September 2005 Archives

I have a question for those of you who play or have played video games: Do you pay attention to the plot? If so, how much?

I ask because I've always payed attention to the plot, read all the dialogue, etc. I even scrounged around for the readme file that had the plot in Doom (yes, Doom did have a plot!). As I've encountered more people who play video games, though, I find that I appear to be at the extreme end of the spectrum in this regard.

I noticed it when a former roommate was playing through Final Fantasy X. He just breezed through the dialogue and didn't bother finishing the game, even when, with the amount of leveling up he had done, it would have taken him about 5 minutes, as the culmination of, I'd estimate, 40 hours of play. He played for the play element, and that was it. He had a general idea of how things were going, but didn't really care enough to read/listen to all the dialogue or see how it all turned out.

My subsequent roommate was so impatient with plot elements that he skipped through the introduction and 30 second level intros for Katamari Damacy. The plot was entirely extraneous to the game experience.

The first roommate justified this with a quote from John Carmack, the technology guy behind Doom. I'm not sure what the exact wording was, but the gist of it was that plot in video games was like plot in pornographic movies. The creators felt obliged to put it in, but no-one really payed attention or cared. Carmack and his friends at ID software led the movement towards less plot in games, beginning with Doom, which had just the barest thread of a plot, and culminating in Quake, which I believe was the first ever video game with no plot whatsoever. You were a dude in an arena and you killed things. Killing things was good, getting killed was bad. That is all ye know in life, and all ye need to know.

I probably take plot too seriously, but I still feel like it ought to be there. I can't get interested in a game if I don't have any motivation whatsoever for what I'm doing, even if the motive is something silly and nonsensical, like the president's been kidnapped by ninjas or my pet frog jumped on a barrel of radioactive waste in my backyard, mutating and growing in size, then falling through a hole in the ground, and I have to rescue him by pursuing him through the massive underground kingdom under my house, in a miniature pink jumping tank named Sofia III.

At the same time, paying much attention to the plot does feel somewhat dumb. Great writers don't work in video games. Plots tend to vary from "something the designer scribbled on a napkin to justify the action" to "elaborate pre-teen melodramas that also, coincidentally, involve saving the world." Whether there's a lot of plot or a little, it's all pretty bad when you put it in perspective.

There's been some grandiose talk of video games as the next great medium. Interestingly, though, a lot of people who approach video games from other media take plots as their starting point. You hear of people like Steven Spielburg approaching games and thinking of them almost like choose-your-own-adventure novels, where the player is controlling the story. The problem with approaching it from that perspective is that there's a great deal of talent in the industry, it seems, for designing games that are fun to play, to look at, to listen to, but not a lot of talent for storytelling or writing.

But that just raises a question: Should video game designers focus on plots? Probably not; video games are plenty entertaining now with gameplay and graphics at the forefront and plot an afterthought. Frankly, the Spielburg idea sounds like it would make for a terrible game, and I think that's the point. A game with a great plot and terrible gameplay is a bad game. A game with great gameplay and a terrible plot is a good game. Approaching video games like interactive movies betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of what video games are about. It's seeing video games as a sort of quirky modification of the medium of film, rather than as a unique medium all its own.

At the same time: Should video game designers put more effort into plots? Almost certainly. The gameplay has to come first, of course, but there's an entirely undeveloped vector, albeit a secondary one, that designers are ignoring now. Video games, I feel, can't be truly an artform unless there's a serious effort to explore everything they're capable of, and that includes plot.

Moreover, it feels like plot is the best way to draw outsiders into video games. Non-video gamers are, by their nature, accustomed to non-interactive media, in which the plot is the primary draw. When you see reports in other media about the rise of video games as a medium, you don't see talk of developments in gameplay and interaction; you see talk of increasingly sophisticated and mature (both in the sense of actual maturity and in the sense of violence/language/sex) plots.

So. Um. I take plot too seriously, because plots as they exist now tend to suck. But this is a problem, and game designers should pay more attention to plot. At the same time, they shouldn't do this to the detriment of the other aspects which are more primary to game quality. Thoughts?



It is a curious fact of modern English usage that the only word currently in common use with the suffix "-trix" is dominatrix (I think; if anyone would like to correct me I'd be happy to hear it). Most other words that once used the suffix have now been shifted in popular usage to the masculine suffix "-tor." This is unfortunate, because "-trix" is such a fun suffix.

The upshot of this is that, for students entering law school (and here I am generalizing to all law students from my own anecdotal experience) who are now faced with a lot of words in common legal usage that end in "-trix," there is a tendancy to ascribe to them undeserved connotations relating to the word "dominatrix." Some favorties among those I've encountered so far: Administratrix (a female administrator), Testatrix (a female testator, or person who makes a will), Executrix (a female executor). All of which create in my mind a vision of women acting in their professional and legal capacity, embellished with S&M touches.

And now, a nerdy tangent: It is a well-known article of Dork Lore that in the Star Wars universe Darth Vader's personal Super Star Destroyer is called the Executor. This is a very cool sounding name (it's pronounced "ecks-ECK-you-TOR"), which is no doubt what Mr. Lucas, or whomever, had in mind when naming it. Nonetheless, an Executor is the person who administers an estate following someone's death. You can derive a contrived explanation for how this is a metaphor for Darth Vader's role, or maybe the empire as custodian of the estate of the now-dead Old Republic, but I would suggest that Occam's Razor would seem to indicate that Mr. Lucas had "Executioner" in mind, decided "Executor" sounded cooler, and went with the latter without thinking too hard. So here we have Darth Vader, towering over the bridge of his flagship, the Executor. "I am Darth Vader, Dark Lord of Probate! Sinister Master of Wills and Estates!"

Lord of the [Bak]ings


I am peculiarly dangerous when I am near a kitchen, because I am frequently seized by very, very bad cooking ideas which a normal person would quickly dismiss, but which I find myself compelled to act upon. Because, hey! I have a kitchen! And what's the worst that could happen?

Some examples: The Peanut Butter & Jelly & Ham sandwich. Savory Oatmeal (that is, oatmeal with no sugar, somef salt, some garlic, some pepper, a dash of hot sauce...). The idea that haunts my dreams and which will become a reality as soon as they come into season: Grapefruit Meringue Pie. I mean, why not? They make lemon meringue pie, they make key lime pie. But no orange pie, and no grapefruit pie. Perhaps no orange pie because the sweetness makes it unsuited to the pie format, but why not grapefruit? Down this dark path I shall soon venture, but that is not for today.

So tonight I was baking oatmeal cookies. I was chatting with my sister, and mentioned I was baking "oatmeal cookie." Note the typo, my failure to capitalize. This planted the germ of an idea, however. Why not, instead of making a second batch of cookies, just pour the rest of my dough onto the baking sheet to make one giant cookie, the One True Oatmeal Cookie?

Here we see the cookie in its doughy genesis:

And here we see it after it had been forged in the fires of Mt. Doom (my poorly constructed and likely to explode gas oven):

Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!



A few random things to post on. None of them long enough to warrant a post, but (I think) vaguely interesting.

Fiery Hot Flautists
I just discovered today that a flautist lives across the hall from me. She was practicing what sounded like Bolero. I wish she would practice more often. Not, you know, because she's bad. She's fine. I just wish I could hear her more often. I like Bolero.

Cotton-Eyed Joe
I've moved from Old Time Religion to Cotton-Eyed Joe in my banjo training. I've never actually heard Cotton-Eyed Joe before, which makes learning it tricky. On top of that, it requires a new roll that I'm still getting down. But I imagine I'll get used to the roll, and I can probably find the song on-line, since my guess is that most old banjo tunes are public domain. That's not the point. The point is Cotton-Eyed Joe's lyrics: "I'da been married long ago, if it hadn't been for Cotton-Eyed Joe. Where did you come from? Where did you go? Where did you come from, Cotton-Eyed Joe?" Unless Cotton-Eyed Joe is just some random scapegoat that the singer blames for all his problems, the suggestion is that Cotton-Eyed Joe stole the singer's intended from him. Now, I've never met a man with cotton eyes before, but I would guess that if you're losing suitors to cotton-eyed rivals, you've probably got bigger problems than can be dealt with by blaming those rivals.

Cole Porter
In the case of Arnstein v. Porter, Mr. Arnstein sued Cole Porter, arguing that Cole Porter had infringed his copyright and stollen his songs. He alledged that Porter had hired "stooges," to follow him, harrass him, steal his music and "live in the same apartment" with him. Huh. There was a motion to dismiss, and it was denied on appeal. I don't know how it turned out, but probably not too well for Mr. Arnstein.

Torts and its Discontents
I essentially spent the whole of Torts today playing Civilization. I took some notes, but mostly we went off on a very long Constitutional Law tangent. I took relevant notes, but there wasn't too much relevant. So, Torts session effectively missed, but on the other hand my catapults stand amassed at the gates of Berlin and I'm a stone's throw from conquest of the German empire.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Inconsistent Pleadings


One of the more fun aspects of the American legal system is that we allow inconsistent pleadings. The prototypical example given of such pleadings is the hypothetical case of the leant teakettle. Imagine a case in which the plaintiff is alledged to have leant a teakettle to the defendant. He claims that the teakettle was returned with a large crack in the base, rendering it useless. He therefore is suing for damages. Under our rules of civil procedure, the defendant could, in theory, make three arguments simultaneously for why he is not liable: 1. He never borrowed the teakettle from the plaintiff. 2. The teakettle was damaged when he borrowed it. And 3. The teakettle was in perfect condition when he returned it. Obviously any one of these three, if true, would exonerate him, and he is free to make all three arguments at once. That is, at trial he can present evidence to bolster all three claims, and if the jury finds one of them more likely to be true than not (though obviously it cannot find more than one to be true) the defendant gets off.

Despite being the prototypical example, it is imprecise. It sacrifices realism in order to make a point. Were an actual judge confronted with this case, he would likely take defendant's counsel aside and tell them in no uncertain terms to pick one argument and stick to it. While you're allowed to make inconsistent pleadings, it's somewhat frowned upon unless you have a legitimate reason. Moreover, it's just poor strategy in the case above. Juries would probably be inclined, when faced with that set of pleas, to assume the defendant's just a big liar. They wouldn't listen to his evidence, probably wouldn't keep it straight considering that evidence for one argument neccessarily contradicts the other argument, and are far more likely to return a verdict for plaintiff than if the defendant had just picked one argument and stuck with it.

Inconsistent pleadings can be useful, however, when the party making them legitimately doesn't know which is accurate. Consider the actual case of McCormick v. Kopmann. McCormick was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. He died in a car accident, shortly after leaving a tavern owned by Kopmann. Conveniently for purposes of filing lawsuits, he died when his car crashed into a truck driven by the very same Kopmann who owned the tavern. Suit was brought against Kopmann by his widow, on two counts. The first was that Kopmann was driving on the wrong side of the road. He was therefore negligent, and thus liable to McCormick in tort. The second was that Kopmann's tavern had sold him too much alcohol and allowed him to drive home drunk, and therefore was liable for accidents incurred while driving, since they had behaved negligently in not securing safe transportation home for him.

Superficially there does not seem to be anything inherently contradictory about these two pleadings. Ah, but there is. You see, in torts, contributory negligence is a complete bar to recovery. Thus, it doesn't matter how negligent defendant was in harming plaintiff. If plaintiff was in the slightest bit negligent himself, he can't collect a penny. Drunk driving, as you can imagine, is negligent behavior. So: If Mr. McCormick was not drunk, he could collect under the first count, since he was not contributorily negligent, but not under the second, because Kopmann's tavern could not have been negligent, since he wasn't drunk. If he was drunk, he could collect on the second count, since the tavern was negligent, but not the first, since his driving drunk made him contributorily negligent, and therefore bars him from recovering for Kopmann's negligent driving.

These inconsistent pleadings were allowed on appeal, on grounds that plaintiff legitimately did not know which one to be true. In the teakettle case, the hypothetical Defendant knows exactly the state of things, knows two (if not three) of his arguments are false, and is pleading in bad faith. Judges won't allow that. But here, owing to the fact that Mr. McCormick is dead, his wife doesn't know whether he was drunk or not. Since either of the two scenarios are plausible and plaintiff can't be sure which is true, the court allows her to make both arguments at trial and see if the jury buys one of them.

