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And then I said:

Thursday, November 6, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

Good evening, and welcome to Homeowner's Corner!

I don't understand drains. The drain in, for instance, the bathtub in the "child bathroom" in our house here, is served by a nice wide thick pipe, all the way from where it exits the tub to where it heads out for the sewer, sharply downhill all the way. This is, like, a pipe wide enough that it would continue draining just fine if, say, a family of squirrels were to set up shop in it.

On the other hand, the drain that serves the basement sink into which the clothes washer drains, and which I just spent a slimy filthy annoying couple of hours (well, decaminutes maybe) trying to get flowing better so the sink will stop overflowing every third load of wash, is a skinny twisty contorted little thing that snakes around the outside of the basement and through many more junctions than it needs to, and is running more or less level much of the time (I'd swear it actually runs uphill in one place). A couple or three grams of wet lint will clog it up good.

So why aren't all the drains in all the houses in the world big thick spacious things that flow, blang, right down into the underworld? It would save so much work.

It would probably also like double the cost of the plumbing materials in the house, but what percentage of the cost of the house is that, anyway? And it'd be good for the economy.

Next week on Homeowner's Corner: Driveway sealing!

Tuesday, November 4, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

A collection of recent spam subject lines:

Re: GNXXYKAH, family starts lying
Re: BMH, professor of black
Re: FGRAJ, over the tents
Re: TBS, immortality had come?
Re: WLERWS, black knob shaped
Re: HC, poured water into
Re: RODJ, here the professor
Re: EHCZJILD, the centurion went
Re: ILKLBTO, midnight was approaching;
Re: MZAQFN, the words rushed
Re: YU, were not currency

Isn't that lovely?

Professor of black
  over the tents
  immortality had not come?

Midnight was approaching
  the words rushed
  were not currency

I wonder if the lines were extracted from poetry in the first place, or if it's just serendipity?

(One of the nice ironic things about this family of spam is that the insides are so obfuscated to try to hide from spam filters that my mail client can't figure out how to render it either, and so I don't even know what it's spam for, despite having opened several in idle curiosity.)

This is a cool part of the spam arms race: the attempt by spammers to automatically create something that looks to other automatic processes as though it might be something interesting, might have content valuable enough to the human masters to be worth delivering.

What will that come to look like, over time? What will be selected for? Already it's producing (or may be producing) original poetry. Next year, love letters, dime novels, parodies of news stories about Jerry Falwell. After that, entire synthetic civilizations, so rich and apparently (speciously?) meaningful that the spam filters cannot bear not to let them through (the human master must want to see this!).

So here's the obvious hypothesis: the human race is the end-product (or the end-product so far?) of a spam arms race. Some entity out there in the cosmos was motivated to populate the Earth (or the universe?) with a certain number of automatically generated things with a certain property, and another entity was motivated to get rid of any things that appeared to be automatically generated and possess the property (the payload, the message, the advertisement). Over the aeons, both entities got more and more sophisticated, until the disguises that the generating entity used to dress eir objects became so rich as to be self-aware, and write weblogs, and invent the internal combustion engine and Vaudeville.

Now we just have to hope the other side doesn't improve eir filters very much anytime soon. And I do wonder what the payload is.

(And why not just humanity? Maybe the entire universe is just...)

Hm, I suspect none of this makes any sense.

A reader writes:

Subject: review of _A Deepness in the Sky_

Hi -- was just reading some of your old book reviews, and had a comment on your review of Vinge's _Deepness_.

You wrote

Most of the characters in the book are human. Even the non-human aliens, the Spiders, are awfully human in culture and psychology if not in body-shape; this makes it easier to have them sympathetic characters, but misses the chance to illuminate human nature by showing something else (in this respect "Deepness" reminds me of Robert Forward's annoying "Camelot 30K", in which the alien society is essentially medieval England).

Actually, I think you missed something -- the entire Spider section is written as a "culturally idiomatic" translation, AS DONE BY TRIXIA AND HER SECTION. We see some clues to this throughout the book; there is some explicit discussion of it around the group Qeng Ho/Emergent viewing of "Childrens' Hour of Science"; and, for the coup de grace, we have one of the humans reading Trixia's account of events, *and it begins exactly as the Spider narrative did, several hundred pages earlier*.

The device is confirmed when the humans finally see the Spiders via camera and in person -- the gap between the raw physical impression and the culturally-idiomatic translation is highlighted. (e.g. "stairs" --> "vertical shaft with spiralling supports".)

In my view, a major subtheme of the book is the possibility and pitfalls of translation on different levels of abstraction.

