Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Monster Mashup

Maybe it's because I never really cared for Jane Austen, but I find this rather funny. From the New York Times:
Quirk Books announced the publication of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” an edition of Austen’s classic juiced up with “all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem” by a Los Angeles television writer named Seth Grahame-Smith. (First line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”)
But wait, there's more:
Elton John’s Rocket Pictures was developing a project called “Pride and Predator,” in which the giant alien from the 1987 cult classic pays a call on the Bennet family.
To some scholars, however, it’s a short leap from verbal sparring to real swordplay. “It makes sense to give Lizzie a grander scope for her action,” said Deidre Lynch, an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto and editor of “Janeites,” a collection of scholarly essays about Austen devotees. “It goes with the muddy petticoats and the rambling across the countryside in this unladylike way. The next step is ninja training.”
And there is no sign that it will stop there:
Next year, Ballantine Books will publish Michael Thomas Ford’s novel “Jane Bites Back,” in which Austen turns into a vampire, fakes her own death and lives quietly as a bookstore owner before finally driving a stake through the heart of everyone who has been making money off her for the last two centuries.
Then again, I did just start reading Drood, a fictional account of the "events" that led up to the writing of his last, uncompleted novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. From the flap copy:
On June 9, 1865, while traveling by train to London with his secret mistress, 53-year-old Charles Dickens--at the height of his powers and popularity, the most famous and successful novelist in the world and perhaps in the history of the world--hurtled into a disaster that changed his life forever.

Did Dickens begin living a dark double life after the accident? Were his nightly forays into the worst slums of London and his deepening obsession with corpses, crypts, murder, opium dens, the use of lime pits to dissolve bodies, and a hidden subterranean London mere research . . . or something more terrifying?
Although I'm only 50 pages into it, it's not bad, being narrated by the character of Dickens' friend and author in his own right, Wilkie Collins, so it has that Victorian tone to it. We'll see how it goes. Hopefully no zombies will show up.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tunes for Our Times

Times change, but not very much.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Beach Reading

The NY Times Book Review arrived in my inbox moments ago and the lead review, by Carl Hiaasen, couldn't be more timely. As I head down to Miami Beach for Graphics of the Americas on Sunday, I think I've found my airplane reading:
Players, Poseurs, and the Culture of Excess in South Beach
By Steven Gaines

Most people don’t go there for intellectual enrichment; they go for the sex, dope and parties. [Not printing presses? How odd. --RR]

That wasn’t exactly the original idea. Back when the mangroves were razed and the sand was dredged from the ocean bottom — yes, even the beach is fake — the developer Carl Fisher envisioned the place as a respectable winter getaway for well-to-do Northerners, an American Riviera.

As it turned out, gangsters also prefer sunny climates over snow. By 1928, Al Capone and other thugs had discovered Miami Beach, and organized crime was taking over the town.
The GoA Gala is being held at the Fontainbleu Hotel, which apparently has a bit of a checkered history (I confess I know very little about Miami Beach other than what I remember from The Godfather Part II):
Gaines sees symptoms of social dysfunction in architecture, like the garishly emblematic Fontainebleau Hotel on Collins Avenue. It was the product of a tumultuous collaboration between an obstinant developer named Ben Novack and the architect Morris Lapidus. The two couldn’t stand each other, and went to their respective deathbeds claiming sole credit for the design of the massive, weirdly curved structure, which was built in less than a year.

Maligned by critics, the Fontainebleau instantly became a lively hangout for card sharks, mobsters and movie idols.
And what do you know: I also got a 40% off coupon from Borders today, too. What are the odds they'll actually have it?


Just spent a good four hours formatting my old (mis)adventure in self-publishing—Virus!—for publication on the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. (It was really just an experiment in learning how to format books for the Kindle. And if I somehow sell a few, great.)

I was finally successful, and it will be available for sale--for all (or both, if even that many) of you Kindle owners out there—in 12 hours or so for the extortionate price of $8.99. I figure at that price point--which is one I actually have control over--no one is likely to question my sincerity.

