Saturday, November 30, 2013

Today's the Day

Please don't tell me it's all still a huge half-functional kluge. 

Delivery Man

Saw Delivery Man, in which Vince Vaughn, sperm donor, meets hundreds of his biological children. 

I wasn't a super logical script,
But it staggered along at a decent clip,
A funny and warm emotional trip. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Public Pension Problem

We have an interesting public pension problem here in Illinois. It's so interesting that the state's bond rating seems to be the lowest in the country. What's also interesting is that Democrats firmly control both houses of the legislature, and we have a Democratic governor as well.

And things have gotten so bad that the people in charge are actually sensing the need to fix the problem. And to do it without raising the tax burden on the state, which is also pretty high already, overall. And the only way to solve the problem without raising taxes a lot, is to cut back on pension benefits somehow.

But the public labor unions - one of the big Democratic constituencies - do not want that.

So, yesterday evening, the leaders of the state assembly & senate announced they had reached an agreement. And the governor gave it his blessing. But now they need to get enough votes to pass it. And some of those votes will have to be Democratic votes, which will have to occur over union objections.

My prediction is that they will get lots of Republican votes, and a sizable minority of Democratic votes, and they will pass this "fix". I don't know how solid this fix is. Probably not as solid as I would like it. But probably it's an improvement over the current situation. Details are not yet fully public.

Then the law will go to court. The Illinois constitution has some language protecting public employee pension benefits. I don't think this language has ever really been tested. There's a certain broad vagueness to it. Apparently the law has been written with the constitutional protections in mind. I guess we'll see what the Illinois Supreme Court makes of it. I suspect they'll let it slide by.

So, today I am thankful for the continuing spectacle, here in my home state, of Democratic elected officials fighting with the public employee unions, because they ran out of other people's money.

The specter of Detroit's bankruptcy looms.
Our officials wish to avoid that doom.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Empty Handed

I thought they said "banks giving"
so I visited a bank.

Nope - not even a toaster!
Was it all some kind of prank?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pop Up Paradox

I've noticed that the big Chicago newspaper websites are more festooned with annoying pop-up ads than the local TV news websites.

At first I thought there was something paradoxical about this, because TV news is more annoying to me than newspapers are.

But then I hit upon an explanation. The newspapers are going broke. The TV news operations are not, at least, not as badly.

The entities going bust
are the entities that must
throw up scads
of ads.

Monday, November 25, 2013

People Still Finding Out

NBC News Investigates... and learns:

Large employers cite Obamacare ‘Cadillac’ tax in reducing benefits

This isn't news to me,
just news to NBC!

The Robbers, Twice in 2013

Back in May of this year, I saw a production of Schiller's The Robbers, and I remarked that it was truly rare on the American stage.

Well, tonight I saw another production of it, again here in Chicago, with a lot of exquisite acting.

I mean, what are the odds?

Neither production was exactly "straight". In May, it was an all-women cast, with a framing device of girls playing a game.

Tonight, the framing device was Schiller's writing of the play in a military infirmary... with a beautiful dominatrix-style nurse, played to perfection by Maggie Scrantom, who also turned in a convincingly passionate female lead as Amalia.

Let's continue this Schiller-producing trend.
Put on the plays. I will attend.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Database Disagreement

From the NYT investigation into the fiasco:

"Another sore point was the Medicare agency’s decision to use database software, from a company called MarkLogic, that managed the data differently from systems by companies like IBM, Microsoft and Oracle. CGI officials argued that it would slow work because it was too unfamiliar. Government officials disagreed, and its configuration remains a serious problem."

Ann Althouse asks: "What the hell is MarkLogic and why did it get this sweet deal that caused so much grief?"

The phrase, "managed the data differently" seems to refer to the fact that instead of being a standard "relational" database, of the kind sold by IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle, this was a "NoSQL" database. This sort of database is marketed as superior for Big Data projects, but I don't really know much about it, and apparently neither did the programmers on the project.

My big question a lot like Althouse's question. Why did "government officials" tell the technical team what database software they should be using? Why did "government officials" think that they knew more about databases than the technical team they had hired? Why did they think it was safe to do that?

I suppose they thought they had all the time in the world: Three years to put up a website.

The techies tell you, "we don't know this database." Silly whiners. They've got years to familiarize.

