30 June 2004

Spiderman Two

I'm not going to get to see it for a few days at least, but Spiderman 2 opens today. Though I guess if you care, you don't need me to tell you.

The first sentence of Ebert's review tells me what I need to know: “Now this is what a superhero movie should be.”

You go, Roger. I suspect that's even a little wink in there for the true geek cinephile: Pauline Kael's review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan begins, “Now that's more like it.”

Very clever, Mr. Bond

While looking for a quote about Leni Riefenstahl, I stumbled across an article that looks closely at the incredibly weird opening title sequences in James Bond movies. The article argues that they were inspired by Riefenstahl's style.

While neither of the original title designers, Robert Brownjohn, who set the style and Maurice Binder who developed it, credit Leni Riefenstahl or her body aesthetic in the Olympia film as an influence in their Bond title sequences, the correspondences in image, symbolism, even action are intriguing and worthy of examination for their ideological meaning and filmic intertext.

It's a tempting idea. Whether or not you buy it, the article provides a suprisingly interesting history of the evolution of the titles.

Binder’s female form title credits had become Bond film ritual. Expectations followed with each successive film as to how far he might push the limits with regard to nudity, sexual content, and implication. Billy Wilder even cited Binder’s work as “superior to the films themselves.”

Particularly fun is the way it talks about the last few pictures, which have evolved into parodies of themselves. I remember that the opening titles to Goldeneye made me laugh out loud.

Women wielding sledgehammers chop away at statues of Marx and Lenin, strut their stuff on falling and breaking hammer and sickles. In a nod to Binder, there is a phallic moment when a pistol emerges from the mouth of one of the women.

And of course, eventually he cannot resist the magic word “postmodern.”

Die Another Day (2002) finally does take Bond into the postmodern world, both in the pastiche and self-aware narrative and with regard to the cinematic style. The title credits do not separate the film into a triptych structure in the classical Bond manner. There is no abrupt change, the mini-adventure does not stand alone, and the credits continue the narrative into the body of the film. .... The images fracture across the screen and re-form, foreshadowing the identity morphing in the film’s plotline.

Even James Bond has fragmented postmodern identity!

29 June 2004

Today's quote

I've been doing some research to support a motorcycle shopping expedition.

The same whirring, clanking, whining, chuffing and shuddering that delights ears accustomed to the longitudinal V-twins can convince CBR600 owners that something is horrifyingly, expensively and inexorably wrong.

From a review of the Moto Guzzi V11, the least practical but most beautiful bike I'm seriously considering.

Microsoft and development tools

My human readers may want to sit this one out. But the article in question really is interesting, so you may want to be brave.

Joel Spolsky has a really interesting analysis of Microsoft's current situation.

Microsoft's crown strategic jewel, the Windows API, is lost. The cornerstone of Microsoft's monopoly power and incredibly profitable Windows and Office franchises, which account for virtually all of Microsoft's income and covers up a huge array of unprofitable or marginally profitable product lines, the Windows API  is no longer of much interest to developers. The goose that lays the golden eggs is not quite dead, but it does have a terminal disease, one that nobody noticed yet.

Now that I've said that, allow me to apologize for the grandiloquence and pomposity of that preceding paragraph. I think I'm starting to sound like those editorial writers in the trade rags who go on and on about Microsoft's strategic asset, the Windows API. It's going to take me a few pages, here, to explain what I'm really talking about and justify my arguments. Please don't jump to any conclusions.

.... which makes it difficult to excerpt his article meaningfully. Do check it out; it's one of those things where even if you don't agree, along the way he says some provocative stuff that will get you thinking.

28 June 2004

Postcards from the metaverse

This one's for you, MKB and Clive Thomson.

Second Life is a recreational virtual environment. It's a simulated 3D world, where your probably-but-not-necessarily human-looking “avatar”—a representation of you—can wander around, talk to other avatars, and presumably see cool stuff and have cool adventures.

If that sounds silly and boring, I think I agree with you. In his talk The Point Is, which I keep trying to get y'all to read, Brian Moriarty claims that this whole idea is boneheaded.

In the cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, there is a very exclusive virtual night club called the Black Sun. One of the things that makes the Black Sun so exclusive and special is that, unlike the low-rent portions of cyberspace where avatars pass through each other freely, patrons of the Black Sun must walk around each another or collide. I read this description and thought it was a witty satire. Unfortunately, many would-be engineers of shared illusion have read Snow Crash and adopted it as a specification. The heresy needs to be spoken: The cyberpunk conception of virtual reality is not really very interesting. Only a hacker would find the problem of avatar collision interesting.
....
Space and time are not intrinsic properties of virtual presence. Space and time will not exist in virtual presence unless we bring them with us. Space and time are boring. Let's not invite them.

But what do I know? EverQuest has hundreds of thousands of players, in spite of being saddled with the the ultimate dorkiness of being a swords-and-elves game. Human nature being what it is, it's well known that many of those EverQuest players aren't much interested in the game, and just go to socialize.

Indeed, EQ users hoard virtual posessions, as Clive Thomson documents for us.

The Gross National Product of EverQuest, measured by how much wealth all the players together created in a single year inside the game. It turned out to be $2,266 U.S. per capita. By World Bank rankings, that made EverQuest richer than India, Bulgaria, or China, and nearly as wealthy as Russia.

