Tuesday, December 11, 2007

We said what?

I love newspaper corrections pages.

I don't dwell or corrections with any sense of epicaricacy, of course. God knows I have made enough mistakes and it's simply courting bad journalism karma to laugh too derisively at any error made by a colleague.

Instead, I find buried in there is a chronicle of human error, bad luck, misunderstanding, and unfortunate timing that make for the whoppers that inevitably appear in print every day (they show up on TV and radio too, perhaps in greater numbers, but they tend to vanish quickly into the electronic ether and broadcasters are notoriously reluctant to remind the audience of errors by issuing a correction). Corrections are also a lovely chronicle of defensiveness, denial, and, occasionally, good humor. Writing a good correction can be an art form in its own right.

The New Yorker used to publish lots of little corrections as filler, but they hardly do that anymore. So I had to look to other sources. Fortunately, there are a few, including the famous Regret the Error. It's well worth checking out.

Regret is out with its annual Best of list for 2007, and some of them are excellent, including the one that caused me to laugh until I cried. From the Hindu Times:

A report “From Bombay to Rajasthan” (“Newscape” page, January 8, 2007) stated that actor Elizabeth Hurley will wear “a 4,000-pound sari by designer Tarun Tahiliani” during her wedding in March. While one reader wondered how she would be able to lift the 1,800 kg sari, another reader said there are possible fears about the bride being reduced to pulp by its weight. It was an error. The word “pound” was used instead of the currency symbol for pound sterling (£).

Or the nearly as funny one from The Guardian in the U.K.:

We wrongly converted a baby’s birth weight of 8lbs 15oz as 51kg. It is 4.1kg (Losing it, page 13, G2, January 1). A 51kg baby is an impossible 112lbs 6oz.

You just can't make this stuff up.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

It's the end of the world and we know it....

....and I feel fine.

Not perhaps as clever as Harry Shearer's brilliant mash-up of George W.'s many versions of "It's hard work" being president, but still funny. Unfortunately, I can't find an online copy of the song anymore - Shearer used to have it posted, but seemingly not now. If you're very nice to me, I will play you a copy I just happen to have.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Viva Fashion

Gosh, if only life was this beautiful...

Discovered and posted last week by the fitfully amusing blog Phillyist. Despite the look and sound, this place is in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I may have to go. And you should too.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Just read this

It is possible, just barely possible, that this is the best article I have ever read. Even if it is not THE best ever, it certainly flirts dangerously with being the best high-concept story idea ever.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The glamor and the glory

Once, long ago, the Washington Times maneuvered me into covering the White House. I was having a perfectly good time covering Congress, but the editors asked me just to head down to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue "temporarily" until they found someone else who wanted to do it. I agreed, albeit extremely reluctantly. But immediately I realized that they had no intention of finding anyone else and everyone was acting as if this was my new beat. So I did what any reasonable person would have done: I screamed and cried like a little girl until they let me go back to Capitol Hill a few weeks later.

Now, many people have suggested I was crazy for this. After all, there is no more prestigious and sought-after beat than the White House. But, of course, I knew that anyone who said this to me had never covered the White House. The dirty secret is that it is boring, frustrating and tedious. Unless you are passionate and creative about the beat (someone like, say, Peter Baker of the Washington Post, who is now in Moscow but was in Washington at the time I was there) or don't give a damn what you do for a living, the White House beat is really a pain in the butt. I loved covering Congress and I had no particular interest in covering the White House on a regular basis, so nearly every minute I spent in the Press Room was agony.

Finally, I have found something to illustrate the banality and pointlessness of most of what passes for news in and around the White House. This is a bit of film by Ken Herman, who is a good reporter, and, judging by my passing acquaintance with him during the 2000 election, a nice guy. And he has accurately captured why the beat drove me away immediately.

The President and The Prime Minister

Update: In looking at the Post website this morning, I see that Peter Baker is back home from Moscow these days. Good. He's a very good White House reporter.

Update 2: I see that I am not the only one who admits this White House thing stinks. Karen Tumulty of Time is interviewed this week in Texas Monthly and here is one of the things she has to say:

"Covering the White House is the most prestigious bad job in journalism. You’re completely at the mercy of whoever deigns to return your phone calls. It’s not like Capitol Hill, where people can’t get away from you. If the Speaker wants to go from his office to the floor of the House, he has to walk past whichever reporters care to plant themselves in his way."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

You cannot make this up

Atlanta's alt-weekly, Creative Loafing, has a brilliant cover story this week, listing Atlanta's "Least Influential People." Leaving aside the fact that the mere concept is a withering and hilarious satire of the list-mania sweeping the media these days, some of the individual profiles are masterpieces in themselves. The one that trumps them all, however, is #4, Dawn Williams, the woman who tried starting a support group called the "Atlanta Panic Disorders and Phobia Meetup Group."

There follows a gently hilarious story of unplanned, but not entirely unpredictable, consequences.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tom for Prez?

Way back in 1998, when I was covering Congress for The Washington Times, a new member came to Capitol Hill and I was instantly fascinated. I sought this guy out in large part because I saw that he had signed a public declaration that he opposed funding for public schools. That, I concluded, was truly hard core. I had to know more.

He was more than a little surprised to find I was interested - in fact, I think I was the only reporter outside of Colorado who knew who he was at that point. I called him off the floor one day for some little issue that I don't even recall: just an excuse to meet him and hear what such a person might have to say (Yes, reporters can send messages to members on the floor and a clerk will personally deliver the message. Sometimes, if you're lucky, the member will come out into the Speaker's Lobby and talk with you. It's pretty cool). Tancredo's first reaction, delivered with genuine incredulity, was "you want to talk to me?" After that, I made a habit of asking his opinion on a wide variety of issues, though I don't think I quoted him often.

And now he's running for president. And doing pretty well for a guy way, way out there on the fringe (he's not doing as well as my other fringe favorite, Ron Paul, who is a story in his own right. Ron Paul, by the way, has signed the same public education statement as Tancredo, a fact I didn't learn until just now. Interesting).

