If an industry’s  business model is dedicated to PERMANENTLY degrading the livable world for EVERY SINGLE baby born today, tomorrow, next year, next decade — even the  next century, then it’s a no-brainer that we ought to act sooner rather than later to stop it, especially because we ALREADY HAVE the technology to solve the problem and  already have a good idea about how  to do it right.


Should we have a PITY PARTY for those  who have been profiting  from the permanent harm being done to the human habitat?  No. Instead we should  provide a humane way for EVERYONE   to transition to a cleaner and less destructive economic model. This can be done by changing the incentive structure, so that each person can be rewarded for decarbonizing their lifestyle in a way he or she finds to be the most  suitable. But now the financial incentive structures in the US are designed precisely to do the opposite — to reward bad behavior.    Perversely, last year fossil fuel companies in the US received   $500 billion in subsidies so they could extract and sell even more polluting energy.  Eliminating tax breaks for fossil fuel  companies would go a long way to improve this perverse  incentive structure.

Many people who have become rich from this destructive business model will claim — FALSELY by the way — that “carbon pricing” will translate to higher taxes for everybody. Sure, carbon prices does increase the price on bad behavior — that indeed is the point. But most carbon pricing plans actually refund 100% of carbon taxes to consumers — indeed, taxpayers who decarbonize faster than everyone else can end up making a nice profit.

Sometimes people who understand the dangers of climate change  worry about the costs of making the transition. Actually though, it is relatively easy for individuals and organizations to transition to clean solutions if they have enough lead time. If  carbon reductions were gradually phased in over 10 years, that would minimize the economic disruptions. If you knew you had 10 years to transition to a carbon-free lifestyle, you would have adequate  time to  replace your vehicles, appliances and energy provider without needing to spend a lot of money. On the other hand, if Americans keep putting off agreeing  to an emission target, that will only reduce the time they have to prepare for the transition — and end up forcing them to incur additional costs associated with a rapid transition.  Worldwide, the IEA estimates that every year of delaying a climate policy costs the world $500 billion more in infrastructure costs.  That’s a reason  for enacting an emission target plan sooner rather than later — you have more time to spread out the cost. The most recent estimates say that emission targets — if agreed to today, would reduce the world’s economic growth rate by 0.6% per year.  But waiting as little as 10 years will end up tripling  the annual costs in order to reach  the exact same emission target.


Actually though, this projected 0.6%  reduction in GDP  does NOT take into account the health and economic benefits which will accrue as a result of an emission policy. Decarbonizing brings huge health and economic benefits. Every year air pollution from fossil fuels causes 200,000 premature deaths in the US. Lowering these medical costs would improve the size and efficiency of the workforce  and therefore the country’s economic health. Economists usually say that decarbonizing produces a net increase of jobs. Maybe this surprises you because you constantly hear fossil fuel companies touting the jobs produced by their industry.  In fact, fossil fuel industries are NOTORIOUSLY BAD at generating jobs. One  study found that 1 million dollars invested in clean energy companies produces THREE TIMES  the number of jobs than if you invested that million in a fossil fuel company. Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy  noted that historically when countries have significantly  decarbonized their economy, they  almost  always experience an instant economic boom immediately afterwards.

Some have said that it’s futile to set emission targets in the US because China emits more. It’s true that China’s emissions now exceeds that of the US. But China is already in the process of adopting carbon pricing and transitioning to a cleaner economy  at a faster rate than we are.  The reason we don’t see this decline in the data is that China is still growing  3 to 4 times faster than the US economy — and it’s making up for decades of lost growth — having  started at a baseline so low that modernization itself is causing a rapid increase in  energy consumption. As soon as China’s growth rate becomes comparable to other nations, China’s substantial efforts to transition to a clean economy should be reflected in the data.  Keep in mind also that  a significant percent of China’s emissions come from factories which export products to the west. In fact, the typical Chinese per capita  emissions are still relatively low when compared to Europe and the US.  When the US agrees on an emission target, hopefully that will also cause American consumers to buy greener products — and put pressure on Chinese factories to manufacture greener products as well.

We already know that fossil fuels are causing PERMANENT HARM to the livable world of all future humans.  The sad thing is that the people who will suffer the most from global warming also happen to be the people least responsible for causing it in the first place. A  12 year old girl living today in Bangladesh did almost nothing to cause climate change. Most likely she does not own an iPhone or has ever ridden in a Hummer.   Neither did her family or friends or previous generations of Bengalis. Compared to the typical American, the typical Bengali  has an almost trivial carbon footprint.  Yet according to several  environmental reports,  Bangladesh is the country most likely to experience the most devastating effects of climate change. Food supplies will be disrupted; flooding and sea level rise will render large portions of its coastal regions to be uninhabitable. Most likely the effects of climate change will trigger several waves of climate refugees from Bangladesh into nearby countries, aggravating the region’s economic and political tensions  as well.

Imagine that this 12 year old Bengali girl spoke perfect English and could skype you directly. Imagine her question: “Your  scientists had been telling you for over 20 years that fossil fuels had been causing permanent  harm to the planet and especially  countries like my own; why on earth haven’t you done anything yet ?  Do you really think my life and my country are so unimportant? Do you  really believe that I have less of a right to grow up and make a living in my own country than you did when you were born?  Why have your people been so unwilling to take even modest steps to reduce the harms of climate change on countries which never caused it in the first place? Is this what human civilization boils down to — allowing entire states  to collapse in order to preserve one nation’s  precious right to drive gas guzzlers  and blow up mountains to sell coal?


See also: My response to the usual complaints by libertarians about climate change.

Update #1. I am not naive about China’s escalating CO2 emissions (or India’s); indeed,  any observer will observe that the dangers from China’s dangerous air pollution is a much more urgent national emergency than climate change. But at least China has a climate policy (albeit a top down one). In a conference about carbon pricing, Bill McKibben acknowledged the China/US problem in pricing carbon at the border, but made the point that setting a domestic climate policy is the necessary  first step to negotiating a viable bilateral or multilateral agreement. Other countries will not take America seriously about climate change unless it first  demonstrates an ability to adopt a domestic climate policy. Thefore, the US  should  try to lead by example. Unfortunately, our leverage in persuading others to enter into a global agreement is diminishing with every passing year. Five or ten years ago, the economic power of the United States still overshadowed China’s; but as the years go by, our leverage decreases just as China has been increasing.

At the same time, China’s energy profile has always been different from ours; Western countries are indirectly responsible for a sizable portion of China’s emissions because American companies are exporting the dirty manufacturing processes to there. It’s conceivable that multinational companies and global consumers can demand better safety and production standards for the products they use. Again, it’s all a matter of having the right financial incentives in place. Given the national emergency in China and the widespread support in China’s leadership for better environmental policies, perhaps domestic pressure will be sufficient to reduce the carbon intensity of manufacturing processes in China.

Update #2. At the bottom is a great chart illustrating the consequences of various emission scenarios.

IiB CO2 graphic v3


This is just a test to see if I have broken wordpress. Fingers crossed that I didn’t totally break it.

Update: With sorrow I report that my wordpress is broken in ways I will not disclose here. All I will say is: I’m 95% sure that the problem lies with an incompatibility between my Thesis wordpress theme and the latest version of wordpress.  It doesn’t affect what the reader sees, but only what the content producer sees. But it’s a really awful thing even if it’s non-urgent. Assuming that it’s a theme problem — and not a db problem or a WP problem, I have several options to try out. But we’re talking about a good half day of work — if I’m lucky!

At this moment of my life, I have absolutely no time to mess around with WordPress — maybe in a month or two I’ll be able to get around to it. At the same time, I have an item  on my To Do list to look into making various improvements on my blog (hopefully which I can do all at once). That includes using WordPress to store social media posts, making it more mobile-friendly and other SEO stuff. In the meantime, feel free to browse through to Robert’s Ultimate Guide to all 24 hours of Happy (the Pharrell Williams dance video).   This page is a work-in-progress (and probably requiring 2 months more work), but already it’s getting more traffic than most of my other web pages combined.

Update 2. After switching out the theme, I have determined that the fault lies solely  with the Thesis theme.  So this bug is relatively minor and easy (though time-consuming) to fix. Horray!


I have reached a  critical juncture in my life: it’s now time to pass some teacher certifications.

I have always loved teaching and had been meaning to drift back to it midcareer. In my twenties I held out  hope that there was a path to teaching at universities.  My thinking at the time was that  fiction writers became professors by publishing a few recognized books and parlaying that into a full time teaching job. What caught me offguard in the early 90s was that 1)getting published was a lot harder than I expected it to be (and boy, I had already expected to be hard!) and 2)even the lower rungs of academia seemed too high to grab onto.  With the wisdom of hindsight, I can see both phenomenon pointed to unstoppable  long term trends.  There were way too many candidates with PhDs competing for fewer jobs, and writing was becoming so commercialized that it was quickly becoming standard wisdom that you’d have to publish a few books before you were noticed even by the literary/academic crowd. I could deal with that somewhat, but the bigger barrier seemed to be the glacial pace of the acceptance process. It took months just to have a small literary magazine send you a rejection slip, and I envisioned that it could take at least 10 years just to find a willing publisher.   That seemed way too long to wait.

At 30 I joined Peace Corps and taught for 3 years at universities in Albania and Ukraine (which I loved). When I returned stateside, I discovered that higher education offered no easy prospects — often adjuncts would work for years at low pay  without ever advancing up the career ladder. It seemed like insanity to continue down the  higher education path.  At the same time, I found my interests shifting to IT and technology. I did that for about ten years, but  realized in 2013 that the labor market had changed pretty drastically. First, there were fewer overall jobs for technical writers, and second the few remaining jobs  seemed to last for only a month or two.  Often they ended prematurely and unexpectedly or would involve horrendous commutes.  In Houston, I discovered that the lion’s share of technical writing jobs were in oil and gas, a field which is very hard for a ecologically-minded person to feel comfortable working for. I tried to stay consistent to my principles, but I kept returning to the same question: why should I give my labor to a company whose very business model depends on destabilizing the world’s climate for future generations?

Perhaps if I lived in another city, it might be possible to stay in technical writing, but in Houston the career opportunities are very limited to those wishing to avoid fossil fuel companies.

So teaching seems to be the best  career path for me, and one I have dearly missed.  I will still  pursue my ebook publishing opportunities fairly vigorously (and indeed, I am almost embarrassed at having delayed publishing my own writing as ebooks).  But suddenly I face a new set of challenges and professional realities. Suddenly I want to read certain books and focus on certain social issues.

I am now enrolled in an alternative certification program with TexasTeachers. For the record,  with my master’s degree in English, I am already “highly qualified” to teach high school English. For the next month, I will be studying for two content exams: Social Studies 7-12 (232) and Special Education EC-12 (161). If all goes well, I should be ready to interview for teaching jobs by the end of May.

The Social Studies test is a broad composite test which allows you to teach high school geography, world history, US history, government and economics. I would greatly enjoy teaching any of those subjects. As someone who is well-read and interested in politics,  I have a good background for this — although I should certainly read up on Texas history and world history and geography. Observations:

  • Testprep guides for these tests are ridiculously expensive and not particularly good. At the same time, there’s a lot of testprep material for student  AP placement exams which are cheap and easy to find.  Essentially the AP test prep guides cover the same material as the teaching guides — indeed, because you’ll be teaching these same  subjects, you might as well start with  the student learning guides!  (Alas, when a teacher teaches, he needs to know enough background about a subject to make it compelling for students,  but my immediate goal  is simply passing the exam).  So I’ll be relying on these study guides to pass the content tests. Indeed, one unusual purchase I’ll be making is for flashcards for US History and World History. To buy the flashcards specifically  for the teacher certifications costs about $50. To buy essentially the same flashcards for the student AP exams costs about $10.  (For the no-budget alternative, there are  online flashcard sites for free which have questions specific to the certification exams).
  • Looking over the ETS practice exams for the certifications, I am reminded of how much I dislike standardized tests in general.  At the same time I know how to prepare for them and take them.  Generally I scorn high on these exams,   but I remember how much pointless  hair-splitting is involved in many of the reading  questions. Sometimes this hair-splitting reveals interesting distinctions, but more often the hair-splitting involves using  intentionally vague or broad statements and asking the test-taker to figure out which generalization is the  least wrong. (Often the best strategy is simply to pick the answer which is the most cautious and least assertive even if it happens to sound vapid and devoid of any meaning).
  • Strangely, there is not yet a StackExchange on teaching subjects — although they already have an Academic exchange for college teachers (which is overly fixated on career issues like Why are salaries for adjuncts so low?  )This  is kind of bizarre because the pedagogical aspects of higher education is fairly straight forward whiles the ones for public school are broader, more diverse and more interesting.  The best forum at the moment seems to be A to Z Teacher Stuff. Also the TexasTeachers online study community seems to have lots of great information about studying for exams.

