Archives : May 2003

2003 May 1


The question of "what an educated person needs to know" is currently running around the blogosphere. For instance, Matthew Yglesias writes

But then I stop and think about it and realize that I know lots and lots of very intelligent people who simply don't know where the countries of the world are located, and they all seem fine. It just so happens that for whatever reason (a strange love of maps, I suppose) I know a lot of geography and so it seems to me that everyone ought to know a lot of geography. [+]
(To which I have to say: There's nothing strange about a love of maps. Maps are one of the greatest inventions of humankind. Maps rule.)

Meanwhile, Kevin Drum worries:

Still, from a "cultural literacy" point of view you could argue that there are certain key aspects of science that everyone should know about. But which ones? [+]

It seems to me that arguing about what belongs in a canon is beside the point, or possibly actively counterproductive. Logic and analysis are tools; facts are lumber. You can't build a durned thing without having a good supply of both, but practically speaking, nobody has a big enough garage to keep everything on hand.

Am I arguing that squoshy underachiever's defence, then, that there's no point in memorizing facts because you can just go look them up when you need them? Hell, no, not least because you need facts on hand to tell you when you've run across a new one that doesn't seem to fit.

What the world needs, then, is an army of inquisitors all armed with different facts and different tools. To first order, it doesn't matter that much what you know, so long as you're doing your part in knowing stuff, and in fact, it seems to me it's a positive advantage if what you know is different from what your neighbour knows. The thing you have to have in common, I think, is a means of reconciling points of view, which means basic literacy, numeracy, and logic.

Beyond that, there's only one other thing that I think any educated person worth anything ought to know: that he or she does not know nearly enough about anything, and needs to learn more.

Maps, though, still rule. There are only 193 countries in the world. How hard is it to know where they all are?

2003 May 2

Great sports writing

After consecutive 1-0 shutouts (Anaheim over Dallas, Philadelphia over Ottawa), Colby Cosh lays it down:

The funny thing is that you couldn't pick two more dissimilar goaltenders than Cechmanek, a stylistic slob who sometimes appears to be trying to stop a whole other puck than the one in play, and Giguere, who simply lets pucks hit him in the chest as if he had master control of the curvature of spacetime. Giguere reads his opponents' minds (though he's not above the occasional acrobatic act of larceny); Cechmanek occasionally seems not to even possess one.
["The Timelord and the buffoon"]


2003 May 3

Beautiful Saturday

Coming back past Trader Joe's, I passed three guys in tights and racing jackets on fancy bikes. This made me happy.

Date Route Dist Time Avg Spd Year Total
2003/05/03 Lexington VFW 22.2 km 59:26 22 km/h 151 km

2003 May 4

The booklist is back

Please for to be looking closely at new section appearing in left sidebar: recent books to be telling about books I am having read recently. Thanking you.

2003 May 5

Beautiful day III

The days just keep getting gorgeouser. Spring rules.

Because I was a lazy bastard getting started this morning, didn't have time to go farther than Arlington Centre.

Date Route Dist Time Avg Spd Year Total
2003/04/27 Arlington Centre 7.6 km 18:55 24 km/h 176 km

Living life accordion-style

"Adventure minus risk equals Disneyland."

I feel like I'm reaching a point in life where I'm psyching myself up to take another big chance, and so stumbling across The Adventures of AccordionGuy in the 21st Century struck quite a chord. AccordionGuy is Joey deVilla, a musical hacker from T.O., and his whole blog is one extended demonstration of the principle that good things happen to those who take chances. That is,

"When the accordion train comes in, everybody rides!" [+]
You can never have too many role models for the eternal challenge of getting off your ass and making cool things happen, so he's my new hero du jour (no, not like that).

Back in high school, after reading Space-Time and Beyond for the umpteenth time and drinking one too many zombies with my friend Henry Dziarmaga, we came up with the theory that in the infinite set of universes -- the multiverse -- there was one particular universe in which what happened to us right here was being watched as a TV show over there. We then made a solemn vow to live in such a way that we kept our ratings up. [+]

Now I just need to learn to play the accordion.

2003 May 7

Salam Pax is back

Haven't read it all yet, but I'm sure you want to know. (He will be at the top of the Popdex and Technorati charts by tomorrow, no question.)

Let me tell you one thing first. War sucks big time. Don't let yourself ever be talked into having one waged in the name of your freedom. Somehow when the bombs start dropping or you hear the sound of machine guns at the end of your street you don't think about your "imminent liberation" anymore.

