Dawn of a new day

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The 2012 election season is over. Win or lose, be proud of yourselves, Americans. You made your choice.

Win or lose, be proud of yourselves, Americans. You made a difference.

God bless America? God bless democracy.

-the Centaur

Vote Yourself!

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Yes, the election is OVER today … but the outcome is up to YOU!

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My wife and I have an election evening ritual to review all the candidates and make our decisions.

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To find out where to vote, check out Google’s Voting Guide, which will tell you where the polling places are, who’s up for election, and what the referenda are in your district, if any. Since we’re in California, we also used resources like the KQED Proposition Guide, the San Jose Mercury News endorsements, and the LA Times endorsements – less for the endorsement value than the discussions they prompted. For some more obscure races, the Smart Voter site and simple Googling helped.

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I’ve already stated my reasons why I think Obama should remain President:

… the left of us are going to vote for the guy who passed healthcare reform, repealed don’t-ask-don’t-tell, ended the war in Iraq, repaired our relations with the world, and made a good-faith effort to close Guantanamo, and the moderates among us are going to vote for the guy who saved the auto industry, passed the stimulus, refused to prosecute those who were prosecuting the war on terror, repeated Bush’s surge trick in Afghanistan, piffed Osama bin Laden, and finally put the smackdown on Gaddafi the way Reagan wanted to oh so many years ago.

And in the same article, I outlined why I have a hard time voting for Republicans for the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, or for California state offices – though I think they make swell governors and have voted for a few of them myself, and they can be excellent local representatives. (Though I mostly voted for Democrats this time).

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The propositions are a murkier matter: I recommend voting against the deceptive Proposition 38, which says it provides money for schools but will actually most likely cause a loss of six billion dollars to schools, against Proposition 31 which is a grab-all reform of the state legislature, against Proposition 32 which is bankrolled by corporations in an attempt to prevent unions from doing the same kind of bankrolling, and in favor of the backwards Proposition 40, where a yes vote actually means to leave the new election districts the way they are – and even the backers of the measure have backed off their support (meaning, even the people who wanted you to vote no now want you to vote yes). For the bulk of the rest of them, it depends on your feelings about contentious issues like the size of government, the food labeling, and capital punishment. Vote your (well-informed) conscience.

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But vote! Because, remember, cats can’t vote …

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And if they could, it would be just for more food.

-the Centaur

Pictured: our vote by mail ballots, which enable us to vote the night before and walk the ballots over to the polling place at our leisure. Go democracy! Hooray America! And if you’re not in a democracy like America’s, you should think about getting yourself one!

Involves politics, but not really political

Andrew Breitbart is dead at 43. He was apparently a conservative commentator; I wasn’t too familiar with him except for some of the scandals he broke.

But the point, as John Scalzi said, is that he was 43. I’m used to hearing about accomplished people who are much younger than I am … Larry Page, Britney Spears, Christopher Paolini, that last born when I entered high school.

Occasionally people in that age bracket die. It’s a damn shame, everyone says, they died so young. But when Andrew Breitbart died, while it was clear that he died young – to the point of spawning (what at first appear to be ridiculous) conspiracy theories – no-one is too surprised.

Because a male’s chance of dying of a heart attack triples when you move up to 35-44 year age bracket, and triples again when you roll over into 45-54. I’d enter some snark about white males like myself being worse off, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

So Andrew’s about the right age where people should start worrying about dying of a heart attack. So am I.

God speed, Andrew. And may God be with us all.

-the Centaur
Pictured: a memento mori featuring my cat, Caesar, curling up in the lap of luxury next to the skull of one of his less evolutionarily successful distant relatives. Looks like Caesar had an easier time taking down that giraffe than his buddy there.

Can you conceive of a situation where you wouldn’t vote for Obama?

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I try to avoid too much of the politics here. My experience of blogs that dip political is that they’re often shrill, partisan, and most likely to make mistakes about the things they’re most likely to post – the same trap I usually fall in when I post to my friends’s shared mailing group. When you’re engaged enough to respond, you’re enraged enough to gaffe.

