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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in cambro's LiveJournal:

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Monday, January 25th, 2010
1:42 am
Kooky misadventures with revenants
Ever had a nightmare so grueling that your brain wouldn't allow it to finish? We've probably all had the experience of waking up in a cold sweat right before the shark bites your leg off or you're forced to sit through a screening of "Twilight" or whatever. Maybe you went all-out cliche by sitting bolt-upright screaming, or maybe you just laid there disoriented and cold and feeling as though there was still something evil in the room with you.

My subconscious often takes a different approach. Instead of waking me up, it relieves the tension by lurching the dream off into a completely different direction...sometimes an outrageously stupid one. Case in point:

Last week I dreamed that the dead had risen and were wandering the countryside. They traveled in hordes, so by the time you saw one of them it meant that a million more were about to descend upon you. I was surrounded by strangers, and most of the dream involved us trying to set up hiding holes inside an office building. When we saw the first wandering corpse in the halls down in the basement, we knew we were screwed; they'd found us! We ran to the ground floor and there were already dozens of them in the lobby; through the glass walls we could see thousands more shambling across the fields towards the door, and I knew that we were all about to die...

And then the zombie in front stopped, smiled at the nearest would-be victim, and said, "Happy birthday, Steve!"

They were never really zombies at all! They were just pretending! The collapse of civilization was all just a birthday prank on Steve, whoever the hell Steve is!

Think I can sell this idea to Romero, or should I keep it for myself?
Tuesday, December 8th, 2009
5:51 pm
So I'm considering getting an e-book reader. Not because I have the slightest interest in actual e-books--I'm still a paper junkie--but because I have about ten zillion PDFs, and I don't want to kill a million trees to print them out, but I also don't like the idea of having to read them all on a laptop or desktop. I understand that the standard-model Kindle has PDF support now, and I may just go with that, but I've also heard that the Barnes and Noble e-reader is promising.

I don't know how many people read this anymore, but I know that a few of you are techies, so I'd welcome any feedback on this. Any experience with e-book readers? Any recommendations? Think I should just wait a while for the price to go down and the bugs to get worked out?
Sunday, January 4th, 2009
10:15 am
From hell's heart I stab at thee
The local grocery store offers samples on the weekend. You can visit the different departments and graze on small pieces of pizza, bacon, cheese, or whatever other product they're pushing that week. Typically the exchange involves brief small talk with a store employee who prepares the samples and tells you what you're eating.

A few weeks back, the bakery was featuring deluxe brownies. There were small bits of brownie in tiny plastic cups sitting on a table, and the fifty-something gentleman who'd cut the slices was sitting behind the table with a dour expression on his face. The place was extremely busy and it had taken us a long time to do our shopping, so I wasn't feeling overly friendly. He didn't look interested in chitchat either, so I just took a cup and continued on my way without making eye contact.

I'd gotten about as far as the donut hole display when I heard "You're welcome" from over my shoulder. I turned around to see Brownie Sample Guy staring at me confrontationally. "Thank you," I said automatically.

"That's it. That's what I was waiting for," he replied. The look on his face suggested that he was actually waiting for me to choke on the brownie and die, but apparently he was willing to settle for "thank you." "That's the usual exchange," he added.

I disagree that this constituted "the usual exchange." The usual exchange would involve him saying "Hello" first, or handing me a piece of brownie, or saying "This is rocky road. Would you like to try it?" He did none of these things. All he did was: a) sit there looking unfriendly, and b) get pissed off when I failed to thank him for sitting there looking unfriendly.

I was too stunned (and then too angry) to articulate any of these objections, however, so I glared at him but then just kept moving without saying anything.

I later realized that Brownie Sample Guy has given me a gift, in a way. Obviously, everyone needs an outlet for their anger in these troubled times. So his aggression is well-timed; it gives me someone to dislike. Unfortunately, his transgression was exceedingly minor and petty, which means that only minor and petty reprisals are justified. I'm willing to settle for that. So here are some of my ideas for getting back at Brownie Sample Guy:

1) Get a paper route. Every morning, deliver Brownie Sample Guy's paper, but then wait in the bushes until he comes out in his bathrobe to get it. After he's picked it up and turned around to go back in the house, shout "Don't mention it," and then get on my bike and ride away as fast as I can.

2) Find the cul-de-sac where Brownie Sample Guy lives, and calculate the portion of the sidewalk pavement which my tax contributions paid for. Hang out near that particular square centimeter in hopes that he will stroll by and step on it, so that I can say "No need to thank me."

3) Plant a tree out in the country, and then broodingly wait for BSG to repay me for his personal share of the oxygen supply and CO2 sequestration. A ha'penny ought to be about right. No more, no less.

