Thursday, December 30, 2004

More On Morality and Law

I came across an interesting post by Judge Richard Posner on the question that i debated with myself a while back. Good read, and considerably more informed than my own opinion.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Imperial Hubris

I finally finished reading Michael Scheuer's book Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror. A bit of background: the book was originally published anonymously because Scheuer was a veteran of the CIA and that was the condition demanded by his employer. Scheuer left the CIA not long after the book came out. Although he says it was voluntary, i've seen claims on the Internet ranging from a) his departure was CIA grandstanding intended to draw attention to agency concerns over lack of funding and influence to b) he was incompetent and needed to be purged along with all of the other chaff that Porter Goss so wisely swept away. I'm taking the content of the book and Scheuer's claims at face value, meaning that i think the facts could certainly be interpreted differently but i believe the sources from which the author draws (which are supposedly all publicly available) are factual and not hoaxes, speculation, or flights of fancy.

The book repeats several themes throughout the book. The first is that our government has failed to understand that Al Qaeda is not a terrorist organization, but rather a global insurgency. The distinction, the author claims, is that we treat terrorist organizations with a law enforcement approach, using the special forces and intelligence agencies to go after the perceived terrorist leaders, while we should instead treat the enemy as a well-trained military force that needs to be confronted with forces sufficient to overwhelm and decimate it. Scheuer cites evidence showing that the so-called terrorist training camps that we've all heard about did in fact provide more general military training with the intention of developing a conventional military force.

A second point that Scheuer repeatedly emphasizes is that bin Laden is not a murderous thug using radical Islam to justify his attempts to destroy Western culture. Rather he argues that bin Laden and Al Qaeda oppose specific US policies toward the Muslim world and not Western freedoms and individuality per se. The Islamists oppose US support for Israel, the US presence in Islamic countries, and US support of oppressive regimes in the middle east (e.g., Saudi Arabia). These policies, Scheuer argues, have enabled bin Laden to frame his actions in terms of a defensive jihad, and idea that has legitimacy in Islamic teachings and growing support in the Islamic world.

Scheuer's assessment of bin Laden is probably the most unsettling part of the book, and also probably the reason why it has not been given the attention that i would have expected. Scheuer casts bin Laden as not only a pious Muslim and a highly capable leader, but also as a classic Islamic hero who is admired even by those who disagree with his actions. At one point in the book he refers to bin Laden as a "great man", though he takes care to note that he means this in the sense of a person who has changed history. However, he also says that "there is no reason, based on the information at hand, to believe that bin Laden is anything other than what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim who is blessed with sound strategic and tactical judgement..., a reluctant but indispensable bloody-mindedness, and extraordinary patience". Given that Susan Sontag was excoriated for suggesting that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards, i'm surprised that Scheuer hasn't been dragged through the Fox News muck for such an assertion.

Scheuer opposes the war in Iraq, though it would be a stretch to say that this is an anti-war book. His opposition to the Iraq war is based in part on the concern that it's costing us people and resources, but more so on the idea that it's bolstering the claims of bin Laden and other Islamists that the US is systematically pursuing policies to destroy Islamic cultures (he calls the war a "Christmas gift" for bin Laden). Although those sound like the same arguments used by anti-war liberals, Scheuer is no pacifist. He rails against the Bush administration more for not prosecuting the war in Afghanistan quickly enough; for waiting to establish some sort of global alliance rather than going into Afghanistan immediately after September 11 when there was still an opportunity to do some damage to bin Laden's forces. (He spends large sections of the book on the failure of our government to understand the realities of fighting a war in Afghanistan and to learn from the experiences of the Soviet Union and others). But Scheuer concedes that we probably will not change our policies toward the Islamic world, and so he contends that our remaining option is to fight the war more aggressively and to accept that we must kill many people, lose many soldiers, and spend many years and much treasure in the attempt (he especially likes drawing parallels to the US Civil War). He also states that we must temporarily set aside concerns about the environment so that we can reduce our dependence on middle-eastern oil, which is to say that he thinks we should extract oil from ANWR and develop nuclear energy.

