Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Ground Zero Mosque Again

from "Dodie" --

I am perplexed that so many of my American friends are against a mosque being built near Ground Zero. I think it should be the goal of every American to be tolerant. The mosque should be allowed, in an effort to promote tolerance.

That is why I also propose, that two gay nightclubs be opened next door to the mosque thereby promoting tolerance within the mosque. We could call the clubs "The Turban Cowboy" and "You Mecca Me So Hot".

Next door should be a butcher shop that specializes in pork and have an open barbeque with spare ribs as its daily special. Across the street a very daring lingerie store called "Victoria Keeps Nothing Secret” with sexy mannequins in the window modelling the goods.

Next door to the lingerie shop, there would be room for an Adult Toy Shop (Koranal Knowledge?), its name in flashing neon lights, and on the other side a liquor store, maybe call it "Morehammered"?


Friday, October 29, 2010

The Wild Life in El Cerrito

Wild turkeys on Lexington Avenue, around the corner from my house.... (sent by a neighbor)


When "Money talks and bullshit walks", where does it go? To Hollywood.



Thursday, October 28, 2010

During a Siege, Siege-Mentality May Not Be A Bad Thing to Have

Israel's Conflict as Game Theory
By Prof. Yisrael Aumann
Nobel Prize Laureate

Two men-let us call them Rick and Steve- are put in a small room containing a suitcase filled with bills totaling $100,000. The owner of the suitcase announces the following:"I will give you the money in the suitcase under one condition: you have to negotiate an agreement on how to divide it. That is the only way I will agree to give you the money."

Rick is a rational person and realizes the golden opportunity that has fallen his way. He turns to Steve with the obvious suggestion: "You take half and I'll take half, that way each of us will have $50,000."

To his surprise, Steve frowns at him and says, in a tone that leaves no room for doubt: "Look here, I don't know what your plans are for the money, but I don't intend to leave this room with less than $90,000. If you accept that, fine. If not, we can both go home without any of the money."

Rick can hardly believe his ears. "What has happened to Steve" he asks himself. "Why should he get 90% of the money and I just 10%?" He decides to try to convince Steve to accept his view. "Let's be logical," he urges him, "We are in the same situation, we both want the money. Let's divide the money equally and both of us will profit."

Steve, however, doesn't seem perturbed by his friend's logic. He listens attentively, but when Rick is finished he says, even more emphatically than before: "90-10 or nothing. That is my last offer."

Rick's face turns red with anger. He is about to punch Steve in the nose, but he steps back. He realizes that Steve is not going to relent, and that the only way he can leave the room with any money is to give in to him. He straightens his clothes, takes $10,000 from the suitcase, shakes Steve's hand and leaves the room humiliated.

This case is called 'The Blackmailer's Paradox" in game theory. The paradox is that Rick the rational is forced to behave irrationally by definition, in order to achieve maximum results in the face of the situation that has evolved. What brings about this bizarre outcome is the fact Steve is sure of himself and doesn't flinch when making his exorbitant demand. This convinces Rick that he must give in so as to make the best of the situation.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict
The relationship between Israel and the Arab countries is conducted along the lines of this paradox. At each stage of negotiation, the Arabs present impossible, unacceptable starting positions. They act sure of themselves and as if they totally believe in what they are asking for, and make it clear to Israel that there is no chance of their backing down.

Invariably, Israel agrees to their blackmailing demands because otherwise she will leave the room empty-handed. The most blatant example of this is the negotiations with Syria that have been taking place with different levels of negotiators for years. The Syrians made sure that it was clear from the beginning that they would not compromise on one millimeter of the Golan Heights.

The Israeli side, eager to have a peace agreement with Syria, internalized the Syrian position so well, that the Israeli public is sure that the starting point for future negotiations with Syria has to include complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights, this despite its critical strategic importance in ensuring secure borders for Israel.

