The Laboratorium
September 2000

On Vacations


Grape Jello on the couch. Reading my Washington State atlas because it's the only thing with words near at hand. And I need a vacation. I've been saying it for a while, but I know it now. Just how tired I feel in the evening.

The Lab needs a vacation, too. It needs a retreat, it needs to work out some issues. Grape Jello with the big spoon tells you this.

Maybe I'm just tired. If I'm going off about principles and philosophies, maybe I ought to be serious about them in the site. Maybe I should figure out what being serious about them would mean in the first place.

Not quite a crisis of purpose. All indications are positive, all feedback good. If you make a web site and it's exactly what you'd imagined, what does that say about the limits of your imagination?

I'm going home for a week. The Lab is going on hiatus for a week. I'll be back in Seattle a week into October and we'll go forward from there. There's debugging ahead, and the rainy season, I'll take it as it comes.

I've taken my httpd logs out and chopped them into firewood. Kind of strange, given how well they've served me, all the hilarious little imponderables I've found sifting through them. It's the same way with the puns, and the essays, and the stories. I have no complaints, have never spent a unrewarding minute on them.

Okay. Put it this way. I feel like I know something. And maybe I do, but what if it's unearned? Maybe I ought to get back to radical ignorance under my own power, before I get knocked back there against my will.

Tehshik linked to me when he went away on vacation, so I'm returning the favor, although I should have put up this link long ago. You should read him daily.

Here's half a story. A little less than a year ago, I was driving in Kirkland with two friends, and I saw a searchlight coming from somewhere to the north, so I drove around until I found the parking lot it was set up in. Then we talked to the searchlight operator for a bit -- WWII surplus and still going strong. I justified myself to my friends with a new rule. Sudden impulses must be acted upon. If the idea comes into your head, follow up on it.

This is how you meet searchlight operators, this is how you wind up at the IHOP on Soldiers' Field Road, it's how you go outside from yourself in order to make things happen. This is how stories start.

I trade in stories. This is what I do.

And I need to think about this. Long and hard. There are certain issues with this obsession with narrative.

It's the future perfect tense, that's what scares me. There's a long road from here to shipping, long months and short days. There are going to be "Email only" days, evaluations and reevaluations, minor mysteries torn apart on the rack with a stack trace and a sneer. All of it summed up in a loose handful of "will have"s.

It's a year and a half since I pulled my hair straight up for a day, a year since I sat in Memorial Stadium and tapped my foot as the sun set. Up, down, up again, and large sums of money. All yours if, no wait, don't tell me this time.

Put another way. I do not need a vacation from 14-hour days, from the mail trucks, from the too-late rants and raves, from the conditions of my existence. These are not signs of something being wrong. These are signs of something being right. Small wonders inspire poetry, but great ones inspire reality. I need a vacation as a reminder, not an escape.

I don't want the mob with the torches and pitchforks making decisions for the Laboratorium. Which requires exercising a certain careful judgement when planning the experiments, especially the ones involving reanimation. Format, design, tone, contents, continued existence in present form -- these are things that'll have to be ironed out. And for that, the Lab needs its time off.

This is not: retreat and regroup.

This is not: now I can't give it up, it's a trap, just my luck.

This is not: double or nothing.

This is not: field work and primary sources.

This is not: business as usual, a cosmetic overhaul.

This is not: don't go fucking up a good situation.

This is a vacation. It is what it is, and there's a dog waiting for me at the end of it, and he's going to lick my face.

"I am by no means standing still. I have my whole life in it. Yet he does not go further, does not go on to something else, for when he finds this, then he has another explanation."

Back in a week.

Live from Elliott Bay


T.C. Boyle shared his latest, A Friend of the Earth with a capacity crowd down at Elliott Bay this evening. It was a lot of fun: Boyle is sardonic and personable, with a very sharp wit, and he showed off some extremely funny passages from the book. He also managed to turn the whole reading -- his introductory comments, the passages themselves, the Q and A period, even his little asides -- into a discussion on environmental issue, questions of the future and the present, mixing despair at the melting of the polar ice caps with a greived insistence on the painful fact that it's human population and consumption that are causing such havoc, but pulling everything together with a writer's insistence on articulating issues and his probing, intelligent wit.

Also, I was a little unfair on William Vollmann, I realize now. This is because the guy who asked Vollmann about the spaces between people and how they could be bridged, this guy was at the Boyle reading and he asked Boyle the same exact question, word for word, I think. So it's not just Vollmann who brings 'em out of the woodwork. Of course, where Vollmann got by with "Love. Love is the answer," Boyle managed to disarm the fellow by speaking nonstop for several minutes, in a long and quite interesting monlogue that ultimately wound up on the topic of the pond Boyle dug in his backyard: twenty feet across and five deep. "For the critters," he said. Apparently, digging and splitting table-sized rocks ("like in prison movies") provides a nice break from writing.

Boyle also had an interesting suggestion for fixing our planet's environmental problems, although he did not that it would require the cooperation of absolutely everyone on the planet. He noted that if we could all agree to abstain from sex for a hundred years, it would pretty much deal with the problem.

Fear and/or Trembling


Been rereading Fear and Trembling, which has to be one of my all-time favorite books by this point, in its own strange way. Every time I go back to it, I get more out of the experience. This was probably the first reading when I felt like I had, even for an instant, a grasp on that third section, with the business about Agnes and the merman. That book has shaped my thinking so much in the four years since I first read it, even though, like many things I've come to really appreciate with time, I was pretty dismissive of it on my first encounter with.

What does it mean to me? I still don't know. On one level, I respond to the authorial posture Kierkegaard (as "Johannes de Silentio") takes in it: he writes from the perspective of one outside of faith looking in. And one of his basic points, on the incomparability of faith with normal existence, its inacessability, is something I've taken very strongly to heart. Much of our social and political discourse in this country starts from a position that faith and ethics are in some sense one, or at the very least that religious faith speaks in very straightforward and easily applicable ways about everyday life and morality. Which is a notion that Kierkegaard more or less shreds in his discussion of Abraham. Okay, yes, I can see -- espeically with each rereading -- the little tricks, the parts of the argument he skims over, but I think it's a really legitimate point that faith is or must be something apart, separate, wholly and unknowably interior. It's certainly made me, as basically a nonbeliever, more tolerant: the faithful know what they know, and, well, what faith tells them it tells them, and they're under no obligation (nor should be) to try and rationally justify to me their religious understanding to me. This cuts both ways: I think the argument can be turned around, too, and Kierkegaard rails a great deal againt easy presumptions of faith. He's my shield against proselytism in some sense -- but no matter how much skepticism I might have towards any given bible-thumper, I don't actually know their interior life, and I'm not going to jump to conclusions.

Further, his arguments about esthetics and irony, the double movements, really work for me, and I'm pretty deeply inspired by the structure of of the progression he lays out in Fear and Trembling. First the movement towards renunciation, the movement of infinite resignation, the explicable and understandable motion, a going-outwards from oneself in a giving-up. And then, its reversal, the movement of faith, the incomprehensible motion, the return to onself and the inner life, the belief that the giving-up will not be required, by virtue of the absurd. The coexistence of these motions, the absolute necessity that one genuinelt make the first before the second becomes meaningful, this layering of irony: well, that's the kind of stuff to warp an impressionable young mind. It's beautiful, it tells me about a truth within and behind irony, it's a form of meaning, a way of being in the world and pulling something stranger and more beautiful out of the very details of one's normal existence, and yet somehow transcending it.

That said, I think I'd be a horrifying example to old Soren, taking the teaching in that sense. I'm not taking it at the level of faith, but at the level of esthetics, which he goes off about at great length in that weird but compelling third section. I'm missing the meaning, according to its author's own words, to be reading Fear and Trembling as an esthetic argument. This does disturb me a bit. But on that very same esthetic level, and following its own relaxed standards of rigor, the argument works for me, and this is something that I know and can't properly explain, something I believe in perhaps precisely because I recognize a certain absurdity in it. So, sure, Kierkegaard may be rolling over in his grave, but this lax reading sanctions itself. And so I go about my business, secure in my faith in irony, the operative force shaping the world these days. And I go about my business, secure in my belief that what is given up may yet be given back, only transformed, so that the odd blessings that fall from out the sky carry in their forms the echoes of familiar and renounced ones but are more marvelous than anything that can ever be grasped at.

E-Commerce Is Doomed


Well, it pretty much seems that I've gotten all the responses I'm going to get to my free-money giveaway. And, you may ask, what has the level of response been? Uh, low. As I learned in my compilers class, the prime number few. Exactly six people have taken me up on my free-money offer. That's six quarters, totalling $1.50, and all of them came to me directly, so no referrer fees. This is a pretty far cry from the hundred reader bonuses I was ready to pay.

What's more, one of those folks was a new Paypal user, so I got a $5.00 bribe from Paypal for that transaction, so I've actually turned a net profit of $3.50 on this whole giveaway. Let me repeat that. I tried to give away money, but I wound up making it instead.

It seems to me that this is a disturbing indicator for the dotcoms of this world. First off, it shows that yes, the market is actually willing to validate pretty much any business plan, no matter how manifestly unprofitable. Second, it shows that in this jaded internet age, it's not so easy to attract customers, that pretty much even if you're giving away money you still may not be able to pull in the eyeballs. And third, it shows that there are useful services out there, like Paypal, that are still getting royally screwed by their user base. I am discouraged.

Given the altruistic principles this whole enterpriese has been based upon, I'm going to stick to my vow to to give away the full hundred quarters worth. I'm raising the bounty to a buck. No referrer fees, in case that detail was complicating things beyond the complexity suitable for Internet attention spans. Just a buck for reading the site. Is it really only two and a half times harder to find a bug in the source code to TeX than it is to fire off an email? Let's find out.

And and/or Or


Saw an ingredients list today that read, in part, "One or more of the following: partially hydrogenated canola oil and/or partially hydrogenated soybean oil." Leaving aside my obsessive-compulsive drive towards string compression (couldn't those two repetitions of "partially-hydrogenated" have been condensed into one?), isn't this just a bit redundant? Aren't "one or more of" and "and/or" saying basically the same thing? The only way out I can think of is that maybe "one ore more of the following" is meant to be applied to the second-order set whose elements are {canola oil}, {soybean oil}, and {canola oil, soybean oil}, so that the final result is a third-order set with elements such as {{soybean oil}} and {{canola oil}, {soybean oil, canola oil}}. Which is consistent enough from a set theory point of view, but my goodness, if the regulations defining ingredients labelling aren't first-order axiomatizable, I'm going to be very scared.

Nothing Neither Way


No updates today. Got my big checkin through, which counts for something, but also there has been catching up on email. I have not succeeded in actually catching up, but I'm closer. In news, though, the House passed a bill forcing the IRS to declare that kidnapped children still qualify for the dependant deduction. I might also take this chance to note that Lab updates are dated according to my sleep schedule, rather than according to actual clock time. You may think it Wednesday, but it's been Tuesday all day today, so this is a Tuesday entry. Thbbbbpt.

