A journalistic keeper, I think, about what acutlaly happened in Benghazi

A Deadly Mix in Benghazi - The New York Times:
Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

For 40K, you can buy the stuff to take this picture

Specs are here.

The Best Infographics of XKCD

Thanks to Andrea for inspiring me to put this together for everyone else that reads this. XKCD is a smart webcomic that's become part of internet culture, at least in websites.

http://geekwagon.net/projects/xkcd1190/ (this was a single image that changed every hour/day for 3099 panels; see "play" button)

The most politically relevant:

In Memory of Zach McClendon

Three accused of capital murder in McClendon's death | Gulfport | The Sun Herald: LAFAYETTE COUNTY -- Three men have been arrested in connection to the murder of former Gulfport High honor student Zacharias Herculese McClendon.

Lafayette County Investigator Alan Wilburn said Steven Matthew Wilbanks, 22, of North Carolina, Derick Boone, 23, of Laurel, and Joseph Lyons, 20, of Houston, Texas, were arrested on charges of capital murder. Bond has not been set.

This is an ironic article.....

Why the Web Won't Be Nirvana: Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

Consider today's online world....

Williams and Grief

Williams is a source of celebration for me today in the video below, showing the wonderful bell ringers.

It's also a source of grief. My friend Zach (a Williams '10) was found early this morning in MS with foul play suspected. Life is precious, y'all.


Reddit discussion of the latest catching fire movie is generally positive - Jennifer Lawrence and several other cast members (Stanley Tucci!) get props, and the pacing/camera work is well regarded. There's also a valid point that the film really lacks a solid a memorable soundtrack compared to other blockbuster trilogies (now four movies, reflecting that learned Hollywood behavior that fans will pay twice to see more screentime).

But this post is about dystopia. The Hunger Games books tell us that this is obvious - that there are stormtroopers, and riots, and freedom signs and songs. We see fences and barriers withholding the outdoors - explicit limitations of freedom that our protagonist has already discarded in learning her hunting.

That's now how these things start. One of these days, someone is going to make a film that parallels the experience of Nazi Germany before it was Nazi Germany - when so many Germans looked around, constantly waiting for someone - anyone - to pull their country out of the lunatic direction it was taking. The process wasn't immediate, and it was based in WWI's resolution, but it also happened to an educated society. I'm not suggesting that anything similar might happen, but instead that the potential for that still exists in humanity - that we have not purged ourselves of cruelty and malice, even as we strive for the good.

It is easy to hate and harm; all of Effie Tricket's makeup shouldn't disguise or distract us from that fact.

I had an idea!

The website twitch.tv facilitates online content creators "streaming" themselves to audiences sometimes in the tens of thousands. This is the future of TV/the internet, as content will range from full ESPN-style productions to one-man shows supported by monthly $5 subscriptions.

These shows feature some level of collaboration in the form of a "chat" - a hivemind spectator of many voices and reactions that flow together in a single stream that can't be entirely absorbed.

But just as we moved from television broadcasts to two-way communications, so must these conversations. Google Hangouts don't catch on because we are all busy and we don't know people in the group video-chat way - we all have our own networks that don't translate cleanly. But group video chats, put together on the basis of topics, are going to start coming. Imagine:
  • Live videochat rooms for those watching sports games
  • For those wanting to discuss the day's news
  • For those wanting to discuss professional developments in a given world
 These rooms can be private or public, but unlike podcasts they need not be edited, because the point isn't to have a show, but to host a conversation - just like every lunch table around the globe. Imagine coming home to a familiar apartment and hopping into a room for fellow activists. Instant networking, possibly.

I also think there are avenues for monetarization, butam not sure about those. I just know that it's coming, and I think it will be pretty neat!

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

(thanks Poetry Foundation): Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

C.S. Lewis, on Friendship

Quote For The Day - The Dish:
“In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares two-pence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history…That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival,” – C.S. Lewis

What "actually matters" and what actually matters

Madison Updates:
  • A few Fridays ago, I had one of those ubiquitous nights that felt very "American"....I suppose. 
    • I drove straight from work on Friday to a soccer game at an indoor field. Organized sports are the best way I've found at getting and keeping my heartrate up, but for the first time I played with a team of "free agents" - I actually joined up last minute when they sent out an e-mail call for more guys on Friday nights.
    • Next up, I went to a gathering of friends I joined more than a year ago that play board and video games regularly together. I'm pretty sure I lost every game, but that was fine - the games aren't what actually matters.
    • Last up was karaoke - in a bowling alley, with a big group of all ages, sexes, and races. There were bad "parties lights" spinning around with no discernible rhythm.
    • I read a lot about (and experience in part) other cultures from around the globe, and despite my many frustrations with the US, there is something fundamentally wonderful about these events and the ease with which we support so many different endeavors. It's safe to become fast friends here, and that's good for building social networks (and having the courage to break old ones when appropriate).
  • Winter is coming. I am not pleased, except for the fact that the Sing Off is coming with it!

Political Updates:
  • The importance of hypocrisy
    • Yes, the US practices espionage. No, we don't talk about it. Diplomatic practice is to pretend you don't spy while you do spy. For the record, I'm down with most parts of organized espionage EXCEPT for corrupting human agents.
  • I can't figure out exactly what I think about Snowden. I do think Manning did something much more foolish.

