27 Feb 2006


It's said that when you attend a ballroom competition, the only reliable thing about the judging is that the best six couples make it to the finals. That is, whether you get knocked out in the semifinals or in the hexadecifinals (hey, I've been to some big comps), it just means you're not as good as the best six.

The corollary for a tournament like Dancing with the Stars is that only the final champ matters, and if so, I guess I agree with the judging. In the very, very final tally, I think the right person won. I just disagreed with a lot of the choices along the way (not always the judges' decisions, but the outcomes after audience voting). Specifically, I'd rank the competitors as follows:

My rankStarDwtS rank
10"Master P"7

Note in particular that with the exceptions of Drew and Tatum, all the women were better than all the men. Drew's push to first in my personal ranking was a very recent event, pretty much just in the last week; I feel that Stacy hit her limit, and while she was still very good, he pushed past her in the final surge for the finish line. Freaky Lips Lisa was easily the most improved of the whole lot, easily rounded out the top three, and would've given Drew and Stacy a run for their money if she'd made it to the finals. Tia and Giselle just got the shaft, plain and simple. They could both dance rings around any of the guys other than Drew. A combination of poor judging and lacking fanbase is what did them in. Jerry really did get a lot better over the course of the competition, and he really was very gentlemanly about the whole thing, so I didn't especially mind him making the semifinals, but he simply wasn't in the same league as the others. While the top five on my list had long since lost the characteristic newcomer look, if they'd had it at all, even on the very last day Jerry was still not straightening his legs, still sticking his neck out, still flinging his arms around, and all around looking like someone I'd expect to see in the Bronze-level events. George had had a promising start, but actually got worse over time; and his patter, initially funny, became obnoxious and annoying weeks before they finally got rid of him. Tatum may have just gotten unlucky at getting her "bad" dance early on, because her waltz looked fine. And Kenny's chief virtue is that he wasn't as totally horrible as "Master P". (Also, I liked his snarky comment at the end about the funny ranking system.)

So here we are at the end of another series. Based on the ratings its gotten (and that with 2½ hours a week dedicated to it), I think we can expect at least a few more. I wonder how long it will be—and who they'll get in the next batch. :)

Incidentally, someone gets a Best Targetted Advertising award for the two-minute commercial for Take the lead, sort of a Stand and deliver-meets-Shall we dance?-meets-Save the last dance starring Antonio Banderas (I mean, seriously, what's not to like?), which looks to be an excellent addition to the ballroom film canon.

"The nice thing about it being 12 degrees out is that having a space heater pointed at my bare feet is the most luxurious opulent sensually enjoyable thing I can imagine experiencing while I work on a boring porn site for money AND I AM DOING IT RIGHT NOW." --Zach Miller

Posted by blahedo at 12:40am | Comments (0)

24 Feb 2006

Further adventures in bad design

My car wouldn't start this morning.

Of course, it's my own fault, and I know exactly how it happened. But the incident has certainly highlighted a number of grave deficiencies in the design of the Mini.

The first, the proximate cause of the dead battery, has to do with the headlights. When you turn off the car, the headlights go off, and the running lights stay on; if you open the door, it will beep at you until you turn off the lights. The problem was, I wanted the headlights on so I could check something out (specifically, whether I had a flat tire). Remembering something I'd read about a different car, I tried turning them off and on again; no dice, still just the running lights. What I now realise in retrospect is that what did happen is that the warning signal stopped. And so when I'd finished looking at the tire, there was neither the bright lights of the headlights nor the warning beep from the dashboard to remind me to turn them off, and the car was left to slowly drain its battery out.

That was a few days ago. This morning, I was planning to drive because it was really windy, and I went to unlock the door remotely as usual, but nothing happened. I unlocked the door manually, knowing what I would find, and sure enough, nothing. But then, when I went to close the car, I couldn't press down the lock on the door—this is a "convenience" feature I've complained about before, ostensibly to prevent you locking your keys in the car. The problem was, the remote wouldn't work. It finally occurred to me to close the door and use the key to lock it, something I've never seen done anywhere before; I'm glad I thought of it or my car would still be unlocked.

