Monday, January 31, 2005

Googling neurotic frustrations

I love the internet.

Specifically, I have just for the third time in a week been able to identify a song I heard on Musak based upon nothing else but a few snippets of remembered verses.

Oh, would that the Great and Mighty Internet had existed earlier. An experience which has nearly driven me to madness throughout my life has been hearing interesting songs but having no idea what they were called or who the artists were. I'm not sure why, but I get almost neurotically frustrated when I want to know the artist and title of a song but can't figure it out. Perhaps it's the frustration of repitition, but it can be a real thing with me.

I remember in around my sixth grade year ('79 - '80), I kept hearing this song on the radio, and its style and several of its lines were different and interesting enough from the pop norm at the time to really interest me. But I never heard a DJ identify it. It became a thing. One day I heard the end of it in the company of a good friend, and mentioned that I'd been kinda obsessing about it because I couldn't figure out what the damn song was so I could go buy the 45. I mentioned the first line which stuck in my head. He was a good friend, because one day he heard it begin, and actually unplugged his little radio and ran wildly up the hill to my place carrying it! I wasn't home, but he heard the title and remembered it. That's a buddy.

Fleetwood Mac's Sara by the way. Whatever your opinion of it, it was quite unusual for it's era, you have to admit. I still really enjoy it, it's music, and lyrics, but I"m sure part of that is nostalgia.

This week:

Isley Brothers, Who's That Lady
Ringo Starr, Photograph
Rolling Stones, Dead Flowers

The first is an amazing contact point between soul and progressive music.

And is it just me, or does that last one sound very, very much like another song? Dammit, can't figure out what... please comment if you have any ideas!

Math in the media

Tonight, as is my wont, I listened to the fantastic program This American Life on my local NPR station. Their theme this week was Family Physics, and they took ideas from math and physics and told stories about how these ideas provided metaphors for complicated life situations. Good stuff, and you can listen to it online if you're curious.

I especially appreciated one part of the show's prologue. They interviewed a physicist who complained about people reading pop-physics books and then taking these ideas and running with them into areas where they were never intended to be applied. Like family dynamics. Ira Glass then noted that physicists were really just asking for it by giving their theories such interesting and evocative titles. Fair enough!

I had a great time listening to the show, but I have to note that this is the first time ever in an artistic forum that I have heard even a mention of the fact that mathy people have a real problem with artists "mis-using" their ideas (in the opinion of said mathy people), much less giving time for a real, live scientist to give voice to this.

Thank you, Mr. Glass!

We wouldn't have as much of a problem if more artistic folks seemed to actually understand the ideas whose titles they are appropriating (some do, yes).

Just this past week on the new TV show Numb3rs, I had to limit myself to one or two frustrated sentences when they mentioned the "uncertainty principle" and "measurement alters the thing measured" in the same set of lines. I had to say something, honour demandeth no less, but Lady M____ has heard my Rant on the subject often enough, and I doubt the cats were interested, either.

I shouldn't complain, because I can't think of any other time when a lead protagonist on a mainstream TV show has been a mathematician, and I'm happy to see Rob Morrow and Judd Hirsch working again, but here goes...

We had grave doubts about this show from seeing the pilot episode. Oh, yet another crime investigation show where women are being raped and murdered, but we're supposed to not find this luridly violent and pornographic because, you know, cops are investigating it so it's bad and the bad guys get caught even though oddly enough in almost every episode women seem to get raped and murdered in vividly creative and disturbing ways. How innovative.

Notice that I said crime investigation rather than criminal investigation. Emphasis upon topic and theme.

We gave it a shot again because, well, for one it was about a mathemetician and I just had to be sure that they were defaming my calling before I started writing angry letters, and two, from the previews we weren't sure whether the glimpsed saran-wrapped corpse was female or not. He wasn't. We were pleasantly surprised to see no women being raped and murdered as well, and the previews for next week's show seem to imply that this trend will continue. I guess we'll see.

However, I majored in mathematics, and have spent a lot of time hanging out with math and science types, and I've never met anyone who exhibits the stereotypical obsessive-compulsive behavior of the lead character. All of us loved the movie Pi but we're not really like that and most of us have never been approached by Kabalistic terrorists in search of The Secret. Or the FBI looking to solve crimes. Or, really, anybody anywhere looking for help from math for their lives. *sigh*

Smart people aren't usually like this. Almost every exceptionally smart person I've met can be charming and quite socially well-adapted, or at least as well-adapted as any other segment of the populace. Really. Smart and geeky are not the same thing.

I really can't speak to the mathematics of the show, because there honestly hasn't been enough to comment on. Lots of terms are thrown around, and the mathematics on chalkboards or graphical segues seem vaguely appropriate, but generic in the way that they could really apply to anything statistical. But it's prime-time, remember, and I've never seen an integral sign or indexed formula anywhere else on TV other than PBS, so whatever.

