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Friday, May 26, 2006 
party on, dudes

in a little bit we'll be leaving to spend the weekend in cleveland, hanging out with friends and doing arty stuff. we likely won't have much computer time, so i imagine i won't do much blogging after we return sunday night.

catch ya later.

Thursday, May 25, 2006 
the enron verdict
the verdict is in: ken lay and jeff skilling are guity as hell. they're both going to be spending a lot of time in prison. the story is in just about every media outlet, so rather than link to one i'll just direct you to google news where you can take your pick from 2,000 or so links on the subject.

enron is, in many people's minds, the most corrupt company ever, the archetypcal evil corporation, so it was vitally important that the government get a guilty verdict. the president's long-standing friendship with "kenny boy" lay only made this more important.

as a former enron stockholder myself (though i had only a piddling amount of stock, so i didn't lose much in the collapse), i heartily congratulate the government for finally convicting these guys.

some of the media coverage is lauding the message this conviction sends to other corrupt corporations. but it's kind of a mixed message. yes, the government is willing to go after corporates if they're corrupt enough... but it takes five years to get a conviction. it's fantastic that these guys are going to jail, and all over the country lots of people will be pleased about the verdict, but they would've been happier if it had happened three or four years ago. and how many corrupt corporations can we really prosecute if it takes this long (and costs this much)?

is hastert in the mix?
after abc news's report that speaker of the house dennis hastert is "in the mix" of the congressional bribery investigation, visions of subpeonas (and perhaps twix bars) are dancing in politicos's heads tonight.

Federal officials say the Congressional bribery investigation now includes Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, based on information from convicted lobbyists who are now cooperating with the government.

Part of the investigation involves a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the Secretary of the Interior to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed with other tribes.

a sitting house speaker being investigated by the fbi is a huge deal. (especially considering the recent raid on william jefferson's office.) this all hinges on hastert's relation to jack abramoff: hastert took more money from abramoff and his clients than anyone else.

but then a funny thing happened. the DoJ made a statement that hastert is "not under investigation", prompting a statement from hastert's office demanding a retraction.

but abc is standing by its story. from a post on the abc blog:

Despite a flat denial from the Department of Justice, federal law enforcement sources tonight said ABC News accurately reported that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is "in the mix" in the FBI investigation of corruption in Congress.

"You guys wrote the story very carefully but they are not reading it very carefully," a senior official said.

ABC's law enforcement sources said the Justice Department denial was meant only to deny that Hastert was a formal "target" or "subject" of the investigation.

"Whether they like it or not, members of Congress, including Hastert, are under investigation," one federal official said tonight.

The investigation of Hastert's relationship with Abramoff is in the early stages, according to these officials, and could eventually conclude that Abramoff's information was unfounded.

if you want a glimpse of the right-wing response to the story, check out the comments on the abc post... all i got was a glimpse, as after i noticed that the very first comment raises the specter of dan rather, my eyes rolled back deep into my head.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006 
some assembly required
last week i hinted that i had a new "design project that should go live soon", and now it has.

some assembly required is a syndicated radio show hosted by minneapolis native jon nelson (who is also an audio collage artist under the name escape mechanism). some assembly required features only recordings that are made out of other recordings; everything on the show uses sampling of some sort, whether it's turntablism, digital remixing, tape manipulation, or what-have-you. if you're interested in sample-based audio art, some assembly required is your dream show.

jon contacted me awhile ago about reworking the website for the show, he wanted to snazz up the design a little bit, making the text larger and easier to read, as well as changing the banner imagemap at the top of the site, changing the links there and making them larger/more legible as well. also, the old version of the site would automatically resize your browser window, which rightfully annoys some people. this resize script needed to be stripped out.

most importanly, jon wanted to be able to update all parts of the site by himself. a few key pages on the site has been done using ASP, and he could add bits of text to these pages using a client application on his computer, but large chunks of the site were static html pages, which he didn't know how to update. but he did know how to use blogger, which he's been using for awhile on his blog (previously mentioned here).

so here's what i did:
  1. reformatted the site to use <DIV>s and CSS-based layout rather than the original table-based layout, while keeping the overall design the same.
  2. reworked the banner imagemap and made changes to the stylesheet to update fonts, etc.
  3. stripped out ASP code wherever possible, replacing it with static html.
  4. converted key parts of the site to be updatable using blogger (namely, the news page is one blog, the home page is another, and so on.)
  5. instructed jon on some basic html tags he could use to edit the static html portions of the site.

of course, the html guidance wasn't a big deal... the idea of learning html seems intimidating if you've never used it, especially if you've looked at machine-generated code, which can be virtually illegible even to the best coders, but basic html syntax is surprisingly simple once you get down to it. (presentation and layout code can be a bitch, but the html to input paragraphs, images, etc is shockingly easy.)

the crowning achievement of this redesign is the new playlists blog. the original version of this page (screenshot) used ASP to automatically generate a list of links to playlists (drawn from a database), complete with month and year headers. we wanted to rework this site so jon could add playlists using blogger. i wasn't able to duplicate the original format 100%, as blogger simply isn't designed to do stuff like output year headers, but i was able to build something damn close—though doing so involved intermixing three different blogger hacks.

<!-- begin semi-boring techy talk -->
a typical blogger blog replicates each new post in 2-3 distinct places. the most recent posts appear on the main blog page (for example, /stallio/blog.html for my blog). all posts also appear on a weekly or monthly archive page (this post appears on /stallio/2006_05_01_archive.html). and if you have the "post pages" feature turned on, each post also appears on its own separate page (/stallio/2006/05/some-assembly-required.html for this post).

with the SAR playlists blog, each post only appears once, on the post page. each month's archive page is simply a list of links to these post pages (utilizing this blogger hack). the main page actually includes all the monthly archive pages, each one inside its own iframe. this was the second blogger hack. (wieland recommends using <object> tags rather than iframes to do this, claiming that object "offers the exact same functionality". but i don't think this is quite true, at least not as supported. when i tried implementing this using object instead of iframe, it looked beautiful in firefox, but in internet explorer the objects would appear inside an inset-looking "box", with a useless verical scrollbar. i couldn't turn these off in IE, so i went with iframe. if you know how to make such objects invisible, let me know.)

this was all well and good, and produced a list of playlists by month that looked pretty much like the original page, but there was one remaining problem. if you look at my blog archives, you'll note that they are listed in ascending order (the first archive listed for my blog is from nov 2003, and the bottom one is this month). however, we want the playlists in descending order, so the most recent playlist is at the top, with the links separated by month. this template spat out a list of months in ascending order, but the posts inside each month were in descending order. fixing this required a third blogger hack, and i had to rewrite the script so it would spit out <iframe>s instead of a bulleted list.

finally, we didn't want to re-enter five years' worth of playlists into blogger, so i copied the old playlist links for all months prior to may 2006 from the old playlist page. so all playlists from april 2006 or earlier use the old system, while all new playlists starting this month use the new system. however, you shouldn't be able to notice any difference between the two unless you look at the status bar of your browser while hovering over playlist links; they should look and function virtually identically.
<!-- end techy talk -->

this really put my knowledge of blogger templates to the test, and i now have an almost rock-solid grasp of how to do sophisticated stuff using blogger's template tags. it's pretty cool that i was able to help jon out by reworking his site (and making it so he can update it by himself) and that we both learned some things in the process.

anyway, take a look at the newly redesigned even if you don't live close to any of the syndicating stations, several of them broadcast online. and jon is podcasting old episodes, so you can subscribe to the podcast or just check out the blog and look for the mp3 links. the blog's worth reading in its own right, as it's full of interviews with audio artists... including this interview with yours truly and lots of interviews with artists who are way more popular, like negativland and jason forrest.

