Harvard experience

I’ve made oblique references to my education before, but today calls for a slightly more specific recollection of one event that seemed to sum up what being at my college was like.

Graduation covers several days, with various events all over the place. Most are outside. In June. In Boston. So, everyone sweats a lot but pretends not to notice. The events are only tangentially related to the graduates, existing more to serve misplaced nostalgia and university status. (As an example, the main ceremony for undergraduates features a humorous Latin oration, for which the students are given are translation, but the spectators are not, allowing the university to look great as the students laugh at all the right moments.) Yet, completely as a side-effect, these events turn out to be pretty fun, even for someone who normally hates that kind of thing, because they connect people in a weird way. Generations reunite and connect with others. You reconnect with people you sort of lost track of along the way. One of them, maybe, goes on to become your wife. All these sort of funky people of all stripes gather and, importantly, drink. In the heat.

The event that prompts this post, though, came the day before the actual graduation, something called Class Day. This day is marked by gatherings that are decidedly less formal than others, with humorous speeches and so on. Weather was particularly good that day, sunny, but not too humid, so the largest of these events was well attended, though there were a scattering of empty seats in most rows. People tended to be in clumps within rows, couples, groups of friends, parents with their children, with stray seats between them. I sat next to my friend LG and we made whispered commentary on the events of the day (about which I remember nearly nothing). In front of us was this cute old guy, sitting alone, quietly watching the ceremonies. I didn’t pay him much mind.

As we were leaving, LG whispered to me, pointing to the old guy “Look.” I looked. I saw the same smiling old guy. She continued “that’s Solzhenitsyn.”

Something weird happens to you (or, at least, to me) in a situation like this. It’s a mental shift that feels in your brain a lot like a dolly zoom, that shot in a movie where the camera zooms out while approaching the actor, leaving the actor the same size in the frame, but bending the perspective on the the scenery. Looking again, I saw the same smiling old guy but, knowing he has seen and done more in his life than I ever will or would care to (soldier, labor camp, literary giant, Nobel Prize), he seemed different, disconnected from the rest of the crowd somehow. He might as well have had a halo.

It wasn’t quite a satori moment (I’ve only ever had one of those, a couple years earlier), but it crystallized a number of things for me. One was that you never really know who is around you; that crazy guy on the train may be the greatest mind the world has ever seen. Another was that enthusiastically realizing the innocuous person next to you had done, was doing or would do great things that you wouldn’t was a constant experience at school, and may be the entire point of the Ivy League. (As a very minor example, I point to LG’s near-supernatural ability to even recognize Solzhenitsyn. Could you do that?) And lastly, the realization that even if I gain worldwide fame, even if I change the world, no matter how many might know my name, eventually I’ll just be an old guy in a park.

I hope that I’m smiling as much as you were, Mr. Solzhenitsyn.

Evil genius

The year is 2035. Joe Smith stands in front of the United States Senate, subject of a confirmation hearing for the post he has sought all his life:

Camera cuts to Senator Archibald Huffenpuff [R], looking self-important and slightly bored.

Huffenpuff: Mr. Smith are you now or have you ever been a member of the web site called [checks notes] MySpace.com?

Cut to Joe Smith, in a sharp suit.

Smith: Yes sir.

Huffenpuff: In what capacity?

Smith: Well, while running for office several years ago, we used myspace.com/joe-smith-in-30 as part of our grassroots campaign to…

Huffenpuff: Have you ever used any other usernames on this site?

Smith looks moderately confused by the question.

Smith: I don’t particularly recall, Senator.

Huffenpuff: Have you ever used the name el-guapo-suave?

Smith smiles.

Smith: Ah, yes. I used that name during school.

Huffenpuff: Do you recall comments made then about circuit judge Mary Jones?

Smith blanches, clearly confused

Smith: Back then? I didn’t even know who she was then, Senator.

Huffenpuff: Let me refresh your memory. In 2008, she was fifteen years old and went by the user name meow1kittens15.

Smith: Uh…

Huffenpuff: You left comments on her page when she posted a picture of herself in her cheerleader uniform.

Sensing Smith’s discomfort, the camera slowly zooms in.

Smith: Uh…

Huffenpuff: Specifically, you said of the then underage Mary Jones, and I quote “I’d tap that” and “omfg u r so h0ttt!!!11!1”. Are these your words, sir?