Anyway, a couple of observations about the process:
  • Amazon strongly encourages that e-book titles be in HTML format, as it claims that is the only format that will convert reliably, even though it says it supports .pdf, .doc, .mobi, and a smattering of others.
  • I had produced the book in Adobe InDesign and the Kindle conversion utility doesn't handle native InDesign files (big surprise).
  • Getting decent HTML out of InDesign is not easy, especially if (like me) you had a bunch of different document threads and a few illustrations here and there. The Exoport to Dreamweaver command is pretty hit or miss. Perhaps I just need to spend some time playing with it, but I've rarely had luck with it.
  • What some of the Amazon user forums recommended was copy the text in InDesign and paste into Word, and then you can save Word files out to HTML. You can pretty much imagine how that works out.
  • I tried that approach, and required a great deal of tweaking styles to get everything looking decent, even by Word's low standards.
  • I saved the Word file out to HTML, but Amazon's conversion utility kept choking on it. I toyed around with a few things but to no avail.
  • Finally, I just uploaded the Word file itself to the conversion utility and it went through without a hitch. I was able to preview it to get an approximation of how it will look on a Kindle and it didn't look bad. One of the feratufres of the Kindle is the ability to adjust the size of the type, which means that text will inevitably reflow, which I guess is why they don't like PDFs, which are by their very nature a static page format.
  • The process is not appreciably different from way back in 2000 when I used to experiment with converting files to be read on Palm-based e-book readers.
After doing all this, I just got in the mail the latest Design Tools Monthly newsletter which mentioned some third-party applications for getting HTML out of PDF files. I shall have to experiment further. Of course, I don't actually have a Kindle, but then my birthday is only six months away....

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Because I apparently don't have enough time toilets in my life, I am now on Twitter, for no adequately explored reason. I will experiment with livetweeting from today's SU-Georgetown game. I will either end up hooked on Twitter or I will never want to have anything more to do with it again ever. The world hangs in the balance. Follow along if you dare at http://twitter.com/rromano.

Bride of the Gorilla

Over at Movie Mis-Treatments, the latest is the 1951 Raymond Burr/Lon Chaney "thriller" Bride of the Gorilla.
I guess the first question would be: where is the bride of the gorilla registered? Banana Republic, of course.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The last couple of nights have featured a pretty dramatic full moon, and perhaps not entirely coincientally, Scientific American has a story up about an old chestnut, the so-called "lunar lunacy effect," the belief that the full moon has some kind of effect--usually a bad one--on human behavior.
One survey revealed that 45 percent of college students believe moonstruck humans are prone to unusual behaviors, and other surveys suggest that mental health professionals may be still more likely than laypeople to hold this conviction. In 2007 several police departments in the U.K. even added officers on full-moon nights in an effort to cope with presumed higher crime rates.
There have been serious attempts to study whether such a phenomenon exists, and actual evidence in support of the effect has not been forthcoming:
Florida International University psychologist James Rotton, Colorado State University astronomer Roger Culver and University of Saskatchewan psychologist Ivan W. Kelly have searched far and wide for any consistent behavioral effects of the full moon. In all cases, they have come up empty-handed. By combining the results of multiple studies and treating them as though they were one huge study—a statistical procedure called meta-analysis—they have found that full moons are entirely unrelated to a host of events, including crimes, suicides, psychiatric problems and crisis center calls. In their 1985 review of 37 studies entitled “Much Ado about the Full Moon,” which appeared in one of psychology’s premier journals, Psychological Bulletin, Rotton and Kelly humorously bid adieu to the full-moon effect and concluded that further research on it was unnecessary.
I guess the first question that always struck me when the lunar lunacy theory came up is, what would be the mechanism for it? That is, how can the moon affect behavior? Apparently, there have been attempts to ascribe the phenomenon to tidal forces, since the human body is mostly composed of water, but
First, the gravitational effects of the moon are far too minuscule to generate any meaningful effects on brain activity, let alone behavior. As the late astronomer George Abell of the University of California, Los Angeles, noted, a mosquito sitting on our arm exerts a more powerful gravitational pull on us than the moon does. Yet to the best of our knowledge, there have been no reports of a “mosquito lunacy effect.” Second, the moon’s gravitational force affects only open bodies of water, such as oceans and lakes, but not contained sources of water, such as the human brain. Third, the gravitational effect of the moon is just as potent during new moons—when the moon is invisible to us—as it is during full moons.
I read some time ago (can't remember where) that this theory may have originated in the very real phenemenon that, back before there were streetlights, on nights when the moon was full you had more people out at night, and more opportunities for mischief. The SciAm article also suggests one other source of the myth:
before the advent of outdoor lighting in modern times, the bright light of the full moon deprived people who were living outside—including many who had severe mental disorders—of sleep. Because sleep deprivation often triggers erratic behavior in people with certain psychological conditions, such as bipolar disorder (formerly called manic depression), the full moon may have been linked to a heightened rate of bizarre behaviors in long-bygone eras.
I don't know; that does seem like a bit of a reach. Anyway, I have to go turn into a werewolf now...

The One and Only

Once again, The Onion tells it like it is. This is the funniest, yet probaby truest, technology story I have seen in a while.

