Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Going Back To Cali

So our big announcement is that we'll be moving to Oakland for three months starting in September. I know I've been talking about this for a while, but it is finally officially official. Laura Jean will be the interim pastor at the First Christian Church of Oakland and I'll be working out of UCS's Berkeley office. Yay!

It is hard to believe its been nine years since I moved away from the Golden State. It feels good to be going back and I'm definitely looking forward to being 3 hours from my parents and reconnecting with CA friends. (I'm also glad we're not closing the book chapter on DC just yet--I'm just starting to feel like I know the town and we have a bunch of friends who we will miss.) Plus, apparently they need some advice on how to govern the state. Always happy to help!

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Quinn playing on the shore of Huntington Lake. Reminds me of this excerpt from Tagore (again):

"On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
The infinite sky is motionless overhead
and the restless water is boisterous.
On the seashore of endless worlds
the children meet with shouts and dances. "

-- "Seashore" from Gitanjali

Very postmodern

Another thought on Infinite Jest. There is sometimes a soulless tendency in postmodern art. If the artist is not careful, all their philosophizing and meta-this-and-that can lead them into the twin blind alleys of nihilism and/or smugness. Clever enough to deconstruct and poke holes, but not clever enough to build anything back up after tearing it down. It's that sterile art-gallery feel.

This is why I really love the sections of IJ that deal with Alcoholics Anonymous and the Ennet halfway house. These sections (so far) have a big beating heart. The vibe is not "there is no truth!" but rather, "truth is everywhere, and it is messy and doesn't make sense, but you can find it somehow." The section I just read (p. 343, not really a spoiler) was making the point that AA works even for addicts who don't believe in god and who think AA itself is a bunch of cliched b.s. The whole thing was charmingly meta, and also kind of old-fashioned.

It reminded me (tangentially) of Charlie Kaufman's movies (primarily Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine) where he uses all manner of narrative and digital trickery to elevate plots that are not so different than 100 cookie-cutter romantic comedies when you get right down to it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Entertainment

Lo in the distant past, my cousin gave me David Foster Wallace's mondo-opus Infinite Jest for xmas. Since then it has lived on my shelf intimidating the other, littler books and taking their lunch money. I started to read it once and got through about 100 pages before my head of steam ran out. Pretty sure I've moved 10 apartments since and lugged IJ with me each time.

So when I saw a bunch of folks were organizing an online reading group called Infinite Summer I figured, well, now or never. I'm now on page 331 (=30.7% finished). My experience so far has been approximately thus:
  • Pages 0-100: Difficult language and sentence structure.1 Very very confusing plot. Slightly pretentious, occasionally uncomfortable, intermittently funny. The ideas he bats about are interesting, but mostly... huh?
  • Pages 100-200: Starting to make more sense even as the full, overwhelming scope of it starts to come into view. I start to realize that IJ is actually quite funny, and a lot of the humor arises out of his unconventional use of language.
  • Pages 200-330: Wow - this book is fantastic! The emotions get bigger: unbearable sadness, wild hilarity, impending doom. Crucial information is revealed that helps you make sense of everything. The storyline(s) click into place. But beware: there are a lot of bizarre ideas and topics here (herds of feral hamsters, not the least).
We will see if the trend continues upward for the next 600 pages, but clearly the with-it-sticking was well rewarded. Once you get past the first 150 or so (which are the literary form of hazing) and acclimate to DFW's style and worldview, the book is fun and actually "surprisingly readable" (as the carefully selected laudatory quote on the cover points out).