This evening, I got home and went to investigate further. All was well until I tried to remember if I had jumper cables in the trunk. See, the trunk is unlocked either from the key fob or the power locks in front, but of course neither was working. And there is no keyhole on the hatch! There is also no way to flip down the back seats from the front, nor a way to pull out the ledge atop the trunk unless the hatch is open. Which means that if your battery is dead, there is no actual way to open the trunk to get at your jumper cables. Brilliant!

With a little work, I bent the black plastic ledge enough to get my hand between it and the seat to reach the seat levers (down in the middle of the back of the seat, of course), and so I was finally able to get into the trunk, where I discovered that even once I was into the trunk, there was no way to open it from the inside either. I thought that was a requirement on newer cars, that anyone trapped in the trunk could open it from the inside, but if it is it's one that Mini flouted. So, already perched in a funny position, I had to unload the stuff in the trunk through the rest of the car in order to get at the kit under the trunk floor.

No jumpers there, alas. So I'll have to buy some tomorrow, I guess; I'll just get whoever's giving me a jump to drive me to get cables first. :) It's a good thing one of the panes of the garage window is busted, because otherwise I'd have a devil of a time getting the other car close enough to the front of my car. Good thing the weather's nice and I can ride my bike, though.

"If we're going to do the Star Wars analogy, the Democrats are, at best, Ewoks." --Jon Stewart

Posted by blahedo at 7:12pm | Comments (2)

18 Feb 2006

As you like it


This term's mainstage was a really clever reinterpretation of As you like it in 1960s Berkeley (or at least, in that mythical 1960s Berkeley that is now part of the American story). As director Liz Carlin-Metz put it, this sort of re-setting of Shakespeare lets you "double your pleasure, double your fun"—rather than having to slowly learn the characters and the backstory through only the text, with pretty but unhelpful period costume, putting it in a different milieu gives you a lot of that for free. You might never have heard of the Forest of Arden before, but see it filled with a bunch of tie-dyed hippies, and a whole truckload of cultural connotations snap to mind with nary a word spoken.

There was so much to like about this production. The cast dynamic was convincing, a true ensemble; the text itself very, very funny and the director and cast skilled enough to bring out the best in it; individual actors with a clear character that tells you what the text doesn't; and everywhere a plethora of little things going on off to the side that add to the overall scene.

The music was an unexpected change from the usual, if there can be said to be a "usual" for Harbach productions. Set up far downstage right was a drumset and amp for a band, which by the time I got there was already playing some Beatles classics (and dressed in the black-and-white Old Beatles uniforms) that had much of the audience dancing. During the show they accompanied the songs (60s-rock-style accompaniment by Adam Prairie, lyrics by William Shakespeare) and during the intermission they returned to rock standards by the Beatles and the Who. They were a key element in making the Berkeley setting work, and Adam should totally publish his music for other troupes who want to do this kind of setting for the show.


(And yes, I noticed the gold lamé boxer shorts. Check.)

I think the award for best actor in this particular show has to go to Morgan Cohen-Ross, who played a Celia with such casual elegance that she stole nearly every scene she was in, and yet her airiness and sense of entitlement didn't extend to an uncaringess or sense of superiority that would have made the character an unsympathetic one. Put her in a gathered hippie dress and she blends (elegantly) right into the commune. But mixing a martini on top of her luggage in the middle of the Forest of Arden? Priceless. It came out in the post-show Q&A that this is not a common reading of the character. Liz claimed it was all there in the text, but it's more than that; Morgan's reading of "Orlando." as a snarky mimic to Rosalind's shrieky, swoony "Orlando?", that was pure genius. And her melodramatic rendition of the bad love poetry, ending with a rhyming couplet that pairs "have" with an inevitable, unapologetic, and completely hilarious "slav(e)", that deserves an award of its own.

Matt Allis didn't (for some reason) strike me as the theatre type when I met him earlier this year in unrelated contexts, but I now realise that this is the third production I've seen him in (and I see from the program that he is indeed a Theatre major). And, theatre type or not, he did a great job. He took his lovestruck Orlando pining for Rosalind—which should by rights be a completely annoying character—and made him believable but funny and fun to watch.

