The Laboratorium
June 2000

Pushing your Luck


The phrase "pushing your luck" comes from an expression in one of the secular dialects of Archaic Uigur. Although the exact origins aren't clear, it's believed to come from a dice game known as "Klahc" or "Lokh." Players who rolled one particularly good roll (two ox-heads and and one sword showing among the four dice) had the option of hitting the remaining die with a curved stick. If it also came up a sword, their winnings were doubled, but if not, their turn ended immediately. Players who took this gamble were said to be "Nolkhahn ti Klahc-nu," which translates roughly to "pushing at a game of Klahc." The late 19th-century British explorers who compiled the first systematic Uigur lexicons decided (erroneously) that "Klahc" came from the same Indo-European word-root as "luck," and called the game itself "luck," hence the phrase "pushing your luck." Klahc enjoyed a brief burst of faddish popularity in English society in the 1890s (as part of the mania for all things Oriental and exotic) and the phrase "pushing your luck" in its modern sense -- trying to convert a fortuitous but reasonably certain win into a larger but much uncertain one -- entered the English vocablulary.

The Dykebuk


It strikes me that there's room in this world for a production of S. Ansky's The Dybbuk interpreting the play as lesbian allegory. If one simply shifts Channon from male to female, the play takes on whole new layers of meaning. The betrayed pre-birth promised betrothal of Channon and Leah has a different significance -- Sender knows Leah is not meant for any husband, but his mind cannot stretch to the prospect that the promise might extend to his old friend's female child. Channon's intense desire to seek a purifying meaning even in "sin" still resonates, but with very different overtones. If one were so inclined, the rabbis' response and exorcism in the final acts could probably be mined for suggestions of intolerance and misunderstanding, but I don't think that's necessary: the play already touches directly on so many gay themes -- the pressures of being closeted, the experience of being an outsider at straight society's rituals, the search for identity and divinity through sexuality, and more -- that it doesn't need a particularly heavy touch to make this interpretation work. It has sex and God and history already, and the key is not to take those away or to add to them, but to let them express themselves a little differently, shall we say.

Hyperlinking Jihad!


Hypertext links must not be used as inline commentary. Where links are provided, the rendered content of the link (e.g. the highlighted text) shall describe the target of the link. This description may be direct; it may be oblique. Nouns referring to web pages or their contents may be linked directly to those pages. Phrases referring to the action described in web pages may be linked to those pages. Table-of-contents material, site-navigation features, link farms and favorites lists: theses are acceptable uses of linking. Keyword definitions, footnotes, jumps to the first use of a given concept: these links expand upon or intensify that which falls between the A and the /A. They are all acceptable.

But there is to be no more snide commentary through the attachment of a link to what is and remains body text. There are to be no more words in which every letter references a different site. Other web sites will not be mocked by linking to them from random words of disdain. Paragraphs will not be broken by a stream of random discolorations of unrelated words whose links have been assembled solely to demonstrate the excessive erudtion of the linker and his tone of sarcastic superiority. Such links advance nothing, they contribute not at all to the argument whose text they cannibalize for their anchors. To create inscruitable links and leave their targets to be displayed in the status bar -- this is to insult the autonomy and the intelligence of the reader. There are other and more effective ways of making the points these parasitic links try to make, ways that are not forever undercutting themselves. There is a time for irony, and a time to refrain from irony, and linking now requires the exercise of this restraint. The limited potential of ironic linking has been exhausted, and it is high time to do better. Linking deserves to be dealt with as the powerful rhetorical device it is; irony cries out to be turned against more richly deserving targets.

I accept the terms of this statement of purpose, and I renounce the use of ironic linking. I have engaged in such linking in the past, and I accept that I was wrong to have done so. My only excuse is that I shall atone for my past actions by my future ones. Our work stretches out before us, and we must boldly link to it, not shy from the task by speaking one thing with our words and another with our links. There will be time enough for irony once we have navigated to those far pages.

Why Federalism Should Die


It's time for the U.S. to give up on this whole federalism obsession. There was a time when this division of power made sense. That time was two hundred years ago, back when "state" was still an approximate synonym for "nation," and it seemed a striking possibility that one could assemble a larger polity out of smaller units in such a way that the whole held together but was blocked from tyranny by the vigilance of those units. With the hindsight of history, it's possible to see that the experiemnt has more or less succeeded: today we live in a coherent nation, one that has hardly tumbled into the sort of absolutist tyranny that seems to keep popping up all across the globe. It's got problems left and right, sure, big problems, but those problems do not include a despotic central government which rules with an iron fist and tramples on the populace.

Or rather, to whatever limited extent our national government does take this form, strengthing the hand of the states won't do a blooming thing to fix the situation, and might just make it worse. Every time in American history that states have stood up and asserted their perogatives against the nation, they've been profoundly in the wrong, and it's been a damn good thing that they were put back in their place. The Civil War was a fairly nice rebuke to the claim that states, no matter how evil their cause, could just walk away from the nation. And the initiatives of the 60s, all those integrations carried out by the jack-booted thugs of the National Guard, put to rest, I should hope, any belief that the states should be free to set their own social policy. Give them half a chance and look what they go do. State governments have a pretty awful record when it comes to sticking up for the human rights of their inhabitants against the heavy hand of the feds; it's more often the state government whose heavy hand holds the mace and flail of injustice.

Our current system is a ridiculous gerrymandering, in which reasonable attempts to move towards Washington those decisions which really ought to get made in Washington have to tiptoe carefully around the Talmudically-read words of the Constitution. The Interstate Commerce Clause is an awful hook on which to hang criminal statutes, but there they must be hung, because consistent justice is a good thing and there's no better way of getting RICO onto the books. Handing out federal highway funds is a ridiculous carrot to use in getting states to have some semblance of order in setting drinking ages and speed limits, but one is restricted to working with the tools at hand. Except, that is, where those tools are found to infringe on the sovreign power of the states. So you can't sue a state for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act in federal court, because the federal government wasn't empowered with those powers by the Constitution. But you can't sue a state for violating the ADA in state court, on precedent that goes back to the feudal legal principle that lords may not be sued in their own court. Whoops. Guess state governments don't need to worry about that pesky ADA.

Our states are a collection of minor tyrants, whose powers are strange and obscure, but wielded with a gloriously irrational petulance. Taxes, lotteries, definitions of incest, non-discrimination laws, criminal penalties: these are the ways in which states flex the odd and arbitrary assortment of muscles reserved to them. There is no good reason why Iowa and Vermont should set different standards for domestic partners, why New Jersey and Wyoming should have different speed limits, why California and New Mexico should set different sentencing standards for drug dealers, why Washington and New York should have such different tax policies. There was a reasonable claim, two hundred years ago, that the states were natural units, whose social and political differences deserved to be recognized and protected at the national level. Today, the states contain within themselves larger social and political variations than distinguish them, than have ever distinguished them. They express nothing, they stand for precious little other than thwarting the good the national government might do, and encouraging evils to spring up amidst the chaos.

Why does the US lag behind Europe in setting privacy standards? Gee, maybe because we left the job to the states, and they weren't all up to the task, and even the ones that were are just now figuring out that maybe they ought to be doing something. Why is the District of Columbia incapable of keeping the pet projects and boondoggles out of the budget? Gee, maybe because our representation is geographically based. Who can make sense out of the sales tax system in the age of e-commerce? Not me. THe real threats to liberty and freedom aren't coming from the federal government -- or even from the foreign agressors the feds (with help from their geographically-apportioned system of military bases and defense contracts) are supposed to be guarding us from. No, it's the corporations gathering data, the gated communities setting social policy, the bail bondsmen responding to the states' bounty systems by busting down doors, the disbarred lawyers and unlicenced brokers slipping through the cracks by skipping from state to state -- all consequences of the power vacuum created by the feudal enclaves carved out for the states. Where the states are given power. they use it at best for mildly helpful foolishness and at worst for outright outrages. It's time to end to end this madness and flip that language around. The powers not delegated to the several states by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the United States, are reserved to the United States, or to the people. Anyone who looks at the status of things in Washington these days, should be fairly well convinced that it does a fairly good job -- some might even say a remarkably excessive job -- of holding itself in check, never mind the states.

Semifreddo Sci-Fi


I would like to begin by saying that there is a special section of Purgatory reserved for those overly impressionable souls who publicly self-identify with Ender from Ender's Game. For every statement that Battle School was "just like" their elementary school, five years of enforced meditation on the wholly murder-free nature of their kindergarten days. For all its wonderful qualities, Ender's Game has always seemed to me to be just a bit overboard in its estimate of the psychological and emotional maturity of kids in their single-digit years. And for all its at-times awful qualities, the misuse most bright kids get at the hands of bullies and pressuring authority figures is still in a fundamentally different category than what Ender goes through. Almost by definition, anyone who survives childhood in a position to be able to draw comparisons between themselves and Ender really hasn't had to deal with all that much. The Ender analogy is an act of almost Dostoyevskian self-aggrandizing self-pity, crying out for understanding and sympathy because the poor tormented soul is just too sensitive to handle the massive burdens the world has to bear, too brilliant to be allowed to walk away from them.

