Wednesday, June 27, 2007


I was being a good citizen and returning my returnables a short while ago. I figured not too many people would have the same impulse on a Wednesday evening, after yet another day in the humid mid-90s.

Turns out everyone had the same brilliant idea.

Well, I was hardly going to cart all of those bottles back to my car. The last time I did that, they stayed clanging in the trunk for a significant fraction of eternity. I decided to hang in there.

One of the two bottle machines was broken. The second was being fed by a woman who, I dunno, had smeared grease on her bottles? Picked at her labels while drinking? Whatever, the machine was rejecting each of her bottles two or three times before relenting and accepting them.

To make matters better, there was a kindly old gent behind her. After suffering in silence for a while, he finally erupted into his Grand Theory of Bottle Machines. This had mostly to do with the idea that the machine doesn't read bar codes, but instead "takes a picture of the bottle's label." According to this theory, proper orientation of the bottle is key -- you must lay it on its side with the label facing almost left or almost right, but not exactly.

Could be. There's no obvious laser scanning going on, the way the can machines and plastic bottle machines work. I don't know how the glass bottle machine works, but it does work, and after a year of using this kind of machine (previously, I lived in the People's Republic of Massachusetts, where the idea was to hand the bottles to another human being), I've never noticed a preferred orientation. I've even tried systematically placing the bottles in different positions, to see if one way won't work, and have never noticed anything.

Back to the guru and the neophyte: it being about a hundred degrees, it being a cramped and smelly room, there being several sweaty people with carts full of bottles emanating serious vibes of "I'm not really going to scream … I promise … Not for another five minutes at least …" the neophyte lost what little grasp of spatial relations she might ever have had, and failed completely to carry out every suggestion that that guru offered. This did not stop him from continuing to coach her.

By some miracle, I was able to suppress chiming in. I wanted to tell her "counterclockwise" when she seemed unable to understand "turn it to the left," but I just kept quiet.

Eventually, she got done. The guru stepped up, fed the machine with his boxful of bottles without drama, and announced smugly, "It's all in the wrist!" Then he put his cardboard box in the bin marked "Plastic Bags Only."

You'll be wondering what alien has possessed me, but I managed not to say anything about that, either.

I fed my bottles through without excessive false rejections. No orientation seemed better than another. Tough way to make six bucks.

Either I'm going to have to start returning my bottles more often than quarterly, or I'm going to resurrect the grand old American tradition of hurling them out the car window as they become empty.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Scary Random Phrase of the Day: 2007-06-20

Named Project Chloe, after DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff's favorite character on the television show 24 …


Never mind the Republican yahoos competing to see who can get the most drool on his chin while talking about the prospect of torture. A current Cabinet official watches "24?" And has a favorite character?

How doomed are we? We are so doomed.

(Hat tip: Matthew Yglesias.)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Reading Recommendations: 2007-06-16

Due to my recent upgrade to "premium" DSL, I confess to watching and listening more than reading lately. Here are some bookmarks from the few times when I wasn't in complete potato mode. Nothing but text, guaranteed.

  • Giuliani: Worse Than Bush
    Matt Taibbi, who I sometimes want to think of as the new Hunter Thompson, does a nice hatchet job. And by nice, I mean certainly well-deserved. (Giuliani seems to me simultaneously less of a wingnut and more scary than the rest of the Republicans running. (But I am not commenting on the presidential race of next year, this year.))

  • Shrum and Dumber
    Matthew Yglesias laments more eloquently than almost anybody else about the cretins ruining running the Democratic Party. Or at least, their campaigns.

  • Do You Really Need Three Phone Numbers?
    Harry McCracken reviews GrandCentral, the self-proclaimed "one number for life" service. (You might remember that I mentioned this a few months back.)

  • Has Success Spoiled NPR?
    Drew Lindsay provides a semi-insider history of NPR. It is by turns a warm fuzzy and a cold slap. I'm on the fence about NPR lately; I like many of their shows, but I no longer listen to their main news programs. This piece echoes much of my ambivalence.

Sin La Sal, Por Favor

While shopping today at the otherwise wonderful Wegman's (a store so cool that its express lanes say 15 items or fewer no less), I noticed the following above a display in the produce aisle:

Seasonable Berries

Apologies for lack of pic. Wish I could figure out a way to carry my camera when I'm not wearing my 23-pocket winter coat.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

It's Final

Not a great series to watch, but one good thing came out of this: Michael Finley finally gets a ring.

Oh, wait. One more good thing. A French guy won the MVP. A French guy!

