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Thursday, April 5, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Went into the little boy's class to help out this morning; it was fun as usual. I taped together their little "Why I like Spring" drawings into a "quilt" that the teacher and I stapled up in the hallway. I walked around with them in the gym while they looked at the Science Fair projects. I walked around in the classroom helping and calming (attempting to calm) as they worked on their Rhyming Sheets and their Jelly Bean Science Sheets and their Jelly Bean Graphs (it was a Jelly Bean sort of day). I talked to the Principal a bit in the office on the way out, about the kids and the year and the curriculum, and the nurturing of young spirits.

There are so many hard questions, and the way to be wrong is so often to think that there's an answer.

Is it better for a kid's self-esteem to be an average kid in the Accelerated class, or to be one of the top-performing kids in a mixed-ability class? Is it worse for a kid's self-esteem to be an average kid in the least-Accelerated class, or to be one of the lowest-performing kids in a mixed-ability class?

The answer is almost certainly that one is best for some kids and one for others; that one is worst for some kids and one for others.

If a kid is bubbling over with energy, squirming in her seat, unable to listen to the teacher for more than three seconds at a time, should she be urged to focus, so all that energy comes under her control, or should she be put in a less directed setting, so her energies can flower and bloom? That depends on which kid she is.

In the ideal world, we'd have a good understanding of which kids need what, and we'd carefully evaluate each kid and make sure that every one gets put into a place that's just right for them. That'd be real expensive. I wonder, though, if everyone was seized with a mania for that this decade, and every millionaire gave hugely to the effort, and every thousandaire scrimped and saved to contribute to it, so that we could actually do it right for a generation, whether the people we'd get as a result would be so much saner, and healthier, and happier, that everyone would be willing and able to keep doing it, regardless of the cost.

Neil Gaiman's "Brief Lives", ordered from Amazon on a whim because of some intriguing quote seen on the Web. It's pretty good, a bit less profound than it thinks it is. And I have this personal quirk where if a character (and especially if all the characters) are pretty darned evil, in say casually destroying the lives of ordinary people unlucky enough to annoy them, I have a pretty hard time caring what happens to them as protagonists. But maybe that's just me.

Anyway, "Brief Lives" gets the "Sandman" series a mention in the Vasty Houses list, because all the labyrinths in the world are connected together, and you can walk into the hedge-maze at your local county fair, journey through other mazes in strange places and times, and eventually come to Destiny's garden.

Not that you'd want to.

In the same Amazon order was Norma Waterson's "Bright Shiny Morning", also ordered on a whim after hearing her daughter (or something) talking about how neat it was to grow up in a family of musicians. Unfortunately, ordering things on whims has its risks. While her voice is fine, the song selection perfectly okay, and her performance I'm sure perfectly authentic and/or what she was aiming at, the album does nothing for me. For some reason I feel like she's singing the words, but she's not all that interested. I don't hear her heart in the music.

Also in that order, Eno's "A Year with Swollen Appendices", which I tried to order awhile back, but Amazon said it turned out they couldn't get. I checked on it the other week, and it was once again listed as available, so I tried it again, and this time it came! It looks interesting. (Turns out it's the book that has swollen appendices; that clears up that little mystery.)

As you might guess from my describing all these other books, The Magus is still rather creeping along. I'm sure something will happen Soon...

A reader points us to this Miami Herald piece about the media recount, which concludes mostly that the election was really close, and depending on how you count the votes, either guy coulda won. Or, if the "butterfly" ballots had been better designed, Gore would have won handily (the Herald didn't say that, I said that; this is my "Republicans with time machines" theory).

God Hates Books:

Bender said the church had never held a book burning before but might try it again if doing so would "accomplish something positive toward expressing our love for God."

There were actually three April First RFCs this year; the Firewall Enhancement Protocol that I cited the other day, and also the Pi Digit Generation Protocol and (sure to become a classic) the Etymology of "Foo".

Smart people are such fun!

Wednesday, April 4, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Financial headline of the day: Top Of The News: Stocks Plunge For No Reason.

