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.

To Pay For This Column Voluntarily
Tales of Teaching 2004
Tales of Teaching 2005

P.S. A Column On Things: August 4, 2003

August 4, 2003 Vol. 5, No.32

Table of Contents:

General News

  • We're A Little Early Folks
  • Teaching Week 3
  • Richard C. Parker
  • Ease of Use
  • Political Notes

Computer Industry News

  • Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs (On Vacation)

Web Site of the Week

  • None


  • None


  • Spy Kids II
  • Winged Migration
  • Swimming Pool
  • Lara Croft: Cradle of Life
  • The Countdown


  • Dalton on Religion and Politics, Coquet on the Pentagon, Grobstein on Everything

General News

We're A Little Early Folks

Well, OK, yes, Thursday is really early, but we're leaving at 5am on Friday for three nights on Santa Catalina, the island of romance, off the coast of Long Beach, Calif. Here's last week's column if you're looking for it.

Teaching: Week Three

Well, as old Garrison Keillor says, sometimes it's a quiet week in Lake Woebegone. Not much happened this week. I mean, I taught every day, and some students learned and some didn't. There was another Jeopardy game, and most students liked that although some didn't do well. There was a quiz--scores were much more all over the lot than before. Makes me wonder what the scores on the final will be like. There were some excellent papers about historical persons from the U.S. between the Depression and the present and there were some that were just pretty good. The final was given by a substitute on Friday as I winged my way to Catalina with the family.

On Thursday, my last day, several students told me they though I was a pretty good teacher. I think they were being sincere. It felt really good. I think I did a good job. Some of the students learned a few things. What more can I ask?

Richard C. Parker

Richard C. Parker, Ph.D., [SB: MIT '74], Chi Phi. Loving son and brother from a close, warm family in Brookline, Mass. At Columbia University the Richard C. Parker Graduate Student Award and the Richard C. Parker Lecture are given in his honor. At MIT from 1970 through 1974, he was one of my best friends. This is the third and final (for now) installment of my mini-series "on people and institutions that deserve a more personal accounting when Googled." (the other two were Edwin Diamond and The Oregon Journal).

Like the Oregon Journal, Richard (always a Richard, never a Dick) died much too young, and long enough before the widespread use of the Internet that there aren't a passel of articles about his work or blogs, commentaries and obituaries about his life. The few words I can write about him are a paltry memorial compared to the lecture series and the award, but he was an important and influential person in my life, and I want to record some personal impressions of him, so that the next person who Googles him (and finds this entry among the many, many Richard C. Parkers on the Internet) will have some impression of him as a human being.

Richard was a serious scientist. Serious enough that he was probably Nobel Prize material. We discussed this often, particularly when his former advisor, David Baltimore, won the Nobel Prize in 1975 for his work on reverse transcriptase. It was afternoon in Sweden, 7am in Boston, 4am in California. I was working for UPI, and was asked to explain the work for which Baltimore won the award. I had no idea what it was. So, I woke Richard up out at Cal Tech, and he dug up some notes and briefed me. By the time Baltimore explained his work at an afternoon news conference, I had cleaned the AP's clock with my story. Richard's story. Anyway, Richard explained to me that most science Nobel prizes are awarded to people in their 40s for work they did in their 20s. We'll never know if he would have won; he died at the age of 34 of a cancer after resisting it for six years.

As an egomaniac, it is hard for me to describe Richard without making it all about me, but I feel obliged to try. He was an enthusiastic member of the Chi Phi fraternity at MIT, located, as were most of the fraternities, in the Back Bay section. At MIT, he spent nearly all his time in biology classes, but he managed to carve out a significant minority of minutes for The Tech, the undergraduate newspaper. He did that because he loved Edwin Diamond, despite the fact that Diamond was the only person who consistently called him Dick--and the only person Parker never corrected. Diamond was a senior lecturer in the political science department, and served as in informal adviser to the newspaper. Edwin said The Tech should write more about MIT academics. As a direct result, Richard wrote a series of profiles of most MIT departments. During 1972 when I was Edwin's consiglieri (his student chief of staff), Parker and Norman D. Sandler were my lieutenants.

