Friday, December 28, 2007

Top 7 in '007: Books

I'm taking a short break from baby pictures to engage in my only real blog tradition: the end-of-year, best-of lists. (OK, I know you're thinking, What do I care about your stupid lists? We want more baby pictures! And I totally understand and apologize. I promise the baby pics will return soon, and to tide you over, Laura Jean will post some extra cute ones over at her blog.)

Anyway, first up are the best books I've read over the past year (movies and music to follow in separate posts).

7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling -- I thought Deathly Hallows was a very satisfying end to an excellent series. But will we care about the movies now that we know how it ends?

6. Storm World, by Chris Mooney -- The best of several popular science books I read this year. The topic is the contentious and very current question of whether global warming is making hurricanes more intense (and/or more frequent). To his eternal credit, Mooney digs deep into the scientific details of hurricane science and offers a cautious and nuanced verdict of "yes, probably, but also consider this ..." The book also has a clear-eyed understanding of how science actually works, especially how new ideas confront entrenched schools of thought and the way progress is made despite the messy requirement that it be done by human beings.

5. Old Man's War, by John Scalzi -- This guy was the movie reviewer for the Fresno Bee when I was in high school, and I always figured he was destined for bigger and better things. I was right: these days he's an award-winning sci-fi novelist (with a blog!). His first novel is military sci-fi a la Ender's Game or Starship Troopers -- advanced weaponry, bug-eyed predatory aliens, the survival of the human race and all that. Plus, it's ridiculously entertaining.

4. What's the Matter With Kansas, by Thomas Frank -- Fascinating book about how the Republican party has used culture war ideas to wrest big swaths of the heartland away from the Democrats. The book is a little dated (see, for example, the 2006 elections and the recent reconfiguring of the evangelical movement) but still full of fascinating insights.

3. (tie) Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville; Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman -- I'm planning a longer post about these two books, but for now, I'll just say that fantasy is moving rapidly beyond dwarves 'n' swords (the late, great Robert Jordan notwithstanding), and these are two terrific places to start.

2. Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie -- Review here.

1. The Known World, by Edward Jones -- A nearly perfect novel about Black slaveowners in antebellum Virginia. After finishing, I read an interview where the author confessed that he actually didn't do very much historical research for the book. Weirdly, I felt almost betrayed by that fact; how could these characters not be "real"? Anyway, Black slaveowners are the controversial hook for the story but aren't the limit of Jones's imagination. The Known World somehow revisits a time and place we think we already know (this ain't Gone With The Wind) and finds a wealth of new stories just waiting to be told.

Honorable Mention: The Long Loneliness, by Dorothy Day; Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson; What's My Name, Fool?, by Dave Zirin; Coraline, by Neil Gaiman; Toxic Sludge is Good For You, by John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton

Website Shoutout: It's fun, it lets you organize and review the books you've been reading and you can be my friend.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas Grandparents

The flight to California was long but blessedly uneventful and Quinn slept like a champ! And now we're at Grandma and Grandpa's house for baby's first Christmas. You can just tell my Mom and Dad are naturals at this grand-parenting thing, in fact we're having a hard time prying Quinn out of their arms. Given the large size of my family, I'm guessing we won't get to hold her ourselves until sometime around January 3rd ;-)

Happy Holidays everyone!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Laura Jean's blog

After a long hiatus, Laura Jean has started blogging again! Check out more photos of Quinn at

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Welcome back to work

First day back at work and apparently stuff has been piling up in my office while I was gone.

Baby's First Snow!

So, one of my favorite things to do is play in the snow. Today, we had the first snow of the winter in DC.

This was also the first snow of Quinn's brief life, so I dressed her up in a special outfit for the occasion.

And of course, we dressed her up in an even more special outfit to go outside. I love bundled babies!

She did not, however, wake up to enjoy playing in the snow. As she does most of life, she "experienced it" while sleeping.

We also "watched" the snow out the window during the day. I'm not sure she can really see that far just yet.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Bush and Iran

In non-baby-related news, here's the lede from the Washington Post this morn:
A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy

President Bush got the world's attention this fall when he warned that a nuclear-armed Iran might lead to World War III. But his stark warning came at least a month or two after he had first been told about fresh indications that Iran had actually halted its nuclear weapons program. (emphasis mine)

The new intelligence report released yesterday not only undercut the administration's alarming rhetoric over Iran's nuclear ambitions but could also throttle Bush's effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency.

This is, of course, fabulous news for Iranians and Americans alike, if totally unexpected. I think all the 'very wise men' inside the Beltway were completely blindsided by this announcement -- conventional wisdom seems to have been that Cheney was making a strong push for bombing Iran before their term is up. Gareth Porter reported several weeks ago that:
A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran has been held up for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear programme, and thus make the document more supportive of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's militarily aggressive policy toward Iran, according to accounts of the process provided by participants to two former Central Intelligence Agency officers.
So not only were the dissenting opinions not removed - they actually comprised the main conclusions of the NIE. Kevin Drum has some speculations about why it was eventually released. Best guess is that new confirming evidence was recently received and some in the intelligence community wanted to put the brakes on Bush's sabre-rattling.

