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September 30, 2003

Our Mr. Brooks

What follows is an e-mail I sent to David Brooks in response to this column in today's New York Times. He's sad because politics has gotten so nasty.

"...the weeds that were once on the edge of public life now threaten to choke off the whole thing."

Indeed, Mr. Brooks, indeed they do, and I applaud you for what must feel like a noble attempt to apportion blame equally. However, as a liberal Democrat passionately opposed to the present administration, I do not accept the share that you would like to lay at our feet. The leading edge and higher proportion of destructive ugliness has and continues to come from the operatives and outlets of the right. The very nature of our current discourse is attributable to the tactics of Atwater and Rove; to the financial and media resources of Scaife, Murdoch, and Ailes; to the narrow-minded chauvinism of talk radio; and to the blue-shirted mob that stormed the Florida public offices where civil servants were attempting to tally citizens' votes.

Every night, representatives of my political viewpoint are denigrated as traitors by the reactionaries of Fox News and MSNBC. They attack a president nearly three years out of office, they attack Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, and they attack me. The culture war is neither over nor limited to personal loathing, although the politics of such reached a shameless nadir in the '90s with the right's breathless anti-Clintonism. It is naive of you to suddenly state, because the left has produced a few bestsellers, that the nation's attention span has drifted from the culture wars to the more base sport of personal destruction.

In fact, two of the three books you cite from the left do not spotlight only the president, but also the corporate, media, and political apparatus that is his administration's backbone. And what are the "crimes" these books seek to illuminate? Not hysterical allegations of treason, murder, or debased personal behavior, but plausible evidence of dishonesty, conflicts of political and corporate interests, and betrayal of the public trust. Your assertion that "most people in the last two administrations were well-intentioned patriots doing the best they could" is generous, but, like the canard of journalistic objectivity, conveniently ignores the fact that one side is right and one side is wrong. One need look no further than the front page of the paper in which your column appears to see justification for the contentions of the authors of the books you cite.

To piously note, now that the left has found its fists, what a shame it is that our political manners have become so coarse is to be blind to recent political history. You are right, of course, but the reality is that the left, given the importance of the issues at stake, has no choice but to respond in some fashion to more than a decade of the right's bare-knuckle tactics.

For my part, I do not hate George W. Bush. He is not his side's leader but its callow corporate spokesperson. What I feel for those in whose interest he speaks is somewhat more complex than hatred. Their greed for capital and power, buttressed by crowd-pleasing lip service to narrow definitions of morality, pits them against history and humanity. It is against those forces, rather than the clever jibes of Al Franken, that they will be unable to stand in the end.

Sincerely, yada yada yada...

Posted by pk at 10:57 AM

Salute to the Three-Fingered Salute

Here's an interview with the man who invented CTRL-ALT-DEL, and once reportedly said "I just coded the Ctrl-Alt-Del sequence. Bill Gates made it famous," according to the Slashdot thread discussing the interview.

He went on to invent the keystrokes required to do a regexp replace in Emacs. Nyuck.

Posted by mph at 9:53 AM

Chilling Out the Plame Spinners

Kevin Drum has a useful roundup and takedown of the obfuscation and fallacy being tossed into the mix from administration apologists desperately trying to establish that the Plame Affair either doesn't matter or didn't really happen. And to sweep up what Kevin left out, Jim Henley confesses to a certain amount of disillusionment with more stale Instapundit spinning.

This thing is, if truly a case of a political operative selling out a CIA agent, nauseating. Being against the death penalty and all, I don't want one to get used; but as someone who once wore a uniform and clung desperately to the belief that our lives would be endangered or spent for something more than a suit's moment of political pique, I'd like to see a gallows go up somewhere, just for effect.

Josh Marshall (him again) is all over this thing. No link here so you'll be encouraged to look over at the right column for the "latest from TPM" feed Ed thoughtfully put together. It's updated hourly and it's a good way to keep track while Josh gets around to providing a real RSS feed.

Update: An even more succinct summation of Plame spin from the apologists (actually, I think maybe "denialists" is more accurate): "Not the preeeecious."

Posted by mph at 12:51 AM

September 29, 2003

Commence Quivering

The trailer for "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" went up earlier today.


If your affections for Peter Jackson's films remain unsullied by a need to cling to literary orthodoxies, you may be excited to watch this one. I sure was. It has a few spoilers, including a quick look at Shelob. Rather than outlining all the places it can be found, I'll just link the slashdot thread. Or you can just hum Howard Shore's soundtrack while you read the frame-by-frame analysis at theonering.net.

Return of the King

Posted by mph at 1:45 PM

Vox Google, News at the Ranch

New silly feature: the Puddingbowl.org Zeitgeist Page.

What's it do?

Every hour a script parses the puddingbowl.org logs for queries from Google, Yahoo!, Lycos, and other search engines, and prints up a page of those queries, with the text sized by frequency. At the moment I'm noticing "fire rumsfeld," "sex slave trade," "tolkien beowulf" and "filthy critic dead" are all relatively popular. The script is courtesy Jim Flanagan's MovableType Zeitgeist Plugin. Clicking on the queries, by the way, takes you to the relevant entry. Iceblog, edblog, PuddingTime!, and the Generator are all included.

Call this the last gasp of summer: Classes are starting again, and though I'm not carrying a heavy load, it's heavy enough with other projects I've got to contend with. It'll be impossible to not post because "next November" has once again attained the status of "drawing urgently near" and "too far off to bear," but I suspect my longer writing is going to be turning up on Stork.

Finally, if you've got to add one horse race analysis tool to your election year arsenal, make it PollingReport.com. They seem to get poll results up faster than AP and Reuters can repackage them and get them out on the wires, and there's a lot of fun to be had figuring out what all the numbers mean. It's all too early for any of it to make sense, but you'll thank me in six months when you're running from cubicle to cubicle yelling "Bush lost two points among women from New England, but he's up one in undecided's from the southwest! " at your grateful and impressed coworkers.

Or, if you work at home like me, you can just turn the lights down really low and sit in the dark, chuckling malignly at how well your plan is progressing.

Posted by mph at 1:13 PM

September 27, 2003

They're bits, see, and they're rotten...

Since it ate a little of Saturday and will remain underway for a little while:


I've made a gallery of my progress in the quest for a bitrot logo.

Posted by mph at 3:25 PM

Various fixes in

Many will have already come across this, but this needs airing on every street corner. Josh Marshall has details on New Bridge Strategies, a den of GOP operators with the connections businesses need to get hooked up in the New Iraq. Former RNC chair (and current Mississippi gubernatorial candidate) Haley Barbour and Bush right hand Joe Allbaugh are ready to help right-thinking Americans bring the mom'n'pop to Baghdad. You might slip their number to your unemployed neighbor. Lots of opportunities for cafes, ice cream parlors, video stores--whatever isn't already in the bag for Halliburton.

Go, read, follow his links. Marshall also has news that the CIA has asked Ashcroft's Justice Dept. to investigate the White House's revenge outing of the CIA wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Josh's record on Iraq isn't clean enough for some libs (he agreed that Saddam was bad), but the dude is smart, connected, and on our side.

Posted by pk at 8:54 AM

Point: Gimp

Imagine my disappointment: We got back from the 8:00 of "The Rundown," (perhaps the best PG-13 action movie of the last few years, if the squeals of delight from all the 13-year-old boys in the audience were any indication) and I sat down to do some work. I owe Sam a logo for bitrot bbs, but all the recent "vintage pastels" stuff for the 'bowl is still in my head, so I set out to make a basic "globe with text around it" pic. You can see it in the upper left, or here's an early draft:

Global Pudding

I know the right tool for that kind of job is probably a bona-fide vector illustrator of some kind, but I don't own one: Photoshop Elements is the default graphics program around here. I discovered it doesn't have a way to make a line of text wrap in a circle. No problem... I found a few tutorials on the web showing how to hack one (all praise Google), but they all want a pathing tool of some kind, and Elements just doesn't have one. Nor does it seem to have guides. Weird. I suppose there are probably plug-ins I could pay for that might do what I want, but the whole "pay for plug-in" idea makes my amateur blood run cold.

Fortunately, there's Gimp for Win32 (prolonged graphics work on a laptop makes me walk into walls when I'm done), which has a script that just spits out text in a circle. The results aren't uniformly wonderful, but three or four runs netted an acceptable circle of text.

Photoshop Elements 2.0: $100 (it was $50 with my student i.d., but I'm still glad it was a birthday present). GIMP: $0. Now if I could only find the time to learn scheme.

Posted by mph at 8:50 AM

September 25, 2003

Chunky mod_Gzip Goodness

mod_gzip is up and running after a few days of testing. It wanted to kill my MovableType installation, and there was a small amount of hair-pulling until I added mod_gzip_dechunk yes to the server's httpd.conf. You've got to set that option for mod_gzip to deal with cgi's (upon which MT runs) gracefully.

Update: Sam noticed something I forgot to mention: the site (and RSS feeds) have been moved up to the top of www.puddingbowl.org (instead of under /mph). Automatic redirects should be handling this, but it's always good to keep bookmarks up to date, anyhow.

Posted by mph at 11:10 PM

Support Your Local Embezzling Loser In Exile

I was feeling so certain this morning, but the fly in my certitude ointment has to be Ahmed Chalabi, whom TAPPED mauls as grossly incompetent. He's so awful our own administration looks askance at his schemes, and Jordan wants to pick him up for embezzling millions from a bank.

So if you read this morning's post and thought I'd found some closure on yesterday evening's post, I think I'm uncertain again, because as much as I sincerely believe Iraq needs to be restored to sovereignty sooner than the president prefers, it's apparent that the country's most likely candidates to step up are trouble. If I were a paranoid type, I'd think Chalabi got the support he did precisely because his ineptitude makes a wonderful argument for keeping Iraq tied down while the rest of the neocon agenda is played out in the form of ever more bloody confrontations in the region.

Update: Well, that's a relief. Josh Marshall admits that from where he's sitting, the issue has "so many moving parts" it's hard to figure out. "So many moving parts" is, I believe, pundit-speak for "complex beyond my ability to neglect paying work to take the time to characterize."

Posted by mph at 12:40 AM

September 24, 2003

Ten Kids In a Brand New Battle Wagon

On Alas, a blog: Half-Orc Welfare debated:

"Look, we all care about the half-orc problem. Attacking motives is simply a left-wing substitute for not having any workable policy ideas."

Posted by mph at 12:06 PM

The Sound of Misplaced Cawing

I read MoveOn's side project, The Daily Mislead, like a good little liberal. It's a newsletter focused on "mis-representations, distortions and downright misleading statements by President Bush and the Bush Administration," which we can safely file under "gotchas for your daily clash with the neocon down at the water cooler." Today's edition crows about Bush at the UN:

"The deaths of numerous American troops over the summer and escalating violence and chaos led Bush to reverse course earlier this month. Bush now insists the U.N. nations he once belittled 'have an opportunity -- and the responsibility -- to assume a broader role in assuring that Iraq becomes a free and democratic nation.'"