Monday, May 22, 2006 
hard rock hallelujah
this week is the finale of american idol, and i don't much care. the interesting contestants (like chris daughtry) are long gone, tyler hicks is too spazzy for me, and katherine is only in the finals because she is a hot female (thus drawing both the female vote and the whoa-she-is-hot vote). big whoop.

in europe, though, the world of the televised "battle of the bands" is going differently. europe has a show called eurovision which is a sort of a group version of idol, typically filled with the same kind of pap that fills idol, but this year something different happened:

Dressed as bloodthirsty orcs and warning Europe to "get ready to get scared" the rockers from Arctic Lapland took the stage as Eurovision outsiders and left as winners who had taken the contest to what Terry Wogan described as a new level of foolishness with their song Hard Rock Hallelujah.

the band is called lordi. they dress a bit like gwar, though their sound is closer to kiss meets motorhead.

eurovision actually predates american idol... by decades. the show has been around since 1956 and previous winners include the likes of ABBA and celine dion.

take a look at the new abba, performing their song "hard rock hallelujah" on eurovision:

here's the music video for the same song:

it's been a decade since i gave a damn about hard rock or metal, but a band like lordi winning a contest like eurovision is freaking awesome.

in an ideal world...
in an ideal world, the indy star wouldn't have to publish stories like this one. in an ideal world, the facts and ideas expressed in this article would be so mind-numbingly obvious to all that there'd be no reason for kevin o'neal to spend the hours gathering quotes from ICE and law enforcement, writing the story, and filing it.

but this isn't an ideal world; it's indiana, and we have wingnuts like john hostettler representing us in congress:

While some Hoosiers, including an Indiana congressman, have questioned why illegal immigrants weren't arrested at last month's immigration protests, local and federal officials say they have neither the staff nor the jail space to do it.

U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., was among those questioning why law enforcement didn't make mass arrests at the marches.

so while it saddens me that kevin o'neal had to waste his time writing this article, i understand why he did. still, it would've been nice if this article had appeared a month ago, back when hostettler first made his ridiculous statement. after all, i expressed pretty much all the ideas in this article in a single parenthetical expression back on april 14:

(as just one example, indiana's own john hostettler was upset that la migra wasn't out in full force during the protests, checking everyone's papers and arresting immigrants en masse. how that could have worked, i'm not sure: does IPD have the capability to run background checks on 20,000-50,000 people in an afternoon? if, for the sake of argument, half of those protesters were undocumented immigrants, where would we put these 10,000-25,000 arrestees while they awaited processing and deportation? and that's just indianapolis, one of many cities to see large rallies.)

sure, i didn't get quotes from ICE or the sheriff's department, like o'neal did, but i didn't need to. a few seconds of rational thought was all i needed. but even assuming the story needed the quotes, how long did it take to get those? why didn't this story appear around april 12th? this stuff should have been included in the original story, rather than appearing 39 days later. it's not like it requires a lot of research to realize we don't have the means to arrest and hold thousands of people in one swoop.

Friday, May 19, 2006 
do they speak english in what?

the residents of the remote nation of what, and in particular their linguistic habits, have long been the subject of a dispute. sure, we've all heard the debate:

"what ain't no country i ever heard of. do they speak english in what?"

we might never know what language they speak in what, but thank god for the US senate, because we now know what language they speak in the united states!

Whether English is America's "national language" or its national "common and unifying language" was a question dominating the Senate immigration debate.

The Senate first voted 63-34 to make English the national language after lawmakers who led the effort said it would promote national unity.

But critics argued the move would prevent limited English speakers from getting language assistance required by an executive order enacted under President Clinton. So the Senate also voted 58-39 to make English the nation's "common and unifying language."

thanks for clearing that up, boys. lest you think this ploy was unnecessary, a cheap political stunt aimed at proving to the racists back home that the government is tough on brown people, lindsey graham and tony snow have some words to prove you wrong:

"We are trying to make an assimilation statement," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of two dozen senators who voted Thursday for both English proposals.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday that President Bush supports both measures.

"What the president has said all along is that he wants to make sure that people who become American citizens have a command of the English language," Snow said. "It's as simple as that."

that's right, this was a necessary move in order to end the scourge of all those US citizens who can't speak english (like all those pesky deaf people who communicate using ASL... speak english, ya ingrates!). after all, it's not like learning english is a requirement of naturalization (emphasis mine):

Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is conferred upon a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The general requirements for administrative naturalization include:
  • a period of continuous residence and physical presence in the United States;
  • residence in a particular USCIS District prior to filing;
  • an ability to read, write, and speak English;
  • a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government;
  • good moral character;
  • attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution; and,
  • favorable disposition toward the United States.

oh... so the law already dictates "that people who become American citizens have a command of the English language"? oh... well... uh... at least we know this move by the senate wasn't racist:

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., disputed charges that making English the national language was racist or aimed at Spanish speakers.

i'll accept that an argument can be made that the rabid opposition to undocumented immigration is not racist (though this is one issue where i'm glad to say i agree with rishawn biddle). but is anyone, native speaker or no, really so ignorant (or maybe i should say naïve) as to believe that this vote was not "aimed at Spanish speakers"? anyone? please raise your hand.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006 
where'd the cheese go?
if you clicked the link in my earlier post to my myspace music page and tried to listen to the mp3s, you might have been greeted with a mysterious "song not found!" error message. it figures that i would brag about my new myspace design and yet the mp3s wouldn't work.

i have no idea what's up with that. the files just disappeared, i guess. for all i know, the mp3s vanished weeks or months ago, and nobody pointed it out until now. whatever happened, it seems to be a pretty significant myspace glitch, though it's conceivable that i clicked an invisible "delete all my songs" button while i was editing my profile last night.

at any rate, i can't count on my mp3s reappearing, so i deleted all those phantom songs and have posted four "new" ones. "we will iraq you" is back, but there's only one version of it (the shortened "radio edit" seems to be much less popular, and you can still get it on my mp3 page anyway). i've also added two old tracks from 2000's _the fezzuck_. these tracks haven't been on the web since the demise of i've tested all these new mp3s, so they should work; let me know if they don't.

if you just come here for the political commentary and don't give a damn about my art or myspace, rest assured that i'll try to get back to that soon.

world premiere! dr. butcher m.d. "suffer" music video
two or three years ago, i watched & recorded hours of music videos, then assembled a montage of popstars, hopstars, and their entourages busting a move and generally getting funky. i set this to music: a breakcore track titled "suffer" by my friend and frequent collaborator dr. butcher m.d..

because of its length (almost 8 minutes) and size, this video has never before been available online. before today, a couple dozen people have had the privelege of seeing it, huddled in front of tvs watching home-burned VCDs and DVD-Rs. but now, thanks to youtube, you can finally view this video online.

