Thursday, July 28, 2005

Hot fun in the summertime

It's been a good few days.

School is winding down. I have two assignments and two finals to go. Sadly, I will not be doing a fishery GUI for credit, so I will have to take the Java final. But I will do the GUI later for the experience.

Utah has a holiday on or near July 24 (Pioneer Day, celebrating the achievements of those brave Mormon pioneers, who having fled persecution in the Midwest, sought to... cough, ack my throat is dry) so we, unlike the rest of the country, just had a three-day weekend in which to read Harry Potter 6. Sarah has glaucoma so I am reading it aloud to her. I and my Sacred and Hermetic Order of Divine Book Readers do not believe in spoilers, so I will only comment that JK Rowling has not lost a step; this book is funny and fascinating, way way too cool for your school. If you haven't read the Harry Potter books, I pity you. There, I said it. Maybe I can talk about the book in a few weeks, when the spoiler danger has attenuated.

I have been staying away from Slacktivist (link in the left column) for the last week or two; there are real reasons for this that I will explain in a later post, but they are entirely personal and have nothing to do with the site's excellent, highly recommended content.

Now for the boring stuff: if you don't care about books, ignore the rest of this post. Farewell!

I've been reading. Paladin of Souls (by Lois McMaster Bujold) was excellent, perhaps the greatest counterexample you will ever find to refute those Christians who believe that fantasy novels are the work of the devil. Read the right way, the book resonates with a sort of dangerous Christianity, the kind I have come to know and love. It is not really a Christian book, a label you would be hard pressed to apply to any novel containing five (5) gods, but the action revolves around the spiritual decisions of the main characters in a way that is rare and delightful. It is well-written, exciting, and funny. Plus, the protagonist is a fortyish woman formerly thought to be mad. No wonder this thing won the Hugo for Best (science fiction/fantasy) Novel of the year.

The Da Vinci Code, on the other hand, has been tempting me regularly to throw it against the wall and start something else. This has nothing to do with its take on Christianity, which doesn't offend me per se. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions (and each reaps the consequences of those opinions); but in reading I become a thousand men and women and remain myself. (CS Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, an interesting argument about the neglected value of uneducated opinions on art, and thus, sort of about the value of pop culture.) I hope that I can read Brown's historical jaunts in the spirit in which they were intended, leaving the debate that kills for other days.

The obvious problem with Dan Brown's Catholo-conspira-thriller is its execution. It has an annoying plot device: at the end of a chapter, the heroes figure something out or break a code, but rather than share that Discovery (in the Poetics sense) with the readers, Brown makes you watch them gasp in shock and awe, then ends the chapter and puts the revelation in the new chapter. Aside from being asinine and obvious, this is slow. His editor needed to tell him that Discoveries are cliffhangers, that the reader wants to finish a chapter with a shocking twist and go, "oh my lord, that is wild!" and anticipate the implications of what they have just learned before they turn the page. Brown's Discoveries spill sloppily into the next chapter, where they interfere with the next part of the action.

I literally opened to a random page (39) and put my finger on one:

... Scrawled in luminescent handwriting the curator's final words glowed purple beside his corpse. As Langdon stared at the shimmering text, he felt the fog that had surrounded this entire night growing thicker.

Langdon read the message again and looked up at Fache. "What the hell does this mean!"

Fache's eyes shone white. "That, monsieur, is precisely the question you are here to answer."

Just after this last paragraph, there is a section break, an unrelated snippet, then the end of the chapter. Like I said, we wait to no purpose to find out what It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Said (You-Know-What) is. Boring. Clumsy.

Another problem, noted in passing, is the language. Did you notice the image about Langdon feeling the fog? It might help to know that this little scene takes place on the gallery floor of the Louvre, which houses the Mona Lisa. Indoors. In other words, this is the last place anyone would feel fog (a sterile, climate-controlled environment). Maybe the automatic steel doors that had crushed the life out of this entire night should have been closing in.

