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: Toot!: Hearing fireworks. Hoping this'll be an awesome year.

: Night Of Sociability: The NYC sci-fi/fantasy Meetup had a meetup last night and I went and had a great time. It was nice to exercise my conversational skills and share cultural touchstones with people I'd never met but got to know really fast. One of them laughed at ALL my jokes, which seals the deal.

Another participant was an anarchist bisexual polyamorous early-adopter abandoned-New-York-spelunking black-choker-wearing gal who looks like a female Zack Weinberg. I told her I'd been looking for her for a year, ever since I moved here. San Francisco hasn't abandoned me!

: Hal's Torments: Is it okay to read "Strawberry Marshmallow"?

: Discovery: Llewellyn Hinkes is John Darnielle!

: Ill: Sore throat. Leonard is feeding me herbal tea and Sickbed Soup. I'm watching Sports Night and honestly thinking about buying Kenny Byerly's book.

(1) : Horrifying Realizations: Are you ever just doing something inane, like websurfing or vomiting or trying to get a DVD player to recognize a disc, when you find yourself thinking of some mediocre, forgettable movie from ten years ago, like Multiplicity or that one romcom with Matthew Perry, and you begin to suspect that not only did you see it, all of it, but you think you saw it in the theater?

: MC Masala on Melancholy/New Year's: Sunsets, darkness, etc.

Good sunrises remind me of melted Popsicles, pink and liquid and sweet. The sunsets that bathe my office at 4:30 in the afternoon have nothing sweet about them. I'm too far from a window to watch the light disappear over and into New Jersey, but I can sense the malevolent rippling of the deadbeat winter sun from the splashes of red on our blue and green walls.

: Discoveries: I've used the phrase "the cult of authenticity" many times; I didn't realize that I didn't make it up. Vikram Chandra did, in a long and interesting piece from seven years ago in the Boston Review.

Whatever you do felicitously will be Indian. It cannot be otherwise. If Bholenath speaks to you, put him in your painting, or your story. The inevitable fact that some reader in New Jersey will find Bholenath's tiger skin and matted hair "exotic" is wholly irrelevant. To be self-consciously anti-exotic is also to be trapped, to be censored. Be free.

Also, Peter Krause resembles my old boss. No picture of him there; never mind.

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: Slap in the Face: The first post that popped up in my RSS reader this morning: Scott Rosenberg's "Bush exercises the Cambodia option in Iraq".

As of yesterday the Bush administration has definitively moved from the phase of "let's pretend to explore all our options honestly, given how badly things have gone" to the phase of "let's do everything we can to change the game with reckless expansion of the war that we now realize we've pretty much lost, so we don't have to admit that we've lost it."

: MC Masala on Sorkin, Fannishness, and Salad: My column this week has some reminiscing and some meditation on entertainment.

I thought I was a fan, even fanatical. But it turns out that Sorkin's work doesn't actually reward deep fannishness. "Star Trek," like sci-fi in general, soap operas, professional sports and opera, rewards sustained watching. The more you learn about the domain, the more you get out of it. There's a learning curve, but once you get past the first few episodes or games, you start to appreciate nuances.

But "Sports Night" and Sorkin's other work reward the casual viewer more than they reward, say, the gal sick at home who's blowing through six DVDs in two days. It's chocolate mousse, not lasagna. Continued attention only reveals the unbalanced, unfulfilling homogeneity of the thing.

The entertainment that rewards the dedicated fan more than it offers the casual viewer gets a weird rap in our society. Sci-fi fans are nerds, classical fans are snobs, and who knows what people think of soap opera fans. It's as though enjoying something that requires an investment scares everyone else, makes them worry that they're missing out on something. So, if we can't tell from the outside whether a five-minute clip is a boring bit or a deep meditation on the essence of the form, then we stick a "weird" label on it and shy away.

So, Zed, I did get your email about Sorkin! It is a measure of my horribleness as a correspondent that it is easier for me to turn my response into a column than it is for me to simply frickin' reply.

(1) : Viscount Walbrook: This week: classes at Columbia start, but I'm still hitting the Bluestockings reading on Tuesday of She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff and the Thursday opening of Mike Daisey's monologue "Invincible Summer".

Miscellaneous: If you are a Smoking Popes fan, then you might also like Duvall, since it has at least one of the same singers. On a Muslim getting to vote in a US election for the first time. Are you making any Time Friends comics? I'm halfway through Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, the first of the Baroque Cycle trilogy, and it's a lot of fun.

