Friday, October 29, 2004


The Great Old Pumpkin
The Insects from Shaggy

That second one isn't actually all that good, but I thought the gang ought to be represented in some way. And let me interject here that I am rather disappointed in the "fanfic" community, with regard to Lovecraftian crossover stories. The only Lovecraft-Scooby crossover that seems to be available is basically just a big dirty joke, and I can't locate a single Lovecraft-Nancy Drew crossover story at all.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Tricksy prehistoric hobbitses!

A couple of things:

1) Five years ago, there's no way a mainstream science article would have used the description "hobbit-sized". Such is the power of cinema.

2) Sometimes, scientists disappoint me. I mean, given an opportunity like this, finding a 3-foot tall adult prehistoric hominid, they name it Homo floresiensis after the island where they found it? C'mon, guys! It never occurred to any of you to name it something like Homo frodoensis or Homo hobbitis or something? You could have been the heroes of geeky paleontology students everywhere.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Lovecraftian Architecture

Take a look at this page about the Ryugyong Hotel, and ask yourself whether it might be a blessing for helpless mankind that the structure remains unfinished and unoccupied...

He talked of his dreams in a strangely poetic fashion; making me see with terrible vividness the damp Cyclopean city of slimy green stone - whose geometry, he oddly said, was all wrong - and hear with frightened expectancy the ceaseless, half-mental calling from underground: "Cthulhu fhtagn", "Cthulhu fhtagn."

...he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces - surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing whilst gazing at the terrible reality.

God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe. They were Donovan, Guerrera, and Angstrom. Parker slipped as the other three were plunging frenziedly over endless vistas of green-crusted rock to the boat, and Johansen swears he was swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn't have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.

(Quotes from "The Call of Cthulhu")

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Oh, Good God

What a surprise: They've started early voting in some places, and they're already having computer problems with the new touch-screen voting machines. I predicted this back when they first started talking about electronic voting as a way of fixing the "problems" with the paper ballots that we encountered in 2000. For at least the first few times computerized voting machines are used, they will have even more problems than the paper ballots supposedly had.

Why did I make this prediction? Because I do quality control on computer software for a living. I know, for example, that it is theoretically impossible to find every bug before software is released, no matter how much time or money you spend testing it (at least for non-trivial applications).

And now we have this:
At the Tamarac branch public library, where voting stopped after the computer glitch, Sally Zwanger, a poll watcher for the Kerry campaign, claimed the problems reflected the inability of Gov. Jeb Bush's administration to fix voting problems left over from the 2000 election.

"The worst thing to hear was, 'I support Kerry, but I can't wait in this line,'" she said. "We are having a repeat of 2000, and it's only in Florida that this could happen. This administration would do anything to ensure that he [Bush] stays in office."

Oh, shut the fuck up. It was Democrats like you who demanded doing away with those "obsolete" punchcard ballots in the first place, because you didn't like the way the counts and recounts came out in Florida. No one is being systematically disenfranchised, you've just pressured various states into jumping boldly in with a computerized voting system that's still in beta testing, at best. And no, it's not "only in Florida that this could happen." It's anywhere that uses electronic voting machines. And it's not because of the administration's " fix voting problems left over from the 2000 election", it's because A) (being charitible) there are some things about the system that cannot be tested except under conditions approximating full production rollout, and B) (being not-so-charitible) the companies producing the electronic voting machines have not used industry best practices in developing the systems.

Remember Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Among the systematic problems with most/all of the electronic voting systems I'm aware of:

  • Most of them are running under some version of Windows. This is a more complex operating system than a dedicated voting machine needs, and is notoriously insecure to boot.
  • The code has not been open to peer review. This is ostensibly for security reasons, but open review tends to make software more secure, not less (e.g., Linux vs. Windows).
  • Insufficient testing. They needed more of both internal alpha testing and beta/deployment testing. These networking problems should have been resolved long before reaching the stage of actual voting.

Monday, October 18, 2004


Headline on "Bush, Kerry win newspaper endorsements". I realize this isn't the first time that a news organization has reported on what other news organizations are doing, but this did strike me as one of the most useless, content-free headlines in journalistic history.

Meanwhile, Brenda & I did go see Team America: World Police. Yes, we laughed mightily. The biggest criticism I think I have would be that they recycled one of the songs ("It's a Montage") from an episode of South Park.

Also, just to continue a bit from my last post, now that I've seen the film and watched the episode of "Ebert & Roeper" where they review it, and that TV review makes it clear what Ebert's objection to the film actually is: He's upset that it makes fun of Hollywood celebrities. Either that, or he's feigning offense so that all the stars skewered in the movie will still talk to him.

The problem is that the film's criticism of celebrity activism is entirely valid: Movie stars, due to their fame, are granted the means to express their opinions to the masses, but this does not also bestow upon them any special insight into global politics. Much of the time, what they say is not an informed opinion, but a knee-jerk liberal response. That's just as deserving of ridicule as an uninformed, knee-jerk conservative response, but among celebrities, you generally only get those from marginal country/western musicians.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Team America: World Police

I haven't seen it yet (we're probably going this weekend), but I have read Roger Ebert's review. Apparently he didn't like it much - he gave it one star.
The plot seems like a collision at the screenplay factory between several half-baked world-in-crisis movies.