Please wait: on my old Win95 laptop, pressing fn-F3 causes the monitor to turn off. This is handy. On the new Win2K laptop that's replaced it, pressing fn-F3 causes a Windows popup to appear saying "Please wait... Preparing to turn off monitor", and then after a pause the monitor turns off. Why does the operating system have to know that I'm turing the monitor off? Probably so it can send little "about to turn off the monitor" messages to all running programs, so that the system can hang mysteriously if they fail to reply.

(OK, OK, I'll try to cut down the Windows bashing a bit.)

Paving dreamland: In my dreams there's this little area, somewhere outside a big surreal city full of confusing highways, where one badly-maintained road runs to the bottom of a hill and vanishes into the weeds, and a dirt road winds off up the hill. Along the road are a number of houses, in states of dilapidation ranging from lived-in to falling-down, and some odd little stores selling strange collections of food and books and whatnot, with often silent or irascible storekeepers. A little ways up the dirt road is an artist's studio or collective or shack or whatever, and further back up the hill / on the mountain are a few more scattered artists, or hermits, or vaguely-known others; you probably don't want to go up there unless a dream really requires it.

But anyway last night, in my dream, I was passing by that area, probably on one of the city's tortuous highways, and there was a housing development going up along and around the run-down little road under the hill. Tiny pastel-colored houses, brand-new and all identical, had been installed between the creaky old wooden houses; shells of gas stations and convenience stores under construction dotted among them; some of the former falling-down stores had been shored up and furbished and made into disturbing hybrid things, old fragrant wood mated to new shiny plastic.

Later on (in the dream) I was telling people about it and bemoaning it, and I called the new structures "these awful Lego things", and then it occurred to me (in the dream) that they had in fact been made of Lego.

I wonder if this means I'll never go back to the old version of that road? I hope I will; fortunately, in dreams this sort of thing is reversible.

All your brand are belong to us.

"Playing fair -- the evolution of morals" (New Scientist article on studies of the variation in concepts of fairness across different societies; worth a look.)

Random URLs of the day: LightHouse.com ("You have much to learn in the way of manners"), and Philosophic.com (IE apparently required; no, I have no idea what's going on there either).

Tuesday, April 3, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

I woke up this morning with a nosebleed, and with the chorus of "The Good Reuben James" stuck in my head. Blearggh!

What were their names,
  tell me, what were their names?
Did you have a friend on the Good Reuben James?

The nosebleed woke me up from a vivid and detailed dream in which our group here at work was being merged with the Help Desk. Talk about a nightmare.

Speaking of nightmares, there've been even more Windows and IE security holes found lately. See the list of recent security bulletins, and if you use Windows make sure you've applied the relevant Critical Security Updates. Any piece of email read in IE or Outlook or anything else that uses the IE control to render HTML can cause your machine to do anything the sender wants.

Of course the Microsoft pages only tend to list the holes for which they have patches. The BUGTRAQ mailing list and places like Georgi Guninski's site often list holes that are known but not yet patched. For instance, the ScriptControl ActiveX control can be used by any page you visit with IE, to read any file on your system (and quite likely to do other nefarious things). This is yet another case of an ActiveX control that says "don't worry, I'm perfectly safe, no need to warn the user when someone wants to call me", and then offers functions that no untrusted party should be able to call. Sigh!

Also, a web page can tell IE to visit and read from random other servers, especially if they're running IIS 5.0.

Guninski has started to include a nice tagline on this sort of alert:

Workaround: To solve this particular issue disable Active Scripting, though I do not recommend using IE for browsing the Internet because this is dangerous.

Which is why I get so sad when I hear things like "The browser wars are over, and Microsoft won."

Lots of links sitting around in the "look at these" file; I added a zillion or two culling through mail offline while I was sick.

Anti-piracy plans for hardware fail. (What does it mean that "piracy" and "privacy" are spelled so similar?)

Meta cleverness of the day:

I am also posting this to my online site so that I can avoid talking about the fact that I am posting things to my online site rather than talking about them.

