Monday, December 08, 2008

Speech for Keryn's wedding


Mawidge is a dweam wiffin a dweam!

Some of you aren't laughing, but that's okay. It's probably because you have never seen "The Princess Bride" or read the book. And if you haven't seen the movie, then you obviously didn't grow up with Keryn and me, because one of us would have strapped you down and forced you to.

You see, my relationship to Keryn, like my relationship to many members of my friends and family, is largely defined by the entertainment that we have shared. We both love musicals, and cheesy melodramas, and fantasy movies. We have seen so many of the same movies, and played so many of the same games, that now I usually just have to say one single phrase to make her break down laughing.

To give you an idea of what new friends have to go through, Keryn has a neighbor named Charity, a young woman who recently turned 18. In the few years that Keryn has known her, she's forced her to watch a variety of stuff ranging from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" to "Fraggle Rock" to the musical episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". It's part of the cultural background of knowing us, and there WILL be a test later. If I say "Imagine you're a deer..." then you'd better be prepared to sit still for several minutes while Keryn reproduces Marisa Tomei's entire screechy diatribe about animal rights from "My Cousin Vinny." The only way to cut her off is to jump to the punchline and yell it first, so she can't get more mileage out of the rest of the speech.

That's the kind of relationship I have with my little sister, and I love her very much, even though she is, like all sisters, a little nuts. Let me tell you how nuts she is. Keryn asked me to serve as the Badchan for her wedding reception. Now unlike Keryn, I am a terrible Jew, I barely even knew what a Badchan is. She told me, but I forgot. So I did what any nerd of the information age would do: I looked it up on Wikipedia, which we all know is always 100% accurate and perfectly infallible. Wikipedia says that a badchan is "a joker or clown, who traditionally entertains before and after Ashkenazic Jewish weddings." Riiiiight. At least I figured out how to PRONOUNCE Ashkenazic.

But when I heard that Keryn wanted me to present a major speech for her wedding, naturally my first reaction was, "Are you insane? You know what I'll have to say about marriage right now, don't you???" As she knows very well, I'm in the process of a divorce, and I've been living in Keryn and Michael's guest room since late July. In fact, it was kind of a running joke for me, because several couples I knew appeared to break up within a few weeks of each other. So I speculated that I am the carrier of some kind of rare virus that destroys long-term relationships. I told my theory to Keryn, and she didn't miss a beat. "GET OUT!" were her exact words.

Yet somehow, even after Keryn and Michael have been exposed to my virus every single day for five months, they're still getting married. Ask me why. Go on, ask the divorced guy how to make a successful marriage.

Well, I don't know. How well do I really know Michael? After living with the guy for several months I should know him better than anyone else in my family does, but Michael is a remarkably hard guy to get to know. I mean, here's a typical example of an exchange with Michael, when I used to come home from work and he was watching TV.

Me: "Hi Michael!"
Michael (mumbling): "Uh."

Are they together because they share the same set of values and beliefs? Um, well, you tell me. One of Keryn's many endearing features is that she's a vegan. Not a vegetarian, mind you. Vegetarians don't eat meat but they can eat eggs, milk, and sometimes even fish. Vegans don't eat or use any animal products. And Keryn, because she is against any exploitation of animals, won't eat Jell-o because it contains traces of boiled animal bones -- no really, look it up. She has to ask for details about french fries because sometimes they are cooked in the same oil as other food including meat. She won't TOUCH anyone wearing leather, and she is at least somewhat squeamish about honey. Because of the captive bees, you know.

So Michael comes home one day with a bag from Whataburger, containing... a TRIPLE cheeseburger. Now I'm an enthusiastic carnivore myself, but even I feel like going into coronary arrest just from LOOKING at that much meat in one place. Michael doesn't just want to eat this massive thing, though... he makes a point of sitting in front of my sister and going (lip smacking) "Mmmmmm, this is so good!" Keryn just loves that, I'm sure.

Actually, though, it's not true that I haven't learned anything at all about my new brother-in-law from living with him. Michael has a great sense of humor. At least I THINK he does. Quite honestly, it's often impossible to tell whether he's joking or not, because Michael's style of humor is completely deadpan. He doesn't care whether you get the joke or not. He's like Andy Kaufman: he is happy just to entertain himself. Let me show you what I mean.

I went to a Round Rock Express baseball game with my son Ben, and Keryn and Michael, and a friend of ours named Andi. Andi is a woman who just loves sports of all kinds. Takes them very seriously. Keryn and I grew up in a non-sports household, so Keryn had to ask about the rules. Yes, she didn't know the rules of BASEBALL. Even I know how baseball works. Michael explained the rules in a way that, to me, was very obviously wrong. Only he didn't do it with a smile or a wink or a sarcastic tone of voice. He just told her very directly about the role of the halfback and the center guard and whatever. Finally when he got tired of answering questions, he told her "I'll tell you more at halftime."

Later, Andi pulled me aside. She was fuming. She asked "Did you hear what he said? He'll tell her at halftime. Halftime! THERE'S NO HALFTIME IN BASEBALL!" I paused for a moment and then said "Um... Michael was joking. At least I THINK he was." But Andi insisted: "No, I heard his tone of voice. He wasn't joking. He's completely serious. He has no idea what he is talking about."

Now I thought I understood Michael's personality well enough to see through the delivery, but she actually managed to make me doubt him. So I finally had to ask him: "Hey Michael... you really were kidding when you were talking about halftime in baseball... right??" And finally Michael's facade cracked, and he grinned real wide at me. Yes, of course he was joking. But if I hadn't asked him, I think he would have been just as pleased with himself if no one got the joke.

What do Keryn and Michael see in each other? Keryn drags Michael to dance lessons, and Michael goes along with it. Michael decides to join a country club, so he can, I don't know, play golf and wear a monocle and say "I say, let's have dinner and cognac at the club tonight." Keryn goes to the club.

These are two people who like to share life experiences. Okay, fine, so they're DIFFERENT life experiences. So what? To some extent they are both very open people, who will go along and try new things just to be participating in an activity together. They scuba dive. They watch reality cooking shows. I don't think Michael really likes Renaissance Faires, but I'm betting he went along with Keryn only because she agreed to make out with another girl in costume... oh yes you did! Now the story's out!

And they both love cats. BOY do they love cats. It's a good thing that Keryn is getting married, because it prevents her from being the crazy single lady with a house full of cats. These two poor kids had to cope with the death of not one but two cats in just the last few months. I feel very sad for them, they were wonderful cats... but now they're still left with six. And you know, I was surprised when Michael was hit just as hard emotionally by the losses as Keryn was. Sometimes Michael masks his emotions so well that I didn't realize he loves his own cats so fiercely.

The truth is, I am grateful to have Michael and Keryn in my life -- not least because of their overwhelming generosity in letting me stay at their place while I am still paying mortgage on a house that I'm not currently living in. Also, as I've struggled to settle into a job that will make the best use of my Masters Degree, Michael has been a great help in giving me interviewing tips. Of course, some of his tips involve the creative use of exaggeration... which is actually a polite way of saying "He told me to lie more often." In all seriousness, Michael knows how to get and keep a job, and he really helped to change my perspective. I realize now, more than I used to, that job interviews are just as much about showmanship and presentation as they are about raw technical knowledge. I am a better person for his advice.

And while I used to think that Michael maybe didn't like kids, he's warmed up to my son Ben in some surprising ways. Part of it is the annoying way that he tells Ben to steal candy from the cabinet when I'm not looking. But Michael also recently learned some magic tricks and spent a solid chunk of time using Ben as his guinea pig audience. Ben actually bonded with Michael a little bit. Don't worry, though, I'm not very threatened by a potential hostile takeover yet.

I'll admit that there have always been periods of time when my sister drove me crazy. But also, she's sent me a lot of pictures of us two as kids together. When you look at those pictures, you would think that there was never a time when I wasn't reading to her, or she wasn't hugging me, or we weren't having a great time being in each other's company. When Keryn was born, I used to wonder whether she would ever learn to talk. When she was three, I used to wonder whether she would ever stop. But after all the things I can see we shared together -- trips to Disneyworld, and completing enormous 3D jigsaw puzzles, and skiing trips -- I guess I have to accept that we loved each other a lot, and still do.

And Michael? Well, he's not Jewish. I don't care -- did I mention that I'm a very bad Jew? Like Tevye, I'm supposed to be offended that Keryn is marrying some goy. But I'm not. I suppose it's lucky for us that we have no surviving relatives in attendance who would really care about keeping the blood pure. Besides, did you know? The name "Hawthorne" actually comes the Yiddish word "Khaw-torn-im" -- which means "people who really love reality cooking shows." So Hawthorne, Jewish. There you go.

[Side note: Keryn's pre-wedding festivities included renting a theater to watch "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and anyone who saw that will get the reference.]

