August 2003

Minnesota pictures

I’ve posted some photos from the Minneapolis leg of my recent trip over at imagestation (log in as adamguest/adamguest).

Home from Chicago

We’re back. It was a great trip, but it is good to be home.

On Thursday, we visited the Shedd Aquarium, one of three museums (along with the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium) that make up the “museum campus” on the lake, next to the newly mangled Soldier Field, where the Bears play. Soldier Field was a beautiful neoclassical stadium, but it was old–first built in 1924, and not much changed since, as far as I know. So it lacked the widgets and gewgaws of modern stadiums, a lack that somebody decided needed to be fixed. Whoever’s in charge was, to his credit, unwilling to tear down all of the old stadium, which is nice as these things go. What they wound up doing was keeping the neoclassical bits and dropping an enormous alien battlecruiser on top, which spills over the edges and dwarfs the original structure. The effect is bizarre.

I hadn’t visited the Shedd since I was a kid. It has expanded quite a bit, with two new exhibit areas. Getting into the original museum and the new areas is alarmingly expensive–$21 for out of towners, $14 for Chicago residents. We splurged, and we did enjoy ourselves, but not $21-worth.

After that, we went to my favorite place for stuffed pizza, Bacino’s, took a siesta, and went out to see the Magdalene Sisters (op cit).

Friday, Gwen, Lissy, and I went to the International Museum of Surgical Sciences, which was fascinating and unsettling. Lots of very old and beautifully crafted surgeon’s kits, which consisted largely of amputation tools, and in many cases, trephination tools. Medicine in the 1800s was surprising for the level of advancement in some areas, and the crudity in others. The museum building itself is quite amazing, modeled on the Petit Trianon and built for a Chicago socialite. After that, Gwen and I wandered downtown to ogle the buildings and for Gwen to try on more shoes. That night, we got together with the rest of the family for more pizza.

Saturday was our return date, but it was an evening flight, so we had some time to spend in town. We went over to Wicker Park, a neighborhood that was “transitional” at best when I lived in Chicago. Today it is a funky hipster neighborhood that butts up against un-transitioned areas. Milwaukee Avenue is notable for having one bad furniture store after another. But it also has a Fluevog store, and after having tried on countless shoes everywhere else we looked, Gwen finally found a pair she liked, and bought them. We wandered around the area some more, had coffee, marveled at a restaurant that serves fried twinkies, and pushed on for O’Hare. The security gantlet went smoothly, as did the flight.

It occurred to me that if I lived in Chicago, my life would be very different–I’d live in a different kind of place. My friends would be different sorts of people. I would do different things with my time. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

Magdalene Sisters

Saw The Magdalene Sisters with Gwen and Lissy while in Chicago. The movie tells the story of Ireland’s magdalene asylums, a system of homes for wayward girls run by the Catholic church. A girl could be committed to one of these by a guardian for getting pregnant, being too pretty, or just being inconvenient. Once in, they could be locked in there indefinitely. They worked as indentured washerwomen, symbolically washing away their sins (real or invented by the nuns), and the nuns apparently had a tidy little laundry business going. For their part, the nuns treated the girls with anything from contempt to sadism. The closing credits inform us that the last asylum closed in 1996.

Watching this movie made me want to go out and throttle a nun. There’s so much about the story that is shocking: that this went on under everyone’s noses with (apparently) no great outcry. That organized religion could practice such institutional cruelty upon its own members. That the Catholic church had so much power in Ireland that the civil authorities didn’t stop what amounted to systematic kidnapping and enslavement. The storytelling in the movie is simple and understated–it doesn’t need to hit the viewer over the head with ham-fisted dialog to get the point across.

The day before we saw this movie, I took Gwen down the street where I had grown up. Half of the block was occupied by a Catholic-run hospital, and the nuns who worked their were widely despised in the neighborhood. An example of why: The street is very narrow, and parking is very tight on the block. One night, when I was little, there was a fire on the block. The hospital had an empty lot on the block, and the firemen wanted to tow some cars into the lot to gain better access to the fire scene. The nuns formed a human chain in front of the lot to prevent the firemen from doing so. The hospital is closed now.

