Thursday, December 23, 2004

Happy Festivus!

Ever since I saw the Seinfeld episode that introduced Festivus to the world I was intrigued by it. In the 7 years since then the concept of the "festival for the rest of us" has grown on me. I think this is primarily because of the Christmas holiday has lost some of it's luster for me - I really only experience it as a commercial event rather than a spiritual or religious time. There is something that is captivating about the aluminum pole in contrast to the red and green dominated Christmas decorations.

When I saw this article in the New York Times about Festivus I thought that it would be a lot of fun to have a festivus party but I didn't have time to get anything organized. So lacking that I thought I'd take a minute to share a happy Festivus greeting with anyone reading this! Maybe I'll organize something for next year to give us all an opportunity to air our grievances.


The New York Times

December 19, 2004

Fooey to the World: Festivus Is Come


GATHER around the Festivus pole and listen to a tale about a real holiday made fictional and then real again, a tale that touches on philosophy, King Lear, the pool at the Chateau Marmont hotel, a paper bag with a clock inside and, oh yes, a television show about nothing.

The first surprise is that from Tampa Bay, Fla., to Washington, from Austin, Tex., to Oxford, Ohio, many real people are holding parties celebrating Festivus, a holiday most believe was invented on an episode of "Seinfeld" first broadcast the week before Christmas in 1997.

"More and more people are familiar with what Festivus is, and it's growing," said Jennifer Galdes, a Chicago restaurant publicist who organized her first Festivus party three years ago. "This year many more people, when they got the invite, responded with, `Will there be an airing of the grievances and feats of strength?' "

Those two rituals — accusing others of being a disappointment and wrestling — are traditions of Festivus as explained on the show by the character Frank Costanza. On that episode he tells Kramer that he invented the holiday when his children were young and he found himself in a department store tug of war with another Christmas shopper over a doll. "I realized there had to be a better way," Frank says.

So he coined the slogan "A Festivus for the rest of us" and formulated the other rules: the holiday occurs on Dec. 23, features a bare aluminum pole instead of a tree and does not end until the head of the family is wrestled to the floor and pinned.

The actual inventor of Festivus is Dan O'Keefe, 76, whose son Daniel, a writer on "Seinfeld," appropriated a family tradition for the episode. The elder Mr. O'Keefe was stunned to hear that the holiday, which he minted in 1966, is catching on. "Have we accidentally invented a cult?" he wondered.


To postulate grandly, the rise of Festivus, a bare-bones affair in which even tinsel is forbidden, may mean that Americans are fed up with the commercialism of the December holidays and are yearning for something simpler. Or it could be that Festivus is the perfect secular theme for an all-inclusive December gathering (even better than Chrismukkah, popularized by the television show "The O.C."). Or maybe, postulating smally, it's just irresistibly silly.

Interpretations of the holiday's rules differ among Festivus fundamentalists. Take the pole. On the show Frank Costanza says it must be aluminum and "it requires no decoration." But he does not specify what should hold it up nor its exact height.

Krista Soroka, 33, the host of a annual Festivus party in Tampa Bay, sank her five-footer into a green plastic pot filled with sand this year. "It's just an aluminum pole," she said, "like Frank says.'

After her party last year, she gave each of the 100 guests a miniature: a two-inch-tall ceramic pot filled with plaster of paris with a nail sticking out of the center.

Mike Osiecki, 26, a financial analyst in Atlanta, scheduled his Festivus gathering for friends and colleagues for Friday. He said his pole, which he bought for $10 at Home Depot, is suspended by fishing line on his porch, so "people can stare at it or dance around it if they want to."

Aaron Roberts, 28, a zoology graduate student in Oxford, Ohio, unscrewed a post from a set of metal shelves and sank it through the top of a cardboard box with weights inside.

In Chicago, Ms. Galdes anchored her six-and-a-half-footer in a Christmas tree stand. "This year I am not having a tree," she said.

Scott McLemee, a writer, and his wife, Rita Tehan, had no pole at all at their party in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Washington. They are two of the Festivus faithful who held their parties early in December before friends headed home for more traditional affairs.

Both Dan O'Keefe and his son bless the variations. The original Festivus was constantly in flux.

"It was entirely more peculiar than on the show," the younger Mr. O'Keefe said from the set of the sitcom "Listen Up," where he is now a writer. There was never a pole, but there were airings of grievances into a tape recorder and wrestling matches between Daniel and his two brothers, among other rites.

"There was a clock in a bag," said Mr. O'Keefe, 36, adding that he does not know what it symbolized.

"Most of the Festivi had a theme," he said. "One was, `Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?' Another was, `Too easily made glad?' "

His father, a former editor at Reader's Digest, said the first Festivus took place in February 1966, before any of his children were born, as a celebration of the anniversary of his first date with his wife, Deborah. The word "Festivus" just popped into his head, he said from his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

The holiday evolved during the 1970's, when the elder Mr. O'Keefe began doing research for his book "Stolen Lightning" (Vintage 1983), a work of sociology that explores the ways people use cults, astrology and the paranormal as a defense against social pressures.