And that's all I have to say about inconsistent pleadings. Ta-da!

Passive Aggression


I'm in the middle of a cold war with the girl who sits next to me in one of my classes.

We met at orientation when we were both ducking out of speeches to go buy books ahead of the rush. We seemed to hit it off pretty well, and had been talking together a lot after class and when we ran into one another at social events. Nothing romantic at all, just similar outlooks on life, it seemed. When the time came to sign up for seats in classes (you have assigned seats in law school so that the professor can call on you by name, but Columbia lets you pick your seat online) I chose a seat next to her in the one class we share, in the far back corner.

Things went relatively well the first few weeks of real classes. Then we had a memo due for Legal Writing. After working on it a lot, she finished and I offered to buy her a drink. She declined, politely. This is where I believe I may have made a big mistake.

You see, afterwards I became paranoid. I've had problems in the past with coming on too strong with people. When I make a new friend, I tend to latch on and not let go until they get really sick of me and would rather not see me anymore. At this point, I became worried that I had crossed an invisible line and she was now tired of me. What could I do to push the pendulum the other way? Clearly the answer was to ignore her. This would demonstrate that my life did not revolve around her, and would prevent me annoying her further. After a detente, we could resume talking and everything would be well again.

She didn't show up to class on Monday. Fine. Ah-ha! A chance to show I'm not obsessive! In the past I'd immediately e-mailed my notes to her when she missed a lecture. Today I would NOT e-mail my notes to her. The professor sends out daily summaries that are better than anything I put together, anyway, so she wouldn't really be the worse for it.

The next day I hadn't done the day's reading, and was poreing over it when she came in. I grunted in reply to her greeting, but didn't acknowledge her further and left class quickly at the end without saying a word. That night I was up until 6 AM finishing my memo (my associate set a later deadline than hers) so the next day I was legitimately barely coherent by 2:45, when class started and I mumbled a hello. By 4 PM I was legitimately in a rush to get home so I could go to sleep. Nonetheless, this seems to have been the straw that broke the dromedary.

All of last week what attempts at conversation I made were instantly rebuffed with curt replies. All this week we have shared, I believe, two words, both of them "Gesundheit." What began, for me, as an attempt to demonstrate pointedly that I was not coming on too strong and was not going to annoy her has now turned into a passive aggressive war of wills. If she's not going to talk to me well, damnit, I'll show her by not talking to her! This leads to an almost comical display when class nears a close; we both begin slowly putting our books away prior to dismissal. When the professor does dismiss, it's a race to see who can get their bags packed and shouldered and get themselves out the door fastest. I believe the idea is that neither of us is talking to the other, but the one who gets out first is the one who officially has snubbed the other, and therefore wins a point in the ongoing war.

In any case, this is all very stupid. I hope one of us gets over it and clears the air between us soon, or it'll be a highly unpleasant rest of the semester. Moreover, I think we do get along well, and it'd be a shame to lose a friendship over something so silly as this. Any thoughts or suggestions?



I am going to destroy our apartment's fire alarm. Just as soon as I figure out a way of reaching it.

Back in Berkeley I had a very insensitive fire alarm. I had a fire alarm that didn't go off when there was literally a fire in the apartment (it did go off once when I was cooking a steak and the whole apartment was dense with smoke; it wasn't broken, it was just very lazy).

This fire alarm is not insensitive. It has now gone off thrice. It went off when I was frying cucumbers a couple of weeks ago. It went off when I was sauteeing mushrooms to put in a sandwich last week. It went off tonight when I was sauteeing some jalapenos to put in my rice. It should be pointed out that in each of these cases the food in question did not even burn; there might have been the slightest wiff of carbon, but that was enough to set the confounded alarm off.

This problem is compounded by the fact that it is positioned on the ceiling in the hall. The ceiling is about 9 1/2 feet high, which is roughly half a foot higher than my fingertips when I'm standing on a chair. I can't turn the damn thing off when it starts.

I'm going to put in a maintenance request, but my hopes are low. Our building's maintenance requests are all screened through a fast-talking Puerto Rican lady named Julie, whose principal qualification seems to be an exceptional ability to explain why anyone's problem isn't really a problem at all. Locks don't lock? It's easier to get into your apartment now! Besides, you don't really need that deadbolt. It's a safe neighborhood! You wanna call a locksmith, fine, but you'll do it on your own dime. Stove burners don't turn to any heat but High? They're designed to do that! Gets your cooking done faster! You want a lower heat, turn it backwards (to the very sensitive portion between Off and Lite where it's very easy to have the flame go out and still be dispensing gas into the room). Problem solved! You don't like your stove? Too bad! Buy a new one yourself. I'm absolutely certain that she'll tell me that they can't get me a more reasonable fire alarm. And, given that it would require calling a (tall) maintenance person, she'll probably also explain why the fire alarm works better when it's so high that I can't turn it off.

At this point, I do not have a fire alarm. I have a cooking alarm. 75% of the time when I use the stove for something other than boiling water, the cooking alarm goes off. This is useless. I know when I'm cooking. I don't need a shrill, rhythmic tone telling me that I am cooking.

New old books


I allotted my lunchbreak poorly today and found myself back at the law school with about half an hour left until my next class. So I decided to wander northward. Two blocks north of the school I found a small used bookstore which, sadly, is closing forever on Thursday. The upshot of this is that they're having a clearance sale, 50 cents per book. I felt really bad because I had never shopped there and was now sweeping in to pick over the last remnants of their shop, like a vulture. Still, cheap books are nice. I ended up 5 minutes late to class after spending more time than I should have selecting 20 books.

I had to run back to my locker to grab my laptop, and figured it would be a lot of trouble to take the books with me. Unfortunately, the crate I had was too big for the locker, but I figured, if I put it off in the far corner (because my locker is in the far corner of the locker corridor) it would be safe. I went to Civil Procedure, and when I returned discovered that some person or persons unknown had absconded with four of my books. I mean, it's not too great a loss, I can't exactly figure out which books were taken, since I gathered the books in such haste, and in any case it's just $2. Still, it's annoying. I suppose it's vaguely plausible to believe that these were derelict books, free for the taking, and if I hadn't been 5 minutes late for class already I'd have made a sign for them, but still. If you saw a crate of old books on the street, you would be justified in thinking them abandoned. But who goes to the far back corridor of the locker room of a law school to abandon books?

Still, now I have 16 new books to read. They are: The Living City, by Roberta Gratz, The Innocents Abroad, Pudd'nhead Wilson, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, Vannity Fair by William Makepace Thackeray, The Fixer and The Assistant by Bernard Malamud, Anthropology Today by Alfred Kroeber (of Kroeber Hall fame), The Romance of an Empress by Catherine II of Russia, Explanatory Models in Linguistics by Pere Julia, Eternal Lawyer (a biography of Cicero) by Robert Wilkin, The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury, The Story of the Irish Race by Seumas MacManus, Imperial Sunset, Volume 1: Britain's Liberal Empire 1897-1921 by Max Beloff, Medieval Panorama by G. G. Coulton, and The Rise and Fall of Civilization by Shepard B. Clough. I'm fairly certain the four missing were on Rome and the classical world, the last few that I picked out.

I started on The Barbary Coast during Contracts. It seems entertaining, though slightly dubious in historical method. I believe, however, that I was fated to own this book; according to the inscription on the inside cover, the previous owner was one Muriel Sharpe.

On Memory

I keep forgetting how old I am. As in, people will ask me how old I am, and I will be unsure and have to count backwards to figure it out. I tend to say 23 more often than not, which is wrong. I'm 22, and will turn 23 in October. How old I am apparently no longer registers as a fact important enough to keep on quick file.

I have a similar problem with remembering people's names. Someone will tell me their name and I will literally have forgotten it before I finish shaking their hand. All of this is not because I have a bad memory; I'm excellent at remembering all sorts of useless trivia and exquisitely boring details about things noone should care about. I'm good with dates, and good with names of dead people, which is why I majored in History. Hence my admonition that if you really want me to remember your name, the only sure way to go about it is to kill yourself. Nobody's taken me up on the offer yet.

Pick-up Techniques I Should Not Try

In the course of wasting time on the internet today, I came across an article with advice on picking people up. This is, of course, purely theoretical reading for me, much as I might read an article on bee-keeping. Nonetheless, aside from my general distaste for the subject, the article suggests a technique which I can't imagine myself executing successfully.

They suggest that you keep a selection of useless trivia on-hand and use it to start conversations. You're supposed to mention the trivia, they suggest something like "A goldfish has a three-second attention span," and then transition straight into conversation. I guess the idea is that it distracts the target, gets them thinking, and is somewhat unconventional so that what they're thinking is not "what a lame pick-up line." From there you can begin chatting.

This would completely not work for me. Sure, I have a wide selection of useless trivia readily available (I wasn't MVP of the Varsity Academic League in High School for nothing!) but I would utterly fail in the "transitioning to regular conversation" part. I would start with something like, say, "Hey! Did you know that one of the most influential figures in Medieval history was an imaginary king created by a con artist?" Then, rather than transitioning into conversation, I would embark upon a twenty minute lecture about Prester John. Or however many minutes before she politely excused herself to go feed her goldfish, which by the way did you know has an attention span of only three seconds?

I'm a bit behind the curve when it comes to TV shows. I don't get cable and haven't in three years. I'll occasionally turn on the TV to see what's on (c.f. two posts ago) but I don't watch any shows regularly.

I do, however, buy TV shows on DVD when they come to me highly recommended. Thus a few days ago (before my Legal Methods exam) I bought the first season of the new Sci-Fi channel Battlestar Galactica series. While I'm familiar with the premise and characters of the original series, I haven't seen any episodes of it so I can't fairly speak to any issues of faithfullness. But I have really enjoyed the introductory mini-series and the first episode, for what that's worth. I would go on with a review, but that would be silly; most people seem to have already discovered the show months ago, and I've only just arrived at the party. Moreover, those watching on TV have just seen the second season draw to a close, while I've only seen the pilot and the first regular episode of the first season. Anything I could say would likely involve silly speculation that other people would already know to be laughably false. So I'll limit my comments to one issue of particular interest to me.

The premise, for those unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, is that the human race is organized into the Twelve Clonies of Man. Some indeterminately long time ago they created the Cylons, a race of robots. The Cylons rebelled, as intelligent robots are wont to do, and man fought a bloody war which they apparently quasi-won; they didn't vanquish the Cylons, but they did banish them from human space. Now, forty years after the war, the Cylons have launched a surprise attack, wiping out all twelve colonies and all but one ship in the Colonial navy, the Battlestar Galactica. The Galactica is now steward to a small fleet of civilian ships holding just under 50,000 people, all that remains of the human race. The Galactica and fleet then set out to find a new home for humanity and escape the Cylons, who continue to pursue them.

This is where, apparently, the original and the new series diverge somewhat. In both the Galactica is ostensibly searching for Earth, the mythical lost Thirteenth Colony of Man. In the original series, this has the character of an intergalactic treasure hunt. They find clues and follow them in search of the lost colony that everyone knows exists. In the new series, Earth is essentially a placebo. Commander Adama uses it to give people false hope for the future. Sure there are legends, but nobody really believes them. Yet, for the remnant of the human race, it's important to have this hope to cling to. There are only 50,000 human beings left of a population of, we are lead to believe, tens of billions. For the crew of the Galactica, unless you've effectively won the lottery and one of your friends or family is among the civilians, everyone you knew or loved outside the Galactica is now dead. Moreover, the threat of extinction continues to loom, and unless you do your job well it's all over for the human race. Without some hope of salvation, even if deep down you know it's a false one, there's no reason to even bother.

