There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune



Kilgore Trout is no more

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Sad news.

Requiem in Pace.


Hiatus

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Taken at the Flood's editorial board has elected to place the blog on hiatus for an unspecified period of time. This was a difficult decision, but one which we hope will result in a stronger, more focused blog in future.

Please email me if you require further detail.


EnduranceJay in town

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My old buddy EnduranceJay is in Istanbul, chilling out after a hectic schedule working in the Far East. Yesterday, we went for a traditional döner kebap in the Sirkeci area, visited the cavernous Basilica Cistern, checked out a large shopping centre (one of EnduranceJay's passions) and had a quiet tea in Bebek.

We returned to the magnificent Four Seasons, Istanbul, considered one of the best hotels in the world by the likes of Travel & Leisure or Conde Nast Traveler. This fine establishment provides hospitality in the grand old tradition, treating EnduranceJay in the manner in which he's come to expect.

In the elevator, I was admiring the teak inlay, which led to the following exchange with the bellhop:

Bellhop: "Do you know that this is building is a former prison?"
Me: "Of course."
Bellhop [proudly]: "Did you know that this is the finest prison in the world?"
Me: "I suppose it is."
Bellhop: "Do you know why this is the finest prison in the world?"
Me: [confused] "No..."
Bellhop: [triumphantly]: "Because you have your freedom. You are free to come and go as you please."

EnduranceJay has embraced British colonialism of Hong Kong, therefore he has taken to drinking the occasional gin & tonic. We sat by the fire, sipping our G&Ts, and talking of new adventures.

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Socially beneficial engagement gifts

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I found Blood Diamond, despite its occasional descent into cloying melodrama, to be a reasonably entertaining flick. But one of its central messages was pretty interesting: the culture of sophisticated, bourgeois Westerners who insist on fancy diamond engagement rings carries a price of bloodshed and misery half a world away.

The movie makes much of the fact that the World Diamond Congress has since adopted a certification process intended to reduce the traffic of "conflict diamonds". But any undergraduate could tell you that because diamonds are, for the most part, fungible, this certification scheme is likely to be largely ineffective.

The problems here are complex, resulting from a feedback loop of unstable, kleptocratic regimes propped up by the West's insatiable demand for diamonds. The regimes and militias who benefit from the diamond trade create conditions which keep these regions unstable, poor and thus reliant upon the trade. Economists have long noted the counterintuitive point that countries with valuable natural resources often remain poor because the near-term incentive to steal overwhelms the incentive to maintain stable property rights necessary for a prosperous economy.

Over the long term, in order to be successful, African nations will need responsible, pluralistic governments which secure property rights under the rule of law. I would submit that one way to encourage such a transformation would be for Westerners to lower our "addiction to diamonds" (to adapt a familiar cliché normally used in a different context).

Which leads to the interesting question: why does our culture traditionally value diamonds as engagement gifts? I submit that a pricey engagement ring serves two important purposes:
  • First, it acts as a powerful signal of fidelity and commitment. Evolutionary psychology teaches us that a mammalian female needs to be very discerning in her choice of sexual partner, due to the time, effort and risk involved in pregnancy. The purchase of an expensive diamond is an efficient way for a male to credibly demonstrate his "fitness" in terms of commitment.
  • Second, a diamond is a subtle way for a male to communicate his superior status, both to his prospective bride and to his sexual rivals. Social status is a key marker of fitness for male primates.
So the problem here is to find an alternative mechanism which conveys both commitment and status, while having no negative external social impact (or, better yet, creating a net external social benefit).

I submit a sort of public, web-based registry which publishes the names of the purchaser and recipient of a "donation diamond". Imagine you are an attorney making $150,000 a year, and you want to propose to your sweetheart. Using the "two months salary" rule, you would contribute $25,000 to your favourite 501(c)3 charity, and keeping a receipt for your year-end tax return, you would e-mail a copy of this receipt to the Donation Diamond registry. Having confirmed that this is indeed a legitimate charity, the registry would publish on its searchable web database your name as purchaser, your fiancee's name as recipient, and a "karat" number (say, $5,000 per karat) based on the magnitude of your donation. You could even have an index which translates this karat value into a "number of children saved from malaria", etc. This way, gossips and busybodies (i.e. her girlfriends) could evaluate the level of your commitment to her with a few keystrokes. It would be a nice symmetry if people chose to contribute to African charities, but I propose that one should leave this choice at the donor's discretion.

