Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why No One Publishes My Fiction

My daughter recently asked to email her uncle Matt, who is serving an LDS mission in India. She only wrote the subject line and two sentences, but that was enough to get us past the starting--which is the hardest part of most writing. Nicole went on to tell Matt about our lives (wake up, get spit up on, do laundry, repeat) and said that I would finish by telling more interesting stories. Here is what I wrote:

Dear Elder Mattathias Singh Goldberg Westwood,

Nicole said I would tell you some stories, so here are some stories. Once there as a frog. The frog lived in the bottom of a well, unless it rained really hard, in which case the frog could go and see the big wide very wet world. One day the frog wandered so far into the big wide wet world that the well waters dropped back so far he wouldn't have been able to get back in without a very dangerous jump. But it didn't really matter, because on his way back to the well after the storm, the frog got run over by a rickshaw.

Here is another story: once there was a bird. The bird had three eyes and a magical shadow. From high in its perch in the mountains, the bird would look down on the earth and think "my, it is rainy down there." When it became sunny again, the bird would look with its third eye on the world and see all kinds of things. For examples: a village where every dog had lost one of its legs but all were happy in any case because that is the nature of most dogs, an old man who'd had two fingers frozen off at high elevation during the mostly pointless 1962 war with China who could slip playing cards in and out of his sleeve covertly in the gap between his remaining fingers and made good money doing so, a village of squatters who had erected makeshift homes and even several shrines in the thirtieth through fiftieth floors of an office building which had been abandoned during a past financial crisis, and a dead frog. The bird flew a thousand feet over the frog, which was instantly revived and could thereafter lure sufficient flies into its well to feed its family simply by croaking a hypnotically melodic croak with which it had been gifted.

A thousand year later there was a lost wanderer in a great desert. He looked this way, he looked that way, and he saw only rocks and sand as far as his nearly sand-blind eyes could see. He walked in no particular direction at all and collapsed--afraid that he would weep in despair and that the tears would waste his body's last ounces of liquid and he would die. In the night, the wanderer dreamed of good things to eat: sweet doughy balls, and cakes with the taste of honey and cumin seed, and tiny fritters shaped like the tracks lizards leave as they skattle their way across the barren wasteland. In his dream, he kept feeling as if something was missing, something he desperately needed, and that's when he heard it: a hypnotically melodic croak. The dreaming wanderer left the sweets and walked through the freezing winds of the midnight desert toward the sound. He removed five rocks from their places and then a sixth. As he lifted the sixth rock, off slid three pebbles plink, plink, plink into the waters of the well and the dreamer woke up and fell on his face and drank desperate thirsty gulps of it until he felt human again.

Those are my stories for today. If you were going to kill me, I would tell you nine-hundred and ninety-eight more, but you are not going to kill me, so there's really no need to tell you of the girl the wanderer saw through the well, who could weave her old castaway clothes back into sheep, goats, camels, alpacas, and once--inexplicably--into a wooly mammoth. Nor is there need to tell you about the man who prayed to find his fortune and chanced upon a magical goat and who became very rich selling goat cheese until he learned that the goat had the power of speech and knew the way to a secret kingdom where no one casts the evil eye. And of course I won't tell you about the boy who grew up in a land of happiness but invented another world and walked into it by trying to imagine sorrow.

I hope you are having a good time and learning not to tie your shoes too slowly or disappear into the library of your own mind for too long.

-James

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Should Top Earners Pay Higher Income Taxes?

Dear People in the Top Tax Bracket,

When many liberals look at your incomes, the answer is clear. State and federal governments need money. You have a lot more money than you need to live. Therefore, they should take a higher percentage of money from you, right?

From a practical perspective, that's not bad--an extra percent or two in the top bracket generates a lot more money than a percent or two at the bottom--but it understandably makes many of you top 2% of earners feel a bit like the government has noticed your nice jacket, chased you into a dark alley, and shaken you down at knife point while explaining that they have a bit of a spending addiction and need your help.

From your perspective, it may seem like the United States is built on a clear division of labor: private industry earns the money; the government spends it. You work hard or smart (or else have the foresight to be born with the last name "Walton") and then politicians who are probably too busy text-flirting with teen-aged Congressional pages to do much math blow $3 trillion a year and then announce that they need more of your money. But does anyone ask what you stand to gain from higher taxes?

My friends: fear not. Today, I will try to answer that question. For the first time in the history of the world, I will bother to explain how higher taxes for you top-bracket earners actually benefit you.

But first: let's get to know each other. Let's start with a very personal question: how did you make your money? Maybe you are Bill Gates and before you spent all your time checking this blog for updates, you made a billion dollars by ruling the world of computers (up until Al Gore ruined your near-monopoly by inventing the internet). Or maybe you're way at the bottom end of the top 2% and earn your just over $200 grand a year as a highly successful lawyer or stockbroker or as the owner of a car sales franchise. The again, maybe you're not even in the top 2% yet but you've started your own company making the next big thing and you're pretty sure it will go viral and by next year you'll be crazy rich and so you're worried about top-bracket taxes in advance.

Whatever service you give or product you produce, you are probably very good at it. If you weren't, you probably wouldn't be earning like you are. That makes it easy to think that your special skill--whether it's hard work, intelligence, strong people skills, or having a successful father--is the sole reason for your success. But don't fall into that trap. You don't make money just by being you. You make money if and only if there's a useable outside world to work from.

That is to say: it's hard to sell cars if the government doesn't build roads. It's hard to sell Microsoft Word to every household in countries without public education where the majority of people are illiterate. And it's hard to successfully start your own company in relatively government-free places like Somalia, where everyone's been too busy surviving to develop skills that make them worth hiring, where shoplifters carry automatic weapons, and where it's really not worth it for the average person to venture out of their house to buy your goods anyway.

Successful businesspeople make better products, but they rely on the larger society for quality markets. Take a few moments to estimate the:
a) cost of educating your own laborers from childhood: $______
b) cost of providing the only security for your business operations: $______
c) lost profits from customers without access to your product because of gov't roads, or because a lack of public education makes it useless to them, or who don't buy your product because they or their parents couldn't pay for a medical emergency years ago and they died: $_____
Total: $_____

Now write down the amount you pay in federal and state taxes: $______
Next, multiply the federal part of that number by .13 and add it to the line above. This is your tax amount if the Bush tax cuts expire: $____

It may seem obvious to you based on these two lists that you earn a lot more by operating under a decent government than without a government. So obvious, in fact, that you might think people in your bracket would want to give money to the government whether they were taxed or not. But my dear high-earning friend: do not be fooled. Other high earners, the ones who don't read this blog, are not as philanthropic as you. All businesses have a vested interest in making the market more educated, safer, and healthier, but since the market is so big, most of them won't do it unless everyone solemnly swears to work on the problem together. Many top earners would rather claim that their jet ski purchases stimulate the economy than actually do more to pay for the military, infrastructure, and educated populace they actually depend on.

Let's talk about this in the context of now. If we let the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% of earners expire, each of you goes from paying 35% of your income to paying 39.6% and the government gets an extra $70 billion or so per year. How much is $70 billion? More than enough to pay for the entire Marine Corps ($29 billion per year). More than we spend, even in this age of tracking terrorists, on military intelligence (about $50 billion per year). It's also more than twice the current estimated net cost of TARP ($30 billion), and just over the usual budget of the entire U.S. Department of Education (about $60 billion a year not counting recent stimulus money). Yes: even by government standards, $70 billion a year is real money.

