Sunday, November 30, 2008

Why I rarely join the discussion of economics

"It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a 'dismal science.' But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance."

That's a quote from Murray Rothbard that I found in the sidebar of B.K. Marcus' blog while I was looking through my sidebar to see if there's anything that needs updating.

B.K. has some great advice for self-publishing writer-editors, too, in today's lead post, "What to do when your editor is on holiday."


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The White Album, 40 years later

Five years to the day after the release of the brilliant album With the Beatles — one of the first brilliant albums ever — The Beatles struck again with the release of, well, The Beatles. I missed the various celebrations that occurred Sunday, Nov. 22, the 40th anniversary of the appearance of what has become known as The White Album. Nowadays, of course, as you can see by the photos, it's more like the Yellow-and-Grey album.

This was the crowning prize, the only thing I really wanted for Christmas 1968, and I ran into my room to put it on the turntable as soon as it was polite to leave the family. From the opening screaming-jet noise of "Back in the U.S.S.R.," I was hooked. Every Beatles album was a brand-new experience by then, but the White Album was like nothing that had come before or would come after. As the kids say nowadays, for those first five tracks, I was, like, whoa — Whoa — Whoa! — WHOA! — WHOA!! — but then "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" dissolved into a wavering trombone and light applause, somebody said "AY-oh" or something like that, and a guitar started weeping.

I have never found words to explain how I felt the first time I heard "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And I can't even explain why I felt that way. I was simply transported somewhere else. I don't know where that place is, and I can't say what it is about this George Harrison song that takes me there. It probably has to do with that guitar, which I later learned was being played by Eric Clapton. And maybe it was because this was the moment where Harrison — the quiet Beatle, the not-Lennon-McCartney songwriter — absolutely matched the genius of Lennon and McCartney and took the game one level higher. I've always cheered for the underdog.

This was also the day that it struck me — The Beatles were one kick-ass rock band. I'd always thought of the likes of the Kinks and Rolling Stones and Dave Clark Five as the rock-and-roll acts of the British invasion, while the Beatles were in a class of their own: the pop band, the artists, the revolutionaries who pushed the envelope.

But here they were, out-beaching the Beach Boys on "U.S.S.R.," out-bluesing the Yardbirds on "Yer Blues," rock-and-rolling like nobody's business on "Birthday," and going where no rock band had gone before with the unfathomably raw "Helter Skelter." This was a rock band!

And it was also a band that defied classification — how did "Honey Pie" and "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "I Will" and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" come from the same four guys? Sure, by then the wheels were starting to come off and they were devolving into four solo acts, but it still all came together and couldn't be described as anything less than a Beatles album.

I was entranced — and I kept looking ahead as I read the lyrics sheet along with the music, because I knew the grand climax was going to be what looked like an eight-minute, 15-second instrumental called "Revolution #9." This was after the summer the Beatles broke the seven-minute-single barrier with "Hey Jude" with its B-side "Revolution," and the slower "Revolution #1" had gotten some airplay on WABC-AM 77, but I didn't know anything about this third "Revolution" song.

Many people have dismissed "Revolution #9" as indulgent crap, but I hear music. Somehow John Lennon crafted a little mini-symphony out of tape loops and sound effects. I hear an introduction, melodies and recurring themes building to a crescendo of a climax. It's an amazing piece of music, and the decision to follow with the lullaby "Good Night," complete with lush strings, provided the perfect finish to an album where the Beatles pushed every envelope completely out of shape.

Rubber Soul established the Beatles as something more than a pop band; Revolver and Sgt. Pepper lifted rock music to the level of art. But The White Album was a revolution — it threw down the gauntlet and said rock and popular music could go anywhere. Many have tried, but no one has ever put out another album that went so many directions and yet somehow stood out as a coherent whole. It's not my favorite album, not even my favorite Beatles album, but The White Album leaves me exhausted with a sense of awe like no other album.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Throw the governor under the bus

Many urban buses are equipped with a governor, a device for keeping the speed of rotation of the drive shaft constant as the load on it varies. This increases the moment of inertia and also operates a mechanical link that reduces the fuel supply, keeping the bus from going faster than a predetermined speed.

I've never heard a better analogy than the bus governor about how government works: The governor holds back the power of the engine and restricts its ability to move as fast and as freely as its potential. A government acts in the same manner towards its citizens.

Remove the governor, and the bus is free to operate to its full capability. Remove the government and you free the people.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Has Heroes jumped the shark?

You may recall that when the TV show Heroes first hit the airwaves, I was agog. A compelling, mysterious science fiction story with so many homages that it was geek heaven — complete with casting original Star Trek actors and frequent comic book references.

