Rants & Ramblings

random commentary about culture, media, politics, technology and whatnot.

feb
25
2003

A newspaper is lumber made malleable. It is ink made into words and pictures. It is conceived, born, grows up and dies of old age in a day.

— Jim Bishop, on newspapers (source)

identity

Identity is the sum of one’s perceptions of Self, filtered by a myriad of lenses through which one is viewed by the world, and in turn sees oneself. Individuals are defined not by who they are individually, but by who they are in relation to other individuals, groups or institutions.

I am a twenty-something, white, middle-class, college-educated, American woman. I am a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend. A student, a tutor, an employee. An artist, a programmer, a pigeonholed writer. A lapsed Catholic. An Air Force brat, from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. A wanna-be journalist. A potential terrorist target. A valuable demographic.

I am defined by what I am and what I do. I am defined by what others did before me, and what others will do after me. I am defined by historical relationships to power.

Who are you?

feb
24
2003

If the customer is always right, then why is he asking me for help?

— Dari (02/24/03)

If writing must be a precise form of communication, it should be treated like a precision instrument. It should be sharpened, and it should not be used carelessly.

— Theodore M. Bernstein, on writing (source)

the language of war

A goodly number of news media reports these days refer to an “impending war” against Iraq. An interesting article in the Chicago Tribune points out that the rampant use of this phrase could undermine the media’s supposed objectivity, as well as contribute to the climate for war. (“Seeking neutrality in the media’s war of words” - 02/19/03)

The phrase’s permeation in news culture raises questions about the media’s word choice and objectivity, said Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Marina del Rey, Calif.

Used by politicians, [the phrase] may be part of the political negotiation that goes on…,” Josephson said. “But when the journalists do it, accepting it as a given, it creates the impression that, in fact, neutral or objective people are concluding that war is inevitable.”

There are two repercussions of using such language, Josephson said.

One, the journalistic community all of a sudden becomes part of the political rhetoric, and the political system, which is always dangerous,” he said. “[Two,] it may literally change the climate and translate negotiating positions or tentative positions into much firmer positions, just by creating momentum.”

The article points out that the press began using the phrase “impending war” (or phrases similar to it) as early as September 2002. There are also quotes from copy editors at various major newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today. Some copy desks, such as the Post’s, seemed to have little problem with describing war with Iraq as “impending,” while others, such as the Times’, prefer that such terms be used only within a quote, attributed to someone.

black humor

There are some brilliant sites parodying Ready.gov, the citizen education site from the Department of Homeland Security.

This one has some great send-ups of the infographics in Ready.gov’s “Be Informed” section. My favorite: If a chemical weapon follows you home, try to act casual.

Slate has a story today about Cold War-era “Duck and Cover” public education campaigns. (“Fallout Can Be Fun - How the Cold War civil-defense programs became farce.” - 02/24/03) The writer credits the rise of satire in the 1960s, including Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, with reducing the effectiveness of government scare campaigns.

All kidding and cynicism aside, I do think that the government has a responsibility to educate the public about what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. And I like the cleanness and non-bureaucratic simplicity of Ready.gov. The Department of Homeland Security has a fine line to walk between informing the public and freaking them out, and between serving the public interest and serving the administration’s political interests. As the Slate article points out, the “stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting” advisory momentarily stoked up public panic, and then became a big joke. DHS’s poor execution of that advisory then undermined last week’s unveiling of Ready.gov.

oh, beautiful irony

Slate’s “Today’s Papers” mentions this fantastic bit of irony:

Last October, the ever-wise Onion (motto: “You are dumb”) headlined, “BUSH ON ECONOMY: SADDAM MUST BE OVERTHROWN.” A piece inside today’s NYT announces, “KEY TO DOMESTIC AGENDA COULD BE VICTORY IN IRAQ.”

I’m sure there’s something brilliantly postmodern that could be said about this.

feb
23
2003

supply and demand

The Washington Post has another story today about how local businesses are faring after being snowed out last weekend. (“Weather Whaps Another Shopping Weekend” - 02/23/03)

After my soggy experience yesterday, this amused me:

On the necessity front: Strosniders in Bethesda. The hardware store yesterday sold out of wet and dry vacuums, sump pumps and plastic hoses that attach to the end of downspouts, store manager Rick Coles said. Mops and buckets were hot items, too, among the my-basement-is-flooded bunch.

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

— Abraham Lincoln, on power (source)

feb
22
2003

Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.