Festivus, with classic rituals like familial gatherings, totemic-but-mysterious objects and respect for ancestors, slouched forth from this milieu. "In the background was Durkheim's `Elementary Forms of Religious Life,' " Mr. O'Keefe recalled, "saying that religion is the unconscious projection of the group. And then the American philosopher Josiah Royce: religion is the worship of the beloved community."

If Mr. O'Keefe is the real father of Festivus, Jerry Stiller, the actor who played Frank Costanza, George Costanza's father, is its Santa Claus.

"I'll take that mantle," Mr. Stiller said in an interview from poolside at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, where he was awaiting the premiere of "Meet the Fockers," a new film featuring his real son, Ben Stiller. "I'll wear my crown."

Mr. Stiller, 77, has his own interpretation of the Festivus rituals as portrayed on the "Seinfeld" episode, especially the feats of strength, which end with a wrestling match between him and George.

"It was another kind of way with dealing with something else that was going on at the time: the rebelliousness of the son against the father and the father trying to prove he was still stronger than the son," he said. "It was like King Lear." (In this case, though, the old man wins.)

Infused as Festivus is with so much potential meaning, it is not far-fetched to imagine it as a permanent part of the American holiday firmament, said Anthony F. Aveni, a professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate and the author of "The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays" (Oxford University Press, 2002). After all, Halloween used to be an obscure festival observed by few, Kwanzaa was invented by an academic in California in the 1960's, and Hanukkah has been reinvented in modern times to include gift-giving. "Even Christmas comes out of a pagan holiday that happened around the solstice," Professor Aveni said.

The holiday does seem to be evolving.

The Festivus party to be given in Austin on Christmas Eve eve by Katherine Willis, an actress, and her husband is to include a backyard game of "pitching washers."

"There's basically a hole in the ground," she said. "You try to throw the washers in the hole, and apparently the more you drink the better you get at it."

A Web site she has set up,, provides downloads of a feats of strength challenge card, a list of grievances form and Festivus greeting cards, including one that reads, in a Hallmark-like typeface, "You're a disappointment! Happy Festivus!" Another Web site,, offers Festivus e-mail cards.

Ms. Soroka, in Tampa Bay, who has guests write their grievances in a ledger so she can show it at parties all year long, has added karaoke this year.

Some things just grow. "Last year," said Ms. Galdes of Chicago, "there was break dancing. I don't know how that happened."

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Two big questions: What is Love? Are Humans special?

The following essay by Dennis Overbye published in the New York Times on Dec 21, 2004 raises two questions in my mind that I've been thinking about for some time.

What is Love?
Are Humans different from other animals and therefore special?

First off I have to say that in my experience both of these questions are not so simple to answer. Sure, in some ways most of us think we may know what love is, exemplified by fairy tale weddings (see Princess Dianna and Prince Charles), romances (J-Low and Ben Affleck - OK maybe they aren't a good example), love for your child or love for country and the principles it represents. But have you ever taken the time to consider the shades of gray that exist within love? If you have more than one child is your love for each different in some way? Have the feelings of love changed as you've gotten older? Can you really love something that doesn't have physical manifestation such as an ideology or concept? I don't claim to know the answers to these questions but there are ways of exploring these questions that I find interesting.

Overbye's consideration of the possibility that squirrels (also know as RATS with bushy tails - and we all know rats are the scum of the earth) can experience love challenges some of the standard ways of thinking about love and consequently the distinctions between humans and other animals. If love is simply a biochemical mix of hormones we experience when in the presence of something then why wouldn't a squirrel be able to experience love? At some point this argument breaks down. Can a frog (which is in a different animal kingdom) experience love? Does a frog brain work in a way similar to ours? Can a mosquito or an oak tree experience love? Probably not in a way that we as humans would recognize but I'm not so confident as to answer a simple - no.

If either of these questions interests you I would suggest reading the essay (included below) and share your thoughts, feelings and ideas.

New York Times

December 21, 2004


The Strongest Force? Any Parent Can Tell You

What's the strongest force in the universe?

Some people will say gravity. But that would be wrong. Gravity, physicists say, is intrinsically puny and gets its overwhelming oomph only from the fact that everything, even energy, contributes to it. Which isn't much consolation, admittedly, when you drop, say, your trusty college edition of the complete annotated works of William Shakespeare on your foot.

An astronomer quoted in this newspaper a few years back said that jealousy was the strongest force in the universe.

Now we're getting closer.

I'd like to convince you, at the possible cost of my reputation as a cold-eyed observer of cosmic affairs, that it is love.

I learned this from a squirrel, some years ago, when I was living up in the Hudson Valley. An Eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, to be precise, since this is the science section. She was sitting on the corner of the roof in the rain, bedraggled and sopping wet, staring at me with holy fire in her little dark brown eyes.

