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:

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James Lileks
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As the Apple Turns
Entropicana
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Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
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Corsair the Rational Pirate
.clue
Ravishing Light
Rosenblog
Cartago Delenda Est



Cars without compromise.





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Monday, May 17, 2004
04:00 - The more things change

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Well, I'm back.

After making the drive from LA to San Jose in four hours and twenty-nine minutes, which is pretty dang respectable, I think, especially for not traveling any faster than traffic.

The reunion was very cool, though.



The ol' hovse is pretty much the way I remember it—with a few weird exceptions, like the fact that all the alleys have had their end walls bashed out and connected to each other, ostensibly for fire-code stuff. When I was living there, the Pasadena fire department was struggling to get us to stop building bonfires. Now, like the ACLU or the fat-police, they see they've got the upper hand and their quarry on the run, so they're busy eradicating even the merest hint of fire hazards from the building; they've removed the firepot from Ricketts house, and are pushing for a complete redesign and renovation of the South Houses to do away with their funky, 1930s, single-sex, no-elevators-or-handicapped-accessible-ramps nature. In other words, all their personality. If they get their way, all the character of these ancient houses will be stripped away from them, their charming asymmetry and fifteen different floors all offset from each other by knee-height and secret passageways through the crawl space will be a thing of the lamented past. But such is progress.

Through one of the newly opened-up alley ends was one door with a printed flyer from Misleader.org; it reinforced my theory that no matter how bright your IQ tests and your SAT scores say you are, just because you can do contour integrals all day doesn't mean you're intelligent. It doesn't stop you from thinking that tacking a printout of a shallow and fact-free polemic to your door in hopes of appearing a Deep Thinker™ will only serve in the opposite capacity. (But then, I guess it could be worse—over in Dabney House, the walls are covered with even more Chairman Mao quotations than I remember.)

But the fact that this was such an exceptional thing in Blacker reminded me of something: Caltech is a very apolitical campus. I'd forgotten why this was, if I'd ever known it; but sitting in the lovnge by the fire, talking with a couple of guys from my class and a couple of current students, I discovered the answer: most students there, or at least a highly significant percentage, are destined for jobs at the Department of Defense. Or most of their graduate stipends come from the DoD. Or their livelihoods depend, in one way or another, on putting their technologically and scientifically oriented minds toward designing the aerospace and software and semiconductors and other such materiél that will likely end up in Predator drones and the like. Seminar day keynote speech by AeroVironment, Inc. maven Paul McCready notwithstanding, the student body tends to have a very practical outlook on life.

My class president, it turns out, served a stint in Baghdad, escorting VIPs from Baghdad to Basra. He's back now, and everybody in the lounge nodded sagely in relief at the news, and nary a snide comment was uttered.

(Oh yes: at the reunion banquet at the Athenaeum on Friday night, when one of my classmates—we were seated at big round tables based on graduation year—said offhand that he couldn't wait for November so he could vote for Kerry, the whole rest of the table fell pointedly silent, much to the guy's consternation. I suggested that we not discuss politics at this event, so as to avoid needless bloodshed.)

Anyway, the Tea was outstanding, and the campus appears to be in good hands. I got some pictures to help augment my visual memories, which after five years were beginning to fade.

I also got to say hi to an old friend in the area, had several social lunches and dinners, saw some good seminars on the campus' architectural tradition and other topics, and checked a whole bunch of things off my mental to-do list. A weekend well spent, all around.

Thursday, May 13, 2004
02:11 - Soon we will be sliding down the razor blade of life

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I'll be following the lead of everybody else lately and taking a brief break—this weekend is my five-year college reunion down at Caltech, and I'll be driving down tomorrow morning so I can get there in time for the dinner at the Athenaeum.

If I do any blogging over the weekend, it'll be from campus. But I suspect that I'll be consumed with nostalgia, and won't have anything substantive to say until Monday.

And even then I'm making no promises.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004
15:54 - Is there a draft in here?
http://www.doonesbury.com/strip/dailydose/index.html?uc_full_date=20040512

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None of whom are talking about "the draft being reinstated".

Especially since re-enlistement and recruitment rates, once again, are so high—as much as 110% of normal in some branches—that the military is having to turn down applicants and lay people off. There will be no draft.

But more people believe Doonesbury than seek out the truth. After all, nothing's true unless it's funny.

Fargin' blargin'.


12:05 - Total Perspective Vortex
http://littlegreenfootballs.com/weblog/?entry=11009#c0255

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Last night, in the beheading-video thread at LGF, a new reader (with the apt name of "possum") popped up to offer everybody his considered opinion that Islamic terrorism is "a tiny threat". To have some sense of perspective.

