Monday, February 27, 2006

Svarnik and Byll in Utah

Svarnik and Byll are anti-tobacco nerds who star in a series of television PSAs in Utah. They are dressed as medieval knights, and tell people not to smoke. The ads kind of suck in a school assembly way, but are funny in a Napoleon Dynamite way. (If anyone can find these in video or transcript, please tell me; I've Googled around without any love, and they're not on Ad Critic.)

I was just watching one where Svarnik and Byll are disparaging the series of PSAs that preceded them, involving a lab rat who became addicted to nicotine talking to people on a park bench. Most of the people don't want to talk to the rat. Example: "I wish smoking was easy to quit, like you could just eat a piece of banana bread. (Beat) Cause I likes banana bread."

This is my abbreviated approxa-transcript:

Svarnik and Byll are sparring near a park.

BYLL: Man, can you believe they tried to get people to stop smoking with a bunny?

SVARNIK: I think it was a rat.

BYLL: Bunny, rat, whatever. Why didn't they just say that smoking is really bad for you?

SVARNIK: Yeah, they could just say that. And that it's a sin.

BYLL: Yeah, it's a sin. (looks at girls smoking in park) Sinners!


Needless to say, in a state dominated by Mormon culture and politics, this is pretty crass. For that reason, funny.

But it's also an unintentionally revealing portrait of the way Mormons can stereotype non-Mormons as beer-swilling, tobacco-smoking, promiscuous divorcee anarchists. If you watch The Singles Ward, for instance, the non-Mormons in the film are portrayed as such, exclusively. The non-Mormon roommate has a mohawk (rainbow? I forget) and bungees his New Beetle off the edge of a cliff. When Main's wife leaves him, she immediately starts smoking and drinking. I would be inclined to say this is self-parody, but the climax of the movie depends on playing it straight. Either way, there is a grain of truth to it.

One time this happened to me was in Chinese class. I don't fault the guy who did it, because it was part of his culture. I should add too that he was one of my best friends in the class, and I would enjoy his company still, if I had the pleasure. One day he found out I wasn't a Mormon, and said, in effect, Well, I'd never have known, Dan... you're clean-cut and all. "'Hmmm. You don't look like an anarchist', he squinted and rubbed his chin" was the unspoken, unacted subtext.

He never found out that only Protestantism keeps me from completely going psycho on all you guys all the time.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

All of it

In On Writing, Stephen King recounts an attitude he had when he was an alcoholic. At restaurants he would notice another diner with a half-drunk glass of wine, and be seized by the desire to march over and ask why they weren't finishing it. Alcoholics don't measure how much they're drinking. They drink all of it.

This weekend, I noticed that I have the same propensity to eat all of it, especially when "it" is meat. I was informed in some health class or other that meat is worth a hundred times its weight in grains necessary to produce it; I feel bad letting it all go to waste.

Or do I? I decided that I'm some kind of a foodaholic if I can't stop myself from cleaning my plate, eating all of it. Not wasting food is a red herring. I can just take less to begin with if that's the real issue. So I see myself as rationalizing away my addictive behavior.

I also noticed that when it comes to political blogs, in the last month or more, I've been getting really bad about reading all of it. It's cut into my work and family time, and the benefits I gain don't match the time I'm losing.

I think I get obsessive at times, and I need to learn to let things go. I need to be happier with what I have.

There's another one: remembering all of it. I realized this weekend as my parents were telling stories about their families and childhood that I have a lot of stories no one else knows, stories that are intensely personal and even unique. I have boxes of things I've saved, ways I saw myself. I feel like I should annotate them or something, like they're a window into my world. Save my remembrances. Put them in secret scrapbooks. Enjoy my history.

I don't know whether to be frightened that what I've done will be forgotten, or just to let it all go. In a way, I feel at loose ends with myself when I've forgotten my life, like I don't exist, or like the footprints I've made in the world are slowly washing away in the tides of time.

Monday, February 20, 2006

On the plus side

We've been having a wonderful time with my parents. They are visiting and enjoying our son.

Mom read an entire book while we were here. It is the alternative history of the Wicked Witch of the West, Wicked.

We watched the first Pink Panther movie. How did I forget that it sucks? But it does. It wasn't nearly as funny as I remember. Oh well, just have to go buy the other ones (except for the abominable Trail of the Pink Panther clip show).

We've been playing Settlers of Catan. For some reason I seem to keep getting boxed in, no matter what I do. I think I'm not used to playing in fours.

Dad has made some fabulous food: lemon ginger scones, clam chowder served with good champagne (or is that good champagne served with clam chowder and strawberries?), omelettes, pancakes, steaks tonight. We also bought Thai food at this new restaurant, Kamin Thai. Not even in Google Earth yet. They served our pineapple fried rice in a hollowed-out pineapple half. You could scrape fresh pineapple into your serving.

Dad also took Sarah and I to the liquor store and educated us about wine. He recognized makers he'd visited when he lived in Spain. Sometimes I forget what incredible sights my Mom and Dad have seen in their lives.

