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Thursday, January 11, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Is it proper, allowed, required, to mourn, upon awakening, the death of the person you were yesterday? The compensation is, of course, that you can at the same time celebrate a birth.

I dunno if I'm supposed to tell anyone, but if you listen to hour one of Science Friday tomorrow (two to three pee-em Eastern whatever it is now time), you might hear me saying things. If we don't get cancelled or bumped or something. More fame!

Should the government of New Rochelle, New York be allowed to steal lots of privately owned real estate in order to give it to IKEA? I tend to think not, but maybe I'm a weirdo.

I don't believe there is anything intrinsically bad about an integrated community with an existing spiritual, economic and social foundation. So not everyone in City Park has a two-car garage. Does that mean that we can take away their houses and pave over their land?
Condemnation for retail purposes is a gross abuse of the power of government, and we need to go to Albany to take away this terrible power. This kind of discretion -- to destroy an existing neighborhood and give the land to a corporation -- is contrary to the American Dream, and I beg New Rochelle not to use it.

The American Library Association doesn't like the DMCA, either. And who could be more admirable than the ALA?

I can't decide what to think about all this ICANN political stuff. Either it's really important, because after all ICANN has a lot to do with the future of the Net and I live a big chunk of my life on the Net; or it's completely unimportant because ICANN is just a bunch of bureaucrats busily cramming themselves into their own navels, and if they screw up the Net will just route around them. Whaddya think?

Jimmy Carter said on NPR (RealAudio, text summary) that if his election-oversight folks had been asked to go in and oversee elections in a foreign country that had "similar election standards and policies" to Florida's, they would have refused to participate.

Now this bothers me! I have a great deal of respect for Carter, but I have a real hard time believing that Florida's election standards and policies are significantly worse than the average third-world country. And if they really were, I'd think Carter would be doing more to fix them than just sort of sighing on the radio. He sounds awfully glib in the interview; I have the feeling he just got sort of carried away in criticizing the Florida election. But if anyone has any actual hard data on (say) the margin of error expected in the typical election in the U.S. and/or the third world, I'd love to see it.

Note to self: before open-sourcing any piece of software in which I've included an undocumented back-door account, remove said account. Otherwise it can be real embarassing.

Pithy quote of the day:

things congeal from clouds of language

from the December 12 2000 Notes and Recommendations of Red Rock Eaters. The whole issue is worth reading. He even talks about security a bit:

I applaud the efforts of people like Richard Smith who go around poking holes in the systems we have now. The next step, it seems to me, is spelling out the change agenda for the transformation to the systems we should have instead.

Which is in fact exactly what I ought to be doing, if I weren't spending all my time answering mail, writing in weblogs, and so on.

Web search story of the day: yesterday I remembered a very funny parable I'd read years ago, in which a couple comes to the narrator's door and urges him to join them in kissing [someone]'s ass. If you do, they say, then [someone] will reward you richly. But only after you leave town. And no one who leaves town is allowed to come back, or communicate with anyone in town.

Now I couldn't remember [someone]'s name; I thought it was "Nick", but searching on "kiss nick's ass" got nothing relevant (amusing, maybe, but not relevant). Not expecting any very good result, I searched on "kiss ass 'leave town'", and lo and behold the very first hit was a fun set of changes rung on the original piece, with of course a pointer to the original piece itself. (Turns out the guy's name is Hank, not Nick.)

This Jim Huber guy turns out to be quite a character; lots of the stuff on his site, and his other site, are good fun, as well as food for thought.

Take me to the river!

Making the rounds: How To Make A Talking Fish Say What You Want It To.

Coming Soon

1.An MPEG video of the Bass saying "pork!".

Tired of 2000 U. S. Prexy Election stuff? Well, too bad! *8)

Common wisdom says that when there was a close Presidential race in 1960, good old Dick Nixon, for the good of the country, told his people not to challenge the results. Well, it turns out that in fact Nixon hotly contested the election results, up to the last possible instant:

Q: How long did it last?

