The Laboratorium
January 2003

Dead Presidents

You find the strangest things when you read through laws. For example, you learn the U.S. won't grant a trademark that

[c]onsists of or comprises a name, portrait, or signature identifying a particular living individual except by his written consent, or the name, signature, or portrait of a deceased President of the United States during the life of his widow, if any, except by the written consent of his widow.

15 U.S.C. § 1052(c). I had no idea that the Presidential widows' lobby was that strong.

The Reviews Are In

Well, my first exam came back today. The professor's comment: "Interesting but eccentric in a way that defies conventional analysis (or grades)." While I don't think that "eccentric" was meant as a compliment, I'll take it as one. The comment about grades is more interesting. Let's count the layers of irony.

Zero: in law school, your grade typically depends entirely on your final exam.

One: even though this is a law school, we don't have grades in our first term here. Everyone gets a pass.

Two: even though we don't have grades in the first semester, we do have final exams.

Three: even though the exams aren't officially graded, some professors give shadow grades on first-term exams -- the grades you would have gotten had the exam been officially graded.

Four: even though my professor decided to give out shadow grades, my exam "defies conventional . . . grades."

Five: even though my exam "defies conventional . . . grades," that didn't stop him from pencilling in a shadow grade. It wasn't on the first page (where everyone else's was written), but on the fourth.

And said grade? Well, that brings my count to six: said grade was a pass.

The Door Test

There are two kinds of people in this world, and you can tell them apart by the way they enter or leave a class in session.

Some people close the door behind them quietly. On the day of the Rapture, these will be the people who are taken bodily up into Heaven.

And then there are the people who step away from the door without a second thought. Behind them, halway chatter flows in through the open door, until it shuts with a loud slam. The torments they will suffer in the afterlife cannot be numbered.

Rogues’ Gallery

Jack BalkinWayne KnightMichael Moore

From left: Jack Balkin, Wayne Knight, and Michael Moore.

On Being Uncool

Tired of being cold, I moved the bed from off of the heating vent. Of course, given the layout of my bedroom, this means that access to the bathroom is now somewhat restricted. Only the svelte can squeeze through.

On the positive side, though, the lack-of-heat problem has gone away. There is no longer a dramatic temperature gradient between the living room and the bedroom.

And there was much rejoicing.

All Is Not Darkness

In the interests of counterbalancing the vindictive streak of that last post, allow me to point you to George Saunders's short story in the latest New Yorker.

I've been ranting for a while about the modern tendency to use images from the media, advertising in particular, to mediate one's own existence. In "Jon," Saunders has a go at this theme, and I'd say he nails it. The story is deadpan, deep, and disturbing all at once. Saunders specializes in this combination, and I don't think anyone does it better.

The Blind Admitting the Blind

William F. Buckley had an op-ed in yesterday's Times that was so disjointed I'm surprised they ran it. The cynic in me thinks it ran to defuse Mickey Kaus's constant accusations of liberal bias at the House of Raines. The super-cynic in me thinks it ran as part of the Raines agenda. After all, if the Times is on a crusade to show that conservatives are idiots, what better way than to let an especially famous conservative blabber incoherently in your pages?

I think the point of the piece is that alumni preferences in college admissions should be left alone, or perhaps that alumni preferences are more defensible than racial ones. It's hard to tell, becuase Buckley gets lost in some very odd digressions. Let's do this paragraph-by-paragraph; the piece is dense with dizziness.

The dean of admissions at Harvard, William Fitzsimmons, has defended so-called legacy allowances with heroic attention to data. He told The Wall Street Journal that he read personally "all applications from children of alumni," which last year amounted to (an astonishing) 727. How heavy was the edge given to these applicants? Oh, not much: The average SAT score of legacies admitted is just two points below the school's overall average.

Start with the whole focus of the article. Ask any college admissions officer off the record and over a drink and you will learn that alumni preferences are insignificant. What matters is the large donation preference. Many colleges have specific dollar figures in mind. Alums want their kids to go to theit college, they have often established giving records already, they have an edge in knowing who to talk to when they "make the case" for their children.