One of the scarier and more controversial claims in the book is that bin Laden has sought and received sanction from Islamic scholars to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States as part of his defensive jihad (i will resist the temptation to point out the irony of Al Qaeda attempting to use WMD as a preemptive strike in a defensive conflict. Or maybe i won't). The book claims that bin Laden needed "Islamic grounding" for the idea of using WMD against the US, and he found it in a treatise written by a Saudi cleric named Shaykh Nasir bin Hamid al Fahd. Basically, this document posits the notion that Western cultures could be held responsible for the deaths of millions of Muslims, and so the use of WMD against the US would be justified by principles in the Koran. I found one internet pundit who derides this claim-- stating that it's absurd to think that bin Laden could be given "permission" to use WMD against the US-- though i think he misses the point.

My favorite section of the book deals with the idea of the US attempting to transplant democracy into occupied countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, which Scheuer regards as tremendously misguided. I've heard arguments against the notion before, but they've tended to be either patronizing assertions that the countries in question lack the necessary cultural maturity, or "Prime Directive"-style arguments that insist that we should leave other countries alone to develop in their own time. Scheuer's argument is an extension of these ideas but is more sophisticated and persuasive. Roughly he argues that the democracy-in-a-box advocates ignore the long and bloody history that lead to the democracy in the US. Our democracy, he contends, doesn't just go back to the US Civil War or the American Revolution; but to conflicts that unfolded centuries before in the countries of our ancestors, to the influences that set the stage for philosophical arguments in favor of individual liberty and self-government that eventually manifested themselves in the actions of our country's founders. I prefer this argument because it doesn't assume that democracy is a predestined conclusion, an instinctive human desire, or even the highest form of social organization. It explains why countries in Eastern Europe were able and willing to move toward democratic structures, while other areas of the world with radically different cultural histories are resistant to it.

The book contrasts starkly with what we see, hear, and read on a daily basis in the various media. I regard this to be valuable, others will no doubt view it as evidence that Scheuer lacks objectivity or has simply failed to make his point. If you watch C-SPAN or CNN or Fox, if you read the newspaper or political blogs, if you listen to conservative radio or NPR you will come away with the idea that we've succeeded in Afghanistan, that Al Qaeda and bin Laden are extreme fringe elements within Islam bent on destroying our way of life, and that our goals in Iraq will be achieved if we can simply make it to democratic elections. According to Scheuer we have failed miserably in Afghanistan, allowing Al Qaeda and the Taleban to escape essentially unscathed and able to reestablish authority in the country as soon as we remove our forces. He says that despite the successes we've had against the Al Qaeda leadership, that it's actually a flourishing organization that we've helped to flourish by virtue of the policies we continue to pursue in the Islamic world. Democracy will not survive in these places he says, unless we are committed to an essentially permanent and expanding occupation of the countries, which places in question whether it's democracy at all.

There's much in this book that makes me uncomfortable. I don't like the idea that to win the war against the insurgency we must essentially kill enough of the enemy to remove their capacity or will to fight; though i have no argument against it other than Scheuer's own: change our policies in the Middle East so that the conflict has no basis. I don't know how we could meaningfully change the US stance toward Israel as Scheuer suggests, since the Al Qaeda position is that it must be destroyed. I don't agree with Scheuer that we must stop being so squeamish about losing US soldiers because they are, as he says, professional soldiers who know the consequences of their profession of choice. I don't agree that we need to exhibit more "manliness" in our execution of war.

On balance though i find myself persuaded by many of Scheuer's arguments. Probably my favorite quote that the author uses in the book is this gem from John Adams:
America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her own example. She well knows that by once enlisting under banners other than her own, were they even banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, ambition, which assumed the colors and usurped the standards of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.
This neatly sums up why i personally oppose our actions in the Middle East. More evidence that the founding fathers were simply smarter than we.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Food Poisoning

As a youth, when i lived in the middle of nowhere, there'd be occasional episodes in which some dipshit would Everclear himself into a near-death experience. This type of alcohol overdose is commonly referred to as "alcohol poisoning", which seems a poor choice of words to me. When i think of poisoning i imagine a bite taken from an apple, or a bite given from a spider, or maybe a bad mushroom. I imagine an event by which you introduce small amounts of some toxic substance involuntarily or unwittingly into your bloodstream, but not pouring quantities of vile-tasting swill down your gullet.