To continue, though, there is a certain relationship between Ender's Game and its first sequel, Speaker for the Dead. I don't mean simply "the sequel is worse." There's room enough later in the series for that, particularly in the most recent, Ender's Shadow, which reads like a weak retread of the original, perhaps because it is a retread of the original, told from a different and less interesting point of view. Ender's Game was tightly focused, closely tied to the Earthers' view of a terrifying Other, set in confining environments and with a spare and stunning progression towards its deep moral humdingers. Speaker for the Dead comes after, but it also opens that scope outwards, temporally and geographically, follows multiple characters in what is a more complex interpersonal drama on something of a slightly more epic scale. It poses the same moral issues, but throws new ones into the mix, as well. In essence, it has larger ambitions, and for that reason, perhaps loses the keening pinpoint fire of the first's laser intensity.

This is exactly the relationship between Mary Doria Russell's two works of science fiction (an anthropologist by training, she is a mid-life convert to sci-fi authordom): The Sparrow and Children of God. The former is one of, if not the best, first-contact tales I've ever read. Inspired by the 500th anniversary of 1492, she makes the novel a meditation on the experiences of those involved in our own planet's most memorable first-contacts, as translated into space for narrative convenience. It's a wild idea, sending off a Jesuit mission as humanity's first (secretively-sent) ambassadors to see what they make of the experience, and Russell pulls off this odd choice, makes it necessary to the deeper workings of her plot. She drives at cross-cultural misunderstandings without demonizing any particularly short-sighted view, sets up a terrible theological and personal conundrum, and is absolutely, utterly, completely and totally merciless in driving her unsuspecting characters into it. The conclusion is quite literally terrible, unswavering in its stripping down of that word to the terror at its core. Children of God, follows on in exactly the same way as Speaker for the Dead: broader, following more plot strands, more ambitious, more assertive in exploring more themes -- and in the end, it falls short of The Sparrow by the same two feet and three inches that Speaker for the Dead falls short of Ender's Game. There are more flavors in the broth, but it has cooled enough not to sear.

What it shares with its predecessor -- and with Card's Ender books -- is the wonderful acceptance that galactic scale is not so much spatial as temporal. Rakhat (the alien planet) is four light-years away; the journey takes one year in the reference frame of the travellers and seventeen years in Earth's frame. Communication with home is effectively useless, thanks to the eight-year response time, a journey out and back takes half a lifetime to those left behind, astronomers picking up signals sent out by expeditions can only watch in horror, powerless to intervene for reasons fundamental to the nature of the universe itself. Russell pulls dramatic tension from these fixed constants and the skews they induce in her characters perspectives. She never makes the point herself, but "relativity" functions richly in the novels both physically and culturally, and the novels' events make something genuinely worthwhile out of an oft-abused metaphor.

The only really comparable literary engagement with the laws of physics that I know of (I'm sure there are others out there, beyond the scope of my own limited engagement with science fiction) is Stanislaw Lem's. Many of his stories (especially the Pirx the Pilot tales) start from an insistence of taking seriously some fact of physics oft-overlooked by writers who lack the rich imagination needed to wrap the mind around reality's credibility-straining non-negotiables. And from this confrontation he builds pathos, tragedy, humor, and bleakly moving humanity. How long would it take to reach the far-off stars with even the most meagre resources and what would happen to Earth in the meantime? How well can ships communicate and track each other even within a single solar system? What solitary poetry must come to the spacewrecked? In each case, it is the physics of the situation that echoes in the taut and closely etched emotions of the plot. The science in most hard sci-fi struts with the oiled self-worship of the bodybuilder, marvelling at its technological gadgetry and the too-facile mastery of equations and buzzwords; it takes a more sympathetic and complex talent to see the hollows and aching yearnings implicit in that science.

OnRP


The Gold Bug Variations was supposed to be Richard Powers' "science" novel. In every book he writes, he turns his attention to some radically different field of human endeavour, becomes more expert than the experts, learns the native language so that he can use it to write his poetry. When I read Gold Bug back in high school, I remember being overwhelmed by the deep and profound understanding that he had for the things that drew me to science. He put into words things I had only vaguely felt, gave me a sense of the purposes that drove me. It would have been enough.

But then he had to go and write Galatea 2.2, and have something to say about computers and life, and somehow make them both seem like branches of literature, to bring a further layer of aesthetic justification to the technology that runs through my chosen life in computers. Again, there it was, that understanding, that articulate sense for the emotional meanings that thread themselves through the electronic machinery I work and play with. He understood not just what it was like to do science, but to work with computers, the strange unearthly thrills and fears. It would have been enough.

But, noooo, nothing is ever enough for Richard Powers, and he has given us Plowing the Dark, in which he directly, repeatedly, and in great detail draws out the metaphor of programmings as art. Not "art" as in "artifice," that weak second cousin, drained of its color by the too-close association with "craft" in too many articles about the professonal dynamics of programming. Art, instead, in the deeper sense, somthing driven by interior visions, something that exists only as the artifacts of an intangible process, pure beauty forced into some inadequate expression. And he has taken that metaphor, the programmer as the true artist, and extended it beyond belief, found further consequences, shown what light this connection throws on the nature of each. Powers has captured in his words things I thought incapable of verbal expression: the amazing potential of programming, its intimate connection with the imagination, its expression of something pure and holy, its sudden power to escape reality or to reshape it, the excitement of the creative process, and the awful but necessary moral consequences of this pursuit we engage in.

Now and then people complain about the immorality of programming, the sense in which it is a wasted profession, its creations impermanent and intangible. This sense hangs over me and my fellow programmers at times, I think: it is unreasonable that we should be supported by society in doing what we do, that we should be kept and fed in order to sit in front of monitors and alter the flow of some well-confined electrons and shuffle a few abstractions around. Powers sees this critique, critiques and expands upon it, but he makes also the opposite point, the more profound one. Plowing the Dark asks what becomes of programming, whether it is ever free to exist solely of itself and for itself, asks what images and dreams will fall upon our waking eyes because of the code we have written, probes the wonderful and terrible effects that programming will have upon the world, makes us consider what shape our thoughts must take when made real through computer code's mediation. This book makes me proud to be a coder, makes me hope to be halfway worthy of shouldering the terrible moral weight that programming carries with it. Daiyenu.

The Flying Desert


According to Reuters, a village in China is about to be swallowed by an approaching mountain of sand. Decades of over-intensive monoculture and poor water management have been causing alarming levels of desertification in northern and western China, and now the sand-chickens are coming home to roost. Beijing has suffered from a dozen sandstorms this year -- sandstorms! -- but Longbaoshan village is being approached by a more menacingly hyperbolic symbol of Nature's wrath, a giant sand dune named the "Flying Desert," 165 feet high and six miles long, marching toward the village at roughly thirty feet a year.

The Flying Desert has turned into a tourist attraction, and as much as there is to say about a world in which such things take place, I don't think that I need to be the one to say them. I've forever forfeited the right to speak seriously about China's ecology (see last week's note about sparrows for details), and moreover, the comments sort of say themselves. There's your predictable half-joke about the inadequacy of the Great Wall, some derivative DeLillo-esque discussion of the conversion of absolutely anything into a tourist attraction, some snide comments about the fact that it's just a big pile of sand, some insightful discussion about the ability and inability of the Chinese state to deal with environmental issues, and some musing on the psychological implications (most likely Jungian, I'd venture) of living under or thinking too closely about a giant sand dune. I don't have the energy to expand on these points -- it's like one of those connect-the-dots where it's strikingly obvious halfway through that the thing's a giraffe, but one still needs to go through the motions of filling in the legs and tail.

What gets me here is the way in which Longbaoshan's plight is, quite literally, like something out of a book. That book, in this case, is Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes, in which a teacher on a holiday day-trip stumbles into a village surrounded by encroaching sand dunes. The locals imprison him in a pit at the foot of one of the dunes, where he is forced to dig out the ever-piling sand in exchange for his food. Abe is one of those authors it's hard to tell with, but the story reads basically as allegory. Somewhat obscure and surreal allegory, sure, but allegory nonetheless -- the world of the dunes is the kind of reality you get to by jumping off a bridge and meeting the troll underneath. Whereas, in today's entirely real and everyday China, Longbaoshan and other communities at the edge of the encroaching desert are being fed by the government in exhange for digging China out of the sands -- the locals are to be fed with grain shipped in from other parts of China in exchange for foregoing food agriculture and instead engaging in reforestation and the planting of soil-fixing crops.

The other literary bell that Longbaoshan's plight rings is that of W.H. Auden's As I Walked Out One Evening.

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

Every day, it seems, the newspaper furnishes events that previously had belonged exclusively to the realm of the fantastic. Poetry becomes reality, and vice-versa.

Don’t Touch that Attitude Dial


Julia pointed me to Courtney Love's recent rant about technology and the music industry, which she compares to sharecropping. It's a brilliant, incisive, infuriating essay, and it's just rewritten a lot of my thinking about Napster, new media, and the future of our copyright system. Her first absolutely wonderful point is that there are plenty of artists, all sorts of big names among them, who are being so systematically exploited by the record companies that they have almost nothing to lose by embracing Napster and Gnutella, no matter how corrosive the effects on sales. And starting from this claim (and the terrifying facts about music-industry economics that back it up), she issues a call to arms -- for musicians to show some labor solidarity and use these dangerous new technologies to end-run the horrible deals the major labels offer them -- that has me just about ready to go out and start smashing some serious guitar, Jimi-style.

On some of this stuff, I'm skeptical, especially about the liklihood for genuine, systematic change. I think the MTV age has fairly conclusively shown that the great majority of major rock musicians are morons; the major labels aren't going to have trouble luring in new victims with the usual sex-and-drugs bait-and-switch tactics. By the time they're savvy enough to understand just how screwed they are by their recording contract, they've already done their time and cranked out their one-hit wonder singles, and their bloated carcasses can easily be dropped out of a helicopter several miles out at sea. Not all musicians are this dumb (and the industry does tend to self-select for the dumb ones to be crowned its multi-platinum superstars), but you only need one exploitable band (and a small army of marketing whizzes) to make a fistful of money.

Love's second wonderful point (partly implicit), though, is for the genuine feasibility of a model in which bands that just need to survive might actually do so through more direct fan-contact and a flow of music that doesn't go through the record-company "gatekeepers," whether or not their more "commercial" brethren have shaken themselves free of the major labels. If music becomes cheaper, Hole's survival isn't so tied to the death of the Backstreet Boys, say. Again, I'm skeptical, but not as much as I used to be. I've been listening to web radio at work, mostly college radio stations playing free-form commercial-free music. And when I hear something I like, I listen for a snatch of the lyrics. Quick as a wink, I zip over to Altavista, type in the phrase, and hit go. Some fan's lyrics page comes up and bingo, I have a band name and song title. A quick spin by Amazon (or the band's own site, if they have one, and many do), and there you go: I've just discovered some music that's genuinely new to me. Haven't bought anything yet this way, but these have been informed decisions: I just didn't like what I heard when I tried other clips from the album. I hope nobody will fault me for not buying music that I don't like; it feels somehow more acceptable than not buying music because I have no idea it exists.

I don't know where things are going. Love has some ideas, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't. But reading her rant, I can't easily tell which parts are the ones I find compelling and which parts are the ones that leave me cold: the rightness and the wrongness are closely intermixed. The force of her argument is sufficiently beyond the weak back-and-forth that passes for most of the current public discourse on the future of media technology that instant judgements are not readily available. Ignore at your own risk.

I also wonder about how these debates will ramify in other parts of the music world. The balance of power in classical music, for example, is rather different from that in rock music. Symphony orchestras are large organizations, with many mouths to feed, and "studio time" means something very different to an orchestra than it does to a concert pianist or a singer-songwriter. The whole promotional system (for non-"crossover" albums, that is) is also a horse of a different color, one in which the review magazines play a fascinating filtering-and-promotional role. The reviews in Rolling Stone and the reviews in Gramophone are animals of two rather different species. Also of note is that MP3, the format "responsible" for this whole amusing mess on the rock side of things, is positively awful for listening to classical music. We shall see how things shake out. We shall see, and hopefully we may even have some influence on the shaking.

On Misdirected Email


It is remarkably easy to send an email to someone. It is also remarkably easy to send an email to the wrong someone. I stopped using the nickname feature of my mailer once after accidentally sending email to my co-workers that was intended for my parents: it was just too easy to make mistakes like that. This is a very strange new kind of miscommunication. You can screw up six times before lunch with this new breed of technology. Wrong numbers tend to sort themselves out pretty quickly; you get stopped before you say too much of anything, and it takes a certain rare kind of cluelessness to leave a rambling multi-minute message on the wrong answering machine. It's now possible to effortlessly send a completely coherent message that is nonetheless nearly completely incomprehensible to its actual recipient.

This is actually what stuns me most about ill-routed email: the bizzare interpretive situations it spawns for the person whose inbox the letter winds up in. I got mail from a fellow including his brother's resume for our software lab technician position. Funny, I thought, don't we already have one of those? And hasn't he been here longer than I have? And why me? I'm a leaf node on the org chart. The mail was supposed to go to an address differing from my own by one letter, but it took me a goodly long while and some back-and-forth mail to figure this out. The email sort of made sense, and I struggled way to hard to make full sense out of it.

Something similar happens when you hit "reply" instead of "forward" and you meant to tell your friends what an idiot the person you just replied to is. And yet, if you wrote, say, "Can you believe this shit?" the mistake may not even be apparent to the would-be cussee, and you may receive a confiding, "I know, isn't this whole situation just insane?" reply from said idiot. That wasn't the message, no, not at all in the way it was meant, but the human mind will go to great lengths to try and puzzle out something that looks like it makes sense. The pure authoritative condifence of an email sucks you in, makes you think your own memory must be in error, makes you search in vain for the connection.

Happy Father’s Day


Father's Day was originally a pagan holiday, the Great Sky-Father's Day. Part of the week of celebrations leading up to the summer solstice, the day was give over to celebrating the Sky-Father's providing for his human children with his rich gifts of sun and rain. Gifts of sacrificial goats and sheep (recognizable by the festive ribbons bound about their necks) were supplemented with prayers for his continued guidance in the human journey towards spiritual adulthood.

The precise transition to the Father's Day we know today is lost in the mists of time, but it seems that several generations of Christian priests gradually attempted to neutralize the pagan rituals by focusing on the literal steps of the ceremonies, rather than their spirutual meanings. The passing of celebratory garlands from sons to fathers was retained, and reemphasized as the central act of the Great Sky-Father's celebration, rather than the sacrifices and prayers. As part of this reinterpretation, the practice of tying ribbons was moved from the animals to the fathers, and appears to be recognizably the origin of the custom of giving ties on Father's Day.

My New Hero


With a wonderfully snide beatdown review of Boys and Girls, A.O. Scott enters the ranks of that proud contingent: movie reviewers who have been pushed over the line into gleeful misanthropy by the drivel they are forced to watch. Boys and Girls sounds like a harmless enough flick, one whose damage to society is unlikely to exceed the money wasted to make it. It stars Freddie Prinze Jr., whose very name is a punch line unto itself these days, an actor whose limited talents and laughable inability to choose good projects have not apparently hurt his employability. Here's Scott's take on the film:

I saw "Boys and Girls" at a sneak preview packed with eager members of its target audience. After about 30 minutes, many of them seemed to wish they'd stayed home to study. "I never thought I could feel ripped off by a movie I saw for free," one young man remarked on his way out. He was the voice of his generation, or at least of the mob of his peers who had, during Ryan's big emotional speech about love, trust and fidelity, howled with derisive laughter at Mr. Prinze's furrowing brow and downturned mouth. They may have been disappointed, but I, at least, was able to leave the theater with new-found respect for America's often maligned and misunderstood youth.

Two Great Tastes That, Uh


Apparently (according to Harry Knowles, professional rumormonger, Jackie Chan is currently filming a movie called Accidental Spy (Hmmm, I wonder what it's about), being directed by Teddy Chan (see "SIFF Strikes Back!" below). Now, I'm a fan of both Chans' work, but I really need to say that I seriously hope everyone involved with the project has actually thought this through. The idea of Jackie Chan remote-control detonating an explosive in some other guy's tooth (Downtown Torpedoes) or having flashbacks to his youthful exposure to Cambodian genocide (Purple Storm) seems sorta iffy.

A Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow


About a year ago, I wrote a morally questionable story. There can be no possible excuse for this story, except possibly that it invalidates several aesthetic theories by serving as a counterexample. I'm a bad person for having written it, and it's successfully proven that everyone who's read it (so far) is also a bad person. Are you a bad person? Read the story and find out. If you can then read this recent news without smiling, then you are not a bad person.