Jumping back to the "uncertainty principle", I lose track of the occasions where I have heard this bandied about as being the notion that perception alters the perceived. They are very different concepts. I have several Rants and even one Lecture devoted to this difference. I was preparing a course on Mathematics and Poetry for a local independant adult educational organization which specializes in poetry, and while the course never happened, I got around to preparing class outlines. One of my sessions would have focused on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in physical theory and poetic practice.

This goes back well over a decade, back to when a writer friend actually asked me to develop a talk about the uncertainty principle, because she found it evocative and wanted to make sure she really understood it. I never got to tell her about what I found, and I guess I've been lying in wait ever since...

Don't get me wrong, as there's been a lot of interesting art based up0n misconceptions of this idea, or at least calling other ideas by it's name. Perception does seem to alter the perceived, and it's a great metaphor, but this has little or nothing to do with the actual uncertainty principle, and is a different concept entirely.

Oddly enough, the uncertainty principle isn't physics, it's mathematics. It's actually a logically derivable mathematical identity which is true regardless no matter what physics might happen to be in reality. Werner Heiserberg noticed this math and gave a physical interpretation to it and a new physical metaphor. But his physics are still not what most people think they are and imply very different things from the usual interpretations.

I'll stop now, and continue in a more technical or metaphorical vein as the readership seems to want. *cough* comment *cough*

Saturday, January 29, 2005


For the past month I've been participating in a drug trial.

It's a test for a type of seratonin agonist which is supposed to target the areas of the brain responsible for hunger, appetite, and food cravings.

Now that the trial is over, I want to comment upon what I experienced, in case this drug is ever on the market.

I never lost weight.

However, I did lose interest in food as an emotional attachment. Food became irritating and problematic to me. I didn't enjoy food as much as I once did. And as the primary cook in the household, I became more irritating to live with. I needed to eat, and did the cooking, but I didn't like the idea of food. You can see the problems which developed.

However, I was as hungry as I ever was.

I needed to eat food, I just didn't enjoy it as much.

Appetites in general became much less enjoyable or demanding, run with the implications of that as you will.

I can see that this type of drug could possibly help someone who has an emotional attachment to food, but that doesn't seem to be my problem.

One nice thing about participating in a drug trial is that you get a really incredibly thorough medical checkup.

I've learned that I'm very healthy except that my cholesterol is high. However, every other blood test records that I am very, very healthy, including endocrine and liver functions.
Every week I got three pages of detailed medical analyses, which all suggested that I'm darned healthy. Not just medically healthy, but healthy enough to be considered for medical experiments, which is *Damned Healthy*. New tests seem to say that in the French high cholesterol happens but heart problems don't. Needless to say I'll be closely following the research in this area, while still trying to do the common-sense level stuff to reduce it.

I do eat a lot of dairy cholesterol, butter and cream. I almost never eat red meat. My blood pressure is low. I don't drink or smoke anymore, excepting rare lapses.

Next time I have a checkup, I'm asking about these new tests which seem to more accurately reflect heart congestion than just cholesterol.

This study did include thorough heart analysis, electro cardiograms and echo cardiograms. Both suggest that my heart is quite healthy, I'm happy to report.

I have no idea whether I should be worried, but I'm going to excercise more regardless, because I know I don't do that enough. Then we'll see in a year.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Generation Oscar

Getting back up to speed here. I had a draining weekend, and, well, honestly just didn't feel like writing anything.

Here are some small random bits that have been floating around my own personal noosphere...


The nominations were released this week, and for the first year in quite a while, I find myself not very interested. I love movies (as I do film, which usually doesn't get nominated) and usually enjoy Oscar night even though I have to approach it with a wryly cynical sense of humor about the whole process. But this year I just don't really care about who wins any of the major awards.

I admit to a certain amount of grumpiness over Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind not getting more nods, but it's got all the hallmarks of a classic cult favorite, so what was I expecting? That it got nominated at all, even if it doesn't have a chance, is a minor miracle and possibly a sign of actual taste creeping into the system. Or maybe it's like Lost in Translation was last year, a bit of indie cred.

There are a couple of the darlings which I haven't seen, but plan to as soon as the DVDs are released: Million Dollar Baby and Hotel Rwanda. Although, I probably know more about the Rwanda atrocities than many Americans, and I'm not sure when I'll be in the mood to face it.


No, I don't mean Star Trek...

(hey, I had IMDB up for the last bit, and there it was...)

I was listening to NPR's show Morning Edition while driving to an appointment this morning, and they were talking about the Social Security "crisis" and the Baby Boomers. Lady M____ and I began to have an interesting conversation about how the media categorizes generations.

For instance, they described "baby boomers" as those having been born between 1946 and 1964. And that *shudder* Generation X includes those born between 1964 and 1982. That's 18 years a-piece!