However, if that can be called alcohol poisoning, then i think i can claim to be suffering from food poisoning. Not the salmonella/e.coli/bad mayonnaise sort of food poisoning, but rather the sort that results from increasing one's caloric intake by an order of magnitude for a period of at least a few days. As a runner, i'm used to eating 3000+ calories a day ; but over this last weekend i went completely off the charts. For Christmas dinner this year we had duck and ham and numerous varieties of carbohydrates, including my mom-in-law's arroz valenciana. My sister-in-law Eleanor (aka Bing), brought wine from the chateau in France that she was helping to restore earlier this year. We had apple pie and plates of cookies. I am the hapless victim of cookie poisoning.

The next day Emily's cousin Rinky and his family came down from Riverside, and we had Filipino food (lumpia, pancit, arroz). Bing made sangria, and for reasons that escape me we had an entire buffet of deserts: cookies, pie, cheesecake, cream puffs with whipped cream. Good lord, i definitely have cheesecake poisoning.

During most of the year i have decent willpower, but at the holidays i turn into Mr. Creosote. Anyone care for a mint?

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Jumping in To Save George

Christmas, 2004. I posted a few family pictures here.

The kids got up before the crack of dawn, or at least it seemed like it. We still haven't developed any Christmas traditions, so the present-opening carnage unfolded quickly and chaotically. Think feeding frenzy. We went to 9am mass (because of the wife and kids i am among the world's most devoutly Catholic agnostics) and then we came home to begin the eating. Most of the rest of the day is lost in a haze of constant eating and drinking. I think i watched a basketball game on TV, and i spent some time playing with the Indo Board, our communal present.

I talked to my dad today and he said it was 15-below in Indiana last night. It was about 70 here today, but i didn't have the heart to tell him. Although i don't miss the cold, i do miss Christmas in Indiana, since my best memories are from the farm where i grew up. The only present i remember getting from those days is, strangley enough, a bb-gun. It was a fairly high-powered gun, rather than the Red Rider style gun from A Christmas Story, but still. What i do remember is my mom getting up to make turn-overs, one of the handful of times during the year when she'd cook. I remember my sister and i trying to guess what the presents were, and the orderly process of disbursing presents. I remember the Gregg shorthand that my mom would use to mark the packages so that she could remember what was inside. I remember Christmas dinner at the huge old dining table that we only used at the holidays. I remember the annual visit from my great aunts, Vi and Corinne; and trips to my cousins' house. I remember the cookies.

I watched It's A Wonderful Life again this year. I think Jimmy Stewart as George is just great (and i love most of his other films too); but i like Clarence the angel better for some reason. George is all about doing the right thing and sacrificing for the community, yadda yadda yadda. But Clarence goes for the grand gestures, like altering the space-time continuum just to prove his point, and jumping into the river to save George (and Ward Bond wrestling Henry Travers to the ground has to be one of the greatest character-actor scuffles of all time).

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

First Day With The New Brain

I got me a Dell dude (sorry, i just couldn't resist). Yesterday afternoon i got my new Dell Dimension 4700 and my very first flat-panel monitor. On paper, it's more powerful than the first Cray that i worked on (a Cray XP- no relation to Windows XP): 1Gb of memory, 80 Gb of disk, a P4 at about 3GHz, all in a box about the size of a photo album. Of course, the Cray could still crunch numbers faster, but it's amusing to think back on the huge disk farm we had to support 40Gb of storage.

The good things are the small form factor and the speed. I haven't really worked it out yet, but there are numerous hints that it's pretty darn quick. Firefox is so fast starting up, that i wasn't convinced that it was actually getting loaded from disk and not just swapped in from the background. I also like the flat panel, though the text is not as crisp as i'd like, which seems to be a general problem with flat-panel displays. I think the overall footprint of both the computer and the monitor is still smaller than the footprint of the old monitor. It's got a bunch of USB ports, including a couple on the front. It was way easy to drop it on my network.

The bad: it's noisy. I'm not sure if it has a traditional fan, or one of the disk drive motor fans or what, but when it's quiet in the room it sounds like somebody revving a Harley. When the boys are in the room, it'll be unnoticeable; but late at night it's going to bother me. I'm also getting a strange "Power Surge on Hub Port" message, which seems to be spurious. I did a bit of checking on the web and early indications are that this might be a problem with Windows XP SP2. Since i've only got a keyboard and mouse plugged into the USB ports, i'm reasonably sure that it's not a real power surge. It's also curious that it only occurs when the system has been sleeping for a while, and it goes away after a few minutes. Fortunately, USB warnings can be turned off.