This was on the third day of a siege of what had started as a nuisance and was now terror.

It had begun with an occasional scratching sound in the bedroom ceiling. Our first thought was mice in the crawl space running under the peak of the roof. But the only access was through vents at either end. Sure enough, when we went outside and looked up there was a hole in the vent. Some animal had chewed its way in.

It was the home of my girlfriend Catherine. She had built it only a few years before, slaving through the summers and weekends to do all the finish work with her own hands. She rightly felt violated.

We sent an S O S to her brother, who is a builder, and he came over with a 25-foot ladder, climbed up and announced that there was a nest of ripped-up fiberglass inside.

He nailed a new vent into place and went home.

And so we woke up the next day to the sound of chewing. The vent was just over the window and there was a squirrel spitting splinters as she tried to get in. We had nailed her babies inside.

We went out and threw stones at her. She retreated to a nearby tree and sat there squawking at us.

Maybe she will give up, we told ourselves, in a moment I'm still ashamed of.

She didn't. I went outside and stood in the rain looking up at the roof. The squirrel glared back down accusingly. I didn't have the heart to throw another stone at her.

"She's eating my house," Catherine said, giving me a look not unlike the squirrel's.

I slunk off and found a listing for animal trappers in the yellow pages. A tall guy I immediately nicknamed Daniel Boone showed up the next morning in a fur hat and knee-length boots. He climbed up the house with a long-handled net and quickly emerged with six baby squirrels. He set them in a trap in the woods near the house. They were spitting and growling.

He said, "Don't put your hand in," and went off for coffee.

As soon as he was gone the mother emerged from the woods. She scurried up the ladder into the house and then back out even faster, and ran through the woods up and down trees looking for her babies, winding up in the trap amid a renewed chorus of squawking.

Daniel Boone came back and took them away, he said, to new home in the woods on the other side of the Hudson. I have no reason to doubt his word.

We had to replace some clapboards and nail wire over the vent to prevent a recurrence of the invasion, and that was the end of it, sort of.

That squirrel's glare still haunts me. Especially now that I'm a parent myself.

In October, David Gross, a newly minted Nobel Prize physicist, wondered if science would one day be able to measure the onset of consciousness in an infant.

He likened that shift to what physicists call a "phase change," a microscopic adjustment that makes a macroscopic difference, as when water freezes to ice, or the atoms in a magnet line up.

But I wonder if we could measure the onset of love. Surely that is a phase change, too, a physical shifting of the internal firmament.

Now you might say I have some nerve imputing feelings as ethereal and high-flown as love to a toothy spitting pile of fur and bone with a brain the size of walnut - rats with a bushy tails, as squirrels are often called out in the unromantic countryside. Surely this is just another example of the kind of egregious anthropomorphizing that makes us identify emotionally with animals, robots, the Mars rovers, our cars.

But tell me you've never been taken in by a smile. Human love, biochemists say, is a sort of oxytocin drunk, an addiction to the hormones our partners, real or desired, release in us.

We anthropomorphize ourselves, in other words. Why not a squirrel?

As far as I know, we are both testimony to the marvelous possibilities inherent in the assembly of myriads of atoms. Richard Feynman, the iconoclastic Caltech physicist, once said that if he could pass one piece of knowledge on to future generations it would be that everything is made of atoms. He meant not to diminish "everything," but rather to ennoble and make us appreciate the talents of atoms.

In another twist on the subject of love and physics, three-quarters of a century ago, in 1925 to be exact, Erwin Schrödinger, an Austrian physicist, went off to a Swiss resort with a mysterious woman friend, and came back with an equation that describes matter as a wave spreading throughout all space. Schrödinger's equation is now the basis of quantum mechanics, which is the foundation of modern physics.

In principle, physicists like to say, Schrödinger's equation explains all of chemistry and thus all of life, including squirrels.

But when they say it, they mean it as a joke. The equation hasn't been solved except by numerical approximations for anything more complicated than a hydrogen atom - one proton and one electron. As for life, Joel Cohen, a population biologist at Rockefeller University, wrote in an essay in the online journal Public Library of Science Biology that entirely new realms of mathematics would be needed to cope with the complexity of the living world, but I think he's being optimistic.

As a glance at any morning's headlines will tell you, we understand next to nothing.

Or as the refrain to "Albert Einstein Dreams" by Naked to the World put it:

Just because I'm Albert Einstein doesn't mean I understand

The ever-expanding universe between a woman and a man.

If I knew, or had half a clue, I'd be much more famous than I am.

So I'm willing to believe in squirrel love. As for human love, I used to wonder if I had it in me to chew down a house. Until my wife, Nancy, and I adopted our daughter, Mira.

A baby sitter, whom we did not know well, disappeared with her for a few hours, and I rampaged through every store and playground on the Upper West Side only to have them show up back at the apartment on time wondering what the fuss was about.

So now I know.