I know that an 18-year generational clock may have made sense in the past, but in the 20th century culture began to accelerate at a pretty good clip. I think there would be an amazing difference between a person born in '46 and one born in '64, and even more of a difference between '64 and '82.

In just looking at this from a pop-cultural standpoint, we decided that you couldn't be called a Boomer if you couldn't remember life before the Beatles. So, this gives a cutoff at about, oh, say 1958 or so.

Now in this age of cultural acceleration, a twelve-year generational span for Boomers seems much more reasonable, and a mere decade for Gen-X is appropriate, but these numbers are all rough, mind you, so there's a lot of haziness to any dating. You're a part of the generation you feel like you're a part of.

And in a similar pop-cultural litmus test, we don't feel that anyone who doesn't significantly remember life before MTV should be considered a Gen-X-er. Call that '74-'76, and subtract a decade to get a lower bound of around 1964-66. In a geekier vein, you should appreciate life before video games.

There are certain transformational experiences which serve to define and unite generations. E.g.: for Boomers, growing up in the 50s, Sputnik, Kennedy assassination, The Beatles, etc...

Now, there's a gap there between 1958 and 1966, and I think this is an important but hitherto unrecognized generation. These are the people whose teenage experiences were in the cultural '70s, which was an admittedly short cutural "decade". Boomers were teens in the culture of the 60s, X-ers in the '80s.

I don't want to speak for this generation, so I'm going to resist trying to cleverly label you. Speaking as someone who has an entire rant available about how stupid the name "Gen-X" is for my own age group, I don't want to be the instrument of that kind of angst.

The Post-X generation (find your own name) is probably defined as people who aren't aware of life without MTV or video games, and whose first memores of a US president are of Reagan.

I'm sure there's lots of different ways to define the cultural breakwaters of the various decades, so I'm not gonna get into that very deeply right now.

So here's my bold idea in the field of generational analysis: generational identity is formed through common teen experience and culture. Or in the language of Leary, cultural sexual imprinting informs generational attachment.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

SF questionnaire

I read this BoingBoing post about how Farah Mendlesohn is writing a book about children and science fiction and is conducting an email survey on that topic:

The purpose of this questionnaire is to provide material for a book called (provisionally), The Inter-Galactic Playground of Children's Science Fiction to be published by McFarland Press. The research is supported by the Eileen Wallace Children's Library (University of New Brunswick), Middlesex University (London) and the British Academy.

Who am I? I am a science fiction fan and a critic. I'm co-organizing a British Eastercon, Concussion, and I edit the academic journal Foundation. The original article behind this research can be found at “Is There Any Such Thing as Children’s SF: A Position Piece” in The Lion and the Unicorn, A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature Vol. 28, no 2, April 2004, pp. 284-313
Besides the survey, her blog is fascinating to anyone interested in children's literature in general and science fiction in particular. I haven't dug too deeply, but immediately was moved to bookmark it.

Care and feeding of CD drives

My CD-ROM/RW drive has been acting up lately-- not reading discs or creating errors when writing which cause write-once discs to be trashed. Very annoying. For some discs I'd have to open and close the drive, moving the disc slightly in the tray each time, up to twenty or thirty times before it was able to read. And some discs not at all.

I suspected that dust buildup was the problem, or that the tracking gears in the drive were wearing out.

Dust is a real issue. I built this computer myself, but the case I bought and motherboard layout really don't work well together. The CPU is blocked from a lot of airflow from the cooling fans by being right behind the power supply, and tended to overheat after a while, or at least run hotter than recommended. I found that I could just leave the side of the case facing away from me tilted open and it was fine. Not a great solution, but it worked and was good enough and didn't require that I spend any more money. However, dust buildup in the open case became an issue, so I had to unplug everyting and vacuum it out from time to time. No big deal.

For some reason a lot of dust seemed to accumulate around the CD drives, so I guessed that some of the dust worked its way into those same drives.

I made a CD lens cleaner, and it nicely solved the problem.

Here's how to make a nice lens cleaner for your CD drives and players.

This is what worked for me and is an experimental device described for informational purposes ONLY. Not responsible for any damage done by following these instructions. Use at your own risk.

Take an old CD which you will never need again. I used one which didn't burn properly because my lens was dirty.

Cut a small (1/2" or so) piece of velvet into a rough circular shape (helps to be married to a seamstress!) and trim off any corners and loose bits of stuff and bits which could fall off in your drive.

Using a light layer of glue all over the backside of the patch, and NONE on the front which could scratch the lens, glue it onto the bottom side (not the side with the label) of the disc, on the inside near the middle hole but covering up the inside beginning of the data area.

Let it dry and brush off any loose bits or trim any loose corners.

Put it into your drive and let it spin for a second or two, remove quickly.

If it doesn't work the first time, put a small drop of rubbing alchohol on the velvet pad, and insert it again briefly.

Afterwards, let the drive sit open for a minute for alchohol to evaporate.

