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January 29, 2003

Hitch on the cowboy cliche

I'm going to avoid commenting on the State of the Union Address, other than to say it could have been worse. I hope it goes without saying that I think it would have been better if Gore or McCain were delivering it.

I do awfully enjoy seeing Christopher Hitchens-- British wag, former Marxist, Kissinger-indictment-ringleader-- defending Bush against the charge that he is a reckless cowboy in this excellent Slate article. I have to agree with Hitchens that this characterization is fair neither to cowboys nor to Bush. To wit:

To have had three planeloads of kidnapped civilians crashed into urban centers might have brought out a touch of the cowboy even in Adlai Stevenson. But Bush waited almost five weeks before launching any sort of retaliatory strike. And we have impressive agreement among all sources to the effect that he spent much of that time in consultation. A cowboy surely would have wanted to do something dramatic and impulsive (such as to blow up at least an aspirin-factory in Sudan) in order to beat the chest and show he wasn't to be messed with. But it turns out that refined Parisians are keener on such "unilateral" gestures—putting a bomb onboard the Rainbow Warrior, invading Rwanda on the side of the killers, dispatching French troops to the Ivory Coast without a by-your-leave, building a reactor for Saddam Hussein, and all the rest of it.

While I do think we can afford some more time to carry out inspections and show some evidence to convince our more peaceable (or naive) allies why Saddam is dangerous, I am damn tired of the French riding around on their multilateralism high horse. As Hitchens points out, they are the last to talk.

Oh, wait. Actually, wouldn't the Germans be the last to talk-- or does the Hitler-Mussolini pact count as multilateralism? (Sorry, low blow.) Hitchens' comments on Schröder are flawless as well:

It's true that Bush was somewhat brusque with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, but then Schröder is a man so sensitive that he recently sought an injunction against a London newspaper for printing speculation about his hair color and his notoriously volatile domestic life. What we are really seeing, in this and other tantrums, is not a Texan cowboy on the loose but the even less elevating spectacle of European elites having a cow.

January 26, 2003

You have 1783 unread messages

Despite the fact that my mail boxes are overfull and under-read, despite the fact that fifteen days after my birthday party I still have dishes—and parts of the floor—to wash, despite the fact that my two-plus-year project at work is in its final days, I felt drawn to finally try cultivating a weblog.

This last week I read Sugar Blues. This is a captivating book about the history of sugar. Sugar induced and perpetuated a good deal of slavery, and I'm not talking about the addicts. Much less than harmless "empty" calories, the author lays the blame of many ills onto sugar consumption, and does so plausibly. The book also demonstrates the power of industry to alter government, even when the change is against the best interest of the public.

Having been an avid reader in the last few years of diet and exercise plans, I already knew the message that this twenty-five-year-old book would deliver, but I didn't expect it to be so captivating. Also read recently: The Warrior Diet—how to eat like a Roman legionnaire. It's interesting, but not nearly the page turner that is Sugar Blues. War, slavery, plague—and plaque. Sugar Blues has it all.

January 24, 2003

Shades of Borges' Map

Am I the only one who has found the ever-present backdrops that Bush administration officials speak in front of a tad Orwellian? With rubrics like "Defending Our Homeland" printed a thousand times, they seem to be designed to ensure that even citizens who watch the evening news with their TVs on mute get the not-so-subtle message that Bush is in charge and on target. But this week the backdrops became both more sinister and more hilarious. It was revealed by numerous outlets including the AP and the Seattle PI (with a much cheekier article) that the "Strengthening America's Economy" backdrop was a creepily perfect simulacrum of the actual warehouse scene it covered, down to shelves and stacks of boxes in jaunty array. Except, of course, that the backdrop boxes read "Made in America," while the actual, hidden boxes all read "Made in China."

Anytime I read about an actual-size replica of a thing covering the thing itself, I can't escape comparisons to Borges' Map, "so detailed that it ends up covering exactly covering the territory." Inevitably, it is the map, and not the true territory, the people come to love and trust-- the simulacrum instead of the true thing. When the map decays, they miss it and feel "lost," even in the presence of the land itself. You can be certain that if the Washington spin machine stopped for even a day creating its confectionary cover of actual events, we would all be alarmed by the strange country lurking underneath.

