Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Everyone Around... Here. Everyone Is So... Clear

Pictures here.

Last weekend I finally got a chance to see Radiohead in concert. Shorter version: it was awesome. Longer version follows.

Radiohead is big enough to be in a "we do what we feel like" phase, much like REM has been in since their Monster tour. That means that, while they do occasionally tour, it tends to be just a few major cities over a shorter period of time. I was sorely tempted to go to each of their two Chicago-area shows on their last two tours; the first one (under a big tent near Lake Michigan) has been described by some as the best concert ever, and the second (actually held in Wisconsin) also sounded wonderful. Both times the logistics of getting there from Missouri, to say nothing of somehow finding a ticket, thwarted my dreams.

Let me back up a bit: I really, really like Radiohead. I don't like picking favorites, but they're probably my second-favorite active band, just a bit behind REM and a bit ahead of Massive Attack (if we treat MA as still being active). The story of how I first got into Radiohead is actually kind of random. I didn't listen to the radio much so I never heard "Creep" or any of their early singles. Starting my junior year of high school, I worked in the Periodicals Department at Wheaton Public Library. In addition to magazines we also handled audiobooks and music CDs, and I took advantage of my privileges as an employee to check out a wide variety of music at no charge. (During the time I was working there, it cost twenty-five cents to check out a CD.) This led to a huge development in my musical tastes, as well as the start of an impressive mp3 collection.

Someone might have recommended Radiohead to me, but if so I don't remember. I just remember that the OK Computer CD got circulated a lot, so I spent a lot of time looking at the jacket while cleaning the CD. I was fascinated by the design of the cover and the song titles, including "Paranoid Android," which made me immediately think of Marvin from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. At some point I checked it out, and I was just mesmerized. I listened to it over and over again, just blown away by the incredible sound. It was filled with delightfully weird, bizarre sounds and compositions, while still sounding incredibly good and accessible. It was one of those albums where I would listen to it five times, then a sixth on headphones, and be amazed at all the stuff I had missed before. (For example, it wasn't until a month or so later that I really caught the second vocal track that plays under Paranoid Android.)

After arriving at college, I picked up exactly two music posters to decorate my dorm. One was REM's "Monster" tour poster (my least favorite album of theirs, but an excellent poster); the second was a sublime Radiohead poster containing the entire lyrics to "Fitter Happier," which, as odd as it sounds, seems to me like the anchor of the album.

While in college, Radiohead released Kid A, their long-awaited follow-up album. After my very first listen, I concluded that I no longer could call OK Computer "Strange"; it now seemed positively traditional compared to the revolutionary electronic, distorted sounds of Kid A. Once again, though, they managed to push the envelope without being alienating; or, perhaps, they invite you to join in their alienation. As an example, The National Anthem sounded unlike anything else I had ever heard, but at the same time its incredible bass line also made it one of the catchiest songs ever.

Radiohead is one of those bands that makes me feel briefly optimistic about the world. Despite producing such challenging and hard-to-categorize music, they have been remarkably popular. Kid A opened at #1 on the US charts, even though they didn't initially release any singles for it. All their stuff sells well, and their concerts are extremely popular; they could fill stadiums if they wanted to. Anyways, it's good to see my fellow citizens enthusiastically embracing a good band.

Their later releases have also been great. Amnesiac wasn't the promised return to "the guitar sound," but it was a delightfully chilling and remote album. Hail to the Thief bumped the paranoia up to a whole new level, exulting in its exuberantly creepy sound. I have also dug around to find their non-album songs, most of which (True Love Waits, The Amazing Sounds of Orgy, Talk Show Host) are definitely good enough to have made the cut. At the same time, a parallel industry has sprung up to analyze and engage Radiohead. I've written before here about Christopher O'Reilly's work, which seems to be in the vanguard of the classical music world's endorsement of Radiohead's music.

So, yeah, I really like the band. I was delighted to read that their current US tour would include two nights in Berkeley. The venue sounded really good too: The Greek Amphitheater, which is on the university campus, is a bowl-shaped design that seemed fairly intimate with good sight lines. Tickets were also very reasonable at under $50 a head, but I knew I would need to act quickly: an act this big in a venue this small was begging to be sold out.

I asked around at work to see who else was interested, and got a lot of tentative replies. I eventually said, "Well, it's all general admission, so let's have everyone who wants to go get their own tickets."

It turned out that when the tickets went on sale at 10AM on a Sunday, which was when I would be flying over the Rocky Mountains on my way back from a family wedding. Fortunately, my brother Pat rode in to the rescue, and secured two tickets for me - amazingly enough, he even picked the right day, which I had forgotten to tell him. Thanks, Pat!

I later learned that nobody else had managed to get tickets, which were sold out a few minutes after going on sale. Tom, who was one of the guys who interviewed me way back last year, was the first person to bring it up, so I offered him the extra ticket. Tom digs Radiohead, but was especially interested in the opening act, a local band named Deerhoof. I'd checked some of their music before hand and enjoyed it. Their lead vocalist is a Japanese woman, and they have a really interesting sound.

Tom lives in San Francisco, so we had to figure out the best way to handle transit. I was originally planning on driving to Fremont and then taking BART to Berkeley; he ended up driving up to the station with me and we rode in the rest of the way together. We made pretty good time, but had trouble finding parking after we got to the campus. We finally found an open garage and trekked up a long hill to the Greek.

We could hear music when we approached, and I realized we were missing the opening act, which frankly amazed me. I've never been to a concert that has started on time, and judging from when they finished, they probably started exactly at 7:30. As it was, we just had time to grab some food and find a seat (on the lawn - the bowl was packt like sardines in a crushd tin box) right before their set finished. The audience responded warmly.

It's always interesting to listen to the recorded music that plays before a band takes the stage. Obviously, they want something that will occupy people while roadies are wrangling their equipment. It would be crass to play your own stuff; at the same time, you don't want to freak people out by getting too far outside your own sound, like playing bluegrass music at a heavy metal concert. With a band as hard to classify as Radiohead, though, I had wondered what they would choose. It turns out that they felt like they were an electronic band now, because almost all of the songs that played were of that genre. All of it sounded really good, but I only recognized one song, which was in Lost in Translation. The song right after that, though, was a mystery to me. In a good way. It started off with a recorded interview between two pundits discussing Hillary Clinton's political career. "Is she liked by the public, and is she a viable candidate?" "Well, she is liked, but she's not viable." Then it started splicing up the conversation, garbling the words as they were twisted into a new dialog, then the curtain fell down revealing several oddly-shaped screens and the members of Radiohead walked onto the stage to thunderous applause and jumped right into "You and Whose Army."

Despite being quite far from the stage, I enjoyed a good view for most of the night; even when sitting down I could usually make out Yorke and the rest of the crew, thanks to the steep incline on the slope. I kept thinking of "Sit Down, Stand Up," which they never played... the lawn had a very varied structure, where in some spots people in front would stand up and everyone behind them would stand as well, while in other areas nobody would stand at all. The people in front of us stood for the first few songs, forcing us to stand to see, then later sat down, which we did as well out of respect for those behind us. There was one guy in particular in front of us who I was a little worried about. Most of the people there were excited about the show, but he seemed particularly twitchy and unbalanced. At one point he left and came back with two glasses of beer. "Oh," I thought. "He came here with a friend." Nope. He two-fisted both of them down. A couple of times I saw him taking hits off a pipe; I'm not sure what was in it, but judging from his behavior, I doubt it was a depressant.

Back to the music! The acoustics were excellent, even this far from the stage, and I didn't get any of the annoying layered sound that I'm used to in larger venues. Their playing was just superb. For me, it's almost a definition of a good band that they can play something differently and have it sound just as good as what's on the album. They did this not by radically re-engineering the favorites, but by tinkering with them. Where a song once had a string of random electronic sounds, it would now have a string of different electronic sounds, generated live by Yorke or someone else. The instrumental parts were largely intact but they would occasionally embellish a guitar line or something. No new verses, but a different sound anyways.

Probably the biggest surprise for me was the quantity of new material in here; I'd guess that probably one out of every three songs was totally new to me. Radiohead's great strength is its resilience and the rewards it gives for repeated listening, so I can't claim to fully "get" the new songs after just one listen, but they generally sounded good, nothing sounding like it needed a lot more work. I'm guessing some of these will appear on their new album, whenever that might come out, and look forward to hearing them again.

Those oddly-shaped screens were put to interesting use. For most of the concert, each would show a live image of a focused part of the act: a closeup of Johnny Greenwood's hand strumming the guitar, or a top-down shot of Selway's drum kit, or Yorke's face. The images were muted, perhaps black and white, more impressionist than vivid. I thought this was a really interesting departure from the large-venue practice of having giant video screens that show and blow up the action on the stage so people standing much farther back can see it. That practice has always kind of bothered me, incidentally. When you start watching the screen instead of the stage, you're essentially watching a video, which makes you start to wonder why instead of paying $12 for a DVD you're paying $50 for a ticket that gives you the privilege of buying really expensive hot dogs and watching a movie outside. Anyways: the giant screens weren't really necessary here, and the shattered screens they used felt more like a commentary on the stage action than a substitute for it.

One thing I usually enjoy in concerts is hearing the band chatter. Some are good, some are bad, some just bizarre. Thom Yorke definitely tended towards the silent, only speaking a handful of times. After the first few songs he said, "Berkeley, California!", notably omitting any verbs and, much better, using the proper, English pronunciation ("Barklee.") Later on he said "This fog is strange," and indeed it was: one of the coolest parts of the evening was the way the fog would occasionally roll in, be illuminated in crazy ways by the stage lights, then dissipate. His other words of wisdom included, "It's cold out!" and something like "Here's some more new songs, as if you didn't already have enough." While he didn't speak a lot, he was a very visible presence on the stage. I just love, love, love watching Thom dance. It's a curiously spastic yet purposeful movement that, like his music, is unlike anything else.

They played for nearly ninety minutes, closing out the set with a phenomenal version of Idioteque. Incidentally, Kid A and Amnesiac seemed to be the best represented in this show; I don't think they played any Pablo Honey (frankly fine by me), and just a smattering from their other three albums. This show demonstrated the blessing and the curse of having such a solid catalog. On the one hand, there were a lot of songs I would have loved to hear that they didn't do, including Airbag, Fake Plastic Trees, and Talk Show Host. Still, I can't point to any of the songs that they did play and say, "Oh, they should have left that one out." Even Morning Bell, which in all honesty is my least favorite track on both Kid A and Amnesiac, got a performance here that was much more interesting and dark than what I was expecting. I suppose the best solution would have been to buy tickets for both nights; I just now went online and found that Saturday's setlist was almost completely different.

