Month: May 2003

Mr Popular

Friendster seems to be growing explosively. I can almost sit there and hit the reload button in my browser, and watch the number of people in my network increase. It’s grown by about 250 in about 5 hours today. Apparently I am connected through 4 degrees to Gwen Stefani (if we can take the entry at face value), along with nine other Gwens, none of whom are the Gwen I’m seeing. It would be interesting to see a map of the connections between people. I suggest that some people are major nodal points (one guy lists 676 friends, which is kind of unbelievable). I am apparently 4 degrees removed from Jack Black, by way of some guy who lists 881 friends. Zoinks!

No surprise that it’s already spawned Fiendster and Enemyster as parodies.

Obligatory Matrix Reloaded review

Saw The Matrix Reloaded last night with Gwen. I very much enjoyed it. Some people have criticized it for what it isn’t. I don’t care. What it is is visually interesting and imaginative, fast moving and audacious. It’s also a little pretentious in spots, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously (nice gag: a cop radio calling “one-adam-twelve”).

Terminator 3 is coming soon. They really should have a mechanical-dystopia double feature of Matrix and Terminator. Gwen asked if there have been any SF movies over the past ten or so years that were utopian rather than dystopian. Apart from the Star Trek movies, I couldn’t think of any. Curious that distopian visions would be more popular.

If you aren’t completely sick of Matrix-mania, check out The Animatrix, which has some very well done animated shorts that give some back-story to the movie.

Imagine my surprise

Paul Wolfowitz, traitor to his cause, has admitted that the whole WMD pretext for war was just that.

This is all-but the final capitulation in a series of dodges and weaves that the administration has been taking in the past few weeks on this subject. Some right-wing think-tank types have, hilariously, suggested that no, Iraq didn’t have any WMDs, but his people were unwilling to tell that to Saddam, who wanted to believe he had some, so they tricked him, and the rest of the world, into thinking there were some. Or, even richer, Saddam knew he didn’t have WMDs, but wanted us to think he did. Eh?

One excuse tossed out by Rumsfeld is that Saddam did have WMDs, but destroyed them at the last minute. By comparison, this at least passes the laugh test, but how long would it take to dismantle a chemical arsenal of the size we had accused him of having? I really don’t know, but I’m guessing it would take more than a couple weeks, and would probably be accompanied by equipment movements that would be obvious to spy satellites.

I don’t expect this will derail G.W.’s popularity–nothing else seems to–but at least I can add smugness to my bitterness and despair now.

Burning Flipside 2003

I’m back and halfway recovered from Burning Flipside, one of the “regional burns” associated with Burning Man. As I understand it, Flipside is the oldest (since 1998) and largest (900 tickets sold–quickly–in 2003) of the regional burns.

I had been delinquent about getting tickets when they went on sale, and missed out. Fortunately, a secondary market sprung up, as many people bought tickets for friends who later cancelled (this resulted in a frantic last-minute round-robin exchange of e-mail messages as ticket holders tried to hook up with ticket seekers). It was pretty late in the game that we got our tickets, and so we hadn’t done a lot of advance preparation. We did get supplies to make a shade structure out of PVC and old sheets, along with all the usual camping crap one would need, food (lots of food), beer, wine, fuel, etc. We both scrounged up weird odds and ends around our households to use as barter goods. Apart from a daily ice delivery, commerce is not allowed at Flipside. Technically, barter isn’t either–everything is on the gift economy–but as a practical matter, it would be a bad idea to show up without anything to trade.

We headed out Friday around noon, and got to the site quickly. Admission is a tedious process.

We first signed a multipage waiver absolving the site owner of any liability. Flipside takes place on a private campground called Recreation Plantation. RecPlan is a 40-acre site with limited modcons (a few flush toilets, a few showers), a few RV hookups, a pool, and a creek. Most of the property is rocky and covered with scrubby trees (which someone aptly referred to as “upstairs”); there’s a fairly short and sharp decline from this that leads onto a smooth, open, grassy field of about 10 acres. The field adjoins the creek, which has some trees along it. In past years, all the action at Flipside was on the field. That’s still where the biggest theme camps are, but as the event has grown, more camps are found upstairs.

