Caveat: Venter

Think about all of the things that make your brain itch. These are mine.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Ann Coulter (for Anton)

This idea was suggested, if inadvertently, by my friend Anton's comments on my (now second) most recent post. In a recent (at this writing, current) piece on Ann Coulter's web site, we can read a list of things that she apparently feels are unworthy of government money, all in order to put the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the Ten Commandements in "perspective." Let me address a couple of the more heavily spun pieces and present a brief list of my own.

— Korans distributed to aspiring terrorists at Guantanamo. — U.S. military
This is an interesting idea. Apparently we only gave these holy books to some of the prisoners, since not even the U.S. government has managed to prove that all of the people currently being held at Gitmo are now aspiring or ever did aspire to be terrorists. We can forget about those who have already been released. History is written by the victors, indeed.

— "Anglos consolidated their control of New Mexico, acquiring huge holdings from the original owners through fraud and manipulation." — Smithsonian exhibit
Yeah, too bad we paid for a history lesson here. Were eminent domain and violence never used in land grabs while building railroads, too? Some of this nation's history is offensive. Deal with it. Maybe, though, it was the use of "Anglos" in this context. I'm still puzzled by why this is a misuse of taxpayer dollars.

— Christ submerged in a jar of urine. — NEA-funded exhibit
I'm sorry, but we paid the salaries of troops who have done much worse over the decades, though perhaps Coulter only finds desecration of Christian symbols unfair or offensive. I really should get back into teaching Sunday School.

— A play titled "Sincerity Forever," depicting Christ using obscenities and endorsing any and all types of sexual activities as consistent with Biblical teaching. — NEA-funded exhibit
And it is OK for the U.S. military to supply aircraft for movies like Executive Decision? After all, that film only portrays the followers of Allah as hellbent on harming others. Good Christians and evil Others does not fairness make.

She goes on to write that the United States was "founded on a compact with God, forged from the idea that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Hmm. Let's review the two core documents of this nation: The Declaration of Independence and The United States Constitution. The word "God" appears precisely once between the two documents (in the Declaration of Independence), and that is in the following sentence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Note that there is no specification of which God, and despite attempts some continue to make that it is the God of the Christian Bible (is that Catholic or Protestant, by the way?), there is, in the end, not merely a dearth but a complete lack of evidence to suppport any such definitive claim. Heck, "the Laws of Nature" get top billing; "Nature's God," which sounds incredibly druidic to me, comes in second.

"Creator," which also appears but once, and in the same document as "God," is no clearer. Indeed, if person X believes that god A is her creator, and person Y believes that god B is his creator, what distinction does this document make?

Better still, of these two documents, only the Constitution has any legal or governmental value. The Declaration—important and historic though it is—does not establish this nation's government, yet it is the only one to mention "God" or a "Creator."

Coulter eventually comes to her (apparent) point, which is to mention the possible horror of banning the Pledge of Allegiance. I suppose there are those who want to ban it, but most cases ask the Court to rule on the "under God" portion, which was addedonly during the Cold War so that we might distinguish ourselves from those "godless" Communists (note the use of a capital C, indicating the party, not the people who espouse Marx and Engel's economic theory—there is a difference).

In any case, here is my mercifully short (though why I should make it short after this long of a post is beyond me) list of questionable taxpayer-funded boondogles:

The "Star Wars" missile defense shield. We have yet to have one fully functional test on a system that has been twenty years in development. Worse, not a one of our serious enemies has ICBM capabilities, though commercial aircraft, a poisoned milk supply, or a few X-ray-activated explosive devices could cause more economic havoc, if not exactly as much loss of life, as one nuke.

$200,000 in 2000 for one city in Pennsylvania to get all of its streets re-paved with sparkling asphalt. Yeah, because the driveways at theatres aren't bad enough that we have to put this into a federal highway spending bill? If this post has already pissed you off, you really don't want to know which elephantine party claims the offending Senator.

Franking privileges that may be used to run political campaigns. 'Nuff said.

Ann Coulter's law school education. Yes, that was a silly one, but given the level of pointlessness of some of Coulter's listed items, maybe this should be a serious entry.

Iran-Contra. Let me see, we paid people to use backdoor methods to deal with people we didn't like but were allowed to deal with so they could deal with people we didn't like and we were banned from dealing with. This was done so that we could achieve an end that was not achieved by these means, and now a member of the so-called "Axis of Evil" has weapons we supplied via this mess. Oh yeah. That's a promotional bell ringer!

