Thursday, June 28, 2007

It's finally here: My "un-holiday" letter!

For many years, I had planned to send out a holiday greeting to try to catch up with many of those with whom I have not had the opportunity to maintain regular contact. Unfortunately, the end of the semester tends to be a rather busy time in academia, so for many years, this has not happened. This summer, I decided that it might be a more effective strategy to send out an "un-holiday" letter instead. I have posted this letter at .

With all the time that has gone by, the letter turned out to be a little on the long side (although I have managed to keep to fewer than one hundred footnotes), so it may take a few moments for the letter to show up. Enjoy!

  • Some will conclude that reading that far has been a giant waste of time;
  • Some will not be able to put the letter down until you reach the end;
  • Some of you will reluctantly put the letter down out of a felt obligation to feed your children a hasty dinner, then proceeding to read out loud parts of the letter as a bedtime story;
  • Some will scan for selected topics of interest;
  • Some of you will read the main document but skip the footnotes, potentially losing out on some of the juiciest parts of the letter;
  • Some will continue to enjoy the rest of the document in small doses;
  • Some will pretend to continue to enjoy the rest of the document in small doses under a rather questionable belief that distinguished professors are supposed to be profound and insightful; and
  • Some of you will convince someone else to read the letter, highlighting any useful information or providing a summary.
Page 2 briefly lists a few rewards afforded those who read the letter in its entirety.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Millicent Min, Girl Genius

This is a book that certain girls on the autism spectrum--and a few bright ones off--along with certain eccentric (and possibly certain worthy but uninspiringly uneccentric) adults might like.

Millicent Min, Girl Genius starts out: "I have been accused of being anal retentive, an overachiever and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things."

Here is an Amazon review by Sharon Morrison, Southeastern Oklahoma State University: "Millie, an 11-year-old with a genius IQ, is taking a college poetry class and waiting for her high school senior year. Because she never hesitates to show how much she knows about a particular subject, her peers tend to stay away. Millie's social ineptitude is a cause of concern for her parents. Against her will, she is enrolled in summer volleyball and enlisted to tutor Stanford Wong, a friend of the family. Into this mix enters Emily, a volleyball teammate and typical preteen. The girls become friends but Millie neglects to tell Emily about her genius status. Eventually the truth surfaces and Emily feels betrayed. Millie thinks that Emily is angry because she is smart, never realizing that the betrayal comes from her lack of trust in their friendship. While some readers will have trouble identifying with Millie, her trials and tribulations result in a story that is both funny and heartwarming. A universal truth conveyed is that honesty and acceptance of oneself and of others requires a maturity measured not by IQ but by generosity of spirit."

Lunar absorption

This morning on NPR, I heard a review of the book Feed, a novel aimed at young readers in which information is sent to people through a "feed," thus eliminating the need for things like attending school. I ordered a copy on Amazon for my nephew, hesitating only a little after reading the warning that the book contains "language ... that some readers may find offensive." I just couldn't resist the opening sentence: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Galveston, oh Galveston, do you hear your sea waves crashing?

The Los Angeles Times today carries an article on how Galveston city officials are "poised to defy geologists" by approving the construction of some 4,000 new homes and two midrise hotel towers. Geologists have warned that this "massive development would sever a ridge that serves as the island's natural storm shield."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Extreme dysfunction

USC periodically sends out "incident reports" on criminal events that affect members of the USC Community. The following is the description of the most recent one: "Two subjects approached a student, one brandished a firearm and insisted they be permitted to party with them. The Victim fled, and the subjects fled." In terms of the "disposition" of this event, "Both of the subjects were apprehended by USCDPS officers, and were identified by the victim as the ones who brandished the weapon at him.LAPD Southwest officers transported the three subjects to Southwest Division station for booking for 417 P.C./Brandishing."

Sadly, this involves the not very adaptive behavior of real human beings.

In the heart, mind, and soul or in the associative network of knowledge?

