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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10/28/2002 -  11/3/2002
10/21/2002 - 10/27/2002
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
Saturday, May 29, 2004
00:24 - Shrek 2

It's amusing, but not the equal of the first.

And I see James Baxter has undergone a career shift to the 3D animation world. Hey, whatever pays the bills...

20:36 - Vast Omnipotent Conspiracy Brought Low By JavaScript

Marcus found this one.

Go to this site, a German Mac-rumor site's forum. Take a moment to ponder the ineffable mysteries of the crossing of topics you see.

Then try to vote in the poll.

Update your dictionary's definition of "irony" accordingly.

13:30 - We will strike the Cupertino Satan!

Okay—so it turns out that the Denver Post article I quoted on Thursday, describing Microsoft as being on the verge of releasing a $50 iPod-killer device, was pretty much bogus. As Jay Random says, who's been keeping an eye firmly fixed to the story, Microsoft's Yusuf Mehdi said nothing of the sort.

Here's what Mr. Mehdi actually said:

Number one, our strategy is certainly to offer a multitude of devices. . . . I personally have spent time with a bunch of hardware manufacturers who will launch hardware products when we ship our service that will look and feel as good as the iPod product. And they will undoubtedly be a little bit less expensive. Head-to-head against Apple, we'll have a device that will be available to the consumer. We won't produce it, but it will be available to the consumer. . . . And then we'll have a bunch of other devices in between. Little ones that cost $50 that you go running with. So, the proposition is that you can buy a number of different devices with the MSN Music service as opposed to just a single device from Apple.

In other words, Microsoft isn't introducing its own music player at all. They certainly aren't preparing to sell an iPod knockoff for fifty bucks. All they're doing is flogging Janus, their new distribution system for crappy WMA files, to the usual gang of hardware manufacturers. What's so great about Janus? Well, you see, it operates on a subscription model, which (supposedly) is so much more convenient than actually buying music, and is what the customer really wants. What we all desperately desire, you see, is to fork over big bucks for an MP3 player that will stop working when the subscription runs out. Yes, you heard that right. When you stop paying for your Janus box, every protected WMA file in it will become unplayable.

You will observe how wildly successful subscription-based music stores have been so far: Napster 2.0, for instance. Roxio seems to be in some danger of going broke with that model. (Cue old joke: They lose money on every song they sell, but make it up in volume!) And this is the Number 2 player in the U.S. market, right behind Apple. (Well, a few laps behind, but let's be charitable.)

Observe how drastically the story changes from the original transcript to the report in the 'mainstream', 'unbiased' press. The Denver Post is so eager to prove that Apple Is Doomed™ that its reporter misrepresents every single pertinent fact about the story, except one: Mehdi really did use the three words 'look and feel'. The result would have put the old Soviet Encyclopaedia to shame.

Now apply that same standard of journalistic integrity to something important, like, say, wars in Iraq, general elections, or Leaders of the Free World. How are you feeling about the media now? Still trusting? Still filled with faith and confidence?

I'm reminded of words of wisdom from that creaky old professor in Real Genius: "Always .... er... never... forget to check your references."

Specifically, in this case, an article at The Mac Observer, which goes into exhaustive detail with analysis and quotes from interviewees.

Mehdi says:

As I look around, I see very few offerings. Outside of the Apple (iTunes Music Store) offering, I think it's been okay that we've taken some time (to launch our service), because I'm not sure any of the other ones out there have done anything of note. We're taking our time. We're going to make a very simple, very easy to use service that will be, among other things, the best way to discover music online. In the discovery part of this, I think that's the part that is sort of untapped and a big opportunity. That will be coming out later this year. We think it's going to be amazing for our business, not just because of what we do for consumers on it, but because of transactions and the relationship with customers on billing and what that does to inform our online ad business. What that will do to really perfect our search service. We want people to be able to search for an artist and one-click buy. (That will be) very powerful...


"I don't know how Microsoft can do online music searches any better than what Apple is doing today," Mr. Wilcox said. "It's so easy to find music on iTunes. Apple has created so many different avenues from links from the artist, to the song, to the album, in your library to the online store, to the billboard charts, to the iMixes, to the artist play lists. There are so many ways to find music in the iTunes Music Store.

"Apple has the simple solution. Microsoft is playing catchup. Step back from the market hype for a second. They're making it sound so good that they are going to make it easier and make the searches and synchronization easier. But where are they starting from? They are starting way back behind Apple. At best, they're playing catchup...I find his comments that if they can't have the biggest selection of online music they'll have the second best, very interesting. He's admitting that Apple is doing better."

So says Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at Jupiter Research. I gotta wonder the same thing. I mean, has Mehdi seen iTunes?
"Search for an artist and one-click buy." Yes, in fact that is quite powerful. Has been for over a year now.

I see Real is now firing up their own store (giveaways with Heineken beer—yeah, that's the angle that Apple missed with its misguided Pepsi promotion!), and I have to imagine it's going to be just about as successful as Napster 2, the Coca-Cola music store, the Butterfinger one, and the not-lamented BuyMusic.com. Microsoft's the only company that can sustain a business model around a digital music store, because it's a loss-leader—Apple sells iPods, Microsoft sells Windows. But Microsoft seems to be insisting on this godawful Janus scheme, which I have to think is so irritating (and backwards-looking, ironically enough, to the era of subscription music services that never took off and that iTunes broke the industry away from) that nobody will put up with it.

