28 September 2006


The style of Mark Helprin's imagination is simultaneously so distinct and so concomitant to my own that it has always attracted me to his writing since the first time, many years ago, that I read A Soldier of the Great War. I've read so much of his work now (most of it more than once) that his narrational voice is like an old friend to me now. I'm finally endeavouring to read Winter's Tale in its entirety, and as I was reading it last night I was reminded for some reason of one of the short stories in The Pacific, one of his collections.

When I woke up this morning, I happened to see The Pacific on my bookshelf, so I picked it up to flick through the pages, without really intending to read anything. I couldn't help but to read the beginning of my favourite of all his short stories, Monday. I'm not going to give any particular preamble or description of the story, because it is a short story in the best sense of the phrase: perfectly contained, trimmed free of all surplusage. A novel can live with some excess fat - indeed it requires it to keep the story alive for 500 pages - but a good short story is boiled down to the essentials, leaving only the necessary muscle and bone to tell the tale. So all I'll say is that in this case Helprin manages to capture the feelings of an entire nation, but more importantly my own feelings about that particular time in the past. Many artists lunge at this goal, but few succeed.

At any rate, you should read Monday, and The Pacific in general.

27 September 2006


After living in this bloody country (as I like to call it) for a year and a half, I've assimilated nearly all of the slang and colloquialisms. I realised today, though, that there is still one expression that gives me trouble. It is common to greet people here with a "You alright?" (nearly always contracted as "ye'alright") as follows:

Limey A: Hello.
Limey B: Ye'alright?

What's not actually clear to me is whether Limey A should respond to the question or not. That is, should I say, "Yeah I'm good", or just keep walking? Aussies seem to have a similar thing with "How ya goin?" that doesn't necessarily require a response. In the USA, if you greet someone with a "how's it going?" you generally expect a "good, thanks" in return. This is what I usually do here, but I have a sneaking suspiscion that it strikes people as odd.

On a slightly related note, I've decided to practice my Brit accent, since it is still shamefully bad. We'll see how it goes.

25 September 2006


My most recent trip introduced me to yet another faux airport security measure. Before getting in the checkin line, you have to have a paper copy of your ticket. Since most people have e-tickets these days, you can use a computer printout. If you don't have one you need to go to the ticket desk, where you tell them your name and they print your ticket. They don't ask for ID, or details of any kind other than your name.

So what's the point of doing this? Well, it seems to basically be so that you have some piece of paper as you wait in the checkin line so that the interim security people can scribble stuff on it which nobody else will ever see, because the checkin desk doesn't ask to see the ticket. Of course, I got the SSSS and immediately knew that my already fun airport experience was going to get even better. I should've smuggled some moisturizer on board to teach those bastards a lesson.

22 September 2006


I saw a pale lavender hardcover book across the room and immediately assumed it was SICP. Turns out that it is "A User's Guide to Principal Components" but I still think we should refer to that shade from now on as SICP purple.

21 September 2006

<i>Handle With Care</i>

I've accidentally accumulated three versions of the Traveling Wilburys' song Handle With Care: the original, a version featuring Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne from the George Harrison tribute concert and a recent cover by Rilo Kiley vocalist Jenny Lewis.

I think the tribute version is the least satisfying, because Tom Petty's vocal style is a little too drawly and whiny for the lead vocals. The Jenny Lewis version is actually pretty awesome, because she kicks up the tempo just a little bit, and I really like her voice in general. The only weak link in that version is that she has some dude named Ben Gibbard doing the Roy Orbison part ("I'm so tired of being lonely, I still have some love to give...") and he (A) sounds like a girl and (B) doesn't have Roy's velvet croon.

Anyway, this post doesn't really have any point, other than that song is pretty sweet.

20 September 2006


Has Massachusetts' run of gubernatorial mediocrity from both parties finally ended with the Democrats' nomination of Deval Patrick? He certainly seems more interesting than any of the candidates from the last few elections. Take, for instance, this line from incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey's victory speech after winning the unopposed GOP primary:

These priorities [education reform] aren't welcomed by the status quo on Beacon Hill, and that's why I'm convinced they're not only needed, they're necessary.

Excuse me?

12 September 2006


It's time for Scottcast Part Deux.

11 September 2006

Appropriate Reading

For those of you (like me) who don't have time to read the tome released by the 9/11 Commission, may I recommend the fabulous comic book version by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón. Required reading for any well-informed American.

