V6 (June)

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Occasional links & observations from
Steve Bogart

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photo by FiancéWoman


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28 June 2001

Bender: What do you guys do in your club?
Brian: In physics, well, we talk about physics... properties of physics.
Bender: So its sort of social. Demented and sad, but social, right?
-- The Breakfast Club

Mini reviews of recent media consumption (more detailed reviews may or may not be forthcoming):

  • Six Feet Under, new HBO series: It won me over in its first episode, and it's just gotten better and better. Episode 4 ('Familia') is a 10. "You just threatened my family..." Seriously R-rated, if you mind that.

  • Memento, movie: A smart technical exercise that's worth seeing once, but it hasn't really stuck with me. 7 out of 10.

  • Shrek, movie: One fart joke might (might!) be funny. Six are not. The smooth, fakey-looking computer animation alternately serves and distracts from the story. That said, it's a nice little fable with many many laughs that you might not want to think about too hard (being an ogre = OK, but being a short human = unforgivable and worthy of ridicule?). 8/10.

  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, movie: Finally saw this. Flying people are wonderfully fun to watch (and that's what I was starving for in Matrix; hopefully there'll be more in Matrix 2). The fights were fabulous, especially Michelle Yeoh's demo of half a dozen weapons in a row. Other than that, it was mystical and obscure, which you'll like if you like that sort of thing. 6/10.

  • Atlantis, Disney Style, movie: Don't bother! I was expecting MUCH more Mike Mignola art design than I got, and that was the primary reason I went. The mysticism in this is beyond nonsensical and mostly used to cover up gaping plot holes. (Why does the pretty girl ______ ____ __ ___ _____ ______? <smack> So she'll need rescuing!) A little fun here and there, maybe five excellent visual bits, but mostly baldly manipulative and blandly disappointing. Plus, a completely out-of-place custom pop song plays over the credits. Whatever. 3/10.

  • The Skies of Pern, novel: Not the first Pern novel you'd want to pick up (it's 16th in the series), but if you're a fan of the series, it's a nice branching-out into new topics and a nice step toward a new generation of characters becoming the focus. It leaves a couple of major questions unresolved, though (Fourth? Toric? Hello, what happened then?), which I guess means we'll have another Pern book eventually. Fine with me, I love visiting there. 8/10.


  • Microsoft Will Abandon Controversial Smart Tags [Wall Street Journal]
    Jim Allchin, Microsoft's group vice president in charge of both Windows and the Web browser, said he made the decision to kill Smart Tags in the browser because "we got way more feedback than we ever expected. We hadn't balanced the legitimate concerns of the content providers with the benefits we think Smart Tags can bring to users," he said in an interview. [Why hadn't Microsoft considered the content providers' point of view before? -seb]

    "We need to sit down with everybody involved and make sure it's a win-win," he said. "I just ran out of time to do that." He said his team would "regroup" and try to redesign the feature when it's not under a release deadline.

    Using the browser to plant unwanted and unplanned content on ... pages -- especially links to Microsoft's own sites -- is the equivalent of a printing company adding its own editorial and advertising messages to the margins of a book it has been hired to print. It is like a television-set maker adding its own images and ads to any show the set is receiving.

There are several ways Microsoft could make their idea less noxious:

  • put the supplemental links in a sidebar (a la What's Related or Alexa)
  • put the links in a right-click drop-down menu
  • make it an opt-in system so only people who wanted Microsoft to "help" with the "under-linked-ness" of their pages would be subjected to it
...but in all these cases, the links would be clearly separate from the original content (or the site author would have consented to the extra links), and Microsoft clearly wanted to mix their links in with every site's and confuse un-savvy web surfers (a.k.a. the majority) into thinking that every web site in existence just happened to want to advertise Microsoft's services -- without asking the site creators and without compensating them for the use of their space as a billboard. (Some people thought about sending Microsoft invoices for the advertising space used. This appealed to me.)

Usually advertising on other people's web sites costs money... why does it surprise MS apologists that many folks don't want their own words hijacked as endorsements for things they didn't intend them to be?