But my ur-text for political image manipulation has to be the passage from an essay in The White Album where Joan Didion visits Nancy Reagan in the California Governor's Mansion on a day when she is accompanied through her daily activities by a TV crew. As an eloquent Geocitiesjournaller recounts:

As Didion records it in her essay, the newsmen tell Mrs. Reagan to go about her normal activities. But might not one of these normal activities be picking flowers, one of them suggests? Yes, Mrs. Reagan affirms. Perhaps a rose, another newsman suggests? At this point, Mrs. Reagan seems to be aware that reality (her public persona) is being constructed because she says she could pick the rose, but she would be more likely to use a rhododendron. Just as the reader sighs in relief that at least there are limits to how much historical fiction a person will participate in, the following happens:
'Fine,' the newsman said. 'Just fine. Now I'll ask a question, and if you could just be nipping a bud as you answer it...' 'Nipping a bud,' Nancy Reagan repeated, taking her place in front of the rhododendron bush. 'Let's have a dry run,' the cameraman said. The newsman looked at him. 'In other words, by a dry run, you mean you want her to fake nipping the bud.' 'Fake the nip, yeah,' the cameraman said. 'Fake the nip.' ( White Album 91)

Of course, we now know it is endlessly naive to imagine any limits to how much historical fiction political figures will generate around themselves. If we are good capitalists, we must believe that there must be voracious demand balancing this endless supply of carefully crafted unreality. And that is a depressing thought indeed.

January 22, 2003

Finances meet fandom

Well, it happens every day-- Mammon always trumps the Muse. But as Marvel asks for-- and gets-- judicial recognition that the X-Men are not human, the fans are in an uproar. This WSJ article has the details. In sum, Marvel asked for the ruling because "non-human figures" have a cheaper duty rate from China than dolls-- dolls being, ipso facto, "human figures." Almost every time some bean-counter pulls a number out of his ass to justify a "cost-saving move," the cost of pissing off your most loyal fans ends up being much higher.

All that being said, I find it hard to put a price on any action figure styled after Hugh Jackman.

January 17, 2003

Me and my ACL

Most of you know (some of you in excruciating detail) that I destroyed my left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in a rugby match November 2. After many delays, some interesting physical therapy, and lots of ice and ibuprofen, I will be having ACL reconstruction surgery February 3.

So what does this involve? This site offers a good overview. For the non-squeamish, this site offers even more detail and some lovely photos.

I'm pretty cool with all this, with exception of two words: "bone screws." Not only does that sound like medieval torture, I'm not looking forward to setting off airport metal detectors for the rest of my life.

My surgery will be a bit less involved than what is described above as I have opted for an allograft vs. an autograft-- the replacement ligament will come from a cadaver donor instead of being harvested from my patellar or quads tendon or hamstring. Virtually everyone I have talked to who has had the surgery said they would do this is they had the chance again, as the harvest site was more painful and problematic than the actual reconstruction.

This is not just because I'm a wimp-- though I am all for avoiding pain. The allograft should allow me to get back to normal day-to-day activities sooner. And as for my favorite abnormal activity, my surgeon and I wanted to avoid the inevitable weakening that any autograft would have inflicted on the harvest site. Given that I play lock, I need all the explosive strength I can get.

So when will I be on the field with the men of Quake again? I am looking at 8-9 months post-op before I can play, with a return to some aspects of training with my mates within 6 months. So I am holding out hope that I might be on the pitch at least a little in the 2003 Fall friendly season. That's my goal, damn all the people who think I'm crazy for playing again. Quitting is not an option.

