24 Nov 2009

Cousin Michael

[Photo of Michael]

A couple weeks ago, I got another email out of the blue from Joe, a friend of my cousin Michael Blaheta. Three years ago Mike died, and I wrote an unfortunate angry post about the family not being contacted, followed by an apology a little later. Because he had so little net presence before, these are among the top google hits for his name, and people find him here.

Joe sent me a scan of a picture that Mike had given him once, and asked me to post it. Mike had something of a modelling career—I remember at least once gathering around the TV to see him on a talk show, and he'd gotten into magazines a few times—but the exact provenance of this photo is unknown.

As I was writing this post, I looked back and discovered that the original obituary page for him has been taken down, guest book and all (so much for a permanent record), and the obit site had blocked web crawlers so none of the internet archives have a copy. Legacy.com appears to have kept it but is now charging $3 for anyone who wants to read the guest book. Which is too bad, because a lot of people posted a lot of nice things about Mike there, and now anyone looking to find out what happened just finds the nasty batch of responses on my original angry post. :(

Anyone who wants to post guest-book-y things about Michael are perfectly welcome to do so here. I promise I won't ever charge anyone to see them.

"Above all else, I am a human being, just as you are." --Ingmar Bergman, "Nora" (Nora Helmer)

Posted by blahedo at 1:47pm | Comments (4)

7 Nov 2009

Three sisters


That's how I spent much of the first two acts (of four) of tonight's show, a production of Anton Chekhov's Three sisters. That's probably not entirely the fault of anyone in the room there, because I think the dialogue as written was just dreary—evidently Chekhov isn't really my thing. Time after time, throughout the whole show, there would be lines that seemed to come from nowhere, unmotivated by prior line or contextual activity. (Sometimes, though not always, I would get the impression that even the actor didn't know why they were saying the line; and I'm not talking about Vassily's lines, about which more below.) It couldn't have helped that a wide swath of the audience was laughing in the very strangest places, although the actors did appear to take this more or less in stride.

Also affecting buy-in (for me if not the rest of the audience) were the sheer number of things that took me out of the moment. A few of the pronunciations were decidedly odd, although pronouncing the capital as if spelled "Moscoh" was the only ongoing example of that. (For a long, long time the English pronunciation has rhymed with "cow"; it's not uncommon to hear the other one as some sort of deference to the Russian pronunciation, except that the Russian pronunciation is nothing like that—they'd say "Moskva".) A larger problem was that the translation was very inconsistent. Much of the time the characters would be speaking in a way that more or less evoked the turn of the century in a distant place, and then one would pop out with a phrase like "just peachy", or "he's a riot", or "out for a spin", or "pain in the neck", or "c'mon". Jarring. And finally, the set and props made a clear effort at realism: actual china plates metal silverware, antique couches and screens, lovely period costumes, the works. And then someone drops a box with a painted-on clock face, which may have been filled with beans or sand or marbles or something, and another character remarks that it is "smashed to pieces". One character is a "mess from the fire" despite not even being particularly rumpled. Realism only goes so far, of course, but again, it knocked one out of the context.

The funniest line of the show may have been an unintentional one: a sound effect of bird calls, which sound an awful lot like geese, faded across the stage, and someone (Masha?) remarks on them, looking at them, dreamily watching them fly overhead and saying "Swans..." She then pauses for a beat, just long enough for the whole audience to roll their eyes and think, ok, those are definitely not swans we're hearing; and then she finishes the line, "...or geese." No clue if it was intended as such, but it definitely functioned as a pretty good laugh line.

And yet with all the negativity here—and I'm not going to lie, overall I didn't really care for the play—I thought the actual acting was decent, particularly when they could emote rather than just reciting lengthy monologues at each other. The leads, the three sisters, were pretty clearly the top talent. Abby Harms as Olga really nailed the severe schoolteacher, and Nellie Ognacevic as Irina the romantic could positively glow when events followed their storybook form and summoned stormclouds when they didn't. Each took turns at being my favorite sister for a while, but I have to say I kept coming back to Masha (played by a sophomore, Kate Donoghue): maybe it was just the character I best connected with, but I also thought she conveyed the most complexity and hidden depths; and her grief/madness meltdown at the end had to be among the best I've seen.

I can't say anyone acted poorly, but among the rest of the cast I saw only one clear standout—Steve Selwa as both Vassily and Ferapont. Sure, he gets the funny bizarre non-sequiturs, in both characters. That's fun. But I found the Vassily character to be strangely compelling as well, and his halting diction in this character proved really functional. I saw someone quite normal inside but just painfully awkward on the exterior, and I felt more sympathetic with his character than quite a few of the more major ones. I predict that Knox will see more of this freshman in the future!

The plots of this show are pretty much incidental to the point, which was clearly the character development, and so the later acts were easier to take (since by then we basically knew the characters, even if we still hadn't nailed down all sixteen different names they were ever called by). By the intermission I was engaged enough in the characters that I at least wanted to find out where Masha and Irina (and to a lesser extent Vassily) were headed, and I was curious about some of the others. In the end, although I'm not a fan of the play, I was basically satisfied with an evening well spent.

