Just one God? No. There’s me, and I know I’ve met others…

Ha, ha! It’s always fun to kick off a blog post with a little blasphemy, eh, sensation-seekers?

I was going to tweet out a comment about this Salon article (partner-posted from her AlterNet blog), but yeah, I needed more than 140 characters. I say, with the utmost respect for the author, that Greta Christina’s “The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat” falls into a common trap. She seems to assume that there’s only one acceptable concept of “God.” And, as luck would have it, it happens to be a definition that suits the point that the article wants to make.

I might have misread what is an obviously well-written and well-presented opinion. My difficulty comes right at the top:

You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.

In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.

I’m saying that this position is untenable…

I urge you to read the entire piece. It’s good stuff, and you should glean her intent from the actual thing she wrote and not from my interpretations. I just don’t think it adequately defends the argument that belief in God and belief in evolution aren’t compatible. It’s a good argument against the specific kinds of belief that she singles out, but it falls far short of making the larger point.

“Maybe there’s a God who had a hand in all of this” versus Intelligent Design™

Can I respect a belief that the universe was created by God? Sure, given the broad definitions of “God” and “created.” The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.

But Intelligent Design™ is a separate thing. In its specific, pseudoscientific form, is vulgar and offensively fraudulent. Its proponents desire the credibility of a scientific argument…specifically, a free pass to teach the Bible in public schools. But they don’t want to have to pay for that, in the hard currency of science: they need to present an argument that’s backed up by factual evidence, and that argument needs to be so strong that it repeatedly stands up to unbiased scientific scrutiny.

Here’s a less-controversial example. I have a belief that Audrey Munson, a popular figure model of the early 20th century, posed for a certain public sculpture here in Boston. The resemblance is uncanny, and she worked with the sculptor (Daniel “The Lincoln Memorial” Chester “in Washington, DC” French) many times, at the height of her posing career. In fact, she posed for one of his most famous works (not Lincoln).

But the timing is iffy. If I’m right, she would have posed for “Bread Upon The Waters” near the very end of her career. It was worth looking into.

The other night, I finally found a biography of Audrey Munson that included some dates. Dagnabbit: the sculptor started work on this piece a year or two after she contracted the serious illness that almost certainly ended her career as an artists’ model. It’s extremely unlikely that she could have live-posed for this sculpture.

Well, that’s the gamble of presenting a factual argument. You bet your beliefs against the house. If you lose, you’re intellectually-obligated to either abandon your belief or adjust it to suit the new facts that disproved your theory. I have to accept that I was wrong. But when French was creating this statue, Munson’s face was still in his studio, in the form of past works that she’d posed for. I know this because the studio is preserved as a museum just as he left it, and look! There she is. I now wonder if she posed for it indirectly.

Until I find something in his letters that confirms this, though, that’s just something I choose to believe. It’s not fact.

If you’re not willing to adjust or abandon your beliefs in the face of contrary objective evidence, then you’re just using the veneer of scientific argument to lay claim to a kind of credibility you haven’t earned.

That’s Intelligent Design™. It’s appropriate that I first encountered this slimy phrase in an episode of “Touched By An Angel,” back when I thought watching TV shows I hated was a worthy use of my time.

The story was pretty ghastly stuff. Adorable Christian Girl is confronted with Darwin’s theory by an Evil Atheist (not the character’s name, but on this show, the first word is implied by the second). Adorable Christian Girl brings these questions to her science teacher after class. Science Teacher urges her to do a Science Fair project on “Intelligent Design,” a tidy ziploc baggie full of bunkum that points out God’s fingerprints over everything. “See? Spiral in a seashell, spiral in the pattern of buds in a flower, spiral in DNA. Case closed: it’s all the work of the same dude. Print those photos out, glue them on posterboard, and consider the matter closed.”

Aside: The teacher is, of course, one of God’s angels in human guise. An Angel of Death, in fact, which I suppose explains his lack of accreditation as a science teacher.

I never understood how the story editor of this series made this idea of a moonlighting angel of death work. He collects the souls of the recently-departed, and also has time for light housekeeping? Is he teaching science in his spare time? Or is he like a city employee who (according to an explosive Action News 6 At Eleven Investigation) was helping his brother-in-law build a backyard deck during hours when he was supposed to be anywhere else, inspecting a bridge?

“Touched By An Angel” promoted some weird-ass kind of theology, even given that it was already a show about super-secret-agent angels who tool around in a vintage convertible. Every story had the same basic arc: person is experiencing a crisis; angels arrive, undercover as humans; at the peak of crisis, one or more of said Angels reveal themselves to the crisis-ee, reminding them that God loves them and that they should have faith that He will see them through. Ah. But why would these people still need faith? They’ve just been presented with conclusive proof of the existence of a classic, theist god who benevolently directs their daily existence!

I only got one positive thing from this show: the entertainment value of country-music guest stars who were performing as actors for the first time, and who were both unprepared for, and tragically under-intimidated by, the work that lay ahead of them. I think the director came up to them at the start of shooting and said “Acting is all about pretending to cry. And the more you’re crying, the more you’re acting. You should act as much as you possibly can. Put it this way: if we don’t have to change your shirt after every take, you’re probably not acting hard enough. They won’t give you an Emmy unless it’s obvious how darn hard you were acting…”

How To Hold Tea And No Tea Simultaneously

So let’s all have a good laugh at Intelligent Design™ in this, its classic and dangerous form: as an attack against evolution.

But! This doesn’t mean that belief in God and belief in evolution (or, more broadly, science in general) are incompatible.

Christina seems (again, I could be wrong) to be trying to make this point, making the assumption that everyone who believes in God has bought and brought home a “Touched By An Angel”-model God:

  • God built the world as He wanted it to be;
  • Everything happens according to God’s plans and intentions;
  • God cares about me, personally, and is standing by to intervene if my ten-year-old boy is diagnosed with that kind of cancer that keeps him looking healthy and adorable until the very end and the kid thinks he won’t get into Heaven unless I write and perform a country/gospel song for him at his bedside.

That’s definitely the “iPhone” of gods, here in the US. But it’s by no means the whole range of Gods available. Even a Christian sect can’t keep its understanding of God in production for more than a hundred years before somebody forks the distro.

The Greatest Unknowable is the Thinking of Other People

I’m an agnostic. If you absolutely must pin me down, I suppose I’m an “agnostic deist.” I suspect that something we might call “God” is out there. But if there is, I believe that he, she, they or it is fundamentally unknowable by humanity and s/t/i certainly doesn’t conform to the “Touched By An Angel” model.

Aside: I often marvel that if every act attributable to God were traced categorically to a specific street address, it still wouldn’t settle anything. The nonbelievers would say “See? There is no God. It was Doug, all along.” The believers would say “What more proof of the existence of God can we possibly give you? We’ve given you His name and address!”

But I absolutely insist that there’s an analog spectrum of belief. It’s more accurate for me to just say that I find the questions of a divine being, or a higher order to the universe than that which the scientific method can explain, more interesting than the answers. As a nontheist, I, like Christina, don’t know how to justify a belief in an omnipowerful God for whom worldwide genocide is explained by a “You don’t have to be crazy to work here…but it helps!” poster in the Almighty’s breakroom.

If that concept made sense to me, though, I’d be a theist…actually, I’d be one specific kind of theist. I feel uncomfortable claiming to have spotted objective fallacies in something I fundamentally don’t understand. Something can seem wrong because it’s objectively wrong. But sometimes, it only seems wrong because you can’t make the idea work within your own limited understanding of the concept.

(See: The JFK assassination. It “seems” wrong that a head that was shot from behind would jerk backwards towards the gun. But few people understand how this stuff works, or have even seen controlled experiments reproducing the effect.)

This is how certain theists come to believe that atheists don’t have a moral center. Atheists can be plenty moral. Those theists just don’t understand how morality can exist without a spiritual connection to God; therefore, no god = no morality. Similarly, it seems like Christina can’t understand a belief in a kind of God that isn’t “all knowing, all powerful, all meddling.” If that’s true, it would make sense for her to conclude that a believer thinks every step in the evolutionary process specifically reflects the will of God or a master plan. And that’s not how evolution works, so she’s “proven” that believers don’t really believe in evolution.

The reality, of course, is that a believer is free to think of evolution as a divine form of a “one-click install” for living creatures. God set it in motion (citation needed) or else simply created the circumstances under which evolution could set itself in motion. Then he/she/it/they walked away. Hence, we can have both belief in both God and the scientific definition of evolution.

Weighing The Duck

It seems like sometimes, a member of Group A isn’t satisfied with a simple difference of opinion with someone from Group B, or even with flat-out saying that they think this other person is wrong. They need to create an argument that proves it. They often wind up creating a “Monty Python And The Holy Grail”-style chain of logic which has the cadence and the shape of rational argument, but is based on a whole series of questionable assumptions and is designed to trap their opponent in a corner.

