26 Dec 2004

Recommended bookmarks

I recently purged my regular-reading bookmarks of stuff that I don't really care if I miss, and added a few that I have been occasionally checking by hand. To celebrate, I figured I'd post the list here, of course.

Daily comics

Little Dee
is a comic about a little girl being raised by a bear, with assistance from a dog and a vulture (who knits). By Chris Baldwin, who also writes Bruno, which remains fairly well written but has gotten so dreary and depressing that I just can't keep it in my list. Dee is much more lighthearted. (No Sundays)
Doonesbury
is Doonesbury. Classic.
For Better or For Worse
is also pretty classic. It always manages to stay pretty topical.
Get Fuzzy
is one of the cleverest, funniest new comics of the last ten years. Often sneaks in political humour under the radar.
Frazz
is a comic about a college-educated guy (obviously a liberal arts college, I think) who chooses to work as the janitor at an elementary school. He has a lock on what's important in life, and hasn't suppressed his inner child; this makes him an excellent role model for the kids, who for their part seem to think he's pretty cool.
Sluggy Freelance
is one of the oldest web comics, still going strong. Now is probably a good time to jump in if you've never read it before; it just came to the end of a months-long story arc, and will probably have a lot of recapping in the near future.

Comics Twice or Thrice Weekly

Venus Envy
is a well-written if not very well-drawn comic about a high-school-age transsexual named Zo. (Supposedly MWF, though the updates are irregular.)
PhD
was a lot funnier when I was actually still a grad student, but it's still cute. (Irregularly updated.)
The Order of the Stick
is absolutely a must-read if you've ever played D&D. Start from the beginning; it won't take too long. (MTh.)
Penny Arcade
is for all the console gamers out there. The guys that write this spend all their time playing video games, except for the time they spend writing PA, which is good enough that it supports them, which frees them up to play video games. Nice life if you can get it. (MWF.)

Columns

Miss Manners
is much-maligned, but she's quite funny and clever, and very nearly always right. (Wednesdays and Sundays.)
Molly Ivins
is a liberal columnist that has her head screwed on right about a lot of things, including a lot of things high honcho Democrats are idiots about. (Irregular, but usually at least once a week.)
Burt Constable
is my connection to Chicago's northwest suburbs. Always a pleasant read. (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.)
Eric Zorn
writes an excellent column for the Tribune. (Tuesdays and Thursdays, usually.)
The Straight Dope
is written for the Reader by the all-knowing Cecil Adams. The message boards are good, too. (New columns on Fridays; classics and staff reports other weekdays.)

Blogs

Eric Zorn
, the aforementioned columnist for the Trib, writes a great blog with stuff that he doesn't have room for in his column, followups to old columns, and assorted other items of interest. (Weekdays.)
A Partially Examined Life
is by Mike Kimmitt, a grad student in econ at U Hawaiʻi and a friend of mine since my IMSA days. Politically oriented.
One Good Thing
is written by Leigh Anne Wilson, a denizen of Suburban Heck and mother of two who with her husband owns and operates a sex toy shop on Chicago's North Side. Her writing is incredible.
Kathy
is my sister. She doesn't post very often, and her blog is probably of less interest to the general public than the others I read.
Confessions of a Recovering Choir Director
includes a lot of listings of the exact musical content of various Masses this guy attends, but when he posts actual commentary it's pretty interesting.
Nathan's Notebook
is written by Nathan Bierma, who writes "On Language" for the Trib. Lots of assorted observations of interesting linguistic productions.
Language Log
is in the same vein, but with contributions from a dazzling assortment of linguistics professors from around the world.
Naked Translations
is a blog in French about the process of translation. When I'm too tired and want to cheat, I jump over to the English translation.

"Lack of confusion isn't one of the services offered by the CNS." --Kevin Price

Posted by blahedo at 11:59pm | Comments (2)

25 Dec 2004

Merry Christmas!