The crowd was aggressively enthusiastic after Radiohead left the stage, and they eventually returned for two encore sets, including still more new material. I had been terrified that they wouldn't get around to playing Everything In Its Right Place, but they ended up closing the night with it, in an unforgettably talented and trippy performance. I'd heard before about how they do it live but it was still amazing to watch: Selway, Yorke and O'Brien perform as usual while the Greenwood brothers take samples from their live feeds in little boxes, which they then mix, loop, and replay. The whole time they were playing, thicker and thicker fog fell over the theater, which the lights ghostily penetrated as the music turned more and more otherworldly. One by one the members walked off the stage (guided by a green flashlight probably brought out to assist with the fog), while their looped samples continued to whirl behind them. Gradually the sound and the lights grew dimmer, until all that was left behind were the screens which were endlessly cycling the letters "EVERAND" - as in, "ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and..." It was a beautiful ending.

Tom and I walked through the center of campus, then split up, him to his car and me to BART. This was my first time ever in Berkeley but I just followed the crowd and they led me right to it. (I've been reading a lot about the decline of Berkeley, particularly around Telegraph Avenue, but the little bit I saw near the campus looked pretty good. I keep meaning to visit my cousin Paul who lives in Berkeley.) I'd forgotten that Friday had been declared a Spare the Air day in the Bay Area, which meant that ridership was free for the day on all public transit, including BART.

The platform was crowded with other concertgoers, but we all managed to squeeze on to the next train, a six-car train to Fremont. It's the first time I've ever been crowded on a BART train; I'm guessing that's much more common during commuting hours into the city than the nights and weekends when I ride it. Still, everyone was good-natured and squeezed in to make room. A few stops later was a transfer station for the San Francisco lines, where most of the train emptied and I took a seat. The rest of my ride back felt dreamy, the music not pounding in my head but flowing through it, suffusing even the darkened outline of the Diablo range with hints of a greater reality.


I had my third bike accident today. It's close to where I had my last one, shortly after turning onto Alberto from Highway Nine, though this time it was from the other direction. When going directly to work, I typically ride along the sidewalk until I get to Alberto, then continue on Alberto's sidewalk until I see the road is clear (it usually is right away), then cross over at the next driveway and get on the road. This time oncoming traffic on Nine had a red light, so I moved immediately onto Alberto and started moving to the right lane. However, the left turn arrow turned green soon after I started, and once I saw a car was turning onto the street I moved back to the left. (I'm not sure why - I would easily have established myself before he got on the road.) I thought, "Huh, I shouldn't be riding down the left side of the road," so I rode onto the next sidewalk. Or I tried to. There was about an inch gap between the road and the driveway, and I was coming at it from about a thirty degree angle, so the bike slid to the pavement and I hit the ground.

As injuries go, I think this is the lightest yet. I have two nasty-looking cuts on my upper left arm near (but not on) my elbow, and some lighter lacerations on my knee, thigh and hand. The nice thing about always getting into accidents so close to work is that I'm only a few minutes away from antiseptic pads, gauze and bandages. I won't claim to enjoy it, but it definitely gets less scary every time I do this to myself.

I've started a counter on the right side of my blog to keep track of the number of injury accidents I've had. If this continues to be a common occurrence (I'm currently averaging a bit more than one accident every two months), I'll stop blogging about each one, so just keep an eye on the counter if you're curious.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

End of an Era

Having lived in California for less than a year, I probably can't legitimately claim to have any traditions yet. That hasn't stopped me from trying, though. One big one is my Sunday morning routine. Every weekend that I've been in town, I'll wake up in the morning, walk down to Albertson's (a local grocery chain), and buy a doughnut, a Sunday paper, and whatever odds and ends I may need for the next few days.

That "tradition" ended today. Last month, Albertson's announced that it would be shutting down a dozen of their bay-area stores. Like many traditional grocers, they're getting squeezed from two directions. At the top end, they're losing wealthier customers to stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's that offer a more holistic shopping experience. At the bottom end, they need to compete in price against Wal-Mart's enormous purchasing power. As a result, both sales and margins have been falling strongly; couple this with Silicon Valley's economic slump and its taste for organic food, and it's little surprise they were feeling the pain.

As soon as I heard the announcement I knew my store would be one of the dozen. They never seem to be very busy when I'm there, and they're right next to a Long's Drugs that offers a lot of the same food items. It's a real shame to see them go... the workers there were friendly, plus I loved having a place so close by. The fresh bakery was excellent.

I hadn't heard an official shutter date for them, so I walked up the same as usual, only to find the doors closed and locked. I wasn't alone; several other people stood there peering into the windows, more than I would usually find on a Sunday morning. This may have been the first day that they didn't open.

I'm left wondering now what will take its place in the building. Another grocery chain has announced it will buy several of the Albertson's, but this isn't one of them. Long's doesn't seem to do a lot of business either so I can't see them expanding. I feel like that space must be fairly valuable - it's about halfway between the 280 exit and Ebay, and must see a lot of traffic during the day - but it probably won't be replaced with another grocery.

Instead of my customary doughnut, then, I went hope and tried out a new recipe for pancakes, which were excellent. For some reason I've been getting a ton of magazine offers in the mail over the last month or two, for everything from Time to Sports Illustrated to The Economist to The Atlantic. Yesterday, I didn't just get an offer, but a whole magazine: one free issue of Cook's Illustrated, which, along with several other good-looking recipes, had a new one for blueberry pancakes. I didn't have any blueberries, but in any case it called for sprinkling them on top instead of mixing them into the batter, so I figured I'd try them plain today, get some berries, then do the real deal with the rest of the batter later. So far so good; this recipe will replace my previous version (which was already pretty darn tasty).

I've been meaning for a while to go to a farmer's market in Campbell, about two miles southwest of here. It runs year-round but features fresh, seasonal produce from farmers in the Central Valley and other nearby places. I thought this would be as good a time as any to check it out, and after polishing off my pancakes I drove down to see for myself.

It looks really solid. The market runs along Campbell Avenue for three blocks, most of which are filled with stalls; the first two are food, the third has handmade crafts and flowers. One thing I really liked was the signs indicating where the food came from and describing it. Some was organic, most pesticide-free, some not. I overheard lots of people talking to the sellers, asking about how the food was prepared, and getting honest answers in reply. I'm a huge fan of people having access to information, and what I saw was a great example of free markets in action: merchants competing on price, and quality, and even social responsibility. An impressive number of people were there and it looked to me like everyone was making out well.

The produce is all seasonal, so I expect the market probably shrinks down a fair amount in the winter months. For now, though, there was an amazing variety on display. Lots of berries, plenty of tree fruits, vegetables of all sorts of colors. The prices were also very reasonable, even for the organic stuff. I hadn't decided ahead of time what to buy, and ended up walking off with fresh blueberries, nectarines, peaches, cherries, and two large cloves of garlic. Everything I've nibbled on so far has tasted great. Oh, and this is definitely a venue that encourages tasting; seemingly every stall had plates set out with free samples of what you could buy there.

So the fresh produce looks great. Even more exciting for me, though, is the non-produce, locally-made items. I picked up a jar of fresh honey from Los Gatos. Several bakers, including an Indian and a Russian baker, offered fresh bread and pastries for sale. I didn't pick any up, but some of those pastries looked so good that I think I may continue a variation of my old Sunday routine. I didn't see any eggs for sale, but one stall offered "natural and organic sausage". To me that sounds like an oxymoron; I'll take a closer look the next time I'm there. Probably most exciting of all was a fresh fish stand, displaying fish on ice that had been caught that day off the Santa Cruz coast. Unfortunately, it looked really expensive - up to $14 a pound (though cod was just about $8). Still, I love the idea of fresh fish, and that may become a treat for me in the future.

In all honesty, I'm still not sure what my food universe is going to look like six months from now. I'm increasingly feeling like I should be taking more advantage of living in California and eating fresh foods, instead of cheap stuff that has been processed elsewhere and shipped back in. Food at the farmer's market is cheap enough, except for the fish, that I could easily switch my fruits and vegetables over to it without much of a hit; but it would be less convenient than the mainly canned and frozen stuff I use now. If I can easily make it part of my lifestyle it may become my new Sunday morning tradition; otherwise, it'll probably be an occasional fun treat for myself.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

And now it's been ten years, I'm still wondering who to be

I've finished reading Haruki Murakami's excellent nonfiction book "Underground." Murakami is the novelist who wrote "Kafka on the Shore," possibly the best book I've read so far this year. After I finished that book I thought, "Who IS this guy?" and did some research. Several of his other novels also sounded good, but one book in particular caught my eye. "Underground" is his look at the 1995 sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway. I think there are a few reasons I thought it would be interesting. First, I tend to really dig it when novelists write nonfiction; George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" is a great example of very fine work done outside an artist's main mode. Second, like a lot of Americans I've grown much more interested in terror as a weapon after the 2001 WTC attacks; I want to better understand where it comes from, what its goals are, and how to respond to it. Japan has historically been one of the safest countries in the world, and I thought their shock to this attack would probably be very similar to our own. Finally, I thought it would be a good opportunity to maybe understand the Japanese psyche a little more. I've had a lot of exposure to Japanese culture through video games and anime, but I'm sure that's a very skewed perspective; nonfiction seemed like a better "in", and who better to get it from than an author I already enjoyed?

Murakami's structure to the book is really interesting. It isn't told as a straight narrative; rather, as he describes in his introduction, he wanted to experience the attacks through the eyes of the victims. The events in the book cover only a couple of hours. There are maybe thirty or so chapters in the book, each one a first-person account of one victim's experiences, based on their interview with Murakami. He strikes an interesting balance between compassion and objectivity. Within the interviews he is almost entirely absent from the text, only occasionally asking for more clarification or otherwise prompting them; for the most part he just lets them tell their stories. However, his overall project is extremely considerate and careful towards the victims. He honored anonymity requests, met with them under the victims' preferences, and, what I think is really amazing, sent each person's chapter to them for their approval before publishing. This means that some things were taken out when they changes their mind, which clearly frustrates him as a writer, but his way of honoring them is a great testament to his character.

The introduction was self-deprecating, filled with him saying things like "I can't hope to even begin to address the emotions people felt on that day. I'm not that good of a writer. I just humbly offer up these few stories I was able to collect." It was effective enough that my expectations were lowered - "Oh, this book won't be as good as I thought it would be. Well, I'll keep reading anyways, to see what these people think." And then? I was blown away. What he does is a little hard to describe, but it's as though he acts as a novelist through the role of an editor: he takes large sections of extant text, which he didn't write, and using only pithy introductions and clever organization, layers an extremely compelling narrative on top of this historic event.