It was the seventy-seventh richest country in the world. And it didn't even exist.
....
WITHIN MONTHS OF ULTIMA ONLINE'S LAUNCH in 1997, the game spiralled into a currency crisis. The developers woke up one morning to discover that the value of their gold currency was plummeting. Why? A handful of sneaky players had discovered a bug in the code that allowed them to artificially duplicate gold pieces (called “duping”). The economy had been hit by a counterfeiting ring. Inflation soared, and for weeks, players would log in each day to find their assets worth less and less.
....
Three years ago, a company called IGE, whose sole function is to buy and sell virtual goods, launched. I met one of the company's founders, Brock Pierce, at a gaming conference in New York. A fresh-faced, blond twenty-three-year-old who is based in Boca Raton, Florida, he said IGE has “thousands of suppliers” who scout the games all day long to find cut-rate goods. He has a hundred full-time staff members at an office in Hong Kong to handle customer service. On any given day, he says, they handle “several million dollars’ ” worth of virtual inventory.

Maybe the folks at There.com—another subscription virtual environment, like Second Life—are not in fact crazy to hope that they will make money selling us virtual Nike sneakers.

Now consider: a moblog is a blog that consists of pictures taken with the camera on your phone: interesting things you've seen in your meanderings. Many moblogs consist just of the pictures; others have commentary. I've dipped my toe into those waters myself.

So in a strange fusion of two elements of online culture, there's a guy who has figured out a hack to moblog from Second Life.

Despite my initial disdain for moblogging (mobile weblogging), I should soon have some moblog entries here. More specifically, I am in the process of setting up a moblog to display “live” screenshots and commentary documenting my Second Life travels.

The system will allow me to take “photos” in Second Life and send these along with comments from within SL to an external email account—this is a standard SL function whereby users can send their friends e-cards. The email is collected by the blogging system and stripped of text I don't want, leaving only my message and a picture. Hopefully I'll have this implemented soon, the technical aspect is all handled by the blogging system, and it's not too hard. The end result will be the ability to report “live” as events happen in Second Life. Pretty cool!

Perhaps, as Moriarty would say, “only a hacker would find this interesting.” I'm pretty sure that Sandy Stone would have something interesting to say about it. Does that make her a hacker? I just rambled on about it at length—perhaps, in spite of my best efforts, I'm a hacker after all.

27 June 2004

Cumshaw

I have a strange weakness for military humour. Strange because of my total lack of a temperament congruent with military service. Here's a droll example from Uppity Negro.

Seabees: We need concrete.
Marines: You're not in our budget. Talk to the Navy.

Seabees: We need concrete.
Navy: If it's for a Corps project, talk to them.

Seabees: Do you guys have any concrete?
Air Force base guard: Yeah. Why?
Seabees: Merely engaging in conversation, fellow soldier! Say, isn't that Saddam Hussein over there?
Air Force base guard: What? Where? (runs off)
Seabees: All too easy. Hey, they got generators!

Mind you, this did sometimes lead to awkward situations.

Marines: Wow, you guys do good work. But how do you always end up with more material at the end of a project than when you started?
Seabees: ... the little baby Jesus.

26 June 2004

What's in this can?

So I recently encountered this very strange Japanese product. It's a little can with a pull-top in a cardboard box. The can has a photograph of famous Japanese movie monster Gamera, “friend to children everywhere.”

The Western mind may never know what this can contains, since my colleagues and I dreaded to open the pull-top, fearing what we might unleash. But there is this important clue:

It looks like nutrition information to me. Which suggests that in Japan you can actually buy Gamera meat!


Update: It's true! Waterbones has already discovered a website which reports that this mystery substance is actual meat of Gamera. Shades of Warren Ellis' story in Planetary #2, “Zero.”

Takara will be releasing a set of twelve different canned “Gamera” meats — One for each kaiju: Gamera'99, Gamera'96, Gamera'95, Irys, Legion, Super-Gyaos, Barugon, Gyaos, Guiron, Viras, Jiger & Zigra. Eat Gamera-meat and you will “become strong like Gamera!!”

A hearty recommendation. I want to be strong like Gamera!


I offer you the Mystery Science Theater 3000 “Gamera Song”:

Gamera! Gamera!
Gamera is really neat.
Gamera is filled with meat.
We've been eating Gamera!
Shell
Teeth
Eyes
Flames
Claws
Breath
Scales
Fun!

25 June 2004

Hello!

Statcounter tells me that I have readers in Illinois, North Carolina, and Texas. Nice to have you here.

But who the heck are all you people? Drop me a line!

Today's quote

By way of DeLong, Larry McMurtry in the New York Times:

I doubt myself that Bill Clinton's sex life has been all that different from anybody else's: pastures of plenty, pastures of less than plenty, pastures he should get out of immediately, and not a few acres of scorched earth.

Ain't it the truth.

24 June 2004

Metaphor

With a delicious excerpt, Michael Bérubé rescues three paragraphs of an an excellent New Yorker article about our recent foreign policy madness that has already disappeared from the web.

Once, a group of travellers were on a perilous journey, in the course of which they had to cross a river. Unluckily, their guide forgot the location of the bridge, so the party had to ford the river, which, at the place they then found themselves, was shallow but very wide. After several minutes of wading through the icy water, the travellers began to grumble, “This guide is worthless! Let us abandon him and find another!” Sensing the discontent of his charges, the guide cleverly led them into a deeper part of the river, where the current was stronger and the footing more treacherous. “Help us!” the travellers cried. “Esteemed guide, do not abandon us!”