Contrary to what you may glean from this clip and other Tancredo comments, he is actually quite a personable, intelligent guy. And one of the more quietly humorous men in Congress, which sometimes makes me wonder if the following is just a bit of twisted performance art. Probably not, unfortunately.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The best beer you will never have

Unless you are lucky enough to visit, or better yet live in, the Commonwealth of Virginia, you will probably never have this beer. Which is really sad, because it is incredible. It has suddenly vaulted into my top five or so favorite beers.

The brewery, which sits in a little regarded corner of the little regarded county of Nelson, has only been open for a few weeks. It released it's first beer in August and opened the restaurant and tasting room in late October.

It does excellent work on several beers, including the Blue Mountain Lager, which is nearly as good as Victory's Prima Pils and Troegs' Sunshine Pils, both of which are hard to beat.

It does a number of other beers, including a nice wheat beer, a tasty Kolsch, and a rich Imperial Porter. Two other beers are in the works, both Belgians (which are not my favorites, but I am sure they will be great, for those that like that kind of thing).

But the shining star of the line is the Full Nelson Pale Ale, which is rich and smooth, with an warm and enveloping hop aroma and the lovely bite of the Cascade hop, the signature of the seminal Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, on the finish. What's cool is that some of the hops were grown right there on the property.

And the restaurant is cute too. It sits on the edge of the Blue Ridge on a wooded lot. The inside is built like a warm mountain lodge and there is a large outdoor porch where you can sit and enjoy a beer while watching the beauty of the Virgina foothills.

The main downside is that the beer is so good that the restaurant is always packed and the brewmaster can't pump out enough beer to meet demand. His wife tells me they have no plans to distribute beyond Virginia because demand is so huge locally.

So if you're anywhere in spitting distance of Charlottesville anytime soon, and you enjoy a good American beer, make an effort to stop by this place - it's about 20 minutes west of Charlottesville, just at the foot of Afton Mountain, which is where I-64 crosses the first ridge of the Blue Ridge mountains.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The honeymoon is over?

After months of kindness and support, the voices from the Internet have become increasingly cruel and taunting of late. Could it be I am no longer loved as much as I thought? Have I done something to offend? "Evangelene Lejhanec" writes:

hello darling Sean
think the girls will accept your tiny dick? think again buddy

I am shaken, questioning my place in the universe. How can I regain your unconditional love, Evangeline? Please, I must know.


Even as I was writing this, Myles Gilmore wrote to say

hallo buddy sean
you better make it bigger! weren't those her last words?

I must say, in my current delicate state, those very well might be her last words, Myles. You have no idea.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

It's good to be loved

I continue to be touched by the outpouring of love and support I receive from around the world, but my accursed Spam filter keeps intercepting these effusive expressions of affection. I shall have to turn it off, I suppose.

For example, just today, Deena V. Begay wrote to say "We are here for your penis! You'll like it!" I have not yet retrieved this message from my Spam folder, but when I do, I am sure I will like it indeed. Never before has it occurred to me that penises might need a support group, but it is a charming notion, now that I think of it.

And also just today, my Spam filter cruelly blocked a plea from help from a poor soul in China. A certain Jin Faniu writes "Please help me: I am a schizophrenic patients from China, due to the need for long-term use antipsychotic drugs, the family has begun can not afford it, if we do not take drugs so I would crazy, I need your help, you need only to download firefox in my website firefox browser, if you don't install firefox , then you can download firefox in my website, the download url is http://www.sohocer.com/firefox.html, if you install firefox in your computer then you can donate one dollar in my account , please contact me via email jinfaniu@hotmail.com."

Normally, I would help this person, but unfortunately, I already have a perfectly good copy of Firefox. Perhaps if you'd like to sell me a light bulb, or some cheap Cialis, I might indulge. Better luck next time, Jin.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lucky Larry

Ok, so this little clip is a little cheesy, but I got a laugh, in a twisted sort of way. This guy was one of my best GOP Senate sources when I was on the Hill. He didn't give me a lot of terribly insider stuff, but I could count on him to give a solid read on the thinking of the Senate leadership at the time. And he was a reliable barometer of the opinions and outlooks of a certain segment of highly conservative, moderately religious, gun-owning Western conservatives. It happens also that he always gives a neat, clear, useful (if sometimes glib) soundbite that fills a hole (so to speak) in a story perfectly.

He also happens to have the sharpest front teeth I have ever seen on a human being - a pair of sharp little pointy canines that he can use to great effect when he peels back his lips in a gleefully malicious smile. It scared the hooey out of me.

I've watched his downfall with a mixture of amusement, horror and sorrow. I had heard that he was gay some years ago, after I left the Hill but before this whole fiasco unfolded. Oddly, I was at once shocked and unsurprised.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Count Me In

Since I got kicked out of Facebook, I am signing up for Enemybook, the most brilliant concept on the Web since Gophers.

Here's how they describe it:

Enemybook is a Facebook app that allows you to manage your enemies as well as your friends. With Enemybook you can add people as facebook enemies, specify why they are your enemies, notify your enemies, see who lists you as an enemy, and even become friends with the enemies of your enemies. Ever wanted to "enemy" somebody instead of friend them? Finally you can. This app remedies the one-sided perspective of Facebook.

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer...

Oh, crap. Now I see that I need to HAVE a Facebook account to make this work. The Universe is so unfair.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fresh is best

The Great Divide beers I have had before I liked quite a bit - The Hercules Double IPA and the the Titan IPA. The Titan I am most fond of - it's not anything revolutionary, but it is a sturdy, flavorful, balanced, smooth American IPA. I don't buy it often, but I'm never sorry to have it in the fridge.

So when I saw this Fresh Hop Pale Ale big bottle I picked it up. And I like it too. The brewers say that the difference is they use freshly harvested hops, available in the early fall, as opposed to the pressed pellets of hops people use the rest of the year around. I have no idea if this is true, of course, but it makes a good story. And the beer is a little different. I don't have a Titan in the fridge now to compare first hand, but I could tell that Fresh Hop is a little different. I got a distinct herb flavor from this beer that I haven't gotten with a pale ale before. In fact (and this is going to sound strange, but I mean it as a good thing) it tasted of a good, musky parsley (yes, there is such a thing).