But a friend and I were discussing the recent election, I said something complimentary about Romney “even though I wouldn’t vote for him” and my friend responded: “Can you conceive of a situation where you wouldn’t vote for Obama?” And that gave me pause.

I try to be open minded. I currently vote liberal, but I was a College Republican, with deep admiration for President Reagan and President Nixon (no that wasn’t a typo), and even though accepting reality forces one to lean to the left (and trying to be moral leans one even moreso), there are very important values on the right we can’t just throw out with the bathwater. Economic freedom. Gun rights. Lower taxes when possible. Limits to the size and reach of government. Promoting the needs of families, businessmen, farmers, soldiers. I’d call myself a libertarian, but that’s not a good descriptor either. Short story, i try to keep an open mind.

The last election cycle was ideal for me: a Republican I admired and had supported up against an eloquent technocrat who finally broke the color barrier. I couldn’t lose. I printed out Obama and McCain’s political positions and went through them with a fine tooth comb, and found myself on the fence, 50-50. I was undecided right up until August 29, 2008, when McCain selected Palin as his running mate. I take running mates very seriously, especially with an older headliner, and while McCain had earned my admiration and reflected my values, Palin … hadn’t, and didn’t. So (big surprise) I voted for Obama. A Democrat.

Fast forward almost 4 years, and our conversation about Romney. I saw this article, and was impressed enough to write:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/mitt-romney-im-not-willing-to-light-my-hair-on-fire-to-win-conservative-votes/2012/02/28/gIQADDk9fR_story.html

“I’m very pleased with the campaign, its organization. The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes, and so I’m trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across,” Romney told reporters during a visit to his campaign headquarters here. “In the final analysis, I anticipate becoming the nominee.”

Q: Candidate Romney, where does the buck stop?A: Where does the buck stop? The buck stops here. Next question.

But (based on other conversations) my friend’s a bit bitter, as he thinks there’s nothing that’s going to stop Obama, and was probably frustrated to see me say I’d never vote for him. That lead to the question: “Can you conceive of a situation where you wouldn’t vote for Obama?” … and this (correcting a few typos) is what I wrote:

TL;DR: No.

Conceive of? Sure. He’s unmasked as a space alien or secret Communist plant or something. Or contrafactually, had McCain selected almost anyone else with real credentials combined with appeal to a moderate base (Pataki? Powell? Rice?) it could have happened in 2008.

Realistically? No, for three reasons.
  • The Republican establishment has moved too far to the right, becoming deliberately obstructionist (you can verify this with their public statements) turning their backs on even hardline conservatives (you can also verify this with their public statements) and now see “moderate” as a dirty word. When you vote for a President, you vote for his party, and I cannot in good conscience vote for the Republican party. When the current conservative movement implodes and the party once again is open to a variety of opinions then I’ll reconsider.
  • Obama’s values, governance and style reflect my values, understanding of the facts, and preferred way that politicians should operate. He’s not a Dukakis, or Carter, or LBJ, or one of the scarier people the Democrats have waiting in the wings … he’s more like a Clinton or JFK. SO he’s not a bad choice to have up there, regardless of the Republican opposition, with the possible exception of his positions on space and domestic spying.
  • You don’t change horses in a river … or a President in wartime.

Put another way, from the perspective of a liberal moderate, Obama is one of the most successful presidents in history, so no, too much would have to change. The Republicans would have to radically shift to the center, and Obama would have to turn into some kind of monster.
In 2016, however, who knows? Bloomberg? Romney? Christie? Could it be … Jeb Bush? (And yes I looked up their political positions before making that statement, though I reserve the right to change my mind if they have diarrhea of the mouth in the 2016 campaign).

Partisans may pshaw at this, evidence free as their reasoning is, because I’m not even a RINO (Republican in Name Only). If you have to put a name on what I am, I’m a left-leaning moderate. I haven’t voted for a Republican President since Bush’s dad. But Republicans are doing nothing to sell me on their party. I listen carefully to their positions. I’m trying to learn from their wisdom and defend their important values: the steering wheel of state needs to turn both ways.