: Bad Relationship: Established doctors' offices face new competition from quick clinics at drugstores & big-box stores that dispense flu shots, etc. Unlike the RIAA, physicians don't try to legislate new competition out of existence, but argue on the merits and try to adapt.

I have never been to a quick-care clinic, retail clinic, convenient care clinic, what have you, but I am already a huge fan of the concept. Any innovation in health care that makes it more convenient to do the quick and easy stuff is one I can applaud.

Rockville parent Meredith Salamon is inclined to agree. Dropping into a MinuteClinic in a nearby CVS pharmacy last month to get flu shots for four of her five children, she says she was in and out in 15 minutes. "The cost was good, and the location was good, so it was easy and quick," she said. By contrast, she says, the family's more expensive traditional doctor "kept running out" of flu vaccine and keeps inconvenient hours.


"Many patients would like to get in to see their primary care physician, but when they call, there is no appointment available," [Anne Pohnert, MinuteClinic's manager of operations for the Washington area] says. Choosing an urgent care center or emergency facility may involve "a long wait and considerably more cost," she adds. "We believe that a visit to MinuteClinic instead of an ER on a Friday evening for a five-minute strep test is a win-win for patients and insurers trying to save time and health-care costs."

Traditional practitioners complain/worry that the new clinics have poor follow-up with patients' primary care physicians, and that long-term stuff won't get done:

"Parents may say, 'It's just a sore throat,' " explains Corwin, a practicing pediatrician in Rochester, N.Y. But those sore throat visits, he says, are a pediatrician's "vehicle to continue developing the relationship with the family."

Van Vleck agrees: "When I see a kid for a sore throat, I get to go through their chart. If they have a little bit of scoliosis I might check their spine. I will check their immunization record. We go over the record, and we try to go over what's going on besides the sore throat, or besides the ear infection."

So it sounds like the worry is, if people keep going to the 15-minute convenient clinics and never spend the time to go to their doctors for physicals, they won't get long-term preventive care, or form the long-term trust bonds with their doctors that doctors need. But I get something like 15 minutes of my doctor's time twice a year anyway, with maybe a minute (if I specifically ask!) on preventive care. And what with insurance changes and moving, it's been a different doctor every year. You want a relationship with me? How about answering the phone if I call, day or night? How about seeing me when I need it, day or night, within a day? How about locating yourself near public transit so it doesn't take half a day to get to your office and back? And if the traditional medical establishment wants this "relationship" too, how about single-payer healthcare so I can keep my doctor if I change my job, and so I can see you regularly, instead of making the health/copay tradeoff?

We used to make jokes about the horrible usability at the Department of Motor Vehicles. US health care has the worst usability of any major industry or agency. If you think government agencies are bureaucratic and inefficient, look at health care insurers, who make money every time they can force you to pay for something you thought they covered in their labyrinthine policy. There's an answer. Gladwellian goodness here.

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: Busy Begins...Now: Classes have started at Columbia. I'm taking a class in emerging technologies with Jack McGourty, a dean at the school of engineering. I foretell no boredom. My team is starting to think about a failed technology to study (the more recent the better) (can I just say "Blu-Ray" already?) and an emerging technology to study. The team's interests include privacy, energy, literature/film, and financial systems; suggestions are welcome.

I've been trying to get out of the habit of mindlessly polishing off my RSS feeds in the morning. It keeps me from getting to work on time, it scrambles the brain, and it's better as a relaxing activity at night. But this morning I couldn't sleep and woke up way early and found some stuff you might like.

Hal's the dungeon master for the Dungeons & Dragons game I'm in. If you're into literary quotes, hoo boy is his blog for you. A few days ago he mused on his experiences with society, friends, and moral standards. A grain of salt is in the comments.

Today's Achewood comic strip includes a golden put-down for the strategically disinclined.

Hugo Schwyzer's "Another post on marriage, social policy, choice and necessity" articulates:

How great and glorious it would be, the right fantasizes, if we could transfer the social costs of caring for the vulnerable away from the public and back on to the shoulders of wives and mothers!

In the ensuing discussion, different people differ strongly in answering the question: Which is more coercive, the family or the government?

Yay, an Indian-American making a stand for due process! Yes, I give a special little cheer when I see members of my clubs (Indian-Americans, women, Americans, geeks, etc.) Doing The Right Thing.

