the grandma test

Whenever I wonder whether I should get really angry about a feud on the Internet – or even in real life, where many Internet tendencies are born – I use a private standard, which I believe I invented, called the Grandma Test.

The Grandma Test works as follows: could my 85-year-old Southern grandmother understand the nature of this dispute if I brought it up to her in casual conversation?

I’ll give an actual example that has nothing to do with Internet arguments. Many years ago, my parents gave me a Sony minidisc player for Christmas. I started playing with it while visiting them for the holiday. My grandparents were visiting as well, and my grandmother saw me in the living room with the player one morning.

Grandma: Is that one of your gifts?
Me: Yes it is, Grandma.
Grandma: What is it?
Me: A minidisc player.
Grandma: What does it do?*
Me: It records mp3s that I download off the Internet onto minidiscs.
Grandma: It does what?

I explained it to her in detail, because I’m not a dick, but the sheer volume of concepts that I had to unpack in order to speak on it meaningfully – mp3, download, Internet, minidiscs – made it into more of an adventure than I anticipated.

Since then, I realized that many of the intractable differences I felt with strangers on the Internet would seem ludicrously trivial if viewed through the eyes of my grandmother. And 99.9996% of the time, this was because they were ludicrous. They were trivial. If my grandma couldn’t understand why I got so upset, what reason did I have?

Some examples (note that I never actually had any of these conversations; playing them out in my head served to soothe my nerves):

Grandma: What are you so mad about?
Me: Well, one of the mods on the forums banned someone for posting a quiz on which movie Batman was best: Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val …
Grandma: One of the who?
Me: A mod. A moderator.
Grandma: Moderating what?
Me: A forum. A message board. It’s where people go to post messages on the Internet.
Grandma: Messages about what?
Me: About sci-fi and comic books and pretending to be elves and … you know what, it’s not that big a deal. I don’t know why I’m so worked up over it.


Grandma: You look awfully perturbed.
Me: All the new members in this LJ community keep spamming the page with cat macros.
Grandma: In the what community?
Me: LiveJournal. It’s a blog aggregator.
Grandma: It’s a what?
Me: It puts all these blogs in one place. A blog is what people used to call a web page.
Grandma: That’s certainly an unusual name. Why do they call it ‘blog’?
Me: I don’t know.
Grandma: So this is a place you can go on the Internet that activates blogs?
Me: No, aggregates them. Collects them all onto one page.
Grandma: And what is this LiveJournal doing that got you so worked up?
Me: It’s not LiveJournal; it’s … actually, I can’t even remember at this point. Thanks, Grandma!
Grandma: Oh, I’m glad to help. Have a Fresca.


Grandma: What’s got you so mad, dear?
Me: Well, Atrios misinterpreted Glenn Greenwald’s response to Meghan McArdle’s post about … you know what, forget it. I’m better now.

My grandmother isn’t dumb, and she’s certainly not senile. But she doesn’t have the immense contextual investment that many of our generations (Gen X and Millennials) have in the Internet. In certain cases, that’s a good thing. It means she doesn’t take Facebook de-friending, threadcrapping, trolling or fisking as seriously as we do. And being able to reach that sense of perspective from time to time can only be healthy.

Face it: we’re arguing with strangers on the Internet over things we can’t control. It’s like leaving a slip of paper under a rock in the road for the next traveler to find, debating about how hot the sun should be tomorrow. We’re ridiculous people. If the source of your frustration doesn’t pass the Grandma Test, for the devil’s sake let it go.

* My grandmother, a Kentucky native and a lifelong Texan, transposed the h and the w in what, as all deep Southerners do. Try it yourself.


hurricanes and faster things

o Good news, everyone: I found the filthiest toilet in Boston.1 It’s the men’s room in the Borders at Downtown Crossing. The first time I used it, several years ago, I remember I needed a token to open the door but nothing else about the experience. The second time I used it, this past Sunday: disaster!

Robert Doisneau KissPicture the worst train station bathroom you’ve ever entered, but with a lone Robert Doisneau print on the wall. A floor awash in urine. Two stalls, one of which won’t stay closed and the other of which o’erflows with solid fecal waste. The soap dispenser hangs on the wall above the trash can, rather than within arm’s reach of the sink, thus guaranteeing fewer people will find or use it.

Can I blame the entirety of its disgusting decline on no longer requiring a token for entry? Yes. Yes, I can.

o I have nothing but good things to say about the lunchtime bartender at the Grafton St Pub in Harvard Square. He not only has an Irish accent, but he’s everything you’d expect of a proper European bartender. Picture that guy in the Stella Artois commercial, trying to pour a beer in a train car and failing, but without the snooty attitude.

o Sometimes when I get out of jiu-jitsu, I notice that the music on the stereo seems about a quarter-step slower. I never notice it at any other time. Still flushed from exercise, I attribute it to the cocktail of adrenaline and oxygenated blood. I’ve worked out so hard that I’ve stepped outside of time. I have a mutant power.