10 September 2006

Postmodern War

MRhé blogged about an article postulating the eclipse of the "Western Way of War" (making this discussion the WWW on the WWW, I suppose). The topic is obviously a wide-ranging one, but I've been thinking about one aspect of it, and that's the question of the extent to which the US Army (and other Western armies, such as Israel) is hindered by the restraint which we expect them to use in preserving civilian life. In the history of humanity, where did the idea come from that we should try to fight a war with anything less than all the resources available to us?

I've been thinking of several facets of historical conflict. From the dawn of warfare up until, say, the Renaissance (a very rough guess) it seems that the idea of fighitng a "civlised war" did not exist. If you defeated the enemy, you killed, enslaved or raped the civilians according to their utility and the conquerors preference. Cities were sacked and burned if they weren't useful (or sometimes in spite of the fact that they were, as in the case of Celts and Angles driving the Romans out of Britain and bringing Londinium back from a bustling regional capital to a thatched-hut village). Somewhere along the line, the people in charge of running the wars of Europe developed the concept, however, that you could fight an enemy, but not necessarily want to wipe him off the face of the earth (unless, of course, they were infidels or natives, in which case you were still entitled to kill, enslave and rape).

So we reach the point of the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Civil War, where statesmen and officers from the elite class have rules for "gentlemanly fighting". Captured officers were given parole and allowed to go home, under the expectation that honour would prevent them from fighting again until an official "exchange" was organised (almost like a gruesome game of tag, where at some point both teams decide to let the kids who had been eliminated rejoin the game). Of course, these developing ideals were still far separated from reality, in the sense that soldiers were still prone to raping and pillaging. Perhaps part of this development was due to cultural refinement, but I think the bottom line of wars was also changing. Rulers no longer expected to conquer another European country and wipe out the inhabitants (they were busy doing that in all of the non-European world). At the end of the conflict, in some sense, the expectation was that people would go back to their normal life, except now they were German instead of French. This probably also had a lot to do with the change from regional identity to the broader idea of Nationhood, but that's getting beyond my expertise as an armchair historiian.

This brings us to the point in history which originally got me thinking about the topic, which is the first time that any country chose voluntarily to eschew a weapon available to it in war. I think this happened for the first time in history after Europe saw the horrible effects of chemical weapons in the first World War. The concept was refined most powerfully when atomic bombs brought the idea into stark (and somewhat bizarre) relief. Conventional bombs had decimated London, Dresden, and Tokyo, but it is Hiroshima and Nagasaki that are the most dramatically remembered. So now that armies had weapons that were deemd too terrible to be used, what about the next-most-deadly alternatives? We weren't willing to eliminate the Taleban by firing ICBMs at Kabul, but we were willing to drop 500 pound, laser guided bombs. Interestingly, even this remarkable level of restraint (in a purely historical context — the use of orders of magnitude less force than the maximum possible) has earned the US widespread admonition at home and (especially) abroad. This also illustrates the paradox that the US Army in the 21st century is more powerful relative to all potential opponents than any other army at any point in history, but can't win a definitive victory in an impoverished, third-world country.

The incredible improvements in communications in the 20th century also have had a huge impact on the idea of "war by the rules". The immediacy and intimate detail that radio, television and the internet bring from the battlefield to the home dramatically increase the pressure from civilization on governements to avoid unmitigated killing. Much easier to let your soliders conduct total war when their mothers don't have to watch it on CNN. I suspect this could easily be the topic of a very interesting book, but I really don't have anything informed to say about it, beyond the obvious observation of its existence.

I find it a strange mental exercise to try to figure out where to strike the balance between fighting to win and fighting to avoid hurting too many people. That concept would seem insane to the great war-generals of nearly the entire spectrum of historical conflict. I'm not saying that I think we should walk backwards to the Middle Ages and start firing off Minutemen at anybody we dislike, I just think it's an interesting historical observation.

Maybe I should've majored in history...nah.

02 September 2006

More on Iran

I'm starting a new post in response to the huge volume of commentary on my invitation to Iran. First I wanted to clarify exactly what the trip entails, since I didn't give any details the first time. I would be one of four academics teaching a one-week course on disease genetics. The course is being sponsored by the Research Center for Gastroenterology and Liver Diseases in Tehran. The other teachers (including the person who asked me to go) are English and Italian, so I would be the only American on the trip.