i'll continue adding more music videos in the future, but i don't want you to get burned out from too many uploads at once, so stay tuned for more youtube videos in the future.

my first youtube
over the years i've directed several music videos, both for my music and for the music of friends and acquaintances in "the scene". most of these videos have never appeared online because of the space and bandwidth issues involved with hosting video. but now that we have sites like youtube, i don't really have an excuse anymore, do i?

so here is my first youtube upload. i thought it would only be appropriate for my first upload to be the first video i ever made, back in '99:

this is a video for the song "requcnice" from perpetual emotion machine. like most of my early videos, it was shot entirely on a handheld vhs camera with no budget and no assistance, and edited using primitive pause-button editing. in other words, it's really gritty and lo-fi, but that's okay because the music is, too.

luckily for you, i'm in your extended network
love it or lump it, let's face it: myspace is rather ugly. sure, some people customize their layouts, but most of these manage to look even worse than the default. once in a while you might find a customized myspace page that looks decent, but spotting one of these in the wild is like spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker. they're out there, but you'd be forgiven for thinking they don't exist.

in my meanderings last night i stumbled across this blog post by mike industries. mike dove headfirst into the muddled, kludgy world of myspace code, just for the challenge, and came up with a myspace design that's crisp and sharp, with some extra surprises (some of which aren't visible in IE but are pretty cool in firefox). best of all, mike provides the CSS code and image templates so others can adapt his template to their own myspace pages. in the end, i stayed up way too late last night changing my personal myspace page & my myspace music page.

in order to use the template, you'll need a graphics editor, some server space, and you'll also need to be comfortable with CSS syntax (as well as hex color codes), so it's not for noobs. still, mike has proven that you can make a decent-looking myspace page (you can decide for yourself whether mine look decent), and using his code, other designers can make it happen. i've been wanting to customize my myspaces for awhile, and now i finally have. i also have another design project that i should go live soon, and i'll be sure to post about that when it does.

Friday, May 12, 2006 
pop quiz, hotshot
1. you are the head of a state criminal justice organization. the governor has suspended your contract after questions begin to surface concerning a $417k grant you gave to a local businessman. the businessman does not appear to have done any of the work he's contracted to do. even worse, a local tv station has just aired a story on the 11pm news about you and your questionable deal with this businessman. what do you do?

A. publicly confess that you screwed up and resign
B. go to the press explaining why you did nothing wrong
C. "go dark" and quietly wait for everyone to forget the whole thing
D. let yourself be photographed partying in public with your arm around the businessman in question

2. you are the governor. one of your appointees has decided to resign from his post as a public servant and outsource his job... to himself. he was making $100,000/year + benefits when he was your employee. under the terms of the contract that he signed with himself, as a freelancer he will receive $180,000/year. people in the media have started to criticize you and your former employee, calling the contract a sweetheart deal and wondering why you will be paying the ex-employee almost twice as much to do the same work he was doing before he resigned. what do you do?

A. immediately cancel the contract and apologize to your constituents
B. launch an investigation and get to the bottom of it
C. promise you're going to launch an investigation, but do it bush-style, so that the investigation never happens or has no teeth
D. defend the contract for a week, then finally give up, cancel the contract, and accept the employee back into his old job with his original $100k salary

3. you are running for state congress. you have just defeated a powerful incumbent in the primary and are now preparing for the november election. however, instead of talking about your impressive primary win, people are making fun of your past support for public flogging. they're calling you "the flogger" and have even begun making parody websites about you. what do you do?

A. try to change the subject: "let's talk about the real issues"
B. denounce your prior statements on flogging, saying you've realized the idea is kinda stupid
C. deny that you ever supported flogging (difficult because you wrote a letter to your local paper about flogging a few years ago)
D. explain to the political columnist from the largest paper in your state that flogging is actually a "'compassionate' alternative to jail for some people convicted of crimes such as drug abuse or being drunk in public"

1. if you have anything resembling good PR judgment, you would pick A, or maybe even pick B or C and pray that you keep your job. if you are heather bolejack of the ICJI, you pick D and you are fired.
2. if you're inspector general dave thomas, you would do B. but the question assumes "you are the governor", not the inspector general. if you're governor mitch daniels and your employee is richard rhoad of the FSSA, you would do D.
3. yes, A, B, or even C would be a smart move. but by now you've probably guessed that greg walker chose D. i know, i know, this quiz wasn't very difficult, and all the answers were D.

Thursday, May 11, 2006 
look at the bright side, indiana: at least you aren't kentucky
sure, mitch daniels might be massively unpopular. and yes, the one-two punch of president bush and governor daniels packs such a whallop that democrats are sure to make gains in this november's elections. but hey, at least mitch isn't ernie fletcher, governor of kentucky, who has just been indicted:

The special grand jury that’s been investigating state government hiring practices today indicted Gov. Ernie Fletcher on three misdemeanor charges of conspiracy, official misconduct and political discrimination.

The jury also indicted former transportation Cabinet official Sam Beverage with perjury, which is a felony. And the jury also submitted to Franklin Circuit Judge William Graham 14 more indictments that are under seal.

Those indictments cover crimes that may have occurred before Aug. 29, 2005 when Fletcher pardoned all administration officials except himself.

a sitting governor has been indicted. that's big stuff. amusingly, the slogan at the top of fletcher's website is "together, we can move kentucky forward." forward to where? why, forward past fletcher's scandals, of course.

fletcher's office has a statement on his website:

This has been a politically motivated, media-driven investigation from the start.

As Governor Fletcher has said repeatedly, his conscience is clear. He has done nothing wrong.

We are evaluating the charges and, likewise, we are studying our recourse of action in the wake of this malicious prosecution.

Because of the politicization of this entire investigation, we are filing a motion at this time to disqualify Greg Stumbo and his entire office from further participation in this matter.

if the governor did nothing wrong, why did he need to issue a blanket pardon to his administration?

they know when you are sleeping. they know when you're awake.
the NSA is tapping your phone.

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.

just how big does a database need to be to be the biggest in the world? that's bigger than google. in other words, it's a texas-sized database full of your phone records.

1. are you involved with al qaeda?
2. do you use telephone service from at&t, verizon, or bell south?

if you answered yes to either of these questions, a detailed list of every phone call you've made or received is on file with the government. your phones are being monitored for your safety. pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. (that man behind the curtain, general michael hayden, is the president's pick to succeed porter goss as head of the CIA.)

we were previously assured that only those who answered yes to #1 were being monitored. oops. i guess that was a lie. those three corporations gladly handed over all their customer records to the NSA, without a warrant, in controvention of federal law (FISA). their participation was entirely voluntary. but one company said no.

According to sources familiar with the events, Qwest's CEO at the time, Joe Nacchio, was deeply troubled by the NSA's assertion that Qwest didn't need a court order — or approval under FISA — to proceed. Adding to the tension, Qwest was unclear about who, exactly, would have access to its customers' information and how that information might be used.

Financial implications were also a concern, the sources said. Carriers that illegally divulge calling information can be subjected to heavy fines. The NSA was asking Qwest to turn over millions of records. The fines, in the aggregate, could have been substantial.

Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest's patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest's refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled.

In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest's foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.

Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.

The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events.

if you are lucky enough to use phone service from qwest, you're safe from the prying eyes... assuming you never call anyone who uses at&t, verizon, or bell south.

