g r o t t o 1 1

Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon ValleyNew York-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry, political bile, and sports car rentals.

btman at grotto11 dot com

Read These Too:

Steven Den Beste
James Lileks
Little Green Footballs
As the Apple Turns
Cold Fury
Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
Eric S. Raymond
Tal G in Jerusalem
Aziz Poonawalla
Corsair the Rational Pirate
Ravishing Light
Cartago Delenda Est

Cars without compromise.

Book Plugs:

Buy 'em and I get
money. I think.
BSD Mall

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12/13/2004 - 12/19/2004
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11/29/2004 -  12/5/2004
11/22/2004 - 11/28/2004
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10/25/2004 - 10/31/2004
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11/25/2002 -  12/1/2002
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10/28/2002 -  11/3/2002
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10/14/2002 - 10/20/2002
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12/31/2001 -   1/6/2002
12/24/2001 - 12/30/2001
12/17/2001 - 12/23/2001
Sunday, February 24, 2002
00:43 - The New Family Bible

Well, I'd love to have been able to find the original text of this article that I heard read tonight on "Five Minutes", part of TechNation on NPR; but while they said with great confidence that the full text of all "Five Minutes" articles would be available at siliconvalley.com, I've just spent the past half hour combing that site to find any mention of "Five Minutes" or TechNation or NPR, to no avail whatsoever.

So, to ad-lib it...

The columnist talked about how she hadn't yet been bitten yet by the "digital camera bug"-- a) because the technology isn't quite up to the same snuff as film prints, and b) because computers crash. Who'd trust their family history to a computer?

She dwelt on the issue of family photos being a seminal feature of our concepts of our lives. People her age, she said, only had a few grainy black-and-white photos of them as babies; the only context that identified the featured baby as her was the clothes worn by the other people in the photos; the baby may as well have been clip-art. But today, kids are growing up with all their childhoods fully archived-- photographed in full color, blown up to poster size, videotaped, recorded in all ways imaginable-- "they're media darlings," she said.

And yet we want to have those physical photos locked away in boxes. The physical reality of photos that we can lift and that take up space in the closet reassures us.

And yet, as she says in the wrap-up of the article, it's up to every generation to preserve its legacy by embracing the technologies of the next generation. So she may have to bite the bullet and jump into the digital photography world. And here's the bit that I found interesting:

A classic demographical experiment is to ask a person, "Your house is on fire. You can run in and grab one personal item. What will it be?"

Up till the early part of the 20th century, the response was always "The family Bible."

After that, it was "The family photo album."

And as she closes the article, we have passed another milestone: How many of us would answer, "My computer"?

I would.

Because I don't have any non-digital photos... or indeed much of anything of value that isn't on my computer. I have geek toys, but they all juggle data (whether photos, MP3s, Palm contacts, or DV video), and that data is on the computer now. Everything else I have... well, I could always get new ones.

I wonder how significant to the human condition the answer to that hypothetical question is? Since there have been so few changes to the common response in recorded history, one would think it's pretty darn fundamental...

20:26 - Okay, who's been flouting the Temporal Prime Directive?


Transparent Aluminum has been developed. (Well, "aluminium", which has the same chemical structure. Heh.)

It looks to be legit-- der Spiegel is a pretty reputable German news organ.

So I guess now we can make... uh, starship shielding, or something...

14:27 - Phinally!

At long last, we have a ship date for Photoshop 7.0 with its native Mac OS X support.

(Well, not so much a ship date as a ship quarter-- "Second quarter 2002"-- but it's something.)

Photoshop is for many people the last thing holding them back from upgrading to OS X, or if they already have, from ditching Classic. For me it's actually one of two things (I'm still waiting for a good Telnet/SSH program like NiftyTelnet), but now the floodgates can open for things like native scanner drivers, plug-ins (like AlienSkin), and all the other graphics tools that depend on Photoshop for their legitimacy.

I've always thought that Photoshop was one of the best reasons to use a Mac, because it takes advantage of two fundamental design features that make the Mac different from Windows: 1) The program takes up the entire screen area, and 2) no critical functions are handled by right-click/contextual menus.

It's been a longtime point of contention that Mac programs, when made active, take over the entire screen; click on any program, and its menus replace the menus at the top of the screen, rather than each individual program window having its own specific menus. There are arguments for and against both methods, and I'm not prepared to suggest that one is inherently better than the other. In many cases it's better to do it the Windows way-- to have menu controls be a part of the program window itself rather than up at the top of the screen, disconnected visually from the program you're working in. For "palette" style programs like ICQ and WinAmp, it makes more sense for all functionality to be encapsulated within the palette.

But programs like Photoshop showcase the very best reasons to have a program take over the entire desktop context. In Photoshop, you need all the space you can get; you have floating palettes docked all around the screen, and you need to see all your work images side by side, arranged so as to maximize space, with each picture taking up no more space in toolbars or title bars than you can possibly get away with. You need a global menu bar at the top, out of the way; hideable palettes that you can arrange around the edges of the screen, snapping them into position; and above all you need to be able to see behind the palettes to other programs you might be using.

A crucial part of Photoshop's workflow is the ability for images to float freely on the screen, so you can see them against the backdrop of a working desktop environment. You need to be able to see how the colors work together. You need to see how it a picture will look against a web page. But on Windows, this functionality is crippled by the MDI (Multiple Document Interface) scheme, which is quite possibly the ugliest interface metaphor ever dreamed up. A Windows program needs to maximize use of the desktop-- so it creates one gigantic, gray-background window with menu bars at the top, and all your palettes and windows float around inside the big gray box. It's opaque, drab, murky, and it prevents you from treating your images as objects on your desktop along with all your other objects, which is fundamental to how Photoshop needs to work.

The other thing about Photoshop is that it does not try to load functionality onto the right mouse button. Graphic art is a very complex set of tasks, and it's only going to confuse users if all the possible tasks are made into modal, contextual right-click options. Everything in Photoshop is accessed through the menus at the top, and right-clicking is reserved for quick shortcuts to tool-specific options (all of which can be accessed in the Tool palette). This is the philosophical extreme opposite from, say, the GIMP-- in which NO functionality is kept in menus, but EVERYTHING is accessed through modal, contextual right-click menus arranged in a deeply nested, impenetrable hierarchy. As I've said many times before, the GIMP's UI is a brilliant one-- as long as you're a robot. It's completely useless if you've ever used another piece of software in your life.

