The Laboratorium
February 2001

The End


Some years ago, I had an idea about .plan files. My idea was that a whole bunch of us would use them to communicate random musings, state-of-the-universe updates, and neat URLs to each other. Apparently, at about this time, some other people were using the Web to do this, but I wanted to do it with .plan files.

Many people already had .plan files; a few of them used them for precisely this purpose. Thus, part of one's routine, in this world-wide-plan-web universe, would be routinely fingering one's friends to read their dot files. I decided that the key user-interface hurdle was to make it easy to determine quickly which of one's friends had recently updated their information. I wrote some cheesy perl, and thus was born "plangrab." It kept a cache of last-mod times and ran through a list of usernames to see whether the files had changed since the last time the script had been run.

A primitive tool, perhaps, but it completely transformed the way I read .plan files. Whenever I logged in, plangrab told me who I ought to finger for updates. Suddenly, with almost no effort, I was on top of a few dozen people's for-public-consumption postings about themselves.

Then, I got busy again and forgot about it. Plangrab's user-base stalled out at about four or five, and I never did manage to talk too many people into joining my cult of Frequent Updates. In fact, after a couple weeks of it, I myself dropped out of the cult. None of my grand technical schemes ever came to fruition.

Plangrab, of course, ought to collect the changes for me, instead of just telling me where the changes were. It ought to do a diff, rather than just dumping the entire plan, so that I'd see only the addition. In fact, the .plans would need to be formatted differently, to make life easier for plangrab-like tools. I'd call these new files ".jot files," and I'd have a script -- "makejot" -- that would add a new datestamped jot to the end of your .jot file, ready for pickup by all your friends.

I did zero of this, and in hindsight, it's kind of funny how closely this scheme resembles the user model of the various weblogging tools (at least, in their purest, mass-market forms). Of course, one might well object that .planlogging, by not tapping into the power of the web, completely missed out on the whole point of web-logging.

But, you see, that's exactly my point today: my ideal community of .planners was independent of the Web and its technology. The artistic features of weblogs, perhaps, are closely tied to the web. And people are used to opening them in their browsers and, often, to updating them through HTML forms. But this is all beside the point. The Web was not the unique technology making such a community possible. The Web was merely the one in which that sort of a community actually did take off.

Or rather, I should say, an imitation of that sort of a community. My .jot files were view-independent: there was no layout information (other than the size of tab stops, perhaps) locked into the files. They could be shredded and merged: you'd only need to look at the latest entry in each file, and you could also see, presented at the same time, all the updates from your various .jotting friends.

Ah, the XML vision! So it is, just another one of those thoughts that I'm sure every computer geek had in those heady years without realizing its importance. But so it is, so it is, and when I think about how far the Web is from that vision right now, it makes me just want to slump back in my chair.

This is what I've realized, perhaps, from the Laboratorium thus far. I have realized that I have no interest in surfing through thirty sites in a day, typing in URLs and consulting my mental change log. And I feel sorry for helping to subject others to that experience. The Notebooks here at the Laboratorium were a stream, not a site. And using site technology to push streams at people is just plain rude.

There are all sorts of tools out there that have tried to retrofit an uncooperative Web into closer correspondence with that magic XML vision. Spyonit pings sites for you and tells you when they've updated. Deepleap aggregated wish-list items from across the web into one centrally-managed list. The PowerBloggers list ran through the raw Blogger data and extracted a cruelly ironic version of a change log. All valiant attempts, all bascially doomed from the start.

Someday, I'll see updates from all my friends and all my favorite sites, mingled together in a view whose layout I control. Someday, my email conversations with them and the thoughts I pump out through the Laboratorium will blur at their boundary. Someday I'll be able to pick a link and see what all my favorite commentators had to say about it, and to say about the other commentators' commentary, and so on. Someday, the Web will work like that. But that day will come only when some critical mass converges on a technology that tracks the underlying content amenable to such wizardry, instead of the hodge-podge of heterogeneity we have today.

I'm not declaring war on web sites, or on the artistry of web designers. Web sites are wonderful, and on good days, I still love them. But the news is not a site; a list of links is not a site; a conversation is not a site. Designers are being forced to create designs for things that shouldn't need designs, and they ought to be freed up to put their creativity where it can matter.

And as for me, well, the medium is the message.

And the message is that this isn't the right medium.

