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Tommyjournal archive    January 2008

Dianne Feinstein, two months ago:
I do believe he [Mukasey] will be a truly nonpolitical, nonpartisan attorney general; that he will make his views very clear; and that, once he has the opportunity to do the evaluation he believes he needs on waterboarding, he will be willing to come before the Judiciary Committee and express his views comprehensively and definitively.
Were you really that gullible, Senator, or were you just acquiescing?

Is anyone surprised that this week, Mukasey wrote this to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee:
I understand that you and some other members of the (Judiciary) Committee may feel that I should go further in my review, and answer questions concerning the legality of waterboarding under current law. I understand the strong interest in this question, but I do not think it would be responsible for me, as attorney general, to provide an answer.

If this were an easy question, I would not be reluctant to offer my views on this subject. But, with respect, I believe it is not an easy question. There are some circumstances where current law would appear clearly to prohibit the use of waterboarding. Other circumstances would present a far closer question.
I'm back to spending most of my days developing software, and it feels great.

I didn't work much over the past few years, mainly because I wasn't feeling consistently strong enough. I still have some so-so days, but I'm doing better--and being productive again translates into being happier which translates into having more energy overall.

Without going into detail about the arrangements, I have a good project to work on, where "good" means interesting and hard but not too hard.

I find problem-solving to be exhilarating when I'm making progress. And, by a kind of symmetry characteristic of so many things in life, it can be hellish when I'm not. A certain amount of transitory hellishness is to be expected: a sign that it's a real problem.

I like engineering challenges because the hardest obstacles are often internal, and we have more control over ourselves than we do over other things. From a 1982 interview with Seymour Cray:

interviewer:What have been some of the limitations you've encountered in your niche of the industry?
Cray:I suppose the limitations are just the visions of the designer; there aren't any physical limitations. I can't see very far ahead, so I just take small steps--and I keep taking small steps because I don't want to retire yet. [...]

It may have been hyperbole to say there aren't any physical limitations, or it may just have been Cray's sly sense of humor. But he has a point about the main limitations being failures of imagination.

I also like engineering because many problems have an appealing order to them, which sometimes lends itself to being rendered graphically. The background image for this entry is a plot of components in an electrical network, assigned coordinates from eigenvectors of the Laplacian adjacency matrix. (See this paper for an explanation of the math.)
About 19 years ago (in San Jose), while I was getting ready to finish a table I'd just made, a neighbor saw what I was doing and told me how good the wood would look stained. I said yeah, but I wanted a natural finish. He tried to talk me into staining it. I said no. He kept trying. Fortunately, he spoke German--so I could say es ist eine Geschmacksache (it's a matter of taste) which had the desired effect: it got him to stop badgering me. Few things are as satisfying as saying a consonant-laden word, and few things are as satisfying as finding a way to be left alone. To do both at once is so satisfying that it ought to be illegal.

For the next few days (here in Lone Pine, now), I not only have to contend with the snow on the ground, I also have to contend with neighbors seeking my confirmation that the snow is beautiful or something: "Isn't this great?" or the like. Fortunately, several of my neighbors speak German. In 1969, Dionne Warwick sang a cover version of Herb Alpert's This Guy's In Love With You, changing the title and lyrics to This Girl's In Love With You.

I wanna see a gay man sing a cover version of a song, but with the gender of the pronouns changed. Not a sappy love song like Warwick sang, no no no. Something darker. How about She's Not There by the Zombies:

well let me tell you 'bout the way he looked
the way he acted, the colour of his hair
his voice was soft and cool
his eyes were clear and bright
but he's not there

I'm not gonna hold my breath waiting for this to happen.

a few minutes ago I heard this faint rhythmic sound, in the same tempo as the ticking of my clock but sounding more like water dripping, I got up to see if it was raining and saw it was snowing instead and we had already gotten four inches--real inches, not IRC inches.

trader at the Frankfurt stock exchange original photo: Bernd Kammerer/Associated Press

After ten years in the desert, I've gotten to where I thoroughly enjoy doing things on my own. This isn't totally new for me; I was pretty good at doing things on my own when I was a teenager. But with time, I've gotten better at it.

Now that I've reached this point, the funny thing is that this year will (most likely) bring me into more contact with people (specifically, at a workplace) than I've had in a while. I feel ready for it, though.

I think that in many cases, you can't fully appreciate something until you're able to appreciate its absence. Know what I mean? Frank Zappa's widow has recently gone on the warpath against web sites and tribute bands that, in her opinion, infringe upon her family's rights in Frank Zappa's music and trademarks.

Performances of cover versions of published songs are usually authorized via licenses that venues pay to ASCAP, BMI, ... , allowing songs to be played and songwriters to be compensated. This arrangement evidently isn't good enough for the Zappa Family Trust, whose lawyers are writing letters:
I'm not qualified to say whether they have a legal leg to stand on, but this seems to be a stretch. Whether this tactic would hold up in court may be moot; tribute bands often can't afford to hire lawyers to challenge such claims.

