Abject Apologies

Wow. Two weeks in a row and no promised movie review. I could give you lots of excuses. For instance – I didn’t like those talking cars the first time around, and I’m sure as heck not going to spend money to see them in 3d. Or – Yeah, I saw Bad Teacher back when it was called Bad Santa and Cameron Diaz was played by Billy Bob Thornton. But those would just be snarky quips designed to obscure the truth. I messed up.

Midnight in Paris – the movie I was going to go see (not Cars 2 or Bad Teacher) – was playing at 11, but I missed it. Well, I didn’t miss it completely, but I was going to miss the beginning of the movie and I hate that. I’m going to try (no promises) to fit it in tomorrow and at least give you a belated Weekday Matinee.

Instead, I’m going to give you what I was going to do for tomorrow. It’s the old switcheroo, and here’s hoping my slight of hand obscures the missing day. Shhh…don’t tell anyone. So, without further ado I present:

5 Things I Learned this Week:

1. No matter how much you delve into the story of 51-year-old Doug Hutchison and his 16-year-old bride Courtney Stodden, it just gets weirder and creepier. This link is to a funny Anderson Cooper commentary on the whole thing. He touches on most of the weirdness, but you owe it to yourself to at least check out her youtube channel. I have to warn you, if you’re the kind of person who gets uncomfortable when completely oblivious people make fools out of themselves, this will be excruciating.

2. The Trevi Fountain in Rome is one of Italy’s most popular tourist attractions. Visitors to the fountain throw a coin into the water to wish for luck, love, and a return to Rome. Every day people throw an average of € 3,000 worth of coins into the fountain. Thats about $4,200…a day! I’m going to put a fountain outside my door.

Amelia Dyer 1893

3. I have to thank my fianceé Emilie for this next one. She fascinated by female serial killers – especially those from the 19th Century. The most terrifying one she’s found so far: Amelia Dyer who killed more than 400 babies and children. It’s a horrifying story, but even on Wikipedia it’s compelling. I makes me think of Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (a great book). But I have to say, if you handed your unplanned baby off to this woman, you must have had some suspicion. I mean look at how mean her face is.

4. There are plenty of reasons to be cynical – too many for a witty and topical list – but sometimes things turn out right and something happens that makes me think that people as a whole aren’t terrible after all – something like the long overdue legalization of gay marriage in New York. There are plenty of good articles about the vote and its ramifications, but here’s a good one from NPR. It’s about time the bigots were beaten back. There’s a long way to go, but this is another solid step.

5. I’ll leave you guys with something fun. I learned that even though I’m definitely a dog person I still find animated cats pretty funny. Simon’s Cat in particular.

Yeah, I know, some of those videos have 20,000,000 views, so I’m sure it’s nothing new to you, but this post is about what I learned this week, not what everyone else already knew.

I hope you guys are having a great weekend. I’ll see you tomorrow – hopefully with a review.

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Flashed

A small candle threw looming shadows against the walls while outside the last bands of sunlight clung to the horizon. They sat in a loose circle, waiting for Revenge to start. His was the last story. He was patient and he waited for the perfect moment. A small breeze whispered outside, rattling against the old window. Whispers were always a good place to begin. Revenge caught hold of the moment. He was a good storyteller – maybe the best among them – and the others leaned in to catch his soft, enticing voice. He made eye contact with each one, pulling them into his story while his fingers plucked at their shadows – only a handful to begin with – and wove them together into a pattern none of them could have described before it was finished.

Revenge smiled – a small, mysterious turning of his lips – as he took a thread of Fear’s shadow into the story. Fear didn’t even notice, but they all felt the resonance. He saw their eyes grow just a little wider and their shoulders hunch protectively. This was his favorite part, when the details were still unclear, but the heart of his story pulsed with drive and energy.

He took a piece of Despair and some Desperation and wove in a setback. This was always delicate and Revenge’s jaw clenched as he concentrated. The story hung on the edge of dissolving, but that too was part of the plan, part of what kept them all hanging on every twist and turn. Just as it seemed that even his nimble fingers wouldn’t be able to hold everything together, the pattern came back into focus and they all sighed as they saw what Revenge had made.

Revenge felt a thrill of decision approaching. He let them all rest for a moment, giving them the satisfaction of discovering some hint of the larger design. Outside an owl screeched in triumph at a successful hunt and Revenge took hold of the sound, letting the essence of a hunter flow through his fingertips. Around the edges he placed a sliver of Conscience, but in the center he wove a bloody tableau of Anger, Determination, and Pain with highlights of Satisfaction and Remorse. Everyone gasped as Revenge tied the last unexpected knots and dozens of shadowy threads – more than most of them could have held together – flowed into a perfect, unified design.

The story hung for a moment as the echoes of Revenge’s voice gave the shadowy construct form, and in that moment they all hung suspended with the story. But like all stories it blew away, evaporating as it dissolved into memory. Revenge’s shoulders relaxed and he smiled at the congratulations. They all agreed it had been the best story of the day, and in groups of two or three they retold their favorite parts as they left the old room. Revenge was the last to leave, the final storyteller always lingered. It had been a good story. Before he left, Revenge leaned down and blew out the guttering candle.

A Secret History of…

…the mechanical soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars.

Continued from Part I

Imperial forces once again faced Bonaparte in Italy. Despite von Kempelen’s assurances and the Emperor’s tentative support, the Imperial general staff refused to commit the Brass Battalion to action in Italy citing the difficulty of transporting the battalion across the Alps. In a decisive campaign, Bonaparte defeated the Imperial army and von Kempelen used the court’s increasing apprehension as leverage to assure that his soldiers were to be deployed in any further military action.

General Moreau

The chance for a real combat test came in 1800 when the French, commanded by General Moreau, engaged the Imperial army under the command of Archduke John in southern Germany. Archduke John commanded a force numbering 130,000 men, but he had almost no military experience. The French Army of the Rhine numbered 100,000 men, and Moreau’s abilities rivaled those of Napoleon.

On December 3rd, 1800, near the town of Hohnlinden, the disorganized Imperial army stumbled upon the French. The Brass Battalion, led by Major Haas, marched with the Archduke in the center of three columns. As the initial contact began to develop into a major battle it became apparent that confusion reigned in the Imperial army and the three columns lacked clear coordination. The disciplined, veteran French army exploited the Archduke’s lack of experience, executing a series of flank attacks on the center of the Imperial force.

The coordinated actions of the French quickly caused the poorly led Imperial army to disintegrate, but the Brass Battalion held fast in the center. The 500 mechanical soldiers formed an island against which waves of cavalry and infantry broke. Other Imperial soldiers – those who hadn’t already fled – took heart from the steadfast discipline of the Brass Battalion and drew in around them. The battle was lost. 500 soldiers, no matter how well they performed, could only delay the oncoming French. Yet even against such overwhelming odds they were able to protect the Archduke and execute an orderly withdrawal at the cost of over half their number. The battle was a catastrophe, but von Kempelen’s mechanical soldiers were an unmitigated triumph.

On hearing of the efficacy of the Brass Battalion, the Emperor made von Kempelen “Master of Mechanics” and ordered him to begin production of a true army. The battlefield disaster once again allowed the French to force the Emperor into signing an unfavorable treaty, but for von Kempelen the disaster was a triumph. At the moment of his greatest success, however, he made a fatal error.

Archduke John

Flush with his new power and the realization of his childhood dreams, von Kempelen spoke publicly and derisively of the ability and intelligence of Archduke John as well as several other powerful generals. Whatever shortcomings the Archduke had on the field of war, he was a master in the political sphere. von Kempelen was a brilliant engineer, but he lacked the political savvy to defeat the Archduke in the political sphere.

The Archduke used all of his influence to sabotage von Kempelen’s progress. He delayed shipments of raw materials, made sure that components were sub standard, and used the intricate Imperial bureaucracy to endlessly tie up all of von Kempelen’s official correspondence. von Kempelen understood what the Archduke was doing, but his public and private entreaties were easily countered by the Archduke and his allies. The Emperor grew impatient with the slow progress of von Kempelen’s manufactories.

von Kempelen’s ultimate undoing came in 1802. Evidence, carefully manufactured and placed by the Archduke and his agents, surfaced implicating von Kempelen of massive corruption and negligence. There were also persistent rumors, again planted by the Archduke, that von Kempelen was selling some of his secret technology to the French. In fighting the Archduke’s previous attempts to slow down production of his mechanical soldiers, von Kempelen had been short tempered and abrasive. He had made too many enemies in court to counter these new assaults. von Kempelen was dismissed from the emperor’s service and official stories circulated that the mechanical soldiers had been nothing but an elaborate hoax.

By 1804 von Kempelen, disgraced, ruined, and exiled from court was dying of consumption. He had tried and failed to convince the Emperor of his innocence and back in his ancestral home in Pressberg, he wrote a last letter to the Emperor proclaiming his loyalty and urging his monarch to use his plans to counter Napoleon’s aggression. In a final spiteful move, the Archduke intercepted both the letter and the enclosed plans, burning them before they could reach the Emperor

Napoleon at Austerlitz

In November 1805 Napoleon defeated an allied force in the battle of Austerlitz. Unlike the Holy Roman Emperor, Napoleon recognized the danger posed by the threat of mechanical soldiers. In a symbolic act he forced Emperor Francis I to sign the treaty of Pressberg dissolving The Holy Roman Empire. The true and secret purpose of the treaty was to make sure that none of von Kempelen’s plans or works would survive. Even The Turk’s mechanical brain was smashed by French soldiers on the grounds of the old von Kempelen estate.

The Turk would later tour the United States, but by then it was just a carnival trick. The intricate construction that had truly powered the machine was gone, replaced with misdirection and a hidden human agent. A few spectators were convinced by the trick, but when the mummery was finally exposed, von Kempelen’s reputation suffered a last ignominious kick. One of the great geniuses of an age was doomed to be remembered as nothing more than a fraud.

Opinionated

Weregild

Early civilizations were entirely comfortable setting a price on human life. In early medieval  Germanic societies, for example, a murderer might be required to pay a weregild to the relatives of his victim. The weregild was the worth of a person determined in large part by their social rank. Livestock, coins, or precious objects were exchanged and justice was deemed to have been served. Though the practice of paying a weregild was replaced with capital punishment by the 12th century, the idea that a person’s life could be measured by the worth of goods persisted.

As members of a modern technological society we like to think of ourselves as culturally superior to our brutal ancestors. Our communities no longer exist on such a thin margin of survival that we can’t afford to punish someone for his or her crimes. Add to that centuries of philosophical, scientific, and cultural development and we are well past the days where a person’s life amounts to no more than a portion of wealth determined by his or her social rank.

We give those ideas lip service, but we all realize that behind the veneer of enlightened culture we still inhabit a world where the idea of a weregild exists. Individually we might profess to believe that all people are equal, or that human life is infinitely precious, but the hard truth is that in practice our collective actions assign everybody a monetary value.

My thoughts were prompted by a brief article about a man who deliberately committed a crime to access adequate healthcare, but healthcare is only one way in which we assign value to people. Healthcare is a hot topic these days, but the central issue that all the pundits and politicians dance around is that the cost of healthcare is really the maximum value we are willing to place on those who occupy the lowest tiers of social rank. The one new twist that modern societies have added is that now the victim must pay the weregild to those who are willing to let him or her die.

Placing a monetary value on a person is not as simple as determining healthcare costs. What about education, infrastructure, housing – or less concrete ideas like opportunity, freedom, equality, justice. How do we determine what each person is worth when paying for those fundamental things that we claim are the bedrock of our compassionate, civilized societies?

This is a good place for a small digression. What is this thing – this money – against which we measure human lives? Money is a metaphor. Dollars, Euros, Yen, Rubles – they all represent the perceived value of an idea. Not even the perceived value of a specific commodity, but the perceived value of an idea. Money doesn’t exist. Money is, in some ways, a universal delusion that humanity has decided to believe is real. This entity that so dominates our lives, that in so many cases determines the length and quality of those lives, is just a concept given the illusion of form by numbers and pieces of paper.

When the 9th century Anglo-Saxons exchanged livestock as reparations for a person’s life, they gave each other real things for an act that had already been committed. A sheep or a cow, or even some coins, were things that could help a family survive the absence of the murdered person. The weregild was a way of preventing more deaths.

Today we put a price on an individual based on what we expect that person to contribute to society. We calculate a person’s potential monetary contribution and place a maximum value on a human life. People in shiny glass towers and neoclassic monuments shuffle around imaginary metaphors and we praise them for contributing to the wealth of the world. Our version of the weregild is not about preventing more deaths and ensuring the survival of a community, but about choosing who deserves life. And in the choosing what kind of a community do we create?

The Lost Art of Letters

Dear God,

Customer Support

I am writing to complain about a small matter. Perhaps you have a saint or an angel handling your complaint department, but I could find no reference to any such person in your various publications. It seems as if you prefer questions and comments to be addressed directly to you. I applaud such direct methods in this age of poor and confusing customer support.

As a side note, I also performed an internet search to find your correct contact information fearing that what was in your books might be out of date (the most recent official printed material I could find was by the King James publisher from 1611). While I found many individuals and institutions offering to help me contact you, I noticed that you had no web presence of your own. Clearly you have run a successful organization for many years and likely resent unasked for advice. Nevertheless I’m sure you will have noticed a sharp decline in the value of some of your core properties since at least 1859 despite the success of some of your subsidiary enterprises.

Logos for Popular Subsidiaries

A website might function to open more productive lines of communication between you and many of your current and potential customers, enabling you to better understand and meet their needs. A website would also be a place for you to publish important updates, announce visits, and, of particular interest to me, offer easy to find contact information. In all humility I suggest that not everyone will be as persistent in his or her attempts to lodge such a small complaint as mine, but even small lapses in service can lead to widespread customer dissatisfaction in the long term.

Dramatization of Retribution

Such a lapse occurred for me on the morning of June 20th, 2011. As was my usual practice, I woke up next to my fianceé before getting out of bed to get ready for work. I have heard that our sleeping arrangements constitute a technical violation of certain prohibitions, but though I found implications, I could find no clear and specific language outlining those prohibitions in your book (a website with a search option would certainly clear up future misunderstandings of this nature). I mention this because perhaps what followed was  divine retribution, something for which you and your organization are justly famous.

