My Sister the Hardcore Gamer
I'm at my parents' house (which I just realized is precisely "Space Wolves Grey", heh heh, little WH40K humor there), and Aleksa is upstairs getting read a bedtime story by Mom, so I finally have a break and I can write some website stuff. (Must... not... use... the b-word!)
One of the things Aleksa has been very much into lately is a computer game called Zoo Tycoon 2 (she always corrects me if I leave off the number). This is supposed to be a Sim-City style strategy game, in that the basic mechanic is:
- Attract people by building cool stuff.
- Afford cool stuff by getting money.
- Get money by attracting people.
- Repeat until bored.
But Aleksa has decided that attracting zoo visitors cramps her style. She figured out how to put the game into "infinite money" mode, and since she doesn't need guests' money, she doesn't let any guests in. Sometimes she doesn't even put the animals in cages. She just uses all the zoo-construction tools to build a huge and wondrous playground for her animals to roam around freely, and ignores the game's warnings about how there's no way for guests to view the animals and how her zoo has a zero popularity rating. Then she figured out how to put the game camera into zookeeper's-eye-view mode, and explores her zoo that way, going across bridges and down over waterfalls and through swamps full of crocodiles.
It's a pretty good example of how games can be played in a way completely different from what the designers intended, if you just set your own goals. I hear that since the success of Grand Theft Auto, "sandbox" play has become a buzzword in the computer games industry. But it's not really anything new, since it existed in SimCity and even long before that.
I guess this Zoo Tycoon game is pretty educational, too, since Aleksa has been using words like "biome" and "scenario" and telling me about animals I've never heard of like the Okapi and the Spectacled Bear. Also she says things like "Look! See those hearts above the hippos' heads? That means they're in love! That means the female hippo is going to get pregnant and they'll have babies!!" Like I said. Educational.
She also can't wait for the next expansion pack to come out (it's going to be "Sea World" themed). She sounds a lot like a World of Warcraft player when she talks about the expansion pack. I told her about how some people love computer games so much that they wait in line outside a store for the store to open on the day when a new expansion pack for their favorite game is going to be released. She looked at me and said, real seriously, "But Jono, I can't do that! I don't have any money!"
Aleksa was also messing around in Google Sketchup (see earlier post) and looking at a contextual menu, and I idly said "Try clicking 'Walk', see what that does." And she clicked "Walk". So I know that she is for sure reading at least simple words by herself. But she seems to be one of those "stealth reader" type of kids who pretends not to be able to read because she likes to have people read to her.
Lately she especially likes to have people read her the comics. When we're done she laughs. Even if the comic is not funny, or I know that she didn't get it, she laughs anyway. You can tell that it's a pretty fake laugh. I guess she's just decided that laughing is part of the game so she's going to do it no matter what.
Her favorite newspaper comic is "Prickly City". This is a relatively new one about a girl and some kind of fox-creature(?) wandering around in a desert which I guess is supposed to be Arizona or something. It's very lame. Which should go without saying since with a very few exceptions, all newspaper comics in history have been very lame.
(Oh, this is a good point to drop in a link to The Comics Curmudgeon, who posts lame newspaper comics and then vivisects them and mocks them with merciless deadpan humor, kind of like MST3K or something. I read it every day.)
Worst part about "Prickly City" is that it sometimes tries to be political, in that the author has obvious conservative leanings which he sometimes just can't keep from putting in the mouths of his characters, even though it doesn't make any sense for little girls and foxes to have any political views at all.
There have been several great or at least good liberal-leaning newspaper comics, but there have been very few conservative-leaning ones and they have been uniformly lame and boring. It's kind of a shame, really, because it would be better to have both sides of an issue, and I think it would be quite stimulating to read a comic which puts forth ideas I disagree with in a witty and intelligent way. (When I say the good liberal ones, I am thinking of Doonesbury, Boondocks, and Bloom County; your milage may vary... although I suppose the only reason they are recognized as "liberal" is because they got most of their jokes out of making fun of conservative politicians, and in the braindead with-us-or-against-us atmosphere of modern American politics you are defined by who you attack... then again, Doonesbury made fun of Clinton constantly when he was in office (they drew him as a floating, talking waffle for crying out loud) so I'm not sure it's fair to say that Doonesbury is all that biased one way or the other.)
Prickly City is sadly no exception to the dismal pattern. Its political "wit" is usually limited to having one of the characters randomly say something about Hillary Clinton being an extremist or that Iraq isn't doing as badly as people say. Boring and predictable.
But it's Aleksa's "favorite comic" and she always laughs at it. And I say "Wait a minute, Aleksa, you don't even know who Hillary Clinton is! You're just laughing because you arbitrarily decided that this is your favorite comic and so you're going to laugh at it no matter what!" She denies this.
Sadly, I think that also describes the way in which some people end up with their political affiliation: pick a side based on some superficial quality and then defend it to the death.
I went home for another visit to the family and Al told me about Yet Another Google Beta Project called Google Sketchup.
This is not something you use on the Web like the also very cool Google Spreadsheet (Microsoft: Oh my god we are obsolete now). This is something you have to download and install on a Windows machine (Microsoft: phew, we will at least be allowed to survive as a platform for Google applications).
Google Sketchup (it rhymes with ketchup! Heh heh heh) is a 3-d drawing tool with an extremely streamlined interface. It doesn't have any of the intimidating interface cruft that professional 3-d design software has, and it does a very good job of defaulting to the behavior that you basically want it to have most of the time, and it has a very nice set of animated tutorials, so it seems pretty easy to learn. It lets you draw 2-d shapes and then stretch them out into 3-d objects with just a few mouse movements. The paint bucket lets you change the composition of a surface into bricks or wood or glass or whatever, and there is a menu of pregenerated models of things like people and trees that you can drop in like clip-art, and it does realistic outdoor daytime shadows by default. So it's kind of biased towards making houses and towns, but you could really use it for anything. Google even encourages you to use it to draw your own house, and then drop it into Google Earth in order to improve Google Earth's accuracy and detail. (Go ahead, it's not like Google doesn't already know all of your secrets.)
I've been playing with it for only about half an hour so far, but I can tell it has a lot of potential. My six-year-old sister loves playing with it, and at the same time, my professional architect stepfather uses it at work, where he says that the pay version of Google Sketchup has spread like wildfire and quickly replaced their AutoCAD software for many common uses. Having a range of users like that has got to be a pretty good argument for a piece of software, eh?
Aside from all the obvious uses, it seems like Google Sketchup would be a very attractive tool for making webcomics! Somebody with no drawing skill at all could quickly use it to make some interior and exterior settings, populate them with clip-art people, take a screenshot from a good camera angle, and add some speech bubbles. The default display settings have a clean, cartoony look which lends itself well to this sort of use.
I'm not going to do it, because I like drawing my own backgrounds, but I'm sure somebody will. Thing is, only one person can really get away with it, because after that, everybody else who tries will get the exact same look and it will become very cliche and boring.
Right hand SEA OF MIDNIGHT!
I guess it must be a week since my last entry, cuz here comes another entry about anime club!
HARUHI MAKES JONO ANGRY. I sit through three boring episodes waiting
for a plot to show up, and hating Haruhi (the character) more and
more, and hoping that she gets smacked down for her immature selfish
abusiveness, and now that we finally get a hint of a plot in episode 4, the plot is "We have to keep Haruhi happy cuz the world will be destroyed if she throws a tantrum?" In other words, this is a
series-length version of that Twilight Zone episode where they have to
keep Anthony happy so he doesn't turn them into monsters or put them
in the cornfield? Ten more randomly-ordered (but well-animated)
episodes of boring characters pacifying an obnoxious brat who abuses
them? Is that what I have to look forward to?
Yeah, my attitude towards this show has moved from bored indifference
into outright loathing. I'm seriously thinking of just leaving anime
club early instead of sitting through it -- or I would be except for officers' meeting, and the fact that my cousin says:
Next week's episode is the first episode in the series that's really honest and up front about what exactly the show really is, or at least, what the deal is with most of the characters.
So I will watch that episode. Haruhi, this is your final warning!
Twelve Kingdoms, though, just gets better and better. I love how
Yoko's character development was handled in these episodes. The
internal struggles represented by that creepy monkey dude with the
masks, and the cracking under pressure, and the gradually coming to
terms with the harsh reality of this world, and hitting rock-bottom
and going crazy, and the look on her face when she attacks those
birds, and then when she's trying to decide whether to run away or go
back and save mouse-man, and then when she finally decides to accept
that nobody loves her and everyone will betray her and she can choose
to do the right thing anyway... I was applauding by that point.
That's more character development than happens in an entire series in most anime! And it was all entirely believable! And there's probably more to come! And now that she's learned to accept the worst, the smallest act of kindness from a
stranger seems to mean so much. The writing in this show is
unbelievably good! I love it!
So, our new tradition of acting out anime scenes during officer's meetings continues. (Remember when you were seven years old, and after you saw a cartoon you liked, you really wanted to act it out? Anime club is a place where we can do that and not feel silly, even if we're 26 years old.)
There was an episode of Honey and Clover we saw last year where they played a homemade Twister game at a birthday party, but since they're all art students, their Twister didn't just have red/yellow/blue/green, it had a rainbow of subtle color and shade variations with fancy names. ("Which one's Lilac?") During most of the twister scene, you don't see the people playing the game, you just see the two girls spinning the spinner and calling out colors and looking increasingly horrified as screams of agony and the sounds of breaking bones come from off-camera. It's a really funny scene in context.
So yeah, we acted that out. Cat sent me to the hardware store to pick up some of those paint color samples they have there. "Paint color samples are free, right?" I asked. And then got two each of a couple dozen colors, which had names like "Chinchilla", "Apple Blossom", "Crushed Velvet", "Dried Tomato", "Cisco Spice", and "Lime Freeze". And she taped them down over the normal Twister circles, and we brought it out into the hallway and tried to play it. We got through a couple of rounds and attracted a little bit of a crowd. There were definitely some picture-phone shots which will show up on the Internet in due time. It's much, much harder than normal Twister. "Left foot, India Ink!" "Where the hell is India Ink? Is this it?" "No, you fool, that's Sea of Midnight!" "Screw you!" "Aaaarrgggghhh!!" Let it be known that the champions of each round, after everybody else gave up, were respectively Kat-with-a-K and Andrew.