On Tuesday night, driving home from jiu-jitsu, I decided to at least offer a sop to the scientific method and turn on the radio to see if other music sounded slower. It did not.

o I’d fret publicly over how much I still needed to pack, but that wouldn’t accomplish anything. I really ought to be fretting over how many boxes I need to buy.

o My school’s five-year reunion falls this weekend and I don’t know if I’m going. I already have plans on Saturday, so I’ll show up to the Saturday event late if at all. And I’d gladly forego the Friday party if someone had a better offer. Many of my better friends from school can’t make it, many of the rest fall either a year ahead of or behind me, and the few that will be there I see every week anyway.

As I’ve said before: BC was big enough to have subcultures, and for that I’m grateful. Smaller schools tend to drown students in the overwhelming social circle of the same hundred people. But I got to hang with the theater kids. Specifically, the improv kids. Specifically, the improv murder mystery kids. You can’t drill down to that level at St. John’s, let me tell you.

1 If you have a website, weblog, LiveJournal or Facebook page, please post the above link, using the text “filthiest toilet in Boston.” I’d like to revive the dormant tradition of Googlebombing as a public service. The people must be warned!

chain chain chain

This week’s links have some games in them:

Budget Hero: a colorful online game that challenges you to balance the budget. First, you assign yourself various badges to reflect your priorities, like Health and Fitness or National Defense or Fiscal Responsibility. Then, you choose which programs you want to expand or cut, in the form of cards to be played. Then you pull the trigger and see how long you can last before the debt becomes unsustainable. Challenging and deep, despite its simple appearance. I submit that the libertarian fantasy of wantonly slashing federal programs might not even be possible, much less realistic. The infrastructure has become tangled with kudzu and it may be tough to clear it.

I’ve been talking about Bayes a lot lately, and not always as clearly as I’d like. Here’s Cory Doctorow, writing on Bayesian probability and terrorist screening, in the Guardian:

Our innumeracy means that our fight against these super-rarities is likewise ineffective. Statisticians speak of something called the Paradox of the False Positive. Here’s how that works: imagine that you’ve got a disease that strikes one in a million people, and a test for the disease that’s 99% accurate. You administer the test to a million people, and it will be positive for around 10,000 of them – because for every hundred people, it will be wrong once (that’s what 99% accurate means). Yet, statistically, we know that there’s only one infected person in the entire sample. That means that your “99% accurate” test is wrong 9,999 times out of 10,000!

Terrorism is a lot less common than one in a million and automated “tests” for terrorism – data-mined conclusions drawn from transactions, Oyster cards, bank transfers, travel schedules, etc – are a lot less accurate than 99%. That means practically every person who is branded a terrorist by our data-mining efforts is innocent.

In other words, in the effort to find the terrorist needles in our haystacks, we’re just making much bigger haystacks.

You don’t get to understand the statistics of rare events by intuition. It’s something that has to be learned, through formal and informal instruction. If there’s one thing the government and our educational institutions could do to keep us safer, it’s this: teach us how statistics works.

Let’s break up all this depressing political talk with a little alternate universe cosmology:

Among the unnatural aspects of the universe, one stands out: time asymmetry. The microscopic laws of physics that underlie the behavior of the universe do not distinguish between past and future, yet the early universe—hot, dense, homogeneous—is completely different from today’s—cool, dilute, lumpy. The universe started off orderly and has been getting increasingly disorderly ever since. The asymmetry of time, the arrow that points from past to future, plays an unmistakable role in our everyday lives: it accounts for why we cannot turn an omelet into an egg, why ice cubes never spontaneously unmelt in a glass of water, and why we remember the past but not the future. And the origin of the asymmetry we experience can be traced all the way back to the orderliness of the universe near the big bang. Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.

The arrow of time is arguably the most blatant feature of the universe that cosmologists are currently at an utter loss to explain. Increasingly, however, this puzzle about the universe we observe hints at the existence of a much larger spacetime we do not observe. It adds support to the notion that we are part of a multiverse whose dynamics help to explain the seemingly unnatural features of our local vicinity.

I hate how the modern news cycle discards stories just as they get interesting: a Texas Appeals court has thrown out the state’s seizure of children from a polygamist compound:

In a ruling that could torpedo the case against the West Texas polygamist sect, a state appeals court Thursday said authorities had no right to seize more than 440 children in a raid on the splinter group’s compound last month.

