February 28, 2007

Free Will and Would You Rather

I love the discussions that pop up in the “Would You Rather” threads, but yesterday I realized that some of the questions leave out more than others, and it has to do with the sort of situations they involve.

Some questions are like this: Would you rather have green feet or blue hands?

The assumption is that something has happened to you that has colored your hands or feet. In this case, we might want to know if the coloring is permanent or will eventually wash off, because longer term implications sometimes make a difference. Not specifying how long the color lasts will likely result in my readers speculating on that and saying things like “Well, if it was only going to last a day, I’d choose hands because of X. But if it were permanent I’d choose feet because of Y.” And that may be an interesting assessment that I never thought of, which is the fun of “Would You Rather” for me.

However, some questions have an even bigger ambiguity built in.

“Would you rather hit someone in the face or insult somebody’s mother?”

What the heck does this question mean? Does it want me to think about the actual mechanics of these actions? Would I rather make violent physical contact with someone’s face vs. uttering some words? That’s one interpretation — but on the immediate physical level there is little comparison, unless this is meant to determine whether you just like hitting people in the face.

Most likely you’re going to think “why am I hitting someone in the face?”

I asked the “would you rather” questions from a naïve standpoint. When I ask these questions, I rarely think too much about them beforehand except to imagine whether they would produce any sort of a split. (Lots of disagreement is good for discussion, although an entrenched minority opinion often produces more heat) Because of the naïve approach, I imagined that you suddenly found yourself, arm flinging, about to impact someone’s face. As if some alien force controlled you and put you into that situation. That’s not an easy place for many people to imagine themselves. They want a reason. Plus, it takes away free will.

This doesn’t make it a bad question, but people want to put the question into a context. So they’re naturally compelled to explore the events leading up to punching someone. If you reduce the question to “you find yourself about to hit someone in the face” then you’re really analyzing the consequences of your act. It’s probably more interesting to assume some events leading up to the event.

Does this ambiguity produce too large a split in the way different people are going to interpret the question? I could ask “Would you rather eat sand or steal from a poor family?” You might say “I just wouldn’t do that” (about stealing). So, to even fathom it you have to change the question to justify your act. None of us have ever had the experience of a supernatural force inhabiting our body and making us do things, and is that even interesting?

What do you think?

Posted by James at 8:12 AM | Comments (14)

February 26, 2007

Would You Rather?

Would you rather…

  • Miss a flight returning home on a business trip, necessitating an overnight delay or
  • Be 10 minutes late giving a 90 minute presentation in front of over 40 people.
Posted by James at 12:56 PM | Comments (43)

Oscar Results

Well, I watched the Academy Awards and it finally occurred to me that I shouldn't really expect to win an Oscar if I didn't work on any films. The fact that I wasn't nominated in any of the categories should have been another clues.

Perhaps you want to know who filled entered the Oscar pool here at Aces Full of Links. Well, 16 people rose to the challenge. Out of the 6 categories we were guessing, nobody got all 6 correct. Two people got 5 right (they both missed on the animated feature).

Those two people were... Mike and Me. Mike, we can toast our sweet, sweet victory sometime soon. We had exactly the same picks. I don't know how you arrived at yours, but mine were wild ass guesses. I had a good feeling about "The Departed."

Monday after the Academy Awards is always good fun, especially if you work with one of those people who hates Hollywood and thinks it represents everything that is wrong with America. Play it up if you run into one of those people. Say how much the movies help lift your spirits and briefly escape the mind-numbing, spirit-eroding world situation. In particular, say something has to counterbalance the psychological damage done by every appearance of Dick Cheney.

They'll say something lame about Al Gore.


Full Reader Results:

Best Picture Best Director Best Actor Best Actress Best Animated Best Documentary Totals
B.O.B. Little Miss Sunshine Martin Scorsese for The Departed Peter O'Toole in Venus Helen Mirren in The Queen Happy Feet An Inconvenient Truth 4
Chuck Babel Paul Greengrass for United 93 Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada Cars An Inconvenient Truth 2
Leslie Little Miss Sunshine Martin Scorsese for The Departed Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness Helen Mirren in The Queen Happy Feet An Inconvenient Truth 4
Julie The Departed Clint Eastwood for Letters from Iwo Jima Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal Happy Feet An Inconvenient Truth 4
BriWei The Departed Martin Scorsese for The Departed Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal Cars An Inconvenient Truth 3
Hooligan Little Miss Sunshine Martin Scorsese for The Departed Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Helen Mirren in The Queen Cars An Inconvenient Truth 4
Derek Babel Martin Scorsese for The Departed Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal Happy Feet An Inconvenient Truth 4
Mike The Departed Martin Scorsese for The Departed Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Helen Mirren in The Queen Cars An Inconvenient Truth 5
Sara The Departed Martin Scorsese for The Departed Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Helen Mirren in The Queen Cars Deliver Us from Evil 4
Ryan Letters from Iwo Jima Martin Scorsese for The Departed Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada Cars An Inconvenient Truth 2
-alice- Letters from Iwo Jima Martin Scorsese for The Departed Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Helen Mirren in The Queen Cars An Inconvenient Truth 4
Pippa Little Miss Sunshine Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel Peter O'Toole in Venus Helen Mirren in The Queen Happy Feet An Inconvenient Truth 3
JP The Departed Martin Scorsese for The Departed Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Helen Mirren in The Queen Cars An Inconvenient Truth 5
Ann Macdonald Letters from Iwo Jima Paul Greengrass for United 93 Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal Monster House An Inconvenient Truth 1
Martin Macdonald Little Miss Sunshine Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Helen Mirren in The Queen Happy Feet An Inconvenient Truth 4
Maggie The Departed Stephen Frears for The Queen Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Helen Mirren in The Queen Cars An Inconvenient Truth 4
WINNERS The Departed Martin Scorsese for The Departed Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland Helen Mirren in The Queen Happy Feet An Inconvenient Truth 6
Percent Correct 37.50% 62.50% 62.50% 62.50% 37.50% 93.75% 59.38%
Posted by James at 5:37 AM | Comments (8)

February 24, 2007

Whiny Wingnut Wiki

97X - BAM! — The Future of Rock and Roll!

Drama! AdamG at Universal Hub briefly posts on the subject of “Conservapedia.” Adam’s post is not the drama.

Conservapedia itself is the drama. Touting itself as the alternative to supposedly “anti-Christian and anti-America” Wikipedia, the most popular page that it serves up reads like Raymond Babbit’s “serious injury notebook.” That page would, of course, be “Examples of Bias in Wikipedia.”

Check out some of these gems culled from the whiny complaint list:

Injury #1: Wikipedia allows the use of B.C.E. instead of B.C. and C.E. instead of A.D.

Holy moley. It allows the use of “common era?” That must mean it acknowledges that not everybody is a Christian! If you’re interested, read about the controversy over C.E. vs. A.D. at ReligiousTolerance.org. It’s a term first used in theological writing as an acknowledgement that a term which was not Christ-centric would be more respectful to the majority non-Christian world population, yet not disrespectful to Christians. But, note the whine… Wikipedia allows C.E. Presumably, this means that Conservapedia enforces A.D. To save your virgin Christian retinas.

Injury #5: Wikipedia often uses foreign spelling of words


Injury #6: Wikipedia distorts the youthful acceptance of deism by Benjamin Franklin

Apparently, they can’t handle the fact that our founding fathers were not as Christian as they would wish them to be. Even more amusing is that Conservapedia talks about nothing other than their wet dream that Ben Franklin was a Christian in their entry on the man. So, Conservapedia doesn’t waste your time with info that can easily be found elsewhere (a.k.a “the facts”); it instead goes straight to the propaganda.

Injury #8: Gossip is pervasive on Wikipedia.

It’s their example that makes this one fun. They object to an anecdote in the entry for Nina Totenberg which describes an accident which happened on her honeymoon. Apparently stories are verboten!!! Oops, sorry — forbidden.

Injury #9: Edits to include facts against the theory of evolution are almost immediately censored.

In contrast, Conservapedia allows any old nonscientific bullshit in its articles, so long as it sounds like something you might hear Michelle Malkin say.

Injury #10: Wikipedia removed and permanently blocked a page identifying its many biases.

This must have been their “were going to take our deflated, pale, fantasy-based ball and go elsewhere” moment. However, the page to which they refer looks plenty active to me.

Injury #11: Wikipedia claims about 1.5 million articles, but what it does not say is that a large number of those articles have zero educational value.

Wikipedia doesn’t claim 1.5 million articles of “educational value by the standards of its critics.” In any case, their moronic example is to search for “moby” and “song” together and you find over one thousand entries. And your point is…? I guess Moby isn’t conservative enough, so he shouldn’t be listed in online databases. Wow - so freaking whiny. And, by the way, quite a number of the thousand or so entries mention Moby but aren’t actually about Moby.

Injury #15: Unlike most encyclopedias and news outlets, Wikipedia does not exert any centralized authority to take steps to reduce bias or provide balance;

Translation: “We’re used to living in a place where our views are given disproportionate credence, even when they’re wrong, just by virtue that we shout them loud enough. In our fantasy world, both sides of an issue should be presented: the factual side and the conservative side.” Seriously. They’re arguing that a neutral or expert opinion needs to be balanced with their childish view. The example they use is evolution. Next up, we’re going to start voting on math and science. PI = 3, anyone?