Personal Updates:
  • For a long time in my life I was someone that kept a fairly flexible schedule. I liked being able to "drop everything" for someone else. I find myself busy more and more these days - and it's a blessing, as well as something that makes me understand others that weren't as available what I might have wanted in the past.
  • Ultimately, having good people in your life and enjoying their company (both friends and family) is what actually matters to me. I don't have to be in the same location as them, but weekends like this in DC are a big part of my happiness and I am grateful for them.

Anger in the Shutdown

I'm getting more and more angry at the piecemeal, partial funding bills that the government is passing amidst the shutdown. This is not governing. This is not budgeting.

It's not governing to fund only the parts of the government you need, or to rewrite the rule sin the middle of the game. The GOP is going the wrong direction - entirely - and the Demcrats aren't making that case. They need to make that case. They need to win this - and they are letting Republican congressmen vote to close down the government and then berate the park rangers that show up to enforce closed monuments, without promise of a paycheck.

This is wrong; flatly wrong, and I'm disappointed both in Washington for not making this case more clearly, and my fellow Americans for letting the hostage-taking GOP off the hook. We're failing ourselves, and no one seems to even realize it.

The Idiocy of the Shutdown, in 3 Acts: Map, Thought Experiment, Speech - James Fallows - The Atlantic

 I would write a post about this but James Fallows said it better:

The Idiocy of the Shutdown, in 3 Acts: Map, Thought Experiment, Speech - James Fallows - The Atlantic:
Thought experiment. Let's suppose it's the fall of 2005. Suppose George W. Bush has been reelected, as he was in real life. Let's suppose, also as in reality, the Senate remained in Republican hands. But then suppose that Nancy Pelosi and her Democrats had already won control of the House, rather than doing so two years later. So suppose that the lineup as of 2005 had been:
  • Reelected Republican president;
  • The president's Republican party retaining control of the Senate; and
  • Democrats controlling only one chamber, the House.
Then suppose further that Pelosi's newly empowered House Democrats announced that unless George W. Bush agreed to reverse the sweeping tax cuts that had been the signature legislative achievement of his first term, they would refuse to pass a budget so that the federal government could operate, and would threaten a default on U.S. sovereign debt. Alternatively, that unless Bush immediately withdrew from Iraq, federal government funding would cease and the debt ceiling would be frozen.
In this imagined world, I contend:
  • "respectable" opinion would be all over Pelosi and the Democrats for their "shrill," "extreme" demands, especially given their lack of broad electoral mandate;
  • hand-wringing editorials would point out that if you want to change policy, there's an established route to do so, which involves passing new bills and getting them signed into law, rather than issuing "otherwise we blow up the government" ultimatums;
  • no one would be saying that the "grownups in the room" had to resolve the crisis by giving away, say, half of the president's tax cuts. (Even though, to my taste, that would have been a positive step.)
The circumstances are the mirror image now. A party that within the past year has:
  • lost the presidency by 5 million votes;
  • lost the Senate by a total of 10 million votes;
  • held onto control of the House through favorable districting, while losing the overall House vote by 1.7 million nationwide
... is nonetheless dictating terms to the rest of the government. This would have been called extreme and unreasonable under an imagined Nancy Pelosi House in 2005. It is extreme and unreasonable now.

The Story of the Shutdown

First, some obvious points: this is an unprecedented situation, in that the government shutdown has been forced because the party forcing has lost a constitutional challenge and cannot repeal the law
Now, there's a reason that Congress gets the power of the purse - the ability to starve programs by cutting off funding seems like its within Congress's purview. The problem in this case is that Congress isn't doing that - it's just straight refusing to function. It's not clear if furloughed workers will get their salaries back either.

However, this is much better than the debt ceiling limit being broken. The thought here is that the Tea Party interests can be managed - and that the GOP can wave the white flag at some point allowing government funding and the debt ceiling increase to go through.

What I don't think anyone has fully understood is how radicalized these politicians might be.

This sounds something like my politics

A Moderation Manifesto |: The moderate code that I propose consists of four principles: First, in every situation (be it local or global), search for, or build, a complex moral and institutional center. Second, oppose human destructiveness, its power and effects (including war, ecological destruction, or putting a gun to someone’s head to obtain something). Third, recognize human cognitive and moral limits, but without assuming the worst; we are not all depraved idiots. And fourth, recognize the value of continuity, and of loyalty to our inheritance, which allow us to take part in some of the grandest of human projects, handed down from generation to generation.

Moderates can — it seems to me — divide the world into the forces of good and the agents of evil; they just need to do this in a properly moderate way. If we think of human destructiveness as the enemy, and if we see the frontlines of this battle within each person and each group, then the idea that we ought to engage in a battle of creation against destruction can be very much a moderate idea. In this battle we can turn to violence only as an absolutely last resort. Again, this is not a battle of us versus them — the frontline is within each one of us.

The four principles allow deeply transformative forms of moderation. They allow, first of all, a quest for truth, including truth in politics. The third principle, with its recognition of limited human cognitive and moral capacities, disallows a quest for certainty, or any conclusion that one has reached the truth. But a quest for truth in a fallibilist and experimental spirit, the kind of politics exemplified by Gandhi’s satyagraha, is very much allowed as a form of moderation.