Except Bush hasn't "reversed course," and there's nothing to gloat about:

In their zeal to score a point for the team, the Daily Mislead is misrepresenting the nature of Bush's speech by contrasting it with earlier statements by Condoleeza Rice who asserted "It would only be natural to expect that after having participated and having liberated Iraq ... that the coalition would have the leading role."

Can we see the difference between "broader" and "leading" when we're discussing roles?

"Broader" means exactly what Bush offered the UN: help running elections, writing a constitution (because, as he told Brit Hume, the UN is "good at that sort of thing"), and training bureaucrats. He'll take some money and a few divisions of groundpounders, too, but who are we kidding? A platoon of Bulgarian generator mechanics or a battalion of Belgian clerk-typists aren't going to lessen the burden on an essentially American occupying force, and that's about all we're going to get in return for showing the UN the back of our hand.

"Leading" means exactly what Bush & Co. are doing: controlling the country, setting the timetable for when and how it's finally certified as liberated enough to handle its own affairs, and maintaining it as a giant firebase from which further incursions into Turr-rism Land can be staged.

Muddying the distinction between the two will serve only to sap any will the loyal opposition has to make noise about its issues with Bush giving the UN the finger and telling the world he's gonna do what he's gonna do.

Bush did not go to the UN in a spirit of internationalism, and he certainly didn't go out of contrition: He went because the American public is largely convinced that the $87 billion it's going to take to start reconstruction is wasteful, and he knows that it will take still more if we're to have any hope of building the shopping mall wonderland neocons promise will rise from the desert. He made it clear, however, that even if he's uncertain about what he's gotten the country into, he's not interested in ceding any control or hearing any arguments about accelerating his timetable. This is not some kind of net win for people who want the occupation of Iraq to end well.

Less US control and an accelerated timetable are what's important here. Neocons are trying to paint demands for more Iraqi independence sooner as some sort of French trick. Their carefully mouthed noises of "doing it right" are belied by their fundamental war-craziness, which is what's really being fed by the US staying in there (and staying in there virtually alone in terms of military presence) until we've satisfied ourselves that the broader Middle East is somehow friendlier to us. A putatively "progressive" newsletter ought to remember that before it tells its readers Bush has gone to the UN in disgrace begging it to take Iraq off his hands: He has not. He has kept things on course and he's kept the UN at arm's length, which is where he wants the international community until his broader Middle East roadmap is fulfilled.

That isn't to say that his attempt at an imperious dismissal of the UN's usefulness by offering it work in the scullery won't have unintended consequences.

This morning I heard that Bush and Gerhard Schroeder met, and I was briefly encouraged: Even if the US isn't going to pay any regard to the UN, there's always hope that, on the level of individual relationships with allies, we'll approach things with something akin to humility and a desire to do what's best to put Iraq together again. The political axis Bush centers on might hate the UN and desperately want to undermine its legitimacy and effectiveness, but it realizes it still requires good individual relations.

The Germans, evidently, are interested in helping establish a police force. That's good news: It isn't exactly boots on the ground, but it's another country with irons in the fire and a likelihood to squawk loud and long if the US continues to inadvertently stoke the flames of violent nationalism by holding out on Iraqi demands for sovereignty. (Did I say 'inadvertently?' Sorry. I forgot that getting US troops killed in ones and twos was part of the grand flypaper strategy.)

It's important to remember, though, that Germany's assistance could be considered something offered despite Bush's alienating speech at the UN, which did little to encourage other countries to become stake-holders in Iraq's reconstruction, and represents nothing to gloat about for an opposition interested in bringing about a just resolution to the occupation.

Posted by mph at 11:16 AM

Yankee Ingenuity Will Find a Way

Frustrated by a lack of public will to kill people because of growing awareness of human fallibility, the governor of Massachussetts is out to build the better felon trap:

"Governor Mitt Romney said yesterday he is confident that a commission he has created can develop a death penalty statute that will use the latest forensic science and technology to guarantee that only the guilty will be executed.

"'We want a standard of proof that is incontrovertible,' Romney said as he stood at a State House press conference ..."

To quote my old drill sergeant, "How does it feel to want," Mitt?

Posted by mph at 7:45 AM

September 23, 2003

In Texas, the Middle Finger Means "Hi!"

Slate's Fred Kaplan says "Bush's message can be summarized as follows: The U.S.-led occupation authority is doing good work in Iraq; you should come help us; if you don't, you're on the side of the terrorists."

If his speech was received as poorly as Kaplan characterizes, (and a canned Google News search indicates it went over about that well), what's left besides waiting for next November?

Bush is playing it as if the UN's failure to cooperate with his blurry roadmap is the end of the matter. But what about Chalabi and the Iraqi Governing Council, who are apparently in the process of slipping their leash well ahead of the "when we're damn good and ready" timeline Bush & Co. prefer? Does that body and its apparent eagerness to actually hold and use power represent something the UN might latch onto as grounds for demands that the US wrap things up and move on ahead of its current un-schedule? Will it matter?

Posted by mph at 6:58 PM

September 22, 2003

Mutual of Omaha's Wild Casualty Report

CENTCOM's Casualty Report Search Utility is curiously mum on tiger maulings.

Posted by mph at 7:56 AM

September 21, 2003

Buckets and Mops

One of Salon's senior news editors argues Iraq is also the responsibility of the American left, not in the sense that we caused the war in Iraq, but in the sense that this country bears a collective responsibility to fix what our administration and military most manifestly broke, regardless of what we all thought before Bush & Co. knocked the place over.

"The difficulty, for many on the left, is that the war and Bush seem inseparable, so that if you cheer the liberation, you seem to be cheering Bush and Cheney. But that perspective, too, is a form of shortsightedness: If the war is not over in a matter of weeks, one thinks, then it is lost, or not worth fighting. When the car bombs blow, you say: 'I told you so.' The Iraqis are responsible for their own freedom, or maybe you think that the Arab world is not ready for freedom. These are the thoughts that can sometimes be implicit in a slogan like 'bring the troops home.'

"There is another way of looking at things: Bush and Saddam, each in his own way, poses a profound threat to democracy, and so it's incumbent on us, even those who vehemently opposed the war, to oppose both of them while pressing to provide sufficient aid and support to make the liberation of Iraq a reality. One can oppose the enrichment of Halliburton, and yet still help to rebuild Iraq."

I buy a big chunk of this argument, which is why it makes me sick to realize that when Bush goes to the UN this week, he'll probably be alienating everyone in the room and virtually guaranteeing that the tools we need to rebuild Iraq will be scarce and grudgingly lent.

Josh Marshall dug out some people who think so anyhow, and it'd certainly fit the pattern.

Since we're on Iraq, it seems worth taking a second to note the ridiculous armchair hawks pushing the "flypaper theory":

If you don't spend a lot of time following the deluded rationalizations of the likes of Andrew Sullivan or Glenn Reynolds, you really just need to know that the flypaper theorists maintain that the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq is all part of a larger plan . . . that we've lured the forces of terrorism to engage us in Iraq, where they'll dash themselves against our might and end this pesky militant Islam problem forever.

If you needed any more evidence that these people are nauseatingly false when they solemnly acknowledge the horror of war before beating its drums, this is pretty much it. Having destroyed Iraq's government and thrown the country into chaos, our responsibility is to fix the damned place, not use it as bait in a "plan" I suspect is primarily a fever dream of hack commentators who can't admit that Bush & Co. had no exit strategy. Sullivan, no doubt, thinks he's demonstrating more of that "steely resolve" a civilian with no input into foreign policy and at no particular risk from dying in the conflicts he incites must demonstrate.

Hopefully the rest of us are catching on to the essential moral infirmity of these people: When they say they don't want war, they are lying. They clearly do want war, and any excuse or rationalization for its prolongation will serve. When they say they never thought Iraq was about anything other than liberating its people from Saddam's horrors, we can see the puddle-like depths of their compassion: They're arguing with straight faces that Iraqis should cheerfully continue to live in fear and bloodshed while we use Iraq as our proxy battleground.

Posted by mph at 11:32 PM

September 20, 2003

Welcome aboard, General

You'll note a few qualifiers and exit strategies in my post yesterday about Wesley Clark. I hope I'll stay comfortable with it as a first take on his candidacy, but even as I wrote, the spheres were filling with caveats and criticisms of his sit-down with reporters on Thursday, in which he apparently came off a bit clumsy.

Here's a particularly salty one from Salon's Joan Walsh. She almost writes as if she was there; I don't know if she was, but I know I wasn't, so I'll take her word on the scene. Either way, she flatters herself as a colleague of the cigar-chomping, whiskey-shooting, yellow-eyed newspapermen to whom a green candidate like Clark is fresh meat.

Believing that Clark has been foisted on us by DNC leaders afraid that Dean, Kerry, and the rest aren't cutting it, Walsh gloats that Clark clearly wasn't ready for "the rough and tumble of campaign trail journalism," though "he deserves credit for meeting with the nation's toughest political reporters." She also quotes an anonymous Democrat outraged that party leaders thought "it would be a good idea to subject their neophyte candidate to the country's savviest reporters."

Wow! I was wondering where all the tough, savvy journalists were! We sure could have used them in the White House press room for the past two years! I guess they stepped off the Gore campaign jet and have been boozing it up in the Dulles VIP lounge, waiting for the next election to harass another Democrat for being a shade too smug!

Josh Marshall is a bit more charitable here, and also notes that Howard Dean hasn't been quite as consistent on the Iraq issue as he and his supporters claim, either.

Me, I don't care. I'll vote for any of them over Bush, and it'll all be decided by the time of my state's primary anyway. Consequently I haven't really done my homework. I like Kucinich's platform best, but people think he's weird. I like Kerry, but people think he's stuffy. I'm prepared to like Dean, but he seems a bit...humid, and I think his radical style conceals a fairly right-leaning politician.

Democrats are going to have to invest in one of them pretty soon. Maybe Clark just had a bad day, but if the DLC has queered things by pushing a guy who's neither of solid timber nor even a "real" Democrat, then that's bad. And if Clark starts showing real stature and Dean's self-styled outsiders won't shift their support, then that would be bad, too. The longer we withhold or diffuse the support that builds real presidential momentum--and the longer our candidates and constituencies chip away at each other--the weaker our nominee will be in the general election.

And the only thing that matters in 2004 is removing George W. Bush from office.

Posted by pk at 9:57 AM

Underworld Schmunderworld

Back from a trip to see "Underworld," the movie that had White Wolf's knickers in a twist over possible copyright infringement. It was flatly awful. Laugh-out-loud awful. Painful. But I'm still not convinced anyone was actionably infringed in its making. White Wolf fans should stay away just to be supportive of the company. I should have stayed away just because life is too short.

This may have been the worst summer movie season I've ever endured, so it's a real comment on the awfulness of "Underworld" that it was too weak to compete in a field of anemic trash like "Bruce Almighty" (I only paid $2, I swear) and (God help me) "Terminator 3."