Things get off to a bang with the first four chapters. I defy anyone to read these and not think of Kurosawa's excellent "Rashomon." The four chapters all describe the same event: sarin affects several people riding a train, station agents attempt to clean it up but are affected themselves, they go outside and call for an ambulance which never arrives, then several people use a news van and take a very sick person to the hospital, and later that person dies. It's fascinating to see a character in one story become the narrator in the next; and, like in Rashomon, people's descriptions of the details of the events can vary wildly. A red handkerchief becomes a printed one; a female rail employee becomes a nurse; and a wide variety of people take credit for thinking to use the news van as an ambulance. While the structure feels very similar to Rashomon, though, I think the aims are a little different. Both works are about the ambiguity of truth and how everyone works with their perceptions and memories rather than an objective understanding of truth. Rashomon (to me, at least) felt like it was more about the way people shape their perceptions; it isn't coincidental that every person's version of the incident in the woods casts themselves in the best possible light. Underground has a little of that, but more so I feel it reflects the chaos and trauma that hits the mind in such a situation. When someone's very survival is on the line, their mind will focus on that instead of seemingly extraneous details, and later on the details get filled in, seemingly at random.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the history behind this: Japan is thought of as a primarily secular nation, but many citizens observe Shintoism or Buddhism. A Buddhist-derived cult called Aum Shinrikyo grew sharply in popularity during the early 1990's. I wasn't very familiar with the cult before reading this book; it sounds a little like a cross between the Moonies and David Koresh's group. A charismatic leader with magical powers, Shoko Asahara, led the group; at the bottom were several people who had been effectively brainwashed. They were recognized by the Japanese government, and Asahara campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in the Diet. The organization grew more militant, operating more like a company or a government, with members being assigned to its Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Education, and so on.

All that aside, the group was virtually unknown, both within and outside Japan, until 1995. That was when several members, in a coordinated operation, unleashed a liquified version of sarin nerve gas on a half-dozen crowded subway trains. Several thousand people were injured; miraculously, only a dozen or so actually died, but many more only survived as vegetables or with permanent physical and mental damage. Much like the September 11 attacks, it wasn't immediately clear who was responsible; eventually, Aum Shinrikyo's involvement was proven and the members were arrested and sentenced.

Again, Japan is an incredibly safe country, with the lowest murder rate in the world. Understandably, the attacks were a huge blow to the nation, which wrestled with questions about its character and its reaction, including whether to amend the constitution to allow the death penalty.

Going back to the event itself, though: Murakami completely succeeds in conveying the horror and confusion of that day to the reader. The victims did not know who their attackers were, what was making them sick, why help wasn't arriving, or how many other people had been hurt. Again, through careful structuring of the first-person accounts, he makes the reader experience the same confusion and gradual comprehension of what was happening that day. In the first few chapters we hear how the subway mistakenly reported an "explosion" taking place at a station; much later in the book, we finally see when and how that report was made and spread. Sarin is a bit of a mystery early on; the more cases we read the more we understand the different things it does to a body, as well as what the common signs of poisoning are; and towards the end we finally hear from a doctor who gives a comprehensive explanation of medical identification and treatment of sarin. Like us, though, the first wave of doctors didn't underestand what was happening or how to treat it, and so we can't be too angry at their initial slowness in treatment.

Besides Rashomon, another comparison I thought of was "Armies of the Night," Norman Mailer's excellent account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Like Murakami, Mailer is a novelist, and both of them treat a single confusing historic event by focusing on ground-level observations. Murakami has a multifaceted, prismatic approach to the problem, staring at the same event from a variety of perspectives. Mailer is the complete opposite: the story is all Mailer all the time, just as much about his selfishness and cowardice and loathing as it is about the march itself. Mailer has a useful device to describe the book: "History as a novel, the novel as history." He explicitly blurs the line between entertainment and information, providing a novelized version of pure fact. Murakami doesn't claim to be doing anything so grand, but I think what he has accomplished here is no less impressive.

The book closes out with a later addition, in which Murakami interviews past and current members of Aum Shinrikyo. The format is superficially identical to the first part, but in practice is radically different. Murakami is no longer a near-silent observer; instead he is an investigative reporter, challenging his subject, occasionally bullying them, pushing incredibly hard to cut to the root of what he's looking for. I didn't expect to feel this way, but I ended up feeling kind of sorry for them. I felt like first they had been abused by life, then taken in by Aum and often abused by them, and finally had their beliefs and values challenged by Murakami. (As with the victims, Murakami did not publish anything without his subjects approving every word he wrote.)

One thing that kind of struck me about this section was how the Aum members often seemed much more interesting than the victims. I don't at all mean to belittle those who were injured or claim that they were all the same; still, most of them seemed like career-oriented individuals who worked incredibly hard and enjoyed a few basic pleasures in life. (This is probably representative of those who ride the Tokyo subway early in the morning than it is representative of Japanese in general.) By contrast, the Aum members were almost all loners. Some were incredibly passionate about mysticism and spirituality and were drawn to Aum because of that. Some were incredibly rational and hyper-scientific, and were drawn to Aum by a desire to study and understand it. Still others just appreciated the attention and camaraderie. A lot of them were voracious readers who always preferred reading to interacting with their peers; others despised books and never read anything, even for school.

Of course, I'm far from an expert on Japanese society, but I think Murakami is correct when he questions how Aum could have arisen in Japan. One obvious explanation is the exciting version of religion it expounded in a strongly secular country. Reading through the members' testimonies, though, I wondered if part of it might be a result of Japan lacking an emotional safety net. Japanese culture is very monolithic, which probably provides a strong feeling of comfort and security to those who fit into it, but can be terrible to those on the outside. I'm reminded of my own feelings of alienation at public school: feeling like you're on the outside can be rotten. America's incredibly fragmented and chaotic culture can leave people just as lonely, but I think the fact we don't highly value conformity here makes life a little more comfortable on the outside. It's harder to blame society or the world for your problems when everyone looks and acts differently from everyone else.

Then again... while the rank-and-file members Murakami interviews seem fairly marginal to society, Aum's upper ranks were filled with extremely intelligent and successful people. The people who actually carried out the attacks included doctors, businessmen and lawyers. So we can't easily say that the cult existed because of people being excluded from society, since society's best were also Aum's best. Here, you can probably make a more compelling argument that what was missing from Japanese society wasn't acceptance of the individual, but a deep sense of spiritual fulfillment. Their testimonies indicate that these people found something in Aum that they couldn't find elsewhere, which was how it earned their devocation and, ultimately, replaced their conscience.

Could it happen here? In a way it did, in the Oklahoma City bombing. That's a case where citizens, alienated from their government, struck out murderously against innocents. The perpetrators look totally different, with one group filled by religious fervor and the other by political rage. In some ways the Aum attack is more terrifying because it required the active participation of such a large group of people. Also, while I've spent a lot of time thinking about how Japanese society could change to prevent such attacks in the future, I confess I've never seriously thought about how American society should change to prevent another Oklahoma City-style attack. Perhaps I should remove the beam in my own eye before criticizing the mote in Japan's? It's a tricky ground to navigate, keeping the blame squarely on those who did violence while also trying to understand why they did it and what steps should be taken to prevent future harm.

So, that's that. Yet another good book, and I think I'll continue hitting up Murakami in the future. I hear The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is good.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Whither Photos?

I think the set of people interested in viewing my photos online is entirely contained within the set of people who read this blog. If you aren't in the former set, you can skip the remainder of the post.

For the rest of you: I have received an invitation to participate in Picassa Web Albums, which is basically Google's attempt to compete with Flickr. I've played around with the service a bit, and I like it, with one big exception: it only provides 250 MB of storage space. It can be upgraded to 6GB with a payment of $25/year, but (a) I'd eventually fill up that, too, and (b) I don't want to pay money if I don't have to.

When you have a few minutes, please take a look at my current photo dump - Timmy's House of Incandescent Sprinkles - and my potential new photo dump. Then, please answer these questions (either online or off):
1. Do the new features in Web Albums look useful to you as a user? These include commenting on individual photos, downloading entire albums, and slideshows.
2. If I switched to Web Albums, I would eventually need to cycle off old albums as new ones came on. Do you anticipate that you would want to search and view photos of mine, say, a year after they were first posted?
3. Please compare this set of photos with this set. Do you notice a big difference in quality? If so, is it big enough that the other would annoy you?

Thanks for your time. The two methods are roughly equal in difficulty as far as I'm concerned (more work up front on Blogger, more work later on for Web Albums), so my decision will be largely based on any input you may have.

For those who are curious, here's some background:

In the old days, when I was actively running a server, I rolled my own photo sharing: I just copied the photos to the correct directory on my hard drive and wrote up HTML pages for them. This was kind of nice in that I could have full-resolution photos online, but it was tedious work and I didn't bother very often. (I also didn't take many pictures.)

There are a lot more options these days, and I started playing around with them when I got my new camera. Nothing gave me everything I wanted. There's a lot I like about flickr: it has a great interface, I like the way it handles albums, it automatically picks up captions, and allows for comments on individual photos. Two things made me a little leery: by default, all flickr albums are totally open so anyone can search them, and the free account is a little limited (20MB uploads per month [but unlimited storage], photostream only holds most recent 200 pictures). They have a variety of ways to upload photos, which is cool, but the one I tried (uploading directly from Explorer) was annoying - it took forever, and silently skipped a bunch of my pictures without telling me.

Whenever I have a choice of products I tend to go with Google, so I also looked at their offerings. Google didn't have a single product; rather, there were three programs that sort of worked together. One was Picassa, which I love: it's a simple, clean, decently powerful program that lets you import and organize pictures; it'll pull them off the phone, timestamp and label them, and let you put in captions. It integrates with another program called Hello, which is designed to let you share photos with other Hello users; you can easily send a single picture, a whole album, or just a collection of images. However, I use Hello to communicate with BloggerBot, which allows you to create posts with your photos.

In theory, this was all wonderful. In practice, there are quite a few annoyances. One of the most glaring: captions you insert in Picassa are not passed along to Hello or Blogger; even though they freakin' display in Hello, you need to manually type (no copy-paste!) them in again. That's aggravating. Second, by default BloggerBot will create a whole new post for every single image you send it, which is obviously unwieldy - imagine 25 posts swarming your RSS feed every time I take a hike. After hunting through newsgroups online I found a way to get around this - you need to put in "||" at the end of each caption, which tells BloggerBot to queue them up - but once again this is annoying, and if I accidentally leave the "||" off halfway through, everything I've done so far will get posted. Finally, I haven't been able to find a way to give a title to posts created this way, either before or after. That means I sort of shoehorn a title into the very first photo's caption, since that will serve as a substitute title.

When Pat told me about Web Albums yesterday I was initially intrigued, then dismissive; it feels odd that, when GMail gives 2GB for email, they'd skimp on storage space for photos like this. The upgraded Web Albums costs the same as Flickr Pro, but Flickr's package is better - unlimited storage for life is far better than 6GB. I'd hope that Google would bump up the sizes on both the free and upgraded accounts when they move from "Test" to "Beta" to "Released." As is, the basic storage is enough for about 1000 images at highest (1600) resolution, more than that at lower (1024) resolution. My initial dream was to have permanent searchable and shareable online storage, and it doesn't look like that will be possible; sooner or later I'll need to move my stuff off their server. Still, that wouldn't be a huge problem. I have plenty of space on my own hard drive and plan on keeping all the originals - if anyone every wants a high-res version of a picture, no matter when it was taken or how I put it online, just ask.

UPDATE 6/21/06: I haven't heard any strong preference for either Blogger or Web Albums, so I think I'll go with the Albums. I like the way it syncs with Picasa, and Google has been pretty good in the past about improving their offerings so I'll hope that they do something about the storage situation. I've already uploaded about 1/5 of my available space, which does not bode very well.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Cliffs of Insanity!!!

