Archive for August, 2004

Dog Food? Yech!

August 31, 2004

Need another reason to switch to FireFox from Microsoft Internet Explorer? Microsoft’s Security Program Manager switched.

Smarter Than Thou

August 31, 2004

Marc Hedlund has an excellent essay on the evils of Microsoft Word in particular and software that second-guesses the user in general. Anyone who develops software or web applications would be well advised to read this and commit to heeding its advice.

[UPDATE: On further thought, it comes down to a precarious balance between this and Don’t Make Me Think. How much intelligence is too much? That’s the fine line.]

Not WinFS

August 29, 2004

So there’s not going to be WinFS. The newest in new filesystems—even though WinFS wasn’t really an FS—has to be GmailFS. Astute readers out there are probably scratching their heads because they know that Gmail is Google’s new email service that still isn’t available to the public.

This wonderful little filesystem runs on Linux only and allows you to use your Gmail email storage just like you might use your normal filesystem. I guess it’s rather limited because your operating system and all of your programs must fit within the confines of your one gigabyte limit. If you can live with that, then you can have a great operating system that absolutely requires an Internet connection to start and run.

Okay, so it’s just a cool hack that is totally useless and will probably be thwarted as soon as Google finds out about it (which it probably already has given that Google knows all).

Stop on Red

August 29, 2004

Someone at work mentioned that schools were discouraging the use of red pens to indicate errors, but I didn’t believe it. I guess I was wrong. Two anecdotes stood out:

“I know a teacher who will ask questions in class, and if the student answers wrongly, she’ll say, ‘Hold that answer, I’ll be back with the right question soon,’ ” said Warner Robins High school counselor Beth McConnell.

Last year, at Fort Valley Middle School, students who made A’s were called out of class for a party in the school gym. This year, that celebration was opened up to all students with passing grades, said principal Quintin Green.

This is so wrong. I’m lucky to be married to an educator who believes that article is bunk. She taught third grade last year and gave “D” students Ds. Parents freaked because their children had always been “A” students before—except they hadn’t. There is a certain strain of teacher that is all too happy to engage in grade inflation because it makes her job easier by removing any chance of confrontation.

It sickens me and it sickened my wife. She tells me that the kids are generally okay with red marks, poor grades, and criticism. They know when they aren’t performing well and getting such grades affirms this. She said that parents are the ones who can’t handle it; they’ve actually gone to her principal to contest the grades. Sandi, of course, had all the documentation to support her assessment so the parents would generally get their children transferred to an easier class, where they would get nice and inflated marks.

There is an interesting contrast to be made between her public school experience and her private school experience. She taught kindergarten for two years at Rancho Solano. In those classes, the kids learned to read, count, and generally everything that she later taught in first grade at a public school. Oh, and these kids were four years old. Her expectations (and the school’s) were high and the kids rose to meet them. When a parent did disagree with her teaching style (which was very rare), the school stood firmly behind her so long as she was right.

She would go back to a private school in a heartbeat, but she’s not sure if she would ever go back to a public one after her tenure there.

Windows Next

August 28, 2004

Shorthorn: good one, Allchin; I hadn’t even thought of that. Notable: next version of Windows will ship sometime in 2006 and WinFS won’t be in it. Oh and everything else that would be cool in Longhorn will be released for XP and Win2k. Move on, nothing to see here.

As for me and my family, we’ll install Tiger in January 2005.

Review of Kill Bill Vol. 2

August 26, 2004

If Kill Bill vol. 1 and Kill Bill vol. 2 were released as a single movie as originally intended, then it would have had a lock on the best movie I’ve ever seen. Bifurcated at the request of the studio, each half is less than the difference of their sum and neither, individually considered, could be heralded as the pinnacle of cinema. Each handily represents the best movie of the year it was released, though.

The second half continues along the same inexorable path started in the first. The Bride (Uma Thurman) seeks revenge on those who nearly murdered her and definitely murdered her unborn—she believes—child. Having dispensed with Vivica Fox and Lucy Liu in spectacular fashion, she must now kill Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and (inevitably) David Carradine. Though the conclusion is a foregone conclusion, it is easy to forget the outcome while watching this movie. There were parts when I thought that the Bride was a goner—that’s how powerful this movie is.

