Saturday, October 16, 2004

Wrong War, Wrong Place, Wrong Time... 

And the right time and place to stop this would have been...?

Google RealWorld 

I installed Google Desktop yesterday. The ability to Google my own hard-drive is probably the greatest single computing improvement I've experienced since my first broadband connection. Cost of program: nothing. Size of program: under half a meg. Installation time: about thirty seconds. "First-time indexing" of my hard-drive: a couple of hours (but only during the processor's idle time). Ability to retrieve an indexed list of every document and email on my computer in fractions of a second: priceless.

The exciting development of Google Desktop still pales beside the Google upgrade I'm really looking forward to for: Google RealWorld.

I'm not quite sure of the technology, but it would work something like this: I would type in "sunglasses or shades" (for example) and get an indexed list of every pair of sunglasses in the house, along with a brief description of their appearance and their whereabouts. Something like this:

I'd run the software ragged the day I got it. "2002 Tax Returns," "favorite pen," "Canon digital camera manual," "gloves," ... the number of little possessions I know I haven't lost, yet cannot find, is boundless.

But even this just scratches at the surface of the possibilities. What if we could Google our memories? You'd look at someone's face, blink twice, and a digital readout on your retina would present Google search results of all the times you'd met them (ranked by date or relevance, of course—just because someone's been a mere acquaintance the last ten times you've seen them doesn't mean you didn't have a torrid sexual tryst with them in 1995).

And imagine the cross-indexing potential! A MetaGoogle that could link your sketchy memories to your scattered belongings to your hard-drive and the internet itself—which could, in turn, be connected to everyone else's memories, belongings, and hard-drives (on an opt-out basis, obviously, with plenty of filtering capabilities and adult-content controls).

My same "sunglasses/shades" search would now cover every pair of sunglasses in my house and my memory, all of it cross-indexed with other people's memories of each pair. I might learn my nieces were actually frightened of the pair I'd bought to amuse them, or that the pair I had in '85 but lost in '86, and have been looking for ever since, isn't entirely out of production and can still be found at a tourist shop in Milan.

(I should point out that sunglasses are the least of my concerns right now, since I probably won't need a pair for another seven months, but I needed to use something as an example.)

Long story short: Google Desktop rocks, but it's still just one baby-step in the right direction.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Saints & Martyrs, Oh My! 

Today's Almanac covers a whole grab-bag of useless but indispensable information, including the fact that it's Saint Teresa of Avila Day.

Saint Teresa is an interesting saint, but further research has just revealed to me that October 15 also belongs to (among others):

St. Aurelia of Strasbourg. Privileged and beautiful, she belonged to France's ruling family. Ordered to marry a man she could not love, she fled to to the solitude of a far-off land, where she lived in hiding for 52 years. Only Bishop Wolfgang of Ratisbon knew that she was even alive... and Bishop Wolfgang told to tales. Or did he?

St. Lucian of Antioch. What do you call the child of wealthy, loving parents who die? An orphan. What do you call an orphan who gives up all his belongings to study philosophy in a far-off land? A philosophy student. What do you call an orphaned philosophy student who runs off to the hills to live as a hermit? You'll find out when you study... The Life of St. Lucian. See his arrest in Nicomedia during the persecution of Diocletian! Watch as he spends nine years in prison! Recoil at the spectacle of his being dragged before the emperor as an example! Applaud his rousing defense of his faith! Shudder as he's thrown back in his cell! Marvel as he's tortured, starved, beaten, and finally run through with a sword. It's the feel-good movie of the season!

Go ahead, browse a few saints and martyrs. It's hard to stop once you get started. Did you know St. Gregory was the patron saint of (relief from) Gout? Or that the relics of St. Gerebernus are enshrined at Sonsbeck, Germany—except for his head, which is at Gheel? ("Holy robbers" used to specialize in the stealing and selling of relics, often absconding just parts of a given saint's remains, which is how so many saints became so geographically diverse in their posthumous lives.) How about St. Symphorian of Autun, the patron saint of (relief from) Syphilis—beheaded in front of his own mother?

This is good stuff. With Jesus behind him, Mel Gibson has no shortage of material to work through in the future.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Great Dane; Lousy Debate 

Today's almanac ends up wandering through the legend of Holger Danske.

I just watched last night's presidential debate replayed on EuroCNN. The last question, about "the strong women in your lives," annoyed me. The President and the Senator both took the softball for what it was worth, but I look forward to the day when a presidential candidate presented with such a question, in such a format, says something like this:

"I love my family, Mr. Moderator. But we're engaged in an important debate about the future of this nation. My opponent and I are vying against one another for the most important office in the world. We have very different visions, and the American voters deserve to hear as much as they can about them. We have ninety minutes in this debate, and it strikes me as less than helpful to devote even just four of those minutes to matters that are personal, private, and mostly irrelevant to this campaign."

