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February 28, 2007

Wish-I-Could-Draw Comics!

Style: Single, square panel containing a black-and-white sketch.

Scene: We look down on a chess board, at about a 45° from horizontal.

A lone white king stands at the far end of the board. Arrayed around him are assorted black pieces. He is in checkmate; there are no other white pieces anywhere near him.

A hand, clutching a number of pawns, is held over the near end of the board. The hand is opening, and pawns spill out. Some are in midair as they tumble downward, others lie on their sides in the foreground. A few have even rolled off the board.

Caption: "The Surge"

February 27, 2007

Books: March

There's a whole subgenre of literature starring minor characters from classic works. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Wicked. Wide Sargasso Sea. And, of course, my novella "Alive In Here," which retells Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope from the point of view of the Garbage creature (available upon request).

Likewise, Geraldine Brooks' latest novel tells the tale of Mr. March, a character plucked from the pages of Little Women. In Alcott's novel, March has left his four young daughters in the care of his wife, Marmee, while he fights for the Union in the civil war. The girls bravely soldier on in his absence, their spirits occasionally buoyed by his inspiration letters. In March, we learn that those letters are little more than fictions. Yes, the events Mr. March writes about are real, but the optimism that infuses every word is something that he no longer feels.

As in Little Women, Peter March is here portrayed as a preacher, and it is his firmly held beliefs as an abolitionist that lead him join in the battle against the confederacy. The courage of his convictions, however, is battered as he reaches the front lines and witnesses the true horror of war. Worse still, he finds few of his comrades-in-arms share his idealism--most fight not out of revulsion of slavery, but simply because they have been at war for so long that they've forgotten how to do anything but.

Though most of the novel parallels the events of Little Women (Mr. March occasionally stops to write letters, allowing the reader to gauge where he is, chronologically, with the narrative in Louisa May Alcott's book), it doesn't confine itself to the same time frame. In fact, much of the book takes place when Mr. March was but a traveling salesman, long before he met Marmee and sired his gaggle of girls. Brooks also tweaks some of Alcott's characters--not revising them per se, but adding additional depth. In Little Women, the mother was always around her children, and behaved accordingly; in March, there are a number of exchanges that take place exclusively between husband and wife, and well as scenes from their courtship, that cast Marmee in a new light, and show that she, like Mr. March, often put up a brave front to shield her daughters from her true feelings.

Having never read Little Women, I was worried that I wouldn't "get" most of March (as might be the case if you read Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead without knowing the basic outline of Hamlet). As it turns out, the story is so distinct from Alcott's novel--in terms of tone, explicitness, and its account of Mr. March's time away from the family--as to seem almost unrelated to the classic that spawned it. Brooks' novel so completely transcends the high-concept premise as to make the back-references to Little Women seem as more of an afterthought than the original motivation.

At any rate, don't let unfamiliarity with the source material deter your from from reading the Pulitzer-Prize winning March. It's a brutal account of two concurrent wars: the American civil war, and the clash between Mr. March's deeply-held idealism and the sobering reality in which he lives.

February 26, 2007


Thanks to debit cards, cash is pretty much obsolete. I can walk around for days without a dime in pocket or a care in the world, cheerfully deducting all my purchases from my checking account.

In fact, the only time I find myself in need of greenbacks is when I'm purchasing something so inexpensive that I cannot use my debit card, either because the store has a "minimum charge" policy, or because I'm trying to get Ho Hos out of a vending machine. In these cases there's always the ATM, but it's a drag to have to navigate seven menu screens to get cash, and then I typically wind up with $19.15 more than I wanted anyhow.

That's why I think ATMs should have a QuickCash option. Here's how it would work. Two prosthetic hands would be attached to the top of the machine. If you want $5, you hit one and shout "Gimmie five!"; hitting both and shouting "Gimmie ten!" submits your request for a sawbuck. Voice recognition software verifies your identity and the money is dispensed immediately.

I think this idea could really catch on. And, if successful, the machines could be retrofit to dispense girlie magazines as well. "Gimmie some skin!"