But damn, can you believe they thought twisting and censoring the evidence to justify yet another war would work a second time? How many days until this maniac is out of power? Oh yeah, 412 to go.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Here's Quinn all bundled up to go outside for a walk around the neighborhood. Poofy and pink!

It was a chilly but beautiful fall day, although Quinn didn't quite wake up to enjoy it.

Anyway, more pics of Quinn's second week after the click...

A fondness for thumbs...

Quality time with mama...

And the inevitable shoulder burp...

Mother-daughter bonding...

Sleep-deprived dad...

Sacked-out baby girl...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Data Blogging: Name Popularity

One website we had quite a bit of fun with while choosing a name for Quinn was the Social Security Administration's historical ranking of the popularity of baby names. Here are the popularities over the past 100 years of some of our names:

Timothy and Laura are clearly baby-boomer names (although neither cracked the top 10), while Jean and Irene are somewhat old-fashioned and have been on the decline for years (the combination Laura Jean didn't crack the top 1000). Quinn, as a name for a girl, is rarer but growing more popular in recent years (Quinn for a boy is more common).

One quibble is that I wish they provided raw numbers of people with each name in addition to rank popularity (since there are considerably more people now than in 1907). Anyway, it's a fun website to play with.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Day Five

This morning, Quinn was 4 days old, and she woke up, opened her eyes and calmly looked around at the world for several hours with nary a cry to be heard. So far she has been a very calm and unfussy baby -- of course, she's been sleeping quite a lot so that may change. Still, it seems like her personality is shining through already.

A few comments on the labor and delivery. Laura Jean was completely and totally awesome - she did 20 hours of labor with no epidural, including about 4 hours of extremely painful 'transitional labor'. I am 100% sure I would have cracked in under an hour; even Chuck Norris would have been begging for drugs. It was amazing!

That said, pitocin is not our friend. We were induced because the baby was at 41 weeks; the rap on induced labor is that it causes especially painful and intense contractions, but it does work to get the baby out soon. Unfortunately, the drug mainly seemed to make each stage of labor longer and more difficult. Laura Jean says she would definitely do natural childbirth again, but definitely not induction if at all possible.

We'd also like to give a big thumbs up to the Bradley classes we took - they were very good in prepping us for all possibilities and giving us the tools to get through it. Laura Jean's sister, Amy, was also there with us for the entire labor and there's no way we could have done it without her - she's a natural at labor coaching as well as a massage therapist-in-training.

And in the end, we got this amazing baby girl with no health complications (apart from a minor case of jaundice).

Quinn has spent a good portion of her short life being held by a wide circle of doting family members. For more pictures, click below.

Grandma has been out here for a few weeks helping out with everything ...

... and Grandpa came out for the weekend to meet the new baby ...

... along with Auntie Jessica.

Here Quinn gets a good grip on Grandpa David's finger.

Auntie Amy and baby Quinn.

Uncle Eric and Quinn (and a penguin).

Grace gets to meet her little cousin.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Best. Birthday Present. Ever.

Seriously best birthday ever, although Quinn decided that she wanted her own birthday all to herself. We came home from the hospital today and both Quinn and Laura Jean are doing really well. We're just figuring out the routines of caring for her, but everything is quite wonderful - even the part about getting up several times in the night.

Will write more later, but for right now, the baby is sleeping and so shall we.

Mama and baby getting ready to come home from the hospital.

Dad and baby taking the new rocker for a test drive.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

healthy baby girl named Quinn Irene born 5:54am. 8lbs 2oz, beautiful & amazing!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

So we're still waiting...

No baby just yet, but we've scheduled an induction for tomorrow morning, so it won't be too much longer in the grand scheme of things.

Still -- waiting is hard. All the details of everyday seem largely unimportant -- does one do the laundry or vacuum the rug while sitting around waiting for your life to transform? I guess maybe we should be using the time to pick a name or do something equally momentous.

Anyway, baby soon!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Cell blogging

This has been a test of the cellphone blogging system!

UPDATE: The pictures from my phone don't seem to be going through. Hmmm. Maybe I'll give it a few days and try again. And, in case you're wondering, yes, this is because they don't have wifi at the hospital :)

UPDATE 2: To clarify, this was only a test. If it had been real there would have been, you know, baby pictures and everything.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Briefly Noted (Tricknology)

New blog feature! At the top of the right column is a feed of interesting articles or websites that don't quite merit a full blog post of their own, but that I found interesting/funny/inspiring and wanted to pass along. (Powered by

And since I can't resist elaborating on one of them, here's the actual video evidence of the guy who skipped a stone 51 times. Amazing! 10-year-old kids of all ages the world over salute you, sir!

Friday, October 19, 2007

National Bike to Work Day (observed)

Actually, National Bike to Work Day is in May, but I just bought a used bike this week off craigslist (a sweet hybrid for a good price) so today marked my first observance. I pretty much lived on my bike in college, but after having some bad bike karma in grad school I kind of fell out of the habit.