The other major thumbs down is for the DVD/CD-ROM drive. Because i've got the small form factor and i've got it sitting vertically, the drive is also vertical. To get a CD into the drive, you have to support the drive tray with one hand and press the disk onto it. This is going to be a disaster with my boys. I might have to get an external drive just to avoid destroying it. Unfortunately, a lot of game manufacturers require that you have the CD-ROM in the drive to run the game (stupid,stupid,stupid). I'm not too keen on running a drive emulator even though i've got plenty of disk. Yet another example of an idiotic protective measure taken by a software company that primarily inconveniences the paying customer.

My first personal computer 20 years ago had 64Kb of memory and two 360Kb disk drives. The vendor gave us a free box of 10 360Kb floppy disks (5-1/4), and we wondered how we'd ever manage to use them all. That processor's clock was just less than 4 MHz. Oddly enough though, i'm struck more by the similarities than the vast differences. The form of the personal computer has changed very little, and the way that we use it is only different because of the emergence of the Internet. I really thought that by this point in time computing would be a sort of utility that we'd plug our portable display devices into. I suppose it's reaching that point, but there's much work still to be done on simple connectivity, portability of information, and ruggedness of devices.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Today is my 41st birthday. It's not an interesting age, but at least it's a prime number. I also realized that 41 in hexadecimal just happens to be 29, which means that i'm the world's largest geek.

I did my annual birthday bike ride today, joined this time by my friends Cathy and Mark. I think this is the 13th straight year i've done the ride, excepting my 33rd birthday when i was in the Philippines. We rode from my house northward through the town of Escondido and then up Old Highway 395. The initial plan was to go to Temecula, but after encountering some much larger than expected hills on the way north, we decided to stop at the quaintly named town of Rainbow, just south of the San Diego-Riverside county line.

We had lunch at the restaurant in Rainbow and got some water at the neighboring market. The folks in Rainbow were pretty nice, given that we were dressed in goofy spandex outfits and probably didn't smell that good. And lord, what a beautiful day it was. Blue skies, warm air, and the whole of north county is green where it's supposed to be and autumnal where it's not.

We started south around noon. It was mostly downhill for the first few miles, until just past the Pala reservation. If you know the approach to San Diego on the 15 you'll probably recall a huge, arcing bridge that crosses over the freeway as you're driving up a long, steep hill. Riding up the corresponding hill on 395 was fairly tough. There's another hard hill, less steep but very long, just after you pass the Lawrence Welk resort (yeah, the guy on TV with the bubbles that your grandma watches). After that it was a fairly easy ride, except i think this must have been Official Freaky Shit in the Bike Lane day in Escondido. There were big holes, tree limbs, parts of a screen door, and a large young gentlemen who looked like a cross between Edgar Winter and Frankenstein (at least he did at 40 miles/hour).

A pretty good ride, though to paraphrase a bumper sticker the worst day biking beats the best day working. We did about 70 miles, climbed some decent hills, suffered no road rash or redneck rage, and had only one flat. Not an epic-size ride, but a decent workout in preparation for the Palms Spring Century in February.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Off To Sea

My older son Nathan (he's 10) is spending the next two days on a sailing ship, the Californian, which is moored in San Diego harbor. They even get to help sail it tomorrow. He's pretty excited because he gets to be a mate, which in this case means he has his own crew to boss around. He's been spending the last week learning to speak nautical (port, starboard, block, tackle, fo'c'sle, etc.) and practicing his knots. This is so much cooler than the field trips we had when I was in 5th grade. I think we went to the Eckrich meat plant. I haven't eaten baloney since.

His class has been studying the American revolution, so they're trying to simulate the culture of the late 18th century during the trip. Part of the experience involves reading "letters from home", which are written by the parents. Writing the letter was harder than i expected. I tried to emulate the tone and style of letters from the period, but i chose to ignore the orthography and i eliminated any formal thees and thous. I tried to weave in some of the family history by inventing a family living in the Indiana Territory who had moved from Connecticit (i had ancestors in Danbury long ago, who did in fact move to Ohio). I found a historical tidbit about Henry Hamilton leading troops down the Maumee River to meet George Rogers Clark's troops at Vincennes in 1778. I figured this might be something that would be observed by local settlers, so i included something about this as "news" about the war.

