Friday, September 30, 2011

Please tell us how we can better annoy you

I am very gradually working up the nerve to kill my Facebook account. The only thing preventing me from deleting it and dropping FB a line asking them to erase all my old information is my fear that I'll lose touch with all the old acquaintances with whom Facebook has put me back in contact. But then again, giving people's YouTube links the occasional thumbs up and checking up on the hourly changes in their moods is more like tending to a Tamagotchi pet than maintaining a fulfilling and meaningful friendship.

Point is, I have a Facebook account. And when I checked it earlier today, I found this sponsored ad:

Hm. What's the correct answer to this one?

What they're really asking is: Is our intrusive advertising intrusive enough? Is our product on enough billboards, subway posters, taxicab tops, and website sidebars?

If I click "yes," they'll think: Cool! Let's continuing placing our advertisements on billboards, subway posters, taxicab tops, and website sidebars! Increased demand will result in the erection of more billboards, more ad placement in public transportation, more web adverts smeared across my browser window, etc.

If I click "no," they'll think: Hm. In that case, we need to diversify. We should place more ads in public urinals, video games, park benches, Kindles, etc. Before long, somebody figures out that every individual sidewalk panel could conceivably host an advertisement.

What about "not sure?" That just tells them to keep paying for Facebook polls to gauge the returns on the money they're paying on advertising to get bigger returns on the product they're selling.

I feel sort of worried that (A) advertisers have turned to crowd sourcing and are seeking my input on how they can more effectively bother me (B) thousands of New Media-conditioned zombies are likely playing along with it, because they have come to construct their identities based on what they can say they like/dislike, recognize/do not recognize, lol/wtf.

I keep having to clarify that I'm moving to a Quaker retreat, not the Amish country. The more I think about stuff like this, the more I wish I could escape to Lancaster.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sease the Seizons

Whoa. Looks like we're short another textpile this week. All the other stuff I've got on my plate -- not the least of which is packing up and moving to Pennsylvania to start a new job -- is affording me very little time to do any writing. Looks like we'll both have to settle for another batch of snapshots about seasons and transitions. Click to enlarge!

(You have no need to worry about this turning into another photography blog, I assure you. All of these shots are at least two years old, and I've long since fallen out of the habit of toting a camera around.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Walk the seasons

On Monday I got a flu shot to avoid a repeat of last winter's fiasco, and now I'm sick. Could this be an example of irony in the classical sense? Maybe -- but only if there exists a causal relationship between my inoculation and my subsequent incapacitation. Or, in other words, if my subsequent incapacitation is in fact consequent to my inoculation.

Wakka wakka! I'll be here all week, folks. (Because I can't move so good.)


Tomorrow is the autumnal (or hibernal, as per your preference) equinox, ladies and gents. The oh-fficial first day of fall, and my first step down the spiral stair of seasonal affective depression. I plan to remain heavily medicated until the vernal equinox rolls round.

Earlier today I was sorting through some old photographs I took a few years ago (before the novelty of possessing a digital camera had worn off), and found a series of seasonal snappies I would like to share with you in the spirit of this transitional time of year.

Each was taken three or four months apart, and in pretty much the same spot. (I could never precisely match up the shots, and for some time it drove me absolutely crazy. This might be another reason I didn't pursue photography for very long -- I have enough neuroses already.)

Omake: for those who have been with us a while -- notice that tree in the background that's visibly larger than the rest? (It's especially prominent in the first shot.) That's the same specimen you see our heroes gazing at in this old 8EB strip.

(Note: will be switching hosts in the next few days. I'm hoping to do it with a minimum of downtime, but we'll see what happens.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lazy 9/19 update

I wish I could find my hardcover Rogues' Revenge collection. Definitely not the deepest comic on the shelves (I hesitate to even call it a "graphic novel"), but it's just so much fun to look at.

I don't have much else to share this afternoon. It's my birthday and I'm treating myself to a nap. I've added nine new commentary blurbs to the 8EB archives (starting with page #75), if anyone cares to look.

Sleeping now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Edna and the Greek

Lyubov Popova, Untitled

Still working my way through Constance Reid's A Long Way from Euclid, which I heartily recommend to anybody with even the mildest interest in mathematics. Though you'd never guess from what they teach in the public schools, mathematics has a rich and fascinating history, which Reid illuminates with her lucid prose and diffusive enthusiasm for the subject.

