05.31.06

Baudolino is a liar. Does it matter?

Posted in Reviews at 20:49 by RjZ

Umberto Eco’s Baudolino is another book that was recommended to me. Eco’s book is dense and sometimes difficult. Have your dictionary at the ready. I read slowly and a thick book like this was quite daunting. Indeed, often, while reading it I kept wondering why I was continuing. It’s not that like I didn’t like it, but I just couldn’t seem to focus on it.

The paperback version was too large to take with me on trips and thus, I finished two other books since I started Baudolino but I stuck to it. I am glad I did. It is an amazing tale, amazingly written (even if it did take me most of the book to realize it) Eco’s attention to detail and clever story telling forces the reader to think, to philosophize, to reflect and to wonder.

Baudolino is a travel book through time, history and legend about philosophy and meaning of words and beliefs and…about lies. Because the narrator tells us from the very beginning that he’s a liar; that everything we read is from one who tells tales and stretches the truth. The power of his lies changes the world inside this historical fiction and makes us wonder how powerful lies are our own world.

Reading Baudolino forces you to put your beliefs and skepticism to the test. How much does the truth matter if false premises yield true and beneficial results?

(3 votes, average: 3.33 out of 5)
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05.30.06

The view never changes

Posted in Travel at 11:42 by RjZ

Growing up in southern California I spent many weekends in the desert. I was disappointed the first time I was there. Where were the sand and dunes from picture books and stories. The California desert is flat with small distant hills. It is dotted evenly with black brush and occasional cactus. There is a dry wash here and an ancient volcano cone with even fewer plants on it over there, but otherwise, it looks pretty much the same in all directions.

When I hike in the Colorado mountains, I often become fixated on the destination. I must make it to the top of the mountain! In the desert one just wanders. There isn’t really much point. At first I was rather frustrated by the pointless desert. “What” I thought “is there to do in this nearly empty space?”

The desert is large and changes slowly as you wander. It is open and there is space to breath and to think. There are few distractions. It is intense in its heat and cold, but also its expanse and loneliness. Often, after the hard labor of rock-hounding trips and shivering under the stars at night, I would return home mentally refreshed in a way that few other places have offered since. Instead of resisting the pointlessness of the desert and its lack of hiking paths and destinations, I finally grew to appreciate it.

The Sahara is the kind of desert we imagine when we think of desert. Unlike California, the Sahara has sand and dunes! Like the Mojave it is a big place where nearly featureless landscape stretches from one horizon to the other.

I saw the Sahara from the windows of a small tourist bus I boarded in Tel Aviv, headed for Cairo. We passed over the fortified border between Israel and Egypt where there is a mile wide chalk line that enables border guards to catch illegal entries and where armed military are stationed, each within eyesight of one another. We crossed the Suez canal where giant ships look as if they’re sailing through the sand because only the upper decks and superstructures are visible above the hidden shore.

In Egypt the dunes stretch out in all directions. Sometimes sand covers the highway on which our bus bumps along. Inside the bus, tinny speakers distort middle eastern pop music incessantly. Outside the windows the dunes roll passed and there is no way to tell how far we’ve come. No landmarks to drive to; no cities to pass through. Just sand, and very occasional trees. We passed few other cars and saw even fewer people.

And then the bus driver stopped the bus. He just got up and left the bus and started walking toward one of the dunes on the side of the road. My fellow tourists and I looked at him and at each other and back again. Where the hell was he going? Toilet break? Should we follow him? Does anyone know how to get this bus from here to Cairo? The driver hadn’t said anything when the bus stopped. He’d simply walked away, leaving us with our middle eastern cassette tape still squeezing sound out of the tiny speakers and heat starting to pour in from the open door.

And then, from out of the dunes, the driver met a woman. They spoke briefly and she followed him back to the bus. She and her two chickens boarded and we continued on our way. She sat, looking forward, expressionless, and we looked around, at her, the driver and each other but said nothing. The loud music discouraged any conversation and we didn’t know what language the others spoke. Some time later, without a word from her or any obvious change in the appearance of the dunes outside, the driver stopped the bus and she and her chickens exited and disappeared into the dunes from which she had come.

The driver repeated this process a couple more times on the way to Cairo. He’d stop at some completely nondescript break in the sand and meet a small group of men or an old shepherd and a goat. Sometimes he’d stop and speak with someone riding a camel. New passengers would board and he’d drive on to an equally nondescript dune which could have been exactly where we started except that the sun remained on the south side of the bus the whole time so I can only assume we were continuing in one general direction. The people must have materialized from the sand. We didn’t find them, waiting, at bus stops. We didn’t let them off at cities or villages. This wasn’t even a public bus!