The Losing Solution
According to game theory, Israel has to change certain basic perceptions in order to improve her chances in the negotiations game with the Arabs and win the long term political struggle:

a. Willingness to forego agreements Israel's political stand is based on the principle that agreements must be reached with the Arabs at any price, that the lack of agreements is untenable. In the Blackmailer's Paradox, Rick's behavior is the result of his feeling that he must leave the room with some money, no matter how little. Because Rick cannot imagine himself leaving the room with empty hands, he is easy prey for Steve, and ends up leaving with a certain amount of money, but in the role of the humiliated loser. This is similar to the way Israel handles negotiations, her mental state making her unable to reject suggestions that do not advance her interests.

b. Taking repetition into account Game theory relates to one-time situations differently than to situations that repeat themselves. A situation that repeats itself over any length of time, creates, paradoxically, strategic parity that leads to cooperation between the opposing sides. This cooperation occurs when both sides realize that the game is going to repeat itself, and that since they must weigh the influence present moves will have on future games, there is a balancing factor at play.

Rick saw his problem as a one-time event, and behaved accordingly. Had he told Steve instead that he would not forego the amount he deserves even if he sustains a total loss, he would have changed the game results for an indefinite period. It is probably true that he would still have left the game empty-handed, but at the next meeting with Steve, the latter would remember Rick's original suggestion and would try to reach a compromise. That is how Israel has to behave, looking at the long term in order to improve her position in future negotiations, even if it means continuing a state of war and foregoing an agreement.

c. Faith in your opinions
Another element that crates the "Blackmailer's Paradox" is the unwavering belief of one side in its opinion. Steve exemplifies that. This faith gives a contender inner confidence in his cause at the start and eventually convinces his rival as well. The result is that the opposing side wants to reach an agreement, even at the expense of irrational surrender that is considerably distanced from his opening position.

Several years ago, I spoke to a senior officer who claimed that Israel must withdraw from the Golan Heights in the framework of a peace treaty, because the Golan is holy land to the Syrians and they will never give it up. I explained to him that first the Syrians convinced themselves that the Golan is holy land to them, and then proceeded to convince you as well. The Syrians' unflinching belief that they are in the right convinces us to give in to their dictates. The only solution to that is for us to believe unwaveringly in the righteousness of our cause. Only complete faith in our demands can succeed in convincing our Syrian opponent to take our opinion into account.

As in all of science, game theory does not take sides in moral and value judgments. It analyzes strategically the behavior of opposing sides in a game they play against one another. The State of Israel is in the midst of one such game opposite its enemies. As in every game, the Arab-Israeli game involves interests that create the framework of the game and its rules.

Sadly, Israel ignores the basic principles of game theory. If Israel would be wise enough to behave according to those principles, her political status and de facto, her security status, would improve substantially.


We Tried It Already, And It Didn't Work

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Near Duluth

Massive Windstorm Howls Across Nation’s Midsection -

I am fine this morning. Last night the gusts were pushing the bus all over the road and it was just a matter of time until I went to visit the oncoming traffic. I was lucky in finding a place to get off the highway - a closed truck weighing station with a big empty parking lot.

I spent the night reassuring myself against the blows (in both senses), "It weighs ten tons, it's bottom heavy, it cannot turn over. Besides it would be a bizarre hoot if it did. It weighs ten tons, it's bottom heavy, it cannot turn over. Besides it would be a bizarre hoot if it did. It weighs ten tons, it's bottom heavy, it cannot turn over. It weighs ten...."

This morning is quiet and snow-covered but it is only a few inches deep and the snow plows are already out. Snow is apparently not a novelty in Minnesota. After a short hesitation the bus started and is idling dreamily even as we speak.


Voyageur National Park

I have been at Voyageur National Park in northernmost Minnesota overnight in the bus. During the night there was a windstorm and heavy rains. The nearest town is Hibbing, the boyhood home of Bob Dylan.

It was the wind roaring and rocking the bus (which weighs ten tons and is not easily rocked) which he sang about in the lyric,

If you’re goin’ to the north country far,

Remember me to the one who lives thar,

She once was a true love of mine,

She once was a true love of mine.