The Third Court of Appeals in Austin said the state failed to show the youngsters were in any immediate danger, the only grounds in Texas law for taking children from their parents without court action.

It was not clear when the children – now scattered in foster homes across the state – might be returned to their parents. The ruling gave a lower-court judge 10 days to release the youngsters from custody, but the state could appeal to the Texas Supreme Court and block that.

The decision in one of the biggest child-custody cases in U.S. history was a humiliating defeat for the state Child Protective Services agency. It was hailed as vindication by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who claimed they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Child Protective Services vs. the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I’m honestly not sure who to cheer against here.

I wonder how much worse England would have grown, as a surveillance state, if Orwell hadn’t given us his last name as an adjective. Very few people understand the true dangers of the state described in 1984 – namely, historical revisionism and control of language – but the general thrust, “cameras = bad,” is better than nothing.

I mention this as a prelude to the Home Office’s plan to monitor every single phone call and e-mail sent in the UK:

A Home Office spokesman said: “The Communications Data Bill will help ensure that crucial capabilities in the use of communications data for counter-terrorism and investigation of crime continue to be available.

“These powers will continue to be subject to strict safeguards to ensure the right balance between privacy and protecting the public.”

The spokesman said changes need to be made to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 “to ensure that public authorities can continue to obtain and have access to communications data essential for counter-terrorism and investigation of crime purposes”.

But the Information Commission, an independent authority set up to protect personal information, said the database “may well be a step too far” and highlighted the risk of data being lost, traded or stolen.

Assistant information commissioner Jonathan Bamford said: “We are not aware of any justification for the state to hold every UK citizen’s phone and internet records. We have real doubts that such a measure can be justified, or is proportionate or desirable.

“Defeating crime and terrorism is of the utmost importance, but we are not aware of any pressing need to justify the government itself holding this sort of data.”

Let’s break up the depressing news with some photographs.

Here’s some wedding photography, taken during last week’s 7.9 quake in China:
Chinese earthquake wedding

Finally, the Economist does some math:

Data centres consumed 0.6% of the world’s electricity in 2000, and 1% in 2005. Globally, they are already responsible for more carbon-dioxide emissions per year than Argentina or the Netherlands, according to a recent study by McKinsey, a consultancy, and the Uptime Institute, a think-tank. If today’s trends hold, these emissions will have grown four-fold by 2020, reaching 670m tonnes. By some estimates, the carbon footprint of cloud computing will then be larger than that of aviation.

I’m innately leery of any figure that arises from predicting 12 years worth of trends. But a “peak server” crash could be just as bad as a peak oil crash. Having a 1980 volume of oil in 2020 would be terrible; having a 1980 level of computing power in 2020 would fuck us. Hard.

and it feels like love, got the radio on and that’s all that we need

A memorial media blow:

First off, I’m saddened to hear of Sydney Pollack passing. I only knew two of his films well enough to comment on them – The Firm and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – but those two showed enough of his style to merit some acclaim.

Bridge of Birds: A grown-up fairy tale of the first caliber. The broad-backed village farmhand Number Ten Ox and an ancient scholar, Li Kao, set out on a quest to discover what plague afflicts the children of Ox’s village. In doing so, they discover swordfighting ghosts, limitless treasures, impervious tyrants, hermit sages, invisible monsters, lost cities and a dozen other wonders of Chinese folklore. Exciting, sweet and ironic all at the same time. Recommended without qualification.

The Defection of A.J. Lewinter: Back cover copy describes Lewinter as “the American LeCarre,” which I take as a deviously subtle insult toward America. The story of a missile tech’s defection to the Soviet Union may be set in the 1970s, but it reads like it’s from the 1870s. I had the hardest time placing the dialogue until I realized that it read like a modern translation of Dumas. The plot twists seem almost juvenile. For instance, the CIA agents who interview the defector’s friends and family in the States find out that someone has already been asking questions about him. It doesn’t occur to anyone except Our Brilliant Protagonist that maybe, just maybe, the other people asking questions are Russian agents. In a LeCarre novel, you’d take that for granted.

About halfway through, I stopped reading it as a straight spy thriller and started reading it as a sort of vulgar satire – like The President’s Analyst or The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – and had much more fun with it. You have bumbling spies on both sides of the Atlantic, making dire pronouncements based on threadbare speculation. This made the novel much more satisfying for me, especially at its conclusion.

The Confidential Agent: What a contrast, to turn from Littell to Greene. While Greene infuses his spy thrillers with a healthy spritz of melodrama, it still comes with a dry British wit and the dark heart of a world at war. If Raymond Chandler’s protagonists worked for OSS instead of a one-man detective firm, he would write these sort of novels. A bit fantastic, but that’s usually to its benefit.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: A little slapdash. Spielberg could have tightened the screws a little more: the pacing needed work, the dialogue felt rough and I had little investment in the new characters. But I wouldn’t demand a refund.

