Year: 2007

My brilliance cannot be contained, episode 2,336

Gwen and I saw something about lap-band surgery on TV recently, and I was struck by an idea. Instead of gastric-bypass, lap-band, stomach-stapling, and other forms of bariatric surgery, which are both risky and prone to complications, doctors should introduce therapeutic tapeworms.

I dedicate this idea to the public domain, in the hopes that someone will take it and run with it. I can’t believe nobody’s thought of this before.

Technology on the bike

2007 hasn’t been a good year for cycling, at least not for me. I recently made a birthday resolution that in 2008 I would ride more.

Along with riding less, I’ve paid less attention to bike technology, which is something that’s always interested me. Lately I’ve been paying a little more atention. I just read about a prototype bike-computer/rear-view camera called Cerevellum. This looks like a great idea—plug-in modules for different functionality. One idea I’ve never seen implemented on a bike is a crash camera. Now, this might be more of a concern for me than most people, but the overhead would be slight and the potential benefits considerable.

I envision the system including rearward-looking and forward-looking cameras, an accelerometer, and some flash-memory storage. It wouldn’t need much—just enough to capture about a minute’s worth of video and audio (about 180 MB for good-quality uncompressed video—chump change by today’s standards). If the accelerometer detected any sudden movement (indicative of a crash), the cameras would save the preceding 30 seconds and the following 30 seconds. That should be enough to capture license plate numbers, the circumstances of the crash, etc. A manual trigger to save would also make sense, as would manual still photography capture. Equipment like this does exist for cars, but nothing miniature enough for a bike. With 1 GB memory cards as common as dirt, one could record several minutes of footage per ride, as well as a lot of still photos, which could be interesting in ways other than crash documentation.

Translation and situation

I’m translating segments of a Japanese TV show right now. It’s very different from my usual work, and not what I consider a strong suit, but the client seems happy with my work right now, so I’ll take it.

This particular show is of the “physical challenge reality TV” variety. It’s sort of like the show Ninja Warrior that’s currently on U.S. cable, but much sillier and with recognizable Japanese TV celebrities as commentators and sometimes as competitors. The commentators are clearly trying to call the proceedings the way a sports announcer would, and as I go along, I’m trying to imagine how it would sound if Bob Costas were calling the games with my translation. But some of this stuff doesn’t translate. It’s not so much that I don’t know the words, or don’t know what the speakers mean by them (although that happens here and there), it’s just that they’re saying things that would never be said in the same situation in an English-speaking contest.

I just ran flat-faced into a perfect example. The game in question has the contestants trying to sit atop a gigantic ball and navigate it through an obstacle course. At one point, one of the contestants gets stuck in a hole and is rocking unsteadily and impotently, trying to get out. The commentator says “まるで現代人の日常の不安定感をビジュアル化したかのようだ,” which I have translated somewhat loosely as “It’s as if the malaise of modern life has been made tangible in his plight.”

And there’s the thing. No American sports announcer, no matter how literate, would ever say anything remotely like that in this situation. I’m content with the translation, but it’s undeniably weird to an American audience. Then again, the rest of the show is kind of weird.

Sacred cows

Submitted for your consideration:

Many religions build up arbitrary dietary rules around them.

Raw-foodism is an arbitrary dietary rule that has built up a religion around it.

A thought on the writer’s strike

As I understand it, the position of the Writer’s Guild of America is that writers should be compensated for online distribution. The studios’ position is that media distributed online has no value.

So when I download a TV show over bittorrent, I’m supporting the studios’ position. They should thank me.

Word annoyance du jour

screenshot of MS Word with two open documents

There are lots of reasons to be annoyed with Word. I’ve just discovered another one.

Look at the screenshot above. It shows two open documents in Word. Which one is the active window? (too small? You can see the full size image.)

Trick question. Neither is active. Even though these are the only two documents open in Word, neither is active. Keystrokes will not be sent to either one. Note how the title bar of the left window makes it appear to be active, while the scroll bar of the right window suggests it is active.

This condition arises erratically when the command-` systemwide shortcut is used to cycle through the windows of the current app. It only seems to happen when windows of other apps are also visible. I’m working on a job where I’m copying timecodes from the left window into the right, and the fact that I can’t use command-` to cycle is slowing me down measurably—almost as much as taking time out to blog about the problem is doing.

Horsemuffin

Folding cards for Gwen

When Gwen and I bought our current house, we inherited a letterpress, vintage approximately 1920, that the previous owners could not take with them when they moved to Spain. Gwen was interested in learning how to use it, but knowing how the best-laid plans of mice and men can go, we agreed that if she hadn’t done anything with it in nine months, we’d get rid of it.

