31 Jan 2007

Pavlovian training

I read yesterday that Obama introduced a bill to pull out of Iraq. It's a little more complicated than that, of course; the bill requires the redeployment to begin by this May and be completed by next March. It probably won't pass in exactly its current form, but it's ratcheted the debate up a level, and it is an example of exactly the sort of thing I like my senators doing and would like my President to do.

Ever the believer in positive reinforcement, I immediately turned around and dropped $50 on his presidential campaign. I have this little fantasy that a graph of contributions to his campaign will show a big spike immediately after the introduction of the bill, and that he will see this and think, "ah! People do like to see strong leadership in service of ethical goals" and act accordingly.

"I worship a god who laid down his life so that unworthy people would not get the punishment they deserved." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 1:21pm | Comments (0)

30 Jan 2007

Pau Claris

[statue of Pau Claris] width=A few years ago, I went to Barcelona, and I wrote about it and posted pictures of it. And today I got an email from one Joan (i.e. John) de Sa Bardissa, whom I've never met but who found the pictures pages. In particular, a picture of a statue of Pau Claris, someone who was clearly important but I'd never heard of. Joan writes,

Pau Claris was the President of the Catalan Government (The "Generalitat") between 1940 till 1956 more or less, what means that we was the President of our country throught the "Guerra dels Segadors" (the reapers' War) which had a very definitive outcome for our people. Actually, the war was between the troops of Castilia (which would be the future original Spain) and Catalonia. Pau Claris was a very charismatic individual and had lot of power what means that the war was quite equal for the moment. The catalan government had also special and tight relationships with the French Empire which swore us to protect our lands, wether the catalan people would agree the French king instead of the Spanish king. Unfortunately, our president began to feel himself very ill and died suddenly in less than one week. As it was known for the moment, the reason was probably a heart-attack because of its very stressed life, but now, many investigacions tell us that we had been poisoned. As most sure thing to believe, the killer could be someone from the government of Castilia and its bigger responsable, some man called Count-Duke of Olivares. After his death, Catalonia became apart of the war, and many bad things happened to our country. Anyway, I just told you some of our history. I hope that this will help you in some way.
So then I'm thinking, 1940? Was this a Spanish Civil War thing? Was this a Jefferson Davis of a claimed-independent Catalunya? But no, Wikipedia enlightens, Pau Claris was president of the Generalitat from 1638–1641. The rest, I have no idea, so I'll assume the dates were just typoes. Thus concludes today's history lesson. :)

"It's obviously outrageous that tens of millions of the citizens of the wealthiest country to have ever existed in human history are one cluster of metastasizing cells away from bankruptcy." --Ted Rall

Posted by blahedo at 9:08pm | Comments (0)

26 Jan 2007

Theology on Tap


I knew I'd been hearing about "Theology on Tap" events since basically forever, and that there were some places where it was still relatively new. But what I never realised until I just saw it mentioned in passing in a Whispers post (original article) was that the program was actually founded at St. James, the parish in Arlington Heights that we were members of from the time we moved to the NW suburbs until sometime after Kathy was in high school.

So, huh.

"What a strange attitude that actually is, when we no longer find Christian service worthwhile if the denarius of salvation may be obtained even without it! It seems as if we want to be rewarded, not just with our own salvation, but most especially with other people's damnation---just like the workers hired in the first hour. That is very human, but the Lord's parable is particularly meant to make us quite aware of how profoundly un-Christian it is at the same time." --Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, 1964

Posted by blahedo at 5:18pm | Comments (0)

24 Jan 2007

So much for the consistent ethic of life

The head of the Catholic Church in England has given an ultimatum that the Church would rather leave hundreds or thousands of children homeless than to place even one child for adoption by a gay couple. Some new laws passed last year say that adoption agencies can't decide not to place a child just because of the orientation of the adopters, just as they already couldn't withhold a placement based on race.

Though often billed as gay rights legislation, it's really more about the children: it's simply awful to hold adoptable children hostage, making them wait longer to be placed, essentially just to make a point. But your friend and mine the Roman Catholic Church evidently has more important things to think about than, you know, helping children, and so they're calling the government's bluff.

In response, the government—evidently more reluctant than the Church is to sacrifice the welfare of the children—is considering an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies.

The worst part is, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is attempting to frame this as discrimination against the Church, firing up a great big martyr complex and trying to pin this one on the government.