— Mark Twain (source)

raindrops keep fallin' on my head

Another day, another flood.

It’s been an interesting week, weather-wise. It started with the Blizzard of ‘03, which effectively snowed me into my apartment. It’s ending with a massive rainstorm, which is now flooding my apartment.

The thing is, the flooding isn’t caused by a blocked drain this time. (I cleaned out the drain this morning.) This time, the water’s coming in under the wall. Now my baseboards are buffered by layers of multicolored towels trying to keep the snaking streams of water at bay.

I’m running out of dry towels.

feb
21
2003

who will replace saddam?

According to a story in today’s Washington Post, an American civilian will take charge of Iraq after U.S. forces dismantle Saddam Hussein and his army, according to government post-war plans. (“Full U.S. Control Planned for Iraq” - 02/21/03)

So how will this new leader of Iraq be chosen? Here’s one possibility.

In accordance with our principles of free enterprise and healthy competition, I’m going to ask you two to fight to the death for it.

— John Cleese, in the 'Monty Python's Flying Circus episode “Pantomime Horses / Life and Death Struggles”

telecommuting: not just for slackers anymore

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has been phoning it in since late November, telecommuting from Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The Washington Post reports that Mineta, who has had chronic back problems, has “more or less lived at Walter Reed since Nov. 29,” and has had multiple surgeries during his stay. He may be released next week. (“Hospitalized Transport Chief Telecommutes” - 02/21/03)

Meanwhile, he’s been keeping tabs on the 160,000-member Transportation Department from his specially-equipped hospital room. (Secure phone line? Check. 2 TVs with cable news? Check. Shredder? Check. Good to go.)

Part of me worries about a major sector of our government being run by someone in the hospital. Then again, with our government’s massive bureaucracy, maybe his distance/absence doesn’t have much of an effect. Plus, if he’s properly equipped, there’s really no reason why he can’t do as good a job at the hospital as from the office. It’s not as if he’s completely isolated from the rest of the world.

Another part of me cheers to have such a high-profile person as a “poster child” of sorts for telecommuting. Maybe more stories like these will help increase telecommuting opportunities within mainstream businesses as managers become less wary of the idea. “Working from home” doesn’t automatically mean “slacking off.”

This entry was also posted at scree.hm.

feb
20
2003

Ha ha, you fool! You’ve fallen victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but only slightly less well known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!’”

— Vizzini, in 'The Princess Bride'

probably not a nobel peace prize contender

Turkey recently asked the U.S. to up its compensation offer in exchange for Turkey’s help in a war with Iraq. The New York Times reports that the administration is privately furious with the move, and is characteristically fuming about it in less-than-PC ways. (“U.S. Is Pessimistic Turks Will Accept Aid Deal on Iraq” - 02/20/03)

In private, though, administration officials were fuming, with one senior official calling the Turkish efforts to hold out for more aid and perhaps access to oil from the Kirkuk region of Iraq as “extortion in the name of alliance.” Another said that despite a stream of aid from the United States, “the Turks seem to think that we’ll keep the bazaar open all night.”

Let’s keep our allies on board by reinforcing cultural stereotypes, why don’t we? You would have thought the whole fuss over Bush’s use of the word “crusade” to talk about the War on Terrorism would have taught administration officials to be a little more careful about the vocabulary they use — especially when they know their words will be reported elsewhere.

Speaking of engendering international goodwill, the Washington Post has a story today that freaks me out. (“U.S. Explores Developing Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons” - 02/20/03) Government officials are talking about replacing some of our mega-destructive nuclear (Mr. Bush: It’s “nuke - lee - ar,” not “nuke - you - lar.” Thank you.) warheads with smaller, less destructive nukes that can be targeted at bunkers and buildings without destroying everything within a several-mile radius.

Since the bombs would inflict much less damage to the area outside the target than high-yield devices, the threshold for using them presumably would be lower.

The fact remains, though, that super-powerful or not, these are still nuclear weapons. Radiation has effects that can last for generations after the bomb has been dropped. (Look at the people of Hiroshima / Nagasaki, or Chernobyl.) It’s far from a “clean” weapon.

And I worry that if we start developing these things, we’re going to find ourselves in another arms race — but this time around, we don’t know who or what the competition will be.

news website redesigns

ESPN and BBC News both recently redesigned their web sites.

