Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Unstructured Engrish

Japanese pop culture has an interest in English words that's rather analogous to certain westerner's interest in getting Japanese tattoos, which is to say that the coolness of the shapes is often more important than the actual meaning.

This, of course, leads to quite a lot of inadvertant humor on either side. Since this is an English site, I will, perhaps unfairly, highlight the Japanese side of that equation by pointing you to Engrish.com which is a photographic collection of English-like oddities that have been found in Japan.

While it would have been easy to make a site like this with a cruel underlying sense of mockery, I think you'll find that Engrish.com is a good-natured site whose only goal is a bit of gentle humor at the sort of garbling that naturally occurs when cultures mix.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Suggestions, Please

As you all know, I've been posting audio links to my poems. I've been recording these over the phone via Audioblogger and the quality is rather lacking, so say nothing of the fact that I've been getting tired of having them cut me off in mid-composition.

I decided to experiment with recording directly to my PC using a trial of an MP3 recorder and the quality is absolutely amazing. The problem is that I that I need to find a free site that I can use to upload them to so that I can link to them. Does anyone know of such a site?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Torture Device

I am not a tortured soul.

I do not rage against the very heavens.
Perhaps I grumble and mutter,
And speak ill whispers
And sometimes wish
That the very stars would fall,
But I do not rage.

My bones do not heave
My very flesh
And press forlorn sighs
From my lungs,
Except sometimes
In the morning,
Or at night
Or, occasionally,
Throughout the day.
Just not every day.

Nor do I ever long to die
Except for once in a long while
When it seems that,
With every single step
Into this ceaseless, heartless wind
I am winding my way around
The coils of a noose.

I am happy,
Mostly happy,
Almost certainly happy,
Except when I’m not.

Photo courtesy of Sandeep Thukral

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Unstructured Names

Names fascinate me. They're these little semiotic labels that offer us a major component of our identity. When Number 6, in The Prisoner, exclaims that he's not a number, it evokes a chilling sense of our fear of identity loss.

The Name Voyager is a Java aplet that dynamically shows name trends (culled from American Social Security records) since 1880. You start by typing in a name and, as each letter is entered, it readjusts the graphs to include that subset of names.

It's also a mesmeric toy that's hard to put away. It's interesting to see how name popularities change over the years. As an example, Andrew has been mosly on the rise while Fred has, for all intents and purposes, dropped off of the map.

Have fun.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Off-site Essay: On Intelligent Design

One of the many myths that have been foisted upon general public think that the controversy over teaching Creationism in school is a scientific controversy. It is not, of course. It is a religious controversy. The reason for the confusion, however, is deliberate. The American courts have consistently rules that religious doctrines can not be taught in public schools.

For years certain groups have tried to make an argument that "creation science" is a legitimate scientific alternative that ought to be given legitimate secular attention. Those efforts have largely failed; however, in recent years creation advocates have adopted a more subtle platform called "intelligent design". Let us make no mistake, "intelligent design" is just creationism by another name as evidenced by the fact that such groups has the Institute of Creation Research has gotten behind efforts to wedge it into public curricula.

ID theorist have, never the less, been reasonably cagey in the way that they've packaged it. They avoid the more blatantly religious claims such as the notion of a young Earth and the Noachian flood. Indeed, they go out of their way to avoid using the "G" word, only opining that there is an unspecified "intelligence" behind the existence of life on Earch. Of course, this is about as subtle of a code-word as Madison Garden's use of the word "Urban" to mean black. Never the less, ID comes off as being less extreme than generic Creationism which has allowed it to seem more palatable to the public at large and, thus, more politically savory. Unfortunately, the media have played into these efforts by presenting ID as just another side to the topic with the implication that the dispute is one of competing scientific theories.

Today's off-site essay is by Jon Carrol who is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is one of the few editorialists I've seen who seems to have a consistently solid grasp on matters of science and public policy and one who is definitely not buying into the smoke-screen being thrown up by those who believe that our schools should be a center for the public indoctrination of private religious beliefs.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Journal of a Coffee Mug During an Ordeal

Coffee Mug

I was not surprised to hear coffee brewing at 3:00 a.m.

