Saturday, January 27, 2007

She Brings Light

Some dogs in the distance were barking. The wind was blowing, making the windows rattle at times, making the chimes outside the front door ring.

It's cold, she said. Can you hear it?

She sat for a moment on the couch looking about the room.

I'm getting sleepy, she said, rubbing her hands on the legs of her pajamas.

Then she turned to me.

Isn't that candle pretty? she asked, nodding to the mantle where she had put a tall candle with primrose images on the sides. I think I'll light it. And she stood to go find a match.

She brings light into my life.

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 Thursday, January 25, 2007

Morning Musing

I saw some amazing sunlight this morning stretching across the floor. Around the curtains it slanted in, heading towards the door.

Two oak leaves near the fireplace and under the little desk were lit up brightly and cast small shadows away from where I sat.

And just then I noticed it was time for work, so I stood and went to my room. Leaving behind the sun and the leaves, my morning musing was done.

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 Monday, January 22, 2007

Moments Before Midnight

It is moments before midnight, and I sit in this silent house with the cold creeping across my lap. It's times like these when the dark thoughts come. Look around, read the news, listen to the commentary. Despair.

Give yourself some time off from all this, they tell me. Put up that shelf in the dining room. Sing duets with your son.

I try to explain. The news. The commentary. The things you're not told that you don't really want to know.

Duets, they repeat.

I understand the point, but it needs to be said that we do all sing. We built a platform for a rain barrel today. Saw, drill, nails, screws, blue sky, sun, a happy dog watching. That's singing.

And we went down to the lake, all of us: Trudy, the boy, the dog and I. Blue skies, mid-60s following those long days of treacherous highways and ice-coated trees. We ran in the sun by the river with all the other people that had the same idea. And all the other dogs. That's singing.

But it's moments like these, when the echoes of that singing have begun to fade. It's moments like these when the cold comes creeping. It's moments like these, moments just before midnight, when the despair won't be kept silent anymore.

These moments are important, too.

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 Sunday, January 21, 2007


Funny. We didn't hear much about this part of the hearing in the American press...

The Attorney General sat before a newly constituted Judiciary Committee. He had been there for hours, answering questions of the sort he had not had to answer before.

I, I believe that piece of information is public, he said in response to questions about the US shipping an innocent Canadian citizen to Syria where he was subsequently tortured. If there were, there were steps, I think [Attorney] General Ashcroft can confirm this publicly is that there were assurances sought that he would not be tortured from Syria.

The chairman interrupted his stuttering answer with a gasp and then a laugh of disbelief. He held up his arms and pushed back into his chair.

Attorney General. I, I, I am sorry I don't mean to, to treat this lightly.

And then he raised his voice, and an angry scowl came over his face. He pointed at the Attorney General seated before him.

We knew damn well if he went to Canada he wouldn't be tortured. [...] We also knew damn well if he went to Syria he'd be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights to send somebody to another country to be tortured. You know and I know that has happened a number of times in the past five years [...]

It is a black mark on us. It has brought about the condemnation of some of our closest and best allies. [...] And it, and it is easy for us to sit here comfortably in this room knowing that we're not going to be sent off to another country to be tortured, to treat it as though, well Attorney General Ashcroft said, We got assurances.

Assurances!? From a country that we also say now we can't talk to them because we can't take their word for anything?

He paused, and the Attorney General began to speak, but the chairman interrupted him.

I'm somewhat upset.

Yes sir, the Attorney General said with a smirk on his face, I can tell, but before you get more upset perhaps you should wait to receive the briefing --

How long? the chairman asked.

I'm hopeful that, uh, we can get, we can get to the information next week.

Well Attorney General, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll meet you halfway on this. I'll wait until next week for that briefing. And if we don't get it, I guarantee you there'll be another hearing on this issue. [...] I'll wait a week. I won't wait more than a week for that briefing.


  • C-SPAN coverage: "Senate Oversight Hearing on Justice Department", 01/18/2007, Real Player video (The interchange happens around 2:58:00.)
  • Democracy Now reporting on the hearing.
  • Crooks and Liars also has some video clips.

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 Friday, January 19, 2007

On A Friday Morning

The ice has mercifully melted, and the bent branches of the trees are standing out straight again.

The skies are still gray, but the bitter cold that kept us inside is gone.

The paper that kept me up so late last night is finished.

And the dog and the cat are dozing in the bedroom, one on the bed, one on the rug, each cautiously wary of the other.

The weekend is soon to arrive.

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 Monday, January 15, 2007

If You're Not Doing Anything Wrong

Would you, if you had the chance, implant a tracking device in your son? they asked me.