Stick that up your ass, Republicans. Way to go, Tony Parker.

A Moment of Cringe

Sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya does a nice tongue-in-cheek paraphrase of the NSFTV reaming out that coach Popovich gave the Spurs after the first quarter. Aging white guys Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy laugh nervously.

Third man calling the game, Mark Jackson, says: "Hey. At least give Michelle credit for the remix."

Deafening silence from the other two. You could almost see the cloud of question marks.

Hating Advertisers, Part 5436943

During the warmup for game 4, I was informed by a commercial break that Pizza Hut is pushing a new product [my emph.]: "Hand-Tossed Style Pizza."

I ask, by far not for the first time, how do these people sleep at night?


King Kaufman used this word to characterize Eva Longoria, near the end of his column yesterday. I've seen this word before, but never known its definition.

Turns out it wasn't a putdown, but a compliment.

Talk about a word that doesn't look like what it means.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Faith Sells. Who's Buying?

The NYT had a weird story on their site's front page late last night, but they seem to have buried it this morning. (Paranoid? Me?)

The lede:

In theory, it was simple: Congress gave two decommissioned Coast Guard cutters to a faith-based group in California, directing that the ships be used only to provide medical services to islands in the South Pacific.

Coast Guard records show that the ships have been providing those services in the South Pacific since the medical mission took possession of them in 1999.

In reality, the ships never got any closer to the South Pacific islands than the San Francisco Bay. The mission group quickly sold one to a maritime equipment company, which sold it for substantially more to a pig farmer who uses it as a commercial ferry off Nicaragua. The group sold the other ship to a Bay Area couple who rent it for eco-tours and marine research.

It comes as no surprise to me that a "faith-based" political group is no more holy than the usual feeders at the public trough, nor that national assets paid for by taxpayer dollars are handed, gratis, to well-connected players, nor that inadequate oversight of a group wrapping itself in the Bible should have occurred during the Bush tenure. But when outright thievery is combined with falsification of Coast Guard records, it strikes me as something worth keeping front and center in the news.

By the way, the group called Canvasback, who received the ships for free and sold them for cash, is still slurping. The last paragraph from the same story:

The tiny mission is now the lead contractor on a diabetes research program being financed through two $1 million Defense Department contracts. Those grants were directed to Canvasback by Congress through a pair of earmarks.

After looking around a little more, I found the story in, of all places, the Business section. I suppose it does qualify, at least, as business as usual.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

One Thread Connected

I just had a quick look at Google Trends, thanks to an idle click of a link. The 63rd most popular item searched for today? Princess Caraboo.

Who? Wait, that looks strangely familiar … Ah, yes. From this morning's NYT crossword, 22-Across: "'Princess Caraboo' star, 1994."

Nice to know I'm not the only one who had to look this up.

Didn't get it yourself?

Yeah, the Saturday puzzles are killers. Here's the answer.

P.S. Note also, on that Google Trends page, the "Related Terms:" "farrier," "a.c.c.," and "einsam in truben tagen." Or as I like to call them, 19-Across, 7-Down, and 25-Across. Okay, I had to look that last one up, too.

P.P.S. Interesting also to look at the timeline -- the search for "Princess Caraboo" peaked at 7 A.M. PDT. So, I can now count myself as ahead of the curve. At least, along one axis.

P.P.P.S. Uh-oh. It's already down to number 81. And now 89, about two minutes later. Sorry if the above Google Trends link doesn't work.

iTunes Plus -- Update

At the end of a recent post (following the link to the Wilson Rothman piece), I mentioned the news that Apple's iTunes store would soon be offering music that comes at a higher bit rate and without DRM restrictions. Last week, PC Advisor posted a review by Christopher Breen of this optional (and slightly more expensive) service.

The review is mostly about the details of the web store, but Breen did talk a bit about the fidelity of the new offerings. I was surprised to read that he wasn't too impressed. However, the test sounded a little half-hearted and the methodology is not well-described. Basically, Breen burned both versions of a couple pieces of music to CD and listened on a "living room setup," from which he concluded "the difference between protected and unprotected versions is anything but startling."

I wouldn't have expected startling differences, and good for him for not being a fanboy, but I would have liked to read at least a description of the audio equipment used.

I also wish he had run the test on a few more songs. It's hard for me to imagine how "Angie" could be made to sound much better (this is not, at the moment, an editorial comment) merely by doubling the bit rate, given how long ago it was recorded. I would have appreciated his testing a rock song recorded during the current millennium.

Breen also ran the test on a piece of classical music, Brahms's "Requiem," but did not say which version of the song he used. I know little about classical music, but I do know there are many, many recordings of this piece of music, doubtless of widely varying quality.