And Mehdi's comments, instead of heralding a real and innovative threat, now seem more like Microsoft claiming to have identified "29 sensitive device price points! We have been monitoring these weaknesses, and will soon strike at Apple with a power like unto the very fist of God! You believe us now!"

Friday, May 28, 2004
02:44 - Wow, he speaks in complete sentences and everything

Newsweek, judging by last week's issue and its cover story on the Left Behind series of Armageddon novels, would have us believe that the books serve as an echo and an amplification of "the born-again President Bush's apocalyptic rhetoric". It's mostly just sort of taken for granted, by the journalists in question and by many people I know, that Bush mounts the dais every week and shouts incoherent, monosyllabic fire and brimstone to the chanting masses, waving a Bible and pounding the lectern as a heavenly choir sings and a beam of light pours in on him from a high window.

I just can't seem to reconcile that, though, with the transcripts of the things Bush actually says. Like in this Christianity Today interview (via LGF), where he answers a string of quite probing questions—on everything from faith to the 2000 elections to Abu Ghraib—with aplomb, humor, and a fully articulated noun and verb in every sentence.

There are things people could easily pick apart, such as the inevitable disagreement from people who take exception to the idea of a no-gay-marriage amendment. But you'd think that if there was one place where Bush would feel secure spouting apocalyptic proclamations, it'd be here, wouldn't it?

You'd think.

23:21 - Yeah, that's what we need

Recommended by Newsweek, so you know it's gotta be good.

I love the customer recommendations. "Friends don't let friends vote Republican, not when THESE are the Republicans. Sad thing is, the book isn't exaggerating one bit."

And check out how the comment-ratings breakdowns go. The only comment that expresses disgust at the book gets a "2 out of 42" helpfulness rating; whereas the rest of the slavering, fawning 6/5 star ones are all unanimously agreed with.

My God, some people are angry. And they have no idea what they're angry at.

17:45 - Crying Wolf

Denny's is known for being rather pathologically racist in its hiring practices across the country, a tendency which has earned the chain a lot of negative name/brand association and a lot of people who refuse to eat there on principle.

It would be a shame, then, wouldn't it, if this turned out to be for real, huh?

Samuel Mac, manager of the Denny's in Avon, isn't happy with the response he got from the FBI when he reported that two [al Qaeda suspects] ate at his restaurant Wednesday.

When he called the FBI in Washington, D.C., Mac said the man who answered the telephone said he had to call the Denver office and declined to take down any of the information.

When he called the Denver office, he was shuttled to voice mail because the agents were busy, Mac said. It was five hours before a seemingly uninterested agent called back.

Mac said two men - he subsequently identified them from their photographs as Adnan G. El Shukrijumah and Abderraouf Jdey - came into Denny's, which is just off Interstate 70, about 8 p.m.

One ordered a chicken sandwich and a salad, the other just a salad, Mac said. They were demanding, rude and obnoxious, he said.

They said they were from Iran and were driving from New York to the West Coast.

When the FBI agent called him back, she took a few notes and said she would pass the information along to the field agents, according to Mac.

I can hazard a guess why the FBI didn't leap at the opportunity to call him back.

15:56 - I'm sure it's nothing

Or I'm sure we've brought this all on ourselves, or something.

Hassan Abbasi, a top Iranian "intelligence theoretician", via MEMRI and LGF:

"'(President Muhammad) Khatami speaks of the dialogue between civilizations, and I have grave doubts about this. It is a dubious idea. We do not want to take over the British Embassy, since they (the British) have already cleared the embassy of documents; we must take over Britain [itself].'

"After [H.A.] harshly attacked Khatami and the reformists, he said in his speech: 'The West sees us as terrorists, and depicts our strategy as terrorism and repression. Had our youth agreed to Khatami's teachings and interpretations, it would never have fought the arrogance, and would never have defended the holy places – because Khatami speaks always of being conciliatory, of patience, and of rejecting terrorism, while we defend [the line of] toughness and war against the enemies of revolutionary Islam. I take pride in my actions that cause anxiety and fear to the Americans.

"'Haven't the Jews and the Christians achieved their progress by means of toughness and repression? We have a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilizationand for the uprooting of the Americans and the English.

"'Our missiles are now ready to strike at their civilization, and as soon as the instructions arrive from Leader ['Ali Khamenei], we will launch our missiles at their cities and installations. Our motto during the war (in Iraq) was: Karbala, we are coming, Jerusalem, we are coming. And because of Khatami's policies and dialogue between the civilizations, we have been compelled to freeze our plan to liberate the Islamic cities. And now we are [again] about to carry out the program.'

"In his speech, he added: 'The global infidel front is a front against Allah and the Muslims, and we must make use of everything we have at hand to strike at this front, by means of our suicide operations or by means of our missiles. There are 29 sensitive sites in the U.S. and in the West. We have already spied on these sites and we know how we are going to attack them.'