They had been talking about their vacation
Practically without cessation for a month and more,
And I was only mildly surprised that she choose me
To fill, to fill her, to wake her up.

It was a bit of a disconcertment to be left on the counter
Only half-empty with rapidly cooling liquid —
My natural optimism urged me to think of myself
As half full.

I soon found that I could be sanguine for only so long
Before I started to feel like an infant with a soiled diaper.
Once again, I suffered futile fantasies of animation —
Would that be anymore outlandish than my anomalous sapience?

I had not yet begun to worry, though.
If nothing else, I have a memory that is strong
To compensate for my obvious weaknesses.
I remembered that they had arranged to have a friend
Come over and attend to the house in their absence.
I was, if nothing else, certainly part of this home.

She came.
She brought the mail in.
She fed the cat.
She left.

It was only a few iterations before I resigned myself
To the realization that this was going to be her routine,
Only varied by the occasionally emptied litter box.
I suppose that she thought that I could attend to myself.

By the fifth day, I was starting to feel desperate.
I could sense that mold was starting to grow on the coffee,
That I was going to become an unintentional petri dish.

I actually began to hope that the cat would knock me over.
Better to have this vile stuff out of me,
Better to simply be proximate to this filth,
Better, even, to risk being shattered than to suffer this.

It was not to be.
The cat was incongruously mindful of the countertop.
It was appropriate that my fickle fortunes
Would be emblemized by a feline.

Two full weeks I suffered.
The caffeinated muck actually started to penetrate my pores.
If self-destruction had been within my potential
My owners would have returned to the duty
Of disposing me into the dustbin.

I dreamt that they would have wept.

Eventually they did return.
She, the wife, made a terrible face when she saw me.
I wanted, so very badly, to curse her.
It was your carelessness, I would say.
This is your failure, I would assert.
This is your duty to repair, I would demand.

But I lie.

I would have been a good container.
I would have begged to be cleaned.
One does not berate one's god to their face.
Fortunately, I am silent by design.

She filled the sink with warm, soapy water
And disdainfully tossed me in.
I chipped myself against the porcelain.
I was too warm and happy to care —
Until she took me out.

She gave me a hard look, and I was afraid.

I would suffer an eternity of holding
All of the filth of the world
Than to ever see that look directed at me.
I was certain that she would discard me
And that I would live the remainder of my days
Slowly sinking to the middle of a midden heap.

Finally, she put me in the back of the cabinet
Out of the light,
Out of sight,
Out of mind —
Blessedly, out of harms way.

I am happy here.
I think that I have an aptitude for hermitage.
If I had hands, and cups of my own,
I would drink a toast to my newfound solitude.

Photo courtesy of Justin Baeder

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Head's Up!

My DBA group, at work, has recently lost a member. This means that, for the foreseeable future, I'll be working a lot of overtime.

This is a good thing and a bad thing. The good part is that I'll be making a lot of extra income (thank Sophia that I'm hourly); the down side is that I'll have less time to work on essays.

This does not mean that I'm going to stop producing essays; however, it does mean that I can't promise them on a regular basis. I'll try to fill the gaps with more off-site essays but part of that processes is that I need time to read those essays to make sure that they live up to my standards for the site. It's a catch-22. Unfortunately, it is possible that there will be Sundays with no new content.

I would like to extend an invitation to my readers: if any of you would be interested in contributing a guest essay, please contact me with the topic you'd like to write about. If I think that the topic would be of general interest, I would be delighted to host your contributions.

In the meanwhile, I must be your indulgence and patience. Hopefully we'll hire a new DBA before too long and things can return to normal.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Unstructured Time Lapse

Human beings live in such a narrow slice of time. It's often difficult for us to step out of out temporal frames, which is why I think that time lapse photography is such a fascinating thing to us. The first time you really see that a plant is a living, animate thing is a moment of epiphany.

A particularly striking example of this phenomenon can be found in a photo essay of the family of Diego Goldberg. The Goldbergs have made a ritual of taking a yearly photo of each of their members. The site has arranged the photos into a vertical chronology that really gives you the sense of the passage of years.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Off-site Essay: Daylight Saving Time

I hate Daylight Saving Time. I hate it on a personal level because anything that, at any time, makes me get up an hour earlier than I would otherwise have to is, by definition, evil. I hate it on a professional level because it complicates the sort of automatic scheduling that's part of a database administrator's life (especially if one happens to be working with international servers as well).

