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Matt McHugh
Matt McHugh.com - Blog - April 2004

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SUBJECT:
Steal This (Free) Book!
DATE:
Apr-30-2004

Lawrence Lessig (www.lessig.org) is a law professor at Stanford University who has written extensively on issues surrounding copyright and intellectual property. His main themes seem to focus on how extensions of copyright terms and aggressive assertions by corporate copyright holders in the digital world are stiffling the spirit of free exchange that electronic communication so readily fosters. Putting his money where his mouth is, he has pursuaded the publisher of his latest book, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, to make the book available free online. (You can still buy the print book from the usual outlets, too.)

While I do think this is an admirable foray into practicing preached openess--and certainly live a glass house myself when it comes to the world wide web of free distribution--I think Prof. Lessig's experiment is a bit disingenuous. After all, the guy's a law professor, has published multiple books, and is widely recognized in the field. He doesn't need money (though he might still enjoy a little extra). He doesn't need the air of legitimacy that print publication lends an academic of lesser reputation. And, as an advocate of liberal information sharing, putting his work free online amounts to a publicity stunt that gets him noticed by wider audiences. (I wouldn't have heard of him, save for an article in the NY Times Book Review.)

My point is not to impugn Prof. Lessig's free book schtick, but just to point out that he can afford it--and, in fact, is in the rare position of being helped by it. Most authors write to make money. They have to, otherwise they wouldn't have the time to write. Hobbyist-authors, like myself, whose writing is not commericially viable, work by day and type by night simply for the satisfaction of it; making it free online is the only hope of any readership. For the annointed few who have the luxury of fame and alternate income streams, well, of course they're perfectly happy to make their stuff free.

You might say I'm just jealous. You bet I am.

-- mm

Website for Lessig's book: www.free-culture.cc


SUBJECT:
Pointy Shoes
DATE:
Apr-29-2004

When did these ultra-pointy-toed shoes become popular with women? I've only recently started noticing them. They look like pixie shoes. Or maybe for a cowboy garden gnome. Or like something a "congratulations on your new baby" greeting card fairy might wear. Curl them a little and stick on jingle bells and you've got perfect court jester slippers. They look as if at any moment they could roll up and recede like the witch's feet sticking out from under Dororthy's house.

As much as I hate to belittle trends in the fashion industry, it needs to be done.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Have You Scroogled Yourself?
DATE:
Apr-28-2004

"Typosquatting" is an interesting phenomenon of the Internet age. It's when someone registers a domain name that's a few letters off a very popular site's URL (yahoo.com, nytimes.com, harrypotter.com, etc.) in hopes that people will make typos and land on their website. It's a ingenious bit of parasitism, that becomes truly despicable in the most egregious cases (e.g. "Notorious Cyberscamer" John Zuccarini who registered thousands of typo domains, many kid-oriented such as "harypotter.com," that ended up used by porn sites).

While the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO ...stupid-sounding acronym any way you say it) has been systematically ruling against cyber- and typosquatting, there seems to be thriving industry in what I'll call rhymosquatting--particularly based around Google. An odd word that's become almost synonymous with Internet searching, a number of sound-alike variations are out there now, such as:

  • boogle.com - points to Google for searching, but displays a quotation on the landing page. Not sure if it's affiliated or not.
  • coogle.com - A shady-looking webstore.
  • doogle.com - A legit digital media company.
  • koogle.com - Owned by a Hong Kong-based domain grabber (I was disappointed this wasn't for the awful brand of peanut butter I remember as a kid, though koogle.net is about a Jewish dessert).
  • scroogle.com - Porn, of course!
  • toogle, roogle, woogle, zoogle.com - Assorted web services providers
  • etc. etc. - almost anything you could think of.

But, there's a noteworthy one not taken: mchoogle.com --and it's very tempting, but I think my wife will kill me if I buy any more domains. But if anybody feels the need to give me a late birthday, or early father's day, gift...

-- mm


SUBJECT:
The Abortion Party
DATE:
Apr-27-2004

Last weekend, abortion rights activists held a massive rally in Washington D.C., with unofficial attendance figures well over 500,000. With the big conservative swing in this country in the last few years, I'm actually a little surprised at the large turn-out. I guess there really is a yin for every yang.

