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In case you were thinking of buying it...

Posted by Unf
on 10.25.03

You, like me, may have noticed that that the recently published Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson has been getting a lot of attention around the 'net. Instapundit, in particular, has been pimping it pretty hard (no fewer than six entries since the book came out). Here's a short piece from Slate, which explains that Stephenson is big with the tech types (which perhaps explains all the good notices recently seen on the 'net) and is, as best I can tell from the article, a sort of William Gibson on happy pills.

As I'm always on the lookout for new fiction, and given all these good things I was seeing on the 'net, I was seriously thinking of giving the plastic a tickle and having Amazon send me a copy of Quicksilver. And then I picked up the latest issue of The New Republic from my magazines-to-be-read pile.

Suffice it to say that there is a review of Quicksilver in the latest issue of TNR that I can only describe as one of the greatest reviews (whether of book, movie or otherwise) that I have ever read. It is, simply put, a masterful mix of scorn and humor and the result is that I am fully prepared to support the permanent incarceration of Neal Stephenson on charges of crimes against humanity.

The review is only available online with a subscription, so I'll give you a few of the better bits:

Time's critic has declared that Stephenson has a 'once-in-a-generation gift,' and that Quicksilver 'will defy any category, genre, precedent or label -- except for genius.' This is promotional copy disguised as literary criticism. There is nothing category-defying about this ridiculous book

.....

This is the sort of character that makes one suspects that the greatest influences upon Stephenson's work have been comic books and cartoons.

.....

For Stephenson is himself the most vulgar of literary empiricists. His book is nothing but research in search of a narrative, a gigantic collection of index cards.

.....

Stephenson seems to have a sense that since he is writing a novel he should occasionally use actual literary techniques, and so he spreads similes around plentifully -- and thoughtlessly.

.....

When Stephenson tries to add romance to the mix, he is unable to lose his idiot-savant tone, and what results are the most embarrassing sections of the novel.

.....

The coarseness does not make the speech any truer: the man is still giving his horse a geography lesson. He does so because, like all the characters in this book, he has nothing significant to say. And the poor reader is abandoned to an intense sensation of solidarity with a bored horse.

Deborah Friedell wrote the review. Though there is no descriptive information about her in TNR, apparently Friedell is a mere Yale student. All I can say is bravo, keep up the good work, and I think I have a little crush.


 

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Huh??

Posted by Bob
on 10.24.03

So, remember Philosophy and Literature's infamous Bad Academic Writing contest? According to this Chronicle of Higher Ed. review of a recent book by "bad" writers, it was inspired by gems like this:

This book was instigated by the Harvard Core Curriculum Report in 1978 and was intended to respond to what I took to be an ominous educational reform initiative that, without naming it, would delegitimate the decisive, if spontaneous, disclosure of the complicity of liberal American institutions of higher learning with the state's brutal conduct of the war in Vietnam and the consequent call for opening the university to meet the demands by hitherto marginalized constituencies of American society for enfranchisement.

and it went on to become a vicious little vehicle for P & L editor Denis Dutton to skewer difficult works of cultural theory. Or so argued Judith Butler and other skewerees, who went on to defend demanding prose as a necessary tool for defamiliarizing and eventually analyzing the too-familiar assumptions of our thinking, institutions, and daily lives. So, some ideas just can't be gotten across simply.

This all came to mind when I followed Ogged's link to Cordelia's piece on quantum mechanics.

Cordelia writes:

The truth is that no one knows what to make of much of what happens at the quantum level. We have no picture, no narrative. Physicists have stumbled onto certain equations, along with vague rules of thumb for applying them, which together predict the results of experiments. But ask these people what's happening in their laboratories, and you're likely to draw a smile, of wonderment or embarrassment.

She's in no way trying to skewer Niels Bohr, but she is making a claim about what should count as understanding: it can't just be math, and it should probably take the form of something like narrative. That's interesting, and like most decisions to define things narrowly, it seems to me to have two consequences.

First, defining understanding narrowly would seem to place a lot of intellectual products -- equations, mostly, but maybe also Gender Trouble and anything that might be described as being theory -- not just beyond the reach of ordinary persons who maybe read Science Times every Tuesday but have never cracked open Physical Review D, and of intellectual generalists (no more Leonardos!), but of all human beings. Star Trek notwithstanding, there are indeed limits to human achievement -- if math doesn't count.

