Monday, January 30, 2006


If I can be forgiven a brief indulgence: this is my 100th post here on Blogspot. When I first started this experiment back in August, I seriously wondered if I'd ever make it into two digits. Speaking from a personal perspective, having this blog has been a satisfying experience. I feel like I'm meeting my original goals of capturing my thoughts and memories at moments of time, and already am having fun turning the clock back a few months to see what I was thinking about before. Nothing lasts forever, but I'm hoping to keep this thing going for as long as it's fun to do.

Anyways, thanks to everyone who comes by occasionally to visit. I love the small ways technology can bring us closer together.

David Wain Is A Huge Nerd

This weekend was a twofer: two trips to The City, back to back. Fun stuff. I was talking with the other Chris at work today and he asked, "Remind me again why you don't live in San Francisco?" I didn't have an answer for him. Probably something along the lines of, "It's way cheaper here, and I'd rather commute north twice a week than south five times." Still, while there's plenty of stuff to do in the South Bay, I need to be careful or the city will become the center of my universe.

This trip was the mirror of the one I took two weeks ago to see the Mr. Show folks. This was a similar event but with David Wain and Michael Showalter, two really funny guys who've worked in The State, Wet Hot American Summer, and Stella. Apparently Brad has never heard of them so they're even more marginal than I'd thought, which I guess is kind of cool.

By now I have this route down to a science. Unfortunately, Caltrain does not; for the first time ever our train was delayed and we got into the city twenty minutes late. Still, I showed up at the club (Cobb's again) a good half hour early, and my one-person-party got itself seated closer to the stage than it deserved.

I killed time by reading more of Zodiac. Gotta do another post on that soon, as I finished it later that day. I struck up a random conversation with the guy next to me about the book; he'd never heard of Stephenson, but had been a fan of these guys since The State. So I guess that makes us even since I hadn't gotten into it until WHAS.

There was much less production here than for Mr. Show, which was scant to begin with. After the briefest of introductions they strode onstage together. It's hard to believe, but David Wain looks even more like a nerd in real life than he does on the screen. It probably doesn't help matters any that he spent half the time staring down into his Powerbook.

They opened things up by talking a bit about their history. They had attended NYU together, where Wain was a member of the senior comedy troupe. The two Michaels and several other people who had been rejected by the main group formed their rival comedy group, called The New Group. It was way funnier than the first group, which soon broke up.

They continued performing together and eventually turned into The State. They had a run at MTV... actually, now I'm just typing up info you could easily find online. The remarkable part of the experience was the archival footage. They had saved and scanned a ton of old promotional posters, and had copies of early shorts they'd done, stretching all the way back to their college years. One particular highpoint was a sketch that had been censored by MTV. They'd never been allowed to shoot it, but they had the scripts, and invited some audience members to come on stage to re-enact it. I can't reproduce the sketch here because this is a family blog, but it involved incredibly juvenille puns on the names of barnyard animals. It brought down the house.

They had a really good sense of humor about the... mixed reception they received. They showed clippings from a bunch of really awful reviews they'd received, including negative two stars from one paper. Wain talked about how, after WHAS came out, Roger Ebert actually took the time to write a song about how much he hated the movie. They mused on the nature of their comedy; at every step of their career, either people enjoy them, or they HAAAAAATE them.

Evidently The State also produced a comedy album after they were canceled by CBS. They basically took all the money they were given to produce the album and spent it sending everyone down to The Bahamas. Once there, they basically drank liquor nonstop, lay in the sun, and occasionally stumbled into the recording studio. They played one of these tracks for us; it's a sketch about two people interviewing for college. It was entitled "Goin' OFF", after a phrase one character repeats regularly in his Eastern accent. About halfway through everyone in the sketch starts to crack up. By the three-quarters mark it's clear they have no idea where the sketch is going or how to end it. Amazingly enough, Warner Brothers never released it.

As with Mr. Show, a lot of the time was just spent riffing back and forth; I wish I had a better memory for everything that went on, or an illegal recording device. They were both incredibly relaxed and friendly and funny. When waiting for the house to bring up some wireless mikes David entertained everyone by doing a funny dance.

Oh, yeah: another thing we saw was their VH1 pilot. It was sort of a mix between their live show, The Daily Show and a music news show. The pilot included an incredible ode sung by Michael Showalter to Shania Twain, in which he courts and then dumps her, while David plays keyboard and Michael Ian Black dirty-dances.

That one bit was funny, but the idea of them having a show like that is just wrong, and VH1 didn't pick it up.

Towards the end they took a bunch of questions from the audience. Here are ones I remember, editing to get the gist and remove the funny:
Q: When are you going to release a DVD of The State so I don't need to buy it off ebay?
D: When you stop buying it off ebay!
M: MTV doesn't think people will buy it, they'll eventually release it, but probably not until all our fans are dead.

Q: What do you think of Michael Ian Black?
D/M: He's funny. He directed a movie and is currently editing it, which is why he couldn't be here today.

Q: Will there be a State reunion?
D/M: We're not opposed to the idea, but the logistics of getting everyone together are difficult.

Q: Have you ever been tempted to write something like The Pacifier, just to make a lot of money so you can work on your own projects?
M: What makes you think that's why they wrote it?
D: It was originally supposed to star Jackie Chan, you know. Apparently it was going to be really funny and was sort of ruined by the studio. I don't know, I haven't seen it.

Q (guy sitting next to me): What's your next project?
D: We don't really know what we're "doing" next. We have a bunch of proposals out there and need to see which ones get picked up.

Q: Will we see Stella again next season?
D/M: Maybe, but probably not. The executives at Comedy Central love it, but nobody's watching it. It's clear, looking at the ratings, that everyone is making specific plans to do something else that night. We have a shot, but aren't optimistic.

Q: Will that comedy CD be released?
D/M: The woman we were working with at Warner Brothers died shortly after we delivered it. It's possible they don't even know they have it, that it exists.

Q: A lot of my friends who are just a few years older than me don't get your humor at all. Do you find you appeal to a particular demographic?
M: How old are you?
Q: 29.
D: Yeah, we find that we're really not popular in the 33-35 age group. People who were born in the early 70's just don't relate to us.

Q: So which one of you is the [some name I don't catch] fan?
D/M: [Pull up iTunes on the Powerbook and play a whole bunch of his songs.]

Probably a few more in there that I forget. When that was done they played a blooper reel from the first season of Stella. It was funny, like all blooper reels are. Lots of shots of people forgetting their lines, or cracking up in the middle of giving one. We also got to see how amazingly uncoordinated they are; there's seriously close to thirty shots of them attempting, and failing, to throw a piece of balogna on Janeane Garofalo's forehead.

When that was done they waved goodbye and left, and the crowd dispersed.

I decided I'd start walking south along the route and hop on the 30 when it came by. Apparently I was going at almost exactly the bus's speed, because I'd walked all the way from North Beach down to Union Square without being passed by it once. Which sorta makes sense; Chinatown is a very pedestrian-heavy area and traffic always moves slowly there. But it was a certainty that I wasn't going to catch the 4pm train, so I spend a while in Union Square enjoying the sun and reading Zodiac. I thought about how much nicer it would have been to do Twin Peaks then instead of the previous day.

The trip ended as all mine do, with a relaxing ride back on Caltrain, listening to Sigur Ros on my PSP while reading a good book. It's amazing how long you can make a good San Francisco feeling stick with you in those conditions.

(For those people who are interested in this sort of thing, did you know you can get clips of old Stella shorts for free online? Thanks to Pat for the link. WARNING: These are, as Wain and Showalter said during their presentation, "Pretty X-Rated," and are supremely unsafe for work even with the sound turned off. Don't watch them while another human being is present unless you're very confident in your ability to gauge their sense of humor. You have been warned.)

Sunday, January 29, 2006


First off, some administrative stuff. I upgraded and swapped hard drives, and yesterday discovered that a few of my files didn't make the transition. Don't worry, all my old Daily Show episodes and programs from CS342 are intact. No, all I lost were my address book and email for the last two years. I should be all right on the email front - I think I only owe emails to Lessa and some Cerner folks, but let me know if you're waiting on something for me or just re-send it. This also serves as your early-warning notification that I will probably be harassing you soon for your contact info.

It kind of blows my mind that I've been posting for over five months now and have barely talked at all about the Illuminati or the Discordian Society. If you aren't already familiar with my obsessions, you probably won't understand why I was so gripped when I first heard that a theater group in San Francisco had created a new production entitled "Emperor Norton: The Musical."

Norton is a legendary figure in Discordian circles. Let me pull up my Principia and quote the relevant portion: "Saint Second Class. To be reserved for all human beings deserving of Sainthood. Example: St. Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (his grave near San Francisco is an official POEE Shrine.)" (The four other classes of saints are reserved for fictional beings who, not being actual, are more capable of perfection.) Illuminatus! had a few more details on Emperor Norton, and like everything coming out of that whirling maelstrom of put-ons, I had no idea if he actually existed or not. I'd never learned about him in history class, but then again, I'd never heard of Adam Weishaupt either.

Years later I learned that Norton really did exist, and was even more fascinating than the Discordians made him seem. Around the middle of the 19th century, when San Francisco was in its Barbary Coast heyday, Norton evidently went crazy. He declared himself Emperor of the United States, abolished Congress, and ordered the seat of government relocated to San Francisco. The local press humored him by printing his proclamations, and local businesses accepted the currency he minted with his own face on it. He was a bizarre, colorful yet incredibly charming man who won a lot of hearts. Many people believe that the character of the King in Huckleberry Finn is based on Norton.

On one of my customary perusals of the Chronicle, the words "Emperor Norton" just leaped out at me. I was delighted to read that a local family, the Ohannesons, had researched his life and produced a musical based on it; it had received great reviews and its run had been extended by another month. I first thought of attending it as a double bill with the Mr. Show show, but that fell through; the musical only played three times a week, 7:30 on Friday and Saturday or 3 on Sunday. Last weekend I was, I dunno, busy or something. So on Friday night I decided that I'd try and make it into the city the next day and catch this show.

