Nixon watered down his statement after he received his pardon.

Nixon ended his life in disgrace. President Ford recently received a profile in courage award for the pardon.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

All the Best

I have a feeling that Santa is going to leave me a lump of coal in my stocking this year because I have been very bad.

That will not deter me from wishing you all a Merry Christmas.

Now, it is off to Iowa, which, of course, is present enough.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The double super secret football betting strategy of State Street finally revealed

As you can well imagine, we get a virtual tsunami of e-mail during the NFL season. Everybody asks one thing: State Street, whom are you betting on this week? Well before getting into that, let’s talk about our methodology this week.

We wrote down all the names of the football teams on the back of postcards, shuffled the deck, and dealt three cards face up. Then we bet a three-team parlay on those games.

Are you still interested in whom we picked?

A train wreck

The days are getting longer now. I love it when they do. Winter in downtown Chicago is nothing to celebrate. It is cold, the snow quickly turns dirty and dark, and dog shit is visible everywhere.

But that is not what I really want to talk about. Actually, I don’t know what I want to talk about. That is a problem when you have a blog.

There is a woman I am trying to seduce. It is taking a lot longer than expected. I should have done it when it would have been easier. The problem is that I was not in the mood then. I hate moods. They come and go and you can never tell what obsessions may ensue. I know this obsession must arise from something perverse deeply embedded in my soul and all that, but it feels like this: if I cannot have her, I will simply die.

OK, I am trying to seduce two women. I wish it were as easy as getting them drunk enough. I cannot see what other choices I have though since both know me too well to go on a proper date with me. That is what becomes of being transparent. Three cheers for opaqueness and enigmas.

But that is not what I really want to talk about. What I really want to talk about is laundry, which I plan to do sometime today. I use Tide with bleach. Now you know one of my deepest and most closely held secrets.

Only three more days until Jesus’ birthday. I am glad he does not expect a birthday present. All he expects is that I cease being a sinner. Keep dreaming, Jesus.

Maybe, the alternative country and western music has me feeling so goofy, or maybe it is just the holidays plus the unseasonably warm weather in downtown Chicago.

Today, I am a train wreck waiting to happen. I should walk around all day with my eyes closed so I do not have to watch it.

Time to do the laundry and wash away some of the stains and blotches. Where did I put the Tide?

Thursday, December 21, 2006


A foggy wet day in Chicago, the kind of day that hides the tops of the tallest buildings, and damn it is dark. I am listening to Xmas in Frisko on Internet radio. Edie at Annotated Life turned me onto somafm at the beginning of the year. Many thanks, Edie.

Let’s change the subject from Christmas and the fog for a moment.

One of my great finds in the mathematics category this past year is Tristan Needham’s Visual Complex Analysis. Penrose references it in The Road to Reality. Once I flipped through Needham’s book, I knew I had to have it. It appeals aesthetically like a good poem. I rank it with Spivak’s Calculus on Manifolds. There is nothing like a good math book to erase worldly cares from the mind.

During the Seventeenth century, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and others turned science into a mathematical discipline. It is a useful thing to do, but it adds to science’s aesthetic appeal also. Once you have introduced mathematics as a fundamental ground for the metaphysics of science, you have essentially banished the gods from science. An inquiring mind interested in the material nature of the universe does not miss the gods when doing the math.

Of course, one does not need to delve into the metaphysical foundation of modern science to appreciate the beauty that remains after you have eliminated the gods. You can take Euclid’s Elements off the bookshelf, follow along with the definitions, postulates, and propositions and their proofs, and realize what a boon it is to eliminate the gods from your hypotheses.

Epicurus says this in the Principle Doctrines:

11. If apprehensions about the heavens and our fear lest death concern us, as well as our failure to realize the limits of pains and desires, did not bother us, we would have no need of natural science.

12. It is impossible for anyone to dispel his fear over the most important matters, if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but instead suspects something that happens in myth. Therefore, it is impossible to obtain unmitigated pleasure without natural science.

13. There is no benefit in securing protection from men if things above and beneath the earth and indeed all the limitless universe are made matters for suspicion.

