December 2002


When I studied ethics in college, one of the big issues was the question of whether motives or actions were of greater importance. If I remember correctly, Kant said “both.”

The impending war with Iraq demonstrates that Kant was right. It may be the case that making war on Iraq is the right thing to do, if done for the right reasons. I am convinced that the USA’s reasons for a war are not the right ones.

What would be a good reason for war? That Saddam is a threat to American interests and to his own people. Both of these are true.

Why is the USA so intent on war against Iraq? The reason given by the Bush administration is pretty much what I just wrote above. What are the real reasons?

My guess is that the Bush administration is using war on Iraq as a proxy or distraction for the war on terror (I’ve always objected to that term — it’s not a war any more than LBJ’s “war on poverty” or Nixon’s “war on cancer” were wars), which doesn’t seem to be offering any positive results. Indeed, success in a war on terror is defined by an absence of news: no structures blown up, no suicide bombers, etc. Hard to make the case that you’re doing a good job. Not as marketable as a good old-fashioned war.

Another analysis — which I don’t quite buy — is that it is being done at the behest of the Israel lobby. While I’m sure Israeli politicians will be delighted to see Iraq get a good smiting by the USA, I don’t get the impression that they had been agitating for it before the Bush administration made it a priority. And, although the Israel lobby probably does have disproportionate influence (especially given the unholy alliance between Israel and American fundamentalist Christians these days), I’m not convinced that it’s influential enough to push America into a war.

And there’s the old standby, oil. I’ve read reports that representatives of major oil interests from the USA, Britain, Russia, etc, have already met to decide on how they will carve up a postwar Iraq. This is plausible. And while a war will probably be hard on the economy overall, it will be great for certain sectors — obviously the military-industrial complex, but also oil, which will be much more expensive while the war is going on.

And I do believe that Saddam’s threat to American interests is on the list, but pretty low on it. It’s not a credible justification. He’s not significantly more of a threat now than he was before Bush started making all this noise about him.

So if we do go to war against Iraq, it will be mostly for the wrong reasons. This will lead to doing the wrong things, such as shortchanging higher priorities (like that war on terror) and prosecuting the war in a way that might not lead to the best outcome in terms of American security overall, but might be best in terms of oil interests. And almost inevitably, the rebuilding of postwar Iraq will be cursed by American short-termism and by American appeasement of Saudi Arabia. (Institute a real democracy? Don’t count on it.) And so on.

Why blog?

I was recently asked

I’m writing a piece for the Chronicle about Austin bloggers, and I was hoping that some of you could share your thoughts with me about why you started blogging, and your perception of Austin’s blog community and its relation to Global Blogistan, that sorta thing. And for that matter any other thoughts you might have that seem relevant…?

Here goes

  • I started blogging because other people were doing it, and it seemed like fun. I’ve had a website since long, long before I started blogging, and would occasionally post a rant there, but I wasn’t using any kind of specialized tool for it — just hand-coding HTML. After a while, I got to a point where I had enough rants backed up in my brain that I felt like I really needed to start blogging, just to loosen that blockage. This was shortly after 9/11, so there was probably a lot on everyone’s mind around then. The funny thing is, looking back on my earliest blog entries, it seems clear that I didn’t get around to setting down all those ideas.
  • I haven’t made a methodical survey of other Austin-area bloggers, but from what I have seen, they seem to be similar to the blogs I see everywhere else: they tend to focus on news, technology, and the authors’ own lives. And, to some extent, on blogging itself (metablogging). And on the intersections of these different elements.
  • I don’t see Austin bloggers as having a very special place in the blogosphere. Austin does have some distinctive qualities, with the music, the tech industry, and the local culture, and I suppose that comes through in blogs to some extent. But I haven’t seen as distinct a sense of place in Austin bloggers as in, say, New York bloggers — or to get even more specific, say, Brooklyn bloggers. Although technology is obviously a part of Austin culture, for whatever reason, blogging (which doesn’t really require much in the way of technical chops) hasn’t achieved critical mass here, the way I’ve seen it do in NYC, where multiple people will routinely blog about the same party, and point to each others’ posts. It may have something to do with Austin’s low population density.
  • Other thoughts: Some people seem to think of blogging as solipsistic, narcissistic navel-gazing. And many blogs are that way. But many other blogs are written by people who are knowledgeable and passionate about their subjects, and blogging provides them with a medium they otherwise wouldn’t have. And the Internet’s qualities of speed and bidirectionality mean not only that they can publish at will, but that others can take on these ideas in the blog comments or in their own blogs, refuting or corroborating the author’s point, or shining a different light on it. When one person’s blog entry becomes the subject of many others, you can tell there’s something interesting going on.

