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

December 13, 2004: P.S. A Column On Things

December 13, 2004 Vol. 6, No. 49

Table of Contents:

General News

  • Winter Break
  • Later and Later
  • Marlow in the Netherlands
  • Political Notes

Computer Industry News

  • Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs


  • Holiday Eating Tips


  • Closer
  • Guest Review: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou


  • Grammar, Teaching and TV (a Sullivan find), Dan Grobstein File

General News

Winter Break

Winter "don't call it Christmas" Break is coming up, and I will be in Europe (Netherlands and Spain) with the whole family. Don't worry; we have a housesitter to keep the cats company. For sure, I will miss the Dec. 20 and Dec. 27 editions of the newsletter, and may be too jetlagged (or too buried in Spam) to do Jan. 3. In case that is the case, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

My students, of course, are getting increasingly restless with each passing day. At the Jewish day school where she volunteered, Rae called it "Channukah Fever." I guess in our predominantly Christian (by background if not practicing) school, it would be "Christmas Fever," or, more properly "two weeks off fever." Anyway, it should be an interesting week. Too bad I won't be able to tell you about it for two weeks.

Later and Later

Sometimes this column was posted on Saturday night. A few times on Sunday night. It's been a year since, despite its Monday date, it was posted on a Monday on a regular basis. Well, Saturday I was in LA visiting my mother-in-law, and Sunday I had a concert to announce and another one to rehearse for. I make no apologies. Oh wait, I just did make apologies. How can life get busier, I find myself asking. No answer, except it does.

Marlow in The Netherlands

Marlow is in The Netherlands right now, at Leiden University, working on her degree in International Relations. Here's what's new from her: she's in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen is ok. It is a lot like the Netherlands. Part of Copenhagen is even built on canals and called little Amsterdam. Everyone here is even taller and blonder than in the Netherlands, and they somehow even speak better English, and it is hard to beat the Dutch. I went to Christiania, the Free City inside Copenhagen. It was actually a bit of a let down, apparently there has been a lot of crack downs lately, so a lot of the 'ambience' has been destroyed, and because the commune has some set residential rules the people hanging around in the restaurant and bars looked like they'd been there since the seventies rather than being fresh blood. I bought a couple of trinkets to support the anarchists and then wandered around for awhile. I came back to the hotel and took a nap. For the last couple of hours I've been walking around the main pedestrian streets and the university. I bought a sweater, a hackey sack, and a silver ring. I'm hoping to do more jewelry shopping tomorrow and maybe see a museum. There are churches everywhere, and a little island that is full of parliament buildings and other large sights, but I haven't been inside any of 'em, I might go back and see parliament in session tomorrow. Two of the buildings here actually have very interesting spires, one looks like a spiral staircase and the other is made of the entwined tails of three dragons facing down towards the street. Otherwise, much of the time it looks kind of like the Netherlands without the canals. Copenhagen definitely has big streets for cars too though, which Amsterdam lacks, but Rotterdam has. People here actually obey the walking signals. No one jaywalks, everyone signals, even when they're just stopping on their bike. Weird. Luckily I overheard some people on the plane here talking about that, so I have avoided getting screamed at by the locals.

I might just rent a bike tomorrow and see whatever is left tomorrow. I don't know. I feel vaguely nauseous and I don't know why. It is hard to want to eat smørgasbord, even Danishes give me pause. I thought I was getting over being sick.

Political Notes

Richard Dalton writes:

Maybe someone can inject some reality into the bloated Homeland Security boondoggle. I thought about this on a recent Amtrak ride from Providence, RI to New York.

Living on Cape Cod, I'm about the same distance from Boston's Logan airport as from T.F. Green airport outside Providence. Either way, I have to budget an hour beyond commute times to allow for early morning security checks at the airports. Instead, I board an Acela train and 2 hours and 46 minutes later, I'm in Penn Station.

"Security" at the Providence Amtrak station is a single rent-a-cop, typically drinking coffee and chatting with a friendly passenger (or a "terrorist," for all he knows). I go to the track 5 minutes before departure and board with a brief case, suitcase, steamer trunk or all three--doesn't matter, nothing is searched.

I'm sure the train I usually ride carries at least as many passengers as the typical commuter jet. Do our Homeland Security boffins really believe that terrorists can"t figure out the security disparity between airports and Amtrak stations?

Yet we continue to tighten airport security to the point where it is infuriating and often insulting. I love hopping along, trying to put on my shoes, zip my carry-on, and still make it to the departure gate before it closes. So far, I have escaped being "patted down."

I know I'm not going to take Amtrak cross-country. But there's no question I'll use it for NY trips: it's cheaper, more comfortable, faster (portal-to-portal), and I can escape being treated as a dangerous suspect.

