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Miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings
Monday, October 31, 2005
Book Review -- The Case For Democracy
The Case For Democracy:
The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror

By Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer

This is a very important and illuminating book, and it is clear to me now why Condoleezza Rice and President Bush invited Sharansky to the White House to discuss it. It is a new (at least novel to me) but very clear way to view international affairs that has the potential to transform the world. It is neither liberal nor conservative; it may be what neo-conservative has always been since the term was born.

Natan Sharansky was a Soviet dissident and was imprisoned for many years for his work to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate. He has seen a totalitarian regime from the inside and has an intimate understanding of how they maintain stability and how they are toppled.

Free Societies versus Fear Societies

Sharansky divides the world into two kinds of societies -- free societies and fear societies. The mark of a free society is that anyone may walk into a town square and criticize the government without fear of arrest or harm. Citizens of free societies may also leave and move to other countries as they wish. In fear societies this is not the case. The media in a fear society is typically entirely state controlled and anti-government speech is punished as a matter of course.

Sharansky's thesis is that the free societies that are most hostile to us (think France, Germany) are far more reliable allies than the fear societies that are most friendly to us (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, whatever pro-US African dictators may be in power this month). He asserts that while free societies may have strong disagreements on substantive issues, because their governments are ultimately accountable to their citizens an actual war between free societies is unthinkable. Wars are expensive and lethal and free societies will exhaust every other option before resorting to fighting. As much as we may dislike France, the thought of actual military hostilities between us is laughable.

Fear societies, on the other hand, are always dangerous neighbors, even when the regime in charge appears friendly to us. The reason is that fear societies require external enemies to bolster internal support and squash dissent. So fear societies, even while making peace treaties and trade agreements will domestically foment hate towards their neighbors. No wonder that Egypt, which is the second largest recipient of US foreign aid and is a signatory of a peace treaty with Israel, has viciously anti-US and anti-Israel stories in their state-sponsored media. Also no wonder that the 9/11 hijackers were from a totalitarian country whose government has always been thought to be a strong ally of the US but whose media and sponsorship of mosques worldwide spread virulent anti-Americanism – Saudi Arabia.

Anatomy of Fear Societies

Fear societies are inherently inefficient, Sharansky teaches, both because their economies don't benefit from the entrepreneurial drive that fuels free economies, and because massive resources must be constantly spent in detecting and quashing internal dissent. This is an enormous burden, and Reagan recognized that without constantly appropriating resources from conquered countries the Soviets were on the brink of internal collapse. This seems obvious now, but at the time all the major Sovietologists were declaring that the Soviet Union was poised to overtake us economically. (Sharansky has some hilarious quotes of people with impeccable credentials predicting Soviet superiority weeks before the Berlin Wall fell. Wisdom requires more than mere information.)

This explains a phenomenon that I never noticed: the fear societies with the most pro-US governments have the most anti US-populace (Saudi, Egypt) and the fear societies with the most anti-US governments have the most pro-US populace (Iran). This is at least partially because our opposition to dictatorships wins us support among their citizens, just as Soviet dissidents took hope when we were firm with the Soviets.

Why Freedom Must Come Before Peace

With many examples from his experiences in the Cold War and with clear extrapolation to the War on Terror and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sharansky sketches what would actually be a road map to peace. He warns about the dangers of warming relations with totalitarians, the strategy called détente during the Cold War. He argues that this has three important flaws: it gives the totalitarian regime much-coveted international legitimacy; it crushes the spirits of internal dissidents; and it never produces a reliable ally for the reasons already stated. Interestingly, in the U.S. his understanding has not been reliably adopted by either Republicans or Democrats. He is particularly critical of the damage done by Nixon and Kissinger, as he sees it, in postponing the Soviet Union's fall, and lauds those who had the courage to confront evil when they saw it: Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (a Democrat), President Ronald Reagan, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Sharansky recommends the following steps:
To summarize, once a society becomes free, no peace treaty is necessary; until then all peace treaties are worthless.

