Author Archive

“…Didn’t help.”

Some thoughts on “The Mercy”, by Philip Levine and 2015.11.13

The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.”
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over.
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on,
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
“The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”
registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,”
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.
Italian miners from Piemonte dig
under towns in western Pennsylvania
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.

This has been on my mind today, as I’ve been reading too much about the blinkered reactions to the horrible events in Paris. Despite the rhetoric from many of our politicians, I don’t think this is a war that can be won by bombs or guns. Invading Syria and Iraq may damage Daesh, but it won’t change the fact of the death cult that they and others have been cultivating for decades. After all, it’s looking increasingly like all of the attackers in Paris were EU citizens. Most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi.

And for the sake of a horror inflicted by a few, we would magnify that horror by shutting out the poor, starving, and war-weary. That won’t win this war either. A starving, stateless mass, bombed out of their homes and rejected by the free peoples of the world is a loss in and of itself. Not to mention the coup it provides Daesh’s propagandists.

Bombs won’t win this war, because the enemy isn’t attacking us from Syria or Iraq. They’re attacking us from Belgium and Saudi Arabia. Keeping out refugees won’t help, because Daesh is recruiting from our societies directly.

So this is not a war of bombs, and it’s not a war of migration.

Everything I see tells me that this is a war of ideas and culture. Perhaps of a kind not fought before in human history. This is the first war of a world where communications are instant and ubiquitous. And the only way to win it is to prove that free, open societies are better than the closed, fearful, backward one that Daesh wants to create.

And we don’t prove that by turning our backs on the refugees of Daesh’s horror. Quite the opposite. We win this war by offering a hand to those that Daesh turned out. We make sure they know that where Daesh destroyed their homes and livelihoods, we will gladly let them build new homes as our neighbor. So that the whole world can see that free societies are immune to the evil perpetrated by monsters like Daesh.

We win by showing that terrorists can kill people. Who we will mourn, and avenge with careful, decisive, swift action. But that after, our societies will be just as free and open as they were before. And ultimately the provocateurs will have accomplished nothing.

All the while we welcome with open arms those fleeing the horror that Daesh is creating, and help them to build their new lives in a free country.

I suppose I can’t guarantee that that’s what wins this war. But I think it’s got a much better chance than bombs. And if we give up our liberty and compassion, I’m not sure how much winning the war would even matter.

A spirited defence (sic) of English spelling

In the art of rationality there is a discipline of closeness-to-the-issue –trying to observe evidence that is as near to the original question as possible, so that it screens off as many other arguments as possible.

The Wright Brothers say, “My plane will fly.” If you look at their authority (bicycle mechanics who happen to be excellent amateur physicists) then you will compare their authority to, say, Lord Kelvin, and you will find that Lord Kelvin, is the great authority.

If you demand to see the Wright Brothers’ calculations, and you can follow them, and you demand to see Lord Kelvin’s calculations (he probably doesn’t have any apart from his own incredulity), then authority becomes much less relevant.

If you actually watch the plan fly, the calculations themselves become moot for many purposes, and Kelvin’s authority not even worth considering.

The more directly your arguments bear on a question, without intermediate inferences –the closer the observed nodes are to the queried node, in the Great Web of Causality –the more powerful the evidence. It’s a theorem of these causal graphs that you can never get more information from distant nodes, than from strictly closer nodes that screen off the distant ones.

Jerry Cleaver said: “What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It’s overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball.”

Just as it is superior to argue physics than credentials, it is also superior to argue physics than rationality. Who was more rational, the Wright Brothers or Lord Kelvin? If we can check their calculations, we don’t have to care! The virtue of a rationalist cannot directly cause a plane to fly.

“I still sleep on the right side”

One of these days I will just embrace my super fandom and turn this into a full-time Silversun Pickups blog.

But today cannot be that day, because, to my great sadness and shame, I managed to miss them performing this amazing acoustic set at Sun Liquor here in Seattle last month. Definitely worth listening to the whole thing, but if you’re the impatient type, you should at least jump to 27:26 and listen to them tear through “Lazy Eye”.

A dialog on immigration

OPENO: Hello, friend! Something seems to be on your mind.

RESTRICTES: Yes, Openo, I am troubled. This migrant crisis in Europe has reawakened my concerns about immigration to the West in general. While I’m sympathetic to the plight of those fleeing civil war (though not to economic migrants), I think that Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic are being extremely foolish and letting sentiment and blank slate ideology blind them to the long term, irreversible consequences of their decisions.