I often post one-off links in the del.icio.us feed that Leonard and I share and always tag them sumana, in case that interests you. That feed is more tech.

: Not-So-Durable Goods: OK, a few NYT links and then a commentary. Paris and relationships, anorexia and struggle, and Michael Lewis's classic "The Satellite Subversives". Oh, and I'll also throw in Adam K.'s Clifford Pickover parody for no good reason. ("You stomp your right foot in fury, reaching for your cup of delicious coffee. You only drink the best coffee, Jamaican Blue Mountain beans imported for forty dollars per pound.")

So now: "Ordeal by Appliance: Weekend Home Tales" from today's NYT. I had to call Leonard to tell him this line:

Together they collect their clients' complaints like fireflies in a jar until it is bright enough to shine beacon-style in the direction of mainland service providers.

Basically this story is a tale of the New York Times Least Needy Cases, mixed with a "My 3 friends = trend" piece. As Leonard put it, this is a story of people so rich that they own a summer home, and so rich that they buy high-end kitchen appliances for that home -- rich times rich equals megarich. Given that we have a lot of acquaintances, I suggested that we might know someone who has a dacha, and Leonard momentarily thought that Dacha was a brand name.

Now that the desperation of rich people has been brought to light, I figure it's only a matter of time before savvy appliance-service entrepreneurs find a way to squeeze the market with high-end service in summer-home spots at ridiculous prices. Leonard suggested that they charge for travel time, which seems eminently reasonable.

Leonard had another point, though: these people are trying to get old-school high-end country living, which basically requires live-in servants, but we don't really do that anymore in the US unless you're really rich. You can't afford a live-in maid, and you certainly can't afford a live-in appliance fixer. The labor is too expensive and too specialized.

Another unanswered question: Why are these high-end appliances such crap that they're breaking all the time? Possible answers: they aren't actually, it's just a few anecdotes (Leonard); they're shiny gadgets meant more to impress than to work reliably (Sumana); improper use by wealthy idiots (Leonard); installation in creaky old houses with weird pipes, electricity, water, etc. that's not up to code (Sumana); unhealthy patterns of use, like "unused for 9 months then continuously working for 3" (Leonard).

One woman, tired of her Viking dishwasher breaking every December when guests came by, said, "We finally ripped the dishwasher out and replaced it with a KitchenAid." Not only will she get parts and service more easily, it probably won't break as much, even though it's cheaper. Reliability (like usability, and shipping) is a feature! Shouldn't a huge, top-of-the-line investment in a durable good come with top-of-the-line maintenance service that will fly or drive to you to ensure that feature? My coworker's horrible experiences with Mercedes amaze me in much the same way. How can a company invest so much in a brand, then let it slip away in the follow-up?

A last note. From the article:

Consider the extreme plight of second-home owners in Saltaire, N.Y. The village is on Fire Island off the south shore of Long Island.

Leonard's response: "Oh my God! The village is on Fire! Island."

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: Lyrics To House Fan Song: Compare "Every class period, I will tell you a lie" to "Cattywumpus". The former I don't mind nearly so much. This brings up nagging ethics debates I've had recently with disagreeable people and new friends, and I have to think about it more.

Another source of truth/ethics edge cases is, or was, House, M.D. Did you know that Leonard wrote and we recorded a little song about that show? Here you go. Recently John S. requested the lyrics, so I listened again -- it holds up well! -- and transcribed.

I have consumed too much of a heavy metal
I harbor an obscure parasite in my small intestine
   (Down by the pool)
Every 15 minutes my condition worsens
   (Commercial for car)
Because I lied about practices some viewers may find disturbing
   (Discretion advised)

Only one man has the basic medical knowledge
Only one man can perform the simple procedure
Only one man can treat me with such contempt

House, M.D.
House, M.D.
Fix what's wrong with me
Fix what's wrong with me
   (Gregory House, M.D.)
Fix what's wrong with me

(House, M.D.) 

House is on some sort of winter interregnum, as is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. However, tonight new episodes of Uncle Morty's Dub Shack start playing on ImaginAsian. UMDS will probably make me laugh more than Studio 60 does anyway.

(1) : Awesome Things Include:

: MC Masala on Family, Sleep, and Trust: My column this week: in search of lost time.

"Here." She passed me a bottle of water and a tiny envelope with a pill or two inside.