Every time I see pictures of a large protest rally or--having worked for years in Manhattan close to the U.N.--have been forced to witness or wade through one, I'm always left with a profound sense of distaste. Doesn't matter if I agree in principle with whatever the protest is for or against, the image of a mass of people with banners, chanting and shaking their fists, is disturbing to me. Call it fear of the mob, or just my big, fat anti-social streak, but I just want to distance myself from it. All I see are people getting high off the feel of their own vehemence, a big party where the collective unthinkingly reassures every member they are in the right.

I always think of these lines from a couple of favorite songs:

People singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say hooray for our side.
      - "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield

Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.
      - "All This Time" by Sting

There you go. For what it's worth.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Fictionalized Car Commercials
DATE:
Apr-26-2004

There's a commercial for Jeep running right now that shows a car carrier (the big truck that transports multiple cars on that bridge-looking thing) with one car in the top-level, front spot missing. An inspector notices this, then notices that the missing car is parked neatly on the ground just in front of the truck. The truck driver is standing there, looking a little guilty. The inspector looks baffled and asks him how he got it down (presumably without having to take off all the other cars first). The driver just kind of shrugs sheepishly, the apparent implication being the off-road capabilities of the Jeep are so good, he was able to drive it off the front of the truck. As the commercial runs, a single, disclaimer-style word appears in small type on the left-hand corner of the screen:

Fictionalization

OK, so in the spirit of honest disclosure, Jeep is stating that the seemingly impossible event implied by the commercial is, in fact, really impossible--i.e., they "fictionalized" it. I suppose it could be seen as laudable of them in some way, though, personally, I think the nimrod in legal who insisted they do it deserves to be demoted to proofreading contracts. Have we, as a society, become so litigious that if a tongue-in-cheek car commercial isn't flagged as such, some dolt somewhere will use it as a basis for the lawsuit-lottery? Everyday, the trend just gets wackier and wackier.

And what's with "fictionalized" as a label? Why not "creative license" ... or "exaggeration for promotional purposes" ... or the like? Save the "fictionalized" subtitle for a venue where it's really appropriate and serves the public interest. Like on The Apprentice or Survivor. Seriously, I want to sue them for undermining the public's ability to distinguish reality from contrivance.

Hmm... that's not a bad idea. After all, those shows make a lot of money. Any lawyers out there want to take the case?

-- mm


SUBJECT:
The Conundrum of Solaris
DATE:
Apr-25-2004

Just watched the new, Soderbergh-Clooney Solaris, a remake of a famous 1972 Russian film, based on a 1961 novel by celebrated Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem.

I liked it. It was ponderous and vague in some ways, but I still found it engaging emotionally and intellectually. (Note: my favorite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey, so take my comments in that context.) Like so much that bears the "science fiction" label, this really wasn't. Although it's set in a technological future in space, the setting is just an excuse to let a certain kind of story unfold without the burden of logic. That's not meant as an insult: if you want to take a fresh look at reality, it often helps to imagine a fantastic setting where things outside everyday experience can happen within maximum suspension of disbelief. Much good sci-fi follows that formula.

So what's the film about? As my college film teacher might have said: about 100 minutes. Beyond that, well, the details don't really matter. The story, as I grasped it, is about the conundrum of existence. Who are we? How did we get here? What are we supposed to do with our lives? Right and wrong. Life and death. Yada... yada... yada. You can't ponder such questions without the baggage of familiar arguments unless you take the whole discussion to an alien environment. Literally, in this case. And I enjoyed the head trip--though, many people might not. My suggestion: rent the movie, get comfortable and watch it. If it puts you to sleep, then it's not your kind of thing. After all, there are worse things than being lulled gently to sleep.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
The Privacy of the Anonymous Dead
DATE:
Apr-24-2004

The recent flap over published photos of American flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq has given rise to what may be the most offensive, blatant lie told by the Bush administration to date. In defending the White House's attempt to suppress the photos, spokesman Trent Duffy claimed that the reason behind this was to respect "the privacy of the families."

Oh? How, exactly, is the "privacy" of anyone threatened by photos of coffins displaying no individual identification? Perhaps he meant that the intention was to spare the families the emotional distress of being reminded their loved ones had been killed in action. Like they'll ever forget. Either way, it's utter crap.