For those watching for news on the NSA spying story, I recommend this meta-post by Glenn Greenwald, who has carefully measured and found wanting the various Administration legal apologia for the commission of felonies in order to spy on Americans. There are various links in that post to the more detailed arguments. It's hard to beat Glenn Greenwald in general for information on this quite important scandal.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Two quotes

"... as Heraclitus says, an ass would prefer chaff to gold..." -- Aristotle

"Twenty dollars? Awww, I wanted a peanut." -- Homer

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A little late, but

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, love does not boast, love is not proud. Love is not rude, love is not self-seeking, love is not easily angered, love keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Republicans set to kill NSA spying investigation

[Cross-posted at Daily Kos. Background: Last week, Republicans claimed they were interested in a broad investigation of the Bush Administration's domestic wiretap program. After heavy political pressure from the White House, including meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney, who recently shot a man in the face, the same Republicans are pooh-poohing a serious investigation, claiming it would be "punitive". Interesting that the same executive that they are supposed to be investigating can persuade them not to investigate. Read more at the link in the first paragraph.]

From the article:

As for Rockefeller's bid, Hagel said: "If some kind of inquiry would be beneficial to getting a resolution to this issue, then sure, we should look at it. But if the inquiry is just some kind of a punitive inquiry that really is not focused on finding a way out of this, then I'm not so sure that I would support that."


The Republicans want to have it both ways: both a fair, honest inquiry to follow the truth to its resolution, and a non-punitive inquiry. What a load of crap. The two options are mutually exclusive. You can't follow the truth up to a point, only as long as it doesn't punish the President. You might as well prosecute the Mafia only as long as it doesn't lead to any convictions.

A punitive inquiry and a non-punitive inquiry are two sides of the same coin. One is biased to impeach the President and the other is biased to exonerate the President. The Republicans want the latter.

I want none of the above. I want subpoena power and fair judges. I want a special counsel independent of the Congress and the executive. I want the truth about the President's surveillance, even if the truth is far more innocent or far more sinister than we have been led to believe. I want transparency. I want oversight. I want checks and balances. I want a law-abiding president.

If the full Congress votes to soft-pedal its oversight of the NSA spying program, if the Republicans decide to shut down the investigation, Harry Reid should shut down the government. He was going to do it for the sake of the filibuster, remember; that was going to be the Democrat response to the nuclear option. He shut down the Senate for a day to protest the lackluster Phase II investigation. He should shut it down for nine months to protest the abuse of power by the executive.

What is at stake here is not just the power of a minority in the Senate to prevent laws from passing and judges from being confirmed. What is at stake here is even more important than learning whether or how politicians misled a country into war. What is at stake is the power of the full Congress to make laws at all. What is at stake is the unbounded, secret power of a wartime executive applied against the citizens he governs.

Twenty years ago, Senator Frank Church warned of the dangers of letting the NSA get involved in domestic intelligence gathering. He said that the "potential to violate the privacy of Americans is unmatched by any other intelligence agency." If the resources of the NSA were ever used domestically, "no American would have any privacy left.... There would be no place to hide. .. We must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is an abyss from which there is no return."

-- Bruce Schneier, on Project Shamrock and the spying scandal

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Scientific notes

Some quick thoughts about science, inspired by this, via this.

A principle of reinforcement learning (for computers) is that an agent acts in an environment, and remembers in order to predict the future state of the environment, then (or at the same time) maximizes its total reward over its lifespan in the environment. Thus, learning systems solve problems embodied by the structure of their rewards. It seems to me that what science claims to do is almost the same thing: predict the future state of the (physical) environment given a certain action in a present state (some would prefer to omit the idea that actions exist). But science omits the other part of reinforcement learning: the maximization of reward. In science, there are no fixed rewards. Thus, there are no fixed problems.

How do we know that induction (essentially, science) leads somehow to justified true belief (knowledge)? Why should it be privileged over intuition or mysticism or revelation as a knowledge-seeking tool? As I understand Wittgenstein to say, there is nowhere to stand to judge such questions.

Monday, February 06, 2006

A few notes

I made the best spinach artichoke dip I've ever had and the Seahawks still lost the Super Bowl.

Sarah got a relatively new G4 iMac from her brother, who got a Mac from his dad, who bought a new Mac. I didn't get a Mac, so I ordered a microphone to record music on the computer. I'll learn GarageBand and make plunky loops with my mandolin.

I'm past the middle of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a Napoleonic-era alternate history of English magic. The language and point of view are just about perfect. And it's really funny. And it's addictive! I have no clue how it's going to end.

Today I kept half an ear on the start of something very important: the first hearing on the President's secret warrantless domestic wiretap program. Attorney General Gonzales was in the Judiciary Committee arguing that the program is legal. The Bush Administration felt free not to follow the controlling law, FISA, because it was authorized broadly to combat al-Qaeda, or failing that, the President's commander-in-chief powers allow him to violate duly enacted legislation.

To my great relief, most of the Senators on the committee, including all the Democrats and even some Republicans (though not all of them), saw Bush's arguments as ridiculous and untenable. As especially Senator Leahy drove home, this one program, whose existence was leaked to the New York Times, is probably only the tip of an iceberg of broad expansions in domestic surveillance. For several years, the Bush Administration wiretapped people it had no business wiretapping, and it didn't tell anyone, and no one found out; did they abuse the power once they figured they wouldn't be caught?

A deeper issue: the Administration's second argument seems to imply that the President can break any law as long as he determines that it is necessary to do so to combat al-Qaeda. This means that de facto anything is legal as long as no one finds out about it; if Bush keeps it on the down low, he can order his branch of government to do whatever he wants. We shouldn't just be worried about how the President has actually used this power (which is bad enough); we need to be worried about a President who feels like he has a free hand to ignore the law. Access to that kind of power is anti-American. Broad executive power is taking us down an autocratic road, and we should all be disturbed by that.