Sunday, January 29, 2006

To teh Megist(r)on

In a number of recent posts, I've gone and totally geeked out over several theories of infinitely large and small numbers. In comparison, the topic of extremely large finite numbers just doesn't seem all that interesting. But I recently remembered an incident from when I was a small child, when a grade school teacher asked our class to name the largest number we could think of. The then-current Guinness Book of World Records insisted the "largest number" was something called "megiston", which was denoted by the number 10 in a circle. So that's what I answered, and I seem to recall that I either got a lower grade, or was publicly scolded by the teacher for making up numbers that didn't exist. Apparently the teacher didn't regard the Guinness Book as the final authority on these matters, even though I think I'd actually gotten my dog-eared copy at one of those Scholastic book fairs they used to have all the time. I remember the incident because it was one of those early inklings that either a.) grownups aren't always right, and/or b.) the stuff you read in books isn't always true. I also remember being frustrated because at the time I was absolutely sure I was right, but nobody would take me seriously, just because I was a little kid, and everybody knows kids don't know anything.

So I was thinking about this recently, and it occurred to me that I'd never seen the word "megiston", or any numbers in circles, in any context since that time. Which made me curious. Was this exotic-sounding number just something dreamed up in the Guinness-drenched offices of the official world record people? Was the Book wrong? Is it possible that I just imagined the whole thing, or misremembered it, or misunderstood what the Book was talking about? Thanks to the magic of Google, I now know that I was right, and my idols at the massive beer conglomerate had not betrayed me. What a relief that was, let me tell you. There is such a number as "megiston", though for some reason people occasionally call it "megistron" with an 'r', which is obviously incorrect. The ten-in-a-circle is one example of something called Steinhaus-Moser Notation, one of several different ways of expressing really humongous numbers, ones that are so big they can't be easily expressed in terms of exponents. Others include Donald Knuth's up-arrows, John Conway's chained sideways arrows, hyper operators, and Ackermann functions. The basic idea in each case is that, since mere exponents aren't up to the job, we'll just define more poweful operations, generally by iterated exponentiation, with the first and simplest higher-level operator sometimes known as tetration. This is just the logical extension of the process where exponentiation is iterated multiplication, and multiplication, in turn is just iterated addition. These various notations are attempts to define a symbolism general enough to express incredibly large numbers in a reasonable amount of symbols. Although, since the integers are infinite and all, any finite symbolism you come up with is eventually going to run out of steam, no matter how many nested levels of recursion you use, and no matter what kind of clever notational tricks you can come up with. In the end, the best you can really hope for is that your notation will be sufficient for any numbers you think you're likely to need, and won't be too clumsy to use for actual work. Despite the memorable, mysterious-sounding names, and mystical-looking notation, the Steinhaus-Moser seems like it would be awkward to use in "everyday" usage, in the unlikely event that you had to deal with quantities that big on a daily basis. Kind of a shame, really. And then, none of the notations seem to be entirely adequate for expressing certain really big numbers, like Graham's number. (Which, incidentally, I think has since replaced megiston in the Guinness Book.)

Another way to think about things like the Ackermann function and the like is that they're functions that increase much more rapidly than mundane ones like x^2, x!, or even x^x. Conversely, you've got things like the inverse Ackermann function (also discussed in the Wikipedia article linked to above) that increase far more slowly than, say, your garden-variety logarithms, for example. And remarkably, the inverse Ackermann function a(m,n) has real-world applications, including some in the computer science world. Here's a report about a fancy minimum spanning tree algorithm that runs in O( m a(m,n)) time, which is pretty schweeet. If you can't find an O(n) or better algorithm, and usually you can't, this is pretty much the next best thing you can hope for. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a primer on Big O notation from a CS standpoint, and another one given from a more pure mathematical perspective. My impression has been that algorithms coming from a simple, "naive" attempt to solve a problem tend to be O(n^2), bubble sort being the classic example, and it can take a fair bit of head-scratching to come up with something more efficient. O(n^2) isn't always unacceptable, depending on the values of n you're likely to run into, but as they drum into you as a first-year CS student, you shouldn't settle for it if you don't have to. However, back when I had the inevitable C coding assignment to write a little program that implements 4 or 5 sort algorithms, for fun I decided one of them would be bogosort, known as the "the archetypal perversely awful algorithm", which runs in O(n*n!). That's pretty bad. I ended up putting in lots of printfs so the user could see it "working", because it's so unlikely they'd have enough patience to wait for it to complete. The wikipedia article referenced mentions an even worse variant known as "bozosort", although it probably still runs in some variant of factorial time. At the office a while back we got into a discussion about whether it's possible to write a sort that runs in worse than factorial time, without having the code take any pathological steps to deliberately avoid sorting the data properly. We couldn't come up with anything off the tops of our heads that might be worse than the repeated shuffle-and-test process. I think you'd have to be fairly ingenious to invent an O(n^n), or (even better) O(A(n)) sort. You probably woudn't get a medal, but you'd certainly merit a writeup on Slashdot. And probably here as well, FWIW.

Ahh, but it gets better, and weirder. A good article I came across titled "Who can name the largest number?" The author, Scott Aaronson, starts out discussing the answers you get when you ask kids this question -- all of whom gave answers vastly smaller than mine, I'm happy to say -- and then moves on to discuss things like our friend the Ackermann function, and then brings up a family of functions collectively known as Busy Beaver functions, one of the goofier names you're likely to run across in the math or CS worlds. The exact definition is fairly technical, involving various questions about Turing machines, but the really key point is that the functions are non-computable, meaning that although a function BB(n) is well-defined, there's no easy way to calculate its exact value for a given n. All you can do is build hardware, or write software, and try to determine the values experimentally. The really bizarre part: I'm not sure if this is the cause of, or an effect of, the functions' non-computability, but it's been proven that BB functions increase more rapidly than any function that can be recursively defined (exponents, Ackermann, numbers-in-polygons, whatever). I find this extremely puzzling and counterintuitive, and I have a lot of trouble imagining any sort of upper bound on how rapidly a "normal" function can increase, no matter how many nestings and such that you do. But so be it, I guess. The Aaronson article mentions that once you've got BB funtions, you can define even bigger functions in terms of them, but everything past BB is squarely in the realm of non-computability, continuing on up forever from there. So it seems that our familiar world of well-behaved, easily computed mathematical expressions is just the merest tip of the iceberg, and our difficulty in grasping what else is out there isn't just due to difficulties in notation. Wow. Freaky.

Some related functions with far less astronomical values are disussed here. The author of that page is Australian, hence the names "placid platypus" and "weary wombat", and where BB functions look for the maximal values of various things relating to Turing machines, his family of Australian fauna functions look for the minimal values. And then of course you've got inverse Busy Beaver functions. The link is to the sole research paper I can find (via Google) that mentions the subject. If they need a flashier, sillier name, I'd propose "Sleepy Sloth", but then, I'm not a mathematician, so what do I know? :) Anyway, as the inverse of a BB, it seems like an SS would increase more slowly than any computable function. It would still tend to infinity, but at a nearly imperceptible rate.

Now, the main underlying reason I've been doing all this reading lately is that I've been trying to get a better handle on hyperreal numbers and related beasties. And it turns out that one way you can look at the hyperreals is to view them in a purely algebraic sense, as a field of real-valued functions. It's a little hard to get your brain around at first, but basically each real number can be thought of as a constant function with the value of that real number, while functions that increase or decrease without bound are infinite nonstandard numbers, and functons that converge on some horizontal asymptote are infinititesimals. And functions that oscillate get us in to that confusing business with ultrafilters, so let's not go there for right now. Really exploring this will have to wait for another post some time, but it's interesting to consider how BB and related functions fit in. In the world of the hyperreals, BB(n) and SS(n) (or BB-1(n), if you prefer) both define infinitely large numbers, while 1/BB(n) and 1/SS(n) both give us infinitesimals. 1/SS(n) would seem to be an especially "big" infinitesimal, with SS(n) being a particularly "small" infinite number, but neither is a limit. No, in the hyperreal universe (as well as that of the surreal numbers), there's no such thing as a least infinite number, or a greatest infinitesimal. So the domains of the finite, the infinitely large, and the infinitesimal stretch out towards each other without bound, but they never actually touch. Weird, huh?

