Thursday, April 28, 2005


There's a story at the NY Times about confirmed sightings of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a bird thought long to be extinct (you might have to sign in, not sure). If you're not into birds, this might not be that meaningful to you. The closest parallel i can imagine is if you were to come across a unicorn, or if you found a copy of Aristotle's Poetics, Book II in your local library . The last confirmed sightings of this bird are from the 40s! Twenty years before i was born!

Update: Here's another story at New Scientist.

Monday, April 25, 2005

How To Reform The Democratic Party

There's been much discussion since the last presidential election about what's wrong with the Democratic party, and what can be done to fix it. Typically, there isn't much agreement among Democrats about the correct approach, even though the conservatives are united about what's wrong with the left. The Democrats' desperation along with the Republicans' smug belief that they are the party of God is driving some Democrats toward the idea that the left needs to reclaim the moral territory ceded to conservative Christians. After the elections Hillary Clinton gave some ground on the abortion issue, and some commentators have suggested trying to appeal to socially-conservative but blue-collar voters by distancing the party from "MTV-land" (and, really, can you ever be far enough away from Paris Hilton?).

But, personally, i think that won't get it done. Why? Because while morality makes for good election-time rhetoric, in practice people aren't really all that moral. People (or at least men) like rap videos with dozens of bikini-clad models, and we like Desperate Housewives, and we like Grand Theft Auto, and we like inane jet-set-white-trash stories about Britney and Jessica. If you've ever actually gone to church on Sunday morning, you know that a large percentage of the people in the pews next to you are hung-over from the night before.

My crackpot idea is this: don't move too far right, don't move too far left, just move a wee bit toward libertarian. The Democrats need to become the party that's going to leave you the hell alone. We're not going to tell you what to do with your body, we're not going to say what you can do in your bedroom, we're not going to monitor your medical records or search your home without your permission. We're not going to bust you for a little weed, or edit what you see on TV or listen to on the radio. The Democrats, i contend, have lost the working class base not because they've lost touch with middle-class morality, but because in the process of trying to give the working class complete security the left has started to act just like their goddam parents.

Unfortunately, this'd be a pretty big change for the D's. First, it'd mean some major policy changes. I think the party would have to give up on much gun-control regulation. I think the Democrats would have to change the perception that they want to solve all fiscal problems with more taxes. I think the party would have to revisit business and environmental regulation at least to the extent that regulation is context and locale relevant. Most importantly, i think the Democrats would have to find leadership that could articulate a vision of a world where the federal government provides necessary services without intruding on personal liberties, where civil liberties do not take a back seat to combating our enemies, and where the pursuit of happiness is unimpeded by the struggle to survive.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I Really Like Doing Nothing

I saw somebody's sig recently that said: "All I want is a chance to prove that money can't make me happy". After a really good week of vacation, i'm totally grokking that. This was such a good week. Not only did i kayak, surf, rock-climb, and fish; i also did a nice bike ride with my friend Cathy and i ran the La Jolla Half-Marathon. But that's not all. I took naps. I watched bad TV, NBA playoff games, and several DVDs (including The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai). I ate without regard for my health. I played frisbee with my kids. I worked on my broadsword form.

I did not spend much time on my computer. I haven't checked my work e-mail, i haven't read blogs, and this is only my second blog entry for the week. Sadly, computers now represent drudgery. I still love computers in the abstract, but in reality they suck. For every compelling blog, there are a million monkeys typing; for every cool application there are a thousand Powerpoints; for every pony there's a mountain of shit. My boys and i went to the Aerospace Museum this week; and i was struck by the number of aerospace pioneers who were also serious adventurers. There are a few folks like that in the computing industry, but for the most part computing industry leaders are dorks. That's not too surprising- computers are intrinsically appealing to dorks, while airplanes are instrinsically appealing to adventurers.

When Buckaroo Banzai first came out i was in college, and when i went home to visit my parents i watched it with them. They didn't get it, but i remember my mom saying "So, is this what you want to do when you grow up?". Yes, mom, that's what i want to do. Basically, if you can't picture it being part of a comic book then i don't want to do it anymore.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Old Dog, New Tricks

Today, i surfed. Technically, surfing would be a rather generous description of what i did, but it's shorter than "swimming in the ocean while tied at the ankle to a 9 ft. piece of fiberglass". My wife, having surfed before, has some small proficiency; and my children, being mentally and physically superior to most other children, took to it immediately. We went this morning to Carlsbad State Beach and got some instruction from the San Diego Surf Academy, basically two 40-something guys named Pat and Ray who seem to have done a lot of living (i mean that in a good way). The surf was, as Pat said, "gnarly". I don't quite understand the dynamics of it, but there were waves coming from two directions, one set roughly perpendicular to the beach, and another offset by about 20 degrees. The successive waves also came rapidly, so that it was hard to set up between waves. To top things off, there was a really interesting backwash, so that sometimes you'd be coming in on a wave and another wave would be coming back out toward you. Oddly enough, this was amazingly fun. I can't imagine how fun surfing must be if you can actually surf.