Take this video from Penn Jillette as an example:

In the video, he talks about his definitions of agnosticism and atheism and theism. He introduces a hypothetical situation in which a supposed theist is asked by God to kill their child. In choosing “no” or “yes,” they can only prove themselves to be a closet Atheist or a dangerous nutjob. According to the rules he established, there’s no way for a believer to escape with their credibility intact.

I don’t imagine that Penn intended this as anything other than an illustration of the difference between “I believe” and “I know.” Nonetheless, it’s an example of the sort of argument that I find problematic. The theist has so many other responses available to them, such as: telling God to go stick it, or deciding that the fact that “God” is making this demand proves that it’s not actually God, or saying to Penn “God, as I envision Him, isn’t something that could communicate to me in that way. So your question is irrelevant to begin with.”

And that’s my reaction to Christina’s piece. I kept wanting to interrupt and ask “But what if God isn’t like that at all? Can’t witches float for some other reason than ‘they’re made out of wood’? Isn’t it possible to have an idea of God that’s completely compatible about everything that’s provable about the physical world?”

She has an eminently-worthy target in the Intelligent Design™ crew, but she broadens her aim beyond what that narrow argument can credibly hit. She seems to base her argument on the idea that there’s one kind of belief in one kind of God, and only one view of what the phrase “created the Universe” means. When I turn around, I see a sea of hands raised to ask “But what about…”

Her article fails to make me understand why belief in God and support of evolution are incompatible.

Christ Almighty (or “Just an Influential Rabbi with a Sensible Message of Peace and Love”), This Has Gone On Longer Than I’d Intended

Again, I’ve nothing but respect for Greta Christina…for her, personally, and for her beliefs. She writes and thinks well, and her piece clearly is directed against certain kinds of ideas, not certain kinds of people. I’m presenting this blog post in the form of the conversation after a dinner party, when the guests move to the living room with two bottles of a good, hearty red and and have a great conversation for a couple of hours.

I just believe that this article would have been more powerful if she’d framed it as an essay about why her opposition to Intelligent Design™ extends to all forms of creationism (if indeed that’s what she thinks), instead of writing it as a factual argument that demonstrates that belief in God isn’t compatible with a support of evolution. “She makes some fair points,” I would have thought, instead of launching into 2800 words about God and agnosticism and which artists’ model might have modeled for what figure sculpture in 1923, and an awful, awful TV show.

So in summary:

  • As a formal theory, Intelligent Design™ (as opposed to creationism in general) is clearly bunk.
  • I can respect creationism in its broadest definition, at least. Mostly by citing the data point “an ant is barely aware that it’s walking on a leaf, let alone spinning on a planet that’s spinning around a star that’s spinning in a galaxy that’s shooting through a universe at about a thousand kilometers a second.” There’s nothing wrong with believing that God created everything, and there’s no evidence disproving it, either (again, in a broad sense).
  • “Touched By An Angel” is weird-ass theology. But when inexperienced actors are handed melodramatic, emotionally-manipulative scripts, the results can be quite amusing.
  • It’s possible to believe in God (as you choose to define God) and science at the same time. It’ll all work out fine, so long as you believe in science as science defines science. If so, you shouldn’t worry about what other people think about you.
  • Catch Penn & Teller’s show if the three of you are ever in the same city, because it’s worth the ticket price.


Writing strong female characters

I was reading some fiction this morning and recognized another reliable tipoff that an author doesn’t know how to write a strong female character: the book’s female lead only exists to prevent the male lead from looking insane every time he delivers exposition.

For instance:


Carson drifted into the empty living room. He settled into its second-most-comfortable chair and fussed with a loose seam on the armrest.

Darla entered, drawn by the palpable aroma of Sulk that had been wending its way through the air conditioning system ever since she heard the front door close. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“I’m worried about Omega,” Carson said.

“Oh, no.”

“Yes: Mark’s back. And he promises, absolutely insists, that he’s either going to terminate the whole project or die trying to get credit for it.”

“Can’t you just, you know…have him killed? It’s not as though anyone at the office would ask too many questions. Particularly if it happened on a Friday morning and gave everyone an excuse to start the weekend early.”

“I can’t kill Mark.”

“Well, then, just exploit his tendencies towards idiocy. Water flows downhill. Mark sees a Reddit video of someone almost jumping over a speeding car and thinks ‘I bet that didn’t hurt nearly as much as he’s pretending it did’.”

Carson stopped fussing with the upholstery and snort-smiled. “I’m not going to kill Mark, nor indirectly get him injured.”

“Ah,” Darla said, pretending to be disappointed. She shooed the pile of unread magazines and supermarket circulars off the sofa as though it were an indifferent and entitled cat, and took a seat.

“Is the project really that important? How do you know this isn’t just another dead end?”

Carson rose and crossed to a table. “One, two, three, four binders,” he said, picking up each one and theatrically dropping it to the floor. “Each one represents four hundred pages of dead ends. But it’s not like we wasted our time. Three years of proving what won’t work has absolutely, categorically proven to us what will work.”


“Omega. We have a completely linear path ahead of us for the first time since we launched the company.”

“You make it sound as if all you need to do is follow the dotted line and dig at the ‘X’. You’re that certain?”

“Arrrr, matey!” Carson said, hopping around on one foot.

“A real pirate would just tell Mark ‘Don’t fuss with the #3 cannon; it’s got a faulty fuse’ and then hand the problem over to Darwin.”

“A real pirate wouldn’t have any problems finding financing.” He looked at the floor, listlessly.

“True. So, really, honey…what are you going to do?”

“Ha,” Carson said. Not laughed…said.

“Thank you. I stole that line from a Mitch Hedberg video. What?”

Carson transitioned to a satisfied little chuckle as he picked one of the binders up off the floor and turned to face the chair. He patted its spine and held it with the same air of pride and promise as a new father holds his first child.

He kissed one of its corners, theatrically.

“Mark is an idiot. He’s an even worse enemy to himself than he is to any of the rest of us, if such a thing is even possible. And Lord knows he has no idea what we’ve been working on for the past four years: note the word ‘work’ in that phrase.”

He worked a finger underneath the binder’s spine and removed its label card. It read EPSILON – PHASE IV – *** FAIL ***.

He tore the card into four pieces.

“I think I’m about to mislabel my project files. I think I’m going to leave my desk unlocked tomorrow. And I think the day after that, Mark will ask to make a special presentation to the board of directors. Each of whom remembers our past failures only too well.”

Darla laughed and rose to leave. “I think that’s brilliant,” she said, making for the doorway. “And I think there’s no reason for us not to keep our 6:30 dinner reservations. And I think you’re not leaving the house in those muddy trousers. I can throw them in the load of laundry I was about to run,” she said, leaving to fetch the basket.

“And if your plan doesn’t work?” she called, from the hall.

“If it doesn’t work,” Carson said, dropping his pants, “then we use the cannon.”


If the woman is there just for a male protagonist to bounce exposition off of…that’s not a great character.

Love and Hate and a CD

Due to a clerical oversight (related to the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations; just a guess), there are some albums that can only be purchased on CD. This is the brief tale of one such CD, and the two opposing emotions that it inspired.


“I love technology and all it stands for.”

My music library is managed by a specific Mac in my house: a 15″ MacBook that fulfills the roles of Desktop Machine and Hub Of The Whole Works. Because this Mac is gracious and accommodating (and because I’ve configured it to work this way), any music that I add to its iTunes library becomes available to me everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Everywhere in the house, because this library is linked to wireless speakers, Rokus, Apple TVs, home media servers, and Plex servers. And! Everywhere in the world, because I’ve got iTunes Match and Google Music set up on this Mac. My iPad, my iPhone, my Android phone, or any machine with a working web browser can get access to damn-near the whole works whenever I want, right from the cloud.

(This is why I buy my music from the Amazon MP3 store. The track’s a 99 cent, high-bitrate unlocked file no matter where you buy it…so buying it from Amazon puts it into three cloud music libraries with the same single mouse click. One copy in Amazon Cloud Player, one copy via iTunes Match, one copy uploaded to Google Music. All thanks to the helper app that automatically downloads my purchases and puts them in my iTunes library.)

It’s a swell system and I’m regularly reminded how cool it is to be living in 2014. I was tidying the living room and came across my “Unsung Sondheim” CD. I almost forgot I had this! I wanted to listen to it right away. But it wasn’t in my library; for some reason, I’d never ripped it.

I could have spun the disc on my DVD player, but this wouldn’t have solved my “Sondheim CD is not in my iTunes library” problem. I could have ripped it on the 13″ MacBook that I was using in the living room, but then I’d need to move the files into the other library eventually. I could have moved into the office and done my work there…but then it wouldn’t have felt like Sunday, would it?

But the system works great. I took the CD into the office, started the rip, and then went back to my lazy (but hopefully still productive) Sunday in the living room. In roughly the time it’s taken me to write these few paragraphs, the files appeared — everywhere — and I started listening to it through my wireless speakers.