I love this foggy morning and the drifting and dreaming that comes with it. I suppose I am overly fond of my hypotheses, but it helps compensate for lost love.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Christmas is coming; I really ought to get ready for it, but I never seem to get into the spirit until about an hour after Christmas is over. I think I will dawdle over the Penrose book for a few more hours this afternoon. After all, there are still four more shopping days until Christmas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Slow Crooked Road to Reality

I have made it to page 383 of Roger Penrose’s physics text The Road to Reality. Page 383 is where the physics starts and the beginning of the chapter titled Spacetime. That means I have only 667 pages left before finishing the book.

Penrose begins at square one and presents all the mathematics you need to understand the mathematical physics in the latter part of the book. I was acquainted with most of the mathematics Penrose presents in the first part. All the same, I found it rough going. In fact, I need to review key sections of the first part to test my understanding before plunging into the rest of the book.

The book is too difficult for my limited talent. However, something about studying the book borders on a mystical experience. I feel as though a few pieces of a grand puzzle are falling into place.

The subtitle of the book claims it is a complete guide to the laws the universe. I do not lament the fact the laws of the universe are obscure and difficult to understand. After all, I did not create the thing, and I take no responsibility for its persnickety ways.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Physics, Culture, Metaphor

We carry over basic notions from physics, such as force, momentum, energy, entropy, etc., to other fields of study. We do this because the concepts, when transferred, share the same metaphorical structure.

I base my common understanding of force upon my experience of pushing and pulling objects about the world. It is easy to think of abstract objects such as culture and society as if they were physical objects or beings like me. Culture and society seem to push and pull me as if they possessed the force of a large sun, or were big grooves in spacetime, or were a powerful person.

It is not that way though. A society or culture is not a person or a large physical object. Metaphors adopted from physics might be apt when thinking about society and culture, but we must prove that.

First, we have the metaphor; after comes the word.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Decision Making and Entropy

I framed two hypotheses during my business career, hypotheses of which I am still enamored. One, people make many more wrong decisions than right decisions in large organizations. Two, no matter what decisions people make and agree upon, organizational entropy always sets in to thwart those decisions. The reasonably trained and experienced decision maker and project manager know these things. That is why they monitor their decisions and take steps to avoid project disasters.

The Iraq invasion and occupation is a good example of this. Every step of the decision making process, from analysis to execution, has been hopelessly flawed.

The Bush Administration fabricated the case for WMD and an al-Qaeda link to Saddam. The potential for civil war was totally disregarded. The military was given nowhere near the resources they needed to secure and occupy the country. The reconstruction team was staffed with Bush loyalists who had no qualifications for the jobs they were given. The Iraq project was never reevaluated in terms of goals, strategies, tactics, and entropy.

President Bush and his team should no longer be the decision making authorities about what happens in Iraq. They have shown they are not qualified for the job. Holding them accountable is damned near impossible in the current political environment, but we should not expect anything good to happen unless we try. Why accept from them what we do not tolerate in our personal lives?

Arithmetic base 10,000

The New York Times reports that the White House is seeking options for a surge of troops in Iraq.

Military planners and White House budget analysts have been asked to provide President Bush with options for increasing American forces in Iraq by 20,000 or more. The request indicates that the option of a major “surge” in troop strength is gaining ground as part of a White House strategy review, senior administration officials said Friday.

Discussion of increasing the number of American troops, at least temporarily, has coursed through Washington for two months, as a possible way to reverse the deteriorating security situation in Baghdad. But the decision to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff to specify where the additional forces could be found among overstretched Army, Marine and National Guard units, and to seek a cost estimate from the White House Office of Management and Budget, signifies a turn in the debate.

Officials said that the options being considered included the deployment of upwards of 50,000 additional troops, but that the political, training and recruiting obstacles to an increase larger than 20,000 to 30,000 troops would be prohibitive.

The mission of these additional troops is hazy, like the mission of the troops already there. If you do not like the proposed mission today, do not worry. It will change tomorrow.

The budgeting for these new forces remains suspect in light of Congressional demand that the White House put the cost of the Iraq Occupation in the annual budget rather than funding it by random supplements to the budget as the need arises.