Thanks, Catholicism! Chalk one more up for the consistent ethic of life.

"I think Solomon would agree that the only fair solution here would be to cut Joe Lieberman in half lengthwise." --Mike McCool

Posted by blahedo at 9:23pm | Comments (2)

23 Jan 2007

I called it!

Last night's Colbert Report: watch here (click on "Coattails").

Knox's response. Money quote: "Knox College is also exploring the possibility of printing a new, fireproof diploma for Dr. Colbert."

"I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for things." --Casey Westerman
"That's called your aortic cavity and you really shouldn't put things there." --Mike McLawhorn

Posted by blahedo at 10:50pm | Comments (0)

19 Jan 2007

The headline that wasn't not quite right

I opened today's Register-Mail to page 3, and found a big, above-the-fold headline that read

The winter that wasn't not done yet
and I immediately thought, hey, this'll be good. What a stunning example of overnegation, or rather, bad copyediting, eh?

Turns out, it's even better than that. If you think about the phrase "the winter that wasn't done yet" (or its uncontracted counterpart), that doesn't sound especially headliney, does it? A complete noun phrase? And it has too many verbs: the expected version would be something like "winter not done yet", to make a short, snappy assertion with a minimum of auxiliary verbs. Unless...

Unless the subject was not "the winter", but rather, "the winter that wasn't". It is the subject of a perfectly headlinese verb phrase "not done yet" (omitting the main verb "is"), and indeed in the body of the article we find the clear inspiration for this particular title:

It turns out that the winter that wasn't, isn't done with us yet.
It is not normally considered grammatical to put a comma between subject and verb, but you see it a lot with this sort of heavy subject phrase, especially when the verb in the relative phrase ("wasn't") is very similar to the clause's main verb ("isn't"), as here. It's also a bit of a flourish in the first place to use the "the X that is/was/n't" construction—that wasn't what, exactly?—but, again, quite idiomatic and well-known. So the source sentence is perhaps not perfectly standard, but well within the range of rhetorical variation.

It's just when you convert it to a headline that everything goes terribly wrong. Unfortunately, without "isn't" there to block it, and no punctuation to let the reader pause, nothing is overriding the seemingly more likely parse that lets "wasn't" gobble up the rest of it into a single modifier for "winter", until you get through it and think: WTF?

How could they have fixed it? Well, headlinese traditionally only includes relative phrases when absolutely necessary; "winter not done yet" would probably do just fine here. And half of the cuteness of the original sentence comes from the parallelism between "wasn't" and "isn't"; but if they really wanted to use the whole thing, all they needed to do to block the wtf reading was to put a colon in there, or even a question mark:

The winter that wasn't? Not done yet
But of course, nobody asked me.

"I see NCLB much like the initiatives that created the high-density housing projects of the War on Poverty era. Both are programs that were created with good intentions, but are simply, irretrievably broken and end up doing much much more harm than the original creators would ever have thought and go on for much longer than should ever have been allowed." --Tori O'Neal

Posted by blahedo at 8:41pm | Comments (0)

17 Jan 2007

Snow, again

I love the fact that it's finally been snowing over the last few days... but I really wish it would just snow a bunch, let us shovel, and then be done for a while. This thing it's doing with depositing about 1/8"–1/4" at a time twice a day is getting a smidge annoying.

In other news, the site Get Behind Jesus is hilarious. Not safe for work, though. But I'm still giggling about it.

"Only if human life from conception until death is respected is the ethic of peace possible and credible; only then may non-violence be expressed in every direction, only then can we truly accept creation, and only then can we achieve true justice." --Pope Benedict XVI

Posted by blahedo at 10:41pm | Comments (0)

13 Jan 2007

The story of Vernon and Irene Castle

Ages ago, I TiVoed a showing of The story of Vernon and Irene Castle, a Fred-and-Ginger flick about the founding mythology of modern ballroom dance. I knew of the Castles, of course, but not a lot about them; and (as usual) the effect of the movie was heightened by not really knowing its outcome in advance. When I see a movie like this—which is not now exceptionally well known, not exactly one of the AFI top 100—I kind of wonder about the state of modern film, because despite being a "dance genre" movie, "just" another Fred and Ginger vehicle, it certainly has its share of drama and foreshadowing and suspense, though none of it of the hamhanded variety that makes you cringe at its obviousness. (Well, maybe a little of that.) Modern movies? It seems like, not so much.