The Case for Democracy

This book is essential (and fairly effortless) reading, and finally clarified to me issues that are misunderstood if seen through traditional conservative / liberal lenses. For example, when Bush gave his historic speech vowing to work for a Palestinian state as soon as it liberalized its society and elected leaders who were committed to fighting against terrorism, I (like other conservatives) thought this was the "when pigs fly" plan. I thought Bush was cleverly permanently deferring Palestinian statehood by erecting a prerequisite they could not meet. I thought it was therefore a great plan. Liberals objected because they thought it was expecting too much from Palestinians. Both conservatives and liberals therefore agreed that Palestinians could not become democratic. Bush and Sharansky disagree. I never understood that. Bush knows that in Palestinian society there are dissidents that would create a society that at least respected the right to disagree. That society may not love Israel or America, but that society would at least be the first to care for the welfare of Palestinians. Peace would immediately follow. Once you read this book, you discover Sharansky's intellectual fingerprints all over current affairs. He is even mentioned in Krauthammer's article cited in Nomad's recent post, reminding us that stability is a fool's goal and that the only true stability rests on freedom.

If, as Bush predicts, the 21st century will be liberty's century, and our children will see the establishment of representative governments worldwide, then there will be a handful of men who will always be remembered as having stamped this vision on the globe. Sharansky will be one of them. So will Reagan. Bush, if he sticks to his principles, will be another.
Previous book reviews:
Freakonomics Doctor Bean
The Bell Curve Doctor Bean
Ender's Game Ralphie
Guns, Germs, and Steel Doctor Bean
Ender's Game Doctor Bean
One Book List Oven
Just being introduced to Judge Samuel Alito, who stands nominated to be our next Supreme Court Justice. Captain's Quarters' has a pretty concise evaluation of the nomination.

Captain's Quarters - Alito Gets The Nod

Summed up nicely in the final paragraph:

Alito, at 55, has the possibility of providing 20-30 years of jurisprudence on the Supreme Court, meaning that he and John Roberts have a real opportunity to turn the court back from its decades-long flirtation with supplanting the Legislature and turning itself into a strange American version of the Iranian Guardian Council. In this nomination, Bush may have hit the home run we wanted with the first nomination. Democrats may well try obstructionism, but they stand to lose the filibuster if they try -- and if John Paul Stevens steps down or dies during the next two years, the path will open up for Janice Rogers Brown to take his place.

I'm thinking I'll give W a mulligan on the Myers nomination and get on with being excited at the prospect of a Scalia-like justice to replace O'Conner, and hopefull to future 5 - 4 decisions tilting back in favor of the Constitution.
Friday, October 28, 2005
Krauthammer - Scowcroft's 'Realism'
Just a great Krauthammer piece rejecting the latest wisdom-broker of the anti-war Left.


These others -- the overwhelming majority of Iraq's people -- have repeatedly given every indication of valuing their newfound freedom: voting in two elections at the risk of their lives, preparing for a third, writing and ratifying a constitution granting more freedoms than exist in any country in the entire Arab Middle East. ``The secret is out,'' says Fouad Ajami. ``There is something decent unfolding in Iraq. It's unfolding in the shadow of a terrible insurgency, but a society is finding its way to constitutional politics.''
Thursday, October 27, 2005
Harriet Miers Withdraws Nomination
I understand W will probably nominate his Mom instead.

No, not really.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Do these things only occur to me? What's up with eyebrows? Few people probably ever even notice them. But isn't that a seriously strange place to have a couple caterpillar-sized clumps of hair? What? Keeping water out of the eyes was an evolutionary priority, while warmth was not, so we lost the fur and kept the brows? Give me a break. Eyebrows are the armadillo of human physiology. They're just weird.
Monday, October 24, 2005
Rock, Paper, Saddam!
I've got an idea! Let's play a game of Rock Paper Scissors!

Click for 45 seconds of amusement with the erstwhile Iraqi dictator.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
A Truly Modest Proposal
A religious organization around here is engaged in an act of charity so wrongheaded that I feel the need to comment. Last week at synagogue we were alerted to an “airlift” that will bring winter clothes to the displaced former Gaza settlers and the general poor in Israel. The idea is that the former settlers have moved to places with different climates and now need winter coats, etc. Oh, also there are poor people who can’t afford winter coats. Therefore Jews in the States should pack up their winter coats and send them to Israel via airplane. Let’s deconstruct this idiocy, shall we?