See that she has a coat so warm,

To keep her from the howling wind,

That hits heavy on the border line,

She once was a true love of mine,

She once was a true love of mine.

That is all I remember of it from forty years ago, but this place and this wind is the place and the wind in the song.

Not only are the north country, the wind, and the border line poignant but also the pain of modern times. It is all but lost on us that “once was” and “true love” are, or once were, an oxymoron.

In this we can learn about the way things used to be from the graffiti one used to see in and around Mexican neighborhoods in LA - “JR + MG [or some other pairs of initials] por vida”. Whether this meant that Juan Rodriguez actually intended to be with Maria Garcia for life, or just that they both knew that he had to say he did in order to get into her pants, is not for non-Mexicans of that era to know.

But it used to be a given that one fell in love, often quite easily and casually, then stayed together “por vida”. Or at least that was the expectation even if it wasn’t always what happened.

The contrary note was struck by Marilyn Monroe in “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”. “That’s when those louses go back to their spouses” she sang. Even then, though the louses had been with her, and she had been with them, in the end they went back to their spouses.

One doesn’t fault Dylan for being an ambitious musician and going off to Greenwich Village in New York to pursue his career, even though it meant leaving behind his girlfriend. Even though she was a true love of his. Even the grammar speaks the contradiction. How can she be “a” true love, rather than “the” true love?

But it would have been clingy and dependent of her to insist on going. She had other fish to fry anyway – the University of Minnesota perhaps, then maybe law school. And it would have been uxorious and sexless of him to take her.

I don’t fault Dylan for it and you don’t fault him either. Nor her. That is just how life is. There are lots of women to meet and get involved with and about the same number of men to meet and get involved with. One moves on, as the saying is.

Though the rewards for “moving on” are clear, the costs are also. One is always either alone or about to be.

I am not saying I object. I personally wouldn’t now have it any other way. I am just pausing during the wind and the rain here on the borderline to reflect on the cost.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Brief Book Review

I just heard a Book-on-CD of Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence". It is about a condescendingly superior English couple who buy the most ever-so-charming old farmhouse in Provence and spend a year wandering around and having various workmen fix up the house for them. Or rather not fix it up. Most of the book is devoted to how charming the indifference to punctuality and getting things done on time the Provencale workmen are. Aren't they quaint?

The workmen and indeed everyone else in Provence are presented as cartoons, charming for their absurdity, but vastly less than equals to the ever-so-lofty Mayles. The Mayles who have achieved their elevated station in life by making a lot of money in advertising. Can't get more dignified and important than advertising. Especially shitty, primitive, brainless British advertising.

The delays and difficulties pile up and the refurbishing of the house which was supposed to have taken a few weeks or a month or two at most, drags on from Spring until December. Much of the book is taken up with their travails in not getting their house fixed.

At no point does Peter Mayle or his wife ever take it into their heads to pick up a tool for any part of the work whatsoever. Never in the entire year does that seem to have crossed either of their minds. Apparently because people of their class simply don't do such things. The ever-so-cute protestations of helplessness are the thinnest veneer over class pretensions.

There is even an example of a neighboring farm family in which the mechanically-inclined wife does the maintenance and repairs on the tractors and trucks. The Mayles find this quaint too, but not for a moment an object example.

Nor does it ever occur to either of them, at least not in the text of this book, that contracts can contain "timely performance" clauses, which impose monetary penalties on contractors who fail to meet deadlines. And that such clauses are standard in construction contracts.

While the workmen may be Provencale, it is the Mayles who are provincial. The disappearing contractor is as familiar as the sunrise in construction work all over the world, and there is nothing quaint or cute about it, nothing particularly Provencale. Which is why there are timely performance clauses. But the condescending and superior Mayles seem not to know that.

So the whole story, which is intended as a whimsical look at the quaint and amusing Provencales by a tolerantly superior English couple, is actually a look at the incompetence, ignorance, and class-pretensions of a pair of condescending morons.