Now, let's imagine that because of the $700 billion less in revenue the government will get thanks to eight-now-turning-into-ten-years of the Bush tax cuts in your bracket, one of these services ultimately gets cut. Have these tax cuts for your bracket really been worth 24 years' worth of Marine Corps funding? Or 14 years' worth of military intelligence? Have they been worth more than 23 bailouts? Go ask the Tea Party about that last one--I'm curious to hear what they think.

Of course, most Tea Partiers would probably say that the real problem with federal spending isn't the Marines and that bailouts are Satanic but rare. They would say instead that the $700 billion the Bush tax cuts for you top earners cost should come out of entitlement programs that only serve to turn losers into whiners. I will not use the same line of argument with you, however, because unlike Tea Partiers, you know that this is silly--thanks to the Social Security Wage Base, everyone in your bracket pays the same $6,621.60 maximum social security tab as someone with a $100,000 a year income, meaning that your social security tax rate is far lower than your cleaning lady's is. (You also know that Medicare is funded by a flat tax, but let's not talk about that too loudly.)

In the end, then, you can't blame the entitlements. And you profit way too much from government-funded services like security, infrastructure, and increased consumer and workforce access to education and health care to be bothered, if you're honest with yourself, by the relatively low prospective 39.6% tax rate that makes a country where people earn what you do possible.

The real question, I suppose, is whether you want people in the future to be able to earn as much as you do. If you think the country should stay safe, strong, and developed enough for the best businesses to have a chance at the success you've seen, you should beg for the $70 billion annually in tax cuts your demographic is getting to end. If you've been aching to see the end of collective American prosperity and supremacy, you should call up your local Republican Senator and offer him a ride on your new jet skis.

And who knows? Maybe you can become the first American multi-millionaire to jet ski all the way to Somalia, and you can start a business while you're there...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Guessing Game

After spending three hours trying to figure out which districts I am part of (it's something like 4, 57, 26, 4, IV, and apparently none of 8, 9, 10, 12, 14 and whatever else was up for state school board), I finally managed to get sent home from the polling station to come back with proof of address (my driver's license still lists my old address, twenty minutes away). Don't worry, though. I did come back and vote, which has given me my annual buzz of civic engagement--sort of like going to church on Easter gives select people a year's worth of religion.

In more amusing news, Kira decided we should play a guessing game on the way home. I was a little burned out on guessing after all that voting, but Nicole and I played along anyway. Kira's game worked like this: she'd give us three clues, and then we'd guess what she was talking about. This worked pretty well when she'd tell us things like:
-she's an aunt
-she has red hair
-she's awesome
but got more difficult when the clues changed to
-it's a noun
-it's fast
-it's cool

For those of you playing at home, the answer to the first set of clues is "Kirstin." My answer to the second was "I don't know, Kira, and I don't want to guess" but the real answer was "Beavers. No, actually cats. Cats look like beavers. Haha! Cats look like beavers! Cats look like beavers! Cats look like beavers! Hahahaha! Cats look like beavers! Cats look like beavers! Cats look like beavers! Cats look like beavers!"

She danced her way into the house and down the hall to this refrain and was still laughing about the line as she put on her pajamas.

Sometimes I wish I had her energy, but times like this remind me it's probably safer that I don't.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

An Interview with Barack Obama's Unicorn

Several days ago, I mentioned Barack Obama's unicorn in a post. The next night, the unicorn appeared in my dream for an interview. Unfortunately, I can't recall much of what the unicorn said. The following is a fictional transcript of the actual interview.



Unicorn: I read your post the other day.
Me: Oh my gosh! It's a unicorn!
Unicorn: Yeah...I get that a lot.
Me: Sorry. You must be the President's--
Unicorn: He and I have been working together for several years, yes.
Me: Wow. I'm pleased to meet you...uh...
Unicorn: Hussein.
Me: Excuse me?
Unicorn: Hussein. My mother was an Arabian and so even before I was born her owner had picked out the name Hussein. It's not really a traditional unicorn name, but since neither of my parents had horns or magical powers, he wasn't really expecting me.
Me: But I thought all unicorns had horns?
Hussein: No, the horn gene is recessive.
Me: Oh.
Hussein: Yeah.
(crickets chirp)
Me: So did you and the president bond over your shared name? I mean, his middle name is also--
Hussein: Oh, it's not really his middle name. We added that after he and I got together. See, he was working as a community organizer in Chicago, and I happened to drop by to use my magical powers to heal this little kid who'd accidentally eaten some asbestos...Barack was pretty fascinated and asked if I'd ever thought about going into politics...I turned him down then, but when we decided to team up a few years later, I went back in time and added the Hussein so the public could know in some small way about me.
Me: You went back in time?
Hussein: That gene's also recessive.
Me: Right. So what made you decide to go into politics?
Hussein: Well, I'd been using my recessive magical powers to heal people, and quite frankly, it takes a lot out of me. So I figured it was high time for a system overhaul. I tried going back first to talk Lyndon Johnson into it, but he said his plate was pretty full. So I said "that's OK. I'm a unicorn. I'm sure I can get someone else elected president."
Me: So wait--this whole health care overhaul was your idea?
Hussein: Idea, no. You don't have to be a unicorn to believe that people in this country should have access to health care whether they can afford a Prius or not. I just gave the idea a little push is all.
Me: You know, a lot of people don't like your health care reform.
Hussein: It's not what I'd hoped to get through. I tried to bore through some of the bureaucracy and paperwork with my horn, but it got stuck and I gave up. It's a half-canter forward, though. You have to admit that.
Me: Not really. Some people say it's a communist plot to turn our country into a second-rate version of Canada.
Hussein: Oh, I don't know that it goes that far. Maternity leave is much better in Canada. So is the curry, actually, now that you mention it--there's a place in Brampton which has some of the best karhi pakora I've ever tasted--I'd say the United States isn't quite up to being a second-rate Canada yet.
Me: Um...Americans don't like being told we're not the best. It's politically incorrect.
Hussein: Right. Sorry.
Me: It's all right. I'll still check out the place in Brampton.
Hussein: You should.
Me: So I take you've been completely surprised by the backlash against your reform bill?
Hussein: More or less. Unicorns are naturally more optimistic and generous than people, so that's probably part of it. When the Tea Party thing started though I had to go back in time to try to get the Founders to explain to me what was going on...
Me: Really? What did they have to say?
Hussein: Oh, nothing helpful. I asked them why they hated taxes so much and they said taxes themselves weren't the issue, they just didn't want to foot the whole bill for the Seven Years' War.
Me: Interesting.
Hussein: Yes, but not very useful. I told Barack about it and he said wars had dropped out of people's top ten concerns in recent polls, so we'll have to leave the whole war-cost protest to the 1770s.
Me: What's your mid-term election strategy, then?
Hussein: Well...I've been placed a bit outside the inner circle on that one. See, Barack's current thinking is that my whole "Yes, We Can" strategy set expectations too high and now no one will ever forgive him for not saving the world. He's thinking it might be safer to run on something like "Let's Not Kill Each Other," but that might be a bit of a long shot...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

India Urges Hindu Fundamentalists to Visit New York

In 1992, a mob of Hindu fundamentalists demolished the 16th-century Babri mosque in the North Indian city of Ayodhya, claiming that the land the mosque occupied is sacred to Hinduism and Muslims need to get out of everybody's sacred places. Israeli settlers in Hebron and American oil companies which had formerly operated in Iraq strongly agreed. Lately, however, it's not a sacred oil well or Palestinian territory or possible birthplace of a Hindu god where Muslims are finding themselves unwelcome, it's New York City--a place no one would have expected back in 1992 would ever be sacred to anybody.

