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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Margin of Error

I've started investigating the predictions made by GW believers, and in particular how the predictions have changed over the years. It turns out that the predictions, as I expected, are all over the map: the climate will get hotter in the next 100 years, but who knows by how much, and who can say what'll happen? This isn't of course how it's pitched. But it's what the numbers are telling us. Allow me to explain.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predicted a rise of mean global temp by 9 to 12 degrees Celsius in 1990, then .8 to 3.5 degrees Celsius in 1996, then 1.4 to 5.8 Celsius in 2001. There are a couple of points here. One, the absolute differences between the three predictions are huge, a fact that ought to worry anyone who's invested much of their intellectual energies into believing that we know what we're saying. Two, the relative differences (the low to high predictions for each year) are huge, as well. In the 2001 predictions, converting to Fahrenheit gives us a range of 2 to 10 degrees. What the heck? This effectively says nothing; even simpleton GW skeptics like me can see that an eight degree range allows for vastly different weather scenarios.

We might forgive the blatant variations in these predictions by noting that they all point to some warming trend (although, after my unscientific survey of this debate, I'm inclined to believe that the climate will be cooling, not warming, in the next 100 years-- but who knows?). True. But I wouldn't plan your picnic around these numbers, because if you look at them, they tell a clear story: who knows?

Source: http://weathersavvy.com/Q-Climate_Global_PredictionsAccurate.html

Monday, December 29, 2008

Ms. Buttu Says All

This Hamas Israel thing. On CNN Rich Sanchez interviewed first the Israel ambassador to the UN, then former PLO legal advisor Diana Buttu, to get both sides, you know. American above-the-fray media. Wow. These folks know how to bicker. Screw the facts. Ms. Buttu, in response to Sanchez's question "But don't the Israelis have a right to defend themselves?", makes a couple of interesting points, that I'll take the time to dissect.

One, the rocket attacks from Hamas didn't have "explosive heads", unlike the Israeli rockets.

Oh, yes, Ms. Buttu, you went to law school to say that? Nice. As if Hamas was mindful of Israeli lives, pulling off the war heads from the rockets before lobbing them willy-nilly into civilian neighborhoods, soccer fields, etc. Wouldn't want to unduly injure anyone. Is she serious? I'm pretty sure if Hamas had a Number 2 pencil with a nuclear tip they'd figure out a way to smuggle it into an Israeli grade school in hopes of exterminating some Jewish children. Give me a break.

The reality is, Hamas is literally throwing missiles into civilian areas of Israel in hopes of killing anyone. And Ms. Buttu, you know it. Shame on you. I'll be nice and merely give you the dumb ass comment of the year award.

Two, this lobbing of missiles into civilian neighborhoods is justified, because Israel has been waging a Nazi-like war against Palestinians, with military missions into Gaza, having the effect of cruelly denying Palestinians their freedom (how does that work?) Man, it sounds bad. But let me sum it up for those uninitiated into the perpetual Palestinian-Israel conflict: the Jews intend to live here! And they have a military! And they use it when we try to slaughter them! Damn Israel! Damn them when they strike back!

Great. So the best I can tell from Ms. Buttu's comments is that, after her barrage of legalistic, emotive words, the reality is that Israel is actually trying to be a sovereign nation in the Middle East, and it patrols the borders of the Gaza Strip, and actually intends not to perish but to try to insure the security of its citizens.

This conflict, if an alien were to come down and hear both sides of it dispassionately, would so far skew in favor of Israel's targeted strikes in reaction to the mayhem-intending Hamas actions that "hearing both sides" would become a joke. There's no equivalence, and the world knows it. Hamas hates the Jews. And how dare the Jews try to live near Hamas (or in the Middle East generally). Sanchez did his best to hear both sides; in the end, what I've said here is just exactly what both sides said. Sans perhaps the legaleeze.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Saltless in Seattle

Seattle and in general the Pacific Northwest has been deluged this year with snow. The enviro wizards in Sea-town managed to dump tons of sand all over the streets to create traction for hapless motorists, a questionable tactic motivated largely by the desire to avoid using salt. Too bad sand is worse for the environment than salt (but, doesn't it seem that salt should be, well, worse than sand?). The experts have proclaimed that salt "degrades marine life", while not offering details. In the meantime, the six thousand tons of sand dumped over Seattle roadways are choking out the insect populations, negatively affecting local streams. Damn.

