Sunday, August 29, 2010

Liver ablation

Had a liver ablation last Friday, trying to kill off a spot of cancer in my liver. Diagnosed last year (I think), chemo-embolization last June, ablation last Friday.

Ablation is where they stick a hollow wire into your side, then slide a tiny set of umbrella ribs in there. The umbrella opens and makes an antenna for microwave. Your liver pasteurizes at that spot, along with the cancer — and hopefully they "got it all." If not... Well, medicare keeps doctors off the bread line, right?

My daughter has my Ford. I intend to sleep today. G'night (it's 8:55 a.m.)


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Back To School

For those of us with ordinary sheltered lives, there's nothing quite as exhiliarating as turning your 16-year-old loose by herself with a low-end Ford and an Iowa Intermediate Driver's License.

School's started. Be careful out there.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

I don't write vampire novels, but in my everlasting quest for two wrongs that make a right I woke up this morning wondering what a Zombie Jabberwock would look like. Lady GaGa, of course. Gotta love that Monster Lady, but... if you deconstruct da Ga, don't you get Hillary Clinton?

I mean after all, that dude ranch in Occupied Palestine has thermonuclear weapons, so maybe we can get a reel life pieces agreement this time around, pardon my Snark? Considering the undertow in Iran? The H-Bomb? The old Deep Tan?

What good is a hundred or a thousand megatons if you're as teeny tiny as Israel? How far can you run before you run out of landscape and try to hide in nonsense? No wonder the Apocalypse is so eagerly awaited by the Jerry Falwell loons in this country. It's imminent.

Here's the thing. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, once the Soviets started assailing our sense of cultural superiority with the Bolshoi Ballet, we started believing that whatever else they might be, the Rooskies weren't insane and had a strong sense of self-preservation.

But it's so-o-o hard not to build the bomb. It turns out the Manhattan Project was overkill, or at least Cold War propaganda, because once you've got the basics (believed to have been delivered to the Russians on a few papers hidden in a Kleenex box), the bomb itself is about as complicated as a devilsfood cupcake.

Even Israel can do it. But then, the world has gone mad, and the Boojum is upon us. We knew that, right?

Israel is one-half a Belgium, just about.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


Thursday, August 19, 2010


Somehow I think preferring one English translation of the Quran over another must be a bit like deciding on a Prom Queen — you know the girl you came with isn't that one.

Let me just say, I've been browsing through Laleh Bakhtiar's mildly feminist translation, and while it's interesting and has a number of excellent scholarly points in its favor, her notion of word-for-word "consistency" (Arabic vis-a-vis English) comes at no small cost to music, modality and meaning. I have to admit that my favorite version so far is Ahmed Ali's contemporary translation. He covers the same modern, moderate ground as other commenters (backed up by authoritative quotes from hadith) while still producing a journeyman text in the language of Shakespeare and the Bible.

No doubt there are other, better, versions, but I haven't seen them yet. Hints and suggestions on this subject are welcome.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Grandfather Paradox

That's the absurd little story where you invent a time machine, go back in time and pop a cap into your own grandfather, so he ceases to exist, so you cease to exist, so you never invent a time machine, so you never go back in time, so your grandfather never ceased to exist, so you were born after all, so you invent a time machine, then go back in time... But! Nobody ever explains why the old boy needed to be bumped off. OMG, maybe you were trying to commit suicide, kill your family, and erase every trace of yourself from the entire universe? Whoa, is that panther pink or what!?

The paradox story fails epically because it never takes into account those things we already KNOW about the nature of Time:
  • One, the Present is always changing.
  • Two, therefore, the Future is always changing.
  • But Zero, the Past is intimately connected to the Present, so the Past is always changing.
If the Past is not always changing, then when you step out of your Time Machine to look up your expendable ancestor, you find yourself moving ghostlike through an immutable Past in which your old Granddad is sitting on an insubstantial porcelain throne behind a door of gauzy oak that might as well be fog for all that you can induce it to open. Your bullets might as well be neutrinos for all the notice anyone takes of them. In fact, aren't you up to your knees by now, in your slow descent to the Earth's core?