Next up: Pinning my hopes on Tarantino and figuring out what the hell the Coens are up to.

Posted by mph at 12:24 AM

September 19, 2003

Yonder he comes

Caught a bit of "Hannity and Colmes" this week, with Sean and Ann Coulter (who ping-pongs between Fox News and MSNBC like the Dr. Joyce Brothers of right-wing harridans) heckling some hapless "Democratic Pollster" about the sinister and undoubtedly Clinton-orchestrated mechanics behind Wes Clark's candidacy.

The party line, from the Fox Greek chorus to the WSJ op/ed page, is that Candidate Clark sprang whole from the Clinton asshole--or (sez Ann) was lured into running by Hillary, who hopes to drive all Dem frontrunners over the cliff of Bush's "certain" re-election in order to clear the field for her 2008 run--a run that nobody wants Hillary to make more than the right's lying heads. (God knows I don't want it to happen.)

Here's an open letter to the general from Michael Moore. Say what you will about his candidacy in three or six months--I'm sure withholding judgment for now--but Wesley Clark appears to be the creation of no one but himself, and I think the right-wing brain trust is nervous.

The power-grab they engineered in 2000 was always strapped to a shaky chassis--the quality of George W. Bush. He is their creation, and I suspect their goals for his administration were initially much more modest than they became after the historical plot-twist of 9/11 intoxicated them with the possibility of realizing dreams they'd cherished since before the man who'd have to shoulder them got sober.

Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz--these are not stupid men. You can be sure that long ago they took a clear-eyed measure of the man they "serve," and, once the opposing team collapsed in the first quarter of their tenure, it's easy to imagine them wishing they had a stronger quarterback.

Perhaps not, though: It's hard to believe how foolish they've been in allowing their effort to become so top-heavy, and as agonizing and infuriating as the rising costs of their folly are, it is also a pleasure to see the falsely mighty tumble back to earth. Having almost completely squandered the political capital that fell unearned into their laps, they are now where they were 14 months before the 2000 election: Trying to sell an empty suit with deep pockets, a famous name, and a folksy manner.

Except now we too have taken the full measure of George W. Bush, and he remains a dim, inarticulate man whose principles come to him on 4-by-6 cards.

Wesley Clark appears to be acting on principles that are his own. Bush has had a bad month, and events may further erode his foundation of sand, but for now the election is still probably his to lose. Clark didn't join the Democrats because they're the sure pony to bet on, and it's hard to believe he's a closet conservative so desperate to be president that he'd rather cloak as a Democrat than wait until the 2008 Republican primaries. I believe he's the real thing.

Aside from a few key platform points, I judge a politician almost entirely on his ability to make sense extemporaneously, and the sharp, intelligent Clark holds up there, as well. Then there's his resume: First in his class at West Point, a Rhodes Scholar, a Four-Star General--it's like if Colin Powell were to get his soul back. I feel strongly that there are many issues as important to our future as "security," but if--and I do mean if--that remains the key issue for Americans, then Clark certainly neutralizes the trump card Bush supposedly holds on it.

The right-wing trashers already look unseemly flinging their turds: This is not a man to whom it will stick the way it does to career politicians like Joe Lieberman, who should get out of the race--now--along with Bill Gephardt, Bob Graham, John Edwards, and Al Sharpton. The Democrat Party needs a lively, collegial primary campaign among Howard Dean, John Kerry, Carol Moseley Braun, Dennis Kucinich, and Wesley Clark: to clarify itself, illuminate key issues for the electorate, and show in high relief the corruption and ruinous incompetence of the present administration.

I suppose America has the political system it deserves, or at least the one it will have until reformers with guts surgically separate money from politics once and for all. (Which may not happen without something like a revolution.) This system humiliates, emasculates, and in many cases corrupts most people who last long in it, leaving us with prospective candidates we can hardly bring ourselves to respect. At the very least, familiarity breeds contempt.

As a result, we repeatedly find ourselves looking for a messiah. I don't know what General Clark or the rest of the field will look like after Iowa and New Hampshire, let alone at the end of the nominating convention, but I find the prospect of the American people judging George W. Bush next to a truly accomplished individual such as Wesley Clark very, very appealing.

Because the only thing that matters in 2004 is removing George W. Bush from office.

Posted by pk at 9:08 PM

Pardon Our Smoking Crater

Things might be bumpy today. I woke up to find the machine that hosts everything wobbling around on its last legs. Looks like the CPU fan died, lightly toasting everything (can't say it was 'fried' because the geek diagnostic manual specifically states 'fried' means 'non-functional'). The case, anyhow, was hot to the touch and most of the services running on the machine were segfaulting and the kernel was panicking. Attempted reboots got a temperature error.

So there's a new machine in place (glad I keep a spare), but who knows what sort of issues have crept in with me moving the hard drive over to this box?

Posted by mph at 9:02 AM

September 18, 2003

Ripping the Headlines

New feature here on PuddingTime!: Local news headlines from Portland Communique.

The Communique hasn't been the busiest lately, but when it gets busy, it's good. Chances are any local news we could share will probably be handled better and in more detail by the Communique. Clicking that little question mark by the headlines in the right column will get you our perma-endorsement.

As a technical by-the-by, PC's headlines are syndicated courtesy the mt-rssfeed plug-in. Handy.

Posted by mph at 9:37 PM

Stop the Inanity: Dune: Butlerian Jihad

Here's a lengthy screed regarding my wild, unseemly, and excessive disappointment with the "Dune" prequel series. If you aren't up for 3100 angry words from an overwrought geek, don't bother reading the rest, just take away this pocket review:

"Hellooo, Peter... yeeeeah. We're gonna have to have a jihad this weekend, and I'm gonna have to kinda have you come in on Saturday. Mmkay? Oh... and uh... we're gonna have to smash the thinking machines on Sunday, too. Mmkay? Let me get you another copy of that memo . . . we've kind of decided thinking machines fill us with religious loathing and hatred that will burn itself into humanity's memory for 10,000 years. Mmkay?"

Perhaps because summer is winding down and classes are mere weeks away, I've been catching up on my pulp reading. The beginning of summer always involves heady reading lists, and it always ends this way: cramming sugary sweets down my gullet before I'm forced to start reading things I didn't pick for myself. I walk into this time of the reading season with my eyes open. I know what I'm doing. I feel furtive when I pick up some of the titles I do, and I always buy them at the grocery store, where I can go through the U-Scan aisle and avoid detection.

This summer's special reading project was "Dune: The Butlerian Jihad," co-written by Frank Herbert's son Bryan and journeyman sci-fi writer Kevin Anderson.

A Quick History of the Dune Books

"Dune" has a lot of faithful fans who've been with the franchise since the first volume arrived in the '60s. Frank Herbert built on "Dune" with five sequels. Opinion varies on the entire run. I personally enjoyed the first four the most. "Dune" itself has been an almost annual re-read since I first picked up a copy in seventh grade. That would put my total number of reads somewhere around twenty, I suppose. Probably sounds dull to most, but I like getting older with a few of the books on my shelves.

Frank Herbert died in 1986 having written six Dune novels. Notes for yet another novel have been found, extensive enough that there may be a posthumous seventh novel. Several years ago, armed with the backing of the publishers and "The Herbert Limited Partnership," Herbert's son picked up a collaborator and began a prequel trilogy, set in the decades leading up to the original "Dune" novel, featuring most of the characters found in the later books.

I read all three installments with increasing unhappiness. People have criticized Frank Herbert's writing for its pages and pages of meaningful glances and characters musing about "plans within plans within plans," and that's fair enough: "Dune" wasn't so much an adventure novel as it was a novel about how ecology affects politics and how people create charismatic leaders. It was a talky/thinky novel, and it seemed the characters couldn't even get into a knife fight without spending some time pondering their place in the universe. Readers who considered Herbert's work too ponderous, at least, should be content with the prequels: The product turned out by Anderson and the younger Herbert is most definitely not about ideas. It's fairly pedestrian sci-fi that uses a lot of names and places found in "Dune" to tell a simplistic, juvenile adventure story. I hate not finishing books, though, and I have that thing about summer reading I've already mentioned.

Where these books are concerned, there's little to indicate they're what Frank Herbert had in mind, but they're clearly aimed to sate a sort of fanboy completionist urge to fill in every piece of back story Frank Herbert himself either never considered or didn't get around to writing. The revelations, though, aren't particularly revelatory. They tend to evoke a sigh and a muttered "guess it's the copyrightholder's prerogative to do this with these names and places." The prequels are to Frank Herbert's work as "The Stepford Children" was to "The Stepford Wives": denuded of any allegorical meaning and thoroughly flattened into a simple "rockets and robots" yarn (or yawn, I guess).

The newest book, "The Butlerian Jihad," takes us back "100 centuries" to tell the story of how the foundations of the Dune universe came to be.

Core to "Dune" is society's aversion to "thinking machines." This aversion is attributed to the lasting impact of "The Butlerian Jihad," a religious upheaval in reaction to the near extinction of humans at the hand of sentient computers. The original Dune novels refer to the Butlerian Jihad just enough to underscore its meaning to the characters and settings in the novel. Not much detail is required . . . just enough to explain the complications the taboos against computers create and to rationalize the mystical bent some of the society's institutions have taken despite a setting 10,000 years in the future. As such, it's certainly an area of fascination for Dune fans: The sort of cataclysmic intensity with which such a thing would have played out to leave its mark on humanity 10,000 years later would have to be awesome, and surely the story behind such a thing would be epic. Unfortunately, the effort falls as flat as any of the other Dune prequels.

The book is part of a school of science fiction writing that drives much of the market these days if you make the mistake of buying your sf from the chain (or grocery) stores, which cash in on massive franchises, like the "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" novelizations. As with the first three prequels, it's imaginative as far as it goes, but the authors aren't trafficking in ideas here. The potential for creating a truly creepy machine culture is undermined by a paucity of imagination that involves anthropomorphizing all the robots and making the most active proponents of machine dominance giant robots with human brains. The scenes meant to convey how horrible it would be to be a frail human at the mercy of the machines are simple gore-fests, or over-the-top failures that involve infants being dashed on rocks.

The climax also fails resonantly. The process of embarking on a jihad against the machines is reduced to a sophomoric call to arms and listless agreement that maybe people oughta go smash those machines. Imagine Patrick Henry played by Keanu Reeves, or the American Revolution as reenacted by a troupe of actors with voice modulation disorder and you've got a sense of how flaccid the depiction is.

Hello, Peter... yeeeeah. We're gonna have to have a jihad this weekend, and I'm gonna have to kinda have you come in on Saturday. Mmkay? Oh... and uh... we're gonna have to smash the thinking machines on Sunday, too. Mmkay? Let me get you another copy of that memo . . . we've kind of decided thinking machines fill us with religious loathing and hatred. Mmkay?

