Thursday, December 30, 2004

More On Morality and Law

I came across an interesting post by Judge Richard Posner on the question that i debated with myself a while back. Good read, and considerably more informed than my own opinion.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Imperial Hubris

I finally finished reading Michael Scheuer's book Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror. A bit of background: the book was originally published anonymously because Scheuer was a veteran of the CIA and that was the condition demanded by his employer. Scheuer left the CIA not long after the book came out. Although he says it was voluntary, i've seen claims on the Internet ranging from a) his departure was CIA grandstanding intended to draw attention to agency concerns over lack of funding and influence to b) he was incompetent and needed to be purged along with all of the other chaff that Porter Goss so wisely swept away. I'm taking the content of the book and Scheuer's claims at face value, meaning that i think the facts could certainly be interpreted differently but i believe the sources from which the author draws (which are supposedly all publicly available) are factual and not hoaxes, speculation, or flights of fancy.

The book repeats several themes throughout the book. The first is that our government has failed to understand that Al Qaeda is not a terrorist organization, but rather a global insurgency. The distinction, the author claims, is that we treat terrorist organizations with a law enforcement approach, using the special forces and intelligence agencies to go after the perceived terrorist leaders, while we should instead treat the enemy as a well-trained military force that needs to be confronted with forces sufficient to overwhelm and decimate it. Scheuer cites evidence showing that the so-called terrorist training camps that we've all heard about did in fact provide more general military training with the intention of developing a conventional military force.

A second point that Scheuer repeatedly emphasizes is that bin Laden is not a murderous thug using radical Islam to justify his attempts to destroy Western culture. Rather he argues that bin Laden and Al Qaeda oppose specific US policies toward the Muslim world and not Western freedoms and individuality per se. The Islamists oppose US support for Israel, the US presence in Islamic countries, and US support of oppressive regimes in the middle east (e.g., Saudi Arabia). These policies, Scheuer argues, have enabled bin Laden to frame his actions in terms of a defensive jihad, and idea that has legitimacy in Islamic teachings and growing support in the Islamic world.

Scheuer's assessment of bin Laden is probably the most unsettling part of the book, and also probably the reason why it has not been given the attention that i would have expected. Scheuer casts bin Laden as not only a pious Muslim and a highly capable leader, but also as a classic Islamic hero who is admired even by those who disagree with his actions. At one point in the book he refers to bin Laden as a "great man", though he takes care to note that he means this in the sense of a person who has changed history. However, he also says that "there is no reason, based on the information at hand, to believe that bin Laden is anything other than what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim who is blessed with sound strategic and tactical judgement..., a reluctant but indispensable bloody-mindedness, and extraordinary patience". Given that Susan Sontag was excoriated for suggesting that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards, i'm surprised that Scheuer hasn't been dragged through the Fox News muck for such an assertion.

Scheuer opposes the war in Iraq, though it would be a stretch to say that this is an anti-war book. His opposition to the Iraq war is based in part on the concern that it's costing us people and resources, but more so on the idea that it's bolstering the claims of bin Laden and other Islamists that the US is systematically pursuing policies to destroy Islamic cultures (he calls the war a "Christmas gift" for bin Laden). Although those sound like the same arguments used by anti-war liberals, Scheuer is no pacifist. He rails against the Bush administration more for not prosecuting the war in Afghanistan quickly enough; for waiting to establish some sort of global alliance rather than going into Afghanistan immediately after September 11 when there was still an opportunity to do some damage to bin Laden's forces. (He spends large sections of the book on the failure of our government to understand the realities of fighting a war in Afghanistan and to learn from the experiences of the Soviet Union and others). But Scheuer concedes that we probably will not change our policies toward the Islamic world, and so he contends that our remaining option is to fight the war more aggressively and to accept that we must kill many people, lose many soldiers, and spend many years and much treasure in the attempt (he especially likes drawing parallels to the US Civil War). He also states that we must temporarily set aside concerns about the environment so that we can reduce our dependence on middle-eastern oil, which is to say that he thinks we should extract oil from ANWR and develop nuclear energy.

One of the scarier and more controversial claims in the book is that bin Laden has sought and received sanction from Islamic scholars to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States as part of his defensive jihad (i will resist the temptation to point out the irony of Al Qaeda attempting to use WMD as a preemptive strike in a defensive conflict. Or maybe i won't). The book claims that bin Laden needed "Islamic grounding" for the idea of using WMD against the US, and he found it in a treatise written by a Saudi cleric named Shaykh Nasir bin Hamid al Fahd. Basically, this document posits the notion that Western cultures could be held responsible for the deaths of millions of Muslims, and so the use of WMD against the US would be justified by principles in the Koran. I found one internet pundit who derides this claim-- stating that it's absurd to think that bin Laden could be given "permission" to use WMD against the US-- though i think he misses the point.

My favorite section of the book deals with the idea of the US attempting to transplant democracy into occupied countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, which Scheuer regards as tremendously misguided. I've heard arguments against the notion before, but they've tended to be either patronizing assertions that the countries in question lack the necessary cultural maturity, or "Prime Directive"-style arguments that insist that we should leave other countries alone to develop in their own time. Scheuer's argument is an extension of these ideas but is more sophisticated and persuasive. Roughly he argues that the democracy-in-a-box advocates ignore the long and bloody history that lead to the democracy in the US. Our democracy, he contends, doesn't just go back to the US Civil War or the American Revolution; but to conflicts that unfolded centuries before in the countries of our ancestors, to the influences that set the stage for philosophical arguments in favor of individual liberty and self-government that eventually manifested themselves in the actions of our country's founders. I prefer this argument because it doesn't assume that democracy is a predestined conclusion, an instinctive human desire, or even the highest form of social organization. It explains why countries in Eastern Europe were able and willing to move toward democratic structures, while other areas of the world with radically different cultural histories are resistant to it.

The book contrasts starkly with what we see, hear, and read on a daily basis in the various media. I regard this to be valuable, others will no doubt view it as evidence that Scheuer lacks objectivity or has simply failed to make his point. If you watch C-SPAN or CNN or Fox, if you read the newspaper or political blogs, if you listen to conservative radio or NPR you will come away with the idea that we've succeeded in Afghanistan, that Al Qaeda and bin Laden are extreme fringe elements within Islam bent on destroying our way of life, and that our goals in Iraq will be achieved if we can simply make it to democratic elections. According to Scheuer we have failed miserably in Afghanistan, allowing Al Qaeda and the Taleban to escape essentially unscathed and able to reestablish authority in the country as soon as we remove our forces. He says that despite the successes we've had against the Al Qaeda leadership, that it's actually a flourishing organization that we've helped to flourish by virtue of the policies we continue to pursue in the Islamic world. Democracy will not survive in these places he says, unless we are committed to an essentially permanent and expanding occupation of the countries, which places in question whether it's democracy at all.

There's much in this book that makes me uncomfortable. I don't like the idea that to win the war against the insurgency we must essentially kill enough of the enemy to remove their capacity or will to fight; though i have no argument against it other than Scheuer's own: change our policies in the Middle East so that the conflict has no basis. I don't know how we could meaningfully change the US stance toward Israel as Scheuer suggests, since the Al Qaeda position is that it must be destroyed. I don't agree with Scheuer that we must stop being so squeamish about losing US soldiers because they are, as he says, professional soldiers who know the consequences of their profession of choice. I don't agree that we need to exhibit more "manliness" in our execution of war.

On balance though i find myself persuaded by many of Scheuer's arguments. Probably my favorite quote that the author uses in the book is this gem from John Adams:
America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her own example. She well knows that by once enlisting under banners other than her own, were they even banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, ambition, which assumed the colors and usurped the standards of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.
This neatly sums up why i personally oppose our actions in the Middle East. More evidence that the founding fathers were simply smarter than we.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Food Poisoning

As a youth, when i lived in the middle of nowhere, there'd be occasional episodes in which some dipshit would Everclear himself into a near-death experience. This type of alcohol overdose is commonly referred to as "alcohol poisoning", which seems a poor choice of words to me. When i think of poisoning i imagine a bite taken from an apple, or a bite given from a spider, or maybe a bad mushroom. I imagine an event by which you introduce small amounts of some toxic substance involuntarily or unwittingly into your bloodstream, but not pouring quantities of vile-tasting swill down your gullet.

However, if that can be called alcohol poisoning, then i think i can claim to be suffering from food poisoning. Not the salmonella/e.coli/bad mayonnaise sort of food poisoning, but rather the sort that results from increasing one's caloric intake by an order of magnitude for a period of at least a few days. As a runner, i'm used to eating 3000+ calories a day ; but over this last weekend i went completely off the charts. For Christmas dinner this year we had duck and ham and numerous varieties of carbohydrates, including my mom-in-law's arroz valenciana. My sister-in-law Eleanor (aka Bing), brought wine from the chateau in France that she was helping to restore earlier this year. We had apple pie and plates of cookies. I am the hapless victim of cookie poisoning.

The next day Emily's cousin Rinky and his family came down from Riverside, and we had Filipino food (lumpia, pancit, arroz). Bing made sangria, and for reasons that escape me we had an entire buffet of deserts: cookies, pie, cheesecake, cream puffs with whipped cream. Good lord, i definitely have cheesecake poisoning.

