Archive for March, 2006

The Thinker

A Milestone: Entry #500

Time flies when you are having fun blogging. This is my 500th entry.

You are probably thinking that this is not that big a deal. Many blogs make it to 500 entries, and some in only a few months. Some blogs like Eschaton/Atrios put out a dozen entries or more a day.

Ah, but Occam’s Razor is not your ordinary blog. It has delusions to be something more. It aspires to offer unique content worth the time it took me to write it, and the time it took you to read it. You will not find many pithy, short or badly spelled entries here. Sadly, the latter are rather typical of the blogosphere. If TV is a vast wasteland, so is the blogosphere. Finding nuggets of interesting stuff can be challenging. This blog aspires to be one of the good nuggets that will always be easy to find.

What you get here are eclectic essays with no running theme. To date I offer 500 individual essays carefully written over 3 years and a few months. However, until today I did not quantify just how many words this amounts to. The result (not including today’s entry) is 541,766 words, or an average of 1086 words per entry. This explains, in case you were curious, why I tend to skip a day (sometimes more) between entries. Because a typical entry is 2-3 pages long and since each entry is edited four times before I will publish it, this amounts to a lot of time, thought and effort for a guy with a full time job.

If my blog were a book, and if the average entry were two typewritten pages long, the book would be over 1000 pages long. How big a book is that? Well, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 1472 pages. I have become a self-published author, of sorts. You cannot find this collection of essays at Barnes & Noble, nor even on Amazon.com. If I thought that there was a market for my essays, perhaps I would publish it. After all, the blogger Riverbend who blogs from Baghdad had her entries turned into a book. To start, I would be satisfied just to pay back my hosting costs. Maybe I should add a PayPal donation link and see if anyone sends me some loose change.

(For those who are terminally bored, you can run this PHP script I created today which provides my current word counts.)

Near the start of 2006, I published this entry looking at my overall statistics for 2005. Since I started metering this site with SiteMeter around March 2004, and since this is the end of the month, this entry also gives me the opportunity to compare my SiteMeter statistics with those from a year ago.

Here is a snapshot yearly SiteMeter statistics for the last 12 months:

SiteMeter stats March 2005 - March 2006

In addition, here is last year’s snapshot from exactly one year ago:

SiteMeter stats March 2004 - March 2005

I will need to wait until January 2007 to get a clearer idea of how much traffic my blog is really getting, since SiteMeter statistics are not very accurate. However, based on my SiteMeter statistics, visits are up about 17% from the previous 12 months and page views are up 28%. Most likely, there was more growth than SiteMeter can track. Some people are accessing this site as a newsfeed. Although I cannot quantify it yet, access to this site via newsfeed continues to grow. Unfortunately, SiteMeter can only meter content in HTML and Javascript. However, services like FeedBurner can track newsfeed requests, providing visitors use their service to access my newsfeed. Since March 20th I have started using FeedBurner to track RSS subscriptions. Over time, this will give me an additional useful metric. I am sure though that I have a number of people getting my RSS and Atom newsfeeds the old fashioned way.

I hope that I can keep it up for 500 more entries, and that the next 500 will be at least as interesting as the first 500.

 
The Thinker

Requiem for a Feline

(Please enjoy this music while reading this entry. The music is part of the experience.)

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.

Preface to Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography

When I blog, I try to let words express the depth of my soul. Sometimes I come close, but words can never quite capture my feelings. Nothing that I can say in this entry can quite express how I feel right now, although the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s quote above comes close.

I used to poo-poo the notion of angels. Not anymore. Sprite, my cat of 19 ½ years of age who was put to sleep Sunday night, was an angel. He was a special angel sent by the cosmos just to me to provide me comfort, solace and love through two turbulent decades of my life. Sprite was simply love wrapped in a feline form. The depth of his love for me was focused and boundless.

Anyone who has had a pet knows how attached you can get to them. However, some pets are singularly extraordinary. That I was fortunate enough to have him as my pet means that there is either is a God or I am the fortunate recipient of a random act of the cosmos.

Sprite, on my lap, circa 2004

Mark me well. I know how people with pets can love them dearly, as I certainly loved Sprite. Nevertheless, Sprite’s love for me was extraordinary and far beyond what I even imagined was possible in my life. During the stresses of life that would have pulled apart ordinary men, Sprite was there for me. His love was like a thousand watt light bulb. He radiated his love on me in such high megadoses I was able to pull through my challenges time and time again. He did it without saying a word, except for an occasionally silent meow. He did it by looking at me intently with his devotional wide eyes and purring contentedly on my lap. He gave all he had and more for 19 ½ years. He would have stayed with me forever had his body allowed it. However, even with a cat with such a gentle constitution, death could not be postponed forever.

Sometime during the last week, Sprite’s intestine became perforated. He developed peritonitis. The twice-daily pills, the daily yogurt, the special cat food and the laxative which kept his symptoms in check lost their efficacy. By Sunday, he had no more appetite and could not even drink from his water dish. He found refuge behind the couch. I coaxed a couple spoonfuls of yogurt into his tummy, which were quickly thrown up.

It was time to visit the emergency veterinarian. I prayed of course that we were not to taking him in to be put to sleep. However, the X-rays revealed the sad truth of a cat who had given all he could give. The perforation could be seen easily, and his kidneys were enlarged and his stomach extended. It is unlikely that surgery could correct the problem. He had worn out. There was nothing to do but spare him further misery by putting him to sleep.

Sprite was quiet but attentive when we wrapped him in a towel and took him into the car. It was evening. He did not fuss in my arms at all. He looked wide-eyed and with wonder at the streetlights, the signs and the stars. He was calm. It seemed to me that they were a comfort to him. Perhaps they were a distant memory of wherever he was before he arrived in this world. While my wife drove, I gently stroked his face. Underneath the towel, somewhere there was a small but consistent purr.