The Laboratorium is not going away. All archived content will remain available. I'm not even going to stop updating the site. I'm just abandoning this particular format, and in all honesty, I do not expect to be adding new content frequently or systematically enough for me to recommend that you check this page with any regularity.

If you wish to continue to receive Laboratorium content, send me email and I will keep you informed of any significant updates. (Please note that you wil need to delete the "spam-b-gone" from the To: field in order for this link to work). I have prepared a brief list of answers to various questions about the New Laboratorium Order.

You are reading the Laboratorium, http://www.laboratorium.net on your web browser, and this concludes our regular broadcast schedule.

Dangers of the Bargain Bin


The Life Safety Code Handbook (7th ed.), published by the National Fire Protection Association. Over a thousand pages of pure fire-code goodness, together with exegetical commentary.

Have you ever wondered how prisons reconcile the need to keep the prisoners locked in with the need to get them out of the building quickly in case of fire? Or why some apartment buildings have metal gateways at the top of the stairs leading down to the basement? Or, most importantly of all, precisely how they come up with "maximum permitted occupancy" numbers?

It's all in the Handbook. And after just a few minutes of opening it to random pages, I know that I'm going to be looking at buildings with a whole new eye from now on. I'm realizing that all sorts of architectural decisions are determined by fire code rules. Those annoying doors segmenting perfectly nice hallways in my building at work, for example: they make sense now.

The Future Cinema


I don't know whether to be more frightened that they're making Crocodile Dundee III or that Jeremy Hawke will be starring in it opposite one of the giant flesh-eating pigs from Hannibal.

Stanley Kubrick, Call Office


Have I mentioned that I'm tired of the Web? Have I said this already? I wouldn't so much say that there's nothing worth reading out there as that I'm no longer interested in reading it.

I'm sick of computer screens. Not for everything, mind you, not for everything. I'm a programmer, and if I never see another printed source code listing again, it'll be too soon. Not to deny computers their due. But specifically this: I hate reading things in such a way.

Some have said that we'll need to stop reading and start interacting and I say bullshit. Long-form text ain't going away no ways no how. And it just don't fricking work online. I'm resubscribing to my magazines, considering getting a newspaper again. It's the only reasonable way. You're just not going to convince me to read that many words on a screen if I have half a choice.

About these other modalities, well, I ent convinced. My news is half-baked and mostly consists of stories that textually include stories I read earlier in the day. My entertainment is scrambled, random, a mixture of updating schedules and when I remember to check. My intellectual stimulation is on-again off-again blah blah blah. I don't think I've gotten stupider or less involved with the world. I've just gotten bored.

There's not a weblog in the world, mine included, that I wouldn't trade for a couple of gallons of water, were I stranded on a desert island. There are thousands out there, more good ones than I can count. But I can't bring myself to go surf them.

My current rant is that I get the same damn links anywhere I go. Start with Plastic, Metafilter, and Slashdot all linking the same news story I see at every news site I hit, plus half the weblogs I read mentioning it. How damn often does this happen? Too often. Are these people in dialogue with each other? Not in the slightest.

The web consists of a huge number of people shouting and pointing at each other. The beauty of a browser is that it serves as a pair of protective earmuffs: you only hear the people you get close to. Which is fine, dandy, sure, but civic culture this ain't.

We need a monolith, some sort of radical rethinking, some sort of leap forward in what we're doing. Throw a bone in the air, and maybe a space station will come crashing back down. It's the only way I can think of. So try this one on for size.

Flip the weblog paradigm. Right now everyone points off at URLs and adds their two bits, if that much. Imagine the Talmud, as organized by commentator, and you'll see that maybe we're going at things the wrong way round. Sort things by link target, not by source. Let me see in one place what everyone interesting has said about it, rather than making me go indvidually ask everyone what they've been thinking about.

Possible. Perhaps. Although I have no idea how best to do it with existing technology. That's the damn problem, too. The web works. People have browsers, some people have servers. Retrofitters die, any way you look at it, just count the corpses. RSS maybe. Maybe some sort of plug-in that collates, spindles, folds, mutilates. I don't know. I just know we need either some technology like this, or some massive cultural shift, or there's going to be one huge-ass great big collective yawn.