Then there are the polls with which politicians must contend. The Iraq Occupation grows more unpopular.

Supporters of the troop increase claim it would be temporary. The period to deploy a larger force and redeploy it, whatever the mission, will take us into the 2008 political election. The occupation will hit the five-year mark when that happens. The majority of voters will not vote for a candidate that got the US further into the mire. Politicians who underestimate the will of the voters suffer from hubris by not considering the last election.

The ISG and other studies have turned into an exercise of looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There are no good options. The majority of Americans no longer believe the occupation has a mission. That belief was always the magical pot of gold. Now that the White House has spent the gold, they will not find another pot like it.

The Iraqis have the nasty habit of doing what they want to do rather than what the White House wants them to do. The Iraqis hold their fate in their own hands. Of course, that has always been one of the talking points for the occupation. The armchair generals should not be squeamish now that the wish has become the reality. Mission accomplished; time to go home.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Where are the cattle?

I have a movie screenplay I want to write. I cannot see the movie. I hear murmurs from the place where it hides, but I cannot decipher the messages. Here is what I have written so far.

That is all. Yesterday, I took a big step forward by typing “EXT.” I hope it is more than a guess as to how the movie begins. What exterior? Is it or day night?

After watching Nashville Saturday night, I lay awake wishing I had written the screenplay for it. I feel that way about some movies as I do about some books. I admire the work; yet feel that if I tried hard enough, I could do something nearly as good.

I do know a bit, in the abstract, about my movie. It will have a large cast of characters and no particular protagonist to drive the action forward. The movie will explore the territory where improbability meets inevitable fate. That is not much to go on. It does fence in the movie like a big ranch somewhere out in the western plains. Now, where have the cattle run?

I wish the voices I hear would become more audible. Even better would be if those people attached to the voices would step into view.

One trick is not to ask for too much all at one time. Trust the blank page as much as the page completely scrawled.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Nashville Noir

Saturday night I watched National Velvet, Detour, The Hitchhiker, and Nashville on Turner Classic movies. The descent from National Velvet to the noir of Detour took about 20 minutes to acclimate myself. The descent from the noir of The Hitchhiker to the noir of Nashville took longer.

Nashville is one of the best noir movies. Evil as such does not exist. The film categorizes the foibles of humanity. We see everything from pettiness and vanity to pure lack of talent for the task. Betrayal takes center stage. Even the killer is an enigma. I have never figured out who he wants to kill or why. The large collage of characters weave in and out of each other’s lives and no character leaves better for the encounter. I feel as if I have fallen asleep on the beach when the movie begins. At the end, I feel as though I have been swept out to sea by the tide. The evil or psychotic hitchhiker of Detour or The Hitchhiker does not haunt us in the way the characters, addicted to fame and money, in Nashville haunt us.

Nashville presents the real terror we live with each day. Our flaws accumulate in the back room, yet threaten to enter the parlor for all to see. It creates that feeling of foreboding before walking into the street when you wonder how many uncivilized people you will meet. We swim against the tide of our flaws.

Long Hair

I have gone a year without getting a haircut. The length of my hair is officially long as measured against the current fashion. I like it. When I imagine myself, I now see myself with long hair.

I have done a good job of staying on my diet. Even on the few days when I blow it, it is nothing too catastrophic. Next year, when I imagine myself, I hope to see myself with a reasonably flat stomach.

Galaxy clusters are moving away from each other at relative velocities proportional to the distance between them. I am a grab bag of molecules subject to entropy and decay. My hair is long. I am on a diet. Everything seems a jumble.

Randomness and Inertia

I hit a four-team English Premiership parlay, a four-team NFL parlay, and got a piece of an eight-team NFL parlay this past weekend. Fortuna smiles on me, for these wins put me far ahead for the football season. Unless I do something stupid, a definite possibility, I will finish a winner by the end of the Super Bowl. English football is another story.

I have had two losing seasons during the past sixteen years of picking football teams, which perplexes me. Picking winners in football is a random event, yet I have finished ahead 87.5% of the seasons. I suppose a random sample of 16 is not large enough to prove or disprove my ability as a football game predictor.

