Friday, December 29, 2006

11,000 Football Fields

Now that both James Brown's and Gerald Ford's corpses have cooled off a bit, I noticed CNN has decided to report on other stories again, at least until the impending and inevitable demise of Saddam Hussein (Oh No! No 'Zabiba and the King II'! Don't leave me hanging!)

One story today was about the ice shelf snapping off in the Arctic, specifically off Ellesmere Island in Canada. Reporters always like to put the sizes of things in terms you, the layman can understand, one popular unit of measurement being the football field. So in this case, 11,000 football fields. How is that gonna help me? I've never seen 11,000 football fields together. 11,000 is a big number. Is that how many grains are in a bag of rice? Am I supposed to spill the bag on the floor, and then imagine each grain is a football field? I'm kind of adrift here. That's like 'the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. That's like 2x10^13 network TV commercial breaks.' It doesn't really help.

Update: Saddam Hussein was hanged 2 hours ago. That's the time it would take a cheetah to travel 140 miles, if he were running on the Bonneville Salt Flats, and had plenty of water stations along the route.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Some Stuff I learned this Holiday Season, aka Christmastime

This December, my daughter and I watched the 1964 Christmas special 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer' more times than I care to admit or contemplate. Thank God for DVRs, I guess. When I was a kid, you got to see it once, and that was it until next year, forget about it.

The big revelation watching it now at 36 as opposed to 6 is that every authority figure in that show is a complete asshole. Santa is a grumpy old prick who treats his loving wife like crap, and tells Rudolph's father 'you should be ashamed of yourself' when Rudolph's nose starts glowing. The elf boss gives would-be dentist Hermie no end of crap, and is totally closed-minded about Hermie's toy ideas. Rudolph's father forces him to wear an embarassing prosthesis, and the reindeer coach is completely unable to ignore the nose after Rudolph kicks every other reindeer's ass in the 'Take Off' game.

The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the riots at the Chicago convention, even the Prague Spring and the student strikes and riots in Paris in '68, it all makes sense now. Adults in the 60's had a stick up their collective ass, and by God, they had to go down. Too bad things didn't work out better than they did.

In other Christmas viewing we saw the new Christmas Classic that is the Polar Express. It is a spectacle to be sure, and scenes like the one with the ticket that flies out the window but eventually makes it way back on the train make the movie worth watching, and worth looking past the eerie rubber-faced creepiness of a lot of the computer-animated humans (check out the article 'The Undead Zone' for more on the phenomenon, observed by a Japanese roboticist back in 1978. From the article:

In 1978, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori noticed something interesting: The more humanlike his robots became, the more people were attracted to them, but only up to a point. If an android become too realistic and lifelike, suddenly people were repelled and disgusted.

The problem, Mori realized, is in the nature of how we identify with robots. When an android, such as R2-D2 or C-3PO, barely looks human, we cut it a lot of slack. It seems cute. We don't care that it's only 50 percent humanlike. But when a robot becomes 99 percent lifelike—so close that it's almost realwe focus on the missing 1 percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward. Mori called this plunge "the Uncanny Valley," the paradoxical point at which a simulation of life becomes so good it's bad.


Anyhow, if that weren't bad enough, the creepy simulation of a human being that is Steven Tyler of Aerosmith appears toward the end of the film as an elf on a unicycle, singing some song about rocking on top of the world, and the moment is such a jarring, whiplash-inducing distillation of repulsive stomach-churning awfulness it somehow manages to ruin the movie utterly. Why oh why is that scene in the movie? It didn't really bother my daughter, though.

Finally this year I finally got to see 'A Christmas Story' from start to finish, which was a mistake. Better to catch the odd 5 minutes here or there, which you can't help doing if you own a TV and aren't afraid to use it. Seeing it from start to finish seems wrong somehow. Also, the movie seems to completely unravel during the last 10 minutes ('and that was the year we discovered Chinese turkey').

Anyhow, Happy Kwanzaa to those of you celebrating that, Happy New Year, so on.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

That one band with the one good song

I was listening to Retro-Active on MusicChoice the other night (typically I listen to Electronica (Uncensored), the only channel with the (Uncensored), though mostly the lyrics are happy e-damaged nonsense when there are lyrics).

They played the 12" of 'Uncertain Smile', by 'The The', one of the worst band names ever ('The This. The That. How about we call it The The? Heh heh heh.' this conversation was held thousands of times and the possibility dismissed, until Matt Johnson decided to go ahead and use the name).

