The Laboratorium
October 2000

Ah, Broadway


Looked out my window just now and saw a guy in an orange jacket turning backflips on the sidewalk, as casual as you please.

Aha. I think he collected some money from the folks nearby, guessing from expressions and motions.

Best panhandling act I've ever seen.

Grist for the Mill


That Grimmelmann fellow is keeping busy: he's writing an online diary every day this week for Grist Magazine, an environmental webzine. Regular updates to the Lab will be somewhat sporadic this week due to the diversion of writing attention, but you can spend the time discovering Grist and its infectious breed of optimistic realism. Or is it pessimistic idealism? No matter, really, the site's a nice dose of perspective and a good read.

Push Us Into the Light


Question: have I reached the point of considered wisdom, or of new and previously unthinkable stupidity?

Answer: I've stopped worrying about it.

Transmogrifications, journeys in the rain, aches in the back, and unknown voices in the mail. Client, server, hosting, been there, done that, if things are looking good, that means only that you're not digging deeply enough. More, worse, nastier. Use it until it breaks, frustrate yourself. Dogfooding is like life, is like an addiction. The first step is admitting that there is a problem.

What you have to say, say. I'll trade off Dial-a-Shrink-ing any time, but it's not in my contract to read minds, I'm not in the business of performing psychic root canal. Existence is antecedent to reflection. I'm a phenomena-first kind of guy these days; no putting the noumena before the horse for me.

There are doppelgangers about, one might think, trippel- and quadruppel-gangers, even, but take it at this: any resemblance to any characters, living or dead, actual or fictional, is not purely coincidental, is not fully accidental, any more than one can say that life's resemblance to itself is pure happenstance. There are patterns sometimes, they swirl and they congeal, there are echoes and resonances, and when you mean to say one thing it has overtones of infinitude, you can't talk without waking the neighbors.

Crossing the bridge now, heading for the back hills. This is the season of orange and black, I know, but it's better to be seeing them now than not. Keep going now, energy for later, the key is never how hard to push up the hard slope of things, no, it's gathered together in that moment just past the peak when things open up again. Do you have a bit of the headlong in you, for when you need it?

It's my party and I'll grin if I want to. Here's a tip, though: a little chili pepper in the cider, just a little. Measure your priorities by the number of chairs involved. And let things be what they are. It's a crazy dance, there are certain things that must be understood without ever being implied, and if they aren't even understood, then this is perhaps even better.

There are certain carefully-modulated positions involved, there are subtleties of meaning and shades about which it pays to be precise. Sanity lies in taking your reason this far, and no further. The brain partitions itself, rewrites history, chooses, perhaps, not to think things through. The art consists in the order in which one tackles the antionomies. Pick-up sticks.

From the top, once more with feeling, and maybe a little wah-wah this time.

Crossed wires, it's a strange balance, but it's working well enough. I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay, work all night and play all day. Pull out the zoom, inches at a time, slow pan back, rotate to the left and point that camera into the future. Music to set the scene, food for micromanagement.

While the glass is full, we drink up, drink up. If God wanted us sober, he'd knock the glass over, so while it is full we drink up, drink up.

Open options, open mind, and all things in their due course.

No Better Halloweening


Accordion ballads, songs of devils and ghosts, a little vegetable anarchy. Leaves on the floor, shouted choruses, trombone harmony, homemade borscht. Then some swaying stamping drinking songs and a little snarling stage presence. End of show, and there she is, the Tomato Goddess, twelve feet high, orange-red and white. Out into the street with gongs and chants, led by lantern-light to the glade and the columns. Then he's stripping naked, being shorn of his hair. He's in the altogether, setting his clothes aflame, they're passing round wine and calling for another chorus. Then they lay him in a casket and drive him away in a Toyota and we drift away.

I'm not making this up, not one single word of it.

Public Service Announcement


R.E.M. made a surprise appearance at an environmental rally last week in Athens, Georgia. They're working on an album, tentatively due out next spring, and their three-song set included the premiere of a new song, entitled "I've Been High." Here's a Real Audio version, complete with crowd noises.

Are You Experienced?


The Experience Music Project is as bad I was expecting, if not worse. The defining metaphor for the place has got to be the sculpture made out of several hundred guitars, none of which will ever be played again. Despite the name, there's no music to experience there. All sorts of assorted musical paraphenalia and lots of gee-whiz gadgets, but no way to feel at all connected to the music.

Julia pointed out that the place was a sample of what it's like to be Paul Allen. You like Jimi Hendrix? Buy up his old guitars! You want to learn how to play guitar? Hire someone to tell you how an electric guitar works! Concerned about all the money you're spending to share your musical tastes with the world? Charge twenty bucks to get in! Today I learned that Paul Allen is a profoundly lonely man.

The EMP is also, without a doubt, the worst-curated museum I have ever seen. The exhibit halls are basically large collages of rock bric-a-brac: a broken Kurt Cobain guitar, skate punk album covers, Sir Mix-a-Lot's first drum machine. You get maybe one paragraph of overview for every two or three dozen objects. Then you're supposed to use what is essentially a Star Trek scanner to get more in-depth information about the objects that interest you. Each snippet of information takes about fifteen seconds to load, and lasts about that long, during which you learn maybe half a factoid, because it's entirely narrated, rather than textual, since in the future we're all going to be illiterate. It's impossible to get more than a trickle of information out of the EMP's exhibits: you could learn about ten times as much by reading a book, or just by sitting down with some CDs and just listening closely to the music. No music and no useful context, just lots of fancy clothes -- the EMP represents exactly the sort of reduction of music to pure image that critics are always railing against. I understand now what they're talking about.

I'm not going to criticize Frank Gehry: I think he did an okay job, definitely a very creative one. I am going to criticize EMP's self-obsession with the okay job Frank Gehry did -- there's an exhibition on his vision for the place, which is the sort of navel-gazing that real museums have to earn the right to engage in. The main hallway of the museum reminded me of nothing quite so much as the Promenade from Star Trek: Deep Space 9: all metallic greys and walkways and people walking around with headphones slung backwards on their heads. And as for the "Sky Church," that spacious video-enhanced shrine to Jimi that forms the "heart and soul" of EMP, according to the brochure -- well, we walked right through it without realizing what it was, because it just kind of looked like a big atrium to us. The heart and soul of EMP is a hollow room with piped-in classic rock greatest hits and a big video wall that doesn't show anything interesting. Very telling.

The one nice part was the "Sound Lab," where you could learn a bit about playing guitar, drums, and keyboards, and even pretend to sit in with Bob Marley and the Wailers. There was almost nothing there, though, that you couldn't have experienced by going to a music store and having one of the clerks show you a few of the basics. I say "almost" because the tutorial on effects pedals was quite nicely done and gave me a very strong hands-on sense of how guitarists can play with the sound quality of their instruments. It really enhanced my respect for the ones who can coax out the perfect tone for a given song.

Not a complete waste, then, but close to. "Lame" was Julia's assesment, and I have to concur. The Epxerience Music Project fits right in at the Seattle Center. That home to a second-rate science museum and a second-rate amusement park and a second-rate novelty tower and a second-rate fountain and a second-rate stadium and a second-rate exhbition hall is now also home to a third-rate musuem.