During most of the year i have decent willpower, but at the holidays i turn into Mr. Creosote. Anyone care for a mint?

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Jumping in To Save George

Christmas, 2004. I posted a few family pictures here.

The kids got up before the crack of dawn, or at least it seemed like it. We still haven't developed any Christmas traditions, so the present-opening carnage unfolded quickly and chaotically. Think feeding frenzy. We went to 9am mass (because of the wife and kids i am among the world's most devoutly Catholic agnostics) and then we came home to begin the eating. Most of the rest of the day is lost in a haze of constant eating and drinking. I think i watched a basketball game on TV, and i spent some time playing with the Indo Board, our communal present.

I talked to my dad today and he said it was 15-below in Indiana last night. It was about 70 here today, but i didn't have the heart to tell him. Although i don't miss the cold, i do miss Christmas in Indiana, since my best memories are from the farm where i grew up. The only present i remember getting from those days is, strangley enough, a bb-gun. It was a fairly high-powered gun, rather than the Red Rider style gun from A Christmas Story, but still. What i do remember is my mom getting up to make turn-overs, one of the handful of times during the year when she'd cook. I remember my sister and i trying to guess what the presents were, and the orderly process of disbursing presents. I remember the Gregg shorthand that my mom would use to mark the packages so that she could remember what was inside. I remember Christmas dinner at the huge old dining table that we only used at the holidays. I remember the annual visit from my great aunts, Vi and Corinne; and trips to my cousins' house. I remember the cookies.

I watched It's A Wonderful Life again this year. I think Jimmy Stewart as George is just great (and i love most of his other films too); but i like Clarence the angel better for some reason. George is all about doing the right thing and sacrificing for the community, yadda yadda yadda. But Clarence goes for the grand gestures, like altering the space-time continuum just to prove his point, and jumping into the river to save George (and Ward Bond wrestling Henry Travers to the ground has to be one of the greatest character-actor scuffles of all time).

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

First Day With The New Brain

I got me a Dell dude (sorry, i just couldn't resist). Yesterday afternoon i got my new Dell Dimension 4700 and my very first flat-panel monitor. On paper, it's more powerful than the first Cray that i worked on (a Cray XP- no relation to Windows XP): 1Gb of memory, 80 Gb of disk, a P4 at about 3GHz, all in a box about the size of a photo album. Of course, the Cray could still crunch numbers faster, but it's amusing to think back on the huge disk farm we had to support 40Gb of storage.

The good things are the small form factor and the speed. I haven't really worked it out yet, but there are numerous hints that it's pretty darn quick. Firefox is so fast starting up, that i wasn't convinced that it was actually getting loaded from disk and not just swapped in from the background. I also like the flat panel, though the text is not as crisp as i'd like, which seems to be a general problem with flat-panel displays. I think the overall footprint of both the computer and the monitor is still smaller than the footprint of the old monitor. It's got a bunch of USB ports, including a couple on the front. It was way easy to drop it on my network.

The bad: it's noisy. I'm not sure if it has a traditional fan, or one of the disk drive motor fans or what, but when it's quiet in the room it sounds like somebody revving a Harley. When the boys are in the room, it'll be unnoticeable; but late at night it's going to bother me. I'm also getting a strange "Power Surge on Hub Port" message, which seems to be spurious. I did a bit of checking on the web and early indications are that this might be a problem with Windows XP SP2. Since i've only got a keyboard and mouse plugged into the USB ports, i'm reasonably sure that it's not a real power surge. It's also curious that it only occurs when the system has been sleeping for a while, and it goes away after a few minutes. Fortunately, USB warnings can be turned off.

The other major thumbs down is for the DVD/CD-ROM drive. Because i've got the small form factor and i've got it sitting vertically, the drive is also vertical. To get a CD into the drive, you have to support the drive tray with one hand and press the disk onto it. This is going to be a disaster with my boys. I might have to get an external drive just to avoid destroying it. Unfortunately, a lot of game manufacturers require that you have the CD-ROM in the drive to run the game (stupid,stupid,stupid). I'm not too keen on running a drive emulator even though i've got plenty of disk. Yet another example of an idiotic protective measure taken by a software company that primarily inconveniences the paying customer.

My first personal computer 20 years ago had 64Kb of memory and two 360Kb disk drives. The vendor gave us a free box of 10 360Kb floppy disks (5-1/4), and we wondered how we'd ever manage to use them all. That processor's clock was just less than 4 MHz. Oddly enough though, i'm struck more by the similarities than the vast differences. The form of the personal computer has changed very little, and the way that we use it is only different because of the emergence of the Internet. I really thought that by this point in time computing would be a sort of utility that we'd plug our portable display devices into. I suppose it's reaching that point, but there's much work still to be done on simple connectivity, portability of information, and ruggedness of devices.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Today is my 41st birthday. It's not an interesting age, but at least it's a prime number. I also realized that 41 in hexadecimal just happens to be 29, which means that i'm the world's largest geek.

I did my annual birthday bike ride today, joined this time by my friends Cathy and Mark. I think this is the 13th straight year i've done the ride, excepting my 33rd birthday when i was in the Philippines. We rode from my house northward through the town of Escondido and then up Old Highway 395. The initial plan was to go to Temecula, but after encountering some much larger than expected hills on the way north, we decided to stop at the quaintly named town of Rainbow, just south of the San Diego-Riverside county line.

We had lunch at the restaurant in Rainbow and got some water at the neighboring market. The folks in Rainbow were pretty nice, given that we were dressed in goofy spandex outfits and probably didn't smell that good. And lord, what a beautiful day it was. Blue skies, warm air, and the whole of north county is green where it's supposed to be and autumnal where it's not.

We started south around noon. It was mostly downhill for the first few miles, until just past the Pala reservation. If you know the approach to San Diego on the 15 you'll probably recall a huge, arcing bridge that crosses over the freeway as you're driving up a long, steep hill. Riding up the corresponding hill on 395 was fairly tough. There's another hard hill, less steep but very long, just after you pass the Lawrence Welk resort (yeah, the guy on TV with the bubbles that your grandma watches). After that it was a fairly easy ride, except i think this must have been Official Freaky Shit in the Bike Lane day in Escondido. There were big holes, tree limbs, parts of a screen door, and a large young gentlemen who looked like a cross between Edgar Winter and Frankenstein (at least he did at 40 miles/hour).

A pretty good ride, though to paraphrase a bumper sticker the worst day biking beats the best day working. We did about 70 miles, climbed some decent hills, suffered no road rash or redneck rage, and had only one flat. Not an epic-size ride, but a decent workout in preparation for the Palms Spring Century in February.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Off To Sea

My older son Nathan (he's 10) is spending the next two days on a sailing ship, the Californian, which is moored in San Diego harbor. They even get to help sail it tomorrow. He's pretty excited because he gets to be a mate, which in this case means he has his own crew to boss around. He's been spending the last week learning to speak nautical (port, starboard, block, tackle, fo'c'sle, etc.) and practicing his knots. This is so much cooler than the field trips we had when I was in 5th grade. I think we went to the Eckrich meat plant. I haven't eaten baloney since.

His class has been studying the American revolution, so they're trying to simulate the culture of the late 18th century during the trip. Part of the experience involves reading "letters from home", which are written by the parents. Writing the letter was harder than i expected. I tried to emulate the tone and style of letters from the period, but i chose to ignore the orthography and i eliminated any formal thees and thous. I tried to weave in some of the family history by inventing a family living in the Indiana Territory who had moved from Connecticit (i had ancestors in Danbury long ago, who did in fact move to Ohio). I found a historical tidbit about Henry Hamilton leading troops down the Maumee River to meet George Rogers Clark's troops at Vincennes in 1778. I figured this might be something that would be observed by local settlers, so i included something about this as "news" about the war.

Yesterday Nathan's school orchestra gave a concert (he plays cello). It was not easy to listen to. The music had been reduced to very slow, scale-like passages so that the players could manage to stay together. Since Nathan plays in a far more advanced string ensemble he was visibly bored. Anyway, it started me thinking about Aubrey and Maturin in the Patrick O'Brian series of books about the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars. Aubrey, the captain, plays violin; and Maturin, the ship's surgeon, plays cello. They'd bring their instruments on each voyage and play together to entertain themselves. I was explaining this to Nathan, and i noticed he looked panicked, so i had to assure him that i wasn't going to make him take his cello with him on the trip.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Why Does My Job Suck?

I work in the software industry, and my job sucks. To be fair, my job doesn't really suck in any objective sense. It's fairly low stress, pays well enough, has flexible hours, and in my particular case i get to listen to a lot of music. But many days i'd just as soon not do it. This is not an isolated phenomenon. I've got numerous friends in the same industry who are at the same stage. It just isn't that much fun anymore.

There's nothing more self-indulgent and whiney than complaining about your job when your job is far better than what most people have to put up with. So screw you, get your own damn blog. No, but seriously, this is of interest to me because of the uniqueness of this profession. Everybody reaches a point in their career where they'd rather just fish (where by "fish" i intend a metaphor for whatever it is that people wish to do rather than work; i don't actually like to fish). But software people are different, weird really, in a way that would probably be regarded as mental illness by folks outside the profession. Some of us have at times so loved to make software that we'd do it in our spare time for free in addition to our regular jobs. But now a lot of us would rather fish.

