We Can’t Have Nice Things

A new commenter came by and commented on an old post I had about the weirdness of IMDB movie ratings, which is a topic I’ve mentioned not too long ago. When I first logged on to IMDB, the top-rated movie was The Godfather, and it had a 7.8.

I had always thought the main distortion on IMDB was simple inflation. “Oh, Godfather is a 7.8, eh? Well, then, Glitter must be at least an 8! And Godfather should be a 1!” And this leads to a vicious cycle, where people aren’t ranking movies according to their own preferences, but against others’.

And it made me think of Susan Boyle, who got a record breaking number of views on YouTube, and the article I was reading talked about how “Evolution of Dance” was suspected of being the most viewed video, but that fans of various musical groups set up tricks to increase the view count for their favorite acts.

Then I thought over Wikipedia, which has limited utility from all the bias. Then Althouse comment threads–and Althouse has among the best commenters–which people go in with the sole purpose to create noise. Twitter has a pretty good system for reducing noise, but you can still get lots of spam.

And I think to myself: This is why we can’t have nice things.

Seriously, all the social web things are cool. The open-ness of them, the facilitating of mashups and unexpected uses. But the difficult balance to strike is allowing contributions and also disallowing them.

Twitter works because following is easy but not automatic. Unfollowing is only slightly harder, which is to say, not hard at all. But Twitter lacks continuity and intimacy. (That may be an artifact of Twitter versus a necessary result of the following process.) It’s also a chaotic stream that is only manageable because you can limit it.

I was struck by that old meme of the mom pulling out hair because the kids knocked over her expensive vase by playing ball in the house where she laments, “We can’t have nice things.” The social web often reminds me of that. That and the sort of nouveaux “tragedy of the commons”, which isn’t about consuming resources, but controlling the ones that command attention.

I think something like Twitter could be evolved with multiple streams and nesting, possibly around little nodes, which could be links to blogs, or could be long “tweets”. But these would exist in the common space, perhaps with separate streams for different responders, even. Something less monolithic than Twitter.

I don’t know. I suspect we’re not done with the whole social web thing. But the real trick is trying to figure out how to have nice things.

Dead Men Throw No Switches

So I started doing the nutritional program in earnest, along with The Boy, and got a bit of a scare. It’s probably nothing, and may be related to the antibiotics I’m taking (for the ear infection from hell), but I’ll be having a thorough medical examination as a result. 

It’s not really something I look forward to. 
But it got me thinking about my mortality and taking care of business. Death isn’t something I fear, generally. When younger, I had some brushes with mortality to which my reaction was “Well, I guess if it’s my time…" 
I know that we get a sense of invulnerability, immortality, that nothing bad can happen to us, but there’s also the "who cares?” aspect of it. When you’re young you consider yourself sovereign over your life, and if you’re going to do something reckless well, what’s that to anyone else? You can see young death glamorized in a way that mortality otherwise is not.
And then you have kids. 
Well, crap. Now it matters if you live or die. (And if you’re thinking, you realize it mattered before–back when you were SuperTeen–to your own parents. A feeling of embarrasment is normal at this point.) I mean, the finances are easy enough to handle. In fact, the traditional male role is easy to fill: I think a widow with children can probably much more easily plug in a new male into her life than a widower is likely to find a woman willing to take care of another woman’s home and children. And how much more traumatic is that, that the primary caretaker be replaced by a relative stranger?
Of course, it happened a lot in the Old West (for example), with mortality in child birth being so common. And certainly it’s happened that a step-father has a callous and indifferent (or worse) attitude toward another man’s children.
Anyway, having a kid changes the game, if you were indifferent to your survival before. If you’re cancerous and would rather just let it take you than endure the medieval treatments we have for handling it, you really don’t have much of a choice. You have to fight. Congratulations: You’ve become more important than yourself.
It should also mean that you’re not exposing yourself to a lot of unnecessary risk, like extreme sports, daredevil ballon rides, base jumping, etc. But that doesn’t always happen.
Given the rather severe separation of my online life versus my real one, I’ve often thought about setting up a “dead man’s switch” that would notify people should I not throw it. I figured the most likely result of that, though, would be a false “Blake’s dead!” message. Heh. That might be funny once or twice, but sort of defeats the purpose should it happen a lot.
There’s now at least one service that will do this for you, I think. It’s been in the news a lot lately. But I suspect a lot of us don’t give enough thought on how online folks would be affected by our sudden disappearance. (I’ve had it happen numerous times, and I don’t know to this day whether the person just dropped out or something had happened to them.)
So, it’s something worth thinking about.

