Friday, May 11, 2007


Michael Vlahos has some very interesting thoughts in the feature story of the American Conservative.

The piece is a commentary, the topic nothing you haven't thought of before, but gorgeously written and presented. Mr. Vlahos has a hand with verbal imagery.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Searching for the Sphere of Archimedes

A really, really fascinating article for anyone with a passing interest in the history of science.

I had read of the Antikythera mechanism before, but did not quite realize its complexity. Also, I had no idea they found others. The author muses on how technology is abandoned by various cultures over the years. It's something worth pondering, because it goes beyond technology and history, or even design. It has to do with culture. It hurts to say it, and I know of at least one scientist who will throw things at me for saying it, but science is part of culture. Function does not live on a Tibetan mountaintop.

There is a set of alternate history novels in which a group of apartheid South African mercenaries go back in time to the American Civil War. They bring the shematics for the AK-47. In the novel, naturally the South manufactures this asynchronous assault rifle, and things happen as may be.

This article of the Mechanism reveals that such fantasies are exactly that. Our technology does not exist in a Platonic vacuum of absolute functionality, but in a thick atmosphere of our own values, the primordial muck of design. Worthies of the American Civil War would no sooner begin manufacturing AK-47s than we would begin manufacturing race-specific retroviruses. We design and build things according to our values, and not according to a single function.

That said, it's probably a good thing we didn't have tanks in 1600, or AK-47s in 1862. Hooray for values.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

At the Mountains of Madness

One of the enduring literary innovations of H. P. Lovecraft is the idea of an infectious fiction. In his world, there are fictions- or texts, or words, or concepts- that, when read, have immediate and dire consequences in the physical world without a conscious intermediary. It's subtle, terrifying. It means that once you've read an H. P. Lovecraft story it's already too late. By the act of reading, you have tripped into motion a threat from beyond time.

There is a number (more) that I could show you that similarly, merely by the act of you viewing it, would cause you (or me) to be fined or even imprisoned. Those thirty-two characters only have to exist in front of your optic nerves to be illegal, according to the writ of the DMCA. I have chosen not to look at the number for this reason; I don't want to see anything that can get me arrested merely by virtue of being inside my brain. Theoretically the magic number allows you to do something involving movies and LINUX, but I don't care and I don't want to know. I don't even know what I just wrote. I have a very short memory.

As far as I'm concerned, these arcane digits are the Necronomicon, and our corrupt congresscritters are their Shoggoth. I know better than to goose Shoggoths in sensitive bikini areas. Let the movie industry have their magical textbooks and weird secrets.

EDIT: Or you can tempt fate and Death itself! And buy a T-SHIRT emblazoned with the fearful secret number! Or even the deadly secret as spelled in a fiendish hex color pallette! To what depths will these deviants sink?! Verily, I run out of exclamation points!

Dispatches from an Economic Boom

2006 was a record year for economic growth, said an official on the radio news. Good things to hear on your way to a client's site, a sign that the world is turning at least in some of the right directions. Corporate profits rising at record levels, continued the announcer. Profits mean reinvestment and improvement of infrastructure, said another. Wonderful, wonderful news to hear from a random talking head snorting coke off the teleprompter. It's probably just a moral failing of the people that this neighborhood looks like Tijuana on a bad day.

At 9 am a drunk on a bicycle weaves into heavy traffic, bumper to bumper at fifty miles per hour through a school zone. Chaos ensues as drivers try to make up their minds if they want to hit the schoolchildren, the drunk, or each other. If I was a crossing guard in this town I swear I'd carry a Javelin missile launcher, or perhaps a more rustic RPG-7. It would match the rust and crumbling concrete a bit better, I think.

The youths glowering in front of the Wal-Mart could be distinguished from ordinary gang members by their traditional blue vest and smiley face pin. It's a charmingly multiracial gathering of what I like to call "Future Carjackers of America". A particularly hostile Caucasian who looked to be about eleven sneered ferociously at me while sucking on his Doral Menthol, blowing smoke. I lower my gaze not because I am afraid of a gang of elementary school-age Wal-Mart employees but because I do not want to hit someone who should, at this time of day, be in a clean institutional building learning about multiplication and cooties. Later I check to see if there is some sort of school holiday or vacation that allows school-age children the liberty to be working at Wallyworld this fine Tuesday morning. There is not. Undoubtedly the rainbow coalition on break obtained permission to work all hours from their attentive guardians, parents, and/or grandparents. I remember one kid I used to work with in the restaurant business whose mother charged him six hundred dollars a month to live in a garage with a sink for a toilet. He couldn't get a real apartment because, hey, he was sixteen.

I met with an old friend for lunch, and the discussion got around to making money, and making your money work. "My 401k did one point eight percent for 2006," he said.
"You're kidding," I said.
"Nope. Would have done just as good putting it in the bank."
Actually, given the amount of money in the fund, he would have done better, assuming he put it in a money market, which there is no reason not to do if you are putting in more than about three grand. I was pretty incredulous. Someone somewhere is taking off with a lot of money- pretty much all the indexes did better than fifteen percent in 2006.
"They have a lot of fees they take off," he adds. I'll say. I poked around the story using the magic of the internet, and saw much of what I expected.
401ks all across the country look like this. If it weren't for the matching funds provided by employers, these managed assets would be dumped faster than real estate is getting dumped now. Even with matching, the returns are laughably close to what you could get from just taking all the money and putting it in under some sort of halfway-competent manager. Big companies are basically funding these incompetent managers so that they can get bargain buybacks and keep the roof under their feet, at the expense of investors, and, naturally, those employees stuck with the goddamn things. It does mean record profits, though. Profits are good. Good profits mean you have a good economy.

I got to Bed, Bath, and Beyond fifteen minutes early; I reclined the seat and took a good nap. When I got out, I almost ran into an older woman, about fifty, wearing threadbare clothes but otherwise looking like she took decent care of herself, or at least a good a care as you can take when you make nine thousand dollars a year. She was bleeding from a few places on her face and arms. "Some of the boys around here, they threw some rocks last night, shredded my tent"
"You behind DeSoto?", I asked, remembering a tent village I used to pass when I biked to the DeSoto Mall.
"Yeah, they got a bunch of folks . ." She paused, as if embarassed "Could I get a ride to the hospital from you? I thought I was OK, but . ."
I can't really describe the emotion I felt. It's like you asked a bartender to make the most revolting cocktail that he could imagine, then getting it and drinking it, and then having to pretend to have a good time for the rest of the evening. "I'm sorry . . I'm meeting my fiance . . we're doing our registry."
God bless her, she genuinely looked apologetic. "Oh! You get that done. Sorry, I saw you sleeping in the car, and I just thought . ." She thought I was a fellow homeless person. Someone who could help.
I'm about to mention calling the police, but remember what a buddy of mine in law enforcement mentioned about the Bradenton City police. "We get a call from them, we go to the scene with witnesses. Not from the City. We get folks from FHP, or county." I think about the Sarasota police whaling on those soup kitchen people with big flashlights, and the St. Pete police that tore down the tent city. I chuckle to myself thinking about calling police to help a bleeding homeless woman. I'd be better off calling the Humane Society.
"Take care of youself, ma'am"
"Oh I will. Bless you. And your sweetie."

Monica and I had a great time doing our registry. We are a fine couple, waltzing through dishes and food processors and All-Clad Stainless Cookware. I imagine the sweet, sweet foods I am going to be making with these boss new kitchen gadgets. It's some kind of joy ringing up the most expensive of every possible item. I hear China needs the money anyway. Their economy is growing too. Record profits. Things have never been better. Prosperity, America, that's where it's at.