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April 30, 2002


Zebra say the darnedest things. [wav of the sound zebras make 1] [wav of the sound zebras make 2]

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I bought one of those, whattayacallums? A PDA, a Palm Pilot. It's every bit as useful as people said it would be. It comes in this super tight carrying case, so whenever I need to remember a phone number or an appointment or something, I can just write it on a tiny piece of paper and shove it between the PDA and the case. Then I always know where to find it. Talk about handy!

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Too Much Reality

Apparently USA Today, NBC's Today and a number of other media outlets are rushing to fill the Oprah Winfrey-shaped hole in the book club universe. Among them is the Live With Regis and Kelly show, which recently debuted a new segment entitled "Reading With Ripa." But unlike other so-called "book clubs," Ripa eschews the pompous and pretentious in favor of pure, unadulterated crap.

How do I know all this? Because my friend Jerry just dropped me a line to point out some great quotations in this article about Ripa's book selection philosophy.

"I hate books that make me feel stupid, which I guess knocks off 50% of all books out there," Ripa quipped after her show Monday. "People like escapist programming and escapist works of literature. There's too much reality in the world today. If I want to read something with meaning, I'll read a newspaper. But when I read a book, I want it to be fun, meaning I don't want it to better me in some way."

Ripa used her own method to pick [the first book featured on the segment]. "I always judge a book by its cover, and with this one, I thought, 'This looks interesting.' "

Honesty rules.

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April 29, 2002

Housebuying Lessons Learned

Hi! My wife and I just bought a house. Since I know many young couples are in the market right now, I thought I'd share some of the lessons we learned through our experience.

Do Your Research Before wading into the house market, be sure to learn all you can about the intricacies of house hunting and home buying. A little money spent on a "Home Buying For the Clinically Brain Dead" book now can save you thousands of dollars later!

Learn Your Options Many decisions must be made concerning your home loan, and it pays to explore all of your options before settling on a plan of action. For example, fixed-rates loans are all the rage now (what with interest rates being so low and all) but don't overlook ARMs -- they may be just the thing for you!

Never Move Into Your New Home Many people naively assume that after they have purchased a home they should move into it and live there. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, you are much better off staying wherever you are now, paying rent in addition to your monthly mortgage payments. While this may not seem cost effective, the truth is that paying any amount of money is better than having to move, because moving is what those in the real estate industrial refer to as a "galactically huge pain in the ass." First you have to pack everything you own into boxes, and then you have to carry these boxes to a truck, and then later you have to carry these boxes again (from the truck to the new house) and then unpack the sons of bitches. And if you rent said truck from a major truck rental company whose name I won't mention here (rhymes with "Glue-Mall") you may have to interact with some of the most unfathomably stupid people ever to be given a key to a cash register, people who will grudgingly dispense customer service so atrocious that it will make you want to kick kittens. Trust me: moving is a big fat fucking drag and should only be done if your previous residence is, at that very moment, on fire.

Have fun!

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April 26, 2002

Jason X

Jason X, the followup to Spike Lee's ambitious 1992 film "Malcolm X," is as lazy and hackneyed as sequels come. Rather than build on the story of the first motion picture, director Jim Isaac has simply poured some old wine into a new bottle, essentially rehashing the original film's plot with some additional bells and whistles (such as setting the story on a spaceship and playing up the more violent aspects of the Black Nationalist leader). Worst, it's apparent that they couldn't get Denzel Washington to reprise the title role, so they hired some other actor to play the lead and kept his face hidden throughout the movie to disguise this fact. A sloppy and disappointing work all around.

[ link | Movies]

1000 Hours Free!

Math cop: AOL has a new promotion.
Hours must be used in 45 days

Wow, that sounds like a great deal! Assuming, of course, you intend to use AOL 22 hours and 12 minutes for 45 days straight after you sign up. (45 days * 24 = 1080 hours).

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April 25, 2002

Catholic Application
U.S. cardinals stop short of zero-tolerance policy

VATICAN CITY - After an extraordinary meeting prompted by a sex-abuse scandal, American Roman Catholic leaders agreed yesterday to make it easier to remove priests guilty of sexually abusing minors - but they stopped short of a zero-tolerance policy to dismiss all abusive clerics. The American church leaders said they would recommend a special process to defrock any priest who has become "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors." In cases that are "not notorious" they would leave it up to the local bishop to decide if such a priest is a threat to children and should be defrocked ...

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I Thought it Was a Choice

On Tuesday I started to write about the Catholic Church's recent and obscene claim that this whole abuse scandal can be laid at the feet of homosexuals, but halfway through I got so disgusted I couldn't finish. Thankfully, William Saletan of Slate is made of stronger stuff than I, and in this piece he points out many of the contradictions inherent in this line of argument. But I think he overlooks a big one.

For years, the church has insisted that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and not a predisposition. It's easy to understand why: you can't believe that homosexuality is a sin and that it's hard-wired without wondering why God would make such a person. Plus, insisting that it was a choice made it easier to justify discrimination: hey, if you don't like being ostracized then just choose not be attracted to people of your own sex! In recent years this line has been downplayed and rarely stated aloud but is a constant subtext whenever the church deals with the politics of homosexuality.

Now that it's convenient, though, some in the church are suddenly blaming "The Gays" for their woes, and we're supposed to abruptly believe that there's something specific to homosexuals which will make them more likely to commit these crimes. This is a complete aboutface from their previous line. So why not just stick with the "it's a choice" argument? Because "the choice argument" postulates that homosexuals are no different from hetrosexuals, except that they choose same-sex partners. And, presumably, pedophiles are just like you and I as well, except they choose to engage in pedophilia. In other words, the priests who committed these terrible crimes simply chose to do so -- end of story. There's no one to blame but them, and the church who allowed them to get away with it. Sticking to this manifestly false "it's a choice" argument leaves no room for the kind of nauseating scapegoatery that they now want to engage in.