I'd have liked to hear impressions produced by listening to a few other types of music; e.g., an acoustic guitar, a small jazz combo, and a piece of heavily electronic trance music.

Between the uncertainty about the quality of the audio equipment and the limited choice of test data, it's easy to speculate that the results could be explained in four letters: G.I.G.O.

Finally, there was no mention of any other people involved, or whether any kind of blind techniques were employed. One wonders if deadline loomed, a quick CD burn and play was conducted, and twenty minutes later, the (solo) test ended.

I don't have any water to carry for Apple, and I'm not even heavily emotionally invested in moving the world to a higher bit rate. I just wanted to register my irritation with the weakness of the test and the limited writeup.

We now return the readers to their regularly scheduled Internets, and the author of this post to his meds.


2007-06-09 21:11 EDT

Elsewhere on the PCA site, I am reminded of the obvious: that Apple may be over-hyping the increased fidelity because it's probably not so politic to only hype the DRM removal. And in still another piece, a mildly creepy aspect is revealed: Your name and email address are embedded into all iTunes Plus songs that you buy. Share safely, kids.

A Great Fresh Air

[Updated: 2007-06-16 21:38 EDT]

[Updated: 2007-06-09 19:24 EDT]

I was catching up on some back episodes of some of my shows this morning, thanks to the beauty of podcasting, and caught last Tuesday's Fresh Air. The bulk of the show was an interview with Larry Wilmore, best known lately as Senior Black Correspondent on The Daily Show. Funny, as expected, but also quite insightful on many serious levels -- Wilmore has been around for a while. It seemed to me as though it took him a few questions to open up, so if the interview feels a bit draggy to start, hang in there.

The show finishes up with a commentary from Geoffrey Nunberg, a regular contributor. His topic this time: Wikipedia. Apart from criticizing the wooden prose that site seems almost to fetishize (my main complaint with it, too), he concentrated less on linguistics than he mostly does in his space, and instead, examined a bigger issue: whether the ever-increasing acceptance of the site means the death of the traditional encyclopedia. Nunberg's views were more nuanced than the typical for-it-or-against-it stance one often hears on this hot-button topic. He made several points that made me say, "Huh. Yeah, you know …" His own prose, as usual, was graceful almost beyond compare.

You can listen to the whole show, in streaming fashion, here. If you want to listen to just one segment or the other, follow the links from that same page. Visit this page if you'd like to subscribe to the podcast.

And thinking about podcasts in general …

Podcasts are a beautiful thing, but keep in mind that there is still something to be said for listening in real time, or at least via the particular show's streaming service: I've noticed that two other favorites, Le Show and Whad'Ya Know?, omit the music in the podcast versions. Harry Shearer spins a lot of tunes that you'd be hard-pressed to hear elsewhere, and the live piano/bass duo of John Thulin and Jeff Hamann is stellar. In both cases, the music adds a lot.

Now that I think about it, the podcasts for Fresh Air and On The Media suppress their musical interludes, too. Although the music on these two is less intrinsic to the show, the omission is still annoying.

This suppression in general probably has mostly to do with royalty payments and/or DRM issues. Whatever the explanation, it irritates me.


2007-06-09 19:24 EDT

(Minor wordsmithing.)


2007-06-16 21:38 EDT

Speaking of Wikipedia: There's an interesting talk out there given by Jimmy Wales, titled "How a ragtag band created Wikipedia." He gave this talk at a TED conference in 2005, before the ranting and raving about Wikipedia really began. (Wales, of course, is the founder of Wikipedia.)

BTW, the entire TED site is well worth your attention, if you can stand to watch ~20 minute videos on your computer. I may post some links to my favorites someday (I just came across this site a week or two ago); ask if you want 'em.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Photo Talk

One of the things the cutting edge Web people will tell you is that it's inefficient to send an email. Instead, they argue, post the content on your blog, because surely there will be at least one other person who will want to hear what you had to say. Could be. Assuming they're onto something, I hereby cc the world:

Hi, Dad,

I looked up the link for the podcast that I had mentioned to you, regarding digital photography.

Probably worth reading the interviewer's blog post as a preview:

This will bring you to a page on Jon Udell's site. To give you an idea of Udell's cred: Googling just "jon" usually returns him first or second. (Bet you can't guess the other candidate. ;^) )

Anyway, Udell is a guru. And that pays off, in the same way that it used to be nice to hear Cheryl Miller do a sideline interview -- the playa respects the questions.