The only argument I can anticipate is, "Moron, this is our only chance to see a little of the personal side of our potential presidents—and how well they react to public discussion of their private lives, which is inevitable for holders of the Oval Office."

And my response to that is: phhlt. Some of the greatest leaders in human history have been complete screwballs. And maybe you've noticed that whenever some psycho serial killer gets nabbed, all his neighbors gush to the news crews about what a "nice, friendly boy" he seemed to be. You can love your family deeply and still be a dangerous lunatic; you can be a lousy husband and father and still be a brilliant leader.

Instead of four minutes of self-deprecating falderol about their wives and daughters, I for one would like to have heard the candidates' positions on the Poisonous Snake problem.

Probably that's just me.

(You'll notice I refrained from taking any cheap shots about the candidates' wives being part of the poisonous snake problem.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Asinine Equines 

Today's almanac isn't much more than a final howl against the absurdity of the Danish naming laws. If you've had enough of that from me, I don't blame you. Time to give it a rest.

Just casting about the Danish news for a new horse to beat to death, I came across this gem in the Copenhagen Post:

Writers, critics and politicians in this country report arousing increasingly aggressive reactions from Islamic fundamentalist circles in the national debate on Islam.

One week ago, an instructor at Copenhagen University's Carsten Niebuhr Institute was beaten after he read excerpts of the Koran aloud.

Well, sure. You misread the Official Book of the Religion of Peace (tm), you're just asking for an ass-kicking. But the article does a good job, I think, of identifying the source of the problem (emphasis mine):

"There's an organisation of more fundamentalist Muslims in Denmark that we haven't seen before. This is doubtless due to the increased polarisation of Danish society. When Danes and Muslims distance from each other, each side finds new allies. One way of bonding with new allies is to find new enemies - for example, anyone who doesn't interpret Islam in the same way that you do. It's an unfortunate trend that doesn't benefit anyone at all."

According to Professor Torben Ruberg Rasmussen of the University of Southern Denmark's Center for Middle East Studies, the dramatic reactions may be due to a new generation of Muslims who approach their religious convictions differently.

"For the new generation, religion is a self-chosen project. So they don't just take offense on behalf of the prophet - they take things very personally. The problem is that many Muslims have a hard time understanding that all values are open to discussion in the Danish public arena. Nothing's sacred - and anyone who has an idea that certain issues are untouchable is bound to clash with someone at some point," said Rasmussen.

For good or ill, the secular west has bitchslapped Christianity and Judaism into submission. I was very close friends in Los Angeles with a woman who described herself as a "fundamentalist" Christian. She knew I was (at best) an agnostic. I once said, without thinking, that I thought the Gospels were one of the most beautiful myths of the western inheritance. My friend smiled at me indulgently and said that although she didn't consider it mythology, herself, she was at least gratified that I could see the beauty of her religion. I was mortified and apologized for my insensitivity. Then I asked if it bothered her that I wasn't Christian.

"It doesn't bother me," she said, "but I sure do pray for you!"

And I knew she meant that literally. She prayed every day, and somewhere in those prayers, sometimes, was a prayer that God might see fit to bringing me around to her (my friend's) point of view.

That's always seemed to me like a pretty good example of how fundamentalist religious beliefs can coexist within a secular framework: secular laws won't interfere with your spiritual life (though they may sometimes offend), and spiritual "institutions" will, in return for this liberty, respect the beliefs of others—even those who, in their view, are on the highway to hell.

I think it's safe to say that a lot of Muslims don't seem to want to play ball. They don't seem willing to subjugate their religion to... anything. It's Mohammad's way or the highway.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims seem capable of leading normal, peaceful, law-abiding lives in which their religion is at least partly eclipsed by other aspects of their lives. These good people have got to start reigning in the mad dogs in their midst. If I'm speaking to a devout Muslim and repeat the terrible blunder I made with my Christian friend, speaking of the Koran as mythology, surely I should be ashamed of my insensitivity. But surely I should also be able to go on with my life without being beaten or receiving death threats.

Fundamentalist religion in general turns me off. I know that's a shallow thing to say—to speak of others' deepest beliefs as just one more "turn off," like gum-snapping or cellphone-talking on trains—but it's the truth. In my own little private religion of one, I think that if there's a God he wants us to enjoy our lives and one another to the best of our abilities. I don't think he'd want us to spend all our time bowing and scraping to his magnificent majesty. Frankly, I don't even think he'd notice, but if he did, I like to think he'd be more embarrassed than proud of the adulation.

