The Sanctity of Logic

I got into a long debate a couple of nights ago with a self-identified Catholic pro-lifer, Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue), who has an answer for every question as to why same-sex marriage shouldn't be allowed. None of them rely precisely on legal precedent; rather, they seem to stem from a specific set of historical values, a reading of what "natural" means, and an insistence on a property that only a pair of men and women can share.

I spent hours engaged with this woman partly because I wanted to know exactly what people who maintain this line of reasoning are really espousing. Here's what I came away with.

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Two Games!

By now, the truth is known. I'm a two-time wonder, not a potential Ken Jennings. Playing Jeopardy was a hoot. I came away with (in four months' time, when they cut the checks) over $30,000, subject to taxes. The money is all allotted already to household and family things, including a trip to Hawaii in the summer.But it was a memorable and once-in-a-lifetime chance to put my knowledge (and reflexes) to the test!

Rory (Spoilers from Angels Take Manhattan)

Don't read if you haven't seen the Doctor Who episode, Angels Take Manhattan, and plan to.[blank] [blank] [spoilers!] Rory Williams is the boy who died…and died…and died again! It's almost a "you killed Kenny" running joke in the show. So much so that the Silence makes a joke about it in The Wedding of River Song. I've tried to count his deaths in the "real" world and in imagined or faked alternatives, some of which were later collapsed.

Did I miss any? Angels is particularly amusing in having him die thrice.

Masai Treadmilling

As I've tweeted about, I followed the lead of my friend Lex Friedman and bought a TreadDesk treadmill a few weeks ago. I've walked about 40 miles on it in the month since I set it up, and am generally satisfied with how it works and the notion of writing or researching and walking at the same time. (I'm writing this while treading!) It takes getting used to, and I haven't figure out the perfect mix of standing, sitting, and walking, but I definitely feel weird now just sitting down. Most days, I mostly stand, and walk from 1 to 4 hours. Four miles seems to be about the maximum.Somewhere in my tweeting, a marketing person from MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology) got in touch and offered me a pair of shoes to try in exchange for writing about it if I felt it was a good fit. There were no other strings attached, and I reserved the right to return them (and say nothing) if I didn't think they worked. As a reporter, I don't accept products, but this was offered to me personally, and I don't report on shoewear. (This is the officially mandated FTC blogger product acceptance disclosure, by the way!) I've walked at least 20 miles in the shoes, and quite like them, but will need to walk a bit more before I can deliver a verdict. I'm using the Sport2 Men's shoe, which amazingly accommodates my 9 1/2 EEEE foot with very little compression (and no discomfort) new out of the box. I can rarely wear normal 9 1/2 anythings. Walking in the shoes feels a bit like walking over curved surface—like walking on a solid orange-sized cushion. I can go for hours with the shoes without feeling worn out, which is great. I'm alternating with Tevas, which seem to have the right support to not stress my arch, which my New Balance shoes with custom orthotics do. I have kept the MBTs as inside shoes, and haven't taken any long "real" walks in them yet. I'll write more as I have more experience with them.

Bridesmaids: an Explanation

I previously tried to explain how I thought The Big Year went from a slapstick goofy film through, what must have been some reshoots and editing, into a sort of buddy movie. Since then, I saw the hit Bridesmaids, which features many actresses I loved before seeing the film or love having seen it.

It's a bromance movie for women about pals who suffer through mutual indignities and travails on the path to better friendship and enlightenment. I guess. I liked it. Melissa McCarthy is the absolute standout. Sometimes ridiculous, but quite remarkable. My theory on this film's mix of genuine dialog among friends, gross-out scenes, farce, and romance is that competing teams of writers produced scenes nearly independently of one another, and then the director stitched them together into a chronologically plausible narrative.

On its face, you have a vulnerable woman, Annie (Kristen Wiig), whose boyfriend left her and had a business fail in an emotionally abusive sexual relationship with a guy who has no empathy towards others. The movie opens with the funniest sex scene I believe has ever been recorded. Her best friend gets engaged, and this begins Annie's quick descent into madness. Annie has no filter and says anything that pops into her head, apparently, or does anything, no matter how crazy, that she gets angry or embarrassed enough to do.

No human being could make it through high school or emerge as a functioning adult with the kind of behavior Annie engages in routinely, even though the movie attempts to show that's pushed towards in extremis action. With a little fewer implausible scenes and no slapstick, this movie could have been a dreary Swedish film in which, at the end, the maid of honor walks slowly into a freezing lake as in a separate scene, the bride throws the flowers in the rain or some such. Instead, it's a merry romp!