Qwest's refusal to participate has left the NSA with a hole in its database. Based in Denver, Qwest provides local phone service to 14 million customers in 14 states in the West and Northwest. But AT&T and Verizon also provide some services — primarily long-distance and wireless — to people who live in Qwest's region. Therefore, they can provide the NSA with at least some access in that area.

despite repeated denials, we've suspected for a long time that this was happening. the EFF filed a class-action lawsuit accusing at&t of illegally collaborating with the NSA. a couple weeks ago, the bush administration desperately tried to get the case dismissed, claiming the states secret privelege. it's kind of a moot point now, but kudos to the EFF for once again drawing attention to an important issue before it's on most people's radars. and beaucoup kudos to qwest for refusing to participate in the NSA power grab.

if you live in terre haute, you have to look out your window
the other day, the daily show aired a segment mocking WTWO, terre haute's nbc affiliate. WTWO has been airing what can be only be called an "attack ad" against rival WTHI's weather team. the ad boasts that its weather team shares 45 years of collective experience, compared to a paltry 30 at WTHI, and suggests that the location of WTHI's antennas causes a "doppler dead zone", preventing WTHI from adequately predicting terre haute's weather.

the daily show segment turned a few hoosier heads and an article soon appeared in the terre haute tribune-star:

WTWO general manager Duane Lammers, who helped create the weather commercial, said The Daily Show "must have been pretty hard up for material ... I didn't quite understand the point."

the point was that jon stewart thinks you're a pompous ass.

Tuesday Lammers said the weather commercial was his work and that of is promotions director. He said it had gotten a lot of attention in the TV industry and that "people who work in our business think it's a great spot."

He insisted jabs at WTHI were "not personal — we don't say anything bad about anyone at WTHI. We pointed out technical flaws."

WTHI's chief meteorologist, Kevin Orpurt, does not concur.

On air with the weather at WTHI since 1984, Orpurt said the WTWO commercial "really kind of hurt my feelings because we pride ourselves here on giving the best coverage we can, and the implication was that we do not."

Known to come into the station and appear on air in the middle of the night during tornado watches and other severe weather events, Orpurt said WTWO's "implication that WTHI's coverage has a dead zone is simply not true."

"I guess it's funny if you watch [the Daily Show]," Lammers said, but he doesn't think Stewart's program is "particularly mainstream."

what does lammers, who is also the COO for nexstar, know about what's mainstream?

the tribune-star article got a response on tonight's daily show: host jon stewart started off the episode with a sarcastic apology, commenting "i did not realize that that part of indiana had the cable yet" and going on to call lammers and WTWO "pussies" for not airing the controversial nbc show the book of daniel back in january.

how's this for mainstream? lammers and WTWO made national headlines last winter for being the first station to announce that it would not air the book of daniel, a drama featuring aidan quinn as a pill-popping episcopalian minister who has regular discussions with an easygoing jesus. the show was eventually cancelled for low ratings, though this surely would have happened even faster if the actions of lammers and others hadn't attracted the show so much attention. i personally would never have heard of the show if not for squeamish affiliates like WTWO who refused to air it.

let's go again to the tribune-star, this time from january:

Insisting that it is not censorship because "anybody can get in their car and drive 20 miles to view this show if they want," WTWO general manager Duane Lammers made the decision earlier this week to "pre-empt" the series premiere. At the time he announced the move on the station’s Web site, Lammers had not seen "Daniel," which didn't matter because his decision wasn't about the content of the program, he said.

drive 20 miles and view it where? i'm sure the local bar would be willing to turn off the game when that episcopalian preacher show comes on.

In a midweek telephone interview, Lammers told me he was trying to make a point about the heavy hand of network regulatory practices, not become the poster boy for the American Family Association's ferocious nationwide campaign to keep the controversial new series about a troubled Episcopalian priest off the air.

"It's not about this program, it's about the system in general, the regulatory environment," Lammers said Wednesday. "I don't know why the American Family Association picked my name out of a hat ... They're misstating my reasons for doing this."

in lammers' original statement, he explained his brave stand against the regulatory environment thusly:

Our relationship with NBC has always provided for the right to reject programming. I am reaffirming that right to let them know I will not allow them to make unilateral decisions affecting our viewers.

Second, I want to draw attention to the worst offenders of indecency on television ... the cable industry, which faces no decency regulations, nor a license renewal.

If my action causes people in our community to pay more attention to what they watch on television, I have accomplished my mission.

so he wanted to protest the filth on cable by refusing to air a network show, which he hadn't seen? i'm not sure what he thought he was standing up for. but fortunately, he soon sat down, watched 20 whole minutes of daniel, and patted himself on the back for censoring it sight unseen:

"In the 20 minutes I watched I didn't see one redeeming quality at all."

Also the chief operating officer for WTWO's parent company, Nexstar Broadcasting Group, Lammers said he has watched a lot of television in his time, but never seen anything like "Daniel." One scene, he said, "was so bad, I can't even tell people about it — I don't talk that way."

apparently duane has never seen law & order: svu, which continues to air on WTWO and features gobs of rape, molest, and dead children. i like filth and mature themes as much as anyone, but let's be honest: if lammers has never seen anything like daniel, he hasn't been watching his own network.

terre haute has a bad enough reputation as it is, even among hoosiers, and duane lammers and WTWO sure aren't helping.

Monday, May 08, 2006 
i was just a boy when the infidels pwned my village
oh noes! islamists are taking over our video games!

The makers of combat video games have unwittingly become part of a global propaganda campaign by Islamic militants to exhort Muslim youths to take up arms against the United States, officials said on Thursday.

Tech-savvy militants from al Qaeda and other groups have modified video war games so that U.S. troops play the role of bad guys in running gunfights against heavily armed Islamic radical heroes, Defense Department official and contractors told Congress.

One of the latest video games modified by militants is the popular "Battlefield 2" from leading video game publisher, Electronic Arts Inc of Redwood City, California.

Jeff Brown, a spokesman for Electronic Arts, said enthusiasts often write software modifications, known as "mods," to video games.

"Millions of people create mods on games around the world," he said. "We have absolutely no control over them. It's like drawing a mustache on a picture."

"Battlefield 2" ordinarily shows U.S. troops engaging forces from China or a united Middle East coalition. But in a modified video trailer posted on Islamic Web sites and shown to lawmakers, the game depicts a man in Arab headdress carrying an automatic weapon into combat with U.S. invaders.

