Road Kill on the Internet Superhighway

I like the independence and illusion of freedom that comes from publishing an individual blog on an independent host. To a point I even like tinkering with my Movable Type blog software. (No, I don't need to hear from WordPress users how declasse this makes me.) I enjoy the idea that if somehow something I said offended the powers that be who provide me an Internet platform, I could just pick up my data and move on, without being locked into a Facebook, Google,, Blogger, whatever.

But the illusion of freedom and the appearance of independence come at a price. On Friday, I learned that my little blog had been ingeniously hacked, thanks to a tip from John Grillot of White Fir Design, which runs an anti-hacking operation. When one visited the site, it was to all appearances working perfectly normally. However, unbeknownst to me, it was spewing volumes of c1alis ads and other unsavory spam into Google's search engine, presumably in an effort to attract attention to the spammers' sites. I would have been collateral damage when Google decided to shutdown and blacklist my site as a spam factory, were it not for Mr. Grillot's timely tip.

At this point, having rebuilt the site and changed the passwords, I am still not sure how I invited these cockroaches of the Internet in, but I suppose any site, particularly one that is small and under amateur management, may have a thousand vulnerabilities despite reasonable diligence. I find the experience suggests several implications for how I think about the Internet. On the one hand, I am sure that big providers who manage thousands of blogs are better defended against this kind of attack than I am. On the other hand, although the attack was an inconvenience for me, attacking little sites like mine cannot offer much in the way of economies of scale to the spammers. Moreover, a little differentiation might generate further inefficiencies for the spambots, despite their fiendish ingenuity.

In the end, I remain in favor of more decentralization of the Internet and more individual independence, but paradoxically this can only work through better collaboration and communication to hold the malign influences of the Internet at bay.

Whither Edwardiana?

When I was a boy, I was haunted by the uneasy specter of the notion that there was a thing called a gentleman, and that one ought to behave like one. It seemed to have something to do with the notion that one ought to be nice to girls, a notion whose merits I did not really begin to appreciate until about sixth grade. But it also seemed to be rooted in the idea that one should subscribe to good manners and fair play, despite the fact that other people did not always do so. At the very least, the idea was pregnant with some invidious classist assumptions and a certain amount of hypocrisy. But maybe in the twentieth century's headlong rush to abandon it, we lost something along the way.

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano

There is relatively little one can do about the crumbling of one's civilization. The yapping of the Right's hyenas, the ineffectual twittering of the Left's mice, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the country goes to hell fifty different ways. But one still has to face the day.

I find much more often now that I start the day exhausted. I drag myself into consciousness gradually, and by the time I refresh myself with a cafe au lait, I am at least nominally ready to move forward with the day. After a couple of hours, however, I tend to find my energy and endurance fading. I lack the exuberant energy of my youth.

I learned recently that when the kidneys go, everything else follows in rapid succession. It's common to the think of the body's being subject to physical injury, less common to contemplate the delicate biochemical balance that must be maintained to keep us alive. Homeostasis or bust.

My father at eighty is a rock. He's run well over 30 marathons, the last one just a couple of months ago. His younger brother and sister are both dead, along with a wide swath of his friends, many of whom crept rather than vaulted to the grave. I'd never take Dad's good health for granted, lest I somehow jinx it, but I look at it as a testament to sensible living and good luck.

There's not much that can be said about luck. But sensible living is not a goal out of reach of most people, even if it can seem elusive. With a little luck and perseverance, it's something over which each of us can exercise some control, unlike say the Dow or the War in Afghanistan. So for me, I have come to the conclusion that if I am going to make any difference at all, it has to start with more and better sleep, a healthier diet, and a little exercise. Three small steps, so easy and so difficult.

Good Books and Last Meals (Well Read and Well Fed)

I suppose that I am like many other people in that as I get older, I read fewer books, choose them more carefully, and finish a smaller number. Youth has the luxury of reading indiscriminately and the opportunity to do so. As one gets older, there is not only less time to read, but there will be less time to enjoy what one has read. So one might as well choose carefully, because the universe of books that one could profitably read will always dwarf the number of books one actually can read.

If I am granted free choice of my last meal, it will be a sushi starter, harira, lobster and caviar, filet and foie gras, artichokes, mechoui, tajine dial djej ma zaitoun, and creme brulee, washed down with good red wine, followed by mint tea, espresso, and laphroaig.

NOT a cold glass of wheat grass juice.

I aspire to a literary banquet just as rich and varied.

