Sunday, February 28, 2010


Back when I was working on my boat a lot, I would sometimes find myself in a mess of more than I could handle. A handy way to picture this situation might be to imagine me with toxic epoxy up to my elbows, a head full of the understanding that I would have to use toxic acetone (nail polish remover) to get it off, and panic about various boat parts in various stages of hardening into the wrong position.

Of course, none of these problems could or would occur had I been less concerned to make permanent repairs or modifications. In the "old days" before the advent of such conveniences as epoxy, it was understood that timbers would rot, that they would need periodic replacement and that the entire labor was an ongoing and therefore never-ending process. Things were even built with an eye toward the possibility to repair them.

We have such enduring and durable methods now, and hardly anyone really bothers with wooden boats. Still, the plastic ones don't, in fact, last forever, and they can be pretty hard to dispose of. And somehow the cost in real dollars to own one keeps shooting up to the point where you almost might as well just build more disposable ones. Except that the cost for a wooden boat goes up even faster.

It is very hard to find peace and calm up against the rush of daily life as we live it.

These days, politically, we seem to be engaged in a new version of trench warfare; that ancient WWI disastrous technique which led to the advent of chemical agents and other monstrous techniques to smoke soldiers out of their trenches.

The longer term solution, on top of fairly lame new laws of warfare, seems to have been bigger and more powerful machines of war, combined with a sort of tactical guerrilla deployment of lightweight units.

In the political arena, we have opposing camps of certainty, which keep looking for ever more powerful tactics or techniques to outsmart foes which are certainly more stupid than your camp. Deserving to die outright. Sometimes the camps even try to sharpen up their arguments, but it seems difficult to downright impossible to entice anyone out of the other team's trenches even to pay attention.

Certainty is certainly not a function of being right. We know, historically, that each time we have thought ourselves certain, that certainty, over time, looks silly. Think about bloodletting, or early treatments for mental illness, or certain medical techniques and chauvenisms. The only embarrassing thing, looking back, is that we were once so certain of something which now looks silly.

Look back on your childhood, for instance. There's nothing that terribly embarrassing about being a child, or being wrong. Just about being certain when it turns out you are in no position to be so.

Certainty is a function of meshing your own position to a larger frame whose stability feels like the very definition of sanity. These frames may be religious, or scientific, and sometimes, especially in the case of science, fairly propositional. You aren't sure what the "right" answer will be, but you're pretty confident of the procedures which will find it.

So, the frame, in the case of science, becomes the Grand Narrative of progress. And still, if you are a medical doctor, called upon to diagnose individuals' dire and distressing complaints, you have to operate within some kind of ad-hoc certainty to be able to function at all. You operate within the frame of what is state of the art today.

And still you might have a hard time listening to those who understand at least the broad outlines of what you're saying, but from the inside, as it were, can't quite go along with the diagnosis. They have contrary evidence, but maybe not the words.

In the case of warfare, nuclear explosive devices have arguably kept conflict down to what classroom teachers like to call a dull roar. World War and the epic-level casualties from the two Great Wars have been kept pretty well in check.

Meanwhile, even though the age of Einstein also marked the age of Thomas Kuhn's skepticism about the certainties of "progress," as well as the overall Post Modern critique of any kind of certainty, we do and must await some sort of new approach to resolving entrenched differences before we can put away the bomb.

Here's a thought:

Yesterday, yet again, I landed in the ER. It felt like the same thing which happened Christmas Eve when I was found to have suffered multiple pulmonary emboli. The diagnosis yesterday was dehydration, likely related to having had a few too many drinks the night before.

The only trouble with that diagnosis for me is that I've had a few too many a few too many times for this brand new set of symptoms to make sense to me. Plus, I'd felt fine in the morning, no headache, no hangover, and had headed out for a walk, in the middle of which I felt the same kind of sudden and total loss of power that I'd felt on Christmas Eve. So, I kept walking, with whatever energy I had left, to the hospital which was no further than to turn around and go back home. Made sense to me.

Lots of tests later, the good news is that there is nothing apparently wrong with me. The clots are known to still be there, and the treatment protocol is ongoing. I guess I'm looking for some trigger this time which made my dehydration do something different than it had ever done before. I'm looking for some connection between this event, the event on Christmas Eve which also came on while walking in the cold, and an earlier event which bizarrely enough felt about the same from the inside, but which was diagnosed to be more of a manic episode with psychotic symptoms.

I know that in the earlier case my mind really did go off the rails. The narrative that I was inhabiting was fully detached from reality. There are reachy links among these events, relating to potassium levels, perhaps, but there have also been very definite and distinct diagnostic protocols which have been able to pin specific issues. And thankfully, some medicines to treat them.

Extraneous to all of these diagnoses is the fact that I have been making an awful lot of changes in pretty short order. I left my job, on the basis - I have to guess - that the cognitive dissonance between what I was doing and both expected of myself and was expected by those who paid me to be doing; and what I felt to be central to my being.

Then I moved premises, sold my house, re-established some important relationships, and established some important new ones. And without really thinking terribly hard about it, I find myself eating the kind of anti-cholesterol healthy diet which I never could get myself to do back when the doctors told me to.  Not to mention distressing events in the Big Picture, like the catastrophic anti-government, anti-regulatory, anti-common sense regime of GWB and his team of hucksters. Global warming, peak oil, teapartyism, Fox TV, and all sorts of things to make a thinking man feel as if the whole world is going off the rails.

So, there have been a lot of changes to my life, and it makes perfect sense to me that there might be a slew of symptoms as I seek, however inchoately, to re-establish some sort of homeostasis.

I by no means wish to be my own doctor, nor to second guess the treatments that I've been receiving, many of which may well have saved my life. I do, rather, wish to second guess the certainties in which these treatments are embedded. Because the one and only thing which ties the different things which have happened together is me. Not me as in the master of psychosomatic symptomatologies, but me as in the guy who has made all the decisions as a result of dissonances which I didn't really do a whole lot to cause.

Sure, I had choices about what job to take, but like all of us, not as many as you might think. I could have deployed strategies to stay where I was, but I saw an opportunity, like a speed skater at the Olympics, and bolted through the gap.  I could have tried more medicines, but, at least inwardly, my difference from the norm was worth taking into account, and none of the diagnoses fit well enough for me to inhabit them fully. Provisionally, for sure, but never quite fully. There has simply been too much changing at the same time, and it hardly surprises me that there might be physical or emotional manifestations.

It always surprises the medical establishment that I'm not on any meds. What's wrong with this picture?

What the doctors can offer me is a much more finely tuned sense than I could ever have of liklihood. They know how to weigh things in some context, where I might be latching onto potassium deficiencies, because among its list of symptoms are all the things which I have experienced. Where an experienced practitioner can put these into some sort of perspective, based on lots of obervations and research.

On my own, at best, I would make a kind of teaparty random mess of my desperate flailing after some explanation. And in the case of health issues, the explanation is precisely what you don't want because that would be a diagnosis, which would mean that there really is something basically wrong with you. So, I'd say ambiguity can be a good thing. Sometimes.

Well, unless a diagnosis is missed and then you end up dying when you needn't have. Which is pretty much why you keep your head down in the trenches too. It's scary to consider what might and can and sometimes likely will go wrong, and if smart people are warning you to look out for what might happen, it's pretty hard not to. Even though, sometimes, the aggregate net effect of looking too hard is pretty hard to distinguish from lots of people getting sick all at the same time, maybe mainly because they've stopped looking after themselves.

Which goes right back to that godawful mess you can get into working on an old fashioned wooden boat in the face of more modern technologies. Sometimes when you add up all the treatment regimens for any one human being, especially after they start interacting and even conflicting with one another, you do end up with a treatment looking a whole lot worse than whatever the disease was that started the whole thing way back in the first place. How many tales have you heard, especially from the elderly, about having to strip away the meds one by one to get back to some baseline from which some sense can start to be made.

The mess is the simple and perfectly predictable result of working within little subsets of certainty without, ever, being able to step back and consider the whole. Imagine if we let the Palin Republicans handle the economy, while the Obama Democrats handled health care. Is there anyone in the world who would consider that a very good idea?? But does anybody consider the compromises we end up with a very good idea? Really?

We will have to find a way to crawl up out of our trenches. We will have to accept that some of us may die of missed diagnoses, reticence, stupidity. It may well be fewer than die now from mistakes in the hospital, which is far more than die from mistakes on the highways.

In my life, retrospectively, there was no need for the big guns deployed against various possibilities which never did materialize. I think I would have died of an appendectomy if there had not been surgeons, but I don't really think that was a terribly complicated surgery. And who knows, I may not have needed to drink so much, which might have been what brought it on, if things hadn't become so crazy in the world by then. If I hadn't been in the middle of not just cognitive dissonance, but crazy amounts of stress trying to keep a school open to which all sorts of lovely people had somehow attached their identities.

The trouble is that you can't really know in advance which are the ones who really do need the intervention of the big guns. Which are the ones who will need the anti-psychotic meds for life. Whose hearts are ticking time bombs. Who is prone to clotting, who will die of cholesteremia. Which cancer must be cut out and how drastically?

But who wants to live life afraid of his own body? On the screen, we all love to watch and cheer and cry about those who live a life as though in contempt of death. These are our heros, athletic, firefighting, fishers in the north seas. And we are afraid, sometimes, even to step outdoors because the neighbors might be toting guns.