The Sahara, like the Mojave in California, doesn’t seem to have a point. People live here, perhaps in a state of constant meditation, nearly alone among the unchanging scenery. Who knows if they’re actually going anywhere. There doesn’t have to be a point to this nearly empty space. And I will never know how the driver found his passengers, or knew when to let them off. But, now, I can appreciate the space that the empty, unchanging desert creates without needing to have a destination.

(4 votes, average: 4.50 out of 5)
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05.24.06

In defense of partnerships

Posted in Liberty, Society at 8:45 by RjZ

It’s a decade now since President Clinton signed the “1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” The intention of this bill was to ensure that welfare recipients don’t become entrenched in the system and never find work. Supporters at the time claimed that women, in particular single mothers, were motivated to have children and not to get married, simply so that they could receive money.

That’s rubbish, of course.

Kathryn Edin is a sociologist at University of Pennsylvania and she co-wrote what many experts agree is a leading text on poverty Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. In it she points out what ought to be obvious. Poor women don’t have children in order to get a pittance from welfare, and they don’t avoid marriage because they have shaky morals. Instead, these women have children because it’s one of the few forms of empowerment they have open to them. Furthermore, they dream of getting married, but they hold marriage in such high regard, that they hold off until they are in love and confident that their marriages will last. In short, these women aren’t examples of the decay of morals in society. They share the same conservative views as most of their neighbors in the suburbs of big cities and in the heartland of the United States.

In spite of that, the first line of of the 1996 welfare reform act is “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” The law openly intended social tinkering with a goal of restoring the nuclear family and help lift single parent families out of poverty. It’s easy to see that single parents have a harder time making ends meet than couples. How is the woman to nurse her three month old while working at Wal*mart (or anywhere, for that matter?) And the State (that means you!) definitely has stock in this matter, because it costs money to support people on welfare.

It’s this kind of argument, along with threats of decay of moral society that are spawning an almost war-like posturing “in defense of marriage.” I happen to agree that welfare costs taxpayers a lot of money and that when people share the burden of raising a child, there is a greater chance of success for them (and a much happier child!) I can see how the State, then, would have an interest in encouraging this behavior. What doesn’t follow is why the State is involved in supporting what is essentially a religious rite.

State needs only to encourage that two (or more) people live together in a semi-permanent bond that spreads economic burden between them. Whether these people are married in a church or friends for the past 20 years is immaterial. Whether people choose to live in a commune or a same-sex partnership is certainly unimportant to the State, who’s only interest need be that young citizens grow up in a nurturing environments where they go to school and get enough to eat. Whether people acknowledge their bond in front of God, Buddha, Flying Spaghetti Monster or no one at all, is really none of the government’s business.

The government needs to get out of the marriage business altogether.

What the State should support are stable relationships, for these are what is best for its young citizens. Why would a couple, married in a church six months ago, deserve more rights than a same-sex partnership that has lasted 12 years? Odds are that the married couple won’t be together seven years from now, but after surviving 12 years so far, the gay pair will probably be able to stick it out longer still. Which would have been a more economically stable environment for a child?

What if instead the government were to offer the rights and privileges to, I’ll call it “legal partnerships” on the condition that they, just for example, have demonstrated successful co-habitation for two years or more? Any couple (or group for that matter) who has shown that they can successfully live together for this period, provided they wish the economic and tax advantages of partnership, must now go through the same legal wrangling if they choose to dissolve the partnership. This “legal partnership” should have the benefits and challenges associated with what we call marriage today. But entry into it should not be restricted to those who believe in a certain religions. Entry into this partnership should be offered to those who have demonstrated a chance at success, because that is what the government needs to promote: stable economic relationships that will lift families out of poverty.

Social conservatives (none of whom probably read this blog in the first place ) are probably screaming now! They should be cheering. This proposal is truly a defense of marriage. If your church or belief-system thinks that homosexuals are devil’s spawn and that marriage cannot be desecrated by having gay unions, well, you’re entitled to that view and the government of the United States certainly shouldn’t tell you otherwise. (That’s essentially how social conservatives see Massachusetts’ supreme court decision.) Marriage, a religious rite, should be defined within the bounds of the church in which it is practiced. One church thinks gays can marry, another does not. Who am I (or the government) to say which should be allowed and which not. If I have lived with my partner for the last 20 years but we don’t have a sexual relationship, does that mean that I can’t see her in the hospital if she becomes ill? The government can keep its nose out of my business and in doing so, the sanctity of marriage is actually better maintained; exactly where it belongs: in the churches and temples where it is ordained.

