August 2004

New Jersey double-header

After too many weekends devoted to productive house-drudgery, tt was a two-movie weekend for Gwen and me.

On Friday, we saw Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. Some simplify this down to a pot-humor movie, others point out the significance of having the audience identify with Asian-American leads. Both are fair points, I suppose, but the movie mostly made me think of After Hours: a surreal overnight journey. With pot and low humor, yeah. Anyhow, it’s very funny, and falls into my “much better than it needs to be” category.

Number two on our viewing list was Garden State, also a surreal trip through New Jersey in its own way, but a story driven much more by characters than situations. And although it has plenty of funny moments, the movie isn’t a comedy. It’s more complex than that, and so is my reaction to it. While it’s worth seeing, there’s a lot about it that seems out of kilter. The lead character (played by the writer/director) moves through life with his emotional affect tamped down by pharmaceuticals; in some ways, that’s how the whole movie felt. Perhaps this was intentional, but in many cases, I suspect its the result of hack editing. Characters become important without the audience knowing whether we’re suppose to like them or not (and I don’t think this is an intentional effort to keep the audience off-balance), and characters develop strong relationships without the audience seeing how strong they are. Symbolically freighted elements–like a boat out of water at the bottom of a quarry–parade before us with no particular relevance to the rest of the picture. So the audience feels these events and tableaux pass by without really getting emotionally engaged in them, just mildly amused. But there’s still plenty to like: the dialog is good, the surreal quality is interesting, and Natalie Portman is a superstar waiting to happen.

One thing about Garden State that struck me was the soundtrack. Almost every incidental song was something I know and like; at least half are already in my music collection. “Damn, they have just nailed my demographic/psychographic makeup here!” I said to myself, and it annoyed me: as Douglas Coupland wrote, “I am not a target market.”

Toll roads

Talk of toll roads have been much in the air around Austin lately, after CAMPO proposed a plan to convert segments of almost every area highway into a toll road.

Proposed tollroads map

(source: CAMPO “Adopted Tollroads Amendments.” Click for larger version)

My visceral reaction to this was negative, which surprised me: I’ve always been in favor of less driving, less sprawl, and honest road-pricing. Toll roads are consistent with all of these goals. So I decided to give the matter more thought, and I’m still against it in this case. Why?

Tolls seem to be imposed for one of a few reasons: to ration access to overused facilities (Singapore and London have applied road-pricing to downtown roads), to pay for expensive infrastructure, such as bridges, and as a general revenue-enhancement trick. The first two of these are reasonable, the last is unsurprising but infuriating. None of these apply to the current plan, except for the third, in an oblique way.

Although this plan issues from CAMPO, it benefits the Texas Department of Transportation. CAMPO is acting as TxDOT’s fall-guy. It is important to understand a few things about TxDOT:

  1. TxDOT does not exist primarily to improve general transportation in Texas: if it doesn’t involve new-road construction, they’re not particularly interested.
  2. TxDOT does not exist to maximize road-transport efficiency in Texas: they are really the Texas Department of Corporate Welfare for Construction Companies.
  3. TxDOT is the only state or local organization that takes planning seriously. Unfortunately, their planning reflects their warped perspectives. Other state and local agencies take their planning cues from TxDOT.

In most cases where toll roads are introduced, there’s a toll-free alternative. The CAMPO plan is no exception: new segments of non-tolled roads will be built alongside the tolled sections to be introduced. In other words, TxDOT gets to build more roads. So this is a boondoggle. It also means we’ll have the environmental fights over more green land getting paved over–in theory, this means there might not be untolled alternatives to the tolled sections. Assuming there are, though, one wonders how many people will use the toll roads. And the whole project promises to be expensive: $1.7 billion. Perhaps the tolls will pay for that. I wonder.

Another reason is the bait-n-switch feeling the plan leaves in my mouth. Although I live in central Austin, and live most of my life in central Austin, even I find myself increasingly dragged to the fringes of the city because that’s where so much retail has moved to. Austin, for worse (definitely not for better) has grown up with a sprawl-oriented model of development, and everyone who lives here (short of Amy Babich) in some way must accommodate that. Now CAMPO tells us, now that we’ve been suckered into this topology, that we’ll have to pay for that trip out to the Salt Lick, down to my friend’s place in Oak Hill, over to the bike store on 360, out to the UPS station.

Finally, most people don’t like pay-as-you-go. We don’t want to think about the money being taken away from us each time we use a service: we’d rather pay a big upfront fee (even if it’s more than we’d otherwise pay) and not have to worry about it after that. While some moderation in road use would certainly be a good thing, demand for the roads is probably more inelastic than a smoker’s demand for cigs.


If you haven’t checked out Craigslist (many regional sites, including one for Austin), you should. It’s a phenomenal marketplace.

A lot of people use it for casual sex hookups, and hey, if I knew about that aspect of it back when I was single, who knows? But it’s also great for getting rid of stuff that has a little too much value to donate or throw out. I’ve posted several items for prices that are probably about 1/3rd to 1/5th what the item would cost new and gotten nibbles within a few hours, and sold the item within about a day. No fuss, no muss, and a lot easier than ebay. The posting process is dead-simple.