Someone needs to explain to The New Yorker that you put the archives on the web, since you can't sell them, but not the current issue, which you can sell — not the other way around!

Update: Evidently someone did tell them: behold.

23 June 2004

Guilty as charged

I am embarassed to admit that I have personally contributed to the impending snark shortage, as reported on Daily Kos.

Science Friday: Liberal Blogs in Crisis

Liberal bloggers are facing a snark shortage that may have serious implications in the coming months, experts say. Blog readers are being warned to expect rationing and long lines at their favorite liberal blogs — and that some blogs may not make it through the current crisis.



Strategic Snark Reserves ‘Dangerously Low’; Increased Consumption Blamed

Experts report that the United States Strategic Snark Reserves have been severely depleted, and absent new discoveries of snark may run dry within three years.

‘Liberal bloggers have been using snark at an exponentially expanding rate, but it's not a renewable resource’ said Lawrence Peters, head researcher at the American Blog Studies Group, a liberal think tank. ‘Once it's gone, it's gone.”

Thanks to the lovely Waterbones for alerting me to the crisis.

22 June 2004

Fire And Motion

Famed software development philosopher Joel Spolsky has a little observation about how you get things done.

When I was an Israeli paratrooper a general stopped by to give us a little speech about strategy. In infantry battles, he told us, there is only one strategy: Fire and Motion. You move towards the enemy while firing your weapon. The firing forces him to keep his head down so he can't fire at you. (That's what the soldiers mean when they shout “cover me.” It means, “fire at our enemy so he has to duck and can't fire at me while I run across this street, here.” It works.) The motion allows you to conquer territory and get closer to your enemy, where your shots are much more likely to hit their target. If you're not moving, the enemy gets to decide what happens, which is not a good thing. If you're not firing, the enemy will fire at you, pinning you down.

I remembered this for a long time. I noticed how almost every kind of military strategy, from air force dogfights to large scale naval maneuvers, is based on the idea of Fire and Motion. It took me another fifteen years to realize that the principle of Fire and Motion is how you get things done in life. You have to move forward a little bit, every day.

The rest of his essay is about procrastination and software development, if you like that sort of thing.

21 June 2004

Key blogosphere issue

Matthew Yglesias has interesting comments on an important subject consuming the political blogosphere.

We have a serious collective action problem here. Free marketers like Sullivan and Volokh are too blinded by ideology to see the compelling need for government intervention. A temporary regulatory solution could help us resolve this mess. For the next five years, say, straight women must ‘insist on only dating hot guys’ (we'll have to empanel a ‘Federal Hot Guy Commission’ consisting of ‘shallow, beauty-obsessed [gay] males’ to rank everyone) and see if the hot guy supply increases in response.

I think Matt's still sounding like a Republican insisting that businesses can regulate themselves with just a little friendly advice. What are the tax incentives and funding that he intends to include in his plan? Policy is in the details.

There's a thought

Brad DeLong has an interesting little fantasy:

There's still time for the House and Senate Republican caucuses to go to Bush and force his and Cheney's resignations. Then Hastert and Stevens can decline the job, and the presidential succession passes to Colin Powell.

....

It's what would have already happened to any political leader in a parliamentary system.

Now that's interesting. One of the things I wish I knew more about is how different forms of respresentative government work in practice. There's a few hundred constitutions out there — surely someone has done a longitudinal study?

19 June 2004

Trickster

Warren “die puny humans” Ellis offers us a dialogue with Don Bastardos of the Amazon Basin.

A:
I want you to teach me.

D:
Yes. For Don Bastardos is very clever.

A:
I bring tribute. I'll stay as long as we have to, to be deemed worthy of the ayahuasca.

D:
Don Bastardos calls bullshit on you. Does this look like some guru temple to you? You want to get off your face on jungle drugs and see visions. Do not shit Don Bastardos.

Don Bastardos likes to get fucked up on ayahuasca and talk about old television shows. What did you think, scrawny white man?

Perhaps only funny if you've read a lot of Castaneda.

18 June 2004

Popkultur disaffection

Snapped with my phone, on a slummy stretch of Market Street here in SF:

Then it hit me, I'm not going to be famous, I won't get to be a rock star, I am going to be stuck on the payroll doing work that doesn't interest me for a very long time
Then it hit me

I’m not going to be famous

I won’t get to be a rock star

I am going to be stuck on the payroll doing work that doesn’t interest me for a very long time

Apparently this poster also turns up as a mural in Fresno.

Of course, this rhetoric has been around for a long time. You saw it on the streets of Paris 36 years ago.

Blogger Tom Coates has a rebuttal which claims that blogs give the lie to this sentiment. I'm not convinced — but then I don't want to be that kind of famous, anyway.

17 June 2004

Garfield

It turns out that Garfield isn't a bad comic strip that got heavily merchandized. It was originally conceived as a marketing exercise.
The film is an example of the kind of product that Garfield creator Jim Davis likes to attach his product's name to: Predictable, unfunny, and eminently forgettable. The movie won't take the nation by storm --- in fact, it will probably vanish very quickly --- but it will make a tidy sum in theaters and on DVD
...
From the beginning, Davis put as much energy into the marketing of the strip as he did into creating it. (It's telling that he's been inducted into the Licensing Merchandiser's Hall of Fame but not the hall of fame hosted by the International Museum of Cartoon Art.)
...
Davis admitted to spending only 13 or 14 hours a week writing and drawing the strip, compared to 60 hours a week doing promotion and licensing.
It never occurred to me, but once said, it's obvious.