But the idea of a God that would demand of me that I should treat some of my fellow men as hateful abominations; that would instruct me to persecute others in his name; that would smile upon me for assaulting someone misinterpreting his divine message—I think that's primitive.

If the good Muslim majority doesn't start reigning in the awful Muslim minority, we are going to have a clash of civilizations, and given the distribution of power and wealth between the secular and Islamic worlds, I don't think there's much question of how that war would end. So the survival of Islam itself seems to require that these thugs and lunatics be brought to heel.

But in our marvelously tolerant namby-mamby western ways, we're all bending over backwards to accommodate some of these monsters. I don't understand why. Look at the mockery directed by western intellectuals toward Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberston, and other evangelizing western Christians. Why aren't evangelizing Muslims subjected to the same derision?

Oh, wait, I remember... I think there was something about it in that book by Salman Rushdie...

Aw, hell. Another asinine rant, another asinine beating of another dead asinine equine. Away with all of this, now. I'm getting back to the usual moronic far beginning right... now.


Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Of Gall Bladders... and Gall 

Sounds like the Crown Princess isn't pregnant after all. Apparently the rumor began when employees of Rigshospitalet squeaked to the press that Mary had come in for a scan. Assumptions were made. And they were wrong. It was apparently a gall bladder scan. So for the time being, it looks like Molli Malou will retain her crown as Denmark's most written about infant.

But not all coverage is favorable. Speaking of gall:

Monkey in the Middle
Heavy-handed Old-Europe Big-Government-style it might be, but I sort of wish the Danish baby-name restrictions applied elsewhere too. Is it really that much of a burden to be restricted to a choice of 3,000 names (4,000 if you're a girl), with an 80-85% chance that your alternative selection will be approved in any case? Greg Nagan and Trine Kammer were presumably chosen as the anecdotal victims for this piece, but the fact that they wanted to saddle their poor child with the name Molli Malou because it sounded 'cute' is precisely the reason why they shouldn't be allowed to ... (they got away with it in the end anyway).

First of all: as readers of this blog, and the Almanac, know damn well, we didn't actually select the name Molli Malou "because it sounded cute." It's unfortunate the Times chose to characterize our decision that way, but I suppose it's partly right in that we did think it sounded cute and were probably more inclined toward cute- rather than nasty-sounding names from the outset. We chose the name "Molli" because we liked the name Molly but thought the -y ending would be problematic to Danes, for whom Y is pronounced much differently than it is in English. Then we chose the middle name Malou because Troniu the Romanian had thrown it out there and we really liked it. And goddammit, we did think "Molli Malou" had a nice ring to it.

So Mr. Alan Allport is entitled to disagree, but... Well, come on, Alan. Our daughter's full name is Molli Malou Kammer Nagan. Most people will know her as Molli Nagan. What's the problem? I mean, isn't Alan also spelled Allen and Allan? What's your middle name?

And although "cuteness" wasn't the basis for the naming of our child, what if it had been? Is that not a legitimate criterion? Or was it not "cuteness," but rather an apparently erroneous belief that "Molli Malou" was "cute" that counts against us? Is it not cute? Are we tone deaf? Are people snickering behind our backs?

(For what it's worth, I have two middle names myself, and know first-hand the traumas Molli will encounter when completing standardized forms, etc. But we wanted Trine's last name in the mix, and didn't want a clunky hyphen, so we went with it anyway.)

People feel free to take potshots at strangers on the Internet. I hate that. (At least, I hate it when it's not me taking the potshots.) Mr. Alan Allport is probably a decent guy, and maybe if one reads the Times article without any previous knowledge of our situation we do indeed sound like impetuous imbeciles. But despite the fact that I freely refer to myself as a moron here (and everywhere), I don't like being treated as one by others.

And I don't understand how a guy who comes out in the top of his post against "Heavy-handed Old-Europe Big-Government-style" can turn around and issue a sigh of regret that the same ham-fisted government didn't slap down a name as innocuous as Molli Malou Kammer Nagan. For God's sake, Mr. Allport, there are hordes of people in this country named Puk and Gro and Ole and Uffe! How about a girl named Gro Puk? Do you honestly think that's better than Molli Malou?

Mr. Alan Allport, you have insulted me and my wife and my beautiful daughter (see below), and I demand satisfaction. (I'll be posting a link to this post as a comment on your blog.)

Who you callin' saddled?

* * *

Oh, and by the way: today's Almanac has something to say about aggressive tourism and traveltorials.

UPDATE: Mr. Allport is a stand-up guy. I thank him publicly for his gracious response, although we plainly continue to disagree on the appropriateness of government involvement in the naming of children

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