Like the Titan, this isn't one I will go mad over, but it is a solid, refreshing and ever so slightly unusual beer. I'm glad to be drinking it at this very moment.

UPDATE: I looked around a little and discovered that this is true, though beer wonks are divided as to whether it is worth using fresh hops versus the dry kind. The fresh stuff is called "Wet hopping," a phrase that sounds faintly unseemly.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Stop the presses

Reporters get a lot of weird press releases - stuff scribbled in crayons, made up of letters clipped from magazines, written in the margins of photocopied articles, and so on. The Internet has made this even more common, though it has taken a lot of the visual fun out of it, since even the craziest press release looks neatly typed now.

I don't know how I got on this guy's email list. He sent this, under the subject line "Bulletin," to about 100 people, mostly at news organizations, universities, and local governments, by the look of the addresses. He pretty much covers the English speaking world too. And by the look of the content, it's a darned good thing he is getting his message out far and wide.

Here is the full and unvarnished truth from user367@alice.it, calling himself "The Society of Fundamental Biology / Laboratory of the Phisiological Model of Behavior"

Suicide bombers are severe maniacs, enemies of medicine, agents of devil,
enemies of Allah, unique and monotheistic god, so also god of medicine,
and not god of insanity. The problem is more and maximally serious:
the problem is medical. I suggest to inform habitants possibly
carriers of the risk.

War is pathological behavior; sane habitants don't make duels and don't
fight each other, respecting exact national and international rules: in any
conflict almost one combatant is mentally insane. This doesn't exclude that
shooting to the bank robbers by the police is a pathological conduct:
it would be more pathological not doing it, or depenalize robbing;
"enemy is mentally insane".

Communists are mentally insane or they are right and their
law is correct; nazists are mentally insane or they are "super doctors
against the enemies of mental hygiene"; Napoleon is mentally insane
or he is right and he act as "perfect doctor".

Phisiologycal behavior means absence of pathological behavior; biological
group self destructive activity is pathological behavior. The scale is
from zero to 1000 of pathologicity, zero means phisiology.
The committer of a pathological conduct or omission, is diseased by
definition. Example for detecting a pathological behavior: if everybody
would pass with red traffic light, there would be more deaths and wounded

The tribunal says that some paedophile is sane and has no mental illness or
disability, this means: physiological behavior, non pathological behavior.
Paedophilia is a clinically insane behavior, the committer has mental
illness in every case. Also crimes against the patrimony or with
economic motive are non physiological conducts.

Theoretical example:
"Egyptians kill homosexuals but children are not born homosexuals: egyptians
corrupt then kill sane children, using illegal and maniacal behaviors".
This is a useful example of something that, if medicine would not operate
well, could happen almost in few cases, matching a "predisposition and
activation" case: a predisposition like my arm has, to be broken by a crash.

Why slapping child isn't a crime and a mania? Which clinical problem,
methods of correction and control want to correct ? Methods of correction,
like slapping, menacing, insulting are initially illegal and maniacal
behaviors. They involve 80-90% of earth's population: there should be a
medical document deposited somewhere, that disposes the violation of the
general rule, for a medical reason. If that would be a problem it should
be involved in the pathogenesis of many morbose states.

Killing animals is a crime and a mania. Why eating animals isn't a
crime and a mania, as generally is ? Is there a medical document
deposited somewhere, that disposes the violation of the general
rule ? In every case it is a parasitic activity.

Siegmund Freud says that children has sexual attraction for parents,
and that mind is partitioned in three parts: ego, superego, es.
Does he lie not knowing to be lying ? Is psychoanalysis a fake ?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I am such a nerd

All these marketing articles a few years ago said that the way to sell wine was to put animals on the label. So now, everything has a bird, a lion, a kangaroo, whatever.

Well, animals don't work for me. At least not so much. What seems to work for me is ... World War II airplanes. I have this thing for World War II airplanes. And my favorite of the bunch, just happens to be the P-40, often known as the Warhawk, though it went by several different similar names depending on the version. I don't know why I love it - it was a great big, slow, overly armored obsolete dinosaur before the war even started. But ever since I was a little kid, I have been fascinated by the P-40. It looks cool. And it has the unusual distinction of being the backbone of the Flying Tigers, who used this out-dated plane time and again to get the better of the Japanese flying the white hot new Zero, which by all rights should have slaughtered the old American planes (the trick, apparently, was to fly very high, wait for the Zeros to appear below, the use the huge weight of the P-40 to come screaming down out of the sky, blasting everything in your path. Then you hope like Hell you've done enough damage to slow the Zeros down, all the while relying on your great slabs of armor to keep you alive).

So what do I see on a beer store shelf this week? Warbird Pale Ale from some place in Indiana. I don't know anything about it. And I am usually not fond of a straight pale ale; I prefer big India Pales Ales. But it has a great big pretty picture of a P-40; the 8-year-old in me wouldn't let me leave without this beer (good thing they didn't card my Inner Child).

And guess what? It's good. Very good, even. Powerful without being overpowering. Flavorful, with a nice hoppy aroma, musky and floral. I might have bought some more sometime even without the really cool airplane picture.

Now, I gotta go to Indiana and check out Warbird Brewing. I might even be tempted to try some Thunderbolt Wheat,even though I don't like wheat beers. And I'd love to try the Mustang Golden Ale. Damn, these guys have my number.


Commenter Cub corrects my romantic, yet historically hazy, vision of the P-40s role in the war over China.

Cub, otherwise known as Dan Ford, writes:

Ah, but the Flying Tigers never met the Zero in combat. For the full story, see
Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942, just published by HarperCollins.

That said, I'll keep an eye out for Warbird ale. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Which of course points up the danger of relying on comic books as your source of historical information. But it does nothing to diminish my prepubecent admiration for the sleek likes of the poor old P-40.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Thanks for asking!