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April 24, 2002


I was cruising along the sidewalks of downtown Seattle, trying to get back to my place of business after an unduly long lunch break. As I careened around a corner I bumped into a young guy who was standing there talking to his friends. As I was in hurry I did not stop, but I did look over my shoulder and cry "sorry!" As I did so, I saw that the guy was angry: his eyes were narrowed, he was pointing a finger at me, and he was opening his mouth to say something ugly. I guess he didn't expect me to apologize. But as soon as I did, a remarkable transformation overcame him. His whole body abruptly relaxed, his accusatory finger went flaccid, and instead of wrath his face suddenly filled with the look of a man who has just had an epiphany. I could see the muscles around his mouth frantically reconfiguring themselves as he completely changed was he was about to say. Since I had been in motion this whole time, I was pretty far away when he finally managed to speak.

"Keep your tools sharp," he shouted.

With a nod I faced forward and continued on my way.

Elmo is Creepy

These press photos of Elmo testifing before Congress are adorable! At least until you stop and consider that there's a full grown adult male crouched under the desk that the other guy is sitting at. Then they become creepy. Oh so very creepy.

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Cuppa Joe


Cop one: Where do you park?
Cop two: Over by Nathan's Cafe.
Cop one: Nathan's. They have a good cuppa joe at Nathan's.
Wow: "cuppa joe." Later they went and treated some wiseguys to a little chin music.

April 23, 2002

Money Money Money

Editor, Seattle Times

The other days I was flipping through my 744 cable stations trying to find some LA Law reruns, when I unfortunately stopped on one of those so-called "music television stations" where they were showing a clip from some "Rapping concert." In the clip there were three of these so-called "Rapsters" on stage and yelling "Money money money mon-ey! Money money money mon-ey!"

What is this country coming to? It's bad enough that you can't walk down the street without those kids with skateboards and the so-called "piercings" asking you for money, but now we have to see it on tv? Maybe these so-called "Rapsters" wouldn't have to stand in front of all those people asking for money if they got a JOB!

Think about it!

Zechariah Whateley
Golden Years Retirement Community

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Magic Camera

Wanna turn your boring old Nikon into a Magic Camera? Just add water.

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April 22, 2002


Headline: World Chess Federation Rocked by Allegations of Bishop / Pawn Improprieties

[ link | News]


Last night I went to Greenlake to do a little running. I intended to jog one lap, 2.8 miles.

After the first lap I felt pretty good. So I decided to do a second lap.

After the second lap I still felt pretty good. So I decided to do a third lap.

After the third lap I still felt pretty good. So I decided to do a fourth lap.

After the fourth lap I felt like I had been run over by a Zamboni so I limped home. This morning every muscle I own was aching.

Moral: overacheiving is a sucker's game.

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April 19, 2002

The Bad Review Revue

The Bad Review Revue

[The Sweetest Thing] "The dumbest thing this side of a lobotomy." -- Robert Wilonsky, LOS ANGELES NEW TIMES

[The Scorpion King] "As this chaotic barrage of muscle flexing, swordplay, fireballs, crude digital effects and comic-book quips hurls itself off the screen, it's like having several garbage cans clogged with stale pizza, lukewarm cola, soggy French fries and greasy, ketchup-stained napkins emptied over your head." -- Stephen Holden, NEW YORK TIMES

"You might think that people dumb enough to make a by-the-numbers movie about a murder would at least be smart enough not to call it Murder By Numbers." -- Bruce Newman, SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

[Big Trouble] "The kind of production that would have been funnier if the director had released the outtakes theatrically and used the film as a bonus feature on the DVD." -- Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO NEWSWEEKLY

[Collateral Damage] "This should seal the deal: Arnold is not, nor will he be, back." -- Jeanne Aufmuth, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

My Mother the Comedian

My mother phones me.

"Matt," she says, "did you see they're making a Spider-man movie?"

"Yeah, I think I heard about that," I reply. Actually, I've been following the progress of this movie since, like, 1986.

"Well, when it comes out I want to go see it with you."

Really? My mother's more of a "Runaway Bride" kinda gal, not really one to get all jazzed up for a guy who can stick to walls. "You want to see the Spider-man movie?" I ask. "With me?"

"That's right."

"Well, I mean that's fine, great. But why do you want, you know, why?"

"Well, when you were five or six there was this tv show called "The Electric Company." You used to love this show, except that they would have Spider-man on there sometimes, and he used to terrify you. Every time he came on-screen you would burst into tears and run and hide in your bedroom. So I figured I ought to come along with you to the movie, just in case it gets scary."

Ha ha, my mother the comedian. She's apparently unaware that forgetting everything you did before the age of 10 is a natural psychological defense mechanism against crippling humiliation. Why are you reminding me of this stuff, ma? You're messin' with evolution here!

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defective yeti is committed to bringing you only the best in online miniture golfing.

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April 18, 2002

Games: Interactive Fiction

[Games: Interactive Fiction] A while ago I briefly mentioned a neat little game called 9:05, and swore that I would "write more about interactive fiction later this week." And did I? Did i write more about later that week? No I did not. And while that may make me a filthy stinkin' liar, I am at least a filthy stinkin' liar so racked with guilt at this oversight that I'm going to make good on my promise now.

"Interactive Fiction" is the new-fangled term for a genre of games that once lacked a name and was simply described as "like Zork." "I'm totally addicted to this new game I bought called Planetfall! it's one of those game, you know, like Zork?" Later this category of time-killers was referred to as "text adventures": games without graphics, in which everything is described in words and you, as the protagonist, interact with the environment by entering a series of written command.

