Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lazy blogging Thursday No. 2

Both my friend Steve and my sister Jennifer, happy and successful people to all outward appearances, independently of each other have pointed me to, a website that features merchandise including de-motivational posters, lovely parodies of those irritatingly optimistic things you see on the walls of places where you probably wouldn't want to work.

I'm moving this weekend, so I hardly need any outside impetus towards de-motivation, but I thought one of my loyal readers might need a little depressing thought to start his or her day.

Please don't thank me. I'm just thoughtful that way.

For those of my readers who for some reason might feel they need a little pick-me-up instead, perhaps they will find inspiration in a hamster who dreams of being Grand Moff Tarkin.

And because it is a lazy blogging tradition here at Lotsa 'Splainin' 2 Do, I present a picture of the impossibly luminous Melissa Theuriau, wearing some nasty eff me high heels and a dress somewhat reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. (Click on picture for larger, even dreamier version.)

A giant Melissa Theuriau? Okay, now I'm motivated!

Now playing: Mose Allison - It Didn't Turn Out That Way
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wednesday Math, Vol. 13: A quick proof

I had an idea for a "quick" post today about the Fibonacci numbers and their mutant cousins the Lucas numbers.

We did the Fibonacci numbers a few weeks back. You start with 1 and 1 as the first two numbers, and the next Fibonacci is the last two added up. The Lucas numbers are like the Fibonaccis, but the sequence starts with 2 and 1. Here the first few numbers on both infinitely long lists.

Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, ...
Lucas sequence: 2, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18, 29, 47, 76, 123, 199, 322, ...

Notice that 1, 2 and 3 are on both lists, which means that 3, for example, is both a Fibonacci number and a Lucas number. After that the lists diverge, and none of the numbers bigger than 3 show up on both lists, at least as far as I've written. It turns out that 3 is the largest number that is both a Fibonacci number and a Lucas number.

Statement: 3 is the largest number that is both a Fibonacci number and a Lucas number.

Let's give position numbers to both lists, written as subscripts.

F1 = 1, F2 = 1, F3 = 2, F4 = 3, F5 = 5, F6 = 8, F7 = 13,...

L1 = 2, L2 = 1, L3 = 3, L4 = 4, L5 = 7, L6 = 11, L7 = 18,...

While we can get the next Lucas number by adding the last two on the list together, we can also get it by adding up a Fibonacci number and the Fibonacci two back on the list. This is what I mean, starting with the Lucas number 4 and the Fibonacci numbers 3 and 1.

4 = 3+1
7 = 5+2
11 = 8+3
18 = 13+5...

Using our numbering system and
n to represent any position in the list, we get this equation

Ln = Fn + Fn-2

Using this same numbering system, we have the formula for the next Fibonacci number.

Fn+1 = Fn + Fn-1

Because every Fibonacci number is bigger than the last once we get past the two copies of the number 1 at the beginning of the list, what this means is

Fn < Ln < Fn+1

If I merged the two lists, once we get past 3, the list would go Lucas (4), Fibonacci (5), Lucas (7), Fibonacci (8), Lucas (11), Fibonacci (13), etc., interleaved infinitely. So nothing on the Lucas list can equal anything on the Fibonacci list once we get past 3.

Q.E.D. which is Latin for Quick Explanation, Dude!

Okay, no it isn't really. But the proof is true.

Make sense?

Yay, Bahamas! Yay, Flags of Many Lands™!

Now playing: William Bell - Just as I Thought
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Teen Scream Magazine

So who's the cute kid? This picture was on the front page of Huffington Post last week, though it could also be on Lisa Simpson's favorite Non-Threatening Boys Magazine. HuffPo asked us to guess who it might be, this son of celebrities.

Have you guessed?

The answer is that this is Patrick Schwartzenegger, the 14 year old son of Arnold and Maria. Notice the father son resemblance? Nope, me neither, except that the kid is already nearly as tall as his dad. There's the huge jaw, but mom's got a huge jaw as well. For a resemblance to a Kennedy, I'd say he favors Caroline.

I know a manly man like Ahh-nold would not like to consider it, but I think he should look into the possibility that 15 years ago, there was a really cute, really tall red-headed UPS driver in his neighborhood.

Just sayin'.

Now playing: Beck - Devil's Haircut
via FoxyTunes

Monday, January 28, 2008

Introducing Turk Thrust

I was flipping channels this Saturday, and the local PBS channel was playing "classic" movies. The first of the double feature was 1964's Shot in the Dark, second in the series that would be known as the Pink Panther movies. Here are some comments and fun facts to know and tell.

1. It doesn't hold up very well. Peter Sellers performs a lot of slapstick and other actors are obviously directed not to respond. There's underplaying comedy and then there's being completely dead. A lot of the scenes fall flat because there's no energy from the other actors. Laurel and Hardy were great slapstick artists, but it worked because Ollie got so upset so fast and Stan broke into tears so brilliantly.

2. Elke Sommer's character is named Maria Gambrelli. She's very lovely, but does she look like a Maria Gambrelli to you? The character was originally supposed to be played by Sophia Loren. Now she looks like a Maria Gambrelli!

3. I stopped watching after an hour, and the funniest things in the first hour were Herbert Lom's worsening facial tick, Herbert Lom underplaying his reaction to cutting off his thumb in his guillotine cigar cutter, and the last credit in the cast "Introducing Turk Thrust". The actor's real name was Bryan Forbes, who had been working as an actor for about 15 years before this film, and continued working for decades after as a writer and director. Sellers and Forbes had invented Turk Thrust as the name of a fictional pop star. This became something of an in joke, and in one of the later, even less funny films in the franchise, Sir Roger Moore was credited as "Turk Thrust II". Moore was best man at Forbes' wedding many years before.

4. If you want a film composer to write a catchy tune, here's your list, in no particular order.

a) Henry Mancini
b) Nino Rota
c) Elmer Bernstein

I didn't like the movie, but I can't get the instrumental theme out of my head.

Now playing: They Might Be Giants - Why Must I Be Sad?
via FoxyTunes

Hey, mister! Your monkey's acting up!

Thanks, kid! Technically, he's not my monkey, but I'll see what I can do.

Monkey! Mon-KEE! monk... monk.. monkey!


Calm down, monkey! You're scaring the children!

Come on... calm down... no, it's okay... calm down.

Monkey! Over here. Look down here!

Yes, down here, monkey. Something for you, monkey...

Yessssss..... isn't that better?

Yes, she's very pretty.

Does she like you? Of course she likes a nice monkey! Who doesn't like a nice monkey?

You didn't want to scare the children... yes I know. You're a good monkey... yes you are! Yes you are!

Yes, that's better... yes, she has a lovely collarbone. Yes she does.

That's a good monkey.

Now playing: Peter Gabriel - Shock The Monkey
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The other shoe.

I'm moving next weekend, so starting tomorrow, I'm keeping the posts short and may have a few days off from blogging after next Friday.