The Best Damn Cookies I've Ever Seen!
At the end of anime club this week, we decorated cookies. Pres. Cat gave us all sugar cookies and frosting and sprinkles and candies and so forth and gave us 15 minutes to make "the best damn cookie I've ever seen!!!" while she acted out the role of the terrifying disciplinarian baking instructor from the baking school entrance exam scene from Yakitate! Japan. It was hilarious but we were all trying not to laugh because she would take points off. During the judging we all tried to explain the themes of our cookies in Japanese. Good times.
There is this show that we watch called "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya". I don't like it. I seem to be the only one who doesn't like it; the rest of the club is really into it, but I hate all of the characters and I see no sign of a plot after three episodes, and it doesn't even have a good theme song, so there's really nothing for me to like about it. Well, the animation is consistently above-average in fluidity and detail, but that's the only thing.
Trying to justify my position to Eric got me into a very interesting discussion of what makes me like or dislike an anime. It's true that I've gotten much pickier over the past several years. But he accused me of not liking anything wacky or postmodern. And while I do complain about a lot of series that could be classified that way, how do you explain my enduring love of Dragon Half and One Piece and Urusei Yatsura, which are nothing if not wacky? Also, two of my favorite series are Serial Experiments Lain and Paranoia Agent, which could both be described as "postmodern" in some way.
It's hard to make generalizations. I can tell you whether I like a given series or not, but I can't explain the overall pattern. It's like music: I hate "whiny white girl music" (my term), and yet I own six Ani di Franco albums. It's a paradox. I can't explain it. That little plastic castle is a surprise every time, if you know what I mean.
So, thinking about this kind of thing, I jotted down a list (on the nearest piece of paper, which was the back of the resume given to me by a street beggar named Clifton A. Jackson) of what annoys me about bad anime. Or, stated positively, they are the rules that good anime should follow, and bad anime annoys me by breaking them.
And then I realized that nothing in this list restricts it to anime. It's just a list of rules for good fiction. There are certain things that all good fiction has to do. No matter what a story is about, in order to make you want to keep reading/watching/listening/playing, the story has to trick you into caring about what happens to imaginary people. So it has to have characters who you can care about, and they have to be facing some kind of challenge. That's the basics of it. But to expound further:
Jono's Minimum Requirements for Anime
1. Must have at least one SYMPATHETIC character! Minimum requirements for sympathetic character are as follows:
- NOT A SPINELESS WUSS.
- NOT A HEARTLESS BASTARD.
- SELF-MOTIVATED. Has an understandable self-imposed goal. Makes things happen!
It's best if the sympathetic character is also the main character. It's even better if most or all of the characters are sympathetic!
2. All characters must have PERSONALITIES. Whether they are sympathetic or not, characterization must be present for each one, and it must be CONSISTENT and believable. Even better is if somebody's personality CHANGES in a believable way during the story, but that's hard to do right, so I'll let you get away with just consistent and believable.
3. Show must have a CONFLICT to move the show forward. Something has to be at stake. Works out nice if the conflict is releated to the main character's motivation.
4. Something has to HAPPEN in each and every episode. There has to be something that has CHANGED between the beginning and the end of the episode. Climaxes of episode plots must focus on choices main character or characters make. Resolutions of episode plots must MAKE SENSE.
5. There must be enough believable details of everyday life present that I can imagine myself into the SETTING.
6. Show must have VISUAL VARIETY: give us interesting things to look at. (And if it's not a visual medium you're in: create visual variety in the reader/listener's head.) Don't have your whole story be some guys sitting in the same room talking!
7. Show must have EMOTIONAL VARIETY: convey strong emotions both good and bad. Preferably all in the same episode.
8. There must be SURPRISES and things that we don't immediately understand in order to create intrigue. But they must MAKE SENSE when explained and they must not render the main plot impossible to follow.
9. Show must offer something specific and UNIQUE that other shows don't.
10. Ending of show must MAKE SENSE and resolve main plot!
(I wasn't trying for 10 but I ended up with that number anyway. I guess I could rephrase them all as THOU SHALT and THOU SHALT NOT but that's even more of a web cliche than "You know you've been _____ too much when" lists and alternate words to "Twas the night before Christmas". Blah! )
Obeying all of these rules still does not guarantee that I will like your show, but for most shows that I don't like, I can identify which of these rules is being broken. Any kind of anime can fail at having sympathetic characters; I can't prove back this up with statistics, but I feel like modern anime has a higher percentage of protagonists who are spineless wusses or heartless bastards, compared to old-school anime. It's probably the result of a misguided attempt to add psychological depth. I guess that's what I like about old-school anime: that even if the characters were shallow, they had yaruki. Old-school anime heroes always cared very strongly about something, and therefore they made you care about it too. Some modern shows like Hikaru no Go and Yakitate! Japan have a bit of the old-school feel to them and I think it's because their protagonists have that kind of passion.
"Wacky" anime often do OK on the characters but fail and points 3 and 4, that is, they don't have a plot where it feels like something important is at stake, so either it seems like not much is actually happening in each episode, or else there's lots of stuff happening but it's all just random and pointless. When I say "something at stake" it doesn't have to be the fate of the universe or anything; the resolution of a love triangle is a perfectly reasonable "at stake" for a romantic-comedy anime, for instance. Also wacky anime often fails rule number 7 if there's never any other tone to break up the wacky once in a while.
"Postmodern" anime, even if they have a sympathetic character and they have something at stake, are often full of plot twists that come off like non-sequiturs, so they often fail rules 8 and 10 because things just don't make sense. A lot of those shows are stuffed full of illogical and gimmicky jumps in order to create artificial intrigue. Postmodern anime can also fail rule 7, emotional variety, by being all-angst-all-the-time.
It's No Fun! Being an illegal alieeeeaaaan!
In the previous post about daytime TV, I promised to rant about immigration. So here goes. I have a theory about the way that different political groups see immigration. To explain it I will have to draw you some crude diagrams. To start, here is a simple diagram showing how you can break people up into four vaguely-defined voting-block quadrants using a coordinate system with two axes, one economic and the other social:
I happen to think that none of these groups is inherently better or worse than the others. Each group has some people with reasonable concerns and other people who are crazy fanatics. Therefore, to be fair, I have given each group a equally mildly derogatory name.
Also, the boundaries between the groups are constantly in flux, both because the defining issues are always changing, and because individuals are always moving between groups. For instance, most college students are Bleeding Hearts, but as they grow up and get jobs they often mutate into Corporate Overlords or, if they're not so lucky, working stiffs. Or they raise families and start worrying about the filth their kids are seeing on TV and they become Traditionalists. An individual can even straddle multiple groups at a time. Like, I used to be pure bleeding-heart but since starting a company I have been drawn more and more towards the corporate overlord camp, and right now I'm sort of straddling that line.
Another oversimplification that's going on is that there should really be more than two axes. There's the Hawks vs. Doves axis, i.e. how willing people are to support war. Each of the four groups I suggest here might have reasons for supporting a war, but they would be different reasons. Each group could also favor stayiing out, for different reasons. So there's a third axis, perpendicular to these two. Picture it sticking out of the screen towards you. There are even more divisions, like globalization vs. isolationism, nature vs. nurture, and belief vs. rationality, which inform political vies and could be argued to be axes of their own. We shouldn't get too caried away, or else we'd end up with an individual axis for every single issue; that would sure classify people accurately, but you'd lose the benefit of making a simplified model, which is to be able to see the big picture.
So, my two axes here are much too abstract and simplistic to be a realistic model of real groups of human beings, but I assert that they are still much better than trying to cram everybody onto a single "left-right" axis.
Next, consider where each of the parties typically draws its support from:
(I know the donkey and elephant suck, but cut me some slack, I drew them in like 30 seconds with a mouse. Artistic quality isn't really important here.)
When you look at it this way, far from being monolithic, each of the major parties is actually a loose alliance of two disparate groups who might not otherwise agree on all that much. The alliance between bleeding hearts and the working class goes back to the early part of the 20th century, and the Progressive movement, Upton Sinclair and the meat-packing plants and the labor unions and all that, because it was about these social progressives wanting to do something about the poverty and horrible conditions of the working class. So they formed an alliacne which had, by the time of Roosevelt and the New Deal, completely overthrown the lassez-faire economic system on which the robber barons of the previous century had prospered. And from then until about the 70s this alliance was usually running the country, and even when it wasn't, it was still setting the agenda of mainstream political thought.
The alliance of corporate overlords and social conservatives is much less logical. Rich capitalists tend to be far more educated, modern, and forward looking than, and have very different lifestyles from, social conservatives. So they have very different viewpoints on a lot of issues. Traditionalists don't really care about lassez-faire economic theories or government regulation of industry. Robber-barons don't really care about flag-burning or homosexuality. Finally, unrestrained capitalism is one of the greatest possible engines for rapid social change. So here you have two groups who could easily have been enemies, yet they have teamed up in the same party, and although some conservative philosophers have come up with elaborate justifications for the fact, I think the real reason for their alliance is just that they want to defeat their common enemy, big-government liberalism.
(Aside: I was born the same year that Reagan took office, which represented the beginning of the Republican revolution which continued with the Newt Gingrich takeover of congress in 1994 and which has now achieved total power. So people my age and younger are used to seeing Republicans as the establishment party; what I didn't realize until I started reading more about 20th century history is that most of the Republicans now in government have spent decades thinking of themselves as party of rebel insurgents, and even now that they control everything they still think that way. And I think a lot of Democrats are kind of still stuck in the 60s and 70s, the golden age of their party; their greatest triumphs were during the civil rights struggle, and to this day they are still trying to fight the battles of that era over and over again. Looking at it this way helps to explain why both parties seem so out-of-touch sometimes.)