That aside, this is a worthwhile movie for anyone in ballroom dancing, if only to see some of the genesis of the different dances we now do, like the foxtrot and tango. Even the samba shows up, indirectly; one scene depicts the "Maxixe"—those x's would be pronounced as 'sh'—which was a precursor to the American version of samba. Even today, the step known as the corta jaca in International Samba is known as a maxixe in American Samba, and this move certainly appears in the movie's Maxixe, as do moves recognisably analogous to samba rolls, voltas, and whisks, although the styling is quite different.

"Food are always in caves. They're like the grocery stores of the ancient world." --Sam Heath

Posted by blahedo at 10:22pm | Comments (0)

"Whiiiile you chew it..."

And by the way, I still have the Big Red theme song running through my head from when I watched all those '80s commercials a few days ago. Say goodbye a little longer, make it last a little longer...

It's really a great ad jingle: an Ohrwurm par excellence, and hooks right into the name of the product, and it reminds you of all the assorted (supposed) virtues of the product. Years later the jingle sounds familiar, and probably even calls up a few visuals. Your fresh breath goes on and on.... Few ad campaigns through the years can really claim that level of success. I wonder what ad campaigns from the mid-noughts (heh) we'll be remembering ten, twenty years from now?

"That is so last year."
"You... ninny!" --Dave Gondek and Greg Seidman, 15 Jan 2001

Posted by blahedo at 12:13am | Comments (0)

12 Jan 2007


This evening I went to a Flamenco lesson.

As so often happens at Knox, when we book a visitor, we try to get them to do or talk about a variety of things. So when the dance department was inviting a guest instructor for the ballet class, they asked him if there was something else he could teach, too. Flamenco it was, which led to a co-sponsorship with the Spanish Club and a variety of other groups. Attendance was from a broad spectrum, including the dance regulars (members of Terpsichore) as well as much of the Spanish Club, Sarah Day-O'Connell's world music class, and a whole bunch of the ballroom group. Plus a few people who probably just thought it sounded neat.

It was! I actually drove home at 5:30 just to pick up my latin shoes, which I'd meant to bring this morning but forgot, because I figured, hell, this is pretty much precisely what a wood-block latin heel is for, there's no way I'm not wearing mine. I cruised in right on time, put on my shoes, and joined the ranks. The teacher moved really fast, and for most of the people there this was (by design) more of a "feel the rhythm" sort of survey rather than a "try to remember this" lesson, even for the dance professors. For my part, I was really digging the similarities to things I knew. In particular, my revelation of the day was that paso doble is essentially the partnered version of flamenco dancing. I've even seen flamenco before, but it never really registered how much the shaping matches. All the stuff with the forward hips, the pulled-back shoulders, the appel from a standing position? Identical.

A difference is the timing. Although there are some things phrased in 8 (the usual form for paso), most appear to be phrased in 12, with a really common duple-triple alternation; the first pattern we learned (and boy would it have been easier if he'd just counted it like this, but I figured this out later) went *1*-2-&-3-*4*-5-6-*7*-8-&-*9*-10-&-*11*-12-& and then repeats starting on the other foot. Another starts off with a slip-pivot motion on 2-3 into a presentation pose that holds till 6 and then prances on alternate beats, so that again the whole pattern is two threes then three twos: (1)-2-*3*-(4-5)-*6*-(7)-*8*-(9)-*10*-11-*12*.

The killer for me was totally the hands, though. In flamenco, the hands are always moving. I suck so much at coordinating hand motions with anything else; back in my jazz choir days, when we had to clap, I would actually make sure to clap silently, because with me also singing I would inevitably drift off time with the clapping. Which still screws up the visual, but at least the audio works! Anyway, so, flamenco. There's this sort of wax-on, wax-off thing you do with your wrists, and if you're a girl, the fingers are constantly spiralling in and out, while boys rotate the wrist as a fist and then pop their flat palms out when they get to the end of the rotation—before immediately making a fist again and rotating the wrist the other way. All of which is going on while you're doing moderately complicated foot stuff (which may be more than just stepping, as at least a few of the moves have a tap-dance-esque thing where the ball of the foot hits the floor with one timing and the heel hits with another!).