I was out at a bar with my good friend Tom last Friday night. We were talking about moving to a warmer climate. I said I would like to move to Las Vegas so that I could sit around the casinos, bet on sports all day, and cadge the free drinks. I would comp a free dinner at a casino each night and then trundle off to bed. He thought it would be perfect for me.

The sky is clear and it has warmed considerably this week from Chicago’s first blast of arctic air. Thoughts of Las Vegas and other warmer climates lose their radiance when it is nice weather in Chicago. I really love living downtown in the summer and fall. The only thing that is missing is a casino where I can bet on sports. There is an off track betting parlor about a mile down the street, but I need more action than just the horses.

I have a two-team parlay in the Premiership this afternoon. I have Chelsea and Arsenal. Arsenal has disappointed me quite a bit this season. I would be far ahead in English football if it were not for them. Fox Sports is broadcasting the Chelsea/Newcastle game live this afternoon. I’m stoked.

I have been betting parlays this season. Watching the long shot gamble come home is a kick. I needed the Chicago Bears to win by more than 6 points in their game Monday night to click on my weekend parlays. Devin Hester, a Bear, returned two punts for touchdowns to save the day for me. It does not get any better than that.

Betting on sports is the perfect illusion. You think you are doing something when you doing nothing at all. It is the perfect mix of inertia and randomness.

The Chelsea/Newcastle game is coming up, so I must run.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The same old questions return

Teaching intelligent design in the public school system has faded from the news. Let us not completely lose sight of the controversy for it will eventually bubble to the surface somewhere again. During the Dover, Pa. legal case, many used sophisticated concepts from the philosophy of science for their arguments against teaching intelligent design. Things are not really that complicated when it comes to this issue. Let us look at what religion is and what science is.

One of the defining features of religion is a belief in supernatural agents. Those who believe in an intelligent designer, yet deny it is religious belief, are either confused about the definition of religion or being disingenuous. Science does not use supernatural agents in its explanatory hypotheses or in its theories. Yes, scientists such as Newton believed a god was the creator of the universe, but he did not use god as a hypothesis in his Principia.

Let us assume one uses an intelligent designer as an explanation for natural phenomena. The question immediately arises as to what the intelligent designer did to make things work the way they do. What laws and principles explain the phenomena under dispute and investigation? All one has done is return to the same questions it is the role of science to answer. Somebody still has to figure out F=ma or why certain viruses cause certain diseases. The intelligent designer gets you nowhere in science.

Intelligent designers are supernatural agents. They belong to religion. You can read all the holy books and you will never discover F=ma.

We also live in a country where the public use of reason is separate from religious doctrine. Despite disparagement from some quarters about the benefits of enlightenment, secularism and science untainted by religious belief have made society better. The long struggle against superstition and intolerance is hardly over, but it is worth fighting for reason, science, and secularism, for they alleviate the deleterious effects of intolerance and superstition.

Lost City

I have been reading physics. I recently plucked some old physics books off the bookshelf such as Einstein’s Relativity and the writings of Aristotle, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, etc. relevant to the development of the metaphysics of modern science. I read these books thirty years or more ago. I do not remember the questions I asked when reading them nor the perplexities they caused me. It is like returning to a city thirty years later and not recognizing the houses and streets although you have a sense of having been there before. My memory betrays me every step of the way.

Thus, I find myself in a strange forgotten city for reasons I do not know. Curiosity along with nostalgia often overwhelms practical concerns.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


The NYT has another article in their Christ’s Mission, Caesar’s Money series. This time they expose Religion for a Captive Audience, Paid for by Taxes.

Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks — white porcelain ones, like at home — were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program — which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time — says on its Web site that it seeks “to ‘cure’ prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems” and showing inmates “how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past.”

One Roman Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith.

“My No. 1 reason for leaving the program was that I personally felt spiritually crushed,” he testified at a court hearing last year. “I just didn’t feel good about where I was and what was going on.”

For Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the federal courts in the Southern District of Iowa, this all added up to an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money for religious indoctrination, as he ruled in June in a lawsuit challenging the arrangement.