If that doesn't work, you probably have other problems besides a dirty lens.

You probably only need to use this every year or so and only when reading discs becomes a problem because you don't want to risk scratching your lens.

Hope this helps.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


You wouldn't think so at first, but heating your house can be a very big deal in New Orleans. I'm sure our getting down to freezing at night earns no sympathy whatsoever to anyone reading this, for nearly everywhere else in the country is colder than we are. But you have insulation. We don't. None whatsoever.

The old house we are renting part of has walls constructed of an inner layer of plaster over some thin slats nailed to wooden uprights, faced with clapboard. Nothing but air in the middle. I could probably figure out the insulative R-value if I felt like it, but it's not much. The house itself is built up about a yard high on brick pylons (it floods here) and so air is free to flow underneath our wooden, uninsulated floor as well.

When we first moved in, there was but one small gas wall heater in one of the rooms, and nothing else in the rest of the apartment. Our first winter when it dropped to around freezing or below, you could see your breath in the bathroom in the morning. This was after I'd gone around with a stick of incense, plugging up air leaks with duct tape or spray foam, including a huge eleven foot high, two inch wide gap between the chimney and the wall where air flowed in freely. I've been much, much warmer in 40 below weather in a lightly-insulated house up north with proper heating.

Since then, we've purchased an electric space heater, a little bathroom heater, and when the landlord replaced the air conditioner last Spring, she bought one which also included a heater, so Winter isn't quite as miserable. But, realisticly, the electric heaters don't do nearly as much as the gas unit and use a lot of energy. The gas heat began to work erraticly the first day of the projected coldest week of the year. Most people would have immediately called the landlord, but she'd made noises about removing the gas unit now that we had an electric one, but appeared to have forgotted about it. She pays gas, we pay electric, so I was loath to remind her of its existence.

It would operate for a while, then go off suddenly. You couldn't re-light the pilot light until it had sat idle for a while. If you turned it up to the highest setting, with three panels fired, it would shut off within minutes. Leaving only two going let it stay lit for at most an hour at a time, but the decrease in heating power by a third was very noticable. It couldn't really keep up at full power with falling temperatures and air-leaks in the old construction.

Last night was exhausting. I had to wake up every hour or so and re-light the damn thing. I learned new appreciation for ancestors who lived with small wood stoves or fireplaces which had to be re-banked regularly during the night if one didn't want to freeze to death. I don't mean to really compare our situation to theirs, as we weren't in any real danger, but the similarity did occur to me.

During the light of day, I was able to dig around on the net to find some pages about gas heater troubleshooting, and got a decent idea about the possible causes for its erratic behavior even if I couldn't find info about our specific model. I guessed that it was a thermocouple sending a wrong signal, causing the gas safety valve to shut off the flow. Or maybe the thermocouple was working perfectly, and the unit needed to be shut off so it wouldn't start a fire or poison us with carbon monoxide?

Was the thermocouple getting too much heat, or too little? How to figure this out without blowing myself up or suffocating us in our sleep. Not that the latter was much danger in our leaky place, but still...

I finally got a clue in one of the many web pages I consulted, which mentioned a yellow colored pilot light being a sign of poor gas flow through the pilot nozzle. This would make the thermocouple attached to the shutoff valve think that the flame had gone out, shutting off the gas flow so as not to poison us and create a fire hazard.

Our pilot light was yellow, slightly more yellow than I remember, I think, but I never gave it much thought before, honestly. And the flame wasn't toucing the thermocouple, but barlely missed it if you looked closely from the right angle. Aha! A little work with an eyelash brush supplied by Lady M____, some cleaning out of dust buildup inside the unit, and.... the pilot was a beautiful shade of blue and struck the thermocouple dead on... and it's still going several hours later at full blast. *relief*

And while it's not exactly warm in here, it's not exactly cold either, which is the best we can hope for in this weather. I'm tempted to sing a paen to the laws of thermodynamics, to the first law glowing orange and blue as the gas and oxygen combine in the firebricks, to the second law which allowed me to reduce the entropy in the pilot light assembly-- at the cost of increasing the universal entropy, alas. On the wonders that are radiant and convective heat transfer, and lastly to the humble but tireless diffusion whch carries the thermal energy 'round the apartment. Ahhhhh......

In a final note, let me also say that I've finally finished Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. All three volumes and 2652 pages of it. I'll probably have more to say about this later, but just wanted to mention it to mark the occasion. Two nice achievements in one day.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Turkey day

Before Christmas a savvy shoppper can find very good deals on large, bulky meat products. This savvy shopper located a ten pound turkey for less than six dollars . Hey, we've got a nice holiday centerpiece!

Then this savvy shopper located another less-than-six-dollar large hunk of meat. A ham. And the next week another ham, similarly priced.

