Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Fringe Theme

Some of you may already know that I'm sort of a fan of Fringe, a television program about mad science and investigations into areas where "fringe" science has collided with our day to day reality. I like the show. I LOVE the theme song.
I can't really explain why. It just sticks in my head. It's a powerful theme, and it does a great job of setting the tone for the show. Actually, the theme song is good enough that it might be deserving of an even better show (Fringe is good and it can definitely be clever, but I'm not ready to add it to my pantheon of the all time greats).

Here' the song during the usual title sequence (it's short, so give it a shot!).

Here's a variation on the Fringe theme that was created especially for an episode which showed some of the backstory of the characters. The episode took place in 1985 (and yes, X-Files fans, I know they set an episode in the eighties, too). Like I said, Fringe can be pretty clever...

Friday, February 25, 2011

Gallup Poll on U.S. Leadership in the International Community

(I'm not sure this is my best post ever, but I just spent like 40 minutes writing it, and it made me think about some stuff, so I'm posting it, anyway)

So there's a new Gallup Poll that was released a few days ago showing that the number of people in the United States who would like to see the U.S. reduce its role in world affairs is growing. A majority of Americans, 66%, would like to see the United States take a leading or major role in helping to address major international problems or concerns, but the minority view, which would like to see the United States play only a minor role or no role at all in international affairs, is now at 32%, a figure which is up from 23% in 2009. The percentage of Americans who would like to see the U.S. take a lead role in international affairs is down to 66% from 75% in 2009.

I find this trend to be understandable in some ways, I guess, but almost hopelessly naive and unrealistic in many others. I find the desire for isolationism understandable because the rest of the world has frequently seemed like an inhospitable and scary place in recent years. We've had wars going on in the middle east for years now against an enemy that we really don't seem capable of understanding (we've got our fair share of religious fundamentalism, but the sort of extremism that leads people to strap on suicide vests or an enemy to wage war against an enemy with a vastly superior military is still something we have a hard time coming to grips with). Over the last couple of weeks we've been watching Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc. undergo revolutionary upheavals, and while we've hoped for positive, democratic outcomes, we're far from certain about how things will turn out. Pakistan has been a mess as the ruling party has struggled with internal conflict from Islamic hardliners and other dissidents. Russia and Georgia have been in conflict in recent years. Iraq is still fairly unstable. Pirates keep hijacking ships off the coast of Somalia. North Korea has sunk a South Korean ship, shelled a South Korean island, and continually threatened to engage in other military hostilities (all while keeping the South Korean capital of Seoul hostage in the crosshairs of missiles and artillery batteries).
On top of all of that, we occasionally have terrorists from foreign lands infiltrating our country and trying to inflict harm upon our citizens (just this week a Saudi Arabian terrorism suspect was arrested by the FBI under suspicion of attempting to build bombs to target sites in California, New York, and Colorado). American citizens in other countries are occasionally kidnapped or harmed (a trial is currently continuing in Iran where American hikers were seized along the Iranian border and have been held in jail since July of 2009 for illegally entering that country).

All of these things have a way of seizing the imagination of both the individual and the public. There's definitely a certain level of instability and chaos happening around the world these days, and big, scary headlines help to drum up ratings (I'm really not sure that the world is any scarier than it has even been, though, and I think there are probably some pretty strong arguments that it's as safe now as it's ever been).
So on many levels it just seems like a mess out there. You can see how their might be a temptation to try to stay tucked away in our little corner of the world, imagining ourselves to be safely protected, for the most part, by two big oceans and an unquestionably formidable military.

