Saturday, November 27, 2010

Central Valley

Here's a post to keep the lights on here while we're blogging about Nicaragua over here.
This picture was painted on the day I was born in 1976 by Rollin Pickford, a Fresno artist who died earlier this year and who is sometimes referred to as the "painter laureate of the San Joaquin Valley."  My mom found and scanned this painting and sent it to me as a very cool birthday gift.  If you drive around the central valley you'll see dozens of old farms like this one, very often draped in that late-summer yellow -- for me it's a neat vision of home.  And Pickford's luminous water color paintings are definitely worth checking out.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tech and Travel

So Laura Jean just published a very cool essay in a women's clergy e-zine that you can read here. The topic is (unsurprisingly) our upcoming trip abroad and how we're hoping to use skype and other technology to keep in touch with our family and friends, despite the distance. Take a look!

Nica Blog

So we are off to Managua on Monday morning -- very exciting!  Laura Jean and I will be doing a joint blog during our time in Nicaragua titled On A Journey.  The plan is for that blog to be our main space for posting stories and pictures about our time there.  I'll still be posting here on Goats Reading Books on non-Nicaragua themed stuff, but I expect the volume will be reduced. 

Anyway, if you're reading this, I hope you'll check out the new blog.  (RSS feed here, or you can do the google Follower thing by clicking on the link on the right-hand side.)

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Unplugging

After having striped our earthly possessions down to the bare essentials, packed them into a truck, cleaned our house, sold our car and flew to California, we are now decompressing in Fresno. After a very stressful and hectic few weeks it feels great to relax and make time for watching movies, swimming, running, hanging out, playing with Quinn. Next week we are off to the mountains for some serious porch-sitting, beer-drinking and possible hiking. Soon enough we'll be pitched back into the uncertainty of moving and change, but for now life is calm.

Relatedly, I am also taking this opportunity to simplify my inbox, under the assumption that my life over the next few months won't have me chained to a computer screen at all times. Over the years I seem to have accumulated a large number of email listservs and rss feeds and it has been quite liberating to let some (if not all) of them go. The ratio of wheat to chaff in my inbox has gone way up. Part of the issue is that for my previous job I served as a kind of human aggregator for a large number of blogs, news sources, activist groups and other information flows.

I will confess to finding information somewhat addicting, and with the internet there will always be more and more and more interesting and important things to read. But no one yet has invented more hours in the day in which to read it all. So it is nice to step back and simplify a bit, before the inevitable information creep starts back up again.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Eating Animals

No, not the book by Jonathan Safran Foer. Rather, over the past six months or so, I've started eating meat again after 15 or so years of being vegetarian.

The impetus, as you might guess, is moving to Nicaragua. The way we figure it, eating a strict vegetarian diet may end up being harder in Nicaragua than it is here. I expect we'll continue to be largely veggie when cooking at home, but if we're eating out there may be a lack of options and if we're guests in someone's house we don't want to be rude. Hence, we are starting to eat a little meat a few times a week ... basically to prep the stomach for the transition.

It's a pragmatic choice, although honestly I've been slowly reassessing my food philosophy for a few years now and I'm not entirely sure what I think these days. Basically, my central reason for being vegetarian has been that meat in the U.S. is often not produced sustainably (e.g. overuse of antibiotics, gigantic lagoons of cow sh*t, etc) and requires a tremendous amount of resources (water, land acreage, fossil fuels) in comparison to other foods. Also, it has probably kept me a little healthier than otherwise.

But the problem is that I've replaced meat in my diet with other things--like fish (not always sustainably fished) or processed foods--that makes me wonder if I'm not really thinking consistently about the big picture. There are other ways of thinking about these issues, such as eating locally or eating less meat or simply enacting smart national policies so we're not all wasting time calculating carbon miles in the grocery store aisle.

So anyway. I expect Central America will give me a different take on this stuff--in addition to a different cuisine. A lot of the first-world problems I mentioned above just aren't as pertinent (or are very different) in a developing country. So we'll see. But for now: meat! At times, it does seem very ... strange, to be eating meat after so long abstaining. But also (more often than not) delicious.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Oil Spill Scenarios

This week NOAA released the results of some modeling (based on historical wind and water currents) that show where the oil is likely to end up. The average of all 500 scenarios looks like this:

Their models show that with some medium-ish probability some of the oil will enter the loop current and head up the east coast. For example, if the oil spill had occurred on April 17, 1997 that would have been the result, as this animation shows. Of course, other scenarios depict different results and NOAA says that currently "the Loop Current does not appear to be a major source of transport of Deepwater Horizon oil to the Florida Straits or Gulf Stream." But of course that could change if the thing keeps gushing.