February 22, 2007

On Call

L: Help, I'm stuck on a boring conference call! Chat with me!

Me: Um, okay.

M: What should we chat about?

{A minute goes by}

M: Hello?

{A minute goes by}

M: What's the deal? Am I supposed to be chatting at you?

{A minute goes by}


M: I met a traveller from an antique land

M: Who said:--Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

M: Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

M: Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown

M: And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

M: Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

M: Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,

M: The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.

M: And on the pedestal these words appear:

M: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

M: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

M: Nothing beside remains: round the decay

M: Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

M: The lone and level sands stretch far away.

{Ten minutes go by}

L: Sorry!

L: I meant we should chat with each other, but I wound up speaking for the entire call.

M: I hope you at least managed to slip an Ozymandias reference in there.

L: I didn't think of that. And now everyone is disconnecting.

M: Quick! Just blurt something out!

M: "Hey Janet? Of frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command? Could you come to my desk and help me with this Excel spreadsheet? Right now it's a colossal wreck, boundless and bare."

L: Too late, they all hung up.

L: Oh, well. Thanks for being game, anyway.

M: No problem. My officemate is currently on the phone, guiding his eight-year old son through the process of unclogging a toilet with a plunger. So it was either chat at you or listen to that.

L: It's like primitive tech support.


February 21, 2007

And Ten For Good Measure

Here's a self-working card trick my dad showed me when I was but a wee lad. It sounds pretty uninteresting in the telling, but try it out--in practice, people are amazed at the outcome.

  1. Take a standard, 52 card deck and randomly discard ten cards. I prefer to do this before the trick starts and never tell the audience, but you can do it in the middle (step 6) if you're feeling honest. These ten cards will play no part in the trick.
  2. Deal the 42 cards into piles using the following method: Flip the top card from your deck face up, announce the value aloud (e.g., "seven!") and place it on the table as a foundation of a pile. Now continue to deal cards onto that pile, counting upwards with each card, until you hit thirteen. So after putting the 7 card face up, for instance, you would deal five cards onto it, counting "Eight", "Nine," "Ten," "Jack," "Queen," "King!". If the foundation card is an Ace you will create a 13-card pile; if it is a King it will constitute a pile unto itself. When a pile is complete, turn it face down and start a new pile with the next card. If the final cards in the deck do not make a complete pile (e.g., you flip over a "Three" but only have five cards remaining) set them aside for the moment.
  3. Ask your audience to pick three of the face-down piles. Take all the unchosen piles, combine them with the remainders from step 2 (if any), and hand the deck to your audience.
  4. Tell your audience to flip over the top card on one of the three, face-down piles. After he has done so, tell him to discard that many cards from his deck. So if he flipped over a 9, he would discard nine cards from his deck.
  5. Tell your audience to flip over the top card on a second pile and, again, discard that many cards.
  6. Only if you did not remove cards in step 1: tell your audience to discard ten more cards "for good measure".
  7. Tell your audience to count how many cards he has left in his hand. Then tell him to flip over the top card on the last of the three face-down piles. If you've done everything correctly, the value of the card will equal the number of cards he holds.
The best thing about this "trick," I've found, is that there's is no trick--it's just math--so you can feel free to reveal the secret when you're done (where "secret" = "just take out 10 cards before you start and do what I did."). This is especially good for kids because, requiring no sleight of hand or misdirection, it is virtually un-screw-up-able, so long as they follow the recipe.

If, on the other hand, someone is dismissive because it is "just a formula," hand him all 52 cards and challenge him to recreate the trick. Assuming they don't know to take out 10 cards ahead of time, their attempt will end in gloatworthy failure.

February 20, 2007

Reflections On My Netflix Queue

Comments on my recent rental history. Spoilers ahoy for all titles herein.

The Legend

I wonder if this film gets any better after the first four minutes. Alas, I shall never know.