Sprite left this life with dignity and unflinchingly. We held him in a blanket, looked at him intently and stroked him. I told him again for the millionth time how special a cat he was. He truly was the best cat who has ever lived. Gentleness and love expressed the character of his soul. He watched us with his wide eyes, seemingly hearing every word we were saying although we knew he was deaf. He was not afraid but was comforted that we were there for him. The narcotic he was given freed him of his pain.

“Dad, there is no more I can give you,” is what I heard him say in my head. “Sprite, we will meet again, sometime and someday, and in some other life,” I said to him quietly, tears streaming down my face. “And then once again you will be on my lap, and I will stroke you and pull back your bat-like ears and you will be purring contentedly. I love you, son.”

It was my wife and the veterinarian who actually put him to sleep. I could not find the strength for that final act. Simply seeing the euthanasia tube in his paw was hard enough. He watched my wife intently during the euthanasia, half shut his eyes and was gone. He went peacefully, which was right. In addition, he went embraced in love.

We will meet again, best friend and soulmate. There is no way I could begin to repay the love you lavished so consistently on me for so many years. I thank you for your gift nonetheless. I know we will be with each other again. For now my love, au revoir.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

Review: Stay Alive

The best part of going to a teen movie with your daughter is you get to spend a little quality time with her. This is increasingly challenging the older my daughter gets (she is sixteen). The trailer for the movie Stay Alive looked interesting. Alas, the trailer was the best part of the movie. Truth in marketing should require the movie to be renamed “Stay Awake”.

Yech! To quote another movie (“Ghostbusters”), “I’ve been slimed.” It is not accurate to say the movie has absolutely no redeeming values. It is just that you have to look pretty darn hard to find anything about it to recommend. Even my daughter laughed when the movie was over and agreed, “It was a terrible movie.” Considering we paid full price to see the movie, I feel doubly ripped off. It wouldn’t have been worth the matinee price either, but at least the damage to my wallet would have been less.

The premise is that a “Beta” online video game a group of very young adults are playing together called “Stay Alive” becomes more than escapist entertainment. If your character dies in the game, you die too, in exactly the same way your character died in the game. This becomes increasingly absurd as more than one of the disposable teenagers/young adult actors gets run over by (and I swear I am not making this up) a horse drawn carriage.

The plot is allegedly based on the real life story of a 17th century “Blood Countess”, although it was updated to take place in a modern pre-Katrina New Orleans. Fortunately, this half-dead Blood Countess picks some of our society’s most dispensable citizens. Each of the teens/young adults in this movie are mere stereotypes, and annoying stereotypes at that. Truly, we are better off as a society with them dispatched to some other world, so the Blood Countess is really doing society a favor. A cop or two also meets his untimely reward along the way but hey, these are New Orleans cops.

Perhaps one-dimensional teenagers are now par for the course. I would like to think that when I was their age I had more personality and a larger vocabulary. For a movie that was supposed to be scary, it was anything but. Can you say “foreshadowing”? I knew you could. If you cannot foretell when one of these cardboard characters is going to bite the big one, then you have oatmeal for brains.

While the movie was not filmed on a shoestring, it was obviously a low budget movie. Clearly not much money was spent on the virtually unknown “actors” that were hired. More money was spent on special effects and dressing up the faux creepy New Orleans mansion where some of the ending climactic scenes occur. This was a movie though that could not even afford a car wreck. In one scene, a guy sees a ghost on a backwater bayou road. He swerves but his car is left without a scratch. He gets out of his car to try to find the girl he thought he hit, to be shortly run over by, you guessed it, a horse drawn carriage. Here’s an idea. Get in your car. Let’s see a horse drawn carriage get over that. (Or for that matter, in the cemetery scene, simply hide out between the many mausoleums. Ain’t no carriage that will get between them either.)

The “actors” play vapid teenagers/young adults reasonably well, so in that sense they acted. The biggest problem with the movie is that it lacks any suspense whatsoever. You know what will happen since it is first shown in the video game. To keep yourself awake, you can simply hope that every one of these thinly drawn characters is wiped out. Alas, two of the more vapid teens manage to make it out of the movie alive. You though might want to check your pulse before leaving the theater, to ensure you didn’t die of boredom.

The movie’s saving grace is its short playing time: 85 minutes. This is not even a movie worth renting for a buck at a discount dollar DVD rental. If you happen to own a copy, its most important use will be as a coaster.

1.8 on my 5.0 scale. Unfortunately, I have seen worse than this, but have rarely paid so much for virtually no value.

I would review this movie more but alas, I have already wasted far more time warning you about it than it merits. Give it wide berth.

 
The Thinker

George Mason University Grows Up

Grrr. Why is it that a university cannot be seen as a top tier school until its basketball team is invited into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament?

Almost on a lark, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia (outside of Washington, DC) was invited to participate in the NCAA tournament this year. Against all odds, GMU has hung around. Last night by defeating Wichita State 63-55, GMU moved into the final eight teams. The sports world is agog. This was not supposed to happen. Commuter universities that start out their existence as community colleges in the 1960s are not supposed to become top tier schools so quickly. I mean, the ivy has not yet had a chance to become established on George W. Johnson Center.

I am not much of a sports fan, but I am a GMU graduate. I received a master’s degree in Software Systems Engineering from GMU in 1999. It was a logical choice for me, but not only because I lived about ten miles away from the main campus. Even in the mid 1990s, GMU offered a top tier software engineering school. In addition, I could take all my courses at night and pay in state tuition rates. Still, I did not have to choose GMU. I could have chosen tonier institutions of learning like George Washington University, that offered similar programs. Alternatively, I could have done what my wife did. She was earning a bachelor’s degree herself at the time. She picked a genuine commuter school, Strayer University. However, I chose GMU because what was most important to me was not just a diploma, but also an excellent graduate education. I got it at GMU.