Now, from my experience with Mr. Show I know it'd feel a little weird if I spent a lot of time in transit and did nothing but the show; I wanted to combine it with something else. I knew that the day was supposed to be chilly and cloudy with occasional rain, and so indoor activities would be most appropriate. However, I love walking around in San Francisco and routinely make poor decisions, so I decided this would be the day I tackled the Twin Peaks, a distinctive SF landmark and the second-highest point in the city.

I worked out my most elaborate transit plan to date: Caltrain in to King, the N line out to Embarcadero, the K/L/M to the Castro, the 37 bus up to the peaks, another 37 back to Castro, rail back to Van Ness, #29 down into the Mission, and finally a #12 back to King. The whole deal would cost me $3. Have I told you yet how much I love the Muni?

It was sunny in San Jose but in the city it was different. By the time I emerged in the Castro I was deploying my umbrella. This was my first time in the Castro and it took a while to orient myself and find the right stop; it seems like a real pleasant neighborhood and hopefully I'll be back someday. Then I hopped on the bus and we went up.

And up and up and up. A lot of the time I'm in the city I'm in the flat parts, or taking the N under the hills, so I tend to forget just how steep it can become. I could've walked it, but it would have taken much of the day. The grimly efficient electric-powered bus just ate up the grade, finally depositing me on the top.

Among the many things I love about the city is how it's a city of neighborhoods, a city where people live. Having never come to the Peaks before, I sort of assumed they would be in a cordoned-off part of the city, with concession stands and whatnot nearby. Not at all. You just walk along a street, past the cars parked on the shoulder, and if you're looking for it, you'll see some wooden steps steeply ascending a slope. I scrambled up those, crossed a silent four-lane road, then another set of steps. It took a while, but I'd made it; I was on top of the north peak, with nobody else around.

Of course, what that really means is that they all had better sense than me. Visibility was practically nil; I could see perhaps ten feet in front of me. Once I climbed to the crest the wind was overwhelming and I had to fold up my umbrella for fear it would be destroyed. I still spent a little while up there, peering into the gloom, trying to make the best of the situation. Then I came back down. I didn't get any view out of it, but something about the journey was inherently satisfying, and at least now I'll feel comfortable if the chance comes to do it again in nicer weather.

The trip down to the Mission went smoothly. This was the first time I'd attempted to enter a rail center using a transfer, and it went just like I'd hoped: hold your pass up to the lady in the booth, she presses a button, you go through. Piece of cake.

Oh, and another sweet thing: transfers are always free on the Muni. Theoretically, you should have 90 minutes from the time you pay until you can stop riding, and you can make as many connections as you want. Even the automated machines, though, will give you a few more minutes, and the drivers are downright leniant. My first transfer had expired by the time I climbed down from the peaks, but when I repaid at 5:30, I received a transfer good until 10:30. What a city!

Anyways. The Mission is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and I wandered up and down the street a few times, marvelling at the choices available. Eventually I ducked into a sleepy-looking El Salvadoran restaurant, where I took shelter from the wetness and enjoyed a great meal for under 10 dollars. I'd taken along my latest reading, Neal Stephenson's "Zodiac" (review coming soon), and made more progress while savoring the meal.

I hadn't pre-ordered tickets, but they were the same price at the door, and the Dark Room (the theater) was right across the street. It was 7:00 by the time I finished so I just sort of ambled over there and asked for a ticket. It turns out that was a complicated proposition. Earlier in the day I'd wondered how awkward it would be if I was literally the only person attending; despite the good reviews, the ticket price revealed that this was a small, low-budget affair, and I couldn't help but think that the only people who knew who Emperor Norton was would have paid their respects before the closing weekend.

But, that's not the case. They've been sold out almost every night; fortunately, I got on the waiting list fairly early, and ended up getting a seat at a barstool along the wall. I learned from some overheard conversation that a whole van full of people from LA had come up just to see the show, which their SF friends had raved about.

The Dark Room is a really small, intimate theater. Its posted capacity is 49 people, who are arranged in a series of metal chairs on risers. The lady taking tickets at the door hopped on the stage before the show to talk about the other activities they have: a theatrical version of The Gong Show opens next, and every Sunday night is Bad Movie Night ($5, free popcorn, and you get to yell at the screen). She thanked everyone for coming, and then the show began!

It takes a little while to get going. We first see Joshua Norton at the nadir of his career; he has just lost his fortune trying to corner the rice market in San Francisco, and as he tries to deal with his poverty, he sinks into madness. During this scene we see that this production is just as much about San Francisco as it is about Norton; at one point Norton says something to the effect of, "Everyone comes to San Francisco to try and create a new life for themself; or, failing that, try to create a better version of their old life." A lot of the script conveys the feel of San Francisco during this era: wild, bawdy, nearly lawless, but also just on the verge of developing a sense of civic pride.

Two of the best actors played dogs: Lazarus and Bummer. I was reminded of Pat describing an acting course he took where the students had to study and emulate the behavior of an animal; these guys had probably done something similar, and were great at it. Lazarus was an alert, eager, active mutt; Bummer was more of a hangdog, happy with whatever he could get his mouth around. They start following Norton along, even though he doesn't particularly care for them, and effectively become his royal retinue.

Norton's early interactions are met with hostility, fear, or outright disbelief. He is robbed of his few remaining posessions, mocked roundly, and greeted with incredulity when he issues his first royal decree. As the scenes progress, though, the tide shifts. The newspaper editor who once brushed him off discovers that his sales increase 30% when he prints the proclamations; the businesses Norton frequents, including a burlesque house, see their fortunes similarly rise. The citizens' initial sneering at Norton turns into a mocking respect, and eventually just outright respect. They can see he's crazy, obviously, but he isn't harming anyone, and he causes far less harm than their actual leaders do.

The show regularly slides between humor and drama. A Chinese worker, discovering that his race is being blamed for San Francisco's ills, sings about how he is powerless and nobody wants him. Norton overhears him and invites him to join the Imperial Army. This leads to the best song of the show, the act-ending "Join the Emperor's Army." It's like a subverted version of the army scene from Les Miserables, because Norton's asking them not to bring guns and, really, it's all in his head anyways. You come to realize, though, that it's the IDEA of the army that's important. It makes people feel that they belong, and feel safe and protected, and if you can feel those things, well, you don't need the actual army after all, do you?

After intermission they plunged ahead into the second act, with Norton now a venerable member of San Francisco society. The most interesting element of the second act is Mark Twain, who gets nearly as much stage time as Norton. Twain is amused by Norton, and also intrigued; he gently pulls Norton in from his fantasy world, where his army has captured Washington, D.C. and is moving to liberate Mexico, into the real world, where racial tensions in the city are reaching the breaking point. A crazy man can change the world, he says, and Norton may be the person to do it. This sets in motion a chain of events that ends with Norton staring down a lynch mob; as they threaten to kill the Chinese, he begins to recite the Lord's Prayer, and one by one the mob members fade away. The representative Chinese man, extremely grateful, thanks the Emperor and says that until this moment, he didn't feel there was a place for him in the city. "This is San Francisco," replies Norton. "We have a place for EVERYONE here." That was the biggest applause line of the night.

In a lot of ways, this production felt more like a love letter to San Francisco than a biopic. They know their audience well, including some great jokes about the Board of Supervisors (as well as a groaner about the Bay Bridge - "Norton proposes we build a bridge to Oakland! Surely there is no end to his madness!"). That might just be a case of playing to the audience and being comfortable doing a local show. On the other hand, Norton really was uniquely a product of San Francisco. It's probably safe to say that there were few, if any, cities in the 19th century where a man like him could not only survive, but thrive. He isn't an avatar of the city, but it's pretty impossible to understand him without understanding his environment.

On the whole, the show was incredibly well done. Some of the actors were better performers than others, some had better voices, but the sheer amount of heart going into it was wonderful. And while they didn't have much in the way of props, their costumes were splendid, something a philistine like me rarely even notices. Again, it was ultimately a crowd-pleaser, but there's nothing at all wrong with that, and along the way I'd learned far more than before about the fascinating life of Norton the First.

The musical ended with Mark Twain reading from Norton's obituary. When he died he owned the clothes on his back, five dollars, and several thousand shares in a worthless gold mine. His funeral was attended by over 30,000 people, and every newspaper carried news of his death on the front. "LE ROI EST MORT." The ultimate feeling at the ending, though, is not sorrow, but satisfaction. Norton fulfilled his prophecy of everyone coming to San Francisco to seek a new life - or, failing that, create a better version of their old life. The cast took their bows to thunderous applause, and as the lights came up, Norton stared nervously into the audience before barking, "Dismissed!"

I had some time to think over the musical while riding the train back home. What Norton said rang true with me - I did come out here to try and create a better life, and in a way, just living here has made it better. A lot has changed in the past 150 years, and the San Francisco since the 1906 earthquake is radically different from the one before it. But this region remains a place that draws people with ambition, and is a place that uniquely encourages and rewards them. One thing I've been trying to get a bead on for a while is the difference in personality between here and the midwest, and I think I've finally gotten it: there's a real lack of negativity. That sometimes comes across as flakiness or mooniness to others, but there's a relentless optimism and positivity here that seems to buoy everyone up. That kind of encouragement can keep dreamers going just a little longer, let entrepeneurs take one more risk, and give someone like Norton a chance after he's gone around the bend. We love our crazies, and deep down, we really want to see them succeed.

Friday, January 27, 2006

This started out as a book review, but somewhere along the line went horribly awry.