"In another part of his speech, he emphasized, 'If Israel dares attack the [nuclear] installations at Bushehr, our losses will be very low, because [only] one structure will be destroyed – while we [i.e., Iran] have means of attacking Israel's nuclear facilities and arsenals such that no trace of Israel will remain.'"

Boy, I'm sure glad Mohammed ElBaradei and the UN have assured us that Iran doesn't actually have any nukes.

10:03 - And knowing is half the battle

Via InstaPundit—here's a TCS column that's music to my ears:

Bad cartoons tend to make bad citizens. And my generation suffered from the worst cartoons of all. Pity the poor male children of Generation X: there we sat, on Saturday mornings in the '70s and early '80s, clutching our bowls of Count Chocula and enduring the soul-sucking monotony of ugly Filmation cartoons populated by heroes who fought without actually fighting. You could watch cartoons for hours and never see a superhero actually sock a supervillain in the gut, or a commando pump hot lead into a live non-robot terrorist, or a ranger thrust a pointy-sharp arrow into some dragon's malevolent guts. Preachy mini-sermons abounded, though; the Super Friends couldn't lay a gloved fist on Lex Luthor, but they could sure manhandle those sugary in-between-meals snacks. ("Super Friends," they called them, instead of the Justice League. The difference tells you everything you need to know about the seventies.)

Consequently, we Gen Xers grew up achingly bereft of simulated mayhem and destruction. We turned to cap guns, stick fights, and dodgeball to meet our aggressive needs, but it wasn't the same. We craved red meat, but our cartoons served up tofu.

I always assumed that the threat of litigation had driven violence from Saturday morning. After all, if you show Superman frying a supervillain with his heat vision on Saturday morning, then, sure enough, some idiot kid in Dubuque will fry his little brother with heat vision one fine Saturday afternoon, and then everyone loses except the lawyers. But I was wrong. Federal regulators, rather than nervous trial attorneys, wussified Saturday morning TV in the early seventies. Uncle Sam made our cartoons insipid, in the hope that a nice stiff dose of cultural chloroform would deaden our proto-male violent tendencies and transform us all into prissy poindexters who would eat our vegetables, sit still in our seats, and eventually vote for French-speaking politicians.

Read on for more on what I'm relieved beyond reason to know is a reduction in recent years of reliance on government control of our kids' minds. Maybe this has something to do with declining murder rates, hmm?

And all things considered, Unreal Tournament is better than lawn darts, right?

We've been in a Golden Age of cartoons for nearly fifteen years now; the groundbreaking crudity of the early-90s cartoons gave way to the entrenchment of Cartoon Network and shows that no longer insult kids' intelligence. The quality of some of the shows started to really suffer toward the end of the 90s, but now that Adult Swim is here, the slack is well and truly taken up. It's easy to plot a carjacking when the alternative is watching Thundarr the Barbarian. But not when the Mooninites are invading...

Thursday, May 27, 2004
23:46 - They're all good, but...

...This is the best Bleat in a long, long time.

Or maybe I just needed to read something like it.

17:12 - Oh boy, I can't wait

A reader sends this:

Microsoft Corp., the world's largest software maker, will begin selling portable music players for as much as 80 percent less than Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod.

The Microsoft-branded devices will "look and feel" as good as the iPod for as little as $50, said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of MSN at Microsoft Corp., at the Goldman Sachs fifth annual Internet Conference in Las Vegas. The iPod sells for $249 to $499.

Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., will release a number of music players when it launches its online music service later this year, giving customers more choices than Apple, Mehdi said.

And we know how well they've always done with "look and feel" in the past.

Not to mention products that sell for a fraction of the cost of production. Ain't it great to be able to subsidize one business with the profits from another? (Or will the players be flash-based or something?)

UPDATE: As Chris notes, remember when Microsoft used to fight lawsuits accusing them of copying Apple's look and feel? Now they're bragging about it.

16:55 - Alexis de Tocquevillains

He's the World's Largest Troll!

Who? Why, Kenneth Brown, author of Samizdat: And Other Issues Regarding the 'Source' Of Open Source Code, the by-now-infamous tome written under contract with the mysterious Alexis de Tocqueville Institution that purports to demonstrate that Linus Torvalds stole code to put into Linux, or is just generally a bad person, like all the rest of the Open Source movement.

This exhaustive and fetchingly well-written article by Jem Matzan seems to be the last word to date on what's been going on—the book isn't even out yet, but the online world is (understandably) all over it like mosquitoes.

No doubt you've heard of it by now, although more than likely you've only heard Andy Tanenbaum and others respond to it more than anything else. It's basically the world's largest troll, seasoned with more than a hint of flamebait. In the history of publishing there has never been a less scrupulous work than this book. It's a stinging insult to real books and genuine authors everywhere, harming the credibility of all of us who write for a living.

"From this foul drain pure gold flows forth. Here it is that humanity achieves for itself both perfection and brutalisation, that civilisation produces its wonders, and that civilized man becomes again almost a savage."

That was said in the 1830s about Manchester, England, but we could also say that it applies to the World Wide Web today, with its treasure trove of information and its piles of horrible drivel. I'll give Ken Brown a dollar if he can guess who originally said the above quote (without looking it up).

