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Archives for April 2009

The Perfect Car for the Coming Apocalypse

Does Chrysler’s bankruptcy mean I can get a sweet deal on one of these new Challengers? You can take the boy out of upstate New York…

Teetering on the Edge of Despair

For some not too obscure reason, the fact that John Cleese has both a blog and a Twitter feed makes me want to give up the former and never even attempt the latter. It does not, however lessen my desire to interview him about taking on what is perhaps the most diabolical of devil roles, C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape. Back in the days when I had a contract to write a book about the devil in the modern world, that was going to be one of my best bits.

Glendon and the Laetare Medal, continued

This article was written in response to an opinion expressed that Glendon’s “diplomatic style seems to be less suited for U.S.-Vatican relations and more for U.S.-Cuba relations.” The whole article is worth reading, but here’s one paragraph in particular that really sets the record straight:

Professor Glendon was to have been honored for not only for her scholarship, but for her second career, her pro-bono work — ranging from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the great civil rights issues of the present day — namely, the defense of human life from conception to natural death. Her concerns range from the aging and dying population to the unborn to the well-being and dignity of every life, regardless of race, religion, or economic status. Her outstanding work in this field has earned her the respect of the most brilliant minds of the international community, regardless of whether they agree with her position. So again, to see her merely as “strongly anti-abortion” instead of as a tireless defender of the dignity of life, is to reveal not only a lack of understanding of the subject’s work, but also the writer’s real interest in this question.

Furthermore, during his first 100 days in office, President Obama has worked tirelessly to undermine Professor Glendon’s lifetime of work; he is funding abortion out of the bailout package and planning to suppress the protection of conscience for health care workers.

Apprently Father Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, is now in search of an alternate recipient of the Laetare Medal. Would it not be better to just let the matter drop, and perhaps take it as an opportunity for meditating on what led to the impasse in the first place?


Today in Porn: Awesome Legal Edition

Many thanks to the Manhattan Lawyer, who passed along this best-ever legal opinion from The Honorable Richard A. Posner, Circuit Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. It seems there was a scuffle between a couple of manufacturers of…well, take it away, Posner…”what the parties call ‘sex aids’ but are colloquially referred to as ‘sex toys.’ A more perspicuous term is ‘sexual devices,’ by analogy to ‘medical devices.’ The analogy lies in the fact that, like many medical devices (thermometers for example), what we are calling sexual devices are intended to be inserted into bodily orifices, albeit for a different purpose.”

So dry! And bonus points for the use of “perspicuous,” a word that has languished in many an uncracked thesaurus lo, these many years. And it only gets better. The disputed product was, according to the patent holder, a “sexual aid…fabricated of a generally lubricious glass-based material containing an appreciable amount of an oxide of boron to render it lubricious and resistant to heat, chemicals, electricity and bacterial absorptions.”

Posner goes to town: “By ‘lubricious’—a word whose primary meaning, appropriate for a sexual device, is ‘lecherous’—the patent means only ‘slippery,’ which is the secondary meaning of the word. The patent’s use of the word in that sense is confusing, because glass is smooth rather than slippery. But what is meant is that the glass, because it contains oxide of boron, is smoother than soda-lime glass and therefore becomes slippery with less lubricant than a device made out of soda-lime glass.”

At some point prior to this, all parties should have dropped the suit out of the potential embarrassment brought on by making a judge speculate on this or that device’s QLR (Quantity of Lube Required). But no. And so Posner rises to the occasion, and goes to the pertinent research (just imagine the lucky intern who got to go digging on this one):

“That glass has the properties that the patent claims for it, and one can see how those properties (even resistance to electricity, see M. Klintschar, P. Grabuschnigg & A. Beham, Death from Electrocution During Autoerotic Practice: Case Report and Review of the Literature, 19 Am. J. Forensic Med. Pathology 190 (1998)) might enhance the utility of sexual devices made out of it.”

(Good old Klintschar, Grabuschnigg, and Beham. All those jerks who made fun of them at the Medical Research Convention, who asked all those sneering questions about what exactly drives a person to investigate death from electrocution during autoerotic practice – where are they now?)

But getting back to the case in hand. Posner has little use for your “patented” lubricious glass, and cites KSR Int’l Co. vs. Teleflex Inc. to make his point: “If a person of ordinary skill can implement a predictable variation, § 103 likely bars its patentability. For the same reason, if a technique has been used to improve one device, and a person of ordinary skill in the art would recognize that it would improve similar devices in the same way, using the technique is obvious unless its actual application is beyond his or her skill.”

