The Laboratorium
August 2000

Irony: A Claim


The irreducible core of irony is the willingness to take seriously both form and content, along with the possibility of their opposition.

Scott McHead-in-the-Clouds


Saw Scott McCloud talk today about comics and technology. Granted, the man is smart and funny, and his Understanding Comics is a genuine work of genius, one of the sharpest and most accessible discussions of a lot of the stuff I stay up nights scratching my head over. All the same, he said at least two things that struck me as seriously askew. After making the reasonably useful distinction between the two chief metaphors for a computer screen -- a page and a window -- he shot his credibility in the foot by complaining that the page metaphor is unpleasant because the page is the wrong aspect ratio for a computer screen and requires unpleasant scrolling. Jeez, man, you can't blame the metaphor for crappy interpretations of it -- and any such implementation (say, for example, the Acrobat reader) that behaves this way is acting as a window onto a page. The scaling issues are just as much a technological quirk of currently available implementations as the scrolling issues (a mouse is horrible for sustained scrolling, even one with the wheel dojiggy, compared with a haptic device like a joystick) that bedevil his more Bayeux-like window-metaphor experiments. Also, he claimed that the goal of computer games is for the player to feel as though they are creating the experience. As a text-adventure gamer, I have to say, this is not it, not it at all. IF fans out there, you'll back me up on this one, right?

I Know I am a Citydweller


Gave a panhandler some bills today because I didn't want to give up my laundry quarters.

Duck season! Rabbit season! No! It’s book season!


After two lousy months of no-name author readings at Elliott Bay, September looks like a return to the high-quality calendar of the spring, when I once went to three readings in the same week. September 5 sees James Welch (author of Fools Crow), hawking copies of his new book The Heartsong of Charging Elk, which kept my stepfather up until 2 in the morning to finish it. Margaret Atwood (or "Magaret Atwood," as Elliott Bay's web page calls her) is doing a $10 event on the 11th. I was no fan of The Handmaid's Tale, but if the publicity campaign is any indication, it should be a major-league literary event, and besides, novelists of Atwood's fame are like old-school baseball cards: maybe you didn't particularly like Carl Yaztremzki, but if you get a chance to get the Carl Yaztremski card with the sideburns, you don't pass it up.

I'm definitely planning to see William Vollman on the 13th, even though I'm not entirely inclined to get a copy of his book. David informs me that Vollman is known for spicing up his readings with fun like firing a pistol (albeit one loaded with blanks) into the audience. Vollman fandom seems to mark a certain slightly maladjusted demographic, one that sees itself mirrored and justified in his grandiose misanthropic insanity. All the same, should be an interesting event. Jane Mendelsohn graces the Elliott Bay basement on the 23rd with the intriguing-sounding Innocence. Nick Bantock will be on display, as it were, on the 25th. I have a suspicion that he's probably horribly shy and inarticulate in person: his lavishly-designed books have the meticulous artistry that speaks of great creativity that has been utterly denied at least one other possible outlet. T.C Boyle, another one of the Collectible Literary Figures, visits on the 27th. And to round out the announcements, Booker-prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro will be in town on the 9th of October. They're also promising, that same action-packed October week, to host Michael Chabon, Mark Salzman, Bill Bradley, and Neal Pollack.

Andy: Portion


Test cases, for so long a mythical luxury, have become a meaningful possibility. I pound out a command-prompt test harness, and the rest of the team sets about supplying the oxen. The server winds up crumpling under the repeated no-op baseline case, and it's back into the mines for me and Glenn, but the whiff of fresh air is invigorating, and besides, I'm floating anyway. Metaphor speaks too strongly to me; I settle on Chester as my test case for Irene. I tell him about this plan when I give him his evening dish of food; he responds with a flick of the tail. I think this is assent; it can be hard to tell with cats sometimes. Then she calls, to make more specific plans of our vauge tentativities, and wonder if I should bribe Chester with double rations, or perhaps surreptitiously rub Irene with catnip, just to make double-sure she doesn't fail the test.

When faced with this intruder in our private turf, Chester's first response is to hide his fuzzy mouse toy under a chair, followed by a purred consent to ear scratching, followed by a return to his usual catlike disdain. Cats, she says, with a shrug, then pokes me in the arm and we head out, leaving Chester to his own devices. On our way out of the theatre, we discover that her car won't start. A towing service proves unnecessary, as a kindly fellow with a pickup gives us a jump, along with a glowing recommendation for the church he attends. Irene tells him, with completely straight face, that's she's an ordained minister. Universal Life Church, she says, and of course, she really is, as she's dropping me off, she shows me the card she printed out off the web page and had laminated. At this, I kiss her. For the lamination, I explain when we pull apart, she laughs and it's the most astonishing sudden burst of joy, sunbeams through stormclouds.

We don't have a water cooler at work, there is no forum for such things, I call my sister and tell her, but a string class is a string class no matter how happy you are, and Matt's nerves are frayed and everyone is short with everyone else. Share and enjoy, I pull the boathorn out of my desk at half past six and once I have the undivided attention of the room, I order the team to dinner. I have the boathorn, so they obey. It's beer and burgers and baseball games with no sound at Champions for everyone, like it or not, but they like it just fine, even Glenn who's a vegetarian. Andy is resistant, but I manage to land a beer in front of him, he starts sipping it and stops twitching. We play a shamefully incompetent game of darts, and then the crowd hauls itself contentedly back to the office. Tom and Matt disappear down the hallway to their cubes, bickering over the protocol handler's interface like a married couple, and Glenn suggests we all play Frisbee on the weekend, if we make it to the weekend, and Andy says thank you, it's good to feel part of a group you want to feel part of like this and is hunched at his keyboard with his ears between his knees, oblivious to the outside world, before I can parse his sentence. Time to start making some large charitable donations, I think, because I must have used up a whole hell of a lot of karma the last few days.

Now I Get It


Our division had its summer party today -- they chartered a boat and took us out on the Sound for a bit. Now and then, some of us would duck out onto the bow and look out at the grain silos near the Magnolia Bridge, or some such similar Puget Sound landmarks, but for most of the time, it was basically that they'd put us in a big room that shook around a lot. I do, however, now understand the motivation behind the whole "open bar" concept. Especially after today at work, which was bascially a lost day, meetings floor to ceiling, a couple of which actually counted as negative progress in terms of understanding and achieving our goals. At one point I went back to my office, closed the door, and just started shaking my various shakable limbs to calm down. I individually like every single person I had any contact with today; it's just that collectively, in meeting-type situations, something goes horribly wrong.

Waving the Standard


Okay, Netscape punks. This page is now compliant with the HTML 4.0 (transitional) standard. I even put in the fricking DOCTYPE declaration for you SGML weenies. [I can't yet vouch for all the pages on the site, but notebook.html is definitely 100% kosher, and I'll fix other non-compliance issues as I find them]. If this page still crashes your browser, it's your browser-maker's fault, not mine. See this link for a fuller explanation (and sob story). I invite you Netscape 4.x users to take the issue up with Netscape, not with me. Or, go one better and get a real browser, like IE, Opera, or, best of all, lynx.

Deep down, I'm a pragmatic opportunist about computer standards. Collectively, we have an interest in standards, but also in there being a certain level of ferment. Sometimes these standards come from standards-making bodies, sometimes from one player with enough clout, sometimes it's just the last of the dragon's teeth left standing. And it's not like any of these sources is morally pure or possessed of a deeper truth. "Independent" standards boards, in particular, exhibit all sorts of fun pathologies -- zealotry run amok, large corporate participant-saboteurs, unbelievable infighting, tilting at windmills. To parody Churchill, I'd call standards-making bodies the worst form of technological decision-making with the exception of all the rest -- except that I don't see them as much different from all the rest.

That said, there are times when standards bodies do the right thing. With only a couple of minor exceptions (the object model is a bit screwy, and the handling of attributes is decidely non-uniform, and a few other nits like these), the XML spec is pretty high-quality, and certainly the IETF has gotten a whole lot of the hardware and protocol standards right enough to make this whole Internet thingo work, more or less. But, more importantly from my callously pragmatic point of view, having a standard is a pretty nice way of passing the buck when you just get too tired and frustrated to deal. And this is one of those cases.

Standard or no, even, HTML is built around a can-do philosophy: the browser should always keep trying to recover from whatever crappy HTML input it's handed. Whatever minimal sense it can make of the page, it should make, and render. This kind of resilience in the face of sloppy coding is what made the Web, is what made it possible for so many of us to learn HTML by experimentation -- the results might be a bit strange, but it was impossible to screw things up too badly. That's how I learned, and God bless Netscape for its forgiving nature back when we still referred to it as a "mosaic program." The fundamental point is that browsers are supposed to render what they understand, and ignore what they don't, and when CSS came along, Netscape took that rule out to the barn and did unspeakable things to it. Worse still, Netscape's different versions, especially across OS'es, choke in subtly different ways -- I've gotten this site to work under a couple of different releases, including, at times, various Win98, Mac, and FreeBSD isotopes, and it's never the same problem twice. In my software developer shoes, I probably ought to care the full range of configurations viewers might be using. But guess what? Those shoes aren't the hat I'm wearing when I write for the Lab, and I get my fill of debugging during the day.

No more, thanks. I'm driving.

Down With State!


Note the absence of the definite article. Especially after my debugging experience last week, I hate state. The more state you keep around, the more things that can go wrong. The more you cache values rather than recompute them as needed, the greater the chance that they'll be wrong just when you turn to use them. The more things that can be modified, the more things you need to protect from being modified when you don't want them to be. The more you keep written down and shoved off in data structures, the harder it is to figure out quickly what's going wrong when something goes wrong, the less helpful that stack trace becomes. The more variables and aliases and interactions, the harder it is to pull apart a segment of code and just plain understand what it does. The more state a protocol keeps, the more vulnerable it becomes to denial-of-service flood attacks. The more information you write down, the more you need to protect from prying eyes. The more different pieces of data that affect the workings of a program, the more likely it is to die mysteriously but painfully as it collapses under the state-weight of accumulated cruft. The more you try to remember, the more dangerous forgetting becomes.

Doesn’t Suck Lobsters


Broadband comes to the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free! Also, last night, I brought the halogen into the room with the computer, bowing to the reality that I'm spending more of my time in here anyway, so I might as well have the good light with me. Now all I need to do is fix up the ergonomics of my setup and I'll never need to leave this chair ever again.

Change A-Comin


The summer teases you, and those late sunsets start to feel like your birthright. All the same, even after dark,, this city that I call home is always jumping out at me with moments and views like minor miracles.

Carl Barks, 1901-2000


Barks wasn't the first to draw Donald Duck, but I think it's safe to say that Barks created the Donald we know today. I was raised on Barks comics, on the ducks and dog-faced Beagle Boys he drew for over three decades. I remember reading them during long car trips; we'd stop at the rest stops on the Ohio Turnpike and buy Golden Key reprint comics, which came three to a sealed-plastic bag in the little gift shops. Walt Disney Comics and Stories and Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck, these were nourishment and joy, filled with Barks' endless inventiveness and sense of adventure and sparkling joyful wit. Later, as the Duck renaissance took off in the mid and late 80s, I came to internalize the printing schedule by which the monthly comics were doled out, their pages mixing the wonderful Barks originals with stories by the younger generation of artists, Don Rosa and Daan Jippes and others, whose work Barks inspired and made possible. There was something wondeful and fully realized about a Barks story, a feeling of humor and excitement tripping over each other, and the characters, Donald and Scrooge and, of course, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, who sometimes I still expect to see out walking down the street with color-coordinated ice cream cones, or nearly knocking down that suspicious-looking man with the three-foot long white beard as they race out of the post office, looking for the package with the Transylgarian goblet in it with the treasure map inscribed on its base.