All of this reminds me of Prester John, the most important imaginary person in Medieval European history. Essentially, in the 12th Century a man styling himself an emissary was received by the Pope. At the time the crusades were going poorly, as the crusades generally did, and support for Middle Eastern adventures was waning. So this fellow shows up and tells everyone, in essence, "Fear not! Right now it looks like the Muslims are a mighty military force, able to kick your ass all over the place, but they're nothing! I come from the Kingdom of Prester John, decendant of one of the Three Magi. He rules a great Christian empire far in the East, farther than you have ever travelled. It dwarfs the Muslim kingdoms, and indeed all of Europe, by comparison, and contains many strange and wonderful beasts. Prester John has a mighty army, and he has seen your troubles and smiles upon you. If you can just hold out a little longer, Prester John will swoop in from the East, defeat the Muslim army, Christianize North Africa, expel the Moors from Spain, and deal with whatever other problems you've been having. All you need do is swear your fealty to him when he comes, and perhaps send a nice little tribute gift back with me." It was pretty apparent at the time, and has since been made abundantly clear, that the man was a shaister.

And yet Prester John became a huge figure in Europe. Knowing about Prester John is an essential element of Medieval cultural literacy, because, from the 12th century onward, he gets referenced all the time in Medieval liteature. For the most part, people seem to have bought into it. A large part of this is because of the general sense of dread in Medieval life. Leaving aside the day-to-day drudgery and local concerns of war and famine, there was a broad feeling that these were the End Times, the waning days of Christianity. The Roman Empire had long ago crumbled, leaving warring tribes in its wake. The Christians had been expelled from the Holy Land, the Moors had conqured the Iberian peninsula and had designs on moving eastward into France, the Byzantine Empire in the East was crumbling and soon the Muslims would be invading Eastern Europe. To the South were the Muslims of North Africa, and in the Far East were rumors of Mongol hordes moving westward. All in all, there was a feeling that even if you eked out an existence day-to-day, the long-run prospects for Europe and Christianity were pretty bleak.

And now here comes news of Prester John. He has a huge kingdom out East, beyond anywhere you've seen, and he's ready to come in and expell the Muslims and take care of your problems for you. So it's not surprising that Prester John's emissary was welcomed whereever he went, and tales of Prester John soon spread across Europe and infiltrated the literature. Even if people didn't really believe he existed, he was a source of hope. Sure, we just got our heads handed to us in yet another poorly-managed, misguided Crusade, but fear not! Prester John is coming, and he'll set everything right.

Now I don't know if the folks behind Galactica intended parallels to Prester John. As mentioned, he's big in Medieval literature, but since most people don't delve deeply into Medieval literature, chances are any parallels exist only in my mind. More likely it's just a common human theme of willingness to believe something patently false in order to maintain hope in otherwise desperate time. Still, it gave me an opportunity to write a blog post about Prester John, and in the end isn't that all that matters?

Fun with Latin!

One of the neater things about law school, for me, is the abundance of Latin terminology. There's not really a good reason for it, near as I can tell, except as jargon that creates a barrier to entry that helps keep lay persons from thinking they could represent themselves just as well as a lawyer. This doesn't stop lay people from learning some legal Latin phrases and believing they can represent themselves in court, but I digress (although I will point out that, the more I learn of the law, particularly the law of Civil Procedure, the more I have come to the conclusion that a layperson has no real hope of prevailing when representing themself in court. Further, I now believe that, if you have an ounce of self-consciousness, the experience of representing yourself in court would have a high probability of going down as the most embarassing event in your life).

In any case, my copy of Black's Law Dictionary has a lengthy glossary of Legal Maxims, broad principals from which courts can reason when making a decision. Naturally, these are all in latin, and I plan to memorize some of them so that I can whip them out at parties and sound smart. A few of them, chosen at random:

In ambigua voce legis ea potius accipienda est significatio quae vitio caret; praesertim cum etiam voluntas legis ex hoc colligi possit. (In an ambiguous expression of the law, the meaning will be preferred that is free of defect, especially when the intent of the law can be gathered from it)

Negatio destruit negationem, et ambae faciunt affirmationem. (A negative destroys a negative, and both make an affirmative)

Jurisdictio est potestas de publico introducta, cum necessitate juris dicendi. (Jurisdiction is a power introduced for the public good, on account of the necessity of dispensing justice)

These are all, you will note, quite banal, but the fact that they're in latin makes them sound smart and inscrutable. Take the second. Someone drops that in conversation. You don't know what he's talking about, but you nod along so as not to sound like you're dumb. All he's said is "A double-negative is a positive," but by doing it in Latin, he made himself look smart and he made you feel dumb. This is essentially a big trick that the legal profession has been playing on the general public for years.

Another fun aspect of legal latin comes in case names. Most case names fall into the standard Party X vs. Party Y format (though, it should be pointed out, in common legal parlance you write it Party X v. Party Y and pronounce it "Party X vee Party Y," because lawyers are too busy and important to type the s or pronounces "Ersus"), but occasionally, for whatever reason, cases don't follow that nomenclature. As an example, some maritime cases are just named after whatever the ship in question is, hence there is an important standard-of-care case for tugboats called The TJ Hooper. Further, there are some single-party cases that involve Latin phrases, such as in re and ex parte. This is fun because you get a juxtaposition of Latin with American names, as in the cases of in re Phelan or ex parte Milligan, both real (and important)cases.

One other note on formal legal language, not latin. In old-style pleadings (pleadings being the broad statements of the case made by the parties to the court, Plaintiff submits a pleading alledging a trespass by defendant, explaining the facts, and the legal grounds for recovery, then Defendant submits a pleading denying the case, perhaps disputing the facts, perhaps disputing the legal theory, etc.) it was traditional to begin all pleadings with the phrase "Comes now . . ." as in "Comes now a plaintiff . . ." When I read that in old, eighteenth-century English pleadings, I feel like it should be the title of a very stodgy British pornographic movie.

Lord, what tools these mortals be!


Sorry for my reticence the past few days; I've been busy not studying for my Legal Methods final and, over the past four hours, taking said final. Yesterday I had the day off. This day was designated as a study day for the Legal Methods final. Naturally, this required my elaborate Dead Day Study Avoidance Kabuki Dance.

The first rule is that I can plan nothing fun for these days. Nothing. I must go into them thinking that I will be a good student and spend my time studying. I don't actually believe this, but I must put up the charade, particularly when friends ask what I'm doing.

Ideally, I will stay up late the night before my designated study day. I do this operating on the theory that the study day doesn't begin until I wake up on it, and that once I wake up I must study, and not have fun. Therefore, I am inclined to get as much fun as I possibly can in before my Day of Study begins.

I awaken on my Day of Study very late, probably 10 or 11 in the morning, due to how late I stayed up the night before. I role out of bed and start my computer. This is instinctual; my computer comes on before I do anything else in the morning, even before I silence my ringing alarm clock. I will then eat some sort of breakfast, probably cereal and soy milk. I then reason that, it being part of my waking routine, it is entirely safe for me to check my webcomics. And my frequently visited weblogs. Then of course it's time to go back and check to see if any of the comics that hadn't updated when I checked the first time have updated yet. Then I need to see if anyone's posted anything on the weblogs while I was double checking the comics. Soon it is one in the afternoon.

At this point I feel sluggish. Need to get outside! Sunlight and exercise will invigorate me! Besides, it'll be a working walk. I can collect my thoughts on whatever I'm supposed to be studying and create a plan of attack.

I return. Now I'm hungry again. Make myself a sandwich. Well, I can't study while I eat, might as well turn on the television and see if anything's on. Nothing is, but that doesn't prevent me watching it well after I'm done eating. By now it is 3 or 4 in the afternoon.

I return to the computer to check the on-line syllabus and figure out how to organize my study. Perhaps I even get the browser to the relevant page before I open a second browser and begin checking blogs and web comics again. By 5 or 6, I'm ready to proceed to my next phase: Denial.

At this point I begin thinking, "You know, Molten Boron, you really do know this material pretty well. Do you really NEED to study? Well, you probably should, but do you need to study all that much? This isn't anything at all, 20 minutes, half an hour of work, tops. There's no need to force yourself to do it now." This justifies me in putting on a movie, or perhaps playing a video game for a while. Now it's getting to 7 or 8.

I should cook dinner. Moreover, I should cook an elaborate dinner. It'll be productive! Food helps me not die! Maybe I should start a loaf of bread rising, that'd be a tasty treat tomorrow. Soon it is 9 or 10. Hum. Haven't called my parents in a while. Maybe I should... After an unexpectedly long conversation, it is 10 or 11 at night.

Well, fudge. It's almost bedtime. I've ruined this whole day. Might as well check the websites again...

It is midnight. Technically, the day has ended. Grudgingly, I pull out my notebook, prepare for bed, and lie down with my reading lamp on. I read my class notes, getting groggier as I go. It's a struggle, but I read all 10-20 pages before I triumphantly put my book down. There! A productive day spent studying! Now for a good night's sleep.

It should be obvious that absolutely no worthwhile studying has occurred on this day. It was academically useless. At the same time, I had absolutely no fun this day. The procrastinating activities I did do, which under normal circumstances might be fun, were engaged in a listless way, overshadowed by the knowledge that I really should be studying. All considered, I'd have been more productive actually planning a fun day for my day off rather than pretending to study; I'd have gotten just as much productive done in the 20 minutes before bed, and I might have actually enjoyed myself.

I should also point out that these Days of Studying often have elaborate ground rules, such as "No playing X video game!" or, as yesterday, "No posting to your weblog!" That did not, however, prevent me reading others weblogs, or commenting on my blogs and others's, but damnit, I promised not to post and I didn't post.

So how was the test? Meh. Other people took it a lot more seriously than I did, I think. But, as I've been telling anyone who'll listen, it's a pass/fail course that everyone passes. I'm not sure I submitted what would be an A test on a graded exam, but I'm almost positive I did more than well enough to pass.

Despite the utter unimportance of this exam, though, people were still relentlessly quizzing each other before hand, having panic attacks as they furiously leafed through their casebooks to make sure they knew EXACTLY what the holding was in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defence Council, and, afterwards, undermining each others confidence by asking what they thought, how they answered, how did they incorporate Issue X into the case, oh you didn't use Issue X? That's an interesting approach. Are you sure you could do that? etc.

But now it's done, and I can enjoy my night free of work before I begin my Weekend of Studying for the Torts and Contracts on Monday. Semper fi!

And by the way, a belated good luck to Dianna in submitting her application for re-entry today! Give those bureaucrats hell!

High School II: The Bloodening


Law school is starting to feel a lot like high school. You're in a small group of about 100 students, all taking the exact same classes with the same teachers. Everyone's gossipy and bitchy and clichish. Schoolwork and gossip are about 90% of the conversation. On the plus side, law school has fewer idiots than high school. On the minus side, it has a much greater number of assholes.

It also gives me an interesting window into my past: now I understand why nobody really liked me in high school. I was, in law school terminology, a Gunner in high school. I was the kid who always had my hand raised, shared jokes with the teacher making fun of my fellow students, and, most obnoxiously, constantly corrected people when they made mistakes in class. The problem wasn't that I was smart and people hated me for it, which is what I thought at the time; the problem is that I was smart and was a complete asshole about it. Now in law school I'm the person who does the reading, keeps up with the material, answers when called on, occasionally volunteers an answer when there's a lull, but generally just stays in back and tries to be invisible.

And then there are the people like I was. People who try to make issues sound more complex than they are. People who try to get into arguments with the professor over matters that we're not even discussing. People who read the textbooks over the summer. People who've already started outlines (which are the massive note-taking project for a semester where you try to distill 1000 + pages of caselaw into a few dozen pages of simple legal rules that you can understand for a final) and talk about them ALL THE TIME so as to undermine other people's confidence. On the plus side, I think it shows I've grown into more of a human being. On the minus side, I still have to deal with people who are like I was every day, and, given that they haven't evolved by law school, I'll probably have to keep dealing with these people the rest of my life.

On a less bitchy note, the thing that really reminds me of high school is how tired I am. When I was in high school I was tired all the time. A lot of this is because I went to bed around 2 AM and woke up just before 6 AM every day. Then I got to college, got on a semi-regular sleep schedule, and most of that went away. Then I graduated and worked full-time for a while at the library, my sleep schedule got completely regular, and I was seldom tired except at bed time. Now, even though I'm still on a regular sleep schedule, I always want to take a nap, and I don't know why. Just like in high school, the constant sleep deprivation strongly contributes, I think, to the sense of oppression.