First, I have no doubt that the Israeli government botched the job of resettling the Gaza residents. However, those who moved before the deadline were given a large sum of money (something like $300,000) to buy homes elsewhere. I believe that able-bodied men with three hundred grand and some skills should be able to reconstruct a life, a life that allows them to buy winter coats for their families. Let’s set the general poor aside for now since I believe they are an aside to this political act of charity. Let’s discuss instead the concept of sending American coats to Israel via airplane. Currently, I hear ads on the radio suggesting that I save gas because, after Katrina and the other hurricane, the U.S. is not functioning at full capacity in oil refining. Furthermore, jet fuel is just plain expensive. The bottom line is that shipping our winter coats to Israel is a shocking waste of resources and also directly benefits our enemy, Saudi Arabia. The final piece of this foolish act is that it undermines the Israeli economy. There must be a moshav somewhere in the Promised Land that manufactures winter clothes. There must also be a family in a settler’s new town who sells coats. Sending our coats undermines both of these institutions. So, here is what I propose. We collect money and use it to buy coats from an Israeli manufacturer to distribute to Israel’s poor. Also, we leave the former settlers alone to fend for themselves. Anyone with me? No? Around here we always prefer cheap grace.
Your Kitchen is so Babylonian
This post is very geeky. It meanders almost aimlessly between the subjects of math, history, and my personal life. Please bear with me. I promise the math will be accessible to even the most severe mathphobe who has at least a vague recollection of algebra.

ball-and-chain and I and our kids have spent much happy time at the home of Ralphie and Mrs. Ralphie. Even though I've been to their house an Avogadro's number of times, it was only about six months ago that I noticed their kitchen tile floor. It looks something like this.

Well, it looks nicer that that, since I've only reproduced a black and white sketch of it, but it's the geometry I'm trying to convey, not the aesthetics. A single tile looks like this.
To some, this would only be a pretty pattern, but I remembered that it was a graphical representation of a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. So as soon as I noticed the tile, I dashed home, grabbed pencil and paper and convinced myself by jotting down the proof.

Now the Pythagorean Theorem isn't just any statement in mathematics. It was known by the Babylonians at least 3,600 years ago. It was proven by the ancient Greeks. It forms the bedrock of geometry and analytic trigonometry since it is used to calculate the distance between two points. Hundreds of different proofs of the Theorem have been discovered (one by President Garfield!) and Elisha Loomis, an early twentieth century professor, published a collection of 367 proofs. (If I had a wish list, that book would be on it.) Just as any educated well-rounded person should be able to recognize a couple of Shakespeare's sonnets even if her training is in engineering, so I propose that any well-educated person in the languages, or humanities, or arts should know the Pythagorean Theorem and be able to prove it. (In fact, Ralphie tells me that in one of the Planet of the Apes books, one of the human protagonists convinces his ape captors that he is intelligent and civilized by jotting down a proof of the Theorem. I would certainly campaign vigorously for voting rights for any chimp which could do the same.)

So, with your indulgence, allow me to present a simple proof of the Pythagorean Theorem memorialized by the tile on Ralphie's kitchen floor. It is so simple you may remember it and use it later to impress your captors.

First, let's just remind ourselves what the Theorem says. It says that for any right triangle (that's a triangle in which one of the angles is 90 degrees) the lengths of the sides obey a certain relationship.
If the length of side opposite the right angle is c, and the lengths of the other two sides are a and b, the Pythagorean Theorem states that a²+b²=c².

Here's the proof. Let's first take a second look at a tile and label some of the lengths on it.
You can see that the tile is composed of a large square of side c which is cut into four identical right triangles and a smaller square in the center of side b-a. So the area of the larger square is the sum of the areas of the smaller square and the four triangles. Since the area of a right triangle is half the product of the base and height, we have

c² = (b – a)² + 4(ab)/2

Simplifying (just squaring b-a) we get

c² = b² – 2ab + a² + 2ab
c² = b² + a²

Tah da! Strangely satisfying, no?

You can learn much more about the Pythagorean Theorem and much less about Ralphie's house here.
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Harriet Miers
Coming to a confirmation hearing near you:

Well, no, I'm not actually "qualified" to be a United States Supreme Court Justice...

... but I DID stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night!

ba dump bump!!
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Kerckhoff Coffeehouse Celebrates One Year of Tangential Ranting
Make a wish for air strikes on Syria!
One year ago today a group of conservative friends brought forth upon the blogosphere a new Coffeehouse, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that liberals are both wrong and lame.