"I was just a boy when the infidels came to my village in Blackhawk helicopters," a narrator's voice said as the screen flashed between images of street-level gunfights, explosions and helicopter assaults.

first they hijack planes; now they hijack games! what kind of world do we live in where someone would create military training video games?

there's only one problem. that video, the one that was supposedly made by a jihadist, was made by a typical american gamer, simply to show up his 1337 bf2 skills.

oh, and another thing: that quote about the infidels invading a village? it's actually the voice of south park's trey parker from his puppet movie team america: secret police (and is even on the imdb quotes page).

oh yeah, and that stuff about how terrorists are modding the game... well, game modding is cool and all, but that video didn't require any mods. it uses the special forces expansion pack (created by EA, the game manufacturer) right out of the box.

oh, and one more thing. (how many things is that, four?) just in case you didn't click the link above, the US army has a free online first-person-shooter game to get kids snazzed about going overseas and shooting some brown people. if it's good enough for the goose...

so basically, just about nothing in the story is true. the story, which has been spreading through the media since thursday, is about a "global propaganda campaign by islamic militants" but the reality is it's just a bunch of kids playing shoot-em-up.

so what is the most absurd aspect of this story? is it that dan devlin, a DoD public diplomacy specialist, showed a gamer's fan-video to a congressional subcommittee claiming it was al qaeda propaganda?

is it that reuters' david morgan wrote and filed this story, clearly without doing any more research than calling someone at EA for a statement? (if he'd spent a few minutes on google, morgan could've discovered the truth behind the video and had a much better scoop: dan devlin is full of crap.)

for that matter, is it that EA's jeff brown had the opportunity to debunk the whole story but instead offered that silly duchampian quote about "drawing a mustache on a picture"? (in fairness, brown surely doesn't lurk on forumplanet and might not have seen the video before morgan called him, but he could have said "terrorists are modding our games for a global propaganda campaign? that's news to me; let me look into it and i'll get back to you.")

personally, my vote for the most embarrassingly ridiculous thing about this story is that wired news even bought into it, and to date hasn't posted a correction. i can accept that dozens of clueless media outlets worldwide eagerly ran the story, including the presitgious washington post. the media loves this kind of fact-free alarmist claptrap. but wired really should know better. and even accepting that wired bought into the hype and ran it, the gamer community has been laughing its ass off about this since at least friday. that's more than enough time to post a correction: sorry, we got pwned.

the flogger hits the web
i hadn't expected to use this flogger photoshop again (especially only a few days after i made it), but i had to use it one last time to commemorate greg "the flogger" walker getting a new website!

advance indiana and tdw both have posts noting the appearance of, a new website mocking state senate candidate walker. you might recall that walker defeated long-standing senate pro tem bob garton in last week's republican primary, in part buoyed by support from fundamentalist christians and pro-lifers.

the site only has one page to date, but it does feature this quote from a letter to the editor walker wrote to the columbus republic back in 2003:

Flogging would have a high deterrent factor, be inexpensive, would not keep the perpetrator from working to support himself and any dependents, could be administered swiftly, and most importantly, would alter behavior. If properly, publicly administered, the corporal punishment would steer the offending citizen to chose constructive recreational alternatives to drug abuse.

"recreational alternatives to drug abuse"? you mean, like, bondage or sadomasochism?

[warning: site contains gratuitous midi of devo's "whip it"]

Friday, May 05, 2006 
goss is gone
cia director porter goss suddenly and unexpectedly resigned today. could it be because of the investigations into watergate 2: electric boogaloo, the scandal surrounding felonious congressman duke cunningham and his lobbyist buddy wilkes? last week, goss denied ever attending one of wilkes' famous baccanals, with poker in the front and hookers in the rear. was that a lie? does goss have some other connection to this exploding story?

the current rumor is that goss was asked to resign because of issues involving kyle "dusty" foggo, who is an old buddy of wilkes who attended numerous poker parties, and whom goss plucked from obscurity to appoint as executive director.

tpm muckraker has been all over this scandal all week, and is full of the latest updates on this and other scandalous stories.

the adventures of the disenfranchised
the mighty captain election, in his alter ego of mild-mannered secretary of state todd rokita, has been boldly proclaiming his defeat of chicken little since tuesday afternoon. but we all knew that great supervillains, like superheroes, never truly die—their smoldering bodies disappear from the crime scene and they reappear soon enough to menace the world again, maybe with a new body or an improved battle suit.

so it goes in the hero biz. just when you think you've vanquished the enemy, you realize something bigger is going on. and so it has been in the captain's battle to defend the voter id law, as stories of voter disenfranchisement have finally hit the indiana media. tdw points us to this one:

One aspect of Tuesday's primary election troubles DeKalb County Clerk Jackie Rowan.

Her voice trembled as she described having to turn away a handful of veterans who tried to use their Veterans Administration medical cards as the required photo identification.

Rowan said the veterans became upset, refusing to cast provisional ballots, when she explained to them they could not use identification that did not have an expiration date or a stamp indicating that it never expired.

"(It was) bad," she said. "They all accused us of not wanting them to vote.

"I feel their pain. They served in the service for us, and they worked hard and paid taxes."

these veterans had a perfectly good state-issued photo id that enabled them to get along in life just fine, thank you very much. but because their ids didn't follow the unusual requirements of the voter id law—and because they aren't julia carson and weren't surrounded by tv cameras when they voted—they were turned away.

voter id defenders and apologists will eagerly point out that such voters are allowed to fill out provisional ballots. but they are not so eager to mention that, in order to get your provisional ballot counted, you must appear in person at your county clerk's office within 10 days with an id that's valid under the law. if you're working a day shift, it's hard enough to get to the dmv to get an id in the first place; locating your county clerk's office and making it there during office hours would surely be an even bigger challenge for most voters.

but that's just a few veterans, right? and i've heard that the VA will start issuing new ids with expiration dates, so problem solved, eh? the city of townsville has been saved, yeah?

so it would have seemed, but now the big reveal... chicken little has been reborn as howard dean! dean is (or was) in town, helping the indiana democratic party file an appeal to the voter id law. how will our hero defend the law?

Dean, in his second trip to Indianapolis in recent weeks, and Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker said Tuesday's primary election showed some Hoosiers were denied the right to vote. A hotline set up by the national party received a few hundred complaints, with more still coming in.

Dean cited some of the complaints the party has received about the law, which requires a government-issued photo ID with an expiration date. One was a newlywed in Marion County who was turned away because her photo ID showed her maiden name.

Another, he said, was a Vanderburgh County woman who went to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to get the required government-issued ID. She was turned away, and lost the right to vote, because her voter registration card, Social Security card and medical card weren't enough proof of identity, and she didn't have her birth certificate.

our hero valiantly struggled to parry dean's blow, but fumbled:

Rokita said the biggest problem in Tuesday's primary election came not from the new photo ID law, but from the fact that many polling places had been changed in order to make them accessible to the physically disabled.

Democrats in Congress insisted on those changes, which Rokita said "caused more disenfranchisement than anything else. . . . Yet you don't hear them complaining about that."

speaking of valiant struggles, i had a devil of a time figuring out what rokita was talking about here. making polling places handicap-accessible caused disenfranchisement? maybe something was lost in translation from the original kryptonian. rokita seemed to be admitting to a significant amount of disenfranchisment—if democrats have received "a few hundred" complaints then surely he must be talking about dozens or hundreds of people himself—that nobody was complaining about. surely he couldn't mean the disabled, who were probably miffed that they once again could not vote without assistance, but that's hardly the fault of democrats or congress that marion county and others were forced to violate federal law because the touch-screen voting machines wouldn't work. blame for that would seem to fall on the vendor, ES&S, and maybe on some state/county officials. and at least now the disabled can get inside the building.

finally i discovered this muncie star-press piece, confirming the only interpretation that made sense: some polling places had been relocated to newer handicap-accessible facilities, and confused voters got lost.

maybe our humble secretary thought this would be a devastating blow to his opponent, but even now that i know what he's talking about, i'm still not sure. so some polling places had to be moved because of the help america vote act. how many people got lost because of this? how many of them didn't vote? how much did the state do to inform these viewers that their polling places had moved? sure, there was the website where you could look up your polling place. i even checked that website, and it listed my correct polling place, though in 2004 it was wrong so i could only assume that i would be voting in the same place i had last time. if i had shown up and the polls had vanished, i don't know what i would've done.

i'm sure captain secretary rokita meant "oh yeah, well democrats caused more disenfranchisement than we did!" but couldn't you also say that this was yet another thing the state (and the counties) bungled, by failing to adequately inform voters that their polling sites had changed?

and this was just a low-turnout primary. the real test is yet to come. can our hero protect the national election in november?