I think the best solution is to sleep less. This sounds counter-intuitive, but follow me. As it stands, I'm tired all the time. This is getting betwee 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Last night I was up until 6 AM writing a memo, and got two hours of sleep. Result: Still just as tired as the days I get 8 hour sleep. So what's the point? I might as well stay up and watch more movies.

Speaking of...


Apropos the last post, I'm struck by a desire to change this blog's name to Res Ipsa Poquitur. This has the disadvantage of being painfully similar to the Berkeley Republican group-blog, but the advantage of being pidgin Latin, and incorporating the syllable "Poke." I've been thinking of changing the name for a while, since I realized that the Anatole France quote from which I got the current title is far more popular than I realized when I selected it, and as such a direct search for it leaves this page buried under 5000 (estimated) quote pages.

Speaking of page titles and the Law, another landmark decision in American jurisprudence, Baxter v. Ford Motor Co. 168 Wash. 456, 12 P.2d 409, occurred as a result of an incident that took place in Snoqualmie Pass, Washington. That made me sit up and take notice when I read it. For the record, Baxter v. Ford established far stricter standards of care for manufacturers in products liability case. The incident at bar occurred when Mr. Baxter, in a Ford car advertised as having a windshield made of shatter-proof glass, was driving through Snoqualmie Pass. A pebble struck the glass and the darn stuff shattered, spraying glass dust into his eyes. Mr. Baxter had to have the right eye amputated and his vision in his left eye was severely impaired.



There's an interesting case reference in my Torts casebook. We don't get the full decision, or even a quote from it, but the case is Judson v. Giant Powder Co., 40 P. 1020 (Cal. 1895). In the case, Giant Powder Co. owned a nitroglycerine plant in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Judson owned an adjacent property. One day, the nitroglycerine plant exploded. That is, the whole damn plant blew up. This presented a problem when the inevitable tort suit rolled in. You see, torts, or suits inspired by damages (car accidents are the most common tort suits) generally adopt a negligence standard for liability. As a general rule, if you get injured, you pay for your own damn injury, and the Court has no remedy for you, UNLESS you can prove that the party who caused your injury was negligent in some way. They were driving drunk, or on the wrong side of the road, etc.

There is, however, a doctrine called res ipsa loquitur. Under res ipsa, an accident occurs that, by common knowledge, implies negligence on its face. The case that established the doctrine was, as most doctrine-establishing cases are, an eighteenth-century English case, Byrne v. Boadle. On that occasion, Byrne was riding a cart past Boadle's mill. Suddenly, WHAM! he felt a great pain in the head and was knocked unconscious. He awoke some time later next to a broken flour barrel. A witness testified that a flour barrel had come flying out the window and landed on the unfortunate Mr. Byrne's head. This was supposedly an open-and-shut case for Boadle. Standards of proof were quite high at the time, and it was very difficult to collect on a tort suit outside of certain specific circumstances. While Byrne knew all about the barrel flying out the window, he had no idea why it flew out the window or who had caused it, and he had no hope of ever proving in a court of law that negligence had occurred and fingering the responsible party. Since the burden of proof lay on him, the case was a lost cause.

But then that rarest of things happened, a judge took sympathy, and the course of the law since then has been guided by that one judge's action (you'd be surprised how much of our law these days is the result of one judge discovering that he has a heart, and how many people suffered as a result of judges who lacked them). The judge argued that "the facts speak for themselves" (res ipsa loquitur in latin). Barrels do not, as a matter of course, go flying out of second-story windows. The very fact that one had, in this case, was proof on its face that somebody, somewhere in that factory was negligent. If they weren't negligent, it wouldn't have happened. The burden of proof was therefore shifted to Boadle: We're pretty damn sure you were negligent, now prove to us you weren't.

So, returning to our exploding nitroglycerine plant: The trial judge ruled that this was a case for res ipsa. Factories should not explode, even if they are nitroglycerine factories. The fact that this one did explode was proof on its face that someone fucked up. The problem that arose was that there was no evidence whatsoever for either side in this case, other than the fact that the event occurred. This is because, by its nature, the explosion blew up the negligent party, his foremen, all witnesses, and every single worker at the plant. The plant had elaborate safety protocols, a regime of inspections and documentation, etc. which might have been presented at trial as evidence of Giant Powdeer Co.'s due care... if said documentation were not also blown up in the explosion. Needless to say, Giant Powder settled after the res ipsa ruling came down; any case they might have had had literally been blown to Kingdom Come.

Anyhow, The Case of the Exploding Nitroglycerine Plant goes into my list of events that were enormously tragic but which, because I am a bad person, I find funny, along with the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

On the Genealogy of Crap


REBECCA: This is so bad, it's almost good
ENID: This is so bad it's gone past good and back to bad again.
-Ghost World

I'm trying to develop a theory of why some bad movies are entertaining in their badness, while others are just plain unwatchable. That is, some movies are campy and cheesy and it's actually fun to watch them. Other movies utterly drain you and cannot be enjoyed on any level whatsoever.

I'm having a tough time putting things together for movies, but I can perhaps draw some examples from music. To me, the absolute best bad song of all time is Funky Town. It's great because it's absolutely the least funky song you've ever heard. It's all synthesized, it's high-pitched, it has a pathetic bass line. Everything about it is wrong, right down to the robot voice at the end. It's hilarious to listen to, and it was made in complete earnest; Lipps, Inc. actually believed they were making a serious song, and moreover this song was apparently popular.

On the other hand, you have songs that have something or other blatantly wrong and annoying about them that makes them unlistenable. MacArthur Park is far too long and has inane lyrics. Timothy is utterly abhorrent in content. All of these songs have some specific aspect that mars any enjoyment by offending some basic sense of taste. Funky Town is offensive to taste, certainly, but nothing stands out that makes it grating, an utter chore to even sit through.

I don't have anything specific with respect to movies, yet, but I think data would be helpful. What's the worst movie you've ever seen? Here I'm talking about a soul-crushingly bad movie. Perhaps you turned it off or walked out mid-way. Perhaps you soldiered it out but didn't think you'd survive. Question 2: What's the best bad movie you've ever seen? This would be a movie that you actually really enjoy despite the fact that it is bad, and you know and accept that it is bad, and you appreciate it for its badness. This is distinct from a "guilty pleasure" movie, which is a movie you know, on an intellectual level, is bad, but which you actually enjoy on its own terms, not as an example of kitsch.

For myself, the absolute worst movie I've ever seen is Manos: The Hands of Fate. Best bad movie is tough; I tend to like the movies of Rick Sloane, of Vice Academy fame, but I'd have to go with Time Chasers as the most consistently entertaining bad movie I've ever seen.

Better Living through Hot Dogs


There's a curious type of store in New York City that you don't see anywhere else: The combination fruit smoothie and hot dog stand. For reasons that shall become clear, these stores all have "Papaya" in their name, e.g. Gray's Papaya, Papaya King, Papaya Dog, Chelsea Papaya, etc.

From what I can piece together from websites and the various clippings they post on their walls, the first of these was Gray's Papaya. Apparently one Mr. Gray decided to open up a tropical fruit juice stand, centered around the Papaya, then believed to be Nature's Wonderfruit, a veritable fountain of youth. So he opened what was ostensibly a health-food juice bar, think Jamba Juice for the 1920s. And, of course, what healthier complement is there to fruit juice than hot dogs? Gray's was apparently popular enough to inspire a competitor, Papaya King, in the 1930s. It's also in the 30s, in order to help fight against the competition, that Gray's started running its Recession Special, which it continues to run to this day: Now it's two hot dogs and a small fruit drink for $2.75. Now you have these restaurants all throughout the city, selling cheap hot dogs and tropical fruit smoothies, and all with "Papaya" somewhere in their name.

The interesting thing about it all is that not only do these places survive, they thrive, based on the number of them that the market supports, despite the fact that they're not actually very good. I've sampled the hot dogs at Papaya King and Gray's Papaya, and the veggie dogs at Papaya Dog, and they're all pretty universally blah, not much better than the dogs you can get from the street vendors all over town. As for the fruit drinks... Let's just say that Jamba Juice didn't need to worry about too much competition from the Papayas when they moved in. They're gritty and not at all tasty; I suspect they're just the fruit pureed and then watered down and chilled. And the signature papaya drink is disgusting because, as all good-hearted people know , papayas suck.

I think it's a tribute to the power of inertia. One guy struck it rich riding the papaya fad in the 1920s. He sells a product that's popular enough to weather the wintery economic climate when papayas are no longer the favored fruit they once were. Soon every hot dog store in the city is an imitator of his store. So when New Yorkers go to get hot dogs, they take for granted that they get tropical fruit smoothies with them. Nobody particularly likes them, but eh. That's what you get with a hot dog. That's how all the places do it. Any new hot dog stand here has to sell fruit juice, because that's how things are done here. It's now how they do it anywhere else, because lord knows there's no rational reason for it. But dagnabbit, that's how hot dog stands work here, and that's how they'll always work here! We did it this way before, so we need to keep doing it now.

I'm intimately familiar with this line of irrational reasoning, because it is the primary justification for 90% of all court rulings in the United States.



I love apples. I have three kinds in my fridge right now (Macintosh, Red Delicious, and some Macoun). Macintoshes are my favorite variety these days, as I've soured (so to speak) on Red Delicious, the apple I grew up with. That's not to say I don't still enjoy a Red Delicious, but the Red Delicious farmers of America long ago traded flavor for a brighter skin, more sheen, and longer shelf-life. I think the Macintosh apples I have must be organic or heirloom or something (I wasn't paying close attention when I bought them); they're small and slightly gritty and mushy, and they lack the brightness and gleam of standard Macintosh apples, but they're so deliciously tart and tasty when you bite into them. Every time I eat one I think I should be baking it into a pie, but by now I don't have enough left to make a pie. I'll need to make another trip to the store for that, but believe me an apple pie is on the way.

I have one question: Do all Red Delicious apples come from Washington? Because around here our peaches and other fruit (Except bananas) all come from New Jersey or upstate New York, but our Red Delicious apples come from Washington.

EDIT: It's also annoyingly hard to find out when Macintosh apples come in season, because of stupid Apple Computer and their stupid Macintoshes.


I was in the Tower Records on East 4th Street today and they were showing the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie. This reminded me that I need to learn how to play the opening theme from the HHGttG radio show/TV series/movie. This is of particular importance because the HHGttG theme is the first thing that inspired me to play the banjo. I had come across the script for the stageplay version of HHGttG, and had a cockamamie dream that we might do a production of it. This came to nothing, of course, because I was not in drama and had no connection to the drama department. But in my fantasy production of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy stage play, I played the narrator and also played the opening and closing theme on the banjo. So now that I have a banjo and am learning to play it, it seems important that, once I've gotten the basic lessons out of the way, I learn the HHGttG theme. It seems relatively easy; doesn't need too much finger speed, and there isn't too great a range of notes.

Upon getting home, I looked it up and discovered that the name of the song is "Journey of the Sorceror," which somehow made my lust to learn it ten times stronger.

Query the Second

This didn't work the last time I did it; let's see if I have more luck this time.

Somebody out there, and I have no way of knowing whom, visits this blog through a bookmark to the entry "Holmes, Bar Review and the mechanical nature of the human mind." I can tell because periodically my stats tell me someone visits that particular page out of the blue and moves from there to the main page. So: I'm calling you out. Next time you visit, drop a line in the comment section. It'll be kooky and fun! You need not put a lot of work into your comment; a simple "hi" or a nod will do. If you need a prompt to help you, try this one on for size: If you could erase your memory of any one book that you've read, thereby allowing yourself to read the book again with completely fresh eyes, which book would you choose?



Hello World! This is my entry body...