The Statistics of Love


Another interesting news item I found through Blue Lines, this one a BBC article reporting the not-all-that-surprising "discovery" that being bombarded with images of movie stars and other excessively good-looking celebrities is unhealthy. What sets this particular study apart is its methodology -- they used a mathematical model to estimate how "happy" "people" would be if "paired up" with other "people" from their rank-ordered list of ideal "partners." [Imagine some sort of "assume a spherical cow of uniform density" definition for each of those terms in quotation marks]. When people's sense of attractiveness was randomly determined and wholly arbitrary, pretty much everyone was pretty happy. But when their standards of attractiveness had even a slight societal component, everyone started chasing after the same few "supermodels" of the mathematical model, and the collective happiness dropped like a rock in response.

I mention this because I've had first-hand experience with how the iron laws of statistics can screw up romantic happiness. Back in college, I worked on the Valentine's Day Datamatch project for a couple of years. The way it worked was that each participant would fill out a multiple-choice questionaire, we'd feed all the answers into a computer, and the computer would spit out a list of your "top ten matches." Hookups and happiness would then ensue.

Well, the X factor in this equation is that foggy terra incognita between when you feed the raw data into the computer and when it feeds back the sorted and collated matchup lists. My first year on the project, the folks in charge of the matching code sat down and thought up a pretty sophisticated algorithm. The idea was that each question would define some axis of answers -- question 23, for example, might measure extroversion, so answer A would be the extreme-introvert answer and E would be the extreme-extrovert answer, with B,C, and D ranged roughly equally in between. We'd take your answers and the answers of a potential match, and compute the standard Euclidean distance between them.

Quick example for the non-mathematically inclined. If I put down A,B,E for my answers to the first three questions, and you chose C,D, and D, then on question 1, we're two answers apart, and we're two answers apart on question 2, and one answer apart on question 3. We want to weight all the questions equally, so we take your usual map distance (Pythagorean theorem time, kids), which is the square root of the sum of squares of the distances on each individual axis. Well, 2 squared (which is 4), plus 2 squared (4 again), plus 1 squared (that's 1, folks), is 9. And the square root of that is 3, so the two of us are about "3" apart overall. If you put our answers inside a big cube, five inches to a side, ranging from A to E, then we'd be three inches apart. So imagine a version of this cube with the 1500 Datamatch participants all listed in it. We just looked for the ten closest people to each person, wrote them down, and that was that. Of course, there were 25 "sides" to this cube, but if we lived in 25 dimensions, we'd still be using the natural notion of distance for 25 dimensions.

Okay. Any mathematicians in the audience should take a moment to try and predict what actually happened. [Hint one: compare the volume of a 25-dimensional cube with that of the 25-dimensional sphere inscribed in that cube. Hint two: what's the average distance between two randomly-chosen points in the 25-dimensional cube? Between one randomly-chosen point and the center of the cube?]

What happened in practice was that after we'd stuffed the envelopes and sent out the emails, some people on the Datamatch team started sharing their own lists with each other. The same names popped up on a bunch of lists, and at first, we figured, hey, we did a good job, it's pairing geeks up with each other. Then someone violated their professional ethics a bit, went into the database of results, and determined that one Mr. X., despite appearing on the lists of the several girls on the team, himself saw none of them listed on his own. The same for Mr. Y. Miss A, Miss B, and Miss C, who were common to the lists of all the guys on the team -- same deal. None of the guys for whom Miss A was their number-one matchup even made her top ten.

I ran some statistical analyses at this point -- grep, wc, sort, and uniq, basically -- and uncovered the full horrifying truth. A full third of the hundreds of girls taking part were told that Mr. X. was one of their top ten matches. A small population of superstars grabbed dozens of spots for themselves, far more than the ten times you'd expect each person to show up. On the other end of things, there were over two hundred people who appeared on nobody else's list, or on only one list. The realization was shocking -- we were encouraging people to call up their computer-assigned romantic prospects, but those partners wouldn't know the unfortunate caller from a hole in the ground. The best possible result for us would be that people would just crumple up their Datamatch results and throw them out. This was when I understood that the whole thing was some sort of cosmic joke.

Okay. Even you non-mathematicians should have a crack at this one: what went wrong? Why was it that Joe Schmoe could be one of the ten closest matches for Jane Doe, but there were a hundred or more better matches for her than that poor Schmoe? It wasn't even an issue of gender imbalance: that year the number of males and females involved were approximately equal, and there were about as many girls as boys with computer-assigned unrequited crushes.

Well, technically, the "problem" is that our intuition about 25-dimensional space sucks. Think about it this way: every question we added provided a new way to be a freak: each A or E answer moves you to the "outside" of the space. It's only on one question out of 25, but if most of your answers are kind of average, the few questions you gave strong answers still tend to push you well away from the norm, because that whole squaring process exaggerates differences. On a 25-question form, almost everyone is a freak on something or other. There were a few people who gave almost completely innocuous answers, who were very close to the "average" across the campus. These people were reasonable matchups for absolutely everyone else participating. Not great, but kind of reasonable. Two people who were freaky in exactly the same way would get each other, but if you and I are even slightly different kinds of freaks, our two freakinesses add rather than cancelling out. Result: both of us get Miss A (or Mr. X.) on our forms sooner than we get people like each other. There are several hundred of us and only ten spaces on her list; it's just our dumb luck that she never sees us. All this can be formalized to a ridiculous degree, but the basic problem is that Euclidean ("map") distance makes a lot of sense in two and three dimensions, but it's actually a horrible notion of similarity for this kind of matching problem because it treats one big difference a lot more seriously than it treats a dozen small ones.

The next year, Dave and I volunteered right up front to do the programming, basically so we could rip out the Algorithm of Injustice and put something sensible in its place. In the end, we cheated. We took those useless Euclidean numbers and instituted a program of strict rationing. We forced reciprocity above all else: if X is on Y's list, than Y should be on X's list. We took those precious matchings with the highly-desirable people and handed them out as though we were running the NBA draft: everyone picks their top choice from those still available, then repeat as necessary, so that nobody could fill up their ten slots all at once with the campus hotties. Think of it as Communist matchmaking; we were determined that there was to be no hoarding, even if there was grain rotting in the fields.

The punch line of all this is that it wasn't even some abstract notion of attractivenes or some sort of socially-constructed notion of beauty that was causing these pack-mentality situations. It wasn't the jocks and the players and the tall-and-leggy who were getting all the attention; it was the people who were the most "average" as reflected by the mid-point answers of the questions written by the survey team, questions that reflected the quirkiness of the writers themselves. In other words, we might as well have thrown darts at a campus directory to pick out the Datamatch King and Queen, with probably around the same results. In the end, it was the mathematical structure of high-dimensional inner-product spaces that ruined Datamatch as a happiness-producing institution, rather than the beauty myth or the celebrity-obsessed media.

It's not every day you get to pin romantic problems on inner-product spaces.

Curl Up and Cry


Justin forwarded me a link to wizel.com, a site that invites you to take part in a distributed denial-of-service attack on the websites of Hizbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian National Authority, and various other sites that "provide disinformation on the facts in Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority territories," in the words of Wizel's webmaster.