So That’s Where the Word Comes From


Every now and then for the last few years the word "interiority" has drifted through my head. It has a certain allusive resonance, seems to be always on the verge of meaning something deep and profound. I could never really pin down that meaning more specifically, but I found myself thinking "interiority" at unpredictable intervals. The usual pattern was that I'd be going along with my day and would space out for a bit, fall out of my plane of thought, as it were. And then "interiority" would come to the rescue, play the part of mental parachute, and help me drift gradually back towards reality. Well, today I finally figured out where it was that I got the word. It's the name of the start-up from Douglas Coupland's microserfs. I've been carrying around bits and pieces of that novel for a while, and like to occasionally quote from it, but apparently its influence goes deeper than I realized.

Job Opening: Web Test Engineer


Fixed a broken link. By my estimation, it's been broken since the Laboratorium went live. Okay people. You have to tell me these things, alright? Throw me a freakin bone here.

SIFF Strikes Back


On a last-minute whim, I decided to extend my SIFF consumption this year to take in one last film: Purple Storm, an action thriller directed by Teddy Chen. Chen directed 1997's Downtown Torpedoes, one of my favorite action movies of all time. Torpedoes (I never did figure out what the title was supposed to mean) provided, in spades, the kind of stylish entertainment Hollywood seems to have a surprisingly hard time delivering on ten times the budget. Driven in equal parts by its intrigue and twist-heavy plot and by over-the-top shootouts, Downtown Torpedoes featured the best high-tech theivery I've seen on-screen since Sneakers. I also loved the dialogue -- the plot revolves around a stolen computer chip called "SN2," and apparently the Cantonese for "SN2" is "SN2," so that to my ignorant-of-Cantonese ears, many a key sentence would sound like "blah blah blah blah SN2 blah blah blah," exactly recreating the effect of that classic Far Side "what we say to dogs / what dogs hear" cartoon. So I went into Purple Storm with reasonably high hopes.

To be honest, it was a letdown. But to be fair, a lot of that letdown has to be chalked up to my high expectations. Purple Storm is a perfectly credible action thriller, with a couple of moments of well-filmed supreme badassity, but no more than that. The plot-advancing scenes didn't actually do much to hold one's interest -- every half hour, the good guys' computer guy announces that he's cracked another one of the bad guys' passwords and we're provided with a few plot details that were obvious for most of the preceding half hour. And Chen just goes way overboard with psychologizing his hero. You see, the hero, a terrorist, has amnesia, and the Hong Kong anti-terrorist folks try to trick him into thinking he's an undercover cop. His memories return, he doesn't know who to trust or who he is, has moral dilemma, blah blah blah, all done with heavy-handed flashbacks and funhouse-mirror camera effects. The trouble with just slathering this stuff on is that unless the psychologizing is particularly well-done or especially subtle, you don't wind up with your intended result, an action movie with deep resonance. No, you wind up with a movie that's half fish and half fowl, neither a great action movie nor a very good character-driven psychological drama.

The worst excess comes during the kindly therapist's attempt to convince the hero that he's really a good guy. This consists of showing him what appears to be some sort of New Age "beauty of the natural world" tape: earth-from-space-with-glowing-aura, leaping dolphins, wind rushing across a field, flowing rivers, purple mountains majesty and the whole nine yards, all in soft-focus and accompanied with uplifting New Agey "beauty of the natural world" beat-driven synth-rock. During one crucial later scene, these images reappear, this time with the hero in the foreground running towards them in the kind of blatant matte shot meant to signal "taking place in mind of character." Such things do not square particularly well with a plot about terrorists planning to unleash deadly chemical weapons, or with scenes that feature lots of people shooting big guns at other people.

A couple of those scenes are pretty nice, I have to say. There's one shootout on a wharf in which one side's garb can only be described as "skate-punk chic," and as though to confirm this impression, a later scene finds one of them sliding down a staircase railing on her back, shooting backwards over her head. But such moments of grace are all too rare, in the final analysis. On the whole, Puple Storm is no Downtown Torpedoes.

All in All, it was All Just Paint on the Wall


I figured out what it was that was most disturbing about the old building. Around the elevator bank in the center, where the bathrooms and the copy room are, the walls are this shade of pale yellow, completely unlike the white in the corridors all around. So there's this yellow block in the middle of the building with different lighting and a little corridor into it. It struck me -- this is exacly like the reactor core from Descent! The reactor was always set off by itself in this special part of the level, the walls were a different color, and something about the layout was exactly like the layout of that part of the building. The only thing missing was the red balls of death flying at you when you got too close. It'd definitely have made going for a drink more interesting.

Less Time Lost to Web-Surfing!


Out of (quite possibly misguided) principle, I'm not reading Salon any more. Last week, in a round of cost-cutting, they cut their staff by 20%. While I'm never happy about "belt-tightening" in the name of the bottom line, given the sad legacy of the corporate climate of the last few decades, Salon's specific actions particularly bothered me. They sacked their books editor and a reviewer, thereby dropping the Web equivalent of a neutron bomb on the literary section of their site: the section's still there, but all the people have been replaced with little piles of ash. I'm not going to go into any kind of wild conspiracy theory about new media trying to kill off old or about Salon's empire-building plans. No fancy theories are required; Salon has a target market and apparently us bookworms aren't part of it.

Given the parts of the site that survived the cuts unscathed -- all of the really annoying columnists and the whole of the "Sex" subsection, for example -- it seems fairly clear that Salon has decided which side of the loaf its bread is buttered on. Even since I started reading it, Salon's snarkiness quotient seemed to always be on the rise. A quick glance at the columnists page instantly shows what's wrong: dammit, why are all of them smirking? A certain dismissive quality runs through most of the columnular writing, a tone of knowing superiority. Even the enjoyable columns strike a bit of a pose; the really abysmal ones are all pose. I can't escape the sense that Salon instructed its caricaturist to play up the sense of "attitude" in their grinning faces. And don't even get me started on Salon's sex obsession, the way the "Sex" part of the site functioned as some sort of black hole, inexorably pulling everything in the known Saloniverse towards it by virtue of its sheer mass.

Salon's not all bad, though, and this was kind of a tough call to make. Their recent redesign was terrible -- I suspect that the subsite-driven design was a scheme to increase the length of the average user's click-trail through Salon, as well as breaking out different parts of the demographic for better-targeted advertising -- but at least they listened to the avalanche of criticism and restored a reasonable facsimile of the prior design. Its newswire selection was, for my money, the most interesting such feed, story for story, available on the web. And even in their snarky moments, some of Salon's writers -- well, especially the late, lamented book staff -- had interesting things to say. The site made me think. Which is kind of why I'm going ahead with my mini-boycott: I care enough to hurt the one I love, and I harbor enough faith to think Salon might just reform its errant ways.

For now, that basically leaves me with Slate. Chase pointed out a few weeks ago what their deal is. Slate is to news what the later stomachs are to the cow: the part that deals with the the post-cud part of the equation. Even the crossword puzzle is about news published elsewhere. Sometimes there's value-added -- the commentary on Supreme Court arguments is filled with hilarious side comments -- and sometimes not -- today in In Other Magazines you can watch as Jeremy Derfner gamely tries to summarize the newsworthy contents of The New Yorker's fiction issue. On a recent cross-country flight, I sat behind New York Editor (does this mean she's in charge of cutting Brooklyn to fit in 30 column inches?) Judith Shulevitz, who spent a substantial chunk of time explaining to the fellow in front of her how online journalism works, and how to compare unique-vistors-per-month numbers to traditional circulation figures, and also how Slate is basically satisfied with its success, where that sucess is measured in terms of the level of influence Slate has on policy-makers in Washington D.C.

This strikes me as frightening, actually, given how little original content Slate contributes to our nation's discourse, political or otherwise. I guess Slate's rapid-response summarization-and-spin systems allow it to be a better mirror, to trap errant thoughts and ideas before they escape from Washington's byways, to force all political discussion back into the media-abetted rhetorical gladiatorial arenas where everything in that city is decided. Scarier than the idea that Slate is an entirely content-free publication is the idea that the decision-making apparatus of this country is lapping this stuff up.

On the other hand, as though to prove that nothing on the web is complete unto itself and that for even the most meta of meta-content there always exists some equal and opposite meta-meta-content, there's the Fray, Slate's reader-response section. Consider the following follow-up to a Moneybox article on the Pets.com sock puppet, posted by some fellow by the name of "Joe Public":

Now that veterans are coming forward with their inhumane treatment at the hands of the Japanese during WWII can we remember what Ronald Regan and the US Congress did during th 80's for the Japanese. Suffice to say they sold out the American people and are traitors. The epitome of this treason was when Ronald Regan got out of office he went to Japan and was paid $3M to do a commercial for a Japanese corporation . . .

The really good stuff is over in in the Chatterbox Fray section, though, where late-night insomniacs have turned this "threaded discussion area" into their own private IRC channel. In some sense, such uses are the most useful thing one could do with the Fray. No further topical comment is possible in the hall-of-mirrors Slate Quadrant, where every possible iota of interpretation has already been extracted; the only meaningful reply is the complete non-sequitor.