So, the point I'm trying to make here is that these two parties ended up with the bases of support that they have now because of a series of historical accidents which could have turned out differently. I can easily imagine an alternate universe where there is still a two-party system, but where the alliances clumped up along the other axes. It would look something like this:
The philosophy which would unite the bleeding-hearts and the corporate overlords is the idea that the government should be minimal: it should stay out of people's bedrooms and it should also refrain from trying to control the economy. Everybody should be free to make their own choices, as individuals, regardless of tradition. Change should be embraced and adapted to, and the government shouldn't try to stop it. What I have described is basically the Libertarian party platform, which is why I have illustrated this grouping with a crudely-drawn Statue of Liberty, the LP's chosen symbol. There would be certain tensions within this group, of course. It would be hard for bleeding-heart liberals and corporate overlords to compromise on whether or not the government should function as a charity. But it's no stranger than alliances currently existing in real-world politics!
Opposing them is an alliance of social conservatives and the working class. This alliance make a lot of sense because working class people very often ARE socially conservative. This is a group that believes in God and family and country and looks to a strong, centralized, patriarchal authority to protect their jobs, guarantee them a certain minimal income, enforce community standards of morality, protect them from foreign competition, and eliminate disruptive influences on society. It could be characterized as Nationalist, or with a less negative connotation, as Populist. It is a collectivist movement where their opponents are individualist. I have illustrated it with an eagle clutching arrows because of the aggressive patriotism that I think would characterize such an alliance. (Note that the warlike eagle has also been used as a fascist symbol in the past. This group would not neccessarily turn fascist but they would probably have some tendencies in that direction.)
So, this is how the two-party system might have broken down in an alternate timeline. Analyzed abstractly, it make more sense than the status quo in some ways, but it would have its own tensions and paradoxes.
Now here's the punch line. At the beginning of this rant I said it was going to be about immigration. Forget any alliances and go back to the original four groups I invented. Picture how a stereotypical member of each of the four groups feels about immigration issues:
Again, this is vastly oversimplifying things. I'm basically doing caricatures here in order to make a point. And that point is that two of these groups are generally in favor of encouraging immigration (for very different reasons), and two of them are generally in favor of restricting immigration (for somewhat different reasons).
Immigration might be described as a "wedge issue", but it's a sideways wedge. It tends to divide Republicans from each other and divide Democrats from each other. It tends to push people towards those alternate-universe alliances instead.
I don't really know what's going to happen. I'm just offering this as an alternate way of looking at the issue, which may make certain things make more sense. For instance: the way Republicans are hitting the immigration issue, in places like the annoying ads I described yesterday. It's pretty clear that a big part of their grand scheme for world domination is getting working-class stiffs to vote for them. And one way to do that is to appeal to their fear of losing their jobs to illegal immigrants. Think about it: it's not like the Republicans ever cared about poor people losing their jobs before. I always thought they saw losses of jobs in unskilled industries as simply the Invisible Hand of the market at work, helping to modernize and streamline the economy.
And it's a difficult balancing act for them to reach out to the working class while not losing their fans in Corporate America. I mean, if they really really wanted to stop people from sneaking into the country, I'm sure they realize that the most effective way would be to aggressively punish companies who hired illegals. But that would go against the "leave companies alone" mentality which they need to rely on to keep the corporate overlords on their side. Also, eliminating government handouts of all kinds would eliminate the possibility that immigrants come here to mooch off the generosity of our government. I'm sure lots of old-school Republicans would love to do exactly that -- but when they're actively courting the working-class stiffs, they have to play down their long-term plans to eliminate Social Security and whatever.
Therefore, even though eliminating the economic incentives would be the best method of reducing illegal immigration, any plan to eliminate ecomonic incentives would anger either one side or the other of the economic axis. So what do the Republicans do instead to make it look like they care about protecting your job from illegal Mexicans? They talk about plans to build an insanely expensive and useless wall along the border, a brute-force solution which will do absolutely nothing about immigrants sneaking in aboard boats and trucks. And they talk about English-as-official-national-language, a purely symbolic action which does nothing.
I don't think it's really this simple, of course. Even within a group that I have shown as a single entity, there are lots of people with lots of diverse opinions. And what makes this more complicated is the fact that there are lots of voters whose ancestors came here from Mexico, and they don't take kindly to a political tactic that portrays their people as an army of criminal invaders! What's more, Hispanic americans for historical reasons tend to fall mainly into the working-class and bible-thumper (catholic variety) demographics -- usually both at the same time. This means that the very groups that the Republicans are trying to appeal to with their crazy wall-off-the-border plan contain the largest number of people on whom the message will backfire horribly!
What about me? Like I said before, I am part bleeding-heart and part corporate overlord. I support immigration from both points of view. I think immigrants deserve to have a shot at a better life in our country and at the same time I think they help our economy out a lot by working hard at jobs nobody else wants. I think the danger of immigrants stealing jobs and mooching off the government have been greatly exaggerated. I think it's a problem that so many people are breaking the law to come here, but I think the best way to address that is to remove obstacles to legal immigration while cracking down on employers of illegals, thus making it more attractive for immigrants to come in through the proper channels.
And yeah, I think they oughtta learn English, for their own good. Learning English opens up lots of opportunities for them. But hey, we should learn Spanish too. More bilingual people is always a good thing.
Last Friday I got Scott McCloud's brand-new book, Making Comics. It will be seen as part of a trilogy along with Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, but really it's much more of a direct sequel to the first book. (In other words: if you were disappoianted by Reinventing, as many people were, then here is the book that you probably wished it was.)
The difference between Understanding and Making is that the former was something like a PhD thesis in comic-book form, while the latter is a how-to guide in comic-book form. It is not a how-to-draw book. There are already lots of how-to-draw books; this is a how-to-tell-a-story-with-pictures book, which is a topic that has only very rarely been directly adressed, ever. So yeah, I needed this book! There's a lot of stuff in it about choosing panel layouts and "camera" angles and other mechanical details, always stressing that there's no "right" answer but always helping you to understand what the artistic effects of the different choices would be.
Another great thing: it's chock-full of examples and visual quotes from some of my favorite comics ever. Every couple pages I let out a happy yell of recognition as I saw a chunk of a panel from some obscure comic I read and loved years ago. There's panels from Calvin&Hobbes, Ranma 1/2, Sandman, Rose of Versailles, Maus, Edward Gorey, One Piece and Osamu Tezuka, Tintin and Asterix, Fantastic Four, Watchmen, Persepolis, Penny Arcade, Ghost World, Jason Shiga and James Kochalka and Spike. There's webcomics, newspaper comic strips, newspaper comics, manga, European comics, graphic novels, underground comics... none of the book is biased towards any particular format or culture. All the advice is universally applicable, which is really cool!
There is a chapter about facial expressions and body language which is mind-blowing. It's one of the most insightful things I've ever read. Scott dissects the way that the body and face express emotions with such vivid accuracy that I will literally never look at people the same way again after reading this book. Search the web for reviews of Making Comics and you will find there's a lot of discussion going on about this chapter in particular.
As someone who spends way too much time putting tiny details in the backgrounds of my drawings, I was also a big fan of Chapter Four, "World Building", in which Scott discusses the importance of creating a sense of place with establishing shots and so on, and pleads desperately to his readers to please learn how to draw in perspective and not to skimp on backgrounds!
Finally, in the chapter on styles and genres, there is an analysis of manga, as in what makes it feel different from western comics, which made me want to stand up and applaud. NO IT IS NOT JUST BIG EYES AND SPEED LINES THANK YOU VERY MUCH. "And as styles and stories on both sides of the Pacific Ocean continue to evolve, manga can be seen for what it always has been: Another word for comics." he says.
So, I am mighty inspired by this book. I've been drawing a lot lately anyway, but Making Comics came along at just the right time to give me a mega inspiration boost. I am rapidly nearing the point where I will be ready to unveil a secret project that I've been working on for a very long time. By a strange twist of fate, it looks like this will happen at almost exactly the same time as Humanized finally releases Enso. In other words, next month is going to be, knock on wood, a pretty exciting time for the life of Jono!
The horrors of daytime TV
So the comments thread on my long political rant has turned into a fascinating discussion of the political philosophies of the colors in Magic: the Gathering. Scroll down and check it out.
I'll follow that up by describing some of the paid political ads I saw while waiting in the courthouse yesterday. I'm sure anybody with a TV has already seen them all plenty of times, but yesterday was the first time for me.
I got summoned for jury duty and they had daytime TV on in the jury assembly room, so besides political attack ads I got to sit through All My Children and Days Of Our Lives. Oh joy. Soap operas are bizzare. None of these people ever seem to have to go to work, or school, or to the store, and none of them seem to have any hobbies or do anything fun. They seem to have nothing to do all day except confront each other in oddly-lit rooms to accuse each other of having affairs and argue indignantly about other people's reactions to events that may or may not have happened three episodes ago. Do the writers really think that's what life is like? What's wrong with them? Or maybe they make it ridiculous on purpose and then secretly make fun of their own audience.
Um, sorry, I lost my train of thought there. Where was I? Political attack ads. In descending order of frequencey:
1. There were lots and lots of political attack ads against Illinois Democrats, especially Gov. Blagojevich and Tammy Duckworth.
2. There were several postivive ads for various Illinois Democrats.
3. There was one attack ad against Republican cantidate for governor Judy-Bar Topinka.
4. There was not a single postive ad for any Republican cantidate.
These ads are all horribly annoying, of course. Ads for commercial products, even though they're annoying from constant repetition, are at least well-produced and aimed at making you feel good and making products look fun and/or delicious and/or sexy. The ad industry has had years to develop its strategies and polish its techniques. Political ads in contrast always look cheap and slapdash. Especially the attack ads, because the attack ads always have lots of text and still images of the opponent and this MENACING DOOM-AND-GLOOM MUSIC and an ominous voiceover who sounds like he's doing a horror movie trailer. They're just crude and unpleasant and make you want to change the channel. It makes me wonder how effective they actually are and how often they backfire psychologically.
But if you look past the horribility of the ads, it's interesting to see the strategies they're pursuing. Is the lack of positive ads for Republican cantidates simply because there's nothing positive to say about any of them? That can't be right. I have heard that many Republicans in state and local races are trying to distance themselves from the President and the national Republican party, since the party at the national level has had scandal after scandal after scandal in recent years, and are widely percieved as corrupt, and I've heard that Republicans are turning down offers of campaign help from the President because they don't want his unpopularity rubbing off on him. It's really that bad. The way to win, clearly, is to portray yourself as the only alternative to something even worse, and that would explain why Illinois republicans would be trying to remove themselves from the picture and focus entirely on what's wrong with their opponents.
