Tuesday, May 31, 2005

What's so great about blogs, anyway?

I can't find the transcript on the internet, but the blog for the program is Open Source, which is also the name of the program. I caught about 15 minutes of it on the way in to work and something one of the guests said got me thinking.

Dave Winer (introduced on the show as the creator of RSS) talked about what RSS (and blogs and the internet in general) do is get rid of any intermediary between producers of news, entertainment, etc and the consumers of said products. He noted that in the 20th century, the technology was developed that created a large "mono-culture". That is to say, the various media that existed, radio, television, newspapers, books, all became fairly unified in their presentation of culture. People all over the country began getting their news from the same sources. AP, Reuters, network news and so on. Likewise with entertainment such as music on the radio, books published and things like that.

So far, so good. It is something of an overgeneralisation, but that is okay. What really caught my attention was what he said next. He noted that the rise of the internet and, in particular, blogs and RSS within the last decade or less had altered the previous century's trend. Instead of having national media encouraging and enabling an homogenisation of culture, the internet and blogs allow for people to instead form small sub-cultures around interests shared by small percentages of the total population. The internet facilitates this clustering into small groups and works against the unification of the culture. Which can have positive and negative consequences.

The other major change that Mr Winer noted was that it was no longer necessary to be the best, or even very good to receive publicity and reach an audience. In a time where one can self-publish books and any one can have their own bully pulpit in blog form that reaches around the globe, it is possible for people who aren't the best to still be musicians, writers or other things that they would not have otherwise been.

But is it really true that these are good things? And are these things even really true?

Is it beneficial to form subcultures around interests and ideas that we may only share with people via the internet? Might it perhaps not be good to develop one's strongest relationships with people one has never met in person and who live scattered around the world? If we form bonds with people far away to the detriment of our connections with our neighbors we see face to face, could not this damage the social fabric of our daily interactions?

Moreover, while it may be that greater access to publishing tools ("push-button publishing for the masses" as Blogger puts it) and the ability to showcase one's talents will lead to fewer diamonds in the rough being passed over and missed because they were not able to gain notice from the world around them, it also may be that more people will miss the gems that have greater value because of the many lesser lights that surround them. Or, to use a different analogy, will not the voices of some who should be heard be drowned out by the cacophonous din emanating from all the rest of us trying to get the world to heed our words.

And perhaps it isn't even quite accurate to say that the internet has quite this leveling effect. While it is possible for anyone to publish their thoughts and ideas, it doesn't really mean that has any impact or perhaps even much significance? If a blogger posts about a forest, does it matter if no one reads the post? I have no illusions (at least, I don't think I do) about the reach and influence of my blog. It is small at best. But Glenn Reynolds, the famed Instapundit, can note that he enjoyed a movie and send thousands of people out to see or rent it that might otherwise have never paid it any attention or even known about it. If Mr Reynolds notices your blog and links to it, he sends your way what is known as an "Instalanche", a dramatic upsurge in the number of visits your blog receives. Why? Because though the internet is a playing field where any one can enter, he is one of the players who is dominating the game.

I guess, in sum, what I'm taking nearly 800 words to say is that blogs aren't everything they are cracked up to be by their greatest proponents, and the internet in general isn't necessarily an unadulterated good, as others would have you think. (And, yes, there is quite a bit of overlap in those two groups.) If you've hung on to the end, thanks. And my apologies for getting on my high horse to such an extent. I'll be back to the shallowness of book and movie reviews and silly links soon enough.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Right brain vs. Left brain

It's fun and very simple, but once you click the link the game starts. Be ready. Just click the correct answer to the problems on the right and left. I haven't played it a lot, but my best so far is 37.

EDIT:

59 now. And I seem to always lose on the colours.

Take it, Kronk. Feel the power.

"Oh, I can feel it."

Industrial shredder demonstrations. (I think this link, and the one in the preceding post, came from The Corner, but I don't remember.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Done!