The part of the book that is of interest is the descriptions of the various restaurants and the various meals that the Mayles "et" in them. ("Et" is the pronunciation given when the word intended is one we would render as "ate" or "eaten".)

Only when they are talking about food and wine are the Mayles sincerely appreciative and not condescending. There is LOTS of description of various dishes, of mushrooms gathered in the woods, of terrines, of breads, of all sorts of wines. It is only when they are genuinely appreciative that they are attractive and sympathetic.


An Autobiographical Note

When I was a high school kid I had a tragic-Maoist vision of the world - which meant that the workers (my parents' friends mainly) were utterly screwed by the rich, but the tragedy was that they were too stupid to do anything about it and always would be.

My bad attitude and poor attendance in high school were carrying me on the long slow slide to Palookaville when the first of a long series of dumbluck happenstances came my way.

Just about the time I was being expelled from high school (as in "don't come back - ever") I took a battery of tests for an honors program at UCLA and was one of two kids in my school who got in. It meant that my going-down-the-toilet grades no longer mattered because I was admitted to the UC system and attended classes half time during 12th grade.

Further dumbluck was that UC was so bureaucratic that they only had one undergraduate status and could not distinguish high school admissions from regular admissions nor could they distinguish UCLA admissions from Berkeley admissions.

Further dumbluck was that the Russians had just launched Sputnik a few years earlier and Congress had freaked out and passed the National Defense Education Act which provided school loans for poor kids like me. So I went from expelled at the end of 11th grade to freshman at Berkeley a year later.

Between freshman and sophomore years I had a summer job scrubbing zoology lab floors that had not been cleaned in years. (The custodians insisted we do it on our knees with brushes so as not take away their jobs of cleaning with big electric floor scrubbers.) Having had plenty of experience of not spending money I saved what I made and spent it the following summer by taking the very first season of charter flights to Europe. More dumbluck.

In the course of hitch-hiking and wandering around my friend Fritz and I were in a youth hostel in West Berlin when we encountered a kid who had more money than brains - and a sports car. He had been touring the various red light districts because he didn't know what else there was to do in Europe. Fritz and I exchanged a look.

The conversation came around occasionally to Moscow, and then again to Moscow, and then I found an article in Time magazine which happened to be at hand and which just happened to be about the USSR. Before Junior knew what had befallen him, we were all three on our way to Moscow and Leningrad in his sports car.

And so it was that in the summer of 1966 at the age of nineteen I learned first hand about what had been an article of conversation and ideological certainty in Berkeley. And it wasn't good. It was a huge eye-opener to actually see what everyone claimed to know all about. It was the origin of all my subsequent political skepticism. Not only had the conservatives lied to us about the Soviet Union, so had the liberals, socialists, and communists. Everyone had lied, and for their own interests.

Including one of my professors, Reggie Zelnik, whose sworn duty it was to teach the truth. But who was a shallow, lying rat-bastard more devoted to his Marxist pretensions than to academic integrity, let alone his students.

From that day to this, I have assumed that anything anyone says about politics or social theory or any such thing is just not true. My view from that day to this is that political speech is born of ignorance, prejudice, self-interest, and even intentional deception. In brief it is my belief that people who speak about politics either literally do not know what they are talking about or are intentional liars. (It does not follow that I necessarily know better. Just that I never believe what I am told.) It was then that I formulated my political philosophy which is summarized in the motto, "Oh, that's bullshit!"