After that, we drove a little ways in and arrived at the main check-in, where we were subjected to a somewhat condescending interview process. I suppose this is necessary to keep out troublemakers and people who don’t get it (or at least get some idea of how many of those people are arriving).

Finally we made it to the “greeter’s station,” where we were given a temporary permit to drive onto the field and unpack the car. The car was very full–I had packed an enormous beanbag chair that we wound up not using, and the materials for the shade structure, which also turned out to be unnecessary (there was no room for it). We were camping at the Circle of Fire with my fire-freak friends. We deployed our stuff fairly quickly, said Hi to quite a lot of friends, and went back roughly to where we came in, quite some distance away, to park. We walked back down and said Hi to more people, and took it all in.

After that, impressions of time become very fuzzy. Not many people wore watches. Some activities were supposed to happen at specific times, so knowing when to be where was somewhat problematic. But it’s probably just as well–otherwise I’d know exactly how much sleep I wasn’t getting.

The COF camp was on the field, which was extremely hot and bright (except when it was raining), and although we had an enormous dome that should have been a fine shade structure, it was in fact intolerably hot and close in there, so we spent most of the time under two much smaller canopies in back. Or at other camps: Jenny, for instance, was camped at the Toadstool Kingdom of Slack, which was positioned right on the slope between the upstairs and the field. This spot was about 15° cooler than any other place in the camp, so we spent plenty of time hanging out there.

Our camp was near another theme camp, the name of which I never learned, but which I came to call the “obnoxious techno music at 7:00 AM camp” for reasons that should be self-explanatory. This camp had a giant parachute-covered dome that played music all the time, but played it especially loud at hours that everybody else wanted to be asleep. At one point, Flipside’s most obnoxious participant, Xeno, of Flipside’s most obnoxious camp, Chupacabra Policia, came over with a bullhorn to chastise them “no one is listening to your music.”

Art

The toadstool was an ambitious project that the builders had great trouble erecting. They had tried using a fairly elaborate gantry with block & tackle, which didn’t work at all. They eventually put a fulcrum above it and pulled it up with a Jeep. This was just one of many really amazing projects that got hauled out there. The Gateway fire-sculpture thing is like a giant double-barreled sheetmetal chimenea on rockers. The art-car that shoots flames out of four jets. The flame-shooting totem pole (you may sense a theme here). And the Man itself, which bore little resemblance to the original (or any man), but was basically a wooden derrick with arms sticking out.

Theme camps

Likewise, many of the camps were pretty amazing undertakings. One camp had a trampoline and moonwalk (which we enjoyed immensely). John Cougar Melon-camp, apart from creating an excellent visual pun, hosted a Bill Hicks revival hour at which spicy Bloody Marys flowed freely. Spin Camp had a QTVR rig that I never got around to posing for. The Groovepharm camp had the usual Groovepharm visual/auditory feast. Camp Baksheesh had some kind of puppet karaoke that I somehow never saw. And so on. Every night we would wander from camp to camp, taking in the experiences like we were going through a Whitman’s Sampler.

The bigger and crazier theme camps were all on the field. Next year, I think I’m camping upstairs, where it’ll be cooler and quieter.

People

Of course, the main attraction is the people. I had a lot of friends there scattered among seven or so camps. I met a fair number of new people. I’m sure that the environment helps, but pretty much everyone I met was a pleasure to be around.

At one point, a friend on X came by to give me the earnest “I love you, man” speech that is characteristic of that drug. I realized that Donald Rumsfeld desperately needs to take X. Apart from booze, I took no drugs the whole weekend, and in a way, drugs are redundant: the experience is already an exercise in sensory overload. There were a few people who were so far gone on drugs (or simply so far removed from reality even without them) that they couldn’t take care of themselves, but this was less of a problem than I expected (fortunately, there are Flipside Rangers to take care of them). And even going on indirect evidence, there was a bare minimum of assholes. People seemed to be there in a spirit of conviviality and community.