I did enjoy it. I should note this film contains Frequent Film Gag #34, which is that if a scene is shown in a restaurant in a comedy, people later will have powerful gas, vomiting, or bowel movements. This movie is unfair to Brazilian restaurants.

Flash Vindication

I come not to bury Flash, but to praise it. And then bury it.

The news that broke last about Adobe killing the mobile version of Flash for smartphones and tablets filled me with excessive schadenfreude. Adobe has beaten the drum for years that Flash was an intertwined part of the Web, and to experience the full Internet, you needed devices that would run it. I didn't entirely agree, but I saw Adobe's point.

Most Flash I interact with using a desktop browser is advertising (so I use a selective Flash blocker in my browser) or video playback. Flash is also used for interactive items, like embedded document viewing, information graphics that either run automatically or allow you to change parameters, or games. I rarely use any of those, but I understand they're in wide use. The only time I felt deprived of Flash when using an iOS device was when trying to visit restaurant sites which inexplicably rely on Flash for simple things like displaying a menu, or other other tasks that are easily done in standard HTML. (Farhad Manjoo at Slate has an explanation as to why restaurants rely on Flash.)

As the iPhone and later iPad grew in market share, Apple's lack of Flash support but large audience to serve led to single apps that function as replacements for what you would otherwise access as a Flash app on a Web page. Those apps are often far more immersive, flexible, and stylish then the equivalent Flash player version, because Apple has requirements for how apps work and, to a lesser extent, how they look. I didn't need Silverlight (Microsoft's interactive technology) for Netflix, as I did on the Web, nor Flash to use Hulu Plus, the paid flavor of Hulu.

Most video content viewed through Flash is already encoded in a format that can be played natively in Android and iOS, among other platforms, or that can use a simple viewer to access. Flash is a universal wrapper for video, but it's not per se necessary. It can also play protected content that's encrypted against casual downloading of the source files, and that's a reason Flash was used by television and other Web sites: to protect those source digital files.

On the desktop, Flash was a great supplement (which it remains to an ever-lesser extent), even if it drains laptop power, runs the processor hot, and crashes browsers. Why? Because before Flash-embedded video, which can run on every supported platform and browser, sites had to choose to encode in any of all of Windows Media, Real Video, and QuickTime formats (among others), and users had to have all those kinds of players available. For years, I mostly avoided playing video on Web sites because it invariably caused a problem.

Flash unleashed the potential of video by largely working the vast majority of the time. This led Web sites to feature more video, and made the Web a more visually interesting medium. (Netflix relied on Silverlight, which offered a similar advantage, even though it was much less used. I'd wager 95% of people who installed Silverlight on Mac or Windows did so in order to access streaming Netflix videos.)

Thus we should separate Flash's inability to deliver a consistent, battery-conserving, interactive, and fast experience on mobile devices which have less juice and less processor time available from why Flash brought the Web into a new era of multimedia. That time is aging out as native video playback support in HTML5-compliant browsers won't require plug-ins.

There's a battle still underway as to which video standard will predominate. Microsoft and Apple have backed H.264 because they have the paid licenses to allow that patent-protected format to be directly used in their browsers. Mozilla (Firefox), Google (Chrome), and Opera have other ideas, but it's unclear whether they will prevail or co-exist. We may live in a split world in which H.264 is the format of choice, but it's delivered natively into Safari and Internet Explorer, while it's packaged inside of Flash (thus avoiding the issue) for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.

But I will take a moment to chortle—not at Flash as such, but at Flash apologists. I've spent many hours over the last few years saying that Apple won't back off on Flash because it doesn't need to. There's nothing Apple needs from Flash to make iOS better. And the objections Steve Jobs raised in April 2010 were a crystallization of many concerns technical and strategic.

One of them, and one I've raised many times since, was the fact that Adobe never demonstrated Flash working on an iOS device. The firm could have at any time. iOS developers can create apps that run on their own equipment. Adobe could have done a roadshow, which is does to show off technology on a regular basis, and given briefings to reporters and others showing Flash running perfectly well on a variety of iOS equipment. This would involve no violation of Apple's terms and no jailbreaking. It did not do so.

I'm sure Adobe had Flash ported to iOS; the performance could not have been good enough for it to want to show it off. This was staggering because when versions of mobile Flash started to appear on Android and other devices, especially version 10.2 on devices with faster or multi-core processors, it performed seemingly reasonably well. Not embarrassingly, although it was still inconsistent in playing the highest quality video, in not being choppy, and in mapping touch gestures to mouse clicks. Still, it wasn't bad.