Music for Sunday

Focus on the music. The music is good.

A few more thoughts about Syria

  • The criticism from Obama by some major foreign policy voices is either a sign that the administration has lost credibility with that establishment group or  part of some sort of meta-play by the Obama Admin.
    • It's important to remember that many of Obama's staffers have deep connections from the Clinton era as a part of "official Washington" - and that this process is being driven partly by those social connections as much as the facts on the ground.
  • The opposition from movement conservatives is predictable and knee-jerk. Nothing in their arguments convinces me that this is anything more than opportunism.
  • Likewise, Putin's motivations are to maintain a friendly regime and the access to the Mediterranean, full stop. His interest in civilians is politically beneficial; therefore its the position he takes.
  • Kerry is well connected globally thanks to his time in the senate foreign relations committee. His bellicose actions are deliberate, though the lack of coordination is genuine.
  • Obama's end game is continued American credibility and a continued taboo against chemical weapons. Putin's endgame is Russian power. Given the priorities, Russia may well come out visibly on top, looking good.
  • That's a worthwhile tradeoff.

A Follow-Up on Syria

At this point, you really shouldn't trust anything that anyone says about the Syria process. The conversations happening behind closed doors are markedly different than the public rhetoric, and I suspect that some of the heat the Obama Administration is getting is desired. The true history of this time will come out with Obama's papers - in the meantime, we can only guess.

On Syria

There is no clear option on Syria - we don't know if one or any option will work. I do believe the international taboo against chemical weapons is worth some spending to maintain it, but also that war is a Pandora's box. Let's hope the Russia play works.

Said Andrew Sullivan:
The money quote for me, apart from the deeply moving passage about poison gas use at the end, was his description of a letter from a service-member who told him, “We should not be the world’s policeman.” President Obama said, quite simply: “I agree.” And those on the far right who are accusing him of ceding the Middle East to Russia are half-right and yet completely wrong. What this remarkable breakthrough has brought about is a possible end to the dynamic in which America is both blamed for all the evils in the world and then also blamed for not stopping all of them. We desperately need to rebuild international cooperation to relieve us of that impossible burden in a cycle that can only hurt us and the West again and again.

I can't even imagine the workfload, but a reminder that even the most creative have tropes.

On Names

When someone speaks your name, it has the power to turn you toward them – to turn your head, or your attention, or your steps, or sometimes your life.  Just the sound itself has that power – even before you consider what the sound means, before you start to remember all the stories and take account of all the synapses of relationship that are submerged in the meaning of such a simple thing as a single name.

The discovery of the true meanings of our names takes most of us a lifetime.  By the time most of us are adults, it’s as though a name has walked through the deep woods in all the ripest seasons, picking up meanings and memories that cling to it like burrs and milkweed fluff and the smells of life.  And when you speak such a pungent name as that, it not only turns the head of the person who bears it; it conjures something of the truth of the person you name.
  - A very reverend man that serves at my college


I have an unpleasant suspicion that some of the CAPCHA's I've been seeing on the web are used to help with address recognition in photos. That feels a little creepy, but then again automatic programs probably don't need much help.

Last night

Last night, I drove down to the waterfront and passed by a much of families walking their kids around at 10:30 PM. It seemed like a real community gathering, with so many people and especially kids around that the late hour felt more like 7:00 PM. Then I realized that all of them were speaking in Russian.

Which is really something, I think, that we have random parks where communities congregate to walk and chat and be together, speaking in native tongues in foreign lands. I wonder if Americans ever do the same in other countries. Or have to.

Malkin Award Nominee from The Dish

Malkin Award Nominee - The Dish: “I see those six ladies in the jury putting themselves on that rainy night, in that housing complex that has just been burglarized by three or four different groups of black youngsters from the adjacent community. So it’s a dark night, a 6-foot-2-inch hoodie-wearing stranger is in the immediate housing complex. How would the ladies of that jury have reacted? I submit that if they were armed, they would have shot and killed Trayvon Martin a lot sooner than George Zimmerman did. This is self-defense,” – Geraldo Rivera, Fox News.

That’s a staggering statement, effectively giving white people the right to kill anyone above 6′ 2″ in a hoodie. I haven’t been able to watch the cable coverage of this, but readers tell me that Fox is race-baiting in hysterical, reckless fashion. If Rivera’s understanding of “self-defense” is correct, then it’s open, hunting season on African-American men.
What makes the Zimmerman acquittal "bad justice" for many is in the quote above - that we should feel empowered to confront someone on the street with lethal force, because of "fear."

First World Problems

Sometimes living in Madison has been tough - with my frequent absences due to travel, it's sometimes hard to fill up the time when I'm in town, espeically weekdays  (not to mention the exhaustion that sometimes leaves me without energy to do Another Thing). This summer, though, has been different, and yesterday I had to choose between two wonderful events.