Finally finished The Siege of Vienna. It never really improved much from my initial estimation. The topic was interesting, but the writing was dull. I am glad that I have been edified by the reading of the book, but I will avoid reading anything by John Stoye in the future insofar as it is possible.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A funny thing happened on the way to the Jedi Council...

I saw Star Wars: ROTS today. It wasn't awful, all things considered. It was certainly better than Episodes I and II, but it was not nearly up to the standard of IV through VI. Even the ludicrous Ewok scenes of Return of the Jedi were not worse than the painfully bad acting and wooden dialogue of this film. The plot alone saved this film from being the monstrosity that its two immediate predecessors were. We all knew what was going to happen. Anakin becomes Vader. Obi Wan and Yoda alone survive the destruction of the Jedi. Luke and Leia are born and are split up and hidden; Luke on Tatooine and Leia with the Organa family. Palpatine wins and becomes the emperor. I suspect that if this plot was not already dictated by the first three movies Lucas made, he would have made a dog's breakfast of this one too.

The inanities of Lucas' political moralising are well documented elsewhere. I won't discuss them in-depth, but whether one agrees or disagrees with him on real life topics, he ought to at least make sense. He has Anakin tell Obi Wan that he is either with him or his enemy, and Obi Wan replies that only a Sith deals with absolutes. (Words to that effect, I am paraphrasing.) Which is stupid. Obi Wan came to kill Anakin specifically because he had opposed the Light side of the Force and joined the Dark side. Obi Wan is dealing in absolutes just as much as Anakin. Yoda and Obi Wan aren't proposing to negotiate and compromise with Palpatine and Anakin, but trying to destroy them utterly. The movie is full of spoken contradictions of actions in this way.

The movie had redeeming qualities (mostly related to its connections to the original trilogy), but still had more failures than successes. Chief among them, the character of Anakin Skywalker was portrayed terribly. The audience was beaten over the head throughout the movie with the idea that Anakin was devoted to Padmé. But his actions never conveyed this. Everything he did upset, angered, saddened or otherwise troubled her. He blithely rejected everything he had been taught, told and given by his friends and mentors and let his head be turned by an obviouslysinisterr old man who, while professing friendship, kept encouraging him to do things contrary to his conscience and trying to convince him that all his other friends were turning on him. Anakin's fall to the Dark side did not convince.

In sum, and to reiterate, this movie was the best of the recent trilogy, but had it come on the heels of the first trilogy it would have been condemned as a huge disappointment and a failure. It is only in comparison with the greater failures that immediately preceded it that this can be judged a success. Any fan of Star Wars should see this (and probably already has) simply to round out and complete the saga, but don't go expecting Lucas to redeem himself. At best he's simply stopped digging the hole he is in any deeper.

Traffic or not?

So I noticed a day or two ago that my hit counter was increasing at a sharply faster rate than before. What had happened? Was I linked somewhere I wasn't before? Had something I said been found to be of note by some über-blogger? I checked my referrals and found, no, such was not the case. I had used the phrase "Han Shot First" as a post title. And, well, it seems that is a rather popular search phrase. Just about all of my recent hits, and definitely the cause of jump, are search engine hits. Ah, well. I'll take that.

Monday, May 23, 2005

LOTR Criticism

A very interesting and useful article that uses "source-criticism" to try and better understand LOTR. Though I had not heard of this method, I find the author's conclusions very...interesting.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine

Okay, I don't really know Latin. Whence cometh the post title? That title is lifted straight out of last night's program. What kind of program has something like that in it? The one you get at the symphony. Went with my wife and heard (and saw) Mozart's Requiem performed last night. It was stupendous. While I hail the advance of technology, think CDs are great, listen to rock music, etc, etc; I have to say that hearing a full orchestra perform in a nice concert hall is still far and away the greatest musical experience I've ever had. (Second time I've done this; I heard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony when I was in Japan.) If you've never done it yourself, I highly recommend it. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, "It is so choice."