I have other issues with this book, but I will talk about them in another post; I haven't finished it yet, but somehow I suspect that my opinion will not improve...

On a brighter note, I finished my first collection of Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves. Bertie Wooster is a turn-of-the-20th-century fop always getting into hijinx, and Jeeves (what is his first name anyway? I don't think I've seen it yet) is the gentleman's gentleman, Bertie's butler, who gets him out of said hijinx. I like this collection on the whole pretty well, but I liked it better as it went on. The stories get progressively funnier and better constructed; the plots of the later stories unravel in hilarious scenes, where those in earlier stories are resolved silently by Jeeves, who comes onstage to explain what he did without us. The last story is by far the best; Wodehouse started telling the stories from Jeeves's point of view instead of Wooster's. Jeeves is the quintessential straight man, droll and sly. I laughed and laughed. You should read these.

You can see some pretty great adaptations of Jeeves and Wooster on PBS, with Hugh Laurie (now appearing on Fox's breakout hit House, M.D.) and Stephen Fry; these two worked together on shows in the UK, like Black Adder and, obviously when you know, A Bit of Fry and Laurie.

I started the first Hugo winner (ever) for Best Novel this week: The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester. So far it bears some interesting resemblances to Minority Report and Demolition Man; or the other way around, since Bester wrote his book in the 1950s. Once you get past some of the typography and "As you know, Bob" expository lumps, it gets interesting and exciting.

(See the Turkey City Lexicon for an entertaining trip through the tropes and cliches of science fiction.)

Good night.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


I ended something today; nearly seven years after beginning my Bachelor's at the University of Washington, I found out that I have been admitted to the Computer Science department of the Utah State University graduate school. People who knew me before I started would have been, and often were, shocked.

Brain Trust Kid, not getting smarter
Can't adapt, it only gets harder
Things used to be so clear

I was voted Most Likely to Succeed in my senior year of high school. It was a three-way tie. I didn't vote for myself.

Sad soul songs you'd sing to yourself
In your self awaiting the help
You were promised that never appeared

I went to college without thinking, not knowing what I wanted to do there. When I got there, I was deadbolted out of my new home because my roommate, the presumptive heir to the Azteca mexican restaurant chain, was having sex, which I could hear through the door. When my parents came to visit, I hoped they didn't notice the bottles of beer and tequila strewn around the edges of our beds and desks. I ended up sleeping on the couch in my friends' common room more often than not. Then the RAs talked me out of it. I transferred into their area the next quarter.

That year, I didn't call a girl who visited me on her winter break, and she has haunted me to this day. I haven't talked to her for six years.

Oh, Brain Trust Kid
There's nothing in the world to save you

I had the fullest bookshelf. Even after I became a Christian, I prided myself on a sharp mind and a congenial disposition. I enjoyed arguing about religion and everything else. We watched the Simpsons most days for three straight years. I fell in love with video games and free cable. All the time, my grades were slipping.

The big word wins, but nothing to say
A little attention a whole foot away
Could have changed everything for us all

I fell in love with the idea of Linguistics in my sophomore year. Of course, I didn't think about what I would have to go on and do with it, which was, become an ivory-tower academic, or go study a new language out in the boonies. But mathematics and language came together in some great ways in that first class; I never forgot. I completed most of my major classes by the end of my junior year, even though I failed one or two classes a year.

And all the Brain Trust Kids are just getting older
On the skids, losing their luster
But I remember when you were a star

That last year, I had time to kill so I thought about doing a math major (BA, liberal arts version). I thought it would be funny to double major in letters and numbers. I failed the first class I really needed, Multivariable Calculus. I also had too much student debt, all in loans, because I'd failed to write scholarships before I started college, and didn't deserve them after I started.

There's nothing in the world to save you now
As everyone lines up to blame you

One quarter before my fourth year was over, I moved to Utah to be close to my fiancee. College dangled, it turned out, because my grades from my language classes were too low. I worked in a Camelbak-type bottle factory as a temp, welding plastic spouts to plastic bags.

