October 2003

Not that again!

Hair-metal rock. Leg warmers. Tiered miniskirts. Mullets. And of course, a cretinous, right-wing president. The 80s? Yes, but apparently there are nefarious forces at work in the world today that want to make sure that those who are too young to remember (or appreciate the horrors of) the first go-round will get a chance to do so now. I’ve been seeing all this stuff around.

I remember during the 80s, an article in Esquire dubbed the 80s “the Re Decade” (in contrast to the 70s, which was “the Me Decade”), the point being that the 80s was recycling pop-culture from previous eras, especially the 50s. So we’re re-recycling now, which is fitting, since we’re re-redistricting.

Break out your headbands and fold your lapels up.

Visual Music

Saw Kronos Quartet’s performance of Visual Music last night. My opinion: Mixed. Some of the music was more, well, musical, and some was experimental in a way that had some novelty value but became trite or positively grating pretty quickly.

The show opened with exactly such a piece. Four very tall, spidery sculptural things lined up on stage, with upward-facing speakers at the base and mics hanging like pendulums (with slightly varying lengths) from the tops. My initial assessment was that these were feedback generators, and I was right. The four members of the group came out, pulled back the cords, and let them swing. As the mics passed over the speakers, the speakers squawked; the closer the mic, the higher the pitch. Slowly they moved out of sync with each other (being different lengths) and would occasionally move briefly back into sync. So this was fun, in a way, but before long I was clenching my ears. When the piece ended and something more traditional began, I could barely hear it for the first minute or so.

The subsequent piece was played on violins, and was technically impressive, but only intermittently what I would call “musical.” There were several other pieces I would categorize the same way, including one where they projected their musical score on a giant screen behind them (which they faced), scrolling by as they worked their instruments in a way that seemed more like violin abuse than playing, including bowing above the nut, below the bridge, above their fingering hands, on the body of the violin directly, pressing the strings flat against the fingerboard and playing that way, and mostly beating the bow on the strings rather than sliding it across them.

Other pieces also involved video projection, and some had recorded spoken-word tracks (usually consisting of chopped-up didactic commentary) and recorded music tracks behind them. Gwen’s comment on these was that they were “painfully early-80s Laurie Anderson.”

The set (which was surprisingly short, with no encore) ended with something that I did enjoy, that I think was composed by Sigur Rös.

Communications vs Telephony

There’s an interesting case brewing right now between voice-over-IP (VoIP) services that provide something like telephony without necessarily using phone service, and state regulators that want to tax these services.

There’s a fundamental old-world/new-world divide here.

In the old world, if you wanted to communicate, you got a phone and talked with people. In the new world, if you want to communicate, you can get some form of Internet access–which could be over a plain-old phone line, a DSL line (which almost invariably comes with phone service attached), cable modem, or the wifi signal at your neighborhood coffee shop (if you want to get exotic, there are more options)–and then you use some kind of communications service (AKA the application layer)–email, ICQ, web-based forums, and now, VoIP. So where the service and the access used to be tied together and inherent in the technology, today, voice is just another service on a layer that is more or less independent, on top of the medium transporting it.

The old-world regulatory regime can’t keep up with that, so it needs to change. The proposed taxes on VoIP are already somewhat arbitrary in that they really don’t cover all VoIP applications. Anyone can download a video chat program (like iChat AV). This gives service that’s an awful lot like the services that regulators want to tax, but is completely outside their control. Regulators are only concerned with services that act like general-purpose telephony, and can interact with the public phone network. In the short term, one might argue that it’s OK to treat services that act as gateways between the traditional phone network and the Internet as telephony providers; in the long term, that won’t work, because more and more communications will move onto the Internet.

Some of those taxes are specifically for the common good–the charge for 911 service, taxes to subsidize phones for poor people and provide Internet access to libraries. Others just go into the pot. But let’s assume that they’re all necessary. How would they get divvied up under a new-world regulatory regime? By taxing the VoIP at the application layer? This is a huge can of worms that I would hate to open up, as it would mandate spyware on your computer to keep track of whether you use it for voice services. This would be even worse than the broadcast flag. Taxing the physical layer? This strikes me as closer to what we have now, and less problematic in some ways, but moreso in others. Open wifi nodes are already prevalent, and are becoming moreso. In fact, some cities are installing them in public places for public access, making it easy for people nearby to get a free ride. This is for the good, but if the node’s connection carries all the tax, it will tend to increase the number of free riders and decrease the number of nodes, which is bad.

