the "c-word"

This is a topic that is probably positively quaint to anyone born after 1980 or so, but seems to be burned rather deeply in the consciousness of Americans my age and (especially) older. Many are amazed when I tell them that I only heard one reference made to the "c-word" my entire time in Vietnam, and even then it was pretty benign.

I have to say that I didn't give the "c-word" much thought myself until my passport arrived back in the mail from the Vietnamese embassy, with a page-sized visa pasted in, at the top emblazoned "The Socialist Republic of Vietnam".

The "c-word" in question, as I'm sure you've guessed by now, is "communism".

Vietnam is nominally a communist country. Actually, it's a Communist country, which means that you can belong to any political party you like as long as it's the Communist Party. To be sure, political dissent is not officially tolerated in Vietnam, and one way I could ensure myself a rapid expulsion from the country would have been to actively promote democratic reform (the other would have been proselytizing). Not a problem, as I am interested in neither.

The reality is that "Communist" in Vietnam today does not--at least as far as I could observe--have anything in particular to do with actual communism. (Sort of like "Republican" in the US today has nothing to do with actual republicanism.) Market-based reforms (Đổi Mới, "renovation") have been underway since the mid-1980's, and business has been booming ever since.

In fact, I would say that the typical small business owner in Vietnam has a damn sight more freedom (or at least, non-interference from the state) than their American counterparts. Just try setting up your Sterno burner, grill, and cooler full of meat and condiments on a sidewalk in an American city, selling food to passersby, and see how long you're there before you're shut down. Just try renting bicycles or motorcycles out to tourists without filling out any paperwork.

To be sure, there might be a lot going on behind the scenes there that I just didn't see. But it's pretty jarring to walk into restaurant now and see the profusion of officially sanctioning documents (food service license, liquor license, health inspection, etc.) so prominently displayed.

Beyond communism as economic system, there was really very little of the cultural trappings of what I associate (perhaps erroneously, perhaps not) with a single-party state. Ho Chi Minh's image is fairly ubiquitous (especially on the money; he's on every denomination) but not noticeably more so than, say, George Washington's is here (particularly in the city that bears his name.) If there were any big portraits of Vietnam's current political leaders, I didn't see them. In fact, I would have to look up the name of the current head of government, and I just spent three weeks there.

I didn't see any gratuitous displays of military might. In fact, I didn't see that many cops--certainly less per capita than in say, Durham. There are a lot of people in uniform, but if you look closely, many of them work for private security firms.

But perhaps the best example I can think of is this: there are stores that sell old propaganda posters. They have signs hanging over them advertising "Old Propaganda Posters!"


saigon (footnote)

Apparently, Anthony Bourdain was in Saigon the same time we were.

I take pride in being pretty unimpressed by celebrity, but I have to admit that if we'd seen him there in particular, I probably would have said/done something really goofy. So I guess it's just as well that we didn't.


day 1 (or, how i learned to stop worrying and love the traffic)

You wake up early your first morning in Saigon*, in no small part because your body despite light cues to the contrary and the fact that you have only slept about four hours is completely and utterly convinced that it is late in the afternoon, and you really shouldn't be in bed right now. As consciousness begins to take hold, you tell yourself that more sleep really is the sensible thing, but also realize that you're in freaking Saigon. Sleep is over, for now.

(If you were really as quick-witted as you fancy yourself to be, you would stare at the ceiling and say, "Saigon...shit; I'm still only in Saigon," but you are not really this clever, and besides your wife hates war movies and would probably just give you that pained look of confusion and sympathy she reserves for when you make a joke she doesn't appreciate. You know this look well.)

After a shower the two of you strike out into the neighborhood you saw only dimly through the windows of your cab the night before, when it was relatively quiet. You are famished and caffeine-deprived and it is only 6AM. Lucky for you, Saigon wakes up early.

First the back lane on which your hotel is situated--in most American cities, this would be an "alley", but you later realize this designation is reserved in Vietnam for the corridors between buildings only a pedestrian can pass. The motos (motorcycles) have easy passage here, and for that matter so do the smaller cars. Kids on bikes pass, presumably on their way to school. So does the occasional moto. Food preparation is well underway--chicken is frying, pork is grilling, vegetables are being chopped, sugarcane is being pressed, all out in the lane. Near these microkitchens you note the profusion of children's furniture--tiny plastic chairs around little tables--and begin to feel like Gulliver in Lilliput.

Then, the secondary street into which the back lane empties. For some odd reason the first thing you notice are the power lines. There are thousands of cables in loose bundles crisscrossing the street roughly between the ground and first floors of the buildings lining the street, coiled at regular intervals around what presumably are junctions, though you have no way of seeing what they are coiled around.

You attempt to walk on the sidewalk, and quickly realize that the sidewalk is more theoretical than actual. Motos are parked everywhere, and interspersed with more food carts, cigarette and beverage vendors, and groups of men squatting in circles, talking, drinking coffee, smoking. You have to walk in the street, which is already fairly busy, and in single file. But as the street is mostly occupied by motos, followed by bicycles, followed by pedestrians, followed by the occasional car, this isn't as bad as it sounds.

This is a trivial observation, really, but it's worth mentioning anyway. As a 5'11", 200-lb white guy, you stand out here. No amount of geographical competence, purposeful walking, nondescript clothing, or quiet conversation can disguise the fact that you are undeniably a tourist. This ain't Europe. Might as well keep that map in your hand, because you're going to need it.

The morning's destination is Ben Thanh Market. Between you and it is Nguyen Thai Hoc, a major boulevard. Nothing could prepare you for the river of motos filling it from curb to curb, elbow to elbow, tire to tire, for as far as you can see in either direction. Nor for the fact that like a river, it never stops moving.

It isn't that there aren't crosswalks or traffic signals in HCMC. It's that there are only about a dozen of each in this sprawling city of 10 million, as far as I can tell.

The first rule of crossing the street in Saigon is this: don't panic. You have to believe--really, truly believe--that no one actually wants to run you down with their moto. This will be hard to believe if you are American, but it seems to be true, based on data collected to date. You also have to understand that a honking horn in Vietnam does not mean what it means in America. It's a warning, not an act of aggression (even harder for us Americans to accept, I know). Whereas a horn in a America is generally best translated as "fuck you", in Vietnam, "pardon me" is a much closer approximation. Really.

The second rule is this: don't panic. Once you have stepped out into traffic (and at some point, you will have to do exactly that), you are committed. You have to keep going, at a steady pace, without sudden shift in velocity or direction. This is your end of the bargain--move predictably. Everyone else's end is to go around you. And they do. The only thing you can do that would be worse than running is stop--you see, where you are at any given moment is a place some driver is counting on you not being in a few seconds. There is some allowance for stopping in the middle to assess the traffic coming from the other direction, but even this is a bit touchy, because the center line (if there is one) is not the hard and fast no-man's land it is western traffic control (more on this later).

The first time you do this you will be completely convinced that you are about to die before you even get your first damn bowl of pho. But before you know it, you are stepping up on the other curb with an adrenalin rush you'd pretty much have to jump out of a plane to top. You feel giddy. Your wife and you look at each other, wide-eyed and goofy-grinned, and walk on, feeling like you can do anything now.

Which is a good thing, because in another block, you have to get across Le Lai...

*Yes, this place is officially called Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and has been for quite a while. Nobody blinks if you use the old appellation, though, and in fact the locals use "Saigon" to refer to the central districts of the city specifically. I will use both, but will admit to preferring Saigon because it is frankly more romantic (nothing against Uncle Ho.)
So this blog is mostly going to be about Vietnam for a while. At least as long as I can sustain it--I have at least half a dozen posts rattling around in my head, maybe more, but I know better than to promise that which has not yet been written, especially since we have a lot of laundry, food shopping, and dog-rubbing to catch up on (not necessarily in that order.) That, and I apparently have something called a "job", a fact I have managed to nearly completely purge from my conscious mind for the last three weeks.

At the risk of spoiling the suspense, I'll give you the ending first: I left Vietnam wanting more. I can't wait to go back.