Although I certainly intend to devote a lot of time and energy to passing these exams, I recognize that there are certain deficiencies I wish to plug.  While teaching English as a foreign language  overseas and later taking two graduate classes in Instructional System Design,  I was really on top of teacher methodologies and learning theories. 10+ plus years later, I recognize that his knowledge might be a little stale and no longer relevant to the kinds of subjects I will be teaching.  (Plus I forget things easily!)  Also, I really need to revisit the basics of teaching — the why’s, the social aspects, the implications of being a teacher.

I fully expect that I’ll learn a lot of things by doing after being hired, but for the next few months at least, I’ll use this blog to record some interesting discoveries in the field of teaching (articles, books, videos, etc). I actually used to post a lot on educational topics in the early 200s on my blog,  so in a way, I’ll be returning to my roots.

Off the top of my head, here’s a list of  books on teaching  I have already  found memorable or interesting:

  • I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student by Patrick Alitt. Great book by a distinguished professor of history about his interactions with his students over a single semester for a single class.
  • What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain. A concise summary of best practices for higher education.
  • Digital Game-Based Learning. By Mark Prensky. Ground-breaking book about using games for teaching. (I wrote a lengthy and well-received book review about it  for Slashdot.org).  (P.S. I see that he has written a sequel called Brain Gain: Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom).
  • Visual Thinking by Rudulph Arnheim.  A philosophical discussion about the relationship between language and imagery.  I guess, I ought to include in the same breath Ed Tufte’s books on effectively using visual aids as well as Dan Roam’s books on doodling (Back of the Napkin, etc).
  • Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner.  (I see that Gardner has published quite a number of other books which I probably should pick up, with the latest being the App Generation).
  • What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James  Paul Gee. (Actually I may need to reread this as well as his later volumes like Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning ).
  • Hoop Dreams (Movie!)  A controversial and complex documentary about basketball which provides  food for thought for educators and parents.
  • Bureaucracy by James Q. Wilson. A great tome which analyzes how the incentive structure and organizations for public agencies differ from comparable ones in the private sector.
  • Hackers and Painters. by Paul Graham. Ground-breaking book about DIY education.
  • Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins. (also other books on the same topic — funny how tenured professors tend to do this)

Books on my long-term reading list (feel free to suggest titles!). These are more about the fundamentals of educational and the broader social ramifications. Actually I would be happy to include some “bag of tricks” books if only I know of some!

  • Teachers as Intellectuals by Henry Giroux. (Actually Giroux has written a lot of stuff about critical pedagogy which I should get to).
  • Different Kind of Teacher by John Taylor Gatto. (also, the later Weapons of mass instruction : a school teacher’s journey through the dark world of compulsory schooling)
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere. This was the inspiration for Giroux, so I probably should read this one as well.
  • Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter. How metaphors and analogies  are used to convey ideas and aid in cognitive development.  I picked this very heavy book at a book sale. I ended up selling it online  for $20 because I needed the money, but read enough that I knew it was worth revisiting.
  • Probably something by Richard Hofstader. (I read the American Political Tradition already, probably should read Anti-Intellectualism in Public Life or Paranoid Style in American Politics).
  • People’s History of the US  by Howard Zinn. (On my reading list forever).
  • Some mainstream academic book about governance or political science.
  • A book on classroom flipping. Yes, I realize that this approach to teaching can be summarized in a single sentence, but maybe one book might cover implementation details better than I can figure out on my own.
  • Maybe some book about the new literacy/media literacy, etc.  (I’m trying to avoid reading the fashionable net authors — the Clay Shirkys and Jared Laniers — , but I’m sure there’s some practical book rattling out there by one of the  techno-utopians which is actually useful for teachers).
  • It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd. I’ve generally found that Boyd is pretty good at explaining things which are already obvious, but I remain hopeful (seriously!)   that her latest book has some research relevant to digital immigrant teachers.
  • Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I’ll try to look into at least one general  book about ludology at some point.

I’ve been rearranging some of my online classes to coincide with my teaching goals. Here are classes I have taken and will be taking (found mainly  from the Open Culture blog):

Finally, I wish to pose an unsettling question: Given that  students now have unprecedented access to video classes and documentaries  by some of the world’s leading minds, what role does the public school teacher still have to play?

Obviously, the teacher has to teach to state-mandated tests and give feedback and grades, but I think it goes even deeper than that. The teacher ought to help the student to learn that learning book stuff is still interesting and relevant. The teacher also ought to give the student confidence (through scaffolding and other methods) that understanding our shared  culture is not beyond a single  student’s comprehension. The teacher can  provide  hints for embarking on a self-directed exploration into learning. Finally the teacher needs to know how to moderate a group of young people in a way that focuses them on a single task in a social setting.

Finally, to reiterate what I said before, I’ll be blogging more regularly about educational topics for the next few months. Stay tuned!

Fun Update:  Turns out the World History class (video above) by Richard Bullitt is by the man who directed the writing of the nation’s leading world history textbook. The Earth and Its Peoples (in 2 volumes) In the first class, he deconstructs the very notion of World History, calling it purely a construct of the ETS AP World History exam…. Colleges almost never taught it, and the only reason he was doing so was to explain the politics behind the writing of the textbook! (The first 30 minutes of Class 1 is pretty wild!) To show off my book-buying prowess,  even though the list price for the 2 volume book is about $150, I obtained a low-cost edition of the 5th edition for a total cost of $5 (and that includes shipping!) Apparently this cheaper edition  has fewer graphics and colors, but it contains the full text for both volumes.

Two other reference books which I found for a song and a dance were:  Disunion : Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation (a collection of columns from a history blog hosted on NYT)  and Lone Star : A History of Texas and the Texans by T. R. Fehrenbach (which is apparently the only decent Texas history survey around).

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Text messages — who needs them?  Although I’ve always been an early adopter, I find that I almost never send text messages. More generally, I haven’t yet gotten a smartphone and don’t really feel like I’m missing out.  It’s funny. A lot of people get into sending clever text messages or participating in a threaded chat on their iphones,  but I’ll have none of that.

Here are the only text messages that I have sent or ever will send:

  • Arrived home.
  • The panel will be at  Ballroom B. (This actually is the first text I ever sent).
  • Ok/thanks.
  • Meeting has been changed to 9:45 AM
  • Still alive.
  • Class is cancelled.
  • Running late. Expect to arrive at 2:25.
  • Please order me the Kung Pao Chicken
  • Feel like talking?
  • Feel like playing tennis?
  • Yes, I’ll attend.
  • Call me.
  • Call me  ASAP.
  • Do you have a stapler?
  • Address is 6121 Winsome Apt 7B.
  • Can you pick up the kids?
  • Do you already own this (include photo of product at store)
  • I’ll remain here until 11:00 PM.
  • Don’t forget to feed the dog.
  • Joanna isn’t here yet and not answering her phone. What’s up?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Gotta go.  Too Busy.

You’ll notice that the text messages listed above have a single purpose and impart usually one fact.  Texters should stick to these kind of task-oriented messages. The shorter you make  the text, the more likely people can misunderstand or take something the wrong way. You can’t express feelings except in a stereotypical way — you might as well just send an emoticon.  Also because text messages have a tendency to pile up, you can miss one message and totally miss out on the texter’s intentions.  True communication shouldn’t be this confusing and unwieldy.

I used to do chat via yahoo and skype. I still do occasionally, but for the most part, I find that it is a time-consuming and grueling way to conduct a conversation. Probably the most common text I send via skype is “Do you want to talk by telephone?” Typing and waiting for other people to type replies requires a lot of effort and patience. And I speak as someone who is perfectly comfortable typing thoughts rather than saying them.

Actually, skype is good when crossing time zones and doing brief technical interviews. The interview subject or technical support person can drop links into a chat window and paste troubleshooting information. That’s a situation where it works.

Before the Internet became big and affordable, web chat allowed you to communicate in real time with people far away.  Sure, it was fun. I enjoyed chatting with former students in Eastern Europe. Sometimes we had in-depth conversations via web chat. But that was on a computer and back in the days that Internet phone calls still weren’t practical. I won’t deny that text chat sometimes brought web conversations in unintended directions, but for a the most part it was nothing more than a lousy substitute for voice chat.

Text messages can help in certain contexts, especially situations where there is no free wifi access or where the noise level is too loud.  The ability to share photos and start group threads on texting platforms is helpful. But phones are an inferior device for typing and reading  (and storing) texts. Maybe it’s ok for making plans, but a phone call can resolve a lot of the details much faster than  text messages can.  Also, texting isn’t an appropriate way to have a deep  conversation or  communicate anger or love.  I debated whether I would include two other messages on my list: “I love you” and “I’ll pray for you.”  I understand that some people may prefer using these kinds of phrases often, but for me it is way too perfunctory a context to  make these expressions. If you love somebody, dammit there are better ways to express it than by  a text message. (If I recall correctly, one of the drivers  in the famous anti-texting video who texted somebody before causing a fatal car crash said that his text had told his partner  “I love you.”)

You will notice that most of these text messages I listed here require only one or two followups (if that much!)  You want to receive text messages only when you think there is a time-sensitive reason to be interrupted from your job or nap. Interruptions are not really good things.  The bell or beep announcing the arrival of a text message might seem inconsequential and not really distracting, but to have any kind of extended chat means having to sit through a parade of unending beeps that announce yet another uninteresting message.  Sure, if both parties are in different places and have time to kill, then it’s a pleasant diversion.

Text messages might be part of a successful dating/courtship ritual — although I’m way past high school and college dating situations where I might experience this phenomenon first hand.   I’m not talking about sexy poses or lewd messages. I’m talking about photos or videos or the occasional joking remark.  I once had an ill-fated long distance relationship before the time of webcams and camera phones. Phone calls were still extraordinarily expensive; I’m not saying that anything could have saved the situation (probably not), but photos and video  might have given things more immediacy. It might have given one  person better insight into the other person’s thought processes. Instead, she and I were talking to one another on a 35 cent per minute international phone line even though  I’m not sure we were really   communicating.  But compared to a bland text message, a voice conversation is practically a psychotherapy session.  A phone call can convey attitude and emotional level.

I’m all in favor of people having several different tools to help them communicate. The more, the merrier. My problem with texting is that it’s a last resort method of communication which nowadays people are starting to use as  a first resort.  The historical curiosity about text messages is that they grew independently  from email and web chat because phone providers refused to make them interoperable. They started out as single platform and only later became interoperable with other phone platforms (but generally not web-based ones).   Texting is also  used as a bonus promotional feature to encourage people to buy more expensive cell phone plans.  Texting — like snapchat — is designed for ephemeral conversations. I doubt people would want to save their phone chat sessions or that phone providers would make this easy.  Sure, there are privacy reasons why you might want texting sessions to disappear, but the user should always have this  option to save.  I have a hard time believing that most  texting sessions are interesting enough even to be worth saving. And if something is not interesting enough to save, why bother doing it at all?


Recently I was watching “Mud,”  a well done movie about the South.  It featured  quirky characters,  regional color, dangerous problems and loss of innocence. Good old-fashioned Americana.  On an isolated island, two  teenage boys stumble upon a stranger  who turns out to be a fugitive. But the stranger is not really a bad guy, just someone wounded by romantic delusions. The details of this stranger’s alleged crime are  muddled by the fact that the man the stranger killed probably   deserved to die anyway and  the bounty hunters now chasing the stranger  down are probably bad guys too. Suddenly the boys realize that the issues aren’t so black and white.

All in all, a fine movie, and I enjoyed it.

But the ending really botched things. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much to say that  there’s a gun-induced bloodbath at the climax.  Sigh.  Everything was going so well up to that point.  I expected the end to have some kind of showdown, but I didn’t expect it to be as extreme as the movie portrayed it.  I don’t watch violent movies often (not even  movies with the cartoon kind), but when I do, I find myself asking, “Would this movie or TV show have still  worked with only 50% of the gunshots?”   Actually, a  single  bullet is enough to make a tragedy. I once was robbed at gunpoint, and I remember thinking that this idiot who was holding me up had only to fire one bullet to change the nature of the crime.

