Smells like "meh"

>> Monday, December 31, 2007

There are things I should be doing or could be doing. Bills, for instance. Concocting some vaguely celebratory sort of thing to do on New Year's Eve. Getting back to writing, something that was supposed to take up a great deal of my Christmas holiday but has occupied almost none of it.

And what am I actually doing? Listening to some Floyd boots (Olympiahalle, Munich, October 12, 1973 and Fairfield Hall, Croydon, January 18, 1970), surfing the internet, and not doing much of anything. I may go out to dinner in a little bit--more because I don't have anything in my fridge I feel like messing with than because of the New Year. For whatever reason, it's a "meh" kind of day. Maybe it's because 50º weather on December 31st just plays with my head too much (I miss winter). Maybe it's being a few days from my 36th birthday, which brings the usual sensesless "What do I have to show for this year?" blues. Maybe it's the fact that I go back to work on January 2nd, my vacation coming to a sudden end. All of the above, none of the above, a little bit of everything.

In this somber spirit, allow me to share a gorgeous rendition of the classic Irish ballad, "Danny Boy"--the pipes are calling, in sunshine or shadow:

On a completely unrelated note, two minor updates to recent entries: yesterday's post on the RIAA claiming all music copying is theft, and an update to last week's post on Mars getting thunked.

Happy New Year's Eve. Or should that be, "Happy New Year's Eve!"?




>> Sunday, December 30, 2007

It appears the RIAA is claiming in an Arizona lawsuit that copying your own CDs for your own personal use is a violation of copyright, even if you don't share the files with anyone else. Ripping a CD so you can play it on your laptop or portable player, or copying a CD for the car so you can leave the original at home (a sensible precaution to mitigate your loss if your car is broken into) would be illegal if their arguments prevailed. This would also throw into question the "Sony Betamax" case from the early '80s, which allowed television viewers to copy broadcast programs to videotape for limited personal use.

Aside from the fact that the RIAA's argument criminalizes nearly every music owner in the United States, there's the fact that such an argument would be bad for technical innovation: had such an argument been accepted in 1984, not only would videotape be dead, but it would have curtailed existing analog audio cassette technology and the development of other storage technologies--including CD, minidisk, flash storage, and larger hard drives (let's face it, one of the driving forces between larger flash and HD capacities in smaller components has been the use of these devices in portable music players such as the iPod and in consumer media servers like TiVo).

The RIAA appears to be under the impression that they can force people to purchase digital downloads, not realizing that purchased downloads are a supplemental source of music for many consumers. That is: many (possibly most) purchasers of a portable music player plan on ripping their own CDs and then discover they can also purchase music online as a bonus. Get rid of the legal right to rip the music you already own, and there's no point in getting the portable player... and not much point in subsequently using iTunes or Rhapsody or Amazon et al.

It's a sickening argument they're making. Let's hope for the big fail.

UPDATE 12/31/2007: Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing notes that the RIAA's current position also contradicts their own prior rhetoric and legal arguments in previous cases. Details can be found here.

UPDATE 01/02/2008: Boing Boing notes today (as if it's a retraction) that the individual being sued in the above-referenced case was sued because he put the ripped MP3s in his shared Kazaa folder on his computer, thereby sharing the music with millions of his closest friends.

No shit, Sherlock. Anyone who went and read the story saw what the underlying case is over, and if that was all there was to it, there wouldn't be a story. Unfortunately, it appears the RIAA is going a step further in their arguments in the case, and arguing (as they apparently had an RIAA witness testify in a recent Minnesota case, the already infamous Jammie Thomas case) that the copying is in and of itself a violation).

See, the way you expand the scope of a law is to take a case that's bad for the other side, and you push the margins: if you want to expand the scope of police searches, do it in a case involving pedophiles or terrorists, not one involving Bob The Harmless Pothead or someone engaging in possibly legal conduct (e.g. a defendant who was arrested while attempting to peaceably assert his civil liberties to the arresting officer). If you want to overthrow the pesky "Betamax" case, pick a defendant who is clearly violating copyright law with his P2P sharing, and add, "Oh, by the way, he shouldn't have copied those songs even if it was just for himself; sharing the files was really the second time he stole our intellectual property...."

Is it possible the RIAA argument is being distorted? Sure. Is the fact that the defendant in the case probably violated the law in other ways dispositive of that question? Nope, try again.



>> Saturday, December 29, 2007

BoingBoing brought this to my attention: Terminus, an awesome little film short from Canada's Spy Films. It's about 8 minutes long, and you can watch it here or go to the link (above) to download a higher quality version. I think my favorite part of it may be the film's '70s aesthetic; or maybe it's that there's something vaguely phildickian about being stalked by concrete.


R.I.P. Netscape Browser (1994-2008)

AOL, the company that currently owns the Netscape browser, has announced that they won't be supporting Netscape after February of the coming year. And so an era that you didn't know was ongoing comes to an end.

Let's face it, Netscape hasn't been relevant for years and years. But for a little while there, Netscape was the alternative to Internet Explorer. And of course Netscape was a major player in the Microsoft antitrust suit--which was unfortunate, actually, because Microsoft's attempts to integrate browser and OS were sensible and forward-looking, if poorly implemented.

The browser and the OS should have some continuity--you can't tell it from the way Microsoft went about it with that "Active Desktop" crap they stuffed into Windows 95. But take a look at the way Konqueror works on earlier versions of KDE, and you can see how a continuous interface might work. (Konqueror is still present in KDE, but is being pushed aside as a file browser by a component called Dolphin, in the unlikely event you care.)

But I'm already boring you, and that's exactly how the browser sideshow became the unfortunate main event in the DOJ's antitrust case: because operating systems (and their interfaces) are confusing and boring while the Interwebertubernets is the future of information and the matrix and cyberpunk and stuff. If you control the Interwebertubernets, you control the destiny of man and the human brain and the future... sure, it may look like a bunch of porn now, but just wait and see.

The real issue that DOJ should have focused on--where Microsoft's evil moustache-twirling plans have involved girlfriends tied up in a lumber mill and threatened with the bandsaw--was the bootloader issue. And your eyes are glazing over already. Wake up! Interwebertubernets! Sorry, just trying to get your attention.

The operating system, for those of you who don't know, is a batch of software that tells your computer how to be a computer. If you think of your computer as being a brain, the operating system is potty training, preschool and kindergarten--numbers and shoelace tying and not peeing in bed. The OS tells your computer how to use a disk drive and read programs and display output.

You can actually have as many OSes on your computer as you want, as long as the OSes can talk to your hardware--Apple hardware is picky, but your typical PC can have Windows, Linux, OS/2, BeOS, NeXT and DOS all happily side-by-side unless one of them tries to pretend it's the only OS installed and tries to write over its companions. (Hm... who would do that, I wonder?)

Only one of the OSes can run at a time (yes, I know about virtualization and emulation, we were trying to keep it simple, eh?)--and this is where a bootloader comes into play. A bootloader is simply a piece of software that loads right after the BIOS (if your computer is a brain and the OS is your early education, the BIOS is sort of like the cerebellum--a primitive and simple bit that tells your heart to beat and handles similar autonomic functions) and asks you which operating system you'd like to run.

You can have eight (or eighty, or eight hundred) different OSes installed on your computer, but if one of them thinks it's the only one there and there's no bootloader to tell it otherwise, that OS will always load to the exclusion of the others. Not that any company would set their OS up to cockblock every other OS in existence... right?

Well, actually, that's exactly what Microsoft did. It turns out that, back in the day, a would-be Microsoft rival basically tried to give away their operating system. No, it wasn't Linux or some other pie-in-the-sky communist/socialist/hippie OS, and it wasn't a piece-of-shit OS written in someone's basement, either. BeOS was a widely-acclaimed, stable operating system with a number of features that eventually found their way into Windows, Linux, Apple and other operating systems. But Be couldn't get anyone to actually buy BeOS, so they decided to pretty much give it away for much the same reasons a drug dealer on the corner might offer a free "taste."