But they’ve been drifting to the right since Bush lost to Clinton, since Bush violated his campaign promises and drifted to the right, and people like me ended up voting for the other guy. I still remember that day when a conservative shopkeeper, who had in front of him a voter telling him he switched parties because Bush went too far to the right, stood up enraged and told me that the reason Bush lost was because he wasn’t conservative enough.

Keep telling yourselves that.

In the meantime, the left of us are going to vote for the guy who passed healthcare reform, repealed don’t-ask-don’t-tell, ended the war in Iraq, repaired our relations with the world, and made a good-faith effort to close Guantanamo, and the moderates among us are going to vote for the guy who saved the auto industry, passed the stimulus, refused to prosecute those who were prosecuting the war on terror, repeated Bush’s surge trick in Afghanistan, piffed Osama bin Laden, and finally put the smackdown on Gaddafi the way Reagan wanted to oh so many years ago.

I’m sure if I went through and extensively fact-checked this article I’d have to blunt some of my criticism and praise; the real story is always too big to fit in the boxes that we want to fit it in. In particular, I know Obama’s not perfect. But I’m going to go with the guy who’s willing to take on ideas from the other side, if not their votes, because all the other side is trying to do now is make him fail – even if it means turning on their own ideas … or turning on their own. There’s a lot of good on the right … but right now, on many issues, the right’s in the wrong, and is extraordinarily resistant to accepting facts, reason, or even their own history, even in areas where Obama’s choosing to follow firmly in Bush’s footsteps to the point some of the left want to tear their hair out.

In the end, it’s not about parroting the current set of litmus positions to establish one’s group identification.

It’s about being effective at doing what’s right.

-the Centaur

P.S. For the record, while I admire Ron Paul’s clear moral compass, and would love to see Newt Gingrich debate Obama just for the fireworks of seeing two powerful minds clearly articulate their conflicting ideals, if I did have to pick a Republican candidate I would pick Mitt Romney because I think he’s the most experienced, levelheaded, and dare I say moderate of the current pack. I agree with my friend: he is the best choice out of the Republican field, even though I have the option of selecting a different candidate from a different party that better reflects my personal values. Best of luck, Mitt, though I will be voting for the other guy.

Pictured: White Flag by Jasper Johns, currently hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

They’re at it again …

Shortly after a study from a former climate skeptic seemed to show that global warming is indeed happening, anti-climate skeptics are now accusing him of “hiding the truth” because the globe hasn’t warmed in the last 10 years.

Ok, let’s grant that, for sake of argument. I for one believe it. But climate is defined as the weather averaged over 30 years. So even if the temperature hasn’t risen for 13 years, as they suggest, that means that it has risen for 17 out of the last 30 – and that the temperature is still rising.

Wait another decade and then you’ve got a case to make that global warming has stopped. If the skeptics are right, as they haven’t been about almost anything for the past century or so, then we can throw a party. If they’re wrong … well, waiting another ten years makes fixing the problem much harder.

Understand: climate skeptics are just stalling in the hope the the problem will just go away. Personally, I wait in joyful hope for the Resurrection — but when dealing with temporal problems, I pray for God’s good favor, then get to work.

Why don’t we all try being real about what our problems are and working hard to fix them, for a change?

-the Centaur

Before the dawn of the dawn of time…

Continuing my attempts at computational archaeology: before the dawn of the dawn of time … or at least the dawn of the Internet … computer people had .plan (“dot plan”) files, chunks of text you could read from the command line using the finger protocol.

This protocol is often deactivated nowadays, but it was Facebook at graduate school at Georgia Tech in the early nineties. The following was mine, from apparently late 1995. Like my attempt to find my first web page, this obviously isn’t the earliest version of my .plan file, but at ~15 years it’s the oldest bit of online presence I’ve found about myself yet.