I think this may be the saddest web site I've ever seen, on so many different levels. The site itself is a wrenching mixture of militaristic cheer, youthful enthusiasm, miserable frustration, and exhausted hatred. Equally wrenching are the "target" sites Wizel links to: the Palestinian Information Center, in particular, is terrifying to read, and left me with a saddened sympathy for everyone caught up in this whirlwind, even as I was recoiling in disgust.

To me, this site is an unendingly depressing window onto the conflicts between Israeli and Palestinians: there's so much of the history of violence and suffering implied in it. And now, here we are, being asked to pick up virtual rocks to launch ping floods against the public faces of these various organizations, to extend the fight to the cyberspace front -- looking at it, I just want to curl up and cry.

Words Out of Context


They sent out an email today to our group at work, outlining strategy for the next several months. This email contained the phrase "pyramid scheme."

When Worlds Collide





Herbert Kornfeld
Accounts Receivable

Those Who Cannot Remember the Past


Also by request, I'm bringing the archives back online. This is kind of a big task, so they should be coming back in dribs and drabs, but the conversion process is underway.

Up Past My Bedtime


By request, I've added permalinks to the site. Those little '+' signs next to each title are permalinks, perfectly suitable for your usual bookmarking fun, and guaranteed to jump directly to the entry of interest, even as it ages out of the main page and moves to the archives. Uh, for now at least. Usual blah-blah-blah about change with or without notice.

And yes, someday I will put the archives on the new system. Today was not the day, though; I got sidetracked by A Friend of the Earth, and whoa, did the time ever slip away from me. I think I'm making progress against the Wall of Novels though, and now that I need the space for real, I'm finally throwing out my year-out-of-date telephone book from a place I don't live any more.

Seasonal Color


How do you do it, Mister Millipede? Right legs, then left? One at a time? No need to bother, just a simple question, really. Pure curiosity.

It's the underside of things. Rocks are watching from the inside out, a million eyes blink open when we turn our backs for an instant, waiting for us to make sense, waiting for the explanations we speak aloud to ourselves. The inanimate world cares about all our goings-on; it just lacks the means to let us know. Or to intervene.

Everything that has been done has been done for a reason, however much one stares slantwise at those reasons in the rear-view mirror. Those attitudes, those platitudes, they're so last month, honestly. What were you thinking. You were thinking, weren't you?

Conversations converge to a point, modalities fluctuate and give up the ghost, Spirit runs amok in the world and forgets itself. Tomorrow we'll go outside and dig out the pumpkins and try to remember the meanings of the carvings in their sides. The atmosphere is thickening, memory is hardening into history.

I have meant it all, every word of it, put my words in front of me and I'll sign the confession, see, yes, I deny nothing, nothing. Truth is a matter of convergence in the limit, and like the microscopic demon I must sometimes take action and sometimes fall silent. When the prevailing winds are blowing from cold to hot, this is the time to listen, to pay attention, something strange is happening, and it would be wisest not to interfere. Whereof you know not, speak not neither.

Bouncing off zero and and going up for the rebound, laying down plans to puzzle things out, stepping silently into parallel universes, leaving my mark like a posthorn. Things are surfacing, you can see the tip of the fin now, and here comes the shark it carries with it. Countdown commencing, prepare for igniton.

Heave. Ho. Heave. Ho. Heave. Ho. Three down, arbitrarily many to go. This is the time to be digging the burrow and hiding away acorns. Dig in, and look away.

Where are the reinforcements?

No, no. We're the reinforcements.

It's a symbol. Not a symbol of anything in particular. Just a symbol. It doesn't have to mean something to be beautiful.

It's the climax, and everything's coming apart. The Knife is kneeling, arched back in front of the monitor, he's shaking as he picks and slides his six-string towards some fatal feedback overload; his partner-in-arms is windmilling, crashing harder and harder into each power chord, his face clenched and torn. Hungry Tom has pounced on the mike, his voice is in fragments now, tiny shards of scat being blown apart by terrifying crow-calls. Nobody's watching Muskrat with all the goings on downstage, but his kit is literally disintegrating, one of the cymbals has broken apart, they're not supposed to do that, the low tom is starting to go shapeless and crack up, he's reaching further and further with every stroke as the kit tears loose from its moorings and falls away from him. Only Sliver's still in control, he's looking demonic, perfectly calm, down by steps and thirds, and then that terror-inducing half-chromatic climb back to G, seven minutes ago it was a nervous tic, an unsettling instability, but now that broken bass line is all that stands between them and the abyss, it's broken but they're broken too, everything's broken, the song shudders with the force of that ascent every eighth bar, more painfully each time. You can't hear a thing, but maybe you could hear a pin drop, because everything in between is gone, washed over the edge.

Rock on.

On The Current Election Season


A general feeling of alienated disgust has kept me from mouthing off about the elections currently underway in this country, but two things have recently convinced me that perhaps I should go off on a rant after all. First, I got my state voter's pamphlet, which contains more raw rant material than I could ever possibly use up. And second, I remembered that I voted for Nader back in '96, back before it was cool, which gives me, perhaps, some slight measure of cred.

There are ten candidates for President on the Washington State ballot. This includes the usual folks you've heard of, plus candidates from Libertarian, right-to-life, and three different socialist parties. There's one unifying trend to their position statements: if party A is demonstrably better-known than party B, then party B's statement denounces party A as part of the evil System that's ruining our lives, and party A pays no attention to party B. It's sort of interesting to realize that there are people who stand in the exact same relationship to the "third-party" candidates that those candidates themselves stand in with respect to Bush and Gore.

So the question becomes, what do you want, and how are you going to get it? There are basically two games I think one can play: you can vote for the candidate whose platform is the most precise match to your own beliefs, or you can treat the entire system as some sort of complex machine and try to psych out how you can best manipulate that machine into doing what you want. Quite honestly, both methods suck, but I think they're individually at least defensible, but that seeking some sort of wishy-washy middle ground is a no-go.

There's not much to say about the first alternative. For me personally, I'm (unsurprisingly) not much of a fan of the Libertarian and Constitution platforms, and both the Socialist Workers and the Workers World people are nuts, but the Socialist platform is actually not half bad, especially their tax reform proposals. I'm with the Greens on environmental policy, of course, and whatever issues I may have with Clintonian foregin policy, the Democratic internationalist party line is better than any of the other nine would replace it with. If I could put them in power in every government in the world, I'd quite possibly vote Socialist; if I could give them 100% of Congress, I'd go Democratic, no-questions-asked. And if I could just turn the judiciary system over to the Greens, sure, that'd fix most stuff. But none of these is an option. This is a ballot pull for President, not for absolute dictator, and the winner will need to work in the context of the situation they wind up in, and, oh, jeez, this is starting to sound more like option two, so cancel that. If you're going to stick to your ideological guns, be prepared to stick with them all the way. They ask you what you want, always tell the truth, keep saying it, and then wait for it to happen, however long that is. Visualize ideal world, walk directly towards, swerving neither right nor left by even a millimeter, even when you need to walk directly through a tree.