Americans can't figure this one out, how to respond. In reality, the whole Moslem world is a tiny threat. Late 20th century media takes what goes on between them and the western world and blows it up a million fold. The video is an example. That's the best they can do. Stop and think about that for a minute. The germans quielty and calmly got the jews and others to queue up in an orderly manner before they gassed them and used their body parts to stuff pillows and make lampshades. Several million people. And the germans would have dominated the world eventually if they hadn't had the audacity to declare war on everyone except the japanese at the same time. The islamist snatch someone here, somewone there and make a video of their murder and put it out and its impact is way beyond the reality of what these people are capable of. 9/11 was their crowning glory.. probably. And even if they set of a nuke or dirty bomb, they won't come within a mile of doing the damage that was done to europe during the second world war or america during the civil war.

In other words, all the Islamists are ever going to be able to do are these little one-on-one, emotionally charged, but otherwise harmless pinpricks. If we just deal with these things proportionally, and don't get all worked up into a holy lather about how threatened we and our way of life are, then we can just go on living more-or-less happily. Right?

You mean like in the "warren of the snares" in Watership Down, right? Where one's food and security are provided for, but you do not speak of the snares or the ones who are lost? Where everybody knows that rabbits occasionally just... disappear? And that's just the price they know they have to pay for their comfortable life?

Or to take a more temporaneous example: in Van Helsing, the villagers mistrust the eponymous vampire-hunter when he arrives, but once he starts killing vampires, they despise him. Why? The vampires only take what they need to survive, they tell him. Only one or two per month. As long as we don't actually try to eradicate them, they leave us for the most part alone!

Because enduring one or two grisly murders a month, and hushing up the talk of it, is preferable to risking it all on an attempt to actually put a halt to it.

Well, that may be how Europe thinks people should deal with their problems: cope with them. Accept them. But for God's sake, don't try to solve them, like the "cowboy" Van Helsing suggests doing. (And succeeds.)

You'd think, with all these memes floating around and so central to our consciousness, we'd understand as a people the importance of moral absolutes in cases like this? You'd think we'd understand Douglas Adams' admonition that the one thing one cannot afford to have is a sense of perspective?

But no, Viggo Mortensen was apparently unmoved by the lessons of Lord of the Rings. So maybe we've become capable of completely dissasociating the stories we tell from the morality we follow.

What an awful future that leaves us.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004
18:13 - Recycle of violence

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Some people are big into issuing studied statements like "Eye for an eye" and "violence begets violence", because it sounds good even though it's utterly meaningless (like "Tearing down the wall between culture and politics", on his sidebar. The hell does that mean?).

But remember: even though every American is required to self-flagellate over the actions of the prisoner-abusers in Iraq, we're not allowed to ask that Muslims take responsibility for the actions of people like this.

(The best we can hope for is parodies, weakly satisfying though they be.)

UPDATE: Here's a translation of the statement that was read.

"Have you not had your fill of the war of conferences and battle of words? Is it not time for you to take the path of jihad and carry the sword of the Prophet of prophets? We ask you not to condemn what we will do just to please the Americans.

So, I guess, never mind then.

Monday, May 10, 2004
02:00 - Spreadin' the word

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I've just heard that my dad has gotten his first hole-in-one at the Ukiah Municipal Golf Course.

Woo-hoo!


00:09 - Doooomed
http://news.com.com/2100-7351_3-5209677.html?tag=nefd.top

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Beleaguered Software Company Quits Wi-Fi Scene
Leaves Lucrative Field to Competition


Despite quickly becoming one of the leading sellers of wireless networking products, Microsoft has decided to discontinue its entire line of Wi-Fi gear, CNET News.com has learned.

A source close to the company said Microsoft entered the Wi-Fi field with hopes of "raising the bar" on security, ease-of-use and performance and now feels it has accomplished those goals.

Microsoft confirmed the move late Monday.

"After careful evaluation, the Microsoft hardware group has decided to scale back its broadband hardware and networking business," a representative said. "Instead, the plan is to apply the knowledge we have gained in that category to future products and services."

Wow. Apparently the problem is that even though they had this integrated, easy-setup approach to home networking, they were "slower than rivals in introducing 802.11g products." Really? How can that be? This is Microsoft we're talking about. How can they be less well equipped to handle a field like this than the competition?

Ah well—I guess filing the corners off a public standard so it's no longer compatible with the rest of the world takes time, doesn't it?

(Via Kris.)