It’s got RSS feeds for each classified section, so if you want to tune in to, say, the new listings for old computers, you can do that. And it’s even got entertainment value in the hye-larious best of craigslist section


Gwen IMs me and tells me to turn on KUT. I start KUT’s stream and listen. Some Indian-influenced spacey dance music with a twangy sitar. Fun. I don’t recognize it at first, but after 20 seconds or so, there’s an unmistakable hook.

Turns out the track I’m listening to is “From Rusholme with Love” by Mint Royale, but the sound is straight from a 1971 number called “Zoom” by the late Volker Kriegel, which I recognize from the compilation Bombay Jazz Palace.

Usually, when a band does a cover, they keep the same name on the song, or at least tip their cap in the original artist’s direction. No sign of that here. Does that make it a cover or a ripoff?

Margins of error

If you haven’t checked out Electoral Vote, do so. It has daily updates on all the polls, and shows how the electoral vote is shaping up in map form, along with histories, spreadsheets, a real info-junkie’s dream.

A lot of the states are shown as statistical ties or near ties, meaning that one candidate’s advantage is less than the margin of error. But today, Kevin Drum shows us how this is misleading. When an advantage is less than the margin of error, it doesn’t mean “oh, we really can’t tell,” it means that we’re simply less confident about the data. That margin of error does not becloud all differences smaller than it. Go read Kevin’s post: it’s informative.

Rajamani at One World Theater

Gwen’s been a fan of Oliver Rajamani for quite some time, so when she found out he was having a CD release party at One World Theater, she figured it would be a good show and a good excuse to see what that venue is like for a relatively low ticket price.

The show was pretty good. I have mixed feelings about Rajamani’s music: he’s good at what he does, and I do enjoy some of his stuff, but some of it gets into these aimless, hypnotic jams that don’t do much for me. But when he’s good, he’s good. He had a good band assembled around him, too, including an acquaintance, Steve Marcum (one of the original instigators behind the full-moon drum circle). He also had Nagavalli Medicharla, a female vocalist, on stage with him. She wasn’t in the show much, but she was one of the high points–she has a voice that really makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I’m looking forward to hearing the album, as I expect it will probably edit the rambling bits out.

Neither Gwen nor I had ever been to the theater before. While the grounds are great, and the building is really interesting from the outside, the room itself is no great shakes. The acoustic seemed fine, and there didn’t seem to be many bad seats in the house, but we were expecting something a little more interesting. Gwen pointed out that the wings set up on stage were obvious afterthoughts that didn’t fit in with the rest of the building at all.

After the show, there was a reception downstairs, where I ran into one of my Japanese teachers from back in the day and one of my fellow fire-freaks.

The Bourne Supermacy

Dumb name, decent flick. The Bourne Supremacy is another action-type movie that doesn’t require excessive neural activity to enjoy, but it does have car chases, including one in which an improbably sturdy Russian cab acquits itself admirably against the entire Moscow police department and an assassin in a Mercedes SUV.

Matt Damon had an interesting role in that he had very few lines — most of the acting was in his face.

Beyond Black Rock

Last night Jo’s Coffee hosted an advance screening of Beyond Black Rock (surprisingly, not in the IMDB), a documentary by Austin locals about Burning Man.

Quite a crowd turned out: the entire parking lot behind Jo’s was jammed full–perhaps 500 people. Some of my fellow fire freaks and I were going to provide a little pre-show warmup; as it turns out, I was the only one of the people slated to perform who actually did show up; the guy who was supposed to be coordinating this (and shall remain nameless) called me at the last minute to inform me of his non-appearance and, implictly, to hand off the baton. There were plenty of fire people there, though not many actually had their rigs with them, but in the end, four of us went up and burned, and there was much rejoicing.

Oh yeah, the movie! Enjoyable. Focused a lot on the people who organize it and the organization of it; also featured at some length a couple of artists (including the amazing David Best) who were putting in installations there.


Synchronized swimming. What can you say? Well, the Ho’s website (actually, that’s a dated version–the current one seems to reside only in Google’s cache) has some pomo feminist claptrap, but basically it’s campy good fun. Elaborate costumes, live band, big friendly crowd.

I dug up some pictures from a 2003 performance

Work Gossip

I work at home, alone. I don’t get any water-cooler gossip. But I just translated some pretty juicy insider stuff. Too bad I can’t tell anyone about it. Directly, at least.

Setup: I have several steady clients–small translation agencies. These guys have very large household-name companies as their clients. Let’s say that one of Agency A’s regular clients is Company 1. One of Agency B’s clients is Company 2.

I just did a translation for Agency B of a document that originated with Company 2. It’s an internal memo describing the company’s dealings with Company 1, as well as Company 1’s dealings with yet a direct competitor of Company 2, which, in a creative outburst, I have decided to call Company 3. Now, Company 3 is much bigger than Company 2 (or Company 1, for that matter)–they’re really the 800-pound gorilla of their industry, and Company 2 is the “we try harder” outfit.

Story: It seems that Company 3 keeps close tabs on Company 2’s dealings with Company 1, and has successfully applied pressure to Company 2 to curtail its dealings with Company 1. Getting the inside scoop on this stuff–one executive saying “this decision was made at a higher level” and his boss saying “gee whiz, sorry about that”, or Company 3 finding inventive ways to really screw over Company 1–is riveting. Based on my limited understanding of the law, the facts here should be solid grounds for legal action. It’s also interesting to see a job that sort of crosses from one client’s “space” to another (though this has happened before).