I like to think that wherever Barks is now, every now and then he drops in on Scrooge at the money bin, and the two of them go diving through the money like porpoises, and burrow through it like gophers, and toss it up and let it hit them on the head.

A Tip from Me to You


Kids, kids, kids. Fill out your change-of-address cards when you move. I got five pieces of mail today, all for the guy who lived in my apartment before me.

Misanthropic Opening Lines


After twenty-one years of marriage, the widow Dawson finally emerged victorious.

Jennifer inherited her uncle's ability to wiggle his ears and roll his tongue, but it was her older sister Josephine who got the house and car.

It turns out that there is a very good reason why they have large red signs telling you not to bring highly flammable camping gas into the Lincoln Tunnel.

"Such an ugly word, don't you think? I so prefer to think of him as differently alive."

All boasting aside, the only thing that went down on him that day was the sun.

It was not a mistake he lived to regret.

Headliners and Undercards


Saw Built to Spill in concert last night with some lesser band called, I think, the "Automation Adventure Series." It was like an object lesson in why some bands will always open for other bands and some bands will be opened for, and why this should be so. The Automatons would play the same chord for perhaps a minute or so -- strum strum strum strum strum -- and then change to a new one, just before the crowd rioted and tore their instruments from their hands in order to play something different. On the other hand, Built to Spill finished their set with a twenty-minute jam on one chord, and it was good, as in, I didn't realize it was a one-chord jam until maybe five minutes into it. Now, granted, I didn't notice that their second song was in 3/4 time, or that most of their jams are pentatonic (both observations courtesy of Steve, and both pretty damn cool facts), so I'm not perhaps the most alert of listeners, but still, there was artistry on display, there was something there.

Automation did liven up the procedings by doubling the size of their onstage presence during the course of their set, and also by projecting movie images on the wall behind them (generally much more interesting to pay attention to than the music itself). It looked like some kind of painfully "artistic" retro montage -- a lot of pictures of 60s military planes and test pilots, someone in military uniform standing and lecturing while terms like "intestinal fortitute" flashed on the screen next to him, close up of some clean-cut guy's face, picture of some kind of crystal goblet with liquid in it being poured out, then some more pictures of planes flying, this time being rotated and then flashing before disappearing, as though zapped by some extremely low-budget alien plasmeon beam. But no, I was wrong, it turned out to be a 1966 Film Board of Canada documentary called (I think) "The Sense of Orientation," all about your friend, Mr. Inner Ear the mean things you can do to confuse him and the mean tricks he'll play on you in revenge (taking away your intestinal fortitute being among them, apparently).

Furniture Retroville


Today, walking around the neighborhood, I poked my head into the retro furniture store, a place still stuck in that horrible period of roughly 30 years ago when the visual design aesthetic nearly completely shoved the whole comfort thing out of the way. Two women were in there shopping and looking at stuff. One picked up a cocktail shaker, turned to the other, and said, "I want to get a martini maker." Count-to-three-pause. "To make martinis." They had a set of six-foot-high metal letters, spelling out, I think, "O-P-E-R-A." If they'd had a letter I liked better ("J" would be good, "Q" is hard to argue with, "M" has a pleasing solidity), and if they hadn't been $300 each, I might have bought one. That's the problem with junk. At some point things stop getting cheaper with age and start getting more expensive again.

Andy:Continuo


The panic is stupid, but it comes anyway, during a moment of midafternoon drifting daydreaming, I take a turn through the hallway, twice around the cubicle island, and decide to call her immediately upon my return home from work, to put aside all thought until then, to pull the blade across the surface of my life and peel it apart into these two halves. I spend the afternoon cleaning up the accumulated clutter of the cache work, expunging the crossed i's and dotted t's, commenting the sleepless experiments whose secret purposes I am already straining to remember. I discover that Glenn and I have separately created a pair of bugs which almost perfectly cover each other's tracks, and which must be excised together or not at all. It's early yet; I take the plunge.

When I come up for air, the sun has set and the office has emptied itself. I stick my head out my door, such as it is; Andy is standing outside his cave, looking around and blinking. He sees me and his eyes light up. Dinner? It's dinner or go home, I realize. Sure. Where? We wind up at the Revolutionary Wrap Parlor, where Andy has a Blood of the Masses Burrito and I scarf down a Chicken Pol Pot Pie with a Shake Guevara. I have entered that state where motives must go unquestioned; I acquiesce as I drag my feet and prolong our dinner conversation. What was that deal with that other table at the IHOP? When you went back? He takes another bite and looks away from me, but he smiles. Oh. I took the money they left on the table. As we were standing to leave. I am confused; I ask But, so, when you went back, when, did you steal . . . and tail off, trying to squint at it properly so it makes sense. That's when I put it back, he says, Just breaking their security..

We stand to go. A coin is flipping in my mind, heads and tails, and a sense of the urgency of the time. But why? I ask Andy, but then, as he starts to answer, Some other time. For our next dinner out, my freshly-stuffed stomach is sending other signals to me now, speaking of prospects other than food. Andy ducks into his car with a strangely graceful roll of his knobbly shoulders; I duck into mine and drive home with forcefully empty mind and steadied breath. It is late, too late to call perhaps, I start to calculate whether tomorrow is getting too close to the weekend, and then a little of the residual euphoria over the whole cache job kicks in and I think screw it, Irene gave me that number in an IHOP parking lot at who-knows-when in the morning, and I want to believe that such things are not decided over mislaid half-hours and I call. After, I lie on the couch and Chester curls up next to me and purrs; I'm afraid to wake up from this dream, and I don't, because I fall asleep instead.

A Bad Joke


The plastic surgeons had been preparing for months. With their innovative transplant technology, anyone could go the website, enter some simple information (your privacy fully guaranteed!) about their head shape, and receive (complementary upgrade to priority shipping in the first month of service!) a form-fitted latex mask, guaranteed to be completely indistinguishable from the real face underneath, except for being perfectly wrinkle-free, with radiantly clear and healthy feel and texture. But would it succeed? They'd blanketed the airwaves with ads, done their magazine interviews, sent out all the press releases. At midnight, they opened their site for business, and held their breath. And then, at 12:24, the first order came in, followed by another, and then another. As the day progressed, and the count climbed into the hundreds, they realized that it would be forever remembered as the launch that shipped a thousand faces.

Pet Peeve


When some person or institution is doing something wrong, and then, for a change, does the right thing for a change, yes, I know, techinically one can add hyporcisy to the list of their wrongs, but, I mean, please, come on. I'm especially annoyed by those who scream "hypocrite!" whenever they catch their least favorite Evil Spokesperson being nice or law-abiding in some private affair. Look, I know your heart is in the right place and you're okay on your definitions, but can't you save your outrage for the institutions that talk the talk but don't walk the walk, rather than vice versa? Would you prefer if -- as usually seems to be the pattern when such outcry gets too loud -- they returned to perfectly unhypocritical consistency by making every single one of their actions in line with their distasteful rhetoric? Slashdotters, take note.

Say it with me: Tequiza!


It's a putrid beverage, but it's also an easy-to-drink beer isotope. I found this out this afternoon when our VP decided to spend some of the morale budget on Tequizas and tortilla chips for the team. He put the Tequizas on ice on one of the carts usually used to move computers around, and then went around the building, stopping by everyone's office to thrust beer with agave nectar upon us. For those who refused, on grounds of putridity, there were fluorescent malt liquor drinks, and also root beer. I'm still waiting for someone to recognize the common element in malt liquor and Milk Duds. That'll truly be the day to run and hide.

In any case, I'm up on the third floor, so by the time the Tequiza cart reached my office, it'd trundled up and down the length of the building a whole bunch of times, and the VP had four Tequizas in him. It was a fun sight. Later, a bunch of us were talking about disgusting drinks, and I learned that the Germans like to mix beer with Sprite, and some benighted nation I don't remember takes their beer wtih apple juice. There are the great things you learn when you work on a team with a strong international background. The great benefits of diversity -- you get to learn that human stupidity and human insanity are truly universal.

Annals of Publishing


Saw Malcolm Gladwell speak a couple days ago. Just an ordinary author reading, right? Well, apparently not. He was accompanied by an editor from The New Yorker. The host first introduced the editor, who talked for about five minutes about the magazine, and how its 75th anniversary celebration was more an opportunity for it to think about its direction in the coming age than a resting on past glories. Then he went on about a bunch of events the magazine sponsors in New York, since I'm sure all the Seattleites at the event were planning to schedule their regular trips to The City to coincide with the festivities. That said, he reused a reference from earlier in his speechlet to give a one-sentence introduction to Gladwell. There were also copies of the magazine available in the back of the room, and all present were encouraged to take one.

I think the event had the opposite effect on me of that intended. Gladwell was great -- he's a very articulate writer, geeky in a good way, and very sharp at bringing in disparate concepts. But the whole affair was sort of like when the Soviet athletes would come to the U.S. and their handlers would answer all the questions for them at the press conference: I had the strange feeling that if Gladwell started speaking about certain topics, the editor dude would have barged in with an angry voice to proclaim that the interview was over and Mr. Gladwell was very tired.

By way of reference, his web site, www.gladwell.com, has most of his writings for the magazine. The quality varies somewhat, but at his best, he's just great. He has a very distinctive style, one which I'm kind of a sucker for. Introduce a story, note the general patterns, start talking about the prototypical version of that paradigm, and then pull in some idea from way out in left field that completely and clearly characterizes that pattern. His article about weight loss, for example, winds up characterizing weight loss books as conversion narratives. I first met him through his article The Coolhunt. At the time I read it, I thought it one of the most fatuous things I'd ever read, and I quoted the following passage from in my collection of memorable quotes:

In this sense, the third rule of cool fits perfectly into the second: the second rule says that cool cannot be manufactured, only observed, and the third says that it can only be observed by those who are themselves cool. And, of course, the first rule says that it cannot accurately be observed at all, because the act of discovering cool causes cool to take flight, so if you add all three together they describe a closed loop, the hermeneutic circle of coolhunting, a phenomenon whereby not only can the uncool not see cool but cool cannot even be adequately described to them.

I didn't attach any commentary: I thought its self-evident preposterousness would be readily apparent to the reader. A year or so passed, during which someone finally explained hermeneutics to me properly. Then a friend asked me about the quote, and I started to explain how stupid it was, but as I reread it, I realized that it was actually a really sharp observation. It was in this instant that I became a Malcolm Gladwell fan.

Annals of Business


Here's the sequence of events. First, I gave the guy behind the counter the book, which was marked as $12. He punched some stuff into the register, turned back to me, and said "$9.77." I gave him a twenty. He punched some more stuff into the register, which then read $190.13. He opened the drawer and gave me eleven dollars and thirteen cents in change. End of transaction. I guess you can't get the most dedicated of staff for the all-night shift.