I received a lovely personalized note today from a young lady who is either in Canada or the UK, depending on how one reads her email address. Sadly, my Spam filter intercepted her kindly email, but I was touched by her concern anyway and I thought she raised an interested question. Here is what she had to say:

"Hi sean Do women really care about penis size? The answer is yes yaman elker"

So to my new friend Yaman, wherever she may be, I must reply: I don't know. Is my penis size a common topic of discussion where you are? Perhaps there are places where this is the case. I certainly hope the women don't worry about it too much. I don't. But thanks for writing, Yaman. Do keep in touch.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Thank God it's only in small batches

Tried this last night and I was very disappointed, not least because it was an irrationally expensive bottle - almost $9 for a 24 oz. bottle. The result? Overly sweet. Not offensive, just out of balance.

Double IPA's
like this are hard to pull off under the best of circumstances. Try Dogfish Head's 60 minute, 90 minute, and 120 minute IPAs side by side and you'll see what I mean. The 60 minute is nicely balanced and drinkable, the 90 minute gets a little sweet and odd tasting, and the 120 minute is like drinking beer flavored cough syrup. Not a happy experience (the 120 minute is a whopping 20 percent alcohol by volume. Most beers are, say, 5 percent or thereabouts, most Double IPAs are around 9 percent, so this beer is WAY out there on a lot of levels).

But for some reason, I had higher hopes for this Breckenridge beer - I guess I made the classic mistake of equating cost with quality.

If you want a good Double IPA, try some of these: Weyerbacher's Double Simcoe, Stone's Ruination IPA, Avery's Maharaja, and Victory's Hop Wallop. All of them manage to walk that delicate Double IPA balance: High alcohol and intense hops without becoming unpleasantly sweet and heavy. I hear the Three Floyd's Dreadnaught is excellent, but I have never managed to get my hands of any. What I have tried of their stuff has been impressive.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

I just needed to share this

I'm not a particularly good speller. I have gotten much better in recent years through considerable effort but it is something I have struggled with since I first learned to write. Spell check is a nice feature that has saved me much heartache, but it only catches blatantly misspelled words. For example, "public" and "pubic" are both spelled correctly as far as the computer is concerned. The machine has no way of knowing that the person at the keyboard meant to write a front page story about a "poorly-attended public hearing," as I discovered to my sorrow one day early in my career.

Which brings me to today and a small triumph. While typing along in a story about a long interview with a locally-famous Chinese chef, I managed to type the word "chrysanthemum" without a pause and without resort to spell check.

I just thought you'd want to know.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Like Father Like Son

This is my son Colin.

He is trouble. And I mean that in the best possible sense.

My older son, Evan, who is not trouble in any conceivable sense, describes his brother this way: An angel with a devil's smile. Which is just about right, as far as I can tell.

Well, just this week, Colin followed in his old man's footsteps and got expelled from camp. Yes, expelled. As in cannot ever come back.

His crime? Well, basically being high spirited. The camp teaches Karate. So Colin tried it on some of his fellow campers and a couple of counselors. Some of the older campers were talking about people, such as Michael Jackson, being "gay," so Colin decided to try that out as a label for some counselors. They didn't see the humor. Nor apparently did it occur to them that a 4-year-old hasn't the faintest idea what that means (Try explaining the concept to anyone under, say, 12 or 15 and you'll see what I mean. I had a very unhelpful conversation about it with both Colin and his 8 year old brother which pretty much convinced me that this is a VERY advanced concept for anyone who cannot even spell "puberty" yet).

Oh, and he did threaten to kill someone. But he was repeating something from a Ben 10 cartoon, or something that his big brother watches. Colin, like most 4-year-olds, still thinks that death is something like a cold - take some medicine, wait a while, and you're all better.

So I guess we'll be needing a new camp next summer. Any suggestions?

Poor Colin. He still doesn't quite get what happened to him. He knows he "got kicked out," but that idea seems to occupy the same hazy territory as "gay" and "kill" in his little brain.

The whole thing just makes me tear up when I think about it too deeply. He's trying so very hard to understand the world.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

It's all in the game

There is a slightly unsettling article in the New York Times Science section this morning. It rests on an idea that seems, on its face, to be preposterous, but it is unsettling because it turns out to be so insidious.

Writer John Tierney talks to an Oxford philosopher named Nick Bostrom, who is modestly well know for advocating a The Doomsday Theory, an exercise in logic that, as he describes it "seeks to show that the risk that humankind will go extinct soon has been systematically underestimated."

But that's not what Tierney wants to talk about. Instead, he wants to talk about Bostrom's argument that there is a significant chance that we are all living inside a computer simulation run by remarkably advanced descendants of the real, non-simulated, human race. This is, of course, preposterous.

Unless it isn't.

Bostrum figures it this way. It seems very likely, based on our experience with increasing computing power, that sometime in the future – anywhere from a few decades to many millennia – humans will develop computers of sufficient power to realistically simulate the entirety of human history, complete with humans simulated in sufficient detail that they develop some level of consciousness. Whether this event is right around the corner or in the far future doesn't make much difference to the argument.

This being the case, there are only two basic reasons to assume that it is flatly impossible that we are living in some Matrix-like simulation. First, that no civilizations reach that level of technology (and we are clearly headed in that direction right now, so the implications of this argument are alarming), or, second, that civilizations that do reach this level of technology have no desire to run this sort of simulation. And clearly human beings do, even if no other creatures in the universe do – we do it all the time with our current computers: think Sims, Civilization IV, Caesar IV, and any similar simulation game. It seems unlikely that humans will lose their taste for watching such animated critters go about their business just as their ability to add detail and realism skyrockets. It's certainly possible that some highly advanced civilization might develop a moral or legal prohibition against such simulations, but it seems improbably that ALL such civilizations, and all individuals in such civilizations, would hold these beliefs and refrain from running any detailed simulation.