West of House

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

> open mailbox

Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.


Ahhhhhh yes, it's all coming back to you now, isn't it? I'm sure many of you, like I, wasted hours and day and weeks back in the 80's as you sat in front of your computer, subsisting solely on beef jerky and RC Cola, trying to solve each and every puzzle in Enchanter. Well, a few years back someone clued me in to the fact that, while the legendary Infocom is more or less defunct, there is still an active community of Text Adventures out there, walking around with brass lamps and stashing treasures into their trophy cases. Better yet, there's quite a few folks who continue to write (free!) text adventures -- so many that there's even an annual competition to reward the authors for their efforts.

These games are now called "Interactive Fiction" (IF), because many contemporary offerings break the traditional "solve puzzles, save princess" mold. While the classic puzzle romps are still prominent, many IF authors now use the medium to explore literary and philosophical ground. (Try the groundbreaking Phototopia to a prime example.)

I go on an IF bender about once a year, during which I typically download and play half a dozen games over the course of a month. I'm on one now, which is why I'm writing about it here. If trying out such games interests you, there's no shortages of resources available to you on the web. Check out Stephen Grande's Brass Lantern, the Interactive Fiction Archive (along with this nice guide to the archive) and the two largest IF societies, XYZZY and the Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games.

Me, I've played maybe 20 modern IF games and enjoyed quite a few. Here are my favorites

  • Anchorhead An astounding game, and the one that got me rehooked. I am an H. P. Lovecraft fan, and this tribute to his literary (and atmospheric) style is my favorite of all the contemporary IF games I've played.
  • Spider and Fly Adam Cadre (who also wrote the aforementioned 9:05 and Photopia) is considered one of the masters of modern IF. This is the one I enjoyed the most.
  • Babel Eerie science-fiction game reminiscent of "The Thing". I hated one of its puzzles but, beyond that, recommend it hightly.
  • Winter Wonderland Cute! Fun!
  • Yes, Another Game With a Dragon! Just finished this one the other night and thought it was great. A nice introductory game for those who have fond memories of Zork
Incidentally, you can play any of the old Infocom games by telenet'ing to eldorado.elsewhere.org. Have fun.

[ link | Games]

April 17, 2002

Easy For You to Say

Some guy at a press conference asked Donald Rumsfeld if the US had goofed by not using ground troops at Tora Bora, thereby allowing bin Laden escape. Rumsfeld replied

My view of the whole thing is that until the lessons learned are known and have been developed -- they're still being worked on -- I wouldn't be able to answer a question like that, and it impresses me that others can from their pinnacles of relatively modest knowledge.
I am so going to use that line the next time my wife asks me if I could clean the litterbox.

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Rape Me

I have a wide assortment of (uh, legally procured) MP3s, which I just keep on constant, random playback while I'm in the office. The other day my boss's boss came into my office just as a Nirvana song began, so I swiveled in my chair to face him. We chatted for a few minutes, talking about this project and that report and whatnot. Finally. having exhausted conversational topics, we just fell into silence. A moment later my boss2 got an odd look on his face. I was about to ask him what was wrong when I realized that, from behind me, Kurt Cobain was screaming "Rape me! Rape me! Rape me! Rape me!"

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Up With People

Google Search for Up With People:

  1. Up With People website -- corporate info
  2. Up With People -- press release
  3. CNN news story about Up With People
  4. The Yahoo! homepage (?!)

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April 16, 2002

Tale In Headlines

US Intervention In The Middle East Conflict
A Tale In Headlines

Bush: "Enough is Enough" -- Chicago Tribune, April 5

Bush Demands Israel Withdraw Without Delay -- Washington Post, April 6

Bush to Sharon: "I Meant What I Said" -- Washington Post, April 10

Bush: "Didn't You Hear Me? I Said Stop It" -- Reuters, April 11

Bush Sends Powell To Middle East -- The Independent (UK), April 12

Bush Warns Sharon That Inaction Will Be Met With A More Sternly Worded Warning -- New York Times, April 13

Bush: "Dude, I'm, Like, So Totally Not Kidding Around Any More" -- Sydney Morning Herald, April 16

Powel Gives Up, Comes Home -- Los Angeles Times, April 18

Bush Shakes Fist, Purses Lips -- New York Times, April 19

Bush: "C'mon You Guys, Knock It Off. Seriously" -- Washington Post, April 21

Bush Insists This Isn't Funny Any More -- Reuters , April 22

Bush: "Stop It! Stop It! Stop It!" -- Los Angeles Times, April 24

Bush: "Stop It!" -- New York Times, April 25

Bush: "Please?" -- Washington Post, Arpil 27

Bush Runs Off Sobbing -- USA Today, April 28

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Word Problem Guy

Th'smorning, on NPR, there was a story about a guy in New York who is doing his part to combat the biggest fear in America culture today: mathaphobia. He stands on street corner with a big easel, challenging passersby to solve word problems and giving Snickers bars to those who succeed. Really a great story -- you can read about it here and listen to it via Realaudio by clicking here.

In the story, the word problem that citizens are currently puzzling over is this one:

You're a candy store owner. You have 20 pounds of cashews costing $3.55 a pound. And you have peanuts that cost $2.50 a pound. How many pounds of peanuts would you have to mix with the cashews to get a mixture costing $3.20 per pound?
I'm embarrassed to report that it took me a good twenty minutes to get the solution, and then only by resorting to brute force.