4) Ensnare Brownie Sample Guy in an elaborate Ponzi scheme which will destroy his retirement fund. Spread scurrilous rumors which will ruin his family and lead to his arrest and the repossession of his home. Visit him in jail and punch him in the face.

I suppose I should run that last one past my lawyer.
Sunday, October 26th, 2008
11:46 am
Obama Begins, or McCain Forever?
Everyone who reads this should start buying the "Batman" comic immediately, because "Batman" is about to reveal the fate of the American Empire.

Bear with me here:

According to Michael Caine (Alfred), Superman is the way America sees itself, but the rest of the world sees us as Batman. This may or may not be a compliment, depending on how you spin it. Batman is a genius and a formidable force for good, but he's also crazy in that special way that only the rich can aspire to. He really does want to make the world a better place, but he's a very angry fellow who enjoys beating up and dominating people, so his mission has become an awkward compromise between those opposing urges. Instead of applying his intelligence and resources to real solutions for real problems--problems that affect billions of people, like hunger and disease and energy shortages--he chases after flamboyant characters who may (Osama) or may not (gay marriage) pose any sort of legitimate threat to anything.

"Batman Begins" predicted the financial crisis. "Over the ages, our weapons have grown more sophisticated," Ra's al Ghul told Bruce Wayne. "With Gotham, we tried a new one: economics." Who knew he was talking about subprime mortgages? Next, "The Dark Knight" painted the war on terror as a fiasco. Batman's power corrupts him, and his allies abandon him; the White Knight of justice is mutilated beyond recognition; love blows up and gets killed. Sadly, the only uplifting moment is also the least convincing part of the movie: no way do those ferries both stay in one piece. Twenty mad-dog killers would have been grabbing for that detonator within seconds of Joker's challenge, and maybe they would have been fast enough to beat the thirty death-penalty advocates going after the detonator on the other boat.

If the Batman of "Dark Knight" is a mess, though, it's nothing compared to the comic-book Batman, who is currently homeless and insane. Years of fear gas exposure, dead sidekicks, and broken backs have taken their toll, and Bruce Wayne's already fractured psyche has completely disintegrated.

The coup de grace was orchestrated by an unseen enemy called the Black Glove, who has been quietly setting up Batman's downfall for years. There are numerous theories on the identity of the Black Glove. Given the clues so far, you could make a credible case for Alfred (the butler did it!), Thomas Wayne Sr., Thomas Wayne Jr. (Bruce's long-lost brother), Bruce's girlfriend Jezebel Jet, and even Satan himself. My favorite theory is that Bruce Wayne is the Black Glove; out of self-loathing, masochism, low-grade insanity, and sheer boredom, he's subconsciously constructed an ultimate nemesis to wrap up a lifetime's worth of drawn-out self-destruction.

The story's parallels to the current election and the state of America are probably mostly accidental, but they're unmistakable. Batman has regressed to an unhinged alternate personality which calls itself "the Batman of Zur-en-arrh." "Zur-en-arrh" is a callback to an obscure Batman story from the 50's; it's the name of a distant planet where Batman had Superman's powers. In the 'real' world, we're spending this election cycle working out some unfinished business from those space-race days: the mythologized allure of small-town life, the lingering racism, and the pre-Nixon, pre-Vietnam confidence that we're the greatest, purest, most powerful nation ever.

Modern Batman's greatest strength has been his Obama-esque talent for preparation. Given the chance to plan a strategy, he can use his intelligence and expertise to defeat practically anyone. The Batman of Zur-en-arrh is more of a maverick. He charges into situations wielding a literal bat, reveling in the purity of action without thought...and, if I'm recalling correctly, McCain/Palin's poll numbers were way up around the time the Batman of Zur-en-arrh took over in the comics. I won't even get into Zur-en-arrh Batman's magical imaginary friend, or the evil impostor Batmen and Batmen of All Nations who could easily be taken as stand-ins for surging economies like China and India.

I'm happy to say that, at the end of the latest issue, the Palin of Zur-en-arrh appeared to be receding and the Obama-Batman personality appeared to be reasserting itself, just as it apparently is in reality...but it may be too late, as the Black Glove seems to have won. Expertise and planning may be your best hopes, but sometimes they're just not enough. Some problems don't go away no matter how many Batarangs you throw at them.