Eighteen years after the demolition of the Babri mosque, India's courts are prepared to issue a verdict in the longstanding dispute over the disputed site, but India's leaders have one request: would all organized Hindu fundamentalists in the Ayodhya area take a field trip to New York first just in case they need time to get over the ruling without killing anyone?


Hindu fundamentalists at a 2003 rally
to build support for a temple on the
site of the razed mosque.

Key leaders in India's Bharatiya Janata Party are currently in talks with the New-York based Tea Party Express about the specifics of trip funding. According to a Tea Party spokesman, who wished to remain anonymous, the visiting Indians will likely be used to "add some much-needed color" at several protests in addition to the main events outside the proposed Park51 site.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Super-Nerdy Post

Some of you may be wondering why I am constantly full of crap. I have no idea, but I suspect part of the answer might be that what I am actually thinking about is usually far too nerdy to discuss in public, and so I've learned to be silly and crazy and lie a lot instead.


What am I really thinking? I looked over old
pictures to try to read my face, but it was too
covered in powder from Holi.

Today on Caucajewmexdian, I tried to explain pretty transparently one thing I'm actually thinking about. Or rather: I tried to explain one thing I was actually thinking about two months ago which has since become far nerdier and more complicated and difficult to dump onto a page (and unsuspecting audience) all at once.

In any case. There will be no insane, tongue-stuck-in-cheek-so-hard-you'd-have-to-pry-it-out-with-a-jackhammer sort of post here today. Sorry. The best I can offer is my super-nerdy post on the blog next door. Read at your own risk (mostly of boredom but with an outside chance of infectious nerdiness).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Crisis Report: U.S. Kids Can't Tie Shoelaces Like They Used To

A recent report issued by the influential Center for Motor Skills Research indicates that the United States has now fallen to 47th worldwide in percentage of six-year-olds who can tie their own shoelaces. Fifteen years ago, the United States ranked third.


The sobering reality on America's playgrounds today.

What's behind the precipitous decline in this traditional core childhood skill? No one really has any idea, but this blog still went the rounds and asked the experts. Their theories:


Blame Flip-Flops

Shoelace industry insider Robert E. Bell, Jr., CEO of Old Hickory Shoelace Co., blames flip-flops. "We used to think that Velcro was the big threat," said Bell "We never imagined our culture would turn casual enough to make flip-flops a problem. They aren't good for your kids' feet, they keep kids from learning this core skill: if parents keep dressing their little girls in flip-flops all summer and half the fall, we're on our way to becoming a third-world country, shoe-wise." Bell added, "this is making me upset. Let's not spend any more time talking about it."


Blame Eastern Europe

"Yes, fewer American children can tie their shoes today than could in the age of the dinosaurs" says Facebook's Jim Breyer, "but the fall to 47th has a lot to do with the rapid gains countries like Romania and Moldova are making, and we don't need to always compare ourselves to them. So turn off the red alert and go back to playing FarmVille. Your kids aren't from Moldova, and for Americans, they're doing just fine."


Blame Technology

"Did Peter Thiel really say that? How ironic!" says a character played by actor/director/producer Jeff Daniel Phillips. "Look: if kids weren't playing the video games and parents weren't spending their lives on Facebook and your blog, you wouldn't be interviewing me about this so-called 'crisis'."

"Why are you interviewing me, actually?" Daniels added.


Blame Pres. Obama's Low Approval Rating

"People need to spend less time being disappointed with my husband and more time building their children's skills" says Michelle Obama. "Next time you're tempted to read and forward an email saying that Barack is secretly Muslim, ask yourself if you've taught your kids about how the rabbit goes around the tree and down the hole. And I mean the shoelace rabbit, not some conspiracy theory one."


Blame No Child Left Behind

"I'm sure you've gotten all kinds of explanations, but the truth is pretty simple," says kindergarten teacher Tejinder Dhaliwal of Visalia, California, "We used to help kids with these sorts of skills in kindergarten. No Child Left Behind changed all that. I'm not surprised by these numbers and wouldn't be surprised to see similar declines in jump-roping, finger-painting, and social skills. We chose to raise a generation of test-takers. We've got to live with the consequences of those decisions."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Opinion: America Should Sign Subprime Contract with Republicans

House Republicans recently unveiled a (sort of) detailed "Pledge to America" which outlines their rationale for a future subprime "Contract with America." The basic message goes like this: America needs to balance its budget, but can't afford to let go of any of the Bush tax cuts or any part of Medicare or Social Security or our military budget, which actually needs to be increased to fully fund a missile defense system. The only way out of this dilemma is to get a low, adjustable-rate mortgage using the rest of our government as collateral.

This is a good idea for two reasons:

1) If the economy magically improves, then an adjustable-rate mortgage can only go down!!

2) As everyone knows, our federal government is a bit of a fixer-upper anyway, so it wouldn't be so bad if the foreclosure clause of the "Contract with America" get activated.



"But wait!" you say, "I thought getting foreclosed on was a bad thing!"

Think again, long and hard, about what the federal government does. It:
a) Promotes global warming by maintaining roads and airports. If we allowed our freeways and airports to collapse, people would use less fuel and Mother Earth would be happier. :)
b) Spends lots of money on children whose parents aren't making much money. This is just stupid, since the kids can't even vote, and their working-class parents are probably too busy to vote. What programs like CHIP do is allow harmless children to turn into dangerous voting seniors, who are basically like terrorists who hold the country hostage by having nothing better to do than show up at the polls. Hence the Pledge's gun-point promise not to touch Social Security or Medicare. If we allow underprivileged children to turn into old people, we are letting the terrorists win.
c) Maintains national parks with public funds, preventing private sector development. Wouldn't Yellowstone be better if it were run by Disney Corp? And couldn't we sell the Smithsonian to the Chinese or something?
d) Funds Congress, which--after Enron and the Banks and the Media and deadbeat dads and students taking tests and prominent evangelical leaders who like to pay men to spend extra time with them and any group involved in any way with the city of New Orleans--is one of the most dishonest and corrupt institutions in our country.

This blog seldom takes overt positions on political issues, but would like to give its ringing endorsement to the Republican Pledge to America. Please pray to the Constitution that the Republicans will win a billion seats in Congress this November so that they can shut it down and go home and we won't have to worry about roads and uninsured children and communists and their unicorns anymore. Amen.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Goldberg Guide to Effective New Media!

As I came into class today, two of my students were discussing another class they share. Apparently, the teacher lectures for all two and a half hours, but has required the students to sign up for Twitter so they can talk to each other about class.

Wow! I thought. The internet does solve everything. You can be really boring, but the power of social media will make all your students want to spend extra time staring at a screen talking about your course matter anyway! Heck, maybe next semester you could just tweet your two-and-a-half hour lecture, 140 characters at a time. Everyone is more interesting with a little bird voice.

Twitter, however, has limited application. It's really only good for adding instant excitement to education. For humor, where my interest lies, you have to look beyond Twitter into MS Paint, which has a similar sort of magic:



Interesting fact: MS Paint is also a good way to diagnose a medically deficient sense of humor. If you see something in Paint, and you don't think it's funny, you should either see a doctor or self-medicate until it is funny to you.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

This Post has Been Outsourced

...to Russia, where a comment inspired me to write my first sonnet since ninth grade.

