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Wednesday, January 22, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

For some reason I keep thinking it's Thursday today. Which is sort of odd, as I wouldn't normally think that Thursday had a particular feel, different from Wednesday, that I could keep mistakenly feeling. I can see it feeling like Monday, or Friday. But Thursday?

On yesterday's musings on cities, one agreeable reader writes:

I lived in NYC for 2 years in the early '80s. It was an amazing experience. I recommend it before the next time around.

It's too late to live in New York City in my youth this time around, anyway. I plan to live in this here house, or a house very much like it, for quite a long time to come, this time around. That's the trouble (well, one of the troubles): various of the things that I want to do in life take most of a lifetime to do.

Another reader writes less agreeably:

Jeez Louise, White Plains a city? Try NYC, Chicago, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, LA, Seattle, SanFrancisco ...anywhere but White Plains - it ain't even a village let alone a city. I know you live in the monied surburbs of NYC sprawl (LM) but I wouldn't have thought that you had lost the meaning of city.

White Plains certainly thinks of itself as a city. And it was city enough to spark and center those musings. Maybe, in fact, I was actually musing about small cities, rather than about large ones. Although I imagine or expect that there are places in any of the renormous cities you mention where the little boy and I could have had pretty much the same experiences.

Some of the input boxes in back issues of the log seem to attract a steady stream of traffic. Pages that contain lists of recent search terms used to find pages of the log are particularly susceptible to this; a nice self-fulfilling prophecy (or somat). This page from last May for instance, has had these little things typed into its input box in the last several weeks:

pictures of iris chacon
pictures of iris chacon
pictures of women giving brith
iris chacon
iris chacon
comady and tragedy
irs chacon
bread making
iris chacon

Not much iris chacon in that, is there?

Back last September sometime, I asked "Then what will happen?", and here's what you said:

You're asking the wrong questions
One by one, without any fuss, the stars will be going out.
well, how about a big explosion?
you will say "Har har har har har har!
It depends.
How to hack a yahoo private webcam
tanya harding
yahoo webcam hack
Jamais vu!

Some of which are comments on or alusions to entries from back in September, or html typos which are long since fixed. But of course that's part of the fun.

And more extendedly, "Then what will happen?":

Then you will take law classes at Columbia, which is close to you, for some value of "close."

Clark will be revealed to have not been paying attention. Adam and Bob will cluck, partly in a subconscious desire to shame Clark, who seems only to have come to the meeting to hide out, rather than help out. Clark will believe himself successful in his transparent duplicity. Just then, Dick will enter the room and pronouce all four of them to be chickens.

Oh no! Yikes! It's a Style thing! The serif-stolen huge font has somehow decided it is Normal Text, infecting even previous, sensibly-fomatted entries. Gollywhackers! Is this Form Infects Content? Bring back the days of what you see is what you blit!

Then, after the Error (gasp) the fond changes. The serifs fall away, but the characters loom larger in apparent compensation, menacing.

Which also.

And most recently, a reader who is bothered writes to tell me:

I am bothered that our words for rotational movement (clockwise, counterclockwise) are so awkward that our people substitute words for translational movement (right, left)

Just in Photoshop Elements today, in fact, I wanted to rotate an image counterclockwise (widdershins), and had to stop and think for a moment when I found that the rotation menu would only let me rotate it "left" or "right". For some reason it's universally obvious that the name of the rotation is the name of the direction that the top of the object goes.

Very odd.

(By the way, isn't there a word like "Winwiddershins" that means "clockwise"? I could have sworn there was, but the Web doesn't think so.)

From gorjuss, two great two-word dot orgs: Bare Witness (nude people for peace), and Recycle Concress (which is unfortunately about making the U.S. Congress recycle more of their waste products, not about recycling the actual Congressthings themselves).

It's not fair that I don't have time to thoroughly read and think about stuff like this. (Hm, maybe if I played Alpha Centauri a little less...)