On the other end, you can vote strategically. Draw out the game tree, look over the options, pick the one which ends up with the world you most like out of the possibilities, no matter how strange the chain of events that leads there is. Maybe voting Libertarian will force the Republicans to swing in that direction, opening up more terrain for social-responsibility parties on the left, causing them to vacate the environmental turf which the Democrats can then recapture, and in combination with sweeping the 2020 elections, maybe they'll get some stuff done. My point is one, that the consistent thing to do is follow your beliefs and models through to the end, and two, this process requires the same sort of absurd extension that just voting straight "for" what you believe does. The trouble with strategic voting is that you need to have some sort of idea of what your vote will actually cause to happen, and the system is too messy, too complicated, too rhetorically swamped for this sort of predictability to extend very far.

Me, I'm a scientist, so I start from the basic proposition that our political system doesn't work. Further, no political system can. This is a demonstrable fact: Kenneth Arrow proved it back in the fifties. Any political system that has to deal with a sufficiently diverse (in the sense of having different opinions) population is going to fail in some way: either it won't respond even to the overwhelming popular consensus, or its decisions will make no sense. The floor for "sufficiently diverse" is six people. Different systems fail in different ways: the American subdivision process causes massive pandering to the center; parliamentary systems are vulnerable to pandering to the fringes; odder systems (like the STV system ICANN used to elect its at-large members) tend to miss out on broad consensuses. You can play metagames with trying to change the system around so that its particular stupidities are ones you can live with, but since we're running 200-plus years on the one we've got and pressure for change seems pretty minimal, I prefer to take its particular stupidites as given. Which pretty immediately rules out option number one.

It's something of a truism that up until election night, no candidate ever admits that they might not win (the Workers' World party being a notable exception -- one of their platform points calls on President Clinton to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier), but once you dig a bit, the third-party campaigns pretty quickly start trying to get your vote in strategic terms. The magic 5% will give the Greens matching funding next time; a vote for Buchanan is a signal to the Republican Party. And the major parties make their appeals in openly strategic terms: a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. It all comes down to which hypotheticals you think more likely, who you think has the most accurate model of what will actually happen.

These are naked questions of calculation, of possible-world crystal-ball gazing limited only by the unimaginable complexity of the world, the other quarter-billion people all indepdently making their own guess-based decisions, and our own woefully weak capacity for prediction. I'll return to my own personal calculations in a moment, but I want first to rail against people who try to dress up these calculations in more idealistic garb. I'm ever-so-thrilled that when I vote for Nader, I "send a signal" and my vote has some sort of special added semiotic content, but so? Signals don't save the environment. To flip the coin, please don't try to pretend that Gore hasn't been drifting rightwards. On a good day, it's a necessary evil that he's courting the swing voters so, but face it, he's lying to them or he's lying to us leftists.

In my case, what it comes down to is twofold: how far I can project a given scenario into the future, and how well I can predict the effects of my particular vote in selecting a secnario. For the first question, I'm stopping at the four-year mark, or well before. Nobody can accurately predict politics that far into the future, and anyone who claims to is lying. They're guessing. I'm looking at a President for the next four years, probably three Supreme Court appointments, and a Congress that's on paper pretty closed to balanced but in practice tilted somewhat Republican due to conservative Democratic rank-breaking (I'm keeping in mind here that there are 99 senators and 434 members of Congress whose status depends exactly zero on my choice this election. Well, 98, with Lieberman clinging to his seat).

My vote will affect, potentially, three things. It will show up in some raw column for King County. Big whoop. It might contribute to giving the Greens their magic 5%; this is a distinct possibility here in Washington State. Looking ahead as best I can, I think this is a good thing, kinda sorta: this matching funding is money that will be spent on advertisng pressing for environmental protection and campaign finance reform. Sure. And, in today's climate, especially here in a "competitive" state, my votemay go towards trying to tip a very close race between Gore and Bush. This is important, yo. One of the two of them is going to win this race; the coin is not about to land on its edge. And I believe there's a difference, one that I care a great deal about.

Would I rather see Nader or McReynolds as President? Possibly, but I'm not going to burn brain cells on this one. I'd rather have Bill Bradley, Vaclav Havel, Abraham Lincoln, or Larry Lessig in the job, too, but it's just not going to happen. Would I like to see Ralph get his magic percentage? Sure, but that's a meta-good, an uncertain deposit towards possibly some good stuff down the road; keeping Dubya out of the Oval office is an immediate good, a much larger one, and besides, the way things look right now, my vote is more likely to affect that outcome than to affect whether the Greens cross their threshold. Gore it is.

Am I happy? No. Do I hate the poltical process and its widespread disenfranchisements? Hell, yes. Do I favor confiscatory taxation on the rich? Most days, yes. Am I about at my boiling point about the insane media culture surrounding politics and the rhetorical disconnects running through the whole shabby mess? No, I hit that point long ago. Am I frustrated like nobody's business? Yes, I am, but I'm trying to do the most good with the options that are open to me right now, and to take a broad enough view to figure out where to actually put my efforts to do some genuine good, whether politics itself is salvageable or whether what the world needs is something else entirely.

I'm quite serious about this. We, the young, are often tossed off as apolitical, disenchanted with out government and its processes (electoral and otherwise). As though these are necessarily bad things. Sure, to the extent that our low turnout lets the older folks lead us into fiscal irresponsibility and stick us with the bill, it is. And to the extent that the engagement with community and nation that politics (sometimes) requires isn't replaced with anything else, it is. But if there's greater good to be done somewhere outside of politics than within it, what kind of sucker's game is it to expect us to bash our heads against politics' brick wall just because it's the traditional route to fixing stuff?

Maybe we need to be running NGOs, sending in food to war-torn nations where the blue hemlets won't go because of UN deadlock. Maybe we need to be writing novels and songs, trying to pull up the world's moral and ethical standards a bit by coming at people with beauty from an unexpected quarter. Maybe we need to be writing the software that will break down class divisions and inequities of wealth by rendering all our physical wealth-markers stunningly irrelevant. Maybe we need to be fixing things on a smaller scale than politics can even comprehend, setting things right locally, in our homes and our neighborhoods and offices like good Neo-Confucians. Maybe we need to be building ecologically sustainable businesses and destroying rapacious corporations by subverting their assumptions about profits and people. Maybe we need to renounce everything, live as mendicants, and turn from a hopeless world to our inner spirituality.

I don't know. But there are other possibilities out there, and at some point, maybe we can figure out a way to just let politics fester on its own while stepping in at enough places to make sure its death throes don't screw things up too badly. Kind of a long shot, but that's an extreme possibility. More realistically, the greatest service to humanity, to one's own sense of responsibility, to whatever, need not necessarily lie in an exclusively political engagement. The obligation to do something does not vanish just because the means are difficult or impossible. But obligation's harsh judgement comes down equally severely on those who struggle in vain with impossible tasks while ignoring far easier means of achieving the same end.

Well Done, Cliff


I got a piece of bulk mail yesterday with one of those yellow "please inform sender of new address" labels on it. The mail had been addressed to my old street address, but in Richmond, VA instead of Redmond WA. It seems like an understandable enough mistake in hindsight, although it does make me kind of wonder what kind of process was at work that required human transcription from one large database to another.

More striking to me was that the post office still got it right, which indicates that their new-address database is more extensive than just a simple lookup based on supposed target address. It seems very unlikely that there's a Red-Wood road in Richmond. In fact, I've been to Richmond, and I don't remember there being one. I'm kind of curious now, if someone were to address mail to me at a totally non-existent address, would it still reach me? Before yesterday, I'd have said no. Now, I'm not so sure.