... er, I mean, The Mountains of Madness. Close enough.

The book "At the Mountains of Madness" by H. P. Lovecraft is actually a collection of three short novels of around 100 pages each, together with perhaps six short stories. As I've mentioned before, this is my first time reading Lovecraft or the Cthulhu mythos, so I thought I'd give my perspective. What follows are some


The first story I read was the eponymous "At the Mountains of Madness." The setting for this story was the Antarctic, which was a cool choice, and also made me feel a little sad as a 21st-century Earthling. Just eighty years ago, when Lovecraft was writing this, there were still parts of the world that science had not yet explored; he therefore had the leeway to invent fantastic mountain ranges in Antarctica, together with hidden countries in the depths of Africa and other out-of-the-way places. These days there is no frontier, everything has been photographed from above and there are no secrets. I guess the only exceptions are space and the oceans, and it probably isn't coincidental that some of the most effective modern horror stories take place there. (I'm looking at you, Event Horizon.)

Anyways. It's important for Lovecraft to set his book in a largely unknown wasteland, because his narrator is a scientist, and it's important that the scientist remain credible. He's a geologist, part of an expedition that includes biologists and other specialists. The major theme of this story is interesting: there's an obvious contrast between science and the supernatural, but rather than concluding that science is inadequate to explain the supernatural or that their spheres do not overlap, the conclusion is that science SHOULD NOT be used to probe the spiritual. In this story, along with the other Lovecraft pieces in this book, there's a profound terror at waking ancient secrets, of disturbing forces that have been forgotten. Science is, by definition, a drive to discover and increase knowledge, and in these stories, doing so causes terrible results.

In this respect, I think that Lovecraft was impressively ahead of his time. These stories date from the 20s and 30s, well before the dropping of the atom bomb or the development of Agent Orange. I think it's much more palatable today to say that there are some discoveries science shouldn't make, that we might be better off without certain inventions (leaded gasoline, trans fat, the hydrogen bomb). I'm guessing his anti-science perspective was considered much more radical in those days. Then again, maybe not... there's always an element of society that looks with suspicion and fear at change, and I guess the horrors of gas warfare and machine guns in WWI might have started similar trains of thought.

Of course, a difference is that the scientists, scholars and researchers in Lovecraft's stories aren't creating something new; instead, they are rediscovering something old. Earlier I used the word "supernatural", but only with hesitation. To me, supernatural implies something noncorporeal, like ghosts or spirits. By contrast, Lovecraft's "other" is very, very physical and tangible. The threat isn't that something will scare you, it's that something will eat you. These things have long histories and societies and past dealings with humans.

One thing that I appreciate about Lovecraft, while also being frustrated, is that he's much more of a hinter than a teller. His narrators write in a state of advanced fright, and their minds skitter away from the most awful things that have happened to them. This is kind of cool, in that it's a Hitchcockian way to build dread through atmosphere instead of shock. However, it's also annoying in that it becomes repetitive, with the narrator constantly referencing something without providing any actual information about it. They also spend far too much time coming up with adjectives that pile on top of one another to try and convey something about the topic without providing any concrete details, which often leads to results that are more funny than scary. "Horror crept into my mind as I struggled to resist the insane memories of the dark and ancient eldritch terror which chaotically threatened to slither out of the buried secrets of a forgotten and ancient past." (I made that sentence up. It didn't take a lot of effort.)

I guess what I'm trying to get at is, while I appreciate his some-things-are-best-left-hidden theme and his well-constructed mythos, Lovecraft doesn't seem like that great a writer. Now, part of this may be due to differences between literary tastes in 1926 versus 2006, or it could be that I've gotten too used to my own authors and this would seem better to a horror fan. When you get down to it, though, the repetitiveness of the prose, the clunky or nonexistant dialogue, and the narrow characters (usually just a job description and a lot of fear) leave me feeling let down.

And yet... While I enjoyed "At the Mountains of Madness," it didn't really frighten me. "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," while still subject to the same criticisms, actually did. I can think of a few reasons why: the setting is more familiar, a suburban community rather than Antarctica; the "supernatural" bit is also more familiar, touching more on necromancy, vampirism and demonology than the wholly-original elements in "At the Mountains of Madness". Granted, it didn't really terrify me, but for the first time in a while I can feel a little creeped out after putting down a book.

The collection begins with a forward by a Lovecraft scholar introducing the works, of which he seems to rank "At the Mountains of Madness" at the top. I can see why he might do so, it feels more original to me than the others, but as a story I far prefer "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." Mainly just because there's more happening in it; AtMoM mainly consists of a single discovery and a single journey, while TCoCDW covers several centuries, has a varied cast of characters, and included multiple discoveries and conflicts. It doesn't seem to suffer from the same padding as the former, and so there's less opportunity for the narrator to wax eloquent.

Another common element in the stories is that the reader is always far ahead of the narrator. The narrator will provide enough clues to describe what's happening very early on, but will either postpone actually drawing that conclusion for several dozen pages or will never get it. This is especially evident in TCoCDW, where the question of just what happened to Ward becomes extremely obvious just a few pages in, but the narrator, despite having all the evidence and being quite willing to make other mental leaps, remains stunningly obtuse. I'm not entirely sure what the reason for this is. Is it to make the readers feel smarter and superior to the people telling the story? Or is it like an 80s horror movie, where you see that the door is unlocked and want to yell out, "Lock the door!"

Bottom line: I'm glad I read these stories, and I'm pleased to better understand a body of work that is referenced by so many things I've enjoyed (INWO, the Illuminatus! trilogy, Internet comics, etc.). I also think it's good for me to occasionally visit genres I don't read much: it keeps me open-minded, and gives me a broader perspective of what's being done (or has been done) in fiction. Having read this, I do not feel compelled to run out and devour all of his other books in the same way I've done with Vonnegut and Stephenson; I feel like I've gotten a representative sample of Lovecraft, and that should be enough for me. If I ever do return it will probably be for The Call of Cthulhu, because I love that title and it seems to be the most well-known of his. Until then, I'll just be really careful not to write about Yog-Sothoth.... oh, no!

Breaking News

Republicans are commie pinkos.

(Not really. Just an experiment in Google bombing. I'll let you know in a week if one isolated web page makes any dent in Google's results.)

UPDATE 6/28/06: Success!

Monday, June 12, 2006


As I think I've mentioned before, I occasionally attend Mobile Monday, which is a monthly gathering of Bay Area mobile developers. I decide on a case by case basis whether to attend, depending on the location and the topic. (Mobile Search at Google? I am SO there! Funding a Start-Up in Berkeley? Eh... pass.) This week the topic was the current handset market, with hard data from researchers about what phone models were out there, what their capabilities were, how different carriers and manufacturers compared, etc. It's a topic that (a) is somewhat relavant to my current work, and (b) I don't know a whole lot about. So, after riding back home (oh yeah, I'm riding to work again), I showered, hopped in my car, and drove up to the Motorola plant in Sunnyvale, who was hosting the meeting.

A little background - the same two people have been organizing most meetings, which are very ad-hoc. They depend on donations of space and supplies for the meetings. Sometimes, as with Google, it's really classy - they gave us a nice big conference room and their cafe catered in some nice appetizers and fancy desserts. Others are more ordinary - I went to a meeting at AOL held in a regular conference room, where a local headhunting firm had ordered lots of pizza for everyone.

In lieu of my normal post, I would like to transcribe verbatim from my notebook the comments I wrote to myself while sitting on a chair in Motorola's cafeteria, waiting for the meeting to begin.

Mo Mo Mo - Mobile Monday Motorola
Topic: Phone hardware market and more
Almost nobody's here! It was hard to find, though
It doesn't help that we're in a cafe, with food tantalizingly out of reach behind glass cases, along with signs that say "HUNGRY? We can help!" The joke being that, while perhaps they could help, they choose not to.
Man.... I will be very tempted to leave if they start this without any food. I do not need this. I rode 15 miles today.
It's also cute how the email made a point of saying that we needed to get here at 7 sharp. It's well past that, with no word on when we're starting.
If I'd stayed home, I'd be eating my last Lou Malnati's now.
As it is, I could run my errands and still get back in time to eat enchiladas before 8. No "professional development" is worth this.
Food food food foof [sic] food food.
If I'd started lunch at noon as planned, instead of 11:58, I'd be 2 minutes less hungry than I am now.
OK... plenty of people now. Maybe even too many for the chairs laid out. Nobody else seems as furious as me, though. No, they're happily standing, chatting, mingling, networking, while I'm over here, slumped over in my chair, trying to distract myself from hunger pains by writing about how hungry I am. This isn't the smartest thing I've done.
Seriously, though: what's the deal? I've had this fantasy that someone ran out for pizza. Maybe they haven't started yet because they're waiting for it to get here. Yeah, right!
Oh, sure... they're waiting until NOW to set up the projector? Geniuses!
I propose an armed insurrection.
There are more women here than I expected. Still just around 10-15%, but still. I wonder if more women attend certain topics?
My rage fills me. My hunger consumes me. Which will fall first, my mind or my body? That will be tonight's entertainment.
They just gave the 5-minute warning. "Yay." No food, I guess.... what a shame. I will destroy everyone.
Now the question: do I leave now? Seems like a waste. They haven't said for sure that we aren't having food, I guess.
Finally starting.
Next month may be messaging!

[End of pre-meeting notes. I won't bother transcribing my notes from the actual meeting.]

(There wasn't any food. I ended up eating an enchilada much later than I would have preferred. The meeting itself was quite useful and informative.)

(I promise this will be my last food-oriented post for a while.)

Saturday, June 10, 2006


I finished reading Fast Food Nation on Thursday night. This is one of the longest gaps I've had between wanting to read a book and actually doing it. I first heard about it in early 2001 when my friend (and radical rabble-rouser) Brother Jon strongly recommended it to me. He tends to have excellent taste in literature, what with working at a library and all, so I mentally filed it under "Books to Read - Nonfiction."

Unfortunately, I tend to read many more novels than nonfiction books, and while I didn't doubt that FFN was a good book its subject matter didn't immediately grab me in the way that, say, a biography on Alexander Hamilton would. I enjoy food, and have developed a generalized distrust of global corporations, but I am not particularly passionate about either of these items. It seemed like any time I would read a newspaper snippet about an outrageous action in the food industry I would say "Wow, that's awful," then promptly move on.

I think I also made the assumption that the book was exclusively focused on fast food, which I just don't eat that much of. Eating fast food was definitely a treat when I was growing up, something that we would do maybe once or twice a year, usually while on a multiple-day family car vacation. Eating at sit-down restaurants was even more rare, and didn't become a part of my life until I started joining my high school friends for an occasional trip to Chili's. Continuing in family tradition, I only ate fast food when on long car trips.