DG: Well into December and certainly up until the time that the Electoral College met. New Jersey stopped its recount on December 1 or 2. Hawaii didn't name its electors until after the Electoral College met on the 19th of December. In other words, in Hawaii's case, the recount Extended past the date the Electoral College met. Ironically, Hawaii went the opposite way -- from Nixon to Kennedy. Pierre Salinger, who was Kennedy's press secretary, is quoted in the New York Times on December 30, pointing out that Republicans asked for all these recounts and didn't win anything as a result, while the Democrats asked for just one recount and won it.

I'll try to have fewer random links and more secrets of the universe in later days; promise! (Or maybe I'll just tell you what I bought with all my Amazon gift certificates from Christmas.) (Is this irony?)

On the speakers: The Fantasticks.

Leave the wall! Remember, you must always leave the wall.

Wednesday, January 10, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Lots of good responses on Irony; obviously lots of people have thought about this more deeply than I have!

Beth Roberts sends a copy of a David Foster Wallace essay on fiction and television and irony from 1990. Very interesting reading! (Also 42 pages long, and I don't know of an online copy.) E Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction

Another reader writes, perhaps ironically:

Irony. Well, let's see. The best thing I ever gave my mom was a decorated sprinkler bottle. Eventually the metal cap rusted, but by then our family was largely into permanent press clothing.

r m woods writes very usefully:

I enjoyed your ruminations about irony today.

In that context, a couple of quotes for you:

"as philosophy begins with doubt, so also that life which may be called worthy of man begins with irony." -- Ernst Cassirer

"irony was inadequate and always would be inadequate, that it was only a narcotic for the priveleged." -- Heinrich Boll - Billiards at Half-Past Nine

You might also be interested in Kierkegaard's masters thesis, "Concept Of Irony, With Continual Reference To Socrates" I haven't been able to find an on-line translation.

I posted this: The importance of being earnest is being realized once again, at wood s lot.

Another reader, perhaps named "Brett", writes:

Socratic irony: simulated ignorance. Works very well with children. You get them to explain something, and then ask them whether fact 'A' follows on from that, where fact 'A' is both logically consistent with what they said, and obviously absurd even to a child. When they say "nooooooo!", you then say "but you said" and demonstrate why 'A' follows from what they said. They revise their statement, and so the gentle art of logic is taught in an entertaining environment. Children in general will also say, "I like uncle Brett -- he's silly" of you, if my experience is anything to go by.

And further:

Actually, speaking of irony, I'm reminded of the movie "Roxanne" in which Daryl Hannah makes a sarcastic/ironic remark which Steve Martin pretends to take seriously. Then when Hannah explains that she was being ironic, Martin employs a form of Socratic irony, pretending that he didn't know, followed by a subtly ironic explanation of why nobody uses irony in those parts. Multiple levels of irony -- gotta love that.

Ray Davis, who has said various insightful things about irony, draws my attention to a more nuanced kind of irony, irony as a way to acknowledge and deal with the silliness of the stuff that you're saying (because you're sophisticated enough to see that it's silly in some sense), while still being entirely earnest about it (in that you do in fact live, or intend to live, by the words and principles that you can't help but noticing are in some sense silly, or naive, or hopelessly romantic).

I'm probably misstating his notion entirely here, as we're still exchanging email about it. *8) Maybe I'll inspire him to talk about irony when he Resumes Normal Publication...

Links and stuff:

Gems from the reflog: from a secret weblog which wonders if anyone will ever read it, to Spinnwebe (or perhaps "Brainshots"), a nice literate weblog, to Zompist.com, "The Metaverse", a very rich and smart and random site that includes a detailed fictional world, a very funny sort-of-fake phrasebook ("Do all your maids smoke?"), and all sortsa other stuff. Well worth a visit.

John Ashcroft

So I now regret being so sanguine about the Presidential election back in October. OK, so me and mine will probably not do badly under a Bush presidency, but boy do I not want this guy to be Attorney General!

In sum, Ashcrofts record in the Senate is not one that will, in the words of Archibald Cox, "strengthen confidence" in the fairness of the administration of law. To the contrary, it is a record of insensitivity toward those who most need the protections of the law, a record that leads inexorably to the conclusion that John Ashcroft should not be confirmed as Attorney General of the United States.