And the rest I'll save for another post, when I get around to it. I've rambled enough for now.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Random(ish) Curios and Factoids

  • You may not be able to tell from the photo, but you're looking at the world's smallest fish. The article says they live in peat bogs in SE Asia, but you have to wonder if they might be all over the place, and people have just been ignoring them up to now. They wouldn't be hard to overlook, certainly.
  • My current source of occupational stress is a unit test suite that had fallen by the wayside several years back. It hasn't been maintained or updated for a long time now, and it's out of sync with the current codebase. Oh, and many of the tests either weren't passing at the time the suite stopped being maintained, or they didn't actually do anything, or they were failing silently without reporting anything back to the test framework. So when a test fails, you don't immediately know whether the test's broken, or the code it's testing is broken. And did I mention these are C++ tests, using a homegrown test framework, which has itself proven to be less than 100% reliable. No JUnit for us, nosirreee.... I really miss working in Java right about now...
  • On the bright side, here are two more sites with cute pictures of cats and kittens: RateMyKitten and KittenWar. Enjoy!
  • Elsewhere in the universe, it turns out there's a nifty way to recycle old worn-out spacesuits, which is to fill them with experiments and chuck 'em out the nearest airlock. Actually the idea of empty spacesuits floating around in orbit is a little creepy, now that I think about it. Hmm.
  • Came across a blog with a few posts touching on superreal numbers. Turns out the reason there's not a lot of info on the topic out there is that it's a relatively new subject. The definitive book was only published in 1996. I'll do another math-related post in the near future, I expect, but not just yet. I'm still doing some additional reading, with the idea that any additional speculation on my part will be at least marginally better informed.
  • You'll probably think this sounds gross, but here's a recipe for a Tuna & Tater Tot Pie. I guess it all depends on how you feel about tater tots. If you ask me, they're the Northwest's single greatest contribution to fine cuisine, and global culture, for that matter. I mean it, and not in a PBR-swilling ironic hipster way, either. Forget all that business about salmon, blackberries, hazelnuts, whatever. It's not like any of them were actually invented here.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Godmonster of Indian Flats

The "Godmonster" of the title is not a reference to Pat Robertson or Jack Abramoff, although I admit either would be a reasonable guess. But not this time. Tonight's bad movie is Godmonster of Indian Flats, a peculiar early-70's yarn about a gigantic, horribly mutated sheep marauding around near Virginia City, Nevada. As numerous IMDB users have noted, it's one of the, ah, less convincing monsters you're likely to see on film.

And, as is typical of old monster movies, you don't actually see much of the monster, and you get the feeling they're trying to pad the movie out early on, to bring what would otherwise be a 15-minute rampage up to feature film length. So we get a parallel story, a conflict between the local creepy, insular townsfolk and an eastern mining conglomerate that wants to take over the place. The whole "weird doings in an isolated town" angle is actually pulled off reasonably well, although you keep waiting for Mulder and Scully to show up and make fun of all the yokels.

The early 70's were a very serious time, both in and out of the film world, and it just wouldn't be right to make a monster movie without delivering a Serious Message. And in Godmonster, you get two for the price of one. First, the residents of this desolate mining town are concerned about the big bad easterners coming in and messing the place up with even more mining, which would cause pollution. Early on, someone mentions cyanide, which really is used for gold mining these days: It's one of the few substances that dissolves gold, so you just pour cyanide on top of a pile of dirt, and the gold goes into solution and washes out the bottom. This would be a great idea, except that cyanide is poisonous. Plus, gold-mining oldtimers tend to think that it's cheating, because it's too easy, kind of like fishing with dynamite, or something. So anyway, that's Serious Message number one.

Serious Message number two is (I think) an plea for racial tolerance and harmony and understanding, or something. The local representative of the eastern mining guys is black, see, and he spends much of the movie being mistreated by the ignorant, bigoted locals, which isn't very nice or hospitable of them. But on the other hand, he's working for the big Eastern polluters, so the two messages are sort of working at cross-purposes. In the end, it's not 100% clear exactly what important life lesson we're supposed to come away with.

But wait! There's more! If you get the DVD from Something Weird, cleverly hidden among the disc's special features is a second genuine full-length feature film! Who could resist a deal like that? The bonus movie on the disk is an obscure exploitation flick from 1964 called Passion in the Sun. The plot isn't overly taxing, to be sure. A "circus geek" in a cheap fright wig escapes from a disused amusement park, and heads off to go on a rampage. Meanwhile, a burlesque dancer is snatched from the local airport by a pair of Bad Men toting an important suitcase (probably full of cash, but we never see inside it). She escapes when the two men quarrel over the loot, and an extended chase ensues, with our heroine managine to lose articles of clothing at a remarkable rate. A pair of local cops are in the mix as well, following along several steps behind our heroine and the remaining Bad Man. As the movie's from way back in 1964, we know justice will prevail in the end, but not just yet. Since viewers will probably start drumming their fingers during the long chase through the underbrush, all the while waiting eagerly for justice to prevail, the filmmakers generously chose to break up the (lack of) action with a series of burlesque numbers. These take place at the club where our heroine was originally headed, and feature dancers who would be considered rather, uh, fleshy by present-day standards, at least cinematic standards. Eventually the geek shows up, does in the remaining Bad Man, and takes over the crucial role of chasing our heroine. So they inevitably end up back at the amusement park, and she ends up hiding on a rollercoaster. Naturally the geek fires the thing up, so as to better torment our protagonist. So she goes for a few spins around the track, trying to look terrified, but eventually the geek tires of this, or something, and inexplicably crawls out onto the tracks, where the rollercoaster hits him. Finally the cops show up and comfort the poor lady, who's been fending for herself the whole movie up to now. For their valiant efforts, HQ gives our boys in blue the rest of the night off, so inevitably they end up at a certain burlesque club of our acquaintance. There's another couple of numbers, now featuring our heroine with the others as backup, and our "heroes", not late to the party for once, enjoy a hearty handshake to close the film. The credits immediately pop up to tell us that the whole thing was filmed "south of the border", which I guess was important for legal reasons back in the old days, due to those few extremely tame topless scenes. I could swear that in one scene I saw a freeway exit for Galveston, but I suppose there could be a different Galveston in Mexico that I'm totally unfamiliar with.

The definitive book or academic paper about 60's exploitation films has surely been written already. It's not like the material is very subtle and hard to puzzle out, for starters, plus the main thing to talk about is the nudity, which gathers a crowd in the academic world just like it does everywhere else. And the genre certainly had its weird conventions. There were only a few set circumstances that gave you an excuse for a nude scene. 60's viewers, presumably all male viewers, seemed to really go for the "peeping Tom" thing, since viewers are treated to an endless parade of scenes with women in the buff, sitting around putting on makeup, or idly chatting with friends, or doing some other very mundane activity, blissfully unaware they're being watched. You don't need to be a graduate student to pick up on the obvous male gaze aspect here. When the movie camera's not peeping in the shower, you get things like the aforementioned burlesque scenes, which I guess are there because putting anything on stage automagically turns it into art. Or at least it gives you a reasonable legal defense on grounds of artistic merit, in case somebody tries to prosecute you. And then, the costumes used on stage tend towards the ethnic, lots of grass skirts and "Indian princess" outfits. If you start out with the right set of clothes, by unspoken social convention you'd temporarily become sort of pseudo-ethnic, and nudity didn't really count somehow, because you're just an innocent child of nature, a la the old days of National Geographic.

And then, to take the cake, after pulling off their vastly underwhelming "rescue", our two police buddies win the right to see the heroine in the altogether -- in a pure and innocent 1964 way, of course. Hey, the movie may not sound like much, but it's a definite step up from the oeuvre of Doris Wishman. That is, unless you like endless shots of feet and inanimate objects, which I understand really does the job for some people.

To sum up tonight's double feature: Start off with "Godmonster" (if you dare, and/or care), so that you'll have had a few drinks or whatever by the time you get to the lower half of the double bill. Otherwise you'll either a) vastly overanalyze the thing, like I did, or b) get extremely bored and turn it off. Which would be understandable, considering that every moment you spend watching a bad movie is a moment of your life you'll never get back. But it's also true that sometimes you've got nothing better to do on a Saturday night, relentless sands of time notwithstanding, and if so, you could do worse than "Godmonster". I know, because I have, so sooner or later you'll probably be hearing about those bad movies too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


[Ok, the network's finally back to normal, and I can post here again. I was starting to suffer withdrawal symptoms. This "blog" thing is oddly addictive.]

