Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Memorial Day Weekend

We spent the holiday weekend in Phoenix, driving over Friday night and returning yesterday. It was surprisingly mild in Phoenix, below 100 even during the middle of the day. On Saturday we spent most of the day at my sister-in-law's house, swimming in her pool and making food. We had a barbecue in the afternoon with some of her friends and some long-time friends from the local Filipino community.

In the evening we got the UFC 60 pay-per-view so that we could see the Hughes-Gracie fight. It was a bit of a disappointment, with Hughes winning near the end of the first round by TKO. It was a very strange fight, going to the ground earlier than i figured it would, Hughes unable to complete an arm-bar on Gracie despite having his arm well locked and bent, then Gracie giving up his back to Hughes. There were a couple of good undercard fights though, in particular the submission win by Dean Lister.

Went to see the X-Men movie on Sunday afternoon, which i found a bit boring. The emotional center of these movies (for me) is Magneto, and he totally went nuts in this chapter. When you lose sympathy with his viewpoint, the movies are just shoot-em-ups. And nobody except the innocent bystanders ever dies, so who cares? There were a couple of hot new mutants, but then again i like chicks with tattoos.

Emily and i spent Sunday night at the Hermosa Inn, a small hotel in the Paradise Valley area. It's a lovely little place and we had an excellent dinner at the restaurant, Lon's. The hotel is built around the former home of cowboy artist Lon Megargee, hence the name of the restaurant. As much as i love my kids, it was nice to have some time alone.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Somewhere Up High

I'm not a religious person, or even philosophical. I think i'm inclined to be existentialist, but not so much as to actually read Sartre. But oddly i've always had this feeling that a thin line of destiny guided my life, that some small, apparently insignificant decisions made a huge difference in my life. For instance after high school i decided to go to college in Arizona, even though it made very little sense to do so. There were dozens of schools within a day's drive of my home that were better schools with lower tuition. The most significant to me of these small events is something that happened when i checked in at my dormitory in Arizona. Typically incoming freshman were put on the lower floors. I didn't know this, and so when the young man checking us in asked where i wanted to be, i answered "Somewhere up high".

Strangley enough, he put me on the third floor. In retrospect, it might have been because he knew it would be difficult to find a willing roommate for the room's other occupant, an odd young man named Fred who wanted to be in room 357 because it matched the caliber of his prize possession, a .357 magnum. Almost everyone called him "357 Fred". But i didn't know that, and during the semester i met the guys with whom i would share an apartment the following semester, one of whom is still probably my best friend. Through another of my roommates, i met the woman who would become my wife.

For almost 25 years i've believed that was my small bit of destiny, and that stupid little phrase has resonated for me, meaning so much more than i intended: "Somewhere up high". That simple, tossed-off comment seemed to make all the difference in my life, and so i could not discount it as simple chance.

Even though, intellectually, i know it was. It's impossible to know what would have happened to me had i gone elsewhere during that pivotal time in my life. Perhaps i'd have made other friends and fallen in love with another woman, simply because i'm inclined to do so. Maybe that aspect of my life would have not crystallized, and i'd have spent my energy on pursuing dreams that i'm sure i still had when i was young.

Further proving that i get inspiration from the stupidest of places, i recall a comment i once read by the musician Wynton Marsalis. He was responding to critics that his life had been too comfortable and middle-class for him to understand the blues. He said "pain is the realization of limitations". Pain is surely much more than that too, but the crisis of my mid-life crisis is coming to grips that i wasn't so much destined to be what i am as i let my limitations bring me here.

Monday, May 15, 2006

NSA Phone Records

I've been thinking often about the telephone records gathered or bought by the NSA. Other than the generally repugnant nature of gathering information about people under no suspicion, i've been trying to figure out what could go wrong. Normally it wouldn't concern me that the NSA would scrutinize my phone records specifically. There is so much data that the only reason they'd look at my records would be if they already had information leading them to me, in which case they could probably get the authorization they needed anyway. What concerns me is that they'll try to find the "leads" from the phone records based on poorly defined criteria, and then use that as the basis to investigate specific people.

The NSA is obviously looking for "patterns" that would indicate a tie to some illegal/terrorist activity. Bad things could potentially happen if the NSA finds false positives. But what would constitute normal and by comparison, unusual, telephone behavior? I'm sure that if all of one's calls go to or arrive from Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia then you'd get red-flagged; but it's likely that anyone with that pattern is either already a person of interest or really stupid. Presumably, the NSA wants to identify intermediaries; the people who get their information second- or third-hand from the people who talk directly to terrorist sources.