Costumes were probably more common than street clothes (I was an exception–even among freaks, I’m a freak)–of course, the line between the two can be a blurry one, especially in this crowd. Nudity was common, and I observed that nipple piercings are way more common than I ever imagined. Tattoos were conspicuous only by their absence.

The Big Burn

The high point of the whole event is the big burn, when the Man is burned. A lot of preparation goes into this, despite which there is still a lot of last-minute headless-chicken imitation. The burn ceremony (perhaps “rite” would be a better word) began with a procession of firedancers and stiltwalkers, who walked from the Circle of Fire to the main circle. They were organized by color (this year’s Flipside theme was “dreams of chromatic distraction” [don’t ask]), with about six firedancers, one torchbearer, and one stiltwalker in each of six color groups. Once around the Man, they all did their thing, and the last man burning, Bob, then lit the Man. Everybody was crowded around the perimeter (delineated by a huge circle of nifty LED pods that fired off different colors in different sequences), screaming and excited. After the Man burned for about 20 minutes, it collapsed in on itself and everybody rushed to get as close to the fire as they could, jumping and dancing around.

I observed this from a distance. I was one of the safety people for the big burn, and one of the few experienced firedancers to be working safety. I was one of the people in headless-chicken mode beforehand, trying to round up enough towels, buckets, extinguishers, and other safety people. As the burn drew near, Tiglet and I drilled unexperienced safety people on what to do (fortunately, there was only one minor incident during the burn). After the performers had cleared the field and the Man started burning, Stephen realized that our fuel depot was directly downwind of the Man, which was casting a lot of embers in its direction. He rounded up safeties to help make sure none of the embers landed there to start a fire, so I moved buckets and towels back there and tried to help. As I looked on the people around the fire, I was struck by the energy and intensely primal and pagan spirit pervading them.

I made up for not being part of the procession by having seven or eight really good burns later that night. Kudos to Juan of Camp Baksheesh for being an excellent DJ for COF.

A pretty serious rainstorm whipped through in the wee hours Monday, but most of our stuff came through OK (lucky thing we already had the rainfly on the tent). We got up at a reasonable hour that morning, cleaned up around the camp, packed up the car, and were on our way by 11:00 AM. On the country road leading out of RecPlan, we passed by a Hummer, paradigmatic symbol of American crapulence, and re-entered everyday reality.

I’m missing a million things. You had to be there. I took a few pictures (login as adamguest/adamguest — if there’s a picture of you that you want removed, please let me know), but these were all taken during the day, and much like bars, Flipside isn’t seen in its best light in the light. Scott took some too (same login). Bob got a bunch more. Kristin is maintaining a master list of Flipside 2003 photo albums.

There are any number of ways to define burn events: as temporary autonomous zones, as art festivals, as experiments in radical self-expression/self-reliance, etc. To me, they are about suspending the constraints of everyday life, creating a situation where people can either be more fully themselves or experiment with being other people, having extraordinary experiences, and living fully and in the moment.

Privatizing UT?

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, yes, but a story on KUT this morning discussed UT’s desire to have freedom in setting tuition in exchange for less state money.

The report made it sound as if UT will be unable to attract and retain good professors if it doesn’t have more money to offer them. This is ironic because money is exactly what UT uses, lavishly. The report has a quote from a UT official saying that private universities offer on average $22,000 more to their professors [than does UT, we assume he means]. That “on average” part is a key weasel-word here, since my hearsay understanding is that the school rolls out the red carpet for its star professors.

Anyhow, the university says it needs more money, and that higher tuition is the only way to get it; that sacrificing its mandate to provide a top-quality education at reasonable rates to the state’s residents is worth preserving a reputation for excellent academics.