Oh, Brain Trust Kid
Oh, Brain Trust Kid

I got a job laying out textbooks on the computer. I found out that I'd missed my calling. The real combination of letters and numbers I was suited for was computer science. I'd had little training, but the logic, mathematics, and language was almost intuitive to me.

I spent half a year learning about myself in a class through my church, then decided to go back to school for computers, a momentous decision. This was about a year ago; the same week, my wife found out that she was carrying our first child.

So much for the best-laid plans the world has never seen
We'll be heroes in each other's eyes, beloved in our dreams
No one can save us now

Sometimes I wonder what my old friends would think of me; after all, I was supposed to take over the world. Succeed. Become Rich and Famous. If anybody could, I should.

And for myself, I was supposed to become important, wise, make my contribution, be unique and make my burnt offering, my holy gift to God.

All these deep things I sought.

There's nothing in the world to save you

The trickster Jacob worked for seven years herding sheep to receive Leah, the sister he did not love. All that torture of slow time, of age, of disappointment and failure he endured.

He spent another seven years for Rachel.

Lyrics from "Brain Trust Kid" (small) (large) by Glen Phillips.

[Editor's Note 6/24/2006: To those searching in for the lyrics to "Brain Trust Kid" by Glen Phillips, greetings! Here are a few corrections to what I used in the preceding entry. The lyric should read in the second verse, "In your [cell/hell] / Awaiting the help" instead of "In your self"; I've heard either "cell" or "hell" in different recordings. Also, the line "As everyone lines up to blame you" has also been sung "As everyone lines up to shame you". Also, in the bridge "So much for the best-laid plans the world has never seen / We'll be heroes in each other's eyes, beloved in our dreams / No one can save us now", the line "No one can save us now" is pretty rare. I'm not sure exactly, but I think Glen has also sung "There's no one in the world to save you now" instead of "There's nothing in the world to save you now" at various points in the song.

If you like the song, check out to keep up with Glen and listen to a few of his tunes, see the music video, read the blog, and so on. He has a new album out, Mr. Lemons.

Here follow the complete lyrics with the corrections. Choose only one word where there's an alternation. If you're Glen Phillips' lawyer and he wants me to take down these lyrics, I will, of course. Just email me and establish your bona fides.

Brain Trust Kid, not getting smarter
Can't adapt, it only gets harder
Things used to be so clear

Sad soul songs you'd sing to yourself
In your [cell/hell] awaiting the help
You were promised that never appeared

Oh, Brain Trust Kid
There's nothing in the world to save you

The big word wins, but nothing to say
A little attention a whole foot away
Could have changed everything for us all

And all the Brain Trust Kids are just getting older
On the skids, losing their luster
But I remember when you were a star

There's nothing in the world to save you now
As everyone lines up to [blame/shame] you

Oh, Brain Trust Kid
Oh, Brain Trust Kid

So much for the best-laid plans the world has never seen
We'll be heroes in each other's eyes, beloved in our dreams

There's nothing in the world to save you

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The wheels they turn, the gears they grind

The Iraq Interior Ministry released civilian casualty numbers. Over the last ten months, 8175 Iraqi civilians or police officers have died because of insurgent attacks. That is, Iraqis have 9/11 change everything every 4 months or so.

The daily death rate is about 26.8. So they have a London bombing every two days.

They die at ten times the rate of American soldiers.

But it gets worse:

In June the interior minister, Bayan Jabr, told reporters that insurgents had killed about 12,000 Iraqis since the start of the American occupation - a figure officials have emphasized is approximate - an average monthly toll of about 500.

If, in 24 months, 12,000 Iraqis were killed by rebels, and in 10 months, 8175 were killed, that leaves 3825 for the first 14 months of the occupation. So, year over year in the American occupation, the number of civilians dying has actually doubled.

On the other hand, Jabr's number is probably low: puts the number at 22000-25000 today. Still worse, if you read Iraq Body Count's methodology FAQ, they only add to their count when a death appears in two independent news sources; they admit that they are only getting a sample on the real number.

