Saturday, November 08, 2008

List of Great Rock Lists

If these rock lists aren't yet immortal, they should be.

Best Rocker Real Names (not made-up names)
1. DJ Bonebrake (drummer, X)
2. Madonna
3. Prince
4. Mark Sandman (singer/bassist, Morphine)
5. Johnny Cash

Most Anthemic Bands, by Subgenre
Classic rock: The Who
Punk: The Clash
Postpunk: U2
Alternative rock: Midnight Oil
Grunge: Pearl Jam

Greatest Women Rockers (rockers, not just pop stars or r&b singers)
1. PJ Harvey
2. Chrissie Hynde
3. Wilson sisters (70s only)
4. Debbie Harry
5. Sleater-Kinney

We Wrenched Our Necks Fave Albums of the 90s (limit one per artist)
1. Loveless, My Bloody Valentine
2. OK Computer, Radiohead
3. Rid of Me, PJ Harvey
4. Superunknown, Soundgarden
5. Nevermind, Nirvana
6. Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet
7. Live Through This, Hole
8. Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, Guided By Voices
9. Garbage, Garbage
10. Never Loved Elvis, The Wonder Stuff

Best Songs by The Jam
1. "In the City"
2. "All Around the World"
3. "That's Entertainment"
4. "The Modern World"
5. "Going Underground"

Russian Composer Names That Sound Best When Pronounced with a Faux Russian Accent
1. Dmitri Shostakovich
2. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
3. Modest Mussorgsky

That last list is a bonus track, obviously.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Rovesputin Denounces Obama for November Revolution

When We Wrenched Our Necks last spoke with Karl Rovevich Rovesputin, the noted Republican strategist/sorceror was exulting over the 2004 Bushkin electoral triumph, sharing both his thoughts and spittle liberally. This year's interview began with Rovesputin engaged in a curious ritual involving an antique chair, a sturdy cast-iron pipe mounted a few inches from the hovel ceiling, and a length of heavy rope, which the monk slowly uncoiled as he spoke.

We Wrenched Our Necks: Was it difficult for you to watch this election from the sidelines?

Rovesputin: Nyet, nyet, I was happy in my new role as a pundit. After giving Czpresident Gyorgy every drop of my blood, sweat, tears, and neurotoxins for so many years, I needed a vacation. And so did my beard. There were spiders in there whose names I didn't even know. You keep thinking the hectic schedule's just temporary, that you'll slow down soon, and then you turn around and the little ones are all grown up. Then you can only hope you raised them right ... nyet, I was definitely ready to take some time for myself.

WWON: Did you have any contact with the McCain campaign?

Rovesputin: Not much. Shortly after the convention on Bald Mountain -- er, Minnesota, I presented the McCainites with my 19-point plan for the Czpresident's magnificent intervention in the campaign, complete with glorious speaking events, many joint photo opportunities, and numerous Tupperware and incense parties. And Black Masses -- lots of Black Masses. But from the villainous McCain I heard nothing but sniveling excuses -- something about how my plan was doomed to fail because 19 is a prime number. Never trust a boyarin! Say, are you any good with knots?

WWON: Some of the GOP's "socialist" rhetoric was very reminiscent of tactics you have employed in the past. Did you have a hand in that?

Rovesputin: One day I ran into McCain at the steam baths, where he had reported for his decennial scalp buffing and cerumen harvesting. I was having my cobwebs laundered. Although he insisted to me between grunts of pain that "the Mac is back," I saw through his bluster and realized that his terror of losing had left him thematically bereft. I suppose I might have muttered something about socialism, communism, Bolshevism, or their blighted brethren, but however the idea entered McCain's head, he clearly regarded it as his salvation. Come to think of it, I do remember numerous kisses being placed upon the hem of my robe as we departed, so da, I believe I must have influenced him.

WWON: How has the outcome of the election affected you?

Rovesputin: It is bitter, bitter borscht. The vanquished John Kerry was a verminous Trotskyite princeling, but in truth Kerry was a mere Menshevik compared to the odious Obama, who is an accursed Bolshevik deceiver of the foulest kind. This November revolution will not stand. The American people will never accept a czpresident of color if that color is RED! I will not rest until every goat across the Motherland has been sacrificed to wash away the stench of Barack the Bolshevik! Aren't Obama's kids cute, though? So adorable.

WWON: What was Sarah Palin's impact on the race?