16:09 - A bloodless coup
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,119299,00.html

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My God!

Remember how not two years ago, conventional wisdom still held that nobody—not Motorola, not IBM, not even AMD—would ever catch the mighty Intel or even trim its insurmountable lead in desktop CPU speeds?

Remember how Phil Schiller's speeches on stage illustrating the "Megahertz Myth"—attempting to justify why Apple's computers had lower "megahertz" numbers than their PC counterparts, yet Apple had the gall to charge more money for them—were mocked and ridiculed as so much hot air from a doomed and failing company with a moribund platform?

Remember how only a year ago, as the G5 was being readied for release, pundits left and right were confidently predicting the doom of Apple (yes, still), the bleak future of the G4-powered Mac line, and the need for Apple to take the obvious sensible step and move to the unbeatable Intel x86 architecture?

Well, my my: time sure has a way of shaking the crud out of the sheets of public discourse, eh?

Intel Corp. (INTC) , the world's largest chip maker, has scrapped plans for two new products and is shifting focus to making chips that contain the cores of two microprocessors, a spokeswoman said Friday.

The chips being canceled include the fourth-generation Pentium 4 chip (search), code-named Tejas (search), which was to be sold next year. Also being dropped is a new Xeon processor (search) for low-end computer servers, code-named Jayhawk and believed to be based on a similar architecture to Tejas.

Instead, Intel plans to introduce "dual-core" chips for desktop computers in 2005 and plans to start shipments of dual-core chips for notebook computers the same year, spokeswoman Laura Anderson said.

In other words, Intel has sadly concluded that Prescott—the current generation of the P4—is effectively stillborn, and adding more pipeline stages and more on-chip cache just isn't going to get them anywhere; in all likelihood it'll start making the chips slower. So if I'm reading this right, the x86 platform is being entirely scuttled for all high-performance models, leaving only the Celerons and low-power portables.

Instead, Intel is going to dual-core, Itanium-like chips—with short pipelines, low megahertz numbers, high internal bandwidth, and native multiprocessor functionality.

Just like the Power4 series and the G5.

Yeah, Intel's still huge—but this kind of massive retooling means they're putting themselves on a pace to be well behind the curve once they're ready to release anything new. It's a ballsy move, but a necessary one; this is the kind of painful uprooting that I just said Microsoft needs to find the courage to do. Yeah, it's hard. But it has to be done. Even if it means adopting your hated rival's strategy and placing yourself grumbling in his rear-view mirror.

Oh, but I'm sure Apple is still doomed, somehow. And Intel's still right.

(Via CapLion.)

UPDATE: Matt writes to clarify that Intel will be focusing on the x86-based Pentium M for its desktop processors (currently tuned for mobility, but versatile anyway), and that the problems Intel is having fabricating chips at 90nm is something all chip manufacters are running up against—we're actually getting quantum effects causing significant power drain and state loss down at that feature size. So it's not quite as earth-shattering as the news story sounds, but things ain't looking too rosy for Intel no matter how you slice it...


14:44 - The credibility standard

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See, this is the problem with being America. We can either choose to be as flawed as all other countries have been in history, following all the same tired old scripts that governments keep reading from today; or we can stick to our grand experiment, and face an entirely unique kind of criticism.

In the post-Cold-War era, it's difficult for people to criticize the American system. We've clearly won; we're the superpower, and we've somehow managed to become so without any imperial armies bestriding the globe or gulags full of political prisoners. By any standard of history, we've come up with the system that works—it makes us all wildly rich and unprecedentedly free and insanely happy, and our biggest problems come from our interfaces with other countries that aren't anywhere near as much of any of these.

So if people can't criticize us for being inferior or for our experiment failing, they try a different tactic. They say, "Okay, wise guy. If you're so perfect, how come you're not perfect?"

Because we're not perfect. Duh. Nothing is perfect. Our system survives and thrives because it is fault-tolerant—because it has mechanisms for minimizing the impact of failures of the system. People can try to take advantage of the freedoms and benefits of our system, but the system itself has methods of dealing with those kinds of attacks against it that are internally consistent. We don't execute "political dissidents", for example; rather, we find the term wholly alien, and instead simply allow all voices to speak as loudly as they can, putting our faith in the majority to make sensible decisions. It's a leap of faith to allow such a thing to happen, but it's paid off. We've learned that if we don't try to micromanage our economy or our political landscape, and instead trust the system to take care of itself, by golly, it does. Imagine that.

