PS... A Column

on Things

By Paul E. Schindler Jr.

Some things are impossible to know, but it is impossible to know these things.

I have a day job. So every word of this is my opinion, not that of my employer. This offer IS void in Wisconsin. Except, of course, that some material in this column comes from incoming e-mail; such material is usually reproduced in the Sans Serif type font to distinguish it from the (somewhat) original material.


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Tales of Teaching 2004
Tales of Teaching 2005

October 3, 2005: P.S. A Column On Things

October 3, 2005 Vol. 7, No. 39

Table of Contents:

General News

  • House Concert
  • Boys Ahoy!
  • Iraq Seminar and Evolution Too
  • Political Notes

Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs

Humor

  • Brazilian Soldiers

Movies

  • Just Like Heaven
  • Serenity

Letters

  • Dan Grobstein File

General News

House Concert

Vicki went to school with Pam Boulding who, with her husband Phillip, comprises a musical group known as Magical Strings (we have all their CDs). They play Celtic harp and hammered dulcimer; Phillip builds harps, and both of them hold an annual summer harp camp at their beautiful home on the Kitsap peninsula in Washington. We don't see them very often, but they were on their way through San Francisco on their way from a concert in Ashland, Oregon to one in San Jose and asked us if we could put together a house concert.

We had never done anything of the sort, and it was an exhilarating and exhausting experience. Those of you who have seen our house know that it features a large great room, which, you may have said to yourself, seems perfect for large-group events. Alas, we are in the middle of a steep hill, about 100 yards away and 50 feet up from the street, with no lighting on the path from the street to the house. In rain, the hill is very tricky to negotiate; at night it is impossible. So, we can only hold events during which people can park on the street and walk up and back during the daylight in good weather. The 4pm concert last Sunday fulfilled all those requirements.

We sent out extensive e-mail notifications of the concert, hoping for 50 attendees. We had 20 at $15 a head, but as Phillip noted, the CD table did a brisk business as well.

I dwell on the preparatory details because it is so difficult to put into words the experience itself. It was transcendent. Hearing lovely professional music being created in our own home, for the appreciation of a half dozen friends and dozen strangers was one of the peak experiences of my life. And, having Pamela and Phillip as house guests for three days was awfully nice as well.

Boys Ahoy!

Doing a personal blog can be so difficult; I don't wish to invade the privacy of my friends, so lets just call them D and E. We have been friends since we first worked together back in 1997, but we haven't seen much of each other since the dot bust and my move from journalism to teaching. But our birthdays, while many years apart, are within a few weeks of each other in late September and early October. So E flew down from Portland and D rented a 24-foot sailboat for the day, and I supplied 24 bottles of beer (but, alas, because of medication could only drink 1), and we spent six hours on San Francisco Bay.

We started out from Richmond harbor, sailed over to San Quentin, cruised along the Marin coast, sailed back across the bay, sailed around Richmond Harbor and were forced to use the Iron Sail (the motor) only a few times.

It may have been 30 years since I actually crewed on a sailboat (raising and lowering the sail and the jib). It was the only time I have ever crewed in a sailboat on San Francisco Bay (I did my other crewing on the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge in a tech dinghy--yes, E, tech dinghies really do exist.). I truly enjoyed the experience. My funny hat and a liberal slathering of sunblock, combined with remarkable weather,meant no serious sunburn (another medication side effect).

And how remarkable was the weather? We've suffered through days of blistering 90 degree heat. It was about 70 or 75. Friday the bay was becalmed. Saturday, when we sailed, we got steady winds in the 10-20 knot range. We didn't need our coats, we didn't bake, and the swell was, for the most part, very small and reasonable. The fog rolled in over SF like a blanket, and covered the Bay Bridge for a time, but it stayed completely out of San Pablo Bay. I admit, being on a boat with no radio, no compass and no GPS on a day when I could see fog coming over the mountains concerned me, but it never came.

I have to think very hard indeed to conjure a more pleasant way to spend a Saturday than sailing around San Francisco Bay with two friends of long standing. Well, maybe a weekend at the ocean with my wife, but really, that's about it. And I get to do that in two weeks!

Iraq Seminar and Evolution Too

Dan Grobstein offers his impressions of two New Yorker Festival events, on Iraq and Evolution. Read it all here.

An excerpt:

Douglas Feith couldn't answer a direct question. He went off on tangents having nothing to do with the question. The panelists were asked what they would have done differently. He couldn't come up with anything other than to say that he had some proposals that weren't acted upon. He did say that the looting after the fall of Baghdad was the fault of the military command on the ground. I guess he's getting back at Tommy Franks for calling him the ... stupidest man on the planet.

Political Notes

Kevin Sullivan wrote this week; my response is interspersed. Check out his good idea in the last paragraph! Maybe we can start a grass-roots ground-swell!

Regarding the Bush Administration, I'm curious about your journalistic perspective on what I find to be a very subservient attitude by the mainstream media towards the Bush administration. Why does the mainstream media [MSM] (not the left and right fringes) need to pander to a public that is titillated by scandal. For example, Clinton's extra-marital dalliances that didn't seem to keep him from doing a decent job as President except for the attention it took defending himself. Why not put the spotlight more harshly on a President whose administration appears to be driven by personal agendas and laden with lying, intimidation, corruption and incompetence? Is it fear of retribution by the administration? Is it talking down to the public? Isn't it the job of the media to point more to what's important, like an out of control spending spree, than what is titillating?

They say the only thing in the middle of the road is dead armadillos, but that's not quite true; there are also journalists there. Amid all the complaints about "left wing media" and "right wing media," the simple fact is that the media in this country are neither left nor right, but "commercial," and you will always find the MSM in the middle of any consensus. At times of no consensus, they err on the side of trusting officials in power (hence, McCarthyism). Yes, they do fear retribution, they do talk down, and they are supposed to point to what's more important. "The Media" is so huge in this country that, at any given time, some of it, even the MSM, is doing the right thing. Steele and Bartlett in Philadelphia, for example, have been describing the screwing of working class Americans for years. Just like politicians the media both leads and follows the public. But at all times, there is an ingrained "pro-people-in-power" bias that is permanent and inevitable. Sometimes reporters are just taking dictation, but only from the government.

One of the items that irks me the most about the current administration is its glaring lack of imagination in problem solving combined with its politics of division rather than national unification. I believe this is a case of the head being empty (not rotten). After 911 Mr. Bush blew a marvelous diplomatic opportunity (i.e., bully pulpit) to pull the teeth of the Oil Lion, by committing the US to a policy of oil independence. Sadly, this would have flown in the face of his own personal interests and those of his backers. The US (instead of just being a misguided bully) would have made substantial steps in putting the oil genie back in its box instead of alienating and striking fear in the hearts of people throughout the world, and ending up where we are today. One thing is clear this far into his second term, we know where Mr. Bush's priorities are.

On a similar note, I would love to see at least a glimmer of imagination from the Bush administration, regarding the nomination to replace Supreme Court Justice O'Connor. In a single step, the Bush administration (and therein the Republican Party) could a) remove from play a potential player in the next Presidential election, and b) show the country that the Republicans can unify country rather then make a power play to stack the court leading to years of contentious decisions, thus increasing their own base of support. How? Nominate Hillary Clinton to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. You heard it here first!

I like the idea, but I wonder, who is paying for the necessary umbrellas and increased slipperiness of the American landscape caused by the pre-nomination appearance of flying elephants, pigs, and cattle?

***

This is what makes people paranoid. People were trying to get to Washington for the big anti-war protest last weekend. According to the Washington Post:

In a hitch for some coming to the protest, 13 Amtrak trains running between New York and Washington were delayed for up to three hours Saturday morning for repair of overhead electrical lines. Protest organizers said that held up thousands coming to the rally.

Organizers delayed the start of the march, originally planned to begin at 12:30 p.m., to wait for protesters arriving on the Amtrak trains. There were other reports of Metro delays in northern Virginia on the Blue and Yellow lines.

***

For years the best published estimate of the annual intelligence budget was about $30B. Sometime in 2002, this estimate shifted to $40B. An article in The New York Times of September 29, 2005 by Douglas Jehl (Republicans See Signs That Pentagon Is Evading Oversight)indicated the number is now $80B. Mr. Jehl also reports the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee (Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R. - Mich.)) is concerned that the Defense Department may be trying to hide intelligence activities and expenditures from John Negroponte, the alleged new Director of National Intelligence (anyone claiming Mr. Negroponte is actually directing national intelligence gets credit for, at most, an allegation).

At least, that's what it indicated until a "correction" was appended to the online verison:

An article yesterday about concerns by Republican members of Congress that the Defense Department may be trying to avoid congressional oversight by using special intelligence programs misstated the amount of money the government is estimated to spend each year on all intelligence activities. The figure, which is classified, is believed to be about $40 billion, not $80 billion.

So the biggest news of the original piece turns out not to be news... or is it a Freudian slip of the truth?

***

Briefs

  • Russ is precisely correct. It is unfortunate that these thoughts generally escaped consideration in a national forum during the job interview process last fall.
    Statement of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold
    How the President's Policy is Weakening America
    As Delivered From the Floor of the United States Senate
    September 29, 2005

Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs

Squidward and beyond: what a week for the cephalopodophilic, there was squid news everywhere! From BBC: Live giant squid caught on camera and National Geographic: Holy Squid! Photos Offer First Glimpse of Live Deep-Sea Giant (see images). Here is the original scientific paper by Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori: First-ever observations of a live giant squid in the wild [PDF] summarized here. Lest anyone underestimate the ferocity of this animal: Giant Squid: Don't mess with them. And just to prove that there is no topic too high minded that we can drag into the gutter, two squid porn items: Sex trap for giant squid and Weird sex: Giant squid do it deeper. (For the uninitiated, this is Squidward)

Anti-anti-science: a group of parents sue a Pennsylvania school board for requiring teachers to read a statement about "intelligent design" before teaching evolution. Professor Robert T. Pennock testified in the case saying "As scientists go about their business, they follow a method. Intelligent design wants to reject that and so it doesn't really fall within the purview of science." Elsewhere there was yet another confirmation of evolutionary theory enabled by a recent statistical comparison of the human and chimpanzee genome. Turns out the prediction of evolutionary theory matches the real data very well.

Outer solar system: great new close up images of yet another moon of Saturn: Cassini pictures spongy Hyperion. But moons, schmoons, we want alien life! The CSM writes: Life beyond Earth? Potential habitats in the solar system keep popping up. The complex system around Saturn provides a lot of interesting nooks and crannies that could well harbor the parallel evolution of alien life. Planetary geologist Dr. David Grinspoon says: "The Saturn system is turning out to be surprisingly fecund."

The inevitable Google item: Google adds browser playback to video service and You Still Google? That is So Last Week. Google Wi-Fi all the world's a "Bay Area"? Google is sponsoring free Wi-Fi in New York and rumors of availability in London More on Google Print: Search and Rescue and from Google's blog: Buzz about Google Print and the lawsuit. Finally, Google is experimenting with Putting crowd wisdom to work using ideas like those explored in James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds.

Technobits: MIT to launch $100 laptop prototype in November --- online FEMA aid for IE6 users only --- Firefox Still Tops IE for Browser Security --- VoIP wants to cut the computer cord --- Gibberish: detecting the real from the fake is getting harder. --- Death to folders! --- "Recommendation engines" lead fans to music --- Pimp My Prius mentions my coworker Attila Vass --- low tech deterrent to ATM skimming --- Placeopedia: Connecting Wikipedia articles with their locations --- Molecule Walks Like a Human --- ab-fab: Hi-tech DIY to solve local problems --- Was The Missing Link A Tripping Chimp? --- random flowers --- super slow-mo clips.

Humor

Brazilian Soldiers

From Hoffmania: (I got six copies of this in the email)

So Donald Rumsfeld tells Bush at the morning briefing, "Bad news from the coalition. We lost 3 Brazilian soldiers."

Bush breaks down crying. "That's horrible. What a tragedy." He's sobbing uncontrollably.

Bush composes himself and asks Condi, "How many is in a brazillion?"

Presidential Advice

One night, George W. Bush is tossing restlessly in his White House bed. He awakens to see George Washington standing by him. Bush asks him, "George, what is the best thing I can do to help the country?"

"Set an honest and honorable example, just as I did," Washington advises and then fades away. The next night, Bush is astir again, and sees the ghost of Thomas Jefferson moving through the darkened bedroom. Bush calls out, "Tom, please! What is the best thing I can do to help the country?"

"Respect the Constitution, as I did," Jefferson advises and dims from sight.

The third night sleep is still not in the cards for Bush. He awakens to see the ghost of FDR hovering over his bed. Bush whispers, "Franklin, what is the best thing I can do for the country?"

"Help the less fortunate, just as I did" FDR replies and fades into the mist. Bush isn't sleeping at all the fourth night, when he sees another figure moving in the shadows. It is the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Bush pleads, "Abe, what is the best thing I can do right now to help the country?"

Lincoln replies, "Go see a play."

Movies

Just Like Heaven

How can you not fall in love with a film that includes five minutes of Jon Heder, aka Napoleon Dynamite? Add to that the adorable Reese Witherspoon and the highly cute Mark Ruffalo, and it seems to me you have the ingredients for a clever, amusing romantic comedy. The reviews were uniformly awful, but I laughed, I cried, and I enjoyed it even though the ending was telegraphed by about half way through the film. It was like watching one of those detective TV shows where you see the crime, then watch the detective solve it; the entertainment is not in figuring out who did it, but how they are going to get there. I like this film. A lovely piece of lightweight entertainment.

Serenity

Based on the very short-lived Fox television series "Firefly" this movie is a brilliant, clever, funny piece of anachronistic science fiction. It achieves what Star Trek set out to do, which was create a "Western in outer space," by not beating around the bush: the good guys carry revolvers, and say "reckon." It also manages to do what Star Wars 3, 4 and 5 did, and Star Wars 1,2, and 3 did not, which is to have a sense of humor about itself. I am sure a precise comparison of the middle trilogy and the prequel would reveal a 50% drop in humor content--and I hope someone has done or is doing this important research.

The movie was just funny enough from the opening, "This is your captain; we may experience some turbulence and then break apart and die," to the closing scene, when something falls off the ship in space, the movie (when was the last time you saw that in fiction; not from enemy action; but from either age or incompetent repair). A cast of unknowns--but then Star Wars was a cast of unknowns at the time as well. Based on the movie, it's too bad the TV series died. Highly entertaining. Strongly recommended. Vicki, by the way, didn't think it was as funny as I did but she enjoyed it too.

Letters

Dan Grobstein File

Dan Grobstein File

Dan sends along his statistics on casualty reports:

I'm on the email news release list of the Department of Defense. I route their emails into a special folder and have my mail program automatically highlight the casualty reports. This is my un-scientific report on the patterns that I've recently seen on my screen. (I started this because there was and has been very little casualty coverage in the news. Especially the wounded which isn't part of these news releases).

On 9/8 there were 2 casualty reports

From 9/9 to 9/12 there were none, but a lot of news releases

From 9/13 to 9/19 there were 5 casualty reports

From 9/20 to 9/30 there have been 27 casualty reports

I divide them into these groups because the clusters of casualty reports are surrounded by more than the normal number of news releases. Some are multiple casualties in one report. The majority seem to be improvised explosive devices. There also seems to be an awful lot of sergeants who are killed.

Afghanistan is almost forgotten. And Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Never mind fly paper. Iraq has turned into fertilizer for terrorists (not original with me).

New York Times

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