I’ve long felt that citizens in democracies have a duty to stay informed. With the extreme concentration of conventional media ownership today, we are getting to a point where citizens have a duty to participate in blogging — at least as readers, so as to stay exposed to views that haven’t been homogenized by commercial interests, and ideally as writers, so that we as individuals can learn firsthand what we as a society are thinking.


For the past few days, I’ve been wrestling with the problem of creating a simple order-tracking system for my side business lately, and after trying out a few different candidates, I felt as if they’d all take too much work to get something that was almost — but not quite — right. I sighed wistfully “I could build exactly what I want in Hypercard.”

Alas, Hypercard is a mothballed product. You can still buy it (somewhat to my amazement), but it hasn’t been updated in years, and certainly doesn’t run under OS X. It does run under OS 9, but I haven’t installed that.

So it was with great hope that I started fooling with Supercard today. Hope that was dashed. Supercard seems like a decent product in its way, but it’s just different enough from Hypercard to make some things that were easy in HC to be like pulling teeth in SC — as if it is trying to emulate HC in a superficial way without really partaking of its more fundamental structures. It lacks some of the handy coder features that HC had — that allowed you to watch variables as a script executed, shortcuts to break into certain script-editing windows, etc. It also has some minor but infuriating bugs. The differences and shortcomings are just enough to make me throw up my hands in frustration.

Maybe I’ll re-install OS 9 on my machine, just so I can run Hypercard.

Great Leader’s gift shop

The fact that a country as backwards as North Korea has an official website (interestingly at a .com address, not a .kp address) is kind of weird, but understandable. And sure, I can understand their Central News Agency having a site (at a address).

But a gift shop? I will leave the jokes as an exercise for the reader.

Vanilla Sky

Rented Vanilla Sky last night. I usually don’t blog rentals, for no good reason, but this definitely merits an entry. The film’s proximate inspiration was a Spanish movie, Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes — starring Penélope Cruz in the same role she played in this movie) but the main underlying plot device seems pretty clearly to originate in PKD’s Ubik. The story jumped around in sequence and in layers of unreality, and keeps you guessing and speculating even after it ends. Despite that, I wouldn’t quite call it a mindfuck — though I’m not sure if this is because I’ve been habituated by other films on this level, like Memento, because I’ve been desensitized and primed by the vastly more mindfucking Ubik, or because this movie’s just not far-out. But definitely enjoyable.


Time to present some more interesting tools for visualizing abstract relationships. I have a feeling tools like this are going to be much more widely used in the future, and much more intuitive. For the time being, a lot of them are way too slow, and somehow too abstruse.

One that is fast and not abstruse — and has a very useful role to fill is They Rule. This lets you explore relationships among movers and shakers. Sort of like a visual Oracle of Bacon, but for the powerful instead of the famous. Very interesting, although not fully fleshed out yet. Requires Flash 5

There are two similar text-corpus mappers, TextArc and Valence (the latter based on Proce55ing). Valence, technically, is more than a text mapper, but that is one of its tricks. For the time being, these two don’t seem to be so much informative as entertaining, but I can see how visual text analysis could be a serious tool in some contexts. Require Java

The Two Towers

Saw The Two Towers yesterday. I really enjoyed it. It’s very visual, and has been filling my thoughts ever since.