The BodyAndSoul weblog has a good entry pointing to some recent debunking of the idea of "closure", especially as it relates to the effects on victims of the punishment of criminals. I've never entirely bought the notion of "closure", and it's good to see it being looked into.

And finally, enigmatic comments in some recent CVS checkin messages around here led me to a bunch of Red Dwarf scripts (starting with this one), from which I have concluded that that must really be a Very Very Strange Television Programme. Ian says maybe someday he'll lend me the DVDs.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

I will remember you.
Your silhouette will charge the view
Of distance atmosphere.
Call it morning driving thru the sound
  and even in the valley...

Ah, that was real music. Not like this modern stuff.

On the speakers: as you may have guessed, Fragile. Bought along with Baez Sings Dylan in a fit of nostalgia, using Columbia House Bonus Points. (I'm not sure why we have any Columbia House Bonus Points; although we belong to the Music Club, we don't generally buy anything, because the shipping and handling costs are so high. I guess we must have bought a few things, though.)

On Saturday's musings about the dangers of interactivity, a reader writes:

Interactivity - It's part of a 'curiousness' trait, I think, that and a challenge and an external stimulus; had we not been attracted to try things again, to rise to challenges and to focus on external events, we would be stuck doing the same thing, have never tried new ways of doing things or insular and isolationist. Obviously these aren't as strong an influence as that of grabbing sweet things when they appear, but consider that you're in a situation where you're safe, you've got your sweet things, you've got your animal fat, you've got your external stimulus (um, I'm using that to mean 'something out of your control that reacts; your 'interactivity'), and you've got a challenge. Hmm.. How do you ever drag yourself away with 2 billion years of evolution saying "this is what we've been aiming for" ? :-)

Quite correct (although I think there's still a bit of research to be done into why playing Alpha Centauri is quite so close a match to the evolutionarily ideal state).

Let Medley be your guide to some recent postings by Lessig and others about copyright; I'm too saturated and/or annoyed to digest it at the moment. (Do read the Reason interview with Mickey though.)

Relatively comprehensible explanation of why all the "domains" in a "forest" (in the Microsoft security scheme) might as well actually be the same domain for security purposes (because anyone with root in one can forge emself root in all the others). A nice peek under the hood.

I've never lived in a city for any length of time. What must it be like, to live right directly above or below or next to (above and below and next to) lots of other people, to be able to get up, put on a coat, and walk half a block (or just downstairs) to the coffee shop for breakfast, or the cleaner's, or the bookstore, or the concert hall? To pass people, dozens or hundreds of people, all over the place, all moving here and there, in a landscape, a labyrinth, most of which was put there on purpose?

Over the weekend we were in White Plains, waiting in a waiting place for the little daughter to finish showing some institution how clever she is, and the little boy was bored and wanted to go out of the waiting place. So, even though it was cold and windy and the sun was starting to go down, we walked north up Mamaronek Avenue, along the sidewalk, past the cluster of gas stations, the construction site with its tall green fence, the buildings and the stores.

He got a cup of ice cream at the tiny Carvel (one bored guy behind the counter of the narrow store, talking on a cellphone; how much business can they get in mid-January?), I got a cup of hot chocolate at a corner coffee shop that won my heart completely for reasons I can't explain (not a Starbucks or one of its clones, but an old-fashioned coffee shop selling coffee and burgers and home-cooked lunches, with tables and a counter and signs subtly flea-specked, in a friendly lived-in sort of way, on the walls).

We went into Everything For a Dollar stores with stacks of underwear and keychains and plastic toys and boxes of offbrand macaroni and cheese, and people smiled at us or ignored us. I picked up a copy of a local free newspaper dedicated to the intricate corruption and conspiracies, real or imagined, of innumerable local officials, a few of whom I'd heard of. He eventually bought a ninety-nine cent pair of finger rollerblades with which he was very pleased, and a box of orange Tic Tacs at the CVS on the way back, and we pushed the buttons to make the lights turn, and passed at least two groups of healthy well-scrubbed young people on their way to the tattoo parlor, and we got back before it got dark.

