Lord of the Rereadings

The story of Passover, which starts tonight, is about many things: the evils of slavery, the horrors of matzo, the strange utility of lambs’ blood.  It’s the story of a journey through the desert to find a peoples’ identity, of golden calves and parting seas.  It is a mythos so grand only Cecil B. DeMille could do it justice.

Now, the story of the War of the Ring is also about many things: the evils of, um, evil, the horrors of lembas bread, the strange utility of hobbits’ courage.  It’s the story of a journey through Middle Earth to save a peoples’ identity, of golden rings and parting companies.  It is a mythos so grand only Peter Jackson could do it justice.

What is the Haggadah but a Tolkien-esque description of a feast?  What is Tolkien’s expository prose but a biblical description of lineages and rules?  Gandalf may as well have returned from his battle with the Balrog on the peak of Zirakzigil with two stone tablets inscribed with commandments (though number 1 would probably read “Thou shalt not pass”).

The parallels are not usually too obvious to me — or fine, to anyone — but today’s the first night of Passover and I happen to be pretty much smack in the middle of rereading The Lord of the Rings (Faramir has just captured Frodo and Sam, for those of you who care about chronology).  I think the last time I read LotR, I was about to be bar mitzvahed — which happened a mind-numbing twelve years ago yesterday.

Twelve years is a long time between sojourns into Middle Earth, and rediscovering the books is really more like reading them for the first time.  I almost never reread books (the exception here being a period of my life between ages 12 and 18 when I spent an inordinate amount of time with a boy whose name starts with “H” and rhymes with “Larry Dotter”).  There are always too many other things in my queue, too many other worlds and words to visit.  I have a bookshelf full of novels I love, but I can be sucked back into that feeling just by glancing at the titles and covers: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay drops me in my Stanford apartment right after sophomore year, sweltering in the summer heat after my day in lab; Lolita puts me on the U-Bahn in Berlin, eyes jumping up and down the page with the bumps of the train; Cat’s Cradle whisks me back onto a plane, squinting against the economy overhead light as we hurtle towards Korea.

So I’m surprised, this time through, that The Lord of the Rings is so different than I remember it.  At 13, I couldn’t stand Tolkien’s page-long descriptions of the flowers growing in Ithilien, or the reflections in the Mirrormere — and now I marvel at his descriptive powers.  In junior high, my favorite character was Aragorn (and not the Viggo Mortensen conflicted-hero weight-of-the-world am-I-truly-fit-to-rule Aragorn, but Tolkien’s I-am-the-lord-of-men fear-the-flame-of-Andúril no-fucks-giving Aragorn) — but now I see much more of myself in the pensive eyes of Faramir or the impetuous hands of Boromir.  The landscape is the same, but my mind has shifted.  The world has changed, as Galadriel would say, I feel it in the water.  I feel it in the earth.  Much that once was is lost.

I feel the same about the story of Passover, and here’s where the real connection begins, beyond the kitschy references to common story-telling tropes.  The Haggadah is the same every year: the same story, the same centerpiece, the same prayers, the same songs, the same order.  Part of the observance of Passover is rejoicing in that structure and order, over and over, the same repetition and the same celebration through generation and generation until it lands on your table again, unchanged, as your grandparents and their grandparents and their grandparents knew it.

The landscape is always the same.  But the day is always different.

Passover today is missing the things that made it Passover to me when I was younger: my grandfather’s brisket, my great aunt’s jello molds, the hazy late-afternoon light in that Encino condominium now so many years removed from the Winger family.  The story, the ritual, the seder plate — they stand tall and constant, like a pillar of rock in a turbulent sea, as the waves of generations ebb and flow and crash around them.

Much that once was is lost, the quote goes, for none now live who remember it.  The comforting thing about tradition — and, thanks to Peter Jackson’s indelible film trilogy, Middle Earth — is that it’s easy to remember, easy to fall back into familiar melodies and recipes, even if the last time you thought about them was a year or more ago.  To me, Passover and all these Jewish holidays aren’t a particularly religious experience.  They’re not even historical, though that facet appears, too.  They are, instead, a deeply personal remembrance: remembering my grandfather leading the seder, recalling my mother teaching me the four questions, summoning the things and people once dear to me that have faded into myth, into legend, into a land across a sea and far away from home and hearth.