Today's rant once again involves our local Powers That Be. One of their current silly notions is that our fair city desperately needs an official Public Market (not to be confused with the one in Portland, Maine). As the story goes, we really need to work on being a properly European city, and one of the absolute necessities is a government-operated (or at least sponsored) fresh produce market, open-air if possible. This is absolutely essential, a non-negotiable point, they tell us.

Furthermore, the perfect site for this hypothetical market has already been identified: Precisely the spot where the successful Portland Saturday Market has operated since the 1970s. This means Saturday Market is going to be pushed aside, and they'll need to find a new home, with little or no assistance from the Powers That Be.

It's important to note that we already have quite a few sources of high-quality local produce, both grocery stores and farmers' markets. To date, "Public Market" proponents have offered no compelling reasons why we need a taxpayer-supported competitor to these existing businesses. They just think we need to do it, regardless.

I see several reasons behind the recent push.

  1. First, our perennial inferiority complex vs. Seattle, home of the famous Pike Place Market. They've got one, so we need one. This is the yuppie version of the argument that we desperately need a publicly-funded baseball (or football) stadium, just because Seattle already has both.
  2. Second, the existing Saturday Market only runs on weekends (hence the name), and during the rest of the week the area's fairly sketchy. The Powers That Be are stoked about gentrifying the area, and they've arranged to relocate a nearby fire station to make way for even more high-rise yuppie condos. Apparently firefighters are insufficiently upscale, and therefore need to be shuffled out of sight / out of mind. A public market in the area would boost property values, and thus property tax revenuse, therefore it's absolutely imperative that we do it. It's down to greed, basically.
  3. As our current Powers That Be are for the most part a clique of affluent Baby Boomers, the existing Saturday Market is an inconvenient reminder of their more disreputable days back in the 70's. Saturday Market is still your source for tie-dye apparel of all sorts, 100% organic hemp macrame, a thousand kinds of incense, you name it. Our glorious leaders would rather not be reminded of their youth. They'd much rather have us think they've been the same pretentious Bordeaux-swilling cigar-chomping foodies slash deep-pocketed patrons of the arts since age 18 or so, and therefore we need to sweep any authentic vestiges of those days under the rug, ASAP.
  4. It's just a naked show of influence, showing the world who controls all the levers of power in this town. We've been told that any public market built in this town will involve big payments to our bloated "creative class" community for various design services and so forth. It's important that everyone understand that nothing should get built within the city limits without an official Creative stamp of approval. Meanwhile, the restaurant folks and their "foodie" groupies were lured on board with the idea that the market will be named in honor of James Beard, who was from here originally. Honestly, if you're going to put your loyalty up for sale, the price should be higher than that. In the end, a memorial is just pure symbolism, nothing more. How this city handles monuments and memorials is a fairly appalling read, but I'll save that for another day.

The really sad thing about the whole debacle-in-progress is that we've already tried this once before. We've already demonstrated quite clearly that, so far as this city's concerned, the term "Public Market" is an oxymoron. Back in the 1930's, our city fathers decided we needed to replace the existing produce market (which had come into being without state involvement) with a gigantic Art Deco market right on the waterfront (pictured above). Well, I'll grant that the building was pretty cool, but the market went bankrupt after just a couple of years. By which time the existing privately-run produce markets had been driven out of business, and we were condemned to a life of nothing but tuna casseroles and Spam for another 4 decades or so.

They say those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Normally I'd say that's a tired cliche, and quite often the opposite is true -- as in, those who know too much history are the ones doomed to repeat it, see the Balkans for one choice example -- but in our case the old cliche is true. As I've noted before, the people running the show here don't really believe the world existed prior to 1970, and even if it did, they don't belive it has any relevance whatsoever to the utopia we've built here in the last 40 years.

We ignore history at our peril, that's all I'm sayin'.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Exploding Toads!!!

Gentle Reader(s), I present to you the most excellent product recall of all time: the Case of the Exploding Toads. My wife came across this one back in 2003, and it's been a household favorite ever since. (No, we aren't weird people, why do you ask?)

Text like this is what makes the recall such a priceless gem:

Hazard: A small hose inside the toad can fail, allowing water to fill the toad's cavity. The increased water pressure can cause the toad to explode, posing the risk of injury to anyone nearby.

Note that the recalled toads are not known to be hallucinogenic when licked, unlike certain other toads -- which, ironically, you can still purchase online. Maybe this is because the Colorado River Toad works as advertised?

Note that the exploding toads also lack basic mind control abilities.

All glory to the Hypnotoad!


On today's walk to the office, I noticed they're finally tearing out the old Portland police building at SW 3rd and Oak. As you can see from the photo, it's sort of inexplicable that I left it off my recent list of ugliest buildings in town. I think it's fair to say nobody's sad to see it go.

Of course, they wouldn't be tearing it out now without a good rea$on. For several decades it had just sat there, forlorn, empty, and decaying, a building people would cross the street to avoid walking past. But soon it'll be gone, to be replaced by Oak Tower, the latest tall, skinny, market-rate condo building. As that last link indicates, it was originally going to be apartments, but the developers switched it to condos instead. Seems that in order to qualify for the usual witches' brew of tax abatements and subsidies, they would have had to reserve a certain number of units as "affordable" housing. Now, the city's definition of affordable is fairly lenient. In some cases, it's affordable if someone making a mere 120% of the metro area's median income can afford it. In other words, you may still qualify if you're above average, but just not enough above average. But apparently there's no way to make money anymore catering to 120-percenters and similar pikers, so instead we get more condos for the ultra-rich. What a topsy-turvy world we live in.

As usual, there's an amusing take on the subject over at Bojack. And if you're curious about our many exciting skyscraper projects, a fairly comprehensive list is maintained here.

One of the projects on the list is The Cronin, which is named for one of the much smaller buildings it will replace. I had the privilege of watching those buildings be torn down as well. It's kind of fun, although I can't really put my finger on exactly why. Maybe it's a male thing, I dunno.

It's not strictly a destructive impulse, mind you. Watching buildings go up can be fun, too. I usually rationalize that as watching real engineering as it happens -- as opposed to just schlepping out lines of C++ code like I do. And maybe that's the whole reason, and maybe it isn't.

A few months back, I noticed an intriguing machine being used to smooth out some freshly poured concrete on a building that was going up. I only recently figured out that it's called a ride-on power trowel. The same counterrotating blades that smooth the concrete also serve as propulsion and steering. It looks like a lot of fun. If we ever get a new dot-com bubble, and I have a pile of IPO cash to play with, I swear I'm going to rent one, have a big mess of concrete poured somewhere, and let everyone in the office have a turn driving the thing.

And then, and then, um, we'll go find us a bar that's got a mechanical bull, and we'll give that a try, and maybe there'll be, like, some actual country western music playing or something. One of those places where the whiskey is not imported, and you order it "no ice", not "neat", you know the kind of place I mean. The plan is for no actual bar fighting, hopefully, because HR wouldn't be happy about that, but we can vicariously feel like we're living kinda dangerously for a couple hours. And after that, maybe a trip down to the, heh heh, Acropolis, heh heh, to blow a pile of ones, or whatever.

Honestly, we geeks are at our very lamest when we're trying to have ourselves a "real man" moment...

I'm starting to ramble here, but the #1 link on a google search for "Real Man" is fairly amusing. It seems that if you're a Real Man, you really ought to have a solid granite bicycle seat. And speaking of bicycles, on my way to the office today I was yet again nearly run down in the crosswalk by a completely oblivious guy on a bike, decked out in the usual "alternative" pseudo-bike-messenger regalia. Aargh! But that's worth a post in itself, which I'll get around to sooner or later.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Fine Whine

It's quite unusual for me to point people at the comments section of a Slashdot story. Usually there's nothing to see on /. except the usual Natalie Portman / Soviet Russia / Beowulf Cluster idiocy, which is great fun if you're 15 and have no social skills, but which is excruciatingly tedious for everyone else.