A single mouse button will allow a Photoshop user to accomplish every task possible, but will be a major liability in a program like GIMP. But in a more useful comparison, Photoshop could have succumbed to the Windows style of design and made itself a lot more like GIMP by loading functionality into the right mouse button-- but it hasn't. Why? Because graphic artists and designers are not geeks. They want a simple, concise, visually helpful layout for their tools, one that will guide them to the (often very complex) menu selections for what they want to do. They don't want to have to sit and wonder or experiment for hours to figure out whether the coffee-stain filter script is under a menu, or under a right-click option, or under a right-click-then-navigate-through-hierarchical-menus layout, or in a palette, or what. Using Photoshop is eminently possible with only one mouse button-- I've done it for years without ever right-clicking. And like the good student of design knows, if you want to know where to put the paths through your grounds, don't put in any paths-- just let the people walk where they want to walk, and next spring, pave the paths that they have worn in the grass. Likewise in software design: Observe that people want their functionality to be visible and accessible through the obvious means they have to hand (clicking on explicit menus), and design the functionality accordingly. Adobe has done this. And the result is a program that basks in the directness of the Mac OS user interface, rather than feeling as though it's crippled through a lack of right-click options (as many other programs do).

Photoshop 7.0 will be a $150 upgrade for registered users, so I'll be setting that aside for April. Now to hope that it's all Microtek is hoping for before they release a native OS X scanner driver. Pleasepleaseplease...

UPDATE: Matt Robinson says I'm right, and that I'm full of crap too. Read! Read it I say! And whatever you do, don't read it!

Saturday, February 23, 2002
03:48 - Tit-for-Tat

I mentioned this Game Theory post by Steven den Beste a few days ago, but today I thought about it a little more. (And no, I still haven't seen A Beautiful Mind. Tomorrow, probably. After I take care of those boxes.)

Specifically, I was considering the "tit-for-tat" model of playing the Prisoner's Dilemma game: you do what the other guy did in the last round. So you play fair until he cheats, at which point you cheat, and if he plays fair, then you're back on track. This model is not ideal, but it's been demonstrated to be the most effective one available-- and so it's the method upon which the nuclear Mutually Assured Destruction contingency and the Geneva Convention are constructed.

When Tit-for-tat plays against itself, it plays fair for the entire game and maximizes output. When it plays against anyone who tosses in some cheating, it punishes it by cheating back and reduces the other guys unfair winnings.

No-one has ever found a way of defeating it.

Maybe not. Except in the Real World.

Consider this hypothetical situation: Two adversaries playing tit-for-tat. Everything goes along fine forever, nobody cheats.

Except then you inject one cheating round on one side: One guy cheats. And his opponent then cheats in retaliation. The first guy returns to tit-for-tat-- and he cheats. So does his adversary. And now everybody's cheating, and it's a cycle that will not be broken until a second injection is made: a voluntary "play fair" round that one guy decides to do, just out of the goodness of his heart (because surely there's no rational reason to do it). But that's the only way to get both sides to play fair again.

It strikes me that this model is a lot closer to how the Real World works. We all sort of instinctually follow the tit-for-tat rules; by our nature we try to avoid confrontation if we can avoid it, especially if we're in large organizations. We won't soil our own nest by being needlessly mistrustful; but we'll react if we're threatened. But human interactions are very complex, especially in large organizations; they involve lots of misconstruable shades of meaning, and lots of rationalizing and self-assuredness-- including the concept of "I do this for the greater good". And when a country makes a decision to undertake some back-door ploy, or to cut a third-party deal, or to do anything that isn't out in the open and done by the rules agreed to by the adversary, the game has had that first cheat injected into it. Once the adversary finds out about it, he cheats back-- and then the two opponents are locked into a cycle of mistrust and constant cheating, unbreakable except by a good-faith act by one of the adversaries who does it regardless of whether it makes any financial or political sense to do it.

This is where the US and the Soviet Union were throughout the Cold War. Who was the first to inject the first seed of mistrust into the game? Nobody really knows. But the result was clear: neither side trusted the other to play by the rules. We always assumed they knew more than they were telling us, and they assumed the same of us; we always assumed they were readying some sneaky move against us, and they assumed the same of us. And yet both sides knew that tit-for-tat was still the best model for handling the game, and so we kept using it-- continuing to distrust, until the good-faith motions on the part of Gorbachev's moribund USSR injected the solution into the game, leading to the collapse of that country and its superpower status, and also of the Cold War and the large part of our long-standing policy of mistrust.

Tit-for-tat does remain the most effective policy, it's true-- but only in an ideal world, where both sides follow that model and no cheating ever occurs, or where a tit-for-tat player plays against a randomized player (where no pattern forms based on feedback injected back into the system by the game's results).

But neither of those conditions accurately describes the Real World, in which everybody plays by tit-for-tat on the surface, but where we always keep the possibility of spontaneously cheating open... and where human nuance leads to a real or imagined cheat finding its way into even the most well-intentioned game. And then follows forty years of bristling and glowering and waiting for someone to make a move. Hardly what I'd call "maximized output" or "ideal"... but for human nature, that's what we can expect.

03:19 - Light on the East Bay


I spent today up in Oakland and Berkeley visiting with my parents-- it's a convenient meeting point that's easy for them to reach and about 45 minutes from me. We had lunch in Jack London Square, then drove up through their old haunts (they used to live in the area before ditching the city life). As Telegraph Ave. climbs through Berkeley, the street vendors cluster more and more thickly until a couple of blocks from the UC campus, where knitted caps and hemp products are sold from tables from which flows smoke from smoldering incense. Apparently not that much has changed in 30 years.

Up Strawberry Canyon and thence to the Lawrence Hall of Science, a favorite destination of mine as a kid, and still fun today-- especially for the view of the San Francisco Bay Area, which is quite possibly the best and clearest view available in the area. The weather today shifted schizophrenically from overcast to rainy to stabbed-through with clear blasts of sunlight, and by the time I got back home the clouds had broken enough to give me that fully-lit-green-hills-against-dark-cloudy-sky contrast that I love so much.

Then I headed over to the Pepper Tree place where we watched The Fast and the Furious, which Paul ought to like (it has a Supra in it)-- interesting idea, a rice-boy street racer movie in which the only Asian characters ride motorcycles. Not half bad, actually, if ridden through with cliches ("No, Fidget Boy! Don't put up the pink slip for your car so cockily as collateral against this race! Can't you see how the director is trying so hard to pretent he's being nonchalant about the scene? Except if the scene is so routine and as-planned, why would he bother filming it? It's a setup, I tell you! Why don't you just talk about how you'll go home from the war, marry your girl Mabel Sue, and get a nice little house with a white picket fence and a tree with a swingset--KABOOM!")... big and loud, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Anyway, this is yet another Saturday that I've spent almost entirely not at home. That's great and all, but I've got a lot of geek-toy boxes to throw away-- PS2, digital camera, iBook battery, iPod, FireWire drive enclosure, DV camcorder, steering-wheel game controller, and iBook, all stacked under my animation table. They'll have to undergo a winnowing tomorrow, whether they like it or not.
Friday, February 22, 2002
23:55 - For the love of God, STOP it with the Scooby-Doo already!

An online petition to get Cartoon Network to air less Scooby-Doo.

Not that I have any evidence that these things work, but for the sake of common decency and my own sanity, I implore all who watch CN and have at least three fibers of taste to rub together to rush to the site and add their voices.