Frohe Weihnacht, Joyeux Nol, Mele Kalikimaka, etc, etc. Whether you're officially celebrating Christmas or not, I hope you're having fun and going to lots of seasonal parties. :)

"Now there is a VITAL need for parents to Raise Their Fucking Kids. GTA should NOT be used by kids unsupervised. Parents whose kids want to play GTA because all their friends do should have a talk with their kids about violence." --Zach Miller

Posted by blahedo at 3:47am | Comments (0)

23 Dec 2004

Oddments

I haven't been blogging much lately, so I suppose an update is in order.

First of all, I'm in Palatine now. I have been from last Friday night, and I'm heading out next Wednesday or Thursday. Not for Galesburg, but for the mega-party I go to in Urbana every New Year's. (Is it one big party or lots of little ones? A true philosophical conundrum.) Which will be made interesting this year by my attempt to bring my dog. We'll see how it goes.

Meanwhile I'm schlumping around my parents' house, mostly. I still have some Christmas shopping to do; I haven't really done much at all, to be honest. I'm hoping to actually shop at stores in downtown Palatine or perhaps some of the other suburban downtowns; malls are for my shopping of last resort these days.

My blog has been blissfully spam-free for a week now. Ahhhhh. I'm so glad I had the brainstorm that made me write BotBlock. Once again, if you have any troubles, let me know.

I've been catching up on some of my net reading (not that I ever really fell behind). Once again I'm impressed with Joel Spolsky of Joel On Software; he's not always right, but he writes so well that it doesn't matter. If you have any connection to software, as a programmer, a manager, or just an interested observer, you really ought to read some of his stuff.

I finally finished Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, which I'd bought when I was in Providence and had been working on, on and off, ever since. It's a great book; the author plunked herself down in a city with about $1,000 startup money and determined to support herself through "unskilled" labour for a month. And then she did it again, and again, each time in a different city. If the book has a single thesis, it would be that the notion that poverty results from unemployment is pure myth; even working more than full time at quite a bit more than minimum wage, bare subsistence is an iffy prospect, and the existence is not one I'd gladly call human. Why do we let this happen? But I can't adequately summarise in a paragraph; y'all should go read the book and see for yourself.

Finally, somehow, tonight, I've managed to get some work done. I now have most of a syllabus for my smorgasbord class next term, which I'm seriously thinking of just renaming "Some Stuff Every Computer Scientist Should Know", which is both more accurate and less distasteful than the bland "Information and Knowledge Management". The current name makes it sound like some sort of business class. Uchhh. Anyway, at least I now have content!

"There's a real strong tendency to assume that experiments done on large populations of people should work out just like experiments done with chemicals in a high school lab, but everyone that has ever tried to do experiments on people knows that you get wildly variable results that just aren't repeatable and the only way you can be confident in your results is to carefully avoid ever doing the same experiment twice." --Joel Spolsky

Posted by blahedo at 3:22am | Comments (3)

22 Dec 2004

Phantom (again)

It's not that long ago that I first saw The Phantom of the Opera onstage, and today I just caught the movie version. The trailers seemed really promising; a show with such spectacle ought to have been a great fit for a silver screen adaptation. It was disappointing.

Not everything was bad, of course. The black-and-white 1919 scenes, and the transformation of the opera house as we slip into the story, were great. A few added scenes here and there fill in the blanks of the story in a very welcome way. Some of the sets and costumes were quite nice. (A few of the scenes seemed designed to showcase their extensive set of the backstage of the Opra Populaire; a minor transgression, and those sets really were excellent.) Most of the minor parts were well done---I quite liked Madame Giry---and Minnie Driver's Carlotta was fabulously diva.

But the central, focal character, Christine Daa, just wasn't up to snuff, and the rest of the movie couldn't hold together without her. Christine is not an inherently unlikable character---quite the contrary---but I can't remember seeing a show with such a thoroughly dislikable leading lady. Emmy Rossum's entire claim to "acting" in this show was to put on an utterly vacant expression and let her mouth hang open. Entranced, I'm told, but I wasn't convinced. It's clear that she was cast for her voice alone.