More comments below the fold.

The whole question being debated by many people in the original post (thanks for your interest, everyone) is basically about weighing risks and rewards, which is something we obviously do every day. Riding in a car on a highway carries a risk of being in a fatal accident, but nobody thinks twice about it, both because the risk is very small and because cars are a very convenient way to get around.

In my mind, the three risks are:

  1. Bodily harm. I think the chance of being killed because I'm an American is very slim. Indeed, I'd estimate the chance of dying on a highway in the UK to be higher than execution at the hands of the Ayatollah. Being the target of a terrorist attack is possible, but that's true in London as well, and in fact a lot more people have died in terrorist incidents in Europe in the last few years than in Iran.

  2. Arrest. Also extremely unlikely, but obviously with very serious
    consequences. I don't have much faith in Iranian
    jurisprudence. On the other hand, academics do visit Iran relatively often, and don't seem to have trouble. It's not in the interest of the government there to pointlessly harass invited guests.

  3. Being harassed when travelling in the US and Europe. I presume making
    academic visits to Iran puts you pretty much permanently in the latex
    gloves line at the airport.

Furthermore, with absolute respect for my friends who have been there, Iran is not Iraq. The US Department of State doesn't explicitly tell citizens not to go to Iran. It says, "The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran." The UK Foreign office doesn't even go that far, recommending only that UK citizens avoid the border areas with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The ruling theocracy is certainly repressive and vocally anti-American, but it is not an active war zone (yet). Terrorist violence within Tehran is extremely rare. I don't think the dangers of being in Tehran are even on the same order of magnitude as being in Baghdad.

Even if the risks aren't as intense as one might initially think, what's the reward? Well one is that I think Iran is probably a fascinating place, and I've been presented with a unique opportunity to see it firsthand. I don't necessarily think it's just about "great stories", and I certainly don't care about it from a CV-boosting perspective (of which the trip will have no value). But this is a place that we talk about every day, and most of us don't know anything about it.

The second, and more important reason, is that I've wanted to make a contribution to (for lack of a better name) "The War on Terror". Not as it's framed by any government, but in the sense that I believe that their is a real conflict between ignorance and enlightenment that threatens everybody. I have huge respect for the guys (like Chris and Teresa) who really do risk their lives in war zones, and I'd like to make a contribution as well (though obviously not on the same scale). I don't have an M16, though, so what can I do? Well, how about giving 3 days of lectures on computational methods for finding disease genes to a roomful of smart Iranians? Isn't this the bottom line? That instead of going to university and studying genetics they're going to madrasas and listening to anti-American vitriol?

I realise that a couple of lectures from Westerners isn't going to change the Iranian educational system or bring down the government, but lately I've been feeling that I need to find the integrity to stand up for something. For me, part of that something is the belief that science has the potential to make the world a better place. To bring a small amount of that to a part of the world that is severely lacking in it seems to be perhaps the best contribution I can make. Maybe that's incredibly naive and I know that I'm a tiny cog in a very big machine, but life has to be about more than checking my email and going to the pub.

But after all that, I think I'll probably live up exactly to Aaron's expectations and not go. I'm a pretty risk-averse person, and this is well outside of my comfort zone. Maybe if the political climate had not just soured even further between the US and Iran I would've done it. I'm going to think about it for the rest of the weekend and write back on Monday or Tuesday.

01 September 2006


I just finished moving all myself from my houseshare on Osler Rd to my very own one-bedroom flat. If you need my mailing address, send me an email and I'll give it to you.

The place is mediocre. I'm sure it will look better once I'm moved in, and it will be awesome to have so much space to myself. Alas, I confused this flat with another I looked at and it does not actually have kitchenware, which means I'll need to go to the second-hand shops this weekend to pick up the essentials.

Anyway, here's to my new home!


I've been invited by a colleague to teach a course in Iran in January. It seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I'm not sure I've got the stones to go to Tehran, especially since:

  1. My Passport is issued by the Great Satan.

  2. The UN Security Council is debating economic sanctions as we speak.

  3. In case of trouble, the only resource for Americans is "The US Interests Section" of the Swiss Embassy, which sounds like a dusty corner of a smalltown library. ("Excuse me, do you have any maps of Ohio?" "Yes, check the US Interests Section.")

Thoughts, anybody? (My mother is having a heart attack right now)