Yesterday Nathan's school orchestra gave a concert (he plays cello). It was not easy to listen to. The music had been reduced to very slow, scale-like passages so that the players could manage to stay together. Since Nathan plays in a far more advanced string ensemble he was visibly bored. Anyway, it started me thinking about Aubrey and Maturin in the Patrick O'Brian series of books about the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars. Aubrey, the captain, plays violin; and Maturin, the ship's surgeon, plays cello. They'd bring their instruments on each voyage and play together to entertain themselves. I was explaining this to Nathan, and i noticed he looked panicked, so i had to assure him that i wasn't going to make him take his cello with him on the trip.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Why Does My Job Suck?

I work in the software industry, and my job sucks. To be fair, my job doesn't really suck in any objective sense. It's fairly low stress, pays well enough, has flexible hours, and in my particular case i get to listen to a lot of music. But many days i'd just as soon not do it. This is not an isolated phenomenon. I've got numerous friends in the same industry who are at the same stage. It just isn't that much fun anymore.

There's nothing more self-indulgent and whiney than complaining about your job when your job is far better than what most people have to put up with. So screw you, get your own damn blog. No, but seriously, this is of interest to me because of the uniqueness of this profession. Everybody reaches a point in their career where they'd rather just fish (where by "fish" i intend a metaphor for whatever it is that people wish to do rather than work; i don't actually like to fish). But software people are different, weird really, in a way that would probably be regarded as mental illness by folks outside the profession. Some of us have at times so loved to make software that we'd do it in our spare time for free in addition to our regular jobs. But now a lot of us would rather fish.

I've been desperately trying to figure this out, because software building is just about the only thing i've ever been able to do that people will actually pay for. In fact, my undergraduate degree is in chemistry, and if it had not been for the software boom i might have had to get a job as a chemist, which would have been unbearable to me and potentially hazardous to my colleagues.

I absolutely loved programming in the early days. Like many geeks, i'm self taught. My first experiences with computers go back to the personal computers of the late 70s, writing BASIC programs and storing them on cassette tapes. In college i spent my life savings on an IBM PC and began writing programs in 8086 assembly language. I came very close to failing out of college because i essentially skipped all of my classes during my sophomore year so that i could write programs (and play Zork). The next year, i started working as a research assistant to my p-chem professor so that i could write molecular modeling programs. That experience led to my first job at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, where i learned about Crays, Unix, C++ programming, and this funny new thing called the Internet. In 1988 there wasn't a world wide web yet, and we thought FTP was pretty cool. At that time being into computers and networking was about as cool as being into ham radio or role-playing games.

By now i've experienced almost every facet of sofware development. I worked as an engineer and a manager, i was one of the key engineers at a start-up company, i experienced all of the trends (CMM, UDP, XP) . I've done desktop software, enterprise software, internet software. I've done defense, pharmaceuticals, and e-commerce. All of these jobs had their frustrations, stress, politics, bullshit. But i never questioned if i was in the right industry until my late 30s.

After a run of about 5 years where i'd been working 6 days a week i started to realize that my health was suffering and i wasn't spending as much time with my kids as i wanted to. I tried to return to a role that was more straight engineering and less project management. It was then that i started to realize that software building wasn't that much fun anymore. I attribute this to a number of causes:
  • There's nothing new under the sun. In the early part of my career the onslaught of new technologies seemed exhilirating. Between 1985 and 1995 i went from programming in assembly language on an isolated personal computer to writing C++ programs distributed between Cray supercomputers and SGI workstations connected via high-speed network connections, to writing Java applets. Often you'd have to create new datastructures, or code your own hashmaps or btrees. We'd blithely make up our own application protocols and move stuff around over sockets. We went from clunky vector graphics on specialized workstations to interactive volume visualization. We started building web applications with cgi-bin and HTTP. However, web technologies began to dominate so much of the software landscape that it seems (to old, cynical dweebs like me) that a lot of folks have been trying to invent new ways to do it for the last decade. Imagine that the auto industry went through a decade-long process of trying to standardize the steel-belted radial, and you'll sort of get the vibe. I went through a phase where i felt like everybody in the world was working on the same integration project and i thought i could probably reduce my resume to one line: XML, metadata, transactions, messaging.
  • There's too much new stuff. On the other hand, there's been an explosion of largely redundant and overly complex software that doesn't solve any new problems. There's an illusion of progress because of the astounding number of meta-applications that are built to surround and contain the monsters we've created.
  • I didn't get rich enough to stop. There are several paths for geeks. Most geeks continue to enjoy the technology and they fashion long, happy careers from it either as engineers or managers. Some ride the wave of one or two notable successes and create careers out of being professional commentators and visionaries. Some make a lot of money, and they get to do whatever the hell they want. Somehow, i failed to do any of those despite ample opportunities.
  • It's not a prestigious career. Believe it or not there was a time when some of us in the software engineering field viewed it as a professional career on a par with being a doctor or lawyer. Now it's on a par with being a blacksmith-- honorable, interesting work if you happen to live where there are plenty of horses.
  • The Deathmarch. Orson Scott Card once wrote a comparison of software creation to bee keeping. Let the bees do there thing, 'cause the bees will be bees; and then skim off the honey when they're distracted. Somewhere along the line, people lost sight of this. Building software is odd in that attempts to manage it drive it to mediocrity. In fact, with all due respect to my peers, software management is largely about getting things done with mediocre talent. A small, talented group of programmers will build good quality, high value software because that is their nature. To manage software, you have to add process that doesn't result in creating software, and then you have to apply this to both the talented and not-so-talented workers. Unfortunately, one part of the process that most software organizations are not good at is estimating how much can be done in a given amount of time. Also unfortunately, another part of the process that most software organizations are not good at is managing the scope of the project as it progresses. The frequent result is the so-called deathmarch: a long, hard, stressful road to inevitable failure. It's not fun, which is probably why the word "death" figures so prominently in it's description.
So, anyway, i figure this is my version of a mid-life crisis. I expect it to last until i figure out what i want to do when i grow up. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Open Door