January 16, 2003

Frozen dessert treats from hell

So a few weeks ago, Jay calls and he's all, "Hey, why don't you come over for dinner tonight. David is going to make a shepherd's pie." And I'm all over that because I love me a good home cooked meal and especially one filled with things like lamb and mashed potatoes. So Erik and I head over there with a bottle of wine, and it smells great and I'm all looking forward to dinner and a nice conversation and maybe even some good music because they've got so damn much of it in that house, but what I'm not realizing is that I'm about to have one of those life-altering moments where you suddenly realize where you developed one of your most deep seeded (or is it deep seated?) issues--in this case, my hatred for ice cream.

That's right. Call me crazy. Tell me it's sick and wrong. I hate ice cream. I'm like the narrator in Memoir from Antproof Case, well, except that I hate ice cream and he hates coffee, and I never go around taking out full page ads in The New York Times about how evil ice cream is (or about the evils of coffee for that matter, or really about the evils of anything else because I don't have anything about which I am strongly opinioned that would inspire me to spend a month's salary taking out a full page ad to opine on the topic), and I never go around knocking over ice cream displays, nor can I say that I've ever ended a relationship with anyone because they liked the horrid stuff; on the other hand, I do get a little queasy walking by a Ben and Jerry's and inhaling the sugar-laden air surrounding the shop.

Right, so I don't like ice cream. I don't really know why. I mean, sure it makes me sick to my stomach, but that doesn't stop me from eating a lot of other things, and the after effects of the levels of hot sauce and Thai chiles I regularly use to perk up my lunches are much more excruciating than the physical agony that any frozen treat can induce. I always sort of vaguely assumed that there was some childhood trauma that I had blocked out which led me to disdain the stuff so. Or maybe it was just because my dad never liked it. To be honest, I've never really given it all that much thought.

Well, anyway, so we get there, and I'm all relaxed and then Jay says that while he was in Oklahoma for Christmas he bought this b-movie horror flick from the '80s and we're going to watch it during dinner. It was one I realized I had, in fact, seen as a kid, The Stuff with decent and/or weird actors like Paul Sorvino, Danny Aiello, and Michael Moriarty, and it's all about this frozen dessert treat that is both addictive and kills you.

Right. So the idea is that some guy is outside and he sees gooey white shit coming out of the ground, so he tastes it--seems like a perfectly reasonable course of action, I suppose--and likes it, so he decides to sell it. They get it approved by the FDA by turning everyone on the decision panel into "stuffies" and saturate the market with the stuff (or rather The Stuff), enslaving the American public with this addictive substance, and most likely putting the few remaining family farms out of business because it's all anyone will eat now. (They don't actually explore the economic impact on the agricultural industry, which to me seems like a pretty big plot hole, but I guess there is only so much you can fit into a 93 minute movie when you've also got to fit in plenty of mayhem, exploding heads, vomiting, political intrigue, and industrial espionage.) Then it starts killing people. Basically, it seems that you become hollow inside, your body merely a casing for Stuff, and then it leaves you, either the way it entered your body, or by blowing your head up.

So, they've got this whole mine where they're getting this manna from hell out of the ground and pumping it into happy little containers where it can be shipped all over the country and take over supermarkets the way Wal-Mart is taking over small towns, tearing up families in the process. We know this because one of the heroes of the story is this kid whose family has been enslaved, and they try to force him to eat it, but he won't because he figured out was evil after it moved in the fridge (oh, like just because something in the fridge has evolved to the point where it can get from point A to point B of its own volition, it's bad?), and so he winds up running away and helping that weirdo Moriarty guy and some branding chick who is responsible for convincing everyone that they should pack their freezers with Stuff (ah, branding, that noble profession) to stop the mining operation and expose the dangers of indulgence.

Anyway, I'm figuring this kid is going to grow up with a lot of issues at this point, because, not only did Famous Amos try to kill him and then explode in front of the boy, but who really does get over having your older brother try to force you to put something icky in your mouth.

So that's what I'm figuring happened here. My brother, who admittedly I did most of the torturing to as a child, must have put something icky in my mouth as a kid, and then I saw this movie which reminded me of that event, and of course since the Stuff is basically evil ice cream, it created this whole mental association with that as-yet-unremembered trauma and led me to develop my disdain for everyone's favorite summertime treat.

I love when I can find something to blame on my brother.