Vasco da Gama


Here ya go. In addition to cleaning up some display quirks and micromanaging some of the spacing issues, I've activated the in-page navigation system. Clicking on the name of any of my postings from the previous week will send this page into "compact mode," displaying only that particular item. From compact mode, click on the "Return to Expanded Mode" buttons at the top if you want to go back to the traditional Lab columnular format. I've supplied compact mode as a way around the ungainliness of the traditional everything-at-once format, especially towards the end of the week.

Standard caveats, one, this will probably not work on older browsers, and will definitely not work if you have scripting off, but I've done my dangedest to retain down-level, so the page should remain visible in the old-school one-huge-column format it's always had. Also, this is strictly an in-page system: if you hit "back" you'll go back to whatever page sent you to the Lab, not to the previous entry you were looking at. Enjoy.

I’m Going to Graceland


It's been a long week, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, even to me. Lost track of what day it was by the end of Tuesday, and then the traffic on 520 didn't clear up until around 8 on Friday. That kind of week. After dinner, I dragged my lazy butt (actually, no dragging required, it was downhill all the way) over to Graceland, a club kind of jauntily nestled up against I-5 and all but underneath the Denny overpass. It was so worth it; it was as though I could feel myself flowing back into myself as I took in the music.

I showed up in the middle of Welcome's set, and didn't much care for it. Bad pun omitted. I'll go with the usual complaint of the artistically impaired: I couldn't find anything distinctive about their music, nor do I particularly like their sound. Tellingly, they were the loudest band of the evening by far.

They bopped off the stage pretty quickly, and yielded to Aveo, a local act. Their style was a little hard and driving for my tastes, but for all that, I really liked it. Very complicated guitar lines, in a sort of rocking arpeggiated style, underneath harmonically unstable vocals. If you stepped back from the forward-pulsing beat, the overall effect was comfortably enveloping. Long verses, long choruses, and although the harmonies weren't exactly your garden-variety strong-resolution rock chords, Aveo's songs all had an oddly gripping quality, a feel to them that made you smile and pay attention.

oRSo, out of Chicago and kicking off their current US tour with a new album, were third on the bill. They were listed on the poster as featuring "former members of Red Red Meat," which meant nothing to me, other than sounding ominously like the sort of band that plays loudly and out of tune, on purpose. But when they came out and I saw frontman Phil Spirito tuning a banjo, I knew things were going to be all right. Plunked banjo and tinkly keyboards tended to make for oddly-arranged songs that would start off pretty enough but didn't seem to be going anywhere. And then, four minutes later, you're hoping and praying that the song will never end, because somehow in the interim, that initially off-putting sound has grown on you, and their twisted notions of a tinkly-keyboard music-box "solo" have started to make sense, and you're bought into the logic of the song's sound and within that logic, there's actually a lot of fairly neat development and an accumulated wallop. I chatted for a bit with Phil while buying an album of theirs. Nice guy. Slightly strange but nice music.

The final band on the bill was Portland-based Carissa's Wierd (no, not a typo). What can I say? Soft and moody violin rock, gets me every time. Like every other band on the bill, they're a melody band: their chords and song structure are pretty pedestrian, but their subtle interweaving melodies are dreamlike and haunting. The best of their songs featured two vocal lines in harmony, violin, and quietly picked guitar floating and chanting above a drum-and-strum backdrop. I drifted back and forth between listening to one individual part, usually almost charmingly simple, and the mournful but cleansing pull of the whole. Mmmmm. Music.

And today, I, well, never mind.

Presto Change-o


And here's a little number I tossed off recently in the Carribbean, which I call The Laboratorium.

Like G.I. Joe?


From his statement in the Washington State Voters' Pamphlet: "Ralph Nader is an American hero."

Damn, That’s Good Software


Found, on the NYT website, a link offering to "Personalize Your Weather."

Too Much Math


I started comparing a conversation to an infinite sequence of Abelian groups. Then I stopped myself.

The Great Beyond


Since today is another day without actual substantive local content, let me once again point off at something interesting out there in the metropolitan Internet region: an art project of drawings of historical events, rendered in the isometric perspective familiar from computer games (most notably The Sims). There are a lot of the twentieth century's most memorably chilling images in here; a lot of the shock value comes in realizing what the scene you're looking at is, and where in "game world" the truly haunting photo was taken from. I found the project to be quite disturbing, and I'll certainly never play The Sims after seeing the Simworld so thoroughly deconstructed. (The nitpicking part of me felt it was a bit of a cheat to allow the characters as much expresivity and range of motions as they receive: the impact of confining them to the same aligned and locked-in poses that the scenery is held to would have been even greater). It's a very vivid and immediate demonstration of how flattening the view from certain perspectives, both literal and figurative, can be.

And yes, I got the link from Slashdot, but there's a community not exactly disposed towards a thoughtful consideration of the issues raised by technological art.

The Dotcom Doth Protest Too Much


"RealJukebox does not contain a unique identifier that could theoretically be used to track the actions or listening habits of individuals."

Marketroidal Revenge


Got one of those AOL 5.0 free CDs in the mail today, this one promising "700 Free Hours! (for a month)." Offer not valid in February.

If He Won’t Update, I’ll Update For Him


Today, The Lab is aping Watch the World Die, a site given to high-frequency redesigns itself. It's hard to give the feel of the site based on only one of its looks, but it's an amusing lil' fellow. Back when I first met it, it was billing itself as "The Longest-Running Sitcom on Hell Prime." Also, the site has probably the single best 404 page I've ever seen.

From the Codebase Files


There's a function in our source code tree named "MysteryDanceNoThunk." I think I'm happier not knowing what it does.

A More Perfect Pokemon


At this point, I have basically no reaction one way or the other towards Pokemon (this fact itself is absurd, but that's another story). Even still, the Pikachu Comfy Cushion I saw today was wonderful. Pikachu is already baically a blob, so seeing Pikachu realized as a normal pillow with tiny little flaps of fabric attached for feet, hands, tail, ears, is just ridiculously cute.

The Hit Parade Rolls On


A makeover, some organic sea salt, a healthy borrowing from an elegant design, and here we are: today the Lab is wearing a Geegaw skin. This is one of the two sites (the other being Full Waffle Jacket) that made me realize the possibilities of the web-log-thing medium. Why not go click on the "comment" form to send her a compliment on the design, or, even better, click on the "wish list" link and buy her stuff?

A Can of Beans, Some Black-Eyed Peas


Just finished The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by India's great transplanted Canadian novelist, Calvin Rushmore. The book is a marvel, stuff like this is why I read. You have to wonder how he does it, how he makes all those ideas and strands fit together, it seems so overdetermined, and then, I kind of realized, you could give a list of randomly-chosen words and he'd be able to pull out connections and resonances. And when he gets free rein to define his own names and ideas, you just know he can do even better. And he does. The references and allusions alone are dizzying. And his tribute to Zoo Harrison, Icon, and Allen Konigsberg -- sheer brilliance.

Given the flop-down-on-couch-read-straight-through return home I made today, along with the incessant demands of other projects, as well as a slightly later-than-expected return home from work (but one well-justified by what got done in that last hour), today I'm going to refrain from originality, and instead just make like a weblog and link. I came across the following idea some time ago over at Tom Ewing's Blue Lines weblog and have been meaning to point to it for a while.