The book also shares a point of commonality with the "Star Trek" publishing franchise: The recent "Eugenics Wars" novels, which gave us the backstory for the character Khan (yes, Ricardo Montalban in a latex chest), were plagued with a need to tie virtually every character and event into a grand narrative. It was obnoxious long after it was cute. Herbert and Anderson have done the same, to boorish effect. Once I decided I didn't like what they were doing, every appearance of a character or description of event became less a mediocre account and more a deliberate, aggressive violation, meant to rub the collective readership's nose in the authors' capacity to leave no stone unturned in their single-minded desire to cram everything into the pedestrian scope of their version of the Dune story.

The Dune Encyclopedia Question

What makes the bellyflop that is "Dune: The Butlerian Jihad" even more gut-stinging is that Frank Herbert authorized a version of the tale long before the mediocre prequel factory began churning out cycnical sludge.

"The Dune Encyclopedia" was edited by Dr. Willis E. McNelly. McNelly died in April of this year, but a site devoted to some of his writing and a few recollections about the creation of "The Dune Encyclopedia" is available that explains his role in the book's creation, how it was assembled, and a little of Frank Herbert's role in it. Dr. McNelly reportedly spent several years lobbying Dune's publishers to republish the encyclopedia, but it remains out of print.

The encyclopedia is an entertaining book. It's set 5,000 years after the events in Herbert's first three "Dune" novels, and the content is presented as a series of entries written by scholars analyzing an archaeological find. As such, there are some humorous misinterpretations that flatly contradict the "canon" Herbert's work established, which really add to the verisimilitude of the work in its role as a future history.

Herbert's own feelings about the book were apparently mixed. He authorized and commissioned the work, and he participated in its creation to the extent there are accounts of him vetoing parts of it and approving others. He also, however, felt free to contradict elements found in it as he wrote the two "Dune" novels that followed it. It was, in the end, not a very pure source for any of the story ideas Herbert had in play as he worked on his novels, but wasn't received by "Dune" fans as a complete piece of apocrypha, either. It was apparently, to the extent the back cover of my copy says it's the "authorized guide and companion to Dune," meant to provide some background for the parts of the "Dune" universe Herbert never got around to touching, including, to bring this back around to the subject of this little screed, the events of the Butlerian Jihad. Further buttressing the legitimacy of the encyclopedia is the widespread story that Herbert and Dr. McNally had discussed collaborating on a Butlerian Jihad prequel before Herbert died.

Anyone who cared enough about "Dune" to own the encyclopedia probably read the entries pretty closely and figured out pretty quickly that some of the content was meant to be a humourous jape on both over-earnest fans and modern academics. But that reading was probably close, nonetheless. It was, after all, "the authorized guide and companion." When Frank Herbert's son and accomplice decided, though, to cash in on their own "Dune"-based franchise, the encyclopedia presented an understandably unpleasant issue: Its detail, if treated as "canon," would militate a certain direction for the stories they could tell. It would mandate characters, events, and places. It would also, it seems, have forced them to abandon their need to single-handedly explain the origins of every single institution, technology, and practice found in the "Dune" universe.

Not having been a particularly active "Dune" fan, I turned to the experts to see what the consensus among online fans toward Dr. McNally's encyclopedia might be by looking up the alt.fan.dune FAQ. One of the functions of fan FAQs is establishing the "canonicity" of a given work or group of works. This sort of stuff is important to fans, because being a fan of something involves a lot of discussion about the people, places, and events in a book or group of works. You might be tempted to think something like "if it's a book about 'Star Trek' that Paramount licensed, it's canon."

The problem is, a franchise as long-lived as "Star Trek" has been adapted into books, comic books, cartoons, "technical manuals," and even read-along childrens' records so many times that all the pieces don't quite agree with each other all the time. Characters are placed somewhere the original novel's story line contradicts, or a device has properties that are convenient to an author working on a sequel adaptation that it doesn't have anywhere else, or is said not to have in another work.

Besides the issue of diverging facts, some fans also admit there are issues of simple economics. Going back to "Star Trek," there are hundreds and hundreds of novels to choose from. While a few devoted fans will read them all (and perhaps even explain away the apparent contradictions), most will not. Establishing a base-line canon allows fans to comfortably discuss and argue without being blind-sided by a "fact" from a now-unattainable paperback a licensee published in 1976, or a short story from an out of print collection that appeared in 1974.

In the case of the Dune universe, there's not a lot to argue about. The original books were all written by one author, and there's not a large body of Dune tie-in fiction written by many other authors. In fact, in terms of the books written while Herbert was alive, "The Dune Encyclopedia" is pretty much the only bone of contention, and of it the alt.fan.dune FAQ has this to say:

"Where 'The Dune Encyclopedia' directly conflicts with the Dune Chronicles, whether attributable to the historians who supposedly wrote it or not, it is politely ignored. Where it fills in the holes of Frank Herbert's novels, though, attitudes vary. Some refuse to consider it altogether, while others tend to apply as much information from it as possible without contradiction."

I suppose I'm of the "pay some attention to it" school because I'm lucky enough to still own the copy my parents gave me for Christmas nearly twenty years ago, and because I read it as closely as I did the original novels: it answered questions Frank Herbert never would, and he seemed to think it was as good an answer as he would have given us.

So why am I writing this? Even the fans don't agree on the relative merit of the encyclopedia, and I'm not even much of a "fan" in the sense that I'd never get too heated up about any discussion centered on "Dune." I think it was the second statement that I came across about the encyclopedia, written by the authors and Willis McNelly, which included this:

"To clear up any confusion that might exist, the authors think it is important to explain that THE DUNE ENCYCLOPEDIA reflects an alternate "DUNE universe" which did not necessarily represent the 'canon' created by Frank Herbert. Frank Herbert's son, Brian Herbert, writing with Kevin J. Anderson, IS continuing to establish the canon of the DUNE universe. This is being done with the full approval of the owner of the DUNE copyright, the Herbert Limited Partnership."

A note at the bottom of the page hastens to add that "there are no plans to republish" the encyclopedia.

There's not much of a choice in reactions here, except a cynical snort. Fan reaction matters enough to inspire some hand-waving about an "alternate universe," but they don't trust the handwaving enough to keep from falling back on simple legal privilege: the copyright holders say it's canon, so it is. Considering Frank Herbert's unfortunate state, there's not much more to it than figuring out who owns what. Brian Herbert evidently had his hands on enough material of interest to the publishers that he got to keep a hand in the new books. The publishers thoughtfully pulled in someone well qualified to produce the sort of white-bread, tie-in SF that does so well at the corporate chain stores, and despite insistence to the contrary, the Dune franchise dies a strange sort of "lights are on but no one's home" death. Or perhaps it was dead the second the word "franchise" was applied to it off in some corner office.

As I poked around the corporate Dune site, I also came across a FAQ the publisher set up in which the authors purport to answer continuity flaws readers have pointed out. It made me a little sad to realize that the answers provided weren't really answers at all... just equivocations. The point wasn't so much to answer the questions as demonstrate that the authors, acting on behalf of the publisher and copyright holders, can pretty much make things up as they go along, and will do so off-handedly. Some will assert that copyright ownership is adequate justification for that sort of behavior, and I'll make no attempt to argue the contrary. It certainly bestows a legal right, but in this case legal right has been exercised to infantilize and then gut a classic series.

It's strange to realize I've devoted as many words to this as I have at this point. Ordinarily I'm impatient with fans. My reading of assorted Tolkien fan groups lasted a total of a week before the religiosity and hostility toward the "movie people" made me decide a mere twenty or so readings of "The Lord of the Rings" hadn't made me crazy enough to be that silly and mean. "Star Trek" fans can be even more irritating and self-righteous (though Tolkienites hold them in a special sort of classist contempt that comes close to evening the two groups up in terms of unpleasantness). But in this case, there's not much helping my feelings. I was excited when I first heard about the prequels, thinking they'd represent, perhaps, a real continuation of "Dune." They proved to be a disappointment, and they haven't improved. If I'm angry, it's probably as much with myself for thinking there'd be any real return to "Dune" outside of re-reading the books written by Frank Herbert himself. And I'm angry because any close reading and comparison of the originals and the prequels is evidently considered contemptible nit-picking by the authors, who think the proper role of "their" unearned audience is passive acceptance of their mediocre efforts.

This sort of contempt and neglect has happened elsewhere. When the "Star Trek" franchise launched the prequel series "Enterprise," it soon became clear that the continuity established through the previous movies and shows was mostly out the window. There's some half-hearted defense of the choices "Enterprise's" writers have made, but the series has clearly lost its way. The creative team has trashed things the series' long-term fans appreciate as it looks to find widespread acceptance with more and more overt reliance on titillation or the play-it-safe, issue-of-the-week political allegory of "Trek" at its most smug and smarmy.

But where "Star Trek: Enterprise" is struggling to keep its head above water in the ratings, the Dune prequels are evidently market successes. There have been four (and a fifth will be showing up any day now) so far, with yet another in the works. They've consistently made it into the bestseller lists, too.

I'll account for my portion of the sales: I bought my copies because I've got that nasty habit of impulse buying bad books at the grocery store, and because the Dune franchise has some brand recognition with me, even if I'm consciously aware that the only meaningful point of continuity between Frank Herbert's work and the prequels is the family name and some legal rights. Against all reason, I've wanted to believe there'd be some getting "Dune" back.

Having finished "Butlerian Jihad," though, I'm happy to say "enough is enough." You can't go home again. The cynical money-grubbing on display with these books seems to illustrate that well enough. So I'm not going to bother trying anymore.

Posted by mph at 9:36 PM

Wouldja Like an Abrams With That?

The military has pulled a few pages from the McDonald's playbook, says Salon, handing important logistical functions over to corporations, and the result has been ruinous:

"Many of the logistical components such as modular barracks, field kitchens, and mail delivery were outsourced to private contractors. The result? Months into the war, GIs were still camped out, still eating the loathed MREs, and are still without adequate water. Mail is backlogged for weeks.

'We thought we could depend on industry to perform these kinds of functions,' Lt. Gen. Charles S. Mahan, the Army's logistical chief, told journalist David Wood in an interview for Newhouse Publications last summer. But, as Linda K. Theis, who oversees some civilian logistics contracts, reminded Wood: 'You cannot order civilians into a war zone.' Replacing 1,100 Marine cooks with civilians seemed like a bright idea to someone two years ago. But during the bloody Battle of the Bulge in 1944, Army cooks doubled as riflemen; in McArmy, civilian cooks can walk off the job."

Nothing's too good for our boys.

Posted by mph at 6:51 AM

September 17, 2003

Looking for Mr. RSS

Patrick Hayden's looking for a Windows RSS aggregator along the lines of NetNewsWire. What he wants, I think, is NewzCrawler. It doesn't have a "lite" version, though, so after the trial he'll be down $24.95. If you have to play with Windows, NewzCrawler butchers the competition.