16 June 2004

Happy Bloomsday!

Today is the centennial of the events in James Joyce's Ulysses. Right about the time I'm posting this, in Dublin, re-enactments are in progress.

A geek test

Yeah, yeah, you've seen it all before, you're way past this kind of thing, but it's a clever example of the type, and some of my readers will actually take it. You Know Who You Are.

And since you asked, it said I'm a major geek, which is in the middle of the range. I don't know whether to be ashamed or proud ... or whether I should feel that way because the rank is high or low.

15 June 2004

Reagan

Now that an appropriate interval has passed, it's time for some antidotes to the treacle. For a quick hit, check out this terrific cartoon my mother passed on, or these fourteen things that David Corn at The Nation asks us to remember:

  • getting cozy with Argentine fascist generals
  • tax credits for segregated schools
  • disinformation campaigns
  • “homeless by choice”
  • Manuel Noriega
  • falling wages
  • the HUD scandal
  • air raids on Libya
  • “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa
  • United States Information Agency blacklists of liberal speakers
  • attacks on OSHA and workplace safety
  • the invasion of Grenada
  • assassination manuals
  • Nancy's astrologer

That's just a sampling, actually — Mr. Corn has fifty-two more if you're interested.

Readers with stronger stomachs and more patience may wish to wander over to Salon for a couple of good articles on Mr. Reagan's legacy. One from Rick Perlstein:

Reagan soon became one of the hottest tickets on the anti-Communist lecture circuit — where sunny optimism was not the order of the day. “We have 10 years,” he would say in just about every speech. “Not 10 years to make up our mind.” (He was referring to the choice as to whether to embrace the Republican right or the march of communism, among whose avatars he numbered, in a famous 1960 letter to Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy.) But “10 years to win or lose — by 1970 the world will be all slave or all free.”

....

It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.

Nowadays, as we grapple with the malevolence of President Bush, it's Reagan we remember as the sensible one. At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, let memory at least acknowledge that there was much about Reagan that was not so sensible.

Another from mighty Joe Conason:

The millions of words of hagiographic copy uttered and written this week will make scant mention of the scandal epidemic that marred Reagan's presidency (aside from the Iran-contra affair, which few commentators understand well enough to explain accurately). Disabled by historical amnesia, most Americans won't recall — or be reminded of — the scores of administration officials indicted, convicted or expelled on ethics charges between 1981 and 1989.

However historians will assess Reagan's responsibility, the record is what it is. Gathering dust in the news archives are thousands of clippings about the gross influence peddling, bribery, fraud, illegal lobbying and sundry abuses that engulfed the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon, to name a few of the most notorious cases.

I could give you a hundred other links and quotes, but I'll resist the tempations. I managed to come up with two nice things to say about President Reagan. Sixty-six bad things from Mr. Corn.

Fair and balanced, that's me.

14 June 2004

Ray

Ray Charles
1930-2004

National treasure

I just found out. Words fail.

Try Stanley Crouch at Slate, who says "he used every second" of his 73 years, or Charles Taylor at Salon, who starts by talking about the recording that should be our national anthem.

Winning the Cold War

The American Prospect argues against the assumption that American conservatism won the Cold War, in service of the claim that it won't do us well against Islamist terror either. It's a long, strange, fascinating, and not entirely convincing argument. I'm not prepared to blame conservatives for the limits and frustrations of a containment policy, as the article does. (Indeed, when I get around to it, I'm going to post an entry about how containment would have been a good answer to Saddam Hussein.) But it makes a strong point that it was lefty anarchists who caught on first that the Soviet state was a lousy idea.

The whole article's worth a read, even though it's long. But if you don't have the time, just bask in this paragraph about how liberal values were the real winners in the Eastern Bloc.

Liberals should take pride in the end of the Cold War. [The conservative magazine] Commentary was reluctant to acknowledge the Eastern European forces of freedom that courageously took to the streets to overthrow communism, in part because the surprising phenomenon represented the three great antagonists of conservatism: the youth culture, the intellectuals of the ’60s generation and the laboring classes that still favored Solidarity over individualism. American neoconservatives like William J. Bennett are haunted by the crisis of authority at home and see knowledge threatened by skepticism everywhere. In Why We Fight, Bennett claims that we are in Iraq to take a stand for truth and to rescue “moral clarity” from the quicksand of liberal “pseudosophisticated relativism.” But in Eastern Europe, intellectuals took a stand for courage without certainty. “For my generation, the road to freedom began in 1968,” recalls the historian Adam Michnik, who wrote of the members of the Solidarity union movement in his Letters From Prison. The playwright Vaclav Havel, associated with Charter 77 and the Prague Spring, took his bearings from the metaphysical anxieties of Martin Heidegger and the existential meditations of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Against totalitarianism such writers stood for skepticism, irony, uncertainty, and a refusal to believe in and yield to an authority that prefers to possess truth rather than pursue it. Soviet communism ended the way American liberalism began: “Resist much; obey little,” as Walt Whitman wrote.

Or, as I would say, moral certainty is the enemy.

13 June 2004

Pie

Witty local pornographer Thomas Roche, editor of the magnificent Noirotica anthologies and author of countless clever and racy stories, is also the author of four funny pie charts that are worth a couple hundred seconds of your attention.

12 June 2004

Exercise

Don't go to the gym! Play video games!

