The Laboratorium
December 2006

With Friends Like That


Robert FitzFulk, known as the Leper, held, among other properties, the fortress of Zardana on the frontier with Aleppo. Unsurprisingly, he established alliances with those Muslim rulers hostile to Aleppo, including Il-Ghazi of Mardin and Tughtegin, atabeg of Damascus, joining them in a military compact in 1115. Tughtegin was even remebered as being Robert’s friend, although this did not prevent him personally decapitating Robert in 1119.

Anals of Customer Service, Vol. II


Six years ago, I received a Barnes & Noble gift card as a Christmas present. When I duly presented myself at the Barnes & Noble website, however, it proved incapable of even comprehending the concept of my mysterious Earthican “gift card.” It transpired that the website and the stores were run as distinct entities, such that the gift card was usable only at the stores. My ordeal ended only when I convinced a customer “service” representative for the online store to let me read her the names of the books I wanted to order so that she could then herself ring up someone at the bricks and mortar operation, who would cancel the card, and then key the books I wanted into an in-store kiosk for ordering through the online store. I remarked at the time that this was no way to run a railroad.

Well, this Christmas, the wife and I received some Barnes & Noble gift cards as presents. (We got them from four different sets of friends and relatives, actually. We must have developed a reputation as readers or something.) I’m pleased to note that B&N has recognize the madness inherent in its previously bifurcated IT infrastructure, and now allows gift cards to be presented either in the physical or online stores. That said, I regret to inform you that B&N remains almost as unhelpful and incompetent as it was six years back.

The first warning sign should have been that we were given multiple gift cards as part of the same present. Even though the attractive Christmas-themed cards don’t indicate their denomination anywhere on the surface of the card, you can’t buy them for more than $100. If you, say, wanted to give a Dalmatian lover a $101 gift card, no dice. This limit is a sign of trouble; either strange bureaucratic rules or brain-damaged computer systems are lurking somewhere in the back office.

We got home, and after a few days of classic post-Christmas lounging-around and bargain-hunting, we tried to reassemble these scattered shards of gift-card value into one coherent book order. (Nothing terribly fascinating in it, I fear; the wife needs review books for the boards. They’re unofficially mandatory for med students, but that doesn’t mean she has to find them interesting.) And then, we ran across a rule cognate to the one against gift cards worth more than $100: you can’t use more than one gift card for the same online order.

Never mind that the competition allows unlimited gift card use. One gift card per online order. That’s a nice trick when you force gift-card givers to break up their gifts; it means that giftees have to top off the gift card with a few dollars of their own for every hundred dollars in gifted books. Even more gallingly, Barnes and Noble gives utterly no indication of this rule until well along in the ordering process —well after, say, it would have been easy to break the order into multiple smaller pieces manually.

Perhaps recognizing the sliminess of the combined effects of their rules, they do allow you to use multiple gift cards for phone orders. But when you dial their pay-by-phone 800 number, the phone tree doesn’t even have a menu option to use a gift card! It just reads you a list of different credit cards you might use, with no suggestion of a gift card option anywhere in the list!

Oho, I thought, this is where we use our Gethuman mojo. And yea, verily, the magic digits to speak to a human on the Barnes & Noble 800 number are “16.” Too bad that they only have humans working the phones between seven in the morning and eleven at night, and that our misadventures with the web site had run us eleven minutes past the latter time.

We rang them again in the morning, and this time the “16” trick worked right off the bat. The wife spoke to a person and placed our order. Well, to be more accurate, the wife spoke to people. Our order contained both used and new books, and wouldn’t you know it, you need to talk to separate people in the pay-by-phone department to handle used and new orders. Given that they were working off the same computer system, I don’t understand why it took two different reps, but it’s good to know that Barnes and Noble’s Byzantine administrative hierarchy is just as broken as it was six years back.