But second, it also makes us question the universal utility of narrative. What's so great about stories? When quantum entanglement and gender performativity are just inaccessible from narrative -- a you-can't-get-there-from-here -- then maybe we should stop teaching everything as if narrative were the be-all.

Example: the American Museum of Natural History has reorganized all of its paleontology exhibitions to reflect the bushy, branchy nature of evolutionary history. Gone are the linear evolutionary progressions Gould hated, and also (largely) gone is the notion of evolution as being about change. Of course, evolution is about change, but when looking at fossils the main thing to look at is how some organisms cluster with others on the basis of anatomical similarity. So now, as you walk from room to room at the American Museum, you're not so much following a historical narrative as much as you're looking at the complex (and historically suggestive) bifurcating structure of what's similar and dissimilar among all known fossils. It's amazing, but it doesn't sink in or even seem to make sense until after you've thought about it for a long time. And it never becomes something you can explain easily to another person, like in a narrative.

This kind of evolutionary thinking is a much harder sell to a public raised on "the story of evolution," but it's how you have to think about it to "understand" evolution the way the paleontologists do. And, I'd probably argue after thinking about it more, it could make the museum-going public less vulnerable to illogic attacks from the Discovery[sic] Institute.


 

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Quantum Mechanics (Really)

Posted by Ogged
on 10.24.03

I'm a sucker: someone writes a long post on quantum mechanics, I'll link to it. (Haven't read it yet, so if you read it and do something to get yourself sucked into a black hole, don't, you know, call me.)


 

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Is this plugged in?

Posted by Unf
on 10.24.03

Something to amuse those of you stuck in the office on this fine fall day.


 

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Confession

Posted by Ogged
on 10.24.03

In good legal fashion, Scheherazade makes a distinction: there's the Celebrity Crush, "("Jennifer Connelly," "Colin Farrell," "Dennis Quaid")" and then there's the Embarrassing Celebrity Crush.

My Embarrassing Celebrity Crush: Sammy Hagar.

Why is that embarrassing? Well, there's this. And this. Not convinced? Ok, then this.

Damn. That's tough to beat.

In fact, I can't beat it. But I do have a celebrity crush that embarrasses the heck out of me. Emily Procter. Yes, she's a babe. But could she be more apple pie? I feel like I'm coveting the plantation owner's daughter.


 

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Purty

Posted by Ogged
on 10.24.03

I really like the look of our blog, but I have to admit, En Banc looks better. Nicely done.


 

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Brian Leiter Won't Be Nice

Posted by Ogged
on 10.23.03

In an effort to carve out a "civility-free" zone, Brian Leiter forgets that the rest of us have heard of a place called "Academe."

One of the pernicious aspects of the blogosphere--a consequence, obviously, of the fact that contributions to it are not subject to any screening for qualifications or content--is that those who are basically ignorant, or inane, or trivial, can adopt all the forms and poses and mannerisms of those who aren't.

That's a particularly strange "obviously" from someone who, a few weeks earlier, wrote of academic journal articles--some of the most rigorously screened contributions in existence--that "anything can get published somewhere." But let's set aside that credentialist canard for the moment and (charitably) read Leiter to be saying that certain arguments and positions aren't worthy of civility.

The demand for civility is tantamount to the demand to accord a legitimacy to that which lacks it...The minute one extends civility towards, e.g., the Discovery [sic] Institute, they have won an enormous victory; the minute one drops the "sic" after Discovery, it is as though it was an Institute made up of people actually interested in science or discoveries. Suddenly the whole fraudulent operation--the mix of pathological liars and conmen--acquires a legitimacy it does not deserve.

Diligent readers of this blog may recall that I wrote something very similar during my own bout of incivility.

...I really don't want George Bush to be reelected and even the hint that we on the left consider Kucinich viable, even the hint that he represents us, will damage the eventual nominee.