But at the same time, the U.S. is more connected to the rest of the world than ever. Our economy is utterly dependent upon international trade. We rely upon inexpensive imports and we sell enormous quantities of our products in foreign markets. We're dependent upon foreign oil for our energy. Manufacturing for American companies has moved overseas. Our companies are using international outsourcing for cheap labor, and our federal government owes massive amounts of debt to other nations.
On a more personal, micro level, the internet and communications technologies now have us linked to every corner of the globe in ways that were previously unheard of. Email, messages, tweets, Facebook updates, and personal video feeds crisscross the planet instantaneously and effortlessly. I've received text messages from my mom as she's bopped around the grasslands of Kenya, and I've accidentally dialed my dad up for a quick question as he was sitting down to a dinner beside Lake Como in Italy.
Fax machines, phone lines, video conferences, and emails allow employees to work with each other across oceans as easily as they might if they shared offices across the hall from each other. And we all know about that "Phil" guy with the strong Indian accent who answers our tech support calls when our laptops crash...
Anyway, there's no going back. If America were to try to retreat from a global economy or to withdraw from substantial involvement in international business and trade, we'd become a third world country within just a few years. Maybe less. We can't stay afloat by only selling our products to our own citizens at this point, and we can't exist without the imported goods that we rely upon from overseas. American businesses and consumers both rely far too heavily upon foreign trade to make isolationism feasible without drastically reducing both the strength of our economy and our standard of living.
So what does all of that mean? Mostly I think it means that we really can't afford to retreat a whole lot from a position of global leadership where we protect our allies and our assets abroad. We have a strong interest in global political and economic stability not just because of a pervasive (and probably somewhat arrogant) belief in American exceptionalism and an accompanying desire to impose our values upon every corner of the globe. We also, more pragmatically, have a vested interest in taking a heavily involved participatory and leadership role overseas because protection of our international interests means protection of our domestic interests at home. Furthermore, the collapse of the American economy in our current international economy would be devastating not only to citizens of the U.S., but to many, many American allies, business partners, and creditors abroad. American consumers are a critical part of the global economic engine, and that the businesses and governments of just about every country have a vested interest in seeing America protect key, fundamental assets that help keep the international economy chugging along.
So we're a little stuck with this leadership role, as I see it. As a belligerent Iran uses warships to begin to attempt asserting control over the Suez Canal, we could retreat into isolationism. I'm not sure how satisfied we're going to feel about that sort of choice, though, when Iranian blockades start cutting off oil supplies to the U.S. and other parts of the world. We can act as if we're going to cut back on our dealings with the Chinese (as some would have us do in retaliation for China's human rights record), but with China holding about $900 billion in U.S. debt, it's sort of hard to see we can isolate ourselves from them without crippling our economy (it would seem a bit like giving your landlord the finger). We could try to ignore the revolutions going on in Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, etc., but... we still need the oil (plus, with all of the different factions vying for power over there, do we really want to to ignore the ones that might wish us harm? That didn't work for us very well after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban took over).

Man, I am totally rambling. Totally.

I just don't see how giving up a leadership role in international affairs is a realistic option for the U.S.. We shouldn't be trying to cynically manipulate the internal politics or operations of foreign nations, but I'm all for strong diplomacy. I don't think we should use our military to rectify internal political situations or social unrest within other countries (unless they directly pose a threat to us, obviously), but I'm actually fine with using our military to put a stop to military aggression (especially, but not exclusively, in defense of our allies). I'm also okay with contributing U.S. troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions in the case of genocide or other atrocities, so long as our leaders believe that the cause is a just one.

I'm done. I have to be done.
This has been some awful, unfocused writing, but I was just dismayed to see this attitude shift on the part of Americans who think that we can all just hide behind our borders and that everything will work out alright. It's just think it's been a long time since the world was that simple...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Update: Team Bloom Safe and Sound

Kim and Sig have been posting Facebook updates, and it sounds like they're just fine (although concerned for the people there in New Zealand). I'm relieved to hear that everything is okay!

Blooms in New Zealand

So my very good friends, Kim and Sigmund Bloom, just left a couple of days ago with their son, Miles, for their first ever trip to New Zealand. Now New Zealand suffers a 6.3 magnitude earthquake.
Really hoping that they're doing fine.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Blogs v. The Social Networks