What's doubly unusual is that the Slashdot story is about wine. Seems a company in Japan claims to have developed a gadget that rapidly "ages" wine, doing in seconds what would normally take years or even decades.

The comments cover most of the salient points. Some posters argue that it won't catch on, because people are so stuck on the traditional way of making wine. Others point out that a lot of people are into wine solely because it's expensive (and therefore sophisticated), so they won't go for anything that makes it less of a luxury item. Some posters quote studies showing that wine conoisseurs often have trouble distinguishing expensive wines from cheap ones in blind tastings, remarking that the whole subject is a complete pseudoscience. There's a bit of the inevitable beer vs. wine arguing, of course, and quite a few people express doubts that the machine even works, at least in the way the article describes.

Now, I like wine and everything, but I'm basically a beer geek. It's sometimes said that farmers make wine, and engineers make beer. Well, and SCA dorks make mead, but that's beside the point. I have to say that if someone invented a gadget that made beer taste better, I doubt there would be any controversy about it. Beer's not generally regarded as, or priced as, a luxury item, and the price tends to reflect the actual cost of ingredients and of distribution, where wine pricing is a black art that reflects perceived scarcity, name recognition (for both the winery and the geographic area), ratings by a handful of superstar reviewers, current fads in pop culture, and so forth.

It's notable that the original story's from the Sydney Morning Herald, since Australia seems to be the blessed counterexample to the whole wine-as-snobby-luxury-item meme. If the gadget works, they'll probably go wild for it, just like they have for putting wine in boxes. It's been repeatedly demonstrated that wine in a box keeps better than wine in a bottle, but outside of Oz everyone seems very resistant to the idea, I guess because it takes away some of the mystique. Next people will be drinking the stuff out of regular glasses, and just imagine how horrible that would be.

It concerns me a little that certain elements of the beer world want to be more like the wine world. I don't know where they got that inferiority complex from, but it definitely exists. The recent push towards Belgian-style beers reflects this line of thinking. I mean, as a business person you're certainly going to be on the lookout for anything you can do that would boost your margins. You'd be silly not to. And putting strongly-flavored, high-alcohol beers in chunky bottles with corks seems to be a winner right now. It's also interesting to see the mixed reaction in the beer world to certain breweries experimenting with micro-canning, i.e. putting beer you'd actually want to drink into a can. My first experience with this was about a year ago, with the tasty products of the Oskar Blues brewery, and I have to admit it was kind of surreal, drinking something from a can and being able to taste the hops. Like boxed wine, canned beer keeps better, and it's easier to take with you if you're going camping or rafting or whatever.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Duelling Fictions

So I was walking to work the other day and noticed a very curious billboard. It was done up to look like graffiti, and carried the slogan "Not a crime!", brought to us by the public-spirited citizens at The curious thing about the billboard is that it's part of an astroturfing campaign by ClearChannel, the huge, predatory, monopolistic, warmongering corporation that owns all the billboards in town. Seems that a few years back, the city of Portland decided that billboards and large ads painted on the sides of buildings were an eyesore, and banned them. You could get away with this in most states, but the Oregon Supreme Court takes a very absolutist position on free expression, and it's not ok here. The state constitution doesn't give explicit permission to treat commercial speech differently than other speech, so you can't. Our Supremes ruled against the city a few years ago, and at first the city decided to do the usual Portland passive-agressive thing, and go after "real" mural art, just to show how mean the nasty Supreme Court was by making them be consistent and all. That proved controversial, so then the city came up with the clever idea of reclassifying billboards and murals as city-sponsored "public art", so they need to go through a permitting process and be judged on artistic merit. Meanwhile, ClearChannel has made it clear they won't settle for anything less than total laissez-faire, so they can place ads anywhere they want, in any format, with no city oversight of any kind. In the end, it's about money, not speech, so far as they're concerned.

Nobody's an angel in this argument. On one hand, ClearChannel is about as evil a corporation as you can find, and I'd hate to see them have any more power and influence than they already do. And the idea that they're really supporting the rights of poor, oppressed muralists and taggers is just laughable. They certainly aren't in favor of graffiti when one of their billboards gets defaced, after all. On the other, I'm instinctively very, very skeptical when any government body tries to reclassify something so it's not protected speech, no matter how noble their intentions may be, or how malevolent the target of the action might be. Yes, lots of people think billboards are a public nuisance, but you could say the same about protest marches. Lots of people don't like those, and they tend to inconvenience commuters far more than billboards do. In general, we ought to be leery of restrictions on speech, and the more popular the restriction would be, the more skeptical we ought to be.

If I had to pick a side, right now I'm somewhat inclined, quite reluctantly, towards the evil, bloodthirsty corporation, even though I agree that billboards are ugly and all. But that's not really the fundamental issue here, for me, anyway.

The thing that really bothers me is that the issue's being debated in entirely fictional terms. One side pretends to be the friend of the common (artistic) man, while the other claims to be merely standing up for good art, as judged by a municipal panel of experts, and generally promoting the beautification of the city. Both duelling fictions are undoubtedly pollster-approved and focus group-friendly, but they're also utterly untrue in all respects. Nobody's being honest about their real motives. One shouldn't expect ClearChannel, or any corporation for that matter, to have motives beyond doing whatever makes the most money, and one certainly shouldn't believe them if they claim to have other motives. LIkewise, the city's trying to come up with a way to go on treating advertising differently than "real art", despite that pesky state Supreme Court ruling, purely because they don't like large outdoor advertising very much, and they really don't like ClearChannel much at all. Even that ruling contains fictional elements, in that the very idea that a corporation has a general right to free expression stems from the notion that a business is considered a person under the law, a 19th century legal fiction concocted by the US Supreme Court, back when the railroads and various industrial robber barons called the shots. People have gotten used to this concoction over the years, but it really is a ridiculous idea on its face. And the fact that your average corporation has vastly more financial resources at its disposal than the average living breathing human means that the corporation tends to win out when the two come into conflict, with the legal system all the while pretending that the two are precise equals under the law.

Within the world of law, the culture equates cleverness in a legal argument with truth, beauty, justice, and sometimes even morality, even if there's no factual basis behind it whatsoever. A while back I promised an eventual rant about Oregon's "landmark" Beach Bill, but a full rant is unnecessary to this argument, so here's an abbreviated version. The law, which aimed to protect the coast from encroaching development, did so by reclassifying the state's beaches as a state highway. Really. This was considered a great move, because it prevented anyone from building directly on the beach, portions of which remain technically private property to this day, with the owners not receiving a single cent in compensation. And not a thought given to the obvious fact that the beach is not a highway. In reality, the law was passed this way because it was cheaper than actually buying everyone out, plus any improvements the state wanted to make nearby -- parking, campgrounds, etc. -- could be funded through state gas taxes, since they'd effectively be rest areas along the side of a (fictional) highway.

I suspect, but can't currently prove, that reasoning along these lines for too long eventually damages one's basic ability to think rationally, to distinguish fact from fiction, and right from wrong. If you want to know why our political system seems so broken, look no further.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Yor! And More!

This time around, we'll start with the bad movie and go from there. I'm afraid that tonight's bad movie is Yor, the Hunter from the Future, which is your standard Italian-Turkish barbarian movie, with an exciting twist! It turns out that (spoiler alert) this epic tale takes place not in the prehistoric past, but in a barbaric post-nuclear future, which explains all the androids and ray guns in the last half hour or so of the movie. This would be a big surprise, except that the English-language title gives the whole game away before the film even starts. It's not clear how a nuclear war could have triggered the evolution of very fake-looking dinosaurs. And, um, the filmmakers would be wise to not let the lawyers at Lucasfilm see those sinister black-clad, black-helmeted androids. The movie's worth it just for its synth-heavy 80's new wave theme song. If you have a low tolerance for cinematic crappiness, but you're mildly curious and/or bored, you can get a pretty good feel for the movie by just watching the first 10 minutes or so. Besides the theme song, there's also a bit close to the beginning where Yor whips out his bow, shoots down what appears to be a giant moth, and uses it as a primitive hang glider to soar in and rescue the heroine. I bet you've never seen that before. If you manage to tough it out through the whole movie, towards the end there's a trapeze bit you don't want to miss. Yes, trapeze.