(Not, of course, literally summoning them in some sort of Aragorn-commanding-the-Dead-Men-of-Dunharrow way.  I’m done with that metaphor.)

I realize as I type this it sounds dour, but I don’t mean it that way.  I’m glad to have some checkpoints throughout the year that make me stop and think about the past — it’s far too easy to get trapped in the present.  So, this Passover: l’chaim, to life, to past, to future.  Here’s hoping yours is filled with joy and laughter — and great food, with just enough matzo to remind you how good real food is.

…And here’s hoping I wait another twelve years before rereading these books again.  They’re really goddamn long.

Stamped On

I’ve had a bit of a rough week.  My job has been stressful, my relationship imploded, and my bracket‘s final four is completely busted.  It was one of those weeks that makes me want to abandon work, romance, and armchair basketball commentary all at once and abscond into the hills, to make a living carving small bear totems out of pine trees felled by lightning.

Those weeks (and, yes, this one included) are generally ended by the realization that WiFi is pretty hard to come by in the wilderness.  And that I really don’t have any woodworking skills beyond third grade summer camp.  But what really kept me going this week — what really allowed me to block out everything else that was going on — was a simple friend, who’s always been there and never really changes that much, no matter what’s going on in my life.  Who’s always right.  Who’s always logical.

I’m talking, of course, about math.  (Har har har, I know.)  Like any good week where I’m feeling stamped on, I found a great math problem at work to distract me.

Without getting into specifics that could, in turn, get me into hot water, I’ll summarize the problem by saying this: I needed to be able to make a lot of differently sized… things.  Let’s call them Lego castles.  But I only could pick from one or two different Lego bricks.  Obviously, if I used bigger bricks I’d be able to build bigger castles faster and more efficiently.  So which (suitably large enough) bricks would let me build the widest range of castles?

Wikipedia calls this the coin problem, but since American numismatics has way too many common factors — and, of course, for the linguistic congruity with my emotions — I prefer to call it the stamp problem.  Of course, I didn’t know this when I started thinking about it, so I had a lot of trouble googling a solution.  “Two integers make lots of bigger integers” doesn’t return very many solid results.

Anyway, the stamp problem goes something like this:

Imagine you have two big piles of stamps.  One pile is made up of stamps worth 3¢ each, while the other pile consists entirely of 5¢ stamps.  This year, postage is 8¢ — but the postal service has decreed that postage will increase by 1¢ each year for the rest of time (thanks, Obama), and you must pay the exact price.  So next year, postage will be 9¢, the year after that 10¢, then 11¢, and so on.  Since you only have 3¢ and 5¢ stamps, what years won’t you be able to send letters because you can’t hit the exact cost of postage?

The answer is never.  You will never be unable to send a letter, because any positive integer greater than 7 can be formed with some combination of 3s and 5s:

8 = 3 + 5
9 = 3 × 3
10 = 5 × 2
11 = 5 + 3 × 2
1,236 = 5 × 246 + 3 × 2
etc.

This is a ridiculously cool phenomena associated with coprime numbers — numbers whose only common divisor is one.  Two coprime numbers a and b can combine to form any positive integer whose value is greater than ab – (a+b).  Combinations of 3 and 5 can make any number greater than 7; 2 and 7 can make any number greater than 5; 73 and 182 can make any number greater than 13,031; and so on.

Mind = blown

There’s a beauty here, lurking behind the guise of ordinary numbers.  If you’ll let me step away from the main point of this post (MATH IS COOL) to the ancillary topics I’ve raised (EMOTIONS ARE TERRIBLE WHY DO I FEEL THEM), I think this is why I like math, and why I find it comforting in some weird, all-too-stereotypical way: it always makes sense.  There’s a reason to it, a structure — even times when I can’t see that structure at first, as was the case of the stamp problem, I know that the underlying architecture is beautiful.  I’m harder pressed to believe that about the other things in my life.