The Human Rights Campaign doesn't like him either. I actually agree with some of his opinions (the more "libertarian" ones, I suppose), but I disagree with him on the most important stuff, and in particular on the stuff that he'd be most involved with as The Nation's Lawyer. So phooey on him.

Some of the better urban legends are actually true!

From Barry Hayes and otherwise widely logged: NSA Abandons Wondrous Stuff:

What is inside that giant geodesic dome that looks like a golf ball? Where do the tunnels snaking beneath the 202-acre site lead? Why are the rugs welded to the floors of the windowless buildings?
The NSA abandoned the site to the U.S. Forest Service five years ago, leaving behind a deserted minicity in the middle of nowhere. Now, some of the secrets are being revealed.

There is in fact an official Lego Studios site. I dunno why Google doesn't find it, but I must blush with shame at not having tried the obvious URL!

An interesting set of thoughts about and history of Unitarian Universalism (along with some comments on the relationship between the Unitarian Universalist Service Committe and the CIA; something I'd never heard of before, and that I have no clue at the moment where to put on the bogosity scale; isn't the Web wonderful?).

A Mornington Crescent Hub:

Mornington Crescent is a strategy game played on the London Underground map, the aim being to move to Mornington Crescent. So far, so much like any other game.

But then, not every game has a 125 volumne rulebook; few games have (literally) warring standards bodies; and no other game has an oral tradition stretching back to pre-Pharaonic Egypt.

Say, after we finish this game of Nomic, maybe we can play some Mornington Crescent!

Tuesday, January 9, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Isn't it ironic,
  don't you think?
A little too ironic,
  yeah I really do think.  --

It's been pointed out here and there that that song isn't really about irony (more like "tragedy" or "bad luck"). So what is irony? What does it do? How does it fit into life?

I'm actually something of an Alanis fan myself; I'm just not sure she understands irony.

The kind of irony Ms. Morissette was probably aiming at is something like situational irony: roughly "perverse coincidence". The poor fellow killed due to unsafe forklift operation while making a forklift safety video will probably do as a canonical example of that.

You get dramatic irony when a character in a drama (a play, a narrative, a thing) doesn't know something that someone else (that, in particular, the viewer / audience / reader) does know. Dramatic irony makes sitcoms unbearably painful to watch, but skillfully used it makes stories richer. Steve faults Quills for missing an opportunity for dramatic irony, a chance to add layers of meaning to the action by playing the character's ignorance off against our knowledge (and, ideally, reminding us of our own frequent ignorance).

Irony as a mode of speech is something rather else (something almost entirely else, in fact; it's kinda strange that all these meanings live in the same word). An ironic comment is one that isn't meant straightforwardly; like a lie, except without the intent to deceive. When I described my digital movie of a jerkily spinning Mickey Mouse alarm clock on Friday as a breathtaking work of cinematic genius, I was speaking ironically.

Ironic speech is, at best, more than just sarcasm. When I said how wonderful it is that technology allows us to create and share such marvelous content, I was saying (or at least suggesting) two things at once: that it really is cool that we can create and share good stuff (the straightforward meaning of the words), but also that it's even easier to create and share mediocre stuff (the ironic force of the words). When Steve (Steve again?) talks about alien food symbols, he doesn't (well, we'll assume for the time being that he doesn't) actually think that the little symbols on food containers were put there by aliens; but by talking as though he did, talking ironically, he can amuse us and at the same time create a bit of conceptual art about the complexity of a society where our very foodstuffs carry incomprehensible symbols.

The opposite of "ironic" in this sense is something like "earnest". Something said in earnest is not ironic. My own irony-free zone, chessfamily.org, is quite earnest.

Much of the Web is dripping with irony. A site that calls itself suck.com and still expects visitors, must be employing irony. Sites like suck.com, McSweeney's, Uber.nu, and the Brunching Shuttlecocks use irony to entertain and, well, to do whatever else it is that they're doing...