And while I'm on the topic of voice, let's talk about the sound. For the love of God, if you're going to make a movie musical, you should at least make the tiniest effort at making the music sync up with the lips! In every single scene with singing, it was painfully obvious that the soundtrack was dubbed in; not just an occasional, forgivable flub, but a constant failure to line up audio with visual. Even less attention was paid (if that's possible) to synching the motions of the conductor and orchestra with the soundtrack. This proved a constant distraction throughout the movie.

Nor were the errors limited to the audiovisual. The show was rife with continuity and realism errors. Nothing so subtle as a glass of water with changing water levels, either. In the late scenes of the film, Raoul gets cut by the Phantom in a swordfight, and when we see him days later (or at least many hours later) his sleeve is still bloody. He got all dressed up in his finery for the opera, and wore a slashed, blood-caked shirt? Or how about when the insipid Christine glides out of her dormitory in her nightgown, but arrives at the cemetery in a black velvet gown? Which, by the way, exposes at least a square foot of cleavage, which given the snow on the ground would have to be pretty damn cold. Of course, the snow was just one step this side of potato flakes, no realism at all; even in the earlier scene where the snow was falling, it looked bizarre and fake, sticking to their hands and faces until it blew away. Generally, the characters were not very aware of their surroundings; aside from the snow problems, all of the characters breezed right past the ubiquitous gas-flame lights with nary a care that their huge flowing costumes would catch fire. (Really makes you understand why every other building before 1900 seems to have been destroyed in fire, though; it's everywhere.) Meg Giry, who I otherwise liked, is shown at one point traipsing through a dank stone corridor in her toe shoes, walking right through the puddles on the floor. Ruining the shoes. You'd think that even if her curiosity drove her onward, she'd at least steer around the open water.

Plot believability I'm not going to bother to address here, both because it was basically inherited from the stage play and because there isn't really very much plot to believe in the first place. It is, as my dad points out, all about the music; I'd add that it's about the relationships as well, and that's where most of the failure comes in. Raoul was fine and the Phantom was believable if not as sympathetic a character as he's supposed to be. But even knowing the story, it was hard to see where Christine was at any given point. Entranced by the Phantom? Vacant mouth-breathing. In love with Raoul? Vacant mouth-breathing. Pitying the Phantom but wanting to run away with Raoul? Vacant mouth-breathing. You can see my problem here.

Which is not to say that you will necessarily dislike it. Mom, Dad, and Kathy all really liked it, although they at least shared some of my individual complaints. But it's at least an adequate adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical drama about the creepy violent stalker and his brainwashed victim. If you close your eyes and just listen to the music, it's even pretty good!

"The answer is really complicated. I'm going to start with a little economic theory, then I'm going to tear the theory to bits, and when I'm finished, you'll know a lot more about pricing and you still won't know how much to charge for your software, but that's just the nature of pricing." --Joel Spolsky

Posted by blahedo at 5:41pm | Comments (1)

16 Dec 2004

Darkness

I'm glad that sunset is getting later again. This darkness is positively hebridean; it's only 7:15 and it's already been dark for over two hours. It feels like about ten. Ugh.

"There are no stupid ideas. Well, there are; I don't know why people say that. But give it a whirl!" --Leo, West Wing

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

11 Dec 2004

Foul, evil spam

My spam count had gotten up to around two thousand per week (!), and I decided I needed to do something about it. Although the spam never made it to the outside world (well, usually), I still had to go through and scan it for false positives, which were frequent. For two thousand spam, this can take a while.

Several blogs (e.g. A Partially Examined Life) have taken the tactic of posting a (generated) graphic of numerals, which the user needs to type in. Which blocks bots, blind people, and lynx users. And the bots seem to be getting smarter. So I was reluctant to go that route, although I was ready to give in and install such a plugin anyway.

