July 2003

Fun with names

A fun pastime is inventing goofy names for bands–one of my favorite creations is “Jackal Overpass.”

Lately, Gwen and I have taken to coming up with silly names for drugs. A new competitor for Viagra? Rigiditrex, perhaps. Yesterday I saw an ad for some drug to relieve menstrual constipation. I can’t remember the actual name of the product, but we had a field day with that. My favorite: Period Colon Dash.

Tribe: another social network

Tribe.net is yet another social network, still in beta. Unlike Friendster or Ryze, this one seems to be an all-purpose site, for helping people find each other based on interest or proximity, for whatever purpose they want. Nice interface. I’m signed up, just for fun. Still too soon to say how it will evolve.

Legend of Suriyothai

Saw The Legend of Suriyothai last night. The first Thai movie I’ve ever seen, this tells a story, apparently out of Thai history, of Princess Suriyothai, who was somehow involved in the goings on during a turbulent period in the country’s history in the 1530s.

The movie is epic in scope and length, and may be guilty of biting off more than it can chew–at several points, I wished I had a scorecard. In a period of roughly 20 years, Siam burns through four kings, what with civil conflicts, civil strife, usurpers, and the permanent threat of invasion by a drag queen in Burma.

There is as much treachery and intrigue as you’ll find in any two Shakespeare tragedies put together, along with a character, Srisudachan, who makes Lady Macbeth look like a harmless biddy. For that matter, Srisudachan’s maid makes Lady Macbeth look like a harmless biddy.

The eponymous heroine, however, is a model of wisdom and selflessness, and the whole story strikes me as a Buddhist allegory–world of strife, self-sacrifice for the good of others, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Road Trip–TX+AZ

Austin – Lubbock – Roswell – Carlsbad – Fort Davis – Austin

There are also photos from this trip.

28 June 2002: Friday

They say “Happiness is Lubbock in your rearview mirror.” That saying now has a visceral immediacy for me.

The drive into Lubbock on US 84 is utterly desolate. Not as bad as the Salt Flats, but pretty awful. No trees. No variation in terrain. You have to wonder what made some settlers look around and decide “This looks good. Let’s stop here!”

The town of Lubbock itself feels like a pathologically orderly suburb. All commerce is conducted in shopping malls, almost exclusively through chain stores. All lawns are meticulously manicured, watered, and chemically treated to the point of making astro-turf seem realistic by comparison.

While in Lubbock, we played putt-putt golf with Gwen’s family (her sister and was visiting, daughter in tow). Putt-putt is my least favorite variety of miniature golf. The courses are completely bare. No amusing features–no windmills, no lumberjacks, no Mt Rushmore dioramas…

On our way out of town, we stopped to try to get gas at a Citgo at the edge of town. The gas station itself is defunct, but misleadingly busy: it has taken on a new life as a venue for drug deals. We drove away quickly.

After Lubbock, we passed through the improbably named town of Meadow (pop. 658). More flat nothingness. It is a little north of the aptly named town of Brownfield, which tells you all you need to know about that place.

Sign spotted on a church in Brownfield: “To be almost saved is to be totally lost.”

The town of Artesia NM proclaims the motto “the sweet smell of success” on a billboard at the edge of town. In case you were wondering, success smells exactly like an oil refinery.

Roswell’s downtown is predictably tacky, with lots of silly alien-themed businesses and touches on non-alien businesses. The furniture store has gray aliens in the window. My favorite schtick: the old-timey streetlights have those big oval alien eyes on them. The rest of town (based on an inexhaustive drive-through) doesn’t pick up the alien theme at all, providing a bit of relief to the locals. Roswell seems to be the town people from the surrounding area visit when they need to go into town.

One aspect of the whole UFO schtick that I wonder about is the people who take that stuff really seriously. The downtown has a couple of libraries and museums of ufology that cater to them, but even they have their goofy gift shops attached. I wonder how the serious ufologists take that. Inwardly, they’re probably shaking their fists and screaming “You people just don’t understand!”. It must drive them nuts.