I really don’t have the answers to this, but it’s an interesting question. One thing I am sure of is that we need to recognize the application/connection separation and allow VoIP to grow.

Patterns in randomness

Most days that I’m at my desk, I listen to music through iTunes for most of the day. For some time, I’ve been listening to one giant smart playlist that has all the tracks I haven’t listened to yet–which is currently at about five days-worth of music–played in shuffle mode.

Now, I’ve noticed in the past that occasionally this produces a long run of especially good music, or a run of not-so-great music. This kind of pattern is to be expected.

Today, it’s getting weird, though. It played three Banco de Gaia songs in a row (I have six tracks by them, out of a total track count of 6300). And two different renditions of Perfidia a few minutes apart.

In a sufficiently large set of randomizations (I’ve listened to thousands of tracks in iTunes), spurious patterns will emerge. Some people are led to believe this means that aliens, giant space fairies, or other metaphysical forces are guiding their lives, or their copy of iTunes, or whatever. I am not one of these people, but it’s interesting to see it in action.

Lott still suffers from foot-in-mouth disease

What are we doing in Iraq again? Stopping the imminent threat posed by Saddam’s WMD’s? Nope. Stopping his WMD programs? Nope, that’s not it either. Liberating the oppressed Iraqi people? Yeah, that must be it. No, wait:

In a sign of frustration, he offered an unorthodox military solution: “If we have to, we just mow the whole place down, see what happens. You’re dealing with insane suicide bombers who are killing our people, and we need to be very aggressive in taking them out.”

I suppose this is that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” logic.


There are always a bazillion parties on Halloween, and of course the crush on Sixth Street, but I’m going to be at the Enchanted Forest. Every year for the past N years, there’s been a Halloween fire show at Cafe Mundi. This year it’s at a different location, but will still be a good show. And for the first time, I’ll be in it, doing more than holding a towel.

When: Halloween night, starts at 8:00, doors at 7:00
Where: Enchanted Forest (Oltorf near Lamar)
Outdoors, primitive site. Bring your own everything.

Baghdad Burning

Many of you are probably familiar with the Where is Raed? blog, by Salaam Pax, the “Baghdad Blogger.” He’s the best-known one, but not the only one. Another is Baghdad Burning. And, fascinatingly, there is a another site, also called Baghdad Burning (note the one-letter difference in the URL), with an identical layout but a distinctly pro-American slant and a distinctly different blogroll. It’s propaganda. If it isn’t being put out by the U.S. government, it is being done by someone keeping a close eye on the play-by-play, with plenty of time to spare and information on hand. Interestingly, the copycat blog appears to predate the authentic one (blog entries can be back-dated). The copycat appears to have unthinkingly copied irrelevant bits of the original’s template, including a link to “squawkbox.tv”, a comment-hosting service. Neither site currently uses the service; the legit site doesn’t have the link on the current page; the copycat does.

Update: There’s a blog tracking the copycat blog.

Intolerable Cruelty

Just saw the latest by the Coen Brothers, Intolerable Cruelty. I’ll see any Coen Brothers movie on spec, and this one didn’t disappoint. Go see it. Love, betrayal, ass-impalings, car smashups, gunfire, and that’s just in the first five minutes–but sets the tone for the rest of the movie. As always, the brothers deliver whacky characters, snappy and occasionally erudite dialogue, funky camera angles, and a good yarn. Plus a lot of alliterative appelations. This movie, somewhat uncharacteristically for them, has an A-list cast, with certified Beautiful Persons George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Eta Beta Tomato Jones, but it is no less a movie for it.

Go see it.

Hollywood is a trans-ironic zone

I overheard someone commenting once that we need a word for something beyond irony, because so much that happens in Washington exceeds what we normally think of as ironic.

This is true, and apparently it applies to the left coast as well. I saw a trailer for an upcoming movie, Paycheck, based on a Philip K Dick story of the same name. The trailer starts off by telling us that. in the future, the basis of all busines will be reverse engineering, and that our protagonist is the best reverse engineer in the business.

Why is this trans-ironic? Well, because the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed under the Clinton administration, outlawed reverse engineering, and the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), which runs annoying “public service announcements” before movies telling us not to pirate movies, was one of the primary forces behind that law. And here they are, glorifying the violation of it.

PKD would be amused.