Cartoon Network has some of the best new programming on the air today; yet they insist upon filling entire weekends with Scooby-Doo and its horrific spin-offs. Every night I'm lulled to a fitful sleep by the sounds of Scooby-Doo solving some damn mystery with Don Knotts or Cass Elliot or the Addams Family or Sonny & Cher, and washed-up 60s actors are not my idea of things I want in my head while I sleep.

We need "Adult Swim" to be expanded, we need "O Canada" and "Late Night Black & White" back, and we need the same people who realize the genius of Genndy Tartakovsky to pick up whoever at the studio thinks Scooby-Doo is at all enjoyable to watch, pick him up by the neck-scruff and the crotch, and hurl him shrieking from the 27th-story window onto the midday freeway traffic below.

And then all will be well with the world.

23:49 - Chuck Jones: 1912-2002

He was certainly getting on in years, but he never lost his love for the art.

What I find discouraging, though, is that none of the major news sites have picked up on this yet. They'll run retrospectives on obscure B/W film starlets of the 20s, but so far no mention yet of the passing of this last icon of Warner Brothers' golden age. We'd already lost Friz Freleng and Mel Blanc and Tex Avery; Chuck was the last pin to fall, and so now we can close the book on that whole chapter. It passes from living memory into the annals of legend.

Too bad "Thomas Timberwolf" sucks so much, though.

19:43 - Free Speech... or Free Beer?

Isn't it nice when all the topics I've been posting about recently all come together in a single article?

This one, by Lawrence Lessic of the American Spectator, explores three themes that I've been on lately: 1) Apple, 2) Copyrights and digital music and video piracy, and 3) the concepts of "freedom" as we in the US see it and as others elsewhere see it.

It's a long article, and I admit I haven't even read through it all yet-- I'm posting it here as much so I can remember to read it completely when I get home as to get it into circulation among those who read this blog. But just from reading the first few pages of it, I was struck by how it so neatly drew together all these subjects that interest me. It looks like it'll be a good read, too.

16:45 - Just another day on the river...


And this guy just happened to be there with his camera when this occurred. Imagine all the things that go on when nobody's there to record it for posterity...

16:14 - The Tale of Lola


Nancy Reed at AppleLust details the story of her quest for a new iMac. (I suspect that the Fry's she visited was the same one I visited today, in Sunnyvale-- which has an iMac on display. As I was playing with the screen and resizing Finder windows to see how fast it went, I kept wondering where that soft but recognizable tune, "Glade" from Trevor Jones' Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, was coming from-- it was so clear and had lots of bass, but I couldn't figure out the source of what I thought was store Muzak. Then I opened iTunes and discovered that it was the iMac playing it. Man, I'd underestimated those little round speakers.)

It's looking like it'll be another week or two before iMacs are shipping in sufficient quantities for me to be able to bring one back in triumph to work and have it kick aside this petulant beige Win2K machine. But I find myself watching the news sites now, making casual calls to the local Apple Stores and ComputerWare, and walking by Elite Computers next door (where I'll probably end up getting it from) and pressing my mouth up against the glass and blowing my cheeks out.

11:28 - Is this how easy it's become?

Kyle Hanks on MacNETv2 has a column describing his recent experience with a die-hard PC user friend who heard about the "Microsoft playing Big Brother with Windows Media Player" debacle that I talked about yesterday-- and decided that Microsoft had gotten caught being indefensibly evil for the last time. He decided, voluntarily, after years and years of considering Macs to be irrelevant, that now was the time to go with Hanks to the Apple Store and find out what the real story was.

He told me that it really made him angry. Month after month, year after year, Microsoft was constantly getting caught violating the trust of its customers. He was fed up. He was disgusted. He was ready…to…consider…. a…. Mac.

“Whoa” I said, “you what??” He said it again. He wanted to go to the Apple Store and look at the iMac and everything else in the store. “It's time to really consider a change” he said, “If the Mac can do what I need it to do then I want you to help me buy what I need.”
“Not a problem.” I said. “I won't push you though, I won't try and talk you into this, if you do it you do it on your own. I don't want you coming back to me and blaming me later if you find out you made a mistake.” He said that's exactly what he wanted to hear.

They go into the store, they check out all the machines, they see the bottom end and the top end, they discuss the pros and cons, they go through the checklist of software and features. The friend goes home with a new G4 tower-- not the top-end one, but a respectable one by any measure.

That was on Wednesday. Today, the friend is if anything even more sure of the rightness of his purchase than he was two days ago, and he's now spreading the word to his own co-workers.

What I found most interesting was this:

My friend confessed to me that a lot of PC users are worried about “Big Brother” and really want to move away from Windows. “All they need is the right excuse,” he said. “I intend to do whatever I can to convince my PC buddies to come to the Apple Store and see that there is an alternative. We don't have to put up with this crap anymore”.

I myself am finding that it's less and less a matter of people having to be convinced that Macs are not crashy or slow or irrelevant or little boxes with 9-inch black-and-white screens. More and more, it's simply a matter of pointing out that Macs exist-- because often that simply slips people's minds, and once they're reminded of it, they're more than willing to be wooed by the charms of the platform.

And if the revolution is truly beginning, we have to give Microsoft just as much credit for it as we give Apple. Apple provides the compelling alternative... but Microsoft just won't stop providing reasons to ditch Windows.

Nor will they, unless they see these kinds of conversions start happening on a scale that affects their bottom line. If they see it as a threat, they'll have to shape up their business practices and their bundling techniques.

So c'mon, everybody-- let's all go Mac! For Microsoft's sake!
Thursday, February 21, 2002
23:19 - Brian the Mallrat

Bigger is not always better. Especially when it comes to malls.

The mall near where I live is the Eastridge Mall, off Capitol Expressway, right next to Raging Waters. You can even see it in one of those photos I took from Quimby road. It's got three levels (or two, depending on how you count the weird pseudo-split-level near the middle that shelves a whole bunch of stores onto a semi-floor that puts me in mind of Being John Malkovich), a ton of stores, and all the parking in the world. When it opened in the late 80s or early 90s, it was one of the biggest malls anyone had ever seen, and it served the whole upscale eastern residential region of Silicon Valley.

You'd think that such a mall would be a good place to look for a software store, wouldn't you?

Well, let me tell you this: Eastridge Mall is completely useless. Every single time I've ever been to Eastridge, I have left angry and unsatisfied. For all its stores and all its parking and all its locationlocationlocation, it's the worst mall I've ever been in, especially when looking for a simple software store.

Why is this? It's because Eastridge is a mall that has passed the Shoe Event Horizon. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, it is a place where it is apparently no longer economically feasible to open anything but a shoe store. Shoes own Eastridge, to the exclusion of anything else. I went into the mall last Christmas, looking for a place to buy a computer game. I went to the map kiosk near the entrance. I looked for "Electronics"-- okay, nothing. I look for "Computers"-- nothing. What do I find? About thirty separate entries for shoe stores, under like five different categories. MEN'S FORMAL. WOMEN'S FORMAL. MEN'S ATHLETIC. WOMEN'S ATHLETIC. CHILDREN'S. This cannot be happening, I told myself. This can't be-- Oh, but wait! Look, under "Specialty"-- there's an Electronics Boutique! ...And it's right down below me, right across the entrance plaza on the first floor, just down an escalator. In fact, it's right th--

And that's when I noticed that the Electronics Boutique, evidently recently enough that the kiosk had not been updated to reflect it, had been taken out-- and replaced with A SHOE STORE.

