Friday, August 12, 2005

Up the creek

Now that the pressure's off (slightly) at work, I was able to take a long weekend to go car camping with the family in the Cascades. We never stay in organized campgrounds, the way we had to when we lived in California. Nope, in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, you can camp for free just about anywhere except campgrounds and trailheads.

Since this blog has a readership approaching zero, it's probably safe to mention where our favorite spots are: along the North Fork of the Sauk River, southeast of Darrington. Take Road 49 off the Mountain Loop Highway and head upstream to several fine riverside campsites. Our favorite site at a 90-degree bend in the river was occupied, so we found a new one, complete with two fire rings and an ancient table, not far from where Sloan Creek joins the North Fork, elevation 2,000 feet. We pitched our tents in an old-growth grove where trees up to 6 feet in diameter provided a shady canopy over a site that could easily have held a dozen people. Surrounding it were thickets of ripe huckleberries. The road was a hundred feet away. So was the creek, but that was OK -- we heard it loud and clear, and strolled over whenever we wanted to soak our feet. Gourmet cooking and reading P. G. Wodehouse aloud around the campire -- now that's the life! We didn't see another soul all weekend.

The trout weren't biting, but we didn't care. They'll just be bigger next time.

Monday, July 18, 2005

It's alive

No posts for almost a month? Here's why.

My group has been hard at work building a new version of MSN Shopping that finally went into public beta last Friday. While it still has a few rough edges, it's a huge improvement on our current site and, in fact, is suddenly one of the better shopping sites on the Web. It has five times as many products as our old site and a bunch of cool new features: improved product and price comparisons, .

How do we compare to a few other large sites? (July 18 data)

Site
Results found
Results visible
Refine by...
Sort by...
1,733
1,733
Price range
Brand
Price
Relevance
10,047
5,000
(all 10K
if you
refine)
Price range
Brand
Seller
Screen size
TV type
Display type
On sale
Free shipping (soon)
Low price
High price
Popularity
Highest rated
Lowest rated
Name A-Z
Name Z-A
"About
730,000"
1,000
Price range
Seller
Price
3,160
3,160
Brand
Type
Screen size
Low price
High price
Bestselling
Rating
Name A-Z
Name Z-A
1,573
1,573
Price range
Brand
TV type
Screen size
HDTV compatible
On sale
Brand
Price
"Top results"

(The most interesting comparison, I think, is between how many results Froogle claims to have and how many it actually shows. Froogle may claim millions of results, but it never displays more than 1,000 results for any search.)

My role? I designed the new user interface and a number of front-end features, including the Recently Viewed section (it remembers what you've looked at, and doesn't share that info with Microsoft) and the nifty little +/- controls that let you see more data without having to reload a page.

Try it at beta.shopping.msn.com.

Anyway, that's what's kept me too busy to post.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Albanian wedding

My band played at Seattle biggest Albanian wedding of the year over the weekend. OK, Albanian-American, really ... but the bride was Albanian, so they were in charge.

I love playing at weddings. They're always a logistical mess -- everything runs late, dinner takes too long to serve, nerves are too fraught -- but people's emotions are close to the surface, and when musicians connect with the audience, the connection runs deep.

Which it did Saturday night. We learned half a dozen Albanian songs for the gig, which astonished them, and between those and our standard lineup of Balkan hits, we kept the dance floor jammed for five hours. The bride called us two days later, saying all her relatives were still talking about the music, amazed that Americans could play it that well. Her unofficial MC told us that while it's easy to bring in an Albanian band from out of town, "they play for money, and you play from the heart." The relatives from New York, we hear, will be heading back with stories about what they heard in Seattle.

That's still what does it for us: the look on emigres' faces when they hear their music played with the right fire in the belly. They know it when they hear it. It's all about raw emotion, not intellect. It's not music under glass, the way too many American academic preservationists play it. It's as alive as the Delta blues, and it comes from much the same place, somewhere deep in the solar plexus.

Holla!

Monday, June 13, 2005

Daddy dearest

Unlike the O.J. case, I'm mildly pleased that MJ beat the rap.