One of the neat things about living in a back apartment in the midst of big buildings in New York (or any city, for that matter) is the ability to look out your window and casually spy on people in the back apartments of the building on the street behind you (The flip side, of course, being the ease with which these same people can spy on you, an embarrassing lesson I learned the hard way a few weeks ago). I never realized how true-to-life Rear Window was until I moved here.

A pair of guys just moved into the building across from us and one floor down. On casually glancing out the window, I saw one of them habitating their living room. He was (and, in fact, is still as of this posting) shirtless, somewhat pudgy, and wearing red sweatpants. He's lounging on the couch and reading. He's holding his book in his left hand, and has his right hand shoved down the front of his pants. The book's all text, nothing pornographic, unless it's erotica. There's no movement on the part of his right hand, he's just resting it there. I assume this is his normal relaxed reading position. Maybe he's a former sailor, a captain, perhaps, accustomed to keeping his hand on the rudder at all times. In any case, I believe the lesson here is clear: If you don't want people making voyeuristic blog posts about your unusual activities, close your blinds.

Jazz Noodling


The guy who lives directly below me plays, I believe, some form of saxophone. It might be the kind that looks like a clarinet, like Kenny G. plays. He often plays in the afternoon, generally as I'm trying to take a nap. This is annoying, but I really shouldn't complain; I practice my banjo in my room, though I close the windows and I don't believe he does, given how his noise carries. There's something odd, though, and maybe some saxophonist could clarify it for me. He does a lot of jazz noodling, just playing a lot of random notes. He noodles as well as anyone I've heard, though I don't really have much of an ear for it. It's not discordant, really, but there's no melody or anything. It flows, but it doesn't go anywhere. Then occasionally he practices scales and I'll be damned if I've ever heard him get through one without screaching and seriously screwing it up. I always understood improv to be one of the hardest musical skills out there, yet this guy seems to improv well but can't play scales. So saxophonists: Is this normal? Are scales that hard/is improvising that easy?

On a slightly related note, while cleaning up dishes I heard him blasting out "Everybody Hurts" and singing along. I really wish he would close his windows.

Movie Review: The Corpse Bride

This is sort of a tough review to write because, if you saw The Nightmare Before Christmas and loved it, you're going to see The Corpse Bride. If you didn't like it or didn't see it, chances are you're not going to know or care what the fuss is about.

I'm kind of in the intermediate position of not having really liked Nightmare when it came out, but now I appreciate it a lot more. At the same time, I've only seen snippets of it recently and haven't watched the whole thing in years. In any case, I would say that The Corpse Bride feels like a somewhat rushed, slightly half-assed attempt at recapturing Nightmare's feel.

With the caveat that I haven't seen Nightmare in a while, I believe Corpse Bride to be far more technically proficient. The models and animation are amazing, the scenery is well done and cohesive. There's an interesting color scheme where the overworld is all in greys and blacks, while the underworld is very colorful. There are some notably fun character designs, particularly Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort and Mr. and Mrs. Everglot. And, I should say, the movie is quite engaging as you're watching it. It's not in any sense a bad movie.

Still... I would say it has two major problems. The first is that what's there is good, but there just isn't much there. For one, it's very short, an hour and fifteen minutes. You're sort of going through and see hints of interesting plots coming, but they never really develop. There's a constant sense of "This is building to something cool!" and it maintains that sense of impending greatness until it just suddenly climaxes and ends. And the length isn't the only problem in this regard. There are some songs, but not very many (four, if I recall correctly) and none of them are very catchy. You feel like there might be a great song around the corner, but then the movie ends and the great song never materialized. There are some interesting characters, but the movie's too short to develop them and there's not nearly the ensemble cast there was in Nightmare.

The other problem is that it feels like a rehash, which is probably related to the shortness of the whole thing. There aren't a lot of original ideas in it, and it's strictly by the numbers (though, granted, by the numbers as laid out in Nightmare, which makes it original enough to stand out). In general, it just seems like it was made to cash in on the cult popularity of Nightmare, making it feel like yet another in the endlessly-expanding genre of "Sequels that had no compelling reason to be made."

All of this makes it sound worse than it is. It is, as I mentioned, engaging and fun, but it's not a movie I'm anxious to see again. There are some genuinely great scenes, such as the scene of Victor and Emily playing the piano, or the scene where the dead rise for the wedding party. Still, it's being pitched as the next Nightmare Before Christmas, and if you go in expecting that, you're likely to be disappointed. I'd recommend it, but see it at a matinee or discount price if you can.

As a side note, according to the end credits the Pilgrim's Chorus from Tannhäuser was supposedly played at some point. It's one of my favorite pieces of music, but I didn't catch it. I may have to watch it again to search for it, at some point.

UPDATE: And now that I've posted my thoughts and started looking at the professional criticism out there (to which I was blind prior to posting my review) I feel vindicated in my luke-warm reception by the fact that Stephanie Zacharek of Salon, the Wrongest Critic in the Business, absolutely loved it. She does make one salient point that I probably ought to have mentioned: it's great that they did this movie using stop-motion claymation, without a bit of CG. Bravo on that count, and kudos for the reference to Ray Harryhausen near the beginning.

Corpse Bride


I'll give you three guesses who lives in a market that gets limited release films and, as a consequence, has a chance to see The Corpse Bride today while the rest of you wait like schmucks until next week. Here's a hint: It's me.

I have a decently sized gap between my Legal Writing course (gets out at 10) and my Civil Procedure (starts at 1:30). There's a showing at the Lincoln Center Loews Cineplex at 11, so I should be able to go to class, get down there with plenty of time, watch it, and get back for lecture. This is assuming the subways decide to cooperate.

On a more bitchy note, movies in New York are expensive. The lowest price I've seen is $10.25. Also, no student discounts (which isn't too unsurprising) and, more to the point, no matinees. It costs $10.25 whether you're seeing the movie at 8 PM or 11 AM. And this is a universal thing. Haven't New York theaters heard of Price Discrimination? Theaters elsewhere don't give matinee and student discounts out of the goodness of their collective hearts; it's because the discounts make up for the loss in per-unit revenue by bringing in enough more people to compensate for it. Now, not bothering makes sense if your theater's full for every screening, but I've been to some first-run screenings around here and, frankly, they're just as crowded as anywhere else in the country. So what gives?

Stockholm Syndrome

I'm going to confess something that I've been keeping secret for years. It's not something I'm proud of, and it's quite embarrasing, but nonetheless the desire to talk about it, and in doing so implicate myself, is too great to ignore any longer. So now I rip my shirt off to reveal the letter A which I have scratched into my chest: I own a copy of Bikini Karate Babes .

It all started innocently enough. My roommate had found a link to one of the internet's many goofy videos, and he shared it with me, as were were wont to do with one another. In this case, it was a trailer for a computer game that featured women in bikinis beating each other up. The video was great (note that I am here using the word "great" in its kitschiest possible sense); three minutes of rapid cuts of girls in bikinis punching one another, set to the song "Venus."

I was curious enough to check out their website. I didn't expect much (or, really, anything) from the game, but the website did a half-decent job of selling it. I suspected it was a snow job, but nonetheless thought that maybe they'd put the effort into making a half-decent game. I dithered for about three months after it was released over whether to buy it. On the one hand, I knew, deep down, that it was a big waste of money, and that I would be creating a stain on my soul that I could never wipe clean. On the other hand, it promised to be a treat to my refined taste for crap (As you may know, I'm a big Mystery Science Theater fan and genuinely love poorly-made B Sci-Fi movies). Plus it's a video game! I love video games! And it was relatively cheap ($25, I think). In a moment of weakness, on one of the rare occasions when I had a significant amount of free cash, I placed an order. I instantly regreted it.

The game finally arrived 6 weeks later. Fortunately I intercepted it before my roommate got home. It came on 4 CDs and took forever to install. Said CDs had labels that were clearly photocopies and were peeling off, having been attached, poorly, with cheap glue. The install finally finished and I booted it up.

The intro movie, and actually most of the videos in the game, was scripted to convey, as subtly as possible, the following sentiment: "Look, girls! In bikinis! They have breasts! Look! They're shaking them! Now they're pretending to hit each other!" The game has no plot worth speaking of. It takes place, I guess, on an island, though an island with thatch huts, forrests, ancient south-east asian style temples, castles, roman villas, and whatever other backgrounds the designers found in their Windows Images directory. The plot is something about goddesses, I guess, who, for whatever reason, wear bikinis. Power bikinis! The power, we are told at one point, is in the bikini top. What power is never explained clearly. There seems to be some power struggle going on between Venus and Aphrodite (A historico-political metaphor for the ancient conquest of Greece by Rome? Or perhaps a symbolic exploration of the psyche, given that Venus and Aphrodite are the same goddess? Or perhaps the game's designers are just dumb). Whatever plot's going on there isn't well developed, since there's no narration and the actresses never speak. And that's pretty much the most plot you get; all of the other character's videos revolve around them jiggling, or perhaps miming spanking themselves in the least erotic manner possible.

I think it bears pointing out, here, that this is profoundly not a porn game. Really. It honestly seems like it should be, everything about it screams "PORN!", but it's not. It's girls in bikinis, and that's it. The effect of playing this game is not unlike renting a porn video in which the cable guy comes, fixes the cable, and then leaves and the credits role. Only that's a bad simile; it's like if, in order to watch the cable guy fix the cable and leave, you had to first play through 30 hours of the crapiest fighting game every made.

And make no mistake, Bikini Karate Babes is the worst fighting game ever made, if not the worst video game ever made. The controls are clunky, the characters are unbalanced, and the fighters seem like they're in different universes from one another. That is, there's no sense of contact or interaction; One character does a punching motion, and then 5 seconds later the other does a falling down motion. They didn't bother to video the actresses jumping, so when you jump the character just sort of remains in standing position while they fly through the air in the desired direction. There's no grand sense of design and cohesion, but it's hard to expect that when they can't even get the basics right. In short, it seems as though they shortchanged the actual game on the theory that the porn would make up for it. But then they forgot to put the porn in.

All of these remarks are prefatory. I'm curious to know if there's a name for a particular phenomenon. The closest I can come to is Stockholm Syndrome, the tendency for hostages, after long periods of captivity, to grow to idolize and worship their captors as a psychological defense mechanism to cope with being at their mercy. I find there's something similar in product purchases, a sort of coping mechanism that kicks in when you make a purchase that turns out to have been unwise. You try to convince yourself that whatever you've purchased is much better than it is. You focus on what few positive aspects there are while trying to suppress the bad or annoying aspects, but deep down you realize that you screwed up.

Now, that didn't happen to me with respect to Bikini Karate Babes. The badness of it was so toxic that the game never had a chance, and I was able to shrug off the $25 as a learning experience. But if you'd like to see Video Game Stockholm Syndrome in action, have a look at the forums on the Bikini Karate Babes website. There you will find tens of thousands of posts by dozens, perhaps hundreds of users, all praising the game, speculating about the sequel (My God, they're making a sequel!), drooling over the actresses, etc. And bear in mind that it's all rubbish. There is no possible way to think this game is good. Even if you've never played a fighting game in your life, you would hate this game. It has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

So have these people deluded themselves into thinking this fetid garbage is actually good? Or are the forums there like a giant pity-party, everyone putting on big smiles and assuring the makers of this game that, no, it really is very good, really. It was a great try, a really great try.

In any case, I have a copy of this game that I never want to see again. If anyone wants to send me their address, I'll happily pay to send it to you and be rid of it. It does have a certain train-wreck fun to it, I suppose. A source for endless speculation about how anybody could have thought this thing was a good idea.

Semper Fudge!


Vegan-types! (Read: Dianna) Can you make proper fudge with vegan ingredients? That is, I have some experience with failing at fudge. There's a chemical reaction involved that, if it doesn't occur properly, causes the fudge to turn out dry and crumbly and gross. My question is whether soy milk or some similar can be substituted for cream and still have it fudge properly. Is milkfat an essential element in the process of enfudgeulating, or is it just there to enhance the flavor/texture? Because if substituting soymilk would just change the flavor/texture, I'll go ahead and do that. On the other hand, if it will cause the whole fudging process to fail I'll just find another use for my chocolate.

