october 2002

Well, the Month of Content is finally over, and we'll soon be able to resume a normal broadcast schedule. All in all, I'm glad I did it, because I was able to get a lot of things out of my system that otherwise would have bugged me for a while, but I don't think that I'll try to do anything like that any time soon.

The problem, I think, was that the original plan called for me to have all this stuff ready to post when the week began, so that during the week I could just post the kind of stuff I usually post to this site, but in reality I ended up prepping a lot of the stuff the night before, leaving me no time to post normal entries. The Month of Content material was meant to be a supplement to my regular entries, but instead they ended up being pretty much all I posted. In some ways, I feel like I've been on break from this site from a month, working on the Month of Content assignment.

I actually feel a little rusty now, even though technically I posted more stuff last month than in any other month since I started keeping this log. And I'm really looking forward to getting back to the usual content. Luckily, I've got plenty built up after last month.

Not to gloat or anything, but I'd like to direct your attention to the left sidebar, where you will note that, thanks to a final-week surge, I narrowly edged out Scott and Jeff for the league championship in our fantasy baseball league. It was actually a lot closer than those numbers indicate; a couple of runs here, a few more saves there, and I could have easily ended up in third. Another week, and this could be a totally different story.

Still, this takes the pressure off for next year since I'll now have one championship under my belt, and also eases the sting of my current losing streak in our fantasy football league (about which I'll write more soon).

Is there anyone outside of NYC who doesn't want to see the Yankees get their asses thoroughly kicked in the first round of the playoffs, thereby removing any possibility of yet another World Series title?

I think I'm almost ready to get back into a writing groove. I've got a lot of topics stored up, I just have to break out of the mini bout of writer's block I've gotten into thanks to my obsession with last month's content experiment.

Thank you for your patience. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Is it just me, or is every new show this television season either another reality retread or a rip-off of Everybody Loves Raymond or CSI/Law & Order/ER? What happened to some of the shows from last season like Andy Richter Controls the Universe or Undeclared? And why don't they make shows like Gilligan's Island or the Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres anymore? Isn't there some untapped wacky premise out there that Americans could buy into?

So: work.

The other day, I opened up my pay stub expecting to see the same thing I've seen for the last 7 months, and I was a little surprised to see a sizable increase in my take-home (well, it was in my base pay, too, but the take-home is what we all care about, isn't it?). I hadn't asked for or been informed of any raise, so before I went and spent it, I decided to check with the woman in charge of payroll.

It turns out that I have been the beneficiary of an odd quirk of what are normally rigid and intractable rules for salary increases at Hopkins. Usually you only get once chance at a raise per year (like most workplaces), and that raise is pretty much set in stone, no matter how good or bad your performance. That's one of the trade-offs for the good benefits and secure employment that you get at a university: the salary structure is very inflexible, and it is almost impossible to get anything more than what everyone else you work with is getting.

But there is a relatively obscure exception to these rules that states that, after six months of employment, if you are still in the first quartile of your pay grade (meaning that your salary is in the lowest 25% of the range for your grade), you can receive what is called, straigtforwardly enough, a quartile increase. It is not an automatic thing, though, not by any means; your boss has to submit it to HR, and the HR people have to be convinced that you are worth the increase. It is meant to reward good performance for people who are relatively underpaid when compared to other people at their salary level. I'm actually still in the first quartile of my pay grade, but now I'm only a dollar away from the next quartile. I have a feeling this is what they were willing to pay me when I was hired, and they're doing this now because they like my work and want me to stay, but it's still a nice bonus, especially because I didn't have to do any lobbying for it.

It came at an interesting time, though, because I was on the verge of asking for a pay grade increase (which is different from a raise—it does involve a higher salary, but it is a recognition of a major shift in resposibilties). See, I was hired at the pay grade I'm at now with the understanding that I would have a supervisor and that my day-to-day responsibilities would consist mainly of getting projects and tasks from this supervisor and performing them. But almost since the first month I was there, I have been performing a more or less supervisory function among our small IT team, and I have certainly been working very independently, initiating several projects myself and taking the lead on others. As it turns out, working independently and supervising others are two of the big triggers that can cause a pay grade change, especially a change from my current grade to the next grade on the ladder.

In fact, I don't think that my ex-supervisor ever actually gave me a task to do while he was there. At first this was because he was on another campus working on a university-wide implementation effort for a major new student tracking system, and after a few months of near-perpetual absence, it was because he left his job with the university to work as an independent IT consultant. As soon as he left, our director asked me to formally step into the role of IT team leader, a role which I had been more or less performing for a few months at that point anyway. But since this title has been formally bestowed on me, I have spent a lot more time engaged in meetings, managing projects that the other IT people are working on, and generally not being able to do as much of my own work as I would have expected.

I've been in this role for over two months now, and I was going to wait one more to ask for some sort of pay grade related recognition of my new responsibilities, but after this latest, unbidden salary increase, I'm afraid it might look a little greedy. Ironically, I'm not really interested in the pay grade increase because of the money; instead, I want the additional perks that come with going to the grade above my current one, which include significant vacation time and a very good retirement plan. If I'm going to be at Hopkins long-term, that is the minimum pay grade I would like to be at.

And I think that I do want to be at Hopkins long term. I really like the people in my office, I have all the equipment and software I need (thanks to that nice educational discount), and I really like being back in a college atmosphere. Yes, there's a lot of bureacracy, and yes, you sometimes have to do a lot of massaging of the people in charge to get things done, but I've been surprised at how open people have been to new projects if you just show a little initiative in approaching them. There's some really cool marketing stuff that we're working on for next year, and the web site improvements that will come over the next several months as we begin to bring the new student system online will present a lot of challenges and allow me to learn a lot of new stuff.

So I'll probably wait until my annual review to discuss the pay grade thing, but I'm not too concerned about it. My experience with my bosses has been more than fair to this point, I like the environment I'm in, and I like the work that I do on a day-to-day basis. And really, compared to this point last year, what more could I ask for?

Now that the students are back and I'm fairly well settled into my new job, I've decided to start taking advantage of some of the unique benefits that come with working on a university campus. There are tons of events every week, most no more than a ten minute walk from my office, and they often happen on my lunch hour. One of these is a new series sponsored by the Mattin Student Arts Center that brings a speaker on the arts for a lunch discussion on the first Thursday of every month. I got an email about the first one of these earlier this week, and decided to go.

I have been getting to know Kathryn, who I think is pretty interesting and who I think could eventually develop into a friend, a lot more recently, and so I asked if she wanted to come with me. I wasn't very hopeful because the speaker for the first event was a 3D animator who was going to talk about how animation and video games have developed into a valid and vibrant new art form, and I wasn't sure, as a music-centric female, if the topic would hold any interest for her. Surprisingly, it did, and I don't think she was going just to get out of the office for an hour: she knew a lot about gaming, and even admitted to being a fan of the ultra-violent Grand Theft Auto III.

The gathering was held in a rather small rectangular room that was mostly taken up by several tables arranged in the outline of rectangle. Normally there would have been plenty of room to hold the 25-30 people who showed up, but because the speaker had brought a projector on which he showed some of his animations and trailers from recent games, one of the long sides of the rectangle of tables was completely unusable. People ended up pulling chairs from that side and arranging them behind the other three sides, so we were packed in there pretty tight.

The speaker began by playing an animation that he had created for his graduate thesis back in 1997 (from the quality, I would have guessed more like 1995) and then showing some clips from upcoming games on the mafia, Desert Storm, and the Vietnam war (this last one was the oddest, as the title of the game, "Vietcong", and the clips that he showed seemed to indicate that the player would be playing from the point of view of our enemies in that war). He then made a couple of random statements about video games and opened the floor to questions.

He wasn't a very good speaker, really, because he didn't seem to know how to keep us on the topic of video games as art form, and we ended up getting bogged down in some tertiary discussions that weren't really all that relevant (or interesting). Kathryn tried several times to get him to talk about why the market for games had shifted from teenagers to older men, but for whatever reason he didn't ever use that opportunity to discuss the parallels of the maturity of the gaming audience that came along with the maturation of the games as an immersive art form. I wanted to discuss how video games as an art form have sort of democratized the artistic experience, since the users' interactions with the game world are at least as important in terms of creating the narrative and structure of the game as the developers' creation of that game world (as opposed to more traditional forms of art, where the artist's creative powers are thought to be much more important than the audience's perceptions of his work—although I don't think this is true: no work of art, no matter how much potential it holds, can influence a culture without the combined power of a large audience's reactions to and interpretations of that work). But there was never really a good opening to introduce the subject, so I ended up just talking about it with Kathryn as we walked back to the office.