In this movie, guns precipitate the conflict, aggravate the conflict and end the conflict (in a ridiculously violent way).  Guns in movies leak bullets as promiscuously as tears.

I shoot people; therefore I  am achieving justice.   Justice is the end, and guns are the primary way to achieve this end (and so justice without the presence of guns must be flimsy and worthless).  Guns fire up the audience’s  emotions; guns coerce one person’s conception of justice; never mind that there is always the risk of blowback or friendly fire losses.  Guns elevate subjective  wishy-washy feelings to the exclusion of everything else;  it doesn’t matter if the person standing before me is actually a threat. What matters is that I feel it’s a threat. Where I live,  it’s reasonably  certain that a police officer would arrive at my car within 5-10 minutes of a 911 phone call. Yet, for the gun-anxious  Texan, that is simply inadequate. Many Texans believe themselves to be seconds away  from annihilation.  Quite apart from the policy question, I don’t see how Houstonians can live with that constant kind of stress. How on earth do   paranoid  gun-owning people have the  mental composure  to let themselves take  the occasional nap?

I don’t deny that using guns has a certain romanticism to it, the romanticism of  desiccated limbs, punctured internal organs and   collapsed breaths.   There is virtually no stigma associated with firing a gun because society has generally accepted that individuals who feel threatened will occasionally require  the right   to extinguish the life of another.  Never mind that firing a gun at someone is usually  a serious felony – the threat of unseen marauders  is so real-seeming that some people cannot imagine life without it.   Many of my friends have guns  — not for any practical reason, but just the vague emotional sense that “I want it to be there when I really need it.”

In movie reality, the main adrenalin pusher seems to be guns and people who possess them and threaten you.  You have the cops and robbers of course, but of course the true protagonist is the cache of guns. Guns remain  the true heroes; humans are simply pawns of the inevitable storms of violence.   Elmer-Fudd-Shoots-Daffy-Duck

Nonlethal weapons like tasers might be an alternative – except it actually involves touching the perpetrator. That of course is absurd. Americans overwhelmingly prefer to shoot humans as they shoot photographs – far away enough to take in  the spectacular view.  Not only do Americans enjoy the thrill of being able to point at objects and fire, they also revel in the loud sounds of shots and agonized cries  as body parts are ripped apart. If I were to suggest a nonlethal alternative, I would  devise some kind of melodramatic vomit spray  — accompanied by noisy pop pop pops of firecrackers (to notify and impress the neighbors).

The problem with gun ownership (in movies or life) is that it  never really  partakes of consequences. We never read of hospital costs or orphaned parents or the constant guilt that snuffing the life of another inevitably entails.  We never speak of the psychological intimidation or the accidental casualties (be it suicide or simply the  innocent result of kids playing  around with guns they shouldn’t be handling).

The Hilarity of Law Enforcement

Today I watched a clever and hilarious movie “The Heat” which sticks to the   “police buddy” formula, but with female buddies out to nab an evil drug lord.  Predictable plot,  punchy dialogue and  stupid male cops getting in the way.  Unsurprisingly there are several gun battles and constant waving around of guns.

The first problem I have of course is plausibility. Do cops and FBI agents wave their guns around  so often on a typical workday? Last I read, FBI spends most of their time investigating white collar crime, so they probably just spend most of their time looking at a computer screen and interviewing people.  In one funny scene,  the first  female cop showing off to the second  her private weapon cache which she stores in the refrigerator.  Melissa-McCarthy-Sandra-Bullock-Hollywood-movie

I guess I  accept the premise that female cops would find showing off one’s gun arsenal to a partner to  be a bonding experience.  In movies,  the primary determinant in who prevails in which side has  the best cache of guns.  But wait — as soon as you let your guard down, another man with a gun has snuck up behind you  — defeating your short-lived tactical advantage.

Police in these movies are always grasping  their guns –  stumbling into confrontations  which seem to be won or lost by which side has the biggest firepower.     Nobody likes violence in  movies; of course not.  But dangerous criminals in movies always seem to be  armed and making threats;  it is inconceivable that a person with a gun could be shopping for groceries or waiting. Conversely movie expectations dictate that bad guys will all have guns and be willing to use one  as cold-heartedly as possible.

When apprehending dangerous criminals, I suspect the hardest part will not be winning the gunfight but simply figuring out the perpetrator’s whereabouts  and the optimal time to confront him. Police officers, I suspect, are trained very well on these things.  A gun might be helpful in establishing authority initially, but it is not the key  element. If the criminal is rational, he will give up when faced with an officer who has both initiative and backup. If the criminal is not-rational, then maybe the criminal would start firing (assuming that his gun is within arm’s reach).   But then a real-life  police officer probably selected a context for confrontation to  minimize this possibility.

Movie criminals are more typically portrayed as loud and confrontational, rarely worrying about being  caught and always ready to use their guns. Conveniently, their movie henchman have a tendency to magically appear behind anyone who tries to arrest them. But real criminals probably worry a lot about being caught.  They try hard to  blend in with normal life.  They  go  to the supermarket, buy gas, eat at a restaurant,  go to the concert or sports game.  These are public outings where there they can easily be surrounded and overcome. So  there really isn’t a need for police officers to go creeping  around empty warehouses with guns in hand. All the police officer needs to do is to wait for the criminal to pump his gas.

Portraying movie criminals unrealistically also means that you portray police unrealistically as well.  Everyone is on hair-trigger alert; even the slightest sound causes  movie  police to grab their guns.   For the viewer, the inevitable gun battle becomes a source of suspense and indeed, the climax of the movie; Guns become the building blocks for great dramas filled with great men. And great man are those brave enough to use deadly force to stop the violent rampage of  lawless people. In other words, because bad guys use guns to commit their crimes, good guys must use guns to commit their good deeds.


Who is the good guy?

When we watch movies laced with violence, we are left thanking goodness that real life is not so violent — never pausing to wonder  whether the criminals in real life are really like that.     One underlying theme in these  violence-prone movies is that — heck, some days you just can’t avoid shooting up a few people.  Drats that the criminals  have to die — obviously! –  but  killings in movies are a shortcut for restoring the moral balance to the world — even if our gun-toting hero does it in the heat of the moment or without legal sanction. As long as this balance is restored in the movie, the viewer expects that the sympathetic  protagonist will win some kind of reprieve.  Sure, the good gun-toting protagonist may eventually have to face the wrath of the law, but a good person’s good motives will be an exonerating factor.

Over the years I’ve grown  intolerant about  narratives  which attempt to legitimate  the  use  of deadly force against people  who you believe  wronged you.  These cinematic narratives can seem to quench your emotional desire for justice, but then,  in the realm of true crime, we are presented with more ambiguous events.   The man in the movie theatre was threatening me….or maybe he was just throwing popcorn.  The cops barge into a house and shoot dead a drug dealer who fires at them … or is the man an armed and respected veteran who kept the safety lock on?  A man follows a teenager around believing him to be a criminal and  fires at him at close range when the teen  resists.  Or is the teenager  just picking up candy  at the store and scared by a stalker? Sometimes it’s hard to tell in real life who is the bad guy and who is the good guy.    In retrospect, the violent response against these “bad guys” never was so clear.    Instead we have weeping mothers, astronomical medical bills, people in shock and lives ruined. I genuinely feel sorry for George Zimmerman for  killing innocent teenager Trayvon Martin. In Zimmerman’s  limited and almost paranoid vision of the world, teenagers who loiter pose a threat, so it’s best to have your gun ready.  Although eventually acquitted  because of Florida’s lax gun laws,  Zimmerman has to pay a price of personal guilt for the rest of his life. Similarly, certain gun owners must feel the guilt of the deaths or suicides committed by family members who used the gun without permission. Police officers must live with the guilt of killing bystanders or even the perpetrator who nonetheless didn’t deserve to die but was the victim of an officer’s faulty calculation.jesus_thread

Some people  may feel genuinely threatened by the world around them.  Sometimes a specific individual may know of a potential threat by a specific person, and for the short term at least, it might make sense to keep a gun. But it does not follow that owning a gun makes that individual safer. Even  law-abiding and otherwise rational gun owners have unrealistic expectations about  whether gun ownership  reduces crime and threats. They trust their crappy intuition, and that is the tragedy.   Once  you buy a gun, you have invested in a gun’s talismanic ability  to ward off threats. Also, the act of buying or owning a gun is long-term.  Few people buy a gun, keep it for a few years and then get rid of it.  Like getting married and being Christian, owning a gun is a long term commitment. To actually reap the safety advantage,  you always need to keep the gun  within reach.   You not only need to be on the lookout for crime-fighting situations, you always need to keep an eye out for your gun — must not lose it!  Keeping that gun around  exerts a steady burden on the  psychic  life of a person. Perhaps for actual crime victims, it is reassuring to have some weapon around while recovering from a recent trauma. But why not just take a pill instead?

Guns vs. Swimming Pools

A common refrain from enthuasiastic gun owners is that swimming pools kill more kids each year than guns do; But because it is ludicrous for someone to suggest abolishing swimming pools, it is also ludicrous to abolish guns.

I’m afraid it  misses the point. Nobody is suggesting abolishing anything. Instead, I ask:  are you protecting your kids better by owning a gun or by not owning a gun? While I’m at it, I might also wonder aloud whether a parent protects a child better by having a backyard swimming pool than by not having one?(See Note at bottom **)

First, a little data from the LA Times:

Victims ages 15 to 19 made up 84% of the children brought to the hospital with gunshot wounds, and two-thirds of those injuries were attributed to assault. Among these older children, roughly 24% of the cases were considered unintentional. Suicide attempts accounted for 239 of 4,143 of those firearm-related hospitalizations.

Among younger children, accidental firearm injuries were most common. Of the 378 children under 10 brought to the hospital in connection with a firearm injury, roughly three-quarters were considered victims of an accidental or unintended shooting. Thirty-one children younger than 5 and 47 ages 5 to 9 were injured in gun-related assaults in 2009.

Among Latino youths, firearm-related injuries were three times higher than among white children, the data show. And African American girls were more than six times as likely as their white counterparts to be injured by gunfire.

Unfortunately this raw data doesn’t tell us much.   Who is assaulting children and teens? Where are children being assaulted? My guess it that they are being assaulted on the way home from school or at social outings — certainly not at home, where a gun may safely be kept.  Just as avoiding swimming pools is a way to avoid being drowned, teens have some ability to limit  risk by staying away from dangerous places.  But children are not going to stop swimming, and we can’t expect teens to avoid  all social situations where they could be assaulted. But would gun ownership protect teens? If  these assaults happen outside their residence,  having a gun at home  won’t matter.  Should teenagers be allowed to keep guns? Many parents would say that teens can’t be relied upon to use guns effectively or responsibly. Teenagers are ruled by emotions and hormones; they blow things out of proportion and assert themselves too much. Also, they have more time than adults to loiter and socialize. Giving more guns to minors seems a recipe for certain disaster; is it desirable for a parent or a society to take steps to limit teenager’s access to guns? Does possession of a gun in the house make it easier for irresponsible teens to use them?

Some teenagers are assaulted. That is a sad part of growing up. Teens start out feeling invulnerable and then they realize how powerless they really are. This realization is powerful (and traumatic!) and yet essential for mental and emotional growth. What is the best way for teenagers to make this realization? Is it by giving them a gun to carry around or teaching them to avoid risky situations and people?

The Great Thing about Being a Chicken

The great thing about being a chicken is that people laugh at you and maybe pick on you — but rarely kill you — especially if you run away fast enough.  Give a teenager a gun and then you provide him with  a combination of security and power — better reason to stick around and fight.  Fighting — that’s what the real tough guys do — and that’s how you resist bullies, but it’s also very risky.  Taking the law into your own hands carries the risk that after later  people will fail to understand or appreciate why you felt compelled to respond with deadly force.

To understand the value of guns, you need to understand the criminal mind. The criminal typically  wants the transgression  to be as quick and   smooth a transaction as possible.  Criminals mostly  want to dominate the situation to get what they want and  get the hell out of there.  Some criminals have defective (and even sadistic)  personalities, but for the most part shooting someone messes up the criminal transaction.  The criminal doesn’t want his actions to make the evening news,  and shooting someone virtually assures it. Criminals may forget these concerns  in the heat of the moment,  but the individual crime victim needs to weigh the potential risks of assuming the worst in the criminal  vs. the risks of  leaving the criminal no choice but to use deadly force.    It sounds superficially appealing to say you want to “prepare for the worst,”  but nobody can plan for everything. Sometimes, in fact, overpreparing  fuels a counterproductive paranoia.