Obviously, some things have changed … the “love of my life” died (the love itself part, not the person) shortly after writing this, as evident from the editor’s note. I then went on to marry the lovely Sandi Billingsley, the real love of my life. Some of the other friends listed are no longer with us, or no longer with me and my friends. For the rest, well, read on – this is a completely unfiltered snapshot of me fifteen years ago:

The Centaur’s Bio (his Old .plan File)

Hi. This is the personal page of the Centaur, otherwise known as Anthony Francis. I’m ostensibly a graduate student in Artificial Intelligence at the College of Computing, but that’s just a hobby. For the past eight years, I’ve been a science fiction writer, a vocation that became professional when I published my first short story, “Sibling Rivalry,” in the February 1995 issue of _The Leading Edge_ magazine.

The love of my life is a redheaded historian, Shannon Duffy. When I’m not with her I spend time with my best friends in the Edge Group, which consists of Michael Boyd, David Cater, Anthony Francis, Derek Reubish, David Stephens, and Fred Zust in the core Edge franchise as well as William Morse, and Stuart Myerburg in our recently opened Atlanta branch.

[Editor’s note: Sad to say, Shannon and I are no longer together; we simply had different ideas about where we wanted to take our lives. We’re still friends, though, and hope to keep it that way.]

I’m sorry, I can’t tell you what we at the Edge Group do; we’d have to kill you (we do bad movies, good software, and great times, in no particular order). When I’m not hanging with the Edge Group I’m jamming with my other best friends Steve Arnold, Eric Christian and his fiancee Chalie, Joe Goldenburg, Kenny Moorman and his wife Carla, Ruth Oldaker, Mark Pharo and his wife Yvette, Patsy Voigt, and Fred’s girlfriend Marina.

The weekend tradition is to jam with William, Stuart, Mallory and sometimes Joe at Anis, Huey’s, Oxford at Pharr, Phipps and wherever else we can get into trouble. (Occasionally, you can find me at the Cedar Tree or Yakitori Den-Chan with Mark & Yvette). If not, I’m either hanging with Fred & Marina, Eric & Chalie and Dave & Ruth up in ole Greenvile, South Carolina, watching (or filming) movies at my house, eating dinner with my loving parents Tony and Susan Francis, perforating the odd target with musket fire at Eric’s or just noshing on late-night food at Stax’ Omega or IHOP. If I’m not doing any of the above, I’m liable to be curled up with Shanny in O’Flaherty’s Irish Channel Pub in the French Quarter in New Orleans, listening to Irish ballads and soaking up each other’s company over an Irish Coffee (her) and a diet Coke (me).

Since people have asked, my favorite authors are H.P. Lovecraft, Larry Niven, C.J. Cherryh and Douglas Hofstadter, in that order. My favorite TV show is Dr.Who, followed neck-and-neck by Babylon 5 and Star Trek (TOS TNG TMS DS9 VOY ANI, in that order) and nipped at the heels by the Tripods and the Six Million Dollar Man. My favorite comic book is Elfquest, followed closely by Albedo Anthropomorphics, Superman, Cerebus, and Usagi Yojimbo. My favorite band is Tangerine Dream, although I do listen to Rush, Yes, Vangelis, and Genesis. My favorite style of music is now called “New Age” (uuugh) but used to be called electronic music, minimalist, or just electronic rock. My second favorite style of music is soundtrack music (music for the visual image). I can stand rock. I hate disco. Rap held my interest for a while, but it officially lost me with “Whoomp(t) there it is.”

My favorite cuisine is Lebanese, a gift from my parents and my family, the best damn extended family in the whole wide world. I shock my parents and family by also appreciating Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Cajun, Mexican, Italian, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish and Indian cuisine; I also have a great appreciation for the foods of the South, a culture which I find to be both vastly underrated and overdiscussed abroad. When I’m not dining out or curled up with a good book or laptop computer at Captain D’s at Corporate Square in Atlanta drinking inordinate amounts of iced tea, I’m at home honing my patented personal tabbouleh (Lebanese salad) recipe, slowly learning to cook Chinese, and honing the art of grilling steaks and microwaving potatoes so that they both finish at the same time.