I'd never taken a sedative before, unless you count the warm milk with poppy seeds that Mom used to make for us just before bed.

I swished some water in my mouth and swallowed the medicine as she started the car and turned the corner. We stopped at a stop sign, a stoplight - and then I woke up on the couch in our living room, "Jeopardy!" and the darkness outside the windows telling me it was past 7.

(2) : New Interactive Fiction: Last night Leonard and I played with Alice, a fun learning-to-program package that lets one play with 3D objects. And he and I wrote a small interactive fiction game using Inform 7. It's called "Brrrasaurus!" and you can download and play it if you have any Z5 interpreter, such as Frotz. This is a very good game for IF beginners. The writing credit is mostly mine.

: Ack: So maybe hours of D&D + an hour of Battlestar Galactica + a conversation with my mother (though that was pretty nice) give me bad dreams. Hoo boy, that was dystopian. I also blame "When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth".

(1) : Why Booze Is Safer Than Heroin But More Dangerous Than MDMA: "The Toxicity of Recreational Drugs" by Robert S. Gable explains: for any given drug, there's a dose that's usually lethal, and there's a dose that usually produces a high. How different these doses are, i.e., how much you have to mess up on your dosage to get into trouble, is a good gauge for how toxic the drug is. Booze is actually really bad by this measure; just ten times the effective dose is often a lethal dose. The DARE program I went through decades back talked a lot about the pot/booze/tobacco gateway-drug triumvirate without ever explicitly saying, "Thanks to historical contingency, two of these are legal but restricted, and one is THE DEVIL WEED." The more I find out about the three, the less I like the "one of these things is not like the other" aspect.

Alcohol thus ranks at the dangerous end of the toxicity spectrum.... Indeed, if alcohol were a newly formulated beverage, its high toxicity and addiction potential would surely prevent it from being marketed as a food or drug.

Check the chart. So the tiny 5:1 ratio of Median Lethal Dose to Median Effective Dose is one reason why heroin users are at such risk of dying by OD. And the psilocybin, LSD, and marijuana ratios are much safer:

The least physiologically toxic substances, those requiring 100 to 1,000 times the effective dose to cause death, include psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana, when ingested. I've found no published cases in the English language that document deaths from smoked marijuana, so the actual lethal dose is a mystery. My surmise is that smoking marijuana is more risky than eating it but still safer than getting drunk.

Probably the funniest phrase in the American Scientist article: a section header entitled "Other Ways to Invite Death."

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: MC Masala on Fallibility and Bug Tracking: My column this week remembers a tough bug to reactivate.

Which bug tracker would God use?

It is one of the sillier questions I've asked. In computer programming, we use special programs to keep track of the problems (bugs) we have to fix, because we are not gods. Humans make mistakes writing code, and our memories fail when we try to remember the mistakes to fix them later.

Still, the joke has come up around the lunch table: The imperfections of the world exist because God's not using a bug tracker. Prayers would be feature requests, bug reports or inquiries. "Please help me get this job.""My dad is sick." "Why, God, why?"

Would God want to write the whole bug-tracker from scratch? Well, of course: Anything humans made couldn't possibly work at the scale of billions of users. Would it be bristling with features, or would it be elegant and Apple-esque? Would God track mostly internal maintenance tasks or customer service requests?

: Law & Tech: Eating roasted carrots and reading case law make a good Sunday afternoon. PG&E v. Drayage has a funny smackdown (the "When the court interprets a contract on this basis" paragraph) and a citation of Black's Law Dictionary. Usually I cringe at the brandishing of dictionaries in persuasive writing, but oh yeah, in legal rulings it's meaningful and necessary and useful.

Battlestar Hoedownica begins in a scant few hours!

(1) : Historiography: From The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, by Roy Porter:

Writing this book has not only made me more aware than usual of my own ignorance; it has brought home the collective and largely irremediable ignorance of historians about the medical history of mankind. Perhaps the most celebrated physician ever is Hippocrates yet we know literally nothing about him. Neither do we know anything concrete about most of the medical encounters there have ever been. The historical record is like the night sky: we see a few stars and group them into mythic constellations. But what is chiefly visible is the darkness.
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: Come On, People: Sometimes the subconscious just phones it in. Doing stand-up comedy about Battlestar Galactica? Sorry, not nearly inventive enough. The only creative element was a Cylon leader, played by Don Cheadle, whom I call "Kofi Cylan."

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