The real reason mobile Flash was killed wasn't performance, I'd wager. The reason was that while Google allowed its handset and tablet partners to include Flash (it lacks a competing product and likes to pretend it's "open"), Apple would likely never do so and Microsoft appeared generally uninterested in its new Windows Phone OS. RIM is in free fall and HP canceled its mobile devices, and that would leave most of the market for tablets and smartphones in Apple and Microsoft's hands.

If Adobe didn't refocus its efforts on providing developers superior ways to make HTML5 work on Windows Phone and iOS, some other company or companies would eventually produce the tools needed to steal those customers away.

The failure of mobile Flash is a failure to adapt more readily to provide the tools to designers and content producers to reach the audiences they're serving, rather than a pure failure of the technology. It's possible mobile Flash could never reach a point in which it was good enough to work at a level Apple would accept, but that's theoretical. Flash isn't the right answer for mobile video and interaction, and Adobe has recognized it was misdirecting its efforts.

The Big Year: a Theory about the Nature of This Film

Lynn and I saw The Big Year a couple of weeks ago, and I liked the film's heart quite a bit, even though it had a number of stupid moments, and the dialog could be atrocious. It was somehow satisfying, even though it didn't entirely hold together. Having the shape of a year for the film's structure gave it at least a sense of consistency.The movie, in brief, focuses on three birders who compete (for no money, mind you) to catalog the most bird sightings (by eye or call) in a single year. One is the previous title holder; the other two are making their first attempts. Improbably, the gross outline of the story is true, based on Mark Obmascik's book of the same name, even down to the professions of the three birders and where they travel. What I found odd about the movie was that it was struggling to be slapstick and stupid at times mixed with subtle emotional performances by Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin. A friendship between Black and Martin is underdeveloped, but genuine. Owen Wilson's character is a trickster, and overdrawn, but he and his current wife, a rather young woman, have some remarkable scenes together. (It's not a hackneyed film for the most part: I kept being surprised when I expected the same old clichéd moment, and the filmmakers brought a whiff of the real world in.) The slapstick is quite half-assed. Jack Black is required to do pratfalls, but they're perfunctory, and then he's right back up to run out and find the birds. Gorgeous moments punctuate the movie, which clearly had crews travel tens of thousands of miles for location shots. And there are true shots of birds throughout. (The closing credits show, by category, hundreds of birds catalogued by the birders in the film.) What I suspect happen is that they filmed a lot more nonsense with Black, including more physical comedy. When they edited the film, they realized that they had a quieter and more genuine story in the middle, and trimmed off more of the nonsense. There's still a lot of improbable characters and actions, but it's a truer film. Now I need to read the book. Sounds like truth is funnier and more interesting than the lightly fictionalized version I saw.

