Sunday, July 20, 2008

Zen Shorts

Our kids have way too many toys. I worry about this sometimes.

Our kids also have way too many books. But I don't worry about this so much. I approve of books. I know I should take my kids to the library more often (have I ever taken them there?), but failing that, if my kids are going to own too much of something, books are probably the way to go.

I also like to give my kids choice. If they want a particular book, I tend to respect their preference instead of pushing towards something that I would prefer. I figure they'll stay more engaged if it's something that interests them.

Unfortunately, as a result of this latter policy, a lot of our kids' books fall into a certain category. You probably know the one. Let's call it the Regurgitated Corporate Swill category. Pretty much anything with a recognizable TV or movie character falls into this category. I've generally tried to steer my kids away from this category, but not strongly enough to prevent the accumulation of, for example, Dora Does the Same Damn Thing Over and Over Again volumes 1-50, not to mention The Inane Treasury of Disney Princess Stories: Wishing, Dreaming, and Sighing.

So it was that this weekend, on the way to the bookstore, I made a bold, tyrannical declaration: either the kids would walk out of the store with nothing, or they'd walk out with something that I chose. There was less protest than I expected, and after a bit of browsing we walked out with Zen Shorts.

Zen Shorts is a beautiful little book about three kids that meet a panda who lives just down the street. His name is Stillwater, and he's a peaceful soul. As he plays with them, he shares three stories, adaptations of Zen koans, that give some perspective on their own lives.

It's simple, fairly short, and the art is beautiful. The girls love it, and (unlike many of their books) I don't feel like tearing my eyeballs out while reading it to them. Recommended.

Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

This weekend I stumbled across Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a three-part musical miniseries starring Neil Patrick Harris, directed by Joss Whedon. It's a fun little piece, apparently written during the WGA writers' strike. It comes across as low-budget but with good production value, and the music is decent.

And it seems I lucked out: they were streaming the episodes for free this weekend, but have since taken them down, and now you must buy them from iTunes. Their business model is clearly of the "stir up word-of-mouth via short-term free distribution, then switch to paid distribution" ilk. And I guess I can't blame them: I liked it a lot, and so I recommend it.

If I am a pawn in their scheme, at least I am not an unwitting pawn.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Chess Boxing

This makes me so happy, and I'm not sure why. Chess Boxing.
The matches work like this: competitors alternate between three-minute rounds of boxing and four-minute rounds of speed chess with one-minute breaks in between to get the gloves off and hunker down at the chess table. The winner is determined by knockout, checkmate, or referee decision.
I'm captivated by the idea of the transition from beating the hell out of some buys face to playing a board game with him, and then back again.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

El Camino Del Rey

From Flutterby, a wonderful video of a stroll in the mountains.

As I watched it, I kept saying to the screen, "Stop doing that!" If you watch, you'll know which parts I'm talking about.

More info on the walkway.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Or possibly a Paleontist.

Emma (age 5):

At school today, they had a thing where you put on goggles, and there was a nail you hit with a hammer, and there were dinosaurs underneath, and it let you be a Scientologist.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Great Gold Confiscation

True Story:

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of a crumbling nation. Amidst the torrent of changes in his recovery plan�his New Deal�he oversaw a strange reversal. Alcohol, long stigmatized and outlawed under Prohibition, was suddenly legal again. And gold, with which Dollars were supposedly interchangeable, became an illegal substance.

This is how it happened.

When Roosevelt was sworn in, banks across the nation were failing. Panicked people withdrew from the remaining banks, and some of those banks failed in turn. In Chicago alone, this vicious cycle claimed over 170 of the 228 banks. People demanded their money in gold where possible, worried that the dollar might soon lose much of its value. (As it happens, this is precisely what Roosevelt had in mind.)
In his inaugural speech, Roosevelt said "...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," by which he meant, in large part, "fear of bank failure." The cycle of withdrawal and collapse was choking the already battered economy. Forty eight hours later, Roosevelt's response was bold�and illegal.
He began on March 6 by closing the nation's banks. He called this "bank holiday" on the authority of an expired wartime trade act, and relied on a docile Congress to legitimize his actions after the fact. In the process, he declared "hoarding" (possessing one's own gold) to be a reckless, unpatriotic act.
When he reopened the banks on March 10, they were instructed to refuse all requests for gold. With all bank holdings under his control, Roosevelt set his sights on all the rest�the gold held by United States citizens. Through the Treasury Department he acquired records of all gold withdrawals from banks in the last two years, thus revealing which citizens and organizations might be "hoarding" gold.
Then, on April 5, he issued Executive Order 6102: all "individuals, partnerships, associations and corporations" in the nation were to deliver their gold to the federal government. In exchange, they would receive paper money. The penalty for defying this order was $10,000, 10 years in prison, or both.
In the following months this confiscation was aggressively implemented. People were indicted for refusing to turn over their gold�among them the daughter of a former U.S. Senator. Others were arrested at the Canadian border for attempting to smuggle gold out of the country. But the vast majority of Americans obeyed, and the Treasury's gold stockpile grew steadily into 1934.
It was during these months that Roosevelt repealed Prohibition. Thirsty crowds lined up outside bars, counting down the seconds to 4:32pm, December 5, 1933. Roosevelt famously remarked "I think this would be a good time for a beer." Millions of Americans agreed, and Roosevelt's popularity soared. He was showered with gifts and well-wishes on his first birthday in office: January 30, 1934.
The very next day, Roosevelt finally cashed in on the confiscation. By fiat, he increased the dollar cost of an ounce of gold from $20 to $35. This effectively devalued the dollar (which people had been forced to accept instead of gold) by 40 percent. On the strength of the gold stockpile, this yielded a profit of 2.7 billion dollars for the Treasury.
Roosevelt hoped that the devaluation would stabilize the dollar against certain foreign currencies and create a more favorable environment for export. But doing so had required an unprecedented, and possibly unconstitutional, confiscation and wealth transfer.
By this time Roosevelt had been in office for eleven months.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