12-hour jet lag.
Barely lucid.
Dog happily splayed for belly rubs.
All is well.

More later.


See you in a few weeks...


happy repeal day!

Today is the 75th Anniversary of Repeal Day. You can guess how I'll be celebrating.

Radley Balko marks the occasion (and also generates some good hate mail). I've written about this once or twice myself.

Elsewhere in prohibition news, we have Jacob Sullum, who notes:

"The good news in drug policy," [Drug Czar John] Walters writes, "is that we know what works, and that is moral seriousness." Moral seriousness on this subject would require taking into account half a million nonviolent drug offenders behind bars, the victims of black market violence, avoidable deaths caused by the unreliable quality and unsanitary practices that prohibition fosters, the risk-premium subsidy to thugs and terrorists, the corruption of law enforcement officials, and the loss of civil liberties resulting from the drug war's perversion of the Constitution. Walters' claim to moral seriousness is therefore hard to take seriously. I'd settle for a little bit of intellectual seriousness from whomever Barack Obama chooses to succeed Walters, but it seems to be incompatible with the job.

In a perfect world, Mr. Obama would replace Mr. Walters with...no one.

(I'm not holding my breath.)



A man who arguably contributed more to modern neuroscience--and certainly to the neurobiology of memory--than any other single person died this week.

He did not have tenure, a lab, a grant, or even a PhD. But his students number in the thousands.

You can read more about him here.


metal punk monday

One week from today...



(Your tears are so yummy and sweet.)

What kills me, is that I didn't get to see it. You see, the NC State game was carried on the local CBS channel, and since no one and I mean NO ONE subscribes to the extra CBS Sports package around here (this is ACC country, after all) the game was effectively blacked out in Durham*.

So, if anyone has a recording of this game on their DVR, I'd really, really like to have a copy...

*If you found a place to watch this around here, I don't want to know about it. Really.


south durham, love yourself

More here.

ample parking, day or night

Good discussion over at Barry's place about the the City of Durham's tendency to overbuild parking capacity downtown. I think Barry has a great deal more faith than I do in the ability of local government to (effectively) push development in a less car-centric direction. Even if they weren't busily erecting new decks, I think driving in Durham (and in the Triangle generally) will have to get much, MUCH less convenient for there to be a broad base of support for the necessary investments to make this a transit town.

That said, he is absolutely correct in pointing out that if there is one thing downtown really does not need more of, it is parking spaces.


what i want for christmas

A H2O2-powered jetpack:


--Durham residents: Have you been meaning to install floodlights on your property to discourage break-ins? Roll over to the DPAC site, they have just the thing.

--Um, yeah, Current Cafeteria is teh awesome. Thanks, Carpe Durham!

--Ann Coulter's jaw has been wired shut. Really. (via)


weird, but cool

There's a single-cell organism the size of a grape. It's called Gromia sphaerica. If they are easy to cultivate and transfect, that'd be one hell of model organism...I'm pretty sure even my clumsy hands could do a patch clamp on a grape...


The Triangle D at the corner of Foster and Trinity is selling unleaded for $1.559. If you feel like waiting in line.

I didn't. Also, I filled up two days ago...

UPDATE--This is was happening because the owner lost his lease. No word on what will replace it. Since it is directly in my path between "where I drink beer" and "where I sleep", my vote is for "all-night burrito joint".

(I'm not holding my breath.)

a pirate's life for me

Quickly, these modern-day pirates climb aboard their prey: cargo ships that contain food, machine parts and, most recently, oil or enough weaponry to supply a small army. Most of the time they meet no opposition — only frightened, unarmed crews who find themselves prisoners and held for ransoms that have exceeded $1 million.

Not that it's my business to tell anyone else their business, but...if it were my business to haul tens of millions of dollars of cargo on a slow-moving conveyance through stateless waters, I'd like to think it would occur to me to arm the freakin' crew...


stuff i've been enjoying lately

--Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. At any given time I usually have a smallish paperback book that I carry around to read while waiting (doctors offices, oil changes, etc.) in addition to whatever is perched on my nightstand. This has been that book for me lately and now people all over the waiting rooms of Durham think I'm The Crazy Guy Who Giggles While He Reads. The chapter in which the protagonist writes a grant proposal for a Holocaust museum is beyond hilarious. And if you can make that funny, you're a freakin' genius. My habit of reading authors' second books first continues to pay off.

--In the mood for old (read: mid-1980's) horror movies, I rented Reanimator and John Carpenter's The Thing this past weekend. For fairly obvious reasons, I appreciate the satirical take on the culture of academic research in Reanimator much, much more now than when I was 12 (or however old I was when I last saw it). And I realize I'd really like a Mistkatonic Medical School T-shirt (though one of these might be OK) just to see who gets it.

The Thing scared the hell out of me when I was little. It's still pretty scary. The scene where the guy being treated with a defibrillator (he's really The Thing! Watch out!) is on the table and his chest opens up into a gaping maw of teeth and bites off the doctor's hands is a classic that will make you appreciate how much CGI sucks. (I watched that part a few times.)

--I re-read The Watchmen last week for probably the first time in over 15 years, in advance of the movie coming out in March. (The trailers make my head tingle.) There is no way the movie can be as good. And I will still go see it the night it opens.


saturday night's alright for steampunk

Come by. Hear some music. Say hello (I'm one of the dorks trying to get you to sing...the one with the drum.)


in which all the women who read this blog say "duh"

So, [m] and I are going to Vietnam in 27 days.

We have a our visas (man I hate mailing my passport around), we have our flights, we have hotels booked for pretty much the entire time (thanks, baby!) and I go get inoculated for all the various things that can happen to you in a tropical climate first thing tomorrow morning. Cool.

It occurred to me a few days ago that Asia generally is a pretty good place to get a suit custom tailored for not a lot of money. Now, I'm not really a "suit guy"...I am in both a profession and city that rarely demands such a high standard of dress, but--it is a good thing to have. I do own one that I bought four years ago, and have gotten more mileage out of it than I ever imagined I would (two job interviews, half a dozen or so weddings, two funerals, a couple of Halloween costumes, and it serves as a "tux" when I sing with the CSD.) So, I figure this is at least worth looking into while I am there. More to the point, we will be spending at least three nights in Hoi An, which is a great place to do this.

So the recommendation is "comb your local fashion mags for a suit that pops out at you. Tailors here can copy every little detail from virtually any photo you bring in, so come prepared — a few pages torn from GQ can go a long way towards getting the style you're looking for." This seems reasonable, especially for someone under the impression that the term "double-breasted" is inherently redundant.

As it happens, I was sitting in a waiting room this morning, a copy of Details at hand. I seized the opportunity as it might spare me the indignity of actually buying such a thing.

Of course, there were plenty of lavish photos of suits that looked really good.

On models.

I never I thought I would be grateful for the fact that there are so many photos of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau on IMDB.


ganymede shrugged

What do you think might happen to California's economy and tax base if a significant portion of its homosexual population migrated en mass to, say, Massachusetts? Particularly members of the creative class that could relatively easily do so, if they so desired? In San Francisco alone, the GLB population is estimated to be 15%. The fraction of the population in Los Angeles is much smaller, but still, we're talking about nearly half a million people.

metal monday

Pushing the boundaries a bit here...but I really like the cover, and the video is shot in one of my favorite places on earth.


(barely) blue in nc

Unofficial totals in NC:

Obama - 2,110,285
McCain - 2,098,595
Barr - 25,293
Write-in - 14,112

That's Obama up by 1,690 votes, an order of magnitude less than Barr or write-in.

In a perfect world, Republicans would take a cue from this...in a more perfect world, so would the Democrats...

UPDATE--the gap has since widened, but it is still (as of 5pm) less than Barr's vote total.


as i push away from the computer...

If what Intrade is currently showing is even remotely close to accurate (and it often is), it is going to be an early night. PA and VA are hovering around 90% for Obama, and if NC tips that way (63% at the moment) that's enough to offset a McCain victory in IN.