Anyway, I thought they were interesting, if depressing, results. I also recommend this pretty cool website that lets you visualize the size of the oil spill by moving it to your hometown in Google Maps. Apparently, the oil slick now dwarfs the state of Maryland in size. Totally crazy.

Also, because if you have to cry you might as well also laugh...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New Look

The old blog theme seemed kinda stale, a bit 2005-y, shall we say. Plus, blogger has some fancy new templates and features, so it seemed like time for an upgrade. What do you think?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Nicaragua

So we have one of those big, life change-type announcements - which is that we'll be moving to Nicaragua in August to live and work there for a few years. (Not that its been that much of a secret, but I haven't mentioned it on the blog before.)

Living abroad has been a long-term goal of ours for many years and a great opportunity knocked so we decided to take it. We'll be working down there through the auspices of Global Ministries, which is the joint overseas division of the UCC and the DOC (Laura Jean's denomination).

Our local partner in Nicaragua will be the Christian Mission Church of Nicaragua. Laura Jean will be working with them to set up a kind of traveling seminary for the church's ministers and doing other forms of theological education. I'll be working on whatever environmental/development projects the community has in mind as well as teaching something math/science/environment-y at the Universidad Evangelica Nicarag├╝ense (UENIC).

Or something! The situation may look different once we get down there. At any rate, we're pretty excited and are frantically learning Spanish and figuring out how to move ourselves and toddler down to Managua in just a few months. It is going to be a crazy adjustment so wish us luck, and please do let us know if you know anyone down there we should get in touch with (we've been continually amazed by the number of connections we've made already...)

And -- as this is an imminently blog-worthy topic -- I'm sure we'll have a lot more to say as the day draws near. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Mathematics of Music

OK, here's something I've always wondered about: why 12? That is to say, I've played music for many years now and I've never understood why, exactly, our musical scale is composed of twelve semitones. Probably my music teachers explained this to me at some point, but it must have not sunk in.

As any guitar player will tell you, the concept of an octave is intuitive and grounded in physics. An octave is what you get when you shorten the length of a plucked string by half thus doubling the frequency of the sound. But in principle you should be able to divide up the frequency space in an octave into any number of intervals, not just twelve.

(As it happens, there are two recent articles on the math of music that are worth reading: a Physics Today article about Richard Feynman's interest in piano tuning (pdf) and this one from Slate.)

The historical meaning of 12 is that the Greek philosopher Pythagoras had some strong religious beliefs about pure numbers and constructed the early version of our musical scale out of 3/2 intervals (i.e. out of the next simplest whole number fraction after the octave). As the Slate article explains, constructing a twelve-note scale out of 3/2 intervals doesn't quite bring you back round to an octave. The Pythagorean system works because the quantity (3/2)^12 * (1/2)^6 = 2.0273 is approximately equal to two -- a quantity known as the Pythagorean comma.

But this caused some problems for musicians. For example, the octave sounded perceptibly out of tune and you had to re-tune your instrument in order to play songs in different keys. So during the Renaissance, musicians came up with the concept of equal temperament, where the octave was divided into twelve logarithmically equal intervals of 2^(1/12) and each Pythagorean interval was thus re-tuned by a tiny amount. Bach was so psyched by this innovation that he went out and wrote the Well-Tempered Clavier in celebration.

So far, so good, but this still doesn't quite answer the question of why twelve? Clearly you can create equal tempered scales with any number of intervals, but is it possible to create a Pythagorean system with different numbers of intervals?

The algorithm to find out is pretty simple.
  1. Start with a base frequency of A=440 Hz.
  2. Step upwards by factors of 3/2 ... so 440, 660, 990, etc.
  3. If we go above an octave (880) then we need to divide by 2 to bring it back into the same octave range. So 990 becomes 495, and then we step upwards again by 3/2.
  4. The goal is to get as close as possible (either high or low) to 880 and then stop.
Twelve steps gets us to a frequency of 892.006 Hz, but it is easy to extend the series. Here's a plot out to N=100, with the red line representing 880 Hz.

So for most N, it is not really possible to craft a Pythagorean scale - either you don't land close enough to an octave or else you have oddly spaced intervals - but for a few N, the formula seems to work. N=5 (pentatonic scale) is not too bad and old, familiar N=12 works better.

But the winner is definitely N=53 which falls almost exactly on the red line - much more exactly than the familiar twelve tone scale. This scale, with 53 (barely distinguishable) intervals, is virtually equal tempered to begin with. Apparently this very bizarre musical system was first discovered by the Chinese mathematician Ching Fang thousands of years ago and was later rediscovered by various westerners (including Newton). And people have allegedly written music for it! Go figure.