The first three movies had the virtue of solidly incorporating the theme into the action setpieces. In Raiders, Indy must choose between satiating his own curiosity about the Ark and blowing it up to keep the Nazis from using it. In Temple of Doom, Indy has to choose between “fortune and glory” and doing the right thing – freeing the kids, restoring the shiva stones, etc. And the tension between theme and action works at its best in Last Crusade, when Indy has to find the Grail in order to save the father he’d long ago written off. Compare those to Crystal Skull where, in the last 20 minutes, our heroes simply walk until they run out of space.

I did not have as hard a time with Shia LeBoeuf as I feared I might. I don’t know that he could play a tough guy, but he can definitely play a motorcycle punk greaser who thinks he’s a tough guy. Cate Blanchett frankly didn’t satisfy me as a villain: she doesn’t do anything typically villainous, like execute henchmen or torture civilians or conduct human sacrifices. And Harrison Ford can only recapture the trademark wry cynicism of Dr. Jones about fifty percent of the time; the rest of the time, he just looks tired.

The film discards about one third of its subplots and barely develops any of its characters. The third act plot twist barely counts as a twist – more of a Moebius strip half-twist, really. But the worst of the four Indiana Jones movies still ranks higher than the best of the Hellboy movies any day of the week, so I can’t complain.

(Also: is anyone disturbed by the remarkable similarities between Crystal Skull and this SomethingAwful parody page – the latter of which was published fifteen months ago, before anyone knew anything about this movie?)

professor? what’s another word for pirate treasure?

Before taking the current job, I had one interview and a follow-up with Extensive Enterprises (they took over the old Bear Stearns offices downtown). I had almost reached the elevator after the second interview when the COO caught up with me in a hurry.

“I actually wanted to talk with you a bit more before you left,” he said.

“Sure thing, Mr … Xamot?”

“No, I’m Tomax, actually. Xamot heads up Marketing and Relations.”

“Right, Tomax. Is that Greek?”

“Corsican.” He steered me toward a private elevator off a back hallway – a glass-walled cage that looked out over the entire city. We began our slow descent.

“So, what are you spending your stimulus check on?” he asked with a conversational chuckle.

“Hadn’t planned that far ahead yet, actually. I figured I might just invest it.”

“You don’t want to do your part to help stimulate the economy?” He put the weirdest emphases on certain words.

“I’d rather preserve the check’s value against inflation.”

“Inflation!” He hissed like he’d suffered a paper cut. “Why is inflation such a big deal?”

“Okay,” I began, “a lot of times, when people want to see how wealthy a country is, they look to see how many dollars it has. This can be dollars of goods produced per citizen, also known as GDP per capita, or the average value of the companies based in that country which sell public stock, also known as a stock index. Or any method of your choice.”

“I like exports over imports myself.”

“Yeah, you and Lou Dobbs. But dollars aren’t just a method of measuring wealth, like the pressure gauge on a barometer. Dollars are also an actual trade good. People exchange dollars for other goods all the time.

“You look at a supply and demand graph in any Intro. Econ textbook and you see price, in dollars, on one axis and quantity, in units, on another. But nobody ever thinks about the supply and demand for dollars.”

“Hmm,” Tomax said. “Could you elaborate?”

“You have a given amount of liquid money on hand,” I explained. “Cash in your wallet, plus whatever you can draw from an ATM or write a check against. Let’s say $100,000. You also have a house full of stuff: a flat screen TV, an Italian leather couch, some imported rugs, a boxster in the garage, etc. At any point, you can trade that stuff for dollars, or those dollars for stuff. The fact that you have $100,000 and a set amount of stuff currently – as opposed to, say, $80,000 and …”

“And a hovercraft with a giant snake’s head on it,” he suggested.

“… is a function of your current desires,” I concluded. “Think of it as the intersection of Money and Stuff on the supply and demand graph in your head.”

“I see. So how does this tie in to inflation?”

“It works the same way on a national level. The total amount of dollars available as liquid cash – hard currency, checking accounts, savings accounts, traveler’s checks – is about seven trillion, seven hundred billion dollars – what the Federal Reserve calls M2. The total amount of stuff available is … well, everything on the planet, really. At every second of the day, people exchange dollars for stuff or stuff for dollars.