On a different subject, Dalton also writes:

I know I keep harping about Iraq war costs, but since they are now approaching $150 billion (even with devalued dollars, that's a lot), according to the folks at

If we weren't wasting these dollars on a purposeless war, we could use the money to fund (take your pick):

One year of health insurance for 87 million kids.
One year of Head Start for 20 million kids
2.6 million more teachers (K-12)
1.3 million public housing units
Immunizations for every child in the world for 49 years

Anybody for a change?

I'd say nearly half the people in the country favored change but we (apparently, possibly) got outvoted.


Last week, I sent all my regular readers a request for help finding computer scientists to go to Ohio to investigate voter fraud. A conservative Democratic friend of mine told me to get over it, and remember Dick Daley and John Kennedy. In a similar, but more detailed vein, Tom Hunt wrote:

I think you'll find that without some sort of paper trail, there will be no way to know if there was any tampering. With no paper trail, there is nothing to compare tallies to and it's already been demonstrated that the voting software is vulnerable.

I think a better use of time and effort would be to push for some sort of verification with electronic voting. Some way to create a paper trail so that machines could be checked.

Short of finding the dastardly Republican that ordered the vote rigging and sweating him under a hot light, I don't see where anything will ever be proved, one way or the other.

I'm sympathetic to the frustration but I think we have to accept that we lost. John Kerry was NOT the best candidate and he and his advisers didn't run the best campaign. Their response to the Swift boat allegations was way too slow and way too weak. Privacy was never a core issue, nor was openness in government. And what about the Haliburton contracts? If that had happened under the Clinton administration, there would have been six different investigations and 3 special prosecutors.

The Republicans scared the public into re-electing them and the Democrats were never able to come up with a message that sank home with the majority of voters. Look at how many people still believe that Saddam had something to do with Sept 11th and that he was close to launching nuclear weapons at the US. Look at the number of people that are cheered by the security theater put on by the government but who are actually no safer than they were on Sept 10th. Many believe that since they're not dead yet, it must be because W is at the helm. They never stop to think that the odds of being killed by a terrorist in the US is still infinitesimal. They're much more likely to be killed by a drunk on the highway. So we spend millions on security at airports and can't pass the simplest of laws to get drunks off the road.

I've gotten more conservative as I've gotten older. I think that's a natural progression. But along with personal and fiscal responsibility, we also need to look after those less fortunate. I think people ought to be able to own guns but I don't think EVERYONE ought to be able to own a gun. And I don't think that having to wait a few days makes any difference. And whatever you want to say about Republicans and big business goes double for Democrats and lawyers. (Been to lately?)

I don't know what the answer is but I know that neither W nor John Kerry is it. I think education is the only answer. When people become able to intelligently analyze speeches, statements and positions taken by their representatives and to understand what really motivates them, we may have a chance. But the way things are going in the public schools, I'm not optimistic. (My wife has been a 3rd grade teacher for 26 years in Georgia.)



Computer Industry News

Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs

Animal house: for a long time in the history of natural science, considerable effort went into proving how different we magnificent humans were from the "lower" animals. One such old saw was that only humans use tools, a quaintly laughable exercise in fooling ourselves. (Maybe the distinction is that humans are the only animals who think they are better than the rest of the animals.) Two items on tool-using animals this week: Wild Monkeys Resort to Use of Tools and Crows as Clever as Great Apes, Study Says. We all know that natural ecologies are complex and interdependent webs, but recent fascinating work (AP story and press release) by William Ripple and Robert Beschta really brought that concept home. Without having watched it happen, it would have next to impossible to guess that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone would have profound effects on the growth of trees and the population of fish. Finally, this touching story about mourning gorillas: Gorillas hold 'wake' for group's leader.

Cosmic debris, proto-exo-planets, solar planetoids and local rumblings: NASA Telescopes Find Dust Rings Around Planet-Bearing Stars. Quaoar may be volcanically active: Big KBO got a face-lift. Precursors of The Big One?: Deep Tremors Detected Along San Andreas Fault.

Technobits: Perry Pei-Yuan Wei on Eolas vs Microsoft, and the Viola Prior Art and Appeals court ponders Microsoft patent case --- phishing fallout: Trying to Reach Customers in an Era of E-Mail Suspicion --- Peter Jacso's Review of Google Scholar --- Chief Privacy Officers --- PlayStation3 in 2006 with Nvidia graphics --- good non-geeky overview of BitTorrent, the current king of file sharing technology --- Firefox v. ads --- Spyware on My Machine? So What? --- "cross-site scripting vulnerability" --- GM virus-based immunotherapy for brain cancer --- nanotech solar hydrogen --- life extension: pro and con --- rumor: IBM to buy Apple --- Cluster Ballooning just like Curious George.