But I am sounding now like the Taxi drivers I have fights with whenever I get into one.

Besides asking for outrageous fares (you can't blame them gas prices have gone up 10 times, if you can get it) but they start grumbling and mumbling and at a point they would say something like "well it wasn't like the mess it is now when we had saddam". This is usually my cue for going into rage-mode. We Iraqis seem to have very short memories, or we simply block the bad times out. I ask them how long it took for us to get the electricity back again after he last war? 2 years until things got to what they are now, after 2 months of war. I ask them how was the water? Bad. Gas for car? None existent. Work? Lots of sitting in street tea shops. And how did everything get back? Hussain Kamel used to literally beat and whip people to do the impossible task of rebuilding. Then the question that would shut them up, so, dear Mr. Taxi driver would you like to have your saddam back? [+]

There: the good and the bad in three paragraphs. Remember, Salam Pax is the foreign-educated hipster intellectual. The taxi drivers are the typical Iraqis the Americans have got to keep onside for democratic reconstruction to work. Also: I've been challenged for using scare quotes in the title Reflections on "liberation" last time I blogged on the war. I use them because Salam Pax does.

Courtesy AccordionGuy courtesy MeFi.

2003 May 8

The People's Cult of North Korea

An American teaching in Seoul, Scott Fisher, last year managed to take a four-day tour of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea, the most walled-off place on Earth, and has reported what he saw. Fascinating.

Because the North Koreans have withdrawn so totally from the rest of humanity, I wasn't sure what to expect. We're told there's famine, that millions are starving, and I wondered: how does such a broken regime keep control? How or why does anybody bother to do their jobs, ever? How can it retain anyone's loyalty?

Fisher of course gets a carefully stage managed view, seeing only what the North Koreans want him to see. He is escorted everywhere by "guides" who won't let his group alone for a moment, keeping him well screened from ordinary people, who are anyway too afraid to even say hello to him -- but the impression he comes away with is that the place is run like a cult. Surprising-to-me numbers of people seem to really believe the lies: that the DPRK is a shining beacon to the world; that they defeated the Japanese in the Second World War and the Americans in the Korean War; and that the Americans hate them because they're free. And why wouldn't they believe these things? They've heard them every day of their lives, and never a rebuttal. One of the guides (a new guy, a trainee on his first exposure to Westerners) gets genuinely angry at Fisher for a hint of doubt of the North Korean government:

His reaction was immediate and will forever serve as my personal definition of 'venomous'.

"Now you can see the lies! The lies of the American imperialists and their South Korean puppets!"

He literally spat this out. Foam flew from his lips he was so incensed.

"Someday you will discover the truth about everything! They only tell you lies! Lies!"

"Ah, yes Mr. Huk, there are many lies in the world. I hope I'm there when you discover the truth also."

I decided to have a little fun. My words had him bug-eyed with rage. Veins popped from his forehead.

"Me?! It is YOU who needs to discover the truth. I already know the truth!" [+]

Anyone who's wandered the more ideological halls of the blogosphere should have no difficulty recognizing the apoplexy of a zealot confronted by a smug skeptic.

Of course, there's no way to know what fraction of the North Korean population is composed of fanatical Mr. Huks, but I'm guessing there does not need to be that many to keep the pragmatic mass in line. The key point is that Mr Huks exist.

The other thing that surprised me a bit is how pretty the place is. I suppose I expected more cracked concrete, smoke, and dismal buildings: instead the avenues of Pyongyang seem to be broad, tree-lined, and empty; the countryside, green, rolling and empty. (Empty of course being its own kind of problem, but a picturesque one.) One wonders how carefully the tour group's routes were chosen, and whether the scenes are greatly different a few blocks over. The impression I get from Fisher is that his group was relatively ordinary Japanese, Chinese and Americans -- nobody particularly important enough to put on a special show for.

Again, courtesy MetaFilter.

2003 May 9

Can't be beautiful all the time

...but at least it didn't rain. I got smoked twice by other bikers, one of whom was on a recumbent, but beat my own record by nearly four minutes, so both progress and a ways to go.

Date Route Dist Time Avg Spd Year Total
2003/04/27 Trader Joe's (Arlington Heights) 14.7 km 37:11 23.7 km/h 195 km

2003 May 10

Beautiful day IV

Rode across town to Mystery House for the swap. Fun afternoon.