No, I said instantly without even stopping to think.

But you would always know where he was, they said. He would be safe. You would know every step he took.

They were a bit confused about my dislike of new tollways where you can only pay with a tracking device installed in your car tied to a credit card account. I don't like the notion of my car being tracked.

If you're not doing anything wrong, what is the problem with that? they asked.

That question always has a muted sinister tone to it. If you're not doing anything wrong. What, are you planning something?

So you tell me, if every computer you used, every keystroke you typed, every phone call you made, every letter you wrote, every email you sent, every chat you had, every message you left, every thing you bought, every trip you took, every street you crossed, every web site you surfed to, every drug you bought at the drugstore, every book you got at the library, every word you dared to speak out loud. If all those things could be recorded in the name of order and safety, would you want them to be? Would you want it to be required?

And will the watchers let us watch them, if they're not doing anything wrong?

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 Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Rights of the Detained

Unprompted, he chose to speak about the law and about the legal rights of detainees. The words he chose were thinly veiled threats. Corporate CEOs, he said, will tell their law firms to choose between representing terrorists or representing them.

Here we have the government, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, taking to the airwaves and warning law firms to be careful about whom they choose to represent. Warning them to think twice about whether they want to lose the clients who pay the bills. Asking them how long they think they can survive after the government has encouraged their corporate clients to leave.

Make no mistake. That is what he was saying. That is what he was calling for.

Unabashed brownshirt thuggery.

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The Letters You Have

They were playing Scrabble. She was saying something about how she almost had a great word, as in she was missing some of the letters. He was a Scrabble snob, and he laughed.

Well you know what they say, he said, You play with the letters you have and not with the letters you want.

She laughed and looked up at him with that sparkle that's always in her eyes.

I know. I never did like that rule!

And with that, she put his snobbery to shame.

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 Saturday, January 13, 2007

When I Was Recovering From Cancer

When I was recovering from cancer years ago, having lost all my hair, gained a lot of weight, and with permanent numbness on some of my fingers and forever incessant ringing in my ears, a friend at work (whom I really liked) came up to me one day and gave me some advice.

I really shouldn't have gone thru the chemotherapy, he said. It's not natural.

I didn't know quite what to say. I had survived a cancer that years later led me to wear a yellow band (until recently). I had survived the radiation therapy and then subsequent tumors that started growing in my lungs and near my kidneys. And I had survived the chemotherapy that made those tumors recede. And this guy was telling me I had done the wrong thing.

His thoughts might have been legitimate. His motives were certainly not unkind. But I had been at death's door, and for that he should have just kept his interesting philosophical contemplations to himself.

Hat tip: Leroy Sievers who is dealing with cancer of his own right now.

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Something That Didn't Involve Shopping

Can we find something to do that doesn't involve shopping? Trudy asked, knowing that she spoke for both of us.

We are not shoppers, she and I, but our culture today is so built around it that it's hard to get away. Shopping is our national past time. It's what we do. It's what our leaders want us to do more of. But that wasn't what we had in mind for Friday evening.

We thought for a while, but we couldn't decide just what to do. So we just headed downtown.

Halfway there, we found Magnolia Cafe. This was the kind of place we were looking for. People dressed down. Various shapes and sizes. Different kinds of clothes and hair. Young kids, older couples, others in between. A skinny hostess who looked barely out of high school. A big old-timer waiter who looked just out of a navy boiler room. A warm feeling place. Trudy has soup and corn bread. I had quesadillas. We sat next to each other at our table and talked and ate and watched people come and go. And we took our time.

Where should we go now? Trudy wondered, as we drove away. The evening was still young. I turned left. Oh good, she said, down Congress!

We parked in front of the capital and walked down the east side of Congress Avenue almost to the lake and then back up the west.

There was a show at the Paramount. There were fancy people in fancy clothes behind darkened windows eating fancy looking food. There were a couple rough looking guys sitting in sleeping bags in the shadows of one of the buildings preparing for their night. There was a horse pulling a carriage full of girls who shouted and laughed, one of them announcing it was her birthday. There were empty bars waiting for the soon-to-come onslaught, bartenders piling glasses in preparation, bouncers standing by. There were colorful displays behind the windows. There were hints of old native limestone walls where some of the modern building facades were gone.

There were spacious bank lobbies and chic offices with doorways opening right onto this central-most of all Austin sidewalks. There were dingy dry cleaners and a old-time jewelry store that we marveled was still there. And there was Little City, where we went and had espresso and hot chocolate and sat on comfortable cushioned seats in the corner in the back and listened to Beatles music and talked about I don't remember just what.