Here's a completely unrelated picture:



It is of a deer I saw on my way to Nicole's graduation.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How to Fix the Economy

Heard on the news today that officially speaking, the recession ended a year ago. That is, things aren't technically getting worse anymore, there's just a lot of leftover bad. Economists call this period after a recession ends a "recess" because so many people are underemployed and therefore theoretically have more time to play outside (if you're an economist, playing outside is always only theoretical). Americans who are not economists don't know the technical term "recess" and so they call the period we're in lots of other words which are not printable on this blog and spend their extra time applying for theoretical jobs.


Our recess: looks a bit lonely, but otherwise nice.


The good news about the current recess is that I have a part-time job. I teach three classes at a university, which happens to be what full-time professors do, except that they have to go to faculty meetings. Also they get paid nearly twice as much as I do and get medical benefits and usually travel allowances.

I know numerous people in the same position I am in, because they are my co-workers. Like me, they graduated at a time when most institutions have full-time hiring freezes, and therefore hire lots of the people who can't find full-time jobs to teach part-time for less money and no benefits instead.

Don't get me wrong--I don't blame my employer. When the economy is slow and your funding is down, there aren't many options other than to do what they're doing. My guess is that numerous companies in numerous sectors are doing the exact same sorts of things right now. If my company let all of us extra part-timers go and replaced us with full-time employees, we'd be stuck with nowhere to go, and the company would be stuck with too much payroll for a continuing economic recess.

No--in order for things to get better, all the underemployed people in the country would have to quit at once and not take another job unless it paid nearly twice as much, included benefits, and involved mandatory attendance at boring meetings. If this mass quitting were to happen, employers would all have to take a crazy risk at once and start hiring full-time, which would give most of the people who just quit real jobs, which would stimulate the economy, which would save all the companies that just risked their necks to hire.

Yes--every struggling company would be foolish to hire full-time people now and every single part-time employee doing more than part-time work would be incredibly foolish to quit now, but if all the part-timers were to quit and all the companies were to hire, things would work out just fine.


...all quit our jobs at once! That's change America can believe in
if it closes its eyes and tries really, really hard.

So: if you see President Obama this week, tell him to read this blog post. And this blog post will tell him to cancel his traditional yearly message to sixth graders and address the nation's part-timers instead. If he tells us all to quit, and we all listen, the recess will end and he'll get re-elected. If the President doesn't read this blog, or doesn't come up with the same brilliant plan on his own, his approval ratings will continue to fall and we'll end up with four years of President Glenn Beck.

The choice is yours. Well, no, actually it's his. I think.

Please leave a comment if I'm right, Mr. President. (I'd also accept an electronic hoofprint from your unicorn if you're in a hurry.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Good Life

Apologies must go up front to my more sensitive readers: I am about to offer my second scatalogical story this week alone, but rest assured that I weighed your feelings before deciding that this tale must be told.

My infant son and I had been spending a pleasant Yom Kippur afternoon together, he resting peacefully on my side (where he could hear my heartbeat), me thinking about change, as you're supposed to do on Yom Kippur. At some point a sound made clear that one thing in my life which would need particular changing was my boy's diaper, but I waited good and long to do so, because he's developed quite a reputation for peeing whenever the diaper comes off: on the nurses who weighed him at birth and after one week, on the doctor just prior to his circumcision, and as often as possible at home.

At length, I repaired (I'm not sure I'm using that word right--but it sounds quaint and dated, which is nice and helps compensate for the subject matter) to the changing table, and commenced to effect the change. No sooner did I reach for the new diaper, however, than an explosion of yellow matter with a deli-mustard-like consistency propelled itself out of my son's body, off the end of the changing pad, then the changing table, then over a foot of carpet (raining down bits and pieces along the way) and onto the back of the open door. Thinking of nothing else, I moved post-haste to contain the damage at the end of the changing table, not thinking to cover him in the meantime, so that soon I was distracted by the sound of a stream of liquid hitting the nearby wall and thereafter turning upwards and soiling the table off the other end of the changing pad.

All told, my son's mess stretched perhaps four feet and required some seven separate wipies to deal with. I had to clean him, the pad, the table, the carpet, the door, then move the table to clean the wall. How is a father, in such circumstances, supposed to react?

I could angrily lecture my infant son on hygiene, but elected not to waste any energy doing so.

I could choose to believe that if there were a God, he would not create baby boys with such powerful digestive organs, but thought it better to leave the Almighty and his creation alone.

I could cry and cry and cry about the hard world and the soiled clothes and the realization that by the time he's toilet trained the room may never be the same.

But it was so much more fun to laugh while I cleaned him up and put him down for a rest (after his great exertions), then call my sister on the phone to share the absurdity of the story all the while thinking that yes, this is proof if there ever was such a thing: I am living the good life.

Friday, September 17, 2010

New Business Plan

So...I was all excited about opening a local vegetarian bakery, but then I found out that most cakes and cookies sold locally are meat-free already. The same is true in this area, believe it or not, of ice cream parlors (one serves a beef jerky ice cream, and another features a turkey gravy as a topping option, but everything else is meat free), so there went my back-up plan.

Nicole and I discussed moving to another city where a vegetarian bakery or ice cream parlor would still be a novelty, but we don't know that many people in Montana. So I've come up with a C plan instead: I'll make millions of dollars selling heartbeat bassinets.



Believe me: babies will buy them. There are few things babies hate like not lying on their parents. A baby who is used to being inside of its mother and hearing the comforting rhythms of her heart doesn't need three dangling stars above its head: two dangling stars are plenty, and the other space can be used for an artificial heart (see diagram above). With an artificial heart beating a familiar rhythm overhead, the baby can sleep peacefully in the bassinet.

A warning to parents: if you don't let your baby buy my heartbeat bassinet, whatever bassinet you do buy will probably end up as virtually useless decor and you'll be doomed to stay up all night blogging because you're afraid to actually fall asleep with a baby on your chest. Just a friendly warning.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tax Cuts and Bubbles

Nine years ago, I made one of those paper count-down chains they taught us to make in elementary school in the weeks leading up to winter break. Every week, I've been cutting off another link and am almost done, because this is the season when the Bush tax cuts are set to expire. For me, that will be a symbolic moment of exorcism: in a significant way we will be a little more free from that dark ghost of economics past.



Or will we? I heard on the radio today that the Democrats and Republicans are fighting over the issue in a way I didn't expect. The Republicans want all the tax cuts, including the ones on the richest 2% of Americans, extended (after all, if you're making $8 million a year, your time is too valuable to look for all the tax loopholes designed for the rich. It's much easier to get your taxes off up front without having to come up with a charity donation or local investment to write off). The Democrats don't want those tax cuts extended--but they do want to keep the rest of the Bush tax cuts, the ones that protect "middle class Americans" who earn $200,000 per year.

Did you hear that? $200,000 a year is middle class! Good thing we've got a party to fight for the vulnerable people in that income bracket!

Politically, I guess it makes sense to call very-but-not-quite-obscenely-rich people "middle class," but I'm beginning to wonder if that sort of thinking, on both sides of the aisle, is what got us into this economic mess in the first place. As I recall, the current economic crisis began when people took out massive sub-prime mortgages and second mortgages on houses they couldn't afford in the first place and then (surprise!) couldn't make their payments. Why, I wondered, would so many people do that?