This movie is actually rated PG, with no nudity, and with violence so fake that nobody's likely to find it disturbing. Normally this makes for a very poor and tedious barbarian movie (like Ator, or Krull), but this one manages to be surreal enough to keep it interesting.

Apparently you can watch the whole thing on Veoh here if you install some sort of player. I haven't tried that, and I don't know what's involved in this player they're offering, so ymmv, caveat emptor, etc..

And since we're on the topic of barbarians and nuclear apocalypses, the Iran situation is heating up again. Certain Democrats with their eyes firmly set on 2008 are trying to position themselves to the right of Bush on the Iran nuclear issue, as if being to the right of George was actually possible. Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh have now gone on record saying that the administration isn't taking a sufficiently hard line against Iran. Someone ought to tell them this is not just another political game, and it's all not just a matter of positioning yourself properly for the next election cycle. Democrats in Congress lined up en masse to compete over who could take the hardest line against Saddam, figuring it was all business as usual, just another meaningless beltway charade. And as a result we got stuck with an ugly, unpopular, expensive, and apparently endless war that they'd all happily authorized. You'd think they'd have learned a thing or two by now, but I think they're still sitting around, utterly bewildered by what happened last time. Bush is so dangerous precisely because he's not all about business as usual, or insulating oneself from attack ads in the upcoming primary, or anything so mundane. He's got nothing but scorn for business as usual, DC style. Give him permission to start a war, and he really will start a war, and then you won't be in much of a tenable position to criticize him when the war goes badly. What's more, he's got Karl whispering in his ear, and Karl knows how to play the D's for fools. Look at them right now. Even with nearly 3 years of war in Iraq under our belts, they still think the safest political strategy is to steer themselves as far to the right as they possibly can, so that they're cheap imitations of "real" Republicans. Even now, war is incredibly easy in the political sense, it's by far the path of least resistance, and everyone's for it, in the usual DC abstract way where (even now) they assume it'll never actually happen. I expect that in the near future, George will "generously" grant the D's a chance to look really, really tough on national security issues, by giving him very explicit permission to spy on, detain, torture, and kill anyone he chooses, with no legal checks and balances whatsoever, and they'll happily give it to him. There is no part of the Constitution they won't throw overboard in a heartbeat if they think it'll help their reelection chances. I'd say they'd all been hypnotized, or replaced by pod people, except that they've been acting this way pretty much nonstop since around 1980.

And Congress is far from alone. I don't think that Ahmadinejad guy has any clue what he's started here. Iran's highly suspect nuclear program, combined with his, um, outspoken views about Israel, has given politicians across the western world a golden opportunity to talk tough without going out on a limb. Jacques Chirac, fresh off a year of continuous domestic problems -- failed referendums, riots, etc. -- would like to remind everyone that France has the bomb, and as president he's not afraid to use it if need be. Politicians in Germany are predictably outraged, but when you're trying to look tough, outraging foreign politicians is rarely a bad move.

Now, the Iran nuclear issue is certainly something to be concerned about, but right now it seems everyone's just cynically trying to exploit the thing to their own benefit. And I'd just like to point out, if I may, that the whole issue would be much simpler if there was no internationally-recognized "right" for a country to obtain and use "peaceful" nuclear technology. If you just drew a line in the sand and said that nuclear power was a mistake, period, and nobody ought to be using it, there'd be none of this game where everyone looks at a country's nuclear program and tries to figure out what it's really being used for. I mean, RTGs would still be OK, I guess (see previous post), but any big reactor would be immediate cause for alarm.

Pluto / Plutonium

The New Horizons probe is now on its way to Pluto. But don't hold your breath. The flyby isn't until July 14, 2015. Hey, Pluto is really, really far, ok? So mark your calendars, and it's never too early to start planning a party. Extra points awarded for creative Pluto+Bastille Day combo parties, since I don't know how one would make the two things go together. But then, I've never been much of a party planner, myself. I know that if you're having people over, and you'll be watching a sporting event on TV, you should always buy more beer than you think you'll need, because you'll need it. But theme parties are beyond my area of expertise, I'm afraid.

Anyway, I admit I have mixed feelings about the whole plutonium RTG thing. On one hand, I'm a total space geek, so I think getting a close look at Pluto is worth doing, and it's clear there's no other way to power the thing that far from the sun. On the other, I'm not exactly a big fan of nuclear power or nuclear weapons. It's hard to reconcile the two things. I'm far from alone in being nervous about the whole thing, although a lot of the criticism seems to be people reacting on a purely emotional level. On the other side, vocal nuclear proponents really give me the creeps. These are the same guys who in 1958 were telling us the atom was Our Friend, and like all friends, Mr. Atom was absolutely safe in all respects, and would solve all of our problems for us, leading to a perfect atomic utopia. Eventually we'd all be flying nuclear jetpacks to work, even vacuum cleaners would have cute lil' reactors built in, and there was absolutely no possible downside to the whole enterprise. It's not like they've got a stellar track record. These are not people whose reassurances are very reassuring. It's also noteworthy that producing RTGs is an occasional side hobby for the country's nuclear weapons labs, when they're not busy making bombs.

So I don't have any easy answers, and I doubt there are any. One way out of the dilemma is to say that it's ok because RTGs don't involve a huge amount of plutonium, which is true, but in the end this is something of a cop out. Where do you draw the line, exactly? Putting actual reactors in space rather than RTGs? Possibly. If we're going to split hairs, that may be the right place to do it, but we'd still be splitting hairs.

Another line of reasoning would be to say "whew, no accident this time", and forget about the whole thing until next time around, which I think is going to be the Mars Science Laboratory rover scheduled to launch in 2009. Again, this is just a way to avoid the issue, not to address it.

I guess what I'm looking for is a way to rationalize a narrow category of things I personally think are worthwhile, without altering up my general aversion to the stuff. Consistency is great, when you can get it, but human beings are always bundles of conflicting impulses, so perhaps all I can do is shrug my shoulders, admit the two things don't (and won't) fit together any more than Pluto and Bastille Day do, and just accept it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

On a more frivolous note...

Ok, it's time for a post with no politics, cultural criticism, or anything serious like that. Sure, politics is important and all, but sometimes you need to take a breather from all the nastiness and just look at some cute little kittens, and then some more kittens. If you're a truly jaded internet user, and still images just don't do it for you anymore, the Oregon Humane Society's live kitten cam may be more your speed. If you don't like kittens, you're obviously going straight to hell, although in the meantime you can look forward to a lucrative job as a talk radio host, or a neocon think tank apparatchik. Oh, wait, I promised no politics. I hate it when the real world keeps intruding.

Anyway, if you ever get tired of kittens, I'd just like to point out that cows are often cute too. Not as cute as kittens, of course, but they do have the advantage of being delicious, something that's not true of kittens so far as I know. If you're feeling masochistic, here's a collection of horrible poetry about cows. You still won't be able to say you've seen everything, but at least you can check one more thing off the list, I guess.

It's not known whether cows think other cows are delicious, but in recent years we've insisted on feeding them to each other anyway, which (understandably) makes some cows rather mad. Adopting less unnatural animal feeding practices would cost money, and the lobbyists are against that, so instead we're going to a fancy RFID-based tracking system known as NAIS. This may turn out to be more expensive than it would be to feed cows a normal vegetarian diet, and we all ultimately foot the bill either way, but this way we're footing the bill as taxpayers rather than as consumers, which is much better, apparently. This way we can go on enjoying low, low (=subsidized) prices at the grocery store, and turn around and resent Uncle Sam for all those horrible taxes we have to pay. I guess it was a foregone conclusion actually; with the current administration, universal surveillance is always the answer, whatever the problem happens to be.

Interestingly, the program's getting a bit of opposition, not from the usual tofu-chomping vegan hippie crowd, but from rather hysterical religious folks who see RFID as the Mark of the Beast. I'll be the first to say there are legitimate civil liberties concerns with RFID, but these people are just making all RFID skeptics seem like wingnuts and whack jobs. I wish they'd shut up and go back to their Y2K shelters, already.

Oops, more politics again. I guess I just can't help it sometimes. Sorry! Honest! :)

PS Karl Rove is a total scumbag.