Well, she did do something—a batch of coasters (using type, ink, and stock that was also left behind). Then she made some postcards. My sister, who received one of these postcards and has her own craft business, told Gwen “if you make more like these, I can sell them.”

That got Gwen thinking. She designed a series of cards, got plates burned, bought paper and ink, and got to work. I watched.

It’s fascinating to contemplate letterpress printing. It’s a very fussy process. These days if we want a hard copy (a phrase that suggests how a paper instantiation of information is secondary to the platonic electronic form), we hit command-P and a few seconds later, a page (or many pages) pops out of the printer, perfectly rendered.

It’s a little different with letterpress printing. Assuming you bypass the laborious process of composing type and have a plate burned, you still need to affix the plate in your chase, estimate the correct amount of packing on your platen, estimate your gauge-pin positions, and print some “make-ready” to home in on the correct packing and pin positioning. Once you’re getting a uniform, square impression—a process that can easily take an hour—you can start printing. The packing (extra sheets of paper underneath your printed piece) determine how hard the plate’s impression is, and a single piece of tissue paper in the packing can make an obvious difference in print quality. And if you’re doing a two- or three-color job, you need to do all this repeatedly—and get your registration straight with the previous print passes. The whole process can go wrong in numerous ways, and our eyes are highly attuned to even subtle errors in printed matter. A piece that’s rotated so that a printed line that goes out of parallel with the edge of the card by just 1/30″ over a length of 5″ is an obvious reject.

And while we generally don’t think of printing as physically dangerous, with a letterpress, it can be. Because the equipment is, at root, a press. And it weighs about 1800 lb, running off a large flywheel carrying a lot of momentum. If your hand happens to get in the way when platen and plate are pressed together, you’re going to have a very flat hand.

In spite of the hard work, the finickiness, and the risk of grievous bodily harm, Gwen has produced a line of cards. They’re being sold at Book People, and will be sold on the East Austin Studio Tour and Cherrywood Art Fair.

Oh, and she has a website of course. Horsemuffin.

Update

I’ve been busy lately.

After a long spell with very little work, October ended with all I could handle. Add to that preparations for the annual Halloween show at the Enchanted Forest, preparations to go to San Francisco for the ATA conference, and other stuff. Now I’ve got plenty of blog-fodder piled up and don’t quite know where to start.

So I’ll start by squeezing this update out.

Google Crowdsourcing Machine Translation

Screenshot of google translation crowdsourcing interface

I clicked through a link from a gadget site to a machine-translated press release for a new car-stereo head unit. I noticed that when my cursor hovered over a block of text, one of those floating mock-windows that are so popular in web2.0 appeared. It permits readers to enter their own translation for that sentence or chunk of text.

This is interesting, and something I hadn’t noticed before. It raises all kinds of interesting questions. Most obviously, how do they vet these reader-submitted translations? But it’s fascinating as a machine-translation paradigm. There are two general approaches to MT: one is basically lexical and grammatical analysis and substitution: diagramming sentences, dictionary lookup, etc. The other is “corpus based”, that is, having a huge body of phrase pairs, where one can be substituted for the other. And there is a hybrid between the two, that uses the corpus-based approach, but with some added smarts that permits a given phrase to serve as a pattern for novel phrases not found in the corpus (this is also pretty much how computer-assisted translation, or CAT, works). I wonder how these crowdsourced submissions work back into the MT backend—if they’re used strictly in a corpus-based translation layer, or if they get extrapolated into patterns. I’m skeptical that they’re getting a significant number of submissions through this system, but if they did, the range of writing styles, language ability, and so on that would be feeding into the system would seem to make it incredibly complicated. And perhaps a huge jump forward in improvement over older MT systems…but perhaps a huge clusterfuck of unharmonized spammy nonsense.

Wildfire Fall 2007

I attended the Fall ’07 round of Wildfire, a combination training camp and festival for firedancers, from September 20 to 23. This was the sixth running of Wildfire, which is held twice a year. It was fun.

I was nominally attending as a vendor, thanks to my fire-gear sideline. In fact, the Wildfire organizers had invited me to attend the previous one as a vendor, but that came just a week after Flipside was over, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to even think about it, much less prepare for it. But I told myself I’d try to make this one, and I did.

I had an excess of free time in the weeks leading up to Wildfire, and I put some of that time to good use running up inventory to bring.

Right off the bat, I’ll say that the vending aspect of the event was a complete bust. I didn’t sell a goddamned quick-link. Not many of my business cards even got picked up.

