November 2003

There goes the Triangle

The Triangle under the backhoe

A fight that has dragged on since 1997 has ended. The Triangle, a fallow 22-acre chunk of land bounded by Lamar, Guadalupe, and 45th, and owned by the State Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, is now under development.

This was a highly politicized issue in my neighborhood, and for a long time, I was active in the fight against yet another strip mall, plunked down right in my part of town. Eventually, because of pressure by community activists (most significantly, Sabrina Burmeister, but many others as well) organized as the Neighbors of Triangle Park, the state agreed to a less-awful plan. Developers and architects signed on to the project, then abandoned it. I lost track of its progress, and what would eventually be built there.

I guess I’ll find out now.

Table layout for non-tables

CSS is endless fun for the geek–it can be perverted in so many amusing ways. Take table layout, for example.

Back in the old days (you know, like 1998), HTML authors used table tags to lay out web pages. Gradually, a certain sub-community of web developers came to criticize this: HTML is meant to describe the page’s structure, not appearance, and tables were being used to lay out text matter, not tabular matter. “Save tables for, you know, spreadsheets.” they said. “Look, we’ve got this lovely thing called CSS that provides all kinds of layout flexibility.”

Many old-school web developers have been uncomfortable with this. Table tagging is familiar and predictable; CSS uses a completely different model for laying out the page. Or does it?

The fact is that CSS provides a complete set of tools for styling tables. It even lets you use tabular display tricks for text matter. So you can have your nice, semantically correct HTML, and in the CSS twist it to be displayed exactly as if you had marked it up with table tags.

Alamo double-header

Took in two oddball events at the Alamo this weekend.

On Saturday, we saw the “Show with No Name” show. This is actually a community access show (which I’ve never seen), but they saved their raunchiest, weirdest stuff for this screening, which included such lowlights as the Pamela/Tommy Lee sex tape, the Paris Hilton sex tape, and Chuck Barry pissing on his wife’s face. Plus lots of other scatalogical strangeness, capped off by a woman sending a profoundly bizarre come-on video to the object of her affection, Stevie Vai, featuring an astounding three-minute queef solo.

Saturday was a screening of Santo contra la invasión de los marcianos, presented in glorious Foleyvision [mpeg], that is, live voice-over and sound effects. The dialogue seemed to be a pretty straight translation of what (I’m guessing) the original Spanish must have been–they didn’t bother giving the movie the What’s Up, Tiger Lily? treatment, but it was funny enough on its own. After all–it’s a movie about a masked Mexican wrestler fending off a Martian invasion. What more could you want?

Size deflation

I bought a jacket yesterday.

In itself, that is hardly worthy of comment. But in the process of trying on jackets–and I tried on quite a few–I learned something that strikes me as strange. I am “small.” In fact, I am 5’9″ and about 155 lb, which is the average height for an American man, and a healthy weight for my height. One might think this would make me “medium,” and in the past, that was the size I would grab first. But yesterday, the only jackets that fit me were smalls. I tried on a few mediums that might as well have been tents.

Sizes go way up–all the places I looked had XXL jackets–but what about guys who really are small? There were no sizes smaller than “small.” There was no short-men’s section tucked away in the corner of Dillards (though there was a big-men’s section there). What do they do? Shop in the boys’ department, the way Prince does?

I think it’s widely known that women’s sizes have undergone a radical deflation over the years. I was vintage-shopping with my sister once, and remember her trying on a 30s-era dress that was size 14. Going by modern sizing, she’d wear a 4. It seems that, as Americans get bigger, something similar is happening with men’s clothing.

Advertising for advertising

Yesterday, I heard an ad on the radio encouraging the listener to use the Brand X yellow pages (as opposed to all those other yellow pages out there). These ads are not uncommon, but this was the first time I really gave them any thought.

What’s happening is really strange, if you think about it. The yellow pages is basically a book of advertisements; the publisher sells ad space to local businesses and gives away the book. In order for those ads to have any value (and hence, generate repeat business for the publisher), people need to look at them. How do you get people to look at them? Advertise the ads, of course. There’s something sort of circular at work here. The radio ad says to me, in so many words “this is an ad that we bought in order to get you to look at ads that we sold, so that we can continue to get good ad rates for the ads that we’ll sell in the future.”

I realize I am oversimplifying a bit, and that there are other ways to look at this, but I find this angle most interesting.

Halloween wrap-up

Sage in full regalia

I never did write about the Halloween show. I just found this picture in my digicam and wanted to get that up.