Recently, congress has decided that, as of 2007, Daylight Saving Time is going to be extended. It's going to start three weeks earlier and last an additional week. This, frankly, pisses me off even more because now DST is going to occasionally start on my freakin' birthday! I ask you, what sort of monster would make you get up early on your own birthday?

In order to understand what sort of nefarious thought processes was the seed of this infamy, I decided that it would be educational to turn to the original author of this evil: Benjamin Franklin.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


Recently, I noticed that our local Safeway had installed a number of 15 minute "Starbucks" parking slots. It was clear that they had painted over a number of handicapped slots to do so.

Lest Safeway appear too heartless, it is evident that they didn't simply remove the handicapped parking; they added a few to replace the ones that were removed. However, I couldn't help but notice that the Starbuck's lots were closer than any of the handicapped ones.

I would sincerely hope that this isn't emblematic of our culture's priorities.

Friday, August 12, 2005

True Blond Stories

I recently dyed my hair blond. One of my blond coworkers noticed this and told me that now that I was blond, I'd be getting a lot of blond jokes.

In an attempt at wit, I replied, "Yes, but now that I'm blond, I won't get a lot of blond jokes."

She looked me with a puzzled expression and then said, in an earnest tone of voice, "No, you will! You will get a lot of blond jokes!"

Thursday, August 11, 2005



I accidentally wrenched my arm
And it popped right off.

It fell on the floor,
Writhing with all the dumb urgency
Of a headless snake.

I couldn't bring myself to pick it up.

The thought of those blind fingers
Clutching and grasping at me
Was repulsive.

I found a broom and swept it out to the corner
And into the gutter.

I've been sitting here, sort of watching TV,
Trying not to mind

The scratching sounds at the door.

Photo courtesy of Lyra Bellacqua

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Backstroke of the West

Tuesday Fun

When I was young and naive, I wanted to learn Japanese. I thought that it would be a simple process of simply learning a new set of words. Of course, language is a hell of lot more complex than that. I never did learn Japanese. I did take five years of German (of which I've managed to retain a handful of sentences and the ability to count up to 999), two semesters of American Sign Langauge (I know some cool obsenities including a very graphic sign for the word "orgasm") and a correspondence course in Esperanto (I can ask "Do you hate the evil, blue cups?").

When it comes to language, it is painfully apparent that I am hopelessly monolingual (which is what I get for refusing my mother's attempts to teach me Spanish). As such, I can sympathize with non-English speakers who make hillarious mistakes when trying to do dictionary translations from their native languages.

They're still funny as hell, though.

Today's link is a blog post (with pictures) of poorly translated captions from a bootleg copy of Revenge of the Sith that came from a version of the movie that had been translated into Chinese. Best line: "I was just made by the Presbyterian church."

Monday, August 08, 2005

Peter Jennings, RIP

Peter Jennings succumbed to lung cancer yesterday.

Jennings may well have been the last of the Great Anchormen; a final gasp of a legacy exemplified by such men as Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. In today's world of unceasing news coverage, the news has been explicitly redefined to be a type of entertainment. Indeed, the CNN website's story on Jennings death, gruesomely enough, is found in that very section of the site. Jennings, however, was from an older school of thought that considered journalism to be a kind of civic duty with an associated list of responsibilities that journalists had with respect to the public.

Jennings own journalistic career had a number of remarkable highlights, including coverage of the slaying of Jewish athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. What I will remember, however, is his coverage of 9/11. During the four days that followed the attack, Jennings worked what was, essentially, a 96 hour work shift, taking a handful of catnaps between segments and shaving during his rare moments off camera. As much as the sheer dedication to reporting the event, what was just as remarkable was the tone of his coverage. He didn't pander to sensationalism or panic and he refused to engage in wild acts of speculation. He simply reported what was happening in a calm (and calming), rational tone of voice.