In a similar vein, Supporting Actor props go to Nick Perry, who played such a pitiable Silvius that the whole audience couldn't help but go "awwwww" (well, the ones that weren't laughing, anyway) when he yet again reached for his hanky, lip quivering, and let out an anguished sob. Poor Silvius!

There are so many great lines in this show, even compared to other Shakespeare. "Ay, but the feet were lame and could not bear themselves without the verse and therefore stood lamely in the verse." Scansion humour! A lot of linguistic jokes, actually. "You ... show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest." That's a joke grenade right there—a measurable pause between the delivery of the line and the audience's laughter. When Rosalind talks about "Ethiope words, blacker in their effect than in their countenance," I had to make a note of it; I still can't decide whether it's really racist or not, but the turn of phrase is just too clever.

What more is there to say? The script is clever. The director's interpretation is clever. The ensemble has made their parts their own, and the play is very, very funny.

"For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can: you are not for all markets!" --William Shakespeare, "As you like it" (Rosalind)

Posted by blahedo at 12:56am | Comments (0)

17 Feb 2006

Hey, Johari me!

Everyone's doing it...

"He wants a patron saint. I think he should just whine to the Virgin Mary more." --Eric Stuckey

Posted by blahedo at 7:11pm | Comments (2)

"No it *wasn't* a proper tango, it was *Blondie*, for God's sakes!"

Well it's about damn time somebody said it. It has seemed completely incredible to me that with all of the high-powered ballroom types on live TV at DwtS, nobody ever pointed out that a lot of the music they play is not even remotely close to the right sort of music for the dance. We saw it especially with paso doble, but also with many other styles, tonight including Blondie's "One way or another" as a tango of all things. I've even wondered if they're deliberately sabotaging couples by giving them music that makes it virtually impossible that they could convey the "feel of the dance", something the judges often harp on and sometimes is legitimately not the dancers' faults.

So tonight when Len called Jerry on something not looking like a "proper tango", pro dancer Anna (who afaict is not supposed to talk while the judges are reviewing), interjects with, "No it wasn't a proper tango. It was Blondie, for God's sakes!" And I just started cheering, because, jeez, it's about damn time.

PS: Drew looked pretty good, but the dances of the evening were definitely Lisa's. She was the only one with hip action in the Latin, and Stacy was just downright wooden in face, hips, and legs in both dances. While I don't begrudge Jerry this trip to the semis, he's so clearly in a different league from the other three; I certainly hope that the mis-ranking of Lisa at 3rd doesn't cause her to get bumped out.

"'Temptation Island' ... 'frat boy' ... 'business major' ... 'sorority girl' These are the important keywords involved in this little bourgeois puzzle." --Matt Stanislawski

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

15 Feb 2006


I just went to take out the garbage and I about died just going down the stairs. We've had a light sleet/freezing rain mix and there is now a smooth 1/8" plate of ice on the ground. Even taking baby steps (after I realised the situation), I ended up skating all the way down my driveway and had to walk back up on the grass, which was fairly slick itself. Craziness. Hope it melts before I have to leave tomorrow morning....

"Oh, wait. You're in California, where they put their hands over their ears and go "lalala" when urban blight is mentioned. No wonder." --Pete McFerrin

Posted by blahedo at 11:53pm | Comments (1)

14 Feb 2006

On websites and usability

Like so many other colleges, Knox suffers from that common disease, crappywebsitis. While the front pages look very pretty, it's always hard to find what you're actually looking for, even if you're part of the "target audience", which is prospective students. Good luck finding a campus map, for instance. It's even worse if you're not in that group. We're in pre-registration season right now, so let's look at the spring course schedules... a minimum of four clicks away from the homepage, and that's if you know where to look.

Map the website over time and the situation gets even worse. The software they use assigns each page a helpful identifier like "x770" (that's for the Knox FAQ, obviously). Make a new page, and it'll get a new identifier. That makes it difficult to bookmark things like "current term course schedule", but it's even worse than that. You can bookmark something like this faculty page (at x2849), and march along happily until someone tells you to look for a link on "the faculty/staff page" that just isn't there. It turns out that it's on this other faculty page (x5875), which is what you get to now if you click "Faculty & Staff" on the main site.