I do not know how many reading this have had the opportunity to get through graduate school and if so what you thought of your education. I know what my wife thought about Strayer University. It was not that it was a bad school. It just was not a great school. If you did your assignments, showed up in class, studied modestly before the test then it was hard not to pull a B in a course. Her instructors were so so, from great to mediocre. It took her about six years working on her education part time, but she eventually received her degree.

That was not my experience at GMU. Granted, a graduate program is assumed to be more challenging than a baccalaureate program. Each course was quite a challenge, but it was not a challenge in the sense that to succeed I had to memorize textbooks. Rather, to succeed I had to push myself academically to the limit. For my wife studying was a halfhearted sort of thing. She is naturally brilliant where I am not, so she could work in some spare time between school and a full time job. I was busy all the time. Free time was non-existent during semesters.

Every professor I had at GMU felt top tier to me. Moreover, they knew how to put us through the academic wringer. Most were not so much sadistic as intent that we were going to be overflowing with their expertise in the subject area. Each course though was not based on research that was ten years old. We learned state of the art theory and practices. I learned an enormous amount of very useful information during my three years at GMU which I have subsequently applied to my job. During grad school I was constantly busy. I certainly did not have a moment to spare to see the Patriots play basketball. Even my semester breaks were crammed with homework.

Half my classes had group projects. As if my full time job, getting to class twice a week and the studying were not enough to fully occupy my time, I also had to work through complex group projects with my classmates. Eventually I earned my diploma. I can honestly say I have never worked harder in my life to reach any goal, nor felt more satisfaction from having achieved it. I have my diploma framed and on the wall of my office. I want people to see it. I want them to know the blood, sweat and tears that went into getting it. In addition, I want them to know that GMU is one damned fine university. Commuter school? Bah!

I am glad the rest of the country now understands that GMU is a “real” university. Despite the many top tier professors, including some who have won renown, now my alma mater also has a top tier basketball team. I would not be surprised if GMU is now the best university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I know the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Virginia Technological Institute and others have hard won reputations too. Perhaps they are resting on their laurels. I do know that GMU is the scrappy university that could. Our reputation was built by a lot of very hard work, and nurtured by foresighted leaders over many decades.

At GMU, I did not get just a diploma. I got what I really craved: a top tier education in the field I had made my career. Those employers who think that an Ivy League diploma by itself means something unique should think twice. I strongly suspect the rest of GMU’s departments are as excellent as its School of Information Technology and Engineering. Just by earning a diploma at GMU, a student is telling potential employers something they should want to hear: their education was top notch.

If it took a while for GMU’s excellence to make it to their basketball team, well, academics has always been its top priority.

 
The Thinker

Fight Smart

From an Osama Bin Laden videotape, released by Al Jazeera on November 1, 2004:

All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.

This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.

All Praise is due to Allah.

So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah.

I hope the NSA will not notice this blog entry. I hope that I will not have Secret Service agents on my doorstep accusing me of collaborating with the enemy. You cannot take anything for granted from our president anymore, including the right of due process. Yet there is a fundamental truth in this statement from our enemy Osama bin Laden: this War on Terror is bankrupting our country.

It used to be when you fought an all out war, both sides ended up equally impoverished. This certainly was true of our Allies in Europe after both world wars, and they were the victors. Freedom is certainly priceless and beats totalitarianism. Terrorism though is a new modus operandi for conducting a war. We are like medieval armies using catapults to deal with an army that has discovered cannons and gunpowder. We need to rethink how a nation deals with this new kind of threat.

In our new reality, nation against nation wars are becoming obsolete. Now, a handful of people with minimal amounts of money can rather effectively gum up the works of a free society. Smart terrorists like bin Laden know how to yank our chain for maximum effectiveness. From their perspective, we are like a dog chasing its tail, distracted and spending most of our time and money on fruitless efforts. The War on Terror has been enormously expensive so far and arguably, the meter just started running. The Iraq War has cost at least $250B to date. Since Bush still has three years in office, he has already said some future president will have to decide when to withdraw troops from Iraq. Considering current obligations in the pipeline, the cost of the Iraq War alone will end up as $500B at least. It could conceivably cost a trillion dollars, or more. That’s $1,000,000,000,000.

This is just the cost of the war in Iraq. Then there is the destruction of al Qaeda, bringing bin Laden to justice, and ensuring that Afghanistan cannot harbor terrorists like al Qaeda again. That costs maybe $30B or so a year. On top of that, there is also the cost of making us safer here at home. Those costs are harder to quantify, since all sorts of dubious expenditures are being charged to the War on Terror.

All this money of course has to come from somewhere. Thus far, it has come from borrowing. Lenders of course are not giving away money; they expect to get it back with interest. This means that, all things being equal, our government will be paying more interest (as a percent of the budget) in years ahead than we do now. Consequently, either government programs like Social Security and Medicare will be chopped in the future, or when we pass our national credit limit, taxes are going to go way up, with the obvious decrease in our general standard of living. In addition, there are indirect costs for all of us. All this federal borrowing also drives up the cost of private borrowing. While interest rates are low by historical standards, they would be even less expensive if the government was not sucking away so much of the available capital.

It took al Qaeda a couple hundred thousand dollars to instigate 9/11. In return, we will likely spend $1-$2 trillion in direct costs, and those are only the ones we can project today. To put it another way, for every $1 spent by al Qaeda to destroy America, we will spend at least $1,000,000. As you can see, bin Laden may be a reprehensible troll, but he is not stupid. He knows how to get maximum leverage for his money. He stated it clearly: we cannot continue to afford the War on Terror forever.