I can understand why the administration wants to avoid calling public attention the rising death toll in Iraq. I can even, in a coldly intellectualized way, grasp why hiding images of war death could be good for national morale. But to do so for political reasons then claim personal sensitivity is just disgusting.

Michael Moore said it in such a shrill, obnoxious way that he forever stained people's perception of the phrase, but it's still as true as ever:

Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you.

-- mm

Photos of coffins at Dover Air Force base at The Memory Hole web site. (NOTE: NASA is now claiming that many of the photos said to be of Iraq war dead are actually of crew members from the Columbia space shuttle disaster.


SUBJECT:
Shaksper's Birthday
DATE:
Apr-23-2004

April 23 is traditionally regarded as the birthday of William Shakespeare. However the only authoritative record states that his baptism in Stratford-on-Avon occurred on April 26, with the custom at the time to baptise a child at three days old. It is reliably documented that he died on April 23, and April 23 also happens to be the feast day of England's patron saint, the mostly mythic St. George. Given these coincidences, it's no wonder that tradition has settled on this particular date for Shakespeare's birth.

But though tradition loves myth, the counter-traditionalist, "Anti-Stratfordian" movement is fueled by just such sketchy details. There are still many devotees of the position that the author Shakespeare is not the man born in Stratford (who did, by the way, sign his name "Shaksper"). The "Pro-" side says we have ample evidence who wrote the plays; the "Anti-" side says there are many clues pointing to the hidden identity of the true writer. Career Shakespeare scholars argue about this--which is their job, after all--but I've never heard anything proving either side's case to my full satisfaction.

Personally, I tend to accept that the man born in Stratford April 23-ish was the author--but there are still questions around that. How did someone with illiterate parents cultivate such language skills? Where are the original manuscripts? And, quite simply, how did he know all the stuff he described with detail (courtly behaviour, warfare tactics, classical mythology, horsemanship, falconry, etc. etc.). The Anti's say only the nobility would know of such things; the Pro's dismiss that as snobbery. I guess I choose mainly to believe in the staggering potential of a keen writer's combined powers of observation, imagination, and craft. Snobbery of another sort, perhaps.

-- mm

A Pro-Stratford suite: Shakespeare Authorship Page
An Anti-Stratford suite, championing the 17th Earl of Oxford: Shakespeare Oxford Society


SUBJECT:
Tourrorists
DATE:
Apr-22-2004

According to the Patriot Act, it is prohibited to take photographs or video of certain public structures--bridges, train stations, airports, even some skyscrapers. I've heard tell of people being harassed or having their cameras taken away, though it's mostly hearsay and tough to tell what's true of such stories.

Is this seriously supposed to deter terrorists determined to blow up such a structure? Are there really new, secret security measures in place on the Brooklyn Bridge or Grand Central Station? If so, what prevents someone from simply standing for a while and studying them? Are there Patriot Act "no loitering" laws in place, too? Perhaps all public landmarks should simply be covered, Cristo-style, so no one can see them? THAT, at least, definitively accomplishes the aim of keeping security measures (or the lack of them) away from terrorist eyes. Of course, there are plenty of very detailed books and records available on many public structures, so we should also destroy all archival photographic or documentary evidence of any possible target. Yeah... that'll show 'em we're determined to remain a free society.

Like most of the "terrorist prevention" steps one hears about, this "no photography" restriction is essentially pointless. Its main effect is to subject photophilic tourists to increased harassment (which I fully support) and, as the stories of such encounters circulate, give the illusion that "something is being done" to keep us safe. Short of the most Draconian oppression (e.g., rounding up certain people into camps), there is little that can effectively deter an enemy resolved to inflict damage even unto the cost of self destruction. So register and fingerprint and take cameras away from anybody you want. Doesn't really make us any safer--but, feel free to believe it does if that helps you sleep better at night.

-- mm

Site with photographers' stories of run-ins with the law: FreedomToPhotograph.com


SUBJECT:
15 Years v. 18 Year-Olds
DATE:
Apr-21-2004

I just passed my 15-year anniversary with the same employer. The same week, I went to a local college to talk to students as part of a "Career Day" panel. The college kids behaved exactly like I would have at that age: listened politely, asked no questions, and probably disregarded everything I said.

Not that I think I'm a font of careerist wisdom, mind you. The only difference between me and the college kids is that 15-year head start on life I have. Time is the main force that has sculpted me into what am, rather than any deliberate effort on my part. I am, primarily, what my stage of life has made me; anything else is secondary.

Still, I can't help but feel this urge to impart something, to give these barely-out-of-the-box young 'uns the benefit of my experience. Upon thinking about this, I realize--more than anything else--that's my desire to change myself talking. Part of me wishing to turn back the clock and do something differently so that I might be something other than what I am now. Or maybe I'm just projecting a nostalgic romanticism onto youth. An if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now kind of thing. Either way, anything I said had more to do with what I wanted to say than what might have benefited the college kids to hear.

Ah, screw 'em, you know? They've got 15 years to work it out for themselves.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
CONTEST: The Most Definitions on Paper
DATE:
Apr-20-2004

Here's another fun (I know, a very relative term here) thing to do with a paper dictionary:

Try to find the word that has the most definitions, i.e., the one that has the most printed space devoted to it. I've done this a few times over the years, and I'm pretty confident I know what it would be in almost any dictionary. It's going to be a very common word, one that can mean precise things in a dozen different contexts, one that's been co-opted again and again.

Got any guesses? Send 'em in... I'll send the winner a prize of my own choosing.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Paper Dictionary
DATE:
Apr-19-2004

Somebody at work asked me if I had a paper dictionary. For what? Your chair is too low? There's a bump in the carpet you need to flatten out? You got a corsage to press?

I can't remember the last time I cracked open a paper dictionary. I have an unabridged that I just can't bring myself to throw away, but it's been in a box for about six years now. Between spell check and about a dozen magnificent free online dictionaries (do yourself a favor: bookmark One Look Dictionary Search today!), there's simply no reason.

Save one: serendipity -- like the phone book (See Feb-27-2004), browsing through a paper dictionary brings all kinds of interesting, random discoveries impossible with the precision of online searching. Here's a favorite game: just flip through a large dictionary and see how many of the index words at the top of the pages you know. I recall I got about 80% on an unabridged. Wonder how I'd do now? Guess I'll have to unpack that box.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
My Favorite Comics
DATE:
Apr-18-2004

Who are my favorite stand-up comics? There are plenty I like; plenty more I don't. Given how subjective humor is, it's difficult to argue with unwavering certainty that one is better than another, but here are some that I don't think most people would take exception to:

George Carlin - Intelligent, silly, profound, and vulgar. From comments on our common little oddities to the vast follies of the human species, his routines span all of experience. Baseball v. Football. Dogs v. Cats. The Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television. These belong right next to Who's on First as bits that will be quoted forever.

Bill Cosby - No jokes, in the traditional sense. Just a guy telling funny stories ranging from his childhood to his children. There was a time in college I could recite "Himself" with about 80% accuracy. I remember being 12 years old, listening to the Chicken Heart or Buck-Buck, literally gasping for breath.

Steven Wright - Master of the deadpan. His jokes are so good, that anybody could tell them and get a laugh. I've gotten e-mails that are nothing but his lines (rarely identified as such, by the way) that are just as funny read silently as heard amid a chuckling crowd.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Top 100 Stand-Ups
DATE:
Apr-17-2004

Comedy Central is running a series, "100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time," listing--obviously--100 stand-up comics. It's mildly interesting, but often annoying since they spend so little time on each comic.

Comedy is a notoriously subjective thing, however one of the underlying points of the show is that stand-up comedy as, perhaps, the prototype "performance art" is a very specific craft that its practitioners hone very carefully over time. The more I watch of it, the more I realize that's true. Different comics may have very different material, very different styles, but if you look carefully, you pick out patterns of presentation common to many.

Basically, if you break it down to its simplest elements, telling a joke involves stringing the listeners along for while, then hitting them with a little surprise twist at the end. Setup and punchline. And there are many rhetorical or stagecraft tricks you can learn to help pull that off. Thinking up the joke is art; telling it is skill.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Pizza Soup
DATE:
Apr-16-2004

So I go to my favorite Hoboken pizza spot. It's all backed up with lunch time business, with a line at the counter and the few booths the place has are fully occupied. Yet, the guy behind the counter insists on heating my two slices, from a freshly cooked pie, in the oven for five minutes.