This solution has several benefits:
  • It would adequately convey the groom's commitment.
  • A larger donation would be a means to convey status.
  • The charitable donation, if properly executed, will hopefully help someone in need.
  • Tax-advantaged giving would provide more bang for one's buck.
  • Last, but not least, it would give smug people a chance to show how socially responsible they are. In some social circles this carries a cachet of its own.
I would like to think my proposed solution would appeal to the cultural elites on both coasts, who tend be vocal in their professed dedication to social justice. The cynic in me fears that their love for baubles and trinkets may trump such dedication, which is why I think the last point above is important - social pressure would shame those who prefer blood diamonds to charity.

Questions:
Have I framed the problem correctly? Did I miss any other functions currently served by the institution of engagement ring purchase? Does my proposed solution have any glaring flaws? Can you perhaps think of a better solution?


Leviathan

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The Bears of Chicago are heavy underdogs tonight, resulting in Uncle Vegas showering us with the gift of a +210 line taking them straight-up. (If you don't know what that means, don't bother, it is probably in your long-term interest that you ignore this post.) But, thanks to the over-reaching US Congress, my internet, um, bookie has been shut down. I mean, this is government run amok! (OK, so many of you are pointing out that I say those words approximately 7 times a day, but this time I really mean it.)

Why is the US Government so against my enjoying the simple pleasure of Super Bowl profit? Bastards.

Addendum: Thanks to Lovie Smith's inexplicable reluctance to run the ball, coupled with Rex Grossman's general incompetence, I find myself in the odd position of actually benefiting (post hoc) from a government policy designed to protect me from myself. Oh, how Fate mocks me.


Review: Dennett

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Daniel C. Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, is a striking tour de force which synthesizes a great deal of past and current research in order to support the following thesis: All of life's complexity can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to the blind, algorithmic process of evolution via random mutation and natural selection. This idea, according to Dennett, is as dangerous as its critics suspect. It provides a hypothesis which, taken to its extreme, shows that the great miracles of life - including the human brain, the diversity of species, and nature's balance in the biosphere - can be shown to have evolved without any guiding intelligence of any kind.

This is strong stuff.

Dennett, a philosopher of science, writes as an analytical philosopher should - as an interpreter of the results of discoveries across various disciplines in a manner which provides novel insight. On the way, Dennett makes use of illuminating thought experiments, and explains the nuances of the "new Darwinian synthesis", pulling the reader away from many common fallacies:
  • He explodes the myth of the "great chain of being", noting that evolution only responds to selection pressure, and is not necessarily moving in a particular direction, good or bad.
  • He notes that a Darwinian "adaptationist" perspective does not imply Social Darwinism, eugenics or what he deems "greedy reductionism".
  • He explains the logical flaws of "group selection".
  • He emphasizes that evolution is a short-term algorithm; adaptations must have short-term benefits to survive. A corollary of this point is that original uses of adaptations may have no correspondence with their ultimate uses, as circumstances and organisms change over time.
Dennett's most provocative point is the idea that evolution is a substrate-neutral algorithm whose operation is not limited to the genome. He attempts to show how the original building blocks of life - enzymes and proteins - were the result of Darwinian processes. He speculates (and this is not science, as far as I can tell) that such mechanistic processes may have even resulted in the physical laws of our universe, which are finely tuned to allow complex matter and, thus, life. Further, he extends the process to the ideas, institutions and cultural artifacts which surround us (borrowing Richard Dawkins' word "meme").

This last point is important, in that he asserts what makes us human, and what makes us distinct from other species, is that we are not merely our own cells and the cells of the various bacteria which live inside or on us. Due to our ability to communicate through language, we are also, in a very important and real sense, made up of the memes which infest our minds. In fact, due to memes such as compulsory education, writing, modern farming techniques and the scientific method, the average person today is, in practical terms, far more intelligent than Pythagoras or Aristotle. In fact, because the changes of culture and technology have allowed us to evolve at such a rapid rate, I differ far more from my great-grandfather than he differed from Plato. (Obviously, Dennett is not saying that culture or science evolve randomly. Rather, he notes that these artifacts are themselves products of a brain that itself evolved from Darwinian processes. Hence, my "direct or indirect" loophole above.)

