more than you probably care to know about my dental woes

I really can’t recommend root canals highly enough. I had my first one on Wednesday; now I think everyone should get one.

Of course, there’s a reason for my enthusiasm that may be unique to me. The first part of last week was not good. I had a headache all weekend. At first I blamed this on the fancy Belgian cider I had consumed at fake Thanksgiving; that, and the universe immediately refuting the somewhat Nietzschean theory of hangover evasion that I had explained to Yglesias at drunken length.

But the headache grew, and then started coming in waves, and then the waves stopped having troughs, and it pretty much felt like someone was crushing the side of my skull with an aluminum baseball bat and the moment of impact had been frozen in time. It made for a pretty unproductive week. I hereby apologize for the following tasks and traits that I failed to perform and/or exhibit as a result of my discomfort:

  • Conference call attentiveness
  • Abstention from pathetic muttering/angry cursing
  • Affable rock concert co-attendance
  • Subway conversation
  • Cordial greeting of the oh-you’re-outside-the-party-smoking variety
  • Birthday enthusiasm
  • Eating solid food at normal rates
  • Web content provision

I went to see the dentist pretty soon after this started — the pain seemed to radiate from suspiciously close to the tooth that had been irritatingly sensitive to cold since my massive filling session. WebMD was, as usual, almost completely useless, but it did get across the point that failure to have tooth pain checked out is a bad idea if you’re at all fond of your jaw. The dentist took an x-ray and assured me that she continued to have a high opinion of the work she had done. I said I didn’t want to cause a fuss and would try to tough it out. Doubtless I was just a victim of our society’s collective neuroticism — I’d probably seen an ad for tooth pain on the subway or something.

But things got worse that evening. Having been told my tooth was fine, I started shopping for candidate diseases on Wikipedia. TMJ? Kinda lame, to be honest, and it didn’t really fit the symptoms. But from there I found atypical trigeminal neuralgia — man, I was sorry to let that one go. I heartily recommend it to any hypochondriacs looking for an especially dire explanation for a headache. It can be difficult to treat and is so frequently misdiagnosed that (Wikipedia claims) it’s sometimes called “the suicide disease”. Now we’re talking!

Sadly, it turns out that I just had a prosaic infection, and that the pain was coming from the nerve’s death throes. When I returned to the dentist the next day to insist on treatment (or at least a prescription for something fun), she referred me to an endodontic specialist a few blocks away. There, a doctor with a very Hispanic name and very midwestern mannerisms quickly diagnosed and treated me. Man! It was great. She was so good and the relief so immediate that I couldn’t help developing a little crush on her. The only pain I felt was the prick of the novocaine needle, which — if you’ve ever flattered yourself by imagining that you’re in the 51st percentile or better of population-wide toughness (and pretty much all guys do, pretty much all the time) — is the sort of pain that you really can’t complain about.

All in all, it was about a million times better than Emily’s experience, and although I didn’t wind up with any painkillers, I did walk away with an awesome metal instrument for emergency dental self-intervention during Thanksgiving travel (the specific procedure also calls for a butane lighter — I know!).

Anyway, root canals: recommended! Would buy from again.

you will be surprised to hear that I enjoy science fiction action movies

I rewatched Aliens over the weekend, and man: that’s a pretty good movie!

I do have one other thought to share, though. And it’s this: you hear a lot about how influential the production design in Blade Runner was, and that certainly seems true. But within the context of the Alien franchise, most of the attention is paid to H. R. Giger’s creature designs. That seems to me to significantly underestimate the influence that the rest of the film’s designs have had. In particular its portrayal of the marines and their equipment has been embraced/stolen by virtually every science fiction videogame franchise since. Some of this is just pragmatic — it’s easy to make big, boxy vehicles; having an LED ammo counter on a weapon avoids the need for an extra HUD element — but to a large extent these ideas have been taken up because they’re just really good designs. At this point they’ve been reused so often that they more or less form the baseline for any depiction of futuristic infantry.

