28 Nov 2004

A homily and a conversation

I went to the STA 7pm Mass here in Ames tonight. Among other things, I wanted to see the difference between their normal Sunday morning parish Mass and their more college-student-targetted Mass.

The chief difference I noticed was a penchant for difficult music that was confusing and hard for the congregation to tell where exactly they were supposed to sing. I'm always frustrated that these even exist; they're set up so that a good choir can perform them for an audience, which is liturgically terrible, since it discourages the congregation from actually singing. Sigh.

The homily was interesting, though. After sermonising for a while on the topic of being prepared for the end times and living like Judgement Day were tomorrow, he moved on to the topic of the greatest threats to Catholicism. They were: mobility, individualism, and the redefinition of marriage. That last one might actually have been a subtopic under "individualism", but he talked about it at least as much, so I grouped it separately.

He was making some good points on the first two, but then I about lost it on this last one. His oblique references to the marriage rights movement (I thought) served no purpose but to alienate.

After Mass, I walked up after most of the congregation had left and inquired whether he really thought that the marriage rights movement was the third most dangerous threat to the Church. This touched off a really interesting conversation in which I discover his point---which he admitted he made better in the earlier Masses---was actually more general, regarding the growing tendency to blow off sacramental marriage in favour of being married next to a favourite waterfall, blowing it off entirely in favour of living in sin, ignoring the nonsacramentality of "remarriage", as well as the more politically current topic of gay marriage.

Furthermore, he seemed much more interested in having the conversation than dictating ways of thinking. As he said, he wants to make people think about it; the conversation can be after Mass or at a discussion group on Wednesday night or some other time, but it is so much better to have the conversation than to walk out angry.

Is it a conservative position, or liberal? It's catholic. I'm glad that I didn't just walk out angry.

Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words. --St Francis of Assisi

Posted by blahedo at 9:32pm | Comments (0)

27 Nov 2004


This afternoon my family went to see the touring stage show of Evita at the Auditorium Theatre downtown (and then completed the evening with dinner at Mia Cucina in Palatine).

I've seen the movie before, and I'm quite familiar with the music, but I'd never seen it staged before. Fortunately, this company didn't fall into the dangerous trap of mimicking the movie; for good or bad, most of the scenes were pretty different. (Trying to restage the movie would have been nothing but a complete disaster---the media are too different, and the production would suffer.)

One recurring shtick involved a huge screen that descended over the rear of the stage. A projector at the back of the stage put up images from the actual Perón regime, and some video footage from that era as well. They were used throughout the show to great effect, especially in "Buenos Aires" and "Rainbow Tour". Unfortunately, the digitisation was of very poor quality. Rather than looking grainy (which might've been ok), it just looked like someone tivoed the History Channel and forgot to set the quality high enough. Which was really really too bad. I know that higher-definition is possible, and they really should have used it.

The clear low point of the show was the two "tango" dancers. First appearing at the earthquake charity fundraiser, they danced as Juan and Eva sang "I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You". Which is basically a rhumba, but whatever. What they danced was not anything like a tango or a rhumba; the dancers had no connection with the floor or each other, or anything else for that matter. That includes, say, the music. And as the rest of the onstage cast moved off (the various onlookers from the benefit), these two continued dancing all over the stage while Juan and Eva sang. There was no reason for them to be there, the dancing wasn't good, the dancing didn't relate to anything, and they were very distracting. They then had to reprise this role during the requiem montage at the end of the show. Simply dreadful. I'm not that picky---they didn't have to dance a proper tango or anything (although I think a good, y'know, Argentine tango would have been welcome at some point during the show), but in this case having them there was definitely worse than having nothing there at all.

Most disturbing moment in the show goes to the following lines in "A New Argentina":

It's annoying that we have to fight elections for our cause
The inconvenience--having to get a majority
If normal methods of persuasion fail to win us applause
There are other ways of establishing authority

We have ways of making you vote for us, or at least of
making you abstain

Lines that I remember thinking of as "things that fascist regimes do" when I saw the movie back in the mid 90s suddenly strike rather a lot too close to home.

The show itself basically has three real parts, with three or so very minor parts and a chorus. Eva (Kathy Voytko) and Juan (Philip Hernandez) were great, though I'm not sure I'd say they were better than their movie counterparts. (Voytko was a better-trained singer than Madonna, but Madonna had the advantage of sound studios and re-takes.) Che (Bradley Dean) wasn't bad, but he definitely wasn't as good as Antonio Banderas; this guy used a trained singing voice at the wrong places and busted out the shouted or spoken line in a really awkward way. Of the remainder of the cast, I really liked the performance of "Another Suitcase In Another Hall" by Perón's mistress (Kate Manning); I have never seen good, strong singing so successfully blended with convincing verge-of-tears acting. And the chorus itself is a bit more featured in the stage show than in the movie, with many of the harmonies much richer and easier to discern.

Love, love, love the costumes. The rest of the technical work was generally decent, although solo lines from the chorus were not all very audible (some miked and some not), and there were a number of minor lighting miscues (which you'd think they would have ironed out over the last few weeks of performing in this venue).