So I've not been back to Eastridge since then, except on one or two morbid occasions where I was in the area and felt the need to go in and see if anything had magically changed. It hadn't. I no longer hold out any hope that there is anything in that mall that stocks any item I might want to buy. I have one pair of shoes, and it does me just fine, thank you.

Now... on the other hand, there's Vallco Fashion Park. It's in Cupertino, just a couple of miles from work, screened from the freeway by thick pine woods and a tasteful soundwall. The mall straddles Wolfe Road-- it's mostly on one level, with a first floor only at both ends of the mall, on either side of the street. It's very small, especially compared to Eastridge. Small, quaint, quirky.

And yet every time I've been in it, I've found exactly what I needed and left satisfied. There are all kinds of places to park-- street-level lots, a garage under the mall, a circumference road. There's a large video arcade at one end, in the cavelike first floor that only extends for a few stores before ending and forcing you upstairs, and right next to it is a candy stand with super-sour gumballs. Upstairs is a comic shop with Vertigo trade paperbacks a-plenty. Further along there are stores that specialize in chessboards, a big-windowed restaurant right over the middle of the street below, and a costume jewelry store with the best name I've ever seen: "C'est Faux". Then there's a Nature Company, a place to get alpaca blankets, during Christmas a free gift-wrapping station, and best of all, not a ^%$@&$ shoe store in sight.

I went into Vallco just yesterday after work to get a new 64MB Flash card for my camera, and a new battery. I went in the Sears side, where there was a map kiosk as soon as I came out into the mall interior. I didn't even need to look at it, though, because out of the myriad camera stores in the mall, one was staring me right in the face from across the entrance plaza: Ritz Camera. I go in, ask for the two items, find exactly the ones I'm looking for, and I'm out of there and on the road again in ten minutes.

I only wish I still lived in Santa Clara or Cupertino, so Vallco could be my local mall. Not San Jose, where I'm stuck with Eastridge. Maybe I should just walk there all the time and wear out some shoes.

22:33 - Freedom and Liberty and Boobs

Something that struck me while I was in Toronto: The US is pretty darn puritanical.

In Canada, as Hiker told me, they're allowed to show bare breasts on network TV as long as it's after 9PM. At midnight we flipped past a show that had something I'd honestly never seen before, even in R-rated movies: full frontal male nudity. "The Penis Puppeteers", or something like that. It was brought home immediately to me just how much we censor ourselves in the US-- it seems completely alien to us to see female nudity outside a movie or HBO, or male nudity under any circumstances. Why is this? Why do we claim to be the nation that has the most freedom on earth, and yet we whip out the flaming crosses if we see a bared nipple or if someone nearby smells of marijuana smoke?

If I were more cynical and Huxleyish, I'd say it's all part and parcel to the idea that what Americans crave is material freedom-- the right to have guns in the house in case the tanks start rolling through the streets-- while the freedom that Europeans and Canadians and Japanese enjoy is more the kind of stuff that keeps people happy but harmless. You know, soma for the mind-- pornography, drugs-- the things that keep people engrossed in their own worlds and unconcerned with issues like government trends and censorship. Americans will forego easy and legal access to weed and bare breasts on TV, if it means they get to keep their free speech and their guns. We'll even toy with prohibition of alcohol-- but we won't entertain the notion of mucking with the rights that we think really matter.

But that's really not what I think. These are just thoughts that came to my head on the way home tonight, and I thought they'd make for an interesting set of thought experiments for anyone who feels like testing whether they hold any water or not. I'm fully aware that anything I've said in the preceding paragraph can probably have more holes poked in it than all my combined readers have fingers. But that's really my point, I guess-- think about it. Disprove it, prove it, argue against it, argue for it. See what aspects of real life bear it out and which ones contradict it.

I know it's got me all blurry now, thinking about whether it's better to have the human liberty of Amsterdam, or the political liberty of Atlanta.

18:03 - Windows Moment of Zen


Well, I sure can't add anything to that, can you?

"Mile: approximately one mile in length."

16:34 - Oooo, legal precedent...

This was posted on February 7, but I've been meaning to link to it with a few thoughts. The gist of the article is that a court has ruled that it's legal for one site to post thumbnails of pictures hosted on another, unaffiliated site... but it's not legal to post the full-size pictures that are identical to what's hosted on the source site.

This is quite separate from questions of "deep linking" and bandwith leeching, which is an issue in itself. This case deals with presentation-- whether a site (like, say, a blog!) can link to copyrighted artwork on another site by presenting the full-blown content, or whether it has to be made into a thumbnail.

I've been feeling vaguely uneasy about my inline image uploader for just this reason. I have it so I can embed any picture from any site into an entry in my blog simply by putting <picture> into the body where I want it to go; it then prompts me for a file to upload or a URL of a picture on another site to download, and then it scales it if I say it should and applies the appropriate <IMG> parameters. The upshot is that the image is stored locally on my server, rather than relying on a remote URL, so it will always work no matter how the other site might reorganize.

But what if it turns out that this isn't legal? Whether or not I'm keeping a local copy, I have to make sure I scale down any pictures and make them links to the original site, instead of posting them inline at their full size. Comic strips are the best example of this that I can think of right off the bat.

Most of the time, when I link to a comic that I think is funny or noteworthy, I make it a thumbnail and a link to its home server. But on occasion I've simply linked in the full-size comic, with a link to the home server and appropriate credits-- but it's still presented full-size on this page. That's now been made explicitly illegal, and I'll have to be careful of that.

Where does the line get drawn? How much smaller does a picture have to be before it becomes considered a "thumbnail"? Does HTML scaling count, or does it have to be a genuinely resampled image?

I'm not complaining here-- far from it. If anything, I'm pleased to see that some legal bodies have enough understanding of how the Web works to be able to prosecute this case in accordance with the spirit of the Web-- that people want to be able to post their original content without fear that someone else will be able to redisplay the full-size images without going through the original content provider's site navigation and authentication checks and so on. But they do want others to be able to link through thumbnails-- they're visual and direct, and most importantly the reinforce through a layer of indirection that the original content is kept somewhere else, that the person with the thumbnail is not the originator of the content.

Now if only these same lawyers can tackle the issue of bandwidth poaching (sourcing images inline that are hosted on other sites, thereby causing the other sites' bandwidth to be siphoned off by users who aren't even viewing the other sites themselves). Forum avatar users, take heed...

13:54 - D'oh!


Last night, UPN showed one of those inexplicably rare early Simpsons episodes: "Dead Putting Society", the one where Bart is pitted against Todd Flanders in a miniature golf competition.