The MP3 file of the interview, to save you the trouble of searching through the many links in Udell's post, lives here:

I recommend right-clicking and doing a "Save As ..." on the .mp3 link. That way, you can let it download and then listen when you're in the mood, and easily pause, rewind, etc., as opposed to trying to just click on the link and listen to it real time. As I said, it's a bit geeky and also a bit too much pro-Microsoft, but among the noise is plenty of signal -- fascinating insights into the thought process of really smart people thinking about what's next for digital photography.

Another minor caveat: there is some discussion for the first fifteen minutes or so of the interview about matters somewhat unrelated -- deep geekiness about design decisions related to the Windows file system, in which Crow played a part. To me, the thinking here relates quite well to the thinking that Shaw carried into the HD Photo project, and hats off to Udell for knowing enough to ask. To others, it may seem less apparent. If it's not to your taste, suffer or fast-forward through it -- the meat is unarguably good when they do get to photo talk.

Hope you like it.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Heard on the Tube

So, I'm warming up the TV for Game 1, and the first thing I hear is "… appearing with knocked-up star …" But then I remember something about a movie of that name.

Then I see an ad for what might be the first reality show that doesn't immediately make me want to plunge forks into my temples: "Shaq's Big Challenge," or something like that. This is evidently about him helping fat kids lose some weight. Tag line from Shaq: "Right now, this isn't about helping them lose some pounds. This is about saving their lives." Or something to that effect.

Not that I'm actually going to watch this or anything.

Game's about to start, and the PA announcer is droning on about the two teams having players representing a total of nine different nations. For one moment, I'm afraid we're going to get nine different national anthems, then I think maybe they'll do an artsy mashup of all nine at once. That latter would be cool, if controversial.

Oh, great. This year's American Idol winner is gonna sing the SSB …  Well, I've heard worse. And it was mercifully short.

Game time!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

"Mess is Lore"

I heard this wonderful line in a conversation between Jon Udell and Dan Chudnov. Chudnov said this is a common line among librarians, referring to stories about the noise that inevitably creeps into systems designed to organize information and maintain the organization for the long term.

This was actually one of three related conversations posted by Udell that I listened to recently. All are on topics related to the problem of persistent linking. As with anyone who posts stuff on the Web, I fret about link rot from time to time, but these conversations really expand the complexities of the problem when one considers permanent archiving and retrieving of scholarly and professional publications.

I don't know how familiar you are with these issues (some of you, considerably, I would think), or whether you like to listen to podcasts. If you're interested, here are some links. I give the URLs for the MP3 files themselves, each followed by the URLs for their respective "container" pages. The link sets are in order of oldest to newest recording date.

MP3 file
HTML page
MP3 file
HTML page
MP3 file
HTML page

A couple from the pay blogs

First, from Stanley Fish [T$]:

In the past year I have come to expect that the respondents to these columns will be learned, eloquent and precise in the articulation of their positions. (I have also learned that, no matter how remote the connection, they will be able to use whatever I write as a springboard to a denunciation of the Bush administration.)

How to respond? I am torn between "right" and "rightly so."

Second, Richard Conniff's latest post [T$] is hilarious, and is also one of the most honest disclosures of human emotion that I've ever read.

Bob Herbert talks to Al Gore

Bob Herbert has a good piece [T$] in today's paper, describing a recent conversation he had with Al Gore. Unsurprisingly, it was mostly about Gore running for president.

This is a prospect I bet on in a pool a couple of months ago. My scenario was Obama ekes out a small lead in the first few primaries, and then when the chorus of "but he's not experienced enough" becomes deafening, Gore steps in, wins the rest easily, and picks Obama as his VP. Obama then gets to be president in 2012 or 2016. I'd still like to see this happen, if it looks like Obama might not be able to win the general election.

The conventional wisdom has lately been that Gore isn't going to run, because if he were, he'd be focused more on losing weight than on pimping his new book. But it feels to me, in this interview and in many other instances, like he's handling things just right, if his secret goal is to be "drafted" as the nominee.

"Dick Cheney Rules"

Reviewing this record -- secrecy, impatience with government regulations, backroom dealings, handsome paydays -- it dawned on us that Mr. Cheney is in step with the times. He has privatized the job of vice president of the United States.
-- NYT editorial, 3 June 2007

No surprise that this one made the Top 10 Most Emailed list. (Great title, too; hence, the swipe.) You'll likely disagree with none of it, but it's a good read.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Welcome Back From Life Under a Rock

From a letter to the editor:

Since when did The Post drop itself down to a cheap tabloid level?