So: a fairly interesting answer to the question posed. And if you're interested in spending time on wikipedia be warned that there are a truly ridiculous number of baroque music theory articles lurking there.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Disaster Capitalism

This interesting Mother Jones article takes a look at how global warming is already changing the business climate, both by pushing some businesses to the brink and by creating new opportunities for others. The author also praises the 'bracing' clarity that a bottom line tends to bring to political debates:
If a firm's bottom line is going to be affected by a changing climate—say, when its supply chains dry up because of drought, or its real estate gets swamped by sea-level rise—then it doesn't particularly matter whether or not the executives want to believe in climate change. Railing at scientists for massaging tree-ring statistics won't stop the globe from warming if the globe is actually, you know, warming.
The article focuses on three fairly intuitive examples--arctic shipping, the ski industry and disaster insurance--but it seems likely that there will be others in the future.

The obvious corollary to this is that there are big investment opportunities here for climate skeptics. I mean, if you really thought that climate change is a hoax (as does Sen. Inhofe) and that everyone else is simply over-reacting, then there is clearly a lot of money to be made selling things like beachfront property or cheap storm insurance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cool Logo

This graphic - apparently designed for the recent May Day immigration rights/anti-SB1070 demonstrations - is a really fantastic design. (Photo from this photoset.)
mayday09_0171

I'm not entirely sure who designed or distributed the signs, but I saw the image recently on the side of a building while driving and immediately knew what they were conveying. Tells a story, communicates a strong emotion, catches the eye -- nicely done.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Building A Better City

Spring is here in DC and the city has seen fit to build a fantastic new bike path--called the Metropolitan Branch Trail--that runs about 2 miles, virtually from our house to downtown DC. It's lined with spiffy solar-powered street lights and they have grand plans to extend it all the way from Union Station to Silver Spring. The path has made my bike commute immeasurably more pleasant, not just because the trail avoids busy streets and buses and taxis, but also because it seems to have avoided all the steep hills.

I should back up. Our current house is nestled among a clutch of modest sized hills (DC is surprisingly hilly!) meaning that any reasonable path to work inevitably involved a sweaty uphill slog. (Yes, I'm lazy. But in my defense I'm usually biking before having coffee.) I even went so far as to consult topographic maps to find some sort of minimally vertical route to work, but it turned out that the optimal path actually ran right along the train tracks that snake through Northeast DC leading into Union Station. But then, cleverly, the city decided to route the new bike trail right alongside those tracks. Nice job DC!

Bike trails are one of those things that aren't super-expensive but that you can imagine stressed-out budget cutters eying skeptically. So yay for DC deciding to invest in a small thing that makes the city better, greener, safer, healthier, friendlier. (OK, obviously I'm selfishly invested in this one, but little by little the path is getting more and more use. You can see it from the metro tracks and I bet a lot of people crushed into a 9am train are thinking about buying a bike now.)

In that same vein, I should probably say something about the new gay marriage law. DC has now joined 5 states (and one Indian tribe!) in granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Our church scheduled its first such ceremony for the first available Sunday after the law went into effect. The two grooms in question were both pillars of the church community who had been together for three decades, and they chose a Sunday service to make it 'official.'

Church was packed and everyone was extremely psyched for the couple -- the pastor quipped that the turnout was even higher than Easter. In addition to wedding joyfulness I also remember feeling a distinct (and quite spring/Easter-like) sense of possibility. After all the struggle and frustration and gridlock of modern life, it is in fact possible for progress to happen. Usually change is so slow that it seems like it will never happen, but then all of a sudden, it is there. We can do things.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

UCS on CSI

In which UCS pops up on an episode of CSI -- here's our nine (awesome) seconds of pop culture fame. You bet I'm concerned!

Monday, April 19, 2010

DC Metro Ads, Cont

I've blogged about the DC Metro's unusual advertising before, but I was still pretty amazed to see this specimen (click for picture) -- spotted by middle-east expert Andrew Exum in the Capitol South Metro stop.
I am, like, 98% sure this is a picture of the southern suburbs of Beirut during or immediately after the July War of 2006. [...] Should the destruction of civilian infrastructure -- civilian housing, civilian businesses, etc. -- really be something we should be slapping each other's backs about, even when the military necessity of such operations is 100% clear? I think you all know the answer is no. [...] But because this is a neighborhood populated by Shia Muslim Arabs it's somehow okay for Northrop Grumman to take pride in its destruction. Gross.
Again, maybe this sort of imagery really appeals to the 0.001% of Metro riders who are their target audience, but it seems pretty remarkably insensitive to me.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Quinn on the Piano

Here's a video of Quinn singing and playing on the piano (split into two parts)... cute! Am I right?