I finished reading "His Dark Materials" last night. Late last night; it's one of those great and gripping books that keeps you up way too long trying to finish just one more chapter. Reading it was one of the most pleasant feelings I've had in a while; while I won't claim his prose is superior to Stephenson, Pullman's words have an airy grace that make the work accessible without limiting its depth.

And it is deep. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was finally moved to start reading after an intriguing profile in The New Yorker that talked about the series' complex approach towards religion and life itself. I wasn't prepared for what I got, though. Pullman starts you off in interesting territory, and by the third book he's pulled you into a a whole other level of thinking about things. This isn't a discussion or an exploration, it's a polemic, and to be honest it left me feeling slightly uncomfortable while I was left praising it.

I think I'm going to institute a new process for writing about creative works. I'm not really interested in "reviewing" something; if I want to write about it, I want to talk about what it made me think and how it made me feel, so don't expect me to be exhaustive or anything. I think I'll break things into three sections: a short emotional reaction (liked/disliked) for people who might be interested in recommendations but like going into things with a minimum of surprises. Then a section called "Mini Spoilers" that lets me talk a bit about the overall plot and the characters in the work; I'll try not to give away anything that wouldn't appear in a movie trailer or a book review. Finally a section called "Mega Spoilers" that lets me talk about the ending and surprising revelations; only read this if you've already finished the work, or don't care about learning what happens.

Before I dive in: if you're interested in this series, you'll probably want to check out all three books at once from the library, or buy the set (under $15 for the paperbacks from Amazon). They're quick reads and each book doesn't end with a cliffhanger, it ends in the middle of an action.

On, then, with the
Mini Spoilers

The thing I'm thinking about most now is Pullman's attitude towards religion. It's negative, to put it mildly. In the primary world the Church is called the Magisterium; in this timeline, John Calvin became Pope and moved the Vatican to Geneva. The Church is much stronger in this world, and as a result more negative; science hasn't advanced as far, governments are ineffective, and people fear the Church. In other worlds where religion isn't as strong, life is almost invariably better. More on this later.

The whole multiple-worlds angle was done very well. You get a few hints of it in the first novel, and it's the entire concern of the second and third ones. I found myself thinking back to the second book of the Wheel of Time series and thinking how much better this was; Jordan sort of tossed out this huge revelation about how incredibly complex the universe was, then probably realized how it diminished the importance of what was happening in Randland and never talked about it again (well, at least not in the next eight or so books that I read). Where Jordan's a fantasy author who picked up a few ideas from quantum mechanics, Pullman feels like a theorist who chooses to express his ideas in fantasy. There's one revelation towards the end that feels a little contrived, but for the most part everything about the multiple worlds makes sense and has an appealing coherent order.

For once, I like the American title of something more than the British one. What they call "The Northern Lights" is known here as "The Golden Compass." Not that their title is bad, but ours fits much nicer with the next two books, "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass." And the Northern Lights, while a powerful plot point and image in the first book, vanish along with Lyra, never mentioned again (I think); but the Golden Compass is important throughout, and provides what I think is the best grace note of the ending.

As an aside, I wonder whether Pullman was deliberately thinking of Lyra's penchant for falsehood when he named her Lyra. It sems a bit cheeky for him, but who knows.

The action scenes were amazingly well done. Sometimes I feel like, since I've started watching movies, books just can't convey quite the same kinetic feeling. Here, though, every battle and duel really grips you, and there's a sequence of a few chapters towards the very end that were nearly breathtaking.

Would I give this book to my children? No, but the reasons why will need to wait.

Aw, heck with it. Throwing caution to the wind, let's hit the
Mega Spoilers

Based on the information in the New Yorker, I was prepared for a sacrilegious work. The Church is evil, it does bad things, it opposes science, etc. etc. To be honest, this doesn't really bother me that much. As a Protestant, I tend to be automatically leery of institutional church authority. Individual churches can do wonderful things, but they are made up of flawed sinners, and when you combine them into a large hierarchal organization that sin doesn't go away. There's a lot I admire about the Catholic church, but I'm not offended when people question their actions. The faults of any church show our own failings, not God's. So I was ready to see priests play the villains.

No, what surprised me was that the books aren't just sacrilegious, they're downright blasphemous. The Church does the work of a specific being, God, generally referred to here as The Authority. And The Authority isn't nice at all. Throughout history, he has oppressed people, enslaving them with words, building up structures to hem them in, denying them joy or creativity. The amazing audacious campaign providing the backdrop for the trilogy is nothing less than an attempt to overthrow God, a second Rebellion in which fallen angels and natural beings will use their strength and technology to kill The Authority and create a new order.

That order is a dream, The Republic of Heaven. I just love the sound of that even while I deny its possiblity: The Republic of Heaven. It's the idea that paradise is possible, and that it comes from ourselves and not from above; that you can build a society based on love and kindness and creativity instead of obedience and violence and fear. In the Republic, there will be no Authority, but neither will there be anarchy, because each person will act for the betterment of themselves and society.

So, yeah. While I'm certainly a liberally minded person I found myself going "WHOA!" when I realized just where they were going with this. And it isn't a postmodern existential struggle either, with two equally good or bad sides locked in combat (though at times it feels like that). By the end of the story Pullman has decisively come down on the side of the rebels, and you are meant to cheer when the old order passes away. This is completely consistent with Pullman's overall philosophy, though. During the third book one of the characters says:
I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn't any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all.
This isn't completely accurate - God does exist and may be trying to kill her - but the underlying message is clear. Science is infinitely superior to superstition, and things that hinder our pursuit of it should be cast off.

One thing I most appreciated about this trilogy was that it knew what it wanted to say. Unlike a lot of other very good fantasy, which are great yarns that might have an interesting allusion or two, Pullman sets out with a thesis. It probably boils down to something like, "Knowledge and creativity are the most valuable human traits, and you should fight anyone who tries to keep you from exercising them. Pleasure is good and natural, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Goals and outcomes are far more important than procedures and rules; lying is fine if it serves a good purpose."

Some of the greatest heroes in this trilogy are scholars, researchers, explorers and scientists. With Pullman coming down so strongly on the virtue of rationality and empiricism, it's really interesting that he chose to write a fantasy novel. He doesn't make any apologies for it, either... there really are angels and ghosts and harpies and more, perhaps not "supernatural" in this universe by the fact of their existence, but then again neither is God. One regularly sweet touch is the way residents of Lyra's world have daemons, sort of like their conscience or soul in animal form. I doubt Pullman actually believes any of these things exist, so why include them in his book? Probably for the same reason Lyra constantly fabricates; because they make the story more compelling, and it's more important we hear his story than here the truth. Or, as Mary might say, it is a make-like.

So, no, I don't think I'd leave these books lying around for my kids. I definitely won't forbid them or anything, but I would prefer they wait until they're older, just because I remember how easily persuaded I was as a kid and how long it can take you to unwrap your mind from a particularly good book you read when you were young. At heart, while I think Pullman wrote a great story and makes a very powerful argument, I just don't agree with him. Part of this is based on faith - I have a different idea of what God is like than he does (actually, I think he's an atheist), and we'll never see eye to eye on that. Secondly, though, I think he takes the easy route in portraying the Church as fundamentally anti-intellectual and anti-pleasure. It's certainly acquired that reputation, and has done so based on very real actions in the past, but at its best the church is neither of those things.

Some of the greatest scientific minds of all time have been deeply religious, including Isaac Newton who is specifically referenced by Pullman. A Christian shouldn't look at something strange and think, "Nope, don't need to think about that - God did it!" He or she should think, "Wow, that's cool. I wonder how God makes it work?" We believe God created everything around us, including the natural laws, and finding out those natural laws just allows us to greater appreciate His handiwork.

Even outside of science, religious people have consistently made their marks. Even atheist philosophers will generally admit that Thomas Aquinas may be the greatest philosopher of the West; operating from a deeply Christian perspective, he identified principles and models that are still used nearly a millennium later. My personal favorite philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, used a framwork solidly rooted in Biblican stories and essentially invented existentialism a century before Sartre. And of course many of our finest musicians, authors, and poets have been men of faith. (Obviously this also holds true for other religions, I'm citing Christian examples because that's what I'm most used to.)

I guess what I'm saying is, I feel like just because some modern American Christians feel threatened by the discoveries of secular science, that does not at all mean that Christianity is inherently anti-science. I felt dumb writing that sentence because to me it's self-evident, but after a week reading these books I feel like it needs to be said. Faith can be a liberating, joyful and energizing framework from which to engage the world, and atheism can be a cold and dogmatic way to shut yourself away from it. We all use different perspectives to explore the universe, and some people's inability to use theirs properly does not mean that the perspective itself is invalid.

The criticism of Christianity being anti-pleasure is certainly more understandable. Outside of the Gnostic tradition, mainstream Christianity has generally held that our bodies are holy vessels and need to be treated according to certain rules. Still, this criticism feels overblown to me. I'm not a theologian, but I think these prohibitions are all about curbing your appetite: don't get drunk, don't be a glutton, don't fool around with someone who isn't your spouse. Yeah, it might feel more fun to do all three things, but after a year of indulgence you might begin to wish you hadn't started. The message is one of moderation, not prohibition. Have a glass of wine, just don't polish off the Wild Turkey in one sitting. Enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, but don't eat a turkey every day. And, yes, you're allowed to have sex, but not with everyone you think is cute. Some Christian aesthetes eschew these things, and more power to them; for the rest of us, though, we take a little of each when the opportunity comes, and I'd argue that in the long run our total pleasure is greater than those who greedily take as much of everything that they can.

For anyone else who's read the books, I'm confused and a little disturbed by the scene with Will and Lyra near the end of the book. Confused because I just don't get how what they did affects the Dust. I mean, people fall in love all the time, so what's so special about them? I know Lyra had that prophecy, but I was expecting some more thorough explanation about WHY their contact reversed the flow. Secondly, they didn't go all the way, right? I read that bit about them "laying together," and I THINK it just means what it says, but part of me went, "Eeek, he could have phrased that better." I mean, they're still just twelve years old, right? I know people used to get married that young but it just feels kind of messed up here.