I think that's enough for now. I'm sure I will hear something about this, despite the dedication of the post to my friend. Honestly, had he not mentioned Ann Coulter, I would not have thought to go to her site. It was only once I was there and reading her list, however, that I felt the need to write something about it here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Bush On Iraq

In a speech (NY Times, login required: see page 6) last night, Bush said that "setting an artificial timetable [for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq] would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out."

What? Let me rephrase this: If we say that we will leave on a given date, the terrorists will know that they can wait us out, but if we simply say we will, as Bush put it, that "we will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed and not a day longer," they can't wait us out. The only way that this can be true is if do not leave until all of the terrorists are wiped out. Yeah, that will happen soon.

So that my reading this week of 1984 may be seen as having more value than mere academic prep—a worthy reason in its own right—let me bring in this justification from early in Bush's speech:

"The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror. The war reached our shores on September 11, 2001."

OK, so if the "global war on terror" finally reached this country, that means it was raging beforehand, right? But the term "war on terror" is a post-9/11 creation. That's OK, maybe we can just collect all of the offending copies of newspapers and such, rewrite them, and toss the old ones down a "memory hole" (all the more amusing a term in this digital age) to be consigned to fire.

This is our chief executive? our commander in chief? He should not have ended the speech "May God bless you all," but "May God save you all."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Puzzle-Solver Crack

Six days ago, as I was driving home, I saw a bench ad for Sudoku in the Los Angeles Times. The ad asked simply, "Do you Sudoku?" I can say that I had no idea whether or not I did, but if I did, I knew it by some other less Asian name. Later that evening (more properly, early the next morning) I wandered down to the lobby, intent on polluting my lungs, and our desk attendant had the puzzles page open. Seeing something different, I asked if it was the new puzzle (and thereupon butchered the name of it).

Sam replied that it was, so I looked at the simple grid as he explained how it worked. It seemed horribly obvious, and I gave a shrug, regarding it as little more than a distraction. Later, out of curiosity, I copied the grid down and transferred it to a spreadsheet that allowed me to work with it. I failed miserably. Repeatedly. It was not just a distraction. Here's how it works:

You are presented with a 9x9 grid, itself composed of nine 3x3 grids (arranged, of course, in their own 3x3 grid). Some numbers appear in various squares throughout the puzzle, and it is the solver's job to get the digits 1 through 9 arranged in each 3x3 grid in such a way as no column or row duplicates any digit.

That may sound simple, but visit The Daily Sudoku, which presents just what its name advertises. Most are actually quite easy, as Sudoku puzzles go, and can be worked out in 15 to 30 minutes by someone who knows the tricks. Expect to surrender a little more of your time, though, on the first couple tries.

Oh yes. If you like these kinds of puzzles, you are doomed. One day I will have caught up with everything on the site linked above, and then I will have to get a fix elsewhere. Thankfully, there are many sites that supply Sudoku puzzles. I'll get by, I think.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Income Tax Fix

If the government employs someone, why does that employee pay income tax to the very government that issues the paychecks? Republicans and other conservatives routinely argue that the more money people have in their hands, the more money people will spend, which in turn will cause the economy to grow. So if you lower my pay, eliminating what I would otherwise pay in taxes (assuming that were my only income), you would have less money going out (my paycheck is smaller) and less money coming in (my tax burden is eliminated), but the numbers are a wash. Of course, if I were to have two part-time government jobs, I would end up coming out marginally ahead, but it would probably be more trouble than it would be worth.

Now, you may be wondering about what this does for married couples and charitable giving. After all, if I have no tax burden at all, I have no incentive to itemize my returns, which gives me no incentive to give money to charity, donate a used car, or, well, do much else that might come off as greed-motivated magnanimity. That's OK, though, because I am a magnanimous person already.

As for married couples (who may file jointly), let's go back to the example of $100,000, but divide it evenly this time between two people. The government employee would get a 10% reduction in pay (to use the dream rate from above) and earn $45,000, bringing the household income to $95,000. Of that, only $50,000 would then be taxable, reducing the tax bracket for the family. Once more, this puts more money in the hands of the people, though it does not radically alter the tax calculation.

Government, with a smaller pie to slice up, would have to shrink, and its employees would not only have to be the best and the brightest in order to get the jobs, but they would have an advantage in the dating pool. After all, who would not want to be married to that kind of tax benefit? Bring in $95,000 and get taxed as if you brought in $50,000? Think of the possibilities!