To nobody's surprise, they are putting a lot of weight on Blagojevich's various financial scandals. They want everyone to see him as personally corrupt. The most-commonly played ad in fact ends with the slogan "ROD BLAGOJEVICH: HAD ENOUGH?" which is amusingly almost the same as the bumper sticker I complained about the other day: "HAD ENOUGH? VOTE DEMOCRAT". Pretty sad state of affairs when the only thing anyone has to offer is "I'm not the other guy". I guess it works, judging by 2004, when Kerry got 49% of the vote. Not a single one of those people was voting for Kerry. Kerry was incredibly lame. Kerry had no positive qualities that would suggest he would make a good president. Every single one of his votes was just a vote against Bush. In 2004 the Democrats could have picked a random homeless man off the street and nominated him for President and he would have gotten 49% of the vote, that's how much people hate Bush. Imagine how much the Democrats would have won if they had found a good cantidate! (That statement could apply to a lot of past elections too.) So I guess the lesson that all the strategists have learned from this is that attack ads are now the only form of campaigning that you need. It's always been easier to get people to vote against something they fear than for something they like, but the trend seems to be increasing so that now a party can run a campaign without a single positive ad for any of their cantidates.
More interesting are the tactics used to smear Democratic cantidates for Congress. These ads use the word "liberal" over and over, in a tone of voice like they think that "liberal" all by itself is such a damning insult that you don't need to say any more. Fascinating. "liberal" can be defined in dozens of different and contradictory ways, some of them positive to large sections of the population. That makes it a very strange choice for a slur.
Even funnier was one ad that accused the cantidate of being a "Nancy Pelosi wannabe". I wonder how many people watching soap operas even know who Nancy Pelosi is (the current minority leader of the House of Representatives) and of those, how many think her name is synonymous with evil as the makers of the ad obviously did.
But it's not all just content-free slurs and meaningless comparisons. There were also a lot of accusations that democratic cantidates were soft on illegal Mexican immigrants, i.e. because they wanted to give them amnesty or voted against putting national guard troops on the border with Mexico.
OK. Immigration is a complex issue. It's not one of those 2-sided issues that can just be broken down into "for" and "against". Actually, the more I learn about political issues, the more I think that there are no issues that simple. But immigration is especially multidimensional. Most people agree there must be a problem when so many people sneak across the border, illegally and at great personal risk, and take jobs for illegally low wages in bad conditions with no benefits. Thing is that people don't agree what the problem is let alone what the solution should be. Is the problem that they reduce the price of labor thereby taking jobs away from Americans? Or is the problem that these poeople are being exploited? Or is the problem that these people don't understand or integrate into our culture and language? Or is the problem in the fact that our legal immigration system is too slow and difficult?
I guess what I'm saying here is that even if you think we need to discourage immigration, you might not think that putting guards at the border is the right thing to do. You might think that a better way to do it would be to reduce the economic incentive of easy illegal employment by more agressively punishing companies who hire illegals or pay less than the minimum wage or whatever. I would like to see more discussion of this issue. Or rather, more sensible level-headed discussion of this issue and less accusations. I think the debate gets heated a lot of times because one side of the argument is actually addressing a different issue from the other side, and they don't realize it, so they just yell past each other.
I'll probably do a whole long rant just about immigration and different views on it at some point.
Coming up next: about the trial and the jury selection process. A lawyer eliminated me from the jury early on, and I didn't get picked for any other trial. I'm very fortunate; the trial was expected to go on until next Friday, so it would have been a week and a half of missed work. It was a medical malpractice lawsuit. A boy lost his testicle and the parents were blaming it on a mistake by the doctor and suing. So it would have been a week and a half of missed work AND trying not to giggle while lawyers said "testicle" over and over again.
Giant earwig attacks Germany
Look quick, before Google Maps fixes it: there seems to be a giant earwig attacking Germany.
(This is another of those silly links that gets passed around so much that we quickly lose track of where it came from; I got it from Pharyngula but he got it from someone else, who got it from someone else...)
Election day approaching: Time for a lengthy rant!
Have you registered to vote? I just mailed in my registration from my new address last week. Election day is November 7. If you've moved, or you just turned 18 or whatever, you need to make sure you're registered at your current address. In Illinois, you are supposed to be registered 27 days before the election, which means October 11 (so yeah, this post is about a week too late to be helpful).
Yeah it's not a presidential election. So what? It's really sad that a lot of people only vote in presidential elections, because the state and local ones are more important in some ways -- your vote counts for more, and the result is likely to have a more immediate impact on your life.
In case you live in a cave, we are electing senators, representatives, and governors next month. The choices for Illinois governor are pretty lame. But the congressional elections are especially important, because we have a solid chance to take away the Republicans' majority in one or both houses. Why does this matter? Well... it's time for a rant.
Why I don't write much about politics
In the past, I have mainly stayed away from writing explicitly partisan political rants on this website. I figure there are plenty of political "bloggers" writing "blogs" in the "blogosphere" (oh how I curse the coiner of that stupid word) that you could go read. And anything I have to say about politics has usually already been said better by someone more knowledgable than me, and you might as well go read their page instead of mine.
Also, I never ever want to turn into a partisan hack. You know -- those people who support one party or the other like it's their local sports team; they viciously attack everything the other team does, while defending everything their own team does. Even when their own team does something obviously wrong, they'll make excuses for it.
I don't want to be one of those people. When I was young and naiive (by which I mean 2 or 3 years ago) I used to be a pretty hardcore liberal, like most college students. Gradually I started realizing that the whole liberal-conservative, left-right thing is fundamentally bogus. There are a lot more than two positions on most issues. There are important issues that don't get discussed nearly enough because they don't fit on the left-right axis. If you take a good hard look at the ideas of "leftism" and "rightism", each of them contains much that is hypocritical, and each of them spends far more time attacking the other than proposing useful solutions for problems.
Both "left" and "right" are what Dawkins would call virulent meme clusters -- they're like computer viruses that take over your brain. Each tells you what opinion you should have on all issues. Each makes you see humans carrying the other virus as enemies. Each makes you uncritically accept illogical arguments as long as they support the opinion the virus is giving you. In fact I think "left" and "right" are really two versions of the same virus, because neither one could survive without the other -- each depends on instilling fear and hatred of the other version of the virus in order to motivate their hosts.
(George Washington didn't want to have political parties at all, because he recognized the danger that politicians would be more loyal to their party than to America. This is exactly what I see happening.)
I think I have finally gotten all of the leftist-virus out of my head, but old habits of thought are hard to break. So, part of the reason I don't write about politics much is because politics these days is all about how much Bush Junior is screwing things up. And Bush Junior makes me mad. And anger is an emotion that clouds rational thought. So when we learn that, for instance, the government has been compiling a secret database of every phone call made inside the United States for several years, I get mad, and sometimes I don't know whether I'm mad because I should be mad or whether I'm mad because of habits I have left over from the leftist-ideological-virus. In other words, I don't trust myself to be objective. Therefore, ironically, when I feel very strongly about the news of the day, I usually won't put anything on this site. I'll just read a lot about it and stew in my thoughts, trying to break it down as rationally and neutrally as I can, to try to form my own conclusion, which I mostly keep to myself.
And I usually don't have anybody with whom I can have a serious discussion about it, either. I have coworkers (well, one certain coworker) and family members (well, one certain family member) who I know will disagree with me quite strongly, and the argument would put a strain on our relationship, so I'd often rather keep quiet about it and preserve the harmony. My friends from school, on the other hand, usually already agree with me, so there is very little to say about any of it. So most days I have this maelstrom of thoughts about current events, bottled up in my head, with nowhere to go. I don't think it's healthy long term. So I think from now on I will just let it all spill out onto this page. Because what else is the internet for? And maybe a commenter will help me to understand something better or will correct me when I get something wrong, or maybe just give me some lively debate.
Doonesbury comic, scanned in from the Chicago Tribune, is copyright Gary Trudeau and Universal Press Syndicate, used without permission, please don't sue me, I'll take it off if you ask.
We don't need no thought control
How I lost my faith in liberalism is a story for another time. Suffice to say, my basic stance these days is that I am opposed to all ideologies. Following an ideology, even if its contents seem benign, robs you of critical thinking. It makes you search out evidence to support your preconceived conclusions and reject any evidence to the contrary.
I think the biggest lesson we should learn from the bloody history of the 20th century, it's that whenever the followers of an ideology gained total power in a country, the result was inevitably blood and horror on a massive scale. It doesn't matter if the ideology was left, right, center, or unclassifiable; wherever there was a group of people claiming to have the Single-Theory-That-Explains-Everything (Join Us And We Will Build A Glorious New Regime, Oppose Us And You Are The Enemy), millions of people were murdered. Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, China, Japan, and so on and so on -- seems like most of the world succumbed to this fever under a variety of different names. People join an ideology because it seems to give them easy answers, and it makes them feel like part of something big. They are all too willing to let the ideology override their own consciences, because they think they are justified in making a few "sacrifices" to create a better world.
When the 21st century got started, I was hoping that this stage of history might be behind us; but no, here's a new murderous absolutist ideology -- or rather, a very old one which has only recently gotten our attention: fundamentalist Islam. These guys are sick, scary fuckers. They believe in an evil god who would send them to heaven for killing unbelievers. They're so terrified of anything remotely sexual that they feel the need to hide women away and pretend they don't exist. And stone women to death for showing bare ankle. They have such an overdeveloped sense of honor that they go into a murderous rage because some Danish guy draws a cartoon of their prophet. They have no way of coping with the modern world, so they want to destroy it. They want to die because they think this life sucks so much that they want to get straight on to what they imagine comes next. There's no reasoning with people who are completely controlled by religion.
Of course I'm talking about the fundamentalists, the "Islamofascists", I'm not saying every Muslim is a bad guy. I knew some who were in America training to be doctors, and they were fine people. But the ones who join terror organizations are really, really bad. And their badness cannot be completely explained by the fact that they are poor and oppressed. If you actually try to read the Quran you will understand that a lot of the violence really does come straight out of the book. We can live in peace with Muslims who use their own judgement and ignore the bad parts of the Quran, that is, thoughtful and civilized Muslims who follow their consciences and don't succumb to the ideology. There is no way to live in peace with someone who takes the whole Quran as an instruction book, because that book is full of evil shit. I hasten to add that the Old Testament is full of evil shit, too. Christianity only became civilized when Christians figured out that they had to use their own judgement and ignore the evil parts of the Old Testament. (I grudgingly admit the New Testament is mostly OK, except for Revelations).