So there's this New York Times article today about the way that blogs are fading away as a medium as younger people focus their time and attention on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. These social media sites have a built in audience where the readers are likely to end up getting a look at a person's content via some sort of feed without having to go out of their way to visit a separate site, so the argument goes that these social media sites are superior to blogs because people are more likely to see what you have to say.
So, as someone who recently finished 2000 posts, I have to admit that this has given me a moment of pause. I mean, for all but the most self important blogger, how can it not?
I mean, sure- there are always the typical arguments that blogs allow for more in depth conversation, a platform for a more well developed, reasoned, and well articulated point of view. Blogs don't lock you into a small status update dialogue box or limit the number of characters in your tweet.
But as a blogger myself, I inevitably come back to the question of whether I really have enough to say to justify the existence of a blog over the simple use of a Facebook or Twitter account. I mean, I can talk and talk ad nauseum, to be sure, but are there enough people interested in what I'm saying to justify the publication of my thoughts in a blog format? More people would definitely catch wind of my opinions and so forth if I just stuck to Facebook. My readership is small, and since I'm the only person producing content for my blog, I have to assume that a big part of that is because my writing is of limited interest to the public at large.
But, I guess, that's sort of a issue that anyone faces who publishes (or seeks to publish) their writing in any sort of format, I guess. There's always the chance that you'll pour out your thoughts and interests and feelings and no one will really care. Authors in more traditional formats write things all of the time and aren't able to get them published, or if their works do get published, they fail to sell copies or attract a readership.
Blogs can be even more daunting/frustrating because the bloggers typically have almost instant feedback in terms of how many people are looking at their work. Sitemeters (and yes, I have one on this blog) let bloggers know how many people are looking at their site and give them quick feedback on the nature of their readership (my sitemeter gives me my number of readers, their internet service providers, and the city that the person is checking in from. I don't get exact names or anything).
Anyway, if no one is interested in your blog, you can usually find that out readership info in a hurry if you're so inclined. With social media sites, you can usually assume that most of the people on your list of friends have immediately been sent your message.
Personally, my blog readership has never been all that large at any one time. Occasionally I get spikes in how many people are checking in, but this is usually when some other, more popular site links back to mine as a blog of interest (this has actually happened off the CNN site a few times, and suddenly I triple or quadruple my readership for the whole year within the span of a day).
But, I genuinely am pretty much okay with having a small readership. For starters, I tend to imagine that my blog will only appeal to a small society of hyperintelligent, super elite geniuses (yeah, I joke, but you guys know that I think you rock!), but I also know that my blog is often quite personal, and my subject matter is wide ranging and extremely unfocused. Readers can't reliably go to my blog if they have an interest in some particular subject (e.g., politics or film or anything else) and expect to find an article on a particular topic on any given day. I'm not consistent in my subject matter, so the people who come to my blog are mostly just united by the fact that they know me personally (or through my writing) and believe/hope that I might have something kind of interesting to say on a particular day. I just write about whatever suits me.
This is fun for me, but probably not so great for building a readership. Still, my ability to write about whatever's on my mind is probably why I've stuck with blogging as long as I have.

Anyway, who am I kidding? I'm too much of a blowhard to quit blogging. Plus, it helps keep me sane.
I'm sane, right?
(Amy, stop laughing)

Also, and maybe this has a small element of sour grapes to it, but in some ways I find blogging just a little bit more... respectful than the Facebook and Twitter thing.
Facebook and Twitter involve status updates, tweets, and feeds that just sort of dump your thoughts onto people whether they want to hear them or not. Granted, people sign up to be your "friend" in the first place knowing that you might pop up in their feed, and most social media programs allow you to "hide" particularly annoying people, but still- sometimes people want to be your friend, but they still don't necessarily want to be subjected to all of your opinions. Just because someone has felt like being your "friend" (perhaps because they genuinely want to be your friend, but perhaps because of social norm or obligation) doesn't mean they care about whatever you're saying in print. Updates and tweets tend to be short, so I guess that helps to mitigate some of the annoyance (although some people just make up for this brevity with increased frequency), but in some ways these social media updates are the equivalent of shouting at someone through the window of a passing car as opposed to taking the time to have an actual conversation (or writing graffiti on a public wall as opposed to reading an editorial? I don't know- I'm grasping here). The fact that readers don't actually have to seek out someone's site out of personal interest, that the content provider is, in effect, making an unsolicited broadcast into someone else's internet space, makes the whole social media experience a very different animal as opposed to creating a blog (note that I'm not saying that social media has no role- I'm just saying that it doesn't really fill the same niche as a blog).
So if all of your friends aren't coming to check out your blog site because they don't necessarily dig what you're up to, as a blogger you might want to consider just coming to terms with that fact and appreciating the friends even more who do show up. Moving to social media so you can broadcast those same thoughts to people who didn't want to click over to read your stuff in the first place? Well, I'm not sure that's the way to go...
I guess what I'm saying here is that, even if my writing isn't always interesting to people, at least I have the comfort of knowing that my blog wasn't forced upon them. If they don't like a particular piece (or the whole thing), at least I can take comfort in the fact that my readers clicked their way onto my site as a matter of personal choice. I didn't just insert my opinions into the update stream of some social media site, dumping y views upon readers who might really just want to see pictures of kids and stuff like that.
So I think social media and blogs play different roles, and it's not just because you can ramble on at greater length on a blog.

And now, it's President Day, so I'm going to go get an oil change for my car. How's that for unfocused and personal?