So, presuming those two conditions are false, then we have to assume that is possible we live in a simulation. If, indeed, processing power develops sufficiently, then it is likely that there would be many such simulations running, meaning the total number of conscious creatures living in computers greatly exceeds the number living in whatever constitutes reality. In that case, it would become ever more likely we are living in a simulation (Imagine, for example, that the hottest-selling computer game for Christmas in the year 2234 is SimEarth, or even SimCosmos. You begin to see the potential dimensions of this).

Bostrom puts the chances that we are living in some kind of simulation at about 20 percent, though if you read his original (and rather dense) paper on this, he appears to be implying a much higher chance.

So what if it's true? Well, in practical terms not much. Whether we live in a simulation or not, we still have problems and challenges we need to meet to live day to day. But there are some metaphysical and quasi-theological implications. If we are in simulation, then there is some kind of creator who can intervene or examine our actions. It is, therefore, possible that our actions are being judged and we could be punished or rewarded accordingly.

And it sure as hell explains a lot, doesn't it? The Big Bang? What a freaky idea, unless it is either a fiction created by the person running the simulation or some artifact of the beginning of the simulation itself. Suffering? Evil? War? Disaster? All part of game – a flawless life in a perfectly smooth cosmos would probably make lousy entertainment, or would be useless as some kind of research project.

But as I say, it's completely preposterous.

Isn't it?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Don't mess with Karl

The news that Karl Rove is stepping down brings to mind my first, and rather peculiar, encounter with Rove, an encounter that caused me to largely avoid him during the time I covered the Bush campaign.

It was just a few days before the New Hampshire primary in 2000. Bush was touring the headquarters of the state police, but the building was quite small and cramped. That meant only a handful of reporters, known as the press pool, and a few staff could go on the tour. That left the rest of us cooling our heels outside. The temperature wasn’t too cold, but there was plenty of snow on the ground. Some of the reporters and staff began pitching snowballs back and forth. Eventually, Rove jumped in and began hurling snowballs at a couple of reporters hiding behind a snow bank – an event immortalized by Alexandra Pelosi's documentary "Journeys with George."

Rove turned out to be surprisingly nimble, however, and nobody could hit him. Spirits seemed high, everyone was laughing, including Rove. Finally, a cameraman blindsided him, coming up from the side and hitting him with a snowball, though I don't recall exactly how hard. Rove continued to laugh and joke, and ran after the guy, who ran away, all very playfully.

But not only was Rove nimble, he was fast, particularly for a guy who is short and rather doughy. He caught the cameraman and grabbed him around the neck, laughing and joking the whole time. He bent the much larger man over, held him in a powerful headlock, and began cramming snow in his face, scooping it up in handfuls from a snow bank. His jovial demeanor never wavered but I was the closest reporter, standing by myself in an area where nobody else was standing, and I heard the cameraman begin to splutter and protest and I could hear the impact of the snow as Rove shoved handful after handful into his face. I suddenly realized that Rove was actually hurting him deliberately, while making it look like a game.

I am not sure exactly how long the whole event lasted – it seemed like an eternity, though it was probably just a couple of seconds. As Rove shoved another handful of snow into the man's face, all the time laughing and shouting jokes, he looked up and locked eyes with me for just a moment. His eyes were both cold and triumphant – he had managed to exact brutal revenge for a playful, harmless attack and make it look to the world like an equally playful moment. But he was playing for keeps, even in a snowball fight.

That look so unsettled me that I pretty much stayed away from Rove for the rest of the campaign, talking to him mostly in the small groups of reporters. It was, in retrospect, a glimpse into the darker side of the Bush operation. I wish I had realized it at the time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Banned for Life 2

There's an interesting discussion of Facebook's hairtrigger banning system over at the Huffington Post. It was brought to my attention by a comment on my previous post by Huffington Post contributor Ann Handley, though it looks to me like the link she included in her comment didn't register correctly in the comment box. So here it is:

Too Popular for Facebook?

I'm not sure what to make of it all yet, though I find it interesting that my case seems to be part of a broad pattern by Facebook. My guess is that this issue will bubble up in the near future as more people get caught in this. One of the things that has made Myspace an enduring institution is that they seem to be more tolerant of business, journalism and other unusual uses and they seem to spend the time and money to police the site with some nuance and judgment, where, if Ann is to be believed, Facebook simply pulls the plug on a user with relatively little discretion. I suspect this could hurt Facebook's longterm prospects.


Here's an interesting tale that explains a bit about Facebook's practice of spiking certain users:

Happy Hotelier banned from Facebook?

And here is the story from Tasnim who posted the comment below about his experience with Facebook. I don't see exactly how to link the post directly from his blog, so I will repeat it verbatim (with apologies to Tasnim):

July 26, 2007: Sixth Anniversary of the Princeton Summer Journalism Program/Back on Facebook

So, I’ve officially been banned from Facebook.

Sucks, really. But… it’s fair because they warned me before… and I never took it seriously. They said to stop sending the exact same message over and over again so I altered it and sent a “dear _____” (so technically different right?) message to everyone. It was for an event I was planning–I had to. People don’t check their e-mail!

But I’m almost happy that they didn’t give me another chance. It’s like they KNEW this was going to kill my time. One less thing to deal with in college.

A week (exactly 7 days) without facebook. What an interesting experiment. I got through Harry Potter zippity-fast and got my application essays and reading assignments for Princeton out of the way. Now, it’s for real. Facebook was a pretty big and obsessive/addictive part of my life. That phase has ended. yay?

Edit: I know, I suck! I made another one. One week was apparently too long.

Forgot to mention! First time on the highway today. What a thrill. :

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

True crime

I keep an eye on the various true crime blogs online mostly to see if they turn up any interesting stories that People magazine might want to look at, but I normally don't get into the cold case sorts of stories that turn up once in a while. Except today. I don't know why this one, on the best of the crime blogs, caught my eye, but it is quite interesting.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Banned for life

Somehow, Facebook decided that I have become a Spammer. I don't understand - they won't explain. It has something to do with my efforts to contact friends of Virginia Tech students in the wake of the shooting there in the spring, a story I was reporting for People magazine. I've been through several layers of making complaints, all with no result. I finally, in desperation, wrote to the founder of the company some weeks ago. No answer so far.