The final issue of this storyline was supposed to come out just after Election Day, but it's now been postponed until two weeks later. I'm afraid this may portend a long series of recounts and legal challenges as we wait to see whether good or evil won. Either way, we've been assured that this is the last Bruce Wayne story. Someone else will take up the cowl, of course, and that's the real test: Will it be the Batman of Zur-en-arrh, permanently displacing the Wayne personality and turning us into a nation of unblinking, brutal thugs? Will it be someone like ex-Robin Dick Grayson, who has most of Bruce Wayne's skill and none of his emotional baggage? Will it be some incompetent fledgling Batman who will be relegated to the third tier of superheroes? Or will the comic just fold up shop and leave us in happyland with cheerful Lego Batman, who can solve any problem by building a hydrogen-powered car out of junk lying around in the ditches? Find out next month--same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.
Tuesday, October 7th, 2008
5:23 pm
Seriously? In 2008?
I recently took a weekend trip out of town with some friends, and one evening we stayed at a cheap motel in a small town in Wisconsin. We went to Culver's (the only restaurant open past nine) for take-out and then sat down to eat it at a picnic table in front of our building. We'd barely gotten started when a car pulled up and a man came out and greeted us.

It turned out that he was a laborer who traveled around the country following jobs (his current position was at a foundry). He was living in the motel and sat at the table drinking beer pretty much every night, so when he saw our silhouettes at "his" table in the dark, he assumed we must be friends of his. Once he'd realized we were strangers, though, he was still quick to offer us beer from his 20-pack of Rolling Rock bottles, and we sat and talked for a few hours. The guy was intelligent, friendly, and well-informed, and although we didn't have much in common demographically, he was easy to talk to (although I had to drop out of the conversation when the others started talking sports, about which he knew everything and I knew nothing).

Eventually, the conversation turned to politics. He said that he couldn't wait to get somebody new in the White House, and that he was crossing his fingers for McCain. I'm backing the other horse, so I just said, "Well, yeah, it'll be nice to get somebody new" and he chuckled and said "I knew that would get a rise out of somebody." Then came the part that shocked me a little: "I've voted for Democrats all my life," he said, "but I can't do it this year. Just can't do it."

He didn't go into more detail than that, but based on the purposeful ambiguity and some of the racially tinged jokes he'd told earlier, it was pretty clear what he meant: he couldn't vote for a black guy. He's always been Democrat-leaning, and if he's like most Democrats he's even more frustrated with the Republican party than usual, yet he's voting McCain because of Obama's skin color.

Nobody really responded to this, and the conversation moved on quickly enough and stayed pleasant. He kept pushing beers on us for another half-hour or so and eventually we went to bed. But what he said worried me. If a guy like that--a smart, big-hearted, hard-working guy--could turn away from Obama just because he's black, then I don't understand the people of this country as well as I thought I did. We haven't come quite as far as I thought. Big lead in the polls or not, maybe this election is going to be closer than we realize.
Monday, September 8th, 2008
9:50 am
In Defense of Elitism, Part 2
Apparently a lot of people want somebody like them in the White House. We saw it with Bush and we're seeing it even more so with Palin. I'm not talking about questions of experience or judgment. If you really think Palin's qualified enough, fine; it's difficult to argue that she's less experienced than Obama. If you agree with her stances on the issues, and you've got no problem with book banning and cronyism and state secessionist movements, fine, vote for her ticket. But issues and experience and judgment seem essentially irrelevant to some voters. They just want somebody who's like them in some superficial way--someone who has a uterus, or who likes to hunt, or who has been known to wear shirts saying "I may be broke, but at least I'm not flat busted"--and that's basically the only criterion they're using to make their pick.

What if we had chosen Olympians this way? Instead of going with trials of skill, what if we'd just dispatched People Like Us as our representatives to Beijing? Instead of those saucy young things on the women's volleyball team--you know, those arrogant little twigs flaunting their elite bodies in bikinis and inviting Bush to smack their asses--what if we'd given a bunch of forty-something soccer moms a chance to show up in their sensible swimwear and represent real women? What if we'd said, "Well, Michael Phelps is an inhuman swimming machine who may turn out to be one of the best athletes in Olympics history, but it's going to his head a little bit. What about that nice Thompson kid down the block--you know, the skinny asthmatic who's prone to ear infections? He's got a lot of heart."

Obviously, no one would ever dream of letting anyone near the Olympics if they weren't the absolute best our country has to offer for that particular event. Yet the leadership of the free world is far, far, far more important than being an Olympian. So why do we take it less seriously?
Friday, August 15th, 2008
2:40 am
Pfun with Pseudoscience
Lots of odd nonsense supposedly happening over the past few weeks:

*The Georgia Gorilla, briefly trumpeted by some sources as, finally, A Real Bigfoot Body. This was all over the Fox Mulder corners of the Net; the site I've linked to was receiving three million hits a minute at one point. The "body"  doesn't look particularly real to me, although I can't give you any clear reasons why I feel that way. One comment I read somewhere claimed that the guts don't look right for a large hominid and seem to have been dropped onto the "corpse" rather than protruding from it. I don't quite see what the angle is here; saying they have a body is an awfully bold and extremely falsifiable claim, so if it is a hoax I'm wondering how the heck it's going to unfold and what they expect to get out of it. Press conference tomorrow, apparently.

