PS... A Column

on Things

By Paul E. Schindler Jr.

Some things are impossible to know, but it is impossible to know these things.

I have a day job. So every word of this is my opinion, not that of my employer. This offer IS void in Wisconsin. Except, of course, that some material in this column comes from incoming e-mail; such material is usually reproduced in the Sans Serif type font to distinguish it from the (somewhat) original material.

To Pay For This Column Voluntarily
Tales of Teaching 2004
Tales of Teaching 2005

August 15, 2005: P.S. A Column On Things

August 15, 2005 Vol. 7, No. 32

Table of Contents:

General News

  • Loving my Job
  • UGI Reunion
  • Marlow in China
  • Political Notes

Computer Industry News

  • Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs


  • My Ass Itches


  • Guest Commentary: Prequels suck
  • Meta-Review: Nine Songs


  • Malchman: Funny Soccer Headline, Ruley on Space Encyclopedia, Non-Private Garbage, Americans not dumb? Dan Grobstein File

General News

Loving my Job

Shouldn't I love my job by now? When people ask me how my summer is going, I find my own enthusiasm unseemly. I am gradually building up a fairly large load of anxiety as the first day back at work (Aug. 23) and the first day of school (Aug. 24--yes, we start on a Wednesday) approach. Shouldn't I be experiencing some excitement at the prospect of returning to the classroom.

So far, the predictions of veterans have come true: the second year was easier than the first, the first was hell. If they were right about that, perhaps they are right that the anxiety drops and the satisfaction increases with the passage of time. The thing is, right now, there's nothing else I'm qualified to do or interested in doing. I don't wish to go back to journalism, and I don't think another grade or school is the answer; 8th grade at JM is about as good as it gets.

I've said it many times, but that doesn't make it any less true: no one teaches for the money, so we must all be in it for the satisfaction. I was warned during teacher training to disabuse myself of noble notions about saving the world one child at a time. This is a marathon, not a sprint. I'll pace myself--and I will make every effort to do better this year, by which I mean I'll try being calm rather than yelling and blowing whistles. We'll see how long that lasts. Also, no sarcasm.

UGI Reunion

This is what I wrote last Monday:

I spent the weekend in Chicago, which is why this column is late. It was the sort-of 30th reunion of most of the self-styled Usual Gang of Idiots (the term with which Mad Magazine once referred to its contributors) from my days at The Tech, the most important institution in my life. But as I must be at the DMV in a half hour to obtain a driver's license renewal, I must delay my report until next week.

Being an idiot, I stepped out of line at the DMV because a sign seemed to indicate I needed a social security card and a birth certificate. New applicants need that, not renewal applicants like me. All they want from me is a new picture and a thumbprint.

Anyway, the period from 1970 to 1976 was a golden era at The Tech, the MIT student newspaper which has offered continuous news service since 1881. Dave became a top flight AP photographer. Norm became a UPI White House correspondent. I became a reporter for AP, the UPI and the Oregon Journal before becoming a computer journalist. Mike became a reporter, first for USA Today, then Business Week. In the years just prior to us, Reid became a newspaper publisher and executive, Karen went to work for the New York Times, Michael went to Scientific American, Peter became a Washington correspondent. More of us entered journalism from those two scholastic generations than in any similar period in living memory.

The UGI was me, Dave, Norm, Barbara (she became a lawyer), John (auctioneer) and Mike in varying combinations. This year marks the 30th anniversary of... something. The midpoint of the magic era. Norm's graduation. Anyway, the UGI, along with Brian and Dan and Storm, got together in Chicago at John's house to celebrate, to eat, to drink, and to catch up. We hadn't really seen each other since 1992, the 20th anniversary of John and Barb's arrival at MIT. Edwin Diamond, our "advisor" has since died, but the rest of us survive. We revel in one another's company, cheer each other's successes, gloss over each other's failures. We toured Navy Pier, saw a White Sox game, ate good barbecue and great restaurant food, and talked, talked, talked.

This is so much better than a college reunion, where nearly all the people are strangers to you. This is a group that I lived with, night and day, for four of the most exciting years of my life. We have a bond that, I hope, will last our whole lives. As Barb put it, we're lucky to have friends who have lasted 30 years. Not only do they know where all the bodies are buried, they helped bury some of them. We attended each other's weddings. We stay in touch.

We vowed not to let it be 13 years before the next reunion. I hope that's true. As the Girl Scouts used to sing, "Make new friends and keep the old, the one is silver and the other is gold." My UGI buddies know which they are.

Marlow in China

Marlow is in Shanghai this summer, working and working on her Chinese.

Because of a seasonal typhoon our trip to the beach was cancelled. I'm not disappointed about not getting to see the beach or ride the horses or atvs or whatever. I'm mainly just disappointed that my planned 24 hours of interaction with three captive friends turned into a one hour lecture on American-Chinese relations and a one hour tour of swimming pools of the neighborhood.

It was amusing how hard they tried to push me to think about applying for the state department, and how much good they thought I could do by presenting a more balanced picture of China to America. But I'm disappointed that I didn't even end up getting dinner out of it, as W who had offered to take me to get some noodles ended up getting called back to the office while we were looking at the second pool. W and I have exchanged a few emails over the last couple of weeks. He is recently married, and for some reason I find his accent a little different from the others even though he was also born and raised in Shanghai.

I didn't even feel up to going to the gym tonight so I just got some spicy beef at a Taiwanese restaurant and tried to cheer myself up by browsing the street wares in my neighborhood. I ended up getting Rae a couple more shirts and some bracelets for myself, a type of jewelry I almost never actually wear. I was gratified during haggling to have the girl looking at the necklaces next to me admonish the seller for not accepting my offer, which was undoubtedly a reasonable price in that it was still too much though she didn't say that, to which the vendor had no choice but to blush and accept my money.

The wind is pretty strong out there, but I don't think the typhoon is supposed to be that bad in the city. Nanhui, where we were going to go, is on the beach and so therefore considered most dangerous.


I was at a KTV. After getting Rae's email full of wacky French antics I was feeling more like a shut-in than ever. On Monday after work (where I had a pleasant post-lunch conversation with one of my co-workers which ranged from her son's recent mastering of the spoon at daycare to the 102 miners trapped/dead in Guangdong) I went with the easy fix, which in China is shopping. When you can speak a little Mandarin every vendor is your best friend. They never hesitate to tell you that they're offering you the very special low friendship price because your Chinese is so good. Even though it is the stock conversation it is nice to be told how refreshing it is to deal with a foreigner who doesn't have to be communicated with through a calculator. I ordered two new shirts to be made, and I am paying through the nose for them because the women were very nice to me. They were able to answer the question "do you accept credit cards?" correctly as well as assuring me that the flowers I am going to have hand painted onto one of the shirts will look stunning. It turns out, I discovered at the antique market, my other key phrase is "this comes from Xinjiang." It then becomes impossible for me to pass up the object. More importantly than this quick fix, I text-messaged the daughter of the co-worker who took me to Zhujiajiao a couple of weeks ago to ask if she had free time this week, and since she is on vacation she did, and offered to get together as soon as today. She had plans to meet a friend for ice skating, and I was welcome to join. They were meeting at 10:30 am, so I had to text message my co-worker and let her know I wouldn't be coming in, but as they've had nothing for me to do for the last two weeks it was no problem.

So today I re-met up with I and her friend L. I need to learn I's Chinese name, because I can't bring myself to use her English name. When given a choice to go ice skating or go sing at the KTV (karaoke in small personal rooms) I chose the singing. We must have sung for more than three hours. They could both actually sing, and they were amused with my repertoire regardless of how poorly it was sung from a musical standpoint. I'm still singing the same songs I picked up in Taiwan, but I'm slowly finding new ones to learn in the future. I like to pick the more cliche songs because they transcend age-groups, plus they tend to inspire everyone to sing along, so its less obvious that I can't sing. I also believe I was actually starting to understand the lyrics for SHE's Superstar for the first time today, which I formally thought was impossibly up-tempo. After KTV we went to buy DVDs in the back-room of a CD shop, ahem, and then walked around the shopping district (Nanjing Rd and Huaihai Rd by the People's Square) until dinner time. We swapped stories about foods our fathers liked eating that our mother's wouldn't let them eat, famous Chinese people in America, and everything in between. We had food from the Guizhou region after my saying that I like to eat spicy food, which adds another region after Sichuan and Hunan which I can now specifically request to impress the locals. I really wish I would be allowed to pay for stuff though. I can take being treated by older people, but these girls are three or four years younger than me, and they're just students with internships too. There's no such thing as going Dutch, so if you want to pay you have to fight to pay for everything, and often there's a time when someone leaves the room or table and takes care of things discreetly, so it is especially beyond my scope to interfere. I'm not sure how hard I'm supposed to fight, because I actually do want to pay, but I don't want to embarrass people who are acting as my host either. I'm petrified of making them lose face so I've gone the route of trying only once and then being very thankful, though again I have to mind the invisible line and not bring too much attention to the whole thing. I just hope that the girls got as much out of it as I did to offset the financial investment as well as the obvious mental stress of a whole day trying to understand what I was trying to say. After dinner we even went to get shaved ice, which I hadn't had on the mainland yet.

Just like in Taiwan they wanted to put canned corn and condensed milk on it. But here I couldn't stop 'em because instead of getting it off the street we got it at a food court where there wasn't as much freedom in choice. Otherwise, though, it was just as good as I remembered.

I also got together with a waitress from a Xinjiang restaurant last week. Talking with her was interesting because she uses a lot of "we Chinese people have a saying..." "we Chinese people have this tradition..." "we Chinese people...".

Often I don't fully understand what comes next, but it is a style of speech (not necessarily unique to her) that I enjoy because it makes me feel like I'm getting new insight, even when the topic is relatively mundane. She didn't go to college, and ended up giving me a bit of a speech about how in China people of different educational or cultural backgrounds don't normally become friends. She has three sisters and a brother, and since she's younger than me I was pretty sure that must mean she was from the countryside or some such place where you're allowed to keep trying till you get a son, and that might be true.

But I read up on the one-child policy, and apparently it only applies to Han Chinese so if she is a different minority that could also explain it. She had wanted to take me outside to a park where she practices dancing after work. Although I'm not thrilled at the idea, there is little that is more Chinese than dancing with tens to hundreds of people in a public square or any relatively empty flat place really. Unless it's old Chinese people doing taiqi in the same places, but you have to wake up at the literal crack of dawn to see that. So if she contacts me again I'll probably give it a whirl. I'm pretty sure

Political Notes


Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs

Cosmic Blobs: amid all of the high-end hubbub of SIGGRAPH's exhibition was a low-end sleeper hit that caught the eye of many experts. Solidworks is known for professional strength CAD tools, so its entry into kid's software Cosmic Blobs was a surprise. While I have only played with it briefly myself, it looks like they did a great job of cramming a lot of 3D modeling, texturing and animating tools into a kid-friendly package. The user interface contains several good ideas that help to simplify the often complex tasks required in 3D computer animation.

FedEx Furniture: like Jose Avila, I've always been a fan of FedEx. So its disappointing to see them engage in such a brain-dead common-sense-defying stunt as serving a DMCA based takedown notice to Avila regarding his clever, upbeat, pro-FedEx site FedEx Furniture which celebrates the durability of FedEx shipping boxes and the indomitable human spirit. Apparently the dickheads in the FedEx legal department don't believe in either. Wired runs it down for you: Furniture Causes FedEx Fits.

Today's interesting photos at Flickr: I am amazed by the cool technology that continues to flow from Flickr the web-based photo sharing site. By exposing a web API people can generate their own extensions, and the site itself continues to generate great new services. Take for example their recently introduced page Explore / Interestingness / Last 24 Hours. Using collaborative filtering techniques similar to Google's Page Rank, Flickr can automatically determine which photos are "interesting" and collects them by date or tag. Unfailingly, the pictures it ranks high are definitely interesting.

Octopus v. shark: frequent readers may recall my favorite animals are cephalopods like cuttlefish and octopus. While it is their locomotion and chromatophores (used for communication and camouflage) that interest me the most, I have often heard what powerful predators they are. This is amazing video, but be warned that it graphically depicts predation, "some content may be too strong for some viewers": Week after week, the 3-4 foot sharks kept vanishing.

Drum robot: via Hack a day, this Robotic Drum Machine which I pass along as much for the background of the photo as the concept of the robotic drummer. While you gotta love real robots, this theme of robotic instruments has come up several times in computer animation, like in 1988's Beat Dedication by Bob Sabiston (of "Waking Life" fame) and throughout the Animusic DVD by Wayne Lytle and Dave Crognale. By the way, Animusic 2 will be available soon.

Technobits: Intel to unveil 'next-generation architecture' --- Search Concepts, Not Keywords, IBM Tells Business --- from the Patent Office The Invention Machine: A Day in My Life --- sometimes inflammation is good: Nasal spray clears Alzheimer's brain plaques --- Robot catcher grabs high speed projectiles see the video --- Scientists to Ice Cream Makers in a Flash.


My Ass Itches

There was this man who lost one of his arms in an accident. He became very depressed because he had loved to play guitar and a lot of things that took two arms. One day he had had it. He decided to commit suicide. He got on an elevator and went to the top of a building to jump off. He was standing on the ledge looking down and saw this man skipping along whistling and kicking up his heels. He looked closer and saw this man didn't have any arms at all! He started thinking. what am I doing up here feeling sorry for myself, I still have one good arm to do things with. There goes a man with no arms skipping down the sidewalk happy and going on with his life.

He hurried down and caught the man with no arms. He told him how glad he was to see him because he had lost one of his arms and felt ugly and useless and was going to kill himself. He thanked him again for saving his life and he new he could make it with one arm if that guy could on with no arms.

The man with no arms began dancing and whistling and kicking up his heels again.

He asked "Why are you so happy anyway?"

He said, "I'm NOT happy; my ass itches."


Guest Commentary: Prequels suck

Movie prequels. I've come to realize that I hate them.

Though I wasn't fully aware of it, my first experience with a prequel was "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." The movie took place in 1935. So what, you ask? Well the previous film, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," we were told took place in '36 -- a year after the events of "Temple of Doom."

I remember thinking to myself, "So what's the big deal -- we know that Indy ain't gonna die. He's gotta be around for Raiders."

Thus started my love/hate relationship with movie prequels. These films entertain, but in my opinion, never fully satisfy -- particularly if they involve a character well established in a prior film.

Take the Star Wars prequels. Yes, I know, some folks would prefer not to -- but bear with me. Sure, it was somewhat entertaining to see what led up to Anikan turning to the Dark Side and eventually becoming Darth Vader. But anytime that he or Obi-Wan were up against insurmountable opposition, and things looked bleak, I felt...nothing. Nada. Zippo. Why? Because I already knew that down the line they would have their final battle on the Death Star in "An New Hope." Placing them into a life or death situation became utterly meaningless. I knew neither of them were going to die.

The same went for Doctor Jones. There he was, hanging on the broken bridge, trading blows with Mola Ram. Yeah, big deal -- I knew he was going to climb back up. He had a date the following year with Belloq and the Ark.

I just read of talk of a "Nightmare on Elm Street" Prequel. Why? Who cares? We know Freddy was a child molester. We know the parents ganged up on him and left him extra crispy. We know he ends up killing from beyond the grave. Any more backstory would seem redundant. Do I really care why he did the things he did. Not really. (Note to Robert Englund -- ya seem like a really cool guy. Just hang up the claws once and for all, 'kay?)