For those too lazy to click on the above link (come on, man, you won't regret it!), he wonders where all the weblog manifestoes are, specifically some sort of web log analogue to Dogme 95, which he calls (you'll need to click through into the forum) Blogme 95. Which is a really neat concept, in exactly the same way that Dogme 95 is itself a neat concept. Ewing, correctly I think, points up the value of Dogme-like purity as a rule-set, rather than an intrinsically attractive collection of ideas. The value of the Dogme 95 restraints is that they are restraints. Going further, I'd say that the usual Dogme confessions and violations are actually indications of how well the system works -- it's not that the directors are straying from their abstract notion of perfection, it's that they're being forced to fight tooth and nail against the limits they've set for themselves, so that they punch out for a bit of breathing room only and exactly where it is truly necessary. In addition to exploring more carefully the possibilities of their confined technical spaces (the scene from The Celebration illuminated only by matches that flare up and then go out leaps to mind as a particularly wonderful effect of having to live within a Dogme constraint, this one the prohibition on artificial lighting), the very process of setting limits gives them something to push back against, a creative tension that's not always so easy found.

For weblogs, well, I don't pretend to be a major authority on the subject, but it strikes me that most sites I really like are already working under a pretty substantial set of creative restrictions. The web log format itself is in some ways a monumental restriction. You have a visual format, but once you've locked into it, you basically have words and hyperlinks which are adapted to a particular, fairly constrained, reading style. I feel a bit as though web logs are themselves the Dogme of the Internet world in that sense, just because the format is so locked down: it's a kind of a backing-off from the possibilities of Flash or, in another direction, of content organized in any other way than discrete chronologically. To extend the comparison, then, I think the real possibilities here come when people are on the one hand taking weblogging seriously, respecting for the most part the various limitations and unspoken rules of the genre, and are on the other struggling against the genre, trying to find the places where they need to punch through the walls, sprinking in a little DHTML or organizing the content in a way not quite envisioned by Blogger.

Awful Geek Joke


Bob's in David's office, debugging, and he turns to David and asks "Can you run from the debugger?" I'm passing by, and the thought pops into my head, "You can run from the debugger, but you can't hide."

An Entirely Other Metamorphosis


Today's edition of the Lab is a facsimile of An Entirely Other Day. I have no idea whether Greg Knauss, EOD's impressario, looks anything like the guy with the spatula, but it seems plausible. He funny. Total elapsed Claudius time from start to finish of the makeover: 20 minutes, and again, most of that was converting the EOD page to be proper XHTML.

To Prove a Point


Today's incarnation of the Lab is as Slashdot, that more wretched hive of open source and villainy. Today's lesson, boys and girls: always use XHTML in your web pages. The hard part of this exercise was going through and putting quotation marks on all the attributes and dealing with all of the improperly nested tags.

Stone Soup


The trouble with How to Cook Everything is that the recipes always come out exactly like I should have known they were going to come out. Dumplings made of Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, and parsley -- and that's exactly what they taste like. In hindsight, it's not clear to me what I was expecting, but, well, it was something different.

On Self-Mockery


If that Knauss character can get away with linking to something he's written somewhere else and calling that his entry for the day, so can I. Today, medianstrip is running a short essay of mine, on the subject of self-deprecating humor. To a first approximation, I'm agin' it.

Neal Pollack is a Modern Bill Murray


Neal Pollack looks like Bill Murray, he sounds a bit like him, and he definitely acts the same way. It's the same kind of goofy sentimentalism that's part of his performance, the way he puts on what is clearly an act of know-it-all-ness but then drops his guard and starts belting out "America the Beautiful" into the mike.

Now, I'm trying not to be catty and vicious. I'm trying real hard. And Neal Pollack gives every impression of being a nice guy, and he had a lot of friends at the reading, and he's genuinely funny, I think, but still. This book of his, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature has no need to exist. It's a collection of parodies of magazine articles of a certain type, all built around the persona of "Neal Pollack," superstar author, born to a life of ease who travels the world with debonair grace, handing down his works of genius with a weary sigh and spreading the force of his personality to an awestruck world.

Yes, I will grant you, there are fatuous articles out there, there are plenty of uninteresting profiles of writers and even less helpful profiles of other celebrities, and there are the fatuous casual remarks of the idle rich who fancy themselves to be smart. And all of these things are readily susceptible to satire. But for goodness sake, it's like shooting fish in a barrel, over and over and over again. The only thing of interest here is the technical virtuosity of the writing, his ability to pick exactly the right specific detail to make a joke. And this stuff wears thin by the end of a reading, to say nothing about an entire book.

There was a commotion at one point: a man ran into the room screaming that his wallet had been stolen. Pollack left for the bathroom, Superman arrived and returned the wallet and plugged the book before leaving, and then Pollack came back and continued with the reading. While he was away, I was tempted to switch the author's copy of the book on the lectern with one from the shelf behind him. Or perhaps to start a similar commotion, albeit unexpected by Pollack, a few moments after he returned, and to finish by cursing that lousy Superman for not finishing a job. Or perhaps to heckle Superman, who gave a short and confused speech about saving Seattle from anarchy and making the world safe for the WTO.

But I didn't, nor did I do anything when a fellow in a wig and a Neal Pollack moustache in the first row asked a question about "Neal Pollack's" influence on the adult film industry. To have taken part would have been to drop down to his level, to take part in the cleverness contest. Whether you spin it as trying to be cool like Neal, or as trying to show how dumb and scripted Neal's act is, it would have amounted to the same thing: acting as though this sort of silly shenanigans were particularly original, exciting, worth encouraging. They're not. Perhaps I'm jaded before my time, but at some point, whatever you do has got to be about something more than your raw cleverness, there has got to be something more than the facile display of the quick-witted skewering of straw men.

Pollack kept on bumping up against this, kept on acknowledging that his work was fiction, that he had an agenda in writing it, that there were things that concerned him about this country, that the book itself was an object of beauty, all sorts of things. And every time, without fail, he'd undercut it with some easily canned line and slide back into the "Neal Pollack" persona, perhaps one of the least biting satires ever enacted. There was no connection between the humor and anything beyond the humor, not even any attempt to turn the "Neal Pollack" book tour's absurdities on the real Neal Pollack book tour, which gives every sign of being an amazingly nice and happy travelling show (his wife is on tour with him, and he spoke somewhat movingly about the encouragement he's been getting from fans who write to him).

I don't mean to sound like a broken record on these themes, but there has got to be something more, there has got to be some attempt to actually use irony towards some purpose, there has got to be some belief that there's going to be something revealed behind those toppled walls of defense, or that fragile flowers might grow out of the ruins. We need tireless biting cyniccal pessimism, and we need insane cynical optimism, and we need things so goofy or so inspired that they defy easy classification. We do not need the Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. Some people are just too nice to be satirists, and for all his wit, Neal Pollack is one of them.

State of the World


The wind rolls in off the Sound, down from Alaska. That wind smashed this city the first time they tried to put it up, and even today Seattle trembles a bit when the wind starts, it might carry Elliott Bay up and over, or it might take down everything along its path and leave us staring into its northwesterly void.