Rovesputin: Palina is a temptress! The first time I met her, she was wearing nothing but a towel, and then she removed the towel and snapped it at my nether regions. Now I must close my eyes and count to desjat' every time I hear her name. I remind myself that there is no "orgy" in "Gyorgy" -- well there is, but not that kind. Anyway, Palina is as dim as the Siberian winter. I am told she attended six different finishing schools before finally emerging with a degree in winking. And I do not think it helped McCain for her to shout "Cowabunga!" at Joe the Serf every time she saw him.

WWON: Thank you for your insights, as always. But about that rope -- don't you think you're overreacting? Surely there will be better years ahead for you.

Rovesputin: Don't worry, it won't work. I've already tried poison, knives, Vicious-Czpresident Cheney's beloved blunderbuss, and McCain's pacemaker hooked up to the St. Petersburg city dynamo. All I've done is ruin a few cassocks. Nothing works. You know, there are days when being a deathless demon encased in a carapace of human flesh gets a little old.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Let's Clone Michael Crichton!

Michael Crichton died yesterday. That means it should be possible to harvest his DNA still in excellent condition. With virtually complete Crichton DNA strands available, we won't have to resort to primate substitutes for missing segments. I foresee viable cloned embryos within a few years, so theme park planning and design should start immediately.

I don't know what Michael Crichton considered his greatest achievement. The Andromeda Strain? ER? His M.D.? Westworld? (OK, probably not that.) But I do know what he will be remembered for, without a doubt, long after his other books, films, television projects, and ideas have been forgotten: Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park the novel had an enormous impact on me. I read the paperback on a plane returning from a business trip. It instantly rekindled the interest in paleontology that I'd had for much of my life, but that had been dormant in early adulthood after law school and related pursuits. I moved immediately to Robert Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies and other contemporary scientific accounts of the modern understanding of dinosaurs. Within a short time I was a member, then a contributing author, and finally an editor for The Dinosaur Society, a paleontology advocacy, education, and fundraising group founded by Don Lessem.

I have never looked forward to a movie as eagerly as I did the first Jurassic Park flick in 1993. The Dinosaur Society was even thanked in the credits at the end of the film! Later that same summer we took a family vacation to Alberta, Canada, to visit Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Royal Tyrrell Museum. It was a dinosaur summer for millions around the world, ultimately thanks to Crichton.

Although JP the movie was a fabulous blockbuster, it was neither as frightening nor as scientifically compelling as Crichton's novel. But both works shared the truly ingenious premise about DNA-based resurrection. Kudos to Crichton for crafting a storyline that was merely extremely improbable, rather than absolutely impossible (i.e., outright prohibited by physical laws as we now understand them). I never expected to find an account of dinosaurs eating people that turned out to be hard SF. The stupendous commercial success of the novel, the movie, and their sequels partially obscured the remarkable fact that Crichton produced visionary science fiction that actually could be tested, not merely consumed. I still have my 1993 VHS tape of NOVA's The Real Jurassic Park two-hour TV documentary, which took Crichton's ideas very seriously indeed.

JP the book also had a great sense of mystery in the beginning -- something that was mostly absent from the movie version -- and wonderful, ceaseless suspense. However, reading other Crichton novels, such as the JP-clone Timeline (time travel instead of dinosaurs), makes it clear that he had a highly formulaic procedure for achieving these effects. For example, ending short chapters with narration along the lines of, "She screamed as he raised the axe," goes a long way toward creating the desired "page-turner" quality.

Despite his scientific ingenuity, cleverness, and skill as a thrill merchant, Crichton was prone to including lamebrained philosophy and speechifying in his novels, particularly the later ones. In Jurassic Park that plague was kept under reasonable control, and mostly took the form of Crichton's flawed discussion of chaos theory through the mouthpiece of Dr. Ian Malcolm. (Dr. Malcolm died in the book, so he can be forgiven some near-death ravings.)

1. Crichton basically asserted in JP that because chaos theory reveals that complex systems cannot be fully predicted or controlled, complete disaster must follow. In the other words, he thought chaos theory means, at the macro level we experience, that actual chaos is inevitable. But making system collapse a certainty wrongly negates chaos theory's emphasis on unpredictability. Crichton didn't seem to understand that, or he didn't care because he was too obsessed with arguing that there are some things "man was not meant to know" (or do).

2. Crichton was wrong to imply that the dinosaur park in JP was inherently unsafe and could not be improved. There were two obvious avenues of improvement: (a) prevent sabotage, and (b) use passive rather than active dino barriers.
(a) The park failed because the evil computer nerd, Dennis Nedry, sabotaged it out of greed. That need not be a routine occurrence. The fact that bank officers sometimes embezzle millions of dollars, and that banks sometimes fail spectacularly, doesn't mean that banks are a hopelessly bad idea and should be abandoned as economic institutions.
(b) Huge electric fences are obviously a dumb idea as a barrier against giant animals, because of the high probability of an eventual power failure. Passive barriers, such as enormous moats and walls, are much better. They are not always perfect if designed poorly, but they're clearly more reliable than fences that need to be plugged in.

