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January 28, 2004

Home

We brought Ben home last night at about 6:30. Sue brought us dinner, which absolutely ruled, then stayed with Al while I went out and acted on my ancient hunter-gatherer instincts by fetching more pillows, batteries for the vibrating stimu-chair (we've removed the kick-activated Arc of Lights and Music for the time being, preferring instead the gentle vibration and rocking, which = catching key pieces of dialog in Futurama in the wee hours), and frozen yogurt.

As of right now, there's a general mood of contentment in the home, punctuated by outbursts of squawking and wailing, but everyone's fine and happy to not be in the hospital.

Seeing as how it's Deadline Wednesday for dad, that's about all I have to say for now.

Posted by mph at 10:33 AM

January 27, 2004

Guardian... Entity

I'm not sure who this is, but he occupies a small alcove in the entrance to the maternity ward at the hospital.

And now I'm off to go bring Al and Benjamin home this afternoon.

Posted by mph at 1:25 PM

January 26, 2004

All Ben, All the Time

There's a much more involved tale to tell at some point in the next few days, but for now the short and sweet is that Al and Ben will be coming home tomorrow morning. They're both doing great, and the time we've spent in the hospital has been really useful. We both feel very lucky to have the nurses and doctors we have.

I'm putting together a gallery of pictures as I slip home to pick up this and that or tend to the cats.

Posted by mph at 3:22 PM

January 25, 2004

Benjamin Arthur Dunfee Hall

Benjamin Arthur Dunfee Hall was born on Saturday morning around 3:30 a.m. He weighs 10 lbs., 4 oz. and he's 22" long.

Mom and baby will be at the hospital until Tuesday morning. Everyone's doing fine.

Posted by mph at 9:34 AM

January 20, 2004

Every Man a Murnau

In the past few days I've been reading up on the digital video scene, which includes a lot of forays into online reviews of software, hardware, books, and other stuff. As usual with any area of human endeavor, there's a lot of spec-waggling and a lot of plain old dickishness on display from the gearheads. I've been trying, when not burning cycles on dealing with Roy (who's back at the vet with bleeding and general listlessness after his surgery) and other concerns, to figure out the eloquent way I'd rebut this sort of fetishism.

It's sort of discomfiting because we're only a few years into the digital video revolution, and there's already a growing sense that some of the people it empowered have forgotten that the appeal of this tech is its populist value.

But what the hell do I know, and what do I have to offer by way of rebuttal except a documentary about a vet's office and some jumpy footage of ducks? Not a lot, outside a recently developed awareness that so much of what we take for granted in film is the result of work done at the dawn of the form. It took about three decades to establish the basics of film language, and everything else has been layered on, or is effective because it's a useful reformulation of the basic grammar that has meaning because it bucks the expectation. The technology available during that period is so crude and sucky as to defy description, and it's true that few people are watching "The Great Train Robbery" because it's a thrilling movie to this very day, but out of that awful technology, bad film stock, and complete confusion as to what an audience would be able to bear in the way of storytelling with moving pictures came the foundations. And even if a particularly feckless movie buff comes along and says the early classics from Porter, Griffith, and the rest suck because they don't live up to what we've got today, we've got things like "The General," "Man with a Movie Camera," and others that are compelling by any standard.

So along comes a guy who's getting a ton of attention at Sundance this year with a documentary he put together using video and Super8, and who edited the whole thing with a copy of iMovie because he just isn't interested in upgrading to, say, Final Cut.

Some Mac-heads will probably gleep all over the screen because they'll think it proves the inherent superiority of Apple gear for this kind of endeavor, but the inspiring part of this story is the way it shows we can tell great stories without a lot of stuff. The fact that the guy was using iMovie and remarkably lo-tech gear also shows the importance of editing and the need for little more than the basics to do that part well, and in a manner that's coherent and watchable by others.

It may be that the director who put the film together won't ever do anything again. In many ways, the movie is his life's work and it sounds, to judge by the story, like we wouldn't want him to have to endure what he did to produce this one. On the other hand, it's nice to know that the means are in hand for a lot of ordinary people to have their shot at producing that one great piece, even if that's all they have in them.

Posted by mph at 2:50 PM

January 19, 2004

"Fetching Roy"

As promised, a documentary of our trip to retrieve Roy from the vet:

fetching-roy-title.jpg
"Fetching Roy" (5:49, Quicktime, ~20MB)

There's also a smaller version: (5:49, Quicktime, ~10MB). It's much lower quality but it's pretty viewable.

There were two challenges.

The first was the straightforward issue of dragging a camera into a vet's office, getting enough footage to put something together (though I imagined something in the neighborhood of two minutes, max), not getting yelled at by a nurse and not failing at the real purpose of the trip, which was getting the poor beast from the vet's without traumatizing him worse.

People don't like cameras, and the vet became addled when he realized I had one. Fortunately, the camera has a fold-out screen, and that made it easy to just hold it in my lap and appear to be staring at my hands while I got the shots I needed without being too obvious about pointing the camera at anyone in particular. It was useful to have the constraint of sitting in one place and just living with what was in my field of view, because it allowed me to revisit several subjects several times instead of catching every single customer/pet who walked through the door.

The second issue was turning what ended up being a forty minute wait into something like a story using the meager filmic vocabulary I have, which amounts to "fade, cut, crossfade, and cut-in" (of which I only used two), with a vague nod at the idea that parallel editing is, you know, desirable.

Fortunately, once I realized we'd be waiting around for a while, I remembered to grab the same shot of the clock every five minutes or so, which gave me a backbone to work with. Several of my subjects cooperated by fidgeting with a little variety in a narrow time frame, which allowed me to edit them into something approaching a "portrait of someone waiting ... a lot."

In the end, I boiled about 65 short takes down into just shy of six minutes (with credits and title cards). Nothing was posed or scripted, though Al was prompted to narrate a few times and I edited out me prompting her.

No idea whether it "works" or not as a real documentary. It's an exercise in taking a bunch of raw footage and seeing if I could convey a story with it more through editing than scripting and dialogue. Since there are title cards, it isn't a complete success on that score. On the other hand, since one of the initial screening audience seated around Michael's laptop said it was obvious that I've seen a lot of documentaries and that I adequately captured the tedium of waiting in a vet's office for forty minutes, it's successful enough.