Andy: Trigon


Chester gets sick, some kind of ear infection. I have to put this glop in his ears, and Chester starts running away when I take it out. Once I catch him, I basically need to sit on him to keep him still while I dropper the stuff in his ear. Another pair of hands would really come in useful here, I think. This settles it. I need a girlfriend, for Chester's sake. He deserves better than to be sat on. Deserves better than to be sat on, I think. It's a fortune cookie, a motto for life. Eat, sleep, code, put drops in cat's ear, debug code, plot expanded social life. Sounds like a plan.

Work intervenes. The first real numbers are in, the cache is seriously non-performant, and we're all on double-quick perf-tuning forced marches until it can handle the load. On the upside, all meals eaten at the office are expensible. Do you ever get tired of this stuff, I ask Andy after he suggests Thai for the third time in a week. No. Never. The food of the gods. he says. Me either. Peanuts, shrimp, and peppers: this stuff was designed as a defense mechanism against spies by people with no food allergies, I say, and Andy and Debbie start chuckling. We form a voting bloc, force Thai on everyone else, four days running, but the first time we are overrulled is also the last night before the benchmarks are within shouting distance of the goal Berman set before threatening to move us up from cubes to offices just so he could lock us in them.

Partying is required, but it's Tuesday in the witching hour and we're in the office park sticks and nobody really knows what's going on. We wind up at IHOP. Matt drinks a double-shot worth of boysenberry syrup, on a bet with Glenn. It is revealed that Tom keeps a large fraction of his savings tied up in commemorative coins, which he describes as the safest investment known to man. Using his pigs-in-blanket as a visual aid, Glenn demonstrates a truly stomach-turning genital sugrical procedure he has seen pictures of. Food, and the hour, inspire such things. We are sitting between teens and Eurotrash. As we are leaving, Andy ducks back into the restaurant and places something on the table the Eurotrash vacated just before we left.

What did you put down, I ask him. Their money, he says. Maybe you're feeling in a generous mood, but you don't need, I start to say, but I don't finish, because Debbie has run into a small gaggle of people she knows, and it turns out there's some sort of overlap or circle thing, because Chuck from the client team knows some random dude in the gaggle, and our clumps clump together under the lights in the parking lot, and the silliness continues. And and I wind up talking to this guy Rigoberto who does graphic design for restaurant menus and some friend of a friend of Debbie's who teaches web programming. The scene collapses in laughter, heads for its cars. Snap decision time, I turn back and catch up with Debbie's friend's friend, and get not just her phone number but also her name: Irene. Only later do I remember that Chester's ear has aleady healed.

Tweaks to the Site


An overly dedicated reader went to the trouble of debugging my stylesheet against Netscape and found the offending attribute that causes crashes with blockquotes. I've since excised it, which should make the Lab considerably more Netscape-friendly. Oddly enough, it was a "width" attribute, which was one of the standards-compliant attributes, much to my surprise. Then again, Netscape's CSS track record isn't so good, so standards-compliant isn't really the issue, I guess. In any event, I took the chance to actually wipe the non-standard attributes from the CSS. There are a couple of issues with the HTML content, but I think I know all the steps I'll need to take to bring it into compliance (the hardest one being the encoding issue of generating the doctype definition at the top of the output HTML from an XSL stylesheet), so I at least have that roadmap in hand.

Also, the date numbering for the last couple days was wrong, so I've corrected a couple of dates retroactively.

The Butler Did It


There's that scene in Five Easy Pieces (still fresh in my mind), where Jack Nicholson sits down behind the wheel of his car, ready to drive off. There's a motionless three-count, and then he explodes in this spastic burst of pure frustrated rage, somewhere between hitting the wheel of his car and whamming his head into it full force. It's a stunning outburst, like a human safety value exploding. That's kind of how I felt today at work.

The bug was astounding. I recognize that, on the all-time scale of monster bugs, one that takes only a day to track down doesn't even make the top ten thousand. There are bugs out there that would only repro after two straight weeks of uptime on a ten-computer cluster, bugs that manifest only in the precisely-timed interaction of twenty different subcomponents, memory leaks that cross several hundred function barriers, all sorts of truly nasty bugs. That said, I did literally nothing else today, for about nine or ten working hours, beyond chase after this rapscallion. It was amazing.

At first, I thought it was something wrong with my changes to the project. But then it repro'ed on my vanilla second enlistment. In fact, it reproed on a lab build from two weeks ago, one that passed all sorts of stringent build lab tests. Further probing indicated that it only happened for debug builds, and only on my machine. If I picked up Matt's build, it broke; but if Steve picked up mine, it ran just fine. I tried swapping in and out every component I could change, I reinstalled everything I could reinstall, I scanned my hard drive for bad sectors, flushed every cache I knew about, erased my temp directory. Still nothing. It was like my computer was cursed.

I was halfway ready to reformat my hard drive, waste a day reinstalling everything, and write it off to some kind of crazy bad luck, but I was stopped by the same remorseless logic that made the whole experience so frustrating. Clearly, there had to be some kind of state on my machine that wasn't getting cleared properly and was interfering in some strange way with every run of the program. But unless the product was doing something radically different than it was designed to, I'd systematically replaced or regenerated every component it interacted with.

I spent the next few hours methodically trying to produce a minimal repro case. I boiled a file several pages long into three lines, none very long, which meant that my version was failing at a truly basic level -- even though I could walk it through some other extremely long sequences of commands, and had been for days, without trouble. It was just this one, seemingly innocuous case, where it failed. I walked through the code over and over again -- extremely unpleasant, given that a large part of the failing code was seriously asynchronous and another part involved a highly-optimized and therefore highly-incomprehensible parser -- until I finally noticed that I was specifying one object, but two were being created.

That was only really the beginning of the end. It took me another hour or two, with some major help from my next-door-neighbor, to turn that clue into an actual explanation of what was going wrong. It was one of those bugs that crosses so many national borders that it's hard to pin blame on any one person. One guy wrote a function that was potentially unsafe, on account of the idiosyncratic, but probably justifiable, behavior or another component. One other guy managed to call that function under the precise circumstances that brought out that danger. And for some unknown reason, my computer was lighting the fuse that everyone else was ignoring. We had a weapon, we had a suspect, but no motive. Why me?

I think Steve and I noticed it at the same instant. It was the damn debug output code. I'd been debugging this one segment of code the day before, under different circumstances, and had turned on the logging for a particular object. The different circumstances had meant that I hadn't stumbled across the particular screw case until I returned to my normal course of action today -- without turning off the logging. In other words, under this particular scenario, running with the debug output on caused the product to crash, but if you ran without the debug output (either by running retail, or, like any sane person, i.e. someone other than me, not setting this particular flag), you could go forever without seeing anything wrong.

Of course, the debug tool was precisely the missing piece of state I'd been looking for. The piece of missing state I'd been looking for by doing fresh builds and reinstalls, then firing up the program and the debug tool, which so ever-so-thoughtfully remembers your settings across runs. A real time-saver during debugging, no? It was a real Purloined Letter moment. Gnaaaaarrrrrrrgh!

Say it with me: dammit!


It's really annoying being this bad with names and faces. I mean, it would be bad enough not remembering any of the names of the five or six people that I thought I'd met before. Especially when dealing with groups, there are reasonable bluffs and graceful covers. One or two names are enough to make an entrance; and even remembering none can be worked around (I have this problem a lot, so I've picked up a few useful tricks). But not being entirely certain if I'd actually met them is just too much, because most of my little gambits rely on keeping things moving quickly enough that nobody ever goes, but who the hell are you? Which is the kind of thing that groups of people are actually kind of likely to do when complete strangers come up to them acting like long-lost friends.

Ain’t No Party Like the Mah Jong Party …


. . . cause the Mah Jong party don't stop. Today, we learned that "Caesar salad" is a fairly bad topic for freestyle rap, that Sadiq was indeed using the Rocky theme as his keyboard riff during "Graveyard," that highly participative songs are wasted on some audiences, that it gets pretty tiring to try and boogie to the entire length of a twenty-minute jam on "Heimlich Maneuver," and that these guys must practice a lot. Not quite as much fun as their last show, but, for a two-dollar cover at a place within walking distance of my apartment, I have no complaints.

The Big Issues


One recurring issue in designing software systems is how to negotiate precedence when higher-level and lower-level components interact. I'm increasinly convinved that this is in fact the key issue in systems design, just because it comes up over and over again, and I think it's the central design problem in creating genuinely extensible systems. Simply put, whose extensibility wins, and whose extensibility must be constrained by needing to defer to someone else's extensibility?

Suppose, for example, that I'm making an extensible programming language, not just extensible in the sense that I can plug in new modules and class libraries, but extensible down to the syntactic level. On the one hand, maybe I decide to add a throw-catch mechanism to the language; on the other, someone else decides to write a coroutine package with termination handlers. What happens if someone calls throw from inside one of these new coroutines? Does the other coroutine just silently die? Or does it get a chance to finish up before control returns to the throwing side of things? The answer basically depends on which one of our extensions got handled first, if we wrote them without knowing about the other's work. If we wrote them with reference to some common lower-level framework, of explicit control-passing and execution contexts, things may work "as intended," but I'd argue that it's not necessarily always a priori clear what ought to happen. And besides, what's happened in this situation is really that we've slapped some strong constraints on the kinds of extensibility allowed in the system -- now we're implementing things on top of some lower substrate, rather than actually extending the system itself. We've traded away some of our right to arbitrary behavior in order to make sure that things will interoperate.

Extensible event mechanisms and notification-firing objects are another one of these tarpits. What happens when two people come in and decide to hook into the events to override the default behavior in two radically different ways? Protocols for being allowed to change the behavior and control the result may keep us from destroying the known universe in our confused collision, but again, the same objection applies: one of us is going to need to live with not getting our way. It's the Highlander problem: when it comes to arbitrarily extensible components in a system, there can be only one.

Where this is most complicated and most tangled is when high-level extensibility interacts with low-level extensibility. Skinnable applications and desktop themes are both ways of making your computer experience more customizable, but they're mortal enemies when it comes to their dealings with each other. That wonderful consistent app-independent experience where the close button is always in the same place and the menu layout is predictable in apps you've never seen before is fundamentally at odds with your ability to make your MP3 player looks like a constantly erupting supernova and to have your development environment gently pulsate and change colors like a lava lamp. If I want to run a specified filtering script over every document I open, but I also want to let each document specify its own custom logic, which code gets run first and which gets last licks in? There is an eternal tension between the idea that every fragment of data should be fully self-describing and fully standalone (so it can be used in any context, sent anywhere, visualized on its own terms and manipulated using appropriate logic) and the idea that we should be able to apply uniform rules to all our data, to be able to emphasize the common elements to them and treat them identically. It's the difference between the view that shows you your whole inbox and the view that shows you a single piece of mail. Operating system hackers think of the individual items as the bosses -- they're in the business of supporting fully autonomous objects (processes, or components, or users) that must respect certain broad boundaries but are otherwise free to do whatever they please. Database hackers think of the collection as the master -- some huge amount of database theory is concerned with how to cram your dataset into a bunch of tables in a way that makes them all perfectly linear, perfectly predictable. The data isn't supposed to do anything but sit there quietly until someone comes and picks it up, but that someone -- the query-writer, the transaction-maker -- can work their complicated magic on the whole damn database, in all its complexity and glory.