Thursday, May 04, 2006 
star-spangled bending
scroll down for mp3s!

first off, can someone explain what's so offensive about the national anthem being translated into spanish? don't we want more people singing the anthem, rather than fewer? doesn't translating american documents like the anthem—or the constitution, or the bill of rights—actually help to "spread democracy" as they say? isn't it a good thing?

some republicans, including the president, have been frothing over a new recording of the anthem in spanish. never mind that the anthem had already been translated into spanish as early as 1919, or that the US state dept actually has four translations posted on its website.

the whole thing is silly, and in protest bloggers have been doing things like posting the pledge of allegiance in spanish. but i want to talk about this boingboing post by xeni jardin titled American national anthem "sung" in more code-forms . here's how it starts:

In response to panicked partisan panty-bunching caused by Spanish remakes of The Star Spangled Banner, we pointed this week to a Morse Code MP3 and a binary expression of the American national anthem.

BoingBoing reader Remy Porter kindly translated that binary code into this sound file (157K MP3 Link). It's an unsigned 8-bit PCM rendition at a 2400Hz sample rate. If it sounds like monotone noise, well, that's 'cause it is. Remy explains:

Generally binary data ends up coming out like that. For a fun experiment, grab a JPG and a linux box and type:

cat /path/to/jpg > /dev/sound

- being far more random, those have much more noise; bleeps and bloops across a wide range. ASCII text- which I assume this was encoded from- has a much smaller randomness- a VERY small randomness, and it ends up sounding about the same.

now, i love this idea. converting the national anthem to an mp3 by interpreting the ascii data as sound... why, that's databending! however, the actual mp3 is a bit boring. it's just a few seconds of tone. i'm not sure how he created it; i'm guessing he created an ascii text file of the lyrics in binary and ran it through a cat command like the one he describes.

unfortunately, remy's comments about "randomness" are a bit imprecise. maybe he just didn't have time to fully explain. but randomness is about the last thing you want, because when you're talking about an audio signal, randomness translates into noise. and by noise, i don't mean "bleeps and bloops" but white noise or pink noise. i love noise (some would call me a noise artist), but in this circumstance, it's probably not what you're looking for.

if you sonify and listen to a lot of jpegs, a few blips and bleeps aside, you'll start to notice that most of them sound pretty much the same, and what they sound like is static. this is because of the file compression inherent in the jpeg format. compressed or encrypted data "looks" almost completely random, and when it is sonified you typically end up with pure noise, the aural equivalent of snow on your tv screen. occasionally you'll get a good one, but most jpegs are pretty dull-sounding.

if you're sonifying data in this fashion (i like to use the term databending), and you're looking for interesting sounds, what you really want is patterns, not randomness. data that's full of patterns will give you all kinds of bleeps, swooshes, and tones you're never heard before. data that's truly random will result in static. (in files like jpegs, the most sonically interesting part of the file is often the header and/or footer, the part that is not compressed.)

in fairness to remy, he is on the right track about why the sonified ascii file isn't all that interesting. the limitations of the ascii set mean that ascii data has a limited range of values, so the range of possible sounds is much smaller than with binary data. (this is particularly true if your text is simply a string of 0s and 1s, as remy's aparently was.) this is a big part of why binary data tends to sound more interesting than ascii data: you do want a wide variety of values in your data; you just don't want it to be truly random. the other reason is that text documents tend to be so damn short! sometimes you just need more data.

if you're sonifying data in this way—using the method remy describes in unix/linux or by opening files in a wav editor in windows (tip: set your "file type" to either "all files" or "raw")—the files that will sound the most interesting will generally be unencrypted, uncompressed binary formats. i've had lots of success with uncompressed image formats (BMP, TIF, and PSD) and executable binaries. just make sure you don't accidentally make a change to an executable and then save over it... the program will be ruined.

in keeping up with the theme, and hopefully to demonstrate what i'm talking about, i found a colorful website and took a screenshot of it. (i like this page in part because it mentions that the anthem is sung to the tune of to anacreon in heaven.) i saved this screenshot in three different formats—JPG, BMP, and PSD—then i opened up all three in sound forge (mono, 8-bit, 22,050Hz) and converted the waveforms to mp3s.

mp3s begin here

anthem-jpg.mp3: the screenshot as a JPG converted to MP3. the first two seconds or so are interesting; that's the header and the start of the image data. the remaining 13-14 seconds are little more than white noise. this is pretty typical-sounding for a JPG.

anthem-psd.mp3: the screenshot as a photoshop file converted to MP3. uncompressed, so this is much longer, about 1:34. low grumbling sounds, static washes, and occasional onslaughts of clicking. i've heard much cooler-sounding PSDs, but this one's not too boring.

anthem-bmp.mp3: the screenshot as a BMP converted to MP3. at almost 3 minutes long, this one could almost fit on an industrial record. highly rhythmic and relatively listenable.

anthem-bmp-44100.mp3: the BMP again, this time converted at 44,100Hz. it sounded interesting at 22,050, but the tempo seemed off so i tried listening to it again at 44,100, 11,025, and 8,000. i thought 44,100Hz was possiblythe most interesting of the three.

anthem-bmp-8000.mp3: again, this time at 8,000Hz. what the hell, i'll put this one up, too. converting at the low rate of 8,000Hz stretches the BMP out to more than 8 mins long, so this file is bigger (7.5MB). it still sounds very crunchy, but at this tempo is pretty danceable.


tahoe ads deleted
remember the chevy tahoe ad contest, where users were invited to create their own tahoe ads but mischievious users started making subversive ads instead?

now that the contest is over, chevy has silently deleted the whole site. now redirects to and all the video links result in an error.

of course, we all knew they wouldn't stay up forever, though i'm a bit surprised they came down after less than a month. i guess they were eager to delete all that unflattering content. at least some of the videos got posted to sites like youtube before the deletion. (mine were not, so unless one of you has my ads saved to your hard drive, they're gone forever. oh well. it was fun while it lasted.)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 
may 6 is free comic book day
that's right, may 6 is free comic book day. yes, it's a shameless ploy by comics companies to draw in new readers. but hey, free comics! how cool is that?

it's easy. just stop by your local comic shop on saturday (if you don't know where one is, there's a handy locator on the website) and take your pick of any one of these comics for free! (descriptions here and here)

yes, it's just that simple. it's looks like there's some good stuff available, so if you enjoy comics (and i know many of you do), take a few minutes saturday to support your local comic shop, and i know they'd appreciate it if you buy some stuff while you're there, too.

flogging to victory in the primaries
after all yesterday's primary-blogging, i'm almost obligated to comment on the results. blogger has been experiencing an error this afternoon or i would've posted earlier, but that did give me some time to play around with photoshop. (if you don't get the joke, just hold on a sec...)