My route to work is pretty easy, about 2 miles mostly downhill, and faster than the bus or train. It's only the last few blocks that I get into the crazy downtown traffic -- dodging buses and taxis and whatnot. Plus my work has showers and bike racks in the office. It's a pretty sweet set-up so I think I'll probably bike in a few days a week and take the bus the rest of the time.

I've been running fairly frequently and think of myself as being in good shape, but I realized that biking definitely uses different muscles than most anything else. It's nice to use them again.

Waiting for Baby

So we're down to 3 weeks until the due date. Which means that the baby could arrive any day now. Antici...pation! Now all we need to do is figure out how to be parents (and pick names, and write a birth plan, and set up the room, and figure out the diaper system, and ...)

Despite our anxieties, we are both extremely excited. Tonight we tried out the baby product known as a "hippie sling." This is a long piece of cloth used to cleverly swaddle the child to the parent. We practiced on the stuffed bunny - it was pretty cute.

Anyway, in honor of the impending birth, click the link below to see baby's first pictures.
The first is from very early in the pregnancy (about six weeks) -- our baby is just a little tadpole.

The second one is from earlier this summer (about halfway through) and now you can see the head and feet. These pictures really highlight for me how truly amazing this whole process is. At times it seems like an absolute miracle that it (human development) works at all. This is probably my physics bias coming out. The whole process, and indeed, all of us, are the result of molecules bumping into each other and doing really, really clever things.

Biology is awesome.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


So, we're moved into the new place and finally the DSL is turned on.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

This world go crazy...

Have some more music.

This is the latest from Manu Chao and its been bouncing around in my head this week, crowding out some of the Mountain Goats. He's the guy who is stealing back the bit of "world music" that was borrowed by the Talking Heads and the Clash, and more power too him. Even if you haven't heard of him, you've probably heard this or this. This one is 'Rainin in Paradize' and it's a damn catchy song with a great guitar riff (Santana would be proud), and a pretty cool album too (sung in like four or five languages). (If you're curious, he has two other videos for this song, here and here, that are fun too.)

in Zaire, was no good place to be
this world go crazy, it’s an atrocity

in Congo, still no good place to be
them kill me buddy, its a calamity

go Masai go Masai -- be mellow
go Masai go Masai -- be sharp

Taxation: yes. Representation: not so much.

This Sunday we're moving from Arlington into Washington, DC proper. We'll be living in the LeDroit Park neighborhood (or Bloomingdale depending on who you talk to). I'm pretty psyched to be back in the city (I don't think I'm much of a suburbs guy at this point in my life). At the very least it'll cut my commute down by a lot, which should be very nice for when the baby arrives.

View Larger Map

The neighborhood has been described as 'up-and-coming', which seems to mean that for the time being there are more homeless people around than Starbucks. It also means we're most likely participating in (re)-gentrification, which is a little troubling but seemingly hard to avoid these days. Census data for our zip-code (20001 baby!) is available online and it paints an interesting picture. As of the 2000 census, we were 83% black, 8% hispanic, 6% white, 3% asian/PI with 28% poverty rate and 16% unemployment. I wonder what those numbers are now -- especially because the median sales price for homes has nearly tripled since 2000.

So. Interesting. At any rate, it seems like a beautiful and vibrant part of the city. We're near Howard University, the U Street corridor and lots of historic stuff in the Shaw neighborhood. The neighborhood gets a WalkScore of 68 out of 100, which is better than our current place, but nowhere near as walkable as our last apartment in Chicago (which dinged a 94/100).

And yeah, we're trading away our Congressional representation for the thrill of city living. DC remains a constitutional accident with more people than Wyoming, a lot of federal taxes paid but still no votes that count on Capitol Hill. And while everyone seems to think this is totally unfair there's never the political will to do much about it. The most recent stab at compromise (which would add an extra seat in Republican Utah to balance the vote from solidly Democratic DC) got 57 Senators to vote for it, but still died at the hands of a Republican filibuster.

It should be fun. DC as a town has grown on me a lot over the past year. Once you get away from the Mall a real (if somewhat warped) city emerges. Here's to getting to know it better.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

New Band to Obsess About

We saw the Mountain Goats play Thursday night at the Black Cat. A pretty totally awesome show, except that it only lasted a smidge more than an hour, and I think the crowd would've been happy to listen all night.

New favorite band? Maybe so... John Darnielle is primarily a storyteller, so he comes off as kind of a coffee shop songwriter-y type, except that he writes smarter, funnier, more pissed-off lyrics and whales on his poor acoustic guitar so hard it might put you off your latte. For example, they played this one ...

... and we all sang along gleefully. (I hope we all die!) They're funny as They Might Be Giants, literary as Stephin Merritt, angry as Elvis Costello, but with this crazy manic joy about them even when singing about divorce or heavy drinking. They can also be twee and clever and a little bit wistful...

Darnielle has apparently written hundreds of songs as the Mountain Goats since 1991, with many of the first decade recorded (deliberately) on a cheap boom-box and released only on cassette tape. It's only recently that he's consented to go into the studio and put together the more polished stuff you see above. So anyway, they're a fun band with lyrics worth getting lost in.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


This came through my inbox a few weeks ago along with a bunch of other funny old advertisements, and I thought, "Hey! We used to have that one hanging up in our kitchen when I was a kid!" I remember it from an age when I was not quite old enough to see why it was funny.

Wonder whatever happened to it?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Surf City Hits the Arctic

(No, this actually isn't a post about global warming.) I've been reading a fair bit about endocrine disruptors lately, and this article in the Guardian caught my eye:

Twice as many girls as boys are being born in some Arctic villages because of high levels of man-made chemicals in the blood of pregnant women, according to scientists from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (Amap).

In the communities of Greenland and eastern Russia monitored so far, the ratio was found to be two girls to one boy. In one village in Greenland only girls have been born.

The scientists measured the man-made chemicals in women's blood that mimic human hormones and concluded that they were capable of triggering changes in the sex of unborn children in the first three weeks of gestation. The chemicals are carried in the mother's bloodstream through the placenta to the foetus, switching hormones to create girl children.

It's somewhat hard to know what to make of this since the actual study hasn't been peer reviewed or published yet and the authors make a few crazy statements in the article. But it is certainly quite alarming and even somewhat plausible. A few thoughts:
  • There are probably some subtleties involved with accurately measuring the gender ratio of live births (e.g. confusion with infant mortality), but they would have to have some seriously screwy methodology to find a ratio of 2:1 if something wasn't really going on. No matter what the cause is, a 2:1 sex ratio is a big problem for these communities.

  • The statement that the chemicals are "capable of triggering changes in the sex of unborn children in the first three weeks" just seems crazy to me. I'm no biologist, but I would be shocked if the chemicals could actually change the chromosomes of the fetus. If this effect is real, I'm sure it has more to do with decreasing the viability of male embryos so that fewer survive, or something like that. Enviroblog is similarly skeptical.

  • (Although it is true that endocrine disruptors have been linked to hormonal imbalances leading to ambiguous genitalia in frogs -- see here -- but it doesn't seem like that is the cause of the skewed ratio in this case. Again, hard to tell without reading the paper.)

  • Still, the results seem plausible to me because we know (1) accidental exposure to high-levels of endocrine disruptors in Seveso, Italy in 1976 led to a similar pattern of skewed gender ratios in the decades following exposure, (2) chemicals like PCBs bioaccumulate as you go up the food chain and exposure is likely to be higher in a diet consisting of bear and fish, and (3) Arctic populations have long been shown to have some of the highest blood levels of these chemicals due to weather patterns that concentrate pollution in the polar regions.

  • A recent peer-reviewed study found a much smaller, but detectable shift, toward more girls than boys among live births in the U.S. and Japan since 1970, and they also speculated that chemical pollution might be the cause. The small shift in sex ratio amounts to 250,000 'missing' boys.
This study may come to nothing -- it's always risky to judge based on a popular media report on an un-released study. Still, while I suppose Jan and Dean might enjoy this situation, the rest of us might want to keep an eye on what we're spewing out into the environment.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


They've been verrry slowly demolishing this building about a half-block from my work. About a year ago, when I started my job, the open pit you see here was an ugly, seventies-style, ten-story building. They started at the top and took it down floor by floor until they finally ended up with a giant hole about negative three stories tall. Apparently, they weren't allowed to just dynamite the thing because it's located just a few blocks from the White House.

Anyway, the weird buttressing posts caught my eye, as did the leftover morsel of underground parking garage still stuck to them.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Blog Day (observed)

Apparently August 31st was Blog Day. As I understand it, Blog Day is a chance to hype other blogs and get your readers to check out some cool stuff. So, with much delay but no further ado, you should all check out these 5 blogs.
  • Humor: xkcd -- As it says: a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language. Not technically a blog, but still the most consistently amusing thing I find in my inbox.
  • Politics: Baghdad Burning -- An anonymous young Iraqi woman blogging from Baghdad perfectly illustrates the power of teh internet to bust through the media filter (if you know where to look). Actually, it's not clear if 'River' will continue to post, as her family has apparently decided to leave Iraq due to the chaos of the situation, but the archives will still stand as an alternate history of the war.
OK, so the point of this exercise was actually to find five new or little known blogs. Since I clearly didn't do that let me at least give props to two friends who have started blogging fairly recently:
Here's to their long and fruitful presence in the blog.

Monday, September 03, 2007

maps (how I love thee)

I can honestly say, thank goodness someone did the research to figure this out. This is a map of which regions of the country generally say 'soda', 'pop' or 'coke' when ordering a soft drink.

This question was quite the hot topic during my first week of college -- and now we have the data! I confess, coming from a strong soda county, I grew up thinking that "pop" was primarily an old-fashioned term from the '50s and earlier -- i.e. I take my baby down to the corner and I buy him a (soda) pop. Apparently, I was very wrong - we're badly outnumbered. The map also clearly shows the nefarious regional influence of the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola company.