Republicans with issues

This turd just got deposited in my in-box through the unlikely vector of the local mailing list for freaks.

From the Republican Liberty Caucus of Austin:

This Friday, October 24th, is United Nations Day. 
I hope you can join us  and Several pro-liberty
 and pro-American sovereignty groups in making 
this  dismal day an exciting and fun one, with a 
good old fashioned UN Flag  Burning! 

WHAT: UN - Flag Burning - Day
WHEN: This Friday, October 24th at 6PM
WHERE: 11th Street, in front of the south 
State Capital, Austin, Texas

Bring your marshmallows, some friends and a camera!


For whatever it’s worth, you can look these nitwits up online. What are you going to do with these people? Perhaps introduce them to these guys (there’s someone in my neighborhood with a yard-sign from them). I’m sure they’d get along famously

Fucking Ritz Camera

I’m developing a website (don’t look yetok, you can look now) for my sister. She took some product shots, and asked how she should send them to me. I told her to get a Photo CD made from the negatives.

Now, Photo CD is a specific, high-quality format for storing photos digitally; it’s not just a CD with photos on it. She goes to Ritz Camera, gives them the film and asks for a Photo CD. Yes, by name. But apparently the Ritz halfwits knew better, and (as near as I can tell) scanned her prints on a dusty scanner that blew out all the highlights, and burned that onto a CD along with all kinds of Windows cruft. Ceçi n’est ce pas une Photo CD.

I’ve just received the Not-Photo CD. Her website is supposed to go live in two days. There’s obviously not enough time to redo it. The scans I’ve got are usable, but much lower quality than they would have been if I had gotten what I wanted.


An article on online reviewers has prompted me to get off my ass and write up some thoughts that have been percolating in my head for a few days.

If you are an enthusiastic consumer, there is no shortage of opportunities for you to write up reviews of the products you love or hate. Epinions has built a business out of hosting reviews. For Amazon, reviews are one advantage that it has over bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. And there are lots of other venues for reviews.

In some ways, though, a blog would be a better tool for writing reviews: you own the review, not the site hosting it. You’ve got all your reviews together in one place. Once you wrote the review, though, you’d want people to be able to see it at Amazon (or wherever), so there would need to be a review-aggregation mechanism. Austin Bloggers already works this way, more or less. I have Movable Type set up so that whenever I write a post in the “Austin” category, my blog pings Austin Bloggers, and Austin Bloggers creates a link back to my blog. And with All Consuming (which is very cool), we’ve got the nucleus of something like this happening.

But this is an area where the blogosphere needs to move forward if blogs are going to become a vehicle for reviews. Let’s look at what needs to happen:

Review profiles
Currently, blogs are set up as general-purpose writing tools: they don’t have specific fields for specific bits of information. Movable Type is going to come out with a “Pro” version that will support custom fields. I think of a set of custom fields as a “profile,” and I think this is the next thing in blogging. Bloggers writing reviews will need a “review profile” in their blogs with fields for the item code and rating.
There needs to be some uniform way to refer to the product. This could be something like a uniform product code or an ASIN (though I don’t think this would work for movies). And there needs to be a standard way to enter this and publish this in a blog. As a practical matter, there might need to be multiple identification schemes; you would identify both the item and the scheme (eg, “this product code 12345, and I am using the Amazon standard identification number scheme”).
Ratings vocabulary
Not everyone uses the same scale for ratings. Some would give a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down. Others would give several numeric ratings for different aspects of a single product. In order for what review aggregation to work, there needs to be a uniform ratings vocabulary. Again, there should be a standardized field for this.
Aggregation API
Amazon already has a public API. There should be a mechanism for pinging Amazon (or whoever) “hey, I’ve written a review” so that it can aggregate your review into it’s product listings. Although All Consuming is run by an Amazon employee, even reviews posted there do not get into the Amazon database.
Feedback mechanism
Amazon makes it possible to indicate whether a review-reader finds a review helpful; Epinions goes further, and lets the reader write a review of the review. There would need to be something like trackback to get this information back into your review.

In theory, all this data structuring could be avoided if the aggregating entities used million-dollar search instead of million-dollar markup. It might be possible to just include a reference to an ASIN in a blog entry, ping Amazon, and have it figure out “hey, that’s a review of such-and-such” and to further use natural-language processing to figure out whether I liked it or not.

Candy Von Dewd (and the Girls from Latexploitia)

In a mostly empty Alamo Drafthouse, I saw Candy Von Dewd last night, a movie made by my high-school friend Jacques.

