Friday, December 09, 2011

The Civil War wasn't tragic, it was necessary

Ta-Nehisi Coates asks: Is the Civil War tragic?

What he asked and the other guy answered.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Entailment Ponds, Part II

Every schoolchild knows that Gilroy is the Garlic Capital of the World.  At least if you live in the Bay Area.  And a lot of garlic is grown in Gilroy, so much that when you drive through the vicinity in September you can smell it in the air.

In Canada, I'm told, most of the Canadian garlic comes from Ontario, specifically southern Ontario, in areas that used to grow tobacco.  I'm not sure why Canadian garlic comes from Ontario, aside from the amenable climate of the Niagara Peninsula: in this new era of free trade, you'd think it'd be cheaper in western Canada to buy the garlic from Gilroy than from southern Ontario, which is a full thousand kilometers/600 billion miles further from where I sit right now than Gilroy.  But maybe there's a case to be made with tariffs and economic nationalism and buying Canadian and so on.  And those are good reasons.  I have no qualms about buying garlic grown in Ontario, and when you're trying to buy local the difference between 2500 and 3500 km doesn't add up to much.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Apparently someone in Africa found my email address on Facebook and decided I look like a trustworthy person.  They need me to help them move a bunch of money out of their country before the imminent coup happens, and in exchange they'll give me a small percentage of it, which would still be significant.

The details are a bit sketchy still, but as I'm working on that the two posts I've been working on have been delayed.  Hopefully everything is settled by tomorrow, in which case I'll be an independently wealthy blogger-raconteur, and I can join the Raconteurs with that Johnny Depp looking guy because I'll have enough money for him to have to take me even though I'm only pretty good on guitar, and not great like him.

More soon.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rememberance Day

My grandfather was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, a farming community on the frying-pan flat Canadian plains, and enlisted in the army probably not long after World War II started, when he was 20 or 21.  Somehow he ended up in the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, a reconnaissance regiment based initially in Ottawa.  He was a radio operator, a small thin man who's nickname in his unit, according to my grandmother, was "The Preacher."

He was 24 when he was part of the invasion of Italy, this farm kid from a family of twelve, with a high school diploma who'd probably never been to a city bigger than Regina before Hitler invaded Poland.  The 4th Recce was very much on the front lines: The squadron commander described their operational procedure as "We keep driving until the enemy shoots at us. Then we know he is there."  He remembered lots of things that he never told his war-story-crazy ten-year-old grandson, among them racing the American army into a village so they could claim credit before the glory-hogging Americans got there with the cameras, and walking over carpets of dead German soldiers, and waking up in a ditch shared unknowingly with members of a Panzier grenadier unit who were persuaded into surrender by a German-speaking sergeant from Ontario.  And repeatedly being thrown into battle against elite German units, beating them, and having the English and American units "mop up" while the cameras rolled.  He told my grandmother these things, often during the persistent attacks of malaria he got when they first moved back to the plains.

The only thing I heard, directly, was that the olives you plucked off the trees while you were humping across some Italian hillside were extremely bitter, not like the olives you got in the stores here in Canada.

He was transferred to the 8th Recce after D-Day as they moved through France and Holland - he detested the French, loved the Italians and the Dutch, and talked even less about that part of his war experience than he did about the Italian campaign.  It was much worse, my grandmother said.

He married a woman from Glasgow, had a child, and moved her back with him to Canada, where they farmed for a while until he opened a MacLeod's general store in Vauxhall and ran it for years and raised their kids.  He retired after a heart attack and took up woodworking and the Masons.

My grandfather was the quintessential Canadian citizen soldier, a member of a unit that charged into battle first in an army known for its ferocity among its allies and enemies alike, an army that was thrown in when the massed forces of two world empires had failed to advance.  These volunteers fought harder than the German soldiers with their fanatical ideology, the British soldiers with their confidence of empire, the Americans with their violent origin story.  Then he came home with a Scottish wife, farmed, ran a business and raised a family and complained about the perfidy of the Americans and the French for the rest of his life.  One night when I was a teenager my grandmother and I watched a biography of T.E. Lawrence and talked about the history of the Middle East over a pot of tea after it was over, and my grandfather looked up from the book he was reading and stated very earnestly and innocently that the British Empire always treated people fairly and with honesty.

He died in 1993 from emphysema caused by the two-pack-a-day habit he picked up in the army and didn't quit until he was 50.  The war and getting emphysema were probably the two defining moments of his life, and they both scared the shit out of him. 

But he was an admirable man, in the ordinary courage of the life he lived and his fear of death.  Today I remember him.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Entailment ponds part 1

The news that China has officially acknowledged that "about 10 percent of farmland had 'striking problems of heavy metal levels exceeding (official) limits'" gives some scale to a human catastrophe that rivals Mao's famines and Stalin's paranoia.  Because while 10% is pretty devastating its the follow-on effects that make this a catastrophe.  Consider that, according to the CIA, China had 641,410 sq km of irrigated land in 2008, so an area the size of Nebraska is toxic, and presumably unfit for agriculture by biologically sane standards or even western standards.  10% of 640,000 sq km is about two thirds of all the cropland in California.