3. There's no reason to conclude that the dinosaur park was a total catastrophe simply because animals escaped and some people got killed. (This was even truer in the movie version of JP, because the death toll was lower.) People have been killed by animals at zoos and circuses for as long as these attractions have existed, yet we haven't banned them. Yes, animals can be dangerous. Yes, bigger animals are more dangerous. All that means is that a dinosaur park will have significant risks, not that such a park must be avoided at all costs.

Whatever his faults as a writer, there was a time when Crichton rivaled Stephen King as the most prolific and successful one-man idea factory in the entertainment world. You could count on his novels to become bestsellers, the bestsellers to become movies, and the movies to become hits. And for a short while 15 years ago, when Steven Spielberg & Co. brought the author's vivid speculations to the widest possible audience, Crichton was probably the most influential thinker on Earth. Yes, certainly worth cloning.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Realignment? Not So Fast

Before the election, conservative pundits and politicians were pushing the meme that the United States is a "center-right" country, and they have stuck to that spin even after Obama's convincing victory. According to these conservatives, no political realignment has occurred, merely a one-time reaction to particularly bad Republican governance. Well, they have a point, but it's not quite the point they intend. Realignment is not occurring as fast as many Democrats would like to believe, but the problem is not a fundamental center-right orientation of the entire nation; the problem is political stasis among conservatives themselves.

Part of what it means to be a conservative is to resist change. Thus, the right and center-right wings of the country always will be larger than justified by the zeitgeist. "Realignment" analyses tend to favor the Republicans, and support the existence of the "center-right country" meme, simply because rightists are less flexible, and realign more slowly.

If you consider the quality of the 2008 national tickets, the enormity of the problems facing our country, and the demonstrated ineptitude of Republicans in authority, Obama should have won by a much greater margin. I am convinced that millions of people voted for McCain simply because their thinking is trapped in 2004, or 2000, or even earlier. They simply cannot adjust rapidly enough to cast their votes based on current realities.

Since Johnson's defeat of Goldwater, which was pre-Southern Strategy (the GOP's infamous, coded race-baiting), there has not been a true landslide win for the Democrats in a presidential election. Democrats can point to nothing on the scale of Nixon's drubbing of McGovern or Reagan's destruction of Mondale. But that's because the right-leaning bloc is more immobile than the left-leaning bloc.

Imagine Sarah Palin running against Obama in 2012. Now, imagine that the Democrats managed to find a presidential candidate as untrained, ignorant, and extremist as Sarah Palin, and put that candidate up against an experienced, intelligent, and conservative-but-reasonable Republican. I think our hypothetical dumb Democrat would lose by a much bigger margin than would Palin, because more left and center-left voters would prefer a candidate who was ideologically dissimilar, but at least basically competent, to a candidate who waved the correct flags but was plainly an utter fool. Thus, Democrats' greater flexibility and grasp of reality make realignments in our favor appear less dramatic and decisive.

We All Win with Obama

Barack Obama's historic triumph is a victory for more than just African-Americans, biracial people, and disenfranchised minorities. It is a victory for more than just progressives, liberals, and the Democratic Party. It is a victory for more than just struggling but hopeful people across the globe. It is a victory for ... The Harvard Law Review.

Congratulations, brother!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Eve: The End of the Angry 8s

The last two presidential election years ending in 8 have been horrendous. 1968, of course, was the definitive election-year nightmare. Who could ask for more hell than the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the unsuccessful race-baiting campaign of the not yet semi-redeemed George Wallace, and the successful, and more subtle, race-baiting campaign of the disastrous Richard Nixon? 'Nuff said.

1988 was a picnic in comparison, although it was more personally painful for me. As a young member of the local "Lawyers for Dukakis" group, I was confident that the country was ready for a return to basic smarts and competence after two terms of Reagan. Bush was clearly a boob, and Dukakis knew his stuff. Heck, one of my professors from Harvard Law School was his issues adviser! In the bag, right? But Dukakis ran an exceedingly wimpy, passive campaign, and the perfectly fine-tuned ugliness of the Republicans' Willie Horton-based outreach carried the day. Obviously, "Lawyers for Dukakis" types don't expect a campaign to be determined by yet more race-baiting -- or by Pledge of Allegiance nonsense nonissues, for that matter.

On this election eve, 2008 looks to be a very, very welcome change from the last two angry 8s. Intelligence finally wins. Race-baiting finally is shown the door. It's been a long wait for the country.