Maybe this sounds silly, but it really stressed me out that things didn't sync up well and I had to juke one group. And that - that stress - is a wonderful problem to have; I was able to note down a song AND won both games I joined later that night (though with some guilt for all the lying I did for one of the victories). I like my friends. :)

Goodbye, Google Reader

"From your 145 subscriptions, over the last 30 days you read 4,712 items, clicked 190 items, starred 0 items, and emailed 1 items. Since August 27, 2009 you have read a total of 161,244 items."
I started using Reader as a college junior. It permanently changed my information consumption and use by making it possible for me to store up and consume data whenever I had time. I use it to find posts to make myself, on this blog and on my own RSS feed of interesting article. Here are the replacements I've considered:
  • The Old Reader - it works, but slow updates and the interface isn't pretty
  • Curata - no way to show unread
  • Feed.ly - ok, but only works on my modern laptop and I can't figure out how to click throuhg efficiently.
  • Digg Reader - no way to show unread
  • AOL Reader - no access yet
  • Newsblur - I like this one the most, and am currently paying $2/month for it. For something that I spend hours on, its well worth my time.

Ultimately, I'll keep trying out The Old Reader and Newsblur. I think the winner will be one of these. For now, I'll miss Google Reader's analytics, seen below. Do note that these are based on my computer's local time, so things read on the west coast at midnght show here as 2 AM. :)

The Soundtrack to the Social Network

Is my next work-related music thing.

Call Your Girlfriend

I sing with some talented ladies:

An Olympic Memory

Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, back when the budgets for them weren’t quite so gigantic, and they needed kids to be a part of the opening ceremonies. A letter came out in our backpacks one day, and while I don’t remember this clearly, my parents and teacher all recall how immediately intent I was on being a part of it. Practice, rehearsals - I think I figured out it was a special thing and immediately asked to go. Well, they ran a lottery for the slots and my friends Anna and Parker (and maybe some others?) won places. I didn’t, but my enthusiasm got me noticed, and thanks to some fortune, I had an opportunity to join up.

I don’t remember much, but a few things stick out. Riding on the bus next to Anna when we went to pick her sister up at another elementary school I had never been to before, and listening to the people on the big platform constructed on the seats in the stadium as they directed us. Hot days under the sun at high schools practicing our places, the envy I had of the kid that just had to stand on a guide dot. The chaotic day they took away the dots - and the amazing smoothness of the second run-through when we realized we still knew where to go. I remember the seemingly giant tunnels under the stadium in my seven year old eyes,  the embarrassment of changing into my costume in a small space with all of these moms everywhere, leaving the stadium through the firework zone while they were going off - and watching one hit the driveway in front of us, and then getting home while the parade of nations was still going on. The sadness when I didn’t get a flashlight for our closing ceremony number, and the excitement when I watched the X gamers practice their craft by the stadium.

But most of all I remember the feeling of running out of our tunnel and seeing the infinite stars of camera flashes around the stadium, the likes of which we’ll likely never see thanks to the modern smarkphone. There was also a little thought in the back of my head that I enjoyed - “I could just run THAT way and the entire world would see me!” - but did not heed. I remember the sounds of John Williams, our accompaniment to so many hours of making our dove flap. And it all happened because of enthusiasm.

One Last Thought on the NSA/Facebook

The data we put on Facebook isn't all "ours" - the internet isn't ours. Facebook has control over the data I enter there, and we have a free market choice to use Facebook knowing that. We're going into an era where the social contract of community via the internet will require a "voluntary" abridgment of rights, unless we either choose platforms that won't share data or radically curtail the gov'ts collection abilities. I think the former impossible because of economics, and the latter because of politics.
This isn't 1984 - it's Brave New World, but instead of Soma, we have cat videos.

For the sake of time, here's Peggy Noonan representing my view:

From her blog:
...Because of the built-in bias in the system—the bias to do too much, to go too far—the creation of an invasive American surveillance state is probably inevitable. Politicians are people who can do math. The number of people who want to be safe, they are certain, is far greater than the number worried about abstract issues of privacy. Moreover, they figure voters are more or less like this: They’ll have their little blog debates about privacy right up until a bomb goes off, and then they’ll all go into a swivet and join a new chorus: “Why didn’t you protect me? Throw the bums out!”
There is no way a government in the age of metadata, with the growing capacity to listen, trace, tap, track and read, will not eventually, and even in time systematically, use that power wrongly, maliciously, illegally and in areas for which the intelligence gathering was never intended. People are right to fear that the government’s surveillance power will be abused. It will be. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one is that humans are and will be in charge of it, and humans have shown throughout history a bit of a tendency to play every trick and bend and break laws. “If men were angels,” as James Madison wrote, limits, checks, balances and specifically protected rights would not be necessary. But they aren’t angels. Add to all this simple human mistakes, innocent and not, and misjudgments. And add to that sheer human craziness, partisan lust, political mischief of all sorts.

In which I discuss Game of Thrones

Not entertainment or the arena
Deaths back then
The good are predictable
Violence is horrible
Choices have consequences

I stayed away from Game of Thrones until this year - enough people were talking about it that I decided to get into the series one weekend and, a half-embarrassingly short time later, I've read large parts of books 1-3 and caught up on the series.