Thank Goodness for Illness


The Evergreen Point Floating Bridge (or the "Evergreen Floating-Point Bridge," as I prefer to think of it) was closed due a bomb threat this afternoon about an hour after I drove across it on my way home from work. I left early on account of this cold-like thing, and concluded that I oughtn't be driving until I'm a bit more alert. Nothing really dangerous; I just kept gerrymandering my route to avoid difficult merges and left turns. Three young men in a pickup truck -- why are my suspicion sensors immediately going off -- chased down a bus and shouted to the driver that there was a bomb on board. Also in the news today, Bryan Smith died. Smith was the driver who hit Stephen King on a Maine road last year; it's a sad but hard-to-deny truth that Smith's passing -- 43 years old, no immediate indication of cause, vauge mention of a "variety of medications for his health" -- feels like something out of a King novel. Further, the California Prune Board (which I have repeatedly mislexed as the "California Prude Board") is spending $10 million to retarget prunes as "dried plums". A noble cause, perhaps, but for those of us who've had experience with preserved plums, this is actually something of a step backwards in terms of perceived edibility. Finally, Altavista ("they carry news? ") reports that drug cartels are recruiting among the homeless. Missing from the story: any discussion of what kind of inhumanity it takes of a society to make this sort of expendible-fall-guy drug-running among the most attractive overall options open to some of its members.

From the Way-back Backvaults


A couple of Lab-spurred conversations recently have reminded me of various things kicking around in my pre-Lab archives. So, on the one hand, I've got this discussion of mental categories (trust me, the description is the only serious thing about it). Of related interest is this story from normally non-reputable news source Ananova. On the other hand, I offer up set of predictions about the future of alcohol consumption.

What Dreams May Come


Looks like I'm back in dreaming mode. For me, dreams come in bursts of a couple weeks, during which I have dreams basically every night. They're typically fairly vivid, and look a lot like reality, except that they should have turned left at Albuquerque. Last night's seems like a fairly typical introduction to the genre: for some reason, my division at work was ordered, en masse, to join the circus. There were a whole bunch of scenes that revolved around me packing a steamer trunk and then having to rush to meet the bus that was going to take us to the circus train. Then, I had a meeting with my manager, where he told me that I'd been assigned to be a clown. While he recognized that this might not the most appropriate job for me (I think he mentioned lion-taming and trapeze as better possibilities), I should make the best of it while he talked to his manager about getting me transfered out of the clown car.

Two Weak Puns


Stanley Kubrick meets French Existentialism in Spartacamus and Sartrecus, coming soon to an art-house theatre near you. The trouble is that both of these puns share the same, not particularly funny, follow-up line, about a man who discovers the true meaning of identity in an uncaring world by pretending to be the leader of a slave revolt and being crucified as an example. Which, unfortunately, happens to be the exact plot of Spartacus to begin with, so that, the pun having been made, there's nowhere to actually run with it.

That Kind of Day


This impending cold that's been threatening for the last couple of days still hasn't actually broken out full-force. It's just skulking around, making me a little sinusy and a bit achy, and a twee feverish at night, come to think of it, which may help explain the dream. Why is it that when I get feverish at night, I can never recognize this fact and take something to bring my temperature down a bit? No, it's always toss and turn with these strange irrational ideas going through my head, like that I need to make the walls blue by concentrating, and then I'll be able to fall asleep again and catch the bus. It provides kind of a terrifying perspective on mental illness to me -- if it's this easy to get into a state in which one can't actually comprehend what medication will do for oneself, I can understand the frightening implications of delusional and depressive disorders (especially ones that reinforce paranoia), in terms of how hard it can be to bring someone who's lapsed in their self-medication back onto the program.

But anyway, in my own state right now, it's the body that's more noticably in trouble right now. Bit of a sore throat, but more just a general soreness, that expresses itself in an unwillngness to move. Which is basically okay, in that it's Sunday and I don't need to do nothing. Well, that's not technically true, I really ought to check my mail from the office and go in to restart my checkin if it got aborted again, but in my current state, I'm not leaving the apartment, or more specifically, one of my fabulously comfortable chairs, without really compelling reason, such as "we will take away this small child's toy unless you leave the apartment." Once, when I was much younger, I was with my family somewhere near Rye on Long Island Sound, and a green children's bouncy-ball, with bright primary-colored design and the words "Choo-Choo Train" washed up. There was nobody else around within like a mile or so. We wound up scooping it up and bringing it home, and it sat with all the other balls in our tiny little back hallway by the door and I played with it now and again. But it always made me uneasy, every time I picked it up, because all I could think of was the poor kid whose ball it had been, who'd watched his treasured ball float out across the Sound, or had finished a day at the beach traumatized and unable to find it. up scooping it up and bringing it back

But anyway, I've declared today a sweatpants day, because I need that extra buffer of high-comfort low-formality clothing. Combine this with the fall colors outside (and the pale blue sunny sky) and the lazy Sunday feeling, and it's very much like waking up to a lazy Sunday back at school. The key difference being, in this case, that there's no Sunday brunch with waffle machine waiting for me. The best part about the waffle machine, I thought, was the ability to make undercooked waffles, for just about any level of "undercooked" you wanted. You could pop them out thirty seconds early (you could guess reasonably well, based on the position of the timer knob, or you could just pour yourself some raw batter, if your particular boat floated in raw batter.

I had this ambition, never actually realized, to make a differential waffle iron, one which was hot only at one end, and which would produce for you a differentially-cooked waffle, one whose degree of doneness various continuously and roughly linearly from a done end to a batter end. Eating your differential waffle, you'd be able to comprehend on a fully-intuitive level the precise journey a waffle makes on its way from batter to Belgian. It'd be sort of like those chocolate sampler boxes that give you samples of chocolate ranging from 5% cocoa up through 89%, except that the waffle would, in theory, contain every single degree of doneness in between, whereas the chocolate sampler contains only five or six.

Public Comment Period


There are still some serious issues to be worked out, but this is the first look of the several I tried this weekend that I think has a chance of cutting the mustard, design-wise. I'm still playing with the idea of working a preview pane into the design, and perhaps also a couple of other navigational modes, and a couple of other bits of frou-frou, plus there are all sorts of glitches that need to be dealt with, but I think the overall look is clean enough that I'm actually going to put my effort into cleaning up its rough edges.

So, yeah, you can go play around with the beta version of the new site design [Ed: what was the beta design when I wrote this is now the production design] and go write angry letters to the Internet Historical Commission demanding that not an electron be moved.

Orance Juice, Chicken Soup, and Jell-O


Perhaps this is overkill for the actual symptoms I've evinced, but I really don't feel in the mood for any unnecessary suffering.

Just Phoning it In


Literally. The dev on duty botched the merge again, so whoops, build break, checkin aborted. By goveling through the logs, I was able to figure out what went wrong, though, and I called in to explain how to fix it. Shudder.

You Guys Ought to Talk


The people who want to clone Jesus should probably go talk to the people who wrote the book claiming that Jesus never existed. I could say more, but why?

Well, What Do You Expect?


Like maybe if you botch the merge it might somehow still build?

Whatever. Well, here I am back at the orifce for the 13th day running. Ten minutes to fix the spurious merge conflict, and now I'm running the test suite, leaving me with nothing particularly better to do than surf the Web while waiting for the tests to run.

Secrets of the Insiders


The BBC, as promised, took down their link to a streaming audio version of Kid A yesterday, the week-long preview having ended. They did not, I've discovered, actually take down the audio stream itself. So, at least until someone at the BBC notices all these continuing downloads, you can still listen to it here.

Up San Juan Hill


Not out of the woods yet, but the work part is done with. My brain's metaphorical trained monkeys can take it from here.

The Legend Lives On


The good news is that Slap Maxwell, one of my all-time favorite Internet content providers, is back, in the sense that there's an an actively-maintained site that has some of his classic Crash Site work, and to which he would appear to be a contributor. He's apparently not actually working as a stuntman in Hong Kong cinema, but our loss at the movie theater is our gain on the 'Net. The even better news is that his Quicktime tribute to pain is available again. The bad news is that Slap can't find any copies of his Boredom movie, which, I must say, is even more inspired. Especially if you first see it late at night when you're not really doing anything and then your roommate pops in and tells you a URL to type in and then the two of you wish you had red jumpsuits and fire extinguishers just like Slap. Boredom as brilliance. The Rapid Response Team has been alerted, but if there are any other Crash Site fans out there with your own private archives, now is the time to speak up, for the benefit of humanity's collective memory. Also in his Land of Plenty archives, such gems as Slap illustrating how to run over a car, and the following advice:

In life, you want to be the first. Always. o when your car full of people is crossing a state/county/country line, make sure a part of your body is the farthest forward in the car. Be fast, be sneaky, stick your whole damn leg out the front window. If you are the first, you are the best- make sure everyone in the car knows they are your inferior.

Such Things We Think When Our Work is Done


AC: Have you seen the website that tracks dollar bills? [ed: www.wheresgeorge.com] It seems like a way to spend your VC money. Spend ten thousand of your million on the web site, and then spend the remaining nine hundred and ninety thousand on one-dollar bills that you stamp your name on.

Daniel: It's amazing what some web sites will do to claim they have "active members."

Steve: Sometime last year, one of these online services sent me an email saying "here's ten dollars!" So I took the money, and then I cancelled my account, because I figured they weren't going to do it again for me, since they'd already given me ten bucks.

Me: Every so often, Amazon sends me a certificate for whatever new store. Here's ten dollars at our Pets store! I'm waiting for them to send me one for ten bucks towards a new car.

Steve: You just need to wait for them to open up a car store. It can't be long.

Me: They sell new cars. [ed: here] It sounds like a joke, but it isn't.

Daniel: Do they gift wrap? I wonder what the overnight shipping option on one of those would cost.

Me: Two thousand dollars per order, and a thousand per item.

AC: Well, apparently, rich executives flying between New York and London have started FedExing their baggage rather than trusting the airlines with it.

Me: How much does that cost?

AC: Well, at one point I actually did that when I was going to California for a while. But I used UPS, and I had to because I was going over the weight limit on the plane. I think it was around $100 for an 80-pound package.

Steve: I've done that, too. When I went to college, I shipped myself --

Me: You shipped yourself?

Steve: A little less comfortable than a regular seat.

Daniel: Down there in the unpressurized baggage hold with the sub-zero temperatures.

AC: But the price isn't really that much of a savings off of a regular airplane ticket.

Daniel: That's scandalous. It shows you how little they actually give you when you fly, if the passenger cost isn't any higher than the dead weight cost.

Me: What this suggests is that maybe you should just ship your packages by regular coach airfare.

Steve: The ideal is that you walk onto the plane and strap your package into the seat, and then get off. Just need to have someone meet it at the other end.

Me: You say "This is my grandma. She's going to need some help getting of the plane."

Daniel: It's an unescorted minor. "He's not going to be hungry."

AC: The problem is that this is a perfect way to smuggle bombs onto planes.

Steve: There are fewer suicide bombers out there than there are, uh, . . .

AC: . . . bombers who aren't willing to commit suicide?

Me: Then why don't we hear about more UPS planes getting blown up?

AC: That's a way to make a statement without killing people. You send a note to the pilot saying there's a bomb on board, so he jumps out with his parachute, and then you wait for him and then you can blow up the plane.

Daniel: Or not. Once he's jumped out, you don't even need the bomb.

Steve: Unless the autopilot can land the plane. Can they do that?

AC: If the autopilot could do that, why would they have pilots at all?

Daniel: Actually, all planes have been flown by autopilot since 1962. The pilots are just for show. People don't trust machines.

Me: There have been studies of this. There's some subway system where the computers do all the driving, and the drivers are just there in case of emergency, and they discovered that the people actually made things worse, because they didn't handle surprises well, and didn't trust the machines when they should have.

Steve: As someone who writes code, I certainly wouldn't trust the machines.

Daniel: We wait for the twenty-car pileup on the highway, and then we go, "Ah! Left of the 'else' clause on that 'if'!"

AC: That's what we need garbage collection for. To come along and clean up all the wrecks when we forgot to make a call to Release().

Me: Then they can reuse the cars and give us all ten-dollar off gift certificates to buy them back.

Pushing an Elephant up the Stairs


Some days, you lift the car off the infant. Other days, you lift the car off the infant, raise it above your head, and then toss it into the next street over.