I went to the bookstore at lunch today, which reminded me of an interesting phenomenon i noticed a while back. Imagine that you are entering or leaving a public place, such as, oh, i don't know, let's say a book store. Often there will be two swinging doors, one on the right and one on the left. If both doors are closed, most people will push/pull on the rightmost door and go through it. But-- and this is the strange part that is of interest only to me and possibly other deranged people with too much time on their hands-- if one of the doors is already open, people will stop and wait to go through the open door regardless of how long it takes. Seriously. I've seen people waiting in lines in both directions, both sides trying to squeeze through the open door, while all the time there is a perfectly functional door in front of one of the two lines that simply needs to be opened.

No lo comprendo. I don't think this has the same root cause as the compulsion some people have to sit in the parking lot waiting for a spot that's 10 feet closer to the door. I suppose it could just be some spontaneous emergent phenomenon. Maybe it's a California thing; we left-coasters all exhibit certain peculiar behaviors that result from having so damn many other people around. I'll have to add this to my ever-expanding list of potential thesis topics that will never be pursued, along with "The Evolution of the Jesus Fish", "Why Did People Stop Using Turn Signals?", and "The History of Failed Computer Languages".

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Music Recommendations

For about 6 months now i've been working for one of the on-line digital music services. My personal taste in music is eclectic, which indicates either curiosity and open-mindedness, or a complete lack of discrimination. One of my main motivations for taking this job (my previous career was almost exclusively in scientific domains) was to have access to the music. Since i work in the "personalization" part of the business-- meaning that we use various techniques to determine the music that a person might like based on what they're already listening to-- i figured that i'd find all sorts of obscure artists that i'd never heard before.

Well, i did discover many obscure artists that i'd never heard before; but unfortunately that doesn't mean that i enjoyed listening to them. I managed to hear two new bands that i like-- Snow Patrol and The Dresden Dolls-- prior to their debut on local radio. (The Dresden Dolls record is excellent btw, easily my favorite of the year. They write the best lyrics i've heard in ages, and the music is unique yet still very catchy). I've also been able to listen to much more of the Wilco discography, and i've listened to a few of the related artists that i probably wouldn't have purchased otherwise (Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams). I've sampled a few of the hard-rock bands related to my personal favorite, A Perfect Circle, but the only band that i've listened to more than i probably would have otherwise is Sevendust.

But a significant majority of the artists that i've checked out as a result of an automated recommendation are obscure for good reasons. Presumably these bands have followings, since they got record deals, and it's great to have the option of listening to them on demand rather than purchasing a CD. But you'd hope that the technology would lead you to stuff that's really good and just didn't get airplay. This, after all, is the idea behind The Long Tail.

The problem with recommendations technology in music is, i think, the flipside of what makes it desirable in the first place. If you're a fan of a particular band, then it makes sense that you'd want to hear music by similar artists. But chances are that if you're a fan of a particular type of music, you already know most of the similar artists. For example, i love Duke Ellington and our service provides 94 recommended artists related to Duke Ellington. But because i'm a fan of jazz and of swing in particular, there isn't a single one of the 94 recommended artists that i haven't heard of before; and i have to go to number 38 before i find an artist whose music is not familiar to me (Bill Evans). Of course, the results are different if you start with less popular artists. For example, i like the band Giant Sand and their associated recommendations are less familiar. The top two recommendations are Cat Power and the alternative country band 16 Horsepower. Both artists are very listenable, but neither are something i'd pay money for. In the case of less popular bands, i think the peculiarities of personal taste are too hard to account for.

Books are different, i believe, because the culture of books is less fan-based and preferences are less style-based (although, i'm sure that virtually every literary critic who knows anything probably thinks i'm an idiot for stating the above). I use the Amazon recommendations fairly often. Often this is for technical or scientific books, but even with fiction i've had good success. I've bought a couple of books based on recommendations related to my purchase of books by Michael Martone, and i've been pleased in both cases (Notable American Women: A Novel by Ben Marcus, and Hideous Beauties by Lance Olsen). There's enough similarity that you understand the recommendation, but not so much that you feel like you're spending too much time in the same territory.

My main conclusion from this experience is that the existing music marketing machinery doesn't suck as badly as i always assumed it did. Pinback's Summer in Abbadon, another favorite from this year, i first heard on the radio via the single Fortress. I got into Kanye West after reading an article in the on-line publication PopMatters. I heard the new Chevelle record on the radio before i noticed it on-line, and i first heard Coheed & Cambria on Fuse! (Sure, i'm ashamed to admit that i like Coheed&Cambria and that i watch Fuse). I remember reading some on-line article a couple of years ago that argued that the record companies are valuable for acting like a filter for musical taste rather than for production and distribution capabilities. The writer argued that as soon as other filters became available (i think he promoted Bayesian statistics), the record companies would cease to be relevant. Well, one can hope, but we're not there yet.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Rainbows and Kung Fu

It rained in San Diego yesterday, but it was one of those storms that spins around and causes heavy rains in one part of the county and clear skies in another. And that means rainbows. Huge, intense, full-arc, right down to the ground rainbows. Even double rainbows.

Yesterday was also the annual White Dragon exhibition. Fairly interesting this year, a few weapons i'd not seen before, including the monk's spade, the trident, and a two-sectioned staff. Grandmaster Doc Fai Wong came down from SF and did an awesome tai chi/wu dang saber set. Sifu Lau did a "drunken" set that was amazing. Good show.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like...

Christmas. By southern California standards anyway. This morning we saw a Common Yellowthroat in the rose bushes in front of the house. I've decided that this will from now on be the signal that the yuletide season is upon us.

But the real indicator of Christmas season is the abundance of TV specials. I really like watching Rudolph, The Grinch, Frosty, etc. with my kids. It also gives me an opportunity to trot out the really bad joke i made up several years ago: What do Xmas specials and fishing tournaments have in common? They both involve Rankin' Bass. Hah! Right now we're watching The Year Without a Santa Claus. You know, the one with Heat Miser and Cold Miser. It occurred to me that in the real world, the story would have ended when the elves flew into Southtown with Vixen the reindeer. I mean come on, a deer that flies? It'd be like deer hunting and duck hunting combined into one sport. They'd have never made it to the ground alive.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Will To Fight

I was reading some blog earlier today that pissed me off. Some whack job was complaining about how the media pay so much attention to Abu Ghraib but not to the mass graves of the Hussein regime. He then proceeded to say that we shouldn't care if the rest of the world hates us, and we should just nuke the whole lot of them. Apparently, atrocity only describes what the other guys do.

Even if i ignore the stupidity and hatred in this rhetoric, what really gets me about these dick-swingers is how starkly they contrast with the people they want to nuke. Lots of bloggers and pundits can sound like real hard-asses when they know that they're sending other people's children off to fight. Many people fighting on the other side of this war are willing to fight and die, regardless of their age or economic status or their family situation. Some are even willing to send their own children to die. You might, as i do, find this to be horrible. Doesn't matter. Fact is, no matter how many weapons or soldiers we commit to the fight, the other side has the greater will to fight.