Related Pudding:

Posted by mph at 11:08 AM

September 15, 2003


Who knew? Ed was once an REM fan and now finds himself wondering what the hell happened to them (or him):

"...I was like, 'Huh. It's full of synth and orchestral background music and some of the songs are about childhood. REM has finally snapped, and they now believe they are the Moody Blues.'"

I feel his pain. Considering where I stopped reflexively thinking "This rules!" about each new REM album (that'd be "Green'), then considering that "Document" is the last album they did that I loved as unconditionally as anything else I can think of in the annals of "bands I obsessed over," I guess I'm pretty close to being an REM primitivist.

I remember the collective eyebrow that went up around the room the night the first of our college klatsch brought home "Green" for a group listen. (What the hell was up with "The Wrong Child"? Who kidnapped the band long enough to slip in "I Remember California"?) After "Green," REM fandom became an exercise in feeling the need to apologize for an increasing proportion of each album.

The thing that filled the void they left ended up being whatever it is we're supposed to call Uncle Tupelo: y'allternative, Americana, alt-country, or whatever it's called. I was initially attracted to REM because of the sense they were anchored in a culture and sensibility that was about the small and personal. Especially with the simple, beautiful images they evoked in "Fables of the Reconstruction." With "Document" the balance began to shift toward simpler pop sentiment, and it seemed that over the next four years, the sensibility that fueled their first albums took a smaller and smaller place in their work. With "Monster," they weren't the band I'd known (even if I thought it was a pretty good album). "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" became the first REM album where I liked a minority of the songs, and it was the album where they lost me.

I've never felt too upset about that, though, and I've never indulged in much "they ruled until they sucked!" hostility toward them. My musical friendship with REM was firm and fast for close to ten years, which is a pretty good run for any band. As an issue of relative longevity, they're about at the point in their run that the Rolling Stones were at in 1983 when they recorded "Under Cover," and I know for a fact that album appalled a lot of the paleorock enthusiasts I knew in high school at the time.

Posted by mph at 4:33 PM

Arnold: Illegal Alien

I said I was swearing off political writing, which I'm not very good at, but that doesn't mean I have to swear off the occasional gotcha.

Posted by mph at 8:25 AM

September 14, 2003

The Death of the Director

"Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology" is some moderately entertaining squawking about the rise of film theory in film schools, and the rarified language that accompanies it:

"The prose was denser than a Kevlar flak jacket, full of such words as 'diegetic,' 'heterogeneity,' 'narratology,' 'narrativity,' 'symptomology,' 'scopophilia,' 'signifier,' 'syntagmatic,' 'synecdoche,' 'temporality.' I picked out two of them—'fabula' and 'syuzhet'—and asked Alexis if she knew what they meant. 'They're the Russian Formalist terms for 'story' and 'plot,' ' she replied.

"'Well then, why don't they use 'story' and 'plot?' '

'We're not allowed to. If we do, they take points off our paper. We have to use 'fabula' and 'syuzhet.'"

Roger Ebert's quote is particularly scalding:

"Film theory has nothing to do with film. Students presumably hope to find out something about film, and all they will find out is an occult and arcane language designed only for the purpose of excluding those who have not mastered it and giving academic rewards to those who have. No one with any literacy, taste or intelligence would want to teach these courses, so the bona fide definition of people teaching them are people who are incapable of teaching anything else."

I've taken a few film classes in the past year and I'm looking forward to two or three more this term. So far there's nothing as obnoxious as what this author reports going on at sleepy PSU. We get a little Barthes, we get a little Greenberg, we watch a film or two a week, and we talk about what they call that funny canted angle and how it helped the director get something done. Most of the hands-on stuff seems to be farmed out to the Northwest Film Center, and most of my film classes are handled by the English department, which is not as interested in teaching us how to make films as how to read them.

More to the point, I don't feel particularly ill served by the process: I think the classes are fun and they encourage me to think about movies in new ways. On the other hand, if I wanted to make films for a living I would feel ill served if this sort of theorizing occupied the bulk of the curriculum. The author grudgingly admits that in his daughter's case, it does not.

Unfortunately for this piece, he's in full-on axe grinding mode by the time he's done, and he spends his final paragraphs in a classroom with bored students who squirm under the Marxist stylings of one of his hated film theorists. I admit that I have no idea how these students ended up in the class the author reports on, or how it was advertised, but I will offer that I've seen similarly agonized students whose misery has less to do with poor little undergrads being beaten down by the mean old postmodernist's big words and a lot more to do with lazy children who signed up because they thought they were going to watch movies and write little reports about them for which they'd be rewarded a nice, gentlemanly "A". They should have dropped the course the second the professor told them they'd have to learn how to take notes, think critically, and watch a film at the same time, because that was clearly not why they were there.

I sympathize with the anxiety academic language can induce in some people. I spent my first term back at school feeling more than a little put upon and nervous when confronted with the disconnect between my first time around in a college classroom 17 years ago and the current state of academica as it plays out here and now. The vocabulary did seem dense and rarified, and I spent several office hours with each of my professors trying to tease out clues. I had to do a little outside reading and research. Certainly I wasn't able to pick up some of the reading we were handed without going over a few sentences more than once, and Google was my friend more than a few times. In the end, though, it wasn't that hard when approached with an open mind and a little willpower. Poking fun of all the funny, big words wouldn't have served me very well, and had I not moved past my initial resistance to learning a specialized language, well... I would have gotten what I deserved.

Posted by mph at 8:42 PM

September 13, 2003

The Politics of the Buffyverse

"The Politics of the Buffyverse: Radical, Conservative, and Liberal Tendencies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel":

"Of all the philosophical themes that run through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, none seem to be more elusive than the political ones. As the intelligentsia's favorite show and a pop-culture reference in heavy rotation, Buffy has been analyzed many times, with amusingly bi-partisan results. Initially greeted as an exemplar of the "girl power" feminism trend, Joss Whedon's creation has been lauded since by everyone from the liberal American Prospect and Salon to the rightist National Review."

Interesting, lengthy read.

(via Whedonesque) (Which also notes the introduction of the phrase "reptilian kitten eater" into Candian political discourse.)

Posted by mph at 10:05 PM

Why The Wachowski Bros. Lost Two of My Dollars

Well, I dropped the whole "review anything and everything viewed" schtick a while back, but I'm coming back from the theater pleasantly buzzed this evening, so here's something:

The movie in question is "So Close", a Hong Kong action flick of the "assassin chick" branch of that genre tree (not unlike "Bullets of Love").

If you don't care for Hong Kong assassin chick films, there won't be much here for you: it's just an action flick, but it's fun and maintains its pace for most of its 110 minutes, slowing down only briefly to introduce some emotional conflict that's quickly atoned for with a car chase and bloody gunfight. The performances are all pretty good. The tough female cop comes off as a sort of Hong Kong-grown Janeane Garofalo. The actresses playing a team of sister professional killers are great, too. The action is well done in the Hong Kong tradition, and that's what I thought about the most this evening.

A Quick Digression Into The Matrix

Al and I were sitting around the pad last night trying to decide whether to head down to the local $2 theater to catch "The Matrix Reloaded". We've each only seen it once, which is sort of weird considering how much we anticipated it before it arrived.

"I could go see it again, I guess," I said, then thought on it a moment and said "No. I guess I couldn't. Weird."

Why the Matrix malaise? I'm not sure, except to say there's just nothing there to go look at twice, especially since the infamous Architect's speech is easily available with a Google search. The rest seemed to be a lot of punching and kicking in the service of ...?

Well, if the things the Wachowski brothers had to say are an accurate indication it's just punching and kicking in service of itself.

Anyone willing to take a 200-level elective at any liberal arts school get the philosophy that provides the underpinnings for the questions "The Matrix" inspires. The reason the characters have the Matrix to play around with in the first place, said the brothers, is to provide a logical framework for a superhero story that doesn't rely on extraterrestrial origins, bombardment with gamma rays, or mutated genes to explain super powers.

A less charitable take on the "clever Wachowskis are blowing our minds with philosophy while entertaining us and that's the genius of it" thesis is that the Wachowskis were merely forced to accomodate the impoverished imaginations of the American movie-going public. This less charitable take reduces the philosophical mumbo jumbo found in "The Matrix" to a colossal waste of time, if only because Hong Kong flicks have been doing without this for decades, and provide as much entertainment. Lawrence Fishburne's plodding speechifying and the Architect's snotty blathering are crippling liabilities, in the end, because they're uneconomic baggage.

Back to "So Close"

There's a flimsy rationalization for people being able to jump as high as their own heads in Hong Kong movies that fans implicitly sign on to: With hard training and a strong spirit, anything's possible. There's not a lot of explication devoted to this idea. It's just in the genes of these movies, and people seem to enjoy watching anyhow, the same way audiences for decades have blithely accepted that Superman's from Krypton so of course he can fly and stop bullets with his teeth, or that it's only natural for Reed Richards to respond to "cosmic rays" by becoming Mr. Fantastic. People who can't accept these premises in the context of a comic book, sci-fi film, or fantasy novel are missing a basic piece of wiring we've collectively had since Gilgamesh was first committed to clay.

"So Close" and its kindred in the genre get this. When we see a gorgeous little woman flip through the air with a Glock in each fist, blazing away, there's no indignant mutter rippling through the audience at the sheer improbability of the whole thing: it's part of the fun. And it's so much more fun that the Carpenters' "Close to You" is playing while she does it, stripping the proceedings of any claim to "seriousness," or the deadly need to saddle it with time-wasting attempts at 200-level high-mindedness.

Posted by mph at 8:32 AM

Don't believe the lies of the infidels . . .

"... There is no SCO code in the Linux kernel. Never!"

The latest edition of my Enterprise Unix Roundup column is online, offering about the last I care to write about the "SCO thing" in any venue.

I don't usually link to my paying work, but the inner Linux enthusiast poured some of himself into this one, so it fits here, too.

Posted by mph at 1:58 AM

September 12, 2003

Goodbye, Johnny Cash

Although I have Johnny Cash CDs that I purchased in my 20s and 30s, my memories of his songs put me in the back seat of my parents' car, listening to country-music radio, where I think even as a kid I recognized their substantiality compared to most of what I heard. Not that I thought of it that way: I just listened to Johnny Cash.

My favorites were "One Piece at a Time" and "A Boy Named Sue," because they were funny and they told long stories--they could eat up a lot of boring highway. But I also remember the respectful fear I felt listening to "I Walk the Line" and especially "Ring of Fire." My dad said that his version of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" even scared him. The symbolism in those songs is hard for a kid to chew: I essentially took them literally, swallowed them whole. I didn't know what walking the line meant, but listening to the muffled guitars and the sincere, austere desperation of his voice, I didn't doubt that he walked it. "Ring of Fire" was something else again. I had no idea what it meant; certainly allusions to love meant nothing to me. It was simply a man's firmly stoic recollection of a descent into Hell. I had no context for the mariachi horns: They just sounded scary. They sounded like fire.