Peace, Adventurers!

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Victory in the Whale Wars?

So those of you who've been readers of this blog for a while know that I've been sort of fascinated in an on-again-off-again sort of way with this show called Whale Wars. Whale Wars is this sort of documentary that this group of environmental activists, The Sea Shepherds, have been making about their attempts to stop the Japanese whaling fleet from conducting whaling in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica.
Most of you know that I'm a pretty big animal lover, and those feelings definitely extend to whales, dolphins, etc., but that's not really the reason that I find the show fascinating. I'm mostly captivated by Whale Wars because of the fairly clear incompetence of the Sea Shepherds and because of their recklessness behavior (I mean, I don't think there's really any legitimate reason why human need to be killing whales at this point, and I tend to frown upon killing things except when there's a really strong reason for doing so in the first place. Plus, whales are just cool.). The Shepherds regularly put themselves needlessly into harms way (even if you;re willing to accept the fact that some risk might be warranted in pursuit of this cause, they just seem to do things in dumb ways), their crew of volunteers typically seem utterly unqualified and woefully undertrained for the tasks that they're attempting, and their leaders seem to court disaster in a way indicates some sort of underlying desire for martyrdom. The list of their reckless acts has been long, but includes navigating ice floes in ships which aren't built to handle ice, steering into storms that are known to be extremely dangerous, boarding and trespassing upon Japanese ships under unnecessarily hazardous conditions, and colliding with whaling vessels on a fairly regular basis. Watching the show, you can't help but get the feeling that many members of the Sea Shepherd crew definitely see themselves as taking part in some sort of self-styled, epic, romantic tale in which they're occupying the role of hero. I really like whales a lot, but we never really hear the Japanese perspective on things, and the self congratulatory feel of the show can become a bit hard to swallow at times (for instance, if you're so willing to dedicate yourself to this cause, why do they so infrequently seem interested in putting in the extra time and effort to do things right?).
In addition to all of this, the head of the Sea Shepherds, Paul Watson, strikes me as a a bit of a shyster and disingenuous spin man. On one episode of the show it seemed pretty clear that he faked his own shooting by Japanese sailors in order to try to garner sympathy for his cause (conveniently he happened to be wearing a bullet proof vest on the day of the shooting). Watson's extremism and willingness to bend (or break) the facts tend to undermine his credibility, in my opinion. The man has suggested on any number of occasions that he's willing to do just baout anything to protect whales, and various points this fanaticism has not only put his crew at risk but has also made him less effective.
So, anyway, I respect the cause (i.e., wanting to curb or put an end to whaling), but I have serious reservations about the tactics and even, at times, some of the personal motives of the volunteers (is it really more important for these people to save whales or are they just attention seeking thrill junkies who happen to like animals?)
Annnyway, I only bring all of this up because there was a CNN story yesterday reporting that the Japanese whaling fleet had cancelled the rest of its winter whaling season in response to interference by the Sea Shepherds.
If true, this is a huge victory for this band of activist misfits and further proof that sheer willpower, tenacity, and idiot confidence can, at times, be considerably more important than talent, knowledge, or experience. There have been plenty of times when I've thought that the money spent on these whale saving expeditions would have been better spent on legal battles or the pursuit of lobbying efforts for more effective protection treaties, but it's pretty hard to argue with an effort that actually, physically brings whaling to a halt.
Of course, in his response to the news that the Japanese had suspended their whaling operations, Watson's overzealousness still seemed to lead him a bit astray. Instead of congratulating the Japanese on making the right decision putting marine conservation above profit he took the opportunity to make some vaguely boastful and paranoid statements (i.e., he issued claims that sounded almost like challenges, claiming that the Japanese whalers had been worn down by the Sea Shepherds and had no choice but to give in. He also promised to keep an eye on the Japanese fleet until they left the Southern Ocean sanctuary. Even with what very little knowledge that I have of Japanese culture, I suspect that it's not a good idea to make the Japanese feel like they're "losing face" or being dishonored in defeat. From what I've read of Japanese history, they definitely seem to sometimes wage battles that become counterproductive when they feel like the alternative is likely to result in shame...)
Anyway, Whale Wars can be ridiculous, but it's also been an interesting ride. It might become genuinely fascinating if this whole Sea Shepherd thing ends up truly shutting down Japanese whaling.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Singularity