Injury #16: Wikipedia has many entries on mathematical concepts, but lacks any entry on the basic concept of an elementary proof.

Wrong. Next.

Injury #20: Wikipedia’s article about the late Senator John Tower includes a mean-spirited story […]

Squeezed and pulled and hurt your neck in 1988?

Wikipedia definitely has its problems. The internets are filled with articles about that. To see those problems interpreted as liberal bias by wingnuts is not unusual. The internet is also rife with wingnuts interpreting sensationalism in the media as liberal bias, greed as liberal bias, and pretty much every other motivation as liberal bias.

But what makes this amusing rather than just tiresome like most such rants is that this is a microcosm of a common wingnut phenomenon of victimhood. Used to living in a society where they look around and see white conservative Christians all around, they are used to their conservative bias. The “We’re #1” mentality is steeped into their skin. But then a funny thing happens. The internets are a scary place, because now they see people coming together to find common ground, and it turns out that their ideas have to compete with other ideas! And sometimes, their ideas are found lacking. But the house of cards is so fragile that the loss of one idea is fatal to the whole illusion. This you have injuries such as another person spelling “favor” as “favour” is an affront that simply cannot be psychologically tolerated.

Luckily, there is now a place to run to, Raymond “Wingnut” Babbit, when you’re frantic and it’s just one minute left to Wapner.

Posted by James at 12:00 AM | Comments (4)

February 23, 2007

Keri on Alan Colmes Show Tonight

If you’re interested in hearing Keri, but you’re not in the SouthCoast, she’s going to be on the Alan Colmes Show tonight.

So, you should be able to hear her on your local radio station that carries his radio show, or you can listen live from the website.

Bringing her brand of feist to the national audience.

Posted by James at 5:33 PM | Comments (5)

Blog Attack

Keri’s blog disappeared off the face of the internets yesterday, to be replaced by NSFW links. I guess she was trying to contact me via IM, but I was “AFK” at the time.

Keri suspects hackers, and with no easy solution at hand, she deleted the beast. The link still takes you to nasty stuff, so I took the link off my blogroll for now.

Lefty had a post about this yesterday, and we discussed in in IM in the afternoon. I echo his call to let us know when it comes back. (Although, if she’s actually deleted it, it may need to be resurrected in another form.)

Posted by James at 2:45 PM | Comments (2)

Meth Whine

I've been having a fun time lately with sinus pressure and sinus headaches. Yes, it's a fascinating life.

I provide that as preamble to explain why I want to buy pseudoephedrine in large quantities. Know who else wants large quantities of the drug more popularly known as Sudafed? Crystal meth cookers. My plain message to you if you are one of these people producing crystal meth: you suck.

There's nothing I know that licks a sinus headache like pseudoephedrine plus your headache pill of choice. They took pseudoephedrine off the shelves (and put it behind the pharmacy counter) to help curb the rampant flood of meth on the streets.

This fine blog whine is prompted not by the damage that meth addiction does to the lives of those within its effect -- something that deserves serious attention and consideration. This is about the much smaller ripple effects of efforts to shut off the supply to meth labs. I encountered this at a local pharmacy last week.

Instead of the high capacity bottles, and low capacity boxes of pills, I found slips representing the product choices. You are supposed to take the slip to the pharmacy to make your purchase. OK, that curbs theft, I suppose. Damn meth cookers. The sizes are somewhat smaller. Mostly 10 pills, 24 pills, and -- if you're lucky -- 48 pills of generic all in blister packs. I chose the 48 pill generic.

I took the slip to the pharmacy, got their attention, handed it over and waited. "Oh, sorry - we don't have any of the generic pseudoephedrine right now." Ah. I guess the slips don't correspond to actual inventory. So I asked what they did have. They had the more expensive name brand at half the size. Whatever. I took that.

They asked for my license. They took down all my license info, and had me sign my name in the "Big Book Of Sinus Shame." They did not take a sample of my DNA, but I can't be sure they didn't scan me with a tricorder.

Can't I just register with the Sad Sinus Sufferers of America? Like a reverse no-fly list for cold remedies, you could sail through. Heck, I had a secret damn clearance at one time, you'd think I could buy some decongestant.

As for the meth cookers, restrictions on Sudafed did lead to a reduction in the number of meth cases that were seen around the country. But they didn't take long to climb back up. Meth cookers are just getting their pseudoephedrine from Mexico now. The cold medicine business there is huge.

If you're interested, I recommend this Frontline special on the subject, which you can watch online.

Freaking meth cookers. You suck, for so many reasons.

Posted by James at 11:31 AM | Comments (6)

Transposed Shogtun

Hey there, gentle readers. It's Friday. Grab that Friday by the tail and wrestle it into submission!

  • Games » Jetspeed (flash,fun,games)
    • Speedy shoot 'em up game.
  • "Whoops" Pix (photos,humor,wtf,images)
    • Have a bad week? Maybe it wasn't as bad as you thought. Maybe you didn't do what some of the people in these (safe for work and not graphic) pictures did. D'oh!
  • Cool Tool: Stainless Steel Can Colander (gadget,tools,cooking,food)
    • OK, kinda cool tool. But I've found that if I just eat all the tuna straight out of the can with a fork, the liquid is gone by the time the tuna is gone. It's more filling and not much more caloric with the liquid.
  • FOX ATTACKS (activism,media,politics,liberal,reference)
    • Julie has commented to me that "Outfoxed" should be updated and rereleased. The folks who made that film are taking a different approach. This is a website to host videos and fresh revelations about the Faux News channel.
  • Drunken Jedi Trailer Trash (fun,starwars,video)
    • Someone crossed drunken frat boys with Star Wars and YouTube.
  • YouTube - Bunny letter Opener (animals,humor,video)
    • Forget dangerous and pointy letter openers. You need a bunny.
  • Pretty Things Can Harm You: Toxic Houseplants (article,plants)
    • I recommend not eating any houseplants, but this site has taken the time to actually list some harmful ones. But IIRC, you have to eat about 600 poinsettia leaves to be in danger of dying from it. So... limit your intake of poinsettia?

Feel free to add your own links to the comments.


CAKE is taking orders for a new album of rarities and B-sides. They're self-releasing it.

Posted by James at 9:41 AM | Comments (7)

February 22, 2007

Oscar Pool Time!

No prizes except bragging rights - it’s time for the annual Oscar Pool!

To play, go here: The Aces Full of Links Oscar Pool Page and fill out the form.

Feel free to discuss your choices in the comments. Polling closes when the Oscar ceremony begins.

After the Oscars I will announce who came closest, and the winner will bask in well-deserved glory.

PLEASE make sure you include your name or nickname. I will not keep track of any entries without names.

And thanks to Defective Yeti for providing the engine.

Posted by James at 7:59 AM | Comments (5)

February 21, 2007

Pain à l'Ancienne, What Went Right

pain á l'ancienne

pain á l’ancienne baguettes

On Monday I baked French bread. French bread consists of merely water, flour, yeast and salt. The style I baked is supposed to be crusty and flavorful. Because it lacks fats or other preservatives, it stales quickly, but is delicious when fresh.

This was the first success I’ve had with a French style of bread, so I wanted to quickly post what I can remember from he experience for my own reference but also for anyone interested in the details of breamaking. I’m going to keep to this particular bread and not wander off into generalities so as to keep this post short(er). I may post more general bread info in the future for those interested.

Details below the fold.

I began with the recipe in Peter Reinhart’s book “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” — the one for pain à l’ancienne.

The instructions say to prepare the dough a day in advance using instant yeast and ice water, and give it an overnight rest in the fridge. This overnight rest produces flavors. I didn’t have the time, so I prepared the dough in the morning and baked it that night, about 8 hours later.

It spent about 3 hours out of the fridge coming back up to room temperature in its bowl.

When I removed it from the bowl I was very careful not to press out many of the bubbles that fermentation had produced as I shaped it into a roughly 8 × 6 rectangle.

I heated the oven to 550° F with a heavy pan on the floor inside and my largest pizza stone on the second-to-lowest rack. I prepared my spray bottle with hot water, and prepared a couple of cups of hot water in a Pyrex measuring cup.

I cut the baguettes from the dough after a 5 minute rest and transferred them one at a time to a corn meal-covered piece of parchment paper that was on my pizza peel. I stretched them slightly as I moved them; they were very easy to shape because I had not disturbed the dough much after its rise. I handled them as little as possible.

Then I slashed them long and fairly deep with a razor I keep for that purpose. I didn’t give them a second rise.

I transferred the breads (paper and all) to the stone.

I had some trouble pouring the water into the pan in the bottom of the oven because of the position of the stone. I had to pull the pan out a little with a spatula so I could hit the corner with the water. I burned myself slightly while doing this.

I poured the hot water in, causing a burst of steam, then I closed the oven. (The first set of 3 loaves got less steam than the second one. The second 3 had a better crust. More water in that pan is clearly better. 1+ cups is better than just under a cup of water.)