On this point, at least, Buckley is no more off the mark than most people who talk about the rich alumni preference while eliding the "rich." It's a common habit. We can afford to be generous with him here, for he will be so generous with us later in his piece.

But how does he justify any preferment at all? Well, alumni recruit students, raise money and "often bring a special kind of loyalty and enthusiasm for life at the college that makes a real difference in the college climate," he said.

Ok, sure, but what's the connection? What does alumni enthusiasm have to do with admissions preferences for their kids? Is it that alumni parents are more enthusiastic than other parents? In which case, if this justification works, why not make the money-for-admissions trade openly? And if recruiting by alumni is so important, how about an open recruiting-for-admissions trade? That such deals aren't made openly is a sign that they violate general social values. At the very least, we need to believe that the deal isn't quite quid pro quo.

Or is it that the Williams, Fitzsimmons and Buckley, are talking here about the children of alumni? That's the only way I can make sense of the "loyalty and enthusiasm" remark. But that would be saying that colleges find that alumni brats are more enthusiastic about college than other students, and that they have no more effective way of estimating that enthusiasm than slapping on a uniform alumni preference. I'm skeptical.

Defensiveness in the matter of legacies is in high gear with the coming Supreme Court arguments over affirmative action at the University of Michigan. Critics are taking the line that legacy preferences are a form of affirmative action that should not be permitted.

I can think of three groups of critics, of whom only one subscribes to this belief. ("Taking the line? Sounds like a mixed metaphor to me.)

  • Most pure meritocrats think that only objective test scores and other direct measures of applicant "quality" should matter for admissions. Thus, as a matter of course, they oppose race-based preferences and alumni preferences equally.
  • Many liberals and some libertarians see nothing wrong with either race-based or alumni preferences. They just think that both should stand or fall together.
  • And many perverse-minded folk such as myself think that legacy preferences should be ended, but not because they constitute affirmative action. "Affirmative action" is a ridiculous term to apply to legacy preferences, since the point of affirmative action is to help the members of disadvantaged groups.

Onwards and downwards.

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, a Democratic presidential hopeful, has complained that legacy preference "is a birthright out of 18th century British aristocracy, not 21st century American democracy." Well, if you're going to use that kind of language, the United States Senate in which Mr. Edwards resides, however restively, can be denounced as a birthright out of the House of Lords. It isn't very democratic that North Carolina, with a population of eight million, should have as many votes in the Senate as California, with its population of 34 million. So should we leave it that some legacies are O.K.?

Abolish the Senate? Okay by me.

More to the point, you can say that membership in the Senate constitutes a "birthright" or a "legacy" only by doing violence to those terms. The Senate as an institution is a legacy; it's hardly one to its members. And I don't see how the Senate can be considered a "birthright" by any stretch of the imagination. True, it is anti-democratic. But being anti-democratic is not the same as being aristocratic. Judicial review, federalism, and requiring three-fourths of the states for a constitutional amendment are "anti-democratic," too. Are they "legacies?" I don't think so.

Besides, if you object to being under-represented in the Senate, you can always move to a less populous state.

Doubly besides, this paragraph has nothing to do with the rest of the op-ed. I blame cut-and-paste.

So what is the argument for convincing Harvard how it might achieve greater happiness if a new civil rights bill were devised forbidding the least advantage to an applicant at Daddy's college?

Watch this paragraph closely. We'll come back to it later.

Senator Bob Dole, no less, in 1990 called legacy preference an "unfair advantage" for children of "wealthy contributors." One thinks of a lot of advantages children of wealthy parents have. He asked the Office of Civil Rights whether such a practice was illegal under the l964 Civil Rights Act; legacy preferences are not, he was informed, illegal.

I'm not sure what that second sentence is supposed to be doing here. Is Buckley suggesting that because the children of the wealthy have many other advantages, an additional advantage in college admissions is fine?