My favorite form of literary expression is science fiction; my preferred style is flashbacks within a framing story, usually in third-person limited, although I’ve begun to experiment with a more liberal third-person style derived from the narrative structure of contemporary motion pictures. My primary means of plotting and expression are visual images. My favorite fictional creature is, of course, the centaur; however, the genetically engineered spaceborne professionals of *my* fiction bear little resemblance to the bearded primitves that stalk the wooded glades of your average fantasy novel (unfair though that may be to my inspirations, which include the very nice halfhorse folk of the Giesenthal valley dreamed up by Donna Barr, the ambiguous Titanides from _Titan, Wizard, Demon_ by John Varley, and Timoth the warrior sage of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons comic. Just don’t call my Porsche St.George a halfhorse too; she’ll be liable to pummel a fictionalized version of you in a story sooner or later if you do).

My favorite style of AI is symbolic AI with a situated/behaviorist twist. I play around with memory, agents, case-based reasoning, natural language understanding, and semiotics; I have nothing against genetic algorithms or connectionist systems other than the fact that I don’t have time to pursue them as avidly. I also fiddle around with animal cognition, and can talk your ear off about chimpanzee culture and dolphin language if given the chance.

My favorite style of science is Kuhnian with a cognitive flair. I have no respect for positivism or any of the horrible things it’s done for science. My philosophy is somewhere between Kant, Plato and something no-one has a name for yet. To sum: the universe is real; deal, but don’t assume you have the answers and *don’t* assume that a single level of description can capture all of reality.

My religion is theist; I believe in the tripartite single God at the heart of mainstream Christianity, and accept the messiah aspect as my savior. My theology is liberal Episcopalian with a strong theological background in my Catholic upbringing. My disagreements with the Catholic Church are primarily theological and only partially pragmatic; I gave up on waiting for them to catch up with Jesus, but they’re still mostly good people. The religious right, on the other hand, is a bipartite oxymoron: neither religious nor right, and certainly not in keeping with the anti-Phariseean radical I follow. Genteel religious discussions are welcome; rude evangelizers will be biblically and theologically diced *before* I turn you over to Shannon, Joe, William, and Eric. Bring references to authorities, but don’t expect me to respect them. Arguments against evolution will either be summarily flushed or buried underneath my copies of Eldredge’s _Time Frames_, A.G. Cairns-Smith’s _Genetic Takeover_, Dawkin’s _The Selfish Gene_, _The Saint Paul Family Catechism_ and my copy of the New American Bible, flipped to the part of the preface discussing evolution. Read the gospel of Thomas; it’s an eye opener, and you haven’t even seen the Dead Sea Scrolls yet…

Politically, I am a Goldwater liberal. I believe in war, gays in the military, religious freedom, no state-mandated prayer in schools, free ownership of automatic weapons, licensing of gun owners, aid to the Contras, prosecution of IranContra, investigation of Whitewater, and support and respect for the president regardless of party. I voted for George *and* Bill once each, don’t regret it, and would do the same knowing what I know now. I believe in AIDS spending, military spending, research spending, and the space program; I also believe in welfare reform, cutting waste, a line item veto, and perhaps even some kind of budget amendment if I could be convinced it wouldn’t get us into trouble in wartime. I don’t believe in “school choice”, “political correctness”, “multiculturalism”, “Rush as Equal Time”, “the liberal media”, “the conservative media”, or “anti-special-rights amendments”. I don’t think we should take “In God We Trust” off of our coins and I don’t think we should picket funerals of people who had AIDS. I don’t believe acceptance of homosexuals as equal citizens has anything to do with the disintegration of the American family. I don’t believe in hobbling industry with overregulation nor do I believe in letting them cut down trees holding endangered species just because they planned our logging programs poorly. My political heroes are Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher.

Interesting. Well, that is what it was. There are definitely opinions I would tweak, things I now think I got wrong, and snapshots of relationships that no longer hold. But the Edge is still here, I’m still here, I’m still writing, I’m still a Christian, and still a scientist. SO, all things considered, I think I’ll have to stand by my dot plan file after all.

-the Centaur

Embarrassing!

When I was visiting England over the Fourth of July many, many years ago, a British radio announcer interviewed visiting Americans to ask what the Fourth of July celebrated. I missed the interview, but the host at the bed and breakfast I was staying in at Drumnadrochit by Loch Ness asked me the next morning. I’m embarrassed to say it took me about thirty seconds to say … “the signing of the Declaration of Independence“. As it turns out, I did far better than the average tourist.