The Iowa prison program is not unique. Since 2000, courts have cited more than a dozen programs for having unconstitutionally used taxpayer money to pay for religious activities or evangelism aimed at prisoners, recovering addicts, job seekers, teenagers and children.

Nevertheless, the programs are proliferating. For example, the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest prison management company, with 65 facilities and 71,000 inmates under its control, is substantially expanding its religion-based curriculum and now has 22 institutions offering residential programs similar to the one in Iowa. And the federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs at least five multifaith programs at its facilities, is preparing to seek bids for a single-faith prison program as well.

Government agencies have been repeatedly cited by judges and government auditors for not doing enough to guard against taxpayer-financed evangelism. But some constitutional lawyers say new federal rules may bar the government from imposing any special requirements for how faith-based programs are audited.

And, typically, the only penalty imposed when constitutional violations are detected is the cancellation of future financing — with no requirement that money improperly used for religious purposes be repaid.

But in a move that some constitutional lawyers found surprising, Judge Pratt ordered the prison ministry in the Iowa case to repay more than $1.5 million in government money, saying the constitutional violations were serious and clearly foreseeable.

Christians who unconstitutionally appropriate tax money to preach their so-called faith are pure and simple thieves. The last thing we need is a bunch of thieves rehabilitating the people in our prisons. All we will get from it is more hypocrites and thieves.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A bit about folly

Tell me, Mi, what’s wrong with folly?

Mrs. Brown, National Velvet

I have never thought about it that way even though I have seen the movie several times.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Propagation of Light

It cuts like a knife too.

There is hardly a simpler law in physics than that according to which light is propagated in empty space. Every child at school knows, or believes he knows, that this propagation takes place in straight lines with a velocity c=300,000 km./sec…

In short, let us assume that the simple law of the constancy of the velocity of light c (in vacuum) is justifiably believed by the child at school. Who would imagine that this simple law has plunged the conscientiously thoughtful physicist into the greatest intellectual difficulties? Let us consider how these difficulties arise.

Relativity: the special and the general theory, Albert Einstein

Take it outside and play with it: a very short introduction to diplomacy and negotiation for dreamers

Let’s not get too fancy. Here are a couple of definitions from The American Heritage dictionary, fourth edition.
diplomacy: 1. The art and practice of conducting foreign relations. 2. Tact and skill in dealing with people.

negotiate: 1. To confer with another to come to terms.

The Iraq Study Group advocated opening diplomatic relations with Syria and Iran. This rubs President Bush and his following the wrong way. President Bush wants the Iranian regime to concede its negotiating points before negotiations start.

In a perfect world, we would all agree about substantive issues and live harmoniously and blissfully in a heaven on earth with no need of for negotiation and diplomacy. To all the childish dreamers I say keep on dreaming, but take it outside and play with it and don’t get in the way of the big kids. To the big kids I say look at the dictionary definitions. Negotiating does not mean conceding all your issues to your disputants. It means talking and trying to find common ground for agreement that mutually satisfies both parties in a dispute. Good negotiators use diplomacy to enhance their chances of success in negotiation.

Let’s leave aside whether Syria and Iran are good or evil and their political goals and motives. Since President Bush wants Syria and Iran to concede all their issues as a condition for negotiation, one wonders exactly what issues will be on the table for discussion should negotiations take place after the leaders of Iran take leave of their senses by conceding their negotiating points.

I don’t need a lecture on Stalin, Hitler, and other famous tyrants. I agree that what you negotiate is important, but that you negotiate seems beyond dispute.

I see there are still some dreamers, such as President Bush, inside the house. Please, dreamers take it outside and play with it, for the big kids have work to do.


Well, it is 4:17 in the morning and it is cold. The cold does not matter except I am awake to feel it.

Rumor has it that it will be warmer tomorrow.

I know what you are thinking. Lynn, quit bitching about the cold. I would, but it's cold and now it is 4:22 and I am awake to feel it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Entropy II

The temperature is in the teens Fahrenheit. The kind of day you just want to stay indoors. I have been studying physics and cosmology today, not a bad thing to do when your mind is not fit for anything else.