Looking back, my diet probably became less healthy during and right after college, but fast food wasn't really a part of it. Well, many of the meals I ate at Bears Den (hamburgers, chicken tenders) count as fast food, but not chain food. During my last year in college and first six months or so in Kansas City I ate a large amount of frozen food (microwave dinners and the like), but almost never fast food. Eventually I started cooking all my own meals, a state where I remain today. My fast food consumption has radically jumped since moving to California, but it entirely consists of In-N-Out, which I visit maybe once every two or three months.

Why did I continue to avoid fast food even after gaining disposable income? I never consciously thought about it, but a variety of factors were probably in play. First, since it wasn't a habit of mine before, it would have taken more effort to start than to continue not going. Second, I'm pretty cheap when it comes to things like food, and while a $5 Value Meal may be cheap compared to a restaurant meal it's still much more expensive than making my own meal, or even a microwave dinner. Third, ever since I was young I had this vague impression that fast food was unhealthy for you. I still enjoyed eating it, but my thinking was on the order of "This must be unhealthy because it tastes so good!" Finally, it never seemed very convenient to me; I got hungry at home or at work, where my food was, not during the 10 or so minutes I was in the car commuting. Any time I did go to a fast food restaurant I would need to wait in line inside or in the drive-through, so it didn't seem particularly fast to me.

That's way too much background, just to explain why I thought FFN would be an interesting book with almost nothing specific for me. I practically never eat fast food, so why should I care?

I was prompted to finally pick up the book after Pat read it and underwent a "life-changing experience." Due to his higher sociability Patrick eats out more often than me, including runs to Steak & Shake and other Chicago-area favorites. Still, he doesn't regularly eat fast food, and the few things he told me about the book made me realize it covered more than just the fast-food industry. I also had previously seen and enjoyed Super-Size Me, a great documentary from Morgan Spurlock which starts off focusing on McDonalds but entertainingly and engagingly expands to look at food and health in the United States as a whole. Over Christmas vacation I re-watched the movie with my parents on DVD, and for the first time saw a featured conversation between Spurlock and Eric Schlosser, the author of FFN. It was extremely interesting and insightful, going more into the disease concerns that Schlosser has rather than the weight concerns of Spurlock. He (Schlosser) also talked about how much he enjoyed In-n-Out, which made me realize (a) that it was probably okay for me to patronize the chain, and (b) that he was not a fanatical zero-sum vegetarian. The book bumped up a few slots on my nonfiction queue, and a few weeks ago I checked it out of the library, along with H. P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" and an account of the Tokyo subway attacks; I didn't realize it at the time, but I must have been trying to kick off a horror cycle.

My bottom-line review of the book: it's really good. Despite many superficial similarities to Super-Size Me, it covers almost completely different topics. The book is earnest and authoritative, probably fitting under the "muckracking" banner but getting there through careful research and documentation. It will appeal most to people interested in the societal aspects of commercial impulses, but it's one of those rare books that everybody really should read. Its message is important enough, and surprising enough, that it demands attention. Best of all, this is not a the-sky-is-falling book like "What's the Matter with Kansas" that leaves you feeling enraged and impotent; Schlosser provides detailed information on what is wrong, and equally detailed information on what you can do to protect yourself and enact beneficial changes.

The book starts off with a few chapters covering the history of fast food in America and the effects of the industry on our economy. It's pretty fascinating to read about how a tiny collection of carts in southern California spawned a global empire, and this part of the book can be read as a Horatio Alger tale. Much more distressing is his account of the hardships the industry has put on the labor market. To keep their profit margins as high as possible, fast-food restaurants deliberately encourage high turnover and do not train their workers. His descriptions of the ways the companies cut corners and hurt their workers are pretty sobering.

I must say, as bad as you feel for McDonalds' workers, they are living privileged lives compared to those in other areas Schlosser surveys. The great triumph of this book is the way it shows how everything is connected; because McDonalds is the single largest purchaser of beef and potatoes in the US, it exerts incredible influence on its supply chain, and has encouraged consolidation and widespread cost-cutting in the agricultural industry. People often think of McDonalds as being emblematic of a capitalistic free-market economy, but one of the stunning things about this book is all the anti-competitive or outright criminal behavior of the companies profiled. A handful of powerful companies control the vast majority of beef and potato production in the US, not because they are the most efficient, but because they colluded with one another, drove out competitors, and lied to their own suppliers and consumers.

As with Super-Size Me, what starts as a work narrowly focused on one area expands, and you realize that the influence of fast-food companies expands far beyond their walls. Schlosser says that "what we eat has changed more in the last 40 years than in the previous 40000", and I'm inclined to agree with him. It's not that McDonalds has its beef made one particular way and the rest of us get it the old-fashioned way; the whole industry has been reshaped, and whether we ever eat at a fast-food restaurant or not, we're eating the same beef.

Back to the workers: his stories and statistics about people who work at meatpacking plants will probably be the second-most vivid memory you have after reading the book. The individual tales of people being decapitated, burned in vats of acid, having limbs amputated or the like may be outrageous, as well as the $7000 fine companies need to pay for each death. The fact that one out of every three workers is injured on the job every year brings home just how widespread a problem this is.

Pat said on his blog that this book makes the best case he has seen yet for government regulation, and I definitely agree. In the last 20 years the FDA, OSHA and USDA have been stripped of almost all their regulatory power, and as a result there is no incentive for companies to avoid pushing their workers to produce as much as possible, even when that greatly increases the risks of accidents and death.

The thing most people will probably remember is his description of what cows are fed and how they are fed; much as AIDS cases exploded after people began travelling more and having more sexual contacts, there has been a similar explosion in foodborne illnesses now that cattle feed and rendering have grown so consolidated. Cows eat the rendered remains of dead cows (and cats, dogs, sheep, pigs, whatever's handy), and any individual hamburger will contain meat from over a dozen different cows, so a single infected animal can spread its bacteria over a far larger geographical range than it could have before. There's even more gross stuff that I don't really want to write down, but it definitely churns the stomach in much the same way I imagine The Jungle did a hundred years ago.

Once again, though, Schlosser isn't some radical eco-vegetarian; the current state of American food production is atrocious, but it doesn't need to be that way. He closes the book with a description of renegade cattlemen raising grass-fed cows in Colorado; such a system has worked for most of human history, and with the right kind of pressures it could happen again. He lists all the reforms that ought to take place to protect against a massive outbreak of e-coli or BSE (ban feeding of rendered ruminants, etc.) and then says taking all those steps would raise the cost of a hamburger by only a few pennies. (Once again, government regulations seem like a good idea. If such standards were applied nationwide, even those few pennies wouldn't make a difference since they would apply to all chains.)

I read the paperback which contains a new afterword by Schlosser. In it he talks about the BSE outbreak in Europe, where Mad Cow disease was transmitted to humans in the form of vJCD, and how it relates to the arguments of his book. He also points out that, while he has been broadly attacked by industry figures and others, nobody has refuted the specific facts he lays out in his book. (A few errors were pointed out and have been corrected in the paperback.) He closes with an encouraging and optimistic description of ways consumers have successfully challenged McDonalds to, for example, remove beef from its french fries and ensure cows are humanely slaughtered; because of McDonalds' might, these changes have in turn effected the entire beef industry, this time for good. Little actions by consumers can have a big impact on the food everyone eats.

That was a little long for a book review, and I still left out some of the most interesting parts of the book - his analysis of the global spread of McDonalds, the way America's school lunch program gets the most dangerous meat, and an incredibly depressing explanation of the influence lobbyists have had on our nation's agricultural policies. Still, hopefully this has whetted your appetite (ha, ha! get it?) for more.

One quick note for if and when you read the book - don't ignore the extended "Notes" section in the back of the book. Any time he throws out a statistic that strikes you as odd or outrageous, page to the back; he has done an excellent job at documenting his sources, and he usually provides more context in the notes (which often boils down to something like, "While the official statistics show that one in every three meatpackers are injured each year, such statistics are compiled by the companies in question and may in reality be much higher").

So, what's going to be the impact on me from reading the book? My attitude going in was, "It's probably going to really gross me out. I'm going to regret reading this, because what we don't know can't hurt us." Well, I was wrong... what we don't know can in fact hurt us a great deal. That's part of why I think it's important for people to read this book. It ultimately boils down to giving consumers the information they need to make smart decisions. After the surgeon general started putting warnings on cigarette packs, people were still free to continue smoking, but from that point on they were aware of the risks and owned their decision. People who smoked before then weren't any better off by being ignorant.

My personal take on it is, it's a question of risk. (I'm going to talk specifically about beef, because Schlosser spends a lot of time on it and I enjoy it, but it applies to other areas as well.) You can eat cheap beef from anywhere with a higher risk of there being something bad in it; or you can eat slightly more expensive beef that you buy at certain locations which carries a lower risk of problems. (If you're a socially-minded person, you may also want to consider whether your purchase supports independent ranchers or exploitative agribusiness interests.) Now, even if I only bought free-range grass-fed organic beef for the rest of my life, I wouldn't be able to totally eliminate the risk of getting sick - there's always the small chance that I'm eating a burger from one particular cow who got sick and somehow wasn't tested. But I'm confident that risk is quite a bit smaller than if that same cow was fed to a hundred other cows, whose parts then went into a thousand burgers.

Put in more practical terms: I have two pounds of ground beef in my freezer now, and at some point I'm going to eat it. See the top of this post - I'm pretty cheap when it comes to food, and I won't toss out meat. In the future, I may start getting my meat from Whole Foods... it's not a whole lot more expensive, and they place strict requirements on their suppliers that satisfy the concerns I have after reading this book. If I'm at someone's house and they're grilling burgers, I won't be a prick and say "I don't eat that COMMON beef"; if I control my own meals when I can, though, the relative risk from those uncontrolled meals, amortized throughout my life, becomes something I can accept.

Kids aren't even on my horizon now, but if and when I become a parent, this book will have an impact on how I raise them. I'm grateful to my parents for not becoming a fast-food kid, and would like to pass that on to my own. Hopefully our country's food standards will be higher by the time I have any children; if not, I'll probably be like Schlosser and make sure my kids don't eat beef. The stories I read about kids dying of e-coli were heartbreaking, and the industry's continued refusal to police itself keeps the risk too high.

So, that's about it: when I buy meat for myself, I'll probably be getting "vegetarian beef" from cattle fed with grains and vegetables. I will continue to avoid fast-food places other than In-n-Out (and, perhaps, the occasional Jack in the Box). Besides that, my life probably won't change much... I have too many other issues on my plate to get involved in the food safety campaign beyond my actions as a consumer. Also, I need to do some research on chickens; I'm actually eating about three or four times as much chicken as beef these days, and Schlosser only briefly covers that industry in his book. I'm guessing that the same sort of concerns apply: chicken aren't ruminants, but concerns over salmonella and bird flu show that they also have risks, and I'm hoping that there are similar easy solutions there of eating vegetarian chickens. I'll report back with my findings.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

I Love the Girls and the Money and the Shame Of Life

I've been looking forward to the DevCon for a while. Last year, while I was still with Nexgenesis, I attended the Sprint Application Developers Conference, which focused on developing J2ME applications for Sprint users. It was pretty interesting, even though most of it did not really apply to me since most of my development was in BREW. Still, it's always good to expand your horizons, and conferences are great for getting a taste of what the Next Big Thing is going to be.