After 30 seconds, I opened the oven and sprayed the walls with warm water. Repeat about a minute later. Then one more time 30 seconds later. Then I turned the oven down to 475° F.

They baked for about 8 minutes, and they began to brown. I had to remove the baguettes to rotate them 180° F because turning the parchment paper didn’t work. They had a tendency to roll which was vexing, so I had the oven open longer than I would have liked.

They took about another 9 minutes to brown to my satisfaction. I checked the internal temps with an instant read thermometer and they were above (but close to) the target temperature for crusty bread (205° F).

I actually heard the second batch crackle as they cooled.

What I Think I Learned:

  • Confirmation that fermentation in the fridge does develop flavor, even if it’s only for a few hours. The loaves were more flavorful than usual.
  • If you’re not going to give the dough a second rise, it helps to handle the baguettes gently so as not to deflate them.
  • A second rise is not necessary.
  • Two methods of generating steam (the pan and the sprayer) together do generate sufficient steam for a crispy crust.

What I Would Change:

  • Have the stone on a higher shelf so it’s easier to pour water in the steam pan.
  • Be careful not to spray the oven light bulb. Oops.
  • Angle the baguettes on the stone so that I can approach them more lengthwise with the peel — to avoid them rolling away from me in the oven.
Posted by James at 2:19 PM | Comments (8)

Sutter Nonsense

If you’re not in Bristol county, Massachusetts, you probably haven’t even heard of Sam Sutter. Unless you live somewhere else in Massachusetts and read the Boston Herald.

For those interested, I’ll give you the very quick background: We in Bristol County recently elected a new District Attorney. Our previous DA, Paul Walsh, apparently was a decent guy, started out as a good DA and had a lot of friends and huge political clout. But there was a widespread feeling that over his 16 years in office, his effectiveness had slipped although his network of supporters were strong. Sam Sutter made effective use of the perception that the DA’s office was not helping fix this area’s crime problems, and he rode that to success in the election.

I, personally, was glad to see new blood in that office and already the man is calling for tougher gun crime laws and holding criminals under the dangerousness statute.

Having won the election and apparently getting down to the business of making the county a safer place to live, it is apparent that some of Sutter’s political opponents don’t know how to lose gracefully.

DA touts wife as new Hillary: Bristol’s Sutter defends spouse’s role

The Boston Herald ran a story about how Sutter’s wife, Dottie Sutter, is working closely with the DA in a voluntary capacity to help this fledgling DA’s office succeed at its job.

And that story is pretty fair compared to the talk radio attacks Sam is weathering. But if you try to follow the logic here, you’ll need to be careful lest your head spin right off. We’re supposed to be incensed that an experienced legal assistant who is a closely-trusted confidant of the DA (what could be closer than his spouse?) is volunteering her time to make the county’s new DA’s office successful.

The hot air behind the strained complaints requires such artificial force behind it that you have to wonder who is shoveling the coal into this locomotive. I’ll leave that to more experienced investigators. Rather, I will focus on this one “scandal.”

It is cowardly and sexist to attack a man through his wife; this is the same old line that car salesmen have been using for years when you say to them “I’ll need to check with my wife.” Oh, ho ho! Who wears the pants in your family? “Surely, a big man like you you doesn’t need to check with his wife!” Lindsay Beyerstein called this sort of tactic a “creepy old man jiujitsu move” in this post about Elizabeth Edwards and Chris Matthews.

This Sutter situation. It reminds me a little bit of another issue in Bristol county: the idea that we ought to have the sheriff’s deputies patrolling the streets instead of taking care of the jails, which is their primary responsibility. The sheriff of Bristol county has his supporters who, along with him, push this idea and won’t let it die. I disagree with the deputy “redeployment” idea because:

  1. We’re already paying the deputies to do another job.
  2. The sheriff should be concentrating on the responsibilities to which he is tasked and paid for by the county
  3. Training for the deputies to manage the jails is not the same training that police officers get.
  4. The suggestion raises a question about why the sheriff has extra time and money to attempt to increase his organization’s responsibility. If funding is allocated incorrectly, perhaps we need to decrease the sheriff’s funding and increase funding to the police, allowing each agency to have the correct funding to do the job.
  5. Subsequently, the sheriff has claimed he is not equipped to handle the jail overcrowding. Which is it — they have manpower and funds to spare, or they’re strained to do their jobs? Too many funds going to these deputies with time on their hands?

In the DA’s case, for comparison:

  1. The DA’s wife is not paid
  2. She is experienced, having worked both with her husband and with the previous DA
  3. She is a trusted confidant

If you like the sheriff plan, with all its many flaws, you really have to be hard pressed to complain about the DA having his wife’s help. Spouses certainly should support each other and it is disingenuous not to recognize the level to which this happens everywhere.

So, why the complaints here? Ignoring that this is probably politically driven by those hurt by the defeat of Walsh, why do these complaints get any air time or play in the papers? Nearly everyone seems to admit that there is no ethical issue here; even the Herald quotes the publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly saying “I don’t see anything improper about it.”

The answer is simple. A wife’s place is to support her husband from the shadows, not as a professional. Wives are not meant to help in a professional capacity. This shocking bit of social backwardness is doubly puzzling if it comes from the family values crowd. Isn’t the bond between husband and wife sacred and special? On second thought, Sutter has violated the traditional mold. If his wife wants to help with the office, she should really be baking cookies or making sure his shirts are ironed. Helping is fine, so long as it’s in a completely nonthreatening manner that hearkens back to a fabricated bygone era.

This is pathetic, and discouraging to see anyone in Massachusetts giving it any credence.

Posted by James at 11:10 AM | Comments (5)

February 20, 2007

Would You Rather?

Yes, yes - I know it’s a Tuesday. But it’s a Monday schedule at the university. That means you have to have your Monday classes, eat your lunch like it’s a Monday and complain like it’s a Monday.

Also, you get a “Would You Rather.”

Suddenly, your ability to read is severely impaired. You can only read a few words at a sitting in the normal way (enough to handle a highway sign or a couple of short emails) but your ability to read and comprehend books is curtailed.

But your strange disorder comes with one benefit. You can do one of the following things, which will allow you to gain and retain all the information in any book.

Would you rather absorb the information from books by:

  • Having to lick every page of the book (or)
  • Having to strap the book to your head for 12 continuous hours (while you are awake).
Posted by James at 7:51 AM | Comments (10)

February 17, 2007

Dressing to Impress

The reason I was in Boston on Friday was to speak at the ICTCM conference. I don’t talk about work here on the blog much, but I spend most of my time at work designing and maintaining software, and managing the software product. But increasingly, I’m involved with the research and in the near future I’ll be doing even more of that.

In any case, my boss SH had a conflict and needed Sara and me to run the workshop in his stead. I wasn’t sure what to wear, and so by the time I got dressed, I had on a very dark getup that I felt made me look a little more ominous than professional. I don’t like to dwell on fashion choices, so I figured it was good enough.

I picked up SH’s packet at the “Presenter” check-in booth. And so, of course, the badge an all had his name on it instead of mine, because the change was made at the last minute. I Sharpied out his name and wrote mine in on some blank paper and slipped that into the badge while Sara and I went over our presentation in the lobby of the Westin hotel.

“These people at the workshop are going to say ‘WTF?’ when they see no SH and some guy with an amateurishly scrawled name on his badge.” I told her. “They’re going to yell at us ‘What have you done with SH!??’”

I looked around and saw some fairly casual attire, and I noticed that very few people were dressed as mob enforcers. I proceeded to complain that I was regretting my choice of black turtleneck under a sportcoat. “I think I look a little too much like a hit man in this getup.”

“Well, maybe that will help explain to them what you did with SH.” Sara concluded.

Posted by James at 1:52 PM | Comments (2)

Cold Hands Remedy

On Friday, I had to drove up to Boston in the Jeep, and the heating system in that old thing is not the best. It takes about 45 minutes to warm up. And my hands tend to get quite cold when I’m driving in below-freezing weather (which it certainly was yesterday).

If your hands get cold in the car (or wherever) you might be interested in this simple and cheap trick.

Before you leave the house, throw a large potato (or a couple of medium sized ones) in the microwave for 5 minutes. (If you don’t have a microwave, it takes a lot longer to bake a potato, but this trick still applies — consult a cookbook)

After the five minutes are up, wrap the potato in a paper towel, and then toss it in a plastic shopping bag. You now have a hand warmer that will last for over an hour. Wrapping it up makes the heat dissipate a little more slowly, which is good because you will prefer a more even release of heat rather than a really hot potato that is burning hot at first and then becomes cold quickly. (You may want to experiment with the amount of wrapping for your own comfort level.

(NOTE: If you heat up a potato and drop it in your underwear, or decide to hold it unwrapped in your bare hands, or fail to treat a superheated potato with the respect it deserves, you will burn yourself. You have been warned and I am not responsible for the results!)

In any case, I used this method on my driving trip to Boston yesterday. As a bonus, I was a bit hungry when I got to the city, so I peeled off the skin and ate the potato. Next time, I will try to remember to bring some salt.