I'm not sure how i would go about this. Presumably the NSA already has some approach in mind, because despite the claims of security experts like Schneier who claim that the phone records are not useful i'm betting that the NSA has already conducted experiments on synthetically created data and found some method to seek what they want.

I think i'd probably look initially for the people who've called locations that harbor suspected terrorists. Then i'd start forming connections to the other people that they have called, and i'd try to continue this process at least a few levels deep. I'd probably try to identify the locations that show up on multiple trees, and maybe try to calculate some sort of measure of the statistical significance of that appearance (for example, i wouldn't suspect Domino's pizza of being a terrorist hub even though it might show up often).

That process however would almost certainly turn up lots of false positives. I recall years ago reading about how analysis of social networks shows that almost anybody can be connected through a few hops (like the Kevin Bacon game). In part this is because certain people seem to serve as nexus points, connecting very large clusters together. Even a relatively unsocial person such as myself serves to connect people in the Philippines through my wife's family to people in rural Indiana, parts of Arizona and California, Canada, several European countries, and even back to Asia through numerous Chinese and Indian friends and acquaintances. This wouldn't show up in my phone records (i hate the phone), but it might show up in my e-mail history.

I guess you could further refine this by looking for starting points that seem peculiarly disconnected from the social network except for significant numbers of calls overseas and a small number of significant domestic calls. However, that's probably the calling pattern of most recent immigrants, some of whom might even have unwitting connections to real suspects. So, in short, i don't know what the NSA is looking for. God knows they're collectively a hell of a lot smarter than i; but i'm still not convinced they're smart enough.

Tournament 2006

This weekend was the annual White Dragon tournament. The whole family did well again, but my older son Nathan did especially well, winning five events and finishing as one of the runners-up in the overall competition. My school also finished in second place, our best showing yet.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dream Blogging

A milestone for me. Last night i had a strange dream, the details of which i won't burden you with, but it had to do with going to see a rock concert that turned out to be in a high-school gym and after 3 songs the band decided to change venues and have everyone at the concert bussed to the new location. The milestone: during the dream i clearly remember thinking "this will make an interesting blog entry". I was actually sort of disappointed when i woke up and realized that it wasn't a real event and so it wouldn't be fair to blog about it. So i decided to blog about the dream. I suppose the distinction between reality and dreams so far as blogs are concerned is not terribly important, but what i find interesting is that the idea of blogging is enough ingrained in my subconscious that it entered my dream like any other element of life might have done; no more odd than a ringing phone or an old friend.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

10000 Days

I love the new Tool album. I know it'll be ridiculed by the typical indie-rock critic, almost every one of which will make some sort of joke about how the title of the album is reflective of the length of the songs. In fact, liking both 10000 Days and the latest Interpol or Franz Ferdinand record is probably forbidden by some law of quantum mechanics.

To be fair, there are some completely reasonable people who won't like it either. It's the most prog-rock of the Tool albums to date, with lots of odd rhythms and unusual percussive sounds. At times it seems minimalist, relying on repetition of the same short phrase, while at other times becoming very complex and layered as in the middle of the 11-minute title track. It's not radio friendly for the most part, and it'll require repeated listening to appreciate even if you're inclined to like it. And, typically, Tool throws in some odd bits, like the chanting on "Lapan Conjuring" or the 5 minutes of artful noise in "Viginti Tres". I'd say that this album is the rock equivalent of some of Mahler's late symphonies: long, complex, dynamic, a bit bombastic; and generally people either love it or despise it.

I'm obviously in the "love it" camp (also like Mahler, for what it's worth). I enjoy Tool's theatricality, and the bizarreness and mysteriousness of the band, however affected it might be. But ultimately, i just like listening to the music. It sounds good to me, it's played well, it provokes an emotional and intellectual response, and it does not quickly grow tedious.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Grandmaster Seminar

I learned two new forms this weekend, though the word "learn" must be qualified to mean that i am able to mimic in a very approximate way the movements of the form. Both are fairly hard and i doubt that i'll ever be able to master them. Both were taught by Grandmaster Doc Fai Wong. The first was a Ba Gua broadsword form, kind of cool because it has elements with both the right and left hand. Both of my boys took part in that seminar also. A very difficult and acrobatic set, including one part where you do a reverse double crescent kick, circle the sword around your shoulders and then strike (pek choi) all while remaining balanced on the landing foot.

The second form is the Small Buddha-Palm form, which was relatively straightforward except for the beginning,where you have to descend into a lotus position and then rise and twist straight into a reverse double-crescent kick. My knees are too old for that.