Even though this particular speaker wasn't all that great, I think I'll still give this particular event a few more shots. It could have been a lot better, but it was still fun to be in a crowd of people who were at least interested in discussing cultural topics, even if they didn't do a very good job of it. UVA really killed my spirit in regards to being immersed in academia, but I think I'm finally ready to participate in that process again. The thing that I loved most about Davidson was the atmosphere of learning that was the essence of my academic experience there, and while I don't expect Hopkins to replicate that culture exactly, I'm still excited about being around people who still have open minds about the world and who aren't afraid to discuss their opinions in a forum like this.

Grrr...I don't like to blame baseball losses on just one player, but Tommy Glavine is pretty much solely responsible for the Braves' two losses to the Giants. Yes, he is also the guy who brought us the World Series title in 1995, but still, this first round is so critical—two losses from one pitcher in a five game series just doesn't cut it.

The problem with Glavine is that he is a finesse pitcher whose bread and butter is pitching on the outside corner and getting lots of ground balls for the infield defenders to scoop up. So when he's not on or not getting that outside call or whatever, he can be very hittable. Last night it seemed like the big problem was that the umpire wasn't giving him the outside corner (or the inside either, for that matter), but Bobby Cox should have realized that and pulled him before he gave up 7 runs in the first three innnings (the Giants scored only one more off of the bullpen for the remainder of the game).

The good news is that now the Braves go back to Atlanta for the final game of the series. Millwood will be pitching, and he dominated the Giants in Atlanta his last start. Still, the Giants are no slackers, and anybody could win it (although the historical precedent of the Braves stopping Barry Bonds in his tracks in the postseason is a nice trend to have on our side).

Plus, the Angels knocked the Yankees out of the postseason, so no matter what, I don't have to worry about those bastards buying themselves another title. It would have been cool to see the Twins and the A's in the ALCS instead of in the divisional series—they are two of the best managed teams in baseball who subsist on the lower end of the payroll scale, as opposed to the Yankees and Angels, who have almost limitless funds (the Yankees have the biggest payroll in baseball thanks to their ridiculous local television revenue, and the Angels are currently owned by Disney/ABC). The Angels and Twins should be pretty good, though. Just so long as the Yankees are out of it, I'm happy.

As part of my new desire to interact with the campus I work on and take advantage of some of the benefits of working at a university, I think I have decided to go back to school. Specifically the Masters of Liberal Arts degree offered by Hopkins' Advanced Academic program, a part-time graduate program.

This will probably come as a surprise to my friends who know about my previous experience with grad school, a horrific two years at UVA that ended in heartbreak, debt, and misery. But things are different now: for one, this is free. Hopkins pays over $5000 in tuition remission a year, and that program covers 100% of the tuition for this particular program. Total for three classes a year: about $4500.

Second, this isn't a cut-throat program where 50 people are competing for five or fewer Ph.D. slots. Almost everyone in this program works full time, and the ones who don't are generally retired. I'm hoping that this will lead to classes that are focused more on learning and exploration and less on impressing the professor so he'll sponsor your thesis or give you a good letter of recommendation. There are actually a couple of people in my office who are already in this program, and they confirm that this has been there experience (Diane was actually the one who first told me about the program).

Third, in addition to Diane and another person in our office who are already in the program, Kathryn and Jean (my two favorite people in the office) are also going to apply this year. So there's a good chance that most semesters I will be in a class where I already know at least one person. This is a big comfort factor for me: it takes me a while to open up to new groups of people, and having someone there that I'm already familiar with tends to make me loosen up a little faster.

The application process isn't too hard—it mostly seems like a formality to make sure that you're relatively academically qualified and serious about the program. The worst part of it is a two to three page essay on why you want to enroll in the program, what your personal and professional goals are, etc. I was hoping that they would just ask for a writing sample, but no such luck. After you submit everything, you have an interview with the program chair, and that's all there is to it. You have to submit everything by October 15 to be guaranteed a decision in time to register for classes in the spring, so I'm hopefully going to get all that stuff in by the end of the week.

This graduate progam that I'm interested in had an open house on Saturday, and since Kathryn only lives a few minutes away, we decided to meet for lunch beforehand and then go to the open house together. On Thursday we kind of generally talked about what time we would meet, etc., but we hadn't settled any of the specifics. I was going to talk to her again Friday afternoon, but when I got back from lunch, she had already gone home for the day, apparently feeling ill.

No big deal, I thought, I'll just email her or call her. I did both, but by 11:00 Saturday morning, the time I would have to leave the house if I was going to meet her at 11:30 as we had discussed, I hadn't heard from her yet, so I decided to go and get a haircut. Of course, she called and emailed me less than 15 minutes after I left, but by the time I got back and received her messages, it was already after 12:30, when she said she was going to leave and head over to the open house.

Okay, I figured, I'll just see her there. Julie was back from her morning errands by then, so she decided to come with, just so she could get a feel for the program herself and meet Kathryn. I couldn't remember exactly where the open house was being held, but something in the back of my mind told me that it was at Evergreen House, which is a historic mansion owned by Hopkins that is actually on the campus of Loyola. I thought it was kind of odd that they were holding it there, since it is several blocks away from the main campus, but I thought maybe the other good reception places on the main campus had been previously reserved for other events. I tried to go on the web site to confirm this, but for some reason that had already taken down the notice from their site, and it wasn't on any of the campus event calendars that I could find.

Of course, it wasn't at Evergreen house, and by the time I figured out that it was actually at Homewood House (I had to go back to my office and poke around in my browser's cache), there were only about 45 minutes remaining in the open house. I was guessing that Kathyrn had already come and gone, but there was still enough time for me to at least introduce myself to the program chairs (Homewood House is only a five minute walk from my office).

We got to Homewood, walked up to the front door, and just as we were trying the knob noticed a sign that said "Please use North entrance". So we headed around back to a similar door, tried that one, and found it was also locked. I was a little bit irritated at this point. There were only two doors that I could see, both of them were locked, and there were no signs telling you about an open house or anything like that. Especially after the fiasco of missing Kathryn for lunch and then driving all the way up to Evergreen and back, I was about ready to call it a day and head back home.

Just then we noticed a couple of people disappear into a little door on the side of the house that I hadn't noticed before. Finally, we went inside and were directed down to the old wine cellar. It was surprisingly hot down there, and the reception was almost over anyway, so we didn't stay long, but I did chat with an alumni representative and introduced myself to the program chair. Diane was also there just to answer questions from prospective students, and we ended up walking back to our cars together (where we discovered that we both drive green Saturns).

Kathryn didn't end up going at all, and Jean wasn't able to go because she was in NYC over the weekend, but Diane brought back copies of the course listings for them. I think Kathryn and I are going to take the first semester together (we're both kind of assuming that we're qualified enough to get into the program), and we've narrowed it down to two or three choices.

I'm pretty excited about all this. I used to really love school, especially at Davidson, but UVA really ruined academia for me for a long time (along with reading, writing, etc.). But I think this program could help me forget about all the negatives from UVA, and that makes me happy. After all, at one point I thought I would be spending my entire working life on a campus as a professor. I don't really have any desire to teach anymore, but I'm really looking forward to reading and writing and learning and engaging with people again.

I strongly disapprove of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" being used to sell steaks for Applebee's. Of course, I disapproved even more when it was used to sell video games for Microsoft a few years back...

You know, as a Braves fan, I've gotten so used to them breaking my heart in the postseason every year that it almost doesn't even hurt anymore. Almost.

The Braves certainly could have won Game 5, which makes it all the more disappointing that they didn't. The Giants in no way dominated them: there were several situations in which the Braves had an opportunity to drive in the tying runs or even take the lead, but they just couldn't pull the trigger. All in all, they left 12 men on base in their 3-1 loss to the Giants. You don't deserve to win if you get 13 men on base and can only get one of them home.

And for the first time in a while, there is a good chance that the team could go into serious rebuilding mode. Maddux and Glavine are both free agents who will likely command enormous salaries, and last year's big free agent acquisition, Gary Sheffield, didn't really pan out the way the team wanted him too. They'll still be competitive, I'm sure, but after 10 years of Maddux and Glavine leading the charge every year, it's weird to think about them playing for other teams.

This sniper stuff is really freaky. We live outside of what the police think is his comfort zone, but then again, there was that one incident down in Fredericksburg, which is much farther away from Montgomery county (where most of the killings occurred) than Baltimore. And this guy has clearly been thinking about this for a long time, and will likely continue to range further afield so as not to revisit any of the places where he's already been.

