Gore’s Presidency: A Retrospective

Let’s keep this presidential train rolling with some juicy fan fiction.  Five writers for New York Magazine take turns wrapping 2-year ribbons around the maypole, imagining what it would’ve been like if Gore had won in 2000 and 2004.

Two of the contributors weren’t great. Glenn Beck (yes, that Glenn Beck) fails at humor/imagination/writing while Walter Kirn’s kumbaya years are pretty unbelievable. It’s a fun read though, assuming you’ve got the time and interest.

A particularly solid passage from Kevin Baker:

Well, tough titty, the president thought as he strode to the helicopter. Some people were going to have to get used to the idea that life in the new millennium wasn’t about tearing the tops off mountains just so you could grub some more lung polish. Besides, hadn’t he given the locals the Robert C. Byrd Clean Coal Research Institute as part of his omnibus energy package? Clean coal—riiight.

Meanwhile, his relocation had become the biggest jobs program West Virginia had ever seen. It was the logical choice, once Flight 93 had demolished the White House. All they’d had to do was spruce up the Bunker under the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, built there for Congress back in the Cold War days. The Secret Service loved it. Everything you could ask, all behind twenty-ton blast doors: dormitories, cafeterias, a state-of-the-art communications system, even a weight room. Everything, that is, except for the Congress. Capitol Hill was untouched; no need for them to come. He had the run of the place, and could call in anyone he wanted, whenever he wanted. Amtrak was running twenty trains a day in from D.C., and the town had doubled in size from all the media crews alone. He and Tipper took the presidential suite upstairs in the Greenbrier. They stuck Hadassah and Joe Leave-Me-Alone down in the Bunker itself, where he could keep an eye on them.

Coulda been a mistake, the president thought, frowning. Maybe that’s when he started to go all squirrelly on me—

He paused on the top step of the chopper, sucking in the sweet Allegheny air. God, it was intoxicating! Air like that, well, it gave a man an appetite. He smiled as he thought of Tipper, left back in the presidential bedroom just now in a state of flattering befuddlement.

Gave him other appetites as well, as the press had begun to notice. He looked over at the trim stomach of his body double. Would that guy have to start eating more, too? Maybe growing a beard would help …

[New York Magazine via the Browser]

January 19, 2011. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Smarts. Leave a comment.

Douglas Coupland’s Predictions for the Coming Decade

I read this a couple of months ago, but only now, in these early days of the new decade*, does it feel right to stamp out the ubiquitous optimism with some good doubt.

Douglas Coupland, a Canadian curmudgeon, lists 45 predictions for the coming decade. Here are the ones that strike me as particularly probable:

2) The future isn’t going to feel futuristic

It’s simply going to feel weird and out-of-control-ish, the way it does now, because too many things are changing too quickly. The reason the future feels odd is because of its unpredictability. If the future didn’t feel weirdly unexpected, then something would be wrong.

5) You’ll spend a lot of your time feeling like a dog leashed to a pole outside the grocery store – separation anxiety will become your permanent state

8) Try to live near a subway entrance

In a world of crazy-expensive oil, it’s the only real estate that will hold its value, if not increase.

10) In the same way you can never go backward to a slower computer, you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness

24) It is going to become much easier to explain why you are the way you are

Much of what we now consider “personality” will be explained away as structural and chemical functions of the brain.

38) Knowing everything will become dull

It all started out so graciously: At a dinner for six, a question arises about, say, that Japanese movie you saw in 1997 (Tampopo), or whether or not Joey Bishop is still alive (no). And before long, you know the answer to everything.

And here are some that don’t seem likely at all:

7) Retail will start to resemble Mexican drugstores

In Mexico, if one wishes to buy a toothbrush, one goes to a drugstore where one of every item for sale is on display inside a glass display case that circles the store. One selects the toothbrush and one of an obvious surplus of staff runs to the back to fetch the toothbrush. It’s not very efficient, but it does offer otherwise unemployed people something to do during the day.

11) Old people won’t be quite so clueless

No more “the Google,” because they’ll be just that little bit younger.

13) Enjoy lettuce while you still can

And anything else that arrives in your life from a truck, for that matter. For vegetables, get used to whatever it is they served in railway hotels in the 1890s. Jams. Preserves. Pickled everything.

14) Something smarter than us is going to emerge

Thank you, algorithms and cloud computing.

20) North America can easily fragment quickly as did the Eastern Bloc in 1989

Quebec will decide to quietly and quite pleasantly leave Canada. California contemplates splitting into two states, fiscal and non-fiscal. Cuba becomes a Club Med with weapons. The Hate States will form a coalition.

32) Musical appreciation will shed all age barriers

Draw your own conclusions after reading the full list at the Globe and Mail.

[Article via the Browser. Image via Maet32’s photobucket]

* The 21st century began on January 1st, 2001. Therefore, the first decade of the 21st century ended a few days ago. We can argue about this if you want, but that exercise would be wholly redundant.

January 6, 2011. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 2 comments.