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April 15, 2002

Books: The Undertaking

I can't recall exactly what possessed me to place a hold on The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. But apparently I wasn't alone in wanting to read it, as it took over six months for my library's to scare me up a copy. The author, Thomas Lynch, is a man of many hats, including those of "Funeral Director" and "Poet," both of which were firmly perched upon his head when he penned this lyrical little book. In fact, the author does a pretty good job of demonstrating that excelling in undertaking requires the same mindset as poetry: a love of the living, a respect for the dead, an attention to detail, a willingness to ponder the unthinkable, and the understanding that passion and humor are not mutually exclusive.

Undertaking starts out as a treatise on the profession of funeral direction -- a book to to serve as a counterbalance to American Way of Death, I suspect -- but sashays into the realms of autobiography and philosophy by the midpoint. While not the most consistent book in tone or subject matter, it's an excellent read all the same. Since most of us only think of death in terms of it being Something We Don't Much Want To Experience, Lynch, having of necessity put a lot of thought into this subject, has come to many conclusions that we might not have the wherewithal to come to ourselves. For example, Lynch remarks on all the folks who approach him and announce that, when they die, they just want to thrown in the cheapest of pine boxes and buried without pomp. "You won't be swindling my relatives out of their hard earned money!," these people tell Lynch. "I'm going to the grave as the model of minimalistm" But as Lynch points out, none of these people live their lives according to this anti-consumer philosophy -- oh no. Instead, they have decided to wait until they are dead -- wait until they no longer care, in other words -- and then become the poster-child for simplicity. It's nothing but a last-ditch effort to be remembered for virtues you never actually possessed, and to do so my denying those do care -- the family and friends -- the chance to see you off in a manner that would best aid them in the coping of thier loss. Far from demonstrating selflessness, this common desire is selishness taken beyond the grave.

Remarkably, "The Undertaking," while not exactly a pick-me-up, manages not to unduly depress. There's something refreshing about a guy who just comes right out and says "look, friend: you're gonna die and there's nothing you can do about it. But here's a thing or two you might like to know about the process before it actually comes to pass." It makes you wish that more things in this world were as certain as your own demise.

I got my copy of The Undertaking from the Seattle Public Library.

[ link | Books]

Look Who's Talkin'

Yesterday I saw a woman weaving about in traffic as she tried to merge onto the freeway while speaking on her cell phone. The rear bumper of her compact car featured a sticker which read "One less SUV!"

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Way Too Much Information!

First Guy at Meeting: Shoot, my pen's out of ink. Does anyone else have a pen or a pencil I can use?

Second guy: Whoa! Way too much information!

[Assorted chuckling]

First guy: "Way too much --?" What are you talking about? I just asked for a pen. Christ, you're not one of those people, are you? The people who whip out these trendy catch phrases whenever possible -- regardless of the circumstances or appropriateness -- because they know that the mindless recitation of such drivel will get them a laugh despite the fact that they lack anything even remotely resembling a genuine sense of humor?

Second guy: Talk to the hand!

[Assorted chuckling]

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April 12, 2002

No Ben Fervely

This weekend I'll be over in Spokane, planting trees at my in-laws' ranch. Now, like I said before, you guys are welcome to have a party here while I'm away if you'd like, but

  1. I don't want any drinking;
  2. I want defective yeti completely cleaned up by the time I get back on Sunday night;
  3. I don't want that Ben Fervely kid here. He's a bad influence on you. I know I can't stop you from "hanging out" with him, but I will not have him here in my blog.
Other than that: have fun and I'll see you on Sunday.

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Weblogger Larceny

First my boot dryer gets nicked, and now someone has made off with Mighty Girl's ranunculus! Fellow bloggers, I urge you to put your Things That You Are Certain No One Would Ever Steal under lock and key!

I've been trying to stay positive about the whole thing. For instance, I like to imagine that the boot dryer wasn't actually stolen, that it somehow managed to free itself from both the locked trunk and the truck canopy in a feat of escape unseen since the heyday of Harry Houdini. But I can't maintain this pretense for long. In my heart of hearts I know the boot dryer has been dismantled and, at this very moment, is being used as a bong.

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April 11, 2002

Supermarket Karaoke

Here's a couple of million-dollar ideas, free for the using.

Supermarket Karaoke What do they play over the sound system at the grocery store? Brown-eyed Girl. My Heart Will Go On. Crazy. Desperado. In essence, the guys at the local Safeway are playing "The Best of the Karaoke Standards, Volume I". Well why not just make it official by putting a small stage and some spotlights in the produce section? Hell, they already have that intercom in place, so, really, this would require very little additional equipment. And between songs the bagboy / DJ could make requests for more cashiers and price checks on Triskets. It's a win-win-win scheme, really -- well, until someone sings "Bust a Move," I guess.

Latchkey Kitty Soap Operas Like many cats in America, my Louie is a Latchkey Kitty -- my wife and I leave him alone from nine to five every day while we're away at work. We read somewhere that cats like the sound of voices when left alone, so we leave NPR on all day. (I don't know if he really cares, but I do know that he's now much better versed in the Middle East conflict and the Catholic priesthood scandal than either of us.) But what would be really great is if someone would make Kitty Cat Soap Operas: Hour-long dramas that intertwine a number of cat-related plotlines. And since cats are creatures of simple needs, you wouldn't even need a script writer, you could just depict cats doing the seven things that cats do. In one of the stories you could show a cat slowly creeping up on a bird over the course of the hour and making the kill in the triumphant finale; in a second you could show a cat playing with some tinfoil; a third could just be shots of a cat sleeping on a radiator. Best of all, since cats crave routine and are devoid of memory, you could just show the same episode each and every day. You could even have a racier nighttime version with a "mating" subplot that unfixed cats could watch after their people have gone to bed. Line up some cat food and kitty litter advertisers and you've got yourself a show! (Although the ads might only be effective on those cats who do the household shopping, which I suspect isn't very many. Hmm. This idea may have a flaw.)