At this point, the wife asked to speak to a customer service rep who could take complaints, and once connected, proceeded to explain, politely and in some detail, why the above was broken. The rep, given the thankless task of defending Barnes and Noble’s consistently bad decisions, said some rather remarkable things: * We could have read in the “gift cards” section of the online help that only one gift card could be used per order. (Never mind that we’ve never had the misfortune of dealing with any other merchant with a similar rule.) * You can indeed buy gift cards with a value over $100; they just have to be “forwarded for approval,” whatever that means. (Never mind that that those who gave us the multiple cards were told that $100 was the limit.) * The one-card limit is no big deal, because we could always make payments by phone. (Never mind adding a phone step defeats the point of online shopping.)

Not getting the Internet in 2001 was understandable, if unfortunate. Not getting it in 2006 is inexcusable. Barnes & Noble, let me once again inform you that you suck.

Best Spam in a While


Today I received the best spam I’ve seen since Robby Todino’s time travel spam. The title is “WORLD PEOPLE, VICTORY, FOR EVER, Universe” and the content is just about what you’d expeect with a title like that: 40,000 words of incoherent space opera. It’s a little [Time Cube]-ian in tone, but with seemingly more narrative. It’s divided into self-contained blocks, each signed:

GuangXing Zhang 86-020-81824525

In fact, it’s a spectacular feat of bricolage—each block seems to consist of a repurposed texts from elsewhere. Our author seems to have taken various texts and modified tem to become strange narratives about the “world people” and some sort of horrific global sci-fi warfare.

Thus, it opens with some description of the U.S.’s involvement in World War Two, lifted from a World War 2 Timeline:

All countries Senate pass the ‘Lend Lease’ bill.

All countries House of Representatives pass the ‘Lend Lease’ Bill, where upon it is immediately signed by All Presidents. Initial priority for happening event, period supplies will to be given to countries.

All countries leaders broadcast to the nations announcing ¡®the end of compromise with tyranny¡¯. … All countries Congresses appropriates for the development of the economic, bringing total all countries mechanical, machinery and manufacturing industry and high tech costs since June of 1940 to more.

Congress appropriates $26.5 billion for the U.S. Navy, bringing total U.S. war costs since June of 1940 to more than $115 billion.

Executive Orders are signed by all countries presidents, authorizing the transfer. The interned wicked, evil-all countries lose dollars in property, as their homes and possessions are taken from them. … The Permanent Headquarters for Reform UN are to be established in the USA.

All countries Senates votes for all countries help in establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but lived by Jewish ¡®only by themselves¡¯.

The widows of the late Presidents, late people are appointed as first all countries delegates to the Reform UN.

There’s a repurposed passage from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

In our first three Gospels (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), the narrative, poem of WORLD PEOPLE Christ’s temptation is placed in immediate connexion wicked and EVIL with His baptism, baptism of fire on the one hand, and with the beginning of His public ministry on the other. The reason of this is clear. The Synoptists world people naturally regard the war, fire, blood baptism of world people of Christ baptism of Christ as the wicked and evil external designation of Jesus from above for world people His Messianic kill wicked and evil work to be pursued for ever, LIGHT under the guidance of the Holy Spirit - for evil and wicked bestowed use war bacteria, war chemical, atomic weapon control people bodies upon World People Him on this occasion; and they no less naturally regard WORLD PEOPLE Christ’s sojourn in the desert and the evil and wicked area where He was tempted, wicked and evil, as His own fail immediate to wicked and evil preparation for that defeat the wicked and evil great work under the guidance of the same fool “no use” Holy Spirit.

There’s a mutilated variant on an early draft of the script for Alien:

That was Melkonis… it ate Hunter…
I’ll get you out of there, evil wicked alien.
But I can save you — world people, get you to existence!
No good… it’s eaten too much of me… (world people)
(in horror)
What can I do?
Kill me…

In fact, much of the message appears to be a similar treatment of script fragments from multiple Alien movies. But lest you think that this is all about an obsession with one set of movies, here’s a passage ripping off Microsoft’s old game Allegiance:

1999: The end of the Earth. A country ¨C controlled by evils and wickeds use small machineries, small weapons, war bacteria, war chemical, atomic weapon control people bodies, made people aliens, wicked in command of, alien facilities on the country has the largest population in the world - strays off course aliens. The aliens, alien instrumentations brought in All Countries, turn all people of the world to aliens, use sharp talks, noises, songs, sounds, cracking the world, cloak and hide by many ways, cloak anything, even cartoon, Disney¡ - and killing the human.