Yeah, well, I mean. It's like this. (I wonder if "It's like this" is another one of those "I'm about to say something dumb" markers that we talked about yesterday.)

I have two reactions to that: one is that it's not clear to me (or maybe "it didn't even occur to me until I read your letter") that the translation that Trixia et al. did went beyond the relatively superficial things like stairs vs. shaft and bright vs. gloomy and like that, and extended as far as culture and psychology and so on. I guess it's possible that we were supposed to read it that way; that behind the very human-seeming descriptions was something impressively Other.

But (and this is the second reaction) if we were supposed to read it that way, does that really excuse it? Can I write a really poorly-written book (to take an extreme case), and then reveal in the last few pages that it's really some semi-literate person's vague recollections of a really good marvelously-written book that e read once in eir childhood? I'm not sure if that's a good enough excuse! Similarly, I'm not sure that wanting to make a point about the possibilities of translation lets Vinge get away with making a very non-alien alien culture, just because he hints at the end that it really was interestingly alien, but we only got to see it through a humanizing mask. I'd rather have seen the interestingness directly!

(Which isn't to say it wasn't a good book; I would just have liked to see more interesting non-humanness, whether that involved having the aliens actually less human, or just letting us see a bit more beyond the translation mask. But your letter has gotten me thinking on the subject; maybe I'll change my mind entirely tomorrow.)

I'm very gratified ("by the way") to know that people besides me sometimes read my notes about books (notes about books; notes about Deepness). The page design still sucks, but didja notice how I've added the cunning little Creative Commons License widgets to the bottom of all the pages? This template stuff is good fun.

Corporate pratfall o' the day: Fox nearly sues itself over a Fox News parody on the Simpsons.

A reader writes:

"exploi-ta-tion: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/10/20031025-1.html"

I am very bummed that I missed Protection From Pornography Week! The leftover Shrub Pro-nun-ci-ation Guide on whitehouse.gov almost makes up for it though:

We have committed significant resources to the Department of Justice to intensify investigative and prosecutorial efforts to combat obscenity, child pornography, and child sexual exploi-ta-tion on the Internet.

But shouldn't it really have been "ex-ploy-ta-shun", for maximum ease of use?

(What must it be like to be a news anchor these days, and have to say "Governor-Elect Arnold Schwarzenegger" with a straight face?)

Monday, November 3, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

Hey hey hey! Remember me?

Today I had to drive an hour north early in the morning for a conference, then back home and immediately out again to the airport to drop off our departing houseguest, then home again for dinner.

Normally all that driving would have been sort of a bummer, but today all four hours were through early-autumn hills in the mid-Hudson valley, and it was really gorgeous (hot, but gorgeous). I really like that drive (even when it isn't all colorfully leafy).

So that was alright.

Despite various reader urgings, it looks like I'm going to stick to not novel writing this month (sorry, friends). The idea of yet another thing having expectations on me (one more source of self-expectations) just isn't attractive enough.

I bought yet another bookcase over the weekend, and organized all of the SF in the library that isn't in the boxes (that is, all of it that was lying in piles or in the existing cinderblock and plank "bookcase"). I still haven't been typing in any new book notes. But hey, I'll go do one now!

[time passes]

There, I did a couple, copied in from an old log entry. Someday I'll sit up in the library for hours typing in lots and lots and lots of them. (Hm, I wonder if the wireless network reaches all the way up there?)

Spam Subject Line o' the Day:

new Law Erases All Debt - Restores A-1 Credit   die

Have you ever noticed that there are certain phrases that people use when they're about to say, or are in the process of saying, something especially dumb, or unjustified, or otherwise disreputable? Things like "I happen to feel...", "You know what?", "By the way".

Some of these have legitimate uses; "by the way" can mark a legitimately tangential comment. But in many cases (often in business meetings, newspaper columns, talk shows) it really means something smarmy like "I'm so smart that this important and controversial statement is a triviality to me", and/or "What I'm saying is almost certainly false, but since I'm disguising it as an offhand comment you'll look stupid if you stop me to dispute it".

"I happen to feel..." is similar; it tries to pre-emptively cut off any disagreement by registering in advance the incredibly lame "well, it's just my own personal opinion" argument. "You know what?" is maybe simpler; just blatant condescension (at least I haven't thought of any subtlties in it).

So you (my admirable readers) should stifle any tendencies you have to use these words in these ways. (On the other hand you should encourage any jerks that you know to continue using them, so we can all more easily tell that they're jerks.)


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