Comments from Simon St. Laurent on blogging

I found this blog entry by Simon St. Laurent interesting because of his idea that blogging "can be richest when we blog the things immediately around us - things we're close enough to see, feel, and do, filled with people we get to know."

This got me thinking about the possibility of starting a neighborhood blog - one focused on the Hennepin/Lake area. I think it sounds like an intriguing idea and I'm trying to figure out if I have time for such a project. Stay Tuned.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

More on performance enhancing drugs and what WE can do about it!

The following article by Scott Tinley is an interesting follow-up to the article in the times about the use of performance enhancing drugs. I have to say that I was horrified but not surprised when Nina Kraft was caught for using the performance enhancing drug EPO at the 2004 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in October. Tinley always seems to have a unique perspective on things and I think it's a useful continuation of this topic.
Two things about Kraft's abuse bothered me the most. First that I found out about it on, which is a cycling site. I had hoped (probably foolishly) that triathlon would stay out of the doping quagmire that cycling has put itself in. Second that when watching the NBC show about the Ironman Hawaii this fall I was extremely disappointed that they waited until the very end of the show to announce that Nina Kraft had been disqualified for testing positive and had admitted using EPO. If I hadn’t already known this information I would have been thinking “what a great performance” the whole show – that would have been cheating me out of the performance of the true winner - Natascha Badmann. I was happy and sad all at the same time to be thinking “NINA - YOU’RE DOPED UP”. I’m glad I knew but I wish that they would have made this clear to the less informed audience. NBC, you could have done a much better job with this and done the sport of triathlon and the entire sporting community a big favor! Also, lets not forget that Natascha Badmann deserved much more coverage for her outstanding race!


From Triathlete Magazine December 2004 Page 104

The Right Stuff
By Scott Tinley

Do you ever look upon your involvement in sport as you would a friend or family member? As someone that is now and may have always been inseparable from who you are? Have you ever sat off to the side while you watch yourself training and race, separate from your own existence, feeling proud that you have chosen and been chosen to be a part of something so fulfilling, so gratifying?
Oh there are days, to be sure, when the pain and rigor of your sport have given rise to self-doubt, insecurities, can-I-really-do-this kind of feelings. Buy you think that you can, and that ache in your legs is as controllable as a water faucet. It’s not simply the absence of pain upon completion of an event, but the presence of all that is good with sport. The finish line, the camaraderie, the people patting you on the back telling you how proud they are, and meaning it; it’s all part of the reasons you are out there. The questions are a natural part of the process, you remind yourself.
And then one day, likely during the spring when the days grow longer and the thought of races and longer rides and warmer water begins to push out the winter’s quietude, you see a real athlete in the mirror. Oh, he or she still has a family and school and a job-all good thing-but you bear witness. There is carnal knowledge in a thinner waist and the glow of skin that covers a well-oiled collection of hearts, lungs and fiber to move you over land and through a fluid medium with power and grace. You’re a jock, damn it, and proud of it.
And that’s when you realize that you are part of a tribe with tribal ceremonies, tribal brothers and tribal benefits. You are invested in your sport and it is invested in you. It’s a wonderful relationship, it is, but not without responsibility.
If a tribe is to survive, even flourish, rules are established and followed. Some rules are good, created for the benefit of fairness and safety, while others seem petty and political. But as a member of this tribe your choices are to try and effect change through political processes, follow the rules or risk it all and break the rules. There is a structure in place and you can choose or deny involvement.
And so it is as sportsmen that we feel robbed of a piece of our ownership in sport, our tribe defaced, when one of our own refuses to follow the rules and breaks them not in protest but in search of an advantage. It’s the same feeling that you might’ve had if you’ve ever experienced someone breaking into your car or your home. It’s not the loss of material possession-stereos and cameras and jewelry can be replaced-but the feeling of violation that turns out stomachs and catalyzes feelings of disgust, anger and even guilt at allowing this to happen.
People cheat in sport all the time and at every level. From the Olympics to the playground, we see it up close and from a great distance. And none of us are unaffected.
Regardless if the athlete is caught or not, those of us who feel ownership in a sport, who are well-vested, who want to benefit from the connection to like-minded individuals, will suffer that nausea that comes with violation. If a weightlifter from some eastern block country that we can’t pronounce is found guilty of doping, will it affect us directly? Not really. Do I care? Yes, because cheating is now institutionalized; a well-organized, well-funded enterprise that has found its way into the dark culture of organized sport.
If someone cheats in triathlon, or any sport for that matter, I take it personally, like they’ve come into my home and robbed me of something. Maybe it’s a part of my history or my memories of a life in sport. Maybe it’s that I want to remain in a collective that foregrounds ethics and fair play. Heaven knows so many other elements of our society, other tribes if you will, have re-defined ethical behavior.
The advent of tighter officiating, application of advanced science to drug testing and greater penalties, may or may not have made a difference. What is troubling is the fact that we need them at all. But that is utopian thinking, for sure. It is a part of the nature of man to gain victory at all costs and the emphasis on winning in our society has currently anchored this with the lure of fame and fortune.
In the end, I don’t put as much faith in the advancement of a police-state mentality to create fairness as I do in the tribe itself, as I do in the individual analyzing and then making their decision without exterior influence. Surveillance camera-consciousness is not the answer.
Is it too idealistic to think that we can police ourselves through peer pressure and internal education? I hope not. If the reason an athlete looks for an unfair advantage to win is because they want the respect and adulation of the peers, then it seems self-evident that they only have to realize they are jeopardizing all that they hope to gain. That should become the responsibility of the tribe to educate, and not some outside authoritarian group set up to catch the cheaters.
I will never forget the times when I would dance on the edge of drafting in a race and had peers I respect turn toward me and throw a darting look I could just as soon have been banned for life. These were my competitors but they were also my brothers, people whom I coveted acceptance from.
Reaching that level of ownership in a sport makes you a member of a family that must settle its differences at the dinner table, not in court. It also gives you a feeling of support that is immutable to any need or request. But is it your responsibility to enforce rules if you are simply another participant? Only if you are concerned with the long-term health of your sport.
I don’t know where drugs in sport will go, or any dink of cheating for that matter. We all make mistakes. We all want to win. We’re all human.
And you would hope that humans could handle other humans. Or at least you would hope that we would try. There may never be a last word on this issue. But shouldn’t one of the first be asked of the person in that mirror?
“Yeah, I like what I do. But am I doing right by the sport as it is doing right by me? Am I playing fair?”