That was fun. Utterly unlike a mall; in fact probably defined more or less in terms of the set of stores that can't afford to be in the mall, or that the mall doesn't want in.

On the way back, passing one of the gas stations (the one with the big gasoline tanker parked in front, its nose poking out over the sidewalk), I got a glimpse in through the glass door into the room inside the station, lit white with fluorescent lights, and in the room a guy was sitting in a bulky tan coat, next to the cash register, playing a guitar.

Next time around, I want to live in a city, right downtown, for at least a year or two. Doesn't have to be New York or Paris; a small city will do.

Monday, January 20, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

It's Martin Luther King Jr Day. The reader is invited to see relevant previous entries, and for instance online copies of his speeches.

For our lead story today we have a news item from the cover of the Wall Street Journal that's either extremely funny or extremely worrying, or perhaps both. It's either terribly relevant, or (hopefully) almost disrespectfully irrelevant to Dr. King's memory.

A judge at the United States Court of International Trade has ruled, roughly, that especially funny-looking people aren't human. Now fortunately this was in a context such that it's (probably?) unlikely to be used as a precedent on actual people; the particular especially funny-looking people involved in the case are (for instance) the X-Men.

It seems that, at some time in the past, the U.S. import tariff on "dolls" from China was larger than the tariff on "other toys". A "doll" is, basically, a toy human, whereas a toy devil or angel or robot or monster is an "other toy". Toy Biz wanted to import its superhero action figures cheaply, so of course it claimed that they were "other toys"; the government, wanting the higher tarrif, insisted that they were dolls. The difference hinges on whether or not the X-Men and so on are humans. A couple of weeks ago, the court ruled that they are not.

You can read the full decision (slip opinion) here; Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States.

In many ways (heck, in virtually all ways) it's a screamingly funny decision.

The court notes that it does not have samples of all of these "X-Men Projectors." The court, however, has samples of the figures themselves from the other assortments and samples "Bishop Projector" and "Dr. Octopus Projector" to illustrate the projection mechanism, all of which is sufficient to visualize the "X-Men Projectors" at issue.

Various superheros get themselves documented in the U. S. legal record for posterity:

For example, "Storm" (a tall and thin figure with white mane-like hair and dark skin) in assortment 4900 K has a lightening [sic] bolt as an accessory, reflecting the character's power to summon storms at will. "Rictor" in assortment 4950 E which has a human appearance but comes with a built-in wheel in the back which when turned makes the figure vibrate and thus is designed to simulate Rictor's "power to generate earthquake-like vibrations." "Pyro" in assortment 4950 E has a costume that, with two long hoses attached to it, is designed to aid the character's "mutant ability to control and shape flames."

And reference is made to a previous decision that apparently considered the humanity of a slightly different class of being:

"Ernie's cartoon-like figure, orange complexion, red button nose, and oval head [is] a sufficient basis for finding him a "non-human creature'".

Ernie, not human?? Don't tell the children!

And in fact the court sets quite a high bar for humanity, at least the humanity of fictional characters, in the present decision as well. Not only are the obviously mutant X-Men not human, by virtue of their wings, the metal spikes growing out of their knuckles, and so on, but even characters with no actual mutant features at all are drummed out of the species:

The figure of "Kingpin" resembles a man in a suit carrying a staff. Nothing in the storyline indicates that Kingpin possesses superhuman powers. Yet, Kingpin is known to have exceedingly great strength (however "naturally" achieved) and the figure itself has a large and stout body with a disproportionately small head and disproportionately large hands. As it is, the figure is designed to communicate the legendary and freakish nature of the character. Even though "dolls" can be caricatures of human beings, the court is of the opinion that the freakishness of the figure's appearance coupled with the fabled "Spider-Man" storyline to which it belongs does not warrant a finding that the figure represents a human being.