Are they deplorable? In 1961, C. Vann Woodward, the groundbreaking historian of the American South, was lured to Yale from Johns Hopkins. He became a Sterling Professor. In 2000, Yale created an association of Sterling Fellows. You become one if you contribute a million dollars to Yale.

Whoa! Talk about left field. Perhaps Buckley is proud that his alma mater landed such a famous catch. Perhaps he's a secret Sterling Fellow. Does this little story have anything to do with legacy preferences? Let's see.

In enticing Mr. Woodward to Yale, there was no perceptible gain to American education. There were bright students at Johns Hopkins who no longer could study under Mr. Woodward. And he could have pursued his studies in Baltimore as readily as in New Haven. But Yale wanted a feather in its cap, and got it; and gifts to the students like this are made possible by people like the Sterling Fellows, most of whom, as one would expect, assume that children of Old Boys will be given some sort of special regard.

That first sentence is the kind of thing that no one who believes in free-market capitalism should ever utter. You could equally well say that when a Coke drinker switches to Pepsi, there is no perceptible gain to American thirst-quenching. If you belive in the power of markets to work overall good, you have to believe that the average transaction results in a "gain." Isn't that the point of trusting people and institutions to make their own decisions?

That last sentence is a howler, too. After all, you don't need to be an alumnus to be a Sterling Fellow. Conversely, this discussion of Sterling Fellows would suggest that there are alumni and then there are alumni, and that only the latter really matter in the admissions equation. Not everyone with a Yale degree is an Old Boy.

The percentage of legacy admissions reflects competition. In 1940, 29 percent of the incoming class had Yale fathers. In 1971, it was 14 percent. Today in most Ivy League colleges, it's 10 to 15 percent legacies. The University of Michigan has a 150-point scale by which to judge applicants. The bonus given to children and stepchildren of alumni is four points. One point if your grandfather went there. Applicants from minority families get 20 points.

The University of Michigan, it should be noted, is not an Ivy. It is a large state school, several times larger than tany Ivy. Bakke's wishful thinking aside, schools like Michigan use numerical admissions scales out of sheer necessity. State schools give enormous in-state preferences and are substantially less dependant on alumni giving than private colleges.

Of course, on my explanation, the relative smallness of the preference given to legacies qua legacies makes perfect sense: it's the alumni donors who matter. And, of course, just as the argument that minority preferences are intrinsically wrong doesn't depend on the size of the preference, the size of the alumni preference is irrelevant to its critics. Any such preference is invalid, goes the reasoning.

It feels almost gratuitous to pick on structure, but did you notice that this paragraph doesn't particularly flow from its predecessor, nor does it have any logical connection to its sucessor?

Harvard's business should be its own, though it is not safe to say that our business isn't thought by Harvard to be its concern. There are tribal instincts in life, colleges and universities are part of life, and nobody has proved that any harm whatever has been done by private colleges writing their own admissions policies, as long as they don't illegally discriminate against anyone, black or white.

Remember when I told you to "watch this paragraph?" Now might be a good time to go back and read it. Okay? Good.

Now, this is kind of funny, but I remember that back up there, Buckley was saying that we shouldn't change the law to stop legacy preferences. Whereas, down here, he's saying that Harvard should be free to give legacy preferences, as long as they aren't illegal. Put them together and you have an argument that legacy preferences shouldn't be outlawed because legacy preferences are legal. Gosh, with that kind of reasoning, we shouldn't have passed the Civil Rights Act in the first place. In fact, hell, Buckley's argument would take care of the Thirteenth Amendment (after all, slavery was legal when it was passed) and the whole Bill of Rights, along with the Constitution. You have to start somewhere.

We should not let the logical flaws blind us, however, to Buckley's laughable prose. That first sentence reminds me of nothing so much as Bilbo's farewell speech ("I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve"). The second sentence is just strange, though. "Tribal instincts" is not what I would think of as a rhetorical winner of a phrase. Appeals to tribalism tend to go over better when disguised.