It's a second-season episode, one of the first ones where we start to see Homer shift from being the grouchy but erudite breadwinner to being the giddily vacuous but beloved moron. We also start to see Lisa be book-smart and philosophical, Flanders be religious (though he actually responds like a human would to Homer's tauntings, unlike in later episodes where he becomes much less realistic), and Rev. Lovejoy be sarcastic, cynical, and devoid of either love or joy. In short, it's one of the first times where the show really starts to be identifiable as the one we've grown to know as well as the insides of our eyelids.

But there's a problem: in syndication, they tend to chop out bits of scenes in order to save time and insert more commercials. Not out of any kind of censorship, purely because of licensing agreements. Usually the edits don't affect the story very much. But in this episode, there's one edit that manages to destroy what I think was one of the best early Simpsons moments ever. It's when Homer is uproariously reading the sappy apology letter that Ned slipped under his door, and the kids are laughing along with him:

Homer: [reading Ned's letter] ``You are my brother.''
Homer+Lisa+Bart: [giggle]
Homer: ``I love you.''
Homer+Lisa+Bart: [laugh]
Homer: ``And yet, I feel a great sadness...'' [tries to stifle a giggle] ``... in my bosom.''
Homer+Lisa+Bart: [finally lose it and laugh uproariously]
Marge: I think that's terrible! A man opens his heart to you and you make fun of him!

Marge then excuses herself, stomps off around the corner-- and starts giggling helplessly herself.

Lisa: Read the `bosom' part again, Dad!

Marge returns and tries to restore order.

Bart: Bosom.
Marge: I wish our family was as close as the Flanderses.

Except... this is what originally aired, and what we had on tape for a long time. But it's not what showed last night in syndication mode. The edited version takes this carefully crafted, exquisitely-timed scene and chops the heart out of it: it cuts straight from Homer and the kids losing it over "In my bosom" to Marge trying to restore order and Bart saying "Bosom". It skips over Marge hurrying into the next room so she can guffaw out of sight-- one of the greatest bits I think the writers ever came up with. It makes Marge human, subject to the same urges as the rest of her family, instead of the joyless drudge that she appears to be in the edited version.

It's like Cartman's mom in South Park... when the boys are talking and laughing about how much of a fatass Cartman is, his mom sweetly tries to defend him: "Oh, he's just big-boned!" Stan responds, "He must have a huge bone in his ass!" And unable to keep it up any longer, Cartman's mom helplessly laughs along with the kids. That is an effective use of a character, and some of the funniest stuff in any of these shows.

The problem with syndication editing runs deep, though, and one has to imagine that the people doing it don't have much in the way of humoristic sense-- despite the fact that the job of editing broadcast TV shows for time is quite possibly one of the jobs where that skill is most crucial. (Why is it that everybody in every job is the least suited to do it? Like when I go into a sporting goods store to buy squash equipment, and none of the employees have even heard of squash? You'd think they'd, like, probe people's knowledge of the field they'd be specializing in, during the job interview? Bah, anyway....) So a biting scene like:

Bart: Nothing you say can upset us. We're the MTV generation.
Lisa: We feel neither highs or lows.
Homer: Really? What's it like?
Lisa: Ehh. [shrugs]

Turns into...

Bart: Nothing you say can upset us. We're the MTV generation.
Lisa: We feel neither highs or lows.

... Thoroughly emasculating the exchange of its punchline and its reason for existence. Don't these people get it?

C'mon, Fox-- we need that second-season DVD set! Don't let us down! We've got the full first season in its unedited glory; now for the rest of 'em!

13:03 - Why is Microsoft watching us watch DVD movies?

Good ol' Microsoft. The new Windows Media Player in Windows XP "phones home" with unique fingerprinting information every time you play a DVD, sending Microsoft information about the DVDs you watch and tying that information to your e-mail address and (if you're unfortunate enough to have signed up for one) your Passport account.

Y'know, everybody is concerned about the loss of civil liberties after 9/11, and how we're willing to accept some inconvenience and some loss of personal freedom in the name of public safety. But I think a much more pressing problem, one that is equally relevant and dangerous in a much shorter time-scale (some things do still move at Internet time, and the rise of an oppressive government isn't one of them), is that nobody seems to show any concern about the tightening grip Microsoft holds over the online world-- and how the whole phenomenon of digital spam and direct marketing is made all the easier and more legitimate with each new Microsoft thing that we decide to accept in our lives.

The Windows OS and the Web both reached the peak of their usefulness years ago. There have been no new features in either technology that have brought better ease-of-use, better security, better speed, or a genuine lifestyle revolution since the advent of ICQ, blogs, and Napster. The only new advancements in either context have been for the benefit of advertisers and direct marketers. Hardly a website exists nowadays that isn't plagued with banner ads. P2P file-sharing applications have embedded ads in them now, and everything in Windows now ties in through the ubiquitous web-browser substrate to direct all user activity to advertising streamed from MSN.

This is the "new computer revolution": the mass-media-fication of the thing on your desk with the keyboard.

This is the only area in which Microsoft is equipped to expand, in fact. It's the only untapped market where it's so hard to screw it up that they can succeed as well as they did with the shoddy Windows OS in the first place (its success is purely because they were able to get it to run on cheap, crappy, anonymous hardware). Spamming is easy, and Microsoft knows it. Their only challenge is in making it tasteful enough that the frogs who see it won't jump out of the saucepan, but will sit still for it until they're boiled alive.

Have we become such passive pansies that we will continue to suck up everything that flows out of Redmond? What will it take to get us to realize where this is all going, and to jump out before it's too late? How much more do we have to put up with before laws are passed that make UCITA and the DMCA look like parking regulations, and we're no longer allowed even to question where our personal data is going when Microsoft downloads it at will from our centrally-managed, rented, illegal-to-open-the-cover utilitarian computers?

That's where we will end up if nothing changes.
Wednesday, February 20, 2002
23:03 - apple.slashdot.org

I guess it was bound to happen, now that Apple is officially a "nerd" platform-- and what with people like Jordan Hubbard to post articles. Slashdot has now opened up an official Apple subsection, complete with a vaguely Aqua-esque look on the title bars.

One could be cynical and posit that this was done in order to get those damn Mac people out of the "regular" Slashdot-- a playpen to keep the freaks in, so they wouldn't pollute the discussions with their delusional rantings whenever someone posts an article about Apple's overpriced hardware or their foolish backing of BSD instead of Linux or their audacity in charging money for their OS.

But I won't. I'll just be happy that there's this legitimacy being granted to the community, even if it is little more than a pot/kettle name-calling contest in the worst-case scenario, and the source of pressure for "bsd.slashdot.org" and "be.slashdot.org" and "amiga.slashdot.org" in the best-case (and, in fact, current) scenario. I think there's realism behind the move, and I applaud it. Good luck, CmdrTaco.