Every day a little sting
 In the heart and in the head,
  Every move and every breath
   (And you hardly feel a thing)
    Brings a perfect little death.  --

So irony can enrich the meaning of discourse. But irony can also drain the meaning out of things, detach us from narratives that might otherwise be useful, and generally muck things up.

Irony ran rampant on USian television in the 1990's, for instance; if a character on a primetime comedy (and what wasn't comedy?) said something apparently heartfelt, apparently earnest and virtuous and well-meant, the statement would inevitably be followed up by a punch line that completely diffused (and/or defused) the straightforward meaning.

If two characters are sitting at a bar, and one gives a thirty-second monologue about the sanctity of friendship and how wonderful it is to have someone who will always listen to you, the other will invariably turn to him afterward and say "Sorry, did you say something?" If a character in Wayne's World says anything remotely sensible or kind, it will immediately be followed with gleeful cries of "Not!!".

Irony is, in principle, value-neutral. It is just as ironic for an Ethical Culture speaker to end his talk by saying "and now I hope we'll all go out and break a few windshields on the way home: NOT!" as it is for a sitcom character to say "this is a night that I'll always remember; what day is it again?". But of course the latter is common, the former rare to non-existent.

We admire ourselves for our well-developed sense of irony. Commercial culture panders to this, encourages it, fosters it, by commercials that are themselves ironic. They say absurd things about the product, in a mode that says "we know that you know that we're being ironic here; you're sophisticated because you get the joke." Joe Isuzu tells lies about the cars he's advertising, and the captions tell us that he's lying. Some chewing gum runs ads showing people with obviously false mats of hair on their backs, and (pretends to) warn us against the product. The warning is as obviously false as the hair, and again the intent is to flatter us: "you're too sophisticated to be taken in by straightforward appeals to buy the product, so instead we'll amuse you with multiple levels of irony".

When I speak ironically, my actual meaning is hard to pin down; I can't be held responsible for it. Since the ability to understand irony is a mark of sophistication, any objection to irony or any attempt to make explicit its subtler messages can be dismissed as crass, as primitive, as in bad taste. "So are you saying that friendship isn't important?" "Oh, don't be ridiculous, it was just a joke."

Irony, as practiced by the popular culture that I'm currently demonizing (inspect that last phrase for irony) provides a way for the viewer to detach from uncomfortable or inconvenient meaning. Irony mocks earnestness. Irony gives us a simple and pleasurable way to react to suggestions that we ought to be good, that we ought to improve ourselves or the world, that we out to deepen our understanding. We can assume the statement was made ironically, or make it ironic in retrospect by tacking on a wisecrack. If we've seen enough of the right TV shows, we can do it instinctively, we will do it without thinking. Certain statements, certain kinds of statements, can be, are, drained entirely of meaning by this imposition of, assumption of, irony.

I'm probably getting a bit carried away; let's take it to a further extreme. Properly trained, we can and will diffuse (defuse) statements that try to lead us in uncomfortable or unfamiliar directions, that suggest that we ought to be doing or thinking or living something else. Something else other than what? What is the default behavior, the ground state, of popular commercial culture?


Irony, as it occurs in commercial culture, is a device used to train the populace to ignore the content of any message that might distract them from the activity of purchasing consumer goods.

So now you know. (Am I being ironic? Not very, really.)

Monday, January 8, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

There's a half-baked essay about Irony that I want to write, but it'll have to wait for another day. Remind me if I forget?

The Top 10 Privacy Stories of 2000

Giant asteroid just misses Earth:

If the object, nicknamed 2000 YA, had hit the earth, it would have made "a real mess of a city like London", Robin Scagell, vice-president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, said.

Erratum of the Day:

P. 54.
Hermit or Rustic lists Intolerance, Odious Personal Habits, and Paranoia under Common Advantages. Move them to Common Disadvantages.

Oh, I dunno about that! (from here)

A very clever fellow describes how to catalog your book collection with a UPC scanner. What a good idea! Sounds like one of those very good ideas I'll never actually get around to doing.

More evidence that Web filtering software is a Bad Thing.

I couldn't see a good reason for why SmartFilter blacklisted http://www.climbingmedia.com - "Words and Images of Climbing from around the world". But the references to Extreme Rock seem as good an explanation as anything.