Napster in the Hands of an Angry God


Looking over the latest appeals court ruling in the Napster case, I'm reminded of Jonathan Edwards's Enfield sermon:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

And there you have it. The court dangles Napster, that peer-to-peer web-spinning spider, over the fires of injunctive damnation with a look of pure loathing in its eye. And yet, almost unaccountably, the court does not let go. What is it, I wonder, that hides behind the decision to remand? What hope of salvation does the legal system still hold out to Napster's sinners? Is there room yet for repentance, for Napster to turn away from its sins and be born again into the love of legal protection? I think there is. The court is making very clear that the injunction must be targeted to the offense. Stopping piracy, it has said, does not justify shutting down Napster. If Napster refuses to do its part to stop piracy, though, now that would justify the flames.

It's a put up or shut up time for Napster: either it needs to take seriously the fact that most of its users are breaking the law, or it will surely perish. There is to be no more of this false sanctimony, the court is saying. No longer will they listen to Napster claim innocence when it comes to the crimes of its users. To dwell amongst sin is to be consumed by it. Not for nothing did Edwards end his sermon by invoking Sodom:

Let every one fly out of Sodom: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed."

Wielding a Mean Baton


There are, I think, two key requirements for conducting Mahler well. On the one hand, the extreme dynamic contrasts in his symphonies and the raw energy of his crescendoes call for a certain power. You need be able to hold the orchestra in check during the lesser explosions, so that they have a little extra oomph to give for the larger ones. (It almost goes without saying that you need to have the courage to abandon all restraint at such moments, and to inspire the orchestra with that courage). Managing this rise and fall of energy requires a sense of the big picture.

On the other hand, everything in a Mahler symphony that isn't a violent outburst, which therefore means about ninety-five percent of the music, requires the utmost local control. His entrances and exits are subtle, his orchestrations finely-calibrated, his interplay between sections of the orchestra is remarkably complex. A poorly-conducted Mahler work turns into a muddle: the parts collapse into each other and his phrases lose their shape. To get a Mahler symphony to sound right, you need to watch out for all sorts of tiny details.

Gerard Schwarz is a good Mahler conductor, but not a great one. That said, I admire him for the manner of his failure to be great, because he has the detail work down perfectly. Any fool trained in conducting can conduct a Mahler symphony loudly, but it takes real skill to conduct one cleanly. I saw Schwarz conduct the Third last year, during which the final movement was hardly as gripping as it could have been, but in which he brought the difficult first movement to compelling life. His version of the Sixth was similar: the final movement didn't have the overwhelming emotional impact I know it can have, but he did brilliantly by the first three movements, teasing some wonderful ensemble playing out of the orchestra. And as for the Kindertotenlieder which opened the program, their elegant use of a restrained palette fit his style excellently.

And as for that lack of power? It wasn't such a big deal. Benaroya Hall intrinsically compensates for such things.

Truth, Fiction, Blah Blah Blah


Paul Ford, aka Mr. FTrain, wrote Speculation: ReichOS a couple of months ago. Other than being a cute piece of metafiction, the story makes some very important points about the nature of technology by considering what the Internet would have been like had the Germans won the Second World War.

Then, today came the news that a new book alleges that IBM sold the Nazis punch-card machines, machines IBM knew would be used to track Jews sent to the concentration camps. There's very little any of us can dream up, no matter how awful, that history hasn't already thought of, it seems.

How to Hyperlink


A note to newspapers and magazines the world over: your treatment of Web addresses sucks. Think of it this way: if you needed to give a postal address in an article, would you give it formatted thusly (Bert and Ernie, c/o CTW, 123 Sesame Street, Hensonville, NY, 10305)? If your answer was "no," then why do you insist on giving hyperlinks inline (http://www.laboratorium.net/stuff/more/stuff/someurl.html)? Even publications that understand that URLs belong in footnotes don't really understand that they belong in a different font, and are ideally placed so that they don't line-wrap.

'Kay?

A Socratic Dialogue on Personal Identity


Who is Daffy Duck?

Oh, that's simple. He's black with an orange bill, shorter than Bugs, walks with his back bent forward some, given to explosive fits of temper, talks with a lisp and thinks the world of himself.

Would you say that we can talk about Daffy without needing to refer to a specific cartoon?

Yes, perfectly well. He exists independently of any given cartoon. There are plenty of cartoons with him in them, though.

So, in Ali Baba Bunny, is that Daffy Duck?

Yes, definitely. "Consequences, schmonsequences, as long as I'm rich" is definitely a Daffy line.

Even though nobody ever calls him "Daffy" in the course of the cartoon?

