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  • Saturday, April 29, 2006


    Netflix and Their Darned Bad Artificial Intelligence

    Ever since our very excellent local video/DVD store moved to a town at least half an hour away and in a direction I never travel during the course of my normal errands, I've been bereft of a good place to get my movie fix. I half-heartedly went to Hollywood Video but I rarely discovered anything good. Oh, they have plenty of copies of the mainstream hits and semi-hits but I routinely felt a lack of serendipity, the discovery of a gem amongst the popular trash. Our old store was full of them, such as Meet the Feebles, one of Peter Jackson's early films. (I doubt I'm being original by describing that film as the bastard child of the Muppets crossbred with Scarface starring Al Pacino.)

    So in an effort to find some way of feeding my appetite for explosions and zombies (er, I mean foreign art films), I signed up with Netflix. Now I've only been on the site less than a week so this might not be a definitive evaluation but I think their A.I. for suggestions stinks. Unless it's just that there are much fewer things on DVD than I thought or their selection sucks.

    Netflix allows you to rate films you've seen and, from those ratings, will then generate recommendations for you. Unfortunately, their weighting of these recommendations tends to favor popular films and award winners. What's wrong with that, you ask? What's wrong is that I tend toward an inverse relationship with popular films: The more popular the films are, the less I want to see them. I'm rarely in sync with the zeitgeist of film popularity.

    In an effort to improve the recommendations, I rated a bunch of films. This didn't seem to help. I realized what my problem is: I was hoping that Netflix would begin recommending more obscure films, those gems I mentioned earlier. I was hoping that the recommendations would reflect the "long tail" effect but I've seen little sign of it. The list contains a depressingly large number of Adam Sandler and James Bond films but few obscurities.

    For example, I understand the original 1954 Japanese version of Gojira is out on DVD. (That's Godzilla to English speakers.) This is the version without Raymond "Perry Mason" Burr giving his wooden narration. I hear it has a stronger anti-nuclear message. I would think such a film is exactly perfect for a service like Netflix: a cult favorite which would probably rent regularly. No, it won't rent in massive quantities but, on the other hand, Netflix doesn't really need to conserve shelf space. How much space does a DVD without a case take? Not much. However, Netflix doesn't seem to have it in stock.

    I realize this is probably more bitching and moaning about inconsequentialities than you really wanted to hear. Sometimes I don't feel like writing serious stuff. And, as the saying goes, it's my blog and I'll bitch if I want to. If my worst current problem is Netflix, I'm really doing quite well, thank you.

    Friday, April 28, 2006


    Spanking the Donkey

    I commented on the Wimblehack contest(to find the winner of the worst campaign coverage of the 2004 Presidential race back in the fall of 2004 (here, here and here.) The author of that piece, Matt Taibbi, caught my eye as a witty and ascerbic writer. While not slavishly imitating Hunter S. Thompson, it is easy to see parallels in their styles.

    So when I had a chance to pick up his book Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats, (ISBN 1565848918) in a local used bookstore, I snapped it up.

    My first impressions are very favorable. I found myself reading lines aloud in bed to Fierce Celt (my housemate) because they were so funny. His dissection of the media coverage of the anti-war march in Washington DC just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was hilarious. I'm not sure I completely agree with his views on why people attended but I'm willing to give him leeway on the subject. Particularly scathing was the treatment the media gave to the pro-war rally before the anti-war march. Pro-war attendees: 80 people, 40 journalists. Anti-war march attendees: 200,000 to 300,000 marchers. Number of anti-war marchers reported in news reports: none gave a number higher than 30,000 marchers. Some news reports were actually phrased in such a way that they implied the numbers of the two groups was not very different. Hooray for the liberal media.

    I think the book is worth seeking out.

    Thursday, April 20, 2006


    Rumsfeld-zilla on a Typical Rampage

    Do I really need an excuse for my anti-establishment graffiti? I didn't think so.


    Word of the Day: Pronoid

    Pronoid: A word probably not in any dictionaries yet. I think some friends of mine came up with it. Pronoid is an antonym to paranoid. A person is pronoid if they believe everyone thinks they are wonderful, great, and smart, despite much evidence to the contrary. A pronoid has exceptional self-confidence without substantial reason for it.

    The word grew out of the popular Newage belief in affirmations and "creating your own reality" in the face of a stubbornly intractable reality. It describes a person who has incorporated a little too much of the "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade" viewpoint. Not merely optimistic, but pathologically incapable believing otherwise, usually in a very self-centered manner.

    Sometimes the pronoid attitude is covering for a profound insecurity but, in its purest form, it is cheerfully ignorant of such quibbles.

    Pres. Bush is probably pronoid. Sec. Rumsfeld, from all accounts, is probably so as well.