Most of the time, I enjoy the lack of structure.  I wouldn’t want to know what’s about to happen to me, and certainly am not insane (and/or religious) enough to think there’s an overriding reason behind everything that happens to me.  The fact that there’s no underlying architecture means I’m free to build my own structures and connections, free to construct my own edifice.  But when I feel stamped on (promise, last time I’ll use that idiom), when the weight of all the chaos frothing around me gets too heavy to bear, when the people that I care about are suddenly confusing and nauseatingly painful and impossibly distant — well, it’s nice to know that at least something in this universe still makes sense.

Even if that something is just addition.

Billionaire Bracketology

If you haven’t heard, Quicken Loans and Yahoo! Sports (with a hefty helping of Warren Buffet) have teamed up to run a March Madness bracket where anyone who picks all 63 games correctly wins — I shit you not — ONE BILLION DOLLARS.

Or, fine, a nuclear warhead from Kerplakistan, whatever.

Or, fine, a nuclear warhead from Kerplakistan, whatever.

This is an astronomical sum of money to be bet on a sporting event — imagine going to Vegas and slamming down the GDP of the Solomon Islands on black.  To be fair, though, Warren’s hedging his bets by spreading the bet over every game in the NCAA basketball tournament.  All sixty-three games of it.

Let’s assume everyone who enters the tournament chooses the winner of each game blindly.  Quicken Loans is limiting the number of entrants to 15 million, so the chance of anyone at all winning by blind luck is a 0.5063 × 15,000,000 = 0.00000000016% chance.

Ah, but we have more information than luck!  Every team in each of the four sections of the tournament is seeded 1 through 16.  If we assume this alone gives us enough information to pick every game with at least 2/3 probability, then the chance of someone — anyone — wins the billion-dollar bucket is a whopping 0.6763 × 15,000,000 = 0.016%.

So it’s unlikely any average person wins this.  Ever.  But!  Let’s assume (for sake of argument) that I am smarter than the average person.  Well then:

The contest is free to enter, so just by filling out a bracket and picking teams by, I don’t know, jersey color and degree of mascot alliteration (i.e. randomly) I can expect to win 0.5063 × $1,000,000,000 = $0.0000000001.  If I can use the seeds of teams to increase my odds to 2/3, then I’d expect to win 0.6763 × $1,000,000,000 = $0.01!

The kicker, of course, is that as a veteran bracketologist (second place in my pool to a girl who actually did choose by color last year, what what), I can safely assume I’ll be able to pick games correctly 75% of the time.  I’m that good, obviously.  I don’t even have to watch any college basketball this season, such is my mastery of sabremetrics and theorycrafting (full disclosure: I did, once this season, listen to another man watch a North Carolina game).  And with my superior March Madness skill set, fueled by in-depth statistical analysis and this one blog I read on Grantland, I can already expect to win 0.7563 × $1,000,000,000 = $13.45, thereby offsetting (a fraction of) the beer I’ll need to sit through any of the actual tournament games themselves while I wait for college football season to roll around again.

I’ll take my check by direct deposit, please, Warren.

Sidebar: this is why it’s so hard to ever go undefeated in sports. Imagine the shortest season — college football, twelve games — and a team that’s a huge favorite in all of them. If that team is given 90% odds of winning every single game, its odds of going are undefeated are still only 0.9012 = 28%.  What I’m trying to say here is it’s okay, Nick Saban.  Even your dark magic is no match for the power of exponents.

Cosmopolitan

I watched the first episode of Fox’s new edition of “Cosmos” this week.  I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t have been — surprised to see such an unapologetic paean to science on primetime American television.  It captured beautifully the power and wonder of the scientific method, of humanity’s quest to explain its place in the universe.  It waxed elegantly about data-driven decision making and hypothesis testing, about critical reasoning and status-quo questioning.  And having Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm didn’t hurt.