The police have been appearing on television almost hourly telling everyone to be vigilant and watch for suspicious behavior, but what they don't say is that it's pointless. This guy hasn't been seen by any of the people he's murdered, nor has anyone else seen him leaving the scene. He can kill from hundreds of yards away, and has obviously spent a lot of time choosing spots where he will have plenty of time to escape before he is detected. And it's not like there is a spray of bullets, so that you could hear them and at least have a chance to hide. One shot, that's it. He's only missed once, and only twice more has he failed to kill instantly (and the two wounded victims are both still hospitalized with serious injuries; they could eventually end up in the loss column).

I tend to worry about these kinds of things more than most people (or at least more than most people will admit), and I'm very jittery. Luckily, Julie is in another state this week, and I've already run all my weekly errands—I have no desire to go walking in and out of grocery stores, Wal-Marts, etc., until this situation gets resolved. I had to stop and get gas on Monday, and it was just nerve-racking (two of the victims were killed at gas stations). Suddenly all I could see in the woods that surround the gas station were hiding places for a shooter.

I've thought a lot about the killer's motives. He's obviously unhinged and crazy in a very scarily organized way, and it could be as simple as that: kill random people just to prove that you can. I've also wondered if it might be the first salvo in a new wave of terrorist attacks. Imagine the consequences of a large-scale collective of killers who work like this: five or ten operatives working in and around the 30 biggest metropolitan areas in the U.S., each taking out a target a week and never getting caught. It could happen, and that's reason enough to wonder if it actually is happening now.

The thing that seems most likely to me at this point, however, is something that was hinted at in the earliest reports on the killings but about which I've heard nothing since (sometimes the things that the press chooses to—or is ordered to—omit can tell you as much about a situation as the facts that they do report). One of the initial suspicions was that these killings were motivated by race, because something in the case—a type of weapon or bullet or something like that—had been linked back to a white supremacist. That individual was questioned, and apparently cleared, but still, it opened up an avenue of inquiry.

I started looking at the victims to see if there was any correlation. Most news sites had full names and occasionally pictures for the victims. Using this information, I determined that three of the victims were of some obvious ethnicity (Indian, Hispanic, African-American), one was white but looked as though he could have been a foreigner (especially given that his profession as a landscaper—which he was doing when he was killed—is a service performed in large part by the burgeoning Hispanic population in Montgomery county), and another was white but had a Hispanic last name. That's a little bit of a stretch, but if she was married to a latino, there could have been some sign of that (a child of the marriage, perhaps) that would have signaled to the killer that this was someone who deserved death in their mind, someone who had betrayed their white supremacist values. There is virtually no information on the Fredricksburg woman, so I have no idea how she might fit into all this. But even though the press has not released any information about the boy shot at a Bowie middle school, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that he is African-American: the photos and interviews with his classmates, the school administrators, the teachers, etc., show that the population of the school is largely African-American.

I'm not at all convinced of this theory, but what raises my suspicions even more than the evidence from their names and pictures is that fact that the news media has been completely mum on this possibility over the last couple of days despite the fact that they floated this as a possible motive within the first 24 hours of the attacks. It smacks of a hush order from the police department, who are trying to make the killer think that they don't know anything about him so that he'll expose himself somehow.

No matter what, none of this makes any sense. It's frightening, and disturbing, and unsettling; it is terrorism, pure and simple.

You know, I always suspected that those people who went to meetings all day every day didn't actually do all that much work. Now I'm finding out first hand that it's true. I have a lot to do, but all my time is getting eaten up scheduling meetings, going to meetings, writing emails to follow up on meetings, and taking care of new and urgent tasks that are assigned to me during meetings. I mean, I guess I'm getting stuff done, but I feel like I could be accomplishing a whole lot more if I didn't have to discuss everything with a committee.

I've been trying to use the extra 45 minutes that I don't need from the hour-long lunch break I am forced to take to write stuff for the site, but yesterday it somehow vanished before I could get around to composing anything. I had two or three topics that I really wanted to write about, but they were all really long and would have involved some research that I just didn't feel like doing last night at home. So instead I read a couple more chapters of The Two Towers and went to bed.

It is obscene that they are allowed to advertise Botox as a cosmetic.

Odds are, he won't shoot anyone tonight. Odds are, even if he's out there, looking for a target, he won't be here, at this particular gas station. Odds are, even if he is nearby, looking for his next victim, he won't be here for the minute it takes me to get out of my car and pump my gas. Odds are, even if he's picking his target right now, he won't pick me. Odds are, I'm not going to be dead in 15 seconds.

Odds are, that's what every one of his victims was thinking the second before they were hit.

That's what makes this so scary.

One of the weird things about the web is that, even though ever-increasing numbers of people are coming online and starting to integrate the internet into their daily lives, the people who are designing and building it continue to be high-level users who think they know what's best for everyone else. People like me. You'd think that as the general public started to follow in the footsteps of us early adopters, slowing learning the basics of HTML, file transfers, etc., they would eventually reach the level of mid or high level user that was capable of participating in the construction of the medium.

Instead, the high-level users seem to be getting ever more advanced in their ideas and techniques, while the entry-level users are staying entry-level. These barely-beyond-newbie users don't see the web like I do, as a revolutionary force that can overhaul the way we think about everything from copyright law to artistic expression to human interaction itself; instead, it's just another service that their computer performs for them, like the icemaker on their refrigerator. When they press the ice lever, they don't want to know how the machine made the ice, or understand all the engineering that went into making the components for the icemaker, or know how they could build their own icemaker that reflected their personality and artistry: they just want ice to come out.

Web developers and designers like me forget this sometimes, and spend obsessive amounts of time thinking about technical aspects of web sites that I'm starting to believe most of our users could give a tinker's damn about. Take, for example, A recent article on adaptivepath.com (which has been a big hit on the weblog circles of information dissemination) that argues for "user-centered URL design". What the author means by this is developing sites whose path names can be easily guessed by users, so that if there is some breakdown in the site navigation, a user can simply guess at the file name or even file path that they are looking for. Apple does a really good job of this (they are used as an example in the article, along with Adobe and, shockingly, Microsoft). While this personally appeals to me, since I have poked around many sites and found some hidden gem that had been obscured by a poor site redesign, I'm not sure what value it would have for the average user. The article is very well written, with lots of good citations and a reference to a popular book on information architecture, and the first time I read it, the idea was so obvious to me as a web developer that I hardly thought that it needed saying at all (it has been a more or less unwritten rule in my own site structure for as long as I've been structuring sites).

But then I started considering what actual benefit this kind of structure would have for the average user, the ones who still can't attach a file to an email and who double-click on links in their browsers because they were taught to double-click on everything else on the desktop. These are people who might use the web on a daily, or even hourly, basis, but who really aren't interested in learning any more about how to use it than they already do (which generally consists of being able to get to the big news sites, Yahoo!, and possibly Google or eBay), much less learn how to contribute to the content themselves. They just want their computer to be another appliance and their web browser to be another service offered by that appliance: an icemaker on a refrigerator. They don't care how it works, or what could be done to improve it; as long as it gives them what they want without too much trouble, they're not going to spend much time thinking about the hows and whys.

The mercurial and oft-reviled John Dvorak, a columnist for PC Magazine, explored similar thoughts on technology users in his article "Suddenly Stupid Syndrome". He doesn't talk specifically about the web in this piece, but the observations he makes about how people use technology can be easily applied to the question of how people interact with the web and what benefit most people might get from user-centered URLs. The column gets a little ranty, and meanders off into unrelated areas like people being searched in airports and the Enron scandal (not that I'm not prone to that sort of thing myself, it's just not germane to the discussion here), but some of the observations I think are pretty dead-on, mostly because they jibe with what I've seen in the workplace. In my current job, for example, everyone uses computers to do their jobs, and most use it for email and web surfing as well. But only about half know how to use an IM client, and a much smaller percentage than that know how to use Excel for anything other than basic data entry. And how about being able to use an FTP client: "What's FTP? What's a client?" I don't think any of them know how to write even the simplest HTML.

There is no reason why sites shouldn't be designed using a user-centered URL methodology: it's not that hard to do and there's always the chance that the audience could eventually grow sophisticated enough to actually get some benefit from it. But really, if the site was designed well in the first place (clear, consistent nav, no frames—basic tenets of good UI and structure principles), then users should never have to go poking around directories and guessing at file names. Sometimes, when we're looking at microscopic aspects of the medium, we forget how much work is left to be done on the big picture (like agreeing on a consistent set of standards and getting all of our users to upgrade to browsers that interpret standardized code in the same way). And we probably tend to overestimate how much the average user cares about or will ever notice these things.