But wait, there's more. Since the number of government jobs would necessarily shrink with the budget, the requirements for those jobs could increase. Since many people would want those jobs, education would have to improve at all levels. This would, of course, force real reform, not more NCLB crap. This would move us ahead of other nations in education and allow us to move more toward isolationism in our trade policies, though we could, with all of the people who wanted those military (government) jobs, still project our will wherever we wished.

Simply by reducing my tax burden (and that of others employed by governments that charge income tax), we can solve all of the nation's problems.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Fox "News"

I was just checking to see what was on TV, and my channel surfing brought my through Fox "News." What were they discussing? Why the "failure" of the media to report on the success in Iraq. Senator Chuck Hegel (R-NE) apparently says that we are losing in Iraq. Clearly, that is not news, yet one of the commentators (I refuse to say "reporter") said that we were winning.

The insurgents, he explained, don't have the capacity to mount a large offensive (Tet was his counter-example to the failed attack on Abu-Ghraib) and don't have a leader from Iraq. Furthermore, he hastened to add, "it's just terrorism." Um, yeah. We got that part.

Correct me if I am wrong, but Bin-Laden is not from New York, never set foot on, much less controlled, U.S. soil, yet 9/11 happened. Don't worry, folks. Fox has just broken the big secret: it's "just" terrorism. Never mind that one of the four reasons given (each with its own month, at that) for using military force in Iraq was to combat terrorism (the "War on Terror"). It's "just" terrorism. Never mind that Bin-Laden is still free, and that worldwide efforts to capture him show less commitment than Elizabeth Taylor at a wedding, we are in Iraq to prosecute this war on "just" terrorists.

Wow. And they have the gall to use the word "News" outside of quotes?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Update On The Neighbors

Last night one of the birds fell (again) from the nest and was left too weak to survive. The two had grown so much that the nest was barely big enough for one, and while the fall is perhaps two feet to soft planting soil, this may well have been the same one who took a tumble a few days back.

It's sad, but then animals tend to reproduce like dust bowl farmers: have enough children that some are certain to make it. Requiescat in pace.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Professors, Please Read!

I am developing something for the English department at my school (it could be used by other departments, but I am working with my department chair on this right now). I am curious what you folks out there in the blogosphere think of my idea, keeping in mind that I work at a community college, where such a plan as I will lay out below may have more value than at a university.

I am putting together a textbook review system that will allow instructors—at least those with new preps or changing texts—to see what other people think of the texts out there. Since every course has a course outline that spells out what the goals and requirements are, the textbooks we use should support us in helping the students meet the goals for a given course, but it is not easy to skim, much less read, every viable book on the market. This is where my idea comes in.

An administrator (the Department Chair or designee) assigns a text-course combination to a reviewer, who grades (using a 4-point system, just like letter grades) how well the textbook meets each of the requirements for the course. An end user can then look up a course and see all of the textbooks that have been reviewed, what their overall scores are, and what their individual scores are.

From a technological standpoint, this is easy. I had a false start late last night, and today I have gone from scratch to almost full functionality. The cost is minimal ($299, without educational discount, for the software if we only need to support up to five web users at a time), and the security is solid. Here's the question:

Would you find any value in something of this nature?

Monday, June 20, 2005


I finally did the obvious and got a Flickr address. Now all of you who wanna see my silly pictures (the ones worth sharing, anyway) can just go there and peek. You don't get stupid drunk pics, though.

Strike (I Lost Count)

Yes, folks, the application process has bitten me in the ass yet again. My alma mater has opted not to give me an interview, and that is par for the course. I really need to publish more, so last night I did a final edit on a piece of short fiction I need to send out. I have downloaded a trial of some software that will allow me to complete a project prototype in a day or two instead of weeks. If I can get it approved campus-wide, I can have my name on a system of textbook evaluation that will streamline selection and ordering in any department willing to work within the structure.

It takes time, I am told, to get a full-time job, but come on! Can I at least get an interview here and there for practice? Any suggestions? The PhD is still on the table, but not in the short term. Worse, for work in a community college, it is a double-edged sword: a PhD can teach more courses and has a more developed background, but the school will have to shell out around $10,000 more per year. Unless the economy turns around, that is bad thing.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Our New Neighbors

A couple days ago, one of the people who works the front desk in our building identified a couple new residents. Apparently, a neighborhood stray was a little too fascinated by one of the large potted plants in the motor lobby, and Sam quickly discovered why:

Apparently these two little bird have been placed reasonably out of predators' paw reach by mama hummingbird. They just in the last day opened their eyes for any period. A few of us are keeping an interested watch on their progress.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Eco's Favorite Sign

I had the pleasure of attending a reading and book signing for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco's fifth novel. Eco, as a professor of semiotics, has dedicated the majority of his life to the study of signs, but not street signs or the famed Golden Arches (though they qualify), but the kinds of signs that are everywhere, from cancelled postage stamps to the arrangement of chairs at a restaurant. Everything, to one who studies semiotics, is a (potential) sign. Let me come back, though, to the title of this post in just a moment.