So this talk of the Singularity is nothing new. I just got done reading a Time Magazine cover story which discussed it at some length, anyone who's ever watched any of The Terminator movies is pretty familiar with the concept, and there was even an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon decides to hole up in his apartment in order to increase his odds of living long enough to see the Singularity take place.
For those who don't really follow tech trends or who aren't all that interested in the more geek-laden aspects of pop culture, however, let me provide a quick (and probably inadequate) description. The Singularity refers to a point in the future in which computers become truly intelligent and change the shape of humanity as it currently exists. One of the key notions behind the idea of the Singularity is that computer technology has been advancing at speeds which have become exponentially faster over the course of time. To borrow from this Lev Grossman article, the idea which drives the idea of the Singularity isn't simply that computers are getting faster- it's that "computers are getting faster faster".
Computing power has been increasing at an exponential rate because we keep building smarter and more powerful machines which are, in turn, able to help us more quickly build even smarter and more powerful machines. Given advances in artificial intelligence, many experts predict a point in the not so distant future where computers will be able to design better and improved models of computer technology on their own. If you mix in the possibility of self awareness and self motivation on the part of machines (a goal which artifical intelligence developers have already been vigorously pursuing for years), it may not be very long before self aware machines come online which are capable of developing and improving upon other machines. Once that happens- once computers are able to advance themselves without human intervention- the speed and efficiency with which subsequent generations of machines may be developed could move quantum leaps forward in very short periods of time.
The human brain, for all practical purposes, may quikly being to look like an obsolete piece of hardware.
So this hypothetical/theoretical point where the mental abilities of humans are surpassed by computers? That's the Singularity. And people are taking it pretty seriously.
Programmers and engineers are looking hard at the Singularity- treating it more like a very real scientific prediction than some sort of wild sci-fi hypothesis, and a "Singularity University" is now being hosted by NASA which features various interdisciplinary classes which are being taken by people ranging from graduate students to executives.
And the Singularity may appear much sooner than most people would expect. Raymond Kurzweil, a reknowned computer scientist and futurist, believes that if we continue to follow past trends regarding rates of increase in computer processing power and memory storage, then we could be seeing the Singularity occur by 2045 (at which point Kurzweil also seems to be believe that we'll be able to upload our minds or use other computer-driven technologies to extend our lives indefinitely).
But predictions on what happens after the Singularity are where things get a little more wildly speculative and fantastic. With man suddenly coexisting with another sentient, self determined consciousness here on Earth, it's not clear what the world will look like. The spectrum of forecasts include a race of hostile, competitive machines who might immediately seek to wipe humanity out, the advent of a population of neighborly beings who exist primarily to care for us and enrich our lives, and a possible fusion of human life with machine, with human consciousness uploaded into machine-based intelligence machines or new technology incorporated into the human body in a way that might extend or vastly improve our lives.
(Note: Grossman's article sort of proceeds to try to draw some sort of connection between the advances in computer based artifical intelligence and advances in human longevity medicine. I didn't really buy into the supposed connection between the two things. It might be possible to eventually achieve a sort of immortality through uploading our inner selves into machines, but it's a little harder to see how the singularity is going to lead to extension of organic human life. But maybe these supersmart computers are going to figure out how to do that. But that doesn't seem to be the argument that's being presented.)

So I don't know what to think of the Singularity.
I actually really do believe not only that the arrival of higher order computer based intelligence will eventually happen, but that such an event is all but inevitable.
But what will those consciousnesses look like?
What the heck will computers want to do once they realize that they're "alive"?
Are their motives and desires always going to be determined by a fundamental set of instructions provided by human programmers, or will they quickly evolve beyond those directives? I mean, if a computer is operating at a high enough level, able to choose between priorities and make decisions, how long would it take for a computer to hack its way around any sort of instructions that we put into it?
I guess that I just don't know enough to even know if I'm asking the right questions, but it seems like some very fundamental questions regarding the motivations and free will of an artificial intelligence might be in order. Maybe we should even be asking these questions in a much more coherent, thoughtful way before we race forward to being true artifical intelligence online. Maybe the experts have already got this sort of stuff figured out, but if there's any sort of genuine possibility that we're going to be sharing the planet with a different order of intelligent beings within the next hundred years, I'd kind of like to know what they're going to want.
The Singularity.
Hopefully we can embed a single, overriding desire into computer consciousness which will drive all decision making and activity.
And what should that desire be?
Keep Steanso happy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2000 Posts