On an oh-so-unrelated subject, I've wondered to myself in the last few days how we were doing at guarding the ammo dumps we failed to secure when we entered Iraq. Is all of it gone by now? Security tight? I don't know why, I just thought it had some vague thing to do with why we went to Iraq in the first place.

But all this calculation is fatiguing my memory. No wonder the Pentagon didn't release its metrics for the war; they forgot too.

Free book reports on Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events!

Google search: "how to do book report on the reptile room, by lemony snicket using setting, conflict, theme, reco"

I suppose it was inevitable that I have one of these before long. It took a while because apparently I am not reading enough books that everybody else likes, or that students need to do book reports on.

I don't think there is much of a theme to the Lemony Snicket books, really, unless "adults don't listen to adorable children" or "a word which here means" are themes. They ratchet up all this tension, but it doesn't go to deep places emotionally, it is like a mini-action movie, no matter how wittily displayed (and there are some really funny moments). Count Olaf should wear a black hat to complete the trope. There are all these episodes, and then, like at the end of that Simpsons episode, "[sigh of relief] The status quo." There's just no there there.

Contrast this with fellow shelf-space conqueror Harry Potter, where people are actually growing and changing, where the whole world is rumbling and alive, where hatred, fear, destiny, and wonder come in equal parts.

So if you found this post looking for an easy essay, let me give you some advice: there are a lot of books that get made into movies that are inferior to the written words. If we ever have 3D holographic projectors and actors willing to make hundred-hour transcriptions of fantasy novels, the movies still won't be as good as the books. If you have to choose, read Harry Potter over Lemony Snicket. And try not to let school get you down on books. Find some you really like; you will still like them long after you stop enjoying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Pokemon. Most days there's nothing on TV, but there will always be another great book to read, until the sun dies or the human race is extinct.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Shusaku Endo

Shusaku Endo was a Japanese Catholic. Do you call him an interstitial man? At any rate, he stood in a unique place as a remarkably eloquent novelist, straddling West and East. His novels often treat the question of how Christianity can or should translate into the foreign culture of the Japanese, and whether Christianity has emphasized the image of the powerful, risen Christ to the exclusion of the suffering, weak Jesus, in achingly beautiful language and stories. His stories are about the transgressors: the oathbreakers, the Christian priests who renounce their faith, the sinners, failures, and fools. He is my favorite author.

He wrote a book in 1973 called A Life of Jesus. It is certainly not evangelical and does not treat the Bible as factual in every detail or spiritually inspired. I would give it to my friends who are not Christians without fearing that they would find it offensive. Instead, from a somewhat skeptical point of view informed by the "higher criticism" and liberal Christian philosophers, Endo breathes life into the story of Jesus.

I really wish I could just type the whole book out here, but I can only advise you to, please, please read it. This is from the concluding chapter, "The Question":

If we grant, merely for the sake of discussion, that the incident of the empty sepulcher is fiction, when we then come to consider the questions I previously raised, we are forced to believe that what did hit the disciples was some other amazing event, some event different in kind yet of equal force in its electrifying intensity. At least, logic impels us to conclude that, whatever it was that might have happened, it was enough to change the "powerless" Jesus in the hearts of the disciples into the "all-powerful" image of Jesus. And then we are constrained to suppose that this other event, whatever its nature, was enough to also persuade the disciples that the resurrection of Jesus was a fact.

The carpenter who grew up in the back country of a weak nation was in his brief career an other-worldly sort of teacher whom in the end not even his own disciples could appreciate. Not until after his death were they able to grasp what kind of person he really was. For all I know, there may well be an analogy here between their inability to understand Jesus during his lifetime and our own inability to understand the whole mystery of human life. For Jesus represents all humanity. Furthermore, just as we, while we live in this world, cannot understand the ways of God, so Jesus himself was inscrutable for the disciples. His whole life embraced the simplicity of living only for love, and because he lived for love alone, in the eyes of his disciples he seemed to be ineffectual. His death was required before the disciples could raise the veil and see into what lay hidden behind the weakness.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Meet people

My wife tells me that she is jealous of me because at least I get to go outside and meet people while she stays at home with our son.