*Evilution disproved by overlapping dino and human tracks which will "change all the pale-ethnological principles," whatever those are. This one does look blatantly fake, not least because the dino track resembles a five-year-old's idea of what a dinosaur track should look like. It doesn't help that this is being put forward by the notorious Carl Baugh. Baugh claims CT scans revealed compression layers which prove the tracks were not carved, but as anyone with real credentials knows, it's garbage in, garbage out with high-tech equipment. If you don't know how to use it properly, or don't know how to deal with geological specimens (the scans were performed at a medical center), or don't know how to properly interpret the output, you can wind up with utterly spurious results even if the equipment is in perfect working order. Skeptics have argued that the "compression layers" are artifacts of the CT process. Gary Hurd's blog has some interesting commentary. This one is going to become a creationist classic, I'm sure, but I'm not ready to turn YEC just yet.

*Numerology: On 8/8/08, on the advice of a waitress who was impressed by the convergence of 8s, I bought some lottery tickets. At the convenience store, I decided that I obviously had to buy 8 tickets. All of them were losers except the 8th one, which netted me $44, and of course 4+4=8. Later I realized that I had bought the tickets at or around 8:00. I also did a psych experiment at the U a few weeks back. I just received the $8 check for my participation. It was issued on 8/8/08. Obviously this all proves something, but I've no idea what.

*Bonehead geology: The guy who wrote the Swift Boat book, Jerome Corsi, is back with a doubtlessly fair and balanced book about Obama. He's openly announced that his goal is to prevent Obama's election. Corsi has written many other books, including one about how oil is abiogenic and there's plenty of it out there, and how the high price and alleged scarcity of oil are all a big scam. I haven't read the book, but according to the comments on Amazon, one of Corsi's arguments is that oil couldn't be a fossil fuel because there weren't enough dinosaurs to make that much oil. Apparently his research on standard theories of petroleum generation consisted of driving past a Sinclair station and noting the dinosaur out front. (For those who don't know, no, dinosaurs are not thought to be a major component of any fossil fuels; plankton and plant matter are the primary sources.) Yet he thought himself qualified to write a book arguing that most of the experts on the subject are wrong. I wonder how he researched Obama? Probably just ran "Barack Obama" through an anagram generator. "Oh, shit! 'Maraca Kabob'! That sounds Middle Eastern! He's a terrorist!"
Thursday, July 10th, 2008
10:38 am
There was a time when the future promised to be shiny and bland, like a tastefully furnished living room in a junior lawyer's dream house or the bridge on the Enterprise-D. Oh, there were problems, but the really serious ones usually took place far away--the metaphorical equivalent of an occasional fringe outpost being annihilated by strange beings in a flying cube. Here in America it seemed we could look forward to an ever-improving future of unlimited travel, unlimited resources, and pleasant if somewhat stilted conversations between people of all races over smoking blue beverages in Ten-Forward. In those days, Star Trek was culturally relevant, and hordes of utopians and Asperger's cases probably descended on Riverside each summer.

Nowadays, of course, we're realizing that we haven't reached the end of history after all, and Star Trek seems like an artifact of the past rather than a dream of the future. Nowadays, we don't worry quite so much about being subsumed by our technology; quite the opposite, we're acutely aware of its limitations, and those incomprehensible Borg cubes seem like an expression of Islamophobia rather than a fear of supercomputers. Nowadays, nobody's going to fly to the middle of Iowa just for funnel cakes and costume contests, because the price of dilithium crystals is through the roof. But Trekfest endures, and I've always wanted to check it out, so we headed there a few weekends ago to see just how garish it was.

Trekfest celebrates Iowa's most illustrious imaginary citizen, Captain James T. Kirk, who will be born in Riverside over two hundred years from now, according to Star Trek canon. (Originally, Captain Kirk was merely "from Iowa," but some enterprising local got permission to declare that Riverside was Kirk's Official Future Birthplace.)

Trekfest still features Trek guests when possible (Walter "Chekov" Koenig was this year's Grand Marshal and guest of honor), and there are still certainly Trek trappings scattered around the town. For the most part, though, Roddenberryism didn't seem to have much of a hold over the people there. The event mostly seemed like any other small town summer festival, with the requisite carnival rides and beer tent. A few people did use Trekfest as an excuse to let their geek flag fly, but Masters of the Universe T-shirts were just as common as Vulcan ears. The swap meet tents were small and featured Superman comics and anime in equal measure to Odo figurines. You could watch Classic Trek episodes in a barn that had nebulae and distant galaxies painted on the walls, but the sand volleyball pit attracted more interest.

