Author: David Byron
The most beautiful land I've ever stormed
Crimea, Crimea, Crimea, Crimea….
All the beaches and dachas and woods where my army swarmed
Crimea, Crimea, Crimea, Crimea….
I've just held a vote in Crimea,
And suddenly I've shown
How vain a threat or drone
Take by force, and we're there in person.
By decree, and we're edging toward Kherson….
I'll keep occupying Crimea!
The most beautiful land I've ever stormed:
This article originally appeared in The Mandala Magazine (2:5), April 2012
Houdini Now and Then:
Caught on the Web
It’s tough being a fan of the Great Houdini. Your non-magician friends quickly grow tired of hearing you say “Watch me escape from this” or “Tie me up! Tighter!” The patience of your significant other wears thin as you beckon “Look at this photo of the fourth milk can!” And your magician friends who are not fans of HH (a defect we fans describe with the phrase “just doesn’t get it”) are likely to respond with “You know, he wasn’t really much of a magician” or “You know, Vernon fooled him with a double” or “You know, he was sort of an arrogant bastard to… well… everyone.”
OK. Yes, we know. Even so, there’s just something about Houdini the man and the myth. And being a fan is no longer about becoming Houdini (though for some it once was). Nor is it about defending Houdini. (Well, maybe a bit.) It’s about appreciating two interwoven themes in the life of Ehrich Weiss: a tragically imperfect pursuit of the American Dream and a splendidly perfect example of magical theatrics. The actor lived a life, not always well, but the character he played projected a fiction, always magnificent. (more…)
Bring a cleric.
On 16 November, I told you about Gridiron Solitaire, an indie game developed by Friend-of-the-'Hat and all-around nice guy Bill Harris of Dubious Quality. At that time, Bill had submitted the game to Steam for possible greenlighting and I asked for votes in support of that effort. Alongside some Popehatters, friends of Bill from all around the 'verse joined in, and pretty soon afterward the game was approved.
Well, Gridiron Solitaire is now officially available on Steam! I'll bet it's a great way to spend a snowy evening….
A Christmas Prayer
Decrying constancy's loss in change,
When winter reigns, bestow a benediction.
Each heavenly tear its mate in ink arrange
And color the frigid winter with other diction,
Denying even the season's wonted selection
Of font and fiction. Palette in lip, hand, eye,
Teach me to meet with reason each objection,
The winter rains. Take aim and touch the sky,
Thy brush whispering whether and winter and why,
Chromatically ascribing. Let the distraction
Of days too short to long– their periphery
Restriction, their center dramatic reaction–
Be painted with memories of a day preferred,
And given essence by Thy blessed Word.
~David Byron for Cathie
in the winter of 1991.
This poem is part one of two. Here's the follow-on poem.
Talking around the edges of what's classified is all the rage these days. See, for example, the commercial for the NSA that ran on 60 minutes tonight.
In that vein, a former employee of Tailored Access Ops explains (within Info Assurance guidelines) what he did at the NSA and why he's ok with it.
Insufficiently discussed in most rants about the NSA is this question: if the only way to find the needles in a haystack is to store the entire haystack, and if you're against storing the entire haystack, and if you insist that it's vital to find the needles, then given the size and growth rate of the haystack, how do you propose doing that?
Some are ok with storing the haystack. That's the status quo.
Some are against the haystack and also don't think finding the needles is all that important. After all, more die at the hands of swimming pools and ladders, etc….
But for those who think proactive action against malevolent actors is desirable, how (apart from surveilling a subset of exhaustive data) shall we winnow them out of an ever-increasing crowd and discern their voices in an ever louder din?
If not this way, then how?
If you've been hangin' around here lately, and you're lookin' to cleanse the computer fakery, mistakery, and opaquery from your palate, look no further than the brilliant and hilarious essay The Night Watch, by the hilarious and brilliant James Mickens of Microsoft. Bonus: he's a good writer. Here's his self-blurb from the MS research site:
Excellence. Quality. Science. These are just a few of the words that have been applied to the illustrious research career of James Mickens. In the span of a few years, James Mickens has made deep, fundamental, and amazing contributions to various areas of computer science and life. Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest scholars of his generation, James Mickens ran out of storage space for his awards in 1992, and he subsequently purchased a large cave to act as a warehouse/fortress from which he can defend himself during the inevitable robot war that was prophesied by the documentary movie “The Matrix.” In his spare time, James Mickens enjoys life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, often (but not always) in that order, and usually (almost always) while listening to Black Sabbath.
This is a relatively self-indulgent post, but hey– blog!
