Archive for November, 2006

The Thinker

FastSearch: a faster search for MovableType

For reasons I have not been able to wholly ascertain, the search functionality on this blog keeps timing out. Part of it is due to the 15 second timeout that inherent in the Apache web server I am using that I discussed recently. Even so, with 604 entries, 15 seconds should be plenty to locate relevant entries, so I suspect some inefficient coding by the folks at SixApart.

Fortunately, with a little Googling I found this nice hack for MovableType called FastSearch. It makes searching for entries with MovableType very swift again. Enjoy.

The Thinker

Adventures in Virtual Private Servers

About two years ago, I went through a rather arduous adventure in rehosting. I regret to report that after about two years of hosting with, I have to rehost again.

The rehosting game goes something like this. Things always start out very promising. Your web pages scream back at you. Then, slowly, response time degrades. It is the usual problem: companies try to squeeze a bit more profit by shoving more and more customers on the same server. After all, that is the advantage of virtual hosting. Most of us cannot afford to rent our own dedicated server nor have the traffic to justify it. We want a web presence but do not want to pay for one that guarantees speedy response. In short, we emulate Jack Benny and are proud of it. Nevertheless, we sell ourselves on web host marketing material. I have yet to find a web host that does not claim to offer both fanatical support and low numbers of users on each server. This, of course, is just marketing hype. If some of them are actually honest, they are either charging a lot more or losing money.

Some months back things got to the point where my users were regularly impacted by slow server response times. I complained and things mysteriously got better. I think some other customer using the server was consuming most of the CPU, leaving customers like me high and dry. I assume to make things better they moved that customer to another server. However, over the subsequent months, I got more slowness. “White screens of death” were its principal manifestation. This is what you get from the web server (Apache, in my case) when the script takes too long to execute.

Sniffing around, I read the Apache configuration file on the server. Apache was configured to timeout after 15 seconds. I politely asked if they could up the limit so my users would not see white screens of death. They politely said no. The problem continued. I politely asked again. Again, they very politely said no. See, everyone on the server would be affected, because the web server’s behavior is shared among all customers. To make the change, the machine would have to be rebooted. Moreover, other customers might not like the longer timeout interval.

Particularly since my hosting contract was coming up for renewal, it sounded like it was time for an amicable divorce. The root problem in this case was that I could not change the Apache web server configuration settings to my liking. I doubt my scripts ran inordinately long. My most CPU intensive applications are on a phpBB forum I run, yet many sites run very busy phpBB boards without a problem. Therefore, most likely the root problem with my performance issues was that my server simply had too many customers using it. The white screens of death suggested this server was just above the waterline, and smart (or better moneyed) customers might want to abandon ship.

The question for me became where to go from here. I could find yet another company offering virtual hosting, sign up with them, and the problem would likely recur. I could contract for a dedicated server, but I simply cannot afford that luxury. The alternative was to use a virtual private server instead.

As a techie, I have been reading about virtual private servers for a few years. Using technology that to me is indistinguishable from magic, it allows one physical server to be used by many customers, yet each customer has complete control over what appears to be their personal server. Yes, you enjoy root level access. Only in reality, the machine is still shared with others. This option costs more than virtual hosting, but costs far less than a dedicated server.

Of course, a virtual private server is subject to the same laws of economics that affect virtual hosting. Too many customers on the same machine are going to slow things down. Performance is still constrained by available CPU, memory and disk space. In addition, running virtual server software takes additional system resources. The difference is that, in theory at least, I can avoid white screens of death by restarting my virtual web server to give it a higher timeout value. When traffic is high my users may have to wait a little while longer, but the web page should eventually come back to them.

I contracted with, but wisely chose a one-year contract. As I am discovering there are other downsides to virtual private servers. For one, the control panel is a lot more elementary than other control panels I was used to, like cpanel. For example, there is no web application to help program cron jobs. (Cron is an operating system utility that allows you to schedule programs to run at certain times of day automatically.) You have to program cron jobs the old-fashioned way: from the command line. At the moment, this is a problem, since this version of cron does not like commands more than 80 characters in length. On the other hand, it is neat to do things like create as many databases on the fly as I like and install any application I want. It is also neat to turn on and off my virtual server, as well as to have real root access.

In short, at least for the moment, those with needs that are more specialized but without deep pockets should consider virtual private servers. In addition, only those who are not afraid to get their hands dirty with Linux should embrace them. I have some of these skills, but could certainly use more. As a professional IT manager, I have staff to do these things for me. Doing it by myself on the side is certainly educational. It gives me an appreciation for what my hard working staff does for me.

It is still a pain to transfer domains, although somewhat less so than it has been. phpMyAdmin creates a nice dump of the database for relocation, but the version on my new host has a 2MB file import limitation. This means to load the data I must run MySQL from the command line.

Dynamic applications are still a pain to rehost, particularly if you have customized them. It still means tar-ring and gzip-ping their files, moving them from machine to machine using FTP, then gunzip-ping and untar-ring them into the right directories. New database instances must be set up and populated. Configuration files must be tweaked. Moreover, all the ancillary third party software used by the application has to be set up again. In this case, I had to install a new instance of phpAdsNew, transfer my advertising database and carefully set it up. When all this is done then you also need to point the domain to the new host, which means your users have to wait while your change propagates across the Internet.

I am still a bit leery about virtual servers. Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. In addition to being more flexible, virtual private servers also have some great security advantages. For example, there is no way a virus on my server can infect someone else on the same machine, because virtualization technology creates an impenetrable firewall between my virtual world and others. If my virtual server crashes, it does not affect others on the same machine.