Christopher Hitchens on How to Make a Proper Cup of Tea

[image via The Thinking Blue]

I envy Hitchens’ writing style. He takes confident chances with the language and they work.

Now that “the holidays”—at their new-style Ramadan length, with the addition of Hanukkah plus the spur and lash of commerce—are safely over, I can bear to confront the moment at their very beginning when my heart took its first dip.

It was Dec. 8, and Yoko Ono had written a tribute to mark the 30th anniversary of the murder of her husband. In her New York Times op-ed, she recalled how the two of them would sometimes make tea together. He used to correct her method of doing so, saying, “Yoko, Yoko, you’re supposed to first put the tea bags in, and then the hot water.” (This she represented as his Englishness speaking, in two senses, though I am sure he would actually have varied the word order and said “put the tea bags in first.”) This was fine, indeed excellent, and I was nodding appreciatively, but then the blow fell. One evening, he told her that an aunt had corrected him. The water should indeed precede the bags. “So all this time, we were doing it wrong?” she inquired. “Yeah,” replied our hero, becoming in that moment a turncoat to more than a century of sturdy Liverpool tradition.

Take notice Soulja Boy, because this is what swagger actually looks like.

[Christopher Hitchens @ Slate via the Browser]

January 4, 2011. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 2 comments.

The Cringe at the Heart of Christmas

[image via TV by the Numbers]

Giles Fraser from the Guardian blasts it.

Christmas can be a bad time for those of us with an allergy to all that Jesus-is-my-friend theology. As the angels sing, the eternal mystery pulsing through all things becomes a human being. Yes, this is orthodox Christianity. But what too many Christians take from this is theological permission to get terribly chummy with the divine. As God turns into Jesus, mystery can be replaced by sentiment, eternity forced to the scale of the domestic imagination. God becomes my best buddy. It’s the cringe at the heart of Christmas. […]

Evangelical Christianity, with all its emphasis on Jesus as friend, risks domesticating the divine, pulling God too much within the dimensions of the human perspective. With this sort of Jesus at hand, God becomes just too easy.Yes, of course, one can read the incarnation very differently. I would argue that the idea of God as a baby is one of the most disruptive theological suggestions ever made. After all, isn’t God supposed to be omnipotent? Here, Jesus is a supreme form of denial – a denial of God as power. And this powerlessness can be as much intellectual as anything else. To be a Christian is not to have the answers. Sometimes it’s just about living the questions.


[Giles Fraser @ the Guardian via the Browser]

[Animated GIF via If We Don’t, Remember Me]

December 14, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 1 comment.

Bill Gate’s Favorite Teacher Does It for Free

[image via azstarnet]

We really shouldn’t care what Bill Gates thinks since he’s the quintessential black swan, but I wanted to catch your eye with a Sully lede.

It is true though.  Bill Gates sits there with his kids and watches the screen as the disembodied voice of Sal Khan explains almost anything.

In short, Khan is a genius (three degrees from MIT and a Harvard MBA).  He retired early to teach math, chemistry, biology, physics, history, etc. to any interested party.  The format couldn’t be simpler.

What’s remarkable about Khan Academy, aside from its nonpareil word of mouth and burgeoning growth, is that it’s free and prizes brevity. Remember your mumbling macroeconomics teacher whose 50-minute monologue in a large auditorium could bore the dead? That isn’t Khan. He rarely cracks wise — if you want shtick, check out Darth Vader trying to teach Euclidean geometry on YouTube (“The Pythagorean theorem is your destiny!”) — but in less than 15 minutes Khan gets to the essence of the topics he’s carved out.

My favorite part is the knowledge map (powered by Google maps) which auto-updates as you complete competency exercises in various disciplines:

Khan is up to 1800+ lectures and I’ll let him explain his ambition:

My goal really is to keep making videos until the day I die (which will hopefully not be for at least another 50 or 60 years). Should give me time to make several tens of thousands of videos in pretty much every subject.

Go on. Let him teach you something already.

[David A. Kaplan @ Fortune via the Browser]

December 2, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 1 comment.

10 Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia

New article out from PLoS Computational Biology targeted at interested, yet non-contributing members of the Wikipedia community.

Here are ten rules to live by if you want to be taken seriously when attempting to edit a Wikipedia article:

  1. Register an Account
  2. Learn the Five Pillars
  3. Be Bold, but Not Reckless
  4. Know Your Audience
  5. Do Not Infringe Copyright
  6. Cite, Cite, Cite
  7. Avoid Shameless Self-Promotion
  8. Share Your Expertise, but Don’t Argue From Authority
  9. Write Neutrally and with Due Weight
  10. Ask for Help

Helpful.  Well written.  To the point.

[DW Logan et al. @ PLoS Computational Biology via the Browser]

[image via xkcd]

October 20, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 1 comment.

The Fifth Taste

Umami.  Glutamate.  Savoriness.  Deliciousness.

Tom Nealon makes the tongue-in-cheek case that umami was behind every historical upheaval.

Essentially, glutamate-rich foods trick the body into thinking that it’s consuming vast amounts of protein — which is extremely pleasant, even if it’s just broth.