I’m always struck by two thoughts, always in the same order, whenever something like “Cosmos” gets me thinking about the universe.  The first is how incalculably small and insignificant I am — how incalculably small and insignificant we all are, here on this warm ball of rock in the cold void of space.  There are galaxies beyond galaxies pressing on the feeble curtain of Earth’s atmosphere, infinities of nothing on our doorstep that swallow the planets and the moons and the stars.  I will never see the Virgo supercluster, let alone the Milky Way.  I’ll see Mars in images and X-ray diffraction patterns.  I won’t even see all of Earth.  The billions of planets in our corner of the universe are still too few, too far between, too spread and scattered through a field of black interstellar velvet, impossible to traverse.  What can anything I hope to do matter, when something like only four percent of the universe is matter?  If I was to conquer the Earth and carve my likeness in every mountain and write my name in every desert and blaze my way into every book and song and poem mankind could concoct — it would still be fleeting and immeasurable when compared to the humming of the planets and the singing of the stars.  There’s just so much space out in space, a kind of cold, insufferable beauty that makes me marvel at the grandness of creation and shrink into my own inconsequence at the same time.  I don’t know if I’ve managed to capture in words here the enormity — the primordiality — of this feeling.  I feel like I’m both adrift and confined, floating unmoored and yet suffocated by the sea.  I feel as if the sheer amounts of nothing surrounding the earth are bearing down on me like a weight, impossibly heavy, and crushing me with the realization that I will die with the mysteries of the universe unknown and gnawing at my soul.  That I will die, and the universe will continue.  That I will die, and in the entirety of my life I will have experienced the smallest fraction of a fraction of what the cosmos have to offer — and I could live a thousand lifetimes more, on a thousand different planets, around a thousand different stars, and the same thought would still be true.

Then, slowly, the second thought boils up from deep within the first.  It starts, usually, by thinking about life instead of death.  About how there must be life out there — somewhere — and how statistics can’t be so wrong that more than a billion billion planets wouldn’t manage to pull off what Earth has done.  I think this, but the thought is usually quashed by Fermi’s paradox, which brings me back out into the unquenchable abyss, into that endless maw of loneliness, spiraling along the spirals of our galaxy until I’ve spun all the way back out into nothing.  And it is here, always here, right at the event horizon before I fall alone into that endless astral gulf, when the second thought blossoms into being:

We live in an infinity of nothings, and yet a universe of everything.

Everything is out there, waiting for us to discover it.  That’s why talking about the scientific method is so important: the joy of discovery.  It’s a primal emotion that has driven mankind onto two legs, across oceans, up to the moon.  We’re not crushed by the realization that there’s too much in the cosmos to comprehend.  We’re driven to comprehend as much of it as possible while we’re around.  “Cosmos” (and, really, anything in the same vein) hit on that joy of discovery in me, and hopefully in millions of other children and young adults throughout the country and the world.  The world needs — and deserves — more thinkers and fewer dogmatists.

But the thought goes deeper than that.  Tyson used a line in that first episode of “Cosmos” that I really liked: that we are made of “star stuff”.  Our bodies’ iron, carbon, calcium — our blood, our flesh, our bones — were formed, unfathomable ages ago, in the heart of a star.  We have the heavens within us, written not in our DNA but in our very molecules and atoms, and we carry this celestial signature about every extraordinary (and every mundane) minute of our lives.  We are the universe.  The universe is us.

If you’ll allow me a tangent that will eventually reconnect with this thought, let me to take you on a journey through time and space, albeit a bit shorter in both dimensions than Tyson’s.  The year is 2007, the place is William S. Hart High School, and I am reading (or am being forced to read, who knows) James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I wish I could tell you I remembered what the book was about at its core, but I really only remember it in slivers and images.  One of those slivers is from the very end of the book, a diary entry where the main character (Stephen Dedalus, the titular Artist as a Young Man) talks about his drive to be great writer/poet/artist/whatever it’s been awhile since I read this.  I apologize for quoting James Joyce for what I promise is the first, last, and only time in this blog:

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

I read this as Dedalus’ desire to bring his own individual perspective into the greater fabric of humanity’s story — how to be great, the artist must be able to turn his or her individual perspective into something universal and beyond oneself, something that speaks to what it means to be human, not what it means to be Stephen Dedalus… though you can’t lose the Stephen Dedalus in the process.