Well, uh, umpteen years later, things aren’t any better … even in our homeland.  From Jay Leno’s 4th of July episode of Jaywalking:

As a friend said, scary stuff.

I was sitting on my porch while my wife was rooting succulents and when she heard the video play she said “uh uh!” and ran over to watch. I think we got all of the questions except the Minutemen, and our “guess” (that they were an elite group of colonial soldiers who were our first line of defense against the British, essentially Revolutionary War special forces) was apparently spot on.

Afterwards, all we had to say was: “Go Grandpa!”

-the Centaur

IGDA on California’s Video Game Ban

I’m a big free speech advocate, and I’m strongly against most well-intentioned attempts to protect us from ourselves – or, more cynically, to protect some people from people whose preferences are different – so this is worth mentioning.

The Independent Game Developer’s Association is filing an amicus brief in the court battle over California’s attempt to ban the sale of violent video games to minors.  Details on the case are here:

http://www.scotusblog.com/2010/04/court-to-rule-on-violent-videos/

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to rule on the constitutionality of a state law banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors.  The Court accepted for review an appeal by the state of California, urging the Court to adopt a new constitutional standard that would enable states to ban such games for those under age 18.  The case is Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association (08-1448).

The Court apparently had been holding the case until it decided another First Amendment case involving violent expression — U.S. v. Stevens (08-769).  In that ruling, issued last Tuesday, the Court struck down a federal law that banned the depiction in videotapes of animal cruelty.  In that ruling, the Justices refused to create a new exception to the First Amendment free speech right.  The Court could have opted to send the California case back to the Ninth Circuit Court to weigh the impact of the Stevens decision. Instead, it simply granted review; the case will be heard and decided in the Court’s next Term, starting Oct.  4.

From IGDA’s call to action:

The IGDA in partnership with the AIAS, is working with the ESA to put together an AMICUS brief to support the decision to revoke this ban and declare this law unconstitutional. With the concept that video/computer/electronic games are a new form of media and art form, our industry should be afforded the freedom of speech protections that have been fought for and won by print, audio and video groups from newspapers to rap artists to filmmakers across the country. We need your help in securing powerful arguments that explain how this industry has evolved into a true profession over the years, and a medium that touches children and adults around the world every day.

So, if you care about your rights to buy videogames, or about giving government yet another tool to control what we see and hear, you might consider weighing in – if not on this court case, if to your elected representatives asking them what on Earth they were thinking in the first place.

-Anthony

People Who Don’t Get It

This cartoon illustrates a common misconception of The Left:

“We’re fed up with Washington! The Government can’t get anything done! It apparently takes a supermajority to pass anything! Let’s make sure no-one has that!”

No, no, no, no, NO! For goodness sake, people, listen to what your opponents are saying instead of projecting your desires upon them. What the people who just voted a Republican into Ted Kennedy’s seat are saying is this:

“We’re fed up with Washington! The Government is doing things we don’t like! Fortunately, it takes a supermajority to pass anything! Let’s make sure the bad guys don’t have that!”

Not that I think the Democrats are the bad guys – I voted for them – so let’s just say that this is my creative way of making the point that it’s pretty darn stupid to imagine that the people who voted out the Democrats are motivated by what Democratic voters want. If you need a reminder, in general, excluding social conservative and military issues, it’s Democrats who want government action and Republicans who want to stop the government from acting.

*ARE* you feeling lucky today?

A friend of mine really likes the Chinese Tank Man picture: a lone figure carrying a grocery bag standing up to a whole line of tanks. To him it symbolizes the challenge of the individual against authority, even though he was ultimately disappeared … though not necessarily killed.

Today a colleague at the Search Engine that Starts With a G forwarded me a new riff on that image:

“I’m feeling watched” indeed. Apparently this cartoonist is not alone in using that image to talk about issues with Google and China, though the sense today in the picture above is far different from the sense in 2005 when it was first riffed on:

So … are you feeling lucky today that you are allowed to read this?
-the Centaur