Look, don't mess wtih my illisions, okay? I need to believe that the sacrifice of my Sunday was not in vain, especially given how nice it was outside today.

New Music Tuesday


October is out of control. To open the month, there are going to be new CDs from Radiohead and Paul Simon coming out on the 3rd, and to close it out, the new U2 album comes out on the 31st. Does everyone else out there appreciate just how huge this is? These are the guys who get unlimited studio time, the ones who put out albums when they damn well feel like it, who live quietly out of the limelight for a few years and then show up with something new and all of a sudden a hush falls over the room as everyone looks at the tall fellow who just came striding into the saloon.

Simon's apparently going back to his immediately post-Garfunkel style, according to advance notices. For my money, this was his least amazing creative period: he did better work both before and after. But what has me a bit confused is that I thought I remembered him saying that he was done with regular albums after Rhythm of the Saints, and that he was going to close out his whole career with The Capeman. Apparently not, but I'm not complaining. U2 are also coming off what a lot of people think of as a disappointment, and returning to a more "classic" sound. They've released a single -- try the completely obvious web address if you want to hear it -- which purports to be their first single in N years. Which is a complete lie, if you happen to remember the web release of "Ground Beneath Her Feet" (lyrics by Salman Rushdie, somehow connected to his book of the same title) from the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel. Man, did that one ever vanish from the radar screens. "Beautiful Day" is pretty catchy -- it definitely grows on you to the point where you're in danger of putting it on infinite repeat, as Scarius over at Shafted did.

Radiohead, though, are another matter. After OK Computer, which was amazingly unbelievably heartrendingly good, but definitely more than a little out there, as albums go, those irrepressibly depressed-seeming Brits holed up in a makeshift studio for a couple months and recorded enough songs to fill up both their forthcoming album, Kid A and a whole 'nother one, tentatively being planned for a spring release (plus, there are rumors they're about to go right back into the studio and record another one, which would double their extant work in something on the order of a year). From all indications, they filled up Kid A with all the uncommercial songs, and then dubbed, mixed, altered, arranged, and generally mutated the hell out of them to the point where they barely even sound like music from this planet. From early reports, it seemed like there were a couple distinct possibilities. One, they might have decided that they needed to prove some sort of existential legitimacy, much in the fashion of modern orchestral music. Two, they might be trying to royally screw over their record label. Three, it might all be a huge joke. Four, they could be trying to achieve whole new kinds of musical beauty by destroying and reinterpreting familiar forms.

Well, the BBC is streaming the album on demand through Friday of this week, so I went and gave it a listen today. And then I immediately gave it another one. And, given that it was a fourteen-hour day at work, I gave it two more over the course of the day. And, in my opinion at least, it's definitely possibility number four all the way, and they've pulled it off. Like OK Computer, the new album is of a pice: it coheres from start to finish, even though the songs vary a great deal. There are a lot of strange mixing tricks, some very odd arrangements, and some incredibly weird vocal distortions. The expressive range is restricted, the instrumental sounds are somehow confined to a very narrow range, even as they draw from all across the orchestra and the electronics rack. They've opened up the musical canvas in some new ways, even as they work with an extremely limited palette melodically and dynamically. And somehow, it works. The slightest changes in intensity, the crossfades and tempo changes, little twists of voice -- it all acquires a deep resonance somehow, becomes incredibly moving. You reach the end of it turned inside-out and listening to music in a new way. They're just putting together the available elements in imaginative new ways, and the result is evocative and emotionally draining. I have no idea how they did it, but somehow they did.

In Lieu


Steve: You know, it's a good thing you don't work for a porn site. Because you use 'XXX' in your code for stuff you need to look at, and would have a whole different meaning.

Me: Hey, I can take those 'XXX's out. I've already done those things.

Steve: There you go. That'd have a different meaning at a porn site, too.

Fun From the Logs


I can see why "pictures of the notebooks" might bring you here. Having the word "notebooks" in a huge font on a page that's not otherwise playing keyword bingo seems like a reasonable idea. That said, I still have no idea what the person who entered this query was thinking of. It's the "the" that gets me. Which notebooks, man? Come on. Give the search engine a little help, here. The same goes for "olympics and the professionals": that definite article seems oddly out of place. Turning things around, "can professionals play for the olympics" is fine with its articles, but that "for" strikes a wrong note. Maybe the Olympics are some kind of Greek, I don't know, soccer team, and this person, who went pro a few years ago, wants to know if he can still play for them. Or maybe not.

The person looking for information on "theivery corporation mirror conspiracy" probably had something specific in mind. And something specific is what they got: this search at Google yields exactly one hit: my comparative review of a pair of Teddy Chen action-adventure movies from early June. Bonus points for use of the word "theivery;" I only wish I could have been of more help to this unknown soul.

Speaking of specificity, "fire department air raid siren sound" brings up this short story I wrote some years ago. I like the story, and yes, the air raid siren sound does actually play something of a role in it, albeit in that very high-school-ish way where the author has gotten his hands on what he's sure is a powerful piece of symbolism, even if he's not entirely sure what it's symbolic of. The thing that makes me wonder, though, is that the two sentences the Yahoo search engine brings back to show you how the keywords appear in the context of the page make it quite clear that this is probably not a web page about fire department siren sounds:

...sudden sound waves rebounded in the room, pushing the dead air...

...firmly planted on the "Know Your Air Raid Signals" chart. Its...

Then again, it looks as though most of the other hits for this one are similarly off-topic. Search-engine algorithm designers: take note! You may need to special-case your response to queries about fire departments. "minimum celing height by code" also brings back some of my fiction, and yes, it is a plot point, but still, on balance, I somehow doubt they found what they were looking for. In much the same way, "non disclosure in marriages" may be an interesting concept, but it's not much to do with Microsoft corporate culture.

"high quality soccer logos picture" sounds like a fan page in the making, or possibly an unauthorized T-shirt vendor. It also has absolutely nothing to do with my extended rant about technology and intellectual property. Apparently, I do use the word "soccer" in it at one point, but I swear up and down, this is not an essay about soccer, it is not, please believe me, oh search engine, why won't you believe me? The person who got this essay by entering "fbi warning" into Yahoo deserves some sort of prize for effort: at the time, it was somewhere around number two hundred and fortieth (out of "about" 31500) on the list of returned sites, which is a pretty impressive distance to wade through, given that Yahoo has no features for jumping ahead more than a page of 20 at a time.

There's a certain beauty to "rain gifts." I'll need to remember the phrase. "fun virii" is also sort of neat, if a bit more worrying. "monkey playing trombone" seemed unlikely, but then I remembered, yes, I have written about trombone-playing monkeys, if only in passing. "mouse springs" is kind of cute, as is "waffle photographs," but I don't even want to know about the multiple searches for "lost her hands."

Question: "talk show host suspenders." Answer: Larry King. Unless, that is, you go to my page on the subject, where you find out that it's Clint Eastwood.

I've already commented with incredulity on the multiple different people who found my candy page through a Google search for "www.mouthwashing.com", which is wrong in so many different ways I don't want to get started. When it comes to legit search requests, the candy page is actually the number-one destination here. And why not: it provides first-hand, if somewhat flip, reviews of any number of candies, tasty, obscure, and/or nasty. If you want "wine gums" or "sherbet fountain" or even "walnut whip," I've got reviews for you, although I suspect you're probably an afficionado already, and therefore unlikely to count my opinion for much. Then again, if you come in looking for "gemodificeerd zetmeel," I can indeed tell you that it's the number three ingredient in the truly noxious Klene Zout brand of salted licorice, even if I have no idea what gemodificeerd zetmeel is.

Typing "agriculture xml standard" into Google and it'll take you to the archives from the last week of May, probably because I talked both about agriculture and xml that week, although sadly, not in the same entry. This may be the recurring theme of the truly strange search requests that wind up hitting here: there's usually something relevant to each of the keywords in the search, but the juxtaposition of the terms is a concept that would never have crossed my mind.

The grand prize for such juxtapostion has to go to "shark regurgitation." I have never written about sharks regurgitating their lunches, nor have I written about people regurgitating sharks. But somehow, Google knew to find me for answers about shark regurgitation, and decided to pull up "That Miracles Are Ceased", a rather long piece of fiction, concerning itself with people at college, and the nature of happiness, and the sense of hope, both present and absent. Note carefully: no sharks. No regurgitation. Just laughter and heartbreak and some strange metaphors. Was I forgetting the scene where Ken and Lizabet need to work together to help Baxter escape from the land shark that's terrorizing the campus and they throw it steaks coated in ipecac? I was pretty sure I didn't write that in to the story. So I went back and I looked to see if I could figure out why Google decided it was a story about shark regurgitation. Here are the relevant passages -- they're about a page apart in the original.

"I know the drill. I promise you that nobody in Cardiff 110 will choke on their own vomit tonight. I'll watch him as though he were my own roommate. Oh. Wait.. He is my own roommate." You have to be properly dour to say such things well; at that moment, I was nothing if not dour.

"Thanks, Ken," Alexanda ehhhed. "You shoulda been there wif us. Baster an I had so much fun, an we dida even know it was en Eighties part, an we leff poor Lizard all alone. Poor Lizabet. Shoulda been there to keep her company." she said.

"Keep me company looking after you two party animals, you mean. Regurgitation night at the zoo, with Baxter chewing his cud like that," Lizabet cut in.

"He's not the cow sort. Maybe he was doing his bird impression," I supplied, "Bringing up some worm mash for the kids." Alexandra giggled and tottered.

"Shoulda been, Ken," she said.

My explanations, however, were interrupted by Baxter, who shifted in his sleep with a minor grunt. Lizabet glanced over at him, and launched into a picturesque explanation of her and Alexandra's futile search for Baxter's keys, and attendant relief at finding me home.

"Should have looked under the streetlight," I said, unable to resist. Lizabet knew the joke, too, it turned out.

"--because that's where the light's better," she tossed back. A smirk spread across her face. "And I don't need to outswim the shark . . ." she said, throwing down the gauntlet. I picked it up.

". . . I just need to outswim you," I replied. "Hmm. Yeah. And he, "I said, pointing at Baxter, "still has no idea what you're talking about."

"Of course not. He's still a zonkerbaby. Oh. Wait. Uhhhh. No, what's that one?"

"The one about the mob boss and the deaf guy, where the interpreter--" I started to say, but Lizabet cut me off.

"Oh, right right right. That's a good one. Always seemed a little unlikely, you think? But funny. Hang on. I've got another good one. Yeah. I was sitting in a refirgerator, minding my own business . . ."

If this is good enough to be a hit for "shark regurgitation," I'm surprised that this story isn't hit by every search in the world. The real pathos of this particular query string, though, is that this is hit number 74 out of 135 at Google. Our aquatic gastroenterologist is quite a dedicated fellow.

Free Money


Perhaps I wasn't clear enough last time around. Give me an email address (this so I can use Paypal to pay you, pal) and I will send you a quarter, plus a nickel for each person you refer who also takes me up on the offer. Details here (under "Burn Rate").

But Don’t Him Suit Fit Fine


Today was supposed to be only eleven hours or so. Get out at ten, well, okay, probably closer to ten-thiry or eleven, given when I actually got moving in the morning, come home and eat the last of the coconut-stuffed bananas, and then in some sort of two-hour miracle burst of inspiration, completely redo the site design and add this way-cool navigational system I came up with (although I'd have estimated that task as being one and a half to two days at work, which tells you something either about my working habits or about my degree of hubris when it comes to this site). Yeah, well, one thing led to another, and it turned into fourteen hours today, and I'm not so stupid as to try and write code for the Lab with what is now a couple hours past the time when I consider anything further I do to be time stolen from my sleep time, but I am stupid enough to write an update or two. Just one for the road <hic>. I could babble on for hours about the cool stuff I made work today, and indeed, I'd go right ahead and do just that, except that it would take hours to fill in all the details that are required to explain why I think it's so cool. It's not even really that it was super-difficult or that I'm making possible something never-before seen: somehow all the details were just really neat, and I could just ramble on about why it's so cool to pass through the double-pointer out parameter that way and blah de blah blah blah. Either I've been really effectively brainwashed or I'm more than a little punch-drunk.

