May 30, 2003

Playing Zeus   {Comments: 0}

Talk about authoritarian:

On orders from President Vladimir Putin, 10 planes equipped with chemical charges will try to keep Russia's second city dry as tourists and world leaders attend the jubilee celebration.

"Our aim is to empty all clouds of rain before they hit the city borders," Vladimir Stepanenko of St. Petersburg's Geophysics Observatory told The Times of London. Since the Soviet era, Russians have sought to control the weather, developing techniques to halt or induce rain as well as stop hail from damaging crops.

The friend who put me onto this story found it quite amusing, and at first blush it does seem a little over the top. But from a public goods standpoint, this is a perfectly reasonable policy decision to be making. I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often, actually.
May 29, 2003

Caesura   {Comments: 0}

If this isn't apparent already, posting will be quite light for the next week or two, since my finals are coming up and I'm in real hot water this quarter (spending a week out of town for the opera didn't help, nor did all this blogging). At the moment I'm trying to wheedle some edits out of some of my classmates for a group project due in an hour. And after that, it's on to another group project in which I'll probably be the target of similar wheedling. How do you like that?

I did want to draw attention to the most important news of the hour... it turns out indoor swimming pools increase one's risk of developing asthma. This is a seriously disturbing revelation for poor asthmatic me, half my childhood spent at the YMCA's indoor pool with that vicious (but loving) instructor Jane. I wonder what's happened to her... maybe she has asthma too?

May 26, 2003

A unionless utopia   {Comments: 0}

PG has the skinny on the union problems over at Whole Foods.

Betrayed   {Comments: 0}

This is what I get for defending the Bush administration:

The American occupation authority in Iraq, apparently preserving the prewar distinction between Kurdish-controlled northern areas and the rest of the country, will allow Kurdish fighters to keep their assault rifles and heavy weapons, but require Shiite Muslim and other militias to surrender theirs, according to a draft directive.
The problem with drawing this distinction is that a lot of these Kurdish fighters have been using their heavy equipment to bully their way into new home ownership. Once again we see that loyalty is more important to our president than consistency.
May 23, 2003

Hypocrisy?   {Comments: 0}

Both PG and BigOldGeek (and probably others) have pointed out that there's an inconsistency between the Bush administration's gun control policy here in the United States and the current seizing of weapons in Iraq. I think this is a somewhat irresponsible line of argument. I don't disagree that we have too many guns here in the United States, and I definitely think there's a lot we could do to control what weapons Americans have access to. But I just don't see what all this has to do with Iraq.

The fact of the matter is, Iraqi civilians must be disarmed if there's to be any peace in Iraq. How can we work to build a new government when bands of armed civilians are looting, stealing, murdering, and otherwise disrupting the peace? Ever since we took "control" of Baghdad, there's been a complete breakdown in the rule of law, and there won't be any peace, any self-determination, any legitimate American withdrawl until the rule of law is back in place. So, the Bush policy of seizing weapons from Iraqi civilians may be the first intelligent move they've made in this extended debacle. I'm not exactly optimistic about the situation, but I'm going to hold out hope that it's the beginning of a more measured and thoughtful approach.

No matter how bad you think crime is in America, there's no breakdown in the rule of law. No, that doesn't mean having an armed American populace is the best way to go - but it it's pretty clear that Iraq presents a completely different set of circumstances.

May 22, 2003

Food fight   {Comments: 0}

Bush is absolutely right to declaim the EU's ban on genetically modified food:

In a speech that the White House said would put forward what aides called a positive agenda that would show a far softer side to American foreign policy, Mr. Bush insisted that widened use of "high-yield bio-crops" would greatly increase agricultural productivity in some of the poorest nations.

"Yet our partners in Europe are impeding this effort," he said, clearly meaning France and Germany, though he named no countries. "They have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears." The result, he charged, was that African nations that fear being shut out of European markets are not investing in the technology. He appeared to be referring to countries like Uganda and Namibia.

Unfortunately the flip side of this issue is that here in the US we're just as snooty about irradiated food - an attitude that is equally unscientific and which has similar consequences for potential African agricultural production. It's a bit of a standoff, with public opinion firmly entrenched on both sides of the Atlantic.

