One Humble Cloth

January 30th, 2009 19:04

One night, on the precipice of sleep, a fragment materialized in my mind that I immediately aroused myself to record. It led to the following account:

Why does this cloth billow so? It has seen the sunshine of many days and the darkness of many nights, the twilights of oh so many yesterdays. Yet with each fresh gust it prances with greater ease in the sky. While all else around it grow old and reach their ends, it grows younger, shedding thread after thread each year, losing its resistance to the wind’s capricious ways. It is growing younger into sheer nothingness, the day when the cloth will be no more. Until then, it waves with ever-increasing vigor, eager at the prospect of its end.

How many a battle has this cloth seen? More than any mere cotton, it has served as a rallying point in countless skirmishes, as a standard in actions, as a focal point in parade. It is made of such humble materials, yet it has seen more history than the greatest person that ever lived. Its tapestry of patchwork, correcting uncountable battle wounds, attests to that. Many a man has died because of and on behalf of this cloth, a sad trifle it is fortunate it cannot be troubled by.

Such bold and regular geometric patterns! (Only spoiled by hasty repairs.)

Such vivid dashes of color! (T’would be better had it not faded with age.)

Such a spritely dance through the sky!

What is it in this cloth that spurns men to action? Why have so many cheerfully lept into warfare beneath it? What poisoning effect does it have on otherwise thinking minds that drags them down into brutality, even while proclaiming that it stands for all that is noble and patriotic? Yet the uncaring merry cloth tangos in the clear blue sky, oblivious to all it has wrought and all that it will wreak.

This cloth will go on to see the end of the world — the end of the world, caused on its account.

How dare this cloth billow so?

The inauguration of Obama – you had to be there

January 21st, 2009 00:14

Today was a long yet exhilarating day. It started at around 7:00am when we woke up and boarded the Metro downtown to catch the inauguration. We had purple tickets allowing us onto the Capitol grounds, but alas, the purple line was mishandled horribly, and we didn’t actually get in. Frustration was running high in the crowd, but when noon came around, the mood quickly improved, and when the oath was said and the cannon fire commenced, a cry of jubilation emerged from the crowd. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t doing my part with that.

Up next was the inaugural speech, and luckily, my dad brought a portable RadioShack radio. An impromptu group of listeners surrounded us as Obama gave his inauguration speech, eager for any sort of live broadcast in the land-of-no-Jumbotrons. Our small huddled mass, and the others just like it around similar devices, was a microcosm of the Obama movement itself. We had people of all ages and colors: two white teen-aged girls, some middle-aged African-American women, an older ex-hippie couple, and others. At least of the listeners were crying at some point in the speech. After it was over, several people profusely thanked my dad for sharing the experience.

That’s the memory I’m always going to keep from this event. Yes, we didn’t get to use our tickets, but it was amazing all the same. I would not have had the same shared experience sitting at home watching it on the television. Afterward, we headed over to the parade route and stood in the freezing cold until Obama and Biden drove by. Then we departed, navigating the mess of a city completely swamped by its most massive event ever.

There was one particular point in Obama’s speech that really surprised and impressed me. When I heard it, I almost thought I had misheard it, and I looked at my dad for confirmation. He seemed genuinely surprised as well. Yet here it is in the transcript:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

How far we’ve come in these two short decades since George Bush Sr. uttered this infamous statement: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

Now that’s change we non-believers can believe in.

Parody is not license to be racist

December 28th, 2008 20:20

Recently, some Republicans thought it would be a brilliant idea to distribute a CD to members of the Republican National Convention containing a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro”. The general response was about as predictable as the sunset, and rightly consisted of outright condemnation over such disgusting and overt racism. But get this: the excuse of the Republican who distributed the song was that it was a parody.

Really? A song sung to the same tune as the pop hit “Puff the Magic Dragon” is parody? Anyone with two neurons to rub together can figure that out. Yes, “Barack the Magic Negro” is parody. Racist parody. Racism and parody are not mutually exclusive, so asserting that it’s parody isn’t a defense against the actual charge. The rebuttal thus rings completely hollow. The idiot should’ve just apologized instead of offering this pathetic attempt at an excuse, thus digging the hole even deeper.