This is fundamentally a gaming site, founded and sustained by gamers, and I was once, and remain, a rabid fan of the gaming franchise that began with Thief: The Dark Project, continued with Thief II: The Metal Age and Thief: Deadly Shadows, and will soon resume with 2014's Thief. These are the high water mark in first-person, hybrid, potentially non-violent, stealth-based, story-rich games.
A recent discussion of satire, parody, and pastiche in the comment section of another thread here reminded me that I wrote a handful of Thief-themed pastiches back in the early aughties. To share them with others who might like them, to store them in our database, and to revisit them with wistful nostalgia, I reproduce them below. Each is set to the theme of a pop song. Note well: these are only meaningful if you've played the games, and they're best read with the corresponding tunes playing in the background. :) The songs are Barbie Girl, All Star, Mickey, We Didn't Start The Fire, Uptown Girl, Cheers, and U Can't Touch This.
In one sense, the message of this post in a nutshell is "Ain't I a clever chap!" But if you, too, love the Thief games, then in joining the nostalgia perhaps you'll revisit some fond memories of your own.
Not long ago, I took a little trip to Silver Spring to see Marian Call in her natural habitat– the house concert.
The venue was the smallish common room of a co-op apartment house. Some had brought beer or wine. Others pizza and sweet shortbread cube thingies. Some came in groups, some in pairs, some alone. The room was decorated in the inconsistent, individual way that you might expect. On one wall hung a crazy quilt. On another, a painting of ethnic women, laborers, chopping logs and hauling bundles of wood. On a third wall, drawings apparently made by children residing in the co-op. On the fourth, schematics for the layout of the communal gardens and shrubbery. From the ceiling sagged sound dampers, billowing sails of a sideways schooner. At one end of the oblong space, amps and equipment littered a makeshift stage. Subject was first spotted in the vicinity of the sweet shortbread cube thingies.
Eventually grokking this part of the local customs, I sidled up to the buffet counter and introduced myself. Marian Call is a person of average height and decidedly Tigger-like demeanor. Awash in pre-show adrenaline, she bounced rapidly on her heels with endearing enthusiasm and declaimed rapidly on a variety of topics. She spoke of her admiration for the US Postal Service (for this concert was a part of the now-finished Postcard Tour, a format described below). She explained that the only part of the Smithsonian Institution that she had had the opportunity to enjoy (apart from a brief detour to see the Apollo lunar module) was the National Museum of the American Indian (she has a more-than-casual interest in first nation history and issues), where she only had time to enjoy the quasi-native food before rushing off to realize some larger purpose.
She spoke of Prague as symbolic of the tourism she may someday have the chance to enjoy; it was the one point (other than CERN!) in her European tour where she had had a couple of days (still not really enough time) to catch her breath and absorb broader overlapping contexts. She emphasized that touring, even in Europe, is not like a vacation; it's her job, and it seems like a job since it consists mostly of preparing to perform, performing, recovering from performing, travelling, and tending to the business and communications that make her endeavor sustainable. I found myself a silent choir of one as she sang the praises of procrastination ("It helps me get things done!") and sleep ("No more all-nighters!"). She very kindly mentioned that my essay about her lyrics gave her a morale boost when one was needed.
All of this took not more than five minutes, and then it was showtime.
She opened with the karaoke song, performing it with hilarious exaggeration to the delight of her crowd, which numbered 40 or 50. After another crowd-pleasing participatory number, she sang a few of her newer works, some commissioned and others spontaneous and irrepressible in origin. One of these, featuring the line "There's the paper and the pen and me; the storm stole the electricity," offered an unplanned magical moment. Since well before the show, half the building had been without light because of a power failure, and even the meeting hall was still semi-dark. But just as Marian sang that line, the power suddenly returned. The audience mumbled its wonder, but Marian maintained composure. After the song, she quipped, "I'll be taking this song on the road to restore critical infrastructure across the land."
The first set of seven ended with one of my favorites, Got To Fly, and then came the intermission. This was a time to buy wares, of course, but also a time for creativity. This show was part of Marian Call's Postcard Tour, which entailed having people at one show make postcards for Marian to carry to people at the next show, and so on.
During the break, people made their way to the stage to take a postcard from her burlap sack of cards inscribed by others, and also to write on fresh postcards for her to bring to others. (She has uploaded some examples to her tumblr.) I wrote a witty, illegible verse about artistic inspiration on the one I contributed. The one I received was from Alicia in Portland, Oregon:
"Strangers with similar interests"– that's the head of the nail, right there, Alicia. Well done.
After the postcard frenzy, Marian's sideman, Scott Barkan, offered an intermezzo. His own album, Flightless Bird, is available at Bandcamp, and is noteworthy not only for its magnificent cover art by Benjamin Dewey of Portland, but also for Scott's heartfelt, pessimistic, and strangely vulnerable lyrics. He treated us to three songs: Break it to Me Hard, Flightless Bird, and Bad Dreams. What struck me most about his blend of TomWaitsian vocals and TommyEmmanuelesque fingerstyle guitarmanship (which threw his instrument out of tune after every song, but for a good cause!) was the paradoxical precision with which he executed works that are constructed to seem rough and raw.
Scott's informal self-presentation lends itself to the notion that he must spend every waking, offstage hour developing the technical musicianship that enables him to pull off that sort of performance– and, for that matter, to deftly support some of the musical challenges Marian Call sometimes folds into her own compositions. Here's a representative sample of Scott Barkan, from his performance at CERN. If you like what he provides, I encourage you to buy his album!
In any case, Scott's a humble guy and didn't seem to mind ceding the stage to Marian, who resumed her station and dealt us another great set. Afterward, I deferentially nudged my way past a particularly enthusiastic, comicbookish groupie who seemed to have a lot on his mind, and I enjoyed another brief, awkward chat, wherein I praised Marian's appreciation of the analog and she showed me a photo of her former not-so-smart phone, a cousin of the one I still use.
The Postcard Tour is over now, but all along the way– in alcoves and bathrooms and the occasional sound studio, Marian has been piecing together the elements of another album, and now she's ready to send it into the world: Sketchbook
She describes it as "A new record of intimate songs from the road, on love, lightning, time, and hope. Small and focused in scope, deep like diving." She gave us a sneak preview of some of these songs at the concert, and they're lyrically rich musical morsels of the kind and caliber we've come to expect from this bouncy, brainy, optimistically brooding artist.
The physical copies of Sketchbook sold out almost instantly when she announced their availability for pre-order, but the album is also available in digital form on bandcamp:
To celebrate this auspicious occasion, I'd like to give away three digital download codes for Sketchbook, which will be released tomorrowish, or thereabouts. Our last Marian Call giveaway depended on being first in line, but I'd like to do things differently this time. So I'll gather all requests first, and then I'll discover the winners among them by using random.org. (If you've previously won a giveaway here, I'd ask you refrain and let others vie.) To submit your request for one of the three download codes, you may either tweet me at dcbyron with the hashtag MCSketchbook xor email the word MCSketchbook to me at david at popehat.com. (Don't do both!) It's about 3:00pm EST. I'll collect these until 3:00pm EST tomorrow (01 Dec), and then notify the winners.
Msgr. Falda: The language of the Necrogenomicon is arcane; its meaning recondite. If we give it, in its many variants, into the hands of the people, there's no telling what they may do with it!
Bro. Laxman: But, with respect: it already resides in their hands, and hearts, and indeed in all parts of them. It lives in them, and through them, and they in and through it. Most literally.
Msgr. Falda: But it requires interpretation. Trusted interpretation. Authoritative interpretation….
Bro. Laxman: To be sure, many details of life benefit from the wisdom and insight of experts. But nobody wants to do away with authorities and experts. It's merely that the people want to read the language of the text themselves, and perhaps consult with others who know more than they.
Msgr. Falda: This cannot be! If the people read for themselves a text they do not, and probably cannot, comprehend– and if they follow the guidance of whomever they will rather than that of a rightful shepherd of the flock– then they may go astray, not only in understanding but most certainly in action as well!
Bro. Laxman: But the people may already consult whomever they will, and go as they choose, and understand according to their lights, and act, possibly, in manners untoward.
Msgr. Falda: Precisely! And uncovering these truths to them all at once, in bulk, and without appropriate commentary may mislead them further! What if one of them comes to a false understanding and seeks to cut off his right hand?
Bro. Laxman: We already govern the chirurgeons, my lord.
Msgr. Falda: But… but what if one of them seeks to foment rebellion?
Bro. Laxman: We already regulate the militia, my lord.
Msgr. Falda: And what if one of them, for want of understanding, annoys a deacon with babble and the ill-gotten fruit of a meandering mind?
Bro. Laxman: Then he will tell him to stop, my lord. And perhaps help him to understand the limits of his own horizon. Knowledge is seldom fatal, and even a false understanding will seldom bring about grievous harm….
Msgr. Falda: But we are the gatekeepers, Bro. Laxman! We are the gatekeepers.