One of my favorite things at Trekfest was a display of old parade floats; there was a mockup of the weird time-travel monolith from "City on the Edge of Forever," as well as a car made up to look like the Horta. However, the high point was the costume contest, judged by Koenig and a panel of distinguished nerds. Contestants stood in front of a painted moonscape to show off their outfits and answer questions about their interest in the show. By far the most awesome costume was Nomad, a guy in a giant wooden box with a light on top who was apparently posing as a sentient space probe. A helper guided him gently onstage so he wouldn't fall off the edge. The emcee passed the microphone under the bottom of the box so he could do the interview, and he preceded his answer by blurting "I...AM...NOMAD" in a perfect impression of that shrill, constipated voice all 60's TV computers used. But he showed far too much personality to please the judges, who opted for slavish adherence to tradition instead, giving the prize to a woman in a Starfleet outfit. (I suppose the woman's authentically short, short skirt may have drawn some votes as well.) The other crowd-pleaser was a partially deaf Asian kid with his shirt off who was posing as Crazy Swordfighting Sulu from that episode where the space virus drove everyone nuts; he didn't win either.

I know that a costume contest isn't American Idol, but surely the voice of the people should count for something. If you want to stay relevant these days, you need to accept that many people enjoy old sci-fi on an ironic level, and you need to embrace their approach as well. Hell, I was there mainly for the camp value. Anyone can be a geek for a day now, because all the arcane trivia you need is readily available on the Internet (I already knew what the Horta was, but I had to look up "Enterprise-D" before I wrote this entry). If I were in charge of Trekfest, at this point I would be trying to please the casual geeks and dabblers rather than the hardcore Trekkers, because there are far more of the former. Oh well--Starfleet Command knows best, I guess.
Sunday, June 15th, 2008
12:18 pm
It’s a bad time to be a knee-jerk anti-green conservative, because it’s become obvious that they’re mostly wrong. We really are facing serious problems which we could have prevented (or at least blunted) with common-sense precautions. So they’re reduced to a sad new form of backlash: criticizing environmentalists for daring to bring it up in the first place.

Some people have always said that environmentalists are misanthropes who get off on micromanaging others’ lives, but I’m hearing the accusation more often lately, and I think it’s partly because the accusers have nothing else left. They can no longer deny that the oceans are dying and that resource depletion is looming, but they’re not willing to openly admit they were wrong, so they dodge the question by casting aspersions on environmentalists’ character. OK, maybe mass-marketed Hummers really were a stupid idea (the 70’s weren’t that long ago, people—how did we forget the gas crisis?). But it was churlish of those eco-nuts to point it out. Who do they think they are?

They’re not 100% wrong, of course. There are jerks and wingnuts in every movement, and some people do get a little evangelical in their green fervor. I don’t agree with every so-called green cause, and I'm not willing to ruin the economy for half-baked green schemes. I’m glad ANWR has been off-limits until now, but it may be time to open it up to drilling, especially since people are beginning to appreciate the value of a gallon. If ANWR had been online five years ago, we would have wasted it anyway; its oil would have vanished into SUV tanks. Pretty soon, though, we’re going to genuinely need that oil as opposed to merely wanting it. My impression is that drilling technology has improved lately, to the point where it will be less environmentally intrusive (albeit not harmless) to drill there. Too many people also have a reflexive resistance to nuclear power, although environmentalists are hardly the only ones who’ve opposed it; plain old NIMBYism is just as bad for nuclear as Greenpeace. (And yes, if you’re curious, I would be OK with living near a nuclear plant, especially the newer, safer models.)

So yes, some people turn green living into an odd form of pseudo-fundamentalism, but for most of us, it's not a moral crusade; it's common sense and simple cause-and-effect logic. You get rid of wetlands, and you wind up with more flood events and hurricane damage. You dump fertilizer into the oceans and the fisheries die. You build an entire civilization around a finite resource (fossil fuels) and then waste that resource like it’s infinite, and you’re setting yourself up for a bad, bad crash.

I'd rather not waste my time worrying about what kind of car my neighbors drive. If gas were free and infinitely renewable, you could buy an H12 that gets negative twenty miles per gallon, and you wouldn't hear a peep from me. As it is, I'm still not going to knock on your door and chew you out for it in person or anything like that. But come on now: we're talking about a finite resource which we all need, and when you waste it, you're helping deplete the supply and drive up the price. That means I pay more for everything from transportation to food, and ultimately it even threatens national security (when everyone does it, anyway). It's OK for you to do that, but it's not OK for me to complain about it? I'm supposed to roll over and take it, rather than daring to suggest that your actions may have consequences? Give me a break.