21:24 - Apple Retail Stores-- Everything but the whole "selling" part


A BusinessWeek article posted yesterday draws attention to how Apple's retail stores are getting a fantastic amount of traffic-- but that the people who comprise that traffic aren't actually buying product.

Why? Well, as John Manzione says in this article, it's because the people who man the stores are hired to be cool and engaging and talk about Macs-- but not to be "salespeople".

Now, it's all well and good to play the "Everything's fine as it is" card and defend current practices as you'll find in today's As the Apple Turns; sure, we don't want to have to picture being sold a Mac like we'd be sold a car. But c'mon... there comes a time when you gotta just hold your nose and jump in. Apple's boutique stores are expensive investments, and not only are they a dangerous liability if they don't turn up the flame on big-ticket purchases, but it's also unhelpful and negligent for them to let customers make their own (uninformed) decisions about what computers to buy based entirely upon what they're able to do with the machines sitting on display. The staffers can make sure the machines are in tip-top working order, yes, that's all to the good. That's the biggest thing the Apple Stores have going for them over the more workmanlike pure-sales outlets like Best Buy and the like, or the one-stop full sales-and-service centers like a local Apple Certified Reseller or Specialist. But Manzione's observations tell it all: when the only real big-ticket sales that occur happen because the buyer already knew what he wanted, and no helpful upselling is done to help the guy accessorize or even be sure to be fully equipped, that's not just sloppy sales technique-- that's cruising for a dissatisfied customer.

Maybe there is another phase of focus planned for the stores. Maybe they're thinking about hiring more for salesmanship in the future than for college-kid charisma. I think that would be just what we need, especially if we're going to be convincing people that these are machines that serious people use. You're spending thousands of dollars on a lifestyle choice when you buy a Mac. That's a decision perfectly comparable to buying a car, and as obnoxious as car salesmanship is, it does serve a worthwhile purpose-- and it keeps the sales offices in business.

I love the way Apple Stores feel. I hope it doesn't change much. But adding just one "closer" to the sales staff in each store would probably give them that extra percentage point they're so desperately aching for.

21:02 - Then again, there's stuff like this...

A lioness in Kenya has been... well, doing something that's going to cause rampant speculation from animal psychologists to theologists to vegetarians to Lion King fans the world over. She's been running around the preserve with a baby oryx in tow.

The lioness puzzled wildlife experts, game watchers and villagers in Samburu after it struck a friendship with an oryx calf, escorting and protecting it around the game reserve for 15 days.

Tourists and game workers had watched in disbelief as the lioness and the tottery brown baby oryx walk side by side and lay down to rest with all the intimacy of a mother and calf.

She even permitted the calf's mother to nurse the baby before resuming her guardianship. Experts believe the lioness had bonded with the calf after both had been abandoned by their own kind.

The calf was eventually attacked and killed by a male lion while the lioness was napping. She howled in mourning for hours afterward before vanishing into the bush for a time.

And now she's following more herds of oryx through the preserve, trying to continue doing the same thing.

I can just see the sitcom ideas. "Can't you see we're in love? Can't you accept our relationship for what it is?"

Naah, must just be all those waves of positive energy coming out of the palindromic day and stuff.

20:48 - 200220022002, or something

Yeahp-hh... it's that time again. Well, maybe not again, but it always feels like the same damn thing yet another time when we come up against some supposedly significant date or time. Tonight, in case you haven't heard, is 20:02, 20/02/2002-- a palindromic date/time.

Now, I'm the first to admit that having the HP workstations in the UGCS lab all simultaneously emit a squawking .au of "Pi Time!" to the lab stereo rig at exactly 3:14 in the morning is a whole lotta fun. I'll even get behind "Pi Time Texas Style" like we had one year, where at 3:00PM (see, Texas once legislated pi to be equal to 3) the whole hovse ate a variety of pies in the dining room. And I'll also acknowledge the importance of certain times that may present programmatic challenges, such as Y2K, 9/9/99, and S1G.

But when we have to go to such bizarre lengths as we're doing tonight to convince ourselves that there's some cosmic meaning to stupid numbers, I very rapidly run out of patience.

First of all, as should be very obvious, "20:02, 20/02/2002" is a very arbitrary designation for a particular date and time, and there are a dozen other ways of spelling it that are just as valid. The typical American arrangement for the date, for example, is 02/20/2002, and we don't usually use the 24-hour clock. Besides, what time zone is this supposed to apply to? And why do astrologers and numerologists and "palindromists" like the one in the article continue to insist that there is some correlation between how fast the earth spins in space (the time of day) and how fast the earth swings around the sun (the date)? To say nothing, naturally, of all the parts of the world that don't happen to go by our year-numbering scheme, even if they did accept that an arbitrary line drawn through Greenwich was somehow tied in to the cosmic ley lines and planets millions of miles away and had some profound effect on us in our daily lives.

"For two to three minutes there will be a massive surge of positive consciousness. It will be a moment to bring healing, a moment to bring peace," [Israeli psychic Uri Geller] said.

Asked how he would co-ordinate the meditations of his followers around the world, Geller said:

"I would appreciate everyone concentrating in GMT [Greenwich Mean Time], but if you can't do that, take a moment when you can ... The message is be positive, be optimistic and believe in yourself."

All right, fine, can't complain about those goals. But I just fine it dreadfully discouraging that we have to make up these kinds of stupid excuses before we can justify being positive and believing in ourselves. Yeah, on all those meaningless non-Greenwich-centered non-Gregorian non-European maybe-ordering-the-numbers-slightly-differently non-palindromic days, feel free to snarl at people and spend your days in despair and misery, because it'll all be made okay by the worldwide surge of positivity and peace when all the little LCD readouts on the cesium clocks line up in a certain magical way.

Hey, if it helps you, great. Go nuts. I'm not standing in anyone's way if they want to pretend that tonight all the world's nuclear warheads will mysteriously disarm themselves and al Qaeda's lurking sleepers will be struck with the unaccountable impression that they're really Zen Buddhist monks and that keeping the gravel in their rock gardens immaculately raked is more important than there being a McDonald's in Kabul. It'd be nice, yes. But you know, the sun don't care 'bout these things.

15:10 - Wish I had this to read in that Microec class...

Okay, who-all has a working understanding of game theory and the Prisoner's Dilemma? Let's see those hands. (And no fair if you've just seen A Beautiful Mind.) Oh, and how many can apply it to real-world situations, both personal and global?

Yeah, I didn't even have my own hand up. But den Beste sums it all up very concisely over at USS Clueless today, and explains how it all makes sense in contexts like drug dealing, World War II, and the Geneva Convention.

13:20 - O-ho-ho-foto!