When you realize that Time is a narrative fallacy, scenarios multiply, and if you are honest, in most of those scenarios you've left your omnipotence in your Sunday pajamas. For example, maybe the past is sticky, and you're stuck like a fly in amber.


Monday, August 16, 2010

The Tyranny of the Majority

Freedom of religion requires an entire First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because the first tri-corner hatted Americans were no fools and knew damn well that, given the chance, the majority of voters would burn their irreligious compatriots at the stake.

Today, the First Amendment says Moslems have the right to build a mosque on their own private property in New York City two blocks from the site of "Ground Zero" (which means something rather more trenchant in Hiroshima) precisely because 30% of 21st Centurion Americans are pig ignorant Republicans who have had visions of a 900-foot tall Jesus who says they can't.

On the Day of Judgment, Allah asks an infant girl for what crime she was buried alive. That verse against infanticide rather stands alone, but it's not the only such passage. If Islam truly is a "great, peaceful" religion, considering all the sliced-off noses and otherwise disfigured girls you read about in the news, then the only testimony worth listening to is that of the great sororities and sisterhoods of Muslim women. If anyone knows about Islam, it is they.

The imams have no voice and no special standing in the indictments to come — Allah knows what is in the Quran — so they would do well to sit down and shut up and listen to their mothers, wives, daughters and sisters, who know more than they do. Or was Allah never concerned with the human condition? Was Mary not worth ten times the entire Caliphate?

When I read the Quran, I'm baffled by a relentless, sometimes unpleasant, torrent of historical and cultural references. The text itself seems disconnected and does not tell a coherent tale or make a clear argument. And, of course, the classical Arabic is a complete mystery to me. The beauty of the Quran as recited is the principle argument for its unearthly source, but no English translation conveys that sense.

Nevertheless, I intend to finish reading the Princeton University Press translation by the end of Ramadan, and another Beat Zen dharma bum will feel qualified to dig another of the great human passions.

I'm not really a Dharma Bum, although I have leanings. I met Gary Snyder, once. He doesn't remember ;-)

I had to bail after six and a half days. I'll keep an open mind, but without some help in interpretation (history, context, etc.), this won't end well.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010


The finer points of Ramadan as it is actually practiced have eluded me, it seems. Reading the 30 parts of the Quran happens at your local mosque or Islamic center, during Taraweeh, the nightly prayers which only come during Ramadan. Apparently, these recitations are exhausting, because one article I read mentioned that the imam is allowed to take a break at regular intervals.

So, just privately reading the Quran at home can be done anytime, and is not the formal Ramadan tradition, but wot the hey, I've wanted to read the whole book cover-for-cover for years. Good excuse :-)

I'll have to give myself a B- for this report.

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Friday, August 13, 2010


I've been plodding along through my Ramadan reading of the Qu'ran, fighting off sleep (sorry), when it suddenly occurred to me that all three great religions of the Middle East don't actually read the Torah, the New Testament, the Qu'ran, so much as they sing it. These books are meant to be sung, they are ecstatic poetry! Even in the United States among Christians, you very seldom hear the Bible read aloud in anything like a normal everyday voice. And the farther South you go, the tighter the yodel.

So... if you want to hear the Qu'ran recited, with all its music intact, you either visit your local mosque, or you download Zekr, which includes the full Arabic text of the Qu'ran and a number of English (and other) translations, presented in bilingual form. The recitations work better on some computers than others. Ubuntu isn't quite up to speed yet, because of issues with streaming audio, I presume. Mac and Windows, and maybe other Linuxes, seem to work ok.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ramadan Mubarak

This year's Ramadan, observed by Muslims everywhere, began this morning at sunrise and continues until September 9 at sunset. The basics are fasting each day from morning until sunset and reading the thirty parts of the Koran in remembrance of its revelation to Mohammed in these thirty days from crescent moon to crescent moon.