The show hiccuped and seemed to lose its way during the truncated second season, but you could chalk that up to the writers strike. The parameters of a great cross-generational heroes vs. villain epic were there, but it had to be squeezed into 11 episodes because the writers shrugged.

That doesn't explain the confused muddle of the third season to date. In this year's arc, titled "Villains," the gang is again faced with the goal of preventing a sordid future, but those we once considered evil are showing signs of goodness and those we once considered good are flirting with their inner demons. Toss in some new characters and the fact that the show thrives on withholding bits of the puzzle anyway, and it's hard to keep it all straight.

The jump-the-shark moment came early for me, when level-headed but naive scientist Mohinder threw his instinctive caution to the wind and injected himself with a serum that could turn him into a superhero. No. 1, the guy we spent the first two seasons with never showed any sign of doing something impulsive and stupid — and he always wanted to study the heroes, not become one. No. 2, the serum started turning him into Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.

Last week the show revisited its opening moments and showed those incidents from a different angle, and some of that first-season magic seemed to come back. Behind the scenes word came that a couple of lead producers were fired and the remaining team was given the task of reviving the show, which has lagged in the ratings. There was some sense that everyone knew what was wrong — Mohinder has apparently been de-insecticized, for example.

Monday night was a step backwards, as the muddle returned for a visit. And in another jump the shark moment, Hiro — whose childlike enthusiasm for his powers has provided much of the delight in this program — has been robbed of his last 18 years of memory and thinks he's 10. For now he not only has childlike enthusiasm, he is a child as he rediscovers his powers, playing pranks with his time-freezing powers and using his newly rediscovered teleportation powers to jump into the comic book shop. I'm not loving it.

The power of that first season was such that I'm still drawn to Heroes, but all of this heroes-and-villains flip-flopping has made many of the characters less appealing, less attractive and most of all — even though the intent was the opposite — less real. They may yet tie up all the loose ends into a boffo payoff at the end, but here's the trick of the first season: As confusing as it was, they made you care. At the moment, I'm not sure I care anymore. Heroes teeters at the brink.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

100 reasons to watch 'Jericho'

Both Hulu and Netflix (probably others) have all of the second-best TV show ever, Jericho, available for streaming these days - and I found this delightful Season 2 teaser in the Hulu pile.

I'm only a half-dozen episodes into Season 1, having taken in Season 2 first, but the seven-episode second season is so great that I can't imagine my assessment of the show will drop once I've seen the entire run. In the meantime, enjoy the teaser.

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The frugal shrug

Browsing around today, I found the penultimate Freedom Outlaw posting, which linked to the "Frugalista Gulch" piece at Wendy McElroy's place.

I like the idea that living frugally is another way to resist the state ...
Consider an acquaintance of mine who buys the latest and fastest computer every year. Let's say it's a $2000 computer. Here, we pay combined sales taxes of 14%, so he has to fork over another $280 at the time of purchase. Now assume he's in a 33% tax bracket. He has to earn $3,403, to pay $2,280, to get $2000 worth of computer. To get that computer he has to pay $1,403 in taxes.

From my viewpoint, every year I don't buy a fancy new PC is a year I've kept $1,403 out of the rapacious maw of the State.
"Gulching in place." A great idea while building towards a more thorough shrug.


Pixelized carnage as entertainment

Like most male types (and an oddly smaller handful of female types - I wonder why that is?), I have spent a great deal of time over the years in an electronic fantasy world. As a somewhat older member of the species, that includes some time playing pinball before graduating to video games when they arrived. There was/is some appeal to manipulating silver balls and pixels to accumulate points.

The obsession peaked in the early 1980s - I can even remember when I started worrying about myself. It was when my then-wife and her daughter dropped me off at the mall arcade and I dropped a quarter into QBert. An hour and untold levels later when they picked me up after shopping, I was still playing the game that began with that first quarter. Proud as I was, I wondered if it was worth the investment of time and energy to master the movement of a cute two-legged creature who hopped around changing cubes from one color to another while dodging snakes and other dangerous obstacles.

Even before games were digitized, my favorite fantasy worlds involved creating baseball and football teams made up from the stats of real-life players. Imagine Tom Seaver pitching to Joe DiMaggio at both players' primes, or Paul Molitor getting on base so Babe Ruth could punch him home - I went through full seasons with these mythical teams on my Commodore 64. I still spend a few "years" as general manager of a football team on my Madden 2000 game from time to time. I recently took the 1999 Jets to the Super Bowl with the only change being Brett Favre at quarterback - why didn't they think of that sooner?

I went looking for the modern equivalent of those games the other day, and they weren't there. I found numerous games where I could preserve the empire by hacking, shooting and otherwise dueling my way to some goal that involves eliminating virtual lives, but assembling a group of pixelized athletes to win the World Series or the Super Bowl must not appeal to today's young folks.

