weirdos from the internet

Emily and I are in Cazenovia for the weekend, barely. Decades of inbreeding and exposure to elevated levels of cosmic radiation have finally taken their toll on the men and women of the US airline industry: it appears that we’re in the waning days of air travel. Our flight was delayed — everyone’s flight was delayed. Time lost its meaning, the captain sang the Flipper theme song to us over the intercom, and everyone was inexplicably wearing shorts. The situation is very bad. And as unpleasant as it was to get to bed at 4AM, our ordeal will no doubt pale in comparison to that of the poor soulds who’ll be flying after us. God help you all.

Still, there were some bright spots during our time at BWI. First, there was this:

I'd rather be seen reading High Times

I really can’t think of a lifestyle more debauched than driving your boat around, pickin’ up boat groupies. It’s as if on the last day of 1979 all the swingers were rounded up and banished forever from dry land.

But — speaking of deviancy — the more interesting sighting was a real life Ron Pa/ul supporter:


He was accompanied by a profoundly androgenous brother sporting a Mao bag/women’s-cut pinstripe jacket combo, and a paunchy father who presumably could have done more. But of course the most striking thing was the t-shirt, the back of which featured the URL of ronpa/, your and my unofficial center for Ron Pa/ul advocacy. Could this young man be part of the legions of Ron Pa/ul enthusiasts (“Paul Bearers”?) whose internet evangelism has put Paul into solid contention for the MySpace vote, and prompted National Journal to enthusiastically declare, “Please stop emailing us“?

It seems likely. There was definitely a wild quality about him — an ungroomed Van Dyke on his chin, a flash in his eyes, and a threateningly big class ring on his knuckles — that evoked the mix of iconoclasm and feverish irrationality that necessarily define a political candidate hellbent on dismantling the government.

More disturbingly, I watched him use an actual, honest-to-god pay phone — twice! Now sure, not everyone can afford a cell phone. But this guy and his family looked solidly middle class, and I’m pretty sure his dad had a phone clipped to his belt. Could he just not be trusted to borrow it? Had dad received one too many expensive cellular bills filled with cold-calls to Iowa on Dr. Pa/ul’s behalf? Or is it simply that a court-ordered psychological evaluation had barred him from cell phone use? Whatever it was, I’m glad that we’re unlikely to cross paths again (except perhaps in Second Life).

big I tell you, big!

Check out the TechCrunch writeup of Kevin Rose’s new venture, Pownce. I am, of course, insanely jealous of Kevin for his wild success with thebroken, AOTS and Digg. But despite my petty predisposition, this looks like a winner to me. Here’s the comment I left at TechCrunch:

This is Twitter, plus Dave Winer’s currently-gestating TwitterGram concept. I wonder how useful segmenting out events and links will be, though, versus just using general text tweeting for it. If there’s calendar software integration or an RSVPing mechanism, I could see it being very useful. For links maybe not as much, but I’m sure some social bookmark tie-ins would make it at least interesting (and I’m sure there’ll be Digg integration).

The interface looks a lot like Twitterific to me, and I think it could be extremely appealing to people who are addicted to Facebook feeds (i.e. everyone I know).

It doesn’t seem like anything particularly ground-breaking, but the more I think about it the more exciting it seems. If asking people to a spur-of-the-moment happy hour (and getting a headcount for it) is as simple as using Twitterific — that is, you hit a hotkey, type in a message and hit send — it could be genuinely useful. It’s much too early to say for sure, of course, but it all strikes me as being very promising.

One criticism, though: he should’ve named it pwnce.

FOR THE GEEKS: This could also make for an even better bareknuckle cage match with Twitter than I first thought: they’re running their website on Django, a Python framework created by Adrian Holovaty. Twitter’s website, on the other hand, is the web’s biggest Ruby On Rails application, and has become well-known for being at the forefront of figuring out how to make RoR scale — this is the sort of stuff Al3x works on (and gets interviewed about) on a day to day basis. RoR-haters frequently point to Django as a comparable framework that doesn’t have Rails’ efficiency problems. So! This will be a nice head-to-head matchup of competing technologies.

Of course, there’s no clear indication that Pownce’s messaging engine is also written in Python (Twitter’s is written in Ruby). And there’s also no real proof that they’ll be a direct competitor to Twitter, in that we don’t know whether Pownce will integrate with IM, SMS and other interfaces the way Twitter does (that could ultimately be a boon to them, though, since they won’t have to burn through capital buying everyone free SMSes).

pâté infringement

This New York Times article, about a restaurateur who’s suing her former sous chef for opening a competing restaurant that copies her own in many respects, is more than a little astonishing. First, because it ends on this brazen note:

Ms. Charles has come to think that if this case forces Ed’s Lobster Bar to change until it no longer resembles Pearl Oyster Bar, it could be the most influential thing she has ever done.

