Year: 2002

Redesign

Feast your eyes, hungry readers. I’ve blown a few hours that I shouldn’t have redoing this site. The page you see now uses nothing but CSS for layout–no tables, except for the calendar (which is tabular by nature). I still need to re-do some of the static pages, and I may want to rejigger the structure and the appearance a touch, but I’m pretty happy with it. Let me know what you think (if you care).

Although he probably doesn’t know if, I am in debt to Derek Powazek, from whose page I lifted an extremely obscure, but apparently critical modification. Technical details follow:

I had attempted to use XHTML for my page in the past, but was having a hard time getting the date to line up on the left of the main text. There are some positioning tricks you can use to get it to look right, but those depend on knowing the height of the left-hand slab in advance, which is inelegant at the least. In turns out that by switching to HTML 4.01 Transitional, the float: left/float: left trick would work. If anyone can explain why this makes a difference (and if there’s a way to make the trick work in XHTML), I’d love to hear it.

Interface uniformity

Steven Berliner Johnson writes on the contrast between Apple’s trend towards using specialized apps–iApps–to handle different media types, and Microsoft’s rumored move towards integrating everything into one do-it-all file manager. This sounds a lot like the BeOS file system, actually.

This is a false distinction, in a way. While iTunes (for example) provides a certain lens onto the files it manages, and a handy one at that, it doesn’t eliminate the value of a good file manager. Indeed, the current version of iTunes can help keep your music directory organized in the Finder–as long as you like it’s organization scheme–and there are scripts that can let you organize different, if you don’t. iPhoto is a program I don’t use at all because it doesn’t leave my photos in their original JPEG format–it merges a bunch of photos into a single monolithic file, which I don’t like. (Many people choose their e-mail client based on how it manages files as well.) I can certainly see how iPhoto would be useful, but I don’t like being locked in–it makes it easy, as long as you do things its way. (It only communicates with one photo-hosting website, also.) Umberto Eco once wrote that the Mac is “Catholic” in its insistence that there is one way to do things. This isn’t always true on the Mac (though with the Unix underpinnings, in some ways it is moreso now), but iPhoto is definitely “Catholic.”

Johnson writes

Consider the default layout of iPhoto, which shows you a broad mosaic of all your digital photos scaled to fit the size of your screen. If you have more than a couple hundred pictures, this means each image is the size of a thumbtack, but Apple includes a handy zoom tool that lets you instantly zoom in and out to focus on a particular batch of images. It’s much easier to find the photo you’re looking for by scanning iPhoto’s mosaic than it is to pore over document names in a directory overview. (It also happens to look very cool, particularly the zooming effect.)

Now, you could conceivably apply the iPhoto zoom to all your data: Turn on your computer, and you see a list of document titles and tiny icons; zoom in on one section, and a spreadsheet comes into focus or a Web page; zoom all the way in, and the document appears on your screen at normal size, ready to be manipulated. This would be an innovative approach to file management, but also a spectacularly inefficient one because a spreadsheet or a text document reduced to 5 percent of its usual size is indistinguishable from any other spreadsheet or text document. But it works great for photos.

Arguably, Apple did just that with the zooming Dock, which is supposed to act as a holding-pen for any document we want to keep handy but not active. And Apple has been justifiably criticized for this feature, for exactly the reasons Johnson mentions.

Johnson quotes Bill Gates, who says:

Right now when you use Windows, the way that you step through your photos, the way you step through your music, the way you step through e-mail or files, they’re all different. You have to learn different user interfaces, different search commands. … The idea of Longhorn is to have one approach, one set of commands that work for everything, including all of those things. And so the number of concepts you have to learn is dramatically less.

Gates is missing the point. If I want to find something, regardless of what program I’m in, there will usually be a text field with a Search button next to it. The problem isn’t so much that users need to learn different applications as it is that different applications may not implement common features (like Search) in a predictable, understandable way. There’s no user advantage to one massive application that provides all the lenses I could want onto my e-mail, my music, my photos, and my calendar. And there can be an advantage to applications that narrow the context.

Dumb or arrogant?

After stopping in the neighborhood hardware store, I was unlocking my bike when I saw the following scene unfold: an inexpertly piloted minivan is backing out of a space, and visibly scrapes the car to its right, leaving a big green mark on the white polyurethane bumper. Once out, the driver stops to look at the other car (without getting out), apparently decides “oh, that’s no big deal,” and drives off.