Now here's the kicker: page 5875 has been the "current" faculty and staff page for more than two years now. There is no way to get to 2849 from the main page, as far as I know. But there is no indication on 2849 that it has been superseded by another page, or that page 5875 even exists. And there are things on 2849 that aren't on 5875, and it's easier to use. AND IT'S STILL BEING UPDATED! Look at the right-hand column: those are current events! It's actually a much better page. So I have them both bookmarked.

A big reason the new one is a much worse page is that it violates expectations about how webpages work. Consider this screenshot:

Bad, naughty webpage!
Say you wanted to go to the Registrar. You'd click on the word "Registrar", right? But no, that's just text. You need to click on the header ("ACADEMIC RESOURCES"). That pops up a separate window with a list of a dozen or so links in it, and when you click those links, they close that popup and follow the link in the original window. Broken, broken, broken.

The course schedules are a comparatively un-broken part of the website, once you've found them, and ignoring for a moment the fact that there is a little "TOP" graphic (what, I couldn't find the "home" button?) that manoeuvres itself into the left of the window as you scroll, carefully covering up the titles of the bottom several courses currently visible. The big problem here, though, is that it's just a flat list, and only marginally better than a printed-out copy. There's no easy way to search for "courses offered 6th hour", or "courses that meet the diversity requirement". And there's really no way to search for "courses that don't have any prerequisites", which is important when you're a freshman and have a somewhat limited set of courses available to you. (A lot of courses require "sophomore standing".)

So last year I asked the registrar if I could hook into the database and write my own front end. For security reasons I don't hook in directly, but I get a dump of the course database and process that into a variety of flat views—still not searchable (maybe this is a future project!), but at least you can scan through a list that's sorted in various ways. The resulting course schedules have proven very popular both with students and with faculty, and I've kept it up each term. Why are they so popular? Because they don't surprise you with weird interfaces, they don't do anything super-flashy and therefore work just fine even on the ancient machines some people still have running System 8 and Netscape -2 or whatever. And because they actually present information, which is what people are really seeking when they go onto the web, in a way that people can actually use it.

Graphic designers take note: if you're ever called upon to design a website, make sure to take into account a lot more than just the look of the thing.

"Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted, but getting what you have, which, once you have got it, you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known." --Garrison Keillor

Posted by blahedo at 2:50pm | Comments (1)

13 Feb 2006

Ok, new plan

I've been saying for a while that the plan was to pull up the existing vinyl tile in my kitchen, which is in terrible condition, and replace it with nice new linoleum (by which I mean real linoleum).

Tonight, my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I pulled up a couple squares of the old stuff to see what the floor underneath was like. And, underneath the tile and the backing board and the black sticky stuff and a layer of what appears to be card stock, is the exact same hardwood floors as in the rest of the house. With varnish on, even, although some of that's going to come off in the course of removing the floor above it. But, from what I can tell, it's in pretty good condition.

So, maybe linoleum in the future. But for now, even a badly-finished wood floor would be better than the awful crud that is there. So, new plan.

"How dare the government make a moral judgement over you? You're supposed to be doing that over the woman!" --Jason Jones, The Daily Show

Posted by blahedo at 3:22am | Comments (4)

12 Feb 2006

Brokeback Mountain

Finally saw it. Fantastic movie. I really can't think of anything to say that I haven't already seen in a million reviews, so I'll just say, go see it if you haven't already. Wow.

Ok, actually, I take it back. One of the things I found most compelling about the movie was how much was made clear without being made explicit. This Ang Lee guy is masterful; nothing was in there by accident. A flick of an eyebrow, the shadow of a grin, every "huh", none of it was left to chance. The payoff is rich, deep characters that you feel like you know much better than you should be able to in two hours, especially with as little as anyone said.

Also, this is a movie you really wish had been filmed in IMAX. The shots of Wyoming (which were really shots of Alberta, but who's counting) were gorgeous.