Fortunately, I have 30 days to put through its paces. If it does not meet my needs, I can get my money back and I still have time to host somewhere else. I can also choose to extend my contract with and put up with their virtual hosting annoyances.

There is a variant of virtual private servers called virtual dedicated servers. Most web hosts selling VDSes are actually selling VPSes. However, a true VDS will actually ensure that you get your fair share of system resources. That may be my next step if a VPS does not work out. Naturally, a true VDS costs more than a VPS, and so far, sticker shock is keeping me away.

I have two more domains to move over to, including this blog. I hope to do it slowly over the next few weeks as I feel more comfortable navigating in this new and strange VPS world.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Thinker

Needed: a dose of reality for presidential daughters (and sons)

Those of us who watched The West Wing were treated to a fictional, yet likely accurate portrayal of the life of presidential offspring. Viewers best knew the fictional President Bartlet’s daughter Zoey. At the end of Season Four, she was kidnapped on the night of her graduation from Georgetown University. She also prominently dated Bartlet’s very African American personal aid, Charlie Young. Both of these events caused end of season cliffhangers.

From The West Wing we learn that the gilded life is not necessarily easy for presidential offspring. The Secret Service is omnipresent, making it very difficult to maintain privacy and the semblance of a personal life. There is also the ever-curious press corps, who likes to read into the president defects they detect in their offspring. Like modern day princes, these presidential sons and daughters are thrust into a role not of their choosing. Moreover, once their famous parent leaves office, they often become curiosities. Like Amy Carter, sometime they are banished to obscurity. However, if they are particularly smart, good-looking and their parents are well connected they can end up earning six figures right out of college.

Chelsea Clinton has a new job, the Associated Press reports. The 26-year-old former first daughter recently started working for Avenue Capital Group, a New York-based hedge fund that handles about $12 billion in assets.

Clinton had been working as a consultant for McKinsey & Co., the international consulting firm, since 2003, reportedly for a six-figure salary. She received her master’s degree from Oxford University after graduating from Stanford in 2001.

Federal campaign records indicate that Avenue Capital founders Marc Lasry and Sonia Gardner have donated thousands of dollars to Democratic lawmakers, including Chelsea Clinton’s mother, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as to various Democratic campaign committees. There was no word late yesterday from Avenue Capital, any of the Clintons or their reps.

Arguably, Chelsea was simply astute enough to turn the detriment of being a presidential daughter into an asset. If you Google Chelsea’s name, you will find that she has been a busy daughter in the six years since her father left office. After finishing high school at the exclusive Sidwell Friends School in Washington, she received a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford, where she commendably graduated with highest honors. She recently received a degree in international relations from Oxford University, which her father also attended. Ironically, she now lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It is just a bit north of the current residence of another presidential daughter: Barbara Pierce Bush, who lives in Greenwich Village. I have to wonder if they occasionally get together for cappuccinos at Starbucks.

Granted, the cost of living is very high in New York City. Even so, Chelsea Clinton’s six-figure salary, given that she is a 26-year-old woman with a master’s degree and is not a lawyer is virtually unheard of. Bill Clinton earned only $30,000 a year as the governor of Arkansas, and that was after spending some time as a professor at the University of Arkansas and unsuccessfully running for Congress. It does not take much to infer that Chelsea’s comfortable salary was due in large part to her parental connections. It also does not hurt that she is a very attractive woman. Presumably, she carries a premium for both her good looks and parental connections. I assume this was the reasoning behind McKinsey & Co. offering her such an inflated salary. Reports suggest she has the Clinton charisma. She may be the next generation of a future Clinton political dynasty.

Like Chelsea, President Bush’s twin daughters Jenna and Barbara are also cute and attractive. Unlike Chelsea, they never properly lived at the White House. Both were 18 when Bush was elected and just beginning college. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Jenna laudably spent some time teaching in public schools in the District of Columbia. Her twin sister Barbara chose to attend Yale, which her father and grandfather attended. Perhaps this was done in part to keep the Bush legacy at Yale alive for another generation.

However, both Bush daughters have had their issues with the law. Barbara and Jenna were charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol at a Mexican restaurant in May 2001. Jenna had a similar incident at an Austin bar a month earlier. In addition, The Washington Post reported in 2002 that the Bush girls were spotted (but not cited for) drinking at a Washington DC nightclub. Having spent some time recently pondering genograms, I have to wonder if the Bush twins have been channeling their father’s issues with alcohol and parental authority. Time will tell. While nominally Republican, both act more like Democrats.

Of Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s children, John Jr. became a glamorous assistant attorney in New York. He attracted a lot of press, but never became a politician. Perhaps this was because, like his father, he died young. He died in 1999 at age 39 (along with his wife and sister-in-law) when he piloted a piper cub into the Atlantic. The crash was thought to be due to his inexperience piloting aircraft. Caroline, the sole surviving child of the Kennedy marriage and now technically an orphan, is politically active in a few of her father’s causes. She is one of the founders of the Profiles in Courage Award. She is a graduate of both Harvard and the Columbia Law School. Her modest life seems a sensible response to her family’s tragic tendencies.

What is true about all these people is that it was difficult for them to encounter the real world. Chelsea Clinton probably enjoyed the most freedom, until her father ran for president. All have enjoyed both the perquisites and the detriments of being offspring to the president of the United States. Their lives were changed forever.

For me this background makes the case of Amy Carter so interesting. I have already confessed my admiration for Jimmy Carter. There was no cushy private school for Amy when the Carters were in the White House; she went to D.C. public schools. Her relatively normal entry into adulthood was perhaps assisted by the public’s general disdain for her father. The Carters were determined not to give their daughter any special favor. Amy fell into obscurity.