Over the years nanny types have suggested censoring video games, and I'm certainly not in their camp. I just have never understood the reasoning that human endeavors advance by killing and maiming as many adversaries as possible. Yes, there are that many fewer people interested in killing and maiming me, so as a practical defensive measure it has some value, but if they got me I would die still believing in liberty and individual rights — and presumably if I killed them first, they would die still believing in whatever it was they believed enough to do violence to me, so what was accomplished?

My main hope is that a generation is not being raised to be comfortable with the idea of advancing an empire by force, because, as a wiser man than I once said, ideas are bulletproof.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

A new proverb: You have to see what you see

I got confused by a headline today. I saw the middle of it and expected it to say "Who will get the rest of the $700B bailout?" But then my brain saw "Where will get the rest of the $700B bailout go?"

I started to tell Sweetie that someone screwed up writing the headline, but taking a closer look, I realized the word "get" wasn't there. I expected to see it, so I inserted it, but the headline really said in correct grammar, "Where will the rest of the $700B bailout go?"

It was then when my brain blurted out a new proverb: "Wow, your brain will tell you what you want to see, but you have to see what you see."

Your brain will tell you what you want to see. But you have to see what you see.

Pretty sound advice, and applicable to much more than simple headline reading, IMHO. I think my brain has earned its pay today.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Illustrated Woman

I don't get it. I just don't get it!

Megan Fox, the young lady who makes male brains melt in Transformers, has been named the sexiest woman alive on a variety of lists, but Google her image and you can't find a shot where she hasn't defaced a part of her beautiful body with tattoos.

On her ribcage are the words "There once was a little girl who never knew love until a boy broke her heart." On one shoulder is "We will all laugh at gilded butterflies" from King Lear.

There's a symbol for strength on her neck, Marilyn Monroe on her forearm, a star on her ankle and her boyfriend Brian's name (What can I say? I have great taste in women) way south of her navel.

Why? Why? Why? Does she think we won't look unless she supplies us with reading material?

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Time to shrug?

The incumbent president has moved to nationalize the banks. Pressure is being exerted to nationalize the auto industry. The incoming president has made nationalizing the insurance industry one of his priorities. All of this will be funded by confiscating more from the productive. This scenario is sounding awfully familiar, although in real life they nationalized the railroads a lot earlier in the process than in the book.

I'm just about ready to move to a gulch if I can find one who'll have me. Or maybe I can flip burgers until after the productive are welcome again.

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Meet the new boss

Still musing about what the man said in Grant Park to the teeming masses. Still wondering why the scene looked so chilling, as if I'd seen something like that before and it was not a pretty sight.

This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.

It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

There it was, the surprise for those who expected a messianic leader who would lift them out of the muck all by his lonesome: He expects something in return. There is a price to pay. Yes, we can require you to serve. Yes, we can require you to sacrifice for the brave new world we promised.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.

Our new ruler believes not that we are our brother's keeper, because we are; it is inherent in human nature to look after not only ourselves but to help those in need. This is an instinct that needs no government force to fulfill; in fact government efforts to fulfill that role inevitably fall short of the efforts of charity and cheerful giving. But our new ruler does not believe we will be our brother's keeper unless he implements that force in the name of patriotism, in the name of service, in the name of sacrifice.

And if the thousands in Grant Park believed he was someone different from those who came before, he brought his saber to rattle.
To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you.
Oh yes, he followed those words with these reassuring platitudes:
And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
But let there be no mistake, this is a man who believes, like his predecessors, that the US of A is the world's police force. He believes, like his predecessors, the individual exists to serve and sacrifice for the state.

I know what the scene reminded me of, and I hope and pray it's just a disturbing mistake on my part. For now let's just let the man enjoy his victory, his moment of destiny, his triumph of the will.


Friday, November 07, 2008


Now that the presidential reality show has ended, I note with passing interest that four candidates seemed to generate passion among their respective bases: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ron Paul and Sarah Palin.

Democrats lifted Obama and Clinton as their top two vote-getters. Republicans joined in as alarmed Democrats trashed and ridiculed Paul and Palin.

Now Republicans are trying to figure out why they lost, and the campaign leadership is making the governor of Alaska its fall gal. I think it's safe to say the GOP is in for a long journey in the wilderness.

Obama, for his part, appears to wear the emperor's robes well. If only we could tap the power of Tom Paine, Patrick Henry, Tom Jefferson and friends spinning in their graves, we could have solved the USA's energy problems decades ago.


Monday, November 03, 2008


Fear is a choice.

Worry is a decision.

Despair is a deliberate exercise.