Watching the movie Boyz ‘n the Hood, I am reminded of how guns can be used in social situations  for illicit purposes. These situations are about dominance — not merely committing a crime.   The two gangs in Boyz n the Hood weren’t killing one another because they were robbing people. They were just trying to intimidate.  How do you intimidate? With guns.  The proposed response  to gun threats — to bring your own gun — doesn’t address whether this strategy actually works.  Will the presence of another gun usually lead to a friendly stalemate, or will it aggravate  tensions and cause  one side  to  make a pre-emptive move? With  Boyz in the Hood gang violence,  whipping  out a gun to respond to a threat doesn’t eliminate the threat; it merely continues the cycle of violence and intimidation. The central theme  of the movie (“At what point do you walk away?”) depends primarily on the level of  economic and social desperation. The protagonist can walk away because he has something to live for — a good home life, economic opportunity, a general optimism — while the unemployed brother Dough Boy lacks the social anchors to restrain his desire for retribution.boyz-n-the-hood-1-620x300

But Boyz n the Hood  presents  false choices here. If  police are always  ruthless and incompetent  and if teenagers are unwilling to go to  them, of course gun-equipped young people  will  take the law into their own hands.  But even in the Compton ghettoes, it seems unlikely that angry teenagers would spurn  police if they could identify the people who committed the blow-by shooting. Perhaps these witnesses  have a legitimate fear of retribution or  legitimately  believe that the police are ineffectual.   But all police departments have anonymous tip hotlines. It just doesn’t make sense to me that in  gang-related violence, the victimized gang wouldn’t let  the police do their thing if there is plenty of evidence to convict somebody.

Perhaps I am naive. Or perhaps movies are just dramatized  revenge fantasies (for which police are just an unfortunate prop). All this is fine, but how does it  influence the individual’s decision  to own or  use  a gun?  Movies evince  a self-justifying mythology for buying and using a gun. Of course our  mundane lives aren’t  replete with  armed threats (or pretty female sidekicks).  Crime is less ostentatious; it may pounce on you when you least expect it — and then it’s gone before you  knew what hit you. Most of the time it is completely invisible – siphoning money from your bank accounts, stealing your car when you’re asleep, grabbing your purse when you’re not looking.  For those things guns are completely useless.  People who buy guns entertain grand notions of being able to fight back, but after it  becomes clear  it is mostly useless for doing that, it begins to dawn on the gun owner  that the only things guns are good for are threatening family members and blowing one’s own brains out.

FBI and CDC data on people who used a firearm to kill themselves or to kill a felon (Olga Khazan ) FBI and CDC data on people who used a firearm to kill themselves or to kill a felon (Olga Khazan )

To Be Raped or Not to be Raped

I remain surprised at how many liberal-minded females in Texas nonetheless own guns. Often they are single and concerned about their personal safety. By that, I mean they worry about  being raped.  A rape scenario seems to be a clear case where a brandishing  of  a gun would seem to be a legitimate use of force. Sexual violence is terrifying to contemplate — with one of the worst parts being this feeling of helplessness while it takes place.

But let’s consider this topic  for a moment — despite the unpleasantness.

Let’s make a list of rape scenarios involving strangers:  being jumped on in a park, in a parking lot, in one’s own apartment, while walking home, being carjacked, in one’s dorm. Try to imagine how a gun might be used to avert these scenarios. In many of these cases, the stranger has jumped you and caught you by surprise. Would  you really have enough time and composure to gather a weapon to scare off the perpetrator off?  Maybe if you were taking a long walk home and were gripping your gun tightly all the while, it might be effective (but so would mace). Suppose somebody were barging in on you, assuming you had 10-15 seconds to react, owning a gun might make a difference. But how many rape  scenarios give you that much time?

But what if there were two perpetrators? That decreases even further the likelihood that your  gun could ward off an attack. What if one perpetrator already had a gun? If you owned a gun too, that might even up the score,  but how do we know that this will bring a stalemate and not an escalation of violence?  I can think of  scenarios where having a gun would actually avert a rape, but I can think of many more stranger scenarios where the gun is inaccessible or improperly used or just not an effective response.  It’s true that when you hold a gun in your hand,  for a few moments at least guns can make you feel invulnerable to any attacker. But it is not a permanent or  lasting solution.

Up to now we have been talking about rapists who are strangers. But what about the familiar rapist — the angry spouse or ex, the frat boy? This constitutes about 2/3 of all rapes  The situations where these might take place would be ones where one might normally not have a gun.  For many of these situations having a gun is unlikely to help, and in fact, batterers have shown a tendency to own more guns than non-batterers.  Finally, there are many risk avoidance strategies you can take that can be just as effective if not more.  This doesn’t prevent every single scenario, and I’m not suggesting that guns are bad for every person in every scenario. But getting a gun just doesn’t seem to make anybody’s Top 10 list of risk mitigation strategies.

Better than Guns:  Ordinary Prudent Measures

A secret: up until recently I have never locked my doors in my apartment when I am at home. I sometimes would forget my car doors too.  It seemed silly or pointless. Since writing this essay, I have changed my mind. Many burglaries occur in late morning, and that typically is when I am home. I wouldn’t want anybody barging accidentally into my house and feeling compelled to dominate the confrontation.  Many burglars knock on the door before they break into your house.  A locked door won’t prevent all wrongdoing, but it poses an initial obstacle — and often that is enough.

When I was robbed at gunpoint a few years ago, I realized that I was living in a dangerous apartment complex and wouldn’t be able to move away soon. So I had to cope with the risk. I avoided taking out the trash late at night. I minimized  driving at night, and I was much more aware of my surroundings on the nights  I  arrived home late. It’s true that I still had to walk my dog — and that was a risk, but often when you are walking on familiar territory you can anticipate risk and even see it ahead of you.

I’m not saying that I avoid strangers, but I avoid situations with strangers where I am isolated and don’t have the ability to extricate myself easily. All of these things sound so easy and obvious; why not just do it?  These measures can’t work miracles, but they are relatively cheap and  pain-free and don’t impose unnecessary risks.  An individual could also resort to countermeasures ranging from cheap to very expensive:  security systems, nonlethal weapons and noisemakers. If you are genuinely interested in reducing risk (instead of simply asserting power), you would probably find that defensive nonlethal countermeasures are cheaper, more effective and offer more peace of mind.

Where does paranoia come from?

Conservative political scientist David From wrote:

Should you own a gun? In some few cases, the answer to that question of wisdom is probably yes.

But most of the time, gun owners are frightening themselves irrationally. They have conjured in their own imaginations a much more terrifying environment than genuinely exists — and they are living a fantasy about the security their guns will bestow. And to the extent that they are right — to the extent that the American environment is indeed more dangerous than the Australian or Canadian or German or French environment — the dangers gun owners face are traceable to the prevalence of the very guns from which they so tragically mistakenly expect to gain safety.

Noting that overall crime has declined and violent crime has declined significantly, From mentions that people’s perception of the crime rate is much different:

 What force on earth could convince Americans that down is up? The most powerful force of all: television.

TV news — and especially local TV news — is dominated by news of violent crime, the more spectacular and murderous the better. TV news creates a false picture of a country under attack by rampaging criminals, and especially nonwhite criminals. The people who watch the most TV news, Americans older than 50, also happen to be the group most likely to own a gun.

Only one-fifth of young Americans own a gun; one-third of over-50 Americans do. Republicans are twice as likely to own a gun as Democrats. Maybe not so coincidentally, Republicans are more likely to watch the scariest news channel of them all: Fox. Whites are twice as likely to own a gun as nonwhites…

Proponents of gun control are baffled that horrific massacres such as the one in Aurora, Colorado, do not lead to stricter gun control. They have their causation backward.

The more terrifyingly criminal the world looks, the more ineffective law enforcement seems, the more Americans demand the right to deadly weapons with which to defend themselves. It is local TV programming directors, not the National Rifle Association, who are tirelessly persuading Americans that they need to strap a gun to their legs before heading to the mall.

And what will change those attitudes is not more atrocity stories, but instead the reassuring truth: The United States is safe and getting safer, safer than ever before in its history.

The police can protect you, and will, and do. And a gun in the house is not a guarantee of personal security — it is instead a standing invitation to family tragedy. The cold dead hands from which they pry the gun are very unlikely to be the hands of a heroic minuteman defending home and hearth against intruders. They are much more likely to be the hands of a troubled adolescent or a clumsy child.

Amen to everything From says here, but I have to wonder if the condensed and visually-oriented format of local news is the only thing contributing to this overemphasis of grotesque crime. Also,  TV and movie depictions of crimes and violence may be more fantasy than reality, but we have to ask ourselves why guns-and-violence seems to be such a successful and profitable Hollywood formula.  Instead of ritualistic and cathartic bloodletting onscreen, what ever happened to movies depicting an ordinary American’s hopes and dreams?local-crime

I can’t point to any unique  historical trend here — except that perhaps the general magnitude of Hollywood violence tends to track the trend towards greater budgets.  Shoot-em-up videos have been popular from the very beginning; at the same time murder rates and rapes have trended downward as porn and violent movies proliferate.  Sticking with onscreen violence for a moment, perhaps formula movies and shows just have more sex and violence than “ordinary” movies and shows.  Maybe when we bemoan too much sex and violence on TV we are simply bemoaning the increase of  cookie-cutter cultural products.

Social forces may be  indirectly contributing to the problem. In America, people are less likely to know their neighbors, more likely to be single and less likely to have an extended network of friends and family nearby. Maybe it’s just that cities contain more people and hence more strangers, contributing to this unease.  Cars may aggravate this situation, enabling cities to be more spread out, making an individual’s “neighborhood” encompass a wider swath of people than in previous times. Perhaps the visible and vocal presence of (potentially threatening)  gun-owners contribute to this uneasy need to “keep up with the Joneses.”  Or perhaps the advancing power and reach of mass media make it easier for ordinary people to hear about grisly crimes several time zones away. Decades ago,  people bought guns to protect themselves from crazy people in the neighborhood, but now perhaps they do it to protect themselves from  the crazy axe-murderer in Florida (who — let’s face it — could simply hop in a car, drive 70 mph  and be on our doorsteps within 24 hours).

Perhaps the real enemy is not guns but the federal highway system.


**One critic pointed out the difference here. Kids usually spend much longer amounts of time at the swimming pool than they do handling guns. You can be sure that if kids spent as much time handling guns as they did swimming, the casualty numbers would be different.


Here’s a running list of the Happy Dancers in the Pharrell Williams official 24 Hours of Happy video. At the very bottom of this web page is a list of everybody’s names, and I’m beginning to cross-index their dance times.  I’m not going to try to rate these dance vids too harshly; the main purpose of this page is just to list the dances and identify the people. Asking people to do impromptu dances on a city street is hard enough. So everybody receives 1 star unless there’s something highly unusual about it (with 3 stars being the best).

The Fastcocreate article about the filming said that filming took 11 days and 2 separate days for Pharrell’s stuff.

Those chosen by audition had the advantage of getting the song in advance, allowing them to rehearse their moves. But on the day itself, everyone got just one take, including Pharrell. “That’s what accounts for the charm,” says Valdes. “Everyone knew they had one shot–this was their moment to go all out, and we love that.” “The video’s imperfections, the funny bloopers and mess-ups, are what give it character,” says Pharell, whose own performances alternated between what he calls “semi-choreographed” (see the bowling alley at 11:00 p.m.) and improvisation. “I’m not interested in perfection. It’s boring. Some of my favorite moments are accidental. There’s one where I’m underground. I was turning a corner just as a train was coming in our direction, and it stopped right on cue! It was weird. The universe gave us great moments that day.”  … WAFLA chose to shoot in Los Angeles, … starting at sunrise in Downtown L.A., moving to LAX, Silver Lake, Echo Park and Hollywood, among other places, ultimately circling back to Downtown.