In sitcom parlance, I now have a wacky brother-in-law, and there are worse things to have. So I wish Keryn and Michael the best success in keeping their marriage alive, and I hope you have a great trip to Fiji. You lucky dogs.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Epic fail

I'm a devoted fan of fiction author Ken Follett. Something that's distinctive about Follett's writing is that his villains are very well drawn, their perspective is clearly outlined, and Follett does a good job of establishing what motivates them. So after setting up the villain as a terrible person over a period of years in the story, this perspective often helps to create a moment of great enjoyment at the end of the book, when the villain receives exactly the punishment that he fears the most, and sees all of his plans fail in the most catastrophic way possible.

I was reminded of the "epic failure" moment for a Ken Follett villain as I watched this video.

As I see it, the character of "George W. Bush" is driven by a desire to be respected and feared. We in the reality-based community have been dismissed for years as irrelevant, because while we pay attention to things like "facts," team Bush has believed themselves to be above such mundanities. They believed that the actions they took would fundamentally change the way the world works. They ridiculed the idea that we should care how the rest of the world perceives us, because they will be judged in the light of history as having made brilliant steps towards saving mankind.

The conga line of humiliation shown in the video, I think, is a neat summary of where this has gotten us. The other leaders aren't acting angry, or scared of George Bush. They're just... not interested in him. He's a lame duck in every sense of the word. They're waiting to deal with Barack Obama, to see if he's capable of dragging America out of the mess that he got us into.

Yeah, history will judge us all right... let the first few paragraphs be written now.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Song of Ice and Fire TV series proceeding

w00t! w00t! w00t!!

Excellent book series is about to become an excellent TV miniseries. This one has been in the works for a long time, of course, but this is the first confirmation that they're actually filming it now.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

RIP Michael Crichton

Best-selling author Michael Crichton dies

U.S. best-selling author Michael Crichton, who wrote such novels as "The Andromeda Strain" and "Jurassic Park," and created the popular TV drama "ER," has died at 66, his family said Wednesday.

Crichton, a medical doctor turned novelist whose books have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide, died "unexpectedly" Tuesday in Los Angeles after a private battle with cancer, his family said.

I was saddened by what I saw as a slow descent into hackdom in later years, but I went through a pretty substantial Crichton phase and enjoyed the hell out of many of his books. Here are the ones I've read, with the ones I really liked marked with a star:

  • A Case of Need (*)
  • The Terminal Man
  • Jurassic Park (*)
  • Rising Sun (*)
  • Disclosure (*)
  • The Lost World
  • Airframe
  • Timeline (*)
  • Prey (have to admit that I was put off by the awkward shift from a promising sci-fi theme to a straight-up zombie story)
  • State of Fear (first CD of an audio set, which I stopped listening to out of boredom, long before I noticed the political message)

A successful career and a sad loss. As in the case of Orson Scott Card, I wouldn't let some weird political beliefs overshadow the many excellent works he has done.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I take full credit

Last night at 8:46, a good friend instant messaged me, saying simply, "This is almost better than sex."

Yesterday morning I spent a couple of hours logging into and making about 50 phone banked calls from home to undecided voters in Florida and Minnesota. (I've encountered another brief patch of unemployment, but I'm interviewing like crazy so don't worry too much.) Obama won big in Florida and Minnesota. You're welcome. I also persuaded a friend to do the same for New Hampshire. Obama won big in New Hampshire. You're welcome again.

I am still suffering from severe cognitive dissonance at this point... I'm simply not used to presidential election nights being FUN. Right now I should be sweating, recovering from a near all-nighter, and obsessively clicking for more news about Ohio or Florida. Reaching further back in memory, even in the Clinton elections, my enjoyment was a bit marred by being surrounded by a bunch of complaining Republicans in my college residences. Last night, instead, I was hanging out with my sister and a good friend, gleefully running back and forth between the Daily Show / Colbert electionstravaganza, and my upstairs computer (my laptop chose last night to stop responding to wireless, although it's better now) to check on messages, emails, and live updating interactive maps. Getting or making calls several times an hour.

Just a few tiny clouds in the midst of all this silver lining: Republicans still hold enough seats in Congress to effectively filibuster legislation, and you bet they will. Al Franken, who was running the most important Senate race for me personally, is a bit behind at this time, and I have no faith in recounts delivering good news. And my friends in California are mourning the passing of gay marriage. For this year, anyway.

But even in the midst of all this... what a night! What a classy concession speech! What a killer acceptance speech! God Bless Jon and Stephen, every one!

It's too bad I don't smoke.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


I already reposted something long about voting on the Atheist Experience blog, so I'll keep this one to the point.

Have you voted yet?



Friday, October 24, 2008

Dragging some more meaning out of "Dr. Horrible"

I have the Dr. Horrible soundtrack on my iPod now, and as I listened to the music again after all these months, I realized that the story had and continues to have a meaning that really resonates with the things that have happened in my life. As I've not written on my personal blog in a few weeks (but I'm still active on, so keep an eye on that too!) it's time to indulge my inner geek with another look back at this wacky little web movie.

This post WILL contain spoilers, but really the movie has been available for months -- what's taken you so long? Go watch it, I'll be here when you get back.

(spoiler space)

Dr. Horrible is a story about change and transition, and it is relevant to me because it was released at almost the precise moment in my own life when a period of major transition started to happen. It's still happening, and if anything the changes are accelerating. My friends will understand what life experiences I'm talking about, and I don't feel like I need to get very detailed. I'm just talking about the movie.

For a while after watching the ending, I just hated it. It made me mad, because Joss Whedon "pulled a Joss Whedon" and killed a major character as usual. In the last scene, Billy appears on camera for about three seconds looking completely lost and forlorn. And I concluded: "He's going to be miserable for the rest of his life, he'll never get over that loss."

But as I've gone and revisited it, the meaning has changed in my mind. Let's not forget that Billy's loss is Dr. Horrible's gain. The Doctor WON. He really did. He achieved his lifelong dream, acquiring fame and respect, no longer being a joke or a dork or a failure.

Just compare the very first moment of the movie - where Billy gives this pathetic and unconvincing giggle as his signature laugh - to the scene where Dr. Horrible freezes Captain Hammer and lets out a full throated villainous cackle. That was a great moment: the scared little joke of a kid has been overtaken by his inner darkness. It's darkness that he was striving to achieve, and he did it.

Far be it from me to say that it's admirable to achieve your lifelong dream of committing crimes on a vast scale and making people fear and run from you. That's totally against what I believe in, duh. But this is the Whedonverse, where values and priorities are sometimes mixed up and turned upside down, and you just have to accept them in context. Captain Hammer was a braggart and a bully, and Billy was an abused underdog who just wanted to make something of himself. That's the way it goes in this story, evil is the new good. Swallow your disbelief and move on.

Let's face it, Penny was a sweet girl -- and I would GLADLY groom Felicia Day any day of the week -- but she was absolutely wrong as a potential partner for Dr. Horrible. Not only was she sweet and caring, which are decidedly Non-Evil character traits, but she also revealed herself to be utterly shallow with her last line, when she still couldn't see through Captain Hammer's persona of coolness and realize that he was a huge dick. Sure, she looked uncomfortable during her scenes with him, but she had plenty of chances to drop the Hammer, and she still chose him in the end.

So Billy looks fleetingly unhappy in the end, and he's got some pain. So what? "Billy" is not the character he wanted to be at all. Billy wanted to be Dr. Horrible right from the start... and he got it. He won.

And is Dr. Horrible destined always to be unhappy and in pain from his inner Billy? I think not! He'll meet other girls. EVIL girls. If power could be an aphrodisiac for a gargoyle like Henry Kissinger, it's gonna work wonders for the doc, who looked totally in his element when he donned the new and improved Evil Suit. Just look at how quickly Captain Hammer's fickle groupies dumped the guy and switched to holding up a picture of Dr. H during the last song. This is not an ending that shows a guy emotionally ruined; this is the triumph of evil -- which in the upside down universe, is good.

I can't help it, I like the ending now. And "Slipping" is a great song that signifies that victory, a victory not quite complete yet, but about to become reality. It's really all about Billy's new winning attitude.

Furthermore, I suspect that my new perspective on the movie IS exactly what Joss and the other writers had in mind. After all, they were going through a major life-changing experience too. They had been poorly treated by the studios, and had taken a very risky stand which involved losing their income for several months. That's a scary thing to do, but it was done with the understanding that it was an investment to ensure that they, and those who came after them, would be better off in the long term because of the writer's strike. Change always means loss, and loss is scary, but it is hopefully a localized loss that will lead to a net gain.

In unrelated (?) news -- wish me luck on my job search. I'm a little scared myself after an impersonal layoff that I couldn't do anything about. Yet I do believe that I'm going to come out ahead, better for the experience, and it won't take very long.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Biden-Palin debate at the Alamo Drafthouse

Keryn and I watched the debate last night at the Alamo Drafthouse, an Austin movie theater chain that serves food and beer. Since, as I expected, the theater was mostly full of cheering and heckling Democrats, the evening was a fun one. There were a few scattered Republicans, and we happened to be sitting near some of the loudest -- a young couple, looked about college age, the girl was wearing a Palin shirt which my sister noticed immediately. Keryn apologized in advance for the expected rowdiness, and they said "No problem, you get used to it as a Republican in Austin." They acknowledged that everyone can yell as loud as they want without anyone's feelings being hurt.