It's also worth noting that the Bush administration's policy on steel tarrifs might have something to do with the European ban on gm food. It's a pretty obvious case of comparative advantage, where unfair US steel protections have forced Europe to protect its crops.

Wind dummies   {Comments: 0}

FedEx has discovered that hybrids are good business. The company has plans to phase 30,000 hybrid delivery trucks into its fleet:

FedEx says that while the new trucks will be more expensive to purchase, they increase fuel efficiency by 50 percent and will be less costly to maintain. The company hopes to break even over the 10 to 12 years that the trucks are expected to last, Mr. Bronczek said.

One plus, he said, was that the shift to hybrids would reduce the company's sensitivity to fuel prices. "When OPEC's fuel prices swing one way or another, the effects on costs are significant," he said.

Too bad for the rest of us, FedEx trucks are going to be the most attractive hybrids on the road.

The article closes with a quote from Christine Todd Whitman, who resigned today as EPA administrator. I was surprised to learn that she had a contentious relationship with the Bush administration's abysmal environmental record - sorry to see her go, since her replacement will surely be less of a friend to the environment.

May 21, 2003

Self improvement   {Comments: 0}

Went to see the new Neil Labute effort today, called The Shape of Things. It didn't really live up to my hopes - the dialogue was kind of unweildy (written for the stage?) and the vicious interpersonal dramas weren't nearly as vivid or believable as what we saw in Your Friends and Neighbors. Instead, the film was built on a central conceit, sort of like In the Company of Men, and I think the characterization suffered as a result. Of course, the setup itself worked pretty well, apart from the seriously belabored ending.

I think there was also a bit of self-consciousness in this film that I didn't get from the others - here Labute dealt much more directly here with artistic manipulation and all the moral questions the artist-as-manipulator has to face... not really surprising when you consider the reviews he got for Your Friends and Neighbors. In that sense it reminded me of the second half of Tom Solondz's Storytelling, except that Labute looks his detractors right in the face and gives them two middle fingers, where Solondz can only retreat into sarcasm.

All those other bastards were only practice   {Comments: 0}

I've never been a golf fan, and I probably never will be, but I'm totally impressed that Annika Sorentsam is taking on the PGA men this Thursday... at the Colonial, no less! I hope she takes them apart... it would really do wonders for the world of pro sports.

More room for guns & ammo   {Comments: 0}

BigOldGeek directs me to this article from the New York Times on how WalMart is changing the rules of them game in publishing and other media. Their market share is apparently so big they can sink an author or artist by refusing to carry her... or at least, it's close to that - Eminem seems to be doing pretty well on his own, thank you very much.

I guess I have a lot of hope that this won't matter in the long run. As information gets easier and easier to disseminate, it gets harder and harder to control with the kinds of economic levers a WalMart can manipulate. I'm not sure what this means for artists in the future, but I don't see the problems inherent in easier data manipulation going away.

I'm generally surprised at how little amateur creative work is available via the internet. I guess there will have to be a major shift away from thinking of creative content as a product before people will really be free to just post it on the internet. Then again, today I came across these photos by my old friend Alex Mogens Galt... and there's always the argument (one I'm not very sympathetic to at the moment) that all this blogging is creative. Hmmm.

May 19, 2003

It's better by far to get paid   {Comments: 0}

I've been having a hard time motivating myself to write lately... the news is all depressing, terrorist attacks all over the map, and the Bush people looking less and less earnest every day on Iraq. Plus I'm a little burnt out I think - yes the opera experience was terrifically energizing, but by comparison blogging about current events is almost a chore. I'm having the same difficulty with schoolwork. Regression analysis? Who needs it! Instead I've been listening to Liz Phair, trying to tune out the quibbling on my latest group project, and basically in denial about the fact that my summer plans fell through while I was distracted.

As far as this blog goes, I don't intend to turn it into some kind of melancholy journal, but I think I do want to try and widen the focus a little bit. When I started doing this, I was thinking in terms of a tight political/economic focus... after all, here I was studying policy, drinking down everything I could find about world events in the leadup to the war... the blogosphere seemed, well, pleasantly atmospheric. Not so now, at least for me. The political discussion is all stale, so factionalized and emphatic. Debating postwar Iraq policy feels pointless in the current political atmosphere, and discussing the Democratic primary is a tragic waste of breath.