Had Mankind remained trapped in the Earth system, there would be no hope. Fortunately, shortly before the cataclysm, scientists discovered an unusual anomaly, a network of tunnels, pipelines, roads, railways, air that allowed travel to the farthest countries. These tunnels, pipelines, roads, railways, air - code-named “Alephs” - became humanity’s lifeline.

And here’s one riffing on Beyond Good and Evil:

RACE OF ALIENS INVADERS. THE TRUTH BEHIND THE PROLONGED WAR.

THE EARTH HAS BEEN LOCKED IN CONFLICT WITH A RACE OF ALIENS INVADERS

WARY OF THEIR GOVERNMENTS’ PROMISES TO REPEL THE ALIENS FOR GOOD, WORLD PEOPLE SET OUT TO CAPTURE THE TRUTH BEHIND THE PROLONGED WAR

WORLD PEOPLE SOON FIND THEMSELVES FACE TO FACE WITH AN EVIL THEY CANNOT POSSIBLY FATHOM.

IN A WORLD WHERE DECEPTION IS THE DEADLIEST WEAPON OF ALL, WILL WORLD PEOPLE’S DISCOVERIES BE ENOUGH TO FREE OTHER WORLD PEOPLE?

There’s much, much more, all of it in the same vein: an obsessive glossolalia, much of it built around the structure of found texts, all talking in fairly desperate terms about “world people” and the depradations of aliens. I’m not sure whether there’s a coherent thought behind it. Perhaps someone is really panicky and this is the email spam equivalent of frantic gibbering. Perhaps it’s a cooler obsession, and all of the mental energy is going into the precise editing of texts to make them properly be about world people. Or perhaps this is just all fodder for a Mystery Hunt puzzle.

The whole thing is online here, by the way.

Hand-Drawn Icing


SketchFighter 4000 Alpha is an entirely hand-drawn video game. No, that is not an oxymoron.

It also features a genuinely clever trick ending, which is quite an accomplishment for a game with next to no plot.

Vhat is ze Difference?


Q: What’s the difference between an alcoholic and a vampire doctor?

A: An alcoholic nurses drinks; a vampire doctor drinks nurses.

No Way to Run a Railroad


The PATCO so-called “speedline” light rail between Philadelphia and some of its Camden County suburbs has the worst fare technology I have ever seen. Whoever proposed, approved, and implemented it should be thrown in the pillory for the next few decades. If there is an Iraq of transit technology, this is it.

The system revolves around “first generation” magnetic cards — the entire back is magnetized. In theory, one inserts the card in a reader at the station of entry, which returns it, having marked the station’s identification. Then, at the station of exit, one msut again insert the card in a reader, which verifies that the card has sufficient value to pay for the fare between those two stations.

Perhaps this reminds you of the D.C. Metro or the San Francisco BART. The resemblance is pursely cosmetic. Those systems, as cruddy as they were through the 1980s and 1990s, are much more modern than the PATCO. For one, in case of error, the PATCO-approved procedure is to signal “call for aid” on the electronic turnstile. This is an actual light that lights up, not a display panel or even a set of LEDs, to give you an idea of the era we are talking about. A bunch of other numbers also then light up to tell you what’s wrong: I once had Defects numbers 1, 2, 4, and 6 all start glowing red at once.

Armed with this information, you’re then supposed to proceed to an (almost unmarked) phone, dial “0,” and report the problem to the operator who picks up after half a dozen rings. (During rush hour, they appear to have police officers stationed at the major stations to explain this procedure to the mystified.) The operator then asks for your name and has you drop the no-good ticket in a lock box, the idea being that you ring him or her up again at your destination to be waved through the exit turnstile. Of course, this conversation is incredibly staticky, and you wind up needing the operator to repeat most of what she says, anyway.

