Archive for March, 2010

Today I got a viral email from some friends who like to pass these sorts of things on. Usually I just hit the Delete key but I read enough of this to get the gist. It began by recounting all the things someone thought were wrong with America now, together with a number of quotations from Thomas Jefferson (supposedly). The farther you read the more they emphasized the importance of firearms, including the now-notorious one about the tree of liberty being nourished by the blood of patriots.

I don’t usually reply to these things, but today I did. Here’s what I wrote to all the recipients of the message:

I don’t expect everyone to agree with my political beliefs. Heck, I contradict myself half the time.

But when I receive emails that suggest armed insurrection against the government is an appropriate answer to America’s current problems, I believe all well-meaning people should say “STOP!”

Thomas Jefferson was in many ways a great man. He drafted the Declaration of Independence. He founded the University of Virginia. He did more than any one person to insure that the United States preserves liberty of conscience in religious matters.

But we rightly reject some of his ideas. For example, slavery. And among other things, the quote about the tree of liberty being nourished by the blood of patriots and tyrants. Chairman Mao said that political power comes from the barrel of a gun. So when someone suggests violence they might be following Jefferson. Or they might be following Mao.

It’s worth remembering that Timothy McVeigh was wearing a shirt with this slogan when he was arrested. Presumably h thought he was following Jefferson’s ideas. But he was neither a great man nor a good one. He was a savage, murderous terrorist who cowardly killed innocent men, women and children because he thought violence against the U.S. government was OK.

Let’s disagree all we want. Get angry, even. But name-calling is bad, and destructive of the “marketplace of ideas” that — guess who? — Jefferson advocated. And threats or event hints of violence should be off the table, absolutely, anywhere, in any context.

I’m speaking out about this. Will you?


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Interesting article in Mashable this week:

On the campus of Penn State University, a rivalry between a rogue campus blog and the official newspaper has become a fascinating mirror of the strife between old and new media. In only a matter of months, the unofficial campus blog Onward State, has marshaled the power of social media to compete with the award winning 112-year-old campus paper The Daily Collegian. With one-tenth of the Collegian’s staff size, Onward State has constructed a virtual newsroom that collaborates in real-time with Google Wave, outsourced its tip-line to Twitter, and is unabashed about linking to a competitor’s story…

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At Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State

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Watch enough of the NCAA tournament — I saw my share, as you might gather — and you quickly decide which commercials are tolerable and which you will quickly grow to hate. Here, in no particular order, are my personal best and worst. May I have the envelopes, please:


  • Palm “Life Moves Fast” (pictured)

I used to have a Palm PDA, and later a Treo. They were fine and in some ways I miss the Treo. I don’t know if the Palm they’re promoting here is a killer multimedia phone that will restore their fortunes, but boy does she walk great.

  • Bud light “Why Do You Love Me?”

This is the one with the couple picnicking in the park. OK, it’s just a commercial, but the girl really makes it work. It’s like a 30-second sitcom. I think we will see more of her.

That’s about it for the good ones. Now to the majority.


  • Capital One “What’s in Your Wallet”

Time to retire the Viking marauders.

  • Burger King “Crazy King”

Burger King has the most consistent record of stupid/annoying commercials in the last 30 years, going back to the days of Herb (remember him?). Their streak is safe.

  • Home Depot “Windex”

This one is actually on the Westwood One radio broadcasts, not TV. It’s not terrible, just sort of “Eh. Windex? Really? And why do they repeat it so many times?”

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From T.H. White’s The Once and Future King: The young Wart, of mysterious parentage, confronts the fact that his foster brother Kay will become a knight and (so he believes) he, Wart, will never be one:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn — pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics — why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

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pictured, left to right: Messor barbarus; physicist Murray Gell-Mann

This post’s title comes from one of the great imaginative romances of the 20th century – and from quantum mechanics. As you might suspect, there’s a connection.

T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is a brilliant re-creation of King Arthur (with the Round Table, Lancelot, Guinevere and all the rest). It’s the direct basis of at least two other works: the musical Camelot and Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Re-reading it this month I was also struck by how much the relationship between Merlyn the magician and the boy Arthur (aka the Wart) resembles that between Dumbledore and Harry Potter. I later learned that J.K. Rowling has described the Wart as “Harry’s spiritual ancestor.”

The Sword in the Stone is the first of four sections of the novel, and the only one about Arthur as a boy. Merlyn’s tutorship includes changing the Wart into, among other things, a fish in the moat, a falcon in the mews, and an ant in a glass case. White’s ant world is the ultimate totalitarian society (its appearance in 1939 is hardly coincidental). The Messor barbarus ants know only two concepts: Done and Not-Done. They obey all orders sent wirelessly to their antennae. They never ask questions. Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory is the slogan carved above each tunnel in their nest.

It’s also Gell-Mann’s Totalitarian Principle, coined by physicist Murray Gell-Mann as a basic law of quantum mechanics. Any interaction between sub-atomic particles not expressly prohibited by some natural law must be assumed to be probable (the soft version) or must be inevitable (the hard version). Astronomers now have indirect though pretty good photographic evidence that black holes are real; but long before that, their existence was considered almost certain because (a) the laws of physics said that they could exist, and (b) no known law prevents them from existing.

Gell-Mann had a flair for such things. He also coined the term quark, the never-seen subatomic building block of observable particles, from a passage in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (‘Three quarks for Muster Mark!’). A physicist after my own heart.

The Once and Future King is one of the great, great books of the 20th century. I’m certain that the Disney cartoon is a two-edged sword (ha!) in that most people wrongly assume the novel is aimed only at children.

They’re wrong. Read it. It will break your heart.

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We’re number 1!

Cincinnati's favorite son

Yes, it’s true. After years of languishing in the middle of just about every index, Cincinnati has clawed its way to the top. We’ve officially been declared (by the Daily Beast) “America’s Craziest City.”

It’s a badge we’ll probably wear with typical Midwestern modesty. Not to put on airs or anything, but any city which can boast Pete Rose, Marge Schott, chili that isn’t really chili*, Jerry Springer, a skyscraper with a tiara and award-winning bathrooms can’t be all sane.

*Full disclosure: I love Cincinnati chili, but it isn’t what most people think of as chili. Jenny and I prefer to call it Macedonian spaghetti.

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