“I thought if I could have success with this lawsuit, that could be an important contribution,” she said. “If some guy in California is having problems, he could go to his lawyer and look at this case and say, ‘Maybe we can do something about it.’ “

That’s right — you’ll be doing a huge favor to humanity by bringing IP litigation to the world of foodservice in order to protect your business’s margins. Thanks a ton, really. But a word of advice: they say it hurts your chances if you campaign for the Nobel outright.

Second, there’s the article itself, which completely ignores the well-settled legal questions involved. The closest the article comes to saying “recipes absolutely, unequivocally cannot be copyrighted” (as it ought to) is quoting another restaurant owner who laments, “You can’t protect recipes, you can’t protect what a place looks like, it’s impossible.” That makes it sound like the system is stacked against him protecting his rights — instead of the system explicitly saying he can’t assert IP rights over other people’s cooking, which is the actual situation. And for what it’s worth, the article implies that trademark law can protect what a place looks like — I’m pretty sure that’s right, the McDonald’s clone in Coming To America notwithstanding.

All of this ignores the public domain innovations that Ms. Charles benefits from, royalty-free: the cocktails her bartenders serve, the system of reservation-making she presumably employs, and, most amazingly, the Caesar Salad recipe that she says her mother got from another restaurant, but which she’s now suing her sous chef for using. Diffuse borrowing seems to be okay; borrowing too much from one place isn’t, I guess. But where do you draw the line?

The story mentions that nondisclosure agreements are coming to more and more kitchens, but fails to point out why this is: as screwed-up as our IP system is, it actually dealt with these questions before the food industry was sufficiently powerful to corrupt the process. That’s why lawyers are now trying to shove all of this stuff into contract law, where you can get away with much more. In other words: it’s because the sorts of claims Ms. Charles is making are untenable under IP law.

There’s no question that the sous chef is being tacky by copying Charles’ restaurant, but it would be very silly to open a Pandora’s box by punishing him for copying paint colors. IP laws are there to encourage people to make new things; the market’s there to get them to make those things better. These distinctions can get blurry in the world of novel cuisine. But restaurants are fundamentally in the business of selling food, not seeking rent on ideas about food. This story is asinine, and Pete Wells would have done better to highlight how stupid everyone involved is being instead of just making the guy getting sued sound like a jerk.

a topic for debate

RESOLVED: Toto’s “Africa” would make for a great Arcade Fire cover.

I’ll withhold my irrefutable proof of this assertion until you’ve had a little time to digest it.

(Relatedly, have we all now officially dropped the “The” in front of (T)AF’s name? I rewrote this post’s first sentence because I’m no longer sure.)

TOTALLY COINCIDENTALLY: Looks like Julian is talking about covers, too, if you’d like to discuss the issue non-hypothetically.


They’re all over the goddamn place. I’d like to flatter myself by thinking that this is due to the collection of healthy fruits and vegetables that I keep near my desk, making it the workstation in the office that could most easily be confused for a picnic. In truth, it probably has more to do with the heaps of disordered crap and abundant coffee stains that adorn it (FACT: ants are apparently attracted to Charlottesville property tax forms for cars you no longer own).

Lee family wisdom holds that the proper way to deal with ants is to sprinkle boric acid all over the damn place. It’s apparently quite deadly to ants, but was invented long ago, well before anyone had come up with the idea that chemicals might be bad for humans. So it’s perfectly safe to liberally douse, say, newborn infants with it in order to afford some anti-ant protection.

Unfortunately boric acid — like laudanum, sulfuric acid and egg cremes — appears to be one of those awesome substances that drug stores used to sell back in the day, but have since ceased to carry in order to free up more shelf space for Swisher Sweets and NASCAR-themed bags of Cracker Jack. So I’m stuck with more contemporary ant remediation options, which suck pretty badly. In the past I’ve tried the little black plastic gadgets with gobs of poisoned peanut butter in them. They seem to work, but only after months of patient watchfulness — I think it amounts to ant asbestos, only manifesting its deadliness ant-years after the initial exposure, and well after they’ve already produced offspring. I suspect that it’s actually a breakdown in ant society caused by skyrocketing healthcare costs that makes the stuff work at all. Alternately, it may just be that winter rolls around and they decide that the whole exchange has been so embarrassing that they’d prefer to bother a more dignified target come springtime.