April 10, 2002

Spam Haiku
Tired of the hype? Add inches to your penis Numbers do not lie.
Yes, it's the Spam Subject Line Haiku Generator.
[ link | Spam]

"Dude, Pass the Boot Dryer"

My wife, a botanist, owns a truck which she uses when doing field work. The bed of the truck has a lockable canopy over it, and inside is a large trunk. The trunk is blood-red, with a bronze frame and an ornate lock. This is exactly the sort of ancient trunk where you would expect to find either

  • A priceless treasure, full of rings fashioned by the craftiest of dwarves, platinum-tipped arrows enchanted by the Elder Elven Council of Thom, diamonds as large as Granny Smith apples and countless coins minted from every precious metal known to the inhabitance of ManaEarth; or
  • A collection of automotive and fieldwork equipment, including jumper cables, a quart of oil, an old milk jug fill of water, a bag of kitty litter (for traction), leather gloves, a rain hat, and an $20 electric boot dryer.
Last night some punks broke into both the canopy and the trunk. They took the boot dryer.

April 09, 2002

All Your Basedow Are Belong to Us

Most afternoons I go to the gym to to get a healthy dose of exercise and an unhealthy dose of daytime tv. They have six or seven sets on the wall, which means you can watch pretty much anything from "Fifth Wheel" to "Lou Dobbs Moneyline." (Note: Watching C-Span while listening to the audio of Jerry Springer, or vice versa, is vastly more entertaining than watching either of the programs in their original forms.). The nadir of daytime tv, of course, is daytime tv advertising, a huge wasteland of Shady Characters Trying To Sell You Stuff You Obviously Don't Need. Garlic choppers, 14-volume "Best of the 80's" CD sets, liability lawyers -- you know what I'm talkin' about.

Of particular interest to the patrons of the gym are the endless ads for "Get Fit Fast!" schemes and paraphernalia . You can't help but feel a sorry for some chump who would buy a geegaw in the hopes of losing twenty pounds in two weeks, when you yourself have lost half that amount by using the stationary bike every day for six months. And everyone in the lockerroom gets a big laugh out of those vibrating whatsits which, when strapped to your stomach, promise to melt away the fat like it's a crayon on the dashboard of a Louisiana Hyundai.

But then there's John Basedow. His commercials run all the time on every station, and they never fail to strike fear into the hearts of everyone in the midst of working out. The man looks, for all the world, like a living, breathing, poorly-done Photoshop job: the head of the class geek clumsily pasted onto the body of the class jock. He is a terror to behold. And whenever his visage appears on the television screens, you can almost hear people in the gym thinking "Good gravy! Am I going to look like that when I'm totally ripped?!," as they set down their barbells and slowly back away from the Nautilus machine. Men stop in mid-sit-up and head to the showers, realizing that the ladies would prefer them with beer guts rather than looking like something Frakenstein stitched together from the corpses of Bob Saget and Rambo.

Justice Department Indicts Ansel Adams' Son
Justice Department Indicts Ansel Adams' Son
The political fallout from Enron's collapse continued today as the US Justice Department announced its indictment against Ansel Adams' son. "Having utterly destroyed the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen by indicting the entire company rather than just the select individuals who actually engaged in wrongdoing, we are now aggressively pursuing others embroiled in this scandal," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer at a conference earlier this morning. "We will leave no stone unturned, and that includes percecuting Ansel Adams' son to the full extent of the law" When reporters asked if perhaps this was just the result of a misunderstanding, pointing out that Michael Adams, the 69 year-old son of famed photographer Ansel Adams, has at no time been in any way connected to Enron, Fletcher replied "This administration is deeply committed to rooting out corruption in all it's guises, and we certainly won't be letting Mr. Adams off the hook because of a so-called 'misunderstanding'." When further questioned about the indictment, with some reporters asking if this wasn't just another subterfuge to shift the focus away from the actual culprit, Enron, and the ties it may have had with high-ranking officials in the Bush administration, Flicher responded by pointing to the back of the room, shouting "Uhh.. say, look back there! It's Academy Award winner Gene Hackman!" and fleeing.
[ link | News]

April 08, 2002

Books: Whispers on the Color Line

I first heard tell of Whispers on the Color Line in a Slate article entitled Consumer Rumors which discussed how unsubstanciated alligations about companies spread differently in different communities. As a case in point, the Slate author discusses the long-standing rumor that Snapple (the beverage that was such a rage ten years ago) is owned or at least funded by nefarious groups. Oddly, in white communities the belief was that Snapple was affiliated with anti-abortion groups while in black communities the story insisted that Snapple was owned or funded by the Ku Klux Klan. (You can read the snopes.com report on this urban legend here.) This is what the book's authors call a "Topsy/Eva Rumor' -- a myth that has different antagonists depending on the race of the community in which is spreads.

I picked up "Whispers on the Color Line" beecause I have long been fascinated by the origin and dissemination of urban legends. The text is a very interesting read, if a bit dry at times and occasionally guilty of straying from it's premise. It begins with an overview of how rumors get started, how they are propagated, and how they get modified with transmission. Now, everyone thinks they know how rumors get started, because everyone has played the old game telephone: person A says something to person B, person B repeats it to person C but -- due to a misunderstanding or a misremembered word -- alters it a tiny bit, person C tells a very slightly modified version to person D, and by the time person Z hears it it's an entirely different phrase. The authors concede that misunderstanding is one way that rumors begin, but the focus of the book is more on intentional (if subconscience) transformation. When repeating something that they've heard, a person will often (perhaps unwittingly) embellish and change facts to fit their preconceived notions. For example, person A tells B that someone in town was shot by some people in a car; person B tells C that someone in town was shot by some gang members in a car (because this person assumes that anyone conducting a "drive-by shooting" must be in a gang); person C tells D that someone was shot by some black gang members in a car (because D believes that all members of a gang must be black) and so on. Pretty soon you have an urban legend urging you never to flash your headlights at someone driving with their lights out.