The fact of the matter, if you were to do the math, is that the only reason health insurance is affordable to any of us is that most of us don't really care for or need the drastic interventions. God help us if we all become thoroughly modern, and consider it our right to rule out each and every illness which might explain our current symptoms.

There is no wooden boat which lasts forever. There is no body either. It is no longer clear that the way medicine works is in the direction of progress overall. That's not because there aren't wonderful new techniques to help the truly ill. But likely too many folks are dragged into the system hoping for something that just cannot be forthcoming.

We look to the medical system, or at least I do, for simple statements such as "this is what we are willing to do" without the question back "are you willing to pay for it, then?" Instead we get the absurd statement "this is what could be done if you can get someone to pay for it." And no-one is in any position ahead of time to tell you it will be paid for. This creates a state of perpetual panic, pretty much like living on a fault line. Imagine if the police asked you each time they intervened for your safety.

We have displaced our grief in the same way that we have displaced our heros. When it comes home, it is almost always unbearable because we had thought that there could be none so close to home. We had fallen into the lulled sleep of those whose life is too smooth. Until the very earth starts quaking.

Let's dial it back, how about? Stop the advertising which makes us all feel unwell *unless.* Taking trains most of the time will hardly affect our lifestyles. Electric cars for the local trips, rented hopefully, should be sufficient. Walking out of doors makes a huge difference to your healthcare profile. And how about shaking hands across the divides of race and class and education. That would do a lot to calm our fears.

There is so much that is wonderful about life as we have discovered it in these United States. Let's not blow it because a tiny class of hucksters in our midst would have us believe that we must take snake oil to feel whole. I don't think that there's a single person, embedded in whatever trench of certainty, who wants the hucksters to prevail.

And surely no-one believes in a centrally controlled economy anymore. So, what's the fuss? We're only talking about the boundaries. Should healthcare be on the side of police and fire, or the side of coke and pepsi? It's not about goverment making decisions. It's about you and me making decisions, taking responsibility, and calling in the trained experts when that becomes necessary.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for spring when I can figure out if that old wooden sailboat is still salvageable. For maybe the fifth time in its life. About the same number of times that I've failed to die myself. Let's see, there was the scarlet fever, the drowning, the near-miss on a motorcycle, the appendicitis, the embolism, not to mention the food poisoning, the storm at sea. Oh, I guess it's a lot more times than for the old sailboat. Bottom line, I feel pretty lucky to be alive. Which has not quite but almost nothing to do with elaborate interventions on my behalf.

I sometimes don't think it's my narrative which has gone off the rails. Sometimes I think it's the frame itself which isn't tethered any longer to reality.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


My sweet daughter used to make an L on her forehead at me a lot. Powerful expressions always originate with the very young, and of course it took me a while to "get" what this expression meant.

It has taken me my entire life until, perhaps, about now to decide that no matter how often I earned the nickname HardLuck, I am precisely not a Loser.

Lately, I whine about what the Health Insurance Industry does to me - they have systematically rejected every single claim, except for the incidentals, for my recent hospitalization. The total bill is enough to wreck me, and having paid my premiums doesn't begin to cover my obligations up against the set of rules they have for me to break unwittingly.

But the good news is that they are showing their hand. Demographically, they should consider me on their side in the Big Fight. They should bend over backwards to convince me that we really do have a fair and honest and worth-preserving system of health care. I'm one of the lucky ones who's recently enough unemployed actually to have health insurance, and still luckier to continue to be able to pay their premiums.

But just like Dick Cheney, they can't help themselves. By their actions they seem to believe somehow that I will be grateful each time they make an exception to their arcane rules that somehow I haven't precisely followed. Most of the time, I'm not the one failing to follow the rules anyhow; it might be the doctor using the "wrong" code, or the hospital passing the deadline for pre-certification, or me getting sick while crossing insurance boundaries. But I'm the one at the end of the line. I'm the one with the fewest resources to fight.

So, the power remains entirely with them to make exceptions, and I should be grateful? Actually, I think I've been granted a glimpse into the hellish orgy which is behind the way profits get made around these parts.

Back in highschool, everyone was shown highway atrocities, enough to make you quite actually sick, for the purpose of discouraging drunk driving. And we continue to be told of what a large percentage of highway accidents are caused by alcohol. For that matter, we continue to be terrorized by stories about drunken airline pilots.

But the message is never conveyed that if you put that many autonomous death machines on high-speed roadways, a certain amount of mayhem is simply inevitable. And it will look just as gruesome.

I prefer to focus on how few fatalities there are, given the nutso system that we have to multiply the consequences of any one of us going off, or making the wrong deer in headlights move, or just being despondent because of some sort of extreme cognitive dissonance.

Leaping ahead here; the terrorists are not the problem. The problem is that we live in a world where we grant the nutjob or the drunk so much power. Every time we think it must have been some Islamic radical, it turns out to have been some neighbor (in the case of Buffalo and Tim McVeigh) or some local nutjob flying his private plane into a building (in the case of Austin) in imitation of the big guys.

And when it really is some Islamic radical, we come up with bizarre conspiracy theories about how it must have been the Big Guy. Which just diverts attention from the fact that the Big Guy was always ready to take full advantage of whatever happened whenever it happened. They tell us all the time that some sort of terrorist incident is inevitable. Is that so that we can prepare for it (how would you prepare???) or so that "they" can?

We are being prepared by a slow but steady erosion of our civil liberties and degrees of freedom, but not the ones that count, like being able to drive cars or fly planes. It's the ones we shrug about which are being whittled away. The ones which, each by themselves, don't mean much, but will add up, down the road, to something which looks very much like Too Big to Change.

Google's gmail wasn't really working very well yesterday. I don't know if this will be documented, or allowed to languish as something that lots of people might have noticed but assumed was something "on my end." We're all vaguely aware of how vulnerable our information systems are. Cybersecurity is generally recognized to be as critical as infrastructure security of any sort. Google gets attacked by overzealous Chinese patriotic students, but that might be a difference without a distinction from being attacked outright by the forces of the Chinese government.

Just as it really doesn't matter who is the pilot of a mobile bomb and what deranged him. The system is simply set such that this stuff has become an inevitability. We like to assign blame, but maybe it's the system that has gone rotten.

Or maybe "the system" is working really really well, but there are some terribly minority winners for whom what they've already won is never enough. Maybe our fear is fully functional for them. If we think the system is busted, wrecked, headed for disaster, then we will remain fully powerless to do anything about it, and the ones who have the power can just keep getting more.

I do think it's about that simple.

The good news is that we will learn to get along because we must. The bad news hardly needs reciting, it's on the news every day, whether it's a Harvard genius toting a gun, or the figment of someone's imagination toting a gun in the UB Library. We're really scared of one another.

But no-one seems to notice how well we do, in fact, get along.

I'm a weirdo on my street, just because, I guess, I'm the only renter. Plus, I'm shy by disposition and don't really know the rules for interaction in the local soap opera. I guess I'm part of it - I wonder what role they have scripted out for me? I could make up some fascinating tales, based on the part that makes it out in public. They'd be at least as believable as the truth, whatever that is. I have no idea what my role is or should be. Honest.

I did not get that job, by the way, where I would be taking on a very public role helping to diffuse the tectonic forces now at the intersection of China and the U.S. This was not a mistake on the part of the search committee, nor does it make me a loser. I was well qualified for the position, and made it to the podium for sure, in a very crowded field. But there was only one position on offer, and I didn't get it.

In a minor sense, I am a known quantity in Buffalo. I am not one of the players. More of a bit part at the fringes who somehow has been in prominent positions at certain moments, but never in a real spotlight. That has been fine for me, but I have also allowed myself to consider myself a loser, even though each time that I have 'failed to succeed' the entire arrangement was a kind of setup. I was a patsy for someone else's failure to set a winnable context.

I guess that makes me some kind of fool, stepping in where more sensible people always have something better to do, or know how to say no. (there's absolutely no way I would have been able to say "no" if I were offered this job. I'm just as scared as you are about being out of work)

Whether heading a school for gifted kids during a stagflationary recession in a shrinking city at a time when "gifted" was a widely derided claim. Whether guiding a high level commission to China without the proper high level alignment back at the home school. Whether struggling to keep up with expectations in a field where those in power all, to a person, announce their utter incompetency (that's what IT work means in case you didn't know what you were doing to those guys who fix your machines).

But it doesn't make me a loser. The losers are the ones who are not allowed to live on my street, and who are therefore concentrated in places I would consider it a risk to my life to live. I wonder how the people who do live there consider it. Isn't it a risk to their lives as well?

Very smart and very well-grounded (sic) people trade advice back and forth, at a very high level - like 30,000 feet in the air high - about what should be done to "rightsize" Buffalo's infrastructure. Which parts should be let go, which bulldozed, which mothballed, since it seems perfectly obvious that there simply isn't enough population of sufficient income to preserve it all.

I don't think I want to live at those 30,000 foot heights. There's no air to breath up there. Well grounded in some esoteric field of experts is not the same as having feet actually on the ground.

I'm guessing that there are lots and lots of people in Sprawlsville who would love to live closer to the action if they weren't so encouraged to fall prey to the notion that everyone in the city is bound and determined get you and yours.

There's a big shopping mall just outside the outer ring of Buffalo called the Galleria. When it was built, it was one of the larger such places in the nation, built to take advantage of the cross-border shopping trends from Canada (depending on the ascendancy of Canadian or American hockey, say).