Sure. We all know it's him. Greedy but lovable, we know it's the same Daffy Duck. The world of the cartoon isn't complete unto itself. Daffy and Bugs are part of it, but as fully formed characters.

Hmmm. "The same Daffy Duck." Okay. So in Rabbit Seasoning, is that Daffy also?

Yes. Only Daffy would say "pronoun trouble" on the way to getting his bill shot off.

But Ali Baba Bunny ends with Daffy being shrunk and trapped in an oyster. How can that be the same Daffy as the full-size one in Rabbit Seasoning?

Oh, it's a cartoon.

Yes, but let's try to pin down exactly how the cartoon-ness works itself out. How does it being a cartoon mean that the shrunk-down Daffy can be the same Daffy as the Daffy in Rabbit Seasoning?

Cartoon characters bounce back from damage. Even between scenes they recover completely. Daffy always puts his bill back to normal between getting shot every time he messes up the pronouns, the Coyote is fine even after he falls off a cliff and gets crushed by a rock. This is the same thing: he bounces back between cartoons.

I'm not so sure that this is the "same" thing. Aren't the cross-cartoon change more severe? Like the times Daffy blows himself up to get applause? You'd agree that's the same Daffy?

Yes, certainly.

And you'd agree that in the cartoon, he's right when he says "I can only do it once?" That he certainly couldn't recover from his explosion in that cartoon?

Hmmm. Yes, I'd have to grant that. We see him in spectral form, flying up out of his devil costume with wings and a harp and a halo. It's clear that this is something more.

And yet in the next cartoon, that's the same Daffy, even though he died in the last one? Was he somehow resurrected?

I guess you could say that they're always resurrected between cartoons if they die. Sort of an extension of the complete healing from all injuries.

Quite a miracle, then. Does that make Daffy the new Messiah, rising from the dead time after time?

No. He's just a cartoon character. It's not really a rising from the dead. We don't need to worry about what happens between cartoons. It's just sort of blank space that doesn't matter. I guess I need to modify my earlier statement. Cartoons aren't the biographical records that document the existence of some kind of "real" Daffy. Daffy doesn't need to exist outside of the cartoons.

Then how can you say that it's the same Daffy in different cartoons? As I recall, your argument relied on characteristics of Daffy that transcended any specific cartoon.

Hmmm. I guess the trouble is in trying to think of cartoons as a genuine chronological document. Different cartoons with the same characters sort of coexist. Could you put a strict order on the episodes of a sitcom or the Sherlock Holmes stories? Not necessarily. It's clearly the same Daffy, but you need to think of the cartoons as starting from the same blank jumping-off point and then diverging. They all leave from the same sort of "Daffy home base," but what happens in one cartoon doesn't have to affect any other.

But how do we know what that starting point is? If none of the cartoons can affect Daffy's nature in any other, how can his characteristics carry over? Why might he not turn out to be a mild-mannered duck who tries to save Bugs from Elmer with comic ineptitude?

For the same reason he's not blue and he has the voice he does. Certain things are central to the character, and they carry over. The cartoons don't start from nothing-- they start from the same point, but one which already has Daffy's personality built in to it. That's how cartoons work-- in seven minutes, you don't have time to really introduce characters, so you start with a lot of the characteristics already built up.

Hmmm. But how do we know what those characteristics are? I mean, if I saw Don the Dingo in a cartoon tomorrow, I would have no idea what his nature was. Where does this abstracted Daffy come from?

From seeing other cartoons with Daffy in them, we already know what to expect from him. We can't directly observe this "abstracted Daffy," so we need to learn about it empirically.

Isn't that circular? Because how did we know what to expect from him in them? There had to be some point at which we met Daffy.

That's certainly true. But the first few cartoons don't necessarily work as well as later ones do. Way back when, we all watched our first few Daffy Duck cartoons, we didn't know who this duck was. But you don't need to know that to learn how he acts. So all this evidence accretes and eventually becomes associated with Daffy, and then his appearance in another cartoon, together with his first couple lines, are enough to trigger the Daffy-recognizer and you know it's him.

Fair enough. So what's the relationship between this meta-Daffy and the Daffy in individual cartoons? Is it like an actor playing different parts?

No, because an actor plays different parts, and we expect different personalities in different films. Sometimes he's a murderer, sometimes he's a cardboard good guy, sometimes he's a hunky romantic lead. Actors are more malleable; Daffy's more stuck with who he is.