Beware of Elephant


And then there are the days when you need to explain to the owner of the car why you lifted it off the infant, raised it above your head, and tossed it into the next street over, with special and repeated emphasis on the "infant" part.

And on the Seventh Day


I went back to work.

Asusming my head doesn't explode sometime next week, this means that my work schedule over these three weeks will have been the following: four days no work, followed by one day work, then another four days of no work, followed by twelve straight days at work. I'd call the Mike Hyun rule on myself, except that I don't seem to mind -- those two days off last were a lot of fun, and the work this weekend is with a particular goal in mind, one that's actually pretty motivating. Come back with your shield or on it, as they used to say.

Networks: a Realization


Metcalfe's Law states that as you throw a bunch of people together, the overall usefulness rises as the square of the number of people. Brooks's Law states that as you throw a bunch of people together, the overall overhead and chaos rises as the square of the number of people. Only in computer science, I think, could we independently make the same observation -- n choose 2 is quadratic in n -- twice and come to completely opposite conclusions.

More Specifically


Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, the "Funeral Music for Queen Mary," and David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System.

Mood-Altering Shit


Ice cream, some Purcell, and a good novel. The best indicator of overall mood may not bee how high the ecstatic parts of your day are, or how infrequently you really bottom out and curse the skies above, or even what the rolling average of your mood is across some period of hours or weeks. The real question is how you deal with things, how easy it is to slide back up into peaceful contentment after stressful bits. It's been a brutal week, very long days at work, not really enough sleep, and some really irritating bugs (all of which turned out not to be my fault, which is small consolation after you've spent hours tracking them down), and I'm going back for another round tomorrow. But I've gone to sleep every night in a good mood, and I've shown up in my office in a good mood every morning, no matter how zorched I am by the evening. Ice cream, some Purcell, and a good novel.

Email Only


Is this such a hard concept to understand? Apparently so. One fellow developer has suggested we escalate to "knock, you die."

Burn Rate


Rebecca has pointed out that most e-commerce companies, given their basic business model -- don't carry much inventory, leverage existing infrastructure as much as possible, and try to grow more quickly than possible -- basically have a choice of spending their VC money on one of two things: advertising or giving away free stuff. Her strategy for benefittting from the current economy is to seek out the companies offering free stuff and plunder them for all they're worth. Free shipping for new customers plus the deal-of-the-day can turn into a real windfall if you happen to find something you need. Kozmo's loss is your gain.

Well, here at the Laboratorium, our VC fund is a good deal smaller, indeed, well-nigh nonexistent, but that doesn't mean the same principles don't apply. And, lately, we've been , scratching our heads over the readership numbers, which are, well, still kinda low. Granted, by being an early mover, the Laboratorium has pretty much established itself as the leading web destination for Laboratorium-related content, but nonetheless, there remains this nagging feeling that perhaps it's not reaching quite as broad an audience as it might be. So we've gone back to our backers to try and get them to support us in a plan to increase our name recognition and grow the Laboratorium brand. Our chief backer was somewhat opposed to the whole advertising idea. In fact, at one point Ihad this idea whereby I'd use the Amazon Associates service to put links up on my page to Amazon as requested by friends, and then send them the %15 kickback Amazon offers. Other than my reluctance to actually try to milk Amazon too brazenly (I really do like them, certainly they're much better people and run a much better site than most of their competitors), I decided that I didn't want to have what was, in effect, Amazon advertising, on my site. We like to make at least a show of anti-commercialist defiance around here, as pathetically hypocritical as that show may be.

Which leaves giving stuff away. If the Lab were an e-commerce site, I'd offer free shipping. If it were an online brokerage, I'd offer free trades. If it were a subscribers-only content site, I'd offer a free trial period. But the fact of the matter is that the Lab is a weblog, and already free. Which means there's really only one way to go: bribes. Yes, that's right, I'm going to start paying you to read the site.

Here's the deal. You send me email, care of bottle_washer at laboratorium dot net. Then I go over to Paypal and I send you a quarter. You can have the quarter direct-deposited to your bank account, or you can have them mail you a check. Your call. Now, to turn this whole bribe deal into soemthing vaguely resembling an actual transaction, I'm going to require that you demonstrate that you've actually read the site at some minimal level of comprehension. I've got a real low threshold here -- "you read too many books and your color scheme is ass" will do, as would "I ate a Klene Zout and lived to tell the tale," or even "Z100 plays today's best music, now give me my money!" -- bascially, I just want some minimal evidence that you came to the site yourself, rather than just clicking on a mailto link your greedy friend sent you.

Grredy friend? Yes, that's right. As part of the Laboratorium promotional campaign, we're going to be paying out referrer fees! Everyone else you direct here gets you a whole shiny nickel. So if you start reading the site and so do six of your friends, you've just earned yourself a candy bar (at standard vending machine prices, that is). I'll pay out to (at least) the first hundred unique Lab readers. Including the referral fees, that's $30 of my own money I'm putting on the line here. Our backers are aghast, but their loss is your gain. This is my daily candy-bar money -- I'm giving up my midafternoon Kit Kat bar for this project -- so you can see what a valued place you, the Laboratorium reader, occupy in the ecology of my online life.

Never used Paypal? Well, under most circumstances, this sort of thing would put you at a disadvantage, but in this case, it rebounds to your further benefit! Paypal will give you five whole smackers for signing up with them, five bucks you can withdraw immediately, no strings attached. Free money, from the pocket of a large corporation. What could be better? (Actually, Paypal is another one of those services I hope makes it. This whole very-low-to-nonexistent fee microtransaction service is a really great thing, and I kinda sorta encourage you to keep your five bucks in the system, maybe even go off and try to start up a few more bizzaro little ventures like this here Lab giveaway, and do your part to help the financial counterculture flourish). What's more, I promise to plow back 100% of any Paypal referral fees I get into continuing the publicity blitz. I'm doing this for you, not for personal gain.

No dot-net e-noncommerce venture would be complete these days without a discussion of our privacy policy. All user information will remain strictly confidential, to the point where if I file it in the wrong email folder, I may not even be able to do anything with it. If you would like to be notified of major changes to the site (as if) or exciting new features (pigs flying, cold days in hell, etc.), please indicate so in the body of your message. In the event that I am sold into slavery, I will do my best to ensure your privacy and will attempt to destroy all user data, although, in all honesty, if you're expecting me to face torture rather than divulge your email address, maybe you're better off not collecting your quarter.

I got this idea -- hook Paypal up to to something the good Lord never meant for it to be hooked up to -- at least partially from the vibrating weblog ("fun with micropayments," you'll need to scroll down a twee). In fact, if you're looking for a way to dispose of your recently-acquired quarter, and don't object to spending it all in one place, I highly recommend it.

Now, the scary thing about this whole little enterprise is that, as of the end of last year, Wall Street was valuing each unique user of a site at upwards of $100. That is, if I got all hundred people to "register" with me as readers by collecting their quarters, my Street market cap would be somewhere in the neighborhood of ten grand, which isn't bad for a $30 outlay. Some objections to this reasoning. One, as I've argued (scroll down to "Fool's Gold," specifically the section on the NASDAQ), the market cap is a bit of a meaningless number, in that there is no possible way to actually extract that much money from a company, no matter what it's "worth" on paper (the effect is more pronounced at valuations in the many millions, rather than the few thousands). Two, those valuations were ridiculous and things have calmed down since then, quite possibly by an order of magnitude, perhaps even two. And three -- man, when you think about it, eyeballs really are pretty useless as a measure of Internet value.

The word of the day is "Laboratorium." Wanna go back to your place and spread the word?

Redesign Issues


As much as I like the somber Laboratorium blue, I'm starting to face up to the reality that the readability here is not what I'd like it to be. I'm kind of inspired by the nw Full Waffle Jacket look: it's a very nice way of doing dark text on a light background. Philosophically, I'm sort of against using sans-serif fonts like Chase does, but I have to admit he does very well with the look. I'm also contemplating doing something to trim the column width here. It may just be that I read my own site with too-small fonts on too large a screen, but I'm pretty seriously violating the rules about maximum line length.

What I'd really like to do is have two columns of text (plus the ubiquitous sidebar). But getting that to flow properly in HTML strikes me as a ridiculously difficult task: I'm not even sure I'd go about doing it automatically. In the absence of such formatting commands, and given my general unwillingness to go graphical (read: I'm a programmer, not an artist), I figure I'd need either some kind of excuse for a Slashdot-style double sidebar or some other really clever design conceit. For now, I'm just going to play around with the CSS on my computer locally and see if I can jigger widths and colors and fonts to give me something that's a bit easier on the eyes without losing that Lab look and feel.

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny


I edit the content for this site on one of three different computers, depending on where I am when the fancy strikes me. In order to do this with the least possible strain on my brain cells, I've basically set up all three computers identically, and I use the same least-common-denominator processes from each. Same top-level "lab" directory on the C: drive, same command-line xt tool on each. Same command-line ftp -- I've got WS_FTP, but I keep forgetting to use it. Same horrible mishmash of editing tools: there's something somehow horribly wrong about using the same program to edit Lab entries and write C++ code. The last time that happened, it was freshman year, and Chase was writing all the code for his CS classes in pico.

There's something about the professional programming life that pulls you towards the really crude tools. That may be why I use my code editor for doing site updates, in fact: because it's such an uncomplicated blunt instrument. Sure, it hooks into this crazy-ass development environment and compiler, but, at root, it's a really direct typing program, one that doesn't do much to get between me and the words. In programming, this is nice because so much goes wrong with your code and the development process that you really want to be able to put rock-solid in your infrastructure, just because even the merest doubt that, say, your editor hadn't actually committed your changes to disk or was incorrectly showing your code -- you'd go insane with fear. And while I don't need that level of paranoia in scraping together my thoughts for the Lab, it's useful to use software designed with the developer in mind. Being one, I'm willing to ignore the rather unfriendly user interface; but beyond that, the tool does a great job of getting out of my way and of not throwing any additional headaches into my writing process. It does make proofing something of a chore (which fact, over and above my raw laziness, is partly why my stuff here is so poorly proofed), but it more than makes up for this deficiency by giving me that nice warm feeling of doing something arcane and technically erudite, even though the reality is so totally not.

On Elections


For some reason, the current election seasn has reminded me of the first year of the new student-government election system back at school. One year's council decided to pass a constitutional amendment, binding on the next year's council (they also left their successors with an unexpected $20,000 debt; it was that kind of a council), requiring them to move to a system in which the president and vice-president, instead of being elected by the council itself, would be elected by the student body as a whole, or at least by those who took an interest in such things, by no means a particularly large slice of the student body. The actual details of this system -- little things like when the elections would be, how long the terms office would run, who would be eligible to run, how the campaign would be conducted -- were left entirely up to the incoming council.

All of the important decisions were made at the tail end of a four-hour-plus meeting, which started at 8 PM on a Sunday night, the Sunday of the last week before the absolute latest deadline to actually write down a set of regulations for the first election. The council got kicked out of their meeting hall at something like 11, and moved to the dining area of the student commons to finish up the meeting. Probably the most contentious issue was campaign financing. After a truly memorable debate ("if somoene running for president finds some scraps of wood by the side of the highway and makes a campaign sign out of them, does that count against their spending limit?"), the council voted to impose a $100 spending cap, the whole of which would be publicly financed by the council.