This skepticism has stood me in good stead all my life, although it has gotten me into a great deal of trouble over the years, particularly with authority figures who do not like to have their word doubted or dismissed.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010



The Prairie
Even the ever-optimistic Michelin Green Guide Canada admits there is nothing to see in Saskatchewan. But it is not true. There is a majesty and grandeur in the endless prairie, the vast wheat fields, now tan stubble after the harvest, the distant flat horizons, the sunsets made fiery by the remoteness of those horizons. But there is something defeating, belittling in that vastness as well. No matter how far one goes on one's own two legs, one hasn't gone anywhere. One is trapped in place by the immensity of the spaces. That may be why the Saskatchewanese all have enormous cars and pickups. (The word "compact" cannot be translated into Canadian.) It is not to defy the vastness, defiance is not a Canadian thing to do, but to reassure themselves, to conceal their human impotence and even irrelevance in the face of the limitlessness of the plains.

Since nothing ever does, nor ever has, happened in Saskatchewan there isn't much for the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina (yes, it does rhyme with....) to display. So there is an extensive treatment of the geological history of the province and of the earth. At the end there is a reflection on the future prospects of Saskatchewan and the world. It is a we're-all-screwed warning about global warming, mass extinctions, and reducing one's carbon footprint. It is a tad over-stated but perfectly conventional and unobjectionable.

But on the second floor of the museum there is an extensive treatment of the wonders and joys of Saskatchewan's prosperous oil and gas drilling industry. It may be a variation on the Christian charitable notion of the left hand not knowing who the right hand is taking money from.

The Casino
On my way east I stopped at the Indian casino in Yorkton and went in both to poke around and to have lunch. The casino was much the same as Indian casinos in the US, lot of flashing lights, brightly-lit, flashing machines, the fake-excitement music, the thick carpets. What was so disturbing about it was that there were lots of people there. The parking lot was full. About two o'clock in the afternoon on Wednesday.

Almost without exception the people inside were playing slot machines. And almost without exception they were all old. Older than me and I have been retired for six years now. One woman was so concerned about protecting "her" machine from interlopers that she glared at me and pointedly placed herself between me and the favored machine as I walked by.

It was more than a little appalling. Slot machines are a completely passive activity. Gone is even the slight participation of pulling the lever on the mechanical "one-armed bandits" of yore. On electronic machines one inserts the coin and presses a button.

These were retired people immersed in boredom, people whose choices as to how to spend their days had ground down to either daytime television or slot machines. While it is easy to moralize and say that that is their choice and their failing that they had been reduced to such a flattened and tedious life. But don't people have some responsibility for one another? How could they be helped?

Literature, art, adult education, participation sports, even spectator sports, are all better than slot machines. But most of all, sex is better than slot machines. One can easily imagine old people turning an unblinking indifference on the prospect of reading Boethius' "Consolations of Philosophy", of a display of Fauvist canvases, of a course on the history of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, of ping pong or chess. But not to sex.

I think the only reason old people are not constantly in the sack is conditioning. We are told that we aren't interested so we believe it. We are told that no one wants us so we believe it. We are told that sexual exclusivity in marriage matters when it no longer does so we believe it. We are told nonsense fables about sexually-transmitted diseases that straight people are almost incapable of getting so we believe it. We are told that good girls don't so we believe it. We are told that we are dirty old men if we want to do it so we believe it.

My notion is that if the old people in front of the slot machines were getting laid a lot they would be rejuvenated and would put their loonies and toonies (dollar and two dollar coins) back in their purses. They would be hiking, playing badminton, reading books, taking courses in Photoshop, and writing the great Canadian novel.

Instead they are dying by stages, waiting to die.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How I Got to Drumheller

The Wild Swan Chase
In Oregon I got a phone call from my friend Larry who lives in Butte. He said the trumpeter swan migration was at the end of September, early October. He is a native Montana boy so he must know about such things. On his advice I drove to Mon-Ida, a partial ghost town, then 31 miles up a bad dirt road to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (Anything with six words in the title is over-named.) I spent a weekend there waiting for the swan migration to no avail. When the visitor center opened on Monday I learned from Ranger Rick that the swan migration, involving literally thousands of swans, is at the end of October, early November. Larry had been mistaken by a month.