OK, I'm cutting the ethernet cable, getting some errands done, going for a workout, and then settling in at the pub...see you on the other side...

the waiting is the hardest part...

The deed is done, uneventfully as it should be.

I will be here tonight (or more likely, ensconced in the pub nearby). Be safe, be warm, and be nice to your neighbors.

All of them.


durham zombie lurch 2008

This is how I spent El Dia de los Muertos. How about you?


happy halloween

This makes me giggle now even more than when I was a kid.

Also, this:


This reason piece is always worth a read (they do it before every presidential election). This year's questions are:

1. Who are you voting for in November?
2. Who did you vote for in 2004 and 2000?
3. Is this the most important election in your lifetime?
4. What will you miss about the Bush administration?
5. Leaving George W. Bush out of consideration, what former U.S. president would you most like to have waterboarded and why?

For an explicitly ideological magazine, the answers are really quite diverse.

(My answers, if you care, are Obama, Kerry and Browne L. Neil Smith*, no, being in my 20's, and Dick Cheney.)

*I was reminded that Browne wasn't actually on the ballot in AZ in 2000, due to internal LP politics in AZ. I had to look up the name of the guy I actually voted for.


how i'm voting (and to some extent why)

We might be the only house on our block without a campaign sign in the yard. We might also be the only house in central Derm with a McCain sign to the right (looking out towards the street) and an Obama sign to the left.

Anyway, I don't typically advertise my political intentions on my yard or bumper because I think it's kind of silly, and more about group identity signaling than actual advocacy. (Has your vote ever been influenced by a bumper sticker or yard sign? If you answered "yes" to this question, please do us all a favor and don't vote.)

I do, however, have a blog for precisely this sort of thing. If someone is running unopposed, assume I'm not voting for them. That said, on with the show...

President--Barack Obama (D)
Believe it or not, this one was not a slam dunk for me, and I was genuinely undecided up until about two weeks ago. Of course, I was genuinely undecided between voting for Obama (whom I supported in the primary) and Bob Barr (who actually reflects my feelings about executive power much better than any other candidate running.) And while Barr is a long way from being completely satisfactory as a Libertarian (can you say 'baggage' boys and girls?) I am impressed that the LP has at least shown some interest in running a national candidate who is not a single-issue fruitcake. (More about the LP and its trajectory in other races below.) But the stakes this time out (and especially in a potential swing state) are just too damn high.

I've written this to death, so I'll just say this much: the consequences of an Obama presidency as predicted by his (credible) critics (socialized medicine, tax increases, a return to protectionist trade policies, and humanitarian intervention in Darfur) frankly scare me a great deal less than the consequences of a McCain presidency as predicted by...well, by John McCain (war, war, and more war.) McCain's occasional nod to fiscal conservatism means absolutely nothing in the face of expanding the scope of US military engagement around the world. I have no doubt that I would be paying for President McCain's foreign policy until I either renounce my US citizenship or die.

US Senate--Kay Hagen (D)
Elizabeth Dole needs to be fired, plain and simple. I am frankly pretty unimpressed with Ms. Hagen, but I am more than happy to give her a chance to prove me wrong, given the alternative. And again, this is a close race, so not one I am inclined vote with the LP on.

US House, NC District 4--William (BJ) Lawson (R)
I've pretty much covered this already. Yeah, he's pro-life, but the simple fact of the matter is that a House member has virtually no impact on this issue. And besides, voting for a Republican in this district is nearly as symbolic as voting for the LP.

Governor of NC--Michael Munger (L)
The LP has made some serious headway this year in getting on the ballot in North Carolina, which has some of the most restrictive ballot access laws in the country. This alone is reason to support the LP whenever possible, but I am also really impressed with Mr. Munger's platform which is about as reasonable, incremental, and realistic a platform as I've ever seen a Libertarian produce. It also directly addresses issues particularly important to the state of North Carolina (forced annexation and corporate welfare.)

LT Governor of NC--Phillip Rhodes (L)
File this under "supporting the LP in NC whenever possible".

Attorney General of NC--not voting
Both the incumbent and the challenger support an aggressive and expansive role for law enforcement.

Auditor, Commissioner of Agriculture, and other partisan statewide races--??
If anyone cares to convince me of a reason to prefer a candidate (other than party affiliation) please feel free to do so in the comments section.

NC State Senate, District 20--David Rollins (L)
I'm a big fan of David's distinctly progressive flavor of libertarianism, and would love to see an LP in this image become the chief opposition party in one-party cities like Durham. He's also my neighbor and regularly reads this blog, which doesn't hurt if you are trying to court my vote...

NC Superior Court--Suzanne Reynolds
NC Court of Appeals--Sam Ervin, James Wynn, Cheri Beasley, Linda Stephens, John Arrowood
I'm basing all of these on the recommendations of a friend who is a public defender, and therefore infinitely more informed than I will ever be.

Prepared Food Tax--Against
I generally vote against every tax and bond issue I can. That said, taxes on food (prepared or otherwise--and for the record, I would completely favor repeal of the 2% grocery tax) are especially regressive. Moreover, adding a restaurant tax in a city that is fighting to revitalize its downtown--particularly when food prices are rising and the economy generally is circling the drain--is a special kind of idiotic. And the notion that approving this thing will forestall property tax increases is frankly laughable. Vote this through and we will get a restaurant tax AND higher property taxes when all the projects proposed on this bond referendum go over budget.


metal monday (muppet edition)

This is the kind of thing that makes me glad Al Gore invented the internet. Personally, I find this way more amusing than lolcats...

adventures in home ownership--plumbing edition

You buy a charming, mid-20th century house in a well-established neighborhood. You enjoy the solid construction, the wood floors, the basement, and the tree-lined street on which it is situated.

What no one mentions to you is that those lovely trees have roots that will strangle your mainline approximately every 18 months, usually resulting in a spectacular fountain of recently discarded water in your basement. If you are lucky, this occurs when you are doing laundry. If you are really lucky, it occurs while you are having a party. In your basement.


The first time this happened (about 2 months after moving in), we, being the noob homeowners that we were, called in the cavalry, a company whose name rhymes with "moto-scooter". This was expensive, and created a gigantic mess in our basement, because at the time we didn't know we had a cleanout buried in the flower bed in the front yard.

I since found the cleanout while doing some gardening earlier this year, so when the tree struck again this weekend, I was emboldened to try taking care of this myself. Not to denigrate the services of the gentleman from the previously mentioned company, but it seemed to me that we were mostly paying for the tool he had, rather than any particular expertise.

I was delighted to learn that you can rent this baby from Home Depot for $42 for four hours. ($60 for 24, if you feel like helping out your neighbors when you're done. You won't.)

And you know what? It works. Really, really well.

That said, I understand why the pros charge so much. If that was my full-time job, you'd have to give me a hell of a lot of money...


mccain to jesus: please save me from my followers!


McCain's worst liability seems to be the people actively campaigning for him.


indy on lawson

The Independent has a great article on the only Republican for whom I intend to vote in a couple of weeks.

While I entertain no delusions that Mr. Lawson has much of a chance, and absolutely agree that the GOP needs to lose a lot this year, Lawson is exactly the kind of Republican I hope rises from the ashes of the militarist/fundamentalist coalition that currently runs the party.

Besides, no one's congressional seat should be as safe as Mr. Price's seems to be...


"i am tired of these mother f*&#ing snakes..."

Well this is probably the strangest news item I've heard in a while:

A Winnipeg man is receiving medical treatment after being bitten by an African snake on Sunday.

A friend drove the 31-year-old St. Vital resident to hospital after he was bitten in the face by a gaboon viper around 6 p.m. Sunday, police said.

The man was knowledgeable about the snake, police said. He told hospital officials what had happened, and how much time they had to get antivenin to him...

The victim lost consciousness before speaking to police, Const. Jacqueline Chaput said Monday, but investigators did have a chance to speak to his friend.

Police are still looking for the snake, but Chaput says the public shouldn't be worried...