Spending Friday night in Carlsbad, a ways south of Roswell and a little north of the caverns, which we will see tomorrow. We’re down the road from a drive-in, where we plan to take in a show. (Regardless of the show–it’s just for the opportunity to go to the drive-in!) Our motel, the Carlsbad Inn, is a shabby place that seems as if it has never been new. It’s not unclean (indeed, the toilet had one of those “sanitized for your protection” straps), it’s just creaky and cheap.

We wound up seeing Starwars Episode 2 at the drive-in. I had previously seen this in digital projection at the Metreon, so seeing it at the drive-in was an amusing contrast. Each has its merits.

29 June 2002: Saturday

Saturday was the day of highs and lows, though both were high points.

We started the day with a visit to the Carlsbad Caverns. Spent about two hours walking down the natural entrance and through the big room. Really amazing. Sort of like visiting an endlessly ornate cathedral. It’s a shame that so many parents obviously think of the caverns as a good activity for kids, most of whom seem to stay interested for about 20 minutes, and then try to race through as quickly as possible. For that matter, there were a number of adults who seemed to be going through the motions. And as Gwen observed, almost everyone apparently felt obliged to fill the silence with chatter.

Entering the cave, there’s a huge colony of swallows, which I noticed fly a lot like bats, and could be mistaken for bats in flight. Since they both eat flyinh insects, and fill a similar ecological niche, I guess that’s not too surprising.

From there, we pushed on to our next destination. On the way, in Pecos, we bought some famous Pecos canteloupes. Three for a buck. What a bargain. One had a slightly odd tang to it, one was truly excellent. Haven’t eaten the third yet.

On the drive between Pecos and Balmorhea, we passed an amazing number of dust-devils. There were a few in sight at all times.

On our way through Balmorhea, we drove right past “the cutest restaurant in Balmorhea” without even slowing down. I should have gotten a picture.

Our destination for the day was the Davis Mountains State Park. This is a nice park, with all the amenities you’d need and almost 100 campsites of various types. There were a lot of big fifth wheels on one loop, and the owners had set up various patriotic paraphernalia for the upcoming 4th festivities. I guess they were there for a long-ish campout. There were a few big RVs, some trailers, and a number of people camping in tents (including a few guys who rode in on motorcycles). There’s even a pretty cool hotel on the grounds (though with a disappointing restaurant) that was built by the CCC back in the 30s, with massively thick adobe walls.

The park has a very dramatic landscape, and a lot of birds. A lot of buzzards and swallows. I noticed that there weren’t any dragonflies, but that swallows probably took their agile-flying, bug-eating place in the ecosystem. Dragonflies must not be able make it in the desert because they need standing water to lay their eggs (I think). We spotted a bird that’s apparently uncommon in those parts, the phainopepla. We identified it only with the help of a birder at a nearby site–we saw him studying a bird guide, and he let us flip through it until we found the bird in question. When we did, he was deeply envious–apparently he’d get bragging rights among his birder friends for spotting one.

Saturday night we went to the star party at the McDonald Observatory. They have a very nice visitor center there. For the star party, they have a couple of telescopes with 22″ mirrors available for viewing, plus there are a number of volunteers there who set up their own 6″ or 8″ scopes and point them at something interesting. I got a decent look at Venus, a globular cluster, and a pair of colliding galaxies (M51, I think). Apart from the telescope viewing, the naked-eye viewing is also pretty incredible. The observatory is at 7,000 feet, in a desert, far from even a small town, so the air is thin, clear, and with almost no light pollution. We got there at dusk, and watched the stars come out. It was great. Afterwards, we drove home in silence.

30 June 2002: Sunday

Sunday we hiked out along the park’s trail, covering a good few miles out and back. It was a nice, well-marked trail that seemed to get very little use–though on the bright side we didn’t see a single piece of trash. Back at camp, we saw the phainopepla again, hanging out in a nearby tree apparently with his mate, occasionally flying up to snag a fly (apparently). We dragged our birder neighbor over so that he could get a look for himself.