If the Republican Party wants to recover from the doldrums they’re currently languishing in, they might want to stop being openly racist. Most people don’t like that. Just saying.

How browser security exploits hinder exploration of the web

December 22nd, 2008 08:30

It’s important to be able to feel safe while browsing the web, both in terms of what your software protects you against and what your own “web street smarts” protect you against. Users who don’t feel safe will restrict themselves to big sites by recognizable companies and other sites that they already visit regularly — still a useful use of the web, sure, but one of the quirky charms of the web is all of that weird stuff that can exist only in this medium, and if you aren’t browsing them, you’re missing out. An even worse category of user is one who feels safe but isn’t, thus exposing themselves to viruses, malware, and even identity theft. Unfortunately, it appears that everyone who uses Internet Explorer is in this category.

In the latest in a long line of Microsoft failings, another Internet Explorer bug has been discovered that pretty much allows arbitrary malicious control over your computer simply by viewing an infecting website. This critical vulnerability was patched recently, but keep in mind that millions of computer users patch their software on an irregular basis, and further millions never patch at all. The number of computer users vulnerable to this one exploit thus remains in the tens of millions, at least. Using Internet Explorer simply isn’t safe, and the majority of people know this. The worse knock-on effect of this is that it causes people to adjust their browsing accordingly, treating the web as a shady inner city neighborhood to be avoided rather than a beautiful vista that demands exploration.

Switching to Mozilla Firefox is a no-brainer. But even with Firefox, as long as you’re still running Windows, you’re still quite vulnerable. It’s possible for even the experienced web user to get caught by what appears to be a trial download of a legitimate piece of software that is actually a virus. This is one of the many reasons why I choose GNU/Linux as my operating system. I browse the web with impunity, journeying where most others dare not, because I have taken the necessary steps to truly protect myself. And the view from way up here is amazing.

Tanks in rush hour

December 10th, 2008 18:30

This makes twice in one year that my commute home from work has been slowed by rubbernecking delays thanks to tanks being in the pull-over lane just south of the American Legion Bridge crossing the Potomac River along the Capital Beltway in Virginia.

The tanks are always on semi-trailers traveling in convoys. It’s been too dark for me to make a positive identification both times, but they were not inconsistent with being M1 Abrams tanks. I don’t know why the United States Army feels that it’s necessary to move its tanks around during rush hour, nor do I know why they seem so hesitant to cross the bridge (weight concerns maybe?).

I’ve come to accept long delays on my commute home due to accidents. I’ve even begrudgingly come to accept long delays on my commute home for no apparent reason at all. But I’m never going to accept a convoy of fricking tanks on the side of the highway causing lollygagging rubberneckers to grind traffic to a halt. Have you really never seen a tank before? Did all of you somehow manage to miss the television news coverage of Desert Storm?

Batman Minus Batman

December 8th, 2008 18:30

You may or may not be aware of Garfield Minus Garfield, a mash-up of the comic strip Garfield that simply removes Garfield from all frames, leaving John Arbuckle as a lonely, psychotic man. I bring it up because it serves as a useful analogy to discuss the film The Dark Knight, which I finally saw last week after friends’ insistence. While I did enjoy the film, I felt that it would’ve been better as Batman Minus Batman.

Yes, I found Batman himself to be completely superfluous to the better themes of the movie. Apparently that’s the secret to making a good Batman movie: make him irrelevant. The Joker was the most interesting character in the movie (a tip of my hate to Heath Ledger for that), followed closely by Arthur Dent and the police commissioner. Batman and his to-be girlfriend were unconvincing, uncompelling, and, dare I say, out of place.