Anyway, the map comes courtesy of, and their hilariously inarticulate spokesperson.

In a somewhat different vein, this map is pretty interesting too (provided you buy their methodology). Perhaps someone should write a memo to the Democrats.

Friday, August 31, 2007


A few weeks ago we got back from an extremely relaxing vacation to California. I think I'm still feeling the residual good vibes from the trip. So here are some pictures of blue sky and other good things.

The primary reason for the trip was to attend my Grandma Mary's 90th birthday party and my Grandma Quinn's 85th. My parents also snuck a small baby shower into the schedule. It had been way too long since we had seen some family friends and some branches of the family tree. Here's my Dad with two of his siblings.

My Aunt Kathleen chatting with my Mom's tennis partner Charlene.

After two days of non-stop partying, we retreated up to the mountains and proceeded to sit on our butts for two whole days, drink beer, eat chips and salsa and stare at the beauty of nature. Which was absolutely perfect.

Before heading back, we dropped in on a few friends up in the Bay Area and gathered them together for dinner.

Here are Le and I, modeling our sweet EJ t-shirts.

Cathy stretches!

On our way back across the continent, we parachuted down into Mount Vernon, Iowa for Laura Jean to officiate her cousin Peter's wedding. I'm pretty sure we were in Iowa for less than 24 hours.

Here are Jesse and Amy, looking pleased...

... and Peter and Mardi looking happily married.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday Data Blogging (08/26/07) - Employment

While digging around at work looking for something unrelated, I stumbled across this data table (PDF) from the U.S. Small Business Administration (data courtesy of the U.S. Census) and I thought it was pretty fascinating so I thought I would share. It tabulates total employment, payroll and number of firms for businesses of various sizes (more data here). Here's a plot of total employment for different-sized businesses (from 2004, in 23 bins of varying sizes, plotted on a log-scale).

First off: binning data in uneven bins (i.e. comparing 5-9 against 400-499, or whatnot) seriously distorts the distribution and is a no-no. Total employment from the largest firms dominates everything else, which may or may not be the case. I couldn't find the raw data to do it better, but we can at least plot the cumulative distribution of the given data, which solves the binning problem to a certain extent:

This is a much more useful plot. From this we can see that the 5.8 million businesses with less than 100 employees (which I would colloquially define as "small") account for about one-third of the employment in this country. Similarly, businesses with more than 2,500 employees (which I would colloquially define as "gargantuan" and of which there are only 3,500 nationally) are also about one-third of employment. Again, even the cumulative plot isn't perfect in this case; it would be better to break that final >2500 data point down even further to see what the trend really looks like. Still, most of us work for pretty big companies, and only a really small portion of the workforce works in Mom 'n' Pop joints.

For me, the plot raises the question: what is the socially optimal distribution of employment? And what did this plot look like historically? In a lot of ways, smaller is better when it comes to creating healthy communities (or at least that's my bias), so what policies can we implement that might foster more smaller, community-friendly businesses and fewer corporate behemoths?

I don't know, but I thought it was worth thinking about. Yay data!

Correct Beliefs

Sean over at Cosmic Variance often wonders about religious belief and morality:
People sometimes argue back and forth about whether religious belief is a good thing, because it induces believers to be moral or charitable. In a big-picture sense, I think arguments of this form completely miss the point; beliefs should be judged on whether they are correct or incorrect, not on whether they cause people to do good or bad things.
I generally agree with some of the things he says on this topic, although I am often puzzled by his focus on "correct beliefs" and the idea that you actually can judge beliefs on whether they are correct or incorrect. Also, I don't get a lot of utility out of telling people that their religious beliefs are wrong and that mine are correct (although plenty of people on the internet seem to find this quite enjoyable) so I suppose I fall into the camp of those who are quite happy to have people religious people in the world and don't generally see that they are more or less moral than the non-religious.

Generally I place politics over epistemology. I don't really care what people believe -- because, let's face it, people believe some crazy stuff and no one really agrees with anyone else -- but because I do have to share the planet with other people, I am concerned about what they do. Religious folks who share my values and are out there doing good in the world are pretty damn awesome in my book and I am happy to work with them to make a better and more just world. This isn't to say that non-religious folks aren't doing good work, just that there are a lot of religious people who undoubtedly are.

What's more, I have serious doubts that most beliefs are even falsifiable - i.e. that there is even a framework for deciding correct vs. incorrect. Leaving religion aside, not every belief conforms to the high standards of scientific discourse, even for people who are working scientists. Honestly, most political beliefs (right, left, up, down) are more about values than rational appraisal of evidence and thus fall into this category.

Anyway, I agree with Sean that it's pointless to try to measure the aggregate good caused by religion and compare it against the aggregate evil, but I'm also suspicious of the idea that our all of our beliefs can or should be judged by scientific standards. I'm sure this makes me an "appeaser" in the eyes of the New Atheism Movement, but the only people I've ever met who claimed to be "totally rational in every facet of their life" were Objectivists. And that just ain't cool.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Just got back from over two weeks of (mostly) travel -- a week in Cali, a few days of work and then a weekend in Philly. So, lots to blog about, but not tonight. Instead, have some music.