My lack of discipline dooms any useful project I can imagine. I do not approach anything methodically these days. A random focus from day to day overwhelms my efforts, even though I promise myself I will make a shortlist of things on which I want to concentrate. Entropy describes my life these past few years. I have broken all the symmetries.

However, today is the Christmas Party at the local bar with the money from all sales going to the employees, and I must make an appearance. That means venturing into the cold, and drinking even though my heart and mind is not up to it. Drinking might be the one symmetry I have not broken.

Tomorrow will be warmer I have heard. Good.


At the beginning of his Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses the three ways we persuade an audience: from logic, emotion, or character.

Argument and emotion seem entwined. Why argue unless we are emotionally motivated? I suppose there is the hopelessly disingenuous who argue for argument's sake, as Hume would have it, but there cannot be that many.

As for character, take the hypocrite. We stop listening to him no matter what he says. If your opponent is a hypocrite, show him to be that. You have a chance at winning the argument even if he does have the better case.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I hope I do not have the devil to pay for this

I should not do this. I have a feeling that it will get me into big trouble. All I can say is buy Raymond Carver’s collected poems, All of Us, and read the whole thing.

Wenas Ridge

The season turning. Memory flaring.
Three of us that fall. Young hoodlums—
shoplifters, stealers of hubcaps
Bozos. Dick Miller, dead now.
Lyle Rousseau, son of the Ford dealer.
And I, who had just made a girl pregnant.
Hunting late into the golden afternoon
for grouse. Following deer paths,
pushing through undergrowth, stepping over
blow-downs. Reaching out for something to hold onto.

At the top of Wenas Ridge
we walked out of the pine trees and could see
down deep ravines, where the wind roared, to the river.
More alive then, I thought, than I’d ever be.
But my whole life, in switchbacks, ahead of me.

Hawks, deer, coons, we looked at and let go.
Killed six grouse and should have stopped.
Didn’t, though we had limits.

Lyle and I climbing fifty feet or so
above Dick Miller. Who screamed—“Yaaaah!”
Then swore and swore. Legs numbing as I saw what.
That fat, dark snake rising up. Beginning to sing.
And how it sang! A timber rattler thick as my wrist.
It’d struck at Miller, but missed. No other way
to say it—he was paralyzed. Could scream, and swear,
not shoot. Then the snake lowered itself from sight
and went in under the rocks. We understood
we’d have to get down. In the same way we’d got up.
Blindly crawling through brush, stepping over blow-downs,
pushing into undergrowth. Shadows falling from trees now
onto flat rocks that held the day’s heat. And snakes.
My heart stopped, and then started again.
My hair stood on end. This was the moment
my life had prepared me for. And I wasn’t ready.

We stared down anyway. Jesus, please help me
out of this, I prayed. I’ll believe in you again
and honor you always. But Jesus was crowded out
of my head by the vision of the rearing snake.
That singing. Keep believing in me, snake said,
for I will return. I made an obscure, criminal pact
that day. Praying to Jesus in one breath.
To snake in the other. Snake finally more real
to me. The memory of that day
like a blow to the calf now.

I got out, didn’t I? But something happened.
I married the girl I loved, yet poisoned her life.
Lies began to coil in my heart and call it home.
Got used to darkness and its crooked ways.
Since then I’ve always feared rattlesnakes.
Been ambivalent about Jesus.
But someone, something’s responsible for this.
Now, as then.

Wenas Ridge, from All of Us, Raymond Carver

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


It seems as though it is easy to mix science and metaphysics together when thinking about time and space. I wonder if that is good way to go about it. The imagination might work that way. It weaves all kinds of thoughts together until something new and worth pursuing catches our fancies.

Typing Carver

After two days of staring at a blank sheet of paper, I typed out Raymond Carver’s Wenas Ridge from his collected poems, All of Us. As Lawrence said in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, “the trick is not minding that it hurts.”

Lies began to coil in my heart and call it home.
Got used to darkness and its crooked ways.

From Wenas Ridge, Raymond Carver

Monday, December 04, 2006

Gushing Over Greene

I have been reading Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, a masterful exposition of the state of modern physics. I had read his The Elegant Universe several years ago and found it a masterful exposition of string theory. I figured The Fabric of the Cosmos was a sequel and could not be better than The Elegant Universe, but it is better. I am very glad I decided to read it.