I was amazed–despite this being a busy parking lot, the motorist either figured “nobody saw,” “nobody cares,” or “I am immune.” Sorry, buddy. I wrote down your tag number on a scrap of paper, along with my own info, and left it under the windshield wiper. Expect a call from Officer Friendly.

Politicians for hire

Here’s an interesting project for a wealthy philanthropist with an interest in political reform:

Set up two shell organizations that claim to have opposite goals regarding some aspect of public policy. Call them “Citizens for X” and “Citizens against X”–whatever. Target one member of Congress, and have Citizens for X lobby him intensively. Get him to introduce legislation favorable to their position. Document this process internally. Then have Citizens for X withdraw support, but have Citizens against X step in. Repeat. Once the two sides have demonstrated how completely this member of Congress is willing to be the bitch of whoever will pay, publicize the whole thing.

It would be interesting to see how/whether this affected the career of the Congresscritter in question, whether it led to broader reforms, and whether the public gave a damn.

Big Night of Comedy

The Texas Freedom Network held an annual fundraising event last night, the Big Night of Comedy. Well, not that big. There were two comedians–local Kerry Awn (of Esther’s Follies) opened, with Will Durst headlining. At one point, Durst mentioned Willie Brown, mayor of Durst’s town, San Francisco. Apparently Willie Brown is actually from Texas–“Minneola, is that right?” Durst asked. A few people called something back to the stage, and after a moment of silence, a voice that everyone instantly recognized called up “He’s from Mineral Wells.” That was Ann Richards. We all got a good laugh, and were glad to know she was there with us.

The show was pretty good, but not great. I’ve seen Kerry Awn’s schtick before. Will Durst seemed to be at a bit of a loss for material. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. It was easy to joke about Clinton. And when Bush was just a priviliged buffoon whose tongue had two left feet, he was too. But what the Bush administration is doing is so grave that it may be hard to make it funny. I saw a lot of friends at the show. In fact, a sizable fraction of the audience members were people I know. It bothers me that, at an event for progressives, I’m going to see all the usual suspects. That there aren’t enough here for my circle to get lost in the crowd.

In the Bedroom

Rented In the Bedroom recently. Interesting movie, especially in that the storytelling style mimicked the story. The main characters in the story are incredibly uptight New England types who never say what they really think or feel. The movie itself never quite depicts any of the key action that takes place, cutting away or looking elsewhere at the critical moment.

Die Another Day

Saw Die Another Day yesterday. I’m ambivalent about this movie. I enjoyed most of the action sequences and gadget-porn (although some people have criticized the invisible car as going beyond their suspension of disbelief, it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. There were a few subtle (or not-so-subtle) bows to earlier Bond flicks–Berry emerging from the surf with a huge knife-belt on her bikini is obviously evoking Ursula Andress in Dr No, for example. Inexplicably, Michael Madsen seemed to have on the same suit he wore in Reservoir Dogs.

But the plot had holes–nay, chasms–that any viewer smarter than a tuna salad couldn’t help but notice, even with the distraction of top-flight action sequences, and apart from those, it just muddled along without a clear direction or good pace. Some of the dialog between Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry was just awful.

Far From Heaven

Saw Far From Heaven a few days ago. Good movie. I’ve only seen one other movie by the director, Todd Haynes. That was Velvet Goldmine, which, in most respects, is completely different, but both have a lush, colorful, and contrived visual style, both are recent-vintage period pieces, and both deal, in some way, with sexual ambiguity.

The story in Far From Heaven has nice symmetries and contrasts, appropriate considering the themes of closeted homosexuality and unpleasant racial attitudes under a veneer of perfect Eisenhower-era America.

The less said, the better

I’ve noticed a rash of websites lately that cater to the harried film buff (who may not have time for the kind of review Pauline Kael cranked out–the kind that takes longer to read than the movie takes to watch…or perhaps film) by turning film reviewing into a lapidary art: Four word film reviews, Haiku movie reviews, and Movie-a-minute. The review for Dr Strangelove perfectly summarizes both the movie and this approach to criticism: “Oops.”

Auto Focus

Saw Auto Focus last night. A good movie, but very emphatically not a bring-the-whole-family movie: I mentioned to Gwen midway through “we’ll need to bathe as soon as this is over.

The bizarre story it tells, of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane’s descent into an obsession with random sex and (ahem) home movies, and a relationship with a friend, John Carpenter, that can only be described in the psychobabble of today as “co-dependent,” is disturbing and absorbing. The complete disconnect between Crane’s self-image and his behavior is fascinating.