I had pizza, Shiner Bock, and pecan pie a la mode. We also got a large bowl of popcorn, which we would have liked to throw, but there were too many people in the theater of course (it was sold out). We also received free bingo cards when we came in, with randomized spaces saying things like "Ahmadinejad," "Promise not to raise taxes," "Fannie and Freddy," "Hand chopping other hand gesture," and "Palin cries." I didn't expect that Biden would be the only one to cry, but he was.

The screen was tuned to CNN, so we got the little graph showing instant feedback about how undecided voters said they were feeling. I found it kind of mesmerizing on the giant screen, like one of those screen savers you can't stop watching. Biden got very positive results.

Anyway, there was lots of shouting and applause -- when Biden said something good most of the theater erupted, and when Palin said something quasi-Reaganesque there was a little smattering of claps. People audibly groaned every time Palin said "Nukular" or "Maverick," so there was an awful lot of groaning. At one point when global warming came up, the Republicans were shouting at Biden "That's not true! Read a science book!" and I said "There's scientific consensus that he's right in all the peer reviewed journals!" I think that was the closest I came to a brawl. The Democrat on my left started picking up on the way that Palin says "also" all the time, and starting repeating the word in the same accent every time it was said.

I managed to finish the Bingo game pretty near the end, with the square "Biden tries to tell a joke but fails badly." I didn't actually think he had done that, but Palin SAID -- I'm quoting from the transcript -- "In my comment there, it was a lame attempt at a joke and yours was a lame attempt at a joke, too, I guess, because nobody got it. Of course we know what a vice president does." I thought that was good enough to count for the bingo.

My assessment: Palin did not fall down or visibly injure herself. She parroted a lot of lines that Republicans love, including numerous ripoffs from Ronald Reagan. By virtue of this, Palin did better than expected. You can't judge how well she did based on my biased audience, but the voters being graphed on screen also seemed to favor Biden by a lot.

At the end, obviously the little reaction machines got turned off, because the line dropped all the way to the bottom of the negative scale. At least that's what it probably meant, but I also like to pretend that the audience just really hated it when Wolf Blitzer started talking.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

In a few years, this woman could be president

Sarah Palin enlightens us about the financial crisis.

Ow. Ow. My ears are bleeding. Make it stop. I'm sure John Stewart is going to do a much better job with this than I am, but let me take a few stabs at it right now.

Sarah Palin: "(Some completely nonsensical platitudes about how everything's fine.)"
Katie Couric: "(Factual information that entirely contradicts the above statement.)"
Sarah: Long pause... "Again, my understanding is that, uh, uh, (Repeats platitude with no indication that she just heard what was said)"
Sarah: "Americans are waiting to see what John McCain will do about this. They are not waiting to see what Barack Obama will do. Because everybody knows John McCain has the track record and the leadership."
Katie (dumbfounded): "Yeah, but polls show that Obama has gotten a boost from this news, because more Americans trust him to handle this correctly."
Sarah: "Ya know, I'm not lookin' at poll numbers. I just think Americans think like me."
Yeah! We mavericks don't think about silly things like "polls!" We just SAY what the American people think, and we're always right!

Christ. It's one thing to pretend that you don't care what popular opinion says. Quite another thing to actually say that popular opinion is lying about what they really think.

Katie: "You've said John McCain will reform the way Wall Street does business, but in 20 years he's almost always sided with people who want LESS regulation, not more."
Sarah: (gears grinding) "He's also known as 'THE maverick,' though, takin' shots from his own party. "
Katie: "I'm sorry, answer the damn question, can you give me one example of him pushing for more regulation EVER?"
Sarah: "I'll try ta find some and I'll bring 'em to ya!"

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

That is one tasty electoral map

This makes me happy.

In particular, Obama is winning the electoral vote handily while losing both Ohio AND Florida. (Ohio is currently neutral, but Obama wins even if it turns red.)

In 2004 I looked over the early electoral maps and concluded that Kerry could win if and only if he could carry either Ohio OR Florida. Kerry lost both, and sure enough, he lost the race. Either state flipping would have won it.

It's too early to say that things won't change, but right now, unless McCain has another ace up his sleeve, he looks pretty screwed to me.

Monday, September 15, 2008

John McCain makes Adam go "sproing"

As far as I know, not very many people are readers of Adam Cadre's regular articles.  His site is not really a proper blog, and I only know of him originally through his great work writing offbeat interactive fiction.  I am a big fan of Adam's writing.  He's blunt, atheist, liberal, and has great taste in entertainment styles, ranging from comics to games to movies to food.

So I want to wave a hand in the general direction of Adam's latest article about the presidential race.  I'll qualify this endorsement with apologies to my friends who live in red states and love them.  Hell, I love Austin, but only because it's not part of the "real" Texas, and I've long ago learned to abandon all hope when it comes to my vote personally influencing a national race.  However, quite a few things Adam says ring true for me.

Every election in my adult lifetime has played out the same way: Republicans argue that Red America is better than Blue America, and Democrats cry that, no, we're not so different! Republican political ads spew insults — or at least epithets thatRepublicans think are insults — while Democrats hold out their hands and coo that"There is no them — there is only us." I am so sick of this. There's a reason the guy who said that moved to New York after his presidency instead of back to Arkansas: New York is better than Arkansas. Massachusetts is better than Texas. Chicago is better than Wasilla, Alaska. Saying so might mean losing votes in Arkansas and Texas and Alaska, but those states are lost causes (in more ways than one); Republicans certainly show no compunction about slamming San Francisco and Boston and Vermont, and they're the ones winning elections.

Democrats can avoid saying that the red states are inferior to the blue ones as much as they like. But the red staters will continue to hear it. They'll hear it because the voices inside their heads are saying it. And those voices are correct. This makes them angry, and they lash out. Ten years ago, I was floored when a direly unfunny SNL alum named Adam Sandler suddenly scored a massive hit with a movie called The Waterboy, in which he played a mouth-breathing loser who becomes a star linebacker, fueled by uncontrollable rage at the thought of people making fun of him. At the time I couldn't understand why anyone would watch that, but now I get it. It spoke to people. After all, it's what vast numbers of American voters do at the ballot box.

What kind of people do places like Wasilla grow? Well, for one thing, it's hard to get off to a good start in life when your drunken stepfather is tasing you, bro. Child abuse happens everywhere, but some cultures foster it more than others. When parents exert total hegemony over the household without any kind of societal check, it opens up the potential for a real horror show — as the Palin family has demonstrated. Barack Obama tried to provide that societal check in Illinois with a program to teach schoolchildren how to avoid sexual abuse — and a McCain/Palin ad this week actually slams him for it. But given that an Anchorage judge ruled in 2005 that Sarah Palin herself was guilty of child abuse, I suppose it's not so surprising that she and her ilk are so afraid of daylight: it makes it that much harder for "our small towns" to keep their ugly little secrets.

Much more... please read.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Google makes yet another bid to run your life

So Google is now competing with Explorer and Firefox with their newest application, Chrome.  And I said, "Sure, just go ahead and take control of more of my online information and habits."  I mean, besides being my search engine, they already own this blog, my email, and a lot of my documents; keep track of my feed reading habits and my addresses, and maintain some of the code I've written; as well as being providing a desktop search application and a fun geographical visualization toy.  Did I leave anything out?

I can't say I'm not worried about them either turning evil or just disappearing someday.  But damn it, I can't help myself... I really LIKE having all the stuff I need online where I can access it from home, work, and any other computer in the world.  I suppose if Google does become an evil power, this is probably what it will look like.  It wouldn't be the first time that "The Onion" printed something that turned out to predict reality.

In the meantime... yes, I'm typing this from Google Chrome.  I am weak.  It doesn't even support any plugins, and yet for the moment I'm willing to use it even without themes, mouse gestures, ad blockers, or even getting my bookmarks updated automatically by

A few points in Chrome's favor so far:

  1. It starts up VERY FAST compared to the other browsers... although this might have something to do with the lack of plugins.
  2. It has a very compact interface, and does a lot of creative things to keep the screen space clean, like sticking the "search page" bar in one place.
  3. As you're typing an address, it automatically searches for likely completions and shows you the name of the page where you'd wind up.  (To be fair, Firefox 3 also appears to do something like this.)
  4. Searches and URLs are entered in the same box.  Usually it makes the correct choice, but you can pick from a menu to clarify what you want.
  5. When you open a tab, it shows you your favorite web destinations, along with thumbnail images of what they look like right now.
  6. You can drag tabs outside the window to create a new window, or drag a tab from one window to another.
All pretty cool.  Firefox (my primary browser) might imitate some of the new hotness, but for now I'm keeping Chrome Beta as my default browser, and I'll look forward to seeing what they release in the next few patches.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

More on Sarah Palin

I got a bewildering comment from a Republican, on the last post about Sarah Palin. First thing he said was: "Well layed out. Even more Hillary supporters will go for McCain now."

