Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot, Indeed

October 24, 2006

I've often been asked "Yin, what exactly do you have in common with Rasputin?"
Usually, it is not I who answer, but those who know me best.

"A sense of utter inhumanity."
"A lack of any and all compassion to the living things of this Earth."

These are some answers put forth by those who pledge their loyalty to me.
Unfortunately, such things have now been found to be wrong.

Indeed, it's not a sense of impropriety, or an undercurrent of pure and utter evil.
No, it's something much greater, something much more important, something which has shaped the very course of history as we know it.

The medical world is just now discovering the true ramifications of a most accursed, a most common, yet a most secretive affliction: Cyclical non-uterine dysmenorrhea.

Numerous notable historians, such as Sir John Hodgman, have warmed to the idea as a root cause of many of the most profound and significant events and trends in the history of history.

Of course, I don't profess to be an expert on such matters at the moment. You can see the latest findings for yourself at the cyclical non-uterine dysmenorrhea informational site (WARNING: Graphic medical depictions present). For background information on the discoverers of this most tragic of afflictions, the MacInnes & Porritt Institute has more detailed information.

It's time the world opened its eyes to this rapidly expanding body of work.
Spread the word.
posted by Wallaby at 1:14 AM | link | 0 comments

Inside Apple's Glass Cube

May 19, 2006

In the retail business, "Grand Opening" is oft-used to indicate the rather mundane affair of opening a new store. For Apple, the opening of the Fifth Avenue Store is truly grand. Camera crews were on the scene as a gauntlet of Apple employees cheered and high-fived customers entering the store.

Arriving at precisely 6:00 PM, I saw the first of a long line of people eagerly bound across the threshold and disappear below the cube. The line snaked across three city blocks, weaving back and forth in front of the plaza, wrapping around the block, and wrapping halfway around the next, finally ending just beyond the corner of 60th Street and Madison Avenue. After a three-hour wait, I myself stepped foot on the textured glass leading down to the bowels of the store.

Inside, the atmosphere is electric. Music is pumping from the store's sound system, not to mention the dozens of iPod HiFis, Bose SoundDocks, and JBL sound systems. Even so, the music is all but drowned by the excited chatter of the hundreds inside Apple's newest and largest store.

The store floor feels like a party. Every face I see is looking around excitedly or smiling at a monitor, captivated by Photo Booth. The Macbook I'm writing this on feels great. It's lighter, thinner, and sturdier than I'd expected. Its magnetic closure and MagSafe connector are perfectly executed, and its keyboard is a wonder to use. I'm definitely buying one in a month or two.

This is more than an Apple Store. This is an Apple product. While the SoHo Store gained critical praise with its innovative architecture, this store has shown the world that Apple truly deserves a place on Fifth Avenue, alongside the likes of F.A.O Schwartz, Tiffany & Co., and Hugo Boss.

This store is a lure for Apple fans and passersby alike, drawing crowds of people who overflowed onto Fifth Avenue just to stare at the Cube. It's a symbol of what Apple has always represented under Steve Jobs, a symbol of what Apple will represent for the next decade:

Think Different.

That's all for now, as I'm going to go to the glass staircase in the desperate hope of winning my own Macbook. Wish me luck.
posted by Wallaby at 10:57 PM | link | 0 comments

Pseudo-Relative Morality: An Anthrobiological Perspective

April 27, 2006

In a few recent columns, on Newsvine, morality has become a heated topic of debate.

Morality has been discussed in terms of religion, sanctity of personal opinion, cultural comparison, metaphysics, and tradition, among others. But, I feel that one way of looking at it has been overlooked, and that is the anthropological point of view on the development of human (social) morality.

Disclaimer: The following may fundamentally disagree with some who consider humans entirely separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. I am operating under the assumption that humans are extremely advanced animals.

I take the viewpoint that morality is relative because modern (last few millennia) societal morals are very context-dependent.

Humans and social animals have been driven by two basic desires: self-benefit and social altruism. These have shaped the evolution of our moral fabric, and can still explain much of general human behavior in modern times.


This can be divided in two secondary goals: self-preservation and the passing on of one's own genetic information.

: Pretty self-explanatory, I think. Every organism wants to live. Survival seems to be an overriding tenet of behavioral motives in just about any organism (excluding mating/birth processes which include death. That falls under the second goal).

Passing on our genetic information
: Humans and animals take steps to maximize the probability of successful propagation of one's own genetic information. Some animals do this by laying five quadrillion eggs. Others do it by nurturing and protecting young. Alligators, both male and female, stand guard and fiercely protect egg clutches and babies until they are about two years old. Female scorpions carry their young on their backs for protection. Dung beetles lay eggs in premade dung balls, to provide young with an immediate food supply upon hatching. Dogs take care of puppies until they can be weaned and fend for themselves.