Then it occurred to me. Duh! What's one of the things that is most difficult for computers? Language understanding. As I should well know. What I needed to do was write something kind of like the graphical "only a human could do this" bot blockers, but instead take a random number and wrap it up into a question. Something easy for humans to process, like "adding one" or "even or odd", but couched in a textual question that would be tricky for bots to understand (and easy to rephrase if someone just hard-codes it).

Voil BotBlock. It is currently installed on this blog and available for download. Let me know if you have any problems with it. (And especially let me know if you have trouble posting comments as a result of it!)

UPDATE: I changed the link to go to a page about BotBlock, rather than be a direct download.

And the Lord said unto them, "Thou shalt not exceed the speed of Light." And the people did leap and flap their arms, and did run about in circles, and did race though the desert in chariots, yea, even until the wheels did fall off. Yet none could move more swiftly than the Light, and so did the people obey the Lord's command.

Posted by blahedo at 11:46pm | Comments (20)

10 Dec 2004

Superman

I just saw Superman for the first time. You know what? It's really awful. Most of it is seriously B-movie, except less funny. Marlon Brando? Bad. As ever. You can't understand a damn thing that man says, and he only has one emotion he can display---"I'm emoting!"---which is always on.

If you feel you simply must watch this movie, at least do yourself a favour and skip the first hour. The production values are somewhere south of Doctor Who, the dialogue wishes it were even as good as anything William Shatner ever uttered, and the plot goes nowhere that is even remotely relevant to the rest of the movie.

Once we get to Kansas (or "Ruralstate" or whatever), things pick up, although not by much. Toddler Superman gets picked up by a childless middle-aged couple and quickly ages into a teenager who bears a startling resemblance to Sigourney Weaver. There are a few Important Character-Developing Scenes, then Clark's dad dies---from a heart attack, as carefully foreshadowed just five minutes earlier---and Clark sets off for the North Pole, where he throws a mysterious green piece of Kryptonite off into the distance, where it suddenly grows into a huge Krypton-style palace with a floating ice-sculpture head of Marlon Brando, who gives Clark a blue spandex unitard and red underwear and teaches him how to fly.

On and on the movie goes, fluctuating between mediocre and look-at-your-watch dreadful. The scenes with Lex Luthor and his lovely subterranean train station set were generally the best of the lot, although the scene where he logically deduces that a particular meteorite in Addis Abbaba is Kryptonite and therefore lethal to Superman is probably best forgotten.

Finally, we get to the big Superman-saves-the-world-well-at-least-the-country climax. Now, superhero movies are all fine and good, and I'm perfectly happy with the idea of a superhero doing, y'know, superhuman things. But flying all the way across the country in seconds, and then taking like five minutes to actually catch a speeding rocket? Stopping an earthquake by "closing" the fault line? WTF? And come on, a burst dam is going to take a bit more than a few rocks to stop, and if you do it's going to form something a damn sight bigger than a small pond!

And finally, when a voiceover reminded him of his father (John Kent, not that other guy)'s words "you were put here for a reason", well obviously that would inspire him to fly high speed and reverse time. I don't know why I didn't see it myself.

Weak opening, weak plot, weak characters, shitty dialogue, irritating climax, and non-existent ending. This movie does not deserve its excellent soundtrack. What a waste of $2 and two and a half hours.

"Welcome to Illinois: We may not get the worst weather in the world, but we come in second, in every category." --Sam Walker

Posted by blahedo at 10:06pm | Comments (2)

6 Dec 2004

More news on the voting front

Apparently someone's just blown the whistle on an actual vote fraud operation commissioned in 2000 and put in place for the vote this year in southern Florida. The details, if true, are pretty damning; vote fraud, murder, espionage... It's basically confirmation of exactly what we were fearing would happen. I hope it's not true, but the posted affidavit is sworn under penalty of perjury, etc, etc, and the FBI is now investigating.