Musicians have historically gotten a raw deal and have a right to go after those who cheat them, but I think Gail Zappa may be throwing out some of the baby with the bath water. I think it's sad that there are bands playing Zappa's music and audiences that want to hear it--and lawyers are being paid to keep them from getting together. A recent barrage of letters to websites and bands is costing the Zappa Family Trust good will among fans; I wonder whether this was the best way to proceed. I'm glad that I don't feel compelled to blog at length (as some people do) about the primary elections. Yes, the election matters--but there's only so long that breathless coverage of a horse race can be worth listening to.

And the spectacle is so inane, especially over at the elephant house. Witness the discussion of the Gulf of Tonkin Iranian speedboat incident in last Thursday's debate: Republicans trying to out-tough one another, with one candidate (who whines when people ask him questions about religion) pronouncing that anyone threatening the US Navy will see the gates of Hell (the audience applauded) and another candidate echoing that, but with a vision of the afterlife associated with the "Brand X" religion prevalent in Iran (the audience laughed).

So. Rather than comment at length on the inanity in progress, I'll predict the outcome. John McCain will be nominated, but will lose in November (I don't know to which Democrat, even my crystal ball has its limits) largely for the same reason the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006: the public doesn't like the war in Iraq. You heard it here first. We say that we are anxious about things.

We say that we are angry about things.

We say that we are sad about things.

This about talk can be a distraction, a trap. To instead just say "I am anxious" (or whatever) helps get to the heart of the matter. Do you want to be in charge, or not? A friend of mine works at a large bank that's in subprime mortgage hell. Part of a conversation we had today went about like this:

friend:In past years, ____bank had a stock buyback program. We bought a bunch of our own stock at market prices, around $50 a share. Now, to bail ourselves out, we've been selling it at 30.
Tommy:It's easier to sell something if you offer a discount.
friend:We make it up in volume.
From David Brooks' column in today's NY Times:
I was writing columns criticizing the Republican Congress, but each time I'd throw in a few sentences slamming the Democrats, subconsciously trying to make myself feel good. One morning I got an e-mail message from [Barack] Obama that roughly said: David, if you want to critique us, fine. But you're just throwing in those stray sentences to make yourself feel good.

I felt like a bug pinned down in a display case.
I remember an English teacher in high school telling the class that good writing is conscious writing. I generally agree, although this touches on points too subtle to be addressed in a five-word-long maxim.

Practicing any art has an element of mystery; we don't fully understand how we do what we do. But mastery is not at the expense of mystery. On the contrary! The more your skill is developed, the more you can make use of the mysterious aspects of artistry.

The teacher's maxim is a specific case of a more general principle: good living is conscious living. The same comments about mastery apply; understanding oneself does not take the mystery or the juice out of life, but rather allows you to operate at a more effective and satisfying level. Consciousness comes in degrees, and it takes effort (conscious effort, as we say) to live and act mindfully.

I'm generally not a fan of David Brooks, but I give him credit for recounting his experience of having written in a not-so-thoughtful manner and being called on it. Awesome beautiful post-storm day today.

My neighborhood got 3½ inches of rain yesterday, more than I'd ever seen here in one day. Snow level is at about 6000' on the Sierra Nevada, and about 8000' on the Inyos. Part of having HIV is seeing a doctor regularly, and part of seeing a doctor regularly is dealing with the office's staff, and in the case of the doctor I see now, dealing with the staff sucks, which is a shame because the doctor himself is OK.

The three times in a row that I was billed for office visits I'd already paid for weren't enough to make me give up on his office. The last straw was being lied to. A staffer didn't send me some paperwork she'd promised to send, and lied that it was in the mail. Twice. And then denied having lied when I called her on it. "But you're going to get it (the paperwork), isn't that what counts," she said. Spoken like a person who doesn't understand the notion of principle.

I know that people lie all the time about things being in the mail, but I resent being treated that way. And--to state what I hope is obvious--one's medical treatment is a matter of life and death, thus it is good to be able to trust one's doctor's office, and deceit on their part ruins that.

As I said, all this is unfortunate because the doctor is a good guy. But I don't care to see or talk to his employee who lied to me. Burbank airport is, of course, in the Valley; the approach today included a view of (the site of) a building immortalized ("there's like the Galleria") by what was Frank Zappa's only top 40 single, followed by landing on one of the shorter runways in the USA used for commercial aviation--whereupon taxiing to the gate wasn't so much taxiing as it was finishing the landing roll:

It's nice to be home. I fly back to California tomorrow. Yes, I'm looking forward to being home.

happy new year, everyone.

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