Posted by James at 12:06 PM | Comments (5)

February 16, 2007

ICTCM Shotgun

I'm pretty much out of contact today. Have a great Friday!
  • YouTube - Introducing the book (video,humor,technology,funny,geek)
    • It's tech support for one of the greatest technologies mankind has ever developed. The book.
  • Richard Dawkins: Is Science A Religion? (article,atheism,humanism,science,religion)
    • Dawkins answers this question about science and religion.
  • YouTube - Monty Trek (humor,mashup,music,trek,tv)
    • A mashup of Star Trek and the "Camelot" song.
  • http://homland.gov.safenow.org - what to do in an emergency (humor,parody,satire,government)
    • After the near-disaster in Boston, maybe it's time to review these guidelines.
    • Late update: I was remiss, and failed to source this link, which was sent along by Bull. It is a major concern of his to provide security to this region, and it is part of those steadfast efforts that he identifies and passes along valuable security protocols (I have already heeded at least 3 of the warnings). We at Aces Full of Links -- and this includes our extended network of readers and contributors -- value your safety above nearly all else. It's on the list right under "quality beers."
  • Osama Team Hunger Force (ATHF,boston,funny,mooninites,parody,video)
    • How it really happened.
  • How to Make a To-go Coffee Cup Tissue Pop-up (diy,home,howto,recycle,craft)
    • Have your tissues handy when you're in the car or at the office. It's cold season!
  • AVOCADOLITE FARM!! - Amigurumi of Small Animals and People. (cute,flash,game,fun,games)
    • A game where you click two things so that they change place and you get a bunch of cute icons to line up. The icons are very Sanrio-ish.
  • LibraryThing | Catalog your books online (book,literature,reading,reference,social,tool,online)
    • It's an online database where you can keep track of all your books.


What's it like to fall back to Earth like a spent solid fuel rocket booster?
Posted by James at 8:13 AM | Comments (4)

February 15, 2007

Morning Metaphor

We get them out of bed, help them dress, feed them breakfast, try to give them what they need to have a successful day at school.

I don’t want to find all the parallels, or strain the metaphor, but at some moment this morning I saw that our daily preparations for the day were like a metaphor for the parent-child relationshipof preparing them for life.

Usually, I have K ready at least 5 minutes before the bus comes, and we wait and watch for it. We can sometimes talk a little bit, and I can ask what their day is going to be like (do they have music today? Gym?)

This morning, breakfast took longer than usual, and I was pretty sure the bus was about a minute away as I rushed to try to get her lunch bag into her overstuffed backpack. She was still adding stuff in there, and she had rolled up some sort of parchment-looking map which stuck out of the top awkwardly. With the lunch sitting on top of the notebooks, it looked like it could never be zipped shut. I had stationed M to watch for the bus, and when it becomes visible through a certain window we know we have 30 seconds until it stops in front of the house, give or take 3 seconds. As soon as I touched the zipper on the bag, M announced a bus sighting. 30 seconds. Practically speaking, I wasn’t sure I was going to even be able to close that bag.

I told her to get her coat on as I tried to zip the bag up around the lunch container. 20 seconds…

I dragged it across the floor as I struggled with the zipper. 10 seconds…

I got it zipped up to the map, but I didn’t want to crush the map by shoving it in there. At 5 seconds I hoisted the bag up onto her back and opened the door.

The weight of the bag could easily pull the zippers back open, because of the way it was zipped, but I didn’t have time to tell her that. I barely got out “It’s not completely zipped; have a good day; I love you!” as she was hopping down, avoiding the ice, and getting onto the bus. I was afraid that she wouldn’t try to fix it and it would spill open between the bus and the door of the school, or in the hallway.

I stood there watching the bus leave, closing the door to the cold, and I wondered if she was prepared for her day. I wondered if it would have been more practical to suggest she carry the lunch or map separately, or whether that would have turned into an argument. It was too late now; she was already off.

Before you have children, you think you have a long time to teach them everything. But it’s more like this morning. You really have a very short time when they’re prepared to hear any given message, and you have to choose what to tell them; you have to choose what to emphasize. You spend a lot of time preoccupied with necessary practical concerns. And once you’ve had your shot, that’s it.

Barely related links:

Posted by James at 8:50 AM | Comments (3)

February 14, 2007

What The Bleep Do I Review?

Roving Mars (2006)

Took the girls to this at the Providence Place Mall IMAX. Usually, the girls like to see 3D movies at the IMAX, but this one was really intriguing to all of us because of the exploration aspect and the fact that both K and I really love robots.

This film was produced with the help of Disney, so it's geared to a fairly young age. Nevertheless, they go into plenty of interesting detail about Spirit and Opportunity, the astonishingly successful robotic explorers that NASA sent to answer some burning questions about our planetary neighbor.

Great CGI simulations illustrate just how NASA got the robots to Mars, and what they did once they go there. At 40 minutes long, it won't tax a kid's attention span, but just might inspire them.

Hoodwinked (2005)

Rashomon meets Shrek. Not nearly as good as either of them. This film is not even worth a DVD rental. The animation was unrealistic and distracting, specifically in the movement of the characters. Kids nowadays are used to better. But that would be completely forgiveable if the film were more entertaining. There are a few laughs, but not enough to justify the length and the unfunny barren stretches.

Skip this one and read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs to your kids.

Nochnoi Dozor (2004) (Night Watch)

It's the Matrix meets Highlander meets Ghostbusters meets vodka.

Caught this Russian import at the Avon last weekend quite a while ago. There are two armies, one of light and the other of darkness. Both are made up of magically powerful "Others" who live among us. They are in an ongoing conflict, awaiting some prophecy to be fulfilled. And sometimes, humans discover that they, too, belong to this group of "Others." They must choose the light and become defenders or the dark and become something akin to vampires.

It's a pretty decent action movie, but the mythology and plot are both convoluted. There are a couple of threads going on. One of them resolves, and you'll probably guess what's going on long before it comes to its conclusion, and you'll wonder why the characters in the film haven't figured it out. The other thread left me feeling like the movie was dragging.

The visuals are dark and striking. But I don't want to feel like I'm enduring an action/horror/fantasy film. I want to be engaged all the way through. But it made enough of an impression that I will give the sequel a chance once it is released here in the US. There will also be a third film in this movie series.

Skip it, unless I come back and tell you the sequel is really good.

What the Bleep Do We Know (2004)

Fake science crap. Don't waste your time on this. Instead, read "Six Easy Peices" by Richard P. Feynman - which are six of the early Feynman lectures. In fact, if you're curious at all about physics and don't think you know enough, start reading those lectures. Whether or not you ever considered watching this lousy movie.

WTBDWK is pathetic next to any actual science.

Posted by James at 8:54 PM | Comments (2)

Books I Expect To See

Here are some books I expect to see in 2007.

  • If I Lied To Get The American People Into A War, Here's How It Happened - by George W. Bush
  • If I Am Gay, Here's How It Happened - by Tom Cruise
  • If I Do Have An Eating Disorder, Here's How It Happened - by Nicole Ritchie
  • If I Like To Show Football Fans My Nipple, Here's How It Happened - by Janet Jackson
  • If I Invented the Internet, Here's How It Happened - by Al Gore
  • If I Were Completely Unable To Get Americans To Like Me, Here's How It Happened - By John F. Kerry
Posted by James at 8:41 PM

There's Snow - What to Buy?


Everyone, run for your lives!

Seriously, though, be careful on the roads, especially once the temperature drops and everyone decides they’re snow experts again. It’s already raining here, lightly, which I expect means a nice, slick sheet of ice for either the evening commute or the morning commute depending on temperature fluctuations.

Here’s the question of the day to ponder:

The usual supplies you depend on in your kitchen are running low. You’re away from home (at work, let’s say) and you hear a forecast that convinces you you will be stuck in the house for about 4 days. Grocery stores are still open, it’s payday and you have time to make a stop. What regular grocery-store items do you pick up on the way home?

Posted by James at 8:24 AM | Comments (12)

February 13, 2007

Head to Head! Boozy Gum

Today’s Head to Head battle royale is between two new sugarless gum flavors. Neither of these gums have any actual booze in them. You can’t count the presence of “sugar alcohols” — an ingredient used to enhance the sweetener in the gum.

Oddfact: People who have undergone gastric bypass surgery are especially sensitive to sugar alcohols.
Oddfact: Xylitol, also known as “wood sugar” has an antibacterial effect that may actually help to reverse some small cavities and prevent earaches. Also, research shows xylitol can increase bone density in rats.

“Sugarless” or “sugarfree” gum has about 35% fewer calories than gum with sugar. In other words, it has 65% of the calories of sugared gum (5 calories vs. 8 calories per piece). Before I read that on the package I would have imagined that it had maybe 25% of the calories of sugared gum. So 2 servings of this gum have more calories than one serving of gum with sugar. However, the calories in sugarless gum are absorbed more slowly than calories from sugared gum, which is important if you’re interested in blood glucose level.

Out competition today is based on flavor, though we will note other gum attributes. It is inspired by the fact that I noticed these gums being marketed with popular alcoholic drink flavors.