I did take a moment today to reflect on how cool all of that was. I hadn’t been able to listen to this album because it was physically locked onto this one physical object, which I’d obviously misplaced shortly after it arrived in the mail. Ripping a disc hasn’t really changed much since 1998. Modern music management makes you realize that music files tied down to one music library isn’t that much of an improvement over their being tied down to a disc.

Today? Ripping it into this one library makes it available to me anywhere and everywhere, without any further action. This is exactly the way I want things to happen and it’s magically simple.

love technology.


“I hate technology and all it stands for.”

But I only have two external USB CD/DVD drives in the house and I knew that neither of them were attached to the office MacBook. I fetched one of them and went into my office.

Bloody drive wouldn’t mount the CD, for some reason. I could hear the motors struggling to pull the disc in, and it sounded like the device wasn’t getting enough power. Damn.

Try another USB port? Damn.

Well. My brain was set to “listen to Sondheim” mode, not “troubleshoot a problem” mode. Switching modes requires a soft reboot, so instead of trying to make this drive work I muttered a Level 2 curse (of the five intensities available) and prepared to get up and grab the other drive.

Then I remembered that this is a 2011 MacBook Pro.

It has an internal optical drive.

Goddamn Apple. It has beaten my spirit and forced me to accept their bizarre reality that people shouldn’t ever expect to find an optical drive in a laptop, because that would be insane who would ever want a laptop with an optical drive aren’t you embarrassed I know I’m embarrassed for you honey let’s just forget you said that.

I slid in the CD. My MacBook made a mechanical internal sound that I dearly miss from every other Mac I own. Remember when computers reassured you that it was working by making soothing, reassuring mechanical noises? My first computer was an Apple II. Every day I’d start it up and the CHUGGACHUGGACHUGGA swisshhh…swissshhhh…thip-thip-swisshhh told me that magic was about to happen. iTunes started crunching the music without any fuss.

I had forgotten how much I enjoy that sort of thing. Electrons only make noise when they’re very, very upset with you.

I know I’m not mad at Apple. I’m mad at myself for allowing Apple to brainwash me.

At least there’s hope: I did catch myself before I left the office to get the other drive. Still: goddamn it. I hate technology sometimes.


“I hate technology and all it stands for.” (postscript)

…And for some damn reason, WordPress stripped all of the paragraph breaks from this post after I made a quick edit and clicked “Update.” You wouldn’t think that restoring them by hand would be a chore, but yeah. When your attitude towards formal structure is as lighthearted as mine, however, you can become your own worst editor.

(“I did the best I could. Could you check this copy and make sure it still makes sense? To you, I mean?”)

It could have been worse. Remember the days before autosave? It’s rare when something you’ve written just flat-out disappears to the land of ghosts and winds. Still, it happens sometimes.

I marvel at how upset I get when a glitchy piece of software eats something I’ve written. It’s usually something short and eminently disposable, like an extended comment on someone’s blog post. But the fact remains that it’s three or five hundred words that I thought about, wrote, and edited, and when I got to the very end and clicked “Send,” some goddamn app said “Ha ha! No you didn’t write anything! What? Oh, really? Well, its your word against mine now, jerkface!!!”

The thing I wrote is still fresh in my mind. I could re-type it in a fraction of the time it took to write it originally (and truth be told, it’ll probably be stronger than the first version). But it’s so hard to make myself do it all over again. It feels like something was stolen from me. Words? Time? I don’t know, but that’s the mindset.

Also, I somehow bristle at the very thought that I need to put that time in all over again. It’s like walking up to the takeout counter at a sandwich shop, paying $8 for a sub, and then when they finish making it they say “That’ll be $8.” No. Go to hell! I already paid for this once and if I pay for it again, it’s like I’m telling you it’s okay for you to behave this way!

I don’t have kids and I can only imagine the level of eye-rolling that would ensue if I said “If I lost a child, would I just shrug and make another one? This is something special I took pride in and cared about. I don’t just cynically crank these things out because it’s part of a business plan or something!”

I’m a pro, so I’d probably try to take the edge off by ending it with “Who do you think I am…Kris Jenner?” Even so, I know that people without children shouldn’t compare anything in their lives to having children.

Instead, I’ll say that having to redo something I’ve written due to a software glitch is maddening and upsetting in a way that few other simple problems can madden and upset me. The closest I ever came to actually throwing a computer against a wall and jumping up and down on whatever remained was when Word ate an entire 12,000 word book chapter that I’d written in a long, joyous and grateful single day of totally-in-the-zone productivity.

I was exactly as upset as George Brett was, when his ninth inning home run was declared an out, to end and lose the game for the Royals. And for the same reasons.



But I didn’t throw anything against anything. I remembered this Mister Rogers song, or at least the message. You’re entitled to your anger sometimes, and sometimes you can’t even choose to not be angry. But you can choose what to do with your anger.



I chose to yell a whole hell of a lot and wave my arms around until my throat and my arms were a little sore, just to open up a relief valve (note that I was alone in my house). Then, I chose to take the next day off.

When I reviewed Microsoft’s first music player, my leadoff paragraph stated that using the Zune was about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face. The line was so widely-quoted that it became a question on “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.”

I’m not saying that this was my revenge for what Microsoft Word had done to my book chapter. I take my work too seriously to let that happen. But the book author from a few years earlier (unshaven and a little smelly after a sixteen hour workday, and still wearing the same shorts and tee shirt he’d slept in the night before) pumped his fists and cheered and promised to take me out to lunch the next day.

It wasn’t much of a gesture. We had joint bank accounts. But it was nice of him, anyway.

I am now doing a “select-all” and “copy” on this blog post so that if WordPress screws up again, I can sigh and shake my head and fix things with a simple “paste.” We live, we learn.

Push the button, Frank…

Boston Comic-Con – August 8-9-10 – You Should Totally Go

For years, we comics fans here in New England dreamed of having a big, and great, annual mass-audience con within reach of commuter rail or our cars. Something like the Chicago Comicon or San Diego, except without the need to set aside a week’s pay and a bunch of vacation time. Alas, the best we could manage were little one-day shows. They were well-run and plenty of fun, but weren’t the immersive festivals we would read about on the Compuserve Comics and Animation Forum or in the weekly Comics Buyers Guide.

Well! Boston Comic-Con came along and grew tall and mighty, quickly becoming a true Northeast fan institution. This show was so worth the wait. I attended my first Boston Comic-Con back when the show was small enough to fill a bunch of function rooms and hallways in a hotel conference center. Today, it does a fine job of filling a space that once hosted Macworld Expo.

The organizers put on a fantastic show. I can’t think of a single shortcoming. In fact, it’s so well-run and delivers such a complete experience that I have no real desire to attend the San Diego con. Even New York Comicon seems disposable now; everything I want in a comicon is right here. Boston Comic-Con features A-list guests from every category of fandom; a tremendous lineup of panels; row upon row upon row of artists’ and independent creators’ tables; and a large dealer area with many vendors that sell, you know…comics. Every year, I discover lots of great self-published books and I also come home with plenty of Marvel and DC trade paperbacks priced to move.

(This is my usual way of keeping up with “event” story arcs. I’ve been burned so many times at $3.99 and $2.99 an issue that I don’t like taking risks any more. But sure, I’ll take a flutter on Hickman’s “Avengers” if it’s a deeply-discounted $8 trade.)

The show is glued together by the energy of a large and diverse crowd of fans. If you’ve never been to a convention, this is what you’re really missing out on. There’s something very satisfying about being among thousands of people who like the same sorts of things that you like, and who are just excited to be here as you are. Don’t be careless with your valuables, but it’s a great scene.

Many of these people arrive in costume and are happy to be photographed, viz:

I love the cosplay community. These folks contribute so much to a show.

I enjoy cosplayers because I appreciate the creativity and craftsmanship that went into these costumes…and I like to see people who clearly are having a great time. But what an effect they have on kids! They’re actually meeting Iron Man! They got their picture taken with Merida from “Brave”! They had a conversation with Artoo Detoo!

Their parents are often as thrilled as their kids. Their 7 year old daughter is squealing over the same things that they themselves loved at that age. I see these people beaming from behind their cameraphones and imagining just how many friends and relatives will get that photo in the next hour.

Happy kids, happy parents, happy cosplayers (hundreds of dollars and hours invested in a costume, with quite a nifty payoff in the form of the reactions they get from kids and grownups)…and happy me, watching this all unfold.

I think…yes, I do believe I will let this planet live. Or at least that’ll be what I’ll recommend in my report. It’s the money-people who make the final decisions, you understand. But! They generally trust my judgment on such things.

[well]Aside: Don’t you hate being bothered by the noise and rowdiness from that planet between here and Mars? Oh wait, no, you’re not bothered by that at all, are you? Because there isn’t a planet between this one and Mars any more. I spent three years living on Galatea and oh, Zarquon almighty did those jerks get on my very last nerve.