Similar right down to the "the minute...the minute...even the hint...even the hint." Incivility, apparently, drives men to parallelism. Needless to say, I agree with Leiter here. There's a reason people say, "I'm not going to dignify that with a response." But this is where my charitable caveat is important. Leiter is relentlessly ad hominem in his attacks. To take the most recent example, in an otherwise very good dissection of David Bernstein's argument for school vouchers, Leiter can't resist calling Bernstein "morally hopeless."

To say it once again, Leiter just doesn't make the distinction between the agent and the act. He isn't content to refute Bernstein's argument, he also has to insult him. But there's simply no warrant for the claim that Bernstein is "morally hopeless." Bernstein (almost all of whose posts I find objectionable, by the way) gives every indication that he supports vouchers because he thinks they'll improve education in the US, which is also Brian Leiter's goal. But because their predictions about the interaction of complicated social, political, and economic variables differ, Leiter calls Bernstein a bad person. This is just arrogant, and I don't use that word in the subtly complimentary sense in which it's said of strong men. Rather, I mean that Leiter takes it upon himself to pass judgment on the man, and does so without right. And this arrogance takes Leiter from "brusque" (his own euphemism for his style) over into "wrong."

But so what? Suppose Leiter can live with being seen as a jerk. He writes,

There is a final argument sometimes made on behalf of civility norms, namely, that civility enhances rhetorical effectiveness. One might, of course, have other reasons for blogging besides persuasion, though this appears not to occur to members of the civility cult. But putting that aside, the rhetorical effectiveness of civility, while sometimes real, is often simply speculative. If, as Nietzsche suspects, philosophers "all act as if they had discovered and arrived at their genuine convictions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely insouciant dialectic" when in fact "what really happens is that they take a conjecture, a whim, an 'inspiration' or...some fervent wish that they have sifted through and made property abstract--and they defend it with rationalizations after the fact," then it is simply a mistake to think rhetorical advantage will be gained through dispassionate argument.

Alas, not everyone is a philosopher, this is a democracy, and in most polls of non-philosophers, "undecided" rules. Of course it's speculative that Texans may be offended by an academic who treats them like yokels, but I'll take the bet. If Leiter cares about textbooks in Texas, and he gives every indication that he does, I think it's clear that his tone hurts his cause. He may feel safe that no yokels are reading his blog, but in that case, he seriously underestimates the reach and effectiveness of public relations campaigns. (Leiter himself notes that "sometimes the blogosphere reaches out in to the real world.") A few insulting quotes from a hoity-toity professor could be used to reframe the debate as "the people vs. the arrogant eggheads" and--I'm quite serious about this--swing thousands of people against Leiter's cause. Funny that Leiter doesn't recall another wonderful line from Nietzsche, "One often contradicts an opinion when what is uncongenial is really the tone in which it was conveyed."

Furthermore, there's no reason to assimilate rhetorical effectiveness to persuasion, as Leiter does. Leiter says his blog "includes supplemental information to my various academic rankings sites, as well as miscellaneous musings on cognate academic matters...." But certainly Leiter's aim isn't to limit his blog's readership and I'll guess that I'm not alone in hesitating to link to even his good posts because of the demurrals I'll have to include about Leiter and my discomfort about being associated with him. If my reaction isn't idiosyncratic (and the comments here make me think it's not), even the propagation of information is hindered by his tone.

I agree with Leiter when he writes, "Those who don't like it have a simple option: read something else. The blogosphere offers many choices, after all." True enough. Blogs find their own audience, and Leiter isn't obligated to satisfy anyone. But we shouldn't pretend that civility has been vanquished, either by the fact that he has readers, or the arguments he makes against it--he's just rationalizing a whim.


 

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Smack Wack

Posted by Ogged
on 10.23.03
It's crap like anti-bullying legislation that tempts me to have a kid just so I can play Father to its Kafka.

 

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Nifty

Posted by Ogged
on 10.23.03

Dude! Go check out Amazon's new "Search Inside the Book" feature. It really is neat. You can look up words in a book and even click a link to see the entire page they're on (and keep paging through the book). Here's a search I did for "curse of modernity."

So, just one question, since the books are now digitized: why can't we download them?


 

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The Man

Posted by Ogged
on 10.23.03

Very busy at work again today; I'll try to post later...