Speaking more generally about Buckley's odd apology for alumni preferences, I'd like to point out that alumni preferences and racial preferences aren't entirely orthogonal. Given that blacks and other racial minorities have been historically under-represented in college admissions, any preference for alumni will be de facto racially discriminatory. To the extent that this preference aligns with wealth and donations, the discrimination will be even worse.

Alumni preferences are grandfather clauses in disguise.

The Time of Our Singing

Unfortunately, exams interrupted my plan to sit down and crank through The Time of Our Singing (see below). But now that exams are over, the plan has been plun. Herewith, a brief review.

When you pick up a Richard Powers novel, you can expect certain things. There will be complicated puns that turn familiar metaphors inside out. There will be hyper-intelligent characters engaging in dazzling repartee. There will be an insistent moral question endlessly repeated until its full force breaks open your heart and your mind (see the lastest sidebar quotes for examples). And Powers the polymath will be displaying his emotional brand of erudtion on some new but well-researched subjects.

The Time of Our Singing is about music and race. The former is a familiar Powers theme. Pun fully intended -- this is Richard Powers, after all. The Gold Bug Variations was his music novel -- but then again, it was also a science novel, and he redid the science thing with Plowing the Dark, so I guess he can take the repeat when it comes to music. I'll stop now with the puns, I promise.

Race, though, is (mostly) a new subject for Powers, and he does well with it. The novel follows the musically-talented children of a mixed-race couple through the turmoil of the last half-century, with digressions to tell their parents' and grandparents' stories. Something in the rhythm of the way Powers parcels out the racial slights and shocks has remarkable power. You're left with a vivid sense of the toll that their parents' optimism leaves on his leads, the way that the experience of race consists mainly of new ways in which to be hurt.

But The Time of Our Singing falls down in many ways, too -- more so than the usual Powers novel. He has a persistent problem with flat characters; none of the characters whose personalities should be carrying this novel ever really jumps off of the page. His research shows in places, more than usual. And the pacing is all wrong.

The Time of Our Singing is a fat novel, six-hundred pages plus. The first half is stately, solemn, steady. But the second half picks up steam until it is positively racing. I think either style could work; he's certainly managed to make both styles work in the past. But they fit poorly together. I found myself repeatedly wishing he'd slow down and give the later incidents the same loving attention he gave the earlier ones. Scenes that would have run out ten pages at the opening of the novel only get one by the end. Events feel trivialized; characters feel slighted. Moments of great dramatic impact feel rushed.

Would better editing have helped? I don't know. Yes, I suppose an editor could have told him that the pace was inconsistent. But it's hard for me to see what he could have done about it. The book has a structural logic behind it; Powers jumps back and forth in time according to a plan that makes great thematic sense. Unfortunately, this plan doesn't leave much room for extended narrative near the end of the book. The events in the last hundred pages are a kind of coda, and the structure of the book would go awry if the pace were consistent. The author of this book wrote himself into a kind of corner, I suppose. It would take a Richard Powers, at least, to be able to write his way out of it.

Even so, the very end of the book -- the last few pages -- are stunning. All at once you see the trick Powers is playing -- and just how much of the novel has been leading up to this moment. I knew that Powers was a fan of parallel plot lines that unexpectedly converge, but I didn't think this was one of those novels. And it's not, but he pulls something off that's just as astonishing. It's a thematically perfect resolution, in about six different ways.

The Time of Our Singing is by no means Powers's best novel; I wouldn't even rank it above his median. But mediocre for Powers is still excellent by any absolute standard. If the novel were a concert, you'd be on your feet applauding as soon as the last note was sounded.

ALife Will Arise

Some night, a life will arise that has no memory of where it came from, no thought of anything that has happened on the way here. No theft, no slavery, no murder. Something will be won then, and much will be lost, in the death of time. But this night is not yet that night.

-- Richard Powers

Cultures Bonfire

Culture was whatever survived its own bonfire. Whatever you held on to when nothing else worked. And then, it didn't, either.