The song is really good, it's got a jangly simple guitar bit, nice use of synthesizer, and a great vocal performance. So, thanks to iTunes I soon had a copy (of the non-12" version, I kept getting an error on the 12" version) of the song in my collection.

Around there things started to break down. I listened to some of the other tracks from that album (Soul Mining), and from other albums by The The, but nothing really moved me to fork over $0.99. I would then go to, where 'Uncertain Smile Radio' would serve up a series of similar shoulder-shrug selections (The Ramones' 'I want you around'? Joe Jackson? Dave Matthews band?). Eventually I gave up and listened to 'Hallogallo Radio' (The first song on Neu!'s album, Neu!), which if you're me is consistently good, even when it whips out the art-rock era Genesis ('Submarine'). If you are anyone else, it probably sounds like art-damaged music that's alternately boring and grating.

Whilst writing this I googled up "The Making Of Matt Johnson's 'Uncertain Smile'", on a site that makes the most Ritalin-addled mySpacer's page look like a model of clean and readable web design. It was somewhat interesting to see that Matt Johnson himself had a hard time reproducing the magic when he re-recorded the song for the album:
The song Uncertain Smile featured on Soul Mining, the subsequent The The album. A completely new recording was made back in London, which must have disappointed the punters who bought it after hearing the original single. Both at this remove and at the time, it sounds curiously confused and unfocused, as if trying for whatever reason to make a fresh statement of the song but unable to escape from the grip of the first single.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The SBC/CWA micro-strike, Part II: Sitzkrieg

I was there, kids, back in '04 when the CWA (Communication Workers Of America, 'Fighting for jobs and healthcare') went up against Ed Whitacre and SBC (now AT&T, 'anti-job, pro-illness-induced-bankruptcy'). I was on the management side, although, as I explained in Part I, the only thing I managed was the microwave in the breakroom. I delegated heating up Hot Pockets to it.

I know a lot of arch-conservatives and Libertarian types start to pleasure yourselves when you hear stories about management employees taking over jobs abandoned by Union Workers during strikes, sticking it to those ungrateful commie bastards by showing them anyone can do their job, but the reality was not so glamorous in this case.

Around April, after a lot of posturing by both sides, the Union voted to authorize the strike. They gave SBC a 30-day warning. As part of our 'BCP', business continuity plan, we were to receive strike assignments - we'd be told what Union jobs we'd be pretending to take over.

I hoped I would get something cool like driving a repair truck or working at a Central Office, but I got what was to me the worst possible assignment - taking calls from customers who were having trouble with their service.

Some people fear flying, some fear public speaking, but in my case the thought of spending who knows how many 12-hour shifts taking calls from angry assholes while another asshole gave me grief about not taking enough calls or spending too long on a call filled me with fear and dread. I started having nightmares about it. I started sending out resumes and spending large chunks of the days and nights working on a Sanity Continuity Plan.

We were assigned, via e-mails that were machine-generated using threatening templates ('up to and including termination' being a common phrase) a list of on-line training courses we were to take. These familiarized us with the antiquated mainframe-based systems we'd somehow be using to get information. They all had 3-or-4 letter unpronounceable acronym names.

After the online training, we got to spend several days in the classroom. This was especially great. For some reason they did not have a test version of the fresh-for-74 software to use for training. I found this out after the instructor noticed I was goofing off, submitting fake tickets for cities in Ohio. Suddenly she had to stop the class so she could cancel the tickets, so repairmen would not be sent out on wild goose chases all over Ohio.

If I still gave a shit about the company at that point, I would have been mortified, sitting up there in one of the front rows, answering her questions about what I'd put in, watching the people in the rows behind me resentfully glare at me for managing to make an already tedious class even more boring, and jeopardizing the most glorious mission of exalted management in service of number one cowboy asshole Ed, but somehow I had crossed over into a kind of temporary sociopathy, and found the whole thing really amusing (I made an effort not to smirk, though).

Eventually the trucks were called back and class resumed. We did a lot of role-playing, pretending to be angry customers and all that. We watched recordings of actual calls, which were neat because they showed the reps goofing off on the internet during calls. After 2 days of this, miraculously I was not fired, but was deemed ready to man the phones if duty called.

Next time: duty calls, I let it go to voice mail.