Nevertheless, bin Laden got a surprise bonus from President Bush. I doubt even he expected quite his slavishly Pavlovian response. A rational president might have concentrated forces on where the problem was acute, which was arguably in Afghanistan. However, Bush imagined a much larger threat to America from terrorism than was actually there. Consequently, we got a badly planned War in Iraq.

It was like bin Laden, after hitting the jackpot, next won the grand prize in the state lottery. Our focus shifted from him to Saddam Hussein. 130,000 troops, instead of combing the Afghanistan countryside, got to hang out indefinitely in Iraq instead. Muslims, many of whom were indifferent to America prior to the invasion, got to watch our armies shoot up their fellow Muslims live on Al Jazeera. Instead of empathy from many Muslims for 9/11, we now had their antipathy. Many who would have never considered jihad found it a holy cause to which they could commit. We both squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and made the War on Terror worse. Lovely. Not.

Meanwhile, other emerging first world countries like China and India also indirectly caught a break. It is hard for America to focus on its economic future when it is fighting a costly and indefinite War on Terror. Their capital is freer to improve their economies and offer a competitive advantage to their nations.

Am I the only American who thinks the actual threat from al Qaeda is vastly over-inflated? I do not want to discount the horror of 9/11. I witnessed the Pentagon burning that day. I felt the terror too. Yes, nearly 3000 of our citizens died horrible deaths. Yet look how it was accomplished. It was done on the cheap. Now, in our ultra-paranoid mode, we assume of our enemy much more powerful than he likely will ever be again.

The War on Terror needs to be reframed and scoped down. By making it bigger than it needs to be, we are both bankrupting ourselves and losing our focus. It can be boiled down to a few major tasks.

First, we need to get rid of those who perpetrated and funded 9/11. We need to deny them refuge, cut off their assets, stop their recruiting and kill those directly responsible if we can. This will not be done overnight. It will take decades. To accomplish it though does not require us to have 130,000 troops in Iraq.

Second, and arguably most important of all, we need to secure vulnerable nuclear stockpiles across the world. It has gotten short shrift from this administration. If we have to redeploy 130,000 troops, let us volunteer them for use in foreign countries to secure these stockpiles until they are properly secured. Otherwise, our borders and ports could sure use a lot more security than they have.

Third, we need to do better dealing with North Korea. Unfortunately, if North Korea really does have nuclear weapons, there is not much we can do other than constructive engagement. Anything that will lessen their leader’s paranoia is good, unless it helps him acquire more nuclear material or gives him the means to deliver them. Mostly North Korea must be contained until the time when, if ever, saner heads prevail there. We should encourage North and South Korea to work through their long-standing problems. We must be careful not to make the situation worse. I doubt that statements saying how evil their regime is will be constructive.

As for Iran, their nuclear efforts can still be checked. Our War on Terror was something of a bonus for Iran too. Thanks to us, Iraq, which used to be Iran’s implacable enemy, will likely Balkanize into separate ethnic states. Shiite Iraq is likely to be Iran’s friend, not their enemy. Kurdistan is unlikely to be their enemy. Although the Taliban were reprehensible folk, Iran considered their extreme form of theocracy a threat to their state. We removed Iran’s two biggest external threats.

Iran needs constructive engagement and a reduction in all the pointless, ineffective and hateful rhetoric. It needs a bold stroke. You can rule that happening while Bush is in office. It needs a Nixon in China sort of engagement. If I were president, I would propose flying to Iran for direct talks. While there, I would apologize again for our involvement keeping the Shah of Iran in power, and basically just let them vent. After the venting is over, I will bet you would see moves toward constructive engagement.

These are all difficult, but not impossible tasks. However, they are not impossible, amorphous and Herculean tasks like our current unfocused war on terror. We need to stop biting off more than we can chew.

 
The Thinker

Review: V for Vendetta

This movie asks the question, “Can you take a two decade old graphic novel and make it into a successful motion picture?” To my knowledge, V for Vendetta is the first graphic novel to be made into a major motion picture. Puh-lease, do not say it was first just a comic book. Graphic novels are comic books on steroids and this particular story has plenty of testosterone to spare. Graphic novel themes tend to be adult, the artwork detailed and the writing is certainly way beyond what you will find in Archie Comics.

V for Vendetta was first published in the United Kingdom in serial form between 1982 and 1985. It was written by Alan Moore and illustrated (mostly) by David Lloyd. The graphic novel was one of Alan Moore’s first major works. My wife is a big fan of Alan Moore and David Lloyd. V for Vendetta has sat in our graphic novel library for at least a decade, and she considers it one of the best in her collection. So naturally, she was excited when she learned it was coming to the screen. The screenplay was written by The Wachowski Brothers (who gave us The Matrix movies) but fortunately was directed by someone else (James McTeigue). As you may have noticed, The Wachowski Brothers went downhill since the first Matrix movie.

The hero, if you can call an anarchist and terrorist a hero, is a man named V. The novels postulate an England that entered into a dark age in the late 1970s because of a biological warfare incident that left tens of thousands of British citizens dead. Consequently, a traumatized public voted in an extremely conservative government. It quickly went about setting up a totalitarian state in order to ensure that “England prevails”. The story takes place in this alternate reality sometime around our present day. V is a one-man vigilante force out to bring down the totalitarian state and (in the graphic novel) institute anarchy. In the movie, V is more of a gentleman. He wants to restore the republic. To do that for some reason he has to blow up the British parliament. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask throughout the movie. Beneath the mask, you can hear the always polite but sometimes sarcastic voice of Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from The Matrix movies). As you might expect the omnipresent mask made the acting something of a challenge for Weaving.

V saves a young woman named Evey from some state thugs on Guy Fawkes Day (November 5th). Shortly afterward, when she is still catching her breath, he allows her to witness with him his first major act of terrorism: blowing up the Old Bailey in London. To save Evey (Natalie Portman) he eventually has to take her to his secret underground lair. Naturally, they develop a strong relationship that grows stronger as Evey begins to help V with some of his violent deeds. This also made her a woman marked by the state.