The rest of the ending, though, was excellent. The revelation of their futures was incredibly bittersweet without being melodramatic; he couldn't have pulled that off if he hadn't done such a wonderful job creating these characters. And I loved, loved, loved the way that scholarship becomes the goal at the end of the books. As a lifelong learner I know the joys to be found in acquiring new skills and learning new things, and to me the thought of Will and Lyra doing the same carries an implicit "happy ever after." The alethiometer in particular was a great bit, how what she once read through intuition she will now master through study. I started programming by the seat of my pants when I was 10 years old, I had a ton of fun doing it and felt I was advanced for my age. But the sum total of everything I did as a child pales in comparison to what I've learned to do in college and beyond. What I did before was cool because I had no teachers and had to feel my own way; what I do now is good because I've learned from the collective body of the greatest programmers on Earth and can apply their wisdom to my own problems. Pullman's great legacy is the suggestion that an inborn gift is nice, but a learned skill is even better. Now that's a message I'd love every child to hear.


This isn't a topical blog. Well, except when I write about Civ IV, in which case you're treated to a virtually real-time explanation of my activities. But in general I will think about something, it'll sort of percolate for a week or so, I'll forget about it, I'll start writing a post, and several days later throw it up. This isn't a big deal when I'm talking about a concert or a book I read, but I get the feeling it doesn't lend itself well to current news events. Anything I share will be out of date and quite possibly irrelevant by the time it goes up. Any day now I'll probably post my recommendation on whether to vote for Bush or Kerry.

With that out of the way, let's talk about Google!

First, I must admit I am biased. I love Google. From the day I found out about them they're the only engine I've used, simply because their results are more useful than anyone else's. The more I learn the more I like them: I appreciate their culture, the wonderful way they treat their employees, their simple and flat corporate hierarchy, their fun and quirky holiday doodles, and their amazing stream of new products. I love the way things are in "beta" for over a year, to the point you don't even think about it any more, until one day they're suddenly official and even better than before. When I left my prior employment, they were the first company I applied to, and the only one who actually sent me a rejection letter (later rescinded, but that's another story, and in any case I deeply appreciated the courtesy).

On the other hand, I hate invasions of privacy and John Ashcroft, so you can guess where I'm going with this.

Before that, though, we should probably clarify a few misconceptions I've heard a lot. First, this isn't exactly a privacy case; the government is requesting a list of terms searched, results returned, and pages on the Internet. Google retains information that could potentially link those searches back to individuals, but the government isn't looking for them. Secondly, Google isn't opposing the subpoena on privacy grounds; rather, they are arguing that the subpoena would cause undue hardship and that it could reveal trade secrets.

These clarifications aside, however, make no mistake: while this particular battle is being fought with issues of scope and authority, the underlying issue is privacy. The tension here is about what much data the government can collect from private entities. Obviously, there is a sliding scale involved; more information needs to be shared if there's an imminent threat facing the nation than some midlevel bureaucrat wanting information on his political enemies. Everyone watching this scene wonders, will the government ever see my Google searches? This may range from an embarassing thought (now they'll know about that rash) to alarming (I KNEW I shouldn't have done that research paper on modern Islam).

As I said, for years I've only used Google, and after learning that AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo! all rolled over for the subpoena, I'm more committed to them than ever. Again, there's that question: suppose the DOJ wants a list of all IP addresses who searched for "parts to make a nuclear bomb." Now, I happen to just be curious what kind of information is available, but I'd rather not have to explain that to the FBI. Based on past behavior I expect to get better protection from Google than any other search engine.

Now, don't think that everything you type into Google is safe. The company's terms of use clearly state that they can and will turn records over for lawful legal purposes. If the FBI determined that an individual was in an al Qaeda and wanted to learn what he was thinking of doing, Google would most likely turn over the relevant logs. If you're seriously concerned about the possibility of being tracked, use an anonymizer, or your neighbor's unsecured wireless access.

I guess I look at this situation the same way an NRA member looks at a bill banning automatic guns. The typical NRA member doesn't own a machine gun any more than the typical Google user looks for porn. But he does have a hunting rifle, and he knows that as long as AK-47s are legal, nobody will try to take his deer shooter. In a similar way, by holding the line on a relatively harmless invasion of its records, Google is protecting against future aggressive surveillance, the kind that could turn this nation into an electronic police state. Google has no interest in being a research arm of the government like the NSA, they just want to write software and change the world. I for one am cheering them on.

(Oh, two final clarifications. The Bush administration is pursuing this, but don't be confused, the original [bad] law was signed by President Clinton and is one of the big reasons why I don't like him except in comparison to our current leader. COPA, the Child Online Protection Act, was been invalidated by the Supreme Court and this battle is attempting to revive it. Secondly, the administration is always very careful to use the words "children" and "pornography" together when talking about this issue, leading casual observers to believe that this bill aims either to protect children from online smut or to oppose online child pornography. It does nothing in regards to the latter; that is already the most illegal thing there is and there are plenty of tools to fight it. Nor does it exactly do the former. The heart of the bill is to forbid web sites from making "indecent" content "accessible to minors." The Court was absolutely right in striking this law down because it is too broad. Remember that a minor is practically anyone under age 18; it would therefore make it illegal for a 16 year old to research information on birth control or sexually transmitted diseases or whatever else Alberto Gonzales decides is "indecent." And the only mechanism in wide use for determining someone is an adult is to use a credit card. This is both laughably ineffective and ominously chilling. Ineffective because many teens have a debit or credit card held jointly with their parents, and even if not they know where their mom's purse is. Chilling because people don't like to provide information that can be traced back to them. Do I want to leave behind a record for the time I wanted to learn more about chlymidia? And to I really trust some website to use my card for identification purposes only? Adults with legitimate reasons to pursue content on the sites will be scared off and so a great benefit of the Internet will die. Worst of all, the Bush administration is chasing down this broken law instead of pursuing the remedy actually suggested by the court of providing filters parents can use to control their children's browsing. Have any of you seen how well Google's "Safe Search" works? If I was in charge, I'd be welcoming Google as a provider of useful new technology and not fighting them to rescue a bad law.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Victory Lap

Just a quickie post to report back on Day One of Cycle Commuting. It went successfully... there's still room for improvement, but I'm learning and have determined that this is definitely feasible.

The morning ride took me almost 50 minutes, about on track with my Saturday dry run. I was surprised by how little cycle traffic I saw; plenty of joggers, but only three or so riders the whole time, most of them kids. It was somewhat chilly, I had a fleece on over a long-sleeve shirt and jeans but still felt the cold. I made the approach to work the same as Saturday, turning left on Highway 9, but it was actually more pleasant this time than over the weekend, which really surprised me. When I got to the light there were two cars waiting and nobody behind me so it was a cinch to scoot over to the proper lane. When we got the arrow, rapid shifting allowed me to keep up with the turning drivers. I'd left my apartment a few minutes after 7 and pulled into the parking lot a bit before 8.

I was kind of expecting to be exhausted the first part of the morning, but I wasn't at all. I took a quick shower (hooray for decent facilities!) and then sat at my desk feeling more alert than ever before. I think it's the combination of extra oxygen in my brain and some nice endorphin action. Aw yeah, gotta love the drugs. I didn't crash after, either; took my customary walk around lunch and felt fine the whole day.

For the ride home I tagged along with Chris, who had promised to show me an alternate path onto the trail. For this we crossed over Highway 17, including several freeway ramps, then walked our bikes through a really narrow dirt trail. It puts you on the trail a ways up from the other two spots I've gotten off before, and the shorter total distance combined with the very slight downward slope between Los Gatos and San Jose combined with me staying in high gear most of the way home all meant that I astonished myself by making it home in just over half an hour. I also noticed far more bike traffic on the return trip, passing and being passed by many cyclists going in both directions, and generally more "serious"-looking than the ones I had seen in the morning. Just a hunch, but I'm guessing I was just on the trail before most of them came along in the morning; it isn't that unusual for people around here to work 9-5 or similar hours.

Overall I feel really good about this experiment. I think I picked the perfect time to start doing this since the lighting seems perfect. It's getting light in the morning when I head out, and is downright bright by the time I make it to Los Gatos. Similarly, it's bright when I left work a bit after 5, and was still fairly light when I arrived home after 5:30. The temperature is fine, I don't sweat a whole lot in either direction (I take off the fleece for my return ride).

There are a couple of things I need to decide. First, how often to do this. I think my goal will be to eventually do it every day that it isn't raining, but I may need to work up to that. Still haven't decided if I will ride tomorrow, I'll wait until the morning and see what my body says. I'd like to ride a minimum of 2 days a week for the next month, and if I can do more, hey, bonus!

Secondly, I still haven't decided on the best entrances and exits to the trail. There are three options for each. For getting on in the morning:
  1. The shortest total distance is to go down Southwest and then take the entrance on Basom; but this is on the wrong side of the road, which means I would most likely do it on the sidewalk;
  2. The simplest is to take Stokes all the way to the trailhead, just waiting for a light change on Leigh; but this increases my total distance;
  3. My approach this morning, which I think I like, is to ride down Stokes, then hop on the sidewalk on Leigh for the short distance to the entrance. I dislike the idea of sidewalk riding, but even though traffic wasn't that heavy this morning the combination of parked cars and a curvy road make me nervous about riding that.
Coming back, the easiest and shortest exit is Bascom. But where to get off in Los Gatos?
  1. What is probably the "right" way, which I did this morning: get off in Old Town then take Los Gatos Boulevard to Highway 9. Kind of hilly, quite a few stop signs and one traffic signal that still makes me a little nervous.
  2. What may be the most pleasant option traffic-wise, which I discovered on my walk last fall: exit at Los Gatos High School and follow some residential streets, then take Kennedy to Los Gatos Boulevard, then make a RIGHT turn on Highway 9. You aren't doing anything funky with traffic here, the streets are quieter (though more severely hilly), and you get to use a bike lane.
  3. Take the same exit Chris showed me. Definitely the shortest option of the three, though it involves the trifecta of riding against traffic, riding on the sidewalk and dealing with freeway ramps. I get the feeling I'll end up doing this; none of my three approaches are all that pleasant, so it makes sense to do the shortest of the three.
Of course, I may be putting too much emphasis on distance. I know some options are shorter or longer than others, but compared with the total distance involved it might not be that great.

Logistics aside, there are a couple of skills I want to work on. The first, embarassing as it is to admit, is riding in a straight line. I think I was better at this today than I was on Saturday; I never cross lanes or anything, but I'd like my position to be more consistent. The second is improving my shifting. I tend to find something I like and then stick with it until I see a hill; I could probably get more benefit out of making finer distinctions regarding the terrain I'm encountering. Finally (for now) I want to improve my rear-view vision. This isn't very important on the trail, when I just need to make sure nobody's coming up behind me before I pass someone; it's much more critical on roads, where I need to make the glances short so I can look back at the cars in front of me, and complete enough so I know whether it's safe to move out into the lane.

I think I spoke thrice as much today as I typically do. Sadly, almost all of my conversation consisted of five words: "On," "Your," "Left," "Thank," and "You."

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Das Bike

First, an update on yesterday's notes: Aule is up and running, after a slight hitch. For some reason, Linux installation programs seem to be way more finnicky about CD/DVD-ROM drives than anything else. I have three drives and haven't had trouble with any of them in day-to-day use, but whenever I install it's a battle to get the program to run all the way through. I had to use the same drive in both Nessa and Aule to get the Kubuntu disk to run all the way through. It's all in now, though, and later today I'll begin transferring over my old files.

Now, on to the bike: I loved bicycling growing up. Like most of you I started on a tricycle, then went with training wheels, then a "real" bike, and ended up with a mountain bike. I used the mountain bike for probably four years and had a lot of fun with it; it gave me a sense of freedom and possibility beyond any I'd felt before. I could ride it to the playground, to a little convenience store, and, once I was given permission to cross Judicial Avenue (a sleepy four-lane road), even Sunset Pond, which had a great trail around it. I was fascinated by the twenty-one speeds and endlessly experimented with shifting; my goal wasn't to get the easiest ride, so I would practice going uphill in the highest gear, or try to determine whether, when going downhill without pedaling, the gear made any difference. This is supremely ironic in the context of the movie Super Size Me, but I even vividly remember riding to McDonalds to get an extra value meal specifically for the Monopoly game pieces. (For someone with a $5/month allowance, this can fairly be described as a crazy act.)

So I loved riding my bike, and did so regularly, up until the day my family moved to Illinois. Then, it completely stopped. There were a couple of reasons for this: first, our new neighborhood wasn't quite as bike-friendly as the old; we were bordered by two extremely busy streets (Geneva and County Farm), and there wasn't much of interest which was available within the neighborhood. Secondly, I had received my learner's permit shortly before leaving Minnesota, and my first priority was to get in enough driving to get my Illinois license. So the bike stayed in the garage, sadly unloved.

Still, I've retained fond memories of my earlier experiences with bicycling, and when I was working out a lot after graduation I always gravitated towards the stationary bike instead of the treadmill. And bikes have never left my consciousness; for those of you who don't know, my dad is an avid cyclist, and always has some great stories about the rides he's done. Still, I've never been tempted to start riding again, I think because I'm so goal-oriented. I hate exercising for "fitness" or "pleasure"; when I go on a hike, it's almost always to reach some destination (a vista, a rock formation, a grove of trees), and I knew I wouldn't ride a bike unless I had someplace to go. While at Wash U all the destinations on-campus were just a few minutes' walk away, so I didn't see an advantage to riding a bike and worrying about it getting stolen; all the destinations off-campus were much more easily reached by the campus shuttle, which was convenient and direct. In downtown KC I could walk anywhere I needed in a few minutes, and everything else required me to get on the interstate. In outlying KC I was in a neighborhood much like Winfield, with lots of residential roads but no good access to points beyond. And so I was in much greater danger of buying a stationary bike than a "real" bike.

That changed when I moved out here to California. The Bay Area is extremely bike-friendly; over half of the major roads around here have dedicated bike lanes. Riders tend to be courteous and are treated well in return. So I got used to seeing far more bikes than ever before. I think there are several reasons for this. First, the temperate climate here makes it much more feasible to bike year-round. Secondly, the generally liberal and environmentally-minded population will generally support activities that decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. Finally, the area's willingness to fund public works projects has allowed them to build a good system of trails and paths that make biking even more convenient. Of course, once these factors are in place they become self-perpetuating; since more people ride, it becomes easier to justify accomodating them, which encourages still more people to ride, and so the cycle continues.

I didn't immediately think of picking up biking once I moved here. On my first day of work Scott, the Director of Engineering, was giving me a tour, and he pointed out a cube where people stored their bikes. I thought, "Oh, that's cool." Later I learned that Chris, one of my co-workers, had an amazing commute: on most days he takes Caltrain from San Francisco down to San Jose, then cycles from Diridon down to our office. That last part is about a 12 mile ride each direction. I was amazed he could do it but didn't give serious thought to doing it myself.

That changed when one day I was driving to work. I looked out the side of my window, which I hardly ever do, and saw a group of cyclists riding on a path that ran along and a little below the freeway. I was surprised and impressed; I hadn't realized that there was an actual dedicated path that ran that far. I started doing some research and discovered that this was the Los Gatos Creek Trail; it would take me to spots within a few minutes of the office, and I could get on it just a block or so of my apartment. At that point I began to seriously consider getting a bike. Before I had thought about it in terms of a toy or a fitness machine; now I began to consider it as an alternate means of getting to work.

I liked the idea of bicycle commuting for a few reasons. While I don't think of myself as an environmentalist, I am a conservationist, and I liked the idea of helping our nonrenewable energy last just a little longer. While I'm not doing this for fitness, that's a nice benefit; I usually don't get a lot of exercise on workdays, and this would force me to do so. It seemed very feasible to do this, since I'm just about 10 miles from work and with the Los Gatos Creek trail I don't have to cross any major roads. Financial considerations weren't as big a factor; sure, it scared everyone when gas went over $3 a gallon, but I would need to cycle for a LONG time before recouping the initial investment on my bike. (On the other hand, the 30,000 mile service on my Ion cost me about $450; if I can lessen the number of commuting miles I put on that, the car will probably last me longer than it would otherwise.)

I began doing research around September/October of last year. I talked with my dad, of course, to get his opinion. A big part of my problem was that I wasn't sure what kind of riding I wanted to do; commuting would be the major use, obviously, but would I want to use it on mountain paths? Would I ever try to ride it in San Francisco? It took me a while to answer those questions, and I concluded that most likely I would only be using the bike for going to work and, occasionally, runs to the market or library. Therefore it would be entirely pavement riding. The most logical choice was a hybrid bike or a road bike with upright handlebars; road bikes were the best choice because of their speed and efficiency on pavement, but since I would occasionally carry a backpack I wanted a bike that would let me do that comfortable, and the dropped handlebars on standard road bikes would make that awkward.

With that big decision made, I started doing more in-depth online research, checking out different models and accessories and more. I also started looking for a good dealer. Wheelaway Cycles, which is fairly close to my apartment, was one of the highest-rated San Jose/Campbell shops, so I decided to try them.

I first went last Saturday, when there was a light rain falling. I chatted for a while with a salesperson who walked me through the bikes that seemed like the best choice for my needs. Not every shop carries every brand, but they did have some Specialized and Cannondale cycles that were promising. Both brands had two models, one of which was a more traditional hybrid, and another which was closer to a road bike but with the handlebars I wanted. Because of the rain I couldn't take a test ride, but I did spend some time looking at them in the store and looking at what else they had. Wheel Away looks like a good place, with a large showfloor, plenty of accessories and a good service department. I resolved to return and complete the transaction.

I headed out of work early the next Tuesday and went back. There was a different salesman this time; I had him set me up with the Specialized Sirrus and took it for a spin. It's true what they say: you never forget how to ride a bicycle. Not counting the stationary this might have been the first time in almost ten years that I had gotten on a bike, but it was like I'd never left. I took it around the parking lot a few times, getting a feel for it, and liked the experience. It felt responsive, the posture was comfortable, shifting was easy. It helped that the bike looked pretty sweet, too. I'll try to post a picture soon; it's a nice silver metallic color. I tried out another Sirrus with a slightly different geometry and decided on the first one. I went through the store like it was a trip to Albertson's, pulling things off the shelf as my accessories grew. I picked up a bike helmet, powered head and tail lights, a sturdy lock and chain, patch kit, spare tube, hand pump, riding gloves. He rang me up and I was out the door. (Does it seem odd to anyone else that I'm asked to show an ID when buying $20 worth of groceries, but not when spending hundreds of dollars on a new bike?) I shoved it in the Ion and headed home.

Despite my positive experience in the parking lot, I knew I would need to get more practice before trying to do my commute, so the bike sat in my living room for the rest of the week. I planned to take it out Saturday for a nice long ride to get a better feel for it. They had predicted a sunny day, but I woke up to seasonal showers Saturday morning. I busied myself with the Linux installation during the morning. By noon the rain had let up; the roads were still damp, and I knew I should wait until Sunday before riding, but I was impatient and wanted to go immediately. So I took the bike down to the ground floor and headed out.