But it was all a lot of fun, of course. And then there were tapas out in the CFA lobby. That was when Jennifer Smith (the head dance professor) asked me if I would be interested help out with Rep Term's movement workshop, teaching some ballroom dancing. It was about all I could do not to shout, "WOULD I!" Of course I would. I've been itching to do something like that nearly since I got here. So it looks like I'll be teaching two to four days' worth of one of the Theatre/Dance department's movement workshops later this term. Whee!

"Everyone hates flacks. Journalists hate them because they think they're incompetent whores. Businesspeople hate them because they think they're incompetent whores. And flacks hate themselves because deep down inside they suspect that they might be incompetent whores." --Forbes

Posted by blahedo at 11:58pm | Comments (0)

11 Jan 2007

Speaking of "nerd credentials"...

Was I the only one who heard Steven Colbert dissing iPhone vis-a-vis nerd credentials, and thought, "FORTRAN 77? That didn't have recursive procedures!"

Thought not.

"Grad school applications are even hard for non-smokers." --Arun Bhalla

Posted by blahedo at 11:36pm | Comments (0)

10 Jan 2007

At *least* an hour

Do not follow this link unless you have an hour to spare. No! Do not!

50 '80s commercials

This is actually the second batch posted on that site; the first one was the 50 best '80s commercials that a couple of article authors could think of and track down on YouTube. Inevitably, this sparked a lot of discussion in the comments section, so they published a second batch (because, as they point out, "every great thing from the 80s gets a sequel"). Which is way better, because its the 50 best commercial that hundreds of people can think of (and track down on YouTube). Including such all-time hits as "Where's the beef?", "I've fallen and I can't get up", and the original Energizer bunny commercial. And lots and lots of ad jingles you'd thought you'd forgotten. Good times, good times.

"The '60s counter-culture revolution was deeply, deeply galvanizing for many people. Not so much for the hippies themselves, mind you---the Boomers transitioned fairly seamlessly into toothless feel-good bromides, middle management, and unrepentant consumerism. No, the real legacy of the 60s/early 70s was to freak out conservatives on a primal, lizard-brain level." --David Roberts

Posted by blahedo at 2:13pm | Comments (0)

7 Jan 2007

Kids, don't try this at home

I just got home and pressed a key to wake up my laptop's monitor, and was greeted with the plaid screen of death—"ah, that was to be expected," I thought. Figuring it couldn't hurt and might help, I banged it a couple times (to no effect), and then dropped the computer from a height of about two inches. It was instantly perfect.

Still gonna buy a new one next week, though.

"I don't know, Dave, you don't sound much like an Asian whore." --Greg Seidman

Posted by blahedo at 3:05pm | Comments (1)

Verdict: enh

Well, Python's okay. There are definitely some neat things about it, like list comprehensions (which subsume map and filter into a single, more generic form that incidentally makes lambda a lot less necessary, though that's still present too). Making % a sort of universal sprintf operator was a cute idea, and allowing while to have an else just like if can, well, it seems counterintuitive at first, but can make for some nice, elegant algorithm specifications.

Some things are just a lot more clunky, though. (Than perl, which is my main point of comparison—they occupy roughly the same ecological niche.) For instance, all functions need to be declared prior to use, afaict. That makes it harder for me to organise my files the way I want to. I kept running into problems with things being passed by value when I wanted reference, or vice versa, and the way it handles global/local namespaces is just bizarre. (You can read from variables declared in an outer scope, but if you try to assign to them, a new local variable with that name is silently created—and disappears at the end of the current scope, of course. Eeuuchh.)

The worst thing, though, was the ubiquity of the exception system. As in Java, any time anything goes wrong, an exception is raised, although even more so—iteration, for instance, works by just calling next() until the StopIteration exception is raised. That's just an abuse of the word "exception". But even where the term "exception" is legitimate, e.g. with an IOError, a system that is merely mildly annoying in Java becomes unforgivably cumbersome in a language that is intended for (or at least used a lot in) quick scripting. In Perl, to open a file and quit gracefully if anything goes wrong, you write

  open FI, "<", $filename or die "Bad file $filename, aborting";
But in Python, you write
    fi = open (filename, 'r')
  except IOError:
    print "Bad file %s, aborting" % filename
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that a lot more Python scripts just skip the error checking. Of course, the consequences are milder: rather than mysterious oddness you just bother the user with several lines of confusing tech-gook (from an uncaught exception). But a well-written script should have the checking either way, and in the Perl script it is not clunky and even aids readability if done right, while in the equivalent Python script it chews up five times as much space and interrupts the flow of the code.