John Scalzi has a terrific picture of his five-year-old leaping through the air while playing a video game, and argues that it must be mostly good for her.

Anyone who thinks video game playing leads to sedentary children has never seen Athena play video games.

....

I suspect her game playing may have actually helped her when she did her kindergarten assessment tests, which the Bradford schools have each incoming kid do so they can figure out how to tailor their programs for the next year. If I recall correctly, one category related to visual-motor skills, i.e., what we called hand-eye coordination back in the day.

Meanwhile, Clive Thomson observes that Dance Dance Revolution is serious exercise, and quotes a testamonial from an entire website about losing weight with DDR.

I lost about 140-150lbs with the help of DDR and a weight bench. But before I found DDR I tried walking and a weight bench and I only lost 20lbs, then after DDR it melted off in under a year.

Check out the comments section after Clive's post, too ...

11 June 2004

Time cube

Perhaps you saw it years ago, and forgot about it. (I did.) Perhaps you never have seen it before. Ladies and gentlement, I offer you the granddaddy of all crackpot science web pages, Time Cube.

Hey stupid — are you too dumb to know there are 4 different simultaneous 24 hour days within a single rotation of Earth? Greenwich 1 day is a lie. 4 quadrants = 4 corners, and 4 different directions. Each Earth corner rotates own separate 24 hour day. Infinite days is stupidity.
....
I bestow upon myself the “Doctorate of Cubicism”, for educators are ignorant of Nature's Harmonic Time Cube Principle and cannot bestow the prestigious honor of wisdom upon the wisest human ever.

Even the site's graphic design is perfect.

10 June 2004

The torture memo

The story this news cycle is the “torture memo”, in which legal counselors for the Bush administration argued that torture was legal, or at least not illegal in a way that might be a problem ... with the tacit assumption that of course it's the sort of thing that the US should be in the business of doing.

I'm trying not to rant, here.

Actually, I don't have to. There's lots of good stuff out in the lefty blogosphere on this. You can get an overview of the key points and history of the story. There's a terrific, horrifying close reading of the memo's content. The Washington Post has given us a fiery editorial. Billmon takes a moment to make some pointed observations about the memo's authors' values. You can get a PDF of the memo itself, if you have a strong stomach.

Lots to read about.

You don't have the time or fortitude to face all of that stuff, I understand. So I'll give you a key snippet from this quasi-platonic dialogue which gets right to the point.

Q: Is the Convention Against Torture (CAT) a treaty?

A: Yes.

Q: Did the president sign it?

A: Yes, President Reagan signed it on April 11, 1988 and the senate ratified it on October 21, 1994.

....

Q: What is the role of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government?

A: The role of the Executive Branch is to enforce the laws.

Q: Who is in charge of the Executive Branch?

A: The President of the United States.

Links by way of perennial heroes Atrios and DeLong, two guys you should be reading for politics instead of reading me.

09 June 2004

Rance

Rance is a quirky little blog by somebody famous. He won't say who. This is how he introduces himself:

Call me Rance
My life is boring and not worth writing about, except for my knowledge of one thing. So this blog will focus on that thing. It is, for lack of a better word, celebrity. I stumbled onto it by a series of chance events. Suffice it to say, I can tell you what it's like to see your picture on the magazine rack every now and again when you pay for groceries. And that'll have to suffice. I'd like this to be the sort of account afforded only by anonymity. And it that happens, if my identity were revealed, I'd quickly be selling grapefruits -- instead of paying $14 a pop to eat them -- on Sunset Blvd.

There's a lot of random stuff in there. Take this, for example:

I know of a sleazy tabloid reporter whose girlfriend dumped him (due in no small part to the fact that he was a sleazoid reporter). Six months later, she took up with a “sleb.” Doesn’t matter who. Mr. Sleazoid still had the key to her place. So he used it when she was at work, went into her bedroom, and duct-taped a voice-activated tape recorder beneath her dresser. This sort of device recognizes TV signals and such, and quits recording after a couple seconds of it, so it winds up with just phone conversations and in-person chat. In this case, it proved largely pillow talk with the celebrated new boyfriend. A couple weeks later, Sleazoid went back in, retrieved the tape recorder, and among the nine crystal clear hours it had picked up was a scoop that translated into the down payment a new Audi for Sleazoid. This episode notwithstanding, Sleazoid is commonly regarded among the more ethical “entertainment journalists.” If that doesn’t give you an appreciation, or lack thereof, for the rest of the field infesting L, chew on these: If you haven’t had your cell calls intercepted, you’re on the C List, baby. Companies who come into homes and/or offices and “sweep” for electronic eavesdropping and surveillance devices are nearly as common as shrinks, and in L, that’s saying something. I know of someone who, unsure of her blood type, happen to read it, among other private details, in a fanzine (someone had hacked into the system at the medical facility she goes to).

Or this:

There was this talent agent at a Superbowl party the other day. Sort of guy whose tone, body language and facial expression make it seem he's lying everytime he speaks. You're at dinner with him and he says, "Pass the salt," and you're thinking, "this man is lying."

Anyway, within maybe 1.5 seconds of Justin outing Janet's breast, this agent bellows: “Pre-planned P.R. stunt, and a fucking triumph!”

Him being him, everyone reacted as if he was just blowing smoke, trying to lay claim to insider knowledge. Turns out he wasn't.