I would’t have even let Galatea go on that long. But a taxi driver in the capitol state tried to jack up my fare by 200 units the moment he saw that I was from out of town. I refused to pay and was forced to stick around and fight it. In the end, I had to pay far more than that in bribes to section chiefs just to make the problem go away and get my luggage back.

See what I mean? Crap like that was happening All. The. Damn. Time. Well, the Galateans are nobody’s problem now. You’re welcome and it’s all in an eon’s work. This is why I’m sent out to keep this sector of inhabited space tidy and civil.[/well]

So take this as my very strong recommendation that you check out Boston Comic-Con this weekend. I’ll likely be there on Saturday, and I’ll definitely be there on Friday. I’m moderating a panel with two of my favorite creators: Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner.

I’m muchly excited. I love their work. I admire their restless creativity and the obvious work ethic that’s taken them, both as individuals and as a team, through a wide range of comics and multiple publishers over two decades. When their names are on a new series, past experience commands me to try it.

This panel is a Q&A. I’ll be asking one or two leadoff questions before I settle back into my role as the guy who keeps an eye on the time. Even if I weren’t moderating, I’d be showing up early to ensure that I got seat in the audience.

That’s happening on Friday at 6 PM in the Amphitheater. Here’s the whole three-day schedule of events.

Boston Comic-Con. August 8-9-10, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the World Trade Center. It’ll be a great time for you and for your kids as well. Buy your tickets now to avoid at least one extra line, as well as the possibility of a sellout.

If you haven’t been back to the World Trade Center since the last Boston Macworld Expo…oh, boy, are you in for a treat! There’s shade in that part of town now! And a 7-11 and a Dunkin Donuts right on the same block! There are a couple of decent restaurants where you can meet up for dinner, and ATMs and a new MBTA line that will take you practically right there!

I remember many bleary, scorching-hot August afternoons when I had to walk a mile to get from World Trade to the nearest MBTA station, along a route without any shade and sometimes no sidewalk, either. And there was nowhere at World Trade or anywhere in between where you could buy anything to ease your thirst or cool you down.

There are a lot of ways to summarize the Late Eighties/Early Nineties World Trade Center Macworld Expo experience in a single word. If there were a bracketed competition to determine the very best one, “heatstroke” would make it to the final four and it’d be a contender for the championship.

But I’m here to tell you that the excited whispers are true: the city of Boston has finally made the World Trade Center fit for humanity. And a great comic-con is happening there in a week’s time.

“The Overprotected Kid” – via The Atlantic

[blockquote source=”\”The Overprotected Kid\” – via The Atlantic“]If a 10-year-old lit a fire at an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling. At the Land, spontaneous fires are a frequent occurrence. The park is staffed by professionally trained “playworkers,” who keep a close eye on the kids but don’t intervene all that much. Claire Griffiths, the manager of the Land, describes her job as “loitering with intent.”[/blockquote]


Where I grew up, there was a creek with an abandoned old wooden truck bed. You could leave it as-is and pretend it was a boat or a chariot or a landspeeder. If you flipped it on its side, it became a shelter or a clubhouse. There was a forest about a mile’s walk away with a pond that had snakes and fish and bugs. I once disturbed a wasps’ nest and got stung three times. Cried all the way home. It was all pretty awesome.

“Family Guy” Attempts A Marginally-Less Suck-Ass Episode

Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and Bob Belcher are in a World War One-style biplane. Homer is pointing back at Bob.
Image from the footage of the Simpsons/Family Guy episode, previewed at the San Diego Comicon.

Here’s five minutes of footage from the upcoming “Family Guy”/”Simpsons” crossover episode.

It includes another swipe at “Bob’s Burgers.” Viz:

Homer: “What’s he doing here?”

Peter: “Oh, we gotta carry him because he can’t fly on his own. We let that other guy try, and look what happened:”

[Cut to Cleveland Brown (from the failed “Family Guy” spinoff) lawn-darting his plane into the ground.]

I hate “Family Guy.” I hate it because it’s sexist, it’s racist, and it’s lazy. But I won’t get into that here; instead, I’ll point you to this episode of my podcast, where I talk about my feelings about the show in depth.

No, today, I’m talking about my astonishment at how frequently a show that’s this bad, this derivative, this lazy, and this disposable goes out of its way to say that a much, much better show isn’t very good.

Did “Family Guy” really once say that there are only one or two truly funny “Monty Python” sketches? It inspires me to stop and respond:

“But…’Monty Python’ revolutionized comedy. Many of its jokes and sketches have entered the international cultural lexicon. Even forty years later, few people seem to think that their material is dated or that their reputation is overrated. Generations of comedians, novelists, and screenwriters cite Python as a major influence. All right?

“And now, ‘Family Guy’, let’s talk about what your show has contributed to comedy. … ……. … …… Oh! Your writers are so lazy that the phrase ‘Manatee Joke’ is universally-understood to refer to your style of just stringing random concepts together instead of taking the time to write something with any relevance, context, or creativity…”

A joke like this one gets on my nerves. “Family Guy” is pushing its luck. H. Jon Benjamin (voice of Bob) and the rest of the show’s team are obviously OK with this, which ends the argument on whether or not it’s an appropriate joke. Still, why have a blog if you’re not going to use it to publicly cluck your tongue at personal petty annoyances?

“Bob’s Burgers” is one of my favorite shows on TV. I love it primarily for the only reasons that matter: because it’s funny and each episode is filled with visual delight.

After that? I love “Bob’s Burgers” because everyone on that show tries so hard, in shot after shot and story beat after story beat. It’s clear that they absolutely give a damn about the product they’re producing. When I’m done watching an episode for the second or third time, I marvel that there was an easy way and a hard way to write and animate what I’ve just seen…and each and every time, they went with the hard way.

There’s a great example from this season’s two-part season finale, “Wharf Horse.” The story can’t move into its final act until two characters to talk exposition for about thirty seconds. But thirty seconds of conversation is boring, so the director had these two characters talk while riding a roller coaster.

That’s…that’s definitely the hard way to do that. Right? I’m not an animator.

I wanted to embed the scene here. Alas, the YouTube community that can normally be counted on to post copyrighted content in a timely fashion without the slightest care about helping creators to put food on their children has failed me. So instead of the “Wharf Horse” scene, I’ll embed another example of this show’s work ethic. Fox’s “Cosmos” series forced all of their regular Sunday night animation to air an hour earlier for two whole months. The producers of “Bob’s Burgers” needed to get the word out.

Here’s how they did that:

The hard way. And so, the show’s fans have been given this little gem that continues to entertain long after “Cosmos” has wrapped up its run.

I especially appreciate the effort the show takes to create grounded, believable characters and situations.

Bob Belcher owns a burger place, and runs it with his wife, Linda. Their three kids (Tina, Louise, and Gene) help out. These five characters aren’t there just to hurl lazy zingers at each other: they’re connected by real relationships. That’s the hard way: write a scene in which the needs of comedy are met (and usually exceeded), and yet there are things that the characters cannot and will not do, because that’s not who they are.

Louise (the one who always wears the bunny ears) enjoys creating chaos in any situation, but she won’t undermine or hurt her brother or her sister. And when she’s about to go too far, she’s usually held back and corrected by her two parents…people who are actual adults and who exercise real authority. In most other shows (including live-action sitcoms) parents treat their kids like colleagues. Moreover, while both of Louise’s parents love and care about her, she has a different relationship with Bob than she has with Linda.

Another example: why is Bob’s business just treading water? In a lazier show, Bob would be incompetent, or the family would constantly be doing things that create disaster. By Season Three, the show would have mostly forgotten what Bob even does for a living. And (honestly) if it’s funny, what’s the complaint?

But “Bob’s Burgers” makes a more ambitious choice: Bob is a terrific chef with a lot of skill and creativity. His restaurant is struggling because it’s located in a strip of middlebrow businesses adjacent to a beachside amusement arcade. This isn’t an area where people come for a Burger Of The Day infused with saffron. They come here on the Fourth of July hoping to see a bunch of people try to eat more than 62 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

“Bob’s Burgers” is written with a grounded reality. It’s harder to do, but they can create and play off of a lot more tension, and the resolutions to storylines can be much more satisfying for the audience. They can do things that a “silly” show (and I use that word to describe a genre, not as a slam) can’t.

In the episode “Topsy,” Tina is participating in Louise’s science fair demonstration. Louise being Louise, she’s subverted her assigned subject of “Thomas Edison” into an attack against everything that her substitute science teacher stands for. He’s an Edison reenactor at the science museum, and refused to let her just re-use her papier-mache volcano from last year. She’s going to “electrocute” Topsy the elephant (to be played by Tina) in front of all of the students and parents, replaying the publicity stunt that Edison staged to “prove” that a competing electrical system was dangerous. Tina will be fine, Louise promises, because the yoga mat she’ll be standing on will insulate her from the tens of thousands of volts being thrown off by the big Van de Graf generator behind her. A tech runthrough of the scene suggests that she’ll be killed horribly.