Now of course both BR and the first Alien movie were directed by Ridley Scott, so it makes no sense to propose an under/overrated auteur dynamic. Aliens was helmed by James Cameron, and as a sequel it’s necessarily more of an evolution of the preceding movie’s aesthetic (which itself was less original than BR) than an original universe. But I’d argue that while BR had an immediate impact on the people making our popular culture, Aliens was quietly internalized by a generation of future game designers who have only recently begun making their presence known as both they, and their chosen medium, have come of age.

Smuggling Varmints Unethically

I didn’t see this episode so I can’t say for sure, but the Law & Order: SVU that I just watched with Charles seems like a strong contender for greatest of all time. That’s not saying much, of course, since Law & Order is a terrible, terrible franchise. Still, check out the plot summary as I related it to Emily:

There was a girl found shot but then she wasn’t but it turned out to be her twin, except then also she had tiger bites on her, so of course they figured it was the tiger of this rap star (played by the guy from Outkast), but DNA proved it wasn’t, so then Big Boi says the girl was part of an exotic animal smuggling ring and takes Stabler to them posing as a customs official who wants to become corrupt, and he steals some hair and it was THAT TIGER, but then Big Boi gets eaten by hyenas (which we know because a CSI said “check out that hyena vomit” and his chain was in it) so then Stabler goes back to the smugglers and tries to become better friends and sees a lady with a weird vest and the bad guys say “everyone is always picturing her naked, they don’t stop to think about whether she’s smuggling turtle eggs”, which proves how ingenious (aka evil) they are.

SO the bad guys keep feeling out Stabler as a fake customs agent and they want him to help smuggle a VERY RARE GIBBON, and he does but they get suspicious and shoot him, but he’s okay and they set up a sting at the airport where the gibbon is being brought into the country via a basketball, and they catch the bad guys in the act of selling it to an asian guy and the bad guys say “gentleman, there are now only SIXTEEN of these gibbons left in the wild, hahaha.”

But then the cops arrive and everyone runs over rooftops and almost falls down, except it turns out one of the two bad guys was an undercover cop all along and the other smuggler is JUST THE TIP OF THE ANIMAL SMUGGLING ICEBERG!


so that’s how it ended

Yes, the MPAA may hunt you down (like so many gibbons) if you illegally download the episode. But are you really prepared to depend on NBC’s rerun-scheduling caprice when it comes to something so obviously awesome?

the discerning aesthete’s guide to media designed for teenage boys

The new Bond movie: I liked it! The only film in the series that it seems worthwhile to compare it to is Casino Royale, and on that score it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, Quantum of Solace‘s best parts are not as good as those of Casino Royale, if only because they don’t involve awesome footchases built around parkour. On the other hand, QoS‘s worst parts manage to avoid the inclusion of high-stakes poker tournaments run by the villain, by which point in the movie it has been established that the local police force is in Bond’s pocket so why don’t they just arrest this guy anyway?

Seriously: a poker tournament?! I can only assume that the people responsible for that decision will one day look back upon it and be as deeply ashamed as if they had written a getaway chase set on razor scooters, or a part for a villainous master-blogger, or an Aston Martin with an advanced camouflage system based on hypercolor t-shirt technology. Topicality is not the Bond series’ strong suit. Also, as evil character tics go, having an inhaler is pretty lame — particularly if it isn’t used to kill anybody.

The new movie avoided those sorts of problems, instead opting for the more commonly accepted practice of just having lots of enormous plot holes. Why are the villains eschewing petrotyranny in favor of a plot to extract a somewhat higher profit margin on municipal water in Bolivia (the dastards!)? Why was that exploding hotel built out of hydrogen, again?

But all this is well within acceptable action movie tolerances, and Daniel Craig is pretty awesome. Also: I liked the title, dammit! I must reluctantly conclude that those who disagree are just mean.

Gears of War 2 has been acquired, partly on the strength of this New Yorker profile of its lead designer, sent to me by my coworker Brian (be sure to also check out this comments-section exchange between the author and a critic, which Jason pointed out to me). It’s shaping up to be the biggest Xbox release of the holiday season. If you’d like to come find me on XBL, my gamertag is Club Loser. Let me assure you: I’m quite bad.