As I noted earlier, this is hot stuff. Politically-charged and philosophically controversial, the current dialogue regarding Darwin is impassioned precisely because so much of our world view is at stake. Dennett is an unapologetic materialist, atheist, Darwinian adaptationist who takes on opponents with the rigour of a good analytical philosopher. The challenge of this undertaking is enormous because of both the nuance and the sheer scope of these issues which have confounded so many specialists.

This is a tough book to read. It is replete with thought experiments, technical details and jargon that inevitably results from precise philosophy. It helps to have taken a course or two in analytical (that is, non-Continental) philosophy at the undergraduate level. Because I have forgotten most of that stuff, I found myself constantly referring to Wikipedia and to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The sheer density of Dennett's ideas and precision of his prose result in a book which is not the most accessible to the lay reader. However, for those who are willing to expend some effort in trying to penetrate the philosophy and science behind Darwin's hypothesis, this is an excellent starting point.


Juicy Fruit Skies

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Back in the dizzay, there was a Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum commercial which depicted skiers doing tons of tricks, jumping and carving through brilliant white snow. As the jingle played its hook - "Juicy Fruit is gonna move ya!" - the skiers flipped and spun in the air beneath a brilliant, cloudless blue sky. Since those days, Ace, his brother Poopie Loopie and I have always referred to perfect skiing weather as "Juicy Fruit Skies".

This weekend a few buddies and I drove up to Kartalkaya ("Eagle's Nest") about 280 km east of Istanbul. Saturday I rose at 7:00 and hit the slopes shortly after the lifts opened. The visibility was poor, the mountain covered in a cloud which began to drop thick flakes in the late morning. This didn't matter to me, however, because there were no lift lines and, off-piste, we found plenty of untracked, pure powder. In the late afternoon when the wind made conditions intolerable we sat in a tiny lodge at the top of the slope, sipping mulled wine in order to fortify ourselves.

The next morning I awoke, bleary-eyed after the traditional evening of beer drinking, pool playing, beer drinking, eating, beer drinking, clubbing and beer drinking. I was about to roll over for another hour of sleep, when I noticed a peculiar light peeking behind the curtain.

I immediately bolted upright and drew aside the drapes.

Juicy. Fruit. Skies.

In less than ninety minutes we had packed up the car, checked out of the hotel, eaten a quick breakfast and found ourselves on top of the mountain. Under a gleaming blue sky, I surveyed an untouched expanse of powder. I dialed up my favourite ski tune on my iPod, waited for Eddie Van Halen's opening riffs, then, as "Diamond" David Lee Roth crooned "Panama, Panamaha!", I careened down the slope through several feet of beautiful, fluffy white goodness.

For some reason, the Turks prefer to stick to groomed runs, leaving the abundant off-piste slopes and bowls to greedy fellows like myself. It was an epic day. My buddy Brazilian Will went out despite suffering from a wrist that had either been badly sprained or broken the day before. On days like this, you just suck it up and play. (Once, back in high school, I fractured my thumb and kept quiet about it because I didn't want to miss a trip the following week to Mont Tremblant. Sometimes you need to sacrifice the body for the higher self.)

Days like yesterday are what make skiing and snowboarding the sports that capture such passion among their adherents. My buddy Mike D once turned down a job in Dallas because he couldn't imagine living far from a decent mountain. I have plenty of other friends (Ace, Captain Lou, Matt the Cat, BK, among others) who explicitly consider proximity to good skiing as a factor in their decisions regarding where to live. I wholeheartedly agree.

By the way, now that I've skied in Asia, Europe and North America, it's time to head down to a Chilean resort. Perhaps 2008? Anyone?


NFL Predictions Revisited

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We at "Taken At The Flood" believe in accountability. Therefore, with an exciting Bears-Colts Super Bowl coming up, let us revisit our pre-season NFL predictions:

1. Eli Manning will not live up to the considerable media hype.

Eli, in his third full season with the New York Giants, completed just 57.7% of his throws resulting in a passer rating of 77, 18th in the league. He threw 18 interceptions, tying Brett Favre (see below) for fourth place in this category of dubious achievement.

2. The Philadelphia Eagles will finish their season 11-5, winning the difficult NFC East. The hated Dallas Cowboys will finish second in the division, despite Terrell Eldorado Owens' antics. The aforementioned Eli Manning's Giants will not make the playoffs, due to their tough schedule and aging running game. The Washington Redskins will implode.

The Eagles in fact, miraculously, finished 10-6, winning the division. I also got the order of finish correct, and was right about the Redskins. The Giants, however, did manage to back into the playoffs despite a .500 record, due to the mediocrity of the NFC.

