Saturday, October 29, 2005

Capote (movie review)

Truman helps prolong the lives of two murderers, giving them false hope of reprieve within a barren prison existence, in order to better understand their crime, and turn his understanding into a non-fiction novel.

He makes good on his promise to portray Perry as more human than monster. The other killer gets far less empathetic treatment. The victims of the crime appear only in horrific flashbacks and crime scene photographs.

Truman is aware of the exploitative aspect of his work. First he needs to keep the prisoners alive, so he can get their story, then he needs them dead, so he can conclude and sell it (his friend Nell sees this dynamic even more clearly). He also sees a lot of himself reflected in Perry. His empathy is real, if tainted. And besides, it's not just Truman who stands to gain by exploiting suffering and violence, but his community of literati, generations of English professors, the makers of this film.

Coincidentally, just a few hours before seeing this film with Dave, I read Lawrence Weshler's essay Valkyries Over Iraq (Harper's, Nov 2005), which looks at how violence and art sometimes feed off one another within the war movie genre. Obviously art is part of life, not outside it, just as language is within the world -- it's not really a matter of one imitating the other. As a Buddhist might put it: parts reflect other parts but the whole is unreflected, because it has no mirror.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Legal Affairs

Some news and views regarding legal matters:
  1. President G.W. Bush's defense of Harriet Miers reminds me of my own defense of Ada Byron: "It's a casting decision, and in my judgement this Ada Byron character has done a creditable job, and should keep developing in this role. It's her niche and she's earned it. Others may (and do) disagree, but I'm unmoved to alter my aesthetic judgement at this time."

  2. The big crime tangential to special prosecutor Fitzgerald's investigation would be the forging of documents aimed at implicating Niger, a sovereign nation, in secretly circumventing the IAEA by supplying a nuclear weapons program with uranium. Ambassador Wilson's trip to Niger was a part of that larger CIA and FBI investigation. I hope the dangerous criminals behind this ruse eventually get caught, so we can all feel safer.

  3. This morning, I wrote an essay discussing my views regarding the practice of law, which is partly what got me onto this topic. Software engineering is inevitably replacing a lot of legal boilerplate with self-executing code -- the only way to keep up with the increasing volume and speed of global commerce. Philosophy helps communicate our ethics and aesthetics to these engineers, as their soulless machines are intrinsically ignorant of our human values (note: PI = Philosophical Investigations, a book by Ludwig Wittgenstein).
Addendum: link to news item re #2, by Martin Walker, UPI Editor.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Wanderers 2005.10.18

Rick Grote took us through an overview of classical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, in preparation for his review of Into the Cool, a new book by Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan (and which mentions some Wanderers in the acknowledgments).

A core thesis of the book is that life capitalizes on thermal gradients, gets work out of them, is itself work (or organized play, as the case may be). Of course the 2nd law prevents 100% efficiency i.e. there's always leakage in the form of heat such that no standalone machine ever wins immortality for itself.

Another thesis: just noting our Earth is an open system, and therefore not currently bogging down under the 2nd law, doesn't "explain" life's amazingly inventive gradient- exploiting ways, any more than the brute fact of ocean waves "explains" the phenomenon of surf boarding in California.

Grote, a chemist and engineer, found Into The Cool persuasively written and full of interesting info, such as the graph relating successive generations of ground cover to thermal efficiency: small, short-lived, energy-inefficient ecosystems give way to slower, bigger, more thermally efficient ones (e.g Oregon's old growth forests).

He also found insightful the focus on metabolism (eating) over sexual activity, as a signature of primitive life. However when it comes to sheer complexity and pattern formation out of chaotic conditions, non-life is pretty good at that too (the book is pregnant with examples). Life seems destined to explore at the edge of chaos, is always taking risks, flirting with disaster, in terms of becoming overly-complex and experiencing a break down.

On the down side, Rick doesn't much like the aphorism "nature abhors a gradient" as she seems to create and depend on them just as surely as she erodes them away. He also didn't find the tie-ins to preferred social policies scientifically persuasive, even though he shares many of the same policy goals.

Temperature differentials are what separate living ecosystems from an entropic desert, and life seems intent on keeping it that way (an uphill battle), by creating new gradients, new possibilities for interesting work, even as she/we/it burns through existing ones. Even if we're all headed for an ultimately entropic state, as many writers suppose, life has a way of drawing things out, postponing the inevitable for as long as physically possible.


After the end of Rick's talk (2 Hi-8 tapes, recorded using my Sony TRV240), I projected Gerald de Jong's Fluidiom project (Java app). Apparently the digital life people come in for some withering criticism in Into the Cool (which I haven't myself read yet), especially in connection with Stephen Wolfram style cellular automaton studies. Gerald's approach is more like Roger Gilbertson's (muscle-wire robotics), and uses tensegrity-inspired elastic interval geometry (Kenneth Snelson, R.B. Fuller, Cary Kittner, Sam Lanahan, Karl Erickson, Russ Chu, John Braley et al).

