Monday, November 29, 2004


Item 1: I caught a few minutes of NBC's A Christmas Carol: The Musical last night, specifically, the part where the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Ebenezer's father being led off to debtor's prison and his mother consoles him from her deathbed. Ummmmmm.... I'm sorry... I know the story has strong autobiographical inspirations, but what page of Dickens' book are we on again?

Memo to all Hollywood: Judicious cuts are one thing, but classics of literature DO NOT need your additions. (Oh, and will someone put Alan Menken out of my misery?)

Anyway, obviously the producers have a take on this Freudian "Ebenezer's father messed him up" issue which Lemming and I were discussing. For the record, what I actually see in these scenes is that Ebenezer was once, basically, an innocent. We know he's going to make bad choices. We know he's going to screw his whole life up, and I think Dickens says it's nobody's fault but his own. But it's in these scenes where we see that there is something in Ebenezer worth redeeming.

(Aside: This is also why Severus Snape is the most interesting character in the Harry Potter books.)

Item 2: When you download U2's new album from iTunes, you get an "electronic booklet" with it. Sounds a lot like my call for PDF liner notes. (See also my previous post about "People are doing what I say!")

Hmmm... as long as this is working, I think the guys should get me an iPod, that U2 electronic box set, and an invitation to whatever party they're going to New Year's Eve. Oh, and continue the fight to forgive world debt. (That way I'll be one-for-four.)

Item 3: Microsoft increased the size of my Hotmail quota. I now have at least 1.45 Gigabytes of total email storage. This is rediculous. But then, as we're telling users all the time, storage is cheap... it's data recovery which is expensive.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Movie Review: The Score

I loves me some heist movie.

That’s really my whole review, come right down to it. I loves me some heist movie, and The Score is one. It’s taut, it’s well-paced, there’s some twists and turns, a little action and some good acting. Totally worth it. Go rent it.

Pleasant surprises: I continue to be astonished by the late work of Marlon Brando. For most of my life, Brando was just a punchline, a gargantuan caricature of himself. But the little bit of his later work that I’ve seen has been really quite moving: an ex-movie idol playing has beens, and doing it with guts and style and craft.

Edward Norton, arguably one of the best actors of his generation. Fascinating to watch, as always. But what excites me? The part at the end where this good Columbia, MD boy wears a Baltimore Orioles cap. (And points to the fact checkers… Norton complains about coming “500 miles” to Montreal, which is plausibly close to Baltimore.)

Oh, and Montreal looks just gorgeous.

Any movie with an appearance by Cassandra Wilson and a song at the credits by Diana Krall has something going for it. I’m not sure I really believe this Hollywood trope about old thieves loving jazz, but it helps fill in the noir element, so I’ll go with it.

If I have to criticize: I think I like either a little more funny (a la The Sting) or a little more action (a la The Italian Job) in my heist movies. (So yes, as a matter of fact, I am looking forward to Ocean’s Twelve with probably unrealistic expectations). Also, I was kind of hoping to see more Angela Bassett in there. (Although her relationship with Robert De Niro has that fascinating in media res quality which Hollywood doesn’t use enough. These people are who they are, and you don’t necessarily get or need the whole backstory.)

Saturday, November 20, 2004

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Leaving work yesterday, grey sky, cold misty rain. Walking towards the small, stone College chapel as the bells peal out one of the College songs. Students are migrating back home for the weeklong Thanksgiving break.

I’m suddenly gripped by the image of little Ebenezer Scrooge, spending another Christmas at boarding school because Father won’t send for him. Tiny Tim and the Ghost of Christmas Future seem to have captured the public imagination, but it’s those visions of young Ebenezer which are seared into my heart.

Six days until I can get out the wonderful tape I have of Patrick Stewart’s one man show of A Christmas Carol, and my two favorite movie versions… which I’m not ashamed to admit are Bill Murray’s Scrooged and Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Gmail and iTunes comments

Something I love about Gmail: It reads my email and attempts to target ads to me. Fuh-nny.

I'm not actually using that account for much yet; mostly, it gets a post every time somebody leaves a comment here. Since the blog name appears as part of the subject line, lately it's trying to sell me an artificial hip. (When what I need is an artificial knee.)

I'd guess that it's still in a very early stage of keyword matches for not a lot of advertisers. It'll be interesting to see if they can draw enough traffic to improve the algorhithms. (While I only wish Google well, it'd kind of be sad to lose the absurdity.)

Something I hate about iTunes: No liner notes!

I went ahead and bought the William Shatner album Has Been. I bought it knowing that Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins, and Ben Folds all appear on it. (As well as Lemon Jelly and Brad Paisley, whoever they are.) But when I downloaded it, all the songs were credited just to Shatner.

Note: This has since been fixed on the ITMS. But that doesn't help the ID3 tags on my files. Jooooooooooooobssssssss!