the biggest upset in yesterday's primary was the bob garton, who has been president pro tempore of the indiana senate for 26 years (and has been in office 36 years), has been unseated. now some might rejoice at the downfall of any prominent republican, but garton was relatively moderate, which is partly how he got deposed. the pro-life crowd has been crowing for garton's head they blame him for the failure of legislation that would have defined life as beginning at conception and forced doctors to inform patients that fetuses can feel pain (which isn't exactly true). though this wasn't his only problem.

garton was defeated by greg walker, who home-schools his children, hates abortion, and loves public flogging. (be sure to read llamajockey's comment for links to further reading about the christian flogging movement.)

in my district, julia carson easily destroyed kris kiser and her other no-name opponents, getting something like 80% of the vote. in november, she will face off against car salesman eric dickerson. dickerson's primary win is another embarrassment for the local GOP, which had its money on dickerson's opponent, ron franklin. that choice was always puzzling, considering franklin has a bit of a reputation: in 2001, franklin pled guilty to firing a handgun at a truck full of people. before that, he managed to get acquitted of drug charges on two different occasions, both times claiming the drugs in his car were not his (perhaps they belonged to his weed carriers?). and just a couple weeks ago he got in hot water over questionable comments about gays and people with disabilities.

beyond that, there were some republican upsets but not many democratic upsets. overall, democrats fared well. in three US congressional districts currently represented by republicans, democrat voters handily outnumbered republican voters, which suggests that these republican incumbents will have quite a challenge holding on to their seats come november. and in the 6th district, progressive barry welsh, who has been blogging on dailykos won his primary and will face off against mike pence.

secretary of state todd captain election" rokita and others have been boasting about the relatively low number of voting irregularities in this election. according to them, the fact that the election didn't totally fall to pieces proves that the system isn't messed up. while it's true that the number of reported regularities seems to be low, we must keep in mind that this was only a primary election with a small turnout. this was nothing more than a pilot test. the first real test of the system will come in november.

see masson's blog and advance indiana and of course news sources like the indy star and other local papers for more coverage.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006 
it's captain election!
indy star political columnist matt tully has a blog, possibly the best of the star blogs (and easily the best of the star's political blogs).

today he's been live-blogging the primaries, with updates every couple hours about election glitches and other developments, like the poll worker whose car was stolen this morning with ballots and election materials inside.

at 2:56, tully posted this update, titled "Captain Election!":

Nothing is generating more punchlines today than word that Secretary of State Todd Rokita has a state helicopter on standby, ready to fly around the state in case of election problems.

This news has conjured up images of Rokita as Captain Election, steering his helicopter around Indiana, clad in a superhero's outfit and saving voters from ballot problems.

Forget those images.

Rokita's spokesman said the helicopter would more likely be used by technicians racing to out-of-the-way counties in need of assistance. The spokesman said it is unlikely Rokita would actually join the technicians on a trip. But, he added, the helicopter is a sign that Rokita is thinking "outside the box."

Of course he is. Most superheroes do.

i'd been thinking of posting something snarky about the rokita-copter, but i really don't have anything new to say, so instead i have photoshopped this image. it's a little sloppy and arguably not very inspired, but i was bored, so here it is. enjoy.

reports from the future
what is up with this indy star article, titled "Voters are few and so are problems"?

first up, take a look at the dateline: 12:00 AM May 3, 2006. if you don't see anything unusual about that, check the date at the bottom of this post. according to the dateline, the star article hasn't even been filed yet, and won't be for another 9 hours. that's impressive.

if that isn't weird enough, check out this passage (emphasis mine):

Secretary of State Todd Rokita, inspecting a voting station that included six precincts at the Indianapolis Children's Museum, this morning predicted a statewide voter turnout of between 20 and 25 percent.

The Marion County turnout may be even lower -- between 12 and 15 percent of registered voters, County Clerk Doris Anne Sadler predicted.
That would be consistent with turnouts in non-presidential election years. The rainy weather also may be dampening turnout.

As of 11 p.m., only about 100 people had voted in the museum's six precincts combined.

11pm? i thought polls closed at 6pm! (this is probably a typo and should've said 11am, but the two glitches together make for an amusing coincidence.)

since the star is apparently filing articles from the TARDIS, you would hope they would go ahead and tell us who wins, but no dice. i guess we'll have to wait for that news.

the article also includes this anecdote:

Rep. Julia Carson, D-Ind., caused a momentary problem when she showed her congressional ID to precinct workers. The ID does not have an expiration date as required by the new state law. A Republican poll inspector declared it a valid ID and Carson cast her ballot.

it's nice that the poll worker decided not to disenfranchise julia carson. even though her congressional id is technically not legal according to the voter id law, the last thing todd rokita needs is a bunch of news stories about our congressional representative being forced to use a provisional ballot.

update: the story has been updated, and the dateline changed. but that bit about only 100 people voting by 11pm is still there.

primary day
if you live in indiana, are registered to vote, and haven't done so already, you still have a few hours to get to the polls and vote. so do it.

don't know where your polling place is? here's a website where you can find it. (in 2004, when i used this site, it actually gave me the wrong polling place, but this year it lists the correct place.)

i must confess that while i've voted in a number of november elections, this was the first time i've voted in the primary. it was pretty uneventful, though filling in all those ovals while using a super-wobbly privacy booth was pretty tricky, and i had to remind my precinct worker to check my id.

Monday, May 01, 2006 
book packaging
this will probably be my last post relating to kaavya viswanathan, but i wanted to briefly touch on book packaging.

in my previous post on the topic, i mentioned that viswanathan's book had been "shaped" by a book packaging company called 17th street productions. at some point, 17th street was bought out by a company called alloy entertainment (a subdivision of alloy marketing). this acquisition actually happened years ago, but the 17th street name has still been in use. though curiously, i can't seem to get the 17th street website to work; i could swear that it worked last week when the plagiarism allegations first broke. the alloy site still works, though.

the revelation that viswanathan's book contained some 40-odd plagiarized passages has shone a spotlight on 17th street/alloy, which have operated in relative obscurity despite being involved in a number of hit teen books and upcoming movies (including one the already-released sisterhood of the traveling pants movie). i'm not the only one who was curious about 17th street/alloy's role in viswanathan's book and whether it had a hand in the plagiarism. (at the very least, alloy, being the ones who edited the book, are the ones who should have caught the plagiarism before the book went to print.)

tom tomorrow looked into book packaging and found this primer on the subject, which is a bit dated (it refers to IDG, now known as wilye, and macmillan, which has been pearson education for 6-7 years now). still, it's a good read if you're not familiar with the concept:

Book packagers (also known as book producers) act as liaisons between publishing houses and everyone who works to put together a book--authors, artists, editors, photographers, researchers, indexers, and sometimes even printers. Publishing houses often don't have enough in-house resources to handle all of the books they want to publish, so they out-source certain projects to third parties. In addition to assembling the other components necessary for a finished book, these packagers are responsible for hiring authors to write manuscripts.

Sometimes, packagers pitch their own ideas to publishers, and other times, the publishers hire packagers to develop projects they've originated. Packagers function as an interesting conglomerate of agent, editor, and publisher. They are an integral part of the publishing industry, yet even major book distributors aren't aware that the books they carry were created by companies other than the publishing houses.

