February 2004

TV news witchhunt against smutty science fiction

Here is Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine’s response to a Michigan news channel report that the magazine, sold through a child’s fundraising drive, was full of dirty, dirty material.

And here is the original story. I have never seen an example of contemporary journalism that defamed the profession simply by pretending to be a part of it; its author, Kristi Andersen, is an embarassment to her peers. “The magazine has now been pulled from the list, but 24 Hour News 8 wanted to warn other school districts in case their students had already ordered it.” Oh really. Not a journalist’s job to warn other school districts, missy. Get over yourself.

VIA chairman calls Olympic medallist “poor, single woman”

Note to VIA Rail Chairman Jean Pelletier: it’s bad optics to speak this way about a two-time gold medallist like Myriam Bédard, even if she’s making allegations about the federal sponsorship scandal that impugn your corporation. It will backfire on you, big time.

Pelletier, formerly Jean Chrétien’s chief of staff, told La Presse that Bédard was asked to leave because she was insubordinate and didn’t fit in with the team.
“We told her that if she wasn’t happy, maybe she would have been more comfortable at an advertising agency,” said Pelletier.
“I don’t want to be mean, but this is a poor, single woman. She’s feeling the tension of being a single mother who has financial responsibilities. She’s essentially looking for pity.”
Bédard countered that Pelletier’s comments were “very low level” and that she didn’t expect a president to talk that way about single parents.

Neither did I. It was undignified for Pelletier to respond that way, and draws him into a scandal that otherwise had not touched him.

Update 5:12 PM: VIA issued two statements today, which I received as a subscriber to their mailing list. They’re also available on their media page.

The first is an apology from Pelletier:

During a media interview yesterday, I made certain comments concerning Ms. Myriam Bédard that I now realize were inappropriate. I regret making those comments and want to apologize sincerely to Ms. Bédard for any embarrassment or hurt I may have caused her.

The second statement tries to square the circle by defending VIA’s position against her, even while apologizing to her, viz., no we didn’t ask her to leave. Curiouser and curiouser.

Update 6:20 PM: Globe and Mail coverage.

Update 2/28 8:12 AM: More Globe coverage, more comprehensive this time.

More entries below »

Professor iPod

Wired has an interview with “Professor iPod” Michael Bull, talking about the social impact of that gadget. Actually it’s a bit of a misnomer, since he’s an expert on the social impact of personal stereos, from Walkmans on (profile).

If I had finished my Ph.D. — social history of music — I would have been all over this guy. Since I was interested in the divide between public and private music (performances vs. listening at home) and active and passive music (playing vs. listening), as well as the usual gender and class stuff, his work would have fit right in.

Now that I think of it, doesn’t GarageBand do something in terms of invigorating the active aspect of music, opening up opportunities for playing and, through sharing the music, performing that otherwise would have had obstacles insurmountable for some — whether through lack of lessons or lack of technology (not being able to afford Pro Tools or the bank of sound equipment plugged into the back of a Power Mac).

iPod mini’s hard drive costs nearly twice as much retail

“The $249 iPod mini contains a $479.95 Hitachi MicroDrive,” says Jonathan Hudson. Now, leaving aside the question of whether or not you can strip out the iPod mini’s hard drive for use elsewhere (iPodlounge), and save a bundle on a CF microdrive thereby, let’s look at that again. The US$249 iPod mini contains a US$479.95 microdrive. Anyone still think it, and other MP3 players using the same part, are overpriced? (via Boing Boing)

Campaigning, not governing

Jeffrey Simpson just throws this line away in today’s Globe: “There has been distressingly little of governing since the Martinites arrived, a strange state of affairs for a group that had so long to prepare.” Indeed; were it not for the sponsorship program scandal, the bulk of Paul Martin’s announcements would have been about upcoming candidates, floor-crossers, or various nomination-battle controversies. Between that and cutting out the embarrassing bits of the ancien régime, there’s been little else to my eyes.

Scenting snake siblings

Timber rattlesnakes can identify their siblings by scent, according to a new study that adds a bit more evidence to the notion that snakes — “often regarded as the least social of all vertebrates” — might be more social than we thought. Add that to the tendency of snakes — rattlers, garters, ringnecks — to agglomerate when basking or hibernating, and the evidence that, for example, newborn black-tailed rattlers hang around their mothers for the first two weeks after birth.

Now here’s the question: if snakes can recognize siblings by scent, what are they thinking when reptile keepers breed related pairs?

A divider, not a uniter

Andrew Sullivan, writing — with what Josh Marshall calls “great eloquence and fury” — on Bush’s call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages:

The president launched a war today against the civil rights of gay citizens and their families. And just as importantly, he launched a war to defile the most sacred document in the land. He is proposing to remove civil rights from one group of American citizens — and do so in the Constitution itself. The message could not be plainer: these citizens do not fully belong in America. Their relationships must be stigmatized in the very Constitution itself. The document that should be uniting the country will now be used to divide it, to single out a group of people for discrimination itself, and to do so for narrow electoral purposes. Not since the horrifying legacy of Constitutional racial discrimination in this country has such a goal been even thought of, let alone pursued. Those of us who supported this president in 2000, who have backed him whole-heartedly during the war, who have endured scorn from our peers as a result, who trusted that this president was indeed a uniter rather than a divider, now know the truth… .