Booze Gum

Trident White Cool Colada™

Flavor 1

Name: Trident White Cool Colada™
Calories: 5
Serving Size: 2 pieces
Servings in package: 6
Contains milk-derived ingredient: Yes
Claims to strengthen and whiten teeth: Yes

Trident White’s claim to fame is that it is supposed to be chewed after meals to help clean and whiten your teeth. I prefer to actually brush my teeth, but I guess this stuff will do in a pinch. This flavor is touted as  New!  and  ARTIFICIALLY FLAVORED 

Piña colada means “strained pinapple.” The name of this flavor references “piña colada” by ripping off the “colada” part. “Cool Colada” means (in Spanglish, I guess) “cool strained” or “strained cool.” If you’re straining to look cool, this is the gum for you? What are these marketing people trying to tell us? “Strained cool” isn’t actually a flavor of booze, but I am betting that they want us to be thinking of a piña colada, especially since there is a picture of a coconut and a pinapple on the gum’s packaging.

Mouth Action: The gum has a crunchy coating that gives way to a soft gum inside. The crunchiness is a nice sensory experience, and the first flavor I noted was something similar to a coconut Lifesaver. It’s a tiny bit gritty/chalky, and has a high sweetness.

Kids View: “It’s really good and fruity!” (I suspect the sweetness here was the main appeal)

Booze Gum

Orbit™ Mint Mojito

Flavor 2

Name:Wrigley’s Orbit Just Brushed Feeling™ Mint Mojito
Calories: 5
Serving Size: 1 pieces
Servings in package: 14
Contains milk-derived ingredient: No
Claims to strengthen and whiten teeth: No
Wood Sugar: Yes

This gum claims to give you a  JUST BRUSHED CLEAN FEELING™ . That might be considered accurate if you’re an alcoholic, or if you like to rinse your mouth with Cuban cocktails after brushing. This is a very sketchy claim on their part, or an indicator of their target demographic.

This gum claims to be an  Exotic New Flavor. .

I must admit, mojito is one of my favorite drink flavors; a peppy combination of lime and spearmint. It seems completely logical for a chewing gum. Oh, and rum of course. This gum lacks rum flavor.

Mouth Action: This gum starts out soft and remains soft. During chewing, it becomes slightly stringy and smooth. The immediate flavor is spearmint, with a sour citric-acid tang which is not immediately identifiable as lime. However, with a shot of rum and a lot of squinting, you might actually imagine you’re drinking a mojito. The flavor of this gum lasts surprisingly long, although it doesn’t retain its tangy bite the whole way.

Kids View: “It tastes juicy and sparky.” (My daughter was not given an actual mojito for comparison.


Winner: Wrigley’s Orbit Just Brushed Feeling™ Mint Mojito. It’s easier to chew, the flavor is unique and especially refreshing, and it allows me to have the flavor of mojito without the social awkwardness of being drunk at an 11:00 meeting. If you like mojitos and gum, you really ought to give this stuff a try. I found mine at Target in North Dartmouth, MA. If you really like the stuff, they’ll sell you a 3-pack which is cheaper than getting them one-at-a-time from your usual confection-pusher.

Clearly, sugarless gum is the more healthy alternative to sugary candy AND inappropriate daytime drinking. So, in a sense, we are all winners in this battle.

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Posted by James at 8:44 AM | Comments (7)

February 12, 2007

Would You Rather?

You’re in a waiting room.

Would you rather be sitting next to…

  1. someone who goes on and on and on about how sad she is about Anna Nicole Smith’s recent demise. Or
  2. someone who goes on and on and on about how Deval Patrick won’t make Ronald Reagan’s birthday a holiday.

Which of these brain-drain soul-sucking situations would you rather be in?

Posted by James at 1:29 PM | Comments (12)

Woot! Crap Arrives

Woot Crap 'O Mine

It’s one Woot! Bag O’ Crap

This arrived via FedEx while M and I were waiting for her bus. It is the previously mentioned Woot! Bandolier of Carrots. She was excited by the umbrella hat and wanted the phone for herself. I tried it on for her, but will not be taking a picture of that.

I definitely came out ahead for my dollar + shipping. I needed the camera bag, and it’s just large enough to carry either my camera plus accessories, or (as my daughter points out) a Nintendo DS Lite.

I don’t know what that crazy bear TV show is about. Click the picture to go to Flickr to get a better look and read the notes on each item.


Posted by James at 8:32 AM | Comments (3)

Fall River Phở

Apsara Restaurant

Apsara Restaurant

My cousin Bob wanted to visit the Angkor market in Fall River this weekend, so we met up at 10 AM on Saturday and drove over there. As before, checking out the market was an exciting tour of Asian ingredients.

Shopping left us with a hungry feeling, and the hallway of Angkor plaza was filled with a savory scent wafting from the adjoining dining room of Apsara. He suggested we stop for a bowl of soup and I couldn’t argue.

The place was practically empty at 11 AM; the lunch crowd had not yet filtered in. The atmosphere is spartan but clean — it’s the inside of an old mill. We barely noticed the surroundings, however, as we were preoccupied with the exotic aroma in the air.

When Bob saw that the Vietnamese soup “phở” was on the menu, we decided to have that. The sizes were small, regular, large and extra large. In his excitement, Bob ordered two large bowls of rare beef phở with meatballs.

The waiter brought a plate of bean sprouts, sweet basil, chilies, and lime. On the table were Sriracha (aka. “rooster”) sauce and hoisin sauce. You get to adjust the spiciness and some of the ingredients of your soup.

Phở (pronounced somewhere between “far” and “fun” without that last consonant) contains tender, thin, marinated slices of rare beef over a bed of cooked noodles. A piping hot broth cooks the beef on the way to your table. Slices of onion and scallions are floating in the broth along with cilantro leaves. The meatballs are very flavorful and smooth, like skinless sausages. When the bowls came, they were enormous. The regular size would undoubtedly have been plenty of food.

I had no previous experience with this soup, so I could not give you a relative evaluation of this phở compared to other restaurants. I can tell you that I found it a slightly sour and very savory mix of flavors that I am already craving a day later. Bob thought it was the second best phở he’d ever had out of quite a number of versions he’s had.

When I visited Sydney, I found that I was never too far away from an Asian noodle bar and that these made refreshing and nutritious meals (with a good bit of variety as well). At about 5 bucks for a regular sized bowl, and about 6 for the large, phở at Apsara Restaurant is a hot lunch of the type I wish were available all over the place. We were surprised to find this here on Quequechan St, right near where our parents grew up. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit southeast Asia in the 16th century. It’s appropriate that a city with so many residents of Portuguese heritage should have such adventures awaiting the hungry traveler.

Posted by James at 1:54 AM | Comments (12)

February 11, 2007

Sunday Accompaniment



Although Maggie and I encourage (and sometimes cajole) our daughters in their musical practice, we can’t take any credit for their efforts or the fruits of their labor.

In literature and in movies set in earlier times, people are singing and playing instruments for entertainment. Children perform for guests. I think they include such scenes in modern treatments of these old stories because it is less usual today and so it sets the scene.

Why are children encouraged to play musical instruments? In our modern time we have many forms of entertainment and diversion competing for our attention. But children are still set to practice these things. Our daughters each have a string instrument and the piano. And though they are still learning, they already are trying to teach me piano.

I have only ever met one person who didn’t have strong feelings about music (that’s a not-very-interesting anecdote for another place and time). I think it’s partly because music can be a direct form of emotional communication; it’s like an idea or feeling that’s made into something tangible but still unseen and fleeting. It’s one of the forms of real magic.1

Some of the best times I have had involve music, or singing with friends informally. And it’s funny that more people don’t do it more often. Sure, many people sing at church on Sunday, but I mean feeling comfortable to belt out a tune while they’re just hanging out. I guess it’s seen as silly or frivolous. When we are old and our time is short, will we look back and wonder why we didn’t do more silly, frivolous and magical things?

Today, I’m sitting at the door of my daughter’s room as she practices cello; she likes company while she practices. As she stumbles among some of the beautiful sounds, I hear both confidence and hesitation alternately, I find it’s tough to describe the feelings.

There are many reasons children are encouraged to play instruments. Many are very practical reasons. But some of those reasons are just magical.

1 I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I do believe that some natural things are so incredible that they remain amazing, never grow old or mundane even after scrutiny, and I imagine will always amaze me until the day I die. The long list of things that make like worth living. Music, yeast-raised bread, kindness from strangers, seeds…

Posted by James at 11:25 AM | Comments (4)

February 9, 2007

Reportage Shotgun

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Posted by James at 12:15 PM | Comments (2)

February 8, 2007

Half Annoyed

Jump for a nickel!

I use Half.com all the time. I like it. It’s great to be able to get used books at a good price, and it’s nice to be able to sell books and games once you don’t want them anymore. Of course, it’s great to be able to reuse stuff. It’s one of the best forms of recycling.

I’ve rarely had a problem with Half.com, but something odd happened this morning.

I was selling a book for 75 cents. Clearly I was not looking to get rich off this book. It had a cover price of about $14. but the book was only selling for $1 - $2 in the condition of “Very Good.” I figured 75 cents would attract a buyer and just get the book off my hands. And it did. But this buyer had some odd requests.

Comment/ Question: Hi,

Would you mind sending this package without a packing slip and/or invoice? I would really appreciate it. Also, please use delivery confirmation, if possible - I only make this suggestion, as the USPS is far less likely to lose the package.

If this item is a different condition (used/new/etc.), binding or media type (softcover/hardcover/tape/disc/etc.), edition or version (international/etc.) or differs in any way from your listing, please refund this order immediately.

You don’t need to respond to this email unless there is a problem with the order. However, if you write me with a question and I don’t respond right away, please hold the order until you hear from me. I receive a lot of emails and sometimes I’m backed up. Thank you!!


I’m a skeptical person, and anything out of the ordinary raises my attention. Even if I eventually comply, and I determine there isn’t a scam involved, it’s a mystery to be solved. So, here are the irregularities:

  1. Don’t include an invoice
  2. Use delivery confirmation
  3. Please cancel and refund the order if I’ve been deceptive (or mistaken) about the product description.

Anyone know what’s happening here? It’s not a scam, but it’s not something I’m used to. At first I thought maybe this person was giving the book as a gift, and they didn’t want the recipient to see the low price. But that’s not it. I did some digging online and noticed some other things.

  1. The name signed to this note did not match the name on the “ship to” address.
  2. The message is obviously cookie-cutter, listing many possible media types and conditions.
  3. If I had misrepresented the book in my original description, why would I admit to that now?

Digging verified my suspicions. This person is using a business method known as “drop shipping.” In short, they have listed this item on Amazon.com (for example) after checking the prices on Half.com. When they get an order through Amazon for a higher price, they order the item from me through Half.com for much cheaper. Then they ask me to ship the product not to them, but to its final destination.

Revisiting the irregularities:

  1. They don’t want me to include the invoice because they don’t want the person at the other end to know they’re drop shipping. And probably don’t want them to know about Half.com, or about the cheap price of the book.
  2. They want me to use delivery confirmation not because it’s more reliable, but because they will not be receiving the book. If the buyer claims they never got it, they’ll need to ask me for proof I sent it. They have to trust two people instead of just one in this transaction, so they are asking for extra confirmation. The reason they give (USPS is far less likely to lose the package) is not completely truthful, in my opinion. I don’t like that.
  3. They want their buyer to get the book they expect. So if I am willing to fess up to an inaccurate description, they’d rather know right away instead of going through a whole rigamarole. They deal in volume, so this is one of many transactions they’ll handle today.

Philosophically, I don’t care who gets my book as long as I get paid. Even if this person is making money off my low price. However, I did not agree to assist in maintaining the drop shipping ruse. My participation on Half.com is to take orders, fill them according to Half.com guidelines and my own policies, and get paid. This person wants to use me as a shipper and act as a middleman to my transaction. But in this case, I don’t need or want a middleman because I’m not making much off the sale.

This book is being sold for 75 cents. After Half.com takes its 15% commission out of the selling price, I’m getting 64 cents for the book. Half.com decides what I get to charge for shipping and handling (cost of shipping, cost of shipping container, equipment, time, etc). In this case, they will pay me $2.40 to ship it. That’s a total of a $3.04.

It will likely cost me $1.59 to ship this book which is around 12 ounces, although if the shipping container is more than 4 ounces I’ll end up paying $2.07. Let’s assume the cheaper $1.59 for the sake of argument. $3.04 - $1.59 = $1.45. A shipping container will probably cost me about 80 cents. Doing the math… yep, I’m making 65 cents, so one cent of the shipping allowance is going into my pocket! I’m rich!

But the “buyer” has requested that I spring for delivery confirmation (which is not included in the shipping allowance). That would be 60 cents. Making my total (not profit) on this transaction a solid 5 cents. In other words, I would be agreeing to accept a nickel to go shopping for a shipping envelope, pack the book, make a special trip to the post office and mail it. Forget it if it turns out to cost me over $2 to ship — I’m in the negative.

What was my motivation again?

As I said earlier, I did not agree to be involved in drop shipping. I will treat all my buyers fairly and similarly. And I’m not springing for delivery confirmation on an item I’m listing for less money than you can purchase a small cup of coffee at McDonalds! (unless the buyer agreed to reimburse for delivery confirmation, of course) Half.com is specific in requiring an invoice be sent to buyers, so I will adhere to that. But I will give the drop shipper the choice.

I replied:


I’m sending this email to clarify this order, and to request that you confirm whether you still want the order sent.

1) We do not offer Delivery Confirmation as part of the Half.com shipping at this time for orders under $25, and we currently do not have a way for you to pay for an increase in shipping once you have placed your order.

2) Half.com requires that a packing slip be sent out with every order, and this is our standard operating procedure.

If you disagree with these policies, please notify me and I will refund your order.

I will await your reply before I ship or refund.

Thank you

If a drop shipper wants to use me as part of his or her operation, and therefore wants special treatment, you’re going to have to give me reason to participate. Otherwise, you’re getting treated in the same fair way I treat every other buyer.

All this over 75 cents! Talk about “it’s the principle of the thing.”

Posted by James at 1:26 PM | Comments (14)

February 7, 2007

10 Commandments of Email Subjects

When Barry at “Staring At Empty Pages” recently posted about email subject lines, he hit on one of my pet peeves. As he mentions, subject lines in email messages ought to be descriptive. I find they are rarely descriptive enough.

Some people are trained to think about their audience, and they’re used to the effort that goes into coming up with a succinct way to communicate. Subject lines, in a way, are like poetry — an extremely restrictive medium in which you have a chance to really showcase your communicative skill. But people rarely approach it as a challenge.

I won’t rehash all of the same ground as Barry. Instead, I’ll summarize my thoughts in a frightening list.

The 10 Commandments of Email Subjects

  1. Make sure your subject is relevant to your message and that it introduces the body.
    • But don’t start a sentence in the subject and continue it in the body.
    • Your subject is the first thing your recipient sees of your message. It should, at the very least, make sense.
  2. Fit your subject to every recipient on your To: and CC: list.
    • Consider each recipient and ask “will they understand what this subject means?”
  3. Don’t dazzle them with a joke that distorts what the message is about, nor shock them with what sounds like a frightening (but untrue) revelation.
    • Save your jokes for the body of the message.
    • And it’s annoying to be frightened by a subject that you find out was only a joke. If someone could react badly to your subject, try to think of what will happen if they see it on their way out of the office and don’t have time to read the body.
  4. Compete for attention with meaning.
    • Your message may be one of thousands in a person’s inbox. Your subject must be unique and meaningful because it is competing for attention. But in meaning-space, attention is not won by the loudest and most garish “IMPORTANT!!!!” subject. Rather, it is won by the most meaningful one.
  5. Make your subject help the reader decide when to read your message.
    • Busy people can’t always read every message immediately. A subject of “Your purchase confirmation number: 445396182” gives all the necessary info, and perhaps additional details can be found in the body.
    • A corollary: Make your subject help the reader know when to delete your message.
  6. Make your subject easy to find.
    • Both by human scanning in a list and by keyword filters
  7. No surprises
    • If there is some really important announcement in your email, don’t hide that with a vague subject. Your message may get overlooked, or given less-than-appropriate attention.
  8. Make subjects not too short and not too long.
    • Too short is when your subject doesn’t convey enough info. How long is too long? Remember that people will be skimming subjects as they look through their inbox.
  9. If you’re having trouble covering your entire message in one subject, maybe your message is too long and needs to be more than one message.
    • There’s nothing wrong with sending multiple, more precise messages. In fact, it’s better than long rambling ones.
  10. When you reply to a message, re-apply some thought to your subject
    • In multiple replies, sometimes a chain of messages can radically change subjects. Also, important information contained in a chain of replies becomes completely hidden. Was it that 3rd reply from Ralph where he explained how to log in to the new server or was it in the 7th?

I’m joking about the 10 Commandments bit. I don’t expect people to vet every subject they write through a list of carved-in-stone rules. No, the point of that list is to just get people thinking about subject lines, especially if they haven’t paid much attention to them in the past (and most people haven’t, in my experience). You’ll write better subjects if, as a general rule, you think from the perspective of the recipient.

I have more to say on the subject, but since it is less useful and more speculative, I’ll save it for a later, separate, more rambling post.

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Posted by James at 9:13 AM | Comments (14)

February 6, 2007

To Candidates: Free Your Hands

To: Senator Clinton. Senator Obama. Former Senator Edwards. And Many Others.

There are a lot of important issues facing the country. And a lot of my worry about our future is not about health care or terrorism, although those certainly are serious concerns. My worry is over the stability and health of our democracy. Because instability at the core of our system ripples out and exacerbates all the other serious problems we face.

One aspect of this worry is with the political power that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have tried to consolidate around themselves. Last November, the people showed that it is possible to express your willingness to restore balance through the voting process. But there is another process in Washington that cripples politicians the moment they win their election. I'm talking about campaign financing, and the obligations that politicians have to their largest contributors.

Cooperative efforts between the current administration and recent congresses have been ridiculously tame in tackling this political 1,000 pound gorilla. In 2002, the President signed a bill into law which plugged certain holes concerning "soft money ads" but did little to stop the influence felt by candidates who are beholden to large donors. We need something more aggressive.