I was against this idea, personally -- I wanted to have fully-financed elections, yes, but I wanted the dollar figure to be set at $0, and spare us all the waste and empty shouts of mass-Xeroxed 8.5"x11" campaign posters blanketing the campus -- but in hindsight, I was wrong. That money was well spent, in terms of the total entertainment value those first elections supplied. [In a surprise development that should have surprised no one (free money for your campaign, anyone?), there were about three times as many candidates as expected, which nearly plunged the council back into the financial crisis it had just pulled itself out of by the skin of its teeth]. True, there were a lot of dumb posters. But in a field with ten candidates, people started getting awfully creative in the fight to stand out from the crowd. One candidate hired a spokesman: a well-known panhandler and homeless-people's-newspaper salesman from the town, who reprised his famous "hey, big guy! hey, lovely lady!" schtick in front of the science building. But my favorite was our honest-to-goodness demagogue.

It's a commonplace that demagogues drape themselves in the flag. Well, this guy did it for real. He used the $100 to buy a bullhorn (The Man, noticing the potential personal-profit loophole in the financing rules, required him to turn it in after the election), then had his followers wheel him around campus in a shopping cart, with an American flag around his shoulders, as he preached his message of revolution through the bullhorn. The administration was a bit worried about the noise potential, until, during a discussion of the issue, someone noticed that Flag Boy was directly under the window of the office where the discussion was taking place, and that his words were not only completely unintelligible, but completely inaudible, as well.

On Debugging


Watching your debugger crash can be a frustrating experience for some. Me, I think of it more like the flying dagger in the Carmen Sandiego games -- a sign that you're getting too close, shamus. I mean, if the debugger is going to go to the trouble of segfaulting, it must be trying to hide something.

I Will Burn in Hell, Pt. II


The panels to open the wheelchair-accessible doors in my building are roughly at waist-height. Sometimes, I open the doors by kicking the panels.

The Shame of Software


I'm walking along, talking to myself out loud about the lack of support in our infrastructure for a callback method at the point where I could really use one. He's standing there, a bit off the sidewalk, peeing into a bush. We're equally startled to realize we're not alone; we're equally apologetic.

Apparently, this is what it means to be in software: one becomes the social equivalent of a public urinator.

One Emergency Donut


Stumbled back into my apartment about half an hour ago. Because I went to the Vollmann reading, I had to leave work before the daily developer dinner (a bribe to encourage us to consider spending the evening debugging) showed up. Also because I went to the (early evening) Vollmann reading, I cut things pretty close in crossing the lake, on account of wanting to not get caught in the tail end of rush hour, and thus didn't have time for dinner when I got to the bookstore. When I returned to work from the reading, I went directly to the conference room with the leftovers, only to run into the janitor leaving, his rolling trash can piled high with the collected leftovers (Steve told me it was pasta, and not very good past). So I fed some more pennies to the jellybean machine and cursed my fate, and debugged for a while. I figured that when I got back here, I'd make an instant cup-a-soup (Trader Joe's black bean, high in sodium like all members of the cup-a-soup genus, but quite flavorful, for cup-a-soup).

When I opened the fridge to get a drink, though, I noticed the leftovers from Sunday, when Ben and I cooked out of my vegetarian Indian cookbook and then we and Becky gorged ourselves. So, courtesy of my past self, I got to eat a second real meal in a day when I was only expecting one. Curried potatoes with eggplant, tomato chutney (wish there was some of the pineapple-and-raisin chutney left, but we ate it all on Sunday), and a baked banana stuffed with tamarind-flavored coconut (dominant flavor: mint). This helped my mood so immensely. It's always such a pleasure to suddenly be reminded of some favor I've done myself. This morning, before I left, I actually transferred the dirty clothes from my floor into a laundry bag, and thus I came back to a clean bedroom. Ah, joy! Past toil buys present laziness! Usually, when I try to do myself favors, it backfires. Okay, let me put the scissors someplace logical for once, instead of in the box with the spare computer cables, so that when I next need them, they'll be right there. I'm sure everyone knows what happens at this point. Next time I need the scissors, all I can remember is that some past incarnation of me decided to be all sneaky and remove them from the computer-cable box, and now I can't for the life of me remember where he put them, except that he thought it was a pretty logical place at the time. Bastard! He's always one step ahead!

(Don't fear for me, though. I own two pairs of scissors, because I had this problem in the past. One pair stays in the random kitchen junk drawer, always. And I'm sure the other pair will turn up sooner or later.)

Confidential To Someone


To whoever got to my candy page by typing "www.mouthwashing.com" into the Yahoo search box:

I'm sorry, but the search engine did everything it could for you; the rest of this "web" thing you'll need to figure out for yourself.

Books, Damn Books, and Statistics Textbooks


I'd call myself a book whore, but that would be getting the metaphor a bit wrong. I pay for my literary pleasures, and quite a bit, actually. I realized this today at Elliott Bay when the cashier put my purchases in a lovely store-logo tote bag (you know, the kind with a side pocket and a stately picture that's the next step up from the coffee mug on public radio donation bribes). When I expressed a bit of confusion, she pointed to the sign: purchases over $100 get a free tote bag. That was when the enormity of my deed sank in. I haven't read all the books I got in San Francisco yet (and I didn't even get all the books I wanted to read when I was there). I haven't read the book from the reading I went to last week. I didn't even buy the book from the reading tonight. I have approaching two shelves of books I've purchased in the last year and haven't read. But how could I possibly have resisted? An autographed copy of Margaret Atwood's latest? Yes, yes, appease my guilt for skipping her reading! Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel? But of course! A softcover volume of comics from the Snake and Bacon guy? Mais oui. And and and on it went. I have no shame. I also have no time to read, with the current almost-all-out push back here at work. But since when has that ever held me back from my booklust? It's a good thing I'm not in charge of the orphanage: I'd be siphoning off the gruel money for books.

And I thought I was being so thrifty by not buying Vollmann's book. At 800 pages and $40, it's a fairly hefty contribution to American arts and letters -- Vollmann himself claimed he was quite upset at the price his publisher decided to charge, and said that he couldn't actually recommend the book. I support the high price -- his displeasure with the cost might act as a useful check on his tendency to wordiness. He's in the middle of a 7-book cycle, each weighing in up there in the near-thousand-page range. He's also, he told the audience, sitting on a 4000-page novel about "the moral calculus of violence," but has been unable to find a publisher. To which, I'm really tempted to say that my faith in the American publishing industry has been restored by this fact. Vollmann's a perennial favorite with the disaffected late-high-school crowd, up there with his Manichean nemesis, the equally prolix Ayn Rand. And they were all over the place tonight, out from the woodwork, the people trying to think of something profound to say to their idol, some kind of intelligent question to ask. "This word, 'hardened,' what of it?" Or, my favorite, the guy who wanted to find out Vollmann's sources for the psychology of the pedophile characters, all the while trying to avoid implying that Vollmann might be a pedophile himself -- which wouldn't have been so hard if the questioner hadn't stumbled across the possibility that his words might have that implication and then gotten horribly flustered as his own embarassment started to seem like some kind of snide commentary.

What really got me about the reading, though, was that Vollmann himself is basically a shlump. Think Milton from Office Space. Also, except when he was actually reading from the novel, he spoke almost entirely in monosyllables. "I keep two or three books going at once. I don't want to get bored. It's bad for my mood when I have to work to a deadline." My mind kept on trying to put the bland middle-American right-wing call-in-radio-caller guy at the podium together with the crazed foreign-correspondent radical novelist of America's underbelly, and kept on failing at it. The audience ate it up. As I left, through the strange variations of crowds, Vollmann wound up right behind me, so I had to push my way through the people going over to Vollmann to tell him how great, variously, he, the novel, and the reading were. I guess what I'm saying is that I may be a book john, but there are still some things I still won't do.

I Will Burn in Hell


Jon: Why can't they just tell the JAWS [ed: a screenreader for blind computer users] people that they need to put out a new version to deal with the new API?

Me: Do you have any idea how hard it is for blind people to perform software upgrades?

Andy: Close


So you think Andy is gay?, Irene says to me on the phone, apropos of nothing. I don't know; I say, I don't think Andy knows either. Irene laughs a bit. Not bad, she chuckles. We'll make an honorary girl out of you yet. I laugh, too, and then she realizes the irony of her words, and it turns into another of our laughter epidemics. When breath has been recovered, I spring my news, though it hardly counts as much of a surprise. Benny is crazy as ever, but these days they like to call it "visionary," and besides, I know I'll never be bored if he's running the show. My sister sends me a giant cookie, by way of Irene. The frosting on it reads "Try not to bankrupt this one, too, eh?" Irene and I eat what we can of it, give a few bits to Chester, and she sets the remainder aside to take in for her students. Her car battery dies again, Chester disembowels another in his long line of squeak toys, I make the most of the sunshine and my unanticipated little vacation. And then I go in, to pick up my CDs and coffee mug from work, to seal in one last set of memories.

The butcher paper is gone, and so are most of the desks and partitions. My computer has been removed, but they've carefully gathered my personal stuff into a little pile on the now-empty desk. Matt is apparently already in New York, and two other guys from the client team are going, plus Berman and the execs, but most of the folks have pulled a me. I put my stuff into a paper bag, a bit gingerly, and I sort of sense something, and I look up and Andy's there, where my cubicle wall would have been. A shuffling of feet, a clearing of throat. I'm, going, he says, pronouncing his commas, to New York, that is I smile for him and say again, Yes, good. Good for you. More shuffling, and then Andy says, Your apartment building, your intercom has four-digit dialing codes and a blue backlit display, right? I think for a bit, yes, from the time he and Irene and I had takeout Chinese after going hiking, he remembers. Uh, yes, but why?. He raises a finger, then continues: if you dial the intercom from your cell phone -- buzz yourself in your apartment to get the number -- if you pick up the handset yourself you can hit the number on your cell phone -- it should be 5, I think -- and that'll buzz the door open. I look at him again, floppy hair and black T-shirt. Slowly and clearly, I say to him, Andy. When you do your laundry, do you sit and watch the machine to make sure nobody takes your clothes? I gather up my bag and we walk to the door in silence. No, says Andy, and I can tell he is thinking on it. He is young still, and learning, and there will be time for him to crack the protocol of his own heart. Good luck, I say to him, and he he raises a hand, palm-out, half-wave. Hail and farewell. I return the gesture. Hail and farewell.

Back home, Chester is being finicky about his food. I shake the dish a bit, and he shows more interest. Cats. Irene comes over later, we cook dinner and she tells me about her day, about her one student who draws full-scale architectural plots for the graphics on his term project, and her other student who hadn't realized you could write to floppy disks. She's chopping carrots and chattering away and I'm kneading her shoulders and making deliberately dumb side comments, it's so wholly right, and look, Chester's finally eating his food and there he goes batting his new toy. We leave the dishes piled by the sink and watch a movie. Irene shifts against me, nuzzles inside the arc of my arm, her cheek to my shoulder; Chester bats a lazy eye and returns to grooming himself. I can smell her shampoo and her day's built-up scents, rich and alive. From inside my contentment, I think for a moment of Andy. Love, and comfort, and understanding. All these things come to us on a schedule known only to themselves, and yet they will come.

This is the final installment (out of ten) of the story "Security Guy." Click on the link for a complete version.