First, some accolades: this is a show that keeps us interested and engaged with just tidbits of various characters from episode to episode. A few weeks back, the show was tracking storylines at 10 different locations, as represented here in a spoil-free list that will make sense to show fans. We're blessed by writers that can accomplish exposition rapidly - and have much more screentime thanks to HBO's commercial-free nature then other hour-long dramas.
  • Dragon Lady
  • Wolf King
  • Wolf Girl
  • Wolf Cripple
  • Stag Legit King
  • Lion / Sapphire
  • Crow / Wildling
  • Crow / Mother
  • Tortured Squid
  • The Capitol (Mockingbird, Spider, Lions, Roses, Wolf)
The next praise-worthy bit is how much the show can establish and humanize characters for us, even while it seems like every episode features someone dying, prompting tweets like:
“Why doesn’t George R.R. Martin use twitter? Because he killed all 140 characters.”
What does the show not get right? For one thing, it relies on actors (espeically women actors) that are too uniformly attractive - and who remove their clothing too much. For a show that relies on efficiency, these scenes mull slowly along close body-shots that seem to serve no other purpose than titillation.

However, on the other area of debate, I'm rather understanding of the gore in the show. Martin's deaths - all of them - have a point, and a role in establishing a rule that in this universe of Westeros - NO ONE is safe. Not the protagonist, not the hero, not the child, not the one who must avenge. There was plenty more story to be told about our friendly Starks - but George R. R. Martin wants us to follow him over the bodies of these beloved characters, and the show's efforts to show us what felled them is in the pursuit of accuracy - and a warning about the kind of world that has existed in the purges of Mao and Stalin. Tens of thousands - millions - have died for lesser crimes than shown on their show. We would do well to remember that.

South Dakota

Sometimes, you don't have to plan.

I have a wonderful job that involves lots of timelines, reports, notes, follow-ups, and other myriad tools of project management. I like my job, but sometimes its nice just to do something without a lot of planning - and to have it all work out anyway. This weekend was one of those moments. Ever since I heard about it, I felt pretty strongly about getting myself to the Taize gathering in Red Shirt, Pine Ridge Reservation.
First, I have never been to that area of the country - and never to a true reservation. Second, it's been a little while since I camped and it's always nice to get a small reminder of the joy of regular showers
But mostly, I was looking for the Taize spirit. I know of no other group that has such a welcome openness among so many, from such disparate backgrounds.

However, there was a catch - I didn't exactly figure out how I was getting there. My thought had been to ride with Chicago folks, but the connections were light and the buses full. So I found myself googling for other rides and resources - and on Wednesday, I found a bus leaving from Minneapolis, a cool 4.5 hours from Madison.
So right after work on Thursday, I got on the road with a audio book of "The girl with the dragon tattoo" and headed to the bus. The people were kind, friendly, and pretty much all new to Taize. That didn't make them newbies, or lacking in experience, but perhaps there was a confidence difference
I had some idea of what I was getting myself into, and they were coming on the strength of the recommendations of others, or simply a Memorial Day whim.

Talent is everywhere

David Foster Wallace on life and education (profound)

The Luck of the Listserve

The Luck of the Listserve:

The Listserve brings online strangers together in an era oversaturated with friends
The Lottery of Babylon began innocently enough. It was a game, created by venal merchants, played by commoners, and its rules were simple: tempt fate, win silver coins. But as it evolved, it took on moral dimensions, dark corners, and ecclesiastical force. Although it will take a few billion more adherents to even begin chasing this mystical essence, we have a Lottery of Babylon among us today. It’s called the Listserve.
The Listserve is a mailing list lottery. Sign up for the Listserve, and you’re joining a massive e-mail list. Every day, one person from the list is randomly selected to write one e-mail to everyone else. That’s it. As of this writing, the Listserve has 21,399 subscribers. There has been one email per day since April 16th, 2012. Run by a group of Masters Candidates in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), the Listserve emerged from a class exploring new ways of creating conversational spaces online. There were other ideas: chain letters, or a message board for only 100 people at a time. But eventually email’s directness and ease-of-use won out. An email flies straight, circumventing the myriad distractions of other online gatherings, where some voices pack disproportionate clout (or, er, Klout)...............


I went to work today feeling a little like an automaton - my tasks felt a bit rote, my actions a little prescribed. It was Monday (and it got better). But I found out halfway through the day that someone I know - but who is not geographically close - has a very serious illness.

Whooops, there's my feelings. Morality is something I'm privileged to not have to think about, except in terms of the characters on shows I watch and so forth.

I wish it didn't take something so tough to help us remember something so amazing.

Advice to a High Schooler

Different schools offer different resources, from the number of faculty to the size of the rooms to the connections of an alumni base. All of these schools - even the ones that might reject you - are looking for a class of students from diverse backgrounds, with diverse interests and abilities. Your admission is not about you - it's about the match. Sometimes there's space in a class for a particular talent, sometimes it's a bit crowded. I can't tell you how that will work in your case.

What I can say that is you are true to yourself, it will follow as surely as night follows day that you will find a place that fits you. (1) My place was at Williams - it matched me. Your place may be there or elsewhere, but you will find it. As to your butterflies - this is the first big decision in your life, and it's perfectly normal to be nervous. You will probably look back with the wisdom of extra years and laugh at your ignorance. I certainly have. But you have a legion of classmates in schools rich and poor in the boat with you. All of you will come knocking together. My hope is that you knock on all of the doors that you would go through. 
You asked if I had doubt. I did - I went on a grand college tour and didn't like any of them. What school was I to apply to? Into this breach stepped the marvelous propaganda that is the Williams College Prospectus, but I was lucky to have been on their list - and lucky that there was a school in the country that matched my values. There was no promise of that. I didn't even know where Williams was located in Mass - I thought it was near Boston and we missed it on the tour. I very nearly ended up at Georgia Tech.
But that would have been ok, and so it shall be with you. This is big - it's major - but it's only the start of your adult life. There are many bridges but the crossing is universal.