Next up in this week's coverage of the terminally clueless: a concerned listener worries about hints of bias on the Rush Limbaugh Show.

Takedown of the Day: 2007-06-03

And before you accuse me of writing about news in your favorite entertainment magazine, let me assure you that Nancy Grace is entertainment…if, that is, you're the sort who watches NASCAR for the crashes and Survivor hoping no one will.
-- Stephen King

I've seen a minute of Nancy Grace here and there, when I've visited a house with cable and gotten control of the remote. Typical Fox News shouting head, I've always thought, before immediately clicking onward. Of course, by typical I mean more evil than Satan himself, so it's nice to see one of the all-time good guys tuning on the punching bag.

Why Stephen King was watching a week of Nancy Grace in the first place, or how it has come to pass that he has a column in Entertainment Weekly in the zeroth place, or why I was on in the negative oneth place … well … these are all good questions.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Some more NYT picks

I don't know if it's the paper or just my mood, but today's NY Times seems filled with good stuff. After putting up two previous posts to call attention to individual stories, I'm going to lump the rest here.

Michael J. Copps, one of the FCC commissioners, has a good op-ed. He says the FCC is falling down on its job to hold television broadcasters accountable for their lack of content that educates the public, a responsibility that is, in theory, implied by the granting of licenses. I think he's probably fighting a lost cause, but I'm glad at least one guy on the FCC is speaking out.

Joe Nocera [T$] has an interesting take on Rupert Murdoch's efforts to buy the Wall Street Journal. Many are wringing their hands at this prospect, most eloquently, Jack Shafer of Slate. Nocera doesn't think that Murdoch is the Savior, but he does claim that the current owners are running the WSJ into the ground. He draws an instructive parallel to the saga of The New Yorker, which was bought from its family owners back in the 1980s, a kerfuffle that I still remember.

Jane Perlez has a profile of Ed Husain, who recently released his memoir, "The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left." Apparently, this book has caused an uproar in England. (Request for input here, Mr. Sandwich.) My reaction was one of hope; Husain's tone, in the article at least, sounds like one small step on the path of us all learning how to get along. My only complaint: I wish the article was longer. Guess I'll have to buy the book.

Wilson Rothman has a piece about bit rates and their effect on audio fidelity. Actually, this is from a few days ago, but the link is still up on the NYT's home page. Don't miss the sidebar, which lets you hear a snippet of a Norah Jones song at three different bit rates. I was pretty sure that I could hear the difference, even over my crummy computer speakers, but I'll like to try again, with someone else clicking the links. Let me know how it works for you, especially if you can cajole someone else into helping you run the test.

I have noticed that 128 kbps MP3s, when burned to a CD and played through my fairly good car stereo, sound noticeably inferior to other CDs. The latter group includes CDs that I burned from ripped CDs, so I'm pretty sure it's not an artifact of my recording process.

All this comes from thinking about the happy news that Apple is now offering 256 kbps versions of some songs on its iTunes store site. Thirty cents more for increased fidelity seems well worth it. This might even force me into relinquishing my claim to be the only person on the planet without an iPod.

I now yield the floor to curmudgeons of a different sort, who are no doubt champing at the bit to tell me that vinyl is final, that their old LPs sound way better than any of these newfangled digital thingies. Which, I concede, might be true, given a brand-new record and a really expensive sound system.

Foaming at the Mouth

It's not just pet food anymore. Now it's toothpaste:

Consumers were advised yesterday to discard all toothpaste made in China after federal health officials said they found Chinese-made toothpaste containing a poison used in some antifreeze in three locations: Miami, the Port of Los Angeles and Puerto Rico.

I've ranted about this before, as you might recall.

Droll Line of the Day: 2007-06-02

From a story describing the recent sharp decline in sales of X-rated DVDs:

Mr. Joseph said his company did not waste its time, or that of the viewers, on unnecessary plot lines.

Now, before you start worrying that James Dobson, Tony Perkins, et al, are winning the culture wars, the explanation for the slump is much more down to earth: the amount of free prOn on the Internet. I know you, Gentle Reader, will be shocked, shocked, to learn about this.

However, don't start agitating for a government bailout of the adult movie industry just yet. One producer outlined the economics of his business this way: He pays about $500/day to post free samples of his movies on various popular sites. About 1 in 1000 visitors to the free sites follow a link to his site. Of those, about 1 in 600 of those might buy something. The payout on a $500 bet at 600,000:1 odds? He says he has about 10,000 customers, forking over an average of $30/month. So, he's grossing about $300K for a $15K investment in advertising.