Friend of the blog Distributor Cap wrote a very good post talking about the economic stimulus plan coming our way, thanks to some powerful bipartisan stupidity being practiced in Washington D.C. right now. Here's my own two cents on the situation, which given the strength of the dollar is not much of an investment at all.

I reviewed Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy back in December, a well written and comprehensively researched book from 2006 with a bad title. The GOP's attempt to become the Party of God™ (name trademarked internationally by Hezbollah) is only one third of the book. The other two parts are prophetically two of the major headlines of 2008, the price of oil and the massive debt that has been assumed by Americans at all levels, government, industry and personal.

So now the word recession is being thrown around by nearly everybody, except Fred Thompson who still thinks the American economy's story of the past seven years is "the greatest story never told." Like Distributor Cap, I'm worried about this economic stimulus plan that Nancy Pelosi thinks is so wonderful. We can't find a few billion to fund the children's health insurance, Bush tells us, but somehow we will find the $150,000,000,000 (one hundred fifty billion dollars written longhand for effect) for this $600 party for every adult, $300 party for every kid and unspecified amount party for every corporation. How will the government pay for this bailout? By going into more debt, of course.

So we have a debt crisis, fueled by low interest rates and idiot borrowers and lenders. The government's solution is to lower a major interest rate by three quarters of a point and then lead by example by going into even more debt than usual this year, and this is an administration who loves spending more money than it has, no matter who is in Congress. (Why should the executive get the lion's share of the blame right now? Hint: wars cost money.)

This is analogous to solving the crack epidemic by lowering the price of crack.

But then there's the other side of the economic mess, rising prices due in large part to the incredible increase in the price of crude oil in 2007. Let me get a little math-y about this. Here are the rough average prices for crude oil for the spring, summer and fall of last year.

Spring 2007: $66 a barrel
Summer 2007: $74 a barrel
Fall 2007: $91 a barrel

The percentage increase are as follows.

Spring to Summer: 12% increase
Summer to Fall: 23% increase
Spring to Fall: 38% increase

So the average price of crude increased about 38% in six months. (I say "about" because I'm taking the average of several semi-random data points from each three month period, not the average of every day's ending price.) Here's the thing. The oil companies are being nice. They haven't passed on all that price increase to consumers. When it comes to aviation fuel, they squeezed relatively hard. Aviation fuel, like gas, doesn't have the same exact price everywhere in the country, but the industry index shows that the last six months has seen a 29% increase. In other words, a large part of the increase the crude oil prices was passed on to the airlines, who in turn passed it on to the passengers.

This slightly confusing graph above shows price of gasoline for the nation in red (5% increase in six months) and the price in San Jose in blue (8% increase) with the scale for those prices on the right. The green squiggle is the price of crude, with the scale for that price on the left side of the chart. (Point to point shows only a 21% increase, not the 38% increase I discussed above. This is because I compared quarterly average to quarterly average instead of one particular day's price to another.) In either case, the past six months have seen a less than 10% increase in gas prices for the consumer. Why the spasm of altruism from our friends at BP, Exxon, et al.?

Here's my best guess. Lotsa people aren't that good at math. What they notice is the flip from $2.99 to $3.00, the big threshold changes. Three dollar gas got the attention of a lot of drivers, who decided to make changes in their habits. The gas companies have had it great for a long time, as sellers of an addictive product often do. The price goes up, and as a market, we whine a little but buy just about as much as we used to. The last thing they want is for us to wake up and pay attention. If the price increase for gas when up directly with the green squiggle, folks in the Bay Area would be shelling out $3.70 a gallon right now, and the country would average about $3.39 a gallon. If the increase was the 38% increase seen in the quarterly averages, the Bay Area would be paying $4.21 a gallon and the national average would be about $3.86.

The four dollar a gallon threshold will definitely be another wake-up call.

As I always say whenever I post a picture of the scary vibrating screaming woman (click on the pic to see her quiver), Holy Shucking Fit!

Time to pull back from the brink. If you are one of those people who can afford to tighten your belt, count your blessings and do the right thing. There's a lot of signs out there, and none of them look very promising.

Yay, Flags of many lands™! Yay, Tunisia!
What would cause a person from this devout Islamic state to wander over to Lotsa 'Splainin' 2 Do?

Did you guess giant women? Give yourself a cookie. Lotsa visitors from Islamic lands believe Allah is Great, but a fifty foot tall Anita Ekberg is pretty cool, too.

That's lotsa 'splainin'. Glad it's a Sunday.

Now playing: Talking Heads - Don't Worry About The Government
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book report Saturday: Born Standing Up

Steve Martin has written a memoir of his performing career, cleverly entitled Born Standing Up. He hasn't done stand up since the early eighties, and now it's easier to think of him as actor Steve Martin or writer Steve Martin, but it was as stand-up comedian Steve Martin that he first gained fame, and that fame was at a remarkable level. Like so many overnight sensations, Martin was on stage for a very long time with slowly growing and sometimes shrinking success before everything came together for him.

The book reminded me of Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One, not that Martin's act is anything like Dylan's, but that both broke with the past so completely, almost violently, it's interesting to see what they considered their influences and to hear them recall fondly old-fashioned entertainment that they grew up with.

Martin was on stage from an early age. In the late 1950s, he lived a short bicycle ride away from Disneyland, and at the age of 10 he started selling guidebooks there. He gravitated towards the Magic Shop, where he bought some tricks, some of which worked and some of which didn't, and began performing as a magician, but at the same time learning the timing of comedy from old vaudevillians who worked at some of the stores in The Magic Kingdom. He started out backstage and yearned to be onstage. Home was not where he wanted to be, due to a difficult relationship with his father.

He actually got onstage working at Knott's Berry Farm, playing in corny melodramas at The Bird Cage theater. He recalls all of his time on stage with genuine affection. An indifferent student through grade school and high school, he becomes a seeker after knowledge as a late bloomer, not only seeking knowledge about being on stage but about the arts and humanities, and even symbolic logic, where he finds the funny side of logic (and illogic) in the silly but formally correct syllogisms of Lewis Carroll.

He was performing onstage and writing comedy bits for others at the same time, getting work (mostly offstage) on The Smothers Brothers Show and The Sonny and Cher Show. While writing, he was also performing what Rick Moranis would later call "anti-comedy". He was trying to put together an act with no punchlines. Those of us who saw him when he became a star in his white suit and immaculate haircut might think this was a guy who completely missed the whole sex and drugs part of the late sixties, but that was not the case. A few painful experiences moved him away from the drug culture, and his belief that his act could only work due to precision made him decide that he couldn't perform even slightly buzzed.

The big leap was when he decided to leave the steady pay of writing behind and tried to live entirely on the act. This was before comedy clubs were in vogue, and it often meant being an opening act for a musician, from folk acts to rock acts to Ann Margret in Vegas. He fondly recalls The Tonight Show, but debunks the myth that the first time you come on, you are suddenly a real performer. Because there was no club circuit, a lot of his apprenticeship was on the daytime talk shows that shot in Los Angeles, like Merv Griffin and Virginia Graham. He was resolute in his ideas that his act would be completely original and not like anyone else's, a difficult prospect for someone who was more like a performance artist today than he was like a comic from the generation that came before him.