Immediately, a guest decried the singers' action on grounds of indecency, then lamented a society in which such exploitation of women exists. This party being in Hollywood, that guest was asked to leave (they weren't, really, but they might as well have been).

Then it occurred to someone else, a music industry exec, that the timing for Janet's career couldn't have be better as she has an album coming out this Spring. “I disagree with that,” the agent said. “It could have been better timed. Her album could be coming out today.”

08 June 2004

Geek moment

If you don't get this one, don't sweat it.

“Subdual damage fireball? I think I'm taking subdual damage just from the concept.”

“Haven't you ever watched Saturday morning cartoons, Andy? I mean, GI Joe and the Transformers clearly teach us that lasers and high explosives never hurt anybody!”

If you do get this one, you may be interested to know that it came from the comments on this dark little essay about the ethics of experience points.

Structured procrastination

DeLong points out this excellent productivity tool: structured procrastination.

Procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen.

I'm sure I'll get around to implementing this strategy soon.

07 June 2004

Programming languages

In the course of a thoughtful post on Crooked Timber about why you shouldn't upgrade software, there are two extras of excellence. First, a snide comment about Microsoft.

It would be nice to think that Microsoft is somehow to blame, but this is very unlikely. Although Microsoft’s products are up to trivial tasks like writing letters or making dogs fly or running the electronic voting systems of the United States, no-one would trust them with something like a transactional database, an air-traffic control system or an electricity grid. Applications for stuff like that are usually written in languages you have never heard of ...

Then, a link to a place to learn about languages you never heard of, as well as see some funny things about languages you have heard of.

One of the main causes of the fall of the Roman Empire was that, lacking zero, they had no way to indicate successful termination of their C programs.

....

The primary purpose of the DATA statement is to give names to constants; instead of referring to PI as 3.141592653589793 at every appearance, the variable PI can be given that value with a DATA statement and used instead of the longer form of the constant. This also simplifies modifying the program, should the value of PI change.

....

Python is executable pseudocode. Perl is executable line noise.

(That last one was for you, Mr. Brodhead!)

06 June 2004

Tattoos, hair, and authenticity

So I stumbled across this harsh, provocative little essay, COINTELPRO Tactics and the Elimination of the Tattoo Menace, which rails against a new faux tattoo technology.

They’re flesh-tone shirt/stockings with high quality prints of large tattoos on them. Unlike fashions that simply co-opt tattoo designs (which I have no fundamental problem with, and think is flattering), the goal of these is to actually make it look like you have large-scale tattoos — it’s a costume.

....

To me the issue is in the conversion of a permanent message into a transient message (to say nothing of the elimination of the “message of the message” altogether) — the exchange of commitment and loyalty for transience and whoring.

That essay reminds me of something that bothered me when I was a college student.

At UC Santa Cruz around 1990 there was a very dopey crunchy / lefty student culture. Free Mumia. Zionism is racism. Meat is murder. Sometimes I think it's a wonder I didn't become a Republican out of exasperation.

It was common for female undergrads to have a kind of feminist epiphany: take Introduction to Feminism, read Adrienne Rich's essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Continuum”, find it resonates with some of her experience ... then try out flirting with her TA, who was a Real Live Lesbian.

Yes, I'm mocking a bit — but gently, gently. I walked in to UCSC already an unequivocal feminist, so I have every reason to mostly respect the awkward zeal of the newly converted. And the Goddess knows, at that time in my life I had my own share of goofy enthusiasms.

But there was a style thing common among those young women that bugged me.

Some women took the plunge into short hair as a lesbian signifier, or at least as a challenge to mainstream ideas of femininity. Now I've got some investment in the cultural politics of hair myself: I entered college with shoulder-length hair, graduated with it at my waist, and I still have it a dozen years later. So I respect a challenging hairstyle.

Shannon Larratt's tattoo essay points to getting a tattoo being a committment to being read a certain way by other people, and hair is similar. Obviously, a hairstyle isn't as permanent as ink, but you cannot switch it back and forth on a mere whim the way you can change your clothes. You're making a choice to have some sorts of people respond to you badly, and other people respond to you well, when you do something with your hair.

But many women found a way around that. They would shave their head at the sides and back, but leave their hair long at the crown. In their sociology classroom, they would tie back their hair, creating a sort of butch/punk look. But wearing it down at Thanksgiving dinner, Aunt Laura would never notice that anything was amiss. Which seemed to me like missing the point: the street cred of butch hair comes from making your identity visible to the disapproving Aunt Lauras of the world. It's a style choice, but not just a style choice — a style choice with consequences.

If you can't even commit to your style choices, what kind of person are you?

Mourning in America

Ronald Reagan
1911-2004

40th President of the United States

I confess that I'm ordinarily not one for speaking kindly about Ronald Reagan, but tradition calls for us to do so, and I do have two good things to say about him.


The first is political. Many people believe that Reagan won the Cold War by spending the Soviets into the ground. I'm not convinced by that, but I do give him credit for recognizing the moment when it came. Gorbechev was struggling to bring the Soviet state to a soft landing. Reagan spoke to Gorbechev, recognized his intentions, and made sure to cut enough slack to let Gorbechev succeed.

It's easy to forget the tragedy that could have happened. Had Reagan simply read Gorbechev as deceitful — as he had every reason to do — Gorbechev would not have had the successful relationship with the US as political capital to work with. Worse, had Reagan tried to pressure the Soviets while they were appearing weak, it would have complicated the situation: one could imagine it becoming ammunition for the hard-liners in the Soviet state, making it impossible for Gorbechev to pursue reform. The Soviet state still would have collapsed, but with bloodshed within and perhaps a violent last gasp that would have endangered the rest of the world.

As the Vulcan proverb goes, “Only Nixon could go to China.” We are lucky that Gorbechev appeared on Reagan's watch.

(Added later: Fred Kaplan lucidly makes a similar argument in Slate.)


The second is a very small debt I owe Reagan. Thanks to him, my very small repetoire of voice impersonations includes Jimmy Stewart.

Some years ago, watching a TV biography of Stewart, I learned about his service as a bomber pilot in WWII. Later in the bio, they had an interview snippet with Reagan. Ordinarily, I am immune to Reagan's alleged charm, but telling a story about Jimmy Stewart he was able to get me.

Being Hollywood actors, of the same generation, active in conservative politics, they often found themselves speaking at the same event. Reagan described how he would often remind people that Stewart was a war hero. On one occasion, the person introducing Stewart to the audience beat Reagan to the punch, and described how Stewart had piloted a bomber with the rank of Leutenant. When Reagan came to the microphone a bit later, he corrected the earlier speaker, saying that Stewart had served with the rank of Colonel.

Reagan then described how Stewart approached him afterward, and quoted Stewart, doing a bang-on impression of Stewart's mannerisms and cadences. “Actually, Ron, that first speaker was — well, he was right, you see. They gave me a promotion when they discharged me from the service, but, well, I was a Leutenant when I was flying. But I — but I didn't want to say anything because — because I liked the way it sounded.”

I've been able to do Jimmy Stewart ever since. Thank you, Mr. Reagan.


05 June 2004

Bilingual jest

I just learned that there are people who have never seen the famous open letter to French President M. Jacques Chirac about French nuclear testing that circulated a few years back.

Mon cher Jack:

Je suis a bit fromaged off avec votre decision to blow up La Pacifique avec le Frog bombes nuclears. Je reckon vous must have un spot in La Belle France itself pour les explosions. Le Massive Central? Le Quay d'Orsay? Le Champs Elysees? Votre own back yard, peut etre?

Frappez le crows avec stones, Sport! La guerre cold est fini! Votres forces militaire need la bombe atomique about as beaucoup as poisson need les bicyclettes.

Un autre point, cobber. Votre histoire militaire isn't tres flash, consisting, n'est-ce pas, of battailles the likes of Crecy, Agincourt, Poitiers, Trafalgar, Borodino, Waterloo, Sedan et Dien Bien Phu. Un bombe won't change le tradition. Je/mon pere/mon grand-pere/le cousin third avec ma grandmere/la plume de ma tante fought avec votre soldats against Le Boche in WWI (le Big One). Have vous forgotten?

Reconsider, mon ami, otherwise in le hotels et estaminets de l'Australie le curse anciens d'Angleterre - "Damnation to the French" - will be heard un autre temps.

Votre chums don't want that.

Another casualty

With another entry from the Department of Lefty Rants About Abu Ghraib, Barbara Ehrenreich weighs in.

Secretly, I hoped that the presence of women would eventually change the military, making it more respectful of other people and their cultures, more capable of genuine peace keeping.

That's what I thought, but I don't think that any more.

In other words, if you're like me (and, I would guess, Ms. Ehrenreich) and have a copy of In a Different Voice on your shelf — sorry, but it looks like Carol Gilligan was just off the mark about women's different moral sensibilities.

Tufte-licious poster

If you loved Charles Joseph Minard's Napoleon's March diagram, you'll like this diagram of the history of political parties in the US.

04 June 2004

Eye contact rules for straight men

These rules apply everywhere in the United States I have ever been: Manhattan and Montana, weddings and bondage demonstrations.

  1. Nine times out of ten, eye contact with a woman is just an end in itself, a happy little miracle, and nothing more. You didn't miss the chance, you captured it for what it is worth. A day that includes one of these is a good day, period.
  2. If that first occasion of eye contact lasts a really long time, then the normal rules are suspended and you should do as suits you — but don't forget rule #1.
  3. Typically, after a few sustained moments of eye contact, Mademoiselle will look away. She will now reflect on her state of mind, and you may try to catch her eye again.
  4. If you get a second sustained stretch of eye contact, different things can happen:
    1. If Mademoiselle smiles, you have been invited to approach and greet her. Mademoiselle may not want to talk to you for long, but she does want to talk to you. Smile back, and go say “hi.” It is rude if you do not approach her.
    2. If Mademoiselle does not smile, you should smile anyway. If she smiles in return, then you have permission to approach and greet her. Permission is different from an invitation: Mademoiselle is open to the possibility that you will surprise her with your charm, but has not actually expressed interest. Theoretically, the next step is at your discretion, as she should not consider you rude whether or not you approach her ... but in practice she will feel slighted and look upon you with disfavor if you don't. Go say “hi.”
    3. If you smile on that second eye contact and Mademoiselle looks away, it is rude to approach her — she is either uninterested or too shy.
  5. You may try for a third eye contact, which obeys the same rules as the second.
  6. You may not try for a fourth eye contact.
  7. Don't forget rule #1.

Mistress Matisse offers a more detailed post on the same subject. She gets into some good subtleties about space and time.