Hmmm...the child at the school on Monday was definitely African-American, the grainy photo of the victim on Wednesday shows that he could at least be mistaken for Hispanic, and the victim on Friday was African-American. The woman who was wounded in the first week in Fredericksburg is supposedly white, but I'd like to see a picture of her before I rule out the racist theory; there has been some hint of ethnicity in the other white victims that could allow them to be mistaken for minorities, especially when the shooter only sees them through the scope of a rifle for a few seconds before he decides to pull the trigger. I'm still not convinced that this guy is a white supremacist who is targeting people based on race, but these latest victims don't do anything to unconvince me.

Remember when I said I was going to have to give the Clash's "Sandinista!" another try after Doug's defense of it? I know it's been a while (around a year and a half) but, I've finally gotten around to it in the last week or so, and while I have to say I can appreciate it more now than I did then, I still don't think it's a great album.

I've always though there were some great songs on here, tracks like "The Magnificent Seven", "Somebody Got Murdered", "Police on My Back", "The Call Up", and "Washington Bullets". And some of the stuff that I had issues with back when I last listened to this collection has grown on me. On disc one alone (the first half of a total of 36 songs), there are several: "Hitsville U.K.", with its generic chorus of voices where Joe Strummer's is barely distinguishable from the others, has been stuck in my head all week; the jaunty 50s bounce of "The Leader" recalls some of the looser and more inspiredmoments on "London Calling"; the dreamlike "Rebel Waltz" is one of the best political songs that the Clash has ever done, recalling (or foreshadowing) in theme and tone Sting's "Fragile"; "Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)" is classic stripped-down Clash; "Let's Go Crazy" isn't one of my favorites, but its foray into cheerful island rhythms can't really be considered a failure and gives us a hint of some the percussion and instrumentation that Joe Strummer would employ on his first solo record, "Earthquake Weather"; and "The Sound of the Sinners" is a white-boy gospel treat that somehow manages not to sound too forced.

But my newfound fondness for some tracks doesn't help take away the bad taste left by others, like the overly political and musically confused "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe"—this mess of a song is what the Clash will be forced to listen to as punishment in the afterlife as punishment for their sins (of which this song is one of the prime examples). The obnoxiously redundant two-track pairing of "One More Time" and "One More Dub", which are essentially the same song, serves no purporse whatsoever, and is especially irritating given the numerous other misfires that never quite get where they're trying to go. And I suppose it would help if I liked reggae more—I swear, it seems like every other song on here starts with the same short drum roll before launching into yet another reggae tune.

In his letter to me defended the album, Doug said he could make a case for every song up to "Mensforth Hill", an experiment in sound and the 26th track. I could almost buy that now, and if I were to start chopping this thing down, that song would certainly be the first to go. But "Mensforth" isn't the album's only weakness. There's just too much stuff here, more than is necessary, and the record as a whole suffers from the inclusion of too much filler and tangential material. I still think that it would have been much smarter of the Clash to pare this collection down to a "London Calling"-sized batch of songs, around 18-20 tracks. I still don't think it would have matched the near-perfection of "London Calling", but it would have been a worthy successor that would have provided a logical bridge in the Clash canon between "London Calling" and "Combat Rock".

And really, on a truly great record, when do you have to make a case for any of the songs? A record is great when all the songs fit, when you don't have to think about it. The realization that you are hearing a classic album comes swiftly, usually during the first listen; you don't have to justify it or argue for it. It's just great. And "Sandinista!" is just not.

I don't know how much play this sniper story is getting in the national press, but around here, there is almost nothing else on television, especially in the 12-24 hours following a shooting. It is just unnerving. I don't even know if it's possible to explain to someone who doesn't live in the area. For the past week and a half, it has been like a shadow in the back of my mind, lurking, never receding into the background. Every time your brain fools you into thinking that maybe it's going to be okay because nothing has happened for a couple of days, a new incident happens the nightmarish cycle begins all over again.

I feel like I've been awake for the past 10 days; the night before last I had a dream that the killer had finally been caught, then awoke to a world where he is still running around free. And last night, after hoping against hope that he had possibly called off his random, senseless slaughter, he struck again, this time at a location not five minutes from my godmother's house.

This guy wants to get caught. His urge to kill has taken him over now, and he knows that the only way he can stop is to be taken into custody. He's doing this in heavily populated areas where he knows that the police are on high alert, and he's starting to leave behind clues and also allow himself to be seen by witnesses. He doesn't want to turn himself in; he wants to be pursued and captured. He probably has some misguided notion of honorable combat and competition between himself and law enforcement, and now that he's proven himself a better chess player than them, he wants to be unmasked so he can bask in the media glare that he's created for himself.

In the days following 9.11, I found myself unable to turn off the 24 hour media coverage that has come with the proliferation of cable news networks, watching intently for any new developments and refreshing the news sites every fifteen minutes, expecting every time I did so that there would be another terrorist attack to absorb. But 9.11 was a one-time event. Yes, it had long-lasting repercussions, and it certainly changed our nation in ways that we're still trying to understand, but the actual event was over that day, and the city and the nation were able to relatively quickly get on with the task of regrouping and rebuilding.

This is almost worse. Every minute of every day, you're not doing anything but waiting for the next shooting. You always pray that it won't come, that the latest news flash that's taken over the airwaves will be a report that they have caught the shooter and his accomplices, but every time, it's another victim, and most likely another corpse. There are millions of people in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, and I guarantee you that the only ones who haven't been deeply affected by this are the ones who are doing this.

It just needs to stop. It just needs to be over. How much more are we supposed to take? How much more can we take?

So if everything goes according to plan, all of my siblings, my father, and I will all be in school again next spring. I am applying for the part-time Masters of Liberal Arts program at Hopkins, my youngest sister Tori is in her second year of college at Iowa (her first year there: she transferred from Chicago after her freshman year), my brother Dodd is supposed to be going back to Duke to finish his last semester of work there, and dad will be continuing with his online law school classes.

As for my other sister, Carrie, who has spent most of the past ten years taking classes at various schools trying to get some sort of college degree, she now wants to enter an eight month part-time program that will get her trained in medical coding, a growth field that I suggested to her early this year when she started a job at a university where she could take free classes. That job didn't last, but apparently she's been thinking about my suggestion for a while, and a couple of weeks ago she called me with details about a program that woud have her in class half a day during the week for six months (which would allow her to continue working her current job for the other half of the day) and then follow that with a two month internship in a medical office.

The problem is, she doesn't have the money for the program, nor does she have the credit rating necessary to get a student loan. So she's asked my dad, who financed the aforementioned ten years of off and on schooling, for the funds to enroll in the program. And while I really hope that she's sincere about training for a real career and taking school seriously this time, I have my doubts. Her life with regards to school seems to be an endless cycle of failing a class, taking a semester off, talking a lot about buckling down for the next semester, going back, and getting disenchanted within the first few weeks of her new classes. There's always some excuse: the professor doesn't like me, I was sick a lot, the tests weren't fair, etc.

If I were dad, I know I'd have to think long and hard about financing this latest foray into the classroom. Granted, he has spent far less on Carrie, even over the course of ten years, than he did for my four years at Davidson or Dodd's studies at Duke (in fact, Carrie's medical coding program will probably end up costing about half as much as Dodd's one remaining semester at Duke). But still, there comes a point when you have to say no, when you just have to stop giving and let people take responsibility for their actions.

Frankly, I don't know what I'd do if I were dad. I want to see Carrie succeed, just like he does, but at the same time I wouldn't want to send a message that she can keep coming back to the well for the rest of her life and expect someone else to bail her out of her self-created jams. She's almost 30 now, has never really lived on her own, has only been sporadically employed, and really doesn't understand what it takes to get by on her own (she has lived with my mom since she was thrown out of the only residential school she's ever attended after her freshman year for poor academic performance). Every time she wants to start over, I always hope that this will be the spark that helps her live up to the potential that I know she has, but time after time I've been disappointed with her lack of tenacity and her willingness to do the hard work that has to be done to earn a college degree.

But dad, in his infinite wisdom (reading that back over, I realized that that phrase might sound sarcastic; believe me, it's not meant to be), has decided to help her out, and that's probably the right decision. I'm sure it wasn't an easy choice for him, but it's the choice that shows Carrie that he has faith in her and that puts the onus on her to take control of her life and create a career for herself. It's also incredibly generous, and I hope for once that Carrie realizes what a great gift she's been given and uses it to turn her life around.