You Don’t Understand: I Need The Attention

The late unlamented USSR had a practice of locking people up in labor camps for what we in the West called political reasons. The USSR didn’t, of course, refer to it that way. They locked up people who were mentally unsound. I don’t know whether they learned this from the Nazis–who labeled the Jews as mentally unhygenic–but there are always members of the mental health community willing to label bothersome people “mentally unsound”.

It has happened here before, too. And still happens. Shock treatment and lobotomies have also been used regularly for managing political problems. Really, governments should never, ever have any association with mental institutions, just because the temptation for abuse will always be irresistable–at least until some truly scientific criteria for insanity exists.

I was thinking about this because, well, I used to like Janeane Garofalo. I’m not proud of it. But back in the ‘90s, she was mildly funny and sort of cute in an angsty college chick way, and she had a pleasing acting persona. She delivered one of the great lines in TV history on “Law and Order”, where it turns out she betrayed her celebrity employer for something like $10K:

You don’t understand: I needed the money.

That phrase takes on special meaning now that Garofalo took a paying gig on “24”.

Anyway, Garofalo has taken to promoting the notion that conservatives, right-wingers (i.e., people who disagree with her) suffer from an actual brain problem. Oversized limbic regions or somesuch scientific-sounding thing.

Most people, of course, won’t take the suggestion seriously. But a big enough percentage of the population agrees with it, at least to the extent that they keep giving her avenues to say this. And it’s not just her. There were a spate of “scientific studies” last year purporting to show conservatism as a mental disorder.

But, really, it’s not an approach to tolerate, because it amounts to “socialists lobbying for the right to institutionalize dissenters”. That hasn’t worked out well in the past. Well, except for the State, I suppose.

Given the fact that the insane basically have no rights, someone seriously advocating that an entire demographic is insane is not someone who should be broadcast.

Flower Power

It’s spring and The Flower has begun her cyclical “sign me up for everything” phase. She starts out by signing up for everything at the local rec center that sounds interesting–which is just about everything–and then she gets overwhelmed and when classes are over, she just wants to sit and watch TV.

On Saturdays she has a baseball game–where she hits better than the boys–followed by tennis lessons and winding up with her dance troupe rehearsals.

She’s also preparing for her birthday party. Traditionally we’ve spent a lot of money on it. It started as a joint party for her and The Boy, but The Boy’s sort of outgrown the big party, or at least one that he’s comfortable sharing with a bunch of 8-year-old girls. This leaves The Flower to pick a theme.

But for various reasons we’re trying to cut down on the discretionary spending this year, so The Flower has opted for a “science party”. (Two years ago was pirates, then it was princesses, and last year it was fairies.) In this party, everyone will wear a lab coat and goggles and get to perform experiments. Baking soda and vinegar, Mentos and diet coke, and so on. She’s been testing all the experiments beforehand to make sure they work.

This is cute beyond belief.

She also beat The Boy at chess.

Moral of the story: Never underestimate the seven-year-old girl.

The lesson here?

They Saved Hitler’s Brain!

Well, no, they saved his skull. Or just a picture of it. And it’s up for sale on Ebay!

But as always, how do you know if what you’re buying (on the Internet from a complete stranger who may, in fact, be a dog) when buying a prized historical artifact?

Well (as always) you should check the seller’s rating and comments. And, if possible, you should compare the item against known authentic items (or at least pictures thereof).

So, for your edification, I have here an authentic X-ray of Hitler’s skull for you to compare against.

Good luck, and I hope you win!

TV Tropes

“He’s bluffing! No creature would willingly make an idiot out of itself!”
“You’ve obviously never been in love!”
–“Futurama”, “Parasites Lost”

This post is from the “notebook”.