I like to start my day with a healthy bowl of cereal and today was certainly no exception. My milk was well within the specified sell by date, and the previous day the milk had been delicious, offering no indication of imminent spoilage. Today, however, this is what I found in my bowl (note: this is a recreation in a clear container to highlight the spoiled milk):

Curdled Milk (Recreation of Actual Curdling)

Running the universe, especially in today’s competitive environment, must be a difficult task. In the face of such large-scale service outages like the Arizona wildfires, or tensions in your Middle East Headquarters, spoiled milk must seem insignificant. My concern is that the milk indicates a larger administrative problem within your organization.

If my complaint is not addressed in a timely fashion, I will unfortunately be forced to seek an alternate service provider or perhaps cancel my subscription to all such services. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Imaginary Robot

Where Good Ideas Come From

I really like Steven Johnson. Who is Steven Johnson? He describes himself as a popular science writer, but what I like is that he focuses on the human element of science. I would say that he’s more of a scientific sociologist. He doesn’t simply explain technical ideas (although he does so in a clear and engaging style without the condescending tone that some science writers inadvertently adopt), he explores the complicated relationship individuals and societies have to those ideas. His blog and his books are definitely worth reading, but if you want a quick and highly entertaining introduction to him check out this video:

My whiteboard just has half a schedule I wrote nearly six months ago and a doodle of a flower. Maybe I should buy some more markers.

If you’re interested in reading more of his work check out his blog which also lists his books. If you’re looking for a book to start with, Emergence is probably my favorite.

Weekend Matinee

The Green Lantern

Okay, so my plan was to go see something this morning and give you a review of it tonight. Sadly, my plan failed. I guess that’s lucky for me because the movie I was planning on enduring (so you don’t have to) was Green Lantern, which was pretty universally panned. Even it’s star Ryan Reynolds could only muster up “It turned out better than I expected,” in an interview to promote the movie.

Because I know you’re starved for entertainment (if you weren’t, why would you be here?) I won’t leave you without anything to fill your time. In fact, I’m going to point you in the direction of some entertainment that will make your commute the best hours of your day, block out the horrible music playing in the grocery store, and even make your run or gym workout fly by. I’m talking about podcasts. These 5 podcasts are amazing, entertaining, informative, and free. All you need are ears and an iPod-like device.

#1 Judge John Hodgman – Whether you own a Mac or a PC I’m sure you’ll love John Hodgman. Every week he sits in judgement on two people who bring their social disputes before him (for example: one week he arbitrated a dispute between a couple where the wife was hiding treats from the husband because he ate them too fast). John Hodgman is funny, intelligent, and quick witted. You can at least be intelligent and quick witted if you start downloading this podcast.

#2 A History of the World in 100 Objects – In this joint venture between the BBC and the British Museum, museum director Neil MacGregor takes you on a tour across time and civilizations. Each episode focuses on a single object which represents a larger cultural and historical idea. One of the great things about this podcast is that it isn’t just Dr. MacGregor nattering on for 15 minutes about some ancient cup you can’t see. His analysis and description (along with that of other historians) is interspersed with interviews of people who are experts in the modern day equivalent of what is being discussed.

#3 Savage Love Podcast – History not your thing? Well then, try out Dan Savage’s particular brand of straightforward advice about a topic that makes most of us blush and stammer – sex. At times funny, moving, and completely outrageous, Dan’s sex-positive message is entertaining, but also important. And who knows, maybe there’s something you’ve always wondered, but been too embarrassed to ask about that Dan will talk about.

#4 Planet Money – The Planet Money team started out by trying to explain the recent financial crisis in a way that would make it accessible to anyone without a PhD in economics. I may have lost some of you there, but come back. This isn’t some dry analysis of market trends and quarterly profit and loss statements. If I had to describe this podcast, and I do, I’d say it was about social economics. What does it mean to live on $1 a day. How does the credit card black market work? Why is failure good? None of the coverage comes with a spreadsheet. They do all that boring stuff for you. All you have to do is listen and be amazed.

#5 Writing Excuses – I think everyone secretly harbors the dream of writing a novel. Somewhere inside everyone is a story they’ve been nursing, hoping to someday put down on paper. Well then listen to these four published and successful authors really talk about the process of writing. In 15 minute episodes they don’t just talk about the different facets of creating a good story, they draw on their own experiences and drill down to the essentials of how to think about different aspects of writing. As they love to say at the end of each podcast, “You’re out of excuses, now go write.”

All of these podcasts are available for free in the iTunes store and from the linked websites.

And that’s me done for the day. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend ahead of you. After listening to these podcasts, I know it will be.