In an odd coincidence, both times when I crossed the Mystic at Medford, I passed the same woman walking with two boys on bikes -- and in the combined time I had them in earshot, she never once stopped yelling at them. Well, I thought it was odd, like the three of them were trapped in some kind of time loop, and I happened to skim the edge of it. If I'd gone any closer, I might still be there, listening to the bitching.

Date Route Dist Time Avg Spd Year Total
2003/05/10 Malden 21.8 km 63:55 20.5 km/h 216 km
My new cyclometer automatically stops my ride clock when my bike isn't moving, so that time excludes all the time I spent waiting for traffic lights and such. Still, I'm surprised my average speed is as high as that, because I didn't think I was particularly pushing myself. The difference between 20 km/h and 25 km/h seems to be a lot bigger than I would have thought.

2003 May 12

If Shaft is wrong, I don't want to be right

Andrew Northrup has harnessed the awesome power of Too Much Time On His Hands (it's annoying that TMTOHH is such stupid acronym) to create the Weapons of Tash Destruction 52 Most Wanted playing card set. If you've been thinking that maybe the 'stache is back, beware.

Franz Ferdinand, Trouble Maker Salvador Dali, Painter of Dorm Room Posters
Albert Einstein, Nerd Salvador Dali, Wears Short Shorts

Read them all: the captions ("Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, Agricultural Reformer", "Saddam Hussayn al-Tikriti, Sculpture Model") are simply genius.

2003 May 13

Jedi mind trick

I am happier on days when I floss in the morning.

I want to believe.

2003 May 14

Muggier than I expected

Today's ride:

Date Route Dist Time Avg Spd Year Total
2003/05/14 Arlington Centre 7.6 km 19:10 23.8 km/h 227 km

Total eclipse of the moon

There will be a total eclipse of the moon tomorrow (Thursday) night between 10 pm EDT and 1 am EDT Friday, with totality between 11:14 and 12:07.

[eclipse track]

Thanks to Steve Orso for the heads-up.

2003 May 17

Beautiful day V

So today I didn't go riding -- I went hiking, to Mt Monadnock in New Hampshire with a hiking club I found on the web. The group, it seems, is largely the product of one energetic woman and her mailing list, but hey, more power to her. I would probably not have made it out to Monadnock (for that matter, heard of Monadnock) without the promise of a group to go with, so thanks, Holly.

Mt Monadnock, according to New Hampshire Parks and Recreation, is the second-most-climbed mountain in the world after Mt Fuji, and from the peak on a clear day apparently you can see all six New England states. (Though it only just qualifies as a mountain by the English definition, topping out at 3165'.) The climb is steep, mostly on bare granite, and well worth it. The view from the top is fabulous. Our route (up White Dot trail, back down Pumpelly and Spellman) had an elevation gain of a bit more than 1800' and a round trip distance of 4.5 mi; we took about four hours; my legs were rubbery by the end. Steep, rough descents are almost as much work as steep ascents.

[monadnock topo map]

status: tanned, satisfied.

2003 May 19

Don't forget to stop and eat the roses

The lilacs are in bloom along the bike path, and the air is thick with the fragrance.

I told Elizabeth on Friday they'd gotten back-ordered on Spring, and it was being rationed until the new supplies came in. It seems like they have.

2003 May 20

Beautiful day VI

The new season's jogging bras and shorts are in. That's always good to see.

Today's ride:

Date Route Dist Time Avg Spd Year Total
2003/05/20 Arlington Centre 7.6 km 18:28 24.7 km/h 242 km
status: I beat my old record by 23 seconds. Woot.

2003 May 21

King James Authorized Version

Confronted with a task requiring the most careful attention to propriety and dignity, they were still at liberty to pursue flights of inspiration, to yield to extravagant impulses. And it didn't hurt that, in their historical situation, they were defining English orthodoxy as much as they were obliged to cater to it.
[Covetous of nothing but books]

The web is full of unexpected treasures, such as this mini-essay from Colby Cosh comparing the translators of the King James edition to "auto designers in the 1950s and 1960s or skyscraper architects in the 1920s and '30s". I normally think of Cosh as a political blogger, and also the guy who's been keeping me up to date on what I ought to think about the NHL, but lately he's rung off quite a string of eccentric lit crit: comment on the Bible follows comment on Lester Bangs on Geraldo Rivera and communing with Elvis, on the anachronism of Lord of the Flies, and on A Mighty Wind's inheritance from SCTV.