    Sunday, April 16, 2006


    The Quotable Rebel

    I'm a scavenger. I like books with lots of bits of information. Strange reference books on a variety of subjects are sure to be littered around my bed and desk. Part of it is my ADDish mind, leaping from subject to subject, following lines of reasoning and research for the fun of it. So it is unsurprising to me that when I saw The Quotable Rebel: Political Quotations for Dangerous Times, edited by Teishan Latner, I fell in love with it immediately.

    Despite having some deficiency in the proofreading process, these are the kinds of quotes I like: progressive, radical, courageous. (I found two typos on the first two pages I read at random, including misspelling Audre Lorde's last name as "Lord". Tsk, tsk.)

    Oh, and look: Teishan Latner, the editor, has written for my college newspaper, The Antioch Record. I was one of the editors of the Record back in my college days. Ah, and he thanks Greg Bates at Common Courage Press. Greg was editor of the Record the quarter after our feminist collective edited it. Yes, boys and girls, I was a man in a feminist collective. (It sounds like a pulp novel title.) Remember my earlier musings on "solidarity"? There's a reason why the subject is dear to my heart. Those good ole college days. [Addendum/edit: Oops! My bad! I was confusing Greg Bates with Eric Bates who was the editor of the Record. Eric went on to be editor of Southern Exposure, a well-respected magazine. I believe Eric also received awards for his investigative reporting/writing there as well. My apologies to both Eric and Greg for the confusion. 4/19/06]

    Back to the book, here are a few sample quotes from the "Ain't I a Woman?" section.
    No passing of legal enactments can set free a woman with a slave mind. --Teresa Billington-Greig, English activist, The Militant Suffrage Movement, 1911

    I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute. --Rebecca West, Irish writer, The Clarion, 1913

    [Man] has done all he could to debase and enslave her mind; and now he looks triumphantly on the ruin he has wrought, and says, the being he has thus deeply injured is his inferior. --Sarah Grimké, activist, writer, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, 1838
    While I've picked older quotes here, I note that there are some from Cindy Sheehan in August, 2005, so there is obviously some very current material. It has 54 chapters focusing on all sorts of subjects. I might share a few more quotes in the future. This is much better than those boring Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

    Wednesday, April 12, 2006


    Word of the Day: Outlier

    I always find it interesting when particular words seem to spring to the fore, begin to pop up more frequently in political discussion. Sometimes these are familiar words but more often I find they are specialized words from special professions or realms of education.

    One such word I've begun seeing frequently is outlier. Political pundits often infect each other with such words. After coming across it a few times, I understood the meaning from context as an outsider, someone from outside the mainstream. However, after doing a define:outlier search on Google, I began to see a little more of its specialized roots and applications.

    One surprise to me was that the term comes from statistics and insurance/hospital jargon. I may have vaguely known this but not the specific usage. This makes sense in that I've always caught a slightly nasty and insulting feel when it's being used to describe political figures. Literally, it means at the far edges of a statistical universe and when applied to people means they are far outside of the mainstream or norm.

    This gives vaguely scientific veneer and precision to its use, as if it were a definitive description of a person's views rather than an opinion about those views. "That person is statistically an outlier. I have the proof right here! Oh, but if you aren't a trained statistician, I doubt you would understand the evidence. You moron."

    It's a polite way of calling someone a deviant or abnormal.

    Monday, April 10, 2006


    Welcome to a Fool's Paradise

    While cruising BookTV on C-SPAN, I came across Mark Crispin Miller speaking at UMass, Amherst about his recent book Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They'll Steal the Next One Too (Unless We Stop Them). (Miller's blog is here.)

    Huge numbers of irregularities occurred during the 2004 elections. The evidence for this is copious and well established. Despite flutters of outrage and calls to re-evaluate the use of electronic voting machines with no paper trail, this issue has almost completely disappeared from public discourse.

    Prof. Miller is an excellent public speaker, a skill undoubtedly aided by his teaching experience. I found it exhilarating to hear him and galvanizing as his presentation unfolded. It's a terrifying image that he paints, of American democracy being systematically undermined and nullified by extremists.

    I believe many people tend to categorize concerns about the reliability and honesty of our voting system as mere sour grapes from Democrats who can't get over the loss of the 2004 presidential election. Americans have an image of our electoral process as honest and unimpeachable. The very idea of questioning possible flaws or systemic malfeasance becomes unthinkable. As Miller says, it's not as if some Democrats haven't engaged in dirty tricks or vote manipulation in the past either. The difference is the scale and determination of this particular Republican machine. And whether our democracy can recover from it.

    If your vote will not be accurately counted, the very foundation of our democracy is undermined. Elections become nothing more than show events. This is important stuff. I sometimes view our representative government in a very poor light, but the idea that it would be completely disconnected from the electorate scares the shit out of me.

    I'm hoping I'll get around to reading Miller's book. The reviews I've read indicate that I may already know most of the details but I'm impressed by the broad scope of his overview.

    Friday, April 07, 2006


    Insurance as Odds-based Extortion

    Insurance is, well, insurance against bad things: ill-health, property damage and loss, death, etc. People who can afford it, buy it. Some types of insurance are required by society, auto insurance for example.

    Insurance is a way of hedging bets against disaster. The earliest forms of insurance were considered a kind of investment. Not for the people or companies seeking it; for those extending the insurance coverage. This is where all that stuff about actuarial tables and statistics comes in. Essentially, all of those figures are designed to give the insurance company an edge, a profit from the money paid to them in premiums when balanced against the money they will pay out in claims.

    I've never had insurance because I could never afford it. I've worked in jobs that did not provide medical benefits. I don't have children so I never prioritized life insurance in my budget. Perhaps because I've always lived on the edge of financial disaster and never had a serious (expensive) medical problem, I've always viewed insurance as a form of gambling rather than as a necessary protection or precaution.

    2005 saw record high profits for insurance companies, despite serious hurricane damage and claims. This is apparently because of the gradual shift from group and job policies to individual policies. Like retail versus wholesale, there is a greater profit margin selling individual policies. Not having insurance becomes an increasingly hazardous option, an invitation to family financial disaster for even minor health problems.

    This is where I think the use of the term "extortion" becomes a proper description of insurance. If you have no future financial security for your family without it, you don't really have a choice about purchasing it. "Itud be a bad fing 'f yer leg got broke, yeah? Wha'd yer famly do then? I's jus' sayin' itud be a shame, a cryin' shame." (Muscle-boy actuaries, hmm...)

    I'm trying to suggest there is a different way of viewing insurance than as the "responsible" thing to do, the only thing to do. Everyone makes their decisions about this based on their circumstances and needs. If society as a whole thinks the majority of its workers are faceless, interchangable and disposable, then fair enough: Leave insurance to the individual and damn those who can't afford it. This is capitalism, dammit, not some free lunch.

    Thursday, April 06, 2006


    Revealed! The Windows to Tom DeLay's Soul!

    The Windows to Tom Delay's soulI like to think I have a playful nature. Others might call it a cruel, possibly clinically sadistic, streak. Whatever.

    My therapy consists of re-visioning some political figures. Like the proverbial sculptor, I chip away what doesn't seem to be... right. Now, why would I replace Sen. DeLay's eyes with red? It's not some hoodoo or bad juju. I'm not inclined that way.

    Well, I do it mostly because it's fun. While I might feel some compassion for DeLay-the-man, DeLay-the-symbol evokes quite a lot of hostility in me. I can't always work this out verbally despite my dedication to words. I just have to deface something. I'm left pushing and poking at these photos in Photoshop, trying to refine the limits of my anger.

    Thus I destroy to create. Happy Trails.


    Data Mining Your Brain

    Back-engineering public demand through analysing present habits. This is one reason why all those companies want to use the "aggregate" information provided by web surfing, Tivo boxes, and the like.

    I view it as a failure of imagination, an inability to take risks, a faux popularity contest where all the contestants are predetermined. There is no evolution of concepts or products, merely recapitulation of current options. The recursive vision. Stagnant progress, selling flash and sizzle. Substance of conservative social values. Decline of society living through past glory as if it has present meaning.

    (This post is cryptic because I don't have time to really fill in the details. Thus I'm presenting you with a vague bunch of phrases and an odd outline of a post rather than substantial writing. Perhaps it will show how absolutely brilliant I am to turn such meanderings into a coherent post. Or how I'm really a schizoid poet trying to achieve linear expression. I rant, you decide.)

    Tuesday, April 04, 2006


    Undead, Undead, Undead. Tom DeLay's Undead.

    Okay, so it doesn't quite scan properly into the Bauhaus song and I altered the lyric to make a satiric point about Tom "The Hammer" DeLay. So sue me. This also gives me a chance to recycle some of my chilling and very professionally produced graphics of him.

    Quiting? Defeated? Lost power? Right. I'll believe it when he's in the grave and then only if certain precautionary rituals and acts are performed to keep him there.

    Leaving office mostly means he won't have to worry about those pesky Senate ethics rules around money. Slick, hmm? And, as we all know, people with lots of money (or who funnel lots of money) have a way of not being prosecuted for breaking the law. Oh, are you thinking of the naughties at Enron or Worldcom? Don't you remember? Those folks weren't prosecuted until the illegality was impossible to ignore and thousands of workers lost their pensions. Otherwise such matters are just typical laissez-faire capitalism.

    I wouldn't worry about Sen. DeLay's prospects or landing after bidding fare-thee-well to the Congressional chambers; I would worry about the feast of blood sure to follow his shadow around town in the future. Bon Appétit!

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