I think this would make a killer opening scene for a novel. Guy shows up in the ER of a cold northern city, saying he's been bitten in the face by a venomous African snake, and loses consciousness. Hilarity ensues.


if anyone wants my dr. pepper...

Chinese Democracy drops next month, a few days after my 31st birthday.

When Guns 'n Roses started working on this album, I wasn't old enough to drink (legally), The Simpsons was still funny, and no one expected us to elect a black president anytime soon.


pics from honk!

Click here for lots more.

We're the ones in mostly black and pink.


about that economic freedom...

"The financial crisis is not the crisis of capitalism. It is the crisis of a system that has distanced itself from the most fundamental values of capitalism, which betrayed the spirit of capitalism."

--The President, on the current financial whatsit.

Sadly, not our President.

Paris is lovely this time of year...


I'm off to live the life of an itinerant street musician for a few days at HONK! If you're in the Boston area, come on out to Davis Square in Somerville Saturday...it'll be a, er, blast...


pure theory (or, a libertarian heresy)

It may be a mistake to conflate "smaller government" with "less intrusive government". More to the point, the number of dollars in the budget or the number of people employed might very well be poor metrics of how much government actually intrudes in the lives of its citizens. This may be because it's difficult to get one's head around how to quantify the absence of something. If one prefers to frame public policy thinking in terms of personal liberty, perhaps we should develop something that attempts to quantify the negative consequences of an overreaching state on the lives of individuals...some sort of "net tyranny".

Taking this a step further in the counterintuitive direction, a "larger" government-- particularly one in the form of a sprawling bureaucracy--may actually result in less net tyranny experienced by the average citizen, because a sprawling bureaucracy is (potentially) more amenable to massive decentralization of power. The extreme counterexample should be obvious: the most tyrannical form of government imaginable would be absolute power vested in a single person.

The real-world tradeoff is not trivial; one positive feature of a tyrannical dictatorship is that a dictator is (comparatively) easy for the disgruntled masses to dispatch; it's been done repeatedly throughout history from Caesar to Ceauşescu.

Bureaucracies, on the other hand, have a rather stubborn tendency towards immortality...



the veepstakes

"...the most useless office ever devised by the mind of man..."

--attributed to John Adams, first Vice-President

I have serious issues with both VP candidates. None of them are enough to swing my presidential vote one way or another (or more precisely, they kind of cancel each other out). Ms. Palin's competence to assume the presidency on a moment's notice is absolutely a concern. And Mr. Biden has one of the worst voting records on issues that the Democrats are typically the better party on (civil liberties, foreign policy). More to the point, I think the level of attention the vice-presidential race is getting is completely out of proportion with its actual importance.


There is one issue that I would really like to hear Biden and Palin address. The most important question that can be asked tonight of both candidates comes from Gene Healy:

The claim by Dick Cheney that he was exempt from certain disclosure requirements because the vice president was a “legislative officer” has been greeted with outrage. But the main power the Constitution grants the vice president is a legislative one — breaking a tie vote in the Senate.

So, Governor Palin, Senator Biden, doesn’t Mr. Cheney have a point?

But, then, if the vice president is a legislative officer, how can he wield the vast executive powers that Mr. Cheney has exercised, including orchestrating and supervising a warrantless wiretapping program?

Can the vice president shift between branches at his convenience? If not, what, in your view, is the constitutional status of the vice presidency?

I fully expect that this issue will remain completely unaddressed this evening.

UPDATE I am pleasantly surprised to have been wrong about this. And doubly so that Biden more or less nailed it (from about 1:10 on in the video below.)


philadelphia: the paris of the mid-atlantic

Don't laugh, I'm being serious here. And don't think I'm trying to backhand Paris either; [m] and I honeymooned in Paris, and the experience left me an unabashed Francophile.

Anyway, we decided to take a weekend trip to Philadelphia to celebrate 3 successful years of being married to each other. Our reasons for choosing Philadelphia were:

1) It is close enough to fly (relatively) inexpensively and quickly
2) We like big cities where you can do lots of stuff without a car
3) Neither of us had spent any time there

We stayed in Center City, a few blocks from City Hall. We ate at the recently-opened Distrito, a Mexico City-style "tapas" place that is, in a word, unfuckingbelievablygood, at the excellent-but-perhaps-a-bit-overblown-due-to-celebrity Morimoto, and at a charming modern Mexican place called Lolita where, thanks to Pennsylvania's famously arcane liquor licensing, you can't order a beer but you can bring your own bottle of tequila and they will provide you with pitchers of fine concoctions with which to mix it. Also, we ate cheesesteaks for breakfast Saturday morning and found some very good dim sum on Sunday in Chinatown.

So how is Philadelphia like Paris?

1-As already alluded, there is excellent food to be had all over town, from street vendors all the way up through haute cuisine and everything in between.

2-Great beauty is interwoven with centuries of urban grit, pretty much everywhere. (OK, most of the scenery on the train ride out to the airport is just grit. But it's that way in Paris, too.) Art and artists everywhere you look.

3-Attitude; both Philadelphians and Parisians are (unfairly, I think) known for being unfriendly, even rude, especially to outsiders. I can honestly say that this was not my experience in either place, and in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the people we met in both places.

4-The Philadelphia Museum of Art is so ridiculously disorganized it is hard to believe that it isn't run by the French.

5-The airport and trains are very dated, but they get you where you need to go.

6-I find both cities chaotic in a way that I find genuinely endearing. This is difficult to explain, because it reflects my own (perhaps odd) sensibilities about such things, but I enjoy the general upheaval and random encounters you can experience in places like Paris and Philly (and Portland and Durham and [parts of] Tucson) that are the very things places like Thousand Oaks, Cary, and Peachtree City are specifically designed to prevent.

Bottom line: I think Philly is a great, and massively underrated town. If I had to pick a place to live in the Megalopolis, it'd be my first choice.


local links updated

Check 'em out. And if I've missed you, please let me know.

i'm going to solve the economic crisis

Somebody tell me what's wrong with my reasoning here (besides the fact that it implicitly accepts the premise that the government has got to Do Something):

1) Financial institutions are failing in large part due to mortgage-backed securities, which are hemorrhaging value because (duh) a bunch of people got mortgages they couldn't afford.

2) People being displaced from their homes (setting aside the question of whether they "deserve" to be or not) is a Bad Thing. Moving is a drain on productivity, money spent on moving adds very little to the economy (sorry, U-Haul), and vacant houses cause surrounding property values to slip, i.e., pretty much everybody loses out here.

3) Therefore, isn't the simplest way through this to ensure that a) mortgages get paid, and b) people don't have to move?

So I propose the following:

If a mortgage goes into default, the feds seize the house and begin to pay the mortgage. They offer to rent the house to the previous owners at a rate that defrays as much of the mortgage payment as possible, while remaining affordable to the tenant. There are steep lease terms--maybe 5 years, with a serious penalty for bailing, and maybe the rent is withheld from paychecks like income taxes--but the rent rate is locked in, just like a (sensible) mortgage would be. Maybe after 5 years of good faith rent payments, offer incentives to the banks to renegotiate financing and transfer the mortgages back to the previous homeowners?

This way, mortgages (and therefore their derivatives) retain most of their value, no one has to move, and a good chunk of the cost is borne by overextended borrowers while falling short of punitive.

Surely we could pull this off for less than $700 billion net, right?

Addendum--When you have a good idea, always assume someone else has had it already.


targeted advertising

Exiting Whole Foods, I saw an advertisement for consumer debt counseling on the blackboard by the door. I can't help but wonder if the first bit of advice might be "for starters, you probably shouldn't be buying your food at Whole Foods..."


one reason i enjoy obscurity

When you write a well-read blog, you can't even post about your new puppy without some killjoy prick showing up to make catty comments.


third friday

Everything today is just what I have to get through before I can get out and enjoy Third Friday. If you live in Derm and are sitting at home tonight you are lame, LAME, LAME! The weather is going to be perfect, and there's more to do and see than can be done or seen.

I'll be out and about with the Rovers from about 7pm on (starting at the Scrap Exchange, then moving on to wherever). Come up and say hi if you see us, and give us money. I'm the one with the, um, big horn...