The last of the Carter’s three children (her two brothers were 15-20 years older, so they were adults when Carter was in office), Amy’s post White House life was frightfully ordinary. She too went to college, but to “ordinary” colleges like the Memphis College of Art and Tulane University. After her collegiate experience, she was left to fend for herself. As I recall from press reports, she worked in a bookstore to make ends meet. However, she has been politically active. She participated in various sit-ins on issues including apartheid in South Africa and the Reagan Administrations policies in Central America. She dallied on her way to the altar, not marrying until she was 29. She refused to be “given away” at her wedding, and has retained her maiden name. She is currently raising one son with her husband, and is avoiding the limelight.

I suspect over time that some of these presidential offspring will be running for higher office too. Perhaps it is in their blood, or they picked up the expectation watching their parents. I can sense thirty years from now there may be another Senator Clinton in the Senate. However, I am leery about all of these glamorous and often pampered next generation politicians running future ships of state. Our current president perhaps demonstrates that political dynasties tend to be bad ideas. Those who run the ship of state should be people grounded in real life. Arguably, because George W. Bush was not, it contributed to his singular view of the world and the disaster that now is Iraq. Iraq would have never have happened on Bill Clinton’s watch. Bill Clinton certainly came with many faults. He is also quite brilliant and has an amazingly flexible mind. I personally was thrilled at his election. Any man who took at much joy in a burger and fries from Burger King as he did could get my vote. For my money, he was grounded in the real world. He may have come from trailer park trash, but this and his intelligence gave him the insight to deal effectively with people. It may also be one of the reasons he was so despised. The same is true with Jimmy Carter. Both rose above their modest circumstances and in so doing, became very effective politicians.

So if we must have political dynasties, I am keeping one finger crossed behind my back. It is not crossed for a future Senator or President Chelsea Clinton, but instead for a future Senator or President Amy Carter. Amy’s life at least was grounded in some reality, despite being the president’s daughter. It appears that there are no coattails from her father’s term in office on which to run. However, I would rest easier with her steering the ship of state.

I bet Amy enjoys a burger with fries too.

The Thinker

Review: Happy Feet

Since the release of March of the Penguins last year, tuxedoed flightless waterfowl have become the newest darlings of the animal kingdom. What is not to like? They are cute, harmless (except perhaps to fish), faithful to their mates (well, for one season anyway) and utterly inoffensive. They also have the virtue of being exotic. Most of us are unlikely to see a penguin unless we visit a zoo.

I imagine our current fascination with penguins was much of the impetus behind the new animated movie Happy Feet. If nothing else, Hollywood is skilled at exploiting an emerging trend. If seeing thousands of real penguins on film in their native habitat in March of the Penguins was insufficient for your penguin fix, why not watch thousands of computer generated penguins inhabiting a simulated Antarctica? At least these penguins both speak English and sing and dance.

Whereas real penguins can be challenging to anthropomorphosize, animated penguins suffer fewer of these constraints. Consequently, it is possible to conjure up a blue-eyed penguin named Mumble (voiced by the obscenely blue-eyed Elijah Wood) without much of a thought. The blue eyes definitely help make Mumble easy to spot in the many penguin throngs. The most vexing challenge for these animators was not generating the spectacular CGI, but trying to make these penguins look different. For the most part, they do not succeed: they all look like each other, which at least is true to nature. Therefore, you must listen carefully to the voices if you want to tell the characters apart.

Mind you, this animated Antarctica is gorgeous and portrayed so stunningly that it probably beats the real thing. It doubtless took an enormous amount of computer power to generate all the pixels for this movie. Indeed, there are times when it is hard to tell whether the movie is animated or not. Because it is computer generated, it is possible to do things that go beyond the limits of mere documentaries like March of the Penguins. For example, there are a plethora of scenes where penguins are sliding down mountains and you get to slide along next to them. A few scenes are so convincing I had vertigo right in the theater.

Mumble is an Emperor penguin with a problem. He cannot sing. This was largely true of Fred Astaire too, who was not much of a crooner. Fortunately, like Fred, this penguin can dance. Both are enough to get him kicked off the ice floe; penguins may be cute to look at but they are portrayed as Republican in nature and do not tolerate nonconformance very well. Fortunately, Mumble quickly runs into a small group of wild and crazy free spirited Adelie penguins who think his goofy tap dancing is too cool for words. Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving and Nichole Kidman are among the voice actors who help breathe life into this movie.

The movie itself careens between a serious undertone, rampant goofiness, near heart stopping action and Lassie-like saccharineness. Pop dance tunes pervade it and Mumble is the first of many penguins who eventually move to their beats. It generally succeeds in amusing the kids and holding the attention of the adults. For all its visual richness and smooth, computer generated animation it remains essentially a pre-holiday season popcorn movie, buttered lightly for your amusement. Like similar forgettable movies such as Van Helsing, this one, although it has moments when it is truly touching, will quickly recede from your mind. To Hollywood accountants all that matters is that it succeeds in separating you from your wallet. Fortunately, it does so without leaving you feeling that you wasted your money. If my wife was not such a penguin fanatic and I was not such a loyal husband, I would have snuck into the adjacent theater and watched the latest Bond movie instead.

Happy Feet will exceed your expectations, as long as they are modest, but it will not do so by much. This solid B+ of a movie gets 3.1 on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

Neoconservative Weasels

Today’s Washington Post has a lead story by reporter Peter Baker. In it, he quotes a number of prominent neoconservatives who are now openly sour on the way the Bush Administration conducted its war in Iraq. For example, Kenneth Adelman, who was part of the original Iraq War brain trust, now acknowledges that the Iraq War has turned into a debacle. “This didn’t have to be managed this bad. It’s just awful.”