Dave and Timothy


Dave Eggers, a founding editor of the short-lived but influential magazine Might, moved to New York from San Francisco. He got a book deal for his autobiography and used the advance to subsidize a literary "quarterly" (actual publication schedule irregular), Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. McSweeney's also launched a web site Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency, better known to the world as www.mcsweeneys.net.

The print version ran an eclectic mixture of items: short fiction from writers like David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody, short surreal pieces written (sometimes under pen names) by Eggers and his friends, essays on topics such as the Unabomer and the cover art of Nabokov's novels, and occasional completely unclassifiable items. The graphic design of McSweeney's is striking: the magazine is printed in Iceland (needing to be shipped across the Atlantic by slow freigher does little to help with the irregular publication schedule) and looks it: featuring clean and spare lines, with faintly archaic typefaces and small doodle-like line drawings by Eggers. As a physical object, McSweeney's is cool and restrained; its contents have much the same feel. There is a consistent calmness to their tone, a level-headed straight-faced quality. Most of the pieces are comic, although the non-fiction ones are generally serious. But even the most antic of the jokes -- John Warner's "On the Set," say, from issue 4 -- are written in the same calm style. A wild and inventive premise -- in this case a movie star with god-like powers and his increasingly erratic on-set behavior -- is developed in the most careful and uninflected narrative style possible: "We debated amonst ourselves as to how high our piles of money might reach. Arms grew sore with stretching. Ladders had to be implemented for illustrative purposes."

The online version of McSweeneys, now usually updated with a new pieces most weekdays, features very similar design and contents. The pieces are shorter, and tend towards the more explicitly comic. Some of the most typical -- such as The Ten Worst Films of 1942; As Reviewed by Ezra Pound Over Italian Radio, whose refrain is Pound's fondness for the word "filth" -- take up little more than a single page on the screen. In addition, there are parts of the site where letters from readers are reproduced (verbatim, without comment), that describe the availability of the print version, that reprint obscure press releases, and relay various pieces of news about the site. McSweeneys.net, of course, was not to be confused with www.mcsweeneys.com, a web site run out of Massachusetts as a home page for a family by the name of McSweeney, and featuring photgraphs of the family. The one was a fairly standard personal home page, rarely updated, and the other was a funky little experimental web site running stuff that Eggers found interesting. Neither was making money, nor trying to.

And then Eggers' book was published, and things started changing. The book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (about which more below), was accompanied with a fair amount of attention -- A New Yorker profile, generally positive reviews in many major publications, a multi-city book tour, and a huge quantity of buzz. The web version of McSweeney's, anecdotal evidence indicates, had been growing in popularity already, and when authors such as Douglas Coupland and Tom Wolfe started speaking positively of Genius, sales started taking off. Leapfrogging off a stunt written up at the web site, Eggers asked his loyal readers to go to Amazon.com and post reviews of the book. The only restriction (other than requiring the reviews to give the book five stars) was that the reviews had to display evidence of spectacular ignorance about the book itself; Eggers offered a prize for the most amusingly confused review, and this stunt itself generated a lot of buzz, especially within the youthful urban literarily-connected scene responsible for the original excitement about Eggers and McSweeney's. Suddenly, Eggers was, if not famous, than at the very least being talked about a lot. The McSweeney's.net web site traffic jumped upwards. And a fair number of folks, making the usual web assumption, went to mcsweeney.com and were surprised to encounter something other than the snarky Gen-X humor they were expecting. Of these misguided surfers, a few, displaying typical Net habits, decided the fault for their misdirection actually lay with McSweeneys.com itself, for merely existing, and vented their frustration on the Massachusetts McSweeneys' mailto link.

On his book tour, Eggers explained the problems this situation was causing, and hinted that developments were in the works to set matters right. Shortly after his return to New York, the developments hit the fan. A brief letter on the McSweeneys.net site explained that, due to the financial strain of the unexpected popularity of the non-revenue-generating site, a search had been made for some source of outside support, and that support had been located in the very persons of the Massachusetts McSweeneys themselves. McSweeneys.org would henceforth be hosted on the McSweeneys.com page. A series of further updates on the site over the course of the week, carrying out an implicit dialogue with an unvoiced but apparently quite skeptical reader response, explained more exactly what would happen. The quirky and uninflected tone would remain; so would the the arch and elegant design. Some of the adult themes and language would be toned down, in respect for the McSweeneys and their relatives, but the Brooklyn-based Internet Tendency would retain its editorial independence, and, presumably, its characteristic voice.

Bright and early on Monday, the third of April, fans who navigated to the .net site found themselves redirected to the .com version, graphically unchanged except for a new image proclaiming "Now Incorporating Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency." No sign of the usual McSweeneys humor or look was in evidence, either on the front page or anywhere within the site. Tuesday brought a letter from the family patriarch, Gerry McSweeney, explaining that two McSweeneys sites, in a fit of inspiration, had decided to merge the content as well as the hosting of their respective web sites. No further explanation was forthcoming, and regular McSweeney's readers searched in vain for the latest Ben Greenman musical parody or Lucy Thomas frippery. Friday brought a new development: www.mcsweeneys.net and www.mcsweeneys.com were still identical and still entirely devoted to Gerry McSweeney and his family, but www.mcsweeneys.org opened its doors to the world.

If you hadn't seen McSweeneys.net in, oh, say, a week, you might well have mistaken McSweeneys.org for it. The graphic design was very similar: white background, squarish black fonts, inexplicable hand-drawn mini-art. And the style of the writing was similar, too: the same kind of comic inventions, presented in the same unblinkingly level tone. No explanations were offered, just a straight-up imitation of the original. Had aliens landed and, based solely on outside descriptions of the McSweeneys.net site, navigated to McSweeneys.org, they would never have known the difference.

The following Monday, the original McSweeneys.net site was back, running an announcement from the McSweeney's Representative (the name used by Eggers in answering mail sent to the web site). The announcement stated that the site merger had been called off, expressed disappointment with the readership and their handling of the situation, and stated that McSweeneys.net and the Massachusetts McSweeneys had somewhat different visions for the direction of the site. No mention was made of the McSweeneys.org site. And for the next month and a half, the two sites continued in perfect parallel synchronicity. The .org version featured slightly more regular updates but slightly less polished pieces, and made several tweaks to its appearance, to the point where it was an almost dead-on replica of the .net version, albeit with different words.

Then, in late May, in answering a letter sent to him in his role as the McSweeneys Representative ("M.R." on the site), Eggers disclaimed any connection between the two sites. He expressed concern that someone at the mcsweeneys.org version had apparently been claiming to be him. Saying "[w]e have been flattered by his imitation, but now are kind of tired," Eggers asked the .org site to kindly go away and cease begging for attention. McSweeneys.org replied with a brief note from the McSweeneys Catchpole ("M.C."), stating "We have never claimed to be Dave Eggers" in a brief note whose writing style was a dead-on impersonation of Eggers' style. The following day brought a much longer explanation from the M.C., who unmasked himself as Nic Musolino, explained the raison d'etre for McSweeneys.org, speculated a bit on the nature of McSweeneys-ness, and told something of the story of the "Annoying Little Sister to McSweeney's," as he called it. He promised to leave the note up for a week, and during that week to consider and discuss the future of McSweeneys.org. McSweeneys.net has continued on as ever, publishing the usual, looking neither to the left nor to the right

And oh, yeah, somewhere in there while everyone was distracted by the .net-.org catfight, Gerry McSweeney (and his son Brandon, the family webmaster) converted the .com isotope to (roughly) the same look and with the same top-level content (albeit without the daily updates). But that's just too strange to deal with, so I'll put it off for a while.

And that's where things stand today. I'm sure all of this has must seem somewhat dry, a series of exercises in unimaginative self-referential Web quasi-pranks. So I offer two reasons why I've chosen to lead off with this extensive historical exegesis. First, if you go poke around the sites for a bit, you might, with luck, agree with me that this stuff is interesting and worth paying attention to. You may understand better my mental state for the last few months, ridiculously intriguied by the whole affair but never quite able to figure out why. And second, it's important to have the history firmly in hand before diving into the explanations and the interpretations. Literary analysis follows all the conventions of the mystery story; we are searching for the underlying explanation, for some hidden layer of meaning to events. We know already how things have turned out; we seek instead to understand what back-story, what larger interpretation, attends to the working-out of those events. And for this endeavour, we must have our facts, like our hat, firmly in hand.

On Judging E-Books by Their Covers


How much do we judge books by their covers? I think one of the consequences of the infoglut is that our early-filtering systems are getting ever that much more use. We're learning how to pick and choose among stimuli, out of necessity. And part of this is that certain presentations are privileged, either because we like them better and subconsciously gravitate, or because we're better able to process certain messages quickly and therefore we actually "get" them in the milliseconds other messages squander with poor presentation.

On one level, I glide towards the Vintage books in a bookstore, just because no Vintage book has ever done me wrong. So I filter based on cover art -- literally judging by their covers -- towards books that have a certain modern playful gravitas to them. And on another level, there are some emails I will read and some I will never be able to do more than skim, just because of relative rates of absorbtion. When the once-over will do, I let it suffice, and if it's going to take too much effort, wham, onto the floor. I'm lazy.

But the thing is, the lazy filtration isn't a bad heuristic. A lack of typos in something indicates that its author cared. Someone took the time to proofread, ain't that sweet? If the printing is off, if the paragraphs don't fit together, if the subject line isn't clear - well, it's a turn-off, not unlike hearing the sounds of typing in the background as you talk to someone on the phone. The cosmetics are a proof of sincerity, someone else demonstrating that they're willing to jump through some hoops for you. Without them, one feels insulted.

I worry, though, whether the web age will magnify this trend to dangerous proportions. First, there came a time when pages with too generic an appearance started to offend, when the plain default light-gray background that originally meant "web content" came to mean "outdated web content." And now, it seems, no matter how data-packed, if there isn't a convenient navigation system using stylish but unobtrusive buttons, well, they just aren't taking you seriously. I think our tastes are getting ratcheted upwards as the standards of web design and web technology improve: the threshold for what we're even willing to process is rising. And this might be the true Internet elitism, the way that the lower-down are shut out from the system: they don't have the resources to be able to hone up the irrelevant cosmetics of their presentation, as a result of which our mental filters kick in and say, this isn't worth paying attention to.

Such trends worry me. The real fallout of the triumph of style over substance is that only those with the wealth and time to invest in style are noticed, are heard. And my concern is that certain aspects of the Internet-enabled media experience amplify these trends, indeed necessitate a much stronger reliance on stylistic features in order to make the required snap decisions about what to see and what to skip. People who talk about the "digital divide" are obsessed with the consumer end of things, but I think the real issues are at the production end of the content pipe. Whose voices will technology enable, and whose cries will it silence?

The Speedster


Back in high school track, Coach Wood would take us down to this extremely nasty hill maybe once a month. He'd send us up to the top and tell us to run down as fast as we could. This hill was steep, man. So, even with high-schoolers' levels of fecklessness and senses of invulnerability, we wouldn't exactly go all-out, because then you'd fall. At which point Coach Wood explained that it was only grass and wouldn't actually hurt, and that we needed to go so fast that falling was a risk, because the whole point of the workout was to run faster than we were capable of going under our own usual power, to get our legs turning over even faster than we thought possible. He did say there was one other way, which was to tie yourself to a really big, really fast runner, and then have them run in front of you and be forced to run at their speed to avoid being pulled over.

I mention this because I recently saw an ad on TV for the "Speedster," which appears to be a bungie cord with which you attach yourself to the other runner. They also showed clips of people doing football-style workouts that involved dragging heavy weights with it, but the emphasis seemed to be on leashing yourself to someone else and then getting pulled forward in pure high-speed running terror. Let me just say that the advertised price of $75 strikes me as a little high, given that you couldn't pay me to do a Speedster workout.

Old Tech, New Uses


Did you know that you can get leeches via express mail-order? And, get this, the big market for this service is the finger-reattachment-surgery community. It turns out that in the newly-restored digit, the arteries recover faster than the veins, which means that there can be blood drainage problems and fluid buildup in the fingertip. Solution: good old-fashioned blood-sucking leeches.

Defer, Defer, to the Lord High Executioner


Wow, Judge Jackson is really mad. His Memorandum and Order in the Microsoft case practically seethes off the page.

First, despite the Court's Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, Microsoft does not yet concede that any of its business practices violated the Sherman Act. Microsoft officials have recently been quoted publicly to the effect that the company has 'done nothing wrong' and that it will be vindicated on appeal.

This sentiment is all over the place: in Jackson's morning-after interview, in the DOJ's triumphant press conferences, throughout the ruling itself. Microsoft, they say, is an unrepentant sinner, incapable of admitting the true nature of its destructive actions, unwilling to change its evil ways. Especially in the late stages of the trial, it wasn't so much Microsoft's bad actions as its bad attitude that sealed its fate. And now that Microsoft is vowing to appeal and still proclaiming its innocence, the fingers are wagging even harder. They still don't get it.

Without passing judgement on the judgement one way or the other, though, it's reasonable to ask whether Microsoft's official attitude should be anything else. And I don't really see why it should be. Law, especially antitrust law, is not entirely a place where all determinations can be made with certainty. It's not just intentions and actions: the case hinges on the effects of those actions, and on the metaphysical nature of some highly abstract concepts. Did the degree of control constitute an effective monopoly? Was that monopoly used to try to gain a monopoly in a different line of business or in the same one? Was competition harmed unduly? Did consumers suffer? Are an operating system and a browser more alike or more different? These are questions whose answers verge on the meaningless. Some cannot ever be definitively assessed: whether consumers would be better off had Microsoft not muscled Netscape is a question for sci-fi writers penning alternate histories. Others are matters for the philosophers, who can debate the nature of the telos of a browser and its relationship to the telos of an operating system.

So it often is in the courtroom, as in life. And in the courtroom, as in life, it is necessary to pass from ill-defined questions to plausible answers, to some sort of conclusion that gives a basis for going forward. We live with tangible approximations, they give us something to hang on to. Their precise relationship to abstract issues of truth and necessity will forever remain unclear, but if we want to speak of truth and necessity at all, then there is some relationship there, there is some connection, however vague around the edges. The law is a device for keeping society running in the presence of epistemological and ethical uncertainty. But, like any such device, it msut deal with certain consequences.

First, its approximations remain forever approxmations, and to the extent that the law claims to speak for some more primary level of truth and justice in its determinations, by its own admission the law is not the author of that truth, only the interpreter. When a court convicts and executes a man for a murder he has not committed, the only man the court makes into a murderer is the hangman.

And second, in the process of shaking the tree of truth to see what verdicts fall out, it sometimes happens that different people may reasonably come to different conclusions. I have no idea whether software would be more or less usable today had Microsoft acted differently in certain ways in the past decade. I haven't made a careful study of the matter. Others have: some say the answer is "yes" and some say the answer is "no." From where I stand, both are plausible. I can at least follow the train of reasoning that leads to each conclusion. And given that I don't happen to think that this is a question which admits a definitive answer, even in principle, I don't believe that a court's ruling one way or the other is of more value in providing an answer at the level of belief than the evidentiary study which has gone into that ruling. And if Microsoft lawyers and executives, after seeing and considering both their arguments and the DOJ's, still happen to think that the answer is "no," then I'm in no position to tell them to think again. Indeed, the only ones who are in such a position are those who are presenting new evidence, or providing a more compelling explication of the existing evidence, and even they can only suggest a change of mind, not compel it. Interpretation of the abstract categories of antitrust law and of software development is just one of those areas where almost about any reasonable position turns out not to be defeasible. One might disagree with Bill, but at some point, his freedom of thought kicks in.

My point in all this philosophising is that the Microsoft company line is, even after all that has transpired, still not a priori absurd. And given that they, and some combination of their lawyers, employees, stockholders, lobbyists, and customers cling to this belief, I think the appropriate question is more accurately "Why on earth should Microsoft not persist vocally in this belief?" I think the answer is that Judge Jackson and the DOJ and various trial watchers are looking for remorse, for repentance, for a believable promise that Microsoft will mend its ways. This is the usual practice of criminal trials, this is the the philosophy (and the etymology) behind the penitentiary system. The system is looking to turn the criminal back into a productive and morally upstanding member of society. And this transformation, as we usually conceive of it is to be accomplished through the essentially Christian mechanism of redemption through sincere admission of sin and the desire to be saved. Should Microsoft understand that it has sinned, should it confess unworthiness and beg forgiveness, then will it be proven worthy and repentant, and then shall the divine grace of the legal system fall upon it, and through a course of conduct remedies it will remit its sins and rejoin the Free Market of God. As a theory of criminal justice as applied to the person of the criminal, it's a reasonable enough system, with its share of good days and bad days. When applied to today's modern multinational corporations, entities with thousands of employees, offices in dozens of countries, and market capitalizations measured in the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars, it falls down on the job. Corporations are legal persons, yes, but here that metaphor is stretched past its breaking point. The objective consideration of whether Microsoft constitues a threat to competition and the objective determiniation as to how best to restrain or encourage Microsoft so as to benefit the country as a whole -- these decisions s hould not hinge on the quantity of tears shed or not shed by certain people at certain times, or on the tone of Bill Gates' voice in an interview, and it is absurd that in our current justice system such decisions do turn on such matters.