Tip for the fashion industry

I know that this blog’s loyal readership includes many of the movers and shakers in the rag trade, who reverently respect my sartorial pronouncements–a subject on which, as those of you who know me will attest, I am eminently qualified to expound.

A conversation with Gwen and my sister Lissy got me thinking. Lissy recently stood up at a wedding, and was obliged to buy a plaid pink taffeta shmatte. Friends of Gwen are going to be standing up in several weddings each this year, with outlays for similar aesthetic crimes. Bridesmaid dresses are a stale joke. Most seem designed to make the bride look that much better by comparison. Bridal gowns are worn once, for obvious symbolic reasons. Bridesmaid dresses are also worn once, because they’re too ugly to wear any more.

Although it’ll sell less product, the fashion industry could do itself and women all over the country a favor by coming up with a standard bridesmaid’s dress design. Men have tuxedos; women should have the equivalent. Something black and simple that looks reasonably good on most women. Brides wanting to inject color into the ceremony could have the bridesmaids wear a certain kind of ribbon in their hair, corsage, or the like.

Greetings from Chicago

After a fun time in Minnesota, Gwen and I drove back down to Chicago on Monday. Stopped at one of Wisconsin’s many shrines to dairy products for sandwiches, ice cream, and fresh cheese curds. After that, we drove through very heavy rains for about 90 miles–disconcerting in a big truck with bad handling. Took US 14 in from Jaynesville, because I-90 was under construction on the way out, and we’d rather not pay tolls for the privilige of driving slow. Just inside Illinois, in the town of Harvard, we drove past a huge and completely vacant corporate campus–no signs to say who once had occupied it. We later learned it was a Motorola site. Made it to my parents’ place in good time despite the weather.

This was Gwen’s first opportunity to see their place. It doesn’t seem to have scared her off yet. My mom gave Gwen the tour, showed her numerous examples of porcelain that might be interesting to some collectors with a deep appreciation for certain sub-types of dinnerware, etc. We spent the night there and took the Northwestern line into Chicago late Tuesday morning. Rendezvoused with my sister Lissy, who is putting us up. We dropped our bags at her place, and then took Lissy’s car on an errand.

Tuesday night, my parents were having a party at a restaurant to celebrate their 40th anniversary. When we were all younger, my parents would often observe special occasions by bringing home a schwartzwalder cake from a Viennese bakery in town, Lutz’s. My sisters and I decided this would be a suitable occasion for a schwartzwalder, so I volunteered for the mission. It also gave Gwen a chance to see a little of Chicago, which she has never visited before.

On the drive up there, I observed that lights in Chicago cycle much faster than those in Austin. I also realized that Chicagoans don’t buy new cars as readily as Austinites do. My guess is that because the city is so hard on cars, people are less willing to splurge on them–but those who do, do so quite lavishly.

We had some time after taking care of this, so we strolled the trendy shopping area around Armitage and Sheffield. Found an excellent paper store, Paper Source.

The party my parents threw themselves was quite nice–more of a to-do than I had realized it would be. Quite a few people of their generation who I hadn’t seen in at least a decade. Time is a bitch.

Today was a walking tour of Chicago for Gwen and me. We had breakfast at a nearby old favorite of mine, Nookie’s, and wandered north along the lakefront to the place where I grew up on St James Pl near Clark St. As always, it was interesting seeing what had changed and what remained the same in the old neighborhood. We then worked our way south to Michigan Avenue, in particular to take in the troika of brand-porn, the Apple store, Niketown, and the Sony showroom, which are shoulder to shoulder, all occupying one block between them. I had never seen an Apple store before, and was suitably impressed by the spare, ethereal design (the glass staircase is a nice touch). Niketown was much less the onanistic shrine to Nike wonderfulness than it once was–and much more a retail store. The Sony showroom (no retail–that would be too crass) was pretty much what it always is. We goggled at some HDTV images.