Even if we allow that UT does need more money–which strikes me as hard to swallow–the report conspicuously failed to mention the Permanent University Fund. The PUF is an enormous endowment ($6.7 billion as of 2002) for the state university system, managed by the shadowy UTIMCO (don’t get me started) that is dedicated to construction. This has resulted in an absurd amount of new construction around UT over the past ten years or so–much of it dedicated to athletics. A new upper deck and skyboxes for Memorial Stadium. A new practice field for the football team (in addition to the practice field UT built when I was a student). A new track stadium. A new practice field for the marching band. The marching band! There’s been other construction, of course–the Jim-Bob business building. There’s a giant new administrative building where my department’s humble offices once stood. I can’t count the number of new multistory parking garages that have gone up.

Of course, UT would still be a massive state institution: it would still have its extensive land holdings; it would still be a law unto itself (it complies only voluntarily–and reluctantly–with the city fire code). But it would have more freedom to act like a private institution.

So, although changing the fundamental relationship between the University and the State, and changing the University’s basic mission is OK to put on the table, the idea of tapping the PUF for anything other than frivolous growth projects that proceed like a cancer is clearly unthinkable.

Spam report 2

Over the past 7 days, I’ve received 506 511 (some came while writing this) pieces of spam. Of these, spamassassin correctly tagged about 450, a 90% hit rate, with no false-positives that I could see. Interestingly, mail.app’s internal junk-filtering rules gave me three false-positives. One of these was mailing-list mail with a spamassassin score of -9, two of them were paypal notices, one of which had a spamassassin score of -98! Interesting to note how disparate the two are.

They hate translation, translation hates them

The things I miss not being a literary translator.

Apparently the Complete Review (which I’ve never heard of) published a review of a book about translation and some Rilke in Translation, where, among other things, the author writes “We at the complete review hate translation.” This provoked a bit of outrage here, here, and here. The original author responded to this criticism, saying

Translations may be well and good but they are not the originals. They are something different and what we’re interested in is the original. We want to read the author’s work, not the translator’s work. But being illiterate in languages X,Y, Z, etc. we are unable to read the originals and so have to rely on the translations — which in some ways resemble the originals but are still — arguably entirely and fundamentally — different. Reading a translation makes us feel we are blind and merely listening to someone describe the sights around us

This is silly. This is like blaming a banana for not being an orange. If the author doesn’t want to be reminded of his own shortcomings, he should do one of the following:

  • Learn the desired foreign language fluently
  • Abjure all contact with other languages, even through translation
  • Shut up

More thoughts on the iTunes Music Store

The interesting thing about ITMS is that it is integrated so tightly with iTunes, and that iTunes itself is a pretty slick program.

Perhaps Apple is still working out the bugs, but the initial rollout of ITMS is missing a huge opportunity: recommendations and aggregation.

Amazon already does recommendations based on what you’ve bought and what you say you like. And audioscrobbler (thanks to iScrobbler) keeps track of exactly what I’ve been listening to, and makes recommendations based on that using some kind of collaborative-filtering hoohah.

iTunes also keeps track internally of what I’ve been playing. ITMS could roughly duplicate what audioscrobbler does and let me preview/buy the recommendations directly. That would be slick. iTunes also allows one to assign star-ratings to songs, but that’s a little tedious, and the audioscrobbler philosophy–that what you listen to most is what you really like the most–is probably more honest.

Likewise, Apple could aggregate this data into a form that it could sell to the record industry. This raises obvious privacy questions, but frankly, as long as it would be anonymous, I would be perfectly happy for the record industry to know that I have never, not once, listened to Britney Spears, N’Sync, Alan Jackson, or whatever–but that I do listen to Beck, the Asylum Street Spankers, Caetano Veloso, etc.

It’s also funny to see how they categorize music, since (once you get past the front page) the store uses the same genre/artist/album column-browser as iTunes uses for your own music library. Jimmy Cliff, Jon Secada, Martin Denny, and Abba are all listed under “World music.” Putting music in pigeonholes is often unhelpful, and that particular slot is especially so.

Get your warblog-coverage on

The Austin Chronicle has an article by Marc Savlov on warblogs.