Legend has it that Rod Stewart wrote the song "You"re in My Heart" with a Swedish actress named Britt Ekland in mind to move her to give up a $12 million dollar suit she had filed against him. (Reportedly, the ploy worked since she dropped the suit.) The singer reportedly later made the rather callous clarification that "It wasn't totally about Britt... it could of been anybody I met in that period-and there were a lot of them." Anyway, in this song, Stewart says:
You're in my heart, you're in my soul
You'll be my breath should I grow old
You are my lover, you're my best friend
You're in my soul
In truth, it might be more accurate to say that she was in his associative network of knowledge.

People carry around a great deal of memories. To function effectively, we must retrieve needed information reasonably reliably when an occasion rises and we must do this without burdening ourselves too much with the information overload that would result if too much irrelevant information were retrieved at the same time. Thus, the brain functions in large part by "linking," or associating, various pieces of information with each other. (This, by the way, is how we learn.) Thinking of object or idea, then, is likely to activate another. Consider, for example, the "nodes" that might be activated in a chain of events by one individual when the notion of an elephant is introduced:

A person who has played a central role in one's life is likely to be implicated in a number of linkages. Therefore, he or she is likely to come up frequently as any one of numerous nodes are activated.

A Sufi sage was once asked what he associated with camels. "Food," was the answer. The questioner objected that one does not eat camels. "But everything reminds of food," said the sage.

It seems that being in someone's associative network of knowledge may not consistently be given the credit it deserves.

A rather mundane dream (to non-geeks, anyway)

Last night, I dreamed that I found some basic computer speakers--nothing fancy--in my cabinet. Would this, by any chance, be good material for a country song?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Enemies of the Library?

Living in a community with such an organization would really make me feel uncomfortable!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Not even a blue submarine

In the town where I was born, there was, so far as I recall, no yellow submarine. I doubt there were even blue, red, prink, or green submaries. I never really thought much about this before, and I can't honestly say that now--when I reflect the situation--I have any significant feeling of deprivation.

Green stuff

Our department financial administrator informed me today that she will have a travel reimbursement check for me tomorrow.

"Good!" I enthusiastically replied. "I love money!"

"I know," said the administrator.

Filthy stuff

Yesterday, when driving back to Los Angeles from a meeting in Los Angeles, Iwas listening to oral arguments in the Supreme Court case of the City of Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, Inc. This case involved a challenge to a Los Angeles municipal code which required a "dispersion" of filthy establishments to avoid the adverse results suggested from a "landmark study" of a concentration of sleeze in certain locations. At issue was the constitutionality of an amendment to or revision of the original ordinance mandating that only one type of business could be contained in any one building. That is, "mega stores" featuring more than one filthy kind of product or service would not be permitted. You could not show--for a fee--filthy movies in the same location that offensive periodicals were sold. Neither could you offer a massage.

Asked by Justice Stevens if "there are a substantial number who are similar to the one that we're talking about today," the attorney for the city responded: "I won't use an adverb to describe the amount. There are some. I don't know if it's substantial or not." Then Chief Justice Rehnquist quickly set the record straight: "That's an adjective."

As naive academic coming from a rather sheltered background, I was unaware of the amount of filth that actually exists out there. My understanding had been that "arcades" are places where teenagers go to play video games. In this context, however, these are abominable destinations where people go to watch sleezy and sickening videos. On some of the machines there, one can watch replusive parts of up to sixty filthy recordings. One can also opt to watch one in its disgusting entirety. Ugh!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Gas, food, substitutions, and grocery bills

An article in today's USA Today reports that food costs in May had increased 3.9% from the prior year. This is 1% more than inflation in general. Part of this increase, apparently, is driven by the diversion of corn to the production of ethanol which can be mixed with traditional gasoline to reduce the need for refined oil.

The reasons for the high gasoline prices we are currently experiencing are complex. Aside from the world petroleum supply per se, a major limiting factor in the U.S. gasoline supply is refining capacity. That is, buying more crude oil on the world market is not going to do a whole lot of good if it cannot be refined. Although many U.S. refineries have undergone expansion, apparently, one one new refinery has been constructed in the U.S. since the 1970s. Since refineries raise major environmental concerns, government approval to build new ones appears to be difficult, if not essentially impossible, to obtain. Can we import refined oil? Some countries may not feel they can "afford the luxury" of environmental protection, but I imagine that carrying refined gasoline in tankers may be a dangerous undertaking.