Richard Perle, head of the Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Board and one of the predominant cheerleaders for the invasion now says “If I had known that the U.S. was going to essentially establish an occupation, then I’d say, ‘Let’s not do it,’ and instead find another way to target Hussein. It was a foolish thing to do.”

Joshua Muravchik, a neoconservative at the American Enterprise Institute reportedly told the Post’s Baker, “There’s a question to be sorted out: whether the war was a sound idea but very badly executed. And if that’s the case, it appears to me the person most responsible for the bad execution was Rumsfeld, and it means neocons should not get too angry at Bush about that.”

It is natural to see things clearer in hindsight. It is also natural (though shameful), if your forceful advocacy for an unnatural policy like a preemptive invasion of a foreign country goes awry, to try to salvage your own reputation. You can bet the officers on the S.S. Titanic did not want to go down with their ship and its captain either. It may be late in the voyage. There may not be much above the water than the stern of this ship, but these neoconservatives are now jumping into the lifeboat anyhow. In their mind, just because they were cheerleading this war, that does not mean they are partly responsible for it.

These same men were in a position to directly influence policies and strategies for this war. For example, they could have insisted that their support and employment was conditional upon a well thought out security strategy. However, since many of these men were raising a glass with Dick Cheney right after the invasion toasting its success, apparently they let themselves be caught up in euphoria the moment. If they had criticisms, they largely kept their lips buttoned and went with the crowd.

If they truly had misgivings prior to the war, it was their duty to speak up. If they had them but did not share them with those in authority, then they acted cowardly. If they were more concerned about their own careers and being properly positioned within the levers of power than looking out for the best interests of the country, then they did not deserve to have been entrusted with their positions in the first place. To express misgivings and cry wolf now so many years later suggests they are simply weasels.

We should not waste our time listening to anything they have to say anymore. Peter Baker should have done us all a favor by not even bothering to print their pathetic mea culpas. No more trees need to be turned into pulp so the public can learn their discredited opinions and turncoat mutterings.

Unquestionably, President Bush has ultimate responsibility for the debacle in Iraq. Nevertheless, all those who sat on the sidelines and urged him and his top cronies on are also permanently tainted. No amount of public regrets after the fact changes the fact that they were key players in an action that was cataclysmic for Iraqis, lethal to our country’s hard-earned international reputation and devolved into folly of the most egregious kind. If it were possible to impeach, convict and then send Bush to prison for this disaster, men like Aldeman, Perle and Muravchik should be doing time also in nearby adjacent cells. They should be allowed their once a week phone call home to family. Just please do not let them near a reporter!

The Thinker

A Dubious Passage

If you are in the transportation business, geography is rarely your friend. Due to the nature of air travel, the air freight business can somewhat ignore geography. However, even in that business the great circle routes between destinations are not always available. If you are involved in ground transportation there are mountains that must be scaled, swamps that must be bypassed, rivers that must be spanned, and traffic that will slow you down. Transportation by sea means navigating around continents, islands, wrecks and shoals. All add time and expense to their desire to move goods quickly and cheaply between two points.

For centuries, one of the biggest obstacles for transporters has been the Americas. Prior to the Panama Canal, trips to the Pacific typically involved arduous and dangerous journeys around the aptly named Cape Fear at the tip of South America. The Panama Canal cut off thousands of miles. However, if you look at a globe you will quickly see that from departure points like London, even the Panama Canal does not come close to being a direct route to the Orient. Consequently, for centuries one of the dreams of mariners has been a reliable Northwest Passage over the top of Canada, through the Arctic Ocean, and thence into the Pacific. It approximates a great circle route taken by airplanes. Such a venture by sea would save weeks and about four thousand miles of unnecessary travel.

There was, unfortunately, one small problem: the mass of arctic ice that tenaciously extended over much of the Arctic Ocean. Trying to get through that seemed about as likely to happen as the Second Coming. British mariners were among the first to try and fail to find a navigable Northwest Passage. The wrecks of many ships along Canada’s eastern and northern coasts demonstrated that such ventures were futile. Modern icebreakers are usually successful and cutting paths through the Arctic ice. However, their paths often do not remain open for long. During the summer, a few commercial ships have succeeded in claiming the Northwest Passage. However, even today such crossings are dangerous. The season is short. Icebergs and shoals along the Arctic Ocean remain very real threats. For these reasons, even after all these years, a Northwest Passage to the Orient remains too dangerous for all but a handful of shippers to try. Those that try have to do so only during a very short period of Arctic summer.

The times may be changing. Because of global warming, the Arctic ice is rapidly receding. The average temperature of the Arctic has increased five degrees Fahrenheit in just 30 years. As a result, the Arctic ice mass is quickly receding. A Northwest Passage is looking to be commercially viable at last.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen weaves in graceful slow motion through the ice pack, advancing through the legendary Northwest Passage well after the Arctic should be iced over and shuttered to ships for the winter.

The fearsome ice is weakened and failing, sapped by climate change. Ultimately, this night’s ghostly procession through Icebreaker Channel will be the worst the ship faces on its late-season voyage. Much of the trip, crossing North America from west to east through the Northwest Passage, will be in open water, with no ice in sight.

You would think that maybe this would be a cause for alarm. However, in the world of commerce, this may be an event worth toasting.

“Shipping companies are going to think about this, and if they think it’s worth it, they are going to try it,” says the captain of the Amundsen, Cmdr. Alain Gariepy, 43. “The question is not if, but when.”

Environmentalists are, to say the least, alarmed:

Satellite imagery has shown that the Arctic ice cap is thinning and already is nearly 30 percent smaller than it was 25 years ago. In the winter of 2004-05, the Arctic’s perennial ice, which usually survives the summer, shrank by 280,000 square miles, the size of Turkey. This past August, a crack opened in the ice pack from the Russian Arctic to the North Pole, an event never seen before.

Arctic ice reflects sunlight; its absence may accelerate global warming. The intricate chemistry that occurs in the rich Arctic waters could go haywire with unaccustomed heat and sunlight. Whole species seem destined to disappear while others move northward in their place. Inuit who thrived here for millennia are finding the thin ice and changed wildlife inhospitable.

Opponents often chastise us environmentalists (not to mention Democrats). “They look at the glass as half empty, instead of half full,” they say about us. Look on the bright side of global warming: a Northwest Passage in fact would cut the costs of commercial shipping, expanding free trade and helping to lift all boats.

This is a poor turn of phrase, under the circumstances. Because all that melting ice will definitely lift all boats, as well as likely cause the relocations of millions of people to higher grounds. In fact, when looking for evidence of the effects of global warming, the Arctic, while remote, is where its affect is most clear and dramatic. The sheets of ice that cover most of Greenland are cracking, pouring fresh water into the ocean, decreasing ocean salinity and rising sea levels. The Ward Ice Shelf in the Arctic Ocean, which has stood unchanged for three millennium, has been cracking since 2000. Glaciers in Alaska are melting. Polar bears may soon be an endangered species: there are not enough ice flows for them to move across the Arctic Ocean. As Arctic ice retreats, more sea pups die because adult seals have to swim further for food.

Even though commercial shipping possibilities may expand in the Arctic Ocean, this is one time when it is better to say the glass is half-empty. Global warming is happening beyond any doubt and it may soon change much of the delicate ecosystem above the Arctic Circle. It is hard for us to know now what ripples this will have on the rest of the planet, beyond increased sea levels. However, it should not be cause for just concern, but for alarm. For all life is tied together. What happens in the Arctic is likely to effect all of us in profound ways, many of which we cannot yet imagine.

The United States is the world’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions come principally from our cars and our coal burning power plants. As a nation, we can choose to take aggressive steps to rein in our emissions of greenhouse gasses. Alternatively, we can keep burying our heads in the sand and pretend the consequences will not affect us. There are other more benign ways to generate energy other than through burning things. We can move beyond hybrid cars to other forms of transportation, such as light rail, that have much less effect on the environment. We can each do small things that can have enormous impact, such as setting our thermostats down two degrees in the winter and up two degrees in the summer. Al Gore has a number of other ideas we each can do that can help the global warming crisis.

As important as our personal actions are, we must demand a national energy policy that not only makes us energy independent, but which rewards conservation. We need larger incentives for greater degrees of conservation. We can make it more expensive to tear down virgin forests and less expensive to redevelop urbanized lands. We can even demand that manufacturers calculate the cost to the planet for the use of their products, such as the European Union plans to do soon.

It may be that by stemming global warming, we will not just save the polar bear from extinction, but our own species as well. If all life is precious, as the right to life crowd asserts, then the lives of all the species on the planet are also precious, for our relationship is mutually dependent. As for all the alleged benefits of finally having a Northwest Passage, let us not make this passage.

The Thinker

The universe through a straw

National Public Radio has been running a series called This I Believe. The series gives ordinary people like you and I the opportunity to tell the world what we believe and why. The series is always insightful and worth your time. Even if you cannot agree with the person’s beliefs, you should be moved by the passion and eloquence by which participants express their beliefs. Since the producers receive thousands of entries, they unfortunately cannot broadcast but a tiny fraction of them. However, there is a This I Believe web site where you can contribute your essay. Perhaps this one will end up there too.

Frequent readers of Occam’s Razor will have little doubt about what I believe. Like all of us, I have many beliefs. I may spend the rest of my life trying to put them all down here on this website. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I do not often say I am certain that my beliefs are accurate. They simply represent the perspective of me: a 49-year-old white middle class man living here in the United States. My beliefs are undoubtedly formed by my life experiences. Since your life was on a different path, I should not be surprised that you would have different beliefs. However, it has only been in the last few years that I have found the time and the energy to organize my thoughts. Here they exist online for your amusement, castigation, insight, or dismissal.

Last night in my covenant group, we discussed our “isms”. Simply saying what your “isms” are gives insight into your own beliefs. To help us out, many of us turned to Beliefnet. On the site is an online survey you can take if you are having a hard time categorizing your beliefs. Since we are a small group of Unitarian Universalists, not one of us was surprised to find out we were categorized highest as UUs. In fact, the survey showed me as 100% Unitarian Universalist, but also 98% Quaker. Perhaps I should not be surprised that I have a brother who is a Quaker.

For many, labeling their beliefs is simple. For me, it is hard to put a label on what I believe. The label probably does not exist. I can say I am a Unitarian Univeralist, but this really does not say what I believe. After all, you can be a UU and believe anything you want. There is no creed you have to profess in order to be a UU. I can say that I subscribe to agnosticism, but that does not say much about my beliefs either. It simply asserts that I cannot find a rational basis to either believe or not believe in God. In some ways, I feel the call of Buddhism. I have acknowledged before that I think karma is a real and natural force. Yet I maintain some skepticism that we go through a series of lives, and each life is an attempt to address our karmic issues from previous lives. Perhaps I align most closely to natural pantheism. Wikipedia says it is “a form of pantheism that holds that the universe, although unconscious and non-sentient as a whole, is a meaningful focus for mystical fulfillment.” However, I am not quite so certain that I can wholly dismiss the notion that some external or omnipresent God did not set our universe in motion. I do believe that our universe is an amazing place.

As human beings trying to understand the universe, I believe we have some serious limitations. First, we are temporal. This gives us perhaps a biased perspective. Our natural fear of death I think drives many of our beliefs, since most seem to offer tailored solutions that address our fear of nonexistence. Since we experience existence through time, we naturally assume time exists for everything. However, arguably time only exists for organisms of sufficient complexity. For example, the physicist Brian Greene asserts that at the subatomic level, time ceases to exist.

Since we are also limited by our senses, it can be excruciatingly hard to relate to things that we cannot directly perceive. We can infer that radio waves exist, even though we know we will never touch, taste or feel a radio wave. We can make similar observations about the limitations of our other senses. For example, there are sounds we cannot perceive but other animals can.

What I infer from all this is that we perceive the universe at best through a gauzy curtain. I believe what we see approximates the universe’s actual complexity. Perhaps you read recent news reports about the indirect proof for the existence of dark matter in the universe. Here again is something that physicists tell us simply must exist in the universe, but which we cannot examine. I think that my analogy that our view of the universe is through a gauzy curtain is too expansive. I believe we see the universe through a straw.

A therapist I am seeing tells me that humans tune out most of the experience that surrounds them. Perhaps there is so much of it that it is impossible for our brains to process all of it. Like a horse with blinders, to survive we focus on what is straight ahead of us. Perhaps this is because we have learned through experience that straight ahead is where it is easiest to make sense of the world. At best, we are only dimly aware of the consequences that our behavior has on not just our intimates, but on everyone who we meet.

If we spent our life looking at the same small part of the sky through a straw, we would clearly not have a very good understanding of our universe. All we could do is describe what we see through the straw. It would be hard to infer the meaning of the things we saw. If a cloud obscured our vision, we could not necessarily infer the entity we call a cloud. We would likely need a wider perspective to detect the cloud. We might pick up some clues. If a bird passed through our line of vision enough times then we might be able to infer the existence of birds, although the concept of flight may be beyond our comprehension. Similarly, it would be hard to imagine trees, or houses, or the ground, or computers, or time, or perhaps even death.

So if I am a natural pantheist, it is because I believe that the universe is far more complex, far more amazing and far richer than what I can comprehend, simply because I am bounded by a finite life and limited senses. Philosophers and scientists must do the best they can by seeing the universe through a straw. However studying the edges of the straw, which is what physicists, philosophers and the devout spend much of their lives doing, likely gives them a very jaundiced and probably inaccurate perspective of the universe as it actually is. Even if we could see all aspects of the universe as it actually is, it is unlikely our brains could comprehend its full complexity and manifestation.

It may be that instead of seeing the universe through a straw, we are seeing it through a drainage pipe. In other words, perhaps we perceive more of the complexity of the universe than I assume. There is no way to know for sure, however. Since there is no way to know, that is where I personally draw the boundaries of my faith.

I do my best not to infer too much about the truth of our universe because I assume my perspective is severely constrained. However, I could just as easily be wrong. It can be fun to speculate on whether God exists, and if it exists whether it is a personal or an absent God. Nevertheless, I believe that when we do so we are really arguing about what we see on the edges of the straw. We are using that very limited field of observation to infer much more about the universe than we should. Perhaps that is why I often feel the need to surrender to the mysticism of it all. It is why the Pantheistic Church, if there were one, would probably call me more than Unitarian Universalism. As much as I try, I do not really understand our universe, but I am still in awe of it and under its spell. However, I sense, what the character Ellie Arroway in the movie Contact (and by inference, the late Carl Sagan, who wrote the book) said:

I … had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everybody, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope.

The Thinker

Coaxing Google

As I am discovering, trying to get Google to place your web site back in its index is like trying to get your way with City Hall. Good luck. Once I had a web presence with Google. Now it no longer is aware even of this site. Since November 3rd, my site has disappeared from Google. Try it. Nothing comes up for this site, not a single link. Even my Google cache has disappeared.

Perhaps that is not entirely true. Apparently, its image index is managed separately. I still get occasionally referrals from Google for images placed here. However, as best I can tell, this is the extent to which Google acknowledges that my site is alive.

If I were a major presence on the web like, say, Google would take my call. Alas, I am nobody. I am just some guy with a blog. My blog may inhabit some very dark corner of the Internet, but it is my corner, representing a huge investment of my time and energy for nearly four years. Over the years, traffic to my site has been modest, but each year it has grown steadily. Much of its growth, I will confess, came from Google referrals. Since I have been unlisted, instead of being a very dark corner of the Internet, I am now in a dungeon. MSN and Yahoo stop by regularly and offer their sympathies, but both are search engine wannabees. Google sets the platinum standard. If Google gets around to reindexing this site, they will do so in their own sweet time, thank you very much. Like McDonalds, they serve billions. Moreover, like McDonalds, if you want a hamburger your way, well, be prepared to wait a while.

So here I wait. It is nine days since my web site mysteriously disappeared from their search index. My site traffic has dropped to one quarter of its previous traffic. Because I am not indexed in Google, my advertising revenue with Google Adsense is virtually nonexistent too.

I have tried using their Webmaster tools. It listed seventeen bad links on my pages and nine pages that were unavailable. I corrected all my bad links, which were carryovers from a time when my MovableType blog software created entry names that were numbers. Maybe it was these seventeen errors put me over a threshold and caused my blog to become unlisted. However, with nearly 600 entries long at this point, it is a bit time consuming to fix every bad link on my site. Still, to please the Google gods, I took the time to correct all of them.