It's the 21st century and we're back at war against another murderous absolutist ideology (one that belongs to the 8th century). And the relative peace and prosperitya and more-or-less global cooperation of the 1990s seems like a historical fluke. So depressing. But the pattern is clear: ideology makes people ignore their own consciences. Ideology turns people into killers. Ideology starts wars.
To America's credit, in the modern age we have never let an absolutist ideology take over our country. I credit this to our tradition of distrust of authority, independence of mind, and skepticism. (No I'm not being sarcastic! It might be easy to scoff at the idea of Americans having independent minds in the TV age, but compare us to just about any non-Western-European country and you will see that Americans are much less impressed with conformity, tradition, authoritarianism, etc.)
Additionally, our system of government is based on separation of powers, of checks and balances, etc. It's based on the assumption that power corrupts, human beings are falliable, and therefore nobody should be trusted with too much power. That's why the President can veto Congress, why Congress can impeach the President, why the Supreme Court can find laws unconstitutional, why some powers are explicitly denied to the national government, and most importantly why we get a chance to vote the bastards out every couple of years. From the beginning we have assumed that power-hungry individuals are going to try to take over the government, and so we're supposed to have everybody watching everybody else so we can squash the authoritarian impulse when it arises. (There is a certain similarity to the peer-review system in science, or the code-review system we programmers use at Humanized: nobody knows for sure what's right or not, so instead of a central authority, we have everybody examine everybody else's work looking for mistakes. It's the best way to discover and correct errors!)
Authoritarian ideologies hate checks and balances. They hate criticism and open discussion of alternatives. They thrive on enemies, hierarchies and centralized, unquestionable authority.
Here's my main point: It's the duty of every American to prevent an authoritarian ideology from taking over our country. Don't think it can't happen here! It could. It very certainly could. And it could come from either virus. Both the leftism-virus-ideology and the rightism-virus-ideology need to be opposed. When either one gains too much power, we have to put a stop to it.
At this particular moment it happens to be the rightism version of the virus that is the most dangerous, because it has infected enough people to gain control of all three branches of the federal government. And they have already begun dismantling the checks-and-balances system and dismantling the Bill of Rights.
President as King?
To be specific, the Republicans have subscribed to a peculiar and extremely un-conservative theory of government: the idea that the President is above the law. (Richard Nixon was also famous for holding this theory.)
It begins with the idea that the President alone can declare war (it is supposed to be Congress who makes this decision, but the current Congress has become such a passive bunch of yes-men that all of Bush Jr's wars have effectively been declared by him and then rubber-stamped by Congress). Then, since a state of war exists, the commander-in-chief can invoke emergency powers to override any law that gets in his way -- so goes this theory. This is part of the really quite radical (as in, not conservative at all) ideology that the Republicans now embody. When the president declares certain people to be "enemy combatants", and throws them in jail without trial -- without even charging them with any crime -- that's an application of this theory. Note that he has done this to at least one American citizen, captured on American soil. Note that many of the enemy combatants have languished for years in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, or one of the top-secret Eastern European CIA torture-chambers, without ever hearing the charges against them. The president furthermore claims the right to ignore the Geneva Convention and define by himself what is and what is not "torture", so that interrogators can inflict any torment upon these prisoners that they feel is neccessary, as long as the president defines it as an (ahem) "coercive interrogation technique" and not as "torture". (Remember that since these prisoners have not been tried, we do not know whether they're guilty or innocent, nor do we know whether they have any useful intelligence or not.)
When the president taps your phone lines, without a warrant, and in violation of even the flimsy protections granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, he is again acting according to the radical theory that he can just ignore laws he doesn't like. Consider also his use of presidential signing statements, a formerly obscure action where the president, when signing a bill into law, can write a brief note clarifying how he interprets the law. Well, Bush Jr has made orders of magnitude more signing statements than any other president, and in many cases he has used them to completely change the intent of a law. In other words, he's accumulating to himself the power of law-making, which is reserved for the legislative branch. He has also stacked the supreme court with appointees who are friendly to the theory of president-as king, what Samuel Alito calls the theory of the "unitary executive". Checks-and-balances are all but gone. The "USA PATRIOT" act seemed pretty ominous when it was first passed, but it was nothing compared to the government overreach that's happened since then.
Former presidents have, of course, suspended people's rights during wartime. Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus (the right to challenge the evidence against you in court) during the Civil War. FDR imprisoned Japanese-Americans during WWII. That doesn't mean these things were right, neccessarily. But the main difference is: the Civil War ended. WWII ended. We got Habeas Corpus back and let the Japanese-Americans go free after the war. When is the War On Terror going to end? What are the victory conditions? When all the terrorists are dead? How will we know? And anybody in the world could become a terrorist at any time, if they choose to use terrorism as a tactic. In short, there is no victory. It's not like there's a country we're fighting that can surrender to us. The War on Terror is a permanent state of affairs. That means that the President is using a permanent state of war to justify having permanent dictatorial powers. Will this carry over to future presidents? What guarantee do we have that one of them will not abuse these emergency powers? Merely by using a combination of the powers that Bush Jr has already claimed to have, a future government could listen in on your phone conversations, decide based on what you say that you should be classified as an "enemy combatant" (perhaps simply for criticizing the government), and then lock you up without charges or trial, and torture you indefinitely. We put limits on the power of our president for a reason.
When Bush Jr and friends break these limits, they do in the name of protecting us from terrorism, of course. The Republicans been using people's fear of terrorism as a kind of blank-check excuse for anything they want to do. "We have to invade Iraq or the terrorists will win!" "We have to torture prisoners or the terrorists will win!" "We have to imprison people indefinitely without trial or the terrorists will win!" "We have to tap your phone lines without a warrant or the terrorists will win!" "We have to violate the Geneva Conventions or the terrorists will win!"
Fear is always a tool of authoritarian ideologies. Keep people afraid, and they won't complain when you take their rights away.
Let's review the Republicans' "accomplishments"
Now when I say that they are using fear as a tool, I'm not implying that I think the terrorist threat is imaginary!! It's real, and it's serious! In fact what I'm saying is that, despite their surveillance and expansion of government and so on, the Republicans are not doing a good job of fighting terrorism. They talk a good game, but when you actually look at their record, there is much that they have either failed at or neglected to try.
They have done nothing to secure our ports, where a terrorist could easily smuggle a weapon of mass destruction in aboard a shipping container. They have done nothing to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. They have done nothing about Saudi Arabia, the global center of terrorist ideology and funding. They failed to prevent 9/11 despite growing evidence that the government had plenty of clues it was coming. They have not caught Osama Bin Laden. They have failed to bring peace or freedom to Afghanistan. They have failed to bring peace or freedom to Iraq. They went into Iraq based on faulty intelligence. They went into Iraq with one third the number of troops that the senior Pentagon staff estimated as the minimum number to hold the country. They went into Iraq with no plan for how to establish order after the old regime was destroyed. The Iraq war, whatever you thought about it in the first place, has been waged incompetently, and as a result, it has increased, not decreased, the terrorist threat, according to the national intelligence estimate. Republicans have failed to make any progress at all on the israeli/palestinian situation, which feeds terrorism. They have gotten us into a situation where Iran is going nuclear and there's nothing we can do about it. They have weakened our ability to respond to threats by overextending our military. They have weakened our global strategic position by breaking treaties, alienating our allies, and making us new enemies.
The recent news that North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon is especially troubling. Wasn't North Korea part of Bush's "Axis of Evil"? Didn't he say that our highest priority for national security was to keep weapons-of-mass-destruction out of the hands of the Axis of Evil so that they would not be sold to terrorists who could use them on America? Didn't he stress how important that was? Wasn't that the justification for going to war in Iraq? Hasn't that been the justification for all the lies and secrecy and violation of treaties and circumvention of constitutional limitations on government -- the justification that it was all to keep WMD out of the hands of the "Axis of Evil"?
Well it has obviously failed because one member of the Axis of Evil definitely has nukes, another (Iran) is halfway there, and the third (Iraq) was the only one that didn't have any WMD, but we're still fighting a war there three years after Bush went out on that aircraft carrier with the "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" sign, and the number of American soldiers dead in Iraq now exceeds the number of American citizens killed on 9/11, and what did they die for? What the hell has it all been for, now that Kim Il-Jong has the bomb, and he would be more than happy to either hit our allies with it or sell it to Al-Qaeda like a real-life version of the plot of "Team America: World Police"? And our real-life "Team America" never did a single thing about it. Their idea of being "tough on North Korea" was to refuse to have any negotiations with North Korea. Gee that sure worked great.
Bush Jr, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, etc: Your record on fighting terrorism is one of miserable failure. The one, single issue that you said was sooo important that it justified you breaking all these laws? You suck at it. Get the hell out!. Get the hell out of the White House and give the job to somebody who can do it competently!
Those who are motivated by an authoritarian ideology will always fail. This, again, is the lesson of history. Successful leadership requires facing facts and dealing with them. And ideological True Believers do not make decisions based on fact; the ideology tells them the answers and if they engage with facts at all it is only to pick and choose facts to prop up their desired conclusion. It's like Stephen Colbert says: "I don't trust facts, because facts are based on reality, and reality has a well-known liberal bias." The ideology says to invade Iraq, so they look for justification. (There is evidence that certain members of the administration wanted to invade Iraq right from the time they took office, and after September 11, 2001 they immediately said "How can we make this into a justification?") They say Saddam has links to Al-Qaeda. Well, no, he doesn't. We now know for sure that there were absolutely no links. Well, no problem, we'll invent another justification: Iraq has WMDs. Well, no, they don't. We found that out for sure too. No problem, another justification: We're going into Iraq to liberate the people and promote democracy!
And we can see how well that worked. Technically Iraq has a democratically elected government, but it is a farce which is powerless to stop the civil war which is now claiming an average of 7,000 Iraqi civilian lives per month. The country has no functional infrastructure and is now full of secterian militia who roam around every day and night chopping the heads off of anybody they don't like, and neither the supposed Iraqi government nor the American army seem to be able to stop them. Iraq is now a hot-spot for terrorist recruitment. How is this supposed to be better than Saddam?