Once or twice, Reid cites a snippet of verse from the fabulous flapper poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950): "nothing, intricately drawn nowhere." I punched the line into Google, expecting to find a characteristic Millay piece about the aches and ecstasies of love, and was pleasantly surprised to discover she'd written a sonnet about Euclid himself. Well, sorta. Have a look:

"Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Turning back to A Long Way from Euclid for a moment, it would seem that Millay (and most of the general populace) are misinformed in their understanding that the familiar laws of geometry were conceived by Euclid. Reid tells us that this is not exactly the case:

The Elements, from the beginning, was immediately recognized for what it was -- a masterpiece. The form of the book was not original. The logical ladder of definitions, axioms, theorems, and proofs was first erected by some earlier Greek than Euclid, perhaps a priest. The subject matter was not original. The masterly treatment of proportion which enabled the later Greeks to handle incommensurable as well as commensurable magnitudes is that of Eudoxus; and the other books are frankly based on the known work of other men. ("The picture has been handed down of a genial man of learning, modest and scrupulously fair, always ready to acknowledge the work of others," H.W. Turnbull wrote in The Great Mathematicians.) Only one proof -- that of the Pythagorean Theorem -- is traditionally ascribed to Euclid himself, although it is apparent that to fit theorems into his new arrangement he must have had to create other new proofs. Even the title, the Elements, was not original. This term did not refer, as we might think, merely to the elementary aspects of the subject but rather -- according to an early mathematical historian -- to certain leading theorems in the whole of mathematics which bear to those which follow the relation of a principle, furnishing proofs of many properties. Such theorems were called by the name of elements; and their function was somewhat like that of the letters in the alphabet in the language, letters being called by the same name in Greek. There had been many Elements before Euclid. That there were none after him is an unequivocal tribute to the sheer genius of his work.

As a mathematician, Euclid falls far behind Eudoxus, who preceded him, and Archimedes and Apollonius, who followed. The Encyclopaedia Britannica admits regretfully that he was not even a "first-rate" mathematician, but adds that there is no question but that he was a first-rate teacher. What he brought to the already great mathematics of his time was a genius for system. And system was exactly what was needed! There were many fine single works on specialized subjects. Many editors had gathered together what had seemed to them important. There were definitions, axioms, theorems, and proofs galore; and an almost equal number of organized and disorganized, overly complete and incomplete arrangements, all called the Elements. Euclid took these. He selected, substituted, added, rearranged; and what came out in his Elements was a distillation of all that had come before -- a model of systematic thought.

Note: I will reply to comments from the last two updates tomorrow, I promise.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The backlog bottoms out

I have too many goddamn books.

Wait -- scratch that. That isn't the issue here.

The problem is the broadening ratio between the books in my room that I've read and the ones that have thus far served only as shelf ornaments. I'll buy three books at a time, read one or two, buy another three books, read one, borrow two more books from a friend, buy another two books, borrow another from another friend -- and soon I've amassed a wheelbarrow load of books, most of which get dumped into the backlog.

Well, the line is in the sand now. Enough is enough.

I am not going to purchase, borrow, or otherwise acquire another book or books until I read ten of the ones I already have. And those books are going to be, in order:

0. A Long Way from Euclid, Constance Reid (I put it down for a while and got sidetracked by a couple of other things, among them Ian Stewart's Story of Mathematics. After hitting a point where I have absolutely no idea what Stewart is writing about, I've jumped back into Reid, and will finish reading Long Way from Euclid before proceeding elsewhere.)

1. The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth

2. Black Elk Speaks, John G. Neihardt

3. 1984, George Orwell (OH MY GOD YOU'VE NEVER READ 1984!? is what you're thinking. I've heard that once or twice.)

4. The Stranger, Albert Camus

5. English Prose 1600-1660, Victor Harris And Itrat Husain, editors (snatched this from a table of free books at my alma mater several years back. I reserve the option to skip it and move on if it becomes tiresome. But if I'm going to keep a book on my shelf, I should have at least some sense of what's inside.)

6. Grundrisse, Karl Marx (900 pages of socioeconomic theory. A perfect February read.)

7. Robot Dreams, Isaac Asimov (short story collection)

8. Bleak House, Charles Dickens

9. Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind, William Ellery Sedgwick

10. Pharaoh, Bolesław Prus (Evidently this was Josef Stalin's favorite book. If Lalka was any indication, I have very, very high hopes for this one.)