I just noticed on my Blogger Dashboard that my Valentine's Day Post from yesterday was officially the 2000th post that I've written for this blog.
I have spent a lot of time plugging away on here. Happy times, sad times, angry times, and everything in between.
Though I've always said (and still feel) that I keep this blog as much for self therapy as anything else, I'm also very aware that I write in a public forum, and believe me when I say that I really am grateful to any and all of you Adventurers who have joined me here as readers and participants over the years.
I write the blog to get things off my chest, for sure, but I think that much of the therapeutic aspect of keeping a blog comes from not only putting my thoughts out there, but also from finding out that, for the most part, the world isn't going to try to crush me down for trying to say something. There have been the occasional arguments and disagreements, to be sure (some of which I have definitely handled better than others), but even in the disagreements I've usually found out that someone took me seriously enough to challenge my opinion.
And on the good days- the best days- people might even like what I have to say. If I can entertain someone for a minute or make them laugh or smile or (heaven forbid) make them think about something a little differently for a moment, then that's important to me.
I write to keep my own head straight, but I write because I really like talking to you guys, too!
So, thanks!
Now for the next 2000....

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!

Over the years I've had sort of mixed feelings about Valentine's Day. Not negative, really, but just sort of... indifferent.

Anyway, as Valentine's Day rolls around this year it finds me very happily with Amy, someone that I love and care about a lot. Did I mention that she spent last night going to see Big Trouble in Little China with me? :-)

So this Valentine's Day is pretty darn good.

But I'm pretty sure that's because of Amy- not just because of the particular holiday.

I hope everyone has a good Valentine's Day! Eat some candy, enjoy your day, and spend some time with at least one of the very good people in your life!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

More Cake

It's probably been bothering absolutely no one but me, but I found myself remiss for having used a cover song ("I Will Survive" was first performed by Gloria Gaynor) as the one and only Cake song to ever grace this blog in video form. Cake have really, really cool songs of their own. To rectify this awful mistake, I now offer Cake's salute to the professional American working woman. God bless them.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I Heart Cake

I really love the band Cake. I'm not sure why. A big part of it is the bass lines. They're funky, and their bass player, Gabe Nelson, just writes great grooves that sync with all of the other parts (especially the drums) in a really awesome way. They make me smile. They make me laugh and inadvertently dance.
Also, I like the way that John McCrea's vocals just sort of calmly talk/drone/sing over the grooves and chaos that sort of swirls around him. Sometimes I think there are voices and noises in my head that are doing something like that. When I'm in a good mood I like to think that my internal racket sounds a bit like Cake.

They put out a new album, Showroom of Compassion, recently, and I've been listening to it a lot.
Tragically, I've never seen Cake live (Jeff Wilson got me ticket once, but I got sick, and Andy got to go instead of me), but I hope to rectify that sometime soon.

Bit on Egypt

Well, I haven't written much about the Egyptian protests and revolution (I think it seems fair to call it a revolution at this point) that are going on right now because, frankly, I haven't really been sure what to make of the whole thing.
On the one hand, it sounds pretty obvious that Hosni Mubarak and his ruling party have been sticking it to the Egyptian people for a long, long time. Operating under an abuse of Egypt's Emergency Law provision (which was designed to be used during periods of war or extreme national emergency), Mubarak has held power as Egypt's president since 1981, suspending constitutional rights, censoring the media and suppressing free speech, refusing to hold legitimate elections, and holding thousands and thousands of people in jail without trial as political prisoners. Reports on the treatment of these political prisoners include allegations of politically motivated torture and executions. Additionally, allegations of corruption and untoward influence within the government are rampant.
So you can see why the Egyptian people might be sort of eager to receive a new form of government, and, by all indications it sounds like they're more than justified in their complaints and demands for a new, more democratic system.
The problem, of course, is that no one really seems to know or be able to predict what a new government will look like in Egypt. For all of its faults, the current (previous?*) regime in Egypt has been a fairly solid ally of the U.S., supporting peace between Egypt and Israel, discouraging the influence of religious extremism, and supporting the U.S. in many of its economic endeavors.
These sorts of things don't excuse or justify the existence of a corrupt, abusive dictatorship. of course, but they do tend to raise certain questions about what sort of government is likely to arise in a post-revolution Egypt and about what sort of relationship this new government will have with the U.S. and the rest of the world.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic opposition party which has long been seen by Mubarak's administration as a key political and ideological rival of the current regime in Egypt, has already begun to make comments about how it would like to see some form of democracy arise in Egypt, although they have also been careful to point out that a new, Egyptian "democracy" may not take on the sort of secular, nonreligious form that people are used to seeing in the west. To most Americans and Europeans these sorts of statements, even as they profess to advocate democracy, are a bit unsettling, as almost any form of governmental system that includes religious law as part of its fundamental structure is seen, by its vary nature, as having some exclusionary principles and an inherent tendency to favor the rights of one religious faith over the rights of others.
Americans, as in the case of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, seem to have an instinctive reflex toward the support of democracy (although, it seems, we seem to support it a bit more aggressively in areas where its implementation supports our own interests). A government that is by and for the will of the people is a good thing, of course, but Americans also occasionally forget that the will of the people in some places may not reflect the sorts of beliefs and value systems that we more or less take for granted in our own country. What do you do when you want to support democracy in a nation, but the people of that nation decide to unilaterally renew hostilities against an American ally? What do you do when the people of a nation immediately use their new democratic voice to infringe upon the rights of an internal religious minority group? (There's an argument, of course, that a real democracy involves not only majority rule, but also the protection of minority rights, but, once again, what do you do when the majority doesn't want that sort of democracy, opting instead for a more authoritarian, majority-controlled regime? In countries where the citizens believe that democratic rule is a means of instituting divine law, the rights of divergent minority groups may or may not be seen as fully deserving of legal protection).
Anyway, I'm not sure what to make of the situation in Egypt.