Although ethanol maintains some of the air quality concerns associated with gasoline, it at least does not have to be refined. "Stretching" the gasoline supply by adding ethanol, then, offers a way to expand the fuel supply in the face of limited refining capacity. "Diverting" corn from food and agricultural markets, however, significantly increases the demand for corn, increasing corn prices. Increased corn prices, in turn, "cascade" into the food market as a whole.

One might object that Americans, for the most part, do not eat that much corn. Even if corn prices increased 50%, if the average family only buys one can every three weeks and four cobs per month, this shouldn't be a big deal. But that is not how most corn is consumed. Sodas, and many foods, are often sweetened with corn syrup. Depending on the immediate relative prices of sugar cane and corn, bottlers may switch back and forth. If the price of corn goes up, then, the price of sugar cane will, too. Corn is also fed a great deal to pigs (explaning why so many are raised in states like Iowa). This would cause the price of pork to increase. But the bad news is that even if you do not eat pork, this will also cause the price of substitutes such as beef and chicken to increase as well. And it gets worse. If the price of corn increases, it may be more economical for farmers, under some circumstances, to substitute grain for some of the corn they may have fed the pigs. Grain, as a substitute for corn, then, would face a higher demand, causing increasing prices both to bakers who buy wheat and to cattle ranches feeding corn.

With both gas and food prices rising, less money is available for consumers to spend on other purchases. In terms of food, it is often possible to switch to less expensive foods--e.g., eating more chicken instead of beef--but reducing the overall quantity of food bought is more difficult. Cutting down on gasoline usage in the short run is difficult, too, given limited public transportation options in many U.S. areas and the reluctance of many Americans to car pool. Higher prices paid for food and gas, then, leave less money to spend on thigns that can more easily be eliminated. Discount retailers such as Wal-Mart are apparently feeling this impact strongly as many consumers reduce their purchases.

When we talk about supply and demand, it is important to recognize that consumers to not respond in unison. Certain consumers may be rather insensitive while others, facing severe budget constraints, will tend to respond quite severely.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Not a nightmare, but still a strange dream

Last night, I had a dream that one of my students copied me on an e-mail she had sent to Supreme Court Justice David Souter in which she alluded to a lunch they had had.

My understanding is that is far from certain that Justice Souter actually uses e-mail. During one appearance Justices Souter and Thomas were asked about their use of word processing. Justice Thomas admitted that his clerks had "shamed" him into writing on a computer. Justice Souter enthusiastically admitted, "I am shameless." I am not sure if this was before or after he wrote the Napster opinion. Perhaps writing that might have contributed to an increased willingness to tackle "new" technology.

Now, what would be a meaningful interpreation? I don't know. This dream is more plausible than the one I had years back about my sister Anette being appointed as Secretary of the Interior, but it does not seem to make that much more sense. If it means anything, the student apparently did not have the identity of an actual student who had taken my class during waking hours.

Fake peanut butter?

Today, I noticed a box of energy bars in Costo whose label proudly complained that the bars were made with "real peanut butter." It never occurred to me how much fake peanut butter may be floating around out there in other products. I now consider myself warned!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

If your computer is on Tulsa time...

If the time shown in the bottom right corner of your Windows XP screen--or elsewhere in your computer--is in accurate, the nice folks at Help With Windows ( have a solution for you at

My computer seems to have had an annoying habit of running behind schedule, accumulating a delay of some forty minutes between the time the computer was updated, by default, every week.

These nice geeks showed me how to set the computer to update every 10,000 seconds instead 604,800 second default interval.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


According to USA Today, Pepsi will introduce a cucumber flavored drink in Japan.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

2007 Global Ink Jet Conference

Yes, apparently there actually was such a thing. Talk about narrow, specialized, all-encompassing interests! ;)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Republican scandal

As previously mentioned, if a scandal has to occur, I much prefer if the perpetrators are Republicans. In the news today, a moped riding bozo who used to be a high ranking Bush Administration official has just been sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison: .

Friday, June 01, 2007

My nephew's depiction of me

My sister just sent me the following depiction of me that my nephew Thomas (4 3/4 years old) drew of me: