The Zombie Reporting Center mentioned a new indie zombie film, Colin, made in Britain for supposedly £45 (though this obviously excludes any hardware or equipment costs), whose trailer looks pretty great. It seems to tell the story of a zombie from the zombie’s point of view. On top of it, you can hear the Wilhelm Scream somewhere around 42 seconds. Important and awesome.


The value of good comments

When I was at the University of Florida, I took a summer to craft a new version of a program CBD had written to allow faculty and grad students to register their preferences for classes and so on.  It was a big project that supported dozens of users and had to generate a spreadsheet.  As my programming guru taught me, I commented ubiquitously as I wrote, and I generated a massive README file explaining the whole thing when I finished.   I also made it really modular, with most or all of the variables set in a single file, and subroutines everywhere.

I just learned that they’re still using that software (6 years later!) and it’s been run essentially unchanged since I wrote it.  I learned this because I’m in correspondence with the current maintainer of the software, who’s moving it to a different server because account setups have changed.  It looks like other than a few file addresses in the system, nothing will have to be changed.

Makes me smile.  Robust coding FTW.

Bodies Are Where You Find Them

Bodies Are Where You Find Them 2

Boy that feels curmudgeonly

I just got a free copy (thanks, Tarcher Penguin!) of THE DUMBEST GENERATION by Mark Bauerlein.  Here’s the description on the back:

They are The Dumbest Generation. They enjoy all the advantages of a prosperous, high-tech society. Digital technology has fabulously empowered them, loosened the hold of elders. Yet adolescents use these tools to wrap themselves in a generational cocoon filled with puerile banter and coarse images. The founts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation camps in the desert, exchanging stories, pictures, tunes, and texts, savoring the thrill of peer attention. If they don’t change, they will be remembered as fortunate ones who were unworthy of the privileges they inherited. They may even be the generation that lost that great American heritage, forever.

Part of me grumbles “ho, yeah!”  But the other, less curmudgeonly part thinks this sounds an awful lot like “kids these days can’t write.”  Will post more after I read it.

A few bullets in lieu of something thoughtful

TV Cabinet

  • The first week of online classes always feels anti-climactic.  Isn’t summer supposed to be about non-teaching projects?  But then the paychecks start arriving and I log back into Moodle with a smile.
  • Summer nerd project: file server and jukebox built in the shell of the old tv I found in the alley a while ago.  No more caches of mp3s on each puter in the house.  Central storage and rsync, baby!
  • Summer house project: paint and scrape.  After I put the cellar door back on.
  • Summer MPCA project:  Apply for 501c3 status.
  • Summer job project: Apply for tenure.
  • Summer writing project: Finish that prospectus.
  • I’m 5 months through the year and I’ve only read 5 books from the “read before I read anything else” pile on my night stand.  Books left before next December’s gift-a-thon replenishment? 12.  Sigh.

2009-05-24 Tweets

  • Over on the comics curmudgeon, he just used the phrase that might become the motto for my blog: “a maelstrom of insanity” #
  • When someone devotes his whole life to hunting down a hedgehog, something’s just not right. – from Dr. Robotonik #
  • Regarding the clown joke (caution, title spoils the punchline): #
  • I’m grading and writing using DRAGON NATURALLY SPEAKING today. It’s WEIRD. #

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Then She Found Me

Then She Found Me
Then She Found Me

Jeez.  What a downer.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and appreciate tragedy as a genre.  I just don’t really want to watch it.  This film is billed as a comedy, and there are certainly funny parts in it.  But mostly it’s just people getting kicked in the teeth by life or one another (metaphorically).

The acting is strong, with Helen Hunt and Colin Firth both displaying remarkable personal vulnerability.  Matthew Broderick plays an emotionally stunted asshole brilliantly, especially in that he’s a reluctant asshole, unaware of how much damage he’s doing by failing to man up and do what needs doing.  Hunt’s character infuriates me for one of her choices, but I guess that’s the point of this movie–that people make bad choices and life goes no anyhow.

But my main complaint with the movie has to do with how it made me feel.  When it was done I just felt weighed down.  There are grim character development movies that give you a sense of relief at the end (Restoration is a favorite of mine that I’d say fits that genre), but this one just made me happy it was over.  Then we watched a Mythbusters rerun.

And I can’t really say that I understand the title.  It could refer to the Bette Midler subplot (a useful and amusing side-narrative), but why name the movie after a side plot?

I guess my evaluation is this: Then She Found Me is a good movie, but likely not one you’ll enjoy.

My favorite JoCo song today


Spring Television Roundup 6: Those tricky mind men

MentalistLie to Me

Lie to Me

I wasn’t sure I was going to like Lie to Me.  At its heart it seems very much like The Mentalist.  But the show grew on me because of one thing: Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) is a massive jerk.  The show itself hinges on a creepy idea, that people who are well-trained in social communication can tell easily whether you are lying or not.  And of course, everyone who is question with regard to a dangerous circumstance he is a lying.  The most interesting element of the show is the relationship between the characters: since we all lie to one another a little bit, they have to pretend they don’t notice.  It would also be difficult to work with a boss who manipulates you as part of the work.

The Mentalist

I think The Mentalist is easily enjoyed because Simon Baker is so damn cool.  When combined with the cranky Robin Tunney, the show works really well.  The supporting cast are entertaining because they secretly like Mr. Jane, but they have to pretend that they don’t.  Jane is a particularly interesting character because he regularly violates what people expect from him: he walks into rooms where he isn’t welcome, he tricks people by hypnotizing them, he uses people to get what he wants.  This is in contrast to Robin Tunney’s character who follows all the rules most of the time.

The Mentalist Hides how it works, regularly concealing Jane’s observations from the viewer, whereas Lie to Me reveals them.

Neither show, of course, holds up to Psych.

Violence is Golden

Violence is Golden

Spring Television Roundup 5: Running and another Whedonite

The Amazing Race 14 Castle

The Amazing Race
TAR was pretty great this season.  There were a few unsurprising fails (as much as we wanted the Kentucky miner and his wife to succeed, they were clearly doomed from the outset).  I appreciated the relationship we saw between Margie and Luke–they showed real strength and caring for one another.  The other two teams in the final three were less interesting, though the cheerleaders sure did shout at cab drivers a lot.

I was dubious about this show at first — the premise seemed to be that there was a copycat killer using Richard Castle’s books as inspiration.  “How long can they maintain that?” I asked Jenny.  It turns out it was just an in to get Castle assigned to permanent ride-along with the police detective who openly hates him but secretly enjoys his books an awful lot.

Of course, it’s the screwball comedy between Fillion and Katic that makes the show sing.  The murders, like on Bones, are a sideline.  And Nathan Fillion is perfect as the childish — yet brilliant — writer with a dysfunctional mother and a hyperfunctional daughter.  I’m glad to hear that it was picked up for another season.

Dear Disney Movie Club…

Good luck figuring out how to cancel your membership!
Good luck figuring out how to cancel your membership!

Dear Disney Movie Club,

You’re not special.  You’re just like any mail-in movie club.  You use the same gambit: buy a few movies from us at full price and get some free.  As with all such clubs, the only way that’s even remotely a good deal is to buy the minimum amount and then quit.  I did that, was happy with the movies we got, and then tried to quit.

There’s no option on your website to quit.  It takes me quite a while to figure this out, since I looked in all the likely places before I gave up and searched the Help page.  It wasn’t even on the FAQ, though I’d bet my VIP status in your program that it’s the most common question you get from existing members.  I finally find it, and learn I have to call.  During business hours.  LAME.

Then the automated voice-mail system doesn’t even hint at the idea of canceling membership, and it’s only after five or ten minutes of ever-more-angry button mashing that I finally get a person who can help me.  (Hint: zero should always lead to a person.)  LAMER.

It’s a tiny problem, and I spent nearly as much time writing this post as it took me to cancel, but really?  It’s incredibly irritating to have something that should be simple obfuscated just because you want it to be complicated.

It’s the sort of small annoyance that will stick with me for a long time, and that’s too bad because your service worked fine and was generally enjoyable, but now I’m leaving with a sour taste in my mouth.  LAME.


Freedom and Truth

History on Trial
History on Trial

History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving
by Deborah E. Lipstadt

Truth isn’t part of a cultural conversation if freedom of speech doesn’t accompany it. That’s the most salient–of many–lessons that emerges from Dr. Lipstadt’s powerhouse account of her 2000 trial defending herself from a libel suit by David Irving. I can’t endorse this book enough. Pardon the long post, but this work deserves it.

You may have noticed a certain theme on this blog, a recent uptick in posts about truth, logic, reason, and ethics. I’ve discovered of late that my secular humanist perspective makes me particularly cranky about anti-science, anti-intellectual, or dishonest ideologues. David Irving fits all three descriptions. An “eminent” historian with several books to his credit, Irving morphed into a vocal Holocaust denier in the last thirty years or so. It was thus with great relish that I read and enjoyed the thunderous smackdown this dissembler received at the hands of Lipstadt and her attorneys.

The story (in brief):
Lipstadt, an historian of the Holocaust from Emory University, wrote a book in the early 1990s called Denying the Holocaust, in which she documents the rise of revisionist history and its role in fomenting antisemitic and neo-Nazi sentiments. In a fairly short (apparently) passage of a few pages, she explains that the military historian, David Irving, is a Holocaust denier. While he disputes the facts of the Holocaust in a number of places, the most blatant example of his views comes from a denialist trial in Canada, where he testified, essentially, that the Holocaust was a legend. Lipstadt’s book was published in the U.K, and Irving sued her for libel.

British Libel Law.
This is where it gets interesting. (Aside: I was alerted to this book by Orac, who mentioned it in reference to Simon Singh’s current troubles with the British Chiropractic Association) You see, unlike America, with our meaty Freedom of Speech to protect us, Britain has “notoriously plaintiff-friendly” libel laws. Lipstadt explains:

British libel law… presumes defamatory words to be untrue, until the author proves them true. The burden of proof is, therefore, on the defendant rather than the plaintiff, as would be the case in the United States. Consequently, had Penguin and I not defended ourselves, Irving would have won by default. I would have been found guilty of libel and Irving could then claim that his definition of the Holocaust had been determined to be legitimate.(31)

Lipstadt further explains that Irving’s status as a public figure would have made it nearly impossible for him to sue her in the U.S. In Britain, on the other hand, she had a long and costly court battle that she could legitimately lose — as relying on reasonable source texts is no defense if the court finds one guilty.

(This is the one place where I feel the book doesn’t spend enough time, though to be fair, my hobby horse isn’t the focus of her book. the British libel law stifles critical speech. Because the expensive onus rests with the defendant, it’s often far cheaper to settle and retract one’s statements than to defend them. As such, the libel law can be used like a club to stifle dissident voices. The DMCA’s ubiquitous C&D notices in the U.S. have often been used in a similar way, though sometimes to hilarious effect.)

Instead of caving, however, Lipstadt and Penguin, with help from Emory University and dozens (hundreds?) of individual donors around the world, stood up to Irving’s suit and rode it to court (four years later).

The Trial:
Wades through the minutiae of Irving’s errors and misstatements, wallowing in the daily arguments. It might be boring except that it’s so satisfying to see an asshole hoisted on his own Petard. Each time he was caught up in a lie or a complicated web of them, I thrilled a little bit. There are few moments so delightful as the villain’s comeuppance, and in some ways this book is 200 pages of it. I won’t detail too much more except to say that the verbal gymnastics Irving uses to justify his nonsensical positions defy imagination.

"It would not be difficult, Mein Führer. Nuclear reactors could - heh, I'm sorry, Mr. President"
"It would not be difficult, Mein Führer. Nuclear reactors could - heh, I'm sorry, Mr. President"

There is one more moment I want to mention from the trial, from the closing statements. By this time, Irving has to defend himself against glaring evidence that he abused the process of historical research and skewed evidence to his own ends, he has been labeled a racist and connected to extremists of all stripes. He’s flustered and, in speaking about a rally he spoke at where the audience chanted “Sieg Heil,” he claims the defense only mentioned this as an attempt to smear him. Lipstadt writes:

Irving was anxious to distance himself from these chants. That may explain what happened next. After repeating that he tried to stop the chants, he looked at Judge Gray and, instead of punctuating his remarks with “my Lord,” as he commonly did, he addressed him as “mein Führer.” There was a moment of intense silence as the entire courtroom–Judge Gray included–seemed frozen. Then everyone erupted in laughter. Ken Stern turned to James and said, “This is out of Dr. Strangelove.” From behind me, I heard someone humming the Twilight Zone theme. Irving, who seemed not to have grasped what had happened, marched on…”(263).

In some ways, this moment emblematizes many bits of Irving’s testimony: he often doesn’t grasp the significance of what he’s saying. Another example? In order to prove that he’s not racist, he told reporter Kate Kelland “that his ‘domestic staff’ had included a Barbadian, a Punjabi, a Sri Lankan, and a Pakistani. They were ‘all very attractive girls with very nice breasts.’ “(183). This cluelessness translates to the solipsistic justifications for antisemitic comments implying that Jews were responsible for the hatred heaped on them, etc.

The Ramifications:
Aside from the issues regarding freedom of speech, Lipstadt’s defense introduced into the public record expert testimony devastating many of the “classic” rhetorical moves made by the denialist community. As she put it, Irving isn’t very important, but winning the case was immensely important.

As I said above, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s gripping and involving, tells the story of a triumph in the face of the worst kinds of dishonesty and ideology, and cracks along at a nice pace.



by Scott Phillips

It took me a while to get into this book.  Bill Ogden, a rough and tumble homesteader and bar owner in a small Kansas town, leads us through the tumultuous era of early life on the prairie, splitting his decision making between a ruthless self-reliance and business aptitude and his desire for female company (to put it much more delicately than he does).

We read this book for my mystery book club and it was interesting in that the mystery is a sideline to the character of the town.  Ostensibly, the murders committed by the notorious Bender gang are the centerpiece of the story, but Ogden finds himself wrapped up in a whole different kind of trouble as well.

Most interesting about the book was Ogden’s profession as a photographer.  Phillips weaves the photography–of dead people and animals, of moments of atrocity and beauty–throughout the book and you get a sense of the technology’s tenuous place in the early days of America.  There’s also a scene pregnant with meaning in which Ogden stumbles upon a greenhouse whose owners used old photographic glass for the roof of the building, leaving ghostly images staring down at folks in the house.

Worth reading for its picture of old-time America and its characterizations, if you can get past the halfway point of the book.

2009-05-17 Tweets

  • The Ferris Bueller Fight Club Theory: Cameron dreamed the whole thing from his bed. #
  • Are you on BookMooch yet? Why not? #
  • I can’t stop laughing to myself because I just told somebody the clown joke. #

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