My guess is that he may have been, in fact, guilty of at least some of the charges. But the jury rightly stuck to standard of reasonable doubt, and when you're half convinced the alleged victims' families are less interested in justice than in cash, doubt is reasonable.

I have little interest in celebrity foibles, and to the extent I care about this case at all, I wonder why Michael did what he may have done. It's hard to avoid wondering whether whatever happened to those kids in Neverland was an echo of what happened, a generation earlier, to a twisted little Peter Pan who also happened to be a gifted performer.

Child abuse, as a rule, doesn't occur in a vacuum. It occurs in an environment in which one generation's victims become the next generation's perpetrators. I don't say that Michael was either. I don't say that the sins of the father were visited on the son. I say nothing. Neither does Michael.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Deep Who?

So Deep Throat was W. Mark Felt after all? That's interesting to know after all these years, but by now, it's not much more than a historical footnote. A 20-inch story, tops.

The Seattle Times, though, played it like the Second Coming this morning: lead headline and two stories on the front page; a full page of analysis, complete with an obligatory Watergate timeline, on page 3; and two and a half more pages of navel-gazing inside. Call it four pages of newsprint, all told. I lament the trees that died in vain.

I mean, who cares about Watergate, let alone, Deep Throat, today? Except for fueling a generation of journalistic hubris, it had no lasting political impact. My college-age sons might dimly remember a mention of "Watergate" in some American history class, but if they even bothered to look at today's paper, I'm sure they would have been as baffled by the flood-the-zone coverage as everyone else under the age of 50.

And editors wonder why their readers are disappearing...

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Art at any price

Let's see if I have this right. The thrust of art critic Sheila Farr's main front-page story in this Sunday's Seattle Times is that the art that the city is buying is too safe -- it's not controversial enough. Taxpayers aren't forking out enough dough for art that offends them.

Here's how it works: In 1973, the Seattle City Council passed a law requiring that 1% of its capital budget be spent on art. In the first few years, Farr reminds us, the city commissioned some works that raised the public's hackles, like the $80,000 chunks of concrete and rock lying on the ground in Myrtle Edwards Park. But today, she says the city is buying ... bland art.

What did she expect? Inevitably, the 1% program has become "welfare for artists," as a friend of art bureaucraft Virginia Wright puts it. "A lot of really good artists don't want to be involved in the process because it's cumbersome," admits city arts commissioner Richard Andrews. The artists who get the money "know how to sell it and work the system ... a lot of it is mediocre work," adds former commissioner John Feodorov. His advice to artists who want a ride on the public gravy train: "Get a job."

That won't happen as long as the 1% program continues to spend -- how much, exactly? Farr's story doesn't say; apparently it didn't occur to her to ask. But do the math: The city's 2005 capital budget totals $479 million. One percent of that is $4.8 million.

About $3 million of that comes from City Light, whose participation in the program is being challenged in court. Even if you don't count that money, the remaining money in the 1% program is enough to cover roughly 10% of the Seattle public schools' $20 million deficit this year.

So rather than asking why public art is bland, readers might be wondering: Why is Seattle spending anything on public art, bland or otherwise, at a time when it's planning to close public schools for lack of cash?

(I know, I know -- the money comes out of different budgets. But it all comes from the same place: taxpayers' pockets. And if they wanted to, the city and the school district could offer taxpayers a deal: We'll drop the silly 1% rule if you'll let us raise taxes for schools by the same amount.)

Readers might wonder -- but The Times doesn't. No surprise that an art critic is oblivious to reality. But it's curious that the editors who gave this story most of the front page, and two full pages inside, didn't even think to ask how much public art costs taxpayers -- or whether there might be better ways to spend the public's money.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Very stale

Ariana Huffington, possibly the ditziest candidate ever to run for governor of California and lose, has now set her sights on publishing: She's inviting 250 of "the most creative minds" in the U.S. to contribute to a blog she's launching in May to "punch holes in that very stale way of looking at the world." The NYT evidently expects it to become the left's answer to Matt Drudge.