Brokeback Mountain

Watching this film, I couldn't help but think that this was going to be the go-to movie for a whole generation of gay, in-the-closet teens, much as my formative years were spent surreptitiously fast-forwarding through Meatballs 3 in search of the topless scenes.

Then I remembered that, since my youth, this zany thing called Teh Internet up and got invented, which means that all the good Brokeback scenes are probably available online, possibly as animated gifs. They may even have their own Facebooks pages, who knows?

Still, as a public service to any of you kids out there want to do it old school, get your mitts on the DVD and refer to this cheat sheet:

27:20Drunken wrasslin'.
31:04Jake Gyllenhaal wearing nothing but boots.
33:10This is the scene you are looking for.
1:03:25Some serious making-out
1:05:16Shirtless, post-coitus (or whatevertus) cigarettes.
1:09.28Naked Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger jumping off a cliff into a lake. If you watch the scene at 1/32 speed, you can make out three or four pixels of wang.

And just in case any heterosexual males inadvertently stumble upon this page: Anne Hathaway's knockers, 57:55.

Good movie. I expected it to mostly be a gimmick film (Gay cowboys!), but it was solid and well-made, far exceeding the controversial premise. And while some people had told me that it was boring, I found it pensive (where "pensive" is defined as "enjoyably boring").

Little Miss Sunshine

Studio exec: All right, you've got thirty seconds. Go.

Michael Arndt: What do Americans love? I'll tell you what Americans love: dysfunctional families. The Simpsons. The Sopranos. Supernanny. People love 'em.

S.E.: Okay.

M.A.: So, how about a movie ... about a family ... where everyone is really, really dysfunctional?

S.E.: Seems like it's been done.

M.A.: No, but we're gonna make 'em really, really, really dysfunctional. Like, the brother is suicidal. And the son won't talk. And the grandfather is addicted to heroin. And the little girl likes porn.

S.E.: The little girl likes porn? I don't know ...

M.A.: Well, okay, so the grandfather also likes porn. Doesn't matter, we'll hammer out the details later. Take home message: really dysfunctional. You with me so far?

S.E.: So far.

M.A.: Okay. So, what if we took this family, the whole family, and put them all in a VW bus. And made them travel across country. Huh? Think of it! Hijinks!

S.E.: Where are they going?

M.A.: Doesn't matter. To some dysfunctional thing, doesn't matter. The important thing is that they are all together, in a VW bus, for a long, long time. And totally--totally--dysfunctional. Do you smell sleeper hit? Because I smell something that smells like sleeper hit to me.

S.E.: How does it end?

M.A.: Oh, you know, whatever. We'll just tack the end of Napoleon Dynamite on there, people seemed to like that.

I mean, I liked it. But, still.

Arrested Development: Season 3

I didn't watch A.D. when it was originally airing, so I wasn't one of those people who was crushed when it got canceled. And, to be honest, three seasons seems like the perfect amount to watch on DVD.

Not that I don't love the show. But how many programs managed to demote themselves from "great" to "just okay" by virtue of running too long? Twin Peaks, for sure. The X-Files. And now, to hear my friends tell it, Lost. With only 53 episodes, Arrested Development avoids this fate-worse-than-cancellation, and actually gets funnier as it goes.

By season three they must have known they were on borrowed time, because they pull out all the stops. The show becomes so self-referential that only the devoted fan could hope to catch all the references to previous jokes, and it gets exponentially dirtier. (Michael's three second pause after the line "Who'd want to go into that musty old clap-trap" made me laugh until my stomach hurt.)

If you've only seen a few A.D. episodes here and there, rent season one and watch them in order. Though the second year doesn't live up to the first, plow your way through it so you can watch the third -- you won't regret it.