Risk Part III (I think)

Eric Hoffer

"We are more ready to try the untried when what we do is inconsequential. Hence the fact that many inventions had their birth as toys."

There is a lot of truth in this quote. I find that the greater the risk the more likely I am to stick with what I have done in the past. The catch-22 in this is that the more I'm willing to risk the greater the satisfaction and the more I learn. It also creates a sense of control and excitement in life all at the same time.

The opposite of bigger, more complex and more violent

E. F. Schumacher

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction."

This quote struck me because of all the press that video games have been getting recently. Specifically the car-jacking games that are so popular these days. What ever happened to Tetris and Breakout, both games that took creativity, strategy and quick thinking. The downside is that when done poorly these less complex, less violent games truly suck.

Nothing To Do

Mary Wilson Little

"There is no pleasure in having nothing to do; the fun is in having lots to do and not doing it."

I discovered this truth while at college when I was all done with finals awaiting my departure from campus for winter or summer break. All of the activities and distractions that were so wonderful at times when I had papers, labs and studying nagging at my conscience were completely boring and uninteresting when I had nothing to do but sit around and wait. It was even worse when I would finish my finals 1-3 days before all of my friends because they were still in the frantic mode when a round of indoor-wiffle-ball was the best thing imaginable.

This Is Your Country on Drugs

This Is Your Country on Drugs

"JACQUES BARZUN famously said that to understand America, one must first understand baseball. Never has his remark been more accurate. Professional baseball players may be the most vilified Americans using performance-enhancing drugs, but they are by no means alone. Performance-enhancing drugs have become a part of ordinary American life."

I would argue that they have always been part of American life.

"College students take Ritalin to improve their academic performance. Musicians take beta blockers to improve their onstage performance. Middle-aged men take Viagra to improve their sexual performance. Shy people take Paxil to improve their social performance. The difference is that if athletes want to get performance-enhancing drugs they go to the black market. If the rest of us want performance-enhancing drugs, we go to our family doctors."

As a person that prefers to avoid taking medication of any kind I found this article to be engaging. It's amazing how common it is for people to look to pharmaceuticals and drugs to "enhance" themselves in all sorts of ways. It seems to me that at some point "enhanced" achievements would begin to feel hallow to the person that accomplishes the achievement.

I've also been a bit puzzled by the strong reaction to performance enhancing drugs in sports. People have been doing this for centuries. Drugs were very common in warfare and games/sports as long as we have historical evidence.

Also where do you draw the line. Is caffeine an enhancer or is it just something that helps people kick start their day. I've seen a lot of discussion of the use of caffeine in the triathlon world and it never seems to go anywhere. Some people swear by it but I have a hunch these are the people that are already addicted to it anyway.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Check out Google Suggest

Check out Google Suggest. And take a look at Joel On Software's comments about this.

I've used this a little bit now and although it takes a bit of getting used to I think it will be very handy. I also like seeing the use of IFRAMEs as there are many opportunities to make use of this functionality on many sites.

Live to learn

Al Franken

"Mistakes are a part of being human. Appreciate your mistakes for what they are: precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it's a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from."

Pac Man

Kristian Wilson

"Computer games don't affect kids, I mean if Pac Man affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in darkened rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive music."

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Chinese Proverb

"He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever."

Another article on Financial Planning

20 Tough Questions for an Easier Future

"The typical financial strategy demands that you cut current spending to set aside money for some distant future that you may not even live to enjoy. For many people, the idea of slogging away for 20, 30 or even 50 years before seeing any reward simply doesn�t appeal. They either never get going, or they abandon the plans pretty quickly."