Bush Before Bush

Tuesday's Oregonian newspaper carried a guest editorial comparing GWB to William McKinley, with an impressive laundry list of similarities: Karl Rove is the new Mark Hanna, Iraq, pre-"Mission Accomplished", is the new Spanish-American War, and now we're into the new Philippine conflict. And then, as now, as the war drug on it became increasingly unpopular. Both presidents' economic polices are "pro-business", meaning they generally favor large and politically well-connected businesses, with an extra soft spot for predatory monopolists. Which is clearly not the same thing as being pro-market. Cronyism ran rampant back then, and utter mediocrity was the order of the day. Sound familiar yet?

The McKinley analogy pops up a lot because Karl Rove himself is a dedicated McKinley fan. Not everyone sees this as a good thing, of course. I've long thought that McKinley was one of our most evil presidents. Others were far more incompetent, but he outdid most of the field in the evil department. I'm pleased to see I'm not the only person who feels this way; in the right city, like Arcata, California, even a mere statue of the guy can be hugely controversial. I'm sure the current controversy is happening at least in part because people are making the historical analogy the other direction, and using it as a proxy for Bush. Since we aren't yet at the point where every city and town has its own colossal statue of our Glorious Leader, the McKinley one will have to do for now, I guess.

The newspaper editorial then went on to make a common and dangerous mistake, that of using historical analogies to predict the future. Since McKinley was followed by Theodore Roosevelt, the argument goes, we're due for a new TR once George leaves the scene. The author even goes so far as to suggest John McCain as a possible TR. I'm starting to think that every history book should be required to carry a warning label, sort of like cigarettes: WARNING: All historical analogies are inexact. Contents of this book should not be used for divination. Publisher offers no warranty that the events described herein will recur at any future date.

In that spirit, several other historical figures suggest themselves as proto-Bushes. Some look at Bush's foreign policy and see him as the new Woodrow Wilson, at least in the sense that George's clearly very determined to change the world. Whether he's trying to change it for the better remains to be seen. Andrew Jackson is another apt analogy, in that he saw himself primarily as commander-in-chief, and exploited the anti-democratic aspects of the role beyond anything George has probably ever dreamed about. He was quite happy to just order the army to go do his bidding, and dare the Supreme Court to try to do anything about it. He seemed to feel that he was in charge because of the deep emotional bonds between himself and the "common man", so his job was to pander to their every whim and prejudice, and little details like the "rule of law" didn't matter all that much.

The Jackson and Wilson analogies are often offered by Bush fans, and they're intended as positive analogies. The Jackson analogy I think is the more apt of the two, and definitely not in a good way. But I'll spare you the full anti-Jackson rant this time around. Wilson has been the subject of a great deal of historical revisionism, so that of late he's been transformed into a sort of patron saint of the neocon movement. They conveniently forget that Wilson did everything he could to keep the country out of World War I, and he nearly succeeded against all the odds. While he was certainly an idealist, that didn't extend to imposing "democracy" on other countries at gunpoint. I can't imagine him favoring our current overseas adventure.

As an aside, I have to wonder whether Rove, Rummy, and friends are making the same mistake as that editorial, using the Philippine conflict as "proof" that we'll eventually succeed in Iraq. The Philippine conflict eventually petered out after a bit over a decade of fighting, and in the end we "won", so if we just stay long enough, we'll "win" this time as well, sooner or later. Ok, in real life the conflict petered out after a newly-elected Woodrow Wilson promised the Philippines eventual independence, which the US government hadn't initially intended to do. McKinley certainly had it in his head that we'd just grab the islands and keep them forever as a colony, while never extending any basic liberties to the place.

Other Bush analogies go further afield, one comparing GWB to a combo of Robespierre and Napoleon, which is an interesting notion, if a bit breathless. European history does offer us a number of people with whom you can draw useful parallels, and you can even do so without ever invoking Godwin's Law. It can be argued that GWB's ideology is similar to that of Charles de Gaulle; people in this country have been scratching their heads over the newly-minted term "big government conservative", seeing it as a confusing paradox. In our short history in this country, we've really only seen centralizing, statist impulses coming from the left side of the spectrum, but that hasn't been the case elsewhere. We're only just now eeing statist conservatism for the first time (more or less), which is why we're having such a hard time giving a name to the phenomenon. If you think of Bush and friends as Gaullists, it all makes a lot more sense, which is the whole point of any useful historical analogy. Some key Gaullist tenets are: Overarching nationalism, social conservatism, a strongly imperial presidency, and a globalist foreign policy leaning towards unilateralism. The Gaullist doctrine of the majestic, all-knowing, all-wise state extends to the economic sphere as well, a policy known as dirigisme. Now, there's no chance that GWB & Co. would ever overtly adopt the language of central planning, but they do appear to favor other elements of the doctrine. In particular, there's been a wholesale adoption of the notion that the economy works best when it's dominated by a handful of giant corporations, which exist in a close, symbiotic relationship with the government, a la Halliburton.

In the end, though, all analogies break down, and it's important to not carry them too far, which leads to seeing the whole world through a simplistic and highly misleading lens. Ever since 1945, there's been a constant, neverending stream of "new Hitlers", Saddam and Milosevic being notable recent examples. Sometimes the comparison is patently silly, like when Manuel Noriega was briefly given the label. And once you've given someone that label, the matter can only be settled through total warfare, as any other option is utterly disgraceful, a "new Munich", practically treasonous to even think about.

Oh, great, now I've gone and triggered Godwin's Law. Sorry about that. Anyway, my point was that GWB is not precisely the new anybody, a trait he shares with the rest of humanity. But that's not likely to stop anyone from playing the history game. A century from now, assuming there's no Rapture or mass extinction between now and then, it wouldn't be surprising if some ruthless, yet dimwitted politician gets labelled as the "GWB of the 22nd century". I'd be willing to bet money that when it happens, it won't be meant as a compliment.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Mmmmm.... Beeeeeer.....

Ok, the New York Times just realized we've got good beer in these parts. They even mentioned Tugboat. Now the place will be crawling with clueless camcorder-wielding tourists in Bermuda shorts, looking over the beer menu and then brusquely demanding a Bud Lite.

Our beer also gets a mention in this Guardian article from 2003. They mention the beer as well, and also repeat the old chestnut about how we tore out a freeway and put in a park. But I've already covered that topic.

Here's another old article, this time a Sydney Morning Herald piece from 2004, which wrings its hands over a then-Australian-themed restaurant down in Wilsonville named Wankers Corner. Now, the name actually comes from the surname of an early settler, but it's got rather impolite connotations in much of the world, including Australia, hence the kitschy Aussie theme. Something tells me the owners watched Crocodile Dundee a few too many times.

Popculturama USA

Rereading that last post, it occurs to me that there's a larger phenomenon at work here. Over the last half-century or so, American pop culture has achieved a great deal of commercial success around the world. The bitter irony here is that the things that make the most money also tend to reflect very badly on us as a country. Take Hollywood action movies, for instance. Action movies cross cultural boundaries much more readily than comedies or dramas do, but imperfectly. A steady diet of action movies is going to give the viewer a warped idea of what life is really like where the movies are set. Imagine, if you will, what life in Hong Kong is like. Unless you actually live there, your mental image is probably derived in large part from the many movies that come out of there. I suspect that in real life, there are far fewer machine gun battles between warring Triad gangs than the movies would lead you to believe.

The same thing happens with our movies as well. When the latest big, dumb summer movie comes out, we think nothing of it. Some of us roll our eyes if we're feeling elitist, or if the movie's worse than usual, while others love the thing and see it a dozen times, but nobody considers it an important cultural document. When it goes overseas, it's another matter entirely. While your average European on the street surely understands intellectually that Hollywood movies aren't documentaries, a steady diet of nothing but Michael Bay movies and Big Macs (or teriyaki steaks at Trader Vic's) is going to give people certain odd notions about the US. So the next time you're in Paris, just remember that when the locals spit on you, they're really spitting on Sylvester Stallone. Which is not much comfort, I admit.

In the past we've tended not to care about this phenomenon, because there's a lot of money to be made in pandering to the global lowest common denominator. The rest of the world may think we're an ultraviolent cultural wasteland, but so long as they keep paying us handsomely for the privilege of thinking that, we're apparently OK with it. On the flip side, we import very little pop culture from elsewhere, so we have no definite ideas about much of the rest of the world. If their movies aren't playing at the local multiplex, we aren't 100% convinced they really exist. When a rare exception comes along, we form a shiny new stereotype, like the whole Crocodile Dundee thing in the 80's, or the current notion that New Zealand == Middle Earth.