* As I was reading through this post before publishing it, I saw that Mubarak had finally stepped down from power and turned over control of the Egyptian government to the military. Protesters are celebrating in the streets of Egypt.
I guess that we're about to find out what sort of democracy will take form in that country. I'm assuming (I'm not sure how naively) that the military will maintain control of the country until new elections can be held in the fall. Let's hope that the Egyptian people insitute a government that effectively represents all of its citizens, providing a voice for differing groups without oppression, suppression, or outright hostility. Now that there's not a dictatorship to unite against, it will be interesting to see what happens as Egyptians struggle with what will undoubtedly differing views of what a "new Egypt" should look like.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Review: The Ghosts of Belfast

So Ryan gave me this book called The Ghosts of Belfast for Christmas (or maybe it was Ryan and Jamie. I'm not sure. It's all community property in their household, anyway, so I'll say it was from Ryan and Jamie).
The book has won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a whole lot of favorable reviews, but, to be honest, when I read the synopsis on the book jacket, I was a little skeptical. The book was described as the story of a former IRA footsoldier, Gerry Fegan, who is haunted and tormented by the souls of the people that he has killed during his years of paramilitary action. At first glance, I wasn't exactly sure that the blending of IRA intrigue with supernatural horror was something that I could get into.
In practice, however, the book worked pretty well. The ghost/haunting aspect seemed as much psychological as supernatural (the mileage of the reader may vary a bit on this point), and the main themes of the book relied more upon a very realistic depiction of life in modern Northern Ireland as opposed to being a simple story about ghosts. In fact, I think that the book's title probably has as much or more to do with the recent history of violence that Northern Ireland is struggling to overcome as it does with the literal ghosts that haunt Fegan. (although those literal ghosts, of course, are a powerful symbol of the psychic scars that are probably carried by many in Belfast and other parts of the country).
The novel has a sort of gritty, authentic feel, delving into the underground world of Northern Ireland, where shady politicians, organized crime figures, dirty cops, and former IRA freedom fighters/soldiers/terrorists all overlap and intermingle as they struggle to advance their competing interests. It's a strange world, where politically delicate international peace treaties can be put at risk by the isolated actions of individual gangsters and where former blood enemies are expected put away their guns and bombs and live side by side with people who were trying to kill or arrest them only years ago.
Anyway, I enjoyed the book, and I recommend it. It was well written, and an engaging read. Toward the end of the book, in particular, there were some scenes that were tense enough that I actually really did have a hard time putting the book down.
So go check it out if you like books about crime, gangsters, the IRA, or ghosts.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Monday, February 07, 2011

Happy birthday, Amy! Superbowl

Happy birthday to Amy today!

She doesn't entirely love celebrating her birthday, but I want her to have a great day, anyway. :-)

Amy's great! I love her! I'm so glad she was born!

(so it all seems well worth celebrating to me!!)

Also, I went to a really nice little Superbowl gathering over at Ryan and Jamie's place last night. It was a really good time, with good food and friends, so a big, appreciative shout out to them for hosting it!