The answer is Alexis de Tocqueville. And with an opening like that, you know it's got to be good. (To say nothing of lines like "Ken Brown would make Michael Moore, Jayson Blair, and Darl McBride blush with the kind of shoddy, irresponsible work that he's published in Samizdat".)

There's some really fine research and analysis in this article, along with plenty of relevant links. There are some parts that give me pause, though; I can't for the life of me figure out what to make of this:

The last part of Brown's book is the heart of the matter: the one-page public policy recommendation. Ken Brown wants the government to make it harder to use and create GPLed software. He wants the government to do something about the growing use of the Open Source development model in industry by giving more money to the USPTO and to redirect government funding of universities toward "true free source" in cooperation with the IT industry.

So wait a minute -- he spends dozens of pages attacking the GPL and Linus Torvalds and Open Source, and then he wants the government to give money to colleges to fund Open Source development, even going so far as to suggest that corporations that support Open Source programs at universities should be given tax breaks? While it may sound like a paradox, he's actually pulling the old good cop/bad cop trick. He claims that Open Source devalues programs and eliminates due credit for invention. He doesn't seem to understand that GNU's Not Unix, consistently equating all Unix-like operating systems with the original trademarked copyrighted Unix source code. But then he ends the book, by saying how great free (as in price and rights) source code is -- as long as it's "true free source" and that it's only used in an academic environment where no one needs to (or is able to) make any money from it because it's all public domain.

I was curious as to why he brought up university involvement. My questions were answered by Media Transparency, which traces the money trail for media organizations. As you can see here, a series of significant donations come from The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, an ultra-right-wing lobby group based in Milwaukee. What a coincidence that John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is on the board of advisors for the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. So what does this organization do? It gives money to influence public policy, usually to try to return the U.S. to a state of unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism. In this instance the donations are marked specifically, "To support education-reform research and activities." The wording of that phrase seems to be -- like all other things AdTI -- purposefully ambiguous. It could read, "To support education [through] reform, research, and activities," or "To support education reform [through] research and activities," or "To support education [through] research of reform and activities." We can now see why Brown has dragged university support and corporate tax breaks into this mess.

The only common thread throughout the whole book is that he doesn't think Free Software should interfere with proprietary software because that's "real business" and it drives the economy.

How a far-right-wing pure-laissez-faire-capitalism group thinks to gain by calling for more government regulation of the software industry is frankly beyond me, and I don't think Matzan comes up with much of a convincing conclusion to it himself. But that's just one detraction from an otherwise excellent read.

If, as seems likely, Microsoft is behind this—well, all I can say is that I regret having given any indication through decreased attention devoted to them in recent months of "going soft on Microsoft".

13:56 - And his hair is Gore-tex

Frank J:

* Part of the reason Al Gore gave such an insane tirade yesterday is because a refrigerator magnet was stuck to his head.

By no means the best part, either.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004
21:18 - Which is it?

So which is it, conspiracy theorists?

Did the Bush administration incompetently ignore warnings of terrorist threats prior to 9/11—or did CIA or Mossad agents perpetrate the attacks in an act of globally-reaching calculated conspiracy for imperial conquest?

Did we invade Iraq on information we knew was false, in order to grab Iraqi oil and contracts for Halliburton—or were we honestly but gullibly snookered into an unjust war against an innocent, defenseless country by Ahmed Chalabi's con game?

Is the Iraq war a distraction from the real War on Terror, which is still taking place in Afghanistan and elsewhere and must instead be given top priority—or is the terrorist threat a trumped-up farce so overblown that the words "al Qaeda" make you wave your hands around and put your voice into that low-pitched "duh" voice and go OoooOOooh, al Qaeda!?

Were the dozens of countries who went to war with us in Iraq fooled and bribed and coerced—or are they in it for the imperialistic conquest like us?

Are Muslims in the US the targets of hysterical, McCarthyist-style witch-hunts, complete with pogroms and lynchings—or is the government being so reluctant to pursue an effective, targeted antiterrorism campaign within our borders as to cast doubt on its desire to fight terror at all?

Was the 2000 election rigged to produce a Bush win (somehow, after a clear dead heat everywhere but Florida)—or is the American populace too stupid and/or evil not to vote for Bush through honest polling?

Is the fact that Bush didn't scramble fighter jets as soon as he heard that the 9/11 planes were in the air indicative that he was in on it all along—or was he just too stupid to realize something big was happening, and thought the book he was reading to those third-graders was more fun anyway?

Is bringing our troops home the only way to "support" the poor dears—or is it "patriotic" to "support the troops when they frag their commanding officers"?

Is the June 30th sovereignty turnover date a sham that we have no intention of sticking to—or is the war's leadership so incompetent that it doesn't even realize the date is unrealistic?

Is Bush a devious, mad liar with designs on global dictatorship—or a bumbling, babbling idiot who can't tie his shoelaces?

Make up your minds, guys!

17:37 - Job security

In Mickey's Christmas Carol, Scrooge McDuck justifies not giving donations to the two alms-collectors who show up at his door as follows: "Well, if I gave to the poor, then the poor wouldn't be poor anymore! And then you two would be out of a job! I wouldn't want to put you out of a job, not on Christmas Eve...!"

It's silly and farcical. But I wonder how many people actually do think like that these days?