We were thinking of trying for the Marfa Lights on Sunday night, but after getting cleaned up and napping, it was still the early evening, so we headed into Alpine in search of food. Sunday night is not a big eating-out night in Alpine (it’s not a big night for much of anything, apparently). We did see a store selling rocks and books that was open, chatted with the proprietress briefly, looked at rocks, and marvelled at the extremely idiosyncratic selection of books she had on offer. We eventually made our way to a miserable diner called Penny’s, where everything was reheated, reconstituted, or otherwise prepared and prepackaged. Even the iced tea was made from a mix. Gwen asked me “Who makes iced tea from a mix?” “Yankees.” We both cracked up. The high point of this outing was picking up a copy of the local rag.

Plenty of time left, we headed back towards camp. On the way, we passed a small place claiming to have the largest live rattlesnake exhibit on the planet. And it was open! You can bet we were excited to discover something that was open. We swung around, got out, and paid our $3 admission. The place is run by an aging hippie who told us he was once the snake curator at the Fort Worth Zoo, but moved to Alpine 22 years before to get away from it all. He also mentioned having a Chinese wife, leading us to wonder “what does she think about living in Alpine, TX?” He had 16-20 different varieties of rattler and copperhead, many quite pretty, as well as a few gila monsters, tarantulas, horny toads, and kangaroo rats.

Having exhausted the entertainment potential of desert wildlife, we went back to the park, in search of real food at the restaurant in the Indian Lodge. This was less bad than Penny’s, but hardly great. It did have real iced tea and pie (which Gwen was hankering for). Afterwards we watched the swallows. We decided to bag the Marfa lights in the end and hit the sack.

1 July 2002: Monday

Monday we got up and got moving pretty early. Got packed up efficiently, fueled up with coffee (Gwen’s french press made camping vastly more civilized), and hit the road. It’s a long piece of driving from the Davis Mountains to Austin, but if you’ve got a car that can cruise comfortably at 80+ mph, it goes by a lot easier.

On that long drive back, we passed by an enormous wind farm strung out on a ridge in the Sonora desert just north of I-10, stretching out across Pecos County. The sight of all those giant 3-vane turbines turning slowly in unison is both appealing and eerie at the same time.

We drove into rain, which is pretty unusual for Texas in the summer, and which seemed especially so after the dry time we spent in the desert. Rain is certainly welcome–Austin was about 8″ behind in rainfall for the year. When we got past Fredericksburg, we bought a bucket of peaches and some fresh-made peach ice cream. Yum.

Pushing on into Austin we encountered really heavy rain, a weird welcome-back.


I’ve always had a weakness for unusual musical covers. Jenny knows all too well about the Golden Throats, and she flatly refused to listen to Dread Zeppelin. There are some covers just too weird to mention. And of course, there’s the reverse phenomenon: I was exposed to the Venture’s surf versions of Perfidia and Lullaby of the Leaves, for example, years before I ever heard more traditional renditions–it’s just as much fun for me to discover what I’d been missing going backwards.

Thanks to John Aielli on KUT this morning, I was exposed to a different kind of cover. Something a little more high-brow. Covers of Radiohead by classical pianist Christopher O’Riley. Pretty cool. He has an album of these out, but if you poke around his site, you can find some MP3s to download as well.

Print media vs blogging, part 847

Jeff Jarvis writes about the frustration of having a print article on blogging edited badly. Go ahead and read it–it’s interesting. I’ll wait.

I’ve never worked in journalism, so I can only wonder if there’s any truth behind my point here. Big-media journalism caters to several different audiences: the legal department, the advertisers, and a diverse readership/viewership that can vote with its wallets/eyeballs.

All of these create pressure to avoid saying anything that might offend anyone. So where a blogger, who mostly writes to please himself, will write “The president lied,” traditional media will wind up saying “there are some doubts as to the reliability of the president’s statement.” I can easily imagine an editor who has worked in that environment internalizing these rules an applying them widely.

Journalists also try to create the initial impression of objectivity, which manifests sometimes as an aversion to the categorical. The result is the same: what otherwise would be a strong statement is watered down to “some people say this.”

There’s also the obvious problem here of the traditional media’s relationship with blogging, which is wary at best and hostile at worst–so it only makes sense that someone with both feet planted in the former camp would edit with an eye towards softening the strongest pro-blog points.

via Anil Dash

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Saw The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. An absolute stinker. Don’t bother. Confused action sequences, confused plotting, and extraordinarily uncharismatic-yet-improbable characters. Obvious computer-graphic imagery.