Eco read the first two pages of his novel and some passages from the seventh chapter in fairly fluent English. It's clear that, like his protagonist, Yambo, he came to English as an adult, but he manages magnificently. The highlight of the reading, though, was a passage he read from the eighteenth chapter, the book's last. In a barrage of characters, from the worlds of Yambo's life and Yambo's readings, come parading down a lighted staircase: all tap dancing, and most singing. As Eco read, I followed along as well as I could, but his pace was impressive, the songs ringing out in a fine voice, and the words only barely traceable to those of us who did not know Italian. It was the way in which Eco read that third passage that confirmed everything I ever suspected about his vitality and his sense of humor, even the way I had read it in the English translation not even two hours before.

This was followed all by a Q&A period, and while I could recount the general sense of the questions, it is the last that interests me here, more for how Eco answered than the depth of his response. A man some distance behind me asked Eco about the author's favorite sign. Puzzled, Eco asked him to clarify, so the man indicated that he meant Eco's favorite image or symbol—a semiotic sign. Eco replied, "My signature." But of course.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Yeah, That's The Solution . . .

Apparently our school children need more exercise. They're fat, folks, and it's time we recognized that. Someone sound the alarm bell! The damned remote for the bell is around here somewhere; I saw it just last week, and it's easier than pushing the button on the wall over there.

Anyway, some people are making the wild assertion that video game playing and school district contracts with the likes of Frito Lay may be contributing factors to the pudge factor of our youngsters. Apparently, they don't get excited about physical education and recess. There are reasons for this.

Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating violence on the school ground, but I liked things like dodgeball. Yeah, we played that when I was growing up, and I sucked at it every time except one, but that was when I was the lone hero who won for my team. We can't do that anymore, we are told, because it stomps on little egos when people don't do well. It's throwing balls at people! Hard! With permission! It's fun!

We did things like run laps, kick balls, and warm up with calisthetics. It's understandable that kids just won't get excited about these things, but who cares? You think they are, as a group, praying teachers will take them in early from recess and give them extra math problems? Do essays make them so giddy they pass out from joy?

Grab a whistle and MAKE them run! Oh yeah, and burn the vending machine contracts. Wait, burn the vending machines. Put the flaming metal boxes on rollers and push them behind the children who "don't feel like" running, and they will run.

Is this what those ninnies over in Redlands do? Oh no, they think it is a better idea to get kids excited about exercise by using exertainment. Yeah, for all of those kids whose coordination prevents them from kicking a slow-moving red ball, let's put them on a Dance Dance Revolution dancepad. That's a good use of district money. After all, why have them outside getting exercise when we can "fight fire with fire," as Sue Buster put it in the article linked above?

By showing that video games can give them exercise, we are showing them that playing video games is good for them, right? They don't need to be able to walk a quarter mile in under 30 minutes. They have no reason to learn to kick a stationary soccer ball or shoot a free throw. Why learn skills, after all, that might translate into a lifetime of something better than the club scene?

Monday, June 13, 2005

Free Speech In The Era Of Globalization

I make no shortage of enemies with my views on globalization: I support it. Mind you, when I say that, I don't mean willy-nilly factory-building for the exploitation of workers, but let's face it: an American living wage paid to Guatemalen workers would pretty quickly create inflation the likes of which the world has only seen in a couple of countries afew times in history. We need to be responsible.

Wired News, however, has an article about my favorite corporate whipping boy. It seems that Microsoft, in an attempt to solidify its position as a web services company in the lucrative Chinese market (I own Lenovo stock in my IRA, notbeing immune to the yen for the yuan), has agreed to work with the Chinese government by preventing bloggers from using certained banned words or phrases. These are scandalous words, as anyone who knows about China or Microsoft products will attest, things like "democracy" and "human rights."

I doubt that Microsoft is the only one doing this. Yahoo and Google may be just as complicit. Microsoft, however, has more power to affect change than most, if not all, of its counterparts, yet it has relinquished its power for good for the power of money. Maybe the Bible is right: the love of money really is the root of all evil.

