Dept. of American Letters

Susan Sontag died today in New York from complications of acute myelogenous leukemia; she had battled cancer intermittantly for thirty years. She was 71.

Sontag’s career included a National Book Award, a National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and a Macarthur “Genius” grant. More recently, she was an outspoken critic of the Administration’s response to 9/11 and resulting clusterfucks.

Unlike most serious intellectuals, Ms. Sontag was also a popular celebrity, partly because of her striking, telegenic appearance, partly because of her outspoken, at times inflammatory, public statements. She was undoubtedly the only writer of her generation to win major literary prizes (among them a National Book Critics’ Circle Award, a National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant) and to appear in films by Woody Allen and Andy Warhol; be the subject of rapturous profiles in Rolling Stone and People magazine; and pose for an Absolut Vodka ad. Over the decades, her image – strong features, wide mouth, intense gaze and dark mane crowned in later years by a sweeping streak of white – became an instantly recognizable artifact of 20th-century popular culture.

We are poorer without her voice.

The kind of thing we couldn’t possibly make up.

Deepak with a snowball Heathen HQ in Houston, TX, had the closest thing it’ll ever get to a white Christmas yesterday and today.

Snow. In Houston. A friend called me from Galveston yesterday to report flurries there; otherwise fish-worthy Houston Chronicle has more:

In Galveston, Nikkie Guidry, 25, ran outside the San Luis Hotel where she was working so she could frolic in the falling snow. “I just stood out there and started screaming,” said Guidry, who is from the Caribbean Islands. “I couldn’t believe it. I started thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s snowing in Galveston. How weird is that?’ ”

The Weather Channel notes that Galveston got FOUR INCHES. Corpus got more snow in a 12 hour period than it got in the last 70-odd years combined. Of course, we’re a few hundred miles northeast of Houston, with no flurries in sight.

(Photo of Deepak Gautam with his first snowball by Craig H. Hartley from the Chron site.)

Christmas, 1914

The words drifted across the frozen battlefield: ‘Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht’. To the ears of the British troops peering over their trench, the lyrics may have been unfamiliar but the haunting tune was unmistakable. After the last note a lone German infantryman appeared holding a small tree glowing with light. ‘Merry Christmas. We not shoot, you not shoot.’ It was just after dawn on a bitingly cold Christmas Day in 1914, 90 years ago on Saturday, and one of the most extraordinary incidents of the Great War was about to unfold. Weary men climbed hesitantly at first out of trenches and stumbled into no man’s land. They shook hands, sang carols, lit each other’s cigarettes, swapped tunic buttons and addresses and, most famously, played football, kicking around empty bully-beef cans and using their caps or steel helmets as goalposts. The unauthorised Christmas truce spread across much of the 500-mile Western Front where more than a million men were encamped.

Near as anyone can seem to tell, there’s only one man alive who was in those trenches 90 years ago; the Observer has the rest of the story.

Microsoft: Always learning, always adapting

Or not, if you listen to MS’ CIO Ron Markezich. In an interview with CNet, he gave this answer when asked about Linux usage at MS:

As a policy, I don’t run anything that competes with Microsoft. My goal is to make sure Microsoft products are the best products in the world. It’s an easy choice for me, in that sense–to run Microsoft technology. We don’t run Unix. We don’t run Linux. We don’t run Oracle. We’re 100 percent Windows, SQL Server. We do, in areas on the client, have an open-source client running–just for competitive analysis. As an IT organization, I have no skills and no ability and no purchasing of those products. We don’t even run J2EE. Everything is .Net.

Excellent strategy, Ron. Insularity: it’s what’s for dinner!

What a fucking tool.


So we finally picked up Brian Wilson’s long-delayed magnum opus, and of it, I have only this to say:

It’s gonna be a long damn time before I can hear “Good Vibrations” without a voice in my head singing along with “Sunkist orange soda taste sen-sa-shuns” as part of the chorus. Goddamn advertising.

