Advertising for advertising

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

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

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

Halloween wrap-up

Sage in full regalia

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

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

Chicken George

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

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

Bubba Ho-Tep

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

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

Kill Bill

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

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

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

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

Empirical political formulations

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

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

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

Words and Rules

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

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

Mystic River

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

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

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