DFW's default style is primarily one of overwhelming force applied to everything within sight cf. pp. 44-5:
And no matter how many times he has the Terminex people out, there are still the enormous roaches that come out of the bathroom drains. Sewer roaches, according to Terminex. Blattaria implacablus or something. Really huge roaches. Armored-vehicle-type bugs. Totally black, with Kevlar-type cases, the works. And fearless, raised in the Hobbesian sewers down there. Boston's and New Orleans's little brown roaches were bad enough, but you could at least come in and turn on a light and they'd run for their lives. These Southwest roaches you turn on the light and they just look up at you from the tile like: 'You got a problem?' Orin stomped on one of them, only once, that had come hellishly up out of the drain in the shower when he was in there, showering, going out naked and putting shoes on and coming in and trying to conventionally squash it, and the result was explosive. There's still material from that one time in the tile-grouting. It seems unremovable. Roach-innards. Sickening. Throwing the shoes away was preferable to looking at the sole to clean it.
And it goes on about the roaches. That was me, laughing like a maniac on the metro after reading that passage. He dares to be funny in ways that are sometimes a little juvenile or obvious, but combined with deep philosophical musings and close observation of his characters. And then, strung through the narrative, are extended passages dealing with addiction and depression that are just gut-punchingly sad, that make you realize the full scope of his talent.

So far so good. A final note: the online reading group is great. They post helpful summaries, give useful advice and link to other resources that are useful in making sense of it all. The comment threads are encouraging and thoughtful, rather than the cesspools of snark and one-upmanship you might expect to find.

1 And lots of endnotes. A hundred pages of 'em in tiny font. Similarly, all written discussions of IJ or DFW are basically required to have endnotes also.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The words she knows, the tune she hums

I've totally had this song (and correspondingly famous scene) in my head for days now. I stumbled on the melody while tinkering on the piano and then out of nowhere a friend at work made a joke about the lyrics ("Hold me closer Tony Danza!") ... must be something in the air.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Health Care Stat of the Day

The National Academy of Sciences (in a 2004 report) says:
Lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States. Although America leads the world in spending on health care, it is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not ensure that all citizens have coverage.
18,000 unnecessary deaths every year is a pretty crazy number if you think about it. I feel like we always hear from the media about the 40-50 million uninsured (which is also a scandal), but not this stat, which lays out the stakes for health care reform pretty clearly. 18,000 unnecessary deaths.

I've also been idly mulling about in my head about why exactly the 'free market' fails so spectacularly in this case. In theory, it is supposed to work out that some enterprising young entrepreneur will look at those 40-50 million people and see an opportunity to profit by selling them a lean, mean insurance plan. But of course it doesn't work out like that -- there is apparently no money to be made off the pool of currently uninsured people (or someone would have made it already).

Nate Silver suggests part of the reason it doesn't work this way is because the insurance game is largely about volume.
The reason the insurers are staying in business, though, is because barriers to entry in the health insurance industry are in practice quite high. Insurers benefit from pooling risk. The larger the pool, the better in terms of the insurer's ability to hedge its risk and build negotiating leverage with its providers. That makes it very difficult for a Five Guys or a JetBlue type of start-up to compete: they'll have trouble getting together enough customers to pool their risk adequately, and even if they do, they won't have as much negotiating leverage as the big guys.
Interesting! But a lack of competition means that there is no real penalty for dumping sick or otherwise unprofitable patients by any means necessary. (Read this article by Jonathan Cohn if you want to get really really angry about the inhumanity of the current system.) Which is a roundabout way of saying: we need a public option in the health care bill in order to reinject some needed competition into the market.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Baby's First Backpacking Trip

We took Quinn on her first overnight camping trip the other weekend up in the Sierra Nevadas. It went really well (apart from the voracious, pigeon-sized mosquitoes) and Quinn seemed to have a great time. We went with my Dad, my sister Jessica and my cousin, Casey.

We got a nifty baby-carrier. Q was a little grumpy about it ...

... but the motion rocked her to sleep pretty quickly.

The big occasion for the hike was my Dad's 60th and my sister's 30th birthdays. Since we were bringing the baby, we chose a pretty easy trip, about 8 miles round trip. I confess I was a little apprehensive about taking the baby, envisioning all the bad things that could go wrong and mentally calculating how fast I could run the four miles back to the car in the middle of the night. But everything went awesomely.

We started near Huntington Lake and headed over Potter Pass.

Sadly even a short hike doesn't really reduce the amount of stuff you have to carry. You still need tents and sleeping bags, etc.

There is a beautiful view of the Sierra backcountry (looking north toward Yosemite) from the top of Potter Pass.

On the other side of the pass, our final destination was Twin Lakes. Here Quinn dips her toes in the lower twin.