Tell me something... (links mine)

You didn't say "Simon says."

I liked her first couple of stories in Interpreter of Maladies. Then either they weren't as good or I got tired of them or something. But try the first couple.

I'd say I enjoyed pretty much the whole book. The stories do have a limited number of themes and settings; reading them all in sequence gave me almost the feeling of a loosely-wrought novel.

What's this babbling that implies it is somehow not ideal to communicate with other people via digital devices? I mean, really! First of all, people aren't inherently worth the effort; digital things are much more interesting as conversational partners. If one must communicate with meat, it seems somehow ... unsanitary to do it in close proximity. Don't you think?

In the future, when all our devices know where we are, the Web will be even more useful!

Speaking of essays about irony...

You finked out on the subject of midochlorians. I think you owe us a lengthy explanation, both of your views and of your desire not to discuss them.

*8) I won't be lengthy, because I have nothing of great import to say. I'm just disappointed that "the Force" in the Star Wars tale went from being a mysterious spiritual Tao-like thing that one mastered by meditation and inward work, to being some quasi-physical thing that one can master if and only if one has an unusually high concentration of little symbiotic whatevers in one's bloodstream.

Darth Pikachu

I went "phhht!" when this idea first turned up in an aftermarket Star Wars novel I accidentally read, where there were these odd creatures that were "immune to the Force" (so much for the Force as the Root of All Being). I was disappointed to see the same dumbness in the movies themselves.

Thanks to those readers who actually trusted me with their apparently genuine first and last names last week; I'm flattered! We also heard from a "Steven", a "camera", a "Your Name", and these more prolix entities:

The One Whose Responses Never Appear in the Log

Well, OK, it's Dami... WAIT! You're trying to trick me aren't you? I almost fell for that one...

I'll give you a hint -- it begins with the letter 'E' and ends with the letter 'E' and has nothing but E's in between.

Do you mean my real name? As if this question were asked in the nature of a Zen Koan?

the edgy hammock queen

These require no comment from me (although I can't help expressing my admiration for "edgy hammock queen"). I have the best readers!

I still owe you: Nomic moves, Irony, and the amorphous entity in the trees. Among other things.

Friday, January 5, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

As I mentioned last week, one of the kids' big Christmas presents was Lego Studio (for which, oddly, I couldn't find an Official Site in English). As promised, here is the breathtaking work of cinematic genius (250K mpeg) that I produced while figuring out how single-frame animation worked. Isn't it marvelous how modern technology allows the creation and sharing of such marvelous content?

Two new areas on the odd and fantabulous Lileks site: Curious Lucre (scans and insults of various foreign currencies, and the new home of the classic Bureau of Corporate Allegory), and the Comics (scans of obscure old comics, with inimitable Lileks commentary). (A few broken links, but not enough to interfere with your browsing pleasure.)

Did everyone else already know that Deja.com has sold off its titanically uninteresting "ratings and shopping" function, and gone back to being a Usenet archive? I'm not sure if this is good or bad; the "old" (before May 1999) data is still "temporarily" unavailable...

With all my enthusiasm for the Codex Seraphinianus, I'm surprised I've never mentioned the Voynich manuscript. Anyway, now I have! Here's a domain devoted to it, including a few images and various links to other Voynich sites.

World's smallest wineglass!

In a careless moment in a discussion group with lots of clued people in it, I lamented how rarely anything interesting shows up after the credits on movies on video. Other list members instantly demonstrated that I just don't watch very many movies, by pointing out that this happens all the time. There's even a section on the Internet Movie DataBase about odd stuff in and around credits. Unfortunately, they aren't ranked by interest-level; most of them are pretty dull.

Someone else who does odd drawings. (Ref my odd drawings).

Here's a site that lists all the vanity automobile license plates in use in Massachusetts. Isn't information wonderful?

Great quote from the 2000/12/15 CRYPTO-GRAM:

A secure Internet voting system is theoretically possible, but it would be the first secure networked application *ever created* in the history of computers.

(The entire issue is worth reading, as always.)


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