Some people have referred to this as “steampunk.” It is not. It is modern gadget-oriented action in pseudo-sorta-somewhat Edwardian drag–an anachronism piled on top of an anachronism.

Capturing the Friedmans

Saw Capturing the Friedmans this past weekend.

This is not the feel-good movie of the summer. This is a very hard movie to watch, although, like a car wreck, you can’t help yourself: a documentary about a family in which the father and one of the three sons are accused of molesting children that attended computer classes run by the father. I felt like I needed a bath afterwards.

The documentarians scrupulously present everyone’s side of the story, and perhaps inevitably, it winds up being a very Rashōmon-like mess. At the end, we really don’t know who to believe. We can triangulate on the truth to a certain point, but much is unclear. What is perhaps most surprising is the Friedman family’s penchant for self-documentary–they were avid home-movie makers, and much of their footage is incorporated into the documentary. But there’s no smoking gun to be found there.

Gwen and I joked about what would make the ideal double-feature companion movie to it. I suggested Auto Focus; she parried with Daddy Day Care.


I had never heard “brights” used to describe anything other than high-beam headlights until Sunday, when I ran across a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and the topic came up. Apparently brights has been co-opted as a catch-all term to describe agnostics, atheists, etc. It sounds a little too airy-fairy for my tastes–and indeed, following the model of “gay” for homosexual, it was coined to put a cheery word to a ghettoized social group.

In June, Richard Dawkins, who has never been shy about describing himself as an atheist, used the term. More recently, Daniel Dennet came out. Interestingly, the term has stirred up some ire among those it might describe.

Twister, baby

“I think the burden is on those people who think he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are.”

Ari Fleischer

You’ve got to love this stuff. It’s like a verbal Möbius strip.


There’s been a spell of hoaxes making the rounds on the Net lately.

Michael Savage, a right-wing tele-blowhard lost his job after a call-in prankster gave him just enough rope to hang himself. This story got a lot of play in Blogistan.

There was Baby Ink, the website for a toddler-tattoo parlor. Done with a completely straight face, it was revealed as a hoax.

There is the amazing robot cop spec video (bah, annoying redirects: click on “Neil’s domain,” then “reel pt 3”) that some people took seriously. This is not a hoax per se–this simply reveals the credulity of some people.

Now there’s Hunting for Bambi, which purports to be a, ahh, service that allows men with some serious issues to paintball-hunt naked women. Although there’s actually a legitimate news story (and video) on this, it appears to be a hoax.

The thing these hoaxes have in common is outrage, in both senses of the word: they are outrageous (incredible), and they are outrages (atrocious). They get us into a sputtering fit for a moment, until someone pins down that they are, in fact, false.

Of course, when hoaxes appear elsewhere in the public arena, the revelation of falsity provokes even greater outrage.

Flightpath wins

At roughly 9:30 tonight, the Flightpath coffee shop was granted a variance on the city’s parking requirements. Four people rose to speak against; at least 20 people rose in favor, including a co-president of the Hyde Park neighborhood association and the chairman of the North Loop planning commission. Apart from those two, none of us actually had a chance to speak, but I think that our number, especially those of us who stuck around that late, made an impression.

I’ve written about this issue before, and I’m glad it is finally resolved in Flightpath’s favor.

I got down there at 6:30 or so, so I had plenty of time to study the public-input process. It was mostly dull as dirt, but occasional flashes of vendettas, duplicity, etc, made things more interesting.

Update 16 Jul 03: The window in the side door was smashed in by a rock this morning, quite possibly by one of the neighbors opposed. It might be some young punk, but the timing is suspicious.

The Name of the Rose

Finished reading The Name of the Rose today. An excellent book I can’t recommend highly enough. It is a book about perversions. Perversions of faith, of knowledge, and of sex, and the ways in which these perversion lead to bad ends. It is about the conflict between faith and reason (this theme was the main focus in the movie version), between religious and temporal power, between the learned and the unlettered, between the powerful and the weak.

In many places, the book touches on matters of current interest, and it is rife with eerily relevant quotes.