The movie can be aptly described using one of the better lines in the movie:

Wow, he’s really fucking that plant!

The movie is trippy and pretty non-linear, with obvious references to Barbarella and perhaps-unintended references to Babylon 5: Crusade, among other things. Jacques himself mentioned to me “I’d
like to encourage people to see it the way 2001 was marketed, that is to say, see it high.”

Jacques was making amateur movies back in high school. He finished one project that was very gritty and down to earth–more like the 400 Blows than anything else. But he started on another (which I helped on, in a very minimal way) that had a lot in common with this. I got the impression that with Candy Von Dewd, he was sort of wrapping up something that had been in the back of his mind for half his life. Gwen got some ideas for her Halloween costume.

Bonus! Candy Von Dewd trading cards

Tomorrow: Candy Von Dewd

Tomorrow night at 9:45, Alamo Drafthouse will be showing Candy Von Dewd, an underground science-fiction movie made by a good friend of mine from high school, Jacques Boyreau.

Be there.

Domestic terror

A politically active religious zealot has publicly and repeatedly advocated the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. government. Interestingly, he did so within American borders, and continues to walk around a free man.

One might expect him to be hustled off to Gitmo where he’d be fitted for an orange jumpsuit, but because this particular advocate of terrorism happens to be Pat Robertson, it’s not likely to happen.

Tim Bray on spam

Tim Bray comes up with a plan for spam that is similar to my previous idea–paying to send e-mail–but doesn’t require any architectural changes to the Internet.

His idea can be taken a step further: once you’ve established friendly communications with someone, you could set up your mail filters to accept unpaid e-mail from that person.

Comment spam

Nabokov never had this in mind.

Over the past week or so, many people with Movable Type blogs got hit by comment spam ostensibly posted by “Lolita,” linking to some nasty porno website. This has created a tizzy in the blogosphere, and happily, Jay Allen is doing something about it. Once he gets his plugin up and running, I plan on installing it. If only we could deal with e-mail spam as effectively.

Until he finishes, however, there’s something you can do right now. This comment spam is posted by an automated bot that looks for Movable Type’s comment cgi. You can change the name of this and cut the bot off at the knees. So here’s what you should do:

First, find the file “mt-comments.cgi” in your MT install and rename it something obscure (though I’d keep the .cgi ending).

The next steps you take are dependent on what version of MT you are running, and what version you were running when you created your blog templates, as MT has added some new tags for dealing with comments. If you have old blog templates, they will not use these tags; if you are running an old version of MT, you won’t have access to them anyhow. I’m not sure when these were instituted–I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure this out.

1. If your initial install of MT was relatively recent

This is the simplest situation: Open your mt.cfg file. Find the line that reads “# CommentScript mt-comments.cgi”. Remove the # and change “mt-comments.cgi” to whatever new name you have picked. Then rebuild all files in your blog or blogs.

2. If you are running a new install of MT with old templates

Your templates probably aren’t using MT’s special placeholder for the comments CGI. You can either change the hard-coded reference to mt-comments.cgi in each template to a hard-coded reference to the new file, or change it to “<MTCommentScript>”. In either case, once you’ve done this, go through and follow the instructions for 1 above.

3. If you are running an old version of MT

You will not be able to take advantage of the <MTCommentScript> tag at all. You will need to change the hard-coded reference to mt-comments.cgi in each template to a hard-coded reference to the new file, and then rebuild.

This sounds more complicated than it really is. It took me about 10 minutes to fix all my blogs.

The myth of Japanese uniqueness

A recent discussion on the Honyaku list about the reaction of Westerners to Japanese food led to some interesting observations that the trouble Westerners have with Japanese food is often just in the minds of Japanese, who accept as conventional wisdom that their cuisine is too unusual for outsiders to appreciate.

And it occurred to me: part of the “uniquely unique” self-image of Japan is alarmingly close to the “inscrutable Asian” stereotype outside of Japan. Some Japanese people just don’t realize how exposed Japan is to the rest of the world.

  • Every few years, a particularly tactless Japanese politicians will say something outrageous, and then be bewildered when it generates an international shitstorm.
  • In another life, when I was an English teacher in 長野県, I had adult students who were amazed to learn that Sony is known outside Japan, let alone being one of the best-known companies in the world.

Perhaps an aspect of being uniquely unique is being persistently provincial.