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 CNN.com. 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.