I am left to wonder if a bunch of right wing Christian homophobes secretly run Google. All I know is that it was about the same time I published this entry on the Rev. Ted Haggard, defrocked minister and hypocrite that my blog unceremoniously disappeared from their index. Maybe I used the word “homosexuality” once too often and thereby crossed over some sort of threshold that placed my site in their bit bucket.

While no one cares but me, I find the whole situation very irritating. Google has become the indispensable tool for the Internet. It is so powerful I am starting to think that maybe it requires some regulation. Somehow, I doubt regulation would improve their product. Google should at least staff a public Google Help Desk where site owners can find out why their site does not appear in the index. If my site were banned, then I should at least have some explanation for why it is banned. Nevertheless, like Windows, the details of its inner workings are impenetrable.

Nonetheless, I am tempted to get even. While I am sure my tiny corner of the internet is too small for them to bother with, there are alternatives. While I cannot coax others to use Yahoo or MSN for their search engines, I can decide to feature Yahoo Publisher instead of Google Search and Adsense on my site.

Meanwhile, I will keep blogging, hoping that my diminished audience is only a temporary condition. Google is the 800-pound gorilla of the search business. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, it has squashed my humble little web site.

The Thinker

Election 2006 Postmortem

What a difference two years makes! Two years ago this week I surveyed the results of the 2004 election with dismay. President Bush, who should have handily been defeated for bungling the War in Iraq, was reelected, although the difference in the popular vote (2.4%) and the electoral vote (35 votes) made it one of the closest wins in recent history. While the Republicans picked up only three House seats, they solidified a formidable 30-vote majority in the House. In the Senate, Republicans picked up four seats, making the odds of retaking the Senate this year so small that even most Democrats (like me) thought it was a long shot.

Now that the dust has settled, the results of Tuesday’s election are stunning. Democrats picked up 29 House seats while losing none. A number of elections in dispute are likely to add to this total. In the Senate, with the concessions today by Montana Senator Conrad Burns and Virginia Senator George Allen, the Democrats took a 51-49 majority. This majority though feels rather fragile. It assumes that the newly reelected Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, who ran his independent campaign more like a Republican than a Democrat, doesn’t feel a case of sour grapes and align himself with the Republicans. Amazingly, not a single Democratic incumbent running for the U.S. Congress lost, which may be a first for either political party.

This amazing upset hardly ends at the national level. Looking at state races, Democrats will now control a majority of the governorships (28) next year, up 6 seats. Five state legislatures switched from Republican to Democrat; not one went from Democrat to Republican. New Hampshire turned stunningly Democratic. (The New Hampshire House went from 37.5% Democrat to 59.8%. The New Hampshire Senate went from 45.8% Democrat to 66.7%. In addition, it elected Democrat John Lynch as governor.) Counting state Senate and House seats nationwide, Democrats picked up 349 seats out of 7393, a gain of 4.7 percent.

You have to look very hard for any Republican successes. If Republicans succeeded, it was in not making their losses completely catastrophic. Republicans held on to a retiring senate seat in Tennessee and a retiring governorship in Florida. That was about it. Tuesday was an overwhelmingly Democratic night. Republicans can take some comfort in that the margin of victory for Democrats was in many cases achingly small. Both Conrad Burns and George Allen lost by less than 1% of the popular vote. Still, it was remarkable how in very tight major races, they went consistently for the Democratic candidate.

There is no single reason why Democrats faired so well. Clearly, the voters were expressing extreme unhappiness of the last five years of one party rule. Many were voting to express their disgust with President Bush in general and his bungled War in Iraq in particular. Many others were expressing their unhappiness with their more precarious standard of living.

However, there were also demographic changes that came into prominence in 2006. This country is becoming less white and the minorities are voting disproportionately for Democrats. As young voters begin to vote, they vote predominantly for the Democrats. These demographic forces bode well for the Democratic Party’s future.

Those who discount the force of netroots are in denial. While the netroots community is overwhelmingly progressive, that does not mean they were myopic enough to give money only to progressives. Clearly, the netroots lost in Connecticut, but they picked up impressive victories too. Donations from the netroots to candidates like John Tester and Jim Webb were not only instrumental in their election, but they also made it possible for them to mobilize in the first place. Arguably, neither Tester nor Webb would be senators elect today had it not been from the netroots. The netroots are now a proven means of winning seats. Netroots won the U.S. Senate for the Democrats. It is not your father’s smoke filled room anymore.

Having won the reigns of legislative power, it is another question entirely whether Democrats will prove to be competent to govern. Voters in general were expressing more extreme displeasure at Republicans than enthusiasm for the Democrats. Democrats have traditionally been the “none of the above” party, rather than a party with a coherent message and platform. Perhaps after being out of power for so long they will absorb some important lessons. At least our initial rhetoric is encouraging. The likely next Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi talks about being the Speaker of the House, not the Speaker of just the Democrats. She is stressing bipartisanship. Senator Majority Leader elect Harry Reid is expressing similar thoughts. If history is a guide, this spirit will not last too long, but it is a hopeful sign nonetheless.

Having spurned bipartisanship, President Bush now has to embrace it if he wants anything in his last two years to be more than a footnote. His prompt dismissal yesterday of our disastrous Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a hopeful sign. (I called for it in 2004.) Bush’s dismissal is bizarrely inconsistent with remarks he made a few days earlier wherein he promised he was never going to get rid of him. Since the plans for Rumsfeld’s replacement were clearly well along before the election, essentially Bush was lying. He probably justified it as an attempt to attempt to fire up his base in order to win the election.