There's one further twist, though. It's absurd to ask Microsoft or its executives to come on their knees before the court, it is a confusion of categories and a mistaking of this for that, its officers and many of its employees recognize with great bitterness this absurdity and refuse to kneel and they are entirely correct in their conclusion that their legal case should not be influenced by their public shaming, but this absurdity does not make groveling a bad business decision. Plenty of press analysts have noted this ironic fact, noted the geeky integrity and direct habits of thought that keep Microsofties' necks stiff. They even recognize, at times, that it would be manifestly in their self-interest to feign contrition, and seem entirely incapable of doing so in practice. Our country demands sacrifices, our political system requires certain symbolic acts to oil its gears. And Microsoft, having run headlong against the irrational and arbitrary responses of our nation's politico-cultural institutions, now marches, like Socrates, towards its cup of hemlock, all the while proclaiming its harmlessness and refusing its friends' entreaties to please, please, put life before integrity.

Sadly, Not Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You


Out of seven films I went to as part of the Seattle International Film Festival, I'd have to say that six were worth the price of admission, which is a considerably better ratio than Hollywood usually seems to be capable of.

Some were fairly forgettable. There was a funny enough Mexican black comedy about corruption, called Herod's Law that featured a a surprising amount of gunplay, a truly unncessary sped-up sex scene, and an appearance by Alex Cox, best known as the director of Repo Man. Cox, who looks amazingly like Steve Buscemi, plays the role of "Gringo." The film was apparently quite controversial in Mexico: it's the first film about corruption to mention the PRI by name, and it seems that the PRI resorted to the most hilariously incompetent tactics to try and stop its release: forcing projectionists to show the film out of focus, and other tactics of the sort usually associated with low-level bureaucratic flunkies who're so accustomed to gross mismanagement that they can't even work the wheels of government properly when they need to engage in a little repression. I guess because of the controversy, the SIFF people flew up the director to answer questions after the screening. I don't know why they bothered; he refused to answer any of the political questions ("So, what exactly are you saying about the PRI in the scene where the mayor murders the madam of the local brothel and takes over the business?")

While I'm being catty, let me state that Long Night's Journey Into Day, a documentary about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, actually seemed more like a documentary about the making of Paul Simon's Graceland. Every few minutes, they'd cut away from the testimony of variously victimized South Africans, show some documentary footage or a long tracking shot of a Cape Town beach, and slam on some reverb-heavy South African music. I mean, really, own up here, the last film I saw that was this heavy on the selection of pop tunes was Forrest Gump. When the soundtrack wasn't cueing the audience to feel excessive uplift, the movie was actually decent, raising some interesting moral issues. Then again, given the material they had to work with, it might have required serious effort not to wind up with a movie of moral gravity.

Also in the category of "great source material, okay film," was the film version of Anna Deveare Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles. The woman is a Jim Carrey-class mimic with an astonishing ear for language and mannerism. She is not, I'm sorry to report, much of a filmmaker. There was enough of her doing her thing to make for a pretty riveting hour and a half, but all the same, the movie was horribly edited and fairly incoherently assembled. I guess there are just certain performers you could watch read the phone book, and Anna Deveare Smith is one of them.

The Black House, from Japan, winds up like any of dozens of Hollywood slasher films, but it's a lot more fun than most of them along its journey there. People who call insurance agents asking whether their policies pay out on suicide are Bad News, generally -- but this film does a fairly nice job of misleading you about the precise nature of that news, indeed, of making you think that you might be watching a jolly and cheerful film instead of the gut-churner it ultimately winds up being. Oh, yeah, and there's also one wonderfully disorienting shot where the director does some pretty funky stuff with the camera's focal depth.

Moving up the food chain, Janice Beard, 45 WPM is a really wonderful goofball comedy from England. The titluar character is working temp jobs as a secretary, trying to save up some money for her agoraphobic mother, when she gets embroiled in an industrial espionage scheme. But plot is really secondary in this movie: the place of honor belongs to Janice herself, a wonderfully dizzy self-doubting outsider with a talent for making up absurd stories. Trying to hide from her mother the nature of her job, Janice sneaks into the model kitchen part of a home furnishings store and proceeds to make a videotape of herself "cooking in her kitchen." I'm really not doing her justice, I know. Basically, she's the most appealingly charming and well-rounded character I've seen in a comedy in years upon years. Also starring is Rhys Ifans, best known to audiences as Spike in Notting Hill. Suffice it to say that Ifans may be stuck in romantic comedies, but he definitely has a hell of a range as an actor.

Topping out my list is The Mission, a Hong Kong gangster flick from Johnnie To that distinguishes itself by the relatively small number of shots fired and the near-complete absence of over-the-top effects and/or camera work. It's just a bunch of bodyguards and their elemental coolness, and the film makes it work. They get into firefights and they dive for cover, shoot back, figure out exactly where the bad guys are, then carefully and systematically take them out. Cue bad-ass cha-cha music. In their downtime, they get bored and give each other loaded cigarettes and kick around wadded up pieces of paper. You gotta believe me here, this makes for high-caliber cinema. These guys are just badassity personified. Rip-roaring fun.

Well, that makes six movies I liked, which means it's time for me to speak about the seventh, Silence!, last and most definitely least. The concept seemed intriguing: a silent film (filmed this past year), accompanied by live music and voice-over from actors on stage beneath the screen. The same actors, in fact, who appeared on screen. I've seen enough bizzare stunts like this that pulled it off for me to have reasonably high hopes going in, only to have those hopes cruelly dashed. Silence! is the kind of garbage that too-closely-knit artistic groups produce when they're deprived of the grounding effects of external reality checks. I should have realized how bad things were going to be when I saw the article in The Stranger about the film and the author revealed that he basically knew from other projects every single person with a major part on the Silence! production team. How did it suck? Let me count the ways.

One: the film was "about" the making of a film. A silent film. A silent film about the making of a film. Oooh, deep. Two: most of the dialogue was either recited from a story they decided to use, or was actors repeating lines they'd improvised on the occasion of the film's filming, so that everything sounded like someone declaiming or saying something profoundly incoherent. Three: they had a little kid up there to say a lot of the lines. Stunts like that just bug me. Four, there was no monkey playing a trombone, an essential element to any live accompaniment to a silent film. No trombone-playing monkey is a sure sign of a desparate film.

Would You Shut Up About the XSL Aready?


After some fiddling, I've managed to run Clark's XT package over the site. The main observable difference is that all the pages have .html extensions now. Netscape and Lynx users should be able to see the site now.

Play it Again, Tim (Updated!)


As if the saga of the multiple McSweeneys sites weren't already bizzare enough, Gerry McSweeney and the Massachusetts McSweeneys have gotten back in the game, revising their site's cover page to bring the .com version in line with the .net and .org ones. "Bizzaro content for the amusement of misguided and other visitors," proclaims the new McSweeneys.com homepage, and I'd have to concur with that description.

For those unfamiliar with the backstory, I've written up the first part of my larger analysis of the whole McSweeneys saga, a brief narrative of the events of the last few months involving the three McSweeneys sites. Theorizing as to what it all means is on the way, assuming this spurt of creativity continues.

Masters of Design


I went and saw some films by Charles and Ray Eames today. The Eames, who were active basically from the 40s through the 70s, were "designers" in the broadest sense of the word. Many of the classic pieces of furniture that perfectly characterize the 50s and 60s were Eames designs (they were the ones who first figured out how to shape plywood along multiple axes); you've probably sat in dozens of Eames chairs in your lifetime. They also curated museum exhibitions, designed homes, and made films. Lots of films, in fact, each either about the nature of design itself, or deploying their astonishing sense of aesthetics and function to make some point with grace and impact.

Their most famous work is Powers of Ten, a documentary film that starts with a closeup of a man sunbathing on a Chicago beach. Then, every ten seconds, the scale increases by a power of ten, zooming out through the atmosphere, the solar system, and out beyond the galaxy. At a scale of 10 to the 26th meters, the journey reverses, and we descend back to the beach scene and then down to the subatomic level, 10 to the minus 14th meters across. It's a remarkable film, one of the most genuinely boggling attempts to communicate the mind-boggling variation in scale our universe contains I know of.

Also on the bill, though, were several lesser-known films which I thought were even more fun. Tocatta for Toy Trains is a beautiful celebration of classic toys, set to a charming Elmer Bernstein score. Atlas is a map animation, eight years per second, of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and watching it, you understand just how cataclismic the the Huns' westward push was, from the perspective of everyone else in the way. And House: after 5 years of living, a wordless montage of still photographs of their house -- most of which aren't even of the house itself, capturing instead the light falling across a flower, or an arrangement of plates on a table --, is an amazing testament to the Eames' design vision.