There are two candidates for getting on the trail from my apartment. Both involve me riding down Stokes to the intersection with Leigh, which is a fairly busy four-lane street. I chose to cross Leigh and get on the trailhead further on Stokes; the alternative is to turn right on Leigh and ride to the trailhead there. The one on Stokes is slightly further away and puts me on the trail at the point farthest from my destination, but Stokes is more pleasant to ride on, and doesn't feel nearly as dangerous as the half-block or so I would need on Leigh. I still haven't worked out how I feel about riding on the sidewalk; I've been avoiding it, but I don't think it's illegal in San Jose (at least, plenty of other people do it), and that would let me get onto the trail without worrying about Leigh at all.

I think I posted about this before, but the Los Gatos Creek Trail is not unfamiliar to me. When I had first considered doing this commute I spent a Saturday and walked the route down to work from my apartment. This time around was a little different. First, most obviously, it went much more quickly; I got down there in under an hour as opposed to the three hours it took me before. Secondly, it was much more tiring. This kind of surprised me, as I think I'm in at least decent shape and never get winded on my hikes, even when tackling challenging terrain. I'm guessing that cycling uses different muscles because only a few minutes in I was already getting tired, and even needed to stop for a short break by Vasona lake. Third, it was more uncomfortable, although this is mainly my fault; I was halfway back home before I realized that I had been sitting on my saddle wrong. Still, these are all things I expect will get easier with more practice, and nothing about the experiment scared me off.

While looking at maps online the day before I realized that I had probably exited the trail prematurely on my earlier walk; that time I had exited near Los Gatos High School and wound my way through some residential streets before approaching Highway 9 from the north. This time I kept going, and initially overshot my exit; I kept going for a good five minutes further south on a portion of the trail that was NOT paved, and in doing so made my bike incredibly muddy. But I realized my error and backtracked, exiting up a steep hill onto the streets of Old Town Los Gatos. I was pleased with the new location; it was less than a block from the Southern Kitchen, where we have our weekly breakfasts on Thursdays, and the road here had a generous bike lane.

The one really scary part of the ride is a few hundred feet: you need to get into the left turn lane to turn from Los Gatos Boulevard onto Highway 9, which doesn't have a bike lane, and then squeeze to the right while traffic picks up speed for merging onto the freeway. It was crazy enough on a Saturday and I don't look forward to trying it during a weekday. Still, it's just one small section, and once you run that gauntlet it's a pleasant ride on Alberto before arriving at Rocket Mobile.

I took a few minutes at the office to catch my breath and drink some water, then turned around and headed back. The way back seemed to go more easily; the route was fresh in my mind, I was getting better at selecting proper gears, and I eventually figured out how to sit properly in the saddle so I wouldn't put as much pressure on my wrist. One snag came as I was riding back past Vasona and heard a distinct clinking noise from the pavement. I slowed down and inspected my bike. Everything seemed to be in order. I retraced my steps and, fortunately, saw what had happened: the portion of my pedal that secures the toe clip had fallen out. It looked like the nuts holding it in had probably gotten loose. I spent a few seconds looking in the grass for the nuts but gave it up as hopeless, pocketed the plastic and tied away the toe clip. Other than that, the return was without incident.

Of course, the sun finally came out a few minutes after I returned home, but that wasn't about to wreck my mood. I was delighted to have ridden for two hours and over fifteen miles without once getting in an accident, and only once falling off my bike (when I attempted to abruptly turn 180 degrees while in a very high gear). This was a dry run; the real deal will probably come Tuesday of next week. Apparently Chris has another exit from the trail, so I'm hoping that will let me cut down on the stress towards the end of my route. At first I'll probably just ride a few days a week, avoiding rainy days, but I'm hopeful that I'll be able to ride regularly once the days start getting longer in the spring. We'll see what happens!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Money can't buy happiness; money buys things that make you happy.

I made two major purchases this past week. Well, one was actually purchased earlier this month but didn't arrive until this week; if you have followed the saga of my Tiger Direct purchase you're familiar with the beginning of the story. The other purchase was a new bike. I think this is the first time I have made a major purchase for myself since the video card I got for Civ IV; before that, the last one would have been the LCD monitor for my main PC, almost a year ago.

I bought the drive so I could continue holding on to all the TV shows I download. I had looked up a few tutorials online and had a good handle on what I needed to do. The Asus Pundit that serves as my media PC is a limited device that, for example, only has one IDE channel, so I had to disconnect my DVD drive to put in the drive. The partitioning and everything went fine; my plan was to do a simple direct copy from one drive to another so I wouldn't need to much around with setup or configuration issues. It would all be exactly the same as before, just with extra space at the end. It would all be so SIMPLE!

It turns out that copying 120GB of data takes quite a while, so I let it run overnight. The next day after work I came back and made an unfortunate discovery. In an egregrious error, I had left off the destination directory for the non-media files I was copying. As a result, I had dumped a whole bunch of extra stuff in the /var directory. I groaned; with the extra space in there, I probably wouldn't be able to fit everything into my root partition. I jumped into /var and looked around. Well, /var/bin was obviously not supposed to be there. Same with /var/sbin, /var/usr, /var/root... I did a simple rm-rf with a list of directories and let it rip.

Here's a hint: a story that contains the phrase "rm -rf" will never turn out well.

Well, it turns out that there IS such a thing as /var/lib, and by getting rid of it I had totally reamed my Myth setup. The new disk booted perfectly but couldn't do anything at all with Myth; the issue I saw was with the database, but there were probably more problems even if I'd gotten past that. I spent some time with my Mandrake 10.0 install disks trying to resurrect it, but everything was just too fragmented.

So, after stewing for a while, I decided to try and look on this as a GOOD thing. That OS had been out for a while, and it was an earlier version of MythTV. I hadn't dared to upgrade previously, just because I vividly remembered the entire week it had taken me to get the whole contraption working in the first place; removing or updating a single component was liable to make the whole system fall down around my ears. But since I had to reinstall anyways, I'd take advantage of the change to try out some more modern setups.

After some poking around I settled on Ubuntu. I've been hearing good things about it for a while, it's another user-friendly distribution with a strong focus on accessibility and usefulness. To be specific, I got Kubuntu, a variation of Ubuntu which comes bundled with KDE, my desktop of choice.

So, why didn't I just grab the latest Mandrake/Mandriva? In all honesty, it was a hard choice to make. I've been a loyal Mandrake user for nearly six years and have even joined the Club as a financial supporter. I view them as pioneers in bringing Linux to the masses and having the philosophy that sometimes it's OK if something takes 30 seconds to do instead of half an hour. Yet, at heart Mandriva is a Red Hat derivative distribution, and as a result they're hamstrung by their reliance on RPMs (Redhat Package Manager files). For years I've envied Debian users their ability to just type "apt-get mplayer" where I would need to spend an hour tracking down the package, its dependencies, the codecs, compile tools, and more. Since (K)Ubuntu is a Debian derivative, this was my chance to finally jump over.

And, really, simplicity is good. When I was first fiddling around with this stuff in college it was kind of fun to spend an afternoon trying to make a particular piece of software compile. I even learned a thing or two that were applicable to my major and career. But whether it's my diminished free time or advancing age, these days I just want my software to work. Now, I'm not switching my allegience to Windows, because I'm still a firm believer in the principles of free software. So, if I have the chance to grab something easy, full-featured and free, I'll take it.

Ubuntu has largely lived up to that promise. It installed smoothly on my new drive, auto-detected all my hardware, and even downloaded updated packages over the network while installing, instead of running updates after I was done. What's even better than the software, though, is the user community. It was ridiculously easy to find pages on the Web describing exactly the tasks I needed to do: installing Myth, setting up a homebrew IR receiver, setting up Samba. There was no brain power involved, I just copy-pasted a series of commands from the browser into the console. Truth be told I even felt a little guilty.

Not to say that it was all flawless, of course. I had a couple of issues getting my videos to play properly; I tried a while to make mplayer do what it should before giving up and switching to xine, which is what the author of my HOWTO had suggested all along anyways. And somewhere along the line I messed up the system for accessing privileged settings in the GUI; I got around that by just using "gksudo konqueror" from the console and navigating to the right place. And setting up the remote is always the hardest part, but I'd thought to save my configuration files from before so it just took a little trial and error before even that was working properly.

Now everything's pretty much set up. It's even better than my previous configuration because autologin finally works; I can just power on the box and it goes right to Myth without me needing to type anything. I should be able to do more with DVDs this time around, too, since xine supports DVD menus. There are just a few things left to do; I need to set up NFS file sharing for communication with my other Linux box, and I need to figure out how to install MythGame (for some reason, only this package appears unavailable on apt-get). And I still can't get digital audio out to work, but I never could before either, and I think this is more a shortcoming with ALSA (the new Linux sound system) than anything I'm doing.

So earlier this evening I finally quashed the remaining bugs and set everything back together. It feels nice to have my system back. The first thing I watched was last Thursday's Colbert Report, a good episode as usual. Probably the highlight of this show was during The Word (I think): "It's true because it rhymes." I don't remember what the words were, but that just made my day; I think that Justin used to say that back in middle school. He also had one of his best "Better Know a District" interviews yet; the congressman was neither combatative nor trying to be funny, just played a perfect straight man to Colbert (who ate an entire breadstick in one long take and ended the interview by combing the man's moustache). Oh, and the regular interview was pretty good, too: it was Nina Totenberg from NPR, and they had a great wide-ranging chat. There are a few interview patterns that work on the show, and they tend to involve people being relaxed and open to bizarre experiences. Nina was great at both. One last thing: Another piece of great dialog: "I accept your apology." "I didn't apologize." "Too late!" * Click *

Now that that's all done, the new drive frees up the old drive. Previously my main Linux box (Aule; all of my PCs are named after Valar) booted Linux on a 40GB drive and Windows on an 8GB drive. When I'm done it'll do everything off the 120GB drive. I've already installed and set up Windows; I was briefly concerned that I would have trouble with authorization, since the install CD is an OEM one and I wasn't sure if it would transfer to a new installation, but they accepted it and everything seems fine now. Anyways, I set up Windows and have all my core software on there. In case you're curious, here's how it breaks down:
  • Security: Latest Windows Update patches, Spybot S&D, Ad Aware, and AVG Free (Antivirus)
  • Utility: Firefox and Cygwin
  • Firefox extensions: Adblock, All-In-One Gestures, BugMeNot
  • Entertainment: ITunes, WinAmp and VLC (VideoLan Client)
  • Hardware: Latest NVidia Forceware, updated Creative drivers for my Audigy
I'll definitely add more as time goes on, but that's enough to make me feel that I have a stable base to work with. Other than the items under Security, the single most important thing on the list is Firefox. If you prefer Opera or something else more power to you, but it's terribly important to use something other than IE for browsing.