Now we are engaged in a great war on Islamofascism, testing whether that Coffeehouse, or any Coffeehouse so conceived and so dedicated, can keep blathering ad infinitum.

We here highly resolve these muffins, cookies and bowls of onion soup shall not have been prepared in vain; that the Coffeehouse shall have a new birth of punditry, and that blogging of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Former President
Today's quote of the day comes from former Iraqi President, Sadaam Hussein (Full Story), who declared in court, when referred to as "former president of Iraq":

"'I said I'm the president of Iraq,' Saddam snapped back. 'I did not say deposed.'"

To which I thought, "no. you were deposed."

I then flashed back to my favorite Far Side:

"Wait! Wait! Listen to me!... We don't HAVE to be just sheep!" reads the caption.

Because, obviously, "no. you have to be a sheep."
Got this from a friend on email. It's a few days old. Essentially, the segment begins with Katie Couric promoting a segment on whether the White House "went too far" by staging a press conference with US Soldiers in Iraq. We're then taken to Michelle Kasinski, reporting on flooding in New Jersey from a canoe. It quickly becomes apparent that the White House isn't the only organization capable of staging their stories.

Video Here
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
The Belmont Club: The End of the Beginning
The Belmont Club: The End of the Beginning

The Belmont Club continues to be the best source for ahead-of-the-curve reporting/opinion on military tactics/strategy and progress/setbacks in Iraq. An excerpt from their latest entry:

Just as the ouster of Saddam by OIF touched off a wave of changes in Libya, Lebanon and the entire region, the impending defeat of the insurgency will paradoxically enhance the ability of diplomacy to address many of the remaining issues. Saddam's defeat confirmed what many military analysts knew from Desert Storm, that it was impossible for any conventional army to stand up against US forces. And that modified the behavior of many rogue states. Yet there remained the hope that the terrorist model of warfare, forged in Algeria and refined against Israel in Lebanon, would bring America to a halt: that rogue regimes acting discreetly could operate within that strategic shadow. Now, for the first time since Algeria, a terrorist force of the highest quality, supported by contributions from oil-rich countries, in the heart of the Arab world, with sanctuary in a friendly regime across the border and eulogized as "freedom fighters" by dozens of major international publications is on the verge of total and ignominious defeat. There are no more strategic shadows.

While there will certainly continue to be challenges in Iraq (as there have been in Afghanistan), I believe we are watching a progressing victory with world-changing impact. Whether President Bush and Neoconservatives will get credit for the strategy in the near term is less relevant than the long-term positive effects that will be judged by history.
Dean's World - The Carnival of the Liberated
Carnival of the Liberated

Just found a link to this nice roundup of Iraqi and Afghani blog entries at Instapundit. As you can imagine, the entried currently center mostly around the recent constitutional referendum in Iraq, and the recent successful elections in Afghanistan.

Freedom is on the march.
Monday, October 17, 2005
How scary is the avian flu?
I get frequent emails from Mother Nomad regarding various viruses and bacteria that are out there ready to destroy mankind. I even posted an early article on the bird flu last Feburary here. Before the bird flu, Mother Nomad would send me SARS stories and so on.

While I do find these stories unsettling, I've been reluctant to get carried away with the fear. My thinking is that, maybe things are just different enough today to make another 1918 flu pandemic an entirely different event. Things I ponder include:

--how many of the deaths in 1918 were directly due to the flu, and how many were due to secondary bacterial infections? If bacterial infections played a prominent role in the mortality, then the discovery of antibiotics will greatly mitigate this aspect in a future outbreak.

--how has medical protocol changed since 1918 that might also have a positive impact. I remember reading somewhere that cholera used to be a terrible threat in much of the Third World, because medical treatment didn't focus on simple hydration therapy to combat it. Millions died of dehydration, brought on by cholera, when providing simple fluids would have saved many of them. Are there corresponding changes in the treatment of common viruses that will have similar mitigating effects?

--what role, if any, will over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and anti-fever drugs play in reducing mortality. Do the effects of these drugs help to mitigate the effects of the illness beyond merely reducing the tangible symptoms?

--will better standards of living, improved sanitation, and better general health in the population mean a higher survival rate?

-- will a better understanding of infectious diseases, and corresponding steps by medical professionals to reduce spread in places like hospitals help to stifle an outbreak, once it starts?