This is one of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite shows. Fry becomes infected with parasites after recklessly eating a truck stop egg sandwich. He discovers they’re there when a pipe goes through his stomach and the worms immediately patch the enormous hole. They then start to work toning his muscles, improving his neurological function (Fry’s a moron), and generally cleaning up the place.

This makes him palatable to the object of his affections, Leela, who attempts to keep him from getting rid of the worms, finally ending with his own efforts to rid himself of the worms and undo what they’ve done, in order to find out whether Leela loves him for himself or for his, um, worms. That leads to the priceless bit of dialog above. (Being a sci-fi show allows Futurama to pose some interesting and unlikely questions.)

End Notebook Section

I can’t remember why I started this post, except that I was probably watching this Futurama episode and it made me think of this great site called “TV Tropes”. That link actually goes to an entry called “Love Makes You Dumb”, and it’s part of a bunch of “Love” entries, like “Love Makes You Crazy” and “Love Makes You Evil”.

TV Tropes is a great site because it lists all these common themes used in television shows–but many can be scene throughout movies and literature as well. Things like “Actually I Am Him” and “Someday This Will Come In Handy” make you realize how often you’ve seen something.

The site’s a little animé heavy with the examples, I guess because those are the people who contribute most. So it’s geekier than geeky. (I mean, it makes me feel like a square sometimes, so you know it’s gotta be extreme.) Still, a whole lot of fun to dig around and go, “Yeah! I know exactly what you’re talking about!” (There’s probably a trope for that, too, but I don’t know what it is.)

Enjoy digging around.

Free Marketing

There’s a bit of back and forth about free trade here, which seems to be centered around externalities. (Centered around externalities? Nu?) Guy A argues, well, sure Barbies are $2 cheaper, but a thousand guys are out of work and doomed to alcoholism and divorce (ok, not all). He doesn’t follow through with the thought, though. Are those the only implications?

I immediately wondered how many fewer Barbies were sold at 20% higher cost. And what happens, on a larger scale when, say, 20% fewer toys are sold. Do you get 20% fewer toyshops? Do you spread the formerly localized misery around throughout the supply chain, down to 20% fewer little girls getting what they want for Christmas?

Guy B argues, but what about the Chinese, now saved from alcoholism and divorce? Also, he goes to the root issue about using force and the implications of allowing the government to, essentially, make business decisions for people.

But when you start with protectionism, you have to assume the people you’re arguing with are taking the position that, yeah, it is okay for the “greater good”.

You know, the heartless businessman is such an accepted trope, I bet nobody has ever even tried to tackle the reality. It’s just taken for granted that businessmen will save that $2 and lay off their workers, which doesn’t really match what I’ve seen. Most of the businessmen I’ve known really loathe laying off people, especially good people.

Anyway, as someone whose field went from esoteric to hot to increasingly downgraded and outsourced–all without ever being really understood–I’m inclined to wonder if the damaging thing is the idea that a Man Can Only Do One Job In His Life and a Company Must Take Care Of Him.

Protectionism is, at its best, an attempt to preserve that notion. We’re still serfs serving feudal lords, in that view, though at least we have some mobility. At its worst, protectionism is a tax on the populous to ensure the wealth of the entitled. Someone decides some occuptation is entitled–say, corn farmer–and so we all pay more for sugar and can’t get a decent soda any more.

Of course, the educational system was set up to provide exactly this kind of worker: Someone who’d take orders and sit still and do things by rote all day. As it turns out, this 19th century “ideal” isn’t the best approach for survival in the 21st century, though our schools don’t reflect that.

But it’s easy for me to take this tack, as a guy whose resumé qualifies as ridiculous in terms of the various things I’ve worked with, and who picks up new things pretty aggressively. (I sort of have to do that, because the more logical and robust approach–building a business and customer network–is not something I’m good at.) It’s more interesting to look at whether it’s ever neccessary for industry to be protected.

Consider, in a truly free trade system, that a foreign supplier can flood a zone with cheap goods at a loss and drive local suppliers out of business. And having established a monopoly, they can raise prices again. This is a gag pulled by big companies, not just foreign ones, and it does raise some thorny issues.