The Fragility of Life

When the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind after Job complained of his suffering, He asked Job "Hast thou entered into the
springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
38:17 Have the gates of death
been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?
38:18 Hast thou perceived the
breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all." Job 38:17-18.  Like Auden's Old Masters, the ancient Hebrews understood suffering.  They were keenly aware of how tenuous man's hold on life is.  And they were keenly aware that there was no clear or comprehensible explanation for suffering: God says to Job, in effect, you cannot understand.

In one word, the Arabs express the inexorability of fate.  "Maktib": it is written.  God has foreordained the moment and the manner of every person's death, and there is no escaping.  (A famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia elaborates on this notion.  Lawrence saves a man from the desert; only to have to execute the same man for murder in order to keep peace among the tribes.)

There is a moment in Flannery O'Connor's short story The Displaced Person when the main character's spine "pops" as he is run over by tractor.  Death always seems particularly horrible when it is violent.  That is why, for me at least, the idea of being trapped on a burning skyscraper with a choice of incineration or joining hands and leaping to my death is so intolerable to contemplate.

And I feel the same horror at the thought of watching a wall of water as high as a small building and as long as the horizon devour the land before me until I and thousands more are smothered and crushed.  It is not to be borne.  And yet for thousands in Japan there was no escape.  They were as blameless as Job, unsuspecting of their fate, only to suffer a swift, violent death that caught them completely unprepared.  Our civilization, our technology, our modernity, our sophistication were helpless before the brute force of nature, and neither the consolation of religion nor the insight of poetry is really adequate to address nature's random cruelty.

All we can really do is suppress a guilty shudder of relief that we were not in the path of the wave, and try to help the survivors pick up the pieces.

Eat Fat to Get Thin

Good Calories, Bad CaloriesGood Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My new motto is "145 by July," meaning I would like to trim 50 pounds of fat accumulated over 20 years in approximately six months. In the process, I am hoping to see a reduction in my blood pressure and the level of triglycerides in my bloodstream to a more acceptable level. For anyone who subscribes to the conventional wisdom about dieting, this is a truly Quixotic aspiration.

Gary Taubes, in Good Calories, Bad Calories, attempts to turn the conventional wisdom on its a head. A historian of science and a writer for Science magazine, Taubes argues trenchantly that the fundamental assumptions driving popular wisdom about diet in the United States are based on bad science, and that the studies necessary to draw truly scientific conclusions about diet have not been performed.

Taubes assails the notion that every extra calorie consumed adds to the bulge on the waistline, and that the only way to lose weight is semi-starvation. Rather, he suggests, the root of our modern obesity epidemic is more likely to be found in our consumption of refined grains, refined sugar, and high fructose corn syrup, all of which are comparatively recent phenomena in evolutionary terms.

Taubes posits that weight gain has more to do with hormonal regulation of energy storage than with the simple addition of calories. In simple terms, heavy carbohydrate consumption causes an insulin rush that halts the body's use of fat for energy and encourages the conversion of glucose into fat, which both contributes to weight gain and encourages overconsumption.

Taubes' response is to encourage a high fat, low carbohydrate diet. To critics who suggest that such an approach is fraught with peril in that it increases the risk of heart disease, Taubes argues that the best science suggests that the risk of heart disease has far more to do with being overweight than with the consumption of fat or cholesterol. And, he argues, being overweight has more to do with carbohydrate consumption than fat consumption.

In one sense, Gary Taubes is the Robert Caro of diet writers. His book is so thoroughly researched, tightly written, and copiously annotated that it hard for a layman to contest his assertions. If you find a better explanation of the origin of obesity and effective strategies to counter it, read it.

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Re: What is Good and How to Do It?

I don't often have the presumption to take on a topic of this scope, but having been invited by Hisham, who is known as both a frequent contributor to Global Voices and as co-administrator of Talk Morocco, to respond to his essay on the topic, I figured I would briefly give it a go.

As I read it, Hisham's essay is really divided into two parts.  The first is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of individual good from the point of view of a crumbling religious faith.  The second, illustrated through a series of three videos showing discourses by Slavoj Zizek, Milton Friedman, and Michael Albert, poses three questions respectively: 1) Is there any such thing as a benevolent capitalist? 2) Is greed ultimately good? and 3) Are there any credible and viable alternatives? My quick riff on both inquiries follows:

Individual Good

In the spirit of Voltaire, I distrust systems.  "Good" is such a polymorphic and elusive idea that it resolutely eludes any particular attempt to pin it down.  The one positive conclusion I come to is that if any person tells me that he has definitively defined "the good," at the end of our conversation I am going to check my pockets to be sure my wallet is still there.  I guess the best guide I know, in the spirit of distrusting systems, is that a little kindness goes a long way.

Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n Roll

"Living well is the best revenge" F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald's quotation is perhaps a little inapt for the present topic, since quite a few people would dispute that he had hedonism in mind.  Hedonism may be underrated, however, particularly in its Epicurean incarnation.  If one could live surrounded always by comfort and beauty, knowledge and pleasure, excitation of the palate, gratification of appetite, and stimulation of the intellect, who is to say that would be so bad?  The knock on hedonism is usually twofold: it is self indulgent and it is selfish.  In response to the former criticism, I suppose we could always have boot camp vacations.  Alas, the latter criticism anticipates the critique of economic good; it is not that hedonism is so bad, but that we have not found the means to achieve it for everybody.

The Straight and Narrow

"What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after." Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is not bad when it comes to epigrams, but when it comes to morals, it is really Immanuel Kant who most earns my admiration, for two reasons.  First, Kant made the bold move of attempting to construct an ethics independent of religion.  His project, as I understand, was not anti-religious, but universality requires dispensing with differences of creed.  Second, the idea that one's conduct should be guided by the precept that one should only take actions what one could wish were formulated as universal laws strikes me as a profound insight.  Of course, "do as you would be done by" goes back at least as far as Jesus, but I admire Kant's attempts to systematize the notion.  For those interested purely in the pursuit of pleasure, Kant may be a bit of a spoilsport, not to mention Jesus.

Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth

"History pardons him for writing well."  W.H. Auden

Equally at odds with moral good (sometimes) is the aesthetic good.  Let's face it, for all the artists who have been pillars of rectitude, there are any number who have been rotten, selfish bastards.  Unfortunately perhaps, there does not appear to much correlation between humane treatment of one's fellows and the ability to produce awe-inspiring works of timeless beauty and insight.  And yet, would we really wish that artists were nicer people if it meant we had to live without their art?

Economic Good

"There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will."  Shakespeare.

The second part of Hisham's essay -- the series of video quotations about capitalism -- raises the question of how individual "good" affects social good.  Not being a social theorist or economist, I feel that I have a limited amount to say in response to this section.  However, I might observe that many of the evils ascribed to "capitalism" are perhaps more aptly ascribed to "corporatism."  Adam Smith had in mind a level playing field in which small, similarly situated economic actors with perfect information strove to better each other.  In the pursuit of individual benefits, they generated benefits for society. It is not that "greed is good" but that individual self-interest can have beneficial collateral effects.  This does not negate the benefit of charity; it merely touts the virtues of efficiency through individual self-interest.  Our present system is a gross distortion of Smithian capitalism in which gargantuan corporate monsters hoard information, distort the market, suppress competition, subvert governments, and create poisonous externalities.  That these monsters have been dubbed "persons" by our legal system grotesquely expands their anti-social tendencies.  If is probably fair to say that we do not really know if capitalism works, because it has never been tried.  But the drawbacks of our failure to tame the giant corporation, from Enron to BP, are clear.

I do think that the "greed is good" crowd has it wrong, however.  Just because there may be unintended benefits to our baser nature, does not mean that there is anything amiss about trying to achieve individual "goodness"

Family and Friends

Last week I took my family on their first trip to Los Angeles.  For the girls, it was a series of firsts: first trip on an airplane, first trip to the West Coast, first trip to the beach, first view of the ocean, first ride on a boat, first stay at a hotel.  In addition to being sunburnt to a precancerous fiery red, highlights of the trip included a visit to the La Brea tar pits, Venice Beach, Dume Beach, and yes, inevitably, Disneyland.  (It is amazing what a cheap bailing wire and pasteboard aspect Disneyland presented in comparison with my memories of several decades past.)  And no, the years have not made me fonder of carnival rides that go high and fast.

Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

Image via Wikipedia

But the occasion of the trip was not merely a vacation, although a vacation was overdue.  Rather, it was a rendezvous with the core of my class ("stage") of Peace Corps Volunteers assigned to Morocco in 1988.  While I have good friends from other times in my life, as a group these are the best people I know.  In 1988, they assembled to teach English and development, rebuild the water infrastructure, promote reforestation, improve infant and child care, raise healthier livestock, teach health and sanitation, and even promote sounder beekeeping.  These enterprises met with varying degrees of success, although not for lack of effort.  And they were tackled with an unparalleled joie de vivre and a robust skepticism.  I am honored to have served among them.