We should add the usual caveat that the PRC government follows three rules when it comes to statistics: (a) its best to be conservative so as not to make undue haste, i.e. underestimate, (b) its best to make considered decisions in the fullness of time, i.e. allow time for shoring up whatever defense is necessary, and (c) its best to put a cap on what's reasonable, i.e. let's make the number more of a goal that we strive for, and if its a really bad number morale suffers amongst the strivers, so try to keep the "actual" number close to the reported/goal figure.  So its very likely the 10% figure will remain "the latest" for quite some time, and its also likely the 10% figure has been around for a few years as it passed through various levels of jurisdiction on its way to official approval.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Window farming

A friend of mine mentioned on Facebook the other day (see, it is useful!) that it was too cold for gardening now and they were going to try a Windowfarm.  I think I'm going to try one too, and a family member who saw my share about Windowfarms is also going to try it.  (See, social media marketing works!) 

Its a little cold up here, and the light levels this time of year rarely pass the nine hour mark, but I found this explanation of how I can deal with the light, which I'm going to test on some herbs I brought in a couple of weeks ago.  With some barrier film on the windows, which I have to put up anyway, we should be able to keep the ambient heat and timed light at a level that at least tests the idea thoroughly enough for my completely skeptical spouse.

There's a longer post here about northern supply chains, Peak Oil, local sustainability and the economics of the food supply.  At the moment, however, I've got to figure out whether my time is better spent at Canada's crippleware version of Home Depot or Canadian Tire, which has everything, and cheaper, but always ends up encouraging impulse buying.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

There's a lesson in here, or maybe a business model

T-Mobile Sign Up Issues

You always hear about government being the problem, not the solution.  Less often do you hear about business creating problems in the course of creating solutions.

(Curt Monash knows nothing of my political opinions, or of me in general.  So do not assign approprobrium to him that rightfully belongs to me.)

I would not argue that government should take over the mobile phone industry, or regulate sign-ups, or require that CRM staff be empowered in ways they currently aren't, or even that companies should be required to use stemming in their internal search engines.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Some thoughts on recent music


Even at the best of times, at his most commercial, Lou Reed is nearly unlistenable.  His best efforts didn't get past the Electric Banana, really, if you're into pop or rock.  That's not to say there's not lots of good VU music after the Electric Banana album, and that we should all applaud artists like Lou Reed and Metallica who want to try something different.

But why, when you're trying to be avant garde and stretch boundaries and the like, would you release it to your fans and have rock critics review it?  Its not rock or pop.  Rock and pop fans are addicted to (a) experiences of intense flow states that last less than five minutes, especially if those flow states are accompanied by dancing, but they may go as high as nine minutes if aided by recreational chemicals, and (b) the purchase of little plastic discs that represent to them the physical substance of their flow states.  The rock/pop music industry only cares about (a) to the extent that it increases the rate of change on (b).

But oil floats on water, right?

Obama raises acquifer concerns

"I think folks in Nebraska, like all across the country, aren't going to say to themselves, 'We'll take a few thousand jobs if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health,' or if rich land that is so important to agriculture in Nebraska ends up being adversely affected."
Canadians, and especially Albertans, made that decision a long time ago.  This is what Canadians think of the choice between drinking water and resource extraction:

We're sort of famous for this.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Octopi can be cuddly too

The Right Links Up

I got this from Atrios, but its not really news.  Its only news to the extent that people tend to have narrow parochial perspectives on local politics and avoid reading other sources - and I don't mean that pejoratively, because the whole trend of modern media, some would say point, is narrowcasting.  Cat people can read cat blogs all day long and get only cat-related news on their RSS feeds, and dog people the same, and neither would be aware of the end of the world, such as evidence cats and dogs may actually be the same species with just differently-shaped heads!  (Seriously, I ran across something like that last week, but I can't remember the link.)

(I'm just kidding about that: its so totally implausible it couldn't be true.)

(No, really, I wish I could remember where I saw it.)

In any event, there's an epistemological problem here, and Donald Rumsfeld has made a mockery - as is his wont - of those of us who actually worry about these things, and knew the phrase before it was cool.  To wit, there are known knowns, and known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and its the latter that get you even when you're paying attention.  Because if you're paying attention, you know that what Canadians do for a living is rip stuff out of their ground and sell it to other people.  You notice say that the Conservative party of Canada has a large and deep austerity program planned to create a permanent conservative majority - something which sounds eerily familiar - but the collapse of 2008 forced them to throw $50 billion or so at the Canadian economy to prop up spending for a while so the Americans could recover and buy more Canadian stuff.  And you also notice, if you read Canadian papers, that Canada seems to be doing pretty well amongst the G8 - low national debt, low social-service costs, low incidence of legalized theft by bankers, seemingly no mortgage problems.  And certainly a significant part of the reason the PCs finally got a majority in the last federal election was because they were perceived as solid and dependable (y'know, conservative) defenders of the sensible Canadian regulatory status quo.  Those are the known knowns.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

You mean its going to stay that way?

