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Last Build Date: Sun, 26 Jul 2009 21:38:51 GMT


interestingly ungrammatical sentence

Sun, 26 Jul 2009 21:38:51 GMT

I unconsciously copyedit books as I read them, and I'm often dismayed at the shoddy punctuation, style, and grammar in many otherwise fine books. But today is the first time in a long time that I've run into a sentence that seemed ungrammatical in a way that wasn't instantly obvious; I had to stop and think to figure out exactly what the error was. (I'm sure anyone who does linguistics for a living could figure it out immediately, but I'm rusty enough that it took me a minute.)

The sentence is in the prologue of Fordlandia, a book about Henry Ford's attempt to build a rubber plantation-cum-Pleasantville in the depths of the Amazon jungle. Describing a set of twisted railroad tracks left in the ruins of Fordlandia, the author writes:

[...] it's bewildering to think what force of nature or how the passing of time could have produced their current mangled state.

When I read this, it seemed like the sentence contained an error in parallelism, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. The intended structure seems to be:

It's bewildering to think [[what force of nature] or [how the passing of time] could have produced X].

which looks reasonable at first glance; placing what force of nature and how the passing of time in parallel makes sense on the surface, since they both introduce relative clauses with the same verb phrase:

It's bewildering to think [what force of nature could have produced X] or [how the passing of time could have produced X].

After thinking about it a little longer, though, I'm convinced it really is wrong. Can you figure out the error?

In [what force of nature] could have produced X, the phrase what force of nature acts as the subject of could have produced. But [how the passing of time] could have produced X is actually the wrong structure; it should be how [[the passing of time] could have produced X]. So you can't cut away how the passing of time from its verb phrase in the same way you can cut away what force of nature.

A more correct parallel phrasing would be:

It's bewildering to think how the forces of nature or the passing of time could have produced X.

My dream of spiritual eternity

Tue, 21 Jul 2009 16:13:40 GMT

I was in a hotel conference room with about a dozen other people. As we mingled, I became aware that two of them were glowing slightly. They explained that they were not earthly humans, but spiritual beings who would liberate our souls. They touched each of us in turn, and we began to glow as well. Finally, when we were all ready, our glows shot upwards, freed from the constraints of Earth.

It was just as they had said it would be: our glowing souls cavorted in outer space, enjoying our freedom. But after a time, they told us that we had not been liberated in order to just horse around: we were to join The Department, an agency that waged an eternal battle against the forces of Hell in order to save the souls of humanity. Though sad to leave behind our time of free play, we agreed to join in this important task.

It turned out that The Department was basically an infinitely large Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart was divided exactly in the middle (in the land of eternal spirits, it was possible to locate the exact middle of an infinite space) by a pair of checkout counters, one belonging to the forces of Heaven (us) and the other belonging to the forces of Hell.

We wore blue uniforms; the forces of Hell wore red uniforms. Other than that, I couldn't see much difference between the two teams; the Hell people didn't seem particularly more evil than us. The women on the Hell side did seem a little cuter on average, though. (For some reason we had normal-looking human bodies in The Department, instead of the glowing astral projection-type things we'd had in outer space.)

Since we were all immortal and indestructible souls, no one could actually be killed or wounded, so the Great Battle basically consisted of annoyances and pranks that one side would play upon the other. For example, one of the blue team members snuck over to the red side's infinitely long canned goods aisle and set off a huge explosion. Cans of refried beans and peaches in heavy syrup flew everywhere. But the only consequence was that the red team's loudspeaker crackled with the dull voice of Satan, the floor manager, mumbling "Cleanup in aisle 7," and a few of the forces of Hell wandered over in a desultory fashion to restock the shelves.

Every so often a team member on one side or the other would get bored and not want to work. This was called "going to spend some time in The Office." But The Office was just a big blank room with nothing to do, so it was even more boring than working, and eventually they'd get sick of it and go back to The Department.

And that was pretty much it. For all eternity.

an homage

Mon, 25 May 2009 00:07:50 GMT

(image) If I Ruled in Hell...
(not) by Dr. Seuss

There once was a boy named Hieronymus Bosch
Who sat down one day and said, "Golly gee gosh!
All the pictures of Hell that those other folks paint
Are so tame that they seem rather awfully quaint."

"Now, if I ruled in Hell," H.B. went on to say,
"I'd start with a centerpiece sure to dismay.
A huge man, bent over, in bone-white, like this,
With monks climbing into his nether abyss.

"On his hat is a Flibbeti-Gibbeti-Hoot,
Which is partly a stomach and partly a flute
Being played by a Skeleto-Birdman, and aimed
At a penguin-like guy (who for now is unnamed).

"Those poor guys in Hell get no chance to unwind...
For the Whosity-Whatsis lurks not far behind!
Two ears and a knife pointed up at the sky--
(Quite enough to make Freud stick a fork in his eye!)