Next it will have to be the Paulette\Paul (Prudhomme) project I suppose

Thanks to my dear friends at Chowhound I've recently discovered a new favorite blog (sorry, Jay, but this one is too up my alley). The Julie/Julia Project is the daily adventures of a woman who is trying to work her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cookery and have a life at the same time. I felt a particular kinship with her while reading of her unfortunately textured orange mousse; her liquid mess seemed like the perfect complement to the solid mass of cornmeal and buttermilk that took two extra cooks and all of the remaining milk and eggs in the house to turn into cornbread last Sunday.

I'm starting to imagine Julie as looking like a cross between Lucille Ball in her I Love Lucy days and Janeane Garafolo. Don't ask me why. I'm a strangely visual person.

A passage that had me laughing out loud from today's posting:

"The only annoyance was the rice – I’d cooked it and cooked it, but it just remained kinda hard in the middle. Maybe I bought crappy rice – I did get it from one of the delis at Queensborough Plaza, it had probably been sitting there for a decade or so. Or do drug dealers and strip club dancers make a lot of rice?

"Eric keeps pushing for a rice maker, but I say no. Rice makers are for the Japanese and pansies."

Oh can I identify with that sentiment! It's exactly the same wrong-headed type of idea that keeps me resisting the entreaties of one friend to accept her extra pressure cooker. She insists that lentil soup can be made in 15 minutes. But I love the lingering smell of soup simmering for hours on the stove, as well as the drama of how it will turn out in the end, since, as we all know, I never remember how I cooked anything the last time and sort of wind up reinventing the wheel everytime I step up to the chopping board. Ok, so it's usually a three hour drama from start to finish with bean soups, but, hey, The Godfather clocked in about that long and it was, er, stirring from beginning to end.

The more I read, the more I'm getting to like our dear Miss Julie, especially when she ponders whether there is anything more heavenly that one can do to a vegetable than wrap it in pork products and smother it in cream. We may be soul sisters. (One of these days, I'll expound here on my theory about how we really should explore the possibility of trying to settle some of the touchier global conflicts currently a-brewing with a big old pig roast.)

I bet Julie would love Calvin too. Now we could have some serious fun, the three of us, making a huge mess of the kitchen, looking for new things to wrap in pork and/or deep fry, and maybe watching some great food movies like Big Night or Tortilla Soup.

Without new episodes of the Sopranos until sometime in God knows when, I'm glad I've at least got this enthralling serial to keep me going for a while.

You will be assimilated...or, you know, maybe not

For years my friends have been telling me I’m the perfect person for TiVo. "Join us, join us," they say in deadened tones, holding out remotes as they walk towards me like extras in Night of the Living Dead. I watch a lot of TV, have shows I like to keep up with regularly, and about a billion actors I keep my eyes open for. Plus I can spend a whole day reminding myself to set the vcrs for something, and then promptly forget when it comes time to set them. But a lot of things made me not want one — high cost, the size of the machines (the previous boxes were big enough to fit a small child into), the fact that it recorded stuff for you without asking, which freaked me out profoundly. But once I started my Buy Electronics Before Being Laid Off program, I figured I might as well break down and get one. The new series 2 versions were considerably smaller, recorded more TV, and seemed, while still high priced, a better value (although I didn’t at the time know about the monthly $13 for service, which kinda changed my perspective to a little more sour).

And last weekend I went shopping with the two best people you could shop for a TiVo with. M has been evangelizing them for what feels like forever, and L had been working there designing the UI until recently. So I got it all figured out, went to purchase one, and they were completely out of stock. They said they’d have a truck in the next day, so I dutifully went back to a store farther away with M, and they only had two left of the more expensive, higher-capacity one, so I bought it. Best Buy could not have made it more difficult. M patted my shoulder and told me we could go have a drink afterwards — by the time they had asked me for the name of my mother’s first boyfriend, I thought my head was going to explode. And now BB has pretty much every piece of information on me that it can have, including my underwear size and bra cup, because apparently they refuse to sell you a “service” without you providing all that and your blood type and then signing in said blood. I’m sure the incompetent woman at the counter went home and complained to her family about the two screaming bitches who came through her line that day, but when it comes to privacy, screaming bitch doesn’t even begin to describe me. Hera on a tear would probably do it.