2008, Bummer for GW Believers

The planet cooled this year, compared with the last eight (which makes it accurate to proclaim "it's the coolest year in the 21st century!"). This is fine for a punch line. But what's the deal? The Guardian article cites a team of researchers from Kiev University that predicted, back in March, "...that natural variation would mask the 0.3C warming predicted by the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change over the next decade. They said that global temperatures would remain constant until 2015 but would then begin to accelerate."

Great, but problem is, I've been Googling around and finding lots of cock-sure predictions by GW believers that the warming is already accelerating, not going into a flat period before it unleashes its fury sometime later (type in "global warming accelerating" for about a thousand assurances from the GW "experts" that we're screwed). So, are we leveled off until 2015, after which we'll begin our Warming Acceleration? Or are we accelerating right now, and 2008 is some weird anomaly, to be replaced by a warmer 2009, and an even warmer 2010, and so on? What the heck's going on? I'm sure the experts can explain.

The reality is, Global Warming is B.S. (oh, I mean IMHO it's B.S.), and the point will be made clear enough in the years that follow by nature itself. My guess is that we're headed for cooler temperatures this century. I could be wrong (of course), and given that I'm trying to maintain some degree of epistemic humility, I'll hold off, for now, launching a Web site dedicated to shaming everyone into investing in technologies that warm our planet and shield us from the new Ice Age to come...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Global Warming!

I have a puzzle about Global Warming! (I'm now including the exclamation to further capture the added drama that typically attends the phrase). It's the observation that C02 levels have, in times past, been high, yet the climate then was actually cooling. In other words, the temp graph was trending down as the carbon dioxide levels were trending up. The GW folks have some ready made explanations for this, mostly centered on the catch-all "it's complicated" dismissal (translation: you stupid skeptics, you're either not scientific or just plain crazy!), with perhaps some additional whiz-bang sciency sounding stuff about how A, B, C, and sometimes D can vary with levels of This, That, and The Other. Don't worry about all of this, however. Just remember that it's complicated. And butt out. (Of course, it's complicated should stick to the GW believers as much as to the skeptics. It's complicated is double-edged, after all.)

This debate, whenever I've had enough of the Dark Knight (will this movie ever end?) and I'm thinking about something that fires everyone up, but that smells like a three day old fish, I always end up back at Global Warming! And when the discussion ping pongs back and forth long enough to exhaust the easy points and counter points, we inevitably end up back at "But what are the costs of inaction?" (no, this isn't the runup to the Iraq War all over again). As if we'll all be for coal plants and China and pollution and Hummers unless we believe that we can predict the future of the weather.

I will end me post with this however: if anyone can tell me what the weather will be like in a few decades, I'd like to discuss the stock market. You might just be my best friend.

The Harley Dudes

I was driving on 183 a couple of days ago, and this gaggle of Harley bikers rumbled past me, leather jackets and babes on the back. I was doing maybe 70 in a 65 zone, and so the bikers must have had their hogs up to 75 or 80. It occurred to me, with the vibrations of their engines pulsating through the door of my Toyota and the Bon Jovi or whatever anthem rock I'd cranked up temporarily drowned out, that I never see these guys get pulled over for speeding. When has anyone ever seen a bunch of Harley dudes parked to the side of the highway, doing that give-me-my-ticket-so-I-can-leave shame thing? What's the deal? My theory is that they're too damn harley, to make the noun an adjective for present purposes; it's not in the fabric of things to have these guys getting written up by un-cool Johny Law. They're only popped if things escalate, like a knife fight in Vegas. Or if something goes down in Sturgis.

But I love these guys anyway. I just wish they wouldn't drown out my anthem rock when I'm pulling gears in my 6 cylinder Tacoma. We all need those harly moments.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Neanderthal Project

The NYT recently reported that DNA sequencing of the Wooly Mammoth genome is now possible, using two fossilized hair samples, recovered from mammoths that died 20,000 and 60,000 years ago. NYT reports that scientists are now discussing how to modify DNA in the mammoth's closest living relative, the African elephant, so that it resembles the wooly mammoth. The elephant genome, according to Stephan C. Schuster and Webb Miller at Penn State, will need to be modified at about 400,000 places to make it resemble its hairer cousin. As the thinking goes, once modified at these locations, the elephant genome will be, effectively, a woolly mammoth genome, which can then be brought to term in a female elephant. The elephant would have a wooly mammoth. This clever technique makes moot the prior thinking that a mammoth genome would need to be synthesized in the laboratory. No need to do this (and we can't anyway), because we've got the elephant's cell, and with the mapping of the mammoths DNA, we can translate the one to the other.

So far so good, but there's (or was) a hitch: 400,000 changes are a lot of changes, and the process will likely be arduous to the point of not feasible. Enter the "454 machines", which automate a revolutionary new sequencing technique, that, in effect, let biologists do the genomic modifications in batches. According to George Church, genome technologist at Harvard Medical School, about 50,000 "corrective DNA sequences" can be injected into the cell at one time. In this case, with only a few iterations the machines could inject the entire set of necessary modifications, making the science-fiction like scenario a reality.

The cost estimate for the wooly mammoth project is about $10,000,000, which, while not chump change, is a figure that gaurantees that someone with deep pockets and an interest in our archaelogical past will see things through.

As if this isn't zany enough, there are efforts underway to regenerate the Neanderthals, a hominid race closely related to homo sapiens (us) that lived approximately 200,000 to 45,000 years ago, inhabiting Europe, and possibly coexisting with our direct Cro Magnon descendents. No one knows, conclusively, why the athletic, possibly dim-witted, Neanderthals died out those thousands of years ago. We don't know whether they could talk, or to what extent they created a culture similar to early humans (there is evidence that they drew paintings, suggesting an ability to communicate abstractly). What is certain is that, if the sequencing techniques work on the wooly mammoths, there will be no scientific reason that they can't likewise be applied to generating Neanderthals, if (or when) the extinct species' full genome is recovered.

Work on The Neanderthal Project is well-underway. Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, for instance, has been diligently reconstructing the DNA of Neanderthals using bone fragments discovered in Eastern Europe. With the help of the new "454" sequencing machines, he -- along with a similar project at Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory -- expects to get a complete Neanderthal genetic blueprint. In this case, just as with the use of elephants to birth mammoths, a Neanderthal could be delivered from a human female, or (perhaps less ethically questionable), a Chimpanzee.

As evolutionary biologist Hendrik Poinar notes, “The reality is it will happen,” ... “Twenty to 30 years is the span people are talking about.”

And what then? When a creature so like us -- but so different -- walked again among us, what then? Dartmouth College ethicist Ronald M. Green's comment is as creepy as it is probing:

“This was a species we competed with,” ... “We would not want to recreate a situation of two competing advanced hominid species.”

We may just find out.

A Cool Trillion

The front page of the Austin American Statesman sports this, in bold block letters:

A 1,000,000,000,000 plan?

I'll admit that I had a hard time parsing the digits at first. Turns out it's a cool trillion. A trillion dollar plan? Did I miss something? I know the unemployment rate is, what, 6.7%, but the breadline is hardly stretching around the city block. Maybe I suffer from a failure to predict the something economically-wicked that this way comes. Fine. But, a trillion dollars? (I love how it's a nice even number too, like the calculating master minds in the back gave up on more precision: "Hell, just make it a trillion. That oughta do it.") We're gonna break the freakin' printing press...

The only bright spot reading this trillion dollar plan scenario came, for me, when Speaker Pelosi went on record wanting something like 200 billion in tax cuts. We've got bipartisan consensus now (FWIW) that reducing tax burdens help stimulate the economy. Conservatives have been shouting this on a mountain for a very long time.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Edgar Allen Poe

I'll do this from memory but saw it originally years ago in some book about Edgar Allen Poe. Legend has it that it came originally from the morbid maestro himself, inscribed on the wall of a pub somewhere in Massachusetts:

Fill with mingled cream and amber, I will drain that glass again. What hilarious thoughts do clambor, through the chambers of my brain. Quaintest thoughts, queerest fancies, come to life, then fade away. What care I how time advances? I am drinking Ale today.

Save the Planet

Gore thinks he's saving the planet. I love this. The hubris. Most of us can't save our sandwich from getting stale on the corners. But Gore's got us frothed up about saving the planet. Well, hell, let's do it Al (say this in a slow Southern drawl). Let's save it mo fo. What to do first? How about, with every last penny, mobilize our forces to scare the beejeesus out of China, until they stop building those 1950s coal plants. That'd do a heckuva lot. Failing that, I'll put in those energy saving bulbs (I do use these, actually, but only because it makes good financial sense). How many flourescent bulbs does it take to cancel out a coal plant? Have to start somewhere, I guess.

Harry Reid

Like Mission Accomplished, Harry Reid delivers. At least President Bush later expressed regret about the "bring em' on" bravado and the Mission Accomplished banner (Bush might instead have fallen back on parsing words: "No, I meant the particular mission to take Baghdad in the first weeks of battle..."). Harry Reid, the [insert your favorite moniker], managed to proclaim to all the world just before the surge that the war is lost. Which war, Harry? Vietnam?

Gettin' it Straight

The Credit Crisis. Auto bailouts. Stock market in turmoil. What does it mean, and who has the answers? Let's start with some clarification of terms. Define your terms, as philosophers teach us. So I'll try to do just that, and I'll pick as my subject matter a set of terms that we constantly use, that have different meanings though it's common to view subsets of them as in essence the same (or at least having substantial overlap), and that are particularly germaine given our current circumstances. The terms are:

Douche Bag
Dumb ass

Let's get started. In what follows I'll define the term, then offer some exemplar from popular culture to tack down the definition. I'm confident that the conflations will melt away, to the edification of all.

First, a geek. Contrary to popular opinion, a geek is not a nerd. Don't conflate them, folks. A geek is someone that drills into a particular subject with a zest that borders on the maniacal. But (and this is important), he does his drilling at the expense of, say, hygiene, or social skills. The classic geek is the computer geek. Moooove. But geeks find homes in other technical disciplines as well. Nicholas Cage's character in The Rock, Stanley Goodspeed, was a geek.

The nerd. Ah yes, the nerd. Nerds are boring, unathletic types that tend to fall into nerdy routines (like getting up at the same time, having coffee, listening to some soothing music, leaving the house at the same time, etc.). Nerds are terrible with the opposite sex, tend to be abstemious (being too "smart" for vice), and are by definition socially unattractive to non-nerds and in particular to members of the opposite sex that are non-nerds. In other words, they're smart, with nothing else. Nerds. Classic nerd is Marty McFly, from Back to the Future. Also, Ross from Friends (though a borderline case, since Ross had a greater than zero chance that a woman would find him attractive).

Dorks. Dorks are nerds with less native intelligence. A dork looks and sounds like a nerd but talks about his car, or his recipe for Jalapeno macaroni salad. Dorks tend to watch a lot of sports on T.V., and may wear sports insignia, especially on dates, or to nice restaurants.

Tool. Interesting type, the tool. Tools are smart, mostly successful, with something more to offer than can be managed by geeks, nerds, or dorks. A tool will be at least one of: attractive, athletic, or sociable. Tools are tools essentially because they follow the rules. A tool made it into a good law school, dresses nice, may have an attractive mate, and refuses to buy beer for the neighbor kid (though he's known him for years). A tool may inform on classmates for cheating. He rarely speeds. Tools generally end up running things. (Don't worry, however, because they're still tools.)

Jerk. Low class, mean spirited, don't give a damn types. Chet from Weird Science. You can almost substitute "jackass" for jerk, though there is some small semantic difference.

Asshole. Jerks that have made something of themselves. Colonel Nathan R. Jessup from A Few Good Men. 'Nuff said.

Prick. Pricks are assholes with an innate and ineradicable sense of entitlement. They're high society about their assholiness. It's an important distinction. You can't call a prick an asshole without a palpable degree of imprecision: "No, he's a prick, Bob. Get it straight". Hardy Jenns, from the 1987 Some Kind of Wonderful, was a classic prick.

Douche Bag. The douche bag. This is generally a lower management type that makes everyone in the room (or office) go mum when he walks in. Like a Pez Dispenser he pops out company lines with a shitty smile, poring cold water all over your once hot but now extinguished conversation about the weekend's activities, or the new girl in office 101. The douche bag would be a standard issue nerd or dork, only there's an additional moral deficiency with the DB; the bag wants to climb up the management ladder, and at your expense. Go mum when you spot the Douche Bag. He's only gonna cause you pain. (The silver lining, however, is that DBs tend to get their comeuppance, having more desire for Machiavellian conniving than actual ability, and tending always to repel all things cool. Exemplar? Hard to find. Best that comes to mind is Carter Burke, the character played by Paul Reiser in Aliens. Douche bag. But anyway in spite of the dearth of DBs in popular culture, I know several from past jobs. I bet you do too.)

Dumb ass. Nerds and even dorks may have something to say within their sphere of expertise, but dumb asses, by definition, always come up short. Dumb asses speak, and every non-dumb ass starts an imaginary stop watch, waiting for the cessation of dumb ass sounds. The "Oh" guy from Office Space is a classic dumb ass.

Pinwheel. A pinwheel is someone who may or not be smart about something, but seems drawn, like a moth to a flame, to sound off about other subjects about which he has only enthusiasm without accompanying expertise. Pinwheels come out of the woodwork when discussions turn to politics. Classic pinwheel? There are lots. Clooney can be a pinwheel, as can "green" actors like DiCaprio. In fact, pretty much any Hollywood actor with strong views on political issues is sure to adorn him or herself with fluffy pinwheel attire. Ashton Kutcher sounds more than a little pinwheely at times. These pinwheels, the Hollywood variety (a common strain of pinwheel), all suffer from the false belief that their sheer attractiveness somehow promotes their opinions to bedrock truth. Maybe, but only for other pinwheels (this is key). Also, fourteen year olds.

So there you have it. In the midst of these dire times, a get to the point, hard hitting, good ole' fashioned linguistic analysis of the nouns whose referents we're seeing more and more of these days. Let's get it straight.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Stuck on a Hill

In artificial neural network (ANN) research, there's a well known problem of local minima (or maxima). I've worked a bit with ANNs but much more with a (superior) learning algorithm, Support Vector Machines (SVMs). Unlike the latter, ANNs require heuristics to "converge" on an optimal solution given some very large decision surface. The heuristics, to simplify a bit, are intended to get the algorithm to converge on a global, not local, solution. Local solutions are unwanted because they can appear to be global (good) solutions, given some snapshot of the decision surface, but in fact are very bad solutions when one "zooms out" to see the larger picture. This phenomenon is perhaps best illustrated with geographical imagery. If I am walking up and down hills, en route to a very large mountain, a local maxima might be the top of a foothill. But it would hardly be a global maxima, like the top of the mountain. The point is that ANNs can converge on the foothills, telling us that it's the mountain.

ANNs notoriously suffer from this limitation, but the "blindness problem" is endemic to all statistical learning algorithms, including SVMs (though, at least in theory, you can get an optimal solution with an SVM). Using such algorithms to learn from past experience (i.e., training data), you generate an approximation function for the underlying distribution you're trying to model. You see the function as worth the time it took to gather training data, select the features, and train, if it approximates pretty well the underlying target distribution you're interested in. You can tell if it pretty well approximates the underlying distribution if it keeps getting things right, and you don't have to keep making excuses for it (say, by saying that "it's complicated").

Anyway, we can view ANNs, SVMs, and other statistical learners as essentially inductive systems, in the sense that, given a set of prior examples, they learn a rule (classifier) that allows us to predict something about new, unseen examples. They generalize, in the sense that unseen examples that match a profile (learned from the training data), even if not an exact fit, may still be classified correctly. It's not a simple one-to-one match. Hence, generalize.

The problem with the generalization performance of all such systems is two-fold. One, they're limited by the set of features that were chosen (a person selects features that are relevant, like "is followed with 'inc.'" for classifying organization mentions in free text). Two, even given optimal feature selection, the generalization performance of inductive systems is always hostage to the information in the training data. We collect examples to use to train the system, and, in the end, we hope that the training data was adequate to model the true distribution (the thing we really want to predict). Problem is, whatever hasn't occurred yet in this true distribution, can't possibly be collected from past examples, and so the entire approach is hostage to the fact that things change in real-life environments, and the larger "pattern" of the true distribution as it unfolds in time may not be captured in the training data. Whenever this happens, the approximation function does not model the true distribution. Bummer.

Now, a feature in particular of such inductive systems (we can substitute "supervised statistical learning sytems" if it sounds more fancy) is this local minima or maxima worry, which I introduced with regard to ANNs, but which is really just a handy way of introducing the general problem of generalizing from past cases to future ones writ large. And it is a problem. Consider time sequence prediction (as opposed to, say, sequence classification such as the well-known document classification task in IR research). In time sequence prediction, the goal is take a sequence of elements at time t, and predict the next element at time t+1. Applying this multiple times you can predict a large sequence of elements through some time n.

And this is where the inductive problem comes in, because if the data you're using to predict the next elements came from some set of prior elements, it's possible that the prior elements (your training data), gave you a model that will get you stuck on a foothill, or, will see the top of a small hill as a bottom valley, and so on. You can't be sure, because the future behavior of the true distribution you don't have. And this is why, in the end, induction--however fancy it gets dressed up in mathematical clothing--not only can be wrong, in theory, but often is, in practice.

We can't see into the future, unfortunately. If we could, we could fix the inductive problem by simply adding in the additional information about the true distribution that we're missing in our training data. But in that case, of course, we'd hardly need the approximation.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rule Following

"This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule."
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

"If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?"
Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men

One the great myths of modern society is that we're following rules to obtain outcomes. I mean rules, roughly, in the sense described here, although I'll also feel free, for these purposes, to equivocate a bit between plans and rules. No harm should be done for now.

So the myth of rule following. We see it in software development (no one seems to notice, or if they do, they dare not mention, that the "rule" was changed a thousand times between conception and completion of project), we see it in the economy, the social sciences, and indeed everywhere that the veneer of science and technology and the almost pathological need for certainty manages to obscure deeper truths about the fragility of our capacities.

Retrodiction, not prediction, is what we're best at, though it is unfortunately and for obvious reasons of little interest. And for various psychological reasons that I'm neither qualified nor interested in researching directly, we're strikingly good at painting failure after failure to predict what comes next with ex post facto explanations that make things just so. Political science is perhaps paradigmatic. It was common in the 1950s to prognosticate about how the (now defunct) USSR would be the preeminent superpower by the 1970s. France (yes, France) was widely thought to be emerging in the 1970s. Japan in the 1980s. China of course today. Our ability to keep proclaiming, generation after generation, our cock-sure predictions about the future state of human societies in the next year, five years, decade (or God forbid, century), is simply amazing, and defies logic. Yet we keep doing it. And we will keep doing it, in spite of all evidence of consistent failure to the contrary.

