Monthly Archives: November 2011

Mornin’ Milton: Back to 1979

Good morning!  Can you imagine the typical university student today in a debate like this?  (Well, I’ll post one of those later.)

“Is there one of you who is going to say that you don’t want a doctor to treat you for cancer unless he himself has had cancer?”

For all this talk of America’s failures, what Mr. Friedman says at the end here is right on the money.  We are still a relatively wealthy nation.  I don’t understand how so many people around me can continually scream about the failures of the free market while our country is barreling down the same road that Europe was not so long ago.  We are on the fast track to Greecedom.

If free-market capitalism is not the perfect solution, it’s only because there is no perfect solution.  The capitalism we have now is not true free-market capitalism.  If certain private businesses receive favorable treatment or bailouts from the government, the blame rests squarely on that government’s shoulders.  There’s a lot we can fix here, but let’s also realize that we are still one of the wealthiest countries in the world overall, and capitalism is to blame.


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Pensées des Pensées

A little bit on Blaise Pascal.

Okay, you caught me.  French class is over, because that is all the French I know.  Now it’s time for your history lesson.  I think this one will be of particular interest to my law student friends.

“Love or hate alters the aspect of justice. How much greater confidence has an advocate, retained with a large fee, in the justice of his cause! How much better does his bold manner make his case appear to the judges, deceived as they are by appearances! How ludicrous is reason, blown with a breath in every direction!”

Allow me to introduce you to Blaise Pascal: physicist, writer, philosopher.  He was an all-around fascinating dude.  His Pensées (Thoughts) have inspired me so much over the past couple of years that I thought it might be appropriate to ponder his genius a little.  I mean, we named a unit of measure after the guy!

Blaise Pascal

"I set it down as a fact that if all men knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world."

Pascal was a brilliant man who, like many brilliant men, began as a child prodigy.  His father Étienne was a tax collector; his mother died when he was just three years old.  Étienne never remarried, choosing instead to dedicate his life to teaching Blaise and his two sisters, Jacqueline (younger) and Gilberte (elder).  (Jacqueline herself was also a prodigy.  She wrote a five-act comedy at the age of eleven.)  When Blaise Pascal was only sixteen, he wrote a treatise on what was called the “mystic hexagram.”

At the time, Descartes (yep, totally a friend of  Étienne’s) laughed at the idea that someone so young could produce such prodigious work and attributed the treatise to Blaise’s father.  (I’m not sure, but this could be part of the reason that Pascal slams Descartes so much in his Pensées.)

 “To write against those who made too profound a study of science: Descartes.  I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.  Descartes useless and uncertain.”

These days, Pascal is mainly known for his awesome triangle, which he didn’t actually invent.  However, he was the first to arrange all the information in a tidy little box as well as develop many applications for it.

Who knew a triangle could be so... so... French?

This existed a while before, but we still give him credit. He deserves it.

Move over, Leonardo da Vinci!  Pascal was also an inventor.  Perhaps the most important thing he helped develop was the syringe.  Not for medical use, more as an application for another one of his wacky theories.

“Thought constitutes the greatness of man.”

My favorite invention of Pascal’s has to be the “Pascaline,” though.

How does this thing work?

The Pascaline.

What is it?

A rudimentary calculator.  That’s right.  It’s the 1640s, people are dying of smallpox left and right, and Blaise Pascal has already conceived of something we didn’t really put into common use until the last century.

For anyone who wants to dip their feet into some interesting philosophy without wading too deep into some theoretical quagmire, I recommend Pascal’s Pensées.  He was a Catholic philosopher, so there is a lot of religious discussion in there, but I think there is truth and relevance for everyone buried within.  If you don’t agree with this, I have nothing more for you…

“Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.

“All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

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Thanksliving: an Introduction to Mindfulness

Why is it so hard to count your blessings at Thanksgiving?

Gourd yourself.

One gourd per blessing, at least.

This is the time of year, they tell us, to truly appreciate what you have around you, and think about how grateful you are for everything you have.  Count your blessings- your family, your friends, your home, your health, the fact that unemployment is still in the single digits.  It’s nice to picture that Norman Rockwell holiday, life’s troubles suspended for just one day as everyone gathers lovingly around the turkey.

I have been to enough Thanksgiving dinners, mine and others’, to know that this does not happen.  Most people I know consider themselves lucky if they escape from their family gathering kids in tow, casserole dishes unbroken, relationships fully intact.

