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»  April 29, 2009

What the...?  

Walking On Helium: After breaking my leg and ankle (again) a few years back, one of the rehabilitation regimens I started to try to build up strength in the leg was to walk up Mt. Tabor, the extinct volcano down the street from my house. It's a little under two miles horizontally, and about a 450ft. change in elevation, with most of that coming in the last half-mile or so. Not particularly challenging, but if you tackle it more or less straight on there are a couple of tough bits for the overweight guy with a limp.

Last summer's construction project and inevitable associated accident put a crimp in my walks, but I finally restarted them this month. The first one took a lot longer than I remember, but today's walk went pretty well.

In fact, I thought I was doing quite well when — on the downhill return trip — I was slowly overtaking a healthy-looking 13-year-old boy on the other side of Belmont, despite having dropped a table saw on my knee last fall (which doesn't make downhill much fun). Was pretty pleased with myself until I pulled even with him and saw that he was sucking the helium out of some Mylar balloons he was holding and talking on a cell phone. Maybe he wasn't walking as fast as I thought he was.


What the...?  


'The Tunnel' reference to Eugene, Oregon

Just about the last place you might expect to see the name of the town you grew up in (at least if you're from Eugene) would be in the subtitles of a German movie about one of the plots to build a tunnel under the Berlin Wall in 1961-62, but there it was in an early scene of Der Tunnel, as disabled Italian-American US Army vet Vittorio Castanza explains his rationale for helping East Germans get out to new escapee (and swimming champion) Harry Melchior.


»  April 27, 2009

What the...?  

The Trebekinator: I just want my chance to play Jeopardy! before the computers take over.

Computer Program to Take On 'Jeopardy!'

I.B.M. plans to announce Monday that it is in the final stages of completing a computer program to compete against human "Jeopardy!" contestants. If the program beats the humans, the field of artificial intelligence will have made a leap forward.


Under the rules of the match that the company has negotiated with the "Jeopardy!" producers, the computer will not have to emulate all human qualities. It will receive questions as electronic text. The human contestants will both see the text of each question and hear it spoken by the show's host, Alex Trebek.


Mr. Friedman added that they were also thinking about whom the human contestants should be and were considering inviting Ken Jennings, the "Jeopardy!" contestant who won 74 consecutive times and collected $2.52 million in 2004.

In a demonstration match here at the I.B.M. laboratory against two researchers recently, Watson appeared to be both aggressive and competent, but also made the occasional puzzling blunder.

For example, given the statement, "Bordered by Syria and Israel, this small country is only 135 miles long and 35 miles wide," Watson beat its human competitors by quickly answering, "What is Lebanon?"

Moments later, however, the program stumbled when it decided it had high confidence that a "sheet" was a fruit.


»  April 22, 2009


Ancient History: Shockwave made a brief appearance (along with Flash) as the spark of the independent gaming market on WNYC's "On the Media" last week. Hats off to writer Clive Thompson for the props as he brought it up in the beginning of this interview with host Brooke Gladstone:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The innovative spirit that marked the early days of video game development was crushed under the weight of the high-stakes, multi-million-dollar businesses built on the appeal of consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox, Sony’s PlayStation and Nintendo’s Wii.

Now independent game production is again on the rise because the geeks want it, the gamers want it, and more recently, as you'll hear, even giant producers like Microsoft want it.

Clive Thompson, who writes for Wired and The New York Times Magazine, says that innovation started to creep back into game design, after more than a decade in hiding, about seven years ago.

CLIVE THOMPSON: What happened was that it became possible to do your own game because Flash and Shockwave came along, which are like these little languages for programming something inside a browser. You know, you had tens of millions of people that could potentially play your game, and you could put it online and get it out there for free.

So lot of the young talent started going, well, I'll have my job where I'm the assistant animator for Scooby Doo Number Four-


- you know, something completely horrible – boring to play, boring to make – and in their spare time they started saying, I'm going to try and design a little game on my own that is going to be played in Shockwave or Flash on a browser. And this was the real first boom, the first flowering in indie video games.

Good, although I'm fairly sure that not even a majority of Shockwave game developers were young or working as assistant animators. But it's nice to know not everyone's forgotten Shockwave.


»  April 14, 2009


Easy Credit: The Oregonian has a knack for making non-stories about Oregon Senators into front page news, and the latest puff piece to come off the assembly line is Sunday's article by Charles Pope about how the voluble Ron Wyden supposedly keeps his lip zipped about his work on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, where he is the third-ranking Democrat.