We eventually found a nice campsite at the upper twin with a really great log for Quinn to play on. Quinn had a lot of fun splashing in the lake, picking up rocks and pine cones, tramping around the campsite and shouting the word 'chip munk!' Sleeping in the tent was just about the most exciting thing ever -- so much so that we had a hard time getting her to sleep.

Casey and Quinn.

Mmmm, camp food! (Actually, my Dad cooked a typically delicious meal of real pasta with feta, tomatoes and cookies for dessert -- he doesn't go in for any of that freeze-dried stuff.)

Upper Twin Lake, with island, as sunset nears. Interestingly, the stream flowing out of this lake travels underground for quite a distance.

Happy Birthday Dad and Jess!

Breaking camp the next morning.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Oscar Top 10

Apparently the Oscars will start nominating 10 films for Best Picture. Weird. But on second thought, maybe not such a bad idea. It all depends on what the additional five nominees are, I guess.

Mainly the Oscars need to get outside the "prestige film" box. Would it kill them to nominate a comedy every once in a while? It is much harder to make a truly funny movie than to piece together your standard historical drama, but they get no love. By my count over the past decade only 4 (out of 50) Best Picture nominees were comedies (and only one winner) ... versus like 8 or 9 biopics and a whole raft of tasteful dramas.

Also, more genre films would be welcome. Most of my favorite films of the past few years have been sci-fi or fantasy tinged--Dark Knight, Eternal Sunshine, Children of Men, the Prestige, anything by Pixar--Best Picture nominees, not a one.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Time Series Rant

For work, I often check in on the latest from the climate change skeptic/denier/contrarian camps. Since I spent several hours this week reading blogs and reports of that ilk, you will now be subjected to a rant. Sorry bout that.

I'm not a climate scientist by any stretch, but I've become pretty familiar with most of the climate skeptic talking points -- and why they're wrong (or technically correct but off-point). I know about the sunspots and the water vapor and the Urban Heat Island effect. I've read a bit on the hockey stick and the British vineyards. For the most part this is all kind of annoying but basically OK -- healthy skepticism yadda yadda yadda -- so long as it doesn't slow down meaningful policies (which, unfortunately, it is).

Anyway the dumbest skeptic meme by far has got to be the whole "global cooling since 1998" thing. I mean, honestly? Tamino at Open Mind has a great breakdown of why this is just insane. The key plot showing the global average temperature trend (GISS data) is stolen from that post.
On one level, it's an honest mistake. In all these temperature series the year 1998 is either the first or second hottest year on record (sometimes following 2005, as it does with this data) thanks to an unusually strong El NiƱo that year. So if you look at 1998 and the latest data point, you might think, whoa, its gotten a tad chillier in the last decade!

But if you think about it for a second, you see that the average temperature varies quite a bit from year to year -- and yet the trend over many years is consistently and significantly upward. This is because the climate responds to increased CO2 on a comparatively long timescale, but short term weather variations will drive the temperature slightly up or slightly down year to year. Next year, random noise will likely drive the average temperature back up again. If global warming had actually leveled off or declined, it would be at least a few decades before we could say so with confidence.

In any scientific field, over-interpreting a noisy data set is a big no-no. If instead you add in a little cherry picking by taking the hottest year as your starting point then you've got yourself some industrial grade misinformation.

Which is why I always respond to this argument as a red-flag of bad-faith argumentation, particularly when it is made by people from a technical background. Stop fooling yourself: show the whole data set, fit a curve to it and figure out the error bars on your parameters. And yet... you see it all over the place. Here (Watt). And here (Pielke Sr). And here (George Will).

Sigh. I guess this one irks me particularly since I was over-exposed to noisy time-series data sets as a child. OK. I'm done now.

[Update 02/03/12: Actually, this animated gif from Skeptical Science is one of the best refutations of this meme that I've seen.  I guess you could "argue" that global warming stopped in 1973, again in 1980, again in 1988, again in 1995, again in 1998.  And yet the temperature keeps going up!]

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Tree and Sky

Dead tree, amazing clouds -- snapped on our hike to Twin Lakes (more on which forthcoming).