It's been in the news nationally for not allowing buses from the city to terminate there, leading to the loss of one poor woman's life crossing the quite literally impossible-to-cross highway to get to her low-level job inside the mall.

The first thing you see when you enter the mall are signs announcing that "children" under 18 are not allowed unaccompanied. The assumption is that this too is because of the unruly kids from the city (as if they could get there in the first place).

I happen to know first hand, because I was there, that this rule is because of a very exclusive and expensive private boarding school for dyslexic boys where I used to work. This mall was their Friday night release. During the week, the prescription to empower these boys, who were demonstrably smart (and necessarily rich, which is  neither here nor there) but who had trouble reading; the prescription was to provide order to their lives. And constant phonic drilling.

This was not exactly a military school, but it did set out to internalize order that the students were lacking, in a way often reminiscent of military schools. For the right sort of student, it really really worked. It was liberating.

But if you set these kids loose in the mall on a Friday, with teachers who have been on duty (you had to live on campus to teach there) virtually 24/7, you do have a bit of a problem waiting to happen.

It was these kids who were the reason for the rule at the mall.

As FDR once convinced us, it truly is fear and fear alone which is our adversary.

And if I, a winner in every sense of the game *except* perhaps my own internal impressions, cannot overcome fear, who can?

So, I'll continue to work on it. I'll keep you posted. I still think that the tectonic tensions between China and the US are critically important for us all to worry about, collectively. But of course, they are worries at the level of asteroids possibly coming in from the far reaches of the cosmos if you're on the ground dealing with health and safety emergencies.

The way to bring those issues down to earth, I am fully convinced, is to make it clear on a local level what it might mean to throw out the search for scientific stratosphere-level certainties (religious, technological, blueprinted - it hardly matters, because they're all the very same thing) in favor of a kind of contextualized flowing usage trued against centuries of drilling and practice and recitation. We could use the balance.

The funny thing is that in the so called ghettos, they're already way way ahead of us in the Eastern martial arts training. There may actually be less ground to travel there toward making sense of China, than there ever could be at the University which still only affords a tiny handful of professors and courses.

Well, it's a thought. My strength in my professional life has always and only been my patience. I seem to lend a bit of calm in the face of dire circumstances. It's why I like to sail in the wild weather. It's the kind of fool that I am. It defines my success in the field of IT, overpopulated by over-reacts who love the adrenalin pumping emergencies. I will remain calm, ever looking for ways on the ground to connect with the 30,000 foot perpetual emergency that the smart people in power pay attention to, exhorting us to do the right thing.

Monday, February 22, 2010


In the ever interesting scrimmage between Google and China, it seems a compromise is about to be reached. This will be hard for us on this side of the globe to understand, but students in China now are so patriotic that they will do the government's bidding without ever being asked. Actually, even when they are admonished strenuously not to do it, they will read Big Brother's mind.

In this country, the unruly teabaggers are as far from the Academy as they can possibly get. There is almost no intelligence there (I don't mean that there are no intelligent people there, I just mean that as a movement, it is utterly chaotic), just inchoate anger looking for an object. The obvious object is the government itself, which becomes almost spooky similar to what we used to taunt one another about as kids: "You have one finger pointing at me, and three pointing back at you! Neaner neaner neenah!!!"

It's astonishing that they accept Sarah Palin as their spokesmodel. Here is a woman who is as far from understanding real life as the Bushes and the Kennedys were, and yet they hold her up as some kind of one of them. Hers is a different sort of remove from reality, sure, but just because you hunt moose in Alaska doesn't make it real. Just because your husband's a mensch doesn't make him like your husband. They live a fantasy life up there, where the government gives them money.

This woman defines the very term "bitch goddess" and she wouldn't even know what that means. She'd think it was some kind of political incorrectness that she has a right to point her finger at. Well, debating her would be an utter waste of time, so I don't know why I bother. I had something to say about China.

(I always have something to say about China). You'd think, wouldn't you? that after what we call the Tian-an Men massacre in 1989, the students in China would be rather more radicalized toward their government. You'd be wrong. Those punished for that uprising were almost exclusively workers. The students were chastised for allowing their privileged understanding to spill out into the streets. The entire event became what we might call an object lesson. The students followed it very closely.

It is not hard to understand the terms of the bargain the Chinese government has made with its people. Their lives are getting palpably better day by day, and the only thing which can put a brake on that would be chaos; not accidentally the very word which the Chinese use to describe the events on Tian-an Men square that fateful day.

The Academy over here is meant to enlighten. The Academy there is meant to rectify. In both cases, this supposition forms a kind of benign fiction, masking all sorts of petty corruption and deviation. (If you think the Ivy League is all about enlightenment, you should examine the power structure of our nation once in a while)

Rectification means putting words in their proper contexts, mostly. Establishing their meaning - their proper usage - against, in China's case, thousands of years of usage. As you might imagine, this can put the brakes on what we celebrate as "innovation."

Corruption is a deviation, which doesn't change the main stream of improvement. It is the purpose of government, in China, for instance, to keep the rivers flowing in their proper channels, since the weather plays chaotic havoc from time to time, wiping out farms and farmers.

One might suggest that they have gone a bit too far now, damming up the Yangtze and in the process wiping out farms and farmers. Not to mention artifacts and history. But one would never suggest that inside China. That would be to invite chaos.

Decisions, once rendered, must be upheld in a single composed face. Of course we, on our side, also only pay lip service to protests which are now as effectively restrained to within the walls of the Academy as they had been before Vietnam. Only the teabaggers spill out onto the streets.

This is not accidental. Our elite students also accept the bargains offered them. The same riches, beautiful women, access to power, and a chance to enter the government and improve it. This also, is trivial to document. I've seen it from the inside, and it's not always pretty.

So, while I actually don't think that Paul Wellstone was killed by some earnest non-agent of the Bush administration who was reading the mind of Big Brother, I do think that this precise thing explains the cyber-attacks from China. I think Google and China should shake hands and carry on, and that the rest of us should get a clue.

The Chinese government is precisely as responsible as ours is, and precisely as corrupt. I don't say that because of some need for fearful symmetry. It just falls out from the actual balance of power, trade and what these mean for the rest of the world. We have a hard time understanding, much less condoning, China's behavior in Tibet, while the rest of the world has a hard time with us in the Middle East. Or with regard to Israel a lot of the time. Which is also in the Middle East, come to think of it. Duh.

Thinking these things does nothing about making them right or wrong in practice. The problem for Tibet is not its being inside our outside the Chinese sphere of linguistic rectitude, which is arguably as tried and trued as our sphere of scientific enlightenment. The problem is rather, what happens to the stuff that's actually valuable which is a part of their culture and only their culture. The living part and not just the artifacts, which I'm sure the Chinese government will be very careful to preserve.

What happens to all the cultures of the earth now that American English has swapped places with the Queen's own Empire? What happens when we're all just WalMart civ?

I don't think any of us should be pointing fingers, but I do think that we shouldn't exactly trust the Academies to do our dirty work for us either. Clearly, life is not getting palpably better over here day by day. But it surely is for the elites. Why, indeed, would they want anything at all to change??

I think there's room for righteous anger about that. Let the dialogs begin!!

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Last night, arguing with a very talented lawyer friend of mine (we like to posture adversarially, although it's not a fair match, since he does this professionally) I heard a sad and funny story.

We were arguing about Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton, and the Starr commission and framing and responsibility. For the sake of argument, let's say I was taking Clinton's side, excoriating (a word lawyers would never use in a courtroom) Starr for dispensing with procedural justice in his rabid pursuit of some truth with a capital T. It seemed to me that Clinton was simply maneuvered into a position where his answer was guaranteed, and that it would necessarily be at odds with the goods being held in reserve against him.

The other side of the argument in this case being that he was *out* maneuvered, and that Clnton was the one with the brains, the staff, the power to avoid precisely this predicament, and in the end he still lied to the American public, in whose service he had pledged to labor.

Clinton lied, perhaps, because it was a small matter. He lied, perhaps, because the consequences of telling the truth would cause greater harm to the public than the harm of keeping it from them. He'd been cornered, and perhaps he'd proved his mettle?

I don't much care about the proper answer. It makes interesting dinner conversation.

So, there was this judge, having an affair with a university professor. One night, they are caught on tape having "not-sex" (if you speak like Clinton) in the parking lot of a restaurant. There was a small accident - a fender bender in the process of backing out - which entailed a quick "no problem, officer" check written on the spot (not to the officer, to the victim, sorry!). There was a tale of drunken weaving on the skyway bridge, and an arrest for DWI.

You pretty much know which side you should be on, until you hear that the judge's wife was having him tailed, and that the DWI was a setup. A tipoff. The pictures were not captured accidentally. Who knows about the bumper bumping?

Apart from your envy that these participants in an illicit affair could keep it that hot after two years, it's not all that easy to tell where the justice is or should be. At least not for me.

The part that's hard to get beyond though, is that you do know that the scorned wife was the reason that the affair stayed hot. She was being used that way. You also know that these players probably knew that about themselves, and wanted to keep things that way for as long as they could. Well, you don't really know, but you can reasonably surmise.