Friday, April 09, 2010

Random Thoughts

Ezra Klein has a righteous rant about the universal crappiness of the "grilled vegetable plate" vegetarian option.
"No. The grilled vegetable plate is not acceptable. Do you have pasta? Or pizza? Or salads? Or an employee trained in the art of putting different kinds of foods together on a plate in order to create a satisfying dining experience for customers? Because if not, my party and I will go elsewhere."
Seriously amen to that! We are always joking bitterly about how meat-eaters at catered events get roast chicken with a side of undercooked squash and zucchini and we get ... a plate-full of that same squash and zucchini with the chicken scraped off. Yum!

Elsewhere: this week's xkcd makes a joke about twitter and earthquakes.


Which reminds me of watching the 1989 World Series between the A's and the Giants and seeing the earthquake hit San Francisco on the TV screen and then feeling it in Fresno several minutes later. I suppose it is only a matter of time before the evil geniuses think of using these twitter feeds to trigger giant piledrivers (or something) that use wave interference to cancel out (or augment) the earthquake.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Dance up on them Haters

I'm totally loving this Janelle Monae video.

Alyssa Rosenberg has an interesting essay about how Monae is a kind of hip-hop Ziggy Stardust, with her James Brown pompadour and her Michael Jackson dance moves. But the thing I love about the video is her unusual screen presence and how she bugs her eyes out when she starts singing. Very unusual, but fun to watch.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

10K

Laura Jean, Jamie and I ran in a 10K (6.2 mile) race this morning. The race was down at Hain's Point, which is a public park jutting out into the Potomac River, right near the Tidal Basin. This meant that the entire race course was lined by cherry trees in full blossom - in many places the branches met in the middle and formed a tunnel of flowers and green leaves. (Today is actually the end of the Cherry Blossom Festival and so there were tons of people milling around and taking pictures). At any rate, a totally gorgeous place for a run.

The race was totally fun too -- a small, informal affair (about 300 runners, no t-shirt) put on by these guys. Jamie was nice enough to slow down and run with me for the first few miles before zooming off. I kept up a decent 8:30 pace and finished in 53:20. Laura Jean posted a totally awesome time as well.

[Results here.]

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reading Joyce 2

With Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, stage two in my evil plan to read all of James Joyce is complete! My review cross-posted from goodreads. I should also add that you can read this for free on Google Books.

---
There are some books that really ought to be read in the context of a literature class, with a professor to provide context and interpretation and the fear of a final paper to instill motivation. For me at least, Portrait was that kind of a book. It rewards intense study much more so than casual reading, and the somewhat irritating character of Stephen Dedalus becomes far more interesting when seen in a broader context. So it was slow going for me, especially the beginning, but several extended sections were simply fantastic (the priest's description of hell, the beach scene, the final conversation with Cranly).

Portrait is clearly the work of an older writer looking back on his youth with a bit of embarrassment and a lot of brutal honesty. We see Stephen caught in that universal phase of adolescence marked by pretentiousness, self-righteousness and snobbery. So he's a bit of a jerk, but also clearly idealistic, perceptive and sensitive to others. Definitely relatable, and not entirely unlikeable.

The arc of Stephen's story involves him casting off every piece of received wisdom or cultural expectation he encounters -- the lifestyle of his father, English imperialism, Irish nationalism, the Irish cultural revival, Roman Catholicism, his college friends, his country and even his hope for love and companionship -- in a quest for artistic freedom. Mirroring this journey, Joyce places Stephen in the midst of a blizzard of quotations and obscure references (the endnotes in my version were essential in deciphering these) until the final six pages where Stephen finally cuts through the noise and speaks in a first-person voice as he makes his choice.

Stephen's struggle should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever tried to create something (be it a story, a piece of music, a scientific argument) -- namely the sinking feeling that it has all been said before and that your contribution is only a derivation, a minor rearrangement of the obvious. It won't truly be original, so why bother?