Thanks to Lee for the heads-up.

"A God who can harness the laws of randomness and chaos, and create beauty and wonder and all of these marvelous structures, is a lot more creative than fundamentalists give him credit for." --Richard Colling

Posted by blahedo at 9:12pm | Comments (0)

4 Dec 2004

Andru Bemis

I saw a guy named Andru Bemis perform last night at Innkeepers (and then some more after we retired to Bill and Lisa Stephens' house). He's pretty cool. He has a folky sort of sound that I mostly associate with the crowd that plays at Zach Miller's New Year's Eve events, although I don't ever remember there being a banjo chez Zach. Having released his second album "Singer" (which has in the liner notes a picture of the Singer sewing machine store in downtown Galesburg, though he had never been here before), he is now crisscrossing the country by train.

The most interesting thing about his sound (to me) was the way his singing was musical but not that tightly tied to the playing. That is, the stuff he was singing obviously could be set to the exact rhythm and melody of the music being played, and it mostly was. But without abandoning musicality entirely, Bemis frequently diverged to fit the rhythm of the words and letting the guitar or banjo carry the tune. It's hard to describe it without making it sound like some William-Shatner-esque spoken-word performance, but that's not what it felt like at all. Guess you'll have to just look him up and give him a listen yourself. :)

"This was part of the aesthetic of the early seventies in which folk art was judged by its resemblance to marijuana buds and/or bongs. Macrame looked like both, and was smiled upon." --Lore Fitzgerald Sjberg

Posted by blahedo at 12:23pm | Comments (0)

3 Dec 2004

Momentous occasion

I have finally and at long last actually moved to Galesburg. You might think that I did that a year and a half ago, but no; that was just a sham. I was really still living in Providence, as was immediately obvious if only you looked at my phone number. That's why nobody believed me when I told them my number, since I appeared to live in Galesburg, a status that would be clearly impossible if my phone number actually began with area code 401.

But no longer. Having finally moved to Galesburg, I now have a Galesburg-local phone number: 335-6004. You know it's local because I don't write the area code, see?

"That's because you don't have the Sekrit Literally-True Internally-Consistent Bigotted Bible you can only buy at evangelical churches and bookstores. "Thou shalt not be gay" appears in place of "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor," because that one was crampin' the fundies' style." --Chris Tessone

Posted by blahedo at 4:58pm | Comments (0)

2 Dec 2004

Another day passes

I finished grading the cs141 exam, which is certainly a load off. And then tonight I finished decorating my tree and put up lights in the window. Let's hear it for Christmas decorations!

In other news, I read this article, which was somewhat reassuring after the latest video out of Iraq, and this article, which is a rather alarming example of the sort of corporate censorship we'll see more of as the communications industry further concentrates into just a few corporations. But the highlight of today's reading was this image of Google News picking up a satire site's article "Canadians Authorities Arrest US President Bush On War Charges" (!) before Google operators intervened to remove it. Whoops!

Oh, and if you haven't seen it, watch the Return of the King Extended Cut trailer. Pretty!

"I'm assuming you were just being pithy, and don't actually intend to attempt to back this up." --Mike Peil

Posted by blahedo at 9:29pm | Comments (0)

1 Dec 2004

Alexander

Last Friday, while my car was in the shop, my family went to see Alexander. It was---and I realise I've been using this word a lot lately---epic. Showing the life and death of Alexander the Great requires nothing less.

The big battle, the Greeks under Alexander vs the Persians under Darios, was certainly the action climax of the movie, big and somewhat confusing (like war ever isn't?). But as they moved to the different parts of the action, the "location" bar in the lower left actually said "Macedonian Left" and so on, helping you keep track of what's going on. Generally this caption popped up as the action moved around the world as well (and occasionally back and forth in time), which along with the narration by Ptolemy made the whole thing much easier to follow. I read a review that panned it for, among things, the fact that it would have been really hard to understand if it weren't for the narration. I'm not even sure that's true, but certainly, duh, they put the narration in there for a reason.