Since I get a regular stream of non-US visitors here, I'd like to take this opportunity to correct a few misconceptions people may have gotten about us. Just a few off the top of my head:

  • Neither I, nor anyone I know, has ever shot anyone, or been shot, or even been a bystander while third parties were shooting each other. Spectacular gunbattles are quite uncommon here, and huge explosions are even more rare.
  • Many of us are actually quite strong swimmers, and don't constantly need rescuing, which is good because our lifeguards are generally nowhere near as attractive as you've been led to believe.
  • Southerners in real life are no dumber, fatter, crazier, or more corrupt than the rest of humanity.
  • The West is not cowboys-and-indians territory. I live in a western state, but I haven't the faintest clue how to herd cattle or lasso anything. There are neither cows nor pistol duels in our streets. BTW, for overseas readers, you should be aware that the word "cowboy" is not generally considered an insult here. If you try to use it as one, it just leaves us scratching our heads as to what you're getting at.
  • The mafia is not glamorous, and is far less powerful and widespread than you think. If you meet an American with an Italian surname, do not ask them if they know Tony Soprano. That is considered a serious insult.
  • Americans do not actually subsist on a diet of nothing but Big Macs, hot dogs, and soda. I haven't had a Big Mac in many, many years. Even if you just want a hamburger, there are far better options.
  • Likewise, it's untrue that all American beer is fizzy, yellow, weak, and tasteless. The big national brands you encounter overseas certainly are, but there's no shortage of better choices here.

Trader Vic's @ Beirut

While I was doing my, ah, research for that last post, I discovered that Beirut, Lebanon has its very own Trader Vic's outlet. We're told that, there by the shores of the beautiful Mediterranean, every Wednesday is Waikiki night. Which begs the obvious question: Is anything real anymore? I mean, it's great and kitschy and ultra-postmodern and all, but how far should we really go in celebrating the tastes of timid western business travellers? I guess it'd briefly be kind of fun doing karaoke in front of a crowd of nervous Texans who've never been outside their own county before, and who eat pineapple-slathered "teriyaki steak" because they're afraid to try that crazy foreign "falafel" stuff. On second thought, no, that wouldn't be any fun at all. I certainly wouldn't take audience requests, anyway. I don't know any Toby Keith, and if I accidentally learned any, I would surely die.

What makes me mildly sad is that Beirut, and Bangkok, and Bahrain, and Taipei, and London can all support a Trader Vic's outlet, and Dubai has two of 'em, but the chain's Portland outlet closed years ago. It's now the swanky El Gaucho steakhouse at the Benson hotel, although if you look at the part of the building facing SW Stark St., you can still see a display of "authentic" Polynesian cinder blocks. Someday, an architectural historian will get tenure writing about this, explaining how we ended up with a block of pseudo-Pacific decor right here in the least Polynesian corner of the entire universe.

Perhaps you've noticed that this post is even less logically organized than most, and most sentences don't follow logically from the previous sentences. For this creative blessing, I'd like to thank the nice folks at Fish Tale Brewing, and I'd like to wish them a happy 10th anniversary. Cheers!

Zippily Zesty

One of the lesser-known entertainments in the realm of "so bad it's good" are old cookbooks from the 60's and 70's, with their ghastly recipes and horrific food photography. So far as I can tell, people in those days subsisted on nothing but meatloaf, casseroles, and various mutant forms of Jello. Every man, woman, and child seems to have consumed roughly 4 lbs. of unseasoned, greasy ground beef per day, pure and untainted by subversive foreign matter like, oh, garlic, or chiles, or anything else that would give it flavor. They all ate like proper Calvinists, it seems. Oh, you would get the occasional patronizing "international" recipe: You could dump a can of pineapple on top of your meatloaf and call it Polynesian, or pile on some chow mein noodles and water chestnuts (optional) and call it "Oriental", or glop it with sour cream and call it Swedish. But be warned: If you read too many of these at one sitting, you'll get "It's a Small World After All" [*Not* a Disney link] stuck in your head, and it just won't go away. The only way to make the song leave your head is to hum it out loud in the presence of others, thereby passing the infection on to them, a la The Ring. But I digress.

Right now, at this very moment, I have before me Volume 3 of the 16 volume Family Circle Illustrated Library of Cooking, from 1972. One of the concoctions this immortal tome offers us is the ambrosia known as "Parisian Meat Loaf Stacks":


2 lbs. meatloaf mixture ( ground beef, pork, and veal)
1 can (10.5 oz.) condensed onion soup
2 tbsp. flour
1/2 cup water
1 loaf French bread, cut diagonally into 8 thick slices and toasted
grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions (paraphrased):

1. Squish the meat into a 6 inch round, put it in a frying pan, pour
the soup over it. Heat it to a boil and cover it.
2. Simmer, repeatedly spooning the pan juices over your meat-wad
so it doesn't dry out. Do this for 90 minutes.
3. Lift the meat out, and make a gravy out of the remaining juices.
4. Put slices of bread on plates, with meatloaf slices on top, and gravy
over the whole schmeer.
5. Sprinkle each "generously" with Parmesan cheese, because they're
really going to need it.

I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to remember the French bread, because it's what makes this meatloaf dish so authentically Parisian, or not. Forget the bread, and you've just got meatloaf with gravy & Parmesan, a.k.a. "meatloaf Italiano", an entirely different recipe. Sadly, I have no photos of either to share with you today.

The really sad and funny part is the giddy tone the books take when describing these drab dishes and their ingredients. The Family Circle books were really bad about this. Most sentences include at least one breathless adverb; "zippily" and "snappily" are two of their very favorites. And even without adverbs, the writing is pretty dire. To wit:

What's to do with ground meat? Meat loaves, to be sure. And burgers with dozens of flavor variations. And meat balls swimming in savory sauce or gravy. And flavorful casseroles with a foreign accent. And quick skillet dinners. And meat pies. And... the list is long and alluring as the following collection of recipes proves.

The key point to the cuisine of this era is that there were only something like 15 ingredients total, and a limited number of ways of preparing them. Writing a cookbook was not an excursion into the realm of the senses, but rather a cold exercise in advanced combinatorics. You certainly can't argue that hard-boiled eggs tasted any better after having been run through with toothpicks and dressed up as penguins. That's not cuisine. Nor is it art. It's not even a useful handicraft. It's just unnatural and wrong.

And it's very sad as well; a whole generation of women poured their hearts and considerable creative energies into these eggy little penguins and the like, without anyone else even noticing. It was all a nasty trick played on them by the (probably 100% male) cookbook mafia, just more busywork women were supposed to derive their whole identities from. Women were told this was the one and only road to true happiness, right up there with vacuuming in pearls, and it was all a big scam.

Fortunately (for you, the reader), the universe of evil cookbooks has already been explored by writers and web designers far more talented than I. I present to you James Lileks' insanely great Gallery of Regrettable Food, which is also available in dead tree format. Not only have people already written better books on the topic than I have, but other people have written better blog entries about said books than I'm currently doing. Have I mentioned yet that I'm very, very late to the blog party? Have I explained yet that everyone else has a huge head start on me? What, now you want to see original ideas? In 2006? In this day and age, I think it's fair to say that for every good idea, there's a so-so movie that tries and fails to explain it, and you can find said movie on Netflix. Please don't ask me to keep up with those geniuses in Hollywood. I only just got an iPod in December, and just figured out the whole podcast thing on Friday, and I still don't have a cellphone. So gimme a break already, ok? Sheesh....

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Wizards of the Demon Sword

Trailer till Wizards of the Demon Sword från rstvideos trailerarkiv.

Before we get to tonight's movie, Spaceflight Now has a mission status page up for tonight's Stardust capsule return. The latest post indicates the return capsule has separated successfully, so everything's basically on autopilot between now and the landing, which will be just over an hour from now if all goes well. This is not as exciting as a landing somewhere else, to be sure, but I freely admit I'm a total geek over this kind of stuff, so I'm keeping tabs on it anyway. Also, they did one of those "send your name into space" things, storing the names on a chip in the return capsule. So my name's on board the thing, and I'd hate to see anything bad happen to it.