The real key to the OS market is pre-installation: really, only geeks go out and buy an OS off the shelf (or download it as a torrent). Most people want to turn on the computer and have it already know that there's a CD drive already attached and that the monitor can display 64-bit color. And the hardware vendors aren't necessarily happy about having to kowtow to Microsoft--the Microsoft virtual monopoly means that Microsoft can guarantee terms to Dell or Acer or IBM/Lenovo, and what are they going to do about it, huh?

So Be went to the hardware vendors and said, "We'll be your alternative; we'll give you our OS so you can offer it to customers as a pre-install option." And the hardware vendors were interested--but they couldn't say yes.

See, Microsoft knows that the key is pre-installation. And Microsoft knows that if a computer boots and asks the user if he wants to use Windows or does he want to use Be (or OS/2, or Linux, or whatever), some user might choose NotWindows and like it. And then Microsoft is, to put it bluntly, fucked. Hard, kicked out of bed in the morning, and no goodbye kiss or promise to call later. So Microsoft appears to have made it a condition of their vendor license that Thou Shalt Not Have A Bootloader Giving Thy Customer An Alternate Choice; Dell can install two (or twenty) operating systems on a desktop PC, but if one of them is Windows, Windows has to boot first and no questions asked. That's the deal, or no Windows.

There's a lot of Windows software out there. Dell (or whoever) kinda needs Windows even when Microsoft's licensing conditions are hurtful or expensive; it's an abusive relationship. When Be offered to give computer vendors a free distribution license, only one vendor said yes (if I recall correctly, it was Acer), and they buried the option to launch BeOS inside a Windows menu (as opposed to a user choice at startup).

Now this is the real crux of Microsoft's anticompetitive practices, no? It's not that Internet Explorer is right there on the desktop, or that Microsoft is trying to integrate file management with internet browsing--those things are actually good for the consumer. It's useful to be able to look at the contents of your hard drive and the contents of the Interwebertubernets in the same browser window. But it's not good for a consumer to have no choice of OS at the store or at startup--there's no good reason for a user not to be have a buffet of choices. (Plenty of power users set up their systems to do exactly that.) Maybe 90% of consumers would default to Windows anyway, but it would be because Windows was the best choice, not because every other choice was blocked. And if users started consistently picking NotWindows at startup, maybe Microsoft would need to be more responsive to users' needs.

But this wasn't the issue DOJ litigated: bootloaders aren't sexy. But Interwebertubernets were very, very, very sexy in the '90s, what with the dot-com boom and all, so Netscape became the government's main collaborator in the Microsoft antitrust suit, the bootloader issue was marginalized, and Windows was crippled. And yet Microsoft's quasi-monopoly wasn't significantly compromised in any way, and the commercial alternatives to Windows are all basically dead. (Oh wait, how could I forget about eComStation!) If Linux wasn't free, it would be dead, too.

And now Netscape, the belle of the DOJ ball, is dead. It was a good browser in its day, and then it wasn't. In the end, the Netscape legacy may not be that it was a powerful and stable browser that laid the foundations for Mozilla and its progeny; Netscape's legacy may be that they became the red herring in the Microsoft antitrust case, guaranteeing Microsoft's market dominance for the foreseeable future. Irony, anyone?

Well. We'll always have Firefox.


YouTube and living in an Age Of Wonder

>> Friday, December 28, 2007

Three a.m., feeling a little insomnia, I found myself on YouTube looking for video footage from Pink Floyd's 1977 "In The Flesh" tour. Not only did I find some--you can find anything on YouTube, we live in a wondrous age--but more importantly, I found this: video proof that if there's a God, he plays guitar--
  • Brian May
  • David Gilmour
  • "Smoke On The Water"

I shit you not:

Before I ran across the above clip, I was going to share another clip I stumbled into: the brilliant, beloved Gilmour performing his cover of Unicorn's "There's No Way Out Of Here" live. It somehow seems wrong to put two embedded videos in a post, but you know what? I want to be able to go back and watch the thing myself. So, here it is--"There's No Way Out Of Here," from Gilmour's eponymous 1978 solo album; I could go on forever about how wonderful, but I'll just get on with the clip and hope you love it at least half as much as I do:


It's a put-on, right? Like Spinal Tap?

>> Thursday, December 27, 2007

I like Occam's Razor, but it's not always as useful as I'd like. Consider Ann Coulter. I can wait 'til you get back from the john. Are you okay? There's something on your chin you might want to--okay, you got it. Now--ready?--as I was saying, consider Ann Coulter. The way I see it, there's two possibilities:

  • She's really, really stupid.
  • She's a fake news commentator like Tina Fey when she was on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segments, only she's not pretty or funny like Ms. Fey. (Ms. Fey, I know you're married, but if you're ever in my area, call me. 'Kay?)

Occam's Razor suggests that the simplest of these explanations is most likely to be true. Ergo, Ann Coulter is really, really stupid. And yet that somehow seems improbable--wouldn't someone that dumb drown in the shower or something? Strangle herself tying her shoelaces? Maybe she's really smelly and wears bedroom slippers everywhere--but see, now our hypothesis is becoming increasingly complicated and therefore less-favored by our parsimonious principle.

The reason I'm writing this is because PZ Myers was talking about her yesterday on Pharyngula, specifically commenting on Coulter's proclaimed views on evolution and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. (Myers' post title, "Huckabee not insane enough for Ann Coulter" sums up his post fairly well, although the line he uses to describe several chapters of Coulter's Godless: "an incoherent deluge of garbage," is pretty gear, too; his whole post can be read here.)

But as much as I like Myers--I have Pharyngula's RSS feed in Beatnik so I can get it fresh out of the oven--I have to admit I didn't quite take his word for it... actually, I lie: I completely took his word for it, but I was in the mood to laugh at some Grade-A crazy shit, so I went and read Coulter's column for myself, here. And that's what led to my musing on whether Coulter is legitimately dumb or just having a laugh at the expense of the American public. Also, I found myself worrying about her finances, since she relentlessly pimps Godless--I was under the impression it was a Times bestseller (and she says it is in the pimping), but maybe that doesn't mean as much as it used to. Anyway, considering her plaintive hyperlink to her bookseller and the way she always appears so damn scrawny in her pictures, it might be an appropriately seasonal act of charity to buy her book or, better yet, send her a sandwich or a can of soup. I'm not sure where you should send it, but maybe Premiere Speakers Bureau could forward it to her or have it waiting for her at an engagement.

Anyway, Ms. Coulter seems to think that media questions about whether Mike Huckabee believes in evolution or not reflect some deeper interest in critiques of evolutionary theory, as opposed, say, to wondering if a hypothetical "President Huckabee" would translate his religious beliefs into public policy--which, you know, might vaguely have some sort of implication to the outmoded belief that the First Amendment calls for some kind of separation of church and state. (I'm so glad the press is out front on this issue--what would happen if some future leader wanted to use taxpayer money to support religious groups, I ask you? Thank goodness the press stays vigilant, to keep that from ever happening!)

Accordingly, Coulter apparently is trying to expand her résumé by positioning herself as a "critic of Darwinism," possibly unaware that there are plenty of actual, evolution-believing biologists who are critics of classical Darwinism. More to her point (I'm going out on a limb to assume she has one), there are actually people who have some degree of scientific training who are critics of evolution and Darwinism, etc., who get called on to appear on television, testify in trials, and make public jackasses of themselves. That's not to say that you have to have a degree to be an effective (I'm using that word very loosely) proponent of creationism; I'm merely pointing out that it's already a very crowded field that Ms. Coulter is trying to get into. William Dembski, Michael Behe and some other people at the Discovery Institute already seem to have that market pretty well sewn up--I can't imagine it'll be easy to get gigs on the circuit, and I can totally imagine them pulling all sorts of awful pranks on Ms. Coulter--slashing her tires, ordering fake pizzas to her motel room, giving her the address to a furry convention instead of the right address to the big Creationist National Finals--to discourage her and cause her to quit. And then she'll lose her father's tire company or something equally terrible.

But then, suddenly in the middle of the essay (again, I'm using a word loosely), Ms. Coulter mysteriously abandons her bid to be a creationism expert and launches into a bit of a thing against gay people. (Perhaps she's not really a morning person--she apparently wrote this column before noon... oh wait, I think she wrote, "I'm usually done denouncing gays by 10:30 a.m., 11 tops," as a joke. Maybe. I didn't laugh. Did you laugh? Yeah. Okay. Moving along....)

What to make of this? Go read the column if you haven't already--you can't argue with her: it isn't coherent enough to argue with. Her column is a string of non sequiturs ranging from describing sorcery, phrenology and alchemy as "mystery religions" (I think she means "discredited ideas" instead of "mystery religions" or, since she is riffing off a quote comparing Darwinism to a "discredited mystery religion," perhaps she meant to write "Mithraism and Cult Of Dionysus" in lieu of... oh, never mind!) to... well, this paragraph (reproduced in toto):
Huckabee claims he opposes gay marriage and says Scalia is his favorite justice, but he supports a Supreme Court decision denounced by Scalia for paving the way to a "constitutional right" to gay marriage. I guess Huckabee is one of those pro-sodomy, pro-gay marriage, pro-evolution evangelical Christians.
I mean, read that. There are words, the words are in order, the words are in groupings that contain all the necessary parts of speech to form sentences. There are nouns and verbs and adjectives. And yet the second sentence really has nothing to do with the first--not even as rhetoric or propaganda. Oh, yes, I'm sure we all understand what the point was supposed to be--she thinks Huckabee is hypocrite or that his stated positions are otherwise inconsistent. But read those two sentences again. The only reason we think we know what she's saying is that we're all projecting what we think she's trying to say on what she's actually saying. It's not a good zinger, it's not a good anything: it's two distantly-related thoughts connected by our collective imagination.

Which is either a sign of mental incapacity (perhaps induced by having to resort to eating a Cheerios™ box found in a dumpster in an alleyway) or... the most brilliant hoax since Clifford Irving got three-quarters of a million dollars from McGraw-Hill for Howard Hughes' autobiography; a piece of performance art that makes Sacha Baron Cohen, Don Novello and Andy Kauffman look like dilettantes. Your pick.

I can't decide.


Yahoo and World Entertainment News Network: Hi, we're a bunch of unethical sensationalist morons who never let a fact get in the way of a good story

>> Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reporters at WENN haven't surprised anyone by declaring a celebrity said something he didn't.

Will Smith, 39, said something fairly conventional and unremarkable that most historians and students of world history, German history, Nazism, WWII, genocide, and crimes against humanity would agree with: to wit, that "Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'Let me do the most evil thing I can do today'.

"I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good'. Stuff like that just needs reprogramming," Smith added.

Hitler's "twisted, backwards logic" resulted in the deaths of an estimated six million people in Nazi concentration camps and an estimated 72 million people worldwide during the Second World War, all in the cause of a nationalist and racist vision of German world supremacy. As far as anyone knows, Hitler never once woke up in the morning, twirling his stupid little moustache and asking how he could be evil. Nor are there any incidents of Hitler tying someone's girlfriend to a railroad track or evicting someone's sick mother for failing to pay the rent. And there are reputable accounts and photographic evidence that the oily little shit liked children and dogs (not in that way, in the normal way I mean).

Before the invasion of Poland, Hitler's ambitious plans for rebuilding Germany, his successful economic development programs, sympathy for Hitler's antisemitism and scientifically obsolete theories of human evolution, and approval of Hitler's violent anticommunism led to his admiration by such luminaries as Henry Ford and Henry Luce, neither of whom would have ever said Hitler needed "reprogramming."

Meanwhile, WENN and Yahoo, who mischaracterized Mr. Smith's comments and publicized the mischaracterization, drew a number of readers to their websites, the success of which are judged less by accuracy than by their ability to obtain "hits" for the advertisers who pay to for as placement on the websites in question.


The second choice was, "Tase him, bro!"

A recent graduating class of a police academy in Boise chose "Don't suffer from PTSD, go out and cause it," as their graduation slogan this year. Note to self: don't ever go to Idaho, and if you have to get across, over or around the state for any reason, buy a plane ticket.


Merry Christmas!

>> Tuesday, December 25, 2007

(Soviet Christmas card from Mazaika)


Holiday things

>> Monday, December 24, 2007

I'll be spending time with family, so I'm going to go ahead and post tomorrow's entry today. (And basically do a null-entry--what you're reading right now--for today's.)

Happy holidays!


What I'm doing vs. what I ought to be doing

>> Sunday, December 23, 2007

The weather report called for wind and thunderstorms today. We had some rain this morning, and that was it; there was a blue sky overhead by two o'clock or so.

Normally, on a Sunday I'll go down to Boudreaux's for brunch and then cross the street to the neighborhood coffee shop, Smelly Cat. But today I wasn't especially interested in walking down to the corner in the rain, and so I planned on just hanging out at home. Then the weather cleared, and I thought, "Hey, I could at least go down to the coffee shop." I had an errand I needed to run anyway, to get a couple of Christmas cards to go with the presents I got for my mom and sister, and Canvas Monkey has some quirky cards. I figured I could get the cards, listen to the awesome Nina Simone boxed set I got for half price from the BMG music club this week, edit the NaNoWriMo novel, and then grab dinner at Boudreaux's, why not?

It's the editing the NaNoWriMo novel part of the novel that turns out to be the Achilles' Heel of the plan. Oh, the tedium of discovering that all your lightning was just a bunch of damn lightning bugs the whole awful time. It has to be done, of course, unless you just want to throw away the work, but... damn.

Scalzi's blog recently featured a guest column from Elizabeth Bear, "How To Write A Novel," in which one of the essential steps is putting the whole thing away for six months. Maybe she's right--maybe I ought to go write something else. Return to the vampire thing I was writing before NaNoWriMo--except that I'd hit a roadblock and needed to break the whole thing down and rebuild it from the start. (Aw shit, I think I mixed my metaphors, Ma.) Or there's the cute idea for a fantasy novel I had while I was working on NaNoWriMo: I could start outlining it. At least. Right.

One of the problems being that when you start revising something, and noticing how much you totally fucked it up, it sort of sucks some of the creative impulse right out. Why bother, when it's going to be shitty? Which is entirely something I'll get over, it just takes a little time.

So what I'm sort of thinking I might be doing today is playing Neverwinter Nights and otherwise screwing around. Which is not what I ought to be doing. I should be writing--it's been three weeks since NaNoWriMo ended, more than enough time to depressurize; still....

By the way, do I even need to say the Nina is awesome? I already had some of it on the two anthologies I owned, but I didn't have the entire albums. And I hadn't realized that Nick Cave's version of "Plain Gold Ring" on Live Seeds is basically a retooling of Simone's live version on In Concert, which makes up the first half of disc one of the Four Women set. (Do I even need to say that Simone's take blows Cave's out of the water, then continues to pummel it in mid-air like some kind of Dragonball Z character?)

Anyway, enough venting; back to goofing off, I guess.


Suppressing the cure

Chuck Norris doesn't want anyone to know his tears cure cancer. However, I'm guessing he has the purest of motives: he merely wants people to stop being such goddamn sissies.

It's too late, Mr. Norris: Pandora's box has been opened, the genie's bottle uncorked, Elmer Fudd is clutching Bugs Bunny's slinky red dress and blonde wig. If you wanted the truth to remain hidden away--even if it was for humanity's own good--you should have killed the leak with your bare hands when you had the chance.

I think you need to look at the big picture, Mr. Norris: you want the human race to toughen up and stop its whining, but have you thought of the great age of colonization you could trigger? A single vial of your precious tears could keep the passengers of a human colony ship alive for an indefinite period, until (even after millennia of zooming about at subluminal velocities) they found a suitable planet to inhabit--perhaps (empowered by your secretions) kicking the asses of any local inhabitants.

You could make that most classic of science fiction tropes--the galactic human empire--a reality. If you wanted.

So cry, Mr. Norris. Cry for humanity. If you're reading this, I want you to picture the most adorable kitten in the world, in a tree, hungry, cold and scared. There's a little girl with pigtails at the foot of the tree--it's her kitten, and she can't climb the tree to get it. The kitten piteously mewls. The little girl cries. And then kitten and girl are abruptly ended when a plane full of orphans crashes on top of them.


The new face of blog

>> Saturday, December 22, 2007

So, being an inveterate tweaker, I decided I needed a new template for my blog. Wanted. I wanted a new template. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the old one.

I do this. On my Windows machines, I always end up installing WindowBlinds and other Stardock WinCustomize products. On this machine, a Dell laptop running Linux, I spend an inordinate amount of time on fonts and wallpapers, and even went so far as to get a skin from Tego to decorate the top. I just need my environment to be mine for some obscure psychological reason that probably isn't very flattering to my character if anyone ever got to the bottom of it.

Anyway, this is something I decided weeks ago. I did some googling and ended up finding this template, Emire, online. Simple, kinda classy--classier than the contents of the blog, probably, but whatever. If I had the talent to write my own template, I would: instead, I'll adapt this one. And tweak. And probably spend a lot of time whining, "Why doesn't mine look like that?"

So this is the current new look of Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets. For now. There's already stuff I don't like--the way hyperlinks aren't very obvious, for instance. There are things I'll need to add or replace. I wish this were a three column template, actually, but I couldn't find any I really, really liked.

Which means I need to sort through XML/CSS/HTML or whatever the hell all this gibberish is; like I have time for that, but whatever. I'll see what I can do--it may continue to look like this for awhile, or I may break it, or I may actually figure out what the hell I'm doing. If you have any comments or suggestions, meanwhile, I certainly could use the edumacation and enlighteneleling.

If you don't have any advice, I hope you at least like the look.


Happy solstice, everyone!

Photograph of 2005 solstice from Astronomy Picture Of The Day, Photo copyright Danilo Pivato


It's the end of the world as we know it, but it's okay: he feels fine

Funny thing about our President: he has trouble successfully stringing three words together, but it turns out he can still do a pretty good R.E.M. cover:


Better there than here

>> Friday, December 21, 2007

Apparently it's the year of Tunguska. Was there some big announcement that we were all supposed to be gearing up for the centennial next year? Did I miss the memo?

In November, we had a report that Italian scientists thought they'd found the impact crater. Then, two days ago, an announcement that Sandia Labs believes the mystery object was smaller than anyone thought. The news today--which isn't exactly directly related to Tunguska, except as a reference point, is that there's a 1.3% chance that Mars is going to get walloped next month.

Which would actually be a good thing. Mars has been asking for it for more than a century, taunting us with its canals, space-princesses, and shape-shifting golden-eyed supermodels; not to mention the way it keeps eating our robots and spaceships. Take that, Mars! You bastard planet!

Naw, I'm just kidding. About Mars asking for it, not about it being a good thing if Mars got slammed by a 160'-wide brick. In 1908, when we got hit, nobody knew quite what happened: seismographs spiked, there were some lovely sunsets worldwide and a few accounts from local tribesmen made local newspapers. But scientists didn't get out to the scene until 1921, and a full expedition had to wait 'til 1927. As a result, you have a century's worth of explanations ranging from cometary impacts to a crashed alien spaceship. And "crashed alien spaceship" is one of the more conventional explanations that's seen daylight: the exotic proposals have included such improbable suggestions as a black hole fragment or a piece of string.

The leading explanation these days is the most prosaic--we got a rock. But there even remains debate about what kind of rock, with some scientists favoring a flying gravel pit (i.e. a smaller version of something like Itokawa) and others proposing a standard-issue solid chunk of space rock of the sort that occasionally puts a hole in someone's roof. With the data we have--the blast pattern of flattened trees photographed in '27, the eyewitness accounts, etc.--we can attempt to reconstruct the impact with computer simulations and physical modeling, but ultimately those reconstructions are only as good as the data that goes into them. Better data equals better models.

Mars is a bit like Earth--smaller, with a thinner atmosphere, but it's the same basic make. A crash test of a VW Beetle won't be 100% applicable to modeling SUV accidents, but it will tell you more about such impacts than merely going out onto a street corner after everything's been towed away and trying to assess accident risks by studying skid marks and pebbles of broken safety glass. So, here's to a collision with Mars in January, and to good viewing weather down here! We need the data, and better there than here.

UPDATE 12/31/2007: On December 28, NASA/JPL announced the chance of Mars getting creamed is up to 3.9%. Which is pretty whomping big as these things go. Hit! Hit! Hit!


"New Dress" redux

>> Thursday, December 20, 2007

One of my usual sources of news when I go online is Boing Boing, which isn't always reliable but is almost always interesting. So if I see a news item that seems particularly significant, such as "Lakota Natives Withdraw Treaties with U.S.", in which it's claimed that the Lakota are unilaterally terminating their treaties and will be issuing passports and driver's licenses, of course I'm going to try to confirm whether or not this has really happened.

Meet the wall.

A search of Google News comes up with several news sites carrying the same story, but nothing national or obviously reliable. Wonkette has a tongue-in cheek post. The Rapid City Journal has a 404 dead link. The Cleveland Leader has a piece, as do a few international papers and crankish sources--but they all seem to be sourced from the same press release, which I can't confirm the authenticity of.

So are they, or aren't they? Did huge chunks of South Dakota and three other western states just become a fully autonomous foreign power? Is this just a publicity stunt to draw attention to the ongoing class-action suit against the BIA for stealing mismanaging $176,000,000,000 (yes, that's nine zeros) worth of Native American assets? Is it simply a hoax?

The obvious next step was to try going directly to Reuters. Not that Reuters is actually that reliable: being an international news clearing house, Reuters has been known to recycle obvious or notorious urban legends when they resurface as "genuine" incidents in rural India or provincial China. But they might reasonably be expected to have someone on this--to confirm or debunk. Reporters go out and talk to people when something like this happens, right? And then the story gets picked up from a Reuters affiliate and sent to the world-at-large.

I saw an article about Jamie-Lynn Spears' fetus, and President Bush is talking about the election and the candidates for President are talking about immigration (they're against it, except when they're for it, I think). A website that publishes rumors about Apple computers is shutting down. The Federal government is very, very concerned that Barry Bonds' batting record may be the result of better living through chemistry and wants to talk to his doctor--and to think the CIA videotapes debacle was eroding my faith in government, at least the integrity of professional baseball may yet be restored! The writer's strike is affecting the People's Choice awards.

So, what's the story? I don't know. It's quite possible you may hear it here first, which would be utterly pathetic. If you have any information, feel free to comment.

Update--12/20/2007, 10:15: MWT has helpfully done some digging, and hit a similar wall to what I hit. He did however, find at least one website that suggests this is a publicity stunt by activist Russell Means (if so, it's not working very well). See the links in his comments for more info.


Just in case you needed something else to worry about:

>> Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sandia National Labs has announced that a new supercomputer analysis of the Tunguska event suggests that earlier analyses were wrong: it would seem that the asteroid that hit Siberia in 1908 was a hell of a lot smaller than anyone thought.

The bad news, of course, is that little asteroids are more common than big asteroids. Harder to spot, and if the Sandia analysis is correct, more likely to hit Earth than anyone expected. So you have lots of little bullets doing more damage.

Truth be told, it's not really worth worrying about--it's not like there's a damn thing you can do about it, and you have to reckon that even a Tunguska Events-sized object is more likely to airburst over the ocean or some bit of remote countryside than over your hometown. Your hometown is a pretty insignificant target, after all. Still, it's interesting, and I didn't have anything to write about.