I've been desperately trying to figure this out, because software building is just about the only thing i've ever been able to do that people will actually pay for. In fact, my undergraduate degree is in chemistry, and if it had not been for the software boom i might have had to get a job as a chemist, which would have been unbearable to me and potentially hazardous to my colleagues.

I absolutely loved programming in the early days. Like many geeks, i'm self taught. My first experiences with computers go back to the personal computers of the late 70s, writing BASIC programs and storing them on cassette tapes. In college i spent my life savings on an IBM PC and began writing programs in 8086 assembly language. I came very close to failing out of college because i essentially skipped all of my classes during my sophomore year so that i could write programs (and play Zork). The next year, i started working as a research assistant to my p-chem professor so that i could write molecular modeling programs. That experience led to my first job at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, where i learned about Crays, Unix, C++ programming, and this funny new thing called the Internet. In 1988 there wasn't a world wide web yet, and we thought FTP was pretty cool. At that time being into computers and networking was about as cool as being into ham radio or role-playing games.

By now i've experienced almost every facet of sofware development. I worked as an engineer and a manager, i was one of the key engineers at a start-up company, i experienced all of the trends (CMM, UDP, XP) . I've done desktop software, enterprise software, internet software. I've done defense, pharmaceuticals, and e-commerce. All of these jobs had their frustrations, stress, politics, bullshit. But i never questioned if i was in the right industry until my late 30s.

After a run of about 5 years where i'd been working 6 days a week i started to realize that my health was suffering and i wasn't spending as much time with my kids as i wanted to. I tried to return to a role that was more straight engineering and less project management. It was then that i started to realize that software building wasn't that much fun anymore. I attribute this to a number of causes:
  • There's nothing new under the sun. In the early part of my career the onslaught of new technologies seemed exhilirating. Between 1985 and 1995 i went from programming in assembly language on an isolated personal computer to writing C++ programs distributed between Cray supercomputers and SGI workstations connected via high-speed network connections, to writing Java applets. Often you'd have to create new datastructures, or code your own hashmaps or btrees. We'd blithely make up our own application protocols and move stuff around over sockets. We went from clunky vector graphics on specialized workstations to interactive volume visualization. We started building web applications with cgi-bin and HTTP. However, web technologies began to dominate so much of the software landscape that it seems (to old, cynical dweebs like me) that a lot of folks have been trying to invent new ways to do it for the last decade. Imagine that the auto industry went through a decade-long process of trying to standardize the steel-belted radial, and you'll sort of get the vibe. I went through a phase where i felt like everybody in the world was working on the same integration project and i thought i could probably reduce my resume to one line: XML, metadata, transactions, messaging.
  • There's too much new stuff. On the other hand, there's been an explosion of largely redundant and overly complex software that doesn't solve any new problems. There's an illusion of progress because of the astounding number of meta-applications that are built to surround and contain the monsters we've created.
  • I didn't get rich enough to stop. There are several paths for geeks. Most geeks continue to enjoy the technology and they fashion long, happy careers from it either as engineers or managers. Some ride the wave of one or two notable successes and create careers out of being professional commentators and visionaries. Some make a lot of money, and they get to do whatever the hell they want. Somehow, i failed to do any of those despite ample opportunities.
  • It's not a prestigious career. Believe it or not there was a time when some of us in the software engineering field viewed it as a professional career on a par with being a doctor or lawyer. Now it's on a par with being a blacksmith-- honorable, interesting work if you happen to live where there are plenty of horses.
  • The Deathmarch. Orson Scott Card once wrote a comparison of software creation to bee keeping. Let the bees do there thing, 'cause the bees will be bees; and then skim off the honey when they're distracted. Somewhere along the line, people lost sight of this. Building software is odd in that attempts to manage it drive it to mediocrity. In fact, with all due respect to my peers, software management is largely about getting things done with mediocre talent. A small, talented group of programmers will build good quality, high value software because that is their nature. To manage software, you have to add process that doesn't result in creating software, and then you have to apply this to both the talented and not-so-talented workers. Unfortunately, one part of the process that most software organizations are not good at is estimating how much can be done in a given amount of time. Also unfortunately, another part of the process that most software organizations are not good at is managing the scope of the project as it progresses. The frequent result is the so-called deathmarch: a long, hard, stressful road to inevitable failure. It's not fun, which is probably why the word "death" figures so prominently in it's description.
So, anyway, i figure this is my version of a mid-life crisis. I expect it to last until i figure out what i want to do when i grow up. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Open Door

I went to the bookstore at lunch today, which reminded me of an interesting phenomenon i noticed a while back. Imagine that you are entering or leaving a public place, such as, oh, i don't know, let's say a book store. Often there will be two swinging doors, one on the right and one on the left. If both doors are closed, most people will push/pull on the rightmost door and go through it. But-- and this is the strange part that is of interest only to me and possibly other deranged people with too much time on their hands-- if one of the doors is already open, people will stop and wait to go through the open door regardless of how long it takes. Seriously. I've seen people waiting in lines in both directions, both sides trying to squeeze through the open door, while all the time there is a perfectly functional door in front of one of the two lines that simply needs to be opened.

No lo comprendo. I don't think this has the same root cause as the compulsion some people have to sit in the parking lot waiting for a spot that's 10 feet closer to the door. I suppose it could just be some spontaneous emergent phenomenon. Maybe it's a California thing; we left-coasters all exhibit certain peculiar behaviors that result from having so damn many other people around. I'll have to add this to my ever-expanding list of potential thesis topics that will never be pursued, along with "The Evolution of the Jesus Fish", "Why Did People Stop Using Turn Signals?", and "The History of Failed Computer Languages".

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Music Recommendations

For about 6 months now i've been working for one of the on-line digital music services. My personal taste in music is eclectic, which indicates either curiosity and open-mindedness, or a complete lack of discrimination. One of my main motivations for taking this job (my previous career was almost exclusively in scientific domains) was to have access to the music. Since i work in the "personalization" part of the business-- meaning that we use various techniques to determine the music that a person might like based on what they're already listening to-- i figured that i'd find all sorts of obscure artists that i'd never heard before.

Well, i did discover many obscure artists that i'd never heard before; but unfortunately that doesn't mean that i enjoyed listening to them. I managed to hear two new bands that i like-- Snow Patrol and The Dresden Dolls-- prior to their debut on local radio. (The Dresden Dolls record is excellent btw, easily my favorite of the year. They write the best lyrics i've heard in ages, and the music is unique yet still very catchy). I've also been able to listen to much more of the Wilco discography, and i've listened to a few of the related artists that i probably wouldn't have purchased otherwise (Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams). I've sampled a few of the hard-rock bands related to my personal favorite, A Perfect Circle, but the only band that i've listened to more than i probably would have otherwise is Sevendust.

But a significant majority of the artists that i've checked out as a result of an automated recommendation are obscure for good reasons. Presumably these bands have followings, since they got record deals, and it's great to have the option of listening to them on demand rather than purchasing a CD. But you'd hope that the technology would lead you to stuff that's really good and just didn't get airplay. This, after all, is the idea behind The Long Tail.

The problem with recommendations technology in music is, i think, the flipside of what makes it desirable in the first place. If you're a fan of a particular band, then it makes sense that you'd want to hear music by similar artists. But chances are that if you're a fan of a particular type of music, you already know most of the similar artists. For example, i love Duke Ellington and our service provides 94 recommended artists related to Duke Ellington. But because i'm a fan of jazz and of swing in particular, there isn't a single one of the 94 recommended artists that i haven't heard of before; and i have to go to number 38 before i find an artist whose music is not familiar to me (Bill Evans). Of course, the results are different if you start with less popular artists. For example, i like the band Giant Sand and their associated recommendations are less familiar. The top two recommendations are Cat Power and the alternative country band 16 Horsepower. Both artists are very listenable, but neither are something i'd pay money for. In the case of less popular bands, i think the peculiarities of personal taste are too hard to account for.

Books are different, i believe, because the culture of books is less fan-based and preferences are less style-based (although, i'm sure that virtually every literary critic who knows anything probably thinks i'm an idiot for stating the above). I use the Amazon recommendations fairly often. Often this is for technical or scientific books, but even with fiction i've had good success. I've bought a couple of books based on recommendations related to my purchase of books by Michael Martone, and i've been pleased in both cases (Notable American Women: A Novel by Ben Marcus, and Hideous Beauties by Lance Olsen). There's enough similarity that you understand the recommendation, but not so much that you feel like you're spending too much time in the same territory.

My main conclusion from this experience is that the existing music marketing machinery doesn't suck as badly as i always assumed it did. Pinback's Summer in Abbadon, another favorite from this year, i first heard on the radio via the single Fortress. I got into Kanye West after reading an article in the on-line publication PopMatters. I heard the new Chevelle record on the radio before i noticed it on-line, and i first heard Coheed & Cambria on Fuse! (Sure, i'm ashamed to admit that i like Coheed&Cambria and that i watch Fuse). I remember reading some on-line article a couple of years ago that argued that the record companies are valuable for acting like a filter for musical taste rather than for production and distribution capabilities. The writer argued that as soon as other filters became available (i think he promoted Bayesian statistics), the record companies would cease to be relevant. Well, one can hope, but we're not there yet.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Rainbows and Kung Fu

It rained in San Diego yesterday, but it was one of those storms that spins around and causes heavy rains in one part of the county and clear skies in another. And that means rainbows. Huge, intense, full-arc, right down to the ground rainbows. Even double rainbows.