My criticisms, such as they are, are pretty much the same as they were for the first movie: the characters tend to get lost in the setting, just because the setting — the world and all the stuff — is so interesting and fully realized. It is, in effect, the most important character. And the movie necessarily is cut down a lot from the books. I don’t think Jackson & Co did a bad job choosing what to cut, and to their credit, despite the movie running a solid 3 hours, I never felt bored. I just wanted more. Gwen, who is averse to screen violence, found the combat to be hard to take. It’s definitely not a children’s movie. It wasn’t like watching Sam Peckinpah or John Woo flicks, which make acts of violence into objects of adoration, depicted in obsessive slo-mo detail. But there were a lot of flying heads and a lot of gibs.

Casting was brilliant. Brad Dourif as Wormtongue was perfect. Andy Serkis as Gollum was pretty amazing.

Aside: There’s been some talk that the book and movie are racist, depicting all good guys as caucasian, and the orcs as dark-skinned. While I can’t help but roll my eyes at this sort of thing, the comment is factually false (or very weak), at least as far as the movies are concerned. Orcs get a lot more screen time in LoTR-2, so it’s easier to refute now. The orcs show more variation of color than the other races, some being black (not negro-black but tar-black), some being very pallid. Many have features that caricature caucasian faces. And since all three movies were filmed at once, there’s no way that Peter Jackson could have depicted orcs this way in reaction to the charge of racism. Plus there’s that bit about Saruman the White being a bad guy.

Smart Mob = Lazy Web

Sometimes, the zeitgeist seems to cause an idea to crystallize in multiple places simultaneously. Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner both diagnosed autism (and named it the same thing) at the same time. Leibnitz and Newton both came up with calculus at about the same time. Likewise Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin with the theory of evolution. Elisha Gray invented the telephone at about the same time as Bell. And so on.

Two ideas that have been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere of late are “smart mobs” and “the lazy web.” These are both manifestations of the same underlying phenomenon: groups that are non-hierarchical and self-organizing.

With the Lazy Web, as illustrated by the case of the LibraryLookup, one guy comes up with a bright idea. He does some preliminary work, publishes that on his blog, and other people spontaneously decide to chip in and polish it up. The results can be interesting. There are obvious similarities to the open-source movement.

Smart Mobs have been defined mostly in the context of meatspace, that is, people in the street sending text messages on their cellphones to physically organize mobs. Smart mobs have been observed in the gaggles of girls that coalesce around Prince William, the protests in the Philippines against President Estrada, etc.

The main difference here is the venue — cyberspace vs meatspace. Also the results: the Lazy Web seems to be productive. Smart Mobs may fulfill useful purposes, but I don’t think we’ve seen a smart-mob barn raising. Not yet, anyhow.

Lott, defiant

Well, now that he has apologized all over the place and lost his lofty perch, Trent Lott has essentially retracted his recent contrition for his veiled racist remarks, saying

There are people in Washington who have been trying to nail me for a long time,” Lott said in the AP report. “When you’re from Mississippi and you’re a conservative and you’re a Christian, there are a lot of people that don’t like that. I fell into their trap and so I have only myself to blame.

Saying, in effect, “Sure I’m sorry — I’m sorry I was naive enough to walk into the trap laid by those mean old unspecified people who have it in for conservative Christian Mississipians.” So, to review, he still doesn’t think he said anything wrong (or expressed any indefensible ideas), he just thinks the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy finally nailed him. The cluephone is going to ring for a long time before he picks it up.

Star Trek: Nemesis

Going by the numbers, Star Trek: Nemesis should have been a good Trek movie: the rule is that even-numbered Trek movies are good, odd bad. This was number 10. It was so-so at best.

I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek in its various forms, but sometimes it calls for more suspension of intelligence than others. This movie called for a fair amount. Early in the movie, there’s a coup on Romulus, the heretofore unmentioned Remans are now in charge, and they say they want to make nice with the Federation. The Enterprise just happens to be near the Neutral Zone, so Admiral Janeway (!) dispatches Picard & crew as ambassadors. Right off the bat, we should be raising our eyebrows at the Federation’s hasty enthusiasm.