The state of physics vis-à-vis string theory has been much in the news lately. Greene is a string theorist, but in The Elegant Universe, I thought he presented many of its shortcomings such as the multitude of hypotheses and theories and lack of experimental evidence for them. The Fabric of the Universe has a section on string theory, but that is not the thrust of the book, which is to explain space, time, and physical reality from the physicist’s point of view. This is one of those books where he explains things so well that you actually feel as if you understand a little about such things as the Higgs field and ocean and what they explain about the universe.

At any rate, if you are interested in elegant and informative science writing and the state of modern physics, then you cannot go wrong by reading The Fabric of the Cosmos.

World Politics and Strategy

Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion, one of the greatest chess players of all time, weighs in on global politics and Iraq in particular. From Chessboard Endgame: Obsessed with Iraq, we've lost sight of the rest of the world in the Wall Street Journal.
For the past few years, the dictators and terrorists have been gaining ground, and with good reason. The deepening catastrophe in Iraq has distracted the world's sole superpower from its true goals, and weakened the U.S. politically as well as militarily. With new congressional leadership threatening to make the same mistake--failing to see Iraq as only one piece of a greater puzzle--it is time to return to the basics of strategic planning.

Thirty years as a chess player ingrained in me the importance of never losing sight of the big picture. Paying too much attention to one area of the chessboard can quickly lead to the collapse of your entire position. America and its allies are so focused on Iraq they are ceding territory all over the map. Even the vague goals of President Bush's ambiguous war on terror have been pushed aside by the crisis in Baghdad.

The U.S. must refocus and recognize the failure of its post-9/11 foreign policy. Pre-emptive strikes and deposing dictators may or may not have been a good plan, but at least it was a plan. However, if you attack Iraq, the potential to go after Iran and Syria must also be on the table. Instead, the U.S. finds itself supervising a civil war while helplessly making concessions elsewhere.

Readers of State Street know I really like this remark too because I have made similar comments.

So what then, to do? "Mission accomplished" jokes aside, the original goals in Iraq--deposing Saddam Hussein and holding elections--have been achieved. Nation-building was never on the agenda, and it should not be added now. All the allied troops in the world aren't going to stop the Iraqi people from continuing their civil war if this is their choice. As long as Muslim leaders in Iraq and elsewhere are unwilling to confront their own radical elements, outsiders will be spectators in the line of fire.

Whether you agree or disagree with Kasparov’s politics, he does make an important point about strategy and pragmatic concerns in this article.

Many days, my frustration with Iraq and the so-called war on terror is that many people want to put their theoretical and ideological concerns first rather than look at the pragmatic consequences of the disaster and failed strategy. Of course, theory and ideology are important. Everybody has a theoretical and ideological framework that helps her or him make sense of the world. That does not excuse or give reason to continue committing the same mistakes and deny the facts of particular situations.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Voltaire on Fanaticism

Voltaire on fanaticism:

Fanaticism is to superstition what delirium is to fever and rage to anger. The man visited by ecstasies and visions, who takes dreams for realities and his fancies for prophecies, is an enthusiast; the man who supports his madness with murder is a fanatic …
The only remedy for this epidemic malady is the philosophical spirit which, spread gradually, at last tames men’s habits and prevents the disease from starting; for, once the disease has made any progress, one must flee and wait for the air to clear itself. Laws and religion are not strong enough against the spiritual pest; religion, far from being healthy food for infected brains, turns to poison in them …
Even the law is impotent against these attacks of rage; it is like reading a court decree to a raving maniac. These fellows are certain that the holy spirit with which they are filled is above the law, that their enthusiasm is the only law they must obey.

What can we say to a man who tells you that he would rather obey God then men, and that therefore he is sure to go heaven for butchering you?

Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, from The Portable Enlightenment Reader

Meanwhile, almost 300 years later, life goes on much the same.

Do the right thing

Damn, it is cold here this morning. Do the right thing. Stay warm. Block the forbidding frozen vista of concrete, steel asphalt, and glass from the mind’s eye.