Viruses are scary. They can and do kill. But, I'm skeptical about whether human beings (at least in the West) are as vulnerable as we were 90 years ago.

This bit on Instapundit is what made me want to put my thoughts down:



As a medical researcher, I want to make a gentle but sincere plea to the blogosphere to calm down this flu hysteria just a bit. The main way that flu kills is by predisposing its victims to "superinfection" by bacterial illnesses - in 1918, we had no antibiotics for these superimposed infections, but now we have plenty. Such superinfections, and the transmittal of flu itself, were aided tremendously by the crowded conditions and poor sanitation of the early 20th century - these are currently vastly improved as well. Flu hits the elderly the hardest, but the "elderly" today are healthier, stronger, and better nourished than ever before. Our medical infrastructure is vastly better off, ranging from simple things like oxygen and sterile i.v. fluids, not readily available in 1918, to complex technologies such as respirators and dialysis. Should we be concerned? Sure, better safe than sorry, and concerns about publishing the sequence are worth discussing. Should we panic? No - my apologies to the fearmongers, but we will never see another 1918.

Patrick Cunningham M.D.
Assistant Professor of Medicine
Section of Nephrology
University of Chicago
Another Victory for Iraqis
We Won... Again!

Once again, the Iraqi people -- Sunni, Shia and Kurd -- flocked to ballot booths in droves to have their voice in the new Iraq. Western Journalists, liberal politicians and the French, with their predictions of doom, gloom and disaster, were once again thoroughly repudiated in yet another show of the power of freedom and democracy.

Bush will continue to be villified by those with their eyes tightly shut to the good news in Iraq, but history will ultimately judge this to have been a vital and positive juncture in history. Freedom is still on the march.

Welcome! Would You Like to See a Menu?
For a few hours today the Coffeehouse sidebar looked magnificent. The recent posts, the archives, and the blogroll were all snazzy drop-down menus thanks to Mirty's new blog CodeScripter in which she is teaching us to spiff up our blog code. Since I haven't written a line of code in over 15 years (I taught myself C++ in med school; I was a programming geek long before I was a medicine geek.) I've been jonesing for some code like … um … like someone who's really looking forward to something but can't come up with a good metaphor for it.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. So we had very nice looking drop-down menus and I had had a lot of fun fiddling with the code of the Coffeehouse template. (Still working on the routines that enable dispensing coffee out of your USB port.) Then Nomad brought up the very reasonable point that since search-bots don't crawl over drop-down menu links our archives would no longer be indexed by search engines, and our links to other sites wouldn't influence their page ranks. This may not sound like a big deal, but I sleep well knowing that if someone Googles "insurgents on the run in Fallujah" (with quotes) he'll find one of Oven's greatest posts of all time. With drop-down menus, that little bit of genius would be lost to the ages. So I restored our sidebar back to the traditional bulleted list of choices, but it gave me a chance to reorganize our blogroll and make some overdue additions.

In the "Personal Blog" category, please help me welcome Psychotoddler, who I can say with confidence is the person I know best of all those I've never been in the same State with. And also a round of applause to Mirty's Place, the well-written memoirs of a Texas IT support queen. Mirty's aforementioned CodeScripter is in the "Assorted Miscellany" category, as is Homestar Runner. Psychotoddler turned me on to Homestar many months ago. It is a site that must be experienced to be understood. I have wasted myriad hours there. It is the creation of two brothers that have created a cast of cartoon characters and have made some of the funniest animated shorts I've ever seen. They now make a living from the T shirts and bumper stickers they sell with they're newly-famous characters. Check it out.

Muffins are half off this week.
Saturday, October 15, 2005
Treasure Hunt – Part II
If you haven't read Part I this will make no sense and will be entirely impossible.

I'm delighted by the number of readers who worked on Part I. I hope all of you are having as much fun solving the problems as I'm having coming up with them.

For the sake of clarity, I've decided to write in blue all of the answers that you need to record to win the prize at the end, and also to number them. Remember, don't put any answers in the comments yet. This way, if you have a question, you can refer to the specific answer by number. So here is the list of answers that you should have accumulated from Part I.

1. the name of the city
2, the name of the movie
3. the name and address of the theater
4. how late the Domino's across the street is open that night
5. that Domino's phone number
6. an eight-digit prime factor of answer 5
7. the largest prime number that is smaller than answer 6

OK? Here's Part II.