That’s the plot and the denouement. If I breezed over it casually, it’s because the plot was supremely indicated in the first part and every event and action in the second installment follows logically from the premises thus established. It is a simple story of revenge. The wonder that is the Kill Bill franchise takes place in character development, action scenes, dialogue, and visual composition.

The film shines as art. Every frame, every scene, and every shot has an underlying composition as consciously arrived at as any painting or sculpture. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has an amazing eye for the essence of a scene. While there is no scene as stunningly beautiful as the confrontation between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in a tea garden in the snow, the scope of the filming is just as epic. Tarantino’s influences can be seen readily and represent a source of joy for the audience to discover. I particularly enjoyed their discovery, as I am a big fan of the spaghetti westerns and samurai flicks to which Tarantino obviously paid homage.

The dialogue is masterfully crafted. We really get the sense that these people who live in a completely different world speak as if they’re otherworldly. When Michael Madsen says “That woman deserves her revenge…and we deserve to die,” it makes perfect sense and establishes Madsen as an erstwhile assassin who is prepared to face the consequences of his actions. On the other hand, the line reads like something out of literature. What’s more, every line serves a purpose and furthers the plot or character development along.

That character development represents the best part of this movie, like action and visual composition defined the first. It is primarily advanced through flashbacks showing the relationship between Thurman and Carradine, the training of Thurman, or the agony of Thurman trying to extricate herself from her life. By the end, we can see why the Bride does what she does and we can cheer her on. We also come to understand her single-mindedness.

This single-mindedness is the most inspiring part of the movies. Normal people are very often out of focus, drifting through their days avoiding the mental effort required in life. Thurman’s Bride possesses a laser-like focus in her quest to exact revenge. In the end, she encounters a temptation to abandon her goal. I found myself expecting her to throw in the towel—a convention well-established in the movies that would have represented a serious character breach. When Tarantino had her shake it off without even deigning to mention the temptation, it made perfect sense and yet it represented a bold, wonderful move.

Many have questioned the appropriateness of revenge as a theme for a movie. I think revenge is an entirely justifiable pursuit given the proper context. Being shot and then put into a coma at your wedding ceremony by your former colleagues and subsequently losing the unborn child you were carrying would qualify as a fitting context. The fact that she was an assassin is troubling, but she was a repentant one. She did not deserve what happened to her and rightfully sought justice.

To be perfectly fair, there is an significant amount of gore, profanity, and violence in these movies. They are appropriate given the genre, the characters, and the plot. Unfortunately, they delay the day that I might share these great movies with my daughters by many, many years. Adults should not have too great a task overlooking the graphic nature of the film so long as they remember that the assassin’s life is gritty and rife with violence.

For Me to Poop On

August 25, 2004

I just rented The Best of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. I’ve been a fan of Triumph since his first appearance—prior to The Girls, I was a regular Conan O’Brien watcher. This DVD is incredible: it includes just about every appearance in full. The highlights were definitely Triumph at the American Idol auditions in Hawaii, Triumph at the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones premiere, and Triumph interviewing celebrities on the red carpet.

If you like Triumph, this is definitely a must purchase or rent. Triumph is definitely the best comic dog out there. He always brings the goods, night after night. Robert Smigel, the guy behind all this, is a comic genius. …

Criticizing Critics

August 24, 2004

There’s a book coming out on the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s birth (February 2, 1905) about the criticism her philosophy of Objectivism encountered over the years. The author, James Valliant, is perhaps the only person to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the Brandens’ biographies. It used to be online but has been recently taken down (coincidence? Hmm.).

[UPDATE (10/15/04): David Hayes also critiqued Barbara’s biography and it is still available online.]

WordPress Limitations

August 21, 2004

I’m evaluating WordPress for my family web site and I am amazed (read: incredulous) that it can’t handle multiple blogs from a single interface. All other blogging tools can do that. I am currently using MovableType as a convenient CMS using one blog per section of my site. It makes it very easy to edit my site from anywhere, but it still requires MT’s rebuild whenever content changes.