At my martial arts school we train what we call "martial spirit", usually through some sort of self-imposed suffering (like standing in a difficult stance for a long time or doing the splits). Training martial spirit gives you the edge in a fight, because you can sustain pain, injury, and fatigue and still continue to fight. The reverse is also true; to win a fight you hope to deplete the opponent's martial spirit. To win, you want to break the opponent's will to fight. The attribute of martial spirit is more important than skill, size, or strength. Sure, often Goliath beats David in individual battles, but when the opponent keeps returning regardless of the losses they've suffered, they'll eventually win the war.

List of Evil

Everybody seems to develop a compulsion to create lists near the end of the year, and i wanted to jump on the bandwagon. The normal best-of lists are tedious, and worst-of is worse, so i settled on making a list of things that i really like but am embarassed to admit i like. I call this the List of Evil, because that sounds slightly funnier than List of Silliness or List of WTF? So here goes:
  1. The band Tool. I own most of the Tool CDs and all but the most recent A Perfect Circle CD, and i listen to them fairly frequently. I still turn up the radio when they play "Sober", even 10 years after i heard for the first time. I've always had a thing for hard rock/heavy metal genre, but most of it makes me feel... stupid. Tool doesn't make me feel stupid, even if many of my fellow fans are pre-pubescent misfits. Yeah, Tool is pretentious at times, even a little creepy, and their obsession with anal sex puzzles me. They're kind of like that kid from your high-school english class who sat in the back, wearing an old army-surplus coat, writing bizarre stories in a spiral notebook. You know, the guy with a copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook, who read Charles Bukowski and smoked weed during lunch. OK, maybe that was just my high school.
  2. Conservative Blogs. I don't have any idea why, but i like to read blogs with which i disagree more than blogs with which i agree. I suppose it's the same compulsion that causes people to poke at bruises, or to go see horror movies.
  3. VH1 List Shows. This is the TV equivalent of reading a cereal box, but for some reason i still get sucked into them. The lists are pretty stupid (who could possibly care what is the 87th best heavy metal song of all time as judged by Blender magazine, or whatever). The snarky Z-list pseudo-celebrities are not funny, but there's something fun about people who nobody's ever heard of attempting to sound as if their opinion matters (its like blogging). I think the appeal is similar to eavesdropping on the conversation of people at neighboring tables in a restaurant, especially when they're talking about something exceptionally inane.
  4. Taco Bell Grilled Stuft Burrito. Even the name is stupid. This is about my 4th or 5th choice as far as fast-food burritos go, but the mere fact that anything at Taco Bell could be worth ordering is remarkable.
  5. Spy Novels. There are some authors who are lumped into the spy genre whose work i think can legitimately be considered literature, notably Alan Furst, Graham Greene and John LeCarre. But i like almost everything in this genre, from Ian Fleming to Tom Clancy to Ludlum to Forsythe. The only spy novel i've not been able to finish was one of William F. Buckley's Blackford Oakes books.
  6. The Clippers. Especially Marko Jaric. He looks like a slightly stupified fan who wandered onto the court and miraculously can hit the three.
  7. UFC. And K1 and any of the other mixed martial arts spectacles. When i watch this stuff i feel simultaneously guilty and thrilled. Like, i enjoy the fighting and the skill that many of the fighters display, but i can't shake the feeling that i'm going to hell for watching it.
  8. 7/11 Coffee. I can walk into a 7/11, pour my own damn cup of coffee, put some synthetic, flavored cream-like substance into it, maybe get a souvenir styrofoam cup, and it costs about half of what Starbucks costs. And i can also get beef jerkey. What's not to like.
  9. Jean Claude Van Damme movies. Now, i've never actually paid to see one, and i think i've seen all of the ones i've seen on the USA Network. And the movies are not good, let's make no mistake about that. But i've probably seen most of them, and i've seen all or parts of Bloodsport about a dozen times. I really don't understand this to be honest. I'd never sit through a Steven Seagal movie, and with most martial arts movies i rarely make it past the first fight scene. And i'm kind of creeped out by that bump on his forehead. I guess the good things you can say are that he looks like somebody who could actually beat the crap out of the bad guys, and he usually faces reasonably tough opponents.
  10. Windows XP. As a geek, it's humiliating to admit, but my primary system at home runs XP. If you've been with MS since the DOS days like me, you can probably appreciate what an amazing piece of work XP is, even if it does have security and performance issues. Thank god for Firefox though.