At first I was really pissed off, because no other website has had any problem with the way I and other reporters operate. But then I cooled off and began to wonder if it might not be kinda cool to be one of the few people banned for life from Facebook. I haven't really decided. Perhaps I should take an informal survey: is it Cool? Or should I fight to the death?

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO
Facebook, Inc.
156 University Ave
Palo Alto, CA 94301

May 24, 2007

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I find myself in an intensely frustrating situation with Facebook and it is a last resort that I write to you.

I am, and have been for many years, a freelance reporter for People and Time magazines. I am a 17 year veteran journalist. In recent years, as have many other journalists, I have made use of social networking sites – including yours – to contact sources on stories. At no time have I had difficulty with any of these networking sites or received complaints about my activities.

Until this month.

In the course of reporting on the shootings at Virginia Tech last month, I had occasion to contact a considerable number of Tech students and friends of the victims by way of Facebook and other sites. As is usual in a case like this, the majority of those people ignore my inquiry and I made no effort to persist. One person rejected my inquiry with a profanity. But the remainder, easily more than a dozen, responded. I interviewed many of them and I responded with thanks for those that said they preferred not to be interviewed. At no time was my approach to these people rude, obtrusive or harassing. If you review the communications, you will find that I was unfailing polite and respectful, as has been my habit in sensitive crime cases throughout my career.

And yet on May 3, I received a notice that my account had been flagged as having distributed Spam. I appealed immediately, explaining my purpose and behavior in detail. Several days later, however, I discovered that my account had been deleted. I further appealed and had a lengthy discussion with Pam in your appeals department, the contents I will attach. I informed Pam that I had founded a new account after my first one was deleted.

I now find that account has been permanently disabled. Pam informs me that I will never be allowed to have an account at Facebook.

As you will see from my correspondence with Pam and James, I have no desire to act in any way that runs afoul of your rules. It is my invariable purpose to act in good faith – I believe you will see that I was completely transparent and open with Pam and James in this matter. I wanted nothing more than to find out why I had been flagged as a spammer and how I could prevent such a problem in the future.

As a reporter, my inability to have a Facebook account is a serious liability. I have seen no sign that you have engaged in a widespread crackdown on journalists or have forbidden them to use your site. I can only assume this is some sort of misunderstanding, but so far I have been utterly unable to determine how and why I was flagged for having crossed the lines so seriously as to rate a lifetime ban. I want nothing other now than to clear my name and determine how I may use Facebook in good faith and transparency ...

Please help me understand what happened and how I can resolve this matter. I have reached an impasse with any other avenue.

I look forward to hearing from you.

New Media, Old rules

A discussion group I have been a part of - or more accurately, a series of loosely related groups - has been going through an unpleasant period. Lots of hard feelings. Lots of bruised egos. Some nasty childishness. It has been most discouraging. I've known most of these people, electronically at least, for five or six years. It used to be a refuge for me. I spent a lot of time interacting with these people after I started working from home, a move that deprived me of the normal social network provided by working in a newsroom. This was my virtual version of the water cooler. Fortunately, I've managed to keep out of the actual fights online, but the fallout has been hard on all of us.

One of the players wisely observed this:
"We've gotten OLD. We can't take a joke and we can't handle criticism. We don't think people are worth the effort that forgiveness costs, nor do we think they deserve it."

And I think he is right. It got me to thinking about the way the Internet changes some of the rules for building - and dismantling - communities.

These sites of ours illustrate an interesting inversion caused by the Internet. In real life, building a group of friends is relatively hard - you generally have to meet people based on geography: school, work, church, neighborhood, whatever, then overcome social and cultural barriers of age, class, nationality, race, and so on. On the Internet, it is uniquely easy - people of common interest can come together despite considerable differences in age, race, geography, all of that. So that's really good.

But the interesting thing is that in real life, breaking up a group is fairly easy. People move away, get married, develop new interests, get a new job, go to a new school. Groups tend to disperse. On the Internet, however, breaking up is relatively hard. None of the things that allow a group to be fluid, to drift apart before the members get on each other's collective nerves, don't really matter. If you move? No problem. Get married? No problem, nobody notices. Go to a new school? Get a new job? Move across town? Still in touch. To get away, you have to actively drop out and quit going to the discussion group, which is in a way much more difficult than drifting away, as you would do in real life. So the group remains, year after year after year. Resentments build. Interests change. On and on and on. We get tired of each other.

Imagine what would have happened if your best group of best buddies from College or High School had kept living in the same dorm together for years and years on end. I bet you wouldn't be such good buddies now. Or at least there would be ugly fractures among the group. But I'd bet your best buddies have all scattered, or at least spun off to some degree. Sure you're all still good buddies, but now, instead of seeing each other 12 hours a day, seven days a week, you see each other 12 hours out of every few months, or talk on the phone once a month, get together on the weekend once in a while. That doesn't happen as easily on the Internet - you're much more in or out. You either living there in the dorm day after day or you've dropped out of school.

That's what happened to us, I think.

New York

I stood on the 45th floor looking out over Central Park and experienced a moment of vertigo, more existential than physical. It occurred to me what an astonishing monument to impermanence the city really is. It is a city that is dependent entirely on its outside support network. Every element must work to near perfection. If any element fails, the city would die in a matter of days. It's like one of those Renaissance aristocrats who displays his power by engaging in no physical activity, awesomely powerful in society, but defenseless in person. New York has rendered itself nearly helpless as a symbol of its immense power - it alone can command the kind of support it takes to keep eight million people alive on a low-lying series of islands and peninsulas. Perhaps this is why New Yorkers are so edgy about crises, from power outages to terrorism - on some level, they know that if that intricate support network were to fail, even partly, their lives would not only become impossible, but unimaginable.

Humans like, I think, to imagine that the places they build are as permanent and solid as the mountains. But the Manhattan schist that pokes out of Central Park and the towering bluffs along the Hudson mock that. Humans can move flatten those mounds of rock, but only at enormous cost and effort. One could fly a fleet of aircraft into those bluffs along the river and barely make a mark.