Okay. So every time we see Daffy, it's definitely Daffy? He's always "playing" himself?

Yes, that's it. Which makes him recognizable from cartoon to cartoon in a way that a movie actor isn't.

But what about Duck Dodgers or Robin Hood Daffy? What's going on there? On the one hand, they're different characters, different settings, they're clearly comfortable in these roles, you believe they have an existence byond just what the cartoon shows. So the "characters" are more than just Daffy. But on the other hand, they're still extremely Daffy Duck in everything they do, to a level that goes far beyond just saying "oh, Duck Dodgers acts and looks just like Daffy Duck." They really are Daffy.

There is a tension there, sure. It's somewhere between "Daffy Duck in space clothing" and "a Daffy Duck-derived space crusader," but I don't know that there's a good metaphor for exactly what it is. It's sort of like Commedia dell'Arte, with specific stock characters in different quasi-independent plots, except that the Warner Bros. animators made up their own stock characters. Okay, sure there's a tension, but that's cartoons. And there are certain conventions that go with the genre, with having to do everything you want to do in seven minutes. One of those conventions is that you agree to remember certain personality facts about characters from cartoon to cartoon, but you also agree to forget other specifics. Sure, they slip roles on and off, but you've bought into the world in which you have to accept both Daffy and the space-duck suit as equal partners in the cartoon world.

So the scenery and the costumes and the specific details are triggers, also, the same way that seeing a familiar-looking duck is a trigger? It sounds like you're saying that both the characters and their context go through a layer of interpretation first, and that interpretation lets us set up a context in which "Daffy" has a stronger meaning than it does in the abstract. It's a more semiotic argument: that the sense of "Daffy" varies based on which cartoon frame we're using. And the cues to establish this frame are pretty simple and up-front because the cartoon has to move quickly and because it can rely on this established but looser concept of Daffy that we've borrowed from other cartoons.

That's reasonable, I think. To really see things in this perspective, I think the best example would be the one in which Bugs and Elmer are in the woods, Elmer hunting Bugs as usual, and a hat deilvery truck drives by and loses lots of hats which get blown into the air by the wind. So for the rest of the cartoon, every time a hat lands on one of them, they immediately take on the characteristics of the "usual" wearer of that hat. Game warden Bugs demands to see Elmer's hunting permit, and from there they go back and forth. As the viewer, you're completely aware that it's still Bugs and Elmer under the hats, but the transformations are still stronger than just the two of them "acting" based on the hats. And the hats are the semiotic triggers: you know what's going to happen and how they're going to act when the policeman hat and the cowboy hat come falling down.

Kind of a reflexive statement, the cartoon making fun of its own conventions?

Exactly. It's one of those wonderful moment in entertainment that's fully self-aware, and yet pulls it off without breaking stride, you don't need Porky to pop out and say "this cartoon is a-bee-a-bee-a-bee talking about itself, folks," the self-reference feeds the entertaiment.

Given all that, would you still say that it's simple to say who Daffy Duck is?

Oh, certainly. He's black with an orange bill, shorter than Bugs, walks with his back bent forward some, given to explosive fits of temper, talks with a lisp and thinks the world of himself. The only complicated part is trying to puzzle out how such a simple explanation can possibly suffice.

And yet it does?

And yet it does.

The Nakedness of it All


Site redesign hesitantly underway. I've deleted the external links for now. All seven of them have stopped doing daily updates, much as I have. They're all still great sites, but I stand in a different relation to them now, and different relations demand different designs.

I've also pulled down my Amazon paybox and associated cookie-demonstration box. Experiment concluded; I feel I've made my point. To my own shock, some four people actually used it to send me money. While I didn't come any where near my goal of $843,709, I will be writing a check for $13.36 to Oxfam.

I actually removed the JScript navigation feature from the navbar a few weeks ago. Since nobody complained, or even commented, I'm assuming it's not much missed.

In terms of where I'm going with this, readability is still not where I'd like it to be. I'm committed to delivering reasonably long-form writings through the web, and I'd like to make the experience of reading through a long paragraph to be more pleasant. Getting rid of some of the extraneous whitespace should help. Refonting may also be on the agenda. I'd also like to bring the technical writings and the fiction back.