Although I opposed the Iraq war at first (vehemently), I have eventually come around to the position that a war to remove Saddam's regime and set up a free and peaceful Iraq in its place would ultimately have been morally justified, if it had been waged competently. But the hard work of building a functional nation was never the Bush Jr. Administration's goal: it was merely an after-the-fact rationalization. And so they didn't plan for it properly. And so they failed. Ideology leads people to ignore inconvenient facts, and when you ignore facts you fail. Always.
I want terrorism to be faught competently. The Republicans have proven they can't do it. When confronted with their failures, the Republicans are quick to change the subject, to try to redirect the blame to Democrats. "The Democrats just want to run and hide!" It's true, the Democrats haven't offered any better ideas. While the Republicans have been ripping the Constitution apart the Democrats have, with very few exceptions, been going along with it like cowards, because they are afraid of being branded unpatriotic. Of course, that's lose-lose for them; they ought to know by now that the Republicans will find an excuse to paint Democrats as unpatriotic no matter what they do or say. That's basically all the Republicans have left to offer: "We're bad, but the Democrats would be worse!" It's kind of hard for me, at this point, to see how they possibly could have been any worse.
Where are real leaders when we need them?
But are the Democrats any better?
This essay is my long-winded way of telling you to tell everybody you know to go vote Democrat in November. But I want you to understand why I'm saying that. I'm no fan of the democrats. I'm not saying they're good leaders, or even that they're the lesser of two evils. I'm saying that it's not healthy for America for the government to be completely controlled by one political party, as it has been for the last four years. And the last four years has shown us, vividly, why it is not healthy.
This is much bigger than the question of whether W is an idiot or not, or whether the current administration is competent or not. Our constitution, our rights, and our system of checks and balances are all in need of repair. If we let the Republicans keep a monopoly on power for another two years they can do still more damage to it. Breaking their majority in Congress is merely an emergency stopgap solution; the corruption in Congress runs very deep, and they are not being held accountable. So in the long term, we need to do a lot of housecleaning of our federal government. But until we do, the ideal situation is to have the government divided. If the Congress is divided 50-50, neither party will be able to force stupid laws through just by voting along party lines, and maybe Congress will stop acting as a rubber-stamp department for the out-of-control executive branch. It's not a sure thing, but it's the best chance we have right now.
That's one way of describing candy I suppose
"...shining in colors of the cheeks of a snow-country child" ?
Weird things I have eaten lately
I ate chicken feet for the first time on a trip to Mountain View Chef Dim Sum in Chinatown on Saturday. They were marinated in a nice spicy sauce and everything, but they were still chicken feet. Nothing but skin and cartilage. Yuck.
Also ate for the first time: a "preserved duck egg" bun from Chiu Quon bakery. They take a duck egg, coat it in ash and lye, bury it underground to ferment for six months so that it turns into a thick chewey mass of black jelly, then bake it into a pastry with candied ginger. It was surprisingly edible, but it sure made me feel funny.
Last week, I got lunch for the Humanized office from a drive-through greasy-spoon type place called "Susie's" a few blocks east. They gave me four extra orders of fries by mistake, without charging me. So we had an insane number of fries. These are the good kind, with the skin still on them and everything, but there was no way we could eat that much. So I took them home and I've been using them to cook with. Throw a few in a pan with meat and vegetables -- it's easier than chopping up potatoes, and you don't need to grease the pan (yum).
Slogans seen on cars lately
"Had Enough? Vote Democrat!" bumper stickers seem to be proliferating. I kind of agree with this, but holy moly, is that really the best slogan the democrats can come up with? I guess it is. "Democrats: We're not the guys who have been starting wars, violating the constitution, and screwing up the country for the past six years! We're just the guys who sit quietly in the back and do nothing while the Republicans get away with it because we're afraid of being called unpatriotic! Vote for us!"
Bleagh. I've got a lot to say about this but that's another post. Meanwhile, if I had a car, I would kind of want a bumper sticker that said something like "Vote for the most qualified cantidate regardless of party!" or maybe "My political views are not simplistic enough to fit on this bumper sticker!"
Yesterday I saw a magnetic ribbon on somebody's car that said "I Support The Makers of Ribbon-Shaped Magnets". A couple years ago I joked that somebody should start selling such a thing, and I guess somebody did. This makes me happy.
Another car I saw had a big hand-lettered sign in the back window: "IMPEACHMENT: IT'S NOT JUST FOR BLOW-JOBS ANYMORE".
More weirdness from my subconscious
Last night's dream: I met Eric Idle and asked him to autograph my "Zork Grand Inquisitor" CD. (Cuz, in the dream, he was a voice actor in that game, even though he's not). And I was gonna ask him to do the "Wreck-Gar" voice but I decided not to because he probably gets stupid requests from fans all the time and is sick of them. When I gave him the CD it actually a CD-R copy of the Mac OS X install CD.
And then, I was in this dungeon in Italy, and I was trying to drink out of a drinking fountain, but I noticed there were lots of tiny shrimp in the water (like sea monkeys) so I didn't drink it, and I watched the shrimp go down the drain, and then suddenly this HUGE MUTANT shrimp jumped out of the drain and flew at my neck and I was like "AAAGH WHERE IS IT GET IT OFF!"
And then I was at Aikido class and I was fighting this huge guy and we each had nunchaku (note: nunchaku are not used in Aikido in real life) and we were trying to garotte each other with the chain parts of them (note: garotting is not encouraged in Aikido in real life). It was pretty vicious.
Some more that I had previously: One where I wanted to show my solenoid-gun (that I am building in real life) to Aza to get advice on how to improve it, and he said "I already saw, I was playing with it while you were asleep" and I said "Wait a minute, do you sneak into my house while I'm asleep and play with my stuff?"
And then there was one where I was in the Marines and me and my squad had this terrorist trapped inside a warehouse and we were having a tense firefight with lots sniping from behind cover and bullets ricocheting off of metal shipping canisters. And then when he stopped shooting for a while we finally charged in, but he was gone; he must have snuck out the back and hidden himself in the crowd. Nuts!
And then I went to the North Pole. There was just this little circle drawn in the ice to show you where the pole is. I was like "Great, now I've been to the North Pole! Let's get out of here before the ice cap melts!"
YAKITATE BLOW THE MAN DOWN
Random thoughts from last night's anime club meeting, as I originally wrote them in an email to Googleshng this morning.
We're watching each week:
2 episodes of Outlaw Star
2 episodes of 12 Kingdoms
2 episodes of Yakitate! Japan!
1 episode of Haruhi
Since episodes are slightly shorter than half an hour, this works out to 3 hours total.
12 Kingdoms: It's cold, and there are wolves after me, and the sea is full of freaky glowing vortices, and Keiki died and turned into some kind of weird unicorn and another unicorn came over and made there be words on his horn, and there is a standard operating procedure for people who come through the Boundary from Japan, and Sugimoto is an awesome character who thinks she's the main character of an RPG and wants to steal from and kill old ladies. Oh wow Sugimoto, you're my anti-hero. And this show is throwing just enough confusing stuff at me to make me really curious about how this world works and what happens next, but not so much that I lose the thread of the plot. Oh wow GOOD WRITING.
I couldn't tell at all when Yoko's face supposedly changed, except that her skin seemed to get more red, but I don't know how that makes you not recognize somebody. It's like the script required a change of character designs but the animators forgot.
And Yakitate! Japan is AMAZING. This show really makes you want to
eat bread. And learn to make bread. And at the end of the show they
have educational bread facts. And the end credits have live-action
bread-making footage and then they break open the finished bread and
it's all crusty on the outside and steamy and chewy-looking on the
inside and it looks SO GOOD. This show is BREAD PORNOGRAPHY.
Also it's full of japanese puns which the fansubbers struggle
desperately to explain, like how Azuma Kazuma doesn't know what a
croissant is and he thinks they're saying "Kurowa-San" and so he's
going around asking everybody who this Kurowa person is. Also, Azuma
Kazuma (gotta love that name) bakes naan and there's this whole scene
which is just a series of puns on how "naan da" (it's naan) sounds
just like "nan da" (what is it). And then he doesn't know that curry
isn't originally a Japanese food. He just assumed that the word
"curry" must come from "karai", the japanese word for "spicy". Ok,
well I think it's hilarious anyway.
And there are major plot points that revolve around how many layers
you fold croissant dough into and how much butter and sugar you put in
it. And there's this sadistic and overly strict guy who runs the
baking examination that they have to pass to get into the prestigious
baking school, and he can look at somebody's bread and deduct 2 points
because he knows without tasting it that they baked it for 30 seconds
too long. And there's one guy who's like a baking samurai and slices
up his dough with a katana. OK, it all sounds kind of stupid when I
describe it, but belive me, this show RULES. I was laughing and
cheering and clapping through all of two episodes yesterday.
And then there's Haruhi... after the first two episodes, I still
don't get what the point of this show is. OK, so the characters made
a bad amateur film, and it's realistically bad in all the ways that a
real amateur film would be, and it makes fun of stupid anime cliches.
OK, I admit that this is kind of a clever idea, and that the animators
did a really good job of making it look like they took a handheld
camera to an anime world, which is quite an accomplishment. But it's
still a BAD AMATEUR FILM. Sitting through 20 minutes of camera
mistakes and bad acting and bunny costumes and dead air, um, dead air
is just PAINFUL. Again I must wonder, what is The Melancholy of
Suzumiya Haruhi about? Is it about tormenting the audience? Is the
whole motivation of the plot just that Haruhi is bored? I sure hope
this gets more interesting in later episodes.
And after we were done watching stuff, Cat, who is now our club
president, and who had snuck out during the show, came back in wearing
a full pirate-wench costume, with the stripy stockings and the bandana
and the lace-up bodice and everything. And she had a leather
cat-o-nine-tails and a book of pirate songs, and she made us all
gather round and sing pirate songs or she would whip us.
I was Surprised.
Chicago weather GO!
It just started snowing here. In early October. Three weeks ago it was shorts, t-shirt, and sandals weather.
