March 2004

Distributed comment authentication

With the introduction of Typekey, the discussion of blog-comment validation and moderation has kicked into high gear.

I applaud the nice Six Apart people for doing something to turn back the tide of comment spam and crapflooding. And while I wouldn’t necessarily discourage anyone from using Typekey, I think we might be able to do better.

I’d like to see a social-networked, peer-to-peer, graduated comment-moderation technology (is that enough buzzwords?). Here’s what I mean.

  1. I would be able to whitelist or blacklist commenters. I’d actually like something a little more fine-grained than just blacklisting: I’d like one class for trolls, another for spammers. Trolls might actually have something interesting to say once in a while, spammers (almost by definition) don’t, so I might want to put troll postings into a moderation queue and simply shitcan anything from a spammer.
  2. I would be able to publish my whitelist, troll-list, and spam-list as separate items.
  3. À la LOAF, I would be able to subscribe to someone else’s various lists. If I know “I can count on Alice’s whitelist”, then I’d automatically whitelist anyone she does. One might be able to take this a step farther and use “two degrees of whitelisting/blackisting.” If I really, really trust Alice, I might be willing to trust all the whitelists/blacklists that she subscribes to herself. Of course, we’d need some kind of RSD format for publishing our whitelists and blacklists to make this work. I suppose you could get into the question of whether you want to reveal to others whose whitelist you subscribe to, but frankly, that level of cliquishness strikes me as way too silly to worry about.

Letter from my bank

I’ve got a bank account in Japan to make business with my Japan-based clients easier. I just got a letter from them advising me that backup tapes with my information were lost. They tell me the data was encrypted and I’m not at any risk of identity theft. For the sake of argument, I’ll take them at their word.

What’s interesting to me about this is that I got a letter at all: if this were happening with an American bank, I don’t think I would have. Frankly, I’d rather know about the mistakes–and know that I will know when there is a mistake–than put up with the “trust us” routine.

Three elephants

This guy, very wealthy, wants to give his son a big bar-mitzvah party, something that’ll impress all the people he does business with, so he decides to have a bar-mitzvah safari. He flies the whole party over to Africa and hires guides, a bunch of bearers, two elephants, the whole works. The party is making its way through the jungle when it comes to an unexpected halt. The father calls to the head of the procession to ask what’s going on, and the guide shouts back that they have to give way to the three-elephant bar mitzvah that is crossing their path.

This joke was a touchstone in my family–any big social event was referred to as a “three-elephant” whatever. I went to a three-elephant wedding this weekend that was, well, odd in lots of ways.

The bride and groom, Jennifer and Mark, are friends of mine, through Gwen. Both real hippies, living on some land outside Bastrop. Mark’s glasses are mostly made out of duct tape; Jennifer is an acupuncturist. But it turns out that their families are both part of San Antonio old-money society; Mark was all but disowned by his parents for his anti-establishment lifestyle. You can practically hear a sitcom premise winding up in the background. I knew we were in for something when I saw the ornate invitations done in hand calligraphy.

The event was at the Don Strange Ranch about 110 miles from Austin. This is no more a ranch than the Queen Elizabeth II is, but this does have the ranch schtick as its theme. Chuckwagons, old milk jugs, saddles, and other rustic paraphernalia picturesquely dot the landscape. Half a dozen longhorn cattle were corralled into an uncomfortably small pen that kept them up close to the guests as they walked in.

When an old barn is meticulously updated to become a setting for fabulously wealthy and elegantly attired people to hobnob and drink champagne, the place ceases to be a ranch and becomes an exercise in unwitting kitsch.

That said, the grounds were really beautiful.