Savlov had sent a request to the webmaster for austinbloggers.org for background info for the story. That e-mail addresses is an alias for several people, me being one. Although I’ve felt for years that Savlov is a prick, I responded in a helpful spirit, with some info and links.

Apart from sending no “thank you,” message, Savlov ignored or contradicted everything I sent him, which (I assume) conflicted with the story he wanted to write. This is not to say that I am right and he is wrong, but if a journalist asks someone assumed to have some knowledge of a specific field, and gets a response that doesn’t agree with what he expected or has been picking up from other sources, he might shoot back “That’s different from what I’ve been hearing. Why do you say that?”

He took the typical old-media condescending view of blogs in general.

And he spent about one-fifth of the story talking about a site that he acknowledges is not a blog but is “blog-like.” Whatever.

Paging David Nelson…

If your name happens to be David Nelson, you’re on the government’s “hassle me” list. There are a lot of guys named David Nelson.

This article contains a mistake: “Somewhere in the world there’s an actual terrorist suspect named David Nelson who started all this mess.” Not true. It seems that anybody the government feels like hassling can get on the list, including peace activists. I leave the irony as an exercise for the reader.

One thing about this concerns me: the government could use this problem as an excuse to introduce a national ID card system.

Cover coincidence

Saw these two covers (of Blur and Boards of Canada albums) side-by-side at Waterloo records.

X2

Saw X2, the X-Men sequel (I should probably say “the first of many X-Men sequels”). I was reasonably entertained by it. Drew liked it better than me.

X2 was much better than the first X-Men movie in terms of story, action, and characters: the story’s landscape of light and dark is interesting: the X-Men are the good-guy mutants, Magneto and his gang are the bad-guy mutants, and then there are the regular humans. But the line between good-guy mutant and bad-guy mutant is blurry: Magneto has a complicated relationship with Professor X, and genuinely doesn’t want to hurt him. Wolverine, a good guy, has no qualms about eviscerating anyone who threatens him. All the mutants were more sympathetic than many of the mundane humans, who either feared the mutants or sought to enslave them. The action and eye-candy were fast-moving and epic in scale–real big-screen material. The first X-Men movie portrayed the characters as embarrassingly incompetent in a fight. Not this one. And while many of the characters were wooden in both movies (notably Cyclops, who makes Al Gore seem as wacky as Al Yankovic), it was nice seeing Mystique’s character get fleshed out a little. Casting Alan Cummings as Nightcrawler was perfect, and what can you say about Ian McKellen? He’s great. Classes up the joint, too.

I felt the ending was extremely contrived and unsatisfying. Drew thinks its a setup for the next sequel.

Wisdom teeth out

In a ten-minute procedure this morning, I was relieved of my three wisdom teeth and about $1300. The procedure was not painful, but it was unpleasant: I was very anxious through the whole thing, and apparently was ashen by the end of it, as the doctor was concerned about me and wouldn’t let me get up until my color returned. I did this under a local anesthetic, which was supposed to last for about four hours. Right now, about three hours have passed and it’s wearing off (I’ve already taken a happy-pill, but it’s not doing much good yet). One of the extraction sites is still bleeding and that whole side of the mouth hurts, even though it’s also peculiarly numb. Also peculiar is how perfectly the numbness bifurcates my mouth. My bite feels very strange–I wonder if my teeth are re-aligning themselves or if this is an artifact of the swelling and the fact that I had gauze in my mouth for hours.

Spam report

Over the past eight days, I have received 397 pieces of spam. 328 were flagged by Spamassassin and dropped in my spam-box before I ever saw them; one of these was arguably not spam (it was bulk, commercial e-mail that I didn’t particularly want, but I have bought stuff from the sender before, so they had obtained my e-mail address legitimately). Only about ten messages had subject lines that might fool me into thinking they weren’t spam.

I don’t have exact numbers, but spam accounted for well over half the total e-mail I received in this period–possibly over three-quarters.

Social networks

There’s been a lot of interest lately in social software. A related phenomenon is the way the Internet can make social networks explicit.