So WordPress is not going to work for my blogging needs. I want one admin interface to rule them all; I don’t want to go here for general site maintenance and to different WP installations for each of my separate blogs. Sorry, guys, that’s a deal breaker. It looks like a great piece of software otherwise.

[UPDATE: After evaluating a bunch of different systems, I think I’ve decided on Blog:CMS as my content management system. It’s a very robust, mature web application that has about all the features I could desire with an extensible architecture for the ones that it doesn’t have out of the box. I’m still working out the kinks in the system because my goal is to have this entire site consisting of thousands of pages manageable through a web interface.

Steve brought up a good point about how to hack WordPress to do what I need it to do. I have no doubt that his idea would work, but it doesn’t feel right to me. It’s shoehorning a site hierarchy into WordPress’s limitations. Granted, these limitations will be eliminated in a future version but it’s currently just a hack. I want my site to use a CMS as it was intended so that it will work in the future without re-tweaking to revise the hacking.]

Olympic-Sized Hyperbole

August 20, 2004

Andrew Bernstein’s recent op-ed entitled “The Olympics Represent the Best of Western Civilization” misses the mark by a touch because it focuses on the wrong athletic competition.

The Olympics as they stand today are not the legacy of the ancient Greeks except in name. They have degenerated into the worst sort of jingoistic, collectivist affair. While there is still some veneration of the individual athlete, it is far more common to hear of the glory attendant with an American gold. Medal counts are trumpeted on the sports pages and in the news. People swell with pride at the Olympic trouncing by American athletes.

This misplaced pride is even more pronounced with people from lesser competitors. I have an Indian co-worker who was cheering one of her countrymen’s silver medal in a shooting event. Was she an avid watcher of marksmanship? No, but this was the first individual metal in her country’s Olympic history. And her sentiment was akin to “Go India!”

But why would she feel pride? Does this athlete’s achievement reflect on her at all? Of course not. It’s just like Jews who feel a sense of accomplishment because Albert Einstein was Jewish. Or Americans who feel ashamed because George W. Bush invaded Iraq. In neither case does the actions of one individual assign moral praise or censure to anyone else.

Is this the way it necessarily has to be? I think so. By virtue of the fact that the label “USA” gets applied to an individual athlete and is carried around in every event, one cannot escape this nationalistic bent. The ancient Greeks probably did not distinguish athletes by the Greek state from which they came. By all accounts, they were revered as individuals.

So how can we say that the games “represent the best of Western civilization” when they clearly embody a collectivist sentiment? The ancient games certainly represented the best of the West but de Coubertin made it a point to introduce nationality back when he organized the first modern Olympics in 1896. With that move, he doomed the role of the individual to secondary importance.

Furthermore, how realistic is it to say that the Olympics are inspiring to watchers? Naturally, achievement is inspiring in and of itself but it is naive to believe that anyone can become an Olympic-level sprinter or gymnast. Determined practice can move a top athlete up to the Olympic-level but your average schlub probably could never hope to break through the genetic glass ceiling to get there. Athletic skill is a prerequisite for the Olympics and there’s only one way to get there: the genetic lottery. To believe otherwise is blind idealism.

I submit that the most inspiring achievement is one that I could have done if I had just applied myself more or worked harder. If an achievement has a genetic component, then it instantly decreases in value for me as a source of inspiration. The stories of Thomas Edison and Bill Gates are personally appealing because I know that I could be a successful inventor or businessman. The story of Michael Johnson or Nadia Comaneci are not because, try as hard as I humanly could, I could not run as fast as him or jump as well as him. My legs are not a sprinter’s legs and my body is too inflexible and tall to perform gymnastics. The genetic predisposition towards athleticism represents an insurmountable hurdle in my case. The differences between these two sets of stories is significant.