I observed that Chicagoans seem to be a little more trend/fashion-conscious than Austinites.

At various points during the day, we ducked into shoe stores. Gwen tried on lots of shoes, and we laughed at many more, but she couldn’t find any that were comfortable and stylish enough to buy. Shoe designers seem to delight in mixed messages these days, with painful pumps borrowing details from sneakers and hiking boots, or from dominatrix wardrobes. And I don’t understand the current vogue for high-heeled shoes with impossibly long and sharply pointed toes, which look more like weapons than footwear. I have dubbed these “dueling slippers.” Despite her unwavering avoidance of uncomfortable shoes, Gwen was sufficiently seduced by one such pair to at least try them on, though not enough to buy it.

Having made the rounds, we resolved to go home. Slowly, because our feet were killing us after all the walking. Walked up Dearborn, which has some of the best residential architecture in the city. Apartments renting for $4000/mo (hardwoods, 2/2, no dogs allowed).

Having made it home, we were quite hungry, so after massaging each others’ feet and taking a little siesta, we hit the pavement again to grab a bite. We wound up at Pasta Palazzo on Halstead near Armitage, which we enjoyed immensely.

More from Minnesota

Another day in Minneapolis. Gwen and I started off by walking around Lake Phelan, just down the road from our hosts. Very pleasant, with a pair of trails for running and bike riding, both of which were getting plenty of use. The powers that be trucked in some sand and created a beach at one spot on the lake that nobody was using–but there were buoys marking off a swimming area too tiny for anything beyond a little splashing around.

After that, we drove into Minneapolis again to visit the Walker Museum. The first thing that caught my eye was something outside that I had read about before, the Mobile Dwelling Unit by Lot Ek. This is a 40-foot shipping container that has been converted to a living space, with almost all of one wall, and much of the opposite, converted into slide-out units, each for a specific function–toilet, shower, kitchen, bed, storage, TV viewing, dining–so when deployed, the center area is empty. The concept is quite clever. The thing itself seems incomplete–most of the interior was unfinished plywood, with pencil marks showing cut-lines and the like; the soft surfaces were raw foam. Curiously, surveillance cameras were everywhere inside, even though there’s nothing to obstruct your view from one end to the other (and, well, who puts surveillance cameras in their home?). A museum staffer explained that the idea was that the cameras would be on the outside in a real MDU. Apart from the unfinished quality, I have more serious criticisms of the MDU: it has poor connections to the outdoors, with very limited window exposure, none of which open, and only one door to only connect to the outside. My guess is that it has no insulation to speak of, and only a window-unit air conditioner, so it could become intolerably hot in a hot climate. But it’s still a very nifty concept.

After taking in the MDU, we wandered around the nearby sculpture and botanical gardens (which were fodder for my camera–I will upload pictures when I get back). The weather was especially nice, and I think none of us were in hurry to go indoors. Eventually we did. The current exhibit–of which the MDU is a part–is of cutting-edge industrual and architectural design. Some of this was high-concept wankery, like the chair that responds to electromagnetic radiation to make you conscious of the high-tech world we live in. Some of it was self-mocking, like bottles that look broken. Some of it was mind-boggling, like a presentation for “pig city”–a self-contained pig-farming skyscraper that’s designed for maximum efficiency. One of Shigeru Ban’s cardboard-tube emergency shelters (used to house victims of the Kobe Earthquake) was on display, and I was glad to have a chance to walk around in that.

The permanent exhibit at the Walker pretty much left me cold–navel-gazing modern art. Everyday objects presented as art. When Marcel Duschamp did it, it was a clever gag, but you can only get away with that once–you can’t build an entire movement out of it.