Party like it's 1999
So, in case you weren't paying attention, Google just bought YouTube. For $1.65 billion -- in stocks, that is; no actual money changed hands. We appear to be in a second internet speculation bubble, which is why people are talking about this stupid "Web 2.0" concept.
So, we're gonna party like it's 1999 and companies can once again make billion dollar transactions using pretend internet money. Then again, all money has value only because people agree to pretend it has value; so if you think about it, there's no inherent difference between paper dollars, dollars in a bank's database, stocks, and World of Warcraft gold pieces in Blizzard's database. They're all just abstract numbers that can change hands and which we agree to pretend have some intrinsic value.
Commentary from the founders of YouTube is here. The founders are two young guys who, in this video, stand in a parking lot and giggle.
I like to joke that YouTube is a company whose "business model" is to give away massive amounts of storage space and bandwidth to anyone who asks so they can post copyright-violating material, all while having no apparent source of income. Great idea eh? I've been wondering for a while now whether the site was committing slow financial suicide and would die soon, which would be a shame since there's lots of cool stuff there. But I guess Google will keep it alive.
But note that the BBC article makes no mention of how YouTube makes money nor how much, if any, they make. But it makes a big deal about how many users and how many page views YouTube has. Ah, of course. As long as you have lots of users, who cares whether the users are making you money or costing you money? Right?
Apparently it is 1999 again.
I don't even like Daily Kos, why are we sleeping together?
I had a dream last night that I had to sleep with Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. Not like having sex, but like we had to share blankets. See, we were both in the Fellowship of the Ring, and we were trekking across Eriador, and we all spent the night in the cabin of this random kindly old woman, and there wasn't enough blankets or floor space to go around, so, sleeping together, and pillow talk about political blogging, and of course I've read Daily Kos, but I don't read it regularly, and I am trying to pretend this is just because I don't want to get sucked in and spend all day reading it, like Slashdot; what I am trying to avoid telling him is that I can't stand his stupid blog, or the partisan hacks and paranoid conspiracy theorists who post there.
Yeah, my dreams are weird.
(Yeah, OK Markos, I hate the Bush Jr. Administration too, but that doesn't mean I agree with you about anything else. Honestly I'd rather read Andrew Sullivan's blog. There, I said it. Andrew Sullivan does a better job of hating on the Bush Jr. Adminstration than you do, Markos, and he's a conservative.)
Eyeballs IN 3-D!!
For as long as I can remember I've had an unusual vision problem. My left eye is fine, but my right eye is very nearsighted. I'm not sure how this happened. I'm used to it, and unless I go around with my left eye closed I don't really notice it. The thing is that out past a few feet I'm not getting any useful input from one side, so I have very little stereoscopic depth perception. (Think of Leela on Futurama trying to watch a movie with 3-d glasses: "Mine's not working!" ) One eye doctor who examined me about 10 years ago said "it's as if he's been looking at a computer screen his whole life". (Me: "You don't know how true that is.") This same eye doctor said they couldn't make glasses for my condition, because one side would be plain glass and the other side would be an inch-thick lens, and it would just look too weird. (Me: "So what! that sounds cool!" ) So he gave me one contact lens for my right eye, and put it in and I was like "WHOA! EVERYTHING'S IN 3-D!!"
But putting that lens in every day was just too annoying. I hated trying to jam things into my eyeball, trying to fight my involuntary blink reaction, and it took so much of a struggle that I said "This isn't worth it" and gave up.
This is one of the reasons I never got a driver's license, because part of the test to get a learner's permit is an eye test; I told them "It's not like I'm ever going to be driving with one eye closed" but they didn't care, they had to test each eye seperately, so I never passed that part. It wasn't all that big a deal, because soon after that I moved to Chicago which has excellent mass transportation, and then Japan which has even more excellent mass transportation, so not having a car was only a slight handicap.
But this year I said enough is enough, I'm gonna correct my vision and learn to drive. ( The fact that Humanized got us all health insurance was a bit of motivation too. ) And who knows, maybe eyglasses technology has advanced in the last 10 years and they can make me some now.
Well, I went to a local optometrist and after getting a prescription from the doctor in the back ( 8.x in the right eye, nothing in the left ) I gave it to the front-desk lady and asked if I could get glasses, and she looked at the prescription and looked at me with horror like I had just told her I was holding her family hostage. Oooooookay maybe not glasses then.
So, I got some boxes of soft contacts for the right eye. Maybe it will be easier to jab things in my eyeball now than it was ten years ago. I got home and spent about an hour trying to get one to go in there, with no success. Over the next several days, I tried it for about an hour each morning, asked some people I know over email, but it just wasn't working. As soon as the lens touched my eye it would fold back over my index finger and stick there. Very frustrating.
Finally, after anime club on Wednesday, Eric offered to watch and tell me what I was doing wrong. With his help, I finally got it in, and then it was like "WHOA 3-D!!!" all over again. Thanks Eric!
So, all day yesterday it was really exciting to just walk around looking at things. It's like I'm in a whole new world, a paralell world with a higher special-effects budget. Or like I got a better graphics card for reality. Everything looks smaller, oddly, smaller and more detailed, and I can see things very clearly much further away, but most striking is the stereoscopic effect, like looking through a ViewMaster or into one of those stupid pictures of static that has a 3-d panda bear hidden in it if you stare at it the right way.
It got to be distracting and overwhelming, in fact. Kind of a sensory overload, so much detail coming in all the time. My right eye has to relearn how to focus on things, and my visual cortex has to relearn how to process all this data, so it was making me real fatigued yesterday and I was having trouble concentrating.
I'll get used to it. Next: To the DMV to get that learner's permit, and then to find somebody who will let me practice with their car! I still don't plan to buy a car ( I'd have nowhere to put it, for one thing ), but there are so many situations where I could have helped my friends out by taking a turn driving their cars if I had only had a license. I want to be able to do that in the future.
NetFlix, that company all the kids are using these days that lets you rent videos through the mail, is having a contest. They have a system which looks at what movies you've watched in the past and how you've rated them, and tries to recommend other movies to you. They want to make it more accurate. To state the problem precisely: Given a database full of movies, containing the ratings (1-5 stars) that every user has given to each movie, and given a user Bob and all the ratings that Bob has given to movies in the past, predict the rating that Bob will give movie X.
A more classic machine-learning problem would be hard to imagine! It's got all of the elements of a textbook case. I took a machine learning class a couple years ago, but didn't get much out of it because it was one of those incomprehensible, disorganized PhD seminar things. So a lot of academic research has gone into classification problems, where you train a program with a set of inputs where each one is labeled with a category, and then try to have it correctly predict the category to assign to unlabeled inputs.
So NetFlix is giving out a massive sample data set for anyone interested in attempting it. It's divided into a training set and a test set; after training your program on the training set, you can run it on the test set and compare your predicted ratings to the ratings that users actually gave. Your score is the root mean square error over the test set. You're trying to get a low score; a score of 1.0 for example means you were off by 1 star on average.
They are offering 1 million dollars if you can get a score below 0.9, and 10,000 dollars if you can get a score below 0.94, I think. The accuracy of NetFlix's current algorithm is 0.95.
Andrew at Humanized has gotten really into this contest. He's been loading the dataset into his MySQL database and covering a whiteboard with statistical models.
There is a leaderboard up at NetFlix where you can see other people's scores. There are several in the 1.6-1.4 range. One thing Andrew discovered quickly is that some very very simple solutions work pretty well. The average rating given to any movie is 3.6 stars. This is an average over all movies in the database. It turns out that if you write a stupid program that simply predicts 3.6 stars for EVERYTHING, that program gets a score of like 1.1. In other words, whatever those people are doing to get 1.6-1.4 is less accurate than just always guessing the same number, which is really sad. If you use the average rating for the particulr movie rather than the average rating for all movies, you get an even better score, like 1.01.
So, we're within 6% of one star of NetFlix's own accuracy, and we haven't even starting attempting to account for individual taste yet, which is what you would think the whole system would be based on.
We can perhaps make a better prediction if we make a personalized weighted average for the movie in question; that is, instead of giving all users equal weight in figuring the average, we try to give more weight to the opinions of people with similar taste to Bob's and less weight or even negative weight to the opinions of people with opposite taste. We can construct a measure of how similar the tastes of two users are by looking at how they have rated the same movies. You can come up with a simple equation that approaches 1 as the users get more similar and approaches 0 or -1 as the users get more different. One way to do this is to create a very high dimensional "moviespace", 1 dimension for each movie, and then each person's preferences become a vector in this space, and you can take the dot product of two users' vectors to find out how similar they are. It helps for normalization if you change the scale from "1 to 5" into something like "-1 to 1", but there's a couple ways to do this; it's not neccessarily a linear mapping -- if people reserve 1 and 5 star ratings for the extremes and give most movies 2-4 stars, then it's more like a bell-curve distribution than a linear map. But this gets really confusing because different people are using different curves and there's no way to account for this. An even bigger problem is what to do with movies that one user has rated and another user has not. You could just drop those out of the calculation, or replace the lack-of-rating with an average rating, but the fact that a user hasn't rated a movie could indicate that they have absolutely no interest in watching any movie of that genre, so it's really more accurate to say that they have given it a rating of "beneath contempt", which is lower than one star! This is valuable information, but unfortunately a "benearth contempt" rating is indistinguishable from a "haven't gotten to it yet" rating. Also, a "controversial" movie, i.e. one with a high deviation in its ratings, might be a better "litmus test" of somebody's taste, so maybe such movies should be given more importance in constructing the taste-similarity measure.
See what an interesting problem this is? I could get seriously into it, but for the moment I'm going to leave it to Andrew who is having a lot of fun with it. My one suggestion is that we ought to have special-case code in the program so that anybody who gave "Armageddon" five stars gets automatically dropped out of the calculation. (This is a joke, see. To a programmer code which tests specifically for individual cases is so obviously a bad idea that it's hilarious.)