We humans, good parents at least (those who statistically raise healthy children who are well-adjusted and able to produce more well-adjusted children), take care of and raise our children until they reach a point where they can lead self-sustaining lives.

Another behavior which can be explained by this is the tendency in male lions to kill the cubs of a desirable female in order to force the female into heat. In this instance, the male is removing another male's genetic information from the pool and encouraging the propagation of his own.

Social altruism

In social animals, the goal of passing on one's own genetic information expands into trying to ensure the survival of traits of our kin. This manifests itself in group behaviors which benefit the group, as opposed to any particular individual, such as helping the wounded, tending to the elderly, and collective protection of young.

Dolphins have been known to support injured members of a group by resting the injured member's pectoral fins on group members' backs, propping them up to help them breathe and keep them mobile. Elephants and chimps are known to take care of the elderly in a family clan due to help given in the past by the elderly and because the elderly serve as learning opportunities. Rhinos will form a horn-studded ring around young when threatened, for example.

But, behaviors which benefit the group vs. the individual also manifest themselves more aggressively.

Chimp clans and baboon troops have been documented to wage war on neighboring troops for territorial rights and mating rights. This is not the chest-thumping of gorillas and hooting of howler monkeys. This is the aggressive and demonstrably strategic attack of neighboring groups with the intent to injure and kill. While chimps have been known to exhibit advanced group hunting techniques when hunting colobus monkeys, chimp-on-chimp violence usually does not result in cannibalism. On the contrary, chimp-on-chimp violence has always been to either defend one's assets or to attack and take over another group's assets.

Moral Bases in Humanity

As society has become more complex, possible points of similarity (and differentiation) have multiplied. Wars have been fought by ethnicities, religions, and nations. All of these groups are exactly that: social groups. They are an extension of kin relationships. We are encouraged to help ensure the safety of those of similar ideologies and religions. We wish to see our ideologies/religions/beliefs/ethnicities passed on, which means that we will create general social rules which aid in propagating our traits. As such, I will try to explain my rationalizations for common "universal" morals in the context of anthropological relativism.

Murder: There are two big exceptions: war and self-defense. War has historically been aggressive action taken to either ensure or increase the prosperity of one's own social group. Thus, war makes sense biologically, since protecting or benefiting your social group helps ensure the passing on of your own genes in viable offspring. Murder itself, outside of the context of war and self-defense, is seen as killing of a member of one's own social group, be it your community, your city, your state, your country, your ethnicity, your religion, etc. Such behaviors are not conducive to the prosperity and success of the social group.

Rape: In early societies, and probably in some societies still in existence, rape is seen not only as acceptable, but an integral part of social behaviors. In primitive societies, anthropologists theorize that this was most likely due to the highly competitive and aggressive nature of rape being an indicator for strength and virility. In short, those males who were successful were most likely the strongest and hardiest. Rape was a development which served as a filter for the group's survivability. One can argue that rape is condoned only by the males of such a society. This may be true, and it is not something that I can refute using known, reputable sources. But, I ask you to bear with me as I take up a parallel: genital mutilation.

Genital mutilation is immoral. I believe that most people believe this deeply. (Please correct me if I'm wrong in assuming this.) But, studies and interviews of members of the cultures which practice female genital mutilation indicate that it is the women of a culture who encourage genital mutilation, more so than the men. On the contrary, many men try to discourage the practice because sexual activity is less enjoyable with a mutilated girl. The women believe that genital mutilation decreases the risk of infection, as well as being a cleansing ritual, removing the women of curses and the ability to curse his husband and children. Thus, in their society, there is a concrete benefit to genetic mutilation, which transforms it into a standard cultural practice.

Nowadays, modern society abhors rape. Why? I say that it's because the competitive aggression associated with rape filters only for physical robustness, brute strength, and aggression itself. While these traits were useful in more primitive societies where both security and occasional hunting required aggression and brute strength, our society has introduced many more factors by which genetic and social favorabilities are judged.

Some argue that rape is only condoned because the women were not asked their opinion -- that such activities were forced upon them by men. That is, rape is wrong because the women are disadvantaged or harmed (this semantic choice is by no means an attempt to soft-pedal rape, but an argument of rational basis) I do not see morality defined as "guaranteeing that no one (in your society/group/clan) is disadvantaged," but rather as a guideline which leads to statistically significant benefits to a society or group.