Yay pixellated squirrel! Fun song too -- more music at their mySpace page.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Deathly Hallows

Amazingly, I managed to secure a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from the Arlington Public Library. I was 69th in the queue when I put my name on the waiting list in February but they ordered enough copies so that I got mine on the first day it was available. I love the public library! I read the book in a rush last weekend and have been going through it more slowly a second time.

Adding to the pile of commentary available on the internet, my random thoughts on the book are after the link below. Beware, SPOILERS ahead!

  • Overall, I thought the Deathly Hallows was an exciting and satisfying finish to the story and an excellent conclusion to the themes and ideas introduced in the first six books. Was it the best of the 7? Eh. I still lean towards Book 3, the first of the grown-up storylines, and Book 5, which I loved the second time after mildly disliking it at first. However, most of my complaints are pretty minor.
  • The middle chapters where Harry, Hermione and Ron are on the run from the Death Eaters were hard to read, but very effective. Rowling really makes you feel their fear and hopelessness. They have no idea what they're doing, Harry won't accept help from Lupin or anyone else, his faith in Dumbledore is severely tested, they bicker amongst themselves because they're stressed out of their minds, and then Ron walks out and they're ambushed by Voldemort. Holy crap, this just might be too scary for younger readers (like me). And then when they bottom out Rowling uncorks that beautiful scene with the silver doe, and Ron returns and you're like, ahhhh, I think it's going to be OK. Nicely done.
  • Snape's death. I loved that sinister Severus Snape turned out to be a heroic spy for the Order motivated by an unrequited love for Harry's mom - indeed, I would have been annoyed if he hadn't. As one character put it: the world isn't divided into nice people and Death Eaters. But, I was a little miffed that he didn't have a larger role in 7 and was offed so perfunctorily by Voldemort. I was hoping his backstory would have been integrated into the plot a little better (like, saving Harry and dying tragically or something), rather than being told in flashback.
  • The entire ending of the book felt a little rushed, like Rowling realized she had dozens of loose ends to tie together and only 200 pages left to do it. At times there was a little too much tell, not enough show. Like when Harry and Dumbledore have their question-and-answer session after Harry gets avada kedavra'd. I mean, it was nice to have Dumbledore's presence back for one last reassuring conversation and the scene works certainly works dramatically, but it still seemed a little ad hoc.
  • I wasn't a fan of the whole complicated Elder Wand genealogy that gave Harry his big advantage over Voldemort; in fact the three Deathly Hallows themselves seemed almost like red herrings for all they mattered in the end. But I did enjoy the exciting mano-a-mano showdown. Talk about closure.
  • Two things that kicked ass: house elves and Mrs. Weasley. It seems like they could have made better use of the house elves throughout.
  • The epilogue was a little lame, I thought. I mean, I was happy to see Harry and Ginny's and Ron and Hermione's families, but it was a little clunky and all the interesting questions were left unanswered (although Rowling does give a little more information in this interview and she is reportedly writing an encyclopedia of Hogwarts, or something, for those of us wanting more details).

So. Did anyone else like it?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Indulging my Inner Geek (Fantasy Edition)

Speaking of beloved fantasy novels made into movies, I am unduly excited by the upcoming version of The Golden Compass, the first in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Here's the trailer:

From this clip, it looks promising indeed. The filmmakers seem to have grasped the proper tone for the film adaptation (sinister, yet wondrous). The kid playing Lyra looks the part, and Nicole Kidman is just about perfect for Mrs. Coulter. Daniel Craig is pretty good too, although in my mind, Lord Asriel ought to have a long, black cloak at all times. One worry: the trailer seems pretty thin on the characters having daemons (in the book, all humans have talking animal companions who are manifestations of their soul), although IMDB assures me that Lyra will not be separated from her Pantalaimon. Best not to mess with the daemons.

In contrast, this trailer completely misses the tone of the book in question (Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising):

I guess you never can tell if a trailer will be an accurate representation of the movie, but this looks quite a bit like sacrilege. I want to know what marketing moron decided it would be a good idea transplant the story from England to, um, America and to give Will Stanton some sitcom-level girl problems. Seriously? It's a great book, so why would they want to make it just like a thousand other "teen" movie clones. I'm still holding out hope that this will be decent, but sheesh.

To cleanse the palatte, the movie version of Neil Gaiman's Stardust looks pretty good too:

Friday, July 20, 2007

15 Minutes of Someone Else's Infamy

In case you were wondering... yep, I saw it, but thanks to everyone who alerted me to the stories. Apparently I'm about to be charged by the FBI with betting on basketball games that I officiated and for consorting with organized crime.
Law enforcement officials are investigating allegations that the veteran referee Tim Donaghy influenced the outcome of N.B.A. games on which he or others wagered, two people familiar with the inquiry said on Friday.
I'm not a huge enough basketball fan to know his rep as a ref, but I've vaguely followed his career over the years if only because there aren't very many people with my exact name, and he's the only one who is remotely famous. Somewhere I have a newspaper clipping of him confronting a visibly angered Dennis Rodman, who is being held back by Jordan and Pippen. It's a funny picture because from behind he looks enough like me to make you blink.