Yesterday, i kayaked. It was only on a lake, so it wasn't too different from canoeing, but still a learning experience. Fortunately, kayaking is not one of those impossibly hard things to get started at like, say, surfing. We managed the basics after 15-20 minutes of instruction, and then we paddled around the lake (Lake Wohlford) with a group of other kayakers. It was a uniquely San Diego day, the sort of day that other places don't get no matter how hard they try. Imagine the nicest day you've ever experienced wherever you live. This was better. Anyway, it was a lovely day and we saw a few birds, mostly the usual suspects: least terns, egrets (both snowy and great), grebes, cormorants, a night Heron, an osprey, some ducks. But there's also a remarkably large group of white pelicans hanging out at the lake, which is unusual for these parts.

This week is my kids' spring break, so we decided to turn it into spring break for the whole crew. My son Nathan turned 11 on Saturday, so we've also been on a sort of extended birthday celebration. Tomorrow, we rock climb. Fortunately, i've done that quite a few times now, so i don't have to make any new room in my brain.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

My Favorite Songs

OK, so i'm bored out of my skull, so i'm going to spread the virus by actually listing my favorite pop songs as if anyone could conceivably give a shit. I'm not sure if this list says anything about me, other than i'm obviously white, fairly old, and not all that well-versed in popular music.
  1. So. Central Rain - REM. I'm a huge fan of REM up until about Document, after which i can take or leave them. From Chronic Town through Life's Rich Pageant though, i think they were just wonderful. I love this song. If i were forced to listen to only one song for the rest of eternity, this would be it.
  2. Sober - Tool. I enjoy the various flavors of heavy metal and hard rock, but before Tool my idea of a great metal song was something like Judas Priest's song Grinder from British Steel (which i still like, btw). Even though Sober came out at around the same time as several great, non-idiotic hard-rock songs (e.g., a few years after Smells Like Teen Spirit and after, i think, Helmet's Unsung), this is the one i still like a decade later. Maynard's greatest triumph.
  3. Our Love Is Here To Stay. This is my favorite Gershwin song, and for my wife and me it's sort of "our song". There are several great versions of this song, and a few bad ones. In my opinion it needs to be played at a relatively slow tempo, and sung by someone with a solid voice and a straightforward style. I really like the Joe Williams rendition with Count Basie's Orchestra.
  4. Like A Song - U2. Many of the tunes from U2's War are staples of modern radio, but for some reason this song didn't get much notice. It's my favorite U2 tune from that album, despite New Year's Day or Bloody Sunday.
  5. Load Out/Stay - Jackson Brown. OK, so this is technically two songs, but not really. The Jackson Brown original part is The Load Out and the coda is a version of Maurice and the Zodiac's Stay. But they just can't be separated. I loved this song so much as a kid that i actually memorized the lyrics. It's still one of the few songs that i can sing from memory that's not a Christmas carol. It holds up really well, as does the album it's on, Running On Empty.
  6. Is That Love? - Squeeze. When i was in high school i lived in the midwest and our local rock radio was Bob Seger, Led Zeppelin, Styx, etc. However, around that time Squeeze had a big hit with the single Tempted, which was sung by former Ace vocalist Paul Carrack. Tempted, another really good song, inspired me to buy East Side Story. It wasn't my first taste of New Wave, but man did i play that thing to death. This song still stands out for me, probably because of the quirky lyrics.
  7. Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me - Elton John. It's hard to understand how certain songs bury themselves so deeply in your psyche. I associate this song with one particularly good summer from my childhood, and so when i hear it i go immediately back.
  8. Luckenbach, Texas - Waylon Jennings. When i was a teenager i spent my summers driving around from farm to farm as part of my job with the state agency that monitored seed crops in Indiana. Usually i was in my dad's Ford F150, which had only AM radio, and the only music station that i could get was the country station. In general i find country music to be too simplistic and dull, but there are a few exceptions. I particularly liked Waylon Jennings, and this song got a lot of radio play. It was one of the few songs i looked forward to, and again i managed to learn all of the lyrics, even the "train songs" variation :-)
  9. Ain't No Sunshine - Bill Withers. I don't know why Bill Withers isn't a Kennedy Center-honored National Treasure. People have basically forgotten him, despite the fact that he wrote many great songs, including this one, Lean On Me and Use Me.
  10. Surfer Girl - The Beach Boys. This song is just over 2 minutes long, and it's a touch sappy. But there's just something perfect about it. I don't think it could be better.
  11. Ana Ng - They Might Be Giants. TMBG is one of my favorite bands/groups, because of the combination of catchy tunes and clever lyrics. I think i like this song so much in part because of the totally absurd chorus ("Ana Ng and i are getting old and we still haven't walked in the glow of each other's majestic presence..."), and the "I don't want the world, i just want your half" bit.
Honorable Mentions:
  1. Let Down - Radiohead
  2. Alex Chilton - The Replacements
  3. If I Had a Boat - Lyle Lovett
  4. My Sharona - The Knack
  5. Kamera - Wilco
  6. Lithium - Nirvana
  7. Brian Wilson - The Barenaked Ladies
  8. Army - The Ben Folds Five
  9. Judith - A Perfect Circle
  10. Carl Perkins Cadillac - Drive-By Truckers
  11. Fall At Your Feet - Crowded House
  12. Better Man - Pearl Jam
  13. Macy's Day Parade - Green Day
  14. Alec Eiffel - Pixies
  15. September Gurls - Big Star