His name is so closely tied to Saturday Night Live, it's odd to note that he wasn't on the show until its second season. He saw the first show on TV after he had performed on the road, and let out an expletive. They were doing "the new comedy" and they were on TV. He fretted that his best chance might have passed him by, but as history shows, it was actually moving ahead at a breakneck speed and waiting patiently for him at the same time. As useful as Carson's Tonight Show was for him, it was the appearances on Saturday Night Live that took him from crowds of 300 to crowds of 25,000 in a matter of a few years.

A story he returns to several times is the reconnection with his parents and his sister. He hadn't stayed in touch with them during the struggling times and was only sporadically in touch during the hectic glory years, but he was surprised at how much they miss him, and how much he misses them in return. He isn't sentimental about it; all his stories are written sparsely with well focused detail, as a comedian should write. He does show sympathy towards his largely unsympathetic father, and acknowledges that he avoided contact with other nicer family members due to his desire to limit contact with his dad.

Martin credits a lot of his growth as a performer and a person to the women he was romantically involved with in the time just before, during and just after the "era of free love". He ends one chapter with this paragraph about one of his girlfriends in the time before his act was a success, Mitzi Trumbo, daughter of the famed blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.

Once, on the way to the Trumbo house, Mitzi warned me, "Pop's in a bad mood today. He's got a screenplay due in four days and he hasn't started it yet." The screenplay was for the movie The Fixer, starring Alan Bates. Eventually, the work got done and the movie was ready to shoot. Trumbo encouraged Mitzi to join him and she was whisked off to Budapest for the duration of the film. After I'd received several charming letters from her then noted a lag in the regularity of their arrival, Mitzi sent me a gentle and direct Dear John letter. She had been swept away by the director John Frankenheimer, who, twenty years later, tried and failed to seduce my then wife, the actress Victoria Tennant, whom he was directing in a movie. Mitzi was simply too alluring to be left alone in a foreign country, and I was too hormonal to be left alone in Hollywood. Incidentally, Frankenheimer died a few years ago, but it was not I who killed him.

If you like that paragraph, by all means, read the book.

Yay, Flags of Many Lands™! Yay, the tropical paradise that is Aruba!

Also, my first official visitor from the tropical paradise that isn't, Iraq!

And in what is a rare occurrence now that I have had visitors from 113 different places sporting different flags, the Netherlands Antilles finishes off three new flags in a 24 hour period. Yay!

Now playing: Fats Waller - You´re Laughing At Me
via FoxyTunes

Friday, January 25, 2008

So, long, Dennis. We'll miss you.

Dennis Kucinich has dropped out of the presidential race. If I didn't care a fig about electability and just went with the guy or gal who said the most stuff I agree with, I would have voted for Kucinich in a heartbeat. As it is, I voted absentee ballot for Edwards.

Dennis dropped out too soon. For instance, it wasn't until this week browsing over at Wonkette that I learned that this is the correct way to crop a picture of Dennis and his gigantic child bride Elizabeth.

Couldn't we just make Elizabeth queen of the world, at whose lovely feet all must bow and scrape? Couldn't some modern day hobbit offer her the Ring of all Power, like Frodo did with Galadriel?

All hail World Queen Elizabeth I! Heck, we don't even have to have an election for this. I pretty sure we can pass this by unanimous proclamation.

Now playing: Elvis Costello - Our Little Angel
via FoxyTunes

Borrowing from blog buddies...

which a comedian would call "stealing material".

This collage I first saw over at Zoey & Me's Cat in the Bag, one of my blog buddies of long standing. People of my age and general nerdiness level will immediately recognize the source picture as a still from the Batman feature length movie made during the run of the 1960's TV show.

Cheney as the Penguin is an obviously choice, since Jon Stewart's impression of Dick Cheney is really an impression of Burgess Meredith as the Penguin.

The truly inspired work is Rumsfeld as The Riddler, finding one of the jillion pictures of his disgusting smile, the one that seemed to say, "Hey, cut us some slack! We are killing people indiscriminately just as fast as we can! Tee hee!"

Condi as the Catwoman... who else?

Then there's Bush as the Joker. For me, the metaphor falls apart here a little bit. Costumed villians have evil plans. Bush is just a puppet. I don't think he has a plan more convoluted than

1. Have bran for breakfast.
2. Take a dump.
3. Exercise.

Yay, Flags of many lands™!
Yay, Belize!

And since it's a Friday, I will steal material from another blog buddy Padre Mickey, but twist it around enough to make it look like my own by presenting a non-Random 10. I went to my computer and looked for songs which I have more than one version of, recorded by more than one artist. Here's a list of 10 such songs, for a non-Random 22.

Ask the Lonely The Four Tops
Ask the Lonely Vonda Shepard
Days The Kinks
Days Elvis Costello
Days Kirsty MacColl
Georgia On My Mind Hoagy Carmichael
Georgia On My Mind Ray Charles
Georgia On My Mind Billie Holiday and Lester Young
God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) Randy Newman
God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) Etta James
I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) Ella Fitzgerald
I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) Nina Simone
Jesus Gonna Be Here Tom Waits
Jesus Gonna Be Here The Blind Boys of Alabama
Lazy River The Mills Brothers
Lazy River Hoagy Carmichael
Love For Sale Elvis Costello
Love For Sale Ella Fitzgerald
Solitude Django Reinhardt
Solitude Nina Simone
Take It With Me Tom Waits
Take It With Me Anne Sophie Von Otter

What artists show up duplicated on this list of duplicates? Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Nina Simone, Hoagy Carmichael. I can live with that lineup. I pick as the FoxyTune Nina's version of the Duke Ellington classic Solitude, because she always took a Duke tune and turned it inside out, so it sounded like nobody else's version. Great stuff.

Now playing: Nina Simone - Solitude
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Poets are to mathematicians as...

I teach at several schools in the Bay Area (current count: three) and as an adjunct faculty member, I usually share office space with other folks in the same situation. At the digital arts school in Emeryville, I am the only math teacher, so my officemates teach other subjects in the general education curriculum. Last week, I was talking to one of the English teachers. (Note: talking among teachers would usually be called commiserating if the conservation were held between normal people.) It was her turn to complain, and my turn to sympathize.

"You know, when I go to a party, and I'm talking to otherwise educated people, it's perfectly acceptable for them to say 'You know, I just don't get poetry.' Suddenly, that's the end of the conversation. Poetry is off limits."

I smiled and nodded, with a little look in my eye which she caught. "You teach math, though. I guess you get that kind of stuff, too."

"Yeah. If it comes up that I teach math, I often get 'Everything was okay until (fill in the blank)'. 'Everything was fine until trigonometry.' 'I was okay until long division.' 'Everything was great until differential equations.' Nearly everybody had that last math class they hated."

She nodded sympathetically. I asked, "Does anyone ever tell you they have 'poetry anxiety' or 'poetry-phobia'?" She smiled and said no. "Well, there's the difference between teaching poetry and teaching math right there."