Most days I think this is ridiculous, because I don't go out to meet people; instead I go out to take copious notes at computer class, then go to work and slam my keyboard against my desk. When I come home, I program my homework. Yo ho, yo ho, a hacker's life for me. Arrr.

But today I saw a couple of friends at school. I shot the breeze with Boyd. I met him last semester and we bonded over computer hardware. This summer he is researching digital watermarking. We had a fun time talking about NetHack (warning: addictive! best game ever!) and what we're doing. I told him about my fishing fleet project and he told me about the Battleship game he wrote last semester with sound files cribbed from Worms.

I met somebody new too. I was in the elevator in USU's Old Main building (the first building constructed for this land-grant institution way back when) and this girl I recognized from my hardware class came up as the door was closing. I put out my hand, but the door wouldn't stop, so I hit it until it did. She'd sat across class from me and I didn't know her. She is doing research this summer in Boyd's lab, but she still has a year of undergrad to go. We were about to go our separate ways, and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Kim.

Oh, and I had two midterms and I'm perfecting my POP3 client. No rest for the weary.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


For the record, I am now trying to learn the following computer technologies this summer: TCP/IP network programming; Java, including AWT and Swing GUIs; regular expressions; theory of computation/computability; Scheme.

What this has done is create a heavy library of computer books for me to carry around. I will have some great accomplishments by the time I'm done, like a Bering Sea fishing fleet simulator using real GPS data, several working network clients and servers, real skill with computer proofs and constructing and manipulating language parsers (in a very generic way), and learning to create programs that create other programs.

First, I have to read about 3000 pages of stuff.

In addition, I just bought the first Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse (I have never read anything by him, but I enjoyed the PBS series, and these are cracking good), the complete short stories of William Carlos Williams, and a Hugo award winner by one of my favorite authors: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. I also have The DaVinci Code, which my father-in-law lent me some months back, which I haven't finished yet (it got lent to someone else in the meantime), and The Cost of Discipleship, which I've been reading in little bites. And finally, Sarah and I have been reading Lemony Snicket III.

So if you don't hear from me, I drowned in paper.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Failure a reality; failure an option

I ran across this USA Today article about the troop death rate in Iraq. Remember how I said that the average daily death rate for American troops is 2.1? Let's do some more math.

In the year before last, 657 American soldiers died in Iraq, a daily rate of 1.8. In this last year (beginning 365 days ago, that is), 882 soldiers died in Iraq, a daily rate of 2.4. So over time, the death rate in Iraq has actually gotten worse.

If the death rate increases at the same constant rate, next year the daily death rate will be 3.0; the year after that is 3.6.

On this model, in the next year, 1095 American soldiers will die in Iraq; the year after, it will be 1314.

If (worse) the same broad trend in the increase of the death rate continues (a one-third increase over the previous year), in the next year, the daily death rate for American soldiers will be 3.2; the year after that is about 4.3.

On this model, in the next year, 1184 American soldiers will die in Iraq; the year after, it will be 1589.

These are crude calculations, of course. You could graph the death tolls fluctuating month to month, fit a line or a curve to them and get more detailed results that might correspond with more precision to specific events on the ground.

"The politics of failure have failed! We must make them work again!" says Kang or Kodos, in what, for my money, is one of the best acts in any Simpsons episode. Unfortunately for our army and our country, it is actually the politics of success that have failed. "Stay the course", "turning a corner", "light at the end of the tunnel", "throes", even "winning" are not fair assessments of America's prosecution of the invasion of Iraq and consequent Sunni rebellion.

Let us not try to make the politics of success work again; we need to lose boldly in Iraq. Unfortunately, it may take four more years to make failure an option.