The reason it's bewildering is because, while he's entitled to his opinion, it has no apparent bearing to what I actually said in the post. So the question is, was Sarah Palin a good pick to woo former Clintonites?

Probably not...

Among Democratic women — including those who may be disappointed that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did not win the Democratic nomination — 9% say Palin makes them more likely to support McCain, 15% less likely.

Republicans pray for rain... and get it

Mmmm... I love the smell of irony in the morning.

Two weeks ago, some smug, smirking representative of Focus on the Family smarmily asked in a YouTube video, "Would it be wrong to ask people to pray for rain? Not just rain, abundant rain, torrential rain" -- in order to ruin Barack Obama's speech at Mile High Stadium last Friday. Just to give the world a demonstration about how mad God is about gay marriage, you see.

Careful what you wish for.

It ALMOST makes me wish I believed in their God. :P

Friday, August 29, 2008

Stupid 9/11 truthers again...

I regularly download The Rachel Maddow Show on my iPod. For the last few months, the hostess has been a regular panelist on "Race for the White House" on MSNBC, and so the first 40 minutes of Rachel's Show show are a simulcast of the audio portion of "Race."

Anyway, I tried to listen to the episode from yesterday, which was broadcast live from the convention, but I found myself was unable to hear the discussion. Some guy with a bullhorn had parked himself next to their table and was screaming "9/11 was an inside job! 9/11 was an inside job!" repeatedly throughout the entire show.

Holy geez, you people are assholes. Even if I didn't believe self-described "truthers" were complete nutjobs, what do they even think they're accomplishing by making public annoyances of themselves? Do they actually think there are some people in America who aren't already familiar with their claims? Or do they think the skeptics will be convinced if only they could hear some mindless phrase chanted over and over again at a higher volume?

I mean, seriously, it's not much more effective than hearing an infinite loop of Spongebob Squarepants laughing that stupid laugh of his for 30 minutes.

Barack Obama's convention speech

Last night I went with a friend to join the Great Hills Democrats at Baby Acapulco's watching Barack Obama's speech. There was a fajita buffet, and four TVs facing outward from the center of the room.

The speech was absolutely sublime, that's all I can say. I already know Obama is a good speaker, but I was very impressed even with my high expectations. He hit most of the right notes, didn't pull any punches on McCain, and had a lot of well received jokes. Watching Obama work the crowd, I was very much reminded of seeing Bill Clinton live at UCSD at my graduation. I continue to be impressed by his qualities as a speaker, and desperately wish to again have a president who can string coherent thoughts together.

Because Bush sucks so much at public speaking, Republicans make the mistake of dismissing this ability as "He's good at reading a teleprompter." Nonsense. Certainly being a good speaker doesn't automatically make one a good leader; the skill of demagoguery can be used for either good or evil. But as someone who enjoys public speaking, I am adamant that the ability to read is a necessary but not sufficient skill. You have to really grasp what you're saying in order to emphasize the right stuff at the right time. Anyone who thinks otherwise is making a claim similar to believing that you can be a great comedian by going out and reciting someone else's jokes.

Like comedy, it's all about timing, and timing is one thing Obama has in spades. For instance, there's the way he worked the applause. When he first came on, the crowd kept cheering for several minutes. Obama acted sort of exasperated, pretending to speak and then looking like he couldn't get them to shut up. But he was clearly in complete control, it was all showmanship. When he really wanted to talk, they shut up. And I loves me some good theater.

The crowd of about 30 people watching the speech with me was mostly older; in fact at one point I wondered if my friend and I were the only attendees under forty. But they were full of energy, cheering, laughing, and shouting regularly.

After the speech, we somehow wound up getting in a discussion with with three marginally drunk, marginally right wing, off-duty Austin cops. The topics ranged from the situation of the homeless in Austin to property taxes to the war (even Republican cops are against it now, it seems). I don't feel like any of them will switch up their vote to Obama, but I may have perhaps depressed one or two of them enough to keep them home on election day. >:D That's a useful accomplishment, although in Texas it probably doesn't amount to much. Although drunk, they were all friendly, thought we made some good points, and said they enjoyed the discussion. And I got out without getting punched -- so hey, an evening well spent.

Since you asked: my take on Sarah Palin

Hank the Tank says:

Waiting with baited breath for your take on John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin for VP. I've already put mine up on my blog.

You know, the guy has actually won back my vote. Hey Russell, you've got quite the brainpower, come on over to the Good Side of the Force (pardon the Star Wars jingo).
Cost you less to fill up your tank as well.

So fine, here's what I think...

Eh. She's not terrible. I never heard of her but that doesn't necessarily matter. Picking a woman was a good move. It may pick up a little of the disaffected Hillary vote, but probably not as much as you think, since Hillary has been so effective in throwing her support behind Obama. Her speech and Bill's at the convention were both pretty impressive.

On the other hand, this choice signals that he's pretty much abandoning the line of attack that Obama is weak because he's "inexperienced." In Palin, you have a one term governor of one of the smallest states (population-wise). Daily Kos is humorously referring to her as "Sarah Quayle Palin." Plus, she's a creationist, and you know how much I love THAT. ;)

Nevertheless, I think countering McCain's "old white guy" persona with a young woman is a good call, and it kind of takes some of the "historic moment" exclusivity out of Barack Obama's hands, by providing Republicans a chance to vote for the first woman veep. And considering some of the much worse choices I HOPED he might make, this seems to be dodging a bullet. I was picturing Giuliani (one of the most universally hated political figures of our time) or perhaps Lieberman (Hey, let's alienate both Democrats AND Republicans!!). So all in all, this was probably one of the least bad choices he could have made.

But I will say this: I am dying to see the VP debate between Biden and Palin. That's going to be way fun.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Joe Lieberman, then and now

"I want Democrats to be back in the majority in Washington and elect a Democratic president in 2008. This man [Ned Lamont] and his supporters will frustrate and defeat our hopes of doing that."
07/06/06, Connecticut Primary Debate

Lieberman will deliver a speech when Republicans gather in St. Paul, Minn., to nominate McCain for president, a party official told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The official requested anonymity because a formal announcement had yet to be made.

Whew! As a Democrat, I thank my lucky stars that we dodged the bullet of getting Ned Lamont elected to the senate, and frustrating our hopes of electing a Democratic president. Good thing we have Joe-mentum working for us.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Deaths are sad

How's that for a headline?

Within the last few months, a couple of people whom I cared about died. One was the edgy comedian George Carlin. The other was my grandmother, Miriam Hoffman Wain, whom I knew for most of my life as "Greemie." While the two deaths seem unrelated, in a funny coincidence, I own one George Carlin book (Braindroppings) and I got it by liberating it from my grandmother's bookshelf. I don't know if she ever read it; she certainly didn't seem like a likely Carlin fan, but she saw me reading it and said I should take it.

A week after Carlin died, fellow comedian Jerry Seinfeld wrote a tribute in the New York Times, claiming that "George downright invented modern American stand-up comedy in many ways. Every comedian does a little George." Seinfeld told a story that I found very funny and even a little bit meaningful.

THE honest truth is, for a comedian, even death is just a premise to make jokes about. I know this because I was on the phone with George Carlin nine days ago and we were making some death jokes. We were talking about Tim Russert and Bo Diddley and George said: “I feel safe for a while. There will probably be a break before they come after the next one. I always like to fly on an airline right after they’ve had a crash. It improves your odds.”

See, that's funny. Carlin himself would have greatly appreciate the irony. An atheist like me, George Carlin almost certainly didn't BELIEVE the superstitious nonsense that he was saying to Jerry Seinfeld on the subject of death. And sure enough, right after he said it... he died. Much comedy is built out of irony, and this is exactly the sort of dark humor that I love.

If I had to analyze this as a joke, I would say that part of the reason it's funny is because, in reality, nobody knows when they'll die. Making a prediction about how "safe" you are based on unrelated events is just ridiculous, and almost nobody really has a chance to prepare for it.

Almost nobody. Greemie knew.

She had been sick for many years, undergoing chemotherapy. She was also much older than George Carlin, and it was obvious near the end that she was a little tired of being alive. I would call her occasionally, to cheer her up and update her on my life, and after only a few minutes it would be obvious she was trying to politely get off the phone.

I didn't take that as a slight against me. She had trouble hearing, and forgot things, and it seemed like she was embarrassed about people hearing her like that. Greemie took care of her own mother, Bess Hoffman, until she died at the age of 103. She'd had personal experience with how frustrating it can be to communicate with someone in her own condition.

She was my last living grandparent, and I'm afraid I wouldn't be truthful if I said that she was my favorite. I always felt that she was very cranky and hard to get along with, even when I was young. On the other hand, she was a financial wizardess, and often unbelievably generous when she was alive. Apart from occasional gifts, toward the end of her life she started flying the entire extended family to California, at her own expense, every year, so we could all be together for a catered Thanksgiving dinner. She was still a bit standoffish and uncomfortable even when we were all there for her, but it was obvious how happy it made her to see everyone else enjoying each other's company.