I don't really know the end of the story, although I have to assume that a few lives were wrecked. Once public, these things make a hard time stuffing them back into the can. It's hard not to see the wife both vindicated and justified. But you don't really know the backstory. You don't really know anything about their homelife, what led up to things. Do you need to? So what if she was just a controlling bitch. Isn't that just a cliche to put down those who outmaneuver you?

I spent part of yesterday in the VW shop. My brakes were always on (take that Toyota!), and it was costing me lots of gas mileage. They'd just completed a total redecoration of their shop, which made the entire customer service experience much more lavish than it used to be. I hardly need to tell you that it made me nervous.

Now, I'm pretty loaded down with technology, and I tend to know how to use it. This was the first time that I remember their quote for the part being so far out of line with the "standard" price on the Internet. They'd suggested I should have the brakes replaced at the same time but I held off, on the reasonable argument that I'm still not working. I made some lame jokes about how they'd better not start serving Cappuccino or I'd start thinking I was among the wrong class of customer anymore. They assured me I'd have to bring my own. (the coffee was pretty good, oh, and I just rechecked and it must have been a fluke, like looking up prices on Travelocity before you move to commit. It no longer looks like they overcharged me.)

Of course it did turn out that there was more wear left "than we'd thought". I couldn't tell if that was said sheepishly. It wouldn't have mattered to me. I've driven this car nearly 300,000 miles, and all the service has been done at this shop, and I'm not about to stop loving them just because they made their showroom and customer waiting area look more like that rip-off place which serves Cappuccino, and which I, of course, eschew.

But there's more to the story, of course. Recently, in Toronto, on a Sunday, picking up my girls from the airport, one of my coils went out. (yeah, I thought there was only one too) The car made it home at potentially great expense to the car, and later on I found that the 'net is full of VW haters and flamers who post about this issue, and how VW sux. But when I'd taken my car in for the brake diagnosis, they just replaced all these coils, no charge to me, fixed the rattle with some duct tape arrangement, and told me how I could get reimbursed for the coil I'd bought myself, on the road, on a guess.

The coil I bought was too cheap to bother searching for its receipt (that plus the time to manage the paperwork). And I know the VW shop was eager to do this for me because the newly official recall would mean that they would be paid for charging me nothing. I'm not stupid. But it felt like I was being respected, treated well, favored. Any damage done to the car was by now ancient history. I mean that rather literally.

But now I have no way to tell which was the bigger factor in my lost gas mileage, and where the permanent injury is. An ambiguity I'll just have to live with.  I think the difference from Toyota is that there was never any danger to life and limb here. Just pocketbook risk. But they didn't exactly come clean about it ahead of time, and who knows if maybe the flamers on the 'net had something to do with forcing their hand.

Trust is rough. The temptations are all over the place - I'm sure the VW shop is hurting as much as anyone else for business.


Sorry, had to take a break. You know how it is when you stay out late, have a few drinks (I walked home!). You're ravenous the next morning.

I made myself an omelette. It was incredible. I don't know if you'd like it, or if it was just incredible to me. It was a garbage omelette, full of too much unmatched stuff that I had by the dregs. Beans. Chorizo. Olives. Broccoli. Brie. Salza. Little bits of stuff. I have no way to know if I liked it because I'm an easy sell, or because I was happy to find use for those dregs. Oh, I forgot to tell you about the potatoes fried in olive oil.

The one thing I do know for certain is that you would never be able to eat such a thing in any restaurant. That I know for certain. What I don't know is whether that is because there can't possibly be that much love in a plate for hire, or if no self-respecting chef would even think of that combination, or simply because there would be some guarantee of returns to the kitchen. All I know for certain is that you'd never get that in a restaurant.

I also know for certain that I'd never have satisfied my particular craving in a restaurant.

Anyhow, where was I? Oh, OK, sure, you're thinking this is pretty clever, right, trying to make it seem as though these things just happen and I don't orchestrate them, and that they will somehow magically fit right into the story?

I'm not that disingenuous. Please! I make shit up as much as the next guy. I edit. I revise. (the omelette story is true though, and even I know I'll have a hard time selling the notion that I revise. I'm not stupid)

I was going to speak, rather, about how, magically, on the news, as if I were the one to cause it, there are these seemingly coincident happenings. Well, their happening is not coincident, it's plain fact that they coincided. But the randomness of their apparent alignment, that's the seeming part.

First, there's Dick Cheney outing himself as a "big fan of torture." Then there's this guy over in England who pretty much confesses to murder right on TV; how he suffocated his "partner" suffering from terminal AIDS and lots of pain. How he thereby relieved the doctors and his lover all, of what he knew they could never do. And how he was interrogated for 30 hours against the likelihood that he was, in fact, guilty of murder.

Here's the shocker. I want to give them both a pass, both Cheney and the lover. Both of them had the decency to speak their "truths" out loud and in public. Now, you might say that they have little enough to lose. They're old, both of  them, on death's door for various reasons. But there's little enough of that truth telling out there. (there are few enough cars that even get that far!) I'd really like for Cheney to be interrogated, on the power of risking his life, but I'm tipping my hat that he at least says out loud what he's doing in private. When it affects us, I mean. I don't really give a damn what he does in his closet.

How are the rest of us supposed to make good decisions, when everyone's making up stories? How, when everyone's got an angle on everyone else's story?

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it. Really the omelette was incredible. I'm not about to open a restaurant, but still . . . .

Friday, February 19, 2010

Those Who Can't Do

How about these variations: "Those who can't, do." "Those who, can't do." "Those, who can't do . . . " Now let's complete the sentences. "Those who can't, do as they will and consider the rest of us fools for trying." "Those WHO, can't do a thing with their music anymore." "Those, who can't do, should stay over there in the Academy, teaching."

I know it's a silly exercise. Classical Chinese, classically, was never punctuated. They hadn't seen the need for it, plus it made a really good exercise for budding readers. They would follow along with pen while reading, and mark the pauses off to the side. The teacher then could instantly tell which ones knew how to read - which ones were missing essential pieces of context; of background mastery. They could tell which ones were fooled by the subtleties. And the ones who found a new way of reading, which the teacher himself had never noticed, well these ones were taken aside to be browbeaten.

It was an essential part of learning to read. It would be a very very big mistake for a student to be allowed any sense of new with the received classics. You can just imagine the dangers. It would be very much like opening a crack in the cosmic egg. Some light might get in! Or things could fall apart.

Meanwhile, in precisely the same way that childish rhymes rehearse the problems with adulthood, we are fond of reciting the truism that "those who can't do, teach." ("Ashes to ashes, we all fall DOWN" or how about "rockabye baby" or "he bumped his head and he went to bed and he couldn't get up in the morning") For sure, it allows students to get back at their masters. Even, or especially, as the masters themselves take special joy in their students' accomplishment in life after school. Like good parents, they wish only for their children's flight. Or at least marry a doctor, for Chrissakes! You'll never fly, idiot!

Well, not necessarily in China, where your child is still your main insurance policy, which might not be a bad thing for us to emulate, come to think of it. In the Chinese case, the Academy actually was the way in to real-world power. Academic conservatism was extremely functional. And parents figured, hey, if he's gonna fly, he'll do it no matter how strong a cage I build. Chinese parenting has been likened to Jewish parenting by a lot more people than just me. I wonder if Jerry Seinfeld knows about it?

It's pretty much the same way here now, as to ties between the academy and the world beyond. With the big difference being that it doesn't really matter how you score. Here, it's much more important which academy you attended. Our important exams are all entrance exams - entrance to the academy, not entrance to some position beyond the academy. Beyond the academy, it's all just a matter of who you know. Usually, you got to know them inside the academy. Kind of a vicious-circle serpent eating its tail kind of thing, I know.

It is, or at least should be, a commonplace that oppressed people often internalize their oppressors, and become thereby their own jailers. Their own worst enemy. The best evidence for this is how prison trustees are that much crueler toward those under their charge compared to the ones getting paid. This principle has been exploited for eons to great effect.

The question must naturally be begged then, what about the teachers in our academies? These are by and large left-leaning thinkers now, in institutions lavishly funded by the capitalist owner class. Or at least the better the institutions are, the more likely to be so owned and funded. Is the peer review process for tenure simply a handing down of the oppression from the owners of the teachers' minds?

You won't have followed me this far, so I'm going to revert to a bit of shorthand, likely for myself alone. A kind of placeholder to be followed up on later. I actually tried this argument once from the inside of the Academy, and it didn't get me very far there either. In fact, it was the proximate cause of the most recent of my occasions for escape. Oh, I guess I've already reverted to the shorthand, for which I apologize retrospectively, which is what apology should be come to think about it. Sorry!

Some academics are fond of talking about the colonization of their students' minds by various sorts of "grand narratives." They talk about this in language which would not only be utterly uninteresting to those outside the academy walls, but more critically, which would be almost entirely incomprehensible. This "post-modernist" sort of language is utterly impossible to parse. Scientists, of which one famous example would be Edward O. Wilson, the ethnobiologist, try and try sometimes, and can find nothing but circular statements of such occult density that they are certain the scholars themselves have been taken in and made lost by their very own words. Hoist, as it were, by their own petard.

But of course these scientists are denizens of the very same academies, even while being far less likely to lean left. Although still a lot more likely than the population at large. Still, for scientists, the expropriation of their work by the capitalist owner class is pretty much welcome. The feedback loop in that case is fairly direct. You cause our theoretical work to be embodied in the world of better living through chemistry (for instance), continue to fund our research lavishly, and we'll go on being your humble servants, for so long as you let us work on what really turns us on and not just what you think might be useful. Pretty much like artists with a patron.