They come out too hot to eat, the cheese and sauce a scalding soup. It takes longer for me to get my order, thus increasing counter backup--and longer for me to eat, so I take up valuable booth space. It's a lose-lose-lose scenario.

Message to Pizza guys: you DO NOT need to heat already warm pizza until reverts to magma. Pizza should be served congealed, not in the liquid state. Ditto for delivery. It can't be so squishy that the cheese slides off when the delivery kid fishtails his Festiva. I have so little in life I can enjoy without complaint. Don't mess up my pizza.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Line Item Taxes
DATE:
Apr-15-2004

I've always wondered: if people could directly choose the programs where their tax money would be spent, what would they choose? I'm not talking about anything that affects the amount, just putting the option in taxpayers' hands to decide where the government is allowed to spend their money.

I imagine a tax form that has a table of various areas you could choose to fund. You simply complete the table with percentages (adding up to 100%), something like so:

Education

___ %

Infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.)

___ %

Military

___ %

Health Care

___ %

Social Services

___ %

Scientific Research

___ %

Air and Space Exploration

___ %

Arts and Communications

___ %

Etc., etc. Of course, this is totally unworkable form a budgeting point of view, but I always been curious what the consensus of the country would be.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
In Praise of Fan Fiction
DATE:
Apr-14-2004

The Internet has given rise to an enormous body of "fan fiction," that is, original stories built around characters and situations from existing works--usually film, TV, or comic books--almost always in sci-fi/fantasy genres. Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer... that kind of thing. (Note: I mean legitimate fan fiction, not that reprehensible /slash/ fad!) Most of it is written, though there's plenty of video as well. Quality varies from laughable to astounding, but there's no denying the creators' commitment.

It's an interesting phenomenon. Fans of these genres (oh, let's go ahead and call them "geeks") tend to be passionate; what's more, they tend to feel almost a kind of copyright-transcending ownership of the characters they love. There's no shortage of frustrated artists (*ahem*) in this world, and with worldwide distribution only a click away, it's no surprise they've found a home on the web. The publishers and studios that really own the characters seem to turn a blind eye to the infringement, realizing--very wisely--that a self-sustaining fandom makes an undying market for their products. The obvious exception is anyone trying to sell their fan creations. Then it's lawyer time.

Have you ever wondered what favorite fictional characters might do in a certain scenario? Or been disappointed with someone else's interpretation? Or just wanted to take a whack telling the kind of story you like? I know I have [Scrooge & Cratchit]. More than once [Mr. Kent and Mr. Wayne]. And I'll probably do it again--unless, of course, I start making some money at it (hah!) and somebody calls the lawyers.

-- mm

Some noteworthy sites:


SUBJECT:
Bushku
DATE:
Apr-13-2004

Some haiku inspired by tonight's press conference:

It's been a tough time
But he's still standing now he's
Got his war-footing
If he sees a threat
He looks forward to the chance
Of dealing with it
He knows in his soul
Brown-skinned people can manage
A democracy
He read the memo
And would move heaven and earth
Had he an inkling
Peace is elusive
But you can find mustard gas
In a turkey farm
Saddam in Iraq
Had plans to go 'nuculer'
Whatever that means
     - submitted by mf



Got a Bushku? Send 'em in!

-- mm

ADDENDUM: Looks like I was premature with my tradmarking "Bushku" -- Everypoet.com already has an automated "Bushku generator." It plays a little fast-and-loose with the form (3-5-3 syllables) and what it produces is pretty random. The site also offers Human Bushku which are more insightful.


SUBJECT:
Hockey Tundra Dream
DATE:
Apr-12-2004

I had a fantastic dream last night. I was with a college hockey team that had just lost the national championship. The mood was general disappointment, but a certain amount of residual excitement we'd gotten this far. As the team walked out of the stadium, the whole world was nothing but vast, snow-covered tundra under a sunny blue sky. The snow was a light powder, only an inch or so deep, covering a colossal frozen lake. We all began to skate and play, like kids for the sheer joy of it. The snow remained pristine even as we skated through it, closing like a wake behind each stride. I can remember skating fast, marveling at how the snow didn't slow me down at all.