Simple. Let's say you want a normal, middle-class American standard of living, and Congress tells you that means you should spend up to $200,000 a year. You'd better take a loan out fast, because where I come from, ain't many people who actually earn that.

Maybe we got in this crisis in the first place because Bush tax cuts drove up our collective idea of what appropriate spending was. The rich got richer and the "middle class" spent more to try to keep up, whether they had it or not.


Q: If you can pay cash for 16 of these every year, still have
$40,000 for living expenses, and be considered middle class,
what's the minimum number you have to buy to prove that
you're not dirt poor? A: I don't know, but loans never hurt.

I'm about ready to start my own Tea Party, except that in mine, we'll sink luxury goods to the bottom of Boston Harbor until people decide they're not worth going into debt and wrecking the economy for and maybe we should spend our money on things like schools, hospitals, research, and cleaner factories instead.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time there was a little moon-baby who came to earth. The earth was beautiful, but in the thick gravity everything felt heavy. It was hard for the moon-baby to move his arms and legs and he couldn't float around anymore. The gravity made the moon-baby tired and he'd sleep and sleep.

I'd watch his moon-face and I'd watch the slow way he'd stretch his moon-fingers. Here is a secret: I am also from the moon. My mind still makes moon-jumps, in fact, but my fingers are slow in all this gravity and my eyelids won't stay open while I try to write.

This world is heavy. Heavy, heavy, heavy. That's why you have to learn to close your eyes and think of the moon. Closed eyes are your moon-eyes, and your moon-eyes remember that in the real world, which is the moon, things are light.

When you will remember that, you will smile your moon-smile. Here is another secret I will someday tell the moon-baby. The moon-smile is what will make the other moon-people recognize you. It's the way you open your moon-eyes and smile the moon-smile that will make a silver-souled moon-girl fall in love with you some day.

Monday, September 13, 2010

...and we're back (sort of)

As you may recall, I had hoped to blog for twenty minutes each day (note: Sundays are holidays, and don't count) during the month of September. Well, Friday I didn't, and Saturday my twenty minutes consisted of staring at the screen and thinking about the craziness of this year's 9/11 anniversary but not coming up with anything witty to say about it.

I'm still feeling a little short on the witties. Or wits. Or whatever you call them.

Look! A postcard from my sister:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Look, Daddy! I can pee eight inches past the top of my head!

The diaper was actually "poopy"--that's the technical term the hospital nurses use for the result of an infant's bowel movements--but just before I finished changing it, my son decided it was a good time to pee: on his belly, on his fourth pair of clothes for the day, on my arm, on his changing pad, and off the edge of his changing pad for a total distance I estimate at eight inches past the top of his head.

Eight inches.

If you calculate that according to body size, it's something like if I peed straight up in the air nine up to nine feet above the ground.

Kids--even when they're a mess, they're strangely fascinating. (Or maybe you just turn crazy when you become a parent as a defense mechanism.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Today is a Magick Day

Spent my twenty minutes today (well, OK, it was thirty, but close) on the blog next door.

Be back here later.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Quick Story

Nicole and I like to talk. A lot. For most of our marriage, we've spent a few hours each night just chatting with each other.

Yesterday, shortly after he was born, the baby heard my voice behind him. He craned his head impressively far back to take a look at me, as if he were trying hard to connect new sights to sounds he knew far better than I had realized.



There are a lot of things in life that probably technically matter which I don't often get done. But I feel pretty good about the choices I make thinking about the way my infant son already recognized me.

I won second place in a fiction contest and third place in the same magazine's essay contest recently, and that was affirming. But the voice I care most about is not the one that ends up printed on a page--it's the one whose sound makes my son want to turn his head.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Compleat Book of Advice for Today's Child and Her Balloon

The sheer ingenuity of today's children makes parenting a terrific challenge. As numerous surveys have shown, most parents have either "no idea" or a "foggy idea" of what to tell their children 86% of the time. Take Nicole and I--the question we most often ask our daughter is "what are you doing?"--if we don't even know what she's up to when we're watching her, how can we possibly give her all the advice she needs?

When we do give advice, it is often in the form of sentences sadly under-represented in parenting books, such as "it's hard to wash the table when there's a balloon wrapped around your finger" and "don't spin your plate when there's that much rice on it."

This problem is not limited to us. A close friend confirmed that some of the most important advice she gave to her son was, "If you don't know what it is, you shouldn't stick it in the video slot."

In order to better prepare both parents and children for situations such as these, I've decided to compile a complete list of advice for children. Ideally, parents would discuss a few lines such as those above with their children each night, so as to head off problems in advance.

If you have found yourself putting together extremely unusual or bizarre sentences in your interactions with children, please put them in the comments section below so that we can make this book as comprehensive as possible.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What we've got here is failure to communicate...

When I need money, which is pretty much always, I like to earn it by teaching persuasive writing at BYU. The Greeks called the study of persuasion "rhetoric" and, in compliance with a 1926 Congressional Act called for the preservation of words using the consonant combination "rh" in the English language, we still use that term in class. I explained just two days ago that rhetoric is not all about the writer, but involves connecting writer, issue, and audience. An important part of rhetoric, I told my class, is understanding your audience's values and appealing to them, rather than to your own values, when making an argument.

I don't think they teach rhetoric in French schools. Probably also not in Iran. As the following case of an issue, some writers, and an audience will demonstrate, however, rhetoric-education is valuable, and you should keep paying me to do it in the U.S.

The Issue
In 2006, an Iranian woman named Sakineh Ashtiani was charged with committing adultery and helping her lover murder her husband. If I understand correctly, either crime alone carries the death sentence in Iran, so her conviction on both counts put her on death row, with stoning as a possible means of execution. If I understand correctly, there are also major questions about whether she actually was involved in the murder of her husband and especially about whether her confession was obtained through torture. Various human rights groups have expressed serious concerns over the case.

The Writers
In response to a recent rumor (later denied by the Iranian embassy) that Sakineh Ashtiani would be executed by stoning, several prominent figures in France decided to write letters in Sakineh's support. An ex-President of France summoned stirring lines like "I consider that the grand Persian culture which contributed so much to human civilization deserves better than this." Segolene Royal, who nearly became France's first female president in 2007, said that Ashtiani was "enslaved for the crime of being a woman" and that punishing her "will lead to even more unhappiness." And then, perhaps taking a cue from Royal, Carla Bruni, the Italian-born model who is currently serving a term as wife of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, entered the fray with an open letter to Sakineh, which built up to this emotional appeal:
"I just can’t see what good could come out of this macabre ceremony, whatever the judicial reasons put forward to justify it. Shed your blood and deprive children of their mother, why? Because you have lived, because you have loved, because you’re a woman and because you’re Iranian? Everything within me refuses to accept this."

The Audience
How might all these appeals resonate with the values of the Iranian government? My guess is that ex.-Pres. d'Estaing's appeal to the greatness of Persian culture might have backfired, since the last time an Iranian government cared more about its Persian Imperial heritage than its Islamic religious heritage was under the Shah the current government fought a revolution against. I'd also be surprised if Royal's insistence that Ashtiani was imprisoned "for being a woman" went over well with people who don't think the being a woman necessarily includes committing adultery. But I only know for sure about reactions to Bruni's letter, which elicited a headline in a major Iranian paper called Kayhan which translates to, "French Prostitutes Join the Human Rights Protest." The editorial references Bruni's high-profile pre- and extra-marital affairs and suggested that Bruni was defending Ashtiani only because "she herself deserves death." Since Iran has sometimes acted outside its borders on its ideas of who should live and die, that particular statement didn't go over well with the French, who have announced that they will push for new sanctions on Iran.