Speaking of movies, the guys tied me down last Friday and made me finally watch Shaolin Soccer. I'm glad they did, cuz Shaolin Soccer is pure distilled awesomeness. It's a completely ridiculous, over-the-top live-action cartoon of a Chinese movie about a team of misfits who use kung-fu skills to win at soccer. We're talking the kind of movie where the hero kicks the ball with so much chi that the ball bursts into flames and the flames take the shape of a raging tiger which charges right through the defending team and knocks them all spinning into the air. The kind of movie which is aware of its own ridiculousness to the point that the team the heroes face in their climactic match is actually named "Team Evil" and they emanate a visibls cloud of black swirling evilness which forms a demonic face in the air above the soccer field. It actually manages to be intensely dramatic and exciting even though you can't stop laughing through the whole movie. Kind of reminds me of Giant Robo or One Piece. If real soccer was like that, I would watch it every day.
Blind knife-fight three against one GO!
Now that I'm not working insane hours anymore, I'm getting back into doing Aikido more often. I'm trying to work up to doing it five days a week on a regular basis. I have to make it a priority in my life in order to improve.
Some evenings when I leave work I am tired out and I really don't feel like going to the dojo when I could go home straight away, to eat dinner and read web pages about the worst episodes of Star Trek.
It's always better to go. I figured this out a long time ago. I never regret going to the dojo and I always regret not going. I read somewhere that the reason it's so easy for people to be lazy and procrastinate and so hard to stop bad habits is because during the long process of human evolution, we figured out that life is short and uncertain. If there's food there now, better eat it now because it might be gone tomorrow. Something might require sacrifice now but bring benefits in the future; but if you make the sacrifices and then get eaten by a lion before reaping the benefits, well, sucks to be you. I'm not saying our behavior is hard-wired by instinct; we do have conscious minds for choosing between alternatives; but what I'm saying is that there's some deep instinctual programming that automatically inflates any costs you pay now while discounting any benefits you receive later, and inflates benefits you receive now while discounting costs you pay later. It does all this processing before passing the alternatives on to your conscious mind for decision.
So this is reason it seems so much better to play video games now than later, and so much better to do your homework later instead of now. Problem is that it's always now when you're making a decision, so you're always going to think it's better to put things off. So we have to recognize this tendency and fight it! It's an instinct that's no longer appropriate for the developed world in the 21st century, when we hvae a pretty good idea where our next meal is coming from, we can hope to live to at least 70, and accomplishing anything good in life takes lots of planning and foresight and hard work. The way to fight the instinct, I've found, is to always pose questions to myself not in the form of "what do I want to do now?" but rather "When it gets to be the future, what do I want to already have done in the future's past?". This short-circuits the instinct and makes it give me a more objective evaluation of the alternatives.
The point of this digression was to explain how I talk myself into going to Aikido when I don't feel like it. And it always turns out to be the right thing. In fact, the days when I don't feel like it often turn often turn out to be the coolest Aikido lessons!
Like a couple months ago, there was this huge rainstorm right when I was biking home, and I was drenched to the skin -- I would not have been more wet if I had jumped in the lake (but my Aiki-gear was still dry; I guess my backpack's water-resistance is pretty good). I got to Montrose & Lincoln, which is the intersection where I either turn right to go to aikido or go straight to go home, and I really just wanted to go home and dry off, but after a long mental battle I went to Aikido anyway. And it turned out to be awesome, because Marsha-sensei had us do jo (staff-fighting) techniques with the lights off and the windows open, in a thunderstorm. It was wicked cool.
And Tuesday night last, when I didn't feel like going, I went, and it was the most hard-core class ever. Three of us and Choate-sensei, and Choate-sensei skipped all the warm-up and the easy techniques we usually start with, and instead went straight to passing out knives. Other than being blunt they were big, serious, metal combat knives. So the first practice we did was the one where you're bare-handed and three guys attack you with knives at once. And then it got more intense from there: Three guys attacking you with knives and your back is against the wall, and then a slow-motion knife fight with our eyes closed. Then Sensei turned of all the lights in the dojo, and had us spread out, close our eyes and spin around until we were completely disoriented, and then said "OK, now kill somebody." So we were all hunting each other in the dark by the sound of footsteps. It was scary as hell.
In the last exercise, one person was "blind", another was his bodyguard, and two others were asassins. The blind guy is walking across the still-dark dojo with his eyes closed, the asassins are trying to stab him before he gets there, and the bodyguard is trying to protect him by any means neccessary. We took turns switching up the roles. Lots of fun but, man, I'm going to be looking over my shoulder for the next couple of days if you know what I mean.
Last Sunday, went down for training in Hyde Park; Don was like "Jono! You're still alive!" because he hasn't seen me in a few months due to work. Chris Taw-sensei visited again and brought some of his students, so the room was fairly crowded, but at least the HPPD has enough mats to fully cover the floor now! They repainted the place last week so it's looking like a real dojo.
After that Taw-sensei invited us back to his "secret lair" for BBQ. The lair is a floor of an abandoned industrial warehouse out near like 35th & Halsted, i.e. the middle of nowhere, that he rents from these two Chinese artist brothers who own the building. He has an artist studio and a woodworking shop in one corner, and a couple of other hippie types have made another couple of rooms into an apartment, and the rest of the floor is just a vast concrete cavern full of pillars. Sometimes they train by setting up mats there.
To grill the meat, we set up two charcoal grills out on the fire escape. Yes. The 2nd floor fire escape. It had one of those hinged staircases that swings down towards ground level if you walk out on it. I got a good look at the mechanism for the first time and found out there is this hinge-lock at the top to prevent people on the ground from grabbing the staircase with some kind of grappling hook and pulling it down to them. ( So much for that plan. )
I talked shop with this older guy who fixed the Y2K bug in a certain major commercial network which operates in airports around the world. He told me the story that he and the other IT guys were tensely gathered around a global status display on New Year's Eve, and they watched as midnight came to New Zealand and the first spot on earth crossed over to 2000, and everybody was holding their breath, and then they got a message from Paris saying "We lost Auckland!" and they got a call from California saying "We lost Auckland!" and sure enough the light for Aukland went out on their display. So now everybody was terrified. But a few minutes later Aukland came back online and they called up and said "Auckland, what happened!" and the guys in Aukland said "Sorry, somebody accidentally pulled out the power cord."
I forgot this guy's name but he had lots of cool stories. He lost that job after 9/11 when the airports were shut down and his company suddenly had no income. Nobody wanted to hire a 65 year old IT guy. They were probably thinking he only knows COBOL or something. Stupid prejudice. So he switched careers again. While we were eating and talking I dropped my fork and yelled "NOOOOOOOO" as it fell between the metal bars of the fire escape staircase I was sitting on and landed in the parking lot below.
We all hung around for a while swapping Aikido stories, and talking about how to stay safe in bad neighborhoods of Chicago (the most important technique of any martial art: how not to get in a fight) and wondering why it is that Aikido attracts nerdier people on average than other arts ( the now-defunct U of C club was almost entirely people from math, physics, chemistry, and comp sci. We were always wondering how to attract members from other departments ). We took turns riding around on a bicycle inside the warehouse, weaving between columns. One guy found a praying mantis on the outside of the window. I checked out Taw-sensei's record collection; turns out he likes Frank Zappa nd Mahavishnu Orchestra too, so we got talking about that and he recommended me all these other obscure fusiony artists.
So, in summary: Aikido means doing cool stuff and meeting cool people! And getting stabbed a lot. And getting sarcastic comments from Choate-sensei when you screw something up. That kind of grates on my nerves, because when one of us is trying our hardest to do some very difficult technique we've never done before, and we screw up, sometimes he'll say something derisive, or just glare at us, and it just seems mean and discouraging. But whatever. It's been my experience that the people who annoy me to train with at first are the people I should train with the most, because I will learn the most from them, because usually the root of my annoyance is that I'm annoyed at myself for not doing better, and training with that person will force me to improve more than training with someone who lets me feel comfortable.
Let me guess, you're using Ruby...
The week before last, I was hanging out with Aleksa and Mom. We walked Aleksa to school on Monday morning, and while we were waiting on the blacktop with the lined-up kids, I talked to some of their mothers.
There was this one mom named Heidi who found out that I work for a startup company called Humanized, and she said,
Wait, wait, let me guess. You program in Ruby... and you are making some kind of... collaboration software... to make people be more productive... and your logo is... either a squiggle, or like a circle turning in on itself.
(We use mainly Python, which is very close to Ruby as languages go; ours is not collaboration software, but it is to make people be more productive (granted this is a very vague category); and our corporate logo is a leaf, but the logo for our first product is an irregular calliagraphic circle. So she was uncannily close on all three counts.)
I was flabbergasted. Was she psychic or are we just really predictable?
It turns out that Heidi has done some marketing-type work for several "Web 2.0" type companies and so is quite familiar with all the cliches. (Oh I feel so dirty when I use the phrase Web 2.0. More like "Web Hype 2.0" where Web Hype 1.0 was the dot-com boom of the late 90s.)
"You can't run a company with just four programming geniuses. Who else have you got?" she said.
"Well, we do have a lawyer and an accountant we consult with... and a graphic designer guy who does the website..." I said, feeling suddenly vulnerable.
"But what about marketing and PR and getting attention? Who's going to get you written up in the New York Times?"
"Aza knows a guy at the New York Times, I think... he's working on it."
Heidi later looked at our website and was pretty impressed. She offered to help give us advice on marketing type stuff.
I assumed that anybody pushing a stroller on an elementary-school playground wasn't going to make for very interesting conversation, but boy howdy was I wrong. I guess the moral of the story is not to "misunderestimate" people.
That of our own?
At Union Station, which I passed through today to get to La Grange in order to babysit Aleksa, there is a recorded message repeated periodically over the loudspeaker:
Metra is still in a heightened state of security. We ask that you, our passengers, please add your eyes and ears to that of our own.
Sorry to be Grammar Nazi here, but "add your eyes and ears to that of our own"?? That doesn't make any sense! What does "that of" refer to? Add your eyes and ears to that (eyes and ears) of our own (eyes and ears)? Why not just say "add your eyes and ears to our own"? This bothers me, not only because a sentence which is going to be repeated hundreds of times a day to thousands of people should be proofread, but also because it's like they took a perfectly good sentence and went out of their way to make it into gobbledygook by adding unneeded words.
I'm only 26 and I'm already a grumpy old man. Maybe I should start writing cranky letters to the editor.
Now that I think about it, maybe they meant to say "add your eyes and ears to those of our staff" and then it somehow got corrupted into its present form. That's still no excuse.