A few days ago I ordered prints of the pictures I took up on Quimby Road last week. iPhoto's print ordering system goes through Ofoto, Kodak's online print service (I think they're a partnership or something), and the prices start at 49 cents for a 4x6-inch print, 99 cents for 5x7, and so on up, varying with the area of the print. (Actually the price goes up quite a bit faster than the area, now that I look at it... 4x6-inch prints are by far the best value.) It's more expensive than taking a film roll down to the drugstore (which is usually about 25 cents for 4x6), but I'm willing to pay a bit more for this kind of convenience. Want an extra set of prints mailed to my parents? Click. Want to order all sorts of different numbers of different sizes of every picture in your roll? Clickety. Want another set of prints made from photos you took six months ago? Ka-lick. Want to order two or three photos from each of the last ten batches of pictures you took? Klakow.

Besides, the mailer the photos come in is exceptionally nice-- as only Apple can package. The envelope inside has a window in front and a contact-sheet print. And the prints themselves? They look mahvelous-- even better than they look on-screen, in fact. I'm very impressed.

Before Kris told me that the print prices were actually higher than what you'd pay at the drugstore, I was really sort of wondering about how the economy of scale would work. Film prints are done in batches of 24 or 36, because that's how big a film roll is. Digital prints, though, can come in orders of one through God-knows-how-many. I wonder how many orders they'll get for batches of just three or four prints? The packaging can't be cheap; there's bound to be overhead, and the smaller the order, the more they're forced to suck up. (Then again, the shipping portion of the cost adds from $3 to $10, so people will have an incentive to consolidate orders.)

In any case, I like it-- I like it a lot. I think I'll be using this service quite a lot in the future.

I do have a film roll from Toronto that I need to get processed, though-- it's the photos that Hiker and I took from the CN Tower, including those great shots of us lying on the glass floor (whee!). So now that I know the name Ofoto, I figure they've got their act together for their film-processing service as much as for their digital-prints service. I'll give them a go. They send out a free film mailer with their "welcome" kit, and process the first roll free, so hey-- how wrong can I go?

And of course once I have the digital versions of these photos, they'll go into iPhoto and join my collection of pictures just waiting to be ordered for whoever wants 'em. (Hey, Mom-- this is what you've been waiting for all this time, huh?)
Tuesday, February 19, 2002
03:11 - Axes of Evil & Stuff

This was forwarded past my little bleeping humor scanners, and since I don't have a place to link to that has it, I'll just include it here in its entirety:

Bitter after being snubbed for membership in the "Axis of Evil," Libya, China, and Syria today announced they had formed the "Axis of Just as Evil," which they said would be way eviler than that stupid Iran-Iraq-North Korea axis President Bush warned of his State of the Union address.

Axis of Evil members, however, immediately dismissed the new axis as having, for starters, a really dumb name. "Right. They are Just as Evil... in their dreams!" declared North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

"Everybody knows we're the best evils... best at being evil... we're the best."

Diplomats from Syria denied they were jealous over being excluded, although they conceded they did ask if they could join the Axis of Evil. "They told us it was full," said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"An Axis can't have more than three countries," explained Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "This is not my rule, it's tradition. In World War II you had Germany, Italy, and Japan in the evil Axis. So you can only have three. And a secret handshake. Ours is wickedly cool."

International reaction to Bush's Axis of Evil declaration was swift, as within minutes, France surrendered.

Elsewhere, peer-conscious nations rushed to gain triumvirate status in what became a game of geopolitical chairs. Cuba, Sudan, and Serbia said they had formed the Axis of Somewhat Evil, forcing Somalia to join with Uganda and Myanmar in the Axis of Occasionally Evil, while Bulgaria, Indonesia and Russia established the Axis of Not So Much Evil Really As Just Generally Disagreeable.

With the criteria suddenly expanded and all the desirable clubs filling up, Sierra Leone, El Salvador, and Rwanda applied to be called the Axis of Countries That Aren't the Worst But Certainly Won't Be Asked to Host the Olympics; Canada, Mexico, and Australia formed the Axis of Nations That Are Actually Quite Nice But Secretly Have Nasty Thoughts About America, while Spain, Scotland, and New Zealand established the Axis of Countries That Be Allowed to Ask Sheep to Wear Lipstick. "That's not a threat, really, just something we like to do," said Scottish Executive First Minister Jack McConnell.

While wondering if the other nations of the world were serious, a cautious President Bush granted approval for most axis, although he rejected the establishment of the Axis of Countries Whose Names End in "Guay," accusing one of its members of filing a false application. Officials from Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chadguay denied the charges.

Italy, meanwhile, insisted it didn't want to join any axis, but privately,world leaders said that's only because no one asked them.

01:00 - Ouch.

Just one thing to comment on in this article:

Shares in Be rose 2 cents, or 20 percent, in Nasdaq trading.

Damn, that smarts. Good luck to 'em...

21:25 - Who's the Retard Now?

A column by Rob Long printed in Newsweek International, for the benefit of our overseas contemporaries, entitled "Letter From America: Putting Up With Dumb Americans". Hey, with a title like that, you can't not read it, right?

Well, what it turns out to be is the latest in the endless series of essais toward trying to make the American mind understood in such a way that we don't appear indignantly defensive, blindedly jingoistic, or horrifically ignorant. It's a more difficult job than we might think, considering all the ammunition we might call to hand (national achievements, prestige, vibrancy, yadda yadda); most of the time we're prey to our own imperfect abilities to communicate the ideas that are so crucial to the success of this endeavor.

Well, read the article, because that's specifically what it tackles. Not one of us is really capable of expressing the things that need to be expressed without coming across as fanatical in somebody's eyes. The most level-headed gun fancier can quote all the statistics he likes, but listeners who are combing his words for an excuse to whip out the labelmaker and plaster "Redneck" across his forehead are guaranteed to find something.

Bloggers are especially vulnerable to this trouble by the instant nature of their commentary. When Lileks or den Beste or Reynolds posts an opinion on a development hours after it happens, it isn't going to be as well-thought-out or as well-researched as an op-ed written two days or two weeks after the fact. So there's more volatility in the blog world than there ever was before the national stream of consciousness became something into which we all assimilated ourselves. There's more opportunity for us to come across as brainwashed sheep or dangerous fanatics or insulting boors than if we had the time to sit down and wrap everything with rationale and precendent.

The article isn't an apology for clumsy Yank communicators as much as it is a somewhat snide, self-serving way for us to think of ourselves as "Right all along whether other people realize it or not"; but it still contains some interesting thoughts and some points which bear discussion. At the very least, it does say something about human nature: we crave simplicity, and a privileged culture will design for itself the most simplistic world possible. When we find ourselves with more to say than we're equipped to convey, it speaks more about our relative success and subsequent satisfaction than about our inherent inability to comprehend why we even do what we do. It all just feels too natural for us to be able to explain it.

In any case, I'm rather impressed by the author's cavalier use of the word "retard" in such a widely-read publication. Fifteen years ago such a word was taboo beyond measure on the schoolyard; now it's made a pop-culture comeback, and the meaning hasn't really even been altered. It's gutsy, but oddly refreshing.

20:53 - Drake strikes another smashing blow for the Queen

Just too surreal to pass up.