-- Richard Powers

Keeping It Real

This past weekend, I took part in the MIT Mystery Hunt. This year's Hunt was especially good (even if it was also brutally long): its Matrix theme was amusing and many of the puzzles were remarkably elegant. My team was scattered across the country, so I took a few puzzles and worked on them largely on my own. The best of the lot were the two invented-language puzzles. One involved some clever mutated genealogy; the other involved making an exhaustive list of a quarter million fictitious road signs and finding the one sign missing from that list.

Nastare suldi gruto ot py magi gruto ot pe mage uyta pe drel mala!

Anyway, faced with this sort of exhaustive enumeration, coding is the only real answer. I wrote a Perl script (it took me about four hours, which was more than I hoped but less than I feared) which cranked out about a hundred megabytes of detailed sign descriptions in roughly two minutes running time. It would have been fun -- and probably more efficient -- to use Prolog, but it's hard to beat Perl for pure pragmatic practicality when the chips are down.

True, I had to ask a few basic Perl questions of my teammates (and of the Internet), but on the whole, it was good to be programming again. It's like exercise; there's a real pleasure in the muscle memory, as it were. I like finding excuses to do some coding, even though I'd only go back to programming professionally under substantial duress. Programming is my way of keeping it real, of staying in touch with my roots. It's a reminder of why I got into law in the first place; it's a way of keeping up my street cred in the law and technology world.

As a law student, I like being a former programmer. There are certain habits of mind that one acquires from computer science, and I find that these habits serve me well.

  • Every protocol was made to be broken.
  • Look for the corner case.
  • A language is only meaningful in a particular context.
  • Precision of expression matters.
  • Design is harder and subtler than it looks.
  • Make a model; draw a picture.
  • Comment your code.
  • Keep your feet on the floor and keep your elbows at ninety-degree angles.
  • The right choice of notation can help you structure your thinking, but notation is ultimately irrelevant to the underlying problem.
  • Look for trouble at boundaries.
  • Keep your interfaces clean.
  • Early design decisions have a way of locking themselves in.
  • Patterns, patterns, patterns.
  • Sometimes you need a quick hack; sometimes you should take the time to do it right. It all depends.
  • If you don't have the tool you need, invent it.

Taken together, these rules form a kind of rough-and-ready characterization of computer science, the most pragmatic intellectual discipline on earth.

Talking about the mental habits of different fields of study is a parlor game, much like discussing whether Russia is a European or Asiatic society, whether Python or Perl is a better scripting language, or what the differences between men and women really are. One shouldn't read too much into the sweeping generalizations that result (another lesson of computer science: beware of sweeping generalizations). All the same, there's a kernel of truth here.

Mathematicians love abstraction and beauty. Physicists want to know how things work. Historians look for narratives; engineers know what happens if you don't dot your is and cross your ts. But computer scientists are the ones who don't have a set methodology. We're mercenaries. Faced with a problem, we do whatever it takes to find a solution, or at least a klugy workaround. True, we mumble various claims about elegance, but it's remarkable how many things have come to be considered "elegant" that started off life as a knife in the back of the genuinely "elegant" solution. Today's bug is tomorrow's feature, and vice-versa.

Of course, this venality has its downsides. The "just ship it" mentality is in large part responsible for the sorry state of software and security today. And computer science, taken as an academic field, is a giant blob of jelly. It has no real structure, no core set of skills, knowledge, or principles to define it. The field is just a mess of overlapping specialties, each organized around a particular complex of problems and their customary solutions. Each Next Big Thing is just another accretion on the tarball.

To some extent, though, the hideous mess that is at the center of computer science is part of its appeal. You have to enjoy the grimy details; you have to have some ability to be amazed by the complex interlockings of rules that almost -- but not quite -- fit together. The pragmatism of computer science is a form of intellectual triage; you learn to size up a failed solution to an intractable problem and spot the parts worth saving, the parts worth revisiting, and the parts worth abandoning entirely. True, you won't solve the problem either, but at least you can do some good in the attempt.