As we drove home, the city was starting to come alive. The sidewalks were bustling. The crosswalks were busy. The previously empty places were beginning to fill up. But we were heading home.

Sure we bought our dinner, and sure we bought our hot drinks. So ok, maybe we did go shopping in the end. But in our books we didn't, and this was more like what we had in mind.

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 Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sidewalks and Conversations and Net Neutrality

Susan Crawford has the best one-line summary of the net neutrality issue that I've heard so far:

There's no reason why the single sidewalk available should be allowed to monetize the interesting conversations taking place above it.

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He Doesn't Get Out Enough

0. Prologue

He telecommutes from home. He was going stir crazy in the late afternoon when Trudy got home. So they went out.

1. The Bookstore.

The first stop was a bookstore, where Trudy had a gift-card transaction to complete. She got in line, and he disappeared into the store.

At first he wandered into science fiction. Up one aisle, down another, periodically poking his head over the shelves to see if she was done. Then comic books. Then role playing games. After a while, he wandered back.

As he walked up, Trudy smiled. He smiled back and then turned to look at some left-over Christmas fare sitting on a table. Bells. Shiny things. Red and green. On sale. Then he wandered away again.

To the computer section. Then personal finance. Roman siege engines. Every couple steps he'd check on Trudy, and periodically he'd see her and the clerk looking over at him. He'd wander back, but there was some difficulty, so he'd wander off again.

Books with old photos of Native Americans. Books about Pompeii. Books by women angry about men. Flash-in-the-pan novels with brightly colored covers to grab your attention.

Periodically the clerk would look over at him wandering in some distant aisle. She had a worried look on her face. He was wandering too much. He looked lost. Why wasn't he frustrated that the transaction was taking so long? And what about the goofy contended look on his face?

2. The Drugstore.

The second stop was a drug store, and Trudy had to wait in line. So off he wandered.

He found a pillow in the shape of a can of Sprite. He poked his head around the corner. Holding up the can, he made a what-do-you-think? face. She smiled.

He found two little copper pot scrubbers and held them up with a we-need-these face. She laughed and shrugged. Then he held up two steel pot scrubbers and asked her which she preferred, copper or steel. She made him choose.

And he found radio pillows — fuzzy, soft, purple with sparkles and a speaker near your ear. And a lime green fleece blanket. And then another but in a better shade of lime and with a pillow to boot. He took it back to Trudy and held it up in triumph.

She laughed and asked, You want that!?

He shrugged and went to sit in a nearby massage chair. The buttons were broken but he poked at them, anyway. A green light lit up and the chair started to click sickly and massage vaguely. He poked at another broken button, and the chair clicked in a different place. It was then that he realized he couldn't turn the chair off.

I can't turn it off, he muttered. Trudy laughed.

I can't turn it off, he said to a man sitting next to him. Don't ask me how I turned it on, but I can't turn it off.

The sickly clicking continued, and now Trudy was ready to leave.

He laughed and looked at the man. I'm so sorry to do this to you. And he set the broken controls down in the still-clicking chair.

Are you really going to get that pillow and blanket? she asked him as they walked off.

No, he said.

3. Epilogue

She thinks he doesn't get out enough.

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 Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Survivor? Victim? Another guy.

Leroy Sievers talks about the words we apply to people who have cancer:

... in the end, I think that we are all just people, who happen to have gotten a disease. What more do you need to say?

I took off my yellow LiveStrong bracelet the other day. It was a symbol that didn't fit particularly well, even though I had the disease. Actually, I didn't take it off. It came off when I pulled off a mitten, and I just let it stay where it landed.

I've worn it a very long time, yet it never really fit, much like Leroy's point about survivor or victim. And it was a relief of sorts to finally let it drop.

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Humboldt, Agnosticism and Atheism

Chris Clarke talks about Alexander von Humboldt, agnosticism, atheism and that which is nameless that sometimes orbits near the latter two:

Agnosticism and atheism and ...:

To me, the word atheist implies that the person so labeling thinks the designation is important. Agnostic implies to me that the person being labeled cares enough to have reserved judgement for some later date.

As for me, I do not think that the question is there a god? is in any way an important question.

von Humboldt:

Few now know he existed and yet his influence on modern life is immeasurable: the opposite of God as described by those who carry pitchforks.

All this from reading a book. Pitchforks!

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I'll Go With You

She told him she was going to the bookstore and then the drugstore and that she'd take the dog for a walk afterwards.

He nodded and said, I'll go with you.

Are you sure? she asked, smiling.

Sure, he said, and he returned to his keyboard, figuring he had a good 45 minutes until she got back.