I'm speaking, of course, of those people who form groups intended to Do Some Good. The ACLU. The NAACP. PETA. Greenpeace. International ANSWER. MoveOn.org.

Specifically: why are they really doing it? Is it because they actually think they can change the world? Or is it because what they enjoy is the process, the feeling that what they're doing is changing the world?

I ask this because it seems the only way to explain how the same people (comedians, human rights groups, actors, leftists of all kinds) who spent the entire 90s agitating about how great a threat Saddam Hussein posed to the world—always quoting figures about weapons of mass destruction and his abuse and mass murder of Iraqi citizens—spun on their heels immediately after 9/11 and dedicated themselves to the cause of our not taking him out.

As though the fact that we actually seemed willing to respond to their decade-long calls for action against Saddam made them suddenly think, Whoah, whoah, whoah, we didn't mean for you to take us seriously! We didn't mean for you to actually do something about Saddam! We were just playin' around! C'moooon!

The same people who applauded Clinton's barrages of cruise missiles (unilaterally, no less!) into Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan (regardless of how many hospitals and orphanages he actually ended up destroying), after 9/11, call any kind of action at all—including Afghanistan—an unjustified act of aggression and imperialism. Whether our stated goals are to topple dictatorships, banish theocracy, defeat terrorism, uplift women in a culture where they're treated like cattle, or spread democracy, we're doing exactly what all the do-gooder groups ought to love us to do. But they're almost without exception dead-set opposed to our doing any of that. Now their tune is "The Arab world is incompatible with democracy!" and "Women in Islam are actually treated well!" or "What right do we have to force our way of life on anyone else?" or "Saddam didn't have any weapons of mass destruction after all! We had no right to take him to account for anything he's done in the ancient past!" or "Terrorism is only our just desserts—we have no right to try to eradicate it directly, only by capitulating to terrorists' demands!" or even "Terrorism doesn't exist at all, and official attempts to prepare us for another 9/11-like attack are to be ridiculed!" (as funny as that link is).

Which leads me to think: What would happen if all the do-gooder groups I mentioned earlier actually got their way? What if, for example, Congress introduced a bill for legislation that in accordance with PETA's demands, the sale or consumption of meat or any animal products in the US should be banned?

Something tells me PETA would lose about 90% of its membership instantly. They'd take to the streets waving signs in support of meat-eating. "We were just kidding!" "Meat is Neat!" "Vegans are from Vega!" "No Bull—Only Cow!" "I've Got a Beef with PETA!" KFC would cater entire marches. The nation's meat processors and ranchers would enjoy a huge stock surge (the Wall Street kind, not the stampede kind).

Because I think what people enjoy about joining these groups is the process... the feeling of belonging to some group, and a group that's guaranteed to confer some righteousness upon you the next time you mention it on a college application. Far more than the actual purpose of the group, though, its fecklessness is actually critically important—it wouldn't do for the group to actually have an effect on anything. No way. Because if it did, there wouldn't be anything to complain about anymore... and worse, it might mean actually having to confront the consequences of the changes you're advocating.

It's really damned easy to sway back and forth in a sea of like-minded protestors holding a PEACE sign, just bobbing along in your buoyant commitment to people not killing each other. But let the newspapers ring with the headline WE SURRENDER, and all but the most intractably rotten core of the throng will feel a stab through the heart: What have we done?

Just like the "human shields" felt when they actually got to Iraq and found out what they were signing up to protect.

I believe it takes a certain mentality to be susceptible to joining an activist group. At heart it's a mentality of goodness and benevolence, of wishing to see other people happier than they are, and of wishing to leave the world a better place than it was when you inherited it. There's nothing wrong with that. It's admirable.

But there's a temptation to join a group just because it tells a good story, or does a good job of outlining an injustice that must be put right. Once you're in it, though, the mob mentality takes over—the self-perpetuation of the group becomes paramount, and it becomes easier and easier to chant whatever slogans the guy next to you is chanting. If he's not worried about the danger to our economy if we abandon coal-fired power plants, or if she's not concerned with the fate of the meat-packing industry or the culinary tradition of the entire meat-eating world, or if they're not afraid of what a communist America would actually look like, or if nobody here gives a crap about whether it might actually be good to eliminate terrorist threats, especially long-term avowed enemies of America, then I guess I won't be worried either! DOWN WITH EVERYTHING!

So all I'm saying is, perhaps the people who cry out the most derisively against "sheep mentality" ought to think a little harder about the likely real, concrete outcome if the group you're thinking about joining gets its way, before joining it for the comfortable reassurance of expressing your individuality by chanting slogans from a printed sheet, in unison with ten thousand like-minded people. And only take up the chant if you really, truly are willing to live with the consequences of getting your way.

In other words, put up or shut up.

UPDATE: This, via CapLion, is an interesting case in point.

16:45 - Who is this man? Really?

You know, I just can't seem to figure out Jon Stewart. I mean, on stage he's funny as hell and seems to have his head screwed on straight, but then The Daily Show is really, really hard to watch if for no other reason than that Stewart spends the first five minutes of every show running a video clip of Bush stumbling over a word or a publicity still from the Flying Naked Iraqi Human Pyramid (now appearing nightly at Mandalay Bay), then smirking knowingly at the audience.