If you don’t get along with your family, it is especially hard to set aside feelings of isolation and be thankful at the peak of holiday stress.  If your health is poor, it is difficult to watch everyone around you enjoy themselves, free from pain or disease, and be happy for them instead of envious.  If you have little (or no) income, watching your friends and family exchange expensive presents can make you feel guilty, or worse, jealous.

Nobody’s life is immune to ups and downs, and our brains are wired to respond to those.  It’s hard to avoid being yanked along on that emotional roller coaster.  You’re riding high on praise from your boss one day, the next you’re rear-ended by some schlub with no insurance.

You can’t control your family, your boss, or idiot teenage drivers.  The only thing in your life you can control is you.  That’s the mantra of my mission.  Your mind probably has some pretty bad habits.  You’re never going to get into the holiday spirit one day of the year when you don’t have the holiday spirit the other 364.

Mindfulness, a secular practice with roots in and connections to almost every major religion, can change that.

Are you serious?

Close friends of mine know how obsessed I am with situational awareness.  The zombie apocalypse will spare no one, and I aim to be sure my nearest and dearest are ready for when life attacks.  Many people think I am insane because of this, and they are probably right.

But I believe I’m even more right when it looks like everyone around me is walking around blind.  In January 2005, the University of Illinois published this terrifying study where most commercial airline pilots landed directly on top of another plane during a simulation… simply because they were not expecting it to be there.

You may have previously seen this famous selective attention test from 1999.  If not, I encourage you to watch it, as silly and dated as it may be, just so you know where I’m going with this.

If situational awareness is noticing the gorilla on the basketball court while counting shots, then mindfulness is noticing the gorilla, the basketball,the players, the jerseys, the shots, the court, right down to the players’ shoes.

But what does a gorilla have to do with Thanksgiving?

I’m not going to tell you that meditation was the solution to all my problems.  I still have traffic jams, fights with my parents, and even occasional Paper Chase moments that make me want to curl up and die right there in class.

But ever since I began practicing mindfulness, I have found my quality of life has improved so dramatically, I want to share the practice with anyone who might benefit from it.  (Full disclosure: I truly believe that everyone could benefit from it.)  Because, and allow me to repeat, the only thing you can control is you.

You know that saying that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it?  I believe it’s more like 100% how you react.  I know some people who don’t even notice the 10% of life that is happening to them because they are so hung up on something that happened years ago, or something that will happen in the distant future.

Mindfulness pulls us out of the stress and worry and confusion of our minds, and into the present.  If you want to get serious about counting your blessings on Thanksgiving, then you have to notice your blessings first.

Most of us walk around on autopilot, doing the things we need to do (or the things we think we need to do) to be successful: studying for class, going to work, getting the oil changed, eating lunch, grocery shopping, going to the bank.  The whole time, we think about the next thing on the to-do list.  What we need to do tomorrow.

Ugly or beautiful, when is the last time you really looked at your bank?  The walls, the molding, the windows?

When is the last time you really enjoyed your food?  Savored it, chewed it?  Without reading, texting, or spending the whole time chatting with the person next to you?

To wrap up….

Next week, I’ll be posting a primer on meditation and some mindfulness exercises to try.  Until then, do me a favor.

Attempt to eat at least one meal a day mindfully.  Chew your food completely and savor it.  Enjoy the textures, smell the aromas, ponder each ingredient- how it got to your table, how it works in harmony with the others to create a pleasurable eating experience.  While you’re at it, say a prayer of thanks for your taste buds and that you can eat with a knife and fork instead of through a tube.  If you truly feel that you have nothing else to give thanks for this year, you will at least enjoy your turkey and dressing.

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It’s Not Just Rick Perry I Miss About Texas Politics

The drawl, the emphasis on the Constitution, the everyman truths about burdensome government regulations, the campaign advertisements heavily featuring livestock of the candidate in question.



I actually got this via an e-mail forward from my very conservative grandfather.  I am glad to see he’s still rocking the airwaves.  Internet.

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Justice Thomas and SOPA, or “Give Me Google or Give Me Death”

When Justice Clarence Thomas came to speak to my class recently, I had the pleasure of meeting him afterwards.  I introduced myself and thanked him for coming, and he was very polite.  He even spoke with me briefly, and I can even remember basically sort of what he said.