Unfortunately, his solution to this dilemma is literally exile and isolation. It all seems a bit harsh and more than a little melodramatic, although Joyce himself left Ireland as a young man and never returned. And perhaps it is true that great artists are in some ways outsiders to their community, never hewing to any party line.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Immediate Benefits of HCR

Here's a list of the top 10 health care reforms that kick in this year with Obama's signature--no waiting until 2014 or whatnot. (Via.)
  1. Adult children may remain as dependents on their parents’ policy until their 27th birthday
  2. Children under age 19 may not be excluded for pre-existing conditions
  3. No more lifetime or annual caps on coverage
  4. Free preventative care for all
  5. Adults with pre-existing conditions may buy into a national high-risk pool until the exchanges come online. While these will not be cheap, they’re still better than total exclusion and get some benefit from a wider pool of insureds.
  6. Small businesses will be entitled to a tax credit for 2009 and 2010, which could be as much as 50% of what they pay for employees’ health insurance.
  7. The “donut hole” closes for Medicare patients, making prescription medications more affordable for seniors.
  8. Requirement that all insurers must post their balance sheets on the Internet and fully disclose administrative costs, executive compensation packages, and benefit payments.
  9. Authorizes early funding of community health centers in all 50 states (Bernie Sanders’ amendment). Community health centers provide primary, dental and vision services to people in the community, based on a sliding scale for payment according to ability to pay.
  10. AND no more rescissions. Effective immediately, you can't lose your insurance because you get sick.
To toss out a few additional thoughts on HCR, I think Jon Chait makes a good case that ObamaCare is actually based on a bunch of moderate-to-conservative ideas that Republicans would probably support if it had been proposed by their side.
Obama's plan closely mirrors three proposals that have attracted the support of Republicans who reside within their party's mainstream: The first is the 1993 Senate Republican health plan, which is compared with Obama's plan here, with the similarity endorsed by former Republican Senator Dave Durenberger here. The second is the Bipartisan Policy Center plan, endorsed by Bob Dole, Howard Baker, George Mitchell and Tom Daschle, which is compared to Obama's plan here. And the third, of course, is Mitt Romney's Massachusetts plan, which was crafted by the same economist who helped create Obama's plan, and which is rhetorically indistinguishable from Obama's.
Socialism!

And finally, a lot has been written in the past few days about how instrumental Obama and Nancy Pelosi were in getting this passed, but I think big credit is due to Harry Reid also. When I first came to DC, I remember hearing some crusty old political reporter talk about how the Senate Majority Leader is by far the hardest and most under-appreciated job in town because they are responsible for dealing with the 100 biggest egos in the country. As a result most Majority Leaders come off as slightly bumbling and Reid is no exception. But still. Dude got 60 votes on health care reform. Not to shabby.

Monday, March 22, 2010

HCR FTW

Well the Democrats managed to pass comprehensive health care reform, and I have to say I am pleasantly surprised. I basically figured they were going to screw it up somehow, but they managed to snatch victory from the jaws of the defeat which had been previously snatched from victory's jaws. Or something like that.

Anyway, I'm glad to see Congress take a few baby steps toward a truly workable health care system. The truly important thing here is that Congress established the principle that everyone should have access to affordable health insurance. That is the new status quo and once people learn about it they won't want to give it up. The moving parts will be tinkered with and strengthened by politicians of both parties for years to come, but I don't think that core principle will ever be revoked.

I would personally prefer a more comprehensive "Medicare-for-all" system, but this is a decent step forward. My rough understanding is that the health insurance industry is a kind of natural monopoly, making it hard for small mom-and-pop companies to enter the market. Insurance companies don't really compete on the basis of service or quality of product so much as on the respective magnitude of the medical "risk" they carry. Without proper regulation, this leads to inhumane practices where the sick are excluded up front or dropped after paying premiums for years.

But once you make those practices illegal (as this law does) it makes more sense to pool medical risk as broadly as possible, to have everyone pay into the system when we're healthy and pay out when we (inevitably) get sick. And that starts to look at lot like Medicare-for-all. And perhaps we will evolve toward that system over sooner rather than later -- a public option would certainly speed up that process.

Beyond the policy, yesterday's vote signaled that Washington can actually do things and address big problems that seem impossible. People are already talking about how the HCR vote may actually revive the climate change discussions. If it had gone the other way the media narrative of failure, gridlock and impotence would have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

33.3 repeating

Apparently at 6:08 pm today I will be one-third of a century old -- 33 and 1/3 years. That doesn't happen every day, you know, and on St. Pats to boot. Old!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Visualize

Here is a really cool video that takes crowd-sourced data about the movement of dollar bills around the country and deduces some interesting things about communities of people (apparently no embedding but click here). I thought the bit about how geographical boundaries (and even "straight-line" political boundaries) actually divide groups of people was totally fascinating.

Anyway, I saw this video in Science magazine's annual Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge 2009, which collects nifty visualizations of science concepts and subjects (link requires registration). Their winners are typically pretty neat, like this winner from last year that graphed every cross-reference in the Bible (there are a lot).