Injecting racism into stories as we retell them serves two functions, claim the authors. First, it allows us to express our racism in a socially acceptable way: after all, you're telling an absolutely true story rather than expressing an opinion, so no one can call you to the carpet. Secondly, these stories reinforce our own comfortable (if incorrect) stereotypes: if you can convince yourself that the story is true, it will serve as further "proof" that your deeply held convictions are well-founded.

Say that you are a black man, and you strongly suspect the powerful factions in the "white-run US" are plotting to eradicate African Americans. Then someone points out to you that the popular beverage Tropical Fantasy is only being sold in black neighborhoods. You combine this curious fact with your own suspicions to come up with the idea that the KKK is putting a drug in this drink to sterilize black men. Now you can tell this to other people without sounding paranoid because it's "true." And, knowing that it's true, you can feel justified in your own paranoia. Likewise, whites who warn others about black gang-members gunning down innocents feel justified in their beliefs that blacks are inherently violent, because they have "first-hand" knowledge of this "true" event.

Whispers on the Color Line studies racial rumors about consumer products, morality, violence, crime and genocidal conspiracies. The book ends with some "Tips on Coping With Rumor," although anyone interested enough in either urban legends or race relations to read this book probably doesn't need the advice. (On the other hand, you can probably never be told not to believe everything you hear too many times.)

I got my copy of Whispers on the Color Line from the Seattle Public Library.

[ link | Books]

Don't You Hate That?

I'm going to become a stand-up comedian. I already have part of a routine worked out. Here it is:

You know what I hate? I hate it when you are trying to peal a banana, and you grab the top of the banana, the stem or whatever, and you pull down on it to peal the banana and the stem or whatever snaps right off and then it's almost impossible to peal the banana! I hate that. Don't you hate that? Don't you?
That's all I have so far, but it's pretty good, huh? What do you think? Be honest.

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April 07, 2002

Research Day: Daylight Savings Time

This entry was retroactively inducted into the "Research Day" category.

After 20+ years of wondering what the hell Daylight Saving Time was all about, I finally got off my ass and did some research on the subject. (Although the beauty of the Internet is that, technically, you get on your ass to do your research.)

So here's the deal. Good ol' Ben Franklin first proposed the idea of Daylight Saving Time (technically there's no "s" on the end of "Saving") to the Parisians in an essay entitled An Economial Project. Franklin realized that if he stuck to his usual schedule (presumable "early to bed and early to rise") even as the days got longer, he would be sleeping through an extra chunk of daylight in the morning and working for the same amount of time every evening in the dark. Since working at night meant spending money on candles, it made economic sense to get up a little earlier during the summer and go to bed a little later. Specifically

183 nights between 20 March and 20 September times 7 hours per night of candle usage equals 1,281 hours for a half year of candle usage. Multiplying by 100,000 families gives 128,100,000 hours by candlelight. Each candle requires half a pound of tallow and wax, thus a total of 64,050,000 pounds. At a price of thirty sols per pounds of tallow and wax (two hundred sols make one livre tournois), the total sum comes to 96,075,000 livre tournois.
I don't have the slightest clue how much money 96,075,000 livre tournois amounts to, but, dude, that's a lot of wax.

This same rationale -- we save money by shifting our schedules forward in the summer -- is what prompted Germany to adopt Daylight Saving Time during World War I. By the time WWII rolled around, many states in the US wised up and instituted it as well. But because states were allowed to choose whether or not they wished to observe DST, the nation was hodge-podge of differing times, which had to be a major drag for, like, train schedule makers and whatnot. Finally, in 1974, Nixon signed into law the Daylight Saving Time Energy Act which settled the matter once and for all ... except for Indiana, Arizona and Hawaii who are a bunch of rabble-rousing chrono-rebels.

And what the hell, as long as I'm spilling the secrets of the calendar I may as well go whole hog. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox unless the full moon is on the equinox in which case it is after the following full moon. A "blue moon" is the second full moon in a single calendar month. (Although some purists argue that, originally, the phrase "blue moon" referred to the third full moon in a season that has four full moons -- follow that?). And in the Gregorian calendar, February 29th is a leap day if the current year is divisible by 4 and is not divisible by 100 unless it is divisible by 400. Oooookay, if you say so.

And that's one to grow on.

Daylight Saving Time facts shamelessly stolen from here.

April 06, 2002

Used Books

There is often an added joy to reading used books. And I mean that "added" literally, as in "whomever owned the book before you, took out their pen and added something to the manuscript."

In the book I'm currently reading someone has helpfully located and corrected every typographical error. (The phrase "Over may dead body," for instance, has one of those curlicue deletion marks through the "a" in "may".) Many used books have definitions for all the difficult and obscure words scrawled in the margins or inside the back cover. One textbook I purchased in college had the previous owner's name, address and phone number written on the title page, and seemingly random words highlighted throughout the book. Finally I got so exasperated at trying to figure out why certain words were and were not emphasized that I just called the guy and demanded that he tell me his highlighting schema.

The flip side of used books is that sometimes the prior owner removes something from the book instead. I once owned a copy of Rebecca in which three words in the text had been completely blacked-out by a marker. (I later compared my copy of Rebecca to a pristine version to discover that each and every instance of the word "spider" had been obliviated.) And one Perry Mason novel I read was missing the very last page -- the page in which the murderer was revealed. Although the perfectly round hole in the mud outside the homicide victim's second-story window leads me to believe that the pole vaulter was the killer, I guess I'll never know for sure.