During his talk, he repeatedly mentioned that we were the future, world changers, future Supreme Court justices and things like that.  Very inspiring.  But when I shook his hand, he looked right at me and repeated it.  “You’re going to be the ones making the decisions,” he said.  Then he said another great thing.

“So all I ask…. is just don’t take away my Internet.”

This SOPA is terrifying.  If passed, the government would have the power to order DNS blocking of websites based on infringing intellectual property.  If that sounds familiar, it’s the same thing they do in Syria.  And North Korea.

It’s not the same, lawmakers are saying.  This isn’t a prior restraint on freedom of speech!  We’re only protecting the rights of those creators!  Nobody would ever make art if it couldn’t be protected!  And look, even the first LINE of the law says it “shall not be construed to impose a prior restraint on free speech!”

Is this really how we’re writing our legislation now?  With golf-umbrella provisions to assure everyone of its constitutionality?  Prior restraint describes SOPA to a T.  I’d say that blocking an entire website based on the content of one of its pages hardly qualifies as a narrowly tailored solution to this so-called problem.

Note to the House and to Rep. Lamar Smith, I’m not the only one who has noticed this.  (Mr. Masnick from Techdirt says it a lot better than I do, i.e. it doesn’t actually say what it says it says.)

I hope this doesn’t pass.  But if it does, when- not if, when– this suffocating new law makes it to the Supreme Court, I know at least one justice is on my side.

More: Lamar Smith’s campaign contributions.  The entertainment industry is his #1 donor.

Big-money contributors include Time Warner, Comcast and Verizon.  I was also disappointed to see the Koch PAC gave quite a bit also.

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Beer, Burgers, Boner from Growing Pains…. What Makes a Good Trivia Night?

Ah, trivia night.  The universal restaurateur’s ploy to get the bar hopping on off nights, the last bastion of hope for those who can think of no other way to get their dork friends to leave the house.  My friends may reject half-price appetizers, margarita specials, or live bands until kingdom come, but I’ll be darned if I have yet to meet even the most steadfast teetotaler who will turn down the rare opportunity to show off her intimate knowledge of celebrity marriages.

Of late, my enthusiasm for haggling about geography over beer has waned significantly.  My inner 21-year-old is getting smaller and smaller.  It’s like I’m getting older or something.  These days, I make it to a trivia night once every few months or so, which I know is a shame.  But I can’t get religious about a bar’s trivia unless it has all the Key Elements of a Great Trivia Night…

1.  Location, location, location

Some of the worst bars and restaurants have some of the best trivia nights.  Some small, gross places I have attended trivia have been some of the most fun.  But when a bar or restaurant that doesn’t really need to draw more patrons holds trivia night, meeting and seating your party becomes exponentially more difficult.



In 2008-2009, I used to go to trivia night at a well-known chicken joint in Austin.  Their trivia was superior in almost every way to every other trivia night I have been to, but I usually had to be dragged out of the house anyway.  Why?

This was a popular restaurant for dinner patrons, not just trivia attendees.  If we wanted to have a seat for dinner and trivia at 9:00 PM, we had to be in the establishment by 6 at the latest… or stand.  When the management didn’t turn tables, they couldn’t sell food.  It made no sense to me.   Do people really enjoy sitting around for three hours waiting for two more hours of sitting around for trivia?  Which brings me to element 2…

2. Policy on table campers

The first place I ever regularly went to trivia was (at the time) the only sushi place in Oxford, Mississippi.  Trivia started at the same time the kitchen closed, so you had to get there early if you wanted to eat.  If someone needed a table, table campers would be politely ousted to make way for hungry diners.  I agree with this policy; the benefits to management and customers were many.  For my trivia team, the art of arriving with enough time to have dinner, then play trivia, was mastered after just two or three weeks of attending.  We always had dinner if we wanted it and a table for trivia by showing up half an hour before the kitchen closed.

Pay your tab already!


Contrast this with Austin Chicken Joint, which would permit diners to linger for hours… and hours.  I stand behind my earlier statement no normal person wants to sit at a table in any restaurant, no matter how hip or fun, from 6 PM until midnight.  (Speaking from experience, servers usually don’t like it either.)  Jobless hippies don’t mind, though, and that’s why Austin Chicken Joint had a trivia stacked with jobless hippies who weren’t buying food or booze.  (Also, let’s be real, because it was in Austin.)  Hungry customers would be turned away if table campers wouldn’t move, and standing triviagoers who would have otherwise purchased food did not do so because they had no surface on which to eat it.