I can certainly relate to this quote at times. The concepts presented in this article seem like an intriguing alternative way to look at the process of financial planning.

Walk Away Fund

I think I could get by on $2.5 million.

Take a look at this article on what it means to be rich and the concept of a Walk Away Fund.

U2 - A couple more comments

In a previous post I noted two reviews of U2's latest album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Now a couple of comments on these reviews.

Regarding Courageous Crooners - U2 Dismantle[s] an Atomic Bomb I found the focus on the Christian/biblical aspects of U2's work to be fascinating. I actually disagree with a lot of what the author had to say because it is very different from how I've experienced U2's music over the last 15 years. It may sound odd, but to me their music has always seemed secular in a way that a born again Christian could see their message in the lyrics or an Atheist could find meaning that is just as powerful and personal. I relate to the lyrics as a way to express powerful emotion rather than as a way to express powerful faith. After writing that last sentence I'm curious to know if other people find these two things, emotion and faith, to be one and the same?

Review: U2's 'Bomb' fails to explode

Apparently this album wasn't what this reviewer was hoping to hear. I can only say that one of the things that I like about U2 is that they don't just rely on producing the same album over and over again. They seem to have a knack for surprising listeners and I think it takes a little while for an album like this to grow on the listener. For me it's agood sign when it takes a couple of dozen listening sessions before I figure out which song on an album is my favorite. At this point my favorite part of the new album is tracks 5-8 as a series. I get lost in them in a way that I don't in the rest of the album. When listening to tracks 1-4 I find myself tempted to hit skip a couple of times to get to 5-8. And once I'm up to track 9 I'm feeling like I'm on the downward slide to the end of the album. I have to also add that Track 1 is a fantastic way to start and 11 is an equally great way to close the album but 5-8 still really stand out for me both lyrically and musically for me. I'm still trying to figure out why those 4 tracks stand out from the rest.

General Comments on art/music/movie reviews

I have to say that I hate the way reviews are written - I mean the style of the language in a review rather than the content. Every reviewer - positive or negative - about any piece of work, music, visual art, film, etc, seems to use language that makes it sound like their opinion is the right one and that they know something "special" that we don't know which makes them right. This pisses me off.

I wish the writers would use language that would express that this is simply their opinion and is not any more or less valid than anyone else's. The only person that has a more "valid" opinion is the artist.

I'm extremely fascinated to find out what people like or don't like about about an album like U2's latest. But I'm more interested in personal responses rather than grand statements about the place of an album in Rock and roll history or even U2's history.

Here are two reviews that for me get into the style that I don't like.

Courageous Crooners - U2 Dismantle[s] an Atomic Bomb

Review: U2's 'Bomb' fails to explode

Do other people like this style of writing/reviewing or does this irritate you?

The Incredibles Follow-up on Risk

I noted in my first post about The Incredibles that I would follow up on the topics for discussion that jumped off the screen for me. See that post here.

The first topic that I'm going to return to is Risk. Mr Incredible had lived a life as a superhero that was based on risking his reputation, safety and security for the glory of "saving people" and defeating the bad guy. He thrived off of this type of excitement and was at the peak of his powers when the super heros were pushed into exile. The movie cuts quickly to his new life as a parent, corporate employee and suburban house owner. He was no longer energized by his life and was just going through the motions to keep food on the table and the mortgage paid on time. His only apparent thrill in life was hanging out with Frozone and dreaming about chasing the criminals he hears about on the police radio.

The only risk that seemed to be in his life was that he would get fired, again, or that somehow people would discover the true identity of his family. Both of these possibilities seemed to create a drag on his energy rather than energize him. Finally, he decided to take a risk (the wisdom displayed in this decision is definitely debatable) and it ended up paying off big time in the end. He seemed to rediscover who he was and the rest of his family had similar transformational experiences. Of course this was a Hollywood movie so we all knew it would work out in the end but I think this lesson is one that we should all be reminded of every once in a while. Sometimes you have to step off the edge of the cliff not knowing how far the drop is. It may end up only being 6 inches or you may end up learning how to fly all over again.

The following article is one that appeared in The Key Reporter, which is the quarterly publication of Phi Beta Kappa (an undergraduate honors society). Although the author is writing for a group of Phi Beta Kappa inductees I believe that the message applies to most everyone that is reading this blog.

Start of Article from Key Reporter

An Initiation Call for Risk-Takers

From The Key Reporter Summer 2004, Volume 69, Number 3

Editors Note: John D. Zeglis is chairman of AT&T Wireless and former chair of the George Washington University Board of Trustees. Here are excerpts from his address to new members of the PBK chapter at GWU.

By John D. Zeglis

As I speak, I have to be careful because it’s just possible that a room like this has my future boss in it, and I don’t want to offend her.