Picard wants to believe, but is too smart to. Good thing. His clone, Shinzan (created as part of a discarded plot to plant an agent in the Federation, and then relegated to slavery on Remus, who somehow (how? dunno) rose to a position of prominence among the Remans, built a kick-ass starship with a baroque doomsday weapon, and instigated the coup on Romulus) has a bundle of ill-defined Issues with Picard and his human heritage in general, and the only way he can see to overcome these issues is to kill everyone on Earth with his death-ray. Although he kind of wants Picard alive, because Shinzan’s DNA was altered, and he might need a transfusion from Picard. Picard, predictably, tries to appeal to Shinzan’s better nature to rise above his baser instincts. He fails, and so a big shootout in space ensues. The crew of the Enterprise triumphs, partly because the death-ray takes so freaking long to deploy, and even then, not without paying a price (one that could plausibly be rebated through some obvious plot devices if there were a followup to this movie).

So the movie insults our intelligence in a few ways. It also absentmindedly invites snarky ridicule from geeks who watch way too much Star Trek for the line where Picard says to Shinzan “your blood is the same as my blood, your heart is the same as my heart” or words to that effect — Picard has an artificial heart, as a couple episodes of the show discussed.

Oh well. I don’t resent the time and (matinee) money I spent on the movie, but they could have done a better job. Instead of staging a coup on Romulus, Shinzan could have been a rebel, leading the Federation to gamble that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” — more plausible story. They could have fleshed out Shinzan a lot more — a potentially interesting character that wound up being very flat and villainous just because that’s his job.

Bush yucks it up at Enron party

As an American, but not a deeply, blindly conservative one, I find it difficult to avoid being cynical and resigned. Despite a Bush administration that makes Nixon’s look like a Boy Scout jamboree, the average citizen seems indifferent to what’s going on in Washington. So my schadenfreude at finding this story is mixed with a feeling of futility.

L’Affaire DiIulio

Esquire magazine recently published a four page letter (long, but worth reading) by John DiIulio, former head of faith-based initiatives for the President, describing the way the Bush White House is completely driven by political calculations, not by policy. He has since apologized, saying his word were “poorly chosen.” This apology has all the plausibility of Claude Rains being shocked–shocked!–to discover gambling, since the letter was so well written. And indeed, DiIulio subsequently offered a “clarification” of the apology, saying that good manners required it. In any case, the episode does show that the Bushies don’t like dissent in the ranks, and presumably had some lever they could use to pry this retraction out of DiIulio. I wonder what.

Metablogging stuff

A confluence of factors have prodded me into spending the whole day nerding about in the Movable Type back-end.

Movable Type recently went through an upgrade. I was reluctant to install the upgrade, since I had made some custom mods to MT, and wasn’t sure how difficult it would be to reproduce these in the new version. But that new version also has some nice bells and whistles that I wanted, like the handy Search field you see here.

Blogger has been having trouble, and that’s where Jenny’s blog lives (or lived, to be precise). I offered to help her move her blog into MT, and after a week of frustration, she accepted this offer. But I figured “I’ll be damned if I import her old blog, just to wind up updating MT at some point in the future.”

So it was time to bite the bullet. I wiped my old installation of MT off the server (keeping the database, thank you) and installed the new one. Went through the process of customizing it again. Imported Jenny’s blog. Rejiggered my templates to work in her blog with her look. Started messing with the new features. Installed John Gruber’s nifty Smarty Pants plugin.

All things considered, the whole process went pretty smoothly, and more quickly than I’d hoped.

Piracy and all that

Tim O’Reilly, publisher of fine technical books with animals on the covers, dropped a mind-bomb a couple days ago on the subject of piracy and file-sharing. Some very well thought-out counter-arguments to typical Hollywood positions.

He does say one thing that doesn’t quite ring true:

The music and film industries like to suggest that file sharing networks will destroy their industries.