Warning! Many many bad words; probably not work safe, particularly if you work for Sony.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

No Fly Zones

Speaking of arcane, useless knowledge, Friday night I was out with some friends and somehow the topic came up: "to keep flies away, hang clear plastic bags filled with water." Trying to think of some logical reason why this would work, I made a mental note to look into it. It's apparently a popular belief in Florida (so you know logic will have nothing to do with it), as well as in the Caribbean.

What's the verdict? According to some anecdotal reports, it works. According to others, well, not so much. According to this article in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star:
No one is sure where the idea came from, and researchers contend there's no scientific evidence to show that the bags do any good.
Some speculate that the sunlight reflecting through the water somehow scares or disorients flies. But Phil Kaufman, a University of Florida professor of veterinary entomology, said there is no scientific research to back up those claims.

"It's a pretty safe bet it doesn't work," he said.
On the other hand, the bags could very well worsen the fly problem, as was found in one experiment whose researcher I do not envy:
[A] North Carolina State University researcher spent 13 weeks looking at the effects of water bags on flies at an egg-packing plant. Mike Stringham, also a veterinary entomologist, meticulously counted droppings left by flies on white "spot cards."

The results were conclusive: The water bags attracted more flies.

"In the control room versus bags, the bags were consistently higher every time," he said.
The great site HowStuffWorks has a take on this, suggesting how the water bag idea might work:
The insect's head mostly consists of a pair of large complex eyes, each of which is composed of 3,000 to 6,000 simple eyes. These eyes can't move or focus on objects like human eyes, but they provide the fly with a mosaic view of the world around them. Each simple eye provides one small piece of the puzzle, much like the way a screen's pixel delivers one detail of the larger picture.

A housefly bases its sense of direction on the direction sunlight comes from. Some entomologists believe that when these complex, sensitive eyes experience refracted light, the insect becomes confused and flies away.

While some supporters claim water bags keep all kinds of flying insects away, most report success with complex-eyed insects, like houseflies.
Nice theory, but they are quick to stress that so-called evidence in favor of the water bags is more than likely a case of the "placebo effect":
In medical terms, this is when people who think they're being treated for a condition feel better, even if that treatment treats nothing at all. The same effect could occur for people who think they are treating a pest problem.
That is, some other factor might be keeping the flies away, and they correlate the lack of flies with the presence of the water bags, which may have nothing to do with it.

So for now, all we have to go on in support of this idea is anecdotal "evidence," which is rarely conclusive. (This is after all the most pressing issue in the world today, so we need this resolved ASAP.) This phenomenon was also cited on Boing Boing earlier this year, and the range of reader comments is indicative of the problem with anecdotal evidence: a few say it works, most say it doesn't. I'll stick with the scientists on this one until compelling evidence that it works is found--but then only if I move into the Amityville Horror house, since flies are the least of my problems.

"Exit, Pursued by a Bear"

That was one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions, from The Winter's Tale (III.iii). It is unknown whether on stage they used a real bear or someone dressed as a bear; bear-baiting was a popular entertainment at the time, so they had them on hand.

I mention this because--although I am a week late--I recently came across something I did not know about Groundhog Day--in, of all places, a biography of Shakespeare: something very much like Groundhog Day dates back to the Middle Ages.

February 2 is not only the point halfway betwen the winter solstice and the spring equinox, but is also the traditional date for the Christian celebration of Candlemas, or the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. In the Middle Ages, there arose the belief that on this day hibernating animals such as badgers and bears (it varied by country and indigenous hibernating mammal) woke up tentatively to appear on this day. If the day was sunny and the critter saw its shadow, six more weeks of winter remained. If instead the day was cloudy, the weather would turn mild, leading to an early spring. In England there are various references to the "Candlemas bear" and the rhyme "When the wind’s in the east on Candlemas Day/There it will stick till the second of May."

In Germany, the main meterological mammal was the badger and German immigrants to the United States carried the legend with them. In Pennsylvania, where many German settlers ended up, they used an indigenous groundhog (Marmota monax, or woodchuck) instead. Six of one, half dozen of another, really.

Punxsutawney, PA, has been ground zero for Groundhog Day since 1887. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, an examination of the weather and mammal-prediction records have put so-called Punxsutawney Phil's accuracy rate at less than 40%, which I would estimate as being still better than any Capital Region meteorologist. Imagine if the groundhog had Doppler radar. By the way, whether a groundhog does or does not emerge from its burrow is believed to be related to the amount of fat it was able to store before going into hibernation, although my guess is that Phil gets a wake-up call.