All things considered, the show went pretty well. Things backstage were chaotic. Lack of advance organization didn’t help. But everybody seemed to be on their game and turned in a good performance.

Chicken George

The measures that the Bush administration wanted to put in place to ensure his safety on his visit to the UK are almost beyond belief: closing the London underground, immunity for snipers who accidentally kill protesters, and the use of battlefield weaponry against protesters. Contrast this with GW’s eye-roll-inducing declaration that he is looking forward to visiting a country where people have the right to protest.

Or maybe not: he has cancelled a planned address to the two houses of the UK’s Parliament, no doubt wanting to avoid a repeat of his embarrassing heckling when he addressed Australia’s.

Bubba Ho-Tep

Saw Bubba Ho-Tep today. Best. Movie. Title. Ever. Stars Bruce Campbell, veteran of numerous horror movies, as the still-alive Elvis Presley, and Ossie Davis as the still-alive JFK. I think that’s justification enough to see it, but it’s also a damn entertaining film that is neither as camp nor frenetic as I expected, but really has a heart.

Apparently the producers have not been able to secure widespread release for this flick (go figure), so if you if you see it, consider yourself special.

Kill Bill

Saw Kill Bill yesterday. Even for Quentin Tarantino, it was fantastically violent. More blood than all his previous movies put together, plus any Sam Peckinpah movie thrown in for good measure. There’s no getting around this. And the violence is not the arm’s-length variety practiced by Jerry Bruckheimer–it’s in your face, and in many cases intimate. Like a Peckinpah or John Woo movie, the violence is where the real art of the movie is concentrated, though.

Much of the movie is set in Japan, or a Japan extracted from QT’s wet dreams, where everyone carries a sword, where 60s-style girl groups perform on stages in traditional ryotei.

All that notwithstanding, I enjoyed the movie. The story of Kill Bill reminded me of a mirror-universe version of Charlie’s Angels–an elite team of hot babes (one of them portrayed by Lucy Liu), led by a mysterious and unseen older guy. Except in this case, they’re all assassins, not crime-fighters. It also bore obvious similarities to The Bride Wore Black To their credit, Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman both speak perfectly serviceable Japanese, much better than I’ve heard from most Hollywood stars.

The Alamo, with their usual panache, led off the movie with trailers for bad ninja-chick movies of the 70s, like Wonder Women–these alone were practically worth the price of admission.

Empirical political formulations

A couple recent threads on Metafilter have brought home a couple of basic realizations for me.

One, on cycling: many people have no problem with bigotry when its object is cyclists.

Another, on patriotism: Conservatives are quick to impugn the patriotism of progressives. There are actually two forms of patriotism. There are those who love their country in spite of its faults. These people are progressives. And there are those who love their country because of its faults. These people are conservatives.

Words and Rules

Recently finished reading Words and Rules by Steven Pinker. Very interesting and enjoyable. The book breaks down numerous aspects of the way our brains handle language by looking through the prism of irregular verbs, discussing the etymology of irregular verbs (which I found to be the most entertaining part of the book–I guess that says more about me than the book); showing regularity in irregulars (stink/stank/stunk; drink/drank/drunk) and how irregulars get regularized over time; covering how irregulars work in other languages, especially The Awful German Language, where irregular verbs outnumber regular verbs (calling into question the very notion of regularity); and even delving into the neuroanatomical basis for the problems that some people have conjugating verbs.

At the core of the book, though, he’s looking at two basic models for how we organize language in our heads: a Chomskyite rules-based model that reduces irregulars to a few basic rules, which is remarkable as an academic abstraction, but assumes that children are already doctorate-level linguists at an intuitive level; and a neural-network model that assumes our brains unthinkingly string together sounds without the meaning of the words influencing how we use them, a model that is defeated by Pinker’s favorite pet example, the verb “fly,” which is normally irregular (fly/flew) but gets regularized in the limited context of baseball–“he flied out to left field.”

Mystic River

Saw Mystic River last night with Gwen and her old friend Sonya. The movie is based on a book, but none of us had read it, so we really didn’t know what to expect.

Every one of the main characters–this is the classic ensemble cast, there really is no protagonist–is badly damaged in some way. And there are some apparent plot holes–or at least open question–at the end of the movie. But overall it works. It’s a very hard movie, a very grim story, but it is completely absorbing. I forgot that I was sitting in a movie theater in Austin though most of it–I was just wrapped up in the movie.