So, you know, pleasant dreams, and keep watching the skies.


This... is... so... awesome...

>> Tuesday, December 18, 2007

John Scalzi posted this on Whatever, from And Still I Persist, and I have no choice but to share it here. Because this is... wow. Watch. Awesome. So. Awesome.


I don't really want to blog on this, but they'll revoke my geek license if I don't...

It was announced today that a horrible turdmonster from a mysterious South Pacific island, having destroyed a precious and beautiful creation, has now set his unbearable eyes on crushing a precious childhood icon that somehow escaped his notice during an earlier destructive rampage.

I'd hoped the horror was over, but it returns. Sometimes they come back, like in that Stephen King story about undead juvenile delinquents. Like Dracula. Or Uwe Boll. You think the beast is dead, but no, that's just what it wanted you to think. And no tome of arcane rituals will seal the gate, not even if you remember to say "Klaatu Barata Nictu" correctly instead of sneezing it into your sleeve in a hopeless attempt to fool the Powers That Be (and they'll know, trust me).

Of course, I'm helpless to stop it from happening. I'm just one man. No, all I'll be able to do is avert my eyes, and maybe weep. Weeping is good. It'll make it harder to see the posters.


Liking Ike

>> Monday, December 17, 2007

Donald Fagen's obituary of Ike Turner in today's Slate is worth a read, if you get a chance. (Since Fagen isn't normally a Slate contributor and is a damn fine musician--credit where credit's due, though I've never been a Steely Dan fan--it's a respectful, non-snarky, well-informed article. Yes, that is pretty unusual for Slate.)


They always travel in pairs

There's a new trailer for The Dark Knight out, and yes, it looks freakin' sweet. I don't care if Heath Ledger does sound like he's trying to channel Jack Nicholson in this clip. That's not totally a bad thing if he is. (The best Joker, in case you were wondering, is/was Mark Hamill, of all people, and you can go right to Hell if you disagree. And as good as Nicholson may have been as the Joker, know what? There's a good case to be made that he was actually the third best Joker after Hamill and Caesar Romero. Search your feelings. You know it's true.)

(Just how awesome was Hamill as The Joker? He was so awesome that he not only did The Joker's voice for all the WB animated shows like Batman and Justice League, but he also played The Joker's voice in the live-action series Birds Of Prey. Because only Mark Hamill's Joker was evil enough to shoot Batgirl in the spine; Nicholson's Joker would have tried hamming her to death. You heard me. Search your feelings. You know that's true, too.)

So I guess the point of the above, other than the fact that the thought of The Dark Knight fills me with warm, glow-ey feelings, is that Ledger has some pretty big clown shoes to fill.

I have high hopes about The Dark Knight, but I'm afraid it will be the last good Batman movie for a while. See, I was thinking about this the other day, and I noticed something. A pattern, a hideous pattern as compelling as the even-numbered Star Trek movies pattern. Think about it:

  • Superman--The Movie, Superman II, Superman III, Superman IV--The Quest For Peace...
  • Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman And Robin...
  • X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand...
  • Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3....

Notice anything? Any kind of pattern there?

That's right. It's not that quality goes down as the franchise goes on: in fact, in each of those franchises, the second movie is even better than the first one. But then what happens in the third? The quality doesn't slake off. Oh no. If only the quality merely diminished in the third movie. No, what happens after the second movie is that the rest of the movies turn out to be completely unwatchable shit.

Now, one might think that this is the result of a franchise's reins being taken over by a hack: Tim Burton replaced by Joel Schumacher, Bryan Singer replaced by Brett Ratner. But Richard Donner was replaced during the middle of Superman II, and more to the point, what the f--ing hell is Sam Raimi's excuse for Spider-Man 3?

If the Spider-Man franchise had been taken over by Uwe Boll, I think there would be a case for the hacks-taking-over argument. But the only explanation for the brilliant Raimi turning in a piece of garbage like Spider-Man 3 is... a curse. Probably something involving gypsies and the early days of Hollywood.

So, let's all enjoy The Dark Knight when it comes out next year: if history is a guide (and those who fail to learn history are doomed, etc.), it's going to be freaking sweet, and then Batman 3 will make us all vomit in our mouths. Don't say I didn't warn you.


What one can learn from science fiction (or pretend to have learned, anyway)

>> Sunday, December 16, 2007

Today's New York Times contains an inspired and funny discussion of which science fiction stories the current presidential candidates should claim they've read or ought to read:

Former mayor of New York

Should tell reporters he’s read “Childhood’s End,” by Arthur C. Clarke: An advanced intelligence arrives from above, creating a utopia by integrating all of humanity into a single mind that thinks and acts as one.

Might also consider reading “The War of the Worlds,” by H. G. Wells: During a cataclysmically destructive event, an observant bystander happens to be in the right place at the right time and thereafter never stops talking about it.


Senator from New York

Should tell reporters she’s read “Dune,” by Frank Herbert: Left adrift to wander in a desert wasteland, the scion of a deposed dynasty retakes the family’s lost throne in thrilling and violent fashion.

Might also consider reading Herbert’s “Children of Dune”: A calculating despot undergoes the ultimate act of political triangulation by transforming himself into a part-human, part-worm creature and going on to rule for what feels like 3,500 years.

Check the rest of it out. It's pretty awesome.


Reasons for Microsoft users to upgrade

Most of my personal computer use is on a Linux box, although I do have a Windows machine I mostly use for playing music, large downloads things like that. However, I did find this review of reasons to upgrade to Windows XP from Vista rather interesting.

Personally, I've had some of the same problems the author notes having with Internet Explorer 7 when running IE7 under XP, but aside from that I do agree that XP is generally stable, reliable and efficient. I don't really have any experience with Vista to base any other comments on. Anyone who happens to read this, feel free to comment on your own Vista experiences, if any. Is Vista a fork or an alternate distro of Windows, or what?


Enh, it's probably CGI...

>> Saturday, December 15, 2007

As I watched this, I have to admit that part of me wanted to see him hit himself in the face.

I'm sorry. I'm a bad person. What can I say?


"As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be."

>> Friday, December 14, 2007

Lately at dinner, I've been reading a big hardbound edition of Sherlock Holmes stories with the original Sydney Paget illustrations from The Strand. Re-reading, actually, although I think the volume might contain one or two tales I missed when I first devoured the Holmes stories 20-25 years ago. It was a big book on the discount table at a Books-A-Million, and although it's one of those inexpensive, massive compilations similar to the old Avenels you could get through the 1980s, I thought it would be nice to have something sturdier than my tattered old paperbacks, and with those glorious illustrations, too. I also thought when I bought it--and here I was thwarted by my failure to look closely at the contents--that the book might have "A Study In Scarlet" and "The Sign Of Four," which I haven't read in forever and don't own; instead, it turned out I already owned three-quarters of the material. But for the price, hey, it was worth it for the pictures, the sturdy cover, and the 25% I didn't have.

Anyway, I've been re-reading Holmes and thinking a bit about the fuss over fanfic that I blogged about yesterday. And of course there's a connection: Sherlock Holmes is one of the most revisited characters in contemporary literature, with various novelists and screenwriters regularly giving us their take on the character. We've had Sherlock Holmes as a smitten teen and Sherlock Holmes as an eccentric old man fighting bouts of forgetfulness. Holmes in therapy. Holmes in space. Holmes as a villain. Holmes as an incompetent jackass fronting for the brilliant Watson. Holmes saving the world from eldrich horrors.


It's not a tough problem, but I suspect it gives an insight into why people might write and publish fanfic. So allow me to suggest three reasons people won't leave Holmes alone:

He's An Interesting Dude

If Hercule Poirot ever falls into the public domain, I suspect we'll see a few Poirot pastiches, but not many. Because Hercule Poirot is a quirky character, but not an interesting character. Don't get me wrong: I went through a lengthy Agatha Christie phase in my youth and I still consider Murder On The Orient Express to be one of the best locked room mysteries written. (They even made a good movie out of it with few changes, what does that tell you?) But boil it down and Poirot is an accent and some catchphrases.

Holmes is socially dysfunctional, almost as if he has Asperger Syndrome or something. He's a junkie. He make grandiose pronouncements about someone being "the fourth smartest man in London" in a manner that indicates he knows what the hell he's talking about. And yet, at other times, he seems to have an amazing lack of pretension--he often seems to be entirely outside the Victorian British caste system. He's capable of doing almost anything except, it seems, love. For all his social deficiencies, he forms a lifelong friendship and loyalty with Watson. And speaking of Watson: one of the most fascinating things about Holmes might be that he's a "Mary Sue" character who isn't Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Mary Sue"--Doyle's surrogate in the stories is Watson, the competent but ordinary schlub in awe of Holmes' abilities.

He's a great character to write, in other words.

He Lives In An Interesting Era

Gaslit, Victorian London. It's an interesting-looking era. Interesting things were happening. Hence, there's still a fascination with the age that shows up in some circles: e.g. steampunk or goth fashion.

You can hit me for saying this: it's an age that's alien and familiar. The London post and telegraph provide instantaneous communications... that can take all day to deliver. There's rapid transit that can take you across town in minutes... that requires horses. International travel is fast and convenient... by train and steamship. Educated men have vast repositories of human knowledge right at their fingertips... in the form of gazetteers and encyclopedias. Mass entertainment reaches thousands and superstars are thronged by hordes of adoring fans... at music halls and opera houses.

It's modern... and retro.

And Holmes' contemporaries at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, real and imagined, include Freud, Dracula, Jack The Ripper, Tesla, Edison, Hitler, Teddy Roosevelt, Einstein, Wells, Wilde... the list can go on and on....

Holmes and his German patent-clerk friend Albert versus a newly-risen Dracula? It almost writes itself.

Just Who Did You Think You Were Fooling With Your Brilliant Master Detective And His Less-Savvy Sidekick?

A common complaint I've seen in the exchange on Scalzi's blog is "why don't these people create their own worlds and characters?" Which seems reasonable. I prefer doing the same thing myself, partly out of laziness: inventing new things is much easier than researching existing ones. You write a Buffy fanfic and put it on the internet, I can only imagine you're risking irate comments from critics pointing out that you obviously contradicted season 3, episode 7 and didn't listen to the commentary tracks on the season 6 DVDs.

But there can be a problem with trying to invent--or reinvent, really--certain things. If you write a story about an intellectual super-detective and his narrating sidekick, you know what people are going to instantly compare it to? Go on, take a wild guess.

And if you're setting your story any time between 1870 and 1920, give or take a decade-or-so, you know you might as well just give up and name your characters "Holmes" and "Watson." Because everybody who reads your story is going to do that anyway. And even if your story is set in some other era, you're probably going to have to acknowledge the resemblance somehow. So who did you think you were going to fool?

Apply those premises to the Potterverse or Star Trek, and I think you end up with similar conclusions. E.g. Kirk and Spock might be interesting to write, Trek can be an interesting setting, and is there a point in creating your own Hornblower-esque Captain on a futuristic spaceship if everyone is going to compare it to Trek, regardless?

Write a Holmes story, and nobody's likely to complain much. Maybe some Holmes fan-club members. Even if you take liberties with the characters--say you write a story in which Holmes and Watson are lovers, or in which Holmes is a Martian--the highest consideration is likely to be whether your story is good, not whether it's canonical. Aside from the current state of IP law, I've yet to see a persuasive argument as to why contemporary characters and settings are different--why it's wrong to write a Rowling pastiche, as opposed to why it might be illegal.



>> Thursday, December 13, 2007

Yesterday, I saw something that I thought might make a new blog entry: Applegeeks featured a link to Middle-Class Batman.

Middle-Class Batman is a neat piece of artwork someone did of... well, it's Middle-Class Batman.
The idea is that this is a Middle Class Batman. Its still Bruce, and his parents were still murdered, but they were never rich, and he still ended up becoming Batman...but with a bit of a budget.
I saw that and I thought, "Y'know, that's pretty damn neat." Not just because it's a great little piece of artwork, but because I could imagine how some of the stories might go, what some of the dialogue might sound like or what some of the comic panels might look like. DC frequently does one-issue "alternate universe" comics--there was a kind of nifty one a number of years ago, for instance, in which the writers and artists imagined what would have happened if Bruce Wayne's parents had, instead of having a biological son, adopted a strange infant that just happened to have crashed in a spaceship launched from a dying planet.

I hope someone at DC happens to see Middle-Class Batman and says, "Y'know, that would make a nice little book," and that they give Mr. Mitchell money.

Let's take a funny-book character seriously for a moment: something like Middle Class Batman isn't just interesting in his own right, as a character study of an ordinary, non-playboy dude who becomes a costumed vigilante on the cheap. Middle-Class Batman also provokes us to think about the original Batman. If Bruce Wayne was an ordinary schlub, could he still be Batman? Is Batman more than just his toys? No, these aren't important questions like, "Is it okay to torture a terrorist to save thousands of American lives?" But they're interesting questions if you care about Batman, and they have the benefit of not being questions that make you want to drive a nail into your own forehead with a hammer... or into someone else's forehead.

Coincidentally, over on Scalzi's blog today there was a post about a new effort Naomi Novik and some others are working on, the Organization For Transformative Works. (Novik is the creator of Temeraire, which I blogged about a few days ago, another coincidence.) In short, the OTW is meant to support people writing derivative works, especially those doing fanfic. Scalzi's post has generated a whole lot of noise between people who appear to be active fanfic-writers and people who seem to think that fanfic is non-creative and possibly an immoral theft of other people's creative material.

Fanfic itself isn't something that interests me much. Ten years ago I wrote a short story that I never showed anyone in which an unnamed young man, a depressed Kansas farmboy, ponders his ability to fly and inability to kill himself with a shotgun--he merely swallows the pellets. This bit of mediocrity has been more than superseded (no pun intended) by Tom Haven's excellent It's Superman! and the guilty pleasures of Smallville. I thought the story was lost, but I regret to say I found a manuscript while I was cleaning recently; I wouldn't necessarily call it "fanfic," either, but, you know. The only other thing I think I wrote that almost certainly counts as fanfic was a sequel to The Empire Strikes Back that I wrote on a manual typewriter around 1980 or 1981. Hey, waiting to find out what happened to Han Solo was particularly hard if you were nine. My Dad was a generous critic, as I recall, patiently advising me that carbon (which I erroneously thought was part of the carbon-freezing process) doesn't actually have a smell, instead of telling me what an awful story it surely was. I was nine, okay?

As I was saying, fanfic doesn't interest me much, but copyright and the public domain and culture interests me quite a lot.

The public domain used to be the default. It used to be that once a creative person released an idea into the wild, it became fair game. And if someone better came along and improved on the idea, a kind of survival-of-the-fittest principle kicked in. One can only imagine how impoverished western culture would be if all those fifteenth-century Italians had been able to use intellectual property law to keep William Shakespeare from stealing from them.

It was understandable, however, that writers like Victor Hugo were concerned about piracy (more than imitation): without strong intellectual property laws, it was commonplace for a foreign publisher (or sometimes even a domestic publisher) to produce a cheap knock-off print of a book, which obviously cut into the original writer's sales. So nations developed a compromise, or tried to: an author would get a limited right to license copies for a limited time before the work went into public domain and became fair game for anyone who wanted to produce a derivative work.

Even as copyright enforcement became a norm, it appears that authors up through the middle of the 20th century had a more flexible idea towards imitation (as opposed to piracy). Pulp fantasy and horror writers, for instance, appear to have borrowed liberally from each other and mentor-figures such as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith not merely without shame but apparently with one another's blessings. If a contemporary writer were to drop a Hogwarts reference in a short story, say, as flippantly as a 1930s Weird Tales writer might slip an "Ia! Yog Sothoth!" into a horror story, one imagines lawyers being called and motions being filed.

Which is sad. Writers who gave each other little nods and dropped names created a common world: the so-called "Cthulhu Mythos" may largely be an illusion--Lovecraft nor his contemporaries never sat down and scribbled out a pantheon or cosmology, and routinely contradicted themselves and each other--but the reason it's a persistent illusion is that the cross-references and in-jokes created a kind of tapestry. The reader can draw up a cosmology that reaches from the ancient Hyborian Age to the year 5,000 and beyond. The reader is richer.

And perhaps so were the authors: those kinds of references were advertising for the writers, and a reader who saw something he liked in a Robert E. Howard story might well decide to follow-up with the obliquely-referenced Frank Belknap Long story Howard tipped his hat to.

One sees a lot of contemporary writers say they own and control their creations, which is only legally true. Once the writer publishes, the story belongs (in a very real way) to the reader--the story only exists in a space between the author and the reader, and nowhere else. The idea that the writer's control of the right to copy, that is the right to make facsimiles, somehow extends to owning the image of his world and characters in the readers' heads is stupid and offensive. Of course I don't own your brain while you're reading this. You read, interpret; you agree or disagree. If I describe a character, you imagine him and he's yours. So, if you imagine him having depraved sexual relations with an underage goat, is that an insult to me? Obviously not: it's your depraved brain, and I doubt there are many others who, upon hearing of your barnyard obsessions, will suddenly share them or assume that I do.

The historically novel situation of copyrights lasting forever and being blurred with other forms of IP, like trademark and business practice, appears to have resulted in widespread arrogance. How dare you take my character and do your own thing? Easily, that's how: as soon as I've allowed you to read about my character, I've given him to you in a creative sense. In a legal sense, I'd prefer you not reprint my story without giving me money; and in a similar sense I'd prefer you not plagiarize--please don't publish a substantially identical story and say it's yours, not mine.

But outside of those largely-financial issues: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Really. Even bad imitation: you write a story in which my beloved protagonist is a pedophile, well... I won't exactly be happy, but at least I made an impression.

Middle-Class Batmen make the world more interesting.


A great role model to the aspiring lawyer

>> Wednesday, December 12, 2007

As a general rule, I'd rather not blog about law or being a lawyer. If there's an activity I'd like to dominate SotSoGM, it's probably writing. After all, I do law things five days a week. Why do I want to expand that? I'd rather be writing; indeed, this blog is meant to be a writing exercise, to encourage me to do some writing every day.

And I don't necessarily want to blog about politics, either. It's a hell of a tough time to be a liberal--the very thing has become a dirty word in popular circles. It's gone from being an accusation to being an expression of disbelief--I've had people argue with me about my being a liberal in the same tone they might use if I said I was stupid or ugly: as if I was being down on myself to express my devotion to progressive values.

Don't get me wrong: it's not fear of controversy or contradiction. I have no problem arguing my head off. The problem is that it's gotten to the point where it all just sort of hurts. I'll go online to check the news and read some new item--the CIA destroying evidence, let's say--and the mental image I have is of myself wearing a football helmet and shoulder pads, putting my head down, and charging into a cinder block wall. That's how it's hard to be a liberal these days: not that you're despised, but that anything you could possibly say or do has all the effect of pounding your head against a wall day after day after day.

But I'm getting away from the subject of this post, and I don't have much time. The subject of this post is the ridiculousness of the American Bar Association nominating former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as their "Lawyer Of The Year" and the absurd rationale behind it.

I'm not a member of the ABA. When you first become a lawyer, they give you a free membership, and then a cheap membership, and then you can get an expensive membership. At least that's how I recall them doing it. Maybe it's changed. I was a member of the ABA for a few years, because I thought the magazine was alright and maybe I'd use the coupons or hotel discounts, and when I realized I'd have to pay more money and that I never used any of the benefits, that was the end of that. People confuse the ABA with State Bar associations, which are mandatory. The ABA is kind of a national trade association. I remember seeing an episode of Angel a number of years ago where an ordinary lawyer told an evil lawyer he was going to report the evil lawyer to the American Bar Association, and I fell off my couch. Maybe he thought the evil lawyer should get a hotel discount, or that he merited a nasty letter to the editor. I guess it was just that the episode writer had no idea what he was talking about, but that's not nearly as funny.

Now, from my frothing left-winger vantage (a vantage the ABA is often accused of sharing, tho' I'm not sure I buy that, but whatever), Alberto Gonzales was a pretty awful guy who never should have been confirmed by the Senate. Let us suppose that "torture" is a crime. Let us further suppose that Mr. Gonzales, as counsel to the President, sent the President a memorandum insisting that the so-called War On Terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners," i.e. that there were ways for the Executive Branch to circumvent laws prohibiting the torture of prisoners.

The question that someone concerned with legal ethics might ask at this point is, "Did Mr. Gonzales advise his client (the President) on how to circumvent the law and commit a crime?" And the reason that this is a vital question is that if the answer is "yes," many (if not all) State Bars would consider that a violation of rules of professional responsibility.

See (and you may know this), every State has a fairly complicated list of things that you can and can't do as a lawyer. (In most states, these rules are modeled after either the ABA's current Model Rules Of Professional Conduct or the ABA's older Model Code Of Professional Responsibility.) And under such rules, a lawyer is permitted to advise a client about the scope of the law, but not to advise the client as to how to break the law. (See, e.g. Model Rule 1.2 of the MRPC.)

If Mr. Gonzales' conduct went beyond counseling the President as to the scope of the law, in other words, then Mr. Gonzales' conduct may have exposed him to disciplinary action (possibly including disbarment in Texas).

So this is the ABA's "Lawyer Of The Year." A man who maybe should have been brought before the Texas Bar. Here's what the ABA said about its choice:
"Think about Time magazine's Person of the Year," [ABA Journal editor and publisher Edward A.] Adams said in an interview. "In years past they've named people like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin. So we're not suggesting by these awards that these are the best lawyers in any sense of the word. We are saying they are the most newsworthy--and perhaps also the best."
Now, see, that's just stupid.

I don't know the history of Stalin making the cover of Time, if that's true, but I know the story of Hitler making the cover: Time magazine publisher Henry Luce was a rabidly right-wing anti-Communist. He liked Adolph Hitler. Hitler was a strong leader who pulled Europe's most important country out of the economic shredder and who jailed the communists. A good German, and plenty of Americans in the 1930s still thought of the Brits as effete, untrustworthy losers who recruited Americans to fight their wars when they weren't oppressing the Founding Fathers or whatever.

So if the ABA wants to say that a man who possibly should have been disbarred and who ultimately resigned from the Justice Department under a dark cloud is a great American Lawyer, power to them. They'll find lots of people agree with them and who beat their chests over the disgrace of us liberals tormenting a great and good man and successfully driving him from a vital leadership role as part of our ongoing plot to sell the nation out to... whoever we're selling out to this week. The terrorists, I guess. We want them to win, right? I've misplaced my memo. But this wishy-washy, "Oh, he's so newsworthy" crap is asinine.

I'm out of steam, and I need something real to eat after too much junk food at the office Christmas Grazing thing, and I'm supposed to meet a friend online for some monster slaying in Neverwinter Nights in half an hour. I'm not sure I really articulated an opinion, sorry. My head keeps swelling inside this helmet, and I'm having a hard time breathing. But point me at that wall, and I'll give it another go....



>> Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I was writing a post about something else and I didn't like it. So watch the Vader Sessions by Akjak and I'll try to be clever some other time:


Bright shiny objects on the path

>> Monday, December 10, 2007

A roundup of random things I found on the internet this evening that I'm too lazy to actually comment on:

Engrish Of The Day presents this helpful murder safety advice from a Chinese park:

SFFMedia has an overview of what's new in the "final cut" version of Blade Runner.