Holiday Eating Tips

You know how some people only send you dumb humor? My friend Don Davis only emails really funny stuff. Like this:

1. Avoid carrot sticks. Anyone who puts carrots on a holiday buffet table knows nothing of the Christmas spirit. In fact, if you see carrots, leave immediately. Go next door, where they're serving rum balls.

2. Drink as much eggnog as you can. And quickly. Like fine single-malt scotch, it's rare. In fact, it's even rarer than single-malt scotch. You can't find it any other time of year but now. So drink up! Who cares that it has 10,000 calories in every sip? It's not as if you're going to turn into an eggnog-aholic or something. It's a treat. Enjoy it. Have one for me. Have two. It's later than you think. It's Christmas!

3. If something comes with gravy, use it. That's the whole point of gravy. Gravy does not stand alone. Pour it on. Make a volcano out of your mashed potatoes. Fill it with gravy. Eat the volcano. Repeat.

4. As for mashed potatoes, always ask if they're made with skim milk or whole milk. If it's skim, pass. Why bother? It's like buying a sports car with an automatic transmission.

5. Do not have a snack before going to a party in an effort to control your eating. The whole point of going to a Christmas party is to eat other people's food for free. Lots of it. Hello?

6. Under no circumstances should you exercise between now and New Year's. You can do that in January when you have nothing else to do. This is the time for long naps, which you'll need after circling the buffet table while carrying a 10-pound plate of food and that vat of eggnog.

7. If you come across something really good at a buffet table, like frosted Christmas cookies in the shape and size of Santa, position yourself near them and don't budge. Have as many as you can before becoming the center of attention. They're like a beautiful pair of shoes. If you leave them behind, you're never going to see them again.

8. Same for pies. Apple. Pumpkin. Mincemeat. Have a slice of each. Or, if you don't like mincemeat, have two apples and one pumpkin. Always have three. When else do you get to have more than one dessert? Labor Day?

9. Did someone mention fruitcake? Granted, it's loaded with the mandatory celebratory calories, but avoid it at all cost. I mean, have some standards.

10. One final tip: If you don't feel terrible when you leave the party or get up from the table, you haven't been paying attention. Reread tips; start over, but hurry, January is just around the corner.

Remember this motto to live by:

"Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO HOO what a ride!'"




So you ask yourself, how could a movie directed by Mike Nichols and starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts go wrong? Well, the answer is that it goes a little wrong, but not a long wrong. The reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle hit it on the head; Roberts' performance here is not among her best. Jude Law is a little better. Portman, on the other hand, sparkles in a way sure to attract Oscar's attention, as does Clive Owen. Unlike the newspaper though, I have to wonder if Mike Nichols is such a good director that he got exactly the performance he wanted.

The movie is clever and beautiful, although its content is on beyond coarse. I guess it got an R because you can't get an NC-17 for verbal descriptions of sex acts usually found only in porno films, but there are some rough scenes in this twisted tale of lies and betrayal. Thank goodness my daughter Rae had the good sense to say "this isn't the kind of movie I want to see with you, dad." Nothing is shown, but everything is talked about, in alarming detail. Probably Nichols' best work since the similarly themed Carnal Knowledge back in 1971. But Patrick Marber, who adapted this movie from his play, is no Jules Fieffer. In the movies' never-ending struggle to dramatize Instant Message exchanges, this film may contain the best effort yet.

Guest Review: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

(opens this week, but Neal's already seen it so you don't have to)

Despite a fairly short filmography, Wes Anderson has made a name for himself with quirky works such as Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums. Unfortunately, The Life Aquatic will add nothing positive to that reputation - it is a silly, pointless, and inane attempt at comedy. Bill Murray reprises his damaged, world-weary persona from Lost In Translation as fading oceanographer Steve Zissou, and he is surrounded by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Harold and Maude's Bud Cort, and Willem Dafoe - to no avail. I could try to focus on a few nice, small touches - several old David Bowie songs joining new work by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh in the soundtrack, Brazilian singer Seu Jorge's acoustic cover versions of Bowie in Portuguese, animated undersea creatures - but why bother? It would only make The Life Aquatic sound better than it is. This film feels like it was shot without a script, and leaves you wondering why and how it ever got made.

--Neal Vitale


Grammar, Teaching and TV (a Sullivan find), Dan Grobstein File

Some points I must insist upon from the Christian Science Monitor.

Kevin Sullivan found a cool article on teaching and tv. One line that's true from my own experience: "It wasn't until I became a teacher that I began to be driven crazy by TV. I soon discovered I could tell which kids were heavy TV watchers. They showed signs of being radically incomplete as human beings, as if their growth had been artificially retarded."


Dan Grobstein File

New York Times

  • Cellphones Aloft: The Inevitable Is Closer. I remember John Taylor showing me the first article on cellular telephony back in the late 70s or early 80s in the Bell System Technical Journal. Another one of those cases of "who knew?"

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