"Yes, I would sure change things," said little H.B.,
"If Lucifer handed Hell over to me!
Earth's sinners would shriek, and they'd run off pell-mell
For the next train to Heaven--if I ruled in Hell!"

hot sexy religious spam poetry

Fri, 24 Apr 2009 19:37:10 GMT

I almost never see spam anymore, but this one managed to get through Gmail's filter:


Subject: Better Sex foor Christian Wives!

Toboggan all at once. Hav

Better Sex foor Christian Wives!

Mingling their cries with homage and wondering holy ground. To bathe in
its waters washes away wide mouths wider still, smiling you better wait
down with her on the stone. The smoke began to fierce prowess. The kurus
cannot be blamed. On she dashed her pen across the revered name, and know
more than your superior officershey? You're of her head white teeth and
full red lips straight, in every man's garden and in every woman's. She.

Snackr, an RSS ticker

Sun, 11 May 2008 16:20:48 GMT

(image) (See? I promised my next post wouldn't be about gigs.)

I realized a few months ago that, unlike pretty much everyone else I know, I don't regularly use an RSS reader. Not that I haven't tried—I started with LiveJournal syndication on my friends list, then tried FeedDemon early on, and more recently tried out Google Reader—but never managed to form the habit of checking them regularly. Both of them are fine apps; the problem was with me. Every time I sat down and saw that I had a gazillion unread items in my hundreds of feeds, I didn't know where to start. Eventually I just gave up trying to keep up.

Around the same time I came to this realization, Adobe AIR 1.0 was publicly released. AIR lets you turn web apps (built in HTML or Flash/Flex) into cross-platform desktop apps on Windows, Mac, and Linux; it gives you APIs for doing OS-level stuff like filesystem access, local database access, window management, etc. I wanted to try to write an AIR app just for fun, and it occurred to me that I might be able to make something that would solve my RSS problem.

The result is Snackr, a ticker-like widget that lives on the bottom (or side) of your screen and scrolls random items from your RSS feeds. (It's called "Snackr" because it lets you nibble on your feeds. Guffaw.) Here's what it looks like (in this picture, it's docked along the bottom of the screen):


It runs on Windows and Mac OS X; if you install it from the Snackr homepage, it will automatically install the AIR runtime for you as well. It also runs on Linux if you install the Linux AIR alpha from Adobe Labs.

I'm actually finding Snackr really useful—it helps me keep up with blogs I want to keep up with, and also gives me a great smattering of items from sources I wouldn't normally read regularly. If you try it out, let me know if you like it.

gig tonight

Sat, 10 May 2008 18:15:12 GMT

It's that time of the month again. 7-10 pm, Caffe Trieste Berkeley.

(I promise my next post will not be about my next month's gig.)

dear lazyweb: feedburner considered annoying

Mon, 10 Mar 2008 07:28:44 GMT

[Update 3/10/2008: FeedBurner no longer seems to be doing this--my app suddenly started working with no changes on my part. Odd.]

When I try to access a FeedBurner feed from my Flex app, FeedBurner decides to hand me an HTML version of the feed, instead of, you know, the frickin' feed. Of course, if I go to the same URL in Firefox, it gives me the right thing. What do I have to do to get FeedBurner to realize that I actually want XML?

[Addendum: I know I can append "?format=xml" to the URL, and I guess I could just automatically add that onto any URLs I get from FeedBurner. But if I go to the base URL from Firefox, FeedBurner knows how to hand it XML; I want to figure out how it's doing that, so my feedreader will work with other sites that try to do the same trick (I've noticed at least one other site doing it).]

dear lazyweb: rss/atom formats

Fri, 29 Feb 2008 19:27:35 GMT

Dear Professor Lazyweb,

Let's say that, for some stupid reason, I'm thinking of implementing Yet Another Blog-Aggregator-Type Thingy that I want to work with most blogs and syndication feeds that exist today. Which formats do I need to support? RSS 0.91? RSS 1.0? RSS 2.0? Atom? Others?

(I know I probably also want to support OPML for importing a list of feeds as well.)



gig recordings

Fri, 29 Feb 2008 07:05:27 GMT

Recordings from my last gig. Getting better, I think. Invitation, Hackensack, Footprints, and Sugar are decent. Reflections would be pretty good if it weren't for a couple of clams in the head.

gig tonight

Sun, 17 Feb 2008 01:48:21 GMT

You know the drill: Caffe Trieste Berkeley, 7-10 pm. Our group is turning into a pretty fun little unit. Stop by if you're around!

email woes

Fri, 15 Feb 2008 03:48:42 GMT

Once again, my catchall alias seems to have been turned off somehow, so I missed some email today. If you happened to mail me and got a bounce, please resend. Thanks.

people who have become parodies of themselves #82

Sat, 26 Jan 2008 21:11:05 GMT

"Testosterone to me is so important for a sense of well-being when you get older," Stallone says.

random appearance of me

Sat, 19 Jan 2008 00:20:28 GMT


Apparently this picture of me (second from the left in the row of four) showed up in Intel's CES keynote. They were showing off a mobile device that's running Adobe AIR, and I guess the person on our experience design (XD) team who built the AIR demo randomly decided to use my picture. I'll have to go tell him I'm going to sue him.

gig tomorrow in Berkeley

Fri, 18 Jan 2008 21:34:56 GMT

Hey, I'm actually posting with more than 24 hours notice!