I baked one ham over the holidays, and it was lovely. I served it with homemade au-gratin potatoes, fresh garlic buttered green beans, and home-baked rye crescent rolls. Yum. The turkey stayed in the freezer, along with the other ham.

And then I was done with the big production dinners for the season. I needed a break from the kitchen. Lately hot dogs and tater tots were about all you could talk me into without some grumbling from the surly chef-- not the nice endearing chef-about-to-create-a-culinary-masterpiece surliness, which can be forgiven and, indeed, adds to the succulence of a finely prepared dish-- but the whiny, irritating attitude of a lazy, burned-out chef who wouldn't be worthy to even watch Iron Chef, assuming he had cable.

But there were these two large, frozen, meaty things clogging up our freezer. Getting in the way and nearly breaking feet when they would suddenly leap out onto the floor while one accessed the ice trays.

Since ham was the last Big Meat I prepared, it seemed logical to do turkey next, and so I took the Damn Thing out of the freezer Friday morning and cleared out half of the bottom shelf of the fridge for it to thaw for two days. No brining the bird as it was pre-basted "with up to 8% of a solution". Hey, I said it was cheap.

And, yes, today I Cooked The Turkey. Oiled and salted it. Stuffed the cavity with aromatics: fresh herbs and whole spices and garlic and onion. Aluminum foil tent and hot oven at first then temp dropped. Chopped off the wing ends, tail, and skin flaps to make gravy along with the neck, gizzard, and heart. Added carrot, celery, onion, parsley, and garlic to the stock pot. Took an end of homemade bread baked last week to make croutons for stuffing along with cajun wild rice blend. Meat and veggies and strained bits from stock along with rice and bread and seasoning and stock for stuffing. Added flour and half and half to stock with pan drippings to make gravy. Brown 'n' serve rolls. And, yes, I used canned green beans this time, dammit. And forgot to add the chopped hazelnuts to the stuffing.

It was utterly delicious, but somehow a turkey without any Event to require all that trouble just seemed to lack something. And now we've got huge containers full of leftover turkey, stuffing, and gravy, yet I'm oddly unexcited. After Thanksgiving I really look forward to a week of turkey sandwiches-- better than the original dinner, in some ways-- yet this time I'm oddly unconcerned about the leftovers.

I stuck the bones and odd bits of meat into a stock pot and I'm going to make turkey and dumplings on the coldest day we should have this week (Tuesday), but it seems like another chore and not the joyous cooking thrill it would have been before the first of the year.

For some odd reason after the first of the year I emotionally need a time of simple foods. Before the new year is the time for excessive preparations and inordinately large meat products. Turkey in January just seems wrong, somehow.

But, living in New Orleans, this really should be the time when Big Meat ought to be prepared, it being carnival season, that time between Twelvth Night and Mardi Gras. Since carnival comes from the Latin carne vale, or "farewell to meat", one really should consume any leftover meats acquired during the holidays. Mardi Gras literally means "fat Tuesday" because it's the day you're supposed to use of the last of your fat stores before lent since drippings would be prohibited. Not that I've become Catholic, but if one likes the parades one feels the need to at least pretend to appreciate the other aspects of the celebration.

Turkey today still strikes me as weird, for some reason. I'm feeling oddly like a stereotypical Lutheran as described by Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion, who has a deep, emotional need to suffer in the wintertime as pennance for any sinful excesses commited during the holiday season. Real or imagined.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Connected addiction

Addictions don't just live in isolated emotional spaces by themselves. They thrive by their connections to other addictive behaviors.

I need to stop drinking coffee.

Every time I do, later that night I get an amazing and powerful craving to smoke a cigarette.

Right now, I'm thinking, nay, wallowing about pawing through our neighbors' garbage, because they smoke and they might have thrown away a not-completely smoked cigarette which I could puff on.

I brew a damn fine cuppa coffee.

I buy green coffee beans from a local importer, and seeing as how I live in New Orleans which is the major place for all coffee imports, I get good stuff. And I'm aware of the roasting vs. character curve for any given bean as I roast them at home. Roasted coffee goes stale within a week, don't you know. So if you really love coffee, home roasting is the way to go.

But for some reason coffee caffeine and cigarettes are somehow inextricably intertwined in my brain chemistry. If I drink strong coffee, later that night I will need to sm0ke a cigarette.

I know that I get addictive behavior from both sides of my family. I'm a double addict, genetically speaking.

It doesn't help that I've caved a couple of times, and that the fairy tales my cravings are spinning are entirely correct. I *will* calm down and begin to think clearer if I smoke a cigarette. But, I also know that tobacco-suck moments of clarity are fairly fleeting, and that non-smoked moments of clarity last a lot longer.

Total bullshit, but necessary if I'd like to live a long while.

I just keep remembering Gunter smoking on Friends, "Oh, Dark Mother, once again I suckle at thy smoky teat!"

I'm an addict who will ALWAYS be an addict.

And I just need to manage that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

New Sci-Fi

"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck."