Meditating on the Effects of Meditation

I'm four weeks into a six-week beginning meditation class taught by an experienced local hand, Rodney Smith, under the auspices of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society. He's a white guy who spent several years decades ago in Burma and Thailand as a monk. He worked for a long stretch in hospice care. He's an intriguing fellow, especially in that he openly says he never planned to teach, but his teachers insisted that it was part of the tradition in which he was practicing. He lays no claim to be a guru, and has only some big questions, no big answers.I like the class quite a bit. He talks about dharma in a non-religious context, and largely helps us explore the notion of why we cannot be present and how to overcome that through meditation and thoughtful self-awareness. There's definitely a bit of psychoanalysis thrown in there, but given that he is having us focus entirely on the present as expressed in the body (which has neither a past nor a future, but only its current existence), he doesn't ask us to find antecedents for emotions nor plan how to deal with them. What I find most remarkable about the course, and which I didn't entirely expect, is how rapidly my brain and temperament has changed without me feeling as though I've gotten very far yet (of course) into understanding how to meditate in a thorough and engrossing manner. Rodney asks us to commit to 30 minutes a day in a particular fashion (essentially still, but comfortable, with a few postural suggestions) through the class. We also meditate about an hour or more within the two-hour class, sometimes with him giving dharma or metta talks. I've meditated perhaps on 30 days since starting the class. I've only missed a night or two along the way. Lynn says she notices a difference. I have certainly softened in some respects, and I can summon the ability to center and present myself in the now much more than I could before. Before I was a parent, I thought I had an infinite reserve of patience. It lasted quite a while into parenthood. But at some point, I lost that. I lose my patience. I get tired of endless wheedling and questioning and resistance by the boys, who are astonishingly great the vast majority of the time. There are time when I just want to say, "no, no, no, no, we're not doing that, the car is turning around, we're going home, that toy is going away…" All the poor tools in the parents' arsenal that don't solve more than a very short-term set of problems. Long term, they are no help at all. This lack of patience is entirely my issue; the boys are normal kids. They are not difficult by any stretch of the definition for kids their age. They are supremely easy in so many ways, notably going to bed without a fuss. (Seriously. They do that. Every night.) The meditation has clearly helped me reach beyond those, sometimes to an amazing extent. I am much more peaceful inside my head and body, which is a great relief. As a damned intellectual and someone who makes his living sitting at a computer and writing or programming, I spent much of my time in my head, disconnected from the now. Rodney makes some lovely evolutionary points about how symbolic thinking is what led humans out of the savannah and into huts and skyscrapers. But that symbolic thinking doesn't have to rule us all the time. He seems to view his job as allowing us to choose to unlink our abstract selves, which are too aware of the past and future, and at will focus on the present and the real existence in which we find ourselves, but which is too often hidden. It's obviously taking hold. I do find it is sometimes difficult to concentrate on my abstract tasks, however! The class leaves my head buzzing on Monday nights, and Tuesday morning I had what could only be described as a meditation hangover. This is a positive thing, in that I retained that sense of mental and psychic growth. But it was hard to look at a screen. To top it off, I saw my chiropractor Tuesday morning, and after such sessions, I often find emotions released and my mentality dulled. Tuesday night, I was a bit of a wreck, but, with Lynn's marvelous and constant support, emerged feeling better than I had in weeks about myself, my life, my choices. Wednesday and Thursday were engines of productivity, and some long-running projects are coming to fruition. I love my work, but I also love developing a way to have non-work. (Play? Fun? Or just a space in which my brain isn't full of thoughts all the time.) I am curious what another two weeks of class will bring, and then how I sustain this practice thereafter. I have long thought about meditation, and now I am in the now and doing it.

Night Music

Last night, I'm sure I went to bed too late. I'd meditated earlier, as part of the discipline for the six-week course I'm taking, but in this second week of nightly meditation, I find I'm also engaged in micro-sleep. Working on overcoming that. But the micro-sleep surely kept me awake longer. Around midnight, Lynn and I turned out the lights to go to sleep.I thought I was asleep fairly fast—within a few minutes. Lynn was asleep immediately. It is a marvelous trait, and one that runs in her father's side of the family, and intolerable to those of us who sometimes toss and turn. As I was dousing the fires of consciousness, I was startled awake by a sound. I couldn't immediately place it, as I thought it had happened outside. But I heard no further noise, and decided it must have been Lynn shuffling in her sleep in the sheets, even though as I looked at her she was in the same position. I got up, and looked out through windows to make sure no one was nosing about the house. Back to bed. Then I hear Rex cough. Rex has a minor cold, and is on antibiotics for a secondary infection from about 10 days ago. But he hasn't been kept up with a cough, so that seemed strange. Back to sleep. Then I hear what I think is Rex crying. I get up, seemingly without disturbing Lynn. I quietly go into the boys' room. Ben is sleeping in a plank position in which apparently less than 50% of his body is on his bed, perpendicular to it, and his legs are straight out. His pants legs are also rolled up. I rotate him back onto the bed and under the covers. I check out Rex who seems asleep and quiet. I rouse him a little, and he says he's fine. He doesn't remember crying. Assure them both. They're back to sleep. By now, I notice flashing police lights painting the kitchen. As I think about it, I recall that while I was trying to get back to sleep at some earlier point, I had felt a deep bass rumbling. I go into the kitchen and can see the car parked in the lane in our two-lane arterial that runs on a T to the street our house is on, and I see a fire engine lumber off. I go to the front of the house, and see someone running down the street, but towards where the police are. A concerned neighbor? Not sure. It all seems under control, in any case. Back to bed. I'm just drifting off when I hear Lynn breathing in an unusual fashion. In 14 years of sharing a bed, I can't recall her ever breathing in this way before. It doesn't sound dangerous, just odd. I leave her to her dreams. A moment later, she calls out for me, shakes me gently. She's had a nightmare. (I won't share it. That's too much insight into someone's private mind.) I clutch her, reassure her, she calms down, and I tell her what's been happening over the previous 45 minutes. We wind up shaking with laughter, which dispels the demons of the night. Finally, we lay back to sleep. Uninterrupted. The boys even let us sleep until a miraculous 8 am.