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A Candle for Dad

Today we remember the October 13, 2000 car accident, and the wonderful life of Jack Urner. My uncle Lightfoot came by for some coffee. We talked about his adventures in publishing, now that his new book is available. Dad and Bill both worked in Alaska for a spell, had similar adventures. Dad's side of the family really digs Alaska.

Carol, my mom, born in Chico, California, grew up in the midwest and Seattle, her dad a union linotype operator for newspapers. She met my dad at the University of Washington. Dad's lineage traces to Swedish settlers on Mercer Island on his mom's side, and to Urners emigrating to North America in the 1700s on his dad's side. He studied urban/regional planning with Dr. Richard Meier at the University of Chicago, after a stint at Johns Hopkins in international affairs. He then moved his family to Portland, where he joined the Planning Bureau.

Dad's dream all along was to see the world and do planning abroad (a civilian lifestyle -- he'd become a convinced Quaker by this time) and his first overseas client was Libya. He always worked closely with counterparts in the client country, which were then the Philippines, Egypt, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Lesotho.

The car crash happened between Maseru, Lesotho and Bloemfontaine, South Africa, on a dangerous section of road. I flew out to tend to mom in the hospital, arrange the memorial service, settle accounts, and sell or ship our family possessions. My sister Julie spelled me after about a month, and got mom back to the States once she could be moved.

The US Embassy in Maseru, and the one in Johannesburg, were helpful in our time of grief, as were many engineer and diplomat families of many nationalities, the funeral director in Bloem, the police, many Southern African Friends, the Bleekes of Multnomah Meeting. My profound thanks also to the professional staff at the hospital, including the rescue team, who saved mom's life. Thank you to my parents' friends in Lesotho for making their years there so enjoyable, and to Emily for all her good work.

I am also lighting a candle for the driver of the other vehicle, who also died as a result of the crash.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Saturday Academy

Terry is chattering about "E equals emcee-squared" (apparently the topic of last night's Nova on OPB). In synergetics, we don't think "squared" so automatically -- "triangled" could be cooler i.e. the important thing is just to imagine some/any surface area (a topology). "Cubed" is volume, and closely associates with "tetrahedron" in synergetics (i.e. the minimal sharp-edged volume). Volume is related to energy, frequency, information and experience (see Synergetics Dictionary).

A few minutes ago, we were exploring Caitlin's (Terry's daughter's) blog. She's enroute around the world.

Joyce Cresswell (SA CEO) kindly appeared to deliver her presentation. Also present: Allen Taylor, Terry Bristol (ISEPP CEO), Jon Bunce, Jim Buxton, Rick Grote and myself. Don (Wanderers CEO) is enroute to Guatemala today, hurricane Stan (now past) notwithstanding. The earthquake in Pakistan was a focus of CBS News last night.

SA was founded around 1982 by 2 PPS TAG teachers. Computers were invading the business world but not yet the home. HP, Tektronix, bright kids = dynamite combo. The companies said yes, let's do it @ Oregon Graduate Institute (OGI). Taught 185 kids the first year, enrollment now up to around 4K+, including Corvallis.

Transitioning to a knowledge-based economy (KBE), is what SA is all about, because that's where creativity is heading in this state: design, invention, not so much manufacturing (although we do some of that). Average income for Oregonians is pretty low by USA standards (75% < $40K). KBEs center around engineers. Degree stats: US 5%, Oregon 9% and China 46% graduate in engineering (source credited on slide: Institute for Engineering Education). Employers have little choice but to import leadership talent. Problem-solving, critical thinking, work ethic -- all in short supply, on top of missing engineering savvy. Allen, citing a recent meeting of IEEE, chatted about the lack of training in cross- disciplinary teamwork.

SA offers courses in: robotics, programming, forensics, web design, genetics etc. It offers apprenticeships in industry, research labs, agencies. Community-based professionals comprise the faculty (I, Kirby, am one of them -- e.g. Joyce placed me with the Hillsboro Police Department that time, teaching open source). A benefit to engineers: SA provides participating firms with a sneak peak at native talent, relationships form, which may lead to later recruitment.

Bottom line: Oregon is moving to address its obvious weaknesses. The elements of a new pipeline are in place, but it's still relatively low volume. The older pipeline, which loses most would-be scientists and engineers through the cracks, still handles most of the load. Too much native talent is needlessly squandered.

SA is working to double enrollment, triple scholarships, and consistently reflect the locally complex demographics (in both students and faculty). Oregonians of whatever hue tend to be multi-ethnic, yet have a common interest in continuing to build a dynamic, world class, Pacific Rim KBE.