The conflict between faith and reason is still with us in the fight between creationism and science. The stalwart conservative of the book, Jorge, polemicized:

“Preservation of, I say, and not search, because it is a property of knowledge, as a human thing, that is has been defined and completed over the course of the centuries, from the preaching of the prophets to the interpretation of the fathers of the church. There is no progress, no revolution of ages, in the history of knowledge, but at most a continuous and sublime recapitulation.”

Contrast with the progressive protagonist, William:

“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means, a precept the commentators of holy books had very clearly in mind.”

This has some resonances with the position of the right wing that dissent is somehow unpatriotic, and questioning the government intolerable. And despite the lapdog media’s reluctance to call the government on its shit, we are seeing some of G.W.’s whoppers coming back to bite him. The narrator, Adso, hopefully observed

Such is the power of truth that, like good, it is its own propagator.

Some unpatriotic churls have wondered why we invaded Iraq on the suspicion that it had WMDs, when North Korea was openly admitting they had them. Adso was told by the nomadic heretic Salvatore that

…when your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies. I reflected this is why the simple are so called.

It’s been noted in a few places that the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats see the world in shades of gray, and believe in compromise; Republicans see the world in black and white, and don’t. In a showdown, William accused Jorge:

“…the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came. You are the Devil, and like the Devil, you live in darkness. If you wanted to convince me, you have failed. I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl’s feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer.”

Liveable City

Liveable City is a community-activism group trying to keep (make?) Austin, well, a liveable city. The board has some good people on it–the Spelmans and Catharine Echols are people I know with a track record for getting good things done.

Spam in my name

I previously hypothesized that we’d eventually see viruses/trojan horses used to relay spam, and later reported that it was, in fact, happening. Now it is happening in my name.

There are plenty of Outlook viruses that infect computer A, mine the address book, and then send out infectious e-mail to parties B, C, D, and E, but pretending to be someone else from the address book, making it much more difficult to trace back to the infected computer and fix the problem. It would be simple for one of these virus writers to substitute spam for infectious e-mail (and probably add in hooks for updating the spam messsage remotely).

I have just received a bounce message for a piece of spam that purports to come from me, and was apparently sent to an invalid address. It is also interesting to note that the entire message text is base64-encoded, which no doubt helps it slip past spam filters.

Needless to say, I am chagrined. For those who care, I have posted the raw text of the bounce message (e-mail addresses changed to protect the innocent).

Meanwhile in related news, Spamotomy looks like a good clearinghouse of information on spam.

Science fiction, double feature

On Saturday, the Paramount showed an excellent double-bill, The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet Both very entertaining and worthwhile movies. I had never seen The Day The Earth Stood Still at all, and hadn’t seen Forbidden Planet on the big screen, so this was a treat.

The program started off with a campy Batman serial episode from (I’m guessing) the late 40s. Shooting probably took only slightly longer than the finished product, on a budget that was probably scraped up by robbing schoolkids of their lunch-money. Hilarious.

The Day The Earth Stood Still gives form to a fear that many people had and still have, that this planet is irredeemably fucked up, and can only be saved by a benevolent alien who will force/help us to straighten up and fly right. Once upon a time, we called this kind of thing Christianity, and the Christian metaphors in the movie are barely concealed: Klaatu goes undercover as “Mr Carpenter,” dies, and rises again. At the time the movie was made (1951), the world was divided into Manichean camps, and the threat of total nuclear annihilation was itself a bit science-fictiony–the USA and USSR were nowhere the point of mutually assured destruction then. These days, that threat seems more remote, we’ve had more time to get used to that fear, and the world is vastly more complex.

Forbidden Planet deals with more universal weaknesses–hubris and the unbridled id, the hubris of forgetting the frailty that the id represents. From a technical standpoint, it is interesting how far advanced over The Day The Earth Stood Still it was–made five years later, we get the addition of color, Panavision, elaborate sets, props, matte effects, and pretty good (for the time) animated effects. Not to mention Ann Francis’ shapely gams. The movie was also an obvious inspiration for Star Trek, in terms of the look, setting, and plot elements and themes for the pilot and first episode. It was a surprisingly academic movie–there was some effort to get scientific references right, and a lot of polysyllabic words, like “instrumentality” and “philologist.”