Says a crew member:

I was lucky enough to be a part of this as the location manager. It was a rough one. Not sure how Jon (Beattie)  did it. We did 12-15 hour days. There was a crew of 15-20 people with us at all times. Sometimes when we where shooting, we would have to make a u-turn to head back the other way. So all of a sudden, this mob of people would have to stand behind the camera, and do a 180 in sync. It was madness. There would also be times when we had to make a quick decision on which way to go. We would scout ahead and find out that the street was blocked, so at the last second, we changed the route. We also had fun with the talent. We would find someone walking down the street, and invite them to be a part of the video. It turned out amazing.

Says another:

The biggest obstacle was the fact that we were walking backwards through non-locked off streets and side walks. I ran into many a telephone pole and street sign, and on several occasions had to crawl under John to stay out of the picture. It was a lot of fun to work on, and I think the 4 minute edited version looks great.

Background about the Video: 2 Minute Behind-the-Scenes Video and interview with the directors, Fastcocreate profile of the production process, A video production blog describes the lens, filming process, etc.

Other articles with lots of photos and snarkinessWe Watched Pharrell Williams 24 Hours Happy Video so you didn’t have to , Pitchfork’s 5 Best Things about the Happy Video, Christopher Grant Harris expanded account of dancers (with generous screenshots); Wikipedia page for the Pharrell Williams Happy song (it doesn’t yet have a separate page).

My favorites so far are:  Happy Hair! 3:32AM, Elegant Blonde Girl in Street 9:56 AM (just magical!),  Preteen Acrobatic Girl 12:28 PM, Asian Gene Kelley 1:28 PM,  2 Asian guys in tuxes in front of a Star Bucks 2:20pm,  Girl in Polka Dotted Dress 7:16PM (unbelievably good!) Man on Stilts at 7:36 PM,  Amazing & Speedy Guy at 10:44 PM (Amazing Choreography!), 2 Cute & Entertaining Girls at the Bowling Alley 11:08PM,  Hula Hoop Girl 11:40 PM  (but seriously I’m only getting started)

How to Help:  If you know the name of any of the dancers, mention it in the comment section. (If you were one of the dancers who participated, drop me a line — I’d love to do a brief interview!). I’d also like to identify the buildings and neighborhoods if you know it. (I will probably look through Youtube comments for help, but give me time!) .  April 2 Update: I’m currently gathering information about places where everything was shot. I hope to have a nice map showing landmarks and dance paths fairly soon.  Stay tuned. I definitely appreciate everybody who identifies the dancer’s name. By the way, I’m behind on doing my screenshots and commentary, but the index of all the actors (at bottom) is updated every day.

Disclaimer: I am aware that the  video project was part of a world-wide social media campaign for the movie. I am a willing pawn here. But I think the 24 hour dance project is interesting for its own sake and really transcends the song or the movie it’s trying to pimp. It’s a great way to document a city and  the fashions and decor of the time.  I shall write more about that later.

This page will be extremely long and is definitely a work in progress. A lot is still incomplete.  I’ll fill in all the dances and hours eventually, but for now I’ll be just skipping around, giving first preference to non-celebrities. As an aside, let me say how tricky it is getting a good non-blurry screenshot from youtube on a Linux PC when the dancers are moving so swiftly (and often in the dark!)

[click to continue…]


Below is  a short tribute I wrote for Colleen Grissom’s 80th birthday. Grissom is  a literature teacher I had at college. Besides being a great teacher, she was also just hilariousgrissom-thumb all the time. (Even the lecture on the youtube link shows her being very fast and sharp.  Her sense of humor was sometimes terrifying, but utterly disarming too.  Below is the first

 True story — I secretly signed up for Grissom’s Continental Fiction class after persuading a half-dozen friends to sign up for Stoessinger/Sherry’s  political novel class being taught at the same time. Then, at the bookstore the day before class, I realized that Grissom’s reading list was far  more interesting: Silone? Tin Drum? Anna Karenina? My friends were mad at me for switching classes,  and honestly I still wonder what would have happened if I had stayed…. Heck, life’s a bunch  of choices, and I  certainly had a great time tackling  the Grissomesque path. I  owe a lot of things to those classes — including overcoming my snobbery about the “superiority” of “European fiction”. Grissom opened my eyes to the great things American writers have been doing — pop culture references notwithstanding.   As someone now immersed in literary publishing, I don’t have much time or opportunity to hang around readers in meatspace. I have fond memories about that year in an actual classroom with Grissom and her students, hearing a cross-section of young and thoughtful flesh-and-blood people approach great books without preconceptions. I always liked how Grissom stepped back and let students do the talking, gently nudging us ahead only when absolutely necessary. Often  I thought that I had appreciated and understood a story — only to discover during class that others had glommed onto  different things and found all kinds of insights I was completely oblivious  to. Every day after class, I felt so stupid! — But it was a good, satisfying kind of stupid….

Here’s another bloggy tribute I made to her classes a few years ago:

Often when asked to describe the courses that had the greatest impact upon me, I would have to say Death & Dying, 2 Asian Studies courses and –amazingly — a PC repair course (saved me hours and dollars). I also took an excellent 2 semester Western Civ course (called “Human Quest”) teamtaught by some rising academic stars at Trinity, as well as 2 semesters of literature courses taught by the Dean of Students, Colleen Grissom. Anybody going to Trinity during the Grissom decades found her inspiring both as a teacher and as Dean of Students. She was smart-witted and taught with a passion for her subject. Classes would be broken up into two parts: an introductory biographical lecture followed by student-led discussions. I can’t say her classes went into depth of criticism or literary analysis; they were less about criticism than about students giving fresh (and often ill-informed) opinions about what they were reading. Still, it was great fun, and the fact that Grissom had taught the same class for decades meant that her remarks were polished and full of insights. I could rave about the books I discovered there (John Updike, Anne Tyler, Gunter Grass and Ignacio Silone come to mind), but truthfully, I would have probably come across them anyway. The main revelation from this class was that Chicks Really Dig Novels (which came as a bit of a shock to me, having attended an all boys high school). This may be an obvious point, but I also learned that the most interesting thoughts about a literary work can come from those you least expect; even people who only half-read a work and might not even appreciate its literary value can bring interesting ideas to the table.

Another obvious point from Dean Grissom’s class. The class approached literature in a naive way, eschewing secondary sources and criticism. Later, I recognized that reading secondary material often just messes with your mind; in high school and college I wrote a lot about Kafka, reading loads of criticisms, each with their unique theoretical perspective. Interesting, but irrelevant to the lover of literature. One Amazon.com commenter about an Iris Murdoch book complained about the introductory essay by Martha Nussbaum, saying his students tended to gulp down her analysis as truth without trying to formulate opinions on their own. Far be it from me to complain about having too much literary criticism in the world, but I know what this commenter meant. Does one really need to read brilliant highfalutin remarks about literary works to have interesting opinions? Do we really need to know what other brilliant people think about something you’ve just read? Sure, reading a book or watching a film without reading critical remarks by others results in misunderstandings or interpretations that are way offbase. But maybe there is value in reading Joyce’s Ulysses without knowing the exact parallels with Homer’s epic. In fact, not knowing can cause us to notice new aspects of a text others have so far ignored.

Grissom has started the task of transferring her lecture notes to books. I looked at her recent book A Novel Approach to Life.  It was a hodgepodge of stuff — all fun and witty with occasional insights into reading and education. From a similar talk she gave a few years ago (audio here) here’s another favorite passage:

One should make reading an integral part of one’s life. One should do this in spite of all joys, challenges, distractions and attractions of tempting television and  films, plays, cocktail parties,  athletic competitions, ipods and interactive computers. Reading offers much stimulation on many levels, an important one of which  is that it is a solitary process and can teach you the pleasures and rewards of aloneness in a world in which noise (even Don DeLillo’s White Noise) and togetherness seem the norm. I recommend occasional solitude for your personal growth and rejuvenation



I often wonder if anything I say or think or write is original. Sometimes I will think of an allegedly great idea, but before I get too excited, I google a few keywords nervously — to see who beat me to it.  Google is  the ultimate humbler of humanity.

Today, though, I think I will blog about a subject, and I sincerely believe I am the first to do. (Feel free to prove me wrong!)   And yet what I am about to write about is so familiar and prosaic to each of us that no one would bother to.

This morning I was taking a quick shower — and not thinking about chocolate –  and when I stepped onto the bathroom floor, I dried myself thoroughly  and began to assemble the necessary tools for shaving. But I happened to brush my hand against my head — only for a millisecond, mind you — but long enough to surmise  that I hadn’t completely  rinsed the  shampoo suds from my hair. I immediately felt  the gooey mess and heard the wrinkly sound of lather. Yes, it was true, my hair was only half-rinsed; so now I would need to return to the shower to finish the job.

It was only somewhat annoying, a slight detour in my day. It meant that drying myself would no longer be as satisfying as the first time, and the cool sensation of leaving a shower refreshed would be tempered by the paranoia that maybe my head of hair is not completely rinsed. (It has happened a few times; I return to the shower a second time and think that I rinsed everything out, and then to my horror discover that I had omitted one of the sides from this second cautionary rinse).

As I started to shave, I began calculating. I probably commit this kind of washing miscalculation once every 10 or 15 days (that’s 25 times a year!) I would say I have a good 70 years of 1750 washing miscalculations for my lifetime (assuming 1 shower a day).  Out of the 7.1 billion people on this earth, let’s guess conservatively that they commit this same washing miscalculation 20 times a year. Let me see: that equals:

140 billion times in a year that people are stepping out of the shower without realizing that they have forgotten to rinse their hair.

That’s a really big number.  Think about it: despite the fact that everyone is doing it, there doesn’t appear to be any web pages by or about people who have made this mistake. Don’t believe me? Try here or here. (Actually here or here does produce something relevant though not particularly meaningful or lasting). The event is so mundane that it has never occurred to anyone to write a separate article about this phenomenon.

One way to look at the thing is to say that this experience is something so vague that a search engine couldn’t possibly help you to find people’s descriptions of it. A friend and I were remarking at how useful search engines are for looking up and verifying facts. Sure. But that doesn’t imply that Google is actually useful. It’s like the paradox of not being able to verify the spelling of a word because you need to spell it correctly to look it up. Many of life’s questions are so  vague and imprecise that search algorithms are practically useless. Even our proper names are no longer unique enough  to find what we need. I’m sure AI and natural language processing will improve, but so will the amount of  random garbage on the Internet, and so will the challenge of sifting through things. Many are alarmed by the NSA and the Echelon System that it might not occur to ask whether the NSA is actually equipped to sort through all the noise.

Decline of the Search Paradigm

In 2009 I attended  an education panel hosted by 4 undergraduates  attending elite institutions.  It was ironic, because the audience was packed with probably about 100 teachers or geeks. Most of the audience members  felt that we had a good grasp of reality and Internet reality, but we still were curious about how college students were learning in this Internet-addled age. The students on the panel  talked about collaboration, how they used social networking tools and how Internet changed the way they learned. It was fascinating; several talked about how it was changing the study of literature;  another talked about the awesomeness of getting help from someone thousands of miles away.

During the talk one student mentioned how useful the Internet was in giving them suggestions about books to read and references to consult, I called out rather indecorously, “How do each of you find new authors to read?”

The students, slightly annoyed at my interruption, but willing to answer, said, “I just google it.” The other three students chimed in with the same answer,  “Just google it” –  and then they continued their prepared remarks.

10 minutes later was question time, and I jumped up to the front of the line to ask a follow up.  “You said that google helps you to find out about new authors or musicians or artists. Can you explain?”

All four of them looked at me as though I were a crank. “Well, it’s not too hard really. Just go to the search box and type something. Then follow the links.”

“Excuse me, but what exactly do you type in the search box?”

“The name of the author.”

“And how do you know what name to type?”

The panellists shrugged. “Just follow any web page.””

I understand that the Internet can help you locate more information about a topic, but only when you know what you want. But how do you know what you want?

Being adept at devising a search term   (such as “best American author” or “recommend a 20th century novel” + American) will  get you only so far.  But lately I’ve noticed that even google’s sturdy algorithm is being weakened by dictionary sites, spam sites and commercial interests. When every company is trying to optimize for search results, then it is possible to programmatically manipulate the results. Some kinds of inquiries don’t yield anything meaningful; it’s not always easy to think of a unique combination of words and phrases to get the results you need. With facebook, stackexchange, quora  and other social media, you can receive lots of tips; but then again, people are responding to your questions; you are not finding these things out on your own, but relying on a certain number of people hanging out at these places who would be willing to provide some scaffolding for the edifice of your education.