Hello, I'm a Yuppie -- er, a Mac

I am not a Microsoft whore. How's that for an opening? It's important for me to establish my bona fides from the outset on this sensitive topic, so let me say that back in the 90s I was an avid OS/2 user. I spent years tinkering with OS/2 both at home and at work (unilaterally) before my love for the coolness of the operating system finally gave way to my frustration with the lack of applications for it. But I didn't migrate back to Gatesworld out of devotion to Windows.

With that out of the way, let me make this declaration: the Macintosh is a ripoff. Or at least the Mac notebook computers are a ripoff. How do I know this without ever having owned a Mac myself? Well, it's not that Macs don't work well, or don't provide significant benefits. The problem is that Apple's prices for Mac notebooks represent the old Yuppie value paradigm that makes no sense in the contemporary economy.

First, the background for my comparison. Until this past weekend, I was using a Sony VAIO notebook PC from 2001. It's taken a beating over the years, and I've had to adapt. I could put up with a screen that has been attached by only one hinge ever since I dropped the computer in Jan. 2004. I could put up with a touchpad so worn-out that I had to turn off taps every time I booted up, or else the pad would go crazy and read all movements as taps, leading to windows bursting open all over the place. I could put up with a battery that had a life of about 10 to 15 minutes when fully charged.

I could put up with the lack of built-in wireless connectivity, and with a wireless modem PC card that sometimes didn't connect the first time, requiring me to pull it out and re-insert it. I could put up with only 256MB of RAM and slow USB 1.0. I could put up with a severe shortage of storage space, since the 30GB drive is stuffed with iTunes files and I had to save the few GB left over for virtual memory. And I could put up with not being able to write DVDs.

But I could not put up with the complete lack of practical Internet access that resulted when I "upgraded" to Microsoft Internet Explorer 7, which proved (as it had in the past) completely unable to make any connection with the Web from my PC. This time, however, an apparent glitch in the installation process left me unable to back out of the upgrade by uninstalling IE 7 and reverting to IE 6. I could no longer reach the Net or download a solution from anywhere, although I suppose I could have found Firefox on a CD somewhere and installed that. That might have worked.

Eventually, however, every computer must be slapped with a DNR order. It may still boot and run OK, but as an actual tool or toy, it's no longer viable. Such is now my 2001 VAIO, so I've replaced it with a 2008 VAIO with the following specs:
  • 16.4" cinema-style HD widescreen
  • Intel Core2 Duo whateverhz (stopped caring about processor speeds long ago)
  • 320 GB hard drive
  • 4 GB RAM
  • Vista Premium 64-bit edition
  • Webcam
  • Bluetooth (though I have no Bluetooth devices at present)
  • Blu-ray drive! (read-only; writes CDs and DVDs)
This tidy little unit cost me $899 at Best Buy. Originally $1,399, it was marked down to $999 when a slightly newer model arrived, then marked down another 10% because it was the display model.

Try to find a comparably featured MacBook for anything near that price. Try to find one for twice the price. According to Apple's website, a MacBook Pro with similar specs would cost between $2,300 and $2,700, and you cannot get a Blu-ray drive on a Mac at any price.

But isn't the Mac much "better"? Isn't Vista a miserable excuse for an operating system? Aren't the cachet and superior design of the Mac worth whatever premium Apple wishes to charge? (Macs never seem to be discounted, which is a symptom of the problem.)

No. Not at those prices, they aren't. Not when I can buy two or possibly three well-equipped Sony VAIOs (which are attractively designed in their own right) for the price of a single MacBook Pro. The insanely un-great Apple marginal-multiple value proposition must be rejected.

What do I mean by the "marginal-multiple value proposition"? Simply this: that a marginal increase in value can justify a multiplication in price by a factor of two or more. I am willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that Macs may be better than PCs in important ways. But Macs are not twice as good as nice PCs. They are not three times as good.

The marginal-multiple approach to pricing is often applied to relatively low-cost consumer items. Why buy an ordinary grapefruit from the supermarket when you can buy a grapefruit from a club that is slightly tastier but costs five times as much? Yuppies in the 1980s were notorious for pursuing marginal increases in quality at ridiculous markups, and this habit has been institutionalized in some sectors of the economy. But when the value proposition is applied to pricier goods, particularly technology products, it can quickly degenerate into emperor's new clothes lunacy. Haven't Mac enthusiasts ever heard of satisficing?

If you love your Mac, then love it. But don't pretend rationality is on Apple's side. Marginal-multiple snobbery is an 80s disease we really should have shaken by now.