First line from an excellent book I just finished: Feed by M. T. Anderson. It's officially a young adult novel by our library's standards, and is apparantly an underground hit among teens, but I found it very powerful, engaging, and emotional. I even almost believed the invented slang the author created for futuristic teens, something which most authors fail miserably at.

It was a National Book Award finalist, deservedly so, and apparantly won a slew of other awards as well.

"A scathing critique of the incessant demands of an increasingly everpresent media behemoth," he said as though he were getting paid to talk about it. Hey, don't make me break out terms like "a stunning tour de force" on your ass...

You can read the plot synopsis and reviews at the above link, but I wanted to use it to segue into talking about a movement in current science fiction writing.

I've noticed that really good SF books these days are getting shorter. This is a good thing, because for a while I suspected that writers seemed to be on a Dickensonian paid-by-the-word deal, and vast tomes which stretched the limits of book-publishing technology were becoming the norm. That or the dreaded series tales, always seeming to be either 3, 5, or 10 books for some reason. If not, then they were usually divided up into parts... six books? My money's on two parts of three books.

Now, the trend for up-and-coming authors seems to be writing efficiently. Writers which have impressed me lately seem to be writing shorter works, but also seem to be putting a lot of thought into the fewer words they do use.

Cory Doctorow is an excellent example, just to name someone, as is John Scalzi.

I've decided that I like the new trend, and plan on working on efficiency in my own writing.


Update: looks like this has been noticed.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

When is an inch not an inch?

I procured some materials to begin building my pan-pipes as mentioned in this earlier post.

1/2" x 10' CPVC pipe
new hacksaw (old one was in sad shape)
1/2" wooden plugs with 1/8" holes (for tuning)
1/8" wooden dowel (for handles on the tuning plugs)
sheet of balsa wood (for mounting to hold all the pipes together)

I have to admit, besides being thinner than standard PVC, the CPVC has a nice pale beige tint to it which seems less artificial and even vaguely wood-like. Totally worth the extra cost. I'm a bit of a connoisseur of PVC, having used it to construct everything from clothes racks to didgeridoos, and let me tell you, CPVC is the shiz.

Got everything home, and had the foresight to try fitting the plugs into the pipe before opening the plastic packaging. Didn't fit. Could it be the plastic wrapping? Instead of tearing the pack open, I got out a ruler and measured the plugs. Yep, 1/2" exactly... then a fell suspicion began to creep over me. I knew that 2 x 4s weren't really two inches by four inches, and that this held true for other building materials. So, could I actually believe the text on the pipe which said it was 1/2" inside diameter?

Apparantly not. My trusty Official 1976 Bicentennial Snoopy ruler gives a reading of about 7/16".

I checked the website for those pan-pipes I'm going to model mine after. *sigh* Inside diameter of 0.47". 7/16 = 0.4375, so Snoopy was pretty close.

So, when is an inch not an inch?

Answer: when you're trying to bloody well build something and you buy materials.

Yeah, yeah, I can go exchange the wooden plugs tomorrow for smaller ones, which will probably even work better than the ones which should have been an exact fit. I can wind thread around them to snug them into the pipes and it'll be a more smooth and firm motion and fit. It's just that my principles are offended. I really want to trust hardware stores, but this seems like yet another example of false advertising. That is to say, lying.

I'm used to assuming that when I read esoterica various things will be presented incorrectly, that the "initiate" will know about this and be able to know what they're really talking about. But plumbing?

I know that lumber measurements were changed to enable sawmills to produce 16 planks where they had been producing 15, like adding wax to candy bars. I guess the same thing happened with pipes, and is now standardized into the industry. Doesn't mean I have to like it.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Why am I doing this?

I've been thinking about why I decided to start this log, how I'm going to go about it, and why I'm doing it at all.

I was inspired partly by the attitudes of Robert Fripp towards his online diary while I was reading it a few years ago. As a personal discipline, he commited himself to posting at least one entry a day in a publicly readable diary. One of the phrases I believe he used was that he wanted to open himself up to public humiliation.

Now, when I read to M______ a similar passage by Fripp regarding how he conducted his teaching of guitar students, which involved the word "humiliation," she hit the roof, or at least gave me a look and asked me pointed questions regarding my apparantly cult-like interests.

Having read a lot of his writing, it was clear to me that RF was using the term "humiliation" in its original and traditional sense-- an experience that provides humility, and not in the more modern usage of "shamed and degraded" which is how most people today would read it.

I was following this idea last night before drifting off to sleep, and it occured to me that the concepts of humility and pride have really switched places so far as society goes.

Pride used to be a sin.
Humility used be a virtue.

It was one of the seven deadlys. You could go to hell, be tormented for all eternity, for being proud!

In buddhist/hippie/new age terminology, pride is the experience of the self-importance of the Ego, the thing you're trying to rise above.