3. I shall once again win my suicide pool.

Sadly, the perfidious Jacksonville Jaguars screwed me by losing to the lowly Texans, and Double Barrel ran away with the title.

4. Raiders owner Al Davis will not be a very happy man.

The Raiders finished 2-14, worst in the league. What a catastrophe.

5. Cowboys coach Dick Parcells will not be a very happy man. This bet with Faceman is whisky in the bank.

According to Michael Lewis' article in the New York Times Magazine, Parcells literally choked on his own bile while attempting to sleep during the season. Handling Vanderjagt, Owens and Bledsoe almost killed the guy. And I won the bet with Faceman, of course. Let's not even mention Tony "butterfingers" Romo.

6. The Madden Curse will continue, resulting in an injury to Shaun Alexander.

Alexander broke his foot this season.

7. Kicker Mike Vanderjagt will miss a critical potential winning or tying kick in the waning seconds of a game. This will not make Mr. Parcells happy.

Vanderjagt, despite making $3.3 million this year, was cut by Parcells mid-season after missing two field goal attempts at home against the Colts.

8. My buddy Cooter will deep-fry a turkey before watching football on Thanksgiving Day.

I assume this happened. Cooter is insane.

9. My buddy ZMama will not become a Niners fan, despite having moved to the Bay Area.

ZMama had the pleasure of watching her Seahawks beat the Cowboys in probably the most amazing finish to a playoff game I have ever seen.

10. The Patriots will take the Deion Branch holdout and loss of kicker Adam Viniateri in stride, culminating in another successful season.

Despite much hand-wringing from the Boston sports media and key injuries, the Pats finished 12-4 and made it to the AFC Conference Final.

11. Brett Favre will end his career with a horrible losing season, due primarily to front office incompetence. Good offenses are built around the line, guys. The lack of protection will be ugly.

Favre actually managed to finish 8-8, primarily due to the lack of quality NFC competition. And his offensive line was surprisingly good at pass protection, allowing just 21 sacks (tied for 9th best).

12. Football remains a game of attrition, and injuries will have a big effect in December and January. This is not so much a prediction as an immutable truth.

Injuries undid the seasons of many teams, including my beloved Eagles. Football is a tough sport played by very tough men.

13. San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer, if he can make it to the playoffs, will make a boneheaded decision resulting in a loss and/or failure to cover the spread, making me lots of money in the process.

In this year's playoffs, this Schottenheimer fellow, in no particular order:
  • Challenged a clear fumble, losing a timeout in the process.
  • Went for it early on 4th and 11 at the opposing 30-yard line, costing his team a relatively sure 3 points and achieving nothing in the process.
  • Did not manage to drill into his defensive players that on a fourth down pass, you bat the pass down, instead of trying to intercept! This is high school level stuff. But somehow, Chargers safety Marlon McCree did not get this message, intercepting on fourth down in order to make the highlight reel and fumbling the ball back to the opposition. What a douchebag.
  • Called 32 pass plays for rookie QB Phil Rivers and gave only 23 touches to the League MVP and all-around stud LaDainian Tomlinson (whose name, as Jiggy Donuts would say, means "The Dainian" in French). This is just inexcusable. All Marty had to do was run the ball, and he could have won that game.
The result, as you know, was that the Chargers blew an 8 point lead, losing at home to the underdog Patriots. Marty is now 5-13 in the playoffs. However, the saddest part of this sordid story is that I did not make money on this game because I neglected to take my own advice and bet heavily against Marty. As Warren Buffett likes to say, "predicting rain doesn't count, building arks does". In this respect, I failed miserably.

Looking back, this NFL season and post-season showed once again why the sport is so popular in North America. It had moments of sublime excitement and drama. Now that it is all but over, I will turn my attention once again to hockey, and wait for the Ottawa Senators to break my heart as usual in May.


About me

  • I'm Sunset Shazz
  • Living the dream in Istanbul, Turkey
  • I grew up in the hardscrabble streets of suburban Ottawa, Ontario, committing petty crime, insulting the elderly - basically the classic misspent youth. When I was 19, I moved to West Philly, where I put myself through the Wharton School by dealing crack and hustling. After stints in Paris and London, I eventually graduated and moved to San Francisco, where I put in eight years hard labor working for The Man. But now I pop bottles with models, deciding cracked crab or lobster - who says mobsters don't prosper?
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