Johnny Cash was complete and complex. He wasn't whispering Bill Anderson or smarmy Glen Campbell or sappy Kenny Rogers. He could sing a sad song and he could sing a funny song, in a voice like a minister and your haunted uncle who doesn't talk about what he did in the war. He sounded like iron and stone, but with a human tremor that suggested fear and mortality. His power was in his control, but then he'd shout "suey!" in a guitar break, and you heard wild danger. He understood the loud, violent men in those prison audiences.

I've since learned that there was plenty of wild danger in his life. Before June brought him back to his religion there was lots of booze and speed, which seems incongruous with his image as the somber Man in Black--until you see that fantastic picture of him flipping the camera a vicious bird, his upper teeth and bottom lip spitting, "F--- ---!"

He was a bad motherfucker and a wise, gentle soul. For 50 years he made American music of rare vitality and unassailable integrity. The Southern white men who converged in the '50s in Sun Studio in Memphis were all giants--Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis--but Johnny Cash probably stood the tallest, and now Jerry Lee stands alone.

Posted by pk at 6:33 PM

Johnny Cash

Goodbye to the Man in Black.

Some of my childhood musical memories involve sitting in the back seat of my parents' car and listening to their 8-tracks: "The Golden Sounds of Mantovani," a collection of WWII serials ("Hop! Harrigan! Kiiiing of the Airways!"), and a Johnny Cash "greatest hits" tape. He picked up a lot of hipster cred in the past few years, but it won't be possible for me to hear "Cry Cry Cry," "Teenage Queen," or "I Walk the Line" without remembering that feeling of mystery that surrounds our parents' music. I had no idea what it meant to "walk the line," but I knew that it sounded like a cool thing to do.

Three weeks ago I picked up a copy of "The Sun Years" to replace one that went missing at some point. More honest and more aware of a wider world than Elvis Presley's own Sun collection. Elvis sang about trains that came and went in the night: mysteries he saw in the distance, but never rode. Johnny Cash sang about the Rock Island line and made it sound like he knew it from end to end. Elvis wanted to play house, Johnny walked the line. Elvis gave us a false start that demands ironic distance ("Hold it, boys, that don't move..."), while Johnny convinced us that Luther, did, indeed, "play the boogie-woogie strange." Can't recommend "The Sun Years" enough.

Posted by mph at 3:43 PM


Adbusters is behind an attempt to crush Nike with the blackSpot sneaker campaign: a counterbrand under which they'll sell $60 union-made, fair wage sneakers to the masses.

Well. Good luck.

via somewhere I came across today

Posted by mph at 2:29 AM

September 11, 2003

Don't Be a Dummy...

...just play with one on your computer:

Play with crash test dummies in "Truck Dismount"

I think Truck Dismount may be my new rationale for keeping a Windows machine in the house. Thanks, memepool!

Posted by mph at 10:31 PM

Horse's Mouth

On the event of Bill Joy's departure from Sun, the Register has a brief appreciation of vi, including this comment from Mr. Joy:

"People don't know that vi was written for a world that doesn't exist anymore . . ."

Or as another person put it, it was written for "masochists on some sort of bizarre kick that causes second-year college students to run away to monastic cults until they get tired of eating porridge and sweeping the floor with rush brooms that are too short."

Posted by mph at 4:58 PM

Death of a Critic

The Filthy Critic is Dead, Matt Weatherford is Not, reports Ben Garvey. Shame that Filthy's gone.

If you never got to know him, here's an interview, or you can take his review of "You've Got Mail" as representative of Filthy at the height of his fury.

Posted by mph at 7:15 AM

September 10, 2003

ripped from the headlines: tits and explosions!

Update: Having just finished the "Enterprise" season premier (entitled "The Xindi"), I have this to offer: It was much more darkly atmospheric than past seasons. One alien in particular was sort of cool. The two weak spots: Vulcan massage (an excuse to get T'Pol's top off for a moment), and Bakula's acting. We're supposed to buy him as a sort of Bushian "nice guy turned hard," and he just comes off sounding sort of shrill and pissy.

While we're on the subject of UPN season premiers, there's "Jake 2.0," which seems to boil down to "Spiderman" meets "Enemy of the State." Eh. Angel will be displacing it come October 1.

Now back to the original kvetch:

I bought a Salon subscription a few months ago. I found myself reading the site every few days, so I plunked down some money (and got a few free subscriptions to dead-tree magazines in the process). In the interest of full disclosure, here's the post you can cite to call me a hypocrite: "De-subscribed by Salon and Living With It"

But as much as I'm enjoying the site now for what I paid ("Less than the cost of your daily cup of coffee! "), I still get a little squirmy over some of the content. I have a sense that there are some smart people there who haven't learned how to accept their own sweet tooth, and would be embarrassed to say things like "I rented season four of 'Babylon 5' and stayed in front of the t.v. for two straight days watching all 22 episodes." Their embarassment shows up in the form of breezy articles announcing that they did just that and are plainly not embarassed because a.) they are telling you they are not and b.) 'Babylon 5' is the most important         to come along since        .

Whatever. I felt less guilty about an eight hour "Buffy" marathon armed with a copy of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy" ("Faith is the embodiment of Nietzschean Ethics!"), so if a Salon writer wants to give a pass to whatever pop culture flotsam washes up in her living room on the grounds that it's the most important exploration of the painful demands of a collectivist ideology since the final scene of "In Dubious Battle," she can have a field day.

Sometimes, though, I think they're being played, as with today's sneak preview of the new season of "Star Trek: Enterprise":

" Like 'Deep Space Nine,' 'Enterprise' entices us into caring about its characters, then forces you to watch them doing the dirty work of the state-security apparatus. In the season premiere, we see Archer bribing a sleazy mining official for an interview with his Xindi employee. Far from home and out of its depth, the crew is bound to experience some blowback, as it indeed does here. I want to see more of this. I want to see 'Enterprise' compensate for drawing the analogy between 9/11 and this ahistorical, unpreventable alien massacre. 'Enterprise' can redeem itself by emphasizing that our incidents and relationships with other races have ramifications, that there are other fish in the pond."

Sure thing. Then there's the "Enterprise" team's lead actor and executive producer in a slightly less gussied up presentation for "Entertainment Weekly":

''[the show's] more about action,'' says [actor Scott] Bakula. ''If we have to blow something up, we blow it up.''


"A different kind of action will occur between Vulcan hottie T'Pol (Jolene Blalock) and all-American engineer Trip (Connor Trinneer), who's mourning his sister's murder by the Xindi. 'She's gonna start using Vulcan techniques to help him get through this,' says executive producer Brannon Braga, 'some of which involve very intimate massage.' Va-va-va-voom!"

I think we're in for another season of T'Pol writhing around in decon gel and the Vulcan equivalent of a teddy (that'd be gray underpants and a clingy undershirt) while the writers punt on the other 35 minutes of the episode with a lot of ass-kickin' . . . er . . . "doing the dirty work of the state-security apparatus."

Posted by mph at 4:33 PM

September 9, 2003

chimpan-a to chimpan-zeeeee

"God... damn you... all... to... heeeellllll!"

Posted by mph at 10:07 PM

It Better Come With a Coin Slot in Its Head

George_W_Bush_a.jpg George W.Bush Bronze Bust

"This bust, in addition to being a symbol of our resolve to fight for our Freedom and way of life, by owning it, will make a statement about you. It will identify you as a collector of a fine art bronze sculpture with a message and one whom embraces the patriotic values that this symbol reflects."

And think how nice it'll look next to your "Defender of Freedom" figurine!

(via TomPaine.com)

Posted by mph at 5:16 PM

Hey! You Put Your Garou in My Ventru!

"You could say he was a brave man. Hell... you could say he was a bicycle. See? You could say just about anything you want!" -- "Doon" (more or less)

My least favorite part of the copyright class I recently took was playing the whole "does it infringe or not?" game, and here's an item that seems to fill the bill for everything I hated about that game, namely that faced with a competent/hungry/pissed off attorney, people can say just about anything they want. (Certainty! I crave certainty! Not "well, it might stick.")

The upcoming movie "Underworld" looks sort of interesting: It's a kind of Matrixey-Bladey sort of thing capitalizing on the universal appeal of emotionally distant hotties in vinyl pants. "Underworld" centers around the forbidden love between a vampire and a werewolf... a refiguring of "Romeo and Juliet." WhiteWolf, creator of a line of role-playing products involving werewolves and vampires, is suing "Underworld's" studio for copyright infringement.

Some of the complaint seems, well, infringey, some of it is sort of stupid, like:

56. In the World of Darkness, some vampires are capable of amazing
speed. In "Underworld," some vampires move with amazing speed.

90. In the World of Darkness, wood does not kill vampires. In
"Underworld," the werewolves do not use wood to kill vampires,
nor mention it as an option.

Regarding point 90, I wonder if "Free Willy" is infringing on "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" because it doesn't have a character named Captain Bly who wants to kill Willy, who is not named "Moby," and neither did "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," but both have whales. If this sort of thing is held up to be infringement, WhiteWolf will essentially get away with saying "If it wasn't in 'Dracula,' but it's about vampires, it's infringing our copyright."

Anyhow, all the links you need are pretty much found on the metafilter thread about the story. I'm only linking to it to have an excuse to try out my "Incredible Mr. Limpet" analogy.

Posted by mph at 2:51 AM

September 8, 2003

Birthday Ambivalence for PuddingTime!

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of Puddingtime! as it appears today (mostly). I had a few blog/journal things, including a sort of bloggish collection of links on the PuddingWiki going back a year before that, and some proto-bloggish things back before that, but it's been a year since I started this project and kept at it. Birthday ruminations follow.

If you look over at the "favored stops" column on the right, you'll see links to a few people who do politics pretty well. Better than I likely ever will.

There, I said it.

Probably because of impending events that I don't feel like broadcasting quite yet, I've been in a "sum it all up" sort of mood for the past few months, trying to figure out what sort of story arc I'd inflict on life, as if someone coming up to me and saying "So, just what the hell are you?" was a real possibility.

One thing I've always figured about myself is a sort of auto-didactic drive. School has always been a helter-skelter thing for me, and it seems that the stuff I'm the very best at is what I spent the least amount of time worrying about in a classroom. A recent bookshelf cleaning/rearrangement reminded me of everything that's caught my eye over the past few years; and revealed to me a sort of anxious need to be very, very good at things that don't even rate as solid passing interests, let alone full-fledged hobbies. The sum of stuff I tried to be good at vs. the collection of skills I actually acquired makes for uneven piles of stuff, but I gave a lot of things the old scout try and I've got, if nothing else, a ton of books to show for it.
It's also contributed to an unfortunate inability, sometimes, to acknowledge that there are some things I can figure out how to do that I'm not the best at; or things that I know something about that I don't know the most about. Within every man lurks a black-sock-wearing dad, out in the lawn with a mower, absolute ruler of all he surveys and final answerer of every question set before him.

So hold that thought.