The show can get a lot of laughs and build a lot of tension from Tina’s panic. The climax of the show, when it appears that yup, everything’s gone horribly wrong, has impact. Sure, we know that “Bob’s Burgers” isn’t going to kill off Tina, and because this is animation, she can be knocked unconscious and wake up a few minutes later with smoking hair but otherwise OK.

But get this: we don’t want to see Tina get hurt. Not even for laughs! There’s a few seconds in which Bob and Linda and Louise are shouting and rushing to the stage where Tina is slumped to the ground and we’re right on the same emotional page as those characters. And when it turns out that Tina was just acting, our relief is genuine.

“Silly” shows can’t achieve that. We’ve become absolutely numb to the irrational, unmotivated, and utterly insane amounts of physical and emotional cruelty that the “Family Guy” characters inflict on Meg Griffin in nearly every episode. It’s OK that “Family Guy” doesn’t make us care about a character, but when the show becomes so oblivious to the laziness of this gag that it can’t even make us laugh, that’s a problem.

Meanwhile, we appreciate Tina’s quiet heroicism; we’re glad that Louise realizes that her natural inclination to stir the pot caused her to almost do something she never would have forgiven herself for; we admire Gene’s talent and think that he’s one of those weird kids whose weirdness leads him in positive directions. We want good things for all of these kids.

I’m tuning in week after week for so many reasons. One of them is that I legitimately care about these characters. “Bob’s Burgers” does things the hard way and that‘s the payoff. These episodes resonate; they’re memorable. People will be talking about “Topsy” for as long as we’ve been talking about the “Planet Of The Apes” musical in “The Simpsons.”

In 12 seasons, has “Family Guy” created even one classic bit? Yes, that’s the payoff of laziness.

I’ve been praising the show’s writing, so it’s time for a shoutout to the work ethic of the animators and directors. “The Simpsons” starts almost every episode with a new couch gag. And in a period of the show’s history in which too many people dismiss this show for just phoning it in, let’s give “The Simpsons” its due for airing exciting, unexpected, and sometimes even experimental animation into prime-time.

The equivalent on “Bob’s Burgers” is the end-credits animation. Thirty seconds of totally unnecessary work, often backed by new, original music. They’re always good, but one end-credit sequence stands out for me:

Megan Mullally sells the holy hell out of the song…and just look at that animation! What a performance the artists created! It’s an exquisite parody of that theatrical style of singer/songwriter stage performance. It cracks me up every single time. And I marvel that the “Bob’s Burgers” crew puts so much effort into crafting these little jewels. They’re fully aware that Netflix, Hulu, or the local FOX affiliate is likely to electronically shrink this scene down to postage-stamp size to try to sell you on another show. This didn’t stop the “Bob’s Burgers” animators from having the singer tap and flex her left foot for added emphasis.

Yes, I’m fully on board with “Bob’s Burgers.” My favorite kind of relationship with a show is one of absolute trust. It happens when a show surprises and delights me on such a consistent basis that my “critical, wary consumer” eye has been completely obliterated. I no longer look at the plate or ask “what’s in this dish?”…I just dig right in and abandon myself to joy and new experiences. I would eat goat brains if it were served by “Bob’s Burgers.”

I feel a bit defensive when I talk about my feelings about “Family Guy.” Such negativity! And if I guess if I were a better person, I wouldn’t waste any time talking about things I don’t like.

So I must attach a disclaimer. The only thing required of “Family Guy” is to entertain an audience, and its ongoing success proves that it’s doing its job well. FOX doesn’t need to apologize for airing it, its fans don’t need to apologize for liking it, and Seth Macfarlane doesn’t need to apologize for making it. Macfarlane’s “Ted” was a monster success, indicating that he’s no one-hit-wonder, either. Credit must be paid.

And let’s also acknowledge that the jokes against “Bob’s Burgers” are likely meant in good humor. The show pokes fun at itself in the crossover promo clip as well as during its own shows.

(Which shows a healthy self-awareness but please oh please: instead of winking to the camera about how lazy your jokes are, could you just, you know, try to do better?)

Peter Griffin angrily lifts Lucy Van Pelt off the ground by her hair. She is bloody, bruised, and crying. Griffin prepares to continue the savage beating as a shocked Charlie Brown stands by.

I note this with proper respect.

Then I remember the episode in which 40-year-old Peter Griffin beats the holy hell out of a defenseless seven-year-old girl, despite her blood and tears and cries of helpless pain and shock. The scene goes on for so long and stretches so far beyond the needs of the joke that I can’t help but wonder if the director of this episode has some sort of fetish about seeing little girls being nearly beaten to death. Further, she’s a legendary character created by one of the most creative, influential, and hard-working artists of the 20th century.

Which makes me think “‘Family Guy’ can go **** itself” all over again.

On Letterman: “MacArthur Park”

Why did the CBS Orchestra pack the Ed Sullivan Theater stage with 33 musicians and play a five and a half minute version of “MacArthur Park“? Because recently, Letterman was driving around with his son and the satellite radio played this song so many times in a row that the kid screamed “No more caaaaaake!!!”

So, to simultaneously please and annoy his son, Dave asked Paul if the band could do the song on the show. This video encapsulates so much of what I love about the Letterman show. That they could do something so silly and so complicated (and expensive) just because Dave thought it was a funny idea. And: that they have a band that can do damned near anything.

Here’s a coincidence for you: earlier on Monday, a friend of mine and I were talking about late-night talk shows and he praised The Roots as being every bit as good as The CBS Orchestra.

I didn’t disagree with him per se. But I had to raise the point that Late Show With David Letterman presents The CBS Orchestra with many, many more opportunities to show their range and talent than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon creates for its band, and they’ve had 30 years in which to show off. The band doesn’t just play the show out to commercial and back again. They’re also the house band. Over the past thirty years, they’ve backed up every style and genre and generation of musical guest. I hope The Roots are given the same opportunities (because they’re a terrific band) but I doubt it. It’s a shame, because in their Late Night and Late Show incarnations, Paul Shaffer’s band has proven an immense range and depth of skills.

Here they are, backing up Sammy Davis Jr. as a jazz quartet:

And here they are backing up Mandy Patinkin, playing a Depression-era classic. Stick with it as it builds, all the way to the end:

Backing up Warren Zevon in his final public performance, a goddamn heartbreaking version of “Mutineer”:

Sorry, yes, that’s a huge downer. Hey! Here they are, rocking all the hell the way out with Bruce Springsteen:

Yes, good point…Paul Shaffer assembled his band around the needs of 60s and 70s rock, pop and funk, so that’s well within their wheelhouse. Fine. How about opera? How about a special Top Ten list in which they have to play ten opera pieces?

I wondered if the show might have decided to keep it simple and just hire in a small group of recital musicians with experience in this repertoire, and stuck them behind the scrim. The show often does that when there’s a Broadway performance…the show’s regular musicians are just a few blocks away, so it just makes sense. Well, not only does Renee Fleming seem to be getting her cues from the usual bandstand, but this non-official version includes a cutaway to the band, which shows that the CBS Orchestra is playing appropriate instruments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Will Lee playing an upright bass on the show before.

Backing up Will Smith for an unexpected extended performance of the smooth hip-hop “Summertime”:

Could the band play classic Broadway if they had to? Sure thing:

Speaking of Kristen Chenoweth, I don’t think Paul Shaffer knew that she was going to sing during her interview, what she was going to sing, or that she was going to sing it in such an unusual key. Nonetheless:

And speaking of spontaneity. Dave was so pleased by The Orwells that he asked them to encore the song as they rolled credits. Well, their guitarist had ripped out his strings during the finale, and the rest of the band didn’t really do anything with the request…so the CBS Orchestra (on hearing the song once, likely) jumped in and performed the encore themselves:

But let’s finish off with something we rarely get to see: the band just playing. Here’s a clip of the music they play during the commercials. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show in person four or five times over the years and I can attest that the band interstitials are easily as entertaining as the rest of the show. I hope that before Letterman ends his run, he does a whole show of just the band playing:

“Good heavens, Andy!” you would comment, if this blog allowed you to shame me in public comments. “You wasted a lot of time this morning building this list of clips, didn’t you?”

Nope! The Letterman show has had so many fantastic musical moments that I could pluck almost all of these out of an existing YouTube playlist. The others were easy to find because my favorite musical segments of the show stand out just as sharply for me as my favorite interview and comedy moments.

So add this to the list of things I’m dearly going to miss when Letterman retires: getting to hear this phenomenal band on a nightly basis. I’ve read that each of them are busy musicians outside the show, so I don’t suppose there’s much chance of them putting together a tour in 2015. But if they do…wow, that’s gotta be the easiest $77.50 I ever spent!

The Greatest Gadget Ad Of All Time?

Here’s Sir Laurence Olivier’s commercial for the Polaroid SX-70 camera. This ad is 40 years old and the entire product category became obsolete over a decade ago.