But the failures of parts of the system, while we see them as opportunities to observe the system in action taking care of them, appear to the rest of the world as proof that our system itself is flawed after all. We look at the Abu Ghraib incident with revulsion; every American with a sense of decency is shocked and appalled, and the President has had to go on foreign television apologizing for the actions of our own soldiers.

To us, this is not just horrifying—it's also vaguely thrilling, because it proves the basic decency of Americans, including the President we elected. We don't try to deny Abu Ghraib ever happened; on the contrary, once it became clear that it was a big deal, we use it as a demonstration of how the rest of us react to such an atrocity. When Bush says Americans won't stand for it, he means it; and he's telling the truth.

But to the rest of the world, it's not our reaction that's important—in fact, our reaction, and Bush's, are to be derided and ignored. What's really important, what's really indicative of how America operates, is the aberration itself.

So when this happens (via Tim Blair:

Fallujah native Abdul-Qader Abdul-Rahman al-Ani, his left elbow wrapped in bandages, his right forearm bound in a cast, recounted how he was beaten by soldiers who picked him up last month. The soldiers tied him and two others arrested with him to a tree and sodomized them one after the other, he told journalists.

"I ask President Bush," he said. "Does he agree with this?"

As Ani, 47, repeated his story, he was interrupted by Jabber al-Okaili, a member of one of the human rights groups that organized the gathering. "He's lying," al-Okaili shouted. "He's a liar!"

Al-Ani was rushed to an office, where al-Okaili and others unwound the bandage on his left arm and found the elbow unscarred and healthy. They cut off half of the cast on his forearm, even as al-Ani insisted, "By God, it's true, everything I say is true."

... foreign news stations pick up on the detainee's claims, and don't mention the takedown. Tim's update:

SBS television just showed German news footage of Ani making his disputed claim -- and that's all. No mention of anybody calling him a liar.

Where else do you suppose we'll be seeing mountains of reports of abuse of Iraqis by American soldiers—all trumped-up, all faked, but none debunked? My money's on "everywhere".

Because the credibility of the plaintiffs in this case is worlds higher than the credibility of America. Everybody wants to believe the Iraqis, especially when they're lashing out at the Great Satan; nobody wants to believe the Great Satan itself.

Our system deals well with cases where our own citizens try to game the system. What we're not so good at, though, is dealing with cases where people in other countries—where they don't play by our rules—game our system. Our weak spots are much weaker outside our borders; and our strong spots are also far less strong. When we try to treat the rest of the world as though it's America, it doesn't play along; rather, it sees us as a pathetically vulnerable target to its own tactics.

Nobody can believe that our military is actually as good as it is. It just doesn't compute. So people naturally believe the stories of complainants of "abuse" and "torture", especially if there's a documented case to point to—one that makes headlines where the rest of the military's exemplary behavior never does. Nobody can believe that morale is as high as it is in our military, or that re-enlistement and recruitment rates are so high that the Army and the Marines are having to turn down applicants; so people naturally believe dark rumors that we're thinking of instituting the draft to prop up our failing ranks. Nobody can believe that the rebuilding of Iraq has gone as well as it has in 95% of the country; so people naturally believe tales of a war-torn wasteland straight out of Mad Max, given credence by a few photos of corpses hanging from a bridge in Fallujah.

Is our experience in this country really that different from how the rest of the world works? I grew up being soothingly told that everybody's the same all the world over; but only time and experience are beginning to shatter that pleasing illusion.

According to all the lessons of history, says the rest of the world, America shouldn't work—it's a statistical outlier, it shouldn't last, it shouldn't exist.

It's funny how seldom America itself seems to be allowed to teach a "lesson of history", though, isn't it?


13:53 - More spackle! Bring more spackle!

(top)
Further to my post on the latest alpha of Longhorn, Mark Onyschuk (longtime Mac developer and writer) e-mailed with the following observation:

These guys are lost.

They're flailing at trying to graft, Frankenstein-like, a sexy UI onto the pig that is the Windows interface, and in fact the entire Windows zeitgeist:

Windows - the system of button-bars filled with semi-recognizable icons representing tasks like "Cut," "Copy," and "Paste" because keyboard shortcuts are so chaotic that you can't rely on one program to adopt the same shortcuts as another - even if both programs are provided by the same vendor!

Windows - the system of "Wizards" that can never seem to strike the right balance between "freeing your creativity" and handcuffing you to an 8 page dialog box of questions that ultimately produce a result that looks just about as amateurish as if you'd struck out on your own.

Windows - the system that... jeebus... I could go on... the system of Microsoft Bob! Patch over the half-assed concern about usability and create "yet another layer" of software to automate interaction with a fundamentally broken interface that lies underneath.