This effect has not been lost on history’s empires —if religion is the opium of the masses, umami foods are the steak sandwich.  If your income, class, estate, or faith denies you regular opportunities to consume rich sauces and savory meats, you’ll reach for the nearest bottle of umami every chance you get.

Very fun read and educational throughout.  For example, did you know that the reason Worcestershire sauce (and by proxy, Caesar salad) tastes so good is due to the abundance of glutamate-rich anchovy paste contained within?

If you’ve wondered if there’s something miraculous, some sort of transmogrification, going on in your Caesar salad — drenched in anchovy dressing and covered in Parmesan — wonder no longer.

[Tom Nealon @ HiLobrow via the Browser]

[image via Fork You]

October 15, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

How to be an Ass at Parties

Step 1.) Read Wikipedia’s List of Common Misconceptions.

Some Good ones:

  • George Washington did not have wooden teeth. According to a study of Washington’s four known dentures by a forensic anthropologist from the University of Pittsburgh (in collaboration with the National Museum of Dentistry, itself associated with the Smithsonian Museum), the dentures were made of gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth (including horse and donkey teeth).
  • Searing meat does not “seal in” moisture, and in fact may actually cause meat to lose moisture. Generally, meat is seared to create a brown crust with a rich flavor via the Maillard reaction.
  • It is commonly claimed that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the Moon. This is false. None of the Apollo astronauts reported seeing any man-made object from the Moon. The misconception is believed to have been popularized by Richard Halliburton decades before the first moon landing.

Step 2.) This part is automatic. You’ll act like a total ass the next time someone mentions that lemmings are suicidal, Napoleon was short, or that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter.

Happy Trolling.

[List of Common Misconceptions via the Browser]

[image via Wikimedia Commons]

October 5, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Smarts. 7 comments.

Smart-Ass Pawn

I’m not sure what initiated this article, but for whatever reason, Lorrie Moore wrote a very welcome piece about David Simon and The Wire. Here’s a nice excerpt:

The Wire, of course, is a deliberately far cry from Adam-12 and Dragnet, the cop shows of Simon’s childhood. Its newness as a narrative art form is underscored most convincingly by its power on DVD, where it can be watched all at once, over sixty hours: this particular manner of viewing makes the literary accolades and the comparisons to a novel more justified and true. On the other hand, so engrossing, heart-tugging, and uncertain are the various story arcs that watching in this manner one becomes filled with a kind of mesmerized dread. In this new motion picture format the standard, consoling boundaries and storytelling rhythms are dispensed with—mostly. One is allowed a wider, deeper portrait, a panorama, of entrepreneurial crime, government corruption, a harassed underclass, and faulty institutions of every sort—sprawling portraiture that aims at inclusivity.

Even though its city hall has been mum, Baltimore’s Police Department has given The Wire its endorsement, as have the kids of East and West Baltimore. Moreover, the show’s themes can seem reiterated everywhere in the world, from out-of-work shrimpers and autoworkers, to the meth cookers of the Ozarks, to the poppy growers of war-torn Afghanistan (oddly, Hamid Karzai has two brothers who live in the Baltimore area). It is sometimes hard to think about the world’s troubles without thinking: “This is just like The Wire.”

I concur. You probably know by now that David Simon just won a MacAurthur Genius Grant for his television work. Very few humans get this award. If you were waiting for a reason to watch this show, this is it.

[Lorrie Moore @ the New York Review of Books via the Browser]

[image from personal favorite: Blake Hicks]

October 1, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Greetings from North Korea

Crazy interview with an American guy who visited North Korea.

Everywhere you go in Pyongyang, the skyline is dominated by a huge 105-story concrete pyramid, the Ryugyong Hotel, which looms over the city like the pyramid-shaped Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984. It was intended to be the world’s tallest hotel, but it turned out to be structurally unsound, so it was never completed. It’s been standing there, abandoned, since 1992. It doesn’t appear on any official maps, and nobody ever talks about it, because it’s such a horrendous embarrassment.

The most memorable thing about Pyongyang, though, is the total darkness that descends at night. Because electricity is in short supply, there are hardly any lights at all — a couple of bulbs here and there, and the headlights of passing buses. People are out and about, but all you can see are the dark shapes right beside you. Back at the hotel, you look out the window and there’s just nothing. It’s like the whole city was just swallowed up.


We visited a kindergarten in Rason to watch a performance by the schoolchildren. While we were waiting for it to start, we had a look around. On one of the walls was a painting from a popular North Korean cartoon series showing a cute forest animal hunched behind a machine gun blasting away at his enemies. Some of the children’s drawings were posted on another wall in the hallway. One showed a North Korean tank running over enemy soldiers, and another showed a North Korean jet shooting down enemy planes. Next to them were typical childhood drawings of balloons, birds, and bunny rabbits. The contrast kind of twisted your gut.

The rest is plenty weird and tragic.

[Christina Larson @ Foreign Policy via the Browser]

[image via Dear Leader]

September 29, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 2 comments.

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