In its heyday, the National Post had more columnists than opinions had assholes. No, that’s not how goes. Wait. “Opinions are like” — okay. Never mind. Let me start again. Suffice to say there were a lot of them. I suppose it was necessary, after all — they didn’t have all that much in the way of advertising to fill up the column inches — and it did make for some interesting reading. Now, after a whole pile of profit-making and pre-purposing under the Aspers, there are more ex-columnists from the Post than … I’ll just stop there. Anyway, Toro has reminiscences from five former Post columnists, via Inkless Wells — and I probably should have started and stopped there. But you know, you used to be able to make $80,000 a year writing like this.

Shore’s scores

The CD of the Return of the King soundtrack showed up yesterday, courtesy of a little birthday gift certificage from the brother. (“Because it’s my birthday, and I wants it.”) Howard Shore’s stuff is fun to listen to — your usual movie soundtrack symphonic score with signature themes à la Wagner, only it’s a kindler, gentler Wagner, just like Tolkien, whose own Ring saga is much more humane. (The Silmarillion, on the other hand, is just as brutally operatic.) And if they release a CD of the two-hour, eight-movement symphonic version — as in it’s structured as a symphony, not just played by a symphony orchestra — which had its North American premiere in Montreal last night, I’ll snap that up too.

Paul Martin’s Quebec strategy

Paul Martin’s Quebec strategy is to put as much distance between himself and Jean Chrétien as possible. It explains why so many Quebec ministers were moved to the back benches when he took power, especially ostensibly capable ones like Martin Cauchon and Stéphane Dion. (Apart from the purge, score-settling and distancing from the ancien régime in general that occurred in the cabinet.)

Insofar as Chrétien himself was unpopular in Quebec — and as the implementation of his policies by his minions was of, shall we say, dubious legality — this is a politically shrewd move. But Martin must be aware of the tightrope he’s walking by demoting the popular-outside-Quebec Dion and by welcoming former Bloquiste Jean Lapierre, and by adopting a more Mulroneyesque approach to the national unity file.

As Gary Doer, the NDP premier of Manitoba, points out, the Clarity Act, which Lapierre doesn’t like and Martin isn’t apparently fond of, is very popular in Western Canada, the CP’s Joan Bryden reports:

“The Clarity bill is probably, in terms of federal-provincial relations, one of the most sure-footed moves in my view in terms of Western Canada. I think from just a pure democratic perspective of having a clear question on something as important as the future of the country it makes such good sense to people.”

If Martin wants to address western alienation head-on, as he says he does, he needs to be very careful: his Quebec strategy may blow up his Western strategy. (Which is what happened to Mulroney, of course.) Surely he must know that Chrétien’s policies, and Dion’s work, were very politically popular in some parts of Canada.

Amazon reviewers feud

A glitch at Amazon.ca caused the names of anonymous reviewers to be displayed, revealing that many authors, apparently to combat poison-pen reviews by colleagues and adversaries, had published glowing anonymous reviews of their own work, the New York Times reports in a profile of the feuds going on via the Amazon reviews system.

September 21, 2004

The original Star Wars trilogy is finally coming to DVD; a four-disc set will be released on Sept. 21. Except that it maybe shouldn’t be called the original trilogy: only the special (read: altered) editions will be available (via Slashdot):

Of course, the big question mark amongst fans has always been whether Lucas would allow the original, unaltered original editions of the trilogy to also be released on DVD. Not possible, said Ward, who confirmed that the upcoming set will feature only the 1997 Special Edition versions of each film. “What George did in 1997,” Ward explains, “was [to] make the movie he originally wanted to make.”
So what are the faithful to do if they don’t want to watch the altered 1997 editions of the trilogy? Either give in, or don’t buy. “We realize there’s a lot of debate out there,” says Ward. “But this is not a democracy. We love our fans, but this is about art and filmmaking. [George] has decided that the sole version he wants available is this one.”

Not surprisingly, there is some controversy about this (via Mr. Barrett).

European trains and more

I spent a good chunk of last night — at least the part after Survivor — noodling around Euro Rail Hobbies’s web site. They’re an importer of European model trains, and their site is one big magnificent catalogue.

I enjoyed clicking through the site and recognizing various locomotives. I spent quite a bit of time on trains in Europe: more individual trips, though, since the North American trips have been longer (and slower), I’ve accumulated more hours here. It got me thinking: if model railroaders in North America model the stuff they’re nostalgic about, why shouldn’t I do the same with what I remember fondly about trains — the European rail network?

Jen noticed that I was lighting up more over this stuff than I had over the usual late-steam-era stuff that is most popular in the hobby, or even the narrow-gauge geared steam (Shays, Heislers, Climaxes) that has been the focus of my attention. No, it seems that what I want is funky-looking electric trains from the SNCF, SBB and DB. Especially the Swiss ones. With model catenaries — the site is full of model catenaries. Neato.