"...and then of course, releasing the vultures"

My good friend Chris recaps the silly season as well as much better than any full-time pundit.


go read

this. Right now.

calling a spade a spade

Now I admit that my survey of the news outlets is a long way from comprehensive, but so far the only outlet that I have heard refer to the Fed's bailout of AIG as an "effective nationalization" of the insurance giant is the BBC. Presumably, the Brits know nationalization when they see it.

You know, if we just had a Republican administration, we wouldn't be paying for this utterly unconstitutional socialistic nonsense.

Oh, right...


mccain and obama on basic research

My intention was to post Sens. McCain's and Obama's answers to the following question in their entireties, and without comment except perhaps to emphasize excerpts of what each candidate actually said.

Sadly, I find this is not possible, because one candidate's response is so superficial and lacking in substance that I am genuinely at a loss of what to highlight. Really. Nevertheless, the following is worth reading if you are a scientist or someone affected by science (i.e., if you are anyone) and if your vote is still up for grabs.

Question: For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals. Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?


With spending constraints, it will be more important than ever to ensure we are maximizing our investments in basic research and minimizing the bureaucratic requirements that eat away at the money designed for funding scientists and science. Basic research serves as the foundation for many new discoveries and represents a critical investment for the future of the country and the innovations that drive our economy and protect our people. I have supported significant increases in basic research at the National Science Foundation. I also called for a plan developed by our top scientists on how the funding should be utilized. We must ensure that our research is addressing our national needs and taking advantage of new areas of opportunities and that the results of this research can enter the marketplace. We must also ensure that basic research money is allocated to the best science based on quality and peer review, not politics and earmarks.

I am committed to reinvigorating America’s commitment to basic research, and will ensure my administration funds research activities accordingly. I have supported increased funding at DOE, NSF, and NIH for years and will continue to do so. I will continue my commitment to ensure that the funding is properly managed and that the nation's research needs are adequately addressed.


Federally supported basic research, aimed at understanding many features of nature— from the size of the universe to subatomic particles, from the chemical reactions that support a living cell to interactions that sustain ecosystems—has been an essential feature of American life for over fifty years. While the outcomes of specific projects are never predictable, basic research has been a reliable source of new knowledge that has fueled important developments in fields ranging from telecommunications to medicine, yielding remarkable rates of economic return and ensuring American leadership in industry, military power, and higher education. I believe that continued investment in fundamental research is essential for ensuring healthier lives, better sources of energy, superior military capacity, and high-wage jobs for our nation’s future.

Yet, today, we are clearly under-investing in research across the spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. Federal support for the physical sciences and engineering has been declining as a fraction of GDP for decades, and, after a period of growth of the life sciences, the NIH budget has been steadily losing buying power for the past six years. As a result, our science agencies are often able to support no more than one in ten proposals that they receive, arresting the careers of our young scientists and blocking our ability to pursue many remarkable recent advances. Furthermore, in this environment, scientists are less likely to pursue the risky research that may lead to the most important breakthroughs. Finally, we are reducing support for science at a time when many other nations are increasing it, a situation that already threatens our leadership in many critical areas of science.

This situation is unacceptable. As president, I will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade.

Sustained and predictable increases in research funding will allow the United States to accomplish a great deal. First, we can expand the frontiers of human knowledge. Second, we can provide greater support for high-risk, high-return research and for young scientists at the beginning of their careers. Third, we can harness science and technology to address the “grand challenges” of the 21st century: energy, health, food and water, national security, information technology, and manufacturing capacity.

Does this mean I am voting my own self-interest? You're goddamn right I am. And you should, too.

The candidates' responses to this and other science policy questions can be seen at sciencedebate2008.com.


polish film posters

I don't know if there is a legal/copyright history behind this, or just different cultural/aesthetic sensibilities at work, but communist-era Polish posters for American films are absolutely amazing.


the best two sentences written on the 9/11 anniversary

Jim Henley:

"If we’re going to have ceremonies every year, hold the big ones in Shanksville, and remind ourselves that it was only ordinary people who behaved with distinction that day. Politicians who wish to appear at the ceremony will be allowed to read from a prepared script reading, in its entirety, 'Sorry.'"

durham residents--killer yard sale tomorrow!

Details here. This is to raise money for the Scene of the Crime Rovers' trip to HONK!

There will be a ton of good-quality, gently used clothes, shoes, and accessories, as well as household items, books, some small furniture, and original works of art! There are about 15 households contributing, and we're only putting out good stuff. So come on by!


mccain--dc native?

I noticed something odd in a report on NPR this morning. John McCain was giving a speech, and I'm pretty sure I heard him pronounce "Washington" as "Wershington", which, as I understand it, is exactly the way (Caucasian) people born and raised in DC say it (and almost no one else).

I'm vaguely sympathetic here--I pick up speech patterns and pieces of accents without even trying, and have occasionally been mistook for Canadian after living with one for six years, but--if you're trying to project the image of an "outsider", maybe you should try a little harder to avoid such an easily identifiable idiosyncrasy of the natives...

ADDENDUM--OK, to be fair, per his bio, he did go to high school in Alexandria.


Dr. Henry (Hank) Yamamura

The field of pharmacology and The University of Arizona lost a giant this week. Dr. Hank Yamamura passed away after having fought cancer for quite some time.

Many (if not most) pharmacologists know Dr. Yamamura by his work, which is extensive, to put it mildly. I am fortunate to count myself among the (many, many) scientists who had Hank as a mentor; in 2000 he agreed to be on my dissertation committee, feigning reluctance and saying that this was probably going to be the last time he agreed to such a thing. (He subsequently sat on half a dozen other committees that I know of, and got at least two new grants funded.) He never failed to encourage, to praise, and to challenge.

He had a disarming sense of humor and a razor-sharp mind. During my oral qualifying exam, he asked me a question. I don't remember what it was; what I do remember is that he smiled and urged me onward as I unraveled an epic line of what I soon realized was complete and utter bullshit. He was watching my face carefully the whole time, waiting for the moment--after decades of doing this, he knew it was coming--when I would recognize the hole I had dug for myself for what it was. When it happened, he simply winked and nodded approvingly as I humbly asked if I could start over.

Hank also gave me my first opportunity to teach a real class, shortly after I had completed my PhD, which shows that even the great ones have momentary lapses of judgment.

He will be missed.

weekend highlights

--The kitchen floor is basically done (I have a couple of metal strips to cut and nail down across the thresholds of the back and basement doors) and it looks pretty sweet.

--Hannah was basically a non-event for us, although the creek about 100 yards from our backyard did jump the bank. I am slightly less pissed about how much we pay in flood insurance now.

--Braved the rain with a few intrepid fellow Rovers, and busked at the Farmers' Market late Saturday morning. The crowd was thin but generous, and we raised some decent cash for HONK!

--[m] and I bought tickets to go to Vietnam in December


metal monday (friday edition)

For some reason, I've got this song stuck in my head today...


Megan McArdle's "scattered" thoughts on Ms. Palin are, oddly enough, among the most coherent and reasonable I've read. She should write stream-of-consciousness bullet points more often.

I realize you have no way of verifying this, but...if I had been a paid political adviser to McCain, this is exactly who I would have told him to pick as a running mate. (If I had been working for Obama, I would have strongly suggested Ms. Napolitano of Arizona), for many parallel reasons, and because it would have actually put AZ in play for the Dems, which would be quite the coup.)

This is to say I think that McCain is getting (politically) smart advice, or he's smarter than he looks. And Obama is suffering from hubris and/or listening to the wrong people. McCain is looking better and better by sticking to what made him popular in the first place, while Obama is faltering because he's been slowly toning himself down since he clinched the nomination. I think this is a gigantic mistake on Obama's part, and one that it is probably too late to correct.

It's a good show, and I'm glad that I feel relatively ambivalent about the outcome at this point. This must be agonizing for those that feel personally invested in one candidate or the other.

(See you tomorrow, Barry!)