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Getting A Life

I've heard it expressed recently that blogging must neccessarily be trite and pathetic, because anyone with an actual life doesn't have time to blog. I suppose there's a small grain of truth in there, though it makes it hard to explain the blogs of people like Mark Cuban or William Gibson. I would counter with the idea that people who blog must have some sort of life, otherwise they wouldn't have anything to write about, though i guess the comeback to that idea basically writes itself.

The interpretation of the phrase "get a life" reveals a lot about the person interpreting it. I remember an interview years ago with Nicolas Negroponte, the director of MIT's media lab. One of his detractors had declared that he should "get a life", and Negroponte responded that at the time he heard the criticism he was dining on his yacht off the coast of Greece. By which response i assume he meant to say that he was living well and so he not only had a life, but a life that most would envy. I personally think the original comment meant to imply that Negroponte needed to get a "normal" life, i.e., a stressful job that required him to produce something useful in order to get paid, maybe a family, some crushing mortgage debt, the desire to drink a six-pack of Coors in order to numb his brain. Sort of: "walk in my shoes for a while and then maybe you'll understand how much i value electronic paper and wearable computers".

It's hard for me to argue against the notion that if you have time to blog you also have time to walk your dog, and that the latter is probably the more noble pursuit. But human beings don't seem to work that way. We all wander around to a greater or lesser degree within our hierarchy of needs. Blogging maybe fulfills the needs to exchange information and express one's self, particularly for those of us without the will or capacity to spend a lot of time in more face-face social situations. Since many blogs consist mostly of a compendium of links to other people's opinions or news stories, blogs also apparently serve as a way to express opinions without actually stating them. Blogging is the ultimate act of personalization, if i may borrow a buzzword from my industry. It's less about describing who you are than about describing how you want to be seen.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

I Am Evil Incarnate

On paper i am probably the least interesting person on the planet. I'm a straight, middle-class white guy with two kids. I've been married and monogamous for almost 18 years. I don't evade taxes, i give to charities, i've never been arrested, and the only drugs of which i partake are dry red wines and single malt scotch. I have a house in the suburbs, a dog named Zane, a steady job, and a US flag decal on the back window of my pickup truck. I love my parents, i love my country, and my idea of a good time is hanging out with my kids.

Given all that it's probably surprising to discover that i am Evil Incarnate. Not quite the devil himself, i'm too modest to claim such a thing. But still run-of-the-mill destroy the souls of your children Evil. It's not so much that i'm trying to be Evil, it's just that i'm not really trying that hard not to be. I'm not going to put any effort into committing violent or deceitful acts, or even tempting others into sin. I'm not anti-religion, i attend Catholic mass most weekends, though it's true that i'm not Catholic and i go primarily to support my wife and kids. I am a confirmed Lutheran who grew up in a Lutheran parochial school; and i once toyed with the idea of attending the seminary, so i have some religious education and experience.

So back to the Evil thing. Somewhere along the line, i came to follow the philosophy that is now called secular humanism. This was the result, i admit, of attempting to think for myself. I read the Bible without supervision, i read about evolution and the scientific origins of the universe. I experienced doubt. To the legitimately religious, doubt is not a bad thing. In fact, without doubt faith is meaningless. If you claim to have faith but you've never had doubt, then you're no more spiritual than my dog. But if you arrive at skepticism and demand convincing evidence of the universe, you'll never work your way back to religion.