Yes, people would stand up for trivia there for hours.  That’s how good it was.  In part because of the chicken, and in part because of the…

3. Prizes

Austin Chicken Joint gave its winners a trophy to take home for a week and free food.  The trophy was a truly magnificent beer can sculpture, and despite how much jobless hippies stink, they are honest, and always brought the trophy back for the next week’s winners.

Oxford Sushi Place charged $3 a person to play and gave the winners 2/3 of the pot or $100, whichever was bigger.

I’ve been to pubs that awarded Cowboys tickets and sports bars that handed out t-shirts.  In my experience, cash is king because it’s instant gratification that can be split right away.  Gift certificates are good too, though, and keep loyal winning teams coming back week after week.  Any kind of prize is fun, but sometimes the glory is all you need.  Especially if you have a good…

4. Host

We pretty much stopped attending trivia night at one Mexican restaurant altogether after the quizmaster (why they got a college student I will never know) was so drunk he fell off his barstool.

“You really stopped going?”  You’re screaming.  But that’s hilarious!

Yes, it was.  The first time.  The second time, the third time… and finally, after hours of it, at midnight on a weeknight, when we had one round left, really needed to get to bed, but we were winning by a lot… it just wasn’t funny anymore.

I’m not saying trivia hosts can’t be drunk.  Sometimes they relate better to their patrons if they are.  But they should engage their audience, come up with good questions from a variety of sources, and not be too wasted to do their jobs.

Kids, don't do drugs.

Are you ready for some TRIVIAAAAAAAAAAA?

That’s why there are professionals who will do it, and I gotta say, they’re the best.  That’s right, professional trivia hosts.  Bars and restaurants do hire them in larger cities, and I can only assume they’re worth the money.  Geeks Who Drink are just such guys, and they did such a good job at our favorite pub in Austin that they kept us coming back week after week.  They’re hilarious, a little crude, and did a great job coming up with interesting questions that weren’t all based on popular culture (many of the ones I heard were so creative I still remember them).  They also had a website where scores and standings were posted along with pictures taken by a photographer throughout the night.  More of these guys need to exist.  I wonder if there are any in Atlanta?  I smell an alternative career… where was I?

Oh yeah, the last and most important aspect of trivia night.

5. Company

No, not the musical (though it has made its way into more than one question in my experience). Your friends.  Your buddies.  Your team!

I know you have a lot of them.  The trick is paring down which ones work well together while achieving the widest variety of knowledge possible.  Too few people can sink a team, unless they are trivia geniuses (I’ve only known one or two of those in my life, though).

Too many people… well, you’ve heard that thing about the cooks and the broth before, and it’s true.  Far too often I’ve seen right answers passed over in favor of wrong ones because the sports or TV whiz got shouted down by the majority who thought something else “sounded right.”  In addition, if too many people participate, it can really do a number on any winnings once you split them.  I find between 4 and 7 people usually maximizes the efficiency of brainstorming and socializing, though you may disagree with me.

We'll never get that one wrong again.

I TOLD you the answer was Boner from Growing Pains!

Team styles vary, too.  Some teams take things way too seriously and are gung-ho about every answer.  (These are often of the “iPhone cheater” ilk, giving me double reason to hate them.)  Taking trivia seriously is fine, whatever.  But I can speak from my personal experience about my favorite teams, and they were all laid back, lazy, and fun… and it never stopped us from winning.  I think it’s possible to hang out and be sociable and still get answers right without ripping your best friend’s throat out over which solo artist has the most #1 Billboard hits.*  Those are the most fun trivia nights.

In other words, I would prefer to pay for my own food and come in last every week with people I like than get caught in a ridiculous quagmire over college baseball standings and wonder why I didn’t just stay home and play Sporcle.

So what makes a great trivia night?





She'll always be my baby.

*It's Mariah, of course.

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Mornin’ Milton and some bonus regrets…

Milton Friedman on greed:

Did you know Friedman helped invent the United States payroll withholding tax system?  It’s a little like how Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, then invented that whole prize thing as a sort of apology to humanity.

Unlike Nobel, he made no apologies for his work, but did state in an interview with Reason magazine that he wished “there were some way of abolishing withholding now.”


Best of Both Worlds, Friedman’s 1995 interview with Brian Doherty at Reason

The Story Behind the Nobel Prize (according to a Korean news outlet).

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