Perhaps it’s an obvious point, but the type of topics which occupy most people’s attention are not necessarily the most helpful. Several of my conservative friends link to superficially optimistic articles about climate change, but who would seriously think that the URL most likely to appear on top of search results  (presumably from search-optimized CNN or NYT) would  also be the most authoritative  or accurate?  Even if we discount outright propaganda, the things displayed  by search engines may be neither relevant or important. Remember: there are probably more websites about the Gilligan’s Island TV  series  than the movies of  Ingmar Bergman.

It’s ironic that the things pressing for our attention at any given moment can also be the most transitory.  Let’s see, current events today  talk about the LAX shooting, the final day of the Virginia governor’s race, the abortion lawsuits, the new Hyundai, refinancing with lending tree, What does the fox say?, the Obamacare website, the new Netflix titles. All screaming for your attention today, and then 10 years from now will disappear.  Perhaps this is a loss for  us all, but  the lesson to be learned here is that the things which appear to us so urgent today can easily disappear without a trace.

It’s commonly assumed that search engines are good at looking up names and titles and dates. But suppose I wanted to find the name of a novel whose title and author escaped me.  One of my favorite novels was Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine.” But what if I forgot the name of the author and title and tried to google it using some keywords? I remember the novel used a lot of footnotes, wasn’t particularly long, was clever, had a scene about drying one’s hands in the bathroom, had another scene about shoelaces and had a long series of digressions and ruminations about mundane things. If I typed “novella  literary hand dryer clever mundane  digress American  bathroom shoelace ruminate footnotes” into google and bing and wolfram alpha, one might feel confident that someone somewhere has used many of these words to describe  Nicholson Baker’s  novel.  My search query may be overlong, but it contains lots of distinctive words; even if a single web page is unlikely to contain ALL of these words, a good search engine should be able to compute the web page which is likely to be most relevant to these words.

So here’s the search results for that query.


Bing results are similar;

I don’t expect Google or Bing to get it exactly right, but we’re not even coming close. The search engines just provide awful and misleading results (and I’m not even including the ads).  Although shortening the list of keywords does  bring more interesting results, it is still nowhere close to the answer.

I will admit that my search term isn’t exactly the best. To vary my approach a bit, I chose a more generic search term  Best American novel in the 1980s, and received decent relevance in results (although not THAT good).


When I recited those  same keywords for the Nicholson Baker book over the phone  to a literary friend,  he  correctly guessed the author (though not the book itself). If you were in a classroom with 20 well-read people, I suspect you would get better answers. If you asked on a site like Goodreads to name the book where a lot of people would see it, I suspect you’d get  the right answer. This question seems esoteric, but for a moderately erudite  audience, it is not esoteric at all.

But search engines are not particularly good at these fuzzy  kinds of questions. Even in cases where a search engine can match a fuzzy question with an answer, the ordering and prominence is determined by how well the site was optimized for search engines — and also whether the company paid for ad placement.  If anything, Google can find pages where the wording of your question appears prominently — like a forum or a stack exchange site. But if the way you phrase the question doesn’t parrot the way other people do, you are out of luck. In other words, in 2014 the ability to get useful search results depends mainly on how good a Family Feud contestant you are. 409px-Richard_Dawson_Family_Feud_1976

We used to believe Google was so amazing because 1)back then there were significantly fewer web pages and  2)Google presented lots of results. Do you remember when you could set Google to display 100 results on a single page? Even if Google didn’t bring the answer to your query, it nonetheless provided up to 100 different paths you could explore to find it.  Perhaps at one time those Ivy league students on the panel could pick a random link in search results  and follow things. But whenever I start from a search result, I have this uneasy feeling that it’s all one huge conspiracy to trap you inside a gigantic and self-contained  network of advertising and promotion. On mobile devices it’s even worse — it becomes harder to tell the difference between ads and organic search results. Human laziness will make you choose whatever pops up in the first three results, no matter how commercial it seems.

Comparatively speaking, searching for proper nouns is  easier than searching for concepts or abstract phrases.  (That is why I end up going to wikipedia more times than not… I want to find some neutral site that doesn’t have a secret agenda to destroy someone’s reputation and laud him as a captain of the industry.  But wikipedia waters down everything.  It almost seems proud of the fact that nothing on the site is original or insightful).

I remember once  talking to a translator in Albania. We had a delightful conversation, but he playfully scolded me for simplifying my language when talking to him.  “Why is that bad?” I asked him. “Isn’t accurate communication the goal of teaching?”

“Not really,” he replied.  “The thing which most interests the translator are those  hard-to-translate or untranslatable expressions. These “untranslatables” are the most valuable part of the language and  often the key to the cultural peculiarities of the people who speak it.”

I’m not sure I agree. But surely whatever is  hard-to-express inside a language  has value .. and certainly those linguistic qualities which make a web page easy for a search engine to parse also make it less interesting.  It’s clear to me that search engines fail to provide relevant results fairly often — for various commercial and linguistic reasons. Perhaps human vanity fools us into thinking that our experiences are unique — rather than the more likely fact that Google isn’t providing  an accurate picture of the world’s experiences and thoughts. Instead of expressing wonder at the ability of Google to turn up interesting results, we should be lamenting the fact that Google continues to lead us down well-known paths of stupidity.


I am less excited by the fact that search engines have given special prominence to Wikipedia because of its commitment to the  “neutral point of view.” (NPOV) Enshrining the NPOV means that wikipedia page will exclude a lot of  analyses and points of view; it shudders towards the obvious and noncontroversial. Even if that is better than commercial search engines, I can’t help but wonder wikipedia just helps to flee from one watered down path to another.


I am keenly aware of how over the past few years my blog posts have decreased while at the same time my posts on Facebook and Google Plus have soared.  It’s an odd situation — about 90% of my posts now  are AWAY FROM THIS BLOG.

The reason is simple: there are significantly more readers on these general social media networks than on my blog. Also, sharing on both platforms brings significant payoffs and Google Plus posts tend to be ranked high on search results.

Now  — mainly for lack of time — my blog is housing  infrequent long form content, while my social media posts houses my short content (which admittedly has a tendency to become long form). This is not an ideal situation.

A few months ago I made the transition from Facebook to Google Plus (for reasons I discuss in detail here).  That is mainly a lateral move and doesn’t completely solve the problem.

It is technically possible — through IFTTT recipes and WordPress plugins — to repost wordpress posts into social media platforms (though not entirely to my satisfaction — for example — how do you make sure that certain WordPress posts aren’t broadcast onto social media?) However, beneath that is another looming problem.  How do you create a blog  landing page which displays long form content with short form content without seeming to  drown a  blog in triviality?  How do you make sure that WordPress posts are formatted in a way optimized for the social media networks? How do you deal with perishable Youtube content which displays great on social media but takes up way too much real estate on a blog?

I’m sure there are WordPress themes which have implemented solutions to the problem, but I haven’t tried them out yet. (I will point out that as a matter of principle I try not to rely on plugins to solve my web design problems, but using themes to solve these problems  seems doable).   A separate issue which I have not yet addressed is choosing a theme suitable for both mobile and desktop browsers. I’m still happy with the WordPress platform, although I’m still experimenting with drupal for other projects.

As retro as it seems, I still love the style of making the blog home page a single long page.

For various reasons (mainly personal), I don’t normally link to my blog posts on Facebook or Google Plus. (Maybe I do 50% of the time).  This might seem strange to the typical blogger (who might view social media platforms as simply another opportunity for cross-promotion). But I pay attention to what kind of posts work for what audience; I often think that my WordPress posts are meant mainly for other bloggers (who are more comfortable with RSS readers) and people who are more interested in Robert the writer/geek than Robert the humorist/guy with an opinion about everything. Also, given that my type of work tends to be  contract/short term,  I don’t want my personal blog to feature anything which looks unpolished or controversial or off-color. A programmer/blogger friend of friend once used to make a lot of political posts on his blog until he became aware that an employer mentioned it in an interview — indicating some discomfort. My friend  quickly removed all the political posts and now posts exclusively about programming.

I probably wouldn’t go that far  (it is a writer’s job to be absolutely fearless and  let loose on occasion), but I’d like to do it knowingly and skillfully.  A public post which is opinionated does not worry me — as long  as it is well-thought out and contains good grammar. Accomplishing that is a lot harder than you might think — especially when your standards for what constitutes a “good post” rises over time.  Ten years ago, I would think aloud about any darn thing for a paragraph or two  and not think twice. But at this stage in my life I  worry less about how much I have covered  than whether  I have covered Topic X fully enough. Any verbose and prolific blogger  will inevitably find that spelling and grammar are everywhere — and each new post gives him more territory which he needs to police.  (I regularly correct grammar and style mistakes on old posts as a matter of habit).

To summarize: Now  it’s not a priority   to figure out a blog-to-social-media solution, but it’s definitely on my mind.  Perhaps I ought to make a blog post about it (Oops, I just did!)

Postscript: Someone needs to invent a WordPress plugin which auto-corrects your spelling of the word WordPress in posts. That’s one I would definitely install!


I’m surprised that I didn’t mention a point which now seems obvious.

When you  use Facebook or Google Plus, you are basically handing over your content to a third party which exerts a lot of indirect control and derives benefits from hosting it. Obviously neither Facebook or Google Plus make a copyright claim over your content, but the content you post there becomes a draw for other people to use their services as well (which leads to more ad dollars and premium services, etc). I don’t really believe that either company has nefarious motives (other than simply wanting to make money), but ultimately a free service has no real obligation to restore content which may have been lost through no fault of your own. Sure, these companies perform customer service actions as a courtesy because it makes business sense. But what if it no longer makes business sense to do so?

I won’t deny that hosting your posts offloads a lot of the burden of trying to do so on your own. That is certainly a valuable service. Also Google’s embrace of  “data liberation”  is reassuring. But it matters a lot where the content creator creates something originally. In the ideal world, wouldn’t it be better to create  posts in your own  garden and then syndicate it elsewhere   than to create them in a remote garden and then somehow devise some way to export it back to your own garden? First, there is the matter of time. Manually cross-posting things adds time, and so does having to customize an  export process.

I’m starting to believe that this question of growing things first in your personal garden is more important than I originally believed. Perhaps it’s asking way too much for  WordPress — as good as an all-purpose tool as you can get — to export cleanly  and beautifully to all platforms.

After doing my research, I see that more recent versions of WordPress have started using “post formats” to differentiate between different kinds of posts. They even have custom fields to help you even further customize content.  That’s not quite at content types, but it’s very close.

But then again, a WP theme doesn’t need to display all published content on the front page. It could accept all kinds of content types, but only publish bloggy content on the blog. There’s no reason you couldn’t create content in a centralized CMS, publishing some content on the blog, some on the social network, etc…. I think Pressbooks came up with the idea of using WordPress not only as a publishing platform but for a storage platform.

Perhaps a company like WordPress or Google could be capable of handling and syndicating any kind of content, letting you decide easily where and how it ought to be published. If that is so, a financial relationship between content creator and company needs to exist where the individual’s identity is verified and the company has provided some service level agreement for backing up and retrieving data. That’s a service I would certainly pay for.


Minor Sketches and Reveries in 2014

by Robert Nagle on 1/2/2014

in Personal

2014 probably is a good time for me  to publish a story collection. Consisting of various things  I’d written  over the years – which I never got around to collecting.  It’s funny; I have been  so busy with  life stuff and  Personville stuff that it’s easy to delay  finishing  major writing projects  and tossing  older stuff into various collections.   This ebook will be titled Minor Sketches and Reveries –  I’m still trying to decide upon a pseudonym.


This fun thing is something I published in 2000 on my old site — and has since become dead. A mixed review of a famous book on programming prompts a reply from the author and a friendly
discussion about book reviewing

My Original Review (August 2000) about the book Mastering Regular Expressions by Jeffrey Friedl

I haven’t read the book from cover to cover but have read parts of it. I don’t deny that it is informative and occasionally helpful (especially if you come from a perl background). But the book as it stands is not appropriate for someone starting out in regular expressions. Instead it provides a lot of depth as far as how regular expressions are used in specific tools and all the different standards for regular expressions.

But a lot of this information on regular expressions is not relevant or necessary for composing plain vanilla bash regular expressions. I suspect that the majority of readers will find a few chapters helpful, but will skip over at least a few chapters that have no bearing on their work. To spend so much time in a book talking about the different implementations of regular expressions is to beg the question about whether you should read a general book or instead read a book about the implementation of r.e. specific to your computer language.