A few weeks have passed and you're on an out-of-state business trip. Add 8,457,565,088 to answer 7. (8. sum) That 10 digit number is a phone number to a business. (9. the business name and address) You show up at this business hoping to rent a car to get around town but quickly realize that they aren't a simple car rental service. So you leave on foot and walk west on the street that the business is on. The street on which you're walking ends at an intersection with a north-south running street. You continue west across that street and then cross railroad tracks. You continue walking west. After the railroad tracks you come to a four lane highway which you run across. You then find yourself in a huge parking lot of a large building. In total, you have walked about 500 yards due west from your starting point. Figure out the (10.) name and address of the business in whose parking lot you're standing. This business has many phone numbers for various departments. You need to find the (11.) store information phone number. The last 4 digits in this phone number is a (12.) year, and I'm talking about a year in the standard Gregorian calendar that is in common use in the U.S., not the Jewish, or Chinese or any other calendar. In that year, a man who would later become President of the United States became a justice of the peace. (13. his name and 14. the county in which he became justice of the peace) You'll need answer 14 to begin Part III.

That's the end of Part II. Feel free to ask questions in the comments if any clue is not clear, but remember NOT to put any of your answers in the comments here. Save them for the end. I never had to call any of the businesses mentioned here. If you need to, please be very brief and courteous. Again, I would love feedback on whether this is too easy / too hard / just right, and I want to hear from you just to let me know you're doing it. The other thing I'd love some advice about is what you'd like for a prize. Also, if a Coffeehouser or a reader/guest-blogger would like to do one of the future parts, let me know.

I don't know how many more parts I will do before I run out of either material for puzzles or interested readers. I will give notice several days before posting the last part, and the first person who lists all the correct answers in the comments to the last part will win.
Friday, October 14, 2005
Bird Flu as Biological Weapon?
Krauthammer just scared the crap out of me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005
The Battle for Mosul IV -- Soldiers, Spies, and Sheep
Michael Yon delivers another engrossing dispatch about the progress in Iraq. Read it during your lunch hour.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005
I'm an eediot
I went to my doctor today (no, it isn't Bean - he only gets to see me naked if he buys me dinner). This particular doctor has an office in a medical center that is currently under construction and which features no street parking within reasonable walking distance for a lunch break appointment. The parking situation has become so miserable that now the lot offers valet parking only. I'm not a big fan of valet parking, and I didn't have any cash on me for a tip so I was a little perturbed.

I went up to my doctor, turned, coughed, etc., and went down to pay for parking. There was only one kiosk operating and the line was long. There was a self-service machine, and I thought I'd be clever and give it a try. Of course it didn't work. I got back in line. I finally paid, after a quick your-credit-card-has-been-declined scare. Then I went out to get my car.

I couldn't figure out whom to give my ticket, until I realized that the number had somehow been transmitted to the proper authorities when I paid. So I saw and waited. The people who paid before me got their cars. The people who paid after me got their cars. I didn't get my car.

After a while, I decided to find my car on my own. There it was, in a space near the parking lot entrance, where all the valet dudes were scrambling around. I asked one if I could just take my car, and after checking my ticket, he said sure. I sat down, closed the door, and went to turn the key... but there was no key. Needless to say, with each parking-related indignity I became more frustrated and self-righteous. Not overtly so, I hope, but I was starting to get p.o.'d.

The valet guys looked all around my car, on the floorboards, on the tires, but the key was nowhere to be found. I was good and ready for a nice chat with a manager. Then one of them said, "Hey, isn't that the car we had to push into a space because the keys weren't in it?" Huh? Pardon me? "Your keys are probably in your pocket, Sir."

What? My pocket? Keys? Why, that's the most... Um, how could... Uh... I... Oh. Yup, here they are. Right in my pocket. Kind of hiding down there beneath the cellphone.

I apologized, tried to smile, slinked down into my seat, and started the car.

I was frustrated, self-righteous, and angry at my situation, and the problem had been with me the whole time.* There's a High Holiday message in there, somewhere.

*Okay, not the whole time, exactly, but work with me here.
Sukkah stuff
I put up my sukkah yesterday. Although I'm on the west coast, I have an old-school east coast sukkah with four heavy canvas walls that wrap all the way around and zip closed (and, yes, the rumors you've heard about the east coast-west coast sukkah rivalry are true). So I screwed together the frame and went into the tool shed to find the canvas, which I had folded up neatly and stuffed into a plastic trash bag last year.