“Dollars,” I continued, pulling one out of my wallet to illustrate, “are banknotes issued by the central bank of the United States: the Federal Reserve. The Fed has at its disposal a variety of tools to put more dollars into the market:

  1. They can buy or sell Treasury bonds – which would put dollars into or take dollars out of circulation, respectively.
  2. They can raise or lower the discount rate – the interest rate that U.S. banks can charge each other for interbank loans. Raising it tightens the dollar supply; lowering it expands the dollar supply.
  3. Or, they can change the reserve requirement – the percentage of dollars that a bank has to keep on hand to honor outstanding accounts.
The Fed typically only uses the first of these three.

“The problem: the Federal Reserve can, and does, increase the supply of dollars without actually creating any more stuff. So now you have more dollars chasing fewer real world goods. The purchasing power of the dollar declines overall.”

The elevator dinged as it hit the 30th floor. A man dressed identically to Tomax stepped on board. “Ah, Professor,” said Tomax, “you’ve met my brother Xamot, haven’t you?”

“Last time I was here,” I said, shaking his hand. “I was just telling Tomax about how inflation reduces the purchasing power of the dollar.”

“I’d heard that,” Xamot said. “But doesn’t it level out over time? The economy adjusts to the new equilibrium between dollars and goods, and we all trundle on.”

“It levels out,” I replied, “but not all at once.

“Let’s say the U.S. orders up one hundred billion dollars worth of bomber jets. The DoD cuts Boeing a check for $100,000,000,000.00, which Boeing can cash out and use to pay its employees, suppliers, distributors and the like. But the DoD doesn’t have one hundred billion dollars – they spent what they got in taxes long ago. The DoD has now added to the U.S. national debt by one hundred billion dollars. Fortunately, every bank in the world cashes their checks, so no one starves this month.

“Now, the supply of dollars has increased by one hundred billion dollars. But this rising tide doesn’t lift every boat. Even though the dollar has just lost a bit of purchasing power, not everyone knows it yet. The employees and customers of Boeing got their hands on that hundred billion first. They get to spend it on food, gas, clothes, cars, industrial materials, investments, whatever. The people they buy from then get to spend it on food, gas, clothes, etc. So that hundred billion trickles out to the economy slowly. Some people profit from it; some people get screwed by it.”

“What does the Federal Reserve …” Tomax began.

“… have to do with all this?” Xamot concluded.

“The U.S. government finances its debt through Treasury securities – which, as I said before, the Fed sells. You exchange cash for the T-bill, which is a promise to pay back that cash plus interest on a future date.”

“I’m still not sure what the big problem with inflation is,” Tomax said. “Sure, direct beneficiaries of government spending get the new cash before anyone else does. But so many people benefit from government spending that the effect has to be pretty broad.”

“It’s like a perpetual motion machine,” Xamot said. “So long as people keep exchanging cash for T-bills, the U.S. debt remains guaranteed, and money keeps pumping along.”

“You’re forgetting one thing,” I corrected. “Overseas investors.”

“Oh,” Tomax and Xamot groaned.

“Overseas investors buy a lot of Treasury securities. They also buy a lot of dollars. Sometimes they pay for these dollars with goods produced in their countries, like clothes from Singapore or cars from Japan. But people in other countries have a demand for dollars and a supply of stuff, same as Americans do. If foreign investors simply refuse to buy Treasury securities, this means they no longer have as high a demand for dollars. When the demand for dollars drops, compared to the demand for euros or yen or rupees, economists call this a weakening dollar.”

The elevator let us off on the ground floor. Tomax and Xamot exchanged a meaningful look. Then Xamot drew a gun, backed up ten feet and pointed it at me.

“Is that a laser pistol?” I asked.

“You’ve found out our plan,” Xamot snarled. “Our master plan to bankrupt the U.S. and destroy the world economy! Whether you’re a spy sent by G.I. Joe or you just figured it out on your own, we can’t let you spoil our scheme. Terribly sorry, Professor.”

Xamot had me dead in his sights. At ten feet away, I couldn’t hope to close the distance and knock the gun out of his hand in time.

So I kicked Tomax in the crotch.

“Guh!” Xamot and Tomax moaned simultaneously, doubling over in pain. I picked the laser pistol out of Xamot’s limp fingers.

“Seriously, guys,” I said, exiting the lobby. “You really ought to do something about that.”

# # #

The Federal Reserve creates easy credit, by targeting a lower Fed funds rate and expanding the money supply. A certain industry – whether it’s housing or domestic manufacturing or savings and loan houses or Internet companies or housing – borrows this easy credit and expands quickly. Once investors start losing confidence, though, this industry stops expanding. Then it contracts, and drags down every company tied into it.

How the Fed gets championed as the solution to this problem, instead of part of the problem, I’ll never understand.