The psychology of rule following tells us that there's a rule (or a set of rules) that we followed to get to a result (or that will allow us to predict a future result). And when we achieve the result, we tend to confirm the application of the rule, when in fact (chances are) we've made innumerable on-the-fly judgements to get to our result, and then we've tidied things up after the result was achieved by giving credit to the rule. So everything fits. Feels like progress.

On the other side of the coin, when a result is not achieved, instead of recognizing the general problem of using rules, we tend to assume that the particular rule (we claimed to) use, was in fact not adequate. And we set about looking for a new rule, which will of course not be adequate in many contexts too. Such is the nature of our (unexamined) selves. In a deeper and more honest sense we might someday admit that progress (at least in messy, complex situations that we're immersed in), is mostly a function of insights, adaptive thinking as the environment changes, and, well, luck. But we don't see it this way. It doesn't sound like something an expert would say.

So I think that in complex systems (like the weather, or any system where human choice can enter in), our capacity to formulate generalizations that tell us how things will be at time t+n, when we refer to them at time t, is effectively a chimera (whenever n is large enough, which depends on features of the system). Things are constantly new, and different. We formulate plans, and rules, and they guide us, but very loosely, because the environment is constantly in flux. Rules we've grabbed onto "work", only because we keep adjusting things to make them seem to work. The real driver is rather our own wits and insight. And with these much more powerful tools, software does get developed. The Surge in Iraq works. The Space Shuttle (mostly) arrives at the Space Station. And when I get correct directions and follow them, I typically get where I'm going (even if unexpected snags happen). And on and on.

Anyway, in some other post I promise to explain in more depth exactly how rule-following is a mirage, which I haven't yet done (I've asserted mostly only that it is). To be continued. Until then, rest assured that our rules are grains of salt. They just masquerade as so much more.

The Sobriquet

She remained phlegmatic about her sobriquet long after her lover had bestowed it, and then began using it in earnest. But something changed. She noticed first that she was anxious to discuss it when around the table with her girlfriends, and later became horrified at the prospect of its slipping to third parties in public or semi-public moments. She was not a woman prone to obloquy, particularly against her lover, but in almost febrile moments she began to fret that he had drawn her into a miasma of his silly, redolent, refulgent phrases that he thought coruscated their union and she just his style. She didn't know any more. She thought maybe she didn't like her sobriquet. Maybe she hated it.

Exiguous complaints, she countered. And then the frustration would grow until it burst out in fissiparous fragments, and she'd retreat to lying motionless. Unthinking.

In other moments a more psephological mood would emerge, and she'd poll her constant and contradictory thoughts for some majority that might bring solace. Or decision.

Decision. Dissumulation, is all. Dissumulation. He doesn't care, despite his near ubiquitous plaudits. Well nor than does she. It was, she later realized, the codicil that granted her immunity from that death which awaited the other. She was phlegmatic no more.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Donald

Donald Trump gets interviewed, pretty frequently, by cable news for sound bites on what's happening with the economy, business, banking, this kind of thing. You know, The Donald topics. Well I really do love these Donald moments. This is a guy who once ran for President, promoting himself to the country with memorabilia like "I've had a great time here" (what the heck does that mean? Is this what-happens-in-Vegas campaigning? Sounds like a Chicago politician, with perhaps less criminality and more just standard issue louche).

So he's back on cable news now, giving his wisdom on the auto bailout. The problem with The Donald is that he's so opulently wealthy, so New York Cosmo privileged, that he can't manage the relevant distinctions for us plebian viewers. When asked if he'd buy an American car, he responds that he's got several. In fact, he says, he just had one of his workers buy a Dodge Ram truck for him. He likes Cadillacs, too. Buick makes a good car, he assures us.

The interviewer, Greta Van Suster-whatever, asks if he buys foreign as well, and she should have known better, because (say it with me) of course he does! He buys them all. See, it's just about Donald Trump being really rich. But strangely I still like the guy. He embodies that rarified world of gaudy New York real estate tycoons. He's (weirdly) innocently just that. He tells us with a straight face that he helps the struggling economy by buying expensive things (he's got, strictly speaking, something of a point here.) No time for philanthropic B.S., The Donald's making deals. He just scored another gold statue for one of his homes. Beautiful. Great time to buy em'.

Final thought, The Donald was on I think MSNBC a while back, and was asked about buying real estate. I kid you not, he's on point with a story about how he just picked up a piece of real estate for pennies on the dollar. 112 million is all. It's a great time to buy, he concludes (as if we should all rush out and grab up some resorts in Miami for cheap). The interviewer is slightly exasperated at this point and reminds Mr. Trump that many Americans are struggling to buy a first home, or pay the mortage on an existing. Unfazed. The deals are out there, he says. And they are. If you're The Donald.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Sea, Part Two

The undulations of the sea lofted him up, and rolled him helplessly down, into the chaotic brine and ocean. He choked. He choked more. His eyes went wide as adrenaline surged, his limbs flailing, then a massive push down into the sea. The spots that grew red in his consciousness grew brighter; his mind reeled and he was strangely cognitive, caught in frantic vascilating between drawing breaths of air or clenching shut to stem so much more choking. He didn't get it right. Water came into his lungs with fantastic pain and no air. No air. He drew in on himself. Where was he? Suddenly, and quit unexpectedly an insight. It should be fine, he thought, suprised at his calmness. Calm. That's what he was forgetting. Calm brought his dreams and his thoughts and then the painless morphinic images where he saw his father. His father was smiling, looking at him. God, his whole life washed over with calm. He was fine. He had always been fine.

The boulder that struck his head got no prize. He had ceased to care, and then he knew no more.

His death lay heavy on the hearts of the living. It was perplexing, and tragic. Perhaps. But perhaps in no one's view in particular, it could be said that his last moments were in fact very much like his first moments, and strangely just so innocent and divine. There was, of course, no one there to say it.

Ode to the 629

I have been traveling since Tuesday and hence no time for posting. But on my return there's my leetle friend, the Smith and Wesson Model 629 .44 Magnum (my wife picked it up from the gun shop while I was gone).

A few comments, in no particular order (actually a false statement; clearly there's a particular order, so hear it here first: all these years folks have been fibbing about the non-particularity of their particular orders).

1. It weighs as much as a kitchen pot half full of water.
2. The chambers are so large that I can get a good portion of my pinky finger into them.
3. Pointing it at yourself in the mirror gives you the heebee geebees (even, obviously, when verifiably unloaded).
4. It's barrel-heavy, with the 6" barrel. Tweaks the wrist a bit. The 6" barrel is I think shortest allowable for hunting. Moose. Or bear. It's Palin Friendly as we now say.
5. The grip is slightly small, although not unreasonably so.
6. It seems for all the world like a gun of such heft that one could make a plausible case that even absent ammo, it could still function as a formidable weapon.
7. My mother-in-law likes it. Really.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Dry Wit of the Brit

Chistopher Hitchens, you gotta love this guy. He's on Hardball last night with Salon's Joan Walsh debating the Hilary Clinton pick, a perfect platform to launch his everything-but-the kitchen-sink diatribes against the Clintons (he thinks very little of the Clintons, I'm now aware). Ms. Walsh, who apparently was there as a cheerleader for Clinton (needed only the pom poms), and now has a look on her face like Mr. Hitchens is talking about her sister (the camera keeps panning over to her, what high drama), has just about enough and, without engaging the substance of his charges, lobs a Labowski at him: "that's just your opinion Christopher." To which he retorts "...yes, how clever, and look who's saying it? Would you rather I give your opinion?" Walsh just kind of harumphs, but Mathews couldn't resist a chuckle. Neither could I.