Aristotle might have been a more effective
writer in this case, because unlike Bruni
he a) understands rhetoric and b) hasn't been
paid to pose for naked pictures now available
to the world on the internet.

Progress
So: the French called on Iran to change, but without taking their audience's history and values into consideration. This mostly upset Iran, where a major newspaper called the French first lady a prostitute. The paper went on to give its own view of how extramarital sex should be handled, completely ignoring French fears of Iranian violence--if tougher sanctions go through, Iran will be probably lose millions of dollars over that one sentence.
Who, exactly, is winning in all this?
Am I naive to believe that the French could have done better had they focused on issues like evidence instead of appealing to the glory of the Persian Empire? Am I wrong to think Carla Bruni maybe should have stopped at "why deprive these children of their mother?" in her final draft rather than drawing attention to herself and her own values with the "Because you have lived, because you have loved, because you’re a woman and because you’re Iranian? Everything within me refuses to accept this" lines?
And am I off-base in thinking that Iran could have successfully dismissed these rhetorically poor French appeals without mentioning that in their hardcore Iranian opinion, another country's prominent public figure technically "deserves death"?

In conclusion
Words can be useful and powerful things. Carefully chosen words can actually reach across cultural difference to help achieve an objective. When using words to try and influence someone else, however, it's important to keep one rule in one's mind: you are not talking to yourself!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mormons: the Next Generation

My best friend, Michael, and I made up half the Mormon population in our grade at the local high school. A teacher who had both of us, but had somehow missed our shared faith, called us his "Thoreaubians" because of the strong independent streak we'd developed from our minority religious experience.

Michael and I both went to colleges in Ohio for a year, followed by two years each of full-time church missions (his to Brazil and mine to Germany the same year those two nations faced off in the finals of the World Cup), followed by half a year each back at Ohio colleges, after which we both ended up out West at BYU (Michael a semester or two sooner than I).

After a few years in Utah, Michael got married. About a year after him, I got married, too.

Yesterday, Michael's wife gave birth to a son they named Owen:



Sometime soon (she hopes very soon), my wife will give birth to a son we'll name Elijah or Jacob or Benjamin or Leif (unless we listen to Kira and name him "Balraj" or "Bob Singh").

Looking at little Owen, I can't help but think: Michael and I have done really well for ourselves. We've both made through the first third of our lives (statistically speaking) without touching alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. We've spent three hours each week in church getting practice listening patiently, which is not bad exercise for being husbands and fathers. We've found good women who share our belief in God and our commitment to his children and want to make homes with us. We've lived in American abundance without turning totally materialistic, and we've learned an awful lot without developing the delusion that we know everything we need to know.

And now we're helping launch another generation of Mormon men. So I pray for them: that they'll find good ways to belong and know when it's a blessing not to belong. That they'll know what they want enough in their hearts to avoid the worst distractions our society throws at their senses. That they'll be aware but not too afraid, and open but not thoughtless or reckless. I don't pray that their world will be better: I know it will be better and also worse. But I pray that both its good and its evil will ultimately serve to bring out the divine in them.

May they remember and honor the dead as they serve and care for the living.

Happy late birth day, Owen. Happy soon-to-be birth day, my son.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Month of Mayhem

Some of you may have noticed that I sort fell out of the internet over the course of the summer. This is because the internet is actually shaped like a donut--it's easy to get caught up running around and around in circles for ever, but when you get right to the center there's nothing there.

In Buddhist thought, your soul is also that way. There are all kinds of thoughts and worries and actions around the edges, but the center is absolutely uncluttered. And if you could let go of all the outside stuff, the center would be set free.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), I'm not interested in being set free at this point in my life. I have a daughter here, and a son very close to here, and I'd far rather be caught up in the madness of life for them than risk accidentally becoming enlightened and ending up orange-robed in some faraway monastery.

To prevent enlightenment, then, I'm determined to return to this blog! I have made a resolution that I'll write (almost) every day in September, a feat I plan to achieve through two simple twists:
1) I will stop writing after twenty minutes each day, for good or ill.
2) I won't lie as much as usual, because it takes so much effort. I'll have to just tell you what I'm thinking about instead--which will probably be mostly incoherent.

Please enjoy the coming month of mayhem!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Quick Question

So: I started graduate school by paying for an orchiechtomy. I am now finishing by paying for a root canal.

People warned me that more education means greater earning power. They neglected to mention that the purpose of greater earning power is so you can pay to have the dangerous parts of your body removed one by one.

I forget what my question was.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Birthday Kira

Author's note 7/30/10. My sister, Judith, somehow obtained my login information, presumably from a source who may or may not be married to me...in any case, she added some interest to my long vacation from Blogland by covertly inserting this post:

Birthdays, birthdays, birthdays, one minute it's the blogs birthday, then it's the birthday of the neice I blove most, and next it will be the very first birthday of a tiny baby child. Kira's little tiny baby child brother, I mean. Which will make her most definitely not an only child, although I guess she never really was.

Yes indeed, yesterday on the Fourth of July it was my niece Kira's birthday. So here is a toast, to Kira! Or perhaps it should be an oatmeal - I have had heard rumors that it is the preferred breakfast fare. We shall toast that you, Kira, may enjoy many many bowls of oatmeal the years to come. (can you hear the clinking of fine crystal glasses?)

Kira has accomplished a lot in the last year. I mean she went to kindergarten and graduated college with a theses too - and unless I'm mistaken, the graduation came before the kindergarten gig. And possibly she had a couple of multi-cultural weddings too. Amazing, kids these days - half of 'em are hooligans and the other half graduating even before Mrs. Whats-her-name has the chance to hand out snacks and settle 'em down for nap time.

I remember when I was visiting in Utah how excited Kira was for kindergarten, I suppose that it is first grade eve that is upcoming now. I hope that by then brother will wake up on time and that he has a better grasp on the complicated subject of girl's hair.

Maybe when I come to visit Utah in October I'll wake up and Kira and I can do James' hair before we take him Kindergarten class. I mean she needs to learn how to do boys hair at a young age or else Balraj will be left to fend through hair gel and schlac by himself! Except for my brother is very bald. I guess if he had hair he would just look even more like Osama bin Laden anyways. What kind of fate leaves brothers, one often mistaken for Jesus and the other for a terrorist? Kira, we should buy a wig for your dad or maybe a toupee...

Speaking of brothers, I still feel awful that I missed James' groomellete party, not to mention Jamicole's awesome wedding, which of course was a pretty big day in Kira's life -- part five. What are you going to do to top that day in life part six, Kira? But I was running around Thailand and India at the time, so I suppose I'll just forget and not slow down.

Yup, Kira, no looking back. I am only looking forward to baby blessings and hopefully a family Thanksgiving spent in New York and summers in Utah.

We all have a lot to look forward to, especially my favoritest six year old to date.

To Kira, from your littlest ant, in Thailand.

(and sister to you, Mr. James)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Happy Birthday to Blog

Well, the grand day has finally arrived. One year has passed since my first-ever blog post.

Hooray!

According to voting readers, the best post ever on this blog is "Best Goldbergish Post Ever?," which just goes to show that elections aren't worth much.

The more exclusive "jury prize"--selected by a panel of secretive experts--for best Goldbergish post goes to "I Apologize" (although it's neither on this blog or written by me), and to "Piano Lessons" (also not on this blog and not by me), which just goes to show how bad secretive experts are at following directions, even if they have good taste.