In your candidacies, I would like to see something other than hole-plugging when you approach the issue of campaign finance reform. I understand that incumbents are less likely to favor this sort of reform. That's why I think the best chance we have for change is in the hands of an incoming candidate, and, in fact, a presidential candidate who can send a proposal to congress.

What do I mean by more aggressive? Let me suggest the proposals outlined in a recent article at Salon magazine called "How to fix campaign financing forever for $50."

To summarize, this article advocates for two changes to our current system.

  1. Public financing would come in the form of a $50 electronic voucher which would be used like a vote, at any time during a campaign, to fund the candidates of your choice. See the article for details. $50 from every voter amounts to $6 billion in campaign funds. This could focus candidates efforts on speaking to the people rather than chasing large donors.
  2. Raise the ceiling on private donations but make all private donations secret, like voting ballots. Critics of campaign finance reform often cite freedom of speech issues, equating dollars to speech. This provision answers them by increasing the limits, allowing them to have their say. However, their donations will be anonymized through an agency which passes on the donations (inserting random delays and breaking up the donations to further obfuscate). Large donors would no longer get direct credit for their donation. Candidates would have a healthy dose of doubt about where their money is coming from, reducing (at the very least) feelings of obligation.

There are ideas out there about making our democracy stronger. I want to see them become part of the national debate. If there are better proposals, let's debate those as well. I want to see candidates who are serious about preserving our democracy. When you talk about freedom, and the great virtues of our American system, do not ignore or downplay the problems this system faces. Tell people you are going to return power to their hands, and then empower them. At the same time, free the hands of our elected officials to do the work of the people, and not the work of large donors.
Posted by James at 1:38 PM | Comments (13)

Down With Other People's Posts

New Feature!

Have you ever visited my blog and noticed that there wasn’t new content on it?

Have you ever wondered “What is James reading on other blogs?”

Well, your problems are solved! I’ve added a new feature to the sidebar, courtesy of Google Reader. Scroll down just below the blogroll to the ugly box labeled “Other People’s Posts.” Herein is listed a few posts that I’ve read on other people’s blogs. You can click the post title or the blog title to go directly to the individual post or to that person’s blog. Or click “read more…” to see all those posts (and more, in the future) on one page in Google Reader.

As opposed to a stale blogroll, this feature allows me to highlight specific blog posts I especially enjoyed (and think you might enjoy). That means more active blogs will tend to get more mention, which makes sense.

So, if you’re bored, check out other people’s posts.

Posted by James at 8:06 AM | Comments (8)

February 5, 2007

Would You Rather?

Today’s “Would You Rather” is a simple language grab bag. The celestial lexicographer has decided to eliminate a number of phrases from common usage. She’s arranged them into two groups for reasons beyond your understanding. She has the power to make either of the groups just disappear from common usage — people won’t say them anymore. It’s up to you to help her decide which “package” goes. She is definitely eliminating one or the other. Some of these phrases may annoy you, some may be valuable to you, and maybe some you’ve never heard. But you have to choose.

  • Package 1
    • “baby daddy”
    • “thinking out of the box”
    • “utilize”
    • “ek-specially” (mispronunciation of “especially”)
    • “nukular”
    • “proactive”
  • Package 2
    • “in a post 9/11 world…”
    • “value-added”
    • The Long Tail
    • “irregardless”
    • “it’s about…” (As in “it’s not about x, it’s about y”)
    • “my bad”

Which group of phrases would you rather eliminate? And why?

Posted by James at 11:42 AM | Comments (14)

Pad Thai Adventure

Chow Mein Co.

Where chow mein is born.

I found the Fall River Asian markets that people were telling me about this weekend. It was fun to go poking around in them. You can see some external pictures on my Flickr account. I’m shy about whipping out the camera in crowded markets, so no shots of products. Maybe next time.

One of the markets was in a rougher section of town. Although I had no problems, extended family members expressed concern.

In any case, this post is about Pad Thai. My plan was to make it from scratch. I knew friends had made it in the past (maybe if he surfs by, BriWei share his recipe) but the Alton Brown version looked complicated. There are lots of unusual ingredients.

I remember Pad Thai being subtle and complex. But, to tell the honest truth, I have trouble describing or remembering the exact flavor from when I have had it in restaurants. It’s been a while. So I was flying somewhat blind.

Maggie, Julie and I began to survey the ingredients. I started with the palm sugar. It comes in little disks. And, honestly, I was nor prepared for the earthy aroma. We almost declared it a non-ingredient, but I tasted it and made Maggie and Julie do likewise before deciding to go ahead and use it.

Next - fish sauce. Gahhh! “Pungent” is an understatement. I wondered how I could possibly have this ingredient in any dish without ruining the flavor. I hesitated to taste it straight. Both salty and fishy, one might also use the word “rank.” And the odor tends to linger.

Tamarind paste was also a challenge. Earthiness and sourness were its main virtues.

I prepared the combination - each of the three in equal proportions and then I was supposed to “adjust to my taste.” I repeat: Gahhhhh! I was very worried at this point in the meal prep. I tasted the mixture and I was surprised. It was still quite pungent and unpleasant but now it seemed complex as well. A flavor that could be an acquired taste. But still quite bad. I had heated the mixture to dissolve the palm sugar, and the daughters were complaining about the smell… from upstairs.

A crucial moment passed. Do I continue, or bail? A vote was taken: continue with the adventure. We did not want to live in gastronomic ignorance. I much appreciated the faith my dinner companions had in me. “You do this and there’s no turning back.”1

I ground up Thai peppers. I ground up dried pink shrimp that looked like bait. I sliced my semi-frozen chicken paper thin. I ground peanuts. I soaked rice noodles. I prepared my mise en place. Or, as I (for some odd reason) like to say “got my mize on.” I dove into the recipe headlong.

There was a flurry of frying, noodling, pouring, tossing, dumping, tossing again and flavor adjusting. I used a decent amount of my prepared sauce and I was surprised to find that when mixed with Thai peppers, sesame oil, peanuts and rice noodles, with a squeeze of lime, it was quite good. I was shocked. The difference was dramatic. I can’t exactly explain how these ingredients become bearable in the final dish, but they do. I liked the result, and I will likely make it again. Next time will be easier.

Sorry - I was too tired at the end to photograph the result. And I had made my dinner companions wait too long. Part of the secret to successful cooking is making sure you’re family is hungry when you feed them. Even K ate some.

“Do you want Pad Thai?”

“Does it have anything I don’t like in it?”

“No” (sotto voce: you’ve never had most of these ingredients)


1 This is an all-purpose phrase that is fun to deliver, in appropriately dramatic movie actor voice, liberally throughout your daily life. Don’t overdo it though. Except at parties.

Posted by James at 12:16 AM | Comments (3)

February 4, 2007


Tower Mill

Tower Mill Outlet

Posted by James at 10:11 PM | Comments (5)

February 2, 2007

Contumeliously Late Shotgun

  • Windows Vista Upgrade Decision Flowchart (funny,technology,windows)
    • Are you upgrading to Vista? Should you? Check the flowchart (it's in PDF)
  • Hipster PDA... Shuffle (ipod,funny,video)
    • What if a hipster PDA could play music? Check out that funky dancing!
  • Comet Halley / OrbitViewer (astronomy,animation,applet)
    • Check out the orbit of Halley's comet with respect to the rest of the Solar System.
  • Bembo's Zoo (animals,animation,art,flash)
    • See all the animals at the zoo in this neat animation. The animals are made of the letters of the alphabet. Whimsical! Hat tip to Karen at Verbatim!
  • juploadr (tools,photography,flickr,free,images,utilities)
    • A better uploader for putting your photos on Flickr.
  • In My Language (autism,language,video)
    • Language, thought and personhood. It might adjust your view of the world.


Posted by James at 2:35 PM | Comments (2)

Curse of the Snow Sissies

On the first major snow of the year, people drive like idiots and cause all sorts of accidents and pile-ups.

And I guess I’m one of them.

Truly, people shouldn’t be out on the road in really bad conditions. That’s part of the problem. Years ago, a coworker who commuted from Boston to Dartmouth called himself a “snow sissy” because he decided he wasn’t going to come in on days it snowed. He worked remotely. It is an idea worthy of consideration.

I don’t do that because I’ve got a relatively short commute, am pretty good at driving in the snow, and drive a Jeep.

This morning, on my way to work, I was cursing the lack of snow management on the roads of Dartmouth when I tried to turn into the driveway where I work. It turns out that some water had frozen under the snow at the front of the driveway and it was especially slick there. And, genius that I am, I didn’t check my tires at the beginning of the winter season to see if they needed replacing. They, in fact, did need replacing.

My stopping distance was, therefore, lengthened. And there is very little clearance on the turn I was trying to make. So I didn’t. Make it, that is. I drove up onto the snow and then up onto a small stone wall. That stopped me. I was now, officially, one of the first-snow-of-the-year casualties. After finding out that UMass Dartmouth was not interested in helping me get off the wall (two of the grounds workers who saw my problem did try to help me out, but their boss did not want to send help) I was contemplating using the jack to lift myself off the wall.