Stealing: Though stealing is an effective technique for gaining resources for oneself, it is not conducive to the operation of a collaborative society or group. Because the benefits reaped from maintaining and contributing to the social group are greater than that of a set of individuals operating entirely individually and competitively, it is in every member's best interest to contribute to the social group. Those who steal can reap benefits disproportional to their actual contribution to the social group. In economics, a similar situation involves public goods and the free rider problem. A viable solution was the introduction of a punishment for free riding in the form of either proportional distribution of benefits or direct punishment. The immorality of stealing is, in my eyes, society's way of creating a generally enforced rule which helps minimize the free rider problem.

Adultery: Offspring which are nurtured by both parents have a higher chance of surviving and passing on their genes than those abandoned at birth. Furthermore, generally the greater the available nurturing period, the greater the chances of offspring survival. Spousal loyalty helps strengthen emotional bonds between the mother and father, which leads to a much higher probability of greater care for offspring, as adultery encourages the splitting of attention and resources between multiple mates. Thus, loyalty is biologically beneficial.

Polygamy: Monogamy is a relative social moral, more so than the other acts discussed here. For example, in Tibet, a family owns ancestral land, a very precious commodity. Thus, it is very uneconomical to split the land among several sons when they are married off. Due to this, it is not uncommon for the sons of a family to marry one woman in order to keep the ancestral land amongst them. This ensures that precious land, which is important for prosperity, is kept within the family and utilized more efficiently. Monogamy is, to me, not an absolute moral in any way, but a relative one derived from the conventions and tradeoffs of the societies within our general scope of knowledge.

Incest: While there are no concrete and crippling biological disadvantages to sex between relations more distant than first cousins, strong genetic similarity means that recessive traits are expressed at a much higher rate in a incestuous lineage than in a lineage without incest. Many such recessive traits are less beneficial or even harmful to a creature, which means that the survivability of the lineage is degraded. Thus, because incest is a directly harmful behavior, tendencies towards it have been socially (if not biologically) selected against, slowly leading to our current utter abhorrence of the practice.

A Few Things to Note

As a final attempt to minimize confusion about my stance, I consider morality to be only effective morality. That is, morality which can be known by humanity and can have effects on humanity. Some have argued along the lines of the impossibility of denying the possibility of an unknown and unknowable set of absolute morals set down by a higher power or higher being (not necessarily divine, but possibly more intelligent). To me, whether or not such a standard exists is meaningless, for morality must be something we can know and apply.

Under this definition, I believe that I've boiled down some of the possible immutable absolutes of morality to self-interest and social altruism, the latter of which is an extension of the former. These are the only "moral absolutes" that I believe exist, for they are hard-coded into our biology, and are the ultimate cause for many of our current moral philosophies.

Thus, my stance is that all societal morals are relativistic, due to, in the broadest sense, the context of biologically advantageous extended kin relationships, and its innumerable smaller social contexts down the line (specific to each group). As societies have developed, the complex sets of morals we see today are products not of absolute truth, but of circumstance. Those morals which directly apply to behavior are the refined products of optimizing behavior for self-benefit and social benefit. They are at once the products of social behavior and its regulators.

This is the basis for my personal take on tolerance. There are things I believe are immoral, but I separate behaviors which I personally deem are immoral, and those which I believe are immoral for society at large. The latter category is small, if you're speaking of all humanity, and progressively more limiting the smaller your scope.
posted by Wallaby at 12:30 AM | link | 0 comments

A Short History of Rum

October 17, 2005

By the time of the Caribbean slave trade, concentrated alcoholic spirits had already become a lucrative and prestigious commodity in the slave trade, a currency, in essence. The two chief liquors in use were whiskey and brandy: "brandy' being a truncation of brandywine, the English name for "burnt wine" or aqua vitae, and "whiskey" being an Anglicization of uisge beatha, the Gaelic word for aqua vitae ("water of life"), the ancestor of all distilled spirits.

First discovered by alchemists, the distillation of grain-based beers yielded an alcohol content far higher than the 15% maximum that yeast could tolerate. In its powers of purification and disinfection, alchemists found a panacea for the medical woes of their day: the water of life. With the invention of the printing press, the process of alcohol distillation became widely known, and its recreational use began.

By the time it spread to the far reaches of the European continent, uisge beatha and brandywine ("Branntwein" in German) was renowned for its powers to cleanse wounds and sully tongues. Wine was, as it had been for millennia, the primary alcoholic commodity of Europe. But, traders found in brandy a compact form of alcohol that did not spoil as easily.

The island of Barbados had been in the throes of a tropical epidemic just as its sugar megaindustry was booming. Thus, brandy became ever more sought-after as both a loosener of inhibitions and a tightener of constitutions. The problem was: it was expensive to import the fiery liquid, and brandy could not be made natively, due to the fact that it wasn't made from sugar or money.

It was at this time that an abundant and cheaply made local spirit made itself known: kill-devil. Made from molasses, an otherwise worthless byproduct of sugar production, kill-devil was created in such large quantities that even slaves partook in it. Soon after its epidemic-induced popularity boom, kill-devil came be known by a colloquial and far more pragmatic name: rumbullion, south English slang for "a brawl or violent commotion," a good description for a common side effect of kill-devil.

Rumbullion, or rum for short, quickly spread throughout the Caribbean and slave trade empire, becoming a ritualistic narcotic used to select and control slaves. Slaves were encouraged to consume daily rations of rum, to help withstand and numb the hardships of their lives. Slaves were usually rationed two to three gallons of rum, which could then be used for consumption or as barter stock for food. Thus, rum became the foundation for the economy of the lower classes.

Soon thereafter, it replaced beer as the alcohol ration aboard Navy cruises, but this came at a price. Trading in the old gallon of weak beer for a half-pint of a drink that more-than-earned the name of kill-devil had predictable results, and thusly was decreed that every half-pint of rum must first first be mixed with two pints of water. This did more to make the water palatable than it did to make the rum bearable (for the officers).

It was now that Admiral Edward Vernon, nicknamed "Old Grogram" for the waterproof cloak he always wore, hit upon the idea of mixing the diluted rum with lime juice and sugar. Grog was born.

However, there was another problem: strength measurement. Till the invention of an accurate hydrometer (1800's), there was no easy way to measure the strength of rum shipments. Thus, it was up to the Navy's pursers to devise a way to judge this simply and effectively. This was their idea: mix rum with water, add a few dashes of black gunpowder, and try to ignite the concoction by focusing the sun's rays through a magnifying glass. If it didn't burn, more rum would be added. If it barely burned, the mixture was at its optimum (which turns out to be around 96 proof), and if it exploded, it was seen as a punishment for the purser, and tradition dictated that that particular shipment of rum would be "free for all," causing a violent frenzy of sailors trying to hoard the precious liquid. Thus was the origin of the word "free-for-all."

The conversion from beer to rum had much more profound effects, though. After the use of grog became compulsory in 1795, the Royal Navy was virtually invincible to a foe that crippled the French: scurvy. While the British used grog, contained vitamin C, the French converted from wine (which contained small amounts of vitamin C) to eau-de-vie (literally "street water," which along with cognac, make up the class of spirit known as brandy) which contained absolutely no vitamin C. A naval physician of the time went so far as to say that the Royal Navy's unique ability to rebuff scurvy directly led to its defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar.

Rum was born of the synergy of slaves, sugar, and spirits, and made this triangle of wealth self-fueling in the Caribbean. It was a drink that saved an island and oppressed a people. It transformed an empire and rewrote a history.

It was the spirit of buccaneer and pirate alike.

In this simple concoction lay the embodiment of the glory and cruelty of our first foray into globalization.

The importance of rum extended even further. When the English first colonized the New World, they had expected the weather to similar to European weather at the same latitude, that is, weather suitable for growing sugar, olives, grapes, and all those other European fineries. Such was not the case. European crops did not fare well in North America's harsher climate, and colonists struggled through years of hardship. In these years, social problems were exacerbated by the lack of "other drink," that is, anything other than water. Shipments of beer were few and far between, and those which did not spoil on the voyage were often found mostly emptied by the sailors by the time they sailed into port. Indeed, it was in such short supply that the Puritan ship Arbella carried in its hold "42 Tonnes of Beere," which is roughly 10,000 gallons. Pure, indeed.

Thus it was that beer became the most sought-after import in the New World.
But what's this? A new, alcoholic drink in the Caribbean? Locally manufactured from sugar crapola? Strong? Alcoholic? My God, man!

Thus it was, in one misplaced holy utterance, that rum became the primary alcoholic drink of the New World. It was cheap, too. Being manufactured from the byproducts of the Caribbean's largest industry had its advantages, at least over brandy, which was distilled from pretentious wine. The New World had found its guilty pleasure. They made use of it, too, compensating for all those years of boozelessness by importing ridiculous amounts of the liquid fire (which for them, was rather literal. Rum was a convenient liquid fuel for the winters). Soon, colonists began importing raw molasses for local distillation. Though the rum was of inferior quality, it was cheaper, which was really all that mattered after that eighth shot. Rum was drunk neat by the poor, and as punch (spirits, sugar, water, lemon juice, spices) by the not-so-poor. After all, local rum could be had for two shillings per gallon, a rate low enough to buy a laborer a drunken week for only a day's wages. Of course, the New World fed rum back into the slave trade -- Newport distilled a special high-alcohol rum especially for slave traders. Higher alcohol content meant more concentrated wealth.

This created problems, specifically problems with France (who else?). You see, the French had banned rum production in their own colonies, which spurred French sugar producers to sell molasses to English rum distillers at rock-bottom prices: prices lower than the English sugar producers were willing to sell for. To boot, the English sugar producers had been losing ground to the French producers, and this. Simply. Would. Not. Do. (Dammit.)

So, England passed the Molasses Act, which levied a prohibitive (heh) sixpence-per-gallon (roughly $4 in modern times) tax on molasses imported into the North American colonies. Of course, being Brits, English producers could produce nowhere near enough molasses, and the French, being French, produced better molasses in greater quantities for lower prices. Now, this whole situation wouldn't be such a problem if rum was a little business that the colonies did on the side. But, rum accounted for 80% of exports. Rum was very much part of American society. When Washington ran for the House of Burgesses, his campaign team handed out 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and two gallons of cider, for a grand total of 391 voters.

Rum was vitally important to the American lifestyle - to the very act of being American - so the Americans did what Americans have always done: they bit their collective thumbs at Britain and started smuggling French molasses by the shipload, literally. It was here that British arrogance came into play. Custom officials were appointed by the mother country, but most stayed in England, preferring to hire colonial functionaries to play go-for. These functionaries, being colonists, go-fors, and rum drinkers all wrapped into one, had much greater sympathies toward rum producers than toward British sugar producers. If it'd just stopped here, it'd be a rather trivial matter, all things considered, but the reaction to the Molasses Act set a dangerous precedent: British law was no longer respected.

The biting of thumbs continued after the French and Indian War with the passing of the Sugar Act. Explicitly intended as Britain's way of recouping its costs in the war, it taxed the American colonists threepence per gallon, but required colonial governors to arrest smugglers, shipped customs officials to the colonies, and gave the Royal Navy the power to collect duties in American waters.

Well, you can imagine what the Americans did. Actually, you already know what the Americans did: they rebelled. After the passing of the Stamp Act and Townshend Act, the Boston Tea Party transformed this rebellion into a full-fledged revolution. We were on our way to independence. The fact that rum was the impetus for American independence should come as no surprise. General Henry Knox, in a letter to George Washington, summed it up nicely: "Besides beef & Pork, bread & flour, Rum is too material an article, to be omitted, no exertions ought to be spar'd to provide ample quantities of it."
posted by Wallaby at 4:12 PM | link | 0 comments

ISI Completes Risk Index

October 05, 2005

ALBUQUERQUE - The International Safety Initiative (ISI) announced today that it expanded its list of potentially life-threatening situations to pretty much everything.

"We wanted to create the most complete public threat assessment in the world, and as a result of exhaustive computer simulations, now know that pretty much everything can be a potentially lethal situation." said Tom Waters, a spokesman for the ISI.

The Complete Risk Assessment Index (CRAI), is the culmination of eight years of research, funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the Gates Foundation. The last such compendium, created in 1982, contained roughly seven quadrillion scenarios, but the new findings have quintupled the size of the list to a very safe 38,626,201,118,673,120.

"We're very proud of our achievement." says Victor Petruchev, co-director of research at ISI, "We feel that we have made the world a much safer place by creating what we humbly call our 'death list.' "

The research team, headed by Nobel laureates Alan Richards and Victor Petruchev, used a distributed computing network, KARMA@home, to process the massive computer simulations necessary to model every possible lethal scenario known to man.

Though funded for the most part by American sources, the ISI is backed by an international consortium of research organizations and corporations, including Ford Motor Co, CERN, NIH, the European Union, and the Church of Scientology.

Though the Catholic Church has expressed disdain at science's latest attempt to "play God," Richards firmly believes in his work. "What we've achieved is unparalleled in the history of civilization. We have catalogued all possible danger in the world, and in doing so, have effectively removed all conscious risk of accidental death. Only God could improve on our achievement." said Richards, brushing bread crumbs off of his hazmat suit, standard office attire at ISI.

The list is currently available only to the scientific community, though public release is promised. "We don't want to create paranoia and mass hysteria, so we're waiting for the opportune time to release this goldmine to the public. We at the ISI want to remind the public that not all scenarios in the CRAI will lead to certain death, but only that they might." said Waters in a public service announcement which aired two days ago on National Public Radio.

A partial list has been released, and includes such things as:
"We believe that we've really hit the nail on the head with this one. [Laugh] That's Number 285,882,013,745." Petruchev mused. "See? It has so many applications."