It’s a Paul Schrader movie, unmistakably so. He’s one of those directors you can just recognize by the look and the subject matter. In his case, dark, stylized lighting and strong colors. And dark, often sexualized stories.

Deja vu all over again.

Another way George II’s upcoming war really feels like a sequel to George I’s gulf war: I was in traffic today, behind a new SUV with a yellow-ribbon sticker that had the attached text “Support our troops.” This definitely wasn’t a leftover from the last gulf war–it just looked like it.

Ganesh

Caught a performance by an Indian drummer named Ganesh above the Clay Pit last night. Some of the usual suspects were there, including Adina. Ganesh was playing a tiny handheld drum–smaller than a tamborine–that produced uncannily deep, liquid sounds, somewhat like a kettle drum. I believe it’s called a kanjira. It was a good show, and despite the Indian connection, it was really more of a jazz improv session (they even played Billie’s Bounce, I think it was).

They just don’t get it

There’s a truly hilarious website out there, blackpeopleloveus.com. It satirizes a quiet and unintentional sort of racism sometimes found in white people.

Evidently, not everyone gets it. And some people who do get it feel that racism is too serious to make light of (violating my personal prime directive, “fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke”). The site has gotten enough public attention that it was featured on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Take a look at the ABC page discussing this–it doesn’t actually link to the site (though it does give the URL, so you could get there), and at the bottom, the page has a feedback form which starts off with “Now that you’ve heard about blackpeopleloveus.com, we would like to know what you think.” Note that they are subtly discouraging you from actually checking the site out for yourself, and encouraging you to treat the ABC writeup as the only source you need–to make decisions and offer feedback based on incomplete information when the source is right under your nose.

They just don’t get it.

Wargames

I’ve been seeing a lot of ads lately for a videogame called Desert Storm: Conflict. Although it putatively is a simulation of the 1990 Gulf War, is it clearly intended as an anticipation of the upcoming Gulf War, Episode II. Cashing in on war fever with a videogame? There’s something about this that strikes me as wrong, wrong, wrong. And weird.

More Word Weirdness

Microsoft Word is legendary for its awfulness. This is not news. But I just ran across a quirk so funny that I had to stop working on my tight-deadline job and blog it.

I’ve got auto-correct turned on. I’m zipping along and type “arcana.” Word corrects it to “arcane.” That’s odd–I couldn’t imagine that there would be an arcana/arcane pair in the auto-correct dictionary. And there isn’t. But there’s another feature (that can be disabled, fortunately) that will auto-correct based on the regular spellcheck dictionary. Apparently that dictionary doesn’t include “arcana” but does include “arcane,” and the spellcheck algorithm decided the latter was the only viable candidate to replace the former. So it did.

Here’s where it gets funny. Word also includes a regular dictionary with definitions–the whole works. Arcana is in that dictionary. Go ahead, make jokes about one hand not knowing what the other is doing, the insane redundnancy of two different word lists, etc. I’m with you.

Crossroads

Saw the Mr Sinus treatment of Crossroads last night. No, not the one with Ralph Macchio, the one with Britney Spears.

As usual, they did a fine job. Of course, with this material, their job was like shooting fish in a barrel, but nevertheless, I was in tears from laughing so hard.

Stealth politics

A couple of recent news items about China have intrigued me. NPR reported that a stage adaptation of Animal Farm is showing in Beijing (audio link). And a Chinese national who has spent much of his life in America but recently returned to his hometown, Shanghai, reflects on how much things have changed there.

It seems amazing that Animal Farm could be showing in China. But the story makes clear that while the older generation found it moving and relevant, the younger generation just didn’t get it–perhaps because they were all busy sending text messages to their friends on their cellphones during the play. The story in the NY Times is even more astounding:

I listened to my 14-year-old cousin sing rap in Chinese about the fantasized martial arts, jiang hu. When I asked him about Chairman Mao, he gave me a blank stare, just like teenagers in Harlem had when I inquired about Malcolm X. “Who is Mao?” my cousin asked. “They might have mentioned him in school, but I didn’t pay attention.”

If nobody except for politicians care about politics, then everyone else will leave the politicians alone to do…whatever they want.

Is it possible that China’s political class has secured its future by making the citizens fat and happy, and pretending that it is irrelevant? Is it possible that the same thing has happened in the USA?