I will miss him. Televised news coverage has reached a nadir. These days, most people get the bulk of their news from the internet with some supplementation from radio and the (fairly unreliable) blogs that are trying to become the "new journalism". I do believe that there are still principled journalists out there, but I doubt that we'll be seeing another of that breed in the anchor seat anytime soon. Those days are gone I mourn their passing even as I mourn the passing of one such man.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Of Penguins and Parrots

I’m a documentary junkie. When I was a teen, I’d sometimes get up late at night so that I could catch HBO documentaries that might parents thought might be inappropriate for my age (when I wasn’t doing so to catch the occasional R-rated movie in the hopes of glimpsing a boob or two, but that's another story).

I have an especial fondness for nature documentaries which goes all the way back to watching Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Looking back, of course, it’s hard not to seen an essential corniness to that show which seemed to have the goal of moving every single animal in Africa to some other place on the continent using rocket propelled nets and tranquilizer guns as primary props.

Be that as it may, there’s something about wild animals that has an irresistible appeal. For a kid like me, born and raised in the suburbs of the Bay Area, there’s a fascinating sense of otherness that shows about animals convey. Along with Marlin and his poor side-kick Jim (who was always given the task of actually capturing dragging the poor beasts from place to place) I would go out of my way to catch National Geographic episodes. I remember pitching a nasty fit, once, because my dad had the audacity to preempt one of their specials with a football game that went into overtime. The nerve!

Of course, now that we have Animal Planet on as a 24-hour basic cable television show, as well as an honest to grog National Geographic channel, I’ve found that my interest in animal shows has waned. What has become common is no longer special. Fortunately, there’s still something about seeing that sort of thing on the big screen that allows me to slip past my own sense of jadedness. Something about the bigger-than-life magnitude of a movie screen can still transport and delight me. Alas, quality animal documentary movies are hard to find, even when one has a good independent theater to rely upon.

This summer has given me a double treat. I’ve had the chance to see not one but two animal documentaries, both about birds as it happens, albeit rather different sorts of birds. March of the Penguins is about the life-cycle of Emperor Penguins struggling to live in the very harsh environment of the Antarctic. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, by contrast, is about a flock of wild parrots living well outside of their native environment, having established themselves in San Francisco.

Penguins is a National Geographic film and it shows. If you’ve seen any National Geographic films it’s fair to say that, to a first approximation, you’ve seen all of them. You know, walking in, that you will see examples of birth, of life, and of death. You will recognize the careful style of editing. You will know that there will be a deep and somber voiced narrator (in this case Morgan Freeman). You will anticipate that there will be some truly exquisite cinematography. The pictures and the sounds will be crisp and have an indefinable glossiness to them, as though they could be taken directly from the screen and placed on the cover of a National Geographic magazine.

Penguins has all of those features. Never the less, it is an undeniably captivating format in spite of the fact that it closely adheres to a formula. Indeed, one of the reasons that National Geographic specials stand out in our minds is that the formula is such a successful one at capturing our attention. One of the things that make it work is that the focus is squarely on the animals. We hear the narrator but his sole role is to bring us closer to the animals. There is a very definite sense of being there.

Penguins are hard birds to empathize with. Their faces not only lack expression but, in fact, look more like a sort of abstract sculpture: a small round lump tapering to a long, cruelly hooked point. You can barely see their eyes. All the sorts of cues that human brains focus as points of projection are lacking. Making it worse, full-grown emperor penguins are far from being like their smaller, cuter counterparts. They simply don’t look friendly or playful and, for the most part, they aren’t: they are big, loud, ungainly creatures.

It says something about the talent of the editors that we do empathize with them in spite of these. When the penguins are doing the seventy mile trek to their breeding grounds, we are amused at they sometimes flop down on their bellies and push themselves along like tubby sleds (the producers also give us a couple of pratfalls to chuckle over). When an inexperienced penguin couple accidentally breaks their egg, we feel sorry for them. The sight of the penguin fathers bravely enduring a storm while trying to protects their eggs gives us a profound sense of sympathy. The sight of a penguin mother, driven to a kind of madness by the loss of her chick, trying to take another chick, and the other penguin mothers holding her back, is actually heart rending. Then there are the chicks themselves.