It’s true that single parents have it harder. There are dozens of studies showing children raised in these conditions have a more difficult time than those raised by two parents. In addition to being a just proposal that is fair to all religious and non-religious citizens, such a legal partnership might enable some of those poor women to encourage an economic partnership while still maintaining their high regard for marriage. Regardless, it’s still none of the government’s business what the situation is by which these partners have chosen a legal bond. The sooner the government get’s out of the marriage business the better it will be for marriages and children alike.

(3 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)
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05.22.06

Jury duty that wasn’t

Posted in at 15:49 by RjZ

Alas my opportunity to perform my civic duty went unfulfilled today. I arrived promptly enough at the Boulder courthouse, but after waiting for sometime I discovered that I wouldn’t be needed. Not because I was too opinionated or too apathetic. Not because I was unacceptable to the prosecution or the defense. Not because I was too smart or too ignorant. No, simply because there were no cases today. No questions asked; no interesting interviews, just “you’re obligation for the year is complete.”

I suppose that’s much easier, but I can’t deny I was looking forward to the experience.

(no ratings yet, click a square to vote)
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05.16.06

Two words kill off 12″ PowerBook

Posted in at 9:15 by RjZ

“Meet the family. Now Complete.”

It’s the “Now Complete” part that cinches it.

Today Apple released its new line of MacBooks. These new 13″ screen computers round out their laptop line and replace the iBook, previously the consumer end of their laptop spectrum. They look good and the distinction between the consumer-end and pro-end of their laptop line has certainly been further blurred as the feature differences between the MacBook and MacBook Pro dwindles.

I still own a PowerBook 12″. It’s a tiny anodized aluminum number that packs everything, including a DVD burner into an amazingly unobtrusive package. The aluminum is not only durable, it’s just plain sexy; without being showy. This isn’t just fashion, either–it matters. I can open up my laptop almost anywhere and its compact size and simple exterior make it little more irritating than a PDA or cellphone (which is not to say that it’s appropriate everywhere.)

The new ‘Books are glossy polycarbonate in black or white. Neither of which is as cool as aluminum or as understated. The new MacBook’s are bigger too. Sure they have glossy new widescreens which are surely quite a bit better than my 12″. Of course they have new microprocessors that are significantly faster and built in cameras for teleconferencing. They have IR remote controls to control slide shows, music and DVDs from across the room.

Except Apple missed the point about the 12″. The most important specification about the old 12″ isn’t its power or its screen; it’s the small size. Well, that’s not true, because there are smaller and lighter laptops out there. Actually, it’s the size combined with its everything included design. I find it silly that people with ultralight computers lug around large chargers, extra batteries and DVD drives, all separate from their computer. What’s the point? If you bring these things anyway, all you’ve really done is made your laptop more challenging to travel with.

Apple’s tagline for the new computers sends a clear message to followers like me: the 12″ format is dead. Buy a MacBook or MacBook pro. Too bad. I’ll never be able to upgrade my 12″ aluminum. The 15″ format is also an amazingly thin, do everything computer but it’s a bit large to carry around the world; I hope Apple makes a capable PDA some day.

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05.10.06

Powerful people

Posted in Society at 17:38 by RjZ

Last week’s keynote at the Electric Power conference in Atlanta was delivered by some powerful people. CEOs of major utilities discussed their businesses and plans for the future. The power generation business is a conservative one; it really has no choice in the matter. You won’t hear people in your office say, “gee, that light sure looks bright today” but they will complain in an instant if the light doesn’t come on at all. Reliability and availability are what customers demand first and foremost. Environmental innovations are secondary.

That conservatism is an obstacle for a small company, like the one I work for, that develops an innovative sensor that can help coal-fired plants run cleaner and more efficiently. Power utilities are less interested in improvements to their plants if there is any risk that power could be cut off. Irritating as that sounds, they’re really just trying to make you happy. They’re keeping the lights on.

Regulations drive power decisions in many ways. New plants are being built all the time to meet the demands of a growing population, but how those plants generate power and how cleanly they do so is decided by weighing the costs and benefits of each choice. Are there kick-backs for choosing green power? What is the cost per megawatt to the consumer? How long before this billion dollar investment gets paid off? Will rules that justified this choice, change before it’s even paid off? Are there regulatory hurdles to jump through and how much will it cost to meet these requirements? Company leaders understand all too well the impact of rising costs to their consumers and their decisions carefully consider all of these factors.

One disappointing theme from the talks, however, was the sense of almost powerlessness with respect to government regulations. Each CEO lamented the costs and unpredictability of government regulations. Justification for each of their decisions was repeated over and over: it’s all economics. Regulations make things more or less feasible. But are these CEOs really held hostage by government regulations or are they dodging their responsibility and blaming someone else?