But be honest: right now, you want an SX-70.

Why? Because you are men and women of taste, it’s a hell of a product, and a hell of a commercial. Sir Larry presents an attractive and compact slab of what looks like fine metal and leather and holy crap it just transformed into a camera! I wonder where the film goes did he just slide ten frames of film into it as easily as putting bread in a toaster?!

(Recall that this was a time when people loaded 35mm SLR cameras by dropping a cartridge into one end of the thing and then pulling the film acrossssss to a takeup reel and carrrrrefully making sure the holes engaged with the sprockets and…etc.)

The SX-70 even sounds great when taking a photo, emitting a satisfying thclack of a shutter followed by a whirring of gears and motors that set about their work with care and precision. But how do the photos you mean that’s not a trick it really does just sort of appear in front of your eyes?!?

More gadget ads ought to be exactly like this. In a short span of time, it puts on a magic show. There’s nothing vague or oracular about it. Nothing smug, no “concept,” and Polaroid wasn’t touting this as an “aspirational” or “disruptive” product. The message is simple. Here’s an awesome camera. If you take pictures, you want to more about the SX-70.

And because this is 1973, this means physically transporting yourself to a place where they have a stock of cameras and the equipment necessary to swap them for your money immediately. This was good for Polaroid. Once you hold an SX-70, you’re kind of doomed.

I know from experience. I own two SX-70 cameras. When I got home from the MIT Flea Market with this prize, I rummaged through my closet to look for a lens brush so I could spiff it up…and then I found the other SX-70 that I bought at another Flea two or three years earlier. Thankfully, I paid flea-market prices for both. But yes, all cower and quake before the seductive powers of intensely-well-designed technology.

And I haven’t even mentioned the perfection of hiring Sir Larry. It was great casting, and speaks well of the company’s faith in the product. He lends an air of affirmation, credibility, and sophistication to the SX-70 through his presence. But his words are straightforward ad copy that anybody could have read. If the camera were a lesser product, Polaroid would have had Larry talk about fine-tooled leather and classical craftsmanship and the feel of superb engineering in one’s hands, like that of a fine timepiece or a hand-built luxury car, et cetera.

My thanks to pal Harry McCracken for bringing it to my attention. I clicked into Technologizer for his tribute to James Garner’s Polaroid commercials (rest in peace) (James Garner and Polaroid) and I was soon engrossed in his tribute to the SX-70. You ought to go read it.

Followup, Of Sorts

Many Twitter responses to yesterday’s post about sorting problems:







In the end, it’s probably best to remind ourselves that the whole concept of “order,” as we perceive it, is merely a layer of artificial augmented reality that our brains came up with. If we realized that everything’s that’s ever happened and every will happen is random, and that there’s no plan for anything in the universe, we’d probably all just freak right the hell out and forget to eat those sugars and proteins that our brains like so much.

These Tweets and others jarred a memory loose. I actually did solve my comic book database’s sorting problem, by creating multiple “Title” fields to serve multiple purposes. The record for an issue of “Avengers West Coast” had:

  1. A field containing the title as it should appear when printed (“Avengers West Coast”)
  2. A field containing the title as it should appear in a super-condensed multi-column report (“AVENWC”)
  3. A field used exclusively for sorting purposes (“West Coast Avengers”)

Yes, this was another book that Marvel renamed midway through its run. But by sorting on the third field, Issue #47 of Avengers West Coast Volume 2 naturally followed issue #46 of West Coast Avengers Volume 2 without any trouble.

I was quite proud to have figured that out. It also informs my philosophy that sometimes, we delay the discovery of a great solution to a problem by insisting that it be simple and elegant. In Game Boy terms: we’re playing Tetris, and we’re so determined to set up a move that clears four rows at once that we pass up dull, but effective, drops of one row or two. I remember the moment late at night, in front of my DOS machine (hey, it was the late Eighties), when I realized that all of this extra Turbo Pascal code (hey, it was the late Eighties) I’d been writing to compress title strings and alias one title onto another just a big waste of my time and the CPU’s.

This is making me nostalgic for the days when I had some sort of huge programming project to work on..code that I build, maintain, and enhance for years and years, just for my own use and my own pleasure. My first big project was an Apple II operating system. My second was the comic book database. My last one was the CMS and desktop app that ran my blog from the mid-Nineties until 2007 or so. Since then, all I’ve done are little one-off AppleScript, Ruby and Perl scripts to help me finish simple, repetitive tasks quickly.

Maybe this is my way of nudging myself to start to learn Swift in earnest, beyond the usual “Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz”-style test app I build when I need to test a language or a development environment.

iOS app development has always intimidated me, though. It feels like I shouldn’t look back after a year’s worth of effort and only then realize that I could have made a million dollars if I’d spent that time writing a different kind of app.

A Less-Definite Article

“The.” Such a meaningless word. Such a cause of trouble for those of us who rely on the alphabet.

Take a look at my iTunes library. What’s the name of the band that originally recorded “Hey Jude”?

You say you know. I’m telling you that you don’t. I always have to take a guess at it…if I’m looking for it in my iTunes library. Thanks to the plurality of early iTunes users who submitted CD track listings to the CDDB while stoned, the Beatles catalogue is split between three different bands:

“The Beatles”



“Beatles, The”.

And why, yes, this does completely **** up browsability! I’m forced to weed these things out and fix them manually.

The “the” problem screws lots of things up. It’s “Spider-Man,” not “The Spider-Man.” But purists will insist that it’s supposed to be “The Batman.” And as big a fan of this band as I am, I’m not 100% sure if it’s “Foo Fighters” or “The Foo Fighters” until I consult a canonical source.

(Usually, I call up Dave Grohl. “How the hell did you get this number?” he shouts. “You know perfectly goddamned well that the court order forbids you from ever calling me or any other member of Foo Fighters!” And there’s my answer.)

All of this is simply part of our daily burden as free-thinking members of this planet’s alpha species. It’s on my mind tonight thanks to a conversation that Marco Arment has been having on Twitter about how his lovely new podcatcher app sorts show titles.

I don’t think that’s the right way to go. I’m looking at my list of podcast subscriptions and I reckon that by this scheme, about a third of the shows I regularly listen to will be clumped under “T.” I reckon that this is why so many music apps (like Google Play Music) will display “The Beatles” but sort it as though the band name starts with “B”. I reckon if I use the word “reckon” a third and fourth time and point that out, it’ll sound like I used it over and over again to be entertaining, when in truth, I was just lazy.

If you’re a stickler, you could just say “common rules of indexing command that ‘the’ be treated as though it were the last word in a business name or title.”

(Go on and check out the Chicago Manual Of Style’s Q&A page about alphabetizing. It’s a hoot, and reminds me that if I took a job as a librarian, I’d last about three weeks before I shot myself in the foot to get a discharge stateside.)

But all of this skips over the real point, when designing software. Rules should be damned: the choice just has to make sense and it has to be consistent. The developer needs to ask “where will people expect to find ‘The Beatles’?” and act accordingly.

At some point, he or she just has to make the choice that feels right. Then, send baby out into traffic and see how well that choice works.

This is a good example of what I think of as a “big endian/little endian” problem. These terms have nothing to do with how data is stored in address space; I’m referring to the original Jonathan Swift idea of a society in which people who slice open their hard-boiled eggs from the little end can’t understand the people who slice them open from the big end because, obviously, their way is totally the right way to do this. The other way seems so bizarre that those people might as well be of some other species or something.

So: you can argue endlessly about the “right” way. But it’s almost (not quite) an arbitrary choice. By trying to satisfy people who will never agree with the “other” way of doing things, you’ll just screw things up for everyone. It’s best to just have a point of view and stick with it until user feedback makes you second-guess your choice.

Alphabetizing things will never work smoothly, anyway.

John Hodgman and Jesse Thorn refer to their show as “The Judge John Hodgman Podcast” on-mic, but it’s canonically listed without the definite article. Where do I find Elvis Mitchell’s swell entertainment interview show, “The Treatment“? Is it under “T” for “Treatment,” or “T” for “The”?

Trick question! Both words start with the letter “T”!

AHA! DOUBLE trick-question! Because it’s listed as “KCRW’s ‘The Treatment'”!

My mental eye paints White-Out over the “The” in a podcast title almost every time. But I never think of my favorite podcast as anything other than “The Bugle.”

This sort of problem goes way, way back. When I was a kid, Marvel Comics inflicted the first of what would become a decades-long string of abusive editorial decisions by renaming the comic “Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man” as “Spectacular Spider-Man.” Well, crap. Now where do I file these issues? I checked the indica. Marvel didn’t start a new numbering scheme and this was still Volume 1.

Nerdy kids who grew up in the Eighties are united by two traumatic events that affected all of us: “Spectacular Spider-Man,” and the Challenger disaster. I am convinced that if I were to send a one hundred item questionnaire to 500 comic book fans, the answer to Question 1 (“How did you choose to sort your Spectacular Spider-Man comics?”) would let me predict the answers to many questions about the respondent’s views on politics and ethics, after all 500 sets of answers were submitted to proper analysis.