My vices and follies cause my woes and cares. That is an agreeable and fortunate circumstance, for I would not like it if chance or forces I cannot control caused them. I recall the admonition in the Spike Lee movie: do the right thing. Yes, of course: I will be a better man for it, and things might turn out better.

Damn, the coffee tastes good this morning. Really, I mean it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Egoism, Altruism, and Republican Conservative Ideology

I found C. Bradley Thompson’s The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism in The Objective Standard (via ald) an interesting article. Thompson analyzes the two conservative ideologies that control Republican Party thinking: compassionate conservatism and neoconservatism. Thompson finds them in them a betrayal of traditional conservatism principles and values: a belief in the absolute priority of individual rights and capitalism based on rational egoism.

Here is a summary towards the end of the article.

Liberalism invokes the altruism of Marx; conservatism invokes the altruism of Jesus; and both camps are indebted to Rousseau for his emphasis on compassion. With respect to individual rights, there is and can be no fundamental difference between a secular-liberal welfare state and a religious-conservative welfare state. It matters not one whit to me whether my earned wealth is forcibly redistributed by a Hillary Clinton or a George Bush government; either way, my money is seized. The political subjugation of the individual in the name of the morality of sacrifice is the essence of both.

Compassionate conservatism and neoconservatism have not corrupted the GOP as some conservatives have argued; they have simply exploited and brought to the surface principles that have been at the heart of the conservative intellectual movement from the beginning. Consequently, after decades of an impossible struggle in which conservatives fought liberal government programs while accepting and agreeing with liberal altruism, they have finally and officially given up, abandoned their former half-formed principles, and openly embraced the philosophical roots of the Left.

The Bush administration, the Republican Party, and the conservative intelligentsia have now fully and openly embraced liberalism’s two basic principles: altruism and pragmatism. The conservative movement has stepped both its feet into a philosophic sinkhole and is drowning in a miasma of sentimental mush and cynical manipulation. Compassionate conservatism permits Republicans to demonstrate publicly how much they “care” for those in need, while neoconservatism provides them with a philosophy of governance that shows them how to devise (allegedly) more cost-effective welfare programs.

Conservative intellectuals and Republican politicians no longer hold their noses and reluctantly accept the welfare state as an unfortunate political reality, as a “necessary evil” about which they can do little but compromise. No: Today’s conservatives and their compassionate leader, George W. Bush, will go down in history as the first Republicans to openly and explicitly advocate a conservative welfare state as a “positive good.”

As we have seen, the policies of compassionate conservatives and neoconservatives merge to promote a shared common end: the violation of individual rights for the sake of “general welfare” and for the “needs” of the “less fortunate.” Not only have conservatives and Republicans abandoned any semblance of a principled moral opposition to the welfare state, they now fully embrace it morally and politically.

Thus there is no meaningful difference between the Christian sentimentalism of the New Right and the moral relativism of the New Left. They both treat emotions and feelings as their means of knowing what is true and good—and what they “know” to be true and good is that self-sacrifice is moral and self-interest is immoral. Thus there is no meaningful difference between the aims of today’s conservatives and those of today’s liberals. They share the same moral premises and political ends; they differ only marginally in the means they choose to achieve their shared goal: the welfare state.

Is compassionate conservatism and neoconservatism like socialism or liberalism? I suppose you could see it that way if you are on the extreme right.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Try it more often

Today must be counted as the first day of winter in Chicago. The wind blew hard from the north and snow fell. The wind has abated and light snowflakes drift upward outside the window. The temperature will drop below freezing for the next week.

For some reason I do not mind as I normally do at this time of year. I enjoy not minding. I should try it more often.

Not as gloomy as you might think

The scramble by various groups to create a new strategy for quelling the sectarian and factional violence in Iraq is interesting, for nobody, despite all the current studies, seems to have one.

After over three years of conflict, I wonder why that is. Maybe, the Iraqis have taken their fate into their own hands, and there is nothing anybody outside can do about it. The thought is not as gloomy as you might imagine once you think of its implications. The Iraqis are just like us. The U. S. fought one of the most spectacular civil wars of all time, and look at us now.