Note: while I created the poet lolz above, I actually have no animus towards Robert Frost. It was my dear friend Mina who first pointed out to me that many of Frost's poems can be sung to the tune of Hernando's Hideaway. You can sing along in front of your computer right now if you wish.

Whose woods... are these?... I think I know!
His house... is in... the village though!
He will... not see... me stopping here!
To watch... his woods fill up with sno-whoa-whoa!

Now playing: Fred Astaire - Let's Call The Whole Thing Off
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wednesday Math, Vol. 12: Logarithmic scales

Remember when we were discussing death statistics? We used the scale of 100,000 population so we could compare different causes of deaths in terms of how common they are in the populations they effect. A low murder rate might be less that 5 per 100,000 population, while a high one in the U.S. might be ten times larger, around 50 per 100,000. The death rate for U.S. soldiers in Iraq last year was between 500 and 600 per 100,000. Infant mortality rates, usually given on the per 1,000 live birth scale, run even higher, with the worst countries on earth seeing between 15,000 to 20,000 babies per 100,000 live births die before they reach their first birthday.

So in death statistics, the ratio between biggest and smallest things we measure is that very big is about 3,000 times bigger than very small. That may seem like a big difference, but what if the ratio of biggest things to smallest things we measure is millions or even billions of times bigger? If we have to write really big numbers (or really small decimal numbers), it's easy to make a mistake and miss a zero when writing, which means we would be off by a factor of ten, which is not good. Is there any alternative method in a situation like this?

The alternative is a logarithmic scale. I put a picture of orange juice, earthquake damage and some speakers together because the pH scale, the Richter scale and the decibel scale are all logarithmic.

On the Richter scale and the decibel scale, some smallest measurable thing is defined as the unit, and we then compare any measurable event as so many times larger than the smallest thing, then take the logarithm base ten of that number and report it.

For example, let's say an earthquake is 3,000,000 stronger than the baseline amount of energy used in the Richter scale. Log(3,000,000) = 6.4771213..., which means 10 raised to the power of 6.477123 is about 3,000,000. This earthquake would be reported as 6.5 (rounding to the nearest tenth), which is definitely noticeable for a Californian such as myself, but the truly destructive quakes are usually at around 7 or higher, which means about three times stronger than this small fry.

If instead it was a sound with 3,000,000 times more energy than the minimum on the decibel system, it would measure 6.477123... bels. Since every time you go up one bel the strength is multiplied by 10, sound engineers decided to split one bel into 10 decibels, so this sound would measure as 65 decibels, or maybe 64.8 decibels if they wanted to round it even closer.

Then we come to the pH scale, where the measurement system is still logarithmic, but a little backwards. pH measures the concentration of hydrogen ions in a chemical compound. What makes it backwards is that the more concentrated the number of ions, the lower the pH number is, as this scale shows.

Not everything listed here is edible, but as we see most of the things that are edible that are listed are somewhere between pH level 2, which is equal to the acidity of the gastric acid mixture in our stomach, and pH level 7, which is distilled water, the midpoint between acids and alkalines. Sea water is 1/10 as concentrated in hydrogen ions as pure water (pH level 8) and the Great Salt Lake is 1/100 as concentrated in hydrogen ions as sea water (pH level 10). As we can see, milk of magnesia is an alkaline at the same level as the Great Salt Lake, and the idea of it is to mix it in with our gastric acids to reduce the pH level in our stomach when it is acting up. I do not recommend using water from the Great Salt Lake in place of milk of magnesia when feeling bad, just as I do not recommend drinking acid rain instead of tomato juice, even though the scale says they are both at the same level of ionization.

I modestly propose that we start thinking about measure money on a logarithmic scale. The amounts that are being thrown around by governments and corporations are huge in comparison to the amounts being spent by you and me. For example, a friend of a friend worked in Sierra Leone as a nurse, and when I asked about the very high infant mortality rate and low life expectancy, she told me that when surgical gloves were removed each day, they were boiled and re-used the next day. Here in the U.S., or any other industrialized nation, the gloves would be discarded, but the cost was just too high in Sierra Leone for such extravagance. The concentrations of money in different parts of the world are so vastly different that these sorts of decisions happen on a daily basis.

Yay, flags of many lands™!
Today, it's Malta. Put an order in for a falcon!

Also, it's not Ireland turned 180 degrees! Hello, it's the Ivory Coast!
Or should I say, Bonjour! C'est Côte d’Ivoire!
They parlay the Fran-say over there, you know.

Now playing: David Bowie - Little Wonder
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What would a good conservative think?

Ken Rose, a good friend of mine for about 20 years now, doesn't agree with me on all things political. I'm not sure he would describe himself as conservative, but I know him to hold views that I would put on the non-crazy side of libertarianism. (Yes, that does exist, cynical hypothetical reader.) Ken sent me this quote yesterday.

"The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him judgment by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and is the foundation of all totalitarian Governments, whether Nazi or Communist."

Winston S. Churchill, Closing the Ring published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1951, page 679

Listen to the stump speeches of the candidates today. MSNBC thought Fred Thompson might be throwing in the towel this weekend, and so gave him airtime for his concession speech. It was a marathon of platitudes about how America is the most wonderful place on earth because of centuries of conservative values. You would think that the only difference between conservatives and liberals today are about tax policies and gun ownership.

I don't want to pick on Sleepy Fred alone. This sentence by Churchill brought into sharp focus what makes me so sick about the tiny minority of people who consider Bush an idealist. Think about all the candidates running for president right now. Who would have the guts of dropping this quote into a stump speech? Not Rudy, not Mitt, not Straight Talking McCain, not Aw Shucks Huckabee. I don't think Hillary or Obama or even Edwards would use this. Too far off message.

Honestly, I think the only candidates today who would dare to use this Churchill quote to remind us of what we have become are Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul.

You know, the crazy fringe candidates.

Now playing: The Clash - Know Your Rights
via FoxyTunes

Monday, January 21, 2008

Don't all y'all have mamas?

Friend of the blog FranIAm had a post last week about the level of anger in political discussions here on the internet. Along similar lines, I'd like to discuss the level of civil discourse here on the 'Net, though not about politics.

This is Alice the Snorg Girl. She may be the very definition of Internet Famous. A company called Snorg Tees advertises their tee shirts with funny slogans on many websites. Alice, a 19 year old co-ed from Georgia, is their main model. She doesn't model for anybody else. Snorg apparently pays her in tee shirts, so she isn't Internet Rich or any other kind of rich. She has had other modeling offers, but being a level headed young woman, she checks them out beforehand, and none of them appear to be above board.

Here's my opinion about Alice the Snorg Girl. She is adorable. She is cute the way 19 year old co-eds are supposed to be cute. In nearly every picture, she is smiling or laughing, and her enjoyment looks genuine. This picture, with the "We're Going Streaking" slogan and her looking like she's about to take the tee shirt off, is the closest thing to Not Suitable For Work off all the Snorg ads, and you have to be a prudish person to think this is objectionable. I'd say that Alice has "Girl Next Door" looks, but that phrase has been appropriated by Playboy, who thinks the over-inflated and over made up blondes they get to pose nude are "Girls Next Door".

Mine is not the only opinion about Alice the Snorg Girl. Snorg Tee Shirt ads appeared on the website Wonkette, a snarky satirical place that skewers all of Washington D.C. Some people are vicious about attacks on Alice the Snorg Girl. They say she's too fat or that her teeth are funny or other specific complaints about her appearance. Others think she's pretty, as do I, but can't control their opinions there. Fantasies of a disgusting nature about what the commenter wants to do with the Snorg Girl and what other people and/or appliances will be involved in the act are also disappointingly common. Wonkette even went so far to threaten to ban people who had "Snorg Girl" in their comments.

As friend of the blog DistributorCap wrote in the comments here a few weeks back, ours is a "community without faces". The faceless aspect for some means they think it is a community without consequences. They write stuff they would never say to someone's face, or at least I hope they would never say it to someone's face. I don't find it's a big problem among the commenters here, with the exception possibly of the roving troll, but there is certainly a lack of manners on the Internet is some circles, and it's not hard to find those circles if you wander very far.

I don't know how to strike a blow for civility in this case, but I think the sentence "Don't all y'all have mamas?" should be the standard way to request that things calm down a tick or two.

Just sayin'.

Now playing: Etta James - Tell Mama

Sunday, January 20, 2008

So how much crow do I have to eat?

Technically, we have ravens and not crows here in Northern California, and I for one don't want to mess with these birds.

I said, once again, that the New York Giants were going to lose, and once again they won. They are going to the Super Bowl, where they will be facing the 18-0 New England Patriots. Do I think the Patriots are going to win? At this point, I think it's best if I keep my big mouth shut.

The Giants deserved to win in this game played in the third coldest temperatures recorded for an NFL game. I chose Snowman by XTC as the song, but in fact it was too cold to snow. Everyone thought the bad weather would favor the Packers, but in the second half and overtime, the Giants were the better team. The announcers made excuses for the interceptions Brett Favre threw, but there's a reason he has more interceptions than any quarterback in NFL history. He takes risks, and he has all his career. When they work, it looks spectacular; when it doesn't, it looks like today.

Good luck to both the Patriots and the Giants in the game two weeks from today. I know what I think will happen, but I'm keeping my own counsel for now.

Now playing: XTC - Snowman
via FoxyTunes

They Wouldn't Believe Me™, Vol. 6

Longtime readers will recognize the woman at the left as sign that it's time for another installment of They Wouldn't Believe Me. The gimmick of these posts is that I somehow can send a message back 40 years through time to shock, surprise and amuse folks from that distant era we now call the late '60s. Here are five quick facts from today that might seem counter-intuitive to people from the early Nixon era.

1. Shouldn't any family who wants to give their kids an advantage in school, or just to look like a cultured household, have a nice set of encyclopedias?

Hmm, not so much.

2. Wouldn't a trip to the world's fair be an educational and fun family vacation?

Well... if they still HAD world's fairs, that might be true.

3. Tell me please, future oracle, the American League has given up this awful carbuncle on the rules of baseball they call The Designated Hitter by the 21st Century?

You'd THINK it was a temporary solution, but so far... it's still with us.

4. Okay then, if the A.L. holds onto it, at least the N.L. has followed suit and adopted it, right?

You are now 0 for 4, hypothetical past question asker.

5. Tell me, oracle, tell me that the laws that equate marijuana to heroin have been stricken from the books?

Afraid I'm all bad news for you this time around, buddy.

Now playing: Johnny Mercer - They Didn't Believe Me
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bobby Fischer 1943-2008

Bobby Fischer is dead. Without question, he was the greatest chess player of his generation. Many give him credit as the greatest chess player of all time. When I was a kid, I played chess seriously, and I felt about Bobby Fischer roughly the same way I felt about Muhammad Ali. Both of them were the greatest, both of them were outsiders, and I idolized them. Misunderstood and unappreciated geniuses, what can be more romantic to an adolescent boy?

In the chess magazines, his erratic behavior was reported, but it was just a sentence or two in paragraphs about his brilliance. Even when his exploits broke into the national press, he might be called erratic or difficult, but that was about as far as the description went.

The press of the time protected us from the truth about Bobby Fischer. He wasn't just difficult, he was a lifelong bigot. In particular, he despised the Jews. Sober, he said things even the drunk Mel Gibson would take exception to. Looking at the picture, you might think he looks Jewish. His mother was ethnically Jewish, and while her husband wasn't, they weren't living on the same continent at the time Fischer was born, and it's considered that her husband probably wasn't Fischer's biological father, that honor belonging to man who was a Jewish refugee from Europe, like Fischer's mother.

Fischer hated his mother. She wasn't an observant Jew, and instead became one of the most visible atheists in the country. Perhaps out of a real religious feeling, perhaps to spite his mother, Fischer converted to Christianity and became involved in the church lead by TV evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong. Garner Ted was later discovered to be living luxuriously on the money his church brought in, and his father Herbert, whose predictions of a world apocalypse failed to come true, kicked his son out and took the reins back the early seventies. Fischer left the church, but he had tithed faithfully during his best years financially.

It was a very different time. The press would never protect anyone in the public eye the way it protected Fischer back in the day. There are a lot of factors to this different treatment. When he first hit the national spotlight, he was just a kid. While chess wasn't a national obsession, it was clear enough that Fischer might be the only American with a chance to strike a propaganda blow against the dominant Soviet chess machine.

The Soviets completely ruled the chess world. Since I was born, the world champion was always a Soviet. Heck, since my dad was born, there were only two world champs who didn't fly the Soviet flag. In 1933, a Dutch mathematician named Max Euwe beat the reigning champ, Russian Alexander Alekhine, pronounced Al-yo-kin. Alekhine defected from the Soviet Union to become a French citizen and beat Euwe in 1935 rematch. Alekhine remained world champ until he died ten years later. From the mid 1940's to the 1970's, there were many world champions, and all of them were Soviets. These people were my heroes, most especially Mikhail Botvinnik, who became important in computer science, and Mikhail Tal, who was something of a cut-up and famous for sacrificing pieces for position and producing brilliant victories.

Fischer dropped out of chess in the mid sixties, accusing the Soviets of rigging the world championship after two unsuccessful bids, and his reputation grew. He jumped back in, technically too late to be involved in the playoffs to the world championship, but the United States Chess Federation pulled some strings, and a American grandmaster named Pal Benko, who had qualified for the interzonals, gave his spot up to Fischer for a payment of $2,000. The rest is history. Fischer burned through his competition. He destroyed a Soviet named Mark Taimonov 6-0 in Vancouver. No losses, no draws, all Fischer. His next opponent was the highest rated non-Soviet player in the world, Denmark's Bent Larsen in Denver. 6-0 Fischer. Next was the former world champion, Armenian born Soviet Tigran Pedrosian, in a match to be played in Buenos Aires. Fischer's record in South America wasn't good, having played poorly in previous tournaments held there. Pedrosian finally handed Fischer a loss, breaking his 20 game winning streak, but the match went to Fischer 6.5 to 2.5. (Five wins, one loss, three draws.) Now only Boris Spassky stood in Fischer's way. Fischer had never beaten Spassky in his career, which added to pre-match hype. But how much hype did it need? It was the United States vs. the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Any time Fischer was involved, every detail was a struggle. Even Iceland wasn't a random neutral site. Spassky wanted Iceland. Fischer wanted Yugoslavia. First negotiating point went to Spassky and the Soviets. Fischer wanted more prize money. A Brit named Jim Slater ponied up $125,000 to double the stakes to a cool quarter million. Second negotiating point to Fischer.

Spassky won the first game. Fischer complained about the cameras and forfeited the second game. Spassky, who didn't want to win by default, agreed to move to another room where cameras weren't allowed. Spassky was ahead 2-0 in a race to 12.5.

And then Fischer decided to play chess. Seven wins, one loss, eleven draws later, Bobby Fischer was the world champion. He did it by playing completely against his standard method. He had a few openings he loved, the Ruy Lopez when playing white, the Najdorf Sicilian defense against P-K4 (now written as e4) and the Nimzo-Indian against P-Q4 (now written as d4). Fischer played openings no one had ever seen him play. He played P-Q4 for the first time in his career as opening move for white. Spassky and the his Soviet team had prepared for the brilliant but predictable Fischer. Fischer took away the predictability, but the brilliance was still there.

And when it came time to defend his championship, again he had demands. This time, the world organizing body for chess known as FIDE refused to agree to them. The FIDE president at the time was Max Euwe, who was the last non-Soviet born world champ. Still, Fischer said the organization was in the hands of the Soviets and stormed off the scene, never to be a serious force again.

Fischer renounced his American citizenship when he was censured by the U.N. for playing a match in Milosevic's Serbia in the 1990's. He never returned to the United States. After being arrested and detained in Japan, he finally settled in Iceland. His statements were no longer censored by a respectful press. His hatred of the Jews was crystal clear. He cheered the attacks on September 11 as the world finally striking a blow against the corrupt and evil Americans.

Even in death, Fischer refused to compromise. His kidney failure was treatable, but he didn't trust "Western medicine". Again, he had his non-negotiable demands, and again he lost.

In some ways, because I idolized him when I was young, I wish he had been a better person. I wish he had been able to compromise. I wish he had found a way to control his anger and his hate. But he wouldn't have been Bobby Fischer then, would he?

One more flag for the Flags of many Lands™ folder. Yay, Nicaragua! Only three more to collect to get my Central America badge.

Now playing: The Clash - Hateful
via FoxyTunes

Friday, January 18, 2008

Gigantic child bride in the news!

Yesterday, I got my 20,000th visitor! Yay! #20K was from the Bay Area and visited the front page. It might have been my mom. Hi, mom!

The most recent gigantic child bride in the news is former supermodel Carla Bruni, who has married the diminutive French president Nicholas Sarkozy, breaking up his marriage, the towering hussy! The height difference is four inches the age difference is 12 years. That's good enough for me.

In her modeling career, Ms. Bruni had "no problem with nudity". I'll say. Lots and lots of the pictures from that era have her in various tasteful levels of undress. Since it is not suitable for work, I give a link to one of her pictures, which is one of the greatest examples of a pose I call "Are you staring at my butt, and if not, why not?"

Besides being a model, back in the day she was something of a professional girlfriend. Her name was linked romantically with Mick Jagger (whose wasn't?), Eric Clapton (good choice) and thick fingered vulgarian Donald Trump (ick.). Since she stopped modeling, she's become a recording artist. You might think "supermodel makes records = Paris Hilton in French", but not so! Her stuff is more sensitive singer-songwriterish, more along the lines of Tori Amos or Sarah McLachlan. Some of it is in French and some in English. One of her English songs is a Yeats poem put to music. Not bad.

The less said about her taste in non rock star lovers, the better.

Let's move along to the Random 10, starting with a non random choice of an Eric Clapton tune.

I’m Tore Down Eric Clapton
Easter Oratorio (J.S. Bach) Neues Bachishes Collegium Musicum
Caldonia Louis Jordan
Watching the Detectives Elvis Costello
Pretty Women Alan Rickman and Johnny Depp
A New England Kirsty MacColl
Green Onions Booker T. & the MG’s
The St. Stephen’s Day Murders The Chieftains (with Elvis Costello)
Who Will It Be Tomorrow William Bell
Bad Connection Yaz
Bonus track: With A Girl Like You The Rutles

In honor of election season, let me say "I'm Matty Boy and I approve this Random 10." White folks from the British Isles, black folks from the U.S. of A. and some Krauts playing Bach thrown in just for good measure. Two appearances from the One True Living Elvis, and the first tune from the Rutles since they showed up on my very first Random 10. What's not to love?

Now playing: Eric Clapton - I'm Tore Down
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Lazy blogging Thursday

Busy day for me, so I'll make this quick and steal two lolz from the excellent source I Can Has Cheezburger.

I've cut back on the caffeine A LOT since my chest pain incident, which is a very good idea. I'm not a complete zombie slave without the massive doses of caffeine, and I haven't resorted to a kitteh to steer me around yet.

There have been a lot of posts among my blog buddies about how they plan to change their consumer habits for any of a number of reasons, but for the most part folks are figuring out that the economy is not completely peachy, no matter what Fred Dalton Thompson, the sleepiest of our presidential candidates, might say in his stump speech.

Be safe out there.

Now playing: The Ramones - Teenage Lobotomy
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wednesday Math, Vol. 11: Alan Turing

Just to show that not every mathematician looks like Grisha Perelman, the crazy Russian who won't take a million dollars even if you hand it right to him, here is a picture of the neatly groomed and boyishly handsome Alan Turing, easily one of the most important figures of the early history of computer science. People in that field will know immediately what a Turing machine is, and will likely be familiar with Turing's test for artificial intelligence. Turing was also the leading light at Bletchley Park during World War II, the place were many of the German secret codes were broken. He is given nearly full credit for breaking the Enigma and Lorenz codes by building an early computer code breaking machine nicknamed The Bombe.

Given that we are in the middle of the election season, it's a good time to bring up that Turing proved the Central Limit Theorem. This says that if you take a "random" sample of size n of a large population, you can give a probability of how close the proportions in the sample are to the the proportions in the underlying population of some set of attributes, like who will vote for Duncan Hunter (almost nobody) or who likes cake (almost everybody). I put random in quotes because getting a representative sample in a population of humans is a tricky proposition.

For all the math he did, I think Alan Turing's personal life is actually more compelling than his considerable professional accomplishments. Alan Turing was gay. Flamboyantly gay. Gay as gay can be and anybody could know it if they wanted to know it.

The correct thing to say now is "Not that there's anything wrong that." But back then in England, there was something wrong with it. It was against the law. As in caught and thrown in jail like Oscar Wilde was in the previous century. Turing was caught, tried and convicted. Instead of being jailed, he lost his security clearance and was given the option of taking estrogen to "cure" him of his tendencies.

You might ask, estrogen to cure male homosexuality? Matty Boy, does that work? The easy answer is, do you hear anyone calling that a cure today? No, you don't. They were guessing, using Turing as a guinea pig in a test. Estrogen supplements don't change male homosexuals in the way the folks who wanted to change Turing had hoped. The treatments did make his boobs bigger.

Another unusual thing about Turing is his death. He died in 1954 at the age of 41 from eating a poison apple. He was working with chemicals used for electroplating, which includes cyanide, and he either put the chemicals on the apple intentionally, which is the official autopsy report version, or it was accidental, which is what his mum believed. In either case, one of the great mathematical minds of the 20th Century was stilled too soon.

Now playing: Fats Waller - Keepin' Out Of Mischief Now
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

New Blog Buddy

And far too long a coming. Commenter CDP has a blog called Aunt Dahlia, and it is certainly worth your time to check it out. She has a post currently about Republicans and shoplifting, so I put a fitting tune from King Missile on the FoxyTunes list, though I don't know if FoxyTunes is actually cool enough to have this tune on their interweb juke box.

Now playing: King Missile - Take Stuff From Work
via FoxyTunes

I owe someone an apology.

Earlier this year, I made fun of Eli Manning, saying that he really wasn't as good as his older brother Peyton. This weekend, Eli lead his banged up New York Giant team to a win on the road in Dallas, while Peyton's Colts lost a home game where they were favored against the banged up San Diego Chargers.

Eli was originally drafted by the San Diego Chargers, but refused to be signed by them, fearing the organization was a mess. There's precedence for this decision. John Elway was signed by the Baltimore Colts but refused to play for them and was traded by the Colts to the Broncos, where Elway played his entire career and won two Super Bowls.

Personally, I think Elway was right and Eli Manning was wrong. The Colts were a mess in the early 1980's and Elway would have been wasted there. Today's Chargers' organization, which made some mistakes in recent years, most notably drafting quarterback Ryan Leaf, isn't that dysfunctional, as witnessed by their deep run in the playoffs this year.

Eli has a long way to go to be as good as his big brother. Peyton has very impressive statistics and a Super Bowl win. Eli could be on a Super Bowl winner this year, but that would take two upset victories even more difficult than the upset the Giants engineered on Sunday.

The mean comparison I made was that Eli Manning is to Peyton Manning as Ashlee Simpson is to Jessica Simpson. Certainly older brother Peyton's career looks better than his little brother's at this point in time, but Eli has shown himself to a quality quarterback, not a complete stiff.

Does this show of contrition mean I am going to root for the Giants over the Packers this weekend? Oh, hellz no. Take the Packers and give the points. It's gonna be a whuppin'.

Now playing: Living Colour - Glamour Boys
via FoxyTunes

Monday, January 14, 2008

Gentlemen, rest your sphincters!

This deathless line was spoken by Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles, and it is good advice in many situations in today's strange and suspicious world. I use it today discussing the New Hampshire election results in which the Democratic polls released closest to the election did a very bad job of predicting the actual results. Or did they?

A few weeks back, friend of the blog Distributor Cap did a post about polls, which included a definition of margin of error WITH 95% confidence level. This means that if candidate X is preferred by 49% of the people polled and the margin of error is +/- 5%, the pollsters are saying that they are 95% confident the vote tally for X will be between (49+5)% = 54% and (49-5)% = 44%. They could be wrong about this number, but the odds of that are about 1 in 20 of being wrong and 19 in 20 of being right, which is another way to say 95%.

This works pretty well in two person contests or contests where third party candidates will only pick up some small part of the vote, probably less than 5% and certainly less than 10%. In wide open contests like both the Rep and Dem situations right now, where five candidates or more might each pick up a measurable proportion, this 95% confidence is in each number, 95% confident they get Obama right, 95% confident they get Clinton right, etc.

In a two person poll, the only ways to make a mistake are either to have one side take a massive amount of the undecided (very rare in late stages) or one side to take away from the opponent, making both numbers wrong. Here the odds are pretty much 95% right, 5% wrong, or 19 in 20, as I stated earlier.

But with five numbers to predict, and each of those predictions at the 95% confidence level, the probability of getting them all right is .95 x .95 x .95 x .95 x .95 = 77.4%. Here are all the odds in five person race.

all 5 right: 77.4%
1 wrong: 20.4%
2 wrong: 2.1%
3, 4 or all five wrong: 0.1%

One time in five these kinds of polls should have one mistake, someone doing much better or much worse than predicted. That's not really a rare occurrence. And for that I repeat the fictional evil politician Hedley Lamarr, for even evil politicians can give good advice every once in a while.

(Ladies and) Gentlemen, rest your sphincters.

Now playing: Lene Lovich - Lucky Number
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, January 13, 2008

When's the last time I said something nice about Comcast?

Upon further review, I have never said anything nice about Comcast. It's a cable company. The only more hated corporations in today's market are HMOs.

So let me say something nice.

A couple of weeks ago, Sci-Fi channel had yet another Twilight Zone marathon, and they of course included one of their most famous episodes To Serve Man. Here was the blurb on the Comcast info screen.

"To Serve Man: Allegedly altrustic aliens arrive to alleviate all ailments.

"Keyword: Allegedly."

Okay, they're cable company scumbags, but somebody who works there understands both alliteration and comedy gold.

Now playing: David Bowie - Loving the alien
via FoxyTunes

Perfect weather for watching football. On TV. In California.

I like playoff football. What's not to like? The best teams are playing with everything on the line. This year, the NFL has an undefeated team and a lot of people thought that team could lose its first playoff game. (Those people were wrong. The Patriots beat the Jaguars in a game that was close for the first half, but then the Pats proved why they are the favorites to win the Super Bowl.)

But more than the match ups, January football means unpredictable weather. The Packers had a home game, and it was expected it would be a little cold with a little snow. Well, that wasn't a bad prediction for the first half, but a blizzard hit in the second half. The field was covered. Players standing on the sidelines had snow caps on their helmets and shoulder pads. You couldn't make out the line markers. It made a rout for the Packers into a memorable moment.

It was especially memorable if you were watching the game in California. On a comfy couch. With the door to the patio slightly ajar because it's finally nice outside after a week of rain.

Yes, it's a manly test of fortitude, January football.

Do we have any more of those Milano cookies?

Now playing: XTC - Snowman
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Ganesha in the room.

Or is it a big fluffy bunny?

I have a lot of readers who also read other blogs on my buddies list. A lot of the folks who stop by to comment can be found commenting on these other blogs. For the most part, disagreements and disagreeable people are rare in this little crowd. We joke, we reminisce, we 'splain, we opine, we correct. But there is an obvious split in the group. Some of us believe and others do not.