I have never played hockey, I'm not a big college sports fan, I can't ice skate, and I don't particularly like snow. I definitely believe dreams are meaningful windows into the psyche, but I don't subscribe to fanciful theories of psycho-analytic symbolism. I believe the imagery dreams take are very strongly rooted in recent conscious experiences, e.g.: earlier in the evening, I was talking with someone about the NCAA basketball tournament; recently I got an e-mail from a friend who played college hockey; and I've been looking for a snow blower, thinking--wrongly!--that they go on sale after winter).

So all that explains the scenario somewhat, but what of the psychological context? Childlike joy supplanting disappointment in an unspoiled--and unspoilable--environment. If dreams are the mind working on problems that bedevil it in waking hours (and I'm sure that they are), this one felt like a ray of hope to ease a sense I've had lately that the world is in an increasingly desperate state. I woke refreshed (after only 5 hours of sleep, by the way...) as if something had been resolved. I'm still not sure "what it means" but I'll take it as a gift in its own right.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Stranger in a Strange Edition
DATE:
Apr-11-2004

A follow-up note regarding Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. This famous sci-fi novel was first published in the '60s; in the 90's an "uncut edition" was published, supposedly restoring a significant amount of material that had been edited out of the original edition.

I've read, but never really compared, the two versions, so I can't say "what's different" between them. I don't know if the edits were originally made for length or potential offensiveness or because the publisher felt they improved the book. I'm sure someone somewhere has researched all this... if you know, please let me know.

My point is simply this: when checking online bookstores, I noticed that the 1991 release of the book with the passages restored is billed as the "original." It is not the original. Now maybe it's closer to what Heinlein originally wrote, but it is not the one he consented to have published originally. Maybe it's better, but it's not the version of record. Perhaps it will supplant the original one as the definitive edition, but it will never be the original. No way. No how.

I just wanted to point that out.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
To Grok a Chump
DATE:
Apr-10-2004

A favorite book of mine for years has been Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I encountered it as an impressionable teenager and it hooked deep into my psyche. Later I re-read it (the "uncut edition," released in the 90's), and noticed some of the book's weaknesses, but still found much in it to enthrall me.

I won't attempt to summarize the plot or delve into in any critique of it here--but I just wanted to note a favorite line. When the main character, a human raised by Martians, is working in a carnival, he refers to the show's stream of paying customers as "chumps." When someone corrects him saying it's not polite to use that term for people, he replies with perfectly forthright innocence:

I grok they are chumps.

I see people line up to buy the new hot car, cologne, book, movie, pop star, or ideology, not noticing or caring it's just a repackaged version of something that's sold well before. I hear people content to believe whatever voice of authority they find most comforting in any venue. I think about the assorted commercial, political, and religious institutions that owe their continuance to large populations that accept them without criticism. I think of these phenomena and I recall that little nugget of alien-schooled wisdom: we are chumps. If you accept that, there's only one thing to do: figure out how to use it to your advantage.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Who Killed Jesus?
DATE:
Apr-9-2004

The millennia-old ongoing flap--recently stirred up anew by The Mel's movie (ah, you thought I was done with that! Me too, but the best-laid plans, you know...)--over "Who Killed Jesus?" always interests me. The argument often loops around to laying culpability on "The Jews" in some unspecified collective way, but that doesn't make much sense on a number of levels. The answer that any faithful Christian must come around to is pretty simple and irrefutable: God did.

If the purpose of Jesus' existence on earth was to absolve humanity of its sins (in some unspecified collective way) and, by conquering death, open up the way to immortality and oneness with God in Heaven, then his death was all part of The Plan. The Bible makes it quite clear that Jesus' suffering is permitted only according to God's will (e.g., Matthew 26:36-56), therefore, from a theological point of view, any who participated in it are agents of that will. You can get into a lot of freewill/predestination back-and-forth about this if you like, but the bottom line is that it all went down the way the Big Guy wanted it to.