There. Now that I've announced it, I am committed. Thank you, Internet.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The 9/11 post I wish I didn't have to write

At the beginning of the week I was ruminating on subjects for the next update. Perhaps something about British novelist Somerset Maugham? What about the curious and frankly scary parity between the sensations I've experienced when sitting at a slot machine in at Atlantic City and while sitting in a friend's apartment playing Street Fighter III ranked matches on his PS3? Why not an anniversary post, seeing as how Beyond Easy is now almost a year old?
But suddenly all I can think about is 9/11.
9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 nineleven 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11
When I drive to work in the morning and switch on the radio, everybody on NPR is talking about 9/11.
When I walk past a television set on my lunch break, the CNN anchors are talking about 9/11.
When I grab a free copy of the local news rag to do the crossword puzzle, two of the three above-the-fold front page stories are 9/11-related human interest pieces.
When I return from my break and pass the same television set, a different set of CNN anchors are talking about 9/11.
When I drive home and switch on the radio, different people on NPR are saying the same things about 9/11.
When I arrive home and check my inbox, I find a mass-email from Senator Menendez, inviting me and his other constituents to share our reflections on 9/11.
When I check the daily batch of editorial cartoons, I find more than half of the cartoonists are already showcasing their latest batch of mawkish memorial kitsch: Lady Liberty with a single tear rolling down her cheek, Uncle Sam hanging his head, the godlike martyrs of the NYPD/NYFD digging through the rubble, bald eagles, flags, a pair of shadows, a pair of candles, flags, Liberty Bells, flags, Never Forget, flags, flags, flags -- the same cartoons they've been phoning in every September for the last decade.
When I open up my news tabs, it's all the same. 9/11. 9/11. 9/11. 9/11.
How has the tragedy changed our lives? How has the tragedy changed your life? Who in your community has been directly affected by the tragedy? Who in your community has been indirectly affected by the tragedy? Who in your community knows somebody from another community who has been directly affected by the tragedy?
We talk to members of Generation X to see how they feel ten years after the tragedy. We talk to members of Generation Y to see how they feel ten years after the tragedy. We talk to Manhattan residents to see how they feel ten years after the tragedy. We talk to Muslims to see how they feel ten years after the tragedy. We talk to politicians to see how they feel ten years after the tragedy. Post comments about how you're feeling ten years after the tragedy!
And now we'll hear from the same analyst we we spoke to last year about how the tragedy of 9/11 changed America, and he's going to tell us about how the tragedy of 9/11 has changed America.
Where were you when you heard about the tragedy? What were you doing when you heard about the tragedy? What did you do the day after the tragedy? What were you feeling one year after the tragedy? How do you feel about how you felt about the tragedy now that ten years have passed since the tragedy?
We talk to people who lost spouses in the tragedy of 9/11. We talk to people who lost friends in the tragedy of 9/11. We talk to people who lost parents in the tragedy of 9/11. We talk to people who lost children in the tragedy of 9/11. We talk to people who lost casual acquaintances in the tragedy of 9/11.
The date on the bottom-right of my computer monitor is 9/7/2011. The anniversary is still four days off.
In related news:
  • New Jersey Governor Chris Christie orders that all flags at public buildings be lowered to half-mast in observance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, beginning two days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
  • Ninety-three syndicated newspaper comic strips will run remembrance strips on September 11's Sunday comics page.
  • The Onion is, as usual, spot on.
  • Jiminy Christmas, enough is enough. If we're going to observe a National September Eleventh Remembrance Week, let's declare the damn thing and make it official, please.
    But I would really rather we not do that.
    What occurred on 9/11/01 was horrific -- no doubt about that. There is no reason we should not observe its anniversary, remember those we lost, commemorate those who demonstrated heroism, and strive to learn what we can from the event.
    But that doesn't seem to be what we're doing today.