Visual and information design seems to be a field that has really flourished in recent years -- visually appealing information seems to be popping up a lot on the web. Some of my recent favorites include:
AND this awesome mash-up of time-travel plotlines from TV and movies -- apparently Marty McFly, the Star Trek crew and the Terminator all met (will meet?) sometime in 1985. (From the always interesting visual-blog Information is Beautiful.)

Cool stuff!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

No More Princesses

Elise tagged this blog post about how after a dozen (uniformly excellent) films Pixar is finally making one with a young girl protagonist ... who is unfortunately a princess.
Dear Pixar,

This is not an angry letter. It is especially not an angry letter about Up, which I adored. I could have sat in the theater and watched it two more times in a row. I cried, but I also laughed so hard in places that it wore me out.

So I'm not complaining; I'm asking. I'm asking because I think so highly of you.

Please make a movie about a girl who is not a princess.
Amen. The rest of the post is totally on target too. This is not to discount the attraction of a frouffy pink ball gown every once in a while, but I definitely agree it would be great to have more movies based around characters like Up's Ellie.

In fairness, while Pixar is unabashedly boyish and the trad Disney movies have bought into the "Princess" marketing juggernaut, basically every single Miyazaki film is centered around a tough and awesome girl hero, knee band-aids and all. So not to let Pixar off the hook, but there is good stuff out there -- Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, Nausicaa, etc.

Anyway, after becoming a father I have definitely become more attuned to portrayals of girls and women in the (small number of) shows that Quinn watches. We're big fans of the Dora the Explorer episode where Dora saves the prince trapped in the tall tower and I cheer inwardly every time she pretends to be a scary monster.

So the "Princess" hegemony is pretty irritating. I know we won't be able to filter it out of Quinn's cultural intake forever and undoubtedly she'll go through a princess phase and we'll roll with it. Still, every time I see one of the Disney princesses I get a lyric from my favorite Coup song -- Wear Clean Draws -- going through my head:
You know you're my cookie baby and you're too smart
I can see it in the lines of your school art
True heart, I mean courage, expressed with care
Go on draw them superheroes with the curly hair.

You're my daughter, my love, more than kin to me
This for you and the woman that you finna be
Tell that boy he's wrong, girls are strong
Next time at show and tell play him our song.
Tell your teacher I said princesses are evil
How they got all they money was they killed people.

If somebody hits you, hit 'em back
Then negotiate a peace contract.
Life is a challenge and you gotta team up
If you play house pretend that the man clean up.
You too busy with the other things you gotta do
If you start something, now, remember, follow through.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Buses are Bosons

Dan over at Cosmic Variance has a fun post explaining the mechanism for why, when buses are running late they tend to cluster (much to everyone's irritation). I confess that I once worked out the exact same problem while waiting for a bus in the freezing cold in Chicago -- although in my case it was the #55, not the #6. I distinctly remember waiting about an hour for a bus that was supposed to come every 15 minutes, and when it finally arrived there were 4 in a row.

The mechanism for bunching is pretty intuitive, but I wonder if there might be solutions to prevent the problem. Someone suggested faster loading of passengers, but it also seems like having the (empty, faster) trailing bus simply pass the (full, slower) front bus would help a little. The full bus could also start skipping stops (assuming no one wants to get off) knowing there was an empty bus right behind.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Obligatory OK Go Post

So this music video is the raging viral internet thing du jour, but it's still pretty awesome.

I don't even care if they faked the timing or edited multiple takes together, I'm just happy that it exists. They also have a marching-band video version of this song which is somehow even cooler.

[Check out this interview to learn a bit about how they did it. Apparently they did several full takes, but none was perfect so there is one splice in the video. Also apparently the timing wasn't faked, although they did speed up and slow down the video by small amounts in places.]

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Same-Sex Marriage in DC

The DC city government is in the last stages of finalizing a law allowing same-sex marriage in the district and that has brought the city into conflict with local Catholic groups. On Wednesday, the Washington archdiocese "ended its 80-year-old foster-care program in the District rather than license same-sex couples."

Apparently Catholic Charities -- which receives $20 million in funding from the city to run programs serving homeless families and victims of domestic violence -- is looking to find a way to re-structure their benefits and hiring to comply with the DC law but not officially "recognize" the marriages. But foster care was an insurmountable disagreement.

I have a lot of respect for the work the Catholic church does in the world and not being Catholic, it is really none of my business what they decide to do. But I simply do not understand how gay marriage is the issue that trumps all the others. How does that make any sense? Even if you truly believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, what is moral calculation at work here? Is it really better for these kids to be wards of the state than to live in a loving home with two foster parents of the same gender?

To be clear, the DC law does not force the church to recognize or perform same-sex marriages (how could it?) - it just asks contractors who receive tax dollars to comply with the city's non-discrimination laws.