As I looked out along the northward spread of Manhattan, I became suddenly aware how little stood between my feet and the ground 500 feet below.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Just when I was beginning to weary of the Green Flash Brewing West Coast Pale Ale, I find this - the Green Flash Imperial IPA. It's incredibly strong and hoppy - 9 percent alcohol with a considerable hop kick, but lots of flavor. For a beer this strong and hoppy, it has an excellent balance. I would say it is better than Victory's Hop Wallop, which I love.

Friday, July 06, 2007

From the AP this afternoon:

ENID, Okla. (AP) - Detectives arrested a 12-year-old girl and her 10-year-old sister for allegedly abducting their neighbor's 1-year-old son and demanding $200,000 for his return.

Brandon Wells was safe back at home Thursday night, hours after intruders broke into his family's residence and took him while his mother, Sheila Wells, slept, police said.

"I've been doing this 18 1/2 years, and this is the first time I know of when a 10- and a 12-year-old kidnapped a 1-year-old," said police Capt. Dean Grassino. "It definitely ranks up there with the unusual crimes."

The siblings, who were not identified because of their ages, are accused of sneaking into Wells' home at about 5:30 a.m., taking Brandon and leaving a ransom note.

"If you want to see your son again then you won't call police and report him missing and you will leave $200,000 on the sofa tonight and we will return your son back safe," the note read, according to police.

The note was signed, "the kidnappers."

The plan began to unravel when the girls' mother saw them with the child, police said. They told their mother they had found the boy on the corner, police said.

I have to say I am impressed. This is the kind of go-getter spirit we need in the younger generation. Well thought out, decisive, well executed (except for the whole Letting Mom See You With the Baby thing, of course). And $200,000? What a perfect number. I say let's get this girls into business school, not reform school.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

They said "Butt"...

Like most of my recent experiments, I found this one in Virginia. The Butt Head Bock is a decent dopplebock lager from Tommyknocker Brewery and Pub in Colorado. But it doesn't rise much above decent. It's richer than one would expect from a lager, darker in color. Should be refreshing on a hot day. I'm more fond of Ales - and when I do lagers, I like Victory's assorted types. It is, by the way, deceptively strong - north of 8 percent alcohol.

Two hearts aren't enough

This came highly recommended from the owner of a very nice beer and wine store in Virginia. It's from Bell's Brewery in Michigan, which I have heard of but never tried. He said Bell's is among the best in the country now.

I have to say, however, I am not an immediate convert on this. The Two Hearted Ale is, well, a little thin for my taste. It doesn't have the kind of hop punch I would want from an India pale ale. It's not bad, precisely, but it is not memorable. I am struggling to come up with adjectives to describe the taste, which is a bad sign. It does have a nice sort of grassy aroma, but the smell doesn't translate into the flavor. This is probably a good beer for a hot day, when a lot of IPAs would be too heavy, but it's not one I'm going to go out of my way for.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Let's start with a can

I picked this Sea Hag IPA up in Richmond while visiting my brother. It caught my eye only because it was in a can - very trendy in good beer these days, but not something I've tested yet.

So I bought it.

The verdict?

Nothing wrong with it. A nice dark color. A little bit malty. Not very IPA-like, but tasty. The can I had seemed a little flat, though not completely. And there was a little bit of chunky sediment in it, but that's not a crime. It's a little low on the alcohol scale for an IPA - around 6 percent - but that too isn't a crime.

Perhaps I will buy it again. Perhaps not. At least I know that a decent beer can be had from a can.

Beer is good

I have decided to devote my life to beer. I know this is sudden news, though to those who know me, it may not come as a surprise. I just hope my family and friends understand my decision. I hope someday they will come to understand and appreciate how vital this mission is. The very future of humanity could be improved by beer. (Or at least good beer - I believe Coors Light is a frightful existential threat to the universe itself. But that's another post). Who knows what changes this could bring to my life, but the cause is worth it.

Why bother to escape?

Let's pause a moment to consider that this man:

was on the lam in Utah for several days last year, then managed to escape briefly earlier this month after killing an officer escorting him to a medical appointment.

I suppose the man expected to simply blend into the crowd? Excellent planning.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

You can't go home

ARGH. ARGH. I repeat - ARGH.

I happened to be in the vicinity of my native Alexandria, VA this morning, home of one of the quintessential old timey Krispy Kremes of which I spoke (the others of my acquaintance are in Richmond and Bristol, Tenn.) So I decided to take my boys to the old homeplace. We pulled up and I discovered that the miserable bastards have TORN DOWN THE OLD LOCATION and replaced it with one of the NEW, HYGENIC FACELESS BLAND GODDAMNED OUTLETS. Yes, I know I am yelling. But it is a HOWL OF OUTRAGE. And no, the doughnuts didn't taste the same.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Even more fun with appliances

Hewlett-Packard Company
Customer Service
3000 Hanover Street
Palo Alto, CA 94304-1185

April 26, 2007

Dear Sirs,

I am writing you using my three year old Gateway laptop because my nine month old HP desktop is even now preparing for its second round of warranty service.

As you may guess, I am not writing to congratulate you on the excellence of your machine.

I bought my m7500y last fall after comparing it carefully with Dell and Gateway in terms of price and features. I was coming off a bitterly bad experience with a Sony Vaio and I was hoping Hewlett Packard could make my life easier. I had previously bought an HP machine in 1999 and I was nothing but happy with it – it operated without a hitch for seven years, long after I had retired it as my business computer and given it to my son.

The new unit, however, has not proven to be as useful as my old HP.

Fortunately, it operated perfectly well for low-intensity applications I use for my business, such as Microsoft Office and my various web browsers. But any time it was confronted by a high-intensity application, such as a video game, it would begin to shut down unpredictably. At first, I assumed this was because of the intense system requirements of certain of my favorite games, such as Elderscrolls IV: Oblivion. Over the months, however, as more and more games proved impossible to play, and even some of the bundled programs, such as the diagnostic system PC Doctor, experienced the same problem, I concluded that there was a systemic problem.