(My introduction to formal data structures came when I wrote an app to keep track of my comics. Through high school and college, I solved so many problems and added so many features to it. But I never figured out an elegant way to handle a comic that runs for 131 consecutively-numbered issues across three or four titles.)

What I’m saying is that alphabetizing things is a big mess…maybe the biggest mess there is, if ranked as a ratio of “how difficult this problem is” to  “how difficult it appears to be.” I always expect, and hope, that “the” is invisible for sorting purposes…but I can forgive a developer for doing what makes sense to him or her.

All of this reminds me of a brilliant name for a band, which I came up with when I was a teen: “Miscellaneous M.” It guaranteed that the band would get its own divider in every store’s CD department even if it only released one album. The only way this scheme could possibly fail would have been if the entire market for physical media were to collapse over a short period of time.

The Soda Protocols

(One of the greatest culinary experiences of my entire life: drinking bottles of real-sugar Coke in Belize after two or three hours of hiking around.)


“Daddy’s magic thinking juice.” This is how I often describe the bottles and cans in my fridge, much to the confusion of friends and family.

“I didn’t know you even had kids,” they reply, cautiously. “Nor that your shame over your escalating drinking problem is so great that you choose to conceal its scale behind a code phrase.”

Well, neither thing is true. Alcohol consumption is often linked to parenthood (particularly during one’s frolicky teen years) but I only have a nodding relationship to both concepts. No, I describe my onhand inventory of soda that way because over the course of a long writing day, a glass of something fizzy and tasty helps to grease the gears of productivity. In fact, when the final deadline of a book project is less than two weeks away, my blood is about 20% phosphoric acid.

Is this a healthy habit? Oh, absolutely. I have zero back problems and have never been killed by one of those deep-vein thrombosis deals. I fix my doctor with a steely gaze and insist that it’s all thanks to my compulsive need to get up out of my chair every 45 minutes and walking to the kitchen to fix another drink.

But my powers of creativity and self-deception have limits. Back in my Twenties, I foresaw that drinking a couple of 12-packs of Coke every week was a career-limiting strategy. I instituted a new mission rule: no sugared sodas inside the house. I switched to Diet.

That was the only change I made to my Soda Protocols until recently, when I started to feel like it was time to tinker with them. Chalk it up to my entering my “long haul” years. Due to poor planning, I didn’t die in my youth with the final pages of my unpublished but soon-to-be-universally-acknowledged masterpiece crumpled in my cold hands. Onward to Plan B, then: start making choices with my longterm health in mind.

What’s the problem with my soda consumption? Is there a problem?

I’m not sure, so I’ve been playing with the variables. I switched to ginger ales and citrus flavors for a month because I was curious to see if the caffeine in my sodas was screwing me up in some way. I suffered no withdrawal symptoms (despite what years sitcom evidence predicted) and mmmmaybe I was falling asleep faster. It was an interesting data point if not a eureka result.

Okay, but what are those artificial sweeteners doing to me? “There’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems,” says the Mayo Clinic. Okey-doke! That’s good enough for me. But I was intrigued by something Alton Brown said in his podcast: he thinks artificial sweeteners are the devil because even if they have no primary ill effects on your health, they reinforce the brain’s desire for sweet-tasting things.

In any event, it was worth giving up artificial sweeteners for a while, too. As with the caffeine thing, it was as much an experiment in self-control as anything else. I try to be on guard against compulsive behavior. Am I drinking this Diet Dr. Pepper because I genuinely enjoy it, or is it just something I’ve programmed myself to pour into a glass a few times a day?

In the end, all of this experimentation has left me disappointed. I had hoped that a month after eliminating this thing or that thing, my typing speed would increase by 20% and/or I’d finally get the hang of the “wet on wet” painting techniques of your leading TV art instructors. Nope! All I got out of any of this is the reassurance that I’m not chemically or psychologically addicted to any of this stuff (okay, that’s a win) and the knowledge that in some vague way, I might be making better longterm health choices. Even if that’s true, I won’t be able to blow out the candles on my 80th birthday cake and claim that it was because I kicked Coke to the curb in all of its hoary forms.

That’s the disappointing thing about most healthy living decisions. At least when you play a video game, you shoot open a chest, a first aid kit tumbles out, you walk over it and presto! The dingus in the corner of the screen tells you that you can now afford to get shot four more times. I suspect that this is why people would rather spend hours drinking orange soda in front of a video game instead of exercising. We need a system of scorekeeping for real life, don’t we? Unless God hands me a numerical score at the end of my life to show me what I “won” by changing my drinking habits, all I have to go on is faith.

(I know: He’s a big fan of Faith. It strengthens character and also saves Him a crapload of bookkeeping.)

Well, the experiment phase is over. I’ve made three sweeping changes to my Soda Protocols:

  1. The default home beverage is now “seltzer.” Either flavored, or enhanced through the manual addition of natural lemon or lime juice. It has no caffeine and no artificial sweeteners. I actually prefer the clean taste to the vague chemical-ey notes present in even a good cola-war-battle-hardened diet soda.
  2. I have lifted the household ban on sweetened soda. The Experiment Phase proved that I’m not a compulsive drinker, so I trust myself. But! Sweetened soda is to be consumed as though it were alcohol. One small glass, perhaps once a day.
  3. Soda should be sweetened with real sugar, if at all possible. I’m letting sugared soda back into my life so that I can savor and enjoy it as a rare (-ish) treat, instead of guzzling it like water. I don’t know what to make about all of the anti-corn-syrup fuss out there. But I do know that I prefer the taste of natural sugar (it adds a peppery snap). If this it going to be a treat, let’s make it a treat, yes? I’m swapping out the diet stuff because it doesn’t taste as good as this, and I’m agreeing to drink far less of it as a tradeoff.

We seem to be living in a new Enlightened Age of real sugar colas. Pepsi seems to have made the “Throwback” flavor a regular item; on top of that, they’re promoting three new “real sugar” flavors as a summer promotion. Why the holy hell doesn’t Coke jump on the bandwagon, too? We love cane sugar-sweetened Coke so much that we’re willing to import the stuff from exotic foreign nations, such as Mexico and Costco! The fact that there isn’t a domestic variant trademarked as “Coke Refresco” proves that The Coca-Cola Company is a society in a state of chaos. The company should be annexed by a neighbor and run by a colonial governor until such time as they are once again capable of self-rule.

(It’s the humanitarian thing to do. Blackberry watched the iPhone sweep in and take over the phone market, and yet they still refuse to make phones out of real cane sugar. I’d hate to see that same sad fate befall Coca-Cola.)

On the subject of Pepsi Throwback: it was a one-off summer promotion that was so successful that Pepsi just decided to keep it around. The first time I encountered it, I bought the one remaining 12-pack of cane-sugar Dr Pepper in the store display and holy mother of God, it was some of the tastiest stuff I ever drank. This was years ago and I swear to you that every time – every time – I see a 12-pack of Throwback Pepsi, I instinctively check to see if there’s any Heritage Dr Pepper. Make it a regular damn product!

We’re Americans! The only thing we like better than sugar is a super special kind of sugar that lets us congratulate ourselves for our discerning taste and superiority!

Super (-ish) Moon

I shot the supermoon tonight in my backyard. If the Moon is going to be accommodating enough to get a little bit closer to my camera, then I really shouldn’t look a gift satellite in the mouth, should I?

I find that the Moon is a most agreeable subject. It’s much more patient with the hobbyist photographer than the Blue Angels. The Moon has places to go, yes…but it’s in no hurry to get there and it’s willing to indulge the local paparazzi.

My consumer zoom tops out at a sensible 200mm which is fine if your subject is somewhat nearer than 240,000 miles from the focal plane but less than optimal if you want to take a photo of anything orbiting the planet. I don’t need an ultratelephoto lens (or a telescope with a camera adapter). I only want one. And I only want one a couple of times a year…like right now!

Amazon’s drone-delivery system (if real) is brilliant. I’m in my backyard and seeing this little white circle in my viewfinder. I could unpocket my phone, tap a few buttons, and then a half an hour later…RZZZZZZZZZZZZ! A quartet of quadrocopters with a net slung between them drops a Celestron gently onto the grass, next to my tripod. That’s the way to do it! Lock me into the sale at the moment of need, before I realize that this is a silly impulse and an unnecessary expenditure.

I’ve never owned a telescope. I suppose that these days, we use better technology for looking at the heavens: the Internet. Awesome (in the literal sense) collections of imagery collected by the latest generation of spacecraft observatories are right there to be found. Much of it is nicely collected in apps and services, like Google Sky.

I’m sure that I’m not getting the same visceral excitement that I’d experience by peeping at this stuff through an optical viewfinder. But I must swallow my pride and confess that the Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer space telescopes et al (and the people who click the buttons) are way better at finding and photographing interesting things up there than I am.