Who are the most creative minds in America? Her list includes Walter Cronkite, Norman Lear, Mike Nichols, David Mamet, Nora Ephron, Warren Beatty, James Fallows, Jann Wenner, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Gary Hart, Diane Keaton, Norman Mailer and Mortimer B. Zuckerman.

So now we know the secret of creativity: Get on the media A list in New York or L.A. Then wait a generation.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Not the real world

A while back, I wrote that the real bias in the press is not to the left or right, but towards government. Most journalists spend their days swimming in a sea of government -- in part because it's so easy to cover -- and over time, come to mistake this for the real world, where people rarely interact with government and prefer it that way.

A publisher in North Carolina recently came to the same conclusion:
Look at the front page of almost any daily newspaper in any town in America. What do you see? Invariably there will be a story or two about some victim group or person who is being helped by a government program...

You’ve all seen them, especially around the holidays. Editors seem to think this activity is the essence of American life. Except for the advertising, a newspaper reader from another planet would never know there was a private sector. Editorial content is skewed heavily toward the activities of the welfare state because that’s the sector that reporters and editors identify with.

Unfortunately for newspapers, most people have nothing to do with the welfare state and its many mechanisms, except for funding it with their tax dollars. The private sector is where they live. They go to work, raise their kids, pay their taxes and don’t ask anything from the government except for national defense, good schools, garbage pickup, water and sewer hookups and effective police protection. They don’t want to be hit over the head with stories designed to make them feel guilty for not needing government welfare.
He goes on to offer thoughts about why newspapers have become divorced from the real world. If you're interested, read the whole thing.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The power of prayer

Back in 2001 -- less than a month after 9/11 -- Columbia University Medical Center released a study in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine claiming that infertile woman were twice as likely to become pregnant via in-vitro fertilization if Christians prayed on their behalf. The press went nuts. The New York Times covered it, and it made Good Morning America.

Some of us refused to believe. As it turns out, rightly so: CICSCOP now reports that the study was a fraud. Here's what's now known about the three men originally cited as its authors:

  • Dr. Kwang Yul Cha left Columbia shortly after the study was published and refuses to answer questions.

  • Dr. Rogerio Lobo, who recently quit as chairman of the OB/GYN department at Columbia, claims he knew nothing about the study until six to twelve months after it was published. A press release citing him as the lead author has been removed from Columbia's Web site.

  • Daniel P. Wirth, who has no medical degree, was indicted a year after the study appeared on charges of bilking Adelphia Communications out of $2.1 million in phony consultant fees. The FBI later said "Daniel P. Wirth" is also known as John Wayne Truelove, who was charged with 13 counts of mail fraud and 17 other violations of federal law. He is also suspected of bilking Social Security out of more than $100,000 by collecting payments in the name of his dead father. He subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and faced a sentence of five years in federal prison and forfeiture of more than $1 million in ill-gotten gains.
And this farce -- which further tatters Columbia's reputation -- is nevertheless the best-documented evidence in scientific journals of the power of prayer.

As CISCOP notes, "In the entire history of modern science, no claim of any type of supernatural phenomena has ever been replicated under strictly controlled conditions."

Remember this when the old men in Rome elect their new head witch doctor.

Puff piece

Paul Andrews, the Seattle Times' Dan Gillmor wannabe, is hardly known for incisive writing, but his total puff piece the other day on MoveOn.org was even more vapid than usual.

MoveOn, in collaboration with Michael Moore and Hollywood, arguably cost Kerry the election -- but when Paul talked to MoveOn's Adam Ruben, he couldn't even bring himself to ask what went wrong. Instead, he set up a straw man in the form of a magazine article that "went so far as to suggest" that MoveOn et al. blew it -- and then spent the rest of his piece saying it ain't so. Which right-wing rag would say such a thing? Um, Rolling Stone.

Hey, Paul! Get a clue. Yeah, MoveOn used the Internet, and yeah, they raised $60 mil -- but they wasted it all. How many votes did the loony left change last November? Zip, zero, nema, nada. You don't win campaigns by preaching to the choir. You win campaigns by moving to the center. MoveOn doesn't get it -- but Hillary does, and that's why she's the Democrats' best shot in '08.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Good news is no news

Attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq have fallen "dramatically" since the Jan. 30 elections and are down 25% since last fall's attack on Fallujah, the AP reports. Again one senses a corner being turned.