Lost in the blizzard [of talk about health care, county payments, town halls] is this significant fact: Arguably Wyden's most important contribution to the nation as a U.S. senator comes from his work on the Senate Intelligence Committee, a panel with territory that is sprawling, crucial and controversial, but whose members are prohibited from discussing most of their work in public.
Among the intelligence-related accomplishments Wyden is credited with — in a piece that buys into the supposition that everything about the committee is so secret that it can't be discussed even when an administration is breaking the law and defying Congress rendering it effectively null — is Wyden's participation in the effort to shut down the Total Information Awareness program proposed by former Iran-contra felon John Poindexter. That effort, however wasn't initiated by Wyden or any other member of the Intellignce committee. And elements of the program continued to be developed under different rubrics. The article also lists a couple of failed efforts, including the attempt to restrict the CIA from using torture.

What made me laugh, though, was the reporter's apparent lack of follow-up on a Wyden "win."

And he led the successful effort to defeat the nomination of John Rizzo to be the CIA's general counsel. Wyden opposed Rizzo after he refused to repudiate a memo that defined torture as any action that causes organ failure.
Long-time readers may remember back in August of 2007, when Wyden put a hold on Rizzo and he got ink from Jane Mayer at The New Yorker for questioning whether there had been "adequate legal oversight" of CIA techniques. The problem then was that Rizzo had been — according to the International Herald Tribune — "acting general counsel off and on for most of the past six years." In other words, most of the Bush administration by that point.

I wrote Wyden's office at the time to ask what would happen if Rizzo didn't get his confirmation, he replied that he was pleased the nomination had been withdrawn. That, of course, was a month or two before news of the destruction of the recordings that the CIA had of interrogations that potentially showed torture, about which the New York Times had to say this:

In describing the decision to destroy the tapes, current and former officials said John A. Rizzo, the agency’s top lawyer at the time, was not asked for final approval before the tapes were destroyed, although Mr. Rizzo had been involved in discussions for two years about the tapes.
Despite the hold on his nomination and its withdrawal, John Rizzo served out the remaining year and a half of the Bush administration as the acting general counsel of the CIA.

As a matter of fact, according to the CIA's web site, he's still there.


»  April 9, 2009


April Is the Cruelest Nerd Month: Via Jeff LaMarche (co-author of Beginning iPhone Development) I heard of the death of Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons.

It's been a long, long time since I played D&D but news like that really takes me back in a way that's difficult to describe. This month also means it's been thirty years since my first-ever professional publication, in The Dragon, the official D&D magazine. That's a lot of nerd-years.


»  April 6, 2009

What the...?  

Song For Tom Friedman:

You better top up your suntan
Otherwise your skin is gonna turn to leather
We made a movie in Vietnam
Tax break said "we're gonna shoot on location"

The rug says made in Korea
Manufactured in a factory using cheap labor
And all over Asia, Third World becoming
a major league player

Mass production in Saigon
While auto workers laid off in Cleveland
Hot Jacuzzi in Taiwan
With empty factories in Birmingham
now it's Baby boomers in Hong Kong
and Cowboys in Vietnam
Makin' their movies

You better top up your suntan
Looks like we're in for heavy weather
Economic meltdown
Nobody said it would last forever

Let's make a movie in Baghdad
Take the culture right to the Third World
Blow up a brand new Civilization
In the name of Globalization

Big confusion in Hollywood, now it's
American major league in japan
Hamburger in China, with
Sushi bars in Maine and Boston
The dollar sign said expand, now it's
Cowboys in Vietnam
Makin' their movies
Watch out, ride off with your
debts into the sunset

—Ray Davies, "Vietnam Cowboys," Workingman's Café



Redefinition: Just got my first quarter statements from my self-employment retirement plans. They have funny names like: Growth Fund of America, Capital World Growth and Income Fund, and Income Fund of America. But there seems to have been a radical redefinition of the words "growth" and "income" lately, because the one-quarter change in value of each fund is -4.15%, -11.0%, and -9.53%, respectively.



Who Coulda Thunk 5?: Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg, projecting his own ignorance and lack of imagination onto the rest of the world:

Before 2001, few Middle East scholars worried that the United States was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack.
Really? Aside from the fact that the Middle East isn't the only potential source of terrorism (see, for instance, Japan's 1995 sarin gas attacks; the 1983 hotel bombing and mass poisonings in Oregon by followers of an Indian guru; many acts of terrorism in Europe by Irish, Italian, and German groups throughout the 1970s and 1980s; oh, and the 168 people killed in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh) did Weisberg assume his "Middle East scholars" somehow forget the 1993 bombing of the same New York City complex destroyed on September 11, 2001? Sure, it wasn't "major" compared to 9/11, but that wasn't for lack of trying.


»  April 3, 2009

What the...?  