Overall, I was very glad to see the show, and I do recommend it. Its faults are minor and its strengths... strong. Sadly, its Chicago run ends tomorrow. Maybe it will come back! Or maybe you can catch it in another city. Most of the cast and crew should be the same. :)

"The only difference in the game of love over the last few thousand years is that they've changed trumps from clubs to diamonds." --The Indianapolis Star

Posted by blahedo at 10:39pm | Comments (0)

24 Nov 2004


It's about time. And it's coming down fast, the thick, wet stuff I love so much. But did it have to come the day I was going to be driving back for Thanksgiving? So much for leaving before it started! I wonder if I can wait until it stops...?

Nutmeg is pretty weirded out by the whole thing, though. :)

"Congratulations, Christian Right: I'm Jewish, and you've even got me praying." --Lewis Black

Posted by blahedo at 8:49am | Comments (0)

22 Nov 2004


I'd just like to say that Wikipedia rocks my little world. I checked it out a while back and at the time it was a neat idea, but not very full-fledged. Now, though? It has an incredible range of stuff.

When I was little, I remember many happy hours of reading the encyclopedia. Typically, they started with me looking up something for a school assignment. And then the next entry. And then the next one after that. And eventually, Mom would walk in to the room and yell at me to work on what I was supposed to be working on.

I don't remember using the encyclopedia much during college, and of course by late college and certainly by grad school, the encyclopedia was rapidly being eclipsed by the web. I mean, why bother with paper when you can just type a search term into Google?

Of course, the problem with Google is that it just finds what you're looking for. There's web surfing to be done from that starting point, but it's not the same as bouncing from encyclopedia entry to encyclopedia entry.

Wikipedia is highly hyperlinked, though, and very extensive. So you look up what you're looking for, read pages and pages about it, and then hop to any of dozens of tangentially-related entries. It's like old times again!

"Liberalism is about alleviating the inherent shortcomings of capitalism so that we can gain its benefits without having a society which totally blows." --Michael Feltes

Posted by blahedo at 11:49pm | Comments (2)

21 Nov 2004

"I guess so"

Imagine, if you will, the following conversation, and form an opinion about it:

"Do you believe that priests actually change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ?"


"It's what your Church says happens."

Then, yeah, I guess so.

Isn't that terrible? How can that person not even know what he believes? He guesses that he believes something? And just because some church told him so?

Contrast with the following conversation:

"Do you believe that your blood carries oxygen from your lungs to your heart and then to the rest of your body?"


"It's what all the biologists say happens."

Then, yeah, I guess so.

Hmmm, indeed. Even the smartest humans can't hold all the world's knowledge in their heads at once, from which to devise and evaluate theories that explain it, whether scientifically or spiritually, or from any other cognitive framework. When we're little we trust what our parents say; as we get older we find other people of authority over various domains of knowledge. If you decide to give credence to what a certain scientist says---whether because you've evaluated his credentials or just because you think he has an honest face---then when he asserts something, you may believe it, based only on the authority he lends to the proposition.

So it is, at least for some, in the religious world. Once someone has decided to belong to a religion---whether raised in it or a later convert---they have implicitly or explicitly decided to believe what it says. Presented with an issue they've never thought about before, and then presented with their religion's stance on that issue, such people will suddenly discover and assert that they agree with their religion. They guess.

Of course, good religions don't just make assertions, they explain the reasoning behind them. (Cynics would call this a rationalisation of the assertions.) The best religions go on to say, "but don't take our word for it---think about it, pray, whatever; we're confident that you'll come to the same conclusion (after all, it's the conclusion we came to), but we want you to eventually come to it on your own terms." Roman Catholicism, by the way, is one such church; that's what the doctrine of Formation of Conscience is all about, as I understand it (though I really need to read up on the details of that, one of these days).

This has sort of been bouncing around my head for weeks now, and I wanted to write it down. Basically, I think that "I guess so" is a perfectly reasonable first response in both of the hypothetical conversations, though I think many would find it less acceptable in the religious context. And I think as a long-term belief strategy, it's not ideal, but I think that putting continued faith in your church's positions is no better or worse than trusting the results of science. And how many of you have personally verified that oxygen is carried from your lungs to your heart and thence onward by your blood? Of course, I think that everyone should think about why they believe things, just as I think a strong sense of curiosity and scientific inquiry is something that every adult mind should possess. But I suspect that a lot of relatively intelligent people have chosen to simply trust their spiritual leaders, and I fear that a lot of Very Modern people who are above plebeian pursuits such as religion spend a lot of time condescending to and underestimating them.

"If AIDS is punishment for promiscuity, are colds punishment for shaking hands? Is cancer punishment for smoking or just living too long? Is heart disease punishment for eating meat? How far does this go?" --Michael Kimmitt

Posted by blahedo at 12:56am | Comments (4)

20 Nov 2004

American English

American English played at the Orpheum tonight. They're a regionally-known Beatles cover band, and they're pretty good. I had never seen them before, although Kathy and her friends had, and had spoken highly of them. If they read this, they'll probably be mad; I mean, I like the Beatles like anyone who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century in North America, Britain, or most of Western Europe, but Kathy and her friends are really into them. Neener neener!

When I got my ticket, I wasn't terribly picky about where I sat, so when the lady asked me if box or mezzanine were okay, I said "sure". But the ticket she gave me was ground floor. Right behind the big stack of boxes next to the sound board. There were a lot of people there, but it was hardly packed, so I don't really understand why this ticket was even in the mix. Anyway, when the lights went down and I realised the sound board light would stay on through the show, I moved. The mezzanine looked full-ish, so I went on up to the upper deck. There were maybe fifty people up there, and the front row was mostly empty. A better seat all around---not least because whenever they renovated the Orpheum, the upper deck just got refinished, but they left the wooden seating with the plush upholstery and iron endpieces, rather than the cheap plastic ones they installed below for the more high-use seats.