The situation is further compounded by our office’s general eco-friendliness. We do a bunch of work for a prominent purveyor of environmentally-focused household products. I have no idea what their anti-ant products are — tiny, alluring decoys shaped like lady ants and made out of hemp, perhaps? A book printed in soy ink on recycled paper entitled “Living with Ants”? — but I’m terrified that if I raise a stink I might be forced to use them.

It’s not so bad. They only bite a little.

a rhetorical question

Q: Is there a statute of limitations on emotional trauma? Is there ever a point at which your resulting petty behavior begins to be regarded as unacceptable by your peers?

A: No, of course not!

all documentary reviews, all the time

I have to be a little delicate about this: I just got back from a preview of an upcoming environmental documentary by a famous former Growing Pains star/iceberg collision non-survivor. I got to skip out on work to do so — I guess there’s a chance we may have some sort of involvement with the project’s promotion. I really hope we don’t. Nevertheless, discretion is the watchword, lest googling reveal the privately-held opinion of this particular worker bee.

The screening occurred at the MPAA’s DC headquarters, which I hadn’t realized is mere blocks away. It was kind of awesome being in the belly of the beast. Amusingly enough, the theater boasted what I’m pretty sure was an anti-piracy device: a speaker-looking thing just above the screen with a matrix of of dull red points of light spread across its face. I’m pretty sure those were infrared LEDs, and although I suppose there’s a slim chance that they were part of an assistive-audio system, it seems a lot more likely that they were providing non-visible illumination. A camera on the lookout for the bright glare of digital cameras’ infra-opaque IR filters would be able to spot a phonecam or mini DV rig easily. So good job on protecting your intellectual property, MPAA! Now just work on getting the projection in focus…

As for the movie — well, I’ll start off by saying that I really liked An Inconvenient Truth. It was convincing, affecting and cogently presented. It’s clear that LD liked it, too — a lot. But his movie is much, much worse. In fact, if anything it seems likely to provide an excuse for people not to take An Inconvenient Truth seriously.

The film consists of a bunch of talking heads who have been sat down and apparently asked what their eco-grievances are. They ramble in varying directions. Comfortable-looking Californians with “executive director” in their titles tell us that other people need to work and consume and generally want less. Neo-hippies tell us that the solutions to our ecological problems really come down to love, man (this was the first point at which the audience laughed). Somber crackpots explain that the real tragedy won’t be the necessary elimination of billions from the earth’s population, but rather the non-human species we take with us. Self-assured sophists educate us about how defense spending is an insignificant portion of America’s GDP and how no study has ever shown any living system not to be in decline. In between all of this, genuine experts offer genuinely interesting thoughts, which are edited together into incoherence: air pollution’s effect on childhood asthma prefaces concern about overfishing; deforestation segues into using fungi for heavy metal mitigation. Accompanying it all: a parade of stock footage, much of it at best tangentially related to the subject currently being discussed (we do get a quick, grainy shot of LD in a sweatlodge, though, which is pretty hilarious).

More than anything, the problem is the writing. LD can’t write effective rhetoric for his monologues — he’s like Al Gore, except actually boring. And the film is horribly disorganized. It’s nothing that a freshman writing seminar or two couldn’t fix (although it might require a particularly merciless TA). But as it currently stands, watching the film is like listening to an ecologically-focused 90-minute monologue by A.J. Soprano circa the end of season six.

the perfectly-rated list is slightly overrated

Julian links to Chuck Klosterman’s list of perfectly-rated bands (that is, bands that are neither under- nor overrated). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this before, but had forgotten about it. It’s a good list, with one exception:

New Radicals: There are only five facts publicly known about this entity. The first is that 1998’s “You Get What You Give” is an almost flawless Todd Rundgren–like masterwork that makes any right-thinking American want to run through a Wal-Mart semi-naked. The second is that nobody can remember the singer’s name. The third is that the singer often wore a profoundly idiotic hat. The fourth is that if this anonymous, poorly hatted singer had made a follow-up album, it would have somehow made his first record seem worse. The fifth is that his album didn’t quite deserve to go gold, and it didn’t.

This is wrong, except for the bit about the hat. “You Get What You Give” is abysmal. It’s one of those inexplicably ubiquitous songs that force listeners to conclude that the singer must be the son or daughter or lover of a powerful record industry executive. The chorus and the verses blur together, it falls back on percussive vocal delivery to hide how boring the melody is, and the lyrics are intensely banal in the sort of way that only a pop-music sentiment that’s a) two decades old and b) written by Paul McCartney can be. It sounds like Jamiroquai singing tunelessly to himself in the shower and forgetting most of the words. It’s really, really bad.

Also, the stupidity of that hat really can’t be overstated.