The bag had been torn to pieces. And the canvas had been assaulted by rats. No, they hadn't chewed it - not a nibble. That's right - my sukkah walls were covered in rat doody.

After a feeble attempt to clean it, it went into the trash bin. Luckily, I live only a couple of blocks from Ronnie the Sukkah Guy. Ronnie specializes in west coast pre-fabs, and his durable plastic tarp-like walls were a little too big for my frame. Normally, these walls are slightly smaller than the frame, and are attached with modified bungee cords so they're stretched out taut. Saggy sukkah walls don't do the trick.

As usual, Mrs. Ralphie saved the day, devising a way to wrap the tarp around the top of the frame before securing it with said bungee-like devices. With some help from the garage-dwelling brother, we had it up in no time flat. And by no time flat I mean that a project that should have taken 30 minutes took the better part of four hours.

I have to say, I like the west-coast look much better. Cleaner, crisper. Possibly even cooler, since now there are seams where the odd breeze might make its way through.

Did I mention that the rats also got into the formerly air-tight bin that contained the sukkah decorations, including decorative lights and clampable lamps? In the garbage now.

Post-sukkah task? Tear down the shed and assemble and install a replacement.
Treasure Hunt – Part I
I've decided to put on a treasure hunt for our readers. Here's how it will work. About weekly, I'm going to post clues. You should be able to do the treasure hunt from your desk. You will need a decent brain, a computer with an internet connection, maybe a phone, and maybe a fax. You'll never actually have to get off your rear end, though "virtually" the clues may take you all over the country. I have no idea how many clues (how many weeks) I'll drag this out for. That will probably depend on how many readers participate. At the end, whoever solves the last clue first will win some sort of prize. I have no idea what it is, but it won't cost more than about $20.

First, some ground rules:

The treasure hunt will involve (i.e. mention) lots of real businesses all over the country. They have no clue they're part of this, so please don't bug them.

You will need to keep track of all the answers to intermediate steps along the way, but don't put any of the answers in the comments. At the end of the hunt I'll ask you for all the answers, and you'll need to have them all, going all the way back to this part*.

OK? If you don't get it, ask questions in the comments.

The hunt begins:

You are in the most populous city in Arizona. It's the early afternoon of Yom Kippur 2005. You're Presbyterian and your business partners are Jewish, so your office is closed and you've got the day off. You've decided to spend the afternoon seeing the latest movie with Alan Tudyk. You find the only 12:40 pm showing within the same city and you get a ticket. You enjoy the movie and then decide you feel like pizza. You cross the street that the theater is on, and see a Domino's. You pick up some lunch and ask the people there how late it's open, in case you'll feel like pizza for dinner. You grab one of their menus. You look at their phone number and imagine it as a 10 digit integer (formed by the area code followed by the phone number, so the phone number 800-765-4321 would become the integer 8,007,654,321). Domino's phone number written as an integer is interesting because it has an eight digit prime factor. Find that eight digit prime. (Let's call it D.) Then find the next smaller prime number (that's the largest prime number smaller than D). You'll need it to start the next clue.

That's the end of part one.

I would love some comments to let me know if any of you are doing it, and whether you think this is too easy / too hard / just right. Also, if you need clarifications about a clue or about the rules, comment away. But don't put any of the answers to the clues in the comments. I'm also open to suggestions for a prize. If any Coffeehousers want to do some of the future posts, send me an email. If this gets zero interest, I'm happy to call it quits now.

* For this part, you'll need to record for later (but DO NOT put in the comments) the name of the city, the name of the movie, the name and address of the theater, how late the Domino's across the street is open that day, that Domino's phone number, its eight digit prime factor (=D), and the largest prime number smaller than D.

Part II
Monday, October 10, 2005
Gator vs. Python!
And the results ain't pretty.
Sunday, October 09, 2005
More on Bumper Stickers
Walking home from shul this morning, I saw the following bumper sticker:

In case you can't read the small print, I'll type out the whole thing:

"American Heritage, American Values: Hasn't the KKK been using those forever?"

You can find this sticker and more at its thoroughly entertaining website.