"Suppose you could insure everybody in the US today, right now---now and forever---but in exchange there would never be any more improvement in medical care at all.... Would you do it? ... For many people that is the crux of the matter. What I think is we're actually rich enough to do both. So stop your whining and raise taxes." --David Cutler

Posted by blahedo at 12:13am | Comments (1)

10 Feb 2006

The semifinal approacheth

Week 6 came and went, and George finally danced his last. I'm reasonably happy with how it turned out; while Jerry isn't fantastic and Tia really ought to be there instead, he has definitely shown considerable improvement over the course of the series. His paso doble was perfectly respectable, its chief fault being that it was danced against some seriously great competition. Meanwhile, I feel that George has actually gotten worse, or maybe it's just more apparent now that he just stood there and acted a part while Edyta danced circles around him (or, as Len put it, "flatulated around him", but that's probably not quite what he meant to say ;).

Over the last few weeks, I've found myself really rooting for Freaky Lips Lisa, though. Unlike Stacy, who was a total natural, Lisa has clearly gotten this good through a lot of hard work, and definitely gets the "most improved" award whether she wins the series or not. Contra the judges, I actually think Lisa's dance was the best of the week. Drew still has that shoulder problem (though it's much better now), and his tango wasn't nearly as sharp as Len claimed. Stacy's jive looked fantastic, but her knees were bent the entire time. But Lisa, arguably dancing the hardest dance of the three, managed to do a quickstep with poise and elegance, very well in synch with her partner. It's true that there was a misstep in the middle—I'm not arguing she deserved a 30—but I still thought it was better than the other two.

(See, this is the problem with grade inflation. Once you have people that consistently get 9s and 10s, it gets very hard to make fine distinctions between them. Since scores don't carry over from week to week, the judges should really just say "the first dance of the night is getting 5s from everyone, no matter how good they are, and then we'll curve it from there." I suppose that wouldn't be as exciting, though.)

With respect to tonight's performances, holy cow those kids were sharp. That last one—Maksim's brother?—did the most amazing triple spin ever, and I had to back up the TiVo to rewatch it about four times, the last time in slow motion. Wow. And the other performances were all impressive, too. This is so much better than the occasional ballroom championship special; thanks to the reality show format, we get 2½ hours a week of good-to-great-to-OMG-fantastic ballroom dancing. Here's hoping for a successful and long-running franchise!

"I'm a single woman with three cats---if she hangs out here much longer I'll get attached to her and keep her and will someday end up shuffling around with thirty-odd cats in a filthy, decrepit Victorian house, frightening the neighborhood children and likely being eaten when I expire. I'd like to prevent this." --Jill Moniz

Posted by blahedo at 11:24pm | Comments (1)

9 Feb 2006

On overreaction

It just seems so amazing how worked up the Muslim world is getting over these damn cartoons. Even after people draw analogies that really make you understand why someone would get irritated at such cartoons, even outraged, the level this is being taken to—burning embassies! killing people!—is just completely insane.

This week's episode of The Boondocks was a rerun. I don't remember its title, but its key feature is memorable: it describes "The Nigga Moment". After showing two black guys get into a gunfight over a face-saving argument that started after one accidentally bumped into the other (a quintessential "nigga moment", we're told), we get a scene to illustrate contrastively. A black guy bumps into a white guy, they both get briefly angry, but then the white guy breaks off, laughs, and says, "oh, that's right. I'm white!" And laughs all the way home.

This kind of brash caricature is ridiculous on its face, and thus perhaps easy to dismiss. But under the hood, it's a pretty profound bit of commentary: it's a suggestion that the real reason we sometimes see blacks fighting over seeming trivialities (and no reason to restrict it to blacks, of course; this seems perfectly applicable to gang violence in general) is as a direct result of their lack of power, their oppressed status. The bump of the shoulder is a trigger, a mere spark, that last straw of lacking control over one's life, that causes one to need to respond in a grossly exaggerated way. The "nigga moment" is, in this analysis, a last-ditch effort to exert some sliver of control over one's own existence. We don't see white people acting that way, because even the worst-off of them enjoy some level of privilege, simply for being white, even now; though they may not laugh it off with a casual "I'm white!", it's a lot easier to brush off a loss-of-control situation when you're in control of your life in so many larger ways.

I think that this may be the lens we need to use to view the Mohammed cartoon brouhaha. It's not from the comparatively well-off Muslim countries (like Egypt or UAE) that we're seeing the violence and insanity. (They're ticked off, of course, but I think we can spot them that much.) The places we see rioting and violence and destruction are the countries where the people are poor and oppressed. The people causing the destruction are not the merchants and businessmen. They are poor teenagers—and let's recall that the teens are an angsty and powerless time under the best of circumstances—in broken countries like Afghanistan and Palestine.