I listened to exactly 6 minutes of speech tonight, the time it took to drive from my house to the pub. It was Giuliani. To summarize the portion I heard:

"We're told every 4 years that this is the most important election in our lifetime. But this one really is!"


"America! Fuck yeah!"

Ugh. Wake me up in December.

palinwatch: day 6

It occurred to me last night that the two arguments I've heard in support of Ms. Palin's qualifications to serve as Commander-in-Chief are that she has a son in the Army and that she is the CIC of the Alaska National Guard. As it happens, I have a PhD in neuroscience and my mom helps run a free clinic out of her church. So I expect the offer for her to become Dean of Medicine at Johns Hopkins to be forthcoming any day now. (Good luck, Mom, and put in a good word for me when you get there, OK?)


I do hope that she does not get Eagletoned, mostly because I have a beer riding on it now.


tough, but fair

Bob Barr, on the issues, per The Onion:

(1995–2007) Trying to control the faith, sexuality, reproduction, drug use, and national allegiance of every single American.

(2007–) Aw, Fuck it.

Which oddly enough, still places him light years ahead of the contenders...


creative destruction

The bane of our house's decor--the Dreaded Black Floor in the kitchen--is in the process of being replaced. I'm giddy. Though that may just be the ammonia-based floor cleaner talking.


mccain picks palin for vilf

I was recently making fun of a Hillary Clinton supporter on NPR who expressed that she felt (I'm paraphrasing here, but only slightly) that the Obama campaign had been personally disrespectful to her. Not to Ms. Clinton, mind you, but to her. To which [m] replied (again, paraphrased) that I really had no idea how a woman's mind works.

Fair enough.

So...to the extent that the passion behind Ms. Clinton's candidacy was motivated by the desire to see women break through to the highest levels of power (and let's be honest here...it was at least *partly* about that for a lot of women), does this mean that McCain putting Sarah Palin on his ticket is going to draw female voters to his side?

Don't get me wrong here--I think Palin is a pretty good choice (from McCain's POV) apart from her mere lack of a Y chromosome; she's a governor (and a popular one at that), pro-life, and has a reputation of fighting political corruption in a state whose politics are notoriously corrupt. She is also, like McCain, a westerner, which goes a long way towards moving the image of the national GOP away from dominance by southern/Texan evangelicals.

Actually, I think this has a very good chance of working out in McCain's favor. Sure, female Democrats are going to (perhaps rightly) call this pandering, but this doesn't really matter, because they weren't going to vote for him anyway. But the unaffiliated women drawn into the Hillary camp by the prospect of installing a woman in the White House are almost certainly up for grabs, and national elections are all about capturing the middle. The real question is how big a group this really is.

All of that said, in light of this choice, I don't know how anyone can take the 72-year old (and he looks older in person) McCain seriously when he criticizes Obama's lack of experience, considering he would put a first-term governor with *no* foreign policy experience within the proverbial heartbeat of the presidency.

ADDENDUM--By "pandering", I of course mean "pandering to the Battlestar Galactica fanbase":


(in which i ask for your money)

My life is a circle.

Eons ago, a young, wide-eyed would-be trumpet (later euphonium) player went door to door bugging his neighbors to buy overpriced candy, cheese, sausage, and god only knows what else. He sent the order form to work with his dad. He whipped it out at church. He hit up every sucker he could for what amounted to donations for the band.

And here he is again, only this time I am ditching the candy and using the intertubes.

I play in a group called the Scene of the Crime Rovers. We are a roving band composed of musicians of all skill levels and all ages, open to anyone and everyone that wants to join us. We play at no charge* at community events (sometimes whether they want us to or not). We are Triangle famous (infamous?) but now, we are looking to branch out.

We've been invited to play at HONK Fest in Somerville, MA this October. What is HONK? Basically, it's a big festival of bands just like us. And getting there is going to be expensive.

Look, lots of us vaguely resemble grownups with real jobs and stuff when we aren't wandering the streets of Durham improvising, and we can get ourselves to Boston and back, but quite a few of our membership are full-time students or do noble (if not lucrative) things like work for non-profits. I'm here on their behalf.

Also, if you live in or around Durham, in exchange for a donation, I am prepared to promise that we WON'T show up in your front yard at 3AM one night.

OK, I'm kidding about that last part (maybe). But seriously, if you'd like to put a few bucks towards supporting fun-loving, open-source and open-access arts in the community, please visit this page and hit the "Donate" button.

I can't give you all the disclaimers about tax-deductible non-profit blah blah blah (though we are working on that) but I promise that this Paypal account is legit (I've donated to it myself already) and the guy running it is really, really honest. 100% of the proceeds (less Paypal's cut) will go to defer travel costs for our members that need the most help.


*In the interest of full disclosure we have done the (very) occasional paying gig; all of that money goes back into the band and really, it isn't very much. Nobody's quitting their day job for 1/20 cut of $100.


(you're just like) crosstown traffic

In a post about radical traffic calming, Megan McArdle makes some great points about the relative value of safety versus the feeling thereof:

The problem is that in this case, there's a direct tradeoff between actual safety and feeling safe. The safer people feel on the road, the more likely they are to get into accidents--which is why lots of innovations, like seatbelts, have underdelivered in mortality improvements.

She later cites (a bit gratuitously) the stereotypical four-wheel drive vehicle from warmer climes emboldened by all that traction into driving poorly in winter conditions. Even though I happen to be the owner of a jeep with "southern plates" I am not terribly offended; in Arizona I saw no shortage of people under monsoon conditions that seemed to think that four-wheel drive enabled their vehicle to operate as a submarine. There is almost certainly something to this, and the problem, as always, is with the driver...

Anyway, the thread (predictably) generated into a conversation I have heard at least a thousand times, which begins with the thesis "people in [location X] are BY FAR the WORST drivers..." which is followed by an endless volley of counterexamples and/or affirmations.

This is silly. But it is, I think, instructive.

There are essentially two rules for which locale a person is likely to claim contains the world's worst drivers:

1) It is a place they have visited, not lived, or
2) If it is a place where they do live or have lived, it is almost certainly NOT the place where they learned to drive or are otherwise the most comfortable driving.

Driving in an unfamiliar place is stressful. Driving in an unfamiliar, large city in traffic is especially stressful. And stress colors our perceptions. You are paying attention to everything, or at least more than you would in familiar surroundings. As a result, you notice every sudden lane change, every tailgater, everyone lagging in the fast lane. And if someone cuts you off while you are in the (rather stressful) process of finding your next turn, you are very likely to take it personally, and generalize their behavior to that of the city's traffic in general.

By contrast, I had to slam on the breaks on the freeway home today because of a VERY sudden bunching of traffic. My slowing was sufficiently abrupt that I distinctly remember looking in my rear view and trying to calculate whether the car behind me was going to be able to stop in time, and whether I should tap my accelerator to at least soften the blow (he was, and I didn't). My heart rate didn't budge. This was just a brief moment in an otherwise utterly mundane and routine commute.

Having driven in more states than I haven't, in most major metro areas of the country at one time or another, I can honestly say that drivers everywhere suck about the same. Even in northern Mexico, it isn't a whole lot different.

The one place I have driven where I honestly noticed a difference was Germany. The lane discipline on the Autobahn is impeccable.


life is good when...

...you realize that the best parts of your day are moments that bookend it, because of who you share them with. Much better than all the nonsense in the middle.

Happy birthday, sweetie.


metal monday returns

Arch Enemy, playing Nemesis. Bonus points for anyone who can think of another band with a song title that is a synonym for the band's name.

(Yes, that is a woman singi...er, uh, vocalizing.)


this week in media consumption

--Watched Brick on Netflix. It was one of those that got put in the queue probably ages ago (we're not even sure by whom) and it finally came up. A truly excellent outing by a rookie director (Rian Johnson) and a very young cast (with special appearance by the Shaftastic Richard Roundtree), Brick is a classic film noir, but set in a modern-day California high school. It could have been a lot of things: goofy, pretentious, too clever for its own good. But it isn't. And it left me looking forward to Johnson's next movie, The Brothers Bloom, out this fall.

--Go see Tropic Thunder. Not only to support satire, but also because it's really, really funny. I have to say that I really respect Ben Stiller; I don't always like his movies--point of fact, I detest a few of them--but the guy is fearless when it comes to comedy. He's not afraid of sucking. Which of course means that sometimes, he sucks. But when he pulls it off, it's really good. This is probably the funniest thing he's ever done. Downey is excellent, as always. Jack Black is nearly dead weight in this one, but he is mercifully not on screen much. But--and I hate myself for having to say this--Tom Cruise steals the show. Really.

--Last weekend we caught Pineapple Express, which I also enjoyed immensely. More good stuff from the alumni of Freaks and Geeks; also, between this and TT, I think I'm going to declare this the "Summer of Danny McBride".


notes from the underground

Been a little preoccupied with work lately. Yesterday I started filling in a grant application form and I think I had something resembling a panic attack.

Maybe I'm overstating it...this one wasn't too terribly physiological. I've had that response once before, the night I asked [m] to marry me. We were sitting at dinner, and I had The Ring in a box in the breast pocket of my sports coat (hell yes I was wearing a sports coat) and I reached for it. When my hand closed around it I was overcome with a feeling not unlike what I imagine it would be like to be leaning out over the edge of a platform for a bungee jump and at the exact moment you achieve sufficient angular momentum that stepping back is now physically impossible it occurs to you that you don't know whether the other end of the cord is attached to anything. That is to say, the contents of my stomach plunged into my groin, the contents of my groin slammed against my diaphragm, all of the blood in my head departed for parts unknown, and my lungs ceased to function. At this point [m] began to look rather concerned and asked me if I was about to throw up. I hesitated to answer her for fear that opening my mouth might trigger a non-verbal response in the affirmative.

Needless to say, this was not the moment at which I popped the question. That occurred after dessert, coffee, and some deep breathing.

All of this is to say that starting to fill in the grant application wasn't quite that bad...it was merely an overwhelming sense of dread, rather than a physiological manifestation of immediately anticipated death. But still, pretty scary.

On a completely unrelated note, I calculated on my drive to work this morning that if we could own a modest home outright in a place where we didn't need a car and had no residual debt that we could live quite comfortably (i.e., at more or less our current standard of living) on approximately $30,000 a year. Which between the two of us could probably be managed with a couple of part time jobs that have little or nothing to do with science.


the pen is mightier

I'd like to nominate Radley Balko for, if not the Nobel Peace Prize, then something similarly impressive. He's basically a one-man scourge of railroad justice.


(in which i quote myself)

"Clearly, the only rational response to this is to start mailing weed to every politician in America."

--me, in regards to this.


nothing to see here...

So just as the FBI is about to charge the (latest) alleged mastermind behind the post-9/11 anthrax mailings, he offs himself. Just some things to think about:

1) Speaking as a scientist with access to stuff a lot less carefully monitored than anthrax, I'm pretty sure I could get my hands on a much more pleasant way to kill myself than Tylenol with codiene, were that my inclination, and since I wouldn't plan on sticking around for the consequences, probably wouldn't hesitate to do it, either.

2) The FBI has a pretty spotty record of settling on the wrong suspect in high-profile cases, including this one.

3) The narrative of a troubled scientist with access to the stuff being responsible for the mailings, and electing to kill himself at the news of impending prosecution, naturally, makes complete sense, and may very well reflect reality. The only reason I (and I suspect many others) feel skeptical about all of this is because our government has lied to us repeatedly about any and all things relating to terrorism for the better part of the last decade.

I'm just sayin'.



I really like the backlit capoeira.



Sometimes, an idea occurs to me, and then I find that I can't account for why I didn't think of it sooner.

And so it is that I sit here nearly literally kicking myself for the fact that tonight is the first time I've ever made ceviche myself. It's stupidly easy. If you can operate a knife and boil water, you can make ceviche. And the only reason I thought to do it is that I realized I had about a dozen limes in the fridge that were on their last legs and I didn't know how to use them up, except by making mojitos, and I don't do cocktails when I'm home alone.

What I did tonight was more or less Mexican in style (I think), and I will consume it on a tostada with some homemade guacamole.

First, I juiced all my limes (ended up with just shy of a cup of juice).

Then, I poached a pound of peeled shrimp in 50/50 beer/water with a couple of tablespoons* of the lime juice and some salt...brought to a boil, tossed in the shrimp, and removed from the heat just as the boil resumed. Drained, and then let shrimp steam in the pot about 10 minutes, then removed to a bowl and put in the freezer for quick chilling (about another 10 minutes).

Meanwhile, I chopped up most of a red onion, a cucumber, a smallish jicama, most of a bunch of cilantro, four radishes, two jalapenos**, and a tin of anchovies. Mixed all that together with the lime juice, a few shakes of Valentina, a few shakes of olive oil (plus the oil from the anchovies), kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste (which means lots of both). Made sure the shrimp were cool, and added them in, mixing thoroughly and them pressing the shrimp down so they were all submerged in the juices. I'm trying to let it sit for an hour before I really dig in, although I've been tasting it all along and it's already pretty good.

*As always, all measurements are very, very approximate. I eyeball almost everything.

**Salmonella can kiss my ass.



I am home this morning watching our vacation fund disappear into a new air conditioning unit. When we bought the place, I figured we'd get a couple more years out of it. As it turns out, we got 22 months. Damn, I hate being right some times.

I hope you'll pardon my French here, but this whole home ownership thing sucks big, sweaty, hairy donkey balls.


gratuitous metal post

I spent all day being verbal. I'm sick of it.

Besides, we haven't done this lately.

Crank it up. You know you want to.

Maybe I'll make this a regular thing. It generally suits my mood about this time of the week.


climate change

This is half-formed, at best, but I want to hit "publish" before I get pulled away to other things.

Many of my (primarily left-leaning) friends like to challenge me to articulate a coherent libertarian view on the environment, and specifically, on climate change. I'm an inadequate spokesperson for the "libertarian view" of anything; for me "libertarian" is an adjective that describes how I generally tend to think, rather than a noun that says what I am.

But I digress. I ought to be able to articulate some ideas about the role of the government in dealing with climate change that are, if not strictly "libertarian", at least my own. So here goes that.

One point where I tend to wander off the libertarian reservation is that I'm willing to credit the government with being effective and occasionally justified at engaging in some Big Projects. Historically, it is actually quite good at addressing difficult, but nonetheless well-defined problems with fairly obvious (if expensive) solutions. Need a large water supply and lots of electric power generating capacity for the exploding population of Southern California? Build Hoover Dam. Need to produce an atomic bomb before the Nazis do? Fund the Manhattan Project. These are clear problems with clearly defined endpoints that tend to require near-limitless funding and manpower in the solving. But the point is that they can be solved.

The prototypical boondoggle occurs when the government tries to marshal these kinds of resources to address a complex, ill-defined problem with lots of variables and no obvious solution. The war on drugs is a pretty clear-cut case of this. I think the "war on terror" is another. In both cases you spend lots and lots (and lots) of money with a professed goal that is essentially impossible to define (how will we know when either "war" is "won"?) In the place of tangible solutions, you create institutions that develop their own inertia, and the inevitable self-interest in their own perpetuation. If we went 100 years without a single hijacking incident on an American airliner, does anyone seriously expect that the TSA will declare victory and disband?

This is what troubles me about the groundswell of support to "do something" about global climate change; I'm fairly convinced that this is a problem that falls in the latter category.


the dark knight

...is good. Really, really good.

If they give posthumous Oscars, Heath Ledger should certainly be considered. If you have a copy of The Killing Joke, read it before you go see the movie, and I think you'll see what I mean. That's the Joker Ledger plays:, nihilistic, terrifying, and brilliant. It's a damn shame we won't see that again.

But seriously...get a sitter for the young ones.