There are two Janus faces to the weather this time of year. These sea breezes bring the clouds and the mists, they bring the greyness of days and the shortness of the afternoon. But they also bring the crisp sea air, you turn up your collar and lean forward to meet them.

I'm surfing the weather, I'm riding this wave as far as I can as it curls above me, racing the limit. Spring is the time of rebirth, but autumn is when you get things done, that stiff breeze clears out obstacles, clears your thoughts, makes you stout-hearted and resolute of purpose, and this is your chance, these chillingly alive autumn afternoons, this is the window of opportunity, here and now, before winter's jaws snap shut.

There are ships being launched, plans have been set in motion, the game is afoot. Advances paid in earnest of later plausibilities, groundwork and foundation pits, missiles in the air but not yet showing up on radar. I can see possibilities, I can see developments, but we are still at the stage where every detail matters, we must paint with single-hair brushes, because this is the part of the picture whose consequences will be magnified a thousand times. There are points of no return approaching, we are all systems go, we are piling up the firewood and preparing to step down on the gas.

Stanislaw Lem wrote a story about a spaceship that crashed on landing, a spaceship that could not understand that its sensors could contradict each other, that could not handle the uncertainties of reality. We operate with imperfect information, we throw darts at invisible targets that may not exist. When the drive towards understanding becomes the drive towards paralysis, it can be lethal.

I am walking in a vacuum sometimes, soundless, lightless, and in such circumstances I have learned rather to keep walking than to strain to comprehend a few scattered details. That way madness lies, but one foot in front the other lies something I know not what but if I press forward I shall meet it in the due course of things and come that time, I trust to know what to do.

And a-waaaay we go.

Minus Five, No Limit


Well, my response to the Minus 5 show last night is basically that now I never need to go to another Minus 5 show again. I didn't dislike them, I just didn't see any particular reason why this music needed to be brought into the world. I was amused that last night's incarnation of the 5 had four guitars, but that six different people played those particular guitars at one point or another. Still, this is hardly enough of a hook to hang an evening's musical entertainment on.

Literary Conflicts


Tomorrow is one of those conundrum situations. Neal Pollack will be reading from his new book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, at Elliott Bay. Given, first, that Pollack is an Eggers crony (and has even been accused of being Eggers) and second, that Pollack has publicly stated that he wants book readings to have the same glamour as rock concerts, this will probably be a pretty crazy event. Plus, I'm just burning up to ask Pollack a question about the book, to wit, "Why?"

That said, Mark Z. Danielewski will also be in town tomorrow, but at Borders. I missed him when he was actually touring with House of Leaves, so this is kind of a chance to jump in there again and see the regular-guy blue-haired genius for real. He's appearing with his sister, the musician, known to the world as Poe, who's got a new album coming out at the end of the month. The two of them have one of those really strong sibling bonds, and there are supposedly connections between his book and her music, although I don't know the latter well enough to know what the connections might be.

Quick, Hobbes, to the cloning machine!

Chameleonic XSL


I've converted over the notebook page to use Claudius, which is my code name for the new organizational system powering this site behind the scenes. Technically, Claudius is more of a set of rules about how I enter content and the schemas I use than it is new code, but the effect is basically the same: awesome cosmic powers. In order to show off Claudius, I'm going to make the Lab look like a different one of my favorite sites every day this week. Today: l'hommage a Full Waffle Jacket.

As for the archives and the other parts of the site, I'll be converting them to the new file format over the course of the week and bringing them live as they're switched over.

All Quiet on the West Coast Front


No obsessive posting today, because I want to read The Amber Spyglass. After all the hype, I was somewhat surprised to find it there on the corner of the table at Elliott Bay, calmly minding its own business. I was expecting maybe bright neon lights. Anyway, I'm going into hibernation mode until I've read it.

To keep the fires going in my absence, though, as it were, here's a picture that's pretty striking.

Wonder Boy


Michael Chabon read from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay this evening to a packed house down at Elliott Bay. He read a quite funny excerpt from fairly early on, and he did quite a job getting into the characters and doing the voices. It was a bit disturbing, though, in that people that good-looking aren't supposed to have to turn to writing, that is, to a medium in which you can't see the artist.

Chabon has a Web site, which I came across while looking for his tour dates (not available, when I looked, from the Random House web site, which tells me all I need to know about the state of the American publishing industry). While poking arount it, I came across this essay, an inspired fantasia sparked by his coming across a secondhand copy of a book entitled Say It In Yiddish.

Back here in this world, on my way back to my car, a guy in a pickup truck drove by and held a hand-lettered sign saying "FUCK MY WIFE" out the window so I could see it, then drove away.

No clue. None whatsoever.

(Cultural) Warning Sign


From the towel dispenser in the men's room of the restaurant I ate at last night:

Pull towel gently with both hands. Do not attempt to hang from towel. Willfully disregarding these instructions may be harmful or lethal.

To which many things can be said, but I think Boris had the best response when he asked, "Does that mean that the towel somehow knows if you're doing it on purpose or not? Oh, he's doing it accidentally, so I guess it must be okay."

Technology of Biblical Proportions


My television is a jealous, Old Testament appliance. It hands down its commandments only once, and smites those who are called away during its services. It sets harsh tests for its followers; it delivers them not from commercials; it abandons them in the vast wasteland of today's programming. "Thou shalt set no entertainment before me," it says, and "Thou shalt sacrifice to me your prime-time hours, which you love, as a burnt offering."

But Tivo? Tivo is a New Testament appliance, Tivo is the promise of redemption, Tivo is love. One needs only to call out -- in any hour of day or night -- and Tivo is there with one's favorite shows. Tivo is the voice in the wilderness, leading the faithful to the Promised Programs. Tivo can stop time; Tivo can raise last week's episodes from the dead. With Tivo, all things are possible.

I am an unworthy sinner. I have watched what was on because it was all that was on, I have lost my faith during commercial breaks and forgotten the program I was watching, I have allowed the television screen to flicker out because I could not be home in time to see my favorite program. But now Tivo has come to wash away my entertainment sins with its undying love. Have mercy on this poor lost soul, Tivo, and lead me to your Kingdom of Heavenly Television.

Today’s Detritus


A guy from my group at work is going back home to Croatia for four weeks' vacation. After he left today, we got into a discussion of things we could do in his absence: assign all of our bugs to him, or fill up his office with cigarettes (he's a pretty heavy smoker, often to be found down in the parking garage on a cigarette break). Thinking about it a bit more, we realized it would take a lot of cigarettes. In fact, doing out the Fermi-problem calculations, we decided a complete office-ful of smokes would cost about half a million dollars, which put it kind of out of our prank price range. Steve said he understood now why the cigarette companies are able to reach hundred-billion dollar settlements and still stay in business. I said I understood now why people hijack cigarette trucks.

Justin sent along this editorial cartoon from the Los Angeles Times. He's writing to the cartoonist and the editor. I think I will, too, once I have something more articulate to say than the spluttered screams that are all I can come up with right now.

Also available on the web today, Garrison Keillor penned a very nice paean to Seattle in his "Mr. Blue" column for Salon (yes, I've broken my vow and gone back to reading it). "Delightful and inspiring," he calls it, and he says of us Seattleites that we're "a book-reading, mountain-hiking, theatergoing, salmon-fishing bunch, and they strike me as salt of the earth and good to be around." Smile.