Be patient and utility will come. It always has. Of course, this implied contract has become strained lately, with universities depending more and more on direct funding from companies expecting tangible and financially rewarding results. There's lots of valid concern now about "motivated" research, as even or maybe especially scientists get in on the take from the great capitalistic economic engine of supposed progress (which ain't looking so great now that the caps are melting, for instance, although the technological fix is surely just around the corner now!!).

Tenure comes to those who pull in grant money. Of course, you have to watch out for the ones with a really tightly wound sense of justice, since they might go on a shooting spree or fly a plane into a building. If the cognitive dissonance becomes too great.

If you're not a scientist, the feedback loop is harder to identify. There are certain routes to political power, to roles inside the government, which, if you're a good player, can be parlayed into power in industry, through that famous revolving door. You might even be able to get away with torture if you rise high enough. And brag about it publicly without worry about the consequences. Which I think is a pretty hopeful sign. Honest! (What, you'd rather have them stay secret about this stuff???!!)

But if you're out of that loop, then you're pretty much relegated to talking about how your own mind has been colonized, even as you browbeat your students into learning how to read and write and talk the way that you do. Jews for Israel and damn the Palestinians who could never know the oppression we have felt. Is it any mistake that so many scholars and writers have been Jewish? Oh, I know, I'm just jealous. Well, sure, and I admit it!

OK, so you don't really browbeat if you're a teacher. It's way more subtle than that. But if you were to be honest, you would have to admit that without that academy you never would have the freedom to indulge this thing which feels like flying. This flight of words which feels very much as though it was approaching some sort of sun, whose existence the words themselves deny. You could do it forever. Admit it. You've never had to work a day in your lives.

That may sound like a taunt or a complaint, but it's not. Honest. I, for one, don't believe that work has to be oppressive to count as work. The forces of the economy would like you to think so for sure, to preserve the economic value of play, for instance, but not me. I know very much what it's like to be penalized for liking work too much. So do those pilots for the regional airlines, who could easily get more for driving a bus.

Still you do have to wonder who owns your mind, according to the little compromises you make each and every day for the sake of peace in the valley. And for most oppressed classes, it's not the things you already know about which are the problems. You can probably identify and make peace with yourself about the paper chase, and the tenure compromises, and the shilling for the admissions or development office.

The things you really have to monitor though, are those things which make you the most exercised, and you don't even know how to identify where the oppression really is. What is it that really bothers you most about your students? What would you really like to slap them down about. That would be the cue to the internal oppression. When the students get uppity, and it really bothers you, and you're wondering if it should.

Sometimes you are just concerned that they are being misled by their own enthusiasm. Usually, you already understand that this particular student, based on a pretty good background check from other assignments, just simply is not equipped for the territory he is heading into, and you want to keep him from embarrassment or worse.

But sometimes they really do find the weak spot in your presentation, and you just want them to shut up. I know a thing or two about how hard it is to stand up in front of a class, exposed, and still to try to resist the temptation to pull rank and bolster the pretense that you really do know exactly what you're talking about. It's a really scary position.

Really, you should just accept the fact that the University owns your mind. That by accepting the credential, you implicitly accepted the need for such a credential to distinguish you from those who don't or won't or can't get it. You recognize that a few of those are just plain too smart to need it or want it or to waste their time getting it, and these become the artists; who produce the actual objects of your teaching. It is and will and should be strange if and why any of them, these objectifiers, become colleagues in the Academy itself, except, perhaps, as "Artists in Residence" who are known to know as little about their own work as it is possible to know. Just in the sense that no-one can really know himself, or why he does or says what he does. That's the magic lacuna in each of us, and it's a good thing as both Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver happened to have figured out, magically, and the very same time. For instance. The University is their Patron then, and as distinguished from you, the Big U. is not their employer.

And that's just the way it is. So get used to it. Unless you want to own your own damned mind, in which case you'd better be pretty proof against crazy. Which if you were you wouldn't require the reassurance of peer review about it in the first place. And just because nobody gets what I'm saying doesn't make me crazy. You know? Right? Hey!!!

Still, I really don't think it's true that 'those who can't do teach.' Teaching is surely doing. You're standing up there in front of a bunch of eager and earnest learners (so long as you don't give them objective measures for feedback, which will only encourage them to game it and become your adversaries) and maintaining this potential fiction that you can lead them someplace valuable, which they could never reach alone. You do it because you love them, more even than you would love to be where they might go yourself. And you take a meta look askance at the work of the real producers in the world beyond the academy. Which, if it had any sense, that world, it would prize this meta-looking in you beyond all reason. It's what a University is for! I have seen the mountain and I can't make it myself, but I can ease your efforts by taking you to my jump off point. What, that's not doing?

Which, speaking of, reason, is how come I have turned almost all of my attacks against the Left. As non-believers in absolute anything, as people who understand that the word truth, while grammatically possible, cannot possibly mean anything at all, except as reification of what originally meant just simply comparison against a standard, in the absence of which, the standard, there is no possible meaning at all, unless you believe that the abstract can be real, and measurable, and something to be trued against. Which just comes right back to that jealous of Jews thing again, now, doesn't it? Because they seem to be able to true things without some actual objectification of that thing against which what they know is being trued. Which was what was so great about that recent Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man, which I'm not, in case you were wondering. I'm not a serious man.

I ramble. And I'm pretty sure I'm right about this stuff, but in the end, those who can't do write, and are almost never actually right, right? I just wish we'd all stop being so shrill and certain about stuff. It doesn't do any good to want people's heads, no matter which side you're on. The problems are all on the fringes, at the extremes, and the solution is about finding some dialog, some truing which can happen among the reasonable people in the middle, not against a standard, but against each other. And it's not that the extremists are wrong. They're just dug in. Trench warfare gets nowhere. Just watch history. Just watch Congress. Well, if you can stand it.

I, for one, just wish that they would let the Olympics play out on their own, competition by competition, and not keep trying to make a story about it, which makes one Olympics look just like any other and not even worth watching. Because I've seen that story and that announcer, and that little heart-wrenching vignette about the struggle to the podium at least a million times. I just want to watch the race!

And what if there are no more mountains left to climb? What if the struggles now are all inside our heads? Would that really be so terrible? Really? We'd have to make the important choices now, instead of kicking them down the road, for instance . . . .

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vote Fraud

I don't know how to pose questions, and I'm in charge of the darned polling company. Did you mean "Boo!" lousy story, or "Boo!" let's turn off the TV, or "Boo!" to turning off the TV. Questions are so much about context. I can never get it right.

I have three "opportunities" out there right now, or maybe four or five depending on how you count them. Maybe the people in charge of the opportunities wouldn't consider me a contender, but how would I know? They aren't talking - pretty much like you ya bastard reader! It's amazing how people and companies and readers and critics will just keep you waiting and waiting, like a frog in a kettle, as if we weren't all desperate for work these days. You might almost say it borders on cruel.

Just for fun, while I'm still in free fall here, which as a line in some movie I recently watched but can't remember which pointed out, free fall is like flying (until you hit). Maybe it was a TV show? I know it's not original with me. Crazy Heart???

Anyhow just for fun - and I'm going on record here that nobody's in danger of a shooting spree from me if you reject me - I'm going to idly suggest the connection among these apparently disconnected applications of myself to someone else's business. Here's the list in no particular order:
  • China/US inter-paradigm understanding and cross-cultural brokerage before we end up at odds with each other and take the whole world down with us . . .
  • Health Insurance IT development to internalize market externalities to optimise care and cost (externalities include what would be humanly "best" and not just what would cover the most bases - sometimes more "care" isn't better, that sort of thing.)
  • non-profit business software development for a sustainable planet (same idea as with healthcare - developing a new economics of humanity)
  • love
  • startup business to shift the critical distinction for technology from software/hardware to machine/human where it belongs
A couple more are just long shots hardly worth mentioning:
  • Winning the lottery (hey, I bought a ticket once)
  • Writing for pay (keep your yap shut!)
Some would pay better than others, I'm sure. Some would sustain the soul in ways to make up for shortfalls in pay. Some would sell the soul. Some would defer compensation for some period up to eternity. I'm having a hard time recognizing which is which.

I'll bet you would have a hard time drawing the connections among them. I'll give you a hand.

First of all, in the Chinese tradition, before contamination from us, the West, the technologists, if you will; before that the Chinese literary, linguistic and cultural tradition had no need to noodle the mind/body problem which so obsesses us. There was not a whole lot of obsessing about beginnings and endings, and therefore no concern for ultimate meanings. The word God, for instance just simply never dropped out from or in to the language.

Then there's the utterly ridiculous, obsolete and just silly distinction between hardware and software in the world of technology. It's all circuits in some virtual space. Logic circuits, embodied in hardware or virtually hosted on hardware, it's all on the machine side of a distinction which does count, and which falls out of many languages after a while. That's the human/machine distinction. It falls out of math, that supposed "universal language," in the form of "paradoxes" which only machine-like thinkers could possibly give a damn about.

Some wag on Facebook just now thought I was talking about "love" when I said free fall is like flying (I just meant a job hunt), so that connection doesn't even bear mentioning.