Please note the download size if you're on a slow connection. There's no real way to shrink it any further, so if you embark on a download over a dialup, go enjoy a sandwich or something.

Posted by mph at 12:19 AM

January 17, 2004

Sick Cat

Cat Roy suffers from periodic urinary obstructions. The vet told us the best thing for him would be Perineal Urethrostomy, which "provides a permanent shorter and wider opening in the urethra of male cats to prevent episodes of urinary tract obstruction."

In other words, neutering wasn't the end of the road for outrages to Roy's genitalia.

He's wandering around the house with what the article calls an "elizabethan collar," but he mainly looks like a mutant cyborg kitty. And he bumps into things a lot.

fetching-roy.jpg

That picture's not the best, but it's what I could pull off the footage. A documentary is forthcoming.

Posted by mph at 9:33 PM

January 15, 2004

Ducks in 20 Seconds

"Ducks in 20 Seconds" promises nothing more than ducks in 20 seconds. Plus a few crossfades. That's all we were out for this evening. Ducks and crossfades.

ducks_in_20_seconds.JPG
"Ducks in 20 Seconds" (1.87MB, Quicktime)

Posted by mph at 11:36 PM

A Quick Observation

Another week, another midwife visit.

The thing I learned at the one we went to yesterday was that any desire I might have to be different from everybody else is pretty much out the window where our little amnionaut is concerned. I sit in my chair in the corner watching Al get poked, prodded, and pushed by the midwife. I listen attentively as Al runs down her list of things that were odd and/or disturbing this week in case she misses one I'll need to supply, and I'm tense until the midwife says "Well, that's normal." At that point, I realize I'm not listening for anything but that.

On a less general note, for those keeping score at home: We're two days away from the later of the two due dates we've been given by warring factions of health care professionals.

I have dreams that the baby has already arrived and that I missed the birth. Al is incapable of shouting after stubbing her toe without me thinking it's time to go grab the hospital bag and pack her in the car. I don't think Al can get any more uncomfortable (and the midwife says she can give us up to two weeks to learn otherwise before induction is much of an option), and both of us pretty much feel like we're in the midst of something very much like limbo.

There aren't a lot of things I can liken the experience to at this point, except one thing:

I remember the way I felt on my first jump at airborne school. Two straight weeks of running everywhere and going through the motions of a jump over and over and over again, combined with a steady barrage of "if you aren't airborne, you're nothing" jabbering from the black-hats made it a pretty easy proposition to get in a chute and get on the plane. After we'd arrived over the dropzone and we'd already hooked our static lines to the anchor cable, and even after the green light was lit and I saw people in my stick moving for the door, I was still pretty much buzzed and amped up. It wasn't until the last three or four paces, when the guy in front of me was already out the door, that I felt what I'd call the wall, a moment of psychic resistance that slowed everything down and made every footstep heavy, like walking into a stiff wind with leaden boots. But that resistance ended with just a pivot and a step to go, and I was headed out the door. And then it sucked again. But for a step-and-a-half, I knew I wanted to walk out into that sky.

This time feels like the breath before that resistance finally gave way, stretched over days.

Posted by mph at 10:18 PM

Making Movies

There's a minidv camcorder in the house now. We picked up a fairly inexpensive one on sale at Sears for about what it would have gone for anywhere online (sure sign of a product on its way out the door to make way for the next generation, I suppose), along with the required firewire card and some video editing software.

Initial observations (and no conclusion):

It's pretty amazing that consumers can do digital video for well under $500, including software. The low entry point involves the same story as every other bit of digital consumer gear. The real entry point is much closer to $600, but it seems the tech is well enough established and has enough generations under its belt that the older economy products are getting just plain cheap quickly. The image quality is not what I'd call tack-sharp, but it's good. And it's all about the editing, anyhow.

When I was in high school and college, media geeks dreamed of owning an Amiga tricked out with a Video Toaster and genlock, which would have set us back several grand, and we still would have had to get a video camera. Video Toasters, for what it's worth, retailed for over $1,500 and the Amiga 3000 with monitor ran $4,100. Now, $75 consumer software does chroma-keying (not horribly well, I'm sure, but there's always Adobe After Effects for around $300 to do it better), which means an ambitious family movie could conceivably take place on Mars.

There are also some fairly good books on the market that are paying attention to the real benefit of digital video over other forms of home motion picture, which is its editability. The same way Photoshop made the digitial camera revolution really work by providing a way to salvage fairly mediocre shots into much nicer images, editing software will make the digital video revolution work. As much as we get a nostalgic feeling from looking at Super8 home movies, there was never an easy way to edit them with any precision, and they're pretty boring because there's no way to create a story with an essentially static string of footage that's hard to edit. With digital video, even the free software that Apple and Microsoft toss out offers a fairly complete editing toolkit. There are a lot of garish effects that are better suited to PowerPoint than a home video, but there are also tools to handle the basic vocabulary of film as it's expressed in transition and tempo. Most people won't bother, but for those who are inspired to try, there's a lot of potential.

That home software market still seems to need some more maturity, though. The titan as far as reviewer love goes is pretty much Pinnacle Studio 8, but for as much as the reviewers are drooling over the features, the average customer says it's a crashy, freezy mess. I got a demo copy with my firewire card, and as much as I admire the long list of transitions and special effects, it is pretty unstable, and the interface isn't much fun. There are several other offerings, but an evening's reading showed me that few of them have hit a real sweet spot in terms of feature list and overall quality. I settled on the consumer version of Video Vegas because it looks, feels, and mostly acts like ACID Music, which I've been using for a few years.

Posted by mph at 2:10 AM

January 13, 2004

Be Vewy Quiet, I'm Hunting Tewwowists. With a Blunderbuss and an Orbital Mind Control Laser

You may have spent some time wondering about the heightened state of terror alertedness we were all at over the holidays. You may have decided, once you woke up to CNN's confusing declaration that we were back to condition yellow, that you were grateful you spent the holidays in fear of a rogue snowplow being piloted into a Dunkin' Donuts (or whatever else your imagination was allowed to come up with for itself) if it meant the French police could stop terror in its tracks by combing the countryside for someone who didn't matter after all.