The Mike Hyun Rule


There was this guy who was on the track team with me in high school, and he had this habit of going to Burger King and eating cheeseburgers on race days. Then, predictably, when his actual races rolled around, Mike would be rolling around, too, dealing with cramps that must have been pretty heinous, to judge by his facial expressions. When he recovered enough to speak, he'd curse God, the universe, and his lot in life for bringing this pain upon him. In recognition of which, I named the Mike Hyun Rule after him. It goes something like this: there is to be no feigned ignorance of cause-and-effect when it comes to the predictable consequences of one's own actions.

Oooh! More Lame Wordplay!


I wonder how many movie reviewers were unable to resist opening their reviews of The Cider House Rules with the sentence "The Cider House rules!"

One for the Record Books


Back at school, there were all sorts of variously ethical electronic stalking techniques available, from the basically aboveboard to the downright sketchy. Someone once described the range of available options, along with the corresponding trails of evidence they left behind, as a form of submarine warfare: listening for ridiculously faint noises while trying to minimize the amount of noise your own listening created. Which would have struck me as a bit overboard -- after all, who besides submarine-skipper stalkers spends their days looking for other submarine-skipper stalkers -- except that I saw some fairly impressive demonstrations of CIA-level datagathering, most notably Ken's terminal-room monitor, which displayed a map of the terminal room, updated in real time, showing who was logged in at each computer, with the names of his friends highlighted.

That said, while there were plenty of resourceful lone wolves out there, tracking their quarry from kiosk to kiosk across campus, I'm not sure any of them quite held a candle to this one slightly whacked-out guy who decided to stalk the entire student population. By wiring together rwho, grep, sort, and a little Perl (ah, Unix, where everything is tools and pipes, and everything looks like it was built by a plumber reather than a programmer), he rigged up this script that would tell him everyone who was logged in from someone else's computer, and then dump the (name, friend's name) pairs into an ever-growing list. It was kind of a pointless exercise: the list got incomprehensibly large, thousands and thousands of pairs, good basically for telling you that yes, you and your roommates all logged in from each other's PCs now and then. He had some sort of vague plan about eventually doing some statistical analyses and computing the degrees-of-separation index for the student population; I'm not sure whatever became of that. Whenever I think about computers and privacy, this story is one of my starting points. I'm not sure quite what to make of it, but it seems to me that while the individual bread crumbs we leave behind on our electronic wanderings may be insignificantly small, there are scavengers out there figuring out ways to reassemble whole loaves.

Fair Use, Shmair Use


From Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe (chapter 18, lifted verbatim from one of the many verbatim copies of it to be found kicking around on the web):

Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.

Coming Soon to a Grocery Near You


Pearl Bailey brand pearl barley.

Andy: Penumbra


I haven't had a serious hangover in years, and waking up to this one, I vow that it will be years before my next one. The concept of work comes to me, an imperative floating above the landscape, and it pulls me upright, but the headrush pulls me back down again. I feel awful, but I don't want to move, so I lie there, reconstructing my history, putting together again the day gone by, and as I piece it together, I remember that work isn't quite so urgent. Strangely enough, this gets me going; I medicate myself, asprin and a tall glass of water. I stagger to the kitchen, pour myself another glass of water, sit down at the table. It becomes a game, how much fluid will my system absorb? Bloated but perking up, I sack out on the couch, trace backwards along the events of my yesterday, think about things and plan for my expanding future. I call Irene, give her the longer version; I call my sister and the short version becomes the long one. Call waiting beeps me, it's Irene again, her questions and heffalumped ideas lead me to create the ridiculously long version. I tell Chester too, but cats don't experience change in the same way as people do, he flicks his tail at me and I go off to work.

I check my mail, out of habit; I finish up the checkin I'd been making at the instant hell had broken loose, more for a sense of internal closure than anything else. Then I march down to Andy's cave, I'm in luck and he hasn't eaten yet, so I march him out the door and into my car, and we go off for a midafternoon lunch at the Siam Kitchen. Staying or going? I ask him, before he has a chance to ask me. This is important. He is concerned, he is quiet, a hair forlorn. Then he begins to explain. Lloyd Beecham, the Lloyd Beecham, now apparently at Altreon, IM'ed him. Beecham is putting together a penetration team for the Googolbase, and he wants Andy on the team. Don't that beat all? I ask, they're breaking us up for parts, and it looks like you're the prize in the Crackerjack box. Andy grins wryly, I prefer to think of myself as the marble in the oatmeal. I nod at this, if I had any doubt before, there is none now. Then this is your firehose, Andy, I tell him, Go for it. Lloyd fucking Beecham. Andy is pinned, he is torn, I am no Irene but now that I know to look for these things I can see them. He doesn't actually reply, just thinks for a while and then blurts out, You? Going or staying?

Staying, I say, my place is here. I think, but do not add, this much I knew before Berman had even begun to speak. There are two ways this might go now, two ways that I can see, when Andy replies, I know that I have guessed correctly. I feel in place, too. I like work, I like the atmosphere. The people. So much he will say, and no more. If he thinks more, he does not say it. He pauses, and goes on, things are coming together, finally. It makes sense, I don't want to give this up, things have been changing for the better. So I lean back and breathe in and out, and I say, so they have, and now Lloyd Beecham wants you to be his right-hand man, I'm serious here, this isn't fame and fortune. It's better: it's raw coolness. A pause, a twist of the head, a change in tone. Yeah, it's a good team here, but that's already doomed, I don't know if we'll ever all be in the same room at once again. Pause again. And things working out, it's not any of us, it's not me. Andy spreads his arms, looks at his plate, cracks some joints, exhales and looks at me, square on.

I haven't had a friend like you in a long while. And Irene. Tom. Glenn. Back to square zero? I hold his gaze, I gesture upwards with my arm, we look out to the bright sun beyond the glass. You're seeing possibilities, Andy. And once you can see them, they're everywhere. Call me an optimist, call me ignorantly fortunate, but still. I go on, There are possibilities for you in New York. You know it. I lean towards him a bit, this I have to get exactly right. And I promise you, not back to square zero. Never. The conversation turns to other things, a little wrap-up post-mortem on a buffer overrun in code that'll never be used again, the minimal gossip on the plans of the others. We pay, we stand and go, I drive Andy back to the office and just before he leaves the car, I put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, Don't let us, don't let me, hold you back. Don't let anyone. Andy says nothing, but tosses me a quick and loose salute as he cards himself through the door. It's horrible advice, it's ghastly and wrong, I am blatantly violating it in my own actions, if challenged I'd need to turn to semantic quibbles and lame distinctions, and I can only hope that Andy takes my subtler meanings, that he understands what I have said for him and him alone. As for me, I drive on to the roadside flower stand two towns over and get a bouquet for Irene, and then I go home and call up Benny, to see if his company still needs engineers.

The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow


I've worked one day out of the last nine. Good grief.

Stuck in My Head Lately


From the Mag Fields' "All My Little Words:"

And I could make you rue the day
But I could never make you stay.

Not for all the tea in China,
Not if I could sing like a bird.
Not for all North Carolina,
Not for all my little words.
Not if I could write for you
The sweetest song you ever heard.
It doesn't matter what I do
Not for all my little words.

Lyrics never work quite as well on the page, printed or virtual, and for this I apologize, but Amazon does have a sound clip that, grainy as it is, conveys something of the feel of the song.

Black Mask


So Ben is like, "Those capes, and those sunglasses! This is so clearly the inspiration for The Matrix." And I'm like, "Yeah, and did you see what he did with those wires? Jet Li is like the greatest artist alive with flexible stuff!" And Ben goes, "Which all goes to prove what we learned from The Matrix: all this martial arts is fine, but it's so much more fun when it's superhuman!" And I go, "Yeah."

As a movie, pretty crappy, sure, but the total quantity of kicked ass in it is huge, and there's something about Jet Li that covers up plot holes, bad dubbing, an intrusive hip-hop soundtrack. Kind of the same way he saved Romeo Must Die from utter crapitude. Oh, how we partied when we heard the Boba Fett rumor, and how much harder we partied when we heard the genuine news that he's doing the Matrix sequels.

Rhetorical Question


Have I learned nothing? Sometimes I wonder.

Phillip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread


God bless student rush tickets. Granted, I'm not a student, but Seattle theatre by and large works with this expanded definition of "student" that includes the under-25 set. Got in to see Phillip Glass's new opera, In the Penal Colony for ten bucks today. It was, uh, ah, interesting. Glass plus Kafka is one of those combinations you just have to see, and then you can spend the rest of your life figuring out whether you liked it or not. It does sound like something of a setup for a joke -- if there were such a thing as an ideal subject for a Glass opera, surely In the Penal Colony is it: a story about an excruciating punishment that involves the repetition of a short phrase over and over for twelve hours.

The music was recognizably Glass, start to finish. I wasn't as keen on the operatic lines as on the string textures that made him famous, but they were pretty good. The quintet definitely sounded great, and a couple of the "arias" were quality stuff. A lot of the standing around and making strange hand gestures was kind of unnecessary, but now and then it really worked. The machine never really seemed appropriately terrifying, perhaps because the shadow-based lighting was a bit cheesy, and perhaps because it relied on the singers shaking themselves to simulate the motion of the machine. Also, the continual discussions of the "new commander" and the "old commander" kept on reminding me of that line from the Who: "meet the new boss \ same as the old boss."

Mother Nature Loves Us


Ben's in town for a four-day weekend until his apartment in Pasadena opens up. So yesterday we did a bunch of non-touristy touristy things, me basically using the chance to show him around as a sort of self-justification about this city I've chosen to plunk down in. Well, my best guess is that the city saw what I was up to and decided to do its part for my sales pitch. We were up in Discovery Park with a damn-the-rain attitude, there was enough sun out over the Sound that I was sure the view would be pretty nice. And so it was, but the best part of the view was actually on the inland side: the rain was slowing and there was the most amazing rainbow behind us.

It was a double rainbow -- there was a second one arcing outside the first, a ghostly companion. But beyond that, it was the brightest rainbow I've ever seen. The bands were thick and bright, clear and distinct all the way from red through puruple -- the yellow looked just like a crayon. It arced all the way from horizon to horizon, clear and brilliant the entire way. It was breathtaking, and we stood there looking at it for a few minutes as the rain petered out and it gradually faded away.

Andy:Thenceforth


Glenn flicks the light switch for the room, sends up a signal flare. We gather around his console, as many as can fit, and he runs the network benchmarks. 97, 93, 96. We gasp at a stray 99, but everything else is parked comfortably around 95. Just need to check the stress-load regression, and then we should be getting another square of daylight, he says, but on my way back to my cube, I notice that Berman has come in from the hallway door. He's wearing a tie, and he's flanked by Cline and Taylor, both of them their usual dressed-up selves. There is some kind of whispered discussion, briefly, then Berman shoos them from the room, turns to face us, and clears his throat loudly. It takes a moment for the recognition wave to spread, but he's got our attention. He frowns a moment, then begins, palms out and down, in oratory mode, This is one of those bad news, good news, bad news, good news situations . . .

We're out of cash. They can make the next paycheck but not the lease at the end of the month, and that's all folks. Even so, Cline's managed to find a buyer, so we've been sold lock, stock, and server, to Altreon. Who haven't said anything officially, but are extremely likely to cancel the project and scavenge for parts, probably the protocol-negotiaton code and the client framework and not much else. This is where Berman can't control himself, and starts smiling in spite of himself. Altreon's also made a blanket offer -- any of us who wants to stay on is welcome, in fact, Berman opines, they seemed to be of the opinion that this company consists of a bunch of damned brilliant coders working on a pointless piece of technology. Take this as you will. So we all still have jobs, except that these jobs are going to be in New York. Our call. There's a pause, broken by Matt's shout, Let's go get trashed! Berman shakes his head, then stands aside as we stampede through the door, but I hear him shout after us as we pass, first round's on me!