Weblogs have been around for a while, but I think I started really noticing them in the form people think of as "the modern blog" until after 9/11/01, when it seemed you couldn't follow three links without one of them being someone's warblog. They filled a spot for me.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, I got cc'd on a few widely distributed mails from people who wanted to talk about the impending war on Afghanistan. One mail in particular was a piece of Tom Clancy-inspired wishful thinking that simultaneously amused (you'd have thought US special operations soldiers were bullet-proof ninjas with special bat wings and the ability to walk on ceilings before dropping down on their prey to read it) and revolted (because the bloody slaughter the author gleefully predicted was related in a manner so bright-eyed and eager I had to come to grips with just how cheap life had become in just a few hours). I contacted a few people who were acting as my point of entry into these discussions and politely asked them to make sure they dropped me from the cc: list the next time they sent something out.

I'd been done with the army for just under four years when the attacks happened, knew that I probably would not get recalled to active duty, felt relieved at that thought, and felt guilty about my sense of relief. People who'd never served and were calling for war made me angry and I didn't want their mail in my inbox. The warblogs were useful to me because I needed to know what people were saying, and it was easy to find a warblog and start chasing links. I got just as angry at some of what I read, but had less chance of meeting the authors at a Christmas party where I might end up saying somethign hurtful.

After a few days of unsolicited war mailings, things got back to normal.

The most compelling thing about blogging to me at the time was the way people seemed to be finding their voices all over the place, and the way it seemed like the combination of cheap net access, decent publishing software, and a widespread sense that we were (and are) living in a crucial time was fueling a new sort of civic interaction. I wanted to be involved.

The auto-didactic thing comes in here. I made a few half-hearted stabs at being a political pundit-for-a-day (dig through the archives yourself, if you're curious), but I've come to the realization, after a few years of keeping a personal weblog up and running in one form or another, that there are people who are just plain better at this stuff. Anything I come up with re: most national political issues isn't particularly well-informed, and I hate the idea of spending enough time getting informed enough to actually write something that would contribute, rather than add an echo, to the overall political discussion.

I'm writing this to publicly relieve myself of something pudding-colleague Phil is also suffering from: blog-guilt, which is the malaise that comes from having a blog and not using it to make sure everyone knows exactly what you think on the Pressing Issues of the Day. I'm not going to put three paragraphs together about anything political that you haven't read elsewhere, so I'm not going to waste your time with that.

Snarky asides? Maybe. But life's too short to spend my precious learning time on guilt over a thing I wanted to be good at but just don't feel like doing. Go read Josh Marshall for top-notch opinionating that I agree with most days. I'm good at other stuff.

I feel better now.

Happy Birthday to PuddingTime!.

Post That Says the Same Thing: Why Blog? Mix Tapes and Manners (5/31/03)

Posted by mph at 11:39 PM

The iBook at One Year (Give or Take)

In early July, I marked a year of iBook ownership. Seeing as how I wrote up the iBook after a week and the iBook after a month, I might as well come back to it over a year later and write a "this is pretty much what I think about the whole thing having had a lot of time to use it" summary. Since we're reminding people of things, keep in mind that my occasional Mac-love post is easily avoided by bookmarking the Mac-free pudding flavor.

At some point in the last year, and I'm not sure when, the iBook (and OS X in general) quit being a cultural experience for me. For readers who don't know me, a quick recap is in order:

From 1999 to early 2002 I was an editor/columnist at Linux Today and a few other Linux web sites. When I first took the job, it was a dream come true: I was getting paid to think about Linux all day long. The warm fuzzies, over the course of time, went away because I was also getting paid to moderate discussion forums and the like where Linux fans of just about every stripe, hiding behind the anonymity of internet interactions, pretty much let their ids run wild. I got the occasional hate mail (including one fairly overt threat to me and mine) and had to endure comparisons to everything from Nazi book censors to tobacco company executives. Eventually, I got out of the Linux biz and went on to edit slightly more "secular" technology sites about networking and servers.

For a while after getting out of the Linux sites, I would have told you I hated Linux advocates : they can be rigid, hostile, and abusive beyond all reason over minor "religious" issues. Over the course of the past year, though, as I've "recovered" from the Linux Today experience, I've come to realize (or at least internalize the fact) that almost any self-described advocate or fan of just about anything (from t.v. shows to books to operating systems) can be a real pain in the ass given suitable provocation. And that's gone a long way to soften how I feel about "the Linux scene" in general: It's attracted some lost souls who don't have much beyond their love of an operating system, and if I experience anything other than pity for them (especially anger), it's time to take a deep breath and put them back in perspective. If I find myself singling out Linux zealots for special concern, I just have to pop over to a Buffy fan board to remember zealotry is a universal condition with a lot of outlets. You'd think a former Trotskyist would remember that.

So, once the cultural experience faded, I was left with the iBook as a mere tool.

Twice in the past year, when I've been between large projects or classes, I've given Yellowdog Linux a try (just like I promised in "the iBook at One Month"). The first time, it was terrible: crashy, buggy, and essentially what I thought of as "the Mandrake Linux of the Motorola world": a shoddy repackage of Red Hat that looked nice going on but didn't hold up to use. The second time was a better experience, but I found myself missing the smooth snap-together integration of hardware and software Apple and OS X provide. I also found I'd come to depend on some applications:

NetNewsWire, for instance, doesn't have a peer in the Linux world. I've blogged about it quite a few times. It's one of the best apps I've ever used on any platform. The closest to it in the Windows world (Newzcrawler) comes close, but doesn't quite match.

Watson, similarly, is a wonderful app I use continually.

Outside of applications, there's the issue of the hardware itself: I continue to think the iBook is the nicest piece of hardware I've ever used: I still get good life out of the batteries, the OS/hardware connection is solid and reliable, and the problems I've had were handled by Apple's tech support quickly and efficiently.

Until very recently, the iBook is the only machine I would use for any work. I did all my writing for work and school plus all my editing on it. I used it for graphics work, digital photography, and day-to-day stuff. I finally relented and started using my Windows XP desktop machine when some editing work required the use of Microsoft Office macros that didn't port easily to Office X on the Mac. I also prefer the graphic manipulation horsepower of a 2.4Ghz Athlon over a 500Mhz G3 when they're both running Adobe Photoshop Elements. When it comes time for a new laptop, I have no doubt I'll be picking up another iBook, and enjoying the latest enhancements to the line, including a faster bus and beefed up graphics chips (which will finally let me enjoy Quartz Extreme).

I've also pretty much quit using the Apple X Window port. Ximian's Evolution has never appeared in an easy-to-get form for OS X, and the GIMP, while good, doesn't touch Photoshop Elements when it comes to dealing with digital photography. The only "Linux apps" I still run are mutt and an assortment of server-side tools, all of which I can get at with a ssh session from OS X's terminal app. No need to be running X11 at all, in the end. So I don't.

Regarding the Unix part of OS X, the underlying "unixness" of it stopped mattering as much as it once did, perhaps because all of my diddling with Cygwin, my general reliance on file management on my Linux server, and the overall smoothness of Aqua have made it seem like a "cheaper" component. Make no mistake: Apple's commitment to using and honoring open standards in a way you tend to find in free unixen makes me very happy. I dig having bash as a shell for when I need to open a terminal, I'm glad mail.app understands IMAP and plays well with it. I'm happy iCal uses icalendar. It's good to have something like rsync under the hood. At the end of the day, though, I've got to admit that it just doesn't matter as much as it used to: Aqua and I understand each other, and I get as much done from the OS X GUI as I ever did from Unix command line. The primary benefit of those Unix underpinnings is now a question of interoperability, not interface.

There are still some nags with the machine:

It's not fast enough by a long stretch for anything other than text editing or web surfing. I think anti-OS X Mac people have a legitimate beef about OS X's overall performance on G3s of my iBook's vintage and older. My understanding (and I've seen it borne out) is that the 600-900Mhz iBooks are substantially faster thanks to better graphics chips and faster buses.

Airport and Samba are a poisonous combination. I've come up with a hack/kludge/workaround to fix that, but it's one area where there's no "click-snap" feel to the whole experience. OS X loses its mind when it loses a Samba share unless you plan ahead for the event.

There are evidently wide-spread engineering problems in the displays on this series of machine (which is, in fairness, two years old at this point). I had to take mine in twice to have the display repaired. It seems to be permanently fixed now, but it's an issue nonetheless.

Overall: I know my next laptop is going to be another iBook, and I know it's going to run OS X. I've bought or built a lot of computers since my first VIC20 in 1984, and the iBook is the best combination of form, function, and design I've owned to date.

Posted by mph at 9:39 PM

September 6, 2003

Grinding the Debunking Axe

Update (9/8/03): Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes graciously admitted to her error and apologized to Michael Moore. I continue to hope that Snopes will adopt a more transparent editorial approach, though. Transparency because it builds trust trumps confession because you've been caught.

For a site that prides itself on scolding people with axes to grind and how they sully a world of pure, useful information, Snopes seems to have been caught trying to redact its own axe-grinding in a less than honorable fashion. Lots of links abound, but just start with Ed and work your way from there, hopefully getting to where it all started on Tom Tomorrow's blog.

It would have been nice if Snopes' editors had just decided to make their editorial process more transparent instead of spading dirt over what they got wrong and resorting to hair-splitting to get more right than they initially did. It's the web, y'all: paper and ink are unlimited enough to make all the corrections you need.

NetNewsWire showing revisions in a Yahoo! News item

And while we're on that, I have to make yet another pro-NetNewsWire post. Its latest version includes tracking differences to RSS items and presenting them. (Click the illustration above to see it full-sized.) This particular feature gives the reader an opportunity to experience the editorial process at outlets like Yahoo! News in all its glory. The example I caught today, for instance, is a fine example of the sort of softening that goes on with a lot of leads and summaries over a story's life cycle.

It's reminiscent of WinerWatch, a fun little hack Mark Pilgrim inflicted on Dave Winer, who's apparently unable to take ten deep breaths before posting and who, subsequently, ends up revising a lot of his more inflammatory copy into oblivion, where he can't be held responsible for it.

Posted by mph at 6:24 PM

And The Fourth Bowl Poured Forth Comic Books

"An Empire of Their Own" is The Nation's consideration of the evangelical/political axis dramatized in the immensely successful "Left Behind" series of books, a fictional account of the events in Revelation.

What's refreshing about this article (it's certainly not a new topic: lefties have been fretting about the success of the series for a while now) is the dawning realization that the people reading these books aren't a uniform demographic, and that they're mobilized on a political level.

"The publisher, Tyndale House, says that 85 percent of its readers describe themselves as 'born again,' and almost 65 percent first heard about the series through friends or relatives. The average reader is a white married woman from the South, between 25 and 54 years old, who attends church weekly. Latinos make up 9 percent of the readers; African-Americans are 7 percent. These latter numbers are striking. More than 15 percent of Left Behind readers are people of color--that's certainly a lot higher than the percentage of blacks or Latinos who watch Friends--and it indicates more racial diversity than talk about 'white evangelicals' generally suggests."