What interests me more is why. Why does God hold it necessary (one hopes He does nothing that is not necessary) to put His representative through such a fate? If you're a Christian, you must believe this was the only means to human salvation. Again, I ask why--and again, if you're a believer, your only answer must be that your faith tells you it is so. In my experience, that faith can come from either years of deep reflection or knee-jerk stupidity--though, I've encountered many who don't recognize any value in such distinctions. Makes me wonder if God does.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Obscure Alphabet Animals
DATE:
Apr-8-2004

Do you know what a jerboa is? (a small, long-tailed rodent that hops). How about a quetzal or a quagga? (a rain-forest bird with long tail feathers, and a recently-extinct relative of the zebra). A vicuna? (a small wild cud-chewing Andean animal similar to the guanaco but smaller). Xenops? (rain-forest bird from the Americas). Zorro? (a dog-like fox from South America).

Well, I do.

Children's alphabet books--of which we have dozens (kids are 1 and 3 now)--are often animal-themed. For some letters they have to reach a bit for animal names. I commend the authors' efforts to avoid the obvious quails and zebras--and X is always a problem. But there's a Sandra Boynton book where she has a yak-like animal holding a phone receiver connected to a set of vibes; it's billed as a "Xylo xylophoning."

I swear she made this up. I've checked a dozen sources and can't find any animal called a "xylo." I've also never seen a phone-cum-xylophone anywhere. Not Sharper Image. Not Spencer Gifts. Nada. It's appalling to me that this bit of fabricated misinformation slipped through the notoriously fact-centric publishing industry. It's important for grown-ups to know of this hoax lest they embarrass themselves at a cocktail party talking about how Maasai boys, upon reaching the age of manhood, must prove their courage in the xylo hunt.

Shame on you, Ms. Boyton. Shame on you.

-- mm

Thanks Enchanted Learning Picture Dictionary and OneLook Dictionary Search.


SUBJECT:
The Bedtime Hour-and-a-Half
DATE:
Apr-7-2004

My 3-year-old boy just stretches out bedtime no end. Bath, pajamas, potty trip, drink of water, reading stories, picking other books, another potty trip, lullaby, one more story, etc. etc. It takes about 90 minutes to get him down.

I hear him now. In his room with the lights on, banging around. I'm going to have to go put him down again. He's going to push it and push it until I have to yell at him, you mark my words.

My life is a Bill Cosby routine.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Beautiful Garbage
DATE:
Apr-6-2004

I just finished a lunchtime bottle of iced tea. SoBe Oolong Tea 3G (with a blend of Ginseng, Ginko, Guarana, and Bee Pollen). It was OK... and certainly sounds healthy, in a vaguely Eastern, New-Age-y sort of way. 25 grams of carbs, though (not Atkins-friendly!) and 24 grams of sugar.

Anyway, my point is actually not what's in the bottle, but the bottle itself. It's a pretty thing, a tall glass cylinder with letters and texturing and SoBe's curly-tailed lizard logo all formed into the glass. It's attractive and comfortable to hold, made of sturdy thick glass that could probably survive for a century. I'm going to throw it out now.

Aside from the issue of waste (a huge bugbear of mine), I find it difficult to simply toss away something so fine. It just doesn't seem right. This bottle is a product of centuries of art and technology; the craftsmanship of one individual (designed by one of the founders of the company, so I'm told) mass produced by the great machinery of consumer production until it's so common it's not worth keeping around. Again, aside from waste (a huge bug...oh, sorry to repeat), I just find it kind of sad that this object's fate is to be disposed of casually. Well, SoBe bottle... I shall remember and honor thee! Thou shalt live in my memory for at least 24 hours, until I buy another and start the cycle again.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
6-Year-Old Mohawk
DATE:
Apr-5-2004

A six-year old boy in California who went to kindergarten sporting a blue-dyed Mohawk haircut, which he got with his parents' approval, had the color washed out by the principal because it was picture day and other children's parents complained that it spoiled the look of the group picture. The parents are suing.

Despite the temptation, I won't get into discussing all the civil liberties issues involved, or the necessity of some measure of conformity in group education, or the intolerance of adults, or the litigiousness of our culture. But I will take the occasion to wonder what my kids are going to put me through when they reach the age of calculated rebellion. I think of the things I pulled to annoy the powers that be, so karmically, I guess I'm in for a rough time.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Sesame Street Over Time
DATE:
Apr-4-2004

Sesame Street turns 35 this week. I've grown up with the show (though, with a slight head start!), and now watch it with my kids. It's amazing how my perceptions of it have changed over the years.