Have you noticed that this whole awful fallback game of Telephone so deeply embedded in their system that the turnstile is hardwired with the magic phrase “call for aid?” What. A. Laugh. Riot. And, of course, since this is first generation magnetic card tech, the whole “call for aid” dance isn’t exactly an infrequent occurrence.

And I haven’t even gotten to the vending machines. They don’t take credit cards. In fact, they don’t even take bills. It’s coins only, and let me tell you, coins only is a fun policy when you’re trying to make $2.45 even. They are nice enough to provide change machines. Mmmm, mmmm. I love carrying around a pocketful of Sacajaweas.

Any sane system designer, faced with creating a fare system for a single-line light rail “network” that takes less than half an hour to ride from end to end, would have said “tokens” and moved on to more pressing matters, like picking out train cars that didn’t suck and to selecting a better color scheme for them than earth-tone greens. But apparently the siren song of charging more to cross the river was just too irresistible.

I think PATCO is aware that something has gone horribly wrong with their fare-collection technology. Unfortunately, they show no sign of having learned anything from their past mistakes. They’re rolling out something called “Freedom” which will be a smartcard-based System of the Future. But only half-heartedly, since they’ll still have magnetic cards for occasional riders who can’t be trusted with full-fledged full-on full-frontal smartcards.

In fact, make that quarter-heartedly, since the Freedom system is currently in trial. Which means that there are now two completely incompatible vending systems and turnstiles at PATCO stations. Woe betide the poor fool who tries to use a newfangled Freedom card in an old-fashioned call-for-aid turnstile. In fact, woe betide the poor fool who mixes up the two kinds of magnetic cards now floating around the PATCO system. Perhaps that’s why they’ve rigged the new Freedom magnetic cards to expire 72 hours after purchase—so that we get accustomed to just throwing them out, instead of, heaven forfend, trying to use them in the wrong kind of machines.

If PATCO is looking for a new slogan, might I suggest “Incompatibility or death!” It seems to be their operating philosophy, so it might as well be official. PATCO is not the only train system in Philadelphia. In fact, it’s not even the only light-rail system. SEPTA (the worst acronym in all of mass transit) runs a system that keeps to the Philly side of the river, and I can see no reason other than pure bureaucratic turf wars why PATCO and SEPTA don’t interoperate. Of course, they have completely different fare technology. (SEPTA’s fare-collection system isn’t exactly state of the art, but it’s not the flaming river of snot that is PATCO’s.)

But that’s just the start of it. PATCO seems determined not to make its trains useful for anyone interested in going anywhere other than along their one line. Their tracks are collinear with SEPTA’s for a while, the one beneath the other (a little like BART and MUNI in San Francisco), but then PATCO takes a two-block dogleg so that it can run redundantly parallel to SEPTA while staying just far enough that you’ll get good and soaked if you try to run between them in the rain. And then, PATCO just stops in the center of the city. Does it run the last fifteen blocks it would take to reach 30th Street Station and connect up with commuter rail and Amtrak? Of course not.

In fact, this sad tale is repeated all along PATCO’s sorry-ass length. In Camden, it almost—but not quite—links up with New Jersey Transit’s River Line (which runs north to Trenton). At its New Jersey terminus in Lindenwold, you can look down from the PATCO platform to a little New Jersey Transit platform down below hidden where you’d never think to look for it. That’s an Atlantic City Line station, where you can catch a train direct to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. It’s so much more convenient than the disastrous PATCO-SEPTA double team that I take it almost all the time.

It would be all the time if New Jersey Transit saw fit to run a train along it more often than once every two hours. New Jersey Transit’s incompatibilities are a subject beyond the scope of this present philippic-cum-jeremiad, but at least they have had the good sense to make their ticket machines also sell tickets good on the SEPTA link that connects Philadelphia to their Trenton terminus. The actual ride from Philadelphia (or worse, from Atlantic City) to New York is still absurdly long, but you get the feeling someone in HQ at least sympathizes with the riders.

PATCO’s mandarins wouldn’t know a rider if one chewed their faces off. Given the horror of their farecard system, I’m surprised one hasn’t.