What is the essential message on a day you reach a pinnacle of academic success? The good news starts with the word that sums up the characteristics of all of you: excellence. Excellence is a choice. As John Gardner put it “very few people have excellence thrust upon them. They achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly by doing what comes naturally, and they don’t stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.”

You are here because you’ve made a habit of excellence. Occasional brilliance will not get you into Phi Beta Kappa. You are not one-subject wonders. You’ve established your intellectual credentials in a wide range of subjects. The excellence that brings you here is not accidental. You have chosen to pursue it and you have earned it. You’ve broken the code of how to get it done. And that stays with you for life.

A word of cautions from a worldly wise old guy who was once in your shoes: There is a paradoxical thing about academic excellence. If you want to continue your habit of excellence after graduation, you will have to learn how to take risks-and to fail more often than you’re used to.

If excellence is the word for today, the word for your future is achievement. They are not disconnected. But they’re not self-executing either-it’s not automatic that you can go from excellence to high achievement in “the real world.” Many people who are excellent in school don’t have the same success over their lifetimes. Locking in a formula for excellence early in life, as you’ve done in your academic work, often makes people risk-averse. They know how to be excellent, and they aren’t about to start taking risks on being less than excellent. But sometimes a little less success and a little more failure is a good thing.

Students who are identified as “the best and the brightest” have wonderful choices coming out of college. There’s the blue-chip law school, and later the blue-chip law firm. There’s the silk-stocking investment bank. There’s the Fortune 50 icon business enterprise. They are attractive choices. They offer great starting salaries, small risk, and the opportunity to work with smart students from generations past. The reward for your scholarly excellence is that you have the prospect of making a good living without having to take a great risk. But there’s a potential trap here. And I speak from personal experience.

The really smart students continue their habit of excellence in the workplace: through comprehensive research and perfectly written papers, adapted exactly to the employer’s style and methods. You get promoted. You become a partner in the firm or an officer in the business. You get tenure, And then what?

Well, for a lot of people, the prospect of job security, the need to pay the mortgage, and the corner office-they squeeze out a good part of the desire to take the kind of risk that changes things. And soon people who were A+ students have worked their way into a B- career track in middle age, and coast along into retirement. Peter Drucker, the 20th century’s wisest student of business likes to say: “I would never promote into a top-level job a person who is not making mistakes. Otherwise, he is sure to be mediocre.”

Adlai Stevenson was once a partner in my law firm. When he first ran for governor, he went to the smartest man he knew for advice, asking “How did you get so smart?” Smartest man: “Being smart is just a matter of having wisdom.” Adlai: “How do you accumulate wisdom?” Smartest man: “Wisdom is just the practice of good judgment.” Adlai: “How do you gain good judgment?” Smartest man: “From experience.” Adlai: “And how do you get experience?” Smartest man: “Bad judgment.”

Folks without risk barely nudge the needle on society’s achievement, growth, and innovation. It’s only your willingness to persist in the face of failure that can take you beyond excellence and into achievement. Bill Gates dropped out of school. Amy Tan never succeeded as a technical writer. Woody Allen flunked filmmaking. Mother Teresa lost more patients than she saved. Lincoln lost more elections than he won.

I admit that I am not the best example for you. It went to a blue-chip law school and worked into a cushy job as a partner for a big law firm, and then general counsel for one of America’s great business icons. It was the comfortable life of a competent attorney who could always say it was somebody else’s fault. But then cataclysmic changes rocked my industry and my company. And I began taking the risks that led me to AT&T Wireless. It isn’t exactly a start-up, but I now take more risks in a week than I used to take in a decade.

I don’t “win” nearly as often, but I’m having a lot more fun, and I’m engaged in a business that can fundamentally change the way we live. And I love it. I came to this discovery late in life. My most fervent wish for you is that you get a jump on this earlier than I did. Stretch yourselves. Push your limits. Expand your horizons. Dare to fail. If you never fail, you’ll never achieve your full potential.

End of Article

This article is worth reading. The link below is to the entire report that this article is based on.

The new Pentagon Paper
A scathing top-level report, intended for internal consumption, says that Bush's "war on terrorism" is an unmitigated disaster. Of course, the administration is ignoring it.

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By Sidney Blumenthal

Dec. 2, 2004 | Who wrote this -- a pop sociologist, obscure blogger or antiwar playwright? "Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic -- namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is -- for Americans -- really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game. This perception is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they are really just talking to themselves."

This passage is not psychobabble, punditry or monologue. It is a conclusion of the Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication, the product of a Pentagon advisory panel, delivered in September, its 102 pages not released to the public during the presidential campaign, but silently slipped onto a Pentagon Web site on Thanksgiving eve, and barely noticed by the U.S. press.

The task force of leading strategists and experts within the military, diplomatic corps and academia, and executives from defense-oriented business, was assigned to develop strategy for communications in the "global war on terrorism," including the war in Iraq. It had unfettered access, denied to journalists, to the inner workings of the national security apparatus, and interviewed scores of officials. The mission was not to find fault, but to suggest constructive improvements. There was no intent to contribute to public debate, much less political controversy; the report was written only for internal consumption.