Anyway, Andrew Sullivan (who is both devoutly Catholic and openly gay) uncorks a bit of righteous irritation at the double standards here:
A simple parallel: does the Washington diocese's charities employ any people who have been civilly divorced and are now re-married under DC law? If so, how are these individuals less offensive to the teachings of the Church on the institution of marriage than a member of a gay couple provided civil marriage licenses?

Catholic doctrine is very clear: a remarried person is not remarried in the eyes of the Church, and for the Church to employ such a person would be to recognize a civil marriage that violates one of its core principles. There are infinitely more of these individuals than there are gay Catholics or gay non-Catholics who might want to help the homeless or serve the poor or provide foster care for an abandoned child. Catholic Charities might - Heaven forfend - have to provide spousal benefits to a member of a heterosexual couple violating Church doctrine about matrimony in exactly the same way. And almost certainly, they already do all the time.
Good question. Also interesting are the words of this anonymous employee of Catholic Charities who writes in with the view from inside the organization.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Goodreads and Iran

My sister Jessica blogs about how the book-social-networking site she works for -- Goodreads -- was apparently blocked by the Iranian government last week.
Last Friday, February 5, 2010, we were saddened to see Goodreads traffic in Iran plummet, which can only mean that Goodreads has joined the ranks of sites blocked by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime. One Iranian Goodreads member wrote to us and confirmed the news: "your site is recently been filtered by our horrible govrnmt. pls help us! spread it...books make no harm."
It is a sad reminder that living in a repressive society is, well, repressive and horrible - more so than many of us in the U.S. probably even realize. Until the cutoff, goodreads had attracted a sizable online community of Iranians - now hopefully they can find their way to proxy servers and back out onto the internet. And just maybe pressure from within and without will lead (peacefully) to a more representative government for the Iranian people.

Anyway, the story has been picked up by the Guardian, the New Yorker and a few other places so far.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hurling in the Snow

So this was going on in Farragut Square at lunch yesterday.

This being, apparently, an impromptu game of hurling - a traditional Irish version of field hockey - arranged by a couple of Irish theater and arts groups. A pretty amusing diversion for the lunch hour, plus I feel that my awareness of Irish culture has been suitably raised. Nice work, performance artists!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Snowpocalypse II

For the second time this year, DC got clobbered with double-digit snowfalls, again basically shutting down the city. This storm apparently set records across the area and was 4th on the all-time snowfall list at National Airport. It was pretty exciting for a California boy.

The fun thing about these storms is the sense of shared catastrophe. People are just friendlier both before and after the big snow, more likely to say hi on the street, more likely to strike up a conversation, more helpful. Plus, you've got your giant flashmob snowball fights and funny websites, too. I think it's a gentle reminder that we're not that far removed from the state of nature and that we do actually rely on other people.

When the storm passed yesterday there was an hour of blue skies before the sunset and our street was bathed in a beautiful evening glow - even caught a glimpse of a cardinal.

Apart from shoveling the walk and doing the dishes, I passed part of the time by watching Werner Herzog's infamous 1982 film Fitzcarraldo--the story of a would-be rubber baron trying to move a steamship over a mountain as part of a scheme to build an opera house in the middle of the amazon. (It makes a little more sense in context.)


The scenes of madman Klaus Kinski steaming deep into the rainforest blasting Caruso out of his gramophone were an impressive contrast to the quiet, white blanket coming down outside the windows. Anyway, it's a good movie, a fascinating addition to the genre of crazy white people who go to the jungle and do crazy things -- and the crazy filmmakers who risk life and limb to make crazy movies about them (see also, Apocalypse Now).

Friday, February 05, 2010

Tall Towers

The other day Quinn managed to build a tower of blocks taller than herself. The version caught on video is only slightly less impressive.

Quinn has also reached the age where she doesn't want us to take pictures (or video) of her - she would rather play with the camera and take pictures of us. That means we have a lot of recent shots of her reaching toward the camera. Laura Jean thinks it's time to get her a sturdy and cheap digital camera for her to play with and see what she comes up with.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Headline of the Day

...comes from the always funny Roy Edroso:
Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate

And that pretty much sums up the Congressional Democrats' embarrassing flailing over the past 24 hours. Yes, it's a bummer that they lost Teddy Kennedy's seat, but the panicked overreaction has been much worse. They need to take a few days and a few deep breaths and realize that they still have the largest House and Senate majorities in decades. They are on the cusp of passing health care reform, if they want it.