The economics of healthcare are obvious enough for anyone paying even the slightest attention. For instance, who, if told the price ahead of time, would ride an ambulance rather than a taxi if they were going to be asked to foot the bill themselves? Pretty much only the virtually dead already, right? And where do you think all the expenditures go? And do you think any of it could be used to refund the life of the person who likely never made as much in a whole lifetime as will be spent at its end (for the benefit, presumably, of those to be left behind). Q.E.D.

And as to sustainable industry, well that should be a no-brainer too. If you only charge what it costs to extract something, without considering the cost to renew it, you'd pretty much be shooting yourself in the foot unless you were only concerned about a good time right now. In which case, fuck you! Which takes us back to the love connection again.

I suppose that it's OK for two people to be looking for a good time right now from each other, as long as nobody else is involved. Maybe you know how to get to that magic spot of no implication with anyone other than yourself? But then we get back to the soul selling thing again, I mean assuming you have any usage for the term soul, which I, for one, sure don't.

Well, I'm whistling. While I work? Like a bomb in free fall? Because I like the tune? Because I'm in love? All of the above? I always hated multiple choice. So easy to game. (What? You think I earned my way into the Ivy League - fat chance! I was that dog they let in when some Black Hat was proving how easy it is to game the system. But you're too young to remember that one.)

Vote Fraud!!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Katrina, Katrina; Buffalo's Super Bowl Projections

(take two)

After Super Bowl 44, I was part of the collective sigh when the empty streets flooded with cars leaving friends and family's houses. It wasn't quite like the good old days when the streets had emptied for the Bills, but you could still feel the collectively held breath letting go. Everyone in Buffalo must have been rooting for The Saints.

There was no big party afterward in Buffalo this time, although we might have hung out to watch the one down in New Orleans on TV. We never could do it ourselves in Buffalo, even with four chances in a row! Damn!

President number 44, Super Bowl number 44, Buffalo finally cheered a winner! In the aftermath, I still feel as quiet about it as I felt among the cars gliding through our gears on Main St. after the game. Even while we were cheering wildly, we knew that change for the better is barely visible through that glass darkly; our future doesn't look so promising these days. But we did project the winner this time; the underdog finally won!

The one who played us up on the big screen for the Hollywood version was so much better looking. That might be flattering, except that no one seems to care about Buffalo in real life. It's as if the sudden disasters are the only ones which count. The ones which are unaccountable except as an “act of God”, even when they were predictable.

Mardi Gras coincided with the Presidents' Day Holiday-weekend this year. How fortunate for the revelers. I stayed home and watched a re-run on my computer of the PBS Frontline show on the crash of flight 3407. I should have been watching the Olympics, but that just seems like a another re-run all over again. I must be getting old.

This morning as she drew my blood (alright, I am getting old), the phlebotomist wondered where all the money for Haiti came from, if people in Buffalo can be allowed to live in bombed out houses starving. She wasn't getting rich on my blood, and that's for sure. We had a good time, which is a funny thing to do while getting blood drawn.

How does one deal with regret, then? Looking back, we could have avoided so many of our permanent scars: the Kensington Expressway almost completely tore us apart, just as similar projects did to so many Northeast cities. Its right-of-way downtown has been scabbed over now with low-rise offices and institutions.

We could have had our Great University on the waterfront. Heck, we could have faced down Robert Moses and kept our waterfront in the first place. We could have built our light rail from lots of somewheres to downtown, and then we could have had something other than our ghost-town after dark. I hope Chippewa Street lit up for the Mardi Gras celebrations.

Maybe these scars are just birthmarks; indelible parts of our character? I remember as a kid, when Mom used to take us downtown to buy school clothes. I'd gotten a new red Naugahyde winter cap with earflaps, back when Naugahyde was cool. It made me feel really proud. We used to stick our heads out the windows in those days, riding over the skyway bridge even before it had any safety barriers. My older brother looked way cooler in his green hat with the flaps turned up. I looked like a dork.

Regret for me is watching my new red hat float down and away from the skyway bridge. My terrorized heart went floating with it, tugging me in a direction opposite to a red balloon wanting to float upward. I pulled my head back in like a scared turtle, and stared silently at the back of my brother's seat up front. Now that I think of it, until I went bald I pretty much refused even to wear a hat after that. I look pretty dorky in hats.

Hey New Orleans, our politics are almost as corrupt as yours are! Our schools are just as bad! We suffer natural disasters too, except that ours are laughable. We suffer whiteouts that the rest of the country just makes fun of. And although we don't generally show our tits, we get just as drunk in public as you do on St. Patrick's day, say, or at the Bills games. Chippewa St. ain't Bourbon Street, but still!

What we lack is cool. The harder we try to make ourselves understood, the more our nasal Buffalo twang sticks out. But as they say in Hollywood, when one theater closes, another one opens. No, really, we open nearly enough new theaters around here to make up for the ones that go out of business.

We were once even grander than the Big Easy, but we never were as down and dirty cool in our decadence. We came on our decay the old fashioned way - we earned it over time. Hell, we never got it together enough even to put a roof over our stadium, and it would make a lot more sense here than in New Orleans. But at least our roofs hardly ever blow off, although if we did have a roof it might have a hard time containing the blast of our crowds.

Everyone knows the story of the frog in the kettle who never knows enough to jump out until it's just too late. While the kettle's heating, the frog just feels nice, and sunny, and like it's in a hot-tub, maybe. Somewhere along the line, the frog's energy has been robbed, and by then it's too late to late to do anything about getting cooked. It keeps getting hotter and hotter until, well, until it's all over.

Is that what happened down in New Orleans then, when the sea swells overwhelmed your dikes? Or is that what happened to us up here, dying slowly across so very many years. Who do we all wait for to save us from ourselves? If only Buffalo could pull the rest of the country down the way that Greece is doing for Europe, maybe we'd get a rescue package too. Isn't that where the Olympics got started?

We got our start here in Buffalo at the Westward Ho! Terminus of the great Erie Canal which changed the world. We were once the gateway barons of lumber and leather and grain and imports and even propeller airplanes and automobiles. We got hit by further West, young man, and then the St. Lawrence Seaway, which took the Midwestern shipping right past us. And then the National Defense Funded Interstate Highway System made our 'biggest switch-yard on the planet' railroad nexus redundant too. Our breadbasket grain elevators were emptied.

But hey, how 'bout them Bills now?! And how about our fiber optics? Build it and they will come? In your dreams! They check out the Falls and leave. Or they rifle though our stores and leave. Or they take their education and run.

I guess, looking at that frog, you can just feel contempt that he didn't have the sense to jump out when he could have. Most of the talented people who grew up in Buffalo or went to school here have done that for as long as I can remember.

Turn around froggie, and let's call it suicide redundantly? You can eat the frog's legs, but shouldn't you have killed him off ahead of time? Or is Buffalo like a lobster, without an advanced enough nervous system to register pain. Yeah, that's it. We're just too stupid (but watch the top, Julia, watch the top).

And everybody down in Haiti now is looking for that silver lining, like all those people had to die before the centuries-long tragedy could be turned about? Where were we all before when it was a slow motion death?

If you are a slave, you have been made an object. If you are raped. If you are taken for your beauty only. Or for your wit. Or for your money. If your actual life is not worth paying any attention, then you have been made an object. And if you live through it, then all that you have left is your humanity. And right there, as Victor Frankel reminded us, is the only choice you've ever had in your life. To be human or not to be. It's a choice and not a grant.

But so much of the time we only know how to do back unto others as they have done to us. Not because we're mean, but because we never really did understand that we were being made into objects ourselves.

In New Orleans, the pre-gaming before Fat Tuesday was even more extreme than the party which happened the day before we must begin our pretense of mourning. Because today we are alive, even though tomorrow that asteroid might hit, as they made such good fun of in those Super-Bowl ads.

And I just love to watch Sarah Palin roast herself in the media kettle without even knowing that she now looks and acts more like Tina Fey than Tina does. But what does it say about my humanity, then, when I feel such glee that she makes a fool of herself?

Palin just really wants to be the object of your attention, and I just want to take her down. She's a lightning rod is all, for the entire country's frustration that nobody, seemingly nobody at all, is paying any attention at all to their interests. Everyone's gaming everybody else, and the big corporations make their margins gaming your ability to predict your limits and then hitting you when you cross the line. A tsunami of debt, and it's all our fault, somehow, for wanting.

Well, we're still here in Buffalo. We're still human, what's left of us, and lots of people are coming back home now that the bubble's burst elsewhere. We're not looking forward to some disaster larger than the laughable ones, which still kill lots of people if you really want to know. Walking around in circles snow-blind, or maybe dropping from the sky because the airlines want to outsource responsibility, or just on the streets from guns since all the money has skittered out to the suburbs because our desegregation was stopped at the city line. By Nixon, of all the wonderful people.

And those suburbs won't share a dime with the city whose teats they suck at. As they compete against each other to push their property values higher on the backs of the schools even they won't fund???

That plane came down in Buffalo, they've determined now, because of "pilot error." The steering column was literally shaking at him in his hands, announcing an issue which just simply couldn't be ignored. The idiot lights or warning buzzers or flashers couldn't be counted on to be enough. The pilot pulled a deer-in-headlights move, and bolted in the wrong direction. Would you have done any better? How many such situations have you prepared for?

It seems that it might have been the little decisions that went before which are the ones that really count.

And so then it's the industry's fault, for hiring such an under-tried and trued guy in the first place? Or are wages set according to how much people really want a job? Lots of people want to fly, and should we blame them?