The last time I was there, I had a feeling that it would probably be the last time we could make it. So I said how much I loved her, and she accepted my hug but told me to stop being silly, or so concerned.

Her memorial service, which I attended two weeks ago, was almost like having one last Thanksgiving bash. Keryn and I stayed at her house, along with two cousins, and we were treated to dinners by our aunt Nancy (now manager of the estate), and there was one heck of a party after the service at her favorite temple. (For certain definitions of "heck of a party." If you like lots of family with catered items like smoked salmon, it was very enjoyable.)

At the service, my aunt Robbie told a very funny story and I learned something new. I'm a lifelong atheist, but I've always assumed that my grandmother was a devout Jew. I never really asked her much about her religious beliefs, and had no idea if she thought about an afterlife.

Robbie's story went something like this: Robbie asked where Greemie thought she would go when she died. Greemie said: "The Hills of Eternity." This sounds like an unusual but reasonable answer for a religious person -- until you learn that "Hills of Eternity" is actually the name of a local cemetery. So Robbie pressed further: "Yes, but I mean after that." Greemie thought a bit more, and said: "An urn." Finally, exasperated, Robbie said: "No no, I mean what do you believe in after you die?" And Greemie said "Oh, this is a serious question... Tinkerbell!"

That's her answer. It doesn't mean anything; but it was good for a laugh among all the gathered family. I guess that means that Greemie didn't know if she believed in an afterlife, but she sure believed in family, and she believed in making others happy. So that's pretty good to know.

As it happens, she had family all around her when she died. My mother tells me that she and her two sisters were at the hospital for the final few days, and that they had been singing her their favorite songs from childhood as she was lying there dying. I don't think that I would describe anything as a good way to die; but if I had to rank the possibilities, that would probably be pretty high up on the list.

One last thing I can say is that she was a huge technology buff, just like me. I neither understood nor appreciated this fully while she was alive. She was one of those people who would always forward every urban legend and "business opportunity" that she received by email, along with added information about how this seems really valuable and/or insightful. To be honest, it drove me crazy, and I even corrected some of the things she said from time to time.

But when you think about it, it's pretty unusual for someone her age to have caught on to computers and taken advantage of them so effectively. I introduced her to computer-based card games, and at the end of her life I found that her computer was stuffed with little games of her own. Not the kind of games I would play, obviously, but lots of goofy simple solitaire-type games that she downloaded from the internet or paid for.

I also remember arguing with her about CD-ROM drives when they came out -- she thought there was no important program that wouldn't fit on a floppy disk. And also, when Windows 3.1 was popular she asked me why her computer was running slowly even though she kept adding memory. So I looked, and told her it was because she had about eleventy billion windows open at the same time, and she should close some. She said she WANTED all those windows open at once, and wouldn't listen to me when I said she should just run one or two programs open at a time.

Actually, she was ahead of her time. I'm looking at my task bar right now... I have well over 30 windows open myself, including 4 folders, 8 documents, several emails, and a few dozen web sites. She just wanted to do stuff that computers weren't ready to do yet. She also, as I said, was a financial wizardess, and most of her money came from carefully managing her stock portfolio and rental properties. Online. She got it about the internet revolution. And she may not have understood spam, but she forwarded those junk emails because it was one small way to keep in touch with her family, without having to expose her vulnerability on the phone all the time.

So, that's the end of a life. I don't believe that there's anything left of Greemie except for an urn, and the memories of her that are held by me and others. But I don't know everything. Maybe she's off somewhere, enjoying herself now... at Tinkerbell. Wherever the heck that might be. And if she's not, then I'll still clap my hands a couple of times for her, and enjoy the good memories she left me with.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog afterthoughts (spoilers!)

So yeah... typical Joss Whedon conclusion. I can't really decide whether Joss is a bigger bastard than George R. R. Martin in the area of gratuitously killing off his main characters, but I was definitely annoyed by the ending on first viewing. I had high hopes for the character of Penny. I was BSing with coworkers on Friday about our expectations for Act 3, and we came up with some of the following ideas:

  • Penny is instrumental in defeating Captain Hammer.
  • Penny turns into a supervillainess in the end. Complete with white leather.
  • It turns out Penny was really "Bad Horse" all along.
  • Dr. Horrible inadvertently rescues Captain Hammer from something.
  • Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer fall in love and wind up together. (Okay, this is over the top. But Neil Patrick Harris IS gay.)

As it is, I mostly agree with this post, which states that Joss failed to live up to his usual standards of offering strong feminist role models. Penny was in the end a pretty low-dimension character, existing only to serve as a foil for Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible to fight over in the typical triangle arrangement. It's extremely disappointing to me that, after strongly telegraphing her disillusionment with Captain Hammer throughout act 3, Penny's last words were "Captain Hammer will save us."

My comment on the actual ending: the death of Penny was the catalyst that Billy needed to stop being a villain wannabe and become an actual villain. Meanwhile, the "real" Billy -- my friend Shelley refers to him as the superego component -- gets pushed down and lost forever. Is it poignant and heart-wrenching? Sure. But I don't think I was in the mood for poignant. I was watching a comedy. I wanted a comedy ending.

Having said that... the music and comedy components were both excellent, right up through the end. Joss continued his fine tradition from the Buffy Musical, of delivering up hilarious and catchy tunes over and over again. I'm still planning to buy the DVD, and possibly the soundtrack too. If for no other reason, I think the project was a good idea, and I'd like to encourage the strategy that Joss is trying.

Quick recap of my favorite moments:
  • The cowboy chorus. I can't repeat enough how awesome the cowboy chorus was.
  • Nathan Fillion's first entrance. Hell, every scene with Nathan mugging, smirking, and chewing up the scenery. Again, Nathan is the real villain and a damn good one.
  • "And sometimes there's a third, even deeper level, which is exactly the same as the top level."
  • "Wow, what a crazy random happenstance!"
  • "...The hammer is my penis."
  • The last song of Act 2, starting with Neil's demented smile. Also: "I'll hand her the keys to a shiny new Australia." Also also: Giant Neil.
  • Groupies! "This is his hair!"
  • "I hate the homeless. ...ness problem that plagues our city."
  • "Everyone's a hero in their own way. You, and you, and... mostly me! and you."
  • I must report that Ben just loved seeing Captain Hammer crying and sniveling.
Finally, a few words about the many geeks who populate this project. Felicia Day, who played Penny, graduated with honors from UT (Hook 'em!) with a degree in mathematics, loves World of Warcraft, and stars in a videocast about video games. What's not to like? The actress sounds a hundred times more interesting than the character.

Maurissa Tancharoen plays one of the groupies, is married to Joss Whedon's half brother, and the two of them were apparently deeply involved with the writing and production.

Thoughts on the business model: This is going to be a raging success, probably, but I'm not sure it will prove that the business model is as game-changing as everyone hopes it would be. I mean, yeah, you can make money from releasing a movie and merchandise on the internet... IF your name is Joss Whedon, you have your own money and a huge cult following, and well-known actors who love you enough to temporarily work for free. For everyone else, maybe not so much.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dr. Horrible, act 2

I've seen act 2 now. Loved it. Can't wait for act 3.

Yesterday I attempted to show episode 1 to several people, and the result is decidedly mixed reactions. I thought it was fantastic, and so did many other fellow Whedon fans; but I heard a lot of negative reactions too. These range from "I don't get it" to "Does this get better soon?" to "Huh, it's weird. Maybe I'll watch it later."

This is obviously not to everyone's taste, which leaves me trying to sort out the question of whose taste it is for. Mine, obviously; I thought it was brilliant. Then I remembered: I love melodrama. That's what this show is, of course. It's a mid-budget, named-actor, melodrama.

My family and I used to go to a melodrama performance every year in Colorado, where there was a dedicated troupe there that kept putting on new productions. They pulled out all the stops. There were heroes with cleft chins, villains with handlebar mustaches, a piano player to set the mood... and then in some performances, you were allowed to throw popcorn, as well as being encouraged to cheer and boo at the appropriate times.

That's why I love this bizarre little movie, because it's a melodrama in reverse. The hero is the villain, the villain is the hero. And while Neil Patrick Harris is, of course, hilarious, Nathan Fillion has totally stolen the show. Because while ostensibly he plays "the good guy," anyone can see that he's a total bastard. In his smirky poses, you can almost see him twirling his mustache. The villain is the best part of ANY show, and Nathan is just damn good in this role.

Addendum: My alert coworker Newell points out that Dr. Horrible wears white, while Captain Hammer wears black. Classic melodramatic color coding.

My fondest hope for the finale is that the sweet, innocent girl will appear in very last scene dressed as a villainess. Perhaps in white leather.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Supervillain musical by Joss Whedon

Please watch this QUICKLY, before it is removed and lost forever:

It's a brief, one-time, episodic show starring a few actors that you'll probably recognize. And I laughed my ASS off.