There are compromises required, tricky ones that aren't easy to negotiate. The issue is how much flexibility one needs to trade away in order to get a predictable, usable system, and whether, by judicious choice of what goes overboard and what goes in the lifeboat, those kinds of extensibility that are most helpful in writing reusable and customizable software can be retained.

Pointless Remakes


One of these days, Hollywood is going to take the whole remake thing to its logical extreme and, rather than filming a sequel to a film, just go ahead and do a remake instead. You know, rather than having Gus Van Sant redo a Hitchcock movie shot-for-shot, just have Gus Van Sant redo a Gus Van Sant movie shot-for-shot. Get the same cast, reassemble as much of the original production crew as possible, and create a perfect replica of the original. It's not all that far off from reality, when you think about it.

Caveat Vendor


A couple of the CDs I bought at Ameoba had blue-and-grey "Previously Played" stickers on them. Silly me; I thought they were there as a customer service, letting me know why they were mine for three dollars and ninety-five cents. But now that I've been able to inspect the cases more closely, I know the truth. They've been slapped on to cover up the "For Promotional Use Only" stamp the record company slapped on.

Andy: Sequor


Saturday afternoon, Tom jumps to his feet at his desk and runs around like a headless chicken for a few seconds. He finishes by running into the wall a couple of times. Scuff marks from his sneakers. He's jumping up and down on the balls of his feet now, his arms flailing with the rubber-jointedness of the rhythmless and unconcerned. He points at his screen, half-shouts, I went to high school with this guy. He IMs us the URL. Armed bank robbery, a tense standoff with the police, and then they realize he's lying about the hostages, everyone got out of the bank okay, they explain this to him on the megaphone and he comes out, yes, literally with his hands up, and whoa, looks like the "armed" part of the "armed bank robbery" was a bit of a misnomer, too. With this I cannot deal, says Tom. I was in the school play with this guy.

Good actor, apparently. Andy has materialzed from out of his cave, uncombed hair falling down into sleepy eyes. Tom misses the joke, well, we were both just in minor parts, I catch Andy's eye and snortle, and Tom continues I used to smoke weed with a man who's facing some pretty serious jail time. Tom's such a perfect straight man. I can't resist. Better hope he doesn't tell the Feds about your carefree high school days, then. Matt pops up, a severed head atop his cubicle wall, Yeah, better watch out for that Federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison, and now Glenn's out in the hallway, the whole server team making prison jokes on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Tom is getting panicky for a moment, it's almost too easy, until he pops the stack a couple levels and remembers the hilarious pathos of the situation. Bet he just left the gun at home. He was so drugged out back then, he was always leaving his shit behind. Glenn notes the assembled server group, declares a state of emergency, and presents it as a moral imperative that we immediately play basketball. Andy tries to beg off, he almost runs back to his desk, but it turns out Debbie from the client team is in also, and we need him for three-on-three. The play is pathetic, there are pros out there who could dust the six of us single-handed, the ball is under-inflated and the court is a furnace, but it feels like a weekend again and even Andy the vampire isn't complaining. Later, we get cheap take-out Thai food and bug-bash the firewall server into something approaching stability. Monday, when I come in again, Andy has Photoshopped up a jpeg of the surrender to replace Tom's classmate's face with Tom's. He's also managed to break the security on the preferences server again, so the doctored photo is now Tom's desktop background, but the photo itself is the real gem.

Several Stories about California: #5


For a truly bizzare experience of convergence, point your browser to this page on the Chupacabra. While you're waiting for it to finish loading, pop a copy of the Monteverdi Vespers in your CD player. For some inexplicable reason, the wacky MIDI file on the Chupacabra page and the old-style choral stylings of Claudio's proto-Baroque harmonies go astonishingly well together. They seem to do the bump-set-spike thing really well, playing calm backup to each other's sudden bursts of excitement.

And while you're listening to the wonderment, you can read all about the details of the Chupacabra ("or goatsucker," as the page helpfully calls it, which sounds like the kind of thing Justin might say). In any case, the sense in which this is a story about California is that Keith (who was in the room when this wonderful property was discovered) and I found a CD by a band called Chupacabra in the clearance rack at Ameoba and instantly realized we needed to buy it. It turned out to be a chick-singer jazz band. And you know, if I'd been asked to pick the musical style of a band calling itself Chupacabra, jazz is probably the last or very close to the last style I'd have guessed (Tuvan throat singing, klezmer, and bubblebum pop are arguably less likely, but you never know. cheerful horn-heavy jazz is just so, so, unlike sucking the blood out of livestock). Keith summed it up best when he said "For a dollar ninety-five, this isn't bad."

Rambling Story, Without Point


Parked in one of the 2-hours-maximum-7AM-to-6PM spaces Monday night. This meant, in all due paranoia, that I needed to be out by 9 AM. I really need to get my Zone 4 permit, which is apparently $27 for a two-year term, and in terms of the number of spaces it'd convert from two-hours into no-limit, well worth it. But in my present permit-less state, this meant an earlier start to the day than I'd have preferred. Hit a coupla patches of traffic on 520; not enough to make me raeach for the cell phone and call East Coasters for some entertainment while I waited, but enough to be mildly annoying. Got to work and discovered that, for my troubles, the building had been hit with a power outage and was still recovering. The lights were back on, but the network connectivity was completely hosed, and the air conditioning was out. Without a netconnection, there was basically squat-all I could do at work, thus kind of mootifying my early start to the day.

My office should have some natural light. In terms of distance from an exterior wall, I'm across a hallway from window offices. But note that I said "should," rather than "does." The wall of my office that faces the window offices is just that, a wall. The door to my office is on the wall opposite that one, facing a dreary interior hallway (dreary because the building's architect didn't understand the concept of light boxes well enough to have the hallways end in them). If you sit in your light-filled window office and look towards where I sit, you see, not me smiling back at you across the hallway and basking in your ambient natural light, but rather, a giant floor-to-celing whiteboard a good twenty or thirty feet long. For this our outside-inside offices were sacrificed, for this, I tell you.

As of this morning, the whiteboard was completely blank, too. Some brilliant person or persons unknown decided to hang whiteboards in the elevators in the building. Since the stairs are really hard to find and the group is scattered across all the floors (which is a whole 'nother story), people take a lot of short elevator trips, generally with just enough time to scrawl something on one of the whiteboards quickly before de-elevatoring. So I guess all the doodling energy has been sunk into the elevator whiteboards, rather than into the big-ass one in the hallway.

Given that I quite literally had nothing better to do, I decided to teach myself a little math. I opened up my copy of Cohen's book, flipped to the section where he lays out forcing and proves that it works, and started methodically working through the proof, filling up the whiteboards with the definitions and lemmata, much as I guess he did, those thirty years ago. I got through about five pages of text, and filled maybe half the horizontal distance of the whiteboards with detailed, if somewhat inscruitable and horribly out-of-context, notes.

The collective opinion of folks in the group seems to be that I've put up some kind of strange and arcane spell, and that if any symbol of it is altered in any way, our code will break. Well, that and also that the math ought to be by pictures of Godzilla and other silly line drawings. The juxtaposition reminds me of the best title of a math book ever: Vertex Operator Algebras and the Monster.

Dave Eggers, the Eternal Subject


A bit more about Eggers and that infamous interview, this from a comment I posted to a sort of discussion at metafilter:

In terms of D. Eggers ripping into S. Soudavar, let it just be said that the former knows the latter, quite arguably, less well than any of us know Eggers. If all you knew about Eggers was that he was associated -- in some sort of important way -- with this magazine you know something about, and you had some random page-long fragment of Eggers' writing to work with -- oh, say, the "finally, finally, finally, you bastards" passage from his book -- what might you come up with? Tone is a very difficult thing to judge (and I don't think the typesetting of the interview as a pine session helps formulate accurate judgments, either).

Besides, which, Saadi was asking for something with that last question. Eggers' response may not have been the best -- largely because it turns into a diatribe against critics in general and the selling-out-police more specifically, rather than a reply to the moral attitudes encoded in the question -- but that question was just crying out for some kind of slapdown. Eggers made it a bit personal, an issue of being a certain age and thinking a certain way, which and that disappointed me a bit, because I think the assumptions behind the question really deserve to be tackled and shot down and otherwise dealt with on a more, well, reasoned level.

In terms of content, that whole rant annoys me because, other than discussing his personal experience a bit (and thereby supplying a little more raw data), Eggers says nothing new. People have been saying what he says ever since other people first started accusing them of selling out. Eggers' whole "what someone has done and if they meant it" deal isn't very useful, because it completely ignores all of the wholly-legitimate points about complicity and cultural forces and the complexities of the context in which people write books and publish "unprofitable" literary journals financed with the six-figure advances on their books and go on national book tours encouraging subversion (with five-star reviews) of web sites selling their books and get interviewed by literary magazines that ask them about their literary journals and inquire whether they're selling out, which asking, of course, helps move copies of the literary magazines, and so on and so forth. It's a call for a wholly impossible and sentimentalized kind of innocence, and if that innocence actually were to hold, then McSweeney's (and all the things Eggers loves about it and loves to say using it) could not even exist in the first place. Eggers' work amounts to cultural arbitrage, spotting strange and quirky fluctuations in the literary and social landscape and making a quick profit trading on those strange imbalances. And a culture that lived by rules as simple as those Eggers claims to hold dear now wouldn't really offer very much for him to work with.

Andy: Extract


It sounds like the punchline of a bitter joke, but it's not. Security guy, is what you think when you see the cube, and when it turns out to be the ironclad truth, you chuckle a bit uneasily and feel the sudden urgency of the work that waits for you in your own. Pulled blinds, the desk like a gatehouse rampart protecting the chair wedged with its back to the wall, black desktop background and blood-red six-point font. This how the crypto hounds and protocol crackers are supposed to work, under cover of darkness and with a paranoid's second sight, if they had a security geek cage at the zoo, it'd look like this, and here comes the security geek himself, and the children peek out between their fingers and and get back to their coding.

Past midnight on Wednesday, Andy waves me over, points at the minute lines of a stack trace and a dissected log file. I can't read the words, the print is too tiny and my eyes too tired to make out the letters glowing like lava, but he points and scrolls and pokes his way through a couple screenfuls. Integer underflow, he says, jumps to the source code, highlights what is apparently the offending line or its close accomplice, m-prot-buffer is size-zero, but m-prot-buffer-size is still negative. He leans back and grabs his can of cola, no-look. I can sort of see it, but I need to think more about it and I need some sleep, I say okay and I'll look at it, but in the pause he's started staring down at his keyboard and my words startle him. He nods and shakes a bit, then looks down again. When I look back from the hallway corner, he's hunched into his terminal again, his face on fire from the reddish glow.