The cross section of people that assembled for the reunion continue to be an inspirational cadre who are promoting the common good on a daily basis. From the engineers who are keeping the water supply safe and promoting solar and geothermal energy, to the teachers who are educating our children, particularly our special needs children, to the environmental scientists who struggle to save our own wilderness heritage in the face of too much bureaucracy and too little money, this is a group that has remained committed to making a difference.  My old friends, and I say that proudly, include an eye doctor, an U.N. translator, a software executive, and an entrepreneur and are involved in endeavors that span the globe from France to Australia to China.

On a personal note, I was particularly glad to see three people who made my experience in Morocco especially meaningful, The first, a co-organizer of the event, was one of the first people I met in Peace Corps and one of the ones I have known best and seen most over the years - a crazy-assed water baby who once griped, "I am everybody's best friend in Peace Corps."  I am glad he is mine.  The second was my next-door neighbor, only four hours away by way of the derelict Mercedes known as "grand taxis."  A person of style, poise, and grace, she was the best neighbor one could have -- supportive, present when needed, and tolerant of the foibles of someone who has spent too long in an isolated Moroccan village.  Third was the volunteer who organized the program at the La Creche Lalla Hasna orphanage where I spent my summer filling in between teaching stints in the countryside, an exemplar not only of concern and compassion for children but also of grace and cultural sophistication.  (By way of example, she travels with the music of the Tuareg on her iPhone).  

Justice requires a longer tribute than space allows; there is not space here to discharge my debt to the many Volunteers who bettered my life both during and after Peace Corps.  But at our reunion, for one brief shining moment, we were again Peace Corps Morocco.  And for that moment, hijinks aside, we could remember that we were and are heirs to the clarion call issued in a simpler time by President John F. Kennedy in his Inaugural Address: "And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for
- ask what you can do for your country."

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They Also Serve

We live in extraordinary times, if only we can lift our eyes from the press of the mundane long enough to see it. As I write, I have just finished reading a series of "tweets" broadcast by a friend in besieged Kabul, one of many friends in the international diplomatic/aid community working to ameliorate conditions in the most desperate places in the world.


Image via Wikipedia

Although I spent two years in the Peace Corps, I was always particularly impressed by my Peace Corps colleagues who went on to make careers of international service. Over the years, I have intermittently followed their careers as they narrowly cheated death from landmines in Zaire, tried to patch up Rwanda after the genocide, stimulated agricultural production in Mozambique, and tried to foster democracy in Afghanistan. And while I am amazed that Google can rescan the Haitian landscape within hours in order to give rescuers a detailed map of the devastation, I recognize that the key element in repairing the frayed edges of the international community is the people on the ground. With their unique blend of courage and compassion, they are my heroes.

John Milton, one of the most prodigious intellects of the seventeenth century, who played an active political part in one of England's greatest political upheavals, spent the latter part of his life confined to comparative inactivity by total blindness. Like Beethoven composing symphonies he could not hear, Milton dictated Paradise Lost from memory. In his sonnet On His Blindness, Milton wrote, "They also serve who only stand and wait." But among the vast majority of us who effectively "stand and wait," at least with respect to the world beyond our borders, let us have a moment's reflection for those who go forth and do, at their peril, and wish them a safe return.

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Isaac Newton and the Tyranny of the Trivial

A moment's reflection is enough to reveal that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is the universe's longest running cosmic joke. No matter what puny efforts we make, in the end everything falls apart. Some may take comfort in the hope that in the ultimate hereafter the Divine Joker who inflicted the Second Law on us will make everything all right. In the meantime, we are confronted not merely with our eventual disintegration but also with the daily mess.

I hate the daily mess. I have never been good at dealing with it, and my failure to master the petty organizational details of my life has been a lifelong irritant. I am particularly irritated because I am quite aware that the petty organizational details of life can be mastered, at least in the short term on a day to day basis. Going to college really brought this home, since I spent four years rooming with someone who was not only scientifically brilliant (and amused himself in his spare time by picking up Chinese) but also impeccably organized. Since his homework was generally done before dinner, he could relax in the evening reading science fiction before going to bed at 9 p.m., about the time I was sweeping the mess off my desk so I could start working.

Nevertheless, perpetual optimist that I am, I spent today picking up, throwing out, and cleaning off in the oft repeated hope that if I established a baseline of tidiness and organization, at little maintenance would preserve order in my life. But I do not really believe it. I am still good at the flash of concentrated effort. (Not as good as I once was, but as good once as I ever was, as Toby Keith put it.) But the daily nit-picky, habit forming, regimen following discipline that maintains daily order, while I long to embrace it with my programs, checklists, reminders, planners, schedules, and calendars is as elusive to me as the glimmering girl to Aengus. Ben Franklin, why has thou forsaken me?