Well, it's the second anniversary of this site, and for the past few weeks I've been reflecting on its evolving purpose. When I first started doing this two years ago, I was approaching it as an experiment with two goals: to create some sort of record of my day-to-day life and to force myself to get back in the habit of writing every day. It still serves both of those purposes, and truthfully I don't know if I could stop doing it at this point—it's fairly addictive, especially once you get into a regular pattern with it. But that doesn't stop me from asking the question: should I be doing it? Is my audience getting anything out of it? Do I even have what could be called an audience? Would the time and energy that I spend on this project be better spent on something else?

My step-grandmother recently published a novel about plantation life in the old south (I used the term published here loosely—she went through a vanity press associated with Random House called Ex Libris—no editor ever looked at it, and the publisher does not profit or loss no matter how many or few copies she sells), and while the writing is terrible and the story banal in my opinion, I still had to give her credit for sitting down and actually cranking the thing out—after all, bad writing is just as hard for bad writers to produce as good writing is for good writers. It took her four years and involved multiple rewrites and historical research; granted, she's retired now, so she had ample free time to pursue this project, but still, there are a lot of people who say they want to write a book, but few who actually sit down and do it, especially once they figure out how much dedication it's going to take. So I had to at least admire her will power and determination.

Recently, however, I have begun to reconsider that position: why contribute to the overflowing cesspool of cultural detritus that has become more and polluted with each passing day thanks to advances in technology that allow almost anyone to publish a book themselves? A recent article in the New York Times (free registration required) echoes these thoughts. It was written by a real published author, someone who makes his living writing books, in response to a recent survey that showed that better than 80% of Americans believe that they have a book in them (I'll be honest and admit that I'm one of them). But rather than encouraging people to write a book for the intellectual challenge and personal journey that one undertakes during that process, this writer tries to dissuade people from writing books, pointing out that only a small fraction of a handful of the tens of thousands of books published in this country every year are even remotely interesting to any but the author and possibly his close circle of family and friends.

In some ways, the weblog phenomenon is faced with these same issues: there is a glut of content on the web, and most of it is terribly uncompelling. On the one hand I have really enjoyed watching the formation of the weblog community because I think that it has sparked a renaissance in the epistolary form (and since it is still in its infancy, it will hopefully continue to mature) and created out of thin air a whole new way to look at the various types of media that make up our modern culture. It is a collective brain where every individual writer is a separate neuron; the real power comes not from what one or two people have to say, but in the combined power of everyone debating, filtering, and commenting on the news and entertainment that have become ingrained in our daily lives.

But I have personally found that I don't really need to read them anymore. I still have a list of links to other weblogs (let me pause here for a moment and say that I still hate that term, and take some measure of defensive pride in being able to say that I started this site before that term had been coined—or at least before I had ever heard it—and before this type of site had become as fashionable as it is now) on my right sidebar, but I rarely visit any but Daypop and Metafilter. And those aren't even really true weblogs: they're community weblogs, meaning that their content comes in the form of selected links that are of interest to the weblogging community as a whole (Metafilter members post links to the site, while Daypop has a bot that trolls the most popular weblogs and ranks links based on how many other weblogs include those particular links). These two sites give me a way to keep my finger on the pulse of the weblogging world without having to actually interact with it and read that actual content being posted on other sites. And I think that's kind of sad; reading other weblogs used to be one of the best parts of my day, and I used to be as addicted to reading other people's thoughts as I am to writing my own. But I'm just not interested enough to take the time anymore.

One of my other joys in creating this site used to be the renewed contact I had with old friends who weren't geographically close to me anymore. Hardly a day went by when I didn't hear from Scott or Doug or Jeff or Tom or any number of other people, sending me an email in response to something that had caught their interest on the site. For a time, their reactions were a large part of the content of this site, and it made me feel like it was something more than just a vanity project that didn't mean much to anyone else. Recently, however, those letters have slowed to a trickle; who knows why? Maybe everyone's just really busy, or maybe the content here just doesn't speak to them as clearly as it once did.

Looking back over the work I've done in the past few years, I think I've done a pretty good job keeping the content fresh and interesting, providing daily links, photos, and a decent piece of writing every now and then. In fact, there were several pieces that I'd almost completely forgotten about that I was quite pleased with. There have been some bad stretches where I didn't really have a lot to say, or where I was having trouble finding my voice, but all in all, I'd like to think that this site is better than average, and that the size of the audience reflects that. But I might just be kidding myself.

I don't know. That Month of Content experiment in September really threw me for a loop and knocked me out of my rhythm, and I just now feel like I'm getting my sea legs back for this project. I suppose this kind of melancholy self-analysis is a fairly common experience on anniversaries, and I don't expect to dwell on these thoughts past this entry; I'm certainly not thinking of hanging up my keyboard any time soon. It's still a meaningful process for me, and that's why I started doing it in the first place. But I do think it's useful to examine the changing purpose and audience of this site from time to time, just to remind myself why I do this every day.

Happy birthday, brain coral.

Wednesday it rained like it hasn't rained here in forever, a slow, soaking rain that seemed as old as the grey sky that brought it. Kathryn and I had planned to go to lunch that day, and we thought about calling it off because of the weather, but having screwed up our last attempt to have lunch together, we were determined not to be deterred this time. Being out in it was cold and wet and miserable, and by the time we got to the restaurant, we were soaked despite the umbrella.

We went to a little japanese place near campus that is a favorite of Kathryn's. I had really been looking forward to sushi all week, but I was so cold by the time we go there that I opted instead for a bowl of miso soup with tofu and a plate of terriaki noodles with chicken. Kathryn was undaunted by the weather, ordering a two or three sushi rolls and a seaweed salad. They also served a bunch of cool little side dishes before the main meal arrived, like sesame cucumbers, kim chi, and bean sprouts.

I meant to ask her about her trip to New York the previous weekend, but instead we ended up talking mostly about work. There have been a lot of changes in the office recently, and she's feeling uncertain about how this next cycle will go. It was mostly her bitching and me trying to offer optimism that the future will bring positive change in a lot of areas. And it's not that she's needlessly cynical and I'm naively optimistic; the last year has been very tough on the rank and file—they were promised a lot after the difficulty of processing the applications last year, and most of those promises have evaporated for one reason or another—and I haven't been in the office during the really stressful part of our cycle. But the last thing we need as an office is for the smart, hardworking people like Kathryn to get disillusioned enough to leave just when things are getting busy, and I really do think that things are going to get better soon thanks to some of the new people that have been hired and the new initiaves that we are pursuing. It was good for her to vent and get a lot of her concerns out with someone who understands the issues, and I think she came away from the discussion feeling better about things. Plus, I actually enjoyed hearing her point of view on some of the problems and personalities in the office; it's always illuminating to get another person's view on how the office works.

We had to cut lunch short to get back to the office, but I'm hoping we can make this a weekly outing and even meet up on the weekends with our significant others in a context where we don't have to worry about watching the clock. This weekend, in fact, we are going to a concert with them where the Peabody symphony will perform an award-winning composition authored by her boyfriend.

I'm just so happy to have someone in the office who I can count as a friend outside of work. I mean, I get along pretty well with just about everybody in our office, but I haven't really made that connection with anyone else. My work personality is very congenial and accomodating, and I rarely have complaints that I make public; my coworkers feel like the larger IT department at the university is cold and aloof and arrogant, and so I feel like my little IT team needs to be especially cheerful and helpful to make up for them. These people have enough stress to deal with without me adding to it by being in a bad mood, and really, the problems that we face are fairly solvable and aren't really worth getting worked up over.

But it's nice to know that now if I do need to kvetch to someone, Kathryn will be there to listen and won't make me regret my complaining by repeating it to people that weren't meant to hear it. I feel like I've got an ally, a buddy, someone else who gets it. It just makes me look forward to going into work a little more when I know I've got a real friend there.

Three days without a sniper attack. This is the longest he's gone without at least an attempt since the spree started, including the weekends.

The latest victim was another caucasian woman, but again, based on her picture, it's possible that she could have been mistaken for some kind of minority. I'd also be curious to see a picture of her husband; if he was a minority, that could have made her a target if these killings are in fact based on race or perceived race. CS Jeff sent along this link that collects photos for each of the victims on a single page so that you can consider this angle for yourselves.