And then the "years" go by
in the blink of a programmer's eye
and you watch your website die.

Philosophical Method of the Americans

Last night at discussion group we chewed over a chapter of de Tocqueville's 1840 classic: Volume Two of Democracy In America. My favorite bit from the reading:

"America is therefore one of the countries where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and are best applied. Nor is this surprising."

Well, it's surprising news to most Americans, even this American, who has read some Descartes.

Our author explains that Americans like to think things through for themselves, discarding received wisdom in order to get a fresh view of a problem.

A philosophy professor, who participated in the discussion, suggested that our author was thinking more of the early Descartes, the author of Discourse on Method, and less of the later Descartes, the author of Meditations on First Philosophy.

Few Americans have ever given a clam
about "I think therefore I am."

But we do think a fresh perspective
can be effective.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Howard Bound

Accustomed to the institutional life:

"An aging ex-con who deliberately got caught robbing a bank so that he could go back to prison should have his wish fulfilled, federal prosecutors say."

This guy, at 73, is walking around with a hip replacement. Who gave him that artificial hip? Was it the prison system? Maybe he's willing to trade his freedom for comprehensive healthcare!

At three-quarters of a century,
he's aiming for the penitentiary.


In Vancouver, Canada, they're banning doorknobs. Well, the old, substandard doorknobs. In their place, there's a mandate for door handles. Which are more accessible. For people with some sort of disability, I imagine. Severe arthritis, perhaps? I don't know. The article doesn't say. Perhaps it's rude to inquire.

"The bylaw is not retroactive, so residents won’t have to get rid of doorknobs they already have in their homes."

If you like your knobs,
they may be grandfathered in.
If that's the case,
just chalk it up as a win!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Just Because

Linguists have been taking an interest in that snarky "because" meme that has become so prevalent on the net. Being linguists, rather than grammarians, they are into description, not prescription. And when they try to describe the new usage of "because", they say it's being used as a preposition instead of a conjunction.

"The construction is more versatile than “because+noun” suggests. Prepositional because can be yoked to verbs (Can’t talk now because cooking), adjectives (making up examples because lazy), interjections (Because yay!), and maybe adverbs too, though in strings like Because honestly., the adverb is functioning more as an exclamation. The resulting phrases are all similarly succinct and expressive."

Is this actually going to stick, or is it just a fad?
I figured it was humorous usage that purposely sounded bad.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Solitude in a Crowd

Downtown, at dusk, he felt alone
in some strange way he hadn't known
in years. He ate a supper made
of childhood food, and though afraid
of plunging into separateness,
breathed in an unsuspected bliss.

And nearing sunset, now and then,
he flashes to that moment when
he gazed beneath the city lights,
at hurried people with their sights
set straight ahead... And feels again
the calm that comes from deep within.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Words for Writing

From a book about a movie:

"'Satire' is the technical word for writing about people as they are. 'Romantic' at the other extreme is writing about people as they are to themselves. Both of these terms are true and mean something, and Lubitsch combined them in most of his films. Only 'Naturalism' is a completely vague term, and Lubitsch had no truck with it."

The author, Peter Barnes, is playing off Aristotle's contrast between comedy and tragedy: “Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.”

He recommends that writers and directors avoid the "deadly language of journalism".

If satire
is truth entire,
the naturalists are left
with nothing of heft.

I think it's kind of funny, because in my play-writing I mostly try to adhere to a kind of formal realism, by which I mean that the events and language, examined piece by piece, all seem plausible. But the whole, because it's more dense and intense than real life, seems suffused with a "romantic" atmosphere.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Science Fiction Films

Saw Gravity last night, in 3D. Really, it should be called Zero Gravity. It has temporarily - for the next few days at least - cured me of the desire to chase around in orbital space. It's a wild survival story set in near-Earth space.

Saw Ender's Game tonight, in 2D. It has some zero gravity scenes too. It's more of a true science fiction film - raising high-level moral questions, dealing with an alien species, projecting alternate social rules, etc,

After all that, I'm eager to have
a chance to float in zero grav.

Alec Baldwin's Big Mouth

Alec Baldwin's in trouble for another anti-gay outburst. Scathingly delivered, of course. Which makes it worse.