Check out Buttercup

Widely blogged, still worth it: BoingBoing points out an exhibit of skeletal drawings of popular cartoon characters. So what DOES your skull look like if you have PowerPuff Girl eyes? Now you know. (Try the mirror if the main link doesn’t work.)

Your tax dollars at work

Salon takes a look at some of the claims of the “abstinence only” programs being fed American kids in the name of “education.” Sen. Waxman is on the case, thank goodness. Among the claims:

  • HIV can be contracted through sweat or tears;
  • Touching genitals can result in pregnancy;
  • Condoms do not prevent HIV;
  • Half of gay male teens are HIV+

And it gets even better:

Waxman also criticized some programs for reinforcing sexist stereotypes to children. One — Why Know — says: “Women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships. Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.” Another program, Wait Training, says: “Just as a woman needs to feel a man’s devotion to her, a man has a primary need to feel a woman’s admiration. To admire a man is to regard him with wonder, delight, and approval. A man feels admired when his unique characteristics and talents happily amaze her.”

Not much to say about that, is there?

What “Reality TV” Could Have Been

We’re sure virtually no one has seen it, since it’s on Bravo, but The Long Way Round chronicles Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s motorbike trip around the world, from London to New York going east. It’s only six hour-long episodes (covering a 120-day trip), but it’s brilliant. We’re sure it’ll be on DVD before long, or in reruns on Bravo. Look for it.

We just like that he called it “chetgasm”

Mr Diztopia (who comes as no surprise (extra points if you get that reference (HDANCN?))) has posted a little photographic memory lane of shots involving Your Esteemed Heathen Host, predominately from a trip he made to visit Houston in 1995.

They involve, left to right, starting from the top:

  1. David McGhee and I, Tuscaloosa, sometime before 1994;
  2. Me, 3733 Gramercy, Houston, summer 1995 (note jaunty string of Chet-heads);
  3. Me, student ghetto apartment, Tuscaloosa terrible shot, probably drunk, early summer, 1994;
  4. Me, probably on the phone to identity-crushing sociologist students, Gramercy house, 1995;
  5. Mr Diztopia and I, Ginger Man, Houston, summer 1995;
  6. The rest room of said esteemed establishment, same evening;
  7. Longtime Heathen Mr O’Corn and I, Alice’s Tall Texan, Houston, summer 1995;
  8. The Former Mrs Diztopia (common law) and I, Tall Texan, same evening;
  9. Mr Diztopia, my old car, and I, summer 1995.

Heh. “Chetgasm.” Heh.

How the religious nutbirds make us look

This Guardian review of the Kinsey biopic includes commentary on the efforts of conservatives to demonize Kinsey and his research, which continue to this day. Read the whole thing, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the sea change Kinsey’s work helped bring about, but the article’s final graphs are the best:

[T]he religious right still fear and despise Kinsey and all his works. Check out some of the (apparently coordinated) responses to the new movie. “Kinsey’s proper place is with Nazi doctor Josef Mengele,” says Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America, inadvertently showing us what he thinks of the Holocaust. Robert Peters of Morality in Media: “That’s part of Kinsey’s legacy: Aids, abortion, the high divorce rate, pornography.” Focus on the Family’s film critic (they have a film critic?), Tom Neven, calls the movie “rank propaganda for the sexual revolution and the homosexual agenda”. And Judith Reisman, who has waged a decades-long war against Kinsey’s memory, refers to “a legacy of massive venereal disease, broken hearts and broken souls”. These people are of a piece with new Republican congressmen who really have sex on the brain, such as Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who thinks there is an epidemic of lesbianism in Oklahoma schools, and South Carolina’s Jim DeMint (that second ‘i’ should really be an ‘e’) who wants gays and pregnant single mothers barred from teaching decent, God-fearing hillbillies. At the dawn of a digitised, globalised millennium, these creeps want the clocks turned back to a time when the church held sway over our sexuality. They prefer us ignorant and terrified, alone in the dark, the better for them to control us through fear and guilt. Too bad for them that we live in the bright, vivid light of our incandescent dirty dreams.

And thank God for that.

Semiobligatory World of Warcraft post

If you like really astounding computer games, then World of Warcraft is something worth looking into. Like EverCrackQuest, it’s a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), which means that when you play, you’re playing with other real humans in a persistent world that keeps happening even when you’re not playing. There have been several games in this genre, set in fantasy worlds, science fiction worlds, and even superhero universes; WoW is in a Tolkeinesque fantasy world, and is at this point the king of the hill. Over half a million people played the beta test, and the population of the production world is off to a seriously good start (expecting 750K by 1/1).

All this is my way of saying: I’m playing, and here’s where I am. WoW allows up to 50 characters (there are different races and classes, so you can have an elf wizard and a human fighter, too) across all their “worlds” (for reasons that should be obvious, everyone doesn’t play in the same world; there are a few dozen worlds, so if you want to play with friends, you have to coordinate to be in the same universe).

As of today, I have the following characters:

  • Cleetus, a 13th level night elf rogue, currently hanging out in the Darkshore area on the Silver Hand server, Pacific time zone. (Blizzard sorts the servers by time zone, but it doesn’t really matter where you play; however, it’s easier to find a given server if you know what time zone it’s in.) Silver Hand is an RP server (more on this below).
  • Dedchet, a level 5 undead warlock currently in Tirisfal Glades (the undead start area) on the Sargeras server. Sargeras is a PvP server in the Central time zone.
  • Harry, a level 9 dwarven hunter currently in the Dun Morogh area on the Mountain time PvP server Kel’Thuzad.

Now, one more thing: the servers are all of one of two types. On PvE servers (of which RP, or role playing, servers are a subset), you are playing primarily against the environment, not other players, though in all worlds there IS a war on. WoW’s 8 races are divided into “Alliance” (humans, dwarves, gnomes, and night elves) and “Horde” (orcs, undead, trolls, and tauren, which are minotaur-esque pastoral critters). Alliance is nominally (but not simplistically) “good”; Horde is similarly cast as “evil,” but it’s not that simple in the game politics. On all servers players fighting players is possible, but only on PvP servers is that the default mode of interaction in general. It’s therefore “safer” for a beginner to play on a PvE server, though if you wander into an enemy city on any server you may expect to die quickly, and you’re in danger in contested areas of the world no matter what kind of server you’re on.

One more server thing: for reasons that should be obvious, you cannot play both sides of the fence on a PvP server (i.e., have both Alliance and Horde characters). It’s okay to do this on PvE or RP servers.

See you there!

Sony Entertainment Admits Defeat

Up to now, Sony Electronics — the godfather of portable audio! — has been at best an “also-ran” in the portable MP3 market. Why? Not because of crappy hardware or high prices (though these help); no, it’s worse than that. Sony also includes Sony Entertainment, which makes records (sort of). Consequently, Sony Electronics wasn’t permitted to create a music player that just plain played unrestricted MP3 files; in order to pay your music on one of Sony’s devices, you had to convert it all to ATRAC3 or somesuch, and use their goofy software that tried to keep up with how often you downloaded your tunes to the device. Basically, they were trying to sell a device that was a real pain in the ass to use, but were competing against Apple’s iPod and the myriad of copycats who saw no problem with supporting plain old MP3 playback and transfer.

What’s really fucked up about this is that, if my understanding is correct, Sony Entertainment is seriously the tail wagging the dog here; Sony Electronics contributes way more to the bottom line, and yet still somehow ended up being the RIAA’s bitch.

But only up to now; Sony Electronics has finally admitted its players suck, and has released a firmware upgrade to allow them to play MP3. New players will have MP3 capability built in. Of course, given the strength of the iPod brand — it’s clearly the heir to the Walkman — it will be difficult for Sony to regain its position in the market; this little imbroglio almost certainly cost them millions.