"god exists, and he's american"

I'm as psyched to see The Dark Knight as anyone, but this is the comic book movie I've been waiting for for about 20 years.


yet another idea of mine gets published before I write it

Actually, I generally view that sort thing as meaning I tend to have good ideas at least. Anyway, I won't lose sleep over this one, since it isn't in my discipline at all, but a new study proposes that the best defense against terrorism is, essentially, no defense at all:

The premises:

1. The number of potential terrorist targets is essentially infinite.

2. The probability that any individual target will be attacked is essentially zero.

3. If one potential target happens to enjoy a degree of protection, the agile terrorist usually can readily move on to another one.

4. Most targets are "vulnerable" in that it is not very difficult to damage them, but invulnerable in that they can be rebuilt in fairly short order and at tolerable expense.

5. It is essentially impossible to make a very wide variety of potential terrorist targets invulnerable except by completely closing them down.

The policy implications:

1. Any protective policy should be compared to a "null case": do nothing, and use the money saved to rebuild and to compensate any victims.
[emphasis added]

2. Abandon any effort to imagine a terrorist target list.

3. Consider negative effects of protection measures: not only direct cost, but inconvenience, enhancement of fear, negative economic impacts, reduction of liberties.

4. Consider the opportunity costs, the tradeoffs, of protection measures.

Absurdly attentive readers will remember that I was all over this idea ages ago.

(via Megan McArdle)



My next-door neighbor's back windshield was completely smashed through last night. Apparently, his wasn't the only one:

Durham police officers are investigating at least 30 reports of vandalized vehicles, which they believe happened overnight.

Vandalism was reported in the area of Monmouth Avenue, North Street and Trinity Avenue.

Car windows were shot out with BB guns and tires were slashed, according to investigators.

Police do not have any suspects.

For the record, there's no freakin' way my neighbor's car was done with a BB gun. This took repeated blows with a bat, crowbar, or similarly heavy object. Another neighbor, a few blocks up, reports the same thing on the neighborhood listserve (we are less than a mile from the neighborhood mentioned in the WRAL story.)

Which, in a way, makes the widespread and apparently random nature of the vandalism oddly comforting--this morning he and I were trying to figure out who he might have pissed off so badly. That the answer seems to be "no one in particular" is actually kind of a relief.

Things are pretty fucked up when you actually hope you're merely the victim of random criminal activity.


i'd like retroactive immunity for my primary vote, please

I really hoped Mr. Obama would at least get to the convention before he did something to talk me out of voting for him in November.

Oh well...that was fun while it lasted.

I'm sufficiently pissed off about this that today I think I would retroactively vote for Ms. Clinton, given the option (she voted "no" on the FISA bill)...though I also can't help but wonder how each of them would have voted were she the one making a mad dash to the middle in advance of the general election.

And herein lies the real problem. The political center in this country, if the actions of the political class are any indicator (and is there any reason to think that they aren't?) is still so irrationally afraid of terrorism that there is broad support for shredding the Bill of Rights in the name of the appearance of security.

And no politician is going to fix that. This is a cultural problem. The politics merely reflect that.

small town, small world

So we watched a movie on DVD just last week, and rather enjoyed it.

Last night at the bar, it was pointed out to us that the brother of the movie's director was also at the bar, and that he had played a bit part in the movie. I suppose this sort of thing can happen all the time in LA or New York, but in Durham, I find it fairly extraordinary.

(I'm not mentioning who he is because he's not exactly a public person, I didn't meet him, and I think it would just be weird to blog about the dude's whereabouts. Also, I can't remember his name.)


life in the 21st century

M and I are planning to vacate to SE Asia at the end of the year (Thailand or Vietnam, most likely). We both feel the need to to be somewhere where blending in and having too easy of a time is essentially impossible. And eat, of course.

For my part, I just really, really want need to get to Asia. I've been to Europe a few times now (and barely scratched its surface) but something I can't quite articulate is pulling me east. I think in many ways, it's becoming increasingly clear that Europe is a great place to get in touch with the past, but Asia is where you get to see the future.

Anthony Bourdain (an undeniable influence on our thinking here) observes one of the many ways in which this certainly seems to be the case:

One of the great wonders of the New World Order is how you can find an internet connection, a cell phone signal, just about anywhere. At a tiny bed and breakfast in a far flung 16th century village in Yunnan Province, high speed wireless that beats what I’ve got in my apartment in New York City. At home, my cell phone kicks out every time I cross Central Park. But in the mountains of Szechuan Province - where they still cook over wood - four bars and clear as a bell. Underneath every djellabah, abaya, burka and kente cloth, it seems, lies a cell phone. In a one horse town in the Moroccan desert, dirt floors, fly-blown market, and little else - there’s an internet café.

And yet, where I am now - on vacation in Sardinia - connection to the internet is a sometimes kind of a thing. It’s ITALY for God’s sake - in a rather luxurious hotel and spa in a mountain range near some major towns and yet, here I am, bent over my lap top in the lobby, the only place where there may (or more likely may not) be a signal.


fullsteam ahead!

Coming soon to a neighborhood near, um, me...Fullsteam Brewery!


belated ID4 fun

Sorry I didn't post this two days ago. (via)

three cheers for sunshine

A couple of months back I briefly mentioned the idea of double-blind peer review as one I found somewhat intriguing. In the linked discussion I wrote the following comment:

I’m in favor of double-blind review (and editors) for a simple reason: the only people that stand to lose from double-blind review are those that benefit from bias of one sort or another currently.


As an author, I know I’ve had papers triaged from journals that I just wasn’t “in” with, because they’ve published less careful work in the same area by people with connections to the editorial board.

Shorter this: to be anti-DBR is to be objectively pro-bias.

I still stand by that, but today I've had my first encounter with not only a different "alternative" review process, but in fact the exact opposite: open peer review, which is the practice of Biology Direct.

The reviewers are identified (from the start), and their comments and the authors' responses are included as part of the final publication. As a reader, I find this very, very useful. And the quality of reviewer comments is--perhaps unsurprisingly--quite a bit better than the slapdash style of criticism I find far too common in the (anonymous) peer review process.


I am happy to report that shortly after hearing news of the death of Jesse Helms on the radio, I took an early evening stroll in my Durham, NC neighborhood and witnessed peaceful mingling of races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and grill smells. In fact, you could say it was downright festive around here...


Every July 3rd or so, I remember that about a year ago I thought to myself "I really should get my hands on a Gadsden Flag to fly on the 4th," before giving up after realizing I wouldn't get my hands on one before the holiday.


things you don't want to hear your doctor say


--My allergist, upon reading the minefield of welts on my back following a skin test.

I am going to become rather well-acquainted with needles for a while...


it is 2008...

...and yet there are still people out there who simply cannot abide the fact that entire classes of their fellow human beings--whether by choice, by their nature, through the use of technology, or some combination thereof--are having sex simply for its own sake.


george carlin, rip

Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits!

(I know it's pretty obvious, but I just can't think of a better way to express my feelings and pay tribute in fewer words.)



I'm off to the ATL tomorrow to witness my sister getting married. So that's pretty exciting.

After that, I'm heading to New England for a Gordon Conference (try to guess which one!) so I don't anticipate much bloggy action for the next week or so.

Go out and play.

in case graph jam doesn't take mine

21st century phrenology

I think it's all well and good to try and understand the biological basis of homosexuality for the same reasons it's well and good to understand the biological mechanisms of...well, basically everything.

But apropos of my earlier comments about overselling science, I worry about how studies like this can get twisted in the name of politics. The odds of a similar study producing different (or even opposite) results are actually pretty high here. The sample sizes are painfully small in this study, and I would definitely worry about selection biases. For example...how do you recruit a sample of gay males that are truly representative of the population as a whole? Certainly not by finding them through a geographically constrained social network (presumably everybody in the study was located conveniently to the study site.)

My point being that those concerned about gay rights ought not lean too hard on the science that sounds good to them when making an argument about policy, because this strategy is only one journal article away from biting you on the ass. Homosexual people don't deserve equal treatment under the law because they "can't help" their orientation...they deserve it because who you prefer to get your rocks off with is nobody's business but yours and your partner(s)', and has no bearing whatsoever on anything else.