Now I'm perfectly able to do the research and figure out who's on what track. (Let's be honest; I'm constitutionally unable to not look it up.) And I know getting all the liner notes information into the ID3 tags is a huge amount of work for some human to do. (And it would require new ID3 fields for things like Recording Location and People The Artist Thanks anyway.)

But I'm not asking for that. I'm asking for a nice little free download of a PDF version of the liner. With a "sold on iTunes" watermark to stop me from pirating it, if you like.

I just want to know who the session musicians are! Is that so wrong?

Friday, November 12, 2004

Five to one, baby. One in five.

According to the Washington Post, "High doses of Vitamin E... appear to actually increase the risk of dying."

Wow. This is serious.

According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, in the whole history of human population, only the prophet Elijah has escaped "the risk of dying." Or put mathematically, the probability of death is 1. And here's the Post, telling me that Vitamin E actually makes it more than absolutely certain that I'll die. So, if I take Vitamin E, am I going to die twice? Three times?

Oh... wait a second. What they actually mean is that it increases the risk of dying in the short term. That's different, then.

Never mind.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Gambier Voting Diary

I know, this is a very long post. It's more than 5 pages on paper. On Blogger, the only thing I can think to do about it would be to post it as a comment... if anyone has a better idea, let me know.

This is my memory of standing in The Great Gambier Voting Line of Ought-Four.

6:30 AM: I’m told this is when people started lining up. I don’t know, as I, myself, was asleep.

7 AM: I’m told this is when the polls opened. Again, I am still asleep. The rule in Knox County is that each precinct gets 2 voting machines; this means there are two electronic voting machines for the Village of Gambier. There are two more in the room for (more lightly populated) College Township, but apparently they cannot possibly be repurposed to work for Village voters.

9 AM: I get to work and hear folks Mount Vernon talking about the long lines there… an hour or 90 minutes wait! Apparently, it takes an average of 2 minutes for an individual to vote, so you can push through about 50 people per hour per voting machine.

9:30ish: I’m told somewhere around here is where Voting Machine #2 dies. The Village of Gambier now has 1 voting machine. I’m told they got it back up and running in about an hour, but this is where the line really takes off.

10:30ish: The rain has let up, so I decide to go check it out. After all, you wouldn’t want to walk 10 minutes in the rain. People walking up the hill as I walk down say that they were in line for 2 and 3 hours.

At the front door of the community center, I’m told to go around to the back door, just as a crowd control measure. OK. When I get to the back door, I can see that the line has gone all the way down the hall and snaked in and out of the gym.

Once upon a time, I was a city boy. Once upon a time, I could stand in line, stoic like a Soviet on toilet paper day. But living in the country has made me soft. And so, I, Dumbass for Freedom, make this fatal statement:

“Oh, I am not wasting my whole day standing in this line.”

I go back to work. People are stunned to see me. I tell them how I’m going to knock off early and get in line around 3, when the crowd dies down. Boy, am I smart.

Want to hear God laugh? Tell Him your plans.

3 PMish: Having been moderately productive at work, I cut out. Surely, by now, the crowd has thinned out. Or… it’s wrapped all the way out the back to the front again. And it’s lightly spitting rain. Perfect.

One of my employees walks out of the polling place. He says he’s been there for about 4 hours. He lives in Cleveland, which means he could’ve driven home and back in the time he stood in line. I’m trying to figure out what scut work to make him do next week for clogging up things at my polling place.

People are walking around offering plastic bags and umbrellas to stay out of the rain. I figure it’s a pretty light rain, and I’m tough. I’ve neglected to get a hat or umbrella, but at least I thought to put on my one truly waterproof pair of boots. For the next two hours, goodhearted people will try to convince me to take something to keep off the water, but once you’re 100% wet, there’s not much point.

This is insane. Maybe I can get ahead in line if I convince people I’m a dangerous psychotic.

“You know who we should elect? Saddam Hussein. Think about it! The people of Iraq didn’t get to pick him, but we could! We pulled him out of his spider hole, he has to do what we say… and no more election lines! Oh, sure, you know, people lined up against the wall, but democracy has tradeoffs…”

This really did seem to concern one of the earnest ladies trying to keep our spirits up. It did not scare off any of the folks in front of me.

I threaten to take out a hit on Howard Dean, because it was his campaign that really galvanized Gambier’s Democrats. This line is his fault. Mean-spirited humor goes over less well, and I stop the comedy routine. Thanks folks! Tip your waiters, try the veal. I’ll be here all week! And so will you…

3:45 PM: I see Herself exit the polls. She has a 5:10 plane to catch at Port Columbus, an hour away. Some supernatural force warps space-time as she drives, the gods of rain and thunder keep her plane from even landing, and by miracle, she makes it just before boarding begins.