    In the days after 9/11/2001, public figures and media personalities in the United States were engaged in an undeclared patriotism pissing contest.
    In the days leading up to 9/11/2011, public figures and media personalities in the United States are in a contest to see who can be the saddest and most remorseful, even though most of them weren't in Manhattan when it occurred.
    If a nation's mass media is a reflection of its consciousness, it would appear that the United States is observing the anniversary of a very bad day by putting its thumb in its mouth and whimpering like a toddler with a stubbed toe.
    Viewed in the broad historical perspective, 9/11 was a slap in the face. More of an insult than an injury.
    What's an injury, then?
    The western end of Continental Europe was razed in the last century. Twice.
    Seven million civilians were killed in World War I. Forty to fifty million civilians were killed in World War II; about 77,000 of those deaths can be attributed to the Allied Forces' firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg, and about another 246,000 to the United States' atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    We've counted about one to three million Vietnamese killed during the United States' involvement in Vietnam's civil war. If you want more details, run a pair of Google image searches for "vietnam napalm" and "vietnam agent orange."
    The U.N.-authorized military actions in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War resulted in the deaths of something like 103,500 Iraqi civilians.
    Moscow burned during the Napoleonic Wars. London endured seventy-six consecutive nights of bombing raids in 1941-2. Japanese soldiers murdered and raped thousands of civilians in Nanking. Israel gets slammed by rocket attacks on a regular basis. How many people were getting killed every day in Rwanda a few years back? And the Khmer Rouge -- let's not talk about the Khmer Rouge.
    Ten years ago, a terrorist attack on the United States killed three thousand people and destroyed a block of office buildings.
    It was a horrible day, but I wish the mass media would try to keep it in perspective. I can't help but worry that this makes the United States look like a land of wimps and whiners. We can dish it out, but we can't take it. One would think that a nation with the strength of character to match its military muscle would treat the anniversary of terrible event with a little more restraint and a lot less melodrama.
    The events of 9/11/2001 occurred ten years ago. The rubble has been cleared away. Osama Bin Laden is dead, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is rotting in GITMO, and we hear about another high-ranking al-Qaeda member getting nailed by a drone attack almost every other month. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have analyzed the event, its causes, and consequences from almost every conceivable angle.
    Keeping it to a somber, tasteful minimum is not an option: sensationalist human interest stories attract viewers. And so the media unleashes a typhoon of pieces wherein everyone who remembers the two big kabooms and two big crashes is put on the air and asked to remind viewers about how awful it was. Ten-year-old footage of of the day's events are re-aired and reanalyzed ad nauseum, just in case anyone missed the last nine years of annual 9/11 remembrance coverage or has spent the previous decade in a coma.
    Recovering from a tragedy means getting over it and moving on. The victim needn't (and probably shouldn't) forget about what happened; but at some point the grieving needs to stop. No competent therapist would encourage a trauma victim to continuously harp on the event for the rest of his life. Obsessing over a terrible emotional or psychological blow from the past rarely helps ease the pain.
    So how should we commemorate 9/11's anniversary?
    I have no specific suggestions, but a stiffer upper lip would be a start. Keeping the 9/11 remembrances limited to 9/11 might be another.
    I've long thought that David Rees (of Get Your War On fame) has the right idea. Whenever September 11 rolls around, he replaces his whole website with an image and a brief quote for the duration of the day. (As I write this at 1:15 a.m. on 9/11/2011,'s normal front page is up, but perhaps this only means the switch isn't automated and Mr. Rees plans to do it later.)
    In case you miss it this year (and in case he ends up not doing it, though I can't guess why he'd break with tradition), here's a screen grab of taken back in 2005. (Click to enlarge.)
    I have nothing to add.