With the release of the CRAI, the ISI can now shift its focus to other projects. When asked about ISI's future, Petruchev gave no definitive answer, saying only "We are already working on an endeavor that will eclipse even the CRAI. It's gonna be sweet."
posted by Wallaby at 4:43 PM | link | 0 comments

Black Gold

September 20, 2005

This past winter, I took a course called Political Science 300: Contemporary Political Issues. Essentially, it was an open forum for political debate that required occasional written disseminations of issues controversial enough for liberal Ann Arbor to care about, such as affirmative action, gay rights, abortion, and gay rights.

One of these issues was the ever-increasing prices of gasoline and crude oil derivatives in the United States. This was a day of rather heated debate, which curiously did not begin with the gasoline controversy and its relation to the war in Iraq. Rather, it began as a brainstorm of possible ways to raise funds for education programs and increased national health benefits. Both of these programs can seriously use some more funding, but to take funding away from other organizations in amounts large enough to matter is, if not suicidal, political very dangerous. Thus, alternatives were brainstormed. One proposition, championed by me and Joe Kim, was to impose a small per-gallon tax on gasoline.

Your instinctive reaction would most probably be "It's already expensive enough! This is absolutely outrageous! Political suicide!" But, it is precisely because the price of gasoline is so high right now, that such a tax could be much more easily accepted. If we were still in the early nineties, where gasoline prices were hovering below two dollars per gallon, a tax of 25 cents per gallon would be unfathomable. But, as Joe and I reasoned back in winter, with our skyrocketing gas prices right now, a tax of twenty to twenty-five cents per gallon would, at first, naturally be met by outrage, but would quickly be lost in the general rising trend.

Now, you may ask: How much good can such a tax really do? Government estimates put revenue figures at around $1.5 billion dollars annually per cent of tax per gallon. Multiply that by twenty or twenty-five, and we're suddenly looking at annual revenue increases of $30 to $40 billion. If we funnel that revenue into programs like national healthcare and education programs, such an influx of revenue would do a world of good -- maybe even putting such programs back on track, significantly closer to the grand infrastructures that their creators had envisioned.

When we first posed our line of reasoning to the class, it was met with mixed reactions. Some did not know what to make of it, as they could definitely see how such a spike could be quickly smoothed out by general gas price inflation. Others were mortified. Such fast rises in gas prices could only mean one thing: the trend would slow down very soon. I put forth an ultimatum: gasoline prices would smash the $3 mark by the end of the year. Most of the class scoffed, saying that even though the price inflation was harmful, no such rampant growth could continue for so long. It had to come back down. Bush would, through dastardly means, free up oil reserves in the Middle East as part of his Iraq initiative, and gas prices would drop. End of story.

I didn't see it like that. Bush, in going into Iraq so confidently, proved that he had grossly oversimplified regional political tensions, and actually just got basic psychology wrong. You invaded Iraq, and you took it over by force using million-dollar Tomahawk cruise missiles and Stealth fighter-bombers, and you expect the Iraqis to cheer? Clouded, your mind is. Thus, gas prices could only go up for a rather long time.

Last month marked the first time many regions of the United States saw a 3 as the first digit on gas station billboards, and now it's well on its way to the $4 mark. There was biting, clawing, and the gnashing of teeth, but in all seriousness, it's really not that bad of a situation. We've become so accustomed to federally subsidized gas prices that we feel that current prices constitute a moral transgression. But, consider fuel prices in Europe. Without subsidies, Europeans are accustomed to petrol prices much higher than America's. They're getting along fine. Admittedly, they've had higher prices for a quite a while now, and take it more in stride, but this illustrates one important point: it's not the absolute price of the gasoline that matters, it's the perceived increase that strikes outrage into the hearts of red-blooded Americans.

Of course, there is an important difference between raising prices for the sake of taxation and raising prices because those darned foreigners believe in capitalism: one is very much within our control, the other is much more difficult to manage. Thus, taxing gasoline could have two effects on public sentiment. Virtually identical in the short run, their effects in the medium run are more noticeably different. First off, the public could very well be doubly outraged at the fact that the government would foist such a burden upon them, much like how Indians responded to the British salt tax (sans Gandhi). On the other hand, even though Bush's diplomatic actions and handling of the New Orleans crisis have weakened his support among the people, many Americans still see the President as their political guide -- a fearless persona whose leadership will only bring prosperity to the most powerful nation on Earth. So, if the government imposed a 20-cent tax on every gallon of gasoline, it could actually pass public approval. Suppose the government put this tax revenue towards programs that are weak, sentimentally important, and very visible. Would the public really be that outraged if the President passed a bill that instituted a 20-cent gasoline tax to bolster Medicare and our nation's weakening education system? I doubt it. I'll risk ridicule and say that many may even nod and remember the good ol' days when the American education system created such marvels like the Apollo lunar lander, the Space Shuttle, the Ford Thunderbird, and Tupperware.