Superman Returns

Cripes, where to start with this mess? Let's just take it in order:

  • Tip to aspiring filmmakers: make sure your audience can figure out what the hell is going on during the first 10 minutes.
  • So let me get this straight: astronomers thought they saw the planet Krypton, so Superman spent five years flying all the way out there (in a spaceship?), only to discover that, nope, they were wrong, it's still a-blowd up. Um, jeeze astronomers: this seems like it would have been one of those "measure twice, cut once" situations, seeing as how you deprived the world of Superman for half a decade. What, smudge on the telescope?
  • The airplane saving bit was really exciting! A shame, almost, in that you can't help but unfavorably compare the remainder of the film to that single, engrossing scene.
  • Man, when did Clark Kent get to be such a cad? Using his x-ray vision to stalk Lois, trying to mack on another guy's girl, etc. Not to mention that he's a deadbeat dad. He's gone from defender of the American Way from Guy You Wouldn't Want To Sit Next To On The Bus
  • I'm sorry, but this is the stupidest evil plot I've ever seen. Lex is going to destroy a perfectly good continent to make a pointy, unlivable one? And he'll get to be king of the new landmass because he was on it first? Yeah, that worked out great for the Native Americans.
  • Superman is now flying around carrying a literal mountain of kryptonite? I think we're done here.

An Inconvenient Truth

Dear Al Gore: please run for President and select Obama as your running mate so I can vote for you the end.

February 19, 2007

Good One

How many lightbulbs does it take for a person who can't tell a joke to screw it up?

No, wait ...

[ link | Humor]

February 14, 2007

It's Never Too Late ...

... to throw together a last minute Oscar Pool.

Well, actually, as of February 26th it will be too late ...
February 13, 2007

Online Dating
Online Dating
[ link | Humor]

February 12, 2007

Seattle Crime / Mystery Writing Circle?

I used to write stuff for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine back in college, and I'm thinking about getting back into it. Does anyone know of a crime / mystery writing circle in the Greater Seattle area?

Until I find one, though, I guess you guys can serve as my writing group.

I've posted a short story here, and I'd appreciate your constructive criticism.

Update: I got a ton of great feedback--thanks to everyone who took the time to comment. If you'd still in the mood for crime fiction, may I recommend the archvies of Thuglit.

February 07, 2007

Headline News


Nowak ordered to remain on Earth until arraignment

Sorry, one-liners are about all I have time, right now. Expect no updates for the remainder of the week frowny-face-emoticon.
[ link | News]

February 05, 2007

The Truth About Global Climate Change


Intelligent Warming


February 02, 2007

Plugapalooza: No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog

Maggie Mason's blog Mighty Girl was the inspiration for my own. She's also the founder of Mighty Goods, a contributing writer for The Morning News, and an all-around swell gal. (I know the latter for a fact, because I had the good fortune to meet her last year -- nyeah nyeah). Her first book was just published, and you should buy four copies. -- MB

Hi, I'm Maggie, and No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog is my very first book. Around the time it was published, I found out I was pregnant. The baby is scheduled to arrive any minute now, which means that I'm in an advanced stage of exhausted stupidity.

I tried to think of something witty to say about the book, something that would make Matt feel justified in sharing his terrifyingly intense high school photos with the Internet. Here's what I came up with:

Buy book. Book good.

So, as you can see, my signature wit is still intact.

In the absence of astute literary commentary, I figured the least I can do is stand beside Matt in his shame. Baldwin, you owe me a beer:

Yeah. Make that two beers.
-- Maggie Mason

Happy Groundhogs Day!


Six More Weeks


[ link | Humor]

February 01, 2007

Research Day: Circumsicison and HIV

The following post was inspired by the seventy-first suggestion in No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog, which was randomly selected by Alison Headley of bluishorange.

I used to work in the field of HIV and AIDS research. So when a friend of mine recently discovered that he was to be the father of a baby boy, he sent me the following email:

What do you know about connection between circumcision and reduced chance of acquiring HIV? We hadn't even considered circumcision until we heard about the study, but now we're wondering about it
To which I responded:
I don't want to discount the HIV transmission thing, but, in your case, I don't know that I'd put a lot of stock in it either. There was a lot of talk about this study back when I was working at the lab, and I don't dispute the findings. But bear in mind that these trials were conducted in areas where HIV was prevalent, and where the participants were engaging in "high risk" behavior (multiple partners, unprotected sex, etc).