Just one more banjo post and I'll lay off the subject for a while. As I work through my book, I find it disturbing that so many banjo fingering techniques sound, to my ear, like the names of masturbation techniques. You start with the pinch, then develop the forward roll, the backward roll, the alternating thumb role, the slide, the hammer-on, and, finally, the pull-off. I'm not sure if this says more about the people who developed the bluegrass style of banjo playing or about me. Probably the latter, though.

Agh! My hand doesn't bend that way!

050914_006_2In my banjo studies, I've now reached the point of learning more elaborate left hand techniques. The first of these is the slide, which involves starting with your finger on one fret, striking a note, and, while the string is still vibrating, quickly sliding your fretting finger down the string to a new fret, thereby sort of creating two notes with one pluck. It makes sort of a weird sound, and I'm not quite sure how it fits well into music, but I'm sure it does, and who am I to doubt Jack Hatfield?

In any case, I'm fine with sliding my middle finger from the second to the third fret. I have some trouble sliding from the second to the fourth fret. I absolutely cannot slide from the second to the fifth fret, the maneuver demonstrated in the attached before-and-after photo. As you can see, the player's left hand is initially positioned in a pretty normal, comfortable playing position. After the slide, she has contorted her hand into the Vulcan Claw of Death. There wouldn't be a problem except the book says you're supposed to keep your hand anchored in its initial position and only move the middle finger. I tend to treat such strictures like the strictures in typing manuals; it's perfectly easy to ignore them, but if you do you're not training your hand properly and you're only cheating yourself.

My frustration is compounded by the explanatory text, which claims "If you have proper left hand position, it should be possible to perform all the slides in this book without moving your thumb. If you are an adult or older child you should be able to slide all the way to the fifth fret with your middle finger without ever moving your left thumb." It's so easy even an older child can do it!

So I spent my bored moments today trying to make the Death Claw, with an emphasis on stretching my middle finger as far as possible while bent. This earned me some odd looks from students sitting next to me in Civil Procedure and Torts.

The Infernal Machine


I have stared into the gaping maw of the future and seen visions of the destruction of mankind. I speak, of course, of lever-style voting machines. It's frankly frightening to think that such an imposing monstrosity is, in my areas, the agent of our democratic process. Perhaps you don't realize how scary these things are; I was certainly unprepared. The voting machine is literally a wall, a giant conduit of the kind you'd see in a submarine or in the engine room on the original Star Trek. You pull a great red lever along the bottom all the way from the left to the right. The names of the candidates for various races appear, and you flip knobs next to the ones you want to vote for. To write in a candidate, there's a column of panels along the side; you have to hold down a button while sliding a panel open. This disables the associated race's flip switches, and you can now write the name of your candidate on a piece of paper under the panel. When finished, you check that all the switches are properly switched, all the appropriate panels opened and written upon, and then, when you have prepared your soul, you grab the great lever and pull it all the way back to the left, at which point the votes are registered with a resounding *CLUNK!* To my mind at least, a sign ought to then appear saying, "Now your doom is sealed!"

For those who don't believe me, the New York Board of Elections has an instructional video about using the voting machine. Look upon our works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

My Civil Procedure professor, just now:

"Well, you know, we're all sort of like human beings, here."

"We made stars, each, upon fourth reach"


I had an unusually vivid dream last night, though it seems much less interesting now that I'm awake than it was when I was wrapped up in it. For some reason I was the main character in Scrubs, which is quite odd because I've never actually seen Scrubs, merely heard it raved about by a former roommate. For some reason this episode involved the hospital's gym (and by gym I mean middle-school style gymnasium, meaning a large building filled with gym mats and fear). For some reason everyone was playing handball there, with a bunch of fake walls. Several characters, whom I don't know because I don't watch the show, were tasked with taking down one of the walls that had graffiti on it making reference to "China Bears." For some reason taking this down caused all the walls to fall down and then roll around. This caused comic hi-jinks as the walls chaotically carromed about the gym, levelling patients and employees while my compatriots meanwhile drove around in a clown car trying to round them up (largely unsuccessfully). I, meanwhile, sat and watched, making snide comments.

It bears mentioning, at this point, that my character's subplot involved him adopting the character of Lord Cheswick Daventry Thistlebottom IV and creating obscurely obscene victorian captions for newspaper photos, one of which you see in the title to this post.

After the commercial break (My dream had commercial breaks. If those commercials are to be believed, Jose Cuervo now makes rye whiskey, available in cheap delis and liquor stores near you!) we returned and found several of the wayward walls had escaped onto the highway. The boss character was scouting for the walls in one car, while one of the compatriots from earlier was driving a truck onto which they were loaded when aprehended. They found one, and after the boss pulled to a gradual stop, the truck driver stopped by crashing into a large dumpster.

At this point, for some reason, the dream paused while my former roommate gave me a lecture on how brilliant Scrubs is, since at this point they could make any number of inane one-liners, such as the boss saying "Remind me never to let X drive the company truck again!" but they brilliantly chose not to, for the same reason they have no laugh track. My disembodied self rolled its ethereal eyes and the dream resumed. Around this point my character contributed the line of doggerel from this post's title. I could sense myself waking up (my roommate had begun to shower, which is a sign the alarm's about to go off) so my dream quickly skipped ahead to the preview of next episode. My guess is that my snide remarks didn't go over too well, as the preview showed my ears being cut off and my spleen violently removed from my torso.

PSA: Be Kind to Poll Workers


Tomorrow's September 13 of the year following a presidential election. That doesn't mean much to the vast majority of American citizens, but for denizens of New York City, it means it's time for the New York City Primary Elections. As I am wont to do, I registered to vote the day I arrived here, so I believe I should be all set to vote tomorrow. I'm excited, mostly because they apparently use old lever voting machines here, so I get the experience of literally "Pulling the lever" for a candidate.

I believe I must have some sort of voting fetish, because I've voted at every opportunity I've ever had. This includes the 2000 General (I turned 18 on October 22, 2000, so I couldn't vote in the 2000 Primaries), the 2002 California Primary, the 2002 General, the California Recall, the 2004 California Primary, and the 2004 General. I even voted in every ASUC election at Berkeley, and lord knows how pointless those are.

But of all those elections, the 2002 California Primary holds a special place in my heart. Why? Because in that election I not only voted, I served as a poll worker. And the lesson I'd like to impart to you based on my experience is this: Being a poll worker sucks, so please be kind to them.

Start with the pay. Most poll workers, at least in Alameda County, are paid $70 for their services (it's not a volunteer position, despite what some people think). Inspectors are paid about $100, but they're better trained and it's damned hard to get appointed to an inspector position. $70 for a day's work doesn't sound too bad, but consider this: Polls open at 7 AM. Poll workers are expected to arrive an hour early to get set up. Polls close at 8 PM. Between waiting for the last voters to finish, packing everything up, tallying and certifying the vote, and driving the ballots to the local precinct, a poll worker doesn't generally get done until 10 PM. In the middle, they get one half-hour lunch break. So that's 15-16 hours of work for $70, or roughly $4.52 per hour.

Why would anyone take this job, particularly since it means sacrificing a whole day of work? Two reasons leap to mind. The first is love of country and the electoral process. The second is because you really have nothing better to do, no job and no prospects for money. When I worked the polls, all four of us at my polling station were in the latter category. In my case, I didn't have a job and had never had a job. I didn't really know how to go about getting one (and based on my experiences applying for a part-time job after I graduated, I still don't really know how to go about getting one) and $70 seemed like a pretty darn good amount of money for a day's work. My classes were such that I had only one lecture on Tuesday, and I had friends in the class who could give me the gist of it, so there wasn't anything really stopping me.

My election was a primary in an off year, so it wasn't too crowded, but there was a steady trickle of voters, which prevented me from getting any serious reading done. Needless to say, the job gets very boring very fast. This boredom is punctuated by brief vitriolic interactions with patrons, as angry voters discover that they're not on your list and demand to take this clear case of voter disfranchisement all the way to the Supreme Court. Or they're angry about whatever. We had one lady who was a Green Party voter who was angry because the designated Third Party Voting Booth doubled as the disabled voting booth and felt this was the Alameda County Registrar of Voter's way of hinting that third party voters were mentally handicapped. We sat through 15 minutes of ranting about this. At another point we were yelled at by a union poll watcher for being twenty minutes late updating the exterior address list. Now, I'm a big union supporter, but I have serious qualms about the external address list. Thanks to California State law, poll workers are required to post a copy of the address list on the outside of their polling place. The address list gives all the addresses contained in the precinct, along with all the voters registered there. We use the main one to make sure people are whom they say they are. What I really object to is that we're required to update the outdoor list every hour to show who's voted and who hasn't. This is to give union enforcers, of the kind who browbeat us, the ability to monitor who's voted and who hasn't, and thereby go out and drag people to the polls. It's the law, so we have to obey it, but it makes me really uncomfortable.

I tended to be the voice of reason among the poll workers, as I was the only one who had read the thick volume of procedure and could maintain a calm demeanor while explaining to voters the options they had in handling whatever their problem was. Our inspector, ostensibly the leader of our rag-tag band, actually tried to pick a fight with one voter before I intervened and calmed her down.

Then we got to the end of the day and closed everything up. I don't know how this works anymore, what with the touch-screen voting, but when I did it we used punch-cards (and no, the 4000th hanging chad remark wasn't any less funny than the first; it's impossible to get less funny than a hanging chad joke, so it doesn't really matter how many times you hear it) and we had to carefully count every single ballot, twice, and compare that tally to the tally on the official voter log and the address list. Any discrepancies had to be accounted for, and the insinuation was that there would be an investigation to make sure nothing untoward had happened. Then, after we had each attached and signed our own seperate seal, we all had to drive the ballots to the precinct office, all together to make sure none of us got up to any monkey business.

So: Poll working is not fun. Further, in any given precinct, there will be a dozen voters who turn up but can't vote, either because they made a mistake or because somebody at the Registrar of Voters office made a clerical error. If you end up being one of those people who has trouble voting, please don't make a Federal case of it; somebody somewhere probably screwed up, and there is a simple process for handling it and making sure your vote counts. Further, your poll worker will happily explain your options to you. Just remember that, while it is a hassle, it wasn't anything systematic, it's not aimed at you, it was somebody's mistake and the person whose mistake it was is almost certainly not the poll worker. Yelling at them doesn't punish the party in error, it merely makes their shitty day even shittier.

Having said all this, I'm actually glad I worked as a poll worker. It was an interesting experience, it's given me some good stories to tell, and I met some neat people. Also, you get to take an Oath of Office in the morning, with the whole "I, Molten Boron, do solemnly swear to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic" etc. I'm not sure if the Oath applies to just the day you're a poll worker, or if it's a lifetime commitment, but nonetheless, I wouldn't talk any smack about the California Constitution around me, or there could be trouble. And, if you work a Primary, you get to see which party all your neighbors are registered as. I worked in North Berkeley, and since I had the address list I got to see the geographic distribution of parties in the area. Not surprisingly, it's almost all Democrats, with a smattering of Greens and a few Republicans. During one of my bored moments I did a tally and, at least in our precinct, the Greens outnumbered the Republicans 2-to-1. We had a cute old couple come in that was one registered Democrat and one registered Republican, and they performed some faux-bickering for us. In any case, it may interest you to know that there's an unusually high concentration of Green Party voters on Vine Street. Similarly, a lot of conservatives live on Arch Street, particularly in one building, the address of which I can no longer recall, which housed a gaggle of Republicans, several Constitution Party voters, a Libertarian, and two American Independence Party voters. While walking around later I stumbled on the building and it looked like some sort of religious cult; plain on the outside, you had to walk around back to the entrance. No sign outside, but through the glass doors you could see an ornate interior with lots of crucifixion scenes. I decided it wasn't prudent to investigate further.

Now, I would never do the poll worker thing again now that I've done it, but even knowing what I'd be getting into I think I'd still have made the decision to do it the first time, if that makes sense.