Having gotten that out of the way, I’m glad I went. It’s the only event like it that I know of, and I had a good time.

It wasn’t a burner event, strictly speaking—the fact that vendors were present pretty much rules that out. But it adhered to other burner principles: all volunteer, leave no trace. Two aspects gave it a really distinctive vibe: it was explicitly meant to be educational, not recreational, and everyone there was a fire performer of some stripe. Almost everyone had a set of poi or some other kind of toy at hand all the time, and there was probably as much teaching going on outside of the scheduled classes as within them. Another interesting difference between WF and a burner event is that meals were communal. People volunteered for kitchen shifts, and the food had been paid for as part of the admission price. While this introduces some complications, simply getting everyone sitting down together family-style also had a positive effect on the mood.

Days were filled with five simultaneous tracks by five sessions per day. I didn’t come close to filling my own class schedule. Classes I did take: intro to double staff, hoop making, poi geekery, choreography. They were all valuable to some extent. I also discovered upon arrival that I was on the board as leading a class in spotter training (something I’ve worked on before). I wasn’t sure how that happened, and I came with neither my training equipment nor handouts, so all I could do was stand there and talk. The talky part of spotter training isn’t especially valuable (the hands-on part is where it’s at), and so I was not thrilled with my presentation. I also spent a lot of time just hanging out with other spinners, teaching moves or learning moves from other people. There were, of course, lots of other classes (some of which I really should have made an effort to catch), including fire breathing, fire eating, flesh transfer, fire swords, stagecraft, etc. The teaching style at Wildfire is fairly traditional, and there’s considerable discussion on the Wildfire discussion board regarding whether a more free-form approach would be more effective.

The venue is a private campground with some permanent structures, including a kitchen, communal bathroom, and the hall that was used as the vendor area. There were also some quasi-tent shelters with canvas walls and wooden floors; each of these had two hard-used bunkbeds. I bunked in one of those tents, along with Matthew and Jen from Flamma Aeterna (the competition, I might say, if I were competitive). Matthew, Jen, and I in fact arranged to meet up at the Hartford airport and shared a car rental. We drove to the site, stopped at the greeter’s station and got the “welcome home” routine, and got the lay of the land. We discovered we’d want some kind of bedclothes for those bunkbeds, which had vinyl-covered mattresses. We drove back to a nearby Walmart, where I discovered to my surprise that it is possible to buy a $10 sleeping bag. Also bought some white gas to throw into the kitty, but lamp oil was nowhere to be found. Stopped at a neighboring grocery store to pick up some beer, and was somewhat surprised at the limited beer selection (many convenience stores in Austin have a better beer and wine selection)—they did have Guinness, though, so I managed.

Back at the campground, I got settled in, got a table set up in the vendor area, and started meeting people, a few of whom I had corresponded with online.

That night, and each night, there was an open burn on the main field. The organizers had set up a gigantic fire circle, and there were often ten people burning at once from about 8:00 PM until the DJs called it quits at 1:00 AM. There were three big bonfires going, which the spectators crowded around. The field was at a lower elevation than the rest of the camp, and right next to a creek. It wound up being cool (just a little chilly in shirtsleeves) and humid, with fog forming one night. The fire and fog made for quite a sight. A dubious pontoon bridge was the shortcut between the field and the kitchen area; one night as I was crossing it, my headlamp illuminated every droplet of mist as I walked forward, creating a visual effect remarkably like the “entering hyperspace” effect in Star Wars. It was one of those little moments in life that take on disproportionate profundity somehow. Thursday night, for whatever reason, I wasn’t connecting with the music, and didn’t spin much. Spent a lot of time serving as a spotter instead. Friday night I probably lit up ten times though.

Part of Saturday night was set aside for performance demos: people who have prepared shows were given an opportunity to demo them for all assembled. This was a real treat, with four sets: two hoopers; a double-staffer on stilts along with a poi spinner doing a clever puppeteer and puppet routine; a fire-eating and flesh-transfer solo routine; and an extended routine by the event organizer Chad and his performing partner Joanna, which variously involved hoops, fire fingers, single staff, and double staff (and which also had a puppeteer and puppet theme to it). All of these routines were a pleasure to watch, and it was one of the high points of the event.

Also on Saturday night, there was an attempt at the longest firebreathing “pass” ever, where a bunch of breathers line up, and attempt to pass a flame down the line. They got 30 people in line, but after repeated attempts could not pass the flame for more than five people.