The moral of this story: you can’t create wealth out of thin air. An expansion of credit is not the same thing as a growing industry. Government spending is not the same thing as investing. Money on paper is not the same thing as food in the fridge. At the closing bell, if it doesn’t point to liquid cash or something you can touch, think twice about it.

I’m not suggesting a return to a barter economy or a withdrawal from the modern economy. But remember the rosy figures Enron posted simply by switching some numbers around in their accounting. Or just consider how many years it would take to pay down the U.S. national debt if the federal government did nothing else. If it’s not real wealth – the clothes on your back, the house you sleep in, free time with the ones you love – it’s bookkeeping. And the world’s short on honest bookkeepers.

you don’t know me, you just love me

Why do people (I include myself here, for once) get so excited when hearing that their favorite book will be made into a movie?

Without drowning you in theory I barely understand myself: different forms of media come bundled with different expectations, both by the creator and the audience. A painting stands as a single frame and its contents; everything you want to say, you have to say there. A sculpture needs to be accessible from all viewable angles: you can’t just do the front portion and call it a day (or rather, if you do, you need to do so for good reasons). Commercial television shows fit a formula, a formula so ingrained and automatic that we the viewing public would feel vaguely unsettled if a show departed from it.

You would not expect a painting to pull off the same three-beat structure of Introduce Tension, Heighten Tension, Resolve Tension that a TV sitcom does – at least not without doing some multi-panel Roy Lichtenstein homage, and even then the painting would be more about this smuggling of forms than its actual content. You would not expect a TV show to stand up to the rigorous scrutiny that we can apply to a statue on a pedestal – despite the efforts of the Internet (9 pages on a half hour sitcom, people! vying with the episode’s actual script in word count).

So it goes with books and movies. I could do a line-by-line comparison of the difference between books and movies (and I did, in the first draft of this post). Really, though, it boils down to one key distinction: the audience controls the book; the author controls the movie.

When you’re reading a book, you can slow down or speed up the pace of reading as you desire. If you reach a particularly intense or scary portion, you can set the book aside for a while and regain your bearings. You can blitz through long expository paragraphs in search of the next chunk of dialogue (a habit of mine), or you can immerse yourself in description and detail. All the imagery must come from your own head, even if the page gives birth to it: if you have your own notions of what a “clanging din” or “breasts like champagne glasses” should be, the author cannot change them. To quote Fight Club without irony, you decide your own level of involvement.

None of that holds true for a movie. You can start and stop a movie if you’ve rented it at home, but that’s not how the director means you to view it and I think we all understand that. No one can mistake the person on screen for anything other than who she is: you might not buy Scarlett Johansson as an ambitious journalism student, but you can’t argue that she’s not Scarlett Johansson. The director can force your perspective in one direction with the camera; he can direct your mood with lighting and soundtrack. The movie dictates your experience of it, not the other way around.

(Neither of these work as absolutes. The book’s author, obviously, has some say in whether you think the protagonist is a blonde or a redhead. A bad director can not only fail to steer the audience; he can actually repel their efforts to engage. Still, we approach the media in these specific ways, and they work for us)

So: a book does one thing, a movie does another. Isn’t a project to turn one into the other innately weird? If I told you I wanted to adapt the “Mona Lisa” as a dance recital, where could I expect to exhibit it – other than maybe an art school mid-term recital, where such experiments thrive? We think that books and movies can naturally flow into each other because they both involve narratives. But paintings and sculptures both involve visual imagery. Dance and architecture both involve the choreography of light and space. I’m turning “Swan Lake” into an office building atrium; you’re invited to the opening.

When a book-to-movie adaptation works – The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, Jurassic Park, A Clockwork Orange, The Shawshank Redemption, Trainspotting – 99.9996% of the time it comes from one reason: nobody’s read the book. Nobody in the theater audience has a preconceived notion of what the world should look like. In the era of mass culture, I don’t have a hard time believing this. I don’t even really have a problem with it. Sure, functional adult illiteracy makes almost everything it touches worse – but not movies. A book does one thing; a movie another.

it’s like that, and that’s the way it is

First and most important, c/o Phanatic (who swiped it from a friend of his) here’s some fresh breakin’ to start your day.

Next: I remember reading a copy of the Journal at the kitchen table in the family homestead over Christmas and seeing a full-page ad for Lifelock – an identity theft protection service. In this ad, which I’m sure you’ve seen since, Todd Davis, CEO of Lifelock, stood in front of block text declaring his Social Security Number to the world. So confident was he, apparently, in his company’s product.

Well, according to a class action lawsuit filed last week, the inevitable happened:

“The lawsuits allege that LifeLock and its multi-million-dollar advertising campaign provided false and misleading information about the limited level of identity protection the company provides, and failed to warn them about the potential adverse impact the company’s services could have on their credit profiles,” according to the press release.