Six Kinds of Sentences


Two years ago, Richard Powers did a rare author appearance in New York. I got doubly lucky by attending, as Rick Moody was also in the audience, writing a review of Gain. Moody was very much the hipster: he had flopsy, bleached-blond hair, black plastic-rimmed glasses, and a loose, brightly-patterned shirt.

Well, he was at Elliott Bay today, and I didn't recognize him. His hair is close-cropped and undyed and he was turned out in a demure button-down shirt with a dark grey sweater. It's odd. It's not as though the drugs or sex have left his fiction. If anything, his metaphors are more ambitously strange, his stylistic tics more pronounced. He reads like an author who ought to have bleached-blond hair.

Have I mentioned that I expect death around every turn, that every blue sky has a safe sailing out of it, that every bus runs me over, that every low, mean syllable uttered in my direction seems to intimate the violence of murder, that every family seems like an opportunity for ruin and every marriage a ceremony into which calamity will fall and hearts will be broken and lives destroyed and people branded by the mortifications of love? Is it all right if I ask you all of this?

In this city of the Ruin, an entire manufacturing run of human beings was completed, Jorge said, and then the molds were all used two, three, maybe four times, to save money on newer molds, and if you are lucky you never meet your own double. If you're lucky.

This one's about the stuff that Lucy said. Lucy, a woman I knew once. Lucy, who took seventy hits of acid in one day and, in a way, lived to tell. She'd been living in a squat in Burlington, Vermont, when she did it. Living like a runaway. The source of the drugs is unimportant. They were available. Lucy took the poison and meandered along the streets, meandering until it kicked in, until its contingency was her contingency.

C is for Cookie


I was surprised at Amazon's Paypages initiative. Not so much as at the ideas behind it -- I'm all for micropayments, and Amazon clearly already had the infrastructure with zShops -- as at the way they chose to create payboxes. In particular, it stunned me that they were willing to let other users put images on their sites that would greet visitors by name. That they would then let people customize the boxes with any text they wanted came as no less a surprise. Phrased in the right way, the privacy implications sort of jump right out at you.

Amazon has, it turns out, implemented their cookies in a reasonably (for cookies, that is) non-invasive way. They don't know the exact URL tht you hit: the only information they get is that you're looking at a page I created. Given that they're trying to match interests, rather than target third-party advertising, this is reasonable. More importantly, they don't share this information with me. There's no way for me to get at the information from their database.

[Digression on the security issues. Ordinarily, web pages can only talk to objects on the same "domain" as themselves. The Laboratorium is a domain (as in "domain name"); so is Amazon. Exceptions are made for images -- thus, I can serve up, as part of my page, an image that comes from one of Amazon's server. However, there is no way for any script that I write in my web page to access the actual contents of that image. All I can get at is the URL you loaded it from -- but I knew that much already, since I wrote it into the source of my page. The image's details -- including your name -- remain a matter strictly between you, your browser's rendering engine, and Amazon.]

That said, the only significant difference between me and Amazon in terms of privacy is that Amazon has a much bigger and more comprehensive customer information database. To illustrate the point that the Laboratorium could have, should it so desire, as rich a privacy-invading infrastucture as Amazon, that little text box on the left will store your data from session to session. Type something in there and navigate away. Hell, type something in there and turn your computer off. When you come back, so will it. Think of that as your name, email, and credit card number, imagine similar little "boxes" hidden in every web page you visit (invisible to you, often) and recording every page you see, and imagine the consequences. [Tested under IE 5 and nothing else.]

Okay? Well, there are lots of companies out there doing exactly that Doubleclick is the most famous, but not the only one. They're tracking your surfing; they're correlating your data from one visit to the next. We've all known this intellectually for a while. It's just that Amazon's payboxes make this state of affairs a lot more explicit than Doubleclick's banner ads did, because it's staring you right in the face that someone out there knows who you are and what you're up to

Amazon's experiment is also an amazing test case because Amazon does give you things of real for giving up some of your privacy. Those recommendations and similar items their site offers you? Culled from their database of your transactions? The convenience of one-click ordering? It works because they know who you are, where you live, and how good your credit is, all from that single click. The fact is that Amazon is more convenient for micropayments now than any other solution out there. This is privacy intrusion done right: it's opt-in, since they know nothing until you tell them, there's no leaking of data, since they don't let third parties see the cookies, and they really do make your online shopping experience simpler by leveraging the cookies.