Because I could I went ahead and installed the games I'm thinking of playing sometime soon: Pirates!, Civ IV, and Elder Scrolls (still need to beat Bloodmoon). Oh, and I'd hooked up my two old drives on the secondary IDE channel, so I went through my old Windows drive and copied over my saved games, ITunes music, and other items I wanted to hold onto. I'll follow a similar process once I put Linux on the drive.

Speaking of which, as I type this now I'm installing Kubuntu on there. I've been very pleased with it while I've been setting up my media box (that one's Nessa, in case you're curious), so I decided to just go ahead and put the same on both boxes. The setup for Aule is a little different, obviously, since that one dual-boots and will just have a lot more software on there... I'll be putting on databases and editors and compile tools for my personal programming. But the actual space requirements will be far lower; I'm now moving all my media files, both video and music, on to Nessa, so all that will be on this drive is games (Windows) and applications/pictures/email/archives (Linux). That's a lot of files, but comparatively far less space, and I doubt I'll ever fill this up.

Hm... I'd planned on hitting both the new drive and the bike in this post, but it's getting late and the install's still running. I think I'll go to bed now and do the bike post sometime tomorrow. So, uh, stay tuned!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Facebook me!

I am a follower. Everyone on The Facebook seems to have more fun than me, so I've decided to go with the crowd and sign up too. Now I have a profile on Facebook! If you're on as well, please let me join your social network! I promise I'll be very quiet and sit in the back and won't bother anyone. I won't tell anyone about that thing you did at 2AM that one night. (Oh, and in case you're curious, this page will definitely continue getting all the journal-type stuff; Facebook is more so I can see all the funny relationships Pat has and hopefully make a few of my own.)

The Return of Chris's Continuing Adventures in Public Transit: The San Francisco Fun Bus

Or; Mr. Q&A with Bob and David

This past Thursday was the start of the San Francisco Sketchfest, a two-week celebration of established and emerging sketch comedy. I found out about it last week via an online article on the Mercury News web site; it seemed curiously under-advertised, as there was no similar mention (at least that I saw) in the SF Chronicle or the local alt-weeklies. Everyone else's loss was my gain, though, as I managed to grab a ticket for the event I was most interested in: A tribute/Q&A with Bob and David of Mr. Show with Bob and David!

Anyone who has known me for a while, and specifically has stayed up with me past midnight on any occasion, has almost certainly been treated to a special screening of Mr. Show. Granted, these are also the occasions where you've likely imbibed copious amounts of caffeine and/or alcohol, and likely got little sleep that night, so allow me to refresh your memory. Mr. Show was an amazing, revolutionary comedic show that played on HBO for four years. Its structure and quality are reminiscent of Monty Python's Flying Circus, with one absurd sketch flowing into another over the course of the show. Mr. Show was brash, profane, lyrical, satirical, dirty, and relentlessly funny; I don't think there's a single bad show in all four seasons. Many of the sketches seem divinely inspired, like the one where NASA announces it will blow up the moon or the one where the Dalai Llama leads his Tibetan monks against the rich kids' camp across the lake. Even ones that sound like SNL fodder turn brilliant, like the talk show host stranded with his guests on a liferaft or the rock band of disabled people. And their satire, from "Coupon: The Movie" to "The Altered State of Druggsachusetts" to "The Joke: The Musical," is some of the sharpest I've ever seen.

So, yeah, I'm a fan. In 2002 I even made a special trip to see their "Hooray for America!" touring show, which tragically bypassed St. Louis. Even though they haven't produced anything new since then (unless you count the tragically flawed "Run Ronnie Run"), interest in the group remains high, both for their brilliant past and their ongoing careers: David has completed two successful comedy tours and albums, "Shut Up You F**king Baby" and "It's Not Funny," plus he's arguably the funniest member of what is unarguably the funniest cast on television, playing Tobias Funke on "Arrested Development." Bob directed the excellent film "Melvin Goes to Dinner" and produces "Tom Goes to the Mayor" on Adult Swim. The other cast and writers have all moved on to promising careers elsewhere.

The session was to be held in Cobb's Comedy Club, located in the North Beach / Russian Hill area (I'm still fuzzy on my SF neighborhoods). It was also out of range of my standard streetcar navigation, so I realized I'd need to either resign myself to an hourlong or so walk, or have my first experience on an SF Muni bus.

Up until now all my transit in SF has been on BART or SF streetcars. Well, or the trolley (a while ago). I didn't have any particular aversion to the bus, it's just that up until now all my destinations have been within a few blocks of the streetcar lines. Well, actually, I guess I did have a slight aversion. It's the kind of received prejudice that annoys me in most contexts, but in my limited experience city busses have been way too slow and inconvenient. I rode the bus to work in KC for a week, and was pretty amazed at how inadequate it was. I would have needed to wait another 2 hours if I ever missed my pickup for the next bus, and what was usually a 10-minute drive turned into a 40-minute meandering path. And while I've never ridden a CTA bus, it's seriously never occurred to me to try, though I will eagerly take the El.

All that said, though, SF has consistently pleased me in its public projects, so for this specific instance I didn't worry at all about the bus. I did some quick checking online and found to my delight that the line I wanted ran every 4-8 minutes, even on Sundays, and I could get from Caltrain up to Cobb's without any transfers.

The day of the show I did the typical Caltrain thing, then spent a few minutes wandering around looking for the bus stop. A dozen or more lines have stops in that intersection, and there were perhaps eight different shelters that each took in several routes. I found the right stop, with the 30 bus conveniently there, and hopped on board. I was delighted to see that its setup was exactly the same as streetcars: same farebox, same transfer process, even the seat layout was similar. I'm a huge fan of consistency, and felt that things were off to a good start.

For the most part the ride went well. There would be busy intersections where pedestrians were outpacing us, but the overall speed was comparable to that of a streetcar (not under Market). I always enjoy watching the city go by as I look out the window; the variety of SF constantly amazes me. This ride included my first-ever trip through Chinatown, which looks wonderful. I'll definitely want to hit it up on a return visit, the bustling people and tempting restaurants greatly attract me.

Oh, and I got to see Apple's new campaign slogan, which was pasted on toilets throughout the city (hard to explain if you haven't seen it). Line 1: "What's an Intel chip doing in a Mac?" Line 2: "More than it ever did in a PC." Funny.

The bus was really crowded from the time it passed Market until it turned onto Columbus. I still feel kind of compelled to give up my seat in these situations, but since I was by the window it would have been a tad awkward, plus the standing people seemed to be expecting to disembark soon. And, in fact, they did. That's one of the wonderful benefits of a city with a good, well-funded, well-run mass transit system; it really does become an integral part of the way citizens move about. I'd love to be able to say, "I want to go five blocks in that direction. Oh look, here comes a bus. My transfer is still good, so here we go!" As opposed to my experience in Midwestern cities, where you need to specifically plan for particular pickups or be completely out of luck.

Columbus Avenue runs NW-SE, and appears to be the heart of an Italian district, which I didn't realize SF had. I could be wrong, of course, but it certainly had plenty of Italian restaurants, and several people on the sidewalk did look a little like aged Mafia dons. Yet another place I'd like to explore more thoroughly.

I knew the cross street for the theater but obviously hadn't been there before, so I was keeping my eyes peeled for one of the landmarks I had jotted down. I saw Lombard street up ahead and disembarked, walking over to the club with ease.

After picking up my ticket from Will Call and standing in line, I was led into the club. It's really a great venue, an intimate environment like Second City in Chicago rather than a theater. I had the advantage of going solo that day, so even though I arrived 30 minutes after the doors opened I still scored a nice seat just a third back from the front. It was set up with little tables and everything. I eventually realized that the prominently posted "2 Drink Minimum" did not apply to afternoon shows, and gladly sipped a Fat Tire for the show's duration.

There was a huge stack of The Onion in the lobby so I grabbed an issue and flipped through it as the time counted down to 2PM. It was while doing this that the only bad thing of the day happened: I read that Stephen Colbert had been in town the previous night. What?! How could I possibly have missed this! I was just sort of stunned for a few minutes, staring at Stephen's smiling visage that was mocking me. The paper wondered why he had chosen to come this weekend instead of waiting for a less crowded comedy weekend or just hopping on the Sketchfest calendar (they'd probably love to have him, but I'm guessing he was doing standup; although his background is Second City so he's certainly capable of sketches). Regardless. I'm kind of stunned that I hadn't even heard this was happening until too late, considering the number of sources I'm in touch with and the way mentioning Colbert instantly gets my attention.

The lights went down and the show began with a collection of clips from throughout the series. It was really clear that people in the audience hadn't just stumbled in but knew and adored the show; they burst into laughter when they saw David sit down at the cafeteria table, even before he takes out his peanut-butter-and-egg-with-dice-and-sponge sandwich. The clips were well-chosen, demonstrating the breadth and scope of the show, though it perhaps over-represented the musical numbers slightly (not that anyone would complain of such a thing).