But I'm becoming less convinced that this is about race. I'm not quite sure why, it just doesn't feel right anymore. I've been increasingly concerned that it is terrorism (well, it is terrorism, no matter what, but terrorism organized by a group like al Qaeda rather than a single deranged individual). There are a lot of arguments for it being terrorism (they disrupt the economy, strike fear into hearts of normal citizens, require minimal planning and participants, could easily be replicated by a new cell if these killers are caught, etc.), but there are still a few things that don't jibe with that theory. The nature of terrorism demands that the group perpetrating the terrorist acts take credit for the attacks in order to increase the visibility of the group, their mission, and their demands. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for these attacks. Also, if these acts were being funded by a terrorist organization like al Qaeda, they would likely have the funds and/or training to get a new vehicle for each attack and also to have several guns so that it would be much harder to link the attacks. This person consistently uses the same weapon and seems to want people to know that he alone is responsible for these crimes.

While I'm cooling on the racism theory and warming slightly to the terrorist theory, neither of them really makes perfect sense (if these attacks could be said to make sense in any context). The most likely explanation is that it's one or two loners who've just snapped and decided to take out their frustrations with their lives by terrorizing a large metropolitan region with cowardly, random slayings. And in the end, I don't much care why they're doing it: I just want them to be caught before they take another innocent life.

On Saturday night, we went into Baltimore to see a concert by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. Peabody is a music conservatory that is associated with/owned by Hopkins, and it's also where Kathryn, who is a singer, did her undergraduate work. The main reason we were going to this concert was because of her boyfriend Christopher. He is a composer who is currently studying for his doctoriate in music at Peabody, and the opening piece for the evening was the public performance debut of a piece of his that won a composition competition last year. We had excellent seats: on the floor, center of the row, and about 10 rows back. And as a bonus, they were comps from Kathryn.

The symphony started with Christopher's piece, which was titled "Aquarelle" (French for watercolor) and which consisted of four movements with no breaks between the movements. Now, my ear isn't really attuned to orchestral music, other than as enhancement to rock and pop songs, but I did not like his piece at all. It seemed to be very scattered and fragmented, with no repeating themes and a tone that seemed to change without purpose and often without warning. There was nothing about it that stuck in my brain and made me want to hear it again; it was just far too abstract for my taste. The old man sitting next to me had only this to say about it when it was over: "I found that boring." And I didn't really disagree with him: the best snippets were ones that I could imagine being repurposed and developed into something for a movie score, but those moments of coherence were few and far between and certainly didn't justify the piece as a whole to me. Even Julie, who likes impressionistic composers like Debussy, called it very modern—and she doesn't especially care for modern music.

Coincidentally, the next piece on the slate was Debussy's "La Mer", a three movement piece about the interaction of the waves and the wind. Actually, it wasn't such a coincidence: Christopher is a huge fan of Debussy, and "La Mer" had been chosen on his recommendation. It was an odd choice in some ways, because there were a lot of stylistic, tonal, and technical similarities between Chrisotpher's piece and Debussy's; they both started out with a low rumbling bass drum (the man next to me noted this immediately), both erupted into loud bursts of noise from more or less abstract swaths of strings, and both had hints of asian influences. It would have been more illuminating to hear a piece that offered a little contrast from Christopher's, but I knowing what little I do about his personality at this point, I don't think he was trying to compare his work to Debussy's—he was just genuinely proud to show off his biggest influence for this piece. It was more hero worship than toppling an idol.

I liked the Debussy piece only slightly more than Christopher's. It had a few more moments of lucidity than his did, and there were some themes that would repeat every now and then. But it was still a very unorganized piece to my ears, and frankly I was glad to reach intermission; my brain just isn't hard wired for that kind of music, and I haven't yet trained my ears to appreciate it.

During the intermission, we went outside to get some fresh air (the concert hall was extremely hot and stuffy), and after a few minutes we were joined by Christopher and Kathryn and some of their other friends from Peabody. Even though it was pretty cool outside, I was so hot from being inside for over an hour that it took me a while to get comfortable. I was thinking about what the evening must have been like for Christopher—to have a few hundred people hearing something that you wrote for the first time ever, to be anonymous in the crowd and hear people talking about it afterwards. It seems to me that there are very few art forms where an artist could have a similar interaction with their audience, and I really wanted to ask him about it, but I had just met him that evening and didn't want to become quickly known as Kathryn's Annoying Friend From Work. Another time, maybe.

The second half of the evening was devoted to a piano concerto by Rachmaninov, who was writing at approximately the same time as Debussy. The star of this piece was a former wunderkind Chinese piano player who was now studying at Peabody and who had won the piano competition there last year. Even though we were in pretty much perfect seats, my view of her was almost completely blocked thanks to some gigantic hair in front of me. That was okay, though—the times when I could see the pianist, she was very, very expressive. She would sway back and forth as she played, throw her head back and close her eyes, and perform various other histrionics to emphasize her playing. While I can appreciate a musician being into the music they are playing, this was just a little too much for me. Add to this the fact that the piano part tended to be a nonstop rollercoaster of flourishes and scales that to me felt like an insect buzzing noisily around the composed fluidity of the rest of the orchestra, and it was just better that I couldn't see her. In this case, her style of playing would have done little more than distract me from the elements of the composition that I liked.

Rachmaninov's work had a much different sound from the Debussy (and, by extension, from Christopher's piece). There were still extraneous, overly technical flourishes in it, especially in the piano parts since that was the focal instrument, but the orchestral parts were a lot more what I was looking for. There were moments when the music would grab hold of me (the man next to me had a tendency to start bobbing his head up and down and humming to himself during these parts, which I found endearing rather than annoying). There was stuff in that work that made me want to hear it again, to understand it more fully. Julie explained it like this: Rachmaninov was a romantic who was looking back at the baroque and classical periods and drawing from them for his inspiration, while his contemporary Debussy was an impressionist who was looking forward to many of the attributes that would become common place in the modern age. Julie thinks that the classical and baroque periods would be much more to my liking. I wouldn't know; like I said, I have virtually no knowledge of orchestral music and its periods and styles.

But as little as I might have enjoyed the music, I greatly enjoyed the experience. I would have gone just to hear the music anyway, but it was especially interesting to be able to hear an original work by someone younger than me being performed by a full orchestra in front of a packed house. I am always interested in exploring the relationship between art and the artist who made it, particularly in forms of art that I don't understand as well. It has been fascinating for me to watch Tom grow from a quirky coworker at a publishing company to an accomplished printmaker and instructor at a university; even if I didn't like Tom's work itself, I would still be interested in seeing it, because it would give me another insight into a close friend. I'm not sure that I would ever want to hear "Aquarelle" again, but I'd certainly like to ask Christopher some questions about the process he went through to create it, and I would have no hesitation about attending a performance of a different piece from him. It was a good evening, and I hope it won't be the last time we see a performance at Peabody.

It's been a long time since I've had a nice short post, and I'm not really in a sharing mood today. So...

Alright. It's been over three weeks since I won our fantasy baseball league, so I guess it's time to take those standings down and replace them with our fantasy football league standings. I'm not much of a football fan, but I'm extremely competitive when it comes to fantasy leagues, and I figured this would be a good way to pass the time until the next fantasy baseball season, especially because several of the members of this league were also participants in my fantasy baseball league this year. The name of the football league is Any Given Sunday, and CS Jeff is the commissioner (I was the commissioner for the baseball league, but I didn't feel comfortable doing it for football because of my limited knowledge of the sport).

This is a head-to-head league, which means that each week you are paired off with another team and whoever's team has the best point total is granted a victory. And as you can see from looking at the standings, wins count for a lot more than total points—thanks to a phenomenally frustrating run of bad luck, I have the third highest point total, but only two victories to show for it; there were three or four weeks when I came in second in points in the league, but I just happened to be paired with the first place team that week (I have gone on at length about this with my friends, and I know they're sick of hearing about it). It's interesting to note that the top three finishers in the baseball league—me (blue crickets), CS Jeff (madden's all-stars), and Scott (pasqual's factory)—have settled in at the bottom of the standings in football, and I'm the only one who is really competitive points-wise.

To compliment the fantasy league, I also decided to participate in a football pool at work. Every week, we pick the winner of each matchup and then rank our picks—if there are 14 games that week, our strongest pick would receive a 13 and the pick we're most unsure about would receive a zero. After all the games have been played, you get the points associated with each of your wins, and whoever has the highest point total for the week gets $5 from everyone else who played that week. You also put in an initial $5 to join the pool, and at the end of the season the person with the most points for the season wins that pot.

Since I don't know that much about football, I have had to rely on research and stats to help guide my picks each week, and I actually think that works to my advantage. I don't have any emotional investment in the games, no gut feeling about who the better team is, so my picks are based solely on the empirical evidence that I gather each week. So far it's working out pretty well: I just won my first week, and I'm in the lead for the season so far.