(It also doesn’t involve freezing one’s butt off when a comet is passing by at an awkward time of the year.)

Besides, the Moon isn’t like the Space Shuttle. There are a million photos of Endeavour, but only a few that capture the orbiter the way I saw it, conveying the emotions that I felt when seeing it. The Moon just hangs there, like the Mona Lisa. Once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to think of something new to do with the thing.

I still have “Milky Way galaxy” on my photographic bucket list, though. It’s a tough problem to solve. I’d need to go somewhere with no light pollution. That’s not a big problem. I’m actually intimidated by being interrupted by angry people with guns and flashlights wondering what the hell I’m doing in the middle of their field. One day, maybe, I’ll find an astronomy group and make a trek out on a good night. Is it BYOB, or do they have a cooler with an honor bar?

Another brilliant startup idea

I’m going to need some investors (also, people who know how to build a really good app and how to create and maintain mission-critical messaging infrastructure). Because I have had one of those Can’t Possibly Miss ideas.

You’d like to turn off your phone during off-hours. But there’s always a chance that you’ll miss a message that genuinely can’t wait. And if you leave it on and tell people only to contact you in case of emergency, the definition of the word “emergency” tends to fall seriously out of sync and then, there you are, in an expensive restaurant, telling someone that if the office printer is out of paper, and there’s none in the storeroom, then maybe they should go out to OfficeMax or something.

To solve this problem, I’ve come with a new messaging app: “Message Against The House,” or MATHmessage.

Here’s how it works. Your whole phone works the same way it always did. But when you don’t wish to be disturbed, you launch MATHmessage. It sends all phone calls to voice mail and mutes all alerts created by other messaging apps. Until you turn MATHmessage off, it’s the only source of incoming messages…either messages transported by the app network itself, or with the app as a go-between for voice and text.

When someone attempts to message you, they get an automated response. The message has been received correctly and is being held in quarantine. MATHmessage will not alert the user and display the message until the sender places the sum of $100 in escrow. All they have to do is tap a button to authorize the hold of funds.

Once the payment is confirmed, the app releases the message to the recipient. If the recipient thinks that this message really was worth having to excuse themselves from a family wedding, then he or she taps the thumbs-up button and the sender gets their $100 back. If not, then the money goes to a charity, randomly-selected from a list of 50 that the recipient approved when they installed the app.

(Minus a small transaction fee that supports the MATHmessage service and lets me buy a couple of Teslas.)

See? It’s brilliant. It forces the sender to wager his or her own cash against the question “Will the recipient agree that my message was worth their time at attention, during a time when they asked not to be disturbed?” Hence the name: they’re betting $100 against the house, aka my goldmine of a messaging service.

I guess an arbitration process will be necessary. Otherwise, recipients could choose to just be jerks (albeit jerks who want each of their incoming messages to generate $100 for a cancer-related charity). I have no set plan for this, but I imagine it’ll be a variation on the Instant Replay rule. There has to be some additional skin in the game to prevent people from just asking for arbitration every single damn time.

Mere details. The core concept is perfect: the idea is to force the sender to put some skin in the game before they try to get in touch with you at a time when they’ve been told you don’t want to be disturbed. “Your kid has been taken to the emergency room” – justified. “I know we’re meeting tomorrow at 10, but I wanted to make sure you had my latest thoughts before I left the office for the day” – that’s going to cost you a hundred bucks.

After a successful soft-launch of MATHmessage, we offer a companion product for restaurants and theaters. MATHmessage users who don’t wish to be disturbed except in an emergency use the app to scan a QR code at the maître d’ station.

What happens next:

  1. The escrow amount doubles to $200.
  2. Incoming messages are encrypted and held by an iPad at the maître d’ station.
  3. The recipient’s phone never receives any alerts under any circumstances. The app activates an iBeacon-like feature that allows a restaurant staffperson to locate the MATHmessage user via a directional app on the iPad.
  4. The message is released securely and privately to the user by bringing the two devices in contact with each other, and then deleted securely from the iPad.
  5. Upon successful delivery of the message, the restaurant receives a fixed dollar amount regardless of its disposition.
  6. This mode automatically turns off when you pass by the iBeacon that’ mounted mezuzah-style on the restaurant’s doorway.

This idea can be applied to all sorts of public spaces in which patron use of phones is to be discouraged. A blanket ban on phone usage can be applied and enforced while still allowing those with a legitimate interest in emergency communications (presidents or dictators of the more popular nations, anyone employed to keep reality-show participants from getting any sort of attention) to remain on the grid without disturbing the experience for other patrons. Theaters, for example, can simply intercept MATHmessages and only make them available for retrieval inside the lobby, during intermission.

Thank you, Dragons. I am now prepared to hold open this empty pillowcase for as long as you desire to throw bundles of $100 bills into it. I have brought nineteen of them and I’m not sure that’ll be enough.

Asked Potato

I’m sure that everyone who ever launched a creative project in earnest and barely scratched 5% of their Kickstarter goal is looking at the Potato Salad project with a certain amount of nun-tripping frustration. The project is to make a bowl of potato salad. The founder was looking for $10. As of this writing, he’s raised $38,804, with 25 days left in the campaign.

I’m not going to make fun of Zack Danger Brown. No no no. I have nothing but bemused admiration for his achievement. He’s like Lindberg, only without the ties to Hitler. He’s accomplished something amazing and downright inspirational: he’s accumulated enough money for a down payment on a house, off the back of a silly idea that doesn’t have any ulterior motive other than whimsy. It’d be lovely if he swung this project over to “donating money to community food banks,” but he’s under no moral obligation to do so. And he isn’t defrauding a single person.

But let’s see him follow through on the rewards he’s promised to his backers. “A bite of the potato salad”? My first thought was to buy thousands of little packets of mayo, salt, and pepper, hire someone to make little packets of dried potato flakes, then hire someone else to throw ’em into envelopes and mail them out. Or can he get away with claiming that “a bite of the potato salad” does not include travel and accommodations to the place where the potato salad will be made?)

My second thought was that if Mel Brooks had a grandson who wanted to get into the movie business and was eager to trade off of the family name, he’d do a rebooted version of “The Producers” and call it “The Kickstarters.”

Aside: it’s definitely time for the world to treat the phrase “Springtime For Hitler” as a catchphrase. It means “Any project that can only fail if it succeeds beyond even the most optimistic projections of its creators.” Such as a connected app that serves a valuable function that people are willing to pay for, BUT can’t possibly scale up. It can sustain itself with 5000 users, it can make a decent living for its creators at 50,000 users, but with 500,000 users, the company goes out of business.

(Usage: “MarinarApp had the ‘should I add more basil to this red sauce?’ solutionspace all to itself. But they failed to attract angel funding. Without the ability to buy more server capacity to handle all of the incoming photos, or hire more chefs to screen those photos and punch in a BasilMeter™ score, the service inevitably Springtime For Hitlered.”)

So let’s all sit back and see how all of this plays out.

My third thought?

Thank God this didn’t happen ten or fifteen years ago. Those were dark days, when early-middle-aged movie executives were desperate to prove to middle-middle-aged senior executives that they were spunky fresh-thinkers with their thumbs on the zeitgeist and please please please there’s no need to fire them and replace them with younger people. Creators of silly blogs were getting movie offers left and right.

If that kind of thinking were still in place, Twerking Cinnamon Challenge Potato Salad Party would be a “go” picture.


Fireworks Tip

This one caused minor burns & @Maile_wilson's clothe... on Twitpic

I waffled on the “Should I go to the town Fourth Of July fireworks?” decision long enough that the decision became a simple one, if you follow. At which point I was able to tell myself that staying at home was the best plan all along. I’m frustrated by poor signal-to-noise when it comes to travel and excursions. Fireworks are thirty minutes of fun, bookended by an hour of milling around with nothing to do on side and an hour of being stuck in traffic on the other side. That’s the price of getting to and leaving a small patch of land that’s being targeted by thousands of other like-minded individuals.

So here I am: close enough to hear the booms, and nowhere near enough to see the lights.

But I made a nifty discovery just now. I came upon a July 4 blog post with an animated GIF image of real fireworks. And what do you know? The sounds and the image sync up realistically.

Which is to say that they don’t sync up at all. It’s just like being there!

It’s actually kind of uncanny. I’m guessing that my brain is flipping the “Real” indicator light because the sound is a more important convincer than the visual. I get to see video and photos of fireworks year-round. But the CRACKLE and SSSSSSS and BOOOM is one of those “You had to be there” experiences, what with the bass response.

I’ll have to remember this trick. Perhaps next year, I’ll drive to the very edge of the parking nightmare, open up my 15″ notebook, sit through the whole thing, and then be one of the first people to throw the car into reverse and make it out of the apocalyptic exodus of people carrying beach chairs, coolers, and kids who won’t stop screaming until they’re thoroughly convinced that the world didn’t just end.