Then the session got underway. One by one the host (some guy on crutches who's on a TV show I don't watch) invited out the guests, banishing the less famous to the far left and reserving the seats closest to himself for Bob and David. Everyone got some good applause, but the crowd went wild when B&D came out. When they were done the host (I just looked it up, it's Paul Gilmartin) said, "That's gotta feel good." David said, "Yes, we get a dollar for every clap," which touched off another fevered round of applause.

The overall tone of the event was relaxed, with the guests frequently being funny but also being content to just tell a story when it was a good one. Even if one person was being "serious," that left another four people to riff and poke fun. David had a beer with him and swigged regularly throughout the two hours they were up there. Paul was actually a very good host, he would occasionally ask a question but for the most part he was content to sit back, be discreet, and let the masters make the funny.

Paul's very first question was along the lines of, "When I first saw your show, I remember thinking that you guys were fearless. Was this a conscious reaction to the kind of negative reception all comics have to go through doing shows?" Their longer and funnier answer boiled down to "No;" they were just interested in doing stuff they thought was funny, they never deliberately tried to be "fearless."

Most of the time was spent describing the writing process and their relationships behind the scene. One of my favorites was the story of how Bob and David first met: they were mutual friends with Janeane Garofalo, who decided they should meet. She knew they both liked basketball, so she made David carry a basketball and they went over to Bob's house. The front door was open but the screen door was shut, and they could see Bob sitting on the couch, facing away from them, watching TV.
Janeane: "Hi, Bob."
Bob: "Hey."
Janeane: "Hey, this is David Cross." (Nudges David.)
David: "Hi, um... do you want to play basketball?"
Bob: "No."
During this whole time Bob never turned around or got up from the couch, so David and Janeane left. It wasn't until several years later, after they worked together on the Ben Stiller show, that they got together and realized their sensibilities meshed.

The descriptions of the writing room were also intriguing. Bob was a staff writer on Saturday Night Live for several years (he's the one who wrote "Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker") and he tried to ensure that his own writing room was the opposite of SNL. He talked about how in SNL, ideas would be immediately shot down. As a result, people would pitch really horrible ideas, just because they knew their good ones wouldn't be accepted, and it wasted everyone's time. In contrast, the Mr. Show writing room was focused on finding the funny in everything. People would read your scripts, and rather than just say "It isn't funny," they would try to find the part of it that was funny, and brainstorm how to use that idea in another sketch or otherwise mutate the sketch to better get at where the humor was.

Of course, this system didn't hold all the time. Paul F. Thompkins, one of the many great writers/performers on the show, recalled one of his sketches that he pitched to the room. As they were reading through it, he realized that Bob was starting to read his part in a dull, bored monotone. Afterwards everyone else made their comments on it ("I liked that one bit..." "Maybe if we turn the woman into Joan of Arc...", etc.), Bob was quiet for a while, and said "I don't like this sketch. It isn't funny, and it sucks the humor out of everything around it." He paused, then continued: "I guess what I'm trying to say is, this sketch hates me and is trying to kill me." So that one never got made.

Sometimes the writing room would agonize for long periods over totally inconsequential things. One day the New York Times set a reporter to observe their process for writing a show. They think that the resulting article was one of the things that killed the show. As it happens, they spent the ENTIRE DAY arguing about whether a character in a sketch actually WAS Santa Claus, and somebody had kidnapped him to ensure he continued to be Santa; or if he was just some random guy who got kidnapped, and the kidnapper had forced him to PRETEND to be Santa Claus. And it wasn't a polite or amusing argument; they were getting really angry, with tensions running high. And the funny thing is, of course, that it didn't matter at all. Neither way would change the script at all, nobody at home would care one way or the other. And yet they somehow lost a whole day on it.

There was also plenty of chatting about their relationships with HBO executives. Some of this has been alluded too in their DVD commentaries, but here they laid out the situation in a much more narrative form. Essentially, there were two distinct groups of executives: one group in LA, which tended to be young, hip, plugged in to newly emerging trends and universally fans of the show. The second group, who actually signed the checks, tended to live in Connecticut and work in New York, and were older, out of touch, and had never even heard of the show. Both Bob and David had amusing stories in connection with this tragic situation; Bob went to an opening night gala for the new HBO season which was being held in Miami. He was talking with a woman from the corporate office (remember, she's with HBO) who asked, "So! Why are you here?" He kind of went, "Ohhhh." Then, "I'm Bob Odenkirk. I do a show called Mr. Show." "Oh! What network is it on?" "Ohhhh." "It's on your network. HBO." "Ah, I see." "So, what do you do?" "Oh, I'm in marketing." "Ohhhhhh." David's story: he went to a Carlin concert in New York and sat behind a large HBO exec who turned around, stuck out his hand, and said "Hey there. I'm the guy who ruined your career." David said, "Pardon me?" The exec said, "Yeah, I'm the guy who moved you to midnight on Monday night," sounding really friendly, like he was expecting David to go, "Haha! Man, that was a good one!"

So, those stories were kind of depressing, though for what it's worth they totally confirmed the way everyone there felt about the cancellation.

A couple of other things mirrored the DVD commentary. When asked about their least favorite sketches, Bob said it was hands-down The Snooty Waiter (the sketch where the waiter spills someone's food on them and then offers to pay for half of it). Bob said that it was a very vaudevillian sketch, and they would probably get sued by some guys who had been dead for a hundred years for doing it. Apparently it sounded really funny the first time they read through it, but by the time they were performing it everyone realized it wasn't very good. Bob had a brilliant idea that he thinks would have saved the sketch: add a timer in the lower-right corner, ticking down the number of seconds until the sketch ends. "Seconds left until this awful sketch ends: 62" or something like that. He was overruled, because the others thought that someone might like the sketch and they didn't want to make that person feel stupid.

They talked a little about making the Ronnie Dobbs movie, and revealed that they were working on another movie. The new movie is being written to be very much in the same style as the show, with a whole bunch of funny sketches loosely tied together but without a real overarching plot. David said that this was similar to how the original script for "Run Ronnie Run" looked, but in that case New Line convinced them to make it more "movie-like." They're still in the process of writing the new one and haven't begun shopping it around yet, although supposedly Fox is interested. (David: "Oh, yeah. Fox is GREAT to work with.") Right now they're just trying to get the 1-3 million they will need to get the movie made, which is peanuts, but still scares off studios because the execs aren't familiar with the show. Bob said this has always been the case, that great comedy acts can't get movies made, and cited his personal heroes Monty Python, who weren't able to make "The Holy Grail" until George Harrison took a personal interest and invested the money. The overall feeling was that Mr. Show needed a benefactor like that, because the studio system probably wasn't going to fund it.

I'm forgetting plenty of things, and skipping over more, but yeah... good session. I'm not really capturing the humor here, but there were definitely way more bathroom humor jokes and outright lies than informative statements.

With about half an hour left, they set up a mike and started taking questions from the audience. First question: "How would you go about creating a half-man, half-monkey creature?" Bob: "Brian?" Brian: "Go f**k a monkey?"

Everything was very focused on Mr. Show, which was nice; like I said, everyone has gone on to other careers, but it was good to stay on topic. The one variance was when someone asked David, "I was very bummed to hear Arrested Development has been canceled. Some people are saying another network might pick it up; do you think it's possible Showtime or someone else will take it?" David: "No." (Paul ran off the stage as soon as he heard that AD had been canceled.)

Several questioners asked about the ideas behind specific sketches. The Bob Lamotta sketch was inspired by the glut of movies about disabled people; at the time it was written, five of the previous six acting Oscars had gone to men playing individuals who were handicapped, either mentally or physically. And yet, the press would continue to write about how someone was making a "Brave" choice by making the "Difficult Decision" to play someone who was handicapped. In other inspiration notes, the Queen of England sketch grew out of a simpler idea by David, just about some guy throwing a party who individually told each of his guests, "I'm going to tell everyone to leave, but I want YOU to stay." Nobody on the stage could remember how or why they decided to turn the guy into the Queen of England.

One person asked about the linking sketches (arguably the show's trademark), whether they were organic or difficult. They answered that a few were organic, but they often were excruciating; they spent three days one time trying to figure out how to get two particular sketches to connect. David said that, by the fourth season, they had figured out to just give up and do a lame connection (like someone slapping a poster on a wall) instead of spending so much time on it; they could write four sketches in a single day, or spend that day trying to get a good link and possibly not coming up with anything.

The very last person to ask a question was also the only person who came with a prop. But it was a good one: a Crime Stick! He asked about how they came up with it, and they recounted the story (included on the DVD but elaborated here) about a Chicago local show about this guy who talked really funny and talked about how to defend yourself against crime. (Incidentally, this sketch ends in what I personally think is the greatest link of all time: "Now, who wants some ice cream?")

With that they took their leave, to thunderous applause from the audience. People hung around a while but they didn't come back out (I guess it's hard to do an encore to a Q&A session). I made my way back to the street and caught the 30 for my ride back home.

All in all, it was a great outing. I briefly felt kind of dumb for spending a total of 4 hours in transit for a 2 hour show; I think that next time I'll come down earlier in the day and enjoy the city some more. Because I am coming again: two weeks from yesterday, a similar event is happening with Michael Showalter and David Wain, formerly of The State and more recently of Wet Hot American Summer and, most importantly, Stella. I don't enjoy them quite as much as Bob and David, but that's like saying I don't like George Saunders as much as Thomas Pynchon; technically true, but practically meaningless, since they exist on a plane of quality far removed from mere mortals. Oh, and I might also try to make it down for a showing of "Emperor Norton," a play based on the colorful San Francisco resident who has become one of the most prominent saints of Discordianism. Ah, how I've missed the city. I don't think I'll ever be bored as long as I'm within an hour or two of San Francisco.