So my overall opinion is totally lukewarm. I suppose I'll write a few more programs in it just to get a better feel... but I'm not really in any rush to do it.

"Toss out words like "sexual behavior of teenagers," "virginity" and "highly effective" and the parents of adolescents claw their way to newsstand and keyboard in a panicky search for enlightenment, looking, always, for relief from the kind of angst they heaped on their own elders just long enough ago not to remember." --Salon

Posted by blahedo at 1:59am | Comments (0)

6 Jan 2007

Restful geeking

By the end of the day yesterday, I was feeling pretty strung out; all that sleep deprivation was catching up, and I had no pressing commitments to keep me going. When I sat falling asleep in front of my laptop, I decided to head on up to bed. That was around 8:00.

I got up around 2:30 this afternoon (after being woken by my alarm at 8 and shutting it off again) and decided to commit the day to learning Python. I've been meaning to for a long time, and another Knox person had requested that I (or somebody) write a program for him—it seemed like the perfect excuse. As I sat down, though, it dawned on me that this is really the first new language I've learned since I learned C++ in 1997 and Java, Scheme, and ML in 1998. (Unless you count SQL, but I'm not sure I really "know" that one.) Those early years of grad school were busy ones! For all my preaching about how "good for you" it is to be multilingual and always be learning new languages, I haven't exactly practiced it very well.

Anyway, so now I'm learning Python. I'll let you know how it goes. I may eventually get used to the whitespace thing; that's just syntax, after all, and some of the semantic details of the language I'm finding quite nifty.

This is also as good a time as any to report that my laptop, faithful companion for more than five years, is about to be retired. In the last couple of days, it has developed a screen issue whereby sometimes, randomly, the display will start flickering from the bottom—sometimes just once or twice, sometimes making the whole thing unreadable. Sometimes leaving it be made the problem go away; sometimes even pressure to the wrist rests worked better. This, together with the recently-broken power brick and the overall age of the system—and most importantly, my intent to get a new iMac anyway—has just accelerated my plans to get a new computer, and retire this one. As of my December paycheck, I'm now in surplus funds again, and even with banking for a rebuild of my back porch steps (which are falling apart), I'll be able to afford a modest computer by the time my next credit card statement arrives. (Actually, without banking for the porch, I'd be able to afford the computer now.) So at this point I'm just going to wait a week for the MacWorld Expo announcements and concomitant price drop, and then I'll be placing an order.

"I exist simultaneously in every internet conversation across all spacetime. I've been participating for years in debates that haven't even started yet." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 8:00pm | Comments (2)

4 Jan 2007

Allow me to brag

I'm not normally given to bragging, but I just got my course evaluations from FP last term, and I got the awesomest reviews EVAR, and I just had to share. By the numbers, I hit some really nice marks, like 62% "very helpful" on "instructor's feedback", or 71% "strongly agree" on "clear explanations", or 62% "excellent" on "effectiveness of the instructor", all of which were way higher than the overall faculty averages over the last three years, and actually, quite a bit higher than my own scores last year, iirc. The written comments were also pretty fantastic, with one student simply writing, "This was the best class I had this term." Another said of me that "the instructor had this sort of aura of ease about him, and certainly helps me form my opinion on what college instructors should be like." That's like the Holy Grail of student evaluation comments. There was also praise for my ability to let discussion tangent a bit in interesting ways, without letting it get too far afield.

Of the nine that turned in written comments, two had mostly negative things to say, alas—but not so much about me as about the idea of FP. One claimed to be speaking for "most of us, in the Knox Community", which I thought was interesting, but said that they found classes like this to be bullshitty and lame. In particular, they objected to the idea that everyone "be forced to talk"; which, honestly, is something I've wavered on myself. I do think it's a bit unfair to the quieter types, but without requiring some minimal level of participation, I'm sort of at a loss as to how to divide the attentive-but-quiet from the totally-zoned-out. Ah well, something to work on for next year.

"I feel kind of bad that I probably tripped up her innate sense that some kind of spin control needed to be done on this issue. I wish I knew the secret 'don't worry you don't have to schmooze me' handshake." --Zach Miller

Posted by blahedo at 2:23am | Comments (2)