Ann Althouse speculates:

"Eagerness to support gay rights may stem from a desire to compensate for strongly felt aversion to gay people. Baldwin's problem is that this compensation cannot stand up to his intense emotionality, and paparazzi who know this have made a game out of provoking him to the point of explosion. It's actually kind of sad. He's a great actor, and since he tends to play villains — wonderfully — he doesn't even need us to think that he's a good person."

This strikes me as plausible. You certainly see this pattern in this country with regard to support for African American causes. Some of the white people I know who express the most righteous indignation about racial bias are white people who live in lily white suburbs and who seem, in fact, uncomfortable around actual black people.

Some praise
the rights of gays
while still disdaining their ways.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Does Their Panic Seem Aristophanic?

Mediaite has a headline, "For Democrats, Obamacare Unfolding Like a Greek Tragedy".

Instapundit says it's more of a comedy, for him. Well, the distinction is often a matter of perspective.

From Mediaite's text: "In a Euripidean twist, it is Democrats, not Republicans, who are meting out potentially fatal blows to the project which had once represented their greatest hopes."

In a Euripidean twist,
Hubris is met by Nemesis.

I'm not actually a big fan of the word hubris, because I worry that its original usage packaged a kind of fatalism - a message to be wary of daring.

Wikipedia says that it means "extreme pride or arrogance", which isolates the issue I worry about.

The real problem isn't "extremeness" as such. Someone can be extremely proud of having accomplished something, and that isn't harmful in and of itself. The problem, to me, is something more like unmerited pride.

Actually, the follow-on sentence of the Wikipedia article captures my view perfectly: "Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power."

Lately, psychologists have been investigating this phenomenon, under a new name:

"The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes."

So... if at all possible... before doing something daring... try a test-run in a safe environment. You may learn something vital about yourself and your scheme.

Not truly knowing your level of skill
can kill.

Fanny's First Play

Fanny's First Play is actually a play by Bernard Shaw. I saw it last night and found it quite charming.

The play features a play-within-a-play, a device Shakespeare used several times, most famously in Hamlet.

In Shakespeare, the play-within is a brief presentation within a full length framing play. Not so in this case. Shaw's play-within is actually a full length play, and the framing play is much shorter.

In the frame, a young lady named Fanny has written her first play, and has arranged for it to be performed before a private audience of theater critics. Her play is performed, and then the critics argue about it. One thing they argue about is who actually wrote the play, since they haven't been told.

Of course, Fanny is just a character, and the person who really wrote it all was Shaw himself.

But the original audiences of the play did not know that. Because Shaw, who was already famous, had the play produced as being by that most accomplished author: Anonymous. And, in a dizzying bit of satire, Shaw has his critics decide that the play could not have been written by Shaw, because it has too much heart.

The production is a lot of fun. The dialog is witty, and the acting was solid. Michael Reyes, as Juggins, was a particular straight-faced comic delight.

This dramatic framing device
is occasionally nice
but could be un-concise.

If you keep nesting play within play
like Russian dolls all the way
it might run all night and all day.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Parade of Fixes

We went from "ACA is the Law,"
to "Well, it might have a little flaw,"
to "Shred it up like slaw!"

Low Humidity Perhaps

I'm not sure why, but when the weather gets colder, the stars always strike me as brighter and bolder.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Alligator on a Train

As you may recall from bizarre Chicago news, a small alligator was found under an escalator at O'Hare airport. Conjecture was, it was abandoned.

Now they've dug up surveillance photos of a woman riding the El in the wee hours of the morning, with what looks like the very same alligator.


I can understand not wanting to keep an alligator as a pet.
Its cuteness may diminish, the bigger it gets, I bet.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Allergies as a Puzzle

They've been puzzling over the apparent rise in allergies for a while now, so this piece is interesting:

"Children born to mothers who work with livestock while pregnant, and who lug their newborns along during chores, seem the most invulnerable to allergic disease later."

If only my mother had milked a cow,
perhaps I wouldn't have allergies now!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Photo Undercuts the Tale of Cuts

The Chicago Tribune ran a story today about the looming food stamp (SNAP) cutbacks. The apparent purpose of the story was to show us the difficulties faced by people whose allotment was being reduced.

But there, featured on the front page as prime victims, were 2 substantially chubby people.

Couldn't they find some skinny person to pose?
Someone who looks like a skeleton in their clothes?

Facts Are Stubborn Things

My subject heading today comes from a White House Blog Post from August 4, 2009.