So how do you know Mr. Gates didn't intentionally burst the Bubble?

RFC 3093: Firewall Enhancement Protocol.

We wish to thank the many Firewall vendors who have supported our work to re-enable the innovation that made the Internet great, without giving up the cellophane fig leaf of security that a Firewall provides.

Amusing Rob Rosenberger rant about a Wall Street Journal story about anti-virus companies giving virus samples to China.

The ICQ Protocol Site, including links to sites with documentation on other messaging protocols (AOL IM, Jabber, etc). In case you've ever wondered what ICQ and friends are doing down at the bit level.

Internic Domain Hijacking -- It Happens. Can someone take over your domain name by just sending email to the registrar?

Nearlife.com, creators of pretend-living computer stuff, including the Virtual Fish Tank where you can create your own fish and watch them swim around and be eaten by the shark (but you have to "create an account" and "log in" first, and that's kind of boring).

Windows April 1 2001 bug: like Y2K, only smaller. Anyone notice anything on Sunday?

From The Magnificent Melting Object, the TotL Belief Assistant.

GlobalGasm.com: don't think of it as "just" an orgasm... think of it as your role in a huge global release.

Web Mystery: the link I gave the other day for the Foxtrot "All Your Base" comic only seems to work about half the time (this is the link). Why is that? If it doesn't work at all for you, try goint to the root and going to the page for the March 12th comic in the obvious way. Does it work now?

A curious reader writes:

are u gay

Not notably; slightly cheerful, but mostly abstracted at the moment. Ha ha ha ha ha! Not exclusive-androphilic, either, if that's what you meant; I'm in a very nice committed monogamous relationship with a woman. If I weren't, who knows? Categories like "gay" and "straight" are annoying; it's like you have to choose between vanilla and strawberry ice cream for the rest of your life. What a silly idea!

Another reader points us at Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. I seem to recall this made the rounds awhile back, but worth noting just the same. How sad that other people have this problem. *8)

Tons of links and reader feedback, and even Nomic moves, queued up. Later!

Monday, April 2, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Our theme these days seems to be Books. A good theme, all told.

Oh and yeah I'm feeling pretty much entirely recovered, thanks! I get the same fever-thing a couple or three times a year, and it never lasts long.

So now having read two Murakami novels in quick succession I thought I'd try something slightly else; being still in the mood for semi-serious fiction (i.e. no aliens, talking computers, magic swords, or Britney Spears) and having mentioned John Fowles in passing in the log, I pulled the first Fowles thing from the to-read piles: a somewhat beaten-up used-book copy of the Magus.

(Rather than the scowling faces on the cover of Amazon's edition, our copy features a long-horned black goat with a red candle on top of its head, looming over an attractive young woman who lies supine (one knee bent and everything) on a cloth-covered table, clothed as far as we can tell only in a blob of white fuzziness. The little boy thought it was an interesting picture.)

Considering that according to the back cover this is a "new version" of the book, in which "the pace moves more relentlessly", very little has actually happened in the first hundred and thirty pages, but some nice scenes have been set, and some nice concepts sniffed at. Also, I have to admit, I've been enjoying reading M some of the more pretentious passages aloud.

It was an effort not to cry tears of self-pity. My face set into a stiff mask, like that of an acroterion.

I didn't realize that pedestals generally wore masks! *8) He should have just written "statue", or left the clause out altogether; but then we wouldn't have seen his grasp of obscure architectural terms.

The sea and the mountains floated in the steady evening sunshine. It was all peace, elements and void, golden air and mute blue distances, like a Claude.

Either he wants us to know that he's on first-name terms with Monet, or there's some painter whose last name is Claude that Fowles wants us to know he's heard of. Silly boy.

It'd be fun to write like this. "The sea was plorgefrandic, feorial, almost dyniambous; like something by Montelbarrow, or my Aunt Louise."

I should feel guilty for taking such superficial pleasure in the sillinesses of the book, but I will justify myself with some (less silly) words taken from a bit further on:

He picked up a book and slapped the dust off it. "Why should I struggle through hundreds of pages of fabrication to reach half a dozen very little truths?"