From talking with folks at Rocket Mobile about it, it sounded like the BREW DevCon had more of a party atmosphere. The people who had gone before had some entertaining stories about the fun stuff that had happened in previous years.

Last year, due to a major crunch at work, nobody was able to attend. This year, Wayne wanted to make it up to everyone by sending the whole company. Unfortunately, a few projects were under a lot of pressure, and so a lot of people were not able to go. Those of us who were still fine headed out on Wednesday morning. I did my standard VTA to the airport thing. Most people were leaving on the same flight, so we hung out in the gate area together, and took over several rows when we boarded.

Flying in to San Diego was really nice. As I said before, this was my first visit there ever, and from the air it looked as beautiful as I expected, with the striking blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean leading up to clean beaches and the gleaming towers of downtown. The airport itself wasn't quite as good - it's nice and modern, but the layout is a little awkward, we had to walk quite a ways to get to the taxi area and then needed to wait too long to be serviced. Neither the Hyatt nor the conference were running shuttles, which really bemuses me, since everyone waiting for a taxi (and there were more than a few of us) were obviously there for the con.

The conference officially runs for Thursday and Friday, but there were "pre-Conference" sessions on Wednesday. We speculated whether we'd actually make it there in time for the first one, which started at 1PM. A fleet of taxis eventually arrived, though, and we did the five-minute ride to the Hyatt. This was a very nice, huge hotel, and had been overrun with nerds. I was rooming with Josh, who does QA for my team and is the youngest RM employee. We checked in, deposited stuff in our room (a corner!), then headed to the conference area to get checked in. We got some nice swag including a T-shirt and a backpack, along with the customary notebook and designer pen.

It's kind of amazing just how much time I would spend thinking about food: when we were eating, what we would be eating, how much I should eat, how it tasted, whether there would be dessert, where dessert would be, and so on. I think this was mainly due to my unpleasant realization on that very first day that I would not be eating any lunch. The rest of the meals would be provided through the con, but since it hadn't technically started yet, I was on my own. I realized this too late to acquire any food, so I stood around complaining with Greg and Josh for a while until my conference started. I attended the BREW uiOne introductory sessions; I'd poked around uiOne a little before, and others in our company have done quite a lot with it (including the initial work for Samsung's Sprint handset that was featured during this conference), but hadn't done any actual coding. It was a pretty interesting session and well-structured, starting with an abstract overview in the first session down to plenty of real code examples in the second one.

I was pretty hungry by the time it was all over, so I made a beeline for the Partner Pavilion. This was a huge ballroom that had been converted into a showroom, filled with booths from software developers, OEMs, outsourcers, Qualcomm teams, and more, all boasting their wares. More importantly, from 5-7 it would be the location for Happy Hour. I grabbed some Dos Equis (hey, if I'm that close to Mexico, do I really have much of a choice?) and loaded up a plate with plenty of crackers and cheese and fruit before hanging out with Chris and Shane. I was a little surprised to be carded for the beer, but it wouldn't be the last time; over the course of the conference I was carded more times than I have been in the previous year. Which seems odd; I had a badge, and one would think that someone old enough to work as a developer would probably be over 21, right? Well, someday I'll probably look back on this and take it as a compliment.

I wandered around the showroom for a while, checking out the various offerings. As with most of the conference it was very fluid: I would meet up with various groups of RM people, walk with them a while, then we'd split up and go separately or meet with other RM folks. One of my favorite things was getting to talk with people who I've seen around the office but haven't interacted with much before; I had a nice long chat with Richard, who is a new developer on the Published Apps side.

Running out of steam, I went back to my room and flipped through my schedule, planning my course for the next two days. Jim had mentioned before that he wanted us to split up to cover more ground, but I hadn't heard any specific schedules set, so for each slot I picked the one I wanted to attend, with a few alternates just in case it was full or we already had too many people there. Josh came back and we headed out to the Welcome Reception, held in the Embarcadero waterfront park.

This was a really excellent setup, with a variety of food stations scattered throughout, plenty of large tables, and stretches of entertainment. There was a variety of Mexican food, Italian food, roast beef, and maybe more that I missed, along with an excellent dessert selection. Charles and Ray had already arrived, and together we staked out a table. We took turns filling and refilling our plates as people came and went... again, fluidity was the watchword of the conference. At one point we were joined by John Sullivan, Wayne and Sheila, but by the time I thought to take a picture John had already left and the three of them weren't ever together again. I did get some other good shots here, though. I had some more Dos Equis and got carded again.

After it got dark, Chris, James, Josh and myself decided to wander and see if we could find the "rides" Sheila had talked about. She was either drunk or had gone to another place, we couldn't find any rides at all. What we did find, though, was still pretty cool: cariciturists, a beatboxer, some cool green-screen music-video things, more bars, and a big old inflatable balloon thing. We posed for a hilarious picture (few things are more entertaining that computer science professionals attempting to look cool) and the evening generally degenerated.

Rajiv and Graham had stayed behind to take care of some last-minute business, but arrived just as we were heading out. Some of the guys were going out again for more drinking, but Josh and I were operating on too little sleep so we went back and crashed. I was briefly awoken by what sounded like a freight train derailing, then again by my alarm. Barely conscious, I stumbled into the bathroom and got ready for the day.

Why was I up so early? Primarily because, as previously noted, I was obsessed with food. Thursday started with "Developer Breakfast Roundtables," where people sit at tables and discuss stuff while eating. It ran from 7-9 with the warning that "Seats fill up quickly, so come early!" Horrified at the thought of needing to wait until noon for my next meal, I was willing to get up early (though, granted, with about 8 hours of sleep due to my early bedtime) to ensure a seat at the table.

It turns out that I didn't need to worry. Breakfast was not exclusive to the Developer Breakfast Roundtables. I grabbed a plate, plundered the continental spread with a croissant, fruit and danish, then joined Shane (and later Eric and Ray) for the meal.

The conference officially started at 9 with a welcome from Peggy Johnson, the President of Qualcomm Internet Services. She was wearing capris, and actually looked pretty good in them, thus destroying my theory that no real person ever looks good in capris. Oh, but wait: before she took the stage, we were treated to an extremely high-energy hip-hop song called "BREW Your Way." It was pretty special. Lots of breakdancers, rapping, drumming, crazy video images, duelling singers... it was simultaneously awful and exciting. Peggy took the stage after they left, and ensured everyone would be uncomfortable by attempting to explain to us the "lingo" used in the song. "When they say 'My BREW is Tight,'" she helpfully explained, "That means, 'My BREW is really good.'"

The welcome and keynote were held in the Elizabeth Ballroom, a simply massive space. I sat up front along with Ray and the other old-timers, but those further back were treated with rows and rows of enormous video projectors that ensured everyone could see everything. Even people who had been to the conference before were impressed by how big it all was, and I heard a lot of reminiscing about the old conference before it moved to the Hyatt.

Peggy introduced Dr. Paul Jacobs, the CEO of Qualcomm, who delivered the keynote. It was... a really odd experience. He's a very fine speaker, and showed off a lot of impressive statistics (BREW developers made over $750 million in 2005!), but the highpoint of his speech was showing off something called "Creatures." The idea was sort of cool, basically they're network-aware social-networking applications that live on the phone and are geared around commerce. He gave an example of Creatures being used to remind you of a friend's birthday and suggesting what to buy him, or letting you know what music your friends like so you can be a great DJ at a housewarming party. It's the sort of thing that's guaranteed to generate a press release, but for the developers out there, it was really dumb... it was clearly just a series of screenshots, there was no actual application there, nothing real to show off. It might prove to be something other than vaporware, but it felt curiously insubstantial to make the show's centerpiece.

It was only the centerpiece for a few minutes, though... after the keynote, we never heard about Creatures again. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Dr. Jacobs was followed by this long-haired executive from Sony BMG, which was a pretty interesting talk, in no small part because of Rocket Mobile's association with Sony. He talked about how digital music sales are rapidly catching up to physical sales in the US, and have already blown past them in much of Asia. Digital music includes iTunes and stuff in addition to ringtones on mobiles, but it's still impressive. It's a section of the industry that I'm not too plugged in to so it was nice to get some more information about it.

Staying for BMG meant I had missed out on the first half of the day's first technical session. I had planned to attend the Developer Awards Ceremony - RM wasn't up for anything this year, but it sounded interesting and there were some cool apps on deck. I ran into Jim in the interim, and he suggested I attend the Advanced TrigML session, so I did. The room was totally packed; I had to stand out in the hallway for the first bit, finally making my way in when others left (presumably to attend the awards ceremony). Having done one UIOne course for the day (or at least part of it), it made sense to follow it up with another, so I finished up the morning with uiOne Actor Development. Unlike Cathy, who attended both sessions, I thought the Actor session was more interesting. Then again, I tend to think that low-level C code is intrinsically more interesting than UI, so I may not be the best judge. In either case, by the end of these sessions I felt like I had a really good grasp of uiOne, and feel fairly confident that I'll be able to use it if the situation demands.

Up next: Lunch! Lunches were pretty good both days, your standard sandwich-plus-potato-salad-plus-fruit-plus-chips affair. I'd lost track of people after the Actors session so I wandered around a while, hoping to find some people on the lawn, but failing. I eventually located a table that held Cathy, Sasha, Erik, and Peter, who was a friend of Eric's when they were at CMU together and who has worked at Qualcomm for over a decade. We had a nice long conversation, I learned a lot about San Diego from Peter and shared my enthusiasm at moving to the west coast.

We split up and I wandered some more. My wanderings took me back to the Partner Pavillion, where dessert was served. And what good dessert it was! A wide variety of tasty cakes tempted. Food quality waxed and waned throughout the conference, but the desserts were dependably delicious.

That afternoon I had lined up my "fun" sessions for the week. The first was "Dirge of Cerberus Lost Episode - Final Fantasy VII." I was pleased to find Shane attending as well, which helped me feel like what I was doing wasn't totally marginal. And it really wasn't. This was a case study on translating the FF universe into the mobile space; the two panelists were Kosei Ito, a producer from Square Enix, and Alex Caccia, the COO of Ideaworks 3D, who were SE's partners. All the content was really interesting. For those of you who don't know, Asia in general and Japan and South Korea in particular have far more advanced mobile phones than we do here, and they are generally a generation or two ahead of us. Japan actually had a Final Fantasy cell game (Before Crisis, also FFVII-related) back when most people here thought "Breakout" on a cell was pretty cool. There was a lot of conversation about the different expectations of user groups, and also about how SE was able to preserve the hallmarks of the FF series, including impressive cutscenes.

Oh, I should probably mention here that Ito-san (or is it Kosei-san? I can never remember) spoke entirely in Japanese; there was a translator who handled the English part. That was really cool. I couldn't understand anything he was saying but it sounded great.