While adult Emperors may not be cute and cuddly, their chicks certainly are. They’re chubby, little bundles of grey fuzz. There’s not a child on the planet that wouldn’t want one of these things. Of course, National Geographic plays that up in a number of ways. We feel good when we see them playing, we feel warm when we see them interacting with their parents (no siblings here -- penguin chicks are born one to a couple), and we feel awful when we see a big seagull trying to make one of them its dinner.

If you are getting the idea that the film is emotionally manipulative, it is. It’s a shameless manipulation that, never the less, perfectly managed to bypass my natural sense of cynicism towards such tactics. While I was aware that the editing and the narration were deliberately dragging me on an emotional ride the fact remains that there are some absolutely remarkable animals and that their story is genuinely compelling.

Penguins live in a harsh world. The amount of investment they need to put into a single chick is staggering (Focus on the Family might want to consider making them their symbol of committed parenting). First they need to make a long journey to their breeding ground during the winter (necessitated by the fact that during the summer the ocean will come to the breeding place… if they didn’t make the march, the chicks would drown). During this time, they can not forage or hunt for food since there is none. After the mother’s lay their eggs, they need to go back to the ocean and hunt for fish. In the meanwhile, the fathers have to stand vigil over the eggs, using their own feet as nests (since there’s no other material to be found). The father’s go a full 180 days without food of any kind. Eventually the mothers come back (assuming they haven’t been killed by seals) and the fathers take their turn.

There are so many ways for an egg to be lost, or for a chick to be killed, that it’s remarkable that any manage to survive at all. The degree of sacrifice that parental penguins make is, of course, a product of natural selection -- nothing less than such an investment would get their genes into the next generation -- but it’s still awe inspiring and incredible to watch.

If Penguins is a representation of the pinnacle of spit and polish for animal documentaries, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is its conceptual opposite.

National Geographic documentaries always make their animals the sole focus for the audience. Parrots not only spends much of its time on the person of Mark Bittner, who observes and interacts with the birds, but even has the narrator step out in front of the camera! In documentary land, this is almost always an immense faux pas. One reason that a lot of people reject the idea that Roger Moore is a documentarian (as opposed to a propagandist) is precisely because he makes himself such a big part of his own film.

Where Penguins has polish, Parrots is fairly amateurish. The film is often grainy and frequently washed out or dim, the sound is considerably less than excellent, and the editing doesn’t provide us with a clean narrative story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Honestly, I enjoyed Parrots far more than I did Penguins for the precise reason that it was such an unaffected production.

The movie starts with an opening sequence in which we meet Mark and the Parrots. Please notice that I didn’t say Mark and his parrots. He’s out in public feeding the birds which draws the attention of a number of passers-by and tourists. One guy (who you can’t help but to instantly dislike) insists that the birds must be his pets. Mark assures him that the birds are genuinely wild. The guy asks if he’s given the birds names. Mark admits that he has. “Well, you feed them and you have names for them. That makes them your pets.”

Understanding why that’s wrong is one of the almost inadvertent themes of the film and one of the things that make it most captivating. Curiously that same guy provides the solution when he sarcastically says that Mark is the St. Francis of Telegraph Hill.

Wild Parrot flocks are surprisingly common. Almost every major city has them. What’s remarkable is how hardy the birds are. Parrots are tropical birds. One would suppose that they would perish, if not cared for, when taken out of their warm environment but wild parrot flocks have been found to flourish even in Chicago. More over, the birds have proven adaptive in other ways. The ones in San Francisco, for instance, have devised strategies -- and there’s no exaggeration to that term -- for dealing with hawk attacks. Among other things, the birds set up a sentinel to keep watch for hawks while the other birds rest. When they do spot a hawk, they have a number of ways of avoiding attack. The most remarkable is that sometimes they will fly behind the hawk, keeping themselves out of its attack radius.

Much of the film is about Mark Bittner. Mark isn’t an ornithologist (real ornithologists aren’t very interested in the birds since, technically, they are an invading species -- some conservationists, indeed, advocate their capture and destruction for that very reason). In point of fact, he looks a lot like a hippy. This impression is amplified when we learn that he doesn’t have a job. He lives rent free and survives on the charity of his friends. Given this first impression, one might expect that his relationship with the birds is a shallow one.