We finished with lengthy discussions and Q&A. Wanderers and Saturday Academy have a lot to talk about. Terry sampled a lot of his pro-design, pro-engineering soap box rhetoric. I mentioned Trevor Blake as a possible future Wanderer/presenter regarding such topics as the Technocracy movement and systematic ideology.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Flightplan (movie review)

Took some fancy footwork (Trimet assissting) but I got there in time, with a preview to spare. This was at the end of the hall in the multiplex out in the infamous parking lot (across from the LC mall), where those crooks stole my Dawn's Suburu during Troy that one time.

She's in top form, dear Jodie as Kyle, sprinting the length of a very long jet, a few times, adrenalin pumping, every emotion in gear, single minded, to find and rescue her missing child.

Hints of Red Eye, sure, but also, for me, a strong hit of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, what with her nakedly aggressive bias (pro-human), which audiences know and recognize. We love our children. We fight for them.

The difference being: in this film, the heroine is not up against space aliens, but immigration aliens, i.e. us, the human types. And we're scary enough. We're all those other people on that plane, with our own private losses and dramas. We secretly admire Jodie's character, because she's strong, willful, even right, i.e. a goddess protectress, an incredible.

My insider take is that the movie blatantly lied about aircraft architecture outside the double- deck cabin, territory Jodie's character supposedly knows well. Like that Cray- like supercomputer beneath the cockpit? A pure archetype. Or hey, maybe she really was crazy and wakes up later in bed in some Arnold Schwarzenegger scifi -- or in eXistenZ (caught David Cronenberg's interview with Terry Gross the other day, wherein parent-child separation anxiety was also a theme).

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Market Research

Pat Barton shared about his science with Wanderers last night, camcorder on, lapel mic on. He works in linear equations describing covariances discovered in focus group data, tying customer attitudes to brand loyalty. This is an expensive high end service for Fortune 100 corporate clients.

An example would be Whirlpool: the company was already heavily involved in Habitat for Humanity, because of its specific history, but the public didn't know that. In the mean time, Pat's company's analysis showed that power nesters, mostly boomer women with bucks and a desire to have the best appliances in all dimensions, cared deeply about corporate social responsibility, and if it turned out Whirlpool actually cared, then more people would replace older Whirlpools with newer Whirlpools. So obviously the answer was to publicize this pre-existing commitment and track record. Everybody wins.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

WQM (Fall, 2005)

WQM may not actually meet quarterly, but the Q does refer to a four period cycle. Quakers apex into local Yearly Meetings, which conduct business during their Annual Sessions. Minutes from the Monthly Meetings for Business, such as MMM or BCFM (both in Portland), filter up through the quarterly level (e.g. WQM) enroute to the Yearly level, in our case NPYM (North Pacific Yearly Meeting). The Willamette Valley stretches from Portland south through Salem, Corvallis, and Eugene.

I talked a good bit with Anthony Manousos of Friends Bulletin. He authored the short pamphlet Islam, which documents some kodak moments that characterize the relationship between Islam and Friends (generally good).

Manousos observes Ramadan, which begins this Tuesday. This signature month-long period of fasting at the core of Islam is in part about strengthening and celebrating God's gift of an intuitive mind, attuned to eternal principles, and so frequently our ticket out of these hells of our own making, hells brought on by inappropriate automatism, obsolete and unexamined habits of thought.

Another motivation for the Ramadan fast is to commiserate with the starving. We pray this form of compassion will be of fading relevance, as our global university campus Food Services starts to kick in.

Ibrahim, one of the featured panel members this time, also catered the main meals. He's a pro in the local food biz. His excellent dishes got rave reviews. WQM has been turning to catering more and more (a topic in Business Meeting, along with EMO). Helen's son John catered Thai food a few cycles ago, and that seems to have gotten the ball rolling.

Thanks to my friend Pan, I spent some time thumbing through The Fourth Turning, a cycling-through-archetypes panorama. I got slaughtered at ping pong by a Junior Friend, also a talented piano player (good game). Friend Michener related some of her experiences in leadership with Landmark Education.

The weather wasn't all that bad Saturday night, so star gazing was an option. Mars was very bright overhead around 6 AM the next morning, when I joined the breakfast crew (Pam Avila of MMM directing, fellow BCFMers at work stations).

I shared Stellarium with several Friends in the main lodge while charging up on AC. Later I ran solo on DC in an open field, comparing screen pixels to patterns of starlight. Then I transferred to my tent for the night, where I used up the rest of the battery.

Other abbreviations decoded: MMM = Multnomah Monthly Meeting; BCFM = Bridge City Friends Meeting; AM = Ante Meridiem (i.e. before noon); AC = alternating current; DC = direct current.