And the Radical Right thinks God is only on their side.

4:15 PM: Locals are coming around with cookies and chips, water and soda, and all the leftover Halloween candy in Gambier. A couple of students show up with a kettle of hot chocolate. Of course, it’s all nonpartisan junk food just designed to keep our spirits up… but some of these independent altruistic citizens are wearing their Kerry buttons. Election fraud! Election fraud! I’m being intimidated by Democratic Doritos!

Now, by “line”, I really mean “self-organizing mob.” People are being really good about holding one another’s spot in line for bathroom breaks, or runs home for reading, or general visiting with the rest of the line. Without a doubt, this leads to some line hopping. Nobody gets their noses too badly bent out of joint, as far as I know. People, mostly students, are taking pictures of each other, videotaping the event. There is no official crowd control I can see, beyond one county sheriff who’s just walking the grounds.

The rain picks up. The wind picks up. The skies darken. I start joking with the undergrads in line next to me about how we’ll tell this story to our grandkids. (Because, there’s nothing the young people like better than a story about voting, unless it’s a story about weather.)

(Old Man voices) “Oh, I stood in the Great Gambier Line of Ought-Four! Oh, yes, sonny, and it rained all day. And the wind howled.”

(Old Man #2) “And we were unsheltered from the elements! And then it hailed! And there was a tornado! And lightning and thunder! And a plague of locusts assailed our flesh!”

(Old Man #3) “And when I got to the door, I had to fight a bear to get inside!”

(Child’s voice) “I thought it was a tiger last time, Grandpa…”

I figure in 20 or 30 years, when I tell this story, W himself will have been standing at the ballot box, shooting lasers out of his eyeballs at us.

It’s also around this time that I notice a Professor of Religion behind me. He’s got to be nearly 30 years my senior, and he’s probably got half an hour more wait than I do, and yet he’s standing behind me, under his umbrella with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel printed on the inside, with this beatifically peaceful face. I have to ask him how he does that.

5:30ish: As the sun goes down, I actually make it inside. It’s dry and lit, and I can see chairs only a few hours away. On the other hand, the crowd and lack of ventilation quickly makes you miss the fresh air outside.

Inside the gym, the line goes from clumps of people to a single file of chairs around the room and then goes back to clumps as we exit. Whoever’s dealing with crowd control has already figured out that they can get more people out of the rain and dark by running the room through a couple of available rooms in the community center, and again, there are transitions from clumps to single file. Like a merge on a highway, these bottlenecks really slow down the perception of motion in the line.

Anyone who’s been to an amusement park knows how important the perception of motion is. If you want to keep a crowd happy, don’t let them stand still. If you’re shuffling your feet, you think you’re getting closer. If you’re not, you’re just going to get aggravated, even if you know that people are moving somewhere you can’t see.

Time stops. Pizza and drinks and candy and chips come in to the gym, and trash goes out. One of my student employees comes in with a couple of corn dogs stolen from the dining hall. Sadly, he doesn’t hear me call. I could use a corn dog.

7:30: Polls close. Election judges have already gone through the crowd handing out “authorization to vote” slips to folks in line. Theoretically, the election judges will now put one person at the end of the line to mark who may and may not vote. Not since Cuchulain fought the Irish Sea has there been such a mismatch.

Democratic poll watchers begin frantically urging folks to make room and come inside to try to contain the crowd. There’s a significant increase in locals in the line, folks who went to work and planned to vote afterward. I recognize a senior administrator or two and at least 4 professors, some with their spouses. Four or five of my friends who aren’t employed by the College make it into the gym as I’m heading out.

I start to notice a cycle in my mood, in roughly 40-minute increments. The line is absurd and hilarious; the line is patriotic and inspiring; the government screwed up and caused this line and it’s boring and infuriating. Eventually, boredom leads back to absurdity.

I’ve brought issues of College and Research Libraries News and Library Administration and Management to read in line. These are, in my estimation, two of the better library “science” journals, but I am not sure if they are breaking the tedium or prolonging it. At least I didn’t ruin an actual good book in the rain.

Around this time, there’s a significant increase in the number of students bringing goodies into the crowd. Students are calling each other to come down and get in the party. This is not good for crowd control or airflow, although I do appreciate the snacks and water. The number of folks wearing “Lick Bush and Beat Dick” shirts may constitute illegal electioneering, but frankly, if you’re in this line and can still have your vote swayed by a t-shirt and a can of orange soda, your ass is too dumb to vote anyway. (Judges and poll watchers do eventually make a concerted effort at removing the buttons and getting the shirts turned inside out, with some success, but new people are constantly joining the crowd.)