Where does The Seattle Times play this rather interesting news, after months of drumbeat coverage of quagmire? As a brief on A9, the least prominent of four war stories on a slow day, with a tiny 1/18/2 headline.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Live, continued

Here's an early taste of our band's recent live recording:

Kerta mange daje in Windows Media and MP3 formats
(Windows Media is half the size and sounds slightly better to me)

This is a song in the Romany (Gypsy) language composed by Shemo Ibrahimi from Kosovo, about a young man who's been drafted into the army and who asks his mother to brew him one last cup of coffee before he goes. The most famous recording is probably that by Esma Redzhepova, who performed it at her Seattle-area concert earlier this year -- she happened to spot me singing along in the audience, and graciously invited me to share her mic for a chorus. Our version features Eva Moon on lead vocal; I'm on clarinet.

What we need is a good 5 cent nickel

The U.S. blows it again when designing a new coin, the 2005 Lewis and Clark bicentennial nickel:


What's the problem? There is no numeral for quantity -- no big 5. The coin's value is a mystery if you don't happen to know what "five" means. Even if you expect everyone living in the U.S. to read English, which would be controversial, it's colossally rude to assume that every foreign visitor can. Quick, what's "five" in Japanese?

The dime is worse -- instead of 10 or ten, it says ONE DIME, and if you don't know what dime means, tough. The quarter says QUARTER DOLLAR, and if don't recognize QUARTER or can't divide 100 by 4 in your head, too bad. If I had a 50-cent piece lying around, I bet it'd say HALF DOLLAR instead of FIFTY CENTS.

American coins are like American units of measurement: our own little secret code. If you don't understand it, go back to where you came from. Even our coinage is Darwinian.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Movement in search of a cause

A few thousand people got damp at a rally in Seattle yesterday. The Seattle Times called it an "anti-war" rally, but the banners in the newspaper photo told a different story:


CIVIL UNIONS FOR ALL. UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE. STOP ARMING DICTATORS. SUPPORT FAMILY FARMS. FAIRNESS IN LENDING. VOTER BILL OF RIGHTS.

These issues, of course, have no connection with the war in Iraq, except perhaps STOP ARMING DICTATORS -- and that was the explicit goal of the war, an irony lost on the crowd. The anti-war movement has been hijacked by the professional left, and as a consequence has failed to achieve anything.

The real war in Iraq today is being waged against the Iraqi people by terrorists who blow up civil servants and behead women and children for kicks. But no one in Seattle marches against that war.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Objectively suggestive

A Texas state legislator wants to ban "sexually suggestive" cheerleading routines at Texas high school football games. "It's just too sexually oriented, you know, the way they're shaking their behinds and going on," he said.

Every red-blooded American should support this proposal for its sheer entertainment value. It will be infinitely amusing to watch a state legislature objectively define "suggestive." By how many millimeters may a behind shake, exactly? Are there other body parts that need to be immobilized? Is it legal to git down if you do it in a chador?

The real winners will be Texas state troopers. Instead of hunting for speeders, they'll have to spend Friday nights in the stands at Nacogdoches High with their binoculars and radar guns, making sure every hip-swiveling Debbie remains within the limits of the law. It's a dirty job ... but someone's got to do it.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Live

Tonight, most of my band heard the initial mix of the songs we recorded live two weeks ago. It's not bad! We'll probably release some of it as a home-brewed CD. It's our first recording in two years. We performed it live for a small audience at Seattle Drum School's L.A.B. (Little Auditorium in Back), a new, superior performance space with a spacious low stage for musicians, splendid seating for a crowd of maybe 50 and room for another 50+ dancing up front.

I'll post some MP3s from the next mix ... or maybe even a clip from the raw mix once I pry it out of Eva's hands. She did a great version of the Bulgarian slow song Snoshti te videli. The band sounded good on Yuri Yunakov's tune Belmont, too. Stay tuned.