If you educate your kid to take precautions against HIV, and he lives in an area where HIV isn't rampant, and he's monogamous (or just-a-fewgamous), his being circumcised might only decrease his overall chance of infection from "pretty low" to "pretty low minus a smidge" (as opposed to, say, a Kenyan trucker who has lots of sex with multiple, concurrent partners, and whose circumcision is his only form of "protection.").

But, before hitting send, it occurred to me that I might not know what I was talking about. I mean, yes, I used to work in the field of HIV and AIDS research, but only as a programmer -- not as one of the genius who actually design the clinical trials or analyze the results.

So I sent my friend's question, and my reply, to M, a statistician I know who still works there. Here's what she had to say:

Hey Matthew,

To assess individual risk, one would need to account for many characteristics and behaviors on the individual level. In most clinical studies, such as those conducted regarding male circumcision, data is collected on risk factors associated with the outcome (HIV infection in this case) and the exposure (circumcision, say). In stat. analyses, we adjust for these factors so that we can come up with a reasonable estimate for the risk of the exposure accounting for all the other potential "confounding" characteristics/behaviors on a population level.

For the individual, however, his/her risk is highly dependent on his/her individual profile of risk. Circumcision, for example, is only one characteristic of a man that might put him at risk for HIV infection. There exist a plethora of others such as HIV status of his sex partners, numbers of sex partners, alcohol/ drug use, injection drug use, condom use, etc.

Your points are well made regarding the differences between heterosexual risk in the US and that in high HIV prevalent areas such as sub-Saharan Africa in that in the US, among heterosexual males, the risk of transmission is much lower since the prevalence of HIV among all people is lower. For example,

"In 2004, men who have sex with men (MSM) (47%) and persons exposed through heterosexual contact (33%) accounted for an estimated 80% of all HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed in areas in the U.S. with confidential name-based reporting. Blacks accounted for 49% of cases and Hispanics for 18%. Infection rates in both groups were several-fold higher than that in whites. An overall prevalence of about less than 0.5% was estimated for the general population [15]."

See http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/resources/factsheets/circumcision.htm for more details.

In observational studies in the US, however, the relative risk of HIV infection among non-circumcised men was typically two-fold that of circumcised men. So, whether you are a man in Africa driving a truck and having sex with many women, or you are a man in the US having sex with one woman, if you are having sex with an HIV+ woman and you are not circumcised, you are pretty much at the same level of risk for HIV, with all other characteristics being equal. One issue that has not been determined, though, is whether or not the different clades of HIV strains could have an impact on the susceptibility of acquisition. If there were a difference, the geographic location (i.e. who you were having sex with and thus, what strain of virus they have), could have an impact on acquisition.

In other words, your risk is highly dependent on your own personal behaviors, rather than the population's behaviors. We use the population stats to help us understand, in general, what behaviors on the individual level will put us at higher risk than other behaviors. But, we cannot quantify an individual's risk based on population numbers unless we design a study in such a way to make these calculations possible.

There is, of course, many other considerations regarding male circumcision for babies, such as risk of infection, pain, etc. to go through the operation. This should be weighed with the benefit (as you pointed out to your friend) of other harms (such as HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases such as Human Papillomavirus, Gonorrhea, Herpes, etc.). Also safe sex practices (using a condom!), in general, will most likely outweigh any risk of not being circumcised if this baby boy grows up to be a real swinger (either with men or women)!!

Hope that helps. Also see http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/news/QA/AMC12_QA.htm for another website to consult, and the press release on the trial in Kenya and Uganda.


M also asked that I add the following disclaimer: "This was written by an anonymous, somewhat crazy biostatistician-woman who happens to have some extended experience researching HIV/AIDS, among mostly & ironically, Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). Please take her words regarding the male genitalia, and what should be done with it, with a grain of salt!"

Me, I wouldn't think that circumcision and salt would go together but, like I said, I'm just a code-jockey.