When did pride become good, become something that we are teaching our kids how to be, become something that as citizens we're expected to be? And when did things which gave humility become "humiliating"?

Which word would you link up with "getting a promotion and a raise": proud or humble?
And why?

Anyway, I'm writing this as a personal discipline. I'm going to post daily, on average. I think it will be an interesting excercise not only to commit myself to writing every day, but commiting myself to writing something every day which I expect will be read by other people. This is a very different thing from the standard writing excercise of writing something every day no matter what it is-- just write. The added dynamic of having an audience really changes things. I'm absolutely sure that it will be humiliating. I will become more humble about myself and my writing during this experience.

Also, part of it is an excercise in being more communicative to family and friends. When I launched this thing, I sent notice out to various folks whom I'd like to chat with more often. It'd be nice to have some comments and conversation, but really I'm just trying to work on giving more of myself to people that matter to me, and this is a nice way of doing that.

Finally, I'd like to get some of the short story ideas I've been ruminating on up and going. In order to get up to speed on writing I need to excercise by writing every day, and excercice by writing with the intent that what I write may be read by others.

So, I expect to grow, I expect to share, and I expect to learn. Sounds like a plan.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


In the early 90s I played bass in a sort-of alternative, post-punk, industrial-lite band with a couple of other guys. These two had been friends since grade school, so they shared a lot of similar speaking quirks. One of the most noticable was their incessant use of the word "dude" to mean absolutely anything whatsover. This was pretty common at the time, but these two were the dude-ers I had the most contact with. I blame the media saturation of all things grunge just before this.

I was reminded of them today when I saw this Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon. And then this discussion of said cartoon (scroll down) and finally this strange analysis of how many times people use the letter "u" to spell the word for emphasis. The third link is a wonderful example of dry language geek humor. At least I thought so, but then again I'm a language geek m'self. The cartoon's from 1994, which is a little after the initial "dude" heyday. Probably about when it entered mainstream culture.

In his book Time Pressure, set in a hippie commune in the early 70s, Spider Robinson creates a wonderful scene where some people similarly use the phrase "far out" to also mean absolutely anything whatsoever.

So I'm wondering, are there other examples of a linguistic "wild card" out there? How many generations or subcultures have had their own "wild card" shibboleth?

Such a wild card should be able to express a wide range of emotions and concepts, from simple greetings to more complex things like, "Isn't this wonderful," "Please pass the chips," "I'm very sorry for your tragic loss," "Your behavior is socially unacceptable," and so on.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Appearances vs. Reality

There's a new building going up down the street at the site of an old Burger King which got demolished last Spring. At the moment it's just a roughly cubical framework shell of 2 x 4s. There are no signs up explaining what it's going to be, so I've been trying to glean clues from the construction.

In the middle of the thing, they've put up a small room with solid concrete walls and ceiling. Also, there's new construction for a large entranceway using metal poles and beams. From these two details, I'm guessing that it's going to be a bank.

If I were going to guess what kind of new business would be building its nest in the neighborhood, without any clues at all, I'd have to say day spa. Without thinking about it too hard, there are at least five to eight of them around here, two having opened this past year. The word "infestation" springs to mind. Ah, perhaps the concrete room is a soundproof chamber where they administer the latest in trendy skin treatments, the "battery acid peel with invigourating lye wrap", so the agonized screams don't deter new business or disturb those getting the soothing aromalight facial therapy... or not.

Nearly every bank in existance tries to convey "solid & stable" with two things: a clearly visible bank vault (usually with the solid-seeming metal door left open so you can see how thick it is) and an impressive entrance structure. If it does turn out to be a bank, I'm predicting that those metal poles will be enclosed by a thin shell of stone.

The whole thing is a carefully constructed illusion. I think it's nicely telling that the front (false image) of a bank is in fact mostly in the building's acual front (the ponderous entrance structure). Also, the entrance itself has an iconic false front-- the "stone" colums are a thin stone veneer with no structural properties, the actual strength coming from thin steel poles. Most of the building is cheap wood. Multiple layers of reference to archaic secure building techniques. A "meta-front," if you will.

One could probably seque right into an allusion to The Fountainhead here, but one shall refrain.

Since your bank actually keeps your money in a computer file somewhere and most people increasingly only rarely visit a bank branch in person, I'm wondering how long these "reassuring" structures will continue to be built. I wonder how future banks will convey "rock solid computer security and identity theft protection" in the future?

Death & Taxes

Here's an excellent chart diagramming how the government uses the tax revenue it collects from us. Each circle seems to be sized proportionally to the amount of money budgeted it. If you scroll down, there's an even bigger version.

I'm very impressed. With one well-thought out graphic, you instantly get a sense of the government's priorities. Then, of course, it's fun to think about how you'd design the chart if suddenly you had the power to sway congress to your whim and will. Which circles would get bigger, which would shrink?