There are two main reasons for a publishing house to hire a packager: labor-intensive books, and series books.

Anything other than a standard, text-only book by a single author qualifies as a "labor-intensive book." Books that are highly illustrated or contain lots of photographs, require several authors, or utilize special gimmicks and merchandise (for example, a gardening book that includes packets of seeds as a "bonus," or a book about tarot card reading that includes a deck of cards and silk cloth) fall into this category. Commonly, these include coffee table books, textbooks, reference books, and children's books, though packaged books can really run the gamut. They cover every genre and book style.

Packagers are also known for producing series books. Quite often, a successful series will become a "fill-in-the-blanks" exercise, wherein talented writers and artists can easily continue the series. In these cases, publishing houses may develop an outline, then pass it over to a packager to bring it to completed project. The packager then sends the outline to a commissioned author. Once complete, the packager delivers the final product to the publisher in print-ready condition. Occasionally, they even handle the printing.

in my 8 years at pearson education, we definitely worked with book packagers for some smaller series, though obviously i didn't work on those books (because the packagers were doing the editing). but most of our books were done in-house. still, i'm very familiar with this kind of workflow, because in the non-fiction realm is the norm rather than the exception (at least in the technical, reference, and lifestyle markets; there are extremely few authors in these markets who can sell books on namepower alone). we did the work in-house most of the time, and our authors got their names on their books, but otherwise, the workflow was much the same:

development and acquisitions editors research the market to determine subjects and market segments that are (theoretically) being under-served. the acquisitions editor locates author(s)—very often more than one—who hopefully have the expertise and writing skills for the job. the author and development editor devise with an outline and the book is proposed to the editorial board for approval. if it's approved, the book is written and goes through a series of editing passes, including a technical edit, development (what we would call "shaping"), copy edit, and so forth before the book is eventually laid out and published. of course, a lot of other stuff is also going on: marketing, cover design, and all kinds of decisions about print run, page count, number of colors, and so on... and that's just for a series book: for a one-off, you also need to come up with a design and make decisions about paper stock, cover special effects, and so on.

the advantage of using a book packager is that the packager does most of this stuff for you. this helps the publishing houses cut costs (and payrolls) while maintaining a high title count (number of new titles published per year). title count is fundamental to publishing's bottom line because so many books fail that you need to publish a lot to ensure that enough will succeed. the disadvantage, besides a lack of oversight as demonstrated in the viswanathan case, is that the pacakging house owns half the copyright to the packaged books. that can mean a lot of money if the book is a bestseller.

bloggers aren't the only ones who've been asking questions about 17th street productions and alloy entertainment. jon liu, in an article in last week's harvard independent has some interesting quotes from lizzie skurnick, "a former editor at GLC, a 17th Street subsidiary":

For her part, Skurnick thinks that the realities of the market, but not any malicious plagiarism on Viswanathan's part, may account for the similarities with Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. "They seem like very brief and stupid phrases to copy," Skurnick said after reading the passages in question. "I'm sure the same phrases are in like 20 teen novels... I think in the case of teen fiction, obviously there are stock characters, there's a stock plot often, there’s sort of these stock areas — the boy, the body, the family, the friend."

Skurnick continues, "The impulse at a place like the 17th Street is to have a house voice. There are just reams and reams of stuff that's written... It's unavoidable that certain phrases will be recycled or said in a certain way... Often what you'll find is that, it's not that anyone is copying, it's just that [these phrases] are the first things a mediocre writer would reach for."

But was Viswanathan the mediocre writer doing the reaching, or were the stock phrases in question implanted, consciously or otherwise, by the professional packagers at 17th Street? Skurnick — who admits to knowing little about the specifics of the case — could not say. She did insist, however, that Viswanathan's borrowings, if they were hers, would have been almost impossible for editors to catch: "It sounds like the market is geared to a certain type of book, and [17th Street] just worked on that with her, and some stuff slipped though — God knows why... But I have to say, [as a] teen editor, you just see the same shit over and over again."

i don't buy the idea that all the similarities to mccafferty's books were just coincidence, but the whole "inside 17th street" section of the article is worth a read.

a couple days later, the nytimes reported a very interesting coincidence:

The relationships between Alloy and the publishers are so intertwined that the same editor, Claudia Gabel, is thanked on the acknowledgments pages of both Ms. McCafferty's books and Ms. Viswanathan's "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." Ms. Gabel had been an editorial assistant at Crown Publishing Group, then moved to Alloy, where she helped develop the idea for Ms. Viswanathan's book. She has recently become an editor at Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group, a sister imprint to Crown.

Ms. Gabel did not return calls for comment. But Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, the publishing company that owns Crown, said Ms. Gabel, who worked at Alloy from the spring of 2003 until last November, had left the company "before the editorial work was completed" on Ms. Viswanathan's book.

"Claudia told us she did not touch a single line of Kaavya's writing at any point in any drafts," said Mr. Applebaum, who added that Ms. Gabel was one of several people who worked on the project in its conceptual stage.

of course, it's possible that gabel lied about the extent of her involvement with opal, but more likely it's yet another omen of what you could call the increasing network-ization of the literary world. as sara nelson said in publisher's weekly:

Enter book packagers, who traditionally respond to a perceived market opportunity by researching, commissioning and producing books for publishers. Our bookstores are filled with decorating and entertaining titles, film and TV tie-ins, many of which are sumptuously produced, well marketed and perfectly fine this way. But in recent years—and this is what is disturbing—the kinds of books packagers do has widened. As is now generally known, a packager called Alloy Entertainment not only shares the copyright with Viswanathan on Opal, but has had a serious hand in the making of some of the most successful YA books around. The packaging of Opal has caused a particular stir because it has been published, despite its young themes, as a novel for adults. Such "real" novels we consider to be personal works of art, or entertainment, anyway, not something produced by a committee awash in demographics.

Okay, call me naïve. Before the withdrawal, one longtime book packager told me she thought packaging of "crossover" books was just beginning. But, she said, it's not so much about subjugating good old-fashioned publishing to a marketing survey, but about the fact—maybe you've heard this one already?—that most in-house editors "don't have the time" to put blue pencil to paper on all the manuscripts they buy; they're way too busy lunching and acquiring and managing up.

We've known for years that publishers, probably including Little, Brown, have long employed freelance editors and "book doctors," of which packagers are just an institutional version. But Little, Brown has to resort to this? Realizing that a major house is willing to pay major money for a book that executives knew was going to require major work smacks of something majorly disturbing. It suggests that even the most well-bred publishing houses are not as desperate to find promising writers and great novels as they are to find attractive authors (preferably with interesting backstories) with whom they can match up test-marketed, packaged stories. And then they can take all the credit.

Or blame, as the case may be.

as i know all too well, having been laid off a couple months ago, after living through several other layoffs, including a significant purge of in-house editing staff back in 2000, the publishing industry has been increasingly moving toward a business model centered around freelancers and outsourcing. i hadn't realized that book packaging was quite so prominent in the world of fiction, but i can't say i'm shocked by it. this doesn't have to mean that quality will go down (though it often does), but it does mean that the job market for full-time editors has shrunk to near-microscopic proportions.

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