Of course it's not funny that he's gotten himself into trouble for allegedly betting on games that he officiated. From what I read it sounds like the guy's got a gambling problem and perhaps some anger management issues. For his sake, I hope it isn't true.

But, still, I have to say it's kind of a trip to enter my name into Google News and see stories with titles like Open Season on Tim Donaghy or This Isn't Tim Donaghy's First Unfortunate Brush With Fame. There's even a wikipedia page.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Harry Potter & the Grumpy Old Men

In honor of the release of the final Harry Potter book this Friday, and because everyone loves making fun of snobs, I couldn't resist linking to Harold Bloom's infamous crusade against J.K. Rowling's gazillion-selling series (here in 2000, here again in 2003 where he also takes a shot at Stephen King, and yet again in 2005).

I suppose it's actually fairly hard to find to find a true, blue-blooded snob these days outside of certain east-coast boarding schools and elite country clubs (hipster snobs are another story). Still, every once in a while they crawl blinking into the sunlight, smoking-jacketed and sherry-glassed, to tell us that we're all cretins and low-lifes. Bloom, of course, hates the Potter books, thinks they're dreadfully written and, worse, represent the inevitable dumbing-down of western culture. (I can only assume from this that Prof. Bloom has never watched My Super Sweet 16).

I don't have much to say about Bloom's articles -- the wrongness of it all should be readily apparent to the billions of kids and grown-ups who have read and loved the Potter books. My favorite bit, by far, is in the second article where he goes out of his way to mention how he bought his copy of the Sorcerer's Stone at the Yale bookstore (as if we thought he might have picked it up at Wal-Mart?) and mentions how he kept a running tally of cliches as he read (presumably cross-referenced against Bloom's Big Book of Cliches?). Good times. Anyway, read 'em and laugh. Or weep. Or scream. Or shake your head bemusedly.

On the other end of the spectrum, Roger Ebert doesn't much like the latest Potter movie, but for the opposite reasons. Where Bloom bemoans the un-seriousness of the stories, Ebert laments the loss of innocence, "magic" and whimsy as the movies have progressed into adolescence and addressed the weighty themes of death and puberty. As much as I love the Potter movies, I don't think I could have sat through a fifth movie with nothing except Quidditch and school-boy pranks to sustain me. Even by the second installment the stench of diminishing returns on the original formula was pretty prevalent. Rowling's decision to launch the series into the more complicated adult world is the main reason why I love the books so much -- they grow up as the characters do.

Ebert also just doesn't seem to get major parts of the movie, including the early scene where Harry is almost expelled from Hogwarts for using magic to defend himself and his Muggle cousin against Dementors. He asks if Harry is just supposed to "fall over passively and get Demented?" Well, no, Roger, the patent unfairness of Harry's expulsion isn't a mark against the story, it's actually the major theme of the movie.

Oh well. Critics will criticize -- these two are just wrong. The rest of us know what we'll be doing this weekend.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


This guy is cool. At age 14 William Kamkwamba built a wind turbine to supply power to his home and village. He built it out of wood, scrap plastic, a bicycle and other random stuff after having read about the design in a book. Click the link -- he has a blog, which he updates by phone, apparently. Now he's working on a solar-powered irrigation pump. Someone needs to give this man a grant.

Of course, if this story is too uplifting, you can always read about the man-eating badgers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

night light

Last night as I was falling asleep I was visited by a (menacing, ominous) flashy green flying thing hovering at the end of my bed. In my half-awake state and in the dark room my mind automatically interpreted the little light as -- naturally -- someone standing at the end of my bed waving a green laser pointer at me. I'll admit it sounds a little crazy in the light of day, but at the time I swear my brain filled in the shadowy outline of a laser-pointered intruder. Creepy.

Naturally I freaked (a little).

My waking brain did the whole fight-or-flight thing before finally deciding that the sinister laser-pointer was actually just a firefly that had wriggled its way through the screen in the open window and couldn't get back out. And I have to say, sharing a closed, dark space with a firefly is actually kind of cool -- they're very bright. I opened the screen a bit and eventually its light went out, so I assume it returned to its firefly home.

7/7/07 (strange things)

I'm not really sure how these things relate, or what they mean on a, you know, deeper level...

... but here are Boredoms live with 77 drummers under the Brooklyn Bridge on 7/7/07.

It's a pretty fascinating video -- makes me wish I was there to experience it in person. Here's another one, which I'm linking because it's so totally different than the first and strangely beautiful to watch.

To complement the drummer overload, we now add Spinal Tap (a band with drummer problems of their own) playing Live Earth on the very same day in England with every bassist in the known universe.