It's my bug, and easily fixed, but the same issue pops up four other places in the codebase, and Doug never cleared the lock on the traffic monitor code before he left. I leave at four. Andy's still in his cave, doesn't look up when I wave. Dick Dale plays me home through the empty suburban streets, and when I get back there are two messages from my sister, both consisting entirely of her singing songs from Phantom with some sort of accentuated Pet Shop Boys London drawl. They're the funniest things I've ever heard, and Chester, who has stirred himself upon my return, hides behind the sofa when I start wheezing with laughter. I step on one of his squeak toys on my stumble towards the bed, and its sad little squonk sets me off again. I fall asleep with my lungs still aching, sleep in and eat breakfast to celebrate fixing my bug, to celebrate having a nervous cat and a goofy sister, to celebrate that rare and special feeling of actually wanting to eat something before noon. Andy isn't there when I get back to work, but he's sent me mail, timestamped at half past seven, pointing out a stack overflow in my fix. "Visigoths at the kitchen window" is the subject line, and I think to myself, security guy, even before I see his name attached to the message.

Several Stories about California: #4


The Black Oak is a dangerous place. I walked out with six books, of which three fit into the category of books I was required to buy on the spot because the chance might very well not come around again. I scored a copy of Sheri Tepper's The Bones, published in the 1980s and long out of print. Given that it's a sequel (to Blood Heritage), it would seem that the horror thing sold well enough for her for her publisher to print a second installement. Having read Blood Heritage, this fact surprises me -- and if The Bones was sufficiently worse to kill off the series, one might legitimately ask what I'm doing buying it. But don't you see, this means I only have three Tepper novels left (excluding the pseudonymous mysteries, which I've never been able to get into) and I'll have read her complete works! And as for the overall quality issue, as Monty Python might say, "she got better."

There was also an advance pre-publication reviewer's copy of Alan Lightman's new novel, The Diagnosis. This is huge. Einstein's Dreams was awesome, and Good Benito was an overlooked little gem of a novel. I have high hopes, and getting my grubby little paws on on a copy months before the rest of the world gets the multi-city author tour and national publicity campaign has made me one selfishly happy little camper.

But to top it all off, back on their quite remarkable back-room shelf of mathematical texts and monographs, I picked up a copy of Paul Cohen's Set Theory and the Continuum Hypothesis, a book whose main contents consist of a course-notes-style exposition of Cohen's own proof that the Axiom of Choice (and the Generalized Continuum Hypothesis also) is logically independent of the standard axioms of set theory, and can neither be proven nor disproven from them. The book is also an exposition of the proof technique he used to show the result, indeed, invented for that very purpose, called "forcing." Forcing is a concept I understand only very vaguely -- in fact, I've never seen it actually presented for real anywhere, which is why I was so gung-ho to find this book -- but it's way cool. The next couple of paragraphs are going to be somewhat hand-wavey explanation, so people not interested in the foundations of mathematics may want to skip the next two paragraphs. Come to think of it, since the paragraph after is going to consist of mathematical gossip, you might just want to skip on down to the next entry entirely.

Okay. There's a (by now) standard construction in mathematical logic, by which we can pass from semantic concerns back to purely syntactical ones. The various completeness theorems for propositional and first-order logic use this kind of argument: in order to show that a system has a reasonable interpretation, we construct what appears to be a highly artificial interpretation for the system, one which treats all the system's statements as referring only to objects in a jury-rigged universe set up specifically for the purpose of being referred to by the system. That is, if the system has a statement of the form "three is prime," we throw objects called "three" and "prime" into our bucket, and also remember that the "three" object and the "prime" object are related in the "is" way. It's a kind of reification of the abstraction of a formal system, and at the end of the day, this magical alternate universe of discourse has the extremely useful property of not reflecting any features other than ones that actually sprung from the system we wanted to work with. Cohen's forcing technique -- in sketchy essence -- consists in noting that in certain circumstances, these syntactic models can be a bit underdetermined, so that there are different paths down which the construction could go.

In the old-school proofs, one would throw out the extra paths, since what mattered was the existence of a path at all. In Cohen's new-school proof, one gathers together this flexibility and makes a series of judicious choices along the way, with the result that the final model has a couple of additional properties -- properties not fully specified by the original system -- that we've hand-selected for. Our flexibility is not absolute -- we can't wind up contradicting anything the system we're tampering with actually was definitive on, nor can we stir in arbitrary results or unrealistic superpowers -- but Cohen noticed that if one started with Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory, there was enough wiggle room to "force" the Axiom of Choice to be false. Combined with Godel's earlier result that the Axiom of Choice was consistent with the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms, this was enough to garner Cohen a Fields Medal. It's sort of a homeopathic construction, or maybe akin to the making of a golem: a finite sequence of individual binary decisions about individual integers and a single set winds up being, under the right circumstances, magnified into a much more sweeping property of the system and its claims about uncountably infinite sets. And the whole thing proceeds by a structural induction on the syntax of formulae of the system. Cool, no?

So, anyway, the other cool thing about this book is the acknowledgements section. The book is basically the transcript of a graduate seminar given at Harvard in 1965. Cohen thanks the various students who scribed and took the notes that were presumably later turned into the book: L. Corwin, D. Pincus, T. Scanlon, J. Xenakis, and R. Walton. A bit of reflection made me realize that this list may very well include Larry Corwin, late professor of mathematics at Rutgers and co-author of a notoriously unclear (and poorly typeset) textbook on serious calculus; Tom Scanlon, professor of philosophy at Harvard and among the most articulate and clearly-spoken people alive; and Bob Walton. I suspect that anyone familiar with (any) two out of the these three will find the fact that they once took a class together very funny.

Classic Rave


Saw Five Easy Pieces at the Grand Illusion (I am not kidding when I say that I have seen television sets larger than the screen there). I've got a soft spot for the film, ever since freshman year, when I wrote a paper on the chicken-salad-sandwich scene. The paper was for a philosophy class; my central thesis was that Bobby Dupea (the Jack Nicholson character) is meant as a representation of the Nietzschean Overman. The good grade I got on it probably did more than anything else before or since to disillusion me about academia; it certainly didn't make me take Nietzsche any more seriously. Seeing the movie again has only made me more ashamed; I'm even more painfully aware of how profoundly dumb the whole paper was, how almost steotypically freshman its pretentions (I was being self-mocking, sure, with things like "the restrictive last-man morality of her restaurant/society," but there was an element of trying to be like the big boys in there, too).

That said, I'd like to run through a few of the things that are great about the film. Jack Nicholson, with his amazing presence, but back in the days before the ego was everything. The San Juan Islands, beautiful even in continual fog. "Doorframe Girl," in the immortal words of Sarah, who introduced me to the film in the first place. The unforced surprise of the scene when they come for Elton. Bobby's spastic explosion behind the wheel of his parked car. That Chopin pan, the best piece of storytelling through pure camerawork of all time. The highway scene with the piano on the truck. The one lesbian hitchhiker's endless rant about filth. The muted unfolding of the first half, and the perfect pacing of the second half. And, of course, the screenplay, with its half-filled in conversations and wonderful little nuggets of dialogue.

Like a Yo-Yo, It Is


Going on hiatus again. Last few weeks have been kind of brutal. Good brutal, mind you, but brutal. The milestone plus moving has been a bit much at times. Thankfully, this enforced vacation thing has come along, so I'll be taking full advantage of the escape. Tomorrow, I'll head on down to Elliott Bay, I think, before I hop that plane to San Fancisco. Back Sunday.

It’s Like a Saturday Night Live Skit


Walking down Broadway now and then, I've found myself a fun new little game. I try to guess the sexes of couples walking in front of me. The most amusing are the ones I peg as male/female, only to realize after a bit that they're actually female/male. This has happened more than once. It's a combination of Seattle's general gay-friendliness (at its most pronounced here in Capitol Hill, I think) together with Seattle's general tolerance of very informal hairstyles. Short hair might mean stereotypical straight guy, or it might mean steotypical lesbian, or it might mean stereotypical straight woman, or it might mean stereotypical gay man. Something similar goes for long hair.

Say it with me: Gnarsh!


Okay. I've been working up to this one for a while, and I'm sick and tired of not actually having said it. It's time for What I Like and Do Not Like About Dave Eggers.

First, on the credit side of the ledger. One. Funny. Two. Creative. Three. There is something quite sharp about his self-analysis. The usual critiques of Eggers go something like this: he's horribly manipulative, but he's one step more manipulative than the average media figure. Eggers explicitly anticipates all possible criticisms, all possible objections. He apologizes for countless failings, real and invented, and stares with a harsh eye at his own motivations and ambitions. By doing so, they say, Eggers tries to head off outside criticism. He puts it on paper himself -- and then, rather than trying to counter the objections, lets them stand. It's rhetorical reverse psychology, letting your critics talk themselves to death and crash like waves against an unyielding cliff; anything they might say Eggers has already said, and jujitsued their attacks before they've even begun. The self-referentiality and self-obsession having been revealed merely as literary diversions and the shell game exposed, the meta-critic can sit back and relax with a blanket claim like this one, from Alex Star (writing in The New Republic): "That the author knows his own 'opinion' is false does not make it any more true."

Which really bugs me, in that if people are going to go after Eggers, they ought at least to go after him for the right reasons. And I think it's important to recognize that, as slippery as Eggers may be, the tone of the book is not some kind of long elaborate put-on. His work is of a piece, from Might's "beautiful butterfly, fly free" eulogy for Richard Nixon through the set-piece fabricated interview in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the McSweeney's antics. It's the art of self-referential humor without ever cracking a smile, humor that never admits the existence of a joke. Eggers fails the two major tests for the usual steotypical "Gen X irony" literary mode. On the one hand, the form of his output could hardly be characterized as defensive detachment; the passages in Genius about his his parents. in particular, should be enough to make clear that Eggers is not about protecting himself by putting an ironic distance between himself and everything. He worries that something of this sort might be happening, as he worries about a great many other things, but the self-belittlement and crossover cultural reference don't have the snarky sarcastic tinge of the defense mechanism. And on the other hand, the continual hollowing-out of anything he sets out, the continual knocking-down of illusions and pretense, the knocking-down of the knocking-down even, takes no particular delight in the crash and clatter. Eggers is no Mark Leyner.

The point is that I think Eggers' writing is entirely truthful, in the sense that he is giving an accurate portrait of what it is like to be Dave Eggers. And I don't think that he's particular unusual in his psychic makeup, just a little sharper than the usual in being willing to probe it, a little more articulate in being able to set down the shifting internal currents of his mind. There is something Montaigne-esque in the quality of Eggers' self-examination: he's more or less what any really good self-examination would wind up with if it refused to exempt itself from examination, and then examined also this refusal and also the sensation of being examined. For starters. Eggers has certain ideas and goals, and has certain raw materials to work with, and what emerges is actually, I think, a pretty complete and wise portrait. He wants to be famous, and certain things have happened in his life, things which he understands really don't "justify" fame under traditional measures. In the process of interrogating what that "justification" consists of (and why those traditional measures of celebrity are bunk, too), he pushes through to a deeper idea, one he drives at strongly in the latter part of the book -- he may not actually be different or distinctive in certain ways, but perhaps through the process of ironic introspection, he can achieve some sort of paradoxical transcendence of fame, he can become the typical-different catalyst for his peers, all of whom are going through similar attempts at self-justification. There's a smack here of what the critic Erich Auerbach referred to as "figural realism" in his discussion of the New Testament: Christ's fleshly suffering is physically real, and the divine message his life represents is embodied in the events of his life, worked out through a direct figuration of an abstract message in very concrete details. Eggers -- who seems a bit fond of the martyr rhetoric now and then -- is going after something similar: he wants his life story to stand in both for the similar life stories of his generation, and also to represent the interconnected collective experience of an abstract "generation," and it will be his own specific life details, striking but not unusual, that turn around and permit him this transubstantiation.