2003 May 22

Pollen and zombies

Allergy season has been utterly kicking my ass this year -- you know it's bad when you take the antihistamines before you go to bed and *still* wake thrashing at 3 am with eyes that feel like they're about to explode. This has happened twice this week. I think the pollen spores are drilling their way into my brain through my tear ducts, turning me into a deranged zombie recruit for the evil army of the Plant Men.

Speaking of zombie armies, I watched "Return of the Living Dead" the other night -- not a sequel, but a mid-80s knockoff 'starring' Clu Gulager. Heh. Rawk, dude. I was especially taken with their clever solution to the eternal "how are we going to get one of these chicks out of her bra?" question. No problem! Just make her a psycho riot-grrl and let her decide to strip down in some combination beer-blast/striptease/weird Goddess-worshipping Beltane ritual and tapdance naked on a crypt right before the acid zombie-animating thundershower forces everyone to flee to save their lives, or at least their hairdos. (Oh, it's a hard rain that's going to fall.) Then she's forced to spend the rest of the movie wearing nothing but a bandanna and a torn jacket: it's genius! It's a wonder more movies haven't done it this way.

Meanwhile, speaking of Dan O'Bannon movies, James Lileks has an even better review of "Lifeforce":

I never quite figured out what the movie was about, only that the final apocalyptic scene was like nothing I'd seen. And it had spaceships, too. I'd never caught the entire movie, so when I saw it at the video store this weekend I thought hey, this should be good!

Then the credits start to roll, and you see the words "Based on the books 'The Space Vampires'" and you think *perhaps I have overmisunderestimated this one*. The movie was 'Lifeforce,' and I have a crick in my neck from ducking the chunks it blew. Everybody in the movie was miscast, except for the woman who spent the entire film walking around naked(*), and for Patrick Stewart. You can't miscast him, because he always plays Patrick Stewart. The credits should just be honest, and say:

Prof. Patrick Stewart . . . Patrick Stewart

It goes on from there.

(*) Sounds like Dan O'Bannon is not above reusing a plot device or two.

2003 May 25

The Matrix Reloaded

Saw The Matrix Reloaded last night with Jon and Amy and Ry and Beth. It was about what I expected, which is to say, overwrought but pretty. On the whole, I'm with Daragh Sankey: "Can these movies get a goddamned sense of humour?" Please, I'm begging. Frankly, he's right on most of the reasons why he wants to give it to the Matrix up the ass (except for "who wants to watch a movie about a flying priest?" A flying priest would be pretty cool -- I refer you to the avenging Father MacGruder from Peter Jackson's Dead Alive: "I kick arse for the Lord!" -- but flying Keanu in a hipster cassock? only kind of cool). I had fun anyway, though I'd have had more fun if it had been half an hour quicker. "Reloaded" is pretentious, slow, and badly written, many of the fight scenes are desperately in need of being shorter, there are far too many indigestible page-long soliloquies, and there's nothing to match the genius of the red pill/blue pill scene from the original; but (a) damn, it's pretty, and (b) there's enough of something there to support a good few hours arguing about what the hell was going on -- consider, for example, the Corporate Mofo, who is convinced the whole thing is a careful and deliberate metaphor for Gnostic theology:

Considering that The Architect built the Matrix, you might think that he's God. Of course, he's nothing of the sort. In Gnostic theology, it is Satan, not God, who has created the world in order to imprison humanity. It is also the Architect who is unleashing the Sentinels to destroy Zion; that is, beginning the Battle of Armageddon.

He's also got a rilly nifty Three Laws of Robotics-derived argument explaining why (a) the machines are so obsessed with getting Neo to make a choice, and (b) the Matrix exists in the first place, because obviously claiming to be using humans for a power source is such bullshit. I don't know if I buy that that's what the Wachowskis are really up to, but it's a cool argument to have; well worth a beer.

In summary, I got most of my entertainment value out of "Reloaded" after leaving the theatre.

2003 May 28


So, it's been a week since my last exercise ride entry. Partly this is me wussing out on going riding in the rain (today it rained anyway, but it was a warm sunshower), but I want to say I haven't been entirely lame: I did rack up 24 km of biking between last entry and this one, going down to Brookline and back, and over to Jon & Amy's a few times. I just didn't time those rides.

Date Route Dist Time Avg Spd Year Total
2003/05/28 Arlington Centre 7.6 km 18:27 24.7 km/h 274 km
status: New record by one second, hah. Would have been more if the big pelican street-sweeping truck hadn't cut me off in the last hundred metres.