I was thinking about cognitive plasticity - not strictly the physiological neuroplasticity referred to in the link, although its probably grounded there - and the ease or difficulty with which people learn new habits or overcome neurological configuration issues like dyslexia.  Dyslexics learn to read lexically by "rewiring" some appropriate layers of cognitive functioning so they re-perceive the words in their legible order.  You could expect to see, more or less, the same thing happening if the roles were reversed: people who are not now dyslexics would need to read the newly lexical order, and maybe we'd read slower or faster than the basic competence criteria, but we'd learn to read if we were trained or trained ourselves and the people who are now dyslexics wouldn't think there was anything wrong with the world, just with us.

We see all kinds of similar sorts of cognitive plasticity.  Playing guitar is not a natural motion - there's nothing like a sociobiological just-so story you could tell, for example, that shows why evolution would select for fine motor skills in the left hand fingers and repetitive patterns in the right, and then co-create the appropriate neurological control systems.  In fact up until maybe Led Zeppellin started going on tour there really wasn't much of an evolutionary mechanism that might explain why guitar playing was something the universe would select for.  And yet people learn to do this completely unnatural behavior, which requires "rewiring" a whole bunch of physiological systems, all the time.  And some get quite good at it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

RIP John McCarthy

John McCarthy died on Monday.

One of those guys, like Grice, who influenced more by teaching than by writing.  He and Knuth helped define the reputation of Stanford.

Warren vs. Ryan

Ryan debates Warren

Paul Ryan makes the claim that there's soon too many takers and not enough makers, to support the notion that we're on the road to where we make it impossible to rise above the lot you were born to.  Subject, of course, to taking the right side in the outcomes vs. opportunities debate, which is, if you're a conservative, that everyone should have the same opportunity, not the same outcome.  Which is why we've been dismantling the welfare state for the last thirty years, even though at the time we started dismantling it most of it was ten years old; because if you screw up your eyes really bad, you can see the welfare state as impacting outcomes by offering opportunities, and so it must be ended because we're opposed to engineering outcomes.  Causation for thee, after all, and not for me. 

Except social security is older: must keep that in mind.  Delenda Est Carthago, as they say at the Heritage Institute, and though that was the rock that definitively wrecked the Bush administration they must continue to attack it, because they still think FDR was a commie.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A wrench in the works, pt 1

State Rules on Foreclosure 

So the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that if you bought a foreclosed house from a bank, and the house hadn't been properly foreclosed on, you don't own it.

Pretty simple, right.  I mean, this is common law at its most common.  Basic, solid, hard-headed common sense.

Except that any house where the title was processed via MERS, the mortgage clearing-house the banks created to get around paying county assessor fees (thus contributing significantly to the financial ill-health of counties across the US), is suspect.  For reasons described in the Link, but primarily this: some number, n, larger than a breadbox but smaller than every house bought or sold in the US since 1998, may have been processed by MERS, which (a) has no legal standing to process mortgages, and (b) used hired proxies for a variety of banks to sign off on documents to which they claimed personal and verifiable knowledge.  (b) is just fraud: I can't tell you I've seen foreclosure documents when I haven't.  (This is the root cause of the "robosigning" scandal.)  (a) is a problem because the banks have so entwined MERS in their various internal processes, if MERS is ultimately not legitimized somehow, piles of spaghetti will come crashing down from on high on top of bank profits.

Its getting harder and harder to prop up bank practices.  This is potentially trillions, far more than the EU and the Fed can cobble together.

Friday, October 07, 2011

RIP Derrick Bell

I see in the New York Times this morning that Derrick Bell died.  (Some computer guy died the other day too, but lots of posts have been written about him.)  I'm ashamed to say that until I read the obituary, this was all I knew about Derrick Bell.

I must expand my cultural literacy.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

You just get wet

Charlie Pierce is one of those writers who, a hundred years from now, people will rank with Ambrose Bierce and...  maybe just Ambrose Bierce.  More prolific than Bierce but no less cranky, he's been writing insightful and honest opinions about sports and politics for so many years I don't remember a time when he wasn't writing.  And since I'm in my forties, that probably means a long time.  He's associated particularly with the Boston Globe and Esquire, and in both cases he represents a link to the tweedy, smart, New-England-in-Fall past of the 60s when Esquire was super cool and being from Boston meant you were intellectual and working class and understood the intellectual underpinnings of the west coast offense and also how to tie a bowtie.

I'm reminded, every time I read Pierce, of two things.  One is that I can write like him - maybe not as well, or as practiced, but because Pierce writes so easily on so many things, and makes such minor mistakes, and has such an insidiously clear style you think: what's holding me back from writing like that?  Not him specifically but comfortably.  He reports, why can't I.  Etc.