At this point, of course, there's nothing we can do but damage control. But if we are to solve the larger problems, and to prevent future idiocy of this variety, we need to first realise that people that are made to feel powerless are unstable and dangerous to themselves and everyone around them.

"The criticism sticks to every developed nation. Our wealth does not belong to us, and we have not acquired it through superior virtue or greater faith. We have our 10,000 talents because the king sets all of us free from our debt. Let's not demand from the developing world its 100 denarii. It isn't the Christian thing to do." --Chris Tessone

Posted by blahedo at 12:29am | Comments (1)

6 Feb 2006

That could have gone worse

How odd. About six this morning, I woke up with a slightly upset stomach, and as I lay there it got worse. I went over to the bathroom, because I was sure I'd have to throw up. But it was cold, so I grabbed a bucket and went back to bed. I coughed into the bucket a few times, and broke out into that sudden sweat that you get when you're throwing up. Then I felt slightly better and tried to go back a sleep. A few minutes later, I grabbed for the bucket again, and got to a dry heave or two, but then it passed and this time I was able to get back to sleep.

And now I feel fine. I wonder what that was all about.

"Unrelated anecdote: I was just washing my dishes and noticed with surprise that both my pots and my kettles are all silver. I wonder what they call each other and what they mean by it." --Zach Miller

Posted by blahedo at 10:34am | Comments (2)

4 Feb 2006

A mixed bag

Tonight I breezed into CFA at 7:29 to head to the latest Studio Theatre offering, and paused briefly to ask what it was they were setting up in Kresge. It was the Knox-Galesburg Trio, and the ticket-taker suggested I should go there instead of the studio shows—"the first one is really bad," they said, "although the second one's okay."

I don't know that I'd call it "really bad", but I did feel that Adolf Hitler: The Larry King Interview wasn't all it could have been. Written by Jon Stewart (yes, that one), it's about what you'd expect (and you can read most of it online). For whatever reason, the director cast both parts as female, and this was a poor choice. You could tell that the script was funny as they were performing it, but half the humour or more comes from the clash between a stiff, awkward, and deeply evil military man on the proverbial therapist's couch, breaking down and crying, etc. That tension just wasn't there. I had to keep reminding myself, "Oh, right, that's Hitler, that's why it's funny." To be fair, it's a tricky line to walk: if you were just handed these lines and told to act them out, you could do a perfectly adequate acting job that just wouldn't be funny. You have to first convince me you're Hitler, and then do the emotional stuff.

The second one was a real actors' show: The Actor's Nightmare takes the archetypal actor's nightmare—being placed on stage in a part you've never rehearsed and don't know any lines for—and runs with it. Since it is a dream/nightmare, normal rules don't apply and non sequiturs carry the day. It was a fun show, and funnier the more you knew about the different plays they were quoting snippets of. (And I'm sure I missed quite a lot of them, too.) The ensemble did a good job with the shifting, drifting characters they were playing, surreal in the way that only dreams can be. The lead, Chris Guthrie, was a lot more grounded (appropriate, since it was his dream), and although he had a tendency to get a bit shrill at times, he did "confused" and "frustrated" pretty well.* The whole cast got a bit shrill at the end; from about halfway in I could see this was going to be another show with an interesting premise and a fun exploration, but no ending to speak of. (I guess conclusions are hard even if you are a creative writing type.) Sure enough, the show ended with everyone onstage, shouting (because that's funny, right?), and finally the lead "dies", ending the show. They did a cute gimmick with the "dead" lead not moving for curtain call, but they ruined the moment by breaking the scene before the audience had a chance to uncomfortably decide whether to pick up and leave or not. Alas. But in any case, the show as a whole I found clever and very funny, and pretty well executed.

*Oh, and chalk up yet another play with a guy running around in his underwear. I'm telling you....

"Everybody knows Carville's not playing with a full deck; I know where the missing cards are." --Paul Begala

Posted by blahedo at 11:52pm | Comments (0)