I like playing around with this. I recently created a FOAF file (see my badge-zone). And there’s a brilliant “FOAF explorer” (where you can see I really need to flesh mine out).

One problem with FOAF is that it’s nerdy, and while I think it’s a good approach, not everyone will bother putting FOAF files on their websites (oh wait–not everyone even has a website). Friendster answers that–it approximates FOAF’s functionality, but lets the user sign in and point to friends rather than post a file with arcane formatting. It would be nifty if Friendster could read FOAF files, and conversely, if Friendster had an interface for feeding information into FOAF files.

None of this is particularly new. Six degrees did roughly the same thing as Friendster back in 1995, I think. But the Internet is big enough that network effects make the idea more viable. It’s also interesting trolling through Friendster–so far, the only friends I’ve found in there are part of my fire-freak circle of friends, so all the same faces keep popping up. It would be interesting to find someone from a different circle there and be the point of intersection between circles.

Later: Seems that Ben Hammersly had the same idea.

Spider

Saw Spider last night. Interesting movie. It’s by David Cronenberg, and I’ll pretty much see anything from him on spec. Some parents had brought their kids (perhaps expecting Spiderman–children should never be brought to Cronenberg movies).

The movie, like its protagonist, moves very, very slowly. A madman sent to a halfway house in his hometown gradually recollects (and partly re-invents) his childhood, and the events that caused his madness, or were precipitated by it and exacerbated it–the movie is not clear which. The storytelling was very affectless–I don’t quite feel as if I got inside the character’s head–but is very atmospheric. Ralph Fiennes did an excellent job in what I’m guessing must have been a very difficult portrayal of the title role.

Natural keywords and categories

Adam Kalsey has done some fine work on creating lists of related entries for Movable Type based on the contents of your blogs.

Not to undermine it, but this still doesn’t go far enough towards discovering natural relations between entries, and won’t work unless we write in a restricted style with a restricted vocabulary–that goes against the grain of blogging, which is personal and spontaneous. If I mention Donald Rumsfeld in one blog entry and the Secretary of Defense in another, clearly they’re related (although the person with that title can change, making that equation more complicated). How can this be made to work?

The first problem is extracting potential keywords from “noise” words. A first-order effort would be to have a canned list of noise words, and filter those out–this would be a simple, fast process. A second-order effort would be to filter out any words that are used very frequently by the blogger–this would be much slower, and perhaps should be handled asynchronously (the results of this could be used to refine the first-order noise-word list to speed things up in general).

The two Big Bens of Blogistan (Trott and Hammersley) have worked out the ingenious more like this from others. This has the germ of something interesting: using an outside reference.

Something like the Open Directory already represents a pretty extensive hierarchical library of keywords. To take my prior example, the first hit for a search on “Donald Rumsfeld” at dmoz is found in the category “Regional > North America > United States > Government > Executive Branch > Departments > Defense”. That gives you some excellent keywords to take home. (It also seems possible that if a candidate keyword generates scattered search results, it might not be a good keyword, and should be added to the noise-word list.) The most specific are at the end, and “Defense” is a very useful keyword to equate to Rumsfeld. It gets better: that category contains subcategories with very useful terms (Armed Forces, Defense Agencies, Department of Defense Field Activities, Intelligence, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Unified Combatant Commands) as well as related categories (Science > Technology > Military Science; Regional > North America > United States > Government > Military > Installations > Pentagon). These could be used to generate a high-quality list of “alternative keywords.”

So the process of finding and using alternate keywords would go something like this:

  1. Create potential keyword list
    1. Winnow out noise words
    2. Winnow out other frequently-used words
  2. Search dmoz or other directory for keywords
  3. Collect categories for search results, as well as subcategories and related categories
  4. Assemble new list of alternative keywords
  5. Search blog corpus for alternate keywords, create links when found

The process of constructing a list of alternative keywords clearly involves a fair amount of work–but that’s what we’ve got computers for. And it obviously won’t always be perfect–but that’s what we’ve got brains for.