Jackson Crowd

I stumbled on the live reading of the last three charges against Michael Jackson. He's been acquitted on all charges, of course, but that's not what I want to write about here. Outside the courthouse there was a rabid throng. Someone was waving a tricolor with "France Loves You Michael" written on it in block letters. A woman had a cage full of doves and was releasing them one at a time to fly over the courthouse. People were climbing the Cyclone fences and cheering. But that's still not quite what I am here to say today.

The last time I remember seeing a crowd gathered with such intensity of purpose, awaiting the decisions of a small group of people, was the Schiavo case. I have not yet settled how I feel about that, but I am pretty sure I am heading for being disturbed.

Fiction And Creation

Having just begun reading Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, I am struck by something that has been gnawing at me now for some years. Everyone else is writing stories like the ones I dream up and never write. Perhaps that is not so strange, though maybe it is. I can't say. What happens, though, if someone starts publishing the stories I write but do not publish? Where does that leave me?

We can say that there are an infinite number of stories, but we would be, strictly speaking, wrong. Borges understood this and expresses as much in his short story "The Library of Babel." Using a 22-letter alphabet (modelled, if we can accept the evidence of his broader work, on the Hebrew alphabet) plus the period, the space, and the comma, Borges imagines a library that doesn't exist in reality but that does exist.

This library contains books of 410 pages, with each page containing 40 lines of 80 characters. Every possible combination of the 25 characters exists precisely once. As he notes, it is enough that one book exists (and one page, or even one set of letters, if we want to push it to its extreme) to prove that they all exist.

While the number of possible books is extremely high (let's not deal with the math here), most are gibberish. The readable books are still mind-bogglingly numerous, but not all make sense from sentence to sentence, cover to cover. Even that number is almost unimaginably great. But it is finite. Of those books that make sense—that have a measure of structure and coherence by our rules—I have reproduced sections in what I have written (indeed, many that do not make sense from cover to cover contain what I have written, some in contiguous sections).

But this brings us back to the original issue. If I invent something, I have not invented it so much as tapped into the pages that always already exist within the library. Any other person may well do the same, though probability says it would contain at least minor variations. If I draw back far enough, then, I can see my own ideas everywhere. Does this mean that my ideas are unoriginal, even if they came "first," which is to say that I was conscious of their existence (within the library of possibility) before another who later wrote them and perhaps published them?

Have I ever been—can anyone ever be—original? We say that there is nothing new since the Greeks, but if that is true, the Greeks may well have realized that there was nothing new since (pick any earlier civilization of which the Greeks were aware. Indeed, there is nothing new since the first alphabet, and possibly before. Everything is an expression of that which already exists, which has always existed. Even the form of expression is old, having merely waited to be discovered. It's a humbling thought, even as it suggests that each of us has access to the (apparent, though false) infinity of creative expression.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The DaVinci Code

I am going to bother many people with this (my wife is about ready to disown me already), but here it goes.

Let me begin with my general feeling. This novel is a good read, and that, I hope, explains its popularity. It was a fast read—easy and well paced. In some ways that is good, though I am always wary of the book that doesn't beg to be examined more closely. I would recommend the book to anyone looking for a couple days' entertainment, but don't expect any deep or challenging puzzles.

While the characters are strongly defined (once Brown stops trying to describe everything in minute detail), and the Brown has devised what can only be describes as a hermetic plot, there are probems. Robert Langdon is a symbologist who teaches at Harvard, and Sophie Neveau is a brilliant cryptographer. Well, that is what we are told. Neither displays the mental prowess to have a high school diploma when dealing with some of the simpler puzzles, though. While both have amazing stores of knowledge, they seem to lack, often for many chapters at a stretch, the capacity for reason that would ostensibly justify the standing that either holds in the world.

I won't detail the frustrating grammatical errors, as those are truly within the scope of an editor's job to correct. Suffice it to say that the errors that appear within the novel are frustrating, in part because they are being passed on to readers who may not recognize them. And people wonder why the English language is in such a state. Below are a couple of things that irked me, though. If these are problems for you, and if you have not read the novel, it may be better to stay away. If, on the other hand, you read these and think I am being too critical, have at it.

I have not read such gratuitous use of irrelevant description since the days in which I read Hardy Boys books. That is not entirely fair, actually: the description in Hardy Boys books was not as gratuitous as much of Dan Brown's.

Can someone explain why 3rd person omniscient is of value here? Does it matter what some nun who takes care of a church thinks? Can't we see her nod, hear her speak? Do we have to enter her head for a paragraph that amounts to a long-winded internal "yes"?