A minute later she asked, Are you ready? Her voice was peppy, happy.

And he realized then that she understood his I'll go with you to mean to the store instead of when you take the dog for a walk. And now her are you sure? smile made more sense.

He sat at his desk for a moment in silence with his fingers still on the keyboard debating whether or not to explain. ...but the smile on her face. ...and the peppy spring in her voice. She was waiting for him at the door.

He went and got his jacket.

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 Monday, January 8, 2007

Five Things

So Gregg tags me, and now I'm supposed to tell five short things about myself. Ok, but I'll make 'em five stories. Kick me if I run on too long. No. I take that back.

1. STS-1. In 1981, I went to Florida to see the first Space Shuttle launch. I had a press pass, thanks to my college newspaper. Everyone there had fancy cameras, but I just took an instamatic and a cheap tape recorder. As the countdown neared its final seconds, I started the recorder, and the tape captured it all: the deafening crackle of the boosters, the roar of the main engines, the clicking chorus of cameras shutters, the cheering and applause, and my sobbing. But here's the thing... I was recording over a party tape a friend had given me. And in the background of my historic recording you could hear the Bee Gees singing Stayin' Alive. Captured a bit more of history than I intended.

2. Crossing into Texas. I came to Texas as a summer intern in the summer of 1979. As I crossed the border at Texarkana, I marveled at how high the sun still was and how I was certain to reach Houston before sunset. But the hours passed and passed, and I saw miles and miles of Texas, and I still had a long way to go when that summer sun finally set. Seems the state was a tad bigger than I figured.

3. If He Had Been a Girl. If Ben had been born a girl, his name would have been Naomi. Always loved Electric Company.

4. Leaving a Mark. In the mid 1990s, I wrote software in the new Mission Control Center in Houston. I was relatively new to the working software world, and quite new to this thing called "C". But the project I worked on was successful, and the pace was rapid, so I came up to speed quickly. Among other things, I wrote sample programs that would be used as templates for other developers. Sadly, my name is stamped all over all that neophyte code. If I could only go back and remove it.

5. More Like Old Friends. I had two friends in college whom I really liked but whom I also thought a bit odd. They were quiet. Their lives seemed settled. They knew they were going to get married soon. And they listened to gentle music that I didn't understand. In the years that have passed, I find myself more and more like I remember them, and I wish I was like that then.

Now, as per the rules, here are my five tags. I don't know them; I just read them. They don't know me. Two are mathematicians, which I am most defitely not. One blogs near the top of the foreign policy pyramid. Two of them are photoblogs; who knows how you do five things with them.

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XBoxes in the Hallway

All five of the boys stood in the hallway. They had been outside playing Frisbee in the dark. Now they were kind of huddling, trying to chose the next thing to do.

One of them looked down at the bench and saw five little plastic Xbox toys that have been coming in boxes of cereal for the last several months — an advertising campaign drawn from the playbooks of AOL, it seems to me, except these little electronic doodads have a battery in them, so if you throw them out you're tossing who-knows-what into your landfill, which is why they were sitting there: waiting for me to take them apart and pull out the battery before tossing the rest of the useless plastic junk into the trash.

But now this junk drew the eyes of those five teenage boys. Each one of them picked up a toy. Faint beeping sounds came from their hands. They were entranced. Mesmerized.

They stood there in the hall playing with those things, leaving their networked multiplayer consoles lying idle on the floor in the room at the end of the hall. Of course, soon enough the trance was broken, but for several minutes Madison Avenue was winning real big.

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 Saturday, January 6, 2007

iPod Stupidity

There were these people standing on the Austin jogging trails...

They were waiting for a friend. One of them was stretching. One was jogging in place. One was gazing blankly into space, nodding her head to music only she could hear. They were all wearing iPods.

They couldn't hear each other, so they just motioned with their hands and made faces. When the fourth of them came running up waving and explaining, they couldn't hear her, either. They just smiled and then started to run to their music, leaving her no time to warm up. She adjusted her iPod and chased after them as they took off across the bridge.

There was this guy driving into the Houston...

He was driving into the rising sun. It was rush hour. Highway construction was all around. The on-ramps and off-ramps were muddy from the rains that morning, and the traffic was piled up. He was wearing an iPod.

He was immune to the traffic as he listened to the podcast he had downloaded the night before. The traffic stopped and started, but all that registered was the Berkeley professor talking about the structure of trade in the 1400s. Then he missed his exit, not even noticing until it was in his rear view mirror. In the stop-and-go traffic, he had to creep further down the highway and loop back, hoping he could make up the lost time.

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 Wednesday, January 3, 2007


Look at them...