"For fun?"

So there we are.

Sunday, April 1, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

So over the weekend I finished Murakami's "Wind-up Bird Chronicle". It was good also; still wild and surreal in places, but without the cartoonishness that bothered me in "Hard-boiled Wonderland". Odd and memorable, thought-provoking.

Good as it was, I'm slightly frustrated to think that it could have been better. Again I have the feeling that Murakami was sometimes writing off the top of his head without necessarily knowing where he was going. One pair of rather major characters vanish abruptly from the book, are hardly mentioned again, but a new pair appear almost immediately, filling almost the same narrative niche; I can't help but suspect that the author changed his mind about some vital feature of these two, and rather than go back and alter the first half of the book to match his new idea of them, he simply dumped the old version and plunked in the new at the point where his vision changed.

Scenes and characters and plot elements appear that are never connected to the main tale. Sometimes these fragmentary objects are worthy in themselves, savorable as short stories floating autonomously within the novel (the zoo animals, the heart buried at the roots of the tree); other times they feel like vestiges that a good editing would have removed (the pointless thug, the woman leaping naked onto the table).

On the other hand, I may just not have thought about the book enough yet. It could be that all these elements will weave themselves together in my mind, not necessarily into a cohesive plot, but rather into a cohesive effect, that the book could not have accomplished without each of them. Or perhaps that their very fragmentation is key to the effect, another level up. Is that my criterion for a book being good? That it wouldn't have been the same, or would have been diminished, without each of its elements? I guess it is, or an important part of it.

In any case, this was a very good book, and the time reading it well spent. These comments are thoughts on the work of a gifted creator, not suggestions that his gift is lacking.

The book also reminds me of an old theory of mine (which I could'a sworn I'd mentioned here before but can't find any record of) about why some men learn to draw. They do it, the theory says, so that they can draw pictures of women with attractive secondary sexual characteristics, and/or in sexually suggestive circumstances. Evidence for this theory is easy to come by. *8)

There's clearly a version of this theory that applies to writing as well. It applies with blinding obviousness to certain writers, only slightly less obviously to certain others.

Murakami brings the theory to mind because both of his novels that I've read so far are in the first person, and every female character the narrator encounters in either one has either had sex with him in the past, wants to have sex with him in the present, offers to have sex with him in the future, wants to talk to him about sex, or at the very least wants him to close his eyes and relax while she touches him and whispers warmly into his ear.

Can't say I blame him (them) really.

How many stories are not about love?

Friday, March 30, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

M read Haruki Murakami's "Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World", and she said I might like it. So sitting here convalescing, I read it.

It was odd and uneven, but I enjoyed it. A bit too over the top at times, a little cartoonish, but that's what happens when you take risks. Now and then, especially at the beginning but not only at the beginning, I had the feeling that he was just putting down words without any back-story, without knowing what was actually going to happen, and that he hadn't bothered (intentionally or not) to go back later on and make everything fit together right. But that's not entirely unforgivable.

To the extent that it tries to be cyberpunk SF, it's unsatisfying; the stuff about encryption and neurophysiology is too obviously just some big words strung together at random, and unconvincing analogies. But that's not the important part of the story, really. Mostly it's a lucid and surreal tale about consciousness and time. Good stuff.

Then M and I went around and found all the Marukami books in the house that she's read, so I can read more if I want to. Turns out we have six of his novels. Since it was M buying them, we don't have his book of short stories "The Elephant Vanishes". I like short stories myself; so that's one more for the wishlist. In the meantime, I've just started "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle".

I'm still sick, still crawling with unauthorized replicators, still home from work and holed up in the tiny guest room with cold medicine and books and the laptop. I think I'm feeling somewhat better though. More energy than yesterday.

"Uruguayan President Becomes First Head of State to Call for Legalization of Drugs: Story Ignored by US Press" (Link from Wood's Lot.)

Current and Future Ph.D. Output Will Not Satisfy Demand for Faculty.

And finally the meme goes even further mainstream. Has it outlived its usefulness?


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