Strong stuff! If you have a "large and stout body", and a small head and large hands that some court finds "disproportionate", then you're not human, and presumably can be (for instance) locked up indefinitely with even fewer restrictions than your average United States citizen.

(One might take comfort from the thought that few of us belong to "fabled" storylines, but who knows how crucial that clause will be found to be by future judges?)

Kraven comes in for similar treatment, being found nonhuman for some combination of "strength", "extreme ability to hunt", "exaggerated muscle tone", "lion's-mane like vest", "studded belt", and "spear". Arnold better watch out how he dresses!

Okay, okay, so okay it's a very funny and silly story, about a silly unimportant decision by a court that can't even spell "lightning", and I should not be seriously worrying that some future judge will use it as a precedent in deciding that some genetically altered real person isn't actually a person at all.


"Evolve or Die" Lesson o' the Decade: Bananas could split for good. Turns out that the plants that produce the things we think of as "bananas" are sterile whatsits with a tiny range of genotypes, and that a plant disease actually stands a fair chance of wiping them out in our lifetimes. Someone will Do Something About This, won't they?

Two items from gorjuss: A website devoted to pictures of places, and the place to opt out of Yahoo's web bugs.

And finally, from amptoons, a very fun baby name popularity explorer. The main toy covers only 1990 to present, but they have data all the way back to the 1880's. (In 1880, we were John and Mary; today we're Jacob and Emily, but Madison is coming up fast.)

(Weekday readers note: a Saturday entry appears below.)

Saturday, January 18, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

Interactivity is so dangerously attractive.

I have these stacks of books, stacks and stacks of books, teetering stacks of books all over the house, and they're all books that I want to read, or at least to seriously consider reading.

In my youth I would read for hours, just sitting there reading and not doing anything else except maybe come up for air once in awhile to excrete or sleep or something. I still do that, now and then; but...

Mostly I, like, play Alpha Centauri.

Today's hypothesis is that there's something about interactivity (like there's something about animal fat and sugar) that made us evolve into liking it, seeking it out, preferentially, even beyond the amount that's actually good for us; because (presumably) conditions now are different from how they were over most of evolutionary time, and whatever deeper good we got from seeking out interactivity is no longer as closely correlated with it as it used to be.

Which is to say, animal fat was so rarely available in quantities large enough to do harm that "eat as much as you can when you find it" was a close-enough approximation to the ideal rule.

Fruit was essentially the only sweet thing in the world, and fruit is good for you, so "eat lots of sweet stuff when you find it" was a close-enough approximation to "eat lots of fruit".

What is it that interactivity signals? What ideal rule is "play the fiftieth game of Alpha Centauri rather than read a good book" an approximation for?

One nice thing about being human, of course, is that I can decide to overrule that biological imperative, and read a good book anyway. Something in me is recommending diving into Alpha Centauri or SSX Tricky or the Sims or GNE, but I can say "look, that might be fun in the short term, but I know that in retrospect I'll get more out of reading a book; looking back on it, I will have enjoyed it more."

So there.

Just finished Spider Robinson's Time Pressure, which I got somewhere or other. It was a fun read. I wrote up a quick Amazon review:

Good SF, good character twists (four stars)

The best thing about this book for me is how it twists around. For the first half you see everything strictly from the narrator's point of view, and everything he says seems rational and correct. Then you start to have a few doubts, and just as it occurs to you that in fact he's sort of a jerk, the plot twists, you (both) find out that some things weren't at all what they seemed (and others were exactly), and when the dust settles both you and the narrator are seeing things very differently.

As SF, this is good and solid (if slightly oldfashioned, being from the 80s), with nice treatments of telepathy, time travel, and the future of humanity. In general setting, I liked the whole Canadian Hippie Commune treatment; it's done convincingly, not as the easy stereotype it could have been.