Yesterday was also the annual White Dragon exhibition. Fairly interesting this year, a few weapons i'd not seen before, including the monk's spade, the trident, and a two-sectioned staff. Grandmaster Doc Fai Wong came down from SF and did an awesome tai chi/wu dang saber set. Sifu Lau did a "drunken" set that was amazing. Good show.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like...

Christmas. By southern California standards anyway. This morning we saw a Common Yellowthroat in the rose bushes in front of the house. I've decided that this will from now on be the signal that the yuletide season is upon us.

But the real indicator of Christmas season is the abundance of TV specials. I really like watching Rudolph, The Grinch, Frosty, etc. with my kids. It also gives me an opportunity to trot out the really bad joke i made up several years ago: What do Xmas specials and fishing tournaments have in common? They both involve Rankin' Bass. Hah! Right now we're watching The Year Without a Santa Claus. You know, the one with Heat Miser and Cold Miser. It occurred to me that in the real world, the story would have ended when the elves flew into Southtown with Vixen the reindeer. I mean come on, a deer that flies? It'd be like deer hunting and duck hunting combined into one sport. They'd have never made it to the ground alive.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Will To Fight

I was reading some blog earlier today that pissed me off. Some whack job was complaining about how the media pay so much attention to Abu Ghraib but not to the mass graves of the Hussein regime. He then proceeded to say that we shouldn't care if the rest of the world hates us, and we should just nuke the whole lot of them. Apparently, atrocity only describes what the other guys do.

Even if i ignore the stupidity and hatred in this rhetoric, what really gets me about these dick-swingers is how starkly they contrast with the people they want to nuke. Lots of bloggers and pundits can sound like real hard-asses when they know that they're sending other people's children off to fight. Many people fighting on the other side of this war are willing to fight and die, regardless of their age or economic status or their family situation. Some are even willing to send their own children to die. You might, as i do, find this to be horrible. Doesn't matter. Fact is, no matter how many weapons or soldiers we commit to the fight, the other side has the greater will to fight.

At my martial arts school we train what we call "martial spirit", usually through some sort of self-imposed suffering (like standing in a difficult stance for a long time or doing the splits). Training martial spirit gives you the edge in a fight, because you can sustain pain, injury, and fatigue and still continue to fight. The reverse is also true; to win a fight you hope to deplete the opponent's martial spirit. To win, you want to break the opponent's will to fight. The attribute of martial spirit is more important than skill, size, or strength. Sure, often Goliath beats David in individual battles, but when the opponent keeps returning regardless of the losses they've suffered, they'll eventually win the war.

List of Evil

Everybody seems to develop a compulsion to create lists near the end of the year, and i wanted to jump on the bandwagon. The normal best-of lists are tedious, and worst-of is worse, so i settled on making a list of things that i really like but am embarassed to admit i like. I call this the List of Evil, because that sounds slightly funnier than List of Silliness or List of WTF? So here goes:
  1. The band Tool. I own most of the Tool CDs and all but the most recent A Perfect Circle CD, and i listen to them fairly frequently. I still turn up the radio when they play "Sober", even 10 years after i heard for the first time. I've always had a thing for hard rock/heavy metal genre, but most of it makes me feel... stupid. Tool doesn't make me feel stupid, even if many of my fellow fans are pre-pubescent misfits. Yeah, Tool is pretentious at times, even a little creepy, and their obsession with anal sex puzzles me. They're kind of like that kid from your high-school english class who sat in the back, wearing an old army-surplus coat, writing bizarre stories in a spiral notebook. You know, the guy with a copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook, who read Charles Bukowski and smoked weed during lunch. OK, maybe that was just my high school.
  2. Conservative Blogs. I don't have any idea why, but i like to read blogs with which i disagree more than blogs with which i agree. I suppose it's the same compulsion that causes people to poke at bruises, or to go see horror movies.
  3. VH1 List Shows. This is the TV equivalent of reading a cereal box, but for some reason i still get sucked into them. The lists are pretty stupid (who could possibly care what is the 87th best heavy metal song of all time as judged by Blender magazine, or whatever). The snarky Z-list pseudo-celebrities are not funny, but there's something fun about people who nobody's ever heard of attempting to sound as if their opinion matters (its like blogging). I think the appeal is similar to eavesdropping on the conversation of people at neighboring tables in a restaurant, especially when they're talking about something exceptionally inane.
  4. Taco Bell Grilled Stuft Burrito. Even the name is stupid. This is about my 4th or 5th choice as far as fast-food burritos go, but the mere fact that anything at Taco Bell could be worth ordering is remarkable.
  5. Spy Novels. There are some authors who are lumped into the spy genre whose work i think can legitimately be considered literature, notably Alan Furst, Graham Greene and John LeCarre. But i like almost everything in this genre, from Ian Fleming to Tom Clancy to Ludlum to Forsythe. The only spy novel i've not been able to finish was one of William F. Buckley's Blackford Oakes books.
  6. The Clippers. Especially Marko Jaric. He looks like a slightly stupified fan who wandered onto the court and miraculously can hit the three.
  7. UFC. And K1 and any of the other mixed martial arts spectacles. When i watch this stuff i feel simultaneously guilty and thrilled. Like, i enjoy the fighting and the skill that many of the fighters display, but i can't shake the feeling that i'm going to hell for watching it.
  8. 7/11 Coffee. I can walk into a 7/11, pour my own damn cup of coffee, put some synthetic, flavored cream-like substance into it, maybe get a souvenir styrofoam cup, and it costs about half of what Starbucks costs. And i can also get beef jerkey. What's not to like.
  9. Jean Claude Van Damme movies. Now, i've never actually paid to see one, and i think i've seen all of the ones i've seen on the USA Network. And the movies are not good, let's make no mistake about that. But i've probably seen most of them, and i've seen all or parts of Bloodsport about a dozen times. I really don't understand this to be honest. I'd never sit through a Steven Seagal movie, and with most martial arts movies i rarely make it past the first fight scene. And i'm kind of creeped out by that bump on his forehead. I guess the good things you can say are that he looks like somebody who could actually beat the crap out of the bad guys, and he usually faces reasonably tough opponents.
  10. Windows XP. As a geek, it's humiliating to admit, but my primary system at home runs XP. If you've been with MS since the DOS days like me, you can probably appreciate what an amazing piece of work XP is, even if it does have security and performance issues. Thank god for Firefox though.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Things To Do Before You Die

There's an article that Slashdot pointed to about 100 scientifically-oriented things you should do before you die. There aren't many of them that appeal to me to be honest (i would like to touch a tiger, and i've already gone outside to peruse the night sky on innumerable occasions). I've gone through the process of deciding what i should do before age X a couple of times, at the decade markers. For some reason i decided that there were certain books i had to read before turning 30. I don't remember them all anymore, but they included Ulysses and War and Peace (i love War and Peace, btw; Ulysses was better than i expected, much more readable than i'd heard). For 40, it was various physical events: running my first marathon, doing my first 100+ mile bike ride, re-starting martial arts training.

My list of things that i'd like to do before i die is relatively short at this point in my life (which i hope is not a bad omen). I think the trick to leading a happy life is to discover new things that you want to do as you go, but there are a handful of things i'm pretty sure will remain on my list until accomplished. In no particular order these are:
  • Take a really long walk. I have in mind something like the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Appalachian Trail, though i expect there are a thousand places in the world that would suffice.
  • Reach the southern hemisphere. Although i've traveled to Europe and Asia multiple times, and i've crossed every longitude, i've never managed to get below the Equator yet (technically, i believe i've flown south of the Equator, but that doesn't count). I think the closest i've been is Bacolod in the Philippines, which is about 10 degrees north latitude. The only problem with this one is that i think i promised a friend that i'd pierce my ear if i ever crossed the Equator, but i think that only applies if i sail across it.
  • Write a book. I've had a couple of things published, including one short piece that appeared in a book; but i'd really like to go through this whole process. I don't really care what kind of book, even something technical would be adequate.
  • Become fluent in another language. I've got bits of Russian, and a fair comprehension of Spanish; but i'd really like to become conversationally fluent in another language. I think Spanish is probably my best bet, since i have access to many native speakers.
And that's about it. There are many things that i think would be fun, like learning to scuba dive or solving one of Erdos's unsolved problems or becoming more proficient with my guitar, but if i never do those things it won't bother me. Apparently, the ideal thing for me to do would be to go to South America, hike across Argentina, and then write a book about it.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Road Kill and Snow

Still at my parents house in IN. There was a headline in the local paper here that read "Roadkill Deer Not Appropriate for Food". That's just so Hoosier.

It snowed on Wednesday night so we had a white Thanksgiving, complete with snowball fights and snowmen. My brother-in-law and I took all of the boys (my two nephews and my two boys) to the Spongebob movie so that my mom wouldn't have them underfoot in the kitchen. The movie is suitably goofy, in that uniquely Spongebobian way that combines butt humor and surrealism. The boys liked it, though my nephew Matt found it "odd".