I should also point out that there is no Medieval tradition that the feast of Candlemas involved waking up to the same day over and over.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Set Me Free

You've heard of Wikinomics and Freakonomics. Now, I guess the latest is Kinkonomics.

Are you asking youself, "where have all the good times gone?" Are you on a low budget? Well, when work is over, give the people what they want--a little bit of abuse, all day and all of the night. According to those dedicated followers of fashion over at CNBC:
One of the kinkier trends to emerge from this recession is that many professional women are turning to dominatrix work to supplement their incomes...

Quan interviews some of the women who've turned to fetish work, including "Linda," who works as a editor by day and a dominatrix at night.

And "Jessica," who works as a web-site designer three days a week, and sees a few fetish clients a week.

Before you go passing judgment, check it out: You can make anywhere from $80 to $1,000 an hour in the dungeon.
Just as long as you're not like everybody else.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Stomach Abuse

Speaking of mistreatments, Men's Health magazine has its 20 Worst (i.e., unhealthiest) Foods
in America 2009
. I don't claim to have the healthiest diet in the world, but just reading these descriptions is enough to make me never want eat anything again ever. Some examples:
2. Worst Pasta of 2009

Romano’s Macaroni Grill Spaghetti and Meatballs with Meat Sauce
2,430 calories
128 g fat
207 g carbs
5,290 mg sodium

With three times your recommended daily intake of saturated fat and two days’ worth of salt
Granted, I love a good pasta with meat sauce, but that's just ridiculous! Shame about the name.
8. Worst Burger of 2009

Chili’s Smokehouse Bacon Triple-The-Cheese Big Mouth Burger with Jalapeno Ranch Dressing
2,040 calories
150 g fat (53 g saturated)
110 g protein
4,900 mg sodium

You know this burger's in trouble when it takes more than 20 syllables just to identify it. If you think the name’s a mouthful, just wait until the burger hits the table. You’ll be face to face with two-and-a-half day’s worth of fat—a full third of which is saturated. To do that much damage with roasted sirloin, you’d have to eat about eight 6-ounce steaks. It’s nearly three days’ worth of saturated fat.
By the way, you can order a defibrillator on the side.
3. Worst Starter of 2009

Uno Chicago Grill Pizza Skins (full order)
2,400 calories
155 g fat (50 g saturated)
3,600 mg sodium

This appetizer is like eating a Large Domino’s Hand-Tossed Sausage Pizza! Would you ever think of saying to a waiter: “Why don’t you start us off with a large meat pizza?” If you’re ordering for a party of more than 5 it might be OK, but for smaller groups, it's tilting toward gluttony gone wild.
And let's not forget...
1. The Worst Food in America of 2009

Baskin Robbins Large Chocolate Oreo Shake
2,600 calories
135 g fat (59 g saturated fat, 2.5 g trans fats)
263 g sugars
1,700 mg sodium

We didn't think anything could be worse than Baskin Robbins' 2008 bombshell, the Heath Bar Shake. After all, it had more sugar (266 grams) than 20 bowls of Froot Loops, more calories (2,310) than 11 actual Heath Bars, and more ingredients (73) than you'll find in most chemist labs.

Rather than coming to their senses and removing it from the menu, they did themselves one worse and introduced this caloric catastrophe. It's soiled with more than a day's worth of calories and three days worth of saturated fat, and, worst of all, usually takes less than 10 minutes to sip through a straw.
Remember, as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development once said, "You want your belt to buckle, not your chair."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Off to See the Zard

Wow, has it been two weeks since I last posted? Tempus fugit.

Anyway, over at Movie Mis-Treatments, there is a new post--the 1974 Sean Connery shamefest Zardoz.
After director John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance became a smash hit, he was given carte blanche (if not carte budget—$1 million, pretty paltry even by 1974 standards) to make whatever project he wanted. A recipe for over-the-top self-indulgence? You betcha. Written, directed, and produced by Boorman, Zardoz is an imagining of what human society has become by the year 2293. And it ain’t pretty. Or even coherent.

It’s a triumph of visual style often at the expense of narrative coherence. Heck, Zardoz makes the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey seem as clear-cut and understandable as a Scooby-Doo episode. My guess is the narcotics budget for Zardoz far exceeded the visual effects budget.

It stars Sean Connery, who had just quit the James Bond series and was apparently so hard-up for work that he agreed to don an upsettingly skimpy red sarong and cavort around the Irish countryside groping women who bear more than a passing resemblance to Eric Idle.

And probably the last thing any human should ever have to see is Sean Connery in a wedding dress. From Russia with Love, indeed.