Thursday, May 19, 2005

"Are we planning the same crime?"

Watched How to Steal a Million last night with my wife and her sister (who is visiting whilst on her way back home from college). Not a bad movie. I like Audrey Hepburn and I like Hugh Griffith. One of the things from old movies that takes me out of the story the quickest and the farthest is when the actors are shown in a "moving" vehicle against a screen background. It always looks fake, and since the rest of the movie doesn't, the incongruity is worse than in, say, Cocoanuts where just about every background is painted on a wall. Even though the fakeness is obvious, it is at least consistent.

The chemistry between Peter O'Toole and Audrey Hepburn just wasn't there. It failed to convince and left their romance less convincing that the one between Hepburn and Bogart in Sabrina. The plot is simple and hangs together well. There aren't huge holes and the few problems I had may have simply resulted from the 40 year gap since movie was first released. If you like old movies or are just fond of one of the actors, it's worth at least renting.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Grant's Personal Memoirs

On his discovery that a line of supply is not needed in an agricultural country:
The news of the capture of Holly Springs and the destruction of our supplies caused much rejoicing among the people remaining in Oxford. They came with broad smiles, indicating intense joy, to ask what I was going to do now without anything for my soldiers to eat. I told them that I was not disturbed; that I had already sent troops and wagons to collect all the food and forage they could find for fifteen miles on each side of the road. Countenances soon changed, and so did the inquiry. The next was, "What are we to do?" My response was that we had endeavored to feed ourselves from our own northern resources while visiting them; but their friends in gray had been uncivil enough to destroy what we had brought along, and it could not be expected that men, with arms in their hands, would starve in the midst of plenty. I advised them to emigrate east, or west, fifteen miles and assist in eating up what we left.

-p.236

Thursday, May 12, 2005

"For one dollar I'll guess your weight, your height, or your sex."

I found among some old bookmarks this site. My memory was that it worked pretty well. So I tested it out using this article from my alma mater's student news paper. Here's what it said after I told it was wrong:
That is one butch chick.

According to Koppel and Argamon, the algorithm should predict the gender of the author approximately 80% of the time.
Accuracy Results
Am I right?
yes 160025 (59.37%)
no 109533 (40.63%)
269558 total responses since September 13, 2003
Not the most diplomatic program.

Books

I'm back to reading The Siege of Vienna, which I began nearly 5 months ago. I put it down during a period where I was primarily reading books from the library. I regret to say that though the account of the actual fighting has begun, the book isn't much better. It's still worth finishing for the knowledge to be gained regarding the siege, but the author is not one who can craft a gripping narrative.

I've also picked up again (don't think I mentioned I was reading it the first time) Ulysses S Grant's Personal Memoirs. This, by contrast is both interesting and gripping. He can present information succinctly, but also writes in a manner that keeps one turning the pages interested in more. I've seen people compare this to Cæsar's Commentaries which, though I have not read it, is reputed to be a classic in the realm of military memoirs.

What is a "conservative"?

Jonah Goldberg asks that question here. It's worth reading. I imagine that some people will get their hackles up when they get to this bit
[I]t seems to me, that no person can call himself a Christian if he isn't in at least some tiny way a conservative because to be a Christian is to conserve some part of the lessons or teachings of that revolutionary from 2,000 years ago.
But really, you should press on and read the entire thing. It makes a fair bit of sense to me on my first reading, though I haven't had time to really digest it yet.

Oh, and I laughed at this
Andrew Sullivan recently unleashed upon the earth an essay about conservatives of faith and conservatives of doubt. He normally calls faith-cons theocons (especially if they oppose gay marriage) but, to date, he hasn't called the other camp the skepti-cons, perhaps because that sounds too much like a new camp of villains among the Transformers.

New Criterion Gems

Much good stuff in The New Criterion this month. Of that, a couple articles are online to which I would particularly like to draw your attention.