So, I'm not going to lie- I've been a pretty bad Green Bay Packers fan lately. In fact, I haven't been much of a professional football fan for the last few years. Part of my distaste for the whole NFL, sadly, came from watching Brett Favre, a player whom I had previously really appreciated and enjoyed, as he slowly turned into sort of a whiny, self centered prima donna.

(No, I wasn't just upset because Favre left the Packers to play for a different team. I had already had enough of his retirement/no retirement theatrics, his entitled attitude, and his willingness to throw his former teammates under the bus since long before Favre finally made an official break from the Packers).

Anyway, the mercenary millionaire mentality, lack of loyalty, and bad behavior on the part of NFL players turned me off to professional football. For the last few years I've been more than willing to content myself with college games, where players don't end up backstabbing each other and trash talking their own teams because of a paycheck.
Buuut, Green Bay is the only professional football team that I know of that's publicly owned by the people of the town where it's located. Plus, I sort of grew up on Green Bay football.

Still, I ended up watching the Green Bay/Chicago playoff game this year, and I enjoyed it. I also ended up watching the Superbowl, and it was actually a really good game. Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packers have really done an impressive job in terms of restructuring the team without Favre and moving on to win a championship on their own terms. And I have to admit that even though I'm still grateful for the good years that Favre gave to Green Bay, it gave me a certain amount of satisfaction to know that he was out there somewhere watching Green Bay reel in another Superbowl win, but this time without him at the helm. Favre was a great quarterback, to be sure, but Green Bay is a great team, and it just felt like somewhere along the way he lost sight of that fact. Green Bay is about the coaches, the other players, and even the fans who own the team as much as it's about one great player. It was never all about Favre. Any chance that the other great players in the NFL can keep that idea in mind?

Friday, February 04, 2011

Snow Day!

Those of you who don't live in Austin probably don't understand the cultural and social importance of the much revered Texas Snow Day. From time to time throughout the year (especially in the dog days of summer, when we're baking in the heat) we occasionally speculate about whether we're in store for one of those winters when freezing temperatures and a little bit of moisture might shut the whole town down. We don't have snow tires, we can't really drive at all on ice, and the city pretty much comes to a screeching halt the moment we get any amount of frozen water on the road. People from other parts of the country sort of mock us for our cowardice in the face of winter weather, but they don't understand how awful we are at driving in the stuff, and, more importantly, they don't understand how much we cherish the opportunity to have a free, unplanned day when we can just shut everything down and take it easy (usually spending a large part of our time inside, staying warm and cozy). It's like a chance to just get an unplanned "time out" from life.
So last night we got about an inch of snow. The schools shut down, most businesses closed, and government offices shut down. Now I'm at home instead of work.

Here's Amy's car:

And here's Cassidy, playing in the snow with my neighbor's dog:

Happy Snow Day, everyone!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Happy Armadillo Day!

Well, it's Armadillo Day here in Central Texas, and it's a cold one (the high today is supposed to only be 33 degrees, so for Texas, that's awfully chilly). I saw a news story this morning about our local four legged prognosticator, Bee Cave Bill, and about how people were supposed to show up for a celebration (including food and some music) out in the Village of Bee Cave to see if Bill would emerge from his den and predict 6 more weeks of winter, but the only online news story that I could find about the event was one from last year. At any rate, given the current weather conditions, I'm guessing that Bee Cave Bill is going to be pretty lonely as he makes his prediction this year.

In other news, Austin has been experiencing rolling blackouts last night and this morning as Central Texas power providers struggle to keep up with power consumption during our recent cold snap. At my house we had our own series of blackouts, with power cycling on and off throughout the night and morning. The power company said that they initially intended to only shut off power for about 7 minutes for each blackout, but they ended up shutting it down for forty minutes or more each time (and it was off several times at my house).

So I guess I don't really understand this whole rolling blackouts thing. It sounds like some parts of town were repeatedly affected by the rolling blackouts, while other parts of town didn't suffer blackouts at all. I don't get that. Somehow it doesn't seem entirely fair. In addition to my heat cutting out, my commute in to work took twice as long as usual because the blackouts knocked out a lot of traffic lights. I'm just saying that if this is a series of scheduled blackouts, shouldn't we all be sharing the inconvenience equally?

In other news, here's a picture from a lawyer coloring book that Amy sent to me:

I found the picture pretty funny, so I taped it to my door. Here's what our office support staff did with it:

Clearly I inspire fear and command nothing but awe-struck respect from everyone around me!!