Additionally, the release alleges that Lifelock CEO, Todd Davis has been a victim of identity theft multiple times since using his SSN as a marketing tool to sell the service.


Next up: could the “obesity epidemic” plaguing America have anything to do with … the shifting definition of obesity?

“Overweight:”Definition changed from BMI ≥ 27 to BMI ≥ 25 by the U.S. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute in 1998, instantly increasing by 43% the numbers of Americans, an additional 30.5 million, deemed ‘overweight.’

“High cholesterol:”Definition changed from a total cholesterol ≥ 240 to ≥ 200 in 1998 increasing by 86% the numbers of Americans labeled has having high cholesterol, an additional 42.6 million adults.

“Hypertension:”Definition changed in 1997 from 160/100 to 140/90, instantly adding 35% more Americans, 13.5 million, to the rosters of hypertensive. A new definition for ‘prehypertension’ in 2003 increased to 58% the Americans believing they have hypertension.

“Diabetes:” Definition changed from a fasting glucose of ≥ 140 to ≥ 126 in 1997 by the American Diabetes Association and WHO Expert Committee on the Diagnosis and Classification of Diabetes Mellitus, increasing by 14% and 1.7 million the people diagnosed with diabetes. With the proposal of a new term, ‘prediabetes’ by the First International Congress on Prediabetes, and promoted by the International Diabetes Federation (sponsored by 12 pharmaceutical companies), 40% of the adult population was added to the rosters believing they have diabetes and are in need of treatment.

I’ve still seen plenty of fat Americans, but this explains a lot.

In news abroad, Jesus tapdancing Christ, don’t fucking invade Burma in the name of humanitarian aid, you fucking stupid fucks:

One of the illusions that convinced some otherwise well-meaning people to go along with the conquest of Iraq in 2003 was, “Iraq is so bad, how could we make it worse?” But we could. So with Burma. I know almost nothing about the junta that rules Burma. But I know that it’s the junta that rules Burma – that is, that they’ve extended their writ over a preponderance of the territory we think of as Burma, more or less. That is to say, they successfully maintain power.

The junta apparently numbers 19 guys, but 19 guys don’t run a place like Burma by themselves. They’ve got people for that. Cops, soldiers, secret policemen, bureaucrats. And those people have families and friends and hangers-on. Stakeholders. And apparently “regional commanders enjoy a great deal of autonomy in their respective areas.” So they and their retainers and whoever else profits from existing arrangements have a stake in the existing system. And the habits and attitudes of the bulk of the population are the habits and attitudes that enable one to survive under tyranny. It’s not about knocking off that one bad guy and his eighteen friends. There’s a whole set of structures and class interests and cultural patterns, local peculiarities and regional fault lines to cope with. I don’t know much about Burma, but I know that much about any place. It’s hubris to be sure you can start rearranging such a society without a good chance of making it even worse.

And, because I haven’t ragged on President Dog in a while:

“I believe that it’s not an accident that our hostages came home from Iran when President Reagan was president of the United States. He didn’t sit down in a negotiation with the religious extremists in Iran, he made it very clear that those hostages were coming home.’’


Asked if he thought Mr. Obama was an appeaser — the Democratic candidate has said he would be willing to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran — Mr. McCain sidestepped and said, “I think that Barack Obama needs to explain why he wants to sit down and talk with a man who is the head of a government that is a state sponsor of terrorism, that is responsible for the killing of brave young Americans, that wants to wipe Israel off the map, who denies the Holocaust. That’s what I think Senator Obama ought to explain to the American people.’’

I should barely need to open my mouth to refute something this illiterate, but:

(1) Reagan had no problem sitting down with Iranian religious extremists when he needed some loose cash to fund Nicaraguan guerillas.

(2) Not that I want to defend Obama’s foreign policy acumen, but: Senator Obama would probably want to sit down with the head of Iran for the same reason Reagan sat down with Gorbachev, or the same reason Nixon shook hands with Mao Zedong. I know these aren’t strictly analogous cases, as Russia and China were threats to the U.S. and Iran is not, but I hope everyone can still follow along.

From the Washington Post, an op/ed that examines the social cost of terrorism:

Fear, in other words, is a tax, and al-Qaeda and its ilk have done better at extracting it from Americans than the Internal Revenue Service. Think about the extra half-hour millions of airline passengers waste standing in security lines; the annual cost in lost work hours runs into the billions. Add to that the freight delays at borders, ports and airports, the cost of checking money transfers as well as goods in transit, the wages for beefed-up security forces around the world. And that doesn’t even attempt to put a price tag on the compression of civil liberties or the loss of human dignity from being groped in full public view by Transportation Security Administration personnel at the airport or from having to walk barefoot through the metal detector, holding up your beltless pants. This global transaction tax represents the most significant victory of Terror International to date.