After we finished with the Walker, we fortified ourselves with coffee and snacks, dropped in on an old friend of Gwen’s, and then went to the home of the parents of my friend Jen, who just happens to be visiting the ancestral abode at the same time we’re up here. We all had a chance to catch up, her mom overfed us and guilt-tripped us about not eating enough (you’d think she was Jewish, but she’s Chinese), and we generally had an excellent time talking about disturbing movies and feral Chihuahuas.

Modems suck

Just something that travelling has forced me to re-learn. I haven’t used a modem regularly since 1997. I’m accustomed to an Internet connection being like water. It’s not the same.

Greetings from Minnesota

Gwen and I have begun a trip to Chicago and Minnesota. Two days ago, we flew to Chicago, met my parents (who were setting up for an antique show), borrowed my dad’s truck, a ’91 Ford, and lit out on I-90 for St. Paul.

I think my father has a predilection for vehicles that have loose front ends. This truck was also loud and primitive–possibly one of the last pickups that was built primarily for hauling loads, rather than for personal transport. Also very loud, and hard on gas–a fill-up cost $47. Cheaper than flying, though. Getting onto the interstate was stymied by construction, and we wound up going quite a bit out of our way before we actually found an on-ramp. Driving through Illinois, we encountered a frustrating pattern where we’d be backed up with road construction, get to a toll booth, and for about one mile after, the road would be clear. Then it would be down to one lane, more construction, and another tollbooth. Repeat until the Wisconsin border. After that, it was pretty much smooth sailing.

We reached St. Paul while there was still light and navigated with little trouble to the home of an old friend of Gwen’s, where we are staying.

Yesterday morning, we were up at a relatively early (for a vacation) hour to go kayaking, which I’ve never done before. We were right on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. An outfitter dropped us off at an upstream point, we paddled along for about 4 hours (with a few stops for snacks and sunblock on the way), and we got picked up near the outfitter’s storefront at the end. It was fun, though my enjoyment would have been greater if it weren’t for a comparatively mild migraine. We saw at least six bald eagles close-up–I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’ve seen them in the wild in the USA.

Today we drove into Minneapolis and wandered around Gwen’s old haunts. Her old neighborhood is an awful lot like my old neighborhood in Chicago–I felt right at home. We also spent some time downtown, looking at nifty old Art Deco buildings and walking through the human habitrail system. Tomorrow we’ll be getting together with a friend of mine, Jen, who lives in Philadelphia but was raised here–it just so happens that she’s visiting at the same time we are.

Revised firedancing equipment recipes

I got into the whole sideline of making firedancing equipment because of my How to make firedancing apparatus webpage. People found the page, and offered to pay me to make the stuff for them. Reversing the normal order of things, I started making the equipment quasi-commercially about six months before I actually started using it.

Anyhow, that page is pretty musty and ugly. I had it in my mind that this might be a good (though untraditional) application of Movable Type, and so I started hacking something together, photographing my production process, etc. Yesterday, I got something usable posted. So far I’ve only documented the recipe for wicks, but more will come. Once I flesh out those pages a little more, I’ll be taking down the old page.

Speedy service

I posted a lazyweb request concerning the creation of foaf files a couple days ago. One of the guys who appears to be the prime movers in the world of foaf, Jim Ley, whipped together a little converter that takes tabbed data and spits out the “knows” portion of a foaf file. You’ll probably want to use the foafamatic to create a shell foaf file with your own data and maybe one friend , then export your contact data from whatever dark cave you store it in into tabular form and run it through Jim’s widget, and finally merge the two. A little clunky, yes, but a big improvement over what we had before.

Once your done, check out your handiwork in the foaf explorer.

Just water

At Chango’s, if you want just water to drink, that’s just what you’ll get.

Lazyweb: a better foaf-file maker

Making good FOAF files is a pain. There’s the foaf-a-matic web page, that lets you type stuff in and formats it for you, but who wants to re-type all that data? There’s a Java-based successor, but that’s overkill, and still doesn’t have any way to import data, as far as I can tell.

