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Thursday, November 11, 1999

One minute of silence...

The popular newsgroup alt.sex.stories.moderated has just reopened after a moderatorless hiatus. Since this is Usenet we're talking about, there's been the requisite controversy about the re-opening in alt.sex.stories.d. (The latter newsgroup is spam-ridden; if you want to read it, use DejaNews or your favorite filter to get just the articles with "ASSD" in the subject line; that's a convention the group has apparently developed over the years.)

I love Usenet and its subcultures! Here's a newsgroup devoted to stories about sex, and except for that little detail it's just like everywhere else, with its spam, its friendships and controversies, the occasional flame, politeness and rudeness, group norms and conventions, and all that.

Actually that's somewhat unfair: the discourse on a.s.s.d is in fact rather more civilized and polite than your average alt group. Maybe it's that these people are interested in writing after all, and therefore of above-average literacy and rationality. Or maybe it's being united in the fact that the larger society disapproves of them; a milder form of the thing that gives solidarity (or at least apparent solidarity) to the gay and lesbian communities.

Speaking of sex, I just ordered a bunch of stuff from the Good Vibrations people; mostly from the Web site, but I also called customer service with a couple of questions. There's something so right about calling up and asking the friendly woman at the 800 number about the availability of a couple of erotic short story collections. Where did society get this idiotic notion that sex is nasty, shameful, to be hidden?

Yeah, I'm one of the World's Experts on this BubbleBoy virus you've probably heard about in the media. But Ian knows even more about it, so he did the writeup for the Web site. Executive summary: it's not out there spreading now, but it could be tomorrow. Install the relevant patch from Microsoft to close the hole it uses to silently write files to your system. Then, if possible, stop using Outlook, Outlook Express, or Internet Explorer; they're just too insecure for words. (The official IBM web page doesn't say that, of course, but it's my personal recommendation.)

Part of the problem is no fault of Microsoft's: Outlook and IE are big tempting targets, because they're so widely deployed. But a big part of the problem is Microsoft's: their general approach is to add features and functions wildly, to blur the line between the desktop and the Net, to allow code to run from anywhere and do anything in an utterly insecure way, and then to retrofit on littly tiny point-fixes for those security problems that get wide publicity. The underlying architecture, though (and I use the term loosely) remains dangerously insecure.

Well, enough for today! I have to go through the year's records, and write a story about all the great useful and productive things I did in 1999, so as to tell my manager (and his manager and...) why they should continue shovelling money into my bank account twice a month, even though I spend so much time mindlessly surfing the Web with my eyes glazed over. Wish me luck!   *8)

Wednesday, November 10, 1999

A cute Web card trick. (Warning: the site sometimes pops up a mildly annoying advertising window, and can be hard to back out of. )

This is actually the second implementation I've seen of this trick, but I don't have the URL for the first one (it was awhile back). It had me puzzled for embarassingly many minutes! I taught the physical-card version of it to the little daughter, and she impressed her aunt and uncle with it. Does anyone know if it's an old parlor-magic trick, or was it invented for the Web?

Finished Connie Willis's Impossible Things and submitted the usual Amazon review:

Not bad, but not for those short on time! (3 stars)

Connie Willis is a good writer, good at telling funny and/or moving stories about us people and our problems and triumphs. Hard-SF fans should definitely look elsewhere; all the science and sociology and future-speculation in these stories is completely in the service of the human emotions and predicaments she wants to explore. This is SF really only by accident.

I would have enjoyed the book more if the stories had been shorter and tighter, and perhaps if I hadn't read them all at once. At least three of them are rather similar "screwball comedies", and those three stories are 27, 60, and 98 (!!) pages long.

I think she could have done what she wanted to do in half, or even a third, of the length, without hurting the qualities of the stories. But that may just be because I'm a busy Daddy without spare hours to spend savoring every page.

I'm not going to rush out and buy all the rest of her books, but I probably will read more eventually.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about the book; it's one of those that I can see is good in some important sense, but I didn't really like all that much myself.

Phil Agre has sent out another wonderful "notes and recommendations" posting on Red Rock Eaters; here's a pointer to the egroups version. Phil Agre is to scholarly and important books (and cheap pens!) what a really good Weblog/journal is to the Web.

Which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

Evidence that Y2K is no big deal at all: the Gymnastics City where the little daughter goes twice a week to practice balancing and tumbling (and role-model time with the pretty high-school girls that run the world) is having a Millenium Slumber Party at the club on 1999/12/31; parents can drop off their kids and go out partying.

Now they wouldn't be holding this if they didn't think parents would actually do it, and parents wouldn't do it if there was any reason to worry about having your kids in a big warehouse in the suburbs guarded only by a small bevvy of young gymnasts, right?

Or maybe people just aren't all that good at assessing risk...

Patent and trademark links: the IBM Patent Server, of course, with its Gallery of Obscure Patents, and the searchable U.S. Trademark Database ("clog", for instance, gives some amusing results).

I found the searchable Trademark database on One Swell Foop, which I got to from the Medley Weblog, which I found on the weblog list at Robot Wisdom. Are we sure all this hypertext stuff was such a good idea?  

Left on the glog Demo Weblog by geegaw: a Seattle Times article about GOPNet.com. The Republican Party wants to be your ISP!

"Why is the link so slow today?"

"Polls show that the American People support our bandwidth policies. We have no further comment at this time."

Obligatory mention of the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall: this from Barry Perlman's Today's Quote list
I did not free Europe, or release my people, or any of that nonsense. It was that crowd in front of me, and the hopeless confusion of my leadership, that opened those gates.
Harald Jaeger, who was
on duty at the Berlin Wall on 1989/11/09

Let's hear it for the hopeless confusion of leadership!

Tuesday, November 9, 1999

Maybe I should go see American Beauty and The Fight Club, since everyone's talking about them. On the other hand, most people don't think they're very good. Is it worth watching not-very-good movies just because they're symptoms of various interesting cultural phenomena? Probably not. Heck, I haven't even watched the video of Brazil that I bought from Amazon all those chronons ago, and that probably is a good movie.

From Mouth Organ's column on those two movies, on Faludi's Stiffed, and on gender and the human predicament in general:

If you choose to isolate yourself from the ways in which the world around you is changing -- if you insist on doing it the same way you've always done it even as people are taking your old tools out of your hands -- then, yes, you have a problem.

But it's a problem that doesn't have to exist.

I dunno. Shouldn't there be a freedom to stay the same, as well as a freedom to change? Not in this particular universe, I suppose.

I never really finished reading the analysis of visual images site that I mentioned the other day. It had some interesting stuff, but somewhat more "here's what someone in 1930 said about the historical roots of this picture drawn in 1500" stuff, not to mention "one-point perspective is inherently male" stuff, than I was looking for.

What I'm really looking for is something that would let me figure out why, for instance, this image looks so good, so correct, so natural, on the bottom of the lefthand frame on this page. I mean, why that image, there? Why do those colors, those shapes, that degree of smoothness, work just there?

I want to read about what the viewer's eye does, what kinds of expectations the viewer typically comes in with, what kinds of effects you get by aligning with or violating those expectations, how the eye gets led around, what looks flat or round, what sorts of higher-level impressions flatness and roundness tend to give, what people find annoying, what they find comforting, what they find classical or hyper-modern, sophisticated or amateurish.

I want to read an amusing and articulate essay on why "3D" objects on the Web are always lit from the upper left. I want to read the consensus wisdom, and the dissenting voices, on what colors convey what emotions and why.

So is there a URL that will do this for me? Or a newsgroup? Or do I need to enroll in Parsons? (Maybe I could sneak in as a techie; their Webserver doesn't seem to be answering today.) Or is this stuff that no one's written down, and that we really don't know at all except down in the viscera of the individual artists somewhere?

Monday, November 8, 1999

The BBC would like you to recommend some Websites to their viewers. What an opportunity! Unfortunately, they apparently look at them before putting the links up on their site; shucks... (Cited by Gordon Joly on silent tristero.)

Heard a story on the radio the other day about the recent "overhaul" (a favorite media word, along with "tout", which I want to rant about at some point) of the U.S. regulations governing financial institutions and what they're allowed to do and not allowed to do, how much they're allowed to overlap, and so on. The story caused an odd visceral twinge in me, and I paused for a minute to consider why.

The twinge, I decided, was the same twinge that I get when considering, or hearing about, the large-scale overhaul or replacement of an important part of a complex software system. Sometimes a large-scale overhaul is vital, of course, but at the same time it tends to cause all sorts of unpleasant problems: not only will the new code have new bugs, but it will also cause the old code with which it interacts to go into some states that it didn't used to go into, and that can elicit incorrect behavior due to bugs that were present all along in the old code, but just never showed themselves. So things break, and someone ends up slogging through ancient code that no one remembers to try to figure out what it was supposed to do, and what it's doing instead.

Does a similar effect happen in the area of law? My first thought was that it doesn't. Sometimes an unforeseen loophole gets opened up, of course, and often there are other sorts of unintended consequences, but you don't have people suddenly being carted away to jail by the busload, or alternately people becoming instant millionaires by turning a knob that accidentally got hooked up wrong by the new law.

This is because there are lots of humans in the system, and even if the law did, for instance, accidentally render some common action strictly-speaking illegal, no prosecutor would actually bring those busloads of people to trial, and no judge or jury would convict them. On the other hand, if someone did find a knob that siphoned large amounts of money strictly-speaking-legally from someone else to himself, it's likely that the legal system would find some way to undo the damage afterwards, and people are sufficiently aware of this not to turn the knob. At least not blatantly!

On the other hand, people do turn the knob subtely. There are lots and lots of places where the laws end up doing things other than, or precisely opposed to, the intent of the legislators. And there are lots of places where clever people have gotten rich by exploiting what any rational person would consider a "bug" in the body of laws. It's just that these things only happen if they're slow enough, long-term enough, or subtle enough to get under the radar of the processes that prevent them in the short-term and blatant cases.

So that twinge I felt was probably justified. There won't be a bug in the law that gets me tossed in jail tomorrow for not endorsing my checks in 24-point Bodoni Regular; but on the other hand there may very well be bugs in the law that incent people do to stupid and/or damaging things in the long run. I hope they're doing careful code reviews up there in Washington...

What's the After Y2K! person going to be doing a couple of months from now, I wonder? Generalize that into at least five other questions! Extra credit: what industry's stock prices suffer the most if the world continues to function after 2000/01/01? And "suffer" compared to what?

AOL seems to have broken the hostname "users.aol.com" that I've always used for all links into my AOL-hosted site. I've been running around changing them all to "members.aol.com" instead, but if you find one that's still broken, let me know!

Microsoft typography site: free font downloads, in Windows and Mac formats, and some actually useful information.

Sunday, November 7, 1999

What I want to know is, now that George Lucas has got a whole generation or two of the West thinking of Anakin Skywalker as this cute brave plucky little kid, how's he going to segue benignly into the part where he grows up to wipe out entire planets, cause the deaths of tens of billions of people, destroy the Jedi, and so on? Just what's he trying to say, here?

Sunday Dinner: Fish and Kasha

This is a great dinner, because it doesn't have many ingredients. I don't like a meal with too many ingredients (did somebody yell "slut"?).

Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut two catfish fillets (about a pound) into bite-size chunks. Take two bowls, pour some milk into one, and some bread crumbs into the other. Dip each chunk of fish into the milk, and then into the crumbs, and then put it onto a baking dish (mine is clear glass or pyrex or something; I don't know if that matters). Cook 25-30 minutes, until tender. Do not overcook.

While the fish bakes, take about one cup whole-kernel kasha (a.k.a. buckwheat groats). We used to get this in five-pound sacks from Walnut Acres, but they don't seem to have it anymore. Now we buy two-cup boxes of Wolff's in the "funny furrin foods" section of the A&.P. You can just boil it in chicken broth for about 15 minutes, but for a fluffier result: in a small saucepan, melt two Tbs butter in two cups (one can) chicken broth, with a dash salt and a dash pepper. At the same time, heat the kasha in a frying pan or heavy skillet over high heat, until hot and toasty. Pour the boiling stuff carefully into the kasha, lower heat to simmer, and cook covered about 10 minutes, or until the liquid has vanished and it all seems sort of done.

Steam some broccoli. That is, cut off the parts of the stem you don't want to eat, and arrange for the top parts that you do want to eat to be exposed to steam (preferably in a steamer rather than just sitting in boiling water), until it feels right when poked with a fork. "Right" is entirely up to you.

While all that's going on, melt another two Tbs butter in another saucepan (yeah, you're going to have some dishes to wash, later). Dump in enough flour to mostly soak up the butter. Gradually add milk, a little at a time, stopping between each addition to stir until smooth. When you've got a good amount (use more milk for more but thinner sauce, less for less but thicker; it will thicken up somewhat when you add the cheese in any case), grate in some cheese (we like sharp Cheddar for this, but anything gratable that you like will work). Stir until the cheese is all melted.

Pour the cheese sauce over everything else, and eat.

The only hard part about this is getting everything to be done at about the same time. That, and cleaning up afterwards. But it's all very yummy! The little daughter eats everything but the broccoli. The little boy used to eat the kasha back when he was a baby, but won't anymore.

With all the going to museums and groceries and making Sunday dinner and doing a little writing project and all, I haven't done anything much more with glog. Next week, I guess! At least it's not keeping me up at night anymore.

One hack I'd like to do is to add at least a primitive subset of CGI support to my little Perl HTTP server, so I could test CGI scripts locally, when not connected to the Net. Sort of a meta-project. (The HTTP server isn't very likely to show up on the toys page, since it really belongs to IBM. But it's an easy and fun project; I encourage anyone interested in Perl and/or Web protocols to give it a try. Drop me a line if you're curious and would like a few pointers.)

Another mostly procedural, rather than contemplative, day obviously. And yes, it's entirely possible (in re yesterday's theory) that due to my advanced age I misclassify any bright-eyed female under the age of 30 as a "high-school girl". What you get here is my own private version of reality; I make no representation as to its objective accuracy!  *8)

Saturday, November 6, 1999

The little daughter had been wanting for some time to go up to the big Discovery Zone in Poughkeepsie, and today we decided to go to The Diner for lunch, and then drive up to DZ. The kids were good and patient on the long drive, hardly complaining at all (sitting in the back listening to the Monkees on their headphones while we listened to Paul McCartney or something else of M's in the front). We grownups had our books and the computer, and were looking forward to sitting in the grownup seats and watching the kids run about shouting for a few hours.

But when we got there, Discovery Zone was dark, and there was blue plastic sheeting all over the insides of the big glass doors. The "Socks must be worn to play!" signs were still up, but no one was inside. DZ was gone! We were sad.

I asked the pretty high-school girl next door in the book store what had happened to it (Theory: the world is actually run by pretty high-school girls), and she said she didn't know, and it was sad, wasn't it, and we might take the kids to the Children's Museum, "down the Mall on the left."

Despite, or maybe because of, being put together out of donations and odds and ends, and in that respect just about the opposite of DZ's prefab slickness, the Mid-Hudson Children's Museum was great fun, and we spent the rest of the day there. The kids dressed up like postmen and firemen (excuse me, letter carriers and fire-fighters), and made the ball go through the ball machine (and whooped and ran after it when it fell off the rails and went hurtling across the room), and voted in the toy voting booth, and fished for toy fish, and watched themselves on TV, and all like that there, until the place closed at five.

It's a brilliant idea, really; kids love to play grownup, so build a whole little town with a farm, a store, a library, a post-office, a fishing hole, and related Stuff, including dress-up clothes, and let the kids go wild. I'll bet you could package it and franchise it and make a fortune (my free entrepreneurial idea for the day; I hope everyone's taking notes!).

After the museum (which was staffed, by the way, almost entirely by pretty highschool girls) closed, we stopped by Media Play and spent entirely too much on software and books and calendars and stuff, and went home. I will restrain myself from ranting about what a pain in the arse it was to install and get mostly working the software we bought; see my outpourings on the subject the other day; suffice it to say that nothing we bought from from Humongous.

Would you know what I meant if I said that when you look at some people, they're Right There, right behind their eyes, whereas other people are much further back inside? I like people who are Right There, looking straight out at you.

The little daughter has had a couple of teachers who were Right There, and they're my favorites among the ones she's had so far; if I run into them in the halls when I'm visiting the school I try to stop for a minute and chat. The pretty high-school girls that run the world are pretty, I think, not because their faces are extra-symmetrical, or because they spend more on makeup, or because their bodies are a certain shape, but rather because they're Right There also, not having retreated back into themselves yet. I like being with little kids, also, at least partly because they're usually Right There, or at least if they're further back inside it's usually easy to get them to come out.

I wonder how Right There I am, viewed from outside. Men tend to be further in, in general. Or is that just the way I look at them myself?

I really need to go to sleep now...

Friday, November 5, 1999

Shouldn't they be called "aft" admirals?

So I'm helping out at the little boy's Kindergarten class this morning, helping this tiny bubbly pigtailed girl work on the letter "P", and all over sudden she says to me, in a highly confidential but still pretty loud voice,

You know what? I'm wearing a sports bra!
and she giggles wildly. Well, I manage not to fall on the floor laughing; we just giggle at each other for a second, and then I say, also confidentially, "I'm not!". She thinks that's pretty funny, too.

I imagine she was just kidding.

Soft-porn video this morning at the Health Club: Shania Twain's "You're Still the One". Sexy scantily-clad woman writhing erotically on the beach, intercut with sexy scantily-clad slab-muscled man taking a shower or something. But does he eventually go out to the beach and initiate a tryst? No! Turns out he's watching her on television. Just like that Jennifer Lopez meta-video the other day.

Now when a field vanishes into its own navel like this, becoming so fascinated with itself that it forgets to put in the trysts on the beach so to speak, it's a sure indication of decadence, of impending rot, of the beginning of the end. Are these videos, then, just symptoms of the decadence of popular culture in general (conveniently timed to coincide with the sort-of-Millenium)? Or are music videos experiencing their own more localized decadence, about to be replaced by...?

Live sex shows? Televangelists? Live televangelists having sex?

At the grocery store, they now have a section of the checkout area given over to self-service checkout lines. Four or six checkout stations, each with its own laser scanner and bag-rack, and resided over by one fourteen-year-old uniformed checkout person (well, not actually a checkout person, but you get my drift), who watches presumably to make sure you actually tell the scanner about all the stuff you're buying (like I'm sure he really cares a lot, you know?), and more importantly helping you out when the scanner gets confused.

Cool idea! I had a dream about it (minus the uniformed watcher) about five years ago. Should have filed a patent, clearly. Presumably the amount saved in checkouter salaries is more than the amount lost to conniving shoppers (probably pretty low in this particular respec'able neighborhood?) and increased equipment costs (we'll probably break the scanner more often than a trained cashier would?), or at least someone thinks it will be.

Generalize this to at least two other areas. Become wealthy.

The group logger stuff still isn't done enough to even put up on the toys page (I really need to write at least one page of documentation!); but it's still there to try out if you want to; the posting password is still "swordfish".

Wearable PC prototype! And finally a chance to plug a URL belonging to the good old employer...


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