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April 05, 2002

The Bad Review Revue

The Bad Review Revue:

Clockstoppers: "By the time the plot grinds itself out in increasingly incoherent fashion, you might be wishing for a watch that makes time go faster rather than the other way around." -- Donald Munro, THE FRESNO BEE

Showtime: "You know you've entered flat dramatic terrain when William Shatner towers over it." -- Geoff Pevere, THE TORONTO STAR

Resident Evil: "Such a bad movie that its luckiest viewers will be seated next to one of those ignorant pinheads who talk throughout the show." -- Charles Savage, MIAMI HERALD

High Crimes: "[Not] worth the crayons it took to write the script." -- Stephen Hunter, WASHINGTON POST

Sorority Boys: "One element of Sorority Boys is undeniably good, and that is the title. Pause by the poster on the way into the theater. That will be your high point." -- Rogert Ebert, CHICAGO-SUN TIMES

Pets Warehouse = Bad

Today Salon featured an article about Pets Warehouse which made me very, very angry.

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In 1999 you couldn't throw double-tall non-fat extra-hot latte without hitting a journalist who, instead of reporting actual news, was writing a column about the limitless potential of the World Wide Web. Now, three years later, we get articles in the New York Times on the abruptly en vogue subject of Is The Internet Boring? It's enough to make a guy lose his faith in the whole ball of wax. Or it would be, if said guy didn't occasionally stumble across terrific stuff like this.

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April 04, 2002

The Sad Truth is That I Like Pink

All this time I thought Pink was singing "I'm coming out so you better get this party started." Coming out. Today, listening to the song on the radio, I abruptly realized that she's actually saying "I'm coming up..."

What a fool I've been.

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Hello, I'm a well-known sports celebrity, here to tell you about an astounding new drug called Zamtrex. Well, I can't really "tell you about" it in the strictest sense of the term due to some pesky FDA regulations which prohibit me from mentioning what conditions Zamtrex treats, if, in fact, it treats any conditions whatsoever, which is also something I can't tell you. But I will say that Zamtrex was developed by top scientists in while lab coats, and that clinical trials have shown that people taking both Zamtrex and an effective stroke-treatment drug show a significant decrease in incidences of strokes.

So at your next checkup, ask your doctor if Zamtrex is right for you. It is, trust me, but you know how doctors are: they like to be asked this stuff. If your doctor says he doesn't know what you're talking about, well, you just ask him again. Keep on asking him. After all, he doesn't need to know what Zamtrex is, he just needs to write you a prescription for it. So don't let up until he agrees to let you have a trial six-pack.

Zamtrex: Quite Possibly Improving Lives.

[ link | Humor]

Pucker Up, Chief

CNN Homepage

Washington Post Homepage

MSNBC Homepage
You know world events are spinning out of control when all the major newspapers feature the Bush Tough-Talk Pucker on their front page.
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April 03, 2002

NCAA & Math

Much hullabaloo is being made of the fact that, by and large, sports writers did an abysmal job of predicting the NCAA Tournament outcome. In particular, folks are pointing out that virtually none of these jokes nailed who would be in the Final Four and who would walk away with the trophy (or belt, or medal, or year's supply of beef jerky, or whatever it is they give the winners).

Well, I don't know nuthin' about no basketball, but I do know a tiny bit about probability -- enough to spot the fallacy in this line of reasoning. The argument, in a nutshell, goes a little something like this: "Of 100 sports writers, only 5 accurately predicted who would win the Tournament; therefore 95% of sports writers are poor are predicting who will win the Tournament." Makes perfect sense, right? But the problem with this criticism is that it's just another case of Monday morning quarterbacking. Remember, the sports writers were announcing who they thought was likely to win, not who was certain to win -- that's what prediction is all about, nailing the probabilities. And there were quite a few upsets this year, such as Duke getting the heave-ho early on. So it's entirely possible the the sports writers were correct in predicting who would likely win, it's just that fate took an unexpected turn.

Confused? Here, let me toss in an analogy, free of charge. Say you have a bunch of mathematicians and a coin. Throw in a fifth of vodka and you got yourself a party right there. You tell them that you are going to flip the coin ten times, and ask them to predict how many times "heads" will turn up. Each and every one of them is going to say "five". Now, you flip the coin ten times and, by some quirk of fate, you gets tails ten times in a row. Aha! Those mathematicians were full of hooey, right? No, of course not -- they were dead on in predicting what was likely to happen. It just ... didn't.

Saying "nearly all the sports writers were wrong" actually weakens the argument that they're lousy predictors. After all, if they were all 100% accurate at figuring out the probabilities they would all make the same predictions, and at the end of the Tournament they would either all be right
or all be wrong (just as each and everyone of the mathematicians was wrong in the above example). In this case, most sports writers made similar guesses as to how things would turn out. The fact that reality didn't conform to conventional sports writer wisdom doesn't necessarily mean they were incorrect (although it doesn't rule it out either).

You see? You don't? Well, that's okay -- when it comes to probabilities there's also, like, a three outta five chance that I don't have the slightest idea what I'm talking about. At any rate, one thing is certain: I just gave myself a headache thinking about this.

Update! The great thing about the Internet -- and by "great" I mean "terrifying" -- is that if you don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about, and you decide to announce this fact via the World Wide Web, you will be put back in your place instantaneously! O Brave New World.