Walking out of the theatre, I realized what it was I felt when I saw their work on screen: I felt patriotic. It's easy to scoff at decades past, to gasp at their architecture, their obsession with plastic, to fill your house with gaudy pieces of "retro" furnishings and luxuriate in your temporal syncretism. But for Ray and Charles Eames, these furnishings had a deeply human meaning: the first thing Charles Eames did before designing what would become his signature chair was to go out and measure hundreds of people's butts. And their films and exhibitions are a celebration of a wonderfully American design sensibility. Their house. built as a showpiece from readily-available standard industrial materials, is a marvel of comfort and appealing lines; watching the films, you're deeply aware how much the couple taking the photographs loved their house, what a sense of the beauty of things they had.

The Eameses look marries simple components with advanced technology; clean lines with delicious clutter. They responded to the visual rhythms of the capacitors and microchips and wires that were driving the computer revolution, and to the musical rhythms of jazz and Bach. Designers aping them, and blindly applying visual formulas they developed, have been responsible for a lot of atrocities over the decades. But you can't blame the Eameses for that; such was never their vision. And to look at their work, quintessentially American in its inspiration and so influential that it came to define American design for a generation, is to remember what lies underneath, the purity and beauty of a complex understanding of simplicity and its limits. Design isn't just a look, it's a spirit and a way of doing things, and any country that can create and itself be created by the Eames spirit has got something good going.

Even more about XSL!


Hokay. It looks very as though there's no Netscape support for client-side XSLT processing right now. I'd love to be proven wrong, but I can find no evidence for the existence of such hooks, based on the web searching I've done. Whereas Microsoft was all too happy to show me three different ways of writing my content to XML but having it rendered (via XSL) to HTML client-side. Draw what conclusions you wish.

In any event, I've gotten my hands on James Clark's freeware Java implementation of XSLT. My first idea, which I dismissed as overly complicated, was to rebuild my pages to generate CGI queries that would call into XT, parametrized by which one of my pages was being requested, and serve up the resulting HTML. I've since had the better (or worse, depending on perspective) idea that I can just use XT on my own computer every day or so to regenerate HTML versions of all my pages and then upload them to the server. I don't like this way of doing things, since XML+XSL+CSS is fundamentally a client-side technology whose whole point is to make web content generation entirely declarative, and precompilation steps intrinsically worry me. But such drastic measures may be necessary, as least until the W3C manages to force XLink down people's throats properly.

I'll stop geeking now, I promise.

A Few Historical Connections


This little musing was inspired by my viewing of Atlas today (keep reading for details).

In the very late 3rd century BC, the Han Dynasty came to power in China. The first lasting dynasty to rule a unified, the Han did all sorts of nation-building stuff, basically showing the next two millenia what it meant to be Chinese and powerful. One of the things they did over the next few centuries was to deal with their barbarian problem. Way off there somewhere to the West, along the Silk Road, were these other people who had exotic stuff and also a hankering for all sorts of everyday stuff they ignorantly seemed to regard as exotic and gosh, it sure would be nice to trade with them. So, after some internal debates (which make for fascinating reading, especially in light of 19th and 20th century arguments over industry versus agriculture and development), they put together a sucession of large armies and basically drove out the Xiongnu, the barbarians to the north of Han China. The Silk Road was open, and things were good.

Halfway around the world, a little pipsqueak pimple of a nation on the Mediterranean was brutally hacking and slashing its way to the top of the Largest Empire charts. As things turned out, the Pax Romana was pretty good for trade, even if you were just a conquered people rather than a Roman proper. And when various neat trade goods started flowing through the Parthians and other bizzare Asian nation-states out there to the East, the Romans were more than happy to take up their role as a trading partner with a massive economy. Provided some wealth to shore up the northern frontier, in fact, where the barbarians had been mostly contained in the German forests. There were those annoying Goths to deal with, but at least the Goths seemed mostly content to expand eastwards, rather than south into Roman turf.

Then, in the 5th century, right when things were getting pretty dicey for the Romans anyway, things all went to hell all at once. This insane warrior people calling themselves Huns came rolling out of the Ukraine, smashing into the Goths and driving southwest. The Goths, terrified and panicky, went rolling into the only turf open to them: the Western Roman Empire. The rest -- including Rome -- was history.

The punchline, of course, is that the Huns and the Xiongnu were one and the same. Their centuries-long migration started when they were driven away from China by the desire for trade. It ended when they encountered the other end of that cross-continental trade rout, and left substantial parts of it bleeding and/or on fire. Perspectives like this unified one were basically nonexistent at the time; it's taken our own, more gloabl, age to piece together the various narratives and find the common elements. I've been in awe ever since I first heard the story: it shows you how interconnected even the ancient world was. Rome and China barely understood each other's existence, and yet their trading connections fueled both their individual histories and the larger migrations of which they were only observers, set in motion events that radically affected the history of the human world entire. The world has always been smaller than it seems, perhaps.

I Love the Smell of Books in the Morning


Just finished reading DeLillo's The Names, which is, even for DeLillo, a truly fine novel. There's just something about the way he puts words together, the suddenness and the poetry of his pronouncements, the way he builds up a plot with perfect subltety. In general, I'm more a fan of his later novels than his earlier; Ratner's Star,say, has its charm, but feels too much like a collection of vignettes. The Names feels like the point at which DeLillo really completely gets it right. It was slow going -- DeLillo demands attentive reading -- but worth it.

Speaking of novelists whose work requires an alert reader, the new Richard Powers novel, Plowing the Dark is due out this month, definitely cause for celebration. April saw the release of Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, which is next up on my to-read list. Also published in April was Evan S. Connell's Deus Lo Volt!, which I've been meaning to pick up a copy of, although Deus only knows when I'll find time to read it. Connell's got a knack for taking historical events seriously on their own terms, a respect that extends both to world-view and language, and I'm pretty intrigued by the prospect of an authentically medieval take on the Crusades (Sheri Holman's A Stolen Tongue was a lot of fun, I think at least partly because she knew precisely how far to take her 15th-century historical accuracy, and exactly when to stab it in the back and jump up and down on its corpse).

There's also some good stuff coming down the pike in the months ahead. Philip Pulman's The Amber Spyglass will arrive in October along with a massive promotional campaign, closing out the His Dark Materials trilogy. Also in the heavily-hyped pile, or perhaps so heavily-hyped that it's a pile all its own, the fourth Harry Potter book (even the title is shrouded in secrecy, although Amazon was calling it Harry Potter and the Doomspell Tournament for a while). Given how good the first one was and how much each of the two that followed improved on its predecessor, I have high expectations, along with the other 131,685 (at last count) people who've pre-ordered it from Amazon. Haruki Murakami's much-beloved but little-available Norweigan Wood, which existed in English only in a long out-of-print edition from Kodansha (a translation Murakami apparently considered so awful that he himself did whatever he could to hide the volume fromm public view) is being issued in a new translation by Jay Rubin (who did the excellent translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). It should hit the shelves in September. November will see the release of another Sherri S. Tepper novel, apparently entitled The Fresco. Her last few novels haven't been quite up to the standard of her work from the late 80s and early 90s, but hope springs eternal.

A Few Notes on the Site


Laboratorium.net is built around XML pages that are rendered to HTML using an XSL stylesheet; the HTML's appearance is controlled with CSS. The XSL provides the navbar, and the cute mouse-over effects for the quotations at the top of some of the pages. The CSS is responsible for the somber color scheme and the heavy use of Times New Roman.

The site is currently not rendering properly under Mozilla or Lynx. Lynx just fundamentally doesn't have XML support. If I can figure out a cute way to use James' Clark's xt XML/XSL transformtion engine to do the processing on the server side, I may be able to serve up HTML in some fairly grody manner, but this is not my highest priority. XML is a W3C standard, after all.

Mozilla is another matter; it's definitely on the XML bandwagon, so I'm not fully certain what's going wrong. I suspect that the trouble is coming from the way I link the stylesheet to the XML document, and that I'm using some kind of Microsoft-only non-standard method of linking the two. So I'm in the process of investigating what the according-to-spec browser-neutral way of rendering the two together is. Appropriate changes will be made as necessary: we here at the Laboratorium are standards fans, by and large. I'm also looking for a way to generate the main pages themselves by "linking" to a central XML "database" that contains all the item summaries, and, to auto-generate the navbar from some kind of XML descriptor, and to add a few UI widgets so that you, the user can customize your Laboratorium experience,

On the content side, the changes over the next few weeks should largely be a matter of accretion. Various writings that I want to archive on the site are scattered all over the place, so I'll be gradually collecting them, editing them for today's modern media-jaded audience, putting them in the proprietary Laboratorium Standard Textual Data Format, and linking them. The organizational structure of the site is still a bit up-in-the-air; once more of the content is in place, I should have a better idea how I want to break it down by subcategories.

As for what the site means, why it's here and what its goals are, well, you didn't expect me to really tell you that, now did you?