Why isn't it our fault for demanding no slack in the way that the prices get set. (As if the corporations would cut us any slack if we gave it to them!) One only hopes that those teabaggers will be happy with their caveat emptor nirvana. Let's whittle down our government even more now, even though it didn't even have enough regulators to be aware, much less to do anything about what was going on with the airlines. Don't we remember how much we longed for good government back when Katrina hit?

Wait until after the fact and then bring on the multi-millions to investigate the obvious.

Or Toyota now, you know, pundits wondering what's the connection among all these seemingly unconnected failures; what could be the holistic issue which relates brakes to acceleration? Maybe it's the whole "drive-by-wire" concept, except how the hell does that relate to issues with the steering? Surely that part has not lost its actual connection to the wheels?!

There was a general systems failure, despite the need to assign blame. Toyota, not the hot wheels label, the "good old reliable" Buffalo-style label rather, just simply made the wrong decision at lots of little places along their line. No one of them seemed to merit coming clean, until they were forced to come clean and then suddenly a whole lot of little retrospectively wrong decisions are getting swept up into their mess, and so the holistic problem is what is it now about Toyota culture which has them protecting the brand at all costs? So that, in the end, the brand might get, well, not destroyed exactly, but tarnished surely?

It's a culture of deny deny deny, until the least of us feels responsible for a situation not of her making, because none of us was smart enough or prepared enough to see it coming. It's a culture of denial, as anybody knows who's tried to collect on insurance, whether for health care or on an “act of God” caveat in New Orleans. As anybody knows who's tried to pin responsibility on somebody in power.

Some lowest common denominator always has the veto power now, and so Sarah Palin can say "retard" when she means it satirically, but not when she means it seriously. But seriously now, who can tell her difference from Tina Fey? There is no difference at all anymore between earnest and satire except in point of view. But nobody's really laughing. There's lots of finger pointing, desperate for an object.

Protect brand America, I guess. But when the Supreme Court grants rights to corporate “persons” as if they also were inalienable from their pursuit of happiness, something's gone very wrong. Big corporations have the money to drown out your voice and mine in elections, as if they haven't been using it that way already.

Don't we remember that women and blacks never had the vote in the first place? That more than half of us had to fight off that same supreme court to even get to vote?

Grim? Even the Bills are probably not about to stay around these parts. Our stadium looks like the WalMart edition, and Toronto has one with a flip top right around the corner. In the same dense media market, only cooler. Way cooler.

Bring in the outsourced quality. Pay something under half of the wages of dignity. Because people are willing, at least, to have something rather than nothing.

We never pay attention until it can make us look good. But we're not looking so good, America, we're not looking so good.

Will we make stone soup then, the way they did here in Buffalo when the superstars came to town for our home makeover, Buffalo style? Can we be like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and find that we'd always had what we needed within ourselves? Or will we just grab for the bowl to see who gets it first and fastest, and then let the tears come flowing out when we watch the story get retold up on TV or at the movies?

Make of yourself an object, and treat yourself the way you do your dog. Excellence is what you've always had, if you were to nurture it. And how do you treat your dog? I'm thinking a lot better, sometimes, than you treat your neighbor.

We could choose not to take responsibility for someone else's claim of excellence on our behalf. (Nothing wrong with a little partying now and then though!) That pilot could have used to read "The Message to Garcia" written by our man right here in East Aurora. There's room for personal responsibility.

Excellence is not something you're in the audience just to witness. It's not only in the Super Bowl, or at the Olympics, or flashing off the balconies in New Orleans, or on the screen from Hollywood.

There's also excellence in comparison to you. We still have a chance to win the real competition. Or maybe we already have, except let's not tip back the Gatorade just yet.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Another Spy Thriller Goodreads Review of Noel Hynd

Conspiracy in Kiev (The Russian Trilogy, #1) Conspiracy in Kiev (The Russian Trilogy, #1) by Noel Hynd

(from my review "Spymaster Masters me Again")

I was a little nervous reading this book. I'd really enjoyed Midnight in Madrid (another in this trilogy), but that was my first Kindle read, and I didn't know then that these books are published by a Christian publishing house. Starting this one, I was afraid my positive impression might have been contaminated by first-timeism (I liked reading on the Kindle) and I have to assume that Christian publishing would prove to be, you know, programmatic and rule-based and therefore shallow.

This book has two parts, and part one had me completely. A good spy novel, for me, has to lead the reader to the same spot as the protagonist, wondering whom to trust, what's real, and if she's actually working for the good guys. Hynd's writing does that for me in (sorry) Spades. He is utterly convincing with his takes on the world's actual ambiguity, which he backs up with utterly reliable and detailed rich descriptions of the situations where our hero, Alex, finds herself. Including all the historical and political background you might need to leave what you thought you knew - for the purposes of the story - well and far behind.

Hynd's world is a complex place, full of spy v. spy, cynicism on the part of the 'good' guys, themselves doing illegal and nasty thing; and good hearts at the core of 'bad' guys, who have nothing good at all in their brutish resumes. You give him a pass for making Alex impossibly attractive and talented and dedicated. It makes it conceivable that she could actually be that clear-eyed about what she's up against. She's been hit on, competed against, cheated, and uses what she's got in a world where she's utterly alone and without family. She looks good because she has to, and makes a triumph of it.

I almost gave it up in the second half though, where the complexity of a world where America is not very certainly good, starts to break down. You sense flags waving, missionary certainty regaining an upper hand, and you remember that this is just a page turner where the ugly people are bad, and the pretty people good. As though all it might take is prayer and determination and style to move from one side to the other.

The second half presents a billionaire in flat relief, who's doing good by virtue of spending money on spreading God's word to indigenous people, sure along with stuff they wouldn't need without having had their world upset by that same impulse in the first place. The protagonist shrinks, in this reader's estimation, by her apparently unthinking willingness to abide by her judgments of people's hearts, regardless of the harm they wreak by their actions and by their omissions, or how they throw around their money and power.

And then, in the most blatant of possible heavy handed, programmatic and didactic moves (surely worthy of a Christian author writing Christian books), the prayerful Alex gets saved by a medallion of the cross, given her by a pure hearted and surprisingly talented child. Oh please! I thought this was a reader's book, written by a writer.

Most spy novels don't afford the reader tears, remaining focused instead on the adrenaline and mind games. This one does, again in part one, which is both surprising and a good clue to what sets the work apart. So, I'm cutting the author some slack, and here's why: the reader actually gets a chance to rise a bit above the book's protagonist. We can't be anywhere near so beautiful, so multi-lingual and muli-talented, and only James Bond himself could be so good a shot. Never mind that we would do something other than make lots of money doing missionary work to console ourselves for our pain and loss. Our choices are not so, well, lavish.

But we do understand, by the author's own recounting, just exactly where she was lead astray by her own gullibility in service to a flag and to a missionary cause whose principals were never, in any way, willing to take the risks that she did on their behalf. Unless for vanity.

The author shows how the carnage directly results, in reality, from these disingenuous self-serving moves, and reminds the reader of the Church's missionary atrocities in the name of evangelism across the centuries. You don't know where the author stands (I'm giving him back his writer's stripes), but you're pretty sure, as reader, that you're not going to be so gullible as Alex was. You're pretty sure that you're real and she's not. Which is a nice thing to be reminded of, by a book that draws you in so completely.

Then there's the matter of prayer. The stimulus-response of God's hand in apparent "answer" to prayer was so heavy handed that you have to assume it to be an announcement on the part of the author that he's not God, even in relation to the book. It's a reminder to the reader that it is just a book, and that in real life the miracles are never quite so obvious. What choice did the author have?

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Reading to Write, Writing to Read, Wearing a Black Hat

You probably knew I couldn't stay away. I wasn't so sure. I have other more compelling writing projects now, some of which I actually hope to get paid for. Am desperate to get paid for, if you want to know the truth. Because any moment now I'm likely to hear if I got this or that job which I've applied for. Earnestly and in good faith, but I dread as much as long for the chance again to renew my upstanding ability to pay my bills.

I'm sure you care a bit less than I do for the kind of integrity which bedevils my every decision. I'm trying for a word here which implies nothing about a moral better or worse. Just integrity. I feel split apart by jobs. I feel split apart by love affairs. I feel split apart by having to follow protocols or directions or etiquette of any sort now that I think about it. I want and need and even sometimes demand to be the exception to every rule. I am not, ultimately, a believer in rules. I believe in slack. So do you. You want to be considered special too. Despite your shortcomings. I've learned to stay away from things which split me apart, or to find some way to stay apart.

As in, if even I, as well capitalized socially as I manifestly am (or at least "could be if I wanted to"), cannot stand up for slack, then what chance does anybody have? I think there's integrity in that. But you may not want to get near me, just like those "black hat" hackers who now have conventions all over the world but are not always savory types themselves. I mean you have to wonder where they got their skills if not by breaking into places all over the place. You have to wonder where the thrill changes over into wanting money for what they're good at. You have to wonder if they'd ever be honest behind your back, given enough temptation.

You have to wonder, if you're me, if the only distinction between a black hat hacker on the side of the good guys and a black hat hacker on the side of the bad guys is which side of what boundary he (I think it's still mostly "he") finds himself on. If you live in Eastern Europe, then nobody's going to give you the time of day about what it is you've learned how to do, so you might as well steal as much as you can from the evil oppressor capitalist pigs you so much want just to like you. To be like.