Please go and wish Sir Arthur Clarke a happy 90th birthday.

I'm a little bummed that I missed Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day on Saturday. I totally would have tried to look like The Doctor when I went down to the corner to have lunch with my Mom and spent the rest of the day at Smelly Cat. Except I don't have a pair of red sneakers, an awesome coat, or an 16' scarf... I do have some celery in the fridge, however....

Congress thinks the solution to online piracy is to create an executive agency to confiscate personal computers. Now that's what I call using their noggins! features this photo of a 5 meg hard drive being loaded onto a cargo plane with a forklift in 1956 (hey, you shoulda seen the laptop it came out of...):


Here there be dragons

>> Sunday, December 09, 2007

After wrapping up Halberstam's The Coldest Winter last week, I needed to pick something light and frothy from the huge pile of books I need to get to. (I buy too many damn books--which seems like an oxymoron, you can't have too many books, but I have a huge backlog right now, and I keep compulsively buying more.) And there, right near the top: Naomi Novik's fourth Temeraire book, Empire Of Ivory. Perfect choice. Finished it yesterday.

The Temeraire books can probably best be described as Master And Commander meets Pern, a description that may be unfortunate insofar as once you've alienated people who dislike 19th century naval yarns and people who hate Anne McCaffrey, you possibly have no readers left. But it's also a description that completely sums up the Temeraire universe: an alternate 19th century in which the Napoleonic Wars are being fought from the backs of dragons, a loopy Reese's Peanut Butter cup mashup that works shockingly well. Don't believe me? Ask Peter Jackson, who bought the rights to the series and plans on releasing a Temeraire movie in 2009. (I probably won't see it: I hate what Jackson did to The Lord Of The Rings, but that's another subject.)

In a nutshell, William Laurence is a captain in His Majesty's navy who captures a French ship smuggling an exotic dragon egg from China. The egg hatches before he can get it back to Britain, and the dragon, who Laurence names Temeraire, imprints on him. Since dragons form intense and instinctual bonds with a single human at hatching, Laurence is forced to leave the navy and join the Crown's aviator service as Temeraire's captain. Excitement follows, including battles with Napoleon's dragons, a tense diplomatic trip to China, and a desperate trip from China to Prussia across the Asian continent.

Novik's prior experience, before publishing the first Temeraire book, His Majesty's Dragon, was working on Bioware's first Neverwinter Nights expansion, Shadows Of Undrentide. This may not seem like much of a recommendation if you haven't played SOU, but those who have had the pleasure may remember that game for its cleverness, wry humor and occasional surprising poignancy. (It seems significant, in context, that one of SOU's quests involved a humorous and touching attempt to recover a kobold's stuffed doll from a dragon, freeing the kobold from service; examining the doll before handing it over to the kobold revealed a touching note from the dragon to his former servant.) The first two books in the Temeraire series have a similar spirit: there were quite a few times I found myself laughing with pleasure at the dialogue.

That humor is still detectable in Empire, but there's not nearly as much of it. An epidemic has struck the dragons of the British aviator core, and Temeraire--who appears to have come down with the illness and inadvertently cured it with something he ate in the second book--and his crew must travel to south Africa to try to find the cure they previously stumbled on. Things become complicated when it turns out that an African tribe has rallied a confederacy of tribes to put an end to the slave trade, and has assembled a great fleet of African dragons to drive the Europeans off the continent.

Like many authors writing historical romance, Novik has a difficult time maintaining historical mindsets, particularly where her heroes are concerned. Although there are nods to 19th century prejudices--Laurence is made uncomfortable by the role women play in the Crown's aviator core, hesitates in opposing the slave trade, and understands his colleagues' views of military discipline and conduct--the bottom line is that Laurence (and other heroic characters) tend to be anachronistically progressive most of the time. Then again, it seems churlish to complain about this sort of problem: while anachronisms may take you out of the book at times, a fantasy story about a blinkered colonial racist probably wouldn't make for rousing escapist entertainment.

And that's ultimately what these books are about: it's cool 19th century ships with dragons. And if Empire Of Ivory isn't as charming or funny as it's predecessors, it's still a page-turner that's damn hard to put down. That's a form of success that can be hard to explain: Novik's not a brilliant stylist, the books aren't necessarily original (as compared, for instance, to Susanna Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a fantasy novel set in the same era), but Novik's books are the dangerous sort that have you looking at the clock by the bed and saying, "Well, I think I can get one more chapter in... okay... one more. What time is it? Okay, I know I said 'one more,' but I can read one more before I crash...." Her characters are endearing, the action is fun, the pages almost turn themselves, and I'm unhappy that she ended the latest one on a cliffhanger again, meaning I'll be buying the inevitable book 5 in a year or so. (I'll comfort myself with the thought that at least she's writing faster than George R.R. Martin. [Shakes fist.])


He's an idiot

>> Saturday, December 08, 2007

Yesterday, the BBC reported that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, told a conference that a teacher who forbids the use of Wikipedia is a "bad educator." He also compared Wikipedia to rock and roll. No, really. Here's what he said:

"You can ban kids from listening to rock 'n' roll music, but they're going to anyway," he added. "It's the same with information, and it's a bad educator that bans their students from reading Wikipedia."

The BBC doesn't say whether the obvious follow-up questions were asked: "So, Mr. Wales, how does it smell up there inside your own ass, and how do you read what's on a computer screen in there?"

I'm assuming that when Wales says "read Wikipedia" he means "use Wikipedia in schoolwork," since he apparently did go on to admit that Wikipedia might not be suitable for college students. (No! Really?)

This is a typical Wikipedia problem. It's not that they're a terrible source, or nearly as inaccurate as you might think, given that any moron or anyone with a vested interest can edit the site. They're much more accurate than one would think. No, the problem is that the asstards who run, maintain, and supervise Wikipedia don't understand how academia and scholarship work.

When I was a kid, long ago, it wasn't unusual for teachers to ban all encyclopedias when doing an assignment. You might be allowed to use an encyclopedia as a starting point for your own work, but you weren't going to be allowed to cite it at all. It didn't matter how accurate the encyclopedia was--that's not the issue. The issue was (and is) that encyclopedias are secondary sources, and part of what an educator should be doing when assigning a paper is teaching kids how to find and use primary sources.

And that issue aside, Wikipedia is worse than many encyclopedias in at least one respect: many (tho' certainly not all) encyclopedias are going to have articles written by leading experts in the field and subjected (at least in theory) to some kind of editorial review before being published. A Wikipedia article might be written by an expert, but you'll likely never know given that Wikipedia allows anonymous publishing and editing. A Wikipedia article won't necessarily be subject to any kind of formal review by recognized experts. And where the encyclopedia entry might well incorporate the expertise of a leading expert in a field, Wikipedia is phobic to anything they consider "original research"--a leading expert may not be able to cite his own work in a Wikipedia article even if his work is the definitive work in the field. Wikipedia isn't a secondary source, it's a tertiary source. And that's not what a student ought to be relying on for a paper, no matter how he cites it.

There is one regard in which I think Wikipedia is an admirable pedagogical tool, but I really don't think it's what Wales has in mind: I think Wikipedia could be very effectively mined by teachers for cautionary examples. Why are primary sources important? How many logical or rhetorical errors are in a particular article? What would you want to know about an anonymous author of a controversial article before you accepted the article's claims as true? If I were a teacher, I can very easily imagine giving students an assignment of selecting a Wikipedia article, finding five things wrong with it, and writing a short paper explaining their findings.

But I sure as hell wouldn't allow students to use Wikipedia for a research paper any more than I'd allow them to use World Book or Britannica. And the fact that Wales doesn't understand why a teacher would do that is the reason Wikipedia will always be crap, no matter how faithfully its editors regurgitate other people's work onto the internet.


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