But then you turn around again and he's giving a commencement speech at The College of William and Mary (his alma mater), and it's balanced and sensible and must have been difficult to deliver over the raucous appreciative laughter.

Especially at that last line. My God, I'm dyin' here.

14:33 - Jon Schaffer Interview

Via Tim Blair—here's an interview of guitarist Jon Schaffer, conducted by a Canadian, Chomsky-reading 22-year-old political science major, at the music news site Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles.

Schaffer certainly takes command of the situation.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004
16:38 - The Hardware Orphanarium

PC Magazine's Lance Ulanoff thinks the Xbox is not long for this world.

It just isn't a mouse, I guess...

UPDATE: Then again, Ulanoff might just be a professional doomsayer. Back in December, Michael reminds me, he wrote this piece of gleeful and sneering crankage about an OS X security hole, which I'm told got him "blasted six ways from Sunday". To be honest, his "evidence" for the Xbox's imminent demise, too, seems pretty spartan.

12:59 - Please don't kill me

Okay: I've held off for a year, but I'm afraid I must once again leap into the breach and add more comments about Family Guy. If you're a hard-core fan of the show, I entreat you to please read no further, because I have no wish to antagonize the untold zillions of people who will hear no ill spoken of the show. But speak ill of it I must, and it's either alienate readers, or sit and silently fume until the top of my head pops open and goes fweeeeeeee like that factory whistle that always blows when the tension rises to a climax in Sweeney Todd.

...Still with me? Ho boy. Okay. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Anyway: I've tried to like Family Guy. I really have. I've given it a level chance for well over a year. I've patiently watched it in its slot following Futurama and preceding Aqua Teen Hunger Force (or whatever teen-oriented anime they inexplicably keep seeing fit to run at midnight), giving it all the chance in the world to impress me. There must be something I'm just not getting, right? Everywhere I go, people adore it. They speak of it in tones of awe. People who forswear sitcoms and reality TV as lowbrow and predictable, nonetheless, uniformly love Family Guy. Even a friend of mine in Burbank, who owns his own small animation studio and does professional voice-acting work (and thus can hardly be said not to have a finely tuned sense of comedic timing and quality standards), owns all the DVDs and lets them run at random in his changer.

But... well. I don't know. I just don't.

All I can conclude from watching the recurring episodes several times now is that the writers just... aren't very good. To start with the very conception of the show, you've got a lineup of characters who—and I don't understand who this is supposed to appeal to—are all, without exception, annoying. I mean, what's with that? Why do we have to listen to Peter's dorky, specifically-designed-to-make-you-want-to-club-him-like-a-harp-seal laugh? Why do we have to put up with Lois' banshee-with-laryngitis-scraping-its-long-untrimmed-fingernails-on-a-blackboard voice? How long did Seth McFarlane sit in a sound booth refining the voice of the son (whose name I still can't remember), until settling on something that sounds like a frog on a cocktail of crack and helium? At what point did he leap from his chair, shouting Eureka! upon concluding that he'd developed the perfect voice to flesh out a cast perfectly tuned to rub viewers' brains raw with every line they deliver? It's like watching a show predicated on an Urkel/Jimmy (from South Park)/Orko/Ozmodiar/Snarf/Jakovasaur/The Baby From Dinosaurs ensemble. All the most annoying characters ever conceived for TV, together again for the first time!

(Let's not even get into the bearded-Spock-universe versions of Lenny and Carl, aka Quagmire and Cleveland. The latter dutifully copies the "Token black guy with a voice that sounds, for some reason, absolutely 100% non-Black" thing from Carl; and the less said about Quagmire, the happier I'll be. There's Patrick Warburton as the guy in the wheelchair, the late-90s "Hi! I'm a politically-correct show!" meme that so seldom does anything but piss me off: What, even TV shows are subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act?)

The baby, Stewie, is clearly intended to be the real comic star of the show, and to be fair it's fun to listen to his delivery. But really, I ask you: how long can one expect to drag out this "precocious effeminate baby who wants to kill his mother" schtick before it starts to get, you know, old? Brian, the dog, is supposed to be the straight-man, but the fact that he's the only character who's at all sympathetic makes him the funniest of the lot as far as I'm concerned.

But I've been through all that before. I've got to vent about the timing in this show, which even my Burbank-dwelling friend admitted was inept (he just has more tolerance for bad timing, he says—a strange thing for an animation director to admit, it seems to me). They just don't know when to let a joke die. And even more unforgivably, they could get away with stretching a joke out for the two or three minutes that they sometimes let it soak up—if they made the joke grow consistently funnier as it progressed. But they don't. For my Exhibit A:

When Peter's boss comes over for dinner, the three kids greet him, but then say that they regrettably must retire to bed early. Annnnnd... cue Sound of Music parody scene! The kids line up and do their rendition of "So Long, Farewell" (inasmuch as it can be done with only three kids). Okay, cute; ha-ha. Um... but isn't it supposed to be a parody somehow? No, McFarlane decided, in his infinite wisdom, to play the scene entirely straight. A line-for-line, gesture-for-gesture crib from the source material. "I'd like... to stay... and taste my first champagne! Yes?" "No!" ... and the fact that that one line is slavishly tuned to the original stilted tone is the funniest thing to be forthcoming. The kids recite their lines and whine their way upstairs, and I'm sitting there staring at the screen, wondering when the joke is supposed to come. And there is none! It's just a frickin' straight rip! I sat through three minutes of screen time for that? I may as well watch this; it's got as much originality and joy. Sheesh.