Yes, I know -- there's often new characters introduced in these prequels that are meant to give you a newfound sense of tension -- "oooh, Mace Windu. I wonder if he's gonna make it." Let me fill you in on a little secret. If they weren't in the original movie, chances are they ain't gonna make it. They were added in for the sole reason that the movie folks in Hollywood WANT you to have someone to be excited about whether they survive or not, because they know full well that the main characters are going to be just fine...they were in the first bloody movie (or second depending on the stupid timeline).

So Hollywood, do me a favor. Forget the prequels. Just focus on the story right from the get-go. If you get a good script and say "Man, this was awesome. Hey, Maybe we should do a movie sometime down the line about how the demon got to Earth? You know, before it fought our hero." Just make that movie first!!!!!!

--Tom LaSusa

Meta Review: Nine Songs

If memory serves me, this is the first time I have reviewed the reviews instead of the movie. I first read about Nine Songs some months ago in the British humor magazine Private Eye (my only magazine subscription besides The New Yorker). They made it sound controversial, if mildly interesting, so I hit the Internet, which said it was coming to the states in July. It did, where it played one theater in New York for a month. It opened "wide," which is to say, in a few art house cinemas in major cities, last Friday. I noted it opened in San Francisco.

I thought about what I read about it, starting with the fact that it was unrated (and would have been NC-17 had it been rated). The San Francisco Chronicle disliked it, but didn't hate it. The New Yorker actively loathed it. It apparently features real sex. Well, hmmm. Hasn't that been done before? Like twice a day somewhere in the San Fernando valley? It was also said to be "sex positive," and to "blur the line between porno and commercial movie making."

Well, you know what? That line has already been blurred too much for my taste. I'm not comfortable watching most R-rated films with my wife or my daughters, because you never know when the film-maker is going to throw in a quick scene of oral sex or S&M. Frankly, I much prefer G, PG and PG-13 films. I liked the films of Hollywood from the birth of sound through the mid-60s, when every film was G-rated. Back then, budgets were small enough to require ingenuity on the part of film-makers, and script writers had to grab and hold your interest with dialog and plot instead of sex. Maybe I'm just getting older, but I like to thing I'm getting more discriminating. Anyway, I choose not to support this kind of film.


Malchman: Funny Soccer Headline, Ruley on Space Encyclopedia, Non-Private Garbage, Americans not dumb? Dan Grobstein File

Headline of the week, from Robert Malchman, who found it on the ESPN soccer site: Young Boys Wankdorf erection relief. It is so not what you think.

John Ruley passes along the Final Call for Space History Encyclopedia. No money, but a chance to write history.

From December, 2002, but better late than never; Willamette Week in Portland Oregon: RUBBISH! Portland's top brass said it was OK to swipe your garbage--so we grabbed theirs.

Slate: They're Not Stupid-They're Lazy. The real reason American high-schoolers have such dismal test scores, by Alexandra Starr. USA Today: How schools are destroying the joy of reading

Dan Grobstein File


New York Times

  • BUSINESS | August 9, 2005
    Sounding Off: Gas Allowances From Fantasyland
    With reimbursement rates for business travel far below the actual cost of gasoline, corporate America is basically asking its workers to subsidize high gas prices.
  • NEW YORK REGION | August 10, 2005
    Abe Hirschfeld, a Millionaire and an Eccentric, Dies at 85
    The New York City real estate magnate spent much of his fortune running unsuccessfully for public office. [And, for a week, he owned the New York Post, inspiring the headline in the paper, "Who is this Nut?" surely the most direct attack on an owner in American journalistic history.
  • OPINION | August 12, 2005
    Op-Ed Columnist: Safe as Houses
    When that housing bubble begins to deflate, so will housing-related employment.

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