OPENO: Then we have very different attitudes. My “sentiment” leads me to believe that the migration from poorer to richer countries will – despite the difficulties associated with any large change – be in the end a great benefit not only to the immigrants and their descendants, but to the host nations as well. Perhaps we can use reason and evidence to bridge this gulf between us. Can you elaborate on your position more?

A very well-written hypothetical dialog ensues. Highly recommended reading.

“We only want it with the lights out”

“It hasn’t been my day for a couple years”

Been on a Jawbreaker jag today. Forgot just how easily this song can slay me. Reminds me of everyone I’ve ever known on a crash course of their own devising. As the old toast goes:

“To the lost and the damned; may we all find our way home.”

“Guys stop working for just a second”

Posting this both because the video came up in conversation with my lady the other night, and also because it’s one of the best songs of the modern era.

If the only meaningful thing the 21st century gives us is “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it will still have been totally worth it.

“Say ‘police’ if you have to”

Scene: A group of “detectives” are trying to find someone who meets the right criteria for someone to steal their identity and take over their life.

Back in Tokyo,… Funaki took the day off work and the Isakas joined in as well, searching the printout for women in their twenties.

“Say ‘police’ if you have to,” Funaki instructed. “Ask the women listed if two years back some close relation might have met with an accident or been badly injured somehow. Get them talking, no matter what it takes.”

It was past eleven, time to call it a day, when they got a break.

Funaki cupped his hand over the receiver. “We’re in business!” he called to Honma, who was over by the window, tentatively stretching his legs. Then, speaking into the phone again, he said, “Hold on, I’ll turn you over to the officer in charge.”

Emi Kimura was twenty-four years old. The printout gave her occupation as “freelancer.” At first she spoke in a sweet, almost child-like voice. She interrupted Honma to ask, “Is this for real? This isn’t Candid Camera or something?”

“No. Look, I’m sorry to bother you like this. I don’t know if you’ll be able to help us or not, but let me explain. We traced you through some customer data provided by a company called Roseline. I believe you know the name?” Honma paused. “Ms. Kimura, I’m sorry, but these questions are important for an investigation we’re working on. You don’t come from a large family, and you live by yourself, is that correct? And both your parents have passed on.”

Emi’s voice trembled. “How do you know all that?”

So far so good, Honma nodded to Funaki. “My colleague, the person you spoke to a minute ago, asked if you had any close relatives who might have had an accident or some kind of personal tragedy in the last two years. You said you had. Could you tell me more about that?”

It took a moment for Emi to Answer. “It was my sister.”

“Your sister.”


Honma quietly repeated, “Yes?”

Emi was clearly getting upset. “Listen, I’m going to hang up. I mean, how do I know this isn’t some kind of crank call? How do I know you’re actually detectives?”

Honma hesitated. Funaki grabbed the phone away from him and rattled off the number of the direct line to Investigation. “Got that? Here’s what I want you to do. Ring up and say our names. Ask if there are any detectives by those names on the force. Tell whoever answers that you need to get in touch with Inspector Honma immediately. Ask them to have him call you back as soon as he can. Only give a totally made-up name and phone number. Don’t give your real ones. The officer will contact us to say you called. The we’ll call you back at your real number and give you the false name and number he tells us. Just to make sure there’s no mistake, that we are who we say we are. Fair enough?”

Emi agreed and hung up.

“When you’re in a hurry, take a side road,” Funaki said. He reached for a cigarette and lit up. …

Emi picked up on the first ring. Honma kept his voice as neutral as possible. “Hello? Is this Akiko Sato? At 5555-4444?”

“You’ve got to wonder about that girl’s powers of imagination,” Funaki whispered.

But Emi Kimura was in no mood for flip remarks. She burst into tears.

I love this scene (from Miyuki Miyabe’s All She Was Worth) as a model for social engineering. Imagine you’re Emi Kimura. You’re being asked about an emotional topic: the death of a loved one. The callers say they are cops and gives you a way to authenticate them. The authentication check succeeds. You’re talking about difficult-to-confront, emotional material with an authority figure who has authenticated themselves successfully.


  • After the person at the Investigations precinct confirms their names and the two detectives are able to relay the fake name and number back to you, are you now convinced that they’re actually cops?
  • What’s the issue with the authentication challenge they presented? What revision to the proposed process would you give to have better certainty of their identities?
  • If you did start divulging personal details to them, what wouldn’t you say? Or more importantly, how would you know if you’d already said too much or to the wrong people?
  • Now, pretend you’re actually cops who need to interview Emi as a witness to a potential crime. Time is of the essence. What could you do to better convince Emi that you’re legitimate?
  • And now, as an attacker. You’re a social engineer trying to find out details so you can steal Emi’s identity. What revisions, if any, would would you make to the approach above?
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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.