A gasoline tax could do us a world of good, and seeing as how public outrage has a tendency to swell and ebb much the same way as the latest fashion trends, a gasoline tax could, in the medium and long runs, benefit us all without causing too much of a fuss. Especially with the recent ever-growing spike in gasoline prices, a 20-cent gasoline tax could very well survive public sentiment and give crippled programs a much-needed leg up. After all, everything's a matter of timing.
posted by Wallaby at 5:29 PM | link | 0 comments

The Written Word...

September 06, 2005

Today's the first day of classes, yet I find myself more excited by something other than the hustle and bustle of campus life. Rather, I had placed a hold order at the undergraduate library for the critically acclaimed "Freakonomics." Being an edgy, humorous, and easily digestable new book about economics, I was #95,571 on the waiting list. The administration, being the smart group of people they were, bought three more copies and placed them on three-day reserve, figuring that they could easily make a tidy sum from late fees.

So, I'm typing this now with my forearms resting on pages two and three of Freakonomics, pondering what I should snack on over the next ten minutes. But, realizing that Freakonomics has been the highlight of my day struck me as odd, especially since the day is sunny, my shoes have bounce, and gravitational physics seems less intimidating than I had thought.

I think I read a healthy variety of books. I've been branching out more ever since my family bought half a metric ton of books from a used book sale early this spring. Here's a rundown of my summer reading as I remember it now:

Dan Brown : Digital Fortress
Dale Brown : Wings of Fire , Chains of Command
Tom Clancy : The Bear and the Dragon
Jared Diamond : Collapse
Elizabeth Kostova : The Historian
James Patterson : 1st to Die , 2nd Chance , 4th of July
J.K. Rowling : Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince
Lawrence Sanders : 1st Deadly Sin
Leo Tolstoy : War & Peace

... That's all I can think of right now.

All in all, this summer's been rather trendy in terms of reading material. It's a nice feeling, really. I don't know if I'll ever really get back in classics much after this. Bestsellers are, as a genre, much more fast-paced, easily digestable, and colorful -- precisely the traits that make them bestsellers. Oh well. We'll see.

This coming year will definitely see some changes.

In other news, my course load has just about stabilized.

Econ 310 : Money & Banking
Econ 327 : Economics of Crime
English 229 : Technical Writing
Physics 435 : Gravitational Physics
Physics 441 : Advanced Physics Lab I

As of yet, I have zero information about my professor and classmates for Technical Writing, but for the others, I have at least one friend in each, going into the school year, which is refreshing. Gravitational Physics has a whopping four friendly seniors. I expect that there will many off-the-wall late-night study sessions to come.

UPDATE: I am definitely keeping Technical Writing in my schedule. It's much more business-oriented than I'd previously thought, which is great. I think my skills in dry, academic writing are adequate for the next few years, and senior theses will hone them even more. But, Technical Writing -- as taught by Therese Stanton -- promises to be a full-spectrum business tool for communication, connection, and networking. There's also this Iranian girl.

Today's class ended with a question that we each answered in turn: What would you do if you were given $100 million?

My answer: Sink $45 million into hedge funds. Travel the world. Learn French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Russian. Have fun with $50 million in non-profits. Try my hand at either industrial design or become an aide to a UN ambassador.
posted by Wallaby at 2:45 PM | link | 1 comments

Almost Cozy

September 02, 2005

I've officially moved into my new home away from home. I must say that this move feels distinctly different from the house-to-dormitory transitions I made over the past two years. This feels much more permanent. This feeling of permanence doesn't come only from the fact that my life in the coming years will involve my parents much less. The fact that I'm in an apartment I can call my own (and Eugene and Jordan's) gives this place a distinctly different vibe. It feels much more official -- that I've moved on to a new phase in my life.

At the beginning of freshman year, move-in was, for me, not the burst of excitement, fright, and anxiety that most know it as. Having my family living within fifteen minutes of campus definitely dampens the spirit of "This is new. I'm moving on in the world. Thsi is college, a bold new step." Though it was definitely very different from high school, it did not have the gravity it has now. I feel a distinct sense of responsibility for the apartment. It's mine, not the University's. I'm not just borrowing the space, I'm actually living in it. Weekend trips back home will most probably drop off sharply, almost definitely to the chagrin of my parents. It's not that I don't care, but I need to take this step. They've taken care of me, and have overseen every aspect of my life for nearly two decades. There are life skills that I need to learn, and not through debate or rhetoric, but through experience. They've shielded me from the real world for 19 years, and for that, I am mostly thankful. But inevitably, I must know what real life is like.