Surely Microsoft would not be happy if Mozilla and Opera and iCab made all the instances of "notes" and "handheld" and "office" and "shop" and "jobs" on link to non-Microsoft commercial cognates by default (oh, but hey, it wouldn't happen if they made a "trivial" change to every page on every Microsoft site). Why, I'm positive Microsoft wouldn't mind a bit, and certainly they'd never bring their lawyers into it.

"We're from the government Microsoft. We're here to help." Thanks, but no.

So the Fed cut interest rates [NY Times] again. I haven't really been associating that action with my own finances, but yes, in fact, credit card interest rates are pegged to the Fed rate, so the interest rate on some of your balances has (probably) gone down. The bad news is:

  • Fed cuts don't reach credit cards [USA Today]
    First USA, Wells Fargo and other big issuers of variable-rate cards have set limits on how low rates can fall -- and many have hit their bottoms.

    The variable rate on Bank One's platinum Visa card is equal to the prime rate plus 6.9 percentage points -- but not less than 15.9%. So [their] cardholders haven't benefited from any of the four rate cuts since January, when the prime rate was 9%.

The New York Times is getting even nastier about certain Bush policies. So far, the Times' arguments still make more sense to me. I'll let you know if that changes.

This is a particularly good one from Tom Friedman (writing "as" Osama Bin Laden) about the bizarre contradictions in our defense policy and the perverse incentive structures we're building:

  • A Memo From Osama [NY Times]
    Did you see what we accomplished last week? We drove the U.S. armed forces out of three Arab countries by just threatening to hit them. I had some of our boys discuss an attack against the U.S. over cell phones, the C.I.A. picked it up, and look what happened ... Then, after we made a few more phone calls, hundreds of U.S. marines -- marines! ... cut short their operation, got back on their amphibious vessels and fled Jordan on Saturday.

    The Americans are afraid of sustaining even one casualty to their soldiers, they don't trust their own intelligence or weak Arab allies to protect them, and they have no military answer for our threat.

    I love America. The Bush people want to spend $100 billion on a missile defense shield to deal with a threat that doesn't yet exist, and they run away from the threat that already exists. They think we rogues are going to attack them with an intercontinental ballistic missile with a return address on it. Are they kidding? ... We'll hit them the way the Iranians blew up the U.S. base at Khobar, in Saudi Arabia. We'll use layers of local operatives, who can't be traced to any country.

    ...Donald Rumsfeld is so obsessed with getting his missile-shield toy, he's been telling everyone that deterrence doesn't work anymore against people like us. So they need a missile shield instead. And Bush just repeats it. ... we are not going to attack America's strength at home, we are going to attack soft U.S. targets abroad through shadows.

    Yo, Rummy, who needs missiles? We just drove the F.B.I., the Marines and the U.S. Navy out of the Middle East with a few threats whispered over Nokia cell phones! So who's the dummy, Rummy?

The U.S. is executing its own people, and pundits called NBC's 'Fear Factor' TV show depressing, nauseating, disgusting and degrading. I have no doubt that it is, but I have to say: quite a sense of proportion you have there.

  • Death With Commercials by Frank Rich [NY Times]
    Anchors across the TV spectrum talked incessantly about how "somber" the day was, but not so somber that their bosses forsook selling commercials. Wal-Mart, which banned the sales of a journalistic book about McVeigh in its stores, did not refrain from hawking household wares to those tuning in for his execution. When Home Depot's ads for Father's Day presents and snappy trailers for Eddie Murphy's summer yukfest blurred with interviews with Oklahomans whose loved ones had been slaughtered in the Murrah Building, death not only lost its sting but became merely another sales tool.

    Scantly noted in most coverage was the fact that so few of the survivors and victims' family members accepted Attorney General John Ashcroft's invitation to witness the death-chamber drama up close and personal via closed-circuit TV. Fewer than a third of the eligible 1,000- plus viewers signed up, and in the end there were so many no-shows that the actual audience numbered only about 230.