In other news, this blog has gotten 4,400 visits to date, at an average visit duration of three and a half minutes. Assuming that the average reader's time is worth $10/hr, that means just over $2,500 worth of your collective time has been spent here. That's awfully low tuition for the wonderful education you've been getting in such valuable subjects as. . . um. . . oh, look, it's an eagle!


Word to the wise: never hold a blog birthday costume party.
I'm just sayin'.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Best Goldbergish Post Ever?

It has come to our attention that next Wednesday is the first birthday of this blog. Hooray!

At the birthday celebrations, we'd like to give a special award for the best post. In order to determine what that post is, however, we'll need your input. What's been your favorite post on this blog to date?


Mr. Pizza man wants to know what you like
so badly, he's bleeding out of his eyes.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

This morning Nicole was feeling particularly gross. Because I have no way or knowing whether you are close enough to knock on wood after reading this, I will not suggest that this may be an indication that the relatively golden weeks of the second trimester are drawing to a close. I will stick to telling you, instead, that around 10 am Nicole announced that this day was not meeting her expectations, and she would like to start over.



A generically good husband, I'm sure, would have thought of something comforting or optimistic to say. But I am not a generically good husband, I'm Nicole's husband, and standard optimism will not always do. So I told her the scariest story I could think of instead.

"Speaking of starting the day over, can you imagine going through a Groundhog Day experience while pregnant?" I said.

Nicole groaned, and then laughed her dark, death-defying sort of laugh.

I love our marriage.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Peace in the Middle East



I think that many of us can agree that peace has been so difficult to achieve in the Middle East because the people there are uniquely obstinate in not being able to recognize governments they don't agree with ideologically. If those Middle Eastern people (let's call them Middle Easties) would just travel, trade, and negotiate with each other like normal people instead of trying to kill each other, there wouldn't be a problem.

I mean, it's been over fifty years, and they still can't treat each other civilly. Where else on earth does stuff like that still happen?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My Dream

Some people work for years to discover their dreams, but today mine fell SPLAT onto my head, sort of like an egg that had been broken in the sky after being laid by a drunken bird in mid-air.

Forget writing. My dream is to start a bakery.

It will a vegetarian bakery, specializing in cakes without meat. We will also have cupcakes without meat, brownies without meat, even milk without meat to go with them!

If things go well, I may add a meat-free ice cream bar on the side. We'll also offer meat-free lollipops for vegetarian children.

I've already done a sketch for our general advertising:

And some special advertising sketches for more niche markets:


Thursday, June 3, 2010

The March of the Theses

I would like to write a documentary for Morgan Freeman to narrate. It will be about intrepid Master's Theses which trek past several authorities and through several forms to the center of Antartica--where, tragically, most will never even get a date.

One of the scenes in my documentary will be this very moment, in which a graduate student (played by me) writes this blog post to inform readers that a month after his thesis defense, his thesis has been submitted as a .pdf document for approval by people with sharp eyes and red pens.

In one of the film's most moving moments, Morgan Freeman will explain that the student, who appears to be sitting and typing like always, is actually providing a link through which people can preview and even download the pdf of his thesis, even before it is approved! How exciting!

Unfortunately, by this point most of the audience will already be asleep.

Oh, well.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Now Celebrating: Fetal Awareness Day

The baby surprised Nicole today by kicking vigorously for most of her shower--surprising, since he usually waits to kick until she's lying down and relaxed (11 pm is his most active time).He continued to swim and squirm throughout the day, wiggling and kicking inside of Nicole so much during dinner that she finally put down her fork and asked if he was trying to get her attention.

The baby did not respond. We've decided that today is simply Fetal Awareness Day. It's a sort of holiday, we think, which takes place on any day when the fetus is particularly aware.


The baby Kira is calling Balraj is in a celebratory mood. You would
be, too, if you spent all your time in a private, heated indoor pool.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Birthday present!

Technically my birthday isn't until Thursday, but we celebrated Sunday night at my parents-in-law's anyway--why not stretch out a good thing to cover the whole week?

In the midst of the festivities, Kira came from playing outside and brought something to me.

"Here Daddy!" she said "It's for you birthday."

"What is it?" I asked.

"A dead slug" she said happily.

She was wrong--it was actually a dried cocoon--but I still found it strangely touching that she'd found what she thought was a dead slug and had been willing to give it to me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I'm not an economist, but....

Let's say the housing market begins to collapse. Let's say that affects other sectors of the economy, and people get upset. Let's say that many of those upset people put pressure on various levels of government to crack down on illegal immigrants--or at least those who haven't left the country on their own already because there are no longer as many jobs.

Now let's suppose that the government actually succeeds in throwing out the nation's estimated 12 million remaining illegal immigrants. Let's also suppose that those illegal immigrants lived in apartments, perhaps even houses.

Now let's suppose that you have lost your job and would like to rent out your basement as an apartment, or even sell your house, but now have to compete with an extra 12 million people's worth of empty dwellings. Or else let's suppose that an evil senator we'll call B. B. voted for a bill through which the government bought some failing companies in the real estate sector and is hoping they will stop failing and can be sold off as private businesses again.

Won't you be glad then that all those immigrants are gone?

Our Glorious Democracy (Bye Bye Bob Bennett)

Reading the news often gives me a warm, familiar, numbing sense of deja-vu. It's spring, and my favorite basketball player (Steve Nash) is on court bleeding into his eyes again. A President is nominating someone with no direct judicial experience to the Supreme Court. Some prominent, charismatic Christian evangelical religious leader and political activist has been paying a man to spend time with him. Ah, sweet familiarity!


If Steve Nash isn't getting stitches, it's not Playoff Basketball.

And then I happen to run across an article that says one of my state's Senators, Bob Bennett, didn't get enough votes at the Republican Party Convention to even make the primary election because he's not conservative enough and my jaw drops.

In a way, this is also deja vu: it wasn't too long ago that my district's ultraconservative Congressman, Chris Cannon (who had a rating of 96 from the American Conservative Union) was defeated in a primary by Jason Chaffetz, whose politics are just to the right of Shiv Sena. The hot new thing in Utah is apparently to throw out anyone who will shake hands with a Democrat, an immigrant, or anyone who has ever lived in or near Washington, D.C.


Bennett tries to convince convention delegates that he is not now,
nor has a ever been, a member of the Communist Party.

That Bob Bennett didn't even make the primary, though, still manages to disturb me.

How does something like this happen?

It's simple, say the analysts. The general pattern goes like this:

1) Seasoned statesman listens carefully to weeks and weeks of expert testimony, makes hard choice to support controversial bill for the good of the country.
2) Ultraconservative voters listen to weeks and weeks of talk radio, decide that controversial bill is Satanic, Communist, or both, and decide that only purity can save the nation.
3) Out-of-state-group pays to get handpicked delegates selected at local caucus meetings while normal people are out watering their gardens.
4) Seasoned statesman is told "the party doesn't want you anymore."
5) Primary and general elections are held--in Utah, this is done for fun, but it's already been decided that a case of rabies will be sent to Congress in lieu of the outgoing eighteen years of experience.

Welcome to the current chapter in our glorious democracy. Aren't you glad that in November, you will get to vote?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Next Up in Facebook's Bid for World Domination

Few companies have the audacity to try to take over the entire internet the way Facebook intends to with its new "Open Graph" approach to hegemony. But then again, few companies can get 80 million people to publicly admit that they play a game called "Farmville." So instead of asking themselves if it's a good idea to rule the internet, Facebook's managers are asking themselves: is taking over people's experience of the internet really enough? Why not become the nation's top cellular service by next year, too?