First is the article by Robert Messenger on the event of the publication of a boxed set of all 20 (and the fragment of the unfinished 21st) Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian. (I will also note that some of the criticisms of this set by one of the reviewers at Amazon has caused me to think that it would be best to try and purchase the books individually, though it might cost almost twice as much, because of severe problems with the copy-editing in the text of the box set.) Mr Messenger does a good job of conveying why these books bring so much pleasure. Not only are they ripping yarns of iron men in wooden ships, but the main characters are drawn well so that one comes to care about them and be interested in their lives and actions even away from the sea. O'Brian also had a deft touch with dialogue and description and rarely struck a false note when concocting plots. Many of the adventures were taken almost directly from the real life experiences of various Royal Navy officers, but with O'Brian's addition of "corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude" that succeeds wonderfully, they are much more than dry historical texts. If you haven't read these books yet, you should.

The other article to which I shall direct you is by the ever-depressing Theodore Dalrymple. (It really is true, Brits are always looking at the gloomy side of things. John Derbyshire does that a lot as well.) It's an interesting reflection on the ability of some writers to place themselves in the shoes of others and write cogently and convincingly about experiences they have never actually had, but merely witnessed. The peg for this is the tale of Reverend Toby Forward, vicar of the Church of England, who wrote under the pseudonym Rahila Khan. His intent was never to satirise women authors, or Asian authors, but that he found the stories he wrote were more readily accepted under such a pseudonym.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Might Lucas Lie?

Okay, so even if you're not a total Star Wars geek, or even a big fan, or even if you only have a passing acquaintance with the movies, we can at least all agree that George Lucas doesn't have a lot of credibility because of the myriad contradictions between his actions and his words. Right?

John Podhoretz notes an amusing example of this here.
[George Lucas] wants to make avant-garde films nobody wants to see, he doesn't like commercial entertainment... blah blah blah. So why did I just see a commercial featuring Darth Vader using the Dark Side of the Force to choke a talking M&M?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Chocolate Hundred Dollar Bills

Took the opportunity presented by the Christmas money that lasted (most improbably) into April and purchased some Homestar Runner loot. Picked up the second set of figurines, the nifty patches and the boxed set of the first 100 SBEmails. Among the very cool things on the email DVDs are commentary tracks by the creators. Some are just funny because they don't have hardly anything to say and it is amusing to hear Mike and Matt Chapman fumble around. One commentary features an hilarious impression of Richard Taylor of WETA on the LOTR DVDs. Another (for the e-mail linked in the post title) has the song that Strong Bad sings sung by the lead singer of They Might Be Giants, who wrote the song. Good stuff.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Discworld Compleat

I have finished reading (all in one day, day before yesterday, as a matter of fact) Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. Which is the last, or more accurately, most recent installment in the Discworld series. It is, as you might have guessed, primarily about postmen and the postal service. While it was a very good recovery after the very weak Monstrous Regiment, I think that most of the more recent Discworld books have been inferior to the books from the beginning and middle of the series. While these are still amusing and well worth reading, I don't laugh out loud as often as I did while reading the earlier books. Perhaps I was more oblivious while reading the earlier books, but it seems that the more recent ones have a "message" to them that is often presented in a heavy-handed (in places) way. Even when I agree with the particular position that Mr Pratchett is espousing, I'm not reading his books for their political and social prescriptions, but to be amused. Though, now that I think about it, I have to admit that the serious turn that several of the Night Watch books did add to, rather than detract from, their enjoyability.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Han Shot First

And we all know that, don't we? (If you are particularly vehement on this point, and I know some Star Wars geeks are, you can wear your conviction by going here.)

Steve comments that he feels the revision of that scene that Lucas made was the "worst cinematic sin ever", which are, in at least 43 states, fighting words. It is doubtful, however, that Lucas will ever note or take heed of our disgruntlement. Steve also links to a somewhat longer critique of Lucas' more egregious examples of hypocrisy between the first and second trilogies. There's even a discussion question for the truly hardcore fans! What more could you want?