While the idea that the apple is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil has its roots in artwork, not in the Bible or the ancient flora of what is modern day Iraq, the connection of the novel to art and its symbols cannot excuse Brown's use of that image in exposition. I can see the reason for using this, but it is one of the novel's weaker crutches. Given certain information about one character, crutches are better off when they are strong or unnecessary.

Chapter 42 contains, for a novel so richly researched, a glaring error that echoes public belief, though not the truth. Swiss banking regulations do NOT protect depositors' identities from law enforcement agencies. The Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce provides some information on its site about this, though for more detailed information, check this site (an administrative assistant for the SACC was kind enough to provide this link to me in response to a query I sent in April of 2004 while I was designing an adventure for an espionage role playing game). If it seems to some that I am picking nits here, consider the audience for this novel: errors of this magnitude, on which might hinge key plot elements, are not only sloppy, they are, to my mind anyway, irresponsible.

It gets worse. In chapter 82, he writes about how the "skyline of London [had] . . . once [been] dominated by Big Ben and Tower Bridge . . ." That's a neat trick, given that Big Ben is a bell hidden from view to those outside. Once more, he perpetuates a popular misconception as he relies upon it. Shameful.

I am sure there are other things I skipped over in dealing with these matters, but this should be sufficient to give an overview of some of the more obvious problems. There are others, but discussing them would involve revealing key plot points (which may not be revealing much, given how transparent many are).

I will catch hell for this post, I know, but there it all is. Fire at will. I'll take it all.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Dazed And Amused

I have been blogging away now for nigh on five months, my topics being less focused than perhaps they could have been, yet somehow the folks over at Inside Higher Ed noticed a recent entry and linked to my blog for their "Around the Web" feature.

I've been told that the folks over there just read a lot of sites in search of two each day that they will link to for that feature. My lottery number came up, I guess. Mind you, if you are reading this any time close to the time of its publication, you are probably one of the many who has arrived recently via that link. Stick around, make a comment, come back from time to time. I promise to return to discussions of academia every now and again.

Petition (fully revised)

A petition is circulating regarding funding for the arts and public broadcasting. I received it today and, sadly, was too incensed to look deeply into it before following up properly. The petition is, or was, valid. It is deals with an old funding crisis, and now I must apologize to those who received copies from me and warn others.

If you receive an e-petition regarding a threat to public broadcast and arts funding, it does NOT bear on the recent question, but an older one. For more information, visit this site. I must extend my deepest apologies to a woman whose contact information appears prominently on this document, though I am loath to name her here as she has been haunted long enough by this.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Fear The Academic Budget

California has 103 commmunity colleges. Two years ago the state's budget went in the toilet, and most community colleges cut way back, but my school survived, having spotted the looming crisis and taken steps to guard against it. We had a $10M surplus, the largest in the state.

A year ago that surplus was down by 10%, but we were in a budgetary hog heaven, so we switched to a new billing and student tracking system, which, I must say, already looks incredible from an instructor's perspective. That said, the system was supposed to run $5M. Sadly, this is an academic budget, and we ran over by $4.5M. With a little help from sources not yet made clear to me, we managed to get $3M into the red.

English was not supposed to have an opening this year, but we sneaked one in late. It and one other are not yet filled (as of the time of this post, the position has been closed for 13 minutes). Sadly, the budget situation is such that we are now looking at not filling either of the unfilled positions this year. Worse, four people are slated to be cut from the full-time crowd, and that has GOT to sting after (probably) one year.

So there is it. The budget tanked, and the opening I had hoped would give me a real shot at becoming tenure-track in the school that has kept me working steadily since two weeks after my degree posted has vanished for another year. These things happen, and I felt bad as my department chair kept apologizing to me yesterday. He didn't cause it, and while it is bad news, it certainly is not the end of the world. I've got time to develop more material for my CV before next summer, unless my alma mater hires me, and I have my 60% load for Fall. I'll be up a pay grade and may add a school or two to my schedule. I'll get by.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Fear The Academic Application

There is something quite frightening about the paperwork that must come together when applying for a tenure-track position, and this from a man whose CV is relatively compact. Once everything is thrown together, it comes to twenty pages. It's true that three pages are letters of recommendation and another nine are transcripts, but three (two if I don't bother with the optional page) are good ol' fashioned application pages, and the rest are materials I have written.