So I buy the thing and M helps me set it up, probably deciding at that point that she has no respect for me because I can’t figure anything out at all (the technically competent must be so frustrated by people like me, who look at diagrams and go “duh?”), and then we go off and have dinner and take her electronic toys to her place, and I come back and it says it’s processing and whatnot, but that I can watch live TV. So I play around, start reading my manual, and suddenly during Alias I realize that even though I have to pee really bad, I don’t have to wait for the commercial because — voila! I can pause it or rewind it! Terribly exciting. I come back and watch Marshall giving Syd flowers and think, well, maybe it’s not so bad. I watch Boomtown and go to bed and it’s still processing.

Then I come home on Monday and turn it on to see what I can do with it. With the manual and a plate of Mongolian tofu in front of me, I start doing the guided tours. Fun stuff. I don’t like the fact that it’s taken over my system completely, and now I can’t do anything except watch live TV without at least two, usually three remotes in my hand, which I hate, but I’ve moved past anger and denial into acceptance. And I find it’s recorded things for me that I didn’t ask it to.

I freak. But I look at the list. From my previous night’s two-show viewing, it has surmised that I want to watch Xena, Touched by an Angel, Wonder Years, Jackie Chan Adventures, Perry Mason, some show I’ve never heard of, and a court show. I marvel at the fact that you can make a leap from Alias and Boomtown to Touched by a fucking Angel. And freak out completely. The first thing I do is find the suggestions feature and turn it off now. I’m deeply disturbed by machines that think they know what’s good for me ever since seeing Colossus: The Forbin Project when it first aired in the ‘70s, and also, look what happened to the future in The Terminator just because of Skynet thinking for us. I ask you.

But hey! 24 is on FX tonight and I missed a lot of that last ep — so I can set it to record before I go to bed! How exciting. I also set it to record the La Femme Nikita eps on Oxygen during the day. Thinking I have all this stuff to watch when I get home last night, I turn it on and find 24, watch it, then find the LFN recordings, some of my fave episodes actually, and... I get Cybill with Lee Tergeson from Oz, which technically might have been fine but not what I wanted, and it’s also recorded some frightening movie with Bill Pullman and Ken Wahl. In a panic, I call M, who helps me try to figure out what’s wrong. At one point, I notice that not only does it say it’s the wrong time, but it also has the wrong channel listed (because it thinks it’s the wrong time). She suggests unplugging, which I do, then restarting, which I do, and now it thinks it’s 3 a.m. We hang up and I try customer service.

I get a guy who could not possibly be less interested in my plight. I try my best to explain to him what is happening, which admittedly is somewhat convoluted because, well, it’s freaking convoluted. When I’ve explained my predicament, I’m met with total silence. This becomes a pattern — I answer a question, he sits there on the other end, silent, unacknowledging, like some vastly superior oracle. I wonder if I’m supposed to sacrifice a goat or something to get his attention. Sample conversation:
(after going away for about three minutes, and coming back and saying okay, then being silent)
me: Okay?
him: Now you’ll need to unplug it.
me (politely): Okay. But I did already do that before I called — does that make a difference?
him: Just unplug it.
me: Okay. This is a bit of a project, so I have to put the phone down. (I put the phone down, do my Cirque du Soleil contortionist impersonation and unplug it. Pick up the phone and say okay.
I’m met with total silence. I wonder briefly if I should say hello to see if the phone’s gone dead, but he seems miffed by everything I do, so perhaps not. Goats may still be involved.) Um, what will I be doing next?
him: Just wait.
me: Okay.
him: We need to wait for 30 seconds.
me: Ah. I see.
silence again for more than 30 seconds.
him: Okay, plug it in.
me: Okay, done.
Silence again. For a really long time. Finally, in desperation, I ask “what next?” after it completely restarts. He walks me, rather unhelpfully and with great annoyance, through forcing it to make its daily check-in call. While it’s doing that, he gives me a number. I ask what it’s for, because he does not explain and he says it’s something blah blah or other, and that if this doesn’t work to call back and use this number. I ask, oh, when do you close? Right now, he says curtly. I can hear his finger poised above the disconnect button, stirring the air. I say, oh, well... okay then. Uh, thanks.