9:00ish: There’s a rumor afoot that a federal judge has ordered that paper ballots be issued to those who want them. Students begin squawking about Florida and pregnant chads and hanging chads and votes not counting. This is an interesting assertion, considering that in 2 hours or so, I’ll discover that Knox County uses Scantron paper ballots, not hole punches anyway. Hey, everybody’s got to be a first-time voter once.

Professor of Biology and poll observer Joan Sloncziewski has been here since at least 9 AM, probably since the polls opened. She seems to be point person for any official communication or organization of the crowd. I don’t actually know whether or not she has the authority to do this, but thank God somebody is. I keep seeing her moving through the crowd, keeping an eye on things, trying to organize this ad hoc army of volunteers that thinks it’s the Dunkirk evacuation. I have never personally seen someone sacrifice her body for democracy, but it’s obvious that Joan is; it seems like she’s been moving and talking all day.

(Hmmm… lack of sufficient planning, a power vacuum, chaos, and quite literally no good exit strategy. Sounds like the Board of Elections has recreated one of the reasons so many people are in this line in the first place.)

Joan is far from the only person in this situation. It seems that the media version of this story has been about the committed students who stood in line, but take a moment to remember the townies who not only stood in the line, but returned to provide organizational support and comfort to those in line. Locals and students, these are the people who kept this from being a story about an angry mob.

10ish: It’s somewhere around here that the paper ballots arrive. The county chairs of both parties have agreed to treat these ballots as valid, and have them counted and reported tonight; Joan says she’s going to see that this happens, and I wouldn’t try to pull a fast one on her, if I were in their shoes. Many students don’t accept the promise, though.

Also somewhere around here, crowd control realizes that they’ve forgotten about a room full of people and decides to clear out the library and additional holding pens. I won’t debate the decision, but remember what I said about the perception of motion? Morale slides.

People have been talking about “the longest line in the country” for some time, and wondering if the media would show up. NBC finally does send a camera crew down. This is greeted with the great cheer of patriots for nearly 200 years:

WooooooooHooooooooooo! Yeah, dude! Kenyon ROCKS!

10:30ish: those of us in my part of the line who want to vote on paper are given the option to jump forward into a paper-only line. I jump at the chance, to some amount of booing. A student who knows me a little gives me a shocked look and asks “YOU’RE voting on PAPER?”

It’s probably not great for my job security in the computer support division when I snap back “What on Earth would make you think an electronic vote is harder to steal than a paper one?”

The way I see it, this is supposedly a Federal judge’s order, and both parties have agreed to comply. On a personal level, I choose to take those men at their word (and Joan at hers that she’ll watch them). If we can’t meet like that as people, I can’t see how democracy can work.

Besides, the politicians are bigger than me, richer than me, and have more vicious flesh-eating lawyers than I do. If they want my ballot, or my lunch money, they’re going to get it. All I can do is cast my vote honestly.

11:45 PM. I fill out my ballot. It is on a provisional ballot form, but I’ve heard both chairs say they’ll count it tonight. I fill out a complete ballot, although many of the students have broken down to voting only in the Presidential race. Word on the street is that all the local races are already decided, but I’ve come too far to not be heard on every issue.

NBC is taping students as they exit the community center. The sound guy swings the boom mike in my direction as I walk out. As soon as I’m in frame, the camera guy shuts off the light and begins muttering about the battery pack or the tape running out. Now c’mon, Jack… I know I’m no Chandler Bing, but the “what a face for radio” vibe was uncalled for.

Midnight: Maybe once in my life have I been so glad to see the door to a bar open. A small group is in the Gambier Grill, watching results and drowning our sorrows, a speck of blue in a deep red county. I’m sore, tired, and grouchy.

But… I have a hell of a story, and I did what I could do. Which, for an Irish-American, is about everything you could wish for.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Thoughts from the Front

Already I've been asked for a report about the voting debacle in Knox County. Later today I will have a voting diary, to the best re-creation my exhausted, bureaucracy-addled brain can muster. Here are my first thoughts.

9 and 1/2 hours. Yes really. About two of it in the rain.

I hate democracy.

No, seriously, I really do. I particularly hate the cheapass prideful meddlesome version practiced around these parts.

I will never, again, in my life, set foot in a polling station in Ohio. I have plans for every election day as long as I draw breath. Those plans are "not letting you cheap bastards bend me over again."

And yet, to all the folks screeching about disenfranchisement and conservative plots and the entrenched power structure, let me remind you of a basic principle: never blame on malice what is more easily blamed on gross incompetence. Yes, someone on the Board of Elections said "Gawrsh golly gee, Andy, registrations sure are up in lil' ol' Gambier! Think we should buy us another one of them newfangled voting machines?"

And Andy said "Well, Gomer, first of all, they ain't all that newfangled anymore, and they'd cost us a pretty penny. Better not go spending the taxpayers' money and sacred trust. How would we look if they don't turn out!"

Central Ohio: It's not the hate, it's the stupidity.