Thanks to Address Book Exporter, it’s easy for me to extract data from my address book in a tabular form. I suspect that most people interested in using FOAF probably already have their data typed in somewhere, and would be able to extract it in this form if needed. From there, it would be pretty easy to use GREP to mark up the file into a usable FOAF file, except for the sha1 e-mail address encoding (which is not required, but is the responsible thing to do). And not everyone would be comfortable writing a GREP pattern, for that matter.

What we need is a little web utility that ingests tab-delimited text files and spits out FOAF files. I know it can be done–it’s just out of my reach.

Spam in my name and challenge-response

I recently discovered that some spam was being sent with my address as the return address–the bounces were coming to me.

Other than pissing me off, I wasn’t sure what those smegma-sucking spamming scumbags hoped to accomplish by doing this. Now I have an idea: it may be to undermine challenge-response spam-blocking systems.

These challenge-response systems are a klunky way of dealing with spam: if Alice sends Bob an e-mail, and she’s not on Bob’s whitelist, the system sends Alice an automated response asking her to visit a web page and prove that she’s a real human being worthy of Bob’s valuable attention. This usually involves looking at a graphic showing distorted text, and typing the text into a box.

Even if this all works according to plan (and there are plenty of reasons why it might not), it’s very annoying. But as soon as spammers start sending out e-mail purporting to come from real people, it really goes to hell:

  • If I am already whitelisted with a C/R service, the spam gets a free pass.
  • If I am not already whitelisted with a C/R service, the challenge comes to me. Maybe I’ll respond correctly, in which case the spam gets a free pass
  • Or maybe I won’t respond, or (acting mischievously or perversely) respond incorrectly, in which case the spam is blocked, but so is any e-mail I might want to send to any person using that system in the future.

Correct run-in headings

I’ve recently noticed a couple of blogs that use an awkward “span” kludge to create “run-in” headings. These are both by smart guys who should know better. Instead of using structurally correct headings and paragraphs, the heading text is part of the paragraph, and is just bracketed with SPAN tags so that it can be styled differently.

CSS-2 does include a “run-in” display style that achieves exactly what these guys want, but it is not universally supported. There are a couple of possible workarounds, both of which I’ve documented. One is to float the header; the other is to style the header and the paragraph immediately following as “inline.”

Super Happy Fun Monkey Bash DX

Acting on a tip, I organized an expedition with Jenny, Drew, and Gwen to the new Alamo Drafthouse up in what I jokingly refer to as “Waco” to see Super Happy Fun Monkey Bash DX. This is one of those things that makes the Alamo great. A compilation running roughly 90 minutes of extremely strange snippets taped off of Japanese television. Before the show proper, they ran trailers of weird Japanese movies–mostly horror and ultraviolence movies–about one-third being made by Beat Takeshi (a one-man weirdness corps).

The weirdness came in three general flavors: tokusatsu (live-action superhero shows like Ultraman) and anime, advertising, and variety show sketches. Most of the clips were from the last category, and all (or nearly all) of them curiously featured the same actor (name unknown) unsuccessfully trying to avoid cracking up in every routine. These variety shows are, very approximately, on the order of the Carol Burnet Show, but in terms of scripts and execution, her show was like Masterpiece Theatre by comparison. This focus was a bit unfortunate–sure, the variety shows are fun, in an incredibly stupid and scatalogical way, but I love the five-second blipverts that are so weird they almost make your brain explode, and there weren’t many of these (I suppose it would be exhausting to sit through an hour of five-second ads). Tokusatsu shows would be worth more focus, because the villains are so incredibly bizarre. For that matter, they could have gotten pretty good mileage out of the many travel-and-eat shows that consist mostly of some pretty young thing oohing over the lapidarian culinary productions of some kitchen-sensei, and then, mouth full of said creation, grunting ああああっ!おいしいい〜!

Oh yes, Japan can be a strange place.