None of this, of course, works. So I go to the web site, which because I have a dialup connection is slow and painful and time consuming. Finally in desperation I send cranky e-mail hoping that might get me a response the next day. Hah hah! Only after you submit it do you find that a response will take from 3-5 days. I laugh so hard I cry.

By now I have wasted the entire night, and missed Gilmore Girls, 24, and am in the process of missing The Shield (they're incredibly lucky there was no Buffy on that night). I’m angry and frustrated, and mister not helpful has made me feel small and stupid, especially when I asked if this was a common problem and he said, “No. You’re the only one who’s had it.” Thank you, Dr. Phil. So I do the one thing I hate most about people who get frustrated with computers — I start pounding on the keyboard and banging random things. I turn it on and off, reset the phone number, reset and restart, and basically spend about an hour doing all of this. And then somewhere along the line, the combination of banging, screaming, cursing all the people at TiVo so they’ll end up with syphilis and their children will end up with syphilis too, resetting the phone number and restarting 15 times, and calling in on its daily call for the 8th time, it works. Suddenly it knows that it is not 4:45 a.m., but in fact 10:41 p.m., and that The Shield is on, not an infomercial. I cast my eye suspiciously at it, turn it off, and go to bed. Because it’s going to make its next daily call in the morning, I know when I wake up it’ll be fucked up again.

But so far, so good. It still knew the correct time when I left. We’ll see what I get when I get home. But they lost me. If I could have been assimilated, I never will be now. It may never do this again, it may be reliable and easy, but TiVo will never have a fan in me, will never have an evangelist. I’m always going to feel like I have to have backups on the vcr, and can’t rely on this thing, and what I thought was adorably customer-service oriented in a company, I’ve been made bitter and cranky about instead. Even if I keep it and it continues to function, I will never tell people, “join us. You’re the perfect TiVo person.” Maybe I’ll laugh and joke later, but right now, I’m thinking: syphilis.

January 15, 2003

Cell phone + camera + locker room = trouble

Given their early adoption of anything electronic, it's not too surprising that Hong Kong is the canary in the mineshaft (so to speak) on this issue. It's unclear from this article whether unsuspecting gym-goers have been phonecammed, or whether people are just expecting trouble.

I must say that cameras posing as phones do raise some privacy issues-- and not just when you're naked. You know, that scary stalker-looking guy you always see at the bus stop... is he taking on the phone, or making a deposit in the electronic "spank-bank"?

January 13, 2003

Free money from the big labels

The record labels screwed pretty much everybody, and they have to pay for it. So says the judge in a recent lawsuit filed by 41 attorneys general (including Washington's own Christine Gregoire)... but almost nobody has claimed their share-- up to $20 for everyone who has bought a CD (or LP or casette!) between 1995 and 2000. I filed my claim under the class action lawsuit on this handy site. It took all of 3 minutes.

Wired News has this article
on the whole deal. The sort of bad news is that if more than 8.8 million people sign up (which would seem likely if the results so far weren't so lame) the consumer remedy will be voided and the damages will go to groups promoting music across the states involved in the suit. (Would that include KEXP???)

January 03, 2003

That's to you, good sir

A British blogger named Phil Gyford has launched a weblog serialization of Pepys' Diary. If you are not familiar with Pepys, you're missing out on some serious London intrigue circa 1660-- not to mention a work that bears eloquent witness to the birth of modern subjectivity during the Enlightenment. It is amazing how fluidly content from a few centuries ago works as a weblog. It's enough to make you wonder which of us bloggers will be revealed as indispensible to future generations-- assuming any of our evanescent digital musings survive.

Credit to Slashdot for the write-up and BBCNews for the full backstory.