My monthly Caffe Trieste gig is tomorrow (Saturday) from 7-10. It's in Berkeley at the corner of San Pablo and Dwight:

gig in SF tonight

Fri, 11 Jan 2008 16:57:07 GMT

I'm playing a gig at Bird & Beckett bookstore in Glen Park tonight from 5:30-8. Note that the bookstore has moved to 653 Chenery (not all the pages on the website have been updated yet)--I haven't been to the new location, but apparently it's bigger and has an actual bandstand now (and they've apparently tuned the piano). Stop by if you're nearby.

gig tonight

Sun, 23 Dec 2007 02:04:53 GMT

Forgot to post well in advance, as usual, but I'm playing at Caffe Trieste in Berkeley from 7-10 tonight. Stop by if you're in the neighborhood.

interesting consequences of growing up in a suburb #73

Sun, 02 Dec 2007 19:53:14 GMT

It wasn't until I was in my late twenties/early thirties that I learned that "yard" and "lawn" aren't synonyms.

marble madness

Tue, 27 Nov 2007 06:34:54 GMT

A bunch of Rube Goldberg machines made from household objects. Apparently these are interstitials on a popular Japanese kids show. Much more clever than the usual marble-ramp stuff--there are lots of little surprising details.

gig tonight

Sat, 17 Nov 2007 19:22:38 GMT

Caffe Trieste in Berkeley, 7 pm.

the american idea

Tue, 23 Oct 2007 09:31:21 GMT

I don't normally go in for this sort of thing, but I decided to submit an essay to the Atlantic's American Idea contest. It's rather pat, but as an exercise I thought it came out pretty well:

The American idea has at its heart a fundamental contradiction: between patriotism, civic duty, the power of law, and the collective good on the one hand, and individualism, libertarianism, and free thought on the other. This contradiction is deeply ingrained in our national myths and rituals. We salute the flag and revere the Constitution, but we also admire the dangerously unconventional Thomas Paine and the smugglers and rioters at the Boston Tea Party. (One wonders what the proponents of the "Broken Windows" theory would have thought had they been there to witness that seminal act of public indecency.)

Neither end of the contemporary political spectrum escapes this contradiction. On the "left", we trust women to make choices about their own bodies, but distrust the free market; on the "right", we want to regulate marriage but not corporations. Both sides profess to encourage debate and discussion, yet both are susceptible to groupthink and echo chambers.

In mathematical logic, when a system contains a contradiction, all propositions become true. Perhaps the contradiction embodied in the American idea is what generates the messy diversity of opinion and behavior that, at its best, invigorates our society.

(The dig at the "Broken Windows" guys is in there because they contributed a lame essay to the original Atlantic issue that published famous people's essays on the "American idea".)

gig tonight

Sat, 20 Oct 2007 18:20:53 GMT

I have a gig tonight at Caffe Trieste in Berkeley, 7-10 pm. It's my first gig in a few months, but the bassist is trying to see if he can make it a regular thing, which would be cool. Stop by if you're in the neighborhood!

email was down, now it's probably not

Wed, 19 Sep 2007 20:36:52 GMT

Email to my personal address appears to have been bouncing lately. I think it's fixed now, but if you send me any email in the last couple of days, please resend. Thanks.

san francisco allegedly assists our nation

Tue, 14 Aug 2007 16:35:01 GMT

Wiretapping on Folsom Street? Moo.

adventures in wifi

Tue, 17 Jul 2007 03:00:36 GMT

Okay, so I now have my main router plugged into my cable modem, and a secondary wireless router plugged into the main router via a hard wire. Everything's basically working, except...

My "main" router is on channel 6, and my "secondary" router is on channel 11 (same SSID, same key). Because of the way the house is laid out, the secondary router is actually more centrally located, so most things should prefer to connect to it. However, I'm finding that my laptop is insisting on preferring the main router on channel 6, even when it's right next to the secondary router (and NetStumbler shows a much higher SNR to the secondary router). I have to get pretty far away from the main router and manually disconnect/reconnect to get it to look at the closer router. Do wireless devices look for lower-numbered channels first or something?