This is it. It's decision time out on the electronic frontier. Are you comfortable with the web as a place where everybody knows your name? Say "yes," and the web's a small town: the shopkeepers wave to you as you walk past, your neighbors are always there with a friendly word, and the sheriff knows where you were, late last night. Say "no," and the web's a big city: a slightly colder place, where nobody quite seems to recognize you, but also where you can escape the prying eyes and constant whispers. What's it to be?

O Tempora, O Mores


For most of the stuff that Doctor Demento can't play on the radio, the reasoning is kind of obvious, if sometimes stupid. Can't play profanity, can't play the farting contest, can't play sexual double entendres when the message is feminist. But who would have thought that an old Arthur Godfrey tune from 1948 would make the no-play list?

Well, times change. And while Slap 'Er Down Again, Paw may have been just some charming hillbilly humor back in '48, these days, domestic violence doesn't go over as well (Southern jokes are a little trickier, but not impossible to get away with).

Taken on its own terms, the song isn't especially hilarious. In this, the post-Deliverance world, hillbillies aren't intrinsically funny any more, and not even the nostalgic retrospective aura that attaches to old-fashioned humor is enough to turn it into a song as funny as the other stuff the good Doctor has in his archives. Instead, most of the song's humor these days, I think, derives from the image of Mr. and Mrs. Middle America and their middle-American kids huddled around the radio, listening to the chorus gleefully telling Paw to slap their sister around.

Okay, so Eminem has a potty mouth, and people today sing about things much much worse than a mere slapping, but still -- at least such stuff sells itself as edgy, as rebellious, as out there to shock. This much alone indicates the capacity for shock, implies that there are certain standards American society by and large upholds. It's the stuff that passes without question that really tells you where the deviancy threshold is set. And when it comes to violence within the family, at least, we've made some progress. You can't listen to "Slap 'Er Down Again, Paw" without wincing a little, and part of that wince is on behalf of an older America that didn't wince. Not everything cultural is downward and degraded.

Contractual Obligation


(I got the backstory on this one from Dr. Demento)

In 1970, the Rolling Stones were under contractual obligation to provide Decca with another single.

Mick Jagger figured that "Cocksucker Blues" (RealAudio link) would get them out of their contract without any risk of the single actually being released to radio stations.

He was right.

The great part is that it's a damn good song; Jagger manages to make his voice sound uncannily like a plaintive harmonica. The Stones knew their blues, and there's something in the simple and raw profanity of "Cocksucker Blues" that gets right to the heart of the blues.

Rarely has a record label been told to go fuck itself more literally or with more style.

Four Hours is Too Long For a Meeting


Paul: That magic cloud is my life right now.

Me: He's right: you have to pull the data out of it. The cow doesn't squirt milk at the farmer.

Extracts from a Work in Progress


(occasioned by the bad news about Blogger)

"Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?" (Philip Roth, American Pastoral)

I wonder if someday American historical mythology will see the laid-off dot-commers as it now sees Vietnam veterans: brave and inexperienced youths doing draining and hopeless work in a questionable lost cause, who emerged from their trauma to face a hostile public spitting in their faces and blaming them for all the evils of their commanders.

Who, in the end, really deserves to be brought low? Look closely at the cheering from the peanut gallery every time a big name domain name tanks, and you will find something oddly circular about the rhetoric. Why are dot-coms loathsome? Because they're get-rich-quick schemes, because they work their employees to the bone, because they're losing money for the hopeful investors who bought stock, because their business models were unsustainable. All true, grant, but where is the offense in any of this, which of these crimes is so especially heinous, in this day and age of widespread heinousness, that the dot-coms are the number-one candidates for a little humble pie?

There was a magical moment when investors could be persuaded to part with their money in order to fund Humane Workplaces with a scheme for changing the world. The disillusionment has been twofold. In the first place, it was discovered that even the Humane Workplaces whose schemes did change the world didn't seem to be making very much money at it. And in the second place, those investors proved to be much less interested in changing the world or in the quality of the workplace than in making a great deal of money very quickly. Go ahead, take that risk, society had said, in that curious way society has of saying things, with a wink and a nod giving you to know that there was no risk at all. And now, you were finding out exactly what it was like to take that risk and lose everything you had staked. It is true, that you did not stake your life or your health or all prospect of happiness ever, but this is small consolation when you realize that the bully's surprise offer of friendship was meant merely to distract you while his underling snuck up behind you.