Loud With Feeling:

Those economic vultures
Stole our dreams and told us tales
Then they towed away our culture
To their depot in south Wales

Corporations get the tax breaks
While the city gets the crime
The profit's going somewhere
But it isn't yours or mine

Still we blindly trust in the divine
Let's sing for the old country
Come on, one more time

And if this should be the last time
I should ever see your face
Let's part with no hard feeling
And a positive embrace

And I will speak well of you
When they ask if you were mine
Till then the jet stream up above
Shows us the warning signs

Till we meet again bravely walk the line
Let's sing it loud with feeling
Come on, one more time
Let's sing for the old country
Come on, one more, one more time

—Ray Davies, "One More Time," Working Man's Café


»  April 2, 2009


Romance Revolution: I've been doing a tiny bit of voice work for one of Phillip Kerman's projects, and it's reminded me of how much I really enjoyed reading things out loud.

Back in the mid-'80s, I did a brief volunteer stint as a night-time DJ at KRVM, an FM station owned by the 4J school district in Eugene, something that I wasn't able to capitalize on once I'd moved to Portland. A vocal habit I did manage to bring with me, though, was something I'd started doing while unpacking boxes for Himber's Books, though, which was reading the overheated prose from cover blurbs of romance novels for the entertainment (I hope) of some of my co-workers.

When I moved to Portland and went to work at Powell's, I started off restocking the Popular Fiction section, which was basically the fiction bestsellers that you'd find in your local grocery or Fred Meyer: thrillers, suspense, and romance. Tom Clancy, Ken Follett, Danielle Steel, Barbara Taylor Bradford: that was my stuff. It wasn't a section that got a lot of respect from most of the other employees, but despite it's relatively small size compared to the Literature section, it moved stock.

Apparently, other people thought it was a good idea, because before a year was out, Diana Tuttle — who ran the Gold Room (pop fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, mysteries) and was my immediate supervisor — had collaborated with Anne Hughes in the Coffee Room to organize a Valentine's romance reading. There was a drawing for a romantic weekend at the coast, chocolates on the chairs, and we ended up with a couple hundred spectators as Diana, Anne, local actress Vana O'Brien, and others read blurbs and sections of romances that they'd done an amazing amount of research to find, including one about a woman cross-dressing as a Union soldier who gets captured. All I remember is that when I was reading, with all the people crammed into the Coffee Room, it felt like the glass windows got awfully steamy and the air was moist and heavy.

This a picture from 1988, with me, Anne Hughes standing next to me, Vana O'Brien next to her, and Diana Tuttle second from the right.

Powell's Books/Anne Hughes Coffee Shop Velentine's Romance Reading, 15 February 1988

The book I'm holding is a history of the romance novel: The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity by Carol Thurston.


»  April 1, 2009


I'm An April Fool: Today is the first anniversary of a business transaction that's likely to haunt me for a while, as well as a milepost on an economic road that seems to have a lot of potholes.

In the middle of last winter, I got a call from a local multimedia company with which I was well-acquainted. In fact, it was the first place I'd applied for a job in the multimedia business back when I first got involved with Director, although they didn't hire me. But I got to know some of the principles back in the pre-Internet era, when I worked on the newsletter for the Oregon chapter of the International Interactive Communication Society (long defunct) and one of the company's co-owners was the president of the chapter (later, things got so bad that I was the president of the chapter, but that's another story).

In following years, I did a couple of subcontracting projects with them, most notably a series of Shockwave3D articles for Intel's Game Developer site. Never a problem working with them, never a problem getting paid.

So it was without any trepidation that I agreed to do some Flash work for them last February when one of their developers left, signed the contract, worked in their office, etc. As called for in the contract, I invoiced at the end of the month, which meant a smallish invoice for February, then a good deal larger for March (which was dated 1 April 2008). Payment was 30 days from invoice, so even though I hadn't gotten a check for my 1 March invoice by the time I wrote out the 1 April invoice, I wasn't concerned; I had six weeks of solid work under my belt with a company I'd done plenty of business with in the past. And even after another week had gone by, when I was asked to make a few minor changes just after getting back from a trip to Phladelphia and getting the smart car, I didn't have any compunctions about it. That is, until the company principles pulled me aside after I'd made the changes and said that they couldn't pay my invoices.

And that's where the saga gets unpleasant. It's not as if I've been swimming in work for the past couple of years, so there's no guarantee that if I hadn't taken the project at Planet Productions that I would have been earning any money during that period, but it's possible. What really torques me off about it though is that there's no way they didn't know weeks before that they weren't even going to be able to pay my invoice from work for February, which was less than a third the amount of the invoice for March's work.

The first payment I got covered my 1 March invoice. I got it in October. A month later I got about a third of the amount on my 1 April invoice. It's been nearly five months since I saw anything. So far, about 47% of the total amount I invoiced has been paid. Today's the anniversary of the largest of the three invoices.

April Fool.