Speaking of Live Earth, I managed to arrive late to the cramped and hastily organized DC concert outside the National Museum of the American Indian, where I just missed seeing Al Gore talk and Garth Brooks sing. Instead I stood around and melted in the 145 degree heat and listened to a decent native American blues band that I could just barely see if I craned my neck. Not quite as cool as seeing the Police reunited but Oh well.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Free Trade Skepticism, Part 1

I find myself annoyed by smart people who summarily dismiss the scientific consenses supporting anthropogenic global warming or evolution because the science conflicts with their political beliefs. Yet I confess to being skeptical about the supposed benefits of unfettered free trade - a concept which commands a similarly broad consensus among economic experts (and among both political parties and the mainstram media). So what gives?

In the interest of self-critique and intellectual honesty (or at the very least, knowing thy enemy) I thought it would behoove me to learn some of the arguments behind free trade boosterism. Since this is an enormous topic I'll try to limit myself to understanding a narrower question: does trade liberalism lead to a "race to the bottom" in environmental and labor standards?

Thankfully the libertarian Cato Institute website has a helpful (if elderly) FAQ addressing just this very question:
Does free trade lead to a “race to the bottom” in global labor and environmental standards?
While this is a frequently heard complaint, there is no evidence of such a “race to the bottom.” In fact, the opposite is true: expanding trade and rising incomes tend to promote higher social standards. (continues)
Ah. So, um ... not initially very enlightening. What I really want is for someone to honestly engage with this common concern about globalization and lay out some evidence for why its misguided. It gets a little better if you read one of their many longer reports, for example WTO Report Card III (pdf) by Aaron Lukas, which fleshes out the argument a little bit more (p. 10).
"The most important result of trade and investment, however, is economic growth, which in turn leads to a better environment. That is true because, as incomes rise, the demand for improved environmental quality also rises. Numerous studies have confirmed that, in practice, trade and investment activities usually have a positive impact on the environment.

This is not to imply that a cleaner environment is the immediate result of economic development. Empirical studies have revealed the existence of an inverted U–shaped relationship, often called an “Environmental Kuznets Curve,” after the late American economist Simon Kuznets, between environmental degradation and income per capita."
So the initial impact of trade liberalization is in fact very likely to be environmental degradation and lowered labor standards. Nations often compete to attract foreign investment by setting up Export Processing Zones -- areas with lower tariff barriers and relaxed labor and environmental regulations. This is, of course, what free trade skeptics mean when they refer to the "race to the bottom" -- the first part of the "U".

The Cato-ites don't seem to deny that this occurs. What they argue that a competing force is actually more important in the long run, and they go on and on about how the environment in the U.S. and Europe has gotten cleaner and cleaner over the past 30 years, despite the fact that we've liberalized our trade policies.

However, this line of argument strikes me as completely disingenuous, however descriptive it might be. Trade policy didn't clean up the environment; government regulation did. The Clean Water Act. Banning leaded gasoline. Onerous burdens placed on the noble free market by meddling government agencies, or so sayeth libertarian Cato.

Anyway, there are numerous justice issues here that I won't go into, except to point out that the implied model of development here is for the poor in the developing world to suck it up and wait for their country to get over the hump -- if it ever does.

I will say that reading through Cato's reports clarified in my mind that many (but not all) of my objections to "free trade" aren't about trade policy per se, but are instead about the onerous structural adjustment programs imposed on developing nations as part of economic aid packages. Lowering tariffs is one thing, but privatizing water utilities and raising fees for school enrollment is entirely another.

In other words the solution for poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries is not necessarily trade protectionism -- although giving the finger to the IMF might actually help a lot. At any rate, the so-called Washington Consensus is much less of a sure thing among economists than the more vanilla free-trade arguments that Cato is talking about.

But these are all fine ideas for future posts, sorry this one was so long. And please feel free to tell me I'm wrong, or at least point me in the right direction...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

a firecracker waiting to blow

Apparently Ryan Adams has sobered up after years of hard core drug abuse. I saw him play in late 2004 and I have to concur that the dude was seriously trying to kill himself. By the amount of alcohol he put away during his fairly short set, I was amazed he still had the eye-hand coordination to form chords with one hand and strum with the other. The concert itself was maddening: 15 minutes of giggling and drunken rambling between songs but when he bothered to actually play music he was genius. He played a version of "When The Stars Go Blue" that I've never forgotten.

Anyway, I'm glad he's decided pull himself out of his nosedive; he's clearly a very talented songwriter who could obviously benefit from a bit of clarity and focus. I always suspected that he has a masterpiece buried in him somewhere - maybe now he's got the chance to dig it out.

Apropos of nothing: the cheesy 80's song that was playing on my iPod yesterday morning? Oh yeah, that would be "Summer of '69." Ryan wouldn't approve, but still it's a fun song.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

spring... (again)

Well, since spring is loitering around our front door, saying its last few goodbyes and reluctantly fading into summer, it seemed like a good time to celebrate with some pictures.

Early April found us down at the Tidal Basin to look at the cherry blossoms. It snowed a few days later.

Four Mile Run, near our house, after a storm in late April.

May flowers from the front yard. Dogwood perhaps? I wish I knew the first thing about plants...