The Angry Horn

The problem with car horns is that they play too many different roles. Sometimes you want to get someone's attention. Somtimes you want to express approval of something you're driving by. And sometimes you want to tell that road hog to get out of your way before you Bigfoot his slowpoke ass into the pavement. We use the same button and the same sound for all of these; we shouldn't have to.

I propose that the car horn's functionality be split among two distinct noises. On the one hand, there would be the Happy Horn. It would make a cheerful, major-triad sound, one reminiscent of floppy-eared puppies and the Hallelujah Chorus. Parents picking their kids up at school would use the Happy Horn. The Happy Horn would be a gentle touch pad with a smiley face on it, or maybe a flower.

And then there would be the Angry Horn. The Angry Horn wouldn't respond to light touches. You'd have to pound it to make it go off, but when it did sound, Katie bar the door. I'm thinking of foghorns, machine-guns, and rampaging elephants. Imagine the sonic equivalent of Mike Tyson and there you go.

The Sargasso Sock

It is colder here than I can ever remember it being anywhere. Perhaps this is only because I bike to school now and can't wear a hat at the same time as I wear my bike helmet. I can't objectively compare the temperature here to the temperature anywhere else because I have no ability to remember numerical temperatures. I'm perfectly capable of watching a weather report and forgetting everything within thirty seconds. I know what warm, cool, cold, bitterly cold, and insanely frigid feel like, but I couldn't match them with numbers.

My theomostat claims that it's about 68 inside. When I keep it set there, I'm comfortable, so long as I wear two pairs of socks. I don't know if it's actually 68: with an analog slider for a control, the absolute temperature is much less important than my relative ability turn the heat up or turn it down. At night, I take it down to 55 or so, near the bottom end of the scale.

More importantly, due to the odd arrangement of my bedroom, the only place that the bed can possibly go is directly on top of the room's hot-air vent. Anywhere else would block access to the main room or to the bathroom. As a result, the bedroom is never warm. There are times when it is not cold, but it never crosses into actual warmth. At night, when the heat is effectively off, it becomes especially cold as the heat leaks out through the seven extra-tall windows.

In consequence, I wear my socks when I turn in for the night. Once I'm properly cocooned and the bed warms up, they're less necessary. I never consciously take them off, but I usually wake up to discover that I'm no longer wearing socks. Since I'm also usually tired and spacey when I awake, I don't bother finding them again, unless their location is obvious -- clutched tight, one in each fist, for example.

When I do laundry, then, one of the key requirements is that I scour the bed for socks. I found six today.

You Heard it Here First

Well, second, if you read InstaPundit.

Harry Potter No. 5 is coming in July.

Google Strikes Back

I have a piece up at LawMeme on the SearchKing v. Google lawsuit. Google has just filed a reply, and it's a doozy.

Don't worry: the article itself supplies all the necesssary context.

Lord of the Racists

Tim's lastest post is a quote from a Jonah Goldberg essay on The Two Towers. (Hey, Tim! I want to give you a sidebar link, but I can't figure out what to call you in the link text. "Tim?" But that makes me think of Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. "The Fog of Warre?" I'd do that if I were certain that were the actual name of your blog and I knew what it meant. "Timschnabel?" You folks with eponymous URLs are tough.)

The critics who got worked up about the bugs in Starship Troopers and the Orcs and Uruk-hai in The Lord of the Rings fret over the explicit "dehumanizing of the enemy" involved in these respective stories quite a bit. What they leave out is that the enemies aren't humans being unfairly mischaracterized the way the Japanese were in World War II posters. The enemies in these movies are, in fact, non-human. As a moral proposition I'm as against genocide as the next guy, but I do hold out the caveat that if mankind is attacked by 99.5-percent pure-evil Orcs, or, say, skyscraper-sized dung beetles, I might change my views

The reply to this one is obvious. Of course Uruk-hai aren't human; they're elves! True, the point gets elided in the movies, but the back-story from the books is that orcs were bred from elves who had the misfortune to be captured by the bad guys. So this puts us in a bit of a bind, if we want to accept Goldberg's reasoning, because it's no longer possible to use humanity as the dividing line without it being a good idea to chop off Elrond's head, too.