I realize it’s curmudgeonly of me, but I can’t help but be dismayed by this generation’s videogame franchises. Back in my day (*stretches, pats belly*) our shooters stuck to paper-thin premises that were patently ludicrous and profoundly derivative, but which provided plenty of room for awesome non-sequiturs. There’s, uh, a portal to hell on Mars? And things are coming through it? Sure, let’s go with that — Aliens was pretty awesome, right? Or hey, maybe there’s an intergalactic tournament where kidnapped fighters from all over the galaxy are brought and forced to fight for some reason? It was cool when it happened to Bruce Lee, and he didn’t even have a rocket launcher.

These days, things are a bit more homogenous and overengineered. The two biggest shooter franchises for Xbox are Halo and Gears of War. In one of them, superhumans on a distant planet are locked in a pitched battle against vaguely reptilian alien hordes driven by a crazed prophetic religion. In the other, superhumans on a distant planet are locked in a pitched battle against vaguely insectoid alien hordes who seem to feel it’s not polite to discuss religion in a social or battlefield setting.

All of this is fine. The resulting movies and novelizations are irritating in principle, but also fine so long as you avoid watching or reading them — people like making money, after all. What’s very, very irritating, though, is the compulsory delusion among the fanboy set which maintains that the settings and plots for these games are anything other than incredibly awful, derivative, sub-fanfic-level dreck, utterly unworthy of respect or serious consideration. Instead I end up reading gaming press pieces which assume that I know or care what the Pillar of Autumn is, or which include quotes from the games’ creators that say things like “we think there’s a lot more to explore in the Halo universe”. Sure! Of course! Who wouldn’t want to see what wonders await us in a fictional world that includes ideas as original as lasers and machineguns and jeeps (oh, the jeeps!). Also there’s a bunch of stuff stolen from Larry Niven, but with fewer words.

I suppose I should just avoid those articles. But I need to know about the comparative deadliness of the next rocket launcher iteration! Or which add-on maps I’m going to be forced to buy! Or the next initiative that will try (and fail) to make teenagers on Xbox Live a bit less racist and homophobic.

None of this actually diminishes my excitement at the prospect of brutalizing strangers’ avatars from the comfort of my home. There’s skill involved, the gameplay is well-tuned, and it’s thrilling to win. I just wish there were fewer pretentious narrative trappings surrounding the experience — or, if we really can’t pare things down to a minimal core of deadliness, that the narrative filigrees could be made with a sense of good humor rather than just the idiot earnestness of the hack-who-doesn’t-know-it.

Also: to put all this into perspective, I spent yesterday playing laser tag.

charts & graphs

son1 has written a post that continues the discussion I began around colors and data visualization, and I’m jealous of it for two reasons. First, I can’t believe I didn’t think of and claim that post title for myself, because it’s perfect.

Second, he does a much better job of getting to the heart of what I was trying to express: that a surprisingly large amount of data visualizations are both correct and question-begging. The choices made by the creator will inevitably influence which conclusions are drawn. That isn’t to malign the idea of graphs and charts and maps — at their best they are arguments that contain all component data, and whose accuracy can be easily checked. But they’re still arguments.

Perhaps all this stuff has been said before and better by Tufte, but those books are expensive, dammit.

had a few too many manhattans

This post of Megan’s, which details why calls for “another Manhattan Project” are dumb, is quite good. I’ll go ahead and suggest that calls for “another Apollo Program” are generally even dumber — they’re the same thing, except the speaker doesn’t have enough guts to be willing to bring the A-bomb to mind.

But this got me thinking about the circumstances under which these sorts of projects can work. Here’s my stab at it. These sorts of national greatness problems need:

  • … to be primarily an engineering problem.
  • … to not contain the words “… and be economically viable”.
  • … to have been solved at a smaller scale, or to seem solvable on the basis of some compelling math.
  • … to not be about finding a solution to a biological problem, unless that problem can be solved by wiping out a non-microscopic organism.
  • … to be undertaken out of concern that another country might get a leg up on us if we don’t succeed.

Obviously this is based on a small set of data points. Basically: we’ve built the atom bomb, gone to the moon, dug a big canal, built a bunch of roads, and run a number of impressive (and impressively expensive) science experiments. We almost certainly could wipe out malaria (almost did!), or develop cellulosic ethanol/Jimmy Carter’s “synthetic oil”, but we either don’t really want to or think it might be a waste of money. And we definitely haven’t cured cancer or AIDS, despite trying pretty hard.