Anyway, who knows how this will play out, but Ezra Klein sees signs that they are stepping back from the brink and realize that passing nothing is "electorally unthinkable." And of course, none of this is to say there aren't huge, huge problems with the Senate Bill (or that the Dems aren't headed for big losses in November) but I still think the best way to improve the bill is to pass it now, create a political constituency for it and improve it year after year.

The next step is for Obama to make the case for how exactly this will benefit people. He's done a lousy job of that so far, but no one doubts that he has a talent for this sort of thing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fourth and Inches

Ugh. What a colossal unforced error the Coakley campaign turned out to be. Following this whole health care debate has been like watching the last two minutes of a damn redskins game. They're up by like 20 and although you can't quite see how they can lose, you know somehow they will find a way. This makes all those months of dithering look pretty dumb. Remember when Obama said he wanted a Senate bill before the August recess? August!

If they're smart the House Dems will just pass the Senate bill as is, send it to Obama, work out the kinks in reconciliation and move on to a jobs bill. No more sending it back to the Senate for another round of hand-wringing and hostage-taking from Nelson and Lieberman. We'll see if they've got the guts to stick up for a bill they already voted for.

And find some better candidates for the midterms.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Climate Change and Your Health

Here's a great video of my friend Ari talking on the teevee about how climate change will affect your health. (Sorry, no embedding, as far as I can tell.) I think he does a great job (talking on live TV is hard stuff) and I think it just might hit home for some people that, yes, we should do something about climate change now.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Top 9 in '09: Movies

Some good movies from the past year, now with sporadic footnotes!
  1. The Wire1
  2. Wall-E / Up2
  3. District 93
  4. Coraline
  5. Milk
  6. Be Kind, Rewind
  7. Where The Wild Things Are
  8. Crude
  9. Star Trek
Also worth watching: Synecdoche NY4, Blood Simple, Away We Go5, Hellboy 2, Harry Potter 6, Let The Right One In, Man On Wire, Pineapple Express, In Bruges

I would also note, in passing, that this NYT interactive graphic showing the ranking of movies in people's netflix queues by zip code is really fascinating.

---
1 OK ... not technically a movie. We spent most of this year watching all five seasons of the HBO TV series, but it's been a long time since I've seen a movie this well conceived, written and acted.
2 I can't choose - they're both terrific. And I'm not just saying that because I'm especially attuned to kids movies these days -- LJ and I went to see Up on our date night. Pixar can (apparently) do no wrong.
3 If you can overlook one glaring plot-hole this movie just works on every level, from insightful political criticism to blood-pumping action.
4 Typically brilliant and mind-bending directorial debut from Charlie Kaufman. Too bad it's such a downer.
5 I'll admit this is not the greatest movie ever. The first act is pretty ham-handed, but it finds its rhythm by the end. Basically I just can't resist a movie that is so exactly tuned into where my life is at this moment in time...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tastes Like Fresno

Heh. Via youTube, here's the opening scene and credits of Fresno: the Miniseries.

The show was a spoof of Dallas and other nighttime soaps. On the theory that no publicity is bad publicity (and a healthy ability to laugh at ourselves) I think it was actually pretty popular in Fresno. I was ten at the time it aired so I wasn't allowed to watch it, but I seem to remember it generated some buzz. At least the phrase "tastes like fresno" has stuck around.

Sadly not available on DVD (although bootleg copies can be found, allegedly...)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Dept. of Vapid Greenwashing

This week all the adspace at my metro stop was taken up by an oil corporation trying to convince people that it is thinking about the "new energy future" -- presumably to ensure that future still has a lot of oil consumption. For example.
So ... which type of energy should we unlock? Oh right, the energy that's locked away. No doubt Shell will get right on that. Nice work, marketing geniuses!

Still, on the balance, this batch is less objectionable than the last. For several months, this same metro stop was plastered with ads from Chevron (!!!) featuring attractive people gazing soulfully out of the frame and talking about how they were trying real hard to buy less of Chevron's product. Gah.

The advertising space in the DC Metro system provides amusements like these on a regular basis. My stop gets a lot of traffic from K Street lobbyists and other so-called thought leaders, and as a result we get a lot of "think piece" advertising. Last year we had dueling ads between the "clean coal" lobby and the "clean coal is a myth" lobby. Save the oceans. Fund the CDC. Stuff like that.

On the Orange/Blue line (which connects Capitol Hill and the Pentagon) you will occasionally see actual advertisements for armored troop transport planes, attack helicopters or like, bullet-proof laptops. Crazy stuff. At first my mind was boggled that a defense contractor would spend so much money just to subliminally pry the brains of (literally) a handful of people -- presumably congressional appropriation and DOD procurement staffers -- but then I realized that I have no conception of the type of money defense contractors routinely deal with.

DC, man.