The story of the Joker as anarchist terrorizing a large city is what made the film good. It would have been better if it had just focused on this subplot, especially the civilian and police response to a city under siege by a non-rational villain. Instead, a significant amount of screen time is devoted to a billionaire moonlighting as a crime fighter with incredibly high-tech gear who nevertheless beats up his opponents with ham-fisted punches. It’s hard to fathom, but Batman really was the worst part of this Batman movie. Without him, the city would’ve had to deal with the threat from the Joker on its own (perhaps with some highly risky SWAT missions), instead of the deus ex machina solution provided by Batman.

The Batman series seems to have evolved beyond the need for its title character. It’s an unusual position for a film series to find itself in, but there it is.

Slumdog Millionaire – A movie in review

November 23rd, 2008 16:22

My mother is plugged into the independent arthouse movie scene, so she’s always seeing (and raving about) movies that I’ve never heard about. Yesterday, my cousin from New York City was in town, so we took the opportunity to see Slumdog Millionaire at the artsy movie theater in Bethesda, Maryland. I knew precisely nothing about it going in. Since I’m kind of short on blogging ideas at the moment, I think I’ll write up a little review of it.

Slumdog Millionaire is about a boy rising from abject poverty in the slums of Mumbai to become a hero of the people through his unexpected success on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”. Shots of the high-tension proceedings at the game show are interspersed with scenes of previous experiences from the main character’s life showing the unlikely experiences he lived through that left him knowing all of the answers to the questions on the game show. The game show is actually a nifty plot element that sounds like it could come off corny, but doesn’t.

Overall, Slumdog Millionaire is a good movie. It tugs all of the requisite emotional heartstrings, and it proceeds at a pace that never left me wondering “When is this thing going to end?” (which I find to be the hallmark of a bad movie). It uses lots of tropes you’ve seen many times before in cinema: poverty, destiny, karma, love, evil, manipulation of children, religious warfare, a look at how a man turns evil and then redeems himself with his dying moment, etc., but doesn’t feel like a stale retread. I dare say some of it was even slightly cliché, or at least nonsensical, like when two hitmen are subduing their boss’s wife — who isn’t even putting up much of a fight — and nevertheless manage to give her a good slice on the cheek while fumbling around with a knife, solely with the apparent purpose of having a symbolic scar for the main character to dismiss in one of the final scenes of the movie.

The movie’s tone is quite sad, with scene after scene of crushing poverty, slum life, religious warfare, criminality, police corruption, abuse of orphans, and life on the run. It has a few humorous moments, but it’s overwhelmingly sorrowful, and despite concluding on a somewhat happy note, I was still feeling very downbeat upon leaving the theater. In this regard it was much like The Pursuit of Happyness. So if you don’t handle sad movies well, you might want to give it a pass. Otherwise, I’d recommend it.

Oh, and the Bollywood-style dancing during the credits (despite the movie not being a musical whatsoever) was unexpected and awesome.

The guilty pleasures of Ikea

November 19th, 2008 18:30

I can’t help it. Ikea is one of my guilty pleasures. I don’t particularly like shopping, and I would never consider shopping a leisurely activity. So while I do go to grocery stores and other places where I purchase essentials, I very rarely go to shopping just for the fun of it. Yet I absolutely love shopping at Ikea.

Maybe it’s the mix of awesome and useful things that are available for such cheap prices. Or maybe it’s the awesome but completely useless things that get me, like the poseable wooden doll sculptures and mass-produced oil paintings (made using actual paint). With the exception of stores catering exclusively to my hobbies (electronics stores, hobby gaming shops, Ham Radio Outlet, etc.), Ikea is the only store that leaves me with a feeling of wanting to buy a lot more than what I end up walking out with. I could easily furnish a whole house with goods from Ikea, and eat lunch and dinner there to boot.

I suppose what I like most at Ikea is the furniture. Furniture inhabits a very interesting realm in the kingdom of “things you need to buy”. Furniture is expensive, but things are really going to suck for you if you don’t have it — for instance, the most recent reason I went to Ikea is because I didn’t have a nightstand in my new place, and for someone who likes reading before going to bed, that is a big problem. And because furniture is big, heavy, and bulky, it’s not exactly something you want to buy online.