All in all, I feel like I've done pretty well in both contests, especially considering that I knew very little about football and had to spin up on it for both games over the course of only a couple of weeks. In both the pool and the fantasy league I am playing against people who have a much greater knowledge of the sport than I do, but I think I'm holding my own. The bad luck in the fantasy league is a little irritating, especially since I'm used to fantasy games being solely points-oriented, but I still have a chance to come back and make the playoffs if I can build on this week's victory and get on a good streak.

I'm still not a huge fan of football, but I'm growing to like it little by little. The fact that the games are only played once a week means that it's a minimal time commitment, both in terms of watching it and in preparing for the pool and fantasy league, and the fact that there is so much data available on the players and the teams means that I can be competitive in both contests despite my limitied exposure to the sport. It's a pleasant enough diversion and decent substitute for baseball during the offseason, but I still can't wait for March and the start of spring training.

With all his money, you'd think that Donald Trump would be able to afford a better hairpiece.

Tori called me yesterday. It was the first time I'd heard from her in several weeks. We talked for a while, but there wasn't really much information exchanged: I told her a little about work, she told me a little about school, and we traded family news. The best bit of gossip was from her: apparently Dodd has not done any work at all for the online courses he was supposed to be taking as part of his bid to re-enter Duke next semester, and they sent him a letter saying that he should either get on the stick or drop the class, or else they would be forced to give him a failing grade that would become a part of his transcript. Not that I'm surprised—looking at his AIM usage (he leaves it on 24 hours a day, so you can tell the last time he was on by looking at how long he has been idle), he's consistently staying up until 2 and 3 in the morning, and I strongly doubt that he's getting up a few hours later to put in a full day at his internship. I really don't think he's going back to school next semester, and if he doesn't, I'm not sure what he or my parents plan to do about his current situation. I really want to have a serious talk with him and see if there is anything I can do to help him get through this.

It was really good to hear from Tori. I've been feeling the physical distance between me and my closest friends very acutely recently—almost all of my best friends live several hours away, and some I haven't seen in years even though we maintain contact through phone calls and emails—and I feel Tori's absence most of all, because she is family and she is so much farther away from me now than she has ever been. I miss her a lot.

Thank god this sniper thing seems to be over. Creepy epilogue: the adult sniper suspect apparently used the north Baltimore neighborhoods around Hopkins a place to hide when things got too intense down around DC, and even frequented a Subway sandwich shop that I pass every day on the way to work.

Earlier this year I contributed several pieces of writing to a book project based on the Borges short story "The Circular Ruins". The way the project worked was this: all of the participants (around 23 in all, most of whom were printmakers and visual artists) read "The Circular Ruins" and started to create work based on or inspired by the images and themes in the story. After a month or so, each person was supposed to take their work and pass it on to another artist, often through the mail. There were clusters of people at Iowa and UVA who would also get together to talk about the project and work on the folios together. After about nine months, the material was more or less complete and was then organized and gathered into a book.


I was one of two or three writers who submitted material for the project, and I also spent a lot of time talking to Tom about it (he was one of the people at UVA that really put a lot of effort into the project, and the UVA folks in general are the ones who generated the concept for the project, and who are primarily responsible for it actually coming to fruition) and even made a trip down to UVA to go over some ideas with Tom and Dean (Dean is Tom's mentor and another one of the prime movers in the project).

Anyway, the book and several framed individual folios made their debut gallery appearance this month at Penn State, and last Friday night there was a reception for all of the contributors. For almost everyone else who worked on the project, gallery openings are no big deal; they are all professional or semi-professional artists who have participated in both individual and group shows many times in their careers (in fact, only about half of the contributors even bothered to come to the show). But for me, it was a first. I've never actually worked on an art project that was serious enough to warrant a show, and so I figured that I had better experience it while I could.

This was a project that I really wanted to do more for; it engaged me from the moment that Tom told me about it, and it continues to engage me even now. I worked on my pieces a lot in the early part of this year when I was out of work, and it really gave me something positive to hold onto when I was feeling pretty low. And even though I didn't contribute as much as I would have liked in terms of time spent talking to and exchanging ideas with the artists working on the visual side of the project, Tom assures me that a couple of my pieces had a big impact on several of the artists and that my contributions really were valuable. Still, I feel like the project has given me so much more than I have given it.

The drive was only about three and a half hours, which is much less time than I thought it would take, and we ended up arriving at the gallery about half an hour before anyone else. That was kind of nice, because it gave me a chance to look around at all the pieces, evaluate the installation, and look at one of the finished books, which I hadn't actually seen yet. The installation had some stuff that I really liked, such as the dartboard surrounded by the complete Borges story rendered on label tape, the cardboard covering the entire floor, and the uneven spacing and dense clustering of the framed pieces, but some of it just didn't work, like the amorphous pink and green blobs on the wall and the pile of suitcases and construction equipment in the corner. All in all, though, I think it was a pretty good use of the space and a cool way to present the books and framed folios.

View from the entrance of the gallery

We stayed for a couple of hours, chatting with Dean and his wife (who went through the same psychology program at UVA as Julie) and eventually Tom and some of the other artists when they arrived. Tom's group had a really long and difficult journey up thanks to a late start and some weird problem with their tires, so he was pretty tired and a little grouchy, but it was still good to see him. We talked a lot about the sniper, how we might extend the Ruins project to the web, and the ideas behind some of the individual pieces. We sat in the middle of the gallery sipping sour apple cider (the good kind of sour) and made tentative plans to come visit each other soon.

Tom was staying the night at a friend of one of the other contributors, but we needed to get back to Maryland, so when everyone else was gathering to head out to a bar for a long night of drinking, we said our goodbyes and quietly slipped out to the car. There was a ticket on my car from the Penn State campus cops; it was so soaked with rain that I could barely read it, but it didn't matter anyway. I've never paid a campus parking ticket, and I don't have any intentions of paying this one, especially because I was parked where the show's organizer told us to park and I have no plans to return to Penn State any time soon.

The drive back was dreary, slow, and exhausting, thanks to the steady spattering of rain that followed us home. By the time we got back it was after midnight and I was so tired that I fell asleep on the couch after fifteen minutes. I dreamed incoherent dreams about football and office politics, and the person I was in the dreamworld was almost able to stop wondering what his life would have been like if he had tried to become an artist.

Even though the snipers were just caught late last week, the bickering has already begun among the various jurisdictions to see who gets to try the cases, and the fingers of blame are already being pointed at everyone from CNN to the FBI. In the letter that they left at the Ponderosa shooting, which was apparently the first substantial communication they had with authorities, the snipers list representatives of three law enforcement agencies (FBI, Rockville police, and Montgomery County police), a priest, and a woman at CNN who they tried to contact to start negotiations, all of whom regarded the phone calls as fakes. The next sentence is chilling: "These people took our calls for a Hoax or Joke, so your failure to respond has cost you five lives."

Not that I think that anyone except the monsters who did this are responsible for the death and injury that they caused, but in the context of this overly litigious society we've created, I started wondering if a lawyer might try to build a civil case against these agencies based on statements like the one quoted in the letter. Would it be possible to prove that, as a result of police incompetence and the subsequent frustrated rage on the part of killers, some victims died who might not have had the police not fumbled the ball and hung up on the killers when they were trying to open negotiations?

The concept of sharing guilt is not at all uncommon in our legal system, and the two sniper suspect are a perfect example of this. In the end, our laws don't really care who pulled the trigger—even if only one of them actually shot the victims, they are both equally responsible because they were both aware of what was going on. Just as a person who doesn't do anything but drive the getaway car during a robbery that results in a homicide, both of these guys are equally guilty of the act of murder in the eyes of the law. It's a bit more of a stretch in the case of the law enforcement agencies (especially because the snipers killed several people before they made any attempt to contact anyone), but if someone had knowingly given these guys a place to hide or bought them ammunition knowing what they were going to use it for, we would hold them accountable as well. Is is too much of a stretch to think that the police bear some legal responsibility for some of the killings because of their failures to properly handle communication with the killers? Or barring that, would it really be a surprise if some enterprising lawyer at least took a stab at this, hoping for a large settlement or lots of free publicity or both?