The new fear tax falls most heavily on the United States. Last November, the Commerce Department reported a 17 percent decline in overseas travel to the United States between Sept. 11, 2001, and 2006. (There are no firm figures for 2007 yet, but there seems to have been an uptick.) That slump has cost the country $94 billion in lost tourist spending, nearly 200,000 jobs and $16 billion in forgone tax revenue — and all while the dollar has kept dropping.


What is happening to the American character? True, the country has gone through crises of confidence before, some of them cresting in sheer hysteria — from the Alien and Sedition Acts to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s search for a commie under every State Department desk. But the worst acts from 1798 were repealed or allowed to lapse within three years, and the senator from Wisconsin was censured a few years into his red-baiting career. Alas, the USA Patriot Act and DHS have already endured longer than either earlier excess, and neither is fading.

I vaguely recall someone mentioning how important it was that American citizens live out their lives as normal – without fear, in other words – in the days immediately following the September 11th attacks. My mistake.

Next, you might have seen this on a CNN scrolling banner last week: Marijuana may up heart attack, stroke risks. Of course, the beauty of modern cable news comes from not having to tell you the interesting parts of the story:

The marijuana users in the study averaged smoking 78 to 350 marijuana cigarettes per week, based on self-reported drug history, the researchers said.

78 joints per week makes 11 per day, or one every hour and a half while awake. 350 joints per week makes 50 a day. Drinking 50 glasses of distilled water per day would cause kidney problems, but you don’t see that making the news.

Was there some mythical era of American journalism when obviously bogus news stories like this one would have been caught at the editor’s desk? Or is that wishful thinking?

Finally, I worry about the rising price of oil as much as anyone, but I hope that my worries sound more literate than those of the dumbest man with a Times byline, Paul fucking Krugman:

Now, speculators do sometimes push commodity prices far above the level justified by fundamentals. But when that happens, there are telltale signs that just aren’t there in today’s oil market.


The only way speculation can have a persistent effect on oil prices, then, is if it leads to physical hoarding — an increase in private inventories of black gunk. This actually happened in the late 1970s, when the effects of disrupted Iranian supply were amplified by widespread panic stockpiling.

But it hasn’t happened this time: all through the period of the alleged bubble, inventories have remained at more or less normal levels. This tells us that the rise in oil prices isn’t the result of runaway speculation; it’s the result of fundamental factors, mainly the growing difficulty of finding oil and the rapid growth of emerging economies like China. The rise in oil prices these past few years had to happen to keep demand growth from exceeding supply growth. [emphasis mine]

Speculators? Hoarders? Heaven forfend, Dr. Krugman! Are the Freemasons poisoning the wells? Should I let some blood to dispel the bad humo(u)rs? Quick, without peeking at a calendar: what century are we living in right now?

The bizarre distinction between “speculators / hoarders” and the “fundamental” business of the market belies an odd, illiterate bias on Krugman’s part. To demonstrate why, substitute the word investor for every instance of the word speculator or hoarder. They’re the same thing: people who buy a commodity in the expectation that its price will rise. But one can be found in every basic Econ textbook in print today – none of which, apparently, Krugman has ever read – while the other evokes images of a miser in a mud hovel on the outskirts of a Prussian village. Speculators! Hoarders! Assemble a posse! Notify the burgomeister!

Maybe I wouldn’t be so mad all the time if I lived in Iceland:

Iceland, lodged in the middle of the North Atlantic with Greenland as its nearest neighbour, was too far from the remit of any but the more zealously obstinate of the medieval Christian missionaries. It is a largely pagan country, as the natives like to see it, unburdened by the taboos that generate so much distress elsewhere. That means they are practical people. Which, in turn, means lots of divorces.

‘That is not something to be proud of,’ said [city councilor and single mom] Oddny [Sturludottir], with a brisk smile, ‘but the fact is that Icelanders don’t stay in lousy relationships. They just leave.’ And the reason they can do so is that society, starting with the parents and grandparents, does not stigmatise them for making that choice. Icelanders are the least hung-up people in the world. Thus the incentive, for example, ‘to stay together for the sake of the kids’ does not exist. The kids will be just fine, because the family will rally round them and, likely as not, the parents will continue to have a civilised relationship, based on the usually automatic understanding that custody for the children will be shared.

Fewer Puritans, a high GDP, greatest number of books per citizen and hot springs? I now have a designated escape country.