It's the ninth month of the Moslem calendar, the holiest month of the year — a little like Christmas, if Christmas were restricted to the month of December instead of running amok from Halloween to Valentine's — and a lot like Lent.

In Ramadan, prayers and austerities rule the daylight, but after sunset friends and families gather and share meals, iftar in the evening, leading off with a single date, suhur the breakfast in the dark before sunrise. (There are common-sense exceptions for diabetics, the elderly, travellers, pregnant women, etc.) Those who cannot fast are expected to feed the poor. Ramadan cards feature the crescent moon, calm nights, and religious sentiments as schmaltzy (or not) as anything associated with holidays more familiar to Westerners. The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al Fitr — three days of alms-giving, celebration, and fireworks.

Just as in the West with Christmas and other holidays, there are some flagrantly commercial and discordant notes, such as this one by Burger King in Dubai. It makes you wonder.

During Ramadan, the Gates of Heaven are open, the Gates of Hell are shut, while Satan and all his imps stand chained — to their own vices, in all likelihood.

Then you remember the Tiger Woods Dubai golf resort and all the American ex-pats. So BK is peddling their cheeseburgers to morally bankrupt American tax avoiders, and the obnoxious "crescent moon cheeseburger" is just a money-sucking gimmick with a BIG Cheshire Cat asterisk. Good old too-good-to-be-true-land — Dubai, U.A.E., as the Big Rock Candy Mountain, as Disneyland. Of course there's a Burger King! And of course, they're tone deaf.

The thirty parts of the Quran, reading one part each day (&/or night) of Ramadan, are these, as given chapter and verse according to one authentic Muslim source. Yes, Muslims read the entire Koran each Ramadan, including the rather exhortative verse that says some may find such a discipline difficult, but not the faithful! Ramadan makes a cakewalk out of Lent. (See above. There's no "obligation," and the readings come during Taraweeh in a congregational setting. Sorry for the errors.)

Day 1. Al Fatiha 1 - Al Baqarah 141
Day 2. Al Baqarah 142 - Al Baqarah 252
Day 3. Al Baqarah 253 - Al Imran 92
Day 4. Al Imran 93 - An Nisaa 23
Day 5. An Nisaa 24 - An Nisaa 147
Day 6. An Nisaa 148 - Al Ma’idah 81
Day 7. Al Ma’idah 82
- Al An’am 110
Day 8. Al An’am 111 - Al A’raf 87
Day 9. Al A’raf 88 - Al Anfal 40
Day 10. Al Anfal 41 - At Tauba 92
Day 11. At Tauba 93 - Hud 5
Day 12. Hud 6 - Yusuf 52
Day 13. Yusuf 53 - Ibrahim 52
Day 14. Al Hijr 1 - An Nahl 128
Day 15. Al Isra (or Bani Isra’il) 1 - Al Kahf 74
Day 16. Al Kahf 75 - Ta Ha 135
Day 17. Al Anbiyaa 1 - Al Hajj 78
Day 18. Al Muminum 1 - Al Furqan 20
Day 19. Al Furqan 21 - An Naml 55
Day 20. An Naml 56 - Al Ankabut 45
Day 21. Al Ankabut 46 - Al Azhab 30
Day 22. Al Azhab 31 - Ya Sin 27
Day 23. Ya Sin 28 - Az Zumar 31
Day 24. Az Zumar 32 - Fussilat 46
Day 25. Fussilat 47 - Al Jathiya 37
Day 26. Al Ahqaf 1 - Az Zariyat 30
Day 27. Az Zariyat 31 - Al Hadid 29
Day 28. Al Mujadila 1 - At Tahrim 12
Day 29. Al Mulk 1 - Al Mursalat 50
Day 30. An Nabaa 1 - An Nas 6

Note that "Day 5" is the lunar date, 5 Ramadan 1431 A.H., corresponding to 15 August 2010 A.D.