I have two complaints. First, the book does not try to teach you the art of writing regular expressions (it assumes a certain level of familiarity already). As a learning book, it may not be satisfy your needs. The second complaint is that the book doesn’t include an adequate reference section or at least a section you can refer to when trying to write your own regular expressions. I found myself flipping back and forth from pages to try to find the aspect of regular expressions I need. A more methodical reference chapter or appendix is sorely needed.

Don’t get the impression I am not recommending this book. It is a fine book; only be sure that you thumb through it at a bookstore to make sure that the kind of material it presents is what you are looking for. For me it was not. The best teaching book I’ve found to explain regular expressions is Practical Guide to Linux by Mark Sobell. It’s old, but it explains regular expressions, sed, awk and grep better than any book, including this one. This book presented the clearest examples of any computer book I have encountered.


The Author Responds (December, 2001)

This evening I noticed your review of my book “Mastering Regular Expressions” on Amazon. I’m sorry that you didn’t get out of it what you desired of it. Perhaps if you had more of a need for advanced regex use, it would have been more valuable.

In your review, you make two specific complaints. The first, “does not try to teach you the art of writing regular expressions”, makes me wonder what book you’re revewing. Teaching that art is the heart of the book, and the 100 or so pages that make up chapters 4 and 5 do nothing but teach that art. Perhaps they were part of what you didn’t read (you don’t learn an art by flipping around and reading tidbits like it’s a Reader’s Digest :-)

You also comment “(it assumes a certain level of familiarity already)”. Well, the later chapters assume you read chapter 1, which starts out from scratch.

I find your comments puzzling because as you said yourself, you haven’t read more than “parts of it”, so how can you make any claim about what it doesn’t do? Sure, I know it can’t be all things to all people, but you really knocked it right where I’m the most happy with it.

You’re right about your second complaint, though (needs a better reference section). My original thought was that I wanted to teach the thinking of regular expressions, and leave most tool-specific stuff to your tool’s manual. Why would someone want to pay for a copy of what they already have? But I find it’s a common desire, so in the 2nd edition I added 25 pages to Chapter 3 (which is really the lost child of the first edition), with a much expanded use of the “=> XX” page references that make the page flipping (which you can never eliminate) much more bearable. Anyway, I do hope that the book is able to prove its value to you sometime.

 I Respond to the Author (December 2001)

Thanks for your reaction. It is an honor to receive something from the author himself!

I write reviews of Oreilly books very often, and actually I request review copies from them every so often.

The first thing I should say is that I consider myself a nonprogrammer, and it’s quite common for me to write reviews of subjects about which I know absolutely nothing. I’m a technical writer and I focus more on the “readability” and organization of the book.

So I am writing as a nonexpert. And to be honest, I haven’t used regular expressions much, although I imagine that the time for that will come.

I remember reading the first few chapters (perhaps a little too breezily , I’ll admit), and enjoying them and finding the information useful. The examples were also very good. I just found the detail about the different engines overwhelming and not really relevant to my current needs. (For some people, this information may be the best part of the book,I”ll admit).

With programming books, one’s reaction to them changes over time. Some books I initially think are horrible, and then I find myself referring to over and over. With others, it’s just the reverse. Sometimes I feel I should write “updates” on amazon about what a numbskull I am.

So please don’t get the impression that I was panning the book.

Regex is such a broad subject, and every programming language seems to have their own quirks. The changes you mentioned sound interesting and could probably make an excellent book even better.

On another note about not reading,etc. An anecdote. My friend (a professional book reviewer) often would choose books to review on the basis of how little reading was required to actually write the review. On some books, he wrote the review while barely opening the book! While this seems dangerous, sometimes initial impressions can be helpful.

The Author Responds to my Response (Dec 2001)

I’m not so sure that one should consider an email from me to be an honor — most of my friends procmail me away :-)

I appreciate your detailed reply, Robert, though I still feel that your review is unjust. It’s not that it says negative things (for certainly, any book can’t be all things to all people, nor even do what it intends to do perfectly). It’s that I feel that *had* you used the book as it was intended (and as the preface — the book’s instruction manual, so to speak — suggests), your concerns would have been answered and your review would have more accurately reflected the contents and usefulness of the book. (Such a review certainly may well have included negative comments that came with your deeper knowledge of what you were were reviewing — I know that the book is far from perfect.)

I’ve seen a few negative reviews of my book over the years that have basically said “I wanted to book to be X, and it wasn’t!”. In every case, “X” was something that the book was not intended to be, so while I wish the reviewer had had a better experience with the book, such a review does serve a purpose to clarify to the reader of the review what the books does and doesn’t do.

I guess what it comes down to is that if one feels the needs to begin a review with “well, I’ve not really read this book”, I feel one probably shouldn’t be offering a review at all. I realize that putting out more reviews gets you brownie points at Amazon, but it’s really not fair to me or to your readers. At least, that’s my feeling.

Regex is such a broad subject, and every programming language seems to have their own quirks.

Ha, if you still have a copy of the book, see the first sentence (and footnote) of the last paragraph of p62 :-)

If you thought my book was “excellent”, your review very much does not give that impression. It gives the impression that the book is very bad at doing exactly what I belive the book is best at doing (bringing a novice up to speed, and teaching the *art* of writing a regex). As it’s written, I belive your review does a disservice to me and to all the readers of your review.

I’m aware that there are people who do their job poorly. It’s sad, in any field, and all the worse when it hurts others. I try not to do mine here at Yahoo poorly, nor mine as an author. (My overriding principle when I’m writing was given to me by an author friend who said “you do the research, so your readers don’t have to”. People are paying *their* *money* for my book, so I’ll be dammed if I’m going to give them anything but my very best effort.)

The 2nd edition concentrates mostly on the popular scripting languages (VB and other .NET Framework languages, Java, Perl, Python, Ruby), and less on the old Unix tools (awk/sed/lex). If it happens to land on your desk, I hope you find it useful.

A Friend Makes a Very Valid Point (Dec 2001)

Bobby, this is very interesting/amusing to read. I don’t recommend responding to him again, but perhaps you might have clarified that the books I choose that “require the least reading” are either 1) books with very little text to read, 2) reissues of books I’ve read before, 3) anthologies of literary material that I’m often already familiar with, or that only require a sampling of stories to be read for a broad impression, or 4) reference encyclopedias that are not meant to be read cover to cover, but which have certain important entries. He might think I idly try reviewing technical things I have no knowledge of. Actually, it’s my prior knowledge of a subject that enables me to review certain books quickly without much effort.

(Now it can be revealed; this critic/friend is Michael Barrett, book and movie critic extraordinaire!)

I Become Philosophical (August 2002)

I am very sympathetic to this author’s defensiveness about his book. One has only to look over the hundreds of rave reviews on amazon to realize that the book is one of the most praised books on publishing today. As Andy Oram writes, “Yet Mastering Regular Expressions came out and became an instant hit. The Perl community (where regular expressions had taken hold most strongly at the time) treated Friedl as a hero. His talk at the first O’Reilly Perl Conference filled a large hall right up to the back doors. We sold out all copies of his book at the conference, even though it had released six months before, and brought in another batch of copies that were promptly sold out as well. Five years after publication and 22 years after the death of McLuhan, the first edition still sells several hundred copies per month and is continually recommended on mailing lists and in journal articles.”

During the year 2000 I reviewed lots of books that I only half-understood (or at least wouldn’t be able to really understand until I tried it out myself). Often one’s gut instincts about a book are right; sometimes they are not. Sometimes a book which didn’t seem user-friendly at first turns out to be exactly what you need. Conversely, some books which look useful may in fact be too simple or too esoteric to be useful.

So I went back to the book and read a few more chapters, afraid that I had seriously misjudged this book. Well, surprise, surprise! I not only stood by my previous opinion, I found myself justifying my original decision to review a book I hadn’t read all the way. To review a technical book requires, in all fairness, that you read the book from start to finish. That seems like an obvious point, but it is completely wrong. It overlooks the fact that reviewing is often about reporting what the book contains and doesn’t contain. With technical books, how do you criticize? You are reading a subject that you are probably a novice at, and the author is certainly an expert. Aside from pointing out technical errors (and from what I’ve heard, all technical books seem to have their fair share of them), the critic can talk about writing style, logical approach to the subject and whether the book covered the subject in a way that newbies could understand. My original review was not delivering harsh criticism to the book really; it was merely suggesting some reasons why this particular book might not be useful for some people.

As a matter of fact, Friedl has a nice breezy writing style that is a delight to read. And indeed, it looks like a novel—the book is full of prose. Chapters 4 –the real crux of the book–gives a step-by-step guide to solving problems using regular expressions, explaining the syntax and showing some great examples. Chapter 5 is about optimizing, and the rest of the book hovers on the topic of Perl. My main problem was and still is that I couldn’t find what I needed whenever I picked it up! In contrast, whenever I wanted help on deciphering or writing regular expressions, I found myself referring to the much simpler “ Practical guide to Linux” .The author admits as much in his initial response that the first edition lacked an adequate reference section, and it seems likely that the second edition will address that difficulty.

While Mr. Friedl has every right to respond to his critics, I have to wonder whether he is a shade too indignant. No book can win over everybody. Even if a book comes close to achieving that, it will no doubt attract a crowd of critics eager to deflate the hype, to burst the bubble, to rain on the parade. Of course, I intend to do no such thing. But amidst a chorus of lavish praise, the temptation of a critic to inject a modicum of dissent becomes irresistible.


Strangely, it is getting difficult to view RSS feed information  from a web browser . A few years ago, you used to see syndication icons everywhere, but it never really caught on. As a blogger and regular reader of RSS feeds on feedly/Mr. Reader, the crucial detail I want to know is whether a website is syndicating the partial feed or the full feed. From the standpoint of a person checking feeds on my Feedreader in a place without wifi access, it is crucial that I only add full feeds to feedly instead of partial feeds. Partial feeds may serve a purpose, but for the most part they are useless to me. The methods described below don’t always tell you directly whether the feed is full or partial, but once you know how to view the feed in “raw” mode, it’s pretty easy to figure out.

As far as I know, only Safari and  the Chrome extension lets you view the raw feed.


Firefox has 2 methods for detecting RSS methods. Either one works. The second method puts a shortcut on your toolbar for easy permanent access.

  • Right click anywhere on the web page and choose Page Info and then the Feeds tab. It will show all available RSS feeds (and sometimes more than one!)
  • View –> Toolbars –> Customize and then choose the icon for Subscribe/Feeds and drag it to your Firefox toolbar. (This assumes that the menu toolbar is already visible. If not, right- click on the top of the browser and make sure that Menu Bar is checked.)

Internet Explorer (IE)

Tools –> Feed Discovery –>(see if a feed exists). If it does, IE will display it and give you some queries and options for subscribing and filtering. (If you don’t see the Tools toolbar, right-click on the top toolbar and make sure Menu Bar is checked).


At the time of this writing, the best way to discover RSS feeds in Chrome is to install an extension called RSS Subscription Extension. After installing it, you will see an orange feed icon on the URL bar. Pressing it will reveal more information about the RSS feeds on that particular URL.  In Chrome  after you go to the “pretty” view of the RSS feed, you will see a link on the right side of the browser labeled simply “Feed.” If you press this, Chrome will show you the complete feed as XML source code. (i.e., the raw view).


The URL toolbar at the top will display a small blue rectangle with the letters RSS whenever a RSS is detected at a URL. When you click on this button, the full feed will display within the browser, along with some tools for filtering.


Here’s a literary obituary and appreciation of Ohio author Jack Matthews who died on November 28 at the age of 88.  I’ll probably write a more personal tribute later. Also, I finally posted the audio of the erudite 45 minute interview I did with Jack in 2010.

A lot is going on at the moment in my life (and plus there’s a lot of half-finished pieces lying around).  I need to find a job pretty quickly, so that’s on my front burner now. I post fairly frequently on my Google Plus account -– which I’m not particularly enthusiastic about, but certainly like better than Facebook (here’s why).

More:  I’ve had a pretty good correspondence with Jack Matthews over the four years I knew him. We definitely were on the same wavelength about lots of things.  I am not sure, but there’s a good chance that I might have received the last email ever written by Jack Matthews (I had asked him to write me a brief reference for me — which he did).  His mind was still sharp, but he fatigued quickly, and emails are such effort (for me as well as him).