Can one man bring down a fascist state? It sounds preposterous and, well, it is. More importantly, can the director carry it off? With Hugo Weaving hiding behind a mask, it is up to Natalie Portman to carry most of the film’s acting burden. Those who have seen the later Star Wars movies know that her acting left much to be desired. Fortunately, it turned out that George Lucas was just a lousy director. In the hands of a good director like McTeigue she gets a chance to show she has the right stuff. You will not be disappointed and more than a little stunned by her exceptional acting in this movie. Because she succeeds so well, the film gains more than a modicum of plausibility.

Fortunately, the acting and directing are uniformly good throughout the movie. John Hurt gets to reprise (in a way) his role as Caligula from the I, Claudius BBC series from the 1970s. Here he plays Adam Sutler, the ultraconservative megalomaniac chancellor of Great Britain. After V turns the Old Bailey into rubble and warns that the following Guy Fawkes Day, he will destroy the British Parliament building, Sutler goes off the deep end trying to prevent the destruction of Parliament and thus his hold on power. Yet despite a state monopoly on dangerous explosives, V has managed to stuff a subway train full of high explosives all by himself, which he plans to hurdle under the Parliament to reduce it to rubble.

Since this is more of an allegorical tale, it is best not to invest too much time in the implausible aspects of the movie, and just go with the flow. You will likely find the movie reasonably engaging, even if V’s perpetually grinning mask gets annoying after a while. V’s philosophy makes a certain amount of creepy sense by the end of the movie. It is not very often when you find yourself rooting for terrorists and anarchists, particularly in our post 9/11 world. Yet you may be cheering along as V blows up buildings.

For me though it was just a tad too implausible. V’s omnipresent mask eventually became wholly distracting. In addition, as the movie progressed I noticed little incongruities that annoyed me. For example, the United States was supposed to be in the grip of civil war and anarchy, yet there were plentiful numbers of Dell computer monitors (can we say “product placement”?) Despite decades of supposed relative isolation and sanctions, Great Britain has all the latest toys and technology, which could only happen in a robust global economy. Moreover, what was with the millions of Guy Fawkes masks seemingly delivered to everyone in Great Britain? No one in the totalitarian state was aware of it and nipped it in the bud? These are not little pebbles that you are likely to trip over, but substantial rocks. They clearly detract from the movie.

The creepiest part of the movie is seeing how so many elements of it are happening today here in the United States, courtesy of my government. From the torture, to the bald-faced lies coming from their leaders, to sending citizens to prison with no chance of a trial, to the deeply conservative government, to the unquestioned loyalty to the Chancellor, if the parallels do not make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat a bit, you are not fully awake. Give the current yahoos running the United States another ten years in power and, sadly, our lives will bear more than a passing resemblance to this alternate reality. Arguably, we are half there already.

This is a good movie worth the price, but for the flaws mentioned above it gets 3.2 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

Wigged out at Wegmans

Future food shock is here. It’s happening.

There was a time, oh so quaint a time, when our grocery expectations were modest. Be it the Food Lion, or the Winn Dixie, or the Krogers, what’s for dinner likely was purchased there. They call themselves supermarkets. Hah! What a joke! These stores, which still populate much of our grocery landscape, are beginning to be what neighborhood grocers were to my parent’s generations, and the country store to the generation before them. These chains do not know it yet, but they are obsolete.

Wegmans is America’s grocery future. Here is a supermarket that puts the “super” in supermarket. You might say it is a super-duper grocery market. It is the ultimate grocery store. While you are there looking over the hundreds of brands of herbal teas or pondering which of the dozens kinds of olives to bring home from their olive bar, you can also pick up patio furniture. Moreover, you can buy pharmaceuticals, dinnerware, enjoy a cappuccino, take home a fresh pizza, browse the cheese shop, select meat from the Kosher deli (or sushi from the Sushi bar), or peruse the extensive wine shop on the lower level. Yes, Wegmans has a lower level, albeit a modest one, at least at the Wegmans that opened here in Fairfax County, Virginia recently. Actually, we have two Wegmans in Fairfax County now. One thing we do not have a lack for in Fairfax County are upwardly mobile people with good paying jobs. If our tastes are not yet fully refined, we are darn well working on it. Ordinary food will no longer do. Limited selection no longer suffices either. We want variety. Part of living large means sampling the incredible selection of food that is out there, much of which you had no idea even existed. Chances are if some exotic food is what you want and it is not at a Wegmans, it is not available.

Wegmans is to the grocery business what Amazon.com is to online retail. By being probably the first of its kind, it is likely to be a category killer. It is what we lusted after in a grocery store but could not imagine until one opens near you. The Wegmans I went to today, for example, is so large it has its own underground parking garage. I did not even bother to count their number of checkout lanes. I am sure there were more than two dozen.

The hardest problem shopping at Wegmans is getting out before your food spoils. So save the refrigerated and frozen foods for the end of your visit. Meanwhile let you jaw drop as you ponder and try to select from the plethora of available products. For me it is not just too much, it is way too much. Admittedly, it is a neat and attractive store, pleasing to the eye and about as fancy as a grocery store can get. Nevertheless, it still boggles my mind. I am having a hard time getting my mind around the sheer size and variety of products that Wegmans sells.

In retrospect, Wegmans was bound to happen. Haughty grocery chains have been finding plenty of customers here in Fairfax County. We have our Whole Foods, our Harris Teeters and our Trader Joes and they nearly outnumber the traditional (or dare we say “classic”) grocery stores of the past. Most of this newest generation of grocery stores places their emphasis on organic foods. At Wegmans most of the foods are organic and many of them carry the store’s label. Yet they are not beyond selling ordinary toilet paper or Hostess Cupcakes either. We yuppies may prefer organic, but Wegmans’ patrons are not beyond buying a box of Twinkies now and then, which are also conveniently available. After all, you can only eat so much organic food before you get a Twinkie attack. That is when you get the craving for those sugary, processed carbohydrates loaded with high fructose corn syrup and deadly partially hydrogenated oils. Wegmans understands its customers are human beings with certain failings and provides a limited set of classic junk foods when 100% organic simply will not do.

Those Trader Joes and Whole Foods stores though are modest places. Wegmans is grand; it is about Texas-sized supermarkets. It is surprising then that its stores are all in the northeast. In fact, the Wegmans store I was at today in Fairfax is its southernmost store. The heart of Wegmans is in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. However, I can easily predict that this chain will keep spreading out. While you are unlikely to see Wegmans in Wal-Mart country, if you live in an upwardly mobile area (particularly on the East Coast), you may find one popping up in your neighborhood one of these days.

Even with its dozens of registers, you may need to learn some extreme shopping cart tactics to wend your way through the store. Chances are it will be crowded. In fact, if the store has just opened up you might want to do yourself a favor and wait six months or so for the hoopla to die down. Although Wegmans may be too big for me to get my brain around, you are likely much less intimidated. In fact, if you take one trip into a Wegmans, you are likely to be rethinking your grocery store choices.

Do not expect to find Wal-Mart prices at Wegmans. In fact, I doubt you will find many Wal-Mart shoppers at Wegmans. It is not their kind of place and I do not think Wegmans shoppers frequent Wal-Marts either. However, do expect an attractive looking store. The Fairfax store has a harvest brown theme to it and lacks the garish florescent lights more typical of Supermarkets. Instead, we get little touches like a produce rack with an attached mist machine that artfully comes on periodically, so no customer has to deal with dry produce.

If America continues to prosper, stores like Wegmans should mean the death of traditional grocery stores. Why buy Wonder Bread at the local Food Lion when you can choose from hundreds of breads at the local Wegmans instead? (Are you still unsatisfied with the bakery aisle? Try the European Bread Bakery.) Why hunt for the Kashi cereal at the local Shoppers Food Warehouse when you can choose from a dozen Kashi cereals at Wegmans? On the other hand, you may want to save a few pennies and buy the Wegmans’ brand instead. If you are watching your grocery bill bottom line, you will probably keep shopping at the local Food Lion or Costco. If you are more concerned about quality and variety than lowest price, you will likely quickly convert to a lifelong Wegmans customer.

 
The Thinker

USGS: a great place to work

For about two years now, I have been working for the U.S. Geological Survey. I work at their headquarters building in Reston, Virginia. I am a civil servant with twenty-three years of federal service. The USGS is actually the fourth federal agency where I have hung my hat. For me there is absolutely no question about it: working for the USGS is a wonderful and stimulating experience. For twenty years, I worked at agencies full of mediocrity. Sometime they bordered on being dysfunctional. Consequently, sometimes my hard work was not appreciated. Now, I look forward to coming to work. There is no reason for me to look anywhere else in Club Fed. USGS is where I will hang out until I retire. The only thing that upsets me is I had to spend twenty years wandering the federal wilderness before I found a home at USGS.

If you take the time to visit the USGS jobs site, you can read exactly why it is a great place to work. For the most part the information on the page would apply to any federal agency. Arguably, these days any one of these standard federal benefits would qualify it as a great place to work. Try getting a defined pension benefit plan as a new employee even at IBM these days.

One of the reasons I like working at USGS is that, of the four agencies for which I have worked, it feels the least like a bureaucracy. It is more than the casual dress. USGS is part of the Department of Interior, and our unofficial department motto seems to be, “We don’t need no stinking suits and ties!” Of course, since we manage federal lands many of us spend our days outdoors getting very personal with nature. However, many of us are still tied to our desks. Except for some in the Department of Interior headquarters in D.C. and various senior executives scattered across the country, few of us do the suit and tie thing. Even my Associate Director usually arrives in slacks and a button down shirt (no tie). He keeps a sports coat and some emergency ties discreetly in his office should the situation warrant. Casual Friday? I am trying to imagine how that would be different. Every day is casual day where I work. I wear jeans to work every day. I generally avoid wearing T-shirts, although many employees wear them routinely. I could wear sneakers too but I prefer wearing modest hiking shoes instead. The only time I have to play the dress up game is when I am going to an important meeting offsite. For example in December, I had to attend a meeting at the National Science Foundation. I still skipped the suit, but I felt compelled to do the dress pants, shiny shoes, long sleeve shirt and tie thing.

Of course dressing casual is more the business norm these days than dressing up. However, those of us who live and work around Washington, DC usually have to play the dress up game. The degree of dressiness is directly proportional to your distance from the White House. Particularly if you reach a certain federal grade level (generally GS-13 or above) the peer pressure to dress up can get quite strong. For more than twenty years, I did the dress up lite routine, which meant everything but the suit. In later years as I advanced to the upper grades I learned to keep a sport coat in my office for those occasions when I had to interact with people more than a grade above me. Needless to say it didn’t fit me. I always felt I was projecting the wrong image of myself when I dressed up for work. I am more of a jeans and polo shirt kind of guy.

So perhaps the casual dress culture is not that much of an asset. For me the most amazing thing about the USGS is that employees are fully empowered. There is of course a top down hierarchy; it is just that most of the time it does not matter. My associate director, for example, is a man named Bob. He expects a relative peon like me to also call him Bob. Everyone I meet feels fully vested in the agency and knows that their work matters. It matters because their work really does matter. USGS is, after all, an institution chock full of scientists. Scientists as a rule are far more concerned about science than they are about politics or hierarchies. Nothing is more precious to us than our reputation for accurate science.

In other federal agencies where I worked, many employees were clock-watchers. It’s not that they hated their jobs, it’s just that their evenings were far more enjoyable than their working hours. At USGS, most of us do not watch the clock. We are too busy happily engaged in our jobs. I trust that all of my employees will accurately account for their time and I am sure they do. Some I know will routinely work many more hours than they can charge for without authorization. They do it because they are involved with their work. They know that their contributions make a tangible difference to the quality of our science and the products that we put out. Consequently, their job becomes fun instead of a chore.

USGS is a very spread out agency. It has to be that way since ours is a big country. We need to be close to where the science is happening. Each state generally has a central office, and most have branch offices. To collaborate you have to work across geographical boundaries. Of course, this means a lot of conference calls and online Webex sessions. It also means a fair amount of travel. I am sure we have employees who never travel anywhere, but I think they are the exception. It is an unusual employee who does not have to travel somewhere on business at least once a year. Last year I was on an airplane five times for my job. I could have likely been on an airplane many more times had I elected it. Mostly I go to Denver, but last year I also visited Helena, Atlanta, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. It is good to get out of the office during the year for a change of perspective and scenery. My job has just the right amount of business travel. Often I have the opportunity to see some unique aspects of the areas that I visit. In my other jobs, I could go years between business trips, if I went on any at all.

No matter where I go though, the people who work for USGS are uniformly friendly, professional and interesting. Despite seeing many of them only once or twice a year, it is as if they are just down the hall from me. The many conference calls between business trips fill in the gaps. We are truly one big team. The only challenging part is dealing with the time zone problems. Invariably for those of us on the East Coasts this means our many conference calls are packed into the afternoons.

As far as I can tell, the only downside to working at USGS is we cannot own certain kinds of energy stocks. Since geology is the best-known part of our business (we also do water resources, biology and cartography), those engaged in geology may have insight into areas that are profitable for oil and natural gas exploration.

I suspect there are other federal agencies that are similar to USGS, but not many. I would bet NOAA and the National Science Foundation share many of our values too. I do know that I feel very valued and engaged at USGS. I appreciate the non-hierarchical culture; it is a perfect fit for me. If you want to impress people at USGS, do better science. For the most part though we are too engaged in our science to care too much about whether our own egos are puffed up or not. We are professionals in the best sense of the word.

 
The Thinker

If Aubrey fought Hornblower, who would win?

Ah, the heroic British Navy captain, circa early 19th century or so. Back then, at least depicted in fiction, British sailors were real men who lived extremely virile lives at sea. Sailors survived on weevily ship biscuit, endless amounts of salt beef and salt pork and, when necessary, rats. In command was their heroic captain, always sailing under admiralty orders. Much of naval life back then apparently consisted of dreary tasks like blockading the coasts of England’s many enemies. But occasionally it involved engaging an enemy ship in fearsome battles that often left many dead and gruesome numbers of wounded.

As popularized in modern fiction, readers can enter this world principally through two authors. The first was a gentleman named Cecil Scott Forester who wrote eleven novels about the indefatigable Captain Horatio Hornblower. Forester’s books chronicle Hornblower’s adventures from lowly midshipman through his final posting as an admiral in the Caribbean. More recently the British novelist Patrick O’Brian wrote a total of twenty books from 1970 through 2000 that chronicled the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and, perhaps more importantly, his best friend, ship surgeon and secret British intelligence agent, Stephen Maturin.

As you might expect both Hornblower and Aubrey were written as brilliantly strategic fighting captains who frequently won fearsome battles against superior forces. In temperament though, they could hardly be more different. Captain Horatio Hornblower was remote and insular, very much a “stiff upper lip” type. He was both deeply private and deeply conflicted. He carried around with him a lot of hidden baggage and rigorously masked his inferiority complex. As Forester depicts him, Hornblower was certainly respected by his men, although it is hard to understand why. A captain that shuts himself up in his cabin, does not confide in his officers and trusts only his own judgment is not usually successful officer material. Hornblower was anxious to be perceived as brave and wholly unperturbed even though inside he continually fought cowardice. I have to wonder if Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry modeled Spock after Hornblower, rather than Kirk. Kirk is more like Jack Aubrey.

Captain Jack Aubrey, on the other hand, was gregarious and popular with his men. His relationship with Steven Maturin was rewarding and helped him grow as a person. Unlike Hornblower, who could not allow his imperfections to be witnessed by his men, Aubrey knew when to let his guard down. When off the ship his behavior could be reckless. Unlike Hornblower, who was typically unlucky when it came to prize money, “Lucky Jack” kept his pockets and the pockets of his crew flush with their share of captured possessions, and could squander much of his fortune on land.

It is pure speculation of course, but I sometimes wonder if Hornblower and Aubrey were on opposite sides fighting each other, who would be the victor? My guess is that in the end Aubrey would win. He would win because he related to every member of his crew. They fought for him because they genuinely identified with him, and he earned their genuine respect and loyalty. Hornblower certainly had a soft side but he found it difficult to show it. Above all else he felt he had to project the image of an ideal captain, even at the cost of his own well being. If he lived today, Hornblower would need to spend many years with a good psychotherapist. At its root, his bravado was a mask, as he ashamedly admits to himself. He just did not know how to escape his own identity crisis. Instead he concentrated on adding to his own mystique. It is not even clear if he ever completely bared his soul to his great love and ultimate wife, the Lady Barbara Wellesley. Aubrey, on the other hand, was dopily devoted and emotionally expressive with his wife Sophie. Hornblower barely interacted with his children. If he did it was in a stiff and Puritan-like manner. Aubrey delighted in his children and was engaged in their lives when he was on shore.

Which series of novels is better? My opinion is that it depends on what you want from such a series. If you delight in obscure naval terminology, historical curiosities, intrigue, finely drawn characters, dialog and detail, then O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels are the ones for you. To my mind, the ship surgeon Stephen Maturin is far more interesting than either Hornblower or Aubrey. I read the Aubrey-Maturin books mainly because I want to experience more of Stephen Maturin’s world. I care little about Jack Aubrey. However, I should warn you that his novels could be challenging to read. While I’ve met some Patrick O’Brian fanatics, I think they overlook serious problems with O’Brian’s writing. If you want a well plotted story line with tight, crisp writing, stay away from O’Brian. His novels meander into areas that fancy his whim at the moment but are likely to leave you bored or skipping pages. The dialog is almost overwhelming and much of it wholly unnecessary. His novels needed to be severely edited and tightened up, but I suspect he would not let his editors do much in the way of wordsmithing. On the other hand, when O’Brian is at his best, his prose is overwhelmingly excellent. I read the “off” novel just so I can enjoy the “on” novel. Generally one book is okay but the next book is much better. For me (and I am down to the last few novels in the series) Desolation Island is O’Brian at his best. I would almost suggest reading it by itself to appreciate O’Brian, except I cannot imagine reading it without first reading the five novels before it, which fully flesh out his characters.

On the other hand if you want to read consistently engaging naval action stories that are finely crafted and that keep you eagerly turning to the next page, the Hornblower novels are for you. A purist would suggest starting with the first book in the series, when Hornblower was a pimply faced midshipman. I would say read them in the order they were written, and then go back for Hornblower’s early history. Start with Beat to Quarters (Book 5), a short and crisp novel set in the Pacific where Hornblower first meets Lady Barbara. It is impossible at the end of the book to simply put it down and not read the next in the series. You simply have to find out if he manages to win the Lady Barbara’s hand (not an easy thing to do since he is technically married at the time). I doubt I will reread the Aubrey-Maturin books again, but I keep coming back to Hornblower every few years or so. The older me now recognizes that Forester is projecting his own masculine insecurities into his Hornblower character. Yet I do not care too much that Hornblower is so darn remote. Forester’s writing is generally a delight and wholly engaging. Whether Hornblower is being harassed as a midshipman or commanding a fleet through the Baltic Sea, it is almost impossible not to be sucked in to his stories.

So if you have the choice, read the Hornblower series first, then try the Aubrey-Maturin novels on for size (starting, of course, with the first book Master and Commander). If nothing else, the Hornblower books are far more accessible to us landlubbers who have a hard time telling our gibs from our staysails. I bet you will find the Hornblower novels hard to put down, but you may find your O’Brian a bit too eclectic for your tastes.

 
The Thinker

My Movable Type Recent Visitors Application

I have never been enthusiastic about using SiteMeter to monitor my blog. It provides some real time statistics, but not very accurate ones. I will keep metering with it nonetheless because it is free and monitoring my blog is one of my favorite ways to waste time.

Every hit to this blog is recorded in the web server log. I thought it might be interesting to expose relevant page requests in my web server log in real time as a “Recent Visitors” application. The content of the actual web server log is, unfortunately, nothing but a lot of plain text, and ugly text at that. It is not easy to turn it into anything meaningful to an end user. Fortunately, there are many programs out there that will slice and dice web server logs. One of them (Awstats) comes free from my web host. If you have a web site, you probably have access to a similar program. Unfortunately, the public cannot generally access the statistics these programs create. Moreover, these programs are typically run only once a day. This makes it hard to see recent page requests in real time.

I noticed that SiteMeter can discern with some reasonable accuracy the geographical location of most people hitting my blog. It uses geo-location technology owned by MaxMind to translate your Internet Protocol (IP) address to a geographical location. To me this software is magical stuff. With some time on my hands this weekend, I put together a little geeky “Recent Visitors” application for this blog. It provides some real time visibility into what visitors are reading, where they are reading it from, and when they read it.

While I cannot afford the commercial version of MaxMind’s geo-location technology, there is also a “good enough” version called GeoLite City that is free for the download. MaxMind also publishes a variety of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that let programmers query their city database using the programming language of their choice. Since I need to put their database on my web server, I needed a programming language that operates on my web server. Since PHP is the easiest for me to program on the server side, I chose their PHP API.

My blog gets thousands of hits a day, most of which are not meaningful. I want to know what recent blog entries were read successfully. To do this I had to translate the URL requested into the corresponding blog entry title. This is not an easy thing to do. To translate something like “/2004/06/life_in_the_cou.html” to a human readable blog entry name took some work. It required parsing out the relevant portion of the resource name (“life_in_the_cou”) then querying the MySQL database hosting my blog. I searched for this file name in the mt_entries table and returned the entry title, which was “Life in the Courtyard”. From this I could both show what was being read and link to it.

To show only relevant content, I had to filter out the obvious noise in the web server log such as robots, crawlers, requests for images and dynamic pages, “file not found” errors and related web server error codes. After a lot of playing around, it worked!

Any geeks out there can look at my PHP source code. It is currently ugly code and it will be cleaned up in time. It assumes your Apache web log format is readable, and that its format matches mine. It also assumes you have MovableType weblog that stores content in a MySQL database. However, this application demonstrates that even a MovableType weblog can expose its visitor information in real time, albeit in a somewhat jury-rigged manner.

Right now, I am exposing the Recent Visitor’s Log on a separate page. Eventually I intend to integrate the information into my Main Index page. To do this I will have to embed a window inside the Main Index web page. It appears that MovableType does not allow embedded CGI applications inside a page. Perhaps they will support this in a future version.

No, I am not offering any support for this code if you choose to borrow it. If you use it, you will likely have to do quite a bit of tweaking, so you best know PHP pretty darn well. However, as long as I am maintaining it I will publish the latest source code at this URL for those who are interested.

 

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