(1) - Shakespeare

Us, analyzed via Facebook

In Data Science of the Facebook World, Stephen Wolfram investigates us and finds a BUNCH of cool stuff. Go check it out.
 Over the decades I’ve been steadily accumulating countless anecdotal “case studies” about the trajectories of people’s lives—from which I’ve certainly noticed lots of general patterns. But what’s amazed me about what we’ve done over the past few weeks is how much systematic information it’s been possible to get all at once. Quite what it all means, and what kind of general theories we can construct from it, I don’t yet know.

But it feels like we’re starting to be able to train a serious “computational telescope” on the “social universe”. And it’s letting us discover all sorts of phenomena. That have the potential to help us understand much more about society and about ourselves. And that, by the way, provide great examples of what can be achieved with data science, and with the technology I’ve been working on developing for so long.

The FAA Furloughs

Cut Head Start?


Cut programs for the neediest that have demonstrated positive impacts on the economy?


But cause some intermediate flight delays that affect people who can make phone calls, and Congress immediately gets to work.

That's wrong.

From one amputee to another

Your Monday Cry:
Marine amputees offer love and advice to Marathon amputees:


I realized today that I've forgotten all but one of the names, and most of the cases, of my four years on Williams's honor committee. That was by design - I tried to put them out of my head - but it's still odd to (not) think about it, because those experiences were so formative for me. I learned about how people act under extreme pressure, the impossibility of judgment in 51%-49% cases, and how rules interact with nessesary compassion.

I learned about secrets that "happy" people carry with them, some very dark, and I learned about the pain of depression. I learned what it was like to argue for stronger sanctions, and what it was like to stand alone for fewer sanctions. I learned the pain of secrecy when people assumed false things about me, and when I had to go along with false things others said to preserve their fraudulent stories about why they were headed off campus.

But mostly I learned what it was like to be part of a system much bigger than myself, and the responsibility of actors within those systems. So much of politics - macro and micro, is about maneuvering oneself into places and positions of responsibility, but once you're there, it's just work, and its weighty. It wasn't fun, but it was an honor to be so entrusted.

An Old Editorial of Mine from the Williams Record on the death of Osama Bin Laden

I turned 13 on Sept. 11, 2001. Sunday evening, eight years to the day after George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, I ran home to Susie Hopkins after learning that the man chiefly responsible for that event had been killed in a firefight.

We live, it is said, in a purple bubble here at Williams, isolated by mountains in every cardinal direction. Our lives are enabled and assisted through the efforts of hundreds of staff who provide us with security and services while we pursue our education. While the Internet has made true isolation less possible, we are sheltered here from hunger and the worst sort of injustices that have provoked the current Arab Spring.

Nate Krisoff ’03 departed from this shelter and entered the United States Marine Corps. The plaque commemorating his life and death on Dec. 9, 2006, sits alone above one of the back doors of Thompson Chapel, dwarfed by the long lists of names from other wars in which Ephs took greater part. He was a co-captain of the swim team, known for his one-liners and the blue and white Adidas tracksuit top that he wore everywhere.

After his death, his father, a surgeon, enlisted in the Naval Medical Corps to honor his son’s memory, serving a seven-month deployment at Camp Al Taqaddum, Iraq, among other places. I know of no other Ephs who followed Bill Krissoff’s example; Williams students are rarely found in today’s armed forces.

We serve in the government, yes, and I have no doubt that many ’11s, ’12s, ’13s and ’14s will leave this valley to accomplish great feats, but many of us will remain within the security and comfort that the privilege of a Williams degree will help to provide. We will not be able to claim the words of Professor of Rhetoric Carroll Lewis Maxcy’s 1926 eulogy:
“And some, in answer to the call of country, have gone out to battle for the common rights of men against the enemy. Some of them will not return to me, for they have given all they had, and now they rest at the foot of a simple cross or lie deep below the waves. But even as they passed, the music of the chimes was in their ears and before their eyes were visions of the quiet walks beneath the elms.”
I am not suggesting that Ephs commemorate Osama bin Laden’s death by enlisting in the armed forces; my own plans do not include military service, though I respect and honor my friends from home who made that choice. But I do suggest that we carry an extra obligation alongside our privilege: to serve not just the causes of wealth, power or fame, but to hold ourselves to a higher standard than that expected by society, the market or our peers.

Loyalty, kindness, helpfulness and their peer traits won’t buy season tickets at a Yankees game, but they are the lynchpins of a successful society: One of the great hallmarks of Williams is that I can leave my laptop out and alone in a common room without fear (though there are notable exemptions: take care!) or that we can toss our jackets on the stairs during First Fridays without requiring a coat check system to ensure that we get our outerwear back. In dedicating ourselves to building the better America that Nate Krisoff sought to protect (or for international students, the causes of freedom and justice that he sought to defend), we can honor his memory and those of the many others that perished on my birthday. We can turn the celebration at this death into a more timely and long-lasting benevolence that will pay dividends down the road.