Almost everybody at the event apparently was from the Eastern Seaboard, from somewhere between Washington DC and Boston. I only knew of four people, myself included, that came from a greater distance. Whenever firespinners from different regions get together, it’s interesting to observe the differences in style. A lot of these spinners had a very technical focus (falling on the tech side of the “tech vs flow” divide). There were a lot more people who use multiple tools, although this is perhaps to be expected in a self-selecting community of spinners dedicated enough to go to an event like Wildfire. A lot more double-staff spinners, but no baton twirlers. A lot more contact staff spinning. Only one meteor spinner. A lot of hoopers. There was a woman selling non-fire hoops in the vending room who borrowed someone else’s fire hoop for her first burn at Wildfire. And someone fire-hooping up on stilts, which drove her spotters crazy. Another difference was that hardly anybody used lamp oil, everyone used white gas.

Wildfire didn’t unlock any amazing tricks or techniques for me, but it was still worthwhile. Simply being in an environment where pretty much everybody shares a strong interest in firedancing was pretty special. And one concrete benefit I did bring home was an urge to get more serious about my own firedancing. I’d been goofing around with double staffs for years, but never practiced with them in a methodical way. I’ve started practicing with them every day. And I’ve been trying harder to kick myself off the plateau I’ve reached with poi.

Black Rock, White City

While visiting Chicago recently, I borrowed the book The Devil and the White City, a book about the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and a serial murderer who stalked Chicago at the same time, H. H. Holmes.

Even growing up the better part of a century after the fair ended, as a Chicagoan it was always part of the collective unconsciousness, and fair factoids were part of my knowledge of the city’s history. But the book brought a lot of the small details and broader themes into clear relief for me. Some of those themes got me thinking that, at least in some ways, Burning Man carries on the principles the Columbian Exposition.

The World’s Fair of 1893 was conceived partly as a temporary utopian city, partly as a grand spectacle of the exotic, the titillating, and the audacious. All of these things, at least in the abstract, are true for Burning Man.

At the World’s Fair, the utopianism was material: it was called the White City partly because all the major architecture was that color, and partly because, unlike regular cities (Chicago at the time was described as “a gigantic peepshow of utter horror.”), it was very clean and manicured. It had pure drinking water and effective sewage. It was extensively wired for electricity, with hundreds of thousands of bulbs being lit—for some visitors, it was their first exposure to electric lighting. None of these things strike modern city-dwellers as miraculous, and indeed, it is perhaps partly the fair’s legacy that we can take them for granted. Accordingly, the utopianism that Burning Man represents is intangible: the gift economy, self-expression, volunteerism, and community-building. Indeed, at the material level, Burning Man is a harsh place demanding “radical self-reliance” that reminds participants not to take their everyday material comforts for granted.

Both Burning Man and the World’s Fair had their own urban infrastructure; at the Fair, the private police force was another aspect of the utopianism (Chicago’s regular police force at the time was apparently so bad that it never even occurred to anyone to contact them regarding the many women who went missing at the hands of Holmes); Burning Man doesn’t have its own police force per se, but it does have the Rangers, who are considered “community mediators.”

The World’s Fair had numerous spectacles. It would be hard to top the Ferris Wheel, which was invented for the Fair. That first one was a doozy—each carriage was the size of a train car accommodating 60 riders, and there were 36 cars. The whole thing reached a height of 250′, probably a higher altitude than any of the visitors had experienced without having a hill underneath them. The Midway of the fair (which has given its name to a part of every carnival since) introduced Americans to exotic foods and peoples from other countries. And for titillation, it was the occasion for the arrival of belly-dancing in this country. Burning Man has its share of the epic, the exotic, the marvelous, and the titillating as well.

The comparison between the fair and that thing in the desert was gradually forming in my mind as I read the book, but one passage really brought it home for me. The buildings of the fair were never designed or constructed to be permanent, and the question of how to dispose of them once the fair was over occupied many minds, who couldn’t bear the prospect of the White City fading out into disrepair. One of the architects involved in building the fair, Charles McKim, wrote “indeed it is the ambition of all concerned to have it swept away in the same magical manner in which it appeared, and with the utmost despatch. For economy, as well as for obvious reasons, it has been proposed that the most glorious way would be to blow up the buildings with dynamite. Another scheme is to destroy them with fire.”

Chicago trip

Gwen and I recently flew up to Chicago. The excuse for our visit was my mom’s 70th birthday, but of course there’s more to do in Chicago than attend birthday parties, so we made a five-day trip out of it.