But I do note that these thorny issues can be resolved with flexibility, agility and mobility, given the right technology. If local suppliers can’t compete with larger ones when they cheat, then you bring in more of the larger suppliers to keep each other honest. And if the local suppliers still can’t compete in that arena, you move them to a different one. If you’ve got 1,000 people making Barbies, maybe you split them up into 10 groups of 100, all able to act indepedently and fill demands at a level a foreign supplier can’t.

With heavy-duty industrial stuff, that’s not possible–yet. But perhaps it will be. I’m biased, due to being heavily involved in computers over the years, but I see high-tech electronics not being all that different from 19th century tech, only much, much faster. And it seems like that high-tech stuff infringes more and more on clunky ol’ steam-era tech.

But regardless where technology takes us, businesses and their employees are always going to be served by being able to shift gears and change directions.

(Original article tweeted by Freeman Hunt, who has some cool 60-year-old pix up on her blog now.)

Missing You, or Where The Girls Aren’t

Well, Knox was apparently moving (will she still be “Knox” if not in Knoxville?), Freem had a baby (and a tea party) and Darcy chose this inopportune moment to selfishly go on a cruise. To, like, New Zealand or something. She’ll probably come back with a kiwi for a boyfriend and an Austrian accident.

Without Ruth Anne dropping the occasional pun grenade, it’d be a tomb in here. (And I should note that Knox has stopped by and Freem is still tweeting a bit at odd hours.) Troop just finished (what he hopes is his last) tax season. And otherwise I’ve probably just not been very interesting.

But I got to thinking about the Loudon Wainwright, easily one of my favorite singer-songwriters, who wrote this song back when he was on M*A*S*H for the absent nurses:

And I wonder if they miss us,
Now wouldn’t that be funny?
Now that we’re without them
We can hardly stand ourselves.

But my fondness for the ol’ Loudo has always struck me as odd, in that the guy’s life has been almost at the opposite end of the circle from me. He’s always been a ladies man, incredibly devoted to his mother but unable to keep a relationship together, whose kids have, shall we say, mixed feelings about him.

The trajectory of his life (as the listener can ascertain it, which is–one hopes–dramatized) has followed a sort of predictably sad path from cocky, angry, snarky young man to doubting middle-aged divorcee, to old man contemplating his fate.

And perhaps the appeal is in that trajectory. Despite writing very specific songs that no one else can sing (and reducing his commercial viability as a songwriter thereby), they do speak to certain universal truths.

And I see now that Althouse is talking about sad songs, which fits in with this message, sitting on my laptop for the past 6 hours. Loudon has written some of the most profoundly touching music about his parents since their deaths, and I was thinking about this song, “Missing You”, which I believe is actually about his mother:

He don’t stay out any more
No more staying out past four
Most nights he turns in ‘round ten
He’s way too tired to pretend

Sure you might find him up at three
But if he is, it’s just to pee
Some nights he’s awake till two
That’s just because he’s missing you
Just lying there and missing you

He don’t sleep late any more
Up like a farmer half-past four
When that sleepy sun comes up
He’s halfway through his second cup

And his day’s work is done ’round two
That’s when he starts in missing you
Quarter-to-three it’s time to nap
He always says “No nap, I’m crap.”
His motto is: No nap, I’m crap.

Guess he’s just set in his ways
He does the same damn things most days
Seven twenty-fours a week
With lots of down-time so to speak

He hardly glances at a clock
Since his routine is carved in rock
Man’s a machine what can he do?
Just keep on going missing you
Keep right on going missing you

His teeth fall out, so does his hair
But in his dreams you’re always there
A jewel in his unconscious mind
A miracle, a precious find

But in the end he’s all alone
He wakes up and his jewel is gone
There’s a heaven and he knows it’s true
He’s stuck on earth just missing you
And it’s hell on just missing you
Back where he started missing you

And here’s a wan waif singing it a capella.

Phrases That Should Never Begin Movie Synopses, Part III

A man (Ray Liotta) injects memory-ladened brain fluid…


I guess I’m nit-picking here, but when space is at a premium–as it always is with these descriptive capsules–why would you go to “ladened”? It doesn’t even sound like English! Well, maybe Olde English, as a rhyme for “maidenhead”.