Is this overly optimistic? Probably. I have no doubt that even on this campus, problems and struggles will continue for years to come. A Muslim chaplain will not solve all of the issues that Muslim students face, just as Campus Safety and Security can hardly prevent all thefts or sexual assaults from occurring. The United States will soon come down from its post-kill euphoria, just as the good-natured feelings of September 11 only persisted for about a month. Our task is to maintain those convictions, even when they are under the threat of convenience or malfeasance; there will often be no reward for doing the right thing, or even heavy costs like what Krissoff paid.

But regardless, let this not be a week about fireworks, politics or the celebration of a terrorist’s death. Let this be the week that we can be reminded which causes are worth dying and sacrificing for. We will not always uphold these values perfectly, but there are angels to guide us on our way.

Gun Control

A dish reader on Gun Control. Posted here because it's pretty close to my thinking:
The right to bear arms was an essential right in 1787 because of the risk of Indian incursion, not as a bulwark against tyranny or a defense against foreign invasion. The concept of a “well-regulated militia” as it concerned pre-Revolutionary America actually would often have been little more than a posse of all available homesteaders organized to defend the area or march on a nearby settlement.
In this context, each individual actually does represent his own militia, because he may be the only one available to defend an isolated farm. The idea that the Founders intended weapons to be limited exclusively to organized military formations is preposterous; with few exceptions, such formal organizations did not exist. In many frontier regions, there would have been no defense available to settlers if the Amendment was read as many now propose.

This absolutely does not mean that gun control is unconstitutional, however. The inclusion of the phrase “well-regulated militias” in the Amendment was not an accident, even if it is frequently misread today.

The Founders intended weapons to be readily available to the extent that Americans would be ABLE to form a “well-regulated militia” to defend against incursion. This is the appropriate reading of the Amendment. Gun control should therefore be based, as it was in 1934 and 1994, on a determination of what constitutes a necessary weapon to enable the formation of a militia. I personally think that hunting rifles and pistols probably constitute an adequate complement of weaponry for a militia (in a country with a standing army), but others may disagree.

On Thatcher

The death of Margaret Thatcher seems to be causing some problems for the typical "good/bad" narrative that new articles typically go with, because more than most politicians, Thatcher was extraordinarily strong-willed and willing to be hated, and therefore pursued policies that made her (justifiably) notorious.

But that sounds about fair to me. She took her actions knowing the political risks and how many people she was antagonizing, and now many will seek to dance upon her grave. It's the price that public leaders pay, espeically when you pursue some politics that are much more noxious today than in their own time.

On Pixar's Sequels

This post and a few others circling around the web discuss Pixar's recent rash of sequels. I think this is a valid critique on Hollywood, in general, but misses two aspects unique to Pixar. Sequels are much more guaranteed money when making a movie - witness the success of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" even though the movie was poorly edited, and we know that Hollywood is hugely risk-averse. That's why Adam Sandler can keep making $80 million crappy movies that earn back their keep.

But with Pixar, we have the example of Toy Story, whose two sequels added to the story and, especially in the third, did something that an original movie cannot do by using the nostalgia of the first movies as a part of the story. Andy's departure to college meant something to all of us who were in elementary school when Toy Story came out, and that amazing scene in the incinerator grabbed us because we knew these characters, and had known them for a decade. It's like the death of Coulsen in the Avengers - we knew that guy.

So I'm tempted to give Pixar its due. I'm sure there's a component of money-making in these decisions - see "Cars 2" and merchandising - but I want to revisit these characters and get something that most movies - and most sequels - don't offer.

A Conservative Case for Same-Sex Marraige

I've always felt a little more socially conservative than my friends and neighbors, both growing up in Decatur and going to college in Massachusetts. It's not about judging the things that others do, but about choosing what is most fitting for myself, for reasons of taste and otherwise, but there is sometimes some awkwardness. However, that general sentiment never applied - even slightly - to the issue of gay marriage, or anything involving human sexuality, and I've never bought the arguments otherwise. Here's a great encapsulation of some of that reasoning, from RedState:
Luke 10 tells the story of a legal expert who queried Jesus about what was required to inherit eternal life. Christ turned the question back on its questioner, and this man whose entire life revolved around studying the law of God summed it up in two points: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
And Christ informed him that he had it exactly right.
That’s what is required to be a follower of Christ. I’m not called to hunt down sinful people, or question the faith of my friends and neighbors, or try to wield the power of the government to enforce my convictions on others.
I’m called to love God, and love them. period. The End. Christ himself spent time with the lowest and most despised sinners of His day, and Scripture holds no account of His ever confronting them about it, except when they explicitly asked Him about it or, like Zaccheus the cheating, thieving tax collector, brought it up themselves.
Even for those who believe homosexuality is a sin, does it necessarily follow that they should wield the levers of Leviathan’s power against those whom they believe are in the wrong? After all, Scripture speaks about homosexuality a bare handful of times. Conversely, caring for the poor is a key theme all throughout the Major and Minor Prophets, the Gospels and the Epistles. Israel is repeatedly condemned for abandoning the poor, sick and needy among them. The disciples and the early church are urged to care for those same  poor and needy.
If, as the anti-SSM crowd would have it, the levers of State are to be wielded to enforce the commands of Scripture, then pardon me, but what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks are we doing spending so much time, energy and effort fighting to overturn Obamacare? If the role of government is to enforce Biblical morality, isn’t Obamacare – providing the security of medical insurance coverage to a multitude of poor, sick people who couldn’t get it before, the most Christ-like thing the government has ever done??