After a way-too-early departure from Austin, we arrived in Chicago with all of Thursday ahead of us. Took the blue line down to the Damen stop, where my sister met us with her car and took us back to her new condo in Old Town. It’s a great place. It’s an older building that has been through (really, is still going through) a gut rehab. It’s also less than two blocks away from Nookie’s, to which we promptly proceeded as soon as we got our stuff situated. Coffee, omelettes, and toast while sitting out on Wells Street enjoying the feeling of being on vacation on a nice day. That’s a good feeling.

Afterwards, we did what I like to do best in Chicago, which is just wander around. We wandered up and down Armitage, Webster, taking in the chi-chi boutiques in that area. Picked up a housewarming present for my sister. Gwen had just embarked on a commercial letterpress project, and many of the shops where we stopped had letterpressed cards of some variety or another. We wound up doing quit a bit of research. That night, a fellow firedancer who I know through the Internet, Kathleen, hosted a small spin jam at her apartment. It wound up being more of a social hour than spin jam, but that was fine, because it was an interesting crowd. And it was nice just making that connection in person. Whenever I go somewhere new, I look forward to meeting the fire folk there–I feel we’re members of the same tribe.

Friday, we had the pleasure of getting together with an Austin friend, Heather, who just happened to be in Chicago on business at the same time. We did more wandering around, walking until our feet were sore. They tried on shoes; I watched. We stopped by Ethel’s Chocolate and indulged. Stopped in Paper Source, where Gwen and Heather both bought stuff. That night, Gwen, Heather, my sister, and myself had dinner at Pasta Palazzo. My sister had never been there, surprising because it’s a really good restaurant, and it’s not even a ten-minute walk from her place. The kitchen is right out in the open at the lunch counter, and it is fun to sit and watch your order being prepared. A bit unnerving, though, when you see the extraordinary quantities of half-and-half and/or butter that go into making your meal so tasty.

Saturday was the day of my mom’s party, but that was at night. In the morning, Gwen and I went wandering southward, initially hoping to find a bakery (and walking right past one in my sister’s neighborhood), but eventually getting to a farmer’s market on Division, where we did procure some baked goods and wandered back north, eventually getting to another farmer’s market right next to the Farm in the Zoo, where we saw cabbages the size of pumpkins. We made our way over to Nookie’s for some sustenance after all that walking, where my aunt Sandy and her husband Joe intercepted us. We hung out for a while and went back to my sister’s to get ready.

The party was in a large private room at a huge rambling restaurant near where my parents live. The party was intended as a surprise. My mom had an idea that something was up (she knew I’d be coming to Chicago “around her birthday”), but I don’t think she had any idea how many people would be there, several others who flew in from as far away as I did.

Gwen and I spent that night at my parents’ place, and got to see the very nice new porch they’d put on, the refreshed kitchen, etc. Not much headway reducing clutter, though. My mom’s big ongoing project has been turning large chunks of their property into prairies with native plants. She’s got three pretty big fields going, all with numerous plants. I don’t know from beans when it comes to this sort of thing, but it looked good and was obviously a lot of work.

The next morning, my other sister came down from her hideout in the 815 area code and we all went out for a too-big meal in Barrington (too-big meals were really a theme of this trip). After that, Gwen and I caught the Northwestern line down to Clybourn and walked the rest of the way back to my sister’s place, past the Finkl steelworks. Later in the day, Gwen and I reconnected with my parents at my cousin Joel’s condo; from there, we went on to the Garfield Park Conservatory, where there was a sculpture show (pictures).

That night, Gwen, my sister, and I went out to Bacino’s for stuffed pizza, something I try to get on every trip to Chicago. The sauce seemed a little underdone this time. A stuffed pizza should really have a solidified, somewhat paste-like sauce. This was still kind of runny. Bacino’s used to be the best place to go for stuffed pizza, but I’m not able to monitor developments in the Chicago pizza world as closely as I might like. Perhaps the mandate of heaven has passed to another joint. Maybe I’ll try Leona’s next time—they were always reliable.

And then came Monday, our last day. Our flight was late in the day, so we went to Bucktown and, well, walked around some more. We stopped at the Fluevog shop, where Gwen came very, very close to buying a pair of shoes. We stopped in a vintage shop, where one of the clerks instantly marked us as tourists—perhaps because we were out as a couple during normal working hours. Eventually, of course, the trip had to end. My mom, who happened to be in the city, had offered to drive us to the airport, but we convinced her to just drop us off at the El station, which was probably a faster way to get to the airport. Our flight home was uneventful and relatively unburdened by new purchases.