Anyway, the show. Before intermission was the "early Beatles" part, where they all had the black suits with the narrow black ties. For some of them, it was almost like listening to a Beatles CD. Others were a little different; "Hard Day's Night" was lacking the clanky part that Ryan always does for his dad's band, alas. There were a lot of fun songs here from the Ed Sullivan era.

After the intermission they came out in full Sergeant Pepper regalia to hit the "psychedelic" era of Beatles stuff... they did fine, I guess, but with a few exceptions those songs aren't as good as the earlier ones. A lot more distortion and noise, and less focus on good singing and harmony. With all the authenticity they were going for, I was pretty disappointed that "George" never pulled out a sitar... that would've been awesome.

A third costume change brought them fully into the 70s, with "George" in bellbottom jeans and the rest of them in brightly-coloured suits, and they rounded out their set. One of the audience members was clearly a Big Beatles Fan and was projecting his approval all the way from the back of the nosebleed seats, before eventually going downstairs right in front of the stage and getting people to dance. They closed with "Hey Jude", ending with maybe five minutes of "na na na na"s, some done by the audience (authentic, I guess).

All in all, worth the price of admission. I might even go again. But unless you're a big Beatles fan, it's an experience you don't need to feel too bad about missing.

"The true test of one's sexuality lies in one's attraction to not-beautiful people." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 11:54pm | Comments (3)

19 Nov 2004

Gone with the Wind

Tonight at the Orpheum they showed Gone with the Wind on the big screen. (Badly projected, so that the top part of the frame hit the curtain, but what can you do?) Boy, that's a lot of movie. With a 20 minute intermission, it came in over four hours.

You can certainly see why it's a classic, though. "Epic" doesn't even begin to describe it. I can't even imagine what their budget must have been. The costumes, the sets, even the props showed incredible attention to detail. The roles were big and the actors filled them. Vivian Leigh? That character could easily have been so one-dimensional, but her Scarlett O'Hara was complicated. Olivia deHavilland played a model of goodness and compassion, and even at the end I wasn't totally sure whether she knew or not.

The supporting cast was pretty awesome too. Mrs. O'Hara had all of, what, four lines, and came across as matronly and likable. Mammy---if she can even be considered "supporting"---was spot-on fantastic (didn't she get nominated for an Oscar for this?). Belle Wilder was maybe my favourite character; she's just trying to get by, same as you and me, but she really drives home the fact that the Antebellum and Reconstruction South (not to mention the Confederacy itself) was a rigidly stratified society, and race was hardly the only discriminant.

This is a great movie; so much misfortune befalls everyone, but nearly every single character manages to draw your sympathy. (Ok, maybe not Mr. Wilkinson.) And at the end, somehow, after all the misery and death, it still manages not to leave you feeling down.

"SQL is the Fortran of data bases---nobody likes it much, the language is ugly and ad hoc, every data base supports it, and we all use it." --ORA Lex & Yacc (1992)

Posted by blahedo at 11:51pm | Comments (1)

18 Nov 2004

They hired me!

Found out this afternoon (official confirmation to follow) that they've decided to rehire me. Looks like Knox is going to be stuck with me for another half-decade or so, at least.

"While my armpit hair isn't thick and nasty, it has started to reach, God-and-Adam-in-the-Sistine-Chapel-like, for my chest hair." --Joe Shidle, who is going to find this quote on Google a few months or years from now and cringe in horror. Hi Joe!

Posted by blahedo at 11:41pm | Comments (3)

14 Nov 2004

A list of authors, part 2

Continued from before...

Robert A. Heinlein was an author I technically started reading when I was very young. I started on Stranger in a Strange Land sometime in junior high, I think, although I only made it about 90 pages in before giving up. Just wasn't ready for it, I guess. And I read a few of his short stories, notably By His Bootstraps, on my dad's recommendation. But what sticks most in my mind from that period was Farnham's Freehold. I read that book when I was maybe nine; the year was 1986 and though glasnost was in the air, the Cold War was still on, and the threat of global thermonuclear war was still a very real one. The lead-in to this book has the warring nations declaring peace, but just as everyone lets their guard down, the nukes are launched, and life as we know it comes to an abrupt end. It freaked me the hell out and gave me nightmares for months. It was to be well over a decade before I touched anything by RAH again.

Robert Jordan starts out good and then he just keeps. on. going. For ever and ever and ever. I started reading his series (and he only really has the one series) my junior year of college. I'm not sure who started me on it, but I think it might have been Mel Hetzel; I know I had some conversations with her about the later books. It was probably a good time to pick it up; all the good books in the series had already been written, so I was able to just plow through them, and when book 7 came out shortly thereafter I could just give up in the middle and walk away from the series completely. I'm told it got a little bit better in book 9 or so, but I'm not going to even consider picking it up again until RJ finishes the series or dies.