But the best aspect of Ikea furniture is that it comes in many precisely cut pieces of wood in a flatpack box along with a plastic baggie full of tools and fasteners. My greatest joy with Ikea is not in selecting the furniture in the store, but, perversely, in assembling it when I get home. I suppose to some boring people the fact that Ikea’s furniture doesn’t come assembled simply increases its cost by whatever one considers one’s time worth, but to me, putting together the furniture provides significant added value. I would, and this is not an exaggeration, gladly put together Ikea furniture for someone else, for free.

When I was a kid, I would spend uncountable hours sitting in front of a pile of Legos on the family room floor building all manner of creative objects. As I grew older I stopped playing with Legos because it was no longer an “age-appropriate activity”, but trust me when I say that one of the best parts of having children has to be having an excuse to play with Legos again. In this context, my love of Ikea furniture begins to make sense. It’s like a Lego set for grown-ups, only better, because the material is real, the end result is useful, and it will last for many years. And the assembly instructions, with their parts lists, numbered steps, schematic symbols, and lack of written language, are eerily similar.

So don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the hour and a half I spent putting together that $50 3-drawer nightstand was the most fun I had that entire week. I really got into it, improving the plans in several regards by using better fasteners and applying wood glue to all wood-on-wood joints (would you believe the plans only used wooden pegs in such situations?!). I’d gladly buy a lot more furniture from Ikea, but alas, I don’t have any more space to put it in. So for now I’m in a holding pattern, anxiously looking forward to the next time I have a need to buy furniture. At least I already know where I’m going to get it.

Bad, bad journalism

November 15th, 2008 23:35

This here is some really bad journalism from CNN:

(CNN) — A jury awarded $2.5 million in damages on Friday to a Kentucky teenager who was severely beaten by members of a Ku Klux Klan group because they mistakenly thought he was an illegal Latino immigrant, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

The jury found that the Imperial Klans of America and its founder wrongfully targeted 16-year-old Jordan Gruver, an American citizen of Panamanian and Native-American descent.

Yes, because the Klansmen’s actions would’ve otherwise been acceptable had the teenager actually been an illegal immigrant, right? They lost the case because of bad targeting, not because of hate-based egregious assault, eh?

The death of the Bradley Effect

November 6th, 2008 18:30

The results of Tuesday’s election give us reason enough to declare the Bradley Effect as outdated, wrong, and finally, dead and buried. The “Bradley Effect”, named after black California 1982 gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, posits that a significant number of whites are secret racists, who will tell pollsters they’re willing to vote for a non-white candidate, but when they actually get into a ballot box, the lurking racism shines bubbles up and they’re unable to do so. Never mind that supposed instances of it occurring in the past are marred with bad polling; we couldn’t stop hearing about it during this past election. So I’m very thankful that it’s finally discredited once and for all.

The Bradley Effect is demeaning to everyone involved. It demeans whites because it asserts two negative things: that they are racists, and that they are ashamed racists who won’t admit it to anyone but an anonymous ballot. It is demeaning to non-whites because it asserts that there is some reason they should under-perform any other candidate solely on the basis of the saturation of their skin.

But the worst part of the Bradley Effect was that it enabled meta-racism: It allowed people who aren’t racist themselves to oppose candidacies of non-whites on the basis that others are racist and would never vote for said candidate. I heard this reasoning from a surprising number of Democrats in the early days of the Democratic primaries in reference to Barack Obama, but thankfully, they all got over it. And now that we have elected a non-white (well, non-half-white, anyway) to the highest position in the land, no one can possibly cite the Bradley Effect in good faith as a reasoning for not preferring a non-white candidate.

The next time anyone even so much as mentions the Bradley Effect, tell them to stop going on about discredited theories. Or, if you aren’t feeling quite so charitable, tell them to shut the eff up. The Bradley Effect belongs in the dustbin of history, next to trickle-down economics and National Socialism. This country will be a better place if I never so much as hear the phrase “Bradley Effect” even mentioned ever again. And I’m not the only one who thinks that.