...at the cat on cold days when she gets to come inside. ...at the dog as he chases rolling thunder in the back yard. ...at the boy as he reads fairy tales with a stocking cap over his too-long hair and Shuffle buds in his ears. ...at Trudy as she mutters privately at the chocolate cocoa, all the time stirring it lovingly with her right hand.

Look at them... often.

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 Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Good Math, Bad Math on the shameful spectacle of Saddam Hussein's trial and execution:

[Good Math, Bad Math/Law vs Thuggery]: We could have shown that we were different from him. But we didn't. In the end, we and the Iraqi government we created acted as a gang of thugs. We allowed Saddam Hussein to die secure in the knowledge that his view of power was correct, and that he was justified in doing all of the evil things that he did in his life. We betrayed everything we claim to stand for, everything we claim to believe, and everything we claimed that this war was meant to bring to the people of Iraq.

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The Coming of 2007

Are you coming? Trudy asked from outside the tent.

The moon had been down just an hour or two. The sun would be rising over the eastern hills soon.

No, I groaned.

Then I came to my senses. Wait! I shouted, hoping she wasn't too far away.

It was cold, so I didn't bother to get out of my pajamas but just pulled my jeans on and a coat over the vest I slept in. I grabbed a pair of mittens from the duffel bag and stumbled into dawn's early light.

The fly of the tent crinkled as I zipped the door shut. It was covered in frost. The grass was white. Trudy was smiling her morning smile. The dog was picking his steps gingerly and wagging his tail in anticipation.

As we left our spot under the great Oak on the hill and gazed out to Muleshoe Bend where the river loops around a wide grassy plain, we noticed that we were alone. No one else had spent the night, except for the guy about a half-mile away who evidently slept in the back of his truck.

On the other side of the road, tall grasses grew in orange-brown clumps standing above our shoulders, and short frost-covered grass crunched underfoot. And there were new Bluebonnets hugging the ground. The white lacework of frost etched on the edges of the dark green petals made us want to pick our steps carefully. In the distance, a buck watched our approach and then ran off.

When we got to the river, the western hilltops were just glowing with the first rays of light from the east. It was bitterly cold where we stood in those last shadows, and I picked up our shivering dog and bundled him into my coat. Within minutes, the eastern sky began to burn golden-orange, and the advancing edge of day crept down the hillside behind us in the west.

Trudy grabbed my hand, and we stood there, frost-covered grass about us, Bluebonnets at our feet, and we waited for the sun to peer over the eastern hills and make (if only for a moment) the cold go away. Which it did.

Happy New Year, she said to me.

Happy New Year, I said to her.

And we kissed, with a shivering dog between us.

So began 2007.

Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area

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 Monday, January 1, 2007

The Passing of 2006

It was—really cold. And even though it had recently rained, a fire ban was still in effect. So we couldn't have a campfire.

Now, what else do you do with a group in the dark in the cold when you're camping? You sit around a fire, but we couldn't. And we certainly weren't going to sit and stare at the lifeless, moonlight-lit fire pit as bitter got colder.

So even though it was New Year's Eve, by 8:00pm (four hours before the traditional revelry would begin), Trudy and I had walked back to our campsite and were bundled in flannels and buried beneath layers of bedding. We shivered whenever we poked our heads out of our sleeping bags.

An hour later, the boys came walking up the hill from just around the bend. They whistled to see if we were awake. The dog heard them coming and barked. You could almost hear their teeth chattering from the cold. They told us they were leaving.

Leaving? We were silently stunned. But we were camping!

They explained that the dark, the cold, no-campfires and no-fireworks had conspired to dampen their enthusiasm for this particular mode of celebration. They had convinced Stuart's mom (who as the temperatures plummeted had worried that she didn't bring warm enough stuff) to pack up the truck and leave.

What could we say? I thought of telling Ben he could stay in our tent, but that was clearly the wrong solution to the wrong problem. In fact, it was only a 45 minute drive back, and they had a plan for the rest of the evening, so we let them go.

Fifteen minutes after that, we heard truck doors slam, an engine start and the receding sound of tires crunching on a gravel road. Soon the silence had returned.

The air was still. Not a thing outside our tent moved. We were surrounded by absolute silence and bitter cold. The tent was bathed in the light of a nearly full moon. It took us only moments to fall asleep.

Hours later, we heard fireworks in the distance.

Happy New Year, Trudy said in a voice that sounded far away.

Happy New Year, I said in a voice that must have sounded the same.

Neither of us turned. Neither of us even moved. The silence returned. And the moonlight. And the cold. Again we fell fast asleep.

So passed 2006.

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