"It is true that coalition governments are necessarily governments of compromise, and are accused of being in a state of paralysis. But this accusation comes from people who call for action, any action, at all costs. Do something, do anything, they say. Not very good advice." --Moshe Arens

Posted by blahedo at 12:35am | Comments (1)

4 Nov 2009

How to treat a guest

Last weekend I attended the Cyclone Ballroom Classic (woo Knox) and I stayed at ISU's student union hotel. On check-in I was able to borrow (for free) an Ethernet cable that would work in the room, in case the wireless wasn't strong enough there (it was), and told there would be a (free) registration when I first connected. I believe it asked for my name, my phone number, and maybe an email address; quick to fill out and not terribly invasive. Then I got this screen:

[Reboot now.]

This was irritating. Why should I have to reboot? I started mentally cursing incompetence, but just in case I clicked the little question-mark help button. Which took me to this screen:

[...or just renew your DHCP lease.]

And that fast, I've completely reversed my opinion of them. They're right! For the majority of users, rebooting is both simplest to explain and simplest to do—and if they're not power users they're unlikely to have any long-running tasks that would be fouled up by a reboot. And, for the power users, ISU's tech folks have helpfully clarified that yes, a simple release-and-renew is all that's actually required, and if you know what that means, you can do that and not worry that some wonky setting somewhere will break anything. So they've effectively navigated the "easy for novices, effective for experts" divide that is sometimes so tricky. (And in fact I had internet all weekend with no troubles at all.)

Contrast that with this afternoon, when I was terribly embarrassed on behalf of my college: we had a guest speaker, invited by someone in the Spanish department, to give a talk (on queer identities in post-Franco Spain, which was a neat talk, by the way). Embedded in his presentation were a few YouTube links. What happened? Well, first of all, he got defaulted to an "open" wireless network that didn't actually connect to anything. Then he switched to the main Knox wireless network, but was presented with a login/password prompt, because we have no general guest setup. Robin Ragan, the host faculty member, rushed up and used hers, but this ordeal was not yet over: he was only placed on the provisional network, from which he could click a link to download and install the stupid malware that Knox forces its users to install on all their machines. (We're still in the middle of the talk, by the way. I wanted to crawl into my shoe I was so embarrassed.) So he did, but that wasn't enough, because once it downloaded and installed and ran, it informed him that his system wasn't up-to-date enough for it, so it would shunt him over to the quarantine network until he fixed the "problem". In the end, he had to manually type in the YouTube URLs onto the desktop machine in the classroom in order to play them. This, I'd say, is how not to treat a guest. Come to think of it, I should shoot him an email and warn him to make sure the malware gets deinstalled—he was a Mac user and the stuff is known to cause 100% CPU consumption on Snow Leopard. (We reported this a month ago. The Computer Center is "looking into it".)

"Both the Arabs and Israelis have unassailable moral arguments, and anyone who does not understand how this is true cannot understand the true nature of tragedy." --Nadav Safran

Posted by blahedo at 9:45pm | Comments (1)

3 Nov 2009

Dishonest graphics

[infographic with other lines marked]

Today we have another installment in our occasional series, "infographics that really are just plain lying". I was looking at an article on climate planning, and stumbled across the graphic at right. Go ahead, look at it. See anything strange?

First of all, the lines are drawn across at the heights of the semicircles, but the semicircles themselves have area, so it's not clear whether we are meant to interpret this linearly or quadratically. That is, are the labelled values proportional to the height of the lines, or the area of the semicircles? If linearly, what on earth is the point of the semicircles? If quadratically, why are the heights of the circles labelled?

Don't you get the impression that developed economies are generating vastly more CO2 than the emerging ones?

In fact if you look at the spacing of the lines, you'll see that they must have meant them to be linear, because the spacing is close to even, as are the numbers. If you do interpret this as a funny-looking bar chart, it's only somewhat distorted: scaled to a maximum value of 54, it would be representing intermediate values of 40 and 24. So even by this (highly generous) interpretation, the graphic designer is fudging to make the developing economies look like less of a contributor.

But when we see area like that, our natural instinct is to interpret it as meaningful. And here we run completely off the rails. If you interpret the semicircles' area as meaningful, the represented numbers (again scaling to a max of 54) are 54, a little over 29, and less than 11. The largest and smallest values in fact differ by a factor of less than two, but are made to look like they differ by a factor of five. This right here is simply journalistic malpractice.

[infographic with other lines marked]

To the right you see an edited version of the graphic that highlights what the dimensions would have been if the designer hadn't been lazy or flat-out lying. The outer semicircle and all the words and light-grey lines are unchanged from the original. But on the left side is a bar scaled to the actual values (red lines mark the correct scaled heights); and in the rest, the two smaller semicircles are scaled so that their areas are proportional to the numeric values reported.

Story's a little different now, innit?

Speaking for many of us: "I tend to ramble when I think I'm saying something intelligent." --Robert Hoekman, Jr.

Posted by blahedo at 2:59am | Comments (2)