And lest I think this was to be an isolated incident, there's the inevitable "Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory" episode, which premise ought to be recognized as a legitimate shorthand for shark-jumping in any series in which it appears (Futurama, Dexter's Lab...). The whole episode plays as an almost straight play-by-play, but then all such attempts do; all shows' writers that attempt this device get away with it by changing the songs' lyrics and making lots of Oompa-Loompa jokes and making fun of the wavy 70s title-overlays, and it's all good. But then, when the inevitable point comes when Peter and Brian get separated from the group and drink the Fizzy Lifting Beer, the scene is identical to the original. Remember how Willy Wonka in movie form was a comedy? Remember how the comic timing was supposed to give you a jolt of surprise and a thrill of upcoming action of some sort when Charlie looked up and saw the fan blades whirling at the top of the shaft, as he and his Grandpa rose inexorably up toward it? Remember how in the gentle humor of those days, the fact that they got themselves down by burping out the gas was funny, somehow? (Well, okay, bear with me.) So now it's the same damned scene, the same postures, the same composition, the same fan blades, the same danger, and the scene takes just as long to play out as the original did. And how do they get out of it? How do they release the gas and descend away from danger? By farting! Oh ho! Now that's comedy!

Things just draaaaag on. There's the "Entire family in a kung-fu Battle Royale" scene, which wears out its novelty in far less time than the two minutes they devote to it. There's the ever-popular five-minute Peter-vs-Guy-In-Chicken-Costume Fight scene; and in the same Y2K/Guns are Bad episode, there's the bit where they encounter Randy Newman at his piano, plinking out his extemporaneous song about Lois, ponderously lyricizing about her facial expressions as she eats an apple. I'm thinking, Okay, ha-ha, it's a Randy Newman joke. ... Uhhhh, yeahp—it's still a Randy Newman joke. .....Hmm. Maybe I'll go downstairs and get a drink. ...... Ahh, that hit the spot. Huh? It's STILL a Randy Newman joke? I swear, the writers must be deliberately trying to fill up space in a script that keeps ending up being worth about seventeen minutes instead of the usual twenty-two. There's no other way I can explain it, or imagine that all these die-hard fans can possibly put up with it. The episode that aired last night, in which the wheelchair guy goes into the Special Olympics, featured as its impossibly-drawn-out rake-scene a bit where the guy (Joe?) sits at his table in the bar and bawls about not having been able to run down a perp earlier. He bawls. And bawls. And BAWLS! And gradually, eventually, his three friends start to sidle away. First Cleveland stands up, ever so slowly, filling up ever so much film footage, and steps out of frame. Still bawling. Then Quagmire sliiiiiiiiiiides under the table, oozes his way out from under their feet, and sloooooowly, painstakingly, rolls away off the bottom of the screen. Still bawling! Then Peter sloooooooooooooooooowly squirms his way out a window above the table. Still frickin' bawling! And that's it! Not even any payoff to all that waiting! No joke to defuse the tension, no punchline to punctuate the scene—it just ends. Total time elapsed: something like two goddamned minutes, during which I heard Lance in the other room bark out a cry of annoyance and switch his TV to the History Channel, where the comedic timing is much snappier.

I mean, are they trying to alienate viewers? Are they testing their fans to see how much they'll put up with? Are they working from a piece of comedic insight that has made McFarlane a Koresh-style deity among his writers, where he's convinced that the key to real humor is deliberately stretching jokes out way farther than the audience is used to putting up with, because that's the new and groundbreaking stroke of genius that will save prime-time animation from itself? What must the director have told Patrick Warburton during the recording session for this scene? "Don't worry—it'll be funny once it's animated! Just keep bawling until we tell you to stop. Go on, go ahead. We'll keep rolling. Okay, Bill, let's go get a sandwich across the street. Back in a bit, Patrick!"

I'm sure there must be a method to this madness, somewhere, buried deeply in a mountain in Wyoming. The writers must know what they're doing, right? I mean, look at all these fans! They must be doing something right!

But then I see a scene that conveys to me that the answer is No, they don't; they're just flailing. Case in point: the "Gumbel 2 Gumbel" episode, in which someone makes one of those offhand allusions that you know is going to be immediately followed by a flashback to some outlandish remembered scene from the past, itself usually drawn out too long ("Hey, Lois, remember that time I flashed my nuts in public?" <cut to Peter standing with his coat open and a bag of walnuts inside, which he stands and shows off to the camera for the next ninety seconds> ...not a real scene, but it may as well have been, for all the eye-rolling fascination these elegantly crafted flashbacks usually evoke). I don't remember what the lead-in was, but the flashback/cut was to an attempted parody of Good Times. Now, you know that if there's ever going to be a parody of Good Times, there's exactly one thing you can ever make fun of: Jimmy Walker. Right? So yeah, they do. But they do it in the most excruciating way possible, in a way that lets you see into the writers' brainstorming process so clearly they may as well have just cut to live-action footage of the jam session table, FLCL-style, and shown us how it went down:

"Let's do a joke about Good Times!"
"Heh—yeah! Jimmy Walker: Dy-no-miiiite!"
"Well, right, but we need more than that, don't we? What else is funny about Good Times?"
"...Uhhh.... I dunno, really. I never actually saw the show. Did any of you?"
"Oh hell no. That's not really my kind of show, y'know?"
"Huh? What are you saying, you hate black people or something?"
"What? No! I'm just saying, I don't think that kind of... you know, it's just not my style of... shut up!"
"Okay, okay. Let's look it up on IMDB."
<clickety clickety>
"Not much here. Oh! Wait, here we go: the mom's name is Florida! Funny names are always good!"
"Florida—perfect! Can we make a George W. Bush joke about it?"
"Another one? We've already got six this episode."
"Okay, okay. I guess you're right. Though nobody will know how much of an idiot George W. Bush is unless we mention it in every single episode. It's up to us to educate the ignorant American public on this all-important matter."
"Uh... yeah. Well, agreed, but we still need to finish these scene. Don't worry, those Fox-watching morons will laugh at anything we put in here."
"Okay, Florida. Anything else we can use?"

<crickets chirp>

A long pause. Suddenly, one of the writers claps his hands: "Dy-no-miiiite!"

Instead, what we get is the result of that inspired session, a parody scene from Good Times that runs to the best of my recollection like this:

Jimmy: "Dy-no-miiiiite!"
Florida: "My name is Florida! Florida! <breaks down in sobs> Why, oh why, is my name Florida?!"

(pause for three or four beats, while the audience—quite literally, in my case, the very first time I saw this—counts down the seconds: Five... four... three... two... one...)

Jimmy: <claps> "Dy-no-miiiiite!"

I swear, I very nearly threw something at the screen when that happened. I don't like being insulted by my TV, not in the middle of a block of programming specifically intended to lift me out of the doldrums of TV animation that's usually nothing but insulting. It makes me feel like a sucker.

Yes, Family Guy does have its moments. When they can keep the timing down to short, quick gags, they're often quite exquisitely delivered; I enjoy some of the humanism in the characterizations, like Stewie's reaction shot when he realizes he's been trying to nurse from Peter's nipple. (It drags on almost too long, though; just when I was right on the edge of yelling at the TV to please jump-cut, please, PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUMP-CUT NOW NOW NOW, they did! Good for them!) But there's just this thread of interminability running through the show, a sense of the writers simply not knowing what the hell they're doing. They telegraph jokes like they're carrying the spool of wire between two running men in Blue from Baltimore to Harpers Ferry; and I don't want to give the impression that I have no attention span, but

Okay, so how many of you are Family Guy fans who have reached this point even after I warned you not to? Bah. Well, if you have, then I guess there isn't any damage I can undo by being all charitable about the show now. So all I can do is close by saying that I'd just like Family Guy to please go away, whenever is most convenient. Thank you, Cartoon Network.

...Except evidently CN has just commissioned a whole new season of Family Guy episodes. Sigh...

UPDATE: This is the most coherent critique of Family Guy that I've seen to date; don't read mine without reading Weinman's too.

Monday, May 24, 2004
15:36 - Wired for God

This is an interesting piece (forwarded by Brian D): an in-depth, rational analysis on how religion interacts with the human mind, and that specifically avoids and eschews the traditional dismissive condescension that so often accompanies scientific-type items like this. This isn't a "Gee, look how stupid people are; let's study them through the one-way mirror!" kind of thing; it's a respectful, yet inarguable bit of spelunking into how we integrate ideas of the supernatural into our lives, whether we think we're too smart to do so or not. Even the truest skeptic will no doubt find himself nodding in agreement throughout this, as will the most die-hard zealot.

I can certainly see how these same mental processes can apply to a person hewing to a certain brand of politics, as well.

12:16 - Folk remedies of the benighted 21st Century

Something was nagging at my mind as I read Lileks' Jetsam Cove entry on the endearing 1911 snake-oil panacea Celery-Fo-Mo. The package included a bunch of random "Worth Knowing" household tips, like how to whiten your skin by rubbing epsom salts in, or how to wash your hair in tartar sauce.

Barbarism! Alchemy! We chortle at it today, nearly a century on. But then our TV comes on with one of the many ads for Orchard Supply Hardware, which recommends fixing squeaky floors with baby powder, cutting paint fumes by stirring in vanilla, preventing clogged sinks with Alka-Seltzer tablets, and enhancing the aroma of your roses by burying onion slices next to the roots. All delivered through the demonstrative power of actors on the tube.

Someday I suppose our great-grandchildren will giggle at our foibles too...

UPDATE: Like, for instance, this. Which I saw in the local Safeway. No kidding.

11:15 - Bill Cosby Rules

But then, he always did.

Too bad some people seem to be trying to kick him under a carpet now that he's saying things that don't match the NAACP's party line. Reading his all-but-suppressed speech, why do I get the feeling that he's a relic from a time of a more self-respecting Black community than what we have today?

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© Brian Tiemann