A big part of the reason I love walking around Chicago is because of the architecture. Typical residential architecture is built to a vastly higher standard there than here in Austin, and much of it is interesting to look at as well. It’s one of the differences in regional culture. When I first came to Austin and looked at some of the apartments where regular people lived, I thought “These are temporary buildings, right? Or student housing?” I guess I’ve reconciled myself to the flimsy construction here, because this visit was a forceful reminder of how much better construction is in Chicago. And there’s a hell of a lot of new, really posh construction going on as well. The Chicago I grew up with was a city in decline—the population was shrinking, the streets and parks were not well maintained, and there was not much new construction. All those trends have reversed, and indeed there are parts of the city that are unrecognizable. My sister’s neighborhood is seeing a rash of very plush townhouses going up—enough so that the neighborhood association is upset about them hurting the character of the neighborhood.

There were other little differences in regional culture I noticed. In Austin, you can pay for damn near anything with plastic. Many businesses in Chicago won’t accept plastic. In Austin, everyone has sunglasses on a sunny day. Chicago? Not so much.

Then there’s the big cultural difference: the walking. In Chicago, everyone walks. Everyone has to walk to get somewhere. Even if you drove, you may have parked far enough away that you’ll still wind up walking a distance that many Austinites would consider unwalkable. And because everybody in this big, diverse, dense city is out walking, you rub elbows the complete spectrum of humanity. Just being on the street in Chicago feels very different because of this, and this may help explain why I like walking around Chicago myself. In Austin, the only people you see walking are people who have no other option, or people out for a walk.

.Mac—a missed opportunity

A post on oreillynet got me thinking about .Mac, Apple’s online thingy for mac users. Apple recently updated it, and while the updates are nice enough, I think Apple is missing an opportunity.

I don’t know how many people use .Mac. I get the impression that not many do. It seems overpriced for what you get. So what do you get? An e-mail address and web mail. Online photo galleries and web pages. Remote backup, storage and (for some apps) syncing. Apple just increased the available storage from one gig to ten, and added some other features—”groups” (sort of like Yahoo Groups or Google Groups), domain-name hosting, and upgrades to the existing features (the photo album is pretty slick).

All this for the not-very-low cost of $100/yr. Apple is competing with two other alternatives here: free and generic.

There are free groups, free photo hosts, free mail services, free blog hosts, and so on. Of course, these are all ad-supported. And they’re good: Gmail’s webmail is considered by some to be the best mail client out there—web-based or local. It’s hard to compete with free, especially when it’s as good as it is. Admittedly, a lot of people get a little creeped out by having their data mined by Google, and putting their entire digital lives in Google’s hands.

On the generic side, for the price of a .Mac subscription or less, you can get a web-hosting account that gives you access to a Unix shell, more storage space (at Dreamhost, which notoriously oversells, I’m getting something like 250 GB of storage, of which I barely use 1%), web-based management tools, and access to the whole panoply of web-side apps, like WordPress, Drupal, Gallery, and so on. So it is possible to duplicate most or all of what .Mac does using open-source software that gives you more control and potentially broader functionality. Not everyone wants that level of control or needs all those features, but there are a lot of WordPress and Movable Type blogs out there, a lot of bulletin-boards and community sites, and so on. Clearly it’s not a small market, and I’d bet it’s a lot bigger than .Mac.

So, given that .Mac is not free and does not offer the same level of functionality as the other options, what does it offer? I see two things: All the templates for information hosted on .Mac look great (although the underlying HTML can be scary), and it has good integration with the client. Pretty much what you’d expect from Apple.

.Mac has been around in some form since the Internet first caught fire, and at that time, the kinds of things that regular folks would want to do online were not well-established. .Mac (originally “iTools”) was speculative in that sense. Some things, like photo galleries, turned out to be correct. (Although even there, flickr has shown us how photographs can be the nexus for communities, in a way .Mac can’t approximate.) Others, like remote backup, haven’t really panned out yet because A) the service doesn’t offer a meaningful amount of storage, and B) most of us don’t have a sufficiently fast upstream connection to make it practical. .Mac has changed and expanded its services, but hasn’t always kept pace with trends in Internet usage.

The recent updates to .Mac seem nice, but do not tempt me. What would tempt me would be if Apple offered the same slick client-side integration, but tied into a more generic hosting service—one where I can install a WordPress blog or a Drupal CMS.

Restaurant review: Stortini

El Gringo, the newest member of the eastside food empire run by the El Chile guys, was recently shut down and reconstructed as Stortini, swapping a sort of Mexican/Southern home-cooking menu for Italian. I’m not sure why they made the change—they seemed to be doing a good business in their previous incarnation. Perhaps the Italian menu lets them lower their unit costs, or perhaps the old menu was too hard for people to pigeonhole.