"Opponents of health insurance reform may find the truth a little inconvenient, but as our second president famously said, 'facts are stubborn things.'"


"For the record, the President has consistently said that if you like your insurance plan, your doctor, or both, you will be able to keep them."


"If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to"

Facts are stubborn things.
In retrospect, that stings.

Ohio Highway

Yesterday while barreling along the highway, my van's gps kept telling me I wasn't "on a digitized road".

Someone needs to reexamine that code!

Friday, November 08, 2013


Mumps and measles are coming back. Vaccine phobia merits the flack.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

In A Hole

After lies,

See if that flies.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Mega Duckmole

National Geographic has an interesting story about the discovery of an ancient but extinct species, the Giant Platypus, (Obdurodon tharalkooschild).

Here's how some artist imagines it, chowing down on a turtle:


So... did they find a fossil skeleton? Not exactly. They found one molar - pictured in the inset, above. Apparently platypus teeth are very distinctive, and this molar was obviously of the platypus design, but it was way too big. So... they extrapolated, and anointed it a species.

Behold the Giant Platypus:
its fur and bill are fabulous.
But how close is the sketch to truth?
It's all based on a single tooth!

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Haunting Julia

I finished reading an Alan Ayckbourn play today, Haunting Julia. It's very clever. On stage I think it would be authentically scary, and horribly sad. It's playing in town right now, a Chicago premiere. I haven't seen the production. I'm tempted to go. But reluctant, too.

I usually enjoy reading his plays, but I'm often - not always, just often - unhappy when the play is done.

I am in awe of his craft.
But sometimes I feel like I'm left on a raft
in a sea
of debris.

Not to Worry

It may come as a shock,
when you're losing your doc,
but it's for your own good,
if you just understood.


An embarrassing discovery at Northeastern Illinois University, a state school located in Chicago:



I'm trying to think of what the defense will be.
Maybe it just means "democrat with a small d".

Sunday, November 03, 2013

KISS of Death

The Washington Post has the inside story on the mismanagement of the development of the website. Because it's a story from insiders, who were fighting with each other over how to manage the project, it's still slanted in favor of the program. But the managerial details ring true to me.

"Inside the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the main agency responsible for the exchanges, there was no single administrator whose full-time job was to manage the project."

Excuse me while I sputter, searching for, and failing to find, the right words to describe such an arrangement.

In 2010, David Cutler, "Harvard professor and health adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign", wrote a memo to the White House economic team, warning them that the project set-up was falling "far short of what it will take to implement reform successfully." But, his advice was not taken.

The underlying theme of the WaPo story is the triumph of political fears over technological needs... until the needs bit back.

So... why wasn't the bite-back foreseen? After all, this administration has put itself forward as smart, savvy, capable of coordinating markets and bureaucracies with just the right nudges.

I keep scratching my head over this, this phenomenon of self-proclaimed techno-managers who can't manage the tech. Peter Greenfield offers a scornful explanation:

"Our technocracy is detached from competence. It's not the technocracy of engineers, but of 'thinkers' who read Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman and watch TED talks and savor the flavor of competence, without ever imbibing its substance. These are the people who love Freakonomics, who enjoy all sorts of mental puzzles, who like to see an idea turned on its head, but who couldn't fix a toaster."

Obviously, this is an outsider's view of what went wrong.

Bright non-coders have a particular affinity, in my experience, for requesting overly complex system designs that aren't really as thought-through as they at first appear. For such situations, the KISS principle is the antidote, but it can be a bitter pill indeed. Keep It Simple Stupid seems so... insulting and limiting. And, really, it's not very precise in its formulation, since very complex systems do get built successfully - after all the details have been truly worked out, so that the lowest level components really are simple. In this case, clearly, that did not happen. Perhaps because it just couldn't happen over the space of mere years.

In support of which thesis, let me mention,
that the law itself, in its two-thousand page glory,
defied comprehension.

And here we pause our story.

Standard Time Returns

While I sleep should I keep one eye open a crack to spy for the moment when time falls back?

Friday, November 01, 2013


It's hard to pet a porcupine,
due to the nature of its design.
But if you must,
first win its trust,
then pet very slowly down its spine.

Actual article on topic.

Also, on a festive note, a video of a very cute porcupine chowing down on one of those mini-pumpkins.