 

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The Seductive Arts

Posted by Ogged
on 10.22.03
Is flirting a way for women to exercise power or an acquiescence to outmoded gender roles? I suppose that kind of question is the price we pay for our happy liberations, but if women stop flirting, I'm turning gay. via aldaily UPDATE: Young Iranian hardliners understand the issue's importance.

 

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I'll Go Last

Posted by Ogged
on 10.22.03

The New York Times notes that Zagat survey entries sometimes rely on as few as 100 people. Better to trust...one...food critic? Clay Shirkey investigates.


 

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5 Course Meals Near the Toll Booth

Posted by Ogged
on 10.22.03

Genocide excepted, is this the worst idea ever?

...any highway that gives you a toll coupon when you enter the highway and then collects it from you (with a payment) when you leave the highway...strike[s] me as huge potential revenue sources for the states that operate them. Why? Because they offer the possibility of entirely mechanized enforcement of the speeding laws.
Let's say the distance between exit 1 and exit 5 is 65 miles, and the posted speed limit is 65 miles per hour over that entire stretch of highway. If a person is issued a time-stamped entry coupon at Exit 1 at noon and arrives at Exit 5 before 1:00, he has been speeding. Period.
Why not issue him a speeding ticket at exit 5 when he pays his toll and leaves the highway? This would be a superb revenue source for the state, and it would get people to stop speeding far more effectively (and cheaply) than sporadic enforcement by state troopers.

Here's the practical objection. People will drive like maniacs and then take very long pee breaks (this people will, anyway). Absent other enforcement mechanisms, speeding won't be curtailed and may increase. So the state will either be spending as much or more on enforcement as it would without the toll fine, or trading driver saftey for revenue. Nice.

But, from the government's perspective, this would be a stupid move because people tolerate speed limits only because they're so rarely and arbitrarily enforced. When someone is caught speeding, they rationalize (rightly, I'd say) that even if they weren't guilty this time, they sure were last night when they didn't get stopped. Change that balance, and prepare for a serious speed-limit backlash.


 

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Did Not

Posted by Ogged
on 10.22.03

Glenn Reynolds has a post up about one of my hobby horses here: the fact that we're all criminals.

There are too many laws many of them contradictory or obscure for any person to actually avoid breaking the law completely. (My Criminal Law professor, when I was a law student, announced to us that we were all felons on the first day of class. There were too many felonies on the books for us not to be: Oral sex in Georgia? Oops!) And given that many laws are dumb, actually following all of them would probably bring society to a standstill, just as Air Traffic Controllers and pilots can make air travel grind to a halt by meticulously following every safety rule without exception.

...

The only real control over whether prosecutors charge someone with something silly-but-illegal is their fear of bad publicity, and juries' unwillingness to convict even guilty people when they think that doing so is unfair. Those are enough protection most of the time.

Glenn is a bit more sanguine than I am about this state of affairs. I don't like the fact that my freedom can be taken away at the pleasure of my local prosecutor. Then again, I don't think there's much we can do about it. Laws are clingy, sticky, persistent little buggers; like the little files and programs that seem to accumulate in your computer, just to bite you when you least expect it.


 

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Before and After

Posted by Ogged
on 10.22.03

If you have any interest in the Continental / Analytic divide in philosophy, or any interest in academic philosophy generally, John McCumber's article, Just in time: Toward a new American philosophy is indispensable reading. It is, as far as I know, the only piece to approach the divide philosophically, in the very best sense of the word. Here's the article if you already have access to the Continental Philosophy Review, and here's the citation, if you'd like to look it up in your library. If neither of those is an option, don't bother opening an account to buy it: they're charging $25 per article.

LINK UPDATE: The links don't seem to be stable. The main page is here. Go to the March 2003 issue.