The bad news is that it will be taken down on July 20, after which time you will have to pay for it. I have faith in my fellow netizens that someone will reverse engineer the video delivery and stick it up on YouTube, but just in case, you might want to check it out right away. It's going to be pretty cheap, only $4 or so for the entire set.

(I decided NOT to encourage piracy after all... since this is partly an experiment to see whether such an endeavor can make real money.)

A reply from Chuck Colson

In case you haven't been following, I received a book from Chuck Colson (of Christian apologetics and Watergate fame) a couple of months ago. I posted a critique of the book on the AE blog. He has just now written a response, which I acknowledged.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

One-Eyed Doll, and an encounter with the law

Austin being billed as the live music capitol of the world, I really should get out and see more actual live music. Last night, Ginny and I went with our friends Azzurra and Jerry to see a band in concert called One-Eyed Doll. Ginny's been a fan of this group for a while now, I have heard them by proxy and liked what I saw.

I don't drink much, so I made myself designated driver by default... however, I started out the evening with a rum and coke, followed by a Heineken, then cut myself off completely (three hours before we would leave).

One-Eyed Doll gave a great performance. There were only two people in the band, a lead singer/guitarist named Kimberly, and a drummer named "Number Three." Kimberly dresses up like a very weird doll, with frilly and stripy clothes, pigtails, some wacky face paint, and enormous boots. Number Three wore a suit and black tie and a porkpie hat. Kimberly likes to leap off stage and crawl around on the floor a lot. She also interrupted the music several times for "story time," which was hilarious.

The music is kind of punk/thrash combined with some very satirical themes in the lyrics. For instance, "Suicidal Serenade" goes:

Happy, happy, happy, happy,
happy, happy, happy, happy,
happy, happy, happy America!

-- the first part being sung in this cute, innocent little girl voice, while the second part is shouted and played with heavy guitar crunch.

Ginny is working on ingratiating herself with this band, and we spent a while chatting up the two members before they started. They are fun people. We crowded up front to the stage while the preceding band was playing, about 30 minutes before OED started. We got a great view of everything, including her frequent audience dives.

Ginny and Azzurra also got to go up on stage with four other girls and a guy during one song. Kimberly gave them all silly hats (Ginny had a bicycle helmet) and they all moshed around on stage.

By far my favorite part of the concert was when we got to play the finale ourselves. See, as the last song was wrapping up, Kimberly passed her guitar around the audience, where it wound up in Ginny's hands. Ginny did some random picking... which you would think sounded bad, but the amp was crunching the sound anyway, and the drummer had the beat going, so it sounded like passable music. Then I hit a high note to make it sound like an actual song ending. It was pretty cool.

Anyway, after the show the other three in my group all had another drink, and I politely abstained. It was voted that we go get some food, and I got behind the wheel... immediately proceeding to make some incredibly dumb mistakes. Jerry was giving me directions to an unfamiliar location, and I forgot to turn on my headlights for several minutes. Then I got on a street that I assumed was one-way, and in the dark, crossed over the yellow line for a few seconds before correcting my mistake. And, of course, I was being quietly followed by a cop the whole time.

So to make a long story short, I got pulled over for drunk driving. Two cops spent fifty minutes (as timed by Azzurra) trying desperately to prove that I was drunk (rather than merely an idiot) before deciding to let me go. During that time, I was incredibly, ridiculously polite. I mean, I was heroic. I think "Grace Under Pressure" by Rush should be my new official album.

Anyway, they interrogated me to try and catch an inconsistency. They waved lights in my eyes. For a very long time. They made me stand on one foot, and walk a line in a parking lot. They REALLY wanted me to be drunk, but seriously... I wasn't.

So that was my first sobriety test ever. Meanwhile, Ginny was talking to a third cop the whole time. (There were two cars on us!) She said "Look at this guy, you can see he's not drunk! He hardly even drinks at all! And he's a huge nerd!" Well, something to that effect... I have to fill in parts of the conversation with my imagination.

It was nerve wracking and embarrassing, but I came through it unscathed, and we got our food, then ate while hanging out with our friends for another hour or two. Ultimately we got home a little after 5 AM. So if I sound tired today on The Non-Prophets, you know I have a good excuse.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Data Mining news

It's been seven months since I barely pulled off my Master's Report and graduated. Over two years since I took my favorite class, which was Data Mining.

I have every intention of following up on the advice of my reader from the UT Journalism department, Dr. Iris Chyi (thanks again!) and finding some peer-reviewed journals to publish the study in. I'm told that it will take a lot of extra work first, which I haven't been sufficiently motivated to do. What I need to do is apparently read some journals that deal with the appropriate subject matter (i.e., focus on digital media for example) and get a feel for what kind of work they've accepted in the past. Then trim the paper to a manageable length (from 60 pages to, say, 25) and submit something that, in my judgment, they'd be likely to approve with no major changes.

I'm writing all this down so I have a reminder to actually get off my ass and do so, because otherwise I'm afraid I'll forget about it.

Determined to leverage this experience and make people remember who I am at work, on Tuesday I did an hour long presentation for most of the engineering staff (a room full of maybe 30 people) on what data mining can do for my company. I know I am an ultra-nerd, but I love doing presentations. False modesty aside, years of practicing topic presentation on TV and podcast have made me pretty good at it.

I put a Power Point presentation together and now I've uploaded it to Google Docs, so you can check it out by going here. You can't really get the point without hearing me talk, but it will give you a general idea of what I covered. The official topic title I picked was, "Data Mining: How math helps us compare apples to oranges, and shows that ice cream causes shark attacks." (If you care, I can explain that in the comments.)

Anyway, couldn't have asked for a much better result. I managed to hit all the major points I wanted regarding a complex topic in under 90 minutes with time to spare for questions. They laughed at all my jokes in the right places, appeared to follow the point of what I was saying, nodded sometimes, participated where I intended them to, and discussed it after it was over. All four of the company software architects had an animated discussion about what use they could make of it, after everyone else had left. And even today, two days later, I'm still getting IM's and people stopping by to let me know that they enjoyed and appreciated it.

People, please DO NOT FEED THE EGO!!!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

My spoilery review of "Wanted"

As usual, I'm finding myself posting more and more on that other blog rather than on this one. Here's what I had to say about the movie "Wanted." I hope Ginny will read it, since it puts together some of the stuff we talked about after seeing it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

John McCain's energy solution: free labor!

McCain Proposes a $300 Million Prize for a Next-Generation Car Battery

“I further propose we inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people,” Mr. McCain said, “by offering a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

He said the winner should deliver power at 30 percent of current costs. “That’s one dollar, one dollar, for every man, woman and child in the U.S. — a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency,” he said.

If a corporation were to dedicate genuine effort to build this miracle battery, it would assign a director to the project, who would allocate a certain number of man-hours to the problem. The people who worked on the project would all have access to one another's research, and they would all get paid regardless of whether they arrived at a solution. Big companies, like governments are common pools for a lot of money, which is why they can afford to invest large sums up front to achieve a desired solutions.

Imagine a company instead saying "Okay, all of you employees start coming up with crazy ideas to design your own battery. Whoever pulls it off gets a gigantic bonus. Everyone else gets paid nothing." That's essentially what John McCain's proposal is. He's not fronting ANY of the money to generate this research. He's not proposing to absorb any of the risk, since if no engine gets built, no prize gets awarded. All he's offering to do is buy a finished product which does not yet exist.

I have to conclude that John McCain is not in the slightest bit serious about actually funding a solution to the problem. R&D is risky, therefore the cost of doing it is far higher than developing an actual product using known techniques. In any case, anyone who was capable of creating the miracle battery using only the funds available to an unfinanced individual would be able to make so much money from it that being bought out for $300 million in the end would most likely be insulting.

If McCain thinks the free market is so darn awesome, why hasn't the magic battery been produced already? This is a man who has no ideas.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Card is writing sequels to what? Argh. Argh. Argh.

A friend of mine (Buffy) just invited me to join It's a good recommendation for me, because I am a sucker for these social information-organizing web 2.0 sites.

So I'm adding stuff to my bookshelf, and in the process, I'm going back through my blog searching for books that I've discussed. I came across a mention of Ender's Game, and -- when will I ever learn -- went browsing through recent news about Orson Scott Card.

It looks like Hack Neocon Fundie Blogger Card is once again going around the space-time continuum desecrating the works of Talented Sci-Fi Author Card. This time he's writing a fanfic sequel to one of my other favorite TSFA Card novels, Pastwatch.

The original Pastwatch is a very enjoyable yarn about some Africa-based time travelers who are reluctantly driven to fix the past by interfering with the "Columbus discovers America" event. The story of Noah's flood is touched upon, but treated appropriately as the origin of a myth -- it appears to be a local flood and the Biblical details are greatly exaggerated.