You may be happy to know that the high level of alert probably also sapped many peoples' will to stand up to the TSA push to get CAPPS II back on the agenda after it was shouted down last time as an unworkable, frightening privacy violation.

That terror alert system is good for something after all.

Related Pudding:

Posted by mph at 3:44 PM

Be Vewy Quiet, I'm Hunting Mawxists!

dagwood.jpg Finally, some campaign reportage I can enjoy:

"Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean today accepted the endorsement of the Workers World Party, declaring that the time had come 'for black and white to unite and fight for a Workerís World.' Together with his endorsements by the International Socialist Organization, the Spartacist League, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, the WWP announcement appeared to solidify Deanís standing as the candidate of the far left."

[...]

"When pressed on the critical question of 'workerís councils' as opposed to the formation of a "revolutionary vanguard," however, Dean seemed to waffle, and his hesitation was immediately criticized by his Democratic rivals, especially Joseph Lieberman, who accused Dean of having "gone down the spider hole of crypto-anarcho-syndicalism"...

avakian3.gif It's a mark of Portland's truly sleepy nature that we don't have any real Spartacists willing to show their faces in public. We get the occasional guy peddling copies of Socialist Worker, but no street theater from The Revolutionary Communist Party, which is still apparently fully under the control of Chairman Bob.

I also don't think we even have any Situationists to battle all these non-existent leftists. In fact, the usual hiding place of anyone who's read anything by a Situationist is whatever gaggle of black-clad anarcho-punks happens through to taunt the liberals down at the demonstration, and I've observed first-hand that our black-clad anarcho-punks are far too busy descending into total paranoia over whether I'm a federal agent when I try to take a picture of them using their own anti-war literature to catch a flag on fire to read their Vaneigem.

I can't believe I'm asking, but where do you go for political sport in this town? When you're tired of wondering how long it will be before a mayoral candidate releases a 900kb PDF outlining his/her position on The Snow Problem, or just wishing there was a coffee shop with a predictable clientele you could count on to provide that one, earnest member of the ISO for a little red-baiting, where's the place to be? Points off to anyone who suggests hassling the Greenpeace canvassers out in front of Powell's ... that's like hanging out in the cafeteria and tripping the president of the local Amnesty Chapter.

Posted by mph at 12:02 AM

January 11, 2004

Man With a miniDV Camera

So far, the camcorder has been used to document exactly two things: older cat Fred hiding in a dark closet and the big-ass ball-of-cups lamp hanging in the living room.

cups.jpg

The night-vision Fred footage isn't particularly interesting, and I'm not good enough with the editing software to make it really dramatic, but the big-ass-ball of cups? Well.

fred.jpg
Keeping score at home? We're officially a "blog with a picture of the owner's cat" now.

Posted by mph at 10:21 PM

January 10, 2004

Falling water

It's good for George W. Bush's 2004 candidacy that revelations about his administration's perfidy in taking us to war in Iraq have been gradual and piecemeal. When unsavory information comes out in dribs and drabs, those inclined to support someone have a tendency to believe his opponents are hysterically overreacting each time, without ever stepping back and considering the sum total. Also, nobody wants to feel naive, so they scoff at each incremental up-tick in the seriousness of the allegations. It becomes numbing, and difficult to sort out what is false, what is new, what is trivial, and what is true, to create a coherent storyline and, out of that, a record that can be accurately judged.

But let's try, shall we, just from what's happened this week? Nothing that follows is going to surprise anyone with the ability to read, a bias towards the truth, and some skill with Occam's razor. I've got another post in me about the recent charges of anti-Semitism, against anyone criticizing "neoconservatives" or even labeling them as such, made by people-who-until-recently-self-identified-as-"neoconservatives" and their columnist cohort, at least one of whom went even farther and flat-out called Dean Hitler and his supporters Brownshirts. For now I'll just take a hopeful view and call it an incoherent and possibly desperate attempt to go nuclear-negative on the Democrats before the dribs and drabs add up to a steady stream. (Links, as usual, courtesy Cursor, Tom Tomorrow, and my own bad self.)

Drib: Via Matt Drudge via Tom Tomorrow, Paul O'Neill's revelation that the Bush administration "began laying plans for an invasion of Iraq including the use of American troops within days of President Bush's inauguration in January of 2001." (UPDATE, New York Times, 1/11: "It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it," said O'Neill. "The president saying 'Go find me a way to do this.'")

Drab: The report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specifically identifying intelligence lapses and projections that, through Oval Office alchemy, became concrete evidence of an imminent threat. With some edits, but nothing irresponsible:

Jessica Mathews, president of the think tank and one of the [report's] authors, in one example said U.N. weapons inspectors said the amount of biological growth medium that Iraq had could produce three times as much anthrax as it had declared if it used all that growth medium to produce anthrax.

President Bush in an Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Ohio, said: "The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount. This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for and is capable of killing millions."

Mathews said this was an example of how a possibility cited by the inspectors became a likelihood and then a "stockpile" in Bush's speech. [My italics and quote marks. pk] "And finally, biological agent [has to be] transformed into weapons," which would require highly sophisticated delivery systems [to be] capable of killing millions, she said.

Joseph Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project at Carnegie and an author of the report, said administration officials dropped caveats. "In that process they changed something that is an opinion into a fact, and they consistently did this," he said at a briefing on the report. -- Tabassum Zakaria, Reuters, Jan. 9, 2004

Drib: "Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper":

The most significant point in Amin's letter, U.S. and European experts said, is his unambiguous report that Iraq destroyed its entire inventory of biological weapons. Amin reminded Qusay Hussein of the government's claim that it possessed no such arms after 1990, then wrote that in truth "destruction of the biological weapons agents took place in the summer of 1991."

It was those weapons to which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell referred in the Security Council on Feb. 5 when he said, for example, that Iraq still had an estimated 8,500 to 25,000 liters of anthrax bacteria. -- Barton Gellman, Washington Post, Jan. 7, 2004

Drab: Powell nonetheless lamely sticks by his guns on the weapons issue. However, with an acknowledgment that is shockingly not shocking, Powell admits that there is no "smoking gun" evidence of a Saddam-Osama connection, despite his own allegations of a "nexus" between same early last year. Still, it does fit with Bush's admission that Saddam didn't seem to have anything to do with 9/11, either. It fits, because it's the truth.

But I think this has the clarity of poetry in crystalizing the often messy business of reality: "We could have done a lot in this lab, but the fact is that this lab never existed."

Indeed. Powell appears to have one foot out the door whether or not Bush is reelected, and, living by a code that curiously chooses loyalty to management over loyalty to country, apparently wasn't and could never be the moderating influence we hoped for. And Bush and his supporters will repeat until they're blue in the face that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power--as indeed it is--and that their zeal for his dismissal, however misleading and/or blind to the facts it made them, will, in the end, be for the good of history and humanity.

Time, and their ability to finish the job, will tell. I hope for an accurate accounting of the cost in Iraqi and American lives--including those wounded--every step of the way, lest history be unable to fairly judge. For the purpose of judging Bush as president, isn't it enough that he lied to and deceived us every step of the way towards a war whose planning pre-dates the catastrophic crime that we have been told was its motivation? Or does the public merely interpret each new kernel of evidence and the angry response it provokes as more hysteria in the American political soap opera, without ever putting it all together as something meaningful to them?

That, of course, is what Bob Dole said of the American voter with regards to Bill Clinton. It goes without saying that people like me are equally driven to distraction at the apparent willingness of the American voter to believe and vote for a candidate who, to us, seems patently dangerous and dishonest.

I can imagine how howlingly infuriated moralists and GOP partisans were that people like me were not as appalled as they over Bill Clinton's Oval Office indiscretions--which is to say, appalled enough to declare his administration over. Heck, I was appalled. It was one of the most appallingly stupid things a president has ever done--and it was done by one of our smartest presidents. You could argue that any man capable of such stupidity is simply unfit for the presidency, and there's no question that it changed the way I view Clinton's administration.

But there is personal morality, and there is public morality. This era's Republicans, who declare there can be no distinction, benefit from the magnanimity of we who say there can, because our inclination to believe that, and their supporters' inclination to ignore their indiscretions, frees them of both accountability and the stench of hypocrisy.

This is both a strength and a weakness for liberals. Clinton wasn't impeached; the public didn't believe that what he did merited dismissal. And yet, Americans still like a little (maybe a lot of) preaching from their politicians. They like to hear our vaunted morals ringing in the air from time to time, even if they know that they and those who serve them have feet of clay.

I believe that personal indiscretions are just that, but hypocrisy involves public morality. A politician's hypocrisy is, by definition, public, and it shows him to be arrogant, opportunistic, shameless, and dishonest. It shows a lack of understanding of himself and, more important, a lack of compassion for others. Because we are all moral strugglers, every day of our lives. Moralizers who fail have failed twice, and damaged more people by so doing, because they have removed another fraction of charitability from the public discourse without any more authority than the persons they have condemned.

So that's how I square my excusal of Bill Clinton's dishonesty with my outrage over George W. Bush's. And that's why I say, "No, you're wrong," when people lazily attribute Democrats' rage over Bush to a desire for revenge for Republicans' pillorying of Clinton. Bill Clinton betrayed his family. George Bush has betrayed America.

Posted by pk at 2:55 PM

Pretty Is As Pretty Does

There's a distressed squawk from Jim Henley re: Hesiod's comments calling Colin Powell a "Stepin Fetchit" who "dances for his massah."

"Will some liberal bloggers please try to get through to Hesiod," he asks, suggesting "maybe he'll take the objections of a true ideological confrere more seriously."

Hesiod isn't interested:

"[...] maybe I could say the same thing without using racially charged phrases like 'massah,' and 'stepin' fetchit.' But would they have the same impact? I doubt it."

In other words, he's out of grownup words.

"I hope it makes people angry. That's the point. Then they'll understand how I feel about the man right now."

Paraphrasing yet again, he's throwing a tantrum, spelling out how he feels by smearing poo on the walls.

So we're confronted with someone who, when words fail him, decides that rather than practicing the wisdom of occasional silence will instead resort to the most hateful language he can think of. And when called on his tantrum will stubbornly insist that he'd use the same language for Robert Bork while trying to cloak his fit in some sort of legitimacy by noting that "sme[sic] prominent African American leaders" have said the same thing.

I'd submit that Hesiod's true confreres could be just as easily located on FreeRepublic.com, IndyMedia, Democratic Underground, or wherever else rageaholics congregate to vent at the expense of the credibility of those in service of an ideal. Sometimes ideology is less an expression than a vehicle. And pretty is as pretty does.

Posted by mph at 12:35 PM

My Shaky Hand, Immortalized

Futzing around Daypop netted me the Fontifier. You download a template, use a felt-tip pen to write the alphabet, numbers, and some other characters, scan and upload the sample, and get back a truetype font of your handwriting:

fontifier.jpg

It helps to pay attention to the baselines on the template.

Free for now.

And I'm wondering what sort of hand-drawn dingbats might not look kind of cool.

Posted by mph at 12:10 AM

January 8, 2004

There and Back Again

(A Shopper's Tale)

Nothing to do for it. Checks had to be deposited and we were hungry for something more than the faded cans of soup on the shelf at Jae's, so I bundled up, grabbed my walking stick and headed off for the Fred Meyer on Hawthorne.

There was no point in threading through the neighborhood, as yesterday's abortive misadventure proved, so I stuck to Belmont this time. The sidewalks are almost completely impassable, but there have been enough cars up and down the street today that it's become a sort of pedestrian mall, with an uneasy truce between cars and walkers holding as of noon. The sidestreets are still pretty much iced and snowed in. Some have been roped off. I'm not sure if that's happened because of a muncipal authority or because someone in the neighborhood doesn't fancy the thought of a four-wheeling dolt ending up in his or her living room. There have been a few of those in the past few days. God bless them, the savages. Two tons of metal sliding around on a three-inch-thick sheet of ice = big fun for them.

I was glad I took my walking stick. Three times I nearly fell over only to dig the metal tip of the stick into the ice and pull myself up. Watching other people waddling down the street, even on the relatively easy parts (where easy = icy slush), made my shoulders hurt.

39th Street was in much better shape than Belmont, but the sidewalks were more iced over and there's no walking on the street there because the traffic is too heavy. So the last 150 or 200 yards to the Fred Meyer were hard going. Making it there felt like an absurd accomplishment.

In the store, the people behind the counters were fairly punchy. There was a sense of snow day camaraderie. At the deli, the woman behind the counter barked "Drive, walk, or bus?" at me, then started laughing in a gurgling, hacking cough. Stock boys were leaning solicitously on counters and flirting with cashiers. There was minor turmoil in the dairy section. During bad weather, milk and bread are always popular. Produce is left untouched, even in the granola-encrusted precincts of southeast Portland, because it isn't nearly as comforting to heft in the hand as a two gallon drum of Dinty Moore, which you know will not only survive the snow, ice, and resulting flood, but the eventual breakdown of civilization and the flight of small gift shops and quaint boutiques.

On the way back from the store, I was comforted to run into Kay the Mailman. I tried to get a nice "Kay framed against the sky" shot as he made his way down 39th, but he turned around and saw me, so I spoke to him instead.

"Good to, uh, see you guys out and around," I said.

"Yeah, brother! Since yesterday. Yeah!"

I didn't mention our own letter carrier, who didn't bother to pick up our mail yesterday, forcing us to walk it down to a box. Judging from the spikes on Kay's boots and the set of his shoulders as he plowed through the ice, the mail people are probably really ruing that whole thing about "neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night," let alone "swift completion." I'm guessing "swift completion" has devolved into not casting a second glance at any house that doesn't get a ration of junkmail and bills. I don't blame them.

I got him to pose for a picture. Initially he flexed and bared his teeth at me in a ferocious snarl, but thought better of it when he saw me lock the frame and settled into something less menacing.

On the rest of the way home, I had "O Superman" going through my head, which was a decided improvement on what I had in my head on the way out to the store. Four years with Uncle Sugar left me unable to walk any distance alone without thinking of a jody call.

Once off 39th, it seemed like Belmont had gotten a little less icy, but the truce between pedestrians and cars was eroding as the cars discovered they could go faster. I passed the neighbor lady (the one I suspect called my car into the police) as I turned down 48th on the way for home and warned her that the cars were getting tired of us.

Posted by mph at 1:03 PM

Desired Results

I've got a weird habit when I'm reading web pages. I tend to click-select text up and down the page while I'm reading. It's a nervous, fidgety thing I do. Sometimes, when I'm using Mozilla or one of its derivatives, the selection eventually becomes "stuck," and I have to close the window to de-highlight the highlighted text. In NewzCrawler, my Windows RSS reader, it causes the following dialogue to pop up if I do it long enough:


(click)

So, according to the dialogue, I can either "debug," "send error report," or "don't send." It's a choice I face at least two or three times a day.

If I click "don't send." the program window remains open for a bit, then it closes, but the tray icon remains, which I have to right-click to close. It takes about five seconds from crash to exit. If I click "send error report," I have to go through the whole rigamarole to tell Microsoft what went wrong. I think I did it once just to be a good citizen. I don't anymore. It never occurred to me to click "debug," because I wouldn't be able to make sense of the results anyhow.

It's frustrating that my fidgeting makes the program crash, and I've really come to hate the long pause between clicking "don't send," waiting for the program to die, then mousing over the tray icon to really exit the crashed program.

Today I accidentally clicked "debug." The program exited instantly and cleanly. No tray clicking! I deliberately fidget-crashed the program three more times just to make sure my new workaround really works. Sure enough, every time: click debug, no right-click of the system tray.

Don't ever let anyone tell you Windows doesn't encourage people to explore their computers.

Posted by mph at 2:09 AM

January 7, 2004

Curse You, Cruel Caradhras! er... Yamhill Street!

Well, Al got stir-crazy and my head had one of those moments of "not so full of snot that I want to die," so we decided to make a break for the neighborhood Fred Meyer down on Hawthorne.

Step One: Using a garden spade, shovel accumulated snow off the steps after cracking through the layer of ice that formed when the freezing rain came. Done. I manfully ignored the strange wheezing sound I made with every inhalation. The Men of Portland are doughty!

Step Two: Walk to the Fred Meyer. We make it about 150 yards down 48th St. before realizing it's hopeless. Al quote: "If I keep walking, I'm going to go into labor." Seeing as how the Saturn is encased in ice and buried under six inches of frozen snow and guarded by a savage Ice Balrog with a frozen whip, that's not a good thing to hear. So we turn around. But we're frustrated. So there's always good ol' Jae's (Low Beer Price!) across the street from home. Either that or making a sled and pulling Al. The Men of Portland aren't that doughty.


(click)

Belmont St. is an anarchic mess of coexisting cars and pedestrians. It's as if civilization has ground to a halt.


(click)

The hilarious part is that it would have taken this much snow landing all at once well after midnight to inspire so much as a delay in Indiana or the Chicago area. Portland, though, is down for the count. School's been cancelled for two days. The clinic where Al's supposed to have an appointment with her midwife has been closed since yesterday. The local pub has shut down. All in all, it seems like a miracle that there was someone behind the counter at Jae's on hand to sell us PopTarts and cornmuffin mix.

Contrast that with the Great Blizzard of '79 in Chicago, when it was a "business as usual" day on which a gigantic icicle detached itself from the Sears Tower and smashed a car on the street below. It made the news, but the point is, there were eyewitnesses present. If a giant icicle fell in downtown Portland today, I'm not sure anyone would be there to see it.

Tolkien Miscellania: You pronounce that ca'rathras ('th' as in 'rather'). At least, so says The Encyclopedia of Arda.

Area News Coverage Miscellania: The reporter out at the airport (where people are stranded), just milked some yucks out of calling it "the area's largest homeless shelter." What a wit. The Starbucks must be running low on whipped cream.

Posted by mph at 2:38 PM

Head.... Full

The last few days have been a gray, twilight struggle with some sort of sinus thing that's reduced me from a figure of anti-pain-relief rectitude to a sniveling, whining, Tylenol-popping crybaby. I still hate it when people call painkillers "medicine," but I'd call pseudephedrine "mama" and dance around with sparklers in an Uncle Sam hat if it would make the gum-throbbing, green-phlegmy, groan-when-I-sit-or-stand unhappiness go away.

But in the meantime, the world continues to turn and with the snowstorm that's managed to paralyze Portland for two days straight, I'm stuck in the house, pacing around like a caged animal when I'm not hiding under the blankets, praying for a purging fever. Oh, that and also hating software.

My hatred of software is only fanned when I get on IM with Ed, who will happily and smilingly change operating systems the way the rest of us change socks. But it's like all software is one of those beds where you can key in a "sleep number," only not all numbers are available, and every time you think you've found a sweet spot, someone comes along and changes it, so what used to be comfortable and familiar is now lumpy and irritating.

There are a few exceptions here and there. Plain text editors like Emacs and BBEdit never seem to disappoint much. Emacs suffers less from poor design than it does a belligerent and hostile user community with hypnotic compulsions against explaining how anything works. They could tell you, but they'd have to chew their own tongues in half and jump out a window trying. Long before they get to that point, they'll just tell you to use Notepad and run away laughing, spraying milk from their noses.

But then there's stuff like Trillian.

I spend a lot of time on IM for both work and personal stuff, and I have contacts on Yahoo, AIM, and MSN Messenger. I hate running more than one IM client. So I picked up the free version of Trillian, a multi-protocol client, which is pretty slick. They're putting the freebie version out there as an inducement to step up to the better supported and more featurful full version. After using Trillian "lite" for over a year, I decided to pay the dough for the full version. I was reminded, in the midst of the ordering process, that they don't do refunds, because if Trillian Lite isn't up to your standards, you shouldn't bother paying for the full version. Great. I remember the smug sense of well-being I had when I keyed in my credit card number. That smug sense of well-being disappeared in a cloud of smoke about fifteen minutes later when I realized that the full version of Trillian is a crashy, mean-spirited app that periodically continues to tell the world you're still logged on and available but quietly discards any incoming messages. Or rather, the "stable" version is crashy and mean-spirited, while the "unstable" beta you can download gets rid of the crashes and replaces them with the message discarding.

Word processors?

If I wanted a large, slobbering dog that brought me my slippers under any circumstances (including times when I needed my galoshes), I'd go down to the pound and adopt one.

Finally, and thanks to the massive time I'm spending under Windows lately, there's the terrorware I've installed from McAfee. It's supposed to stop viruses, but when it isn't given a chance to intercept and halt a mail message without a subject (I have one correspondent who hates subject lines), it settles for periodically flashing a panic-red sign in the corner of the screen that looks for all the world like it must surely mean "YOU ARE UNDER ATTACK! PULL THE PLUG NOW! AWAIT THE ARRIVAL OF THE AUTHORITIES!" but really just says something like "Didja know that there's a virus called FlimFlam.99? Well, there is. And it's gunning for you. But you don't have it. Yet." When I walk out of the house, it's with the awareness that we're under an orange terror alert. McAfee is very thoughtful to keep me in a similarly aroused state of fear and uncertainty even while at home.

But just when I'm down at the deepest pits of anguish over how bad it all is, I can turn to OSNews, where a firm belief in the eventual perfectibility of all things reigns supreme. The site's editor is irrepressible. A goddess. Unflappable in her willingness to calmly accept a review copy of server software and complain about how funny the default fonts look. Were she a samurai, she would glow with the knowledge that even if her head were separated from her neck, she would finish cropping a proposed mockup of a file dialog.

Posted by mph at 1:14 PM

January 6, 2004

Trend du Jour

I've added blogmarks to the sidebar. Sam provided the inspiration for how mine look. In the case of PuddingTime!, though, they're driven by a stripped down MovableType weblog and either Zempt or the usual MT bookmarklet. I haven't gotten around to making a feed out of them yet.

I've read several reasons for people to do something along the lines of blogmarking. In my case, it was driven mostly by design considerations. 18 pt headlines looming over a simple link look goofy and cluttery. It also feels like less effort. Less effort good.

Posted by mph at 9:55 PM

January 5, 2004

The Great Wall of America (Online)

I've suspected for a while now that AOL's spam filters have a screw loose. Communicating with one professor, for instance, has always depended on making sure I fire up a mail client that uses my ISP's SMTP relay (instead of the one I maintain on the server anyhow). Today I got a bounce message from a scoop post that said a URL in the message being bounced had been the subject of complaints. Easy enough to consult the archive and check messages against the logged bounce. The URLs in the message AOL was so troubled by? An add for MSN appended by Hotmail (the host from which the user sent the offending message) and a link to a USA Today article.

<Cue wild generalization based on one experience>

Maybe it's just time for AOL to go back behind the wall it used to maintain when it was nothing more than an ambitious BBS for consumers with brand new 2400 baud modems. Then it'll never have to worry about spam ever again (except when its user population turns on itself), and the rest of us will be free of wondering why our AOL-imprisoned correspondents are randomly unable to receive our mail.

ObLinkToSeptemberThatNeverEnded

Posted by mph at 4:56 PM

January 4, 2004

The Fantasy Reading List (and a call for recommendations)

Just wrapped up a reading of George R.R. Martin's "A Storm of Swords," the third book in his "Song of Ice and Fire" series. Looking down the reading list, it's pretty easy to tell the release of "Return of the King" in the theaters has my fantasy interest up again. I'll be starting "The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian" this evening at bedtime (hat-tip to Jim Henley for recommending this one). After that it'll probably be Marion Zimmer Bradley's "The Mists of Avalon," and then there are a few coin tosses involved. I've got a sense that my interest in Arthurian stuff will be running high, so I might give Parke Godwin's "Firelord" a spin (it'd be new to me) or maybe T.H. White's collection.

After that, I could stand to re-read Godwin's "Beowulf" retelling if the Tolkien estate doesn't get around to releasing Tolkien's translation this year.

One series I dropped a long time ago is Katherine Kurtz's Deryni books. I picked up "King Kelson's Bride" in a bookstore, didn't get a good vibe from it (after waiting for years for the series to pick back up again), and put it back down. I see a new book is out ("In the King's Service"), but I'm not sure whether it's worth the time. Anyone know anything about Kurtz's later Deryni efforts?

I'm sorry to note that the first three Black Company books in my collection seem to have gone out on permanent loan somewhere. That's another bit of light fantasy I wouldn't mind having on hand in the next few months.

Decent fantasy recommendations are welcome, too. I'm pretty much going over previously explored territory with all this. I've put my hand on some of Robert Jordan's stuff, but haven't bothered to bring any home. People tell me Stephen R. Donaldson is a quality read (I did a few of the Thomas Covenant books in junior high, but they never grabbed me), and I've got one very fervent recommendation for Pullman's "His Dark Materials" books as The Smarter Harry Potter.

Posted by mph at 10:27 PM

January 3, 2004

Talkin' Words

A few days ago I mentioned that Language Log is one of my favorite recent finds. A recent thread about the asinine and politically-motivated gotcha-hunting of W. caught my attention, and I was looking to link it all up, but Ed beat me to it, and also added a few thoughts of his own.

Not much more to say to that (Ed's much better at this stuff than I am), besides this:

Al's a former Spanish teacher, and she feels a real affinity with Mexico. So when people would ask her whether she was teaching "high" Spanish or the "corrupt" Mexican version, it always elicited a cringe from both of us. Sure, Spain has an academy to sort out what's "correct" Spanish, but there's also a whole country with a population that seems to be able to manage the everyday tasks of selling each other Pepsi and picking each other up at singles bars despite the "fallen" nature of their collective Spanish. That oughta count for something.

Language Log hit on another aspect of the "he's an idiot 'coz he mispronounces things" issue with an entry on mispronunciation and autodidacts. I remember being laughed at for pronouncing "carrion" kuh-RYE-un instead of with a stress on the first syllable. Sorry, man, I learned it in fourth or fifth grade during my first reading of "Lord of the Rings," and it's not like mom and pop or Ms. LaFinn were using the word daily.

Since consistency seems to get trotted out a lot when defending linguasnobbery, I'll point out that I forgave one dear friend who pronounces "visceral" vie-SEE-ruhl as readily as I forgave myself for the whole carrion gaff.

On further reflection, and though it should go without saying:

Yes. I understand that we should all strive for maximum clarity. But when your friendly neighborhood pedant insists on shutting down discussions and chilling others into silence with boorish corrections meant less to clarify than provide some sort of rhetorical delaying action, I get a lot more irritated than I do when someone misuses a word around me.

Posted by mph at 7:34 PM

I, Nerd

Contraction Timer is a piece of Palm software that, well, times contractions. For women in labor.

contractiontimer.gif

So add the Palm to the list of encumbrances I'll be keeping close over the next few weeks, along with cell phone. I keep the phone on about three days out of the month, then I forget to plug it back into its charger and it sits under a stack of magazines or papers until I think I need it again. Starting next week, with a return to classes, I'll be doing better about that.

But downloading Palm pregnancy software is a welcome diversion from patrolling parenting web sites.

I collected a lengthy list of links to representative samples of assorted parenting issues, like the efficacy/desirability of circumcision, the whole "attachment parenting" thing, discussion boards about how to teach the kid to sleep, and web pages devoted to debunking parenting theories the authors didn't agree with. After a few days of chasing down each of those rabbit holes, I'm relieved to say I'm going agnostic on the baby ideology thing.

We've got a "baby game plan" that smells about like what we are as people. We each know what we got from our families that we wanted and can look back on as good things, and we know what we didn't get that we want to provide. We're trusting ourselves to sort that out as we go, with help from a few guides here and there. Much more, and I suspect we'd be moving into the territory of a lot of well-intentioned but doomed approaches involving attempts to turn the baby less into a human being and more into a deterministic system from which the parents can hope to extract predictable results based on consistent inputs.

Folks might note the presence of a few buzz-words in my list of site topics, but little in the way of specifics. That's because the other thing I learned as I read through these sites is that people hang a lot of hope on these methods, and stake a lot of their own belief in their efficacy as parents on having backed the right developmental theory horse.

I've met a few people hung up on adherence to the right baby ideology, or the need to file regular status reports on the curve-busting rapidity with which little Baby X is growing into a dimension-shifting neo-human, and it always makes me nervous, not because I think "My own parental fervor will need to be as great," but because I sense that discussions on differences in approach will never be free of at least a little unpleasant dissonance.

Put this all down as incomplete thoughts, I suppose, but it just seems like hanging so much on "Dr. X's Guide to Making Your Baby Y and Z" is a good way to guarantee future misery when the child proves him or herself to be a human, and not a deterministic system.

(Link via code: thewebsocket;)

Posted by mph at 12:26 PM

January 2, 2004

And Cotton Candy, Too!

After reading about the fact that we now have jet fighters "escorting" planes into US airspace, I was worried about what kind of world I was bringing a child into. Then I went to Elmer's for lunch, had a "country cousin" skillet, fought back my heart's desperate attempt to seize up, and rummaged through the DumDum bin at the checkout. I nearly went for my usual cherry DumDum until, begorrah!, I noticed a chocolate one. Wow. I don't think we had chocolate DumDums when I was a kid.


(Click for a larger image)

In fact, a quick check of the DumDum homepage tells me chocolate is a new flavor, and I should probably make sure to vote for it a few times to make sure it sticks around. I'm also voting for the eventual inclusion of banana, lemon, and cherry cheesecake.

"Mystery flavor" can burn in hell. And I love my wife, but her love of watermelon flavored DumDums is just sick and wrong. Watermelon-flavored candy of any kind is pretty much an abomination. Disagree? Watermelon Hubba Bubba. I rest my case. Eew.

Posted by mph at 4:03 PM

I, Misanthrope

Wednesday afternoon, Michael and his out-of-town friend Darren (he's a lawyer and he's responsible for handling some of the RIAA suits against file sharers in the midwest) stopped by to pick up a package Michael had shipped to my house so Sue wouldn't see it. (It was her birthday present.)

We spent some time talking about the virtues of shopping online:

Darren: Yeah... I totally got my shopping done in 80 minutes on Amazon this year.

Me: Oh... right... buying MP3 players for all those underprivileged kids.

Then I got launched into my whole "With my espresso maker and a wireless access point I don't need to go to coffee shops" rant, ending with "What the hell do they have that I don't have here?"

Michael: People. They have people you can interact with.

Darren: And the outdoors. You can go outside to get there.

Me: I don't care about the people. I'm ignoring them. And I check my mail each day. I have to lean out the door to do that.

Later, on further reflection...

O.k. I'll admit it. I'd think going to coffee shops to hang out would be much cooler if I had someone to hang out with, like Ed and Nate do.

Posted by mph at 11:17 AM

Netflix for Gamers

Gamefly lets you rent two games at a time with no overdue dates, with the option to buy at some point. If Netflix offered a "let us bill your account and we'll ship you the box and additional materials for the DVD you want to keep" I think I'd swoon.

Posted by mph at 11:06 AM

Election 2004 in a Nutshell

Jesse Walker notes that Robert Anton Wilson seems to get it best:

These days, choosing your politics is a matter of choosing who youíre more afraid of, the Washington cabal thatís openly trying to erase your freedoms or the various foreign cabals that are openly trying to kill you. Like it or not, weíre living in Robert Anton Wilsonís world.

Posted by mph at 9:59 AM

GNUS + RSS = Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Ed's casting about for a decent RSS aggregator for Mac OS 9 and reporting that Amphetadesk isn't bad. Snappy reports GNUS does RSS, but I've got no idea what the state of Emacs on OS 9 is.

Just trying to help make a connection here.

Posted by mph at 9:53 AM

January 1, 2004

Snow Day! (And a plea for help with a mystery)

Update: Make sure to check out the comments. As b!X points out, we're supposed to send money to Iran (not "Tran"), and it turns out that Dolly the Misfit Doll is psychologically scarred. I think it ought to be clear to all and sundry that less time spent nipping at the brandy bottle and obessing about the Tran controversy is probably in order. Thanks, b!X! -mph


Not the most eventful night last night: Alison's not digging moving around much right now, so we spent the night in watching John Malkovich turning Tom Ripley into Hannibal Lecter and going through stored up "South Park" and Buffy episodes on the TiVo.

When we woke up this morning, it was to a Portland blanketed in snow, and this vaguely weird sign on the neighbor's door:


(click for a larger image)

It reads "Send Money to Tran."

There's a Tran in our neighborhood. He owns the garage right behind our house, which is the source of much dissent among the homeowners because he has the nasty habit of parking derelict vehicles on the street, and because the VW Microvan that's been gathering moss there for some time is periodically the home of people drifting through. When we first moved here, my Volvo got a ticket because I'd let the Virginia plates on it expire, and a neighbor called it in thinking he was spiting Tran.

Here's Tran's:


(click for a larger image)

I guess on the "eyesore scale," Tran's isn't very pleasant to look at if you've recently spent the money some of these people are spending to move here, but under fresh snow it doesn't look so horrible. I'm still not clear on the message, but the neighbors are out today so I haven't been able to go over and ask. The last person who lived in their house fantasized to me that she wanted to buy Tran out and open a trendy soup restaurant and coffee shop. To the extent my wireless access point is about fifty feet from Tran's back wall, I'm relieved she didn't: WEP kills throughput.

We decided to go for a walk down to Laurelhurst Park (home of the notorious Tres Geocache) to see how it looked. Not many people out except the occasional bleary-eyed 20-something with a wallet chain and a chipped "scored this for $.35 at the Salvation Army" mug. Movie Madness was open and doing some business. There were joggers.

At the park , there were a lot of people out. Some kids had taken the wheels off of their skateboards so they could snowboard down the sidewalks. The usual collection of duck and geese feeders were there, blithely ignoring the signs that point out that feeding the damn things will eventually kill them.


(Click for a larger image)

Ever since a traumatic day 16 years ago, when I told a visitor to Yellowstone that the bowl of sherbet his wife was feeding a marmot would probably harm the animal and earned an angry "mind your own business" for my troubles, I've backed off being a wildlife scold. When I've got a kid old enough to ask why we aren't feeding the ducks, I'll probably take advantage of the opportunity to loudly tell him "Because we don't want them to die, son, but those mean people over there do!"

Heh.

Save your outrage. It's either that or teaching him to key Hummers when the coast is clear.

While we were at the park, we noticed several snowmen (and more than a few balls of snow rolled up to about waist-high before being abandoned).

Interesting thing about Portland snowmen. They're either fairly abtract:


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Or they're freakishly representational, with many of the ones we spotted today including not only facial features, but bits of pine branches and needles for hair:


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I've never lived anywhere else where people have included hair on their snowmen. Alison suggested it might be because there's an abundance of pine with which to make the hair. I think it's because they only get this much snow once every eight or ten years and just don't have a real body of lore on the matter and don't understand you don't put hair on snowmen. Whatever. So much else is nice here that I can live with their confusion on the matter.

Once outside the park, we noticed that the snowman situation improved a little, with this fascinating Janus-like, two-faced snowman.


(click each for a larger image)

Note how it manages to both capture the traditional requirements of the snowman form with the nose of real carrot, while also complying with our neighborhood's boho aesthetic by presenting features from found objects like a sparkplug or a corncob skewer.

At the same time, there were also more artsy expressions, like this snow goose, spreading little wing stubs as if yearning to fly:


(click for a larger image)

And there were a lot more with hair, too. The more I thought about it, the more it creeped me out. Imagine if a snowman came to life and had the features its sculptor had included, only real. A snowman with hair coming out of its head would be unsettlingly organic. Yick.

One more mystery came up when we stopped in at the Shell on the corner of 39th and Belmont:


(click for a larger image)

You might recognize her as the doll from the Rudolph Christmas special. She lives on the Island of Misfit toys along with the square-wheeled train (problematic) and the jam-shooting squirt gun (less problematic: what kid wouldn't want one of those?). But what's the problem with her? She seems pretty normal. Anyone with an answer based on the text itself (and not wild assertions about her sexuality or assorted emotional issues) is welcome to contribute some clarification.

Posted by mph at 8:44 PM