Um, well, I'm guessing that would be because they are parodying half-baked world-in-crisis movies, rather than making the film a serious exploration of geopolitics.
When first seen, Gary (voice by Parker) is starring in the musical "Lease," and singing "Everyone has AIDS." Ho, ho.

I guess Ebert hasn't seen Rent, then? I laughed at the idea of a Broadway-musical "Everyone has AIDS" song, because I recognized that they were making fun of Rent, even before I read this and found out the musical in this movie is actually called "Lease". The only reason I can think of that you wouldn't think this was funny would be to object to it as a laugh at the expense of people with AIDS, rather than a laugh at the expense of Broadway musicals (and Rent in particular). Well, that or, you know, just having a poorly-developed sense of humor, but since I know Ebert finds at least some funny movies to be funny, that doesn't seem possible.

He also suggests that the puppets are creepy-looking. Obviously, this is because he has never seen the original "Thunderbirds" TV series (in his review of the recent live-action movie version, he said "I had never heard of the series and, let's face it, neither have you."). They're very much like the "Thunderbirds" puppets in appearance and articulation. I rather doubt that's an accident.
If I were asked to extract a political position from the movie, I'd be baffled. It is neither for nor against the war on terrorism, just dedicated to ridiculing those who wage it and those who oppose it.

Well, I think both sides tend to be pretty ridiculous, myself, so I guess I would appreciate this more than Ebert. I think that "both sides are ridiculous" is a perfectly consistent political position. Heck, I even think Libertarians are pretty ridiculous sometimes, and I am one.

But perhaps the problem here is not that the movie doesn't convey a political position, but that the political position it conveys isn't simplistic, and can't be reduced to "for or against the war on terrorism". In other words, that the film's political position is neither of the two that Ebert recognizes (although, come to think of it, who's "against the war on terrorism"? I know of plenty of people who are against the war in Iraq, but that's not exactly the same thing. Or at least, those who are against it don't think it is, which is the main reason they are against it).
The White House gets a free pass, since the movie seems to think Team America makes its own policies without political direction.

I suspect that's parodying another characteristic of "half-baked world in crisis movies", since those often have groups (Mission: Impossible) operating without any apparent input from the president, and when there is a president in them (Independence Day), they're always deliberately vague about the political persuasion of said president. The movies they're parodying are resolutely apolitical, even when the politics involved in what they're doing would seem to be unavoidable, because they don't want to alienate half of their potential audience by identifying either side with either the Good Guys or the Bad Guys in the movie.
I wasn't offended by the movie's content so much as by its nihilism. At a time when the world is in crisis and the country faces an important election, the response of Parker, Stone and company is to sneer at both sides -- indeed, at anyone who takes the current world situation seriously. They may be right that some of us are puppets, but they're wrong that all of us are fools, and dead wrong that it doesn't matter.

You know, people felt much the same way about Duck Soup when it first played in theaters, just after WWI. That it was inappropriate to use war as a subject for humor. Now it's considered one of the greatest comedies in the history of cinema. But basically, Ebert's objection seems to be the same: It is inappropriate to be making jokes about this subject.

Because Ebert never directly addresses whether the film is funny, he only says that it is offensive. It's interesting, actually, to look at Ebert's own "Great Movies" write-up on Duck Soup, where he says things like "There is a kind of admiration for material that dares something against the rules and yet is obvious, irresistibly, funny." He apparently doesn't find TA:WP irresistibly funny, and I wonder whether that is because he doesn't find transgressive humor funny unless it is sufficiently far removed from present experience that it is no longer quite so transgressive, or whether it is due to its poking fun at his own political beliefs.

Given his recent history of rating politically-motivated films, I can't help wondering whether Ebert:
1) Would have found the film funnier, and given it 3 or 4 stars if it had ridiculed only the current administration, and left the anti-war crowd unscathed.
2) Would have found the film more offensive, and given it 0 stars if it had ridiculed only the anti-war side, and left the hawks unscathed.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Phone Rape?

TV Host O'Reilly Accused of Harassment:
Both sides filed lawsuits Wednesday, with the woman, Andrea Mackris, saying the commentator had phone sex with her against her wishes three times.

How, exactly, does someone have phone sex with you against your wishes? The term "phone sex" implies more than just a single rude comment, which means that at some point during the "phone sex" process, she could have hung up the phone. For that matter, "phone sex" usually also implies a certain level of interactivity. If it's just one person talking, that's not really "phone sex", it's just an obscene phone call.

Now, I don't mean to suggest, based solely on this, that this woman's harassment suit has no merit. It could just as easily be sloppy wording on the part of the reporter writing the story. Goodness knows there's plenty of that in the world of journalism these days.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Infinite Shelf Space

Here's a really interesting Wired article about a phenomenon that might be the start of a seismic shift in the entertainment industry, away from purely hit-based economics and toward a more niche-based market, as online delivery and ordering eliminate the constraint of physical shelf space. For example, they point out that a Barnes & Noble generally carries about 130,000, but that over half of Amazon's book sales are from titles outside of its top 130,000. Now, there's probably a selection effect going on here - Amazon is selling more of those titles because customers can't just grab them at their local Barnes & Noble, and thanks to Amazon's discounted rates, it's usually advantageous to order from Amazon rather than to place a special order at a local store. So the article may be somewhat overestimating the size of the market for niche products. But the article does make some very interesting points, and ones that I've made before.

For example, they suggest that video/computer game companies could offer old, outdated games, with no support or guarantees, as, say, 99-cent downloads. I've posted about this before - I believe there is a market for "nostalgia" games that is not currently being served (at least, not legally). It's intellectual property that is currently making its owners absolutely nothing, and (usually) long ago covered the development costs (or else was just written off as a money-loser), so they have nothing to lose by offering it online for a few cents more than the cost of server space and bandwidth. As long as you charge enough to cover those minimal costs, anything above that is pure profit, just sitting there waiting to be grabbed. I'd actually go even further, beyond the "old games" part of the market. I have a feeling there are quite a few people out there who would be willing to pay, say, $50 or $100 for an older, out-of-date, but legal version of something like Maya or 3DS Max. No printed documentation, no technical support, just the software. Production costs are minimal (CD duplication, assuming you don't just offer it as download-only), and it isn't as though old versions of your software are making you any money now. I may have more on this particular subject in the future.

The author of the Wired article does perhaps underplay the distinction between online merchants who sell or rent physical artifacts, like Amazon and Netflix, and those who deal in purely digital information, like iTunes. Still, that distinction will narrow as things progress. With the advancement of things like print-to-order, even those who want physical, bound books will be able to get them without the seller having to spend money on storage space for them.

(And once again, Frank Zappa was way ahead of his time. In his book, he talks about a system he proposed, back before there was even an internet, where people would buy music through some sort of recording device hooked up to the phone. He could never get investors interested in it, though...)

Friday, October 08, 2004

They called me mad, but I'll show them! I'll show them all!!!!!

I know I’ve done the whole megalomaniacal arch-villain thing before, but to celebrate the fact that someone has finally released a computer game wherein you play one, here are a few more related links:

Badguy, the Magazine for Villains, Archfiends, Mad Scientists and other Evildoers
Here’s a useful source for the obligatory robot army.
Handy reference to keep track of your rivals.
Some interesting ideas to distract pesky heroes.

"Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind."
(Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man)

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Great Moments in Unbiased Journalism

Ok, before going to read this CNN story, see if you can guess, from the following excerpts, what the headline on this story is:

Based in part on interviews with Saddam, the report from the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group also will conclude that he wanted to acquire weapons of mass destruction because he believed they kept the United States from going all the way to Baghdad during the first Gulf War.
The report also will find that Iraq made strenuous efforts to evade U.N. sanctions and pursued an aggressive strategy to try to get them lifted, which included subverting the U.N. oil-for-food program… the report will name names of individuals and countries that illegally did business with Saddam.
Other U.S. officials confirmed to CNN Tuesday that the report from the Iraq Survey Group will cite evidence that Iraq's intelligence agency used clandestine labs to manufacture small quantities of biological weapons in recent years, although probably for use in assassinations, rather than mass casualty attacks.

Ready for CNN's headline?
"Report: No WMD stockpiles in Iraq"

Now, granted, I've only quoted the bits in the story that focus on Bad Things that Iraq was doing. But I did that to make a point, that when you’re summarizing the key points of a document, it's very easy to control how it sounds by deciding which points to select as "key points" to include in the summary.

MSNBC reports on the same story, under the headline "Report discounts Iraqi arms threat". In the CNN version of the story, the first bit I quoted came from the second paragraph. In MSNBC's version, you have to get to paragraph seven before they even mention that Hussein intended to reconstitute his weapons programs as soon as he could get the UN sanctions lifted.

Fox News, reporting on the same story with the opposite bias, says "Report May Undercut Bush's Iraq Rationale". I particularly like the "may" qualifier in there ("You never know, just because it concludes there were no WMD stockpiles, doesn't necessarily mean it undercuts the reasoning behind the war..."). They also prominently feature White House spokesman Scott McClellan saying "that Saddam Hussein had the intent and the capability", while MSNBC, for example, tells us that according to their sources, the report itself concludes that "Hussein had the desire but not the means" to produce WMD.

Fox, however, does something interesting that the others do not: They juxtapose a series of quotes from Bush (and Chaney) made before the war next to a list of the things US forces actually found over there. It's not exactly flattering. Although if you wanted to get all Clintonian about it, you could probably parse Bush's statements in a way that would make them be technically not untrue, just mere overstatements.

All of this illustrates why, when anyone asks me what they can do to be an informed participant in the political process, I tell them that one of the most important things you can do is make sure you get your news from multiple sources.