Between The Nation coming to grips with the diversity and sincerity found in the evangelical movement and other outlets like the New York Times coming to grips with the fact that a lot of people shop at (and like) WalMart despite its dowdiness, maybe there's hope lefties will come up with a response based on something besides reflexive elitist sniffing at all the rednecks. Dream a little dream, huh?

Posted by mph at 8:08 AM

September 5, 2003

Death to the Blogroll As We Know It! A Modest Proposal

It's been a while since I metablogged, too. Seeing as how the only things I'm particularly worked up about lately would involve throwing elbows and hurting feelings I don't want to hurt, here's an entry. (And don't forget that you can always bookmark the blog-free pudding flavor if you hate this stuff.):

In late July, Doc Searls considered the issue of his dated and useless blogroll. He didn't say "dated and useless," he just said it's not current or useful.

My belated response? Dump your blogroll, Doc. You're spreading your love like a thimble of jelly on texas toast, and the damn thing's impenetrable to a casual surfer anyhow.

I've already fretted about my own place on Doc's blogroll:
". . . last December I wrote an angry "open letter" directed at uber-blogger Doc Searls [...] He took the screed in stride and stuck me in his blog roll (a link list, presumably to blogs Doc thinks you should read), where I've resided ever since. Now, as a "first mover" in the modern blog world. Doc is so widely linked that Google's search algorithms give him some "weight" as a source of information. Google's designers are democratically minded people who built a prejudice in favor of people who get linked to a lot when they worked out what makes certain search results "good." Some weight also accrues to people who get linked by people who get linked to a lot. In the Googleverse, Doc is like King Kong or Grape Ape or a well-loved and widely worshipped Norse pundit deity, and anyone on whom he confers a link gets some of his magical pixie search dust on themselves."

There's no denying I've benefitted from that magical pixie dust since. A vanity search on Google has even got me ranking above "Anthony Michael Hall," something I was never able to accomplish on my own, even when I was the editor of the best Linux news crawl on the web. Doc's musings even drove Ed to fret about his own endangered juice should I end up getting cleaned out in a fit of blogroll purification.

I didn't think much more about the whole thing until today, when I read an article in the Columbia Journalism Review about the influence of weblogs on independent media. I followed a few of the links a panelist in the article mentioned, and found myself confronted by the same sort of massive blogrolls Doc sports. They managed, as such massive link lists do, to be completely useless to a casual viewer. They were organized with pithy headings implying some sort of ideological taxonomy, but were otherwise impenetrable and impersonal.

My past opinions on the issue of Google juice and blogs still stand. Google's a great resource, but blogrolling creates an echo chamber we could do without. Rather than mumbling any more about it, here's a list of what I've had to say in the past:

And all of that leads me to believe that the best solution to Doc's quandary is to dump the blogroll as he knows it. We're not much of a paragon here (we have a blogroll of 13 links), but we keep things limited to two criteria: people we know ("known quantities"), and people/pubs we regularly read ("favored stops"). Anything more would represent a sort of "backatcha" bonhomie I don't particularly feel, and it would make our outbound links less useful since any "juice" we'd be conferring would be diluted by social obligation instead of merit. The juice I'm talking about here isn't Google Juice . . . it's attention span juice. We're humble well-below-c-list bloggers here. Someone coming across our doorstep is probably here from a Google search (according to the logs) or the rare link from another blogger. We've got a few seconds to make our case (or recommend much of anyone) before the visitor flits off to some other site. A blogroll of 100+ links doesn't do them any good. It's not a good collection of useful information.

For people we know (and by that I mean know, not "know of," we'll risk a little dilution. And we'll "vote with our links" for people we depend on to help us order our thoughts on issues that matter to us (either because we trust them or because they're predictable). For everyone else, we'll vote with our links on an item-by-item basis. We just don't want to spread the love too thin.

Posted by mph at 7:59 PM

September 4, 2003

A Crashintosh Fix

Been a while since a Mac post, so here's one:

Jon Udell has a column up about Mac flakiness, specifically when he changes the network under which his Powerbook is operating. The engineers at Apple haven't quite figured out how to keep OS X from going into a screaming tailspin when a Samba share disappears out from under it. It took me about two weeks of crashing my iBook when I first started taking it on campus to figure out what was up and come up with a solution:

The problem seems to be related to some hidden level of complexity under the Mac surface. Sure, you can tell it to dismount a network share, but it doesn't seem to ever give up a belief that the server that share came from is out there lurking somewhere. So I created a network location entitled "Nowhere" that handles the job of shutting down all the network interfaces "officially," so the Mac gives up its belief that secretly it's supposed to still be connected to that Samba share somewhere. This beats dismounting shares one by one, because it will handle multiple shares at once, and it seems to be more thorough than a simple "drag to the garbage can."

The way to do that is to hit the Apple menu, pull up "Network Preferences" under the "Location" menu, select "New Location" under the "Location:" pulldown, and create a "Nowhere" location. Under the "show" dropdown, select "Network Port Configurations" and uncheck each of the interfaces (ethernet, airport, and modem).

Selecting the "Nowhere" location has the net effect of turning off all network interfaces, which in turn causes OS X to perform an orderly and complete detach of any open shares. At least, that's the way it has worked in my experience. Since adopting the "Nowhere" location, I've cut my crashes and hard-locks from a few a week to never (when it comes to changing networks). (Quick added note: It helps, by the way, to switch to "Nowhere" before you shut down and move, not after you're peered up with a new network.)

This doesn't all go toward the substance of what Jon has to say about how much we let Macinbigots get away with ignoring the ever-increasing stability of Windows. Having run WinXP Pro on a fairly consistent basis for a few months now, I'm happy to admit that it's much less squirelly than Windows 9x or ME ever managed (even on the day of a fresh install). Apple isn't in a position to rest on its laurels yet, even if I don't think I'll ever like a notebook more than I like my iBook in terms of sheer "pack up and go and expect it to work" simplicity.

Posted by mph at 9:54 PM

What's Danish for "Ark Commandant"?

O.k. I'll admit it: I thought the assorted Scandinavian languages just happened to have several thousand words that all mean "cold, sterile, and efficient," but it turns out IKEA gets its product names from a variety of sources with a surprising amount of systemization. O.k. Not surprising. These are, after all, the people who are going to furnish the space ark.

Posted by mph at 4:32 PM

September 3, 2003

Islam-O-traitors of the abominably mollycoddling liberal elite

R. Robot is a jim-dandy blog that makes use of a generation of RMS emulation technology to spare me having to visit Andrew Sullivan's page ever again.

Posted by mph at 7:14 AM

September 2, 2003

Back to school

A new political season arrives after a record-breakingly soggy weekend where I live. I've been out for awhile. (I was actually surprised when I saw how long. It just seemed like a few days.) A couple people have asked why, and I can't say for sure. Partly busy, partly at a loss to single out particular outrages, partly feeling a sense of pointlessness, partly sick of being such a smarty-pants.

So I'm going to start slow. Via Cursor, here's a Tom Paine story about Americans wounded in Iraq, and about how there are so few other stories about them. Even this one is unable to give an accurate accounting of just how many there are, although this Washington Post story states a fairly authoritative 1,124.

However, the total number of service people airlifted back to the U.S. is closer to 6,000 and includes those injured in accidents or suffering from physical or psychological illness. To provide beds for them all, Andrews Air Force Base, their first stateside stop before being transported on to their home bases, has had to expand a "contingency aeromedical staging facility" into an indoor tennis club and a community center.

Although the government and media report these numbers with far less frequency and accuracy, they represent lives and families altered or ruined as surely as does the number of those killed (301). (For an excerpt that illustrates how, click More, below.) Both numbers are, of course, climbing.

I hope the President had a very nice vacation.

From "Number of Wounded in Action on Rise," Washington Post, 9/2/2003:

At Walter Reed, a half-hour drive from Andrews, Maj. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the hospital's commanding general, said there were only two days in July and four in August that the hospital did not admit soldiers injured in Iraq.

"The orthopedic surgeons are very busy, and the nursing services are very busy, both in the intensive care units and on the wards," he said, explaining that there have been five or six instances in recent months when all of the hospital's 40 intensive care beds have been filled -- mostly with battlefield wounded.

Kiley said rocket-propelled grenades and mines can wound multiple troops at a time and cause "the kind of amputating damage that you don't necessarily see with a bullet wound to the arm or leg."

The result has been large numbers of troops coming back to Walter Reed and National Naval Medical with serious blast wounds and arms and legs that have been amputated, either in Iraq or at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where virtually all battlefield casualties are treated and stabilized.

"A few of us started volunteering [at Walter Reed] as amputees in 1991, and this is the most we've seen ever," said Jim Mayer, a double amputee from the Vietnam War who works at the Veterans Administration. "I've never seen anything like this. But I haven't seen anybody not get good care."

Posted by pk at 7:50 PM

A Nice Place to Visit...

...but I don't think I'd want to live in Seattle. Back from a weekend there that included a trip to the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Aquarium, and, of course, the Space Needle.

Hari Krishna Exhibit on the Waterfront

The aquarium's pretty nice. We got to watch a puffin feeding and managed to get fairly close to some sleeping sea otters. The hands-on area compares favorably to the Oregon Coastal Aquarium in Newport, but I think the OCA has the overall edge. Neither has much on Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

Sea Otter at the Seattle Aquarium

The Woodland Park Zoo is probably the nicest I've been to since The Brookfield Zoo, which is near Chicago. the Oregon Zoo here in Portland is nice, but Woodland Park's habitat areas are much nicer and seem a lot more comfortable for the animals. The primates, in particular, seem to have better homes.

Komodo Dragon at the Zoo

The Space Needle was one of those "might as well" sort of things. You go up, look around, and go back down with an elevator that opens up in the gift shop.

Seattle from the Space Needle

We added two pennies to our "smashed pennies for $.50" collection, too.

Smashed Pennies

We also went to the Seattle Ikea store, which was our first time in an Ikea. No pictures from there: it was overwhelming. Some of the habitat showcases they've set up look like the illustration to a caption that begins with "In the future, when we've fled our homeworld in giant space arks..." and some of them look like the executive officer's quarters on a nuclear submarine. The place was jammed with college students outfitting their dorm rooms, and it had the largest concentration of Old Navy t-shirts I think I've ever seen in my life. The signage deliberately obfuscates the locations of the exits, too. We bought two lamps, anyhow.

With the exception of a brief sojourn at McChord AFB in 1995 (I was trapped in an Air Force guest house for three days waiting for a cargo plane headed to Ft. Bragg) this was my first visit to Seattle. Not a bad place, but I like Portland's less cluttery feel better.

obMcChordStrandingOf1995Recollection: The only thing on the news channels was the Million Man March. One of the speakers said "We didn't come here to pin the tail on the donkey. We came here to pin the tail on the honkey."

Posted by mph at 7:31 PM