If this hasn’t been made into an episode of CSI by Fall sweeps week, somebody’s not doing his job.

Your Argument is Invalid.

Area Baby Loses that New Baby Smell

Christopher Buckley on being the son of Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley

Well, who needs Yahoo! News when we have The New York Times? Buckley has written a fine memoir of life as a Buckley. He proclaims his agnosticism in such a civil way (“I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great””), but the entire excerpt is shot through with religious overtones:

I don’t think I ever once heard Mum utter a religious or spiritual sentiment, a considerable feat considering that she was married for 57 years to one of the most prominent Catholics in the country. But she rigorously observed the proprieties. When Pup taped an episode of “Firing Line” in the Sistine Chapel with Princess Grace, Malcolm Muggeridge, Charlton Heston and David Niven, Mum was included in the post-taping audience with Pope John Paul II. There’s a photo of the occasion: she has on more black lace than a Goya duchess. The total effect is that of Mary Magdalene dressed by Bill Blass.

To add to these Naturalist sentiments, Iet me just say that the ability to write must certainly have an hereditary aspect.

Things Should Start to Get Interesting Right About Now

On A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

A Deepness in the Sky is the prequel to A Fire upon the Deep, and both are considered some of the best of recent science fiction. I liked AFUD a lot, especially in the way Vinge took the entire Milky Way as his canvas, and then made its spiral shape and the distribution of stars the primary element of what he called “Zones of Thought”. These Zones of Thought are such that life evolves more slowly near the center of the galaxy, while at the edge of the galaxy there exist Godlike powers – some of which are certainly the result of artificial intelligences created by men. Whether God actually exists is somewhat more in question, but not at all denied. Although I’m skeptical about the validity of all this, Vinge is writing about events tens of thousands of years in the future, when science has advanced far beyond the barely-beyond-the-stone-age age in which we now live. I also liked the planet he imagined within this system, where wolf-like creatures have crossed the threshold of symbolization and achieved a kind of civilization based on their ability to think in packs of four or more. Well, it seemed more plausible in the actual reading of the story.

DITS takes place some unspecified time earlier, when the most important starfaring civilization is on the verge of making first contact with aliens that have not evolved from earth. This civilization is made up of a federation of traders that seems based on the 17th century Hanseatic League, except that they’re actually called the “Qeng Ho” – a name that is more probably based on “Zheng He”, a 14th century Chinese sailor also known as “Sanbao”, or Sinbad. Vinge seems to have a fondness for Chinese culture, or at least Chinese names. His books are peopled with quite a few of them – most importantly “Pham Nuwen”, one of the main character is AFUD who is back again in DITS. This time it isn’t so much God-like powers that he’s up against, but another human civilization that has recently grown out of a dark age by developing what seems to be a fairly benign form of mind control, but which of course turns out to be pretty horrific.

This time the alien race resembles spiders rather than dogs. These spiders seem to be about the size and dimension of go-carts, and at the beginning of the book have managed to build up a civilization roughly equal to the advances achieved on Earth in the earliest 20th century. They have skyscrapers, cars, and airplanes. Life on Arachna (the name given to their planet by visiting humans) goes into a kind of hibernation mode for 200 years or so at a time, and the transition in and out of these long winters is traumatic in the extreme. The leading nation on Arachna maintains its advantage through science and a kind of scientific-military-industrial complex which makes the US effort look like a Cub Scout field trip. Most of these scientific advances are pushed by a genius spider named “Sherker Underhill”. Underhill utters the phrase that becomes the title of the book, in the midst of a public debate with a religious whacko who almost wins the debate by calling his children freaks. You have to read it to believe it. And actually, by the end, it was lost on me. Although Vinge has enjoyed a long career as a professor of Mathematics and Computer Programming, many of these ideas struck me as far-fetched in the extreme: spiders riding motorcycles, a planet with small moons made out of diamonds, and a main character that lives for tens of thousands of years. It’s all in good fun though – mostly anyway.

When it takes on a serious tone it only becomes more ridiculous. The book runs the gamut: from techonological prophecy to futuristic anthropology to enforced idiot-savantism as a version of mental slavery. But, hey, it’s science fiction