There's an essay in the broken Microsoft approach to software. The Microsoft approach has always been "more software." It's the equivalent of finding yourself in a hole and then digging deeper. These guys have lived and died (and mostly lived) because they could simply "out-software" their competitors. They could literally put 100 hours of software development to counter every 1 hour of their competitors'.

The trouble is that after a point, it's not just about software anymore. It's not just about checkboxes in a review in PC magazine. It's about people having to use the software that's been checkboxed to death in PC magazine.

Microsoft has spent so many years beating off its competitors in the field with "more and more software," that it's lost any concept of quality software. Microsoft is now the hammer, and everything it sees is a nail. It's an awful, or - if you're less susceptible to morality plays - a fitting end to a company that's never missed an opportunity to "out-big" its competitors. They've "out-big"ged themselves to a point where they really believe that more software - a thousand more engineers - is going to solve their problem.

Yeah. I mean, didn't these guys read The Mythical Man-Month? We were all forced to...!

I wonder what ever happened to that supposed program that Microsoft was going to run where they would solicit customer suggestions through an elaborate network of blogs and support forums, and they'd redesign the Longhorn UI to match what the users said they wanted Windows to be like? Was that just so much pie-in-the-sky dreaming?

Because if it wasn't, I'd like to know just what customers told them that what Windows needs are a sidebar for putting things like resizeable analog clocks and news headlines, toolbars with ghostly task-suggesting images in them ("envelopes" for the Contact List, etc) that take up two hundred vertical pixels of screen real estate, and more folder view modes rather than elegantly consolidating the ones they have?

(Example: Windows has "thumbnails" mode, "large icons" mode, and "small icons" mode—all the functionality of which is represented in Mac OS X by "Icon View". On the Mac, you can arbitrarily resize a folder's icons to any size, and position the labels below them or to the right; you can select whether the icons should be auto-arranging, snap to a grid, or be freely placeable; and not only can you choose to have previewable file types (e.g. pictures) shown as thumbnails of their contents automatically, Mac OS X has custom icons, which you can apply on a per-file or per-folder basis. That's in fact way more functionality than you get in Windows' three variants combined, and it's all in one single-click-to-access view mode, with sensible and useful default settings that can be tweaked for each folder or globally. What customers would want this functionality separated out into separate canned view modes? Why would you want to have to choose between "thumbnails" and "large icons", when they do nearly the same thing, and when selecting one or the other reduces your configurability options?)

I hate to mix politics and tech (well, actually I do whenever I can, but it's bloody rare that the opportunity comes up) ... but Windows strikes me as a fairly good model of a socialist bureaucracy in action. Once it's established, all forces point in the direction of "more bureaucracy" and "more centralization". Nobody can conceive of simplifying things—of removing functionality, even if it's for the benefit of all. Nobody will stand for it. Someone will always be outraged; so they move in the direction of trying to please everybody. After all, incremental expansion of entitlements or benefits for a particular group only costs everybody a flat and incremental amount, one that most people won't notice as long as it increases slowly enough. The path of least resistance is chillingly one-way.

One wonders if Microsoft can muster the courage to really uproot the Windows codebase and give the system the complete ground-up rebuild it really needs. That's what they said they were going to do with Longhorn; instead, it appears it's just another layer of spackle. Plus it's what they said they were going to do with Windows XP, and it's what they said they were going to do with Windows 2000...

Where's it all going to end? It's easy to say, as most people do, that Windows will "collapse under its own weight", but that kind of glib near-anthropomorphism is just a misleading dodge from having to make any real predictions about what, exactly, will happen. But it's not like I can do any better. All I can imagine is that eventually there will come a crossover point, a day when Windows becomes so complex that customers start to see it as not worth the effort it takes to wrestle with it. But the day when customers start to reject Windows in favor of an alternative may never come, if the user-interface of the "home computer" gradually becomes abstracted into specialized devices, decentralized from the computer itself; every device would have its own specialized UI, and the computer would become obsolete, or at least would fade to a welded-shut mystery box that the user never deals with one-on-one, like the garbage disposal or the water heater. We'll be calling in specialists to fix our computers—specialists who, alone on Earth, understand Windows.

And that, as modeled by a million public utilities and cable/telecom services, is a stable system. But if it's what Microsoft is consciously building toward, well, I hope the gentle reader can forgive me for not feeling particularly inspired by it.

UPDATE: Chris writes that Fred Brooks, author of The Mythical Man-Month, uses... a Mac PowerBook.

But of course.

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© Brian Tiemann