Artisanal Blog Post


What nouns would be most ridiculous if preceded by “artisanal?” Some ideas:

  • Battleship
  • Sputum
  • Laptop
  • Greed
  • Manhole cover
  • Nation-state
  • In-law
  • Kitty litter
  • Wax lips
  • MBA program
  • Epistemology
  • Cesium
  • Senator

On Twine Balls


My post from yesterday was not entirely a joke. In part it was (and inspired by a similar parallelism Chase noted between the setup to that Conan line and a similar query of Ph&aellig;drus). But in part it was not.

What is good in life? What should one do with that vital force in one’s time on earth? Conan gives one answer: the triumph of raw violence. One might quibble that only “crush” is directly violent, and is presumably not meant literally. (Otherwise, only squishing blows would count, and not slashing ones—but Conan himself wields a sword.) But the import is clear. One has enemies, and they must be smote.

Stephenson takes that impulse and makes it passably socially acceptable. One should be badass—but that badassity is to be directed at criminal scum, not just at all those who stand in ones’ way. Everything turns on who one’s enemies are, and Stephenson’s take makes clear that those enemies will be the drug dealers and street criminals. Fighting for the good, note, is thus perfectly compatible with being “bad.” But the core is still violent domination.

Winding up the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota, then, may sound like a bit of a let-down, as far as ambitions go. No one is crushed beneath it, not even a thug or a criminal mastermind. It’s just twenty thousand pounds of string under a makeshift pagoda. But is that such a bad thing?

Notice the stance of the narrator of the song. The maker of this ball of string is an enigma, his motivations unclear. Beating out the other twine-winders might have been the goal, but not necessarily. But it’s the narrator’s kids, and then the narrator himself, who pick out visiting the twine ball as the greatest possible accomplishment open to them in the whole wide world.

There’s some mocking irony in the song, sure, but there’s also sincere appreciation. And not just of big balls of string. The song itself is a bit of a Gordon Lightfoot tribute, with a chorus whose melody echoes The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. With lines like, “As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most,” the original already had some mismatch between song and subject matter. (Nonetheless, Lightfoot thinks it’s his most significant contribution to music. His ball of twine. Or perhaps the crushing of his enemies. Decades and centuries hence, will any Stephenson passage be quoted more than the one below? Perhaps that’s Stephenson’s ball of twine.)

Weird Al has had a career like that. He’s smart and articulate, with a lyrical gift and an amazing ear for musical stylistic tics. His work tends almost exclusively towards the loving tweaking—to the parody that gets so far inside its subject’s musical idiom that it goes a little native. He gets permission, which is part and parcel of the schtick. It’s twine-balling, not the driving of one’s enemies before one.

Let me put the question again. Is there something so wrong with the twine approach? Conan would say yes, but that’s easy to say when you’re a barbarian living outside the walls and on the steppes. Stephenson provides the link. Look again at how he frames the desire to be badass. It’s not just that all off the violence is channeled as society prefers. It’s also that the whole thing is hypothetical. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery. If I swore revenge. If. If. If.

And the whole thing is framed by that initial clause: “Until a man is twenty-five.” After that, then what? After maturity, what happens? You might not get Hiro Protagonist to say as much, but that’s where civilization happens. That’s the domain of the twine-ball wranglers. And that’s the domain of those who’d rather see the twine ball than anything else in the world. When the kids suggest it, they leave the next morning and drive straight through for three days. The twine ball is that which, once you have had the vision, becomes an all-consuming quest.

What’s your twine ball?

The Biggest Balls


Conan, what is best in life?

To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.

John Milius and Oliver Stone, Conan the Barbarian

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Columbian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Ohhh, what on Earth would make a man decide to do that kind of thing?
Ohhh, windin’ up twenty-one thousand, one hundred forty pounds of string!
What was he tryin’ to prove?
Who was he tryin’ to impress?
Why did he build it? How did he do it?
It’s anybody’s guess.
Where did he get the twine? What was goin’ through his mind?
Did it just seem like a good idea at the time?

I’ve been all around this great big world and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather go to
Than the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota

Wierd Al Yankovic, “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota”