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April 30, 2004

American Torture

You've probably seen or heard about this by now; I had, but I hadn't seen the pictures. I'm sure there are more, but I haven't dug around. The link is to the Sydney Morning Herald (via Billmon).

The lead photo is almost theatrically chilling, a bizarre juxtaposition of high art and low crime. It looks like a scene from the Cabaret Voltaire or the stylized staging of some parable rather than a stark photo record. It's unbelievable, and almost overwhelming.

The whole story is disturbing on many levels, probably the least of which is the physical harm inflicted on the prisoners. We all know that human bodies are damaged and destroyed by war. But this is sick, twisted; evidence of dark, bestial impulses that shouldn't even arise, let alone be played out by uniformed representatives of one country upon citizens of another.

Americans should not be blind to the way this sort of psycho-sexual frat-house hooliganism flows logically from the dehumanizing aspects of war, and neither should we expect that those whom we wish to make allies will be blinded to it by our bright-lit rhetoric. This is vile behavior, made infinitely worse by the fact that this war has been undertaken for no other reason than to promote our Enlightened Way. There is literally nothing, now, to give this war legitimacy in the eyes of suspicious Iraqis and doubtful Americans other than the idea that we, in our great and decent desire that others should live as we do and by our example, are administering the strong medicine of democracy to heal the Iraqi people. And so this is who we are:

forcing Iraqis to conduct simulated sexual acts

naked Iraq prisoners stand in a human pyramid, one with a slur written on his skin in English

male prisoners positioned to simulate sex with each other

a detainee with wires attached to his genitals

a dog attacking a prisoner

an Iraqi man who appears to be dead and badly beaten

Americans, men and women, in military uniforms, posing with naked Iraqi prisoners

the Americans are laughing, posing, pointing or giving the camera a thumbs-up

My point isn't to demonize these or any U.S. soldiers. My point is that this is what humans can be reduced to when they start to play at war, which is why, it seems to need saying, war isn't something to be played at. You have to have solid reasons, clear goals, and sound plans, because war turns loose all sorts of counterproductive demons: good people become depraved, innocent people become dead, sympathetic people become enemies. Even a controlled burn can become an all-consuming firestorm, an element unto itself.

I don't know how to address the geopolitical goals of our leaders, their venal arrogance or their rank incompetence, but I do know that American citizens have to be disabused of the fantasy of our exceptionalism, our national infallibility, our inherent Goodness, which, ever since September 11, has metastasized into this martyred-saint hysteria.

Like a laboratory plague set free by the terrorists, our glorious rage is bringing about precisely the conditions they wanted, as we have swept into one war and then another, convinced that merely by the goodness of our nature whatever we touch will be made golden--and if it is not, then it is because we have not stood firm enough, showed resolve enough, or supported the troops enough. It is never because we have chosen an unwise course, lazily following leaders whose flattery of our character and indulgence of our lifestyle absolve us of any need for awareness, responsibility, or sacrifice.

In this we have let ourselves become as blindly chauvinistic as our enemies--and as easily led to brute violence, albeit by proxy. Americans are no more Good than any other brand of human. What ills befall us are not uniquely evil, and what good we do is not uniquely divine.

It's ironic that the "good" we thought we were undertaking in Iraq really had nothing to do with the evil we suffered on 9/11, until it did. It wasn't part of the War on Terror, until it was. And now it is. So I'll say this about Bush and America's War on Terror: America has to choose whether we want to cower in a closed society locked in a self-perpetuating death-struggle with the terrorists--and with those whom we have driven to join them--or whether we want to keep our country free and open, and conduct our business and political affairs in a just and fair manner so as to ensure that we're on the right side of history and human nature.

To do this, it seems to need saying, we have to first recognize that what we do isn't automatically on the right side just because it's we who are doing it.

Terrorism will exist, in some form, at some level, either way. But one path just might, over time, reduce it. The other will certainly only perpetuate it, and degrade our soldiers, our citizens, and our society in the bargain. This shameful episode is proof enough of that.

Posted by pk at 12:04 PM

April 26, 2004

Why I Like Portland, Reason No. 3209

From the latest voter's pamphlet:

extremo.jpg
Scott (Extremo the Clown) Campbell for Mayor


Posted by mph at 11:57 AM

Your New Human Body: Section 2.1 : The Hand

ben_discovers_his_hand.jpg Saturday was a milestone day for Ben: He turned three months old, which we took as excuse enough to quietly celebrate the calendric end of the fourth trimester,

I haven't thought of much to say about it, but I did squirt a few new pictures up to the Ben gallery and did a little rearranging. As far as pictures marking his three month birthday go, this one seems to capture the gist of the last few weeks: He knows he has a hand, he knows he can grab things with it, but he's still working on the part where the arm it's attached to makes it go anywhere besides his eye when he's trying to sleep.

Posted by mph at 9:33 AM

April 20, 2004

Mix With GNU Screen, Serve

Wow: Snownews is what appears to be a fairly useful RSS reader for consoles.

The bad:

Later: Tinfoil hat-wearer alert: It phones home at exit to make sure the version you're running is the latest. You can disable this. It's too late for me. I'll just sit here and wait for the goons from the Dept. of Homeland Security to come pick me up for reading bad things.

Later still: The precompiled version will appear to run under Woody but it segfaults shortly after updating everything. Just build it.

Posted by mph at 1:30 PM

April 18, 2004

O.k., Quentin... We're Even

Alison's visiting folks babysat while Al and I went to the movies last night. We went to see Kill Bill Volume II after a little debate, mainly centering on which of our many choices would be best on the big screen. As much as I hated the first one, you'd think I wouldn't bother. I think it comes down to my feelings of being locked in a struggle to understand Quentin Tarantino. To recap:

Then came Kill Bill and I was really disappointed, because there just wasn't any humanity in that movie. Nothing in there at all. Worse, for as much as it appeared to want to be an homage to Hong Kong, it seemed stuck in the Sonny Chiba mode of goresploitation, which seemed appropriate considering Sonny Chiba had a big role.

The second volume is so much better that it makes the first make its own sense. There are a lot of arguments to be made for a little more editing discipline in the combined effort, and the final reel managed to really drag on when it could have been tightened down, but I got some stuff I was really hoping for in the first:

I feel like going to see that movie was like tempting Tarantino to spoil the one movie night out we've had since December, but the reviews from enough people were good enough, and the visual quality of the first high enough, that it seemed worth the gamble. I think it was. Tarantino managed to merge the pulp nihilism of his first two films with the human warmth of Jackie Brown to come up with something good. Too bad the first volume was so troubled on its own. A hint of what we got in the second would have had me anticipating the release of this one like few other movies I've seen in the last year.

One other unresolved detail: Having seen this two-parter to its conclusion, I can now say Tarantino kicked the Wachowski Bros' asses from here to next Sunday. Different films, but drawing from similar wells. Where the Wachowskis were eventually consumed by their own navels and managed to foul the very well they were drawing from, Tarantino managed to demonstrate a real affection for his inspirations and a skill for reinvention. I still think that he's a stylist first, but he's one of the kings of style.

Posted by mph at 11:26 PM

April 13, 2004

The Crapshoot Resolution

Executive Summary:

Sometimes we take good pictures when we don't mean to. Abolish the planned mediocrity of self-censorship by shooting crap and learning to love it.

TOC:

My first real army duty station was in the Republic of Korea. Never having understood the propensity of nearly everybody in basic training to take pictures of each other (and see to it they were in the maximum number of pictures), it took me a while to get around to buying a camera in the army. When I did buy one, it lasted about three days before someone broke into my hotel room in Seoul and took it from my coat pocket while I slept. I'd paid over $100 for it (it was a decent point and shoot... nothing to write home about by today's standards, but it did autofocus and maybe had a limited zoom) and I was really bummed, because for a brief period I wanted to take a lot of pictures of people, too.

So I came back from Seoul with no photgraphic record of the trip, down a reasonably expensive camera, and I had to go down to the MP station and report the theft: Because I'd bought the camera at the PX, the army reserved the right to make sure that any high value items like that were still in my possession and not being funneled back out on the local economy at discount prices. It was probably a real Private Square thing to do, but I reported it on the theories "you never know," and "I've never seen inside the MP station," (though if I'd known to hold out until they made me be the escort driver for a prisoner during a rape and battery trial I wouldn't have bothered because I saw all sorts of holding facilities and army jails before that assignment was over).

I was still enthused about having a camera and taking/being in a lot of pictures because there's the whole manly "photo of me and my buddy Sully, who didn't come back from that last..." uh, run to the bar or whatever... no one ever shot at me... thing. I wasn't about to pay a ton of money for a good camera, though. So I bought the cheapest camera I could find: a Kodak EktraLite, which used the funny little 110 cartridges. It had a few benefits:

I'd shot extensively with a decent SLR for a newspaper for a while, so I wasn't afraid of a "real" camera, but I didn't want to have to fiddle with anything. I could have stopped one short of a 110-based camera, and bought a manual 35mm point-n-shoot, but the 110 cartridge was really handy for someone out in a field environment. No threading film or any of that.

The results were about what you'd expect from a sub-$20 camera with not-so-great optics and 16mm film. Colors weren't special, there was a fuzzy lossiness to everything (especially if you're used to 35mm prints), and the horrible viewfinder made composition really hard.

The nice thing about shooting with that camera was that the near-total lack of niceties made it easy to "just shoot." Parallax error conspired against even thoughtful composition much of the time, and the flash was a cointoss of either adding a sickly white edge to pale skin and making everyone's eyes red or just blowing all the color out and leaving nothing but black blobs where eyes and mouths must have been. It pretty much felt like a plastic box of filmic entropy. I've got some nice shots from that camera in my Korea shoebox, though. Not nice because they're good photographs, but because the camera did what it was supposed to do: It took a snapshot and I can recognize what's in the picture.

Flash forward to the summer after I got out of the army. Digital cameras were out and around. I'd been playing around with a Polaroid instant camera for a while, but I wanted a new toy. So I bought a Canon S10, which had a 2 megapixel resolution, some nice features, and some gewgaws to play with. It took nice pictures for me right up until late last year when I auctioned it off.

Newer digital cameras are (almost) the antithesis of a Kodak EktraLite. If you have the time and inclination, you can control almost everything. Even if the actual viewfinder is crappy and terrible for composing, you just consult the LCD screen and it's all pretty much WYSIWYG (compared to a bad viewfinder, anyhow). Unlike a Kodak EktraLite, you aren't usually nonchalant about dropping a digicam and kicking it across the floor. Ektralites don't have "panorama mode" or "sepia tone" mode, or special white balance controls. They don't present histograms when you're done taking a shot. Where digicams are plainly better than an Ektralite, though, is in the instant gratification department. When you shoot a picture with a digicam, it's right there to look at, or you'll be able to look at it on a computer as soon as you're near one again. With an Ektralite, you're hauling the film down to the store, and praying they can develop it on site, because otherwise you've got this multi-day turnaround for stupid snapshots.

I enjoyed the Canon, and I liked shooting digital because I could make a lot of mistakes and learn from them nearly instantly without the cost of film. It also allowed me to goof around with some effects that would be harder to deal with using a film camera without introducing the intermediary of a scanner. It was missing a certain ambience, though. I liked the lossy 110 film and the sense that you could just point and shoot and forget. I liked not being held responsible for the results. With a $300 digicam, I felt like every picture had to justify its existence and reflect the awesome array of digital imaging tech at my fingertips. It was very stifling.

So when the Eyemodule came along, I was completely jazzed. It had the instant gratification of a digicam with the lo-tech ambience of a 110 camera (even if it did have to be attached to a PDA). There was little controlling the results, but it took some cool pictures all the same. I loved shooting with it. An eyemodule photo When someone worked out how to make it work with Linux, but not quite, I made my first and last contribution to an open source project that involved actual code.

The Eyemodule had its share of problems: 320x240 isn't a very workable image size, and nothing outside of about a 50 meter radius was really recognizable. It wanted a lot of light, too. The biggest problem was that it had to be used attached to a Handspring Visor with the correct accessory slot. So the second I moved on from the Visor line (after the buggy, crappy Edge) I was down a camera.

All of these cameras had something in common, though: The lack of control meant uncertainty, and that meant more pictures taken per session, and that meant more chances for things to go really, really right by mistake, vs. medicore by design. Sometimes compelling pictures It took a little while, but over the past year or so the era of the cheap and almost-good digital camera has arrived. A lot of them seem to be coming from the same place in China, only rebranded by more recognized firms like Bell & Howell, Aiptek, and cheap camera kings Argus. Most of them are able to shoot at least at 640x480, have enough memory on board to store at least two or three dozen shots, and come in reasonably small form factors (about the length of a pen and about as fat as a few fingers). A few of the higher-end models (where we start getting into the $100+ range) include slots for removable memory and even a flash. But most are the digital equivalent of a pinhole camera, with some models unable to even store images for more than a few hours if you turn off their power. The other thing they have in common with the broader field of "knock-off cheap electronics" is a lamentable sense of ergonomics, with tiny and strangely placed buttons and a tendency toward the sort of plastic goop that's meant to convey functionality or performance that isn't really there. Think back to the pre-arrival of the cheap CD player in the '80s and the store-brand boomboxes, when manufacturers would put a rounded plastic shape on the cassette door to make it look like a CD player was there and you've got the vibe.

For my birthday last week, I got a Philips 007 keychain camera. It's as long as my index finger and a little fatter than my thumb, comes with a handy lanyard for my neck, and has 64MB of memory on which it stores fairly small (~100kb) photos. The pictures it takes are, well, nothing to write home about: 640x480, with a lot of lossy artifacterie going on. The real plus side is that it adheres to the USB mass storage standard, so it can be stuck in about any machine with a USB port and a modern OS and "just work."

So I've been going around with my new camera hanging from my neck, taking the occasional picture of my finger (as the illustration shows, it's got pretty awful ergonomics... the button is on top, forcing some awkward holds) and a few more pictures of stuff in my neighborhood. It's spontaneous, discrete, and I'm happy to blame it for all sorts of errors, from composition (damn parallax error!) to ugliness (damn JPEG lossiness!). It's not real fond of indoor lighting, either, so under the fluorescent lights of the local Walgreens, it needs a steady hand.

The Resolution Part
So that brings us to the "Resolution" part:

Whereas:

  1. Taking pictures is fun
  2. Taking pictures lets us share our world with other people.
  3. Taking pictures without a lot of control of the results means you'll just end up taking more pictures and worrying less about what comes back, possibly getting something really good out of the act of not worrying so much.
  4. Cheap cameras are both cheap (duh) and plentiful.

We resolve to:

  1. Take a lot of pictures with cheap, plentiful cameras.
  2. Put them up on the web.
  3. Have fun doing it.

We'll achieve that with these guidelines:

And we welcome anyone to visit the crapshoot gallery and register for an account and gallery.

Some Qualifying Remarks

There are other crapshooters in the world. There's an interesting community surrounding toy cameras, and the folks at Lomography.com preach a "don't think, just shoot" ethic as they peddle somewhat pricey "one-step-above-toy" gear and a few toys. But there's an underlying "No, really we're serious, we're just not serious" hint to some of these efforts. I'm not after even a hint of seriousness outside the natural tendency to want pictures to come out looking like something when we shoot them (or like nothing, but in a directed way).

It's like people who apologize for some pop culture thing they enjoy by dressing it up in high-minded rhetoric about its "meaning." That's a waste of breath, and as people become more and more able to reliably shoot mediocre but pleasant pictures of their surroundings and lives, they're going to care less and less about other people's slightly more technically qualified execution. Photography will move into a territory where yeah, a superb photo will still be compositionally superb, but it won't resonate the way that perfect picture of a remembered moment resonates. At least, I hope it won't.

Posted by mph at 1:46 PM

Burning Questions

I was pleased to note that John Derbyshire won the Wonkette "Honorariest Homo" contest, which leaves me wondering if that means a new competition is in order based on Mr. Derbyshire's own online ouvre, namely a "Whom would I most want to dig up and get buggered by?" contest.

Maybe what he meant to say in that link was "Whom would I most want to dig up and scarf with?"

Posted by mph at 11:18 AM

But Dang Is My 'Net Connection Speedy (Updated)

It's never a good sign when you turn on the faucet and a hissing sound comes out. Phone transcript of call to the water bureau:

Me: Hi. I'm calling to see if there's a known issue with the water in my area.

Water Lady: You have a problem?

Me: Yes. I turn on the faucet and a hissing noise comes out. There's no water.

Water Lady: What's your address?

Me: 4805 SE Yamhill

Water Lady: clickety clack clickety clack pop Oh... boy. You're not gonna have a good day today. (She rattles off a list of addresses)

Me: Hm?

Water Lady: You're not gonna get any water for a long, long time.

Me: Oh? How long's long?

Water Lady: Not until 5 p.m. But you got notified.

Me: No. I'm afraid I didn't.

Water Lady: Oh. Wow. They were supposed to notify you. You're gonna have a hard time today.

Meanwhile, bottles to wash, etc. At least I got my coffee made before they lowered the boom, and it's a good thing Ben doesn't mind a walk down to the store now and then: We're gonna be buying some water.

Update: A few minutes later, someone came and tapped on the door. I opened it to a man in a helmet with the word "apprentice" emblazoned on his safety vest:

Me: Hi.

Apprentice Water Guy (AWG): Hi. Your water's gonna be turned off...?

Me: Why yes, yes it has.

AWG: Okay, so you know. (turns away, doubletakes, turns back) Hold it! So your water's already off!?

Me: Yes. Yes it is. I called in and was told it would be off until 5.

AWG: Hold on. Five?

Me: Yes.

AWG: Oh. Man. I'm gonna have to go talk to my supervisor and make sure our story's straight, 'cause we thought we found the pipe, but it was the old one, so we had to divert to the other.

Me: Oh. So, I'll just plan on five then.

AWG: I'll be back.

The picture above, by the way, is the workers spreading out to notify everyone of the impending water outage that happened an hour before they got here. Everyone now has a pretty orange notification tag hanging on the door explaining that their water will have been turned off by an hour ago. Or, as the Hitchhiker's Guide might put it, "willem haben been turnened off," since a retroactive notification of pending outage violates a few of our cherished conceptions of time and space.

Posted by mph at 9:31 AM

April 11, 2004

Easter Greetings


"Easter greetings" from Cardinal Ben of Portlandia.

Posted by mph at 11:02 AM

April 10, 2004

Dept. of Half Full (Hawk Div.)

Hey, hawk, feelin' sort of down? Just remember to tell yourself:

I'll still have my wife, my house, and my job. My neighborhood, my city, and my country will endure. I won't be frog-marched into an Iraqi dungeon. And, unless you're an Iraqi, neither will you.

Riverbend wants you to remember the same thing.

Posted by mph at 7:54 PM

Name That Rogue

In his column today, David Brooks is talking about one person. But make a few words generic--OK, and delete just a couple--and he could be talking about another. I wonder can you guess who?
The violence is being fomented by ______, a lowlife hoodlum from an august family. The ruthless and hyperpoliticized ______ has spent the past year trying to marginalize established figures, like ______, who come from a more quietist tradition and who believe in the separation of government and clergy. ______ and his fellow putschists have been spectacularly unsuccessful in winning popular support. The vast majority of ______ do not want a ______-style dictatorship. Most see ______ as a young, hotheaded ______ who terrifies ______ wherever he goes.
He and his band have taken this opportunity to make a desperate bid for power, before democratic elections reveal the meagerness of their following. He has cleverly picked his moment, and he has several advantages. He is exploiting wounded national pride. He is capitalizing on frustration with the occupation (they continually overestimate our competence, then invent conspiracy theories to explain why we haven't transformed ______).
Most important, ______ has the advantages that always accrue to fascist thugs. He is vicious, while his opponents are civilized. ______ and his band terrify people, and ride on a current of ______. They get financial and logistical support from ______. They profit from the mayhem caused by assorted terrorists, like ______, who are sowing chaos in ______. They need to spark a conflagration to seize power.
______'s domestic opponents are ill-equipped to deal with him. The ______ have revealed their weakness. Normal ______ are doing what they learned to do under ______; they are keeping their heads down. ______, who operate by consensus, do not want to be seen siding with outsiders against a fellow ______.
This fellow is strangely familiar, isn't he?

Posted by pk at 1:54 PM

April 6, 2004

Web of Weedle

Over the past few days a friend & I have discovered the joys of Fire's support for GnuPG. I don't really have any need for hard crypto in my instant messaging, but it's pretty entertaining to know any random musing my remote buddy sends my way is protected from the prying eyes of, er, Them.

Some quick things as the result of my minor consciousness raising via Google (not to be confused with complete thoughts):

The GnuPG page has a section on how to build your web of trust, which advises:

In order to use to communicate securely with others you must have a web of trust. At first glance, however, building a web of trust is a daunting task. The people with whom you communicate need to use GnuPG, and there needs to be enough key signing so that keys can be considered valid. These are not technical problems; they are social problems. Nevertheless, you must overcome these problems if you want to use GnuPG.

So far, the only widespread use of GnuPG I've seen has been in signing security advisories and packages among assorted *nix distributors and in fairly small circles on mailing lists, where it's just part of the culture. There's also the OpenPGP comment plugin for MovableType, which has a short list of adopters. So how do people overcome the social problem? And how small is the percentage of the overall population involved in these webs of trust? How did they convince each other to change IM networks long enough to coordinate a key-signing?

On the technical issue side:

I noticed over on the page for Nitro (yet another Jabber client) that "GPG support has been taken out again awaiting implementation of a proper E2E [end-to-end] jabber standard." That might explain why it only seems to work between a pair of Fire instances, and not between, say, Fire and Psi, another Jabber client with the advantage/disadvantage of being cross-platform and built on Qt (for that "not-quite-native" feel). A mail from Peter Saint-Andre of the Jabber Software Foundation, notes that end-to-end encryption is a matter of severe apathy among home users (who are more likely to make fun of people who think they need it or want to just make the point by using it) and some level of hostility among "enterprise" users:

"...many companies have corporate or government requirements related to auditability of all messsage traffic. This is especially true in financial services, where SEC regulations require full auditability of all "compliance events" for years after the message was sent. Similar if less stringent rules often apply in healthcare and even customer service. In these environments, end-to-end encryption is a MUST-NOT-IMPLEMENT feature, however much we security elitists may desire it, and an IM client that generated an encrypted message would be considered a rogue application on the network."

So, the average home user doesn't care and the average enterprise has government-mandated control freakery to take into account (plus whatever internal control freakery might exist). Where's Jabber's incentive to work on the issue, then? I know, I know: It's got a split development model with a company handling the "what enterprise customers want" side while the virtuous open source hackers do the good work of "the community."

For me, goofing around with GnuPG has been a matter of idle curiosity, but the more I goof around with it, the more I wonder what the allure is. Besides the social difficulties of building critical mass and a web of trust, there are technical issues (not the least of which is the amount of discipline it takes to maintain an identity, which involves a little more than, say, a Yahoo! account or a Microsoft Passport). Anyone? Why? How?

A Little Later: My public key is here, btw.

Posted by mph at 9:43 PM

April 4, 2004

'round and 'round Turns the Wheel of Crap

Anyone else remember fvwm95? It was mean to provide Linux with a "just-like-Windows-95" look by creatively hacking fvwm2. I think I remember first encountering it in Red Hat 4.2 or 5.0, but memory fades. Its stated goal:

It can be interesting for users moving from the MS-World to Unix, or for those who have to switch regularly between the two. Or for those that simply would like to have the same MS look and feel in Unix...

It did some things very well: The widgets looked Windowsesque and it came with a teal background (just like Windows 95-98), and a cute little start button. Nothing else was the same, but damned if you couldn't show someone a Linux desktop and proclaim "See? Just like Windows!" before swatting their hand away from the mouse so they couldn't click something and ruin the illusion.

We mainly need to remember that it was a bad idea in the same way glopping on the "just-like-Aqua" eyecandy is a bad idea for improving the uptake of GNOME or KDE today: You just end up chasing down the rabbit hole of apeing the visual elements of the emulated interface, but not necessarily connecting the pretty trim to the plumbing, or even the bits one level beneath the desktop and program menus. I remember people calling the sense of disorientation users experience when encountering the almost-but-not-quite faked UI "Martian User Interface syndrome." There's a good chance that rather than feeling comforted by the familiar look and almost-feel of the emulated interface, they'll just feel put off and vaguely uneasy, wondering when the limits of the simulated GUI will rise up and bite them on the ass. In fact, the MUI effect would seem to offer lots of opportunities for people to shove the mouse aside and think their new Linux desktop is a chintzy rip-off.

Apple doesn't get switchers by deciding the average PC user is a clueless git who bolts at the first sign of a difference, either. If that had been an assumption, we wouldn't be enduring the endless moaning of long-time OS 9 fans who are feeling distinctly betrayed by OS X, because the company would have taken the safe way out and merely bolted the old reliable OS 9 desktop on Unix guts and called it a day.

Anyhow, all this is going toward pointing out that I've officially been around long enough to see a bad idea come, go, and come again.* Even more amusing this time is that, even though we've had eight years since fvwm95 crawled into a dark hole and died a quiet death to learn things like "incompatibility between toolkit clipboards is really problematic to newbies," the crew behind XPde is defiantly pointing out it offers "no clipboard compatibility between Gtk and Qt applications, no emulation of Windows applications, no unification on the widgets of X applications, just a desktop environment and a window manager."

Allow me to issue the preemptive bleat:

"Choice gooooooood!"

Bonus GUI complaining linkage:

John Gruber chases ESR around with a lead pipe for the same sort of condescending idiocy that leads people to reinvent Microsoft's last interface poorly. Also, Ed allows as how ESR probably has it coming and points to another open source trainwreck of usability: Jabber (with which I've previously been loudly and publicly unhappy).

*On further reflection, it appears I've lived to see at least one other bad idea come, go, and come again.

Posted by mph at 5:16 PM

April 2, 2004

Game Night Report: "Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers"

Al and I decided to make Friday night Game Night around the house. Game Night entails a standing invitation to the local game geek posse, but there's a cold going around right now so we scratched the mass invite and settled in for a round of our newest game purchase: "Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers" (H&G), which comes well recommended for two players (though up to five can play).

H&G is what's referred to as a "German-style" game. Thanks to Ghoul and Nate, who offered some commentary on just what German-style games are, and to Nate especially for recommending H&G's forebear ("Carcassonne") as a good introduction to the genre. For a little more on German-style games, there's also a thorough Wikipedia article on the subject.

The premise of H&G is pretty straightforward: Each player leads a tribe of hunters and gatherers settling a region comprised of rivers, meadows, and forests. Each player has a limited number of tribefolk plus a pair of huts, which can be used to control rivers.

Game play is also very simple: Players take turns drawing land tiles and laying them on the table. Each tile can have a piece of a forest, river, or meadow on it, and the tiles have to be played such that the edges of a given tile mate with its neighbors: rivers to rivers, forests to forests, meadows to meadows. When a given geographic feature is completed, the players who have a hunter, gatherer, or fisherman inhabiting the feature get points for each tile comprising the feature (unless one player enjoys a majority of tokens). Not only is there scoring during the game as features are completed, but there's a special end-scoring phase during which players get points for placing huts on river systems and occupying meadows with hunters. Thanks to the end-of-game phase, there's a bit of long-term planning involved: Players only get two huts to use for control of river systems, and only five hunters to place in meadows, so it pays to hold out for large rivers and meadows.

Impressions

H&G had a quick setup once we punched out all the land tiles and sorted out the pieces. The tiles are made of sturdy cardboard and the illustrations are rendered in a pleasant, simple style. The hunter/gatherer/hut pieces are small, colored wood tokens.

Things move along pretty quickly. The rules were easy to get the first time around (though I think we missed a few minor nuances we'll probably get right the next time we play), and we got through our first game in about 90 minutes, from when we first took the cellophane off the box to putting the last piece away. A pair of experienced players who don't have to stop and re-check the rules every few turns could probably burn through a game in around 30 or 45 minutes.

If I had to use one word to describe our first H&G session, it would be "pleasant." Unlike "Risk" or "Monopoly," there's less of a sense of head-to-head competition (though a game could go that direction depending on the temperament of the players) and more opportunity for each player to simply work on building a large meadow or long river. Huts, which are placed on rivers and create a monopoly on the fish resources the river offers, are the one zero-sum piece in play: When you play a hut on a river, the other player is frozen out of that river for purposes of end-game scoring. It's possible for gatherers and fishermen to compete over forests and segments of rivers, but the limited pool of tokens each player has makes it hard to get too out of hand pursuing this strategy, and you risk missing out on plenty of scoring opportunities off in your own neck of the woods.

There also seems to be a nice bit of potential for rising tension in the game. Compare again to "Monopoly" or "Risk," where much of the tension of the game leaks out in the final quarter or so of the action as the player with the obvious upper hand goes into mop-up operations or just starts collecting insane rents for the three hotel stretches down around Marvin Gardens. The air is sucked out of the room pretty quickly, but no one wants to be a spoil-sport and deprive the winner of hard-earned total victory, so it becomes a painful slog. With its end-game scoring and a set game limit (there are only so many land tiles to play), H&G has room to reach a nice pitch as players try to wrap up forests and rivers or complete meadows and cash in, or just gamble on how many gatherers they'll need to commit to keep the other player from landing a big score. The narrow victory the winner of our game this evening managed wasn't clear until the very last points were tallied.

One thing that makes H&G nice for a non-gamer is the simple metaphor driving the whole thing, which made it distinctly non-off-putting to Al, who's not a fan of games heavily entrenched in the fantastic. To the extent the box says "stone age hunters and gatherers" are involved, you might think anthropology geeks would have an especially good time, but unlike even "Magic" or "Cosmic Encounter," there's no real need to embrace the milieu or be very conversant in the narrative elements to enjoy the game, which is just about making "rivers" and "forests" connect so you can count "fish" and move a token around the score board. A lot of game geeks, who come to the culture along with plenty of background in fantasy and science fiction, tend to overlook a few questions non-f/sf people will tend to ask, like "What the fuck is a 'barrow gnome'?" Gamers with the appropriate background will tend to brush aside questions like that by saying "just pay attention to the numbers on the cards, not the monsters," which is fine but misses the small but cumulative advantage of knowing with near-intuitive speed that an "Ogre Berserker" will probably crush a "Goblin Henchman" in nine out of ten fantasy settings. Beyond that, a lot of the simple humor of imagining the Ogre Berserker smashing the Goblin Henchman will be lost, turning the game into a lot of math.

So, overall impression: Pleasant, fun, not in-your-face competitive (though a game could take that turn with the right personalities), rewarding of long-term planning but also winnable on aggressive short-term play. If it's reflective of the overall German-style gaming experience, I'm sold and I'll be heading back down to Bridgetown Hobbies for more of its kind soon.

Posted by mph at 11:32 PM

Cable Narcolepsy Network

Al and I had DirecTV installed about four months ago. 122 days ago, actually, because we've never connected the unit to a phone line, so we get periodic scoldings about just how many days it's been since the unit phoned home along with dire threats that there are only so many more times it will let us get away with watching "American Wedding" on pay-per-view (guilty). At the time, we justified the installation because Al was really, really pregnant and it was hard to get out. We figured once Ben arrived we'd probably have a few late nights where reading would be harder than keeping an eye cocked on, uh, the Discovery Channel and, uh, CSPAN (mmm hmm), and CNN.

CNN was the biggest viewing piety I'd trot out when rationalizing the addition of a dish to the house. "I miss just having a news channel! I'm so sick of Tom Brokaw's ridiculous gloss-jobs!" I hadn't had CNN in the house since some time in 1990, which made it strictly a hotel room thing, so I didn't have a good sense of the Big Picture where CNN and CNN Headline News are concerned.

Having had 122 days with them in my house, I can confidently assert that I'm thoroughly disgusted.

Since I'm all about the content reuse, here's a bit of a mail from an exchange pk and I had on the matter:

CNN really, really sucks across the board and up and down the schedule, but especially in the morning where it's apparent that Good Morning America & Good Day Live and etc. kicked the shit out of straight news. I remembered CNN with some fondness from the last time I had cable, but this time around it's just been disappointing. Like ordering a bran muffin and getting a XXX-Large cinnamon roll dripping with a Karo syrup glaze and topped off with a sugar statue of Michael Jackson. I know "chirpy" is big with the kids these days, but I just don't want it, and I REALLY don't want a bunch of spokesmodels sitting around doing the whole inside baseball thing because they think that chirpy meta-analysis trumps chirpy interviews with purveyors of fad diets. They even lifted the NBC crew's prole fishbowl schtick. All the worse because they've got someone who's apparently supposed to be a polyvalent Bill O'Reilly handing down "crusty" proclamations.

And that's pretty much my CNN plaint in as straight a fashion as I would have managed this morning, without wasting the time with a rewrite, which would just be edited to get rid of words like "shit" and perhaps get rid of the reference to the prole fishbowl, a nauseating faux populist touch topped only by John Kerry shrugging into a Carhart jacket.

In CNN's defense, it has definitely trumped NBC Nightly News in the "terrorist menace" video clippage. Where NBC is stuck using footage of terrorists on monkeybars, CNN has pulled ahead by using not only the monkeybar footage, but pictures of terrorists LEAPING THROUGH FLAMING HOOPS! (clip pending as soon as I can get it off the camera, and rumination on why my fixation with this stupid media meme is an indication that I've got the early stages of Wonkette Syndrome, a.k.a. The Pundit's Malady right here in this entry).

I decided to trot this out, by the way, thanks to a Paul Krugman column where he takes Wolf "Iron Man of Journalism" Blitzer to task for being a toady lickspittle (via TPM). Wolf, of course, was badly put off by Krugman scolding him. I hope he cried, because the thought of the Gary Gnu of Atlanta allowing himself to be called "The Iron Man of Journalism" without dying of embarassment indicates pathologies counterindicative of placing any level of trust in him.

But the problem Wolf and the rest of the blow-dried journalism set are facing isn't unique to CNN, or even television news: It's about how "objectivity" ultimately becomes a straightjacket when it's a task handed to people who confuse "objective" with "matching sets of opposing facts."

sigh

Why not another snippet from a recent mail, wherein I outline what seems to be the journalism decision-making process? I think the average journo has a few versions of the story churning around in there before we're finally presented with the meek, weak version:

  1. The preferred version, which is the one with his/her personal ideological filters in place.

  2. The version the reporter thinks will be preferred by the editor and echelons above.

  3. The version the reporter thinks will be the "most balanced."

  4. The version that will show what a smarty-pants the reporter is.

They have to reconcile all of those to commit something to the page, and if the research is any indication, most of them will view the story as a synthesis of points 1 and 2, which they'll perceive to be in conflict. To get a synthesis of those two points (version 3), they'll simply line points up against each other, one-for-one. That synthesis is why modern journalism is in crisis: It's an approach that demands no conclusion outside of the raw facts.

or, as pk distilled it recently:

"This side says this, that side says that. Who's to say?"

In fact, that synthesis is a cowardly dodge designed to appease the vocal readership on either side of the ideological fence on any given issue. Complaints can be deflected with "Look! Matching numbers of bullet points!" as opposed to the much less rewarding and much more likely to be villified chore of saying "X said Y, and A said B, but in this case it's pretty clear that X was right because A ignored N."

I know, I know. The current "media model" championed by ideologues of any stripe is something along the lines of either a conservative "All reporters are liberals and hence unable to present an honest conservative view point to save their lives," or a progressive/Chomskyan "Reporters work for big media outlets run by big capital and are hence unable to present a point of view that would result in reform or change to save their lives." Perhaps everyone should consider that everyone else is equally fed up with what they're getting from the news. That's because cowardly bullet matching is going to be dissatisfying to everyone but a select few who probably map very closely to swing voters and anyone who voted for Joe Lieberman.

Version 4, by the way, "the version that will show what a smarty-pants the reporter is," is the reason CNN's "American Morning" and "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics" are so atrocious. Recognizing that it's so easy for anyone to get wire copy with very little effort, "analysis" has become the fallback Full Employment Act of news people everywhere. The facts are boring, dry things best left to stringers and junior reporters. Where the big-time journo can prove his/her worth is in providing the "analysis" only a seasoned hand can provide. The cool voice of analysis provides a fundamental detachment from the news. It makes the facts that are happening a thing we're supposed to dispassionately dissect from a safe remove. It spares us any human concern for the news or its subjects and insulates us from the risky proposition of having an opinion.

Crossfire and every Sunday morning show where matched teams of ideologues scrum are a toxic result of analysis culture. They turn political issues that will have an effect on millions into a chummy game of one-upsmanship and backslapping bonhomie between members of the analyst class who want to make it very clear that at the end of the day the whole thing is a collegial debating society for the tragically witty. The language is hot, but the underlying attitudes and takeaways about political discourse are cool. Paul Begala and Robert Novak shouldn't be ending each episode of Crossfire with a congenial smile and a sly wink across the table, because the things they're discussing frequently involve the potential for untold human suffering. If they really consider themselves involved advocates for the issues they're so faux angry about, there wouldn't be so much smug "All in good fun" winking and smirking across the table, and there'd be more real incitement.

That sort of dog-and-pony bickering, though, is what journalists do when they're liberated from the tyranny of mundane bullet-point matching and suddenly realize they might be held accountable for their opinions anyhow: it's another escape hatch from ownership of anything like a real opinion. It's easier to act like you don't really give a damn, and that anger or passion over politics is for tobacco-chewing moron dittoheads or issue-of-the-day chowderhead liberals out on the market for a new outrage.

"I said this. He said that. What, me worry?"

Posted by mph at 9:44 AM

April 1, 2004

Guerilla Joking

Doc Searls says someone from Google told him that gmail (currently noted over there in last night's blogmarks with a trailing hint of uncertainty) is no joke and asks "So, am I the only one who thought this was a joke?" No, I thought it was a joke, too.

Doc goes on to say:

Just when I think I've given all the PR advice a former PR guy who's still a journalist can give, here's one more: If you're gonna shake the Earth with an unexpected announcement, don't pick the one day out of 365 (or this year, 366) when everybody's yanking everybody else's chain, okay?

Doc's the marketing expert, but isn't there something to be said for the cognitive judo announcing something like a GB of mail storage would entail?

I think, from the perspective as someone who's never marketed a single thing but sausage logs for band trips and himself (poorly, in the form of the most boring resumés on the planet) that it makes its own sort of marketing sense.

I mean, here it is April 1st, and Google announces a free gig of mail storage, and everyone says "This has to be a joke, right?" which sort of creates its own echo chamber out in the mediasphere: Everyone's asking, everyone else is reporting on everyone asking, and Google gets to spend the next 48 hours saying "No, as UNBELIEVABLE as this FABULOUS offer is, we're really offering a GIG OF MAIL STORAGE!" And the whole time, the questions that get asked every time Google launches a new service goes unasked this time around: "Has the shark been jumped? Is Google about to wade out past chin depth?" Even Dave Winer, who has been forced into a lifetime of Google hate because of its pesky Atom love, comes off pretty muted instead of heaping on the doubt and uncertainty and, uh, fear. Perhaps because the normal hysterics this might provoke could end up looking really stupid on April 2nd if the Google guys end up saying "Just a joke, lighten up. Pshaw! A gig of mail! Good one! Nyuck nyuck nyuck."

But that's just my pet theory, or contribution to the echo chamber, or both. I stand by my right to quietly pull it down and replace it with a miscategorized ode to Mac love if Google's just lying to Reuters.

Posted by mph at 12:21 PM