I don’t believe that these folks are using regulations as an excuse, but I also had to imagine that, unlike us, the leaders of these companies don’t have to passively accept whatever is handed down. If a new law will cause a significant increase in electricity rates to the 5 million citizens of Atlanta, the CEO picks up the phone and calls his congressman. That congressman is likely to answer too! After all, it might be the CEO inviting him over for dinner, or planning their talk during the next golf game. This isn’t just some blogger complaining about the cost of electricity, it’s the guy who makes billion dollar decisions that effect millions of citizens and constituents.

Like I said, these are powerful people. I hope they use that influence wisely.

(1 votes, average: 3.00 out of 5)
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Tired of okra

Posted in Travel at 17:34 by RjZ

I’ve just returned from Atlanta, Georgia. For me, going to the south-eastern United States, the South, feels like an exotic trip. I’ve heard many stereotypes of these people: their strange dialects, their peculiar cuisine, the cultural eccentricities, and visiting the South gives me an opportunity to test these stereotypes first hand.

I still only have a tiny taste of life in the South, but in the last year I’ve had the opportunuty to visit Texas, Tennessee and Georgia. Each place is similar enough to be called the South, but each retains it’s own unique character. Indeed, much of the South wouldn’t even consider Texas as part of this great history.

Folks speak slower in the South. This is a problem for me because I speak rather quickly. As a result, I usually make this observation everywhere I go, except for maybe Boston or New Jersey. Still, particularly in Tennessee, there are often long breathy pauses in throw away phrases meant only to create a mood. “Way-ell……..how’s the wayther…back thar…..whar ye-ou..come..from?” Much thought seems to be placed on these contemplative pauses. My mind usually races ahead, predicting what the speaker is likely to say and then restraining from finishing his sentence for him or otherwise cutting him off and getting down to business. I presume the speaker is thinking too: taking time, during his question, to size me up, to decide if I really am worth saying anything important to at all and perhaps controlling the conversation; bringing it down to a pace where he can consider what will be said and what will not.

The dialect of the South varies from region to region, but most of the dialects share the stretching of one vowel into two. Thus: “well” turns into “way-el”; “yes” becomes “yay-es”, “open” is “oh-oo-pen” and so on. Either the stretching fills up space for the slower tempo of speech or it’s the cause of it, but it gives most southern dialects a polite and sweet lilt that alternately charms and infuriates northern listeners. One common mistake, though, would be to confuse the gentle pace of the southern dialect with a lack of intellect. There surely are some ignorant with narrow-minded views in the South, but neither is it their dialect that distinguishes them, nor are there obviously many more ignorant people in Georgia than there are in Colorado.

Southerners like to fry things. They fry everything. The only exception to fried green tomatoes, fried okra, fried chicken and fried potatoes is bar-b-cue. I don’t mind the fried dishes too much but since I don’t eat meat, bar-b-cue isn’t a viable option and it’s easy to get tired of all that oil drenched batter. While ordering in a San Antonio restaurant I asked if they could come up with anything vegetarian as there wasn’t anything on the menu. The puzzled waiter, looking at the cowboy-and-steer decorated bar-b-cue joint and quizzically asked “wha aw ye-ou hee-er?” “Um, well, my colleague thought bar-b-cue would be good. I figured there’d be at least something for me on the menu.” “Nah, boy, Ah, meen…..wha aw ye-ou in Tayx-is?” I don’t think he meant it to be mean, he just really wondered what the heck I was going to eat while in San Antonio.

Which brings us to hospitality. Southerners are nice, but you don’t really know how they feel because it would be considered impolite to actually show their irritation with my rapid speech and inappropriate remarks such as “Gee, there really are a lot of churches here. There are more than four within eye-sight of my hotel.” I was most surprised by Georgia which is famous for it’s gentility. “It’s the transplants” one local complained over a beer after I had expressed that most of the people I’d dealt with during my business trip weren’t really all that nice or helpful at all. “Most of those folks don’t even come from Georgia.” He continued. Most of them did have southern accents though. People were polite enough; there was none of the New Jersey brusqueness or the big-city rudeness you can find all around the world. Replacing the too-busy-to-have-time-for-whatever-you’re-asking, was a sense of I’d-rather-go-back-to-relaxing-in-my-elegant-state-of-repose-than-be-bothered-by-you. I really only saw Atlanta though. Perhaps this is their version of big-city rudeness.

During these recent trips I’ve been able to confirm some stereotypes and deny some others. Gathering first-hand knowledge of this exotic culture prepares me for future contact. I’ll know more how to react to unexpected behavior. It’s just a tiny taste though. We can’t claim to understand a whole culture just by passing through. The South has a unique history and background worth appreciating by those brought up outside of it. It would take years of cultural anthropological research to truly understand them. Meanwhile, my tip is to just order the black eyed peas and keep your mouth shut if you don’t like bar-be-cue.

(1 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)
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