If you're inside the NSA, you might as well do what the boss tells you to do, since to question that will get you ejected out of rank. And if you're living to some reasonable standard inside the boundaries of these United States - if you have a reasonably respectable "day job" - then you can call out your hacks and expect someone to both trust that you meant well by them, and expect them to do something about closing the gaping hole.

The one you wouldn't close before the hacker demonstrated that it was open. You wouldn't listen to him until he just popped right through it, showed you what he could have done, and then hopped right back out.

What do you do, what should you do, if you think the ones you're helping are in fact themselves oppressors? You could rationalize that you're really helping the hapless victims of the corporate slackers. The customers whose identity is getting stolen. And your expectation of getting paid by the corporations, against the cost to expose them to their customers, is extortion by some other name. What if you really think that these corporations are evil, not just by their omissions, but by all sorts of facts about them. What would be the right thing then? To stay out of the game entirely? Who do you call that out to?

So now there's a body of hackers, just like there's a body of authors, all wanting to be paid attention for the terrible things they can do with and to your trust. I bow out, I bow in, I read authors who compel me, and know I could never write as well as they do, I read authors who compel me, but don't compel so many others, and I think I can tell the readers how to read, I read myself and think I should learn to write, but I have no way at all to get anyone's attention. At least not by writing.

And in the world of writing, there's no way to be a hacker!!??? Isn't that where the word got started? I've driven a taxi. I'll do it again if I have to. Now tell me, what do you want me to act like I believe? How much does it pay? Who's the audience?

Well, I'm just not that good, or sleazy, or whatever. I mean I think that if I could write a potboiler, or whatever they're called, I really would. It would still beat having to take another day job. Now can I please take your day job?

I've blown it in the world of power-networking, having forsaken all the friends who could exercise some clout on my behalf. I seem to keep only friends who don't quite believe in me any more than I believe in myself, or who have so much integrity themselves that they'd never exericise influence on my or anybody else's behalf for that matter. Is there integrity in that? Which??? Has nobody ever helped you, then? Must you claim yourself for yourself alone?

Well, I think that's what family is, those who would cut you slack, except that to do so would be to betray their responsibility to you. I'm not like good Catholics, for instance, who will sacrifice their own life for the betterment of some family member's life. I rationalize - I don't even believe, in the end, that my sacrifice would lead to the betterment of anyone else's life. Ever. At all. If they don't learn to do it themselves, then it's not worth doing. I'm not reliable enough to depend on. Although I'm happy to use my connections shamelessly on your behalf if I find that I ever have any. Which might explain my apparent strategy not to.

And yet I do allow - have allowed - what I consider to be the inhuman abuse of me rather than to contest it. Other people can't know what they're asking of you when they demand that you get a job, or risk jail in the case of child support. Risk accusations of abandonment. But they can't know that for you this is precisely the same as being consigned to a galley, pulling oars day in and day out and sometimes even sustaining the stripes down your back, just because there's no-one who believes it can be as bad as that. Who are you to know what goes on in someone else's heart?

We are, each and every one of us, quite fully capable to demand of others things which if we were to know what it felt like "inside" we would realize that we had just made of that person something lower than an object, but we exercise some "right" and objectively, what we're asking is no real sacrifice at all. It's what we would want if we were that person. We impose our dreams on others, never considering that it might hurt to be imposed on that way. Keep your own fucking dreams, I've got my own. Now what was it you thought that I should do for my own good? Please, don't leave me on my own. I need a teacher.

The pivotal line in that great film Precious, where she looks at the social worker and realizes that the social worker wouldn't have nearly enough strength to live her life, Precious' own life. And social workers - I've known a few in my day - are almost never those who've lived lives of privilege themselves. These are often enough people who've had to pick themselves up, though probably no one of them has had so far to go as Precious did.

I resist your dreams for me, you resist mine for you. Nothing makes me more livid inside than when my own mother says how she'll pray for me that I will get this or that job. She's praying for my death sentence because it means so much for her is all. To see me safe and upstanding and recognized for what she knows to be my talents and skills and what I have to offer. If she knew what it felt like inside me to face yet another round of up the hill to roll back down, she would never wish for me something to make her feel that easy. But I have no way to say that. I wouldn't say it if I did. Well, OK, I do say it all the time, and it doesn't make me very nice.

OK, so I've gotta go now, to meet Mom at the day care center for memory challenged elders. To check it out for Dad. They're popping up all over the place, and just like day-care for infants if you want to get a job, likely cost way more than the most tony private prep school. And the working class stands for that? Or do they all just get family to help. As it was in the beginning. Amen.

I'm not complaining. I'm just saying. You don't know me. You can't, no matter how much I write, nor how well, you will never know me. Now cut me some slack. I don't even know myself. Not even close.

Monday, February 15, 2010


I see I've worn you out, dear reader. Sorry 'bout that.

Because I'm helpless against temptation, I've been tracking visits to this site, and whereas I got more "return visitors" when I wrote less, I get almost none anymore. No one seems to come back for more.

It doesn't really hurt my feelings. Honest. I mean it's not like you were giving me any feedback anyhow, even if you were coming back. Even if you know me in real life, which I think it's pretty unlikely that you do. I wear those people out just by talking.

It is interesting to see, though, how much commentary there is on angled sites. Sites with an angle. The ones you go to because you already agree with everything the blogger has to say, and you just want to register your rah rah agreement. So, I can be happy that I'm not that kind of site. I don't ever want to be cunning the way that Sarah Palin is. (I seem to have a thing about her, don't I? Well, she is worrisome. She seems a fraud to me. Raw ambition cloaked in something attractive, and it scares me.)

And anyhow, I'm used to being a fraud. I have a fairly long and reasonably distinguished career as a techie. You're not going to see me on the cover of Information Week or anything, because at least I know I'm a fraud and don't want to expose that fact. I would never in a million years stand up and represent that I know exactly what you should do with your technology. But I would maintain that my judgment is as good as the next guys and I have a decent track record.

What I lack is theoretical underpinnings. In pretty much the same way that I've had a hard time with academic credentials, I've never had the time or the resources or, frankly, the inclination to slow down enough to get the theory right. But in the field of Information Technology, the facts of the marketplace so out-pace their theoretical underpinnings, that a decent argument can actually be made that you're better off without theory.

In other words, while sitting in school learning about how things have been done and how they should be done, someone out there in the "real world" is already doing it differently. You have to be hands-on full time all the time to even have a chance to keep up with what's going on.

Plus, theory sometimes, or even often, traps you into conclusions based more on the shape things should have, in your mind, than it does on things as they really are. Like a clunky plot in a movie, it goes exactly where it has to go, and so the movie makers have to come up with new ways to keep the audience on its toes.

Or do like House, the TV show, and bring the audience right into the plot, writing by committee, and just make the whole thing like a three-ring circus. Where there's so much to watch, under-girded by some medical mystery, that you can hardly even think of turning away, even though you know exactly how it's going to end. Sort of. But you still want to see.

That's the kind of show you just hope they'll be able to keep going forever. Unless they succumb to the temptation of letting House fall in love. That would end the show in an instant. But barring that, the show will and can go on forever.

Pretty much like my writing, you might think?

I'm honestly not so sure being a doctor is all that different from being a techie. You think you want someone handling your body who has had lots and lots of theoretical training, but the world of medicine now seems to be modeling itself after the world of IT. Every day a new and better medicine. Every day a new diagnostic machine.

The big difference is that in medicine, they actually pay the professors pretty well, and even expect them to practice while they teach. And maybe the good new stuff still comes out from the academies?

In the case of actual IT, you'd be nuts to move into the academy from the real world, which pretty much guarantees that students will not get what they need there either. Unless you're Carnegie Mellon or MIT, perhaps, but even there it might be a toss-up if the really cool stuff is going on inside or outside the academy walls.

Those walls are pretty porous anyhow, aren't they? anymore. Technology transfer arrangements can make both universities and professors pretty rich now, but we won't go into that.

I'm just wondering what a fraud really is anymore. If you can do the job, you're manifestly not a fraud. But sometimes, like Matt Damon in that movie, even if you can do the job, you're a fraud if you don't have the credential. In the field of IT, that's a difficult call. Sometimes the theoretical underpinnings are helpful. Sometimes, just like a predictable Hollywood plot, they lead you in directions which have a nice shape but nothing at all to do with reality.

I was always a pretty good troubleshooter. I think a bit more theory might have wrecked that ability. But it was a game of nerves, keeping up with what's new and different, and weighing the likely honesty of salespeople against your own read of the marketplace. The proprietary against the free. Having to give the game over half the time to the young and certain ones who think they know everything, and often enough actually do! about whatever they are thinking is the latest coolest thing.

Now I turn my attention to words, where I really know I'm a fraud. But where somehow, the credentials really are expected to get in the way. Would you read a novel whose author put Ph.D. after her name? I didn't think so.

Well, back to my writing then. See ya! Or not. Whatever. Bye. I never said I loved you. And you're way too experienced to be handling my body. Yuch! That's just disgusting. If I wanted to be manipulated, I'd get a doctor. If I wanted to teach, I'd get a doctorate. If I wanted a virtual lover, the kind with all that experience and technique, well, I have better things to do with what money I have left. You can find somebody else, and it won't hurt my feelings. Honest.