ESPN’s redesign applies mainly to its home page. The site is now pushing a new feature called “ESPN Motion,” which integrates full-motion ESPN video clips into the page. The feature, which appears to incorporate both Windows Media Player and Flash, requires a special plugin. Right now, ESPN Motion is only being offered to PC users with high-speed connections. I’m intrigued, but didn’t feel like downloading the plugin last night.

In terms of likes / dislikes:

The ESPN Motion promo is very cool. However, I don’t know that dial-up users are going to want to wait to download a promo for a feature they can’t use. I do like the tabs (photos / espn motion / top story) at the top of the feature story slot, allowing a good deal of flexibility in the content of that prime bit of real estate. Adrian Holovaty points out that aside from the MSN framework, the design is tableless, defined by CSS rather than cumbersome table code. Holovaty also points to a pure-CSS “lite” version of the ESPN home page, but you’re only normally directed there if you don’t have Flash or a non standards-compliant browser.

Meanwhile, I’m debating about how I feel about the BBC News redesign. Being BBC News, the redesign is still pretty conservative, and not overly dramatic. They’ve widened their pages (now targeted at 800x600 displays) and can display more text / headlines at a time on the screen. I guess my complaint with the new look is that it’s just so … white. It’s most jarring on the home page, with only white space between columns of text. And the tan color they used for the left rail seemed warmer somehow than the gray they’re using now. Those complaints aside, though, the site looks as clean and crisp as ever. They’re using a stylesheet now, too, but not full-stop — They’re still using table code, too. (However, they’re defining font sizes in pixels, apparently. That allows them more control over the layout, but annoys folks who want to enlarge the type.)

feb
19
2003

new X2 trailer

The new trailer for X2 (the sequel to 2000’s X-Men) is now available online.

Looks like there will be more than sparks flying between Rogue and Bobby. And Storm and Jean got better hair! Plus, more Professor X / Magneto UST, and cameos by Colossus and Kitty Pryde. And lots of Hugh Jackman. :)

If nothing else, the movie’s going to be a special effects extravaganza with plenty of eye candy. I liked the first one, but wasn’t overjoyed by it. My main reaction to it was “Whew! They didn’t screw it up!” Maybe I’ll be able to approach this one with a little more enthusiasm.

If not, there are plenty of other Marvel comic book movies out this year — Daredevil and The Hulk … And let’s not forget the two Matrix sequels.

shopping holiday

I found this interesting quote in a WP story about disrupted Presidents’ Day holiday sales: (“Area Shopping Malls Reopen, Resume Sales After 2-Day Shutdown” - 02/19/03)

George Whalin, president and chief executive of Retail Management Consultants, said retailers figure they have a captive audience during Presidents’ Day, which is why they heavily promote it.

It’s not like the Fourth of July, when people go on picnics and find other things to do,” Whalin said. “What are you going to do on Presidents’ Day except shop?”

Because national holidays were instituted solely for the benefit of the retail industry, didn’t you know? Forget history and reinforcing the national mythos. It’s all about shopping. (Feel the sarcasm?)

Then again, given this administration’s post-9/11 efforts to encourage consumer spending, as if shopping was a patriotic duty, maybe it is all about shopping.

another one bites the dust

The Toronto Star reports the demise of Canadian tech / culture magazine Shift. (“Shift magazine publishes its last issue” - 02/19/03)

I quite enjoyed the magazine, and I’m sorry to see it go. While not up to Wired‘s level in terms of depth and breadth of content, Shift has offered a unique perspective on the techology world. (And how often do you get to read things from a Canadian perspective? ;)

How can you hate a magazine that puts a sculpted bust of Homer Simpson on the cover of its 10th Anniversary issue and, in the cover story for said issue, uses The Simpsons as a thread to discuss major cultural developments over the past 10 years? And an earlier cover story, “The Privatization of Culture,” had the fantastic pull-quote, “Intellectual property is the real estate of the 21st century.”

The writing can be uneven, and the dots not all connected (and I wish they’d redesign their website), but there’s something there at Shift. Here’s hoping they’ll come back, better than ever.

even snowbunnies need sunscreen

Still trying to dig yourself out from this weekend’s blizzard? Don’t forget your sunscreen.

Even if the sky is hazy, or the sun seems less intense, you’re still being exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation being reflected off the snow, which in turn puts you at higher risk for skin cancer. According to a recent study by the NYU School of Medicine:

The researchers found that the sun’s intensity at the base of the mountain in Vail in December was equivalent to a summer day in Florida or a June day at the beach in New York.