No amount of bipartisanship will solve some problems. One of them is our quagmire in Iraq. Both sides are likely to embrace the recommendations of the nonpartisan Iraq Study Group. They will use it for political cover, because it will be politically unacceptable to make a recommendation for withdrawal that is not contingent upon Iraqis achieving benchmarks that they will not be able to meet. For the next two years, expect that our troops will remain in Iraq. Perhaps some small percent will come home to give the illusion to the American public that we will extricate ourselves from the war. Undoubtedly, the real responsibility for Iraq will remain with Bush, not the Congress, because strategy and tactics are the responsibility of the Commander in Chief. This bodes well for Democratic prospects in 2008. It is quite possible that in two years our government will move from Republicans in charge of all branches of government to Democrats being in charge of all branches but the Supreme Court.

For myself I am savoring this exquisite moment of victory. I would like to think it is the first of many, but I am sanguine. What goes around comes around. Without a hardnosed attention to the people’s business, Democrats will be lucky if they are still in power ten years from now, despite the carnage inflicted by Republicans these last six years. I am trying not to think about these sad political realities right now. For a Democrat like me, Tuesday night was magical. It was perhaps a once in a lifetime event. The closest parallel was the Election of 1974 following Watergate. However, in that election, Democrats already controlled both Houses of Congress. I would dance from the rooftops, except I have two left feet. Nonetheless, I am beaming, as is everyone in my very Democratic household. I helped make this election possible through my own contributions in time and money. I feel vested in its outcome and am thrilled to have Jim Webb, my netroots candidate, as my new Senator elect.

The Thinker

Jim Webb: Mr. Smith goes to Washington

As regular readers know, I have been keeping my ears close to the ground these days. I still hear a political earthquake coming tomorrow. Of course, I could be wrong. I certainly was wrong calling the 2004 election. As I ponder political earthquakes closer to where I live in Northern Virginia, I hear another one coming: tomorrow Jim Webb, who was virtually unknown at the beginning of this year, will defeat George Allen in his bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Virginia will wake up Wednesday and find it has wisely chosen a person of substance over a man of image.

Recent polls have been saying this race is too close to call. Very recent polls give hope to both George Allen and challenger Jim Webb. I think Webb will win though because he is the real deal, whereas George Allen is just another George W. Bush clone.

Really, it is eerie how much George Allen imitates President Bush. Bush pretends to be a Texan, even though he is a New Englander. Allen pretends to be a Virginian, even though he is a Californian. Both go out of their ways to be perceived as Southerners. Both were governors of very red Southern states who touted dubious achievements in education. Bush claimed to have turned around the Texas public schools. Allen promoted the now institutionalized Virginia Standards of Learning. These tests, like those in Texas, have become so dumbed down that my senior age high school daughter informs me, “You have to be really stupid not to pass a SOL exam.” Both belong to mainstream Protestant denominations: United Methodist in Bush’s case, Presbyterian in Allen’s case. Both avoided serving in war but at least Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard. Perhaps the closest identification to Bush is seen in Allen’s votes. He voted for virtually whatever Bush promoted, including our failed war in Iraq. He was one of the last Republicans to stop insisting the way to win in Iraq was to stay the course.

Until a few months ago, many Republicans considered Allen to be a leading contender for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008. No one thought Webb had a snowball’s chance in hell at defeating this popular ex-Governor and senator. You know what happened since then to bring Allen down, so I will not repeat these incidents. Suffice to say that George Allen was one of many Republicans who were not agile enough to respond to changing political winds. Moreover, he, like our president, was headstrong enough to think he could do things like put Confederate Flags and nooses in his office and it did not matter or speak to his true character.

For a politician like Allen, his worst nightmare is a challenger who seems tailored to expose all his personal deficiencies. Jim Webb seemed to come out of nowhere. He did not even start running for the Senate until February. A successful Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, U.S. Naval Academy graduate and decorated marine, Webb was awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts while a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam. A successful author of eight books, self-described Reagan Democrat and former follower of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, he was moved to become a Democrat and run against George Allen because Allen supported Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq. While not totally without his share of controversy, Webb comes across as a clear-eyed and sober patriot while Allen comes across as George W. Bush lite: handsome, giving the appearance of being a family values man, but headstrong and with obvious vindictive and prejudicial sides. His real constituency was white Protestant Republicans, and everyone knew it.

Webb is something of a political oddity. In many ways he is who I would be if I were to be a politician. Unfortunately, I could never begin to match his credentials. He is the genuine reluctant candidate, motivated by conviction rather than ego. Webb is a man who refuses to pick up the phone and schmooze donors for campaign contributions. He may be the last of his kind. In spite of this, he has pulled in impressive campaign contributions, including huge amounts of relatively small donations from the Netroots and from ordinary Joes like me.

I was one of the 3% or so of Virginia Democrats who voted in the primary. Despite Webb’s previously Republican leanings, I was enthusiastic about voting for Webb. He won that election narrowly, and he may well win tomorrow’s election narrowly too. This time though I expect we will see something close to record turnout for a midterm election. His election will send a powerful signal that genuine character matters again in politicians. Voters will reward honest accomplishments rather than empty rhetoric. Webb is authentic and genuine. He is perhaps the last of the Mr. Smiths to go to Washington. He will probably be the only politician in Congress who will not be influenced by special interests. It may doom him to a single term. Still, it will be a refreshing six-year term.

I expect big things from Jim Webb. Should he choose to seek even higher office some day, I think he will find an enthusiastic group of supporters from both sides of the political spectrum, as long as he remains true to his values. His campaign says he was born fighting. He has some huge fights ahead in the Senate on behalf of not just Virginians, but the vast majority of us disenfranchised Americans. Virginians: let us establish a beachhead for him by voting for Jim Webb tomorrow.


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