Saw Pirates of the Carribean yesterday. Especially considering this is a movie based on a Disney ride, it is much, much better than it needs to be. Johnny Depp steals the show, boozily sashaying through every scene. Very camp. Lots of laughs. Good action. Some good CGI show-offery, especially where people constantly switch back and forth between normal and skeletal appearances. I recommend it.

PS: This is my 500th blog entry. Woohoo!

Nifty browser trick

I’ve only tried this in Safari, but imagine it would work in some other browsers.

Safari allows you to set a custom base CSS stylesheet. In fact, this is the only way to turn off link underlining in Safari. Since I prefer this, I had already set one up. Simply create a text file, call it “mystyles.css” (or whatever) and drop it in ~/Library/Safari. Put the appropriate CSS in the file, quit Safari, and restart. For example, to turn off underlined links, I used the following:

a:link { text-decoration: none; }
a:active { text-decoration: none; }
a:visited { text-decoration: none; }
a:hover { text-decoration: underline; }

It occurred to me that I could use the often-ignored attribute-matching selector capability of CSS to create a primitive ad blocker. Banner ads are normally 468 x 60 pixels. Using CSS, it is possible to select images that have declared height and width values, and style them as invisible. Here’s how:

img[width="468"][height="60"] {visibility: hidden;}

You can add variations on this with different dimensions for the tall sidebar ads one occasionally sees, use it with different tags, etc. For example the New York Times hides gigantic sidebar ads inside an IFRAME, and use javascript to indirectly load an image (actually, I think it’s a flash animation). This makes it hard to block the image if you have javascript turned on, but you can just block the IFRAME instead

iframe[width="352"][height="852"] {visibility: hidden;}

I’d be eager to hear any other uses for this trick. It would be nice if CSS allowed partial matches, so that we could match on, say *[href="**"] As far as I know, this isn’t possible.

Rick Santorum on marriage

Marriage is not about affirming somebody’s love for somebody else. It’s about uniting together to be open to children, to further civilization in our society.

Santorum’s remarks (of which this is a comparatively inoffensive sample) are burning up the blogosphere. I’ve been married before–and will be again–without being “open” to kids. If we’re going to have “defense of marriage” laws (or, worse, a constitutional amendment), going by Santorum’s dubious logic, shouldn’t we restrict it to people who are fertile and plan on having children? Why not exclude straight people who are infertile (because of age, biology, or sterilization), or just don’t want kids?

Gwen wondered how Santorum’s wife might feel about his loveless theory of marriage. I suggested she probably reconciled herself to that a long time ago.


I really like Movable Type, and have been a fairly active proponent of it. It certainly has its drawbacks, though, not the least of which is that it is very intimidating to set up. But hey, you can’t beat the price–it’s free.

Enter TypePad. This is a hosted Movable Type service, sort of (technically the back-end is a little different from MT). It looks very nice, and it seems clear that the Six Apart people have done a lot of polishing and tweaking to make the user interface and the default blog templates just that much better than what comes with the current version of MT (which are already good). So that solves the difficult set-up problem, but the trade-off is that you pay for it. They’re offering three tiers of service, and it is interesting that they are tying price to user sophistication. That is, the more control you want, the more you must pay.

This strikes me as a misstep, though a minor one. I don’t understand how the ability to manually edit a template (for instance) would actually raise costs, except perhaps for support (and I have no idea how that’ll work)–what should really matter would be storage space, bandwidth usage, things that really impose costs at the back end. I can imagine a non-technical user who wants to use TypePad as a photo album–which would require one of the more expensive accounts–but who would have no desire for the more extensive tweakability that came with it. By the same token, a more sophisticated user with modest server needs would pay for resources that would go unused.

Nevertheless, for people who are sick of (or don’t want to get started there) but don’t want to get their hands dirty with MT, TypePad looks very nice indeed. Some of the handsomest blogs (with the best markup) on the web right now were built using default TypePad templates.