The task force discovered more than a chaotic vacuum, a government sector "in crisis," though it found that, too: "Missing are strong leadership, strategic direction, adequate coordination, sufficient resources, and a culture of measurement and evaluation." Inevitably, as it journeyed deeper into the recesses of the Bush administration's foreign policy, the task force documented the unparalleled failure of its fundamental premises. "America's negative image in world opinion and diminished ability to persuade are consequences of factors other than the failure to implement communications strategies," the report declares. What emerges in this new Pentagon paper is a scathing indictment of an expanding and unmitigated disaster based on stubborn ignorance of the world and failed concepts that bear little relation to empirical reality except insofar as they confirm and incite gathering hatred among Muslims.

The Bush administration, according to the Defense Science Board, has misconceived a war on terrorism in the image of the Cold War -- "reflexively" and "without a thought or a care as to whether these were the best responses to a very different strategic situation." Yet the administration seeks out "Cold War models" to cast this "war" against "totalitarian evil." However, the struggle is not the West vs. Islam; nor is it "against the tactic of terrorism." "This is no Cold War," the report insists. While we blindly and confidently call this a "war on terrorism," Muslims "in contrast see a history-shaking movement of Islamic restoration" against "apostate" Arab regimes allied with the U.S. and "Western Modernity -- an agenda hidden within the official rubric of a 'War on Terrorism.'"

In this conflict, "wholly unlike the Cold War," the Bush administration's impulse has been to "imitate the routines and bureaucratic responses and mindset that so characterized that era." So the U.S. projects Iraqis and other Arabs as people to be liberated like those "oppressed by Soviet rule." And the U.S. accepts authoritarian Arab regimes as allies against the "radical fighters." All of this is nothing less than a gigantic "strategic mistake."

"There is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies -- except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends. (Original emphasis.)" Rhetoric about freedom is received as "no more than self-serving hypocrisy," daily highlighted by the U.S. occupation in Iraq. "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies." The "dramatic narrative since 9/11" of the "war on terrorism," Bush's grand justification, his story line connecting all the dots from the World Trade Center to Baghdad, has "borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars." As a result, jihadists have been able to transform themselves from marginal figures in the Muslim world into defenders against invasion and attack with a growing following of millions.

"Thus," the report concludes, "the critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim World is not one of 'dissemination of information,' or even one of crafting and delivering the 'right' message. Rather, it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none -- the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam. Inevitably therefore, whatever Americans do and say only serves the party that has both the message and the 'loud and clear' channel: the enemy."

Almost three months ago, the Defense Science Board delivered its report to the White House. But a source on the board told me it has received no word back at all. The report has been studiously, willfully ignored by those in the White House to whom its recommendations are directed.

For the Bush administration, expert analysis as a rule is extraneous, as it is making clear to national security professionals in its partisan scapegoating of the CIA. Experts can only be expert in telling the White House what it wants to hear. Expertise is valued, not for the analysis or evidence it offers for correction, but for propaganda and validation. But no one -- not in the Bush White House, the Congress, or the dwindling "coalition of the willing" -- can claim that the ever-widening catastrophe has not been foretold by the best and most objective minds commissioned by the Pentagon -- perhaps for the last time.

Y? forum

I stumbled upon this website a couple of weeks ago and found it to be an interesting idea. It's worth a little surfing around but I think the goal of creating greater understanding across groups and individuals goes lacking. My impression from reading a few of the responses to questions is that most people just use the forum as a way to preach their own opinion and belief rather than share in a more genuine way. (I guess that's just my opinion but that's why I have this blog!)

Here's a little quote from the Y? intro page - "Y? The National Forum On People's Differences has no agenda or cause, other than to get people talking across their differences - a running dialogue Y? believes most of us would like to see occur but that has yet to fully unfold through the conventional media."

Check it out if it looks interesting.

Galileo Quote

Galileo Galilei

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

It’s too bad that the people elected in our government have lost this aspect of Renaissance thinking.

Friday, December 03, 2004

What is Happiness

Here is a New York Times article that reviews the results of a recent study on how people achieve happiness. The question of what is happiness and how we achieve it is one that has interested me for a while. I don't claim to be any sort of expert on this matter but I found the Day Reconstruction Method to be an interesting idea. I also like the idea that if you figure out what patterns work for you it is possible to build those into your life.

"Using these new techniques, we can see patterns, and with some people it's crucial how they end their day, with others it's crucial how the day begins,"

"Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Authentic Happiness," said that the method also adds a valuable dimension to the understanding of what constitutes a good life. One part of it is mood, he said; another is how engaged people are in what they're doing; and a third is meaning."

The time that I've spent studying and practicing meditation has also given me another way into the idea of what happiness is. I certianly don't have the answer but exploring ways of approaching this question can be a lot of fun.