There’ve been more than forty State of the Union speeches since Kennedy said we were moonward-bound, so I’m sure I’m missing at least that many calls for ambitious national initiatives. But this is the basic lay of the land, I think: you’ve got to pick something that seems genuinely urgent, and which is hard but not too hard. It’s simple when you put it that way.

As you might imagine, I’m rooting for China to announce that they’re building a space elevator.


I was remiss in not posting this earlier: a bunch of friends have started up The Internet Food Association, and have been nice enough to ask me (end Emily, and probably other people you know) to contribute to it. If you think you might enjoy hearing me hold forth pretentiously about beer, go subscribe to the feed.

Mates of State

Go read Dave’s review, which is both smarter and more measured that I ever could have managed — I’m just so goddamn in the tank for this band.

In particular, Dave’s point about the new material is well-taken. After the precision pop machinery of Bring It Back, the new album left me disappointed. But live — faced with singing, emoting human beings — the relatively nuanced piano compositions of Re-arrange Us are ultimately more gratifying, if less immediately, dizzyingly dopamine-pumping1. Dave’s absolutely right when he says that this is a band that’s still getting better.

Which isn’t to say that they aren’t already really good. This was the first time I’ve managed to see MoS, and I was surprised by how closely the live arrangements matched those on their records — I’d just sort of assumed that the magic of overdubs played a big role in the albums’ appeal. Not so. Their high-register stuff doesn’t hit as reliably as it does on the records, but then you wouldn’t expect it to. In general their records seem to be a fair representation of the noises they make live.

One thing Dave said that I will quibble with: I really liked their version of “Something”. Sure, it sounded out of place in the set. But in a good way — it sounded casual. I may be wrong — maybe they’ve toiled over that cover — but the impression conveyed was that you could take pretty much any classic song, feed it into the MoS machine and have it come out harmonized and singable and keyboarded-up. It makes you think that everything they touch turns to pop (not to say the Beatles aren’t pop, but you know what I mean). It allowed me separate their sound from their songwriting, which made their musicianship seem all the more impressive.

But like I said, you shouldn’t listen to me: I’m just a hopeless fanboy.

1To be fair, the poppier numbers weren’t helped by the fact that the sound at the Cat, while perfectly good and perfectly audible, was turned down to a relatively humane level — comfortable, sure, but there really should’ve been no escape from that keyboard tone.

the Post kills some spammers

It’s no secret that the newspaper industry is in trouble. Still, give our hometown paper credit for trying new business models. Last week we saw the Post move strongly into the “collectible knick-knack” market. This week? They’re trying their hand at becoming a network security firm / law enforcement agency (this via Tom Bridge.

Snark aside, this really is a pretty impressive accomplishment for a journalist. Brian Krebs’ reporting led directly to a major spam colocation facility getting knocked offline by its upstream bandwidth providers. The result is reportedly a staggering 75% overnight drop in net-wide spam. That won’t last, of course, but it’s still awfully impressive. (Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that the Post has caused trouble for botnet operators.)

Not to diminish Krebs’ accomplishment, but the ease with which this was done — a civilian making some phone calls, basically — also hints at the lameness of our law enforcement agencies’ online efforts. This was a U.S. company that was plainly harboring illegal activity. Krebs spoke to some security researchers who let him know about it, then he called the folks providing the malefactors’ network connections. Those providers said “wow! you’re right!” and pulled the plug. It took time, initiative, and cleverness (the threat of Krebs’ bully pulpit helped, no doubt), but it didn’t take any warrants or indictments.

Meanwhile, the people nominally charged with prosecuting these sorts of crimes are — what? Posing as sexy teens in chatrooms? Fretting about cyberterrorism? It was, admittedly, the Army, not law enforcement, that published the recent asinine report examining Twitter’s capacity for supporting terrorists’ activities. Still, that mindset seems to be pervasive: people just don’t get very excited about going after online criminals who steal money and productivity. Instead electronic crime needs to be blown up into an existential threat — it’s about terrorists! Or hostile foreign governments! Or sexual predators! What it really is is a waste of time and money.