Now Card tells an interviewer:

What we have planned for further books in the Pastwatch series (yep, series) are books that take place sort of in the midst of the Columbus book. There's the Noah book, which tells Kemal's story as frame but Noah's story and the flood as the main tale, and then there's the Garden of Eden story - yep, the hoariest cliche in science fiction, but I have no fear, the artsy types couldn't possibly despise me more, and I think there's a reason why it is the most-written cliche story in the field. People are hungry for a rational treatment of that story in science fictional terms. So ... I mean to give it a try. We'll see if anyone but me likes it.

I suppose it's remotely possible that HNFB Card will treat TSFA Card's source material with the respect and appreciation it deserves, and not turn stories about Noah's flood and the Garden of freakin' Eden into some obsessive religious rant. However, I have my doubts, given that he can't even get through one question about it in an interview without making some lame, smarmy swipe about mean liberal critics.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sudoku solver, new and improved

If anyone enjoyed the Sudoku program I made earlier, I should let you know that it's been updated.

In the latest version you can click on the game board and type numbers directly into the screen, instead of messing around with the text box. You can still copy the contents on the text box and save them for later retrieval.

Also, the box now displays periods instead of spaces for empty squares. This way, the correct amount of white space doesn't disappear when you type it in an HTML comment. For instance, in a previous comment, Tatarize was trying to get me to try this puzzle:


Go ahead and paste that in... it's long, but still quick at maximum speed.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Obama is beating McCain

CBS News:

Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama holds a six point lead over his Republican counterpart John McCain, a new CBS News poll finds. Obama leads McCain 48 percent to 42 percent among registered voters, with 6 percent of respondents undecided.

Okay, so it's one poll. It's also one day (give or take) after Barack Obama became the official Democratic nominee. (Oh, you hadn't heard that yet?) He hasn't even started campaigning against McCain yet, who's had the benefit of being the declared Republican for couple of months.

Now on the one hand, I'm sure the Rovish knives will come out in full force at this point. On the other hand, I (perhaps naively) think the negatives about Obama have pretty much been aired out already. People who think he is simultaneously a Muslim, and atheist, and a scary black Christian, already think that at this point. This isn't going to change much, and the current numbers probably reflect this.

Is it okay to be cautiously optimistic yet?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


As I mentioned two weeks ago, I started playing around with a Sudoku solving program. So finally, here it is. Your browser must have Java enabled to view it.

Brief instructions:

To watch the program solve a puzzle, click "Solve." You can enter new puzzles by typing numbers in the text box and clicking "update." I recommend going to, copying a hard puzzle, and cheating to get a fast time.

Future updates include (if I don't get too lazy):
  • The program doesn't validate the initial state, so you can enter an obviously unsolveable puzzle and it will waste a fair amount of time trying to solve it. This is my top priority for a fix.
  • I'd like to be able to click directly on the image and be able to type in numbers there.
  • No guarantees, but you might be able to paste a URL and have it automatically load the puzzle from there.
  • Kevin, the director of engineering, discussed some methods to automatically generate new puzzles. I might give that a try. But it's a solver, not a game, so I might not.
Updates: Validates puzzles correctly. "Maximum" option set on speed bar. Move counter added.

Monday, May 19, 2008

One reason I like my new job

On my schedule today, the director of engineering will be delivering a presentation with the following topic:
"Solving Sudoku puzzles with recursion"

Knowing this was coming, I started writing an experimental Java solver over the weekend. I had a pretty busy weekend, so I only got as far as reading a puzzle from a file and displaying it. During off-stage time at my two chorus performances, I worked out a possible algorithm in my head, but I'll need a few more days to write it out and debug. I'll probably put it in a Java applet on my web page when it's done, and you'll be able to watch it "think" if it works out the way I'm imagining it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fake money

Last week I had sort of a funny experience at Rudy's Barbecue that I thought I'd share.

After a successful dentist appointment, I thought I'd reward myself (and punish my teeth) by getting some delicious breakfast tacos. At the counter, I pulled a five dollar bill out of my wallet, and noticed that the number five was... pink.

I said, "Huh, that's weird. When did they become pink?"

The cashier laughed and said "Oh, about a month ago. The first time I saw it I thought somebody was trying to hand me Monopoly money!" (She was pretty close in guessing the date.)

We had a good laugh and I went to get some hot sauce. The guy standing next to me abruptly said: "It practically IS Monopoly money, anyway!"

At that point my BS detector immediately started to ping quietly. All I replied was a non-commital "Yeah, really."

The stranger persisted: "You know, our money isn't even backed by gold!"

My BS detector went from a quiet ping to a full-on klaxon siren. Strangers may start up some small talk as friendly chit-chat, but nobody attempts to strike up a conversation on such an off-the-wall subject unless they have an agenda to push.

I smiled cheerfully and said, "Oh, you're one of THOSE people."

He protested, "I'm not one of those people, I..."

Still smiling, I cut him off: "Look, I've had some pretty extensive arguments over some of these fake currencies that have been going around, so let's not even get into that, okay?" I took my tacos and left.

In retrospect, the only thing I regret is that I didn't pause to warn the cashier that she should carefully scrutinize any cash he may try to give her.

I guess I should explain. Several years ago, a friend of mine got involved with this unusual movement to replace the U.S. dollar with something new called "Liberty Dollars." They are minted by a company formerly called NORFED, now "Liberty Services." The gimmick is that the coins are made from real silver. Now, the argument about whether it is better to use fiat currency (currency which has no fixed value) vs. commodity-based currency (such as silver or gold) goes way back, certainly. The famous "cross of gold" speech by William Jennings Bryan (of Scopes Monkey Trial fame) was all about switching to the silver standard because gold was too expensive for most people to afford.

But that's not the issue here. Whatever your feelings may be about "fiat currency," Liberty Services is running a very transparent con game. What they do is, take an ounce of silver, mint it into a coin, and stamp a dollar denomination on it, i.e., "$10". Then, sell the coins to people at a "discounted rate" -- say, $8.50. Along with the coins, sell them a load of amateur political philosophy about the evils of fiat currency, and encourage them to go "spend" the silver coins at participating businesses. If no voluntary participants can be found, then give them the coins to unsuspecting merchants and be prepared to spout the same political philosophy as an explanation.

Here's the trick, though. Those coins with $10 stamped on them? They were worth $5 at the time. The price for an ounce of silver fluctuates just like stocks and other commodities, but you can check the spot price online at any time. When the spot price of silver was around $5, Liberty Dollars were imprinted with "$10." When the spot price of silver started drifting up toward $10 per ounce, the coins "doubled" in value, and were all restamped to say "$20." Now that the spot price is about $17 per ounce, they are now being re-issued yet again to say $50.

Get it? Today, you can buy (or in LS double-speak, "exchange") $17 worth of silver for $50 in cash -- or a mere $36 if you are an "associate." The coins aren't worth $50. They aren't worth $36. They are worth $17 at market prices, plus the small amount that it costs to mint them into a cute little round design with pictures stamped on it. But they SAY "$50" on the face, so supposedly you are acquiring something that is worth $50.

How do you get this value out of the coin? Well, the company's literature encourages people to "spend Liberty Dollars into circulation" by trying to pass them off as authentic money. Then if someone calls you on it ("what the hell is this thing"), you explain how the coins are all pure, solid silver, and therefore they have intrinsic value, unlike real American dollars. The fact that the intrinsic value is actually much less than the face value? Uhhh... don't bring that up.

To me, this has always seemed like a combination of counterfeiting, pyramid scam, and cult. Counterfeiting? The coins don't actually say they are worth fifty American dollars; they are fifty Liberty Dollars. But they have dollar signs printed on them, which is generally recognized to mean American dollars, and the web site certainly makes it sound like you are supposed to "spend" the liberty dollars on goods and services which are worth the equivalent amount of American dollars.

Pyramid scam? Joining the "associate program" to get bulk coins at a discount (though still much more than the intrinsic value!) smacks of MLMs in which you buy overpriced goods for yourself and then attempt to recoup your losses by selling them (or in this case, "spending") to an even bigger sucker for an even greater amount. Clearly it shouldn't matter all that much to Liberty Services whether you succeed in "spending" them, because they've already gotten YOUR money, and made a significant profit on the cost of the raw silver plus minting overhead.

I am not, of course, ridiculing the idea of investing in silver. Obviously, the very fact that the price of silver used to be under $10 and is now as high as $17 means that it may have been a good idea to just buy silver at a reasonable price. (Although, like any investment, past performance is no guarantee of future results.) You can get silver bars in bulk for as little as 19 cents per ounce over the spot price. But when you buy these "Liberty Dollars," you are in effect paying about double the price or more for the privilege of having the words "$50" stamped on your ounce of silver.

And hey, now that Liberty Dollars are being "converted" from $20 to $50 in value, you can get them restamped for the low, low price of $4 each! So not only do you pay an absurd premium to get the silver coins in the first place, but also when it "increases in value" -- remember, it's still the same ounce of silver with a fake dollar amount printed on it -- but you also pay an 8% premium (or 20%, depending on when you count it) to perform this "value increasing" operation.