    Saturday, September 3, 2011

    Aristotle on the Middle Class

    Real quick: I'm drawing a comic and listening to an audiobook version of Aristotle's Politics. I tend to phase in and out, depending on what's being said and how focused I am on the Photoshop Elements window, but I just zeroed in on a certain section and feel it's worth sharing.

    There has been a lot of talk lately about the middle class and the detrimental effects on American life we are seeing and can expect to see as it dwindles and disappears. None need be repeated here; just Google "editorial + middle class" (or something) and you'll be set.

    Aristotle succinctly and eloquently summarizes and predicts this discussion way back in 350 B.C.E.:

    We have now to inquire what is the best constitution for most states, and the best life for most men, neither assuming a standard of virtue which is above ordinary persons, nor an education which is exceptionally favored by nature and circumstances, nor yet an ideal state which is an aspiration only, but having regard to the life in which the majority are able to share, and to the form of government which states in general can attain. As to those aristocracies, as they are called, of which we were just now speaking, they either lie beyond the possibilities of the greater number of states, or they approximate to the so-called constitutional government, and therefore need no separate discussion. And in fact the conclusion at which we arrive respecting all these forms rests upon the same grounds. For if what was said in the Ethics is true, that the happy life is the life according to virtue lived without impediment, and that virtue is a mean, then the life which is in a mean, and in a mean attainable by every one, must be the best. And the same the same principles of virtue and vice are characteristic of cities and of constitutions; for the constitution is in a figure the life of the city.

    Now in all states there are three elements: one class is very rich, another very poor, and a third in a mean. It is admitted that moderation and the mean are best, and therefore it will clearly be best to possess the gifts of fortune in moderation; for in that condition of life men are most ready to follow rational principle. But he who greatly excels in beauty, strength, birth, or wealth, or on the other hand who is very poor, or very weak, or very much disgraced, finds it difficult to follow rational principle. Of these two the one sort grow into violent and great criminals, the others into rogues and petty rascals. And two sorts of offenses correspond to them, the one committed from violence, the other from roguery. Again, the middle class is least likely to shrink from rule, or to be over-ambitious for it; both of which are injuries to the state. Again, those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends, and the like, are neither willing nor able to submit to authority. The evil begins at home; for when they are boys, by reason of the luxury in which they are brought up, they never learn, even at school, the habit of obedience. On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme, are too degraded. So that the one class cannot obey, and can only rule despotically; the other knows not how to command and must be ruled like slaves. Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states than this: for good fellowship springs from friendship; when men are at enmity with one another, they would rather not even share the same path. But a city ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals and similars; and these are generally the middle classes. Wherefore the city which is composed of middle-class citizens is necessarily best constituted in respect of the elements of which we say the fabric of the state naturally consists. And this is the class of citizens which is most secure in a state, for they do not, like the poor, covet their neighbors' goods; nor do others covet theirs, as the poor covet the goods of the rich; and as they neither plot against others, nor are themselves plotted against, they pass through life safely. Wisely then did Phocylides pray- 'Many things are best in the mean; I desire to be of a middle condition in my city.'

    Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme- either out of the most rampant democracy, or out of an oligarchy; but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions and those akin to them. I will explain the reason of this hereafter, when I speak of the revolutions of states. The mean condition of states is clearly best, for no other is free from faction; and where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissensions. For a similar reason large states are less liable to faction than small ones, because in them the middle class is large; whereas in small states it is easy to divide all the citizens into two classes who are either rich or poor, and to leave nothing in the middle. And democracies are safer and more permanent than oligarchies, because they have a middle class which is more numerous and has a greater share in the government; for when there is no middle class, and the poor greatly exceed in number, troubles arise, and the state soon comes to an end. A proof of the superiority of the middle class is that the best legislators have been of a middle condition; for example, Solon, as his own verses testify; and Lycurgus, for he was not a king; and Charondas, and almost all legislators.

    These considerations will help us to understand why most governments are either democratical or oligarchical. The reason is that the middle class is seldom numerous in them, and whichever party, whether the rich or the common people, transgresses the mean and predominates, draws the constitution its own way, and thus arises either oligarchy or democracy. There is another reason- the poor and the rich quarrel with one another, and whichever side gets the better, instead of establishing a just or popular government, regards political supremacy as the prize of victory, and the one party sets up a democracy and the other an oligarchy. Further, both the parties which had the supremacy in Hellas looked only to the interest of their own form of government, and established in states, the one, democracies, and the other, oligarchies; they thought of their own advantage, of the public not at all. For these reasons the middle form of government has rarely, if ever, existed, and among a very few only. One man alone of all who ever ruled in Hellas was induced to give this middle constitution to states. But it has now become a habit among the citizens of states, not even to care about equality; all men are seeking for dominion, or, if conquered, are willing to submit.

    What then is the best form of government, and what makes it the best, is evident; and of other constitutions, since we say that there are many kinds of democracy and many of oligarchy, it is not difficult to see which has the first and which the second or any other place in the order of excellence, now that we have determined which is the best. For that which is nearest to the best must of necessity be better, and that which is furthest from it worse, if we are judging absolutely and not relatively to given conditions: I say 'relatively to given conditions,' since a particular government may be preferable, but another form may be better for some people.