And this may sound like a tall order, but I think Eggers has actually hit upon one of the few genuine ways forward from the cultural context he's inherited. If you sever certain connections between the personal and the societal, if you are, like Eggers and Might magazine, deeply skeptical of idealism (and jealous of the fame it creates, even without creating results), then you are confronting a landscape in which the traditional routes to great importance -- political involvement, large-scale works, or pure artistic creation -- are basically closed off, and something else must take their place as a way of justifying the life of the individual, of reconnecting it to the society. Eggers' claim -- the personal becomes important through a kind of metaphorical representation of shared experiences, becomes important by staring at itself and willing itself into mimetic importance -- is not entirely unreasonable, really. For starters, it's worked -- Eggers is now reasonably well-known and literarily influential largely for the very reasons he pours out in his imagined Real World interview. [By way of comparison, the best other fleshed-out proposal I know of is that of Ann Powers, who's reworked 70's feminism's slogan of "the personal is poltiical" into a cry for modern-day bohemians to engage society at the level of lifestyle and values, to pass their lived experience into the experience of the world through demonstration and emulation.] To this extent, Eggers has something interesting to say, something important to at least consider. It's a response, which is a lot better than most can say.

It's for this reason that I'm really bothered by Eggers' recent calls for "less malice," when it comes to things like people putting up parody websites, or writing in the mock style of Dave Eggers, or publishing in national magazines setting-things-straight messages obatained from his sister but later regretted and sorta-kinda-retracted by that same sister. To Eggers, these things are in the same ballpark as his Might faking of the death of Adam Rich, an episode Eggers puts himself under the microsope for, and finds himself lacking. Dumb and mean back then, and he's learned better since then, so please don't do it now. A lot of people don't buy this -- what's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose -- and, after all, isn't Eggers now famous precisely for tricks like this? One of the more famous pieces from the McSweeney's website, after all, was the classic Jedediah in Love, which gave Jed Purdy a much rougher treatment than most of what Eggers has been exposed to. So Eggers is being a two-faced hypocrite, no? He's using that self-criticism-as-self-defence technique, vaccinating himself, admitting the wrong of past actions only now that he's on the other end of the stick?

Well, actually, I'm with Eggers on this one. Or rather, I'm willing to take his call for niceness -- as much as it reminds me, in unpleasant ways, of David Foster Wallace's far more disingenuous (or so I think) call for sincerity -- at face value. And in that modal universe, where one starts from the premise that Eggers wants people to be gentler and that they should be, well, then, Eggers' skewering of his former self is perfectly reasonable, and he gives himself the grilling he deserves. As for more recent transgressions, well, the evidence is a bit more ambiguous, although McSweeney's is a net positive force for niceness and unaffectation, and the less kind pieces aren't actually by Eggers himself, and, well, if and when we catch Eggers being mean himself, then we can call him on inconsistency. After all, if we're going to beat people into consistency, there are two ends that need to be forced into alignment, and we could as reasonably choose the one as the other.

That said, I think that Eggers' anti-malice manifesto does fall apart, at least as he usually applies it, that is, to writings about himself and about his writings. I think he's surrendered the right to complain about such treatment, for reasons deeply intrinsic to his subject matter. Eggers is not vulnerable just because he writes about himself. So does every autobiographer. He is not vulnerable just because he wants to be famous, or because he's been snide and snarky in the pursuit of fame. So nu, we're going to all be completely anonymous and never say things that are funny and edgy? And he's not vulnerable just for writing a deeply self-referential book that breaks conventions of the book form and then holds those very deviations up for ridicule of their own. There are plenty of wonderful such books -- House of Leaves amd The Testament of Yves Gundron spring to mind as excellent recent examples -- and I deeply love a literary culture complex and self-aware enough to produce them. No, Eggers has dug himself into a hole because he does all of these at once, in a profoundly unitary way.

That is, Eggers' subject is Eggers himself, but more specifically, he writes about his desire to mold his own life into a shining symbol of paramount importance. But more than that, he wants to make himself important because of this self-analysis, he wants to turn the undeserving events of his existence into legend by reflecting them upon themselves, he wants to make his everyday actions sing with godlike radiance, and he's going to do this by staring mercilessly at Dave Eggers and setting that hall of mirrors spinning faster and faster until it shines with an inner light. And then he wants this "lattice," the ill-defined network of people and doings that will surround him and center upon him and allow him to know himself as it becomes aware of itself through him, he wants this lattice to buzz with the tidbits he shoots off, the tidbits that will have to come from his introspection and self-creating desires for fame and importance, precisely because he will openly admit that even his parents' deaths and his brother's entire existence, in some sense, are the fuel for the Eggers Rocket, but not its essence, and what he has to say is ultimately not about them. It's about him, but more than that, it's about him thinking about himself.

That said, this is what really annoys me: it's impossible to actually engage with Eggers' thinking, to add something more to what he says and extend it, without immediately brushing up against this suddenly forbidden territory of "meanness." Having made his particular claims, he's in some sense turned his back on the actual message of his book. His more recent output -- the book tour, the occasional postings on the site, that absolutely terrifying interview with the Harvard Advocate -- has focused on his post-fame life, on the nature of "selling out" and dealing with sudden success. Legitimate topics, surely, but his autobiography has subtly shifted from being a book that says something, whose words relate to real life, into an artifact, an agent of outside forces, something which exists and has properties but does not actually mean something. For this, I dislike Dave Eggers, because just about anyone can write about selling out, and it's been proven now that McSweeney's pieces can be cranked out by non-McSweeney's people, but Dave Eggers, to the extent that he was writing his Dave Eggers spiel, had something to say that nobody else was saying, and now he's trying to avoid the implications of his own ideas.

Now, on some level, this is fine, in that the idea of living in a Dave Eggers-ocracy, of going to Dave Eggers salons and reading the latest magazines of Dave Eggers criticism and Dave Eggers interior design and Dave Eggers TV schedules, is actually only marginally less horrifying than the idea of living in any other X-ocracy, for arbitrarily chosen X. But, to the extent that Eggers was advancing the world of arts and letters and ideas in some genuinely new directions, it's disenheartening to see even him not following through on those ideas. At the very least, he was raising some of the right questions, about engagement with the world and the justification of the life of an individual in an age that valorizes the individual to the point of paradoxically ruining that individual's ability to stand for anything larger than itself. The question of selling out doesn't concern me so much; I think that "selling out," like "political correctness," is one of those terms such that anyone who uses them -- whether for or against -- is automatically wrong. More specifically, given what I see as the strong psychic truth of Eggers self-portrait and his self-critique, I don't think "selling out" is even an interesting or useful axis to judge him against. It's a sideline, a distraction, and I wish the Saadi Soudavars and Alex Stars of this world would stop alternately going after him and sucking up to him over these irrelevancies, because if they did, we might actually be able to get some more interesting answers out of Eggers, might be able to sit down and actually have a real conversation about things that matter. Eggers may be wrong, but wrong is still a hell of a lot closer to the target than most of the malarkey the last decade has seen.

George Saunders and FIRPO


Today's Uber has a funny little rant that reminds me of the old and dearly departed Crash Site. The Crash Site itself disappeared sometime in the late nineties (after some months of increasingly sporadic updates); for a while it was archived over at The Independent Project, but now even that much seems to be gone. I miss it. That site was raw belligerence, but with a purpose. Slap Maxwell, before he quit (supposedly) to become a Hong Kong stuntman, had a column that ran with little Quicktime clips, called "Land of Plenty." Sometimes, he showed you how to carry out useful Hong Kong stuntman-type tricks, like running over a car, or how to dive off a bridge into a large pool of water. "Boredom" and "Pain," neither of which I can link to now, were my personal favorites. The latter, a collection of short and grainy Quicktime clips of various stuntment, skateboarders, and atheletes wiping out big time, all to the gentle strains of Tom Waits' "Sight for Sore Eyes," was one of those perfectly-cut, perfecfly paced short gems, up there with the first Episode I trailer. In addition to the punk-band webcards, the "Pol Pot / Pol Pot / dead little / despot" rollover animation (Courier New X'es appeared over his eyes when you moused over the picture), and the genuinely unsettling site intro video, Mark Driver's "Driverbox" column was a regular staple diet of casual slackerly So-Cal misanthropy raised to the level of a minor art form.

But anyway, the original thing I was going to say was that the Uber piece reminded me, in initial inspiration if not in tone, of George Saunders' "The End of FIRPO in the World" from his just-published Pastoralia. It was one of the stories he read when he came to town, and he had this way of doing the voices -- the imagined voices of elephants and sports announcers inside the head of this fairly loserly kid, mind you -- that still cracks me up. The story is sort of a lesson in how brilliant writing and sharp humor can make just about anything go down smoothly, no matter how grotesque. I wish I'd asked him what the "nose hole sound" was, though.

Formal Logic Club


The first rule of Formal Logic Club is you do not prove the consistency of Formal Logic Club.

The second rule of Formal Logic Club is you do not prove the inconsistency of Formal Logic Club

Baby Steps, Baby Steps


In search of the annoying buzzing sound emanating from my computer here at work (which sound I could generally cause to go away briefly by whanging the side of the computer with the heel of my hand) I took the cover off and searched for the offending part. Turned out to be the internal speaker, of all things, wedged between the power supply and the vent and vibrating entire, causing its plastic sheath to rattle against the metal walls of its cage. Sedatives were administered, and all is blissfully quiet now.

On the Economics of Entertaining


Hmm. Given that two people brought bottles of wine to what I'd planned as a strictly soda-and-paper-plates level affair, it appears I wound up turning a profit on the dinner party. Or would have, if I regularly ran through bottles of wine, that is. I should note that enriching my wine countertop (as opposed to a wine cellar; I live in an apartment, keep in mind) by relying on my guests' generoisty wasn't really the point, and I should have been perhaps more clear that it wasn't that sort of an event. I really really don't want to be at the bringing-bottles-of-wine-to-dinner-parties stage of life yet; I'm prefer to remain in the phase where I bring the grog to make sure my former students get good and blotto at their 21st birthday parties.

Lessons of History


Finished Guns, Germs, and Steel. Good book, if more than a little repetitive. He's fond of setting up each of his chapters as a mystery story, but by the end of the book, there's not very much suspense, since the whole damn point of the book is that the same set of environmental and geographic factors can explain lots of migrations and patterns of contact in human history. Better package of domesticable crops. Better package of domesticable crops. Better package of domesticable crops. The butler did it. The butler did it. The butler did it. Over and over and over again.