It's Math.

The other day Lucy (who is now 3) said

Tuesday plus Tuesday is Foursday!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Primordial Evil

I've been reading one of my H.P. Lovecraft books lately (The Tomb and Other Tales), and it seems to be one I haven't read before. I was surprised to see that Lovecraft ghost-wrote Imprisoned with the Pharaohs for Harry Houdini, who published it in his own name in Weird Tales. It's a lovely story. I also liked The Horror at Red Hook. (New York Detective Thomas Malone investigates the sinister underworld activities of one Robert Suydam, who seems to be involved in illegal immigrant trafficking and, as you might guess, Untold Terrors as well.)

Like the story He (which precedes it in this collection), Red Hook takes place in turn-of-the-century New York and treats cities in general as malevolent forces, not to be trusted, what with all their creepy tall buildings and--as illustrated in both stories--the tendency of buildings to collapse, floor by floor, at or around the denouement. Apparently this was a period when Lovecraft considered metropolitan areas to be scarier than, say, gargantuan tentacled underwater creatures. I wonder what he'd think of today's urban sprawl.

Anyway, near the end of Red Hook, Lovecraft says

Who are we to combat poisons older than history and mankind? Apes danced in Asia to these horrors, and the cancer lurks secure and spreading where furtiveness hides in rows of decaying brick.

I've noticed, in other places, Lovecraft referring to malevolent forces as destined to outlast mankind. It adds to the sense of bigness and badness to suggest that these horrors will still be around when mankind is no more. But this is the first time I've noticed (in my recent reading, anyway) explicit mention of evils predating mankind as well.

The mental image of apes dancing under nameless demonic influences is wonderful enough. (Demon Monkey Trance!) But let's take this to its logical conclusion. Pick your favorite Evils from Lovecraft, or Christian canon or Apocrypha, or the Kabbalah, or Sumerian Mythology, or wherever... Take them at face value, but put them in the scenario of evolved life instead of a world that was created in the same fiscal quarter as mankind (as most mythologies have it). This is essentially what Lovecraft is suggesting in the quote above, so let's think about the implications.

Evil as it's been portrayed in mythology has (for obvious reasons) such a human character, and such human concerns. The devil takes a personal interest in the downfall of individual men; demons specialize in endless specific human ailments. But if Evils are eternal, what the hell did they do before man evolved?

So, okay, they made apes dance. Fair enough. Probably a certain amount of mate stealing and inhospitable hooting during territorial disputes. The occasional pretending-to-groom-the-alpha-male-but-not-actually-removing-his-parasites as part of a nefarious-but-slow-moving coup. It's not that hard to think of ape-specific Evils, and, as this paragraph shows, it's more fun than it should be.

But what sort of unholy pressures did the eternal Evils apply to, say, the shrew-like Zalambdalestes in the Cretacious? Or the jawless fish Agnatha in the Cambrian? Or the earliest single-celled organisms?

Some specific Evils (death, disease) might have existed alongside Life the whole time, while others (betrayal, jealousy, porn addiction) presumably found their specialties later. But it raises the question: have these Evils had the same character all along, with some waiting untold eons for their respective victims to evolve? Or have the Evils themselves evolved, in which case there emerged, at some point, an Evil specially suited to the concerns of cyanobacteria?

Did the cyanobacteria's Evil have anything like an awareness of its horrifying purpose--a malignant mind of the kind we'd expect from Mankind's demons? Or did it have a tiny malignant non-mind appropriate to the level of cyanobacteria's development? If the latter, then what made it Evil, exactly? What does Evil mean if there's not a mind to revel in the depravity, or to recoil at the horror? Evil without sentience is just statistics.

The question Lovecraft's construction raises is this: if these Evils are eternal, then did they have more or less fun influencing Cretacious shrews than you and I? The obvious and boring answer is that mankind has allowed Evil to blossom in new and unprecedented ways. But I think it's more interesting to suppose the opposite.

I think it would be fun to explain these Eternal Evils in a way that's not at all humanity-centric, but that still retains some essence of what we understand to be Evil. It can't boil down to statistics, because statistics isn't evil--just boring. So what would it be?