Back to the content: the technical things they talked about were really interesting, at least to me. Rather than download the entire game at one, subscribers were basically downloading an engine, and the content was streamed onto the handset as needed. This keeps space available on the mobile, and with Japan's advanced 3G network, this didn't really require any latency. Similarly, they tried to be smart about the graphics: they carefully chose palettes for objects at different resolutions so, for example, an enemy may have 8-bit color when on the horizon but a full 24-bit color when standing right in front of you. They could swap these models in and out to achieve the optimum balance between speed and detail. There were other technical solutions they covered, but those were the highlights for me.

Their information on the business front was also impressive. On the very first day Beyond Crisis launched, 1.6 MILLION people downloaded it. This is a staggering number for a cell-phone game even in Japan, and unheard of in the US. Most of what they showed us this day was from Dirge of Cerberus, a more recent game that is planned to actually get a release in the US at some point. Unlike BC, which really stands alone, DoC is being released in tandem with a PS2 game, with both featuring Vincent from FFVII. Both games are action shooters, but the restraints on a mobile phone (small screen, poor controls) required them to radically rethink the mechanics of the game. In the end, the mobile version of DoC is designed to reward the player for planning and decision-making, as opposed to twitch reflexes. The videos they showed were simply amazing, playing out in real-time with impressive gun battles, but you could see what they were talking about: the playing field was primarily a plane, and movement generally followed a grid, so while it looked very smooth, aiming automatically followed from movement.

Tangent time: If you have a cell and enjoy gaming, you might want to check out "Doom RPG". This is a mobile game written by John Carmack of iD, and is essentially a turn-based FPS. It's very well-done and a lot of fun. I bring it up here because Carmack took a similar challenge (how to bring a shooter IP to the mobile) and came up with a completely different solution (change the play genre while keeping the setting, plot and themes). Carmack's approach may be more interesting, and is virtually a necessity in the current US market where only a fraction of phones are remotely capable of supporting a real-time action game; Square Enix's approach is more technically daring, difficult, and probably represents the future.

Back to the session (didn't I already say that?): The Ideaworks guy talked a fair amount about his company's proprietary technology - not saying how it was implemented, of course, but walking down a list of what it accomplished. It included extreme compression rates, the cool resolution-swapping trick, some special audio things and advanced caching algorithms (so you don't need to stream additional content when staying in the same area).

Q&A was good, although I get the impression a few things got lost in translation. Someone asked about what happens if the user loses a connection while streaming data, and Kosei's answer was basically "Streaming lets us keep the amount of data on the handset to a minimum."

All this was very interesting, but arguably the highlight of the panel were the demo videos and trailers they showed throughout. I'm a bit of a Final Fantasy nerd (though not to quite as great an extent as, say, Ultima or Baldur's Gate), and it was really exciting to see all my old friends from FFVII in action again.

I had a good long chat with Shane afterwards. I hadn't realized he was a gamer, and we reminisced a bit about our favorite games of the past. We both are into RPGs, and he's currently slowly working his way through Oblivion. He mentioned that there actually used to be a Neverwinter Nights game for mobile phones that he thought was pretty good; it may have been on the T720, and also used the same streaming strategy that Dirge of Cerberus uses. He also talked up GameFly and how much sense it makes compared to buying a game.

The second afternoon session was also planned as a fun one, though of a slightly different sort. The title was "LBS Architecture for Security and Privacy." This is another area that RM really isn't involved in, but the short description made it sound like it would tap into a lot of the digital liberties issues that I'm most passionate about. I was not disappointed.

The main speakers included John DeAquiar from Autodesk, who represented the carriers' interests, and Rob Whitman, the CEO of RiffWare, who represented developers. To provide some background to my readers: LBS stands for Location Based Services, and for many years now has been the Next Big Thing in mobile development. Think of it as a GPS in your cell phone, though it's possible to have LBS without a GPS. With a bit of thought you can come up with the benefits this might offer: Google Maps with your current location displayed, a geocaching program, a friend finder, and all sorts of other stuff. With a bit more thought you can begin to imagine some potential problems and why some people might be reluctant to use it: what if other people can also find you? What if some of your friends don't want to be found?

John briefly introduced the topic and defined his terms: "security" means ensuring that only authorized people can access data, and "privacy" means users can control who gets to see the data. He pointed out that security is a pre-requisite for privacy: it doesn't matter how good a company's privacy policy is if people can steal their data. Then he talked about the three security architectures from the perspective of the network: "Trusted," "Mostly trusted," and "Untrusted." You can imagine these as points along a continuum, with very easy but insecure at the top and very hard but secure at the bottom. In the trusted case, any program can do anything. In the mostly trusted case, the program needs to authenticate itself with the network (as with a login and password), but once it passes that it can do anything. In the untrusted case, every request a program ever sends the network is considered suspicious, and the network relies on its internal policies to determine whether to authorize that request or not; it also performs additional challenges to ensure that it is dealing with the actual client and not a "man in the middle" attack.

After covering all this, John concluded that everyone should run untrusted networks. It's a pain for both carriers and developers, but is the only way to ensure security, and the carriers are so exposed to financial liability in the event of breaches that they can't afford to do anything else.

Rob made it clear off the bat that he wanted to be controversial and provoke discussion. His big thesis was: carriers are already capable of tracking you everywhere. The government can get that information any time you want. By carrying a cell phone, you are already giving up your privacy. That said, do programs' privacy or lack thereof really matter? In other words, should a developer need to jump through hoops to ensure nobody can find you, when an entity is already tracking you?

He also briefly covered some possible ways to enhance privacy. For example, in a mapping program, instead of sending a request for a map in San Jose, the program might simultaneously request San Jose, Chicago, and Boston; that way, someone monitoring your IP traffic wouldn't know what city you were in. Similarly, a phone might pull down a bunch of data in advance, then operate statically on that data instead of transmitting its location and requesting specific data. The main goal here is to eliminate broadcasts of potentially private data.

The Q&A was relaxed and wide-ranging. There was a fair amount of discussion over EULAs, which nobody reads anyways and which are impenetrable on a mobile screen. Can we really rely on EULAs to disclose what aspects of privacy we may be giving up? Several people thought it would be better to build it into the program itself, for example by asking the user every time you would broadcast their location.

My last session of the day was far more practical, and it covered the BREW Dispatcher. BREW is a single-threaded, event-driven programming environment, and as such its architecture is quite a bit different from Java or even most desktop C++ applications. I've gotten a good handle on it, but this is one of those areas where I felt I could stand to learn more, so I headed over to the session. At least, I tried to. It was held in the Randle conference rooms on the fourth floor, and I proved to be uniquely unqualified to find them. I finally tracked it down and walked in just as it was starting, fortunately grabbing a chair next to Rajiv, my previous officemate.

Most of the session covered the use of IThread, a 3.0 API that adds virtual threading support to BREW's architecture. The presenter (a Qualcomm director) talked about how it was implemented and what it could or could not do. (Bottom line: it's best used when porting existing code that takes "blocking" actions on resources such as network sockets; it can also be useful for heavily stack-based ports because an IThread's stack is actually on the heap. [Yeah, I know.] Since threads aren't pre-emptive, you need to be very cautious about starvation and other issues.) He also dug a bit more into the implementation of BREW's event system, which is more of what I was interested in, and contrasted use of ISHELL_Resume with AEECallbacks. He really likes callbacks, and think that people should generally use them.

There were a ton of questions and some of them were pretty heated. Someone asked about when pre-emptive threads would come; the word was "it's in the planning stage." Rajiv essentially accused them of draining battery life by implementing a polling loop for their events; he dodged the question and talked about the advantages of the event-driven model. Others chimed in with their concerns about performance. I really wanted to ask how timers fit into the event model, but since nobody else was mentioning them I figured it was probably a stupid question.

After the session closed, Rajiv, Charles and I spent a good ten minutes or so talking about Rajiv's question. Charles pointed out that, while the pseudocode the presenter had shown displayed the event reactor as a while loop, in reality it exists outside BREW in the OEM layer, and may even reside in hardware. That's where the question comes in, because if it's hardware-driven, it isn't polling, and won't have nearly as many no-ops that drain battery life; if it's in software, it'll cause all sorts of headaches. Rajiv thinks that the VZW Razr may implement it in software because the battery life is poor, but the bottom line is none of us know for sure, and there really isn't anything we (or even Qualcomm) can do about it. (My thought is that, since Qualcomm makes the CDMA chips, they'd be foolish not to offer the hardware capabilities to the OEMs, and the OEMs would be foolish not to use it.)

It was now around 5:30, about 90 minutes before the start of BREWFest. I was sorely tempted to walk over to the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park where it was being held: it was a gorgeous day outside, I hadn't really been anywhere in San Diego besides the airport and hotel, and I was starting to feel the pain of too little exercise. Judging from my map it was just over two miles, a very reasonable distance for a walker like me.

I swung by my room first, though, and ended up hanging out with Josh. Josh is an avid cyclist of the downhill-racing and stunt variety; he broke his... foot, I think, last year when he failed to clear a ravine. Anyways, he had downloaded a video that showed incredibly talented trick cyclists doing all sorts of crazy stunts, from extreme downhill racing to city tricks (hopping from bench to bench, riding on railroad tracks, jumping from one side of a bridge to the other, and so on). That took us up until 6:15, when buses were supposed to start leaving for Balboa, so I decided to skip the walk and just ride.

Turns out that was a smart move. Unbeknownst to me, only people boarding the buses would be issued the bracelets and drink tickets necessary for the evening's entertainment. If I'd walked there I may well have been turned away at the door, which would have been awful.

A Rocket Mobile crew seized the front quarter of a charter bus and excitedly made our way down to the Hall of Champions. The event had been built up as the social highlight of the conference, its promise of food, drinking and music gripping all of us. The location proved to be pretty cool. The HoC is a sports museum, apparently the largest of its kind not devoted to one particular sport; the walls were covered with various balls, bats, signed photos and other memmorabilia, while display cases lined the floor. There were no single large gathering spaces, but instead a variety of tables and stations spread throughout three floors.

The food was... meh. After the previous night I'd held high hopes, but this was merely mediocre: bowls of jambalaya, some sad slices of chicken, and not a lot else. I quickly lost sight of everyone, then touched base with Arvi, Raffi, Richard and Rajiv; we grabbed two tables and pulled them together in anticipation of a large RM crowd settling, but after several minutes it became clear we were on our own. This was doubly unfortunate because it invited visitors, including one strange guy who introduced himself and sat down. I forget his name and the company he worked for, but he was one of those people who are really friendly while rubbing you the exact wrong way. He noticed we worked for Rocket Mobile (which led to a funny moment where it became obvious that Richard hadn't met Rajiv before - understandably, since they're on opposite sides of the building and Richard's new, but still pretty funny) and mentioned he'd attended Ray's session earlier. "It was pretty good," he said, "Except that I totally disagree when he says that BREW is easier to port to than Java." This was something so completely unlike what Ray would say that I didn't know how to respond - I wanted to say "You must have misheard him" or "He did qualify that statement, correct?", but at the moment I was trying to avoid conversation. After I'd cleaned my plate Rajiv asked, "Hey, Chris, do you want to go get dessert?" I said "Sure" and we left. Rajiv leaned in conspiratorially and said, "And not come back." We laughed and moved on to greener pastures.