Smith: Uh…

Camera cuts to a closeup of a white cat with blue eyes and a diamond necklace, being pet by Rupert Murdoch (indirect owner of MySpace) in his orbiting space station.

Murdoch: Bwah-ha-ha-ha! You should have paid up, Mr. Smith.

Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are already being used for blackmail, but I can’t help but suspect that blackmail is actually their entire reason for existence. This is the only reason I can find to explain why Faceberg still gets investment capital in spite of having no visible business plan or prospects. It may also explain why Facebook removed a third-party application that let its users stab each other: it was cutting in on Facebook’s action.

Expect to see this type of thing show up in government more often, along with services that will eliminate incriminating web evidence. One interesting aspect of this will be the collateral damage created. For example, in my fictional example above, a plot intended to take down Smith would probably also take down Mary Jones by also exposing her teenage escapades.

The real point of damming the Mediterranean

In what it calls “the craziest, most megalomaniacal scheme from the 20th century you never heard of”, Strange Maps reports on Atlantropa, a scheme in the 1920s to dam the various entries to the Mediterranean Sea. The idea, brainchild of Herman Sörgel, was to lower the elevation of the sea by as much as 200 meters, and then use the elevation difference to generate hydroelectric power. Oh, and do a bunch of Eurocentric rubbish to Africa (get in line).

One of the obvious issues with the plan is the havoc it would cause on the existing coastline. Venice is no longer really Venice when it’s 200 meters above sea level, for example. Also, the increased water salinity would probably kill what’s currently living in the water. These reasons, among others, are cited as example of why “Sörgel’s plan would be considered outdated today”. I, however, think now might be just the right time for damming the Mediterranean.

If global warming doomsday predictions are to be believed, global sea levels will rise by some non-trivial amount in the next century. You can find maps showing the effects of 100m rises, for example.* That being the case, if the Atlantropa plan could be recast as a way to keep the levels of the Mediterranean as they are now it might be more palatable.

The idea would be to build the dams assuming the ocean’s level will rise. As that happens outside the dam, make adjustments to keep level on the inside the same. Thus, the coastline of the Mediterranean is preserved, while the rest of the world drowns.

Alternately, using the same dam system, you could actually turn the Mediterranean into an elevated bowl, instead. By pumping water from outside the dam to fill up the bowl, you turn the Mediterranean into a large store of water, protecting the rest of the world from the rising sea level instead. This would come at the cost of drowning most of the cradle of Western Civilization, but it’s not like anyone would really miss, say, Greece. Later (much later), when the world starts cooling again and the ice caps start reclaiming water, you could gradually release the stored Mediterranean water and keep world sea level constant still.

* More realistic projections for the next century, however, are only in the range of tens of centimeters, making the plan I propose here less fun.


When a coworker was recently comparing experiences with the iPod Touch, he mentioned how grateful he was to the Kids in the Hall, as emulating them had trained his finger muscles to use the device’s zoom feature. For the uninitiated, zooming out on the iPod Touch involves touching two fingers to the screen and spreading them apart, while zooming in involves moving your fingers together. This is basically the same motion used in a series of Kids sketches involving a semi-crazy guy saying “I’m crushing your head”, while making a similar motion from a distance, like this attempt to crush the head of a statue of Buddha:

Crushing Buddha's head

All this head crushing and its relation to to the iPod Touch UI got me thinking about the perfect game for the device: iCrushYourHead. The idea would be that pictures of people would randomly drift across the screen at various speeds, and using the “pinching” UI gesture, you would have to crush their heads as they passed. The crushing would be animated with a cheesy accordion-fold type effect. As the game progressed, they would drift by faster and faster, and more would be on screen at once. Naturally, you’d need to be able to import photos of people who deserve head crushing.

The same coworker, hearing this idea, suggested another game, this one for kids. It is a port of those kids books where the page is divided into three sections, one for the head, one for the body and one for the legs, where the kid will mix and match various parts to make fun combinations. It would make use of another cool UI trick on the touch, the sliding scroll gesture where you can kind of “throw” a section of a screen and it will scroll with a sort of natural deceleration. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t used the iPod Touch, but it is very natural. In the case of this game, it would act a bit like the wheels of a slot machine, that you could spin independently with varying degrees of force. The number of choices for the body parts could also be vastly larger than a physical book would allow.