The most vocal believers of my readers are Padre Mickey and FranIAm. Padre Mickey gets first billing for me because I have known him personally for about half my life now. We were in a band together. I hired him to manage the band back in the day when I was a rich video game programmer. I slept on the floor of his basement for a few months years later when I wasn't a rich video game programmer anymore. We've broken bread more times than I can count. I tucked into bed the original Dresbabies back when they were actually babies. He was studying towards his doctorate of divinity when I was living at his place, and he was my advisor when I decided to get baptized in the Anglican communion.

I was part of the community for several years after my baptism, and I was involved in many of the church activities. Even when the Dresbachs moved north from San Jose to Berkeley when Michael attended seminary, I was part of St. Francis in San Jose. When I moved north to San Leandro to be closer to work, I found a church closer to my home.

But I was never quite certain I belonged. I was still my father's son. We weren't churchgoers. He didn't disapprove of my conversion, but my father taught me when I was just a round headed sprout that if someone tells you they know for certain what will happen after you die, pretty soon they will be asking you for money. And he was right.

The tithing didn't bother me so much. The self censorship on my part was my sign that I probably wasn't in the right place. Even before I when back to grad school, I still thought of myself as a math guy. A pretty proof can be for me as lovely as a hummingbird. It isn't so much a proof of a loving God to me as it is a quick look behind the scenes at part of the clockwork. Stuff like group theory can be a dive down the rabbit hole, the amazing results and beautiful proofs coming one after another.

I believe in God the creator. Not the guy yelling at Adam and Eve for eating apricots. The "whoever" who figured out how to open a quick doorway from some unseen dimension into the dimensions we foolishly call "our own" and blow in a chaotic mix of energy and matter we call the Big Bang. I sometimes say I believe in God but I am hesitant to give her a job description. There is a lot of math that feels mystical, but if you know just a little more, the connections, while still beautiful, are less mysterious. The mystical mystery I see in the universe is the incredible number of self-replicating and self-correcting systems. Maybe we will come to a day when this lovely coincidence will be as mechanically understandable the connection between cell growth and the Fibonacci sequence. When I say "we", I know there is no promise that I will be around to see such a day.

If there is an organized religion I subscribe to, I would say I accept the civil beliefs of the sect we call Americans. Our original motto was "Don't tread on me." Sounds like good advice, if a little threatening. A national flag with a rattlesnake on it would probably have made us even more ornery that we already are.

I believe in the Constitution. It's not big like the Bible, but it's still a fair number of rules, and some can be interpreted in several ways. Like any simple set of instructions, humans go off in a dozen different directions with the idea that they are defending the ideals of America. Some love the idea of separation of church and state. Others deny that idea even exists. We're a funny group of folks.

Americans or not, my readers and commenters are likewise a funny group of folks. We've decided to create a community with a lot of people we have never seen face to face. We have decided to forgive those who trespass against us, and hope with good cause that we will be forgiven as well. I cannot say that what God hath brought together, let no one split asunder. I only pray we agree to remain agreeable. I, for one, am glad I have met all y'all this year, and hope you feel the same.

Now playing: Bob Telson / Lee Breuer - Numberless Are The World's Wonders
via FoxyTunes

Friday, January 11, 2008

The dollar: crumble or crash?

The U.S. Dollar took a pounding against a lot of different currencies last year. One currency trading option is called USD, which is an index that allows you to trade the dollar against a mixture of foreign money, weighted strongly on the Euro, but also including the yen, the British pound, the Canadian dollar and the Swedish krona (go figure).

It's no secret that 2007 wasn't a good year for the dollar. Heck, even McDonald's lets people know this in their commercials. 2006 wasn't exactly the days of wine and roses either, though 2005 showed an increase. Here are the positions of the USD index at the beginning of each year.

Jan 2006: around 91
Jan 2007: around 84 (8% drop in value)
Jan 2008: around 76 (9.5% drop in value)

The steady cuts in interest rates, both here and in the U.K., make these two currencies look bad compared to other world money. It's like the Fed saying our economy needs training wheels. But the U.S. dollar is still being propped up by two separate unusual situations.

1. Asian central banks, most notably the Chinese and the Japanese, are still buying American debt.

2. Every barrel of oil, sold anywhere in the world, must be paid for in U.S. dollars.

With these two forces in play, it becomes unlikely the dollar will go into a crash, but other weaknesses could continue the current two year crumble. But what if one or both of these forces goes away? What then?

1. The odd behavior of the inscrutable Orientals. According to Kevin Phillips and others, the Asian philanthropy towards the American economy isn't done out of pure Christian charity, or even pure Shinto and Commie charity. Both Japan and China thrive because Americans spend like drunken sailors. If the economy becomes such a cold wind that we actually realize we can't afford all this shit we buy, the Chinese and the Japanese get hurt as well in a very big way.

2. Psst! Buddy! You want to buy some oil? You got... Euros? No problem. Another thing that could happen is that one of the many oil producing nations in this world that don't think much of Americans could start selling the commodity priced in Euros or yen or some other currency. The Iranians are the most likely ones to try, but the Russians are also sitting on a lot of oil reserves. Why wouldn't they?

Right now, the question actually goes the other way around. Oil sales are like a game of dollar tag. Whoever ends up having lots of dollars is "it". If your currency is the Euro, you spend your strong currency to buy our weak currency, then turn right around and buy the oil with the dollars, so the dollars end up in the hands the oil producers. They're "it". Nyaah nya nya!

If you are an American, crude oil went up 72.8% last year. If your currency is the Euro, it showed a 13.1% increase in comparison to the dollar. This is one of those percent of a percent problems folks were asking me to talk about. What we get is 1.728/1.131 = 1.528, which is to say that the increase for the Europeans was 52.8%, because of the "convert to greenbacks" bonus they get right now with the weak dollar. The Europeans aren't that interested in getting the dollar out of the equation. The Iranians would be very happy, because now they have dollars and the American government is fucking with their right to spend those dollars in the U.S. But they need two to play that game, and right now, they are having troubles finding a dance partner.

I'm more on the 'splainin' side that the predictin' side, but if I was predictin', I'd say the system is set up more for the dollar to continue to slide instead of having a sudden monstrous crash.

Whoa, that's lotsa 'splainin'. Glad I'm not working Fridays right now.

And since it's a Friday, let's have a Random 10.

Nagasaki Django Reinhardt
You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby Kirsty MacColl
Shock The Monkey Peter Gabriel
Please Send Me Someone To Love Sade
Beat On The Brat The Ramones
Better Off Without A Wife Tom Waits
I Was Made To Love Her Stevie Wonder
When I Was Cruel No. 2 Elvis Costello
One Love/People Get Ready Bob Marley & The Wailers
What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding? Elvis Costello & The Attractions

After starting off with a tune from the great jazz guitarist of early last century, it's pretty much all stuff from the rock era. One Tom Waits and two from the One True Living Elvis, no surprises there. Lots of good tunes to highlight, but I chose one from the late lamented Kirsty MacColl, You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby, which seemed apropos of this post.

Yay, Ecuador! Yay, Flags of many Lands™!

All I need in South America is Paraguay and the countries that were known as The Guianas when I was a sprout.

Now playing: Kirsty MacColl - You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby
via FoxyTunes