Things are fine, things are great, I work with a great group of people, and never more so than now. Glenn isn't going, he's on the table shouting this, he needs his tan to live. Debbie has drunk Matt under the table, she's wheeling and grinning, Moira and Tim are easing her her out of the booth and towards the door. Tom is discovering some kind of long-hidden Irish blood, he's leading toasts and throwing back pints, but still he sits betweentimes, straight-backed and proud. I am spinning, half-crazed but giddily calm, I raise my glass to Andy and we take long pulls. Guess maybe ya shoulda taken up hacking for profit I tell him, and he takes another pull, slams down his empty and says to me and things were just getting to be all right, why does all this have to end? For one sudden moment, beyond the foggy haze, I think I see and something snaps into place, I look again at Andy for a moment, and now is not the time to ponder implications, I drink again and deeply, such things are for tomorrows, while the here and now belong to the party imperative and the end of the world.

Meaningless Protest


I'm not watching the Olympics this year. I wish I could say it's because I'm upset at the IOC's fascistic running of the Games, to the point where athletes are forbidden to post online journals of their experiences. I wish I could say it's out of disgust over the scandals that swirl around the games and the big bucks that go to trying to steer the Games to particular cities. But, no, reality number one is that I didn't watch them two years ago, or four years ago, and barely even kept track of what was going on in years before. And reality number two is that while I do own a TV, I have neither cable nor antenna, and so couldn't watch the Olympics no matter how hard I tried. So, as sacrifices go, mine is pretty puny. But still, it's the principle of the thing.

Daily Rave


Daniel Pinkwater's Young Adult Novel (out of print, but available as part of the reissued 5 Novels). Sheer brilliance, and years ahead of its time.

The Revenge of Things


Went to go to the bathroom shortly after lunch today and found the door locked. This was kind of strange, but I didn't think too much of it and went down to a different floor to do my business. About half an hour later, my manager sent out email to the group, warning us about the bathroom. Apparently, he'd been trapped on the other side of the door, and had only managed to get it open by working the latch with a credit card.

Stupid Fear of the Day


Whenever I'm turning out of a driveway into a road, I always have vague worries about what would happen if a car were to come along doing 500mph while I was entering the road. Cars at 50mph, I can sort of see coming, and I know not to go when they're within a certain distance. But, even doing my best to look farther down the road, I just can't see ten times that far, which means that if one of those super-fast rocket-cars with a drag chute for brakes were to come around the bend, I'd be toast.

Andy:Extension


Berman comes into the office just before noon, with a large roll of thick butcher paper. To catcalls of shock, he starts putting up sections of paper over the windows. He hasn't gotten more than halfway along our exterior wall before the torches-and-pitchforks crew has him surrounded. He flings an arm at the nearest segment. In large and hand-scrawled letters, roughly eye-height, it reads "96 hours uninterrupted server uptime." The next over reads "0 automation-breaking bugs" in a kindergarten script with jagged letters and occasional small-caps; the one beyond that looks like a ransom note, demanding a round-trip request time of under 100 milliseconds and no police involvement. You hit a goal, the paper comes down, he says, but until then, back to work, you hapless mooks! Glenn, half-tan and crunchy Glenn, looks like a stepped-upon flower, Tom contorts his hands and kind of shakes menacingly before stomping off, I do my best to outstare Berman. He stares right back at me and I can hear a bit of a Texan drawl creep into his Brooklynese, How long you been telling me you can fit the handshake into two round trips? Now's your chance to prove it, and we're all muttering bloody murder but the man's a motivational genius.

There isn't much lunchtime chatter, until Debbie renames the office the Batcave, and all the follow-on jokes, and somehow we all acquire the names of Batman villains as nicknames. I am the Penguin; I don't know why, but it sticks. There is talk of mutiny, of civil disobedience, but Berman had won the moment we resorted to laughter. Consoled in our defeat, we start trying to bring down our dungeon walls by honest toil. Late afternoon, Andy drifts by my cube. Hola, Egghead, I greet him. What're you doing to bring light to Darkest Africa? Andy giggles and bites his lip, looks around to make sure nobody is listening before leaning towards me, Well, there's some speedup in the crypto library, and mostly proactive reliability work, but what incentive does this give me, really, and he spins his head to take in the dimmed room with the thin wisps of afternoon light creeping in around the fringes of the windows, and of course Andy likes it, he likes it better this way. Security geek, I think, and then he turns back to me, So, yeah, I was thinking of getting some folks to go see a movie later, it being Friday and all. To which I say the only thing that comes to mind, It's Friday?

So it is, but I've got plans to see Irene, and we hadn't realized they were Friday plans, but apparently so they are, which, come to think of it, means that we were really lucky to have gotten those reservations, and I say all this, perhaps half as articulately, in one rambling monologue that ends with a shrug and a sorry, some other time. Andy shrugs, too, and sort of glides backwards until we aren't directly in poses that indicate conversation any more, then Andy's back in his cube and I still in mine. I finish up some quick rewrites and a round of tests, and then it's off home to feed Chester and pull on a shirt without holes and wash up and do a little shaving touch-up and race off to pick up Irene. She's also running behind on the same sort of rituals of presentation, and we notice the irony and assure each other that, short of outright stench, such things don't matter, so Irene tickles me and forces me to stop back at home to change back into the shirt with the holes, but I won't let her put on the other eye's worth of eyeliner or take off the one eye's worth she's already applied, so that by the time we reach the restaurant we can't make eye contact without bursting into laughter.

Over dessert, I am telling her about Berman, and the day, and she puts down her spoon and reminds me that the server last crashed Monday evening, she remembers this because I was on the phone with her at the time. I check my watch, we call for the check, we race for the door and tear off doing 60 through school zones. Keycard through the reader at the main door, up the stairs, and we're there with two minutes to spare. Andy looks up from his screen at our entrance and I scream at him like a madman, Ninety-six hours of uptime as of T minus two! I fire up a console and Irene counts the seconds down, and at the magic moment, Andy and I pull the butcher paper free with a whoop, and the anemic fluorescent lighting goes spilling out into the night. Andy makes a printout of the gloriously trouble-free log and we tape it to the window, take that Berman, and we all look at each other with shit-eating grins, and then we go see that movie after all.

Unbeatable Deals


Found a standing lamp and a small coffee table in the hallway of my building today, both adorned with signs saying "free." So I took 'em. I'd been thinking about getting a lamp for the bedroom, and it's perfect, actually, warmer than the overhead lights and at the right height to make the room feel more comfortable and friendly, while actually throwing less raw light into the room. Need to move the furniture around a bit, but with the new small table thing, I should be able to stop using the table as the all-purpose stuff-repository it keeps turning into so that I need to perform big dramatic sweeping maneuvers with my arm whenever I try to set a plate of food or a glass down on it.

The Sidebar Goes to Town


Doing something I should have done a while ago -- adding Shafted to the sidebar. It's sort of a cooperative weblog, together with threaded discussion fora for commenting on the posts. It's somewhere in the middle zone between a private newsgroup, a standard blog, and a Slate-like news-and-commentary site. The contributions are punchy and and well-done, together with some longer pieces (mostly by Scarius) filled with the kind of cross-discipline musing I can never get enough of reading. They're also trying to figure out the nature of this particular sub-medium niche they occupy, what makes it tick and what can be done with it. All good stuff. Plus, you should keep reloading the site until you see McCain with the lightsaber. Update, 5 September: for your own sake, please ignore any instructions over at Shafted about not reading links before clicking on them. I didn't, and man am I sorry.

The Closing of an American Mind


It's like I'm a contestant on some mutant version of Jeopardy: I'm starting to format all my questions in ways that would make them acceptable to a search engine, usually either Google or Altavista. I'm filtering my thoughts in ways that emphasize keywords, especially particularly rare ones, for Google purposes, and trying to think of bizzare but highly distinctive text fragments for Altavista's multi-word matches. There's getting to be this persistent bias in my thoughts -- when it comes to concrete questions, the ones I make progress on, the ones I think about, are the ones that I can easily answer by doing web searches, and sometimes this filtering has nothing to do with how easily available the information actually is online and everything to do with how tricky a query string is required to find it.

Say Perhaps


That irony and sincerity are the two sides of a Mobius strip, that anything extended sufficiently far becomes self-parody, and that hewing closely enough to the joke for long enough brings its own earnest form of truth.

On Convergence


There aren't actually all that many people in the world; connections keep on collapsing around me. Was out walking yesterday evening, when who should I see but a fellow I saw performing at Bumbershoot (not one of the actual acts, just one of the (I assume) officially-sanctioned extra musicians wandering around), heading into an apartment building. So I now know the exact apartment this guy lives in, which is a completely unimportant piece of information, except that it isn't a piece of information I'd ever have expected to gain.

Then, today, at a harvest party thrown by a guy I used to work with, I saw some people who looked kinda vaguely familiar. Then I placed them -- I'd met them at Bumbershoot, where they'd know the people I'd been hanging out with and our groups had exchanged brief introductions. We started talking, and it turned out their connection to the party-thrower was through this other guy whose name I'd known for years but had never met -- except that I had, at Bumbershoot, and (not having his last name) hadn't made the connection. That might not even be all -- a couple of us couldn't shake the strange feeling we'd met somewhere else before, too, but damned if we could remember where.

Brudge: a Reciple


Combine 6 oz. (i.e. 6 squares) of baker's chocolate and 2 sticks of butter and melt together. Add 2 cups sugar, 4 eggs, 1/2 cup flour (be careful when adding the eggs, they will need to be mixed in quickly or at lower heat, or you will get scrambled eggs). Stir well, add 1 tablespoon vanilla, and pour out into a greased glass baking pan. If you want to reduce the intensity of the brudge, sprinkle chocolate chips on top at this point. Bake at 325 degrees, 30-45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven, allow to cool, and freeze for several hours.

One brudge should serve about fifty people. It's that dense.

Recipe courtesy of Rebecca Rapoport

Aero Returns


Found an Aero bar in the drug store today, marking the first time I've found it in this country outside of specialized candy importers. Bilingual wrapper -- "Aero" is unchanged in French, but "Big on bubbles" turns into "Les bulles . . . on s'y connait!" Strange that in the translation process the phrase picked up an exclamation point. It was produced in Ontario, and I think the US market might be getting factory seconds or be getting Aeros on some kind of delay, because the texture and flavor were both a bit off, a little stale. But still, I'm greatly encouraged at this -- it's a sign of increasing US cosmopolitansim in an increasingly international world of candy.

Bumbershoot, a Report


Whoosh. Whooof. Long day. I can't believe there are folks who go all four days -- just one was pretty overwhelming. Reviews and random thoughts, in roughly chronological order.

Took the bus down the hill, then realized that we were being basically passed left and right by people on foot, so I bailed and walked the rest of the way to the Seattle Center. Going home, I didn't even bother with the bus, and just walked the whole way. Quite a doable walk, which is a nice thing to know, and along the way picked up some new insight into Seattle topography. The line to get in was long, but moved pretty quickly. For entertainment purposes, the three girls behind me were trying to figure out how to get in free. They were considering trying to pass as 12 or under, which seemed something of a long shot, but they ultimately settled on trying to get someone to give them money to buy tickets to get in. Thankfully, they didn't ask me; I find that level of giggling to be bad for my blood pressure. Youth today. Really.