The ceremony was an even more bizarre juxtaposition. It was an ill omen that the sound crew couldn’t get the wireless lavaliere mics to work correctly (this was the first wedding I’ve been to that was mic’d), and one of the speakers emitted a constant buzz. Shoeless women carrying cones of flower petals walked around the seats, sprinkling petals and waving sage-sticks. Then a procession of grandparents, cousins, parents, etc came down the aisle. A woman bearing a floral cross came down and hung it from a giant flowered bower. Then the groom, then the bride. There were four officiants: a Catholic priest, an Episcopal priest, and two Pagan priestesses (named Rivers and Spirit). They conducted the whole thing tag-team style; the Episcopal priest visibly rolling his eyes at the pagan sections (and me rolling my eyes at every section). Unsurprisingly, the Pagan parts were gag-inducingly sweet, airy-fairy hoohah, and the Christian parts were intimidating, stern, and didactic–the priests were clearly trying to wrestle the proceedings back to something they considered respectable. Needless to say, with that much going on, the ceremony was long-ish and never seemed to reach a clearly defined end. I can only imagine the wrangling between the kids and the parents that resulted in that camel of a ceremony. I was amused, later, to discover that Rivers’ dog has the pedestrian name Mickey–but Mickey receives 14 different naturopathic treatments every day.

The reception was a lavish spread. Five open bars. Appetizers laid out on derelict horse-drawn carts. A full (and very good) dinner for 425 guests. A cover band that went through three costume changes and, as is required by the International Brotherhood of Cover Bands, played Proud Mary along with other chestnuts like Mustang Sally, Celebrate, a Donna Summer medley, etc. Gwen and I, along with our friends, were in the cheap seats off to the side; it was the important friends of the family who sat at the more central tables and who left first.

Garlic head


This bizarre bit of folk art was a gift to Gwen from her neighbor, who in turn received it from her father in Iran. It is made all the creepier by the fact that it is decorated with real human hair.

Those wacky Persians…

Out of pocket

Just over the past few days, I’ve noticed two friends (who don’t know each other) using the phrase “out of pocket” to mean something like “very busy.” This new sense for an old phrase doesn’t seem to pop up as a popular result in Google. I asked one of them where he picked it up and if it had any particular nuance; his reply was “can’t remember,” and “no.”

Anyone out there have any insight on this?

[Later] Apparently Gwen uses this a lot, and I’ve either never been around to hear it or never paid attention (I’m going with the former); she tells me it has the added meaning of “unreachable.”

NYT on Katakana

Pretty good article in the Times today on how katakana is used. It mentions that foreigners of Japanese descent, like Alberto Fujimori and Kazuo Ishiguro get the katakana treatment on their names; what it doesn’t mention is that Fujimori, who pronounces his name Spanish-style, gets his name transliterated into kana as フヒモリ (fuhimori).

But the article overstates the standoffishness of katakana for foreign names. Katakana is used for loanwords in general, and for emphasis, and in that respect, it is very similar in function to italics in English. The fact that foreign names get swept up in katakana styling is not that big a deal.

The story reminds me of an anecdote that a friend told by back in Japan. This friend is of Japanese background, has a Japanese last name, and had been living in Japan for some time. She applied for, and got, a JCB credit card, apparently one of the first foreigners to do so. Now, credit cards in Japan always give the holder’s name in katakana; there would be no way of indicating on the card “we’re putting her name in katakana because it really belongs that way, not because of technical limitations.” So they left her last name off entirely, rather than risk having her be confused for a real Japanese.

After hours with SBC

I am on hold with SBC, waiting while they confirm the fact that my DSL connection is down. Their hold music is the most gleefully cheesy 1970s porno soundtrack. Flatulent keyboards, the whole works.

Meet the new jefe

So just a few days after the shocking bombings in Madrid, the ruling right-wing party, notorious for its support of the war, has gone down to defeat in Spain’s elections.

Although the government initially blamed ETA, the Basque separatists, it looks more and more like it was Islamic militants behind the attack. If nothing else, the fact that the date fell exactly two and a half years–or 911 days–after 9/11 seems too symbolic to overlook.

I ask myself how American voters would swing if this country suffered another attack right before our elections in November. Something tells me a large number of people would rally behind the president. Some swing voters would probably vote against him in disgust, and perhaps even a few solid Republicans would as well, but I feel there’s something fundamentally conservative in the collective American unconscious right now that would get people out to the polls to support the commander in chief.

The war with Iraq was much less popular in Spain (indeed, everywhere) than it was in the USA, and that might explain the difference, but I wonder if that’s all there is to it. I hope we don’t have a chance to find out.

Perils of porting

Friday night, I got together with some of my blogger friends for dinner at the Mongolian BBQ downtown. Don had just ported from Sprint to T-mobile and gotten the same phone as me, partly at least on my recommendation.