In Spades

I was playing Hearts the other day with some friends and was dealt a rather unusual hand. I had the 2 and 5 of hearts, the 5 of clubs, the Jack of diamonds and 2,3,4,5,7,8,9,10 and Queen of spades. So I passed both the hearts and the club to my left. And what should I get from the player to my right but the Jack, King and Ace of spades. So now I have a hand of the Jack of diamonds and all the spades but the 6. I tossed away the diamond on the opening trick and waited to see if the 6 of spades would be led before someone else caught a heart. I sloughed off several high spades for about three tricks, and then when the 6 was led I took the rest. Very unusual hand.

Monday, May 02, 2005

She's learned to smile


. Posted by Hello

Going home next day


. Posted by Hello

10 minutes old and already getting an attitude


. Posted by Hello

Yes, I really do have a daughter.

Again, I'm not really fond of letting the blog get too personal, but I haven't put any pictures of my daughter up, and that is remiss of me. So the next couple posts are images of her.

How about that.

While I was reading The Man in the Brown Suit, (see the previous post) I ran across a rather odd advertisement. It was for the Rosicrucians (AMORC). It caught my eye because they were an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question I got when some of my family were visiting recently. I've got pictures of the ad here, here and here. I'm tempted to send it back simply to see if the address is still good (or if it gets forwarded, I suppose) and to see if I get a free book. Shipping and printing costs have increased in the five decades or so since this ad was placed and I'm curious to see what would happen. After all, it is postage paid!

For the Rosicrucians themselves, see their website here. Though this site seems to indicate that they're all a bunch of loonies. There's lots out there about them. Just google "Rosicrucians" for a bunch of different links.

Books (Finally)

I'm finding that this having a baby business really cuts into one's free time. Finished two books recently, the first ones in quite a while. One was Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism. It was mostly true. Most of the essays were good, but a couple were tripe. Roughly half of this book was part of another book I have read that was edited by the same two people: Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Since Understanding The Lord of the Rings is still in print, you'd probably be best served looking for that if you have any interest, but a couple of the essays are chapters excerpted from books by Tom Shippey and Verlyn Flieger. So, if you're a hardcore Tolkien fan, you may be better served by just reading their books if you haven't already.

The second book I finished was an early (1924, her fourth) Agatha Christie called The Man in the Brown Suit. It featured that plot device beloved of early 20th century writers, the criminal mastermind. It was certainly clichéd after Doyle's Moriarty, (and maybe even earlier) but one shouldn't let it detract too much from one's enjoyment of the rest of the tale. This story is the first to include Colonel Race, who was to reappear in three more books. Overall, however, I was disappointed. The attitude of the heroine seemed more suited to what I believe is generally referred to as "bodice-ripper" romance novels. Now, I am not myself a peruser of such books, but lines such as
He was detestable--rude and ungrateful--but that I think I understand. It's like a dog that's been chained up--or badly treated--it'll bite anybody. That's what he was like--bitter and snarling. I don't know why I care--but I do. I care horribly. Just seeing him turned my whole life upside-down. I love him. I want him. I'll walk all over Africa barefoot till I find him, and I'll make him care for me. I'd die for him. I'd work for him, slave for him, steal for him, even beg or borrow for him! There--now you know!
(p. 89)

And there's quite a bit more like that. The book is of interest mostly just to see some of Christie's early writing and not so much for the story itself.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Time, distance and cringe-worthy moments in classic sci-fi

This really has nothing to do with the actual post here (an excerpt from CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters), but the first comment was what got me thinking. Not only does Star Trek make the time/distance mistake with an astronomical term, but so does Star Wars. Every time I hear Han Solo tell Luke and Obi Wan, while sitting in the bar in Mos Eisley, that he did the Kessel Run in "less than 12 parsecs", I cringe inwardly.