Those who make this argument completely fail to understand the nature of publishing. Publishing is not a role that will be undone by any new technology, since its existence is mandated by mathematics. Millions of buyers and millions of sellers cannot find one another without one or more middlemen who, like a kind of step-down transformer, segment the market into more manageable pieces. In fact, there is usually a rich ecology of middlemen. Publishers aggregate authors for retailers. Retailers aggregate customers for publishers. Wholesalers aggregate small publishers for retailers and small retailers for publishers. Specialty distributors find ways into non-standard channels.

My favorite file-sharing site was Audio Galaxy. It has almost no files to share anymore, thanks to the MPAA, but it still does have the feature that made it better than, say, Napster: it apparently uses some kind of agent technology to present “other people who liked this also liked these” recommendations. This was great–I discovered some new music that way, music I simply wouldn’t have found otherwise. With a reasonably fast connection, it was like audible websurfing.

Audio Galaxy could be considered an aggregator, but I wouldn’t call it a publisher. In a world of unfettered P2P, people really could be self-publishers, and something like Audio Galaxy could thrive. And I wonder if some kind of completely decentralized “taste-sharing” mechanism could be worked out through something akin to FOAF (the “friend of a friend” vocabulary).

But unfettered P2P is a pipe dream. Hollywood wants complete control over the terms under which we enjoy their product (and you damn well better enjoy it if you know what’s good for you). Disney has copyright extended everytime the mouse is on the verge of entering the public domain, and a TV exec says that skipping commercials is theft (I wonder if simply watching a show where you are a member of the wrong demographic is also theft?). A bill has been introduced to Congress that would explicitly permit Hollywood to hack into your PC and poke around for pirated content (and indemnify them in case they, oh, accidentally trashed your hard drive in the process). And so on.

Hollywood also would probably like it if people like me, who are creating media outside the system, would stop competing with them (if you call this competition). But I can picture the bones of a science-fiction story along the the lines of Farenheit 451, where ownership of industry media has become so onerous that people create a complete samizdat network of old public-domain and homemade entertainments.

Work is hell

Years ago, in its earliest days, I found on the Web some hilarious stories of tech-support hell. These stories have proliferated.

What would be worse than working in tech-support and putting up with people whose stupidity is almost aggressive? Working at a porn-video shop. Oh, much, much worse. Great stories, though.

Blue Genie Bazaar

Went to the Blue Genie Bazaar last night. Numerous exhibitors, and a generally high quality of stuff. There was one maker of very nice art glass selling his stuff for embarrassingly low prices.

The Blue Genies–three guys doing commercial art–have a wickedly funny style. One of their pieces was a giant replica of a handheld vacuum cleaner sculpted from an enormous Rice-Krispie treat.

You are not your toy

An article in today’s New York Times discusses the sense of outrage that many Porsche enthusiasts have at the fact that the maker of their dream cars is now making an SUV, the Cayenne.

Now, I’m hardly a fan of SUVs, and I think this is a dangerous adventure in brand extension for Porsche, but I still want to grab these whiners by the shoulders and give them a good shake. They’ve got too much of their identity invested in their cars. Their comments are telling:

“A Porsche S.U.V. will, perhaps forever, cheapen the brand…Which demographic will this thing attract? My guess is BMW poseur types.”

The existence of the Cayenne won’t change anything about the old 911, except the way 911 owners perceive other people’s perception of the Porsche brand. These guys (I’m guessing they’re almost all guys) imagine that they derived some kind of aura by owning a Porsche, and that aura will disappear once the company starts making such an unglamorous vehicle, and less worthy people start buying it.

I did a translation a few years back that gave results from a focus group study. A luxury-goods company showed the focus group members–already enthusiastic customers of the brand–a prototype sports watch. The reaction was so negative, and so uniformly negative, that they scrapped the whole project. I’m guessing that Porsche focus-grouped the Cayenne six ways from Sunday, and decided there was a market for it. But it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.