In the popular view secular humanism is not a morally-based philosophy. To conservatives the term is pejorative, like liberal or academic. To me, it's just morality minus nonsense. But morality for many has an essentially Biblical (or Koranic, depending on the locale) basis, so that if you're not a believer you are incapable of moral action. Despite the fact that my behavior is effectively moral (albeit boring) by most standards, i don't pass the loyalty oath. Hence, Evil Incarnate.

I didn't actually realize i was Evil until Pope JP2 died. After his death, Bill O'Reilly explained to me that anything less than hagiography with respect to the late Pope constituted an attempt to propound my secular humanist world view. If i were to contend that, say, the Pope's uncompromising stand on birth control encouraged over-population in developing countries, that would be advocacy of a wordly, materialist, rationalist, humanist viewpoint. We do this because we are desperate, we secular humanists. We've been unable to convince the general population that biological evolution is a scientific fact, we've been unable to sell the idea that perhaps homosexuals are in fact human and therefore deserving of civil liberties, we've failed miserably to convey the idea that separation of church and state is better for both. They're on to us now, the moralists. Our Evil is exposed.

If you think i'm kidding, then i feel compelled to paraphrase Kent, my cousin and childhood friend: "No shit, Sherlock".

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Saul Bellow Dies

OK, i swear i won't do another entry about somebody dying anytime soon, but i couldn't let Saul Bellow's death pass unnoticed.

When i was still in college i made a trip to Chicago with my then-girlfriend, eventual wife Emily. I wanted to show her downtown Chicago, so we stayed at a place on, i think, Ontario. We walked around downtown, going to the top of the John Hancock building, stopping at the Water Tower, etc. But for the most part we walked up and down Michigan Avenue. I know we went to most of the stores, but the one place i most remember is Brent's Book Store. I bought a book, but i don't remember what it was, and i also picked up a small pamphlet written by the store's proprietor, Stewart Brent. It was a list of his 100 favorite books. I'd heard of about half of them, although i'd read only a handful. One of the books that i'd never heard of was Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow.

For some reason the title intrigued me and i did some research on Mr. Bellow. I was surprised to find that he'd won the Nobel Prize. Clearly, i was not a lit major. I bought a paperback copy of Humboldt's Gift, which i read in a few days and i read Dangling Man and Henderson the Rain King soon thereafter. To be honest i was probably a bit too young to really appreciate Bellow's work at that time, except for Dangling Man, but his brash, midwestern characters had an appealing mixture of the familiar and the exotic.

Over the years i've read everything that Bellow wrote, and he's among my 3 or 4 most favorite authors. He was never universally acclaimed, and i think the Nobel Prize might have actually hurt his standing in a strange way. I've seen several comments of this sort: "It's hard to believe that Bellow won the Nobel prize, while (insert author here) was snubbed". Had Bellow remained a bit more obscure, no Nobel, fewer National Book Awards, no Pulitzers, i think he'd have been more dear to the literati.

Come to think of it, i need to get some new favorite contemporary authors. A few are already dead, and others are getting up there (e.g., Peter Matthiessen is almost 80, though he might be immortal).

Friday, April 01, 2005

RIP Mitch

In the midst of all the recent strangeness, the news that comedian Mitch Hedberg died somehow got missed. Hedberg was one of the funniest guys going, and he was only 37. Now that's sad. Some Hedberg one-liners from

I got an ant farm. Them fellas didn't grow shit.

I haven't slept for ten days, because that would be too long.

Last week I helped my friend stay put. It's a lot easier than helping someone move. I just went over to his house and made sure that he did not start to load shit into a truck.

I got my hair highlighted, because I felt some strands were more important than others.

I had a stick of Carefree gum, but it didn't work. I felt pretty good while I was blowing that bubble, but as soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality.

I want to be a race car passenger: just a guy who bugs the driver. "Say man, can I turn on the radio? You should slow down. Why do we gotta keep going in circles? Can I put my feet out the window? Boy, you really like Tide."

I got in an argument with a girlfriend inside of a tent. That's a bad place for an argument, because I tried to walk out, and had to slam the flap.

I type a 101 words a minute. But it's in my own language.

I think Bigfoot is blurry, that's the problem. It's not the photographer's fault. Bigfoot is blurry. And that's extra scary to me, because there's a large, out-of-focus monster roaming the countryside. Run. He's fuzzy. Get outta here.

I don't have a girlfriend. But I do know a woman who'd be mad at me for saying that.

My sister wanted to be an actress, but she never made it. She does live in a trailer. She made it half way. She's an actress, she just never gets called to the set.

I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to show it.
If carrots got you drunk, rabbits would be fucked up.