Kid A has been placed on once-a-day rationing. It's reached that point; if I were to listen to it more often, bad things might happen.

The state of New Jersey sent me a nasty letter, claiming that I'd run a 35-cent toll on the Garden State Turnpike on the 9th of June, and demanding payment of the toll, plus a twenty-five dollar administrative fee. In order to impress upon me the quality of their airtight case, they included the automated photograph from which they identified me as the toll-runner. The only problem: while I am indeed the owner of the car that had the New Jersey license plate named in the letter, that license plate number wasn't the one shown in the photo. They enclosed three forms I could use to dispute the charges, none of which technically applies to my case. Section A, "Certification of Non-Liability," would let me claim that I'm not the owner of the car whose plate number they give. But I am. Section B, "Certification of Inadvertent Toll Violation," would let me claim that I tried to pay the toll. But I didn't (this is one of those "have you stopped beating your wife" situations). And Section C, "E-ZPass Customer Certification" would let me claim that I had an E-ZPass transponder in the car at the time of the violation. But they don't have E-ZPass out here, so I didn't. Ah, someone else's tax dollars at work.

In Other Papers


I wrote a brief little essay on different publishers and the look of their books for today's edition of Medianstrip.

The Hades-Cam


Actual, unretouched photo of traffic by the Mercer Island tunnel on I-90, from the Washington State Department of Transportation:

I took 520 home.

Site News


Taking the new look live throughout the site. There are various visual oddities and quirks that I want to attend to, but I'm sufficiently sick of the old design that I just want it gone, even if the new one isn't really production-quality yet. Also, I've added Susan, Tehshik, and Maura to the sidebar. Good people, good sites.

Obect D’ar


Dar Williams played at the Moore last night, touring in support of her new album, The Green World (were she any lesser musician, I'd have said "flogging the new album"). The concert was organized around the album. in fact: she played every song from it, save one. The usual happened, and I left liking the album way more than when I went in. She's touring with the same group of musicians who recorded it with her, so I guess their sound is pretty closely coupled to its sound: more percussion, way more bass, a much more filled-out and warm sound. I wasn't so crazy about it on my first listen to the studio version, but they're great live, and some of that energy has back-transferred. Also, Dar's inimicable stage patter really helps: even a sentence or two about how she came up with the idea for a song seemed always to be enough to make me realize what she was singing about and to provide a rich new meaning for every lyric.

Dar, I think, is blessed with two great talents (over and above her rich and honeyed voice): she's a lyricist of rare subtlety, and she fills her songs with tiny moments of perfect beauty. The lyric thing it's hard to say much about, because it's all there in front of you. She's smart, and funny, and she knows just how far to take a metaphor or a repeated phrase before modulating it in some stunning way. The little details of melody and harmony, though, are what made me a fan. What would otherwise be ordinary songs are lifted into excellence by these scattered miracles: the descending string section at the start of the third verse of "Arrival," the soaring music-box melody to the chorus of "I Love, I Love (Travelling II)," the sing-song lilt to the tune of "Playing to the Firmament."

Even the songs of hers that I love with an unconditional love, I love for their moments of perfection. When I play "Iowa," it's for the the instant when the verse gives way to the chorus; for me, "The Mark Rothko Song" is all about the harmonic explosion and delicate guitar work that propel the bridge. Even "If I Wrote You," one of the most heart-rending songs of all time in its entiretey, almost demands to be pulled apart into its elements. This time through, I'm listening to Richard Shindell's backup vocals; the next time around, it's the shuffling, mournful percussion; after that, it'll be the two-note guitar figure immediately after the last line in the second verse. Listening closely to a Dar Williams song is like walking through a field of wildflowers: you really do have to stop and look closely to fully experience the beauty.

Then again, there's also "The Christians and the Pagans," her final encore from last night (after an unbelievably beautiful version of "Iowa," an energetic "As Cool As I Am," and the wonderful version of the new classic "Another Mystery" that closed out the set proper), and the only thing you can do is stand up and dance at the same time you're feeling the tears in the corner of your eyes.

There were times, especially during the bouncy songs, when Dar looked about sixteen, a bit bashful but also happily spunky. There were also times, usually marked by bluish backlighting, when the color of her hair went indistinct and if you imagined it grey, she could pass for an active and youthful sixty. She's thirty now, but in those moments, I could see what she'd look like at that age , and I hope very much to be there thirty years from now to see her still bringing her lovely voice and miraculous songs to share with us.

This One’s Optimistic


Round pegs, square holes. Round pegs, square holes.

I believe in the teleological suspension of the practical. But I also believe in the the practical. You see? I'm going to dream of the world I want to live in, but here in the overground, there are things to do, matters to attend to.

Sleeping on trains and on planes is a poxy halfbreed sleep, and vacation can be a liminal existence. There are dogs waiting at doorsteps, and friends crossing their own thresholds, meals reserved like restaurants in reverse, and the early-morning crosstown bus with a shining bright sixth-grader.

Well, here I am again, and I saw my apartment from the air on this shining cloudy day. The chair is solid beneath me, the post office roof out my window is smiling faintly in repose, I'm ready to slip this city on again like my autumn coat and walk out through the October breezes.

This is the season of shifting leaves, and there are games afoot, big changes coming, here they come at the Laboratorium. The Lab is engaged in some strategic repositioning, we're about to embark on a program of brand diversification.

What's the point of having Bunsen burners and Erlenmeyer flasks if you're not going to run an experiment now and then? One invests in fume hoods for a reason, and if one winds up needing the eye wash station, well then, that's still the kind of experience one learns from.

There's nothing in the Lab contract about ever and forever, and we're going to be trying out some new ideas. The Laboratory Notebooks have taken over more of the site than I ever meant them to, so we're going to see about beefing up some of the more neglected corners. We're lining up some strategic partners, we're rethinking our assumptions, we're going to try out some new ways of being in the world.

To answer questions, and to raise them. To answer questions, and to raise them.

There's a place for stories, and a place also for questioning them. We pays our money and we takes our chances, and we keeps our eyes open. Nothing without labor.

Look inside, ask yourself what you're doing and why. And if you see the idiocy, but it's a glorious idiocy, does that change matters? Does the illusion of control, or the illusion of destiny, justify all? How many different ways are there of misunderstanding, and will we need to invent whole new kinds of numbers to count the ways?

The smell of the radiator coming on, the crack and rustle of a hardbound spine, the sudden sparkle of a new idea. It was good to be away, but it's good also to be here again. This time for sure, Rock.

This is not about, has never been about, me. Here at the surface, sure. And in the deep and primal sense, perhaps. But in the middle layer, the in-betweens of meanings, no, never, there are more important things at stake.

Zesty reality bits, heightened with a dash of secret imagination sauce. Onward and upward, fixed in our folly. New color scheme, new this and new that, but the same old slicing sideways through the scenery.

I should be tired, but I'm not. I'm ready to pick up the bags and set out for the hill, to pick up this thing and figure out which end you press to make the music come out. The sun is falling crosswise on the seagulls and the cars, and the Sunday is settling in, and I'm looking forward to the unforseen extensions of what has gone before. The unanticipated and the preordained lie in wait and play endless hands of cards with each other, waiting for me to arrive so the day can begin in earnest.

I'm good. You?