Mercedes Lackey I started reading my freshman year of college. She was introduced to me by another freshman named Dawn. Dawn was in the choir and had a beautiful soprano voice; I want to say she was from Columbia, MO, although I'm not sure. I can't even remember her last name! :P Anyway, she lent me one of Lackey's low fantasy novels---aka urban fantasy, with elves and such secretly living in an otherwise modern city. Not really what she's best known for! I kind of avoided the Valdemar books because they looked a little too... girly, I guess. (She was on the Winds series at that point, which really does have slightly girly cover art.) But at some point I was in the library and got By the Sword, a standalone Valdemar book that hooked me in and made me start working my way through. Not long thereafter, I was visiting friends in Champaign (this was the architecturally awful apartment that various groups of four guys lived in---at the time I think it was Mike, Neil, Chris, and Al, though I could be wrong) and one day, Sam Walker and Sara Dhuse were hanging out there. Sara found out I was just getting into Mercedes Lackey and highly recommended the Last Herald-Mage trilogy, which I soon read and still think was the best thing ML ever wrote.

Julian May I discovered entirely on my own. How? Well, she co-wrote Black Trillium with Marion Zimmer Bradley. I liked that book, so I figured hey, why not try her other stuff? I found the Pliocene Exile books and the various associated series to be quite excellent. I lost track of her about three or four years ago, but it looks like she's still writing; I should get back to reading her stuff.

Anne McCaffrey was another Shalom recommendation, I think, though it could have been Michelle or possibly Lee. I'm fairly sure I started reading Pern novels my freshman year of college, because I seem to remember reading at least parts of them at Lee and Vern (and Scott and Jay)'s Broadway house. Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels were later to become the vehicle by which I hooked my sister on fantasy novels. Success!

Terry Pratchett was definitely Shalom's doing. She got both me and Lee hooked on his Discworld series about the same time. I can fairly clearly remember Shalom going on and on about the funny parts of the novels, which is most notable because I can barely remember them myself now. The problem I've always had with Discworld is that although I enjoy reading them, and I can remember characters fairly well, the plots and details of the now-more-than-25 books all run together in my head. I can't even look at a book jacket description in the bookstore and be sure whether or not I've read the book before! Makes it difficult to follow. :P

More to come...

"If [British journalists] want to hole up in their hotels, explore their TV remotes and dream of over-cooked vegetables, warm beer and that elusive invite to their boss's private club, that's their business." --David Staples, Edmonton Journal

Posted by blahedo at 12:07am | Comments (2)

13 Nov 2004

Cold days

The nice thing about it being cold outside is that I feel a lot less guilty when I spend the whole day indoors. :)

"We were sort of bored in Illinois, so we thought we'd head up to North Dakota." --from Security Blanket

Posted by blahedo at 4:57pm | Comments (0)

12 Nov 2004

A list of authors

I'm sitting here in my living room, looking up at my bookshelf. My eyes fall upon the Tolkien, and I have the thought, "huh, I bet those are the oldest books I own, or rather, the books that have been mine the longest, at least of those that are still on my bookshelf." Looking around to confirm this, I realised that perhaps 95% of my books follow a pattern: I got started on an author, and then bought or at least read everything they wrote. And I find that for a lot of them, I can remember fairly specifically who or what exactly got me started on that author....

Douglas Adams didn't write that many books, but the man practically engendered an entire mythos. My first introduction to his writing was actually his interactive-fiction adaptation of Hitchhiker's Guide for Infocom; I think I played that while we were still living in Oak Lawn, or certainly not long after we moved to Palatine. I actually read the first book in eighth grade, checked out of the paperback fiction shelf in Ms. Brandt's reading classroom. I don't think of this as literature for the ages, but there are enough snickers whenever I use the number 42 in my classroom that I know high school kids are still reading it.

Piers Anthony I got started on my sophomore year, at IMSA. Mike McLawhorn was raving about how great Xanth was, including a lot of great puns. I seem to recall reading Man from Mundania out of order, though I don't know if that was the first one I read or not. In any case, I did work my way through that series and moved on to pretty much everything else the guy ever wrote---I think he's over a hundred books now. I still say, the Incarnations of Immortality series was excellent but for the most part his writing after 1980 was significantly inferior to his earlier stuff, before he became a hack. That said, the Xanth series is well-aimed at its audience, and I remember when Josh Nordstrom (a friend of the family, wonder where he is now) was having a hard time getting motivated to read in late junior high, it was my suggestion of the Xanth series that got him over the hump and interested in reading. Chalk one up for Mr. Anthony.

Isaac Asimov is one of those authors I keep saying I should read. I have a bound copy of the I, Robot stories that I still haven't gotten to. I've never read the Foundations series. But I do have several Black Widowers collections that I've read. Those are good.

Marion Zimmer Bradley is one of the few authors I really can't remember when I started. I don't think Mists of Avalon was the first thing I read, although I know I did read it around my junior year of college. Perhaps it was from a reference by Mercedes Lackey (who got her start writing for MZB's Sword and Sorceress anthology series). But I do know that my first Darkover book was Darkover Landfall, sometime during college, and I proceeded in chronological order according to the mythos, not according to when they were published, and this made for some really bizarre forward referencing and detectable but incomprehensible foreshadowing.

Orson Scott Card wrote Ender's Game in the late 80s, and I'm moderately sure I heard about it around then. But I didn't read it until I was in grad school, at which point I proceeded to work my way through all his stuff, including the implicitly and explicitly Mormon stuff, which was certainly interesting.

Agatha Christie is a great author to like, because her books are available at every library and used bookstore, and they read really quickly. I know we read Ten Little Indians in seventh grade, and that might have been the first. Every now and then I have a craving for a good mystery, so I try to keep two or three unread Christie novels in stock.

Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park put him on a lot of people's radar when the movie version was released in 1993, and so it was with me. I read Jurassic Park the summer after I graduated from high school, right around the time we took a trip to Lake Kabetogama in Minnesota's border waters. It wasn't actually during the trip, though, because I definitely remember my dad was reading it during the trip. :)

Greg Egan is an author I like but haven't read much of yet. I hadn't ever heard of him, but then during the 2002 CS recruiting weekend, a prospective named Ryan Newton, and me, and my housemate Hilary were sitting in her room having a great 2am conversation. At some point, he started going on about how great this Greg Egan guy was, and it stuck in my mind; a few months later I was in a bookstore and saw Diaspora. And in fact, Greg Egan is indeed pretty good.

Raymond Feist I started reading during my junior year of college, working my way through the Riftwar saga. I think it was Shalom that put me on to that one. Reading his stuff is completely maddening, because there are tons of characters, and as generations pass the children get named after uncles and grandmothers and friends of the family, which may reflect reality but makes it really hard to keep everyone straight! I made my way through to the Serpentwar saga before losing interest. Maybe I'll pick it up again, although I think I'd have no hope at all of keeping everyone straight now.

Alan Dean Foster writes a lot of standalone novels. My first exposure to him was Quozl, which remains one of my all-time favourite books, and I'm pretty sure it was Al Kinsella raving about it that put me onto it, though I could be wrong. I then continued to read a new ADF book about every other year before going on a big kick late in grad school.

Terry Goodkind. Which one of you was responsible for starting me on him? I'm pretty sure I read Wizard's First Rule around my third year of grad school, and it was good enough that I got dragged along through the next four books in the series, which take place over the course of about six days and go nowhere at all. Auuugghghhh.

John Grisham is nothing at all like Michael Crichton, but they share the same niche in my brain. The Firm came out about the same time as Jurassic Park, and I read both during the summer after graduating high school. Although, if I recall correctly, I didn't see The Firm until after I read the book; I seem to remember being disappointed at the movie's ending, which seemed like a copout. I do know my mom was reading it at the same time as me, and I think she was about a hundred pages in when I started, so her bookmark sat there while I stole the book and read it myself. :) For years, Grisham's books provided me with predictably mediocre airplane reading (his latest is always on sale at the airport bookstores), but eventually it just got so bad I gave up.

To be continued...

"A large part of the public likes the conservatives' theme music. Now they will be tested on whether they like the lyrics." --Barney Frank

Posted by blahedo at 10:43pm | Comments (2)

7 Nov 2004

A modern "districting"

Here's a totally wild idea I wanted to throw out there. Right now most jurisdictions have some sort of geographically-based districting, with each district electing some number of representatives. Other common systems include at-large representation (all representatives elected by the entire jurisdiction) or party list representation (where each party submits a list of candidates, which are then "elected" in proportion to that party's share of the vote---this is common in Europe).

All of these methods have a tendency to marginalise certain voters. What if people could change the district they were in?

A bit of thought dragged this idea to its logical conclusion, which actually is relatively robust, I think. Each jurisdiction has, instead of N districts, N representative groups. Each group elects one representative. Every person belongs to exactly one representative group, of their choosing. People can change groups at any time (possibly with some logistical restriction on frequency of changing). That's it! No further restrictions.

The first objection I came up with: what about keeping districts the same size? Totally not a problem. If the system gets a rep group with too few people and another with too many, the one with too many can easily migrate half of its people over to the small group, effectively taking it over.

So what about the small groups that get taken over? They build coalitions in order to securely maintain one rep group.

With respect to third parties, this sort of system would enable them to form more easily as a rep group of like-minded people that can successfully elect a representative from that party.

With respect to existing parties, there would undoubtedly be a significant number of rep groups that map fairly well to the existing parties; but well-known fault lines would probably be reflected by having e.g. one of the Democrat rep groups be anti-choice.

Minorities of race, gender, and culture that felt it important to be represented by one of their own could easily form a rep group to make it happen.

What about the things the old geodistricting was good at? Rural districts really do sometimes share concerns that the urban ones don't; and there would almost certainly be many rep groups that were dominantly one or the other.

Essentially, the system is maximally flexible to reflect the up-to-date current political fault lines. It's in a representative's best interest to represent their constituency well, because otherwise they will drift off to other rep groups, leaving this one ripe for a takeover by some other group with their own candidate. Or maybe they'll stay here and just elect someone better. When not actively performing a takeover, it's in a citizen's best interest to join the rep group with the candidate most closely aligned to them (both in outlook and priorities), because then they can help to protect that representative from a rep group takeover and exert some influence over them as well.

In terms of implementation, the chief difficulties are in keeping track of membership of the rep groups and in managing elections. The former is only incrementally harder than maintaining voter rolls now. The latter is a little trickier, but not hard if we move to machines that actually print the ballot in addition to helping you vote---the machine can print the ballot appropriate to your rep group(s).

So, there it is. Neat idea, huh?

"'No Scrubs,' TLC. It begins with a definition. It has axioms. It makes inferences. How cool is that?!" --Annemarie Peil

Posted by blahedo at 10:41pm | Comments (3)

6 Nov 2004


Today was the ACM programming contest!

What. A. Day.

So, we met at SMC at 7am to hop in a van and drive down to Urbana. When we got there, the usual introductory stuff happens, and we start doing the usual stuff like opening the problem packets, going to make photocopies, and so on. It was a little bit more disorganised this year, because the grad student who basically ran it last year has since graduated, and they lost a lot of their institutional memory. Eventually, we got everything copied, and went down to get acquainted with the judges' room.

There, the UIUC coordinator was trying to set up a program called PC-squared, which they used last year to run the judging of the contest, with great success. Unfortunately, there were some problems setting it up this year, and the initial diagnosis---which never really made sense to me---was that the whole problem was simply due to line terminations in some files being DOS and some being Unix. John (Dooley, of Knox) spent the next hour helping Ari (the coordinator) set it up. At some point we thought we were close, so we let the students into their lab (this marked 15 minutes before the start of competition).

We also had a discussion over whether to make them do I/O from what is called "standard input" or to use files. Although we preferred standard in, the problem specifications---which were assembled by the regional coordinator---all had filenames on them, so we thought it might be less confusing if we just went with that instead.

Let me reiterate that: the regional said it was up to us, but they had made up problem handouts that indicated file-based I/O. This will be important later.

PC2 was being recalcitrant and not dealing well with files, so we decided to just check the output by hand. The program automatically downloaded their code to the judging machine, compiled it, and ran it there, so we could go into the directory where it was and look at the output file that was generated. I wrote a little script to automate the process, and as the contest got started we checked everything by hand to make sure the script wasn't messing up; everything checked out perfectly.

It seemed a little strange that all the submissions were correct, actually. Usually at least some teams submit something that generates incorrect output, and we have to mark it wrong and send it back. But it's not that out of the ordinary for everyone to get the easy problems correct.

After about two hours of the five-hour contest, we got a program that took longer than the stated one-minute maximum. An error! We felt a lot better after that. We shouldn't have.

Going into hour four, it was seeming increasingly bizarre that the only two errors were timeouts. Had nobody made any logic errors among the thirty or so submissions so far? We checked the next few by hand, and they really were correct.

One of the teams that had only submitted two problems (out of seven) then got a third in, and it was one of the hard ones. Good for them! That must be why they had stalled. Five minutes later, they submitted another correct one. Huh, we said, they must have been debugging on printouts---which led to a good ten-minute discussion on the virtues of debugging code without constantly recompiling.

When this team got yet another one, someone pointed out that it was only a two person team. Where were they getting all this? And where, by the way, less than a half-hour from the end, were the teams that should by now be desperately submitting not-very-working problems?

This wunder-team submitted a seventh problem of seven about fifteen minutes before the end, and something definitely seemed very, very wrong. A few minutes later, one came and wanted to let us know that solutions three through six were just printing the sample output for the problem, and the seventh was even more bogus than that: a thousand repetitions of the phrase "EVERYBODY WANG CHUNG TONIGHT!"


So it was that at about 5:40, I started madly going through to find the source of the problem, which was likely to invalidate all the results from this site. I was barking orders for people to bring me paper, for the site coordinator to email or call the regional director to not, under any circumstances, publish final results for the region just yet, and in fact to pull the webpage if possible. About three minutes before the end of the contest, I found the source of the problem

PC2 was so completely failing to handle file-based I/O, that after the program ran (and generated an output file called, say, triangle.out), PC2 would then copy into the same directory the known good output file (named, say, triangle.out), with the intent of comparing it with the standard output that it had redirected to a file named stdout.txt.

There is, for the record, no good reason for this; they could just as easily have compared stdout.txt with the version of triangle.out that was already sitting in the judges' known-good directory.

But what was normally a pointless but relatively harmless design decision turned into a nightmare for us, because the "program output" that we had been comparing---automatically or by hand---with the known-good output was in fact always strictly exactly a precise copy of the known-good output.

And it checked out perfectly.

So at this point I had to change my script to delete the existing triangle.out file, re-run the program and compare the new triangle.out file to it. Then I had to, one-by-one, redownload all 56 submissions and run this script on them. The java ones had different calling conventions, so I had to re-tool the script for them. And the java ones that used the ACM-provided (!) I/O library actually sent to standard output anyway, so in the end we had to deal with that too.

Remember how the ACM regional said it was up to us whether to take standard output or file-based output? And then provided problem definitions that assumed file-based output? And provided java support code that assumed standard output? Thanks a lot, dickheads.

So there we are, trying to placate the students, who by now have noticed that strangely, none of them seem to have gotten any incorrect submissions, and the regional coordinator, who wants to know what the hell is going on and why does our region have so many of the "best" teams in the region. And we're trying to re-run every single submission to make sure that this time, they're all right.

Every time we saw another one come up incorrect it was like getting stuck with a dagger, because that team then totally stopped working on that problem (thinking they had it), but of course really couldn't get credit for it. Especially grim were the "presentation errors", where the logic was basically 100% correct, but they had too many spaces or a misspelled word---technically wrong, but easy to fix, and they hadn't fixed it because they thought it was right.

By about 6:30, I was physically sick to my stomach, both from lack of food (thank goodness I'd eaten a cookie just before the final rush) and from the stress of the whole situation, since I'd basically taken charge and become point man for the whole re-evaluation operation. Fortunately, I had two people behind me, one checking my results and one writing them down, and almost everyone else knowing not to bother me with things I didn't care about or couldn't help. Finally we completed the audit, updated all the local scores, and sent them off to the regional.

In the final tally, excepting the last desperate fifteen submissions from the last twenty minutes or so (all wrong), there had turned out to be only about eight judging errors, reasonably spread out among all the teams. Unfortunately, the errors of the two top teams (one from UIUC, one from Rose-Hulman) were both of the "presentation error" variety; while logic errors have no guarantee of ever being caught, it's pretty clear that those teams would have been able to correct those problems.

At about this point, having mailed off the results and awaiting a response from the regional, I went out and got some slices of the Papa Del's that was slowly getting cold out in the atrium. Lots of questions from the students (who still hadn't quite figured out what happened), all met with "no comment"s from me. I brought the food back to the judges' room and was immediately sat down to send off a detailed narrative of what happened and what went wrong (purportedly because I'm a "linguist", though it's not clear to me why that was more relevant than the fact that I discovered and belatedly solved the problem). This I did, and most of the judges went off to explain what happen and at least award ribbons for the intra-site post-correction results.

After I sent off the email, I went out there, but they were wrapping up so I returned and sent off a brief clarification. One team came in to ask what they'd done wrong, so I re-ran their problem (it turns out they'd terminated early on a short input). I'm not sure exactly what the coordinators told the students about what happened, but every one of them were really conciliatory and "ok, I'm not going to dispute that, I was just curious!". Nobody was pissed off, which was gratifying, because they had pretty much every right to be.

The final response from the regional was that the post-correction results had to stand as-is. Even after losing one problem, UIUC's A team still ended up in second place in the whole region, because they're just that cool, and so they'll probably still go to worlds (in Shanghai!). Rose-Hulman's A team (numbered "Two" for reasons not worth elabourating) ended up sixth in the final placing, but as I mentioned earlier, one of their errors was of a variety that was dead easy to correct, and indeed fairly easy to accidentally judge as correct. This would have put them at the top of the regional rankings. Hopefully they'll be able to get a wild-card slot out of this (isn't this sort of thing what wild-cards are for, after all?), but the initial response from the regional was that if our region got allotted a wild-card it would go to the team that placed third in the region, not to Rose-Hulman. Which would suck.

Knox, for its part, made an excellent showing. One of our teams solved four of seven problems and placed 24th in the region, about the same as last year, and the highest-placing liberal arts college. Our other team solved three and placed 40th, also comparable to last year's performance, and quite a good showing. Cheers to our six competitors for their hard work!

So, that was my day. It was a long day. It seems clear that at least one and possibly all three of us here at Knox should become experts on the setup, configuration, and administration of PC2 sometime before next year's ACM contest. And I found myself seriously wondering if there would be any way I could leverage a position as site coordinator for next year, but at UIUC. Or maybe we could host one at Knox; the Cat Lab should hold eight teams pretty easily.

"Liberals once lost elections for supporting civil rights as well and now look back on those losses as badges of honor. Eventually, since young people are far more tolerant of homosexuality than their parents, gay marriage will stop hurting Democrats at the polls." --Peter Beinart

Posted by blahedo at 11:25pm | Comments (1)

5 Nov 2004

Framing the debate

Over the past several years, I have witnessed a slow-growing realisation among liberals and progressives that much of the gains the neo-cons have made can be directly traced to the terminology they introduced into the national debate. By "framing" the issues in such a way that certain things are presupposed, they win the debate before it even starts. For instance, by grabbing the term "pro-life", people trying to make abortion illegal assert that everyone else is "anti-life", and by letting them do that, the pro-choicers concede the point. It also helps to conceal the fact that there are a lot of other life-related issues that many anti-choice activists do much worse on. Another example is, as I've pointed out elsewhere, the stupid debate between whether homosexuality is genetic or a choice. It presupposes that homosexuality is bad, and that gay people are either choosing badly or just dealt a bad hand, and the debate is lost before it starts.

But that's all been slow in developing. What I've seen just in the last three days since the election, is the sudden realisation from many different sides that liberal and progressive causes need to specifically attack the assertion that the bigoted viewpoints are more moral. Not just "we ought to re-frame the abortion debate... somehow" but "we must cast it as morally wrong to deny a woman the choice that God Himself granted her". Not just "we ought to re-frame the marriage rights debate... somehow" but "we must cast it as morally wrong to deny life partners the right to visit each other in the hospital".

Seriously, I'm seeing this on nearly every liberal or progressive forum I read. It's almost completely out of the blue, and for its sudden prominence we can thank the fact that fifty million people demonstrated that they care more about things framed in moral terms than anything else---it became more important to deny two men the right to leave each other money in their wills than to fund our schools, keep people healthy, or stop killing people.

"It is WRONG to rule through fear. Not in some abstract or removed god-says sort of way, but rather in that visceral experiential way showing us again and again that the fruit of fear is tyranny." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 1:02pm | Comments (1)

One homework down

I just finished grading a homework. Between my two classes, I now have three homeworks and a project to grade. Should I write another homework for my cs141 kids? I should. They need the practice and the feedback. But for the whole feedback thing to work, I really need to get my ass in gear on grading them.

I definitely should have gotten a TA for this term. Maybe next time. (Definitely next year.)

Best Illuminati reference ever: "Maybe the Democrats will finally get some nutsack and realize you have to keep attacking the Gnomes to keep them from winning." --Joe Shidle

Posted by blahedo at 2:28am | Comments (0)

4 Nov 2004


I suppose I should feel bad for this, but I find a cute little twenty-pound dog tripping over one of his toys to be completely adorable. He looks so surprised!And you really don't see dogs trip that often, really. So it even has the added benefit of novelty.

"It doesn't outrage me that roughly half of you disagree. But it does outrage me to hear my position disparaged as capitulation to terror, sympathy for Osama bin Laden, soft-headedness or a shallow desire to advance domestic liberal social programs no matter what the risks." --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 7:05pm | Comments (0)

3 Nov 2004


In the next four years...

  • Republicans float a proposal for the repeal of the 22nd amendment---term limits. No prediction on the outcome.
  • The US will unilaterally invade Iran.
  • The US make no progress with North Korea.
  • Democrats and independent pollwatchers find credible evidence of voter fraud in at least one location that would have brought one state back into play. It is dismissed as sour grapes and no consequences result.
  • Nothing further is heard about anti-gay legislation until Spring of '06 or possibly Spring of '08, then an amendment to restrict marriage rights is again floated, primarily to embarrass Democrats.
  • 5,000 American dead in Iraq, 2,000 in Iran. US Military base established in eastern Kurdistan.
  • Military draft is formally proposed, but rejected; bases worldwide are dismantled to support Middle East campaign.
  • International reputation of the US continues to sour; EU begins drafting proposal to maintain coordinated troops to reduce US/NATO reliance.
  • FTAA is established. Jobs begin to bypass Mexico and go straight to El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Central American nations.
  • No significant Democrat power players come from New England or the West Coast.

I really hope not a single one of them comes true.

"When I was an altar boy, the most coveted job was to be "thurifer," or incense hassler. This job was great because you got to light the charcoal in the thurible (incense burner) before the service, which gave my natural desire to play with matches a religious significance that I still feel when lighting coals in the Weber." --Cecil Adams

Posted by blahedo at 4:18pm | Comments (1)

Where to from here?

The final gap in Ohio between Kerry and Bush will probably be somewhat narrower than its current 135K, but it certainly appears that the advantage will remain to Bush.

But it bothers me, as it has always bothered me, that if Kerry concedes then a lot of votes will never be counted. Just how many of the provisional ballots will turn out to have been valid? What about all the military ballots that haven't even arrived yet, that 90% of the commentators don't even seem to be aware of?

Both of these numbers can tell us a great deal. If the provisional ballots break strongly for Kerry (even if they don't bridge the gap!), then we have to ask a lot of hard questions about why so many more Kerry voters than Bush voters were nearly disenfranchised. And then we have to ask how many people who could have requested a provisional were not aware of that opportunity or were discouraged from taking it (as I have heard anecdotal evidence of in Illinois).

If the military ballots break strongly for Kerry, then it tells us a lot about how the soldiers on the ground feel about the way the war is being run.

On the other hand, even if it were to turn out that Ohio went to Kerry, or anything else that eventually turned the election to Kerry, there's a really big problem we need to address: by all accounts, half this country voted for someone who approves of the death penalty and torture, who has prosecuted a war under false pretences and continues to intentionally mislead the American people as to its rationale, who has converted a stable national surplus to the largest deficits ever, and who has explicitly and repeatedly told the whole rest of the world to kiss off (except when they're providing cheap offshore labour to increase CEO profits and steal jobs). And who pushes a national security agenda which, while still far from anything truly fascist, bears enough similarities to the authoritarian states of the last century to give one pause for thought.

Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, we need to think long and hard about why an awful lot of people are demanding to be ruled very badly.

"If it were up to me, Riffany, I would have liked to see it end in compulsory couples ballroom. You expect blood in sudden-death armorball, but it's so much more vivid when it's dealt during a foxtrot." --Schlock Mercenary, Howard Tayler

Posted by blahedo at 7:52am | Comments (0)

1 Nov 2004

The duty to vote

Much has been made lately about the citizen's duty to vote. Or rather, there's been a lot of encouragement for people to vote, with no reference whatsoever to any sort of duty. This is unfortunate.

In response to these, there's been a bit of a backlash against the "just go vote" type of campaigns; specifically, a lot of people are irritated that people are being encouraged to vote even if they're uninformed. This backlash has on occasion (not as part of any widespread campaign) gone so far as to say that those who aren't well-informed about the issues should not vote. This is also unfortunate.

As I see it, citizens of a democratic government have two very important duties: to inform themselves, and to vote. Crucially, though, I do not link these two; the duty to vote is no less present if one is uninformed, and failing to learn about the issues does not let you off the hook for voting.

The reason I carefully formulate it in this way is that we have no test for whether people are actually informed. Nor should we, of course, as there is no feasible means for such a test, and it would instantly devolve into a poll tax/literacy test situation anyway. But because there is no such test, a lot of uninformed people end up going out to vote. And I would posit that anyone who is conscientious enough to have the thought---even in passing---that "perhaps I'm not sufficiently well-informed to cast a vote", they are already better informed and more thoughtful than at least a third of the population, and at least ten percent (at a bare minimum) of actual voters.

At the same time, this knowledge that they need to vote whether they're informed or not should not decrease the relevance of informing themselves. And if an uninformed person goes and votes, that just means they have neglected one duty rather than two. For democracy to work, its populace needs to work at understanding the issues and electing representatives that actually represent rather than just having pretty campaign literature.

But for the love of God, don't stay home just because you wish you were better informed. Learn what you can from places like vote-smart.org, go vote, and just try to do a little better next time.

"My impression is that just about every damn thing you can think of makes the baby Jesus cry. The little wanker should grow some thicker skin already." --Chris Sedlack

Posted by blahedo at 11:50pm | Comments (1)