Most of the major economic and political problems right now are ultimately environmental problems, so can we stop being stubborn and just start listening to ecologists, please? If someone points out that the beef industry is awful for the ecosystem, instead of eating more Big Macs to spite them, how about just reaching for a salad once in a while? When someone suggests that turning down the thermostat might be a good idea, instead of bellowing about how Rachel Carson killed more people than Hitler, how about just turning down the damn thermostat and putting on a sweater? Are your pride and minor comforts really worth more than our health and economic well-being?
Monday, May 19th, 2008
10:50 am
In Defense of Elitism
By now, we've all heard the latest negative spin on Barack Obama: he's elitist. He's an out-of-touch, pointy-headed intellectual who thinks he knows better than Joe and Jane Average. He dares to suggest that the most popular policies are not necessarily the best ones.

My question: since when is this a bad thing? In many cases, he probably *does* know better than Joe and Jane Average (when it comes to questions of policy, anyway). Knowing better than Joe and Jane Average is his *job*. He knows how the political machinery works, and he has a staff to brief him on important background info which most people don't have at their disposal...and, yes, he's probably a little smarter than the average person. Not all opinions are equally valid. Not all ideas are good ones. Joe and Jane Average are entitled to have their ideas heard, but they're not entitled to be taken seriously if their ideas are stupid.

A huge number of the problems this country is facing are partly due to the devaluation of expertise. If someone other than an Arabian horse judge had been appointed to head FEMA, the response to Katrina might have been handled a hell of a lot better. If Rumsfeld had listened to the seasoned military commanders who told him he couldn't 'liberate' Iraq with a few Humvees and the Power of Democracy, we might not be quite so deep into a quagmire over there. If people had taken warnings of resource depletion seriously and embraced conservation, our economy wouldn't be so badly shaken by surging oil prices. And yes, if people would come to grips with the fact that the earth is not 6000 years old, and that morality is not as simple as "God said it, I believe it, end of story," maybe they'd start worrying about problems and injustices that actually matter, rather than voting for a corrupt and incompetent regime just because that regime opposes gay marriage.
Sunday, January 20th, 2008
6:31 pm
Apocalypse Now
I'm teaching an environmental science class this semester, which means that I'm up to my ears in utterly depressing stories of destroyed ecosystems and hopeless futures. I'm trying to keep things chipper, and focus on functional ecosystems as much as dysfunctional ones, and to emphasize possible solutions to our problems....but, man, there's not much you can do to put a happy face on peak oil or the biodiversity crisis. I don't look forward to telling the students, "Hey, kids--there's a significant chance that Western civilization will entirely collapse within your lifetimes." It's unvarnished truth, but it comes across as insane fearmongering, and it's a sad state of affairs when honesty sounds like nihilism. I will say this: it's made me a lot more serious about keeping the thermostat down, and cutting my phantom electrical load, and all that good stuff. (I'm going to start keeping my alarm clock unplugged until bedtime, at which time I will plug it back in, set it, and set the alarm. Why do I need to have a clock on 24 hours a day when I'm at home for 12 hours tops, and spend many of those hours asleep?)

On a related note, I saw "Cloverfield" this weekend. Ultimately just as ridiculous as any other giant monster movie, but I like the fact that you never find out what the hell the thing is. I also like the simple purity of death-by-getting-stepped-on, which almost looks slightly inviting compared to whatever the hell will happen if we don't get the peak oil thing sorted out. And we may very well get it sorted out, of course. Don't misunderstand--I'm not cutting my wrists as I write this or anything. But a 24/7 diet of this stuff gets under your skin. Yeesh. Enjoy your California produce and airplane flights now, is all I can say.
Thursday, June 28th, 2007
8:54 pm
Damn dirty atheists!
I’m almost finished with Christopher Hitchens’s “god is not Great,” the latest of the slew of atheist bestsellers. It's a good read, and while he doesn't advance many slam-dunk intellectual arguments against faith, on a visceral level he does a great job of making religion seem ludicrous and offensive. (This may prove the most effective possible method for questioning religion, since much of religion's appeal is visceral.) Few people are better at criticism than Hitchens; he manages to be urbane and caustic at the same time, packing maximum scorn into each syllable, but often somehow doing it without actually seeming rude. He's also incredibly well-read and well-traveled, lending an important broader perspective to the whole discussion by focusing as much on foreign zealots as home-grown ones. (Although Hitchens certainly didn't intend it so, his book actually left me with a bit more appreciation for Christian fundamentalists, since they can be almost benign compared to some Islamic militants.)