I'll relate one story from my day poll working. My fellow clerk (the lowest-rung on the poll-working hierarchy is the clerk position) was named Curley. He and I had a bond, in that we both were victims of typos by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office. For years I got calls from political groups who got my name from registered voter lists and asked for Zarhary Slorpe (Pronounced, Zar-HAR-y). I tried contacting the Registrar to correct it, but to no avail. Curley, on the other hand, was referred to in his official mailings as "Curlff." I don't even know how you'd pronounce that.

Anyhow, there was a lull in the voting, and Curley went outside for a smoke. I joined him and started making conversation. "Things seem pretty quiet now, no voters in sight." Curley got the thousand-mile stare and just said "Charley's in the trees, man. Charley's in the trees." The image of guerilla voters has stuck with me ever since.!


Dianna in comments below reminded me of my last experience with UPS in Berkeley. You see, I had thought my dad was coming to pick me and my stuff up and drive us home to San Diego. Then, a week before my move-out date, I got a call from him telling me he'd rather not, and I should just ship my life down and take a plane. Suddenly I needed to arrange for shipping and get everything sorted and packed and set by the end of the weekend. I tend to like to have everything planned well in advance, and don't handle sudden, drastic changes of plans very well. But I recovered, and after a half hour spent alternately punching the wall in the bathroom and clutching my head, I calmed down and bought some boxes and packing material.

I learned something in packing that weekend: Books are heavy. Similarly, lots of books are very heavy. A medium-sized moving box full of books is about 100 pounds heavy. I also learned something about myself that weekend: Thanks to my sunken chest and string beany arms, I can't really lift a 100 pound box.

Zoom forward to 7 AM Monday, after I'd made arrangements for UPS to come and take my packages. I figured I'd leave them in the vestibule of the building. Nobody was likely to steal them there, mostly because they weigh so much, and it was more convenient than leaving them in my room for the UPS guy to get. So I endeavored to get my boxes downstairs. It bears mentioning, at this point, that my building had no elevator, and I lived on the fourth floor. The other four boxes were relatively easy; with some effort, I could lift them and get them downstairs. The box of books was a different story. I loaded them up onto a small dolley that I'd used for groceries in the past, then strapped it on with a bungee cord. I carefully got it down the first flight of stairs, and everything seemed to be going well.

A third of the way down the second flight of stairs, I accidentally let the dolley flip into an upright position. Gravity and momentum caused the box to fall from the front of the gurney, and soon the bungee cord gave way, snapping off of the box. Recall that it is 7 AM on a Monday morning, and I had been trying to be quiet. It's more or less at this point that I gave up in that endeavor, as the box rolled down the stairs, "BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! CRASH!!" Meanwhile, the strain of carrying the box had bent the poor dolley out of shape (This was a cheap plastic dolley) and it would be no further use to me. I went downstairs and tried pushing my box to the top of the next staircase, then getting below it and slowly inching it down the last flight of stairs. The box was battered, but the books, as it turned out, were fine.

So anyhow, I had a full day of work scheduled, so I left a note for UPS saying I'd be out, but the packages were waiting in the vestibule (Which they could see through the glass building doors) and that they just had to call me at the office phone number and I'd be there within 5 minutes to let them in, hand them the packages, sign them over, and everything.

Around 2 in the afternoon I started getting paranoid that someone might take my boxes (I was in a paranoid mood that week) so I clocked out and ran home to check. The packages were still there, and so was a note attached to my letter: "We do not call! You must be here!"

Well, I didn't want to leave my stuff there for the night, and I sure didn't want to go through the ordeal of that morning again, not to mention hauling everything up three flights of stairs. So I went online and discovered that, for a mere $40, I could schedule another pick-up that day. I resigned myself to not going back to work for the day and scheduled a second visit.

So I went downstairs to await the UPS driver, biding my time by mentally preparing a tirade about all the things that had happened that weekend and that morning and this was just the cherry on the cupcake. Naturally I said none of it; I'm much braver in my head than I am in real life.

So the UPS guy arrived. As it happened, it was a UPS girl. She was gruff and surly, and I was apologetic even though I had not, in fact, done anything wrong. She brought out her dolly and asked me to load my packages on, as I needed to officially hand the packages to her. The first four boxes were easy. Then I came to the book box. I squatted down, gripped it, grunted, groaned, and gradually managed to lift it an inch off the ground. I shifted my grip, and slowly got it onto the dolly, then exhaled and collapsed. At which point she asked "Why the hell would you pack a box so heavy you can't lift it?" To which I meekly replied, "Well... I didn't know it was that heavy when I packed it, it just sort of happened." She'd turned around and started wheeling the dolly out half-way through my mumbled explanation. She got the dolly to the curve and started loading boxes into the truck. When she came to the book box, I offered to help, with the idea that I could hold one half while she held the other. She laughed and said "How on earth can you help me? You can't even lift it!" And that's how the last vestiges of my sense of masculinity were shattered.

They did a good job with the packages, though. Everything was delivered fine, and they were less expensive then USPS.

The Left Hand of Darkness


This another post about learning to play the Banjo. I'm working through my book, and it has some recommendations with respect to fretting. For those who don't do stringed instruments, fretting is a term of art referring to the work your left hand does on the neck of your instrument. You see, the neck of the instrument has a finger board with periodic little metal bars, or frets. By holding the string down behind the fret, you cause the string to produce a different note when picked, since the string is effectively shorter. The act of pushing down strings to produce different notes is called fretting. However, strings on stringed instruments are strung very tight. You have to push down pretty hard to get the right sound when fretting. Too soft, and the string doesn't touch the desired fret and your finger just serves to prevent the string from vibrating, so instead of a note you get a plunk.

Hence the book's recommendation: develop calluses on your left hand fingertips. This makes sense. For one, calluses are insensitve and tough, so they allow you to play for longer periods (pre-calluses, left-hand fingertip pain can be quite an annoyance, since you're pretty much constantly digging tightly-strung wires into your fingertips). Further, hard calluses make fretting easier. You don't have to push as hard to get the string down when you're pushing with a hard surface as you do with a soft one.

So the book gives tips for developing calluses. For one, it recommends dipping your fingers in rubbing alcohol before and after you play. This helps in the long run by making your fingertips dry, and therefore more amenable to developing calluses, and helps for the practice session because it's slightly easier to fret with dry fingers.

It also recommends doing everything you can to keep your left hand dry. "Water is the enemy of calluses." Their recommendations include not washing the left hand and wearing a glove while in the shower. I imagine you'd want to also get used to keeping your left hand in your pocket, as after a couple of weeks of this it seems doubtful you'd want to show it in public. But man, would you have well-developed calluses.

Movie Recommendation

I just got back from seeing El Crimen Perfecto. It was a lot of fun. Not the best movie ever, but certainly one of the best comedies I've seen this year. It's a Spanish black comedy, and I'm not sure if I can say much more other than it takes place primarily in a department store. A good part of the fun is in the plot twists, and they start early on, so I worry that any plot description at all would involve spoilers. In any case, go see it. For Columbia friends, it's playing at the Metro Twin on Broadway between 99th and 100th streets. For folks downtown, it's at the Landmark Sunshine on Houston between 1st and 2nd Avenues, and for Berkeley folk it's currently showing at the Act I & II.

A Battle of Wits and Wills


You'll excuse me for being a bit more raw and less polished in this post; it is upon one of the few topics that has the power to make me genuinely livid with rage. That topic is, of course, package delivery.

To put it simply, package delivery to residential customers in the US as carried out by the two major private parcel services, UPS and FedEx, simply does not work. Back in my apartment in Berkeley I would go to great pains to try to get businesses to send me packages through the US Postal Service. Most of the time they refused, apparently because UPS offers great deals to business customers on ground shipping. This makes sense; UPS and FedEx are both primarily targeted at business audiences, and really, from what I've seen, couldn't care less about residential customers, particularly as receivers of packages.

Typically, when someone would send me a package through UPS, I would find out about it when I got one of those yellow slips on the door. This was always a harbinger of doom, because inevitably, no matter which boxes I checked and no matter where I signed my name, I would be greeted by another such slip the next day informing me that they would not leave my package for me, and I'd have to be there to receive it in person. Oh, and by the way, since this is the second attempt, you'll have to be here to receive it tomorrow or it's going back to Weehauken, New Jersey.

This policy, I'm sure, works fantastically for businesses that can afford to hire people whose whole job is to sit and wait for package deliveries. This works less well for residential deliveries, as UPS and FedEx appear to labor under the misapprehension that the vast majority of Americans have no jobs and nothing better to do with their time than sit around all day and wait anxiously by the door in case a package gets delivered. It bears noting, at this point, that the time they mark down as their anticipated next delivery time is never, ever anywhere close to the time they actually show up. And if you do stay home and wait for them all day, they won't show up until 7 o'clock at night.

My worst story in this regard occured a few years ago. A friend had one of her friends send me a package from San Francisco. I came home to a heinous yellow slip. I went onto UPS's website and attempted to set a time for delivery that I would be home. I clicked the wrong button and was informed that the package was now being routed back to the sender. After several angry calls to UPS headquarters and the shipping location, I discovered that in order to get my package I would have to hotfoot it to the UPS store by Pier 39. Needless to say, I was not happy about this, though I would have been much less happy if the package had originated in, say, Peoria, Illinois.

Here in New York, there's a grocery company called Fresh Direct. They're an internet grocery; you pick your items on-line, and they deliver them to your door. Prices are actually quite reasonable for New York, and there's only a $5 delivery fee. You don't get to pick out the fruit and such yourself, but it is damn convenient.

Here's the point: When you're done picking your groceries, they send you to a page that lets you schedule a delivery time. It can be any day in the next week, and any two-hour block on those days between 9 AM and 11 PM. Most people opt for the evening, after they're home from work.

I know they're different business models, I know it's a whole different kettle of fish, but still: If Fresh Direct can deliver between 6 PM and 11 PM, why can't UPS? I know evenings are no good for businesses, but it's the best time for residential deliveries, particularly if your drivers are going to be sticklers about not leaving packages.

Having said all this, I've discovered that UPS and FedEx experiences do differ widely from customer to customer. For me, living in an apartment in Berkeley, it was always a herculean struggle to get my packages, because the drivers would never just leave them. For my parents, living in a house in San Diego, the drivers would never even think of leaving a delivery slip; They drop the package on the doorstep, ring the doorbell, and are driving off before my parents can open the door. At first I thought that the difference was that my parents had a house, whereas I was in an apartment. But now things have been thrown into sharp relief by my experiences in New York.

The UPS guy who handles our neighborhood is super-nice. He comes around 6, rings up, if you're not there he waits for someone to let him in (given the number of tenants this doesn't take more than 10 minutes, usually). He goes all the way up to your apartment, rings your doorbell, and if you're not there leaves the package on your doorstep. He's also friendly and likes to chat. An all-around stand-up guy.

The FedEx guy is a different story. For the last week I've been locked in a bitter battle of wits and wills with him (finally we come to the point of the post!). He tried delivering a package on Saturday, but I was out. He left a note, with no mention of when he'd be back. No delivery Sunday, no delivery Monday, no delivery Tuesday, for some reason. Wednesday I put out the slip with my signature, but a janitor took it down while I was out. I put up a note asking the FedEx driver to please leave my package, signed and everything. I came back after classes to discover he had stopped by not ten minutes after I had left, wrote "No can do" on my note, and left another package slip, again leaving secret the time of his next visit. Yesterday I finally got my package, but only by luck. He made the mistake of coming while I was home eating lunch. He was surly and seemed disgruntled that I was actually getting my package.

So I think the lesson in all of this is that UPS and FedEx have silly rules that don't serve their residential patrons well. However, if you get a good driver, who understands that his job is to make life easy for the customers, things work out all right. On the other hand, if your driver is bureaucratic and officious, who knows no higher purpose than the meticulous enforcement of the rules, getting packages becomes a living hell.

St. John the Divine and his Creepy Statue

I had a couple of free hours this morning and finally got around to taking pictures of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, out on Amsterdam Avenue. I've posted the photos, and you'll find a link to the album at the top of the sidebar. St. John is the world's largest gothic cathedral. As you'll note from the photos, it's not finished yet. They're apparently building it using traditional medieval construction methods, which means that it takes well over a hundred years to finish. It seems relatively close to finished, but who can say?