It’s a mistaken impression. It quickly becomes clear that Bittner has not only a keen intelligence but that that he also has the sort of eye for observation that makes for a good naturalist. The reason that the birds have names isn’t because he is declaring himself their owner; they’re named because he sees them as individuals. Make no mistake, Mark loves the birds, but also observes them with an objective eye. I found myself reminded of Jane Goodall and her relationship with the Kenyan chimps she observed.

Lest I go too far, Mark, unlike a real naturalist, does cross the line from observer to participant. When one of the birds becomes sick or injured, he’ll take it inside and tend to it; however, he never tries to keep the wild birds (he does own some domesticated parrots). One curious exception is Mingus. Mingus was a wild parrot that decided that it didn’t want to leave Mark’s care once he was healed. There’s an absolutely amazing segment where Mark punishes Mingus for acting aggressively by taking him outside and forcing him to stay out of the house for five minutes. Mingus clearly finds this to be a distressing experience.

The film often rambles. It lacks the clear narrative that we tend to expect in documentaries. In one scene, Mark is talking about a lonely blue-crested parrot named Connor. The rest of the parrots are red crested. When one of the red crested parrots loses her mate, Mark muses that it would be wonderful if Conner got together with her and had some purple-headed babies. In another documentary this would be a cue that by the end of the film there would, in fact, be a nest full of purple-headed chicks. I am sorry to report that Conner’s story has a rather different ending.

What makes the film succeed is that we do come to understand and appreciate these anomalous parrots. We also come to understand how they could have such a profound effect on Mark. In one segment he talks about the death of one of the birds under his care. It's a poignant story but it's told matter-of-factly with a profound lack of histrionics. It pulls at our hearts precisely because it isn't an emotionally manipulative telling.

Mark understands that his birds aren't people while at the same time insisting that they are individuals and that they have personalities and life histories which merit our respect and due consideration. In the end, Mark is forced to move out of his home and away from the parrots that he so dearly loves. There is a segment where he's addressing the San Francisco city council. One might expect that he would have begged for them to take care of his birds. He doesn't. He assures the council members that they can take care of themselves and all he asks is that they be left alone to do so. This, finally, is what proves him right when he insists that there birds aren't his pets: although the birds have come to consider him someone that they can rely on for food and help, they are not dependent on him. They are, in fact, independent and free.

Both films are, I think, worthy in their own way. Penguins is, by far, the more polished of the two products as well as being the more educational. It is a genuinely good movie that leads one to an appreciation for some magnificent animals living in an exceedingly inimical environment. Parrots, by contrast, is less polished and less focused on being education (although it does educate!). What it lacks in polish, though, it more than makes up in heart and soul. If I had to recommend one above the other, I would encourage you to see Parrots when and if it comes to your town; however, I can, in good conscience, suggest that you give yourself the pleasure of seeing both movies. Each has a different focus and each comes with different strengths. Both movies are worth seeing.

Thursday, August 04, 2005



It was the termites that took us down,
Much to our surprise.

One day we were
The masters of the world –

Proud, ponderous and unassailable –

But our edifices could not withstand
The sudden coordination
Of their assaults:

Quite literally

The ants were kind enough
To take us in.

Photo courtesy of Velo Steve

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Unstructured Eschatology

Eschatology is the study of the end of the world. Eschatology got its start as a subset of theology. A lot of religions (but not all) describe the world in terms of a beginning, a middle and an end, often with some sort of epilog, much like a conventional linear story. In recent decades, other people have gotten into eschatology. Ecologists find themselves things about global extinction, stellar physicists contemplate the death of the solar system and cosmologists have deep thoughts about the end of everything altogether.

Exit Mundi is a site that is dedicated to all sorts of theories about the end of the world ranging from the religious, the scientific, the science fictional, to the silly.

Just be sure to give your eyes a rest now and again. The site's style does leave something to desire but, hey, it's not like it's the end of the world.

what is this?

Tell me when this blog is updated. . .