There is some inspiration that one can take away from the examples given. The difference between Nadia Comaneci and her Romanian colleagues is that she wanted it more and trained much harder. But the lesson is as simple as those who work harder at something can accomplish more is present in the Edison and Gates examples without the genetic muddying. It’s also a fairly trivial, obvious lesson. The instructions provided by an in-depth study of Edison and Gates’s life, though, is not trivial and definitely not obvious. Therefore, the value of their inspiration is greater both in degree and kind. All inspiration is not created equal.

The true legacy of the ancient Greek Olympics may surprise you. It’s a competition where one’s nationality is only a note of one’s background, where achievement is celebrated, and where individual athletes are revered like gods. And it’s open to anyone who is determined enough to participate.

I’m speaking of the annual summer and winter X Games. If you’re not familiar with the X Games, it is a series of events in the genre of extreme sports. The games are divided according to the tools the athletes use: skateboards, motorcycles, surfboards, and the like in the summer and skis, snowboards, motorcycles, and the like in winter. The events all combine technical prowess with stylistic flair.

It is truly open to all comers. The games’s history is littered with examples of upstart upsets and many of the participants have no sponsors. This year’s motorcycle trick competition called “Big Air” featured a competitor who showed up to the qualifying round unannounced and did a trick that enabled him to go to the X Games. He was completely unknown to the judges, but the only thing that matters in the X Games is pulling off the feat.

That’s the essence of the competition: the performance is everything. After an especially amazing run on the skateboard half-pipe, it is common to see the other athletes swarm around the competitor to congratulate him or her. Great athletes are revered—not for their nationality but for their ability. The bar is continually raised every year: a trick like doing a backflip on your motorcycle might win you gold the first year it’s done, but it becomes the minimum at next year’s competition. This year was the tenth summer X Games and so they showed a lot of historical footage of early games; it was incredible to see how far expectations had progressed in such a short time. It also increased one’s appreciation of the current athlete’s achievements.

It’s also a very commercial endeavor. Athletes are all completely self-funded. They make their money through shows, sponsorships, and endorsements. There is no national training arena—each athlete must devise his own practice settings. That means that the payoff can be very substantial: Tony Hawk, for example, is probably a millionaire several times over after successfully parlaying his X Games successes into a string of video games, commercial endorsements, clothing, and his own skateboard company.

Contrast this with the Olympics stance on corporate sponsorship. All athletes must be amateurs, untainted by the stink of money. “Going pro” means forsaking athletic growth and development and cashing out, essentially. Corporate money goes to the host country and the Olympic Organizing Committee. Or to the national Olympic committee to be disbursed to the training of Olympic-bound athletes at national training centers. Things have changed recently since athletes are now allowed to get post-Olympic endorsement deals that allow them to get some financial rewards for their medal performances, but this is probably largely an American thing since most nations still pour tax dollars into their Olympic programs.

While many of the X Games competitors evince a slacker ethic, that posture belies the incredible hard work that becoming a successful X Games athlete entails. You can’t do the incredible tricks with a skateboard, surfboard, or inline skates that are the hallmark of the X Games without putting in an extraordinary amount of practice. The practice is fraught with peril and injury, as are the games themselves. It is common for the X Games announcers to rattle off a litany of dislocations, fractures, and concussions sustained by an athlete before competition. This is not a morbid exhibition; it’s more of a testam
ent to the tenacity and persistence of the individual. There are safety measures undertaken, but the nature of the events is such that injury is inevitable. A true slacker would never be a successful X Gamer for that reason.

That is the difference between the Olympics and the X Games as a source of inspiration. I could see myself becoming a pro skater or street luger. What’s holding me back? A dearth of dedication and courage. But could that be what’s holding me back in my career? Maybe I need to be more focused at work and take risks (albeit ones without physical injury) instead of just treading water. This lesson is so much more useful to me in my life than to watch the performance of an Olympic swimmer or high jumper, which is not to say that the Olympic performance is not enjoyable to watch.

The X Games is a recent phenomenon, to be sure. After ten years of the games, its long-term potential is uncertain. That it harkens back to an ancient ancestor, though, is certain. I believe that it is not hyperbole to say that the X Games is the modern equivalent of the ancient Greek Olympics and represents the best in Western civilization.