Here’s  a late-night email I sent him last April. The first paragraph is an excerpt from his book Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit. It’s a quirky and interesting book with lots of fun parts, although his essay collections which he published in the 1980s are much more important.


Sunday, April 07, 2013 1:05 AM

Dear Jack,

It is a similar silliness to pretend that buying books “as an investment” is incompatible with scholarship or the true love of literature; Quite the contrary; it is the man who divides his love of literature from the material life who is the true heretic, using only the public library or the niggardly functional paperback for the leavening of his sensibility, and investing his money in Ford Motor Company and AT&T stock. What a dreary divarication is this, and how schizoid and truly mercenary is the man who plays such a nasty game against himself! To invest in books does not imply that the collector intends to sell them; he merely buys them with the conviction that his taste in honoring them will be validated by posterity and that – with effort and know-how comparable to those of other investors – this validation will have a dimension of financial profit.  The investment aspect of collecting is utterly fascinating, for it carries with it the excitement of competition in skill, expertise and taste. Often, too, there is the added excitement of the chase, in the auction room, the book fair and in the “field,” tracking down literary manuscripts, letters or rare titles.  (CRBFPAP, p 6-77)

A really fun passage. Even though I quoted it before in one of my essays, I just now enjoyed the language and style of it  (“true heretic””AT&T stock”  “leavening of his sensibility”, “divarication” etc. ). It is one of the sad ironies of time that it takes so long while for even diehard fans to catch up with enjoying the subtle artistry’s  of another author’s language — to say nothing of scholars and general readers. I pick this passage for no particular reason, merely to remind myself that long after you have bitten the dust, I (and hopefully others)  will be admiring (and chuckling over)  oodles  of similar and yet-to-be-discovered passages, but be unable to send these trivial late-night notes of appreciation to the living- and-breathing composer of them.

That, I guess, comprises  the silly comedy of the writer’s profession……



A few decades ago, a high school student sent surveys to well known writers and asked them how conscious were they about symbolism and interpretation for what they were writing. The answers were varied and interesting.

Here’s my perspective as a fiction writer and editor. “Symbolism” is much too strong a word, but I would guess that most of my fiction writing friends would say that they are conscious of at least 95% of the resonances/imagery/parallels in their language and details. Sometimes you need to think this things out if only to keep things consistent. Suppose you were writing a story or novel with Christian overtones; you’d want to make sure that any imagery identified with Christianity (crosses, bread, wine, etc) be used consistently with the overall theme. Sometimes, writers go out of their way to make their imagery inconsistent or misleading or ironic if only to make things fun. Often storytellers like to write allegorically, so allegories definitely can be applied to many different situations. See for example all the crazy interpretations of Wizard of Oz. Poetry is a completely different matter because poets go out of their way to use words and phrases which have multiple meanings and resonances, leaving it to the reader to decide at what level the work ought to be grasped. Finally, the question itself seems to be an artefact of psychoanalysis, which heavily influenced that particular generation of writers. If you asked a bunch of writers the same questions today, I doubt that many of them would attribute such an important role to the “subconscious” for their writing.


Who is Not Going to be president in 2016

by Robert Nagle on 11/17/2013

in Pop Americana

In September 2008 I was visiting distant relatives in Ireland. The topic of conversation was “Sarah Palin.” All the Irish people at the table were genuinely worried about her. “We can’t afford to have another Bush Administration — that affects many people not just in America. This Sarah Palin seems formidable. Why on earth didn’t Obama pick Hilary Clinton to be vice-president?”

I had to smile at this reaction. Obviously, as an American I saw things from a different perspective. I got to see how insiders viewed McCain/Palin and Obama. I knew that many Americans had considerable enthusiasm about Obama, and many people were sick of a Republican in the White House. I knew that McCain didn’t generate as much enthusiasm, didn’t accept federal election funds, had several out-of-touch scandals and had several mishaps. No matter how great Palin was, (and I knew that she was not by that time), these were insurmountable obstacles.

I had that same sort of feeling after Romney nominated Paul Ryan as his running mate. Romney was smart and capable, but he was very domineering in political debates; he also had the arrogance that came with wealth. During the primary to prove his conservative mettle Romney took on some pretty hardline positions, and I knew that would come back to bite him. Paul Ryan has always seemed to be a dishonest politician, but in TV appearances, he seemed sincere and focused (two very good qualities for a presidential ticket). Tactically it made sense to pick him, but it ended up making Romney and Ryan seem out of touch with mainstream America. Even after that first presidential debate fiasco, I knew that demographic trends favored Obama; it wasn’t that Obama won the election, but that Republicans lost it spectacularly.

I realize that it’s too soon to talk about 2016, and I find the premature talk of it to be amusing. I don’t know who will win or who will be nominated, but I know who will NOT be nominated.

  • Ted Cruz. Sure, he’s a rising star, but he has irritated many people inside his party and out. That’s not how presidents get started. He may get campaign contributions (and often this kind of money goes to show support of a position rather than an individual), but he will burn out pretty quickly. I think his positions are too extreme for the country, but I don’t even think that will matter.
  • Rick Perry. He’s good at raising money and politicking (and I mean that in the most cynical way) But he has bungled so many things in Texas (I mean major scandals), really doesn’t understand national issues and really has not faced a major challenger in Texas. He’s also a lousy debater and he refused Medicaid funding. That might play well in Texas, but almost nowhere else.
  • Hilary Clinton. Too old, and Americans have tired of the Clinton brand by now.
  • Elizabeth Warren. I love Ms. Warren’s spunk and advocacy, but she is too old and doesn’t really have a track record as a politician. Also, although she has the gift of gab and good political instincts, you can’t get to know the American political landscape by teaching at Harvard.
  • Joe Biden, Howard Dean, Kathleen Sebelius. Too old.
  • Rick Santorum. Too ideological.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand. Probably a good candidate, but too young and if Cuomo were to run against her, he would probably win (Gillibrand worked for him  at  HUD).
  • Mike Huckabee/Sarah Palin/Pete King/Jan Brewer/John Bolton. Too strange, even for Republicans.
  • Chris Christie. Although his numbers look good now from the recent  jerryrigged election and he polls well with the Bubba vote, he is too abrasive, doesn’t really show a mastery of policy and the fact that Romney didn’t want him  in 2012 speaks a lot.
  •  Bobby Jindal. Probably a competent and articulate Republican, but Louisiana is a puny political base to start from, and Jindal is too young. On the fence though; Jindal has made it a point to get involved in national issues, so I wouldn’t count him out yet. But Louisiana is too small a pond to test your political mettle (at least with a state like Maryland, you are dealing with DC and more national media)
  •  Rand Paul.  He has brand name, youth and cachet with the Tea Party. He also has the tendency to say crazy things and get involved in all kinds of minor scandals. I think his positions are really too crazy even for Republicans.  Still, he’s the nicer version of “Ted Cruz” with more heart and passion for social issues. But as his policies become better known, he  (like Paul Ryan) may find his popularity declines.
  • Scott Walker. Occasionally a politician who stirs national attention for being intractable  is rewarded politically (especially if he survives intact),  but in this case he  will serve as a lightning rod for hostility (just like Rick Perry).  Although he survived a recall challenge, the visuals of having been so vigorously opposed  by students, teachers  and labor unions should help him in the primary, but not in the national election. I could be wrong on this, and certainly he is not the laughing stock like Perry. Reagan had enemies too, but he also had a Hollywood background  and lots of charisma, something Walker doesn’t have the benefit of. Ultimately the key litmus test for whether a Republican can win a general election is  whether you accepted Medicaid expansion.  Opposing the expansion  wins you points in the primary, but not in the general election (unless Obamacare has major setbacks, which I do not expect).

This still leaves a lot of people: Andrew Cuomo, John Kasich, Martin O’Malley, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan. Aha, I see no woman on my list. As I said, Warren would be my top choice if she ran, but she doesn’t really have a deep command on policy issues outside of banking and finance.

I am predicting that Obamacare will not be a train wreck and that governors who blocked it for their state will face inherent difficulties winning the general  election.  That leaves two Republican governors who accepted expansion (Bush and Kasich) and senators who can oppose it rhetorically but never had to block it in that person’s own state. That gives  Marco Rubio  a built in advantage.

On the Democrat side, I would love to see candidates make one or two issues their own (rather than just pointing to executive skills as governor). We may say that Ron Paul or Bill Bradley or Dennis Kucinich had very small chances of winning, but they had major platform differences with the leading candidate. I would love to see a candidate seize on climate change as an issue. Maybe a top tier candidate won’t do  this (Cuomo?) but a second tier candidate probably would, and frankly, none of the potential Democrat candidates have treated climate change as anything more than just another issue.  I would love to see an outsider like  Sheldon Whitehouse, Alan Grayson or Bob Inglis run for president, but that’s what the Green Party is for.

Postscript: I should add that I don’t think I’m demonstrating “ageism” by saying that candidates are too old. It’s just that it has to do with energy level, “passion” and the ability to campaign tirelessly for 2 presidential campaigns. I suppose  a 70 year old with a well-managed schedule could do these things (the Senators seem to have no problems, and a lot of them are 70 and older). What really gets you though is all the travelling.  I think Hilary and  Elizabeth Warren could manage it, but barely. Both woman (and especially Hilary) are supremely qualified and competent. But asking them to campaign in 50 states and then to jaunt to Europe and Asia every two or three months seems to be torture for anyone (much less a person over 65).

Postscript 2. If pressed to predict, I would  say Martin O’Malley for Democrats and  Marco Rubio for Republicans.


The flaw of libertarian economics is that it overlooks or discounts the predatory aspects of power. You can say that we should get government off our backs or that taxation is an unjust burden or that the free market provides an optimal creation of wealth. But without oversight or interference, more powerful businesses can easily  avoid compliance with contracts and avoid compensating  people who have been harmed by their behaviour. Libertarians refer to the court system as correcting major injustices and disparities betwween parties, but it ignores the fact that justice is often very slow and  many  victims  are  rewarded  only after considerable waiting (and suffering). A few months ago I complained  that it took the multi-billion dollar company  Comcast more than four months to refund me $20 which it already admitted that it owed me. Comcast, like many Fortune 500 companies,  has the legal infrastructure to fend off legal claims about such malfeasance, allowing it to nickel and dime the American consumer to death with impunity.  A  well-crafted regulation, if applied uniformly with adequate phase-in time, can be easy and  inexpensive for companies to implement; it can also correct injustices promptly  and minimize drawn out court battles  between parties with  unequal power.  I understand that unchecked public agencies can sometimes handicap legitimate business activity without good reason, but at least they are accountable to public pressure.

The laissez faire policies advocated by libertarians   enable the private exploitation of public resources with the potential to cause pernicious  effects. Libertarians often paint the struggle as government agents encroaching on the house and property rights of an individual, but the more common scenario is a giant company whose injuries to others avoid  public scrutiny by virtue of its economic might, with government  agents (woefully outmatched and underfunded) unable to figure out if the company has done anything wrong.

Mexican poet Octavio Paz once wrote that capitalism is efficient at creating wealth but wretched at  assigning it a purpose.  Wealth creation for its own sake is not really a public good  if citizens fear for their safety and economic well-being and  if investment in “social capital” and public resources is minimal. It is not enough for Chevron to pay to build a public park or Walmart to  support food kitchens. There needs to be an entity committed to managing this “social capital” at all times regardless of whether it helps a company’s bottom line at a particular moment.  This entity needs to be accountable to all Americans and needs to have an organizational framework dedicated to treating all people equally and fairly. This entity is called a government.

Related: see my piece on libertarianism and the health care system (which touches upon a lot of general issues about how to measure libertarianism as a philosophy) and an excellent book  which argues for “soft paternalism”: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (See the Nudges blog).

Postscript: Here’s an interesting question to pose to libertarians: “should private contracts supersede liberties?”   Can a prostitute sell her obedience for a price?  Can an intern enter a contractual arrangement where he or she receives no compensation but has to follow the contract’s obligations?  If I bought a piece of property with the intent to exploit its mineral rights, are those mineral rights unrestricted and perpetual regardless of what any later government decides and regardless of  any later safety findings?  Libertarians believe that the ability to make contracts is a sign of liberty, but at some point, this contract can threaten the liberty of  one of the parties (or even a third party, as with the case of environmental harms).