Regardless of why, Gwen and I are a fan of all the El Chile places, and finally got around to trying Stortini on Saturday night.

We started with an appetizer of calamari and a dinner salad. The calamari was somewhat oily and way, way too salty. Even Gwen, a notorious salt fiend, felt it was way too salty. Enoteca Vespaio does a neat trick of serving its calamari in a paper cone, which soaks up some oil. At Stortini, the calamari was in a bowl, swimming in its oil. Every restaurant serving calamari would do well to copy Vespaio’s trick.

The salad had good ingredients, but was waterlogged with dressing. And every table gets a basket of bread with white-bean paste, which was OK.

We wound up waiting unaccountably long for our pasta dishes. I had rigatoni with meatballs, Gwen had papardelle with portobello and three other kinds of mushrooms in a cream sauce (which our waitress volunteered was her favorite thing on the menu). My dinner was fine: a pretty basic kind of dish, competently prepared, with the whole thing being baked after assembly. I did not try Gwen’s (it had at least one mushroom on my can’t-eat list), but she enjoyed it very much.

Gwen also had a glass of wine. Total tab: $42 plus tip. Service was friendly, and apart from the long wait for the main dishes, prompt. Seating was immediate, in contrast with El Chile a block away, where there was a line out into the street. Final verdict: room for improvement. Since it’s right in the neighborhood, we’ll no doubt be seeing whether it does in fact improve.

Update: On our second visit, Gwen, a friend, and myself each had a Caesar’s salad; I had a penne and sausage dish, Gwen had some kind of ravioli with pesto, and our friend had gnocchi with lamb meatballs. The salads were excellent, and had an unusual lemony dressing. The main dishes arrived in a reasonable amount of time and were also quite good.

Blog theme updated

I’ve finally finished the new theme for my blog. The name of the theme is “Harder Better Faster Stronger.” If you want to download it, here’s the official page for the theme.

I’ve been noodling around with themes in WordPress for a while, and it’s been a learning experience. Much of the inspiration for this came from Khoi Vinh’s Grids are Good presentation, though I don’t pretend this theme has anywhere near the level of polish found at Subtraction. There’s also a lot to like in Derek Powazek’s DePo Clean theme, though his is a little too austere for my purposes.

The name of the theme comes from the song by Daft Punk, a favorite of mine.

Wooly WordPress

I’ve been working on developing my own theme for WordPress, and the more I work on it, the more I learn how WordPress examplifies both the good and bad of open-source software projects.

The good is that a lot of people use it and develop for it. Problems seem to be patched quickly. There seems to be more innovation surrounding it than Movable Type.

The bad is that it feels as if there’s nobody in charge. This becomes acutely obvious once you start looking at the tag system. Even the tag nomenclature is not close to consistent, with some tags prefixed by “wp_”, some by “the_”, some by “get_”, some by “list_” and some with no prefix. There are some swiss-army-knife tags that can do many different things, with their output controlled by arguments, and there are some that are extremely specific, such as the tag that returns the blog author’s first name. Tag arguments are another area of inconsistency, with two completely different ways of expressing arguments, with some tags using one, some the other. There’s a lot of duplication of effort between tags, with one tag that returns a permalink formatted as a link and another that returns only the raw URL. And there’s inconsistency between the behaviors of tags, for example, the “wp_dropdown_categories” tag generates a dropdown menu of categories as a monolithic block of HTML; wp_get_archives, which generates date-based archives in a variety of formats can be used to produce a dropdown menu of monthly archive pages, but this is more atomic and makes it easier to tweak its output.

Perhaps some of these differences make sense to the programmers behind the project, but even so, they do not make sense to someone trying to write a template. I suspect some of the inconsistencies result from either lack of standards in the project, or lack of attention to standards if they exist. WordPress really should have someone stand up, acknowledge the mess, and lay down the law. I suspect if I delved deeper into the code, I’d discover more evidence of inconsistency.

Thoughts on safety for fire performers

Although I’d been thinking about if for a while, Burning Flipside got me thinking more about safety in firedancing. Not so much in the act of firedancing itself, but all the stuff that surrounds it: equipment design, fuel-depot setup, spotters, etc. It also got me thinking more about the community aspects of burner events like Burning Flipside, and indeed, there’s some overlap between these two issues.