The beer was freely available but mixed drinks cost one ticket each. We had each been issued three tickets and a black market quickly sprang into action, with teetotallers selling their tickets for favors. We also found that occasionally a bartender would forget to claim a ticket. All that to say, there was a decent amount of alcohol in play. I started the night with Heineken, then moved on to my cocktail workhorse of rum and coke. (I know that "Beer then liquor will make you sicker, liquor then beer you're in the clear," but I've never been able to do this. I'm always thirsty when I start drinking so I want beer; if I do work in liquor, it always comes at the end after I've got food in my stomach.) We found a dessert table, which was excellent as always: soft chocolate chip cookies, a nice chocolate cake covered with warm strawberries, and a sort of apple pie ice cream cone. I sampled each multiple times over the course of the evening.

Rajiv and I located another table where Greg, Eric, Cathy and Sasha had set up. The fluidity continued as the night went on, and I got to spend time with each of my co-workers over a variety of locales: the tables, the Sprint "Oxygen Bar", the chillout room, and the funky karaoke room. I didn't mingle much outside my company, and I'm not entirely sure why. Probably partly because I'm not super-sociable to begin with, particularly around strangers; partly because I had been scared off by my earlier meeting with a non-Rocket-mobiler.

Many levels of inebriation were on display; nobody from our company totally lost it, but certain people were much more enthusiastic about, say, karaoke than others were. Jim proposed that everyone on his team sing karaoke, in ascending order of age. (Coincidentally, this would have put him last in line.) Josh, our baby, announced that his voice was high enough for him to sing The Darkness' "I Believe in a Thing Called Love." With very little argument he persuaded Graham, who is also very young, to accompany him. We were hanging out in the karaoke room for them to start when the DJ announced that Earth Wind & Fire were getting ready to take the stage. We all headed outside for the concert.

Every year, BREWFest includes a once-big band for a concert. Previous years have featured Huey Lewis & The News, The B-52s, and Kool & The Gang (who I actually would have enjoyed seeing). Apparently, ampersands are a big factor in determining which band gets to play. I couldn't name a single song EW&F had done, but, hey, a concert's a concert, and I'm all about going with the flow. We gathered together in a big.... hm, it was probably a parking lot by day? I don't remember the surface too clearly, but it was probably paved. Anyways, we gradually reconstituted until we had close to a dozen RM people together. A few people (Cathy and Eric) seemed excited for the show, the rest of us were hanging out and cracking wise.

One nice thing about a concert like this: there's no opening act, no MC, no self-promotion. The concert was meant to occupy a block of time in the evening's entertainment, not be an end unto itself. They took the stage astonishingly close to the advertised time and launched into a high-energy rendition of a song I would probably know if I were 20 years older. I still enjoyed it - the band wasn't phoning it in at all, and did all their choreography and performance with full passion. By far the highlight was their bass player, who is probably an original member. He was wearing a see-through shirt over a wifebeater along with tight leather pants with fringes on them. He strutted all over the stage, emoting more than anyone else I have seen recently, and was absolutely mesmerizing.

After a while the RM crowd started to get into it a little. Cathy worked her way to the front of the stage, Eric moved in a bit closer, and Graham said, "At first I was hating on these guys, but this actually sounds pretty good." During one slow song I pulled out these funky things we were given in our drinks - they look like ice cubes, and change colors when placed in liquid or held in your hand - and shook them over my head in rhythm with the song. The rest of the RM crew, who had been collecting them throughout the night, joined in as well. I felt an odd sensation of accomplishment.

During a slow song we worked our way out of the crowd towards the back, where a few tables and chairs were scattered. Jim had successfully smuggled in a bottle of liquor and we did shots around a table - he'd grab a cup, pour it discretely under the table from under his jacket, then set it on the table and do another. I only did one but it packed a decent punch. If possible, the mood grew even more relaxed, and we made our way to the chairs and I started asking my hypothetical questions.

After the show finished we headed back in. Some of us camped out in the karaoke room for a while, enjoying singers with... diverse amounts of talent. Some were very good. I was disappointed that Josh hadn't been called yet, though. After a while I got a text message from Jim - "Food and oxygen downstairs." I grabbed some of the ladies and headed down. I paused on the way to stare, impressed, at the dance floor: they had cleared out the center area where most of the food tables had been and set up a pretty amazing venue, with flashing lights and pillars and a really good sound system. The song selection was kind of pop-y as opposed to my preferred electronic dance music, but still sounded really good. After a brief pause I rejoined the others en route to the basement.

Sprint, which has traditionally been on the other side of the fence from BREW developers, was trying to ingratiate itself: they ran the Java Bar (clever name!) in the pavilion, serving high-quality coffee throughout the day. At BREWFest they ran an oxygen bar. I'd heard of these before, and earlier in the night had talked with Ray after he did it. He said that he got really agitated when he was on an apricot blend, but when we switched to some calmer flavors it got better. Jim was already hooked up to one station when I got there, so I took another and plugged in.

"Oxygen Bar" sounds pretty exotic. Essentially, what you have is a set of chambers filled with various liquids. Through some process that I don't really understand, pure oxygen runs through the liquids, absorbs the odors, then runs through tubes into your nose. I stayed on mine for several minutes, playing with the various flavors, but the only real difference I noticed was in the smell; I was kind of hoping for some of the mood-altering that Ray had experienced, or the consciousness-altering that the name had initially suggested to me, but nope: just different smells. Still, it was a nice break. Jim and I took pictures of each other, though he may have cheated by getting me while I still had rubber tubes in my nose.

We sat around and chatted a bit more, gradually acquiring more people as we seem to do. Someone came down to report that Josh was about to finally sing, so we high-tailed it back upstairs.

This was probably my high point of the night. It's just very, very funny to see people you know make spectacles of themselves in public. Josh and Graham were joined by James, another young'un, and they didn't just sing, they PERFORMED, with dramatic poses and dancing. I captured the entire song on video, and it is a treasured possession of mine.

Very soon after they left, Eric was called up, and he did a very good performance of CCR's Proud Mary. I took a video of this one as well, and shortly after it starts, you can see Cathy and Graham dancing into the frame. A great time for everyone. Cathy was called up later for The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" (requested in honor of Rajiv, who was leaving for India to get married, but had left before she was called), but she was expecting to get more help than she got, so turned it down. Jim put in his name for a song, but the DJ announced that the night was almost over, so instead we headed down to catch the last few minutes of dancing.

Like I said, it was a really sweet setup. I'm not sure why, but the number of females present were much higher than what you would have expected based on what I saw during the conference. Whatever the reason, it was a lot less scary than hundreds of male nerds dancing would have been. We got down there for the last half of the Black Eyed Peas' "My Hump," an incredibly catchy song that I will never, ever be able to sing out loud. This was followed by the last song of the night, Bob Marley's "Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright." It was fun. I enjoy dancing, and this was the perfect setup: no partners or couples or special steps, just a mass of people moving around to a beat.

It was a little after 1AM when we left. We were still really high from the event, and probably scared our bus driver - the whole way back to the hotel we were singing and doing percussion for the Marley song. There was a lot of general excited chatter, and I'm sure many things were said that were immediately forgotten.

I would like to take this moment to observe that the hotel's rooftop pool closes at 9PM. Therefore, it is logically impossible that we would have gone swimming in our boxers until after two o'clock in the morning.

Once again I woke up bright and early. Well, not THAT early - these days, 8AM is actually sleeping in for me. I did a shower and got breakfast, chatted with Eric, Ray, Shane and Richard, then headed in for the day's keynote.

The keynote was given by Peggy Johnson, and while she has been involved in every conference this was apparently her first actual keynote. There was no extravagent show opening it up, and she launched directly into the meat of her talk, which was "Exploring the Evolution of Data Services." It was supposed to run for 50 minutes but was much shorter. She gave up the stage for a representative from Telecom Italia, who gave a passionate speech that I somewhat understood. It was actually pretty cool from a market perspective; he talked about how the company was combining their landline and mobile divisions under one umbrella and encouraging convergence through unified portals and, eventually, content access. Europe is another area that's ahead of the US in mobile usage, and it was good to get a look at what was happening over there.

My next session was "Preparing for the next generation of BREW." At least, it was supposed to be. I got a call from Jim right before the session started about an emergency back at the office, so I grabbed my bag and dashed out. I ran into someone I had interviewed with at WeatherNews, which was unexpected and really nice - he said that I was one of their top one or two candidates ever and they were disappointed to not get me, which made me feel really good. We exchanged business cards and I excused myself before dashing off. Trying to be clever, I had checked my suitcase at the bell desk in the morning; unfortunately, I had put my laptop in there, so I needed to reclaim it to do work.

After taking care of that I went back down to the pavilion, which offered free wireless and a "Laptop Alley." I plugged in, saw my cell phone had run out of power, swore, then hopped on AIM and started contacting people. Everything worked out, which was good. Naum kept me company for a while, and once everything was under control I stumbled upstairs to get food.

Friday's lunch was similar to Tuesday's, tasty and relatively simple. After eating we returned to the pavilion again to sample the desserts, a different but equally tasty array of cake. I was summoned again to do some "real" work, and sat out the next session while investigating and coding.

I was now moving towards a moral dilemma: should I stay or should I go? The last session ended at 3:45 and our flight left at 5:55, which felt a little tight to me, especially given the horrible taxi situation on the way over. I loitered in the lobby for a while, hoping to find other nervous people to show up. Charles appeared and shared my concerns, and together we convinced Eric to leave with us. Sasha and Cathy were already ready, and when we ran into Wayne they bluntly told him, "We want to go home!"

So we took our taxis to the airport, checked in, and hung out. I found out that, while staying for the last session would have cut it close, leaving when we did had brought us to the airport way too early. Still, there are worse places to kill time than the San Diego airport. Once again we took over a section of a building, and as other Rocket Mobilers trickled in our numbers swelled. It was a final, low-key resolution for a hectic few days as we amiably chatted, shared the highlights of our time, or stuck our noses in books and earphones into ears. (I also found out that Ray just started reading The Big U, which made me happy. As I think I've mentioned before, this may be Stephenson's most underrated book.)

I sat next to Jenny on the flight back to San Jose. Once again I found myself giving a little spiel about my thoughts on moving to California. She has worked as a consultant in the past and worked all over the world, so we talked quite a bit about her experiences in Europe and Asia. I've done so little travelling outside the US, but I hope to increase it.

And, just like that, we were back! I rode the train back home, stumbled inside, cooked up some soup and soon went to bed. Then went back into work on Saturday, but that's another story. It's been about a week since I first headed out there but already it seems far away, a distant happy memory. I learned a lot, I grew a bit, and I had a heck of a fun time. It was really great of Wayne to send as many of us as he did, and I look forward to returning in the future.

For pictures, check out the Sprinkles.