(Reuters: “Skiers at risk for skin cancer: Experts” - 01/28/03)

Link found via Al’s Morning Meeting at the Poynter Institute.

feb
18
2003

death by chocolate

At the risk of sounding like a complete sell-out, I have to say that the double chocolate brownie recipe on the back of the bag of Ghirardelli’s double chocolate chips makes the richest, deadliest, most sinful brownies I have ever tasted.

That is all.

continue reading »

digging out

Spent much of yesterday watching cooking shows (an “Oliver’s Twist” marathon on the Food Network). Finally turned it off around 7 and, feeling guilty, started doing some reading for class — only to “hear” the text in my head read in Jamie Oliver’s lisping British voice. It wasn’t long before I was too creeped out to read anymore.

This morning I ventured out to the local grocery store, about 3/4 mile away, for food. My eyes being bigger than what I could carry home, I ended up buying way more than I should have. Common sense dictates that the snow will thaw and that the grocery store will still be there tomorrow and the day after, etc. But I bought food as if I was hoarding for some weather disaster. And, having watched all those cooking shows the day before, my tastes ranged toward the more gourmet, with the fresh produce, poultry and pasta.

And I bought hot cocoa. Forget Nestle and Swiss Miss. It’s all about Ghirardelli.

Before I got to the cashier, I came to my senses a bit and put some things back — the supersize loaf of bread, the case of diet soda, the 5-pack of videocassettes — but not nearly enough. At the register, the cashier complained, loudly and often, about having to come in to work today, and about having a smaller paycheck this week because of missing work the past couple days due to the snow. At the end, I had spent $99, totalling seven bags of groceries.

Seven heavy bags of groceries, that seemed to get heavier as my walk home went on.

Along the way, several people stopped and asked me if I needed any help, but I politely refused. I dug myself this hole, I might as well dig myself out of it.

Back at the house, sweating and panting, I dropped the grocery bags at the top of the stairs and went downstairs to unlock the door and leave my coat inside. Unsure how best to get my groceries downstairs, I first tried to slide a bag (with no breakables) down the slope of snow and ice that covered my stairs. The slope was a bit too steep, and the contents of the bag (powerbars and a bottle of Diet Coke) spilled at the base of the stairs. So much for that idea.

I finally decided to simply carry a couple bags downstairs at a time, carefully lowering myself down the slope via the divot footholds I’d carved in yesterday. Grab a couple bags, climb down the slope, deposit the bags inside, climb back up the slope.

This should be an Olympic event or something.

feb
17
2003

scenes from a blizzard

After being stuck inside all weekend, I decided I’d had enough and went outside for a stroll.

My street was pretty devoid of traffic, save the occasional 4WD pickup or jeep driving through. The pavement itself, covered with a mix of packed and undisturbed snow, was barely visible. Some homeowners had cleared the sidewalks in front of their houses, but most hadn’t, making the tramped-down snow on the road the most convenient place to walk.

There were lots of people out, most of them digging their cars out of the snow. I heard a man down the street groan loudly as the snowplow came by, covering the exitway he’d just finished digging for his car. Meanwhile, a few houses down, one enterprising local (who had since finished and gone back inside) had completely cleared the snow off his car — not to mention all the snow within a foot of the car — as well as an “exit route.”

Down the other side of the street, toward Duke Street, four men worked to free a blue Civic whose wheels were spinning in the snow. Nearby, a red hatchback was stuck — and apparently abandoned — mid-turn into the driveway of an apartment complex. Someone had written “jackass” into the snow on the back window.

Edited 10:21 p.m.Slate has an interesting explainer about how the National Weather Service measures snowfall accumulation. Probably not the most scientific — or accurate — method around. (“How Do You Measure Snowfall?” - 02/17/03)

Edited 11:16 p.m.Washington Post has a story about snowstorm-inspired cabin fever. Pretty much expresses what I’m feeling here… (“On the Snowy Road to Nowhere” - 02/18/03)

back to yellow alert?

Homeland Security director Tom Ridge suggested yesterday that the government might lower the terror alert level within the next couple days. (WP: “Terror Alert May Soon Be Lowered” - 02/17/03) Also of interest:

Ridge also indicated the government is moving toward the point where it could more precisely target its warning levels to certain particularly high-risk areas, such as New York or Washington, or specific sectors of the economy.