My favorite translation of the Koran among those on my bookshelf is Al-Qur'an: A Contemporary Translation by Ahmed Ali (Princeton University Press, 1988). N. J. Dawood's 1956 Penguin Classics edition of The Koran is a close second, but his chapters are arranged in a quirky, non-traditional "Biblical" order to avoid off-putting Western readers unaccustomed to sorting verses by size. Laleh Bakhtiar's translation — poetic, erudite, accurate and interpreted from a woman's point of view — is very high on my list. In addition, some older English translations of The Quran, apparently in the public domain, are online at USC and elsewhere — including the pretty Al-Islam edition published by Saudi Arabia.

Here's the Ramadan Kareem Blog, to make up for my obsession with legalistic detail. They have iftar recipes, culture notes, travel hints and other down-to-earth stuff.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

P != NP

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet!
Huh? If this has really been proven, just thinking out loud here, then the likelihood that Public Key Cryptography actually is secure has gone wa-a-ay up.

Personally, I fall into the pessimism camp, that P = NP, and Public Key Cryptography is not only easy to crack but has been cracked already by the NSA. This would imply that even the best PKC implementations reduce to far simpler methods easy to waltz through.

P means decidable, as in, it's pretty easy to tell who won a game of Go.

NP means nearly impossible to play winning Go all the time.

If P != NP, that corresponds to Go as you know it. Easy to decide the winner, hard to become a winner.

P = NP may feel like wishful thinking, but it might actually correspond to reality if, e.g., some algorithm can be applied to a game of Go such that the result computed is a (likely) win. Curiously, this is the situation that is appearing in computer Go, when algorithms use Monte-Carlo methods (whatever that means.) Sylvain Gelly's Go-playing computer program is a good example of the counterintuitive result.

Proof one way or another is worth a million bucks.

P = NP implies Summertime, when the living is easy. It means a problem may be harder than we (and cats, bats and slime molds) can solve, but it does not outlaw a solution by dumb luck, evolution or alien intelligence. An improvable world, that is. I like that, although I could be wrong.

Oh, well.  Back to my corn flakes...

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Monday, August 09, 2010

Drawing a blank...

h friley hall


sometimes i muse
i'd like to be a poet —
but then again we'd starve,
just so you know i know it —


Friday, August 06, 2010


According to the BBC, the Afghan girl with the mutilated nose featured on Time's July 29, 2010 cover is now in the U.S. to have her nose rebuilt. (more)

I hope Time is footing the bill for that one.

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We Know Where You Live

Back in the olden daze, when I was using Macs, I used Privoxy to "Improve My Internet Exerience" — that meant, killing all those stupid little ads that litter web pages like toilet paper on your shoe. It didn't work that well, and it was easier to kill Privoxy than fix it.

Same now. I also use the Sage 1.4.6 news aggregator to read RSS summaries from Reuters, Slashdot and Boing Boing, among others. I'd read Science News too, but their feeds are invariably broken for the same reason I have problems — we're both amateurs. I'd hoped to kill the toilet paper stuck to Slashdot, too, so I tried Privoxy again. It worked for one day, then blocked everything including regular web pages.

Nuts. So I've killed Privoxy again, and now I'm persuading myself that Slashdot's ads "tailored to me" are part of the existential hoohoo of the times.
But nothing turns me off faster than parochial ads I'm supposed to buy into because they hilite my home town. Way too personal, dudes. {Update I may have figured this out. Had a small difference of opinion with the /etc/privoxy/config file...}


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

This Space Intentionally Left Bank

Maybe I'll go watch Next.


Monday, August 02, 2010

America's "Royal Wedding"? Chelsea Clinton??!

I don't think Chelsea Clinton is remotely monarch-like. A little blue, maybe. She's no monarch.

Jesus, Buddha and Mother Theresa meet a lepidopterist on the road. Jesus says, "Swish your net on that side of the field, George." Buddha glances at a small brass box full of #2 black enamel pins, one of which impales a gorgeously iridescent blue morpho, but says nothing, contemplating no doubt those creatures of this sorry Earth whose beauty is intensified by their very transitoriness. Mother Theresa lurches forward, sucks in her breath just in time, and remarks, "Oh, I thought you said leper!"