We had the traditional Thxgiving meal and ate to the traditional excessive excess. It was good except for the presence of my grandmother who gets under my mother's skin in sort of the same way that a candiru fish swims up the human urethra. Bloodshed was narrowly avoided though, and there was pie.

Went back to Pokagon today. I did another trail run, my first run ever in snow i think. Dad and the boys went "geo-caching", basically using a GPS to find a cache placed in the forest by another geo-cacher. This one was an ammo box filled with small toys. It was a bit hard to find in the snow. I caught up with them right before they got to the location, and i helped them search for the box. Fun.

It's not too cold thank god, in the 30s right now. We're planning to go to The Three Kings tavern, which we all call Hoagland because it's in Hoagland, IN. At one time in the past they had the best ribs in the known universe. After several changes of ownership, they're still OK; but we go there more for nostalgic reasons than anything.

Many, many things to be thankful for; too many to enumerate. My parent's dial-up connection however is not one of them, so i'm done for now.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


The family and i are back in Indiana for the Thanksgiving holiday. We took a red-eye flight from San Diego on Sunday night and got to Indiana on Monday morning. Still hate air travel, although it's good practice should i ever be imprisoned.

Monday was mostly a wash, we were all too tired to do much. On Tuesday, Emily and i went up to Pokagon State park in the morning and i went trail running. Fun, really. Nobody else on the trails and the serenity was much valued after the previous day of travel. The trees are already bare, but i still enjoyed the scenery. It's such a contrast to California.

My parents live in Auburn, Indiana; which unbeknownst to all but hardcore car-buffs is the sight of several car museums and one of the largest annual car auctions. On Tuesday afternoon, we went to one of the newer museums called the World War II Victory Museum, which is primarily a collection of wartime vehicles from both Axis and Allied countries. There were many interesting items, but the ones that caught my eye were the exceptionally large vehicles. My favorite was probably the Pacific M26, aka "Dragon Wagon", which is a vehicle that was used to recover other large vehicles (e.g., tanks). Imagine a semi-tractor built by Hummer and you sort of get the idea. Saw a particulary nasty-looking tank also, i think called a Borg-Werner LVT3. My boys don't really comprehend WWII yet, but they were fairly fascinated by the vehicles. It helps to relate them to things they have seen, like Indiana Jones movies. They understand that the Nazis were the bad guys, but not quite why.

Today it's raining. The boys went to the YMCA this morning with my dad, and this afternoon they went roller-skating. It's amazing how much enjoyment they get out of things that they'd probably never do at home. It's supposed to snow either tonight or tomorrow, which will be a treat for them.

Watched an interesting Q+A with Michael Scheuer on C-SPAN today (hey, i'm in Indiana and it's raining, what the hell do you expect me to do). Anyway, i think i'm going to try to find his book Imperial Hubris. He's a former CIA guy who apparently lead a unit that was responsible for Osama himself. Sounds like a reasonable and credible guy, even if he has an axe to grind. He posits the thesis that Al Qaeda is not merely a terrorist organization, but a global insurgency. That seems somehow right to me, but i want to read his book.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Does It Matter?

One factoid from the post-election miasma sticks in my brain for no apparent reason. I read a report that said the most watched news station was Fox News, while the most viewed news web site was I've made the dangerous assumption that this is true, and from my precarious perch have leapt to the even more dubious inference that this means red-state people tend toward TV viewing while blue-state people tend toward the Internet.

Oh, but i'm not done there, not by any means (i feel sort of like Vizzini in The Princess Bride). I think that the denizens of the blue archipelago are not only more Internet-centric, but that they are evolving toward a real (yet, puzzlingly, virtual) global culture. This hypothesis is not entirely based on their preference for bastions of the liberal media like CNN, but also on their willingness, even enthusiasm, for disassociating themselves from the remainder of the US. To couch this in more inscrutable, pseudo-intellectual sounding jargon, i'd say that the blue have disavowed nationalism entirely in favor of culturalism. That is, they value the principles of their culture over the principles of their nation where the two disagree; and they place little value on the integrity of the nation as an end in itself.

Big freakin' deal, you think. Well, i think it might be. Twenty years ago, the blue archipelago would have been just that-- a chain of isolated pockets of liberalism within a sea of conservatives. There'd have been solidarity, sure. In situations like the presidential election, all the blues would still get to voice their opinion as a whole. But now, the blue archipelago is really a unified culture that regards the red ocean as mysterious and hostile but effectively outside their borders. In fact, the blues have closer association with like-minded folks in the network community who are geographically beyond the extent of the US.

The immediate objection to this picture is that it doesn't matter how the blue people view themselves, since they are still subject to the laws of the land. That's true, but how important it is remains to be seen. First, keep in mind that most blue folk view much of the existing law as acceptable. The Bill of Rights? Sounds good. Dig those other amendments too, in fact, the Constitution is just fine as it is. The red states don't want stem-cell research, but we like it fine here in California. The administration might try to stop it, but they know they've got to betray their own principles of small government and local control in order to do it (as they did with medical marijuana laws).

This peculiar limit to great power is becoming the leitmotif of our age. Terrorists have proved that regardless of the destructive power at your disposal, there is only Pyrrhic victory against an unidentified enemy who regards death as a reward. In part, that's because the terrorists with whom we're at war have no nation, no real affiliation with place beyond Mecca and Medina, no adherence to principles codified outside of the Koran. No, i'm not comparing the blues to the terrorists, except to note that removing allegiance to nation changes a lot of the rules.

I think the real problem with this idea is that blue nation and red nation aren't really as strong separately, even if per-capita GDP is as good and military defenses are equivalent. The US isn't the most powerful nation simply because we're a democracy. It's also because of our size, our location, and the geographic diversity. Even if the relationship is tenuous, what drives our economy is the movement between strong centers of innovation, manufacturing, capital, agriculture and defense. It'll be long time before global culture homogenizes to the extent that this movement can happen across national borders, and those culture wars are likely to be a lot worse than the one on the home front.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


Yesterday i went to a surprise birthday party for my friend Vincent, and it also happened to be the birthday of biking pal Tom. I can't remember the last time i was at a party on a Monday night. My gift to both was a bottle of McCallan's single-malt Scotch, so i'm having a bit of trouble getting started today.

Charlie told me about his surfing trip to Indonesia. Tom N. told me about he and Vincent rock-climbing in Joshua tree. We discussed skiing at Mammoth and mountain-bike night rides and backpacking in Hawaii. So, it occurred to me that i'm about due for a bit of an adventure. The only thing close is my birthday bike ride next month, and i might have recruited a few of them to go with me to try riding up the south side of Palomar. But i think i need something a touch more grand. This here looks like fun.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Long Weekend Too Short

Sometimes life is just good. A catalogue of not-at-all-bad-things from over the weekend:
  • The boys had Friday off, so i played hooky and we hung out. Got up late, watched some cartoons, went wall-climbing at Solid Rock, went to the book store.
  • Tried a new dish from Spices Thai cafe along with a decent Merlot (Mondavi, i think)
  • Did a short trail run on Saturday, and a longer trail run on Sunday. Only about 8 miles, but through some nice terrain in Blue Sky Ranch.
  • Managed to get the boys to bed by 9pm on Saturday, so i poured myself a cognac and watched The Third Man.
  • Read several chapters of Alan Furst's novel Dark Star.
  • Abso-freakin-lutely gorgeous weather on Sunday, even for San Diego. Happy-to-be-alive weather.
  • Got a message from my friend Krishna telling me that he and his wife had their first child, a son named Siddharth.
Now that's recreation. Sweet.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Veteran's Day

I spent my formative years living on a farm in rural Indiana. It is a conservative community, but i didn't think of it that way then. I remember being a bit alarmed during high school when one of the nearby towns decided to remove The Grapes of Wrath from the local library, arguing that it was obscene. But everyone in the area was so like-minded that there was seldom any debate about politics, or even wrong and right.

One of the beliefs we all shared was that veterans were to be admired and respected. Like most boys i romanticized war; and, perhaps not like other boys, i watched a lot of movies from the 40s and 50s that romanticized it even more. I never got over the sense that WWII was a unique time in history and that those who survived it were somehow special. I still feel that it was a righteous and necessary war and that those who died made a worthwhile sacrifice.

In that community there was never much discussion about the relative virtues of Korea or Viet Nam. If you served, you were doing your duty and sacrificing for your country and that's all that mattered. I know that the same still applies to the first Gulf War, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. And, liberal though i might be, i think that's the way it should be. For every Pat Tillman, there are thousands of high-school kids to whom the military is the best available career option. They volunteer knowing, if not entirely understanding, what the consequences might be. Their intentions are good and their sacrifice is every bit as meaningful as the soldiers from the world wars.

But these days i can't think of these things abstractly. When i think of war, i have to think in terms of my own sons fighting and maybe dying. I have to think in terms of what possible benefit there could be to mankind from their sacrifice. Whenever i hear about a new casualty from Camp Pendleton i immediately think about his or her parents and how they justify it to themselves. I can't imagine it. I feel that i would need more than the liberation of the Iraqi people. I would need more than guesses about what Saddam might have done if left undisturbed. I think talk about Sunni and Shiite and who the insurgents really are would infuriate me. Simply put, i would need to know precisely, unambiguously, who in the hell the enemy are and what the result would be if we defeated them.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Sparring Day

For the last year-and-a-half, i've thought of Tuesday as sparring day. Just over two years ago i started studying Choy Li Fut kung fu, and about a year later i reached the point at my school where i was allowed to do continuous sparring (in which you fight continuously for 2-minute rounds as opposed to point sparring where you stop when somebody scores a point). I also spar on most Saturdays, but for some reason Tuesday is sparring day.