I've seen a couple of people complain about the erotic parts of the book, and I have to admit I don't really understand it. The love scenes aren't particularly pornographic, and they *are* important to the plot. And why would anyone dislike love scenes anyway? But maybe that's just me. *8)

"how it twists around", I said; sophisticated critical jargon, eh? I'm not entirely happy with the review, as it doesn't really convey the "rational hippy" flavor that pervades the book and that is both a strength (it's an interesting flavor) and a weakness (in that every character in the book is basically a variation on the same loving rational hippy character, and that's not incredibly realistic).

Awhile back I also finished my second time through the "Forbin Project" trilogy (by D. F. Jones, probably long out of print, difficult to Google for because it's overwhelmed by the movie of the same name). The trilogy tugs the reader in oddly different directions, and leaves one (left me) with an unsettled feeling.

In the first book, the hero saves the world with a supremely intelligent computer, and in the last few pages wonders if he's made a terrible mistake.

In the second book, the heroic resistance enlists alien aid in overthrowing the tyrannical computer, and in the last few pages wonder if they've made a terrible mistake.

In the last book humanity reawakens the computer and joins forces with it against the aliens, acheiving a victory based on the implausible premise that when two parties to a conflict are sufficiently intelligent, deception and disagreement are impossible. The trilogy ends with the computer firmly in charge of the world, the people apparently blissfully happy with the situation, and no one but me wondering if they've made a terrible mistake.

As this is the same computer that was torturing people in the pursuit of knowledge in book two, it's hard to believe it as a happy ending, and I can't decide if the author just sort of changed his mind, or if it's intended to be frighteningly ironic.

More recently I finished Benford's Great Sky River. My impressions were exactly the same as the most recent Amazon review; I wish I'd known in advance that it's a middle book in a long series; considered all by itself the ending is a real deus ex machina, and there are an unacceptable number of untied loose ends.

It was good, but I'm not sure that it was so good that I want to read five more novels to get the whole story.

(Note that Time Pressure is also the middle novel of a series, but it works fine by itself, and I may or may not read the others sometime. Am I saying that every novel of a series must also work by itself? I don't think I'm trying to say that.)

Do I want to write down every book I've finished in the last several time units? Maybe just one more.

I added Colony Fleet to some recent Amazon order more or less on a whim, because someone somewhere had recommended it. It was pretty okay; cheerful and escapist, pretty much obvious from page three who the good guys and bad guys were, happy ending. The conclusion is a bit disappointing, in that the big society-wide tension that the author sets up is unconvincingly resolved by a single incident involving a small number of people. The incident worked well narratively, but the implied "and then the rest of society saw the light and everything was fine" wasn't terribly plausible.

"There's this girl? That I met in a chatroom?"


"And I thought she liked me, but she hasn't been returning my emails, and she doesn't talk to me in chat anymore."

"So maybe she doesn't like you."

"But she's been sending me these discounts."


"You know, on Amazon, when you buy something? And when you check out you can like send someone else a ten percent discount on the books you buy? She's been doing that."

"So, what books?"

"The last one was Nabokov; 'Invitation to a Beheading.'"

"Well, that could be a good sign."

Daze Reader notes that sex outside of marriage is no longer a crime in Georgia. (See the decision.) First sodomy, now fornication. Who knows what those wacky Georgians will legalize next.

A couple of law-related blogs that I might should start reading: this and this.

Placename o' the day: "Torpenhow Hill". "Tor", "Pen", and "Howe" all mean "Hill", so the name means "Hill Hill Hill Hill". *8)

When looking around for stuff about the above books, I again stumbled on Book Crossing. It seems just as cool as it did last March, but when I think about actually doing it, it's hard to imagine actually "releasing" any of my books (my precioussssss books).

Online version of WebCollage: what the Web looks like.

Well, this is getting long! Reader input and other stuff, another day.


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