You'll see that they have more than enough stickers and slogans, but I'd like to take this opportunity to suggest a few more in this particular vein:

"Roads, Cars: Didn't HITLER use those, too?"

"Oxygen, Water: Didn't STALIN ingest those on a regular basis?"

"Rocks, Doorknobs: Aren't those things as dumb as ME?"
Friday, October 07, 2005
Dem Bones
Wow! Yaakov Kirschen, creator of the Dry Bones cartoon, has a blog! He posts his cartoons and adds comments. Maybe you have no idea who he is and what this cartoon is, but it's been around forever (since I was 2, apparently) and it is invariably and consistently, well, dry.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Bush Explains the War
We have had some spirited discussions at the Coffeehouse about the war on terror, most recently here. Today, President Bush spoke to the National Endowment for Democracy and again made his case. It's worth a read. I initially wanted to give you a few quotes, but found I was basically quoting the whole speech, so I’ll just add my thoughts.

I was heartened to read that he names the enemy specifically, rather than continuing the vague talk of “terror” he mentions “Islamic radicalism ... militant Jihadism … Islamo-fascism”. He calls out Syria and Iran as their enablers, and puts them on notice. He defends against the charge (made by Wanderer in the comments I link to above) that the war in Iraq is fueling further terrorism. He states unconditionally that Israel is not the problem. He makes a parallel to the Cold War that I think may interest Q. And he makes it clear that the path forward is dangerous, but that withdrawal from Iraq now would be disastrous.

Mostly it reminded me that his speech writers can present his case much better than I can, and that it’s a case that I still very much support. I hope his successor shares his vision.

Because free peoples believe in the future, free peoples will own the future.
Fortune Cookie, Part VII
Your winsome smile will be your sure protection.

I was bound to get a stupid one sooner or later.
Sunday, October 02, 2005
I'd Like to File a Complaint
Doctor Bean: I think your husband's a little better today. I think after a few more days of intravenous antibiotics I'll be able to send him home.

Patient's wife: Oh, thank you. That's good news. But you know the nurses have been ignoring him all day. He calls for help to get to the bathroom or for his pain medicine and the just ignore him.

DB: Wow. I'm sorry to hear that.

PW: Well I think it's unconscionable, leaving a sick man like that.

DB: I hear you, but you know the nurses at the hospital don't work for me. They work for the hospital. For what it's worth I can tell you they're better here than at the University hospital.

PW: He would call and wait and wait and they just wouldn't come.

DB: You could talk to the nurse supervisor. She could find out what went wrong. Or the Hospital Patient Liaison Office could talk to you and get to the bottom of it and try to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

PW: Well, I can't believe you're taking their side. I thought you cared for my husband.

DB: I'm not taking any side. I hear how dissatisfied you are. I'm just telling you that I have nothing to do with training or disciplining the nurses and I'm pointing you to the people who can help.

PW: Well ... alright. I guess the important thing is that he's getting better. Did you test him for everything?
My previous reflections on doctoring:

Test Me For Everything
Vitamins = Crap (Mostly)
You Should Know Better Than That
I Really Appreciated This Visit
If I could be a doctor...
If I could be an astronaut...
Gawsh, You’re Awful Purdy!
Going Around
What Is It?
The Secret To Longevity
Thank You, Doctor
Senior Sadness
Saturday, October 01, 2005
To More Inmates, Life Term Means Dying Behind Bars
Um, isn't that the definition of "life term"?
Interesting read on Muzak...


"Muzak is scientifically engineered sound - functional music rather than entertainment. It affects those who hear it but does not require a conscious listening effort. The Muzak corporation call themselves "specialists in the physiological and psychological effects and applications of music", and they draw on the historical use of frequency, as well as the research work of founder Dan O'Neill, to create a "programmed environment for applications in offices, factories, banks and shops". The key to Muzak's effectiveness is "Stimulus Progression"; a system which provides people with a psychological "lift" - a subconscious sense of forward movement achieved through programming sound in fifteen minute blocks. Within each of these segments, tunes are ordered from least to most stimulating. The stimulus value of each segment is determined by factors such as tempo, rhythm, instrumentation and orchestra size. The final, brightest tune is always followed by fifteen minutes of silence, so that most employees for instance will only hear Muzak for half the time that they are working. This not only relates to attention curves, but also prevents the sound becoming the kind of imposition which could be distracting."

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