Bro. Laxman: And each of the people, my lord, is the gate. Shall we keep it closed and guarded as for war, or open as for peace, its perimeter defended?
The FDA reckons that the product provided by 23andme is medical equipment, and that some subset of the corresponding service constitutes medical advice. So the FDA wants
a piece of the actionto be sure that the people are protected from the dangers of possibly false or misleading information coming through unauthorized, unregulated channels. 23andme has been draggin' its feet in response to FDA demands, perhaps because of disagreement about whether personal genomics, a new application of new technologies, actually falls squarely within the current regulatory regime.
BoingBoing provides a cartoon and a cluster of links to articles that offer a fresh and useful overview of the issues at hand.
A bunch of dead people gave me their chromosomes. Ever since, I've been trying to figure out to how organize and use them. Not too long ago, I sank a Frank' into the "Health and Ancestry" personal genomics kit from 23andme. Just in time, since the FDA has asked them to stop making sriracha until the neighbors' complaints can be mollified. Last I heard, 23andme is making nice in words about compliance and cooperation but declining actually to comply… for now. "Can't we all just get along? I'm sure there has been some sort of misunderstanding. We've made a hash of it with our tardy replies, but we do, genuinely, truly, from the bottoms of our heart, love and respect you. It's not you; it's us."
(BTW, feel free to use me as a referral once they sort things out! That'll add $5 to my book-buyin' fund. ;) )
Did the results of my test solve any deep mysteries? No, although I learned some things about my ancestry that I hadn't previously known and have since confirmed genealogically. Did health information spur me to bum rush the medical staff at my PCP's office and demand that they do X, Y, and Z forthwith? Not at all. Was it entertaining and informative? You betcha! And did it prompt me to try to learn more about genetics, genomics, and gymnastics? Indeed, it did. I was floored by the exercise, which set a high bar, and I wouldn't call my efforts so far a ringing success, but that's ok since I'm just horsin' around.
Herewith, some observations. First, 23andme takes a conservative approach to analysis; if you download your genome info, upload it to GEDMatch, and run some alternate analyses offered as freeware by genetic hobbyists or rogue professors, you may see more– or different– information about haplogroup classifications and ethnic origins. Using a different commercial service, such as FamilyTreeDNA, may likewise provide more granular results. But for 99 clams, 23andme delivers the essential and allows some speculative tweaking to see alternate results. That's good enough for the casual consumer; those on a mission may need more.
Second, the community forum at 23andme.com is fairly primitive. For example, email notification for followed discussion threads is an all-or-nothing affair. Searching is non-existent. Redundant threads occur because there's no fast, non-awkward way to find out whether an appropriate thread already exists.
Third (and this is probably true of all personal genomics communities at present because this industry is larval), the points of light are far outnumbered by the blobs of smog. To phrase it with greater diplomacy, the discussion forum is overrun by understandbly curious and uninformed users whose questions, and whose answers to others' questions, are flat out wrong. In the midst of all that noise, a few valiant and well-informed hobbyists (plus the occasional professional) who have dedicated themselves to the task try to set things right. Sadly, the forum software sees those contributions fade rapidly into undiscoverability.
I trust the quality of discussion will improve there, and elsewhere, as education improves and interested parties take advantage. Indeed, 23andme provides a number of informative introductory videos and simple essays that lay out the basics while identifying some of the limitations and nuances. But reading and watching videos are homework, and nothing guarantees (nor should guarantee in that sort of forum) that everyone who speaks has done that homework.
Do you have some experience with personal genomics services? What was your experience? Did you learn anything surprising or interesting that you'd like to share? What do you think of the policy issues underlying the FDA's attempt to regulate 23andme?
In an earlier post, I introduced you to the forthcoming indie PC game Gridiron Solitaire by our friend, the amazing Bill Harris, whose blog Dubious Quality has kept us in sentiment, insight, and stitches for many a year.
The game is one of those 15-20 minutes-per-session card-based games that are easy to play over lunch or during a break. The game models football, including leagues, seasons, and the intricacies of football strategy, but presents it all in a highly accessible, enjoyable way. I'm not a football fan, though tonight's standoff between Stanford and USC nearly converted me. But I'm looking forward to this game because I know that Bill knows what makes games fun.
(If you missed the earlier post, go read it now!)
Well, his game is ready to be considered for distribution via Steam. All it takes is enough community support through the Greenlight system. So if you're a Steamer, consider headin' on over to the Gridiron Solitaire page at the Steam Community website an' doin' what yer Mama taught ya.
Scroll down to where it says "Would you buy this game if it were available in Steam?" and make the world a better place.