“Cosmos” and Tyson, an innovator (Daedalus?) in his own right, are saying something similar: that we are forged in the smithy of the stars, and this is the conscience of our race.  We are a part of the universe, and it is our nature to question and explore it, but only through our own minds and thoughts and deeds does this cold sea of galactic whorls and stellar eddies have a meaning, a warmth, a light, and a life.  The universe is grand and impressive and will outlast us all, and our goal as a species should be to understand the universe as a whole, not just ourselves.  But all of that tremendous amount of nothing is just that — nothing — without our everything within it.

So keep learning, keep thinking, keep questioning.  It illuminates the darkness, one neuron — one nebula — at a time.

die Sonne

An observation, which comes from a vacation I just took to Germany:

When you happen to find yourself on a train traveling from Munich, Germany to Salzburg, Austria, you have a lot of idyllic landscape to inhale.  But the stunning thing is that as you travel from one perfectly bucolic farm to the next, each rustically charming farmhouse (German: Farmhaus) you pass has one thing in common with its predecessors: a solar panel array on the most south-facing part of the roof.

Germany is a paragon of renewable power, to say the least.  It’s amazing what the right tax credits and incentives can do.  But the kicker lies in these two maps.

Pvgis_Europe-solar_opt_publication

NREL_USA_PV_map_hi-res_2008

These are equivalent maps — both show the total incident solar energy on a square meter solar panel tilted optimally towards the sun — but unfortunately, the colors don’t quite match up.  The map of Europe is in kWh/m²/year and the U.S. is in kWh/m²/day (hey, but at least it’s not hp/ft²/day, right?).  Multiplying the U.S.’s scale by 365.25 means the darkest red should be about 2447 kWh/m²/year — more than the darkest red of the Europe map.  The part of Germany I was traveling through on train is pretty solidly mindaro-colored, equivalent to about 1350 kWh/m²/year.  That works out to 3.70 kWh/m²/day, or a nice shade of emerald.

You know, emerald.  The same color as SEATTLE.

Pictured: our solar-powered future.

Shut That Whole Thing Down

When I sat down to write something about the government shutdown, I first thought I’d be going off on a rant regarding recalcitrant Republicans.  However, while I do feel that invective has a time and place (and target), and while I am incredibly fed up with Washington at the moment, I think I’d actually rather try to ask you about some larger issues.  Chiefly:

Does our system work?

This is a big question.  And I hope that my raising it doesn’t make you think I believe the answer is no.  But I’m trying to figure out what the hell got us to this point, and based on the current stalemate, logjam, shut down, slim down — whatever you want to call it — I’m not convinced the question doesn’t have merit.

I’ll work my way back to this.  First, my take on current events, no questions asked:

  • Government shutdown.  Routine funding bill hijacked by Tea Party conservatives in order to attempt to defund a law which has passed the House, passed the Senate, been ruled constitutional by the SCOTUS, and — and! — has survived a popular vote referendum in the form of a presidential election.  (Trying to make the fact that I really like the law irrelevant, but this admittedly colors my commentary.)  Not sure I can fully blame the entire Republican caucus here, since many are on record as saying this tactic is, well, dumb.  So I feel that a large portion of the blame falls to Speaker John Boehner, who refuses to allow a funding bill without the defund-Obamacare provision on the floor.
  • Debt ceiling debate.  Here, blame can be shared around a little more, since Boehner and other Republicans seem to be asking for just a general conversation about deficit reduction, and Obama is refusing to negotiate.  (Again, I think I agree with Obama’s position that negotiating over what should be a routine vote to keep the government moving sets an awful precedent for the president — but it’s still a terrifying gamble.)