Once we take humanity out of the picture as our head-chopping rationale, we're left with "99.5-percent pure evil" as the morally-significant criterion. Unfortunately, this leaves Goldberg only .5 percent away from advancing the morally near-vacuous statement that it's okay to hate pure evil. That said, this particular correction leaves his opponents advancing the morally near-preposterous proposition that it's not okay to hate nearly pure evil. I'll hold my nose and go with Goldberg, here.

Yes, you're being preached at when you go see The Two Towers. But the preaching is so abstract that it's hard to get much traction on real-world issues one way or the other. I've heard people come out of it claiming that it's pro-Western propadanda, and also that it's anti-Western propaganda. Perhaps it's neither. To the extent that it's true, I happen to think this is a good thing. But it does lead to some very odd moments, points at which you can almost see the filmmakers doing their utmost to avoid inadvertently saying something.

For example, Tolkien described the Haradim, a race of humans who picked the losing side (i.e. evil) in the big war, as "swarthy," probably with something somewhere between North, East, and West African in mind. In the movie, they're clearly Caucasian underneath their face masks. It wouldn't do to have the good guys be white and the bad guys be black, after all. Which leaves the movie in the odd position of making even the black people white.

Carissa’s Wow

Carissa's Wierd is the best band in the world. I first saw them two years back, in Seatte, and proceeded to go to every show they played for the next year. While I'm a sucker for violin rock in general, Carissa's Wierd is special. They've found that secret point at which lonliness becomes comfort and sorrow turns to salvation.

Everyone I could talk into checking them out fell just as deeply in love with them as I did. Their following was small, but insanely loyal. The local alternative paper pimped for them shamelessly. And it looks like all of this hard work is paying off -- they're kicking off a national tour, and their new album is getting national distribution (I've seen it in a record store in Maryland, too).

It is your duty to buy this album right now. I suggest that you buy it here; other than getting it at a show (national tour coming soon!), this is the best way to kick back maximal royalties to the Wierdsters. (Last I heard, Jenn and Mat, the band's singer-songwriter-souls were working washing dishes at Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen, itself a fine establishment, so they could use the money). You won't regret it. Their earlier two albums are also excellent, if somewhat harder to obtain (as is Jenn's fine solo album). But you could try calling Sonic Boom Records.

If you believe in trying before you buy, their new label, Sad Robot Records has a few of their songs up as MP3s; they also recorded a great live performance on KCMU, I mean KEXP, a few months ago. I'll post details of their tour schedule as soon as Sad Robot puts them up; if you're in a city on their route, it's your moral obligation to attend.

Honestly, words are failing me here. I'd like to take each and every one of you by the lapels and shout the praises of Carissa's Wierd at you, except that if Carissa's Wierd is about anything, shouting is not it. But if you click on one link from the Lab this year, let it be from this story. I think that that first concert of theirs may have been the event that convinced me that Seattle was destined to be my home. What might their music do for you?

And, oh, yes, the spelling is deliberate.

Library Parasites

The other big idea from New Year's Eve is a new technique for unbanning books. Is your local library run by technocrats or a censorious school board? Having trouble finding your Atwood or your Salinger on the shelves? Then perhaps you should take matters into your own hands and help the library's reshelvers do their job.

Just buy a copy of the book you'd like to "donate" to your library. First, confirm that the book really is barred for political reasons, rather than budgetary ones. If the only reason you can't find Huck Finn is that the last copy was stolen and the next one is on order, you can just turn over the fresh new copy to a grateful book-loving librarian and go home happy. (This trick may even work if the Forces of Illiteracy only barred the librarians from purchasing "subversive" literature.)

Okay. What you need to do next is make your book look like it belongs. Find out what call number system your library uses; observe how it binds its books; determine what physical trappings (cards, bar codes, etc.) of library-book-ness it employs. Make your book belong, more or less. In particular, get the call number on the spine right.