But instead of the migrating swans I had seen herds of pronghorn, a startling tan-and-white, wonderful beasts. And groves of golden aspen in brilliant fall colors, and the mountains, and the lakes, and the solitude, and a single pair of trumpeter swans on a pond. In the end I was not sorry of the excursion, however mistaken.

My visit to Butte
The town is the descendants of Irish miners and they know how to drink. Larry and I went on a pub crawl. I don’t remember much of what happened, just that we drank a lot and I spent a lot of money. It was Friday night but instead of the candles it was I who got lit.

The following day was the celebration of the new brewery having been open a year so we had to celebrate that by drinking as well. During the celebration, I saw a young couple playing Frisbee in the street. And they could, because there was exactly no traffic at all. Butte, particularly the “historic” upper town, is quiet on Saturday.

I saw a flyer on the corkboard in the brewpub for a performance of the Butte Symphony Orchestra that evening. My guess was that, unlike the San Francisco, they were not sold out months in advance. And they weren’t.

The first piece was Handel’s “Musick for the Royal Fireworks”, written for the Peace of 1749. I was reminded that the way one first hears a piece of music ever after seems the paradigm of how it should be played. Every other way of playing it seems like pointless caviling and dicking around. I remember it with the brass having a sharp, almost hysterical edge. The Butte Symphony’s calmer, more relaxed version sounded lame and soporific.

At intermission, just as at the SF Opera House, there were shows of finery by the symphony-goers, including wonderful displays of cleavage by many of the Butte matrons, which were alone worth the price of admission.

The headline piece was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4. The pianist was a young Lithuanian named Davidius Something-or-Other. Both Davidius and the Concerto were outstanding. Davidius was simultaneously (expression not coming to me which means something like “expert” or “tour de force”) and liquidly limpid.

It is so overshadowed by Concerto #5, the Emperor Concerto that it is rarely heard and goes unappreciated. Yet it is a wonderful piece of music and the young Lithuanian did it justice. It was well worth the price of admission - with the cleavage included gratis. (Virtuoso! That is the word I could not think of. Virtuoso! It is not that my mind and memory no longer work, they just work slower and upon more prompting than before.)

Misadventure on the Jefferson
The next day we went rafting on the Jefferson, named by Lewis and Clark and one of the headwaters of the Missouri. We got a late start but Larry assured me we would be off the river by dark. We weren’t.

By midnight we concluded that we had invented the sport of night rafting but still had not come upon the bridge that marked where the second car was parked. Finally we decided that the risk of overturning the raft and floating downstream without it outweighed whatever further progress we might make in the dark. So we beached for the night.

Our clothes were wet and the night was turning cold. We would have been in some trouble but we were just able to build a fire. We stayed up until dawn tending it and drying our clothes. Expecting to be on the river only a few hours we had no gear, food, nor warm clothes. But once we got the fire going we were in good spirits and we laughed a lot.

We got to the bridge and the second car at noon the second day, after 13 hours on the river, 21 hours altogether. Along the way we had seen golden eagles, a moose and her calf at dawn, several large beavers, no end of wild geese, and the Milky Way. Given that we were able to build a fire and keep it going with driftwood all night, the expedition was unexpected fun. Without the fire, maybe not so much. :o)

The Great White North
I have been in Canada for three days now, two of them here in Dinosaur Provincial Park. It is part of the Alberta Badlands. They were created when the melting of the great ice sheets created a huge lake. When the dam of ice and rubble that pent in the lake collapsed there was an unimaginable flood. The badlands are the devastation caused by the flood, still there unhealed to this day.

The flood waters cut hundreds of feet into the ground, uncovering troves of fossils from far earlier eras. Which has made the Alberta Badlands the foremost place in all the world for cretaceous dinosaurs. It is a UN World Heritage Site. And the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, a hundred kilometers northeast of Calgary, where the fossils are mounted and displayed, is the Louvre of palaeontology museums. Which is where I am bound next.

Another Country
When I got to Drumheller, it was Canadian Thanksgiving and everything was closed. Canada is not too different than the US but different enough that the country shut down on October 11.