Ironically, it wasn't the cleverness of the police or a tip from a concerned citizen or an accidental encounter with a member of law enforcement that caught the killers (although law enforcement in and around the DC area apparently had multiple contacts with at least one of the suspects during the rampage), but instead their inability to resist that most basic of American capitalistic urges: greed. It wasn't until the snipers started to demand money that the authorities had any clue about who they were and what their motives were, and it was a tip given to police by one of the snipers during a telephone call that led authorities to Alabama, which led them to Washington, and then to New Jersey, and finally to the license plate and car that got the suspects captured. If the snipers had just laid low and not communicated with police at all, there is a very good chance that they would still be out there right now, looking for their next targets and terrorizing this entire region. They could have walked away at any time, and the case would have likely remained unsolved forever.

It's somehow fitting that a man who apparently hated America and its capitalistic nature and was infuriated by the clumsy mistakes made by authorities was brought down by his own lust for wealth and his uncontrollable urge to boast about his acts. I for one don't care where he and his accomplice are tried, what sentence they end up serving, and I'm really not even that interested in why they did it and how they got away with it for so long. Those are questions for another day. Right now, I'm just glad that it's over.

With the long-anticipated release of a Nirvana best-of album that includes a previously unreleased track and the publication of Kurt Cobain's private journals, there has been a lot of media focus recently on the man who brought us grunge and put the last nail in the coffin of 80s bubblegum pop (although he didn't quite kill it—it's zombified carcass roams the airwaves all too freely these days). In his brief time in the spotlight, Cobain became an icon for a generation, practically deified by fans and music journalists alike.

And for a dead guy, he sure is getting a lot of press: he recently appeared on the cover of Newsweek in which excerpts of his journals appeared, and there is also a new authorized biography that draws heavily on those same journals. Almost every news site on the has at least one recent article on his life, and the airwaves are buzzing with a new Nirvana track that the band recorded shortly before Cobain's death. Music pundits and media critics have been quick to praise the writings, with some even going so far as to say that Cobain's journals will go down in history as an accomplished literary masterpiece alongside such other personal musings as Rousseau's "Confessions". At the time of Cobain's death, he was mourned by my generation as the previous generation had mourned John Lennon, and the music press were quick to enshrine him next to rock icons like Morrison, Hendrix, and Joplin. Even now he is regularly referred to as a "rock legend", and fans still make pilgrimages to the house in which he killed himself.

I just don't get this. I don't know if all of the lavish praise that has been heaped upon Cobain and Nirvana since their breakthrough in 1991 is because my generation needs to believe that it has a hero as creatively powerful and culturally relevant as Lennon and the Beatles, but it just doesn't add up to me. Lennon wrote dozens of songs that made their way into the global pop consciousness and which still resonate with music fans of almost every genre, and Lennon was still a productive writer and composer more than a decade after the demise of his most famous band (Cobain himself was said to be a huge fan of Lennon's). Cobain, on the other hand, really only had one good album to his credit, "Nevermind". Yes, it was a great and maybe even perfect record, and it served as a touchstone for legions of dissatisfied music fans around the world, but it was still just one record. No one ever tries to make the case the Nirvana's early material is worthy of canonization, and "In Utero" isn't all that great either. Be honest—when was the last time you listened to "In Utero"? It was heralded as a worthy successor to "Nevermind", and some critics even suggested that it eclipsed the earlier record. But I've been listening to it again over the past week or so while I've been thinking about Cobain, and frankly, it doesn't hold up the same way its predecessor does. It's arty, overthought, and in some cases just plain boring.

Then there's the matter of how Cobain died. Lennon was shot by a crazy person who wanted to take a quick shortcut to fame, while Cobain killed himself with a shotgun to the head. Many Nirvana fans entered into a period of mourning and grief that culminated with Courtney Love reading Cobain's suicide note to a crowd in a Seattle park, but I was just plain angry. Granted, I never felt that emotional connection with Cobain that so many seemed to have felt—I was more an admirer of Nirvana's music and how it had changed the landscape of mainstream music almost overnight—but I just couldn't understand why so many people looked up to him. There were other paths that he could have chosen to end his pain, longer and harder paths, but ones that he could have walked if he had wanted to. But instead he took the easy way out, leaving behind a wife and daughter and legions of friends and fans who genuinely seemed to love and care about him.

The writings in his journals don't do anything to improve my opinion of him either as a person or an artist, because they completely strip away the illusion of the tortured but gifted songwriter and replace it with the voice of a messed up 13 year old kid. Seriously, have you read these things? I've only read the highlights that have been published in Newsweek (several pages worth), but I'm assuming they've chosen those excerpts because they are some of the better passages. And the writing in these passages just plain sucks. Misspellings abound (for instance heroin, his drug of choice, is consistently spelled "heroine"), run-on sentences run rampant, and the passages tend to ramble. I know that these journals were most likely never meant to be shared with an audience, and certainly not one as large and anonymous as they're being exposed to now, but still, these writings are being treated by most of the press as if they were lost books of the Bible (although I must admit that the line "I hope I die before I turn into Pete Townsend" is witty, sad, and prophetic, especially given the Who's recent whoring of their music to ad agencies).

But it's more than just the sloppy writing; Cobain's personality in these journals doesn't do anything to win me over, either. The voice is varies between childlike and childish, depending on the level of petulance, but it never sounds like the voice of someone who believes what they are saying. Cobain's almost unmatched ability to feel sorry for himself and his overinflated sense of ego do clumsy battle with one another and end up making him sound like an overindulged six year old who doesn't understand just how good he's got it. He whines about Pearl Jam, but then bores us with the same tedious rants about the hardships of fame and fortune that have become associated with rock crybabies like Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. Give me a fucking break. I don't know which is worse: that Cobain thought he was saying something important when he was writing this crap, or that the current crop of music critics is all too quick to try and convince us of the same.

I guess no matter how I try to approach him, Cobain just doesn't seem like all that interesting a person to me, and both the volume and quality of his artistic output don't do anything to engage me further. Lennon he's not; our great lost literary sage and poet he's not. He was just one of the lucky few rock musicians who made it big, and then was stupid enough to get fucked up on drugs and kill himself in a fit of self-pity. I feel bad for him as a human being, in the same way that I feel bad for anyone who reaches such a low point that they feel like the only way out is to kill themselves.

But he was not a god, and we shouldn't keep trying to make him one. He was a sad, lonely kid who never learned how to grow up, Peter Pan with a guitar and a serious mental imbalance. Do him and yourself a favor: let him rest in peace. Don't buy these journals, don't buy the biography, don't keep picking at his bones. He has moved on, and so should we. If you feel compelled to memorialize him, put "Nevermind" in the CD player and think about how great it still sounds after all these years.

For the past several years, we have used patterns and tools made by a company called Pumpkin Masters to carve our Halloween jack o'lanterns. For those of you who don't know, their kit consists of a small plastic scoop that is actually really good at scraping out the inside of a pumpkin, a sharp punching tool to poke a pattern on the surface of a pumpkin, two short serrated knives for carving out the pattern, and a book of twenty or so designs.

We usually wait until the last minute to buy the pattern book, and this year was no exception. For weeks we had walked past the display in the grocery store without looking at it twice, and so of course last weekend when we finally decided it was time to purchase it, they were sold out. But they still had copies of a new offering from the company, a CD-ROM with a pattern-making application on it that gave you 20 pre-made designs and gave you the pieces to create hundreds of custom designs. It was only $5, it worked on the Mac and the PC, and we didn't really have a choice, so we decided to give it a try.

And it actually worked pretty well. Julie and I each picked out our pattern, were able to customize them for the size of the pumpkins we bought, and printed them out. The patterns that came off our printer weren't as clean as the ones in the professionally printed booklets (even when we printed them on the highest quality setting), but they were adequate for their intended purpose, and the ability to create your own patterns and resize patterns more than made up for this small deficiency. The application was made in Director, which meant that it ran a little slower than it would have if it had been developed using a more robust programming environment, and the CD wasn't as professionally mastered as I would have thought (no custom icon, random files scattered around on the disc instead of tidily tucked away in a folder, etc.), but the functionality of the program itself was great.

It's nice to see companies thinking of new ways to utilize the fact that most people now have access to a computer with an internet connection to create a better experience for their customers. If this product is a success for them, I can imagine a future version that lets you pay online for an annual subscription to their pattern library that would let you download and manipulate dozens of new objects and patterns. This would cut down on the company's distribution and reproduction costs, and offer more flexiblity for their users. Ideas like this are where you see the true power of the internet—it's a win-win situation for both customer and corporation. Let's hope other companies don't forget that just because the dotcom bubble has burst on wall street, it doesn't mean that there aren't still a lot of ways to use technology to offer better service to their customers, often at a lower cost than they would have spent for more traditional products.
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