Most of the first few bands were inoffensive but also sort of uninteresting. I wandered around a lot, and can report that the Jude Bowerman band is pretty basic blues-rock, that Iris DeMent might be good, but she has a countrified voice and sings country songs so I didn't stick around to hear, that the Mighty Clouds of Joy are pretty talented but decided to join in the ranks of the masses in making their gospel number "Amazing Grace" (the Pachalbel canon of hymns), and that I could hear why Big Star was influential (as in, I could hear that other, more recent bands sound kind of like them). Well, actually, come to think of it, I may have heard only that Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer were playing in the group, and all the "influence" might just have been that these guys get around and that I've heard them doing session work for better-known bands and sitting in at other concerts. More famously, I got to watch George Clinton let Parliament do most of that concert's heavy lifting. Others, closer to the front than I, reported that everyone's favorite 70-year old was stoned off his gourd, which certainly made sense. They deserve the reputation they've got, though: their instrumental jam was pretty blistering. And when Clinton joined them to do the "US Customs Dope Dog" song, with its legendary invocation to "let your mind go . . . and your ass will follow" (take that, Steve Martin) it was reasonably memorable. I also kind of liked his line that "if I went to medical school, I'd be a doctor of booty!"

Then it was a long wait in line for the Magnetic Fields concert, which was absolutely sublime. This was apparently their biggest gig ever by a factor of three, and I hope the trend continues. They deserve to be heard. The thing to keep in mind is that when you go to see the Magnetic Fields, you're really seeing a Magnetic Fields cover band. Since their studio efforts are basically all Stephin Merritt's songwriting, together with him and the usual gang of idiots playing a couple hundred different instruments, synths, and drum machines, it's an experience that pretty fundamentally can't be recreated live. They had a grand piano for Claudia this time, along with their usual smaller set of standard instruments (guitar and ukelele for Merritt, cello (electric) for Sam, and guitar and banjo for John), from which they managed to get a pretty wide range of sounds. It's hard to rock with no drums, and yet they rocked hard. The arrangements were sparkling -- clear and minimal, and yet somehow also rich and full -- and they played some of the really great songs off of 69 Love songs. Some, like "Book of Love" (the most romantic song of all time) and "Come Back From San Francisco" have been favorites of mine for a while, but they also made me hear some of the others, like "Love is Like a Bottle of Gin," and "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits," in a new light. I think all bands should be required to do Mag Fields covers on a regular basis, because Merritt is one of the most amazing songwriters alive, right up there with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. That said, there's no subsitute for the genuine article, and some of the songs they played were really affectingly well done. A great concert by a great group.

Wound up eating festival food for dinner, and it was, wonder of wonders, quite good, even if the line sucked. Too bad the restaurant is in Vancouver. Then it was back to the quickies again. Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-Fonics were fine, if you like their early-rock rock-a-billy kind of stuff (I don't, particularly, and found Deke's stage presence a little grating). There was a guy I walked past who had a "follow the carrot" sign; apparently a guy I know at work knows about this dude, who's some kind of crazed accordionist. Further investigation will be performed. I decided that I kind of liked Vic Chesnutt, only it turned out that he wasn't Vic Chesnutt at all, but rather Grant Lee Phillips. Points off for performing yet another song about the same urban legend, but still, pretty good.

By only going to the Elliott Smith show after it was supposed to start (but before it actually did), we managed to avoid the line completely. He's a reasonably talented guitarist, but I don't see why he's such a critical darling. Most of his songs sound the same, or rather, sound like the same basic materials gussied up with a couple fancier chord changes during the intro. He also cannot write catchy choruses -- which might, I guess, be why the indie critics like him. As for me, it was fun to be there, but pretty forgettable (the only song I left able to remember was the one I went in already knowing), and I feel no need to further support Mr. Smith.

Capped off the evening by taking in the last 45 mintues or so of Tracy Chapman's mainstage show. I was very pleasantly surprised. She's really good live, and has a pretty solid backing band. She played some reggae numbers -- a strand I wasn't familiar with in her music -- which were quite good, along with some of the bluesy stuff she's better known for. She's got a great voice, and also a wonderful sense for when to set it against melodically rich but generally quite sparse arrangments -- sometimes just bass or guitar -- which leads to a really beautiful sound. She and the band also know when to really turn it loose -- as in their final number, that "Gimme just one reason" song, which "ended" twice, only to be kicked up into successively higher levels of groove overdrive, ending with a full-on full-band jam that was a lot of fun.

But oh, the crowds. I couldn't take another day of this -- it wasn't all that bad at any given point, but that much peopleage just gets to you. I saw a guy who was in front of me at the Built to Spill show, where he was dancing half-naked and hitting his head with his hands in a way that would have seemed autistic if he weren't grinning beatifically. His girlfriend was also dancing strangely -- she was a lunger, randomly lurching out and bumping into people. As one of the guys I saw that show with said, "They were either drunk, stoned, or stupid, quite possibly all three." Well, I saw them again, fully clothed and not ramming into people, and resisted the temptation to run up and somehow give them a hard time. The phrase that kept popping into my head during the day was "blissed-out hippie chick," probably because there were plenty of them there, lurking around the drum circles and blissing out with a vaguely spastic swaying action and/or pseudo-random twirling motion. I remember this story about a guy I knew in college, who went to a TMBG concert and was standing behind one such blissed-out chick, who was also a lunger. After a few too many such lunches, this guy decided enough was enough and decked her. She started to get up, so he kneed her and she went back down. I kept this story in mind during the day, to remind myself that there are, after all, worse things than blissing out, and that no, violence may be an answer, but it's not the answer for me.

Andy:Sectarian


Irene and I are domestic to the point of depravity; we are at the mall buying socks together. She wears scratchy socks, and for this I am giving her a hard time, you must have no nerve endings in your feet, and she rolls her eyes and sighs, yes, it's true, I don't. At least I don't have to worry about stubbed toes, and at this very instant she whangs her foot into the corner of the display case, and it takes her the better part of a minute to convince me she's not joking about the pain. On our way out, we quite nearly run into Andy, who is not really looking where he's going. Andy! I say, and he starts, then breaks into a mousy grin. He and Irene go through the gentle negotiations of two absent-minded people meeting for the second or third time, and we start off down the mall together.

What brings you out in the light? I ask Andy, who blinks. He's on his way to the record store, which sounds perfectly delightful, so there we are, we do the usual browsing-the-shelves dispersal thing. Irene parks contentedly in the World Beat section, and I go over to check on Andy back in Rock. He has a couple CDs in front of him. He spots me and jumps a bit, checks his six, and visibly relaxes. He moves his hand over one of the jewel-box-holding plastic containers, does some some sort of mystical manipulation I can't follow, and the jewel-box bursts free. The cover disappears under the rack. Care to explain, Mr. Five-Finger Discount? I ask. Andy spins a plastic dojiggy around his fingers, then pockets it. Step one?, he says, and I parrot him: step one?. He nods, then continues: I've proven I can do it. That just leaves the source tags. But that I can do in two stages. Grab a few from the stock bin, and I'll set off the alarms going out, but I'm clean. Then, next time, I'll set off the alarms going in, so they'll wave me through when I leave.

I'm a bit stunned. Granted, I've wondered about this kind of stuff a bit, but it's strange to be in the presence of such a callous thief. So you found the hole in the protocol, sure, but don't they pay us enough you could maybe buy the CDs? Andy looks hurt, his shoulders fold in and forward, his neck contracts. No, no, it's just a proof of vulnerability. I'm white hat. So. To which there is not much to say, and then Irene comes over, so I don't need to say it, whatever it might have been. Time is getting on, time just for a quick dinner before Irene needs to get to her Tai Chi. The two of us are a public embarassment, kicking each other under the table and engaging in quick-draw contents going after the pepper at the same time. I tell her about Andy's little adventure, and she swallows and says, he's lonely. I ask her how she can tell, why she thinks this, and she laughs that laugh again. You guys, honestly. You were exactly the same way, I could see it above you like a cloud. I tilt my head and smile. But not any more? And she tilts her head and smiles too, No. Off like a light, and she flicks her nose like a light switch, and seeing that gesture I know she is right.

Geek Flick


I was thinking to myself in the car today that it was about time to see Real Genius again. And then, when I was over at Rebecca and Dean's place, they'd been watching the Cubs get murderized by the Giants, and as a form of Cub euthanasia, we flipped through the channel guide, and discovered that Real Genius was coming on in ten minutes. Whoo-hoo! So, we started watching, only about ten minutes in, Charles arrived, and it turned out that he hadn't seen it ever. So Rebecca turned off the TV and dug her copy of the tape out and popped it in. She'd had to make a second tape of it -- the first one had worn out -- that's how much she likes this movie. And so we started the movie again from the start -- and since it was taped off of a pay cable channel, it was the full, unexpurgated version, complete with "six-inch spike" scene.

It's a truly great movie, on my infinite-replay list together with Sneakers, The Princess Bride, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and a few others of that ilk. The movies that are the most damn entertaining on a minute-by-minute basis, the ones that have a proper sense of fun. Being frequently rerun on TV doesn't hurt either -- Last of the Mohicans is well on its way towards claiming a place on the list, and I think the only thing keeping Rushmore and Tampopo back is that you don't run across them on lazy weekend afternoons flipping through USA or TNT. Of course, in my current non-TV-enabled state, this is sort of a strange claim, but this is what school break used to be all about, and whenever I visit my family, it always seems that at least one day we run across one of these fine films in its post-theatrical afterlife.

But anyway, Real Genius is a wonderful film so many different ways. The screenplay is classic, with wonderfully clever and characterizing dialog, and Val Kilmer's character gets off this endless progression of understated one liners. Kilmer, in fact, could have made the movie on his own: it may be his best performance before or since, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that my belief that he's a great actor is founded primarily on this movie. Structurally, I also like it more each time I see it. There's a sudden plot twist about two-thirds of the way in, when what had seemed perhaps an ending is revealed not to be one, except that so much information has been carefully laid leading up to the moment that it feels like a perfectly natural progression -- and yet the characters' surprise is still perfectly genuine. Also, Real Genius is a film unafraid to leave a lot of balls in the air at once -- there are about as many subplots as characters, and some wonderful running jokes, and their interconnection and juxtaposition is always unforced, somehow attuned to the multitasking and delicious randomness of college life.

More than just being a great movie, though, Real Genius is a great geek movie, perhaps the one that best epxreses all the truly great things about being geeky, shows off why geeks can be genuine and fully human heroes. In the converging journeys that Mitch and Chris make -- the former towards relaxation, the latter toward responsibility -- there is a wonderful sense of growth, that each is learning from the other and acquiring the other's good qualities. They're putting together the two halves of the geek brain -- work and play -- and tackling each with the same creative spark. This is a movie where the heroes are celebrated and triumph for being smarter than their adversaries, and making use of it On the other hand, the villains are plenty smart, too: they're just the ones who've gotten arrogant about it, who think of their brains as some kind of justification for a smug attitude. And in the end, Real Genius's celebrated geekiness carries a strong ethical component. It's right to use those smarts and wit for good causes -- advancing knowledge and having fun -- rather than for evil -- building weapons. This is a movie about why it's good to be smart, and about how much fun you can have when you're smart, and also about the responsibilities that come with being smart. Which, you have to admit, is a lot better than your average Hollywood movie, which tends to substitute either "attractive" or "muscle-bound" for "smart" in that previous sentence. On that note, I think it's also important to note that Real Genius is probably the movie that has best made the valiant claim that geeky is sexy, from Val Kilmer-as-walking-libido to Sherry Nugel's quest to bed the ten top minds in the nation to Jordan ("I'm 19 and hyperkinetic"), quite possibly the most appealing and oddly human character in movies for years around. I'm usually pretty scornful of talk of positive role models, but Real Genius provides plenty, but also makes me understand why having positive role models can be such a wonderfully motivating influence. I just wish I'd first seen it when I was younger.