Introducing: the FacePhone.



"The idea began in a happy accident," says Facebook board member Jim Breyer "when my profile got hacked. Phishers sent a message to two thousand or so of my friends asking if they'd like a Facebook phone number. The next day, I've got something like 600 messages complaining about emptied bank accounts and I thought--Wow! That's a sad scam, but there's obviously a lot of interest in this!"

Breyer took the idea to fellow board member Peter Thiel, and within twenty-four hours what might prove to be the idea of the decade was born.

"We'll be giving out FacePhones for free," says Thiel. "Using the FacePhone will also be absolutely free with no limits on pictures, texts, or even picture messages--to other FacePhone users."

And how much to call outside of the FacePhone network?

"The FacePhone will be like Facebook itself in that way," says Breyer, "your friends will have to join if they want to contact you. It's not possible to call out."

Thiel is confident, however, that this limitation won't be much of a concern. "On any given day, an average of 200 million people log into facebook. That's nearly 4% of the literate people in the world every day. Start offering them free cells phones linked to their accounts, and it won't be long until you can talk to everyone who's not a total techno-hermit on your FacePhone."

"Imagine never having to call anyone without checking their status line and most recent personal information first," says Breyer. "This is a big, big idea."

So how will Facebook pay for this?

"Ads are a factor, of course" says Thiel. "We're developing a system in which ads will be generated based on recent calls--if you've just spent an extended period with one company's customer service line, we'll bring up ads for their competitors. What company wouldn't pay top dollar for an opportunity like that? We'll also be charging for corporate accounts in the first place. Once we have a hundred million private users, most companies won't have much of a choice but to sign up for their own FacePhone lines--no matter what rate we set."

Won't companies be a little upset by that?

"Oh, I think the perks will outweigh the costs," says Breyer. "For a premium fee, we'll provide companies with some tools that help them make the most of user information. Let's say you run a movie theater: imagine being able to automatically send a message or coupon to every one of your contacts whose status includes the word 'bored.'"

"These aren't just free cell phones," says Thiel, "we're talking about a new and lucrative way to organize the world."

And what does Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg think of the plan?

"He's excited," says Thiel. "He's always looking for one more reason for the average person never to quit Facebook--we're confident that this will make Facebook even more essential not just as a product, but as the only socially acceptable 21st century way of life."

Like it or not, it seems clear that with its latest innovations, Facebook is doing just that. Geniuses like Napoleon, Hitler, and Pinky & the Brain may have failed, but Zuckerberg & Co. are showing that it's still possible to take over the world.


"Does this smile make me look evil?" -Peter Thiel

Monday, May 3, 2010

Thesis Defense

The classical thesis defense, I am told, used to look something like this:


The brilliant professor sits, blowing wisdom out of his nostrils, while the student peaks over the edge of a mushroom nervously, hoping to be allowed to pass. Grad students to this day have nightmares that their defense will be this way.

Students: never fear. All you have to do to prevent that is to come up with a thesis idea so preposterous that only nutcases will be willing to serve on your committee and you can have a defense that looks like this instead:




Trust me. I had one Thursday. It was wonderful.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Q: What is the worst joke on earth?

A: Richard Simmons.



Actually, that's a lie. It's really this terrible joke about Richard Simmons.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Monday, April 26, 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Why I Haven't Written in a While (part two)

It is a sad but true fact that I am functionally illiterate when stressed. This is, doctors tell me, because stress aggravates my latent clausophobia: while I retain the knowledge of how to read and write, an acute anxiety of any text that begins to approach a complete sentence keeps me from exercising that knowledge whenever my clausophobia becomes active.

This is less crippling than you might imagine. Despite my studies in English, I seldom make it all the way through a book in any case, so I really don't miss books. I also find that my few weeks away from the news seldom change anything: the world is reliably dysfunctional whenever I come back. The hardest part of my periods of active clausophobia, in fact, are the blogging losses. It's strange to think that because of my condition, for three weeks my digital self did not exist!

I still have to count my blessings, however. If I had periodic lexiphobia instead of clausophobia, I would have to hide from things like stop signs and billboards when sick. As it was, I spent a full week of my three weeks of digital nonexistence in California, completely unperturbed by road signs which content themselves with one-word utterances.

Recently, thanks to end-of-the-semester grading and an impending (29 April) thesis defense, my levels of stress have risen to the point of the delightful delirium I typically exist within, and my clausophobia is once again latent. Hopefully, it will remain so long enough for me to tell you about all the books I didn't read while actively clausophobic.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Do I Give Blasphemous Advice in Other People's Dreams?

Let's assume, for purposes of this post, that God created the earth in seven days or less.

Let's also assume that Kathy Cowley told the truth in her recent comment, and while we're at it, let's go on and assume that other people are constantly having dreams in which I give them the same advice.

Is it blasphemous to expect mortal writers to create worlds at the same pace which is traditionally attributed to the Supreme Being? Or is such advice OK, since fictional worlds are invariably less complex than real ones?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Missing Week

For purposes of this post, we will assume a week extends from Tuesday to Tuesday.

For purposes of this post, we will also assume a week progresses from most recent to the murky time period I often anecdotally refer to as "the other day."

And of course, we will assume that you are disappointed rather than pleased that I have not posted all week.

Starting from these (admittedly dubious) assumptions, I wish to say to you: never fear. Using my superpower of inventive memory, I now present to you a review of the Missing Week:

Today: I am trying to make a very important point in class when I am reminded by something I say of a whole genre of Mathematician/Physicist/Engineer jokes which I was often told as a child. This in turn, reminds me that because my father would count asymptotically when I was approaching trouble, I never learned to hate math like other children and have been a misfit since.

Yesterday: I am in bondage in Egypt--until some grape juice is spilled on a plate, at which point I am at a table eating chapatis with haroset and horseradish.

Yesterday's Yesterday: It is Sunday. My daughter is so restless at church that I sort of wish we were Buddhist so that I could go to church alone in a monastery and not come out for several months instead. After church, I tell my wife I was a much more patient father before I had a child.

The Day Before Yesterday's Yesterday: We pass numerous cows on our way to the Hindu temple in Spanish Fork, UT, site of the largest Holi celebration in North America. When we get there, the place has been overrun by college students who believe that being covered in colored powder automatically makes you a temporary hippy. One holds up a sign that says "PEACE DAMNIT." I am not sure whether he knows that our country is currently involved in two wars, and that neither of them is in Vietnam.

Several Days Ago: My daughter and I drive for more than an hour in search of an old friend's wedding reception while my wife takes a breather at the local Buddhist monastery. We have trouble getting to the reception because half the roads Google maps suggested are under construction or closed. We finally reach what appears to be the correct address. There is a large abandoned barn which creeps my daughter out. Either we have the wrong address, or this is a terrible metaphor for marriage.

The Other Day: There is an eighteen-and-a-half minute gap in my otherwise perfect recollection of this day. I blame the ghost of Richard Nixon.

The Other Other Day: There is an eighteen-and-a-half hour gap in my otherwise perfect recollection of this day. For the other five-and-a-half hours, I am asleep. Fortunately, I have no strange dreams.

A Week Ago: I write a post called "The Missing Week" and schedule it for automatic publication in one week, thus relieving myself of any responsibility to update my blog between now and then.
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