Media reaction to this book has been interesting and sadly predictable. The New Yorker reviewed it in a recent issue, under the title “Atheists with Attitude.” I was surprised to see that, without any apparent trace of irony, they’d subtitled the review “Why do they hate Him?” “You seem very angry at God,” is one of the laziest and most childish possible responses to an atheist, right up there with a knee-jerk “I feel sorry for you,” or “You’re going to Hell!” It belies a total inability or unwillingness to seriously engage with the atheistic worldview. It’s the same thing Sean Hannity said when interviewing Hitchens (who rightly berated Hannity for wasting everyone’s time with such a dull and trivial assessment), and it’s a sad day when the New Yorker can’t be any more insightful than Sean Hannity.

I don't feel that I have a dog in the atheism-vs-religion fight, inasmuch as I consider myself agnostic and don't have any real beef with the vague spirituality that passes for religion in most non-fundamentalists. I think religion helps many folks be better, happier people, and thumbs-up to it for that, although I obviously also think that some stripes of religion inspire potentially well-intentioned people to become complete bastards. I suspect that a world without any religion would be better in some ways and worse in others, so although I'm very concerned with stopping fundamentalists from intruding on others' lives, I don't spend a whole lot of time fretting about religion itself. Sloppy thinking annoys me, though, and it's sad to see many media figures wallowing in sloppy thinking rather than honestly confronting Hitchens's (and Dawkins's, and Harris's) best points.

Anyone else read this, or "God Delusion," "End of Faith," etc.?
Monday, June 18th, 2007
11:44 am

If any of you have a taste for Dumbo Octopus t-shirts (google "Dumbo octopus"--you won't be sorry), or literary journals disguised as piles of catalogs and "Yeti Researcher" newsletters, then head to the above link and spend some money. One of my favorite small publishers, McSweeney's, is evidently in serious financial trouble through no fault of their own, so they're trying to raise money by slashing prices on everything in their inventory.

Oh, and if you haven't seen it already: go to http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/newfood and search my name to see something I wrote for them.
Wednesday, June 13th, 2007
7:16 pm
You can turn up some odd stuff by Googling yourself with the right combination of search terms.

For instance, it turns out that I'm cited in Volume 87 of the Journal of African American History.

Not a joke or somebody else with the same name, by the way--they're actually citing something I wrote.

I'm torn as to whether to explain why that is or just leave things interestingly vague.
Saturday, April 28th, 2007
1:51 pm
The Intermedia undergraduate open house was interesting. I stuck my hand in a giant bowl of Jello, washed it with slime from a giant cube of soap, watched the spin-the-wheel girl eat two spoonfuls of horseradish (her least favorite food in the world), and wrote "Peak Oil" on my slip of paper that went in the Fear Box. Some random girl stuck an "Andy Warhol was an idiot" label on me as I climbed the stairs. I got a token from the Great Complimenter by praising his vein structure and soothing voice, but the open house ended before I got around to visiting the Great Insulter, so I didn't get to see the secret room.

Much of the art was very, very undergraduate. (Ooh, look, two naked girls [halfheartedly] making out with each other! How very Transgressive, and therefore how very Artistic!) Although I got into it as the evening went on, the whole atmosphere initially reminded me of my undergraduate theatre days: the blithe pleasures of marinating in your own creative impulses and ignoring practical matters; of success based on looks and verve and audacity, rather than necessarily on hard work or insight; of beautiful and fascinating people who, too often, are also frustratingly self-fascinated; of the weird incubator atmosphere which can encourage brooding, preoccupation, and hiding your true self behind impenetrable walls of flamboyance.

Of course, none of what I've just said takes anything away from all the genuinely good experiences I had during that period, and all the cool people I met (hi, Mark; hi, Nick; hi, James). In some ways, it was probably exactly what I needed at that time in my life...but in other ways, it was the last thing I needed. I can't distance myself from it fast enough, yet I still miss it enormously. Then again, perhaps lots of things in one's youth are like that.

The intermedia building is itself a fascinating warren of winding halls and crumbling fixtures, even when it's not done up as a postmodern funhouse. Apparently they're tearing it down soon, which is a crime.
Sunday, April 15th, 2007
11:36 pm
Just thought this was cool, that's all.
Crawling crinoid: http://www.palaeo-electronica.org/

If you don't know what a crinoid is, take this as an invitation to read up on echinoderms of all kinds, because they're fascinating and weird.
Wednesday, February 28th, 2007
1:55 pm
Everything I know about geology, I learned from watching Inhumanoids
I recently Netflixed my favorite quickly canceled 80's toy tie-in cartoon, Inhumanoids. It features a team of heroic geologists fighting semi-Lovecraftian monsters who live underground. The geology is a bit unrealistic, to put it nicely. Examples:

1) The Earth's core is a small ball of lava that's just floating in the middle of the planet, with lava streamers flowing into it.

2) If you blow up a dam on the surface and let the water flow onto the core, the resulting hot/cold shock will break the planet in half.

3) It takes maybe a couple of hours to drive to the core in your all-terrain vehicles, and maybe a few minutes for that water to get there.

4) There's a mineral called "galvasite" that makes magnetic monsters stronger.

5) If you reverse the magnetic polarity of the "Primal Core," good monsters turn evil, evil monsters turn good, buildings warp like Salvador Dali clocks, and the Van Allen belts crash into the surface of the Earth.

6) There's practically no solid rock anywhere underground, just a bunch of caves you can walk through.

7) The Mojo Discontinuity is just a cave floor you can walk around on. And it's pronounced "Moe-joe."

8) Some forests have lakes of amber deep enough to imprison 50-foot-tall undead dinosaur monsters.

And the list goes on. Needless to say, I think some of us have a lot of changes to make to our theses, because we clearly got many things wrong.
Sunday, February 18th, 2007
3:16 pm
Boy, I wish it was as still as easy to get published as it was in 1875. Out of curiosity, I checked out the library's bound copy of the Proceedings of the State Academy of Science for 1875-1880. The articles are beautiful. There's lots of short abstracts about corn smut, local snail populations, what kind of yeast is best for making bread, and whether "animals below man" can appreciate beauty. ("The conclusion was that no such appreciation has been proven, and that it is excluded by the only theory of beauty that satisfies all demands.")

My favorite, though, was "Some Reasons why Frogs are Able to Survive," a long paper by a high school kid who froze a frog and poked it with a stick. He discovered that the frog didn't like it. "After repeatedly punching such a frog with a stick, it shows its uneasiness for a number of minutes." He also poked its eyes with his finger and rattled the grass with a stick to see how many times it would jump. However, he was nice enough to refrain from drowning them: "How long they can be forced to stay under water...when not in the hibernating state was not experimented upon." The paper was reasonably eloquent, so I hope to God this really was a high school student and not, say, a high school teacher, which would be even worse.

There's also some nice casual moralizing thrown into an article about seal fucking, aka "Some of the Causes and Results of Polygamy among the Pinnepedia." The author was actually a well-known local scientist whose explanation for walrus polygamy was that its "gregarious habit...offers a constant opportunity for a departure from the path of monogamous rectitude. This fact is well illustrated by the great amount of social immorality found among the crowded tenements of our large cities."

Damn, I wish I could step on a worm or watch some marmots boink, write it up at great length, and get it published in "Nature." My CV would be pages and pages long.
Thursday, December 21st, 2006
9:48 pm
I recently inherited a copy of the Star Wars Holiday Special, which is apparently revered in some circles for its sheer ineptitude but despised in others for staining the Star Wars canon. I will say this for it: it makes you appreciate the subtle shadings of “The Phantom Menace.” I only watched the first forty-five minutes or so of the two-hour production, and what I can tell you is that nothing happens, and said nothing happens at great, great length.
The story is mainly about Chewbacca’s family back on the Wookiee homeworld, waiting for him to return for “Life Day.” The first twenty minutes are a listless domestic pantomime by actors in Wookiee outfits. The restless youngster with the balsa-wood X-wing runs around the house; his mother scolds him in braying Wookiee-speak, sans subtitles; the kid runs to Grandpa for protection, and Grandpa dotes on him. It’s basically “The Waltons” for furries, a soggy morass of faux suburban bliss. Eventually, the mother watches Harvey Korman perform an excruciating Julia Child parody on TV (he’s stirring with four arms instead of two!), and then a bloated Art Carney shows up to do some halfhearted vaudeville. It does briefly get interesting when the grandfather Wookiee has an onanistic interlude with a hologram of Diahann Carroll, but for the most part it’s boring beyond words.
Apparently it had an enormous budget, and before you get very far in, it becomes apparent that the producers had no idea what to do with any of that money. They had absolutely nothing to say, but they had two hours to say it in and a million dollars to say it with. If you were a particularly glib Communist or zero-population-growth advocate (and I am neither), you could pass it off as a metaphor for the failings of America’s middle class: They’re pretty well off by any objective standard, living in nice homes with big TVs, but they’re not really sure what to do with themselves, apart from glumly going through the motions of formulaic domestic melodrama.
Anyway, after watching a little of this, I have a new appreciation for the rest of the Star Wars films, and for any number of other bad movies as well. They may be clumsy and loud, but at least something happens in them. The story of Luke Skywalker and his magic powers is pretty clumsy when you put it up against actual literature, but damn, it's better than watching a bunch of hairy bipeds sit around and bleat about their feelings.
Sunday, December 3rd, 2006
11:38 am
Well, shucks.
Aren't I just the cutest thing?

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