Anyway... I don't guess this rant is particularly helpful or interesting to anybody so I'll desist for the moment. I'll try be back soon with a post on the abortive/unrealized Hart campaign, and maybe something about the Matrices?

May 15, 2003

Meaningful machines?   {Comments: 0}

Metafilter links to this article about improving the quality of machine translations. It seems like a smart enough approach, but it's not going to solve all the translation problems out there. Specifically, I don't think there's a wide enough pool of translated discourse for a computer to be able to solve larger contextual problems.

Let me put it this way: Is the context of this sentence the paragraph in which it appears, the post in which it appears, this whole blog, the blogosphere itself? The problem isn't just that we need to look at context when we translate or understand something. We actually have to be able to figure out which context is important. This kind of thing is going to be much more difficult for a computer to handle - and if the context turns out to have a very wide scope, it may render statistical techniques like this one useless.

I do think this is a step in the right direction - given the computational strength we have at our disposal, this kind of narrow contextual analysis seems like it will clean things up considerably. But we have a long way to go before we can handle more serious translation problems like metaphor or irony.

Chasin' a rainbow dream   {Comments: 0}

An interesting thing about A Mighty Wind is the way it backs away from the documentary framework that was so successful in Christopher Guest's previous films - I'm told it's actually been criticized for this. I guess such a critique comes out of the notion that documentary/mockumentary was central to Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman, but I'm not sure I buy it. Yes, formally these other films adhered pretty closely to the documentary format (although in Best in Show some scenes become pretty implausible as part of a documnetary), but I think what's much more important is the fact that the bulk of the films are improvised.

Improvisation is pretty difficult to pull off in free form. Jazz musicians for instance don't just play whatever comes into their head - there's generally a strong constraining framework, and a very limited musical language to employ within that framework. Another example I like to bring up is the Homeric epics, which were improvised in much the same way - there were specific metrical constraints (not to mention those of the plot), and the poet/improviser relied on a vocabulary of metaphoric constructions ("the wine dark sea" or "rose fingered dawn") to help manage those constraints.

I see Guest's brand of improvised humor in much the same light. Guest and his collaborators spend some time carefully building an elaborate world in which to play - in Wind they design album covers, write songs together, invent a simple plot they can riff off of. Then, they start shooting, coming up with a lot of the most hilarious parts on the fly. But like the jazz musicians, these jokes aren't just free form - structurally a lot of their humor is very similar, so that it almost seems methodical.

I think this kind of improvisation works so well in a documentary is that documentaries are so mannered - they're highly constraining, and improv needs a somewhat constraining framework to succeed. Could this be why some people think Wind is less effective than the earlier films?

I don't think it's that big a deal here, in part because Guest and company have done such a convincing job building their backdrop, but maybe also because the form is implicit after so many trips around the block. It's no mistake that each successive production has less documentary in it - Wind only really has a documentary feel at the very beginning. It'll be interesting to see whether they can pull away from the form altogether in the future.

May 14, 2003

I didn't know the moon had a song   {Comments: 0}

I've been back from Indianapolis for a couple of days now, trying to get reacquainted with the real world. Watching The Trio of Minuet come alive last week was absolutely magical for me on so many levels. Audiences young and old responded well to it, and the children on stage had a wonderful time. I can't wait to start writing another one...

The Indianapolis Children's Choir website has dozens of pictures up, and you can download the program (with notes and a synopsis) there as well. The Indianapolis Star has both a preview and a review. No word yet about a video or sound recording, but I'll be sure to post again as those things happen.

MORE: There's also this preview from WISH TV in Indianapolis - I guess it was actually a television spot, but I didn't get to see it.

Not just the worm   {Comments: 905}

BigOldGeek is wondering about the difference between Mezcal and Tequila, and this LATimes article I read a couple months back is somewhat illuminating:

The main difference between tequila and mezcal is the method of production. Mezcal dates back almost 500 years to the arrival of the Spaniards, who brought the art of distillation to Mexico. Tequila came later. Originally it was called "mezcal produced in the town of Tequila," which is far north of Oaxaca, in the state of Jalisco. Today, tequila is made in factories, in high volume, and known around the world.