I'd like to see a similar chart created for the sources of revenue, not just the sinks. With double circles, one for total revenue and a smaller one inside for percentage paid in taxes. It would be nice to see it split up into economic sectors on the corporate side (energy, manufacturing, transportation, retail, service, medicine, pharma, entertainment, etc...) On the individual side, have things split up into tax brackets, with a third circle indicating the total number of persons in each bracket, and the total amount each bracket pays. Such a chart would be quite enlightening. Hmmmm... I'm sure all the info you'd need is public, even if not easy to locate in some aspects. It would be fairly straightforward to at least do something in a spreadsheet to generate some charts, which would be easier if not as attractive. I'll think about it.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Krewe du Faye

Tonight we met at a friend's house to begin planning for what looks to be a fun Mardi Gras parade. It's called the Krewe du Faye, and it's a walking parade in New Orleans' French Quarter with a faerie and fantasy theme. No web page that I know of, sorry. It's not really that organized. Basically, you wear wings or whatnot, beat drums, and march around having a good time and confusing the tourists.

We tried to attend it a couple of years ago just as marchers, but they had scheduled it the night before MG. During the Endymion parade if that means anything to you. If it does, you understand the brutal horror which confronted us poor naive pilgrims. If it doesn't, picture half a million drunk people packed into a wide boulevard. The police had erected rather bizzare labrynthine people-corralling barriers which we failed to navigate. My companion got her hand-made wings crushed and I lost my temper well before we got near the French Quarter so we gave up and went home.

Our friend Claudia hosts a middle eastern drumming group occasionally, and she asked some of us who can keep a beat to be the musical core of the Krewe this year. We started working on some songs she picked out and arranged-- medieval Latin church music with middle eastern martial beats. Sounds strange, but it ends up being very beautiful and rousing. I think it will be great music to parade along with.

I didn't bring a drum but borrowed a tambourine and had fun playing one for the first time in my life. Up until now they've always annoyed the holy crap out of me. Like guns, I think it matters which end of one you're on.

I'm not the best hand drummer in the world, so I'm thinking of building some pan-pipes out of PVC. I had the idea tonight during practice, inspired by a couple of PVC didgeridoos my friend Rob helped me construct while visiting a couple of years ago. As it turns out, someone has already made it happen. Nice that they've already worked the bugs out of the idea since I don't have that long to get them up and piping. Much less practice on them...

For musical geeks out there, the songs we're doing have vocal parts in the keys of either F or C. I'm thinking of a two-octave pentatonic set in C or F (CGDAE or FCGDA), or perhaps a hexatonic (FCGDAE).

Still up in the air about a costume. I've got a felt black and purple monks robe which I've used as a fallback costume for years now; or perhaps I'll look into some antlers as suggested by Lady M_____.

If you're going to be in New Orleans before Mardi Gras, it will tentatively be the Friday before MG. More later when I get a firm date, place, and time.

If you're going to be in NO on Saturday, January 22, may I suggest going to to the Krewe du Vieux. It's the only parade which still goes through the French Quarter, and is mainly geared towards the locals. It's almost never mentioned in tourist info. Very adult-oriented and irreverent, and about satire and politics much more so than shiny beads. Don't attend if you're easily offended! Of all the parades during Mardi Gras, it's the first one I ever attended, and the one I most look forward to every year.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Buddhist carol

I've noticed that Buddhism, among other cultural systems, seems to be fond of numbered lists of things.

E.g.: the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the three pillars of the dharma, etc...

They aren't the only ones who really get into this idea. I've seen it a lot in many spiritual systems.

I asked about this on Monkeyfilter in this thread and the most reasonable response I got explained it as a useful mnemonic tool. I was pointed towards this very nice meta-list of Buddhist dharma lists.

The was also the answer I recieved from someone who studied briefly under a Tibetan Rimpoche. She mentioned him counting off things on his fingers as he explained them. Makes sense.

In a perverse fit of silliness, probably brought about by holiday madness, I came up with a Buddhist carol based upon the old saw "The Twelve Days of Christmas":

Twelve Days of Buddha

On the first meditation my Buddha gave to me...

A realization underneath the bodhi tree.

On the second (third...) meditation my Buddha gave to me...

False Duality
Three Dharma Pillars
Four Noble Truths
Five Hin...dran...ces!
Six Senses Sensing
Seven Enlightenment Factors
Eight Paths a-Folding
Nine Bodhisattvas
Ten Fetters Fettering
Eleven Monks a-chanting
Twelve Links a-Linking


I'm trying to base each verse upon an actual Buddhist dharma list or concept, but haven't been able to find ones for nine and eleven. If anyone knows of some, please comment!

Feel free to pass it around if you don't mind crediting me. I'm happy to add to the internet's woefully small collection of Buddhist humor. I'm already pondering "Mr. Bojjhanga"...

Hello, world!

A little trite, to be sure, but firmly traditional in the computer world.