Moments after I made the above post, Bryan Curtis, author of the cited Slate article, dropped me a line:

You know much more about math than I do, but allow me to add more information on the unique brain structure of sportswriters. The very un-mathematical idea behind this experiment was to see how well sportswriters could predict the NCAA Tournament. And, since I had little faith they could do it well, reassure the amateur bracketeers out there that the "experts" were just as confused and ill-prepared as they were.

If I read your analogy about who would "likely win" correctly, then the sportswriters' job should have been easy. The NCAA seeds all 64 of its teams and they could have just picked the higher seed in each game--at least, until they reached the Final Four and had to choose between four No. 1 seeds. But they didn't. Overwhelming majorities of writers picked underdogs in certain games. For example, they picked No. 11 Pennsylvania to beat No. 6 California. Pennsylvania--at least in the minds of the seeding committee and Las Vegas bookmakers--wasn't more likely to win. But the writers picked them anyway. So it seems to me that the writers weren't just playing the averages--though they largely did that, advancing three out of four No. 1 seeds to the Final Four. They were trying, as we all do, to fill out the perfect bracket--which, every year, means picking the right upsets in the right games.

Plus, we don't need sportswriters to tell us what's likely to happen; we can determine that simply by glancing at the seeds or the betting line.

I'm reasonably sure that there is a mathematical theorem that renders everything I've just written completely false.

Bryan, I strongly doubt that I "know much more about math" that you, but you certainly know more about sports than I. For instance, I haven't the slightest idea how they get those seed numbers. You mean they are cooked up by people who are really REALLY calculating the probabilities? Well hell -- that puts a Ford-Expedition-sized hole in my argument now don't it?

All I know about NCAA basketball is that I gave some guy $3 a few weeks ago and, the other day, he gave it and a whole bevy of other three-dollar bills to someone else who had more stars on their March Madness Pool Sheet that I. And if I can't have my three bucks then, by God, at least I'll have this dubious mathematical argument as to why my utter failure to rake in the big bucks in no way proves that I wasn't 100% correct in my predictions.

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April 02, 2002


The park through which my wife and I run is infested with migrant bands of hippies, which rove aimlessly about, occasionally stopping to play Frisbee or jam on the bongos. As a graduate of Evergreen State College, I can spot a hippie at 300 yards, and did so tonight as we jogged down the lower path. This particular guy was unusual in one respect: he was by himself. Hippies tend to be a gregarious breed, and spotting one sitting alone on a bench is not a common sight. But in all other ways he was typical: he was clad in a Rastafarian cap and hemp-intensive clothing, he had dreadlocks and a faux-Guatemalan satchel.

As we approached, I saw him looking around warily, and then rooting around in his bag. He finally pulled out some small, plastic-and-metal object -- I couldn't really see what it was because he was blocking the sight of it with his body. He fiddled around with the object for a moment, all while casting furtive glances over his shoulder, and then brought it to his mouth as he turned his back to the path to hide what he was doing.

But we could still hear him. As we ran by he said "Hey, it's Joel. Can you hear me? I'm on my cell phone."


Here's an interactive fiction game that is so brief that you can play in on your coffee break. No foolin'. It's called 9:05 and it's quite clever. I'll write more about interactive fiction later this week.

[ link | Games]

April 01, 2002

Movies: Panic Room

[Movies: Panic Room] In my defense, let me state upfront that I was lobbying for Monster's Ball. But one member of our party stated her unwavering oppositions to all things Halle Berry, so we had to find something else. Finally we settled on Panic Room as a movie which, while not necessarily something we were all eager to see, was at least something that none of us refused to see.

Now, this was a switch for me. Up until that day I had been refusing to see Panic Room because it had run afoul of my Movie Trailer Ubiquity Rule ("If the total amount of time I have spent involuntarily watching a movie's trailers equals or exceeds the running time said film, it shall be removed from my Must See In Theaters list.") But then I had the misfortune to stumble across the Panic Room page at Rotten Tomatoes where I discovered two things that changed my mind. First, the film was directed by David Fincher, he of Fight Club and Seven. Secondly, it was actually getting favorable reviews: the consensus seemed to be that the excellent direction more than made up a mediocre script.

So we saw it. And the critics were right on the first count: the direction was great. But this script was so mediocre that Hitchcock himself would have had a tough time regaining the lost ground. As I'm certain you've gleaned from the trailers (now showing every 14 minutes on a tv station near you), the premise of the movie is that Jodie Foster moves into a new New York Apartment / Mansion, and discovers that it contains a "Panic Room": a sanctuary with reinforced steel walls, it's own phone line and a dozen security cameras that can be entered and sealed in case of a "home invasion". And so, of course, on the first night in her new abode three men break into her home, so she scurries into the panic Room, along with her daughter. The problem -- and the crux of the film -- the three burglars know what they want, and they know where it's located: inside the room that Foster now occupies.

What follows is like a Road Runner cartoon, with the criminals in the role of Wild E. Coyote: they cook up a scheme to capture Foster, and then she (meep meep!) foils them. Annnnnnd repeat. This could have been exciting, but the pace of the film is entirely too languid, and the paper-thin premise is spread out over two-hours. Worse, the plot is rife logical inconsistencies. Ordinarily I don't mind plot holes in a thriller -- hey, I can willingly suspect my disbelief with the best of them -- but Panic Room moves so slowly that it doesn't give you anything better to do than sit in your chair and think "hey wait a minute: why didn't she just use her cell phone in the first place?"

It's not terrible and plenty of folks will enjoy it -- the cinematograhy is nice, and the audience is treated to a plenitude of overhead shots of Jodi Foster in a tight tank-top -- but when it comes to "thrillers" I prefer a bit more sass in my sasperilla, thank you. You know, the kind of movies that actually thrill.

[ link | Movies]

April Fool's Day

April Fool's Day.

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