Travelling with Parker was a gas. Richard was the first person I ever knew who had a credit card, back in the early 1970s. I can still remember wandering the streets of New York's east 50s, looking for a restaurant that accepted Mastercard. Then there was the gypsy cab that almost didn't get us back to LaGuardia in time for the last plane so we could be in class the next day (which mattered much more to Richard than it did to Paul "Class? I can take it or leave it" Schindler). Let me sum this section up by saying that Richard was fun, exciting, wild and enthusiastic in ways that very few of the serious scientists I knew ever were.

There are a thousand Parker stories I could tell; how we used to eat in the MIT Faculty Club (the food was OK, the irritation we caused the faculty was priceless, drinking hearty burgundy and tearing up the rolls so they couldn't be reused), the late nights, the early mornings, the trips, long and short, and the adult friendship that included regular squash matches at UCSF, until the day he called to cancel. "My lymph nodes are swollen. It's probably just a cold, but I'm going in to see a doctor." He beat t-cell lymphoblasts (a form of cancer) with some fairly radical treatment, but his reprieve ran out on July 4, 1986. Not a month has gone by since that I haven't though of him. The only true immortality comes from the memories of others; in that sense, Richard C. Parker will live as long as I do.

Ease of Use

From Peggy Coquet:

From A Word A Day (

I have always wished that my computer would be as easy to use as my telephone. My wish has come true. I no longer know how to use my telephone.

-Bjarne Stroustrup, computer science professor, designer of C++ programming language (1950- )

Richard Dalton, given a chance to comment on this quotation, wrote back:

Even worse, Microsoft is poised (Athena PC prototype) to append telephony to your desktop PC. Then, you will have to reboot your telephone a couple of times a day.

Thanks Richard. I'm looking forward to that, I am.

Political Notes

Jon Carroll, the genius San Francisco Chronicle columnist skewers East Coast media coverage of the California Gubernatorial recall.

* * *

Bush projects a shocking $455 billion deficit for the current fiscal year. That's $150 million, or almost 50%, higher than his forecast of just five months ago and dwarfs the previous record of $290 billion in 1992. Worse, the deficit is still rising.

What about the claim that the deficit is "manageable" in proportion to the large U.S. economy? It's wrong. Period.

Consider the following:

  1. Based on the latest estimates, the 2003 deficit is already up to 4.2% of GDP, a level that was not exceeded during 51 of the last 57 years.
  2. And the latest estimate assumes the economy will improve according to Bush's forecasts for the rest of the 2003 fiscal year. If it doesn't, the deficit could be larger.
  3. The $455 billion deficit projection also assumes that the surplus in the Social Security fund is a part of the government's budget and is available to spend right now on everything but Social Security payments. That's patently false. The Social Security funds are not a part of the budget and never have been. They are not to be spent, but rather to be held in reserve to cover Social Security deficits that are inevitable in the future.
  1. What happens if you treat the Social Security surpluses correctly and you take them out of Bush's revenue calculation? The 2003 deficit becomes 5.7% of GDP, the second largest in history.
  1. Also excluded from Bush's deficit estimates are the costs of the reconstruction efforts in Iraq, the cost of prescription drug coverage, and the deficits of agencies that are controlled or sponsored by the Federal government. After taking these items into account, the actual deficit is close to 10% of GDP.

The deficit advocated by Bush is out of control. It looms as probably the single greatest threat to the future of our economy.

Further, there are other fundamental problems facing the U.S. economy:

  • The labor market continues to deteriorate. Unemployment claims have surpassed the critical 400,000 mark -- which indicates a weak labor market -- for the 22nd week in a row. Also, Boeing recently announced that it will layoff 5,000 workers in addition to the 35,000 jobs it plans to eliminate by the end of 2003.
  • Companies continue to play the earnings shell game. A recent study by a UBS accounting analyst concludes that the earnings of the companies in the S&P 500 -- America's largest, publicly-traded companies -- are overstated by 41%. Even after the thrashing Corporate America took following the Enron fiasco, the nation's largest companies continue to play fast and loose with their earnings reports.

* * *

There's an unusually odious line of GOP crap about Social Security that first made the rounds last year, and, like all bad information, has resurfaced. The email (repeated and enthroned on a dozen right-wing web sites) attributes all kinds of bad Social Security events to the Democrats. I'm not going to repeat the scurrilous charges here. There's a rebuttal-light version all over the net that simply changes all the names to Republicans. But there's a serious rebuttal, with citations, on Buzzflash, which I suggest you use if someone sends this malarkey into your mailbox.

Computer Industry News

Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs

Craig Reynolds surfs the net for you.

Except this week, when he's not here. Technobriefs is on vacation this week while Craig and family attend SIGGRAPH 2003, Legoland and the San Diego Zoo.

Web Site of the Week





Spy Kids 3-D

You want the facts? Go to the Internet Movie Database

Thank you Robert Rodriguez for two mildly amusing children's films and one 89-minute gimmick fest, but let's hope you have the courage to fulfill the promise of the advertising and make this the last Spy Kids film.

In case you've been living in a cave, I'm here to tell you that most of this film is in 3D, using the old-fashioned red-green glasses (as opposed to the much more pleasant and sophisticated, not to mention much less painful, polarized glasses used in Imax 3D films). There's a reason 3D using red-green glasses never caught on. They ruin the colors (everything looks green), the registration is never quite right and the cause eye-watering eye-strain after about 10 minutes. An idea whose time never came.

As before, Rodriguez has written and directed a mildly amusing paen to family values, ladled over with the kind of entertainment value that has made him an A-list producer. I saw it with my 18-year-old daughter. She was six years over the top end of the demographic, and I was... well, a lot more over it.

At least it clocked in at under 90 minutes. Not much under, but let's be thankful for small favors. Rated PG for action sequences and peril. Fun for the whole family, if they're all children.

Winged Migration

You want the facts? Go to the Internet Movie Database

Stunningly beautiful, and yet, remarkably, at 98 minutes, about 30 minutes too long. Rated G--and this really is a film for the whole family. You will find yourself, over and over again, asking, "How the heck did they get that shot?" The filmmakers claim in the opening credits that none of the flying shots were faked with special effects. This seems almost impossible to believe. You might not think that a sparsely narrated film that consists almost entirely of birds flying and nesting would be fascinating, but you've never seen birds flying as they do in this film: right alongside you. And from below. And from above. A truly remarkable feat of filmmaking, and worth a special trip to see.

Swimming Pool

You want the facts? Go to the Internet Movie Database

OK, first the good news. Charlotte Rampling is still easy on the eyes, and fun to listen to in French or English, even when she's acting like a bitch. At 102 minutes, this film is exactly the right length.It is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language, some violence and drug use.

Well, there's hard R and there's soft R, and if you consider a film in which the youthful protagonist spends about half of her screen time naked from the waist up (and some of it vividly simulating sex) to be sexier than you want to see with your daughter, you'd be right in my book. The trailer makes it look like a murder mystery, and it is that. But it is also a sexy love story and also an examination of the writer's mind. And there's a twist ending that makes absolutely no sense (feel free to write me if you disagree).

A very adult film with some pretty good performances and a modestly intriguing story line that gets much more intriguing after you've seen the last five minutes. An adequate film, not a great one. But of course even an adequate foreign film is less of an insult to your intelligence than most America films.

Lara Croft II: Cradle of Life

You want the facts? Go to the Internet Movie Database

Speaking of an insult to your intelligence! What a difference Hollywood can make. While 102 minutes of semi-French filmmaking, even just-adequate French filmmaking, seems about right, the last half hour of Lara Croft is a waste of time so total as to make one wonder where the refund window is--you know, the one where I can go to ask for that half-hour of my life back?

Angelina Jolie, unquestionably the reigning weirdest woman in Hollywood, at least doesn't embarrass herself as she did in the first film. There is a modicum of plot, and you can only drive an SUV, not a sem-tractor trailer through the holes in the it. The special effects are good, not great. Aren't special effects the price of admission these days? The whole thing just struck me as kind of bloodless and derascinated. I was not engaged, to put it mildly. I am not ready, as were some local critics, to call it the worst film of the summer, but it is in competition for the title. Go see Winged Migration, you'll have a better time.

The film runs 118 minutes and is rated PG-13 for action violence and some sensuality.

The Countdown

Neal Vitale always has good ideas. He noted its about time to start the Oscar countdown (even though we all "know" that only films released in December win Oscars, due to the academy's collective short attention span/ADD/Alzheimer's), with the only two contenders so far being:

Best Picture:
Seabiscuit, Finding Nemo

In other categories, my favorite films so far this year are:

Indie Film:
Whale Rider, The Hard Word

Spellbound, Winged Migration, Lost in La Mancha

Narration by a dead person:

Bend it like Beckham

A Mighty Wind


Dalton on Religion and Politics, Coquet on the Pentagon, Grobstein on Everything

Richard Dalton got this from a friend.

Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus :Growing Number Says Islam Encourages Violence Among Followers (Pew Research Center for The People & The > Press, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life)

Also, I asked him why he doesn't have a blog. After a day or two, I got this thoughtful response:

Have you thought about the possible relationship of Blogs and Reality TV? What is it that has moved so many people to live vicariously through the lives of the famous (from Madonna and the Osbournes through Anna Nicole Smith) to the much more ordinary lives of bloggers?

Is this evidence that we are so involved in media "reality" that the day-to-day stuff (our lives) aren't as interesting anymore?

Peggy Coquet found this in the column Today's papers (the story was also in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times and probably most other US papers):

The LAT and NYT front a quite creative new plan by the Pentagon to begin taking bets on events in the Middle East--terrorism, coups, whatever--and use the collective wisdom of the quasi-stock-market as a tool to guess about the future. (Standard disclaimer: This is not a joke.) The potential market program, which was revealed yesterday by two Democratic senators, is being overseen by the Information Awareness Office, the same geniuses who last year proposed electronically spying on all Americans to smoke out terrorists. As the NYT makes clear, the proposal--for which the White House requested $8 mil for 2005--isn't likely to go far: "Republican officials in the Senate were privately shaking their heads over the planned trading." Before it's gone, take a look at the program's Web site--particularly, appreciate the early '80s motif.

Well, I may surprise some of you when I say that is far from the dumbest idea the Bush administration has hatched, and I don't mean to just damn it with faint comparative praise. There actually is something to gaming theory, and this might improve our ability to predict bad events. The collective wisdom of a large group of people (eg: the stock market) is almost always better at predicting the future than a smaller number of people, especially if the future being predicted involves the behavior of a large group of people.

In any case, as you know by now, this program was shut down as soon as word of it became public.

The Dan Grobstein File:

  • Did war compromise al-Qaida hunt? NBC News has learned that some senior terrorism experts are questioning whether the U.S. could have done much more to go after Osama Bin Laden if the U.S. had not diverted counter-terrorism resources away from Afghanistan and into Iraq. (MSNBC)

You read it here first; this item appeared on June 23 in PSACOT

  • As the legal counsel to Texas Governor George W. Bush, Alberto R. Gonzales-now the White House counsel, and widely regarded as a likely future Supreme Court nominee-prepared fifty-seven confidential death-penalty memoranda for Bush's review. Never before discussed publicly, the memoranda suggest that Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise Bush of some of the most salient issues in the cases at hand. The Texas Clemency Memos (The Atlantic Monthly).

Now, this from the Washington Post (based on the same article, dated July 28:

  • Justice Executed, Texas-Style by Peter Carlson. "After reading [the] article, and [the administration response], it's hard not to conclude that both Gonzales and Bush were rather callous, even cavalier, about the most profound decision any government official can make -- the decision to kill another human being." (The Washington Post)

Editor's Note:

Contemporaneous reporting--when Bush allowed Karla Tucker to become the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War--also supports the belief that Bush was callous about executions. According to an AP story printed in USA Today on June 2, 2000:

In a magazine interview during the GOP primaries, Bush was quoted as mocking Tucker's plea for a reprieve. He also raised eyebrows by chuckling - nervously, supporters said - when asked in a debate about inequalities in death penalty cases.

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