As you may have guessed from the title, tonight's movie is Wizards of the Demon Sword, yet another cheesy 80's(-ish) sword-n-sorcery flick. This one has all the staples: A damsel in distress, a roguish adventurer, a wisecracking sidekick, a wise and eccentric mystical old hermit, an evil wizard with a "brooding" castle that looks to have cost at least $1.98 to build. They're fighting over a cheap-looking magical object of incredible power (this time a small dagger with a clear plastic blade), which involves a lot of so-so swordplay, the hero and damsel riding around a lot on horses, a harem scene, some gratuitous nudity, bits of stock footage very obviously stolen from other movies with bigger budgets. This time the stock footage provides all the film's crowd scenes and all of its monsters -- stop-motion dinosaurs, no less. At one point, the hero and the damsel are riding along, discussing what they want to eat. Cut to footage of a small dinosaur walking around, doing its thing. Damsel points and says something like "let's eat that!". Hero whips out a very small dagger and flings it out of the frame. There's what I guess is a dinosaur screech, and we cut to the pair chatting after a hearty meal of "lizard bird", as they keep calling it. This is great stuff, I tell you.

The best S&S movies avoid taking themselves too seriously. This one knows it's covering all the cliches, and keeps its tongue firmly in cheek. The sillyk, stilted dialogue is sometimes funny, although it gets old after a while. Everyone has fabulous 80's hair, permed to perfection. Everyone except the wise hermit, who sports one of the silliest fright wigs you'll ever see, and a fake beard to match. The hermit also hails from far south of the Mason-Dixon line, saying things like "Foolproof plans ain't easy to come by, son!". Did I mention this is great stuff? I mean, you'll probably enjoy it more if you have a beer, or two, or three, but you have to admit that's true of most movies. I'm not saying it's a good movie, certainly. Oh, no, it's a very, very bad movie, but it's bad in a good way. It's no Deathstalker II, to be sure, but if you see it and don't like it, I promise to give back every cent you paid me for this advice.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Ok, now I need a bigger monitor.

For your viewing enjoyment, o Gentle Reader(s), here's the latest Hubble mosaic of the Orion Nebula. Well, a link to a story about the mosaic, with a vastly scaled down version of it. There's a couple of links to the full mosaic from there. The original's a whopping 18000 x 18000 pixels, so the Flash-based viewer may be your best option. That is, unless you refuse to use Flash, which is quite understandable.

I was hoping to work in a gratuitous Blade Runner reference here, you know, the whole "attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion" thing. Too bad the nebula's actually near Orion's belt. Since I don't exactly get a raging flood of visitors here, I could probably just make the movie reference and have it go unchallenged, but I would still know it's anatomically impossible, and it would bother me. This is probably an engineer thing.

So in place of that, let me briefly mention "Soldier", an obscure SF movie starring Kurt Russell that's loaded with Blade Runner and other movie references. A friend and coworker is firmly convinced this is the best movie ever made, and he even keeps a copy at his desk, to lend out to anyone who expresses an interest. So I'd be remiss if I didn't give it at least a passing mention.

Elsewhere in the universe, we have a new record holder for the fastest known pulsar. The thing spins 716 times per second, is roughly 16km across, and it's incredibly dense, weighing in at perhaps twice the mass of the sun. Wow. Sadly, there's no truth to the rumor it'll be named in honor of Karl Rove, who it closely resembles. Closer to home, there's another Titan flyby tomorrow. It's almost become a mundane occurrence anymore, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. Also, the Stardust probe is going to drop off a capsule full of comet dust on Sunday. This is actually kind of a bad thing. Not because it's bringing back some sort of nasty comet plague or anything, at least not so far as I know. It's just that it's going to be flying (roughly) over my house tomorrow night, which absolutely guarantees 100% cloud cover and a miserable rainstorm. And I'm sick of the rain, already. I'm really sick of all the rain.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Quick! Backpedal!

Ok, so now Pat Robertson's offering an "apology" for his recent spewage about Ariel Sharon's stroke. As I suspected, his proposed fundie theme park in Israel is now on hold. Meanwhile, Rev. Pat and his minions still have enough money, and (in some quarters) credibility to buy themselves hour-long blocks of primetime TV to somehow counteract that new Book of Daniel TV show, which is important to do for some reason. Before you roll your eyes and chalk that story up as a Nashville thing, our local Fox affiliate here in Portland did precisely the same thing.

Here's an interesting opinion piece at the Jerusalem Post, showing that even solid Likud supporters are starting to get uneasy about so-called Christian Zionists. I suspect Robertson's comments caused a lot of Israelis to sit up and take a long-overdue look at these guys and realize what a weird and creepy bunch they are. So maybe some good can still come from the whole ugly debacle.

People who spend their days eagerly working to start apocalyptic global wars and bring about the end of the world are not people you really want in your corner, as it turns out. In the end, they don't really have your best interests at heart. And sooner or later, when they realize you aren't planning to convert and join their cult, er, church, they'll turn on you in a heartbeat.

Ultrareal nanoniblets

  • As proof there's no justice in the world, look at the shabby way the Tampa Bay Lightning treated poor Dave Andreychuk. Maybe he really was too old and too slow for the "new NHL", but when team officials openly say that to the media, that's just the height of tackiness. Maybe I'm being oversensitive, having just had a 30-somethingth birthday myself. The guy's not that much older, so he can't possibly be old. I mean, we went to see a hockey game on that birthday, and when I went on a beer run, I got carded. On my birthday. Which proves, incontrovertibly, that I am Not Old, therefore anyone who's not that much older than me is also Not Old. Note that the "Not Old" property is not fully associative, so that someone who's, say, a mere 8 years older than the 42-year-old Andreychuk would still be a plausible candidate for oldness, even though Andreychuk himself is Not Old.
  • The San Diego Zoo has a baby tapir. I don't find it all that appealing, actually, but if beady little eyes are your thing, enjoy!
  • From the usually-sedate world of classical music comes this weird legal soap opera. One member of a quartet had been fired for "incompatibility", so he sued, and two of the remaining members nearly lost their instruments to help pay legal bills, until the inevitable anonymous donor stepped in at the last moment, as they always do. You'd expect classical musicians to be calm and mature about resolving their differences, but maybe that's just because the music itself tends to be on the sedate side, and is performed for an affluent, educated, "mature" audience. But take away the tuxes and evening wear, and they're just another bunch of crazy, emotional musicians. They should all count their lucky stars that there weren't any drive-by shootings, and nobody went all Salieri on their quartet-mates.
  • It's official: Trees are bastards!!! In particular, they've been pumping out methane gas in far higher quantities than expected, and methane is a major greenhouse gas. The sneaky botanical malefactors have been doing this for years without anyone suspecting what was going on. Their motive is unclear as of yet, but they're obviously up to no good. Could Ronald Reagan have been right after all?
  • I'm getting very, very sick of cold, dark, wet winter weather. All you can really do right now is sit indoors, drum your fingers on the wall, and wait impatiently for spring. Until that happens, here are some pics of crocuses. I've always liked crocuses, primarily because they come up early, before it seems like its really a wise idea, just because they're full of enthusiasm and are unable to hold back. Or maybe I'm anthropomorphizing. Note that at least some crocus species are highly inedible. Furthermore, a crocus of any species should not be confused with the unrelated Krokus, which is an 80's metal band from Switzerland. No foolin'. They're still together, and they're touring right now. It must be tough being a Swiss metal band. You can't shock people by wearing tight leather pants, for one thing, and your fans all want to grow up to be -- or by now they've already grown up to be -- bankers or pharmaceutical executives, or possibly midlevel UN bureaucrats. You can sing to them all you like about your uniquely deep and tortured soul, and how you're one wild-n-crazy rebellious outsider, and nobody will have the foggiest clue what you're talking about.
  • A couple more fun names for peculiar types of numbers. I've come across a book with a brief treatment of ultrareal numbers, but I've only just skimmed the chapter and I can't say I understand what it's getting at so far. Meanwhile, here's a good article that mentions hypernatural numbers, which are a subset of the hyperreals (which are what the article's really about). There are a number of uses of the term "unreal number" [pdf] as well. The linked-to page uses the term as a synonym for p-adic numbers, and you have to admit "unreal" is a vastly more evocative name.