And then there was the character development. Every review I've seen or heard of has said that the movie makes a big deal about Alexander's bisexuality (and most of them pan it on that basis). What's most remarkable, though, is how little the movie makes of it. In the movie, Alexander is clearly gay, and participates in a lifetime bond with Hephaistion. Several references are made, by Ptolemy, Olympias, and others, that indicate the relationship was sexual. But the movie resisted the temptation to pander to the prurient crowd; and more importantly, resisted the idea that gay relationships are all about sex. I've seen a few online complain that they showed the straight sex but not the gay sex; and that's sort of true, but not really. There were two near-sex scenes. One is when Olympias is nearly raped by Philip, and the other is the knife fight between Alexander and Roxana. Both were vital to the plot and character development, and the actual sex is behind the scenes.

Which, I think, is just fine. The prurient among us are perfectly capable of connecting the dots---filling in the blanks, as it were---and the way most shows show all that sex onscreen these days is just crass. It was really interesting seeing this movie just a week after seeing Gone With the Wind for the first time; both epics following characters through the ravages of large-scale battle and war. And both left a considerable amount to the imagination. Less so in Alexander, of course; the sex and the violence were quite a bit more than you'd've seen in 1939. But both movies got considerable mileage out of not showing a lot of things.

"What many straight people don't understand is that for most of us, our lives are as horribly boring as theirs are. The really nice perk, though, is that we have more money for vacations." --Brian Quinby

Posted by blahedo at 11:26pm | Comments (2)

Christmas break begins

Since Nutmeg is vacationing at my parents' house, I decided to take the opportunity to jaunt on down to Urbana for the afternoon.

I left a little after two, which got me to Needleworks with a half hour to spare before closing. I browsed a bit, grabbed some sock yarn that I probably didn't really need, and then spotted the perfect yarn for my next sweater. I bought out the dye lot (six 100g skeins) in a great colour of greyish blue (slightly bluer than "my blue" for those of you who know what that means), plus a couple skeins of a complementary off-white in case I figure out a tasteful way to throw them in (and if not, they'll make a good something else, I'm sure!).

From there, I drove over to Strawberry Fields, Urbana's well-stocked natural foods store, partially to kill time but also to get some stuff that Cornucopia here in Galesburg doesn't sell. That brought me up to about a quarter to 6, which is when I had agreed to meet Jonathan for dinner.

Mmmm, sushi.

After a couple hours of great sushi and even better conversation, I dropped Jonathan back off at home, and drove to the Illini Union, where a bunch of the IMSA-UIUC crowd often meets to go bowling. (I had unsuccessfully tried to join them a few weeks ago, but this time I was almost on time.) After a bit of confusion on finding them, I hooked into the group, we got our lanes, and I bowled for the first time in perhaps three years, and maybe only the fourth or so since I graduated from Quincy. So rusty! It was so bad that on my first ball, I literally lost the ball on my backswing, causing it to crash onto the wood floor. No damage, but how embarrassing! I then threw a gutterball and followed it with a lot of open frames. Finally, in the last few frames I started recovering my swing and finding my spots, and I pulled out a 98 with some last-minute spares. The second game went even better, breaking my average even in my heyday: I got a 163. Woo!

Then I drove back to Galesburg in a nasty little snowstorm. No real accumulation, but the flakes were falling fast and heavy. Visibility wasn't too bad as long as the wipers were working, but I kept getting accumulations of icy crud on the wipers that made them completely useless. I actually had to pull over twice to clean them off. Finally, about thirty miles past Normal the weather cleared, and the rest was smooth sailing, bringing me into my driveway at about ten minutes past midnight.

"It becomes a faith, not an ideology, when it grows over a lifetime. Because there will be times when you disagree completely with the tenets of Christianity, doubting everything, and yet deep down, you'll still feel Christian. That wouldn't happen to a convert." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 1:33am | Comments (0)