Bringing anything back from a near death experience takes time, care, and patience, and this blog is no exception. I am slowly trying to work myself back into the habit of making entries at the same time that I am tweaking the code a little bit for faster loading, easier commenting, and more enjoyable reading. Patience is encouraged and suggestions are welcome. If the blog can survive work, children, and Facebook, it can survive anything.

I haven't made any decisions about how much effort I am going to put back into the a la menthe. As the more focused blog, it has always enjoyed more attention than this one, but it is more effort to keep up when one does not have actual physical contact with the country. My inclination for the moment is to let "the a la menthe" continue to lie fallow and bring any Moroccan subject matter back into A Web Undone 2. If anyone actually reads this, and if makes a difference to anyone, leave a comment, and I might reconsider.

Lest We Forget

I honor the memory of the 9/11 dead and grieve for the horrible deaths inflicted upon them. I was not at ground zero (although some of my relatives were very, very close), but I was a couple of blocks from the White House, as I am every work day, when the Pentagon was hit. I understand that having been hit once, we could be hit again.

However, I am also incensed that the tragedy of 9/11 has been misappropriated by the Republican propaganda machine to justify war abroad and repression at home. This kind of politicization of a tragedy dishonors the dead.

I also think that the horror and immediacy of 9/11 have created a loss of historical perspective. Tragic and horrific as 9/11 was, it was not Nagasaki or Stalingrad. I suggest that as we remember the tragedy of 9/11, we also remember other great and tragic historical September events. I suggest this not to diminish what happened on 9/11, but to caution against a self-absorption that distorts our place in history and the world.

Other Noteworthy September Events

1792 September Massacres initiate the Reign of Terror
1812 Battle of Borodino, 70,000 casualties, French capture Moscow
1862 Battle of Antietam, approximately 20,000 Americans die
1863 Battle of Chickamauga
1886 U.S. crushes the Chiricahua Apaches with the capture of Geronimo
1914 Battle of the Marne, first trenches dug
1915 British use gas at Loos, kill 60,000 of their own men
1916 Battle of the Somme continues, eventual casualties equal 1,000,000
1917 Passschendaele continues, eventual casualties equal 700,000
1939 Germany invades Poland, unleashing the Second World War
1940 Italy invades North Africa, beginning the North African campaign
1943 Allies invade Italy
1945 Surrender of Japan
1962 James Meredith enrolls at Ole Miss
1963 Birmingham Church Bombing


Lest we forget - a melancholy favorite

The story goes that Senator Bob Kerrey once responded with this song when asked about losing a leg in Vietnam. It's also a favorite of my good friend, Peter Shaw. Peter might not say it, but it is a reminder not only of the waste of war, but of the often overlooked sacrifices of the ANZACS in the global conflicts of the last century.

End of an Era

Sixty years of Washington, D.C. music history came to an abrupt halt today as WGMS classical radio went off the air. At the time, WGMS continued to be the most successful classical station in the country. Announcer Chip Brienza had the final word.The station is donating its 15,000 disc music library to WETA 90.9 public radio, which is resuming a classical format after approximately a two-year hiatus, during which WETA essentially aped the news/talk format of its sister station, WAMU. With this welcome return to a classical format, I am hopeful that WETA will seize the opportunity to offer truly fresh and innovative classical broadcasting on the most powerful signal in the Washington area.

The Post's Paul Farhi has the story, and Mark Fisher has commentary.

Things That Make My Head Hurt

Over my Thanksgiving holiday, I had a particle physicist attempt to explain string theory, the anthropic landscape, and the mathematical probability of God to me. I confess to something less than a complete understanding of a partial explanation, but this is what I gleaned: (1) The rate of expansion of our universe is slow enough so that it is not a universe that is likely to have occurred by chance, (2) it is possible that there is an unknown principle of physics that determines that our universe is the only universe that could exist mathematically, or (3) it is possible that our universe is one of an infinite number of parallel but unobservable universes, and that we only know about our universe because it gave rise to us, or (4) some kind of creator (not necessarily divine and not necessarily still in existence) created the particular quantum "vacuum state" that resulted in our universe when it expanded, and the rest is history. Remarkably, hypothesis (4) is apparently more probable to many scientists than hypothesis (3), although the expansion of the initial "vacuum state" that created our universe would most likely have obliterated any "creator" that existed in any kind of conventional physical form.