In March, therefore, I called HP support and entered a long, slow, inconvenient world of frustration. Let me preface this by noting that your phone technicians have been nothing but polite, helpful and cheerful. Despite the occasional difficulties we experienced trying to make our respective Indian and American accents mutually understood, I have no complaints with the individual performance of the techs.

That having been said, I have not been pleased with the results of my experience.

Unfortunately, I did not keep rigorous records of my calls, so I cannot say exactly how many times I have called, but I think it is at least seven, perhaps more.

At first, the tech walked me through resetting my virtual memory. That failed to solve the problem. When I called later that same afternoon, another tech suggested that I had a physical problem with my RAM and might need warranty service. As he was processing the claim, however, his computer crashed at his end. He told me someone would call me back within hours.

Two days later, I had heard nothing. I called back and a new tech reviewed my case notes. He consulted with his supervisor and came back and disagreed that I needed warranty service. Instead, he said, I could solve the problem in minutes over the phone, but I would need to buy a Smart Friend warranty, despite the fact that I had bought an additional two-year warranty at the time I bought he computer.

I was in no mood to argue, so I plunked down $59.99 for a "Smart Friend" warranty. The tech who took my call was as sweet as could be, but she walked me through exactly the same series of steps the first tech had walked me through (at no cost, I might add), burning up something like 32 minutes of the 45 minutes that my $59.99 bought.

That did not, however, solve my problem. So I called back on the free line.

The new tech listened to my story, reviewed the notes, then opined that the first tech had made a mistake in resetting my virtual memory and he suggested new settings.

That didn't solve the problem either.

This is where I begin to lose track of how many times I called.

Suffice it to say, therefore, that after a few more calls, I finally convinced a tech that there was some systemic problem and he set up warranty service. I disconnected my computer and set up my aging old Gateway laptop to run my entire professional and personal business (and it has done a near perfect job, I might add – including handling some of the advanced games that crashed your brand new HP).

That brings me to today.

To my delight, the warranty took less time than predicted. The unit arrived back at my door nearly a week ahead of schedule. I was delighted. Until, of course, I opened the box and discovered that the door that conceals the main DVD drive was broken, flopping open uselessly. It worked fine when I sent it out, and the invoice suggested that your warranty technicians had checked the unit for cosmetic problems.

Obviously they missed this small detail on the top front of the tower.

So now I am sending the unit back for yet another round of warranty service on a problem that never should have happened. The technician who was processing my return order said his system had crashed midway through (the third time this has happened when I have called tech support) and promised to call me back within two hours. That was 5 p.m. eastern time. Twenty hours later, with no call back from you, I made yet another call to tech support, spending another 20 minutes on the phone to complete the previous night's business.

In the end, assuming that the problem gets fixed correctly, here is where I will be: I will have gotten only limited use of my new HP computer for about seven months. I will have spent a month on the phone, during business hours when I could have been billing clients, getting your techs to diagnose an obvious defect. I will have spent $59.99 on a Smart Friend warranty I did not want and turn out not to have needed. And I will have been denied the use of my new HP computer entirely for something like three weeks while the unit transited back and forth for warranty service.

All I can say is thank God I bought a Gateway laptop I can rely on back in 2004, or I would have no computer on which to write you this letter of complaint. Perhaps next time I buy a desktop, I will consider buying one of their products.

Famous Names that are Fun to Say

Try this at home, kids. Say it along with us:

Shinzo Abe

Vuk Draskovic

Sylvia Poggioli

Junichiro Koizumi

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

Butros Butros-Gali

Kweisi Mfume

Mike Krzyzewski

Ryuichi Sakamoto

Valery Giscard d'Estaing

Kwame Kilpatrick

Romano Prodi

Jacques Chirac

Vojislav Kostunica

Zoran Djindjic

Saib Erakat

Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr

Monday, April 09, 2007

Twins are Good pt. 3

The Watson Twins finally get out from under the shadow of Jenny Lewis and make an appearance of their own on Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW today. The sound quality seemed a little mushy, and the girls didn't have quite as much to say as I had hoped. And yet, it's good to see them get some exposure and they sounded good. And the band, including most of Slydell, sounded really tight. I look forward to seeing them live if they ever get out into the provinces. And they say they have a new album coming out, though the one new example they played today sounded more like album filler than lead single material. Guess I'll buy it anyway, though. Twins are good, you know.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Creative slacking

Thanks to a vexing problem that has rendered my beloved Netscape 7.2 increasingly unstable on my increasingly unstable new HP computer, I have been forced to convert to the FireFox browser. And I like it.

FireFox has all these little doodads you can add, some useful, some not. But I am charmed by this little feature I stumbled upon, called, perfectly appropriately, StumbleUpon.

Basically it is a random website finder that adds a little tool bar to the browser. When you first sign up, you pick from a long list of general topics that interest you. Then you press the little button and up pops a randomly selected website matching one of those interests.

My expectations were low, and I mostly suspected this was some twisted way to sell me something (probably is, actually, though it's not clear yet how), but I have been highly entertained by the results.

In the first five minutes, up popped a world map that shows the current sunlight coverage (need to know how bright it is in Alma Ata? This is your baby), a graphical thesaurus that displays the relationship of various words (hard to explain. Completely useless), a website that somehow combines Young Earth Creationism with a belief in Ancient Astronauts (equally hard to explain and equally useless), a website that gives the top ten reasons why fundamentalists are hypocrites (funny, if a little harsh), and a website with the 10 most powerful American photos of the 20th century. Sadly, I popped through without saving the links. So you'll just have to try this little game yourself.

Now this is a good use of time. I am hooked.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Eagle Eyed Copy Desk

The Excellence in Copy Editing Award for this year certainly goes to my old buddies at The Daily Progress. This from the January 8 edition of their Charlottesville Business Journal insert:

To their credit, only four of the 20 total pages were in this condition. The rest were perfectly normal. Well done, guys.