We spar with quite a lot of protective gear, including head gear, groin and chest protectors, and shin guards. The worst injuries i've seen are a torn ACL, a couple of broken hands, and a broken nose. So far i've been lucky-- my worst injuries have been limited to large bruises on my forearms and shins that go through grotesque color changes.

I enjoy sparring for some inexplicable reason. Part of it is probably the adrenalin rush, but by the time you've been doing it regularly for a year or so that has diminished considerably. The competition is fun, but you often learn more from losing ("invest in loss", that's our mantra). No, i think the reason that i enjoy sparring is because of the intense feeling of satisfaction that you get from the rare occasion where something happens just like it's supposed to. It takes several months before you stop thinking about every move you make and then suddenly everything becomes just slightly faster, slightly clearer. You still think, but i sense that there's some part of the brain that gets bypassed as you get more experienced. Like maybe when you're starting, your brain has to visualize what you're trying to do before you do it; but when you're more experienced it just sort of refers to a memory. When you get in a clear shot, or evade a strike and follow with your own, it's similar to the strange mental consonance that you experience when you hear a particularly moving bit of music or read something that you wish you'd said first. It is, for lack of a better word, spiritual.

The down side of sparring day is that my class ends at 9pm, and i still need to eat dinner and get home. My insomniac tendencies are exacerbated by this situation, and it's not uncommon that i'll be up until 2 or 3 in the morning reading or watching Girls Gone Wild infomercials ('cause if you have basic cable, that's probably the only thing on at 3 in the morning). This hits me hard about 3pm on Wednesday, when i have to inject black coffee directly into my eyeballs to stay awake.

Monday, November 08, 2004


Many of my personal heroes are of the adventurer sort, particularly the scholar-adventurer sub-type. Not all were exemplary human beings (for example, Sir Richard Francis Burton was a racist; Bruce Chatwin and Ibn Battuta seem to have made up a lot of stuff), and some are completely fictional (for example, Jean Luc Picard). Many are not well known (Gertrude Bell, George Schaller), and some are best known for their failure (R.F. Scott). But there's something wonderful and extraordinary about people who take the road less traveled, and then have the intelligence and imagination to tell their story well.

A good friend of mine started a really cool website called PristinePlanet, which has information and reviews about environment-friendly products. She recently added forums to the site, and one of the forums contains posts from a man named Riaan Manser, who is attempting to become the first person to circumnavigate Africa via bicycle. More info about Riaan can be found at his website. I've only met Riaan virtually, but i greatly admire what he's trying to do. I'm a fairly avid cyclist, but i consider hardship to be getting two flats on the same ride. The fact that he's riding so far, on sub-optimal roads, and still managing to stay in touch with a virtual community is inspiring. And like all great scholar-adventurers, he writes well. Check out the log of his trip at his website or PristinePlanet.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Wall of Separation

I can't imagine there's ever been more commentary on an election, especially since this is the first presidential election with a fully-formed blogosphere. Some of it has been pretty angry; some has been still pretty angry; some pretty funny and insightful; and some has been smug. Even the people in my office have done little beyond talk about the election and peripheral concerns, like which country they're going to move to.

I've gone pretty quickly through my anger, denial, bargaining, depression states and i'm now into acceptance. Not easy acceptance, but i've calmed down enough to feel like maybe the country will survive to see a better day, some day, maybe after a prolonged dark ages. OK, so maybe i'm not completely past depression yet.

Anyway, now that i've reached a point where i can start to think again, i've begun to ponder those "moral issues" that came up in the exit polls. (Incidentally, the quotes around "moral issues" are a dead giveaway that you're a liberal commie-pinko). On both counts-- stem-cell research and same-sex marriage-- it seems to me that the so-called moral objections come primarily from Bible passages that appear to define conception as the beginning of life or that condemn homosexuality. As a graduate of a Bible-centric Lutheran elementary school, i can confirm that the passages condemning homosexuality are fairly explicit (in the right context); but in my opinion those that are used for the conception argument are less so.

In any case, i believe the moral objections come from Biblical references (if you disagree, there's not much point in going further, because, well nobody reads this stuff anyway). Fine, so far. If you believe that the Bible is the unadulterated word of God, and the Bible says no canoodling with the same sex, then by all means don't do it. At first glance though, this doesn't seem to me like a legitimate basis for a law given that this is the belief of one faction of one religion. On the other hand, some of our laws clearly are based on moral beliefs, albeit almost universally held beliefs like the idea that thou shall not wacketh thy neighbor unless thy neighbor preparest to wacketh thou. I figure somebody must have written something about where moral beliefs figure in the separation of church and state.

First, let's state what i believe to be the formal statement of church-state separation in the US Constitution, the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances

The relevant bit here is the establishment clause, which i think is interpreted to mean that the government (state and federal in light of the 14th amendment) can't establish a preferred or mandatory religion. This has generally been extended to mean that the government can't raise money in the name of one religion or use the symbols or rituals of a particular religion. But i don't know if this necessarily means that a particular religious belief can't be cast into law if enough people feel that it should be.

I looked first to James Madison, hoping that he'd have something to say. The best thing i found was here, Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, which was written in response to a proposed law to levy taxes to support the clergy in Virginia. There's much great stuff here, but nothing that explicitly weighs in on my particular concern. I did really like this bit though:

What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society?

In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries.

I suspect that Madison would have had some good opinions on this matter, but i won't put words in his mouth.

Next i did a search on "moral laws", which was probably a mistake. I got a lot of stuff that disagrees with me, such as this well-written but largley pointless article by Alan Keyes about moral laws. He argues that making morally-based laws unconstitutional would essentially infringe on the free exercise of religion. Um, yeah. Apparently he was out sick on James Madison day during his constitutional law class. Also got a lot of stuff on Kant and the Metaphysics of Morals. This reminded me of a drinking game in college that my roommate and i used to play, where we'd get wasted and then try to read random passages from Kant. It makes more sense when you're drunk.

Sigh. I'm too lazy to do actual research, so i'm going to fall back on people who're smarter than me. Jefferson described the establishment and free exercise clauses in the constitution as a "wall of separation" between church and state. I think this is a great metaphor. Although i am a live-and-let-live sort of person, i don't think this metaphor implies moral relativism. We can have morality, in the Hobbesian sense of a social contract, without relying on Biblical interpretations. Clearly, prohibition of same-sex marriage doesn't fall into this morality. There's no reasonable basis to think that allowing gays to marry is going to harm society. Stem-cell research? I think it's hard to argue that an embryo is a living human.

BTW, isn't killing real, live human beings frowned upon in the Bible? I could swear i remembering reading that.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Sky Falls, Film at 11

So it appears that President Bush is gonna get another 4 years after all. According to the news, exit polls indicate that the important issues for Kerry voters were Iraq and the economy, while for Bush voters they were terrorism and "moral values". So, basically, Bush won the fear and hatred vote. Another triumph for Karl Rove.

My main problems with Bush were the unneccessary quagmire in Iraq and the lack of fiscal responsibility. But it's depressing and demoralizing to see that he apparently won on the basis of wedge issues like gay marriage and stem cell research. As a straight male who's been happily married for 17 years, i completely fail to see why allowing gay couples to marry would hurt the "sanctity" of my marriage. As a member of a family with a history of diabetes, i cringe at the idea that embryonic stem cell research will be inhibited because the republicans are pandering to a religious constituency that uses vague Biblical passages to define a cluster of cells to be a human life.

I expect another 4 years of inflating deficits, increasing health-care costs, erosion of civil liberties and environmental protections, weak economic growth, expanded militarism, and more and more hatred of our country. I sure hope i'm wrong. Step up to the plate, Mr. President.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Halloween Recap

My boys are at the prime Halloween age: they enjoy dressing up, they like the candy, and they don't scare the neighbors. So it's a big deal in our house. We decorate with fake spider webs and (mostly) fake spiders, we carve pumpkins, and the boys gather with the neighbors to trick-or-treat.

But, like Christmas, Halloween is one of those holidays that doesn't translate well to southern California. My boys don't know any different, but for me when you subtract the fall chill and the harvested fields and the nearly leafless trees, it doesn't capture the spirit (pun intended) of Halloween. Of course, where i grew up in rural Indiana was not exactly the Carpathians either, but it's a little more suitable to the ghoul-,ghost-,goblin-like critters. Nobody seems to try southern-California themed costumes, like maybe a conquistador, or Zorro, or something really scary like Nixon.

I suppose that the real reason i've lost my fascination with Halloween is because i'm old. I generally get candy disbursement duty, while my wife accompanies the kids on the candy collection excursions. Last night i sat in the living room, restringing my guitar (D'Addario Pro Arte, normal tension, silver-plated for future reference), drinking a couple of Fat Weasel Ales from Trader Joe's, and waiting for the doorbell to ring. I ate some leftover Chinese food, and several mini-Butterfingers. The traffic was pretty good this year, and most of the kids were cute and polite. But it's hard not to sense that this is just another one of those adult obligations that you've been coerced into performing. Unlike Christmas, there's no underlying thematic basis for Halloween from which you can gain some hope or joy (or, if there is one, i'm not sure that i want to).

But, hey, the beer was good and i put on Pinback's Summer in Abaddon CD and watched the late football game on ESPN with the sound off. There are definitely some benefits to being an adult. And i still like the candy.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

From Russia With Love

In 1983, as a 19 year-old college student, i traveled to the Soviet Union. I was a Russian language student, and i was also intensely curious about this part of the world, so different from my own. I went with a group of students and professors from the University of Arizona, where i was a chemistry major. In retrospect i'm surprised that i went. It was my first trip overseas, and i'd been conditioned to think of the Soviet Union as an unfriendly and dangerous place. I suppose it was part of a contrarian attitude that i never quite outgrew.

We flew from New York to Helsinki, Finland. We spent a night in Helsinki and i walked around the city. I remember it better than i probably should after 20 years. Helsinki might not be Paris, but to me it was amazing. I changed money, i shopped, i had a beer in a cafe, i listened to a man play violin in a chapel. I experienced jet lag, and the late onset of evening that happens in far-north cities.

From Helsinki we flew to Moscow via Aeroflot. We spent a week in Moscow, and then took a train across the country to Irkutsk, in Siberia. After a few days there we flew to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and then we traveled to Samarkand. From Samarkand we flew to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). From there we flew back through Finland and to New York.

Some day i hope to document the trip in more detail, but recently i rediscovered some of the pictures that i took on the trip, and i wanted to post some of them here.

This is a picture from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). In the background is one of the infamous Soviet food lines, but i like this picture because of the woman in the foreground. There's something powerful about that face. The white streak in the middle is a reflection from the bus window from which i took the picture.

This is a picture of Samarkand. I think i took it from the balcony of the hotel. If i remember correctly, the buildings in the center with the blue domes are mosques and other buildings that were erected during the time of Tamerlane.

This is Lake Baikal in Irkutsk. Baikal is supposed to be the deepest lake on the planet. Oddly enough, i liked Siberia. Although it was May, it snowed; so i doubt that i would have like Siberia much during the really cold months.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Common Ground

My political awareness began with Watergate, so this is the 8th presidential election that i've followed (starting with Carter/Ford). This seems like the most contentious and angry so far, though it's more likely that i've just developed a greater intolerance for contention and anger than i had when i was younger. Still, i think there are certain things that almost all Americans agree on.

1) We don't want to be told what to do.

No, i've not taken a poll, but i'm convinced that virtually all Americans feel this way. Note that i didn't say that i think we have a basic problem with telling other people what to do, so long as the institution/organization/entity dictating correct behavior more or less agrees with our own beliefs. That's unfortunate. Democracy without sympathy for opposing viewpoints is, i think, classic tyranny of the majority. This attitude is not exclusive to any political perch. In my view, both socialism (i.e., the government tells you what to do), and theocracy (i.e., God's representatives tell you what to do) are fundamentally anti-American, even if they happen to make society more stable or more safe.

2) We value privacy and freedom over safety.

Many people will probably disagree with this given the post 9/11, Patriot Act world we live in. But i was listening to radio reports from Iraq recently and i was struck by how many Iraqis claimed that they were happier in Saddam's Iraq rather than in the obviously unsafe and unstable country they now inhabit. I can't really criticize this viewpoint-- if my children's lives were in daily danger i'd be willing to make many compromises also. But i suspect that many Americans would claim that they'd rather fight than submit to an invasive, totalitarian government. I'm less convinced that so many would actually fight for it, but i'm beginning to realize how much these are Western values rather than fundamentally human values.

3) We're all convinced that people who disagree with us are misinformed.

I can't even count the number of times during this election year that i've heard somebody on radio or TV claiming that they are dismayed by the fact that some other party (with whom they disagree) has clearly not bothered to find and assess the facts. These other people do not attempt to understand the issues but instead are swayed by celebrity endorsements or religious dogma or television pundits. The other people are often a) young, and therefore incapable of seeing the full historical context of the issues, or b) members of special interest groups that reflexively vote the group-think line, c) fanatics, incapable of reason, or d) idiots.

My crackpot theory is that we think this way now because we don't have to ever consider anyone else's viewpoint. Regardless of your personal positions there's probably a news source out there that will confirm all of your prejudices. There was a good article on the humor website [not for kids or the weak] about the elections that concludes with the phrase "Be willing to make yourself mad". I think that's great advice, though i might have rather sad "Be willing to make yourself angry". Chances are that if you really attempt to absorb information from opposing sides you'll have no problem driving yourself mad.

4) We want the best possible world for the next generation.

It's impossible to explain to people without kids how a parent feels about their children. The way i generally put it is this: i'd be willing to die for my wife, but i'd be willing to kill for my children. Put another way, the love i feel for my children is completely irrational. There's no "good of the many" calculus that goes on in your brain with regard to the well-being of your kids. If i knew that i had the power to blink an entire civilization out of existence, and that doing so would save my kids, i'd do it without hesitation.

If that sounds nuts, you probably don't have kids. The positive thing about this is that in principle it leads a parent to want to cultivate a world that is both safe and abundant in opportunities. The down side is that when the system breaks, it breaks bad. Threatening or harming the children of one culture by another culture will lead to generations of hatred.

OK, so this is a long-winded way to advocate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But, let's face it: if we can't have these, then there was no point in my ancestors fleeing all of the best countries in Europe.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

In Other News, Hell Freezes Over

Boston wins game 7 by a score of 10-3 to complete possibly the greatest comeback in the history of sports. OK, so i live nowhere near Boston, nor have i ever. I have no legitimate reason to cheer for the Red Sox except that i hate the Yankees. And my wife was born in Boston, so i have some sincere affection for the city. But honestly, even if you accept the rule that everybody gets a "backup" team to root for, mine would be the Cubs.

But for some reason, the BoSox have been my favorite AL team for as long as i can remember. I think i can trace this back to when i was nine years old. I had broken my arm in an ATV accident at the family farm and i had a cast on my left arm for 3 months. Around that same time Carlton Fisk also had a cast for some injury. Not long before i was supposed to get my cast off, there was a story in the newspaper about how Fisk had gone in to get his cast removed and the doctor accidentally cut through the cast and into Fisk's arm. Fisk was fine; i on the other hand was traumatized. My own cast removal went fine, but i was terrified for the whole procedure.

A couple of years later i was a rabid fan of the Big Red Machine (Cincinatti was the surrogate team for most Hoosiers back then). But i was also a Carlton Fisk fan so the 1975 World Series presented a bit of a dilemma. I remember leaning to the right so as to contribute my own body english to Fisk's arm waving when he hit his famous home run in game 6. I felt a bit guilty that Boston had won the game and i felt relieved when the Reds won game 7.

Anyway, i hope this is Boston's year. I think their comeback signals the official end of the curse (maybe sending Nomar to the Cubs had some sort of reversal effect on the Bambino curse). Good luck Sox.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Global Warming and Internet Ping-Pong

Yesterday i saw a pointer in Andrew Sullivan's blog to an article at Technology Review about evidence that the now-famous hockey stick graph that appears to show a consistent warming trend during the 20th century was produced through dubious statistical means (basically, an incorrect usage of principal component analysis). The Technology Review article, written by McArthur fellow Richard Muller, discusses information published by a couple of guys named McIntyre and McKitrick. Muller apparently considers their results to be definitive evidence that the the hockeystick diagram is bogus. However, the CrookedTimber blog has a discussion of analysis done by an Australian computer scientist Tim Lambert on a subsequent paper by McKitrick and Pat Michaels that suggest McKitrick maybe sort-of doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.

So after bouncing around between several different sites, most of which seem fairly credible, i not only don't know what the truth is, i'm probably more confused than when i started. The only option left would be to go to the original sources and try to understand the analyses performed and then read the various accounts of the mistakes made, etc. I've made two completely unrelated conclusions from this little odyssey. First, the Internet+Google might equal something amazing, but we've got a long way to go before it can be used to support decisions. Second, i conclude that global warming opponents will be able to use this confusion to much greater effect than environmentalists.

Monday, October 18, 2004


Yesterday it rained in San Diego for the first time in 6 months. Yes, you read that right. Six months. I think human beings are wired such that occasional rain has a calming, reassuring effect. So, after 6 months of drought, the rain was most welcome. More in the forecast today through Wednesday. Yippee!

Friday, October 15, 2004


I'm an introvert. Supposedly, about a third of the population could be characterized as introverts. Extroverts, i think, conflate introversion with shyness; but i believe this is incorrect. My distinction would be this: a shy person is somebody who desperately wants to be social but for some reason cannot, while an introvert is somebody who is capable of being social, but doesn't want to be. For instance, i have no problem speaking in front of crowds, or even striking up a conversation with a stranger. I'm married and i have kids, so i could make the case that i'm not a social misfit. But in general i'd rather have root canal than engage in small-talk. Large parties with unfamiliar people are what i imagine hell will be like.

Often i regard my introversion as a sort of mild disability, but there are some advantages. First is that i have no problem with being alone for long periods of time, which makes it easier to telecommute and to keep myself entertained (i know extroverts who would regard going to a movie alone as pathetic or even pathological, but i actually prefer it). Another advantage is the well-known capacity of the introverted to focus. I can completely shut out the world around me for hours at a time to concentrate on a problem. And like most introverts i have a small circle of very good friends, with whom i enjoy spending time.

The disadvantages are considerable though, primarily because our society prefers the extrovert. An introvert might be considered aloof or even rude because it's so difficult to exchange the standard pleasantries, or to engage in yet another conversation about weather, schools, kids, etc. Extroverts are perceived as better leaders, and they may well be. The classic networking opportunities are precisely the sort of thing that an introvert will avoid. Introverts often have trouble "thinking on their feet" also, because of the strong compulsion to contemplate before speaking or acting. Some researchers have even speculated that this might be an aspect of brain chemistry.

It's possible to succeed as an introvert (Warren Buffet is said to be an introvert, for example), but i hope that my kids don't inherit this trait. Being an introvert is a bit like what an extrovert might feel like in a foreign country where he or she doesn't speak the language (although oddly enough i've found that i get along well in European countries because as an introvert i don't seem as "American" to most Europeans). You can get through the day fine-- you can meet people, get from place to place, eat in restaurants, go to the theater, etc. But everything is just a bit harder than it needs to be.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Ten Commandments of Framework Development

One for the geeks here. I build programs using primarily the Java programming language and related tools. Java's a good thing in my opinion, though it's recently been declared as uncool by Paul Graham, one of my favorite writers on software matters (for the uninitiated, yes there are good writers who write about software). However, one of the problems with the Java universe these days is that there's just too much. Too many tools, too many application servers, too many APIs, and way, way too many frameworks.

So what is a framework? A framework, as the name implies, is basically a set of software components that allow you to build other software on top of it. A framework generally adheres to a certain architectural style, and to an extent enforces that architectural style as a matter of principle. Things that could qualify as frameworks range from Microsoft's Foundation Classes (MFC), Enterprise Java Beans (EJB), or the Jakarta Struts framework for Web UIs.

Frameworks are usually a good thing. They promote good practices and lead to code that's more maintainable, scalable, yadda-yadda-yadda. But lately in the Java world there's been an explosion of new frameworks. In my view this is bad for a couple of reasons. One is that frameworks are necessarily a bit complex and large, so there are only so many that you can master. There's probably an argument to be made that the best frameworks will win out in a pseudo-evolutionary process where they are adopted by the most,best developers. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case. The frameworks that tend to survive are those that show up early and solve a problem more-or-less, so new frameworks that solve the same problem have to be really, really good to justify the cost of developer training time and more expensive maintenance (i think i could argue convincingly that a framework's worth is measured by the number of applications built on it).

The second problem with too many frameworks is that few of them seem to get the attention they deserve to make subsequent generations better. Though few Java programmers would agree with me, i think that Microsoft actually has an advantage with their .NET framework in this respect because there is only one framework (massive though it may be). This ignores the economics and other arguments regarding open vs. proprietary systems; but i sincerely believe that .NET will win the hearts of application programmers if things stay the way they are.

So anyway, not long ago in a forum on the TheServerSide, i jotted down what i facetiously called the Ten Commandments for Framework Developers. A colleague thought that they were moderately interesting, so i repeat them here with no explication. Keep in mind that these are supposed to be fun; i don't really think they should dictate anyone's decisions. The only reason you need to build a framework is that you want to build a framework.

  1. A Framework must solve a real problem.
  2. A Framework must solve a significant problem.
  3. A Framework must have a consistent architecture.
  4. A Framework must make a developer's life easier.
  5. A Framework must not make a maintainer's life harder.
  6. A Framework must be thoroughly documented.
  7. A Framework must not deviate from the programming paradigm of the language for which it's intended.
  8. A Framework should be independent of other frameworks.
  9. A Framework should be at least slightly novel.
  10. A Framework should not mix concerns (e.g., no database code in a UI framework).

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Reality of Failure

OK, so, long story short I ran a bad race in Chicago and didn't make my goal of qualifying for Boston. I bonked badly over the last few miles again, and came in around 3:25. Lesson learned: i haven't figure out how to get through the last 10K yet.

I flew out of San Diego on Friday to Indianapolis, where my parents picked me up and drove me to my sister's house in Lafayette. On Saturday, my dad and my brother-in-law Mark took me up to Chicago, so that we could pick up my packet and i could check in to my hotel.

My habit of trying to turn mundane events into more of an adventure than they should be might have backfired this time. I got around to finding a hotel a bit late, so i ended up getting a room at the Chinatown Hotel in Chicago's Chinatown, so that i could be relatively close to Grant Park. I'd love to tell you that this is a hidden gem of a hotel; and who knows, maybe it will be some day when it's finished. I didn't expect to sleep much anyway, so the street noise was only a minor nuisance. Unfortunately, i was avoiding "interesting" food because of the marathon so i couldn't try any of the numerous restaurants in the neighborhood, much to my disappointment.

I checked out of the hotel a bit before 6am and started walking east on Cermak, then north on Michigan Avenue toward Grant Park. Downtown Chicago in the dark is less scary than you might imagine, though it appears that Chicago has some fairly sizeable rats. Took me only about 20 minutes to get to the marathon start area on Columbus Avenue, so i walked over to Michigan Ave. and bought a blueberry muffin and some water.

I did my normal pre-race ritual, a bit of walking around, a bit of stretching, did some Tai Chi, applied my BodyGlide, packed up my sweats and dropped them off at gear check. It was in the high 40s-low 50s by start time and there was a bit of wind off the lake. As the start approached the staging areas got pretty crowded. Even when you're near the front it's hard to be calm in a crowd of 40,000 people.

It took about 3 minutes after the gun to reach the start line. I felt OK at first except for some pain in my right foot, which i think is plantar fasciitis; but it was impossible to get into a rhythm. I spent the first few miles darting around people, accelerating and slowing, moving right and left. I didn't even bother to check pace until about mile 4, when i found that i'd managed almost exactly 7:30 pace. So far, so good.

It spread out a little after that, but it was still far and away the biggest crowd i've ever run in. It was cool to have spectators lined up along the streets for the entire run. That's the real appeal of the big marathons. I tried to stay around 7:30 pace. My strategy going into the race was to run 1:38 for the first half and then try to run the second half in 1:37. In June at the Rock 'n' Roll marathon i'd run under 1:35 for the first half and i'd assumed that this slightly-too-fast early pace had contributed to my decline at the end of the race. So when i hit the half-way point at about 1:37.40, i was happy.

On the other hand, i was already beginning to feel some tightness in my quads and a strange tightness across the bottom of my abdominal muscles. In June, i'd felt really good at halfway and had run very comfortably between 13-20 miles before i started to cramp up. I made sure to get Gatorade and water at every stop, but i was having trouble maintaining pace.

Still, i stayed on pace until about miles 21. I looked at my watch and realized i needed to run 5 miles in 40 minutes to make it under 3:20. Normally, this would be a casual jog, but i was already beginning to fade. By mile 23 my quads were so tight that i could only take short choppy steps. I decided to make one last push, so i timed myself between miles 23 and 24 running as hard as i could manage. An 8:50 mile. At that point, i knew i couldn't make it, and it took every bit of strength that i had not to simply stop. I hobbled toward the finish line, and finally straggled across, but i don't think i'll ever be more disappointed to simply finish a marathon.

After running a 1:30 half in August, i really thought that a 3:20 marathon was in the bag. So, was it worth it? I don't know yet. I could have saved a lot of money and time by staying home and running the Long Beach marathon. But then if i'd missed the time i'd have to wonder if i could have done better on a faster course. Plus, it was fun to be in Chicago and to see my family. I can't factor in how the travel, or irregular eating, or irregular sleeping might have contributed to my fatigue; but i'm inclined to think that it was more a training deficiency than anything to do with the circumstances. I'll probably not try to qualify for Boston again this year-- i feel like i need some time to let my nagging injuries heal and get back to the point where running is fun again.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Robinson on Mars

I've been reading Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Blue Mars, the third book in the Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy. It's been several years since i read the first two books, and i'd forgotten how exceptional this series is.

I'm not a big fan of science fiction in general; a good percentage of the genre spends so much time on elaborate plots and scientific extrapolations that it doesn't have time for character. Robinson spends plenty of time speculating about near future developments in technology and society, in fact the detail and the obvious research that went into it is incredible. But he's also managed to create interesting characters whose behavior is sometimes all too human (whether Terran or Martian-- my personal favorite is Sax Russell, the terraforming genius who's still slightly obtuse with regard to the emotions of people). I'm constantly impressed by how plausible his fictional milieu seems, even though it spans multiple planets by the third book.

Plus which, the dude can write. I came across this passage today, describing late 22nd century earth, which now has a population of 18 billion:

Steaming, clotted, infectious, a human anthill stuck with a stick; the panic pullulation ongoing in the dreadful mash of history; the hypermalthusian nightmare at its worst; hot, humid, and heavy; and yet still, or perhaps because of all that, a great place to visit.
Definitely one of those rare series of books that you wish could continue indefinitely.