I'm generally not a religious person, but I'm quite drawn to religious art, and particularly medieval (or in this case, faux-medieval) architecture and sculpture. You'll find a lot of pictures in their from the face of the cathedral. There are so many nobly bits and statues and details that I ended up taking pictures of everything I could find. You will excuse me, however; it's been 6 years since I took art history, and I've completely forgotten the technical names for the bits of the cathedral. Particularly vexing are the statutes of people on the outside of the archways, where they're sort of carved into the columns. I'm certain there's a technical term for them, but I can't remember what it is, and can't figure out what to google to find out.

The other thing I took a lot of pictures of is the Peace Fountain. It's a sculpture in St. John's garden, and it is probably one of the creepiest pieces of art I've ever seen, particularly given its setting in the garden of an Episcopal church. It appears to involve an angel snapping the neck of a giraffe while holding a sword. Said giraffe is simultaneously being copulated upon by another giraffe. A lion and lamb lie nearby. They all stand atop a creepily smiling globe. The whole tableau sits on a giant crab, which has a human hand sticking out of it at one part and holds in its claws a decapitated human head. The whole deal is atop a spiraling column with four demons at the base. Apparently, when activated, water pours down the column in four shafts and the demons shoot flames from their mouths. There is a plaque attempting to explain the statue, but I don't quite buy the explanation.

Finally, I should point out that I didn't take any pictures inside, though it is amazing, because I didn't want to be disrespectful to worshippers.

Fraudulent Advertising

We're reading an interesting case for Contracts, a case with which I was actually familiar before coming here. The case is Leonard v. Pepsico, and it concerns an ad that Pepsi ran some years ago.

Pepsi's advertisement featured a kid going to school. He wakes up, puts on a shirt, and we see a caption at the bottom saying "T-shirt: 75 Pepsi Points." He puts on a jacket and a caption reads "Leather Jacket: 1450 Pepsi Points." He puts on sunglasses and a caption appears reading "Shades: 175 Pepsi Points." It then shows his school. A mighty wind starts blowing, and a Harrier jet lands. A caption then appears reading "Harrier Fighter: 7,000,000 Pepsi Points." The kid then makes a wisecrack, "Sure beats the bus," or some such.

The idea behind it was that you bought Pepsi and received Pepsi Points, which could be redeemed for stuff from a catalog. The catalog did not contain the Harrier jet from the ad. Mr. Leonard, however, decided he wanted to get the jet. So, after he tried drinking a lot of Pepsi, and decided this would never work, he studied the fine print in the ad and found that he could trade money for Pepsi Points, at the rate of ten cents per point. So he raised money from friends and family and wrote Pepsi a check for $700,000, asking to buy seven million Pepsi Points and redeem them for a Harrier Jet. Pepsi refused, and Leonard sued for breach of implied contract.

Needless to say, Leonard lost. $700,000 is a lot of money, but nowhere near the $23 million a Harrier jet costs. Moreover, given that you can't just sell military hardware to civilians, there's no way Pepsi could have delivered on their promise even if they wanted to. But of course, making a promise you can't or don't wish to keep is not an excuse to void a contract. The judge ruled that the ad was clearly a joke, and any reasonable person watching the ad would not think that Pepsi was seriously offering to give away Harrier jets for 7 million Pepsi Points. Even if Leonard thinks there was a contract, the fact that Pepsi doesn't and no reasonable person would think there was means the contract doesn't exist.

Now, this is not to say contracts which a party believes to be in jest aren't enforceable. On the contrary, in the case of Lucy v. Zehmer, Zehmer was forced to sell his family farm for $50,000 to Lucy when he got drunk and drew up a quick bill of sale on the back of a cocktail napkin and signed it with his wife, as part of a barroom bluff. He didn't offer it seriously, and was just doing it to show that Lucy didn't have $50,000 to buy the farm. He didn't expect Lucy to take it seriously. He also didn't expect Lucy and his brother to show up the next day with the money, demanding the deed. He also didn't expect to be taken to court over it, and he sure as hell didn't expect to lose in court and have to sell the farm. But there the court ruled that, while Zehmer didn't think he was making a contract, Lucy did, and the peculiar circumstances were such that Zehmer never let on that he wasn't entirely serious about it; he effectively did a cross-my-fingers-behind-my-back trick, and found out the hard way that that argument doesn't have legal merit. A reasonable person, observing their actions, would believe a contract had been made.

All of this is prefatory to one of the best lines in any decision I've read so far, from the Pepsi decision: "Plaintiff's insistence that the commercial appears to be a serious offer requires the Court to explain why the commercial is funny. Explaining why a joke is funny is a daunting task; as the essayist E.B. White has remarked, "Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process. . . ." The commercial is the embodiment of what defendant appropriately characterizes as 'zany humor.'"



Somebody visited the hell out of this site at 5:45 this morning (2:45 AM on the West Coast). I'm curious to see who that was. If you come back, please comment. Also, all you people out there who are visiting and not commenting should also feel free to comment. I don't bite!

I feel like a lawyer already

I just wrote a seven page outline for a six page memo.

Pre-emptive De-snarking

I'm going to generally try to avoid politics on this blog, but I thought I'd post this one item since it's a largely positive rather than a normative point.

As should be known by now, William Rhenquist died a few days ago. This leaves the Supreme Court with two vacancies and no Chief Justice. As a stopgap, President Bush is preparing to shift his nomination of John Roberts from a regular nomination to the Supreme Court to a nomination to the Chief Justice position. I get a vague sense that folks on the left are getting prepared to unleash a wave of snark, centered around the idea that this is rather a big promotion for someone who's only been a judge for a couple of years.

Before anyone does this, and I note Atrios has already fallen into the trap, remember: Earl Warren, one of the left's favorite Chief Justices, was appointed straight to the Chief Justice position with absolutely no magisterial experience whatsoever. He went from a private attorney to Alameda County District Attorney to California Attorney General to California Governor to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Roberts has undergone a similar trajectory, albeit as counsel to the White House under Reagan, and at least has a few years of experience on arguably the most significant sub-Supreme Court appellate court in the United States.

Which is not to say Roberts shouldn't be opposed on other grounds. I'm simply saying this to warn people that there's a very, very easy counter-argument to be made to this argument, and that the argument is somewhat weak to begin with. There are lots of good reasons to oppose Roberts's nomination to the Chief Justice position, but the experience issue isn't really one of them.

Paging Tom Baker

In other news, I found a store that sells the most exquisite candy that the world has yet conceived, Jelly Babies. They're expensive, but well worth the price. I'm now on track to eat $17-worth of them in a weekend. Now if only I could buy them without the foul Black Currant flavor...

MTA: Malthusian Temblor Apples

Since I've already maligned New York by comparing it to my old home in terms of food, it seems only fair to balance things out by complaining about the Bay Area's public transportation in comparison to New York.

Now, I should begin by saying that the Bay Area probably has the best public transportation system on the West Coast. It's certainly better than anything in southern California, and, since my only real point of reference for my years in Berkeley was the desolation of suburban San Diego, I really enjoyed the Bay Area's public transportation while I was there.

But now I've lived for a month in New York City and I fear I've already been spoiled. The system here, while not perfect, run about as well as you could realistically hope. The trains are largely on time, and most lines run every five minutes. Further, the subway runs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Stops are plentiful, and there's a well-managed system of local and express trains (Express and local trains run on parallel tracks. Local trains make all the stops, while express trains make just the major stops, roughly every fifth or sixth station. It's very easy to transfer between express and local trains, so you can hop on a local, transfer to an express, then get back on the local to whereever you need to get off, and save a good amount of time in the process. Or, if you prefer to sit and read, you can just stay on the local).

Coverage is great, you can get all over Manhattan easily, Brooklyn somewhat less easily, and, well, you can get out to Queens and the Bronx, though they're somewhat less well-covered. There are some oversights and inconveniences in the layout (It would be really nice to have more cross-town lines in northern Manhattan, for instance under Central Park. As it is, to get from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side by subway you have to go all the way down to Time's Square, south of Central Park, transfer, then go all the way back up the other side). But generally it's very easy to get around by subway. The lines generally run North-South, there's a stop roughly every 6 blocks, and you're never more than a block or two east or west of a line.

And then there's the cost. You pay for entry, not by the distance. You buy cards at electronic kiosks. Fare is $2 generally, but there's a 20% discount for purchases of $10 or more at a time (so you pay $10 and get a $12 card, or put another way, you get 6 rides for $10). Or, if you use the subway frequently, they have time-based passes. It's $7 for a one-day unlimited ride pass, $24 for a 7-day pass, or $76 for a 30-day pass. You swipe as you enter to get through the turnstile, a little display shows how much money is left on your Metrocard, and you can go through and put your card away. No need to fiddle around looking for it when you leave.

But here's the thing that really amazed me coming from the Bay Area, even though it shouldn't have. New York City has one public transportation agency, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA. One. They also run Metro North, the southern New York train system, and have deals to share tracks and stations and sell tickets with New Jersey's and Connecticut's rail systems, so you're dealing with the same people there. The upshot of this: you use the same card to ride the buses that you use to ride the subway, on the same fare schedule. No searching for change, you just walk on a bus and swipe your card. If you don't have a card, fare is an even $2 and they will accept your bills and change, but most people just use the Metrocard. Further: Transfers are electronically coordinated. When you swipe onto a bus, you can swipe onto any bus or subway for the next two hours and get on without a fare being deducted. Similarly, when you swipe into the subway, you can then use your card to get on a bus free of charge for the next two hours (Subway-to-subway transfers are much more complex and don't work the same way). That's the nice thing about not having half a dozen public transportation organizations running half a dozen transit systems with half a dozen fare schedules.

Now, things aren't perfect. As mentioned, it could cover more. It's also a somewhat complex system, as I alluded to above (they use colors and numbers and letters to refer to lines, many times in combination, as in, "Take the downtown NQRW to 42nd Street then transfer to an uptown 2-3 up to 96th, then go local to 116th."). The complexity is aggravated by weekend track maintenance, which causes all sorts of crazy changes in how the lines run. Notices are posted at the entrances to subway stations about how things will be altered (e.g. the 1 will stop at Chambers Street and not go all the way to South Ferry, or the 4 will go express between 60th and 112th streets), but nobody actually pays attention to these signs, leading you, the confused rider, to watch your stop go wizzing by as the train goes express, or find yourself unceremoniously ejected from the subway half a mile from your intended destination. It should also be pointed out that the New York subway is not very clean. The cars are old and decrepit, everything's bathed in a sickly yellow light, there's graffiti on the cars, etchings on the windows, and you don't want to know what's on the floor and seats. It's crowded (though, of course, a well-running public transportation should be; it shows it's popular) and there is distinctly an every-man-for-himself attitude, particularly when it comes to scrambling to snatch seats from the elderly, infirm, and children. I haven't felt especially unsafe on the subway, but I also haven't ridden it after midnight without a group of friends.

Still, though, I'd rather have a well-functioning but unsightly transit system than a neat, clean, orderly system that fails at its basic task of getting me where I want to go quickly and cheaply.

Unique Experiences


Tonight at a law school bar night I had the unique experience of being lectured at on the subject of SF Bay Area life and transportation by a guy who had visited once, when looking at law schools, and read several pages in a Let's Go! California guide. He even, at one point, flat out told me I was wrong and didn't know what I was talking about. This is after I informed him that I've lived in the Bay Area for the last five years.

It's like the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen confronts the blowhard in the line at the movie theater by bringing out Marshall McLuhan, only after McLuhan dresses him down the guy interrupts him and tells him that, frankly, McLuhan doesn't know his own work and should just shut up and listen to him.

February 2012
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29      

Contact Zach


Webcomics of Which I am a Fan

Sites I Read Daily: Politics

Sites I Read Daily: Video Gaming

Sites I Read Daily: General Miscellany

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from September 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

August 2005 is the previous archive.

October 2005 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 5.04