I didn’t have to. A kind passerby used a tow cable and yanked me off the wall.

It seems that all I damaged was one of my tires, and they needed to be replaced anyhow.

I decided to go out at lunch and replace the tires, and that is a story in itself. Since this post is long enough, I’ll give you the short version. I went out to buy 4 tires for my car and I came back unsuccessful after over an hour of effort. And when I inspected my tires to see if I was going to be in any danger on the way home, I realized the that tires on my rims were not the tires I had on the car when I hit the wall. They were used, but slightly better condition, tires. And I am not certain who’s they are or exactly how they got there.

True story!

Posted by James at 12:46 PM | Comments (13)

All Wooted Out

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

What could it be? Only Woot knows.

We were at the “dollar” store with the kids and they were each allowed ot spend one of their dollars to get something. In the kids section, amid lots of little toy cars, bouncy balls, dolls, animals and such, they had a difficult decision to make. And then they were faced with the biggest kid draw: the “grab bag” for a dollar.

The promise of the grab bag is like a siren song. What’s in there? What could it possibly be? It could be a pony, or your favorite ice cream. It could be that toy you didn’t get for your birthday. It could be a laser gun!

As skeptical parents, we insisted on informing the kids against possible disappointment. “Kids,” we told them, “look around the store. Whatever is inside that bag, it’s most likely something from the store.” We tried to explain that if you didn’t like most of what is in the store, you’re likely not going to like what’s in the bag, because you’re just giving up your ability to choose (possibly in return for a slightly more generous helping of stuff you didn’t want in the first place.)

The kids understood and decided to choose their toys themselves rather than let the store do it. But the lure of the grab bag is strong. It lasts into adulthood.

Enter Woot. “Woot” is a site where they advertise “one day, one deal.” When they run out of the day’s deal, the site doesn’t sell anything for the rest of the day. Every once in a while, though they go into “woot-off” mode in which spinning lights appear on the site’s front page and they start a new sale as soon as the last one sells out. Woot-offs typically last a day. But the one in December laster 2 days.

The biggest draw at the woot-off is something called a “random bag of crap.” It’s a grab bag for adults. You pay $1 (+ $5 shipping) and Woot sends you something. You won’t know what it is until you get it. Among the people I know who follow woot-offs, random bags of crap are something akin to Christmas morning. People are glued to their monitors at home and at work, waiting for the current “woot” to end so they can see if the next item is “crap.” It’s somewhat comical. When the crap appears, you have to click fast, because they take under a minute to sell out.

I must admit, I was bit by the Woot bug. I followed the most recent woot-off, which lasted 3 days. Bags of crap appeared on the second day, and I missed them 3 times, even though I was clicking. Ryan was able to order 3. He’s of the impression that he’s going to be sent 3 unicorns, I think, and I wish him well. I pointed out to him that the battery operated scrubber was pretty popular.

Well, they finished off the woot-off last night, and my persistence “paid off.” I grabbed one of the random bags of crap just as the thing ended. I wasn’t fast enough to click “I want 3” — I didn’t want to risk missing it.

So, I’ll let you know what I get when it arrives… a unicorn or a personal scrubber.

It’s not exactly the same as the dollar store grab bag, because the merchandise at the woot-off are often considerably more expensive than a dollar. But maybe I’ll learn my own lesson about the grab bag.

Posted by James at 7:32 AM | Comments (1)

February 1, 2007

Fox Guerilla Advertisement Goes Awry in Boston

Some marketing campaigns really are the bomb.

BOSTON, Ma (AFOL) - A street marketing campaign in Boston intended to draw attention to Fox’s “24” instead caused havoc, closed major arteries and killed nearly a thousand people.

Police responded to reports of a “mushroom cloud” shutting down Interstate 93, closing two bridges between Boston and Cambridge and halting boat traffic on the Charles River. Several other roads in and out of the city also were temporarily closed.

A third-party street-marketing firm, Kaboom Marketing Inc., had detonated a suitcase nuclear device near the interstate in order to be noticed by commuters.

And they certainly were noticed, triggering a daylong terror scare in the city that was covered intensely by the cable news networks.

“We apologize to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing campaign was mistaken for a public danger,” said a Fox representative. “As soon as we realized that an element of the campaign was dangerous, appropriate law enforcement officials were notified.”

He added that Fox has provided authorities with the locations of the suitcases in the 10 cities that are part of the campaign, and ordered Kaboom Marketing Inc. to defuse them.

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Posted by James at 5:24 PM | Comments (3)

Massachusetts Atheists Better Respect Scripture

From the Massachusetts General Laws


Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.

Holy crap!

Posted by James at 3:00 PM | Comments (5)

Coca-Cola cherry zero

Cherry Zero

Coca-Cola cherry zero

I love Coke Zero, as friends and blog readers know. But lately I’ve been drinking a lot of Diet Coke Cherry because I like the cherry flavoring, even though I prefer the Coke Classic flavor of Coke Zero.

Coke is finally combining the two (I learned, when I found the new 12-packs in Dartmouth’s Stop & Shop) in this product. Coca-Cola Cherry Zero. In a few days they will officially launch the brand.

This appears to be part of a big overall push for Coke Zero this year.

My impressions of Coke Cherry Zero? It’s not as much cherry up front as the Diet Coke version, and this makes it a little less candy-like, which is nice. I prefer it to Diet Coke Cherry. So I hope the local markets continue to stock it.

Posted by James at 2:35 PM | Comments (6)

Boston Light Fright

Oh, god! Run for your lives!

OK, so they weren’t Lite Brites, but they were about as harmful as a Lite Brite.

Cartoon Network Scares Boston


A street marketing campaign in Boston intended to draw attention to Time Warner’s Cartoon Network instead drew out the bomb squads, closing major arteries and bridges in and out of the city for much of the day.

When I first heard that strange packages were causing havoc in Boston, I actually did not worry that there was a terrorist attack going on. Does that make me naive? Of course, there are people who are paid to protect the city, and they have to be vigilant when it comes to possible threats. I’m glad they exist. But I am worried about their ability to discern a threat.

And I can’t help feeling that our society in general is finding it difficult to assess fear and threat levels.

The packages found in Boston were part of an effort to advertise a cartoon. Two people have been arrested and have plead “not guilty” to the charges of disorderly conduct and placing a hoax device.

“Placing a hoax device” — doesn’t that imply they intended people to interpret the devices as a threat?

Maybe some people think that doing anything out of the ordinary “in today’s post 9/11 world” rightly gets you scrutinized as a possible terrorist. The wisdom of the people who placed lights around the city will be debated; personally I think they showed poor judgment. Though I don’t think they could have seen how much of a ruckus this would become, I think they should have known that mysterious light-up characters displaying their middle finger would cause a disturbance.

But I think we should be a bit annoyed with the way this was handled, too — the way word spread about this and left everyone scared that the sky was falling.

Did these light installations warrant the level of fear that they generated?

And then there are the justification in the media; the quotes that just go over the top.

Assistant Attorney General John Grossman called the light boards “bomblike” devices and said that if they had been explosive they could have damaged infrastructure and transportation in the city.

What is a “bomblike” device? Anything with electronics? Does it have to have explosives in it to be “bomblike?” If I take my laptop, open it and lay it inside out, it’s got lots of wires and a suspicious-looking battery. Is it bomblike?

If they had been explosive, they could have damaged infrastructure. I assume he’s talking about the way they were placed. Because you can use similar reasoning and say “if they had been Godzilla, they would have trampled the city.” The fact is, they weren’t explosive and, as far as anyone can tell, they weren’t intended to look like explosives.

Clearly, these guys didn’t think they were doing anything illegal. They posted videos of their installations on their website (which also serves as proof that they are the culprits.)

Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis called the stunt “unconscionable,” while Boston Mayor Thomas Menino called it “outrageous” and the product of “corporate greed.” Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, a Boston-area congressman, added, “It would be hard to dream up a more appalling publicity stunt.”

Tell me those aren’t over-the-top quotes. Ed Markey can’t imagine anything more appalling than cartoon characters on Lite Brites?

Turner said the devices have been in place for two or three weeks in Boston; New York City; Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; Atlanta, Georgia; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; San Francisco, California; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
However, only in Boston did the light boards create such a furor. In Seattle and several suburbs, the signs were removed without fuss, according to The Associated Press.

So, either Boston overreacted, or these other cities under-reacted. Which is it?

Judging by the ridiculous quotes from Boston officials, I think they know they overreacted and they’re trying to save face by being all the more outraged, trying to top each other with ridiculous assessments of a “threat” which was quietly and unceremoniously removed in other cities. Without blowing anything up, as they did with one of these light installations.

I am not of the opinion that an overreaction indicates a high level of safety. I think overreaction indicates a history of incorrect reaction. Proportionally correct reaction, like what occurred in other cities, is what ought to make us feel safe. And the men involved with this unfortunate advertising attempt are going to pay for putting egg on the faces of Boston’s officials.

1/31/07 - Never Forget

And, in case you’re keeping score:

  • Big Dig kills city resident. No Arrests.
  • Lite Brites all over town. 2 Arrests
Posted by James at 12:11 PM | Comments (20)