Spotters

I’ve said before that a bad spotter is worse than no spotter, and I say that having seen a bad spotter completely lose his shit at the moment a friend needed help. At Flipside this year, I was the cat-herder in charge of the fire procession before the effigy burn, and I kind of dropped the ball on spotters. I didn’t round up as many as I felt should be on hand, and not all the ones I did round up were known to me at all—meaning some of them might lose their shit when someone needs help. I also was aware that, while it resulted in only inconvenience, not injury, there were some instances at Flipside where the firedancer and spotter were not on the same page about who should be doing what.

To rectify that, I decided to organize a spotter training session. The idea is to solve two problems: to increase the pool of spotters, and to increase the skill level of those spotters. Most folks involved in firedancing are not trained as spotters: someone hands them a damp towel and says “will you be my towel person?” If you’re a fire performer yourself, you’ve got an advantage in that you’ve got a better idea of what to look out for, and should be less likely to freak out about running towards a fire, but there can still be gaps in your knowledge. And in some situations, the people serving as spotters are the people who aren’t (or aren’t yet) firedancers—they are the firedancer’s friend, S.O., or whatever.

I started a discussion on Tribe about this, and based on that discussion came up with a training notes document.

This document is an attempt to codify the consensus approach to good practices for spotters, and simply to provide a common point of reference. Even if some of the points are no better than alternatives, spotters and performers sharing the same set of expectations will cut down on problems. Spotters and performers don’t always communicate before a light-up, so a common point of reference is important.

Using that document as a starting point, we held our training session, the first one we’ve had in Austin as far as I know. We had four experienced spinners (myself included) and eight newbies. The flow went something like this: hand out a copy of the notes to everyone, quickly review the contents of it and discuss why certain points are important. Demonstrate (sans fire) most of the “hairy situations.” Then all the newbies paired off and drilled on these situations. After about 20 minutes, we had live-fire drills. Before we did that, I produced a very small torch I with no exposed metal, and used this to stroke down everyone’s arm with flame (after doing my own). My point in doing so was to break down the (perfectly reasonable) wall that most people have that causes them to avoid contact with fire, to demystify the fire, and to show that while it is uncomfortable, it isn’t terribly painful. One participant flinched away reflexively, even after several attempts, and I think in her case this was a particularly useful exercise in that it brought this mental block to the surface.

Then we moved on with the drills. I put on some protective gear I had improvised, and with a set of poi built with easy-to-drop handles and small wicks, got into various awkward positions with fire near my skin. Each person ran in on cue and put them out. Everyone took two tries at each situation, and after we had gone through a couple of situations, Scott took over with much larger wicks. We also drilled on routine wick-extinguishing. It would have been nice to drill on fire-extinguisher usage, but impractical and expensive, since we didn’t have a CO2 extinguisher. But all in all, I’m pleased with how things went. It’s also become clear to me that there are a number of people out there who may not be interested in being fire performers, but are interested in being spotters. That’s pretty cool.

Some of the stuff in the notes might be the source of some disagreement. One point, which I don’t dwell on but which I do consider important, is the chain of command, which goes performer: spotter normally, but spotter: performer in emergencies. A lot of other stuff in the notes springs from this, and it would be the single most important common point of reference for spotters and performers to share. And for that matter, there are some edge cases where the rule doesn’t hold, as when the spotter is very experienced and the performer is very inexperienced.

Fuel depots

I think this year was the first year we had a fuel depot for Circle of Fire that was marked, lit, signed, and all that good stuff. We could still do better. Soaking tanks with self-closing lids would be a safety improvement and would also keep rain out (we wound up wasting a fair amount of fuel that got rainwater mixed in). While there’s no product that fits this description exactly, there are “oily waste cans” that would be perfect for the job (though spendy). Wiring them down to a large platform to avoid tip-over would be safer still.

Equipment

I’ve been making firedancing equipment for longer than I’ve been a firedancer myself, and over that time, I’ve learned a lot about what is safe and what isn’t, likewise what is effective and what isn’t. This is to be expected. Firedancing has been popular for less than a decade, and there’s a lot that nobody would know. When I started out, I made equipment that I assumed was safe and useful because I didn’t know any better. Gradually, I’ve learned what doesn’t work, although this has been mostly an empirical process. To some extent, I can look at certain materials and take a pretty good guess as to whether they can be assembled into a safe piece of equipment, but there are always new and clever ways to abuse a piece of equipment. There’s been some discussion among fire-tool makers of standards for fire-tool safety, and at this point, we haven’t even decided what the parameters for “safe” are, much less the values. As one person pointed out, different people will have different ideas of what is “safe enough”—even among safety-conscious people. And the fire community is notorious for it’s “safety third” attitude.