While we’re sitting there, I get a call from someone claiming that someone else had just called him from my number. It was a bad connection, so I didn’t hear everything he said, but it was very odd. Then it happens again. And again. Five times in about twenty minutes. Don is wondering if I’ve given him a bum steer.

About an hour later, I get another call. The caller ID shows as “unknown.” It turns out to be a Sprint operator, who asks for me (for a change). She explains that Sprint had just given out my old number (which was, and is, still my number) to a new subscriber, and that she was taking care of the problem.

Clearly, another bump on the road to seamless number portability.

Gillian Welch at Stubbs

Saw Gillian Welch the other night. Never saw her act live before, but it was pretty much what I would have expected from her albums. Good show. Old Crow Medicine Show opened, and at the end of the night they all came back on-stage for a lengthy encore with Welch (which, we were informed, they hadn’t done before).

I voted

For Dean. Hey, he’s still on the ballot, and he’s the guy I wanted to vote for. I realize the vote is symbolic, but perhaps not a completely empty symbol. Kerry’s got the nomination locked up, but at this point, every vote for someone else is a reminder to him: “Hey, there’s a constituency out here that you need to address.”

At the sign-in table, there was one Republican judge, one Democrat, and two other guys who didn’t have any party role to fill. As I walked up, one of them asked me if I was voting Democrat; another said something like “he couldn’t possibly be a Republican.” There was some more partisan joking. The lone Republican kept his tongue. This was the first time I could ever recall election judges publicly making partisan jokes, and I have to admit, it struck me as a little unseemly. But very interesting. I live in a pretty progressive neighborhood, and this seems like a sign that the general election will be extremely polarized (not that it would come as much surprise).

A new job

I’ve been a freelancer since 1989, and in that sense, I get a new job every time a new document comes down the pipe. I am still a freelancer, still doing the same thing, but I still feel like I’ve got a new job.

When I started translating as a freelancer, things were kind of thin. Gradually, my client base and workload picked up, and by 2000, I was making a pretty nice income.

Then came 2001: my income was less than half what it had been in 2000: the Japanese economy–already bad–seemed to get worse, and we all know what happened in the U.S. economy. 2002 was slightly worse; 2003 about the same.

December 2003 and January 2004 were alarmingly quiet, and I could no longer pretend that I was riding out a lean spell and things would pick up in their own time. Either I needed to get more translation work, or I had to get a “real” job (though the idea gave me hives). In the past, I had occasionally made efforts to get new work by cold-calling, but I found the process uniformly unproductive and had given up. Time to try again. I contacted a lot of translation agencies. Most of them thanked me for my resume (if that much) and that was the end of it. Some had me do translation tests. This turned into a more labor-intensive way for me to wind up buried in a rolodex somewhere. But I contacted one company that was different. They sent me a very demanding translation test–a long passage (as trials go) of very challenging material. I slacked a little on finishing it, but eventually did so. And eventually heard back that they like my work and want to add me to their stable. And that they can, it seems, completely saturate my pipeline. And they pay pretty well (especially for Americans). In short, if I choose to, I can pretty much work full-time and exclusively for them. I feel both relieved that a long and difficult period seems to be ending, and anxious that I might screw up.

Jenny and I have discussed before the danger as freelancers of turning one’s client ecology into a monoculture, but right now, it beats the hell out of a xericulture.

The road to hell is all torn up

While I was under the impression that the Austin city budget was hit harder by the recession than most cities, apparently I was wrong. Current city roadwork projects underway in the more-or-less central part of town include:

  • South First
  • North Lamar (this isn’t even expected to be completed until mid-2005)
  • Guadalupe & 45th Street
  • Koenig/Allandale
  • East Cesar Chavez

And that doesn’t include the eternal mess at I-35/Ben White, which is a TxDOT project.

I am genuinely curious: where has the city found the money to pay for all these projects? Did we pass a bond or something? And why are they hell-bent on taking on so many major projects in a relatively small, dense area all at once?

Boxcar Preachers

Expecting to see Shorty Long last night doing their usual thing at Flipnotics, we wound up seeing the Boxcar Preachers, the lead singer of which is a co-worker of Gwen’s. Old-timey songs about heroin addicts and Randy Weaver. They’re good. Check ’em out.