Among other things, she makes me conscious that my phrasing of Rule #2 is a little vague. Allow me to clarify. If that first eye contact lingers with Mademoiselle looking any kind of anxious, then you're being Creepy Staring Stalker Guy, which is, y'know, bad. I was assuming that the sustained first eye contact there is happening such that it's very clearly pleasant for Mademoiselle. This is very rare, even if you're as devilishly handsome as Yours Truly, but magic when it does happen. Unless you're very sure that this is what you have happening, it's wisest to presume on a long first eye contact that you've simply jumped ahead to Rule #4.

03 June 2004

Bagel trouble

It's long been supposed by bagel lovers that the quality of New York City bagels has something to do with the water, and bagel makers agree.

When third-generation bagel baker Steve Ross was invited to demonstrate bagel making at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., last spring he took all the ingredients in his grandfather's recipe: — high-gluten flour, fresh yeast, salt, malt and 30 gallons of New York water.

In fact, when he ran low on H2O, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection airlifted another 20 gallons down to the nation's capital to ensure festival visitors would get the real McCoy.

Is there truly something in the water that makes New York bagels the best in the world?

“Oh, without a doubt,” says Ross, owner of Coney Island Bialys and Bagels. “We even tried to make a few bagels and bialys with Washington water and we couldn't get a rise out of the dough. I can't pinpoint what it is — the chemicals in the water, the filtration process, or what — but New York water's the best water around.”

But now, disaster of disaster, I learn from Collision Detection that it turns out that maybe NYC water isn't kosher!

Some rabbis now say that New York City tap water — for a century a gold standard for cleanliness — is not kosher.

These rabbis have recently discovered that there are tiny creatures, called copepods, in the unfiltered water that streams into the city from upstate. These tiny organisms are harmless. But they are crustaceans. And crustaceans are not considered kosher.

02 June 2004

Serial comma

Brad DeLong has it right.

I can see from the title that I am going to have some nits to pick with Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

First of all, there definitely needs to be a comma after “Shoots”. Do we, after all, wish to live in a world in which the sentence, “I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, is grammatical?

The final comma in a list before the “and” or “or” is an important banisher of confusion, ambiguity, and general silliness.

Say it, brother!


Update: Having read the book, I learn that the title refers to a joke which illustrates the importance of the Oxford comma.

Go, Al!

If you didn't catch it, check out Al Gore's firebreathing speech in which he calls a spade a spade.

How did we get from September 12th, 2001 — when a leading French newspaper ran a giant headline with the words “We Are All Americans Now,” and when we had the goodwill and empathy of all the world — to the horror that we all felt in witnessing the pictures of torture in Abu Ghraib?

....

There was then, there is now and there would have been regardless of what Bush did, a threat of terrorism that we would have to deal with. But instead of making it better, he has made it infinitely worse. We are less safe because of his policies. He has created more anger and righteous indignation against us as Americans than any leader of our country in the 228 years of our existence as a nation — because of his attitude of contempt for any person, institution or nation who disagrees with him.

He has exposed Americans abroad and Americans in every U.S. town and city to a greater danger of attack by terrorists because of his arrogance, willfulness and bungling at stirring up hornet's nests that pose no threat whatsoever to us. And by then insulting the religion and culture and tradition of people in other countries. And by pursuing policies that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children, all of it done in our name. President Bush said in his speech Monday night that the war in Iraq is “the central front in the war on terror.” It's not the central front in the war on terror, but it has unfortunately become the central recruiting office for terrorists. [Dick Cheney said, “This war may last the rest of our lives”.]

The unpleasant truth is that President Bush's utter incompetence has made the world a far more dangerous place and dramatically increased the threat of terrorism against the United States. Just yesterday, the International Institute of Strategic Studies reported that the Iraq conflict “has arguably focused the energies and resources of al-Qaida and its followers while diluting those of the global counterterrorism coalition.” The ISS said that in the wake of the war in Iraq al-Qaida now has more than 18,000 potential terrorists scattered around the world and the war in Iraq is swelling its ranks.

....

The worst still lies ahead. General Joseph Hoar, the former head of the Marine Corps, said, “I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure. We are looking into the abyss.”

When a senior, respected military leader like Joe Hoar uses the word "abyss," then the rest of us damn well better listen.

Frustrating as it must be to be the Pete Best of American politics, sitting on the sidelines as a lesser man screws up a job that was rightfully his, I still get the feeling that it must be kind of fun to be Al Gore these days. He has bottomless legitimacy as a player in the political scene — how many people can say they've won a presidential election? — but he now has the freedom from comes from knowing that he doesn't have to answer to anybody, and can say what he really thinks.

01 June 2004

Today's metaphor

God bless Paul Krugman.

Three years ago George Bush claimed that he was cutting taxes to return a budget surplus to the public. Instead, he presided over a move to huge deficits. As a result, the modest tax cuts received by the great majority of Americans are, in a fundamental sense, fraudulent. It's as if someone expected gratitude for giving you a gift, when he actually bought it using your credit card.

The whole article is just as sharp-tongued.

Tamagothi

Remember when there were tamaguchi toys everywhere? They were little “electronic pets” with a simple little LCD screen showing a little cartoon animal wagging its tail, with a few buttons you used to feed your pet, give them treats, or discipline them when they misbehaved. The fad has long since passed.

At the time, there was this little satire, the tamagothi, an imaginary toy that allowed you to raise a little cartoon goth.

If you saw it the first time around, it's worth another visit: you'll chuckle. If you don't even know what a goth is ... well, never mind.