Feel free to send me royalty checks if you build these games.

Rage against the machine

I have a theory. Well, “theory” may be to grandiose. Call it a hypothesis. It suggests a reason for why incidents of road rage have been rising in America over the last few decades. There are a few logical explanations for this, such as the simple fact of more cars on the road, hormones, economic conditions, self-defeating child-rearing techniques. No doubt people have blamed video games, liberals, conservatives and who knows what all else. One observation I like came from a comedian (I don’t remember who) who said that he didn’t remember much road rage before people started drinking sixty ounces of Starbucks and Big Gulps of caffeinated sugar-water. That became my working hypothesis until recently, when another culprit suggested itself. My new hypothesis is this:

Road rage is increasing because Americans are being slowly driven insane by the nine-minute snooze bar interval.

You can find a lot on the web about why this interval is nine-minutes. Most of it is wrong, and there seems to be no definitive answer. In 1999, Cecil Adams waded through it, reaching the conclusion that it was originally a decision driven more by the gearing of the first mechanical clock that had the snooze feature than any rational choice. When other clocks copied the feature, they kept the interval without thinking much about why. It was the “convention”. (This is the same reason that we continue to be plagued with the idiocy that is the fax machine.)

There is far less to be found on the net about what the ideal snooze interval really should be. It doesn’t appear that anyone has studied this. There don’t seem to be many studies on the impact of using the snooze bar in general, only a general notion that “short bouts of sleep are far from ideal”. Proof that snooze is driving the country insane currently relies on anecdotal evidence:

The modern alarm clock, or more to the point, its confounded snooze button, has dramatically altered my personality and stolen countless hours of personal productivity. It seems that the point of the snooze button is to prolong the agony of having to untangle from your partner and slowly acclimate to the inevitable nip of the morning air.…the snooze button has left me less than satisfied. Given this, I naturally wanted to find a place to lay blame. Who better than the inventor of the snooze button: Lew Wallace. It turns out that this very same Lew Wallace is the Lew Wallace who wrote Ben Hur. This amused me, since Ben Hur is nothing short of prolonged agony in its own right…

Without formal studies of this important issue, little progress will be made toward saving the nation’s sanity. There is hope, however. Many alarm clocks now come with adjustable snooze intervals. I suspect the psychologically “correct” interval is closer to 25 minutes, but only home experimentation can save us. Feel free to post your results here. (When responding, remember to indicate if you are sane or not.)

The dump part

Over two years ago, I suggested a way to destroy a modern record company, using their “pump and dump” strategy against them. The prime example of the strategy at the time was the handling of Britney Spears. Unfortunately, no one has implemented my advice, but evidently with a recent performance, Ms. Spears seems to have entered the “dump” part of the pump and dump strategy, with one reviewer claiming “it’s clear no one is telling singer how to fix career”. I didn’t see the performance, so have no idea if that is actually true or just the media being the media, but if it is true, it extends the case study of the pump and dump strategy. In my previous post, I quoted a prediction from Chris Johnson’s analysis suggesting there is “considerable evidence to suggest that when Britney stops being pushed on the market by her record company, sales will fall off a cliff.” Chances are this will happen fairly soon.

On the other hand, if the performance really was that bad, it actually kind of contaminates the experiment, because it might mean that fans are leaving because of taste (i.e. the bad performance turned them off to the star) rather than because the hype train stopped. Then again, you might see a double whammy effect, where both taste and the lack of hype contribute to a sales disaster of epic proportions.

Update: No mercy, though it sounds like they weren’t really “representing” her before the performance either.

…but in their eyes

Samablog’s recent mention of two articles with differing perspectives on the comparison between Vietnam and Iraq finds me returning to thoughts of a different comparison, one made before the war really started. To me, the biggest mistake made in Iraq appears to be the incorrect belief that that the Iraqis would be as active and willing in rebuilding their country as the Germans and Japanese were after World War II. They clearly haven’t been.

Up to now, I’ve gone along with the reasoning that this was because Iraq really wasn’t a nation to begin with, but rather an artificial imposition of Winston Churchill. While this seems reasonable, the articles Rob mentioned mixed in my head with a conversation I had with my wife’s uncle (a German citizen) about what life in the Fatherland was like after the war and with an article claiming (among other things) that suicide bombing is really about sex. The result suggests another key difference between post-WWII and Iraq: Immediately following the war, a large percentage of the young male population in Germany and Japan had been killed, so were not around to either help or hinder the rebuilding.

It’s hard to say what would have happened in those two countries had the young male population been around during that time. Certainly most of them would have been unemployed. You can imagine that this would have led to all sorts of things, such as increased crime, the rise of “gangs” or worse, and so on. Hitler, for example, was originally elected on promises of ending unemployment.

Iraq, however, and the Middle East in general, hasn’t recently suffered a World War to decimate its young males. While it’s tricky finding nuanced demographic information on Iraq, what figures there are point to more males than females, with a median age for males of 19.6 years. It’s likely that those in the insurgency now are the exact gender and age that would have been killed in something like World War II. Although a 1999 study by the U.S. Government on what makes a terrorist concluded that “there does not appear to be a single terrorist personality”, it mentions that 80% of terrorists world wide were male, and nearly all of them were under 30 years old. It claims that most suicide bombers “were bachelors aged 18 to 25” and that “Arab and Iranian groups tend to use boys aged 14 to 15 for dangerous missions, in part because they are less likely to question instructions”. This report is to old to contain information from 9/11 and recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it seems clear that young men are a significant portion of the insurgency.

All of this, combined with the sectarian violence Iraqi’s seem intent on pursuing in place of rebuilding their country suggests a strategy for the US in Iraq. It is quite brutal, and probably unworkable, but I think you’ll find it has a better chance of success than any other concrete strategy you’ve seen voiced recently (any easy task, since there haven’t been any). It requires abandoning all pretense that the U.S. cares at all for Iraqi civilians, but with over half a million of them being dead already, I’m not sure this pretense is really believed by anyone anyway.

The strategy goes like this:

  1. Withdraw all U.S. forces in Iraq into Afghanistan suddenly and without warning. Destroy any bases or airfields that would make the country harder to reconquer later.
  2. Watch as the various factions in Iraq start to kill each other in increasingly creative ways.
  3. Allow any arms dealers under CIA control to go nuts selling weapons that armies would use to fight each other, like tanks and artillery. The idea would be to encourage battles between semi-military forces, rather than soliders vs. civilians.
  4. At some point, the factions will probably stop fighting each other in favor of ethnically cleansing areas under control, as this is safer than getting killed by an opposing army. When this happens, send in black ops missions to frame the other side, with the intent to refocus the factions on killing each other instead of civilians.
  5. When one side gains the upper hand (probably the Shia, since they will be getting backing from Iran) send in some cruise missiles and air strikes to even the odds, claiming that we’re striking “terrorist camps” or something similar. No one will believe us, but fortunately that will no longer matter (a fringe benefit of Bush’s “middle finger” style of diplomacy is that we no longer even need to pretend).
  6. Fighting will probably lead to fracturing of Iraq into three or more ethnically aligned “nations”. When this happens, recognize all of their governments, then sell them all weapons. Also, repeat step 4, with the idea of getting the whole region to fight until it is under the control of a single “government”.
  7. While all this is going on, finish the mission in Afghanistan somehow.
  8. Once the region known as Iraq is under a single group’s control, re-invade.

At this point, we’re back to where we started, with three important differences. The first is that it will probably be twenty years later, with a splendid excuse to fund the miliary-industrial complex for the duration. More importantly, however, all the young men in Iraq (and probably from a lot of neighboring nations) will be dead, and the local population will have a fresh taste of what happens when you don’t take a hand in making your own civilization better.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, OK, lots. In a mine field of wild cards, two stand out. First is that should an independent Kurdistan get formed in the process, Turkey would probably invade it, which would make things much scarier. Still, it would probably be possible to leverage their desire to join the EU and sacrifice some Iraqi territory to contain this. The second wild card is the third important difference mentioned above: more countries, probably including Iran, would now have nukes. This would be scary, but I still think may make the situation more manageable if handled well, not less.

On the other hand, Iran will probably invade as soon as we leave anyway, making much of the strategy moot.