I find it weirdly comforting that things still happen that we can chortle about in the context of long-dead national rivalries and centuries-old naval warfare traditions. Even to be able to have a military exercise of this size go awry, only to have the nations involved simply shuffle their feet and try to keep from laughing, is a welcome feeling today. I can just see the British and Spanish heads of state meeting tonight in some heavily-guarded anteroom deep in the presidential palace of an impartial nation... sharing a bottle of gin and laughing their asses off.

19:49 - The Cult of VersionTracker

Ahh, so Wired has discovered not only the joy that is VersionTracker, but also the cult of people who hover constantly over the Reload button all day long hoping to be the first to see the link posted for the next point release of iPhoto or GraphicConverter.

It's like VersionTracker is a blog written by all the world's Mac software developers. And it's very widely read.

2 million Mac users, and 200,000 Windows users. Interesting weight there (though of course the Windows side was zero until a few months ago, when the site added Windows software tracking, much to many users' chagrin). But this article certainly tells me more about the site than I'd really realized...

17:39 - Take this, Dean Kamen...

So you thought the Segway was cool, huh? Well, say hello to the Megway.

It's probably cheaper.
Monday, February 18, 2002
01:02 - Y'know, it's good to be versatile...

You ever notice how in Canadian bilingual announcements, the French voice is always female and the English voice is always male?

I'll bet all kinds of psychological and philosophical conclusions and speculations can be derived from this, about gender roles and societal norms and cultural significance in a world context-- but not by me.

At any rate, the leg of the flight from Toronto to Chicago (hi, Marcus-- no AirPort in O'Hare, dagnabbit!) was an actual Air Canada flight, not merely a United flight where everyone mentions Air Canada a lot. So we had all the bilingual signage, a last fond reminder of Canada on the way home.

I always find myself noticing, though, that French is getting harder and harder to keep in sync with the English content. I can understand enough written French to get the gist of a piece of text and know what it says and what it doesn't say, and while reading the in-flight magazine, enRoute, quite apart from the fact that it has half the content of most such magazines with the same number of pages, I noticed a number of interesting little omissions and translational stumbling blocks. A story in English that talks about "putting shrimp on the barbie" (with reference to a Barbie doll surrounded by shrimp in a particular surrealistic dish) converts to French in the form of "barbiecue", which is cute, but misses out on the majority of the historical and international punnage that leads to the joke's existence in the first place. In another place, the English version of a story talks about how "Since the tragic events of September 2001, people have been turning more toward the comforts of the kitchen"... but in French, September 2001 is never mentioned. I can only begin to speculate why.

There are always space concerns. One only has to look as far as the seat in front of you to see how the relative word bloat of French ends up impoverishing the meaning of what is written in it: "Life vest under front of your seat" translates to "Gilet de sauvetage sous votre siège", which doesn't specify the front of the seat. The versatility of English allows for concise constructs like "life vest", whereas French finds itself groaning under the weight of its rules. "Prière de garder les ceintures bouclées," the sign continues-- trying gamely to absorb a useful word like "buckle", but finding it unwieldy under French phonetics.

French and Spanish both make no distinction between "security" and "safety", a shortcoming that seems rather silly in this day and age. The two languages both use the same word for both concepts-- securité and seguridad, respectively. It's hard to argue that there's no difference between the words. But as I said in an earlier blog, the shades of meaning available in English (where there's a meaningful difference between "after" and "following" and "in the wake of"), while daunting to those first learning the language, make for a lot less potential confusion. When there are lots of synonyms for a concept, and any one of the possible words will hit near the speaker's intended mark, it's much easier to make oneself understood in such a language than in any of the nightmare circumstances of American tourists in Europe fishing desperately for the right word-- the lone, single possible right word-- to express a thought in the Romance language of the region.

English isn't the prettiest language on the planet, not by a long shot-- particularly not the way Americans speak it. But as a tool that can drive just about any bizarrely-shaped screw on the workbench, there's never been anything like it. Nor is there likely to be.

And since English, like Perl, encompasses parts of the vocabulary and even the syntax of many of the foreign languages that have been agglomerated into it, I can think of worse fates for the languages of the world... at least in airports.

UPDATE: Matt Robinson informs me that "buckle" actually comes from the French word. Okay, okay-- I admit I didn't do the etymological research to make sure the example I had to hand was a good one. But the fact is that I could name a dozen others off the top of my head: cederóm, for instance, the word for "CD-ROM", or the weirdness of seeing "kitch" in a French sentence, as it was in another article in the same magazine (to say nothing of "sandwich"). And when the best translation they can do for a column called "Counter Culture" is "Le Challenge du Chef"... :)

01:01 - I... have a problem...

Okay, so here I am, blogging on the plane on the way home from Toronto. I knew this thing would become a habit. Ah, but at least I'll bet Hiker is beating me to the bloggin' table anyway-- he's got a little less far to go before he reaches a net connection.

Anyway, I'm back in US airspace now. Customs on the outgoing side from Pearson Airport was very busy-- the writhing lines of people waiting to see customs officials wound back and forth eight times across the sizable floor. You get to fill out the customs declaration form while in line, but they don't provide any pens or writing surfaces unless you get out of line-- so there's a lot of borrowing of writing implements and people kneeling on the floor to write. One would think this is a prime candidate for a move to electronic input-- they've got very slick automated checkin kiosks these days (always very seamless at Pearson-- swipe your card, press a button, and out pop your tickets); why not let international travelers walk by a kiosk, tap in a few responses to questions, and have it pass the form through electronically?

The Customs official gave me reason to remember the encounter. He was a brusque, straightforward type, with a crisp, clean-cut, mid-20s Ben Affleck sort of look about him. I handed over my passport, kiosk-issued boarding pass, and floor-etched declaration card.

"What'sYourCountryOfCitizenship?" he barks, staccato, almost accusingly.
"USA," I reply.
"San Jose."
"Visiting a friend," I say as matter-of-factly as possible.
This startled me, but I kept my feet. "The ballet? No," I return as levelly as I can.
"AllRight,ThankYou!" He waves me through. I glance back at him, eyebrow raised, corner of my mouth quirked slightly. He's got the same weird, conspiriatorial smile and eye-gleam-- just for the briefest of seconds before he turns his attention to the next person in line.

The ballet, eh? I either just got profiled extremely efficiently, or cruised in the absolute least likely of places. Either way, I'm not exactly the most reassured that I've ever been.

Anyway, once through the customs gate, it's effectively US territory all the way to the gate, and down the jetway onto the plane; so now that I'm on my way down into Chicago, there to switch planes and ride the currents following the sunset back home to San Jose, I can feel my metabolism already spinning up its flywheel again as it always does when I come home from Canada. (Last time, in August, I got to Gate T before I suddenly realized I was so hungry that I ate four consecutive bags of chips from the vending machine.) So before the rush hits, I'll use this space (it's as good as any, right?) to thank Hiker, Tony, Steve, Torrle, and the rest of the Toronto gang for a helluva fun weekend. You guys all rule.

Even if you did get me liking Digimon. Damn you all to hell for that.
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© Brian Tiemann