The job I've held this summer, and will continue to hold during the school year, is frankly (and probably sadly) the first hourly-wage job I've held in my life. I've held volunteer positions and paid internships before, but there's just something distinctly different about a job with an hourly wage. A more prominent sense of responsibility and importance. I don't feel like I'm doing something that's a greater part of the Big Picture, but just something more official, more "proper." I am a quantitative person, and to have an hourly wage as a constant monetary reflection of my efforts definitely feels right in certain ways.

A job. An apartment. Financial self-sustenance -- in a way, since my parents still pay tuition. Broader micromanagement. Several important and concrete responsibilities. Though some of you may shrug and say "I've lived that," it's a plainly felt change for me. In some ways, I feel like a different person.

I've yet to truly furnish my room, and as Eugene puts it, it's rather "barren." I prefer to call it "sparse," but that's not important. It has yet to have the fleshed-out and lived-in feel of even a modern minimalist abode. In some ways, the room is like the person I will become in the coming days. I've yet to decide on who I want to be in the next eight months, but I can tell you that it will be different from the kid you knew from sophomore year. Hopefully, these changes will only manifest themselves in positive directions, but only Time will tell us if I can pull this off.

To those who've already experienced college, it'll only get better.
To those bright-eyed kids new to college, it's an absolutely wonderful experience. A burden at times, but a burden you will happily bear, for you'll see that it holds more in store for you than you can possibly imagine.
posted by Wallaby at 9:27 PM | link | 0 comments

Microcosm 1.1 Has Arrived

I've decided to introduce new blog layouts for special occasions, well, those special occasions that allow for periodic and consistent updates. Thus, I give you Microcosm 1.1 in honor of the lovely Marcie Orenstein. At the Art Fair, we were browsing one of the glasswork booths, and I was gushing about how I really liked the pieces. You mentioned that I would probably like Dale Chihuly, since you loved him and the work there reminded you of him, Marcie. So, I dub this layout Chihulyism.

The title picture has a minimalist title overlaid on a piece from Chihuly's Macchia series. In trying to make the blog title stand out, I found that my original idea of a translucent title would not work, as the letters covered a wide range of shades, and always blended in too well at one point or another no matter what shade I tried (within reason). Thus, I opted for barely any translucency (90% opacity) and instead created some panache with the matched O's and the striking red dot. Looking back, the Microcosm 1.0 layout looks positively bland by comparison, as the contrast between the two main colors is much weaker than in Chihulyism. All in all, especially in comparison to Microcosm 1.0, I'm rather pleased with Chihulyism. It has a much more striking presence, and has flash without being gimmicky. I hope you like it.

Happy Birthday, Marcie! May your fortunes soar like this week's gasoline prices!
posted by Wallaby at 12:01 AM | link | 1 comments

A Desperate Plea

August 30, 2005

Dear Technical Support,

18 months ago, I upgraded to Girlfriend 1.0 from Drinking Mates 4.2, which I had used for years without any trouble. However, there are apparently conflicts between these two products and the only solution was to try and run Girlfriend 1.0 with the sound turned off. To make matters worse, Girlfriend 1.0 is incompatible with several other applications, such as LadsNightOut 3.1, Football 4.5, and Playboy 6.9.

Successive versions of GirlFriend proved no better. I tried a shareware program, Slapper 2.1, but it had many bugs and left a virus in my system, forcing me to shut down completely for several weeks. Eventually, I tried to run GirlFriend 1.2 and Girlfriend 1.0 at the same time, only to discover that when these two systems detected each other they caused severe damage to my hardware.

I eventually upgraded to Fiancee 1.0, only to discover that this product soon had to be upgraded further to Wife 1.0. While Wife 1.0 tends to use up all my available resources, it does come bundled with FreeS*xPlus and Cleanhouse 2003.
Shortly after this upgrade, however, I found that Wife 1.0 could be very unstable and costly to run. Any mistakes I made were automatically stored in Wife 1.0's memory and could not be deleted. They then resurfaced months later when I had forgotten about them. Wife 1.0 also has an automatic Diary, Explorer and E-mail filter, and can, without warning, launch TurboStrop and Whinge.

These latter products have no Help files, and I have to try to guess what the problem is. Additional problems are that Wife 1.0 needs updating regularly, requiring Shoe Shop Browser for new attachments and Hairstyle Express which needs to be reinstalled every sixth week. Also, when Wife 1.0 attaches itself to my Porsche911 or MercedesEstate hard drive, it often crashes. Wife 1.0 also comes with an irritating pop-up called MotherInLaw, which can't be turned off.

Recently I've been tempted to install Mistress 2004, but there could be problems. A friend of mine has alerted me to the fact that if Wife 1.0 detects Mistress 2004, it tends to delete all of Money before uninstalling itself.

Please advise ASAP
posted by Wallaby at 3:13 PM | link | 0 comments