So, why are we here?  How are we here?  What is here, exactly?

What is easy: “here” is purgatory.  We could be saved by a deal (or by crumbling resolve on one side or the other), or damned by inaction and obstinacy — and I do think that defaulting on the debt is a very, very bad thing, for us and for the rest of the world.

Why and how are harder.  And right about now is where speculation about my original question — does our system work? — starts.  Some musings about the root cause of this, for lack of a more applicable term, colossal clusterfuck:

  • Congress’ approval rating is abysmal.  At the same time, a staggering 90% of Congress was reelected in 2012.  Why the dichotomy?  I can think of a lot of reasons, though I’m not sure how many, or if any, are true.  Americans distrust or even dislike faceless institutions, but connect with individuals, perhaps.  The resources behind incumbent representatives and senators are enormous, definitely.  Gerrymandered districts make it too easy for representatives to pander to their constituency, probably.
  • Tied inextricably to gerrymandering is the basis of our democracy — the two-party system.  Would gridlock dissolve with more parties represented (#bullmoose2016)?  I’m not sure if total impasses like the current executive-legislative feud don’t exist in parliamentary countries, or if I just don’t follow other nations’ political news well enough to hear about these kinds of situations… Probably the latter.  Having to form coalitions to govern seems, on the surface, like an easy way to encourage compromise, but it also runs the risk of those coalitions falling apart like old marzipan.  And also leads to parties like the Piratenpartei Deutschland or the Israeli taxi driver coalition gaining seats in the legislature.  So choose — government shutdown by insolvency? or intransigence?
  • Also tied to gerrymandering and pandering is the length of a House member’s term.  Two years in a world where the campaign cycle seems to last one year and nine moths doesn’t really leave much time for the governing they were elected to do.  And it’s hard to go against the party — and, therefore, the purse’s — grain when you’re worried about raising enough money to compete so frequently.  So instead we get reps who kowtow to their constituents and are hectored by their superiors.  This is not to say that either obeying the will of the voters who elected you or following the strategy laid out by party leadership is inherently bad… but we’ve constructed a system in which extremes dictate policy.  Districts are heavily imbalanced and vote frequently, leading to victorious candidates who heavily lean to one side of the discourse — candidates who must worry about fending off challenges from someone even more extreme in two years.  It’s of note that only the U.S. and the Federated States of Micronesia have two year lower-house terms.  Micronesia has a total population of around 101,000 people.
  • But what about when these representatives can’t be herded by their superiors — and instead hold those superiors hostage?  This, to me, is what seems to be happening to Boehner.  I don’t think a majority of the Republican caucus wants to fight this current battle on shut down vs. Obamacare (though a majority may still want to defund the ACA some other way — I haven’t tried to count).  But the vocal minority is enough that Boehner is worried about his job — worried that if he ignores Obamacare and carries on funding national parks, monuments, NASA, the FBI, etc. he’ll face a coup, organized by the minority in his own party.
  • Now, why would Boehner put himself over his country?  He’s an elected representative, dammit.  But this is, I think, often a less selfless position than it could (should?) be.  There’s a lot of ego in politics.  There has to be in order to think you have a chance of winning an election.  Unfortunately, ego sometimes seems like the only thing our elected officials share.  I suppose it’s possible, too, that Boehner actually believes this current argument over Obamacare is what the people want, but it certainly seems to me like Boehner is beholden to his title and his ego rather than what’s best for the nation… or even his party.
  • The flip side of this trillion-dollar coin is Senator Ted Cruz, who seems to have almost single-handedly goaded the House into this whole debacle — though this is probably just as apt as saying you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t stop it from drinking the entire goddamn lake.  Cruz’s posturing and filibustering seem to me to be driven, again, by his ego and desire for higher office.  He’s on many shortlists for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and could potentially be laying the groundwork for a run.  Driving the country to bankruptcy is probably a pretty decent thing to have on your resume during an election.
  • Is ego only a national phenomena?  I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t follow California state politics well enough to know our crazies, but it seems more sensible than this lumbering temper tantrum we call a federal legislative branch.  Are the people in state legislatures there because they care about issues and not TV face time?  I do realize I’m generalizing about national politicians here, which is unfair — some of them are more dedicated to moving the nation forward and helping the people they represent than I am to, well, anything at this point.  But there are enough who seem to think Congress is merely a way to hear themselves talk that I have to raise the question.
  • Tangentially related to this issue of ego is the question of who, exactly, is serving in our government.  One look at Rick Perry’s transcript tells us it’s not necessarily the best and brightest — the man got a C in P.E., for chrissakes.  (A C!  In P.E.!  Rick Perry!  Have you seen the guy?  He has shoulders like an 80s power suit.)  And while I understand that the nation can’t be run entirely by Stanford graduates (…or can it?), if I hear one more politician talking about dinosaur farts as a cause of climate change I may start frothing at the mouth.  I think the lack of requirements to be elected to office in America is a beautiful thing (suck it, landed gentry), but it does occasionally lead to people like Michelle Bachmann.  That being said, this is the point where I have to admit that Ted Cruz may very well be the best and the brightest, even if I vehemently disagree with him.  And even if he doesn’t really act like it.
  • Ted Cruz is not the norm, though.  What can we do to encourage people like Cruz — those most qualified for public service — to step forward, instead of retreating to lucrative private sector jobs?  I’m sure the looming threat of federal furloughs doesn’t help.  Nor does the fear of being unable to enact change from inside an organization too paralyzed to even pay its debts.
    • Side bar: split infinitives.  Yea or nay?  Maybe Congress should decide, but for what it’s worth I fall firmly on the yea side.  I think they convey meaning in a different way than “too paralyzed even to pay its debts” does.  I mean, imagine if the Enterprise‘s five-year mission was “to go boldly” where no man has gone before.  Ew.
  • Science fiction brings me to the topic of science funding, which — unsurprisingly — is shut down along with the majority of the federal government. (Don’t worry, though, the ISS is still running.)  This in a week where six Americans share between them two Nobel prizes, won through research.  Much of which was federally funded.  …Yes, I realize this is an effect of gridlock and not a cause.  Sorry.  It’s still important.