 

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Rumsfeld Memo

Posted by Ogged
on 10.22.03
Hey, nifty. A memo by Donald Rumsfeld to Wolfowitz, Feith, and a couple of others has been leaked to USA Today. The really startling thing is that there are almost no surprises in it: just an honest assessment of the "War on Terror" and its management. I'll look around to see how it's being spun, but, to my mind, it's a neat insight but doesn't change much. via Instapundit HELLO: Earth to idiot Ogged. Check the story that accompanies the memo and you won't have to search very long for the spin. USA Today begins,
The United States has no yardstick for measuring progress in the war on terrorism, has not "yet made truly bold moves" in fighting al-Qaeda and other terror groups, and is in for a "long, hard slog" in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a memo that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent to top-ranking Defense officials last week.
That's nasty, slimy spin. 1). Rumsfeld writes,
"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"
Which is an astute acknowledgment of the difficulty of collecting hard data when fighting a diffuse, foreign enemy. USA Today translates this into the much more damning "has no yardstick for measuring progress." That is not the same thing: lack of a "yardstick" implies that we don't know what progress or victory would be; lacking a "metric to know," means that we know what we want, but don't know whether we've got it. One implies lack of a plan, the other acknowledges the difficulty of the task. 2). Rumsfeld writes,
Are the changes we have and are making too modest and incremental? My impression is that we have not yet made truly bold moves, although we have have made many sensible, logical moves in the right direction, but are they enough?
USA Today summarizes by saying the US "has not 'yet made truly bold moves'." That's simple spin by emphasis and de-contextualization. Imagine your neighbor is having a tough time. You (Smith) give him $5000, unbidden and unasked. You remark to someone that you'd like to do more to help your neighbor. USA Today reports, "Smith not doing enough to help his neighbor." 3). Rumsfeld writes,
It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog.
USA Today just happens to pull "long, hard slog" into the lede; and slugs the entire story with "A grim outlook." If you wonder why public officials speak in vague and uninformative generalities and never level with the public, this piece of work by USA Today should answer your question. Thanks, guys. UPDATE: Maybe not leaked, after all.

 

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Sliced Thin

Posted by Ogged
on 10.22.03
I see that Unf hasn't jumped on this one, so I'll take it.
The memo has footnotes. It has exhibits. It is crisp and professional and is written on stationery of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, one of New York's elite law firms. Indeed, it is the hottest law firm memo around town, but it is not about Enron, Tyco or any corporate scandal. It was not even written by a lawyer.
...
A Paul, Weiss partner, Kelley D. Parker, apparently received a subpar order of takeout sushi. So, according to the memo, she asked a paralegal to research local sushi restaurants. The paralegal took to the task aggressively, interviewing lawyers and staff members at the firm, reading online and ZagatSurvey reviews, and producing a three-page opus with eight footnotes and two exhibits (two sets of menus). The memo concludes by expressing the hope that Ms. Parker will now be able to choose "the restaurant from which your dinner will be ordered on a going-forward basis."
But the world of corporate legal is apparently so very strange that we're not sure if the memo is a parody. I'm sure Unf could set us straight, if he weren't at this moment writing a piece on takeout ribs...

 

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A True Counterfactual

Posted by Ogged
on 10.21.03

Bill McClellan has listened to far too much Rush Limbaugh: he wrote an alternate-universe column in which Rush Limbaugh comments on Bill Clinton's admission of his OxyContin addiction. It's perfect from start to finish.

Thanks to Brad DeLong.


 

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Even the dark stuff?

Posted by Bob
on 10.21.03

Think you can't do physics that was cutting-edge in the 17th century? Wrong: you can measure the speed of light (through chocolate), and you'd certainly get a better (that is, more precise) answer than Galileo's.

(Again, thanks to Pixeldiva. I'm working my way through a blog portal I just discovered, London Bloggers.)


 

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The Simpsons is an oasis of authenticity

Posted by Bob
on 10.21.03

Via Bookslut, usually reclusive Thomas Pynchon will be on The Simpsons, as himself. So great! Next they have to get Salinger. Can you see it? Bart and his red hat, trying to save his sweet, smart sister from all the phonies. Or: Bart and Lisa, former child-stars wrestling with the egotistic egolessness of Lisa's experimentation with the Jesus prayer. If anyone can get JD, it's The Simpsons. Or SNL.


 

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Glad I Didn't Switch

Posted by Ogged
on 10.21.03

All the Hosting Matters blogs are down (Instapundit, CalPundit, Matthew Yglesias, etc.) We aren't down, but work is kicking my behind today. Insty has a backup site, if you're interested, at instabackup.blogspot.com.


 

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Who needs Queer Eye

Posted by Bob
on 10.21.03

...when you have this?

(Thanks to Pixeldiva for the link.)


 

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Why walls

Posted by Bob
on 10.20.03

Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted recently took his daughter to two very different children' science museums in Philadelphia, and the had two very different experiences. As with everything else in America, the difference between the obnoxious free-for-all at the Franklin Institute and the civilized learnfest at the Touch Me Museum is bound up in labor economics and race relations -- and as a good, troubled liberal Burke himself gets caught in the dilemma between throwing his daughter into an increasingly scary fray, and walling his family and himself off behind another layer of middle-class security:

Small wonder that the (disproportionately white) American middle-class opts for an increasingly manorial, privatized world. The alternative is a public world that at best gives back an equal share of a small pool of resources shared among a very large group of recipients, but more often than not entails losing on almost every struggle of authentic importance and getting no share at all, leaving the loser to accept such losses and even rationalizing them as justified in terms of the loser's own culturally bounded shortcomings and hang-ups.

Read the whole entry, especially if the Philadelphia mayoral race has been as confusing for you as it's been for me.


 

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Just Sit Right Back...

Posted by Ogged
on 10.20.03

Do you have earworms? Of course you do.

Unexpected and insidious, the earworm slinks its way into the brain and refuses to leave. Symptoms vary, although high levels of annoyance and frustration are common. There are numerous potential treatments, but no cure.

Not you? Liar.

"Earworm" is the term coined by University of Cincinnati marketing professor James Kellaris for the usually unwelcome songs that get stuck in people's heads. Since beginning his research in 2000, Kellaris has heard from people all over the world requesting help, sharing anecdotes and offering solutions.

We all suffer from earworms, but I've recently found a solution, honest. It takes a light touch, but it works. Let's call it "crowding." Start humming or singing or thinking of another catchy tune. Just a bit. Don't the get the new one stuck in your ear, for god's sake! If you do it right, you'll get rid of the old one and regular life noise will keep out the new one. You're welcome.


 

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Damn Racket

Posted by Ogged
on 10.20.03

One of the better recent referring searches: why prostitutes shouldn't be aloud.

I'm guessing the searcher left unsatisfied.


 

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Lub Lu- L Dub Dub

Posted by Ogged
on 10.20.03

Tony Blair, losing the beat. Blair joins quite a few notables with heart arrhythmias: George Bush Sr., Hakeem Olajuwon, Derrick Coleman, Tom Osbourne, Bill Bradley, and, (why else would I know this off the top of my head?) your very own Ogged. Though I, and everyone else on that list, suffer from atrial fibrillation, not Blair's supra ventricular tachycardia.

They aren't "serious" ailments, and they're not even serious arrhythmias, like, say, ventricular fibrillation, which kills in seconds. But they are very effective mortal-feeling-makers. About five years ago, I was feeling a little odd and had a co-worker check my pulse, because I thought I must be checking in the wrong place. "Ogged, you're not ok," he said. Later, after being hooked up to all manner of tubes and electronics and watching my heart rate stay above 190 for several hours, they finally decided to use cardio-version, as they did with Tony Blair. That means the paddles. KaBoom. They put me under (with some blessed drug that had me laughing it up for hours afterward), but I woke up with a big burn on my chest.

I expect Mr. Blair will try not to think about what happened today, but it won't soon leave his mind. I was moving gingerly for months, for fear that I would set something off and have to go through the whole thing again. And, though Blair won't have this problem, access to modern health care becomes a more pressing concern, since untreated arrhythmias make deadly blood clots much more likely. My trip to Iran last year was one big hope for the best experience.

I note that Blair's doctors have said it won't likely happen again. To Tony, I say, don't count on it, bud. That's what they told me. It's happened several times since, though only once was it persistent enough to require the paddles again (a less blessed drug; an unpleasant memory of my body convulsing). But it won't kill you. It'll just remind you that, sooner or later, something will.


 

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At Last

Posted by Ogged
on 10.20.03

Of course, I will not let you down. I will blog my fingers to the bone. But only until quitting time. For the next several days (weeks?), blogging will be a daytime activity; the evenings will be computer-free and devoted to a book for which I've been waiting for a couple of years. I should have just learned French.


 

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