If you think this makes sense, consider that Liberty Services could just as easily stamp "one MILLION dollars" on each coin, and it would have about the same meaning. They're only worth the face value if you can find somebody else dumb enough to believe they're worth that. Otherwise, they're only worth the price of silver. And don't forget that Liberty Services takes all their payments in good old American Dollars, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government, which is supposedly worthless fiat money that nobody wants to use. Tricky.

The kicker is that this pretty much IS counterfeiting, and there's a very real chance that you will be arrested for trying to pass off Liberty Dollars as real money. Trying to "put the coins in circulation" often amounts to nothing more than badgering innocent merchants to give you discounted goods and services in exchange for an object that is not really worth nearly what you claim. And if they do accept it, then you've just handed THEM the responsibility of finding an even bigger fool to take the overpriced hunks of metal off their hands.

If you want to invest in silver, then buy some silver from a reputable merchant, and perhaps the value will increase over time. If you want to pay for something using a universally accepted currency, the American Dollar (whether it's pink or not) is taken absolutely everywhere in this country. With Liberty Dollars, you get to combine the convenience of carrying silver with the investment value of carrying cash, which is to say, the worst of both worlds. The vast majority of merchants will wonder what you're smoking when you try to hand them a $50 coin that is worth $17, and you're paying an obscenely high fee to obtain and continually re-stamp the coins in the first place.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Fractal doodling

Since I now work in an environment with regular longish meetings, I've rekindled my interest in the art of doodling. Mostly what I draw is fractals.

I can't remember who gave me the idea of drawing Sierpinski Triangles on paper, but I've been doing that for years, in any situation where I'm bored and have pen and paper available but no computer. The triangle is easy to do, because you just have to keep drawing upside-down triangles on any space that doesn't have one already, and you can pretty much go on forever until the triangles get too small to draw. However, I recently got sick of Sierpinskis, so I started branching out into Koch curves.

I've tried to draw Kochs in the past, but always screwed up... I would freestyle just fine for a while, but then I would always turn a line in the wrong direction and wind up with an ugly asymmetric mess.

So I've been practicing my technique, and hit on the way to fix this. Draw dots that represent the framework first, and then draw more dots closer together, until you've got the level of detail you want; then fill in the curves. The down side to this approach is that unlike a Sierpinski, you can't increase the complexity after you're finished. You have to pick a level and stick with it until you're done, and then start a new one.

By gradually increasing the size and practicing smaller and smaller lines, I've managed to create a vertical square Koch curve against the left margin of a notebook page, which fills up most of the lines on the page and goes to a depth of five iterations. It took me about four meetings to finish. I've also drawn a snowflake which goes to four iterations, but I could probably get five because I still have room on the page to make it about 50% bigger next time.

I've gotten funny looks from people who saw what I was doing, but no comments so far. I wish I could do Mandelbrots, but it seems way too math-intensive to do in real time.

A few other fun facts about my history with fractals. When I was in college, I spent two years tutoring a smart high school kid named Willy in computer programming. One year, we wrote several fractal programs in Visual C++ for a science fair project. He went to state level but didn't win.

I still have several interesting fractal programs which I translated to Java and put on my Java applet page. One of them allows you to generate your own Koch curve, and another shows how you can get a Sierpinski to emerge naturally from pseudo-random rules.

My friend Denis Loubet introduced me to a term that I love to use: "Fractally wrong." This applies to someone whose opinions are wrong in the big picture, and regardless of where you zoom in on any particular detail, it's still wrong.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thoughts on the primary, and on playing nice

I said earlier that I was bored with politics, but I had a long exchange with my dad about it anyway. Some of the things I've said in the past about political strategy are rehashed here.

Oh yeah, and Clinton and Obama each won another primary yesterday. Yawn.

The fact that recent news cycles have been obsessively dominated by such astoundingly dull trivialities such as Jeremiah Wright highlights an ongoing problem with the traditional media. (I prefer to use Kos's term rather than "mainstream media", for reasons explained here.) It's not that the media is either "liberal" or "conservative"; it's simply that they're frequently driven by laziness and a lack of interest in either learning or teaching. The reason this seems to disproportionately help Republicans is because they've learned to navigate and manipulate this media landscape, to an extent that Democrats mostly have not.

As I've said before, "Liberal Media," is largely a fabricated catch-phrase. It has been such a successful meme that traditional media organizations such as the New York Times now delude themselves into believing that someone like William Kristol is a Very Serious Pundit who actually has something valuable to say. Even though he says something objectively, factually wrong nearly every time he opens his mouth. NYT appears to worry that if they don't take the guy seriously, they will be accused of being "too liberal."

Well, of course they will. That's because Republicans know how to intimidate and embarrass the New York Times, and Democrats don't. When a Very Serious Pundit says something like "Gosh, I think that voters care a whole awful lot about what Barack Obama's former pastor said several years ago, and we should all be covering that," there is no organized movement to say "What are you, stupid? Of course voters won't care about that." There is a DISorganized movement, in the form of blogs and other scattered voices in the wilderness. But the Democratic Party hasn't learned how to harness and amplify this.

When I embarked on my Master's Report to compare the popular media focus to the interests of Digg users, this is partly what I had in mind as a motivation for possible mismatch. Of course the media is driven by a profit motive, but that doesn't mean they have to react to what all consumers want. They also have to react to differences between mostly quiet, apathetic consumers, vs. loud, strident consumers. The strident consumers are largely on the right, and can be treated as a large bloc of people who will boycott something. Or alternatively, for media they like, they will pour investment money into something that has no hope of making a profit. See Rupert Murdoch with Fox News, or Sun Myung Moon with the Washington Times (which has never turned a profit, but has been a goldmine in terms of "mainstreaming" far right conservative thought).

As distasteful as it may be, I think Democrats should figure out how to use intimidation and embarrassment as effectively as Republicans do. They should shame the media away from talking about Jeremiah Wright, while at the same time, shaming them into saying some of the obvious negative stuff about John McCain, instead of fawning all over him and bringing him donuts.

No, seriously. That happened.

Compare that to the kind of treatment Barack Obama received at the last debate, and you begin to see what the problem is.

I have a philosophy, which I've blogged about before, that has developed after years of playing strategy games. It is that nothing is inherently "unfair" in politics (or any other game) unless it actually breaks the rules. If one side is playing a strategy, and they are winning as a result, then by definition they have a winning strategy. Faced with losing, the other side has two choices: 1. Change the rules, and/or aggressively enforce the rules which are currently in place; 2. Adapt to the strategy.

When you regard legally accepted tactics as unfair, it hamstrings you. To repeat the analogy from before, if you are playing rock/paper/scissors, and you somehow arbitrarily decide that rock is unfair, then you are playing a different game from your opponent. You have a game in which scissors always wins or ties, and paper always loses or ties. In that game, it is a rational strategy to always play scissors. But if your opponent plays rock and beats you, you might want to say that it's "unfair."

It isn't. Unless the two of you agreed in advance to play "paper/scissors," your opponent is playing the real game and you are playing with artificial rules that only you are bound by.

I don't, of course, mean that Democrats should should do things like appealing to homophobia, racism, and theocracy. That would not, in any real sense, be "winning," any more than if Republicans won by running on a platform of peace, social programs, and respect for atheists. I mean that the Democrats should recognize that being divisive and grabbing the bigger half has been a winning strategy with Republicans for a long time.

For the time being, at least, Democrats should be a little less concerned about "Bringing everyone together" -- you can't anyway, since there are a lot of people who get off on calling everyone else a traitor. Instead, they should learn how to draw the battle lines so that the majority of people are more scared of extreme conservatism than of extreme liberalism. Highlight people like Larry Hagee and Pat Robertson. Make most Americans feel smart and special because they are not as dumb and flat-out crazy as some of the scary folks who support Republicans.

On the whole, Barack Obama has played this election very much like a shrewd politician. Sure, his language invokes the idea that voters are tired of divisiveness. But at the same time, his language makes it clear that we should pin the divisiveness on Republicans, which is in itself a redefinition of whom to flee from. I'm impressed with that, while at the same time being wary of his policies, as I think it remains to be seen how much he'll "reach out" by taking some Republican talking points to heart.

I enjoy the race more when Obama goes after Republicans on the issues, as when he hammered home the message that McCain doesn't understand economics. Every time he does that, I think he gains some popularity. I don't think he does it nearly enough.

Anyway, yes, be open and welcoming. Divide people, but make sure that the division leaves Republicans with as small a group as possible. The most effective message will convey the following: "John McCain is a huge jerk. I know that you're too smart to vote for a jerk, you smart voters you."

Or: "Look at what a low approval rating Bush has. Wouldn't you feel stupid being one of those 28% who is out of step with the rest of the country? And McCain says he wants to be just like Bush."

I'd say it's a deliberate exploitation of the argumentam ad populum fallacy, but also it takes rhetorical skill to successfully define the two sides in a way that is most advantageous to your party.