I suppose, however, that all of this makes some kind of sense. A panel has to decide which applicants, out of a pool of hundreds, deserve interviews, and three pages of fill-in-the-blank just doesn't cut it when selecting someone for a position that involves managing hundreds of students every year, contributing to meetings that may well alter the way content is selected or delivered, and eventually taking leadership positions throughout a career that may well exceed thirty years in one location.

I would say I don't envy the selection committee its task, but I would be lying. I want that task, or at least I want the opportunity to have that task before me. The only way to do that, of course, is to prove what I already know: I'm the right person for the job. Somebody pass me a bullet for my teeth.

Monday, June 06, 2005

It Finally Happened

And now that the grim reality has begun to sink in, it doesn't look so grim after all. Apple has announced that it is moving to Intel chips. The process will be slow and, like the transition from 68k to PowerPC, it will cause Apple to lead a double life for a few years. I must admit I never thought the day would come. But let's look at this a moment.

The PowerPC architecture, originally designed by IBM, Motorola, and Apple, has seen the departure of Motorola (the truly innovative force in its development) from the design side. IBM has hit a wall and found itself bashing its head against said wall for a couple of years now, indicating a possible end to the superiority of the architecture. Intel, too, has found it difficult to improve its Pentium architecture, having to make its CISC chips more RISC-like, migrating it toward the style used in the PowerPC chips in order to continue to get performance improvements.

Now we have been told that Rosetta, an emulator that runs on the Intel hardware platform, can run the MacOS with almost no performance hit. Some may say that shows the inferiority of the IBM chips, but emulators have improved dramatically in less than a decade, making what once seemed impossible commonplace. What this says to me is something even more dramatic. If the MacOS can run under an emulator at nearly full speed, what happens when it is native on the hardware? when the APIs are designed for the architecture and no longer need to be interpretted by some other piece of software acting as a hardware abstraction layer?

Microsoft's Longhorn, (over)due out around the same time as Apple starts shipping its low-end machines with Intel chips next year, will still lack many of the promised features companies had originally been told to expect as early as late last year. Apple already has those promises fulfilled, and more. If the box will cost the same, the OS run at least as efficiently, and the features be in place on the new Apple/Intel boxes, legacy apps are the only reason to keep from switching in the long term.

Finally, this works because Apple, which has spent twenty years as a hardware company (the Big Brother of the original "1984" commercial was IBM, not Microsoft), has realized that it has a competitive advantage in software and can be supported by its iTunes Music Store and iPod divisions through the transition. It's a company with no debt, strong financials, and deep pockets. Hardware margins may be the big thing, but a migration to a software focus will allow Apple to develop new consumer electronics and services divisions. Not only does this look good for Apple (which even a couple years ago it did not), it may signal trouble for Windows, though not, I suspect Microsoft as a whole. Time, as always, will tell, but it promises to be an interesting ride.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


In the age of Flickr and blogs, it seem that looking up people's pictures online as part of a photomeme is not the best use we can make of digital photography. Here, then, is my proposition:

The first two people who propose (G-rated) subjects will have set me my mission. The subjects should be general ("a building of some local importance" instead of "The Washington Monument," for instance), available to anyone, anywhere. I will go out and capture images to fit those two criteria and post those images here.

With that done, I will give to the first two people who post comments on the resulting images, their tasks. Each will receive one of the two I have done and one more of task of my choosing. Thus, if I am to capture images A and B, respondent 1 may get A and D, and respondent 2 may get B and C. They will each pass on my new one (A and B would be done) and one of their own to each of their first two respondents, and thus it will grow geometrically, with each person creating two new images. By linking back to the predecessor in each case, as is traditional in memes, we can create a thematic link (since one link is always inter-generational), and traverse the real geography of the blogosphere.

The limit is this: the images must be created expressly for the meme. All images already shot will be verbotten. Anybody like it? Anybody care to start me off?

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Your Feedback Counts

I know that is a silly title, but it is to the point. Let me start by thanking David for jolting me back on track with one of his questions on a meme (who says they can't be useful?). I have a six-week College Composition (basic transfer English) course this summer term. Classes start on 7/5 and meet Monday through Thursday each week for three hours at a stretch. That said, I have been looking at how I can use blogging as part of the course, though I hesitate to build it in as a requirement. The students are not signed up for an online course, and I cannot guarantee their universal access to an internet connection. Here is my plan:

I will set up a blog for the sole purpose of posing questions or providing nudges to my students. They will then be able to read and respond, both to me and to one another. From this, I hope to find directions to take (or avoid) in classroom discussion.