That said, it is one of those neat books that give you a couple new ways of thinking about things. There are certain principles he articulates -- at great length -- that are useful clip-on lenses to have available. It certainly has made me think about natural selection in a different fashion. But there's also a really interesting and extended discussion on the nature of long-term historical evidence, the kind of stuff you use to understand what happened back before people had the technology to actually write down what was happening. Some of the experiments to fix things in place and time are just wonderful -- understanding historical forest patterns from pollen deposits, sifting through the forensics of bones and ancient garbage heaps, doing cladistics and backwards induction on contemporary languages to reconstruct extinct tongues and figure out their vocabularies in order to understand what crops and technologies they had. It's also a really striking lesson in how much the world has changed even in the last ten thousand years, what kinds of wild biodiversity it has supported and how radically some of the most prominent plant and animal species have readapted as humans increasingly affected their environment.

Best Chair Ever


Yard sale across the street yesterday. I got this hideous purplish-red armchair with throw cushions and a horrid machine-sewn floral pattern. It's from some bygone decade, in a style for which there will never be a retro fad, horribly misproportioned even for an example of the style it embodies, and missing one of the two slipcovers for the arms. It's also quite possibly the most astonishingly comfortable piece of furniture I've ever sat in. It's the kind of chair you sink into and don't want to move from, except that five minutes later you're so revitalized by the epxerience you don't feel tired any more and are up and bouncing and ready to go run a marathon.

The thing that gets me is, if this was the chair they sold, how much more amazingly comfortable must the chairs they're keeping be. I'm half tempted to go figure out which apartment they live in and burgle the place for the chairs.

Dumb Luck


Been reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (thanks you, Dave!), and so far, one observation has really jumped out at me. Human domestication of plants hasn't really been a process particularly directed by humans. That is, it's not as though we sorted through species, picked the characteristics we wanted from farm crops, and set about carefully crossing the most promising specimens. Rather, it was more that we went out and picked and ate the things we were able to. The species which were set up to take advantage of this new distribution system "followed" us, as it were (through the magic of our digestive system or general human clumsiness) more or less until we noticed them and decided to start growing them more carefully. At which point, it wasn't as though we really did all that much to predictably control the direction of their evolution. No. Whatever our cultivation techniques were -- however wise or idiotic, whatever they were -- the plants that fit in best with the company line were strongly selected for just because they were the only ones we'd actually notice, harvest, and eat.

For example, most wild wheat stalks will explode when ripe, to scatter seeds. It's only the occasional mutant which stays in one place. It just so happens that people are only going to harvest and eat whole stalks -- because who even notices individual wheat grains? All of a sudden, this one particular mutant gets selected for, to the tune of being lovingly replanted and tended to, year after year, and within a thousand years or so, we've got domesticated wheat that hangs onto its grains, doesn't sheathe them in protective coats, all ripens more or less at the same time, and generally does its best to satisfy the bizzare demands of its new environemnt. And gets genetically rewarded like a cereal out of hell for its efforts. Discussion of "genetically modified" foods is a bit strange in this light: most modern crops are amazingly unlike their ancestors, it turns out. Corn, for example. It used to be that corn cobs were roughly the same size as modern corn kernels. Or, did you know that sheep used to have long legs? It just kind of happened that the sheep who couldn't run away as well were the ones that were more easily herded. And so on and so forth. Kind of puts certain things in a new light.

De Space! De Space!


As the Teletubbies would say, "Again! Again!" That's five times out of the last eight.

Willing Suspension of Disbelief


Got The Space again. This is not right. This must be Bluebeard's parking space or something else. It's unnatural.

Something New Under the Sun


If you only click on one link this year, click on this one. This is for real: I saw one today, and I'm still boggling.

Coming in Over the Wire


Been listening to this Cry Cry Cry webcast at work. Even better than the album, if such a thing is possible. I've also been listening to my "Best of Saint-Saens" disc, which is nice background music (for unpacking, natch), but gets old awfully fast. He has a couple of good bits, but the problem is that he wrote each of them about three or four times. More than once I thought I could identify the piece, but it turned out to be merely an inferior clone of a more famous piece of his.

Capitol Hill, 2 AM


There is a remarkably large gathering of people at the Jack in the Box. The purpose of the grouping is obscure, but the line is spilling out the door and they're all milling around eating and clumping in that way particular to large groups that mostly know each other. Also, there are lots of people driving in a scarily oblivious way: stopping in the middle of Broadway to hail each other, making disturbing U-turns, getting into nervous stop-and-start duets over who should go first at the intersection. They're also unloading a truck over at the post office, giving the lie to various common beliefs about the US Postal Service.

Cultural Arbitrage


In terms of D. Eggers ripping into S. Soudavar, let it just be said that the former knows the latter, quite arguably, less well than any of us know Eggers. If all you knew about Eggers was that he was associated -- in some sort of important way -- with this magazine you know something about, and you had some random page-long fragment of Eggers' writing to work with -- oh, say, the "finally, finally, finally, you bastards" passage from his book -- what might you come up with? Tone is a very difficult thing to judge (and I don't think the typesetting of the interview as a pine session helps formulate accurate judgments, either).

Besides, which, Saadi was asking for something with that last question. Eggers' response may not have been the best -- largely because it turns into a diatribe against critics in general and the selling-out-police more specifically, rather than a reply to the moral attitudes encoded in the question -- but that question was just crying out for some kind of slapdown. Eggers made it a bit personal, an issue of being a certain age and thinking a certain way, which and that disappointed me a bit, because I think the assumptions behind the question really deserve to be tackled and shot down and otherwise dealt with on a more, well, reasoned level.

In terms of content, that whole rant annoys me because, other than discussing his personal experience a bit (and thereby supplying a little more raw data), Eggers says nothing new. People have been saying what he says ever since other people first started accusing them of selling out. Eggers' whole "what someone has done and if they meant it" deal isn't very useful, because it completely ignores all of the wholly-legitimate points about complicity and cultural forces and the complexities of the context in which people write books and publish "unprofitable" literary journals financed with the six-figure advances on their books and go on national book tours encouraging subversion (with five-star reviews) of web sites selling their books and get interviewed by literary magazines that ask them about their literary journals and inquire whether they're selling out, which asking, of course, helps move copies of the literary magazines, and so on and so forth. It's a call for a wholly impossible and sentimentalized kind of innocence, and if that innocence actually were to hold, then McSweeney's (and all the things Eggers loves about it and loves to say using it) could not even exist in the first place. Eggers' work amounts to cultural arbitrage, spotting strange and quirky fluctuations in the literary and social landscape and making a quick profit trading on those strange imbalances. And a culture that lived by rules as simple as those Eggers claims to hold dear now wouldn't really offer very much for him to work with.

Approaching the Canal


Got the computer back up and running again; the feeling is sort of like that scene from Lawrence of Arabia when they reach the Suez Canal after crossing the Sinai. I feel ready to stumble into the officers' club and down a huge glass of lemonade. Come to think of it, moving is filled with Lawrence of Arabia moments. There are perhaps few experiences open to the average North American which approximate the ordeal of Gasim (the dude who nearly gets left behind during the desert crossing that lets them sneak up behind Aqaba), but moving is among them: there comes a point in the hot sun when you start thinking about all of the things you could chuck if by doing so you could bring the moving process to a close. What starts off as a jolly bucolic exercise in transferring yourself from one place to another ultimately turns into this hardened, bitter take-no-prisoners bloodbath.

I'm a packrat, and if anything could break me of that habit, it would have to be moving. While unpacking boxes a couple days ago, I developed a refrain, which went something like this: Here we have the the jar of sesame tahini that I carried up two flights of stairs. The eight-ounce jar of olive oil, one ounce remaining, that I carried up two flights of stairs. The 486-66 that I haven't powered on in eight months that I carried up two flights of stairs. The six-inch square piece of wood that came with my bookshelf, I think as packing material, that I carried up two flights of stairs. The gunk-encrusted towel that I used to scrub out the bathtub at my old apartment that I carried up two flights of stairs. The Eastside telephone book that I carried up two flights of stairs. The year-out-of-date Eastside telephone book that I also carried up two flights of stairs.

Lest I give off the impression that all is not sweetness and light here at the new digs, let me also note that the move fully justified itself within the first 24 hours. Sunday, I was up the street at Pagliacci's, getting a quick slice of pizza for lunch in the middle of unpacking, when Alex from work wandered in, also grabbing a quick lunch. In his case, though, rather than being an interlude in the middle of packing, the stopover was a prelude to an afternoon sailing on Elliott Bay, an afternoon I partook of, on the grounds that how often do you get to go out on Puget Sound on a perfectly sunny day and buzz an aircraft carrier? We were close enough for Alex to identify the plane on deck as an F-14, close enough for sailors to wave at us. Then we headed out a bit further from shore, unfurled the sails, and took it easy for a while, allowing me to enjoy the rays at the same time I cursed my fate being born the pasty-white albino that I am.

The other really noteworthy thing about my new Capitol Hill lifestyle is that parking is a real chore, or would be, if it weren't for these suspiciously good parking spaces I keep ion finding. There's this one space (I won't say where, in case there are any Seattleites reading this: that space is mine mine mine) that I've used three days this week. I've spent ten, fifteen minutes cruising other blocks with no luck, only to find the same damn space in the same damn spot. Today I just went directly there, and there it was, available, along with one of its brethren a couple spaces down. I don't get it. It's on a busy street, in a pretty prime location, and it's always free. I've checked and rechecked the street signs, and unless my understanding of space and/or time is really severly lacking at a truly fundamental level, it's a totally legit parking space. Well, luck is luck, I guess, although I have the strange feeling I'm being set up for a car bomb or something.

Further Note to Self


12-hour days are less horrible in the week immediately following a move. The apartment is going to be a mess no matter what, so it doesn't really matter that I'm stumbling back in the wee hours and just collapsing into bed. Also, unlike the pre-move packing madness, unpacking can sort of proceed (or, in this case, not proceed) at its own pace.

That said, these 12-hour days are objectionable for other reasons.

Hi, This is James; Any Messages for Me?


So US West ("now known as QWest") did everything right with setting up my new phone service, with one eeensy leeetle exception. They told me the wrong phone number. Ha ha ha. They did send me a piece of mail (to my new address) confirming my new service with the correct phone number printed on it, so that once Willard told me (via my cell number) that the number I'd given out was wrong, I was able to figure out what my number ought to be and hastily distribute a correction.

Which still left open the issue of apologizing to whatever poor soul was getting all the welcome-to-your-new-apartment calls meant for me. The number was only different in the last digit; back at school, that would have meant I could have called it, listened for the ring, and gone down the hall to find the owner. As things were, I settled for calling it up and going through the old crank-call routine. It's not every day you get to live out the punch line to a joke.

This morning, I called Kwest up and complained a bit. They were pretty nice about it and quite apologetic, and agreed to my one demand: that they also call the-number-that-wasn't-actually-mine and tender their apologies there as well.

Not Sleep. Sleeeeeeep


You know those stories of how mothers can get these amazing bursts of super-strength that let them lift cars the cars their children are pinned under? I keep having those moments, in miniature form, at work. If this madness with the checkin queue goes on much longer, I'll probably wind up writing a complete e-commerce solution with custom-built hardware-accelerated transaction support or something like that while waiting for my checkin to go through.

Note To Self


In future, do not attempt to work 12-hour days and change place of residence in same week.

This Concludes Oour Broadcast Day


Going to take the computer offline tonight and pack it up. The Laboratorium will most likely be dormant for a while until I get it set up at the new place.

Historical Perspective


When I think about software and the future, I find it useful to keep in mind that for most of recorded human history it would have been inconceivable that RMS would have survived through adulthood.

Contraction Mapping


It's only Wednesday, but It's been a long week. It'd been a long week by the end of Monday, in fact, and it's been dragging on ever since. Last night, well after midnight, I packed up the dishes and most of the food. Also, the furniture is mostly in various stages of disassembly. I ate dinner tonight sitting on my bed; I had instant ramen noodles (six packs for a dime! or something like that) out of a Pyrex measuring cup. And, somehow, it was all good. A place to come home to and sit down after a day's honest work, some warm food in my stomach, a little music to smooth out the frazzle, it's all good.

God Doesn’t Want Me to Move


This coming weekend, I'm moving into Seattle from the Eastside. For the last week or so, it's been becoming increasingly clear to me that some higher power is warning me against the move in no uncertain terms. Let us review.

First, it turns out that this coming weekend is Seafair, which means a boatload of traffic, so to speak, especially downtown. It also means the Blue Angels, whose aerobatic antics over Lake Washington will require the closure of the I-90 bridge for an hour and a half on Saturday. Given how hellish this is going to make driving over with the moving van, I'm perfectly willing to cross during the airshow. The prospect of being an up-close-and-personal witness to some sort of spectacular multiple-plane flameout and being engulfed in the ensuing bridge-busting seismic fireball starts to looke almost palatable, when compared with the prospect of sitting in the induced traffic. But noooo, those feds with their silly safety regulations have decreed that I-90 be clsoed for the duration.

Well, there's always 520. Or is there? Saturday is also the first Seahawks preseason game. Since they're currently in a between-stadia state (which is another rant not to get me started on), they're playing their home games at Husky Stadium. Which basically means that after early afternoon, 520 is going to be transformed from an expressway into an extension of the stadium parking lot.

But wait, there's more! I made my UHaul reservation about a week ago. The woman who took my reservation had some trouble operating the computer, but she was quite apologetic about it and we ultimately managed to work through all my questions and set me up with a truck. The idea was that I'd pick up from the Bellevue location by 10 AM Saturday and return it to any of the Seattle locations by 10 PM. In-town move, nice and inexpensive, no problems?

Problems. Yesterday, I got a call from someone at the UHaul place. The rates she had quoted me were all wrong, they weren't actually open on Saturday, and the person who took my order didn't actually work there. I didn't push too closely on that last one, but it did kind of give me some doubts about the railroad-running abilities of Bellevue UHaul. Well, that too-good-to-be-true in-town rate was too good to be true in that by dropping the van off someplace other than where I picked it up, I kicked over into the one-way category. No problem, says I, I'll just get a van from in Seattle, and dammit, I'll drive TWICE across Lake Washington, through the deadliest traffic in ages. Well, except that that too-good-to-be-trye in-town rate was also too good to be true in that it applied for two hours, not the twelve I'd thought. Multipled out, it wasn't such a good deal any more. So it was back to the one-way category, I'll take that twenty-four hour rental, sigh. Except that Bellevue UHaul -- its answering machine message to the contrary -- is not open on Saturdays in August, so I'd need to pick up the van by 5 PM on Friday. Which would mean having it back by 5 PM on Saturday, a goal which aforementioned traffic events would render well-nigh near unattainable. I managed to talk him into giving me an extension until 11 -- after the surprises his Mickey Mouse operation had pulled on me, it was really the least he could do, I think -- taking care of that problem at least. For sake of reference, I did consider taking my business elsewhere, but from the evidence available to me, I figured I'd not do much better with another truck vendor, that the deal I'd originally been quoted was indeed due to the gross incompetence of the non-employee who quoted it and not to usual UHaul business practices, and that I was best off trying to work this particular situation for as many freebies as I could get. I got a handtruck, which isn't much in the grand scheme of things, but it did have the slight symbolism of an only partially-tarnished silver lining.

So, yes, the universe is trying to physically stop me from moving. It's also trying to psychologically persuade me that I don't actually want to be doing this. This past weekend, a barge rammed the 520 bridge. How? Why? Nobody really knows. There's no evidence of drugs or alcohol, the barge was obeying the posted speed limits, and the crew were trusted veterans. All they do know is that one of the support pillars is severely cracked. The Seattle Times has described the bridge as "crippled," and the Transportaton Department is saying they won't be able to repair it for at least a month. Until then, one of the two eastbound lanes -- aka, one of my two morning commute lanes -- will be closed. I've seen the traffic along the Montlake cut -- at times when the bridge is ordinarily smooth sailing -- and it's not a prtetty sight. August is going to be a very long month.

It gets better, though. Sound Transit, the folks who are bringing Seattle a multi-billion dollar boondoggle of a light rail system (I'm just parroting the Stranger party line here, which says that Seattle needs a mass transit system, sure, but that the way to go isn't a train but a monorail. Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!), are planning dig a three-block long 70-foot pit in Broadway, centered roughly on my building, put a train tunnel at the bottom of the pit, cover over the tunnel with a steel deck, and then put Broadway back on top of the deck. Oh, and also, they're going to pave over a nearby resevoir and put another street on top of that. Inspection of the plans available online would appear to indicate that Sound Transit will be purchasing the building next to the one I'm moving into, knocking it down and using it as a staging area for the whole digging-of-pit process.

The friend who told me about this whole construction madness said they were going to start in mid-August. My first thought on hearing this was that when the people started fleeing my building, I'd probably be able to get off the waiting list for a parking spot. A more extensive analysis of the available information has, however, provided the tentative information that this construction will indeed start in mid-August, but that's August of 2001, which gives me a whole year of peaceful existence before they come for me with the jackhammers. It was an adventure and a half to figure this out, though -- I challenge anyone to find anywhere on the web a definitive (and reasonably up-to-date) answer to the question of when Sound Transit will start ripping up Broadway, to within six months. Search engines are your friend; bureaucracy is not.

Feats of Design Brilliance


Have you ever noticed that all sorts of computer cables have hooks at their ends, so that it's basically impossible to reel in a loose cable without it snagging on whatever other cable it happens to cross? And that it's invariably the most expensive cable with the most fragile connector that has the most horribly hook-like properties?

Daily Manifesto


Irony and self-reference are logically independent concepts and must be dealt with as such.

Anonymous Cowardice


Slashdot is always more fun, if less informative, if you read with your threshold set low. A sampling ("Comments are owned by the Poster" and yadda yadda yadda, this is Slashdot and all of these were from Anonymous Cowards):

Lets say mainland China did make Linux the official OS, how is that different from ESR's using Linux as a symbol for his own political movement (libertarianism, which is a separate political movement UNRELATED TO the OPEN SOURCE movement)?

Slashdot puts $$$ into Bill Gates pocket!
Well, well.... things have changed since the corporate sell-out!!!

By the end of the Roman Empire, many changes had occured in the spoken Latin that further seperated it from Classical Latin and moved it closer to the present-day Romance languages.
For one, the six cases of the Latin noun had dwindled to three, leaving only the nominative, accusative and ablative. The vocative, used only in the second declension anyway, fell out of use, as did the genitive and dative. The dative had been absorbed by the ablative, as the two differed only in the singular, and even then was sometimes identical. A seperate dative form then completely disappeared when the accusative with ad replaced it as an indirect object. By this time, the genitive had been forgotten
Secondly, the declensions themselves were shrinking. The tiny fifth declension took on the first declension's endings, and the second and fourth declensions merged, to form one -us declension.
Through both the case and declensional decay, the Latin noun-system was well into becoming the non-declinable, two-gender noun-system of the Neo-Romance languages.
Lastly, and most interestingly, was the decay of the Latin demonstrative ille. At first meaning that, the demonstrative's use eventually sharpened into cognate with our the. The spelling also shrank to match, thus forming the definite articles such as il, la and el we see today (remember also illa) in languages like Spanish, Portugese, Italian and French. At the same time, since the Latin verb could not indicate the subject's gender, the same demonstrative was used to specify who or what was being talked a
Hopefully this article showed how Latin is alive in the modern Romance languages.

I'm glad Robert Malda went to Hope College and learned the finer aspects of math. Hope College is filled with Christian Nazis that value religion over science. Let's all thank Robert Malda for going to Hope College and learning that math really doesn't count!

hello
i had recently attained the 6.2 versoin of the redhat operating system. i will now attaint the 7.0 version.

my questions is:

1) i notice that i have sendmail running. does this mean that i can now send emails to pepole?
2) i notice that i have apache running. from what i understand, this is a web server. does ths mean i can start doing e commerce and b-to-b stuff? i hear that is where the money is
3) i notice that i have bash running. friends of mine think it is what is popularly known as a shell. does this mean that there is something beneath it? how do i get there?
thanks. i am pretty happy with my redhat operatin system.

the scream echoed in rod blaze's mind over and over as he dug his sharpened razor like claws into his own flesh and let his blood seep out into the snow that lay around his battered body. he had tortured his body even as his own mind replayed the morose events of that past affair. in an orgasmic eruption he had ripped out an unfathomably large piece of sol's right side. the red fluid had poured onto his face until he awoke from his trance like state and had ripped off the newage material that had seperat ed their bodies. as rod blaze's body tore on its own accord, sol had regained some vitality. shortly afterwards rod blaze had left for canada to search out his own identity. lying in the snow, he searched his soul.
rod blaze: on this trip of identification, that which i seek to regain, have i thus lost what was right - this teen of body and mind yet ladylike and graceful - whom i have torn of flesh and tortured of mind? my sol, whose teenness so close to np - alas she is not mine to adore - i have found her irresistible - yet in my passion, i may have destroyed her.
sol had recovered, rod blaze had been the worse after his regenerative powers had been passed on to her, but he could not shake the undeniable truth - he had come a hair's width away from ripping the soul away from sol's body.
sol: rod blaze is that you? i have followed you from RMS's school for gifted and cute teens to find you, as i do love you and your wicked delights.
rod blaze: oh sol! how i have should have completed my transgressions against my own body of nature, you whom i have only shamefully admitted to love - shamefully yes - for our ages might very well be in difference - and you are a teen of body and mind, ladylike yes, but pouting teen of breast and pouting teen of lips - that which i do pursue.

My Conclusions:
Terrified by VA Linux's falling stock price, Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda begins paying the trolls (who are congregating on a "secret" troll sid) to fire up Slashdot readers and inspire more banner hits and posts. Malda occasionally posts in the troll forum to check up on how the trolls are doing.
However, that plan begins to. As a result, Malda sets up the SlashDotShop and, using a secret backdoor in the Slash code, begins taking over high-karma accounts (such as Signal 11 and Enoch Root) and auctions them off to -- a true karma mafia.
Malda comes up with one last, desperate plan. He recruits the trolls to launch a DDoS attack on Slashdot's chief competitor, kuro5hin.org. They succeed; Malda then issues a statement in "support" of kuro5hin to prove his innocence. One of the trolls, ZikZak, refused to go along with the DDoS plans, believing that Malda had carried his greed too far. He ends up being kicked off the troll mailing list, and in response threatens to use his knowledge of the Slashcode backdoors (which he learned about from Ma

The Cathedral has nothing to fear.