Next, write up a little note, to be placed inside the front cover of your book so that it will fall out whenevery anyone picks up the book. This note should explain to a curious reader that the book they are holding has been banned. It should tell them who is responsible for this act of censorship and how to voice their oposition. And it should go on to explain that this book is not to be checked out normally. Instead, it should be taken home, read and savored, and then returned to its proper place on the shelf. Honor system.

And there you go. Parasitic library books. Observe, if you please, that it is wholly impratical for a library to remove these parasites, for the simple reason that it is impossible to find the handful of ringers among thousands of genuine volumes without taking down and flipping through every single book.

Now, you may object that this system leaves parasitic library patrons with no way of finding the samizdat. Not true at all. Browsers will find them. So, too, will people who go to the right place on the shelves without first bothering to check the catalog. If your library still uses cards, it's the easiest thing in the world to slip a parasitic card into the drawer.

And if not, why not make a web site that "lists" the volumes you've smuggled in? I say "lists," rather than lists, because the last thing you can afford to do is supply the oppressors with a list of the books you've snuck past their border guards. Instead, you let them do a yes-no query against the list; the query says either "yes, it's there if you go to the shelf" or "no, it's not there, but I'll put it there soon."

From there, it's a simple matter to add a "check-out" system and let your readers notify other readers that they have a particular volume out on unofficial loan. Perhaps a system for reporting "missing" books that have been captured by the authorities, and a parallel system for other volunteers to smuggle in additional books. There comes a point, in fact, at which the parasitic library starts to look surprisingly like the "real" library.

I'd say that this is because there are two components to a library. There's a big air-conditioned room with a lot of books in it, and there are librarians. Librarians buy books, keep track of books, and help you find books. Without the librarians, it's just a big air-conditioned room with a lot of books in it -- and a library that bans books has taken the first ugly step towards eliminating its librarians. My point is that in so doing, it leaves a vacuum for others come in and fill that role, to enter the big room and start acting like librarians.

Call it open source librarianship.

Lord of the Muppets

It was a good New Year's Eve, but the best part came when we decided to recast The Lord of the Rings. What the world needs now, we decided, is a Muppet version of the epic. Think about it:

  • Kermit as Frodo. A reluctant hero with big feet realizes that unless he undertakes a perlious journey, his green homeland will be no more. That's the plot of The Muppet Movie, no? Our amphibian hero knows what to do.
  • The ideal Sam needs to be loyal, stout of heart and stout of waist, and good-natured despite his dim wits. Fozzie Bear is all of the above. Did you hear the one about Frodo and the Ring? Wakka wakka!
  • Merry and Pippin maintain a gently bickering friendship even under the most trying of circumstances. So do Bert and Ernie. The homoerotic undertones are important, too.
  • Animal, that bundle of pure destructive ferocity, as Gimli, of course.
  • Miss Piggy would make a kickass Arwen. Sure, she could hold her own in the action sequences, but she can also play moon-eyed swoony love scenes to the hilt.
  • Cookie Monster as Gollum. Driven by a compulsive addiction, given to terrifying moments of pure hunger, always at war with himself as he struggles with temptation. P is for Precious. Me want Precious!
  • Elrond is dignified, dutiful, dour, and a massive spoilsport. Who else but Sam the Eagle?
  • Snuffleupagus may not look much like what we think of when we first think of Treebeard, but then again, have you ever seen an Ent?
  • Gandalf is tough to cast, admittedly. It's hard to top Ian McKellen. But I have an ieda. Gonzo the Grey? Some have called me that. But I am Gonzo the Great!
  • Aragorn is tricky, too. There aren't many Muppets that badass. But, then again, you need to find something for the human guest star to do.
  • The Count as Sauron. Vun, too, trrreeee rrrings for Elven kings under ze sky! Vun rrring to rule them all! Vun! Vun rrring to bind them! Vun!

We're still looking for a good Legolas, Boromir, Eowyn, Theoden, Galadriel, and Saruman, among others. We're also looking for roles for Scooter, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Dr. Teeth, Elmo, and Grover, and other favorites. Please email with suggestions.