And then there are the children. Even if you believe with all your heart that the best environment in which to raise a child is one shared with both a loving (male) father and a loving (female) mother . . . are you really ready to argue that a child is better off in an abusive home, or shuttling around between foster homes, or in a home with an absentee mom or dad, or in a broken home, than that child would be in a loving home shared with two parents of the same gender?

We live in a fallen, broken world, and unfortunately that means that not all of us have the good fortune to grow up in stable homes with both a father and mother who love us and are present in our lives. But for those who don’t have that opportunity, I’d argue that a stable home with two fathers or two mothers is the next best thing.
I would even say that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality - it just condemns going against one's own nature. And for the many gay men and women who hid themselves, and married straight, that pain of going against nature must have been a constant pain for years.

Marriage's enemy - society's enemy - is visible during any of the daytime TV talk shows that mock the responsibilities of fathers or the pain of infidelity. It's the rising divorce rate (concentrated in particular economic classes), and the numbers of marriages that should have failed due to abuse in a past era, when divorce was a true scandal.

Unfortunately, it's easy to hate the other, different, or strange, especially when we fear it.

States in the Union

A recent post made me think about which states I have and haven't been to in the US. I think you have to stay a night somewhere for it to really count but will count traveling-through states with asterisks.

I don't really think this will be useful for anyone else, but it's a cool reference point for the future.

Final score: Been to 30, transited in 7, got 13 left.

Pope Francis, Catholicism, and Rhode Island

I spent much of the weekend in Rhode Island, the last state I hadn't been to in New England. (Delaware/West Virginia, I'm coming for you and the end of the mid-Atlantic next). I have a dear friend here, a lifer, who welcomed me with the same grace I knew when we last saw each other at graduation. She's gone a different road than mine since then, and it's always nice to check in every once in a while to remember who we were - and who we can be when with the best.

She's also Catholic, so I went back to Mass today for the first time (I think) since we spent our freshman Winter in Rome, thanks to Williams. I was happy they gave out palm fronds, and joyed when the final song was "Jesus, Remember Me," a song I know well from Taize.

Lastly, a note on the new Pope. I don't believe in papal infallibility, and I'm incredibly "low church," but I think human psychology makes the Pope - a singular figure, a human in a Godly role - a special touchstone that I appreciate whenever it captivates the world. I hope he succeeds in putting meat behind the wonderful symbolism thus far - and I predict that he will do well. Besides, Francis is my favorite saint, mostly because I played him in a children's church choir production.

Google Reader is being sunsetted..... :(

Sayeth After Google Reader: Real RSS businesses.:
I liked John Siracusa's take on the just-announced death of Google Reader:

1. Drive competing services out of business with a free service (subsidized by a profitable product).
2. Cancel free service.
3. ???

Very strange behavior and people are right to be a bit pissy about it. But by the same token, I think Marco Arment is right that this may ultimately be good news for RSS fans.
This is very sad news. Reader is absolutely indispensable to me as a high-volume news consumer, and I really hope another service steps up. I will pay $50/year to use a functional equivalent, no problem.

A reminder

While I don't post much original content these days, slackfeed.blogspot.com has my feed of a few interesting links per day.

Le sigh:

The most transparent administration:
Quote of the day from President Obama, speaking to the National Governors Association:

What I want to do is clear out the press so we can take some questions.

On Torture in "Zero Dark Thirty"

On torture, I think the movie was frank, but it was frank from the perspective of the torturer, and the torturer doesn't have to chill in a stress position for hours upon hours. To that extent it invites us to observe and move past the waterboarding in the same way we move by mendicants, knowing of their suffering but never really dwelling on it.

Something to keep in mind

The United States unemployment rate is currently 7.9%, worse than any but two periods in recent history (1975-76 & 1982-84 or so). Median household income in the US after inflation is 8% lower than it was before the crash, and 20% of American children live in poverty. The pain just isn't newsworthy anymore.

some days work out ok

Solid progress @ work + my best stats in a soccer game + karaoke + games = good night.

Some predictions

  • The "insider stories" from the past week, once they emerge, are going to contain a lot of angry House GOP quotes about the people in their party that, for their own personal gain, voted against a fiscal cliff deal that they knew had to be passed.
    • Why: if it hadn't passed, the House GOP would have found itself the target of popular (not just elite) scorn, McConnell would have lost all credibility as a negotiator, and Obama could have sat back and waited for a legitimate proposal from the roadblock.
    • Yet, because this is a compromise that didn't cut spending, no one from a Solid-Red district is going to enjoy defending their vote.
  • The conservative media is going to be split in the same way.
  • There's going to be a lot of GOP hankering in two months about not having spending cuts in this vote. 
  • There's going to be a lot of Dem hankering in two months about making so much of the 2003 tax cuts permanent.
  • There's going to be a HUGE amount of hankering in two years when the Democratic loved tax breaks expire. (note the difference there)
  • It will remain advantageous for politicians to talk about how Washington is broken while actively opposing efforts to fix it.

My taxes just went up

And the fact that everyone in DC wants to ignore that fact is reprehensible. The payroll tax is regressive and far more damaging to the economy than income taxes.