But the European trains are different. Märklin’s got some digital AC locomotives that appear to run on a proprietary powered third rail, and I’m not sure whether the DC locos are adaptable to the NMRA’s DCC standards, to say nothing of being able to run on North American track. HO is a scale (1:87), not necessarily a set of operating standards. As I’m prone to say, Must Investigate Further.

Other rail links that have been accumulating:

  • Very big model trains: the White Creek Railroad — 1:8 scale, 7½-inch gauge layout that has 6½ miles of track on 120 acres in Michigan. Magnificent. Huge. (See previous entry.)
  • Very small trains: Ztrack Magazine, for Z (1:220) scale, the smallest commercial scale. A few European manufacturers mentioned above (especially Märklin) produce Z scale stuff.
  • More Mac model railroading software (see previous entry), from Softrack Systems: a Filemaker Pro based inventory program (Mac and Windows), and a fast clock program (OS 9 only).
  • Strangest club I’ve ever stumbled across: Model Railroad Nudists.

No Palm Cobalt for the Mac

PalmSource’s decision to drop Mac compatibility from Cobalt (formerly known as Palm OS 6) is, on the surface, maddening. But this cloud may have a cobalt-thorium G silver lining.

Cobalt will have a different PIM architecture that renders it incompatible with the current Palm Desktop. The current Palm Desktop for Mac, however, sucks — and sucks hard, and the HotSync Manager is only barely on speaking terms with iSync. Mark/Space has already announced that it will release a version of Missing Sync for Palm Cobalt devices — they’ve made or announced similar software to get Sony Cliés, Pocket PCs and Danger Hiptops to sync up with a Mac. They might, in other words, come up with a solution better than anything PalmSource could come up with.

It also raises the question: assuming that the PIM architecture is readily accessible to third parties (as HotSyncing is not), why might not Apple itself engineer Cobalt compatibility directly into iSync? At least one commenter in the Palm Infocenter story’s comments raised that possibility, drawing an analogy with Microsoft ending IE development as Apple released Safari.

The problem this time is that the alternatives aren’t in place in time to reassure nervous consumers. There are almost certainly a lot of pissed off Mac/Palm users out there today.

Ankylose This!

Clearly I’m in a Tribe-making mood lately. Herewith, Ankylose This!, a tribe for ankylosing spondylitis sufferers. I expect it will take a while before there are (m)any members, since the disease is uncommon. The tribe’s name is what I came up with, years ago, when I gave a little thought to creating an AS site. Of course, that never happened, so I’m resurrecting it here.

GarageBand review


Ars Technica reviews are lots more thorough than what the mainstream tech press can come up with, and Andy Deitrich’s take on GarageBand is no different — it provides exactly the sort of detail I was looking for, in terms of what it can do and what its limitations are.

Track planning on the Mac

Most model railroad track planning software is Windows-only. Empire Express 1.5 runs on Macs — including OS X — and is relatively simply to use, but limited. For one thing, it doesn’t appear to handle grades and separations. This is important if you’re hoping that the track on top will clear the track beneath it, or if you’re trying to keep your grades under control. (I’m doodling with ideas of geared locomotives and logging railroads, which means grades can go nuts, but still.)

New Cliés

Obligatory mention of the two new Cliés announced today by Sony Japan: the TH55 has a full 320×480 screen and built-in Wi-Fi; the TJ37 has a 320×320 screen and the usual god-awful Sony buttons; both have a built-in digital camera. Read more at the usual sources: Brighthand, Palm Infocenter.

Sn3 Yukon trains from New Zealand

S scale (1:64) has always struck me as kind of neat — though, since I’ve never even so much as seen an S-scale model, only as a concept. From what I’m told, it’s a modeller’s scale, for people who like building things from scratch. No surprise that narrow-gauge (Sn3) is popular in this niche; what’s surprising, though, is a company offering models of the White Pass and Yukon RR in Sn3 scale — based in New Zealand. Go figure.

1:12 scale and beyond

I’ve wasted spent a good chunk of the afternoon learning about large-scale model and miniature railroads — the sort that you run outside. They range from 45-mm gauge (G scale, which varies from around 1:20 to 1:32) model trains to full-on miniature trains as big as three-foot gauge, which is equal to some real narrow-gauge lines in operation. These aren’t model trains, they’re miniatures.

In between, though, are big trains that, rather than drawing current from the rail like a model train, are self-powered, either by internal batteries, gas engines or even real steam. And you straddle the little cars and ride them, with seats mounted crazily atop box cars or gondolas. The smallest of these is 1-inch scale (1:12 scale stock on 4¾-inch gauge track) which, one of its proponents argues, is big enough to ride, but small enough that you can still lift the locomotives and rolling stock if they derail.

That proponent — Rod Johnston, the husband, I believe, of For Better or For Worse cartoonist Lynn Johnston — also owns a company that sells 1-inch-scale kits and runs a layout on his four-acre property in northern Ontario. This company specializes in trucks and couplers. And here’s another 1-inch-scale layout being built in southern Nevada.

Finally, some links to miniature railroads.