    Like the TV anchors, the officials who had to carry out the sentence talked about "the protocol" and "the process" and "the procedure" and "the execution facility" rather than speaking in plain English. If we feel so certain about the justice of the death penalty, why do we talk about it in code?

    "We didn't get anything," said Paul Howell, a witness who lost his 27-year-old daughter in Oklahoma City, when he described the execution to reporters. Aside from McVeigh himself, and the commercial sponsors who benefited from the pumped-up ratings of his final show, it's hard to say who did.

Assorted other bits of note:

Ignorance Is No Crime by Richard Dawkins [Free Inquiry, via Backup Brain]

"It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." I first wrote that in a book review in the New York Times in 1989, and it has been much quoted against me ever since, as evidence of my arrogance and intolerance. Of course it sounds arrogant, but undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance. Examine the statement carefully and it turns out to be moderate, almost self-evidently true.

Anybody who thinks Joe DiMaggio was a cricketer has to be ignorant, stupid, or insane (probably ignorant), and you wouldn't think me arrogant for saying so. It is not intolerant to remark that flat-earthers are ignorant, stupid, or (probably) insane. It's just true.

Opinion polls had led me to expect hostile cross-examination from creationist zealots [on radio phone-in shows]. I encountered little of that kind. I got creationist opinions in plenty, but these were founded on honest ignorance, as was freely confessed. When I politely and patiently explained what Darwinism actually is, they listened not only with equal politeness, but with interest and even enthusiasm. "Gee, that's real neat, I never heard that before! Wow!" These people were not stupid (or insane, or wicked). They didn't believe in evolution, but this was because nobody had ever told them what evolution is. And because plenty of people had told them (wrongly, according to educated theologians) that evolution is against their cherished religion.

Related: How a creationist propaganda organization 'creatively' edited an interview with Dawkins to make him seem irrational and evasive about his life's work: Creationist Deception Exposed [The Skeptic]

I thought governing by polls was bad: Clintonesque Balancing of Issues, Polls by John F. Harris [Washington Post]

George W. Bush ran for president pledging not just a change in policies but a change in the way those policies are made. There was no mistaking whom Bush had in mind when he denounced decision-making by poll and promised an end to the "permanent campaign."

Five months into his administration comes a surprise: Bush's White House at times bears a striking resemblance to Bill Clinton's.

The signature of Clinton's White House -- and a key to his survival during impeachment and a host of other crises -- was the way policy and politics were routinely interwoven in his decision-making process. Clinton's top political and policy aides met weekly to pore over polling and to plot strategy. Senior Bush aides acknowledge they convene weekly to do precisely the same thing.

I linked to this a long time ago, but it's still there: George W. Bush for President Bottled Water [] "George W. Bush drinking water comes naturally from underground springs in the heart of Kentucky's famous Blue Grass region. Available in 16 oz. bottles." Make up your own comment here.

Profile and aftermath: Jim Jeffords: Party of One [Washington Post]

So if the two major United States political parties are equally immature, equally frat-boyish, unconcerned with principle and low-minded, can someone point me to the reports of senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Richard Shelby and Phil Gramm (all of whom left the Democratic party) being pissed on by proxy and having their photos put on barf bags as a fundraising tool? I'm sure I just missed it.

I've been thinking about it the last few days, and I'm tired of people who have seen it all. I'd rather hang out with the naifs and unsophisticates, I think, who appreciate the new and unusual, and whose bar for those things hasn't gotten to be ridiculously high. Those who haven't realized that there are correct and incorrect responses, but who go through life simply enjoying it.

I'm sick of people who spend their time being smart about things. I've had it with those who proclaim that they are 'passionate' about anything; and I never want to hear another individual tell me that, for them, food/film/the web is 'like a religion.' Put me in the room with the uneducated enthusiasts.
-- Rebecca Blood, 18 June 2001

[Yes, I recognize the irony of posting critical reviews on the same day as this quote... I posted positive ones too!]

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