When I first saw it as a preschooler, it was just this dazzling explosion of images. Soon, I began to absorb letters and numbers, then later to grasp the basic concepts of friendship and cooperation it promoted. A few years later, I could follow the simple storylines it wove to teach life lessons about anger or fairness or disappointment or persistence. As I got older, now beyond its education target but still entertained by it, I realized how funny it was--sharp and clever as it parodied elements of our culture (game show consumerism, news reporters' hollow urgency, etc.) As a college student taking an educational psychology class, I realized its true genius as a road map to the development of language and reason in young children. Now, today--married for many years, pushing 40, with young children of my own--I watch it and I think, "Man... Maria is kind of hot."

Here's to you S.S. You've truly stood the test of time, and offer something for everyone.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Hitchcockian Heresy
DATE:
Apr-3-2004

I guess you could call me a film buff, in some ways. I like movies, and I like knowing about them: the process of their creation, the economics behind it, the history, the techniques, comparing, contrasting, critiquing, etc., etc. Anyway, to come to the point, I paused channel surfing tonight to watch a portion of Rear Window.

Of the pantheon of great directors, Alfred Hitchcock is always included, typically with the title "Master of Suspense." I have seen many Hitchcock films, enjoyed them, and studied them for what they reveal about the craft. However, as heretical as this may be, I'm just not that impressed. Fine... I'll accept that he pioneered the genre and created a cinematic lexicon that every scary movie director cribs from, but it just seems to me that many of the students surpass the master. Hitchcock tends to be fairly heavy handed with directing your attention to what he wants you to see, and sometimes he feels obvious. He seems to nudge actors toward being either wooden or hysterical (the good ones, though, skirt these distracting polarities well enough). Some of the special effects which are supposed to be dramatic look distractingly primitive and dated now. And his fascination with Grace Kelly-esque blondes led him to waste a good bit of celluloid on Tippi Hedren.

I could give many examples, but the bottom line is that--and maybe I'm just missing the point--I just don't find his work as suspense-inducing as everyone else seems to. I've looked at this and tried to work out why, but. Any big Hitch fans out there care to rebut?

-- mm


SUBJECT:
No More Silver Scooters
DATE:
Apr-2-2004

Saw one of those folding silver scooters the other day. You don't see them much anymore, as opposed to a few years ago, when they were everywhere. You know why? They suck.

The small wheels have very little rolling momentum, so that you have to push constantly even on smooth, level ground. They fold up, yes--but not nearly to a size small enough to carry conveniently. They don't handle well on bumpy terrain; even a rough sidewalk is a problem for them. And they're tiring to stand on. That little platform can't accommodate two adult-sized feet comfortably.

I remember I bought one thinking I'd be all hip and eco-conscious and use it to get to and from the train station in my daily commute. Took more energy than walking and was no faster. Besides, I looked like a moron.

Ah, well. Another good idea in principle proven virtually useless in practical application. At least it was a lot cheaper than a Segway.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Office Practical Jokes
DATE:
Apr-1-2004

I used to love practical jokes. I haven't pulled a decent one in years, but I did enjoy them, and was pretty good at it. Working in an office is an ideal setting for these. Here's some oldies, but goodies:

  • Tape down the receiver button on a phone so it continues to ring even after picked up.
  • In older style computer keyboards, it's possible to pop the sheath of a key off. You can switch letters around (though good touch-typists are immune).
  • Word has an "auto-correct" spelling function to fix common misspellings as you type. This list is customizable. Go to someone's computer when they're not looking and add their name to the auto-correct list with a funny corrected spelling -- e.g., every time Bob types his name, the program automatically changes it to Boob.
  • Rubberband desk drawers closed so when they're pulled out, they snap back (can require some creative engineering).
  • Re-record someone's voicemail greeting. Do it straight, but have the voice be completely wrong (25-year-oldgirl records 50-year-old man's message, or vice versa)
  • Fake memo (a vast genre unto itself) describing an outrageous, but feasible policy change, e.g., lavatories will only be open between 12:00 and 2:00.

There you go. Use them wisely

-- mm




 





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