But mezcal is still hand-crafted and rustic. Like tequila, it starts with the hearts of the agave plant, known as pinas because they look like enormous green and white pineapples. For mezcal, the pinas are roasted in a pit dug in the ground. A wood fire heats a layer of rocks, and the pinas go on top, protected from direct contact with the rocks by a layer of agave fiber. Covered with more fiber, and then woven mats or canvas and earth, the pinas roast for several days and are then crushed, fermented in wood tanks and distilled, usually in a copper still.

I haven't noticied any mezcal for sale in liquor stores around here, but I'll probably be checking into that in the near future. The mezcal cocktails we had last night at Frontera were pretty spectacular - they had a powerful smokiness that reminded me of some scotches I've had.
Help wanted   {Comments: 0}

Lots of shakeup in the Republican race for Illinois senator in the past few days. Jim Edgar, Judy Barr-Topinka, and Jim Ryan have all indicated they don't plan to run. Meanwhile ice cream magnate James Oberweis may be interested...

MORE:Archpundit has some analysis over at Political State Report.

May 6, 2003

Break a leg   {Comments: 0}

OK, I'm headed for Indianapolis for the rest of the week - The Trio of Minuet opens this Saturday, and I want to be there for all the dress rehearsals, etc. I don't expect to be blogging much, although I would like to put together a post on how the opera came to be. But hopefully the break will give me some time to recharge a little... as of today I've been blogging for 3 months!

Pelted off the public stage   {Comments: 0}

I haven't yet posted about the revelation of Bill Bennett's big blunder, but I guess that's because I regard it as an amusing anecdote a la Boccaccio more than anything else. What I mean is: I don't think I'm constitutionally capable to turning the tables and becoming the monster moralizer, even to ferret out hypocrisy (from all the bombast). Michael Kinsley is a little more zealous.

Suprisingly, I never posted on Rick Santorum's bizarre comments of a couple weeks back either, which, though apparently less career-threatening than Bennett's gambling gaffe, seem to me more dangerous and sinister.

May 4, 2003

The world's most destructive weapons   {Comments: 0}

I was absolutely appalled by this report:

A specially trained Defense Department team, dispatched after a month of official indecision to survey a major Iraqi radioactive waste repository, today found the site heavily looted and said it was impossible to tell whether nuclear materials were missing.
It's incredible to me that, after justifying this war in terms of weapons of mass destruction - and specifically the threat that those weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists - the defense department had the gall to leave these facilities unguarded for a month. Is it possible they didn't even believe their own intelligence about the presence of radioactive materials? They obviously knew about the facility - it's the same location the Israelis bombed in 1981. What exactly does it mean, "official indecision"?

I've pretty much accepted the fact that weapons of mass destruction had little or nothing to do with this war. But couldn't we at least have secured this facility? Our failure to prevent looting was bad enough when it meant a total breakdown of the rule of law. But now there's the possibility that we've placed the world's most destructive weapons in the hands of terrorists. Talk about irony!

The black hole of Asia   {Comments: 0}

This is reassuring. The Bush people have apparently given up on negotiating with the North Koreans, in favor of a policy of preventing exports of nuclear weapons and technology. The catch:

Mr Bush's approach is a major gamble one that depends on superb intelligence about North Korea's efforts to sell its weapons. So far, though, the nuclear program has been what one American intelligence official calls "the black hole of Asia."

American officials have apparently been unable to find new facilities they believe North Korea is building - presumably underground - to produce highly enriched uranium, a technology obtained largely from Pakistan in a trade for missiles.

I'm not really surprised that they've given up on negotiating, considering they're not willing to give up anything the DPRK wants. But isn't this kind of a non-policy? We haven't exactly been shy about tracking North Korean weapons exports in the past, and they've still managed to make sales right under our noses. If we rely on the Japanese (who just sent up a spy satellite a couple weeks ago) and the South Koreans, won't that just lead to a cold war in East Asia?

MORE: Fred Kaplan tries to game the Bush administration.

AWOL   {Comments: 0}

Apologies for the lack of posts. It's been a busy time for me, trying to balance midterms, the upcoming opera, and ballooning responsibilities for the not quite Gary Hart campaign. And to make matters worse, the phone line has been out since the thunderstorm Wednesday night. Maybe it's time to get broadband...

The latest on the opera is this preview from the Indianapolis Star.