Better to freak out just certain parts of the country, rather than the entire nation. (And I don’t mean that sarcastically, actually.)

On a related note, apparently some White House staffers were nonplussed by the calls to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting. (NYT: “In Case of Emergency, Cupboards May Be Bare” - 02/17/03)

Edited 10:06 p.m.Wired has a fun story today about the Stupid Security Awards. (“Are You Scared Stupid? Do Tell” - 02/17/03) Nominate your favorite “pointless, intrusive, stupid and self-serving security measure.” Nominations so far have included various airline security measures and the Homeland Security alert rating system.

snow update

Snowstorm, day 2. Still mostly snowed in. News reports say the Washington area got about 18 inches of snow yesterday. The snowfall has tapered off today, though, so hopefully the clearing of roads, sidewalks, stairwells can begin in earnest soon.

At this point, my stairs look like a solid slope of snow, from the top down to the base. Around 10 a.m., I made the foolhardy decision to go out in search of the morning paper. (I’m getting cabin fever here, and the newspaper is as good an excuse as any to go outside.) So … on go the combat boots and the hooded sweatshirt over my pajamas (a black tank-top with green plaid flannel pants), and out I go.

I feel something like an alpine mountain climber as I hike my way up the stairs, kicking divots in the suprisingly well-packed snow to form footholds for myself. Then again, I probably don’t look near as coordinated and athletic as I feel. From a bystander’s perspective, all I’d need is my winter hat with the earflaps and I’d look like some kind of drunken upper-Midwest ice fisherman.

Up at ground level, the snow comes up to about mid-calf. I wade through the snow to the front yard, making huge footprints as I go and kicking freezing crumbles of snow down my boots. Finally at the front of the house, I scour the landscape for the morning paper. Aside from a few chunks of packed snow that resemble a buried newspaper, there’s no Washington Post in sight.

Meanwhile, the snow in my boots is burning my legs with an intense icy heat. Time to run back inside.

I hurry back around the house, trying to step in the same footprints I’d made earlier so as to prevent getting more snow down my boots. I’m quite impressed that I manage to run back without belly-flopping into the snow.

I take the stairs backwards, using the same foothold divots to lower myself, ladder-style, down the stairway. Then it’s back inside the house, doing a little dance as I hurry to pull off my boots and shake off the snow that’s burning my ankles.

Maybe if conditions improve I’ll be able to get out to the grocery store today. I can stave off the hot cocoa craving for only so long.

Edited 2:46 p.m. — Have been camped out in front of the Food Network for the past two hours. Fear am developing a crush on Jamie Oliver. He’s British, he cooks for his mates, and he’s a great host. What’s not to like?

feb
16
2003

tit-for-tat

Maybe Fox News is a little too widely recognized for its conservative, pro-administration bent…

Today’s Washington Post reports that the Bush administration ordered the expulsion of the U.N. correspondent for the Iraqi state news agency, on the grounds that the correspondent was a spy. (“Administration Expels Iraq’s U.N. Reporter” - 02/16/03) In retaliation, the Iraqi government ordered Fox News correspondents in Baghdad to leave the country. The Fox correspondents had been covering the U.N. weapons inspections.

snowed in

my stairsAfter lackluster showings on Friday night and Saturday, this predicted “doozy” of a winter storm has finally managed to impress me.

It’s also managed to more-or-less snow me in.

I got up this morning around nine-ish, slipped on a pair of sneakers and went out to get the Sunday Post.

And, after seeing my snowed-over stairs, promptly went back in the house for a pair of boots.

Thankfully, the paperboy delivered today’s newspaper in yellow bags, or else I might never have found it amid the sea of white. As it was, only the top of the bag was visible, the rest of it buried by the morning’s snowfall. I picked up the paper, shook off the snow, and hurried back inside, managing to avoid killing myself on the stairs.

I definitely can’t drive today (the car is buried under about 8 inches of snow), and walking around outside sounds less than appealing. I’d say today is definitely a stay-in, hot cocoa kinda day. Maybe I’ll use up some of those “orange alert” provisions.

Edited 11:17 a.m. — Maybe today’s a good day for making snowmen

Edited 12:53 p.m. — Out of hot cocoa. Panic setting in.

Edited 5:41 p.m. — Soothed hot cocoa cravings with another comfort food — mac ‘n’ cheese. Looked outside. Definitely snowed in.