I am troubled, though, in that what I have just outlined in the most general terms will provide little, if any, real benefit. What do you, dear readers in the blogosphere, feel I can or should do to punch up this plan and make it a real force for (pedagogical) good? Remember, Your Feedback Counts.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Casaubon And Coincidences

I am re-reading Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum. As I was driving up to the hospital Thusday, I switched on KPCC, the local NPR station. (I had to get an x-ray to prove I don't have active tuberculosis: skin tests are useless on those of us who have already had TB.) A man with an accent was talking about how he had missed the chance to tell one of his former au pairs he loved her. He was talking about his new novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. I was unfamiliar with the book.

It turns out that the man on the radio was Umberto Eco, and there I had one of his novels on the seat beside me. But it isn't just that that struck me. I don't usually watch the TV show Numbers, but I happened to bother just now. In it, one of the experiments conducted by the main character (a mathematician whose brother is an FBI agent) involved measuring a building's wind deflection by means of a pendulum. The theory behind such an experimentis similar to the idea behind Foucault's Pendulum (I have seen two manifestations of Foucault's Pendulum: in the Smithsonian and at Griffith Park). In the case on TV, the plumb drew an ellipse, theoretically (this was not explained in the show) using the difference between the position of the point of suspension and the corresponding point below the surface over which the plumb traced its path as the foci of the ellipse. I was disappointed by the writers' failure to include this as a pedagogical trick, but the 60-minute drama has its limits, I suppose, and not everything will strive to be Sesame Street for adults.

For those who have not experienced the wonder that is a Foucault's Pendulum, here's a quick summary. A pendulum is suspeneded from a fixed point, often, these days, with a motor that is below a joint, allowing the pendulum to maintain motion through a plane without being affected by the building. The pendulum is started and traces a path across the floor. This is nothing dramatic when observed for a brief period, but slowly (more quickly when the pendulum is near a pole than near the equator), its path changes, or, more correctly, appears to change. While it still passes the same center point beneath the point of suspension, the outer edges of its path seem to be rotating like those auto-timers you can put on your lamps when you are out of town.

Here's the cool part—something my father, an engineer by training, managed to transmit to my brother and me even in the late 1970s: the pendulum is not moving relative to the room; the room is moving relative to the pendulum. It's a sublime distinction, and even today a rather vertiginous concept. Here we are, observers of this creeping change as we stand stock still, and the pendulum moving before us is moving less than we are. Nothing is ever the same after witnessing something like that. It amazes me what so simple a device can do. A pendulum hangs from a point and swings through space—our space—and yet we, standing still, are the ones moving. And it is crazier still.

Put this against Newton's claim that every force meets an equal and opposite force, meaning that the Earth attracts us to it gravitationally with identical force than that with which we attract the Earth to us. This works because those two forces are one, of course. But what are we that we have the power to draw a planet to us, personally? That we, standing still, move at hundreds of miles per hour around the Earth's axis, thousands of miles per hour about the sun, millions of miles per hour through our arm of the galaxy? Standing on a point of light, indeed, Albert!

Questions for Amy

Here are the promised questions for Amy, albeit a day late:

1. You seem to take an outsider's (or perhaps voter's) perspective on politics in your blog, yet you have worked in the District. What do you see as your blog's role in political discussion within the blogosphere?

2. You are what many people would call "overeducated." What motivated you to pursue so many degrees?

3. You've been blogging a fair amount about a possible move into a faculty position, though you come off as ambivalent. What factors do you see before you in making that decision?

4. As this is for you, Amy, and not Politix and Prose, will we be seeing more of "Static"? Key to this is, I suppose, is the degree of planning to the story going in.

5. And now for the annoying meta-question (because I can and because I think you'll get a kick out of it): What is the one question you think I should have asked but didn't, and why?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A Cure For Cancer?

OK, so I already blogged about the value of yogurt in the fight against AIDS, but now SlashDot has an amazing little story on the cancer front. This is worth a look. It appears that math can cure cancer. By generating a growth model using fractal patterns, researches have been able to cure cancer in mice. Now they have tried it on one human, apparently with incredible results.

Now, I can't claim to understand this all, but if there is a kernel of value to this approach, we need to be building our resources for this kind of science. Cancer may well be just the beginning, after all. Could we use similar systems to understand how viruses multiply and thus stem their spread? Might this even be used for finding a social method for stabilizing the human population? OK, so that last one is a reach, but I have high hopes. I'll let the mathematicians save the world. We people in literature will record what that means to the world.