So that’s my take.  It is, undoubtedly, grossly simplified: we’re here — maybe? — because of gerrymandering, short terms, incumbency advantage, and a lack of altruists in Congress.  Also it’s probably the lizard people’s fault, somehow.

I do feel like I need to mention that I friggin’ love the federal government — if I elected everyone, it’d probably be bigger (but also svelter, like a panther).  Kvetching’s just in my nature.  So I know I’ve offered no solutions here, and for that, I apologize.  Solving is harder than criticizing, after all.  And, to top it off, I think solving this will take large, institutional change.

Just the kind of change that Washington is really good at implementing.

Atom and Evening

Ramble starting: Like probably every poem I write (there are not many of these, and even fewer good passable ones), this started out as some sort of melancholic, nostalgic reminiscence about an ex.  It is, um, no longer about that.  Which is good.  I think the title should probably be “Trinity” but the “Atom and Evening” pun was too good so I had to keep it somewhere.  Ramble over.

\ \ \ Trinity \ \ \

In the morning the atoms all sparkled and flared
A new sun in the desert, a garden of glass
When the dust of the ground formed a cloud in the air.

With a crash heard for miles, the soil was bared
And Earth knew it was nude but knew not what had passed
In the morning the atoms all sparkled and flared.

Then the heat and the light—they swelled up like a prayer,
Conflagrations to preach supercritical mass
When the dust of the ground formed a cloud in the air.

Congregations were watching, as close as they dared
For orations of fire and moral morass
In the morning the atoms all sparkled and flared.

With the sermon uncertain, men gave to their heirs
Broken bonds, a charred sky, and a bright ghostly blast
When the dust of the ground formed a cloud in the air.

The horns heralded progress, a new age declared—
While by evening the future already was past,
In the morning the atoms all sparkled and flared
When the dust of the ground formed a cloud in the air.